The Incendiaries

By R. O. Kwon

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Have you ever eaten french fries for dinner?

Do you know that feeling you get, after? When you’re technically full, but you haven’t eaten anything of substance, so your blood feels both thick and empty? Like, your stomach knows that it’s extended, but not satisfied? And you feel heavy, but not strong? Not healthy? And you can feel the grease working its way out through your pores and somehow you know that you haven’t eaten one single nutrient? And even though you know you’ll be fine, it also sort of feels as though you’re having a medical emergency?

And you’re not sure why the situation feels so dire, because potatoes aren’t that bad for you, right? It’s not like you ate gummy bears for dinner (I’ve done this, too, several times, and if you haven’t, trust me: it feels different, even worse, than fries). Potatoes have some value as food, right? And maybe you had ketchup, and that’s technically a fruit but also kind of a vegetable? And so maybe you kind of had a salad? So why do you feel…like you didn’t eat a salad?

Also, french fries are delicious! You loved every bite; you experienced, in those first fries in particular, a sense of happiness which approached pure joy – that’s why you ate so many fries that you can’t eat anything else now. So many that you sort of don’t want to eat anything ever again.

That’s how I feel about ‘The Incendiaries‘. I feel like I just flew through a book, devoured it, and it felt, at the time, as though there must have been substance in there somewhere, but that substance is eluding me now that the book is over. Now, I just feel weirdly mentally bloated.

Will and Phoebe meet their first year at a prestigious New York university. They each come weighted down with significant baggage. Will is a former born-again Christian who has had a crisis of faith. From a less prosperous background than most of his classmates, Will hides the fact that he must work several jobs in order support himself.

Phoebe is a former piano prodigy. She has spent her entire childhood in brutal pursuit of excellence. When she realizes one day that while technical perfection may be within her grasp, she will always lack intrinsic artistic greatness, she retires from piano. She delivers this information to her single mother during a drive; in the ensuing emotional scene, she crashes the car and her mother is killed.

Will and Phoebe fall in love and begin a relationship. Phoebe becomes Will’s whole world, the focus of an all-consuming love. During their first year, however, Phoebe meets a man named John Leal.

A figure of some mysteriousness, Leal is, like Phoebe herself, of Korean ancestry. According to local legend, he has spent time in a North Korean prison camp. Once freed, he returned to North America and has since taken to wandering upstate New York barefoot, recruiting local college students to his prayer group, which he calls Jejah.

As Phoebe becomes more involved in Jejah, Will becomes concerned that it is a cult. When Will sets himself against Jejah, he will risk losing Phoebe, and these three troubled people will become melodramatically tangled in a web of love and guilt and anger.

I know what ‘The Incendiaries‘ wants to be about. ‘The Incendiaries’ believes that it is a nutritious novel. It doesn’t think it’s french fries – ‘The Incendiaries’ definitely thinks it has some vegetables in it. It thinks it’s about, well, love and grief and guilt and anger. It thinks it’s about how, in a weird way, those are all the same thing. Not exactly the same, obviously: there are meaningful differences between love and grief and guilt and anger. But they are the great forces which shape or, in adverse circumstances, warp us. They braid together and bleed into each other. And they are so, so powerful that when they combine, they can drive us into states so extreme we would not even recognize ourselves.

That all sounds pretty deep, doesn’t? Those are heavy themes; these plot elements (cults, terrorism, rape), these are varsity-level plot elements. They should add up to something substantial, but they weirdly don’t.

R. O. Kwon

Or, at least, they don’t for me.

One of the differences between good novels and Great Novels is that great novels transcend their plot. Like all novels, they are about some people doing some things, sure, but, in Great Novels, those people and those things have meanings which relate to the greater concerns of humanity. Great Novels, through their plot, teach us something about ourselves. Goods novel might be beautifully written, enthralling, moving, but they are only about the exact people and things that they are about. They are limited by their plots, for better or worse.

The Incendiaries‘ is not a Great Novel. Sure, it’s an absorbing story – I did mention that I chewed through it, right? It’s not boring, at all. The characters are interesting (well, Will is. Phoebe isn’t, and John Leal is barely a character). But Will is an interesting character! Maybe not a deep one, not an illuminating one, but interesting, fun to read.

But I don’t think this novel goes any deeper (allowing, always, for the possibility that it went way deeper and I missed it). And that would be fine – the world needs great stories that don’t go any deeper – but I have the distinct impression that ‘The Incendiaries‘ thinks it’s pretty deep.

It’s this discrepancy that I find hard to cope with. I don’t like it when a novel’s ambitions show, and I find it extra-cringy when they show all those ambitions and then don’t realize them. It makes me uncomfortable.

This is probably my hang-up. You know how some people can’t watch ‘The Office’ because the humor makes them so uncomfortable? And the rest of us think those people are complete wussies who are missing out? This is probably my version of that. When I read novels that are aiming way higher than they land, my teeth hurt.

And it’s a shame, because good novels are good, and if this isn’t a good novel, it’s definitely a fun one. It’s about stuff I enjoy reading about, like terrorism and cults and relationship drama. It’s right in my sweet spot.

But I think that we should be judging books the way they want to be judged. Put differently: we should be taking books at their word. If a book claims to be a Great Novel, if it takes aim at grand themes, then it has picked the standard by which it should be judged. And when a book sets its sights on love and grief and guilt and anger, then I am allowed to say that it is not enough for it to be merely fun to read. That even if I had fun, I didn’t learn anything, or a grow at all. And that, therefore, it failed.

The Fifth Season

The Broken Earth: Book One

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I think that prejudices must be a little like guns: just as likely to hurt their owner as they are to hurt anyone else.

I’m just going to say this, straight-out: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel. I’m not defending this position – I know that this is shallow – I’m admitting this as the shortcoming is it.

But there it is: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel.

Because they look bad. I’m not saying that they are bad; certainly, they aren’t all bad. But they all look bad. For some reason, the marketing for fantasy novels has evolved certain universals (thin covers, big, serif-fonted, foreboding titles with moody, dramatic art behind them) that signal badness. The books all look cheap, interchangeable, and plotty.

