Fairy Tale

By Stephen King

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Stephen King baffles me.

To be fully transparent, I kind of love Stephen King. I’ve been reading his books since I was a kid; I’ve read at least a dozen over the years, including some of his real stinkers (‘Cell’), and I have always (always!) enjoyed them. However, I have also always been left with a nagging inability to say what, exactly, it was about them that I was enjoying.

King is usually thought of as a master of plot, but he isn’t. Some of his books are very well plotted, yes, but he’s not at all reliable in this space. Think about a book like, say, ‘Tommyknockers’, which goes totally off the rails, or the Dark Tower series, with its weird introduction of Stepthen King, the Author, as a character in the middle (I actually loved it, but it was weird). Really, when people say that King is a master of plot, I think that what they actually mean is that he is an amazing generator of premises, which is true, but a premise can only you take so far.

And it’s certainly not the quality of his prose. I don’t mean to imply that King is a bad writer – he’s not. He leans a little too hard on a conversational tone (especially in his later career), and he’s repetitive, but I would challenge anyone to publish the millions of words he has published and not repeat themselves sometimes. Let’s just say his prose is utilitarian: no one has ever accused him of writing poetry.

But, as I said, I have enjoyed every book of his I’ve ever read, and his success is undeniable. He’s doing something right, I’ve just never really known precisely what it was.

I just finished ‘Fairy Tale’, his latest, and, unfortunately, I am not closer to figuring it out. ‘Fairy Tale’ is less horror, more fantasy, better in line with books like ‘The Stand’ and the Dark Tower books than, say, ‘Salem’s Lot’ or ‘Pet Semetary’.

‘Fairy Tale’ is the story of Charlie, an American high schooler. Charlie seems typical, but isn’t: he lost his mother in an accident when he was quite young, and his father descended, for a time, into alcoholism. Now, his father is sober and rebuilding his life, and Charlie is doing well: an excellent student, a varsity athlete, a well-liked and kind boy. One day, though, as Charlie is heading home from practice, he hears the frantic barking of a dog from the spooky old house down the street from where he lives. When Charlie goes to investigate, he discovers Mr. Bowditch, the owner of the house, fallen, with a badly broken leg, and guarded by an ancient German Shepard named Radar. Almost immediately, Charlie falls completely in love with Radar, and this attachment draws him further and further into Mr. Bowditch’s life. As Mr. Bowditch begins to heal from his accident, Radar begins to fail. And as Mr. Bowditch comes to trust Charlie, he lets him in on the secret that Bowditch has guarded his entire life: in the shed in his backyard, there is a doorway into another world, a world full of all the fairy tale creatures we have glimpsed in stories. And, in that world, there is machine that can save Radar’s life.

I felt reading ‘Fairy Tale’ what I usually feel when reading a King novel: mildly contemptuous and yet totally absorbed. So much of what he writes seems obvious, simplistic, or even stupid, yet I could not put the book down. Parts of ‘Fairy Tale’ are downright corny, but it did not stop me from caring what happened. And not because I didn’t know what was going to happen – on the contrary, ‘Fairy Tale’ is very predictable. I cared only because the book was fun to read.

‘Fairy Tale’ is a classic Hero’s Quest, and it has the feel of a book that has been kicking around in someone’s head for a while. If I had to bet, I would guesss that King has been stewing on fairy tales for years, thinking about the darkness of the original stories, the ways in which we moderns have sanitized them, the themes and tropes which are worn so smooth at this point that they are functionally universal. I suspect he has wanted to answer those stories for a long time now, to explicate and pull the darkness back into the fore.

Stephen King

It’s not hard to see why, and, though it has been the project of many authors before him, it’s obvious why King would consider himself the man for the job. He is a man with a skill for re-imagining old stories, for layering darkness onto familiar scenes. And, certainly, he has applied himself to fairy tales with aplomb.

I wondered while reading “Fairy Tale’ whether what King brings to the table is less any specific writerly skill than his un-self-conscious enthusiasm. King throws his whole self at his stories: though they are always outlandish, he never hides behind irony or sarcasm (or even metaphor.) He keeps no emotional distance from his content – whatever comes pouring out of his pen, he gives it as much life as he can. Maybe there is something infectious about that kind of sincerity.

‘Fairy Tale’ often gave me the sense that I was along for an eccentric journey with an enthusiast. It wasn’t the itinerary I would have picked, if I were traveling alone, but my guide was so into it that it had an unexpected pleasure.

King’s enthusiasm (for his topics, his characters, and his authorial predecessors) protects his readers from feeling stupid. I’m not sure that I can think of many other authors who could write about, say, the old woman who lived in a shoe without making their readers feel like complete idiots. King is creative, certainly, but I don’t think that’s enough. I think his books work (insofar as they do) because he is also totally confident. King loves stories and he doesn’t see any reason why he should be embarrassed about telling any of them.

He might be on to something there. Maybe the point of stories isn’t that they are new, or surprising, or instructive. Maybe the point of stories is merely that they transport and entertain. Maybe the secret of King’s success is that he’s not worrying about being “good”, he’s just enjoying himself, and his enjoyment spills over onto us. It doesn’t matter if the ground is well worn or not; what matters is whether the ground is fun to walk on.

And King has an unsurpassed sense of where the fun ground is. Perhaps this, more than anything, is the secret to his success: he has a tremendous instinct for fun. He’s never let me down on this: he has never sacrificed his fun in order to be literary. Even when his plots are bizarre (‘Cell’), they are fun.

And ‘Fairy Tale’ is fun. It’s fun to read. Like all King’s books, it’s easy and weird and fun. No one else could have written it. Probably, no one else would have tried, but certainly no one else could have succeeded.

