The Sellout

By Paul Beatty

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I’d like to talk about allusions.

An allusion, not to be confused with an illusion, is an implied reference to something else. It is often, but not exclusively, used to describe artistic allusion: the implicit or unstated gesturing, within one work of art, at another work of art. But there are all kinds of allusions: cultural, historical, religious. When you describe a task as Sisyphean, you are making an allusion. When you say someone has the patience of Job, you are making an allusion. When you describe something as your kryptonite, or compare it to the Kobayashi Maru, or call something your white whale, you are making an allusion. 

Allusions are very useful. Because they call to mind a shared cultural touchstone, they allow you, essentially, to flesh out an entire context with very little effort. If I make a joke: “To snack or not to snack – that is the question”, you know right away that I am referencing Hamlet. You know that Hamlet is asking his famous question about existence, about the nature of death and the meaning of life, whereas I am merely wondering whether to have a snack. You juxtapose the weightiness of his question against my triviality, and get the joke: I’m over-worrying about snacking.

It’s very powerful. In a world without Hamlet, I would have had to enumerate the levels of my agonizing to you: the wanting a snack, the not wanting to want a snack, my sense of genuine dilemma along with my meta-sense that my dilemma is minor in the grand scale of things, my own awareness of my ridiculousness and my awareness that you are also aware. Using an allusion, I can achieve all this complexity in a single phrase.

The reason this works is because we both know Hamlet. If we didn’t both know Hamlet – know it instantly – I would just be a person acting weird about snacks.

That’s the thing with allusions: the pay-off can be huge, but your audience has to get the reference. And cultural is local, both in space and in time. As anyone who has ever read Vergil will tell you, what the Romans considered obvious allusions would blow right by 99% of the reading public now. Likewise, we in the West tend to consider the Bible safe ground for allusions, but that’s awfully provincial of us. And popular culture, of course, is saturating but over in the blink of an eye (there are a lot of authors who, in about twenty years, are going to regret mentioning Kim Kardashian in their books). In fact, you can often date a piece of work by the cultural allusions the author seems to think everyone will get. Allusions require us to understand the same references, to live in the same world. The further apart our worlds are, the less likely we are to be able to communicate with each other this way.

All artists live with this tension when they deploy allusion: some people will get it, and some won’t. You need to balance the needs of the work with the likely scope of your audience. And, of course, for the audience, allusions are sort of terrifying. The idea that some crucial piece of meaning, some aspect or dimension of the work in which you are investing your time and energy might be lost to you, not through any fault of your own, but simply because you have not happened to encounter some other piece of culture? It doesn’t feel fair.

Which brings me to Paul Beatty. 

‘The Sellout’ is Beatty’s fourth novel, but the first that I have read. It won the Man Booker (side note: those Man Booker judges really are not fucking around). It is the story of Bonbon, a young Black man raised in Dickens California, a low-income high-crime neighborhood outside of Los Angeles. When Dickens is suddenly, inexplicably, dis-incorporated, Bonbon hatches a scheme to get his town back on the map: he will re-segregate it.

Beatty’s prose is among the most densely allusive prose I’ve ever encountered. There might be readers who are culturally informed enough to take in the full scope of the web of references that Beatty is constructing – I am not that reader. Which means that reading his work requires, on my part, a sort of surrender: the knowledge that I will not, cannot, comprehend the entirety of his project.

Paul Beatty

It’s daunting, but, in Beatty’s case, enormously worth it. Beatty’s prose is so fast, so sharp, so witty, that to grasp even a fraction is joyful. I was laughing out loud by page 13, when Bonbon describes a scheme he has to open a shop to translate personal mottos into Latin. He imagines people from Dickens coming to him for translation, so that they can get their mantras tattooed on themselves without fear:

“If it’s true that one’s body is one’s temple, I could make good money. Open up a little shop on the boulevard and have a long line of tattooed customers who’ve transformed themselves into nondenominational places of worship: ankhs, sankofas, and crucifixes fighting for abdominal space with Aztec sun gods and one-star Star of David galaxies. Chinese characters running down shaved calves and spinal columns. Sinological shout-outs to dead loved ones that they think means “Rest in peace, Grandma Beverly,” but in reality reads “No tickee! No Bilateral Trade Agreement!” Man, it’d be a goldmine…When business is slow, they’ll come by to show me my handiwork. The olde English lettering glistening in the streetlight, its orthodoxy parsed on their sweaty tank- and tube-topped musculatures. Money talks, bullshit walks…Pecunia sermo, somnium ambulo. Dative and accusative clauses burnished onto their jugulars, there’s something special about having the language of science and romance surf the tidal waves of a homegirl’s body fat. Strictly dickly…Austerus verpa. The shaky noun declension that would ticker-tape across their foreheads would be the closest most of them ever get to being white, to reading white. Crip up or grip up…Criptum vexo vel carpo vex. It’s nonessential essentialism.” (p.13)

Did you catch all that? No? How could you? The thing is, it’s funny anyway. The whole book is like that: funny, nimble, dense. Blink and you’ll miss something, but even if you keep your eyes peeled the whole time, you’ll still miss something because Beatty is moving too fast for you.

At a certain point, you just need to decide whether you’re willing to read a book knowing you won’t understand a lot of it. That there are in-jokes that will go right over your head, and that some of them might be important.  It’s hard.

But it’s worth it. It’s worth is because Beatty specifically is worth it, but it’s also worth it because that’s the only way to grow. If you only read authors you understood entirely, you’d never learn anything new. In general, the less challenging a work is, the less you learn from it. And the problem tends to compound itself: the more distance between your own experience and the scope of a novel, the less you will understand. The less you understand, the less likely you are to put in the effort to finish the novel, and, therefore, the more you become confined to your own experience.

Wading into someone else’s allusions is a good way to see the world through their eyes. And their world will necessarily be different than yours – that’s the whole point. If it weren’t, you’d have imagined the book yourself.

