Mating in Captivity

Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

By Esther Perel

God, I hated this book.

I shouldn’t even have read it. I don’t like self-help books, and I don’t like books written by therapists, and I don’t like people who use the word ‘erotic’ – this obviously wasn’t the book for me.

But my mother gave it to me (which is worrisome in of itself, and I am not going to unpack it here) and asked me what I thought, and it’s just a short little book and I figured: eh, how bad can it be?  Just blow through it, tell Mom what’s what, move on.

Mating in CaptivityI was right about one thing: it is short.  But since it was excruciating to read, it didn’t feel short.  And since (as I have mentioned before) I have a rule about finishing books once I’ve started them, I couldn’t move on once I’d begun, and so I became sort of mired in ‘Mating in Captivity‘, (captive to it, if you will) thrashing and miserable and unable to get free.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that ‘Mating in Captivity‘ isn’t about sex – it’s about intimacy.  This is a book about relationships, about how to maintain a sexual connection in the context of a long-term relationship.  But it isn’t exactly a self-help book.  It’s more a series of case studies: different couples, the way in which their sex life is guttering, the advice that she gave that couple, why she gave it.  How she understands the problem, why she believes that problem arises.

Now, I really hate talking about intimacy.  Not sex – I love talking about sex.  But talking about intimacy makes me uncomfortable.  And, yes, I am aware that makes me a poor audience for this book (or perhaps the perfect audience, hard to say).  And, yes, I went in skeptical – I did not have an open mind.  I tried, but when I know that intimacy is going to be the subject, people talking about feelings and connecting and closeness, then I just cringe away instinctively.

Esther Perel.jpg
This is the image of Esther Perel from her book jacket, and, you have to admit, she looks super cool.

Let’s start with the positive: ‘Mating in Captivity‘ is probably not a bad book.  And Perel is probably a great therapist.  She comes across as wise, and gentle, unjudgmental but also unfoolish.  She managed to write an entire book about sex and intimacy without once making me wonder what her own sex life is like, and that’s a serious accomplishment.  In fact, that’s a major therapeutic credential, and I’m honestly impressed.

I’ll also say this: she is open-minded about decisions, mistakes, and lifestyle choices which other therapists would pathologize, and I’ll bet that makes her a more effective counselor for struggling couples.

The book is clear and well-organized.  The argument is lucid and evenly applied.  I’ve never read any book in this genre at all, so I can’t say whether the thinking is totally novel, but I can say it is not conventional, and it’s probably often useful.

But I hated it.  I hated it a lot.

First of all, I hated the narrative voice.  Perel adopts a tone which is confidential and sexy: part cool aunt, part girlfriend, part romance novelist.  I feel almost bad dinging her for this, because I think I know why she’s doing it: one of the projects of her book is to remind people that sex is supposed to be fun, and so she tries to inject that fun into her language.  But you can’t force fun.  Maybe it works well in person, but on the page, you sound like you’re trying too hard.  Her writing bristles with flirtatious little locutions:

“luscious sexual life” (p. 24)

“with whom he lay in a languorous paradise” (p. 28)

“get their groove back” (p. 142)

“feeling free to express the bawdiness of his lust with her” (p. 116)

Language like this feels self-conscious to me; it makes me wince.  When I feel as though she’s trying to spice up her prose like this, I pull away from the argument.  Forget intimacy – this kind of language makes me want to avoid sex.

But, if we’re being completely honest, the more fundamental problem is that I don’t buy into the project of this book.  I don’t really understand, having read it, what it was meant to accomplish.  Was it supposed to help couples who are having problems like these?  Are you supposed to identify a couple whose problems resemble your own, and then take the advice given to them?  Are you meant to sort of wallow in the general, intimate atmosphere of the book, picking up good tips for relationship hygiene?  Was it meant to get a conversation going, encourage people to think about their own relationships a little bit more?

I don’t think intimacy works this way.  It’s not that I’m a therapy-skeptic, not at all.  On the contrary, I believe that therapy, including couples therapy, can really help people.  I’m just not convinced that reading about other peoples‘ couples therapy is as helpful.  And so this books starts to feel like Perel just…musing about relationships, laying out her general ideas about how intimate couples should and do work.

And, while she is a licensed and practicing couples therapist, I’m not sure why I’m reading that book.  While I agree with her basic values, and each chapter is coherent, I don’t feel like I really know anything now that I didn’t know before.  She is not presenting a unified theory of intimacy, and she is discussing the problems of a very narrow slice of the population.  This is a book about the normal marital depressions that affect the affluent, via specific case studies of people who are often quite obnoxious, and I wouldn’t have read that book if I had known what it was.

I really want to give Perel credit where she is due it: despite the fact that I think most of her advice is generic, on some things she is unusually open-minded, and these chapters are the most interesting.  Her stance on infidelity, which is pretty radically unjudgmental, is the best example of this, and, because she isn’t spending time blaming anyone for adultery or adulterous urges, she manages to write about those things with genuine wisdom and humanity.  And the things she says about them are interesting; I have not read them before, and I have not thought about them that way before.

The State of Affairs.jpg(It’s also worth noting: I was apparently not the only person who thought that Perel was at her best when writing about infidelity.  Someone at Harper must have agreed with me, because her next book, which I have not read, is called ‘The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity‘.  I would actually, despite my aversive reaction to ‘Mating in Captivity‘, be kind of interested to read this book, which is probably the best recommendation that I can give Perel).

I think that my conclusion is this: given that the subject matter makes me want to jump out of my own skin, and that I don’t really endorse the project, it would have been a mistake for me to expect to enjoy this book.  The best that Perel was going to get out of me was a grudging respect, and this she did get.  Probably a great read for anyone who likes reading about relational difficulties, but for the intimacy-avoidant among us, ‘Mating in Captivity‘ should be avoided.

Moonglow

By Michael Chabon

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I am, essentially, an adult toddler.  I sleep whenever and wherever I please (I am particularly prone to falling asleep in moving vehicles); if permitted, I wear pajamas almost exclusively, and I routinely eat Oreos for dinner.

There are very few areas of my life upon which I choose to exercise any amount of discipline at all, but my reading is one of them.  And, like any disciplined person, I have goals which must be met, rules which must be followed.  One of the most important rules is this: if I start a book, I finish it.  It doesn’t matter how long the book is, or how much I hate it, or how bad I believe it to be – if I start reading a book, I must finish.

