Friday, May 29, 2015

Proust on difficult art

I enjoy complex and demanding art. I like puzzling through Joyce, Ligeti, and Wallace regardless of whether I understand everything or not, because there's something rewarding about the pursuit of that which isn't completely understood. I'm currently reading through Proust's massive opus, In Search of Lost Time--which, in spite of its length, isn't really hard to comprehend--and he expresses the feelings I get about more demanding works beautifully, if a bit verbosely. So I'm sharing it here, in hopes that someone else might connect with it as well.

Sometimes, before going to dress, Mme. Swann would sit down at the piano. Her lovely hands, escaping from the pink, or white, or, often, vividly coloured sleeves of her crêpe-de-Chine wrapper, drooped over the keys with that same melancholy which was in her eyes but was not in her heart. It was on one of those days that she happened to play me the part of Vinteuil's sonata that contained the little phrase of which Swann had been so fond. But often one listens and hears nothing, if it is a piece of music at all complicated to which one is listening for the first time. And yet when, later on, this sonata had been played over to me two or three times I found that I knew it quite well. And so it is not wrong to speak of hearing a thing for the first time. If one had indeed, as one supposes, received no impression from the first hearing, the second, the third would be equally 'first hearings' and there would be no reason why one should understand it any better after the tenth. Probably what is wanting, the first time, is not comprehension but memory. For our memory, compared to the complexity of the impressions which it has to face while we are listening, is infinitesimal, as brief as the memory of a man who in his sleep thinks of a thousand things and at once forgets them, or as that of a man in his second childhood who cannot recall, a minute afterwards, what one has just been saying to him. Of these multiple impressions our memory is not capable of furnishing us with an immediate picture. But that picture gradually takes shape, and, with regard to works which we have heard more than once, we are like the schoolboy who has read several times over before going to sleep a lesson which he supposed himself not to know, and finds that he can repeat it by heart next morning. It was only that I had not, until then, heard a note of the sonata, whereas Swann and his wife could make out a distinct phrase that was as far beyond the range of my perception as a name which one endeavours to recall and in place of which one discovers only a void, a void from which, an hour later, when one is not thinking about them, will spring of their own accord, in one continuous flight, the syllables that one has solicited in vain. And not only does one not seize at once and retain an impression of works that are really great, but even in the content of any such work (as befell me in the case of Vinteuil's sonata) it is the least valuable parts that one at first perceives.

Thus it was that I was mistaken not only in thinking that this work held nothing further in store for me (so that for a long time I made no effort to hear it again) from the moment in which Mme. Swann had played over to me its most famous passage; I was in this respect as stupid as people are who expect to feel no astonishment when they stand in Venice before the front of Saint Mark's, because photography has already acquainted them with the outline of its domes. Far more than that, even when I had heard the sonata played from beginning to end, it remained almost wholly invisible to me, like a monument of which its distance or a haze in the atmosphere allows us to catch but a faint and fragmentary glimpse. Hence the depression inseparable from one's knowledge of such works, as of everything that acquires reality in time. When the least obvious beauties of Vinteuil's sonata were revealed to me, already, borne by the force of habit beyond the reach of my sensibility, those that I had from the first distinguished and preferred in it were beginning to escape, to avoid me. Since I was able only in successive moments to enjoy all the pleasures that this sonata gave me, I never possessed it in its entirety: it was like life itself. But, less disappointing than life is, great works of art do not begin by giving us all their best.

In Vinteuil's sonata the beauties that one discovers at once are those also of which one most soon grows tired, and for the same reason, no doubt, namely that they are less different from what one already knows. But when those first apparitions have withdrawn, there is left for our enjoyment some passage which its composition, too new and strange to offer anything but confusion to our mind, had made indistinguishable and so preserved intact; and this, which we have been meeting every day and have not guessed it, which has thus been held in reserve for us, which by the sheer force of its beauty has become invisible and has remained unknown, this comes to us last of all. But this also must be the last that we shall relinquish. And we shall love it longer than the rest because we have taken longer to get to love it.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Richard II by William Shakespeare


I thought you had been willing to resign.