Beyond Black

By Hilary Mantel

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‘Beyond Black’ was first published in 2005, four years before ‘Wolf Hall’, the first of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels. The Cromwell trilogy is, of course, the work that made Mantel stratospherically famous: the first two installments each won the Booker Prize, and they are widely considered to be a masterpiece. I certainly think that they are – I have been captivated by the Cromwell trilogy since I read ‘Wolf Hall’; I think it is one of the best works of fiction I have ever read, full stop.

But I’ve never read anything else Mantel has written (my failure, I know). I wasn’t even super aware of the fact that she had written things besides the Cromwell Trilogy – I had her slated in my mind as a sort of one-hit-wonder (ignorant and idiotic, I know). However, her other works have been often mentioned in the coverage after her death; in particular, one called ‘Beyond Black’ was repeatedly singled out for praise.

However, the praise was always tinged with a sort of emotional ambivalence that I didn’t understand, as though the reviewers were made to feel vulnerable while reading it. Slate’s Laura Miller, for example, wrote, “The best and most acerbically Mantellian of these pre-Cromwell novels is 2005’s ‘Beyond Black’.” When Fay Weldon reviewed it in The Guardian, she wrote, “[Mantel is] witty, ironic, intelligent and, I suspect, haunted. This is a book out of the unconscious, where the best novels come from.” Everyone loved it, but everyone was also slightly afraid of it, too.

I was confused by this at first, until I asked some people who had read it. Everyone said the same thing: “This is one of the best trauma novels I’ve ever read.” That’s the crux of it, of course: ‘Beyond Black’ is a trauma novel. Trauma novels are tricky. To be successful, the author must convince the reader of the trauma itself: they must effectively communicate pain. However, too much focus on the pain and the characters get lost. The novel risks becoming alienatingly grim, or, worse, torture-pornographic. It’s a hard line to walk.

‘Beyond Black’s’ pain belongs to Al. Al (short for Alison) is a medium. She can communicate with the dead; in fact, she can’t escape them. They crowd her, speaking to her, messing with her electronics, tripping her and taking her things. Some of the dead are benign, lost souls that only need attention and guidance. But the dead are merely the living, on the other side. And just as some of us aren’t kind, some of them aren’t either. The dead who crowd Alison, they aren’t kind. They taunt and torment her; they move her things, hide or break them. They interfere with the functioning of machines in her home. They assault her friends and drive them away. Worst of all, they remind her of something, something terrible which has happened to her but which she cannot quite remember.

And it’s not just the dead: Alison is surrounded by unkindness from the living, too. Even her business partner Colette (the person closest to her in the world), is almost sadistically mean to Al, especially about her weight. Al works constantly, touring the country and putting on shows, working for private clients, all in an attempt to keep ahead of the memories pursuing her. But it’s not working: the spirits are crowding in, and Al is starting to drown.

If I’m making ‘Beyond Black’ sound trite or formulaic, that is my failing, not the book’s. In fact, ‘Beyond Black’ is strikingly non-trite; on the contrary, it is bleak, almost numbingly dark. As someone (a fan) warned me when I started it, “Try reading it quickly, so you don’t get bogged down in the gloom.” Al is like a woman struggling in quicksand: desperate to keep her head above water, the most she struggles, the faster she sinks.

In the hands of a writer as good as Mantel, Al’s fear and despair are claustrophobic, stifling. This effect is accentuated by Al’s own refusal to remember why she’s traumatized – she is in full flight from something she won’t turn and face.

Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s decision to use spirits as metaphor emerges here as a particularly canny one. Spirits, unlike trauma, pursue – Al is literally followed by the dead that cling to her, the malicious dead. Like trauma, however, the spirits are invisible to most people. Thus, Al is tormented by forces only she can see. This turns out to be a pretty magnificent metaphor for trauma itself. Mantel has literalized traumatic suffering: it is the ghost of our past pain pursuing us. Normal grief dies a healthy death, moves on; trauma dogs our steps, invisible to others, tripping us up and disordering our lives.

I understand better now the emotionally cautious admiration for ‘Beyond Black’. I loved it, but it was hard to read it. Al elicited empathy from me. I felt defeated by her pain; I wanted to help her stay afloat but, of course, I couldn’t. I particularly longed to defend her against the living, the people around her who sensed her vulnerability and responded with cruelty.

This is Mantel’s great gift, I think: writing characters who feel real to her readers. It was, of course, the most striking aspect of her Cromwell trilogy: the salience of Cromwell himself. When I finished ‘The Mirror and the Light’, I felt like someone I loved had died. I had lost all sense that I was reading a work of fiction – the story had become emotionally real for me. I had a milder but similar reaction to ‘Beyond Black’: I was absorbed, connected to Al, worried for her. Her pain had been effectively communicated to me.

I don’t know exactly how Mantel accomplishes this. It feels like a magic trick, every time. I pick up a book she’s written, and then immediately forget it’s a book. It’s something in the quality of her writing, how plain and perfect it is. I’m so happy to discover that there is more Mantel to read. I had associated her so strongly with her most famous protagonist, and it’s a pleasure to learn that there are other protagonists to care about. ‘Beyond Black’ will not have the same magnitude of effect for me as the Cromwell Trilogy, but, frankly, that is not a reasonable standard to which to hold any book. I did love it, and I respected it enormously. I thought it was subtle, sad and lovely and brutal all at the same time, but in a good way. In the best way.

Shroud for a Nightingale

By P.D. James

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When I look at my most-used tags on this blog, one in particular stands out: ‘England’. I’ve tagged a dozen posts ‘England’ – the only other tags that common are all genre tags: ‘Science Fiction’, ‘Mystery’, stuff like that. ‘England’ is the most common tag which is not a major literary genre.

Which makes sense, when you think about it: ‘England’ is almost a literary genre in its own right. For several hundred years, English writers have been producing literature whose Englishness was central to the point and purpose of the work. Literature where the tone, culture, and context all are so deeply English that it is almost impossible to imagine the work in another context.

