The Gene

An Intimate History

By Siddhartha Mukherjee

How can I have so little to say about such a big book? More importantly, how can I have so little to say about a good book?

Siddhartha Mukherjee became book-famous a few years ago, with the publication of his magisterial history of cancer, ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘.  ‘The Gene‘ is his follow-up, a magisterial history of the gene (i.e. the basic unit of inheritance).

And it is reasonable to ask at this point: is everything that Mukherjee writes magisterial?  ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ have a lot in common: they are dense, comprehensive histories of science.  Nevertheless, they are also popular histories, written for non-scientists.  They are, despite their length, approachable works, framed by personal anecdote and driven by emotional concerns.

In fact, the entire framing of ‘The Gene‘ is personal. Mental illness runs with high prevalence through Mukherjee’s father’s family, and it is through the lens of this terrible heritability the Mukherjee first spies the gene itself:

“By then, heredity, illness, normalcy, family, and identity had become recurrent themes of conversation in my family. Like most Bengalis, my parents had elevated repression and denial to an art form, but even so, questions about this particular history were unavoidable. Moni; Rajesh; Jagu: three lives consumed by variants of mental illness. It was hard not to imagine that a hereditary component lurked behind this family history. Had Moni inherited a gene, or a set of genes, that had made him susceptible – the same genes that had affected our uncles? Had others been affected with different variants of mental illness? My father had had a least two psychotic fugues in his life…Were these related to the same scar of history?” (p. 7)

Mukherjee has a knack for picking interesting science. The genetic basis of inheritance is one of the most interesting and important fields in all of science, and its scientific history is a tangle of elegant experiments and moral dilemmas. And cancer is, I think most people would agree, the most important medical problem of our age, as well as one of the most complicated and intractable.

Mukherjee is a doctor, and he writes like one. I mean that as a compliment (sort of).  He is human-facing: he cares about patients.  Though the topics of both ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ fall within the realm of molecular biology, Mukherjee is essentially the writing about people: the scientists who study the topic, the patients who suffer because of the topic, the doctors who treat the topic.

This is, from my point of view, the great strength and the great weakness of both of Mukherjee’s books: they are human histories of scientific topics.  And, as someone who does science for a living, I have complicated feelings about that.

I love science, particularly biology, which is the research area in which I work.  I do not feel, personally, that science needs to wear a human face to be interesting, or lovable.  For those of us who live in genetics, the magic is in the science itself.

This is not necessarily true for most people, and I understand that. Most people are drawn in by human stories; they have trouble relating to plain science, or find it boring. Popular science exists, as a category, because most people are alienated by textbooks – they need to understand the stakes, and the context, of hard science, before they are able to muster the energy to care about it.

The Structure of DNA – the figure from Watson and Crick’s second paper

But the profound and breathtakingly beautiful thing about science is that it exists completely independent of our stakes, of our context, and of our feelings. Reading ‘The Gene‘, one has the sense that the science of genetics is the science of human genetics, that the machinery of inheritance exists to disrupt and inform our lives, and that its history is the history of its discovery by us.

This doesn’t trouble me for complicated policy reasons (“this emphasis on medicine as a lens for a biology hurts funding for basic research”), although those reasons abide. But when we teach people science through this lens, we teach them to care about science when it affects them, or someone they love. We do not teach them to love genetics for its own sake, for the majesty of its complexity, the careful tickings of molecular machines which happen in and around us at all times, whether we know them or not. Most of which we haven’t even imagined yet. Most of which we will not learn in my lifetime, or yours.

OK, but maybe that is an unreasonable ask. The truth is, most people don’t care about the incredible ballet of mitosis for its own sake – they care about cancer, because it might kill them. Because it has killed someone they love, and there are only so many things that we can care about in a natural lifespan and, for most of us, we ourselves are the most interesting thing around.

And, OK, if that is the case, if a 700 page human history of genetics will interest where a 700 page molecular biology textbook never, ever will, I would rather live in a world with the human history than not.

Siddhartha Mukherjee

But I don’t have much to say about that 700 page history itself. It is scientifically competent, but not, for me, scientifically revelatory. I learned some history I did not know (and I am always happy to do so), but I learned absolutely no science which a normal college biology major would not know already.

It’s always annoying when professionals complain about pop-science books, whining that subtleties were missed or the topic wasn’t covered in enough depth. It makes you want to howl at them to shut up, that the book wasn’t written for them in the first place! I know that I am not the intended audience for ‘The Gene‘, and I want to be clear: the fact that I didn’t learn anything is not because ‘The Gene’ has nothing to teach you. It is an exceptionally information-rich book; it just happened to be information I already had.

The Gene‘ is actually probably a pretty great book (as was ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘). ‘The Gene’ reminded me of how much I love genetics, how grand and moving I find the machinery of inheritance. To spend 700 pages reading about something I care so much about, how can I really complain? I wish I could do better for Mukherjee, I wish I had something profound to say about him, but I don’t. All I can say is, no matter how the science is framed, getting to spend 700 pages in the company of biology is always a treat.

The Nix

By Nathan Hill

All Posts Contain Spoilers

“So banks and governments are cleaning up their ledgers after years of abuse. Everyone owes too much, is the consensus, and we’re in for a few years of pain. But Faye thinks: Okay. That’s probably the way it ought to be. That’s the natural way of things. That’s how we find our way back. This is what she’ll tell her son, if he asks. Eventually, all debts must be repaid.” (p. 732)

As you may have noticed by now, I don’t love contemporary fiction.  I read a fair amount of it, and I even like some of it, but I rarely love it.

I’m not sure exactly why this is.  The answer that I tell myself is that I rarely shine to contemporary novels because most of them, to put it plainly, are bad.

Now, of course, most novels of any time period are bad: most books are bad.  But if we are still reading and recommending a book that was written two hundred years ago, then we are reading it because generations of readers before us have identified it as good, vouched for it and passed it forward.  Each generation that a book survives is a finer and finer filter of taste through which it must pass, making it more and more likely that the book is good*.  Previous generations have done much of the work of selecting out the bad books of their own time for us.  And we will do the same for the books of our own generation.

*There is a wrinkle here, though, and don’t think I don’t know it: once books achieve the status of “great”, once they become venerated, people becomes less likely to notice that they are, in fact, bad, and less willing to say so if they do notice, and so some bad books get kind of grandfathered past the normal critical filters.  It’s a real problem (ahem, I’m looking at you, Edgar Allan Poe, looking right at you).

But, since we are the first filter through which contemporary novels will pass, contemporary novels are, therefore, the novels most likely to be bad.  They are unfiltered.  And I, personally, think it shows.