See?

Which, fine. Nothing wrong with cheap, interchangeable, and plotty, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. But it’s not ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, is it? And it always gives my vanity a little twinge, to be caught reading one. It makes me feel defensive, like I want to announce to everyone on the red line train with me, ‘I just finished ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, and so I’m just taking a little break!’

Which is vain and insecure, yes, and emphatically my own problem (no one on the red line gives a flying fuck what I’m reading, I promise). There’s a reason we have that old expression, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, and even though that expression usually applies to people, turns out it applies just as well to actual books! Because if you avoid books just because they have fantasy-looking covers, sometimes you miss really good books.

I’m trying to explain how it is that I came to be the last person alive to have discovered ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy by N. K. Jemisin: I ignored it because it looks like a bad fantasy novel. I’m sure that I have walked by it in bookstores a thousand times, sorting it pre-consciously into “garbage” into my head and moving on. Even if I picked it up and looked at the back, I would have immediately put it down and walked away, because the back cover makes ‘The Fifth Season‘ look like a garbage book.

But the other day, I was with a friend in Trident Bookstore and she spotted ‘The Fifth Season‘ on the Staff Recommendations rack and said, ‘You’ve read that, right?’

And I said, ‘No, I haven’t even heard of it.’ Which, given the look she then gave me, is clearly much more embarrassing than reading a fantasy book on the red line.

I now know, of course, that ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy has made N. K. Jemisin the only author ever to win Hugo awards three years in a row. The third installment, ‘The Stone Sky‘, also won a Locus and a Nebula. The praise for ‘The Fifth Season‘ is so over-the-top it sounds sarcastic (“These novels are a gift to the whole of our culture,” says The Guardian – seriously?).

I’m not sure even how to describe ‘The Fifth Season‘ in a way that is going to do it justice. I’m worried that a description of the plot mechanics is going to make it sound…generic? And I don’t think that ‘The Fifth Season’ is generic. To be completely honest, I finished it about fifteen minutes ago, and I haven’t had time to digest it yet.

I know I loved it. I loved it so much that I’m feeling frankly kind of resentful that I have to be here, writing about it instead of just starting the next book in the series, ‘The Obelisk Gate‘.

I don’t know whether I loved it because it was “good” – I’m way, way past caring. I just know it’s a great story, an absolutely phenomenal story, set in a world which is complex and well-imagined and dark.

Fantasy is like any genre: it has threads that it can pull, values it can adjust, which are known to its readers, and which refer to the genre as a whole while still belonging to the story specifically. Part of what you admire when you admire a piece of genre fiction is the way that this particular story has used those conventions, has toggled those toggles. It’s a form of creativity within limits, and when it’s done well, the limits make the creativity even more impressive.

And so ‘The Fifth Season‘ plays with some ideas that will be very familiar to even casual readers of fantasy (or even just to people who have seen ‘Game of Thrones’). It takes place on an Earth subject to terrible seismic upheaval; severe tectonic activity causes global catastrophe every few centuries, periods of darkness and apocalyptic death: these are the fifth seasons.

Human civilization has learned to weather these periods of mass extinction through community stability and the careful husbanding of resources. However, planning alone has not saved them – magic is also necessary. For there have evolved among them humans capable of channeling and controlling seismic activity: the orogenes. Orogenes are very powerful and very dangerous, and normal people revile them. It is more common than not for young orogene children to be killed upon discovery in rural areas.

But, whenever possible, the forces of empire gather young orogenes and bring them to be trained in the capital. There, they are taught through brutal lesson to control their powers and put it to good use.

The Fifth Season‘ tells the story of three orogenes, all women. One is a child, just discovered and nearly destroyed. Another is a young woman, advanced in her training, as she is given for mentorship to the most powerful orogene alive. And the third is a mother, trying to live in secret, in hiding, after she discovers that her husband has just discovered the gift in one of her children, and so has killed him.

N. K. Jemisin

I’m making it sound kind of garbage, I know. It’s difficult to write about some of these things without sounding silly, and I’m just not a good enough writer to throw around made-up words for magical beings convincingly.

But, and this is all that really matters, N. K. Jemisin is. I made it through this entire novel without rolling my eyes once. That’s astonishing. There is something about the word ‘fantasy’ that sounds soft; it makes people (maybe just me?) think of Tolkieny shit, of mages and dragons and Chosen Ones, where the deepest and darkest metaphor is racism between dwarves and elves.

There’s nothing silly or soft in ‘The Fifth Season‘. Quite the contrary – this novel is dark, brutal, mean. It is violent, even wrenching. It’s characters don’t find relief anywhere, and neither will you. I don’t know if it’s a metaphor for anything (again, it really has been only fifteen minutes – I’m still sitting in the same chair, for fuck’s sake); sometimes a dark story is just a story about darkness.

But what a story it is.

Conversations with Friends

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

One of my small narcissisms: I disdain book fads.

Every year, there are It books, authors the literary cognoscenti have their panties all twisted up about, the new novel that the New York Review of Books declares a Must Read, that every independent bookstore has on it’s Staff Recommendations table (in hardcover), whose author Terry Gross just interviewed last week.

I try to avoid these books.

It’s not that I think they’re all bad books, not at all. Many of them are celebrated quite appropriately (you can count me, for example, among the legions of frothing Elena Ferrante fans).

However, they aren’t all great: some are merely well-publicized. Some are highly experimental, a novel written in all questions, or a novel in one long sentence (these are real things*, and I’ve actually read and loved one of them). Some are more timely than good. Some are fine, but no one will, or should, remember them in five years.

*’The Interrogative Mood‘, Padgett Powell; ‘Ducks, Newburyport‘, by Lucy Ellman

I’m a snob for the Literary Canon – we’ve talked about this before – and, the truth is, if I spent my time reading every contemporary novel that Michiko Kakutani thought I needed to, I wouldn’t have time to read anything else. So I like to give a book twenty years or so, see how it ages, see whether it’s a flash in the pan or whether anyone remembers it a decade later.