There are many novels whose essential Englishness is vital to the work: anything by Trollope, Waugh, Dickens, or Austen, for example. It’s not all dead authors, either: even some modern English novels are grounded, inescapably, in this sense of place: try bleaching the Englishness out of, say, Harry Potter, and see where it leaves you.

This tends to inculcate in lovers of English literature a sort of nostalgia for a literary England that (probably?) doesn’t exist. A highly local sort of England: quaint but complex, peaceful but also roiling with social and class tensions. A nation of country-sides and towns (none of which are more than an hour’s drive to London) full of vicars and hedgerows, where 50% of the populous are landed gentry and where there are a lot of murders.

As you may know, I have been reading a lot of P.D. James lately. Her spare prose and beautifully-plotted murders make for perfect fall reading, and I’ve been working my way through her Adam Dalgliesh series. I haven’t written about every single one, because they are formulaic (but in the best way), but her fourth, ‘Shroud for a Nightingale’, got me thinking about the Englishness of novels.

That’s probably because ‘Shroud for a Nightingale’ is saturated with English-feeling. To an American, James’ novels play right into our ignorant, Miss Marple-y ideas of what England was. ‘Shroud For A Nightingale’, for example, is set in a nursing school. All the students are (of course) women. They wear uniforms and have elaborate hot-beverage routines before their bedtimes (all the easier to murder them!), they fall in love with doctors and they have private and stoically-unacknowledged griefs.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, let me share a few representative passages with you:

“The quickest way to the private wing was through the out-patients’ hall. The department was already buzzing with activity. The circles of comfortable chairs, carefully disposed to give an illusion of informality and relaxed comfort, were filling quickly. Volunteers from the ladies’ committee of the League of Friends were already presiding at the steaming urn, serving tea to those regular patients who preferred to attend an hour before their appointments for the pleasure of sitting in the warmth, reading the magazines and chatting to their fellow habitués.” (p. 90)

Or:

P.D. James

“Fifteen minutes later, Masterson’s car passed the flat where Miss Beale and Miss Burrows, cosily dressing-gowned, were sipping their late night cocoa before the dying fire. They heard it as one brief crescendo in the intermittent flow of traffic, and broke off their chatter to speculate with desultory interest on what brought people out in the small hours of the morning. It was certainly unusual for them to be still up at this hour, but tomorrow was Saturday and they could indulge their fondness for late-night conversation in the comforting knowledge that they could lie in next morning.” (p. 304)

The atmosphere of this novel (of almost all of these novels) is imbued with a sense of profound orderliness. A sense that society has been arranged in a stable fashion, with predictable rules and predictable consequences for breaking those rules. I have a sort of pet theory that it is exactly this impression of English orderliness that has allowed the murder mystery sub-genre to thrive so well within it. Attention can be lavished on each individual murder because, otherwise, things hum along so smoothly. And the murders themselves are always coherent, always intimate and motivated. Murder within order is interesting; murder amid chaos is scary.

I suppose that this fondness might read as patronizing to actual English people – I can understand that, although I do not see that it is all that different than the fondness of Europeans for stories of the Wild West. And I would point out that all of the authors that I have named here are British. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that the smallness, the old-fashioned twee-ness of the setting, isn’t part of what audiences are responding to. To romantic notions of aristocracy, to a longing for a more orderly society. And, of course, for the intimate dramas and creative local murders that might plague such an imagined society. It’s not accurate, of course, but it is lovely.

Why am I even talking about this? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. Certainly, I don’t have a great reason. But, as I chew my way happily through the James canon, I am struck over and over again how grounded these novels are in a sense of place. And, also, how familiar that place (which is fictional) feels to me, an American born in the 1980s.

English literature, writ large, has conveyed so coherent a vision of itself that I recognize it from book to book, author to author. I feel at home in it, despite its imaginary quality and my own lack of Englishness. That really is a triumph for a national literature: to make your shared vision of a country (and time) so consistent, so vivid, that it becomes an imaginative home for people all over the world. To build a world so persuasive that it comes to define whole genres. To build a world so enduring that it is recognizable from Dickens to J.K. Rowling.

The tags of this blog accurately reflect my own reader’s mind: I love English literature. Whole eras of my reading life have been defined by English literature; English authors would dominate any list of my favorite writers. This is not a supremacist point of view, but a sentimental one: I am not and would not argue that English literature is better than other national literatures. But it is very dear to me.

My Family and Other Animals

By Gerald Durell

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I’d like to mount a defense of charm.

Charm, you might argue, is not under attack. Charm is charming; everyone likes it. Sure, fine, charm is not aesthetically controversial, that’s true, but many people consider it…superficial. Most people would agree that it is an attractive characteristic, but most people would not consider it a substantive quality.

Certainly, it’s not a high literary quality. When we discuss Great Books, we don’t usually describe them as “charming” and, if we do, it’s orthogonal to the quality of the book, a nice surprise but not dispositive. We expect Great Books to move us, instruct us, or enrich us – we do not expect them to charm us.

The subtle implication is that charm alone will not justify a work. It’s great if a book is charming, but only as long as it is also educating, or moving, or impressive in some other way. Charm alone does not deserve our time.

I disagree.

‘My Family and Other Animals’ is the first of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy. Durrell was the youngest son in what must have been an extremely eccentric English family. Born in India, his family moved to the Greek island of Corfu when he was a young boy. His three memoirs of that period of his life made him famous; ‘My Family and Other Animals’ is the first chronologically, and the best known.