So I have developed a mild aversion to them, a slight generalized contempt for books which are overly demotic, or casual.  Which are grounded too much in my own time.  Maybe I am less compelled by problems of modernity, by plot lines which heavily involve the internet, or television, or video games.  They might be fun (they usually are), but they never seem to have any artistic weight.  Somehow, if a writer mentions tweeting, I automatically assume that his book is Beach Reading, that it cannot be Great Art.

All of which is, I understand, a prejudice.  I am prejudiced.  Which is why I hope that you will believe me in particular when I say that, despite the fact that it is ultra-modern, that it involves the internet AND television AND video games, ‘The Nix‘ is a really great book.

I’m obviously not the first person to notice this (it was a bestseller) but I may be the most reluctant.  I had ‘The Nix‘ slated as Beach Reading for sure, and was irritated when it showed up on all those curated tables in all my favorite bookstores, and was absolutely not going to read it.  However, one day my best friend and I were wandering through one of those bookstores and he pointed to it and said, ‘That’s a great book.  You would love that book’.  And because he is my top-ranked #1 Book Recommender, I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to have to read ‘The Nix’.

(By the way, to offer some measure of how much I didn’t want to read ‘The Nix‘, how much I would rather have been reading ‘Ivanhoe’ and Graham Greene and other snobby shit, I will also mention that that was two years ago.  ‘The Nix’ has been sitting on my To Read Shelf, complete with a recommendation from the person whose opinion on books I trust above literally anyone else’s, for two years.)

Which, shame on me, because I adored it.  My best friend was right (he always is): it is a phenomenal book, and I crashed through it in about two days, loving every minute of it.

The Nix‘ is the story of Samuel Andreson-Anderson.  Samuel is failed writer who makes his living as a mediocre professor of Literature at a mediocre liberal arts college, but who spends most of his time online playing World of Elfscape.  Samuel’s sadness, his essential passive loserdom, his failure as a writer and as a romantic figure, were all locked in place on the day when he was eleven and his mother Faye abandoned him, utterly and without warning.  Samuel has had no news of his mother for twenty years when, one day, she resurfaces. She resurfaces when she is arrested for throwing rocks at a conservative Presidential candidate.

The Nix‘ manages to do the thing which so few contemporary novels actually do: to use the trappings of modernity to explore the genuine existential crises of modernity.  Most contemporary novels wear their modernity on the surface, referencing the cultural soup we’re all bathing in without really utilizing it.  They seem so desperate to prove that they are culturally fluent that they spend all their time showing off all the culture that they know, making jokes and allusions that won’t last five years, without exploring what any of those cultural artifacts really mean for the people who use them.

Nathan Hill

The Nix‘ doesn’t make that mistake.  Nathan Hill uses his character’s context – it is a tool with which he interrogates the peculiar human problems which modern humans have.  He isn’t just being funny about video games – he’s trying to figure out why people get lost in them.  He’s trying to figure out why people get lost at all.

“And since beginning with an Elf warrior named Pwnage he had advanced to play a whole stable of alternate characters with names like Pwnopoly and Pwnalicious and Pwner and EdgarAllanPwn, and he made a name for himself as a fearsome gladiatorial opponent and a very strong and capable raid leader, directing a large group of players in a fight against a computer-controlled enemy in what he came to regard as a being a conductor in a battle-symphony-ballet type of thing, and he rather quickly got extraordinarily good at this…because he believed that if he was going to do something he was going to do it right, he would give one hundred and ten percent, a work ethic he liked to think would soon help him with his kitchen renovation and novel-writing and new-diet plans, but which so far seemed to apply only in the area of video games.” (p. 411)

Hill also avoids another easy pitfall of the contemporary novel: depiction of the dreariness of life as the point of the art. There is a school of art which eschews grand events, seeks instead to act like a mirror to everyday life, to explore the depth and nuance of a totally ordinary life in all its putative depth, all its normal beauty and sadness (the seminal, original novel of this kind is ‘Mrs Dalloway’. I hate novels like this – I find them boring, and drab, and I understand that that is sort of the point of them, but knowing that I was meant to be bored does not actually alleviate my boredom.

The Nix‘ isn’t drab, or dreary, or ordinary at all. It is colorful, and plotty, and exciting. Things happen which would never happen to you, or to me, which would never happen to anyone, really, but because they are well-drawn and funny, the novel works tremendously well as a whole.

I loved this book.  I thought it was funny, and moving, and clever, and wise.  It contained the right mix of correct, quotidian details and outlandish, unlikely plot elements so that I was able both to relate to it and stay hooked into the story.  This wasn’t a novel about my modern life – it’s a novel about a crazy, sad, unlikely modern life, a much more entertaining modern life than mine will ever be.

I thought that I didn’t like reading novels about my own cultural moment – as it turns out, I only like reading them when they are written by a master, and then I love reading them. This book was so good, I ordered it for about three different people right away, and called my best friend for more recommendations. I have no pithy ending line, no great lesson here. ‘The Nix‘ was a joyful, funny read. I think it is a great book. I’m so glad I read it. I wish I could read it again, for the first time, all over again.

In The Woods

By Tana French

All Posts Contain Spoilers

“What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracted confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate Mobius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.” (p. 3)

Perhaps no literary form elicits such universally strong feelings as the detective novel.

I know of no reader who is indifferent to the detective novel. Actually, I know of no reader who does not love them – the trouble is, we all love different ones.

And our preferences feel significant. Like our political affiliation, or the movies that make us cry, the kind of detective novel we love feels like it reveals a lot about what kind of reader we are.

Everyone, of course, admires Agatha Christie. She is the Shakespeare of detective stories: she may not move you, personally, but no one would deny her her exalted place, first in the canon.

But, beyond Agatha, what kind of detective story do you love? Do you prefer the cold, cryptic little tales of Sherlock Holmes? Do you like the gory, plotty American novelists, the elaborate sadistic murderers of James Patterson and Patricia Cornwall? The poetic, moody novels of Benjamin Black? The cerebral, funny British women: Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers?

Me, I like them all. But I love very few: ‘The Daughter of Time‘, ‘And Then There Were None‘, ‘Christine Falls‘, maybe. And no author has ever commanded urgency from me. Detective novels, for me, are treats, picked up once and a while, chewed through quickly, and then put down, left behind, details almost entirely forgotten. They are more an escape than a book; I inhabit them, but I don’t take them with me, and I don’t rush on to the next one.

This casualness in my relationship with detective novels is, in large part, the fault of the form. The great strengths of the detective novel are also their great weaknesses: they are highly circumscribed, formulaic. The genre has conventions which must either be observed, or else deliberately eschewed: either way, the conventions dictate the story.

The narrowness of these conventions make detective novels blend together. Which was that series, the one with the lone-wolf detective who doesn’t play by the rules? The one who has a substance-abuse issue and a troubled past? Oh, that’s right: every single one.

