Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

There are moments in this book that Poehler infuses with such reflection, honesty, and humor that it is impossible not to love it. Descriptions of family and friends, of her early life in comedy are some of the best. It is clear that she is a comedienne through and through--everything in her life, including the pain of losing a childhood friend's mother to cancer, is seen through the filter of her humanity and comic genius. In some places these reflections fall flat.

It felt to me that she isn't fully comfortable in the spotlight. Her descriptions of the set of Parks and Recreation seem to be included simply to meet the expectation that they will be. It's such a cursory treatment, that I wished she had omitted it entirely. The chapter in which is discusses her resentment of those trying to take what she views as shortcuts to enter "the business" felt forced and preachy. It was ungracious to jump on someone who dropped a screenplay on her lap on a commute (it is beyond obvious that this person was rude and disrespectful). I didn't need her to tell me that she worked hard to achieve her level of success--she showed that beautifully in other places in the book. This treatment simply made her seem out of touch with those who haven't made it.

The only thing about the book that I found unforgivable, however, was her seeming distaste for the task. She calls herself on it in the preface. But that honest reflection did not warm me to the moments she felt the need to point out that "writing a book is hard" or is "no fun." Again, this is something I already know, and perhaps I'm a reading snob, but I believe writing is like figure skating: those who do it best make it look easy. Every time she mentioned this, it pulled me up short and diminished the fun I was having reading the work.

The book was disorganized and jumpy, almost to the point that I wanted to pull out my red pencil. After a little while though, I realized that quality added to the fact that the book is a great representation of the human who wrote it: silly, scattered, energetic, and flawed. While there are parts that are dull, forced, or cringe-worthy, it is clear that Poehler's approach to life requires that she include them. Like any good improv actor, she can leave nothing on the table.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

"I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in tat cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me? 

It's funny, but thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did. But of course I didn't see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do."

The Secret History was suggested to me - it was described as having all the things I loved about The Goldfinch and was perhaps a better read as well. It has, unfortunately, been a little too long since I've read it to do a proper review, but it's too good of a book to not mention it at all. 

It does have some things in common with The Goldfinch: male narrator, flashback frame story, the idea of the point in which a life is divided into Before and After, a cast of characters who are easy to love. It is, however, more sinister and not necessarily because of the content. It opens with:

"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation...We hadn't intended to hide the body where it couldn't be found" 

and continues in Tartt's signature fetchingly lovely prose: 

"Walking through it all was one thing; walking away, unfortunately, has proved to be quite another, and though once I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure."

It is not this act that makes the novel more sinister but the way people are not who they are supposed to be and all the consequences - intended or not - of that. 

Richard is a poor California boy at a rich East coast college. He had studied Greek before transferring, but is denied entrance into the Greek class by the professor, Julian, who cannot possibly take more than five students. Richard becomes enchanted by the group of students - who take almost all their classes with Julian. 

 "the more I heard about [Julian], the more interested I became, and I began to watch for him and his little group of pupils around campus. Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though, they were an arresting party - at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities."

After helping the group with a difficult translation and buying a nice used suit, he is granted admission into Julian's class which is intoxicating. He goes from being a poor nobody to part of an elite group of pretentious snobs who approve of him. It's like Mean Girls for booknerds. I totally related to Richard and wanted simultaneously to be one of Julian's students and/or to be the kind of teacher Julian is:

"[Julian] refused to see anything about any of us except our most engaging qualities, which he cultivated and magnified to the exclusion of all our tedious and less desirable ones...the magnificent roles he had invented for us: genis gratus, corpore glabellus, arte multiscius, et fortuna opulentus - smooth-cheeked, soft-skinned, well-educated, and rich." 

