Case Histories

By Kate Atkinson

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You know the old saying, ‘Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good’?

Books, like people, are never perfect. They are rarely even excellent. The lucky ones, the once-in-a-generation books, are perfect along only one axis, but those are usually deficient along most others.

None of the Great Books are perfect; often, though, they are powerful in many dimensions. They are well-plotted, well-written, the characters are strong, the imagining vivid. What makes books really excellent is never that they are perfect, but often that they are consistently strong.

But what about books that are only excellent in one or two ways? Books that are lopsided?

I have great fondness for lopsided books. Not mediocre books – I resent those – but imperfect ones. Good books, strong books, but ones with clear and conspicuous failings.

Kate Atkinson has only recently bubbled up into my consciousness. I don’t remember how I first heard of her, but it was one of those things: as soon as I had first registered her name, I started hearing it everywhere.

Atkinson, a novelist, writes both stand-alone novels and a series of murder mysteries centered around the fictional detective Jackson Brodie. I purchased one of each, but I’ve been going through a bit of a murder mystery kick lately, so I started with the detective novel. ‘Case Histories’ is the first novel of the series, and is non-traditional in structure: rather than following one mystery, it blends three together:

On a summer night in 1970, 3-year-old Olivia Land vanishes from a tent in the backyard where she has been camping with her sister, Amelia. Her body will never be found. One summer day in 1994, 18-year-old Laura Wyre is working at her father’s law office when a man in a bright yellow sweater walks in and cuts her throat. He is never caught. One evening in 1979, Michelle Fletcher, a young mother whose world is unraveling into post-partum chaos, splits her husband’s head with an ax after he wakes their baby.

All three of these cases will converge, decades later, on Jackson Brodie. Brodie, who has retired from the police force and is working as a private detective, is something of a mess. His wife has left him for another man, and he is too chaotic to be a great parent to his beloved daughter, Marlee. His most reliable client is Binky Rain, an octogenarian with no family who is convinced that someone is stealing her cats.

Atkinson is a better writer than she is a plotter. ‘Case Histories’ eschews the tropes of normal murder novels. Important events happen off-screen; the murderer will not necessarily turn out to be a known character; bad guys are not always brought to justice, and narrators are not reliable. All of which might have been ok, except that the story-telling is uneven. Atkinson leans too much on sudden resolutions and improbable coincidences. Protagonists from different stories wander in and out of each other’s plot lines, people inherit improbably large sums of money suddenly, and, weirdly, everyone seems to live on the same block in Cambridge (England).

Too much important stuff happens off-screen. As a technique, the sudden jump forward to a later point in the action can be effective, but a little goes a long way. If you use it a lot, if a lot of your chapters end on cliff-hangers, only to be picked up on the next page two months later, it’s jarring for the reader. It starts to feel like watching a TV show while skipping episodes.

However, Atkinson is a great writer. Her prose is a blast to read: funny, readable, colorful. She writes well – the prose is sophisticated and excellent – but her tone is conversational, idiomatic. Her imagination is vivid: Atkinson prefers to spend her words inside her characters’ psyches, which she depicts with winning detail.

There are real and salient problems with the book, unmistakable and frustrating. However, in a weird way, they only made me like ‘Case Histories’ more. Atkinson’s prose is so engaging and lively that the plot feels a little beside the point. Most murder mysteries, the plot is the whole point; in ‘Case Histories’, the plot is merely an excuse for the characters to interact with each other via Atkinson’s sparkling writing.

I genuinely believe that, if ‘Case Histories’ had the robust and well-paced plot it deserved, I would love it less. There is something idiosyncratic about the slap-dash plot against the vividly-imagined interior lives of the characters, something charming. The point of this book is the prose: its light-heartedness, its humor, its specificity:

Kate Atkinson

“Julia started sneezing again. It was always embarrassing when Julia had a sneezing fit, one after the other, explosive, uncontrollable sounds, like a cannon firing. Amelia had once heard someone say that you could tell what a woman’s orgasm would be like if you heard her sneeze. (As if you would want to know). Just recollecting this thought made her uncomfortable. In case this was common knowledge, Amelia had made a point ever since then of never sneezing in public if she could help it. “For God’s sake, take more Zyrtec,” she said crossly to Julia.” (p. 127)

“He felt absurdly vulnerable, lying there in the chair, prostrate and helpless, subject to the whims of Sharon and her silent dental nurse…Jackson tried not to think about this, nor about that scene in Marathon Man, and instead worked on conjuring up a picture of France. He could grow vegetables, he’d never grown a vegetable in his life, Josie had been the gardener…In France, the vegetables would probably grow themselves anyway. All that warm fertile soil. Tomatoes, peaches. Vines, could he grow vines? Olives, lemons, figs – it sounded biblical. Imagine watching the tendrils creeping, the fruit plumping, oh God, he was getting an erection (at the idea of vegetables, what was wrong with him?). Panic made him swallow and gag on his own saliva. Sharon returned the chair to an upright position and said, “All right?” her head cocked to one side in an affectation of concern while he choked noisily. The silent dental nurse handed him a plastic cup of water.” (p. 146)

The truth is, despite its deficiencies as a murder mystery, I loved this book. I am absolutely going to read more of this series – the prose is irresistible. Atkinson isn’t a perfect novelist, and ‘Case Histories’ isn’t a Great Book, but it was so much fun to read. It is lopsided in the best way, lopsided in a way that makes you love it more. It’s special.

Beautiful World, Where Are you: Part Two

The Part That Is About Sex

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I have a rule.

I call it The Ayn Rand Rule, and I came up it with years ago, after reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’. ‘Atlas Shrugged’, in case you are not familiar, is a pretty bad novel about a woman named Dagny Taggart who runs a railroad company. The book is mostly about how Dagny Taggart and other visionary business leaders are forever being stymied by the forces of consensus mediocrity. These forces cannot stand the truly excellent in their midst and are trying, by any means necessary, to basically ruin everything for everybody. However, if you have read ‘Atlas Shrugged’, you will probably remember that Dagny Taggart, who looks suspiciously like Ayn Rand herself, also spends a significant amount of time having rough sex with several tall, dark, and handsome leaders of the business community.