But this narrowness is also, I think, why people love these novels so much. The highly predictable nature of these novels make the small differences between them significant. They look so like each other, but when you spy a difference you love, you appreciate it all the more for its subtly.

I have found one that I love. In fact, I have found one that I love so much that I suspect that I may love the author and not just the novel. I have found one that I love so much that I ordered, in one burst, all the other books in the series, before I was even one third finished with it.

I’m not the only person who feels this way. Tana French has been blowing up my pop-culture recommendations lately. I’ve heard her name on every podcast I listen to, read it on every book club reading list that crosses my path. And, normally, this kind of ubiquity prejudices me against the object. I am perverse, and childish – I hate liking something that everyone else likes.

But Tana French is better than my immature contrarianism. ‘In the Woods‘ is the first of the six Dublin Murder Squad novels. That meta-title, ‘Dublin Murder Squad’, makes these novels sound macho, high testosterone and swaggering, in a way that ‘In the Woods’ is emphatically not.

In the Woods‘ is about the investigation of the murder of a little girl. The body of twelve year old Katy Devlin is found outside the housing estate where she lived; it is also the estate where Detective Rob Ryan lived, decades before, and from which his two best friends went missing one day, from the woods. They were never found, and Rob has no memory of that long-ago afternoon. Now, he and his partner Cassie Maddox have been sent back to find out what has happened to Katy.

Of course, the devil of the detective novel is in the details – you learn almost nothing from the premise. This premise, a murdered child, an unlikely coincidence, this could be any detective novel. But Tana French has written something beautiful, and strange, and she has managed to do so within the confines of this genre, which requires extra skill.

Bad detective novels are about crime – good detective novels are about people. ‘In the Woods‘ is about friendship. It is about the deep and abiding love that grows between people, and what happens when it is ruptured, or when it curdles. It is about friendship as a binding force, and about broken friendship as a denaturing force, deranging. It is about what is means to have a friendship so close that it is closer than family, and then to lose it. It about grief and how it hardens us.

Tana French

There is so much I admire about this book. I admire the story: it is subtle and careful. Most detective stories rush into plot – they are split between poor dialog and action sequences. It is a genre characterized by speed, and tidiness, which cannot bear a long pause, or a loose end.

French, on the other hand, is a patient author. She lingers with her characters for their own sake – they are the point of her novel, not the murder. Her world is not a tidy one, and not all crimes will be solved, not all motives answered. She is not dealing in archetypes here, but endeavoring instead to imagine people, and people are messy. They are not, like crimes, solvable, and so she does not solve them. Most detective novels are about one big mystery, and if there other mysteries, they orbit the main mystery and will be solved with it.

But, in French’s world, people are all mysteries, and so mysteries spring up between them, and a murder, or a disappearance, is just one of the many possible difficulties that might happen in the endless collisions between unknowable beings. And so most mysteries, in her world, will never be solved. And even if you learn who, when, where, and how, you will never really understand why.

And she is a lovely writer. I have a prejudice that Ireland produces especially beautiful writers of English, that the prose that they make has a particular lyrical quality which I have always loved. Detective stories are not the place for Joycean prose-poetry – those kind of verbal gymnastics would be, frankly, annoying – but you hear the poetic bent in French’s prose, in her descriptions, in the moody, creepy pall which hangs over her Dublin.

This book owned me completely, and so here is the plain truth of it: I don’t want to write anymore about ‘In the Woods‘ – I want to go read the next Dublin Murder Squad book, ‘The Likeness‘, which has already arrived and is hollering silently at me from my desk. This is the highest compliment I know how to give an author, really: I don’t have time to write about them – I have to go and read them.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

By Edgar Allan Poe

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Guys, is it just me, or is Edgar Allan Poe kind of…bad?

I’m having the slightly creepy experience of reading a book which is considered ‘classic’, picking up a work of Great Literature, and finding it to be, well, bad.  And not just a little bit bad, or simply not to my taste – really and obviously bad.  Just crappy.  Indefensible.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but I think that Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.  It grieves me, honestly, to pan the most famous author of spooky stories, to turn my nose up at the man who basically invented creepiness, but these are bad stories, badly written!  I can’t be the only person who’s noticed this, can I?

I hate these moments, these The-Emperor-Has-No-Clothes-moments, when everyone around you exclaims that a piece of culture is brilliant but, try as you might, you just can’t see it.  It’s obviously not brilliant, but no one will admit it and you wonder, is it me?  Am I crazy?  Am I missing something?  Or is Edgar Allan Poe just a bad writer and no one has the guts to say it?

I’m gonna get of ahead of you here and just slot in a few disclaimers.  First of all, I am not simply having trouble with the normal, more formal English of two hundred years ago.  I have read, and loved, many of Poe’s contemporaries, even his predecessors – I love the fruity olde English of yore.  This is not a problem of idiom, or style.

And I didn’t just read a few bad stories, his early attempts, for example, when he was still learning the ropes.  My copy of ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination‘ contains twenty stories, including all his ‘best’ and most famous ones: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Murders on the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’.  I read this book cover to cover.

The only thing I liked about this book was these creepy illustrations, by Harry Clarke.

And it was hard-going, I can assure you.  These are not easy stories to read, or fun.  Poe’s prose is turgid, and purple, arduous and encumbered.  Reading him is like running through wet sand.  Let me give you a few examples, chosen – I swear to God – basically at random:

“‘You behold around you, it is true, a medley of architectural embellishments.  The chastity of Ionia is offended by antediluvian devices, and the sphynxes [sic] of Egypt are outstretched upon carpets of gold.  Yet the effect is incongruous to the timid alone.  Proprieties of place, and especially of time, are the bugbears which terrify mankind from the contemplation of the magnificent.  Once I was myself a decorist: but that sublimation of folly has palled upon my soul.  All this is now the fitter for my purpose.  Like these arabesque censers, my spirit is writhing in fire, and the delirium of this is scene is fashioning me for the wilder visions of that land of real dreams whither I am now rapidly departing’.” (‘The Assignation‘)

That is self-indulgent nonsense.  Here, try another:

“Ah, Death, the spectre which sate at all feasts!  How often, Monos, did we lose ourselves in speculations upon its nature!  How mysteriously did it act as a check to human bliss – saying unto it “thus far, and no farther!”  That earnest mutual love, my own Monos, which burned within our bosoms – how vainly did we flatter ourselves, feeling happy in its first upspringing, that our happiness would strengthen with its strength!  Alas! as it grew, so grew in our hearts the dread of that evil hour which was hurrying to separate us forever!  Thus, in time, it became painful to love.  Hate would have been better then.” (‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una‘)

He sounds like a fourteen year old girl trying her first slash fiction.  Have I broken your spirit yet?  Can you bear another?