Donna Tartt is truly a masterful storyteller. She opens with the dead body, very quickly tells the whole story of whodunit, and then jumps into a suspense novel that I couldn't put down. Based on the strength of this and The Goldfinch, I think I will devour any future novels by Ms. Tartt. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney

Venturing closer,
his talon was raised to attack Beowulf
where he lay on the bed; he was bearing in
with open claw when the alert hero's
comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly.
The captain of evil discovered himself
in a handgrip harder than anything
he had ever encountered in any men
on the face of the earth.  Every bone in his body
quailed and recoiled, but he could not descape.
He was desperate to flee to his den and hide
with the devil's litter, for in all his days
he had never been clamped or cornered like that.

Beowulf is the original badass.  His name means BEE WOLF, for Pete's sake.  The Old English epic poem is about three of Beowulf's most badass accomplishments: first, he travels from his homeland among the Geats to save the Danes from the monster Grendel who is devouring them at night (out of jealousy for how sweet the king's hall is, no less).  Then, when Grendel's mother attacks the Danes for revenge over her son's death (you may remember her as Angelina Jolie) he goes underwater and kills her, too.  Then, after returning to Geatland and reigning for fifty years, he defeats a gold-hording dragon, though he dies in the process.

The dragon bit should sound familiar; Tolkien--who famously brought critical attention back to Beowulf--clearly modeled The Hobbit's Smaug after it.  Much of modern fantasy fiction, in a way, with its uncomplicated heroism and reliance of British mythological themes, is basically cribbed from Beowulf.

Heaney's translation, which seems to have become fairly canonical, is a great accomplishment.  Heaney's poetry, which has always been very workmanlike and straightforward, is a good match for the earthy tone and subject matter of Beowulf, and strips the poem of its English 101 associations.  In his foreword, Heaney talks about his decisions to adapt some of the language of his working-class Irish background into his translation, which he traces back to the recognition of the Old English root tholian in the Irish slang thole, to suffer.  In this way Heaney's work adds merely another layer to a complex stack of temporal and geographical influences: Beowulf is a poem written in England about Denmark and Sweden and given an Irish inflection by Heaney.  The subtle conflict between the author's Christianity and his subject's paganism, too, testifies to Beowulf as the unique product of different cultures.  But it also emphasizes the universality, and the plain adventurous fun, of the story.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning...No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky...and the black sign painted in the white letters that hangs upon the gates, the one that reads Opens at Nightfall, Closes at Dawn...

When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears...Le Cirque des Reves. Some in the crowd smile knowingly, while others frown and look questioningly at their neighbors. A child near you tugs on her mother's sleeve, begging to know what it says. "The Circus of Dreams," comes the reply.

The Night Circus has been the highlight of all my popular fiction reads this summer. It begins and is interspersed with these second person chapters helping you navigate the physical space of the actual circus which is unlike anything you've ever seen. 

As a small child, Celia is delivered to her father Hector (stage magician name: Prospero). She, like him, has the ability to manipulate objects. When he determines that she is ready, he invites a mysterious gentleman to visit them. 

"I was hoping you might be up for a game. It has been far too long since we've played. Though first, you must meet my new project." 
"You would wager your own child?"
"She won't lose," Hector says. "I suggest you find a student you can tolerate parting with, if you do not already have one to spare."

A ring is burned onto her hand, and thus Celia is bound into the rules of a game she is far too young to understand. The mysterious gentleman finds a student of his own, Marco, who is also entered into the game. 

The books shifts perspectives and time, so you know I love it. The Night Circus, created by Chandresh, is the stage for the contest, although the rules are not articulated and not all the characters involved realize what is going on. With the exception of Hector, Marco, Celia, and the gentleman, and a few minor characters, the vast majority of the novel exists in the real world - this isn't Harry Potter.

I devoured this novel over the course of maybe 36 hours. The physical space of the Circus is addicting. In fact, it has its own groupies called the Reveurs (dreamers) who follow the circus, wearing black and white and a touch of red (acknowledging that they are apart from the circus - not a part of the black/white spectacle). I wanted to wear black and white and red for days to try to make the magic of the novel last longer. 