I couldn’t have imagined ‘The Sellout’, not with all the time in the world and a gun to my head. And books like that, books you couldn’t have imagined and don’t fully understand, those are the best books, in my opinion. Even if you don’t get every joke, don’t know every reference, those are the books that make your world bigger.

And bigger worlds are better, I think.

Gone Girl

By Gillian Flynn

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I know that everyone loves ‘Gone Girl’. I mean, I love ‘Gone Girl’. I read it, years ago, in one swallow: a beautiful summer afternoon spent inside, on the couch, unable to tear myself away. I have a lot of respect for it as a novel, the craft, the excellent execution of it.

But the other day I finally got around to watching the movie (which I also think was competent and gripping), and was reminded of something that tweaked me about the story, and, frankly, about the genre in general.

A little context, for the two people alive who haven’t read the book or seen the movie: On their five year wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife Amy vanishes from their home. The first half of ‘Gone Girl’ is a murder mystery, told both from Nick’s perspective in the days following her disappearance, and from excerpts of Amy’s diary during the years of their courtship and early marriage. As the days pass, more and more evidence emerges, all of which points to Nick having killed Amy. He has been having an affair. He has just taken out a large life insurance policy on her. Amy’s best friend comes forward and tells police that Amy feared that her husband would kill her.

It’s a masterpiece of unreliable narration, and Flynn manages to wind her readers through almost two hundred pages of Nick Dunne’s first person account without ever revealing whether or not he murdered his wife. I can’t really understate how impressed I am by her ability to do that. Two hundred pages of first person narration without revealing, in either direction, whether or not that person is a murderer? It’s a real high-wire act of suspenseful dubiety, and it’s completely successful.

However, after a deft, tense first half, Flynn abandons her well-constructed ambiguity and turns to that favorite device of genre fiction: the psychopath.

Amy is alive, of course. She has elaborately, painstakingly framed her husband for a murder that has not happened. And now she is free, living in disguise and watching her brilliant revenge play out from a safe distance.

The psychopathic genius is a tempting plot device. He is a human without humanity  He is capable of any evil, smarter than his opponents, and conveniently unencumbered by normal emotional frailties.  There aren’t any characterological weaknesses to limit him, and so he can enact any outlandish deviousness his author dreams up for him.

However, there are two big problems with the meticulous psychopath.

First, he is totally unrealistic. In real life, antisocial personalities are characterized not only by a lack of empathy, but also by impulsivity, recklessness, and unlawful behavior.  Flynn’s psychopath, however, shares with her fictional brethren a distinct lack of impetuosity.  The premise of ‘Gone Girl’ rests on the ability of a flamboyant sociopath to plan minutely and far in advance, to mask their thoughts and emotions and to forego any short-term satisfaction in order to execute an elaborate and excruciating revenge.

In real life, this is very un-psychopathic behavior.  The diagnostic criteria of antisocial personality disorder include “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest”, “consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations”, and “impulsivity and failure to plan ahead”.  It is striking that these traits are not only absent in Flynn’s psychopath, they would severely limit, if not completely obviate, her ability to plan and carry out her scheme.

Gillian Flynn

Second, the literary psychopath isn’t actually interesting. While he may have the immediate magnetism of a car wreck, he isn’t actually a character.  He has no internal conflict; he is all plot. 

Now, that can be OK. When plot is all that matters, he’s fine.  That’s why he does such reliable work in cop dramas, soap operas, and beach reads. But he isn’t a person – he’s a tool that an author can use to advance action. And he’s very useful, obviously, but this utility has caused him to be badly overused in fiction.  Once, he was shocking, novel, outre. Now, he’s everywhere, committing ever more elaborate crimes, devising ever more esoteric tortures for the rest of us. He’s become predictable.

Which is a shame, because the beauty of the first half of ‘Gone Girl’ was how difficult it was to predict. The tension Flynn manages to build in the first half of the novel is effective and affecting.  The different early perspectives offered by Nick and Amy Dunne make the reader question not only the reality of their marriage, but also the ability of any two people to ever really know each other. The first, better, half of ‘Gone Girl’ is a completely different book: one about intimacy, about whether it is even possible.  It offers a view of marriage that is not a shared life, but merely coincident delusions.  It is a dark vision, and it is much more compelling than the Dances with Psychos that the book becomes.

The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

By M.R. James

I’m sorry to tell you, but the title of this post is misleading: I am not going to talk about ‘The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James’ today. Instead, I’m going to talk about the introduction to the 2011 Oxford World’s Classics edition of the ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James’, written by one Darryl Jones.

M.R. James

Remembered best as a horror writer, Montague Rhodes James was also an accomplished medieval scholar and antiquarian. Accordingly, he was a master of what is sometimes called “antiquarian horror”, namely horror that centers around items or students of antiquity (think cursed artifacts, ancient manuscripts with terrible secrets, stuff like that).  Importantly, he seems to have led a largely hermetic and unisex existence: in 1905, he became the provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and he served until 1918, when he left to become the provost of Eton College, a position he held until his death in 1936.

Despite being backwards-looking, the creepiness of James’ stories holds up beautifully, and it’s difficult to overstate the influence he has had on the genre. Take, as one example, ‘A School Story’, in which two men compare the ghost stories of their school days.  Here is an image that should be familiar to anyone who saw ‘The Blair Witch Project’:

“First there was the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner, and had just time to say, ‘I’ve seen it,’ and died.”

Like Lovecraft (writing around the same time), James is at his creepiest at moments like this, when he leaves things unsaid.  The most grisly action, the terrible spectre, always appears offscreen, and is more unsettling because you have to imagine it yourself. James is very deft in this space, in the gesturing to horror, in inviting the reader to participate in designing the frightening thing.

Of course, the danger with leaving too much to your readers’ imagination is that some readers will bring their own, strange baggage to the encounter.  Enter Darryl Jones, Professor of Modern British Literature and Culture at Trinity College Dublin, who wrote the (otherwise) very good introduction to the 2011 ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James’.

