Into Thin Air

By Jon Krakauer

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I don’t know how to feel about ‘Into Thin Air’.

‘Into Thin Air’ is Jon Krakauer’s memoir of the 1996 attempt on Everest which resulted in the deaths of five climbers. Krakauer, who is an experienced climber and mountaineer, was commissioned by Outside magazine to write a piece on a guided summit. He went up with a company called Adventure Consultants, led by celebrated climber and guide Rob Hall. During their summit attempt, they were surprised by a blizzard. Ultimately, four members of the Adventure Consultants group perished on the mountain, as well as the lead of another climbing service, Scott Fischer. Fischer was also a famous mountaineer and he ran a company called Mountain Madness.

Krakauer’s role in the disaster is complicated, about which fact he is very forthright. He was a customer, not a guide, and so not responsible for the lives on that climb. However, in his hypoxic state, he wrongly ID’ed another climber and asserted that the man had made it safely back to camp. This turned out not to be true, and that other climber died, a fact for which Krakauer holds himself partly responsible.

It’s natural, when a disaster happens, to look for someone to blame. Krakauer avoids doing this outright, which is admirable, I think. He steadfastly insists that everyone associated with both climber-led expeditions was on the mountain with the best of intentions, and that the intense conditions and lack of oxygen on top of the mountain compromise anyone’s ability to make decisions.

On the other hand, he does spend a significant portion of time making sidewise, blame-y comments along the lines of: “It’s hard to know why such an experienced guide would make such an irresponsible decision”, “We can only speculate about why he decided to ignore the turn-around time. Whatever his reasons, the results were catastrophic.” Those comments may technically be blameless, but they are also judgmental. They leave the reader with the distinct impression that Krakauer has opinions, if not about who is to blame, then at least about who made the situation worse.

And by the way, that might be OK: he was there, he’s allowed to have opinions about something that happened to him. The difficulty comes from the fact that his memoir has become, in the popular imagination, a matter of fact*. It was huge bestseller; it was adapted into a movie. Krakauer’s authorial skill and confidence have ensured that his account is the account.

*It is worth noting that several other members of the two expeditions also wrote memoirs, but none of them achieved the popularity or staying power of Krakauer’s.

Jon Krakauer

And that might be a problem, because a convincing narrator is not necessarily an honest one, or even an accurate one. I do not mean to imply either that Krakauer is wrong or lying – I only mean that I cannot tell whether or not he is. And because he is such a good storyteller, I get caught up in the narrative and forget to think critically.

Krakauer is both a great narrator AND a convincing witness, and that is a powerful and dangerous combination. He delivers his tale with confidence, clarity, and excellent pacing, while infusing it with a first person perspective that is characterized by humility and self-examination.

It’s a really winning combination. The story itself is deeply compelling already – Krakauer’s writing craft turns it into a page turner, which begs the question: should it be?

I’ll admit it: I really liked ‘Into Thin Air’, both times I’ve read it. I think it’s a fabulous book: it’s well-written, it does a excellent job explaining and clarifying, and the story it tells is absolutely gripping. I am not a huge one for stories of men in the wilderness, but ‘Into Thin Air’ is incredibly entertaining.

And I’m not faulting Krakauer, at all. On the contrary, I would consider myself a Krakauer fan. I’ve read multiple of his books; I’ve enjoyed and admired everything of his that I have ever read. He belongs to that category of author who, when I see their name on a book, it makes me way more likely to read it.

But I read Krakauer like he’s a novelist: all my critical faculties go to sleep, I get lost in the story and just go with the flow. It’s fun that way, and he has the strength to carry you along. But he’s not a novelist – he’s a reporter, and a memoirist. We ought, surely, to be applying the same critical lens to his writing that we would to a newspaper piece.

Or maybe not. I might be overthinking it: maybe ‘Into Thin Air’ is a story, a book meant to entertain me. Yes, it technically happened to some people, but it didn’t happen to me, and the truth is that I will never know what happened on the top of that mountain. Perhaps I can relax my attachment to reality and just enjoy a book.

That is a real possibility, by the way: that I ought to just relax. It’s ok to just be entertained sometimes – not everything needs to be distilled for Meaning. I don’t need to tie myself in knots trying to figure out how to responsibly enjoy a first-person narrative.

I have no personal stake in how accurate ‘Into Thin Air’ is, whether Krakauer is fair or right or not. That is unknown and unknowable to me. In fact, I don’t really care how accurate it is, and that is precisely what worries me. I have been lulled into critical suspension, persuaded to just go with the flow and be entertained.

