The House In The Dark Of The Woods

By Laird Hunt

All Posts Contain Spoilers

So, this is embarrassing, but it happens to everyone (everyone! I swear!), and so I’m just going to admit it and try not to sound defensive at all, OK?

I just read an entire book, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand it.  At all.

Here’s what happened:

Last weekend, I was in my favorite local bookstore with a friend, perusing the “Staff Selections’ rack.  Now, I am, in general, skeptical of this particular flavor of curated bookstore table, because I am not at all convinced that working in a bookstore improves your taste in books.  But one book caught my eye: it had a creepy cover, hands crawling all over themselves on a bright orange field.   The title was kind of irresistible: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘.  The description on the inside cover began, “In this ingenious horror story set in colonial New England, a woman goes missing.” 

Ingenious horror? Yes, please.  I bought the book and started reading it right away.

I realized that I was in trouble almost immediately.  ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is, essentially, a dark fairy tale.  ‘Goody’ goes for a walk in the woods one day to collect berries for her son and husband.  She takes a nap only to wake in the dark; panicked, she sets off running, cutting her feet and hurting herself badly in the process.

Eventually, she is discovered by a woman called Captain Jane, who takes her to the house in the dark of woods, where lives a woman named Eliza, who wears the face of a friend and will try to keep Goody with her forever.

But ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is one of those books that hinges on the reader’s inability to tell whether or not their narrator is mad.  Now, when that kind of book is done well, it’s incredible, and some of the great classics of horror rely on this trick: ‘The Turn of the Screw‘, or ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘.

But those books are so affecting in part because, whether or not their narrators are insane, they are definitely terrified, and their distress is communicated to you.  Goody, however, spends most ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ in a sort of blithe, batty daze, which does make her seem crazier, but which also alienates the reader from the horror.  She speaks in choppy, under-punctuated, declarative sentences with very little emotional subtlety or elaboration.  I suspect that this was meant to make her seem childlike but instead it made her seem, well, stupid:

“The sun was gone from the glade and gone almost from the world when I woke and took up my basket and went hurrying back the way I had come.  I smiled a little but didn’t mean it when the oak and ash and box elder began to grow tall around me and my trot turned into a run.  There are fears in the airs and on the earth that can call up a fire in your heart whose ash will blacken all hope.  This was not such a fear; it was just the little toe or finger of one.  I stopped running and wiped my brow and realized I had left my bonnet behind.  I shifted my basket from one hand to the other.  I stood with my legs planted sturdy and gave a laugh, for I had never liked that bonnet, blue with a frill of tender flower.  A gift from my dead mother.” (p. 6)

And which doesn’t in any way clarify whether any of what happens to her is real.  What is clear, however, is that what is happening to her is a metaphor, and here is where I have to ‘fess up: I have no idea what it’s a metaphor for.

That it is a metaphor, there can be no doubt (when characters have names like Captain James, it’s a safe bet that metaphors are happening…).  Which obviousness makes my confusion even more embarrassing, since I think it’s probably not a subtle metaphor. 

Laird Hunt

I’m also pretty sure that it’s a metaphor about being a woman, or womanhood, or the trials and tribulations of women in society – it’s somewhere around there.  There are creepy shadows of violence lurking at the corners of the story, dark intimations that the women in it have been slowly but thoroughly brutalized by the men in their lives, the men to whom they toil in constant service, the men to whom they belong.

What emerges, I think, is a tale about the roles that women play.  I think (I think?) that ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is a allegory about the slow, creeping horror of the feminine position.  It shows that a woman who does not choose to obey has no other option but to go mad, either because society will drive her so or pretend that she is.  And that the roles available to us are highly circumscribed, archetypical and limiting and cannibalistic, as we slowly destroy each other in an attempt to break free of the restraints into which we were born.  That every woman will move through these roles: innocent girl, wife, mother, crone, until she eventually comes face to face with the terrible adversary that is her own furious psyche.

In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is weird, and creepy, and I think it was probably pretty good, but I’m not sure because I’m not sure it was…coherent. Partly this is a problem with the book itself – partly, perhaps, it is a problem with me (I may just not be getting it). Partly, however, it is a problem with allegories in general.

The meaning of an allegory lies beneath the plain reading of the text, is hidden, coded, in symbols and allusions.  They tend, therefore, to mean different things to different people; they often act as mirrors, showing us our reflections, shining our own baggage back at us.

Is ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ a feminist allegory about the slow mutilation done to women by society, the violence to which we are subjected and which we sublimate into madness?  Or am I, who have always found the roles normally prescribed for my gender (wife, mother, grandmother) stifling and unnatural, simply finding in this story confirmation of what I already felt?

To a certain extent, this is the purpose of fairy tales, to teach us the lessons that we, in particular, need to know.  ‘Little Red Riding’ is a lesson about the dangers of straying too far from the path.  It is also a lesson on the bravery available to each of us, when we need it.  It is also a lesson in caution, even about the faces we believe we know well.  It is also a lesson about the triumph of ingenuity over darkness (and, depending on which version you read, it is also a lesson on the triumph of darkness over everything).

I am not, in general, comfortable with ambiguity – I like to know what is.  This may be an indication of a pedestrian mind, but, alas, it is what it is.  I am not content to say, ‘This what the text meant to me’; I need to know whether what the text meant to me is what the text really meant.  And I feel inadequate when I can’t solve it.

So, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ made me feel inadequate.  It made me feel creepy, undermined, and inadequate.  Like there was something flickering at the edge of my vision and I couldn’t focus my eyes on it.  It was unsettling and difficult to understand.  It was a strange, cold mist of a book, something with a definite shape but without clear edges.  It was eerie.

I suspect that that was exactly the point.

The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

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The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad‘ is Cora’s story.  Cora is a slave on Randall’s Plantation in Georgia.  An outcast even among her fellow slaves, she has been a “stray” ever since her mother successfully escaped when she was a child, leaving Cora behind.  When her master dies and she is inherited by his sadistic younger brother, Cora is approached by Caesar, a fellow slave, with an offer to escape with him on the Underground Railroad.

The pair accept the help of a white tradesman from town, a station master on the Underground Railroad.  A thing of whispers and myth among slaves in the American South, Cora and Caesar are surprised to discover that it is a literal railroad, built underground, a network of tunnels under the slave states.  They take their first ride, emerging in South Carolina to the sight of skyscrapers (and our first clue that this is not a two hundred year old story).

Everyone loves ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It won the Pulitzer Prize.  It reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.  It received magnificent reviews; the four blurbs on the front of my copy are by the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, NPR, and Barack Obama.

Oprah loved it.

