Friday, July 31, 2009

The River of Lost Footsteps

The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, by Thant Myint-U
2007, 388 pp.

Burma has the dubious distinction of being home to both the world’s longest-ruling military dictatorship and the world’s longest-running civil war, yet receives among the least Western attention of any country outside of sub-Saharan Africa. It is the sort of place about which it is fashionable to have an ill-informed political opinion, and which lends itself well to the sort of simplistic morality play so favored by the facile American analysis of foreign affairs. That the brutal military junta is guilty of innumerable crimes and the immiseration of its people is without question; that Aung San Suu Kyi won the free and fair elections in 1990 is also beyond doubt; that the Burmese people have suffered and continue to suffer grievously at the hands of their overlords is self-evident. Yet there is a need for an informed, expert account of modern Burmese history written especially for a Western audience. It is that gap which Thant Myint-U, a trained historian and social scientist, an experienced UN employee, and the grandson of Secretary General U Thant, set out to fill with The River of Lost Footsteps. It would therefore be a backhanded compliment indeed to call it the best history of modern Burma, but I fear that backhanded is as kind as I can be. Despite an impressive breadth of knowledge on display and despite the author’s manifest familiarity with his subject, The River of Lost Footsteps is not a particularly good read. I am glad that it exists, and glad that I read it, but I hope that the field of modern Burmese history will not end with this book.

I began in high spirits: the epigram to the first chapter is footnoted, and on following the footnote, I was delighted to see that I would be treated to endnotes in Chicago-style formatting, which is the Johnny Walker of citation styles. The first chapter begins with the fall of the Burmese monarchy to the British in 1885. This seemed like a logical place to begin a history of modern Burma, but the trouble reared its ugly head immediately. Chapter Two is about who the author is and why he wrote the book, and therefore ought to have gone first. It simply serves as an interruption as the second chapter, and while the epigram to Chapter One is from a nineteenth century memoir, the epigram to Chapter Two is a Seinfeld quote, fairly accurately reflecting the decline in scholarly quality. Chapter Three begins well before the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, which cannot be considered "modern" by any stretch of the imagination, and there the scale of the problem became clear. Thant Myint-U is terribly, horribly, unspeakably fond of beginning in the middle, doubling back to the beginning to explain how the middle got to be the middle, then proceeding to the end. The technique of beginning in the middle is legitimately useful in film, where it is called “in medias res,” but is confusing and unpleasant in historical narrative. The book as a whole is in medias res; individual chapters are in medias res, and sometimes the brief sections which make up the chapters are in medias res. This makes the book damned difficult to follow, annoyingly repetitive, and a trifle amateurish. It is not helped by Thant’s habit of sketching the critical middle scene in a sort of fictionalized, novelish way, often devoid of footnotes. The book opens, for instance, with the last king of Burma deciding to flee the palace. But we have no idea what that actual scene was like, and neither does Thant, since he never cites any sources for it. How does he know what these people looked like and what they were feeling? As a trained historian, I know he has no real idea: he’s assumed, and he’s taking some poetic license. That is not the business of history.

Furthermore, he tends to rely very heavily on a few books which he effectively summarizes to provide some sense of narrative structure. Chapter One is mostly a summary of his own previous book and A.T.Q. Stewart’s The Pagoda War. The chapter on the Second World War is a summary of General Slim’s excellent Defeat into Victory, and Louis Allen’s Burma, The Longest War. The three chapters on Burma’s ancient and medieval history are interminable and irrelevant. They distract from the point of the book, seem to bear little importance to modern events (except for the point that the Burmese have a successful military history) and squat like a forbidding wall in the center of the book. This is unfortunate, since it will probably deter many readers who don’t care about fifteenth century imperial Burma and will discourage them from pressing on and reaching the very good later chapters. When Thant actually gets around to the British occupation, the Second World War, and the struggle for independence, he is at his best and is often quite good indeed. He has a terrific eye for the strange detail and peculiar character, which never moves the book along, but does at least make it interesting. Sometimes this misfires and he seems to be spouting non sequiturs, and frequently they require that you already know what Whitehall is, and who the Taiping rebels were in order to make any sense at all.

The famous 1988 uprising is discussed in Chapter Two, and then is mainly skipped over in the latter chronological chapter where it would seem to belong. I forgot entire about Chapter Two until I went back and consulted my notes, so for many pages I thought he’d overlooked it. The section on Aung San Suu Kyi is quite brief and perfunctory, possibly due to his conviction that his audience already knows a bit about her. He tends to insert his own and his family’s experience when his fractured narrative is otherwise unable to make a point, and this habit, combined with his choice to devote time and attention in greater proportion to subjects which most interest him undermines any sense that the book is communicating authoritative history. Thant should have cut the “Personal” out of the subtitle and gone with a regular history instead. There is no kind way of saying it, but the tragic flaw in this book is its author.

Nevertheless, I learned a lot about Burma, and can now draw from its colonial experience and modern dictatorship a number of interesting observations which are relevant to general discussions of empire, decolonization, state building, and so forth. It is valuable to know that the Burmese government was set up as a puppet fascist regime by Imperial Japan, that it is comprised of Buddhist Burmese-speakers who are but one of over three hundred ethnic groups, that it has been fighting and killing the Christian Karen people in the Shan states for decades, and that the military is also the only institution likely to survive future years of isolation. Thant even includes fairly logical and persuasive policy recommendations at the end, which is certainly welcome. Interested readers would do well to read Chapters Seven and Nine through Twelve, but skip the medieval sections and the utterly incoherent middle chapter on social history. There is much knowledge to be gained from this book, but you must pry it with some effort from the author’s rather confused clutches.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Dubliners, by James Joyce
1914, 190 pp.

In my review of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was at pains to make clear that the book can be read and enjoyed simply as a novel by any general reader, without the crossword-puzzle burden of deciphering and scholarly puzzling which is so inextricably linked with the Joyce mystique. Certainly there are all manner of images and motifs which can be unpacked from that book, and to some extent they deepen the reader’s appreciation for Joyce’s work, but it is perfectly good to just pick up and read, and the professoriat have already done enough to scare readers away from actually reading Joyce, which is an intellectual and cultural travesty to which I have no interest in contributing. Dubliners, however, requires some careful exegesis: its fifteen stories are structured with such delicacy and enigmatic precision that some are nearly incomprehensible without thorough examination. Joyce doesn’t so much show or tell many of these stories as suggest them, in the way a skilled filmmaker will create an empty place in the frame and let the audience anticipate the image which will fill it. Dubliners is an intricate puzzle which is at once a concrete depiction of lower-middle class life in turn-of-the-century Dublin, and a meditative fugue on the various flavors of failure.

Joyce said that each story centers on his idea of an epiphany: a moment in which a character has a sudden rush of self-understanding or illumination. I think that is too broad a statement. Each story deals with a sudden realization of the scope of a character’s failure, their recognition of their insignificance and irrelevance in the world. Joyce presents here fifteen different and distinct flavors of failure and disappointment, each fully realized and precisely evoked. He tastes the subtle gradations of failure the way other people taste fine wine.

The first few stories are narrated by child characters, and as the stories continue they deal with the lives and concerns of gradually older people, shifting from children to siblings to parents and spouses. There are some stylistic developments: part of “A Painful Case” is written as a newspaper story, and part of “Grace” is written as a sermon. Hynes's poem in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” parodies (though sympathetically) Joyce's own first poem, written at age 9 in the style of Byron, on the death of Parnell, the famous Irish nationalist politician. There are two adolescent, first-experience stories, then two sporting stories, two stories about love, two stories about politics, two about religion, two about bachelor life, and four on petty clerks (two single and two married). The collection ends with festive life, with a story called “The Dead,” set in the winter, probably on the Feast of Epiphany. The first and last stories, “The Sisters,” and “The Dead,” form bookends to the collection as a whole, and are therefore worth considering at some length.

For such a brief story, “The Sisters” must be among the most widely-dissected pieces of writing in the English language. A cursory search returned no less than 57 peer-reviewed scholarly articles, some running to a length many times that of the story itself. My favorite title of the bunch was “Between Resistance and Complicity: Metro-Colonial Tactics in Joyce’s ‘Dubliners.’” The story was first published independently in 1904, under the rather significant pseudonym “Stephen Daedalus.” It is a brief account of the death of an old, crippled priest, seen through the eyes of a young boy who was his friend. The boy’s uncle drops repeated hints about an inappropriate relationship between the two, though the boy does not understand what he means, and at the end, as the boy first discovers death, his mother and he talk with the dead priest’s sisters, who seem to deal with the death superficially and meaninglessly, and mention that the priest had suffered a breakdown after accidentally breaking a chalice. The story rather trails off, leaving the reader wondering why a story about a young boy and a dead priest is called “The Sisters.”

