(My full review of this book is larger than GoodReads' word-count limitations. Find it at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcent(My full review of this book is larger than GoodReads' word-count limitations. Find it at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)
"You know what I think?" she says. "That people's memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn't matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They're all just fuel. Advertising fillers in the newspaper, philosophy books, dirty pictures in a magazine, a bundle of ten-thousand-yen bills: when you feed 'em to the fire, they're all just paper."
There are lots of people out there, myself included, who believe Japanese author Haruki Murakami to be the creator these days of some of the most beautiful dialogue currently being produced on the planet; and after coming across an example like the one above, how really can you not agree? For years a well-known secret among the Western world's literary hipsters, it was not until Murakami's embrace by indie heavy-hitter McSweeney's at the turn of the millennium that he acquired a mainstream following within English-speaking countries; now that his work is getting more and more known, however, there are more and more people now aware of what a magical and sometimes almost perfect thing a Murakami novel is. I'll admit right off the bat, for example, that I'm a big and longtime fan of Murakami myself; that before today's review I had already read four of his thirteen books now available in English, and in fact love his work so much that I've named one of my past Macintoshes after him. (See, anytime I acquire another Mac, I rename the hard drive after a writer I really admire, so that I can tell them apart when linking them together as an in-home network...and, um...er, never mind.)
Murakami's latest English novel, then, the slim but still deeply strange After Dark, becomes this week my fifth full-length novel of his, and in fact......more
the classic first book of stories from one of america's premiere living humorists. dark, twisted, cringe-inducing at times, you'll nonetheless find yothe classic first book of stories from one of america's premiere living humorists. dark, twisted, cringe-inducing at times, you'll nonetheless find yourself laughing out loud on almost every page here. a great, great introduction to sedaris' work....more
One of those classics I haven't read in a long time, that I remember being very good, but that I should really read again soon in order to confirm. EvOne of those classics I haven't read in a long time, that I remember being very good, but that I should really read again soon in order to confirm. Even more important than before these days, in fact, in that it was one of the first projects ever to precisely define exactly what Fascism is; remember, before this novel, there were lots of disagreements over what linked Hitler and Mussolini together (for example) ideologically, apart from it being advantageous for them to team up against the Allies. When I think back now to so many of this book's plot points, they match up with actual items from the Bush administration so precisely to be scary; that's why I'm thinking of sitting down soon and reading this again for the first time in a decade....more
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)
Many of CCLaP's German readers will of course already be familiar(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)
Many of CCLaP's German readers will of course already be familiar with author Benjamin Lebert; he's a German as well, after all, whose previous novel Crazy was a big cult hit over there in the early 2000s, back when Lebert himself was barely more than a kid. And now we come to his second "novel," a tiny little volume called The Bird Is a Raven which in actuality is more like a novella than anything else. A slim 110 pages (and in large type as well), the book is not much more than a chronicle of a conversation between two young German men while on a nighttime train ride from Munich to Berlin; it's a long and boring journey, for those who don't know, one perfect for intimate conversations between strangers in a shared bunking car.
Ah, but unfortunately, for this being such a tiny book there sure are a whole lot of problems with that conversation at the center of The Bird Is a Raven, starting with its extremely uneven tone: how even as it's ostensibly a re-telling of the action-based stories that are driving both of these young men from Munich and into Berlin in the middle of a random night, it is also filled with the kind of aimless navel-gazing ennui that marks the stereotypical jokes about indie European arts, just pages and pages of young males staring balefully out dark train windows while muttering lines such as, "Oh ja, I am filled with Der Angst, and now I wonder perhaps if an angel dies every time a rose sheds ein petal." Not to mention that the stories the men tell about their Munich days are kind of offensive and misogynist and gross and dark anyway; just witness the dour main story, Henry's that is, entirely populated with repulsive characters doing repulsive things given any opportunity at all to do so.
But then it gets even worse than this, believe it or not -- now witness the other young man's story, Paul, whose entire arc basically exists just to deliver a sitcom-like punchline at the very end of the manuscript, something so pointless and arbitrarily violent that it just leaves you scratching your head afterwards and saying, "...the f-ck?" Stupid language-loving, angst-embracing Germans, I tells ya!
(My full review of this book is much longer than GoodReads' word-count limitations. Find the entire essay at the Chicago Center for Literature and Pho(My full review of this book is much longer than GoodReads' word-count limitations. Find the entire essay at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:].)
Within long-form fiction, there is a particular thing that I happen to really love, something maybe a little difficult to explain but that I bet a lot of CCLaP's readers enjoy too; and that's when an author will pick a seemingly quirky topic, something that doesn't appear at first could be tied to a number of different periods of history, and then proceed to precisely tie the topic to a number of different periods of history, accidentally telling a Grand Story about society in general while along the road of the Quirky Story you originally thought they were going to tell. Maybe the best (or at least most well-known) example I can think of is Alan Moore's 1985 comic series Watchmen; the way he takes a supposedly niche subject like masked superheroes and instead tells a sprawling saga that lasts from the 1930s to the 1980s, showing how in fact each of the generations in those decades has had their own unique way of looking at the so-called "niche," which in turn says something unique about each of those generations and each of those time periods as well. The reason people go so nuts over Watchmen is not for the surface-level action-based plot of the story's latest generation of characters (although it is awfully inventive and entertaining, don't get me wrong); it's because Moore paints such a deep and incisive portrait of America itself through the various past generations of superheroes in his fictional world, tying together their similarities and differences into one giant uber-plot-engine that propels the story along as explosively as it does.
And hence do we come to by George, the second and latest novel by celebrated author Wesley Stace (Misfortune), who for those who don't know has already had an entire other celebrated artistic life as a musician under his stage name John Wesley Harding. (A cross-media genius; ah, how I do love featuring people like that here at CCLaP!) It is one of these stories like I'm talking about, in this case focusing on the topic of ventriloquism; a story you're led at first into thinking is going to be a quirky "indie-lit" one about an individual strange child, but then elegantly expands into a grand saga over the course of its plot, eventually reaching back into the footlights world of the Victorian Age itself. It's a book that holds untold complexities, a plot filled with sly cross-references that only slowly reveal themselves, an infinitely smart thriller which doubles as a deep character study which then doubles as a historical drama; a book I'm eternally grateful now that I picked up, in that this was yet another in a recent string of completely random novels I've recently checked out from my friendly neighborhood library, done for no other reason than because of simply liking the cover art (and in this case, the music of John Wesley Harding as well).