But I did not love ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It’s quite good – good enough that there isn’t much point in trying to discern whether it is great, or merely very, very good.  It’s well-written and spare, effective and persuasive.  It has a novel premise, well-executed, stark and not overdone.

I appreciated these things.  But, when I put the book down, I found that it had left me cold.  I did not connect with it.

At least, I did not connect with it…at first.

Sometimes, you are the smartest person in the room – sometimes you are the only person brave enough not to drink the Kool-Aid.  But usually, when everyone around you likes something and you don’t, you’ve missed something.

I sat around for a long time, in bits and pieces over weeks and then months (I finished this book in September), staring at my computer and struggling to figure out why I didn’t love this book.  I was plagued by a sense that I was missing something, and I dreaded having to say out loud (in writing, no less) that I did not like it.  I tried to understand, to explain, why it is that the goodness (greatness) of a book isn’t enough to make us love it.  It isn’t fair that a book can be excellent and unloved, even by one person.  What more can we ask of a book, than that it be good?

And, in all that muddling, the book started to get to me.

Fictions which use alternative realities (science fiction, for example), rely on altered context for their effect.  By placing their moral or human conundra into totally unfamiliar contexts, or by radically changing one aspect of the environment, they throw the problems at the hearts of their stories into sharper relief.

But slavery is not a problem – it was a reality, an atrocity.  Rather, it was a long, unmeasurable series of atrocities, horrors visited upon real people, people just as real as you are.  These things happened.

The essential premise of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ is, what if slavery had not ended?  But slavery does not need to have been permanent to be overwhelming.  If you have already connected, on a visceral level, with what slavery was, then the fantastical extension of it into the present doesn’t teach you much.  And so, at first, ‘The Underground Railroad’ underwhelmed me.  It was jarring, upsetting, but, by being unreal, it lacked the monstrosity of actual slavery.

Alternative reality fictions work best when they show you something you would not have seen without them.  That slavery is was an abomination, that I had already seen.  The depiction was masterful, wrenching and beautiful, but I would have preferred to see something that I had not seen yet.

But, as thought more about it, my emotions started to catch on something.

In Whitehead’s imagination, the American South is not frozen in time; it has evolved, and each of the states of the South has also evolved, differentiated, developed their own brand of slavery to accommodate the particular needs of their economy, their people.

Georgia is brutal, primitive, indistinguishable from its antebellum self.  South Carolina has evolved a sinister, “progressive” state-run program wherein the state owns slaves and educates, houses, and pays them, all while secretly sterilizing them.  North Carolina has decided that it prefers an all-white world, and has outlawed blacks completely, lynching any that are found within state lines.

This was fascinating to me – this drew me in.  Perhaps because this aspect of the novel, more than any other, challenged to me to think more deeply about my own conception of American slavery.  Like many Americans, I have a life-long mental picture of slavery, taught to me when I was very young and shaded with depth and context as I got older, but never essentially re-imagined.  Now, partly that is because a re-imagining was unnecessary: what I was taught about slavery, that it was an atrocity perpetrated by Americans on Americans, an indelible stain on our history and a foundational sin of our nation, is correct.

And ‘The Underground Railroad‘ does not challenge this conclusion.  And, in fact, Cora’s story is this story, and that, I think, was why I did not emotionally register it, at first.  Here was another person ground under an evil system – there are only so many of these narratives we can meet before they feel familiar.

But the story of the states, each sickened and twisted by the continued existence of the institution, each elaborating on the essential evil in its own way – this was a new story.  And as I sat and stewed about the book, as the effect of the new story slowly took hold, Cora snuck in after it.

Colson Whitehead

I hadn’t connected with Cora because I was thinking of her as fictional victim of a real system, and what would be the point of connecting with her when there were so many real victims to grieve for first?  But, of course, I had completely missed the point: Cora is the fictional victim of a fictional system, the catastrophic future we avoided, but only just.  I needed to grieve Cora because of easily she might have existed.

And so, months later, I understood: the point of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ wasn’t to teach me that slavery was terrible – I know that, anyone who has morally developed past the level of a tadpole knows that.  ‘The Underground Railroad’ was trying to tell me that we cannot comprehend the institution of slavery if we negotiate with it as an evil that was – we must instead understand it as an evil that might still be, but for the narrowest of escapes.  Chance, the accumulation of millions of tiny historical accidents, pulled us away from evil – it was NOT our robust moral good sense, and so we must understand the evil as, in some sense, on-going.  Slavery was not given up unanimously and voluntarily, but had to be crushed by force of arms, and so, in some sense, it continues in the heart of our citizens.  

Which means that, in some sense, it continues.

Cora isn’t fictional, exactly – she just doesn’t happen to be real.  

I don’t know whether I love ‘The Underground Railroad: A Novel‘ now, but it has slowly hollowed me out over the past few months.  I have come around and stand a little in awe of it now – I feel as though I have been tossing around a toy grenade and someone just told me it was active, like I was being careless with something very powerful.

So ‘love’ isn’t the right word – ‘fear’ is.  I am afraid of ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  I sat and thought for months and discovered that I had been afraid all along.

The Bone Clocks

By David Mitchell

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Sometimes bad novels are so good.

I’ve just finished ‘The Bone Clocks‘, by David Mitchell.  It was a bad book, but not the sort of bad book that you resent having started.  It didn’t have the sort of badness which makes you angry at the author for trying, for his pretensions or mistakes.  It was the kind of bad book you love, that you tear through.  It was a Great Bad Book.

David Mitchell.jpg
David Mitchell

I’m not saying that David Mitchell is a bad novelist, or a bad writer (which are different things); he’s not necessarily either.  He’s definitely not a bad writer: his prose ranges from competent enough to ignore to quite good, depending on the book and the time.  I would say that he’s actually a decent writer.

And, though I have only read two of his other books, ‘Cloud Atlas‘ and ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet‘, neither was a bad novel.  ‘Cloud Atlas’, it’s true, hovered around the same kind of badness that ‘The Bone Clocks‘ possesses, but was original enough that, I think, managed to just avoid the downward spiral of real badness.

And ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet‘ was great.  It was a lovely novel, moving and human, one of the very few books that has ever made me cry.  I think, perhaps, the discrepancy between ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ and both ‘The Bone Clocks‘ and ‘Cloud Atlas‘ has something to do with their genres.  ‘The Thousand Autumns’ is simply a little love story; it isn’t science fiction or fantasy, which the other two are.  I think that, perhaps, science fiction and fantasy (certainly fantasy) slide more easily into plotty badness.  Something about the genre tempts authors to the sort of over-written theatrics which make books bad but fun to read.  Novels grounded in reality tend to be a little bit tighter.

