The Bone Clocks

By David Mitchell

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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.

Explaining Hitler

The Search for the Origins of His Evil

By Ron Rosenbaum

‘Explaining Hitler’ was one of those books that I knew I had to read as soon as I heard that it existed.  I thought that it would be right up my alley, and I was right.

Like so many historically-minded people, I’m a little obsessed with the fact of Nazis.

[I will allow myself a little self-serving quotation here: “When asked whether it was possible to think too much upon the Holocaust, [W.G.] Sebald said, ‘No serious person thinks of anything else.'” (p. 412)  I totally agree.]

Even if you take, as I do, a dark view of humankind, the Nazis are an outlier on the Evil Scale.  Anyone trying to get their arms around humanity’s capabilities must fit Nazis into their theory, must take account of the ability of an entire nation to rise up in a seizure of controlled, insane, determined violence.

Hitler himself must be part of that equation, whether you consider him the author of all the evil or a historical coincidence (‘if it had not been him, it would have been someone else’).  So people who are, as I am, interested in evil, or in the wickedness of human nature, end up reading a lot about Hitler.

But ‘Explaining Hitler‘ isn’t really about Hitler.

Rather, it is a history of Hitler theories.  It’s a long, ambivalent interrogation of our relationship with Hitler.  It’s about what Hitler represents, the various psychoanalytical and historical models that we have used to understand him, and about how those theories reflect back on us.

Explaining HitlerIt’s about why we need to explain Hitler.  It’s about why he, in particular, has obsessed us for so long, what it would mean to really understand him.  It’s about whether evil exists, and, if it does, what that means about the world.  It’s about what price we pay for thinking about Hitler too hard, and what price we might pay for not thinking about him enough.

It is exactly my kind of book.

To give you a sense of what I mean, let’s take a brief whirl through the table of contents:

‘Part 1: The Beginning of the Beginning’ is about the myths and origin stories about Hitler’s early life, the little that is known about his family, and about how the newspapers in Germany at the time of his rise understood him.

‘Part 2: Two Postwar Visions: Sincerity and Its Counterfeit’ features the work of two post-war Hitler scholars, H.R. Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock, and their debate about whether or not Hitler was ‘sincere’ in his anti-semitism, or whether he was merely a cynical and opportunistic politician playing on the anti-Semitism of the country he was hoping to rule.

‘Part 3: Geli Raubal and Hitler’s “Sexual Secret”‘ is about all the weird theories around Hitler’s sex life: whether he had one, whether it was abnormal, and whether those facts had anything to do with his political identity.

‘Part 4: Hatred: Complex and Primitive’ discusses whether Hitler was secretly Jewish, and whether or not that might be the source of his virulent anti-Semitism.

‘Part 5: The Art of Evil and the Future of It’ is about what happens when Hitler scholars try too hard to get into the Hitler headspace, and about the most famous Holocaust denier (or ‘Revisionist’), David Irving.

‘Part 6: The War Over the Question Why’ criticizes the position taken by some Holocaust chroniclers, most notably Claude Lanzmann, that to even seek to understand Hitler is “obscene”, because an explanation would inevitably, to some degree, exculpate him, and because to understand is, perhaps, to empathize.

‘Part 7: Blame and Origins’ covers the work of several scholars of Hitler and the Holocaust, namely Emil Fackenheim, Yehuda Bauer, George Steiner, Hyam Maccoby, Daniel Goldhagen, and Lucy Dawidowicz, on questions like: Would an omnipotent and just God allow the Holocaust to happen?  Why, of all the nations in Europe, did Germany fall prey to a Hitler?  When exactly did Hitler decide to exterminate the Jewish race in Europe?

Ron_Rosenbaum
Ron Rosenbaum (looking, I think, unnecessarily ferocious for a journalist)

Explaining Hitler‘ is, essentially, a long existential query, and it reads like one.  I found it mesmerizing, but then, I would.  Rosenbaum interviews scholars, visits historic sites, pores over archives.  He asks complicated, devastating questions, and he records the answers of the men and women he’s interviewing, even when they are belligerent, or rude, or contradictory, or unconvincing.  He does not shy away from the global, or the grandiose.  It is clear, by the end, that most questions about Hitler are, ultimately, unanswerable, that the best we can do is be honest with ourselves about the dark potential of mankind.