There are a number of reasons why I do this, why I believe that this makes me a better reader, but the most important is this: you just never know.  Books are like people: they surprise you.  Like people, some seem at first as though they are going to be your great and true friends, and then turn around one day and betray you with their badness.  And, like people, some books make a poor first impression, but turn out on longer acquaintance to be wonderful.

Moonglow.jpgEven allowing for this normal possibility, ‘Moonglow‘ is unusual.  It is rare that it takes me 575 pages to discover that I love a book.  But that was the case with this book, a book that I was only kind of enjoying until, on page 575, I was struck dumb with love, by a footnote of all things.  Perhaps the best way to describe it is: this book ‘When Harry Met Sally’ed me.  I thought we were just friends, and then, one day, on page 575, I discovered that I had loved it all along.

Moonglow‘ is a fictionalized memoir (it’s helpfully titled ‘Moonglow: A Novel’ to help you avoid confusion), an insipid genre which I usually avoid.  I made an exception because, as a younger reader, I really enjoyed a few of Chabon’s novels (especially his most famous, ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay‘, which I believe I read three times between the ages of 12 and 15).  ‘Moonglow’ is the life story of the grandfather of a writer named Michael Chabon, revealed to the narrator in the last few weeks of his grandfather’s life and augmented by the narrator’s own memories and the reminiscences of his mother (oh, is that not clear?  That’s part of what I object to about “fictionalized memoirs”, the fact that they force you to contort in strange ways, to say things like “the grandfather of a writer named Michael Chabon” instead of just saying “Michael Chabon’s grandfather”, because apparently the “Michael Chabon” who narrates this book only shares a strange and mysterious, ‘fictionalized’, resemblance with the “real” Michael Chabon, which is completely daft).

Chabon
Michael Chabon

Lives aren’t really “about” anything, but memoirs are, and ‘Moonglow‘ is about love and horror and madness and war.  It’s about Chabon’s grandmother, the faithful devotion of his grandfather to her and the psychosis which dogged her to her own death, and it is about his mother, the ways in which her upbringing hardened her.  It’s about fear and insanity and the ways in which we can pass these along to each other, in our genes and in our love.

And then, sometimes, at its periphery or in strange, short bursts, it’s about Chabon (“Chabon”) himself.

It is during one of these moments that I realized that I loved this book.  When his mother had a miscarriage, Chabon went to stay for a few days with his grandparents, whose house terrified him at night because of the presence, in a hatbox in the closet, of a set of French hand puppets.  Chabon believed, apparently quite literally, that these puppets meant him harm, and their presence in the house oppressed him (I do not mean to deride this belief in any way – puppets are sinister and I wouldn’t sleep in a room with them now).  Chabon is, nevertheless, quite funny on the point, even while he describes “the raucous voice”, in his imagination, of the puppet telling him that his mother has surely died.

Then, in a footnote, he says,

“I still hear that raucous voice; I hear a hatbox full of voices.  They bubble up from a crack in my brain, dark mutterings, shouts, and low reproaches that fall just short of sense, intruding on my thoughts almost any time I’m alone in a quiet room, working on a task that requires a certain focus – when I’m drawing, cooking, soldering a circuit, assembling a toy.  When I’m writing, I never hear the hatbox voices; I hear some other voice.” (p. 575)

And, when I read that, several things happened to me all at once.

  1. The four lives braided together in this book became, in an instant, one story, blended and coherent and moving, and convincing whether or not they are “true”.
  2. I connected with Chabon the narrator in a way which would not have been possible if he were entirely fictional.  That’s a little convoluted, so let me put it another way: that foot-noted moment, that present-tense interjection, caused me to feel that I understood and cared about the person I believed was the author of this book, in the present, because I believed that he was a real person.  And I believed that because I believed, in some fundamental way, that that footnote was true.
  3. I realized that this is why people like fictionalized memoirs, or faux-autobiographies, or whatever you want to call this kind of book: they allow you to connect with a human story as though it were real without troubling yourself about verifiable specifics.  My heart could hurt for the mad grandson of a mad woman without needing to know whether Michael Chabon is that grandson, because madness is real and inheritance is real, too, and there is a madman somewhere to hurt for.

575 pages is, I am aware, quite an investment to make on faith.  And I don’t mean to imply that ‘Moonglow‘ is boring up to page 575 – it isn’t at all.  On the contrary, it is entertaining and absorbing, well-structured and unusual.  This won’t surprise anyone who has read Chabon’s other books – he’s a very good storyteller, has a real knack for pacing and character.  There was no reason he would not bring these skills to bear on his “memoir”.

If you had asked me on page 574, I would probably have recommended ‘Moonglow‘ in a yeah-why-not sort of way.  I would have said that it was pretty good, not as good as ‘Kavalier & Clay‘ or ‘Wonder Boys‘, but not at all dull, worth the time.

But I wouldn’t have said that it was beautiful, or moving, and now, after page 575, I believe that it is those things.  Or, at least, it is those things for me.

Doctor Thorne and Framley Parsonage (The Chronicles of Barsetshire)

The Chronicles of Barsetshire: Third and Fourth Volumes

By Anthony Trollope

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Doctor ThorneAs I have mentioned before, I have been working my way through Anthony Trollope’s six-volume ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’, reviewing volume by volume.  However, I have decided to combine the reviews of these two books, ‘Doctor Thorne‘ and ‘Framley Parsonage‘, the third and fourth Chronicles respectively, because they are essentially the same novel.

Both novels are stories of marriage: tales of love-matches made between young people of different classes.  In both cases, the mismatch disfavors the female: a lovely, honorable woman of spotless character but unfortunate circumstance will find herself loved by, and in love with, a man of higher class.  The young man’s family and peer group will be shocked, outraged, by the proposed marriage, and the young woman will be too virtuous to marry against the wishes of his family.  But he, persevering in love and no less honorable than she, will not be shaken off.  The novels tell how these difficulties are overcome.

Doctor Thorne‘ is the story of Mary Thorne, a lovely but illegitimate young woman raised by her uncle, the eponymous Doctor.  Because her uncle is himself respectable, and because he takes pains to hide the tragic circumstances of her birth from the neighbors (and from Mary herself), Mary grows up among the local gentry, the Greshams of Greshambury, beloved by and welcomed among them.  However, as they all reach adulthood, Mary becomes the beloved object of the heir of Greshamsbury, young Frank, and when he declares his intention to marry her, the opprobrium of  his entire family and all of Barsetshire is brought down upon them.