But I make exceptions, for all sorts of valid or stupid reasons. Sometimes a book comes recommended by someone I trust; sometimes it catches my eye; sometimes I have already learned to love the author, or the author keeps being compared to someone else I love (careful with this one – it pretty much never turns out the way you want it to).

And, a few weeks ago, I was going through my old New Yorkers and came across a review of ‘Conversations with Friends‘, a fad book from 2017 that I had successfully avoided. But this review (by Alexandra Schwartz) was called, ‘A New Kind of Adultery Novel‘. I didn’t read the review – I didn’t need to. I’m kind of a creepy little pervert, and there was absolutely no chance I wasn’t going to read a New Kind of Adultery Novel. So this week I read ‘Conversations with Friends’.

Frances and Bobbi went to school together. They dated, and then they broke up, and now they are best friends, college students in Dublin, where they perform spoken-word poetry together. Bobbi is beautiful and outlandish and charismatic. Frances is our narrator, plain and severe, quiet and cerebral. She is a socialist and poet, a bisexual who believes that love has been co-opted by capitalism to wring unpaid labor out of mothers.

One night, the two friends are approached after a show by Melissa, an established artist and photographer. As they begin to get to know her, it becomes clear that, like many people, Melissa prefers Bobbi, and Frances, a little defensively, strikes up a friendship with Melissa’s husband, Nick. Nick is a actor who is semi-famous, handsome and much smarter and more sardonic than he appears. As Frances and Nick begin an affair, the relationship between the four adults becomes more and more complicated until it begins to threaten even the love Bobbi and Frances have for each other.

People went kind of bonkers about ‘Conversations with Friends‘. I myself had multiple girlfriends tell me that I had to read it (that way that people do that makes you want to hit them). And I think I know why, even if I do not perhaps share the wildness of the enthusiasm.

Rooney has a way of writing, a plainness of presentation, which is nearly unique and very effective. This is a little what people are reacting to when they talk about the revolution that Hemingway’s prose represented: the way the spareness of the prose, the lack of adornment, left the reader nowhere to hide.

But Hemingway wasn’t writing about the intricate interiors of human relationships – Rooney is, and so the effect is very different. When people write about feelings, even the feelings of fictional characters, they tend to explicitly frame them as feelings, to soften their reality, to layer them away from fact: “I felt as though…”; “He acted like I was…”; “It was as though I had been…”. We lard our feelings with metaphors and analogies, which are illustrative, but also distancing. Even as we contemplate the feeling, we are imagining something else.

Rooney doesn’t do this. She doesn’t invest in the emotional reality of her characters so much as she simply states it as reality and moves on. She doesn’t interpret or elaborate. Because her prose so fundamentally inhabits the experience of her protagonist, when she does employ similes, they have the effect of turning back inwards, into the mind of Frances.

“Certain elements of my relationship with Nick had changed since he told Melissa we were together. I sent him sentimental texts during daytime hours and he called me when he was drunk to tell me nice things about my personality. The sex itself was similar, but afterward was different. Instead of feeling tranquil, I felt oddly defenseless, like an animal playing dead. It was as though Nick could reach through the soft cloud of my skin and take whatever was inside me, like my lungs or other internal organs, and I wouldn’t try to stop him. When I described this to him he said he felt the same, but he was sleepy and he might not really have been listening.” (p. 232)

Sally Rooney

All of which, because of the bareness of the prose, has the effect of making Frances a little hard to take.

Which, ok, a brief temper tantrum on my part: I really, really hate when people object to books because the characters aren’t “likable” or because “there’s no one to root for”. I think it’s infantile to assess books the same way you pick friends: by how much you want to have a beer with them. If you’re only reading books that have people you explicitly like, fuck off to ‘The Babysitters Club’ and let the adults talk.

So it’s not a problem for me that I don’t like Frances (or Bobbi) at all. But, let’s be real: a book about complicated, narcissistic, chilly people hurting each other is a different emotional experience than one that involves heroic, kind people battling evil. ‘Conversations with Friends‘ is a very different book than, say, ‘The Hobbit’. I understand why people reacted to strongly to this book: it’s emotionally bracing. But, like most things that are bracing (a stern talking to from a loved one, a leap into an ice cold lake), it wasn’t pleasant until it was done.

And maybe it wasn’t even pleasant after it was done? But that’s OK – pleasant is emphatically not the point.

Rooney is experimenting with a different way of communicating about emotions. She’s trying to show the interior life of a young woman, show us her anger, and her loneliness, her fear and her attempts at love, the way that she herself experiences them. The prose is meant to be immersive – there is no framing here, to give you distance. And because Frances is angry and lonely and scared and receives no consolation from love, the experience is a little bleak, a little real, a little rough and almost totally undigested.

It’s tough, because I know I was supposed to love ‘Conversations with Friends‘, and so I really, really didn’t want to. When I finished it, I thought it was competent and over-rated.

But I’ve had a couple days to think on it, to get some emotional distance from Frances, and I think maybe I did love it. Or I really, really appreciated it? Or I saw the same thing all the fart-sniffing New York literary whosits saw: a very smart new writer trying something different. And succeeding.

A Room of One’s Own

By Virginia Woolf

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I really don’t like being wrong.

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, since I’m wrong at least as often as I’m right, but I still hate being wrong with the same furious intensity I did when I was a child, when I would rather have chopped off one of my own fingers than admitted I had been mistaken about something. It irks me, deep in my soul, to look foolish.

And it’s all well and good to be wrong about things that don’t matter, like math or medicine, but one would hope that I would be slightly more reliable on the subject of books. They are, after all, the most important thing in the world, the meaning and substance of my life – one would expect that, if I were going to be right about anything, I might be right about them.

And yet I’m wrong about books all the time. Even more distressing, my wrongness usually takes the same form: I discover, with depressing regularity, that I have disdained an author, often for years, who is actually excellent. Whom, when I actually trouble to read them, I end up loving.

In my defense, I rarely disdain an author for no reason. Usually, I have been forced, as a child in school, to read a classic, and found, in all my teenage wisdom, the classic wanting, and decided that the author was therefore garbage. I did this to John Steinbeck (did not like ‘Of Mice and Men‘); I did this to Zora Neale Hurston (hated ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘); and I did this to Virginia Woolf.