My complaint with Jones is a small, but important, one. At one point in his (really very good and helpful) introduction, Jones spends a while dissecting James’ resistance to marriage and preference for male relationships before turning to this passage, from ‘Casting the Runes’:

“…he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far.  What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.”

Jones then calmly makes the following statement: “…this image of the hairy, fanged mouth…is a powerful symbol of sexual terror, a vagina dentata.”

Is it, Darryl? Is it really?

Jones didn’t invent the vagina dentata, or vagina with teeth; it appears in Jungian literature, and in several South American, Ainu, and Hindu folk tales (as well as in the memorably bad horror movie ‘Teeth’).  It’s hardly a common trope, though, and while most of Jones’ analysis seems straightforward and sound, this abrupt veer into genitalia seems more his problem than James’.  Surely, other perfectly normal and astute readers might have read and reread James’ passage without thinking, ‘Oh, yes, that’s clearly a toothed vagina”.

Indeed, Jones finds vaginas all over the place.  In ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, the antiquarian Somerton is exploring a ‘dark cavity’ inside a well when he meets “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind”.  He is “conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and of several – I don’t know how many – legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.” This story, explains Jones, “is ultimately a tale of uncontrollable sexual terror, a quest which leads Mr. Somerton to this nightmare vagina, and an encounter which he barely survives.”

Jones’ argument, namely that James’ cloistered and all-male life might have indicated a fear of female company, is not unreasonable on its face. Nor is it unreasonable to ask whether that fear may have found its way into James’ writing as, to quote Jones, “a nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine”.

However, I’m not persuaded by the examples Jones gives. I’ll put it more plainly: it’s not obvious to me that every menacing crevice must necessarily be a vagina.

James may well have eschewed female company, and it may be the case that “the lifelong appeal of institutions for James was that they provided the security of all-male environments”.  He may have been a homosexual, but does that really mean that there lurked in every dark corner of his expansive imagination…a vagina? 

I don’t want to make this all about me, but, as a person with a vagina, it’s difficult not to take this a tiny bit personally. I would certainly have hoped that nothing on my body could be described as eliciting “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind”. The trouble is that Jones seems to assume that every dank environment, every toothed oriface, every bad smell, must be a vagina. Worse, that he assumes it’s obvious. Reading his introduction, one starts to wonder whether, for a certain class of man, all monsters are really just vaginas. Some of Jones’ examples are real stretches, too – I don’t want to speak for other women, but I’ve never heard of a vagina with tentacles.

It’s a minor complaint, in the grand scheme of things, but I would like make this small point: the world is a large place, full of terrible things, and not all of them have to be vaginas. We can imagine other monsters, can we not? Sometimes, a cave is just a cave.

The Age Of Innocence

By Edith Wharton

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I’ve reached a point in my life when I have probably forgotten most of what I’ve read.

I estimate that I have read, on average, seventy-five books a year for the past twenty years. Some of those books have been, basically, wiped from my working memory. I will read back over my reading list and think, “Oh yeah, I did read that.” There are classics, Great Books, which I have read and about which I can recall absolutely nothing at all (‘The Adventures of Augie March’, for example – I couldn’t tell you what that book was about with a gun to my head). Many of the books I’ve read live in my memory as ghosts, barely discernible but definitely there (‘On Human Bondage’: I’m pretty sure someone falls in love with a waitress).

On the other hand, some books stay with me with extraordinary vividness. More than that, there are passages that I can recall almost word for word, decades after I read them. These passages have meaningfully changed me, and I carry them through my life, using them to understand myself and the world around me.

There is no rhyme or reason to what lodges in my heart in this way. Sometimes, it’s not even a passage in the traditional sense: it is a moment, or a single sentence. But they have shaped me, these passages, informed my ideas of love and honor and grief.

The end of ‘The Age of Innocence’ is one of those moments. I have carried the end of that book with me for years; I remember it, I’m haunted by it. I love it, and I think it is one of the most beautiful, poignant, humane moments in literature.

‘The Age of Innocence’ is the story of Newland Archer. Newland is a child of one of New York City’s most prominent families, the oldest blood in the New World. He is engaged to, and marries, May Welland, a young woman from an equally illustrious family. May is kind and lovely but utterly proper – everyone agrees that he has made a great match.

However, one night, Newland is introduced to the Countess Olenska. The Countess, who is May’s cousin, has fled her marriage to a wicked European count. She is living in New York, a woman separated from her husband, an object of pity and mild scandal. She is different from any woman Newland has ever known: independent in thought, unconventional, and interesting. Certainly, she is quite different from the entirely conventional May. As Newland falls more and more desperately in love with Olenska, he begins to chafe at the restraints of New York high society, and the norms which circumscribe his life.

Eventually, he and the Countess Olenska determine that they will run away together. On the eve of their flight, though, May comes to him and tells him that she is pregnant. Newland is unwilling, or unable, to abandon his young family, and Countess Olenska leaves New York City.

The very last, short section of the book takes place decades later. Newland Archer is a well-respected widower, a New York City fixture, taking a trip with his adult son, Dallas, to Paris. He learns that the Countess Olenska, now a widow herself, is also in Paris. Newland, finally free of the wife with whom he stayed out of obligation, decides to visit her one afternoon. On his way, though, he has this conversation with his son:

“‘…But mother said-‘

‘Your mother?’

‘Yes: the day before she died. It was when she sent me alone – you remember? She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.’

Archer received this strange communication in silence. His eyes remained unseeingly fixed on the thronged sunlit square below the window. At length he said in a low voice: ‘She never asked me.’

‘No, I forgot. You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath…’

Archer did not accompany his son to Versailles. He preferred to spend the afternoon in solitary roamings through Paris. He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an unarticulate lifetime.

After a while he did not regret Dallas’s indiscretion. It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guessed and pitied…And that it should have been his wife moved him indescribably.”

Newland decides not to visit the countess. He will never see her again.

