Gold Bug Variations

By Richard Powers

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

So, if you’ve been in a bookstore any time in the past six months, you’ve probably walked past Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory‘ featured prominently on the Best Sellers rack, or the Notable New Fiction table, or the Staff Recommendations shelf. It’s a Big Deal Book at the moment: it won the 2019 Pulitzer for Fiction, and it’s a novel about people whose lives are touched by…trees. Or something like that, I haven’t read it, but the back cover assures me that it’s a powerful story about the destruction of the natural world.

Which, is it just me, or does that not sound super smug? It sounds like a novel that exists to make NPR listeners feel good about themselves. Like a novel specifically designed to end up on the Staff Recommendations tables in liberal enclaves.

In the interests of full disclosure: I’m not super interested in reading ‘The Overstory‘ – I’m perhaps willing to give it a shot, but before I read a smug-sounding five hundred page novel about trees, I’d like to know whether or not I even like the author.

Richard Powers has written eleven other novels, the most famous of which is ‘Gold Bug Variations‘, which is described on its own back cover this way:

“‘The Goldbug Variations’ is a double love story of two young couples separated by a distance of twenty-five years. Stuart Ressler, a brilliant young molecular biologist, sets out in 1975 to crack the genetic code. His efforts are sidetracked by other, more intractable codes – social, moral, musical, spiritual – and he falls in love with a member of his research team. Years later, another young man and woman team up to investigate a different scientific mystery – why did the eminently promising Ressler suddenly disappear from the world of science? Strand by strand, these two love stories twist about each other in a double helix of desire.”

So I decided to read that first. The subject matter appealed to me (not all the love and desire stuff – I don’t so much go in for that), but all the biology. I am here for biology – it’s what I do for a living. I’m not generally wild about love stories, but I’m super down to read a six hundred page novel about the scientific elucidation of the genetic code. I’m a big nerd and I’m excited.

At least in theory.

In practice, I pretty much hated ‘Gold Bug Variations‘. I really hated it, actually. I hated it the way you hate books that you really, really hate: where every increment you read, every chapter, every paragraph, you hate it more, in a curve which grows exponentially, so that by the time you finish it, you hate it miles, miles more than you thought it was possible to hate, more than is reasonable.

Gold Bug Variations‘ was well-reviewed, but I have a sneaking suspicion that critics, some critics at least, don’t know the difference between a good book and a verbose book. Between a book that has something to say and a book that has a lot to say.

Gold Bug Variations‘ has a lot to say, or, rather, it says what it has to say at length. Partly, it accomplishes this by saying the same things over and over and over and over. Powers is…exhausting. His prose is bloated and repetitive and smug. He doesn’t say anything once if he can say 10,000 times. He gets carried away with enthusiasm, yes, for his subject matter but also for his own prose gymnastics, his own powers of prose description.

I feel slightly guilty about faulting Powers for this because a) I am also verbose and b) it clearly stems from a deep love of subject matter. I share his love of this subject matter, and I sympathize, but the love isn’t the problem – the problem is that Powers has an undisciplined need to communicate this love to the reader through what I can only describe as verbal force.

“I would tell Todd, spell it out in a five-thousand-volume letter. I would say how I have seen, close up, what Ressler wanted to crack through to. How I have felt it, sustained the chase in myself. How the urge to strip the noise from the cipher is always the desire to say what it means to be able to say anything, to read some part of what is written here, without resort to intermediaries. To get to the generating spark, to follow the score extracted from the split lark. I would tell him, at least, sparing nothing, just what in the impregnable sum of journal articles sent Ressler quietly away, appalled, stunted with wonder.

I would tell him everything I have found. I would lay my notebooks open to him. How the helix is not a description at all, but just the infolded germ of a scaffolding organism whose function is to promote and preserve the art treasure that erects it. How the four-base language is both more and less than plan. How it comprises secret writing in the fullest sense, possessing all the infinite, extendable, constricting possibilities lying hidden in the parts of speech. How there is always a go-between, a sign between signature and nature.” (p. 515)

This is garbage. It’s purple, overlong, self-indulgent, and it borders on incoherent. It’s also what most of the book is like. I bet I have at least as much love and respect for the workings of heredity as as Richard Powers, and I can tell you that wading through hundreds of pages of this drivel was excruciating.

