"What's a life supposed to be?" asks Rabbit's daughter-in-law. "They don't give you another for comparison." But at its best, that's what Updike has d"What's a life supposed to be?" asks Rabbit's daughter-in-law. "They don't give you another for comparison." But at its best, that's what Updike has done with the Rabbit books. He's given us another, and it's this terrific shambling asshat of an everyman, a former athlete who goes exactly to seed right before our eyes.
Updike's ability to inhabit such a normal person with sympathy and honesty puts these books, taken together, in the Great American Novel pantheon. He's now covered Rabbit from his awful youth through his midlife crisis and into retirement. Rabbit has gained some wisdom along the way, but not a lot of it. He remains 'til the end self-absorbed, self-pitying, selfish. It feels as much like a real life as anything I've ever read does.
What's worked less well is Updike's insistence on sending Rabbit, Forrest Gump-style, stumbling through the headlines of each decade. In the 60s Rabbit encountered free love and civil rights, which utterly sank Rabbit Redux. In Rabbit is Rich's 70s he explored wife swapping, which worked out surprisingly well even though I'm 100% sure key parties are made up. (But if you'd like to play Literary Key Party, here are the rules.) Here in the 80s, Rabbit deals with - what else? - coke and AIDS. It feels forced and superficial. Updike gets the details right - a kindly comedian named Cosby, a flamboyant loudmouth named Trump - but Rabbit shoehorns in awkwardly.
Rabbit at Rest isn't a puzzling disaster like Rabbit Redux, but it's not great. The coke-and-AIDS bits are dumb. A parade where Rabbit is dressed as Uncle Sam is too on-the-nose. And there's a fucking lot of talk about golf, which is literally the least interesting thing in the world.
And Updike's sex can be brilliant, a way to actually move the plot forward, but he can also just type one-handed while masturbating, and that's what happens here: I found the major sex scene unbelievable no matter how desperate his partner was. Updike is trying to wind the clock backwards: the series ends as it begins. Rabbit runs; Rabbit plays ball. He needs one last betrayal as well. But it feels dubious.
But we're also dealing with mortality, and when Updike just relaxes and gets into Rabbit's head, it's insightful. Rabbit has reached the phase of life where friends start to die. His own suffocating heart makes him all too aware of his own fragility - "the terror of being trapped inside his perishing body, like being in a prison cell with a madman who might decide to kill him at any moment."
As a describer of America, Updike is flawed. As a describer of the human soul, he's magnificent. "For one flash," after Rabbit in full grandpa mode accidentally eats parrot food, "he sees his life as a silly thing it will be a relief to discard." It is a silly thing, Rabbit's life, and Updike's gotten it all on paper. My life is also fairly silly, all things considered, and it makes me feel more human to have this one to compare it to....more
The Bhagavad Gita is the most famous part of The Mahabharata, India's national epic. It's a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and the god Krishna. TThe Bhagavad Gita is the most famous part of The Mahabharata, India's national epic. It's a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and the god Krishna. They're standing between two armies; Arjuna has friends and relatives on both sides, and he asks Krishna whether he should fight. Their conversation immediately veers wildly off course, resulting in them talking philosophy for what must be hours right in the middle of a battlefield while all the other soldiers are probably like wtf dude, is this seriously the best time for allegorical fig trees.
red rover red rover
The decision comes down to dharma, which (very loosely) means innate duty. "It is the dharma of grass to grow, of birds to fly, and of warriors to fight," explains my introduction. This is basically Aesop's Farmer and the Viper parable (or the more modern scorpion-and-frog one). It more or less works out if you believe in reincarnation, but I don't and besides I disagree with the concept of warriors, so this is not my jam. Dharma will later be used to justify the caste system:
Service to others, the innate Attribute of the class of serfs (18.44)
And obviously that isn't going to speak to modern readers. Our ethics evolve but our texts keep saying the same thing, and that's the problem with taking ancient texts too seriously.
But that's not to say that I found nothing valuable here. In the discussion of duty, Krishna says:
Better to do one's own duty ineptly, than another's well. (III.35)
I do my own duty ineptly all the time, so it's great to know that I'm nailing it.
And there's a lot of talk about not being too attached to "sense-objects," which means your shit, so this is basically a very early argument for the Kondo method.
And there's this, which is maybe the prettiest description of god I've ever read:
This universe is strung on me as pearls are strung upon a thread. (VII.7)
I don't believe, but I dig that.
It's a pretty poem, and I'll take some of its ideas with me, and I'll leave some of them behind. That works, right?...more
You watch gymnastics on the Olympics and you think "Man, it must be so weird to be one of those kids," right? Well, so does Megan Abbott.
Here we are bYou watch gymnastics on the Olympics and you think "Man, it must be so weird to be one of those kids," right? Well, so does Megan Abbott.
