Americanah

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

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It’s always interesting, being shown your own culture from the outside.  Depending on your inclinations, it can either be great fun, or, I sense, really not fun, irritating, wounding even.

Probably, the sense of the fun of the thing, the jolt of the change of perspective, that strange thrill of recognition of behaviors you know seen from a different angle, is directly related to your own personal distance from those behaviors: it’s neat to see your neighbors in the fun-house mirror, not yourself.

AmericanahBut that can’t be the whole story, because sometimes it’s even fun to see yourself, your own quirks and artifacts and preoccupations, examined by a mind which has not bought in to your norms, your assumptions.  It makes you uneasy, yes, but it’s still kind of mesmerizing, right?  In a slightly narcissistic way?  It’s like watching a video of yourself when you hadn’t known you were being filmed – do I really do that?  Is it that obvious?  Is that how that shirt actually looks?

Books about America are usually written by Americans (we’ve been very lucky that way).  Sure, every once and a while some acidic European will launch an attack at us from across the pond, but since they do it from a safe distance, and since their tone is always a little hysterical, it’s easy for us to ignore them.  We roll around here, enormous and convivial, and most of the culturally critical literature that we read comes from within.

And there is enormous value in criticism of Americans by Americans.  To put it plainly, we understand ourselves in a way no one else does.  But there is something bracing in reading about what we look like to transplants, immigrants, people who have come here, who have, in some senses, opted in to our systems and values, but who nonetheless see us as alien.  A good book which does that, shows us what it feels like to walk, as an outsider, among us, is really fun to read.

Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from The Guardian

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria.  She came to the United States when she was 19.  Her list of degrees and accolades is enormous – among other things, she is a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient (for the record, there is almost no single award which impresses me more than this).  She spent decades living and studying in the United States, now splitting her time, apparently, between Nigeria and the US.

And that’s what ‘Americanah‘ is about: it is about a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu who comes to the United States, studies, lives, becomes a writer, and returns home.  It is about what Nigeria is like, what America is like to a Nigerian, what it means to return home, how you love people who are like you, how you love people who are not like you.

And it’s about race.  Ifemelu rises to prominence in the United States as a race blogger, someone who writes about race in this country from the perspective of a non-American African, someone who is simply a person in her home country but, upon arriving in ours, discovers that she is now considered ‘black’.

Adichie is, I think, kinder to Americans than we deserve, essentially amused and frustrated by us.  White Americans (of which I am one) are, in her book, mostly well-meaning but oblivious, or irrelevant, or genteelly racist.  The incredible toxicity of the race divide in the United States, the deaths and incarcerations, shootings and violence and long economic oppression, all form the backdrop to this novel, but they are not foregrounded.  It is, at its heart, a love story, and I experienced it that way: as a story of two lives who wind around and around the world before they find their way back to each other.  Their racial otherness in other countries is part of their journeys, but ‘Americanah‘ is their story, not the story of civil rights in the United States.

One of the blurbs on my copy is from New York Magazine: “Adichie is to blackness what Philip Roth is to Jewishness: its most obsessive taxonomist, its staunchest defender, and its fiercest critic.”  I don’t know about everything after the colon, but the first assertion makes sense to me.  Roth’s books, though so much less humane, less lovely than ‘Americanah‘, are also about Jewish people rather than about Jewishness.  It is possible to connect with his protagonists as individuals, not merely as racial stand-ins, and their stories are wider than their categories.  Imefelu is like that – she is having a whole, complicated life, of which her blackness is but one part.

Americanah‘ is the kind of novel I really struggle to judge critically.  It comes down, I think, to the question of what novels, as an art form, are for.  Some novels, a very, very few, are Great Novels: when you read these novels, you have the constant awareness that you are in the presence of Art.  Sometimes, you enjoy them; sometimes, you don’t, but you always feel enriched, and virtuous, for having read them.  These novels have characters, but they are about Humanity.  For me, the best example of this kind of novel, the one I perhaps love the best, is ‘East of Eden‘, by John Steinbeck.