Part of the charm of ‘My Family and Other Animals’ comes from the fact that Gerald’s family is worthy of a memoir all their own. Gerald had three living siblings: Margo, his spotty and self-absorbed older sister; Leslie, his martial-minded older brother with a penchant for detonating munitions near the house; and Lawrence, the novelist, a pompous braggart who is responsible for 90% of the best laugh lines in the book:

“It was Larry, of course, who started it. The rest of us felt too apathetic to think of anything except our own ills, but Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with catlike unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.” (p. 3)

However, most of the attraction of this book comes from Durrell himself. Gerald Durrell would grow up to become a naturalist, and ‘My Family and Other Animals’ is the memoir of a child already in love with nature. Durrell spends the book wandering over Corfu, recording his close observations of its animal life. Insects, fish, bird, and mammals: nothing escapes his notice, and, usually, his interference. A shockingly large number of these animals will be captured and let loose in his family’s home. Durrell’s obsession with animal life is beating heart of the book.

‘Our attempts at history were not, at first, conspicuously successful, until George discovered that by seasoning a series of unpalatable facts with a sprig of zoology and a sprinkle of completely irrelevant detail, he could get me interested. Thus I became conversant with some historical data which, to the best of my knowledge, have never been recorded before. Breathlessly, history lesson by history lesson, I followed Hannibal’s progress over the Alps. His reason for attempting such a feat and what he intended to do on the other side were details that scarcely worried me. No, my interest in what I considered to be a very badly planned expedition lay in the fact that I knew the name of each and every elephant. I also knew that Hannibal had appointed a special man not only to feed and look after the elephants, but to give them hot-water bottles when the weather got cold. This interesting fact seems to have escaped most serious historians.” (p. 46)

Gerald Durrell

‘My Family and Other Animals’ is as low-stakes as it gets. Certainly, there is no profound dramatic tension; there isn’t really even a plot. No one is threatened, no one comes to harm, no one learns or grows. The books has no philosophical or moral agenda. It does not even make an argument about the preservation of nature. Though Durrell would go on to become a naturalist, his childish enthusiasm for the animals in his environment are not preservationist; on the contrary, as Durrell seemed inclined to capture and bring home any interesting animal he found on the island, he was probably a destructive force on Corfu, all things considered.

All of which is fine. Actually, it’s better than fine – it’s great. ‘My Family and Other Animals’ is a beautifully written, funny little book that will cause its readers not one minute of stress. It is a light-hearted memoir of an eccentric family in a beautiful place. It is completely, and only, charming.

Which does not mean that it is unworthy of your time, or of serious thought. Charm, I think, is good for the soul. Charm helps to heal our psychic wounds. It soothes and comforts us. And the more unsettling the state of the world, the more we need these pools of quiet charm, peaceful places where we can go and rest and be reminded that effortless, inconsequential joy still exists in the world.

Reading ”My Family and Other Animals’ is a joyful experience. It makes me happy (that’s why I do it every few years, when I feel low). It’s a lovely book, full of air and light. There is no darkness, no dire consequence to be afraid of, but it’s not boring for that lack. For all its plotlessness, the world is compelling: compelling in its happy sunlit quality, happy in its cast (though nothing of import really happens to any of them), happy in its small, inconsequential misadventures. It stands as a good reminder that books needn’t have high stakes to affect us; sometimes, a few light and charming moments can mean more to a reader than all the seriousness in the world.

Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson

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Have you ever tried a new food and thought happily, ‘Wow, this is so easy to chew!’ It might just be me, but I doubt it somehow. Some foods are wondrously easy to chew: texturally satisfying while still working your jaws enough to justify their status as solid foods. Foods for which the ease of chewing is part of the pleasure of eating them.

That’s how I feel about ‘Life After Life’.

‘Life After Life’ is one of Kate Atkinson’s stand-alone novels (as opposed to her Jackson Brodie series, which I really like). Its protagonist, Ursula Todd, is the third child of Hugh and Sylvie Todd. She is born on February 11, 1910, with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She is strangled.

And then reborn. And reborn again.

Ursula Todd dies many times, and in many different ways. She will drown as a little girl, be killed by the Spanish Flu, bombed in the blitz, murdered by a husband. Each life will be a little different, some better, some worse. Ursula will learn and forget and learn again, carrying vague memories, suspicions, hunches, through her many lives.

And it’s so easy to chew! Er, read – it’s so easy to read!

First of all, the plot (reliving the same life, over and over, but tweaking it each time) is a lay-up of a plot. It would be difficult to write a book with this premise that wasn’t eminently readable, in my opinion. The interesting-ness is built-in: who doesn’t want to get a practice run at their own lives? The idea is irresistible to anyone who has ever regretted anything.

And the setting: World War II. Another slow pitch right over the plate. Maybe, one day, World War II will stop being an interesting fictional backdrop, but that day is nowhere in sight. World War II offers so many opportunities for novelists that it must be difficult to choose; Atkinson solves this problem by refusing to choose and writing all the plots. Ursula will pull bodies out of bombed out buildings, make friends with Eva Braun, marry a Nazi. She will even kill Hitler in one of her timelines (seriously).

All the elements are in place for an absolute tear-through of a book; all Atkinson needed to do was write well. And, luckily, Atkinson is a master of chewable prose.

Easy-to-read is a distinct quality that writing can have. In my opinion, it’s totally orthogonal to the goodness or badness of the prose itself: there is really good writing that is very easy to read, and really good writing that is very difficult to read. Some prose just works with you: it flows the way your brain flows; it doesn’t make you work. Sometimes, this is a lazy quality, but not in Atkinson’s case.

Kate Atkinson seems, from the two books I’ve read, an excellent writer of easy, vivid prose. She blends several qualities together into a well-balanced mixture. She is colorful, but she doesn’t over-burden her prose with description. She is funny, but she doesn’t tell jokes. She is casual without being too demotic (her language is realistic while remaining universal, no dialect for her). Her vocabulary is massive, but she almost never uses obscure or overly-difficult words. She’s a really good prose stylist, in my opinion (rather in the mode of J.K. Rowling).