And indeed, this is probably the best place to start; that unlike someone like, say, Ethan Hawke (whose books in my humble opinion mostly get unfairly maligned, but that's a whole other essay), Stace is a cross-media artist who doesn't stick out as one, who doesn't need excuses from his fans like, "Yeah, but you should hear him sing!" In fact......more
(My full review of this book is much longer than GoodReads' word-count limitations. Find the entire essay at the Chicago Center for Literature and Pho(My full review of this book is much longer than GoodReads' word-count limitations. Find the entire essay at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)
I freely admit it; that as a man, there are sometimes things that women do that utterly baffle me, and will probably continue to baffle me until the day I freaking die, just like it is with women regarding men. And that's because, avoiding any kind of qualitative judgment, I think we can all agree that there are fundamentally different ways that men and women sometimes react in different situations, based on a variety of criteria and societal concerns, and that in some cases such actions and behaviors can seem incomprehensible to the other gender. You don't hear of too many men, for example, who just lose their marbles one day, drive their kids to a nearby lake and calmly drown them; not too many male jilted lovers go on insane cross-country drives in the middle of the night, with bizarre weapons in tow and while wearing adult diapers so that they don't have to make bathroom breaks, all in the name of some crazed crackpot scheme thought up in the middle of the night regarding stabbing their lover's new lover then turning the knife on themselves.
It is one of these very topics, in fact, that fuels the entire storyline of acclaimed author Alice Sebold's latest brilliantly twisted dark little novel, The Almost Moon; in fact, that's what the very first chapter of the book is devoted to, is a real-time blow-by-blow accounting of a middle-aged woman suddenly going insane one day and murdering her senile, sh-t-covered old-age mother, just randomly one afternoon while over at her house and preparing to clean her like a baby for the thousandth time in a row now. What the rest of this delightfully wicked story is about, then, is a fascinating and detailed look at the decades leading up to this moment, told in a non-narrative "hyperfiction" style that jumps from early-childhood to just yesterday at the blink of an eye, painting one of the deepest portraits you'll see in contemporary literature of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, and of all the teeny, tiny, strange, entertaining, depressing, hopeless, fascinating ways the relationship affects the way the woman deals with each and every other person in her life too. It is utterly a female story, the kind that can only be told by a female author, but told in a way so that I as a male reader can get it too; I love such novels, as I've mentioned here before, and am always glad to come upon another one like I have this week.
So why does Sebold's name sound so familiar, you're thinking? Well, because she's the mousy dark novelist who seemingly appeared out of nowhere in the early 2000s to write The Lovely Bones, an emotionally devastating crime thriller and meditation on loss that happened to have been written from the standpoint of a murdered teenage girl as she watches the proceedings from heaven. I read it too when it first came out, and like many others it made me openly weep in public; it became not only a runaway bestseller, but is also slated to be the next movie by Lord of the Rings impresario Peter Jackson. Oh yeah, that Alice Sebold!
This is only her second novel, after taking a break between them to pen the true rape memoir Lucky; and it is the best kind of second novel to write, to tell you the truth, one that......more
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)
I've talked here before concerning the surprising things I'm lear(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)
I've talked here before concerning the surprising things I'm learning about books these days, now that I've been a daily critic myself for about nine months now, and especially two factors that more heavily influence what we think of a book than a lot of us realize -- of where we in particular are in our own lives when we read the book (in terms of age, experience, career level, etc), and also how much we've heard about a book before we've read it ourselves. And really, if you want a perfect example of what I'm talking about, let's take today's book under discussion, Monica Drake's highly popular 2006 debut novel Clown Girl, a book that for a couple of years now has been getting talked about in glowing terms from just a whole pile of people I know and admire; I mean, c'mon, the introduction was written by Chuck Freaking Palahniuk, who by the way happened to be a member of the academic writing workshop where this novel first took shape.
And then I read it. Hmm. And I realized that it's not so much that this novel is truly unique or original that it's been getting so much attention, but that it uses a highly unique and inventive trick for telling an otherwise pretty plain story -- that is, Drake tells the story of a struggling young artist in the corporate world through the metaphor of professional clowns, a gimmick I can literally picture a tableful of dour grad students with tasteful beards and drab GAP sweaters delighting over when first coming across at some summer workshop in some quaint upper-class small town in the Hudson River Valley. Because admittedly, the gimmick is a cute one, one that can be stretched further than you ever thought a "clown in the corporate world" one could; how our unstable hero Nita got into the whole industry in the first place for its performance-art qualities, because of the grand tradition of French mimes and Cirque du Soleil and all the rest, but now finds herself working corporate parties and other "red-nose events" in order to pay the bills. And how her fellow-clown boyfriend is off in northern California as we speak, interviewing for "clown college" (i.e. grad school at UC Berkeley); and how she is getting pressured by her lesbian co-workers to get into the erotic/stripper side of the whole clown scene for extra bucks; and how when she misplaces her rubber chicken, she puts up flyers all over the neighborhood as if it were a lost dog. Yeah, cute, like I said, a trick just good enough to hold together an especially strong slam poem or New Yorker short story.
Ah, but here's the problem, that the gimmick wears thin in a 300-page novel; and when it does, you're left with a pretty typical grad-school storyline at its core, one that could be substituted with the plotline of a thousand other stories by grad students without anyone ever being the wiser. Because when all is said and done, Clown Girl is ultimately about unpleasant white slackers in their twenties, deliberately living in sh-tty neighborhoods not because they have to but because they are rejecting their white-bread middle-class backgrounds, pursuing lives as conceptual artists and small-level drug dealers and full-time academes as a way of pushing off real life as long as possible. And this gets into the complication I was talking about -- because I used to like such novels, see, back when I was in my early/mid-twenties myself and living more of that kind of lifestyle myself, and can understand why so many people I respect have been going nuts over this book recently. It's not a bad book, that's the point I really want to hammer home today; it's just that I've read this story way too many times in my life now, a story I find less compelling with each year I get older, a story that ultimately cannot be saved by a literary gimmick no matter how cute that gimmick is.
And this gets into the second complication I mentioned before -- that since I had heard so many great things about this book going into it, I'm tempted to be more disappointed than normal, and to give the novel a lower score than it deserves. And the truth is that it doesn't deserve a low score -- it's a well-written book, after all, a tight and plain-spoken story that you can get through in a single day if you're dedicated. It's just that you need to be careful with this book, to not expect too much out of it, to accept that it's a product of an academic environment and therefore has all the trappings of grad-school literature. Do this and the book is sure to entertain; expect more like I did, and you're bound to be disappointed.