Fortunately, Summit Entertainment has optioned both the movie and TV rights, and I look forward to devouring those as well. I will most certainly be dressed as a Reveur. 

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

She began to feel the pressure of Hoover Dam, there on the desert, began to feel the pressure and pull of the water.  When the pressure got great enough she drove out there.  All that day she felt the power surging through her own body.  All day she was faint with vertigo, sunk in a world where great power grids converged, throbbing lines plunged finally into the shallow canyon below the dam's face, elevators like coffins dropped into the bowels of the earth itself.  With a guide and a handful of children Maria walked through the chambers, stared at the turbines in the vast glittering valley, at the deep still water with the hidden intakes sucking all the while, even as she watched; clung to the railings, leaned out, stood finally on a platform over the pipe that carried the river beneath the dam.  The platform quivered.  Her ears roared.  She wanted to stay in the dam, lie on the great pipe itself, but reticence saved her from asking.

Maria (Ma-RYE-a) Wyeth is a starlet, the kind who never really drops the diminutive to become a "star."  (Kind of like Tuesday Weld, who plays Maria in the film version of Play It as It Lays?)  In a brief first-person narrative that opens the book, she gives us her life story: growing up in tiny Silver Wells, Nevada, a town that doesn't exist anymore, moving to New York where she becomes involved with a manipulative abuser named Ivan, coming to Los Angeles and marrying the producer Carter Lang, who puts her in a couple small pictures, having a daughter, Kate, who is confined to a mental institution.  But most of the book occurs in the third person, as a disembodied observer watching Maria tumble slowly into a nervous breakdown.

The most obvious comparison point for Play It as It Lays is The Bell Jar: both are about young women undergoing protracted mental episodes.  Both Maria and Esther Greenwood cling around the lower rungs of a industry dominated by male figures.  Play It as It Lays is populated with cruel men: the psychopathic Ivan, the dismissive Carter, a womanizing Russian mobster named Larry Kulik.  None of these men understand Maria, nor do they care to; Maria's instability and suffering threaten the kind of freewheeling party atmosphere they laboriously occupy.

But the other comparison point is Nathanael West's L.A. phantasmagoria The Day of the Locust, another book that paints Hollywood as a moral black hole.  Los Angeles may not be to blame for Maria's breakdown, but it is somehow the perfect backdrop for it: shallow, superficial, misogynistic, destructively hedonistic.  Much of the novel is taken up by Maria driving around Greater Los Angeles with no clear destination or purpose, which is most of what I imagine happens on L.A. freeways:

In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry, burning, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of firebreaks on distant mountains.  Not even the highest palms moved.  The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective, seemed to alter all perception of depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity.  Taco Bells jumped out at her.  Oil rockers creaked ominously.  For miles before she reached the Thriftimart she could see the big red T, a forty-foot  cutout letter which seemed peculiarly illuminated against the harsh unclouded light of the afternoon sky.

I'm putting that one in my great-sentence scrapbook: "Taco Bells jumped out at her."

The book ends by forcing a moral choice upon Maria (spoiler alert): she does nothing while her friend, BZ, commits suicide by overdose.  This single act redefines the entire novel.  It is the only moment in which Carter and her friends take her mental breakdown seriously, since as we know from the first-person chapter, it's what finally drives her into a mental institution.  But it also repurposes Maria's persistent lack of agency.  BZ asks her to do nothing, and though she is drugged out, her compliance with his wishes transform her lack of agency into a positive moral choice which honors her friend's distress in a way that the other characters in the novel refuse to recognize Maria's.  Is it an act of kindness?  Or, as BZ's wife believes, an act of deep selfishness?

Maria tells us at the novel's beginning that such questions have no value:

What makes Iago evil? some people ask.  I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes.  Why should Shalimar attract kraits.  Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none.  Where is the Darwinian logic there.  You might ask that.  I never would not any more.  I recall an incident reported not too long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket.  Why?  Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory "answer" to such questions.