Richard Powers

I’m sure I’m over-reacting. Maybe it isn’t fair to have such a strong aversion to someone’s writing style that you can’t even make a reasonable evaluation of their story, or their characters. But this writing is arduous. And it’s hard not to resent it for being so arduous when it feels as though the only problem is that Richard Powers, who is clearly a very imaginative and articulate person, just didn’t have the self-discipline to stop repeating himself.

And it makes it impossible to care about the plot, or about the characters, about the love stories or emotional journeys of anyone involved. By page 100, I was just holding on until the end – this was an endurance trial. This is one of those books that I only finished because I have a rule about finishing books that I start.

In my opinion, this is the greatest sin a writer can commit: letting his own pleasure in his verbiage overwhelm what’s best for the story, or the reader. It is unforgivable, letting your own pride come before the needs of the writing. I cannot forgive this in a writer, and I honestly cannot remember another writer who is this badly afflicted.

It is worth remembering that Powers was a youngish-writer when he wrote ‘Gold Bug Variations‘, and I will never hang a writer on one work. Maybe he’s gotten better, calmer, sparer. Maybe he’s employed an editor since 1991. I’m not damning the man – I’m damning the novel.

But I can tell you this: I will need a lot of convincing before read this man’s damn tree novel.

The Monster of Elendhaven

By Jennifer Giesbrecht

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“Florian dipped gingerly, right at the sodden border cut by the tide, and plucked out a stone: perfectly round, an inch in diameter and opalescent in sheen. He held it aloft for Johann’s benefit. “The oldest stories of the North called these rocks Hallandrette’s Roe. She lays her clutch along the beach, and protects them from the destructive hands of mortal beings.” Florian turned on his heel and pitched the stone at the cliff-wall as hard as he could. It bounced off the slate harmlessly. “See? Hard stone. Unbreakable.”

Johann frowned. “How do you crack one open, then?”

Florian smiled, secretive. “A privilege reserved for Hallandrette’s chosen. When a wretched child, one wronged or wounded deep in the soul, throws what they love most in the ocean they may cast a roe against the stone and a hallankind will be born. Keep the stone in their pocket and the Queen sends to them one of her children.:

“A friend for the lonely soul.”

“A companion,” Florian affirmed, “made from the same dark matter that coats the bottom of the Nord Sea. A hallankind will love that wretched child as a brother or sister. They will drag whoever wronged their brother-sister-friend into the sea and wring them through the spines of their mother’s baleen until they are foam and sea particle, forgotten in the cradle of her belly.” (p. 52).

Maybe all stories are love stories.

OK, not ALL of them – it’s difficult to describe, oh, ‘Heart of Darkness’ as a love story – but it’s surprisingly hard to come up with a story that isn’t, in some way, a love story.

The trick of it is to understand that love stories sometimes come hidden in unlikely disguises. All sorts of people have love stories who don’t look like they deserve them. Broken people, evil people, sad people, rude people, angry people, all sorts of morally unphotogenic people who nevertheless occasionally find themselves looking for love, feeling love, or acting out of love.

In some ways, those are our favorite love stories. Maybe it’s because they are more suspenseful, since we aren’t sure that the characters in them will find love. Maybe it’s because they are more ambiguous, since we don’t know whether we really want them to find love. Or maybe it’s because they feel truer, since very few of us feel 100% certain that we deserve love.

The inside jacket cover of ‘The Monster of Elendhaven’

When I saw ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ in a bookstore the other day, I didn’t think it was a love story. It doesn’t look like a love story. I’m not sure why I bought it – I’m not in the habit of purchasing books of unknown provenance. But the cover was creepy and the description was even creepier, and I was on a mini-vacation, so I bought it.

Elendhaven is failing industrial city on the northern edge of the map. A hideous accident generations ago has left the ocean poisoned and black. The ancient noble families of Elendhaven have fallen into poverty and the magic that was the source of their power has been outlawed.

Johann does not know who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that he used to be nameless, unloved, born of darkness, until he decided to call himself Johann. He tends to slide off people’s attention, unremarked and unremembered by anyone who meets him. And he can’t be killed, at least not permanently.

And he knows that he likes to kill people. Johann is an accomplished killer – a monster, in fact – who stalks the streets of Elendhaven taking whatever he wants and killing whomever had it.