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks‘ is, in many ways, ‘Cloud Atlas‘s half-baked little brother.  It is also a story which follows multiple characters, all supernaturally connected, through time.  But while ‘Cloud Atlas’ follows what seem to be incarnations of one or two people through many, many generations, ‘The Bone Clocks’ is about one long human lifetime, namely the life of Holly Sykes, as it is crossed, intersected over and over, by a, uh, group of reincarnating mystics at war over the harvesting of human children to feed their eternal lives.

It’s exactly the sort of grandiose and silly premise that Great Bad Books are made of.  ‘The Bone Clocks‘ is the story of a magical war between good and evil, and like all such stories, the joy of it is in the ludicrous, and yet somehow absorbing, details.

In the world of ‘The Bone Clocks‘, there exists a class of immortals, called Atemporals, souls which involuntarily reincarnate 49 days after their deaths into the body of a dying child.  One group of these Atemporals, calling themselves the Horologists, are at ‘psychosoteric’ war with the Anchorites.  The Anchorites were once just regular mortals, but they have used dark technologies, gifted to them by the Blind Cathar, to achieve immortality.  However, in order to achieve this, they must routinely sacrifice a child.

Holly Sykes is a psychic, and so her life becomes tangled up in this psychosoteric war.  ‘The Bone Clocks‘ takes places in six chapters over the course of her long life, starting in 1984 and ending in 2043, in a very different world than ours.

And it’s just silliness, from beginning to end: joyful, diverting silliness.  David Mitchell has great strengths as a storyteller: he has a gift for the demotic (his characters sound and act like people on TV), and he’s great at constructing the elements of plot: pacing, building to a climax.  He gives scenes texture, but doesn’t linger – he’s very plotty.

And he’s just the right amount trashy, at least in his sci-fi/fantasy novels.  A multi-generational war of magic between the Evil Anchorites and the Good Horologists, which will culminate in a battle in the Temple of the Blind Cathar?  Come on, that’s almost unspeakably cheesy!

You know what it made me think of?  Do you remember that South Park episode, ‘Cartman’s Incredible Gift’, from Season 8, where Cartman pretends to be a psychic and ‘battles’ a bunch of other fake psychics?  Where all the psychics stand opposite each other and touch their temples and go, ‘Wa na na na’?

The whole book is like that.

And it’s not that Mitchell is pretending that it isn’t cheesy – ‘The Bone Clocks‘ isn’t pretentious, not at all.  Rather, he simply doesn’t seem to care whether or not it’s cheesy, which means that, in a weird way, you don’t.  If he were looking down his nose, using the Anchorites and Horologists as some highbrow metaphor, then ‘The Bone Clocks’ would be insufferable.  But I, at least, didn’t get the sense that that was what he was doing.

Rather, ‘The Bone Clocks‘ feels like David Mitchell got a neat idea for a story and decided to tell it: wouldn’t it be kind of interesting if reincarnation were true, but only some people had the ability to do it?  And then some other people figured out how to do it, but they had to do something terrible in order to achieve it?

What terrible thing would you do to achieve immortality?  That is an old question, one that we ask ourselves over and over.  What price would be worth your boundless life?  At what point during that evil eternity would it cease being your life?  At what price, once paid, do you stop being yourself?

We are obsessed with that question not just because we are fixated on our own deaths, because we are devoted to avoiding them – we ask that question because it’s an essentially fun question to ask.  It’s a fun problem to think about, and it’s fun to think about it here.  It’s not sophisticated, it’s not ‘good’, but it is fun.

Sometimes, silly scenarios are the best way to explore the scariest and most important questions.  Sometimes, silly meditations are the best meditations.  But, honestly, it doesn’t matter, because they’re fun.

Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee

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Brace yourself, because I’m about to go on a free-associative ramble for about a thousand words.

Pachinko.JPGI just read ‘Pachinko‘, by Min Jin Lee, which is a sprawling, multi-generational epic about the Korean diaspora in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century.  It begins with Sunja, the beloved only daughter of Hoonie, a fisherman born with a club foot, and his wife Yangjin.  When Sunja is a teenager, she falls in love with, and is impregnated by, Hansu, a handsome gangster.  When she discovers that he has a wife and children back in Japan and that he cannot legally marry her, she refuses to be his kept “local” wife and, instead, marries Isak, a sickly minister who is passing through town.  Isak agrees to raise the child as his own, and the young family moves to Isak’s new ministry in Japan

Now, stay with me, because I’m going to swerve here, and, for reasons which I hope will become clear, talk about ‘East of Eden‘, by John Steinbeck.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I love ‘East of Eden‘.  It might honestly be my favorite novel of all time.  ‘East of Eden’ is also a multi-generation epic, about an American family which recapitulates the story of Cain and Abel in each generation.  It is about original sin, about the transmission of sin through generations, about whether or not great evil marks a family, and passes from parent to child, twisting and marring their lives despite their best attempts to be good, happy people. It is about whether we can be damned before we are even born.

I cannot prove that ‘Pachinko‘ is consciously modeled on ‘East of Eden‘.  I do not even know for sure that Min Jin Lee has read ‘East of Eden’.  However, the parallels are clear, right?

Pachinko‘ is also about the multi-generational consequences of wrong-doing, about the sins of the parent being visited on the child.  But in ‘East of Eden‘, the inheritance is of evil, of simple, cinematic evil.  The question is whether or not the evil is innate, whether or not we are doomed to succumb to it.  In ‘Pachinko’, the inheritance is of something more complicated, more twisted: grief.  It is about the ways the deep, life-altering grief of a parent can warp, limit, or destroy the lives of her children, even when she loves those children desperately, even when her entire life has been devoted to their happiness.

I thought about ‘East of Eden‘ a lot while I read ‘Pachinko‘.  The books are alike in scope and ambition, but I’m not sure that they are equally successful.  Maybe it’s unfair to compare a book, any book, to ‘East of Eden’.  It is one of the most profound, most moving, explorations of the human capacity for evil, of the possibility of true goodness, that has ever been written.  And I don’t think that ‘Pachinko’ is one of the most profound, most moving explorations of human grief I’ve ever read.

OK, OK, yes: I agree, that is not a fair standard.  I need to acknowledge the possibility that ‘Pachinko‘ and ‘East of Eden‘ have different goals, as works of art.  ‘East of Eden’ is an essential hopeful work: while it is about the intrinsic human capacity for evil, it is also about the possibility of true goodness which can only exist alongside evil.