Joyce wrote in a letter that the old priest in “The Sisters” was intended as a symbol of Irish life: priest-ridden and semi-paralyzed. The priest has an important effect on the younger generation, but dies and leaves the young to fend for themselves. "The Sisters" contains suggestions of improper sex, but we end the story blind to the reality, chained as we are to the narrow perceptions of the young boy. We never know the truth. The story opens with a male world, proceeds through ellipses and vagueness, ends in a female world, registering the contrast between the different social roles for the two genders. The men speak in half-sentences, the women in clichés, though the women are the dominant figures in the story. The dead priest’s sisters seem too wrapped up in themselves and the necessities of their self-centered adulthood to feel much of anything about their brother’s death, whereas the young boy who was only his friend, and that briefly, experiences the priest’s death as a pivotal moment. The story seems therefore to be slightly about the authenticity of youth contrasted with the falseness of adult society, and about the boy’s realization of that dichotomy. The failure here is not his, but that of the sisters, and the story is the boy’s realization of their failure. There is also the failure of the priest to succeed as a priest and uphold his assigned duties. “The duties of the priesthood was too much for him,” one of the sisters says. “And then his life was, you might say, crossed.”

It is difficult but worthwhile to follow Joyce’s thought process in the very first paragraph of “The Sisters,” which we know he substantially revised once he had conceived of Dubliners as a whole:

“Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being.”

A “gnomon” in Euclid is a parallelogram with one side missing, much like how paralysis restricts movement and sensation to one side. A gnomon is something like the geometric expression of a partial existence. It is interesting that Joyce limits the meaning to the Euclidian one, since a gnomon in general is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow, and comes from the Greek for “that which reveals.” “Gnomon” and “simon” rhyme, (and “gnomon” sounds a bit like “no man,” but that be reading too deeply, if such a thing is possible with Joyce) and simony is the sin of selling religious offices, or making profit from sacred things. The story suggests that the priest in question was guilty of this. Simony was pivotal in the 1075-1122 Investiture Controversy, (until, of course, it was settled by the Concordat of Worms) and its practitioners were condemned by Dante to the eighth circle of hell, which Joyce, having a powerful affinity for Dante, would certainly have known. Finally, the word “simon” both does literally sound like the word “demon,” which is a “maleficent and sinful being,” and also comes from the name of Simon Magus, who turns up in the Acts of the Apostles and who was considered by Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius as the origin of all heresy. Joyce, with his religious upbringing and Jesuit education certainly knew this as well. So we can follow the cognitive chain which proceeds thus: paralysis-parallelogram-gnomon-simon-demon. Taken tout court, it reads as an opening thesis: Ireland is paralyzed by and leads a half-existence due to its moral, physical, and spiritual heresies.

But heresies in what sense? In the sense that they are restrictive, repressive, self-generating, and are not a natural expression of humanity. They constrain humanity, producing self-centered adults like the two titular sisters, instead of authentic, feeling human beings. The moment of sudden, cruel realization at the end of "The Dead" seems to suggest we need greater awareness of them and how they hide reality from us, and perhaps further serves as a caution about their capacity to harm. All throughout Dubliners, Joyce’s unit of moral analysis is less individual characters, and more the city of Dublin as a whole, and therefore Ireland and Irish society as he knew it. Many of his characters live off the British presence, and many of the lives he depicts are structured by the necessities of British rule. These are not people who are free to live for themselves, but whose lives are curtailed by outside institutions: social mores, the state, the church, and the British.

Stanislaus Joyce wrote the following of “The Dead”: “Joyce works minutely for many pages, to create an ambiance of little bourgeois souls in all their noisiness, vulgarity, and innocuousness. When the festivity is almost at an end and the laughter at its height, a far away, barely audible voice of someone singing an old Irish air irresistibly calls back to a woman’s memory a truly romantic passion which had been extinguished by death; and the memory annihilates at one stroke her present happiness and that of the leading character in the story.” In its combination of naturalism and emotional insight, “The Dead” is certainly the best realization of Joyce’s technique here. It is often cited as the finest short story in the English language. I may dispute that claim, on the grounds that the story consists of forty pages of build-up as Joyce describes the party and the various insecurities of the central character, which seems on first reading to be going nowhere in particular. The cruel emotional reversal comes only in the last five pages, and while they are indeed magical pages, I am at a loss as to how Joyce determined that those preceding forty pages were necessary, rather than only thirty-nine of them, or indeed forty-one. The party rather goes on, is my point, and lest I be accused of Philistinism, I cannot help but notice that it is generally ignored in most scholarly analyses. Every other story in Dubliners seems chiseled out of ice, without a single superfluous word or a single scene whose purpose is open to question. It is certainly necessary for Joyce to establish that the central character in “The Dead” is insecure, bourgeois, and has trouble with social relationships, it just may not have been necessary to establish it four or five times.

So much for the structure of Dubliners. Joyce’s actual prose is gorgeous in these stories. He has a particular knack for the swift, memorable description, often of a character’s head. Take this example from “Two Gallants,” which features a pair of dubious characters who reappear in Ulysses:

"His head was large, globular and oily; it sweated in all weathers; and his large round hat, set upon it sideways, looked like a bulb which had grown out of another."

Or, this from “A Painful Case”:

"His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets."

Or, lastly, from “A Mother”:

“His conversation, which was serious, took place at intervals in his great brown beard.”

His insight into his characters is so sharp as to be almost painful. The pathetic, jealous would-be writer of “A Little Cloud” considers his hopeful future: "He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds. The English critics, perhaps, would recognise him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of his poems; besides that, he would put in allusions. He began to invent sentences and phrases from the notice which his book would get." He, of course, fails utterly, and is dismissed by a far more successful friend from his youth. The titular mother in “A Mother” is a composite of an empty marriage and failed ambitions: “She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life. But the young men whom she met were ordinary and she gave them no encouragement, trying to console her romantic desires by eating a great deal of Turkish Delight in secret." Or finally, the husband and wife in “Counterparts” who seem to me to be living out the misery of alienation caused by the capitalist relations of production: "His wife was a little sharp-faced woman who bullied her husband when he was sober and was bullied by him when he was drunk." Do you know these people? I believe I have met them in various places in the world, perhaps utterly unaware that they are living out lives James Joyce had already written for them.

Two central stories are particularly noteworthy, while I am running on at great length. “Clay” takes a bit of unpacking. It is the story of an old woman who goes to spend Halloween with the man who she fostered as a child. She works a menial job at a rescue mission for homeless women, and is teased several times about never marrying. She forgets the expensive plum cake she’d bought, and finally plays a game with the man’s children. Modern readers will have no idea what this game is, or what significance it entails until they learn that a traditional Irish Halloween game consists of a blindfolded person choosing one of several objects, each of which is meant to represent that person’s fate. One is a ring, signifying marriage, one is a prayer-book, signifying a spiritual life, and one is a lump of clay, signifying death. Since the game plays out from the old woman’s perspective, we do not see what she chooses, only her perception of the sad reaction of the other people. Only then does the title and the point of the story become clear. The story ends with the old woman singing a traditional song, but with mistakes: she forgets the verses which deal with suitors, marriage, and a happy life.

The second important story is “A Painful Case,” in which an intellectual, meticulous, and ambitious bank cashier befriends a lonely housewife, but ends their friendship when she impulsively touches his hand. Many years later he learns of her suicide and realizes he deprived her of her only human connection. This is the most straightforward story of the collection and requires little forensic work, so therefore is the clearest demonstration of Joyce’s flawless execution. This sort of realization has been enacted before (and since) in art, but never with this precision. (It also, interesting, features an early version of that old canard about inter-gender friendships: "Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse.") “A Painful Case” seems to me to be Joyce demonstrating what he can do when he decides to color inside the lines.

