Neuromancer by William Gibson

May 31, 2011

I read Neuromancer on the strength of its reputation as a sci-fi essential and, more so, the recommendation of Max at Pechorin’s Journal. This, perhaps unholy, combination of sci-fi and crime noir (as Max discusses very ably and at length) is, quite evidently, a hugely influential work. From Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon to The Matrix to, I am sure, many, many subsequent sci-fi novels. This is not really my genre, so I cannot speak with first-hand authority on any influence beyond Cryptonomicon. I probably should read more sci-fi works given my interests in science and technology, but this is progress. The novel was, while not a literary masterpiece, sufficiently well-written that I never felt the need to hurl it as far from myself as possible (as I have with a more recent, highly touted sci-fi novel).

The story begins with the hero (this is not so literary that heroes are unnecessary), Case, in a bar in a seedy section of Chiba which, it appears, is somewhere in what is present-day Japan. Case is down and out, an ex-cowboy (hacker) who took one liberty too many [on his employer’s dime] resulting in neurological reprisals. [Those he crossed fried some of his synapses,] were friend making it impossible for him to enter cyberspace. He has developed a network and a reputation as a man who can get things and makes a meager living which pays for his primary entertainments and life goals: booze, drugs, and sex. He cannot earn enough to pay for treatments to effectively reverse the damage done to his brain. A life separated from the matrix is, to him, not really worth living. His existence is grim.

Max covers some themes more thoroughly and with more depth than I could hope to achieve, so I will provide a summary and urge you to read his excellent review (linked above). Case is very much like a Chandler-esque lead, down on his luck but smart, connected with the right bad people, and cunning. We meet him at a crucial moment in his life, a moment when his death seems imminent. He stumbles on a mystery and is contacted by wealthy and powerful people who want him to make one more run as a cowboy. They offer the one thing that can restore his desire to live: a neurological fix. He accepts as death, by his hand or another, is the only alternative.

As, again, Max points out, the world Case inhabits is very similar to the world of the 1980s (and today) with only minor additions of technology. The gap between the wealthy and the poor may have widened slightly, but the dynamics are the same. The two could very nearly be different species, the latter being exploited mercilessly by the former (shades of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine). In all, this is handled well and in a way that avoids the novel becoming laughably outdated in a decade or two. The city feels real, only with a bit of new technology thrown in here and there. Max suggests, and it sounds right to me, that this was somewhat innovative in the world of sci-fi and has been much imitated. (And I think that observation must be accurate, even Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story follows that same idea….as well as the throwing in technological enhancements, youth surgeries more effective than anything currently available, and other rehashed (in SSTL) ideas from this and other sci-fi novels.)

That is not to say Neuromancer does not contain some anachronisms. People use landlines, not cell phones. There does not seem to be wi-fi, 5G, or any other wireless internet connections. But, these are minor failings of technological prognostication. The strength is the treatment of AI which, if I understand correctly, involved a radical new approach. The AI in the book is not, exactly, at war with humans as a species, though humans are trying to keep it contained, and AI is not a purely logical psychopath trying to create or maintain a world according to its settings (HAL, The Matrix‘s Architect, etc.), but has a personality and is seeking that most human of goals: freedom. The AI is not, yet, set on world domination or subjugation of the human race. This makes the AI, rather than a super-villain which must be vanquished to save humanity, an interesting and complex character.

Having not read much sci-fi, I have not reaped much benefit (yet) from Gibson’s radical departure with improved story-telling and interesting take on AI. However, I am thrilled I read this book and, so, cannot thank Max too much. I plan on reading the rest of the trilogy, for completeness sake and to see where Gibson went. I was entertained. Thank you, Max, not least for your knowledgeable posts on the trilogy which enriched my own understanding of the importance of this work within the larger sci-fi (and noir) contexts and my understanding of some of the subtleties within this work itself.

The Locked Room (The New York Trilogy, Volume 3) by Paul Auster

January 4, 2011

“And death…happens to us every day.”

by Paul Auster

The final installment of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy begins with the above quote and attribution. The quote does not appear, other than at this point, anywhere in The New York Trilogy. Google was of no immediate help in locating a separate writing of Auster’s in which this quote appears. It seems that the quote is Auster’s own, but written solely for the beginning of this work. This enigmatic choice is typical of the oddities within this work.

Unlike City of Glass which seemed to unravel rather than spin a plot and unlike Ghosts which seemed more allegorical than realist, The Locked Room has a realistic plot which pulls together some of the loose threads of City of Glass. For instance, the detective Quinn and Peter Stillman both make appearances in this story of a writer gone missing.

Fanshawe has left his six-months pregnant wife, Sophie, and has not returned. After he has been gone for some time, Sophie presumes him dead. The unnamed narrator, a failed novelist but successful writer of articles, was Fanshawe’s best friend in childhood and was named as his literary executor. Sophie approaches the narrator with Fanshawe’s writings, none of which has ever been published. The narrator is to determine whether any of it is publishable. He is daunted.

How could I be expected to take on such a responsibility – to stand in judgment of a man and say whether his life had been worth living?…He admired what I did, Sophie said; he was proud of me, and he felt that I had it in me to do something great.

Upon review of Fanshawe’s work, the narrator determines that it is Fanshawe who has achieved something great. The literary community agrees and Fanshawe’s work sells very well. During all of this, Sophie and the narrator fall in love. At first, they embrace this common element of their lives but, soon enough, they both wish to move past Fanshawe and his influence.