But I do think that there is a difference, in this regard, between fiction and non-fiction. As compelling a book as ‘Into Thin Air’ is, simply from a plot perspective, it describes a real event that happened to real people. We may forget facts, but we remember stories, and when something is memorable and compelling, we are more likely to remember it. Over time, it becomes true for us, whether or not it should be. So, in my opinion, we have a responsibility to pay attention when facts are presented to us as story. And ‘Into Thin Air’ is the ultimate facts-as-story book.

Maybe I’m just trying to remind myself that it is OK to love a story while still reading it with one eye open. I don’t have to solve everything. ‘Into Thin Air’ is a great read. It’s a really good book, whether or not it’s a True Story. Perhaps that’s enough.

The Shining Girls

By Lauren Beukes

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This book wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

I’ll admit, I only read it because it’s been made into a TV show. When I see a new show (or movie) that has been adapted from a book, I feel peculiarly guilty about watching it if I have not first read the source material. I have a prejudice that, since the book was first, it is the “real one” and anyway it’s probably better. So, as soon as I heard about the TV show for ‘The Shining Girls’, I dashed out and bought the book.

Now, of course, genuinely shitty books do occasionally get made into better movies (ahem, ‘The Godfather’, ahem). And just because someone was willing to make a TV show of it does not necessarily mean the book was worth reading in the first place. But it does mean that someone took a look at the plot and thought it was interesting or cinematic enough to hold the attention of a TV audience. More, it means that someone thought it was interesting enough to put their money where their mouth is and make it.

And I was intrigued by the plot of this one. ‘The Shining Girls’ is a murder mystery about a time-traveling serial killer, and it sounded like it might just be crazy enough to work.

It’s a real thing, the Just So Crazy It Works Plot, but it’s rare. It needs beautiful execution: control, balance. It’s much more likely to work on screen, I think, but there are books that are completely captivating despite being impossibly outlandish: ‘And Then There Were None’ by Agatha Christie, for example (best murder mystery every written, in my opinion). Or, say, ‘The Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel. Or anything by Thomas Pynchon or Carl Hiaasen (a guilty pleasure writer of mine). Just because a plot is ludicrous doesn’t mean that the book will be bad.

And the plot of ‘The Shining Girls’ is ludicrous. As plots go, this one will not benefit from a synopsis, but I will provide one anyway. One day in 1931, Harper Curtis discovers a House. Though it appears derelict from the outside, the inside of the House is richly decorated, and upstairs, written on the walls, are the names of girls. Girls that shine, though with what, we will never quite learn: potential, life, energy. The House, Harper discovers, will allow him to travel to any time of his choosing (between 1929 and 1993, anyway). In exchange, all Harper has to do is kill the Shining Girls: to find them, whenever they live, and disembowel them.

Kirby is one of the girls. When Harper comes for her, in 1989, her dog manages to chase him off before he can finish the job, leaving her with horrible scars and a determination to find Harper, and to stop him.

My expectations were pretty low, going in. I expected the writing to be bad, and the plot to be stupid. I was wrong about the writing – Beukes only distracted me with clunky writing a few times, and it was usually in an attempt to do period-appropriate dialog that fell flat. Mostly, the prose held up: not annoying, not alienating, not confusing.

But the plot, the plot is another thing altogether.

Here’s the thing about wacky plots, I think: to pull them off, you really need to commit to them. If they rely on a crazy mechanic (time-traveling, a house that compels you to murder young women), you can’t flinch from it. You need to show it to the reader, let them look on it in full and at leisure. If you try to gesture at it and then move on, it will perversely only draw their attention to the fact that it makes absolutely no sense.

Beukes, I think, makes this mistake. The House, the girls, the time-traveling: none are explained, none are even well-described. Harper feels compelled to kill specific girls; he knows psychically where they are. He opens doors and finds himself in different decades. Bodies appear and disappear and reappear again – people who have been killed come back. Everything, we are told, is a circle, but we are never told what the hell that means. The entirety of this eccentric plot rests on a mechanic – a time-traveling murder house – that we do not understand at all. And, ultimately, that isn’t good enough.

It’s strange to complain, of a murder mystery, that there isn’t enough about the time-traveling house, but that’s what I’m saying. I suspended all my disbelief to read about a serial killer whose House makes him travel through the 20th century to murder certain young women, and if I’m going to suspend my disbelief that far, I want all the unbelievable info in return. And I was not satisfied.

I wish there had been more detail. I wish there had been more information. Beukes takes the entire novel at a sprint and it feels rushed. The chapters are too short. The perspective skips between multiple characters, and, because the chapters are so brief, the switching feels chaotic. You can’t settle into anything. Nothing was clear – nothing is resolved.

We never learn what the House is, how it travels through time, or why it does. We don’t know where it came from, who built it. We don’t learn what is special about the girls, whether it is something real or a delusion of Harper’s. We never learn why the House requires their deaths; we never really even learn if it actually does, or whether Harper simply wants it to.