Then, there is another kind of novel, the kind where, as you read it, you aren’t aware of anything at all.  These novels are so absorbing that you get lost in them – you forget your own name while you read them.  I tend to fly through these novels, carry them with me everywhere, read them in line at the grocery store and in the bathroom during the work day.

But is magnetism, the ability to captivate your reader, the same thing as greatness in a novel?  These novels rarely, say, impress me with the beauty of their language (in fact, in order to be really absorbing, in some ways the language needs to not be great – if you notice a lovely sentence, you are pulled out of the narrative).  They do not employ sophisticated or subtle metaphor.  They don’t push the boundaries of the form.  They are excellent stories about fascinating characters, but maybe those specific characters are all they’re about.  Is that a Great Novel?

Jonathan Franzen is, for me, the best example of this kind of novelist.  I devour his novels, just blow through them.  I live in them while I read them – I find his world-building super thorough and effective.  But, when they’re done, they don’t stay with me at all.  I can remember only the barest outlines of the plot.  Are they Great Novels?  Or are they simply great reads?

Americanah‘ was like this for me.  I was glued to it.  I really cared about what was going to happen next; I was invested in the characters.  I loved the experience of reading it.  But there was no passage which will stay with me.  There is no beautiful description, no language to which I will refer again and again.  I don’t even remember, now, the name of the man Ifemelu loves, though I remember descriptions of him, I remember his story.

However, in some ways I expect that ‘Americanah‘ will stay with me more than other novels.  Adichie’s depiction of my country has lodged in my mind, and will tweak the boundaries of my perception a little, widen out my scope.  When someone shows you yourself from the outside, it’s almost impossible to unsee.  I guess I’m one of the people who finds getting a different glimpse of myself fun, even when it isn’t flattering.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I – The Bad Beginning

II – The Reptile Room

III – The Wide Window

By Lemony Snicket

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“If you are interested in reading a story filled with thrillingly good times, I am sorry to inform you that you are most certainly reading the wrong book, because the Baudelaires experience very few good times over the course of their gloomy and miserable lives.  It is a terrible thing, their misfortune, so terrible that I can scarcely bring myself to write about it.  So if you do not want to read a story of tragedy and sadness, this is your very last chance to put this book down, because the misery of the Baudelaire orphans begins in the very next paragraph.” (‘The Wide Window‘, p. 2)

Children’s stories should be twisted.

I believed this when I was a child, and I believe it now: children’s stories should be dark, and troubling.  They should deal with the frightening and dismal, the grotesque and the foul.  Children have a need for this subject matter, and a particular aptitude for it.  They inhabit a world full of menace over which they have no control, and their literature must help them confront and name this.  Children’s literature which ignores the monsters that lurk in the night is pointless and, worse, insulting.  I love, and have always loved, the books for children which belly up to the reality of a world of which death and terror are immutable characteristics.

And children themselves are not at all the precious, immaculate angels that forgetful adults like to imagine.  The same troubles obsess them that obsess us: death, destruction, mutilation and violence.  They are creepy little beings who, like adults, need literature to speak to them as they are, and not as we wish them to be.

Trouble BeginsBy this measure, willingness to tell darkness plainly, Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events‘ might be the finest children’s books ever written.  They tell the story of the three Baudelaire children, Violent (age 14), Klaus (“a little older than twelve”), and Sunny (age 1).  The children of loving and wealthy parents, the Baudelaires are orphaned one day in a fire which destroys their family and their home, and put into the temporary care of Mr. Poe, a well-meaning banker and the executor of their parents’ will.

“”Your parents,” Mr. Poe said, “have perished in a terrible fire.”

The children didn’t say anything.

“They perished,” Mr. Poe said, “in a fire that destroyed the entire house.  I’m very, very sorry to tell you this, my dears.”

Violet took her eyes off Mr. Poe and stared out at the ocean.  Mr. Poe had never called the Baudelaire children “my dears” before.  She understood the words he was saying but thought he must be joking, playing a terrible joke on her and her brother and sister.

