Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty

Again she thought of a pear--not the everyday gritty kind that hung on the tree in the backyard, but the fine kind sold on trains and at high prices, each pear with a paper cone wrapping it alone--beautiful, symmetrical, clean pears with thin skins, with snow-white flesh so juicy and tender that to eat one baptized the whole face, and so delicate that while you urgently ate the first half, the second half was already beginning to turn brown.  To all fruits, and especially to those fine pears, something happened--the process was so swift, you were never in time for them.  It's not the flowers that are fleeting, Nina thought, it's the fruits--it's the time when things are ready that they don't stay.

Eudora Welty is definitely a master of short fiction.  Her story "Why I Live at the P.O.," which is one of those stories you always see in collections of short stories, is like a hurricane trapped in a bottle: a comic masterpiece that might have been a novel like The Ponder Heart distilled into three or four explosive pages.  Her story "Where is the Voice Coming From?" is a different beast all together--a first-person imagining of the thought process of Medgar Evers' murderer, written even before Byron De La Beckwith was identified.  Those two stories are vastly different, but they each capture some critical voice of the American South--one we'd like to embrace and one we'd like banish, but each undeniably of its time and place.

The Golden Apples is a collection of stories about the South in a mythic, rather than comic or Gothic mode.  Its focus on a single mythical town, Morgana, Mississippi, puts it in a league with Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, or the more recent collection Olive Kitteridge.  In these stories, Welty captures another distinctly Southern voice, one which finds an affinity with Greek myth, as in the collection's title:

Was it so strange, the way things are flung out at us, like the apples of Atalanta perhaps, once we have begun a certain onrush?

Among the mythical figures of Morgana is King McLain, who abandons his wife Snowdie (so called because she is an albino) and his newborn twins, but who continues to float about the nearby towns and forests, to be spotted, every now and then, like a sasquatch.  The first story in the collection, "Shower of Gold," tells the story of King returning home, only to be surrounded at his own front door by his two twins, dressed in Halloween costumes and raising hell, and who have no idea who their father is.  King, of course, thinks better of coming home and runs away again.  At the end of the collection, in the story "The Wanderers"--in which which, like in The Optimist's Daughter, friends and family cast far and wide return for a funeral--King has returned, having shed his mythical qualities and proven, at the end of his life, to be a very normal old man.  In between, Welty provides a pair of stories that contrast the two lives of King's twins--the one who moved to San Francisco, and the one who stayed behind.

It seemed to me that The Golden Apples, unlike Delta Wedding or The Optimist's Daughter, struggles with its ensemble cast, perhaps burdened by the extra task of tracking the various characters over the course of many years.  The stories are checkered with numerous fascinating side characters--King, Snowdie, the quietly despairing piano teacher, Miss Eckhardt, and a mysterious Spanish guitarist.  But the young girls (later, young women) of Morgana who are typically the stories' protagonists and their emotional centers, are difficult to distinguish--something which Welty's frequent obscurism often exacerbates.  But Welty's sense of metaphor, and her careful observations about life, remain as terrific as ever:

Virgie never saw it differently, never doubted that all the opposites on earth were close together, love close to hate, living to dying; but of them all, hope and despair were the closest blood--unrecognizable one from the other sometimes, making moments double upon themselves, and in the doubling double again, amending but never taking back.
That's one of those things that seems undeniably true, but that I never could have put into words myself.  That's one of the most satisfying things about reading, and with Welty, it happens a lot.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

"I created OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world.  I didn't know how to connect with the people there.  I was afraid, for all of my life.  Right up until I knew it was ending.  That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it's also the only place where you can find true happiness.  Because reality is real.  Do you understand?"

"Yes," I said.  "I think I do."

"Good," he said, giving me a wink.  "Don't make the same mistake I did.  Don't hide forever."

The premise is simple: genius creates an immersive virtual reality, makes a lot of money, then, when he dies, he puts his fortune up as the prize in a massive competition within the virtual world.

This book falls into a genre I've decided to start calling a book-movie.  That is, a book written with all the style cues of a movie, that will, inevitably be "adapted" into a movie after the book becomes a best seller.  See The Hunger Games, Harry Potter.  This is not a criticism of this genre, more of an acknowledgment.

Ready Player One reads like the inevitable movie it will become.  It's an engaging page turner, where the good guys are good guys and the bad guys are bad guys and everyone is just the right amount of witty and interesting---but not so witty or interesting that the audience feels threatened or inferior.  And, just when you think the bad guys are going to win, they don't; just when you think the good guy isn't going to get the girl, he is.  Etc.  I realize this sounds like I'm slamming the novel.  I'm not trying to, I genuinely enjoyed it and would recommend to anyone.