Dubliners requires a lot of attention; more, I think, than Portrait did. It rewards that attention with a spot-on evocation of life in a specific time and place, with the deepest possible understanding of the universal sensations of failure, with the pleasure of watching a consummate artist perfecting his craft, and with the humanist empathy it provokes for its sad, flawed, miserable characters. It is a remarkable book, and had Joyce died immediately after completing it, he should still have been regarded one of the finest writers in the language.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Broom of the System

The Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace
1987, 467 pp.

I came very accidentally to David Foster Wallace. If you go to the search page on the London Review of Books website, the example illustrating how to search for terms in quotes is "david foster wallace." I remember seeing his short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men at a used bookstore, sandwiched peculiarly in the Marxism section, on the very bottom shelf, towards the left. I remember reading Amazon reviews of Infinite Jest at work in 2005, when browsing through the longest books in the English language. I decided not to read it on the grounds that it did not appear to have much sex or violence in it. I am a regular reader of the infrequently updated blog of the web developer for the Penny Arcade webcomic (it's a long story) and it was there that I saw he'd killed himself. "Time to rerereread Infinite Jest," the blog said. Now that I've read his fiction, I notice that virtually every word on that blog is written in a voice desperately trying to sound like his. For a moment he seemed to be everywhere. A giant had fallen and I had only just discovered him.

Then I read D.T. Max's long, painful article in The New Yorker. It is a deeply emotional piece of reporting, and produced a few images of Wallace which I am still unable to shake off. The article covers his life and literary career, but was the first outlet after his death which reported on his long struggle with depression, so the theme of his struggles against his own mind ran through the piece. He’d hid it from the public for years, never mentioning his heavy medication, his past substance addictions, or his trips to mental health facilities, including more than one round of electric shock therapy. I’ve now read all of his interviews and essays and one of his novels, and I cannot conceive of how the public could have missed this. It's everywhere in his work. His depression is written on every page. But amid the process of tracing the impact of depression on his life and work, Max takes the time to let Wallace’s friends and family remember what kind of person he was:

“Longtime agent Bonnie Nadell recalls how he stood on line at FedEx the week before Christmas to mail an autographed book to a fan. "He would just do things like that because he was a really sweet person," she says. His students at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., remember the committed, engaged teacher: Amanda Shapiro had taken writing classes with him the past three years, and recalls the copious comments she got back from him about her assignments. "He would write five pages of notes on a six-page story," she says, "and put so much care and thought into helping us as writers. He would type out the letters, and then annotate them, in pen, with little smiley faces and notes and corrections."”

Interviewers always found him mystifying. He was a big, athletic guy, who had been something of a tennis prodigy in his youth, but he dressed in sloppy, poorly-fitting clothes and wore glasses invariably described as “granny” style. After his first round of shock therapy, his sister remembered him sitting in a corner, writing in a notebook with a Care Bears cover. I’ve seen his interview with Charlie Rose, one of the very few he ever gave, in which he speaks in an incongruously gentle voice, giving long, recondite answers to facile questions, using precise diction devoid of vocalized pauses, but constantly upset with himself for not articulating better. The Salon obituary saw the same thing:

“On "Charlie Rose," Wallace was like a giant combine moving through a field of wheat when he was supposed to be posing with a cute donkey and an old leather plow in front of the family barn. In the midst of long answers that continually posed an impossible series of new questions, moving over the humps of the host's simplistic assumptions with a clatter and bang, he stopped and asked Charlie, 'I assume all this will be edited out, right?'”

After the New Yorker article, I got kind of fixated. I've now read all of his essays, his book reviews, his interviews, and his articles. Everything available online. I have found that he had a gift for saying, in perfect, fluent, erudite prose, things that I had hoped to think of in ten years. Not that he would write things I'd been thinking but hadn't figured out how to say, but that I'd be on step two of a thought process, trying to figure out step three, and there he'd be, elegantly describing the view from the last step. His piece on the politics of the English language is a perfect example of his humanism, his empathy, and his considered opinion on a difficult matter. I highly recommend it to you. His voice is very firmly rooted in a 1990’s sense of Generation X anxiety, riddled with acronyms and born of a recognition that his was a generation deprived of its own voice by the rapacious, ongoing hunger of Baby Boomer self-indulgence and of what the New York Review of Books called “the panic of influence.” Wallace was an old-fashioned late 19th-century social and psychological novelist and observer of human behavior, but was steeped in the flashy literary tricks of post-modernism. The post-modernists argued that our cultural mechanisms are such that it is now impossible to say anything meaningful about the human experience, but ignore that there plainly is a void in human relations which only fiction can fill, harnessing as it does the provocation of empathy and understanding. I could carry on this topic for a long time, but you would do better to read his own thoughts on the matter. The point is that with his work Wallace was advancing a moral argument as much as an aesthetic one: that fiction does still have purpose, that meaningful things can be said even among the cultural logic of late capitalism, that human beings can connect with one another, and that therefore fiction can help us through the immense loneliness of living in this world. His argument in general seems to be that only the artifices of fiction are able to produce the illusion that it is possible to genuinely empathize with and understand another person, which is a depth of true feeling necessary to continuing to live. Fiction therefore, in its duplicity, is true in a way that reality is not. But recognizing its inherent falseness, how it is it to be honestly employed? This is a question he grappled with his entire life, and the utter failure of his contemporaries to take it seriously is to their eternal shame.

He employs in his numerous essays a largely moral vocabulary to cut apart topics ranging from the uses and abuses of the English language, to the Maine Lobster Festival, to the self-absorption of the John Updike school of Baby Boomer narcissism in fiction. These essays give us a sense of his formidable intellectual pugilism: the Updike review in particular is downright daring. Few other young authors would ever dare to take on such a revered elder statesman, but Wallace not only shreds his book to pieces but, like Karl Marx, recognizes that Updike's entire ontological predicate is flawed. He not only wrote a bad book, but wrote it for bad reasons, and indeed seems to be existing incorrectly. In these essays, Wallace seems everywhere to be making a doomed stand in favor of meaning in human existence, despite all of the hideous cultural constructs we have invented to implement our alienation from one another.

Which brings us to The Broom of the System. The novel was originally Wallace’s senior English thesis at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His other major was philosophy, in which he specialized in semantics, formal logic, and analytical philosophy with a very heavy background in higher mathematics. His philosophy thesis on modal logic was entitled Richard Taylor's 'Fatalism' and the Semantics of Physical Modality and was awarded the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize. In it he developed a new formal apparatus called “intensional-physical-modality” to wholly dismantle Taylor’s 1962 argument about fatalism. Here is a typical sentence: “Let Φ (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but intersecting paths ji–jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs {t, w} ({time, world situation}), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm, where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility.” This, I think, is at the heart for my affinity for Wallace: not only do I almost universally agree with his opinions and analyses, not only do I have great admiration for his intellect and accomplishments, and not only am I in awe of his capacity for articulation, but further I find something fascinating in the juxtaposition of ruthless intellect and emotional vulnerability. The author of that sentence was the same sad, fragile young man writing in the Care Bears notebook.

The Broom of the System is both very good and very frustrating. The story involves Lenore Beadsman, daughter of baby-food magnate Stonecipher Beadsman III, and her sort-of boyfriend Rick Vigorous, who is half of Frequent and Vigorous Publishing Company. Lenore’s great-grandmother (also named Lenore) was a student of Wittgenstein at Cambridge and lives in a nursing home which must be kept at 98.6 degrees, since her body cannot regulate its temperature. She’s literally cold-blooded, you see. The elder Lenore vanishes without a trace, along with about twenty other employees and inmates of the nursing home, thereby kicking off the ostensible plot. The Stonecipher company seems to be producing some sort of new baby food which makes babies super-smart, which sort of involves Rick Vigorous and someone else named Andrew Sealander Lang in a way which I guess could also be called a plot. There are a lot of coincidences: in the unpromising opening chapter, a young Lenore is visiting her sister at Amherst when two frat guys burst into their room and demand that Lenore’s sister and roommates sign their posteriors, for the purposes of fraternity initiation. One of them grows up to be Andrew S. Lang, one of Lenore’s sister’s roommates turns out to be Lang’s future wife and former neighbor of Rick Vigorous. And so on. There are sort of magical-realist peculiarities: Rick Vigorous’ son has a mystical connection to Richard Nixon, and a town is built in the shape of Jayne Mansfield. The Governor of Ohio commissions a desert to be built (the Great Ohio Desert, no points for considering the acronym) in order to restore a sense of the sinister to suburban Cleveland. Instead of watching television, a family turns on a video feed of themselves wearing masks, acting out each others lives. There are three sort-of plots: where did the elder Lenore go and why? Will the younger Lenore stay with the neurotic and jealous Rick Vigorous, or with Lang? What will happen with the super baby food?