It was ‘Mrs. Dalloway‘ that did it. My fifteen year old self was not impressed by ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. I do not remember precisely why – I suspect I thought it was vapid. Or maybe that Mrs. Dalloway herself was vapid, and I did not feel that I should have to spend my time reading about the interior world of a vapid party-planner when there were so many more interesting things to read about, like War and Death and Space Battles. I did not understand yet that it was a novel about trauma, that great tragedies play out quietly in the psyches of ordinary people, probably because I was a teenager and so had no interior world to speak of.

Because I did not like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, I decided that I did not like Virginia Woolf. I have never read another of her books. But I believe in reading the classics; I’m traditional, and have an idea that one should read The Great Books, even if one really didn’t like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. And so, when I saw ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ at the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse Sale this summer, I got it.

A Room of One’s Own‘ is an essay, born from two lectures which Woolf gave to women’s colleges of Cambridge. It takes, famously, as its thesis, the problem of Shakespeare’s sister, a woman born with all the talent of Shakespeare, but none of his masculine freedom. Would she, this sister, have left brilliant plays behind her? Not, Woolf concludes, without the time, space, and money to work. Not without a room of her own.

I was not expecting to enjoy ‘A Room of One’s Own‘. I read it entirely out of a sense of duty, an obligation both the Canon and to feminism. ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is a foundational feminist text, one of those books that you, if you are a woman, really ought to have read by now. I somehow graduated from an East Coast liberal arts college without reading it (I won’t say which one, lest they recall my degree), and have felt sort of nagged ever since by my own bad feminism.

I didn’t expect her to be funny. No, not because she’s a woman – because ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is almost shockingly unfunny, and because about ten years after she published it, Virginia Woolf loaded her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse to drown herself, and so I don’t think of her as hilarious.

But, wrong again: she is funny. She’s sardonically, dryly funny, almost caustic. Her gimlet eye misses nothing, she is subtle, but when she cuts, she cuts deep, and her aim is devastating:

“..I thought of that old gentleman, who is dead now, but was a bishop, I think, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He wrote to the papers about it. He also told a lady who applied to him for information that cats do not as a matter of fact go to heaven, though they have, he added, souls of a sort. How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.” (p. 46)

And she is a beautiful writer, but, of course, we all knew that. What I was not prepared for was how I would feel, as a woman, when this beautiful prose, this clear-eyed analysis, applied itself to the problem of women’s rights.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf is a feminist from an earlier time: she isn’t writing about #metoo, or whether Cosmo causes eating disorders. She is writing about whether or not women are as smart as men, whether their minds can ever be as fine as men’s minds, whether they deserve to be educated, whether they can make art. It’s moving to read such a fine writer, such an understated and lovely writer, speak to this: her very existence should prove her point, but you know that it won’t.

I was surprised by her, I suppose: I was expecting something glum, or censorious (I think, upon reflection, that I confused the character of Mrs. Dalloway with Woolf herself – oops). But ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ isn’t censorious at all – it’s a gentle argument, a ripost, to a society which much have been a source of great pain to its author. And so it still consoles now, as long as society remains a source of pain to her readers.

“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice it’s natural size….Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically on upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism…For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?” (p. 36)

It’s hard to know whether you are connecting with a work because the work is magnificent, or because you are a woman, or a mix of both. It’s OK for works to have special resonance for certain groups, but I’m always a little uncomfortable when I feel that I am only connecting to a work “as a woman” (like I said, bad feminist).

But Woolf is such a good writer, there is no question that the connection to her work is merely estrogenic. Magnificent prose is magnificent prose, whether its author is invaginated or not.

A fact with which Woolf would doubtless agree. I’m not sure I learned a lot from ‘A Room of One’s Own‘, but I’m also not convinced that that was the point. Rather, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ was a consolation, the reaching out of one woman to another through time. I am very glad I read it, which I suppose serves me right. Wrong again, happily.

Gilead

By Marilynne Robinson

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“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world – your mother excepted, of course – and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.” (p. 237)

The trouble is, I have never been any good at writing about love.

I’ve tried to write this review at least a dozen times now, beginning and re-beginning, deleting everything that I had written before and attempting again. I have adopted different stances, approached from different angles, in my attempt to talk about this book, but I can’t seem to find the words, to explain sufficiently what I felt when I read it.

And that’s because I’ve never been any good at writing about love.

Gilead‘ is a novel about love, a novel in the form of a letter from a dying father to his son. Ames is a preacher in Gilead, Iowa, the son and grandson of preachers. He is already an old man, a lonely, good man, when he meets and marries a much younger woman, who bears him a son at the age of seventy. When his son is seven, Ames is told that he, Ames, has angina pectoralis and will die within the year. Because he knows that he will never see his son grow up, because he knows that his son will probably not even remember him, Ames writes his son a letter, containing all the love and all the wisdom that he would have parceled out to him over the course of a normal lifetime.

I took a day off from work to read ‘Gilead‘. I began it late on a Monday night, and was pulled so quickly and so completely into it that I took off work on Tuesday and finished it. I have never done that before, missed work just to read.

I have cried while reading books before – it is (very) rare, but it happens. I can count the books which have wrung tears from me on one hand (it’s three*). I can recall, almost word for word, the single passage in each one which did it.

(*’A Primate’s Memoir‘, by Robert Sapolsky; ‘Moonfleet‘, by J. Meade Falkner; ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle‘, by David Wroblewski)

But no book has ever moved me the way this one has. I wept through, well, most of it. Wept actual tears: like, I sat in my comfy chair, in sweatpants and socks, with a box of tissues on hand, and actual tears ran down my actual face. I didn’t weep from from sadness, exactly, because ‘Gilead‘ isn’t a sad book. I wept from the disorientation that comes from being overwhelmed, from confusion, and from a tremendous longing to be happy.

Gilead‘ is a novel about happiness, and about goodness, and about God, but those words, ‘novel’, and ‘about’, are misleading. ‘Gilead’ resists concepts like plot (to the consternation of its detractors). It isn’t a story, per se – it is the examination of a life at its end. It is a window into one man’s heart, and the fact that the man has not technically ever existed does not mean that he is not real. Because he is now as real to me as any character I have ever encountered in print.