Lauren Beukes

And it’s not that every single question needed to be answered in full. I get that there is a place in literature for mystery. There is a way to do magic without explaining magic, and sometimes that is the better option. In fact, it often is. We were all better off, for example, when the Force was just the Force, and no one had ever heard of midichlorians.

And there might have been a way to do ‘The Shining Girls’ without jilting the reader and without explaining the House. I don’t think it was just the lack of explanation that ended up being problematic for me; I think it was the combination of the lack of mechanistic insight, and the too-brisk pace that did it. It felt as though Beukes knew that the premise (time-traveling murder house) wouldn’t bear up to sustained examination. It felt as though she wanted to write this story, this plot, but she also felt insecure about it, so she rushed to get it over with. It felt like she didn’t believe in it, and that’s the kiss of death for a wacky plot.

You can’t write the time-traveling murder house and then flinch from the time-traveling murder house. You have to lean in to it, to own it, glory in it. I think, to make it really work, you need to be proud of the time-traveling murder house. It would have been difficult, I’ll grant you: it would have taken HUGE authorial balls. But I think she could have carried it off, though. She’s capable enough as a writer, and certainly doesn’t lack for imagination. I wish she had tried.

1984

By George Orwell

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In general, I’m not a huge fan of banning books. I think that people should get to read pretty much anything they want. Books can contain ideas or information, and we should have the right to encounter both. Be they counter-productive, perverse, even wrong, the right to consume them or not should lie with the individual. And, again in general, I believe that this is a universal right: if you can read about an idea, I don’t think anyone should have the power to stop you.

However (and perhaps this is breathtaking hypocrisy, I don’t care), I don’t think teenagers should read ‘1984’. And I definitely don’t think it should required of them.

Unfortunately, it often is. ‘1984’ is required reading in many high school curricula – it certainly was in mine. I read it the first time years ago, as a ninth grader, and I believed that I understood it. I thought it was about the natural culmination of the authoritarian state, about surveillance and propaganda, Big Brother and Thought Crime and 2 + 2 = 5. I dismissed the human story as irrelevant. I thought Winston and Julia and their love story were merely props upon which Orwell was resting his polemic; I thought those set-pieces of authoritarianism were the point of the novel.

And because I thought it was merely about those set-pieces, because I ignored the human story entirely, I thought ‘1984’ was very simple, and I wasn’t at all impressed by it. I thought it was obvious. 2 + 2 does not = 5, clearly, I already knew that; Big Brother is sinister, duh. It seemed like an awful lot of words to make an unoriginal point: Authoritarianism is bad – yes, thank you, I know all about the Nazis, I get it*.

*I was such an asshole.

Many years later, I reread ‘1984’. I didn’t want to, by the way – that’s how alienated I had been from the text when I was a kid. But my father gave me Orwell’s collected non-fictions, and I decided to reread a few of his most famous works as prep. That was when I discovered that I had completely missed the real point of the novel. And I had missed it because I was a teenager, and there are certain things that most teenagers can’t understand yet.

The surveillance state isn’t the point of ‘1984’ – it’s the premise. When Winston is taken into custody, and tortured for months, as his will breaks, he begins to believe the lies Big Brother tells him. He tells his torturers, swears to them, that 2 + 2 = 5, and he really believes it, and I thought that that was the moral of the book: that eventually, under enough duress, we can believe anything.

But the important part actually comes next. As he is being tortured, even as his sanity breaks down, as he begins spouting Big Brother’s propaganda back at him, Winston keeps something back.

“For what was there that they had not screwed out of him under the torture? He had told them everything he knew about her [Julia], her habits, her character, her past life; he had confessed in the most trivial detail everything that had happened at their meetings, all that he had said to her and she to him, their black-market meals, their adulteries, their vague plottings against the party – everything. And yet, in the sense in which he intended the word, he had not betrayed her. He had not stopped loving her; his feelings toward her remained the same.”

And for this last reluctance, he is taken to Room 101. Room 101 reveals, of course, the real purpose of the surveillance state. Because They have been watching you every moment of your life, They know your every hope, your every fear. They know what scares you the most. And in Room 101, They can inflict it on you.

Winston’s worst fear is rats, and in Room 101, the state has devised an apparatus that will allow rats to eat off his face while he is still alive (as a side note, this is one of the very few choices that Orwell made in ‘1984’ I don’t agree with – it’s a little too outlandish, too dramatic, for me). That moment, as Winston is facing down the rats, is the real point of the book:

“The mask was closing on his face. The wire brushed his cheek. And then – no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope. Too late, perhaps too late. But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment – one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over.

‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you to do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!'”

The rats are stopped, and Winston is released. He is allowed back into the outside world; he is not even monitored. Because he has sacrificed his love to the torture, because the state has destroyed his capacity to love, and the state knows that people who cannot love are not a threat to anyone.

The power of this moment can only really be understood by someone who has loved another person more than they love themselves. That’s the only way to feel what it would mean, in a moment of danger, to offer up that loved person in your place, to want them to suffer instead of you. If you have not cherished someone else’s happiness and safety more dearly than your own, it is impossible to imagine what would be required to wish them harm of that magnitude. If you have, this moment is horrifying, because you know that it would require the denaturation of your very self, your entire being.

That is the point that Orwell was trying to make, I believe. That terror, sustained terror, deprives us of our ability to love other people. And that the ability to love other people is a necessary part of our humanity. Without it, we are not fully human.

And the State, the modern, industrial state, is one of the few entities able to exert the force you need to instill that level of terror, that loveless, dehumanizing terror, in a large population of people (the Church being another). The ultimate tragedy of the terror state is not that it tortures and kills – it isn’t even that it warps reality for the purpose of control – it’s that it deprives its citizens of their ability to truly love each other. It reduces them to crouching and fearful animals, capable of caring about nothing besides their own survival.

Teenagers, with some exceptions, have not had the opportunity to love something else more than themselves. They are incubating the personalities they will roll out as adults, and that requires most, if not all, of their attention. They are the center of their own worlds, and perhaps rightly so. But that means that the visceral horror of Winston’s capitulation – the fear you feel as an adult imagining what it would take to make you turn on your own – that is probably not accessible to most teenagers.

George Orwell

It certainly wasn’t accessible to me as a teenager. And while I obviously don’t think people should be kept from reading books simply because they might misunderstand them (I think now that perhaps I have never really understood any book the first time I read it), it does hurt my heart to think about all those teenagers walking around believing that they have read and understood ‘1984’, when in fact they missed it completely. If it were not required reading, some of them might have found their way to it, as adults, understood it then and been moved by it, but they don’t, because they think, as I did, that they’ve already it.

It’s too good a work to be missed in this way. It’s too good to be forced onto an audience who cannot really grasp it. ‘1984’ is one of the most powerful, brutal, prescient novels ever written. When I read it as an adult, it devastated me, and my respect for it became the foundation of my relationship with George Orwell, the writer I love most in the world. I admire ‘1984’ deeply, and I regret bitterly all those years that I misunderstood it.

Rebecca

By Daphne du Maurier

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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)

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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.

The Lost Daughter

By Elena Ferrante

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I’ve never written about Elena Ferrante here before except once, in passing. At that time, all I said was:

“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.”

I didn’t go into specifics because the books to which I was referring, ‘The Neapolitan Novels’, are among the most hyped novels of the past twenty years. There was about a two-year period where every single book critic, NPR podcaster, or coastal culture-head was raving about ‘The Neapolitan Novels’, raving. You’d have thought they were the best books ever written by anyone, ever.

I tend to avoid books that are so popular, because I’m contrarian and reactive. But my mother asked me to read the first book, to give it a go and let her know if it was as good as everyone said. And it was, it was exactly as good as everyone said, and I ordered the remaining three novels immediately and read all four books within the space of a week, so that I cannot now remember which one is which, I can only recall the story complete.

Ferrante actually wrote ‘The Lost Daughter’ before ‘The Neapolitan Novels’. It is much shorter, a novella really, but it is recognizably the same author. It’s protagonist, Leda, is a single mother whose two young-adult daughters have just moved out of her home. To celebrate her new freedom, Leda decides to take a long summer holiday. While sitting on the beach, she begins observing a large Neapolitan family, becoming obsessed with a young mother and her daughter. When the little girl, Elena, briefly goes missing, Leda finds herself involved in the family drama, her own maternal regrets coming to the surface.

The same things that Ferrante did so well in ‘The Neapolitan Novels’, she does them here as well. Her most remarkable ability as a novelist, from my point of view, is her ability to invent women whose interior world is instantly recognizable to other women, even when their circumstances are very different from ours.

That is what I meant when I wrote that Ferrante’s novels transcend the stories that they tell. They are stories about individual women, individual lives, but they are so well-imagined, so well-drawn, that they speak convincingly about womanhood itself.

It’s really difficult to do this. In general, the more specific a story, the fewer people will connect with it. Perversely, the more we believe in a character, the less the character can serve as our avatar. It is easier to project yourself onto a blank slate; the more specific difference between you and a character, the greater the challenge of identification. There is no reason for me to identify with the struggles of a Neapolitan mother, fighting against rigid patriarchy, violence (implied or otherwise), poverty, motherhood. None of these factors describe my life.