“In declaring so offhandedly “the fact” that Hitler was a “person like you and me,” Bullock places himself squarely on the side of a great schism among Hitler explainers: those who speak of Hitler as “one of us,”, of a “Hitler within” all of us, of a potential for Hitlerian evil in all human nature, in our nature – and those who maintain one of several varieties of Hitlerian exceptionalism.  Exceptionalist arguments range from the belief that the magnitude of Hitler’s evil (however that magnitude is measured) surpasses that of previous malefactors of history to the most sophisticated theses of those like the philosopher Berel Lang who argue that it is the quality of Hitler’s intentionality, not the quantity of bodies, that makes the Nazi genocide a new chapter in a “history of evil”.  Beyond that are the more metaphysical and theological arguments of Emil Fackenheim, who rejects the idea of a Hitler “within us,” who argues instead that Hitler is beyond the continuum, off the grid, not explicable by reference to any previous version of human nature.  Rather, he represents some kind of “radical evil”, even an “eruption of demonism” into history, one so unprecedented it must cause us to reconsider our conception of God’s relationship to man.” (p. 85)

“Fackenheim’s notion of “posthumous victory” suggests that, much as we would like to understand Hitler, it is important to realize that we should in some sense also still be at war with him.  And there might be some value to continuing to resist, even to hate, the enemy.  Is hatred of Hitler still a legitimate response, or is it the kind of crude, debased emotional reaction that explanation and understanding should ideally lead us upwards from?  Is it bizarre, out-of-bounds, a sign of an unevolved sensibility, for a civilized, educated citizen of the post-Holocaust world to hate Adolf Hitler?  Put another way: Would it be a bizarre moral failure not to hate Hitler?” (p. 390)

If these are not the sorts of questions that get you going, if you don’t like moral dilemmas strung out over hundreds of pages, dense, insoluble ethical and historical riddles which force you to choose between a rock and a hard place, then ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is not the book for you.

But these are exactly the sorts of questions that get me going.  I love thinking about stuff like this, I do so voluntarily, in my free time, and so ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is like four hundred pages of exactly the kind of conversation I use to alienate people at parties!

What is evil?  Are people evil, or just actions?  Can we use a term like ‘evil’ when we’re talking about something merely human, and not actually Satanic?  Was Hitler evil?  Does it matter?  Was the entire Nazi leadership evil?  At what level does the evil stop: Nazi leadership, the S.S., the army, complacent civilians?  Can a whole nation be evil?  How about a species?

Who bears responsibility for the Holocaust?  What if you found out that Hitler had a brain tumor from 1918 on – would that make him less evil?  It certainly wouldn’t make the Holocaust less terrible, so how could it make him less evil?

Is it wrong to even ask these questions?  By seeking to understand Hitler, do we risk empathizing with him?  Or, on the other hand, do we have a responsibility to understand him, in order to make sure we spot the next Hitler before he kills millions of people?

I will also say this: I’ve read a lot of W.W. II history, and several Hitler biographies, and I encountered a bunch of stuff in ‘Explaining Hitler‘ that I hadn’t seen before.  Some of the theories of Hitler get very granular, and I learned things I hadn’t known about his rise, his life, and the post-Holocaust scholarship about him.

But, mostly, to me, ‘Explaining Hitler‘ was a long series of compelling questions, premises and thought-experiments about what is, for my money, one of the most interesting relationships of the 20th century: our relationship with Hitler.  There is no use pretending that we don’t have one – he is our go-to example of Badness, on the tip of our tongues even now, omnipresent in Godwin’s Law and political punditry and meme culture.  Hitler is important to us, not simply because of the enormities that he orchestrated, but because he represents the farthest-out version of ourselves, the most extreme human potential in Category: Evil.  We need to see the worst that we might be, and I think that we need to understand that worst.

I Wear The Black Hat

Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)

By Chuck Klosterman

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Some books are written just for you.

You know what I mean, right?  Something similar happens between people.  There are miracles of chemistry: you meet someone, and both of you experience an instant and reciprocated affinity.  It is as though you were both designed with the other in mind, all the pieces match up.

The same thing can happen with books.  There are books out there, like people, which are just perfect for you.  They were written because there are other people like you, who think like you and care about the other things you care about, and now you’ve found each other and it’s going to be fun.  Maybe moving, maybe life-changing, but definitely fun.