“Yet, although I saw that the features of Ligeia were not of a classical regularity – although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite,’ and felt that there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it, yet I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of ‘the strange.’  I examined the contour of the lofty and pale forehead – it was faultless – how cold indeed that word when applied to a majesty so divine! – the skin rivalling [sic] the purest ivory, the commanding extent and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples; and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, ‘hyacinthine!'” (‘Ligeia‘)

What incredible rubbish.  Honestly, that is just bad writing – it’s not fancy, it’s not expressive, it’s not sensual or sophisticated.  It’s terrible.

Edgar Allan Poe.  I feel a little bad saying all these mean things about him – he looks so sad.

And my objections to Poe are not merely stylistic.  He is not just a bad crafter of prose – no, worse: he is also a bad crafter of stories.

I know, I know – this is going to be a bridge too far for some people.   But bear with me, because I’m about to make a distinction which is very important to me.  There are two different elements (at least, but let’s stick with two for right now) to a well-crafted plot: the Premise and the Unfolding.  The Premise is the foundation on which the story rests; the Unfolding is how the Premise roles out into the plot.

Greatness, in a book, is most often found in the Unfolding of the plot.  Often, this great Unfolding rests on a magnificent Premise, but it needn’t: a masterful Unfolding can make Great Art of a simple, well-worn Premise.  But it is almost impossible to rescue a great Premise from a bad Unfolding.

Which is a shame, because there is almost nothing as lovable as a great Premise, and when you meet one, you want desperately for it to become Great Art.

But wishing does not make it so.  I have a theory that Edgar Allan Poe is considered a great writer because he is pretty great at the Premise.  All of his most famous stories share this trait: they have great Premises.  A man accidentally walls his comatose wife up in the family tomb.  A brutal, senseless murder stymies the police because it was committed by an escaped gorilla.  A murderer is so haunted by guilt that he cannot escape the sound of the beating heart of his victim.  A man is trapped in the most hideous torture chamber ever devised by the Inquisition.

These are phenomenal Premises, and it’s hard to imagine that their accompanying stories might really be bad.  But, please trust me, they are.  Poe is a terrible writer of plot: he cannot pace, does not construct narrative well.  He tells, and does not show.  His stories are uneven.  He spends way too much time on irrelevant details (pages and pages devoted to the windows in the House of Usher) and rushes the denouement.  Sometimes his stories don’t even have a denouement – they just trail off into nothing, as though he wandered away from the table.

Which, OK, he was sort of inventing a genre.  Some unevenness is expected.  But, not really: people wrote ghost stories before, and novelty is no excuse for bad writing. 

We are lucky: we live in a time of plenty, book-wise.  There is so much to read, too much to ever accomplish in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes.  We must pick and choose, and so it might be time to leave Poe behind, to thank him for his service, to be grateful for what he gave us, for the traditions which he inspired, but to let go of the primary material.

So, if you will allow me, I would like to give you a small Christmas gift: time.  I would like to save you the time you might have spent reading Edgar Allan Poe.  I almost never do this – I believe in reading the Classics for yourself.  But this time I believe I can, in good conscience, free up some time for you.  I think, if you’ll let me, I can give you this time back.

Because, no matter how much I love scary stories, no matter how I grateful I will always be to the man who made them Literature, I cannot tell it other than this: Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.

Happy Holidays.

How To Become A Scandal

Adventures in Bad Behavior

By Laura Kipnis

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I love mean people.

I mention that only because I try, before I talk about a book, to give all relevant disclaimers, to announce any prejudices which may skew my otherwise pristine critical faculties.  And, before I discuss ‘How to Become a Scandal‘, I need to disclaim: I love mean people. I am predisposed to enjoy them, to enjoy the things that they say, especially if they are mean AND funny.

Laura Kipnis is mean.  And Laura Kipnis is funny.  Laura Kipnis is mean AND funny.

How to Become a Scandal‘ is an ontology of modern American scandals.  Kipnis discusses only four scandals, but she discusses them in depth: Lisa Nowak, the jilted astronaut who drove through the night to pepper spray the woman for whom her boyfriend left her; Sol Wachtler, the appellate judge who created several fake identities in order to harass and extort the woman with whom he’d had an extramarital affair; Linda Tripp, the “friend” who secretly taped Monika Lewinsky talking about her affair with Bill Clinton; and James Frey, the “memoirist” who was found to have fabricated many of the most interesting details of his book, ‘A Million Little Pieces’.

Kipnis reviews these scandals, reminding (or educating us) about the most important details of the cases, but she’s really interested in understanding them: why did these people behave in such outrageous and self-destructive ways?  How do they understand their own actions?  And why, in a world full of bad actors, do we find ourselves outraged only by some?  What allows some bad behavior to fly under the radar while some catches fire in our imagination and becomes a scandal?  And are we wicked to enjoy it?

I think I can admit that I enjoyed ‘How to Become a Scandal‘ thoroughly.  It feels like an admission because Kipnis is prurient and salacious and, well, mean: she loves scandals, all the grubby little details which we are supposed to pretend aren’t interesting to us.  She cops to participating in the worst of our cultural rubbernecking, of gloating about the misfortunes of others, of reveling in the sick and sexy revelations which so often accompany these tempests.  As I began the book, I was worried that I was basically going to be reading a gossip column dressed up in a little cultural analysis.

I gave Kipnis too little credit.  First of all, she’s smart.  She’s really quite smart, actually, and her analysis is motivated by a genuine desire to understand.  Her gaze is unflinching, and she spares no one, not even herself: she is much more interested in what scandals say about the people who follow them than about the people who cause them.

And I think her analysis is fruitful: I learned things from this book, not facts, but new ways of thinking about my culture, about its winners and its losers.  She has altered my perspective, slightly perhaps, but I am old and jaded, and it takes a lot to move my needle even a little.

“Yes, I understand these people have done bad things, injured those who love them and torpedoed their lives in lavishly stupid ways, but clearly such impulses aren’t their problem alone.  It’s the universal ailment if, as appears to be the case, beneath the thin camouflage of social niceties lies a raging maelstrom, some unspeakable inner bedlam.  Scandals are like an anti-civics lesson – there to remind us of that smidge of ungovernability lodged deep at the human core which periodically breaks loose and throws everything into havoc, leading to grisly forms of ritual humiliation and social ignominy…” (p. 6)

She’s actually a pretty good writer, too.  She manages to parse some pretty subtle social theory, and be funny while doing it, which is not an easy feat.  And while her colloquialisms grate a little, and her prose tends towards the frenetic, she manages to be readable without sacrificing IQ points, which is a rare quality in a popular writer.