We live in a romantic culture. Most of us would be sympathetic, I think, to the idea that Newland should have pursued romantic love. We conflate romance and actualization: we feel, instinctively, that Newland was denied something fundamental when he was denied his chance to spend an unconventional life with the woman he loved.

Newland chooses duty over romance – this is a choice we understand. But we expect, at the end of his life, when his wife is dead and his duty is discharged, that Newland will choose to see his countess, to be reunited with her. His decision not to changed the way I think about the world.

Edith Wharton

I have pondered this passage for years. Not at all dramatic, is it? You could drive right past it without noticing, if you were sprinting for the end. I cannot articulate what it means to me. It is that sentence, “It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guessed and pitied…”, the suffering it implies, which moves me. The idea of a life so lonely (“the packed regrets and stifled memories of an unarticulate lifetime”) that even the knowledge of a witness, the knowledge of not having been invisible in your sadness, could be so powerful.

Or perhaps it is the quiet, desperate dignity of a man choosing to honor the life he had instead of the life he wanted. Of the understanding that we cannot have all things, and perhaps it is best simply to be what we are.

I think, when I was younger, I became obsessed with this passage because I didn’t really understand Newland’s choice. But, as I have gotten older, I understand better that life is often full of grief for what we did not have, did not do. Very few of us make it through our lives without wondering after, longing for, another path, at least for a time. It is too late to chase what might have been – all that remains is to honor and enjoy what was. And the silent, loving witness of his wife reminds Newland that what was, while not perfect, while not romantic, was worthy.

I understand, in a way I could not before, that Newland, at the end of his life, chooses himself. Newland’s dearest wish had been taken from him by the inopportune pregnancy of his wife. Only, in the end, by renouncing the Countess again could Newland claim the choice as his own. It was the only way to make his peace, I think, with the life he had.

There comes in a time in our lives when what we wish, most dearly, is not to regret any longer. The time is spent – the only choice that remains is whether or not to be at peace with what has happened. What ‘The Age of Innocence’ taught me is that, while the price of that peace might be high indeed, it is worth paying.

Life of PI

By Yann Martel

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS, BUT THIS POST CONTAINS SERIOUS SPOILERS

I think ‘Life of Pi’ might have the most wonderful ending of any novel I’ve ever read.

I first read ‘Life of Pi’ years ago, soon after it came out. I would have described it as a great read, if not a great book. I thought it was beautiful, but significant mostly for its for its breathtaking premise. I would have said it should be celebrated primarily for the novelty of its plot.

Which plot: Pi Patel is born and raised in Pondicherry, India, where his father is the local zookeeper. Pi grows up in the Pondicherry Zoo, among the animals, a serious and happy little boy with a religious bent: he becomes, entirely without his parents’ knowledge, a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim.

When Pi is twelve years old, his parents decide to leave India and emigrate to Canada. The family boards a cargo ship, the Tsimtsum, along with many of their animals which are destined for zoos all over the world. En route, however, the Tsimstum sinks, drowning Pi’s entire family and leaving him stranded on a life boat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

‘Life of Pi’ is the story of a sweet-hearted and devout little boy surviving an ordeal: 277 days at sea with a tiger for a shipmate. It is about his grief, his suffering, his survival and his relationship with Richard Parker. And it’s a gorgeous story – lovely and funny and vibrant and humane, totally totally original. The ending, though, is complicated.

When Pi finally makes landfall in Mexico, starved, malnourished, anguished, the Japanese company which owned the Tsimtsum sends two agents to speak to him, to learn what might have caused the ship to sink. These two man flatly refuse to believe Pi’s story that he survived at sea with a Bengal tiger. Faced with their disbelief, Pi presents them with another story: when the Tsimtsum sank, four people made it to the life boats: Pi, his mother, the ship’s cook, and a young, injured sailor. The cook killed and ate the sailor first, then Pi’s mother.

“He killed her. The cook killed my mother…They were fighting. I did nothing but watch. My mother was fighting an adult man. He was mean and muscular. He caught her by the wrist and twisted it. She shrieked and fell. He moved over her. The knife appeared. He raised it in the air. It came down. Next it was up – it was red. It went up and down repeatedly…He raised his head and looked at me. He hurled something my way. A line of blood struck me across the face. No whip could have inflicted a more painful lash. I held my mother’s head in my hands. I let it go. It sank in a cloud of blood, her tress trailing like a tail. Fish spiralled down towards it until a shark’s long grey shadow cut across its path and it vanished. I looked up. I couldn’t see him. He was hiding at the bottom of the boat. He appeared when he threw my mother’s body overboard. His mouth was red. The water boiled with fish…I stabbed him repeatedly. His blood soothed my chaps hands. His heart was a struggle – all those tubes that connected it. I managed to get it out. It tasted delicious, far better than turtle. I ate his liver. I cut off great pieces of his flesh…So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without animals?” (p.317)

Over the years though, my mind returned again and again to that ending. It took on greater scope as I got older, came to seem much more profound, less literal, than it had when I first encountered it. Now, upon rereading it, I think I have become convinced that the ending is best, the most beautiful, part of the novel.

This choice is, of course, actually being presented to the reader. You understand that the choice is fictional, that neither story is ‘true’ the way, say, Watergate is true. But you also understand that you are being asked how you, the reader, personally see the world. Are you inclined to believe that a boy lived on a boat with a tiger? That two such different animals were able to coexist, to form a relationship, however unlikely and frightening it may have been? That, in fact, the fear and the unlikeliness are part of what made it so beautiful? Do you believe that it is possible, if not probable, that these moments of unlikely beauty happen all the time? That the world is large and strange enough to accommodate many such miracles?

Or do you believe the horror? Do you believe that this little boy was forced to watch, helpless, while his mother was killed and eaten? That he is, himself, a cannibal and a murderer?

