The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

By George Saunders

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“”I’ll tell you something else about which I’ve been lately thinking!” he bellowed in a suddenly stentorian voice. “I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of his own. It is not my place start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why he gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!”

Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used to many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?” (p. 10)

In 2005, George Saunders published a thin little novella called ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘. At the time, I thought its plot was charmingly weird:

The nation of Inner Horner is so small that it can only hold one of the six inhabitants of Inner Horner at a time. While they wait for their turn to occupy their nation, the citizens of Inner Horner occupy the Short Term Residency Zone of Outer Horner, the nation which total surrounds theirs. One day, however, a piece of Inner Horner crumbles, sending the momentary occupant of Inner Horner tumbling across the border into Outer Horner.

Unfortunately for the Inner Hornerites, this incursion is witnessed by Phil, a citizen of Outer Horner. Phil was once madly in love with a citizen of Inner Horner, Carol, and her rejection has made him bitter. Phil uses the sudden toppling of an inner Hornerite into his country to whip his fellow citizens into a nationalistic frenzy. He will co-opt the Outer Horner Militia and use them to terrorize, extort, and eventually disassemble the Inner Hornerites.

When I read ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ for the first time, in 2006 or 2007, I thought it was strange and dismal and funny. I love George Saunders, I love his whole vibe. I love his worldview, his dark, sad humanity. I love his sense of humor. I’ve loved George Saunders since the first short story of his I’ve ever read.

And I loved ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’, when I read it in 2006 or 2007. I thought it was the best thing he’d ever written.

But I read it again the other day, now, this year, 2016, not 2006 or 2007, and it isn’t funny now.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ is about the damage that a sadistic, brittle demagogue can do to a vulnerable population. It’s about how a cowardly population will cow-tow and appease that demagogue as long as he tells them that they are the best people on earth. About how they will overlook and excuse any cruelty towards people that they believe are different from them.

It’s not funny anymore.

This is yet another way that books are like people: you can lose them. Sometimes they turn into jerks as they age; sometimes you just grow apart. Things that you thought were hilarious when you were younger, stop being funny. Things that blew your mind the first time you heard them, turn out to commonplace. That’s pretty normal.

But that isn’t what happened here. ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ didn’t age badly – we didn’t outgrow each other. The world changed between 2006 and 2016: specifically, the line between ‘plausible’ and ‘absurd’ moved dramatically. And so my relationship with fiction premised on the absurd changed as well.

What I realized when I reread it this week is that ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ was only absurd in its details; its emotional message is completely realistic. People are small-minded, provincial, and cruel. We do display a near-total lack of empathy when we are confronted of the suffering of someone we have decided isn’t like us. It is possible to build a cultural movement premised on the degradation of other people. It is possible for that movement to gain traction in your country. It is possible for that movement to take over the government.

I think I assumed that, because some of ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ was fiction, all of it was. That assumption was stupid and totally unwarranted on my part, but nevertheless: I think that I relaxed into the surrealist detail, allowed the weirdness to give me emotional distance.

George Saunders

I understood that ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ was a parable, I understood that there was a moral point being made. I just figured, I think, that it was an exaggerated moral point. I assumed it was hyperbolic, satirical.

It isn’t though, not in 2016. It’s a deadly serious moral point wrapped in silliness. It’s not funny.

It makes me sad, either way. There aren’t so many beloved, brilliant, absurdist little parables that I can afford to lose one. It’s sort of awful to have ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ ruined for me by the changing of the world.

I wonder how Saunders himself feels about ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ now. I wonder whether he has startled himself with how prescient he was. I wonder whether he knew he was writing an almost literal prophesy, the future of my country and his.

I bet he isn’t surprised at all.

Mary Toft

Or, The Rabbit Queen

By Dexter Palmer

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Well, holy shit.

Books surprise me all the time, for good and for ill. However, it rarely takes me half a book’s length to notice how good it is – I’m usually (not always) quicker on the uptake than that.

In my defense, books don’t usually want to hide their own goodness from you. It’s risky, after all: most people are willing to put a bad book down and walk away. Most books want to grab you immediately with their quality and keep a throttle-hold on you until the end, even past the end: for the exact length of time it takes for you to buy copies of them for everyone you know for Christmas.

So discretion turns out to be a rare quality in a book. It does happen, though, that a book comes along that has the skill to hide itself from you, distracting you so completely with scenery or plot that you fail to notice that it is excellent until it’s too late.

***

Mary Toft was a real person, a Surrey woman who, in 1726, orchestrated a hoax in which she convinced several reputable surgeons that she was giving birth to rabbits. Dexter Palmer has written a novel about this true story, told mainly from the point of view of Zachary, the fourteen-year-old apprentice of John Howard, the local surgeon who first encounters Mary.

I think that part of the reason that it took me so long to figure out that ‘Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen‘ is magnificent is that it is, deliberately and aggressively, revolting. Out of the goodness of my heart, I’ll spare you the nasty shock I received, as an example: I bet you assumed, when I wrote that Mary Toft was “giving birth to rabbits”, that the rabbits where alive. I bet you assumed that they were intact.

I did, much to my regret. Mary’s rabbits are not alive: in order to effect the hoax, the rabbits had to be killed, cut into pieces, and inserted into Mary’s womb, whence they were extracted by credulous surgeons. It is absolutely disgusting, and the first time John Howard birthed a rabbit’s head and a string of intestine from Mary Toft, I was knocked flat on my ass: literary skill was the furthest thing from my mind.

I was intended to be, I bet. Dexter Palmer is clever, and he is making a point. ‘Mary Toft‘ is a novel about truth and belief, about the difference between them, about why we believe the things that we believe. About why we are so persuaded by the evidence of our eyes, and what it is, exactly, our eyes find persuasive.

There aren’t many novels written about medical anomalies, and for reasons which, I think, are sound: they are difficult to read about, if you live in an age in which they are scarce. But they have not always been scarce, they are part of our common humanity, and Dexter Palmer requires that we see them because, if we can’t see them, we will not understand the world in which Mary Toft lived, we won’t understand why she did what she did, or how she was able to get away with it.

The medical consensus in the society into which Mary is born is that birth defects are the fault of mothers: impurities in their thoughts, sins which lie on their consciences, act to turn the children in their wombs from the path of normal development. If a mother spends her pregnancy thinking unwomanly thoughts, she risks the health of her child.