“We know the sentiments are mass produced, we also know the emotions we need to sustain us can’t be packaged, yet with the Oprahfication of the culture, triteness is our fate: it saturates the culture and our lives.  What’s at issue isn’t the market or mass media, neither of which appear to be going away any time soon, it’s the flattening out of experience and the vacancies it leaves all of us to manage, each in our own improvised ways.  If every scandal exposes underlying social contradictions, the commerce in selfhood is the subtext of this one.  The question we’d want to ask is whether her talent at monetizing authenticity really gives Oprah the moral high ground over James Frey.” (p. 189)

Or how about this excerpt, which is so sharp that everyone gets cut in it:

“Poor Linda [Tripp], so perilously poised at the intersection of two indelible forms of social failure.  Guilty of terribly betraying a friend, an egregious act in a culture that reviles a stool pigeon as the lowest of the low, and lacking the requisite allure in the visual department, she was the bearer of two varieties of social disgrace, each refracted through the magnifying lens of the other.  No doubt the combination licensed the barely repressed violence of the jokes, the quality of atavistic aggression, every punch line like  a hard right cross to the kisser.  Though you couldn’t help noting that physical attractiveness on the part of the tellers of ugliness jokes was not a prerequisite, which is curious in itself: did the jokesters think they were granted an exception from their own aesthetic standards by virtue of Tripp’s moral failures, or were somehow inoculated from similar judgements by the power of their jokes?” (p. 131)

The above quote also illustrates the other thing, mentioned previous, which I really loved about Kipnis: her meanness.

Laura Kipnis

That might sound weird, but I believe that I can defend meanness.  The truth is, there are some topics that we cannot discuss without it.  I am not advocating for gratuitous or sadistic meanness, for the taking of genuine pleasure in the suffering of another.  I am advocating for the willingness to say, to speak aloud, truths or conclusions about our fellow men which would wound them if they were heard, which we would not normally utter in polite conversation, which we would not say to our friends.  It is impossible to explain ugly things without speaking ugly truths, and as long as there are ugly things in the world, meanness will be a necessity of understanding.

The case of Linda Tripp is a perfect case in point: Kipnis makes a persuasive argument that the public outcry about Linda Tripp, the reaction to her, her scandal, cannot be understood without also acknowledging her personal ugliness.  That the nation recoiled in disgust at what they perceived as a creature without redeeming characteristics, either moral or aesthetic.  She is not justifying that reaction – she is chronicling it.  But, if scandal is the phenomenon of public outrage, and the public is outraged by ugly women (and there are mountains and mountains of rather soul-shriveling evidence that they are), then any discussion of the public’s reaction to Linda Tripp which pussy-foots around her ugliness is disingenuous at best.

I think, at the end of the day, that is why I enjoyed ‘How to Become a Scandal‘ so much, why I will almost certainly now read her other books: because she is brave.  She’s smart, and mean, and funny, yeah, but she uses those qualities in the service of her goal, which is to understand something ugly about us.  And I always believe that looking ugliness in the eye is a valid goal.

And, at least in my case, she achieved that goal.  I admire books which are sneaky about their smarts, books which you think are going to salacious and gossipy, but which actually make you wiser before you even notice it’s happening.  Laura Kipnis has hidden her acuity well – the dust jacket of her book is hot pink, for heaven’s sake! But it’s there, deep and sharp.  And I believe that it takes a mean, sharp analysis to understand what it is mean and sharp in us, to understand things like our bloodlust, our endless capacity to enjoy seeing each other brought low.  I think it needed someone like Kipnis to understand something like scandal.  And I loved it.

The House In The Dark Of The Woods

By Laird Hunt

All Posts Contain Spoilers

So, this is embarrassing, but it happens to everyone (everyone! I swear!), and so I’m just going to admit it and try not to sound defensive at all, OK?

I just read an entire book, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand it.  At all.

Here’s what happened:

Last weekend, I was in my favorite local bookstore with a friend, perusing the “Staff Selections’ rack.  Now, I am, in general, skeptical of this particular flavor of curated bookstore table, because I am not at all convinced that working in a bookstore improves your taste in books.  But one book caught my eye: it had a creepy cover, hands crawling all over themselves on a bright orange field.   The title was kind of irresistible: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘.  The description on the inside cover began, “In this ingenious horror story set in colonial New England, a woman goes missing.” 

Ingenious horror? Yes, please.  I bought the book and started reading it right away.

I realized that I was in trouble almost immediately.  ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is, essentially, a dark fairy tale.  ‘Goody’ goes for a walk in the woods one day to collect berries for her son and husband.  She takes a nap only to wake in the dark; panicked, she sets off running, cutting her feet and hurting herself badly in the process.

Eventually, she is discovered by a woman called Captain Jane, who takes her to the house in the dark of woods, where lives a woman named Eliza, who wears the face of a friend and will try to keep Goody with her forever.

But ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is one of those books that hinges on the reader’s inability to tell whether or not their narrator is mad.  Now, when that kind of book is done well, it’s incredible, and some of the great classics of horror rely on this trick: ‘The Turn of the Screw‘, or ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘.

But those books are so affecting in part because, whether or not their narrators are insane, they are definitely terrified, and their distress is communicated to you.  Goody, however, spends most ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ in a sort of blithe, batty daze, which does make her seem crazier, but which also alienates the reader from the horror.  She speaks in choppy, under-punctuated, declarative sentences with very little emotional subtlety or elaboration.  I suspect that this was meant to make her seem childlike but instead it made her seem, well, stupid:

“The sun was gone from the glade and gone almost from the world when I woke and took up my basket and went hurrying back the way I had come.  I smiled a little but didn’t mean it when the oak and ash and box elder began to grow tall around me and my trot turned into a run.  There are fears in the airs and on the earth that can call up a fire in your heart whose ash will blacken all hope.  This was not such a fear; it was just the little toe or finger of one.  I stopped running and wiped my brow and realized I had left my bonnet behind.  I shifted my basket from one hand to the other.  I stood with my legs planted sturdy and gave a laugh, for I had never liked that bonnet, blue with a frill of tender flower.  A gift from my dead mother.” (p. 6)

And which doesn’t in any way clarify whether any of what happens to her is real.  What is clear, however, is that what is happening to her is a metaphor, and here is where I have to ‘fess up: I have no idea what it’s a metaphor for.

That it is a metaphor, there can be no doubt (when characters have names like Captain James, it’s a safe bet that metaphors are happening…).  Which obviousness makes my confusion even more embarrassing, since I think it’s probably not a subtle metaphor. 

Laird Hunt

I’m also pretty sure that it’s a metaphor about being a woman, or womanhood, or the trials and tribulations of women in society – it’s somewhere around there.  There are creepy shadows of violence lurking at the corners of the story, dark intimations that the women in it have been slowly but thoroughly brutalized by the men in their lives, the men to whom they toil in constant service, the men to whom they belong.