The out-of-context intensity of these sex scenes, Taggart’s resemblance to Rand, and the juxtaposition with the otherwise totally monotonous moralizing of ‘Atlas Shrugged’, was both poignant and absurd. That Taggart was Rand’s avatar was obvious, but what was also clear from the too-fully-imagined quality of the sex itself was that the whole thing was Rand’s personal fantasy. It felt as though she could not help but write herself into her own polemic novel in a weird, transparent sort of sexy fan-fiction.

Now, ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is quite bad, so honestly the sexy interludes are kind of the high point. But, because those scenes are so obviously Rand’s sexual fantasies, they pull you out of the flow of the story and remind you of the author herself. It is as though she had scattered naked pictures of herself throughout the book: more than you probably wanted to know.

Hence The Ayn Rand Rule: I (the Reader) should not be able to tell what gets you (the Author) off just from reading your novel. Sex is fine, but the sex should belong to the story; when the sex is clearly about what you enjoy, when I can tell just from reading it that this is your thing, you have violated the rule.

Now, I realize that I am doing Sally Rooney a huge injustice by writing about her and Ayn Rand in the same post. I feel quite sincerely bad: Rooney is entirely too good an author to have to suffer juxtaposition with Ayn Rand. I feel bad enough about it, in fact, that I wrote a whole other post about ‘Beautiful World’ last week, where I tried to keep the discussion dignified and adult and Ayn Rand-free.

But I needed to describe the Ayn Rand Rule here because, I’m sorry to say, I think Sally Rooney has broken it.

Now, one of the things that is a little tricky about the Ayn Rand Rule is that you can never really be sure that an author has broken it. You may be quite convinced that your author is getting her jollies writing a sex scene, but, unless you actually have sex with the author, you’ll never know for sure. Therefore, Rule violations are always suspected, never proven. So, yes, technically, I cannot say for sure that Sally Rooney has broken the rule, but I think that she has (technically, I can’t even be sure that Ayn Rand violated the Ayn Rand Rule, but I can live with that).

Let me show you what I mean. Here is one of the offending passages from ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’, Rooney’s latest:

“He leaned over then and kissed her. Her head against the armrest, his tongue wet in her mouth. Passively she let him undress her, watching his hands unbutton her skirt and roll down her underwear. Reaching up under her knee, he lifted her left leg over the back of the sofa and moved her other foot down onto the floor, so her legs were spread wide open, and she was shivering. Ah, you’re being very good, he said. Shaking her head, she let out a kind of nervous laugh. Lightly with his fingers he touched her, not penetrating her yet, and she pressed her hips down into the couch and closed her eyes. He put a finger inside her then and she exhaled. Good girl, he murmured. Just relax. Gently then he pressed another finger inside her and she cried out, a high ragged cry. Shh, he said. You’re being so good. She was shaking her head again, her mouth open. If you keep talking to me like that I’m going to come, she told him. He was smiling, looking down at her. In a minute, he said. Not yet.” (p. 162)

This type of benignly patriarchal sex, this whimpering ‘Good Girl’ sex, appears several times throughout the book. It is very consistent, and very specific. And since Rooney’s writing is spare, the intensity of these scenes stands out. In some way that is hard to define, Rooney’s characters are more immediate, more tangible, when they are having this kind of sex than they are when they are fighting, talking, emoting, or having other kinds of sex. This is the most vivid they get.

Which automatically suggests an Ayn Rand Rule violation. When sex scenes are the most vivid part of a novel, that’s usually because they are the part which has been most thoroughly imagined by the author. And when the sex in question is distinctive in some way, it feels as though the author has devoted more time to imagining that particular sex than was strictly required by the needs of the work.

OK, so, fine, who cares?

Sally Rooney

I care. Frankly, I care because it makes me uncomfortable.

Now, I’m not uncomfortable with sex in novels. On the contrary, I love sex in novels: I seek it out, in the same way I seek out movies with nudity, because it’s sexy. But when the sex feels more salient than the rest of the work, when it vibrates on a different intensity than the rest of the novel, when I start to feel that the sex is personal for the author, I stop being able to focus on the story and start feeling intruded on by the writer.

It is a minor sin, all things considered. Authors are usually more vivid when describing their personal experiences, that’s normal, and sex, which often intense in life, is usually also intense in fiction. And, while sex has featured heavily in all of Rooney’s novels, this is the first time she’s given me that unpleasant feeling of learning too much, and I am not inclined to hold it against her.

But, it is also going to be one the things I remember mostly clearly about this work. It was absolutely the thing I most wanted to write about. I wrote two posts on ‘Beautiful World’ because I believed that it, and Rooney, deserved more discussion than just an analysis of some sex scenes, but the sex scenes really affected my experience of the book.

That’s the real risk of violating the Ayn Rand Rule: you can completely change the way the book is experienced by the reader. What should be experienced as a work of fiction suddenly swerves and starts to feel like a sexual disclosure by the author. If that’s the intention, it’s all well and good, but in most cases, it’s probably not what the author really wanted. And, at least for me, it’s not what the reader wanted, either.

Beautiful World, Where Are You: Part One

The Part that’s NoT About Sex

By Sally Rooney

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‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ is Sally Rooney’s third novel. Rooney, who is not much older than 30, has become one of the most famous novelists in the world. Her first two novels, ‘Conversations with Friends’ and ‘Normal People’, were both very zeitgeisty: they appeared on the Staff Picks tables at independent bookstores, they topped best seller lists, one was adapted into a TV show. They were the kinds of books that people asked you if had ‘read yet’.

