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.

Devil House

By John Darnielle

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about ‘The Final Girl Support Group’. I expressed disappointment, because it had not turned out to be the novel that I wanted to read. Not to be too blunt about it, but I felt it had wasted an opportunity to explicate a cultural phenomenon that needed explicating (final girls in horror movies). Ultimately, however, I was unable to articulate what I needed from ‘The Final Girl Support Group’ that the book failed to provide – I didn’t have the language to describe what I wanted.

‘Devil House’ is what I wanted. ‘Devil House’ does for murder what I wanted ‘The Final Girl Support Group’ to do for horror. It is that very rare thing: a novel which is also an effective moral document, moving, smart, and not annoying.

I picked up ‘Devil’s House’ because it got really, really good reviews. More than that, it got those reviews from reviewers who seemed honestly surprised that the lead singer of the Mountain Goats actually turned out to be able to write good books (I am also surprised, because people aren’t usually good at multiple things). I get really excited when reviewers are surprised – it means they aren’t just rubber-stamping things based on cultural consensus. It means they actually liked the book they’re reviewing.

‘Devil House’ is, loosely speaking, a story about a True Crime writer named Gage Chandler who becomes professionally obsessed with a pair of grisly murders in Milpitas, California. The murders, believed to be the work of local teenagers, happened in an abandoned porn shop. The bodies, badly mutilated, were discovered amidst occult decoration, and local lore has sprung up that the culprits were a practicing Satanic cult. Chandler, who’s speciality is the extensive imagining of the spaces in which murders occur, moves into the porn shop, hoping to figure out what really happened there.

‘Devil House’ is about True Crime, as a genre, but what that really means is that it’s about our cultural relationship to murder. True Crime is, at the very least, a morally complicated phenomenon: ostensibly journalism, it also serves up actual murder as entertainment. The only reason, of course, that it can do that is because murder is already entertainment: grisly killing, under the guise of news, transfixes and obsesses us. As far as I can tell, it always has.

It’s this observation – that True Crime exists because we are fascinated, spellbound, by violent killing – that animates ‘Devil House’. By choosing a True Crime writer as his main protagonist, Darnielle risked reducing his book to a simple morality tale: crime writer gets obsessed, feels regret, bites the hand that feeds him.

This is not that novel – ‘Devil House’ is complex, and there is no such catharsis. Darnielle has chosen to write about one of the murkiest corners of our culture, and he isn’t going to resolve it for us. Instead, he asks us to think about why we spend so much time reading about the terrible things that happen to other people. Why is sexualized or occult violence more interesting? Why is a suburban domestic murder more likely to titillate us than a robbery/homicide in a dangerous neighborhood? Why are we excited by torture? Why are we excited by the deaths of people who look and act like us?

The first problem with True Crime is that is makes murder, the death of real people, into a spectator sport (or, as the book expresses in cutting epigrammatic fashion, “There aren’t any villains in a true crime book. There’s the hero, and there’s his victims.” (p. 61)).

The second problem with True Crime is that it feeds our prejudices, that we use it to confirm our interpretation of the world. We see villains where we wanted to see villains (teenagers, Satanists, the sexually abnormal), and so we miss the fact that villains are humans, too.

John Darnielle, taken from The Boston Globe

Darnielle, if ‘Devil House’ is any indication, is a great novelist. It’s really difficult to write a pedantic novel without being pedantic, to indict your reader without coming across like an asshole. I think Darnielle does it really, really well here. As a novel, ‘Devil House’ is wonderfully un-didactic: its thesis is never quite pronounced, and yet is beautifully humane: that murder is pain passed from one person to another. That the people who commit murders are, usually, individuals in some form of psychic agony (be it rage, psychosis, or desperation), and the act of murder is the explosion of that interior pain out into the world. That when we tune in gleefully to True Crime stories, we are turning pain into entertainment: the pain of the victims, and the pain of the murderers.