Well, I'll tell you: I don't know.

All of this is given with some playful post-modernist digressions. Many scenes are presented only in dialogue, studded with an immensely annoying habit of having one character say: “....” I kept wondering why it was four dots instead of three, and began to theorize that maybe it was an ellipsis with a period at the end. Some chapters are given in transcript form. Rick Vigorous is mainly impotent, so instead of having sex, he tells Lenore stories, all of which are tragic and convoluted and have sort of metaphysical application to the action of the story. One chapter is a story he wrote himself, starring a surrogate character who appears occasionally in italics, reaping great victories Rick Vigorous himself does not enjoy. There are some first-person excerpts from what is apparently Rick Vigorous’ diary. Eventually we get the point: we never see anything through Lenore’s eyes, only words other characters use to describe her. As her Wittgensteinian grandmother would say, he does not exist and has no life beyond the words the characters (and through them, Wallace) uses to create and refer to her. How does she differ from a character in a story Rick Vigorous tells? Is a character in a story within a story more or less real than the character telling the story? Or more real than the character reading it? Wallace is playing for keeps here: he ends the book in mid-sentence, when he stops using language to create the characters.

Now, all of this is very clever, frequently amusing, and when Wallace really lets himself get going on the possibilities of philosophy, it’s downright fascinating. But he has two very serious problems. The first, and in my opinion most fatal, is a problem of voice registers. All the characters sound the same. They speak a sort of arch, reflexive, adverb-studded hipster jargon regardless of age, education, or socioeconomic standing. The segments from Rick Vigorous’ diary are the only exceptions, and they’re lovely pieces of writing. Consider this: "A kiss with Lenore is a scenario in which I skate with buttered soles over the moist rink of lower lip, sheltered from weathers by the wet warm overhang of upper, finally to crawl between lip and gum and pull the lip to me like a child's blanket and stare over it with beady, unfriendly eyes out at the world external to Lenore, of which I no longer wish to be part."

I must wonder why Wallace chose to give him such an expressive inner life and such a bland outer one. The dialogue passages particularly accentuate this problem, since it quickly sounds like one voice talking to itself. Sometimes he just lays on too much grad student jargon. Look at this: "The fat lady's not really real, and to the extent that she's real she's just used, and if she thinks she's real and not being used, it's only because the system that educes her and uses her makes her by definition feel real and non-educed and non-used." Some tightness of diction and the removal of recursive sentence structures (everyone always refers to “X vis-à-vis Y” or “X, as regards the whole Y situation,” or something similar) would probably cut a hundred pages off the novel. He also forgot the very first rule of good writing: kill all the adverbs. Every subject of everyone’s speech in this book is improbably, unbelievably, surprisingly, startlingly, incredibly, achingly adverbial. Furthermore, there seems to be a confusion about formality. Characters are never consistent in levels of vulgarity, and often the narrator seems to be a bit more prudish than the characters are. It strikes an entirely wrong note to have a narrator refer to “bottoms” and “going to the bathroom,” when characters say they have asses and are shitting. Choose one or the other, preferably consistent with the subjective formality of the occasion in which the characters are speaking.

The voice problem is pretty clearly a problem of an inexperienced novelist who has learned to write the way he speaks but not yet the way other people speak. Tackling something of this scope and complexity, especially while inventing a system of modal logic, was always going to have a few beginner mistakes. The other problem is a structural one, which is endogenous to Wallace’s decision to not resolve any of the plot strands. The New Yorker article tells us that he was aware of this: “The problem for Wallace, as he reflected after its publication, was that “Broom” offered an analysis but derided even the idea of a solution. In a 1989 letter to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, a friend, Wallace said that “Broom” felt as if it had been written by “a very smart

I'd say he was too harsh on himself. It felt as if had been written by a very, very smart twenty-four-year-old. He also described “Broom” as covert autobiography, “the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who’s just had this midlife crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction . . . which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6°F calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct.” The existential dread is certainly there, but there is also an awful lot of jokes and playfulness going on, as Wallace clearly spends some time playing with his art form. And it seems especially towards the end, when Lenore’s pet bird has become a televangelist celebrity, that the sense of dread has been lost and the novel has gone entirely off the rails. Apparently he was smart enough to know that, but felt that it was an accurate portrayal of life: “Yet when he tried to write a proper conclusion,” the New Yorker says, “in which geriatrics emerge, revelations revelationize, things are cleared up,” the words felt wrong to him. “I am young and confused and obsessed with certain problems that I think right now distill the experience of being human,” he wrote to Howard. Reality was fragmented, and so his book must be, too.”

All of that is theoretically sound, but does not make for a satisfying reading experience. I finished the book wondering why I had read so many strange transcripts of Lenore and Rick’s sessions with their psychiatrist, and long passages of nonsense dialogue from Lenore’s bird. What was the point of introducing Bombardini, the man who decides to eat until he reaches infinite size and fills the universe with Self, only to never appear again? What was the point of establishing an emotional connection between Lenore and Rick, Lenore and Lang, and Rick and Lang’s wife, never to resolve it? Really, what was the point of writing the novel?

The point was to exorcise Wallace’s fears, and to experiment with the boundaries of language. The point was for him to grow, develop, and learn as a writer. I'm glad he did it and I'm glad he published it. Name another novelist whose work at the age of 24 is available for public consumption. At that age, even Karl Marx was making silly arguments about Democritus, and Shakespeare was probably busy hoarding grain. The Broom of the System is fascinating as an artifact, and as a process. Here we are able to see an intellect grappling with itself and with the strictures of its chosen art form, and emerging bloodied but stronger. There are traces of the voice of the mature Wallace here: in the words of the New Yorker, "written in language that shows that it's possible to be serious without being sanctimonious, funny without being sophomoric, erudite without being pretentious, and these chapters unfold, beguilingly, from the particular to the philosophical, from small case studies to larger, zeitgeisty ruminations." Here he is simply too inexperienced to pull off the lofty deconstructions he'd intended. The Broom of the System may not be brilliant, but it is both essential and necessary. I probably would not recommend it to you, unless you are, like me, enraptured with Wallace's thought, but I am very glad I read it, and since we are to suffer the cruel fate of no more words from the late, great David Foster Wallace, I am glad I was able to enjoy this last bit of time with him.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Inimitable Jeeves

The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse
1923, 224 pp.

P.G. Wodehouse was, as near as I can tell, the funniest man who has ever lived. Even the great Douglas Adams quailed at the 100-odd books in the Wodehouse’s oeuvre, all of them packed to bursting with jokes that absolutely leave you for dead. The “mentally negligible” Bertie Wooster and his all-knowing, indefatigable butler Jeeves are certainly Wodehouse’s most famous creations, thanks in no small part to the highly effective televised prostylizing of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, and here they are at their prime, delivering exactly what you want from P.G. Wodehouse.

Bertie Wooster is, like nearly all of Wodehouse’s protagonists, a member of the idle rich, lounging vaguely through life in a static world which strongly resembles inter-war London. Nothing ever changes in this world, no one ever suffers, and time never passes. Bertie is the first-person narrator of the Jeeves stories, which makes for an interesting verbal contrast. Most of the stories hinge on his absolute stupidity: he blunders into some mortifying social situation (generally he winds up engaged to someone, or several someones, or commits to going to a school play or something) and eventually Jeeves swoops in (generally demanding the destruction of some particularly atrocious article of Bertie's wardrobe) and solves everything with a single brilliant stroke. Bertie’s spoken dialogue consists mainly of imbecilic blurts like this: “What, ho? I say, I’m dashed, old cove!” or: “‘Hallo, hallo, hallo!’ I said, ‘What?’”

But for all that, his narration is ripe with the most startlingly hilarious similes in all of literature. Wodehouse chooses to write through Bertie’s eyes, so really the reader knows that it is Wodehouse who notices that someone “had a long face, like a sheep with a secret sorrow,” or that “aunt is calling to aunt like mastodons bellowing across a primeval swamps,” or that someone’s laugh sounds like “a cavalry charge across a metal bridge,” but since these words are given to Bertie’s narration, the reader gets a delightful sense that Bertie has a rich and beautiful inner life which he simply cannot express verbally. For all that, he has a terrific command of the definitive article. Everything is prefaced by “the,” so that his head is “the old bean,” or “the old cerebellum,” and when he has tea, it “lubricates the good old interior.” When he dances, he “shakes the old shoe,” and so forth. It’s funny as hell.