Framley Parsonage‘ is the story of the Robarts family.  Mark Robarts is the Vicar of Framley (a village in Barsetshire).  He has a young wife and the friendship and patronage of his local gentry, the Luftons.  Troubles visit the Robarts in the form of two main plots: one financial, and one romantic.  Mark Robarts runs in a set a little too fast for a vicar; in a moment of social aspiration, he signs a note guaranteeing a loan for a friend, a completely insolvent Member of Parliament, which note will bring shame and near-ruin upon him.  At the same time, his sister Lucy, virtuous and lovely but, alas, without a cent in the world, catches the eye of the unmarried young Lord of Lufton, Ludovic.  When he declares his intention to marry her, the opprobrium of his entire family etcetera, etcetera, you know how this ends.

Dancing Framley
Image from ‘Framley Parsonage’, p. 291

The English novel of marriage is a highly stereotyped genre, and people usually love them or hate them.  I love them.  They are a particular sub-genre of the novel of manners, arch and unsuspenseful.  Everyone knows how they’re going to end; the joy of them is in getting to the foregone conclusions, in witnessing the subtleties, absurdities, minor foibles of this particular set of characters.  These two novels are both totally true to type (with the possible exception of an illegitimate heroine – that seems like a brave choice for its time).  Everyone is good; everyone ends up happy.  Love is requited and virtue is rewarded.  Snide and ungenerous relatives suffer, but only within the tight confines of their world.

But just because two novels have the same plot doesn’t mean that they are equally good.  ‘Doctor Thorne‘ and ‘Framley Parsonage‘ are by the same author, written two years apart (1858 and 1860, respectively), about almost exactly the same thing.  But you know what they say: practice makes perfect, and the latter, ‘Framley Parsonage’, is a much better book.

Proudie Framley
My own beloved Mrs. Proudie, the villain from ‘Barchester Towers’, makes an appearance in both these novels.  Image from ‘Framley Parsonage’, p. 396

First of all, despite the similarities in premise, there are differences in execution.  ‘Doctor Thorne‘ is clunkier; there are enormous and convoluted machinations of plot involved in solving the marital difficulties of ‘Doctor Thorne’ (secret family, sudden and untimely deaths, unlikely inheritances), while the troubles of ‘Framley Parsonage‘ are solved only by the intrinsic kindness and gentle maturation of its protagonists.  It is truer and more likely, and everyone in it is more plausible, less caricaturish.  In order for Frank Gresham to marry the woman he loves, two very rich men in the same line of succession must drink themselves to death within a matter of months; they must also then leave their enormous wealth to a stranger.  These are unlikely events.  In order for Ludovic Lufton to marry his lady, all it needs is for his mother to realize that she wants her son to be happy.

The writing of ‘Framley Parsonage‘ is better, too: it’s tighter, and wittier.  When I read, I put sticky notes over passages that I want to remember, either because they are lovely or funny or wise.  ‘Framley Parsonage’ has eight passages so marked; ‘Doctor Thorne‘ has none.

Alcohol Thorne
The wages of sin: not one, but two men will drink themselves to death in ‘Doctor Thorne’, p. 267

And there is a difference in tone between the two books.  Both novels make moral points: good birth is not virtue; debt is vice, as is drink.  However, ‘Doctor Thorne‘ makes its points more by showing: Mary Thorne is a lovely young woman, and the treatment of her due to her birth is meant to anger the reader.  ‘Framley Parsonage‘ is more didactic, and normally, as the adage goes, it is better to show, not tell, but I think Trollope is an exception to this rule.  He is often at his best, most pithy, most elegant, when he is telling you the moral of the story, or summing up a character, and the best passages of ‘Framley Parsonage’ hew to this:

‘When a man gets into his head an idea that the public voice calls for him, it is astonishing how great becomes his trust in the wisdom of the public.’ (p. 87)

‘A few words dropping from Mr. Sowerby did now and again find their way to his [Mr. Smith’s] ears, but the sound of his own voice had brought with it the accustomed charm, and he ran on from platitude to truism, and from truism back to platitude, with an eloquence that was charming to him.’ (p. 69)

‘One can only pour out of a jug that which is in it.  For the most of us, if we do not talk of ourselves, or at any rate of the individual circles of which we are the centres, we can talk of nothing.’ (p. 110)

‘Such companions are very dangerous.  There is no cholera, no yellow-fever, no small-pox, more contagious than debt.  If one lives habitually among embarrassed men, one catches it to a certainty.’ (p. 44)

These are lovely descriptions, wise words beautifully said.  And ‘Doctor Thorne‘ has no equal passages, which is a shame.  A reader would feel better if the two volumes were more even, better matched; instead, it feels as though Trollope tried an idea, published it, saw the flaws in his work, and took another run at it.

And mediocrity is not the only way in which ‘Doctor Thorne‘ stands alone among the first four volumes of ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’: it is also the only book so far whose major protagonist is not a clergyman.  This might seem like a silly point (doctor, clergyman, these really are minor phylogenic differences in the family of English Rural Gentlemen), but, once you’ve bought into Barsetshire, this difference doesn’t seem minor.  The ‘Chronicles’ have been about how these men of the cloth make good lives surrounded by the petty problems of the English gentry – that’s the project of these books, and the further Trollope wanders from that mission, the less well the books hang together.

BarsetshireHowever, frankly, Trollope is a joy to read even when he’s mediocre, and ‘Framley Parsonage‘, at least, was wonderful.  It was witty and warm.   But one of my favorite things about Trollope is that, despite being kind to his characters, he doesn’t at all see the world through rose-colored glasses.  For all the basic and mundane humanity of its story, one gets flashes of steel, and darkness, behind all the Barsetshirian goodness.  And a sharp-eyed realist lurks behind those happy endings, formulaic as they seem.  After all, no fairy tale ends like this:

‘But it was October before Lord Lufton was made a happy man – that is, if the fruition of his happiness was a greater joy than the anticipation of it.  I will not say that the happiness of marriage is like the Dead Sea fruit – an apple which, when eaten, turns to bitter ashes in the mouth.  Such pretended sarcasm would be very false.  Nevertheless, is it not the fact that the sweetest morsel of love’s feast has been eaten, that the freshest, fairest blush of the flower has been snatched and has been passed away, when the ceremony at the altar has been performed, and legal possession has been given?…When the husband walks back from the altar, he has already swallowed the choicest dainties of his banquet.’ (p. 468)

The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michelle Alexander

There are some books so good, so coherent and persuasive, and so morally urgent, that I don’t really feel comfortable reviewing them.  They speak better for themselves than I ever could, and I am tempted, in these cases, to simply quote them at length, to put their most powerful passages forward verbatim and stand next to them, with humility.