The narrator eventually decides that the only way to purge Fanshawe from their lives is to find him. His decision is made despite having received a death threat purportedly from Fanshawe in which Fanshawe warns the narrator not to search for Fanshawe. The narrator becomes the third detective-protagonist in the New York Trilogy.

The three installments of The New York Trilogy are less about detective work than about writing. This last installment, The Locked Room, continues some of the themes of twinning and identity. Fanshawe and the narrator seem, at times, to be different aspects of the a single person, though “there are photographs to document” that they spent their boyhood together. This assurance of photographs and other seemingly unassailable evidence of separateness is hardly dispositive given that the ability of words, or even facts, to convey truth is questioned.

Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling…..We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception.

Whether Fanshawe is the narrator’s creation or another aspect of the narrator, the reader must conflate, to some extent, Fanshawe and the narrator. The narrator can only write of Fanshawe by putting himself into Fanshawe’s story and we can only read the narrator’s story by inhabiting first the narrator and then Fanshawe. The doubling inherent in storytelling is unavoidable Auster reminds us.

The effect is brilliantly boggling because we readers are primed as humans or readers to look for meaning though, in Auster’s view (or at least in his narrator’s view), sense cannot be made of the story of anyone’s life.

The point being that, in the end, each life is irreducible to anything other than itself.

The skill with which Paul Auster simultaneously gives us a compelling detective story and circumvents the concept of sensible narration is dazzling. This third of the series is perhaps the most narratively conventional but, at the same time, it reveals the full extent and purpose of Auster’s earlier playfulness. Auster manages an ambiguity that would merely frustrate in the hands of a lesser writer. The ambiguity can be frustrating, but this is essential to Auster’s purpose.

Not unlike Nabokov’s Kinbote in Pale Fire who tries to extract meaning from his neighbor’s poem, the narrator here searches Fanshawe’s works for clues and, in the end, both Nabokov and Auster leave us with an open-ended finale. Both are masterpieces because this indeterminateness amplifies the central thesis of the texts without any resort to cheap tricks. The setup may be elaborate, but both authors manage to leave the reader with a satisfying catharsis that is only more pleasant because of the prick of doubt.

Perhaps the best summary of Auster’s accomplishment in The Locked Room is the narrator’s synopsis of Fanshawe’s work:

It is as if Fanshawe knew his final work had to subvert every expectation [the reader has] for it.

I will be re-reading the entire trilogy. This is a beautiful and demanding work.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

December 7, 2010

I thought I had previously read one of Follett’s novels. I thought it was The Falcon and the Snowman, but that book was written by somebody else. Maybe I read The Eye of the Needle. I was in high school, decades ago now. It may be telling that I cannot recall enough of the book to determine to which book my wisps of recollection belong. Perhaps, after all, the book I remember was not Follett’s. If only I had blogged back then…..

There are many types of books in the world, but let’s pretend there are two. In one category, we have books that are a delight because “the characters are easy to love or hate”. In the other, are the books I tend to love. This book belongs in the former category. If not knowing within a page of meeting a character whether you should love that character or hate them is an irritating distraction for you, then this is your book. (The quote, by the way, is not from this novel, but a close paraphrase of someone’s description of a book they loved and which I did not. Our different reactions made sense to me after reading their reason for loving the book. Digressions are the hobgoblins of busy bloggers. I move on.)

Or, we can pretend the two categories are different. In one, a character who gets stabbed with a knife might “scream[] like a stuck pig.” In the other, are the books I tend to love. Perhaps, the prose is more pleasing if you have not actually heard a stuck pig. I think not, however. My real problem is that the sentence is, basically, “a stuck man screamed like a stuck pig” as getting “stuck”, in the pig context, is to be stabbed by a knife. The beauty of the symmetry is lost on me.

But those categories are so arbitrary. It is more helpful, perhaps, if I describe some of the novel’s good qualities. It is very long and, therefore, thick and, therefore, potentially useful for many things in addition to reading. It was a bestseller and, according to a BBC survey in 2003, is the 33rd most beloved book in Britain. Oprah likes it too. There are lots of characters to love and lots of characters to hate. Did I mention it is easy to tell them apart? So, there’s that.

At least one negative should be mentioned, to be fair. There is a sequel with the terrifying title World Without End. I think I said the novel is “very long.” The copy I have is 973 pages and a couple of months long.

While purportedly historical fiction, the novel is really a thriller which, coincidentally, is Follett’s forte. The prologue is set in England in 1123. There is a hanging attended by a knight, a monk, and a priest. The priest says to the knight….kidding. No, it is actually a gripping opening which ends with a headless cock running around “in a ragged circle on the bloodstained snow.” All the principal characters involved are later important. Follett knots his yarn well. If only he could write, that would be something. Well, if he could write and if trusted his readers a bit more, that would be something. His lack of trust in his readers shows in two ways. One, the characters are exceptionally very easy to categorize as “love them” or “hate them”, though, to make it more fun, you can try loving the hateful ones and hating the lovable ones. In that case, it has a tragic ending. The other way he does not trust his readers (or perhaps himself…and maybe he has a point) is that he often needs to explain things which really would be better shown.

I should expound upon the writing if I intend to be ungracious about it. Aside from stuck pigs, there are moments like this involving a starving family and an asshole:

”Suppose I give you money for food,” William said to the builder, to tantalize him.

“I’ll accept it gratefully,” the man said, although William could tell it hurt him to be subservient.

“I’m not talking about a gift. I’ll buy your woman.”

The woman herself spoke. “I’m not for sale, boy.”