But Ferrante’s women somehow fully inhabit their own stories and yet also leave space for ours. They are complete as characters, no holes or gaps, but they also contain us within them. Their womanhood informs them in the same way our womanhood informs us, and Ferrante’s particular gift is being able to show that without telling you about it, so you as her reader can find yourself in her characters, their womanhoods and the events of their peculiar lives.

It’s complicated, and I’m not explaining it well. But it is very powerful, in part because her characters are all ambivalent women. They are all women who feel constrained in some way by their own femininity, either by marriage, motherhood, family. They are limited by the intersection of their womanhood and the rest of the world, and even if you have not been so limited, to be a woman is to be constantly aware of the possibility.

I did not love ‘The Lost Daughter’ as much as I loved ‘The Neapolitan Novels’, but that isn’t because it isn’t excellent – it absolutely is. I think I loved it less because it is shorter. ‘The Neapolitan Novels’ are luxurious – they span nearly 2000 pages. You live in those books for the duration of reading – they are so well-done that you can.

‘The Lost Daughter’ is too short to inhabit: it accomplishes with gesture what ‘The Neapolitan Novels’ accomplish with depth. Nevertheless, the world, the problems, the bitternesses, are all the same, all recognizable. Like ‘The Neapolitan Novels’, ‘The Lost Daughter’ is so well-imagined that it is completely persuasive. And, for a woman who carries her own maternal ambivalences around with her wherever she goes, it is haunting and unsettling.

Regretful motherhood is so rarely depicted that it is difficult to know how much it happens. American culture (of which I am a member but Ferrante, importantly, is not) is oppressive in its celebration of maternal joy – it is very unusual to hear people talk about disliking or regretting their own children.

And I am grateful to Ferrante for doing it – her willingness to examine the hatreds and bitternesses of mothers is a godsend to women like me, women who did not have children because we were scared we would become mothers like Leda: trapped, angry, thwarted and bitter. I can’t think of another author who explores this exact territory in this way, and certainly no other author who explores it with so much humanity.

I highly recommend ‘The Lost Daughter’, but I do not recommend it nearly as highly as I recommend ‘The Neapolitan Novels’. But, really, I recommend them both: they are both forays into the same world, the same psychology. I am hard-put to think of novels that meant more to me as woman, or novels which impressed me more in their world-building. ‘The Lost Daughter’ is basically an amuse-bouche to the meal of ‘The Neapolitan Novels’ – if you ask me, you should eat it all.

A Thousand Acres

By Jane Smiley

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I would like to make a very specific recommendation this week. I would like to recommend reading ‘A Thousand Acres’, by Jane Smiley, and I would like to recommend reading it while high.

Normally, I don’t read when I’m high. I’m not super-functional high, not one of those people who can smoke and then do activities, cleaning or writing or whatever. For me, getting high is an activity; so is reading. The latter uses my whole brain; the former basically powers my brain down. I don’t do them both at the same time.

But the other evening, I took an edible and then decided to read ‘A Thousand Acres’ while I waited for it to kick in. I got sucked into the book and didn’t notice the effect of the edible until I was very high. But the experience was working for me, so I just kept reading. It worked for me so well, in fact, that I am now recommending the experience to you.

Jane Smiley published ‘A Thousand Acres’ in 1991; it won the Pulitzer Prize. It is ‘King Lear’, set in Iowa in the 1970’s. The Cooks have farmed their piece of land for four generations now, growing and prospering until theirs is the largest farm in Zebulon County. One day, Larry, the dominating patriarch of the family, decides to form a corporation with his three daughters, Ginny, Rose, and Caroline, effectively turning the farm over to them. When Caroline objects to the arrangement, the bonds holding the family together begin to dissolve.

Maybe it’s stupid for me to have been surprised that a re-telling of ‘King Lear’ is interesting, but I’ll be frank: ‘intergenerational trauma in Iowa farming family’ is not a description that gets my motor running. It just sounds like it will be grim and boring.

Grim it surely is, but not boring. ‘A Thousand Acres’ is told from Ginny’s perspective. Ginny, if we accept Shakespeare’s moral axis, is one of the two wicked daughters. But Smiley does not accept it, and Ginny and Rose aren’t simple villains in any sense. In fact, nothing in ‘A Thousand Acres’ is simple, but if there is a villain, it is Larry Cook, our Lear, who looms over the novel, frightening, unpredictable, unknowable, and mad.

‘King Lear’ has always been a sinister story, but its menace was designed for the grand gestures of the stage. ‘A Thousand Acres’ is sinister in the way of domestic dramas, where the same weaknesses and malevolences of the great tragedies are played out in the spaces where we live, in confinement and in privacy.