Just so.  I am what I am.  To look for "reasons" is beside the point.
But doesn't this attitude let all the monsters of the novel--Ivan, Carter, Larry Kulik--off the hook?  Is it merely the only way that Maria can cope with the world in which she finds itself, to embrace its cynical amorality in order to keep "playing it as it lays?"  And is it Los Angeles' problem, or all of ours?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark

Tuesday afternoon.  Curran had spent the morning with his Italian lawyer who had been summoned overnight from Milan, and even with this old acquaintance Curran had seen the poison of Robert's missive working.  The man was plainly uncertain how much Curran had to hide.  If there were indeed two halves of a man's body in the garden of the Pensione Sofia, the lawyer pointed out, and should they be exhumed, it might be easy for Curran to deny knowledge of them, but certainly he would be involved in a scandal such as the newspapers of Europe would rejoice in for weeks on end.  Yes, said the lawyer, it was true, he was sure, that Curran had not murdered Pancev (imagine it!) but there was no doubt he had known Pancev well... Then, the question of drugs.  Boys and drugs.  Yes, the young man Leaver would eventually, of course, go to prison for calumny; that was, if he could be found, and if he could be proved to have written these accusations voluntarily.  But the publicity would be enormous.  On the other hand, if there were not two halves of a body...

'I'm afraid there are,' said Curran.

Robert Leaver is on a trip to Venice with his friend and, it is presumed, lover, the wealthy art dealer Curran, when he runs into his own father, who has skipped to Venice from their native England with his mistress.  Robert, disgusted, disappears, leaving behind both Curran and his girlfriend, the Bulgarian emigre Lina Pancev.  Soon, a series of incriminating letters find their way to Curran and others threatening to reveal Curran's involvement in the death of Lina's father, who--for reasons that are never clear--was cut in half and buried in the garden of the hotel Pensione Sofia decades ago.  Meanwhile, Robert's mother contracts a private investigation firm in England to find out what her husband and son are up to, but mostly sits at home reading trashy novels.

The cloak-and-dagger stuff is very much part of Spark's oeuvre, but here it is mostly toothless.  The death of Pancev is a red herring, a plot contrivance to keep Curran on edge and give the mysteriously omniscient Robert the air of a puppet-master, working from behind the curtain.  It does result in one memorable scene when Robert's letters persuade Lina, not knowing her father is buried beneath, to dance on the twin rose gardens of the back garden of the Pension Sofia.  But otherwise Robert's hijinks remain hijinks, scare tactics for the sake of scaring.  No money is moved; the only revelations occur to the reader, and they are slight ones at that.  In many ways Territorial Rights is a parody of a dime-store thriller novel, the kind old Mrs. Leaver reads because she is necessarily absent from the adventures of her husband and son.

Ultimately, this was one of the least compelling of Spark's novels.  The cast is too large, bogged down by characters both indistinct and unamusing.  Like her other works, the disparate parts barely seem to hang together, despite the novel's brevity, but unlike them, I don't really care to think about the ways they might be made to cohere thematically.  Venice as a setting is never vividly described or purposefully employed except as a blank space occupied by the moneyed classes, and might just have well been Ibiza or Stockholm or some other place.  Territorial Rights produces a few good moments--one is when Lina, having discovered that she has slept with a Jew, jumps despairingly into the canal--but that's about it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Solid Mandala by Patrick White

In the first corner, as a prelude to all that he had to reveal, he danced the dance of himself.  Half clumsy, half electric.  He danced the gods dying on a field of crimson velvet, against the discords of human voices.  Even in the absence of gods, his life, or dance, was always prayerful.  Even though he hadn't been taught, like the grocer, to go down on his knees and stick his hands together.  Instead, offering his prayer to what he knew from light or silences.  He danced the sleep of people in a wooden house, groaning under the pressure of sleep, their secrets locked prudently up, safe, until their spoken thoughts, or farts, gave them away.  He danced the moon, anaesthetized by bottled cestrum.  He danced the disc of the orange sun above icebergs, which was in a sense his beginning, and should perhaps be his end.