Here we are back in Abbott's world of intense teenagers, hot husbands, and murder, and this time around we're going with murderous gymnasts instead of murderous cheerleaders or witches. She's retained her usual empathy with the harrowing world of adolescence and its towering stakes: "All the things you do when you're young seem temporary, but they're all forever."
The difference this time around is that Abbott's writing from the perspective of a parent, instead of the teens themselves. Katie Knox's talented and driven daughter Devon, who may be headed for the Olympics herself, is completely beyond Katie and everyone else. Where did she come up with this skill? Did Katie and her hot husband do something right? Or wrong? Was she just born exceptional? What's going on in her head? What is Katie supposed to do about it? "They think they want things. Tits, sexy boyfriends, McGriddles every weekend. But they don't really know what these things mean. That's why we've got to want things for them, Katie. The right things."
That story - Katie's hopeless efforts to understand and protect who she lives with - is at least as gripping as the thriller itself. Some dude got killed, there are plenty of suspects. Abbott knows how to write a mystery, with the casual hints, the sentences that jump out at you and gnaw at you. Why did Katie's other kid (poor neglected Drew, my favorite) notice that picture on the fridge? What are we all missing? (view spoiler)[Well, it's Devon. Toward the end of the book the question is, "What will you do to protect your child? Will you do anything? And the answer is yes, anything: Katie joins her husband in covering up the murder. Usually with mysteries, you find that you don't even remember who ends up being the murderer, right? It's really about how fun it was to get there. But here it fits into the theme: the book is about what parents should want for their child, and what they're willing to do to get it. (hide spoiler)] That's fun too, but (like all good mysteries) it's just a framework to hang the real story on. This story is, like Infinite Jest, about the horrific burden of great talent.
This is all good times and legitimate writing, and Megan Abbott is honestly one of my favorite modern writers. When people ask me for recommendations, I don't go yelling about Virginia Woolf, nobody wants to hear that, they already know who Woolf is, if they wanted to read her they'd do it. Instead I recommend Abbott. She writes entertaining books, and she won't embarrass you by being a shitty writer. "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt" is the Slaughterhouse-Five quote Devon returns hopelessly to over and over. But everything is broken, and all of it hurts, and I love that Megan Abbott understands that.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
For a while Saul Bellow seemed poised to become one of the 20th century's most famous authors, but he seems to have faded into the second tier nowadayFor a while Saul Bellow seemed poised to become one of the 20th century's most famous authors, but he seems to have faded into the second tier nowadays. He doesn't have the visceral power of Steinbeck,Wright or Baldwin, or the technical ambition of Faulkner or Woolf; he just writes good books. Maybe that cost him. My reaction to Augie March was, well, there's certainly nothing wrong with this book, nor is it going to change my life. "That's a good book," I thought. "Moving on."
And now here's Herzog, Bellow's last classic and his final, most thorough statement, and it asked quite a bit more of me than I was prepared to give. If you've read other books by him you may not be prepared for this much heavy lifting.
It reminded me of Ulysses, in fact, and not just because the name Moses Herzog (hurts-og) was lifted from chapter 12 of that book. The talking, the constant trying to communicate: Bellow said it's about "the imprisonment of the individual in a shameful and impotent privacy." "Only connect," in other words, and that's what Leopold Bloom spent much of Ulysses trying to do. And the esoterical references, the mixing of viewpoints (first and third), the focus on mundane matters - Herzog and Leopold Bloom both spend a lot of time in the bathroom. Bellow himself, a realist, was "impatient with modernism," but it's hard not to see its influence here. It's not as difficult as Ulysses, but you might get the sense that it's Bellow's response to it.
The book operates on three layers, switching deftly and rapidly between them. In the present, Herzog takes a short trip; has a date with a woman he's considering marrying; visits his ex-wife. (view spoiler)[And considers shooting her and her lover, his former best friend. (hide spoiler)] In the second, he flashes back along his life, his previous two marriages, his ramshackle house in the country, his Casaubon-esque career. (Sidenote: Casaubon sure does pop up a lot in literature, huh?) And in the third, he writes a multitude of letters - to friends and newspapers and Schrödinger and Nietzsche - expounding on his philosophy of life. (And a lot of talk about like Kant and Hegel and shit, and I don't know anything about any of that so if you want to unpack it you're on your own.)
The letters are boring and opaque:
Good is easily done by machines of production and transportation. Can virtue compete? New techniques are in themselves bien pensant and represent not only rationality but benevolence. Thus a crowd, a herd of bien pensants has been driven into nihilism, which, as is now well known, has Christian and moral roots and for its wildest frenzies offers a “constructive” rationale. (See Polyani, Herzog, et al.)