That confinement, that concentration, makes them more dreadful, more creepy, and Smiley uses that to great effect. ‘A Thousand Acres’ is stiflingly suspenseful. It is a story of the many ways that a terrible father can mutilate the psyches of his loving daughters, of the effect of domestic terror and control on a family. As Larry descends into madness, so do Rose and Ginny: the suffering that they have endured erupts into their own madness. Because Ginny is our narrator, her unraveling interrupts the flow of our experience: terrible things are discussed as though they were of no consequence. The reader is never allowed to achieve balance.

And this is where being high comes in. I can’t think of the last piece of culture I consumed that meshed as well with being high*. Everything about this book is conducive to high-reading. The suspense, the slow unfurling, the layered brutality of the Cook family, these would be absorbing if you weren’t high. When you are, it’s impossible to look away from: your complete attention is drawn to the narrative. I am a focused reader in general, but when I was reading ‘A Thousand Acres’, I managed to forget anything outside the book. I inhabited the story.

Jane Smiley

*Actually, I can: ‘Apocalypse Now’.

As Ginny slowly becomes unhinged, her behavior becomes more extreme. Meanwhile her narrative quality remains the same. This contrast, the divergence of tone and action, was magnificent for me when I was high. Deep, marijuana-fueled focus made these leaps in narrative stakes seem even more discontinuous. It became, through its non-linearity, a recapitulation of the experience of other people’s madness.

I’m making two recommendations, and I am making them both strongly. ‘A Thousand Acres’ is a great novel under any reading conditions. Don’t be put-off by the setting: this is not a farm story, and it’s not boring. It has none of the traditional drawbacks of midwestern family dramas: the endless simmering, the unresolvable mesh of implication.

Quite the contrary: ‘A Thousand Acres’ is a beautifully dark re-imagining of ‘King Lear’ (not source material lacking for darkness anyway), and it is true to its origin story. It is Shakespearean: the gestures are grand; so is the scope. The violence is brutal and real, not implied.

As for reading it high, think about it this way:

Most of the time, when people talk about being moved by Shakespeare, they are talking about the language. Even when they are talking about the stories, they mean the stories told in the language. But the stories are also terrible and powerful, and it is worth taking a chance to access the stories themselves. Re-tellings, like ‘A Thousand Acres’, can do that: they can allow you to access the story without getting lost in language.

Imagine encountering the great, violent Shakespearean tragedies (‘Lear’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Hamlet’) for the first time. Imagine that their language was as familiar to you as your own. And imagine being stoned out of your gourd while seeing them. Think how much more terrifying, how much more moving, they would be. Marijuana gives you focus and access: think about living, briefly, inside those plays instead of merely thinking about them.

That’s what reading ‘A Thousand Acres’ high is like. It’s like living in ‘King Lear’, just for a night. It’s a mind-fuck: brutal, frightening, moving, memorable.

The Memoirs of Two Young Wives

By Honore de Balzac

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I always have the same experience when I read Balzac.

I love Balzac – I think he’s brilliant. His best books (‘Pere Goriot’, ‘Cousin Bette’) are masterpieces of cynical observation, of moral punishment. He is bleak and unforgiving and magnificent – I really admire him.

However, even knowing his excellence as I do, I always struggle when I begin a new Balzac book. The first thing that always strikes me, strikes me like a blow in the face, is how extremely French he is. French, but not in a good way.

I’m not here to trade in French stereotypes, as much as I may love them. But national literatures have a national character. That can, of course, work to national advantage: often, our literatures represent our best traits. Think of the linguistic precision of English novels, the garrulous descriptiveness of Irish novelists. Think of Garcia Marquez’s lyrical romanticism, or Mann’s unflinching existential anguish: these are national authors who embody their national characters to the strength of the art. For god’s sake, who else but a Russian could have written ‘Crime and Punishment’?

But, of course, our national characters are also sources of global derision. No American who has ever covered their face in a restaurant abroad while listening to their countrymen shout, inexplicably, at wait staff in English could fail to understand this. Often, we turn out to be exactly who the rest of the world expect us to be.

Of course, it’s not that all French people are fruity and histrionic. Obviously not: it’s a stereotype. But, like the Americans shouting in restaurants, it’s a stereotype for a reason. French authors are often, well, pretty French. Sometimes it’s glorious, and sometimes its arduous. And sometimes, as with Balzac, it’s both.

‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ is an epistolary novel about the relationship between two young women who met at a convent. Louise and Renee are two French noblewomen living in France. Civil laws passed during the Napoleonic era required French nobility to divide their estates equally among their children, instead of leaving the entirety to the eldest son. In effect, this would have meant the division and dilution of great estates over several generations, and, to avoid that, parents often put their otherwise marriageable daughters into convents, where they were not eligible to inherit.