The Solid Mandala begins by introducing its pair of protagonist twins, Arthur and Waldo Brown, when they are very old, and walking along the streets of their Sydney suburb hand in hand.  Those who see them from the bus think they are odd, and so they are:

Then Mrs Dun did resentfully noticed the two old men, stumping, trudging, you couldn't have said tottering -- or if so, it was only caused by their age and infirmities -- along what passed for pavement between Barranguli and Sarsparilla.  The strange part was the old gentlemen rose up, if only momentarily, blotting out the suburban landscape, filling the box of Mrs Dun's shuddering mind.  She was still shocked, of course, by Mrs Poulter's thoughtless alarm.  It could have been that.  But she almost smelled those old men.  The one in the stiff oilskin, the other in yellowed herringbone, in each case almost to the ankle.  And as they trudged, or tottered, they were holding each other by the hand.  It was difficult to decide which was leading and which was led.  But one was the leader, she could sense.  She sensed the scabs, the cracks which wet towels had opened in their old men's skin.

Ew!  White has a knack for turning the human body into a kind of gross poetry.  From there, the narrative bifurcates: one section detailing Waldo's life, followed by one detailing Arthur's, which pretty much covers the same narrative ground from another vantage point.  The brothers depend on each other all their lives, though they are very different: Waldo is insecure, a failed intellectual, who resents the burden he perceives his brother to be.  Arthur is unable to grasp the politics of the social world, but filled with a wisdom and a kind of mystical love.  When Waldo is working at a library, he discovers his brother in the reading room, perceived by others to be a kind of lurking creep, and so he shoos him away, but it is Arthur, we find out, who is reading and pondering the episode of the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky.  For all of Waldo's pretensions--he jealously guards the book he has been writing for seventy years--it is Arthur who has a kind of true understanding.

Arthur keeps a set of four marbles in his pocket.  He thinks of them as mandalas, the Buddhist symbol which represents the universe:

It was himself who was, and would remain, the keeper of mandalas, who must guess their final secret through touch and light.  As he went out of the room his lips were half-open to release an interpretation he had not yet succeeded in perfecting.  His body might topple, but only his bod,y as he submitted the marble in his pocket to his frenzy of discovery.

Arthur gives one of these to each person in the book he loves, including one to Waldo. They are a recognition that each person is a universe unto themselves, patterned the same way as existence itself and therefore harmonious with it.  Waldo, of course, cannot understand this.  Just as Mrs Dun cannot tell who is leading whom, but knows that one brother leads the other, so Waldo is unable to submit to his brother's wisdom because he remains convinced that he is doing the leading.

Arthur is a familiar kind of trope: a holy fool, a Shakespearean "natural," so called because they were perceived to be closer to the nature of things and uncorrupted by the pretensions of society.  But White is really good at this kind of mysticism, partly because of the intense obscurity of his style.  Though I liked the "Waldo" section--a long and detailed account of a very failed man--it was the shorter "Arthur" section that really made The Solid Mandala work for me.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Yeah, maybe I'm queer.  But why would people get so upset about something that feels so good?  Me being queer can't hurt anyone, so why should it be such a terrible thing?  Makes no sense.

I initially didn't really care for Rubyfruit Jungle, but that was partly because of my own ignorance and close-mindedness.  I still don't think it's the best written book I've ever read, but since I've learned some more about the author, I appreciate more what she was trying to do here.