“Perished,” Mr Poe said, “means ‘killed.'””(‘The Bad Beginning‘, p. 8)

Count Olaf.jpg
Count Olaf’s shiny eyes.

That will states that they should be raised by a “relative”, and the relative that Mr. Poe first chooses is, disastrously for the Baudelaire orphans, one Count Olaf, a stage actor and thorough-going villain, whose only intention is to acquire the Baudelaire fortune for himself.  When his first plan, to force Violet into an under-age marriage and thus take possession of her inheritance, fails, Olaf goes on the lam.  In each successive book, he will hunt down the children, murder their new guardian, and attempt once again to seize their money.

Leeches.jpg
The leeches by whom Aunt Josephine is devoured

And these are not mild, child-friendly deaths.  They are grisly, terrible ends, often coming to characters to whom the reader has become attached, like Uncle Monty, who is injected with snake venom, or Aunt Josephine, who is fed to carnivorous leeches.  Although the orphans themselves are not killed, they are subjected to terrible threats and ordeals, such as being imprisoned in a birdcage and dangled from an open window, or held at knife point, or forced to eat food to which they are allergic.  These children suffer.

I have a good reason for endorsing darkness in children’s books – I’m not just a terrible, child-hating sadist.  The world is a large and frightening place, full of dangers, and children are particularly vulnerable.  They are small, and naive, and powerless within the systems which govern human lives.  Children’s literature should prepare them for this, warn them about danger, and give them a way of understanding misfortune.  The sorrows of good children’s books have morals.

And the moral of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events‘ is: Do not trust adults.  Count on your wits; count on each other.  Read, think, be brave, because no one is coming to save you.    Don’t count on adults.  They will fail you, either through corruption, or incompetence, or mortality.  Even the kind ones, the well-meaning ones, will not be able to save you when wickedness comes.  And wickedness will always come.

What a great moral!

One of the measures of a really good book is whether it can get you wound up even if you know what’s going to happen.  Each of the ‘Series of Unfortunate Events‘ that I have read so far (The Trouble Begins) adheres to a basic formula: meet a new guardian, lose the guardian to Count Olaf, escape Olaf’s clutches at the very last.

Zombie Snowman.jpgBut, despite my perfect certainty about what was going to happen, I found myself getting emotional, angry and scared, during each book.  Partly, this is because the consistent failure of the adults around the Baudelaires is hard to read about.  Each time that the children identify Count Olaf in disguise, and each time they are disregarded by their caretakers, you suffer with them a little.  You feel the rage of the child; you do not sympathize with the adults.  And the structures which bind them, like the law, like their parents’ will, which were designed to keep them safe, instead trap them and their guardians again and again.  These books are the best indictment of adulthood I’ve ever seen.

Most importantly, though: they are funny.  They are really funny, and weird.  They are studded all over with strange asides and examples, presented in the wry voice of an unknown narrator.

“Unless you are a lawyer, it will probably strike you as odd that Count Olaf’s plan was defeated by Violet signing with her left hand instead of her right.  But the law is an odd thing.  For instance, one country in Europe has a law that requires all its bakers to sell bread at the exact same price.  A certain island has a law that forbids anyone from removing its fruit.  And a town not too far from where you live has a law that bars me from coming within five miles of its border.” (‘The Bad Beginning‘, p. 153)

Series

“Dramatic irony is a cruel occurrence, one that is almost always upsetting, and I’m sorry to have it appear in this story, but Violet, Klaus, and Sunny have such unfortunate lives that it was only a matter of time before dramatic irony would rear its ugly head.

As you and I listen to Uncle Monty tell the three Baudelaire orphans that no harm will ever come to them in the Reptile Room, we should be experiencing the strange feeling that accompanies the arrival of dramatic irony.  This feeling is not unlike the sinking in one’s stomach when one is in an elevator that suddenly goes down, or when you are snug in bed and your closet door suddenly creaks open to reveal the person who has been hiding there.  For no matter how safe and happy the three children felt, no matter how comforting Uncle Monty’s words were, you and I know that soon Uncle Monty will be dead and the Baudelaires will be miserable once again.” (‘The Reptile Room‘, p. 32)

I loved these books.  I wish they had existed when I was a kid – I would have loved them then, too.  Dark, funny, weird: these are hard things to do well in children’s literature.  To do all three well at once is remarkable.

