Monday, August 30, 2010

The Soul of Science by Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton

The most curious aspect of the scientific world we live in, says science writer Loren Eiseley, is that it exists at all.

With this introduction begins The Soul of Science, a book that defies the common belief that faith and science are polar opposites. Beginning with an identification of the philosophical schools of thought that drove scientific inquiry and then moving through the fields of mathematics, classical and quantum physics, and finally biology, Pearcey and Thaxton discuss the history and context of scientific theory from Aristotle to the present day.

Despite the fact that it took me four months to read, I would like to defend the book by stating that it was my own laziness that prevented me from finishing it, rather like my experience with Crime & Punishment. It is fairly readable, although I suspect that some grounding in its topics is useful, and that should not be a hindrance in picking up what is a rather heavy subject.

My appreciation for the book is two-fold. First, I never really struggled to grasp concepts and formulas in school, but I was always left wanting because I wanted to know why these things are as they are. Why does an equation for acceleration work, and for that matter, how did they even come up with it in the first place? I think I would have enjoyed and applied myself to physics a lot more if I had an understanding of the process used to arrive at the rote formulas that were engraved into my brain. The Soul of Science roots formulas and discoveries in the philosophical traditions of the discoverers, shedding light on the hows and whys that I always wanted to know but which my teachers didn't have the time or inclination to share.

Second, while Pearcey and Thaxton are absolutely defending the appropriate place of faith and the debt that science owes to theism's belief in an ordered, knowable world, they also take great care to lay out other viewpoints and the bases for them. Ultimately, they state their conclusion, but they are, I think, quite just in their treatment of others.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Harold Bloom calls it a truism to say that Emma Woodhouse outdoes Elizabeth Bennet in imagination, but that Elizabeth wins out in wit. Certainly we gain little by stating the obvious, that there is a great likeness between the two heroines, yet there's no sense of Austen repeating herself. Then again, who gives us better characters, characters who are more themselves, than Austen?

But it is inconceivable that Pride and Prejudice should be called Elizabeth, because she must concede some of her significance to Mr. Darcy. No one intrudes upon Emma in that way, nor could they; her personality is simply too large to admit anyone else. Elizabeth and Darcy are great, but together they do not quite equal Emma. I am not prepared to say that I prefer Emma to Pride and Prejudice--I guess I'm a sucker for the romance, and Emma is sort of an unromantic book--but if you were to say it for the strength of the character alone, I wouldn't argue.

(Spoiler warning from here on out...) That largeness of personality is part of Emma's problem. She fancies herself a matchmaker, but with little to show for it. She is essentially an egoist, and not as perceptive as she believes herself to be. Her attempts to set up her friend Harriet with the wealthy and gallant Mr. Elton are derailed when Emma herself turns out to be Elton's object. (And obviously so! Who would prefer Harriet?) She is constantly misinterpreting the feelings of others, and sometimes her own manipulations work against her. But she is, as her friend Mr. Knightley feels, "faultless in spite of all her faults"--her tireless search for romance for others and her own determination never to marry are indicative of a great selflessness, though a selflessness malformed by her unwillingness to second-guess herself.

Emma eventually does marry, but her match with Mr. Knightley hardly has the seductive appeal of Elizabeth and Darcy. He's something like sixteen years older than she, and nearly a confirmed bachelor who prefers to spend nights at his massive estate doing the paperwork for his farm. But when it happens, it's clear that they are a perfect pair. For one, Mr. Knightley is the only character able to show Emma when she is making a mistake--though she rarely takes his advice--because he is the only one who truly sees and understands the whole of her. But also he, like Emma, has no need to marry, nor even a strong compunction to do it, but it's because of this that we know how much he cares for her, and she him. Elizabeth loves Darcy but he also provides her with financial security; for Emma and Knightley there is no need to think of money, or land, or connections. At its simplest, Emma is the story of two friends who come to understand that their friendship is the most powerful and abiding thing in their lives and living without each other--should either one marry someone else--is beyond their imaginations. In its way, Emma is the purer love story.