“I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.” (p. 52)

My reaction, I should mention, is personal. I’m not the only person who loves this book, obviously – it won the Pulitzer – but a quick spin around the internet reveals the existence of an alienated minority who say things like, “the writing was very boring”; “I found this book dull and tedious”; “just really, really hated this book”; “no subject or plot or story or conclusion”; “I’m so glad that’s over”.

Marilynne Robinson

They aren’t wrong – Tom Clancy this is not. ‘Gilead‘ isn’t a sermon, exactly, but it is a meditation. A meditation on love, on whether true love of another and true love of God are both possible; on what it means to lead a good and virtuous life, on whether it is more important to be good or to be happy, on whether it is possible to be one and not the other; on what it means to love with humility, and what it means to die after having known joy.

If that sounds boring to you, please rest assured: I agree with you. It does sound boring. It sounds awful. I don’t think, if I had known what it was about, that I would have read it. And, despite having thought about it for weeks now, I’m still not sure why it isn’t boring. All I know is that, somehow, despite being about things which don’t really interest me (God, love, goodness, humility) and not at all about the things which do (sex, violence, zombies, epidemics, space battles, hyperinflation, sex, satanism, algorithms, time travel, sex), this book absolutely whuped my heart’s ass.

I know that this is insufficient. I know that I am failing, badly, to express how I feel. And I feel particularly terrible about it, about failing this particular book in this way, because the more a book moves you, the more you want to be moving about it. But I’ve never been good at talking about love, and that’s what this book made me feel. I’m not saying that I love this book – I’m saying that this book made me feel love. And I have thought about happiness, about how to live it, about how much I want it, every single day since I read it.

Some books are events in your life. Not many – only a few. Even people like me, maybe especially people like me, people for whom books are a life, even we don’t get many of these books. ‘Gilead‘ is one of my few. I have never been able to figure out whether there is rhyme or reason to which books reach out and grab you, but I suspect that there isn’t. I think, actually, that it’s just like love: in a long, lucky life, you’ll be side-swiped a few times, without reason, without warning. No way to defend yourself, no way to change back again into the person you were before you got hit. Nothing to do but pick yourself up and go back to work the next day, with puffy eyes, maybe a little wiser, a little better, but maybe not. Different, though, always different.

Fox 8

By George Saunders

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So, remember when we talked about what happens when an author you hate writes a book you love?

What do you do when an author you love writes a book you don’t?

George Saunders: it would be difficult for me to overstate my admiration for George Saunders. I love George Saunders. I love him not because he’s an incredible writer – though he is – but because he isn’t like anyone else. He’s strange, quiet genius who has been churning away for decades, creating these small, weird works beloved to writers and freaks and snobs.

George Saunders

For years, I’ve gawped at the imagination of George Saunders. He’s bizarre, and hilarious, and a little frightening; reading ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘, written in 2005, in the post-Trump era is to wonder at the existence of psychic powers.

I love him. I love his dark funniness, the twisted sadness which bleeds out of all of his characters, which runs through each of his worlds. I love the unanticipatable impossibilities that pop out from his prose, unexplained. I love the anger which animates every word. I wouldn’t miss one of his books for the world.

The aforementioned darkness, that is the thing I love most about George Saunders. I love the fact of it, but also the ease of it. Most writers show off their darkness; they are needy about it – the darkness is the point. But Saunders wears his darkness lightly. The hopelessness of his world is a backdrop, a stipulation, not resolved or resolvable, not emphatic or dwelt-upon.

I’m not saying that Saunders is always subtle – I’m saying that his worldview doesn’t explain itself, and it doesn’t offer relief. So how am I supposed to feel about a George Saunders’ story with a moral?

Fox 8‘ is the story of Fox 8. Fox 8 has always been different, a little dreamier than his fellow foxes. By skulking outside the house of a human family, Fox 8 has learned to speak Human, which comes in handy to him and his fox family when a Mall opens up alongside the woods where they live. The devastation of the local environment caused by the construction of the mall has diminished the food sources upon which Fox 8’s family has survived, and they are starving. However, speaking Human has given Fox 8 the sense that humans might be approachable, might just make marvelous companions for foxes, if only they can be
communicated with.

And so, with his best friend, Fox 7, Fox 8 decides to go to the Mall. Things go badly awry, and Fox 7 is brutally killed by the very humans Fox 8 has come to admire. The short little book ends with a plea from a disillusioned Fox 8 to us, a plea on behalf of all of our animal victims.

Time to own my biases: I am allergic to simple sentimentality. I do not like to be preached at. I believe that the world is a complicated and murky place, a canvas of grays with very little black and white, and I am skeptical of neat little takeaways, of simple conclusions.

Admittedly, environmentalism is a topic upon which a little moralizing is easy. The take-home message of ‘Fox 8‘ (and I’m not interpreting – it’s stated explicitly at the end) is: be nicer to little animals. Or, lest you think I’m simplifying, as Fox 8 himself puts it: “If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser [sic].” And I certainly have no objection to that message. Or, rather, I have no objection to that message in particular.

But I have an objection to being spoon-fed any message. I don’t think that works of fiction should have a summary at the end – that deprives them of their magic, and robs me of my right to interpret them myself.

And it is particularly galling to be told how to interpret George Saunders, who is so weird, and so unexplaining in his weirdness. He has never been a simplifying or pedantic author – why has he decided to spell out the fortune cookie message of this book? Does he not trust his readers to get it anymore? Did the other books have no summary because they had no point at all? Or does he consider this point too important to risk that we might get the message wrong?

Another bias: I emphatically do not like books written in dialect. I will forgive a page or two, written in order to give the reader a sense of a character, but when an entire book, or all of a character’s dialog, is written in phonetic dialect, I find it arduous and infuriating. It disrupts the smoothness of my reading, makes me spend what I consider unnecessary effort in taking in the words. And I almost always find it pretentious or performative, a cheap way to make yourself look like a deeper or more creative writer, an illusion of character development.