Let me see if I can give you a sense of what I mean:

“Although, of course, neither Bridget nor Mrs. Glover had been invited to the Berkeley, and indeed Bridget had never been inside a London hotel, or a hotel anywhere come to that, apart from having gone into the Shelbourne to admire the foyer before catching the ferry at Dun Laoghire to come to England, “a lifetime ago.” Mrs. Glover, on the other hand, declared herself to be “quite familiar” with the Midland in Manchester where one of her nephews (of which, it seemed, she had an endless supply) had taken her and her sister “on more than one occasion.” (p. 175)

Or:

“He had asked her to meet him for a drink, a request conveyed on an Admiralty docket that had arrived mysteriously while she was briefly out of the office…’I think your department may be due an audit’, it read. Crighton liked code. Ursula hoped that the navy’s encryptions weren’t as rudimentary as Crighton’s.

Miss Fawcett, one of her clerical assistants, spotted the note lying in full view and gave her a panic-stricken look. “Crikey,”, she said. “Are we? Due an audit?”

“Someone’s idea of a joke,” Ursula said, dismayed to find herself blushing. There was something un-Crighton-like about these salacious (if not downright filthy) but seemingly innocent messages. ‘I believe there is a shortage of pencils.’ Or ‘Are your ink levels sufficiently topped up?’ Ursula wished he would learn Pitman’s, or more discretion. Or, better still, stop altogether.” (p. 295)

Kate Atkinson

Ignore the light-heartedness; this is really good prose. It is information-dense without in any way sacrificing clarity. Each sentence is instantly and totally comprehensible. There isn’t a word out of place. Usually, writing with this much complexity gets quickly bogged down in extra adjectives, too many phrases. There’s none of that here; Atkinson has put every word exactly where she needs it, and has nothing leftover. Lastly, notice the diversity in the vocabulary. Most writers are repetitive: they have favorite words and phrases which they repeat over and over. Atkinson does not – her working vocabulary (as well as her set of cultural touch points and allusions) is vast.

‘Life After Life’ left me with the distinct impression that I had read something fun rather than something good. It was a romp of a read, engaging and easy to follow, sad sometimes and funny sometimes and suspenseful sometimes.

It’s not a bad thing, having a nice reading experience! Nevertheless, I am left with the feeling that I had just read a 500-page novel without having to strain even the tiniest bit. It’s the feeling that you have after phoning in a work-out: technically, you did the exercises, but you didn’t need to stretch a single muscle. Maybe you enjoyed it, but you didn’t improve.

And, OK, not all reading experiences need be opportunities for betterment, I understand that. Sometimes books are just fun and that’s great. In Atkinson’s case, though, it makes me a tad uneasy because she is such a good technical writer. And maybe that’s unfair – isn’t her lovely and enjoyable prose enough? But I have a feeling that, if she pushed, she could write something lovely and hard. Something really magnificent.

Zone One: Part Two

The Part About the Book

By Colson Whitehead

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It was probably clear last week that I’m really excited about zombies. And the book that prompted my enthusiastic screed was ‘Zone One’, by Colson Whitehead.

I love Colson Whitehead. Whitehead is doing what I would want to do, if I were a novelist: using fantastical premises to ask moral questions. He loves alternative histories, weird metaphors (racism explored via elevator repair philosophies), apolocalypse dramas. And he’s incredibly smart – his novels are fast-paced and unsparing. He revels in complexity, never reducing or simplifying the problem or the prose. You need to pay attention, because Whitehead isn’t going to do you any favors.

If you had asked me to pick a writer to write a zombie-apocalypse novel, Whitehead would have been in the top five easily. He’s an author who marries a very vivid novelist imagination with a love for moral exploration. So, when I learned that he actually had already written a zombie novel, I jumped on it.

‘Zone One’ lived up to my expectations, all of them. It is exactly what I wanted a zombie novel to be: vivid, bleak, brutal, hopeless, specific, convincing. It’s the kind of book you want to read all the way through in one go, but you have to take breaks because you keep getting upset.

‘Zone One’ takes place in New York City several years after the zombie apocalypse. After a near-total collapse of civilization, survivors have begun to rebuild. There are emerging population centers, headed by a new capital in Buffalo. Now, the new American authorities have decided to clear New York City of all the undead. To do this, survivors have established Zone One,at the southern-most tip of Manhattan as a jumping-off point for the clean-up operations. The marines have already been through; now it is up to small, three-man crews to go in and take care of any straggler zombies. Mark Spitz is on one of these crews, working his way, block by block, through the dead city, finding and tagging bodies, and putting down any zombies missed in the first pass.

Most zombie stories take place up close. The drama of zombie stories usually lies in devastating choices forced on the individual: Dad has been exposed – do I kill him now, as he is begging me to, or wait, and risk his turning and killing us all? Most zombie stories are intimate – they dwell on personal love, familial bonds.

‘Zone One’ doesn’t really dwell in this space (or, very little). Rather, it takes that intimacy for granted, and then widens the scope. I loved ‘Zone One’ so much because it exploited the full brutality of the zombie story on a societal level. It is a novel not about the impossible decisions of individuals, but about the effect of the total collapse of civilization on the human psyche.

There are moments of individual poignancy, of course, but Whitehead deploys them not for direct emotional effect, but rather to show how, in the case of total social destruction, such choices are commonplace. All survivors will have a horror story; trauma no longer makes you special. In fact, the ubiquity of trauma, the fatigue of it, is one of the most affecting parts of ‘Zone One’: how can you build a civilization when everyone in it has experienced the stuff of nightmares? When the nightmares are reality?

Every person still alive at the time of ‘Zone One’ has watched unthinkable things happen to someone they love. Mark Spitz, for example, came home one night to find his mother eating his father. However, instead of leaning into this kind of personal tragedy in the normal, zombie-story mode, Whitehead imagines this sort of pain on a large scale. He imagines what it would be like if everyone felt the same pain – personal, but the same.

