Scarlett Thomas likes to write about big ideas. She doesn't deviate from that in her latest novel, Our Tragic Universe. In fact, the novel is built a...moreScarlett Thomas likes to write about big ideas. She doesn't deviate from that in her latest novel, Our Tragic Universe. In fact, the novel is built around portentous issues like immortality and whether we are all living in a simulated universe -- and the storyless story.
That's right, the storyless story. Essentially, it's a story whose entire point "is the subtle rejection of story within its own structure." It is, says the main character, almost metafiction "but more delicate." So, is fiction involving metafiction itself metafictional? I'm enough of an illiterati that I may find it easier to wrap my mind around living in a simulated universe.
Thomas' last novel, The End of Mr. Y, was predicated on a supposedly cursed 19th Century book but explored concepts like consciousness, quantum physics and parallel realities. Although an analogous approach and similar ideas percolate through Our Tragic Universe, it often seems the true focus of the book is personal relationships and the nature of storytelling. And, to some extent, it is its own storyless story.
The novel is built around Meg Carpenter, who is still trying to write the "groundbreaking, literary, serious debut novel" for which she received an advance 11 years ago. Carpenter, whose novel is down to 43 words at one point in the book, has spent the years writing and ghostwriting genre fiction and holding workshops and retreats to teach others how to write it. As she also writes book reviews for some income, she reads a book called The Science of Living Forever. It proposes we have passed the Omega Point, where science has created a "Second World" in which we live as we head toward immortality. As Thomas notes both in the story and the acknowledgments, this is based on physicist Frank Tipler's 1994 book The Physics of Immortality, where Tipler argued there would be a future "omega point" at which an infinite amount of information processing power would result in computer simulations of all intelligent life that has ever lived. Carpenter's almost infatuation-like interest in the ideas of The Science of Living Forever and its follow-up is one of the frameworks upon which Thomas builds the story.
As the fact she is still working on her novel suggests, Carpenter's life has not quite gone as she might have expected. Her relationship with her live-in, increasingly moody boyfriend is growing distant, at best. She thinks she's falling for a much older, married man. While her boyfriends works full-time at a non-paying position, they live on the occasional payments she gets from her reviews or genre book sales. Her friends all seem to be confronting their own issues. All the while, Carpenter tells us how she is working on and thinking of her big novel -- metafiction within the story itself -- and how there was "always something there to delete." As she ponders the concept of the Omega Point and the changes in her life, The Tragic Universe suggests there is a commonality between how we view the universe and the storyless story.
As one of Carpenter's friends says in a "manifesto" about the storyless story, it has no moral center, presents a paradox with no answers or solutions except false ones, and a "reader is not encouraged to 'get into' the storyless story but to stay outside." Perhaps oversimplifying it, in layman's terms it is an almost Zen-like approach to the journey, not the destination or conclusion, that is important. Carpenter begins to think that modern life is similar, that people are becoming "little more than character arcs, with nothing in our lives apart from getting to act two, and then act three and then dying." We are focused on the destination and what is immediately useful, rather than the journey and whatever direction it may take us. She comes to believe that moving inexorably to definitive resolution is what is wrong. She wants "a tragic universe, not a nice rounded-off universe with a moral at the end."
The Tragic Universe seems to reflect this thought process. It isn't a book that provides answers or solutions, or much, if any, resolution. It might even suggest that if you're finding answers in it, they're not the right ones. Ultimately, then, if you want a book with a fixed or final meaning, Thomas isn't giving you one. If, however, you want to accompany a character who seems to place as much value on meandering toward the destinations in her life than where she might ultimately end up, The Tragic Universe might be your storyless story.
Why is that? Because the journalistic approach is based on the individual reader's response to a book. And that directly influences my view of Richard Powers' most recent novel, Generosity: An Enhancement. Put simply, I don't care for metafiction. So, it's not surprising that the fact it appears in the first paragraph affects my view of the book, although I can't honestly say to what extent.
Granted, the book is not full of passages telling you this is, in part, a story about someone writing a story. Yet the device is used enough to distract me and, more importantly, undercut the more interesting social issues the book presents. But for the metafictional elements, I have fairly high praise for Generosity, which made a number of "best of" lists when initially released last year and is now out in a trade paper edition.