There’s a lot at stake in this decision. I think that, essentially, what you are trying to decide is what a story is. You are trying to decide whether or not there is ordinary magic in the world, whether wonderful and fantastic things happen, or whether we invent them to adorn the bleak and unsparing horror of the human condition.

For “Life of Pi’, this is a religious question as well as a factual one. Recall that Pi is a religious child: he refuses to choose between Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam because he loves them all equally. For Pi, religion itself is an expression of love and gratitude for the world he lives in, which he considers beautiful and miraculous.

But, if his own story, beautiful and miraculous, is a fiction designed to hide from horror, then perhaps religion is, too. Perhaps all beautiful stories are lies we tell in order to hide our suffering from ourselves. Perhaps they are a way to layer meaning onto suffering, to justify it, to disguise it with beauty. But, perhaps, suffering has no meaning at all.

Without his story, Pi is victim of terrible accident, witness to brutality he did nothing to invite. Some random dice-roll of the universe dealt him a terrible fate, and it meant nothing. A little boy watched his mother eaten, and it meant nothing. The little boy himself resorted to monstrosity in order to survive, and it meant nothing.

Yann Martel

With his story, he is a boy who experienced a miracle.

I suspect that most people feel an immediate affinity for one version of the story or the other, an instinctive and instant sense of what is “right” – I certainly do. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this book over the years. Most prefer the animal story – it is, after all, the better story. More, it is the better world: more beautiful, kinder, and more magical.

But others feel unshakably that the second story, the human story, the awful story, must be the “true” one. I am of the latter camp. Over the years, I have come to suspect that this is due to a sort of moral pessimism on my part: I think I believe that the second story must be true because it is more horrible. I have become convinced that reality will always trend to the worst possible outcome, that, if there is doubt, the bleakest story will turn out to be the truest.

I wish I was the other kind of person. I wish I believed the magical story, I wish that it didn’t seem obvious to me that the sadder story is the truer story. I wish I had better faith; I wish I had more magic.

Galápagos

By Kurt Vonnegut

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I went through a big Vonnegut phase when I was a teenager.

I think that’s pretty normal, actually, for bookish teenagers: a Vonnegut phase. There are a suite of authors (all male) that seem to appeal to adolescent brains: Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Tom Robbins, Hunter. S Thompson, &c. They all share a worldview: anti-authoritarian, irreverent, nonconformist (not coincidentally, all traits to which teenagers often aspire). These authors have made their careers pointing out the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of bourgeois American lives and values, and American teenagers, longing to be different than their parents, tend to encounter them with gratitude and enthusiasm.

Not all teenagers, of course, and not everyone loves all of them – I, for example, despise Jack Kerouac, and rank him among the most-overrated authors of all time (number two with a bullet, right under Henry David Thoreau). But a lot of us have spent formative years embracing an author like this, discovering that the world is bigger than we thought.

Vonnegut was my guy during that phase. He is funnier than most of the other authors on that list, and he had an offbeatness to him, a quirkiness, that the more Kerouacian and self-serious authors lacked. I took a shine to him and read everything I could. While I admired ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, I loved his more apocalyptic visions, ‘Cat’s Cradle’, ‘Sirens of Titan’, and ‘Galapagos’, which was my favorite. Over the years, my Vonnegut collection has dwindled, but I have always kept my copy of ‘Galapagos’, moving it from apartment to apartment. I have nurtured a nostalgia for it, an attachment to this book whose plot I can barely remember.

I have always intended to reread it, but have felt a certain trepidation. I am twenty years older now than I was when I read it the first time. Books cherished in our adolescence don’t always make it unscathed past our adult judgement and it’s demoralizing to pick up a once-loved book and discover that it’s actually kind of crappy. It changes the value of your own remembered world. I didn’t want that to happen to ‘Galápagos’, and I had a suspicion it would. I had vague memory of a tone, a general contempt for humanity, that doesn’t feel as admirable to me now as it did when I was 15 and angry.

Well, I finally reread ‘Galápagos’ yesterday, and I have found that my suspicions were both right and wrong.

‘Galápagos’ has an iterative, rambling narrative style that makes it almost impossible to spoil. I’ve been playing around, trying to sum up the plot in a sentence or two, but I wasn’t super successful. Here are some of my attempts:

‘Galápagos’ is the story of the survival and evolution of the last few members of the human race after they are stranded on the Galápagos islands during the ‘Nature Cruise of the Century’.

‘Galápagos’ is an apocalypse novel about a group of misfits who are accidentally stranded on the Galápagos Islands as a disease slowly renders mankind infertile.

‘Galápagos’ is an entire novel written to justify the idea that human beings would be better off with smaller brains and flippers.

‘Galápagos’ is a moral treatise whose thesis is that human brain power has evolved to the point that it is antithetical to our survival. It is narrated by a ghost.

These are all equally accurate, and yet totally inadequate, descriptions. None of them capture how charming ‘Galápagos’ is. ‘Galápagos’ feels like the apocalypse novel that Carl Hiaasen might have written if he had a major moral ax to grind: it is zany and weird and frivolous and yet somehow deadly serious about the point it’s making. Which point really, seriously, is that our brains are too big and that humanity, as a species, has become so smart that we are now stupid.

Despite the fact that the book is undeniably preachy, Vonnegut takes such delight in the obliteration of his characters that ‘Galápagos’ feels light-hearted. It is funny, though perhaps not as funny as I remembered. Vonnegut has a distinctive wittiness, not subtle but nimble. He has a taste for the absurd, but he almost never goes too far. In general, he keeps his prose skipping over plot and resists getting bogged down in a single point for long.

Which is not to say that ‘Galápagos’ is quite as good as I remember. It is highly, highly repetitive – when Vonnegut finds a phrase or image he likes, he deploys it over and over again, and eventually it becomes exhausting.

Let’s take, as an example, the phrase “big brains”, Vonnegut’s absolute obsession. Here are all the instances of that theme from just the first five pages:

“Human beings had much bigger brains back then than they do today, and so they could be beguiled by mysteries.”