Rubyfruit Jungle is a quasi-autobiographical account of a queer woman growing up in the 60s.  Molly is born and lives in rural Pennsylvania and is raised by relatives who adopt her when her mother can't take care of her.  When she's older, they move to Florida, where she excels in school and gets a full scholarship to the University of Florida.  Molly wants to be a filmmaker, but she gets expelled from school when her relationship with her roommate is discovered.  Her family subsequently rejects her and she moves to New York, where she is sometimes homeless, sometimes works, and attends and eventually gets a degree in film making from NYU.

One of the things that bugged me was that a lot of Molly's political statements (and the way Brown described them) were very obvious and straightforward, at least as far as I was concerned.  Like the quoted passage above, I often wrote "a little on the nose" when she described how her refusal to conform to gender norms made her male cousin uncomfortable or when she insisted that she could be a doctor when she grew up even though she was a woman.  Recently I've had less and less patience for homophobia and garden variety 50s-60s misogyny, and it just bores me, so the arguments against them somewhat bore me.  Of course women can be doctors!  No, Leroy, Molly riding a motorcycle, too, shouldn't have any effect on your precious, fragile masculinity!  I had assumed that this book was written rather recently, but after I finished I realized it came out in 1973, when these ideas must have been much more revolutionary.  This realization made me kick myself, because the whole point of reading books written by non-straight, cis, white men is to open my mind and try to get a better understanding of experiences with which I'm not familiar, not just judge a book based on my own perspective, progressive though that may be.  And for that, Rita Mae Brown, I apologize.

Another way I changed my mind about Rubyfruit Jungle was the plot.  The secondary characters are barely developed (the somewhat redemptive conclusion to her relationship with her adopted mother felt surprising and unearned) and the character of Molly hardly changes from the beginning to the end: she is brash and uncompromising throughout.  At one point she tells her cousin, "I don't care whether they like me or not.  Everybody's stupid, that's what I think.  I care if I like me, that's what I truly care about."  However, in context I think that is important.  From the beginning to the end, she knew she was queer, she knew there was nothing wrong with it, and she didn't care what anyone else thought.  It would have been wrong for her to change.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

We got onto an eighty-eight bus.  Mars provoked a flood of remarks from the conductor.  We sat in the front seat on top, the seat in which I had sat not so very long ago thinking about Anna until I had to get off the bus and go looking for her.  And as I looked down now on the crowds in Oxford Street and stroked Mars's head I felt neither happy nor sad, only rather unreal, like a man shut in a glass.  Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute.  All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, life itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing.  Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future.  So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

Iris Murdoch's excellent Under the Net is literally a shaggy-dog story: a key element of the plot is the kidnapping of the Marvellous Mister Mars, who stars in movies.  The narrator, Jake, nabs Mars from a shady bookie who has designs on Jake's translation of a French novel, which he wants to turn into a film.  It isn't really quite clear what Jake wants to do with Mars, but the goals of the characters in Under the Net are never really clear, much like real people, and there's never a sense in which the adventures are headed toward a definite and sensible climax.  Under the Net is really a kind of picaresque, enjoyable because it zooms from one improbable scene to another: a mysterious mime production, a Communist riot on the set of a film designed to look like ancient Rome, an apartment overrun by pigeons.

But the fun of Under the Net belies the seriousness of its subject matter.  The "net" of the title refers to language, which Jake describes as something we are constantly trapped under, and which refuses to release us.  Murdoch was a devout follower of Wittgenstein, the 20th century philosopher who wrote and thought the most about language.  In Under the Net, Wittgenstein's ideas appear under an unsuccessful novel written by Jake called The Silencer, a kind of Platonic dialogue adapted from conversations Jake once had with a friend named Hugo, who was his roommate during a cold medicine study.  Jake is so impressed with Hugo's ideas that he turns them into The Silencer, but seeing them transformed by his own language, he's so embarrassed by them that he can't face Hugo again.  (What Jake learns is what Nietszche said: you can only find words for what's already dead in your heart.)