Powers uses a two-track approach to the main story. (Or is it? Is metafiction about the story you think you're reading or the statements and suggestions of the fictional (?) author writing the fictional story?) One track is built around Russell Stone, a writer who basically quit writing when he learned how his first published articles affected the people who were the subjects. He now lives in a small Chicago apartment, editing the stories submitted for the entirely subscriber-generated content of a self-improvement magazine and, as the novel opens, is beginning a job teaching a creative nonfiction night class at a small nondescript college in downtown Chicago. Among his students is Thassadit Amzwar, an Algerian Berber refugee from the county's civil wars and political unrest. Despite the strife that marked her life, Amzwar seems immeasurably happy, ebullient to the point she even has a positive effect on her fellow students and people she encounters on the street. Enthralled by her disposition, Stone becomes concerned whether she has hypomania, one aspect of bipolar disorder, or if she is the rare hyperthermic, a person who is always happy and positive. He even consults a clinical psychologist with the school's counseling center, Candace Weld, who bears a striking resemblance to the lost love of Stone's life and also becomes drawn in by Amzwar's ubiquitous euphoria.
The other track centers on Tonia Schiff, the host of a cable television science show, who is preparing a episode about the potential benefits and ramifications of genomics and genetic engineering. The main subject of the program is Thomas Kurton, whose biotech companies are seeking ways to improve life through genetic engineering. When the two tracks cross, testing done on Amzwar by Kurton's company gives rise to a belief that the potential exists to create a "happiness gene" based on her genetic structure. Once Amzwar's identity leaks out after the publication of the journal article on the testing, her life changes dramatically.
Akin to how Powers' National Book Award-winning The Echo Maker examined aspects of neuropsychology, Generosity considers the implications of programming the genes of fetuses, creating drugs tailor-made for an individual's genetic code or extending life far beyond today's life expectancies -- and the profits to be made from patenting genetic information. Kurton see this as creating a wonderful new world. Stone and Schiff are more leery, In fact, after trying to grasp the journal article, Stone concludes:
Homo sapiens has already divided itself, if not into the Eloi and the Morlocks, then into demigods and dispossessed, those who can tame living chemistry and those who are mere downstream products. A tiny elite is assembling knowledge more magical than anything in Futopia, ... learning how a million proteins interact to assemble body and soul. Meanwhile, Stone and his 99.9 percent of the race can only sit by, helplessly illiterate, simply praying that the story will spare them.
Powers also takes Generosity beyond the ethical and social issues of the concept that happiness is simply a function of genetics. The characters also confront the more basic questions of how we define happiness or contentment, how we achieve -- or lose -- it, and how each of us views our lives and our world. As a result, it is not as deep an exploration into the science and tends to be more character driven than The Echo Maker.
Powers does have the ability to quickly capture characters. For example, saying one of the students in Stone's class is "a small, hard woman who must run with both wolves and scissors" does as much to establish that character as a couple paragraphs of description. At the same time, the main characters don't seem to be plumbed too much. Weld, for example, never really feels fully fleshed out and rarely comes across as much more than a convenient bridge between Stone's world and Kurton's. Moreover, every time the omniscient author interjects himself and reminds us the characters are his creation, their development and our ability to invest in them is undermined.
Setting aside my admitted distaste for metafiction, Generosity is more engaging than The Echo Maker. Particularly with its flaws, that doesn't make it a national award winning book. But if all we read were books that won awards, we would miss a lot of interesting works. Even for readers who may have my predilection toward metafiction, the flaws in Generosity are offset by the book's ideas and the way Powers approaches them. As such, it not only is worth reading, it may be a more accessible introduction to his style and approach for newcomers to his work.
Scandinavian crime fiction is the hot new wave, a new niche of bestsellers combining mystery, thrillers and, occasionally, social themes and history....moreScandinavian crime fiction is the hot new wave, a new niche of bestsellers combining mystery, thrillers and, occasionally, social themes and history. Despite the buzz around fiction from Northern Europe, Red April, the first book by Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo to be translated into English, can stand its own in any comparison.
Red April is built around Peru's deadly internal warfare of the late 20th Century. Associate District Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar has voluntarily transferred from a post in Lima, the nation's capital, to his childhood home of Ayacucho, the capital of a political region of the same name in the Andes Mountains. The Ayacucho Region was not only where the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), a Maoist revolutionary organization, committed what it called its first 'act of war' against the Peruvian government, it was one of the areas of the country hardest hit by the brutal tactics of both the terrorist and counter-terrorist forces.
The story takes place between March 9 and May 3, 2000, some seven and a half years after the Shining Path's leader was captured and the organization fell into decline. Chacaltana, a well-intentioned yet odd and naive functionary, is called upon to investigate a severely burned body found in a hayloft. Even though the local police captain declines to perform his agency's part of the investigation, Chacaltana comes to believe that death has the markings of a terrorist act. This causes problems with the region's political hierarchy because, as the local Army commander tells Chacaltana, 'in this country there is no terrorism, by orders from the top.' Shortly thereafter, though, the commander assigns Chacaltana to be an election judge in a remote area of the region, an experience that leaves him convinced the Shining Path is still active and terrorizing peasants and villagers.