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of C(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)
So for today's review to make sense, I need to explain something to those who are reading it from outside of Chicago; that although our literary community here is a large and thriving one, with hundreds of published writers and hundreds of others who perform live on stages each week, there are perhaps only two handfuls of authors in the city now who have achieved legitimate national mainstream success, the kind of success where you can mention them to random people in other cities and they'll say, "Oh, I've heard of him. He's good." And these 10 or 15 writers tend to be revered by much of the rest of the community, for choosing to stay in Chicago and continuing to support the local scene here, instead of running off to Brooklyn like every writer and their hipster f--king uncle seems to have done by now; and this is especially true when they double as a professor at one of the local colleges as well, which most of these 10 or 15 most famous Chicago authors do, building these little undergraduate armies that not only adore them but almost worship them outright.
And thus do we come to Chicago author Joe Meno, a guy around my age and on the staff of Columbia College's well-known fiction program (a school also well-known for their film and photography programs), whose huge and surprising national success now has mostly come from his long-time association with Punk Planet (both the magazine and now the publishing company). And the reason I know that Meno has this entire small army of ultra-passionate fans is because of publishing here at the site last year an only so-so review of his first novel, 2004's maudlin indie-rock memoir Hairstyles of the Damned, which happened to also be the high-profile kickoff of Punk Planet as a small press; although none of his fans were outright rude or mean to me after I posted that mediocre review, I did certainly hear from a whole sh-tload of them, on a regular basis that has never stopped to this day, with most of them very patiently explaining over and over how I really owe it to myself to just read some of his newer work. "Seriously," the average email or comment would go, "just sit down and read some of his newer work. Seriously. You'll see then why everyone goes so nuts for him."
Okay, so this week I finally did; I finally got my hands on his latest novel, 2006's The Boy Detective Fails, also on the now-proven Punk Planet imprint (who also this year put out Elizabeth Crane's newest book, speaking of revered Chicago authors with national followings). And hey, guess what, Meno fans, you're right, you're right! This is an astounding novel, I have to admit, something that immediately rockets Meno past the "snotty college DJ with a book in him" level of his first manuscript and into the stratum of "an American version of Haruki Murakami" (or if you will, a more accessible Mark Danielewski), a dense and trippy story that is metaphorical, emotional, naked and layered all at once, the sure sign of a mature writer coming into his own for the first time. In fact, after finishing it, I had to ask myself why Meno didn't just start his career in novels with a story like this in the first place, instead of the semi-hacky material of Hairstyles, material that had already been mined to death by such writers as Nick Hornby, Chuck Klosterman and a million 19-year-old zinesters? If you've got this kind of novel in you, why not just start with this novel?
But then I remembered -- maybe Meno didn't have this kind of novel in him when he wrote Hairstyles, that maybe it took the writing of Hairstyles to be able to put together a novel like Boy Detective. And this of course gets into a subject I've talked about here at CCLaP many times before, one of the reasons that we long-term fans of certain artists become long-term fans to begin with; and that's the pleasures and frustrations of watching a certain artist over the course of their entire career, to watch them both grow and falter as a person and as a creative professional, and to see where the things from earlier in their lives take them later in life. Because make no mistake; when I say that this novel is "Murakamiesque," I mean that impossibly weird, unexplainable things happen on nearly every page, but with Meno confidently steamrolling ahead with the prose as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening at all. There's a difference between that and simply writing a story where weird stuff happens; to reach the kind of level that Murakami and Meno do, you have to write that story in a mature and steady hand, to be completely confident that your story is quite off the tracks altogether of mainstream normalcy but that you yourself are on the right track anyway.
In this case, Meno starts with what would've been a cutesy but otherwise empty Clown Girl style gimmicky literary trick; he envisions a world where such child detectives as Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew actually exist, and as adults have to a fault become overwhelmingly neurotic, barely functioning messes. Our hero Billy Argo, for example, is clearly a stand-in for Brown himself, a precociously intelligent child and cardigan-wearing Modernist poster-boy during his youth, who needs only to stare at random strangers through his magnifying glass to get them to blurt out embarrassing truths about themselves. As a middle-aged adult, though, we learn that Argo has been in and out of mental institutions for decades, with permanent bald spots on the sides of his scalp from all the electroshock treatments he's received, basically hanging up both the detective work and his entire life after the suicide of his beloved sister, fellow crime-fighter during their youths who became an aimless goth after Billy left for university. He spent a decade in a voluntary drug haze within a safely confined state institution because of all this; but now the government money for such programs have dried up, meaning that Billy himself is now dried out, sober and ejected from the hospital and suddenly in the glaring sun of a general population he barely understands anymore, an ugly and obscenity-filled world that is a far cry from his glittering early-'60s youth.
Yeah, I know what a lot of you are saying at this point -- "Zuh? Wha? Come again?" And believe me, this is just the set-up I'm talking about; within the first 50 pages, all of the things I've described have already taken place, leading Billy on a new contemporary quest to understand himself and his sister's death, precisely through a weirder and weirder story involving a halfway house, a mute child bully, gaping underground caverns that might or might not actually exist, and the most unreliable narrator this side of American Freaking Psycho. But just like Murakami (and you know what I mean if you're a fan), Meno manages to pull all these disparate elements together, and in a way that seems effortless too, and deliver a story with a lot of raw and true emotional wallop at its center while still couched in a dreamlike fairytale narrative structure. It's a difficult thing to describe, fans of these stories will tell you, and almost impossible to actually describe where the line lays between these kinds of projects and unintelligible artsy messes; you just know it when you see it, I guess, and here Meno definitely has "it."
Like I said, I think a lot of it has to do with the author themselves getting to a point of real maturity in their careers, a point where they truly understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and are able to veer off suddenly from the norm without worrying fatally that they're heading down the wrong road. This is always where a good writer becomes a great one, after all, is the moment they step off that highway the rest of us are on and say, "You know, I think I'm going to create this brand-new road out of thin air, and I invite the rest of you to drive down it too once I'm finished building it." That's what makes a great artist great; they can imagine this new nonexistent road where none of the rest of us can, when all the rest of us are happy to keep driving down that boring ol' concrete road that everyone else is driving down. Or if you want to put it in even simpler terms in this case, let's say it like this -- that when you compare the two books directly, Hairstyles seems like the one that everyone wanted Meno to write and expected out of him, while Boy Detective is the one that no one but Meno himself could've envisioned beforehand. And it's precisely because of this that Boy Detective is so great, and Hairstyles so mediocre.