This doesn't make any more sense in context. They'll taper off throughout the book, as Herzog works through his midlife crisis and pulls himself together.
There are some beautiful thoughts here; Bellow is, if nothing else, a smart and gifted writer. "I thought I had entered into a secret understanding with life to spare me the worst," Herzog says. "A perfectly bourgeois idea." Me too!
But I found the experience of reading it frustrating, and not rewarding enough. Books like this - dense books, full of thoughts and philosophies and tangents and flashbacks - they ask a lot of the reader. They ask not just to be read but absorbed, focused on, made a part of one's life. I didn't expect Herzog to be this big of a deal, and maybe if I'd been ready for it I would have been more responsive to it - but it's also true that if a book asks a great deal of a reader, a reader is more likely to say "No" to it. "No, you are not the book for me. I choose not to commit as much of my brain to you as you demand." Your expectations for a summer romance are lower than your expectations for a long-term partner. These books are long-term partners, and many of them are not for us. We expect to have only a few long-term partners in our lives. Herzog will not be one of mine.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Isaac Asimov is less a writer of books than a puzzle creator. Each of the linked short stories in I, Robot poses a problem, like an SAT logic problem,Isaac Asimov is less a writer of books than a puzzle creator. Each of the linked short stories in I, Robot poses a problem, like an SAT logic problem, and works its way to a (usually) clever answer. Foundation, his most famous work, is the same thing. Asimov has less in common with theother Big Three mid-20th century science fiction writers than he does with Encyclopedia Brown.
But this is the book that invented the Three Laws of Robotics, which are so famous that basically no one has ever talked about robots again without dealing with them. They've impacted fiction - I'm revisiting this book as I watch AMC's robot drama Humans (it's okay), which refers to them frequently - and they've impacted reality: Google has had to try to code for them in its self-driving cars. Here they are:
The Three Laws of Robotics
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
A trolley headed down the tracks is about to hit and kill five people. If you pull a lever, it will switch onto another track, killing one person. Do you:
a) take direct action to kill that one person? b) do nothing, allowing five to die? c) my favorite, the uh-oh solution.
The answer is technically obvious. The question is, can we possibly ever be comfortable getting into a car that's prepared to make that decision for us? Even if we know its judgment is accurate - and Google's cars are already much better at driving than we are - does it go against some basic factor of humanity to abdicate life or death?
I, Robot doesn't get into that as deeply as I'd like - it's presented and shrugged away in Evidence. Really, Asimov uses them mostly as a framework against which to throw a bunch of his puzzles. So this is an uneven collection: some stories get into the really interesting questions about what it will mean for robots to enter out lives, and some are just riddles. It's all pretty engaging, and some of it is great.
Runaround Starting a trend that will shortly become boring, Asimov sets up a situation where his three rules cause an unforeseen conundrum - in this case, a robot running around in endless circles. The solution involves invoking Rule #1. This is not very exciting.
Reason One of my favorites, about faith and evidence: a robot takes the available evidence and comes to the logical conclusion that the ship's engine is God and humans are deeply inferior. You're like okay, how will Asimov talk his way to out of this? How can they prove that they're really the robot's creator? Humans realize, after much fluster, that (view spoiler)[actually who cares. (hide spoiler)]
Catch that rabbit A new kind of robot that controls several other robots goes wrong, why, who cares, this one is pretty dumb.
Liar! A robot who can read minds may be lying. Turns out (view spoiler)[it's the only way for him to avoid harming people. (hide spoiler)] Here we learn that women think about love and men think about careers, as Asimov follows the First Rule of Science Fiction: never understand women.
Little lost robot A batch of robots has been secretly made with altered first laws: while they still can't harm humans, they can now stand by and allow humans to be harmed. One of the altered robots is hiding. How can he be picked out of a crowd? Parallels to slavery are pronounced as humans call the robots "boy," which succeeds in making you uncomfortable; they'll continue doing this but Asimov never really digs into the idea. The story is one of his better ones, although the puzzle solution is just okay.
Escape! Robots help us invent light speed travel, with unforeseen and unconvincing side effects that cause problems for the robots working on it: (view spoiler)[it somehow requires us to temporarily die. (hide spoiler)] Forgettable.
Evidence A man running for office is suspected of being a robot. This is the first appearance of robots that look like humans, and also the story in which a version of the trolley problem is very briefly dealt with. I liked this one a lot.
The Evitable Conflict Somehow, robot-directed industry is making mistakes. Why? (view spoiler)[Robots are framing anti-robot agents - creating mistakes that get blamed on them - to make them lose their jobs, because anti-robot agents are acting against the best interests of humans. (hide spoiler)] This story deals with the singularity, the moment when robot judgment becomes better than ours. Asimov seems unconcerned, as am I. This is another one of the better stories.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more