He has also conversations like this:

“This club,” I said, “is the limit.”
“It is the eel’s eyebrows,” agreed young Bingo. “I believe that old boy over by the window has been dead three days, but I don’t like to mention it to anyone.”
“I say, have you lunched yet?”

At any rate, The Inimitable Jeeves is something called a “semi-novel” collecting several Jeeves and Wooster stories into a vaguely chronological narrative. Generally, one chapter sets up a problem and ends on a cliffhanger, then the next chapter solves the problem and everything ends as it once was. The stories revolve around Bertie’s friend Bingo Little, who constantly and repeatedly falls in love with every woman he meets, each of them worse than the last. This of course gets him into awkward social situations, so he calls in his friend Bertie and the great polymath Jeeves to get him out. These are the sort of things which present major obstacles in Wodehouse’s universe: bets are taken on which local vicar will give the longest sermon, there are underhanded dealings regarding a three-legged race at the faire, a controversy over yellow shoes, a scandal involving pouring soda water on an Oxford tutor, and a scheme in which Bertie has to pose as a romantic novelist. To be pointlessly critical, the format is somewhat awkward, and does get repetative by about the eleventh story. Genuinely full-fleshed novels like The Code of the Woosters work better as a solid reading experience, but the semi-novel form lends more coherence than a simple collection of short stories. It also makes it easy to read a couple stories, then set the book down and wade through a history of modern Burma, then return without having to worry about what you'd forgotten.

If you insist, it is possible to drag some interesting observations out of Wodehouse’s stories. Despite being very much set in the world of the upper-class, imperial British age, his wealthy characters are by and large total idiots. Their servants are universally more interesting, more educated, and more competent, not to mention capable of interacting and forming friendships which are more genuine and less narcissistic and empty than those of their employers. Women tend to be stronger, more confident, and more ambitious than their indolent, waffling menfolk, and Wodehouse reserves a special scorn for fascists, who he ridicules at some length in The Code of the Woosters. But there is no reason to go dragging the mud of literary criticism through such a pristine construction. Wodehouse never fails to deliver. He is always entertaining, always funny, always good-natured, and is a reliable refreshment to energize the old brain and revitalize the old spirit to help the fatigued autodidact prepare for another round of stuffy lucubration. Wodehouse is always a more pleasant reading experience than anything else you could possibly be reading.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Guest Post: The Apartment

The Apartment; Directed by Billy Wilder
1960; Starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine

Only recently have I come to the realization that I love movies made by Billy Wilder. Prior to this enlightenment, I had only digested his films piecemeal, walking away from each thinking “well, that was a pretty damn good movie” and not recognizing my appreciation of his films in a totality. Searching through the films of Wilder in my Netflix account, and from the films that I have seen, most have been rated 5 or 4 stars, with a few exceptions (apparently I absolutely hated the film “One, Two, Three”, most likely on the account of its lampooning of Reds). The generally appreciated canon of Wilder needs no explanation as to why they are great and recognized films (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, Seven Year Itch, those being only a few selected from a prodigious and celebrated catalog). Recently, I just had myself a second viewing of what I consider to be one of his finest and yet most ignored films, The Apartment starring Jack Lemmon and a very coquettish Shirley MacLaine who sports a most adorable 60’s bob.

Having at least two viewings of a film is the only way one can truly appreciate a film in its totality. The first viewing has the audience more interested in following the subject of the film, the story, what is being said, etc. The second viewing, with the audience already being savvy to the subject, allows the viewer to meditate further upon the substance of the film, its form and style. Hence why, great films hold up strong against the test of time, while mediocrity is precipitated beyond the continental slopes and onto the abyssal plains only to be picked apart by bioluminescent fish and/or on dollar racks at discount grocery stores.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, it is to much wonderment on my part as to why this film is not instinctively recognized as one of Wilder’s best (or, to be more accurate, when in discussion of great films, particularly by Wilder, why this one is not as readily referenced as say “Some Like it Hot” or “Sunset Boulevard”). While, in my opinion, the overall aesthetic of his films might be common and antiseptic, the temperament of Wilder’s films is what seduces the audience. This is especially true for The Apartment. There are two very distinct classes in this film; (1)those who have an ‘excess’ of company and love, and as result of this, are numb to the humanity that surrounds them, solipsists, (2)and those who are deprived of company and love, and are acutely aware of their solitude. Appropriately set during the holidays, this allows Wilder to honestly and genuinely articulate the infinite distance between the “haves and have-nots”. It is with much solemnity that one who is alone approaches the merriment of holidays, not unlike travelling alone through Venice or being caught in the snack bar alone on a Saturday night at a movie theater by an acquaintance who then proceeds to mercifully invite you to join their company but you are too proud to accept and tell them that you have friends waiting for you anyways, even though you don’t. Off topic.

Not to simply present a synopsis (those I am certain can be found all over the internets), but for a quick glance at the film I will briefly summarize it. The loner is played by Jack Lemmon, whose character C.C. Baxter uses his bachelor’s apartment to maneuver his way up the corporate ladder, that is, he allows his superiors to use his place after office hours to bring their extramarital intrigues for a quick tryst. This eventually results in a promotion for Baxter, but under a specific condition, his boss, Sheldrake, gets to use his apartment to bring over his “other woman” (every Monday and Thursday). This other woman, no less, happens to be Shirley MacLaine’s character, the woman who Lemmon proceeds to masochistically romanticize over.

There is something to be said about the masochism of both Lemmon’s and MacLaine’s character. That in their inherent masochism lies their raison d'être and it can also be observed that it keeps them sensitized towards their fellow man, particularly Lemmon’s character. In their isolation, paradoxically, is where they find their solidarity with their fellow human beings. It is in their isolation that the viewer can sympathize, empathize, or even relate with the character. While the end film ended just as how people would expect it to end, a generic and stereotypical romantic Hollywood ending, the actual the purpose of the film is not about the bliss of being with that special someone. The film actually recognizes and demonstrates the romanticism of solitude, and the selfless humanity that can be born from such a condition. That there is nothing more humanist than the altruism that is born from unrequited love.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
Written 1928-1940, published 1966, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1997, 412 pp.

I recently read a roundtable discussion in which prominent book critics and literary personalities confessed to which great works of literature they'd never read. Ulysses featured prominently, of course, to the extent that I rather thought the discussion should have been titled "Excuses For Why I Never Read Ulysses," or maybe "How to Become a Prominent Literary Personality Without Reading Joyce." War and Peace was naturally the close runner-up. Delectably, the last respondent was Garry Wills, who lamented that he's never read the Psalms, Job, and Isaiah in the original Hebrew. In a fit of originality, Cynthia Ozick said "A book I've been told, again and again, it's imperative to read is Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. I hope to remedy this omission."

I too have been told, again and again, that it is imperative to read The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov is probably surpassed only by Solzhenitsyn in the chilly field of prominent twentieth-century Russian writers, and the story of the writing and publishing of The Master and Margarita is about as compelling as Solzhenitsyn's own long struggle. Bulgakov was a well-known writer during that brief flare of creative genius which emerged in the wake of the October Revolution. He wrote a novel about the Civil War and several plays, all of which were frequently denounced for being reactionary, counter-revolutionary, and entirely too sympathetic to the White forces. He wrote the first draft of Master and Margarita in 1928, but burned it in 1930, in despair of the future of art in the Soviet Union. He rewrote it by 1936, and continued polishing (it came to four drafts) until his death in 1940. A censored version was finally published in a Moscow-based literary magazine in 1966, and the full draft began to circulate in samizdat until a Frankfurt publisher began to put out the full version in 1967. A Russian edition came out in 1973, and the book is by now something of a classic. A Russian television channel put out a ten-hour miniseries of the novel in 2005, to enormous acclaim, and the book has been cited as an inspiration by everyone from China Miéville to Mick Jagger. Apparently there's even a level in Grand Theft Auto 4 based on it.

All of that said, I will not tell you, even once let alone again and again, that it is an imperative read. It is a good book and an interesting one, but it is a very different reading experience from what the stories of persecution and proud artistic independence would suggest.