My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine.

You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.

Richard II is a shitty king.  The play opens with him botching the adjudication of a dispute between his courtiers Bolingbroke and Mowbray, who want to fight each other.  He exiles them both, overplaying his hand and driving Bolingbroke to open treason against his rule.  Bolingbroke invades while Richard is away fighting a war in Ireland, and when he finally returns he finds that basically all of his friends and supporters have abandoned him, and he has no choice but to concede the crown.

Does Richard deserve it?  As always, Shakespeare is cagey about politics.  It is difficult to tell whether we are meant to respect Richard's appeals to the divine right of kings, an ideal made mostly unusable by the messiness and ambiguity of the rules of succession.  Richard appeals to God again and again in his complaints, but Shakespeare is as irreligious as he is apolitical.  Yes, Richard is a bad king, but is that enough?  What is certain is that, set against bland politicians like Bolingbroke, he is a far more sympathetic and interesting person than anyone else in the play.

On the other hand, he really only becomes interesting once he's been deposed.  When he surmises what has happened to him, he becomes a sudden drama queen, stamping around stage and soliloquizing about his downfall.  Richard's poetry is melodramatic, absurd, and fun, while Bolingbroke plays a kind of straightman.  At one point, Richard demands a mirror to see his own face--"An if m word be sterling yet in England, / Let it command a mirror hither straight, / That it may show me what a face I have, / Since it is bankrupt of his majesty"--and then smashes it, histrionically, on the floor.  It's a nice illustration of the dissolution he feels happening to himself, but also a moment of high camp--a hissy fit.  Here's his best speech, delivered sitting on the floor like a child:

Of comfort let no man speak!
Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let's choose executors and talk of wills.
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings--
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed--
All murdered.

That's a fantastic pyrotechnic display, veering from a kind of high school poetry morbidness ("Let's talk of graves") to deeper contemplation of profound loss ("nothing we can call our own but death") and a strange attempt to reclaim his kingship by lumping himself in with the murdered monarchs of the past.  It ends, however, with great simplicity:

Throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends.  Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?
Check out those six great syllables, so unkingly: "Feel want, / Taste grief, need friends."  In the undoing of himself, Richard finds a poetic power that doesn't exist elsewhere in the play, and which is barely present in his earlier histories.  Richard is far more interesting as nothing at all than as a king.  In many ways, you can see Richard as an early model of King Lear, whose proclamations on nothingness are like fine-tuned versions of Richard at his best:

But whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
With being nothing.

Eased with what?  Death?  The dissolution of the self?  Richard is murdered in the end--maybe, but maybe not, at Bolingbroke's behest--but it's impossible, even if you know the historical record, to imagine any other outcome.  When he loses his kingship, Richard loses everything that makes him Richard, and a continued physical existence would be unimaginable and grotesque.  Even though the play makes Richard look like a terrible king, it does him a kindness: it shapes he history to give Richard a chance to go out in blazes, not as a great king but as a great poet.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The stranger thought it might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day.  And if a thing is not in God's mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?

This novel starts curiously, with Axl deciding he will finally agree to go on a long planned journey with his wife, Beatrice.  However, he can't remember why they want to go on this journey, how long they have planned it, or why he suddenly feels compelled to agree to it.  As the first chapter proceeds, the reader learns of something that is bothering Axl: the fact the people in the village, himself and his wife included, cannot seem to remember things.

As the novel proceeds, it becomes clear that this affliction is affecting everyone.  People have trouble remembering anything, whether from the same day or week or month.  Not everyone is affected as severely as others, but, you know, it's weird.

Axl and Beatrice depart.  During their journey, they encounter two knights, both set on killing a dragon around since the time of Arthur.  We later learn that the affliction of memory loss is caused by this dragon.

The novel mixes the best of two worlds: the best of Ishiguro's writing with its subtle subversion between characters, whose reliability we cannot trust, and classic elements of fantasy tales, knights, plagues, ogres, and even sprites.  For that reason alone, I'd recommend this novel.