Dexter Palmer is writing about a world in which the war between science and religion is much younger than it is in ours. Medical anomalies, illnesses which cause malformations in the human form, are the sites of the most pitched battles of these wars. Why would an omniscient God allow babies to be born twisted, sick, in pain?

The answer is, of course, sin: God visits illness on those who deserve it. If you are sick, if you are born with an illness, if you develop one over the course of your life, then you must have deserved it. Why would God allow illness to strike you unless you did something wrong? The wretched, those in pain, suffer because they should, and if you are lucky, healthy, rich, you must therefore be good.

It’s important to understand this mindset because, without understanding it, it will be difficult to understand the cruelty with which the inhabitants of this world treat each other:

“Lord M- winked. “Humanity, Zachary. At any time in the history the earth there is exactly enough humanity to go around for each human to have one full share of it, to entitle himself to say that he is better than an animal because he walks on two legs, and sings, and invents money…But if I am very, very rich, and you are not so rich: well, then I,” Lord M- said, his hand on his heart, “can take some of yours…This is the last thing that money is good for, once you have as much as I do – to make myself more human, which regrettably but necessarily entails making you less human, by contrast.” (p. 235)

***

I didn’t notice how good ‘Mary Toft‘ was until about half of the way through.

I know that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is. People often talk about books getting a slow start, or taking a while to get going: this is emphatically not what happened with ‘Mary Toft‘.

What happened is, essentially, shock-and-awe. Dexter Palmer spends the first hundred pages of the novel knocking you around with grotesqueries, using the brutality of 18th century medicine to soften you up. By the time Palmer is ready to teach you something, you’ve forgotten that you’re reading the sort of the novel that might offer a moral lesson – you’re too busy trying NOT to imagine what it would be like to shove bits of a rabbit up your own vagina.

Which means that the moral lesson, which is lovely and brutal at the same time, has landed on you before you know it was launched.

Dexter Palmer

I suspect that this surprise-attack quality is exactly why a book would trouble to downplay its literary quality. Readers are like anyone else: they don’t like being preached at. When they see a lecture coming, they brace, ready their eyes for rolling. Those lectures are held at a critical distance

But when you are shattered and confused, transfixed by a woman pulling rabbit skulls out of her cooch, you are permeable; your critical faculties are shot all to hell.

Which is Palmer’s point: when your senses are overwhelmed, you are easier to trick. When you are struggling to understand something impossible, you are credulous, and vulnerable to someone with an agenda: to a sham religion, to a medical quack, or to a novelist who is trying to teach you about human kindness.

I lovedMary Toft‘. The writing is lovely, not in an ostentatious, “Look Ma I Got My MFA” prose-y kind of way – it is merely simple, effective, and graceful. It is surprising, and clever, and sad, and humane, and at times even funny. And, as an added bonus, it’s about the weirdest novelistic subject I’ve encountered in a while. It’s going to take a long time for some of the images contained in this book to shake out of my imagination. But I think it’s OK to have them there – I think they’re teaching me something.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

By Olga Tokarczuk

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“The fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future is a terrible mistake in the programming of the world. It should be fixed at the first opportunity.” (p. 271)

There is a tricky kind of novel, rare and hard to pull off: the Novel of Dubious Guilt, First Person. ‘The Turn of the Screw‘ is this kind of novel; ‘Gone Girl‘ is this kind of novel; ‘His Bloody Project‘ is this kind of novel.

In novels of this kind, a protagonist, speaking directly to the reader, relates a series of events in which they are implicated without revealing the extent of their involvement. Usually, but not always, it is a murder. The trick of it is: the reader must not be able to discern whether or not their narrator is guilty or innocent. They must not be able to trust the narrative, even as they invest in it by reading further. They must keep always before them the possibility either that the narrator is lying, or that the narrator is mad.

It’s hard to pull this off. If you make a narrator too cagey, if they act suspicious to their reader, their guilt will become apparent. But too much information, or obvious psychosis, also destroys the ambiguity, and once a reader has “figured out” what really happened, the effect is ruined.

Shame on me, I had never heard of Olga Tokarczuk. This really isn’t forgivable – one of her previous novels, ‘Flights‘, won the Man Booker International Prize, and she herself won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018. But I had never heard of her: I picked up ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ solely because I found the title irresistible, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it is going to end up being the best book I read this year.

Janina Duszejko lives in rural Poland, near the Czech border. She is a teacher, an aging astrology enthusiast, an intense lover of animals. She has only a few friends, but she is known in her community: she cares for the summer dachas of the city people during the hard winters, and she has frequent confrontations with the local hunters. In her free time, she and her friend Dizzy translate Blake into Polish; she pores over the star charts of everyone she meets, a side project she has to prove her theory that the moment of a person’s birth contains, complete and unchangeable, the moment of their death. She had two dogs, her little girls, but they went missing the year before and she has never been able to find them.

One night in the middle of the winter, her neighbor Oddball comes to her house in the middle of the night to tell her that their mutual neighbor Bigfoot has died. He has choked on a bone from a deer that he poached, a habit for which Janina loathes him. As Oddball and Janina make the body decent for the police, Janina looks for Bigfoot’s papers – she wants to know his birthday, to draw his chart and add his death to her charts. She finds a photograph which shocks her; she does not tell us what is in it, but it sparks a series of events which leads to the deaths of four more men.

Over the next year, prominent men in the community begin to die in suspicious circumstances. The commandant of police falls down a well. A priest burns down in his own church. A fur farmer is found in an animal trap. The only thing that the men have in common: they were all hunters. Deer tracks are found near one body – fox tracks near another. Rumors begin to swirl around the community: the animals are taking their revenge.

Janina is a spectacular narrator: smart and observant and sad and sly and barking mad all at the same time. Tokarczuk, even in translation, is a beautiful writer, and this is prose like I’ve never quite encountered before. It’s a blend of real weirdness, humor, loneliness and wile. It’s pathos and bathos and rage.