Pachinko‘ is not a hopeful work.  It is imbued with a deep sadness: the sadness of women who face lives of nothing but suffering, work, and loss.  Of subject peoples, doomed to cramped lives and arbitrary violence, simply because of their race.  Of deep and profound injustice, of lives destroyed because the values of small societies could not accommodate them.  Of love lost and never, ever regained.  In this way, perhaps, its scope is even greater than ‘East of Eden‘, which was a moral tale and a moral tale alone.  ‘Pachinko’, on the other hand, is not only the story of one family’s tragedies – it is also the story of a race, exiled and embattled.

Min Jin Lee.jpg
Min Jin Lee

And while the two books are alike in structure, they are quite different in style.  ‘Pachinko‘ is written in a prose which is so simple as to be almost brutal.  Lee’s sentences are unadorned and unsparing, and I believe that she is a good enough writer that this was done deliberately.  Tragedy, I have found, is usually most effective when it is written in prose which is clear, clean, and unflinching.  Flourishes, metaphors, long descriptive passages: these things blunt the force of tragic events, distract the reader, give the attention somewhere to hide.  It also, almost always, foreshadows the pain, so that the reader can brace himself.  Plain language, on the other hand, delivers its news like a blow, and gives you no warning that the blow is coming.

I offer, by way of example, the passage from ‘Pachinko‘ which I found the most effectively devastating, which genuinely shocked and upset me, to the degree that I gasped aloud and put the book down.

Fair warning, it is a very, very spoilerly spoiler.  The passage involves the reunion of Sunja with her son Noa.  Noa had fled his mother as a young man, when he discovered that he was the son of a gangster and found that he could not endure the shame.  He had lived in secret in Japan for decades, passing as Japanese, his Korean identity unknown even to his wife and children.  After many years, now an old woman, Sunja located him.

Again, if you do not wish to have major plot points spoiled, don’t read the excerpt.

“Sunja watched her son enter his office building, then tapped the passenger door of Hansu’s car.  The driver came out and held the door open for her.

Hansu nodded.

Sunja smiled, feeling light and hopeful.

Hansu looked at her face carefully and frowned.

“You should not have seen him.”

“It went well.  He’ll come to Yokohama next week.  Mozasu will be so happy.”

Hansu told the driver to go.  He listened to her talk about their meeting.

That evening, when Noa did not call her, she realized that she had not given him her home number in Yokohama.  In the morning, Hansu phoned her.  Noa had shot himself a few minutes after she’d left his office.” (p. 385)

This is not a passage which would have been possible in ‘East of Eden‘, where everything is larded with plenty of description and big events can be seen coming miles away.

And I have enormous regard for this style of prose, when it is successful, which I think it mostly is here.  It is true, the subject-verb-object ratatat of the plain language becomes a little arduous over hundreds of pages, but, for the most part, it’s mesmerizing and upsetting, bleak and tough in deliberate evocation of the lives it is describing.

I found, at the end, not that I loved ‘Pachinko‘, but that I had enormous regard for it.  I have compared it to ‘East of Eden‘ not so that it would suffer in comparison, but because the comparison helped me understand and appreciate the project of the book.  In fact, I think that some of the places in which ‘Pachinko’ is the strongest are places, like it’s language, where it is the most unlike ‘East of Eden’.

But keeping ‘East of Eden‘ in my mind helped me appreciate the intention of this work.  It’s one thing to tell the story of a few characters (although even to do this well is very difficult).  It is another thing altogether to tell a story through which you try to tell about human evil, or human grief.  To weave those grand things into the small lives you are relating takes bravery and skill.  ‘East of Eden’ taught me to love the scale, the ambition, of the endeavor, and it is because of ‘East of Eden’ that I recognize that ambition here.

Tender Is The Night

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

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It’s time to talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Tender is the NightI am hesitant to do this, because my feelings about F. Scott Fitzgerald are complicated, and heavy.  But Fitzgerald towers over American letters, blotting out the sun before it can reach other authors.  He is read ubiquitously, but narrowly: it is almost impossible to graduate from an American high school without having read ‘The Great Gatsby‘, but his other works have faded from the national consciousness.

In fact, really, it is ‘The Great Gatsby‘, and not Fitzgerald himself, which really dominates the American literary cannon, and so I ought to spend a moment on it before proceeding to the book which is usually thought of as ‘Fitzgerald’s other book’.

The Great Gatsby‘ fills me with awe, and with rage, with fury and contempt and profound respect, all at once (I warned you that this was going to be complicated).  It is, as near as I have ever encountered, a perfect novel.

I mean that technically.  ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a masterpiece of prose craft – there is not a sentence, not a single word, out of place.  I am confident in this, because I have read it many times looking for one.  Do you know how difficult it is to write one perfect sentence?  The amount of skill required to write an entire novel of perfect sentences honestly boggles my mind.

So I stand before Fitzgerald as an ant before a mountain, and I am humbled by the sheer talent for the craft of writing which he surely possessed.  Nevertheless, ‘The Great Gatsby‘, while technically perfect, is banal.  Worse, it is barren: emotionally vacuous, and utterly superficial on any level above that of composition.  Its worldview is shallow; its metaphors childish (there is a reason that it is taught in schools – it is simple to the point of obviousness, and therefore the perfect text for teaching young people the rudiments of metaphor).

This juxtaposition, of compositional genius married to complete vapidity, disturbs me profoundly.  It’s more than that, actually: it makes me angry.  Fitzgerald was a genius, but he was also a twit.  Gifted by fate and practice with perhaps the greatest writerly skill in the history of his nation, he only cared about the habits and costumes of the very rich, the drinks they consumed and places that they summered.  He might have used his immense craft to describe anything, to explicate any mystery of the human psyche, but, no.  He could describe only what he felt: a longing to be wealthy.

F Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s like taking the world’s most powerful telescope and turning it to a brick wall – I am devastated by the waste.  I am filled with resentment for the work he did produce, which is so virtuosic and so unfulfilling.  And I think about writers like James Baldwin, who is the closest I can think of to his equal in prose-craft.  And I think about the ways in which Baldwin, who was not only a great writer but also a great soul, used his gifts, and I weep for what the world lost when such mastery was spent on a fool like Fitzgerald.

That, basically, is how I felt about F. Scott Fitagerald when I rolled up to ‘Tender Is the Night‘.  It’s difficult to say why, feeling that way, I even wanted to read it.  Maybe it will suffice to say: I have a fetish for thoroughness, and I do not like to convict a man before weighing all the evidence.