Nonetheless, reviews of this novel have been mixed.  See here (the novel "points everywhere but at us, because its fictional setting is feeble, mythically remote, generic, and pressureless; and because its allegory manages somehow to be at once too literal and too vague---a magic rare but unwelcome.") and here ("a novel that's easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love.").  I understand the negative reviews but disagree with them.

The memory loss serves to make literal something Ishiguro does in Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go: unreliable narrators.  Here, because the protagonists suffer from memory loss, it's difficult for the reader to trust them; nor can the characters trust themselves.  And, while some of the reviews seemed critical of this, I felt it served to expose that which Ishiguro hides in his other novels, allowing him (and the readers) to focus on everything else going on.  More importantly, it allows the reader to focus on the consequences of this lack of reliability: what does it mean that the characters cannot trust their own reliability?  Put differently: taking lack or reliability as granted, and not focusing too much on it, what does that lack of reliability mean for people?

For example, in a story that is similar to Never Let Me Go, Axl and Beatrice encounter an old lady who hates a boatman.  The boatman, she alleges, told her that she and her love would be taken to this mystical island.  Anyone on the island only ever encounters himself, alone; in rare cases, however, two people who have proven their love for one another may experience the island together.  The old lady is bitter because the boatman promised to take her and her love to the island together, but then only took her love, leaving her stranded on land.  The lady asks them, "How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can't remember the past you've shared?"

Later, Beatrice and Axl take comfort in the fact that, although they cannot remember their past, they know how their story ends: they are together and in love.  But as the slaying of the dragon gets closer and closer, they begin to lose faith: what if they did something to each other in the past so horrible they can't love each other?

This theme, the theme of being uncertain about whether they want to access the past is paralleled by the historical context of their world: they live in a world of peace after war, but no one remembers how the war ended or why they have peace now.

The critics who disliked the novel faulted it for lacking any allegorical meaning.  That is, because the novel (allegedly) screams that it's an allegory, it should end in a way making the allegory clear.  I disagree that it's necessary to read the novel as an allegory; I feel the novel stands on its own without a deeper, heavier meaning.  That said, I think Ishiguro succeeds in giving the novel an allegorical meaning, but as in Never Let Me Go or Remains of the Day, it is complicated and subtle.  If I had to try to summarize it, it would be something like: although it is reasonable to be apprehensive about the past, we cannot ignore it.  Even in the world of forgetting, the characters are driven to go on this journey, despite not understanding its historical necessity.  But, like Never Let Me Go or Remains of the Day, I feel like there's more going on.

Highly recommended.  Especially so for anyone into fantasy.  Also, of his novels, I would recommend this one to a person with less literary tastes: the action of the novel lends itself to a pop audience.  Also recommended to anyone who literary novels or Ishiguro (though this last recommendation is the most controversial of the set)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Art of Advocacy: Briefs, Motions, and Writing Strategies of America's Best Lawyers by Noah A. Messing

There's no poignant quotation to start this review with because, as boring as it may be, this is essentially an advanced legal writing textbook.  Why, you may be asking, would a non-law student bother to read a textbook?  The easiest and most obvious answer is that my nerdiness knows no bounds, and I apparently have too much time on my hands.

The answer I've been telling myself as I've read this book on and off over the last two years is that legal writing is my bread and butter, and it would inure to my benefit to get better at it.  In this regard, the book was worth the effort.  Professor Messing has taken excerpts from the "best" legal writers today, and explained what makes their writing different.  For those of us who are still learning the ropes, this is an invaluable resource in becoming a better writer.

Like any piece of advice, most of the things in this book sound obvious when reduced to a generalization.  For example, every legal writer knows to  "emphasize your best facts."  However, it is one thing to know to "emphasize your best facts" and another to actually do it.  Thus, the examples are very helpful.