The Interrogative Mood

A Novel?

By Padgett Powell

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Some ideas sound better than they are.  I think we’ve all encountered this: some concepts, full of promise, fail in execution.

And some ideas are exactly the opposite: terrible sounding, but weirdly great in reality.  Sometimes, a premise which promises to be awful when described turns out to be persuasive in practice.

The Interrogative MoodThe Interrogative Mood‘ is a ‘novel’ composed entirely of questions.

And I do not mean that it is a novel with a plot which is expressed entirely in questions: Why did Jane choose today to go to the store?  If she had not, would she have ever seen Dick again?  And why, today, did she find him so oddly attractive?

The Interrogative Mood‘ is a “novel” only in so far as it imparts no factual information to the reader, and makes no argument.  It is, in fact, 164 pages of disjointed and unanswered questions.  It sounds like a terrible ordeal, but it is so much fun to read.

I am, in practice if not in principle, very much against novels which experiment with form.  I understand that artists must extend the boundaries of the possible, but I’m something of a traditionalist where literature is concerned.  I would not have picked up ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ for the world if it had not been for the recommendation of Nick Hornby, Traditional Novelist, who spoke highly enough of it in ‘Ten Years in the Tub‘ (a great source of book recommendations, by the way) that I decided to try it.

I loved it.

powell
Padgett Powell

It was a crazy fun read.  I read it all the way through, as though it were a traditional novel, but, really, one needn’t.  The questions are strange and funny and serious.  Some are mundane and some are simple and some are specific and some are convoluted.  Some are obvious and unmemorable, but some are laugh-out-loud funny and many, to borrow a regrettable and hackneyed expression, will make you think.

Some are odd, precise and beguiling:

“Do you quite credit that there are burrowing owls?” (p. 13)

Some are wise:

“Is it fair to say that the world comprises those who are politicians, those who are movie stars, those who get by, and criminals?” (p. 157)

Some are really just little vignette’s of the quirky way Padgett Powell’s mind works:

“If Jimi Hendrix walked into your room and said, ‘Sit tight there, popo, I shall play you one’ and affected to get out his guitar, what would you do?  Would you say, ‘Wait, Jimi.  You’re dead lo these forty years,’ or ‘Wait, Jimi, let me call up a friend or two – not a big party, mind you, but this is a special thing for me and I want to share it with others if it’s okay with you – is that all right?’ or ‘God, no, Mr. Hendrix, that shit would split my head open right now,’ or ‘Lay some weed on me before you rip it, bro,’ or ‘Okay, Jimi, but if the police come, please do not call them goofballs please’? (p. 160)

The questions are arranged, seemingly without order or reason, into paragraphs, and some of these flights of questions are so charming that they should really be taken as whole:

“Provided you were given assurances that you would not be harmed by the products of either, would you rather spend time with a terrorist or with a manufacturer of breakfast cereal?  What in your view is the ideal complexion for a cow?  Is there a natural law that draws a plastic bag to an infant similar to the law that draws a tornado to a mobile home?  Do you understand exactly what is meant by custard?  Would it be better if things were better, and worse if things were worse, or better if things were worse and worse if things were better?” (p. 6)

The questions make no over-arching point.  They tell no story.  ‘The Interrogative Mood’ really is just a long string of queries, but its effect is engaging and unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.  It’s like the most interesting, varied personality test you’ve ever taken, but without answers, where the responses, highly personal and often significant, are unscored and unscorable and will never be known to anyone but you.