F. Scott Fitzgerald actually published four novels in his lifetime – ‘Tender Is the Night‘ is the last of them.  It was published nine years after ‘The Great Gatsby‘, and Fitzgerald apparently considered it his greatest work.  It tells the story of Dick Diver, an American psychiatrist living in Europe between the two World Wars.  Diver, handsome and charming, has married one of his patients, Nicole, a beautiful young woman suffering from schizophrenia.  The novel tells the story of his slow fall from greatness: an affair, the collapse of his marriage, and his alcoholism.

It is apparently considered a semi-autobiographical novel: Fitzgerald, one of our many famous literary alcoholics, did live in Europe and wrote it after his own wife, Zelda, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  I had not connected these facts when I decided to read it, and they did not intrude on my experience of the novel itself.  Nevertheless, I was aware all through ‘Tender Is the Night‘ of a much greater depth of insight, of humanity, in this work than in ‘The Great Gatsby‘.

It is not, in terms of prose-craft, the masterpiece that ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is.  It is poorly paced, and makes a few jarring transitions.  It also contains a few experiments with prose style (particularly in attempts to catch Nicole’s madness) which are unsuccessful, if not downright incoherent.

But Dick’s slow unwinding, the emotional forces which impinge on him, which drive him onwards in all their contradiction, those are beautifully portrayed.  The thing which failed in ‘The Great Gatsby‘, the attempt to show how a wealthy life might yet be bleak, actually works here: all the strands of money and charm and loveliness which surround Dick Diver slowly enmesh and entangle him, tightening and tightening around him until he, and you, are thrashing in a sort of slow, angry suffocation.

And, of course, because it is Fitzgerald, it contains passages of transcendent beauty, like this one:

“Baby had certain spinsters’ characteristics – she was alien from touch, she started if she was touched suddenly, and such lingering touches as kisses and embraces slipped directly through the flesh into the forefront of her consciousness.” (p. 172)

Or this one:

“Her naivete responded whole-heartedly to the expensive simplicity of the Divers, unaware of its complexity and its lack of innocence, unaware that it was all a selection of quality rather than quantity from the run of the world’s bazaar; and that the simplicity of behavior, also, the nursery-like peace and good will, the emphasis on the simpler virtues, was part of a desperate bargain with the gods and been attained through struggles she could not have guessed at.”  (p. 21)

Or this one, which I believe I will carry with me for the rest of my life:

“One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual.  There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still.  The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye.  We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.” (p. 169)

It’s kind of funny, actually: ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a perfect book utterly without emotional effect; ‘Tender Is the Night‘ is a imperfect book which is, nonetheless, much more emotionally affecting.  It lacks the tightness, the lapidary, flawless prose that ‘Gatsby’ has, but it shows so much more depth, is so much more moving, than ‘Gatsby’ ever was.

Maybe it’s because Fitzgerald, himself a man falling apart, was writing about a man falling apart in the exact same ways.  He might have been too barren a soul to ever describe anyone else’s humanity, but he was able to describe his own plight with some grace.  He remained a vain and shallow man to the end, but, finally, he turned his craft on the one subject which could hold both his interest and mine: himself.

Finn Family Moomintroll

By Tove Jansson

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Finn Family Moomintroll“One grey morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of the Moomins.  It fell softly and quietly, and in a few hours everything was white.”

Fall is here, and I’m sure you know what that means:

It’s time to re-read ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘.

I’m not sure why it is that this time of year always draws me back to this book from my childhood, why the gray, chilly days remind me of the strange, bleak world of Moomin Valley.  Whatever the reason, I rarely make it to Thanksgiving without re-reading ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘.

Tove-Jansson
Tove Jansson

The Moomin books are Swedish (written by the Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson), and they are quite famous there (there is actually a Moomin house, in Finland), but to my consternation, most Americans are unfamiliar with the Moomintrolls.  There are nine Moomin books, of which ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ is actually the third.  But it is my favorite of the books, the one I think best captures the sweet, weird, sad tone of them.

Thingumy and Bob Comfort Moomintroll
Thingumy and Bob comfort Moomintroll

The Moomins are a family of hippopotamus-like bipeds.  Moominpappa, Moominmamma, and their son Moomintroll live in Moomin Valley, in a turret-house which is always filled to capacity by the various friends and hangers-on that they acquire during their travels.  They are accompanied most of the time by their neighbors the Snork and the Snork Maiden, also hippo-like.  Other frequent allies include the Humulen, the Muskrat, Snufkin, Sniff, Thingumy and Bob.

In small bands or all together, the Moomins have small adventures and tribulations.  The chapters of ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ have descriptors like, “In which Moomintroll suffers an uncomfortable change* and takes his revenge on the Ant-lion, and how Moomintroll and Snufkin go on a secret night expedition” or, “In which Thingumy and Bob, bringing a mysterious suitcase and followed by the Groke, come into the story, and in which the Snork leads a Court Case“.

*This is NOT puberty – this is a transformation wrought by the Hobgoblin’s Hat.

Ant-lion Hedgehog
The Ant-lion has been transformed into the world’s smallest hedgehog (and he is surrounded by Outlandish Words)

All of which adventures are accompanied by little pen and ink drawings, done by the author herself, and which constitute easily the most charming part of the entire series.

If this all sounds too precious, it’s not.  It’s true: ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ has all the necessarily ingredients of a delightful children’s book: whimsical creatures, adventures with high stakes but good outcomes, magic, humor, and an essential sweetness.  It is lightly eccentric, and quite funny.

“Next morning the Muskrat went out as usual with his book to lie in the hammock, but he had just gotten comfortable when the string broke and he found himself on the ground…

‘Oh, dear,’ said Moominpappa, who was watering his tobacco plants.  ‘I hope you didn’t hurt yourself?’

‘It isn’t that,’ replied the Muskrat gloomily sucking his moustache.  ‘The earth can crack and fire come down from heaven for all I care – that sort of thing doesn’t disturb me – but I do not like to be put into a ridiculous situation.  It isn’t dignified for a philosopher!’…

‘I know, I know,’ interrupted Moominpappa miserably.  ‘But there’s no peace in this house…And sometimes string wears out with the years you know.’

‘It must not,’ said the Muskrat.  ‘If I had killed myself, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered.  But imagine if your YOUNG PERSONS had seen me! Now, however, I intend to retire to a deserted spot and live a life of loneliness and peace, giving up everything.'” (p. 45)

Snork on the DockBut good humor is not the most salient attribute of the Moomin books.  I think that the reason why they have worn so well, why I return to them year after year, is that they are melancholy.  There is a sad cast to them which I can’t pin down, a forlorn air which hangs over their adventures.  I find this inexpressibly moving; long after I have outgrown the whimsy of the books, I come back to this same still, quiet sadness.

