Wow, how great is this? Kids' books about dark matter and consciousness and free will and rebelling against God? This is definitely up my alley. Stray...moreWow, how great is this? Kids' books about dark matter and consciousness and free will and rebelling against God? This is definitely up my alley. Strays a bit from the delightful and incredibly imaginative storytelling into polemic in the final book, but still up there with the best stuff of its kind that I've read.(less)
A rollicking, farcical road tale set in Russia in the first half of the 19th Century. Follows Chichikov, a petty bourgeois con man… a man who is “not...moreA rollicking, farcical road tale set in Russia in the first half of the 19th Century. Follows Chichikov, a petty bourgeois con man… a man who is “not too fat, and not too thin” in the words of the author, on a trip around the country to buy up “dead souls,” which are peasants who have died but are still counted as living until the next census happens. Chichikov hopes to make his fortune by charming lots of landowners into giving them away for nothing, and then mortaging them under new regulations that allow Russian landowners to mortage their estates to the treasury at roubles-to-the-soul. Gogol uses the misadventures of our antihero to paint a humorous and loving picture of Russian life in the first half of the 1800s. Kind of reminds me of Tristram Shandy.(less)
**spoiler alert** I re-read this partly to figure out if I really love it as much as I thought I did(I do.) and also to sort of figure out why, since...more**spoiler alert** I re-read this partly to figure out if I really love it as much as I thought I did(I do.) and also to sort of figure out why, since it seems to be greater than the sum of its parts somehow. I'm still not exactly sure what the secret is, but I'll take a circuitous stab at it.
It incorporates a lot of elements that I love in other books: It's a bildungsroman and frame narrative(tons of other things I love.) It teaches me stuff and incorporates info-dumpy type elements, but not in a Neal Stephenson overbearingly expository sort of way... in a way that's integral to the characters and who they are(see Richard Powers.) It uses other cultural touchstones as sort of frameworks on which to hang shared meaning and around which to form identity, but not in a tossed-off and lazily referential sort of way(The difference between say, Murakami and Coupland, or Ghost World and Garden State is what I'm getting at here.) It's got a cracked and rather dry sense of humor. It employs a conversational style and a really distinctive voice(Vonnegut, but that's a double-edged sword because it also becomes what annoys me about him, and I was afraid that would be the case the second time through on this, but it wasn't). It's tangential and jumps around and weaves together narratives, but not to the point of it being ticcy and distracting about it.
I think where it really excels is in characterization and in short set-piece storytelling, and most of all in the intersection of those two. The various juvenile-adventure-style tales she tells to introduce and flesh out Ludo's surrogate-father candidates are just wonderful; they work both as character sketches and as adventures and are sad and hopeful and beautiful and true. And the way she skates right on the edge of suspension of disbelief when it comes to drawing out Ludo's character is impressive too. Somehow she manages to make him believable as both an intellectual prodigy and a moral and experiential adolescent, and his constant confused and fumbling attempts to apply the rules of one sphere to the other are touching and ring true to anyone who read dictionaries and did math well before they figured out how to deal with other people.
In that vein, it also has a real moral center and moral sense, even if a rather stoic and resigned one. The evolution of Ludo's relationship with his mother(also a well-drawn and unique character and mind), to the point where he's the one who has the capacity to care for her in the end, is well done. Maybe a little cliched in this day and age, but I didn't mind that at all, and perhaps the contrast even works in its favor.
So, yeah, this has lots of pieces that aren't particularly amazing on their own, but combined in an artful and unusual way. It takes lots of the best tricks and elements of postmodern writing and combines them with older-fashioned bildungsroman-y notions of character and moral development and sense of childhood wonder and adventure. It combines a lot of themes, styles, references, and so on that I'm a sucker for, but without pandering or playing connect-the-dots. A masterful job of self-confident-but-not-arrogant authorial restraint and range and imagination.(less)