This only comes from being a more and more mature artist, and that in turn only comes from being a prolific artist, of simply writing and writing and writing if you're for example a writer, of just picking up that pen and starting the next novel as soon as the previous one is finished. It's a great thing to watch in Meno, to watch him grow as an artist like that, to actually follow through on the raw promise displayed in his earlier flawed work; it's always fantastic, I think, to watch a good writer become a great one right in front of you, and I'm sure is a big part of what inspires such a passionate audience around Meno's work in the first place. I'm happy that all of them bugged me so much over the last six months, and goaded me into reading Boy Detective and changing my opinion about his work; oh, that all of us could be as lucky as Meno, I suppose, and have the kind of passionate and proactive group of fans that he does. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to reading yet more of this intriguing author's work....more
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of C(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)
It's definitely true, that although I personally am a big fan of so-called "comic books for grown-ups," I rarely review such projects here at CCLaP, for a variety of deliberate reasons: because of the medium's sketchy reputation with the public at large, for example, because of CCLaP's emphasis on being a destination truly for adults (as opposed to a destination for extra-smart adolescents), because of so many such "graphic novels" barely qualifying as reviewable literature in the first place. (So in other words, many of these projects are not bad per se, but are merely not substantial enough to have a lengthy analytical essay written about them.) Ah, but I'm making an exception today for writer and illustrator Charles Burns, again for a variety of deliberate reasons -- because I've been following his work since the early 1980s (originally through the pages of RAW magazine while in college), because he does lots of other interesting things besides just comic books (he was the set designer, for example, of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's controversial 1992 production of The Nutcracker, and is also the full-time cover artist for lit-crit magazine "The Believer"). Most importantly, though, Burns' creations over the decades have mostly been a far cry from the usual navel-gazing whining and postmodern superhero discourses of most "alternative comics;" he is instead a master of the grotesque and macabre, the unsettling and weird, a bastard love-child of David Lynch and Walt Disney, with a little Robert Crumb and Hieronymus Bosch thrown in for good measure.
And thus do we come to Burns' magnum opus, 2005's Black Hole, actually written over the course of a decade and originally published serially through hipster comics outfit Fantagraphics. (DISCLOSURE: As is the case with many small presses mentioned here, I am personal friends with several people associated with Fantagraphics; it makes me pre-inclined to like their projects more than other critics do, something you should be aware of when reading this review.) Like many of his other projects, Black Hole is a "body horror" tale, in which otherwise normal people slowly mutate into horrible freaks over the course of the plot; instead of the pulpy noir tales of many of his most well-known past projects, however, Burns here tackles a much more complex and down-to-earth story, using his creepy visual style to metaphorically evoke terrors which are usually only psychological in nature. And indeed, I don't think it's any coincidence that the dust jacket of this book features dual illustrations of Burns himself, one from the 1970s and one from our times; although not literally an autobiographical tale, you do get the sense that Burns is working out at least a few personal issues from his own youth here, using an otherwise fantastical tale to intimately explore many of the emotional subjects that come with being a teen.
The story is simple enough -- it is the late '70s, and a mysterious new sexually-transmitted disease is starting to affect the high-schoolers of suburban Seattle; but instead of being an AIDS-style killer that eats away from the inside out, this virus actually attacks a person's exterior, manifesting as a series of random genetic mutations depending on who you are but otherwise leaving the inside of the body healthy. And since these are very prominent mutations for the most part (mysterious tiny mouths appearing on people's throats, bodies covered in rotting boils), it soon becomes quite apparent to all which teens are sexually active ones and which aren't, leading not only to a moral panic among the parents but a whole new system of class stratification among the high-schoolers themselves. Burns' 400-page tome, then, is a detailed and complicated look at the lives of half a dozen of these suburban teens, as well as the dark milieu they inhabit -- including a dangerous shantytown in the outlying woods where many of the teens relocate after becoming family outcasts, as well as the various complicated relationships these post-outbreak kids all have with each other in their little self-contained new society.
That's probably what's most interesting about Black Hole, to tell you the truth; because when all is said and done, what this book is mostly about is the natural awkwardness and alienation that most people go through during their teen years, and especially about the endless ways such teens hurt and disappoint all the people around them because of a whole series of romantic misunderstandings and miscalculations. And the reason this is so interesting, I think, is because Burns shows how it's almost more efficient to tackle such a subject through the bizarre metaphor of sexually transmitted genetic mutations, rather than a traditional plot; to cite just one great example, there's a sex scene in this book involving a vestigial tail that explains the erotic-awfulness / awful-eroticism of young sex in a better way than a thousand John Hughes movies added together. This is what I mean when I say that Black Hole is both autobiographical and not, and why I think it's one of the rare graphic novels worth reviewing here; because although the story is definitely one that can only be told in comic-book form, it still rings emotionally true from the very core of the plot, in a way that straight-ahead dramas about teen angst often fail to do. It's a big book, one that takes a surprisingly long time to actually get through (welcome news for regular comics readers, I know), but certainly one that is worth the effort, and one I highly recommend to those who only tackle one or two graphic novels a year.
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)
This is one of two books I've recently read that I didn't care for enough to finish, but weren't exactly terrible so didn't want to include them in my snarky "Too Awful to Finish" series of essays; it's the high-profile Beautiful Children by Charles Bock, which I actually read electronically because of his publisher Random House giving away the digital version recently as an online promotion. It's a supposedly edgy and gritty look at the various losers and junkies that make up the underclass of society, set in this case in Las Vegas but really examining the wrong side of the tracks of any large city; but I'm warning you, this book is "edgy and gritty" the same way a movie on the Lifetime Channel is edgy and gritty, and those who are not necessarily shocked by Valerie Bertinelli playing an abused wife are sure to greet Beautiful Children mostly with disgruntled yawns. Like, did you know that sometimes people are actually forced to sell personal possessions to make ends meet? Did you know that many teen boys enjoy reefer and x-rated comics? Did you know that some people enjoy having sex with other people without even knowing their names? If your answer is yes, then you're probably going to want to skip Beautiful Children; and if your answer is no, dude, seriously, you are not reading my other reviews closely enough.