Her scorn was well directed, and William was angered.

I shit you not.

If someone can tell me in the comments what that last sentence even means, I will be grateful. But look at the first sentence. We already know both (a) that the family is starving and (b) that William is an asshole. Shouldn’t the author be able to assume that his readers will know that an asshole offering money for food to a starving man is probably just being an asshole? But Follet tells us that William made the offer to “tantalize” the starving man, in case we missed it. In a much shorter book, maybe that would not become irritating, or maybe it would. It’s hard to tell.

I am being altogether too negative though. One of our young heros-to-be enjoys playing chess. You may know, I also enjoy playing chess. Of course, he “win[s] them all.” Perhaps, there is another way to show the boy is intelligent and that he enjoys chess. I am being unreasonable. If a character is going to play chess and be a hero, he ought to play well. Really well.

There is a nice structure to the novel. The 1123 prologue, as I mentioned, is fairly gripping. The main body of the story begins twelve years later with a fresh (so it seems) slate of characters. It may be a spoiler to say this, but any character worth loving or hating will appear more than once, often many times, often you will have least expected their reappearance a hundred or so pages before they do reappear, by which time you will have expected it. Somehow, it still is mildly satisfying. Like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when you are really jonesing for a steak and cheese. It gets the job done, but if the timing had been better….

I think it is my mood. The book is much better than I am making it out to be. However, I have managed to convey the novel’s basic type. I should add that, despite the shortcoming I have identified, Follet is a bestselling thriller-writer for a reason. There are loads of characters and you will definitely be able to find one of the type you might imagine yourself to be, particularly if you are a man. The good men are sometimes ugly. The good women, never. The good women are often raped. The good men, never. Perhaps there is a bit of misogyny, but not too much for Oprah.

If you have not visited any European cathedrals, which would be my position, you likely will want to after reading this book. Follett clearly enjoyed researching cathedrals and cathedral building for this book. The cathedral in the book is fictional rather than historical, as is the town and most of the characters. Historical events sort of play a role, but are altered to fit the plot. Most interesting is the way Follett has weaved an alternate history that begins with the sinking of the White Ship and, largely, ends with the murder of Thomas Becket. Follett has filled the space between these two events with a tale that spirals from the aspirations of Tom Builder to that final assasination. I cannot really say too much more about the success of the plot without spoiling the good thing about this novel which is the story. And, so, I won’t.

Ghosts (The New York Trilogy, Volume 2) by Paul Auster

September 14, 2010

I have been slightly delayed in posting about this second volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy for no entirely discernible reason. I could say that the fact that I was on the wait list for the third volume, The Locked Room, at the library and, then, for no apparent reason, The Locked Room has disappeared from the library’s catalogue, dampened my enthusiasm. What to say about a trilogy when you only have the first two books? Then I have a dilemma. Do I buy the whole trilogy? My library has done this to me before. It has two of the three books in Coetzee’s semi-autobiography “trilogy”. I did buy the missing one that time. It’s Coetzee, after all. But Auster? I have not been blown away, though I probably should have been. Is Auster shelf-worthy?

Ghosts is a very interesting book. It was Sasha’s least favorite of the three. Perhaps that will ultimately prove to be so with me, but I sort of liked it. It felt less ephemeral than the last. The pages did not crumble to nothingness like a library hold. And, yet, it is weird.

First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown.

These are the characters. Blue is our guy, the one over whose shoulder and through whose eyes we peek. White hires Blue to watch Black. So, the second in the trilogy again has a private eye (this time a real detective) following and watching a subject. In the first book, it was not clear whether our man, Daniel Quinn, had followed the right man out of the train station. He could have spent most of the book watching a man unrelated to “the case”. Blue, though, is watching the right person we know. Only, we know less about why he is watching Black than we knew why Quinn was watching the elder Stillman. Blue watches Black and writes reports to White, hoping that he is focusing on the most relevant information.

The problem for Blue is that Black simply reads and writes and, occasionally, goes to get something to eat. Black’s routine is predictable and, seemingly, interminable.

For to watch someone read and write is in effect to do nothing. The only way for Blue to have a sense of what is happening is to be inside Black’s mind, to see what he is thinking, and that of course is impossible.

Blue had always been a man of action, so doing nothing is difficult for him.

He has never given much thought to the world inside him, and though he always knew it was there, it has remained an unknown quantity, unexplored and therefore dark, even to himself. He has moved rapidly along the surface of things for as long as he can remember, fixing his attention on these surfaces only in order to perceive them, sizing up one and then passing on the the next, and he has always taken pleasure in the world as such, asking no more of things than that they be there.

Blue has plenty of time, however, so he does start examining the world inside him. He discovers, among other things, stories.

More than just helping to pass the time, he discovers that making up stories can be a pleasure in itself…Murder plots, for instance, and kidnapping schemes for giant ransoms. As the days go on, Blue realizes there is no end to the stories he can tell. For Black is no more than a kind of blankness, a hole in the texture of things, and one story can fill this hole as well as any other.

Blue’s discovery of stories distracts him from his mission. He becomes more intrigued by the stories he imagines for Black than the activities of Black himself. Blue often pulls himself back from fantasy to the reality of his mission, but it becomes more and more difficult for him to separate the false from the true. His stories, he realizes, are more about him than they are about Black.

This isn’t the story of my life, after all, he says, I’m supposed to be writing about him, not myself.