One last thing I'd like to mention is that the plot of Emma is really engaging. It's hard to blame Emma for not understanding the feelings of others because we are so often surprised ourselves. I saw a few of the plot twists coming because I am overly familiar with the plot to Clueless, but others caught me off guard. Even if you had never heard of it before, you have to know that Pride and Prejudice ends up with Elizabeth and Darcy together, but Emma's destiny only seems obvious after the fact. In this way it seems more organic.

It's true that, as Jay McInerney says, Emma is "on the verge of qualifying as a rich bitch," but this is America and we love rich bitches. Pride and Prejudice is the kind of romantic story we want to believe in, but Emma is love as it really happens, and Emma herself is fantastic because she has that same realness to her, and that is what makes the novel so worthwhile.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Only Problem by Muriel Spark

Effie Gotham steals two chocolate bars from a roadside gas station on a trip to Italy and defends it as an act of protest against globalization. For her husband Harvey, this is something of a last straw, and he leaves her on the spot, hitching a ride with a passing truck driver. Later on, he retires to the French countryside around Epinal to write a book about Job.

The Book of Job presents a moral seriousness that Harvey probably found lacking in Effie. "The only problem" of the title is the problem of suffering, that is, why a loving God would allow suffering to happen. It is the only problem that matters. Job is a strange book, and Harvey explains that God comes off very badly:

'...Thunder and bluster and I'm Me, who are you? Putting on an act. Behold now Leviathan. Behold now Behemoth. Ha, ha among the trumpets. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? And Job, insincerely and wrongly, says, "I am vile."'

But Harvey is not permitted the peace he needs to finish his book. At first, he is merely subjected to a series of visitors--most of whom are eager enough to discuss Job with Harvey, so that Spark might have a mouthpiece for her own ideas--but suddenly he is mobbed by the French police, who suspect that Effie has been working with a group of domestic terrorists that may be financed by Harvey's wealth.

What are we to make of all this? Clearly we are expected to ask to what extent Harvey himself inhabits the role of Job, which he first forswears but later seems to take upon himself. Certainly the policemen who interrogate him are like Job's comforters, who insist that Job must be at fault for his suffering, but as Harvey's lawyer notes, he doesn't suffer much. Certainly he doesn't suffer like the family of the policeman who is killed by Effie's terrorist cell, and even less does he suffer like Job. But perhaps this is a question with no meaningful answer. After all, Job epitomizes suffering, and there is no story to match his. Either we are all Job because it is the human lot to suffer, and Harvey too, or none of us are because Job's suffering transcends all others.

In his biography of Spark, Martin Stannard tells us that this inscrutable book really is about inscrutability. Spark's own opinion was that our need to understand God's motivation is a fallacy because God cannot be anthropomorphized; he is not a man. As Effie is the cause of Harvey's suffering she is a God-figure, and it is telling when Harvey admits that, in spite of all, he still loves her, though he can never understand her. Perhaps his love is even inextricable from his suffering at her hands.

Spark, as she always does, treats all of this as a brusque farce, and The Book of Job sits at the middle of it, its tragedy starker still by comparison, weighing the story down like a stone. Our own suffering is indicted too, and we are made to be slightly embarrassed when we realize how much more like Harvey we are than Job. It is like Spark to find the notes of farce that tragedy leaves in its wake, and one of her favorite details to repeat here is that after his ordeal Job named one of his new daughters Keren-happuch, meaning "Box of Eye-Paint."

Job was a life-long obsession for Spark, who had written a response to Jung's analysis of it, and most of the ideas about Job expressed here are taken wholesale from that response. There is an added element, a painting by Georges de la Tour called Job visite par sa femme that is what draws Harvey to Epinal:

Job's wife, tall, sweet-faced, with the intimation of a beautiful body inside the large tent-like case of her firm clothes, bending, long-necked, solicitous over Job. In her hand is a lighted candle. It is night, it is winter. Job's wife wears a glorious red tunic over her dress. Job sits on a plain cube-shaped block. He might be in front of a fire, for the light of the candle alone cannot explain the amount of light that is cast on the two figures. Job is naked except for a loin-cloth. He clasps his hands above his knees. His body seems to shrink, but it is the shrunkenness of pathos rather than want. Beside him is the piece of pottery that he has taken to scrape his wounds. His beard is thick. He is not an old man. Both are in their early prime, a couple in their thirties. (Indeed, their recently-dead children were not yet married.) His face looks up at this wife, sensitive, imploring some favour, urging some cause. What is his wife trying to tell him as she bends her sweet face towards him? What does he beg, this stricken man, so serene in his faith, so accomplished in argument?