I have read all of Rooney’s books, and in order of their publication. I wasn’t sure what to think after reading ‘Conversations with Friends’, but when I read ‘Normal People’, I gelled into a solid fan. I liked her project, as I understood it. It seemed to me that Rooney was trying to portray human feelings (with all their complexity, ambiguity, and wheel-spinning pointlessness) with flat realism, to treat emotion as just another fact about the world and to describe relationships as though they were not totally subjective.

I actually kind of loved that project, if I’m being honest. Rooney’s tone reminded me of what Hemingway might have sounded like if he were a sober millennial woman (and about 25 IQ points smarter).

‘Beautiful World’ is a little bit of a departure from Rooney’s previous work, although it makes sense to me as a natural extension, a sort of riff, on her first two books. But I have a lot to say about it, so I am going to break this into two parts. In this, the first part, I’d like to give Rooney’s project and prose the attention I think she deserves. In the second part, I’d like to talk about something which is bothering (obsessing?) me: sex.

‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ is the story (as all of Rooney’s novels are) of two friends: Alice and Eileen. Friends since they were teenagers, Alice and Eileen are now in their twenties. Eileen, who is beautiful and literary, works as a copy editor at a magazine. Alice, who is prickly and complicated, has found international success as a novelist. ‘Beautiful World’ is about these two women, the men that they love, and what happens to their friendship as their paths start to diverge.

If Rooney’s project in her first two books was to talk about feeling as fact, her project in ‘Beautiful World’ is show human relationships without talking about feelings at all. It’s a little weird: the narrative portions of the books are entirely observational. Rooney, as narrator, gives absolutely no information about the internal experience of any of the four main characters.

To give you an example of what I mean, here is a passage from ‘Normal People’:

“He got back into bed besides her and kissed her face. She had been sad before, after the film, but now she was happy. It was in Connell’s power to make her happy. It was something he could just give to her, like money or sex. With other people she seemed so independent and remote, but with Connell she was different, a different person. He was the only one who knew her like that.” (p. 108)

Do you see what I mean when I says she writes feelings as facts? Her emotional assertions are dry, simple, declarative. “She had been sad before…but now she was happy” is as uncontroversial, unqualified, a statement as “She had been 24 before, but now she was 25.” It is not how emotions are usually discussed in literature, where they are usually described rather than asserted.

Compare that to a representative passage in ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’:

“Putting the cloth back in the sink, she said she would make up one of the beds. He looked down at the floor. She came to stand in front of him, and said in a kindly tone of voice: Felix, are you okay? He gave a half-smile. Yeah, I’m sound, he said. Just tired. Finally he met her eyes and said: You don’t want to sleep together, do you? It’s alright if you’ve gone off the idea, I know I was a bit of a prick about it. She looked back at him, her eyes moving over his face. I did feel foolish when I didn’t hear from you, she said. Can you understand why I felt that way or do you think I’m being crazy? Apparently uncomfortable now, he said he didn’t think she was being crazy, and that he had meant to reply to her message, but time had passed and he had started to feel awkward about it.” (p. 184)

If Rooney’s first two books tried to treat our interiority as reportable information, ‘Beautiful World’ tries to remove interiority at all. We are never told how our characters are feeling, what they are thinking – we are only told how they behave.

Sally Rooney

It’s a really interesting approach to take, and I think it would have worked quite nicely, except that Rooney cheated. Each narrative chapter is followed by an epistolary chapter, emails between Alice and Eileen. In my opinion, the decision to add these chapters detracts from the novel rather than adding to it. First of all, it feels as though Rooney didn’t trust herself (or her readers). In the end she isn’t actually content to let her characters’ actions speak for themselves, and so made sure to spell out for us the conclusions she wants us to draw at regular intervals.

But, secondly, the email chapters are unconvincing and, frankly, annoying. They don’t read like actual emails; they feel like authorial explications. They are too long, too verbose. They are essays, and they make both women sound pretentious. Let me give you an example:

“But I think you’re wrong about the instinct for beauty. Human beings lost that when they Berlin Wall came down. I’m not going to get into another argument with you about the Soviet Union, but when it died so did history…Or maybe it was just the end of one civilization, ours, and at some time in the future another will take its place. In that case we are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.” (p. 101)

Come the fuck on. I am, myself, a verbose, pretentious millennial woman, but if any of my friends ever sent me that email, I’d never speak to them again. The email chapters aren’t very good – they don’t give us a window into the lives and minds of these two women because they don’t sound like they were written by humans, and anyway wasn’t the point of the novel to not have the window in the first place?

Rooney is a good enough novelist that I would like to allow for the possibility that I am missing something fundamental, but, to me, it feels as though Rooney wanted to try something a little radical, and then had a failure of nerve. I have some sympathy for that, by way: it’s really hard to write about relationships without writing about interiority, and it might have made for a strange, bleak novel. It is totally reasonable that she would have wanted to give her readers some access to her characters; I just don’t think the emails were super successful at that.

But, as for Rooney as a novelist, whatever journey she’s on, I’m with her. The more books she writes, the more interested I am in what she’s trying to do, which, I think, is to really fundamentally find a different way to portray human feeling. It’s a hard project, but a really good one, so I’ll keep riding with her.

The Night Circus

By Erin Morgenstern

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‘The Night Circus’ is exactly the kind of book I would never pick up on my own. It positively bristles with red flags. The cover, all black, white, and red, is adorned with fruity Victorian imagery; the blurbs are literarily unpersuasive: “Nothing short of a wild ride – Elle”. The synopsis on the back is deeply alienating:

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Amidst the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance.”

That sounds like a frankly terrible book. Le Cirque des Rêves? A dual between two young magicians, who will then “tumble headfirst into love”? The language is all so overwrought: “utterly unique”; “breathtaking amazements”; “fierce competition”; “mercurial instructors”; “only one can be left standing”; “dangerous consequences”; “lives…hanging in the balance”.