“Spring is just a short interlude, after which the mighty armies of death advance; they’re already besieging the city walls. We live in a state of siege. If one takes a close look at each fragment of a moment, one might choke with terror. Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances; soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve them in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish.” (p. 124)

Janina’s focus, her obsession, is animals. She has made what appears to be a small imaginative leap, but one which makes a permanent, wrathful outsider of her: she believes that animals are the moral equals of people. That they have souls, intelligences, if not identical to ours, like enough to warrant protections equal to the ones we offer each other. She views humans who kill, cage, or eat animals with the same revulsion you would feel for an unrepentant murderer. To a cannibal.

Olga Tokarczuk

“So I spoke, using wise words…

“”You’ll say it’s just one Boar,” I continued. “But what about the deluge of butchered meat that falls on our cities day by day like never-ending, apocalyptic rain? This rain heralds slaughter, disease, collective madness, the obfuscation and contamination of the Mind. For no human heart is capable of bearing so much pain. The whole, complex human psyche has evolved to prevent Man from understanding what he is really seeing. To stop the truth from reaching him by wrapping it in illusion, in idle chatter. The world is a prison of suffering, so constructed that in order to survive one must inflict pain on others…What sort of world is this? Someone’s body is made into shoes, into meatballs, sausages, a bedside rug, someone’s bones are boiled to make broth…Shoes, sofas, a shoulder bag made of someone’s belly, keeping warm with someone else’s fur, eating someone’s body, cutting it into bits and frying it in oil…Can it really be true? Is this nightmare really happening? This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought, though plenty of thought is applied to ingenious philosophies and theologies. What sort of world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?” (p. 107)

Because Janina is so single-minded, ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ isn’t a true mystery. By the “reveal”, you have a pretty good sense of what’s going on, but, at that point, you’ve come far enough with Janina that you are thoroughly on her side.

The trick of those mystery narrators, those Did-I-Or-Didn’t-I novels, is how do you sympathize with narrator who might be a murderer? ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ is a neat twist on this: how do you sympathize with a narrator when you are both murderers, she in your eyes, you in hers? Can the charm of her prose, the righteousness of her cause, the clarity of her vision, bring you along with her, make you a kind of accomplice?

The answer is yes, emphatically yes. Janina is as winning a narrator as I have encountered in years; ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ is a great love. A book this good, the first thing I do is buy something else by the author. ‘Flights‘ won Tokarczuk a Man Booker – I’ll start with that. Books this good are rare – when you find them, follow them.

The Immortalists

By Chloe Benjamin

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In my experience, the most difficult kind of book to write about is a mediocre book.

The easiest books to write about, obviously, are bad books. It’s almost joyful to write about bad books, to stretch out into descriptions of what you hated, to justify at your leisure why each sin is mortal.

Excellent books, adored books, presents their own challenges (you never seem to do them justice), but it’s always a pleasure to defend something you love, to show it to someone who might never have seen it otherwise.

But mediocre books, they are a challenge. Writing about them does not offer the catharsis of a good eviscerating – they do not deserve it anyway – but neither can you endorse them with enthusiasm. They have no earned opprobrium, and so there is no fun in heaping it on them; you don’t want to damn them, but you must, at least with faint praise.

So, ‘The Immortalists‘:

One sultry summer day in 1969, the four Gold children, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, visit a Roma woman who, their friends have told them, can tell each of them the day that they will die. One by one, these four New York children will face her and learn their fate. ‘The Immortalists’ is the story of their lives.

Simon, the youngest, learns that he will die in his early twenties. A closeted homosexual, he will escape his family’s expectations and follow his sister to San Francisco in the early 80’s, where he will live a few years of blissful freedom before succumbing to AIDs. Klara, told she will die in her early thirties, becomes a magician, the performer she always intended to be, but she will never recover from her brother’s death.

Daniel, the elder son, becomes a doctor. He has been told that he will die in his middle ago, and as his death-date nears, he becomes obsessed with the woman who gave it to him, convinced that her prediction has caused the deaths of his two younger siblings. Varya, the eldest, lives her life burdened by the knowledge that she will live until she is 88. She becomes a scientist, a researcher into aging. Her life revolves entirely around her work and her mother, whose care, after the deaths of all three of her siblings, has fallen entirely onto her. She suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder which makes her avoid human touch, and she survives on the same calorie-restrictions she feeds her lab animals.

The problem with ‘The Immortalists‘ is that it aims high, and its ambition shows. It is, I think, an attempt to explore the effect of death on life. What would it mean, to know when you were going to die? Would it be freeing, or would it be the most profound condemnation? Each of the Gold children will struggle with this dilemma, each will find themselves damned in some way by what the woman has told them.

It’s an interesting question, a moving one. But ‘The Immortalists‘ shows its hand too often; it’s clunky, obvious. It never errs on the side of subtlety when it could smack you right in the face, and that robs it of much of its potential effect. The minute you learn that Simon is a gay teenager, you know that he will die of AIDS, the price he will pay for his few years of freedom. It’s the shallowest metaphorical level for this lesson, the lowest hanging fruit, and Benjamin grabs it.

Daniel, at loose ends in his career, weighed down by grief from the death of his two siblings, decides to go and shoot the woman who gave them these prophecies, where he is gunned down by an FBI agent – not a likely end for a family man and physician. There were other ways to do this, to make this point about derangement and rage and grief, more realistic ways. But Benjamin consistently takes the most obvious road where a subtler one might have been more interesting.

It’s not that I don’t think that obvious books can’t be great – sometimes the blatant mechanism is the best mechanism. But Benjamin picks the blatant mechanism every single time. Simon’s choice, to live his short life freely, will literally, directly, bring about the early death that has inspired his bravery. Varya, granted long life only to watch her entire family die, will literally devote her to life the extension of life against aging. Klara, having spent her life in pursuit of magic in which she believes literally, will prove her own magically-predicted death date by actually, literally, killing herself on it.

A subtler novel would have been a better one, in my opinion. The premise is interesting; the question, profound. We spend our entire lives negotiating with our deaths, in one way or another. And Benjamin is right: there are multiple effects that death may have on our lives. Some of us are liberated by the certainty of our end: we maximize the time that we have, because the only thing that we know for sure is that it will be limited.

Some of us, though, will allow our lives to be cramped and deformed by our foreknowledge of death. Fear will constrain us, alter our movements, limit our scope. Despite the fact that death is everywhere and eternally inevitable, we will try, eternally and inevitably, to cheat it.