As additional gruesome murders occur, the prosecutor quickly realizes the victims are individuals he has interviewed as part of his investigations. 'It's . . . it's as if I were signing their death sentences when I leave them,' he says. We follow Chacaltana's investigation and realizations amidst the many churches and passions of the religious celebrations for which the city of Ayacucho is famous. Is he on the track of a serial killer or confronting a resurgent Shining Path? The book also provides a twist on what American readers have come to call the police procedural. Chacaltana assiduously attempts to follow established procedures, none of which are helpful in this case and in which he meets varying assistance and obstruction from the police captain, the Army commander and a local judge.
Translated by Edith Grossman, Roncagliolo's writing, pacing and plot make Red April a book that is difficult to put down (I read it in less than 24 hours). At the same time, Chacaltana is a unique protagonist. While he struggles with his own demons, including visiting with his death mother each day in his home, he also helps mediate some of the gruesomeness of the story. His short investigative reports, once of which opens the book, and his attention to them are not only character-incisive, are memorable. Not only do they stand in sharp contrast to notes the killer(s) seem to make after each murder, they reflect both his desire to follow bureaucratic procedures and his own touch of ineptitude. Thus, he reports that the 1,576 residents of a village can't remember where the individual who found the burned body was because they were as drunk as he during a three-day festival. He also reports that the man was said to be in the hayloft because he was with a married woman, 'endowed, according to witnesses, with sizable haunches and a lively carnal appetite.'
In the end, though, Red April is political thriller and commentary as murder mystery. It takes the elements of crime fiction, including the police procedural, and uses them to provide a view of how innocents were caught between the brutality of both the Shining Path and the counterinsurgency. Roncagliolo lends it all an air of authenticity by not only describing tactics used by both sides but taking some of the dialogue from actual contemporary documents. While enjoying the book, readers will feel fortunate that it is not an authenticity derived from their own national history.
Some writers end up being put in a box because their style and subjects seem to forever place them in a particular category or genre. Paul Auster usua...moreSome writers end up being put in a box because their style and subjects seem to forever place them in a particular category or genre. Paul Auster usually ends up in the box labeled "Postmodernist." Yet the more Auster I read, the more convinced I am that he ends up with that label because his writing defies easily placing him in convenient boxes. His latest novel, Sunset Park, adds to my belief.
Some of the labels most often placed on Auster's work aren't present here. There's no real metafictional element. In fact, depending on how you define postmodernism (if it can be defined), Sunset Park may not fit in the box. Yet the book still relies on literary devices to explore themes common to his writing and, perhaps, some new ones. A group of damaged characters trying to survive the effects of this century's economic downturn become a method to explore the search for identity, existential angst and the concepts of home and family.
The novel is built around Miles Heller, a 28-year-old living in self-imposed exile in Florida when the book opens. Miles has not spoken with his family since he dropped out of college seven years ago. He still struggles with what led to him leaving, thoughts of guilt over his role in the accidental death of his step-brother when he was a teenager and the impact of that death on himself, his father and stepmother. After dropping out of college, he becomes a hermit of sorts, moving from place to place and holding odd jobs. His current one is "trashing out" foreclosed homes, cleaning up after and removing all the possessions left behind by the former owners. Miles falls in love with a teenage girl but doesn't even tell her about his father, who runs a small publishing house in New York City, or his mother, who left shortly after he was born and is now a famous actress.
Once events force Miles to return to New York City, he moves in with three other twenty-somethings squatting in an abandoned house in a Brooklyn neighborhood called Sunset Park. Here, Auster shifts the narration in turn to each of the them, and Miles, as they relate their past and the present. Bing Nathan, the self-appointed leader, was a high school friend of Miles who plays in a jazz group on weekends and runs a shop called The Hospital for Broken Things, where he repairs old items like manual typewriters and rotary telephones. There's Alice Bergstrom, a grad student writing her dissertation on relations between men and women from1945 through 1947 largely through the prism of the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives. Finally, there's Ellen Brice, who has struggled psychologically since a mistake while in college and seems to be finding an outlet creating erotic drawings. Their problems and aberrations -- and a variety of sexual undertones -- don't require a great leap to see the house also may well be another hospital for broken things.