However, I was gifted ‘The Night Circus’ by someone I respect and love, which, as we all know, obligated me to read it under Book Law. They assured me it was a fun read; nevertheless, it’s been sitting on my shelf for years now. I have been avoiding reading it, sure that it contained nothing more than cliches strung together with breathless writing. But it was a tough week at work, and I needed something easy to read, so I finally grabbed it.

Here’s the thing: ‘The Night Circus’ is not a “good” book. It’s also, as promised, a really fun book to read, and I basically swallowed the whole thing in one sitting. While, yes, trading heavily in cliche, it still wasn’t quite what I expected. It had a little more pull, a little more substance than I thought it would, despite doing exactly what I thought it was going to do. It was both totally predictable and weirdly compelling.

I’ve been puzzling over that for a few days now, that tension between the predictably stupid romantic plot and the success of the book as an entertainment. And what I’ve decided is that a large part of what makes ‘The Night Circus’ work is Morgenstern’s restraint.

Now, you might think that ‘restrained’ is a weird word for me to use to describe a book about a nocturnal Circus of Dreams which houses a pair of dueling magicians, and you’d be right: on most levels, ‘The Night Circus’ entirely lacks restraint. It is, as expected, totally extra: too lavish, too ornate, too magical, too sincere. However, in one very specific and interesting way, ‘The Night Circus’ is very restrained: it is restrained in explanation.

What does that mean? Unlike other kinds of genre novels, sci-fi and fantasy books have a particular challenge: world-building. Because they are set in worlds that are meaningfully different from our own, they need to provide some guidance to their readers about how the realities of their books actually work. Usually, this information is woven into the story, and that’s part of what makes writing genre difficult: you need to orient your readers without dragging down the story.

If they err, most authors err on the side of explanation: better to be pedantic than to leave your readers confused. In most genre narratives, most questions get answered in the end. Morgenstern, however, does not over-explain. On the contrary, at the end of ‘The Night Circus’, the list of things you won’t understand will be dramatically longer than the list of things you do.

You will not know what the contest in which these two magicians are competing is about. You will be told it’s about competing views of the world: you won’t know what worldviews are or how they are proved. You won’t know how long it’s been going on. You won’t know how it started. You won’t know how many times it has been fought in the past.

You won’t know anything, really, about the two “mercurial mentors” who have decided to pit children against each other in a fight to the death: you won’t know who they are, where they come from, how many children they have killed in this way. You won’t know if they are the only magicians who fight children to the death, or whether it’s a common hobby among the magic class in this world. You won’t know if they feel bad, and you won’t find out what happens to them in the end.

Erin Morgenstern

Perhaps most importantly, you will not know what magic is, or how it is used. Now, of course, magic is basically un-explainable from any physical point of view, but most books of magic do a lot more world-building. You don’t learn anything about other magicians, how magic is used outside of duels, how it’s learned, how it’s practiced. Both our child magicians are trained, but all we are really told about that training is that spells are demanded of them and that they “read a lot”. You aren’t told how many kinds of magic there are, or how people come about acquiring the ability to do it (though you are told that some people have “natural ability”).

All this unresolved ambiguity is a bold choice on Morgenstern’s part. Not answering reasonable reader questions is risky, as likely to leave them pissed off as not. But, when it’s successful, it can give a work a feeling of focused integrity, as though the author has enough confidence to let the story stand as it is.

And ‘The Night Circus’ has that vibe of non-neediness, a quiet certainty that its story stands alone. It’s…pretty successful, I think. Yes, Morgenstern is a little too focused on the ambiance (and the costumes) at the expense of the story, but I suspect that more explanation would have hurt the book, not helped it. Partly, that is because I’m not sure she’s talented enough to discuss mechanics persuasively, but partly, the story genuinely benefits from the lack of precision. In a book that is meant to be sensual, which focuses on the experience of magic, too much logistics might have blunted the effect. Instead, what you get is a hazy, imprecise sense-novel about love and magic. It has no rigor, but it is vividly imagined. It is absorbing, which is good enough.

Travels with My Aunt

By Graham Greene

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I resisted Graham Greene for many years.

It was prejudice, pure and simple: I got it into my head that I didn’t like him, and so avoided him well into my twenties. I forget how I was cajoled into finally picking him up – probably someone gifted me the first book of his that I read, ‘The Orient Express’. Whatever happened to get me to read it, that novel changed my opinion about its author more quickly and thoroughly than any book I have read before or since.

That was more than a decade ago. In the interim, I have read most of Greene’s novels, many of them twice. My favorites I reread every year or two. I love Greene desperately; he is probably my favorite novelist. My relationship with him transcends simple enjoyment of his work: I am emotionally vulnerable to his books in some way I don’t really understand. Something in his worldview resonates deeply with me, and his work moves me more than the work of any other author I have ever read, I think.

It isn’t a happy resonance, I should state clearly. I find Greene powerful and devastating. Ever since I read that first book, I felt that he was showing me something true about the world, something terrible, something I had always sort of known but never wanted to admit. As though he were prophesying doom, I believed him and despaired.

‘Travels with My Aunt’ was, apparently, a special book to Greene. According to the Introduction, Greene described it as the only book he ever wrote for fun, and it shows. It is among the most mordant of his works, and it seems like it would have been fun to write.

‘Travels with My Aunt’ follows Henry Pulling, a former bank manager. Henry is retired; a bachelor, he spends his days rereading the books his late father loved and tending his dahlias. At his mother’s funeral, however, Henry meets his Aunt Augusta, a septuagenarian with vivid red hair who convinces Henry to travel with her. Aunt Augusta, it quickly emerges, is a slightly seedy character with a long string of past lovers and a predilection for minor crime. Henry, staid, lonely and conservative, finds that he cannot resist the company of his aunt, and will watch his life transformed by her companionship.

This is a Greene speciality, this sort of book. He has a knack for crafting caper-novels whose sense of antic fun hides a deep vein of despair. It’s probably clear even from my description that Henry Pulling is a pathetic character; you might even intuit that the character of Aunt Augusta is also poignant.