“Many people were able to satisfy their big brains with this answer: They came on natural rafts.”

“But scientists using their big brains and cunning instruments had by 1986 made maps of the ocean floor.”

“Other people back in that era of big brains and fancy thinking asserted that the islands had once been part of the mainland, and had been split off by some stupendous catastrophe.”

See what I mean: repetitive.

Kurt Vonnegut

And Vonnegut has a number of tropes which he repeats with as much assiduousness as his big brains: flippers and mouths, for example. We learn in the opening chapters that humans one million years in the future only have their mouths and their flippers, which features (flippers and mouths) will appear only about a thousand more times in the book.

“It is hard to imagine anybody’s torturing anybody nowadays. How could you even capture somebody you wanted to torture with just your flippers and your mouth?”

“Even if they found a grenade or a machine gun or a knife or whatever left over from olden times, how could they ever make use of it with just their flippers and their mouths?”

“Now, there is a big-brain idea I haven’t heard much about lately: human slavery. How could you ever hold somebody in bondage with nothing but your flippers and your mouth?”

“As for human beings making a comeback, of starting to use tools and build houses and play musical instruments and so on again: They would have to do it with their beaks this time. Their arms have become flippers in which the hand bones are almost entirely imprisoned and immobilized.”

You get the idea.

The endless repetitions are often amusing and often annoying. The entire book, actually, can be described that way: often amusing, often annoying. It has a highly original and winning voice, but it leans too much on it, and it thinks it’s cleverer than it really is.

Nevertheless, it is clever and I really enjoyed it, and that was a tremendous relief. I was worried, when I revisited this adored book, that I would fail to understand what I had once loved, and that’s not the case. I doubt, if I had just read it for the first time, that I would love it quite so much as I did then, but I would have liked it, chuckled at it, and found it worthwhile. I would have respected it and what it was trying to do.

I’m going to put ‘Galápagos’ back on my shelf, and I’m going to get another copy of ‘Cat’s Cradle’. I think it’s time to spend a little more time with Kurt Vonnegut.

The Book of Night Women

By Marlon James

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Atrocity novels are tough to pull off.

And what, you might be wondering, do I mean by an “atrocity novel”? The term sounds pejorative, and I want to be very clear: I don’t mean it that way. I’m talking about novels which take real atrocities as their subject matter or context: novels about, for example, American slavery, the Holocaust, the Gulag. The term “atrocity novel” is merely my shorthand for describing this kind of story – it is in no way a judgement. ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’, for example, is an atrocity novel. ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ is an atrocity novel. ‘Beloved’ is an atrocity novel.

And ‘The Book of Night Women’ is an atrocity novel.

Atrocity novels have to do two very different things at the same time.

The first thing that they must do is depict. They are set, deliberately, during humanity’s lowest moments: they must show why these moments are, in fact, atrocious. They must communicate to the reader, intelligently and vividly, what the human experience of atrocity is like. They must describe it, bring it home to the reader with force. Ideally, they will do this with force commensurate to the atrocity.

But atrocities are characterized by brutality, savagery, and despair. We remember them because of the depth and scale of the suffering that occurred within them. And because of that, they are tough to read about.

And novels, on the other hand, are, well, novels: unless you are in a high school English class, they are optional. People read them because they want to, not because they have to, which means that novels have to draw the reader in, engage them, and keep them hooked until the end. They must have a character, or a story, which calls and holds the readers’ attention.

I think it’s really hard to balance these two things. At novel-length, stories which make you confront human atrocity can be grueling. Too much suffering, too much brutality examined up close, exhaust the mind and alienate the reader. It’s not that we don’t care – it’s that the mind needs breaks from horror. That is why this kind novel is so tricky: how do you keep the reader engaged and alert while not flinching from the truth you are trying to portray.

Of course, an atrocity-novelist can lean away from brutality, but people chose to write about atrocities because they care about them. If an author is writing a novel about the Holocaust, it’s because they want their readership to think about the Holocaust, to feel its human cost.

‘The Book of Night Women’ is the third book I’ve read by Marlon James. He’s a remarkably strong author – he can move from place to place, time to time, voice to voice, with confidence and competence. He leans into setting, relying heavily on dialect and backdrop, which is normally really aggravating but which he somehow manages to pull off.

‘The Book of Night Woman’ is Lilith’s story. Lilith is born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the 18th century. Born with bright green eyes, Lilith enjoys special treatment during her childhood, though she does not know who her mother or father are.

One day, another slave breaks into her cabin ands tries to rape her. When Lilith kills and dismembers him, only the help of another slave, Homer, saves her from retribution. Homer, Lilith will learn, is a Night Woman, a group of female slaves who meet in secret. Together, they are planning to overthrow the plantation owners, liberate all Jamaican slaves, and kill every white person on the island.

Any novel which takes, as its subject, the effect of slavery on the human soul is going to be a brutal read – there’s really no getting around it. The slavery practiced in the New World was off the particularly inhumane and soul-crushing variety, and any story which takes an enslaved person’s perspective is going to confront that. That confrontation is the whole point. The challenge that James had in front of him was to make his readers feel the brutality without grinding out their ability to connect with the story.

By the way, I am not trying to problematize that confrontation; on the contrary, I think it’s an urgent moral priority. Literature and film are our most effective artistic vehicles for forcing people to acknowledge the past. What I am trying to say is that I think Marlon James has done a really good job of it in ‘The Book of Night Women’.

There is no way to describe Lilith’s life as anything but agonizing and terrifying, and James allows that to inform every aspect of her person. But he doesn’t let it overwhelm her – she manages to remain distinct from her context even while being embedded within it. She is informed by it, but more than it.

Marlon James

And James somehow manages to accomplish that piece of character building without flinching in any way from the horrors of plantation slavery itself. There is nothing trite about ‘The Book of Night Women’ – no saccharine triumph of goodness over evil, no inviolability of the human spirit, no moral redemptions. Lilith is a brutalized soul – she routinely bears suffering that most of us cannot even really imagine. And James somehow manages to show Lilith’s suffering while also remembering that she is a person.