‘Devil House’ is the book I have been craving ever since I read ‘The Final Girl Support Group’. It is exactly what I wanted: a smart, unresolved explication of something so culturally ubiquitous that we have stopped noticing that it is completely fucked up. I don’t think Darnielle uses the word ’empathy’ once in ‘Devil House’, but empathy is the center around which the entire novel revolves: why we have it, why we lose it, and what it means when we find it again.

I don’t think Darnielle wants anyone to stop reading True Crime, by the way. He isn’t prosthelytizing. He’s running a thought experiment: what if the people we read about in True Crime books were real people? What if the person writing the True Crime book really connected with that fact, understand that his subjects (victims and murderers alike) were human beings? What would that do to him? What would it do to us, to remember that the people whose stories we read about in headlines, whose deaths we watch in docuseries, whose mysteries we try to solve in podcasts, that those are real people whose pain is equal to our own? Who were loved and cherished the same way we are loved and cherished, the same way we cherish our loved ones?

Would we be entertained then?

Piranesi

By Susanna Clarke

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I think ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’ is a masterpiece.

I’ve read it several times over the years – it is one of those rare books that gets better every time you read it. It’s magnificent: subtle and funny and sad and totally ingenious, one of those books so enjoyable to read that you look forward to rereading it.

‘Jonathan Strange’ came out in 2004, Susanna Clarke’s first novel. We, her fans, waited fifteen years for her to publish another, and when ‘Piranesi’ finally landed, in 2020, I think it was…thinner than we had all hoped. ‘Jonathan Strange’ is a great honking book (my copy clocks in at 850 pages) – the kind of book you can stretch out into. ‘Piranesi’ is a tight 275 pages, clearly not the leisurely stroll of Clarke’s first novel.

I often save books I’m particularly excited about for treats – I have saved “Piranesi” for a year now. Holding off has allowed me to gather a sense of the public’s response to it, and, while most people seem to love it, there is one thing I have heard over and over again: it is very different from ‘Jonathan Strange’.

Which is obviously emotionally complicated news for everyone who loved ‘Jonathan Strange’. The relationship between readers and authors is very, very complicated. On the one hand, you, as a reader, want the authors that you love to be able to grow, to experiment and try new things and develop. Some people (Tom Clancy’s fans) want to read the same exact book over and over again; everyone else appreciates some variety.

On the other hand, though, you love the authors you love for a reason, and it is not in your interest, as their reader, to encourage them to grow out of doing the thing that you loved in the first place. And authorial growth is rather like random mutation: a few changes are beneficial; most are deleterious.

The answer to this problem is trust. Over the course of their authorial life, writers earn their readers’ trust. They demonstrate reliability in whatever traits have made them loved, and readers learn that, even as the author changes and grows, their work will be still worth reading. The amount of trust is contingent on two things: how reliable the author is, and how outstanding they are, relative to other authors, at the thing which has made them loved in the first place. As a equation, it might look something like this:

Trust = consistency x unique value

The unique value is an expression of the thing that this author does that makes you, the reader, love them especially, that sets them apart from other authors. It might be understood as something like

Unique value = rarity among authors x execution

Where how uniquely prized an author is, is a function both of how good they are at what they do, and how many other people do it.

As an example, let’s take Agatha Christie. Christie is among the most trustworthy authors, probably, who ever lived. But let’s break her down by the components of her Trust Equation:

Trust = consistency x (rarity x execution)

Rarity: Low, basically non-existent. Murder mysteries are common as dirt.

Execution: Medium. Strong but not astonishing. She has a few masterpieces, it’s true, but most of her books are solid rather than shining.

Consistency: 100%. This is the variable doing the heavy-lifting for Christie. She just doesn’t write bad books, and she doesn’t go off-script. If you like what she’s selling, you know you’re going to get it every single time. The trust, in this case, is basically entirely a function of Christie’s consistency.

Let’s take another example: Jane Austen. What do the variables in Austen’s equation look like?

Consistency: Medium. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is one of the greatest books every written, but if all Jane Austen had written was ‘Persuasion’, no one alive would know her name.