The novel opens with Berlioz, the stuffy bureaucratic director of the official Moscow literary group, talking to a radical and untalented young poet named Homeless about the non-existence of Jesus. They meet an alarming, dark stranger who assures them he was an eyewitness to Pontius Pilate's meeting with Jesus, and tells them the story in great, naturalistic detail. The stranger is, of course, Satan, and the book follows the lunatic effects of his intrusion into the regulated, stultified world of Soviet Moscow. Berlioz is soon run over by a tram car and Homeless ends up in a lunatic asylum. Satan and his retinue (a talking, chess-playing, gun-toting cat named Behemoth, a naked, red-headed vampiress, the angel of death, and a minor devil) take over a Moscow theater and stage a black-magic show, leaving a swathe of destruction and mayhem in their wake. They trap everyone they encounter into being arrested, leading to quite an influx of people to the lunatic asylum, all protesting that they'd been framed by Satan.

About the time of the magic show, I was wondering who exactly was the protagonist. Then I turned page 133 and saw: "Chapter 13: The Hero Enters." The hero is "the master," a brilliant writer who had authored a novel about Pontius Pilate before being denounced by his neighbor (who wanted his apartment) and imprisoned in the asylum. To prove that he is indeed the master, he wears a little hat with an "M" embroidered on it. Bulgakov is very oblique about his circumstances: only the footnotes make it clear that he was arrested by the secret police. There are none of the dramatic midnight knocks on the door that are so common in dissident literature. Instead Stalinist repression is presented as a sort of phantasmagorical circus. This reaches its apotheosis in a chapter called "Nikanor Ivanovich's Dream," which is a clear satire on show trials and the Stalinist habit of declaring political opponents to be mentally ill.

At any rate, Satan and his colleagues meet up with Margarita, the master's long-lost lover, who they decide is the ordained Queen of the ball they apparently must have on Walpurgis Night. Margarita uses some magic cream, becomes a witch, spends a lot of time flying around naked, and attends Satan's ball. I will not give away the ending except to mention that the conventional plot structure which would have demanded the titular master and Margarita as heroes fighting against Satan and his minions is entirely missing here. In fact, there's little if any actual conflict in the book, since Satan and Company are effectively all-powerful, and mostly toy with the unnamed representatives of the Soviet government who try and stop them from carrying out their nefarious, surreal, and largely inexplicable plans. I never quite understood why Satan decided to manifest himself on earth, why he put on the magic show, why he threw the ball, why he had to live in that specific apartment, or why anything at all happened in the book, aside from the obvious logic that it was necessary in order for there to be a book. Satan and his retinue seem to be on a powerful mission for most of the book, eliminating anyone in their way, but by the end I still had no idea why.

The book is strange, inventive, and often entertaining. During his initial chase of Satan, the poet Homeless mystically self-baptizes by stripping naked and jumping in a river. He leaves his clothes with an old man and when he returns he finds both of them have been stolen. At Satan's ball, there is a parade of dead poisoners who emerge from coffins in the fireplace, a jazz band made up of gorillas and orangutans, people who jump naked in a swimming pool full of champagne, and the talking cat with a bow tie and opera glasses. Polar bears dance the Kamarinsky, and Margarita's maid, who is also a witch, rides a giant pig. These things are often amusing, and are certainly never dull. Bulgakov has a keen eye for a surreal detail and a good metaphor. My favorite: "Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck us both at once."

The lunacy of Satan's activities is interspersed with a few chapters which are clearly taken from the master's book on Pontius Pilate. They are an intensely realistic retelling of the gospel story, and layer into the Moscow part of the narrative as characters read bits of the book or talk about the book to one another. This allows for an interesting parallel suggesting that Jesus may have been an early victim of a show trial, and that there is a timeless conflict between authority and authenticity which is even now playing itself out in Moscow. Bulgakov never makes the master into a Christ figure, though he seems to clearly be a representative of artistic integrity, suffering petty persecution in the time of officially-dictated socialist realism.

However, I am simply at a loss as to why the book is considered a satire. I assimilated three central themes. There is the theme of romance, which Bulgakov seems to see as a function or expression of personal courage, personified in Margarita’s devotion to the master. The second is the theme of art, which has great power over people (as evidenced by Satan’s power over everyone he meets, of the danger posed by the master, and so forth) and which is authentic and free, and therefore is in conflict with the inauthentic authority of Stalinist orthodoxy. The third theme is that of religion. Bulgakov shows us the power of religious figures being taken seriously, and holds up Stalinist repression as being no match for the eternal power of religion, which has control over death and the spirit—something no tyrant has yet managed, in Bulgakov’s view. Through these themes wander other symbols: Homeless seems to stand for rational intellect, a detached witness, the pig was once a person more interested in propriety than humanity, there are long lines for food and problems with currency, and there is an episode in which an empty suit sits at a desk, mindlessly processing papers: a perfect image of bureaucratic alienation. But satire? Stalin is absent, and indeed never actually named. Instead the targets seem to be state-sponsored artists, the Philistine public, and low-level bureaucrats. Worthy choices for demolition all, but hardly the stuff of grand satire. And the themes are heavily overshadowed by the riotous imagery and bizarre goings-on, making the book read more like a crazy dream which contains a few elements that might have greater meaning.

The Master and Margarita is therefore certainly a good book, a good entertainment, and fascinating as a period piece, but it lacks the withering satirical fire of Swift or Twain. It reads better as the sort of strange modern urban fairy tale which seems to delight Russian audiences: see for example the films Nightwatch and Daywatch, or the modern works of Victor Pelevin. Its creativity is superb, and its subject matter clearly audacious, so if taken on its own merits it is rewarding. Just ignore all those people who keep telling you that it is imperative to read.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The City and the City

The City and the City, by China Miéville
2009, 312 pp.

If I were to declare that China Miéville is the most creative author alive, I would expect that statement to meet with only blasé concurrence. That hypothesis has by now survived the rigorous testing which characterizes the gulf between theory and fact and has emerged unscathed into the realm of epistemological truth. I am prepared to go farther: China Miéville is the best living writer in English. Full stop.

The City and the City is not his best book. That distinction is still reserved for The Scar. But The City and the City is a demonstration of the range of his capability, which as near as I can tell is more congruent with than asymptotic to the infinite. He's not a "cult of the sentence" writer, so this review will not bristle with excerpts of his particularly clever descriptions. He does not produce the sort of prose the New York Times likes to call "poignant" or "evocative." He produces the sort of prose readers call "excellent." More to the point in this book, he has a masterful control of voice. In The Scar he is a frightened, lonely, highly-educated woman; in Iron Council a jilted, gay, male revolutionary; here he is a tired, professional Eastern European police officer in first-person narration. John Updike would have made Inspector Tyador Borlú sound like a dewy-eyed poet. Miéville makes him sound like a tired, professional, post-Soviet Eastern European police officer. The voice and tone never strike a wrong note. It's a virtuoso performance, all the more so for the absence of rhetorical and prose pyrotechnics.

Additionally fascinating is the grasp of genre conventions Miéville displays here. In his Bas-Lag trilogy, Miéville spent considerable time merrily running around, dynamiting every genre convention in sight. Here he has created a book which is two parts police procedural in the gritty realist style of Ed McBain or Richard Stark, one part metaphysics, one part Cold War thriller, two parts sharp-eyed social criticism, with a splash of Philip K. Dick, and maybe a little Borges thrown in. In The City and the City, almost all of the conventions of the detective genre are on display, but Miéville allows them to evolve organically and plausibly from the logic of the narrative, so they are unobtrusive structural conventions rather than lazy clichés. There are the usual meddling politicians, a Mysterious Caller, a Dead Girl, a Buddy Cop, and jurisdictional conflicts aplenty, but they are not labored constructions in Miéville's deft hands: they read instead like a demonstration of his mastery of the genre. The City and the City is like a trigonometry exam on which the student completes every question perfectly, then on the back provides an elegant new solution to Hilbert's Entscheidungsproblem. Based solely on his grasp of the genre and the mechanics of a forceful narrative, The City and the City is a very good detective novel. But Miéville is only getting warmed up.