Just one point of order, because this book is very similar in concept to another writing book I love: Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation's Top Advocates, which also takes examples from the "best" legal writers and explains why they are the best.  Point Made is more of a book rather than a textbook.  So for practicing attorneys with workloads to balance, it is a substantially more practical read.  I would recommend Point Made before I would recommend Messing's book.  However, if someone had already finished Point Made and wanted to read more, I would then suggest The Art of Advocacy, which definitely reads more like a textbook.  I read Messing's book in short bursts, spread over two years (it is structured in a way that lends itself to being read this way).  Point Made can be read in the course of a week without much trouble.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Three o'clock and suddenly awake amid the smell of dreams and of the years come back and peopled and blown away again like smoke.  A young man am I, twenty-nine, but I am as full of dreams as an ancient.  At night the years come back and perch around my bed like ghosts.

My mother made up a cot in my corner of the porch.  It is a good place, with the swamp all around and the piles stirring with every lap of water.

But, good as it is, my old place is used up (places get used up by rotary and repetitive use) and when I awake, I awake in the grip of everydayness.  Everydayness is the enemy.  No search is possible.  Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength.  Now nothing breaks it--but disaster.  Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch.

A significant part of my excitement over my first trip to New Orleans, about a month ago, was that it gave me a great reason to re-read one of my favorite books, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer.  Its protagonist, Binx Bolling, talks about what he calls the "phenomenon of certification," in which a place becomes more real and specific to you because you have seen it in a movie.  Maybe it wasn't quite in the same way, but The Moviegoer certified New Orleans for me.  I enjoyed walking around the Marigny, a little trapezoidal neighborhood of colored clapboard houses near the French Quarter, but I enjoyed it twice as much because it provided a visual context for the scenes in the novel set there.  The novel and the place enriched each other.

Once, we drove out to a Payless (my friends' shoes were destroyed in a sudden downpour) on a road called Elysian Fields, in the northern part of the city.  It might have been any other southern town, what Binx calls an Anywhere.  But in the novel, Binx himself lives on Elysian Fields, farther to the north, in a suburb called Gentilly on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain.  And though we didn't get that far, just looking up the street was enough to defeat that Anywhere sense, because the novel pulled it out of the infinity of places and made it into a here and now:

Every place of arrival should have a booth set up and manned by an ordinary person whose task it is to greet strangers and give them a little trophy of local space-time stuff--tell them of his difficulties in high school and put a pinch of soil in their pockets--in order to insure that the stranger shall not become an Anyone...

It seems strange that Binx, who frets about "everydayness" and the thought of his life receding into the undifferentiated morass of "Anywhere" and "Anyone," should live in the suburbs.  Stranger still that he dreams of leaving his job as a stockbroker and opening up a gas station.  Binx tells us that he has decided to undertake "the search":

What is the nature of the search? you ask.

Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked.

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.  This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island.  And what does such a castaway do?  Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn't miss a trick.

As I pointed out in my 2008 review, Percy cannily never says a "search for" something, because to name the object of the search would be to complete it.  But it has to do with that threat of "everydayness," and coming into harmony with where and when one is.  "There is a danger," he tells us, "of slipping clean out of space and time.  It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville."  But the search has no practical element; Binx goes on living his very ordinary life just as, presumably, he has been doing for many years prior to the novel's beginning. 

The search, it seems, is undertaken merely by the awareness of it.  Perhaps it is his awareness of being on the search that leads Binx to fall in love with his cousin (by marriage), Kate.  The section of the novel where Binx and Kate travel by train to Chicago for a stockbroker's conference (or something) and they fall in love are romantic and strange.  Kate has a mental illness, which reads like but is not named as bipolar disorder, and has frequent breakdowns.  She elicits a promise of marriage from Binx, saying she wants him to tell her what to do for the rest of her life:

She takes the bottle.  "Will you tell me what to do?"


"You can do it because you are not religious.  God is not religious.  You are the unmoved mover.  You don't need God or anyone else--no credit to you, unless it is a credit to be the most self-centered person alive.  I don't know whether I love you, but I believe in you and I will do what you tell me.  Now if I marry you, will you tell me: Kate, this morning do such and such, and if we have to go to a party, will you tell me: Kate, stand right there and have three drinks and talk to so and so?  Will you?"