The book's also completely full of 80s references.

It's worth reading because of its palpable nerdy-cool-factor.  If you are at all into nerdy things, the novel reads like any nerdy fantasy you've wanted to happen to you.  At one point, the narrator becomes Ultraman, just after his friend, piloting an Gundam RX-78, helped to fight Mechagodzilla.  This was 100% as awesome as it sounds.  If you understood 1/3 of those references, you should probably read this book; if you understood 2/3, you definitely should read this book; if you caught all three references, reading this book is mandatory.

Recommended for a quick, fun read.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Who Do Our Heroes Belong to? Go Set a Watchman & The Meursault Investigation

It's the story of a crime, but the Arab isn't even killed in it---well, he is killed, but barely, delicately, with the fingertips as it were.  He's the second most important character in the book, but he has no name, no face, no words.
--The Meursault Investigation

She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father.  She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, "What would Atticus do?" passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.
--Go Set a Watchman

It was perhaps foolish to think our literary heroes would be immune to the profit-driven plot regurgitation that has become so common in Hollywood that it's cliche to comment on.  But, alas, Babylon!  Our Atticus has come back for a sequel.  The internet was unhappy.  Then it was seeing a silver lining.  The dust has settled, the publisher is rich, and we'll probably have to wait twenty years to see what the scholars have to say.

Just before reading Go Set a Watchman, I came across The Meursault Investigaton, a sequel of sorts to The Stranger (plug: my senior thesis was on Camus's four most important works, including The Stranger), told from the victim's brother's perspective.  The book is a wonderful, even if deeply critical, homage to The Stranger.  In it, the reader is presented with Meusault's murder from the point of view of colonialized Algeria.  Unsurprisingly, it is an unflattering portrait.

Enlightened crusader for justice?
Or patronizing racist?
Why bring this up and review these two books together?  Because rather than a review of each, I want to discuss something else: who do our heroes belong to?  Put differently: who has a right to re-write our heroes?

The most obvious answer is the hero's creator.  I would suggest that Go Set a Watchman is proof that this is the wrong answer.  Go Set a Watchman's Atticus is a racist and resistant to change.  He is inconsistent with To Kill a Mockingbird.  He also does not represent the same ideal he represented in To Kill a Mockingbird: where before he represented astute moral judgment, now he represents a morality to cast aside.

This is not to say that the moral of Go Set a Watchman is bad or wrong or a bad story; it is, however, a poorly executed one.  The inconsistencies with To Kill a Mockingbird coupled with the horrific narrative timing of Go Set a Watchman make this both a bad sequel and a bad novel.  Although acceptable in the academic context of a first draft, it is unpalatable as a fully fledged second novel or a fully fledged sequel (as promised by the guileful marketers).

Sisyphean hero of the absurd?
Or imperialist pig?
That Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee's novel does not make it okay.  Must we accept this new Atticus merely because Lee wrote him this way?  Much in the same way we reject Jar Jar Binks, we may reject this Atticus.

And I think the reason we may reject this Atticus because it's not a good novel.  It doesn't fit.  It doesn't resonate.  It does not speak to us the way To Kill a Mockingbird does.

In contrast, The Meursault Investigation does work.  It is not a stand alone novel in the same way that sequels are not stand alone (I hesitate to call it a sequel though).  But it supplements what The Stranger has to offer by both playing with the themes of The Stranger and criticizing them. (to be fair, Meursault himself never makes an appearance in the novel, thus preventing the risk of inconsistent characters).  In this way, it is harder to reject

Seriously: fuck this guy.
So who do our heroes belong to?  Based on these two novels, I think our heroes belong to whoever can write them well---not necessarily their original creators.  That is: writing the character well is self-justifying and makes the appropriation acceptable.  Appropriating poorly, however, is unacceptable.  This distinction is important because I suspect Go Set a Watchman will not be the only marketing sensation based on a character we all love.  And, I think this leaves open the possibility of rewriting failed character appropriations (I'm looking at you, Star Wars Episodes I-III).  Treating characters as a kind of community property frees them from the tyranny of their creators and recognizes the fact that, when we love a character, that character can become bigger than his creator.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Grendel by John Gardner

The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire.  "Ah, Grendel!" he said.  He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity.  "You improve them, my boy!  Can't you see that yourself?  You stimulate them!  You make them think and scheme.  You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last.  You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.  The exile, captivity, death they shrink from--the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment--that's what you make them recognize, embrace!  You are mankind, or man's condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain.  If you withdraw, you'll instantly be replaced.  Brute existents, you know, are a dime a dozen.  No sentimental trash, then.  If man's the irrelevance that interests you, stick with him!  Scare him to glory!  It's all the same in the end, matter and motion, simple or complex.  No difference, finally.  Death, transfiguration.  Ashes to ashes and slime to slime, amen."