As Bing encourages Miles to renew contact with his parents, something Miles wants to do, Auster again changes the perspective. Miles' father becomes the narrator and, again, we may well be encountering a broken thing. In addition to the years spent worrying about Miles and understanding generally why he left, Heller pere is confronted with a damaged marriage and economic threats to his publishing house. As a round-robin narration brings the book to a couple climaxes, we also hear from Miles' mother. Although she seems to have thrived more than any other character, she is perhaps the least interesting. While she struggles with the impact her leaving may have had on Miles, her struggle is primarily dealing with returning to the Broadway stage after years on the big and small screen.
The use of multiple narrators and their different perspectives and stories is not Auster's only interesting approach. While the four twenty somethings are plainly the main vehicle of telling a story about recent American life, various thoughts and concepts are explored through devices that aren't as focused on the present. While some readers might find the analysis and discussion of The Best Years of Our Lives overdone, it is not often a six decade old movie becomes a mechanism by which characters contemplate contemporary disquietude. Similarly, Auster again invokes his love of baseball as historical items and trivia, some dating back decades, factor in as both Hellers assess their family and personal relationships.
Yet, for me, the characters, the story and the themes are undermined by another common element of Auster's writing, his resistance to closure. While I don't always insist on resolution, Sunset Park rather abruptly ends as a main character's thoughts run away over the consequences of a conflict every reader will know is coming.the book's ending. Perhaps this is simply Auster allowing a particular character's existential angst, an issue difficult to resolve in even the best circumstances, to emerge in full force. Yet from my standpoint not only do readers deserve better, so do characters whose quirks and flaws give them authenticity.
Dystopian literature stems from no particular geographic boundaries. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell were British, Margaret Atwood is Canadian, Philip...moreDystopian literature stems from no particular geographic boundaries. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell were British, Margaret Atwood is Canadian, Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut were American. Thus, while Ana María Shua sets Death as a Side Effect in her native Argentina, the conditions that beset that future society are perhaps universally possible.
Survival is one of the underlying themes here, both personal and economic. The rich live in gated neighborhoods with 24-hour surveillance and security guards. The average person lives in "no-man's-land," avoiding the "occupied zones" controlled by criminals and dangerous thugs. Marauding gangs make the streets of Buenos Aires so unsafe the average person takes armored taxis to get around town and to go to protected areas for walks. Thus, when "vandals" break into the apartment below him, Ernesto Kollady's reaction is ingrained:
When I heard the banging and explosions, I did what we all do: I made sure the security features in my apartment were working. I played music full blast so I wouldn't hear the screams. I locked myself in the bathroom and turned on the shower.
Ernesto, like others, must deal with life in a society where life seems cheapened. Paparazzi with video cameras crowd around hospitals hoping to get footage of someone dying. The Suicide Channel is one of television's more popular offerings. Only the poor go to hospitals, where, to ensure a profit, the "franchise owners" require patients' families to provide the food. Both physicians and families, meanwhile, are required to report the declining health of older people so they can report to "convalescent homes," paid for by selling what property the individual has. As a result, older and ill people pay doctors under the table to be their "secret" physician because an "official" physician would be required to report them.
Yet while Death as a Side Effect has abundant social commentary, Shua does far more with the narrative. At bottom, the dystopia she envisions is essentially a stage upon which a larger and more common literary theme plays out -- human relationships. Told in the form of Ernesto writing to the mistress who abandoned him, this slim narrative examines family relations, particularly that between Ernesto and his father. Although impacted by this society's mandates, particularly the convalescent homes, the family issues here are not necessarily unique. Ernesto is a seemingly ineffectual everyman. His father on the other hand is a powerful, controlling figure who seems to have always found joy in humiliating Ernesto. Yet Ernesto has a somewhat kinder view of his father than his sister, who never really had a life outside the family home and in whom a searing hatred has grown. Their mother, meanwhile, has descended into Alzheimer's-type dementia.
When a large intestinal tumor forces Ernesto's father first into a hospital and then a convalescent home, his mother's dementia and his sister's enmity leave Ernesto responsible for his father's fate. Thus, although Ernesto's own children are no more than passing references in his writing, he is required to come to grips with the archetypal father-son conflict. Despite his father's long history of demeaning him, Ernesto also confronts the preservation of personal dignity in a society seemingly devoid of the concept.
Originally published in 1997 and translated into English for the first time by Andrea G. Labinger, Death as a Side Effect uses dark satire to effectively meld societal and personal tribulations. Although the Spanish edition of the book was selected by the Congreso de la Lengua Española as one of the 100 best Latin American novels published in the last 25 years, its themes and issues are universal.