And ‘Fox 8‘ is written in dialect. Or, not dialect, but in the sort of phonetic English a fox might learn from eavesdropping. Like,

“Wud it be easy? It wud not. It wud take Guts. But I have Guts. I once likked the tire of a Truk that was moving to see how it tasted, which the Groop teesed me about it, because hey Fox 8, why not wate until one found a Truk not moving, wud that not be easier?” (p. 41)

But ‘Fox 8’, for all its moralizing, is funny, and the dialect (really, the spelling errors) is part of that. For example:

“I woslike: This must be Fud Cort.

…Never had Yumans seemed so cul. We were sarounded by splender no Fox cud curate. Hense were fild with respek. Cud a Fox do this? Bild a Mawl? Fat chanse! The best we can do is dig are Dens.” (p. 28)

Or:

‘What I herd was a Story, but a fawlse and even meen one. In that story was a Fox. But guess what the Fox was? Sly! Yes, true lee! He trikked a Chiken! He lerd this plump Chiken away from its henhowse, claming there is some feed in a stump. We do not trik Chikens! We are very open and honest with Chikens! With Chikens, we have a Super Fare Deel, which is: they make the egs, we take the egs, they make more egs. And sometimes may even eat a live Chiken, shud that Chiken consent to be eaten by us, threw faling to run away upon approche, after she has been looking for feed in a stump. Not Sly at all. Very strate forword.” (p. 6)

See? Funny. Funnier for the spelling.

But still slightly exhausting to read, which ends up being OK, because ‘Fox 8‘ is only about fifty pages long. So, it’s funny, and weird, and charming. Perhaps ‘Fox 8’ is best understood as one of those children’s stories for adults, a genre I don’t hate, as a rule. If someone else had written it, I probably would have chuckled and forgotten it. But since it’s Saunders, I’m slightly flummoxed by it. Perhaps that’s all it will be: a strange, short, flummoxing episode in an otherwise blissful author/reader relationship. Slightly awkward, best forgotten.

Fall

Or, Dodge in Hell

By Neal Stephenson

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There comes a moment in every Neal Stephenson novel when I can tell that Neal is bored.

This moment is familiar to anyone who has ever tried to write fiction, I suspect: sometimes, the sheer effort it takes to get your characters where you know they are going is exhausting. You want them to just hurry up and get there, but, somehow, they won’t, and so you trudge with them through what feels like endless plot, in order that they and the reader will understand their ultimate destination.

Neal Stephenson

These are some of the hardest moments in fiction-writing, at least for me – they’re joyless – but you try not to communicate this difficulty, this joylessness, to the reader. You obviously don’t want your reader to know that you’re bored, that you hated writing this part of your own story, that what they are reading is, essentially, infrastructure, the dull but necessarily support around the good bits. And so you work really hard to hide your boredom, your loathing, from the reader.

Or I try to hide it, and that’s why, despite my essential sympathy, Neal Stephenson’s boredom annoys me. It’s lazy; worse, it’s ungrateful!

Stephenson delivers seven-, eight-hundred page books to his readers, with labyrinthine, esoteric plots, plots which hinge on elaborate and esoteric mechanisms, arcane rituals of cryptography or minute robotics protocols. He is a man, some might say, in need of an editor. And we, his readers, go romping through these stories with him, willingly, happily, because they are great tales. But, really, the least he could do, for our sake, is not be clearly, obviously bored by the very stories he sends us.

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell‘ is Stephenson’s latest. Clocking in at 883 pages, it is a story about the future of the internet, about the digitization of consciousness, about humanity, and about death.

Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast is a tech billionaire, a man who has made his vast fortune producing video games, imagining worlds, creating virtual realities. When, against doctor’s orders, he eats before an out-patient surgical procedure, he begins to asphyxiate on the operating table. When he is declared brain dead, his family and friends learn that, some decades earlier, under the influence of a Silicon Valley fad, Dodge left instructions in his will that his brain be cryogenically frozen and his consciousness preserved by any mean necessary.

The Forthrast’s learn that this provision in Dodge’s will is largely the work of El Shepard, a reclusive, mentally-ill billionaire. Originally, El had imagined that whole bodies would be cryogenically frozen and revived; it is clear now, however, that that is not feasible. Instead, the brains of subscribers will be scanned, synapse by synapse, and uploaded and reconstructed in the cloud. According to El, these synaptic connections, the ‘connectome’, should constitute the complete consciousness of the individual at their time of death.

Fall‘ is a novel about the Singularity (or, one version of it): namely, the intelligence explosion, when an uploadable (sometimes artificial, but not in this case) intelligence acquires the ability to self-improve so rapidly that it permanently and fundamentally alters human existence. In ‘Fall’, this fundamental alteration takes the form of a provable afterlife, a known, watchable digital life after the death of the body, and the novel takes place in two realities: our own, and the digital world that Dodge’s consciousness creates, the digital world that becomes the new afterlife, peopled with uploaded human souls.

It’s not a new idea, but it’s a compelling one. Science fiction doesn’t need to generate novel premises to be great – in the hands of the right person, it can work wonders with the same old problems.

But if you’re going to tackle something zeitgeisty, you have to either answer people’s expectations, or thwart them. You need to either show them a meaning, explicate their moment for them, dazzle them with hope or fear, or you need to swerve. Surprise them, make them laugh. Turn their zeitgeist into a joke.

Fall‘ doesn’t do either, really. It just tells a story, a story about how uploaded human consciousness might turn a digital afterlife into a new pantheon (literally: Dodge hurls thunderbolts). About how, in the cloud, after death, we all might have wings. And wouldn’t that be fun?

Sure, there are a few vague, unresolved gestures towards the big questions (What is a soul? Can a human intelligence orient itself without the information provided by a physical body? Are we simply the sum of our memories, or is there a self which will reconstitute itself, independent of learned experience?). However, as we all remember so well from ‘Seveneves‘, Stephenson doesn’t actually think biology is interesting, and so tends to gloss over questions involving genetics, or neuroscience, or even philosophy, with the shallowest of treatments.