What emerges, I think, is a tale about the roles that women play.  I think (I think?) that ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is a allegory about the slow, creeping horror of the feminine position.  It shows that a woman who does not choose to obey has no other option but to go mad, either because society will drive her so or pretend that she is.  And that the roles available to us are highly circumscribed, archetypical and limiting and cannibalistic, as we slowly destroy each other in an attempt to break free of the restraints into which we were born.  That every woman will move through these roles: innocent girl, wife, mother, crone, until she eventually comes face to face with the terrible adversary that is her own furious psyche.

In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is weird, and creepy, and I think it was probably pretty good, but I’m not sure because I’m not sure it was…coherent. Partly this is a problem with the book itself – partly, perhaps, it is a problem with me (I may just not be getting it). Partly, however, it is a problem with allegories in general.

The meaning of an allegory lies beneath the plain reading of the text, is hidden, coded, in symbols and allusions.  They tend, therefore, to mean different things to different people; they often act as mirrors, showing us our reflections, shining our own baggage back at us.

Is ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ a feminist allegory about the slow mutilation done to women by society, the violence to which we are subjected and which we sublimate into madness?  Or am I, who have always found the roles normally prescribed for my gender (wife, mother, grandmother) stifling and unnatural, simply finding in this story confirmation of what I already felt?

To a certain extent, this is the purpose of fairy tales, to teach us the lessons that we, in particular, need to know.  ‘Little Red Riding’ is a lesson about the dangers of straying too far from the path.  It is also a lesson on the bravery available to each of us, when we need it.  It is also a lesson in caution, even about the faces we believe we know well.  It is also a lesson about the triumph of ingenuity over darkness (and, depending on which version you read, it is also a lesson on the triumph of darkness over everything).

I am not, in general, comfortable with ambiguity – I like to know what is.  This may be an indication of a pedestrian mind, but, alas, it is what it is.  I am not content to say, ‘This what the text meant to me’; I need to know whether what the text meant to me is what the text really meant.  And I feel inadequate when I can’t solve it.

So, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ made me feel inadequate.  It made me feel creepy, undermined, and inadequate.  Like there was something flickering at the edge of my vision and I couldn’t focus my eyes on it.  It was unsettling and difficult to understand.  It was a strange, cold mist of a book, something with a definite shape but without clear edges.  It was eerie.

I suspect that that was exactly the point.

The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

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The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad‘ is Cora’s story.  Cora is a slave on Randall’s Plantation in Georgia.  An outcast even among her fellow slaves, she has been a “stray” ever since her mother successfully escaped when she was a child, leaving Cora behind.  When her master dies and she is inherited by his sadistic younger brother, Cora is approached by Caesar, a fellow slave, with an offer to escape with him on the Underground Railroad.

The pair accept the help of a white tradesman from town, a station master on the Underground Railroad.  A thing of whispers and myth among slaves in the American South, Cora and Caesar are surprised to discover that it is a literal railroad, built underground, a network of tunnels under the slave states.  They take their first ride, emerging in South Carolina to the sight of skyscrapers (and our first clue that this is not a two hundred year old story).

Everyone loves ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It won the Pulitzer Prize.  It reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.  It received magnificent reviews; the four blurbs on the front of my copy are by the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, NPR, and Barack Obama.

Oprah loved it.

But I did not love ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It’s quite good – good enough that there isn’t much point in trying to discern whether it is great, or merely very, very good.  It’s well-written and spare, effective and persuasive.  It has a novel premise, well-executed, stark and not overdone.

I appreciated these things.  But, when I put the book down, I found that it had left me cold.  I did not connect with it.

At least, I did not connect with it…at first.

Sometimes, you are the smartest person in the room – sometimes you are the only person brave enough not to drink the Kool-Aid.  But usually, when everyone around you likes something and you don’t, you’ve missed something.

I sat around for a long time, in bits and pieces over weeks and then months (I finished this book in September), staring at my computer and struggling to figure out why I didn’t love this book.  I was plagued by a sense that I was missing something, and I dreaded having to say out loud (in writing, no less) that I did not like it.  I tried to understand, to explain, why it is that the goodness (greatness) of a book isn’t enough to make us love it.  It isn’t fair that a book can be excellent and unloved, even by one person.  What more can we ask of a book, than that it be good?

And, in all that muddling, the book started to get to me.

Fictions which use alternative realities (science fiction, for example), rely on altered context for their effect.  By placing their moral or human conundra into totally unfamiliar contexts, or by radically changing one aspect of the environment, they throw the problems at the hearts of their stories into sharper relief.

But slavery is not a problem – it was a reality, an atrocity.  Rather, it was a long, unmeasurable series of atrocities, horrors visited upon real people, people just as real as you are.  These things happened.

The essential premise of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ is, what if slavery had not ended?  But slavery does not need to have been permanent to be overwhelming.  If you have already connected, on a visceral level, with what slavery was, then the fantastical extension of it into the present doesn’t teach you much.  And so, at first, ‘The Underground Railroad’ underwhelmed me.  It was jarring, upsetting, but, by being unreal, it lacked the monstrosity of actual slavery.

Alternative reality fictions work best when they show you something you would not have seen without them.  That slavery is was an abomination, that I had already seen.  The depiction was masterful, wrenching and beautiful, but I would have preferred to see something that I had not seen yet.

But, as thought more about it, my emotions started to catch on something.

In Whitehead’s imagination, the American South is not frozen in time; it has evolved, and each of the states of the South has also evolved, differentiated, developed their own brand of slavery to accommodate the particular needs of their economy, their people.

Georgia is brutal, primitive, indistinguishable from its antebellum self.  South Carolina has evolved a sinister, “progressive” state-run program wherein the state owns slaves and educates, houses, and pays them, all while secretly sterilizing them.  North Carolina has decided that it prefers an all-white world, and has outlawed blacks completely, lynching any that are found within state lines.

This was fascinating to me – this drew me in.  Perhaps because this aspect of the novel, more than any other, challenged to me to think more deeply about my own conception of American slavery.  Like many Americans, I have a life-long mental picture of slavery, taught to me when I was very young and shaded with depth and context as I got older, but never essentially re-imagined.  Now, partly that is because a re-imagining was unnecessary: what I was taught about slavery, that it was an atrocity perpetrated by Americans on Americans, an indelible stain on our history and a foundational sin of our nation, is correct.

And ‘The Underground Railroad‘ does not challenge this conclusion.  And, in fact, Cora’s story is this story, and that, I think, was why I did not emotionally register it, at first.  Here was another person ground under an evil system – there are only so many of these narratives we can meet before they feel familiar.