One night, Johann chooses to rob Florian Leickenbloom, the last living member of the once-magnificant Leickenbloom family. Florian is a small, beautiful man who also happens to be, as Johann soon learns, a sorcerer. Orphaned as a child when the rest of his family was killed in a plague, Florian lives in hermitish seclusion, planning his revenge. And instead of killing him, Johann will fall in love with Florian, and help him realize his terrible plan.

I don’t know if it’s more or less beautiful when a monster loves another monster. But something I respect about Giesbrecht: her monsters are really monsters. They are ugly and evil; they hurt people and they enjoy it. They even hurt each other, and because they have lived lives characterized by pain, cruelty, and rejection, this is part of their love.

The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is gory, viscerally and explicitly gory. It’s creepy, and sexy, and kind of funny, and sad. It’s also romantic, I think?

Romance is not my strong suit, so I might be wrong. It’s also not my favorite genre – I actually have to leave the room during proposal scenes in movies, because they make me so uncomfortable. But, as far as I understand it, romances are stories in which two elements complement each other in a way which makes each feel as though things about them which had been wrong or missing are, in fact, purposeful and right.

This is why this they are powerful for us. We’re all missing pieces, or rough along an edge or two, crumpled where we should be smooth, and romances provide a reason for those traits: those are things which make us ourselves, so if someone loves us, then the self that we are is the right self, and therefore those things are right, too. Love justifies our pain, and our mistakes – it is the forgiveness from the world we need to forgive ourselves.

Jennifer Giesbrecht

And that’s why the romances of monsters are the most revealing romances of all: they are the far-out test case, the most extreme example. They are interesting, yes, monsters are always interesting, but it’s more than that: they are the limit on the possible. And you know you fit comfortably within their limit, and so you know that your experience, your romance, your love, will fit comfortably within theirs.

I wonder if I am the only person who read ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ and thought about love the whole time. I’m definitely not the only person who noticed it was a romance, but I might be the only person who thought it was a lovely romance (rather than a horrific one). That there is something beautiful about the idea of an abandoned little boy raging at the world, calling a monster forth from the ocean who will love and avenge him and who cannot die the way his family did. Who can therefore never leave him alone. In the idea that, if we are monsters, the world might provide another monster to love us, to make us whole.

Because maybe only a monster can truly love another monster.

It’s like there’s a whole other world, full of weird, creepy people (which I definitely am), and we get a whole different, creepy literature. But just because we’re weird and dark doesn’t mean that we don’t have feelings – it just means that our feelings are creepier and weirder than other peoples. And ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a romance for us.

Maybe that’s a weird reaction. But such a weird little book deserves a weird little reaction. ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a book about revenge and hate and gruesome death, and I thought that it was super romantic, but not in the way I hate – in a way I kind of loved. It’s the most romantic murder book I’ve read.

At least this year.

The Luminaries

By Eleanor Catton

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I was in the Harvard Bookstore a little while ago (which, like, I know I mention it a lot, but I spend a totally normal amount of time in bookstores, not a weird, excessive amount of time, at all…), sort of wandering around the Fiction and Literature section, and I noticed a very pretty book with a bright blue cover and yellow letters.

It was called ‘The Luminaries‘, and I had never seen it before, and it was a big book, a hundreds of pages, and the weirdest part: it had won the Man Booker prize. It won the Man Booker in 2013, when I was hypothetically paying attention.

To be clear: prizes aren’t that big a deal. Prizes are merely the opinions of people, and so, like other opinions of people, they are a mixed bag. Some are better, some are worse. As prizes go, I like the Man Booker, especially since they expanded eligibility to include all English-language novels. A prize is never a sufficient reason to read a book, but I think the Man Booker people reliably choose good and interesting books – I’m almost never left scratching my head over a Man Booker winner (which is NOT something can be said of the Pulitzer).

A prize is never a sufficient reason to read a book, but a Man Booker AND a really pretty cover? Why not?

So I bought ‘The Luminaries‘.

The Luminaries‘ is a murder mystery set in a gold rush town in the 19th century. En route to strike it rich in New Zealand’s gold rush, Walter Moody sees what he can only conclude is a ghost in a the hold of his ship the night before he makes land. Having a drink to calm his nerves in the smoking room of his hotel, he finds himself in the middle of secret meeting of local prospectors who have gotten together to puzzle over several strange, recent events.