We know from Job that the words his wife utters are "Curse God, and die." In her face Harvey sees his own wife. The painting provides no answers to the problem Harvey toils over, but it deepens his understanding by showing his life in Job's. Art is a way of coming to terms with the divine. So Spark too, once having toiled like Harvey over her response to Jung, has recast those thoughts in art that they might illuminate a little more of our human darkness.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Complete Short Stories of Graham Greene

If you are familiar with any of Graham Greene's short stories, it's probably "The Destructors," the story that Drew Barrymore discusses with Jake Gyllenhaal's English class in the film Donnie Darko. Gyllenhaal uses the story, which is about a gang of teenagers destroying an old man's house from inside, to find inspiration for his own acts of vandalism. Gyllenhaal is led to do these things by visions, but they ultimately exhibit a sense of purpose (though convoluted). In Greene's story, there is no purpose, no why; the Destructors are goaded into their actions by a sadist named T who pursues the destruction of the house with a single-mindedness that only the teenage psyche can possess. The story is a brief, bitter pill, a meditation on the nature of evil, suggesting it exists as a means to perpetuate itself. It's wonderful and Greene-like--Brighton Rock compressed to a diamond.

Greene has never been well known for his stories, except perhaps this one. And rightly so, as far as I can tell. Few of these stories really live up to the spiritual agony that characterize his novels, and some are downright bad. Conspicuously, the earliest and latest stories seem to be the worse offenders, and Greene seems to have had the habit of using the shorter form to tinker with various one-note and half-baked ideas, some of them quite stupid, like "Alas, Poor Maling," which is about a civil servant whose stomach rumblings imitate real-world noises. Really.

But there are a few, like "The Destructors," that can safely be placed among his best work:

The End of the Party -- One thing that Greene exhibits in these stories that he doesn't in his novels is a fair ability to write from the perspective of children. I might also have mentioned "The Basement Room" here, which is from the perspective of a child trying to understand the bitter marriage of his caretaker, but there is something grimly absurd about "The End of the Party": Two identical twins are invited to a birthday party, which fills one of them with fear because at this girl's party every year they are forced to play hide-and-seek, and he is deathly afraid of the dark. His cooler-headed brother tries to figure out a way to get out of it, but the other descends slowly into a hysteria that seems like it might afflict one of Greene's adult characters.

A Visit to Morin -- This one isn't quite as good as the others here--too much of it is a single, long conversation--but I think that it provides a key to understanding something of Greene's own mind that few of his novels permit. M. Morin is, like Greene, a writer well-known for being a Catholic, though an idiosyncratic one. When the narrator meets him, he is a recluse who has turned away from belief, his spirit destroyed by his fellow believers:

He said, 'A man can accept anything to do with God until scholars begin to go into the details and the implications. A man can accept the Trinity, but the arguments that follow...' He gave a gesture of rejection. 'I would never try to determine some point in differential calculus with a two-times-two table. You end by disbelieving the calculus.

English Catholics are a minority, unlike their Continental counterparts, and Greene tended to compound that outsider identity by focusing on characters who were non-believers. I think that M. Morin gives us a glimpse into what I would call a cherished loneliness, Greene's unwillingness to identify with the faith that his work obsesses over.

May We Borrow Your Husband? -- This one might have left Greene open to charges of homophobia--as rightly it would have in a lesser author--but Greene is a deft creator of characters and the story succeeds because the predatory homosexual couple in it are so strongly themselves, and not of a type. The narrator is a loner staying at a seaside resort in Antibes who falls in love with a beautiful woman honeymooning there. The couple, Tony and Stephen, discern that the woman's new husband harbors a repressed homosexuality, and hatch a plan to seduce him. This is an act of unparalleled awfulness, but the story is really about the narrator's inability to do anything to stop it or help the woman. He can't prevent it without dragging the unspoken into the open air, and unable to do anything constructive he most choose the least destructive of destructive paths: Stay silent.