(My full review of this book is longer than Goodreads' word-count limit; find the entire essay at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [c(My full review of this book is longer than Goodreads' word-count limit; find the entire essay at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)
The longer I'm a full-time arts critic, the more I'm starting to realize just how important the following three facts about the arts are, things I had always suspected when I was an artist myself but am now coming to understand with a certainty now that I'm a reviewer:
--Within traditional Western storytelling, the single biggest debate of all is over whether to emphasize the plot of that story more, or the characters;
--The main difference between so-called "genre" projects and so-called "mainstream" ones is that the former emphasizes plot more, while the latter emphasizes character;
--And of all the great artistic projects throughout history -- not necessarily the most popular of their times, but the ones that keep getting picked up by new readers each decade -- almost all of them feature a unique and strong balance between the plot and characters of that story.
It was something I was thinking about a lot, frankly, while reading through American expat Tod Wodicka's outrageously entertaining debut novel, the humorous yet brutal examination of antisocial academic eggheads known by the unwieldly title All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well; because it is precisely one of those books I'm talking about in my third point above, one that creates complex-enough characters to satisfy any literature professor but with enough of a strange and unique plot to keep all the beach and airport people happy too. It's one of those books that makes you think, "Ah, yes, this is what contemporary literature can do when it's absolutely on top of its form" -- it is hilarious, it is heartbreaking, it tells a tale you'd never come up with in a million years on your own, and along the way manages to indict your own worst behavior without ever completely condemning you (or that is, if you're a cranky egghead into obscure hobbies yourself...and why would you be at this website if you aren't?). It is one of a handful of books I come across each year that reminds me of why I opened CCLaP in the first place; precisely so I could recommend books like these, books that need the extra publicity, books that profoundly hammer home what's so great about intelligent artistic projects, and why you should always hold out for the smartest novels and movies and television shows that you can.
Raised in upstate New York, schooled in the UK, now living in Berlin, Wodicka takes us on a similar geographic journey with All Shall Be Well... -- it is the story of full-time Medieval re-enactor Burt Hecker, and the transatlantic adventures that happen to him over the course of a few months in 1998. And make no mistake, Burt is easily one of the most inventive, fascinating, frustrating, complex characters you will come across in a contemporary novel; failed history teacher, frustrated academe, he at once comprises every single trait about such people that drive the rest of us batsh-t, while still being an instantly compelling character who you simply must know more about with each passing page. And it's this, frankly, that makes fans of so-called mainstream literature fans in the first place; because the fact is that there's a lot for us fellow arrogant nerds to learn about ourselves through the story of Burt, a character so incredibly well-fleshed-out by Wodicka that he almost literally comes alive in front of us. I mean, this is a man so completely out of touch with his modern surroundings, he even considers orange juice a sufficiently OOP (out of period) detail that should never grace his life; a man who owns exactly one modern suit, one modern sweater, who basically sees the rest of humanity as a teeming nest of filthy breeding meatsacks.
But see, just like the rest of us cranky antisocial intellectuals, Burt simply must live in the modern world at times, whether he wants to or not, which is where the pathos of this novel comes in; because Burt simply isn't a very good person, when all is said and done, a person who wants to be good but who obliviously wallows in his weaknesses and vices just too much to be so, and then masks it all in arrogance and a sociopathic hatred of the world so that he never has to acknowledge his own failings to himself. Hmm, sounding familiar, anyone? In fact, it's pretty amazing what Wodicka does with Burt here in All Shall Be Well..., precisely because he is having his authorial cake and eating it too; he is presenting to us a sympathetic character who is also an unredeemable a--hole, a character who will immediately remind any history-loving intellectual of both the best and worst traits about themselves, and most importantly never comes to an ultimate conclusion for us as to how we should think of him. Because let's face it, it's easy for any lover of the intelligent arts to sympathize with Burt's plight -- born in the wrong moment of history (or so he believes), it's obvious that Burt actually wouldn't be that bad of a guy if you had only met him in the year 1300 or so, back when a lot less niceties were expected of your fellow humans, back when Burt would be not much more than your typical sh-t-covered monk, living in isolation in some hilltop monastery in the wilds of western Germany.
Because that of course gets us to the flipside of All Shall Be Well..., and why I say that this is so much better a novel than a typical academic-friendly character study; because the storyline itself takes us on a deliciously bumpy ride not only through the cultured 19th-century confines of upper New York, but the actual wineries and monasteries of western Germany's Rhine and Mosel regions as well*, through a convoluted plot that sees our anti-villain slapped with a court order to attend a New Age Medieval all-woman chanting workshop, because of an "incident" involving the copious drinking of mead and the stealing of a modern car (or "time machine," as he drunkenly refers to it). And see, the bubbly middle-aged Oprah-watching chanters of this New Age group just happen to be obsessed with the Medieval saint Hildegard von Bingen; and 1998 just happens to be the 900th anniversary of Saint Hildy's birth; and so the whole group has decided to go on a trip to western Germany to join an entire planet's worth of bubbly New Age middle-aged housewives in celebrating this anniversary; and this is what's convinced Burt to go through with the plans that fuel the majority of this book's plot, which is to sell all his belongings and secretly emigrate to Germany on a whim, not completely sure what he's going to do there besides wander through the endless grape fields of the region and pretend that he really is living in the Middle Ages.
Hah? Wha? Come again? Yeah, and this is just the beginning of the oddness known as the All Shall Be Well... storyline; before we're done, we've ended up in a catacomb hipster music club in Prague, a Victorian mansion on the Atlantic Seaboard, and all kinds of other interesting situations, interacting with everyone from suave Brazilian womanizers to Polish experimental rockstars, from cocktail-swilling socialites to earnest "it takes a village" Midwesterners. And in this, you might want to compare the book to a more well-known one like, say, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (which is also a movie starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire); that is, both ostensibly take on a rather obvious situation that by all rights should make most smart people groan ("Gee, another story about a snotty academe -- just what the f-cking world needed"), but both successfully pull them off precisely because of the quirky and inventive plotlines that were created. This is something that so many academic writers simply don't get, the thing that drives me the craziest about so-called mainstream or academic literature; that the telling of a story is ultimately supposed to be an entertaining experience, no matter how much of a "piece of art" you want to also make it, and that the most successful artists out there concentrate just as much on a well-done plot as they do on well-done characters.