In a lesser novel, this would read as a kind of sexist wish fulfillment, the male fantasy of being protector and provider.  But Kate is not a stand-in for all women--she is not an Anyone--and her anxieties resonate with Binx's philosophical meandering.  What is for Binx a nagging question is for Kate a continual crisis: how to respond to the immensity of space and time.  The innumerable possibilities of life paralyze Kate, just as they create a kind of malaise in Binx.  He says that only disaster can break the grip of everydayness; Kate lives inside that disaster perpetually.  Each discovers on the train that they can find an escape from these forces by relying on each other, and it's not exactly romantic comedy stuff, but somehow it's more urgent, and more satisfying.

The Moviegoer is a great book.  It would probably be forgotten today if not for its upset victory at the 1962 National Book Awards, beating both Catch-22 and Franny and Zooey. I love both of those books, but The Moviegoer was the right call.  Its depth is remarkable, and I feel as if I could re-read it another twenty times and not fully appreciate it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

The Killing Joke served as the basis for Christopher Nolan's Joker in The Dark Knight.  The influence is apparent in both the plot and character.  Batman goes to Arkham Asylum to confront the Joker and ask him how their ordeal is going to end: Batman believes that their repeating conflict can only end in tragedy.  However, when Batman gets there, the Joker has escaped.

The Joker, it turns out, feels the same way.  So he designs an epic crime to show the world that insanity is the only sane way of reacting to the world: he shoots Commissioner Gordon's daughter, takes risque photos of her (the novel is ambiguous as to whether this is a rape scene, but it is strongly implied).  They kidnap Commissioner Gordon and try to turn him insane.  Of course, the Joker's plan fails when Commissioner Gordon is unbreakable and Batman catches the Joker.

My favorite part of this novel is the end (PS: spoiler alert, stop reading this review to avoid it), where Batman finally has the conversation he wants to have with the Joker.  He says, "It doesn't have to end like that.  I don't know what it was that bent your life out of shape, but who knows?  Maybe I've been there too.  Maybe I can help.  We could work together.  I could rehabilitate you.  You needn't be out there on the edge any more.  You needn't be alone.  We don't have to kill each other.  What do you say?"  The Joker responds with a joke, that I absolutely love:
No.  I'm sorry, but...No.  It's too late for that.  Far too late.  Hahaha.  Y'know, it's funny...this situation reminds me of a joke...See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum...and one night, one night they decided they don't like living in an asylum anymore.  They decide they're going to escape!  So, like, they get up onto the roof and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight...Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem.  But his friend, his friend daredn't make the leap, y'see...y'see he's afraid of falling.  So then, the first guy has an idea...he says, Hey! I have my flashlight with me!  I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings.  You can walk along the beam and join me!  B-but the second guy just shakes his head.  He suh-says...he says "Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!"
This joke, represents, perfectly why the Joker can't stop being himself, why he has to refuse Batman's offer.  Christopher Nolan went another direction with this:

He, of course, doesn't tell the joke.  But, here, the Joker does note their eternal struggle; they won't kill each other and so are condemned to forever battle.  I have mixed feelings about which treatment I prefer.  On the one hand, in Nolan's version, I like that it's the Joker who sees this pattern and recognizes the similarities between himself and Batman.  However, I like the earnestness of Moore's version, in which Batman wants this war to end, and wants it to end by helping the Joker.  Ultimately, though, I think I like The Dark Knight slightly more, but would recommend The Killing Joke to anyone who enjoyed The Dark Knight.  If nothing else, it provides some perspective on where The Dark Knight's Joker came from; but, seeing both Jokers offers a lot of perspective on the Joker.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.

I remember reading Tuck Everlasting when I was much younger and not particularly enjoying it, but thinking that I might understand it better when I was older.  It seemed like it had a lot of heavy and dark thematic elements for children, and after reading it again I can see that I was right (both on it being deep and also me not liking it very much), though not exactly for the reasons I imagined.