Klosterman
Chuck Klosterman

When I learned that Chuck Klosterman, the morbid, mordant culture critic, had written a book about villainy, I knew without reading it that I loved it.  I’ve always liked Klosterman – he’s dark, and funny, and broadly interested in how the world works, how all the pieces of culture fit together, what they mean synthetically.

And I love villainy.  I love villains, bad guys, wickedness and evil – I’ve been interested in them all my life.  In my experience, this is either something you get or you don’t: some people orient towards heroes, some towards villains.  We two sides will not understand each other; I cannot explain why I think that villainy is more interesting, and more important, than goodness.  I only know that it is.

I Wear the Black HatI Wear the Black Hat‘ is Chuck Klosterman’s loose meditation on villains in culture, on what makes someone seem villainous, on what makes some villains likable and some not, on the factors which inform villainy: context, intention, success (the full title is ‘I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)‘).  It is arranged into short chapters, essays really, which do not share content but which share structure and orientation.  It’s a quick read, and an easy one, but it’s also a fucking blast.

Klosterman has a lot to recommend him: as I mentioned, he’s funny, but he’s also brave, probably honest, and has a viewpoint which is recognizably his own.  He has a real knack for persuasively connecting things which you had not thought to connect, and the facility of his comparisons does not leave you with the impression (which it might easily have done) that he has not thought deeply about them.  Take, for example, his essay ‘Crime and Punishment (Or the Lack Thereof)’, which begins thus:

‘It’s unfair to write this, but I’m going to do it anyway: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and O. J. Simpson have a lot in common.  We don’t normally lump them together, because certain key contrasts are tricky – for example, one man is a Muslim intellectual and the other more or less decapitated his ex-wife.  This is more than a significant detail.’ (p. 191)

The essay which follows this (and I challenge anyone even vaguely curious about American culture to read that opening and then walk away from the rest of the essay) contains two of the more interesting points about O. J. Simpson that I’ve ever read:

    1. That if, in fact, O. J. were innocent (which Klosterman emphatically does not believe he was) than his post-acquittal public life was the only reasonable and honorable path open to him (up to the publication of ‘If I Did It’, that is).
    2. That “over time, the public will grow to accept almost any terrible act committed by a celebrity; everything eventually becomes interesting to those who aren’t personally involved.  But Simpson does not allow for uninvolvement.  He exceeds the acceptable level of self-directed notoriety and changes the polarity of the event; by writing this book [‘If I Did It’], he makes it seem like the worst part of Brown and Goldman’s murder was what happened to him” (p. 204)

That kind of lucid and yet strange analysis is exactly what characterizes Klosterman’s writing, but here it meets subject matter which sorely needs it.

People rarely examine villainy merely to understand it.  Klosterman isn’t interested in condemning the subjects of his essays (who include Kim Dotcom, LeBron James, Andrew Dice Clay, Batman, and Hitler); when he feels that they deserve condemnation, he merely states that they have got it.  He’s not moralizing; he’s interested in figuring out why we react to different people the way that we do.   He even manages to provide a definition of villainy which is pithy, novel, and servicable:

‘In any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least.’ (p. 14)

That’s Klosterman at his best: short, thought-provoking, and quotable.  I don’t always agree with his little epigrams, but I can’t ever dismiss them, and sometimes they hit me upside the head with their novelty and insight.  Take my single favorite quote from the book (from his entire ouvre, probably):

‘Love is significantly less crazy than lust.  Love is a mildly irrational combination of complex feelings; lust is a totally irrational experience that ignores complexity on purpose.’ (p. 128) (This is from the essay on Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the movie Basic Instinct, Ted Bundy, and Wilt Chamberlain.  Really.).

For my money, there is more wisdom in that little line than in all of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, whether it is correct or not.  And the kicker is, I can’t tell: I’ve been thinking about it for days, and I don’t know whether or not I agree.

That’s the great joy of reading Chuck Klosterman: you get to see the whole world sparkle with a totally new perspective, one only slightly askew from your own but which nevertheless makes an enormous difference.  That’s what good culture critics do, really – they show you the same old objects stripped of their familiarity.  And ‘I Wear the Black Hat‘ is good cultural criticism: it will show you the same old villains, but with a whole new sparkle.