Chloe Benjamin

So, this is what fantastical fiction is meant to do (or, one of the things): it uses impossible premises (you will know the day of your own death) to interrogate the universal. And sometimes the best way to do this is to take the most extreme example – sometimes extreme examples are illustrative.

But I think ‘The Immortalists‘ is trying to have it both ways: it is a realist novel with a fantastical premise. The lives of the four Gold children are meant to be plausible in our world given a single magical event. The problem is, taken all together, they strain credulity, and that diminishes the effect of the work.

But it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad book. It’s very readable, the pages almost turn themselves. It’s well-paced, the writing is competent, even good. More: the writing is good enough that the content is easy to emotionally connect with, not necessarily an easy feat.

The Immortalists‘ is exactly the kind of book that makes me want to avoid contemporary fiction. Not a bad book, but not a great one, either, not one that will go the distance, not one that will be read by our great-grandchildren. When it came out, critics were pleasant but mild in their praise, as well they should be: ‘The Immortalists’ is a pleasant book. Fun to read, difficult to remember. A tasty drink, but weak. A beach read. It’s not that I regret reading it – hard to regret a pleasant read – but the time might have been better spent elsewhere.

The Cromwell Trilogy

Wolf Hall; Bring Up the Bodies; The Mirror and the Light

By Hilary Mantel

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Most of the time, when we say that we love a book, we mean that we love the literary work as a whole. We love the book: the plot, the characters, the prose, the descriptions and pacing, the resolution, the lessons, the intersection of the book and our selves and our lives.

But sometimes, when we say we love a book, what we really mean is: I love the character that animates this book. It isn’t that we don’t like or appreciate the other stuff; it’s that that stuff is really just the medium through which the character is communicated to us. Sometimes the love of a book is really a love affair with a character.

The first of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, ‘Wolf Hall‘, came out in 2009. Its critical reception was ecstatic: it won the Man Booker (as did its sequel, ‘Bring Up the Bodies‘, the only pair of novel and sequel to have ever done so) and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Guardian named it the best book of the 21st century.

I read it when it came out, and found it exactly as flabbergastingly excellent as everyone else. It is rare that a book lives up to the hype, right? The problem with books that unite critics in rapturous consensus is that, while you may love them when you finally get around to reading them, it’s almost impossible for them to take you by surprise. You approach them, necessarily, waiting for them to justify themselves; you read them in a state of constant anticipation, on the lookout for excellence.

Wolf Hall‘ did surprise me, though.

The protagonist of the Cromwell trilogy is Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, the man who served as chief minister to Henry the VIII for eight years until he was executed on orders from his king in 1540.

What is clear from these novels is that Hilary Mantel loves Thomas Cromwell, and, because she loves him so much and because she is such a good writer, the result is that I love him just as deeply. A reading of the Cromwell trilogy becomes, therefore, an experience of profound love, not of books, but of a man: the love of the author for subject, communicated to her readers.

I suspect that I am not the only reader for whom this attachment to the fictionalized person of Thomas Cromwell was the salient experience of reading the ‘Wolf Hall‘ novels. Mantel’s Cromwell (I am, at this point, totally unable to disambiguate her character from the “real”, historical man) is one of the most persuasive characters I’ve ever encountered in literature. He is measured, sardonic, wise. Humane, possessed of a capacious memory and an eye for detail. He’s brave, sentimental, effective, and ruthless. He is so lovable that Mantel’s readers may easily fail to notice that he has become, over the course of her books, a monster.

Cromwell, by Holbein

After a brief glimpse into his childhood, the Cromwell trilogy introduces us to Thomas during his employment for Cardinal Wolsey, who was, at the time, first advisor to Henry VIII. The reader’s first real impression of him is his love for this man, the Cardinal, his admiration and loyalty.

Wolsey fell from grace when he was unable to secure a divorce for Henry from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Cromwell manages to secure this divorce, and further secures the crown for Anne Boleyn, thus earning himself a place in Henry’s confidence. These novels are about that relationship: between Cromwell and his king, the obsession, the love and the fear, the minute study a subject makes of his ruler.

I will never be able to explain why I have loved Mantel’s Cromwell so deeply. I can only say that I loved him from the first chapters of ‘Wolf Hall‘: his immovability, his wit, his clarity about everyone except himself.

Mantel is a great writer, really magnificent. Her prose is plain, sometimes almost like a sermon, but she shows, doesn’t tell. The only person who tells is Cromwell, and he tells beautifully. That’s why, perhaps, when the books are through, it is Cromwell you love, and not Mantel. This is maybe the surest sign of her achievement: you, as reader, can’t help but confuse her grace for her protagonist’s.

But the fact that Mantel shows and doesn’t tell means that some of the most important emotional developments of the book happen slowly, subtly, and might be missed: there is no announcement, no climax.

Cromwell was a Protestant, a sincere follower (according to Mantel) of Luther and Tyndale. One of the animating relationships of the book is the one between him and Sir Thomas More. More, who, in real life, was a complete fuckhead, is a complete fuckhead in ‘Wolf Hall‘ as well: a Catholic zealot, a one-man English Inquisition, he spends most of the book burning Protestants.

More and Cromwell are respectful enemies: both are men of the law and of the Holy Book, but one requires that the book be written in Latin, the other longs for it to be written in English. Cromwell, like Mantel’s readers, deplores More’s methods: the torture, the burning of heretics. So right is his opposition to Thomas More that readers will continue to feel themselves on his side, to find him persuasive, when he himself begins to have people executed (indeed, burned) for papacy, under the charge of treason.

I think that Mantel does this on purpose, because I believe, I really, really believe, that she loves Thomas Cromwell, and that she has endeavored to make us love him. And just as his love for his king requires a certain, side-eyed blindness to his foolishnesses and weaknesses, just as all love requires some blindness to fault, so our love for him will require blindness to his faults, apologies for them, sympathy with them.

Hilary Mantel

So we will notice that he has become a murderer, but we still fear for him as his enemies gather and gain momentum, and we will rage when they surround him and have him arrested, and we will grieve when he is executed, and the third book ends. And I know that I, personally, will never quite be able to forgive Henry VIII.