This classic tells the story of the Tuck family, who after drinking from an enchanted spring find themselves seemingly invincible and immortal, and a little girl who learns their secret.  The book asks lot of big questions about the nature of life and death (is immortality a blessing or a curse?) and right and wrong (was it necessary to kill the man in the yellow suit? Does that make it acceptable?), but I think the biggest questions it raised were about freedom.  Winnie yearns to break free from what she believes are her parents' strict rules and manners.  The Tucks live forever, but their immortality is a prison, trapping them in this world.  The man in the yellow suit is trapped by his obsession to find the mysterious family and the magic spring.  Mae Tuck is literally imprisoned and is broken out by her family.

But more importantly, we need to have a conversation about the creepy ass relationship between Jesse and Winnie.  He's a 104 year old trapped in a 17 year old's body, she's a ten year old, full stop, and he wants her to drink from the immortality well when she's 17 and marry him (when he'll be 110).  This is after knowing her for a day.  That's creepy as hell!!  WTF mate!?  That is all.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Wheels must turn steadily, but cannot turn untended.  There must be men to tend them, men as steady as the wheels upon their axles, sane men, obedient men, stable in contentment.

Crying: My baby, my mother, my only, only love; groaning: My sin, my terrible God; screaming with pain, muttering with fever, bemoaning old age and poverty--how can they tend the wheels?  And if they cannot tend the wheels... The corpses of a thousand thousand thousand men and women would be hard to bury or burn.

Brave New World is a dystopia with a sense of humor.  Your Hunger Games and Divergents and what have you could use a bit of it; those books always seem to be utterly joyless.  But Brave New World gives us absurdities like Riemann Surface Tennis and Obstacle Golf and Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy and the feelies--sharp satires of the modern pleasure industry which actually sound pleasurable.  But that sense of humor belies a dark sense that I'm not sure I picked up on the first time I read Brave New World: that Huxley isn't at all sure that the world he's created is demonstrably worse than the alternative.  In his introduction, Huxley describes a world crippled by fear of the nuclear bomb, writing as he did in the mid-20th century, imagining a future of "a number of national, militarized totalitarianisms" to which the efficient technocracy of Brave New World is the solution.  The third possibility is science in service of "producing a race of free individuals," but Huxley is pretty mum on what that ideal future might entail.

The brilliance of Brave New World lies in the difficulty of describing what is so bad about the future it imagines.  As World Controller Mustapha Mond explains to the Savage John toward the novel's end, the society of Brave New World is seamless and self-sustaining: cloned individuals take their places in one of various social groups, from the superior Alphas to the inferior Gammas, and each is conditioned to prefer their place in society.  All the necessary work of maintaining civilization is done, from nuclear science to the scrubbing of the floors, and no one is dissatisfied with their place.

But what Huxley understands is that there are greater goods than satisfaction itself.  There is, for example, the good of family life, which has been eradicated because it diverts the individual's attention from the larger good (something which Huxley and Orwell both recognized as necessary for their dystopias to function).  There is the good of literature--like the Shakespeare which Huxley ham-handedly allows Mond and the Savage John to have read--but which is inscrutable without the knowledge of death, pain, grief, loss, etc.  Huxley knows that we want those things, too, though we may profess to want only happiness, which is what this world offers in spades.  As Mond himself says, "What fun it would be... if one didn't have to think about happiness!"  Or as the Savage John points out:

"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."

"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."

"Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind."  There was a long silence.

"I claim them all," said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders.  "You're welcome."

I detect, sometimes, a whiff of Mond in the way we think and talk about technology today.  I hear it in every absurd TED talk which labors ideas like "disruption," believing wholeheartedly in the unalloyed good of remaking society through the power of technology.  There is something valuable lost in these visions of society, which, like in Brave New World, think too highly of efficiency. 