At the risk of sounding trite myself, that might be the highest possible thing a book like this can achieve. The reason that slavery is an atrocity is because it was practiced on human beings. The only way to acknowledge that atrocity is to depict the humanity of its victims both within and without the atrocity. Reducing them to their suffering misses their humanity; focusing solely on the human story without the atrocity diminishes the moral repulsiveness of keeping humans in bondage.

I think Marlon James is a tremendous moral novelist, capable of expressing his characters’ humanity and the injustices inflicted on them with equal clarity. He does not betray his individuals for the sake of scope or force, reducing them to suffering. Nor does he spare his readers the depth of the sufferings inflicted on his characters. Rather, he blends the two into something greater, more moving, than the sum of its parts. I think he is very deft, very wise, and very honest. It’s rare to find these three qualities in a single novelist. I admire him.

Rebecca

By Daphne du Maurier

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I read ‘Rebecca’ once, years ago, in high school, and I remembered nothing about it save the general tone and premise. I had conceived an idea, however, that ‘Rebecca’ was a maligned novel. While very famous, it is not usually included among the Great Books – people tend to think of it as sort of romance novel-adjacent. I have always assumed that this was an injustice: that if ‘Rebecca’ had been written by a man (instead of by a woman with the absurdly romantic name ‘Daphne du Maurier’), it would be a great deal better celebrated.

‘Rebecca’ begins with our narrator, a young and painfully shy woman who will never be named (we will know her only as the second Mrs. de Winter), working as a lady’s companion in Monte Carlo. One day, she meets Maxim de Winter, a handsome man twice her own age. Her companion tells her that he is the owner of Manderley, a beautiful English estate, and that he is a widower. His late wife, Rebecca, drowned tragically only a year ago and Maxim, our narrator is told, has been deranged by grief ever since.

After a perplexing and whirlwind romance, our narrator marries Maxim and returns with him to Manderley. Once there, she finds herself reminded constantly of the late Rebecca, stifled by her vanished presence. Rebecca, who ran Manderley, who commanded the love and loyalty of the servants (especially Mrs. Danvers, the head of the household), who threw the best parties in the neighborhood, who was brave and witty and elegant and exceptionally beautiful. Slowly, the second Mrs. de Winter will become obsessed with her predecessor, with her marriage to Maxim, and with her strange death.

As someone who has always felt that there are many more great books than Great Books, I have always been a little bit indignant on behalf of ‘Rebecca’. We have tended, as a culture, to relegate novels by women about women to lesser status – they are Entertainment, not Art. Chick Lit, as a named genre, is both real and offensive. It may that there are books which, due to their subject matter, are more likely to appeal (on a population level) to women than to men, but that should not exclude them from Category: Literature.

In my opinion, greatness transcends subject matter. We do not consider books Great because their contents appeal equally to all people. Think about ‘Moby Dick’, with its endless passages about the processing of whale oil. Think about ‘Anna Karenina’, and that middle section where Levin just threshes wheat for a dog’s age. For god’s sake, think about Proust! ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is considered one of humanity’s great artistic works and it contains within itself whole novels worth of esoterica! Given this literary landscape, I fail entirely to see why romance should be considered a niche interest (women only!).

On the other hand, if I am being fair, I should mention that perhaps ‘Rebecca’ is Not-Great for reasons other than its feminine perspective. It is a true Gothic Romance, with all the requisite elements: a mysterious marriage, a rambling spooky house, creepy servants, dark aristocratic family secrets. Romances (Gothic or otherwise) are often sneered at, in part because they tend not to be terribly sophisticated, from a literary perspective.

And while there is more perhaps atmosphere and less bodice-ripping in ‘Rebecca’ than in other romances, it’s not sophisticated, nor is it subtle. Romances don’t aspire to plausibility, and they do not intend to instruct. They are meant to be absorbing rather than enriching, and, certainly, I do not feel enriched by ‘Rebecca’.

Lack of moral nourishment does not make a book bad, obviously, but I’m not convinced, having reread it, that ‘Rebecca’ is good so much as it is entertaining. But it is entertaining, and to a degree that required serious skill on du Maurier’s part. It’s difficult to build an entire novel around a character who never appears, especially if that character is cast in the role of villain.

Villains have to appear in stories, because they need either to vanquish or be vanquished, which they cannot do off-screen. You can spin them out, keep them in the wings for a long time, but eventually, we need to confront them. I don’t know that I can think of a single other story where the villain never makes an appearance.

Part of the reason, I think, that villains must come into the light is because, if they don’t actually appear, they can’t hurt us. And if they can’t hurt us, they can’t scare us. A menacing but unrealized presence hovering off-screen might be creepy, but it isn’t a villain. A villain must exert force, must act on other characters, and it must act, at least once, with the audience for a witness.

Daphne du Maurier

What ‘Rebecca’ does beautifully, though, is cheat that requirement on a technicality. Rebecca herself is a marvelous villain: perfect, beautiful, malicious, and dead. And her deadness is a strength, not a weakness. As our narrator herself says, “If there were some woman in London that Maxim loved, someone he wrote to, visited, dined with, slept with, I could fight with her. We would stand on common ground. I should not be afraid. Anger and jealousy were things that could be conquered. One day the woman would grow old or tired or different, and Maxim would not love her any more. But Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same. And she and I could not fight. She was too strong for me.” (p. 234)

There are two reasons why I think it works to have Rebecca be a villain from beyond the grave. The first is that, while Rebecca might be dead, Manderley is still inhabited by her avatar, Mrs. Danvers, her devoted and psychotic servant. If Rebecca is dead, Mrs. Danvers can still act on her behalf.

The second is that our narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, is so terrorized by the memory of her husband’s first wife that Rebecca feels very present to the reader. She may not be alive, but she dominates the novel as completely as she dominates the second Mrs. de Winter.