Another local prospector, Crosbie Wells, a hermit working a useless claim, is found dead in his cabin, apparently of natural causes. However, when his cabin is examined, a fortune in pressed gold is found there. The richest man in town, Emery Staines, is missing. A prostitute, Anna Wetherell, has just tried to end her own life. And a gubernatorial candidate, Alistair Lauderback, seems to be in a dispute with the man who owns the very ship that Moody sailed in on. And the men in the smoking room of Moody’s hotel believe that all these events are connected.

If that sounds ornate and gothic, it is. Eleanor Catton has written a Victorian gothic novel, and then twisted it into something modern. She is clearly a student of the form – she clearly loves it – but her perspective is contemporary, and female.

She’s also a phenomenal writer. She’s got the gift of all great storytellers, the power of telling stories that make you completely forget that you’ve been sitting in your comfy chair in your jammies for two hours without moving and you can’t remember the last time you felt your legs and you have to pee. She has a particular gift for characterization: her character descriptions rise to the level of genius. They are complex and lovely and true-feeling, characters who seem somehow familiar while at the same time seeming unlike anyone you’ve ever met, someone utterly new and yet resonant.

“Walter Moody was not superstitious, though he derived great enjoyment from the superstitions of others, and he was not easily deceived by impression, though he took great care in designing his own. This owed less to his intelligence, however, than to his experience – which, prior to his departure for New Zealand, could be termed neither broad nor varied in its character. In his life so far he had known only the kind of doubt that is calculated and secure. He had known only suspicion, cynicism, probability – never the fearful unraveling that comes with one ceasing to trust in one’s own trusting power; never the dread panic that follows this unraveling; never the dull void that follows last of all.” (p. 18)

Eleanor Catton

“Shepard’s autobiography (a document which, if ever penned, would be rigid, admonishing, and frugal) did not possess that necessary chapter wherein the young hero sows his oats and strays; since his marriage, his imagination had conjured nothing beyond the squarish figure of Mrs. [Shepard], whose measures were so familiar, and so regular, that he might have set his pocket watch by the rhythm of her days. He had always been irreproachable in his conduct, and as a consequence, his capacity for empathy was small.” (p. 135)

“Quee Long was a barrel-chested man of capable proportions and a practical strength…The gaps in his smile tended to put one in mind of a child whose milk teeth were falling away – a comparison that Quee Long might well have made himself, for he had a critical eye, a quick wit, and a flair for caustic deprecation, most especially when that deprecation was self-imposed. He painted a very feeble picture whenever he spoke about himself, a practice that was humorously meant, but that belied, nevertheless, an excessively vulnerable self-conception. For Quee Long measured all his actions by a private standard of perfection, and labored in service of this standard: as a consequence he was never really satisfied with any of his efforts, or with their results, and tended, in general, toward defeatism.” (p. 258)

Maybe you didn’t think that the world needed an 800-odd page modern satire of a Victorian gothic murder mystery set in New Zealand and peopled with breathtakingly well-written characters – you were wrong. And here’s why:

Those old stories had one great virtue: they were entertaining. They were fantastically entertaining, which is perhaps the greatest virtue a story can have. But Eleanor Catton understands something about them: that underneath the entertainment they provided, those old stories missed so much about what was important about the world which was their setting.

They missed the lives of all the invisible people: all the poor people, the immigrants, the slaves, the ill, the whores, the women and children. All those people who just provide texture, color, to those old stories, who are just scenery. And that, even though those people never starred in those stories which we love, they were real, they had lives and feelings and hopes and griefs. And that, in any real world, they would also have stories.

And so she has written them in, not in an obnoxious, heavy-handed. PC sort of way, but the way the ought to be written: as a true and proper part of the world. And then, in the end, she reveals the whole point: that under the labyrinthine twistings of the plot, under the mechanisms and mysteries and villains and ghosts and buried treasures (and all those things are there, in this story), those humans, their human stories, were the point all along.

The Luminaries‘ is a love story which you don’t know is a love story until the very end. It’s a novel that reminds you that murders and thefts and betrayals and winfalls are all events that might happen in a life, but that the life is all that really matters. It’s engrossing through out, gorgeously written, sharp and funny, but, in the end, it’s beautiful, and I loved it.