The New Jim CrowThe New Jim Crow‘ is that kind of book.  There is absolutely nothing I can write about this book that will be more effective, or affecting, than something like this:

‘…it is nearly impossible to imagine anything remotely similar to mass incarceration happening to young white men.  Can we envision a system that would enforce drug laws almost exclusively among young white men and largely ignore drug crime among young black men?  Can we imagine large majorities of young white men being rounded up for minor drug offenses, placed under the control of the criminal justice system, labeled felons, and then subjected to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion?  Can we imagine this happening while most black men landed decent jobs or trotted off to college?  No, we cannot.  If such a thing occurred, “it would occasion a most profound reflection about what had gone wrong, not only with THEM, but with US.”  It would never be dismissed with the thought that white men were simply reaping what they have sown.’ (p. 205)

Or this:

‘The profile [the drug-courier profile used by law enforcement during drug sweeps] can include traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with “mismatched occupants”, acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion, and so on.’ (p. 71)

Or this:

‘Examples of preconviction service fees imposed throughout the United States today include jail book-in fees levied at the time of arrest, jail per diems assessed to cover the cost of pre-trial detention, public defender application fees charged when someone applies for court-appointed counsel, and the bail investigation fee imposed when the court determines the likelihood of the accused appearing at trial.  Postconviction fees include pre-sentence report fees, public defender recoupment fees, and fees levied on convicted persons placed in a residential or work-release program.  Upon release, even more fees may attach, including parole or probation service fees…Failure to pay may warrant additional community control sanctions or a modification in the offender’s sentence.’ (p. 155)

Or this:

‘This means, for example, that a woman who knew that her husband occasionally smoked pot could have her car forfeited to the government because she allowed him to use her car.  Because the “car” was guilty of transporting someone who had broken a drug law at some time, she could legally lose her only form of transportation, even though she herself committed no crime…Courts have not been forgiving of women in these circumstances, frequently concluding that “the nature and circumstances of the marital relationship may give rise to an inference of knowledge by the spouse claiming innocent ownership.” (p. 82)

Or this:

“More African American adults are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.’ (p. 180)

I could go on all day – my copy of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ bristles with sticky notes. These passages give some small sense of the overall effect of this book: one of slow, suffocating injustice, a smothering and pervasive evil, the feeling that you are standing at the foot of a sheer and dizzying cliff, unclimbable and inescapable.  It is vertiginous and overwhelming.

It is difficult to recommend books which you know are going to be unpleasant for people to read.  It’s pedantic; you are essentially saying, ‘You ought to read this.  This is information that you do not possess and need to.  It’s won’t be fun, but it will be good for you.’  You are an adult telling another adult to eat their vegetables – it’s patronizing, and so I try not to do it very often.

And, in truth, there are very few books which I feel that all adults ought to read, as a moral matter.  I suppose that I don’t even think that all adults ought to read ‘The New Jim Crow‘, but I definitely think that all American adults ought to.  And I am confident that not a single one of them will ‘enjoy’ reading it; nevertheless, I believe that it contains information which it is morally and civically urgent that voting American adults possess.

The basic thesis of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ is: that the War on Drugs in the United States of America is a system of racial oppression, conceived and understood as such by its architects, that it is enforced in a highly discriminatory fashion against racial minorities, and has had the effect of creating and maintaining a racial underclass in this country.

Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander

Alexander’s logic is presented beautifully.  Her language is clear and unadorned.  Her argument is well-structured and well-sourced.  It is neither understated nor exaggerated.  She marshals an enormous amount of supporting information.  She is meticulous, and since every stage of her reasoning is credible, she is therefore wholly persuasive.  Her verdicts feel inescapable.

All of which make this book hard to read.  Her conclusion, the reality she describes, is catastrophic: painful and enraging and grim.  But what I most deeply want to communicate is that it is painful because it is true.  I believe her.  Her argument is sound; her evidence is crushing.

There are a lot of reasons why you might not want to read this book.  You might not want to sift through a lot of terrible evidence in order to reach a devastating truth.  You might reject her argument out of hand, might not wish to subject yourself to more liberal, America-hating, race-baiting, special pleading.  You might just want to read some beach fiction instead.  To these objections, I will say this:

lifetime-likelihood-of-imprisonment-by-race.png
From sentencingproject.org

We do not have the right to excuse ourselves from true information simply because it is unpleasant to consume.  And we certainly don’t have the right to avoid evidence because we do not wish it to be true.  I think we have an obligation to see the world as it is, even if it does not flatter us, or accord with our world view.  And we have no right to reject arguments we have not heard.  You may disagree with Alexander at the end of her book, but you may not disagree with her before, not with any integrity.

That’s why I read this book.  ‘The New Jim Crow‘ doesn’t show me a version of my country that I like, but that doesn’t make it a bad book, and it certainly doesn’t make it wrong.  And it wasn’t fun, but it was magnificent, and it was important, and I think it was true.  And that is all the justification it needs.

American Gods

By Neil Gaiman

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s so sad to see a good premise wasted.

‘Wasted’ is perhaps too strong a word.  It’s sad to see an execution which fails to live up to its premise.

In fairness to Neil Gaiman, this doesn’t always happen because the execution is terrible; sometimes it happens because the premise is so good that almost no execution could justify it.  Sometimes, a premise is so excellent that even a good execution is disappointing.  That’s probably the case with ‘American Gods‘: the execution of this novel is decent, totally solid.  But the premise is awesome, and so decent just won’t do.

American GodsWhen the protagonist of ‘American Gods‘, Shadow Moon (this terrible cliche of a protagonist is one the things dragging down the execution of this novel) is released from prison, he is offered a job by a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday.  Moon’s beloved wife has just been killed, and, having nothing else to live for, he accepts the strange offer.  As it turns out, Mr. Wednesday is none other than the Norse god Odin, and Shadow is now his body man.  Shadow learns that the gods of the Old World have been carried with each wave of American immigrants to the New.  These transplant gods have been slowly forgotten as their worshippers have Americanized or died and so they are left to wander, shrinking and predatory, in the modern American landscape.  Every manner of mythical or supernatural creature is here: gods, fairies, furies, djinn, leprechauns.  If someone once believed in them, they are among us, scraping to get by.  And they are about to go to war with the new gods, the gods of modernity and technology, to fight one last battle, to see who shall rule America once and for all.