But the story of the states, each sickened and twisted by the continued existence of the institution, each elaborating on the essential evil in its own way – this was a new story.  And as I sat and stewed about the book, as the effect of the new story slowly took hold, Cora snuck in after it.

Colson Whitehead

I hadn’t connected with Cora because I was thinking of her as fictional victim of a real system, and what would be the point of connecting with her when there were so many real victims to grieve for first?  But, of course, I had completely missed the point: Cora is the fictional victim of a fictional system, the catastrophic future we avoided, but only just.  I needed to grieve Cora because of easily she might have existed.

And so, months later, I understood: the point of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ wasn’t to teach me that slavery was terrible – I know that, anyone who has morally developed past the level of a tadpole knows that.  ‘The Underground Railroad’ was trying to tell me that we cannot comprehend the institution of slavery if we negotiate with it as an evil that was – we must instead understand it as an evil that might still be, but for the narrowest of escapes.  Chance, the accumulation of millions of tiny historical accidents, pulled us away from evil – it was NOT our robust moral good sense, and so we must understand the evil as, in some sense, on-going.  Slavery was not given up unanimously and voluntarily, but had to be crushed by force of arms, and so, in some sense, it continues in the heart of our citizens.  

Which means that, in some sense, it continues.

Cora isn’t fictional, exactly – she just doesn’t happen to be real.  

I don’t know whether I love ‘The Underground Railroad: A Novel‘ now, but it has slowly hollowed me out over the past few months.  I have come around and stand a little in awe of it now – I feel as though I have been tossing around a toy grenade and someone just told me it was active, like I was being careless with something very powerful.

So ‘love’ isn’t the right word – ‘fear’ is.  I am afraid of ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  I sat and thought for months and discovered that I had been afraid all along.

The Bone Clocks

By David Mitchell

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Sometimes bad novels are so good.

I’ve just finished ‘The Bone Clocks‘, by David Mitchell.  It was a bad book, but not the sort of bad book that you resent having started.  It didn’t have the sort of badness which makes you angry at the author for trying, for his pretensions or mistakes.  It was the kind of bad book you love, that you tear through.  It was a Great Bad Book.

David Mitchell.jpg
David Mitchell

I’m not saying that David Mitchell is a bad novelist, or a bad writer (which are different things); he’s not necessarily either.  He’s definitely not a bad writer: his prose ranges from competent enough to ignore to quite good, depending on the book and the time.  I would say that he’s actually a decent writer.

And, though I have only read two of his other books, ‘Cloud Atlas‘ and ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet‘, neither was a bad novel.  ‘Cloud Atlas’, it’s true, hovered around the same kind of badness that ‘The Bone Clocks‘ possesses, but was original enough that, I think, managed to just avoid the downward spiral of real badness.

And ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet‘ was great.  It was a lovely novel, moving and human, one of the very few books that has ever made me cry.  I think, perhaps, the discrepancy between ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ and both ‘The Bone Clocks‘ and ‘Cloud Atlas‘ has something to do with their genres.  ‘The Thousand Autumns’ is simply a little love story; it isn’t science fiction or fantasy, which the other two are.  I think that, perhaps, science fiction and fantasy (certainly fantasy) slide more easily into plotty badness.  Something about the genre tempts authors to the sort of over-written theatrics which make books bad but fun to read.  Novels grounded in reality tend to be a little bit tighter.

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks‘ is, in many ways, ‘Cloud Atlas‘s half-baked little brother.  It is also a story which follows multiple characters, all supernaturally connected, through time.  But while ‘Cloud Atlas’ follows what seem to be incarnations of one or two people through many, many generations, ‘The Bone Clocks’ is about one long human lifetime, namely the life of Holly Sykes, as it is crossed, intersected over and over, by a, uh, group of reincarnating mystics at war over the harvesting of human children to feed their eternal lives.

It’s exactly the sort of grandiose and silly premise that Great Bad Books are made of.  ‘The Bone Clocks‘ is the story of a magical war between good and evil, and like all such stories, the joy of it is in the ludicrous, and yet somehow absorbing, details.

In the world of ‘The Bone Clocks‘, there exists a class of immortals, called Atemporals, souls which involuntarily reincarnate 49 days after their deaths into the body of a dying child.  One group of these Atemporals, calling themselves the Horologists, are at ‘psychosoteric’ war with the Anchorites.  The Anchorites were once just regular mortals, but they have used dark technologies, gifted to them by the Blind Cathar, to achieve immortality.  However, in order to achieve this, they must routinely sacrifice a child.

Holly Sykes is a psychic, and so her life becomes tangled up in this psychosoteric war.  ‘The Bone Clocks‘ takes places in six chapters over the course of her long life, starting in 1984 and ending in 2043, in a very different world than ours.

And it’s just silliness, from beginning to end: joyful, diverting silliness.  David Mitchell has great strengths as a storyteller: he has a gift for the demotic (his characters sound and act like people on TV), and he’s great at constructing the elements of plot: pacing, building to a climax.  He gives scenes texture, but doesn’t linger – he’s very plotty.

And he’s just the right amount trashy, at least in his sci-fi/fantasy novels.  A multi-generational war of magic between the Evil Anchorites and the Good Horologists, which will culminate in a battle in the Temple of the Blind Cathar?  Come on, that’s almost unspeakably cheesy!

You know what it made me think of?  Do you remember that South Park episode, ‘Cartman’s Incredible Gift’, from Season 8, where Cartman pretends to be a psychic and ‘battles’ a bunch of other fake psychics?  Where all the psychics stand opposite each other and touch their temples and go, ‘Wa na na na’?

The whole book is like that.

And it’s not that Mitchell is pretending that it isn’t cheesy – ‘The Bone Clocks‘ isn’t pretentious, not at all.  Rather, he simply doesn’t seem to care whether or not it’s cheesy, which means that, in a weird way, you don’t.  If he were looking down his nose, using the Anchorites and Horologists as some highbrow metaphor, then ‘The Bone Clocks’ would be insufferable.  But I, at least, didn’t get the sense that that was what he was doing.

Rather, ‘The Bone Clocks‘ feels like David Mitchell got a neat idea for a story and decided to tell it: wouldn’t it be kind of interesting if reincarnation were true, but only some people had the ability to do it?  And then some other people figured out how to do it, but they had to do something terrible in order to achieve it?

What terrible thing would you do to achieve immortality?  That is an old question, one that we ask ourselves over and over.  What price would be worth your boundless life?  At what point during that evil eternity would it cease being your life?  At what price, once paid, do you stop being yourself?

We are obsessed with that question not just because we are fixated on our own deaths, because we are devoted to avoiding them – we ask that question because it’s an essentially fun question to ask.  It’s a fun problem to think about, and it’s fun to think about it here.  It’s not sophisticated, it’s not ‘good’, but it is fun.