Under the Garden -- I have left this one for last because it is the best. It is one of the finest short stories I have ever read, and to be honest it is not much in Greene's mode at all. This makes it a greater achievement still, because Greene really has a very narrow set of hallmarks that he rarely steps outside of in his longer fiction.

It is a flashback story, nested in a frame in which the protagonist, Wilditch, is informed that he is dying of cancer. He wants to go back and see his childhood home, where his brother now lives. It's a difficult decision, but it is predicated on one of those transcendent sentences that Greene keeps in his back pocket to remind you that he is capable of them:

Why then go back now and see it in other hands? Was it that at the approach of death one must get rid of everything? ...He had the will to possess at that absolute moment nothing but his wound.

There he discovers a story that he had written as a child called "The Treasure on the Island." The island is a small one in a small lake which is part of the old estate; in the story it is much bigger and a young boy there finds a secret treasure.

The story is poor and Wilditch dislikes having written it, not because it is childish but because it bears no likeness to his memory of what actually happened on the island. In the actual story, as he now recounts, Wilditch discovered a cave upon the island that led to a massive underground captain. An old one-legged man named Javitt resides there with his wife Maria. Javitt claims to be hundreds of years old and possess a great treasure; Maria can only say, "kwahk." Javitt attempts to keep Wilditch in the cavern as some sort of heir, instructing him in all sorts of complex nonsense:

'You are a bit scared still of Maria and me because you've never seen anyone like us before. And you'd be scared to see our daughter too, there's no other like her in whatever country she's in now, and what good would a scared man be to her? Do you know what a rogue-plant is? And do you know that white cats with blue eyes are deaf? People who keep nursery-gardens look around all the time at the seedlings and they throw away any oddities like weeds. They call them rogues. You won't find many white cats with blue eyes and that's the reason. But sometimes you find someone who wants things different, who's tired of all the plus signs and wants to find zero, and he starts breeding away with the differences. Maria and I are both rogues and we are born of generations of rogues. Do you think I lost this leg in an accident? I was born that way just like Maria with her squawk. Generations of us uglier and uglier, and suddenly out of Maria comes our daughter, who's Miss Ramsgate to you. I don't speak her name even when I'm asleep. We're unique like the Red Grouse. You ask anybody if they can tell you where the Red Grouse came from.'

This is sustained absurdism, and I wouldn't have thought Greene capable of it. Like the best nonsense, it expresses somethings amid the nothings but provides few clues to determine which is which. Is it madness to be "tired of all the plus signs and want... to find zero," or is it wisdom?

Surely this story cannot be true, so why is it so embarrassing to the adult Wilditch that he wrote down a different story entirely? We are asked to differentiate between false fictions and true fictions, to understand that "The Treasure on the Island" is an outright lie and the story of Javitt something near to truth. The child Wilditch reduced his experience in Javitt's cave to something he could understand, but in understanding it he deprived himself of its most immediate qualities. Is the story of Javitt a religious one, a truth beyond truths? Have we reduced God to a poor story because we have been too frightened of truth's strangeness, its refusal to bend to reason and understanding? In the end, what seems irrefutable is that Wilditch has found something to hold on to, to possess at that absolute moment other than his wound.