Rarity: Medium-high. The satire of manners is not uncommon, but the gently-biting, feminine perspective of Austen’s works belongs to her and her alone.

Execution: Stellar. This is where Jane Austen shines. She doesn’t pull it off every single time, but when she does, there is literally no one better. This is why Austen has high reader trust: it’s worth reading any of her books because sometimes they will turn out to be ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

Anyway, why am I talking about this in an article about ‘Piranesi’?

New authors are, obviously, deeply handicapped according to this equation: their consistency is N/A. Worse: you don’t even know yet what their traits will be. It may be that the things you loved about their first work were completely incidental to their project. This is what makes the release of an author’s second book so suspenseful: it is only in that second book that you really begin to know who they are.

On one level, ‘Piranesi’ is a very difficult book to describe. Our narrator, called Piranesi although he is pretty sure that it’s not his real name, lives in the House. The House is vast: an endless series of huge rooms filled with statues. Some rooms are flooded; some are open to the air. Great tides sweep through the House, flooding whole chambers and receding. Piranesi loves the House; his days are devoting to fishing for food and mapping the endless halls, charting the tides, and caring for the dead. As far as he knows, there have only been fifteen people in the House, ever: himself, the thirteen skeletons he cares for, and the Other. The Other is aloof and strange, but, as the only other living person in the house, he is also Piranesi’s only friend.

One day, though, the Other warns Piranesi: another person has arrived in the House, Sixteen. Sixteen is wandering the halls of the house, trying to find Piranesi, and, according to the Other, destroy him.

Susanna Clarke

‘Piranesi’ is a good novel, but it’s not, I think, a great one. And here is the thing that surprised me: though it is very different from ‘Jonathan Strange’, that is not the problem with it. In fact, ‘Piranesi’ would have been a better novel if it had been less like ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’.

‘Jonathan Strange’ is, at heart, a cozy novel. It is Dickensian: it lives in detail, in the specific, closely-observed eccentricities of its characters. It is tangible, concrete, minute. It is not a mystery, and it is not other-worldly. That is exactly its charm: it is a story of magic set in our world, one we know well. It is the juxtaposition of quotidian humanity with the supernatural.

‘Piranesi’ is the opposite: it is a spooky, atmospheric novel, alien and vague. ‘Jonathan Strange’ inhabits fire-lit drawing rooms in London townhouses; ‘Piranesi’ echoes in vast, cold spaces. And those echo-y bits are the best parts of the novel: Piranesi, wandering alone through his House, showing it to us.

As I said, on the one hand, ‘Piranesi’ is a difficult novel to describe. On the other hand, it is very simple: it is a Whodunit. What is the House, who is Piranesi, who is the Other, and how did they get there? These are the animating mysteries of the book, and Clarke answers every single one of them. She answers them clearly: concretely, specifically and very unmagically.

And it’s a let-down. The imaginative premise of ‘Piranesi’ is wonderful, majestic and unnerving and grand. When it is solved, it is just a novel of people being terrible to each other in strange places. It is as though Clarke’s mind, which is so rigorous and thorough, could not inhabit the mystery of the House: she needed to solve it for us, but in solving it, she diminished it.

Ever since I finished ‘Piranesi’, I have been wondering whether I would have liked it more or less if I had not read ‘Jonathan Strange’. It feels terrible to hold the goodness of a first book against an author, but it’s impossible not to compare.

I think I would have liked it more, but, after way too much thought, I’ve realized that that is not the right question to be asking. The question I should have been asking is: does ‘Piranesi’ make me more or less likely to read Clarke’s next book?

The answer is definitely yes – I will read Clarke’s next book. Whatever else, both of these books are products of a capacious and thorough imagination – I’m interested to see what she comes up with next.

Perhaps the capacity to surprise is an authorial trait. Perhaps you can learn to trust that an author is capable of re-inventing herself with expertise, that her mind is solving different problems in different ways, that she is building new and better worlds in which to solve those problems. Perhaps, the capacity to surprise will end up being Clarke’s authorial project, the special trait which will make her beloved.