What drives the action of Under the Net is Jake's discover that Hugo has fallen in love with, and been harrassing, an actress friend of his named Sadie.  Jake is in love with Sadie's sister, Anna, but Anna--we find out later--is in love with Hugo.  Sadie, in turn, is in love with Jake.  Somehow this love square results in the theft of Mr. Mars, and Jake helping Hugo escape a hospital, and all sorts of other ridiculous stuff.  But despite being very high in hijinks, Under the Net proves to be one of the more thoughtful and intellectually interesting books I've read this year.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick

I am the last living person who knew Bishop Timothy Archer of the Diocese of California, his mistress, his son my husband the homeowner and wage earner pro forma.  Somebody should -- well, it would be nice if no one went the way they collectively went, volunteering to die, each of them, like Parsifal, a perfect fool.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is called the third book in Dick's VALIS trilogy, though it is as unrelated to the first two novels, VALIS and The Divine Invasion as they are to each other.  What they have in common, rather, is their religious themes, which are overt but never dogmatic--in fact, as heterodox as any book ostensibly about Christianity could be.

The novel is narrated by Angel Archer, the daughter-in-law of Timothy Archer, the Archbishop of the Diocese of California, who, in the novel, has been famous as a crusader for civil rights in the 1960's.  At the novel's beginning, Angel tells us that the three main figures in her life have all died at their own hands: first, her husband and Tim's son, Jeff, who had fallen in love with Archer's mistress Kirsten; then Kirsten; then Archer himself, who died trekking through the Israeli desert with only a couple bottles of soda to sustain him.  Archer dies seeking the truth about a mysterious sect called the Zadokites, whose mysterious tracts suggest that Jesus was not a person but a mushroom which figured in their religious rituals.

Two things stand out about Transmigration, which make it possibly Dick's best book.  The first is the surprising self-awareness it exhibits about the blurred lines between religious belief and religious mania.  VALIS presents a pretty bonkers system of religious thought involving aliens, beams of pink light, and the secretly continued existence of the Roman Empire which, by all accounts, Dick really believed, at least in part.  Yet one of the questions that Transmigration begs us to approach is whether Archer's beliefs are merely delusions.  Archer skips from one belief system to another--from orthodox Christianity, to a quasi-mysticism which allows him to believe that his dead son is communicating to him from beyond the grave, to the mushroom-ritualism of the Zadokites.  Archer is always an admirable figure, courageous and kind; how to we balance that against the fact that he dies in pursuit of the last of these religious ideas?  When do our ideas become dangerous, and how can we tell?

That this trying out of every possible idea to see if it would fit finally destroyed Tim Archer can't be disputed.  He tried out too many ideas, picked them up, examined them, used them for a while and then discarded them... some of the ideas, however, as if possessing a life of their own, came back around the far side of the barn and got him.  That is history; this is an historical fact.  Tim is dead.  The ideas did not work.  They got him off the ground and then betrayed him and attacked him; they dumped him, in a sense, before he could dump them.  One thing, however, could not be obscured: Tim Archer could tell when he was locked in a life-and-death struggle and, upon perceiving this, he assumed the posture of grim defense.  He did not--just as he had said to me the day Kirsten died--surrender.  Fate, to get Tim Archer, would have to run him through...

The second thing that stands out is the strength of the novel's characters, specifically Archer and Angel.  Though Dick is one of my favorite authors, his character-writing has never struck me as strong.  (Who was the main character in Ubik again?)  But Timothy Archer--wise and foolish, compassionate and desperate, principled and gullible--is both memorable and complex.  Angel, who finds herself abandoned by everyone she has loved and left to make sense of what killed them, gives the novel a sense of palpable necessity.  Transmigration was published shortly after Dick's own death in 1982, and it's hard not to read Angel's fear and awe of the forces which come "around the far side of the barn" to get her father-in-law as a relic of Dick's own late crises.  Dick's novels are always intellectually fascinating, but The Transmigration of Timothy Archer stands alone among his works because of the depth of its emotional impact.