It’s a magnificent premise, and credit should be given to Gaiman for coming up with it at all.  I mean that honestly and without the slightest sarcasm: most writers will go their whole lives without coming up with one story idea that has this much juice.  And ‘American Gods‘ is…readable.  I don’t mean to damn with faint praise – it is a difficult book to put down; the pages seem to turn themselves.

Neil Gaiman.jpg
I’m really not being fair here – there are many pictures of Neil Gaiman where he doesn’t look posed and pretentious (he actually looks rather lovely and likable in most of them), but I’ve chosen this one, from variety.com

And maybe I should leave it there, declare that ‘American Gods‘ is a great beach read and call it a day, but I’m not going to.  Because I have the sneaking suspicion that Gaiman would be offended to hear ‘American Gods’ called ‘beach reading’, or ‘genre fiction’.  I might be wrong, but that’s my hunch.  Perhaps it is the long dream sequences*; perhaps it is the easy metaphor of the old gods battling the new; perhaps it is the pedantic obviousness of the character names (Mr. Wednesday, Shadow Moon), but something tells me that Gaiman has aimed higher than he ought.  I don’t think he meant to write a great yarn; I think he meant to write a Great Novel.  And not just any Great Novel – I think he meant to write a Great American Novel.

Now, it’s not really fair game to blame novelists for what you think they’re going for.  You don’t really know – it’s usually better to take the novel as you found it, not judging it against the novel you imagine the novelist intended.  However, a novelist will occasionally communicate ambition.  They do this any number of ways: explicitly, in interviews, or implicitly, through heavy-handed metaphor or prose, elaborate and abstruse plot.  And when that happens, when you can see the self-satisfaction of the narrator peeking through the finished work, it’s difficult not to hold the it against them.

I think that Gaiman wants to have his cake and eat it.  He’s tried to write a novel that is both cool and deals in Big Important Themes.  It’s really difficult to do (I’ve never done it, for sure), and he hasn’t pulled it off.  Or, rather, he has technically pulled it off, but not well.  His novel is cool, and it does touch on Big Important Themes, but it hits you over the head with them.  You’d be happy riding along on a road trip with some fun old gods, but you will never be allowed to forget that America Is An Immigrant Nation.  You might have enjoyed a neat fight scene among mythical creatures, but, no, this is a battle between The Culturally Rich Past and The Bleak, Impersonal Techno-Modernity.

But, so what?  A lack of subtly isn’t the end of the world.  But really great novels don’t teach you your lesson; they tell you the story which will allow you to learn it.  There’s a big difference between those two things.  And ‘American Gods’ doesn’t really give you the room to discover anything for yourself; the take-home messages are there waiting for you, gift-wrapped, at the door as you enter.

Which, at the end of the day, does not stop ‘American Gods‘ from being enjoyable reading.  It’s a little furry around the edges, a little obvious; there are, honestly, too many dream sequences.  But it’s a fun read, and because reading is ultimately about having fun, ‘American Gods’ is worth reading.  Maybe I’m wrong about Gaiman’s intentions – maybe he wasn’t shooting for Greatness.  Maybe he just wanted to entertain me, and, if that’s the case, he knocked it out of the park.  I was entertained; I was absorbed.  So, don’t punish Gaiman for failing to live up to the goals I imagine he had; read a book that I enjoyed despite that (imagined) failure.  It’s a good read.

And it’s a great premise.

*An aside: it is my personal belief that dream sequences are a sign of weakness in writing; they are self-indulgent and lazy, and their presence in a plot almost always suggests that someone is taking a short cut.  Another plot event like this: secret brother-sister incest.  When two characters who are sleeping together discover that they are secretly related, I know someone in the Writers Room was phoning it in.

And The Band Played On

Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

By Randy Shilts

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Sometimes, it’s tough to belly up to a big, heavy history book.

You know the kind of book I mean: a magisterial, dense tome dealing, in depth, with some somber human chapter.  Hundreds of pages on a topic about which serious adults always seem to know more than you.

You feel that you should read them, the way that you should eat well and exercise, but every time you contemplate actually cracking them open, you think, ‘Yikes, I’m not going to laugh once during this,’, and so go and watch another episode of ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ instead.

And The Band Played OnAnd the Band Played On‘ has been weighing on my conscience for a year or so now, squatting on my ‘To Read’ shelf and glowering at me.  Every time I reach for a novel, it’s red-letter title gleams at me, as though it were asking, ‘Do you really need to read another Graham Greene novel?  Don’t you care about the victims of the AIDS epidemic?’

Well, I do care about the victims of the AIDS epidemic, and I’ve run out of Graham Greene novels, and so I finally buckled down and read ‘And the Band Played On‘.

First of all, let me say that ‘And the Band Played On‘ is not what I thought it was going to be.  It is not a dry, magisterial history; rather, it’s part narrative history, part journalism, part advocacy.  It does endeavor to tell the story of the AIDS epidemic in the United States (and a little in Western Europe), but it does not pretend to objectivity.  It has a viewpoint, and it is forthright in assigning blame and giving praise.

Shilts.jpg
Randy Shilts

Randy Shilts was a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle during the 1980s and, as the epidemic developed, he became one of the first reporters in the country to cover AIDS as a full-time beat.  San Francisco did not have the largest absolute number of AIDS cases in the United States (New York City did), but it did have the largest and most civically powerful gay male population, and the largest number of cases per capita.  Shilts was therefore witness at one of the population centers hardest hit, and most responsive, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and he manages to imbue his book with the sense of creeping dread and unnameable fear that he himself must have felt.

It’s not a book for the faint of heart, or for the easily outraged.  If Shilts is to be believed*, then the unfolding of the AIDS crisis in America was a clusterfuck of every kind of human recalcitrance, incompetence, and malevolence.  Racism, classism, homophobia, cowardice, complacence, narcissism, over-weaning ambition, and bureaucratic inertia all combined to slow realization of, and effective reaction to, the crisis.  And many, many people died because of it.

That is the most difficult part of ‘And the Band Played On‘: most of the characters to whom you are introduced, the real people for whom you root and to whom you become attached, perish.  They die, slowly, and in agony, and there is nothing you can do to help them.  You, from your vantage of thirty years on, know exactly what’s killing them, but there is no way to alert the people around them, to persuade them to abandon their biases and their prejudice and to see what’s really happening.  It’s heart-breaking, because so few of the obstacles in the way of an effective response to the AIDS crisis in the United States were, in hindsight, legitimate.  Most stemmed from human bungling, callousness or, worse, evil.  And this powerless on your part to alter the past makes the reading of this book claustrophobic, and very upsetting.