Sometimes, silly scenarios are the best way to explore the scariest and most important questions.  Sometimes, silly meditations are the best meditations.  But, honestly, it doesn’t matter, because they’re fun.

Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee

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Brace yourself, because I’m about to go on a free-associative ramble for about a thousand words.

Pachinko.JPGI just read ‘Pachinko‘, by Min Jin Lee, which is a sprawling, multi-generational epic about the Korean diaspora in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century.  It begins with Sunja, the beloved only daughter of Hoonie, a fisherman born with a club foot, and his wife Yangjin.  When Sunja is a teenager, she falls in love with, and is impregnated by, Hansu, a handsome gangster.  When she discovers that he has a wife and children back in Japan and that he cannot legally marry her, she refuses to be his kept “local” wife and, instead, marries Isak, a sickly minister who is passing through town.  Isak agrees to raise the child as his own, and the young family moves to Isak’s new ministry in Japan

Now, stay with me, because I’m going to swerve here, and, for reasons which I hope will become clear, talk about ‘East of Eden‘, by John Steinbeck.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I love ‘East of Eden‘.  It might honestly be my favorite novel of all time.  ‘East of Eden’ is also a multi-generation epic, about an American family which recapitulates the story of Cain and Abel in each generation.  It is about original sin, about the transmission of sin through generations, about whether or not great evil marks a family, and passes from parent to child, twisting and marring their lives despite their best attempts to be good, happy people. It is about whether we can be damned before we are even born.

I cannot prove that ‘Pachinko‘ is consciously modeled on ‘East of Eden‘.  I do not even know for sure that Min Jin Lee has read ‘East of Eden’.  However, the parallels are clear, right?

Pachinko‘ is also about the multi-generational consequences of wrong-doing, about the sins of the parent being visited on the child.  But in ‘East of Eden‘, the inheritance is of evil, of simple, cinematic evil.  The question is whether or not the evil is innate, whether or not we are doomed to succumb to it.  In ‘Pachinko’, the inheritance is of something more complicated, more twisted: grief.  It is about the ways the deep, life-altering grief of a parent can warp, limit, or destroy the lives of her children, even when she loves those children desperately, even when her entire life has been devoted to their happiness.

I thought about ‘East of Eden‘ a lot while I read ‘Pachinko‘.  The books are alike in scope and ambition, but I’m not sure that they are equally successful.  Maybe it’s unfair to compare a book, any book, to ‘East of Eden’.  It is one of the most profound, most moving, explorations of the human capacity for evil, of the possibility of true goodness, that has ever been written.  And I don’t think that ‘Pachinko’ is one of the most profound, most moving explorations of human grief I’ve ever read.

OK, OK, yes: I agree, that is not a fair standard.  I need to acknowledge the possibility that ‘Pachinko‘ and ‘East of Eden‘ have different goals, as works of art.  ‘East of Eden’ is an essential hopeful work: while it is about the intrinsic human capacity for evil, it is also about the possibility of true goodness which can only exist alongside evil.

Pachinko‘ is not a hopeful work.  It is imbued with a deep sadness: the sadness of women who face lives of nothing but suffering, work, and loss.  Of subject peoples, doomed to cramped lives and arbitrary violence, simply because of their race.  Of deep and profound injustice, of lives destroyed because the values of small societies could not accommodate them.  Of love lost and never, ever regained.  In this way, perhaps, its scope is even greater than ‘East of Eden‘, which was a moral tale and a moral tale alone.  ‘Pachinko’, on the other hand, is not only the story of one family’s tragedies – it is also the story of a race, exiled and embattled.

Min Jin Lee.jpg
Min Jin Lee

And while the two books are alike in structure, they are quite different in style.  ‘Pachinko‘ is written in a prose which is so simple as to be almost brutal.  Lee’s sentences are unadorned and unsparing, and I believe that she is a good enough writer that this was done deliberately.  Tragedy, I have found, is usually most effective when it is written in prose which is clear, clean, and unflinching.  Flourishes, metaphors, long descriptive passages: these things blunt the force of tragic events, distract the reader, give the attention somewhere to hide.  It also, almost always, foreshadows the pain, so that the reader can brace himself.  Plain language, on the other hand, delivers its news like a blow, and gives you no warning that the blow is coming.

I offer, by way of example, the passage from ‘Pachinko‘ which I found the most effectively devastating, which genuinely shocked and upset me, to the degree that I gasped aloud and put the book down.

Fair warning, it is a very, very spoilerly spoiler.  The passage involves the reunion of Sunja with her son Noa.  Noa had fled his mother as a young man, when he discovered that he was the son of a gangster and found that he could not endure the shame.  He had lived in secret in Japan for decades, passing as Japanese, his Korean identity unknown even to his wife and children.  After many years, now an old woman, Sunja located him.

Again, if you do not wish to have major plot points spoiled, don’t read the excerpt.

“Sunja watched her son enter his office building, then tapped the passenger door of Hansu’s car.  The driver came out and held the door open for her.

Hansu nodded.

Sunja smiled, feeling light and hopeful.

Hansu looked at her face carefully and frowned.

“You should not have seen him.”

“It went well.  He’ll come to Yokohama next week.  Mozasu will be so happy.”

Hansu told the driver to go.  He listened to her talk about their meeting.

That evening, when Noa did not call her, she realized that she had not given him her home number in Yokohama.  In the morning, Hansu phoned her.  Noa had shot himself a few minutes after she’d left his office.” (p. 385)

This is not a passage which would have been possible in ‘East of Eden‘, where everything is larded with plenty of description and big events can be seen coming miles away.

And I have enormous regard for this style of prose, when it is successful, which I think it mostly is here.  It is true, the subject-verb-object ratatat of the plain language becomes a little arduous over hundreds of pages, but, for the most part, it’s mesmerizing and upsetting, bleak and tough in deliberate evocation of the lives it is describing.

I found, at the end, not that I loved ‘Pachinko‘, but that I had enormous regard for it.  I have compared it to ‘East of Eden‘ not so that it would suffer in comparison, but because the comparison helped me understand and appreciate the project of the book.  In fact, I think that some of the places in which ‘Pachinko’ is the strongest are places, like it’s language, where it is the most unlike ‘East of Eden’.

But keeping ‘East of Eden‘ in my mind helped me appreciate the intention of this work.  It’s one thing to tell the story of a few characters (although even to do this well is very difficult).  It is another thing altogether to tell a story through which you try to tell about human evil, or human grief.  To weave those grand things into the small lives you are relating takes bravery and skill.  ‘East of Eden’ taught me to love the scale, the ambition, of the endeavor, and it is because of ‘East of Eden’ that I recognize that ambition here.