And then finally, there's this brilliant fact about All Shall Be Well..., that the type of story it is actually changes over the course of the manuscript; that at first it is a truly laugh-out-loud satire of arrogant academic nerds, but then by the end becomes a rather serious drama about a specific individual, one who is in actuality a lot more monstrous than we realized at first, which is why I call Burt an "anti-villain" here instead of the typical "anti-hero." Because the fact is that Wodicka uses a well-worn literary gimmick absolutely masterfully here, our old friend the unreliable narrator; as our story continues, as the people around him start mentioning stranger- and stranger-sounding things, we realize that Burt as our first-person narrator has not been telling us the entire story about what's been going on. We learn, for example, that there's actually a pretty good reason that he is currently estranged from his two adult children, that they're not just the whiny kids that Burt makes them out to be at the beginning of the book; we learn that there's a good reason one is now a divorced Trekkie, the other a hipster expat musician, known for playing blaring free jazz on a series of handmade instruments that he learned how to create during his own Medieval-reenacting childhood. We learn that there's a reason Burt always seems to be sucking on a bottle of his home-brewed mead; there's a reason he made his police-noticing drunken time-travel excursion in the first place, the one that led to his court-ordered time with the New Age chanters.
Now, unfortunately I cannot give this book a perfect score of ten, which I was highly tempted to do, because......more
[Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (cclapcenter.com). I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of[Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (cclapcenter.com). I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.]
Earlier this year, I had a chance to read Haruki Murakami's latest thousand-page barnbuster of a novel, 1Q84, which turned out to be a huge disappointment; so huge, in fact, that it made me question whether I was overly romanticizing all my memories of how good I used to think Murakami was, after reading a ton of his work in the 1990s but then getting out of the habit again until just recently. After all, this newest title seemed to vaguely contain the same kinds of stuff I vaguely remember that I liked so much about Murakami's work when I was younger -- there are Tokyo slackers acting odd, references to a strange alternative reality that in urban-fantasy style exists all around us, tough girls, bizarrely comedic villains, tons of rape, an obsession with unusually shaped body parts as nerdy fetishes, and more shout-outs to obscure European classical composers than even in most English novels. Yet none of these things really came together in a coherent way in 1Q84 -- or perhaps it's better to say that things came together in unsatisfying and unrelated ways -- and it left me wondering whether it's just that I'm now in my forties, have been a full-time analyzer of novels for half a decade now, and simply don't have the tolerance anymore for the type of work that often used to impress me in my twenties when I didn't know nearly as much about literature.
And that's why I decided to re-read perhaps Murakami's most famous book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from 1994 in Japan, 1997 in America; after all, it's another big, giant, deeply unsettling magical-realism tale, the one that tends to make people passionate fans after futzing around with a few minor, shorter titles first, certainly the one that made the biggest impression on me when I was a regular reader back in the 20th century. And after finally finishing it recently, I can now definitively state that it's not my mind playing tricks on me; that book really is as magical and brilliant as I remember it being, and 1Q84 really is a mere pale shade of it, so bad as to almost be a deliberate parody by some smart-ass indie press, even though the two books share a wealth of common tropes, quirks, themes and obsessions. And indeed, that's probably the most interesting lesson to be learned out of reading these two books so close together, is that literature is not and never will be simply a matter of putting all your ingredients into a shake-and-bake bag, tossing thoroughly, and seeing what plops out on the platter afterwards; because although you can technically write dust-jacket synopses of these two novels that would sound almost identical, in one case these elements coil around themselves like a fatally clever puzzlebox, while in the other they just sit there inert, like the flashy little gimmicks they are.
As far as Wind-Up's storyline, perhaps it'd be best to start with the haiku-like minimalism of what can be found at its Wikipedia entry:
"The novel is about a low-key unemployed man, Toru Okada, whose cat runs away. A chain of events follow that prove that his seemingly mundane life is much more complicated than it appears."
King of the understatements, Wikipedia! Because what happens here to make Toru's life more "complicated" is no less than Lynchian in its surrealism and grandiosity: he learns that his brother-in-law may perhaps be the Antichrist, that deep meditation while sitting at the bottom of a dry well from Medieval times that can still be found in a back alley of his neighborhood will actually transport him to a dreamlike alternative universe, and that his wife has been secretly seeing a kind of psychic therapist who doubles as a famous matron of the Japanese fashion industry, who is convinced that the couple's missing cat holds the key to the eventual fate of the entire universe. And yes, I'm deliberately throwing a bunch of random details at you, because I don't want to spoil any of the fascinating plot, so will just toss out some tidbits that won't ruin things by you knowing; because as this long story continues, like a Christopher Nolan movie it starts magically coming together more and more, until reaching a climax that will make you smack your forehead and go, "Oh, so that's what all this chaos was leading up to!"
And in fact it's no coincidence that I compared Murakami to David Lynch in the previous paragraph; because what both are masters at are creating these complicated but real-feeling total mythologies just completely out of whole cloth, a sort of dark fairyland that the artists only hint at in their stories and reveal only the tiniest details of, but while adding a heft and weight to these glimpses that make you feel like there's a thousand years of history and ten thousand alt-universe rules behind them. And it's here where Murakami made perhaps his greatest failing with 1Q84 two decades later, because there's no mystical delight to the alt-universe of his newest book; it's very easy to understand, very small in scope, a Mother Goose tale about little evil spirits and the way they interfere gremlin-like in human affairs. And to be frank, it seems that a lot of this can be blamed directly on an unfortunate new obsession that Murakami has picked up since writing Wind-Up; namely, like many of his fellow countrymen, he's developed a preoccupation with the now constant undercurrent of intensely pious religious cults in Japan, and their increasing habit of committing terrorist acts as a way to bring about the Apocalypse. It seems that anytime Murakami has something to say about violent religious cults, the results always come out more disappointingly straightforward than they needed to be; perhaps it's that the surreal nightmares of Murakami's imagination can no longer compete with the real-life surreal horrors that Tokyo now deals with every day, so that an attempt at recounting these real-life horrors is always going to feel flat by the end.