As so often happens to me when I read Stephenson’s novels, I am left with the impression that he builds his stories not around moral dilemmas, technological problems, or human conundra, merely around stuff he finds cool. He likes space robots and encryption and the Greek pantheon, so why not write novels about those things? Not for any specific reason, not to answer any questions, but just to flex the old mental muscles over some neato shit.

Which is probably why it’s so easy to tell when he gets bored. Character development (or, heaven forbid, plot logistics) isn’t nearly as cool as space robots, and if you aren’t in it for the characters, why the fuck would you bother? Just move through the boring stuff as quickly as possible and get back to the space robots.

Which is how you get passages like this:

“A few minutes later, Weaver was struck by a lightning bolt and vaporized. The surviving members of the party scarce had time to become shocked by this turn of events before the sky turned nearly black. At first some of them looked to Fern, as one who had survived a lot of strange weather, but she was too fascinated by what was going on in the sky to be of much use. Corvus was busy changing himself into human form, maybe reckoning wings and feathers would only get torn off by whatever was going to occur next. Mab seemed unconcerned; Prim had a clue as to why, which was that she might not have a body at all. But she was in some form of communication with Edda that no one else was privy to. Edda thus became the leader of the Quest, at least for now.” (p. 812).

Huh?

That passage, I’m sorry to be frank, is bad. It’s chaotic, and hurried, and abrupt. It’s not like the entire book is written that way, but big sections are, and during those sections neither you nor Neal Stephenson want to be there.

Fall‘ is, I don’t know, entertaining? I was entertained. There are villains and heroes, deaths and rebirths. Gods battle angels; ballads are sung. Thunderbolts are thrown; bad guys get their just deserts; human souls live in hives. Billionaires behave badly! It’s fun! It’s a fun book! And I like fun books, even ones that go one for 883 pages. I think fun justifies itself.

But I hope that I wasn’t supposed to learn any lessons, because, if I was, I missed them. I hope that this isn’t the deepest novel ever written about the Singularity. I hope it isn’t the smartest. Maybe it will be funnest, but I hope it’s not the best. I think we can do better.

1Q84

By Haruki Murakami

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When is it OK to decide that you don’t like an author?

I really struggle with this question.  On the one hand, there is more to read in this world than can be accomplished in twenty lifetimes, and so wasting time on authors you dislike comes at a high price, opportunity-cost-wise.

But, on the other hand, no two works, even by the same author, are completely equal, and to take a stand against an author is rule out works of theirs, unread, which you might love.

In a way, this is only a sub-section of the enormously important and complicated question: How do you decide what to read?  Do you hew to the canon?  Do you trust the recommendations of friends?  How about the New York Review of Books?  Do you read everything in the Sci Fi/Fantasy section, no matter what?  Let Amazon’s algorithm decide for you?

For myself, I hew strongly to canon.  I defer to the ages: I reach for Literary Giants, and cast a skeptical eye at modern literature (sometimes to my own detriment, as I have admitted).  I want to read the Great Books, even if that means missing a few cult favorites.

Now, I would like to be clear about something: something needn’t be old to be a Great Book.  An author doesn’t have to be dead before a critical consensus can emerge about his Greatness.  And really, it is this critical consensus to which I respond: if everyone thinks something is Great, I tend to think it’s worth spending some time and energy figuring out why.

So, yes, maybe I am a snob, but I do believe that, if the critical consensus is that an author is a genius, there is a higher bar to deciding that you don’t like them.  You should read a lot, if not all, of a Great Writer’s work before you should feel enfranchised to further disregard.

Why?  Why waste time on authors you hate, just because other people seem to think that they’re the shit?

1Q84’ is why.

Before this, I had read three of Haruki Murakami’s books: ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, ‘Kafka on the Shore’, and ‘Underground’, and he was definitely an Author I Did Not Like.  There was something about his style, about the bleak, gray expanses of his prose, which I found aversive, both boring and actively unpleasant at the same time.  He reminded me, in this way, of Don DeLillo, who’s grimness also seeps through his words and alienates me. 

But I felt a nagging sense of…not guilt, but unease, about this aversion.  Murakami is one of the most, if not the most, beloved writer of Japan, and it is apparently something of a national hope that he will win a Nobel Prize (and an ongoing source of national grief that he has not).

And yes, look, just because someone is good doesn’t mean I have to love them. An author can be both talented and not to your taste.

But there’s something patronizing about saying that, isn’t there? “Oh, yeah, Murakami’s great, really, such a good writer, just not my style”. Is art really like pizza, just a matter of preference? Surely not; surely we have some responsibility to Greatness, an obligation to ourselves to go to it, to try to see what other people see in it, and not to dismiss the men and women who have shaped the literature of nations simply as a matter of taste?

Haruki Murakami

So I didn’t know what to do about Murakami. I really didn’t like his books, and I didn’t want to read any more.

But I kept hearing about ‘1Q84‘. People told me that it was different than his other books, plottier, that the magically-realist tinge in his other books had come more to the fore. And I love George Orwell, and I find ‘1984’ devastating. So I decided to roll up to ‘1Q84‘ for my Christmas long-read, and give Murakami another shot.

And now I’m in a real fix, because I might have loved ‘1Q84‘. I think I loved it? I certainly lived in it, barely came up for breath. I had to: it’s 1,200 pages, and I finished it in about a week.

1Q84‘ is a magical tale. It’s also a cautionary tale about a bleak and dangerous future, but only a little. Mostly, it’s a love story, a profound and old-school love story, about two people who belong together, two souls who will find each other across time and space and distance. About two souls who will find each other across universes.

It is plottier than his other books. It is full of plot, and mystery, and magic. Details, mysterious connections, and sinister evil. I almost don’t want to say more, don’t want to give my normal plot summary, because anything I say I will be insufficient, either to explain the plot, or to express the strange, compelling aspect of the novel.

1Q84‘ is a novel from multiple points-of-view, a technique which, not to stress the obvious, either works or doesn’t. Here, it works. Aomame and Tengo (our protagonists) fill in the gaps in each other’s narratives, but in a way which builds suspense, fills out the world, rather than contradicting or merely delaying the plot.