However, the most crushing figure in the novel, a character who perfectly captures Greene’s particular gift for devastation, is Wordsworth. Wordsworth, a South African exile, is Aunt Augusta’s lover and helpmeet at the beginning of the novel. A marijuana smoker and grifter, Wordsworth is devoted to Aunt Augusta, who he will refer to throughout the novel as his ‘bebi gel’, despite the fact that she is decades his senior. Though it becomes clear very quickly that Augusta is searching for the lost love of her life, the Nazi war criminal Visconti, Wordsworth remains devoted to her. His attachment to her will, of course, destroy him – attachments in Graham Greene novels usually destroy the hapless souls afflicted with them. By the end of the novel, he will be rejected, discarded, and killed.

Wordsworth is a peripheral character, and it is precisely his lack of importance (to you, the reader, to Henry Pulling, and, most importantly, to Aunt Augusta) which makes his love, and his death, so painful to read about. In a comic novel, Wordsworth is expendable; most often referred to by the main characters as “poor Wordsworth”, his death passes without grief or comment.

Greene often embroiders his stories with these brutal little tableaux. He always understood that every character suffers, even the ones who don’t get center stage. He shows the pain and despair of these bit players, but not to humanize them. No, he’s a much crueler author than that: he is not dignifying Wordsworth by showing us his degradation and pain, however briefly. He is demonstrating to us how pointless Wordsworth’s suffering is.

Graham Greene

This is a particularly Graham Greene kind of move, and it is the thing that I find so reliably upsetting about his books. Greene has seen with unusual clarity that most of us are peripheral characters; we just don’t know it. We live and love and suffer with all the intensity and sincerity of main characters, but we aren’t heroes. We aren’t even villains: we are scenery, comic relief, plot mechanisms. We are afterthoughts in the lives of others, and all our love and all our grief will vanish with us. They will not give our lives meaning – they will not redeem us. No one cares, except us.

I think that we have been trained by our culture to believe that suffering has meaning. Whether we consider it redemptive in the Christian sense, or enriching in the psychoanalytic sense, or simply a necessary development in a character arc, justified by happiness in the end, we tend to think that pain has a point. Graham Greene does not believe that. A lapsed Catholic, Greene is a nihilist: for him, the suffering of a character like Wordsworth has no point. No one learns, no one grows, no one is redeemed. We suffer, we die, we are forgotten.

It might seem strange that I love this author so much. I’m not sure I can really explain why I do. I have never finished any book of his without pain, a feeling that my heart has been wrung badly. But I have always, from that first book, believed him. If his novels are painful, they are also, in a very important sense, true. Greene saw something, something about human weakness and human selfishness and human pain, which I believe. I do not think he saw the whole picture, but I think he saw a part of it very clearly. I think he knew something, and I want to learn what it is.

Introductions

I’d like to do something a little different today. Rather than discuss a specific book, I’d like to talk about Introductions, and why I hate them.

Let me begin, as usual, with a qualifier: I don’t mean all introductions. Specifically, I’d like to exempt authorial introductions, i.e. introductions written by the author, say on some anniversary of the original publication of the work. I actually often love introductions of this kind – it’s almost always interesting to hear an author discuss their relationship to their own previous work. Usually, they contain some clarifying context: ‘I started this book the day the Berlin Wall fell‘; ‘At the time I wrote this, I did not yet know that Rock Hudson was gay‘. They also contain the author’s current perspective: ‘In retrospect, Y2K was a less urgent problem than we supposed at the time‘. At their very best, they integrate feedback: ‘A number of readers have told me that the main character is desperately annoying – if I was writing him today, I probably wouldn’t have made him a Gemini‘.

I love authorial introductions because I always, always learn something about what the author wanted the book to be, and I think that that is useful information to have. I feel that they give me better insight into what the author expected to happen when I read the book. In some cases, the authorial introduction has had such a profound impact on how I understand the book that I cannot think about one without thinking about the other. An example is Arthur Miller’s essay on ‘The Crucible’, in which he writes, of Danforth the judge:

“In my play, Danforth seems about to conceive of the truth, and surely there is a disposition in him at least to listen to arguments that go counter to the line of prosecution. There is no such swerving in the record, and I think now, almost four years after the writing of it, that I was wrong in mitigating the evil of this man and the judges he represents…I believe now, as I did not conceive then, that there are people dedicated to evil in the world; that without their perverse example we should not know the good. Evil is not a mistake but a fact in itself…I believe merely that, from whatever cause, a dedication to evil, not mistaking it for good, but knowing it as evil and loving it as evil, is possible in human beings who appear agreeable and normal. I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact-to conceive, in effect, of Iago.’ (p. 167, ‘The Crucible: Text and Criticism’)

I could write essays on that quote alone; it is not an understatement at all to say that it has changed how I think about the world and that it means more to me than ‘The Crucible’ itself (which I love, deeply) could ever have meant to me without it. It is an integral part of my experience of the work.

But I am not talking about that kind of introduction today. Today, I’d like to talk about the critical introduction, written by someone other than the author, which so often appears in front of esteemed works of literature. These introductions offend me deeply, because they almost always tell me what to think, and, in doing so, they spoil the work in some way.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, crack open the Introduction of any major work of fiction. You will inevitably find sentences giving the game away, or framing the relationships of the book for you. Sentences like these:

“Prince Myshkin has two loves, Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya, one belonging to each “world” of the novel. He also has two doubles: Rogozhin and Ippolit. There is a deep bond between the dying consumptive nihilistic thinker and the impulsive, unreflecting, passionate merchant’s son, between the suicide, and the murderer.” ‘The Idiot’, Dostoyevsky)

“One of the most touching scenes in the novel is the transformation of Sir Leicester near the end. He has been severely humbled by the discovery of his wife’s secret and her flight, jeered at by a servant, and crippled by a stroke. Society expects him to renounce his wife, but instead, before his household, he declares his loyalty to her with the pomp and bravado that have, until now, made him the novel’s chief stooge.” (‘Bleak House’, Dickens)

Or how about one of the introductions that has most offended me over the years, from ‘The End of the Affair’, by Graham Greene:

“We can entertain the possibility that a miracle has occurred so long – and only so long – as the novel also leaves us free to entertain the possibility that it hasn’t…The last chapters of ‘The End of the Affair’ do not allow us that freedom…It is as though the novelists “technical ability” had failed him just this once, and left him caught with his finger on the scale. And Greene has since admitted that the way in which this “cheating” harmed the novel…The story he wanted to tell was that of a man “driven and overwhelmed by the accumulation of natural coincidences, until he broke and began to accept the incredible.” But Greene found that after describing Sarah’s death he “had no great appetite to continue,” and rather than allowing Bendrix to grow into a “reluctant doubt of his own atheism,” he began to “hurry” onto the end.”