Of course, there are other factors at play here: Murakami's simply twenty years older, for example, with a lot more titles now under his belt and his recurring themes explored in great depth already. And there's the fact that people like Murakami and Lynch were so successful when younger, the world has literally become a little more like them in general; there was no Lost when Wind-Up was first published, no Adult Swim, no Wonder Showzen, no Lady Gaga, all of whom at least a little get their clues from the explosive popularity that Murakami has experienced over the last several decades. And it's hard sometimes to be able to see if the pieces really are coming together, when you're someone like the author who by necessity is right in the middle of things, and might not have the opportunity to take a step back from the project and get a good general picture of things; because like I said, 1Q84 certainly contains the usual list of Murakamiesque elements, and I imagine that while in the middle of it, it'd be easy to mistakenly think that one was on the right track. But nonetheless, like we learn all over again every so often, sometimes when a venerated author shoots for one last grand novel near the end of their career, they simply fail, and instead turn in a reminder of what once made them so great that they no longer have, and how difficult it really is to put that lightning in a jar even the first time. I have mixed feelings about my memory being right, although certainly it was a treat to read Wind-Up again for the first time in fifteen years; and so instead of picking up the newest book by Murakami, might I humbly suggest reading this modern classic instead. ...more
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)
Is Neal Stephenson the most brilliant living author currently in the United States of America? Oh, wait, I can answer that for you right away: Yes. Yes he is. And that's because Stephenson can do something almost no other American writer currently putting out work can; he can take a healthy dose of the popular zeitgeist at any given moment, mine it to understand the underlying fears and hopes these trendy obsessions actually express, twist it using some of the most inventive speculative fictional tropes that have ever been created, infuse it with the kind of heady, complex "pure science" usually only understood by nuclear physicists and NOVA hosts, then spit it out in these breathtakingly dense thousand-page tomes every couple of years. Of all the thousands of published writers of our generation, I'm convinced that Stephenson will be one of the mere handful still being read and studied a century from now, and there's a very good reason that so many people call him "the heir of Thomas Pynchon," the creator of his own one-man literary genre that can't be called anything else but "Stephensonian." And thus have I eagerly followed along in real time with nearly all of Stephenson's backbreakers over the decades, all the way back from the 1992 cyberpunk classic Snow Crash (the direct inspiration for the very real Second Life); then to his stunning redefinition of steampunk, 1995's The Diamond Age; then to his masterful examination of the real history of 20th-century code-breaking, 1999's Cryptonomicon; and then to his massive three-book, three-thousand-page overview of the entire beginning of both science and finance as we know them, the career-defining "Baroque Cycle" (2003's Quicksilver, 2004's The Confusion, and 2005's The System of the World).
And now, after ten days in a row of reading at least four hours each and every day, I have finally finished Stephenson's latest, the epoch-defining yet often headscratching Anathem; and in fact I found it so dense, so generation-defining, I've come to realize that I simply will not be able to make all my points in the usual thousand-word essay I normally do here regarding any given book. So instead I'm doing two essays on two days, one spoiler-free and the other spoiler-heavy (today's the spoiler-free one), the first essay devoted to nothing else but the superlatively complicated backstory, and not even touching the book's actual plot until the second essay. (GoodReads readers, this is one of the rare times when you will literally have to go to the CCLaP website for the second half, because of there literally not being room here for both.) Because it's important right away to understand what Stephenson is trying to do with this novel, and will make your reading of it (a part-time job, I warn you now, that will take most people four to six weeks) go a lot more smoothly; he is no less than redefining the very relationship between religion and science, and methodically explaining how there's actually a lot less differences between the two than most of us think, if people would simply choose to embrace both subjects in this interrelated way.
And really, this grand a goal is not actually as big a stretch as it might seem at first; after all, according to how recent history has played out, we're hovering right around a time these days where we as a society will be creating a big giant new way for us to even think about such basic subjects as faith, reason, the meaning of life, and more. There was the Enlightenment of the 1700s, for example, which pushed atheistic rationality to the forefront of society; then the Romanticism of the 1800s, in which emotions and spirituality were brought back into style; then the Modernism (and Postmodernism) of the 1900s, where science and religion were first presented as an "either/or" proposition, where rationality and faith were first cemented in the mind as eternally struggling enemies. And now here it is, the early 2000s; so what kind of "ism" will define this age? Well, if you study the subject like I do, the pretty obvious answer is that we're set to go through a century where we profoundly redefine what the relationship is in the first place between religion and science, which is why it's not really such a surprise that Stephenson would latch onto the subject himself, a good ten or fifteen years before it becomes the dominant subject of the popular culture at large, just like all his other novels have done too.
And the way Stephenson does this is of course unexpected and magnificent, which is by creating an entire different planet called Arbre which is almost just like Earth, but different in several basic important ways. For example, the first three thousand years of Arbre's written history are almost exactly like the last three thousand years of our own (from ancient Greece to now); except that in the oldest surviving myth they have, their version of our "Remus and Romulus" tale, theirs supposedly involves a father who near the end of his life professes to having a vision of what he calls a "perfect other world," then dies before he can explain what exactly he meant. So one daughter, Deat, interprets this how the religious of Earth usually would, into terms of a "heaven" and a "god" and "angels" and the like; but the other daughter, Hylaea, takes it to mean that he glimpsed a realm of pure perfect science and reason, not so much a physical place like a "heaven" but more like a Taoist-style existence of pure energy, where instead of a deity running things who takes the form of a person, there is instead only the pure clocklike perfection of a completely rational universe.
And so all the way back to the beginning of Arbrean society, there have actually been two major ways to think of religion, not only the "deist" way which is the only one we have on Earth (known as "deolatist" in their world, after the daughter Deat), but also this "religion of science" known as Hylaeanism, later in history generalized to the more inclusive term "Mathism." And the Mathists have their own monks and their own monasteries, essentially mirroring how the study of science got its actual start in ancient Earth as well; and anytime one of these monk scientists has a sudden breakthrough, like Newton discovering gravity or Einstein discovering relativity or Pythagorus inventing his theory about triangles, this is considered the Mathic version of a miracle, or perhaps more like speaking in tongues, a sort of short, profound connection that monk suddenly has with this so-called semi-mystical world of pure rational perfection, known in their language as the "Hylaean Theoric World" (with "theorism" being their word for our "science"). And this is just inspired of Stephenson to do, I think, because this hearkens all the way back to what real Earth's first scientists actually were trying to do too, the so-called "natural philosophers" and "alchemists" of the 1600s; to them, "science" wasn't a standalone subject unto itself but rather a simple subset of religion, a way of understanding God better by intensely studying the things that God creates, and understanding how we should live our own lives by studying how such creatures as trees and animals do it out in the "natural world," a.k.a. "the world that works the way God wants the world to work, when we humans aren't using our big giant brains to screw it all up." And again, for anyone who's ever studied Eastern religions, you can see a lot of similarities between this and some of the basic tenets behind Taoism and Buddhism -- the idea that God is too infinitely complex a creature for us to ever understand, so all we can do instead is study the things that God creates, and get our cues on how to live our own lives by metaphorically interpreting God in its most purely rational form, what we now know as "scientific concepts," things like gravity and photosynthesis and DNA.