There is probably a more rigorous discussion to be had about the three individual books; I suspect that ‘Wolf Hall‘ is by far the best of the three, but I’m frankly unable to discern a difference, because it is the man that I love, not the books, and the man is in all three. As I mentioned above, I read ‘Wolf Hall’ when it came out, and then ‘Bring Up the Bodies‘ in its turn, but I reread both before picking up ‘The Mirror & the Light‘, read all three in one go, and I can no longer tell them apart; I can’t even remember now where one ends and the other begins.

But I know that he, Thomas, is dead now, in a way he was not, for me, last week. And in this way the Cromwell trilogy has been, truly, more of a relationship than a reading experience: I do not feel that I could go back again, read them from the beginning, start with him from his youth. He is dead, he died, I was there, and there is no going home again.

I am quite used to having relationships with books – relationships with people are more complicated. But they are, ultimately, richer, I think, the relationships with people. I don’t know whether how I feel about the Cromwell trilogy is richer than how I feel about books I have loved, but it is simpler: I just love its main character. That’s all. The language, the descriptions, the vivid imaginings, all contribute to my understanding of, relationship with, love of the man at its heart.

Wuthering Heights

By Emily Bronte

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Sometimes I wonder why we even bother to make teenagers read.

Specifically, I wonder why we make teenagers read the classics. In middle and high school, we drag them, mostly unwilling, through the Great Books before they have had most of the experiences which would allow them to connect with the material therein, and insist to them that these books represent the best of human literary effort.

I understand the arguments in favor: we are using these books to teach children how to think critically about literature, teaching them how to approach and, hopefully, to love it. Of all the teenagers alive, I was perhaps the one most likely to approach the material with reverence; if I was not smarter than anyone else, certainly I had a character inclined, even at that age, to love great books, to embrace them with an open heart.

But even I misunderstood most of them. So often, in my adulthood, I have picked up again a book I read in high school only to discover upon rereading that I have completely misremembered it. That the book that I thought I loved all these years bears little to no resemblance to the actual book.

I did not love ‘Wuthering Heights‘ in high school. I remembered it as a great love story, and I was not often moved by love stories in high school. I remembered it as tragic, overwrought, but essentially romantic: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on the moors. Catherine and Heathcliffe loved each other cleanly, I thought, were kept apart by their families, died. There was much lamenting, I thought, and Healthcliffe I remembered as dark, and brooding, but essentially appealing.

I don’t know why I decided to reread it now, decades later. I found a lovely old box set of ‘Wuthering Heights‘ and ‘Jane Eyre’ (by far my favorite of the two) at Second Story Books years ago, and I picked it up on impulse last week. And, upon rereading, I have discovered something interesting, something which completely eluded me in high school:

Wuthering Heights‘ is batshit crazy.

Wuthering Heights‘ is romantic only in the technical sense: it is about two people who experience a romantic impulse toward each other. It is not romantic in the actual sense: it is not about love.

It is about hatred, and rage, and madness: it is about obsession and the warping of the human soul. It is about perversion of the human heart, not in the sexual sense, but in the original sense of the word: it is about hearts which have been twisted from their original purpose. Corrupted by something else and made into something so ugly that violence is the only possible expression of the original human capacity for caring.

It is, famously, the story of the bond between Catherine Earnshaw and Healthcliffe. I remembered this about it: it is the story of two souls, facing obstinately towards each other but kept by circumstances apart in marriage. Lonely, therefore, and tortured, doomed to wander until they find each other, finally, in death.

What I did not remember is that both our protagonists are tortured, not by unrealized love, but by rage and spite. A terrible, driving, defining urge to hurt everyone around them. They are both unrelentingly vile, and in their vileness they torment not only every single other character in the book, but each other. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a novel of vengeance.

“Are you possessed with a devil,” he [Heathcliffe] pursued savagely, “to talk in that matter to me when you are dying? Do you reflect that all those words will be branded on my memory, and eating deeper eternally after you have left me? You know you lie say I have killed you: and, Catherine, you know I could as soon forget you as my existence! Is it not sufficient for your infernal selfishness, that while you are at peace I shall writhe in the torments of hell?” (p. 101)

I suppose, when I was fifteen, I assumed that, if characters in a novel were loved deeply, they must have been deserving of that love. If they were protagonists, they must therefore be sympathetic protagonists. I was not, I suppose, as a teenager capable of understanding that sometimes literature asks us to empathize with characters we are not supposed to admire. As a teenager, I must have thought that protagonists are only meant to reflect our better selves, whether they are true or total or not.

Emily Bronte

I was wrong, obviously, and I am particularly distressed to discover my mistake because I didn’t need heroic, sympathetic protagonists, not then, not now. I needed exactly the kind of protagonists that ‘Wuthering Heights’ was offering me: angry, tormented souls, souls who, in desperate reaction to their own psychic pain, would lash out at the world around them. Souls whose own agony would make them destructive, who carried their own suffering inside themselves, as part of themselves, but who nevertheless longed for a happiness that was an impossibility for them.

I mean, we all do, right? That’s what literature is for! I think, if you live long enough, you learn, inevitably, that heroes are thin on the ground, and literature is one of the ways that we cope with this. We need our flawed protagonists to help us play out our own worst traits, to see ourselves under different lights, from different angles. Literature is how we run experiments with aspects of our characters, how we try out different lives without paying the price for them.

There are moments of real poignancy for me in ‘Wuthering Heights‘, moments of sad human beauty. One moment, in particular, has stayed with me. Early in the novel, when Heathcliffe is told by the narrator that Cathy’s ghost (Cathy has been dead many years at this point) has been to visit her old room:

“He [Heathcliffe] got onto the bed, and wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears. “Come in! come in!” he sobbed. “Cathy, do come. Oh do – once more! Oh! my heart’s darling: hear me this time, Catherine, at last!” The spectre showed a spectre’s ordinary caprice: it gave no sign of being.” (p. 18).

It is a reminder that even wicked people are capable of genuine grief in loss, a fact which, as a wicked person myself, I was going to discover.

Wuthering Heights (Penguin Classics)‘ and I missed each other, in time. It is too melodramatic for me, as I am now. I have become more placid in my adulthood, my dramas are adult dramas, I do not draw emotional sustenance from unquiet spirits raging without each other.