Ok, so you’re not just going to ruin the ending for me, you’re also going to tell me that the ending isn’t successful? This is just rude, frankly. It is rude to roll up on a great novel, slide in front with your measly little opinion and tell naive readers not only what is going to happen, but how they are supposed to feel about it.

‘Ok’, you might be saying to yourself, ‘Fine, you’ve got a defensible opinion here, if perhaps a little hysterical. But the solution is clear: just don’t read the Introduction. They aren’t mandatory; just skip by them and take in the work with a fresh eye.’

It’s a reasonable point, but, unfortunately, it gets right to thing that most offends me about them: we are supposed to read them. We are pressured, by their location and nomenclature (they are Introductions), to read them. That’s why they come before the book: they are meant to be a subtle gatekeeper, a sort of orientation to the book you actually wanted to read.

It is true, we are absolutely capable of sailing right by the Introduction; in fact, most people probably do. But it is clear to me that we are meant to feel bad for skipping past it. If we simply ignore that prefacing section, we are meant to feel philistinic, unliterary. ‘Oh,’ those pages seem to say to us, ‘Someone’s in a hurry. Not a real Reader, are you? I guess you don’t really care about understanding the book you’re reading, huh? Just trying to put a notch in the bedpost – fine. Not everyone can be a real intellectual, I guess’.

Look, I love a good critical explication as much as the next guy. Critical essays help us deepen our relation to the work in question; they make us better readers. But they should not be placed, like a toll booth, at the front of the work. Fiction should be read fresh, without preconceived notions of meaning. Meaning should come later – experience should come first. To present readers with a pre-masticated point of view about the work which they are about to encounter is, in my opinion, wicked. It does violence to the spirit of thing, to the relationship between a reader and a new book.

I’ll put it another way: the novel should frame the criticism. The criticism exists contingent on the novel; the novel is its context. However, when you put the Introduction in front of the novel, the Introduction frames the novel. It’s ass-backwards. It spoils the book for new readers; it’s patronizing and contaminating. Stop it.

Cover Her Face

By P.D. James

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We do not usually expect perfection in art. There’s good reason for this: in art, as in life, perfection is rare, perhaps impossible. It’s not a reasonable standard by which to judge something, be it a person or a work of art.

But, if there are not perfect works of art, might there be perfect genres? Might there not be artistic species which, honed over decades in the hands of the capable, achieve a perfection of form? Or, if perfection offends you as a concept, might we not think about certain kinds of art as apotheosized? Of having reached a sort of ideal consensus, a set of norms and prescriptions which, when followed, produce something familiar and yet also sublime?

As an example, consider the limerick. In a limerick, a specific, metered rhyme scheme is used to express material which is, canonically, humorous and crude. Both parts – the meter and the content – are requirements of the form. Both are crucial: limericks are so funny because the constraints imposed by the rhyme and meter force you, the listener, to anticipate the humor (or the filth). The limerick is sort of a perfect kind of art: known, efficient, un-improvable.

I’d like to argue that the British murder mystery is another perfect form of art, a genre whose conventions and standards have been honed to a state which cannot be meaningfully improved. The British murder mystery is a fully actualized art form.

This line of thinking has been prompted by the fact that I just read ‘Cover Her Face’ by P.D. James. Now, despite being a fan of the murder mystery, I have never actually read P.D. James before – I wasn’t avoiding it, I just hadn’t gotten around to it. I wanted to start at the beginning. Like many of her ilk, James has a favored creation, a detective who stars in most of her books. In James’ case, it is Adam Dalgliesh, a talk, dark, and handsome poet-detective. I’m a little anal about book order, so I wanted to start with the first Adam Dalgliesh mystery, which is ‘Cover Her Face’, published in 1962.

‘Cover Her Face’ is a lovely little murder mystery. The Maxie family, of Martingale Manor in Essex, are planning their annual church fête (an aside: nothing good ever comes of a church fête in a murder mystery, and it is a testament to the success of the genre that the phrase “church fête” sends a chill down the spine of every American reader, despite the fact that none of us have ever encountered one in real life). The Maxie household has been under some recent strain: their patriarch is terminally ill, and is being cared for at Martingale by his wife, Eleanor Maxie. To help with his care, the family has recently brought on new help: the beautiful Sally Jupp, an unwed mother from the local womens’ refuge. When, on the night of the fête, Sally Jupp announces that she has been proposed to by Stephen Maxie, the estate’s heir, everyone is horrified. When she is found strangled the next morning, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard begins to wonder whether the murderer might have been a member of the household.

What should be clear from my description is that ‘Cover Her Face’ is an entirely doctrinaire murder mystery. No Agatha Christie novel could have been truer to the form; in fact, but for a more permissive attitude toward sexual intercourse, ‘Cover Her Face’ might easily have been written by Christie herself.

And I hope it is obvious from my preamble that I do not mean ‘doctrinaire’ as an insult. On the contrary, the reason that I am arguing for the perfection of the murder mystery as a form is because of how satisfying a totally doctrinaire murder novel can be.