It’s difficult to say where the sadness comes from.  It lurks in there, in the Hobgoblin’s endless, fruitless quest for the King’s Ruby, which has taken him finally to the blasted out and lonely landscape of the moon.  It’s in Snufkin’s need to set out on long journeys, but always alone, because it is only alone that he is really himself.  It is there in the Humulen, devastated by the completion of his stamp collection, because, as Moomintroll says, he is no longer a collector, now merely an owner.  There is something low and sorrowful here.

Hobgoblin on the Moon
The Hobgoblin on the moon

But that is not the only thing which has called me back to Moomin Valley all these times, not the only thing which makes ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘, to my mind, a rather perfect little book:  it’s also creepy.

Hattifatteners
The Hattifatteners (which are very creepy) swarm the Humulen

As I have mentioned before, creepiness is, for me, a requirement in children’s literature.  ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ isn’t ghost-story creepy; rather, it’s sort of weird-creepy, touched by a pall of uneasiness which lies over the whole story, over all of Moomin Valley.  There is a sinister whisper behind everything, which rarely comes out into the light but does occasionally, as in the character of the Groke:

“Then – they saw the Groke.  Everybody saw her.  She sat motionless on the sandy path at the bottom of the steps and stared at them with round, expressionless eyes.

She was not particularly big and didn’t look dangerous either, but you felt that she was terribly evil and would wait forever.  And that was awful.” (p. 116)

The effect is sort of mesmerizing, this strange, happy story with it’s sad, ominous undercurrents.  The stories aren’t swashbuckling-exciting, but because the creatures are so original, and because the narrative voice is so unusual, they are completely absorbing.  And even though the language is simple, clearly meant for children, the tone is subtle enough that, as adult reader, you still feel overcome by the story.  Moomin Valley exists for me, an eerie place, known and unknown, safe yet spooky, filled with ambivalent little creatures hiding in strange and unexpected places.

Party in Moominvalley
A party in Moominvalley

I always feel so incompetent at moments like this, when I try to describe the effect a beloved book has had on me.  The books are so much better than my descriptions of them will ever be – you cannot describe better, in words, an accomplishment of words.  And words are insufficient, too, for my feelings: I cannot paint for you, quite, the feelings which Moomin Valley evokes in me.

So I will leave you, instead, with the words of the book itself, with the sure knowledge that, if this can’t charm you, nothing can:

“While the Hobglobin was eating they edged a little nearer.  Somebody who eats pancakes and jam can’t be so awfully dangerous.  You can talk to him.” (p. 145)

Finding the Hobgoblin's Hat
Moomintroll, Sniff, and Snufkin find the Hobgoblin’s Hat

The Information

A History, A Theory, A Flood

By James Gleick

Have you ever been in love with humanity when you began in a book, and in complete emotional flight from it by the time you finished?  Impressed in the beginning, overwhelmed by the end?  Awed, in the beginning: proud of what we have accomplished, by what we have learned; numbed and overcome, flooded and drowned, by the end?

The InformationBy the time I finished ‘The Information‘ by James Gleick, I was ready to abandon civilization, get back to the land.  To buy a shack somewhere in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, somewhere with no internet, no phone, no television, and never look back, never learn anything new, participate no longer in human progress.

The Information‘ is a history of the human relationship to information.  How we’ve understood it, categorized it, encoded it, compressed it, measured it.  How it has changed us, changed our thinking, our societies.  Ways you didn’t even think that it might have.

Gleick is a science writer, and ‘The Information‘ is about science, specifically about the science of information.  He takes his readers through African talking drums, the invention of writing, the printing press, the inventions of formal logic, the printing press, information theory, the telegraph, the telephone, the OED, the computer, and Wikipedia (to name a few).  He explains the basic mathematical concepts which allowed these advances, and shows the rapid acceleration, over historical time, of our ability to generate, store, send, and process information.

There is a wealth of neat stuff (for lack of a more precise, technical description) in this book: cool facts, good explanations, illuminating connections drawn between different people, ideas, technologies.  I love scientific histories, as a rule: I think it makes it easier to remember how a discovery works if you can embed it in its context.  The best scientific histories give science a human texture; they make it lovable.

For example, you may never master the language of Boolean algebra:

(x(P(x)→ ¬Q(x)) andx(¬Q(x)S(x)))(x(P(x)S(x)))

but who could help but love Lewis Carroll’s famous formulation of the same syllogism:

    1. Babies are illogical;
    2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
    3. Illogical persons are despised.

Conclusion: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.

Or, you may not think you care about what Einstein thought about quantum entanglement, but how can you be anything less than delighted to learn that, upon the publication of Einstein’s 1935 paper, ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”, Wolfgang Pauli wrote to Werner Heisenberg, “Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, this is a catastrophe every time it happens.” (p. 366)

James Gleick
James Gleick

If this all sounds like a Nerd Alert to you, you are not wrong.  This is a book about science, and data, and math, and about the men and women who devoted their lives to understanding how those things work, to making incremental improvements to how we organize and retrieve information.  If you aren’t excited about how Turing machines worked, or what the difference is between a bit and byte, about whether or not Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem was correct or not (or whether or not it had anything to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory), then this probably isn’t your bag.

But it’s my bag, for sure.  Or, at least I thought it was, but honestly, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.

This isn’t the fault of the book, or of the author, but of humanity.  ‘The Information‘ is well-written, beautifully presented, thorough and approachable.  It’s interesting, gripping even, clear (for the most part).  It’s a very, very good book.

But it has filled me with despair.  There is so much that I don’t know, that I will never know.  Even today, the amount of information available to me could not be mastered in a thousand lifetimes, and those are just the things I would wish to learn.  And information is being produced at a rate which is unprecedented in human history: unprecedented and accelerating.

“As of 1972 businesses could lease high-speed lines carrying data as fast as 240 kilobits per second. Following the lead of IBM, whose hardware typically processed information in chunks of eight bits, engineers soon adopted the modern and slightly whimsical unit, the byte. Bits and bytes. A kilobyte, then, represented 8,000 bits; a megabyte (following hard upon), 8 million. In the order of things as worked out by international standards committees, mega- led to giga-, tera-, peta-, and exa-, drawn from Greek, though with less and less linguistic fidelity. That was enough, for everything measured, until 1991, when the need was seen for the zettabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and the inadvertently comic-sounding yottabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). In this climb up the exponential ladder, information left other gauges behind. Money, for example, is scarce by comparison.  After kilobucks, there were megabucks and gigabucks, and people can joke about inflation leading to terabucks, but all the wealth amassed 
by all the generations of humanity does not amount to a petabuck.” (p. 394)

I have come to the end of ‘The Information‘ feeling demoralized by my own mortal lifespan, my ignorance, my faulty memory and my lack of math prodigy.  I will not know all that there is to know; I will not know any minute fraction of what there is to know; I will not even master the subjects which matter to me.  I will not master anything, because knowledge is being produced too fast to allow mastery of anything for very long (and because I am a dilettante).