But when I was a teenager, I did, and I am grieved that I did not see the lesson when it was in front of me, then. The lesson of ‘Wuthering Heights’, that real love is not possible for creatures who are animated by hatred, no matter how much they want, or need, it, not in this life – that real love and hatred are antitheses – that was a lesson I would have to learn for myself, the hard way. I could have used a book or two to teach it to me – it might have shortened my sentence.

The Thorn Birds

By Colleen McCullough

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It’s always slightly disorienting to hear a book you’ve never heard of described as a “classic”.

It’s even more disorienting to read that “classic” and discover that it is absolute trash.

I’m not sure what called ‘The Thorn Birds‘ to my attention after all these years. I suspect I started noticing it on bookstore shelves – it is a great title, after all, and a big honking book, and I love big honking books. I certainly did minimal research into the plot before I bought it, but buy it I did.

The Thorn Birds‘ is, apparently, the best-selling novel in Australia, ever. It is also the source material for the most-watched mini-series of all time, and it has been re-released as a ‘modern classic’. Only this last achievement surprises me: ‘The Thorn Birds’ is pulpy and plot-driven, perfect mini-series material, but only a classic if classicism is a measure of popularity and not of critical merit.

It is, at its heart, the story of Meggie Cleary and her family. Meggie is born in New Zealand, the only daughter of Fee and Paddy Cleary. Paddy is a sheep-shearer and the family is poor; however, Paddy’s estranged sister, Mary Carson, is the richest women (nay, person) in Australia, the owner of Drogheda, a sheep and cattle ranch as big as Ireland. When Maggie is a child, her aunt calls her father to Drogheda to come and run the ranch, promising to leave it to him when she’s done.

On Drogheda, Meggie meets Father Ralph de Bricassart, the astonishingly fit, astonishingly handsome, astonishingly suave local priest. Ralph and Meggie, the priest and the little girl, love each other on sight, he with a strange, protective, fatherly instinct for a lonely little girl, and she with the adoration a child feels for the only being that has ever loved it.

But Meggie will, of course, grow up and, of course, become very beautiful, and the love between them will change, mature, and, of course, become lustful and forbidden. ‘The Thorn Birds’ is the story of the way in which this deep and forbidden love will shape and deform not only their lives but the lives of the entire Cleary family, Meggie’s parents and brothers, and the two children she will eventually bear, one with the irresistibly sexy Father Ralph.

It’s really not a great book. The plot alone should give that away: it’s overwrought and creepy all at the same time: the fated and forbidden love between a devastatingly attractive, yet ambitious, priest and a lonely young girl, a young girl to whom he is both masculine ideal and father-figure? It’s wildly implausible and super gross.

Colleen McCullough

From McCullough’s New York Times obituary: “Ms. McCullough’s fiction was prized by readers for its propulsive plots, sympathetic characters and sheer escapist potential. Its critical reception was mixed; reviewers took the author to task for sins ranging from stilted dialogue to the profligate use of exclamation points…Negative reviews did not appear to faze Ms. McCullough, whom The Philadelphia Inquirer, in a 1996 profile, described as “a woman supremely unafflicted by self-doubt.”

“I think in their heart of hearts all these people know that I’m more secure than they are, more confident than they are and smarter than they are,” she said of her critics in a 2007 interview on Australian television.”

Germaine Greer wrote a very satisfying re-examination of ‘The Thorn Birds’ in the Guardian when it was reissued as a Virago Modern Classic, in which she says, “It would probably be over the top to denounce ‘The Thorn Birds’ as a sneakily racist and sectarian book, but it is definitely contrived and insidious. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Germaine Greer is exactly correct: ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is contrived and insidious. ‘Insidious’ is a very good word for what it is: it is possessed of a deeply fucked up world view which it hides with plot, and then uses the outcome of that plot as an argument in favor of that worldview.

But what is the worldview? Great question, and the answer is: I’m not entirely sure, but I know it’s bad.

And, yes, I know that that is a bullshit thing to say, but it is nevertheless true. It is possible to know that something is corrupting without understanding its exact designs.

The world of ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is an all-white world. It is one in which the gigantic estates of the white landed gentry which locked aboriginal peoples out of the Australian economy for generations are remembered with nostalgia. It is one in which the sexual conquest of a young girl, a young girl in his charge, over whose family he has complete financial power, can be considered part of a priest’s spiritual deepening. And that the young girl is probably the seducer anyway. It is a world in which deferred sexual or maternal impulses curdle inside women and cause them to become frigid, deranged, spiteful, unnatural. Men, on the other hand, become even more dignified. And handsome.

If I am being completely honest, though, it is not this worldview, noxious though it is, which informs my primary objection to ‘The Thorn Birds‘. The truth is, if you read books written in different times and places, you encounter many noxious worldviews. They are a characteristic of almost every age and place except your own (and you will find that many of your own compatriots possess them, if you ask). You learn to hold the worldview in some remove from other assessments of artistic merit.

My primary objection to ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is that it is deeply mediocre. It is poorly written; the characters lack subtlety. The plot is appalling, not only from a moral point of view, but from a human point of view, from the point of view of a person who thinks and cares about how other humans behave, in real life. It is bad, merely bad. It is not a classic.

“He took the half-open bloom from her, his hand not quite steady, and stood looking down at it. “Meggie, I need no reminder of you, not now, not ever. I carry you within me, you know that. There’s no way I could hide it from you, is there?”

“…Please take it, Father.”

“My name is Ralph,” he said…”Do you want a keepsake from me, Meggie, is that it?”

“Yes.”

“I won’t give you one. I want you to forget me, I want you to look around your world and find some good kind man, marry him, have the babies you want so much. You’re a born mother. You mustn’t cling to me, it isn’t right. I can never leave the Church, and I’m going to be completely honest with you, for your own sake. I don’t want to leave the church, because I don’t love you the way a husband will, do you understand me? Forget me, Meggie!”

“Won’t you kiss me goodbye?” (p. 268)

Garbage.

I really doubt that ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is popular among Aboriginal Australians, but I do not know why the white people of Australia have decided to embrace this glorified romance novel to their collective bosom. If I had to guess, it is because of the loving, lengthy descriptions of its landscape. They are loving, and they long – Australia is almost a character in this novel, and national pride is a powerful thing.