These are just a few; I have left out probably a half-dozen great stories and another handful of very good ones. Also compiled here are the first twenty pages of an abandoned novel and a brief treatment of a musical Greene wanted to write about criminals who kidnap a bunch of bishops and take their places. You could argue that it's a shame that Greene never really got the chance to show his versatility, or you could argue that he was a man who knew what he was best at. In either case, this is worth picking up for "Under the Garden" alone.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Dear friend,

I wanted to tell you about us running. There was this beautiful sunset. And there was this hill. The hill up to the eighteenth green where Patrick and I spit wine from laughing. And just a few ours before, Sam and Patrick and everyone I love and know had their last day of high school ever. And I was happy because they were happy. My sister even let me hug her in the hallway. Congratulations was the word of the day. So, Sam and Patrick and I went to the Big Boy and smoked cigarettes. Then, we went walking, waiting for it to be time to go to
Rocky Horror. And we were talking about things that seemed important at the time. And we were looking up that hill. And then Patrick started running after the sunset. And Sam immediately followed him. And I saw them in silhouette. Running after the sun. Then, I started running. And everything was as good as it could be.

Despite what USA Today would have you believe, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not Catcher in the Rye. I've never read A Separate Peace, but I'm pretty sure it's not that either. But it isn't fair for us to ask it to be, when it does pretty well on its own terms.

Perks is written in the form of a series of letters written by Charlie, a freshman in high school, to an anonymous "friend" he has never met. Charlie is a fairly typical protagonist for a coming-of-age story: Shy, sort of nerdy, and quite sensitive--god, it seems like he cries every other page--but also removed from other people and not prone to "participate". Almost despite himself, Charlie ends up befriending a pair of seniors, Patrick and Sam, outsiders and nonconformists who help to pull him out of his shell.

There is no real central conflict, but a series of unrelated plot threads, some of which end up being pretty underwritten: The young first-year English teacher who encourages Charlie to read great books. Patrick's secret affair with the high school quarterback. Charlie's crush on Sam (who is a girl). Having to deal with his best friend's suicide (this one in particular is half-baked). Charlie learning about drugs, and taking up smoking. Learning about masturbation, and then sex. His sister's secret abortion. The memory of his aunt's death in a car crash some years before. Mixtapes. There are a lot of mixtapes.

But you know what? All of that adds up to something that, if it doesn't reflect what it is to be 14, it reflects something quite incisive about the imagination of 14-year-olds. I've never quite been comfortable with the way people identify with Holden Caulfield, partially because I don't think Holden would quite want people to identify with him. But Charlie is a character overwhelmed by his own passions and sensitivity toward others, and draws readers quite easily into himself. He isn't as abiding a character as Holden is--because Perks is not literature on the same plane as Catcher--but I'll be damned if he doesn't deserve that sort of attachment more.

This was the summer reading for the students I'll be teaching in tenth grade next year. Teaching Perks is a dicey proposition because of the sexual content, and especially because of the explicit homosexuality in it. I wouldn't be surprised to get a few complaints from parents. But I think that, for the students--most of whom have a deep revulsion toward homosexuality--it will end up being something that resonates strongly with them.

Here is Christine's perspective.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Prepare to hear of occurrences that are usually deemed marvellous! -- V. Frankenstein

was the result of a challenge between Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and Mary's husband Percy Bysshe Shelley in which they all agreed to write a supernatural story, and for some reason, this is the one that survives in the modern imagination. As a story, it has some intriguing aspects--it was probably the first crack at the modern trope in which scientists suffer for trying to play God. As you probably know, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist and not the monster that he creates, but as you may not know unless you have read this thing, the first thing he does when it comes to life is wig out and abandon it. Lonely, confused, spurned by its creator, the monster--here called a "daemon"--wanders away, learns to talk like a true Edwardian gentleman, and seeks revenge by killing everyone Frankenstein has ever loved. The daemon, who happens upon a copy of Paradise Lost so that this will make sense, tells Frankenstein that he wanted to be his Adam, but instead became his Lucifer, the fallen creation determined to wreak havoc.

And mother of pearl, is it tedious. I don't need the writing in Frankenstein to be "Ozymandias" or anything, but it is a special kind of awful that I would have thought would have been sort of embarrassing to Percy Shelley. When you are not being exhorted to "prepare to hear of occurrences that are usually deemed marvellous," you are being subjected to very repetitive descriptions of the Swiss countryside and the sort of feelings it engenders. Every emotion is either the highest joy or the deepest misery, and they are all described at length.