OK, you might be asking, but how is that any different from normal post-apocalyptica? I’ve read ‘The Road’ – does ‘Zone One’ have anything to add?

The answer is: yes, two things.

First of all, unlike other apocalypses (plagues, nuclear blasts), zombies are active. Not only do they destroy civilization, they literally chase you around afterwards. You may survive the initial event, but you will never be able to let down your guard. You will never be really safe again.

Colson Whitehead

Whitehead is less interested in communicating the relentlessness of the threat than in showing its effect, but he does this extremely well. ‘Zone One’ isn’t about the initial panic – it’s about the debilitating effect of constant panic over years. The characters in ‘Zone One’ aren’t scared to die. On the contrary, they have been scared to die for so long that they almost welcome it. The tone is more of defeat, of irreparable loss, of how chronic fear can shrink a human spirit into dull nothingness.

Second of all, Whitehead is a better, funnier writer than most people attracted to the genre of civilizational-collapse. He’s exactly who you want thinking about zombies. One of Whitehead’s strengths has always been his attachment to specifics. He is a wildly inventive writer, and he imagines not just on the grand, moral scale, but also in the details.

‘Zone One’ is rich in detail, dense and complicated without ever feeling like a slog. And it’s scary, but not the way zombie stories normally are. It doesn’t elicit the fear of pursuit, the sort of fear you might feel if you were being chased by an actual zombie. Rather, ‘Zone One’ caused me to feel a vague panic, a general feeling that everything I love in this world is vulnerable. While I was reading ‘Zone One’, I kept imagining how I would feel, wandering this empty landscape alone, my family destroyed, my loved ones eaten (or worse).

Now, I am not a particularly imaginative or empathic reader – it is not normal for me to suffer emotional discomfort while reading about the suffering of fictional characters. That I did in this case is entirely a testament to Whitehead’s skill as a world builder, to how convincing his imagination is. I loved ‘Zone One’, but, more than that, I was badly rattled by ‘Zone One’. It made me feel small and overwhelmed and unsteady. It gave me a taste of loss on a scale I hope never to experience. It scared me.

Zone One: Part One

The Part About Zombies in General

By Colson Whitehead

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I spend a lot of time thinking about monsters.

It’s probably not difficult to understand why: 1) they are so cool and 2) they are everywhere these days. We have a monster glut. We’ve always been obsessed with them, I think, but monsters are particularly culturally abundant right now: vampires, sexy vampires, vampires fighting werewolves, sexy werewolves, werewolves playing sports, vampires in love with people, vampires in love with vampire slayers, vampires in the American South, zombies in the American South, zombies in love, zombies fighting Mila Jovovich. It’s a lot.

It’s market-driven, clearly; people love monsters. I love monsters (always have), so I’m fine with it, but certain aspects of the monster ecosystem confuse me. To be specific, I am puzzled by the relative super-abundance of vampires.

All monsters are metaphors: they are scenarios dreamed up to interrogate existential problems. They are one of the ways that we ask certain questions, about life, death, humanity, brutality.

Vampires are absurdly popular, which is confusing to me because vampires are so shallow, metaphorically speaking. They are about immortality: what would you give up to live forever? Would you give up your very humanity if you could avoid death?

It’s not a bad question, but it is simplistic. First of all, it supposes that everyone wants to live forever, which, of course, we don’t. Second, it can be answered simply: yes or no. There is no philosophical meat. Either you would, or you would not, depending on how scared you are to die. There’s not a lot more there.

(I’m being a little reductive here, I know: there is actually a slightly interesting wrinkle in the vampire mythos: in order to live forever, you have to literally drain the life out of other people – is that worth it? But, of course, even that question assumes you want to live forever, which, again, isn’t universal.)

I’m not just shitting on vampires and their fans: werewolves are barely more interesting. They’re just a heavy-handed metaphor for human savagery, asking, “Are we responsible for our own capacity for violence if it’s innate?” It could be interesting question, but it does not deserve the creation of entire monster-type to address it.

Zombies, though, zombies are different. Zombies are deep. They are complex, multi-faceted, the most metaphorically rich of all the major monsters. Zombies are powerful.

Werewolves and vampires ask questions which make assumptions about what people want. They assume that everyone longs for immortality, that everyone has a brutal streak which can be interrogated in canine metaphor. I don’t think that this is true, actually – I think there are plenty of non-brutal people who prefer a natural lifespan – but, either way, these questions only address facets of ourselves.

Zombies, though, ask universal questions, questions with global scope: what makes us who we are? Are we our bodies, or are we our minds? If you had to choose between your life and the lives of your loved ones, which would you choose? Would you kill them to survive?

There comes a moment in every zombie story when a protagonist sees their loved one infected. It might be a parent, a child, a spouse, a sibling, the story is the same. The loved one is infected, but change isn’t instant: they will suffer a period of doomed lucidity, waiting to turn.

Zombie protocol is clear: once bitten, a person must be destroyed, lest they turn and spread the infection. This is the one inviolable Zombie Law, universal and non-negotiable. Our protagonist knows it, but, at this, the crucial moment, as they stare into the eyes of their most cherished person, they will falter.

This is what zombies are about: could you stare into the face of the ones you love and destroy them for the betterment of all? Even if you knew they were doomed, even if they begged you to put them out of their misery, could you?

(As an aside, this is why I think zombies canonically require headshots. This killing, this destruction of the loved one, must be brutal. You cannot ease them into a painless death, put them gently to sleep: violence is required. A bullet to the brain, head chopped off, a knife to the top of the spinal column – there will be no mistaking that you killed them)

This is the kind of metaphor I can get behind. This is a wrenching, terrible question that speaks to one of the few truly universal human experiences: the love of another.

Vampires and werewolves are narcissistic creations: they are about what we want (immortality, the ability to vent our rage without consequence). Zombies, on the other hand, are about what we are, especially in relation to other people. They ask us whether or not it is possible to be truly safe while loving someone else.