Which, fine, but it doesn’t redeem this trash-ass novel. Bad characters, ludicrous plot, white-washed world. Not a classic, bad book. Bad book all around.

Against The Day

By Thomas Pynchon

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When I was little and had just started reading books for grown-ups, I asked my father if he had ever encountered a book so difficult that he had not been able to finish it. There was one, he answered, a book called ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘, which was so long and hard that he had given up part-way through.

I asked him what was so hard about it, and he told me that he didn’t know how to describe it because it didn’t make any sense to him. It was just impossible to get through. I asked why he had tried to read it in the first place (he never was a great one for novels) and he told me that it was considered one of the great novels of the 20th century. I told him I bet that I would be able to get through it, and he bet me I would not. He bet me $50 dollars (a huge amount of money to me at that age, when my allowance was $8 per week) that I would not be able to read ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘ all the way through.

I won that $50, some years later, with the help of a companion gloss, but it was reading by brute force. My father was exactly right: it didn’t make any sense, and, to this day, I don’t really know what ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ was about. But I was left with an impression of greatness which I am still unable to justify: I didn’t understand it, at all, but I liked it.

And so, over the years, I have come back again and again to Pynchon, reading a number of his books. In his defense, none have had quite the zany incoherence of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘, though they are all clearly products of the same mind. Nor have any had the length.

Until now: ‘Against the Day‘, which was published in 2006, clocks in at almost 1100 pages. It is a historical epic, following dozens of named characters from the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 to the global eruption of World War I. The gravitational center of the novel is the three sons of the anarchist bomber Webb Traverse. Traverse is tortured and killed by two assassins in the hire of anti-union interests; his death will torment and mutilate his offspring, will pursue them in their flight over the surface of the planet.

As so often with Pynchon, there is no plot, per se, uniting these characters and episodes; rather, they are united by a moral and stylistic point of view. ‘Against the Day‘ is a long fever dream laboring under a cloud of foreboding: World War I, the death of innocence, the blood and machines which will devour and destroy mankind’s ability to believe in its own civility, is coming, bearing down on Pynchon’s mind and clouding his world with unnameable, or maybe just unnamed, fear. ‘Against the Day’ is a novel about a civilization, a whole world, gone mad, and the creeping evils, capitalism, greed, technological progress, which drove it there.

In my years of making attempts on his novels, I have learned that one doesn’t read Pynchon’s books so much as one experiences them. There is a trick to this, a sort of mental relaxation which is counter-intuitive to all one’s instincts as a responsible reader. You have to relinquish your need to understand what’s happening, to remember details and to track events, and just let the novel happen to you. I believe, and I may be wrong about this, that the point of Pynchon’s novels happens in a sort of gestalt-absorption of the prose-tone, which I recognize doesn’t make any sense, but, then again, neither does he.

If you can let go of the idea that prose is supposed to make sense, you begin to understand that Pynchon’s writing is totally fucking sublime, I mean really, really good. And it’s not incoherent in the Joycean way of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, not gibberish – that would make me furious – it’s world-class writing, but it’s not being deployed to communicate a story to you. And so reading him is not like taking in a story at all – it is like taking in a busy scene: chaotic, overwhelming at first, but punctuated by moments in which your eye comes to rest on something beautiful, small points of lovely focus:

“Fire and blood were about to roll like fate upon the complacent multitudes. Just at the peak of the evening rush-hour, electric power failed everywhere throughout the city, and as the gas mains began to ignite and the thousand local winds, distinct at every street-corner, to confound prediction, cobblestones erupted skyward, to descend blocks away in seldom observed yet beautiful patterns. All attempts to counter-attack or even avoid the Figure would be defeated. Later, fire alarms would go unanswered, and the firemen on the front lines would find themselves too soon without reinforcement, or the hope of any. The noise would be horrific and unrelenting, as it grew clear even to the willfully careless that there was no refuge…

There was debate in the aftermath about what had happened to the Mayor. Fled, dead, not right in the head, the theories proliferated in his absence. His face appeared on bills posted all over the wood fences around vacant lots, the rear ends of streetcars, its all-too-familiar bone structure shining with the unforgiving simplicity of a skull. “Remain indoors,” warned bulletins posted on the carbonized walls over his signature. “This night you will not be welcome in my streets, whether there be too many of you or too few.” (p. 152).

Thomas Pynchon

This is breathtakingly good writing, but understand: it is an aside. The Figure wreaking havoc on this town is never explained, and not mentioned again. It is a small piece of madness in a swirling world, important the way everything is important, meaningless the way everything is meaningless.

Pynchon isn’t incoherent because he’s garbled, he’s incoherent because he never pauses for breathe, doesn’t resolve loose ends, doesn’t resolve anything. Because his worlds are magical and he never explains them, because he doesn’t give context or backstory or rationale. He makes no sacrifices for you, makes no gestures at you, doesn’t even seem to realize that you exist.

Oh, and he’s funny. Funny, and rude, and crude. ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘ launched him into the pantheon of the unread Greats, the Postmodern Masters, but because no one can read him and everyone knows that he is Important, no one supposes that Thomas Pynchon is fucking hysterical, that he’s obsessed with sex, and gutter-minded, and slapstick.

I suppose that maybe that I love Pynchon, but not as an author. I love him as writer, if that makes any sense. I don’t love his books, but I love the lucid moments in his incredible prose, the those moments of blinding skill. I love the lens through which he looks out upon the world, the mischief, the chaos, the evil and the love and the humor which provide respite from it. The great human forces which pull us all along, and how strange and unreasonable it all looks to him. How alien and small we are all, and how lovingly he draws us. I don’t understand him at all, but I’ll read him, I think, forever.

A Unified Theory of Novels

So, I’d like to do something a little different this week, and instead of talking about one book which I finished in the past seven days, I’d like to talk about novels in general.

I said something a little while ago: “It doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story.” But when I thought more about it, I felt that I had, as usual, been glib. And not merely because I have never read ‘The Notebook’, but because while I believe that this is a true and self-evident statement, why is it true?

It’s true because there are different kinds of novels.