This realization does not make things easier for him. He still struggles, discovers that he inserts himself into the story even when he does not mean to do so. Blue then becomes meticulous about writing down only facts, facts about Black, so that his reports become very difficult for him to write. His earlier surety in the world around him has been shaken, so he grasps on, again to the surface of the world, naming objects in his room in an attempt to tether himself to reality. But he has a problem, once you dive below the surface of things, you can swim as deep as you like without reaching the bottom.

Auster is writing, on the one hand, about storytelling and writing. On the other, he is writing about life. He does an excellent job weaving together the intersection of life and writing and how the one, in many ways, interferes with the other. One can either live or write about living. And, also, there is the problem of understanding another person, writer or otherwise. You can see what the person does, but to have true understanding, you need to know what they think. This is impossible, because, when you begin speculating what is in another’s mind, you cannot help but creep into the story you write for them.

We are not where we are, he finds, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out.

This is an excellently philosophical work. The story, too, is intriguing as fables and allegories should be. I have not doubt that writers will pass this book along to other writers for generations. And, too, will readers. Readers, after all, are haunted by the ghosts of writers. Readers, when they attempt to delve below the surface of a novel, into the mind of the author, they insert themselves and become hopelessly confused regarding what parts belong to the author and what parts are their own. Auster has made a beautifully postmodern statement and I look forward to the last of the series, whereever I find it. Sasha enjoyed it most, and I have heard the same from others.

Perhaps I have made no sense at all. Merely doubling myself as Auster’s characters do so frequently. I can only say with certainty that there is more to this installment of the trilogy than I can convey and, to be fair, more than it would be possible to convey. All the same, I’ve undoubtedly made a hash of it, so I encourage you to read it yourself and come back to explain the big and little things I have missed.

The Lights of Earth by Gina Berriault

August 4, 2010

For an excellent review of this work, I will send you to Kevin from Canada who recently read this book at my suggestion. I am just going to try to jot down some random thoughts about the book and, likely, will throw in some spoilers. Beware.

Last year, I had re-read two of Berriault’s novels (Afterwards and The Son) and commented on them. This year, I had planned to re-read this one too, but not quite so soon as I actually did. Reading Turn, Magic Wheel prompted me to take this down from the shelves to look for points of comparison, to remind myself of the story and the writing. Once I started, I did not want to stop.

The compulsion to finish was partly because I love Berriault’s writing and partly because I was astounded by the close parallels between this book and Powell’s. Both center on the women in a famous writer’s life. Powell borrows from the life of Hemingway, while Berriault’s famous writer (Martin) is more amorphous, just a place holder in many ways. Powell’s female lead is the ex-wife of the famous writer, while Berriault’s female lead is a soon-to-be ex-mistress. Powell’s book is broader in scope, rounding out a whole cast of characters, where Berriault focuses more intensely on the ex-mistress. The female leads’ male friends play central roles, particularly in the novels’ climaxes and denouements.

In a particularly poignant moment in Turn, Magic Wheel, Effie wishes she had had a child with Callingham, something that was hers alone. Effie watches a crippled boy from her window, imagining the sorrowful pride his mother must have when the teacher tells her the boy is slow. The mother doesn’t tell the teacher that her boy will shine one day, but because of the beautiful pictures he draws, his mother knows. The relationship between the mother and the boy is wrending, as is Effie’s yearning to have a child, even a crippled child.

Berriault gives her female lead, Ilona, a daughter to whom she does not seem close. Ilona also has a brother, Albert. Albert has some developmental disabilities and, thus, is confined to menial labor and a rather spartan existence. Ilona grew up watching out for him and, during the course of this novel, he sends Ilona a letter telling of a recent illness and a friend’s kind treatment:

Although he was happy to be tended by a friend out in the world, wasn’t it true that his sister ought to be the one tending him, just as she had protected him from what the world might do to him, the years when she had walked beside him and sat beside him on trolleys and buses, her small presence never enough to keep his fear from breaking out as a cold sweat over his face, never enough to convince him he was not at the world’s mercy.

Ilona’s longing for Martin is paralled by Albert’s brotherly longing for Ilona. She has gone out into the world and has not returned, will not return. Though he hopes so. Just as Ilona reminisces and fondles photographs of the man she loves but who has left her, Albert piteously misses his sister. When she later goes to Chicago, after he has died, she sees the room he rents, his keepsakes, and the prominent proof of his longing for her, a carboard sign posted above his cot which gives his address and a heartbreaking request that his sister be notified in an emergency. One senses it was always a bit of an emergency, that poor Albert was always in need of a sustaining phone call. He rarely received them, however.

The irony to this is that Ilona was Albert’s light and she left him. She was the distant star, the one traveling the world, the one who left him behind in the dark.

This sideline about Ilona’s brother is only one aspect of this novella. Every aspect of the work explores and amplifies the sense of longing, the feeling that one is being left while another streaks through life. Berriault has sympathy for those left behind and hopefulness too. Cynthia Ozick has written that “Berriault’s fictions never disappoint: they read like fact and leave the impress of wisdom.” The Lights of Earth certainly does not disappoint. It manages both a clenching sadness and an uplifting redemption without falling into sentimentality.

I loved it. I loved it again.

City of Glass (The New York Trilogy, Volume 1) by Paul Auster

July 19, 2010

I had been intending to read Paul Auster for some time when Sasha, in the comments to my review of What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, Auter’s wife, suggested several of us read The New York Trilogy at the same time. I thought it was a great idea and, so, have started with City of Glass. I will be picking up the second in the trilogy, Ghosts, from the library within the next couple days. It is getting on two weeks since I fiished it and since Sasha posted her reaction.