Something about epics like Beowulf doesn't seem coherent in the modern world.  We're no longer able to take our heroes without a grain of salt, and we're often more amenable to sympathize with our villains.  Think of every "We're not so different, you and I" speech given by a comic book bad guy, or the way that science fiction moves like to conclude with some variation of the idea that we were the monster all along.  In a way, Grendel is the version of Beowulf we want and deserve, one that looks through the eyes of the monster.

Gardner's Grendel is a vicious monster, but a self-aware one.  He has no interaction with anyone but his mute, inscrutable mother, and his brief interactions with humans emphasize his monstrousness.  He tells the reader that he is neither "proud nor ashamed" of being what he is, yet he calls himself a "[p]ointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men, murdered children, martyred cows."  His isolation makes him an ideal observer: from the forest he watches King Hrothgar consolidate his power through violence and hollow ideas of honor and loyalty.  He sees the way the singer-storyteller of Hrothgar's meadhall fashions the truth into a kind of useful falsity:

What was he?  The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way--and so did I.

Beowulf tells us that Grendel's persecution of Hrothgar is predicate on his envy at hearing the songs of glory that are sung in the meadhall.  Grendel is true to that point, but the songs become a stand-in for a host of human creative activity: literature, religion, science.  Grendel, on the other hand, is an embodiment of Sartrean existentialism, a figure of complete nihilism intent on wrecking the pretensions of human civilization.  Gardner invents a scene in which Grendel--at the bottom of his cavern, or perhaps in a dream--is coached in existentialism by the rapacious dragon that makes up Beowulf's final episode.  These ideas aren't easy or comfortable for Grendel, but they manage to give him a sense of purpose in purposelessness, a kind of meaning predicated on meaninglessness.

All order, I've come to understand, is theoretical, unreal--a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world--two snake-pits.  The watchful mind lies, cunning and swift, about the dark blood's lust, lies and lies and lies until, weary of talk, the watchman sleeps.  Then sudden and swift the enemy strikes from nowhere, the cavernous heart.  Violence is truth, as the crazy old peasant told Hrothulf.  But the old fool only half grasped what he said.  He had never conversed with a dragon.  And the stranger?

"The stranger" is Beowulf, who doesn't appear until the novel's very end.  Beowulf kills Grendel, as in the epic, by severing his arm, something which Grendel chalks up to mere accident.  But as he has Grendel pinned, he forces him to sing a song about the very wall he's shoved against.  Is it an indicator of the limits of Grendel's philosophy?  Or does it merely suggest that in the end, the "brute existent" of death and nothingness make civilization the only recourse?  What's cool about Grendel is that it takes one of the very oldest English texts and turns it into something very modern, which resonates with the philosophical problems that plagued the 20th century. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

The bombardment began a week later, at midnight.  The cannons, primed by veteran cannoneers, were aimed, muzzles raised, straight at the white star of the Emperor's empire, and they fired--not death-dealing, but life-giving missiles.  For Trurl had loaded the cannons with newborn babies, which rained down upon the enemy in gooing, cooing myriads and, growing quickly, crawled and drooled over everything; there were so many of them, that the air shook with their ear-splitting ma-ma's, da-da's, kee-kee's and waa's.  This infant inundation lasted until the economy began to collapse under the strain and the kingdom was faced with the dread specter of a depression, and still out of the sky came tots, tads, moppets and toddlers, all chubby and chuckling, their diapers fluttering.

Trurl and Klapaucius are constructors, robots who have studied the art of making machines.  They travel throughout the universe, selling their services to various feudal robot kings, and frequently try to one-up each other in their creations.  For example, Trurl boasts that he has created a machine which can produce anything in the world that begins with the letter "N," until Klapaucius challenges it to create "nothing," at which point it begins to deconstruct the entire universe.  Eventually--once Klapaucius apologizes to the machine--everything is put back to rights, but the machine can only replace the things it has disappeared which start with N, meaning never again will the universe have gruncheons, shupops, or thists.