Eventually, Renee and Louise’ families find it politically expedient to remove their daughters from the convent. It is at this point that the novel begins, as the two women, separated from each other for the first time in eight years, write letters describing their now disparate lives. Renee moves to the country, where she is shortly married off to a loyal husband whom she does not love, but with whom she will have several cherished children.

Louise, on the other hand, moves to Paris, where she achieves brilliant social success and eventually seduces and marries a dispossessed Spanish nobleman. Two very different lives: one devoted to love, passion, social success; the other, to duty and to family.

If that sounds like a fairly pedestrian morality play to you, you would be right. I’ll be honest: ‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ isn’t Balzac’s best. If I’m being completely honest, I think it was pretty bad, actually. There are no moral surprises here, nor subtleties. Everything goes exactly as expected; the story is heavy-handed, lame, animated by not one spark of complexity. The two women are as unappetizing a pair of protagonists as I have ever encountered.

And the prose, yikes. It may be that prose construction in this novel is, in French, very beautiful. I try not to judge prose in translation – you just never know. But it is very difficult to imagine how these paragraphs might have been other than garbage, in any language:

“Ever since that morning when you smiled like a noble girl on discovering the misery of my lonely, wronged heart, I placed you on a throne: you are the absolute ruler of my life, the queen of my thoughts, the divinity of my heart, the light that shines in my rooms, the flower of my flowers, the perfume of the air I breathe, the richness of my blood, the glow in which I sleep. That happiness was troubled by one single thought. You did not know you had a boundless devotion to serve you, a loyal arm, a blind slave, a mute agent, a treasury, for I am now only the caretaker of all that is mine; you did not realize, in other words, that you owned a heart in which you may always confide.” (p. 81)

“That darkness was soon brightened by a sensation whose pleasure surpassed that of my child’s first cry. My heart, my soul, my being, an unknown me came into life in its once gray, aching shell, just as a flower erupts from its seed on hearing the shining call of the sun. The little monster took my breast and sucked, and with that, fiat lux!, suddenly I was a mother…There is inexpressible love in his lips, and when they cling to it, they cause a pain and a pleasure at once, a pleasure so strong as to be pain, or a pain that becomes a pleasure…Oh! Louise, no lover’s caress can rival those little pink hands gently roaming over us, clinging to life.” (p. 145)

This one, above, goes on for pages like this, by the way. About how breast-feeding is the highest sensual pleasure a woman can possible experience. Pages.

Honore de Balzac

“To find in a man a mysterious harmony between what he seems and what he is, to find a man who in the secret life of marriage displays the kind of innate grace that cannot be given, that cannot be learned, that the ancient sculptors deployed in the chaste and voluptuous marriages of of their statues, the innocent abandon that the ancient poets put into their verse, and which seems to find in nakedness still another adornment for the soul, the ideal that springs from us and derives from the world of harmonies, which is no doubt the genius of all things, that immense problem pondered by every woman’s imagination – well, Gaston is its living solution.” (p. 215)

The whole novel is like that. Seriously. It’s overwrought and exhausting and, when, eventually, one of our young wives wanders into a lake on purpose to contract consumption on purpose in order to die of her broken heart on purpose, well, it’s honestly a relief.

Part of the problem may be that Balzac won’t say anything in five words if he can say it in five hundred. Part of the problem is that, in this novel, nothing is ordinary and fine; it is only transcendent or tragic. It is these traits that, unfortunately, resonate with Frenchness to unfortunate effect. The incessant purple-prosed fruitiness; the self-serious melodrama: to read ‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ is to feel yourself battered with French stereotype. I’m surprised the French haven’t had it banned, given how much it plays into their worst reputations.

But the biggest part of the problem is that Balzac, for all his imaginative prowess, doesn’t seem to be able, at least in this case, to imagine the world as seen through the eyes of a sheltered young woman. Though he has an otherwise stellar mind, he is apparently completely unable to imagine that women might care about anything other than their husbands, their babies, and the envy of other women.

So, no, between the pedantry, the grim assessment of my gender, and the absolutely mind-numbing French prose, it’s safe to say that I did not enjoy this novel. Though I love Balzac, I simply endured this one.

Luckily, it’s short.

The Premonition

By Michael Lewis

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Sometimes, I encounter books that I should want to read, because they are good or about something interesting or whatever, but I avoid reading them because they stress me out. I know that they are worth reading – I just don’t want to read them because the idea of reading them makes me feel bad.