I kind of hope it is. Maybe she’ll never write another ‘Jonathan Strange’, but that’s OK, I think I like her anyway. I don’t trust her totally yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.

The Final Girl Support Group

By Grady Hendrix

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At this point, everyone here knows that I am a sucker for a good premise. I’m too attached to them, I know – I can’t resist them, and I am often drawn into books which are clearly going to disappoint me simply because I am charmed by their premise.

My attachment also causes me to be disproportionately enraged when I feel a good premise has been wasted in poor execution. I am much angrier at a mediocre book with a great premise than I am at an all-out bad book with a bad premise, which is completely irrational.

The Final Girl Support Group‘ has a great premise. Lynette, Dani, Marilyn, Julia, Heather, and Adrienne are all Final Girls: the only survivors of deranged serial killers, the terrorized young girls who finally brought them down. They meet once a month in a support group, although over the decades since their victimization, they have become tired of each other. The need for the group has diminished and some of the members are hoping to disband until one of them, Adrienne, is murdered in exactly the kind of psychotic rampage that she avoided decades earlier. When Lynette is attacked next, it becomes clear that someone is hunting down Final Girls.

OK, yeah, it’s not High Art. But bear with me here:

At this point, I think it’s time for us all to admit that horror movies are a mature genre. And as a mature genre, they can be meta-analyzed: they can be understood as metaphors, they can be explicated, meaning can be distilled from them.

Not many people want to do this work, because horror movies are considered Low Art (if they’re lucky – many people just consider them trash). But, I would argue, people should do that work, because horror movies are important. They tell us something about ourselves, and our culture: they are instructive. There is always, always information in what scares us, and there is always, always information in whom we choose to inflict violence upon, whether it is real or imagined. Horror movies reveal something about us, and it’s worth looking at what that is.

Women (especially young, beautiful women) have a special role in horror movies, and that role is what ‘The Final Girl Support Group‘ is about. Women are the victims we save for the most imaginative and sadistic violence. That is what this novel wants, I think, to explicate: the pleasure we take in watching psychos brutalize young girls.

The problem is, there are two ways to for a novel to be “about” something. Novels can explicate things, problematize them, show them to us in a new light or from a different perspective. Or they can simply reiterate the problem, sometimes while exclaiming: Look at this problem!

This latter is what ‘The Final Girl Support Group’ does. I really do think that it was intended to be a problematization of the violence against women that is a mainstay of horror stories, but it basically just ends being a horror story featuring violence against women. The violence is specific, creative, brutal: all the things which characterize the very horror movies that Hendrix intends to lampoon.

And here, I’m afraid, we need to get a little into the nature of satire. Satire is deliberate exaggeration in order to expose something. By its very nature, it requires the thing to be shown: it is ridiculing through the showing of the thing.

Therefore, it necessarily runs the risk of being the thing itself – if the exaggeration isn’t clear, if the ridicule is not expressed, then it definitionally fails at satire. And, yes, satire can “fail” because the reader is simply stupid: misses the ridicule. That happens all the time, especially when we ourselves are the targets of the satire, and it must be maddening for authors, to watch their works be un-ironically embraced by the very people they are attempting to mock.

Grady Hendrix

I don’t think that I am missing the fact that ‘The Final Girl Support Group‘ is satire. I see that it is meant to be mocking – Hendrix isn’t applauding the brutalization of young women, that is clear. But I feel somehow that the satire is incomplete. Hendrix shows, clearly and excessively, the absurdity of the violence we imaginatively subject women to – he explicates the trope – but there are no conclusions. ‘Look,’ he seems to be saying, ‘This is kind of fucked up, no?’

And, yeah, it is fucked up. And maybe it’s enough to say so.

But I am experiencing the grief and frustration I always feel when a good premise has been misspent. When I first finished this book, I was pretty pissed. I had been really excited to read it – had been saving it for an un-virtuous little reading treat for myself – and I wanted better from it. I felt ready to love this book, and I was thwarted.