But Huxley refuses to give us the easy alternative in the Savage, an Englishman born by accident in the wilds of the American southwest.  He, unlike everyone, is a free man, but what is the value of being the one free man in an unfree society?  He spends his time rejecting every pleasure, raging against the inhumanity of the social system, putting on his hairshirt act:

"Did you eat something that didn't agree with you?" asked Bernard.

The Savage nodded.  "I ate civilization."


"It poisoned me; I was defiled.  And then," he added, in a lower tone, "I ate my own wickedness."

I'm not really sure what to do with the Savage, except to see a satire of the kinds of asceticism that sees itself as being apart from the world.  Is Huxley asking us to see someone who leans too far into the "right to be unhappy?"  Or merely recognizing that, like Winston Smith, the individual is never a match for society?  In a strange and imaginative novel, his character strikes me as the strangest and most difficult thing.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson


Laurie Halse Anderson is a young adult author most well known for the novel Speak, but has also written several other YA novels. A former student passed this my way saying it was the best book she had ever read. It opens with the serious warning about how it's not a book for children. Now, I don't know how Anderson or her publishers define 'children', but I wouldn't recommend her books for any child. I think young adult is an appropriate category for her work and I would probably say her books are good for grade 7 and up, so I was a little surprised when I saw the warning. What is in this book that is worse than the drinking, sexual assault, theft, teen pregnancy, etc that are in her other novels? In the end, I think this book is fine for anyone who is reading any of her other books. 

It sort of broke my heart that my former student thought this book was better than any other book - because we read To Kill a Mockingbird last year, and that was better than this - but I actually feel like this book pairs excellently with To Kill a Mockingbird. 
I spent the last Friday of summer vacation spreading hot, sticky tar across the roof of George Washington High. My companions were Dopey, Toothless, and Joe, the brain surgeons in charge of building maintenance. At least they were getting paid. i was working forty feet above the ground, breathing in sulfur fumes from Satan's vomitorium, for free. Character building, my father said. Mandatory community service, the judge said...Still it was better than jail.  
Tyler, a total non-entity in life and in high school, is suddenly visible after he epically vandalizes his high school. After a summer of physical labor, he is also now super built. His new body and notoriety throw him into a social class of the high school that was previously closed off to him, and thus our story begins. 

Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you're Tyler), this is not an ugly duckling becoming popular and then realizing that his new friends are not his real friends and then going back to being normal but prettier (a la every 90s and 00s teen movie). This is about a teenager who makes a few bad decisions, serves out his punishment, then does a totally normal teenage thing and gets his whole life fucking ruined because of his newly established reputation as a Bad Decision Maker. 

I actually think it pairs very very well with To Kill a Mockingbird because they both have elements of people assuming the worst about a man without very much evidence, and how sketchy the legal system is when there isn't much evidence, and how quickly people are to pass judgement before the jury has passed judgement. However, this book is frequently banned for its content (see above warning), so I would read it before recommending it to teenagers.

Like many Young Adult novels, it's a quick read (I read it in a single day involving a trip to the doctor's office) that doesn't necessarily hold literary value. However, it has a voice that is not seen as often in YA. There is a lack of male protagonists in non-fantasy/non-sci fi YA, but here is a realistic novel with a very real teenage guy whose thoughts and actions feel authentic. I wouldn't recommend it to a non-YA reader as it's definitely not the best or most important work in the genre,  but if someone is a regular young adult reader then I think it's worth the time. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Wouldn't we all do better not trying to understand, accepting the fact that no human being will ever understand another, not a wife a husband, a lover a mistress, nor a parent a child?  Perhaps that's why men have invented God -- a being capable of understanding.  Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand I would bamboozle myself into belief, but I am a reporter; God only exists for leader-writers.

It seems now that Graham Greene's The Quiet American had a kind of prescience.  I'm told it wasn't very popular in America, because it made us seem like meddlers and dilettantes in world affairs, but if Aldon Pyle, the "Quiet American" of the title is meant as a stand-in for the nation as a whole, it couldn't be much more accurate.  Pyle is an American in Vietnam before the war, when it was a French problem, and he arrives with no more knowledge than his textbooks have given him, but with an unwavering certainty that the way to solve the "Vietnam problem" is to fund a third force of rebels who will destabilize the conflict between French colonialists and Communists.  Greene wrote about Pyle in 1955, and a decade later, there we were, meddling and dilettanting on a much more tragic scale.