This problem, known in real life to everyone who has ever been scared of rejection, is made literal in all zombie stories: is being alone the only way to be safe? The instinct of our zombie-story protagonists (as with humans in general) is to band together, to forms tribes and then colonies of survivors, to huddle for protection. But more people means more risk: more chances to get bitten, more vectors to bring the contagion home. Someone will eventually fail to latch the door tightly, forget to close the blackout curtain, will sneeze at the wrong moment: the more people, the more likely this becomes. More than that, if you love someone, your judgment may be compromised – you are more likely to make bad, emotionally-driven decisions if you are attached to your fellow travelers. Is the comfort and help of other human beings worth it? Or are you better off alone?

Zombies are brainless on only the most literal level; metaphorically, they are complex, and literarily, they are far and away the most emotionally effective monster. The vampire story has not yet been written which can compare to the visceral impact of imagining your loved one – your child, your spouse, your sibling – changing, becoming less and less human, and wondering if you will have to kill them to save yourself. Would you be capable? How could you ever convince yourself, sufficiently and truly, that you could never have cured them, that they were truly lost? It is the impossible choice.

Why am I talking about this?

I’m talking about this because I just finished reading the zombie novel I’ve been waiting for my whole life and got really excited about the whole topic. I originally meant this to be a one paragraph intro, but I got carried away. I’ll talk about the book next week.

This Town

By Mark Leibovich

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I used to be something of a news junkie.

When I was in my twenties, I used to check the domestic news constantly. I was one of those people who loaded homepages from the major news outlets every hour or so, who had alerts on their phones, who trolled Twitter for stories that hadn’t hit the outlets yet. I especially loved political news: there was something about the personalities involved – the human complexity, the chess-board-like quality of moves and counter-moves – that I found fascinating. My friends and I would stay all up night on election nights (even midterms), following the results from individual congressional precincts.

That largely changed after 2016. The news, especially the global news, started to feel hopeless and punitive, and I dramatically reduced my intake. I still read the news every day, but usually only once. I go to sleep at normal times on election nights, and learn what happened when I wake up the next morning.

I heard about ‘This Town’ when Mark Leibovich was interviewed on a favorite podcast of mine. He seemed smart and funny and honest, and so I put his book on my list, although I will admit to feeling ambivalent about it. I was worried that it would be bleak and depressing, and I’m not looking for reasons to be more depressed about the government of my country. I was also worried it would be too insider-baseball-ish, too many names dropped that I wouldn’t recognize.

The book certainly advertises itself as both depressing and insular. For example, the Economist blurbed it this way, “This Town may be the most pitiless examination of America’s permanent political class – aka ‘the gang of 500’ or ‘the beltway establishment’ – that has ever been conducted.” That doesn’t sound hopeful, and, frankly, I would have said that my interest in the ‘beltway establishment’ was basically nil these days. But there are very few subjects that aren’t worth reading about in the hands of a smart, funny person, so I read ‘This Town’ last week.

Goddammit, but it’s fun to read. It’s really fun to read. It’s wry, self-aware, and funny. It’s a cliche to say that there were moments when I laughed out loud; it’s true, but it is also insufficient. There were moments when I laughed so hard I had to stop, run into the other room, and read the passage to my partner (who also laughed out loud, which is big deal, because he’s French).

For example,

“In an interview in his office, I asked [Harry] Reid what he really thought of Tom Coburn. He paused for several seconds, and I imagined a little self-editing gerbil inside his skull hurling itself in the unimpeded pathway that typically connects his brain directly to his mouth. A look of slight agony fell over Reid’s sober countenance, the look of someone whose self-editing gerbil is not well-trained.” (p. 85)

How about another?

“Washington convention dictated that [Darrell] Issa must go through the all-important Process of Investigating this matter and then issue his Findings. Part of this would include him seeking me out for questioning. I would not cooperate in Issa’s “investigation” because (1) that would violate my ground rules with [Kurt] Bardella, (2) it would be partaking of a political exercise (which Issa’s “investigation” clearly was), and (3) “refusing to cooperate” with the authority is the badass thing for a reporter to do.

The next few days whirled. At least 150 stories were written about l’affaire Bardella in the seventy-two hours after the original “bombshell” was posted on Politico…Mike Allen devoted exactly half of Playbook to it on the Tuesday morning that it “drove the day.” He and others sometimes referred to me in print as “Leibo,” a nickname I acquired in about first grade that has persisted through every station of my life. As a general rule, I don’t mind the nickname. It was always a good early-warning system in college of which women would never consider going out with me…But I disliked being called “Leibo” in print because it suggested a level of coziness and clubbiness that, while pervasive, I’d rather not be so easily pegged with – especially since I’m writing a book on just that.” (p. 212)

Mark Leibovich

As for insularity: yes, there are a lot of names. However, Leibovich handles them perfectly: clear identifications repeated just often enough to keep you on track, but not so often that it gets annoying. He has an instinct for the anecdote: he knows how to usher his characters through a story, showing their foibles and ridiculousness without humiliating them. He feels truthful but not sadistic. He communicates the absurdity of the situation while winking at his own place within it (and his clear fondness for it).

Leibovich does a beautiful job describing insider-Washington, such a beautiful job that it’s compelling even if you don’t care about insider-Washington, even if you find insider-Washington repellent (and I do). In fact, ‘This Town’ works particularly well if you have a healthy emotional distance from the subject matter, because Leibovich doesn’t demand that you take a moral position.

This is crucial to the success of the book. Leibovich doesn’t ask that you forgive or condemn the Washington establishment; in fact, he himself doesn’t forgive or condemn the Washington establishment. ‘This Town’ isn’t a polemic – it’s a depiction. Leibovich is only asking that you see Washington as it is.