It’s a little counter-intuitive, that something so formulaic could be so enjoyable to read, but it is not uncommon when you think about it. Many forms are like this: romantic comedies, horror movies, police procedurals. The predictability of these forms is part of what makes them enjoyable. As a consumer, you inhabit a familiar world, where the signals are transparent to you. That comfort frees your attention to focus on the details. It makes the experience of these genres psychically cozy: familiar and yet new at the same time.

P.D. James

Murder mysteries have a very well-developed set of norms and signals. We know that the murderer is never (never!) a wandering vagrant – it will always be a known entity, a member of the household (or one of their guests). Despite the fact that the murder will occur in a genteel setting, among church-going villagers or landed gentry, motives will abound, and there will be a surprisingly large number of plausible murderers. There will be some situational complexities that make reconstructing the actual crime difficult: the crime will have intersected with other, more minor sins. Multiple suspects will lie (in fact, most of them will be lying about something or other). Our detective, patient and opaque, will carefully unwrap it all, and will reveal the full complexity of the situation in a denouement which will somehow involve the entire cast of characters, who will be assembled in the drawing room.

As is probably clear, I’m fond of this genre, and, in my fondness, I object to the characterizing of these books as “guilty pleasures” or beach reading or whatever. Just because something is sold in airport bookstores doesn’t make it bad, and I see real literary achievement in the murder mystery. The fact that ‘Cover Her Face’ is so conventional and yet so good speaks to the strength of the genre.

And, yes, there is a murder aspect to its success: murder is fun to read about. But I believe that there is more to the popularity of the murder mystery than audience ghoulishness. I think that this is a perfectly balanced form: that it provides novelty and familiarity in perfect proportion. Any more predictable, and they would be boring; any less, and they wouldn’t be reliable. The murder mystery walks the fine line between these two outcomes, and it has been walking it successfully for generations.

This form, these norms, are extraordinarily robust. They have been replicated again and again by different people, in different times, in many different countries. They have spawned and informed other genres. In Darwinian terms, the British murder mystery must be considered one of the most successful forms in human literary history, and I suspect that I will be reading them with pleasure until I die.

Moby Dick

By Herman Melville

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Classics are tricky. The truth is, some of them just don’t hold up. Whether they are mired too much in their time and context, and simply cannot translate centuries after their conception, or whether they were never really that good to begin with, is impossible to say. It’s just a fact, though, that it is not uncommon to roll up on a Great Book and find oneself disappointed.

You can’t ever tell, though, in advance which books will live up to their reputation and which will leave you cold. ‘Moby Dick’, for example, I was sure was going to underwhelm. It sounded boring, frankly: too much whaling, too much esoterica, too much rigging. It also sounded obvious, you know? One loony guy’s obsession with an uncatchable thing? The futility, the mortality, the what’s-the-point-of-it-all-ness – it all seemed a little on the nose. If I’m being totally honest, I sort of assumed that it was one of the books that people claim is good because it’s hard to read and they want to flex that they got through it.

I was wrong. ‘Moby Dick’ is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It is a novel of grand, human scope, of despair and madness and hope. And it isn’t about what I thought it would be about: it’s not about existential futility – it’s about existential rage.

In the years since I first read ‘Moby Dick’, two passages have stayed close by me. These two passages are about the same thing, the whale itself, and Ahab’s pursuit of it. The first occurs only about a hundred pages into the novel, when a crewman challenges Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, the whale that took his leg, and Ahab answers him.

“‘Vengeance on a dumb brute!’ cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.’

‘Hark ye yet again, – the little lower later. All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If a man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations.'” (p. 166)

The second passage happens only a few pages later, and it is Ismael’s description of Ahab’s obsession.

“And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice. Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in that his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperation. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; -Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest has been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” (p. 181)

Ahab has become known in literature as a man on a single-minded mission of revenge. He has become a symbol of a man in quixotic pursuit, of fruitless obsession. The ‘white whale’, of course, has entered common parlance as the thing that can never be caught. Because Ahab is in pursuit of an animal, he is considered mad; even within the confines of the novel, even by his crewmates, he is treated as insane.

And perhaps he is, but not in the way you might think. 

Ahab’s obsession is not with a whale per se, I think, but with the malice of the universe. Behind the reality that we know, behind the world that we see, Ahab sees a vast malevolence. A malign, active intelligence, which erupts into our world (which is the pasteboard mask) and does us harm. It is what Ismael describes as “that intangible malignity which has been from the beginning”: evil.

Questions of cosmic unfairness (why do bad things happen to some people and not others?) have animated all cultures, all systems of religion and moral philosophy. We might think of misfortunes as accidents, as bad luck. We, perhaps, are not inclined to ascribe to the universe hostility against us, and we accept unhappy accidents as bad roles of the die.

But Ahab does not. He has lost his leg in an accident – why, he asks, should he not seek recompense against whatever force marked him for misfortune? That he does know what force it is that animated the whale will not stop him: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white while agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Herman Melville

Ahab is insane not because he wishes to revenge himself against the whale; Ahab is insane because he believes that he can revenge himself against the universe, that he is owed recompense for an accident of fate. He is searching not for a whale, but for a meaning, a coherence, which will give his suffering a context. He is railing not against the injury itself, but against the idea that he lives in a universe without justice.

“How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” For Ahab, his misfortune has shown him that the world he inhabits is a prison, a prison of unreasoning pain, where terrible things can happen without recourse for the victims. He refuses to be trapped in that kind of world; he will “strike through the mask”, break outside the boundaries of the world. And he will do that by striking not the whale itself, but by striking through the whale, to the intelligence he believes must exist outside it.

That Ahab is mad undeniable, but there is a grandeur in his madness. He is mad for his refusal to suffer dumbly the blows of fate. And I think that I have loved these passages for so long because, in a way, I cannot fault him. Why shouldn’t we rise up and strike back at fate, if we can find a purpose which persuades us? Why should we be content to suffer unfairness? Isn’t destiny, when viewed with clear eyes, enraging?