Perhaps what makes ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ so beguiling is that a question doesn’t have the same effect as its equivalent in statement form.  Questions make us complicit in their reasoning and conclusions.  They don’t set us up as recipients of wisdom; rather, they invite us to derive it with the questioner.  And so a novel made up entirely of questions can shape your thoughts in a way that a plot can only paint pictures for you.  It elicits a totally different kind of engagement, and when, as in ‘The Interrogative Mood’, the questions are creative and off-the-wall, so varied and well-mixed, the effect is sparkling.

Sparkling, and often surprisingly emotionally compelling:

“Do you trust or mistrust people who say “Candy is too sweet for me?” (p. 121)

“Do you regard yourself as redeemed, redeemable, or irretrievably lost?” (p. 101)

‘What today would make you cry?” (p. 126)

If you are like me, you have spent a great deal of time thinking about yourself over the years; however, I, for one, have never thought about myself in these particular ways.  These questions invite me to think about myself, or about the world, along new lines, sometimes specific, sometimes general, sometimes both.

And just because the invitation to thought takes the form of questions does not mean that you cannot be guided along to conclusions.  Powell makes what I came to think of as micro-arguments, a series of questions which end with your consideration of a conclusion, stated in question form.  Take this paragraph, for example:Interrogative Mood

“Are you curious to know what I’ll do with the answers you’ve given me?  Do you think I can make some sort of meaningful “profile” of you?  Could you, or someone, do you think, make such a profile of me from the questions I’ve asked you?  If we had these profiles, could we not relax and let them do the work of living for us and take our true selves on a long vacation?  Isn’t it the case that certain people are already on to this trick of posting their profiles on duty while simultaneously living private underground lives?  Can you recognize these profile soldiers by a certain, dismissive calm, a kind of gentle smile about them when others are getting petty?  Is it in fact the character of the profile-facade person not that which is called wise?  And is the person who is congruent with his daily self and who has no remote self not regarded as shallow?” (p. 70)

That is a great question!  Many of them are great questions, which means that ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ ends up being more interesting and more thought-provoking than most novels, which is bananas because it has no plot, and no characters (except ‘You’ and ‘I’, technically).  I can’t believe I’m recommending it, this book which is just questions, but I am.  It was more fun than it had any right to be, and I loved every page.

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen

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There are times in one’s life which call for Jane Austen.

It’s a little difficult to define these times with precision (paradoxical, given that one of the great gifts of the author in question is precision).  They are the times in one’s life when things feel as though they might not work out, as though the world is not abiding by rules, when people feel coarse or evil, or when you are lonely, and the world feels large and empty around you.

In those times, this reader often turns to Jane Austen, to her small, orderly world with its essential kindness and small stakes.  Her attention is so fine that she justifies yours, and you feel completely vindicated in devoting emotional energy to courtships, and small slights of manners, and hattery.

Northanger AbbeyI should have read ‘Northanger Abbey‘ long ago.  I’ve read all the others, twice at least.  ‘Northanger Abbey’, Austen’s first complete novel and not published until after her death, has been a nagging hole in my education, and as the winter and the news and my own life converge to feel onerous, it felt like the right time to complete my relationship with her, and read her earliest work.

Northanger Abbey‘ is the story of Catherine Moreland, a young, good-natured, but otherwise totally unremarkable woman, her predilection for novels, and her courtship with one Henry Tilney.

Catherine meets Henry on a trip to Bath with her family friends, the Allens; he is assigned to her as a dance partner.  Normal Austenian hijinks ensue: Catherine’s brother will be thrown over by Catherine’s socially ambitious friend, who will in turn be thrown over by Henry’s caddish brother.  Catherine will befriend Henry’s saintly sister Eleanor, and there will be much muttering and misunderstanding about family incomes and marriage settlements.  All will come right for everyone who deserves it.

But ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is really a novel about novels, about our love of them, what they bring to our lives, the ways in which they affect our thinking, and why we publicly scorn the plotty ones that we secretly love best.  Catherine loves novels, particularly the chest-heaving Gothic romances, and her determination to find novelistic adventures in her own life leads her into one or two small scrapes (including the brief conviction that her future father-in-law has his late wife imprisoned in a wing of Northanger Abbey).  The whole novel is a tongue-in-cheek defense of novels, for even while Catherine fails to achieve Gothic adventure, she is, in fact, meeting and contending with villains, falling in love, and showing loyalty to friends and loved ones, the grand tropes of romance writ small.