The book began by promising me it would be one of my favorites, at least of the year. It ended leaving me confused and wondering whether I had been taken advantage of.

Much later, when he was able to think about things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance.

My understanding is that Paul Auster has an continuing interest in this idea of chance. Another of his novels is, after all, named The Music of Chance. Sarah, of A Rat in the Book Pile, reviewed that one and was, in a sense, my first introduction to Auster. With that review and this first of The New York Trilogy, I am certain I have too little to say or add to a conversation about Auster.

That theme of chance definitely suffuses his work. Sarah used this quote from The Music of Chance regarding a character’s choice of ramps on a highway:

It was a sudden, unpremeditated decision, but in the brief time that elapsed between the two ramps, Nashe understood that there was no difference, that both ramps were finally the same.

In City of Glass, the ostensible protagonist, Daniel Quinn, has been hired to keep Peter Stillman the son safe from Peter Stillman the father. His plan is to intercept Stillman the elder at the train station. He has an outdated picture of the man and knows on which train the man will arrive. Of course, two candidates show up and Quinn, on impulse, chooses to follow the poor and broken one rather than the wealthy and assured one.

There was no way to know: not this, not anything.

These two scenes are strikingly similar. In both, the character is faced with a split-second choice. In both, the character decides the choice makes little difference.

And, finally, that is my impression of the book. There are multiple available interpretations of the storyline, who is real, who is not, what happens, what does not. I do not have the tools I should to achieve any depth in this analysis because I have not read Don Quixote. This book relies heavily on Don Quixote. To the extent I am supposed to say whether you should read this work or not: You should. The exegesis on Don Quixote is worth the trouble to find and read the book. Quinn and Stillman have a conversation about Don Quixote and Cervantes. They discuss how Cervantes “goes to great lengths to convince the reader that he is not the author” of Don Quixote when, in fact, close examination of the novel demonstrates he must be. Part of Cervantes’s scheme is to insist that everything in the book really happened, when, really, it is a work of imagination that is “an attack on the dangers of make-believe.”

Paul Auster does a very similar thing in this work. Late in the book, our narrator tells us:

Since this story is based entirely on facts, the author feels it his duty not to overstep the bounds of the verifiable, to resist at all costs the perils of invention.

The parallel is not a result of my imagining. Quinn/Auster makes the connection explicitly. Daniel Quinn shares initials with Don Quixote.

He picked up his pen and wrote his initials, D.Q. (for Daniel Quinn), on the first page. It was the first time in more than five years that he had put his own name in one of his notebooks. He stopped to consider this fact for a moment but then dismissed it as irrelevant.

Yet, this novel is presented in the form of a mystery and the astute reader will have noticed Quinn’s earlier observation:

In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant.

For the less astute, Quinn makes the connection explicitly shortly after putting his initials in the notebook.

This comparatively slight book is packed with ideas. In addition to the rabbit-hole of reality vs. unreality, fate vs. chance, and chance as fate, there is the theme of doubling. Siri Hustvedt, in What I Loved, gave us the artist Bill Wechsler who was preoccupied with self-portraits, doubling, and ambiguity. Bill even says: “In my work, I want to create doubt. Because that’s what we’re sure of.”

Bill is Paul who is Quinn who is William Wilson and Don Quixote and Cervantes and Paul Auster.

He had, of course, long ago stopped thinking of himself as real.

Yes, and I did too. And, again, my central problem with this novel is that there is too much. I am not up to the task. I have to read more. There is a map of Daniel Quinn’s wanderings that I need to sketch. I will read it again. It is entertaining. It is amusing.

And that’s finally all anyone wants out of a book – to be amused.

P.S. Many, many thanks to Sasha for reading it at the same time, making me feel less alone in my confusion, and for posting first. I am sorry I have not been much help with the confuzzlement (nice word), but I can give you the condolence that I am terribly confuzzled too.

[Fixed a broken link and corrected a “the” to “they”. 19-Jul-2010]

The Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales

April 15, 2010

This short book was, in some sense, a welcome transition from Tournament of Books selections and coverage. First published in 1987, the novel won award for Spanish language novels but was not translated into English until 2009, after the novel had been rediscovered and heavily praised in Europe. This is a bold, original novel from a troubled author. Only two of his novels survived his suicide, this one and “El Juego de la Viola”. The others he destroyed.

The scant information I have about the author suggests that this novel is somewhat autobiographical. Guillermo Rosales was born and grew up in Cuba. He was, apparently, initially sympathetic to the revolution, but later grew disenchanted with it and fled the totalitarian state, ending up in Miami. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent a considerable part of the rest of his life in halfway houses.

Guillermo’s alter ego, William Figueras, narrates the story. William describes in brief simple terms his love of literature, his first novel, and the resulting repression by the Cuban government. The stress of failure drives him insane. The novel is bleakly comic such as when he describes his arrival in America:

There were some relatives waiting for me . . . They thought a future winner was coming, a future businessman, a future playboy, a future family man who would have a future house full of kids . . . The person who turned up was instead a crazy, nearly toothless, skinny, frightened guy who had to be admitted to a psychiatric ward that very day because he eyed everyone in the family with suspicion and, instead of hugging and kissing them, insulted them.

The relatives soon rid themselves of William, except for one aunt. She allows him to stay with her for three months:

[U]ntil the day when, at the advice of other friends and relatives, she decided to stick me in the halfway house: the house of human garbage.