It is possible to see bravery in Ahab’s refusal to obey accident; it is equally possible to see cowardice. We all live with misfortune in some way or another; isn’t it narcissistic for one man to demand redress? Is Ahab strong, or is Ahab brittle? But I think that to love ‘Moby Dick’ is, in the end, to love Ahab himself, for his rage and for his pain (ultimately, they are the same thing). I love him – I have loved him for a long time now.

And, sometimes, I can see the world through his eyes. Everyone once in a while, when something terrible happens, some senseless accident which mutilates and crushes the innocent, I see a flicker in the fabric of the world. For a brief moment, I see the mask, and I sense the cruelty behind it, and I feel the sort of rage that might propel one to strike through it.

And in those moments, I see something else: that it isn’t Ahab who’s insane. It’s the rest of us.

The Infatuations

By Javier Marias

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I love Javier Marías despite the fact that he is annoying.

I’m not trying to be glib or dismissive. I’m also not trying to insult Javier Marías, because I really do love him. I love reading his books. I respect him, I enjoy him, I think he’s wonderful writer. But he’s annoying.

It’s his writing style. Marías has as distinct a style of writing as any author I can think of alive today – his prose is recognizable almost instantly. It’s his great virtue, but, like most highly distinct styles of writing, it’s irritating to read.

It’s almost impossible to have a sense of what I mean if you have not actually encountered Marías’ prose, so, forgive me, but I will quote him at some length. Please trust me that this quotation is highly representative – the entire book is like this.

“…We think men will change their mind or their beliefs, that they will gradually discover that they can’t do without us, that we will be the exception in their lives or the visitors who end up staying, that they will eventually grow tired of those other invisible women who existence we begin to doubt or whom we prefer to think do not exist, the more we see of the men and the more we love them despite ourselves; that we will be the chosen ones if only we have the necessary staying power to remain by their side, uncomplaining and uninsistent. When we don’t arouse immediate passion, we believe that loyalty and our mere persistent presence will finally be rewarded and prove stronger and more durable than any momentary rapture or caprice…I know that it wouldn’t offend me to be a substitute, because we are all of us substitutes for someone, especially initially…Yes, we are all poor imitations of people whom, generally speaking, we never met, people who never even approached or simply walked straight past the lives of those we now love, or who did perhaps stop, but grew weary after a time and disappeared without leaving so much as a trace, or only the dust from their fleeing feet, or who died, causing those we love a mortal wound that almost always heals in the end. We cannot pretend to be the first or the favourite, we are merely what is available, the leftovers, the leavings, the survivors, the remnants, the remaindered goods, and it is on this somewhat ignoble basis that the greatest loves are built and on which the best families are founded, and from which we all come, the product of chance and making do, of other people’s rejections and timidities and failures, and yet we would give anything sometimes to stay by the side of the person we rescued from an attic or a clearance sale, or won in a game of cards or who picked us up from among the scraps…” (p. 120)

Marías lives inside the mind of his characters. He is interested in the intersection between our psyches and the world around us. He is fascinated not by what happens to his characters but in how they experience what happens to them, how they think and feel. His project is to represent that experience with fidelity.

I think that’s why he writes that way. Marías understands that our internal worlds are not linear, they are obsessive, recursive, tangential. We think in endless loops on the same problems, splintering off and coming back, and so, therefore, does his prose. You can see it in the above passage, the way he takes a single thought and iterates it, winding and rewinding, trying something a little different each time, adding, adjusting, tweaking and taking a slightly different stance. His writing is super clausal: every sentence layers itself on top of a theme, sometimes for whole chapters at a time. Nothing is simply stated once; rather, every thought is re-stated three or five times synonymously. Concepts are defined and refined in slow shadings until they have morphed into different concepts, which are then themselves refined, and so on.

It’s exhausting, but it’s effective. It is, perhaps, the best representation that I have ever encountered in prose of how we actually think. Psychically, humans are enormously complex, and it’s almost impossible to represent this complexity on the page. I have come to love his style, even while sometimes feeling winded by it. It has verisimilitude, an honesty. He is writing about nuance and ambivalence, and he is unflinching in his portrayal of human contradiction, of our multifacetedness.

But he requires a completely different style of reading. Some authors, most authors, need to be actively read: you need to push yourself through the text, paying attention. Marías is different: you need to trust him, let him carry you. If you try to stay alert the whole time, if you try to remember everything, you will exhaust yourself and lose patience.  If, though, you relax into his writing, Marías can become kind of magical to read. It’s the reading equivalent of letting your eyes unfocus. What seems at first like endless verbiage, like self-indulgent editorial failure, is, in fact, the deliberate and artful construction of a cadence.

Most annoying writers become more annoying the more you read. What differentiates Marías is that his prose becomes easier as you get into the flow of it, rather than more grating over time. By the end of one of his books, you are so used to being carried on his particular current that you almost don’t remember that it’s possible to write differently.

And, if you are interested, ‘The Infatuations’ is a great place to start. I started with ‘Your Face Tomorrow’, a trilogy of about 1300 pages which I came to love but which took me months to work my way through. ‘The Infatuations’, though, is short and gripping, a murder mystery-love story, riddled with uncertainly and moral relativism.

Javier Marías

It’s hard to represent the discursiveness of human thought and still have space to develop anything like a plot – that’s why most authors shorthand emotional experience. There are very few authors who really commit to thought, with all its reiterations and redundancies (Proust, for example, who, of course, is also exhausting to read). It’s really fun to see Marías’ particular lens come up against the normal constraints of a murder plot, which usually require exactly the sort of bright lines that Marías eschews.

There is a truism of relationship therapy, that the things which you love the most about your partner are the things which will come to irritate you the most, in other forms. The same is true of authors sometimes: the things which make them special, which stand out about them, are also the things that grate on you. Javier Marías is special – he’s difficult, he’s annoying – but he’s special. And the things that make him special (his prose, his observations), which make him annoying, also make him worth it.