The plot can be equally inane--the worst bit of it when the daemon holes up in an abandoned house where he can peer through a hole in the wall at a simple rustic family. Conveniently for him, the family takes in a young Arab girl (a convert to Christianity fleeing the possessive Islam of her father, naturally) whom they teach to speak English so that the daemon can follow along. After it kills Frankenstein's brother and best friend, then tells him I will be with you on your wedding-night, he spends his entire wedding night looking for it, not once thinking that, I don't know, maybe he shouldn't leave his new bride alone? At points it reminded me of Dan Brown, if Dan Brown had a bigger vocabulary.

As an idea, it's easy to see why Frankenstein's monster is so alluring. Our expanding scientific abilities, results of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, were accompanied by a deep anxiety that our power might outstrip our wisdom; the story itself remains because we still live in that world. We probably always will. But this is not a very good book.

Brooke liked it, though.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

"It's frightening," Julia once said, "to think of how completely you have forgotten Sebastian."

"He was the forerunner."

"That's what you said in the storm. I've thought since: Perhaps I am only a forerunner, too."

Perhaps, I thought, while her words still hung in the air between us like a wisp of tobacco smoke--a thought to fade and diminish like smoke without a trace--perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness that sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.

In 1944 a British military officer and his troop are moved to new quarters in the English countryside, quarters that he remembers from another lifetime ago, a manor house called Brideshead. Once, during the summer between semesters at Oxford, he visited Brideshead when it was the home of his closest friend.

The officer is Charles Ryder and the friend is Sebastian Flyte, and my very vague conception of Brideshead Revisited was that it was about their friendship. It certainly starts out that way: Ryder and Flyte meet at Oxford and become instant chums, Ryder playing a sort of straight-man to Flyte's urbane, playful dandy. It is even suggested--though this is a somewhat controversial reading--that they become lovers. But Sebastian disappears from the narrative fairly quickly, oppressed by his Catholic upbringing, descending into alcoholism, absconded into the North African desert. His very name suggests not only that he is "flighty," in the sense of caprice or frivolity, but that, as James Wood notes, he flees and then falls--like Icarus.

Brideshead gives the unique sense that things are always changing, as in life they tend to do. It struck me as giving the uncomfortable feeling of reading a sequel to a favorite book, in which things are not quite as you are accustomed to them being, only in cycles, on repeat. Ryder's connection to Brideshead is continued in his friend's absence through his love for Sebastian's sister, Julia. But as many times as he visits it, and though he very nearly inherits it through marriage to Julia, it never seems as a home to Ryder. In fact, it never really seems a home to anyone. The frame narrative leads us to expect a nostalgic reverie, but it does not prepare us for the way in which Brideshead, almost immediately, belongs to a long vision of the past.

What Brideshead is really about is Ryder's conversion to Catholicism. Throughout the novel, Ryder is as antagonistic to religion as he could possibly be, and with good reason: It is part of what causes Sebastian so much suffering, and ultimately it drives a wedge between him and Julia. But there is Godliness in Sebastian's suffering, as Julia's sister Cordelia tells Ryder:

I thought of the joyful youth with the Teddy-bear under the flowering chestnuts. "It's not what what one would have foretold," I said. "I suppose he doesn't suffer?"

"Oh yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be as maimed as he is--no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering..."

Ryder's true conversion happens off-stage, between his leaving Brideshead and Julia and his return there with the army, but we are made to understand that the seeds of it lay in his friendship with Sebastian, his love for Julia, his experience watching a priest try to coax an acknowledgment of the last rites from Julia's apostate father. Waugh buries his theme in a tossed-off reference to Chesterton's Father Brown series, in which Father Brown says, apprehending a criminal, "I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread"--so Ryder turns to God.

So it happens that, when Ryder returns to Brideshead, he ends with a visit to the ugly little art-nouveau chapel, which had barely seemed part of the house before:

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame--a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it his morning, burning new among the old stones.