I loved it. More than anything, ‘This Town’ felt like visiting a version of my self from an alternate timeline. Rather than making me feel depressed about the state of the world, it reminded me why I used to love following this stuff in detail: it reminded me how compelling the human drama of politics can be. It gave me a window into a different life, a life in which American politics might have stayed bearable – cynical, but manageable. Where I would have continued to love watching elections, where I would have cared who was running for Congress in that swing district in Ohio, where I would have known who these people were and followed their careers and lives with the same bemused avidity with which I watch my favorite TV shows.

It’s a testament to Leibovich’s skill that he got me to sit still with American politics for five pages, let alone an entire book. I loved this book so much I have already ordered the sequel.

Kitchen Confidential

By Anthony Bourdain

I know that I’m basically the last person alive to read ‘Kitchen Confidential’. I know that everything that needs to be said about Bourdain, his life, his legacy, his death, his synthesized voice for use in documentaries, &c…, has already been said, and, honestly, I have nothing to add.

I knew all that when I picked up ‘Kitchen Confidential’ – my reading it was informed by all the news around Bourdain, not the other way around. Of course, all that context probably blunted my reactions to his book; I suspect that, if I had read it back, before Bourdain was famous, I would have been as fascinated and titillated as everyone else.

But, perhaps because ‘Kitchen Confidential’ is too famous to be surprising anymore, I had a very different reaction to it: I found it needy, and sort of poignant.

‘Kitchen Confidential’ is the book that made Bourdain famous, his memoir of becoming and being a chef in various New York City restaurants. Bourdain framed ‘Kitchen Confidential’ as an exposé of his industry: a peek into the kitchen. The book is filled with juicy little stories and reveals all sorts of mini-non-scandals, like that uneaten bread from bread baskets is recycled, or how long fish is actually kept in restaurant fridges. It emphasizes the culture of kitchens: the vulgarity, the sexual frenzy, the pressure.

But what ‘Kitchen Confidential’ really is, is one long brag. Bourdain’s loving lists of hardships won’t fool anyone: ‘Kitchen Confidential’ is about how grueling, ferocious, and elite Bourdain thinks his profession is. It is a book-length treatise on why chefs are the baddest of the bad. Lest you think that chefs are just people who cook for a living, Bourdain is here to convince that they are actually warriors.

The book is replete with passages like this:

“So you want to be a chef? You really, really, really want to be a chef? If you’ve been working in another line of business, have been accustomed to working eight- to nine-hour days, weekends and evenings off; if you are used to being treated with some modicum of dignity, spoken to and interacted with as a human being, seen as an equal – a sensitive, multidimensional entity with hopes, dream, aspirations and opinions, the sort of qualities you’d expect of most working persons – then maybe you should reconsider what you’ll be facing when you graduate from whatever six-month course put this nonsense in your head to start with.” (p. 289)

This sort of goading braggadocio is typical, and absurd. This passage would be melodramatic from a recruiter for the Marine Core – from a New York City chef, it’s fucking ludicrous.

It is also familiar to me, because, like Bourdain, I work in a specialized technical field characterized by indecipherable argot and mock-heroics: science.

Much of ‘Kitchen Confidential’ felt evocative to me of my own professional world. Scientists also use a jargon-laden dialect designed to be understood only by people in the know (and exclude everyone else). They also pride themselves on pain-points: where Bourdain brags about his cooking injuries, abusive head chefs, and crazy hours, scientists swap war stories about arduous experiments, cruel PIs, and crazy hours.

Scientists are often expected to put in grueling hours; their labor belongs to someone else (in their case, the head of their lab); they spend significant amounts of their careers in apprenticeship positions, where their low pay is justified by the idea that they are learning from a master. They are un-unionized, often at the mercy of tenured ego-maniacs who can be (I promise) as psychotic as any chef Bourdain ever encountered.

And, like Bourdain, for many scientists this suffering becomes a point of pride, something which distinguishes them, makes them tougher and more worthy than people who had have not had to make such sacrifices for their career. Like Bourdain, they come to feel that their ability and willingness to withstand this suffering is a virtue, and that people who are not so willing are therefore weaker and less deserving than they.

Bourdain doesn’t apologize for this kind of culture; on the contrary, he clearly glories in it. Like a lot of people who came up in cultures like that, he feels that it makes him gritty and rugged, “the real deal”, that it taught him the virtues of hard work and expertise, and that younger people should feel privileged and lucky to have the opportunity to be subjected to it.

Ultimately, this machismo, this need to be seen as tough, began to feel desperate. Is it not enough to be an excellent chef? Why do we all have to pretend that being a chef (or a scientist) is basically the same as being Rambo? ‘Kitchen Confidential’ is less a book than a masculine performance, an anxious plea for the sort of macho glamour that normally belongs to fighter pilots and gunslingers.

When someone feels the need to tell you how very manly they are, it never ends up being convincing. It’s not convincing when Bourdain does it, and it’s really not convincing when scientists do it. And, while I understand desire the share how difficult your job can be, when that description becomes celebratory, when you start to defend the behavior simply because you had to endure it, it perpetuates the conditions you should never have had to endure in the first place.

Books like Bourdain’s make their subject professions worse. It is not reasonable that Bourdain once had a fellow chef grope him every day – bragging about how well he took it entirely misses the point. Bourdain sets these challenges up as rites of passage, something you should have to go through if you want to do what he does. A better, more humane approach would be to decry them and hope that they don’t happen to younger chefs.

While there are winning passages, and while Bourdain can be extremely charming (and funny!), the essential posture of the book is problematic. Ultimately, it feels driven more by Bourdain’s need to be seen a certain way than anything intrinsic to cheffing. While parts of it are really entertaining, I doubt that ‘Kitchen Confidential’ will age well, and, frankly, I kind of hope it doesn’t. It represents a set of values and needs that I think would be better left behind.