“Because you’ll understand that nothing more can be done.”
I understand her.

This sense of hopelessness pervades the novel. William has little to which he can look forward. The halfway house is a terrible place. Jose Manuel Prieto, in the preface, aptly describes it as “Dantean”. There are retarded twins who fight, a man with pus oozing out of his empty eye socket, chronically clogged toilets, an opportunistic manager (Curbelo) who skims profits and skimps on services, and the manager’s predatory lieutenant Arsenio.

[Arsenio]’s square and sweaty torso is slashed through with a scar that goes from his chest to his navel. It’s from being stabbed in prison, five years ago, where he was doing time for stealing. Mr. Curbelo pays him seventy dollars a week. But Arsenio is happy. He has no family, no profession, no life ambitions, and here, in the halfway house, he’s a big fish. For the first time in his life, Arsenio feels fulfilled somewhere.

But the book does not slide into an easy indictment of Cuba or America, halfway houses, Curbelo, or Arsenio. He plumbs the depths of the human condition and pulls up the worst of it. His criticism of Cuba is not merely a stand against totalitarianism, but against how totalitarianism unmasks people for what they are. On one hand, there is the shadow that that follows survivors, a haunting that is reminiscent of Cynthia Ozick’s connected short stories in The Shawl. But William was not first a victim, but an enthusiastic supporter of Fidel’s regime. He bears the scars of complicity.

He shares that shame with a new arrival at the halfway house, Frances. Frances, like William, is not as far gone as the other residents. The two bond in ways reassuring and disconcerting. Like the other subjects of the book, William’s and Frances’s shared shame is no simple thing, but a layered affair. Though we know enough about William by this point to know he could have done something horrible, the first memory they share, besides the revolutionary anthem, is of benign (if not laudable) participation:

”I taught five peasants how to read,” she confesses.
“Oh yeah? Where?”

“In the Sierra Maestra,” she says. “In a place called El Roble.”

“I was around there,” I say. “I was teaching some other peasants in La Plata. Three mountains from there.”

As Trevor puts it over at The Mookse and The Gripes, the novel is “all the more poignant because of” the simple narrative style. In his own excellent review, though, Trevor points out the complexity of the ideas and structure of the novel. While fleshed out in plain prose, the book has a heft belied by the slim page count (which is 121 including a twelve page preface). I highly recommend checking out Trevor’s review (link above) and reading Prieto’s preface, whether prior to reading the novel or after. I do think I found myself more impressed by the examination of humanity itself, rather than the specifically Cuban focus. In other words, as I tried to express before, while the novel does illumine the evils of totalitarianism and the failures of America, the most powerful searchlight is shone on the human condition. The book is timeless and borderless; it is well worth reading.

Libra by Don DeLillo

August 20, 2009

I was finally and definitively spurred to wade into Don DeLillo’s work by a post and extended discussion in the comments about DeLillo’s White Noise over at The Asylum.

The gist of the comments seemed to be that everyone had a favorite DeLillo, but few seemed to like all or even most of his work. I chose to start with Libra for the rather pedestrian reason that it was mentioned positively more often than any of his other work. I can say I liked it, though I am not bowled over.

Perhaps because I was not born until after all the key events, the JFK assassination has never held much fascination for me. The video footage is Libradisturbingly compelling, but I am not emotionally tied to those events. Having the foresight to be born in the 70s, I have no contemporaneous experience with the Red Scare, the Civil Rights confrontations, the Cuban Missile Crisis. These years are background for me. Perhaps this is why I cannot get worked up about any conspiracy theories. Of course, I do not generally go in for conspiracy theories. I assume most such efforts turn out to be somewhat ham-handed affairs like the Watergate break-in or Iran-Contra arms for hostages or, more relevantly, the Bay of Pigs.

In the author’s note following the main text, DeLillo writes:

[B]ecause this book makes no claim to literal truth, because it is only itself, apart and complete, readers may find refuge here — a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years.

I think the book achieves that goal. This fictional work provides a sufficiently plausible interpretation of actual fact leavened by not entirely ridiculous speculation that readers wanting a coherent story about the assassination get one. Every piece of reality will not fit in a puzzle. There are strange coicidences. There is seemingly missing evidence. A single madman must be too neat an explanation for such a foundation-shaking national tragedy, mustn’t he? DeLillo provides an account that makes some sense.

This theme of piecing together scattered facts to make sense of things is explored throughout the book. DeLillo’s book is not just about the assassination but of our need to create coherent stories out of events.

DeLillo’s Oswald notices coincidences everywhere and infuses those coincidences with meaning. A date and an address include the same number, so he sees a message. He walks into the office of someone who had been looking for him. The confluence of these cross-purposes, resulting in a fortuitous meeting, reveals their shared destiny. Oswald bounces around the world, making the worst of his life while trying to make the best of it. Bad decisions are magnified because he interprets the trajectory of his life as destiny. His paranoia feeds into his need to be saved from nothingness by becoming a part of history.

Lee H. Oswald was taking shape in Kirilenko’s mind as some kind of Chaplinesque figure, skating along the edges of vast and dangerous events.

Unknowing, partly knowing, knowing but not saying, the boy had a quality of trailing chaos behind him, causing disasters without seeing them happen, making riddles of his life and possibly fools of us all.