The narrator of the novel, Thomas Fowler, is classically Greene: a cynic, a realist, and an atheist.  He and Pyle become fond of each other, but Fowler sees Pyle for what he is, a man who has "punted down into Phat Diem in a kind of schoolboy dream."  Fowler, a journalist, holds to a fierce neutrality:

'You can rule me out,' I said.  'I'm not involved,' I repeated.  It had been an article of my creed.  The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved.  My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter.  I wrote what I saw.  I took no action--even an opinion is a kind of action.

Fowler suffers from the same delusion as Nick Carraway, a delusion that Heisenberg destroyed in the twenties, the belief that you can be a mere observer, and not affect what happens around you.  Greene's books are always true to their novelistic staging, and when Fowler insists that he is "not involved," we can be assured that by the end of the novel he will be very involved indeed.  In this case, what drags Fowler into involvement is Phuong, a beautiful Vietnamese woman who has been Fowler's lover for a long time, and with whom Pyle falls deeply in love.  Like a boy scout, Pyle insists on taking Phuong from Fowler in the honorable way, even going so far as being air-dropped into a battle zone to find Fowler and ask his permission.  Fowler, older and married, knows that he cannot compete with Pyle, who will bring Phuong to the United States, and yet his fondness for Pyle never wavers.

Like Fowler, we like Pyle, though he is kind of a genial monster.  To his surprise but not our own, the rebels he has armed kill dozens of innocent civilians.  On a political level, he ought to have served as a stark warning against mucking around in world affairs where our idealism counts for very little--a lesson you might argue we seem not to have learned.  On a literary level, he's a powerful portrait of misguided rectitude, and a sour criticism of modern virtue.  The Quiet American is Greene at his most cynical and least redemptive, but perhaps his most troubling.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

"I know, too why she asked me not to forget her. Naoko herself knew , of course. She knew that my memories of her would fade. Which is precisely why she begged me never to forget her, to remember that she had existed. The thought fills me with an almost unbearable sorrow. Because Naoko never loved me." 
The above quote ends the opening chapter of Norwegian Wood which doesn't leave a lot to the imagination. In fact, it is probably the most notable feature when considered in comparison to other Murakami Fiction Works: it is not imaginative. It doesn't contain any of the magical surrealism, any of the absurd, any of the unknowable. It is an utterly human and maybe even boring novel about a very lost young man in college who can't seem to quite get his love life in order. 
So what saves an incredibly boring story about a college guy - Watanabe - who loves the girl who never loved him? The characters in the book are so well written and fun. Reading this book is almost like being in college again. The first time I read the novel, I had just started college and felt a weird nostalgia for the experiences in the book that I didn't think I was going through, but in retrospect I think it is Every College Person's story. We just don't think our lives are that interesting as we live them because Murakami isn't crafting our stories. Revisiting it was like revisiting a college diary with all the details that have been forgotten through time. 
For my reading, the characters are the heart of the story. Lost Watanabe who is completely indifferent to life and pretends to have no emotions. Manic Pixie Dream Midori who drags her male friend to a porno because her boyfriend won't take her and says things like "I looked like a corpse on the beach with seaweed stuck to my head" as she describes a bad perm. He's Your Friend But You Know He's a Dick Nagasawa, who loves to read, spend money, womanize, and once ate three slugs to get the upperclassmen to leave the freshies alone. Nagasawa's girlfriend, the Girl Who Everyone Knows Can Do Better Including Her But She Stays Anyway. Kizuki the Teenage Tragedy. Storm Trooper the Weird Roommate. And Naoko - the person who never loves you no matter how much you feel they should.
Although this is not the most Murakamiesque, it is one of my favorite of his novels, and when looking for a good airplane read, I decided to pick this one over any of his others.