As good as his use of plot and voice are, Miéville's genius is for world-building. The City and the City takes place in a fictitious Eastern European city called Besźel, rather gray and decaying, which occupies the same physical space as another city called Ul Quoma, which is its long-standing political and cultural rival. Citizens of the two cities are forbidden to interact with each other, even to see, smell, or hear each other, and are trained from childhood to "unsee" each other. This ban is enforced by a shadowy entity called "Breach," which seems to be a sort of hyper-efficient secret police. They know everything and see everything and maintain the separation between the two cities. Citizens who "breach" and violate the separation disappear. It is never particularly clear just how literal the separation is: at first you get the sense that there is a sort of mystical separation between the two, that maybe people in one city seem vague and ghostly in another. As the book goes on, though, it seems increasingly like the two cities are literally occupying the same space, and people recognize what to unsee based on colors, designs, and cultural stereotypes. This is a brilliant conceit. Miéville gives Ul Quoma a vaguely Muslim flavor, allowing him to build an utterly plausible replica of the European social tensions over Muslim immigration in all its various political and personal permutations, but literally manifested in the enforced separation. There is of course a storied history of cities with mythical, mysterious, magical, or otherwise hidden cities underneath. Making the other city just as real but hidden due to politics was a masterstroke of invention, and he gets quite a lot of mileage out of it. There is nothing absurdist or fantastic about the events of The City and the City: every event, every action is either explained or open to be explained, and this allows for Miéville to take his ideas seriously. There is no deus ex machina here, no authorial trickery. He has serious things to say about the social strata of modern Europe, and has thought of an innovative, serious way to say them.

The story begins with a murder. I will attempt not to give away too many of the narrative's plot convolutions, but will say only that the murdered girl turns out to have been an archaeology student working in Ul Quoma. Her body turns up in a housing project in Besźel, so Inspector Borlú is assigned to the case. She seems to have shadowy connections to unificationist radicals, to discredited academic ideologies, and to vague legends about something called Orciny, which may or may not be a hidden third city in places the Besź think are in Ul Quoma and the Ul Quomans think are in Besźel. From there the story opens up, hopping between the cities, delving deeply into their history and intellectual culture, and into their conflicted political spectrums. The two cities are perfectly realized. Miéville has thought of what their currency is called, what their Internet domain names are, what their American investment policies are, and how the elaborate diplomacy between their governments works. He's thought of their folklore, neologisms (the delicious topolganger, for instance), a fictitious Chuck Pahlaniuk novel, and what UNESCO thinks about the whole affair. He wisely makes both cities plausible, neither more attractive, more realistic, or more sympathetic than the other.

If I have criticisms, it is with the characters. We see a little of Borlú's home life, and a scene at hoome with his Ul Quoman partner, but the only sense we get of them as people are in their professional roles. This is standard to the genre, but I felt that Miéville usually layers in more depth of motivation for his characters, so their actions are a function of their personalities and the internal logic of their relations. The police procedural format does not lend itself well to this, but the reader will only notice if he happens to be looking for it. Borlú is dogged, meticulous, intelligent, sympathetic, and sensitive, and if nothing else, there are a whole stable of stock character traits less talented writers affix to their detectives which Miéville rightly ignored. As criticisms go, this is rather like complaining that your delectable steak dinner was not also covered in chocolate, so it should not be taken too seriously. The City and the City is a superb book, and a resounding confirmation that yes, China Miéville really can do anything.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Baltasar and Blimunda

Baltasar and Blimunda, by José Saramago
English translation, 1987, 343 pp.

Certainly by now even the most casual reader of this platform is thoroughly acquainted with my delirious affinity for the works of José Saramago, so consequently I shall attempt to keep the fawning praise to a minimum in this review. Baltasar and Blimunda was Saramago's first novel, written four years before The Stone Raft and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. It is surprisingly mature, showing no sign of literary apprenticeship or inexperience, no faltering of an unsure authorial hand, and can stand comfortably in the pantheon of his other great novels, though for all of its excellence I must admit it is my least favorite of the five of his books I've read. It is a less focused novel, less intimate, and hobbled by an arbitrarily cruel ending which left me distinctly unsatisfied.

The book is set in early eighteenth-century Portugal and follows three strands, setting them up against one another to illuminate a series of contrasts. One story concerns the construction of a giant convent in Mafra, which the enormously stupid and ineffectual King João V promises to build for the Franciscans if the queen bears him a child. She does, he lives up to his promise, and fifty thousand Portuguese peasants are conscripted into hard labor for decades. The second story is the construction of a slightly magical flying machine by Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço, a heretical priest and real-life aviation pioneer. Helping him in his efforts are Baltasar and Blimunda, whose quiet, loving dedication makes up the third strand. Baltasar is a former soldier who lost his left hand in battle, and Blimunda is gifted with a magical ability to see inside of people when she fasts. The great Domenico Scarlatti makes a few sensitive and erudite appearances as their friend and collaborator:

"Domenico Scarlatti called at the estate just in time to see the machine rising into the sky with a great shuddering of wings, and just think what would happen if those wings could flap, and once inside the coach-house, the musician found the debris of their departure, broken tiles scattered all over the floor, battens and joists sawn off or broken away, there is nothing sadder than an empty space, the machine is already on its way and gaining altitude, only to leave behind the most acute melancholy, and this sends Domenico Scarlatti to the harpsichord where he starts to play a bagatelle, barely skimming his fingers over the keys, as if stroking someone on the face when all words have been spoken or when words fail..."

These plot strands allow Saramago to set up a series of contradictory scenes, contrasting the rulers and the ruled, the haves and have-nots, those who relax and those who work, all the better to express his vast contempt for the powerful. He takes a number of barbed shots at God in general and organized religion in particular, several of them quite amusing. At one point, the latest in a line of sequences in which he shows an innocent being harmed and wonders where God is, he asks if perhaps God was busy attempting to master his multiplication tables. In particular there is a tour-de-force sequence two-thirds of the way through in which Saramago first describes the agony and brutal hardship experienced by a team of laborers trying to move a gigantic block of marble down a winding road to the convent. It is excruciating, back-breaking work, and several people die. This is followed by an extended sequence describing the regal comfort and enormous indifference of the king's traveling procession making it slow way to that same convent. The point is delivered with Saramago's characteristic panache: whether laboring under an unfeeling, uncaring piece of rock or under the royal person, the suffering of the common people is identical.

Saramago's prose is as full-bodied and robust as ever, with his characteristic authorial presence and folksy asides. He delves suddenly into first-person to give the perspective of someone he is describing, which can be jarring (at first I took it for one of his authorial intrusions before I realized it was a different voice, meant to emanate from the character he was just mentioning) and which he drops in his later novels. He is also more earthy here, more descriptive of sex and dirt and violence than in many of his later novels, probably due mostly to the subject matter and the time period. The book is brilliantly written and well-crafted, of course, and his characters are as keenly sculpted as ever. He presents Baltasar and Blimunda's devotion to one another without cheap sentimentality or manipulative pathos, and the exhilaration of their work on the flying machine, the details of their lives as powerless plebeians is perfectly played. The book is not without flaws, though. Most of Saramago's later books would restrict themselves to only one of the three stories, delving deeper but into less subject matter. Here he sometimes almost seems to be losing track of his point, reserving little interest for Baltasar and Blimunda, who he made me care so much about, and the book is pieced together more by the set-piece scenes than the emotional trajectory of the characters. Despite being the organizing thread, the story of Baltasar and Blimunda too often takes a back seat. Sometimes they disappear for entire chapters, and we miss years of their lives.

The ending, as I have already mentioned, seems unfair, startling, unnecessary, and unkind both to the reader and to the characters. It does slightly make sense given a careful reading of the book's symbolic content: if you view the flying machine as a realization of freedom before its time, which must necessarily be destroyed in a world still dominated by the tyranny of absolute monarchy and organized religion, and if you are willing to accept that one of the novel's central themes is the powerlessness of regular people in the face of that tyranny, then I suppose the cruelty of the ending makes sense. It is still conducted with the sort of brevity and tacked-on vindictiveness and lack of closure which reminded me of the closing pages of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. It seems unfair, and ends the book on an entirely different note from the preceding pages. Saramago is always worth reading, and always a delight to spend time with, but Baltasar and Blimunda (and Baltasar and Blimunda) deserved a different ending.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
1976, 352 pp. Revised edition 1989.