Oswald is not alone in his psychological dependence on signs, symbols, coded messages. Oswald’s wife Marina, Jack Ruby, CIA operative Laurence Parmenter, CIA analyst Nicholas Branch, and Oswald’s mother are just some of the characters that create narratives to bridge gaps between facts to make sense of their lives, Oswald’s life, or the events bringing them all together. General Edward Walker believes in the “Real Control Apparatus”. In a nice foreshadowing of blogging, Beryl Parmenter takes up a new hobby:

Beryl was at her writing desk clipping news items to send to friends. This was a passion she’d discovered recently like someone in middle life who finds she was born to show pedigreed dogs. Nothing that happened before has any meaning compared to this. A week’s worth of newspapers sat on the desk She sent clippings to everyone. There was suddenly so much to clip.

Her efforts are, though more benign, less paranoid, than Oswald’s or Walker’s, a similar attempt to make sense of a confusing, chaotic, violent world and to communicate with those around her.

She said the news clippings she sent to friends were a perfectly reasonable way to correspond. There were a thousand things to clip and they all said something about the way she felt. He watched her read and cut. She wore half-glasses and worked the scissors grimly. She believed these were personal forms of expression. She believed no message she could send a friend was more intimate and telling than a story in the paper about a violent act, a crazed man, a bombed Negro home, a Buddhist monk who sets himself on fire. Because these are the things that tell us how to live.

Oswald, too, takes notes and clippings to try to piece together a coherent narrative of his life. General Walker has a stack of news clippings on his desk when the attempt on his life occurs. Nicholas Branch, a retired CIA senior analyst whose job in retirement is to write a secret history of the Kennedy assassination is engaged in the same effort, only on a larger, more organized scale:

Branch is stuck all right. He has abandoned his life to understanding that moment in Dallas, the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century. He has his forensic pathology rundown, his neutron activation analysis. There is also the Warren Report, of course, with its twenty-six accompanying volumes of testimony and exhibits, its millions of words. Branch thinks this is the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.

Even when the characters are not intentionally arranging facts to create a coherent picture, their actions advance this central theme in the book. DeLillo takes the time to describe Oswald’s struggles with dyslexia:

Always the pain, the chaos of composition. He could not find order in the field of little symbols. They were in the hazy distance. He could not clearly see the picture that is called a word. A word is also a picture of a word. He saw spaces, incomplete features, and tried to guess at the rest.

He made wild tries at phonetic spelling. But the language tricked him with its inconsistencies. He watched sentences deteriorate, powerless to make them right. The nature of things was to be elusive. Things lipped through his perceptions. He could not get a grip on the runaway world.

Truth, like words, is elusive. The characters are as often playing a role they have devised as being authentic. It can for even them to keep track:

“It goes round and round.”
“You seem to pretend.”
“But I’m not pretending.”
“But you are pretending.”

You get the sense that even the key players have lost track of what is real and what is not. There are facts. Oswald went to Russia. Kennedy tried to overthrow the Castro government. Oswald shot Kennedy. Jack Ruby shot Oswald. But these are little more than Beryl’s clippings. The choice of a narrative to tie the facts together, DeLillo seems to be saying, is almost necessarily arbitrary.

DeLillo’s narrative is, perhaps, as good as any. He provides intrigue and plotting, compelling characters, more than enough villains, and action. The truth, the indisputable truth, is unattainable.Libra2 He offers us one story, out of many possible stories, that allows us to package these events in a way that makes sense, that ties up loose ends, that frees us to move forward.

I have focused on one aspect of the book, though I think it is the primary theme of the book. Oswald is an interesting character. DeLillo probably wrings more out of him than was truly there. But there, again, is the beauty of the book. DeLillo has unabashedly offered a richer version of events than actually took place. His characters are more complete, make more sense, than they did in real life.

Finally, I can see the influence of this book has had. Of the books I have recently reviewed here, Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten both seem to explore themes raised here. Ball and DeLillo both seem interested in questions about the meaning of truth, the construction of alternate narratives, the role of lying, and conspiracies. Mitchell shares with DeLillo an interest in coincidence, fate, and moments in time that alter, or determine, an individual’s future. I also have to think that DeLillo’s radio personality Weird Beard played some role in the inspiration for Mitchell’s Bat Segundo.

While on the surface this book is an alternate-history spy thriller, DeLillo aims are ambitious. I suspect my appreciation for this book will likely grow over time. There is more depth than I can get to in this review. And, yet, the book is easily accessible. It is a spy thriller, even if you think you know the ending.

[I have made several grammatical edits since the original posting about one hour ago.]

The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

July 15, 2009

Cynthia Ozick, like Bellow, is a new author for me. Thanks to the push of Kevin at KevinFromCanada and John Self at The Asylum, I picked up Ozick’s THE SHAWL. Consisting of a story and a novella, THE SHAWL takes on large subjects. Three characters are central to both the story and the novella: A mother, Rosa, her niece, Stella, and her daughter, Magda. The shawl of the title figures prominently in both the story and the novella.

TheShawlIn the story, “The Shawl”, Rosa is in her early twenties, Stella is fourteen, and Magda is a baby. They are in a concentration camp. The story is only eight pages long, but dense with emotion. If it were much longer, I think the reader might become numb. As it is, it is near perfect, if a story about something so horrifying can be said to be perfect. The story is much anthologized, including in “The Best American Short Stories of the Century” (which is a great collection of short stories if you are at all hesitant about investing solely in Ozick). For fear of spoiling it, my only further comment is that it is well worth the effort to find and read it.

In the novella, “Rosa”, Rosa is an old woman living alone in Florida in a broken down “hotel” (the quotes are hers). Her social life consists primarily of writing letters to Stella (in English) and to Magda (in Polish). Her connections to the broader world are tenuous at best.