Translating The Cyberiad from Polish must have been quite an undertaking, and Lem's translator Michael Kandel deserves recognition for somehow preserving the alliteration and wordplay that characterizes Lem's style.  The stories which make up The Cyberiad swing deftly from the language of Arthurian romance to mechanical and mathematical jargon:

Trurl and Klapaucius were former pupils of the great Cerberon of Umptor, who for forty-seven years in the School of Higher Neantical Nillity expounded the General Theory of Dragons.  Everyone knows that dragons don't exist.  But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the layman, it does not suffice for the scientific mind... The brilliant Cerberon, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon: the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical.  They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way.  And then there were the imaginary dragons, and the a-, anti- and minus-dragons (colloquially termed nots, noughts, and oughtn'ts by the experts), the minuses being the most interesting on account of the well-known dracological paradox: when two minuses hypercontiguate (an operation in the algebra of dragons corresponding roughly to simple multiplication), the product is 0.6 dragon, a real nonplusser.

The Cyberiad is a great work of science fiction because it's so clearly conversant with the theory and practice of the hard sciences--their language, their intellectual and ethical challenges--but never relies on them or allows them to dampen the imaginative impulse.  It's easy to see a reflection of the absurdity of Philip K. Dick (whom Lem praised, but who in turn believed Lem to be a pseudonym of a composite of Soviet authors, amazingly).  It's also a clear precursor to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, of which certain elements, like the Infinite Improbability Drive that powers space travel, are basically spelled out already by Lem.  All in all, The Cyberiad is funny and thoughtful--two qualities that science fiction has all too rarely.

Check out this Google Doodle inspired by The Cyberiad.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Second Coming by Walker Percy

The present-day unbeliever is crazy because he finds himself born into a world of endless wonders, having no notion how he got here, a world in which he eats, sleeps, shits, fucks, works, grows old, gets sick, and dies, and is quite content to have it so.  Not once in his entire life does it cross his mind to say to himself that his situation is preposterous, that an explanation is due to him and to demand such an explanation and to refuse to play out another act of the farce until an explanation is forthcoming.  No, he takes his comfort and ease, plays along with the game, watches TV, drinks his drink, laughs, curses politicians, and now and again to relieve the boredom and the farce (of which he is dimly aware) goes off to war to shoot other people--for all the world as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying off by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him in no time at all.

I started Walker Percy's The Second Coming not knowing it was set in the North Carolina mountains in the vicinity of Asheville.  It was a happy accident, I thought, since I was going to Asheville in a couple weeks, and I have a well-professed fondness for reading books set in the places I'm traveling.  Then I fractured some bones in my foot in a freak karaoke accident and had to cancel the trip.  An accident, but not a happy one.

But that's okay, I'm not quite unraveling to the extent that Will Barrett, the protagonist of The Second Coming, is.  Will, who also appeared in Percy's The Last Gentleman (I didn't know this was a sequel when I started it) is a millionaire.  He plays a lot of golf.  But his game has gone to seed, and he's started to have fainting spells, and he's obsessively revisiting the moment in his youth when his father shot him--maybe accidentally?--on a hunting trip.  He's also convinced that all the Jews have left North Carolina, and that this is a sign of the End of Days.  Will isn't sure if he believes in God, but he decides to put the question to a test: he will hide out in a nearby cave without food for weeks, and if he survives or is saved, he will believe:

Who else but a madman could sit in a pod of rock under a thousand feet of mountain and feel better than he had felt in years, so good that he smiled again and snapped hsi fingers as if he had made a discovery?  I've got you both, he said aloud, God-seekers and suicides, I've got you all, God, Jews, Christians, unbelievers, Romans, Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Yankes, rebs, blacks, tigers.  At last at last at last.  It took me a lifetime, but I've got you by the short hairs now.  One of you has to cough it up.  There is no way I cannot find out.

Even if the worst comes to worst, he thought with a smile, to suicide, it will turn out well.  My suicide will represent progress in the history of suicide.  Unlike my father's, it will be done in good faith, logically, neatly, and unobtrusively, unobtrusive even to the Prudential Insurance Company.

Will's experiment throws him into the care of Allison, a much younger woman who has recently escaped from a nearby sanitarium.  She's living in a greenhouse, and spending her time scheming how to hoist an old stove through the windows.