And the novel is suspenseful, anxiety-provoking to the point where it disrupted my life. ‘1Q84‘ is one of those books that consumes your free attention, makes you want to sneak to the bathroom at work, leave parties early, tell friends that you have other plans, just so that you can keep reading.

But that compelling quality doesn’t necessarily mean that a book is ‘good’, per se. It only means that it is…well, compelling. And I guess that I’m not sure that ‘1Q84‘ is ‘good’, actually. I certainly don’t think that it’s beautifully written, but I am always hesitant to judge the language of a book in translation.

But, I think I also found it moving. It’s hard to say, because I am emotionally obtuse, but I think I became quite invested in the fate of these two characters. These traits of Murakami’s, the bleakness, the alienation, in ‘1Q84‘, they become the traits of the characters, of Aomame and Tengo, and they can therefore be solved, eased, by the existence of the other.

I think that is why I am so hesitant to give up on authors, to really leave them as lost causes. Sometimes (rarely, it’s true, but sometimes), the traits which alienate you from a writer, which make you hate a book, can change suddenly, can turn and become an aspect in a larger story which you love. When alienation is the work, it’s tough, but when alienation is a part which can be overcome, then you can work with the work, care about it and grow with it. You can root for it.

I can no longer say that I don’t like Haruki Murakami. We now occupy an ambivalent space, two bad books and one great one. Reasons for optimism, but an essential lack of trust.

But I’m not done with Murakami. Not yet.

The 13 Clocks

By James Thurber

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And now for something completely different.

“Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.” (p. 1)

Sometimes, I feel as though I’m the youngest living person who loves James Thurber. Thurber, who died in 1961, was a humorist and cartoonist, publishing most often in The New Yorker, and perhaps most famous as the author of ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’

My mother, who thinks he is hilarious, used to read me Thurber essays when I was kid. He is hilarious, in a dry, folksy sort of way. I see his collected essays and humors in used bookstores from time to time, and I always pick up a new title. I have never, however, encountered one of his titles still in print, on the shelves of a new book store.

Until now. Right before the holidays, I was wandering around the Brookline Booksmith when I spied, on their Fiction and Literature shelf, a novel by James Thurber that I had never seen before. It was a bright and colorful new printing of a novel called ‘The 13 Clocks‘ with an new introduction by Neil Gaiman, of all people! In which introduction Neil Gaiman describes ‘The 13 Clocks’ as “probably the best book in the world”.

OK, so I can admit this: I have some ego on the line where books are concerned. I’m not the best-read person on the whole planet, sure, I know that, but I’m no slouch. So I was a little miffed not to have even heard about a book written by an author I love, and I was super miffed not to have heard of it given that it might be “the best book in the world”. I expect myself to have heard of the best book in the world.

Creepy, right?

So I bought ‘The 13 Clocks‘, and I read it immediately.

And I can set your mind at ease, I think: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is not the best book in the world. I can say that with some confidence; let Neil Gaiman come and do his worst.

The 13 Clocks‘ is the story of the wicked Duke and his niece, the beautiful princess Saralinda. The Duke is a cold man, and he is afraid that one day, a suitor will come and win the hand of Saralinda, which hand is the only warm thing in the Castle. So he has frozen time, and stopped all 13 clocks in the castle. Each suitor who comes to try for the hand of Saralinda is subjected to impossible tasks and, usually, terrible deaths.

However, one day, disguised as a wandering minstrel, the Prince Zorn of Zorna arrives at the castle, and falls in love with the Princess Saralinda. With the help of his friend, the ambivalently helpful Golux, he will try to rescue Saralinda from the Duke and restart time.

If that sounds to you like a child’s story, you’re not wrong. ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is one of those stories that is written for children, but with deep metaphorical meaning that is meant to move adults.

The cold duke

It has many characteristics of that kind of story: a simple story which ripples with deep, creepy currents; faint echoes of existential terror and deep grief hidden under alienating silliness; little word games, meant to sound to funny to children and clever to adults; cute absurdist paradoxes; witty illustrations.

A great example is the Todal. The Todal does not appear on screen (as it were); rather, it is a sinister force which threatens the Duke if he fails. It is described as a “blob of glup”, and is “an agent of the devil, sent to punish evildoers for having done less evil than they should”.

Do you see what I mean? Do you see the tension there between something frankly childish and silly (or, if you like, stupid), the blob of glup, and the more adult, sinister idea, the Satanic agent which punishes failure? That tension lasts throughout the book – you are always watching the childishness for the quick flicker of darkness which will move behind it.

“Something moved across the room, like monkeys and like shadows. The torches on the walls went out, the two clocks stopped, and the room grew colder. There was a smell of old, unopened rooms and the sound of rabbits screaming. “Come on, you blob of glup,” the cold Duke roared. “You may frighten octopi to death, you gibbous spawn of hate and thunder, but not the Duke of Coffin Castle!” He sneered. ” Now that my precious gems have turned to thlup, living on, alone and cold, is not my fondest wish! On guard, you musty sofa!” The Todal gleeped. There was a stifled shriek and silence.” (p. 107)

And, mostly, it’s pretty charming (that’s pretty clear from the excerpts, right?). So, why do I say with such certainty that ‘The 13 Clocks‘ isn’t the best book in the world?

Well, because something can be very sweet and very charming and very clever without shaking the foundations of the earth, that’s why.

I don’t think that the only role of literature is to move the world, to wrench and rip open the fabric of complacency which covers our eyes, and I don’t think that that is the standard by which all books should be judged.

But books do this – books have done this. Not all, but many. And some have even done it while being charming and clever and sweet. Some have even managed to do it while being beautiful.

And while those books exist, shaking the earth, there is no way ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. It’s super cute, a great little read, but the best book? No.

Although, there is something I have not considered: perhaps Neil Gaiman lives (tragically) in a world without great books, without ‘East of Eden’, or ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, or ‘Brideshead Revisited’, or ‘The Screwtape Letters’ (which is the best book in the world). Perhaps Neil Gaiman lives in a world where the only books in the world are ‘The 13 Clocks‘ and, like, ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac.

In which terrible case, he is absolutely correct: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. But, Neil, get out of there.