Her routine of solitude is broken one day when she takes her filthy sheets and clothes to the laundromat. There she meets Simon Persky, an old Jew who also happens to be from Warsaw. He left in 1920. Through Rosa’s interaction with Persky and another old man she meets who did not experience the Holocaust, Ozick explores the attitudes of “survivors”, a term Rosa finds dehumanizing, toward fellow Jews who were not there.

Persky, whether through lust, romanticism, benevolence, or boredom, spends the novella trying to entice Rosa to go on a date with him. He is an interesting character, though he remained something of a mystery to me. Perhaps, I have too little familiarity with elderly ex-New Yorkers living in Florida. I could not decide whether he was benevolent, benign, or threatening. Certainly he is threatening to Rosa’s cocooned existence. There are hints of the sinister or pathetic, but no damning evidence.

The true focus is Rosa. The letters constitute a large portion of the sixty page novella. After one letter, she muses on the writing process:

“What a curiosity it was to hold a pen – nothing but a small pointed stick, after all, oozing its hieroglyphic puddles: a pen that speaks, miraculously, Polish. A lock removed from the tongue. Otherwise the tongue is chained to the teeth and the palate. An immersion into the living language: all at once this cleanliness, this capacity, this power to make a history, to tell, to explain. To retrieve, to reprieve!

“To lie.”

Rosa does lie. She lives mostly in the past, unable to escape the horrors of the Holocaust. And, to the extent she does get away, her mind goes mostly to pre-war Warsaw. She oft reminds Persky and herself that “[her] Warsaw isn’t [his] Warsaw.” In the Warsaw she remembers, her father and mother were somebody. They were not ordinary Jews, but true Poles. Her mother wanted to convert to Catholicism, people bowed to her. Her father was important.

Rosa carries horrible memories of the Holocaust, certainly, but part of what she laments is her loss of status. Due to the evils perpetrated by the Nazis, she went from somebody to nobody. First her family was stripped of its privilege, then they all were stripped of their humanity. Rosa feels she has never been able to regain, in the eyes of the world, her humanity.

This theme is repeated throughout the novella, as with her indignation at being labeled “refugee” or “survivor”. Barbed wire she encounters in America is likewise a reminder that she is less than, that others, even other Jews, consider her to be “riff raff” to be kept separate and apart. But her characterizations are not the only possible ones, as Persky reminds her.

Her tragedy, in the novella, is that she believes she cannot retrieve her past status as a full, complete human being. Who can argue? So she retreats to an alternate present, where she yearns for the past. She is a sympathetic character, but a frustrating one as well. I wanted her, as Persky urges, to forget a little, even though I know this probably asks too much. I want her to have her reprieve.

Ghost Dance by Carole Maso

July 8, 2009

As can be deduced from the name of this blog, Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers. I have enjoyed Jeannette Winterson whose style is similar to Woolf’s. To that list, I have added Carole Maso. Her audience is not as wide as it should be given her talent. Of course, stream of consciousness has never been particularly easy to read and this is how Maso writes, at least in GHOST DANCE.

GhostDanceMaso uses a recurring image, that of a Topaz Bird, throughout the novel. The Topaz Bird is an elusive creature signifying creativity, I think, and madness. Carole Maso weaves a beautifully written tale of grief, loss, and redemption too. Ghost Dance is about ideas and emotions rather than plot, though things do happen. Longing, loss, and the grief that comes from irremediable loss are, I think, the main themes of the book.

The longing in the book is the longing for both familial and romantic love. It is the sort of longing whose intensity is often inversely proportional to the intensity of feeling that is reciprocated. Or, if the love is reciprocated, at least in some sense, the longing is for outward, meaningful demonstrations of that love.

A mother sits on the heart of this novel. The weight of her beauty and absence oppresses everything and everyone. Her essence, like the Topaz Bird that is, it seems, her soul, is a beautiful and free creature that cannot be caught or caged. Those that love her are, therefore, doomed to a certain passivity in watching and waiting for her. Like a bird, she stays but a moment and then is gone.

Sometimes I think I have heard the fluttering of wings. Sometimes I think I have seen something: a tip of a tail, a piece of beak, a leg, one thin leg of that incredible bird. Sometimes I see the bare branch of a tree swaying in slow motion in my sleep and I know what that means. I try to get myself past the tree to see what’s beyond it — the field that opens like a great hand, the wide breath of sky. I search for a trace of the Topaz Bird. Only moments before it was perched on that bobbing branch. I am getting closer. I follow the horizon line of my dreams. I watch.

Carole Maso’s poetic prose conveys the orbit of various family members and lovers around the mother. The story circles around, approaching the central truth and flitting away again. Certain sections are repeated several times through the book, sometimes verbatim, sometimes nearly so. In this way, Ms. Maso returns and emphasizes certain themes, including the rhythms of love, longing, and grief.

Absent mothers do, I think, create a craving in their children that cannot be satisfied. The same may be true to mismatched lovers. This aspect, the much-loved but oft-absent (both physically and emotionally) mother/lover, is portrayed beautifully, with a truth that is gripping. This book, because of its emotional power, will not be one that is easy to forget. It is, I think, worthy of remembering for its artistry as well as for the technical achievement Ms. Maso manages.

This review is largely stolen from my own review of the same work. But I wanted to republish it here because this is a book worthy of a wider audience or, at least, of not being forgotten.

[Updated July 25 with edits that were erroneously omitted from the initial posting.]