But my anger has cooled. In my thinking, I have been unable to pinpoint what I would change about ‘The Final Girl Support Group‘, and that has given me more respect for the difficulty of the task that Hendrix set out for himself. I feel ambivalent about this novel, but I am also absolutely certain that I couldn’t do any better. I feel, as I think Hendrix does, that there is a lesson that we should all be drawing from this particular horror trope, but I can’t explain what I think that lesson is any better than he does.

Perhaps I could not have done better with this set-up, but I think someone could have. I can’t recommend ‘The Final Girl Support Group’ – I think it was a pretty pointless read, in the end – but I’m not angry anymore.

Just disappointed.

The Great Railway Bazaar

By Paul Theroux

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I don’t think I’ve ever written about a travel book here.

Which is not to say that I don’t read travel books – I do, and I really love some. But, as a genre, travel writing is tricky – there are many potential pitfalls, and the genre itself only appeals to a small percentage of readers. This is understandable to me: if you don’t care about travel, then why read about someone else doing it? And if you do care about travel, why would you read about someone else doing it when you could simply do it yourself?

There is the additional problem that “travel writing” has changed dramatically with the advent of travel blogs. And, look, the genre wasn’t perfect before: it was almost exclusively cranky white male writers, swerving from place to place, getting drunk and sneering at the locals. There is often a racist tinge to the observations made (if not forthrightly expressed racism), and many travel books are really just glorified memoirs of middle-aged ennui.

But the genre has not been helped in any way, shape, or form by the proliferation of the modern travel blog, which is as execrable a form as I’ve ever encountered. If the classics of travel writing are navel-gazing memoirs of aging white guys, the travel blog is the fatuous spewing of indiscriminate and totally uncredentialed millennials: people too insubstantial to hold a job, paid by the Instagram post, gushing patronizing about local color and custom with a tone so condescending that it is barely less racist than the older prose model. All, also, white.

So, ok, I don’t write about travel writing. But I would like to talk today about one book – really, one author – because I love him. And I don’t love him because he’s perfect, or because he doesn’t fall into any of the traps of his genre (he does). I love him because he is mean.

Paul Theroux, I believe, identifies primarily as a novelist, but he is more famous as a travel writer (indeed, he perhaps the most famous travel writer alive). He has published something like twenty travel books in his life. I have not read them all, but I have read a substantial fraction. They possess a certain uniformity: Theroux meanders from place to place, all over the world, peering around him with his gimlet eye, often grouchy but occasionally enchanted, always alone and yet somehow unendingly entangled with the locals.

I’ve loved Theroux since I read ‘Riding the Iron Rooster‘ when I was a teenager. That book changed my life – it is why I went to Asia for the first time. It is why I took the Trans-Siberian – it is why, when I went to China, I took trains between cities, and not planes. ‘The Great Railway Bazaar‘ is about a different journey Theroux took by train through Asia in the early 1970’s. And perhaps that doesn’t sound promising to you – I’m the wrong person to ask: I love Asia, I love trains, and I love mean people.

And Theroux is wonderfully mean. But not in a directed, hostile, agentive way – rather, he is casually, undogmatically malicious, and I love that about him. There is something deeply honest about his descriptions of the world: Theroux would never pretend to love a place to promote it on Insta. Much of the world is shitty – ugly places inhabited by cretinous individuals – and he calls it so. This willingness to snipe has two effects: 1. When he says something is wonderful, I believe him; and 2. His writing is funny in the way only meanness can be.

I can hear people howling that watching a white guy wander around the world being mean about everything isn’t amusing or wonderful. Fair enough – but let me try to explain. Meanness, like anything sharp, must be handled with care, but it is not without its uses and benefits. The truth is, every society has its nastinesses, its ridiculousness, pettinesses and absurdities, individual and yet universal. And if we don’t acknowledge them, it doesn’t mean anything when we praise what isn’t nasty, ridiculous, petty or absurd. Meanness can be gratuitous, but it can also be honest, and it takes a steady hand to navigate the difference.