And if I am not master of my subject, how will I know truth from fiction?  How will I distinguish good information from bad?  Gleick deals with this problem explicitly, and his conclusion is not comforting to me.  Because ‘information’ is not the same as ‘truth’; ‘content’ is not the same thing as ‘veracity’.

“Still, who could love a theory that gives false statements as much value as true statements (at least, in terms of quantity of information)?  It was mechanistic.  It was desiccated.  A pessimist, looking backward, might call it a harbinger of a soulless internet at its worst.  “The more we ‘communicate’ the way we do, the more we create a hellish world,” wrote the Parisian philosopher – also a historian of cybernetics – Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

“I take “hell” in its theological sense, i.e., a place which is void of grace – the undeserved, unnecessary, surprising, unforeseen.  A paradox is at work here: ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning.”

That hellish world, devoid of grace – has it arrived?  A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging.  Incessant chatter.  The false driving out the true.” (p. 418)

Gleick does not believe so.  He sees a different world (one begins to suspect that he does not watch the news); his relationship to information is hopeful: “Infinite possibility is good, not bad.  Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared.  Language maps a boundless world of objects and sensations and combinations onto a finite space…We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.” (p. 419)

And I’m very happy for him, but this Sisyphean message has undone me utterly: it is very rare that I am so impressed by a book and yet so depressed by it.  Smarter, yes, but more acutely aware of how little I know, how little I will ever know.

Julian

By Gore Vidal

All Posts Contain Spoilers

JulianNo one is great at everything.

This is as true of writers as it is of everyone else – no one has mastered all forms.  And, as a reader, one tries to practice tolerance about this: there is no reason to deprive yourself of, say, Paul Theroux’s travelogues (which are astonishing) simply because his novels are…not astonishing.

Nevertheless, it’s always tough when someone you have come to love deeply through one form is disappointing in another.  It’s especially tough when the disappointing form is also the form for which they are most famous.  You expect greatness from them – you’ve seen it elsewhere – but you don’t find greatness.  You find mediocrity which has snuck into the Halls of Greatness behind their other, better work.

And your heart hurts for that writer you love, a little.  Because you know how good they can be at their best.  It’s sad to see them, who can be so wonderful, present themselves to the world in this less-flattering light.

I’m trying to explain my overwrought, emotional reaction to reading Gore Vidal’s novels.

Gore Vidal.jpg
Gore Vidal

As I have mentioned, I came to Gore Vidal through his essays.  And I fell in love with him.  This was the real deal – this was Great Love.  I thought he was magnificent.  I would have followed him anywhere.

And so I did – I followed him straightaway to the form for which he is most famous, the form he himself loved the best: the novel.  Vidal was a prolific novelist, writing a total of 30 of them (including the ones he wrote under pseudonyms) in his life.  This was great news for me: I had 30 novels worth of Gore Vidal to get through.  That’s like Christmas x 30!

Or so I thought.

Now, no one writes 30 novels of equal quality.  And, loving him as I do, I wanted to prolong the honeymoon.  So I rolled up to what is considered his best work (or among his best): ‘Julian‘*.

*For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that I actually read ‘Burr‘ first.  It was even less good, but love dies hard, and since Vidal had at least earned from me an open-hearted shot at his best novel, I put it out of my mind and proceeded to ‘Julian‘.

Julian‘ is the fictional autobiography of Julian Augustus, the last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire.  Vidal imagines an unpublished autobiography, dictated by the Emperor on his last campaign, against the Persian King Sapor, and annotated by two of his friends and teachers: the philosophers Libanius and Priscus.

If all that sounds a little convoluted and unclear, let me assure you: it is.  ‘Julian‘ takes a little getting used to.  The narrative switches points of view, bouncing between the dead Julian Augustus and the two living philosophers who quibble with him and with each other as they prepare his manuscript for posthumous publication (this semi-epistulary novel is a form of which Vidal is fond – ‘Burr‘ is also told in part through fictional memoir, part through fictional biographer).  But the reader will get the swing of it pretty quickly, especially once the text finally gets around to introducing Libanius and Priscus in the context of Julian’s life (fair warning: this crucial bit of narrative information only occurs a hundred odd pages into the text, so you fly blind for a while).

Julian‘ isn’t a bad novel.  It’s actually a lot better than I thought it was, halfway through.  But it isn’t a great novel.  It is, like most of us, deeply imperfect: it has real strengths and real weaknesses.

I don’t like trashing Vidal, whose essays will remain on my Desert Island Reading List, so let’s get the bad over with: ‘Julian‘ is over-stylized.  It’s too long, and it slogs in portions.  These are defensible sins – in fact, in my experience, these sins are characteristic of novels about the Roman Empire.  I suspect that this is because we have imbibed an impression (perhaps from their writing) that the Romans were all August and Imperial, and so we tend to lard our prose about them with pompous and heavy language.  To us, Latin intones, and so we intone about the Latins.  But intonation is no fun to read.

But ‘Julian‘ commits a graver sin: it lacks subtly.  There’s no missing the essential message of this book – it will be spelled out for you, in the form of long, didactic speeches, at least sixteen times.

ijuliai001p1
The Emperor Julian Augustus

Julian‘ is an anti-Christian polemic.  Julian Augustus was the nephew of the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor.  Julian was raised Christian, and secretly converted some time before his accession.  When he was made Augustus, he initiated a series of reforms designed to restore Hellenism as the state religion, declaring a reign of religious toleration while subtly persecuting Christians (the point is well made by the text that, compared to what Christians would go on to do both to non-Christians and to each other, Julian’s persecutions really were just minor annoyances).

It would have been sufficient to simply describe Julian’s conversion.  But Vidal’s Julian is a zealot, a man consumed, and he (and his commentators) are prone to long, righteous passages indicting Christians for barbarity, stupidity, religious theft, hypocrisy, you name it.  By the end of the novel, it is very clear that Julian is not the only one locked in idealogical battle against Christianity, that Vidal himself has also taken up rhetorical arms against the Church.