This is not a book which will leave you with good feelings about your fellow man.  Of course, it’s not a chapter in our history which was going to leave you feeling good about your fellow man, and you probably knew that going in; I certainly didn’t expect this to be a fun read.  Nevertheless, there are details in here which are so dismal, petty and caustic to the soul, that they will stay with me for the rest of my life.  This, for example:

‘Haitian Americans suffered multiple indignities in the two cities where they were most concentrated, Miami and New York.  Just trying on a pair of shoes in Florida sometimes became a traumatic experience, because salespeople declined to let anyone who looked Haitian near any merchandise.’ (p. 322)

Or this:

‘The guide to British aristocracy, Burke’s Peerage, announced that, in an effort to preserve ‘the purity of the human race,’ it would not list any family in which any member was known to have AIDS. (p. 565)

Or this:

‘Two AIDS sufferers were scheduled to be part of an ‘A.M. San Francisco’ segment whose goal was to ‘demystify’ AIDS and calm the fears.  However, the two patients couldn’t appear on the show because studio technicians refused to mike them.  Then, cameraman said they would not shoot the show if they had to walk onto the same sound stage as the two gay men.  The two patients instead talked through a telephone in a separate room.’
(p. 321)

Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer, an early and controversial AIDS activist, features prominently in the text.  He was one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and is the author of, among other things, ‘The Normal Heart’.  As of writing, he is still alive.

But just because something is emotionally difficult to read isn’t an excuse for avoiding it.  It’s important to know about our national moral failures as well as our glorious successes.  And I would argue that, if you’re determined to learn about the AIDS crisis, or about modern epidemics in general, this is a good book to read.

There are arid portions – there is a lot of policy building, lots of CDC budgets, which will alienate non-wonks – but, for the most part, Shilts has made this subject matter as riveting as possible.  The focus is almost entirely on individuals, which, while distressing, will help you stay focused.  It is exhaustive; there is an astonishing amount of information in this book – the amount of reporting work Shilts must have done boggles the mind.  In that sense alone, it really is a colossal achievement.

But though it has a clear point of view, I think that the best compliment that I can give this book is this: I did not even suspect until I looked him up when I finished – it didn’t even occur to me to ask the question – that Randy Shilts was a gay man.  He refused to be tested for the AIDS virus until he had completed this book, fearing that a positive diagnosis would compromise his objectivity.  He tested positive in March, 1987.

Randy Shilts died of AIDS complications in 1994.  He was 42.

*I don’t mean to imply personal disbelief; I mention it only because I am aware that there has been some controversy surrounding the book.  As I understand it (and my understanding is superficial at best), the controversy involves Shilts’ treatment of Gaetan Dugas, a gay man who came to known, in part because of Shilts’ work, as Patient Zero of the AIDS epidemic.  Genetic studies conducted nearly 30 years after his death exonerated Dugas.

Barchester Towers (The Chronicles of Barsetshire)

The Chronicles of Barsetshire: Second Volume

By Anthony Trollope

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Barchester Towers‘ is the second novel in Anthony Trollope’s ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’.  The first, ‘The Warden‘ (reviewed here), is the short little tale of Septimus Harding, a kind-hearted Anglican clergyman, and how he came to resign his post as warden of Hiram’s Hospital.  The end of ‘The Warden’ found Mr. Harding poorer in his income but clearer in his conscience, and his beloved daughter Eleanor married to John Bold, the man who unfortunately instigated Mr. Harding’s removal.

As I mentioned, ‘The Warden‘ was low-stakes and leisurely, a sweet story about sweet people who all mean well.  There were no villains, and no true fools.  It was difficult to sustain a sense of outrage against anyone when Mr. Harding himself couldn’t, and no character who would not be welcomed to tea by any other.  Everything ended well, and everyone was forgiven.

This second novel is made of stiffer stuff.Barchester Towers

Barchester Towers‘ opens with two deaths.  The Bishop Grantly of Barchester has died; he was the best friend of Septimus Harding, and the father of his son-in-law, the Archdeacon Grantly of Plumstead.  The Archdeacon was a figure of minor dramatic tension in ‘The Warden’ – he will become a hero in ‘Barchester Towers’.  He is married to Mr. Harding’s elder daughter.

Meanwhile, John Bold, major protagonist of ‘The Warden’ and married to Harding’s younger daughter Eleanor, has been summarily snuffed out between books.  I’m not sure that we are even told how he perished; all that matters now is that Eleanor is a young, attractive widow of means, vulnerable to the unscrupulous.

And the unscrupulous are upon us.  ‘The Warden‘ was villainless; ‘Barchester Towers‘ has two villains, both brought by the new Bishop of Barchester: the unctuous and despicable chaplain Mr. Slope, and his patroness, the over-zealous, over-bearing harridan wife of the new Bishop, Mrs. Proudie.

Proudie Slope
A moment of dramatic tension between Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie: “May God forgive you, madam, for the manner in which you have treated me,’ said Mr. Slope, looking at her with a very heavenly look.’ (p. 450)

Barchester Towers‘ ostensibly continues to follow the travails and fortunes of the Hardings: whether Mr. Harding will be re-appointed to the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital and whom Eleanor will remarry.  However, the novel’s heart really lies in the battle between it’s two new Goliath’s: Archdeacon Grantly and Mrs. Proudie.  They are the standouts here, the best-drawn characters by far, and clearly the favorites of their author.  Take, for instance, this quietly magnificent passage about Archdeacon Grantly:

‘Now there was something peculiarly unorthodox in the archdeacon’s estimation in the idea of a round table…He connected them with what he called the nasty new fangled method of leaving a cloth on the table, as though to warn people that they were not to sit long.  In his eyes there was something democratic and parvenue in a round table.  He imagined that dissenters and calico-printers chiefly used them, and perhaps a few literary lions more conspicuous for their wit than their gentility…”A round dinner-table,’ said he, with some heat, “is the most abominable article of furniture that ever was invented”.’ (p. 180)

Or this aside about Mrs. Proudie:

‘It is ordained that all novels should have a male and a female angel, and a male and a female devil.  If it be considered that this rule is obeyed in these pages, the latter character must be supposed to have fallen to the lot of Mrs. Proudie.  But she was not all devil.  There was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps. of large dimensions, and certainly not easily accessible.’ (p. 227)