Let me see if I can provide a few examples.

In Siberia:

“Bruce and Jeff, the Australians in the upper bunks, were nervous about going to Siberia. Anders, a young Swede carbuncular, with one of those unthawed Scandinavian faces that speaks of sexual smugness and a famished imagination, was in the bunk opposite. He listened to the Australians, and when he said, “Hey, I hear it’s cold in Siberia,” I knew it would be a rough crossing.” (p. 304)

On Vietnam:

Paul Theroux (a long time ago)

“There were really two selling points, the beaches and the war. But the war was still on, in spite of the fact that nowhere in the forty-four-page booklet entitled Visit Viet-Nam was fighting mentioned, except the oblique statement, “English is making rapid progress under the pressure of contemporary events,'” (p. 244)

Or perhaps my favorite single observation in the entire book:

“‘I am in Istanbul two years before,’ said the French woman, wincing in the way the French do before lapsing into their own language.” (p. 11)

Theroux, after all these years, has a very steady hand. He is mean, but without anger. He has contempt not for whole cultures or peoples, but for individual small and stupid people within them, and for the havoc they wreak on the world. And the world itself he overwhelmingly finds fascinating, broad and surprising.

I don’t think Theroux is a cruel man – these are not cruel quotes. Rather, he has a gift for spotting and summarizing the absurd. He is a hard-minded man who has found an unusual balance between curiosity and skepticism. I don’t think I would love someone who was just cruel. And Theroux is much too dedicated a traveller to be motivated entirely, or even primarily, by animus. He is as dedicated and brave a traveller as there is – no one wanders so long, so far, just to meet people upon whom they look down.

I wanted to write about Theroux’s travel books at least once, here, because I am grateful to him, in the way that I am grateful to all authors who have changed my life. He made the world bigger for me, and he made me laugh, and I’d like to thank him.

White Noise

By Don DeLillo

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I read ‘White Noise‘ in college. I hated it, but I can’t tell you why. I remember very little about the plot, something about a man who studies Hitler, and a toxic cloud. I had an impression that it was clever but bleak. I found it almost overwhelmingly unpleasant to read, but not bad at all. Just aversive.

I put it on my bookshelf, and looked at it periodically with suspicion. I have long wished to purge and donate it, but something has held me back: some sense that it is a modern classic, an Appreciated Book, critically valued. Also holding me back: though I remember almost nothing of the book, my copy is so full of sticky notes, flagging passages I liked, that it is nearly double its normal thickness. I did not like it, I am sure, but I certainly appreciated lots of things within it.

During my last book-purge, I reached crisis and decided to reread it. I knew I wasn’t going to like it, but I wanted to throw it away with an easy conscience.

I’ve just finished it, and, somehow, I find myself more confused than I was when I started.

White Noise‘ is the story of Jack Gladney, who is the head of the Hitler Studies department at a small liberal arts college. He is married to Babette, his fourth wife, and they live near campus with their substantial and blended family. They are happy, although Babette has been sneaking a medication and will not tell anyone what it is. One day, however, an airborne toxic cloud appears over their town. Jack is exposed, and, when his doctor informs him that his exposure will inevitably, inexorably, result in his death, Jack’s life begins to unravel.

I was right all those years ago, with all my flags: ‘White Noise’ is extremely clever, and bristles with quotable passages. Some examples:

“‘The flow is constant,” Alfonse said. “Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.'” (p. 66)

Another:

“‘I’m not just a college professor. I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the country, where the fish hatcheries are.'” (p. 117)

How about one more:

“‘I have only a bare working knowledge of the human brain but it’s enough to make me proud to be an American. Your brain has a trillion neurons and every neuron has ten thousand little dendrites. The system of inter-communication is awe-inspiring. It’s like a galaxy that you can hold in your hand, only more complex, more mysterious.”

‘Why does that make you proud to be an American?’

‘The infant’s brain develops in response to stimuli. We still lead the world in stimuli.'” (p. 189)

Reading over these quotes now, I can also see why, despite the fact that it is so clever, I hated this book so much. In fact, I think I hated it because it is so clever.