Newton and the other proto-scientists of the Baroque "Royal Society" always saw their pursuits as an offshoot of religion; it's only been in the last 150 years that science has taken on a reputation as being an abomination to God, as the insane efficiency of the scientific process (theorize, test, observe, record without bias) has meant a profoundly fast increase in scientific sophistication, to the point where scientists must now spend their entire lives studying the specific pursuit they mean to make their career just to get caught up, and now not just observe nature in action but actively manipulate it, thus "playing God" in the eyes of many instead of merely worshipping God through natural observation. All Stephenson does is merely formalize this process, on a planet much like Earth's but where he can take certain artistic liberties; on Arbre, scientists literally are monks, universities literally monasteries, where specialists literally devote their entire lives to the pursuit of specific knowledge, literally do wear robes and shave their heads and live in cloisters and everything else. Except unlike Deolatism/deism/traditional religion, commandment number one among Mathics tends to be, "It's a sin to presume that you will eventually understand everything there is to know about the world," with commandment number two being, "And it's an even bigger sin to make up stories about the things you don't understand." When all is said and done, Stephenson argues that this is really the only big difference between science and deism, with all the other conflicts playing off it in one way or another: that science is all about trying to discover what makes the world work the way it does, without tainting your observations with fictional stories regarding the way you really, really wish the world worked, while the entire point of deism is precisely to make up such comforting and easily understood fictional stories, as a way of easing the fear and threat so many feel in the face of the unknown.
And like I said, thus does the first three thousand years of Arbrean written history pass remarkably like Earth's, with their version of a Roman Empire (the "Bazian Empire") which eventually adopts Catholicism ("The Ark of Baz") as its official religion, which eventually leads to a Protestant Reformation (the "Anti-Bazians") which turns into their version of the Renaissance ("The Rebirth"), which on Arbre is when the gates of the ancient Mathic monasteries were first flung open, so that most of the science-worshipping monks could disperse themselves among the public at large, ushering in their version of our "Modern Age" or "Scientific Age" or whatever you want to call it (basically, the last 500 years of history, from the Renaissance to now), which the Arbreans call "The Praxic Age" on their world, "Praxism" being their word for "technology." And in fact Stephenson does something else really smart when laying out this alternative ancient history, which is to wisely separate what we humans know as "science" into three distinct pursuits on Arbre -- not just the scientific process (logic, rationality, etc), which is technically the only pursuit the Mathics embrace, but also the study of numbers (Earth's "mathematics") and the study of just technology, which are the pursuits the "Saecular" (non-Mathic) parts of Arbrean society mostly concentrate on, and especially when it comes to the subject of "syntactic devices" (things like computers, for example, which can be taught to "read" and "write," but don't even begin to understand the context of what they're parsing, of how to enjoy a joke or be emotionally moved by a poem).
Mathic monks instead concentrate on so-called "semantic thought," or the idea that understanding things in context is the most important pursuit in life; and thus is it that only a portion of Arbre's society understands the reasons why technology works, but doesn't actually use any of the technology their theories spawn, while a much larger portion of the population invents and uses all the technology of Arbrean society, but doesn't understand how any of it works. And also thus is it that what might seem to be very scientific people to us are actually considered blindly religious to the Arbreans, the so-called "number-worshippers" who idolize the specifics of math without understanding any of the underlying theories that make the equations work. (This would be roughly translated to Earth's technology worshippers; think of the socially-retarded Comic Book Guys of the world, who can program a computer application but don't know how to even start having a rational, polite discussion with another human being. And in fact Stephenson very cleverly uses as the ultimate example the so-called "Secret Brotherhood of the Ita" associated with each Mathic monastery, a bastardization of the old corporate "I.T. administrators," the number-worshippers who actually ensure that the monasteries and their giant central worship-clocks keep functioning, but who are physically separated from the monks so that their "tech worship" won't "poison" the Mathics' purely theoretic minds. Freaking brilliant, Stephenson.)
But see, all this is only half the backstory of Anathem; because in their timeline, right around our early 2000s is the actual Year Zero of their current calendar, because of a series of apocalyptic occurrences on Arbre in those years known simply as "The Terrible Events" (with us knowing for certain that these events take place right around their early 2000s, despite the new calendar, because of Arbre even having their version of what they call "The Three Harbingers," roughly corresponding to our World War Two, World War One, and Europe-wide political revolutions of 1848, all of them supposedly minor omens of the apocalyptic events that were to come). And for what it's worth, Stephenson leaves the details of the Terrible Events purposely murky, but highly implies that the mess started with the exact kind of accidental molecular disaster that conspiracy theorists have been crowing about this year regarding the very real Large Hadron Collider just built at CERN, the idea that we may just accidentally create a miniature black hole with the thing because of messing around with stuff we don't nearly understand yet, with Stephenson implying that this kicked off a blind panic and a series of voluntary nuclear weapon discharges in a last-ditch attempt to destroy the rapidly expanding artificial black hole, leading to all the other nuclear-armed nations of the world discharging their own weapons in their own blind panics, resulting in all the mass death and chaos and ecological disaster such events would cause.
Whatever the case, we do definitely know that what was blamed for the Events, among both the Mathics and the Saeculars, was the commingling between the two groups that defined the Praxic Age; and thus did the monk scientists retreat back into their monasteries and once again close the gates, an event known as "The Reconstitution" and that marks year one of their "modern" calendar. And thus does yet another entire three thousand years pass, three thousand years of "future history" that haven't actually happened on Earth yet, where humanity ends up progressing in two distinctly different ways; how the Saecular world essentially becomes a neverending chaos of revolutions and superstitions, a Second Dark Age ruled by an alliance of brain-dead tech worshippers and traditional Evangelicals, where skyscrapers and post-apocalyptic wars come and go faster than people can even keep track, while the Mathic monasteries become timeless closed citadels of pure theoretical thought, where monks master such impossibly dense subjects as quantum mechanics and genetic manipulation using nothing more than chalk marks on slate, stick drawings in the dirt. And thus is an uneasy truce developed between the two societies, with both pretty much agreeing to leave the other alone except when absolutely necessary; well, except for the three times in the last three thousand years when the monks got a little too full of themselves, when they started taking on scientific progressions again deemed a little too much like "playing God," at which points the now almost exclusively superstitious Saecular world rose up against what they considered the "witches" of the Mathic world and slaughtered almost all of them, known historically by the remaining Mathics as the three "Great Sacks," the last of which occurred nearly 800 years before the beginning of our current story.
Okay, got all that? Good; now we're ready for page one of the actual book. And like I said, another fifteen hundred words concerning just that subject will be coming tomorrow. I hope you'll have a chance to come by again then.