These are expert characterizations: efficient and droll.  Trollope lives in his characters; in fact, he has imagines them so richly that he has come to love them.  I think that is why (by his own description above) he writes no truly evil villains: he can’t write someone and not forgive them, not offer them redemption.  But this emotional investment means that he is really at his best when he leans into character development, when he gives his characters time and space to display themselves and all their strange idiosyncrasies fully.  This makes him less quotable than other writers of his ilk, though he is just as witty; he only occasionally produces the arch epigrams for which English writers are so well known. When he does produce them, though, they are excellent:

‘There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons.’ (p. 53)

‘A man must be an idiot or else an angel, who after the age of forty shall attempt to be just to his neighbours.’
(p. 328)

However, despite the fact that ‘Barchester Towers’ has both heroes and villains, it doesn’t have much in the way of plot.  As mentioned above, there is the minor drama of Eleanor’s second marriage; there is the vague menace that she will be somehow tricked in marrying the odious Mr. Slope, but no one believes that she will and no one (including, I suspect, Trollope) really cares.  Most of the action of the book centers around the goings-on of our two new villains, Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie, their clerical battle with the Archdeacon, and their integration into the quiet community of Barchester.

This plotlessness didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the back.  In fact, I liked ‘Barchester Towers‘ a lot more than I liked ‘The Warden‘.  The first was a very earnest book about goodness and conscience; the second is a book about manners, and wickeder entirely.  ‘Barchester Towers’ is the funnier of the two, by far, and has the superior cast of characters.

Which is not to say that it lacks sweetness.  While ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’ are satires, they are very gentle, and they are, after all, about a group of English clerics endeavoring to do their best.  And Trollope himself is prone to small moral excursuses which, in my opinion, are humane and charming:

‘How much kinder is God to us than we are willing to be to ourselves!  At the loss of every dear face, at the last going of every well beloved one, we all doom ourselves to an eternity of sorrow, and look to waste ourselves away in an ever-running fountain of tears.  How seldom does such grief endure! how blessed is the goodness which forbids it to do so! ‘Let me ever remember my living friends, but forget them as soon as dead,’ was the prayer of a wise man who understood the mercy of God.  Few perhaps would have the courage to express such a wish, and yet to do so would only be to ask for that release from sorrow, which a kind Creator almost always extends to us.’ (p. 25)

BarsetshireThere are six Chronicles; I am now through one third by volumes (though, like all good series, each volume is longer than the previous, and some of the later volumes are pretty honking big).  I really did likeThe Warden‘, but ‘Barchester Towers‘ has drawn me all the way in, won me over completely.  I’m enjoying my time in Barsetshire; I’m ready to go back.

I Wear The Black Hat

Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)

By Chuck Klosterman

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Some books are written just for you.

You know what I mean, right?  Something similar happens between people.  There are miracles of chemistry: you meet someone, and both of you experience an instant and reciprocated affinity.  It is as though you were both designed with the other in mind, all the pieces match up.

The same thing can happen with books.  There are books out there, like people, which are just perfect for you.  They were written because there are other people like you, who think like you and care about the other things you care about, and now you’ve found each other and it’s going to be fun.  Maybe moving, maybe life-changing, but definitely fun.

Klosterman
Chuck Klosterman

When I learned that Chuck Klosterman, the morbid, mordant culture critic, had written a book about villainy, I knew without reading it that I loved it.  I’ve always liked Klosterman – he’s dark, and funny, and broadly interested in how the world works, how all the pieces of culture fit together, what they mean synthetically.

And I love villainy.  I love villains, bad guys, wickedness and evil – I’ve been interested in them all my life.  In my experience, this is either something you get or you don’t: some people orient towards heroes, some towards villains.  We two sides will not understand each other; I cannot explain why I think that villainy is more interesting, and more important, than goodness.  I only know that it is.

I Wear the Black HatI Wear the Black Hat‘ is Chuck Klosterman’s loose meditation on villains in culture, on what makes someone seem villainous, on what makes some villains likable and some not, on the factors which inform villainy: context, intention, success (the full title is ‘I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)‘).  It is arranged into short chapters, essays really, which do not share content but which share structure and orientation.  It’s a quick read, and an easy one, but it’s also a fucking blast.

Klosterman has a lot to recommend him: as I mentioned, he’s funny, but he’s also brave, probably honest, and has a viewpoint which is recognizably his own.  He has a real knack for persuasively connecting things which you had not thought to connect, and the facility of his comparisons does not leave you with the impression (which it might easily have done) that he has not thought deeply about them.  Take, for example, his essay ‘Crime and Punishment (Or the Lack Thereof)’, which begins thus:

‘It’s unfair to write this, but I’m going to do it anyway: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and O. J. Simpson have a lot in common.  We don’t normally lump them together, because certain key contrasts are tricky – for example, one man is a Muslim intellectual and the other more or less decapitated his ex-wife.  This is more than a significant detail.’ (p. 191)

The essay which follows this (and I challenge anyone even vaguely curious about American culture to read that opening and then walk away from the rest of the essay) contains two of the more interesting points about O. J. Simpson that I’ve ever read:

    1. That if, in fact, O. J. were innocent (which Klosterman emphatically does not believe he was) than his post-acquittal public life was the only reasonable and honorable path open to him (up to the publication of ‘If I Did It’, that is).
    2. That “over time, the public will grow to accept almost any terrible act committed by a celebrity; everything eventually becomes interesting to those who aren’t personally involved.  But Simpson does not allow for uninvolvement.  He exceeds the acceptable level of self-directed notoriety and changes the polarity of the event; by writing this book [‘If I Did It’], he makes it seem like the worst part of Brown and Goldman’s murder was what happened to him” (p. 204)

That kind of lucid and yet strange analysis is exactly what characterizes Klosterman’s writing, but here it meets subject matter which sorely needs it.

People rarely examine villainy merely to understand it.  Klosterman isn’t interested in condemning the subjects of his essays (who include Kim Dotcom, LeBron James, Andrew Dice Clay, Batman, and Hitler); when he feels that they deserve condemnation, he merely states that they have got it.  He’s not moralizing; he’s interested in figuring out why we react to different people the way that we do.   He even manages to provide a definition of villainy which is pithy, novel, and servicable:

‘In any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least.’ (p. 14)

That’s Klosterman at his best: short, thought-provoking, and quotable.  I don’t always agree with his little epigrams, but I can’t ever dismiss them, and sometimes they hit me upside the head with their novelty and insight.  Take my single favorite quote from the book (from his entire ouvre, probably):

‘Love is significantly less crazy than lust.  Love is a mildly irrational combination of complex feelings; lust is a totally irrational experience that ignores complexity on purpose.’ (p. 128) (This is from the essay on Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the movie Basic Instinct, Ted Bundy, and Wilt Chamberlain.  Really.).