Which, I think, is part of Austen’s point: novels are meaningful to us not because we are going to achieve the exact adventures which they portray, but because the emotions which animate their characters are the same emotions which animate us, and, within the literary arts, emotions are the special territory of novels.  Other forms may acknowledge or portray them, but only novels explicate them.

And this little conceit is charming.  But, let’s just be honest and upfront: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best work.  Which is fine, I mean, look at the competition: she wrote at least two novels of manners which are essentially perfect, and there’s nowhere to go from ‘perfect’ but down.  And this was, as stated earlier, her first attempt, so it’s not surprising that the learning curve should be visible.

Lismore Castle.jpg
In the 2007 PBS adaptation, the scenes in at Northanger Abbey itself were filmed in Lismore Castle, in Ireland.

But it is visible.  There are a few structural problems with ‘Northanger Abbey‘.  First of all, the pacing is odd.  Only about two fifths of the novel are even spent at Northanger Abbey itself.  Too much time is spent in Bath, with the Allens, and much of the later action is dispatched too quickly.  Significant characters, like the odious suitor John Thorpe, are dealt with off-screen, and one of the main characters, Eleanor Tilney, triumphantly marries a Viscount who is not only completely unknown, he is never even named!

A bigger problem is Catherine herself.  Some characters, it is true, do not age well, and the traits of heroines tend to be era-specific, but I suspect that Catherine was a complete drip even in Austen’s day.  She is, by the admission of her narrator, not very smart, only kind of good-looking, and lazy.  Certainly, she’s got all the social sense of a parsnip.  Even her eventual husband finds her lackluster:

“For though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” (p. 168)

This is not the denouement of a romantic heroine, which, obviously, is Austen’s point.  But, alas, it also not the denouement of a particularly interesting heroine, and this presents something of a difficulty for the reader who wishes to be sympathetic with, or at all invested in, their protagonist.

Austen will, of course, perfect the heroine later, and the hero.  In the meantime, the other reason she is read, her razor-sharp prose, is the one part of this novel that does not suffer much by comparison.  She is almost as fine a writer of prose here as elsewhere; you never go wrong reading Jane Austen for language.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

Indeed, Austen is one the few writers who is so excellent at prose-craft that she is both beautiful and funny, high-minded and devastatingly mean, with equal comfort.  But she is most loved for her arch observations of manners, the subtle and inescapable attention with which she observes her fellow man, and ‘Northanger Abbey’ contains some really sick Jane Austen burns.

For example, demolishing the social falseness of Catherine’s friend Isabella:

“It was ages since she had had a moment’s conversation with her dearest Catherine; and, though she had such thousands of things to say to her, it appeared as if they were never to be together again; so, with smiles of most exquisite misery, and the laughing eye of utter despondency, she bade her friend adieu and went on.” (p. 45)

Or pointing out the silliness of fretting too much about what to wear for a man one hopes to impress:

“This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which one of the other sex rather than her own, a brother rather than a great aunt might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown.” (p. 49)

Or, my personal favorite, gently reminding us all that women are thinking beings:

‘She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance.  A misplaced shame.  Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant.  To come with a well-formed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.  A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.” (p. 76)

I suppose, in summary, that the truth is this: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best, but Austen is a comfort even when she is under-performing.  Her excellent language, her wit, and her easy humanity all make reading her rather like coming home, and this is the last Jane Austen I will ever read for the first time.  I wish it had been better, but it was like enough to her great works that it gave me comfort, which is what I was looking for in the first place.

Moonglow

By Michael Chabon

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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)

American Gods

By Neil Gaiman

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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.

Barchester Towers (The Chronicles of Barsetshire)

The Chronicles of Barsetshire: Second Volume

By Anthony Trollope

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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.

Seveneves

By Neal Stephenson

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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.