Most of these books fall into the category of ‘Books About Things Happening Right Now In The World That Are Important And True But That You Cannot Personally Change Or Do Anything About And So You Just Have To Live With Them Even Though They Are Terrible‘. I really don’t like books in this category, and I know that that is cowardly and self-indulgent and babyish, I know that, but I still avoid those books like the plague.

And, yes, I know that staying abreast of what’s happening in the world is part of being a responsible and learned adult, I know that we all live in a global society and that we have an obligation to face unpleasant facts about the world, to look around us with our eyes open and see what is, I know that!

But sometimes I don’t want to, OK? Sometimes I don’t want to keep endlessly informing myself about all the horrible, insoluble shit that is going on around me all the time. Sometimes, I want to chill the fuck out and watch ‘The Witcher’ and not confront the endless parade of threats to the world order!

But my mom gave me ‘The Premonition’ and because I really like Michael Lewis and my mom, I read it.

‘The Premonition’ is basically the story of a couple of people operating at the fringes of the United States government who have, for the past two decades or so, been trying to prepare us all for a pandemic they believed was inevitable. There are really only two heroes in this book: Charity Dean, an apparently unerring California public health MD, and a VA doctor named Carter Mecher, who is perfect like Dean but lacks her charisma. The villain is the CDC. If ‘The Premonition’ is to be believed, the CDC is essentially a collected group of craven ineffectuals, people so selfish that they would rather let Americans die than take a brave stand on anything at all. People so political that they end being, functionally if not morally, pro-disease.

And, look, it’s a pretty good story. I don’t know that it’s his best book, but it’s totally standard Michael Lewis fare: smart individuals revolutionizing (or trying to revolutionize) archaic and unwieldy systems. Well-executed reporting, clear explaining, zippy prose, interesting characters.

Great.

And I know that what I’m about to say is not, like, an intelligent response, but here’s the thing: I do not want to read about the pandemic. I am living through the pandemic – I don’t want to read books about it right now. I especially don’t want to read books about how it all might have been handled differently, if only we had all been smarter or better prepared or had listened to better, braver, smarter people. I do not want to read about what might have been, if only, if only. Not right now.

To be fair to the pandemic, there are other things wrong with ‘The Premonition’. The stress I am experiencing is in a large part due to Michael Lewis’s approach to the world in general. I like Lewis, I really do, but he does have a sort of Manichean worldview. He loves eccentrics and mavericks – he hates bureaucracies and conservatism.

And, forgive me, but that’s not a super brave or original point of view. Most people have more innate sympathy for mavericks than they do for massive government bureaucracies, it’s obvious. David and Goliath stories are innately appealing, but they are also stories, and the real world is almost always more complicated.

And, sure, nuance doesn’t make for good airplane reading, I get that, but we are living through this pandemic in real time, and I think it’s a little bit dickish to write an entire book which basically asserts that hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved if only we had all listened to two semi-obscure public servants.

I would never, ever, claim that the United States handled the pandemic perfectly, or even well. I would also never claim that the CDC is a flawless organization. There is no such thing as a flawless organization, and no one with any experience or maturity expects there to be.

But counterfactuals are a favorite tool of the weak-minded. The truth is, we do not know what might have happened if we had (as Lewis seems to wish) turned the entire workings of the United States government over to one plucky blonde public health officer from California. We cannot ever know what would have happened, and so implying that we would have been saved is irresponsible and arrogant.

Also, not to belabor this point too much, but the pandemic is not over – none of us know fully what happened yet, so we do not how we might have be helped in the end. Monday morning quarterbacking is annoying at the best of times – doing it before the game is even over is extra obnoxious.

Michael Lewis

Honestly, this book irritated me. Not because it was bad (it wasn’t), or because it was boring (it wasn’t), or because it was wrong (I have no idea whether or not it was). It irritated me because, while I think it’s fine for authors to simplify things to make them more intelligible or cinematic, I don’t think it’s OK to do it in real time, to events that are happening to real people. The pandemic has caused global distress, sickness and death. It has killed millions; it has disfigured the lives of people all over the world.

Most people, not all but most, tried to do their best during Covid. But a global pandemic is a massively complex phenomenon, and reducing that complexity in order to create heroes for your book is unhelpful. I get that Lewis has a real thing for Charity Dean, that is clear (I would bet my life savings she’s pretty), but that is not a reason to vilify everyone who isn’t her.

Isn’t the world hard enough as it is, right now, without embellishing? We might need heroes, but we don’t need false idols. And we have villains enough – creating more, even to give your heroes more lustre, is damaging.

Lewis is a storyteller, and this is what storytellers do: they pull narratives out of complexity. Fine. And ‘The Premonition’ is a good narrative. But I think it distorts reality in order to sound better, and I think that’s pretty unforgivable at the moment.