These two mechanisms allow du Maurier to achieve what might otherwise be impossible: to make a dead villain into an active and effective villain. And effective villains, really effective villains, are artistic achievements in their own right. No work of art is perfect – perhaps work can achieve greatness through one of its facets. We give Oscars for aspects of a film: acting, directing, sound-editing. So while ‘Rebecca’ might not be Great Art, it does have a Great Villain. Surely that earns it a slot in the Literature Hall of Fame.

Troubled Blood

By Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I know that J.K. Rowling has become a subject of some controversy in recent years. Some of her stated opinions, particularly her positions on trans-women and womanhood in general, have alienated her from large parts of her public. I’d like to completely avoid the topic of her politics here, not because I agree with them, but because there are some aspects of her written work that I admire and would like to discuss. If you think that it’s impossible or improper to discuss an author’s strengths if you find her politics abhorrent, I suggest, without rancor, that you skip this post.

I’ve talked a lot here about the differences between fiction and Literature. I feel strongly that we should have different standards of greatness for different kinds of books, standards which take the goals of the books into account. I see no reason why we cannot consider, say, ‘World War Z’ a great book just because we also consider ‘East of Eden’ a great book – they are both great, just in different ways.

Robert Galbraith (who is J.K. Rowling) published the first of the Cormoran Strike series, ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, in 2013. ‘Troubled Blood’ is the fifth novel of the series. All five books follow the career of two private detectives: the one-legged ex-boxer, ex-military policeman Cormoran Strike, and his business partner Robin Ellacott. The two meet in the first novel, when Robin accepts a temp position in Strike’s obscure little detective agency. By the fifth novel, they are partners in a quite-famous detective agency, two opposites working together, solving murders and nurturing their growing intimacy.

If that sounds like a worn premise, you’re right: it is. But it doesn’t really matter. There’s a reason that the British detective novel has endured: the genre is built upon a very robust narrative structure. It lends itself to iteration, and resists boredom. Murder mysteries require only three ingredients to be successful: complicated and interesting murders, tolerably good characters, and writing that stays out of the way.

J.K. Rowling can obviously handle plot and character with both hands tied behind her back. So today, I’d like to talk about that third element: writing that stays out of the way.

When we describe writing as ‘good’, we usually mean positively good. We mean that it is lovely, the language beautiful, the descriptions apt. We mean that we notice it. We almost never talk about writing that is negatively good, that serves its purpose so well that we do not notice it. We do not have words for the idea, in literature, that some writing serves its best purpose by vanishing.

Genre novels are story-driven: plot is their purpose. They are not often thought of as literary, for the simple reason that they are usually badly written. That doesn’t make them bad – again, language is not their purpose – but it often makes them more difficult to read. When the writing is poor, it disrupts the reader’s focus. You stop and think, ‘Ugh, what a terrible description’, or, ‘He used that metaphor already’, or, ‘No one would ever say that in real life’. It compromises your immersion in the story.

And that immersion is crucial to the experience of genre novels. Because they’re all about plot, plot is what you focus on when you read them. A perfect genre experience is to read without noticing the language, to inhabit the story and not the writing. And while that might sound easy, writing invisibly isn’t simply a question of not writing badly – it is a skill, and there aren’t that many people who do it well.

J.K. Rowling does it brilliantly. J.K. Rowling is famous for her stories, but in my opinion, her actual writing is at least as skilled as her world-building. No one thinks about her that way, as great master of prose craft, but she really is. She just has a different goal than high “literary” authors.

Rowling somehow always manages to deliver crystal clear stories without obstruction from her language. Her prose slides through your brain as easily as your own thoughts. When reading her, you never stop and think, ‘What does that mean? What just happened there? Why did she use that word?’. Her language is basically a perfect delivery system for what matters to her: her stories.

Let me put it another way: she has flawless negative style. Her writing is characterized by a total absence of noticeable tics, habits, or flourishes. There is nothing to distract from the meaning, which is nevertheless always expressed well and coherently.

Here are two passages picked (truly) at random from ‘Troubled Blood’:

“With three days to go before Christmas, Strike was forced to abandon the pretense that he didn’t have flu. Concluding that the only sensible course was to hole up in his attic flat while the virus passed through his system, he took himself to a packed Sainsbury’s where, feverish, sweating, breathing through his mouth and desperate to get away from the crowds and the canned carols, he grabbed enough food for a few days, and bore it back to his two rooms above the office.” (p. 316)

J.K. Rowling

Another:

“So furious did Roy Phipps look, that Robin quite expected him to start shouting at the newcomers, too. However, the hematologist’s demeanor changed when his eyes met Strike’s. Whether this was a tribute to the detective’s bulk, or to the aura of gravity and calm he managed to project in highly charged situations, Robin couldn’t tell, but she thought she saw Roy decide against yelling. After a brief hesitation, the doctor accepted Strike’s proffered hand, and as the two men shook, Robin wondered how aware men were of the power dynamics that played out between them, while women stood watching.” (p. 413)

I know that this writing isn’t beautiful in the normal sense of that word, but I am deeply impressed by it. Rowling makes reading easy; she removes all drag on the brain from language. When you read her, it’s like there is no barrier between the text and your understanding of it. It’s smooth.

And the thing I admire the most about it is that Rowling has not sacrificed any precision or complexity in order to achieve that smoothness. The sentences are structurally sophisticated; they are branching, phrasal. They contain description, they are vivid. And they are very clear: their meaning is unmistakable.

This writing isn’t flashy, it isn’t emotionally powerful, it isn’t poetic. There is an almost total absence of rhetorical flourish: no poetry – just information. Nevertheless, it is really, really good. It takes a lot of control to produce writing this tight: a lot of discipline, a lot of facility.

I know that Rowling will be remembered for ‘Harry Potter’, for the world and the wizards and the stories, and fair enough: she writes great stories. But I think she’s also a great writer, in the technical sense of the world: she is great at writing, exceptionally so. And I hope that someone also remembers her for that.