For my money, there is more wisdom in that little line than in all of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, whether it is correct or not.  And the kicker is, I can’t tell: I’ve been thinking about it for days, and I don’t know whether or not I agree.

That’s the great joy of reading Chuck Klosterman: you get to see the whole world sparkle with a totally new perspective, one only slightly askew from your own but which nevertheless makes an enormous difference.  That’s what good culture critics do, really – they show you the same old objects stripped of their familiarity.  And ‘I Wear the Black Hat‘ is good cultural criticism: it will show you the same old villains, but with a whole new sparkle.

Seveneves

By Neal Stephenson

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s been a long time since a book has upset me this much.

I mean that as a compliment.  Novels elicit a very few, predictable emotional states from me: intellectual appreciation, amusement, the fun of learning something new, and sometimes, when they are really excellent novels, anger or sadness at the unfairness of the world, the cruelty of people.

But it is rare that a novel makes me feel the way ‘Seveneves‘ has: dreadful, afraid, oppressed, a little grief-stricken, and, I think, even rarer that the novel should be End-of-the-World science fiction, a genre which normally moves me little*.  Most apocalypse scenarios are far-fetched MacGuffins; they have very little emotional resonance in of themselves, at least for me.  You are meant to care about the characters – the apocalypse is there only to put them in extremis.

SevenEvesBut ‘Seveneves‘ is different.  The premise of this novel is that, one day, one normal day, in our world in our reality, a rapidly moving cosmic event, perhaps a small black hole, causes the moon to shatter into seven large pieces.  The pieces have the same center of gravity as the intact moon, and so remain in orbit around the Earth.  As they begin to collide with one another and fragment, astrophysicists figure out that their collision and fragmentation rate will accelerate.  Eventually, the pieces will begin to fall to Earth in an ‘Hard Rain’; they will super-heat the atmosphere, setting it alight, killing all life on Earth and boiling the oceans.  At the time of the initial event, the Hard Rain will begin in approximately two years.

Seveneves‘ is the story of humanity’s preparation for the Hard Rain, its desperate attempts to put as many people on the International Space Station as possible, and the sequelae, in space, of the extinction of life on earth.

Stephenson
Neal Stephenson

I’ve been trying to figure out why ‘Seveneves‘ is so effective.  It isn’t because it’s perfect.  Neal Stephenson has great strengths as a writer, and some weaknesses, most of which are on display here.

For example, he has trouble with endings, and the ending of ‘Seveneves‘ is emblematic: the book wraps up suddenly and anti-climactically after nearly 800 pages of vividly-imagined plot, as though Stephenson, after saying what he wanted to say, got bored and wandered away from his writing desk.

And not all of it is equally well-imagined.  Stephenson loves physics and engineering: there are pages and pages of loving, fastidious descriptions of orbital mechanics and robotics programming, so long and so detailed that they come to feel almost punitive.  No detail of physics is left unelaborated.

However, much of the second half of the book hinges on a small miracle of biology taking place, on a revolution in gene-editing technology which would require that genes work entirely differently than they, in fact, do work in real life.  The future of humanity relies on, and cannot be understood without, this miracle, but it receives only a paragraph of Stephenson’s attention.  He doesn’t even posit a mechanism of action – he simply asserts that genes work this way, and that scientists may manipulate them thus, with such and such results.

It goes like this:

“…the point is that I can get a digital record of its DNA.  Once that’s in hand, it turns into a software exercise – the data can be evaluated and compared to huge databases that shipped up as part of the lab.  It’s possible to identify places on a given chromosome where a bit of DNA got damaged…It is then possible to repair those breaks by splicing in a reasonable guess as to what was there originally…if it’s a disease – something on the books, defined in the medical literature as such – I will fix it…Once all that is done, each of us gets a free one…one alteration – one improvement – of your choice, applied to the genome of the fertilized ovum that will grow into your child.  And your child only….So, Camila, if you think it would improve the human race to get rid of its aggression, why then, I will search through the scientific literature for a way to reach your goal genetically.” (p. 552- 562)

Habitat Ring
A graphic from the novel – you can see that, when he cares to, Stephenson really thinks things through.

Maybe it’s because biology is my day job, but this unevenness bothered me.  The point of hard science fiction (well, one of the points) is the science; to just gloss over the parts you’re not interested in so you can rush back to describing robot movements cheats the reader.  This is especially glaring when they are crucial to the plot, when they represent far and away the most important scientific advance depicted in your science fiction book!

But this unevenness doesn’t blunt the emotional effect of this novel, which springs, I think, from two things:

  1. There is something viscerally upsetting about the disintegration of the moon.  The effect on the reader of imagining a moonless earth is primitive and unsettling and super-effective.  And Stephenson achieves it with very little fuss – there are no long passages of devotional description of the moon, no exploration of its place in our cultural imagination.  The novel begins when the moon ends, and, like the old cliche, you discover that you had been unaware of what you had until it was gone.
  2. According to Stephenson’s premise, humanity has two years in which to confront its own annihilation.  Some authors would have taken that opportunity to show a depraved humanity, a burning, anarchic world, man’s heart of darkness let loose.  Stephenson does not, and the mostly calm manner in which his world walks towards its own destruction is more affecting than mayhem and evil could have been.  Most people continue to live lives which very much resemble their old lives, but why?  What meaning can your routines possibly have when, in the near future, you and everyone you love will die in flames?  For that matter, what meaning do they have now?

I didn’t enjoy this book – that verb is inappropriate.  In fact, I spent much of it in the grips of a morbid agitation, unable to relax or be cheerful.  But I was completely glued to it; all my free time went to reading it.  If you’re looking for a feel-good romp, this is not your book.  But if you’d like to be freaked out, to work hard for the privilege of being unsettled, if you want to spend some time absorbed in a genuinely dark, movingly dark, future, this is your book.

*Although, now that I think about it, the only book which has unsettled me in this way in recent memory is, weirdly, also sci-fi: ‘The Reality Dysfunction‘, by Peter Hamilton, which describes a vision of the afterlife which made me want to run screaming into the nearest church.