Cleverness in writing is tricky. It can be immensely entertaining, startling and funny and revealing all at once. For me personally, a person susceptible to cleverness in general, it can be tremendously winning, and I will forgive a book many sins if it is clever.

But too much cleverness is alienating.

First of all, cleverness is cold. Being clever requires distance from the observed thing: it is far away from the warmth of human interaction, a dissection, and, when it is really sharp, it is a little cruel in its accuracy. It is fundamentally un-affiliative: it separates and distinguishes.

Don DeLillo

The most successfully clever books, in my opinion, are books that combine cleverness in observation with great warmth of feeling. It is all well and good to see so clearly, but you must then forgive the objects of your sight. Not many people can pull this off – the one who springs most readily to my mind is Zora Neal Hurston, who is incredibly clever but also deeply humane, all-seeing and all-loving.

DeLillo is not like this – or, at least, ‘White Noise’ is not. It is unrelenting, so clever it becomes aggressive. And this is the second problem with cleverness: it’s a little show-offy. Because it is impossible to be clever without knowing that you are clever, it always has the element of a performance, ‘Aren’t I clever?’ The difficulty is that too much of that quickly becomes tedious, the performance becomes about the performer, and not about the novel. The point of the book stops being the story, or the characters, or the readers; the book instead becomes merely an opportunity for the novelist to show how much smarter he is than anyone else. It’s needy.

But, as I said, I am a sucker for cleverness, and, at moments, I hoped that DeLillo was doing it all on purpose. It’s not impossible – ‘White Noise‘ is, after all, a novel about the fear of dying. The fear is death is unrelenting, icy and inexorable – perhaps ‘White Noise’ is unrelenting and bleak simply because death is. We cannot evade it; all we can do is laugh mordantly while we wait.

I’m giving it too much credit, I suspect. The Great American Male Novelists all had this tendency: to be more interested in the display of their own genius than in the experience of their readers. It’s a shame: DeLillo is clearly capable of tremendous observation. If only he had been willing to observe something redeeming, to observe with some kindness.

I think I am going to keep it on my shelf, though. I still don’t know why, but something holds me back from donating it. In the end, I suppose, imperfection is not the same as badness, and, after all, it is very clever.

Hild

By Nicola Griffith

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Please join me, if you will, on a long and tortured metaphor.

Stories are like dishes. They are made up of ingredients: premise, plot, characters, writing, &c. Some dishes are very complex (lots of different plots and characters) – some are very simple. Complexity does not necessarily predict success: a bad story can have all the characters it wants, it will still be bad.

Like dishes, stories can be dominated by one or two components and still be very good. Think about the murder mystery: all plot, with, at best, a single charismatic detective for continuity. Most fantasy novels are the same: it’s all plot, but with some premise thrown in. As in dishes which are dominated by a single component, in order for stories like this to work, the main component needs to be really good: you can’t make a good omelet with rotten eggs.

And like dishes, stories are made up not just of major components, but also require seasoning. If characters and plot are major ingredients, then all the little embellishments which give a story depth and attraction are seasonings: well-imagined details, zippy dialogue, beautiful language.

And also like dishes, stories can be ruined by over-seasoning. You can have great characters, great plot, beautiful setting, but if you get carried away on, say, describing lush landscapes, then you can alienate your readers and make your prose a slog.

And the reason that I have dragged you on this arduous metaphor is because today I want to talk about one of the most difficult seasonings in literature: historical verisimilitude.

Books are for readers – that is their intended audience. That doesn’t mean that books should be lowest-common-denominator products, aimed simply at gathering the most eyeballs. But books should be basically intelligible to their readers – that’s really the bare minimum.

A little antiquated vernacular is fine – most people can pick around and it get it from context clues. And some historical detail is appreciated – it adds color to the world. But, at a certain point, too much extraneous detail, or strange vocabulary, is cumbersome and alienating. I should be able to read a paragraph of your text without, say, having to check the glossary eight times, or having to read the dialogue out loud because that is the only way to understand the text. I should be able to read your novel without learning the name of every single Dark Ages village in England.