Richard Dawkins has recently resigned from the Simyoni Chair for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, so it is safe to say now, without fear of future contradiction, that he has been exceptionally good at his job. His name has become ubiquitous, well beyond notorious, reviled by some and admired by many; certainly he is the best popularly known academic in his field. I was prepared to call The Selfish Gene his magnum opus, but he assures the reader that it is not: that honor is reserved for The Extended Phenotype. Instead The Selfish Gene is his manifesto, his opening broadside into the world. It details the theory he has spent his career elaborating and explaining, and is certainly one of the most exciting popular science books I've ever read.

The Selfish Gene was first published in 1978, to rave reviews. My copy is the revised edition from 1989, which sports 65 pages of closely-typed endnotes. You must read them. Some are refutations of claims in the original text, some are elaborations, some detail interesting new experiments and theories, some conduct long-running arguments, and some are responses to critics. They are an example of a scrupulously honest scientist in critical engagement with his own work, and they offer quick, incisive intellectual pleasures in ways the text, with its burdens of exposition and clarity, sometimes does not.

The first several chapters consist of Dawkins laying out his theory and the analytical machinery with which it can be applied and analyzed. I will try to explain it in brief, but Dawkins' words really are the best way of expressing the theory. Genes are the unit of natural selection, because they can replicate themselves. Individuals are essentially "survival machines built [and programmed] by a short-lived confederation of long lived genes." Genes interact with one another, so what matters is how well genes are able to survive in the context of all the other genes in an individual, and get themselves passed on to another generation. Dawkins is at pains to be clear that he is not a genetic determinist, especially when it comes to human beings: "it is perfectly possible to hold that genes exert a statistical influence on human behavior while at the same time believing that this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences. Genes must exert a statistical influence on any behavior that evolves by natural selection." In humans, the most prominent influence is culture, in animals there is obvious variation in individual behavior. But quite a lot of behavior is statistically influenced by genes, which get passed along to future generations depending on the success of the behaviors they promote. Behaviors which can sustain themselves in a population over time are "evolutionary stable strategies" (ESS) which Dawkins proves, using game theory pioneered by Maynard Smith, is at the heart of most animal (and possibly human) behaviors.

The next several chapters consist of Dawkins applying the theory to sets of observed behavior: aggression, family planning, generational conflict, gender conflict. The first of these is fascinating, since it is the first time we get to see the theory in action and get walked through the game theory process to analyze behavior. The next three wear on quite a bit, and left me restless enough to start getting critical. Essentially, it seems to me that there is a falsifiability problem here. These middle chapters consist of the same pattern: Dawkins considers a puzzling or contradictory behavior in some species of animal. He then demonstrates using some simple game theory (only ever the Prisoner's Dilemma, by the way, never extensive-form games, or imperfect information games, or anything more advanced, probably due to the non-specialist audience) how exactly that puzzling behavior is really the dominant or stable strategy from the perspective of selfish genes, and explains that genes for that behavior must therefore have become prevalent in the gene pool. This struck me as the biological equivalent of Hegel's old chestnut about the real being rational and the rational being real. So how can his theory be falsified? Any behavior can be explained away on the grounds that "well, it exists, so it must be an ESS, and therefore caused by a selfish gene."

Now to some extent, this is unfair. Dawkins is writing for a popular audience, and therefore doesn't lay down any actual math, any formal modeling, or any of the other specialist machinery I know perfectly well he has at his disposal. It may also be the case that the selfish gene theory is just that good. I do not have the biological expertise to evaluate the problem, but in the interest of reviewing The Selfish Gene in particular rather than the selfish gene in general, I must admit that I finished the book unconvinced that there was any behavior Dawkins couldn't explain away, and I found this disquieting.

I also have a substantive complaint. Chapter 7, on family planning is interesting when dealing with animals, but an unmitigated disaster when dealing with human beings. As I so presciently noted recently, it is a sad example of an intellectual who begins to wind himself up on the issue of "overpopulation" and immediately deploys a series of unexamined, exploded old Malthusian fallacies. "Individuals who have more children than they are capable of rearing are probably too ignorant in most cases to be accused of conscious malevolent exploitation," he writes, after detailing what he sees as an endless and stupid population explosion. This comes perilously close to Huxley's idiot, paranoid phrase about the "teeming illiterates." But then Huxley seemed to be a reprehensible bigot derived from a long line of reprehensible bigots. Dawkins is neither reprehensible nor a bigot; indeed, he is a very good scientist--too good to make such blunders. Population and demography and their relations to poverty and development is a deeply researched field of development economics, and Dawkins ought to have at least acquainted himself with some of their findings. The poor, especially the rural poor, do not--I repeat, DO NOT--have lots of children because they are stupid, lazy, carnal, illiterate, greedy, gluttonous, lustful animals. This is apparently impossible for comfortable, otherwise educated and sensitive intellectuals to grasp. The poor have lots of children because a) children start work very young and therefore are a productive asset in poor, rural places instead of a drain on food and finances as they are in the First World, b) children will grow up to provide for their elderly parents, who will not have the benefit of a social safety net, c) high infant mortality lends itself to having more children, to make up for the unknown number which will die, d) women who do not work either through cultural stupidity or a simple lack of jobs face fewer opportunity costs for having children and less power to make family planning decisions, and e) poor families in general face a lower opportunity cost for having children. For a rich couple the choice is between a yacht and another child; for the poor it is a gamble that enough of your children will survive that you will be able to live off of them in your old age. Dawkins thankfully does not trot out that great shibboleth of First World neo-Malthusianism: that it is bad to save people, help them get medicine and healthcare, or provide food aid because people who survive will just have vast broods of progeny and you will end up back at square one. It was a relief that he had the sense not to be that stupid, but it was still discouraging to see such fallacies and ignorance from such a methodical scientist and keen intellect.

I stalled on that chapter, but persevered, and in the end was very glad that I did so. My complaints aside, Dawkins is a delightful writer. He has a gentle, urbane sort of tone which barely restrains the obvious excitement and passion he has for the subject. He seems very happy to be writing the book, and very happy to have us read it. He has an endearing habit of adding a decorous, dainty exclamation point at the end of a sentence to indicate that he is indulging in a little joke. He speaks both of himself in the first person, to explain his thinking, of the reader in the second, to establish a rapport and keep attention, and of both of you together to bring you along by the hand through the world of evolutionary biology. There is no sense of Dawkins the bloody-knuckled rhetorical pugilist who turns up lacerating pseudo-science books in the Times or reducing Bill O'Reilly to stunned silence. He takes a few cheerful potshots at religion, mainly in the endnotes, and is not shy about making his opinions clear on theories he finds unconvincing. But The Selfish Gene is not a polemic. It is a book by someone who is very good at what he does talking about his absolute favorite thing, and therefore it is a terrific read. He has a terrific command of biological and zoological information, and I learned quite a bit from his examples and analysis. He is also a great popularizer and communicator of the abstruse, complex ideas of W.D. Hamilton and John Maynard Smith, among others. For people (like me) who are utterly unfamiliar with the discipline, this is an excellent place to start. He also clearly knows that he is presenting a scientific theory which is subject to test and revision. At one point, he challenges the reader outright: "If anybody does not want to admit that parental care is an example of kin selection in action, then the onus is on him to formulate a general theory of natural selection that predicts parental altruism, but that does not predict altruism between collateral kin. I think he will fail."

Even more intriguingly, he ends with two chapters which provide a sort of link between the gene, a tiny molecule, and the necessity of the welfare state. No, you did not mis-read that sentence. He argues throughout the book that his selfish gene theory, with all of its implications against altruist behavior, and against group-selection theory, predicts behavior but does not advocate or condone it. His conclusion is this: "If there is a human moral to be drawn, it is that we must teach our children altruism, for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature." He devotes an entire chapter to explaining how reciprocal atruism is an evolutionarily stable strategy and how rebellion against our selfish genes is an inherently and beautifully human act. I was very glad he did this, since many times earlier in the book he made the point that altruist behavior is not stable, since it is open to exploitation by selfish individuals. I spent a lot of time wondering why he was dodging the social science implications of that conclusion, and was glad he returned to it from the beginning.

Now, I have not done an elaborate job of summarizing his points. Perhaps you have thought of an exception to his theory. Social insects, for instance, or parental sacrifice, or the dangeorus warning calls birds give when predators appear. Dawkins deals with most of these, in greater detail than I am willing to summarize here. Read the book. It goes quickly and is extremely interesting, especially for people preoccupied by the social sciences, since it functions as a sort of exhilarating (and exhilarated) introduction to a whole world of knowledge and controversy we otherwise ignore, at our own peril.