How much you like Brideshead is probably directly affected by your religious sentiment; certainly a great many of his contemporaries abhorred it for its conservatism. There is something of it that makes me deeply uncomfortable, as well: Waugh is too eager to conflate Catholicism with the dying manor house, which itself is a symbol of English gentility. It reminded me of The Good Soldier, but what Ford speaks about half-satirically, Waugh (ironically, the greater satirist) holds in great sincerity. It is a self-annihilating sort of religion that turns Christ into an antique, or a fossil. But in spite of that, Brideshead is a novel that deserves its acclaim; besides being genuinely moving it is deeply funny.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The English Novel by Ford Madox Ford

I am not sure what the point of Ford Madox Ford's The English Novel is, because I am not quite sure that he himself knew what the point of it was. To some extent, it is a history of the English novel from its earliest stages to Ford's day, but as a historical text it makes no claims to exhaustiveness or objectivity. It is not "a technical work," but it does contain some of Ford's most significant ideas concerning what works in a novel and what doesn't. You'd be better off reading How Fiction Works, though, because I think that Wood covers all of the best ones.

What it is really is a vanity project, honestly, the spectacle of a senior man of letters writing a book because no one would refuse to publish it, no matter how solipsistic. In that way it is much like How to Read and Why; both have no other guiding principle than their author's predilections, but you'll read it anyway because they are, after all, experts. This is a begrudging criticism; I suppose they've both earned it.

Ford spends a lot of time in this book criticizing what he calls the nuvvle, a humorous word he invented to describe the kind of commercially popular book of the 19th and 20th centuries. Brent, you will be displeased to know that he included The Woman in White among these. Also, he really hated Vanity Fair.

But I thought his most interesting idea was buried all the way at the end of the book:

That this is not the final stage of the Novel is obvious; there will be developments that we cannot foresee, strain our visions, how we may. There are probably--humanity being stable, change the world how it may--there are probably eternal principles for all the arts, but the applications of those principles are eternally changing, or eternally revolving. It is, for instance, an obvious and unchanging fact that if an author intrudes his comments into the middle of his story he will endanger the illusion conveyed by that story--but a generation of readers may come along who would prefer witnessing the capers of the author to being carried away by stories and that generation of readers may coincide with a generation of writers tired of self-obliteration. So you might have a world of Oscar Wildes or of Lylys. Or you might, again, have a world tired of the really well constructed novel every word of which carries its story forward: then you will have a movement towards diffuseness, backboneless sentences, digressions, and inchoateness.

This made me laugh, because it sounds a lot like postmodernism, which Ford didn't really live to see. The bit about "the capers of the author" (this is his problem with Vanity Fair) sounds a lot like the sort of self-conscious egoism that comes with being Martin Amis, or Gary Shteyngart, or Jonathan Safran Foer. What do you think? Are we living in Ford's age of "digressions, and inchoateness"?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klostermann

"I remember saying things, but I have no idea what was said. It was generally a friendly conversation.” —Associated Press reporter Jack Sullivan, attempting to recount a 3 A.M. exchange we had at a dinner party and inadvertently describing the past ten years of my life."

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is a collection of essays by Chuck Klosterman, probably the most polarizing and visible pop-culture critic currently working. Best known for his spirited defenses of things that are uncool, like Guns n’ Roses and Saved by the Bell, this collection touches on a large variety of topics—everything from tribute bands to the rapture to the titular Cocoa Puffs are subjected to Klosterman’s incisive eye.

Sometimes, he’s contradictory—he decries those who don’t like country in one essay while stating that people who claim to like all music really like no music at all—or just sort of off the wall, like when he claims that mainstream country is more genuine than Bob Dylan. Fortunately, Klosterman mostly avoids abrasive snark, and even the essays I disagree with most vehemently don’t come across as too self important.

The only real complaint I have about this book is the structure. The essays are separate, disconnected entities, but between them, there are little interstitial bits in tiny type, tackling some topic like mathematical probability—Klosterman thinks it’s a crock—or rambling. Sometimes these are comical, but mostly they’re interruptions and represent a pretentious shift in voice for an essayist who’s mostly pretension free.

One of my friends said that he thinks Klosterman is an unusually gifted pop culture commentator but not much else, and based on this collection, I’d tend to agree. There are worse things to be, though, and worse authors with whom to spend an evening.