And we’re talking about this because I just finished ‘Hild‘ by Nicola Griffith and I’m frankly exhausted.

‘Hild’ is the imagined backstory of Hilda of Whitby, an English saint who lived in the 7th century. Her childhood is, from what I can tell, entirely imagined by Griffith, but the research which informs the setting is impeccable: detailed, thorough, and accurate.

It is also, however, cumbersome: Griffith has, in my opinion, crossed the line between enriching the novel and leeching the reader’s bandwidth, and her historical detail, especially her use of language, takes more than it gives from reading this novel.

Let me give you an example.

“Hild persuaded Pyr that none would think him soft if the Loid workers were fed and sheltered, for a healthy Loid worked faster. And besides, she spoke for the king when she said that in Elmet now there were no more Anglisc, no more Loid, there were only Elmetsætne. She set Morud to making sure all grumbles reached the right ears.

More people, Loid and Anglisc, straggled in and sought her out, some to swear to her, some just to see for themselves the tall maid who called them all Elmetsætne. The daughter of a hægtes and an ætheling, some said – no, a wood ælf and a princess, said others – though that didn’t stop them wanting to touch her hem or catch up a fallen hair for luck.” (p.292)

Or how about this:

“Hild had helped work out how the new wool trade would run, but even she was astonished at its efficiency. Sheep sheared in every royal vill, from the Tine valley to Pickering to the wolds to Elmet. Fleece sorted and sent by grade to rows of huts in Aberford, or Flexburg by the Humber, or Derventio. Armies of women to separate out the staples, to mix soapwort, urine, and pennyroyal to wash out the grease. Children to lay the washed wool in the sun to dry, to watch and turn it and to drive off the birds who liked to steal it. Men to barrel and cart oil and grease to the vills to make the fibre more manageable for the first finger-combing and sorting. Smiths hammering out double-rowed combs and woodworkers shaping wooden handles, for women to comb out wool in the new way, the better way, a comb in each hand. Carpenters to build the stools and tables. Bakers to bake the bread so the wool workers could work. Lathe workers to turn the spindles and distaffs – the long and the short – and, everywhere, women and man making spindle whorls and loom weights of clay and lead and stone, of every shape and size and heft.” (p. 383)

Nicola Griffith

I chose these passages not because they are unusual – the entire book really is like this – but because I think they are particularly emblematic both of that makes ‘Hild‘ singular and, often, magical, but also what is trying about it. Griffith’s writing is dense and spare. Her attention to detail is incredible, but she is totally unforgiving: she will not define, introduce, or repeat herself. If you haven’t grokked what an Elmetsætne is, you can go screw (or check the gloss, for the sixth time that page). There are too many proper names, and they are too similar. Every clause has a discrete, private meaning, and they work against each other. Meanwhile, as you are drowning in detail, you are often unable to spot the action when it happens, and because the entire story is told in this same, low monotone, there are no signifiers helping you to notice what’s important.

And it’s a shame, because I think it’s a pretty good book. It’s certainly an interesting project to have undertaken, and the depth of knowledge and imagination is almost overwhelming. It is also a masterpiece of mood – it is a low, gray novel, very beautiful, naturalistic and wild. But Griffith is too eager to show you the depth of her knowledge. The detail is not for you, to add to your sense of the story – it is for her, to show you how much she knows.

Hild‘ is over-seasonaed. Vernacular, vocabulary: these are elements which can add richness to a work of imagination. However, the more you disrupt a reader’s immersion in your story, the more you risk becoming a chore for them. Griffith goes too far for me: I am impressed by her work, but I am also alienated by it. I find myself able to feel a lot of respect for it, but no affection. By the end of the book, I felt the way I feel during a bad run: determined to finish, certain that I am doing the right thing, that I will be better for it in the end, but heavy, tired. Completion has become the goal – the journey has no joy.