“Preach only the Nazarene’s words and we shall be able to live with one another.  But of course you are not content with those few words.  You add new things daily.  You nibble at Hellenism, you appropriate our holy days, our ceremonies, all in the name of a Jew who knew them not.  You rob us, and reject us, while quoting the arrogant Cyprian who said that outside your faith there can be no salvation!  Is one to believe that a thousand generations of men, among them Plato and Homer, are lost because they did not worship a Jew who was supposed to be god?  A man not born when the world began?  You invite us to believe that the One God is not only ‘jealous,’ as the Jew say, but evil?” (p. 338)

It’s never good news for a novel when a reader is subjected to long diatribes about what are clearly the author’s own views (this is just one of the many, many sins of which Ayn Rand, who is essentially just a megaphone draped in the thinnest of plot, is guilty).  By the end of ‘Julian‘, one has begun to suspect that the whole reason Vidal chose this subject for his novel was so that he could screed against Christianity.  This is not a decision which bears artistic scrutiny.

Which is a shame, because Julian himself turns into an interesting character, and a novel which begins ploddingly becomes kind of gripping.  Vidal’s Julian is a complicated and evolving character, a human being turning into an Emperor, and as he approaches his death, your anxiety rises.  Like a protagonist in any historical novel, Julian’s death is known and certain.  It’s a feat to make a reader care about a Roman Emperor, and it’s a feat to make them fear a certain death, and Vidal does both.

Maybe it’s because Vidal was a brilliant but grandiose man grasping after truth, that he has a gift for understanding other brilliant but grandiose men grasping after truth.  And he has painted a beautiful portrait, and led his Emperor to a death which will distress his readers.  This is no small thing, and I would not want to penalize ‘Julian‘ for my own high expectations.  If anyone else had written ‘Julian’, I would have said it was a decent historical novel.  It was.  It pales in comparison with Vidal’s non-fiction, but it was well worth a read.

I only wish I had read it first, so that I still had something to look forward to.

Bad Blood

Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

By John Carreyrou

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I imagine that one of the drawbacks of being a journalist that is that, in real life, villains are thin on the ground.

Bad BloodWriters of fiction can conjure a villain whenever they want, and drape him in the accoutrement of evil.  He can wear a poisoner’s ring; his literal fangs can drip literal blood; flowers can wilt at his approach – no problem at all for a writer of fiction.

But journalists are, at least hypothetically, bounded by truth, and the truth is: most humans are not villains.  None are perfect, most are complicated, many are bad, but very, very few are truly wicked.

There are exceptions, of course.  Every once and a while, a thorough-going monster hoves into view, and a lucky journalist discovers it.  I can only imagine that those discoveries are the journalistic scoops of a lifetime, the exposure of a real-life Iago in our midst.

Which makes me suspect that John Carreyrou must have just about shit a brick when he realized that he had discovered one.  He seems like a Very Serious Journalist, so I’m sure he was super professional about it, but I’ll bet that, in his secret heart of hearts, when he realized what it was that he had found, he did little, private journalistic leaps for joy.

Because he found a genuine villain.  A real one.  He discovered a villain, and he discovered her when everyone else thought that she was hot stuff.  He exposed her.

I remember when the Wall Street Journal published their first Theranos exposé.  It was the first I had heard of Theranos, but I remember thinking that the description of the technology sounded…optimistic.  I remember wondering about Elizabeth Holmes, about whether, if the Wall Street Journal allegations were true, she had known.  CEOs often do not know about the specific actions of their scientific staff, I knew.  Perhaps she had been ignorant.

She was not.

Elizabeth Holmes
Elizabeth Holmes

Bad Blood‘ is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and the company that she founded, Theranos.  Theranos’ mission statement was simple: comprehensive, rapid blood-testing from finger-pricks, rather than intravenous blood-draws.  Holmes had a fear of needles, as she famously explained during pitches, and she wanted to spare patients the stress of them.  She wanted to make blood-drawing so quick, so painless, that no one ever lost a loved one to a condition which might have been caught by a blood test.

At no point during its existence did Theranos possess the technology to do this.  However, their lack did not stop Holmes from promising her investors that they did, from producing prototypes, from entering into partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, and from testing on patients.  At its peak, Theranos was valued at over $50 billion, and was running tests in Walgreens on actual humans.

I’m not sure quite how to express how convincing, unrelenting, and shocking ‘Bad Blood‘ is.  Even for a cynical person (which I am), the amount of bad faith, of systematic dishonesty, displayed by Holmes and her vice-president (and boyfriend) Sunny Balwani, was enormous.

And, what’s worse, when their employees called them on it, told them that their machines couldn’t meet quality controls, or that their results couldn’t be replicated, weren’t matching the control samples, they fired those employees, threatened them with lawsuits, and even, in some cases, blackmailed them.

Perhaps you find it slightly incredible that a book about what is, essentially, a medical device company lying about the precision of blood tests would be fascinating.  But fascinating isn’t even an adequate term – this is a page-turner.  ‘Page-turner’ is an over-used term, so I would like to take just a second to explore what that term is actually supposed to mean, to explain how I am using it.

A page-turner is a book which demands that you turn its pages.  Some books you move in and out of at leisure, it is up to you whether you are reading them or not.  You may love them, and appreciate them very much, but they don’t call to you when they’re closed.

John Carreyrou
John Carreyrou

But some books are not up to you.  Some books require a sort of devil’s bargain: once you start them, they own you until you finish them.  They shout at you when you’re not with them, and you move through your life with half your mind, because the other half of your mind is forever grasping back to where you left the book.

That’s what ‘page-turner’ means – it means that it isn’t up to you who turns the pages.  And ‘Bad Blood‘ is a page-turner by that definition.

(And a contagion – I read it when a friend from my old lab at MIT told me that she had read it in one sitting, when she insisted that I read it.  I read it in one sitting on a train to visit my parents – when I disembarked, I told my mother about it, and she then spent that evening reading late into the night.  She had finished it when I woke up the next morning.  I have given it to at least three people since.)

I should be clear: partly, ‘Bad Blood‘ is so absorbing because it isn’t really a book, not in the artistic sense of the word.  It’s a case for the prosecution.  Carreyrou is a good journalistic writer; his prose conveys information without getting in the way.  His meticulousness shines through the words – he is totally convincing.  He is also, I think, furious (the last section of the book details Holmes’ attempt to destroy him personally), and that also shines through the words.  But, in this case, words and personality don’t equal literature – they equal a plot, a gripping story, one of those rare books which is more like a movie than printed word.

And, because I believe that it is true, I recommend it highly.  These examples of far-out villainy, they are rare in real life.  We are lucky in that.  But, it is rarer still that they are so well-documented, so thoroughly illuminated and detailed.  And we are even luckier in that, when it happens.  Because, rare though they are, they are real, and it’s worth taking a real hard look at them, every once and a while.