I don’t mean Good versus Bad novels – I mean that there are different categories of novels. Partly, yes, this is what we’re talking about when we talk about genre: romance versus horror, but even within that great non-genre, Literature, there are different categories of literary novel. And I know that this is obvious to everyone, but it bears a little reiteration, because it has implications which we rarely examine with any care.

Let me put it this way:

Which is the better novel: ‘Ulysses‘ or ‘Jurassic Park‘?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because it is a technical accomplishment of such complexity and beauty that it transformed the very idea of the novel.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because that’s the book that people are more impressed when I say I’ve read it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because more people like it.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because more informed people like it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because, unlike ‘Ulysses’, it’s actually fun to read.

None of these answers is quite satisfying, is it? Yes, ‘Jurassic Park’ is more entertaining, but ‘Ulysses’ was more complex. How can you adjudicate ‘better’ in a case like this?

The problem, of course, is that the question is nonsensical. Neither novel is strictly ‘better’, because they are different kinds of novels, and so have different novelistic goals.

Over the years, I’ve come to think about three broad categories of novels (in my head, I call them Tiers). Within each Tier, a novel can be either successful or not successful, which means that there is such a thing as a Very Good Tier 1 novel, which is, for my money, ‘better’ than a Very Bad Tier 3 novel, in so far as goodness can be read into execution of intention.

These are my Tiers:

Tier 1 Novels: Plot

Tier 1 novels are novels where the primary purpose of the novel is plot. ‘Plot’, in this case, is distinct from ‘story’ – most, if not all novels, have a story of some sort, but not all novels are plot-driven.

Plot-driven novels are characterized by action. Action moves the novel forward, and action is the necessary resolution of the plot. ‘Action’ does not necessarily, of course, mean a sword fight – action can also be the discovery of a murderer, or the culmination of a magical quest, or an exorcism.

Because, of course, most of what are traditionally called ‘genre novels’ are contained in this tier: fantasy, murder mysteries, techno-thrillers.

My favorite Tier 1 novelist is Michael Crichton (as is probably clear from my obsession with ‘Jurassic Park’). I’ve read everything he’s written, even that pirate one. I could wrote a whole essay on my deep love of a Crichton premise. Stephen King is another beloved Tier 1 novelist for me; so was George R. R. Martin, before he ghosted us all.

Tier 2 Novels: People

Tier 2 novels are novels in which the story isn’t, necessarily, plot-driven: these novels might be novels of character development, emotional crisis, personal tragedy or triumph.

Tier 2 novels are not characterized by subject matter – they are characterized by their limitation. Tier 2 novels are only about what they are about. They do not, by design or failure, transcend their own story. If they are a story of a young man’s descent into madness, then they are only about that particular young man and his particular madness – they are not a metaphor for anything larger.

This is not necessarily a comment on the value of these novels; on the contrary, Tier 2 includes some of the most absorbing novels I have ever read. They are often powerful, moving stories, stories you may perhaps relate strongly to, but they are stories from which you do not learn anything about the greater problems of humanity.

Jonathan Franzen is the exemplar Tier 2 novelist: his novels are beautifully imagined, richly, even elaborately, detailed, intricate and specific. But his protagonists, his beautifully-imagined protagonists, are what his stories are about. They aren’t about you or me, us, the great mass of humanity – they are about the people that appear in their pages, and no one else.

Sometimes, a Tier 2 novels transcends category: it is a story only about the specific people and specific incidents described, but it is so beautiful and perfect, so finely and humanely drawn, that it feels as though it touches on something universal, and so becomes about the common human experience without ever becoming a metaphor. Elena Ferrante’s novels are, in my opinion, the best of example of this kind of category-straddle: indisputably, to me, Tier 2 novels, the depiction of the two women at the heart of those books is so deft and true that it becomes about us all, in the ways that we are all alike.

Tier 3 Novels: Metaphor

Tier 3 novels are novels which transcend the specifics of their story. They are novels which use their specific stories to tell a bigger story, a more universal story. Their characters are metaphors, archetypes, allegories, from which we might learn something about ourselves. They can be bad or good, successful or unsuccessful, but their characters or stories mean something more than the specific circumstances that afflict them.

Tier 3 novels are the novels we are all used to thinking of as “great” novels. Most of the canonically “great” novels are Tier 3 novels, but this is, I think, a limitation of the canon.

Of course, many of my own most-loved novels are Tier 3 novels: ‘East of Eden‘, ‘Infinite Jest‘, anything by Graham Greene, ‘The Age of Innocence‘, ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘, by George Saunders – all Tier 3. Most of the really excellent or seminal science fiction, Tier 3: Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Asimov, Dick, Herbert, Gibson, Le Guin, you name it: all Tier 3.

And, of course, some of the most bloated, irritating ‘classics’, the books with which we are all flogged in high school, are also Tier 3: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘The Golden Bowl’, ‘Sons and Lovers’, ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell – all Tier 3, lord help us.

But some great classics, books beloved and admired, are Tier 2’s: most of Jane Austen’s novels, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘ by Evelyn Waugh, anything by E. M. Forster.

I don’t argue for the perfection of this system. Some of my favorite novels defy categorization according to my system:

I Love Dick‘, by Chris Kraus, ‘World War Z‘ by Max Brooks (no, I’m not kidding), ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler‘, by Italo Calvino – what are they?. Or how about something like ‘Bleak House‘, by Dickens? You feel as though it ought to be Tier 3, it is Dickens after all, but is it? Only in the most insipid sense: a fable about how goodness will be rewarded and wickedness punished, but on that level the book is garbage anyway – ‘Bleak House’ lives in its specific characters and prose, so maybe it would be happier in Tier 2.

Or how about ‘The Screwtape Letters‘: it’s clearly a Tier 3, but it isn’t a metaphor, it’s a fantasy, and so in some ways feels more like a Tier 1 novel than anything else. It’s a fable, an exposition, it’s barely a novel, more a series of lectures in a funny framing.

But, for better or worse, this is how I think about novels, and my tiers have given me a way to love and exalt ‘Jurassic Park‘ as much as I love and exalt ‘Infinite Jest‘, a way to express what I feel: that these are books of equal quality, in which I might take equal joy, because they are trying to do different things. There are a lot of ways to be good, and ‘literature’ is just too broad a category.