When he landed on the floor of her greenhouse, knocking himself out, he was a problem to be solved, like moving the stove.  Problems are for solving.  Alone.  After the first shock of the crash, which caught her on her hands and knees cleaning the floor, her only thought had been to make some sense of it, of him, a man lying on her floor smeared head to toe with a whitish grease like a channel swimmer.  As her mind cast about for who or what he might be--new kind of runner?  masquerader from country-club party?  Halloween trick-or-treater?--she realized she did not yet know the new world well enough to know what to be scared of.  Maybe the man falling into her house was one of teh things that happened, albeit rarely, like a wood duck flying down the chimney.

The Second Coming follows the same basic pattern as The MoviegoerWill and Allie, like Binx and Kate, find each other as a revelation, mental illness finding comfort and support in mental illness.  Allie's mental illness, which manifests as a strange rhyming speech pattern that only Will can understand, is not the same thing as Kate's manic-depression, but it's a degree of difference and not of kind.  Will, like Binx, undergoes a kind of cosmic search that is ever only nebulously defined, and the answers come not in the form of a mystical revelation, but in the flesh-and-blood arms of another person.

But Percy is the kind of novelist who can write the same book without it seeming like the same book.  The Second Coming is rich in detail and subtlety, and Will and Allie are distinctly drawn enough to feel like characters in a new story rather than a rehash of the old.  And while The Second Coming never matches the excellence of The Moviegoer, it struck a special chord in me because of its insights about my home state, about which Willie says he "lived in the most Christian nation in the world, the U.S.A., in the most Christian part of that nation, the South, in the most Christian state in the South, North Carolina, in the most Christian town in North Carolina."  I doubt that's true (more Christian than Alabama or Mississippi?) but I liked the way the novel explores the search for God in a place which presupposes the search is already over.

In a certain way, I identify with Percy's novels more than any others, between the religious and metaphysical subject matter and the regional specificity of the South.  I'd like to read the predecessor to this novel, The Last Gentleman, about Will's youth as a Southerner living in New York, but I'm afraid it'll be too much like looking in a mirror.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've been worse than truant in my reviews this year--I plead the "two children 3 and under exemption--but Brittany requested a review of The Buried Giant, which both Chris and Randy read this year, and I'd hoped to review it anyway, as a fan of Ishiguro's other novels.

The Buried Giant is Ishiguro trying his hand at the genre of high fantasy. The plot is fairly simple--an older couple travel across a fantastical land to visit their son who lives a ways away. Along the way they encounter vengeful village people (not THOSE Village People), one of King Arthur's Knights, monks who are not what they seem and, tying them all together, an ancient dragon whose breath keeps the entire world in a state of forgetting.

It's not a state of total amnesia--people remember their names, some of their acquaintances, bits and pieces of their past--but in a way, it's worse. They live with the past constantly on the tip of their tongue, unable to recall it. They, and the reader, sense from the beginning that this isn't personal--and that there's reason to suspect that remembering might not lead to a happy ending.

Based on the other two Ishiguro books I've read, Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, this is all very much in Ishiguro's wheelhouse. Characters who can't quite remember, or contextualize, their lives, the questions of choice and agency, the gradual revelation of a world that looks normal but is revealed in turns to have some sinister underpinnings. Not that any of this is bad. These are complex, nearly bottomless themes, and Ishiguro has--and does at times here--explored them quite artfully. Here though, things don't really come together in a satisfactory way.

First, the good. There are some great setpieces here--I enjoyed the couple's harrowing journey across a fairy-haunted lake and their stay at a creepy monastary--and the medieval atmosphere occasionally works well--it's hard to imagine something like a monastery chase happening in modern times. Axl and Beatrice are strong characters, and their interactions, which form the emotional core of the book, work in spite of their sometimes stilted stylization.

Ultimately, though, I have to side with Usula K. LeGuin and Chris. There are just too many weak links in the story for it to hit as hard as Never Let Me Go or Remains. The fantasyland Ishiguro creates too often feels like it exists on a soundstage, with the cast too frequently lapsing into parodic dialog. Two of the main characters, the warrior Wistan and the elder Arthurian Gawain, never develop much beyond their archetypes, and the twists, which in Never Let Me Go and Remains are both surprising and enriching to the story being told, are, here, somewhat predictable and don't expand the themes of the story beyond what we already know.

I enjoyed The Buried Giant, but it is by far my least favorite Ishiguro. Pick up the other two books mentioned here first. I'm not sure this one is really necessary if you can remember those.