There are writers who can make a novel work despite uncompelling plot, characters or prose style merely by giving us a steady stream of compelling tho...moreThere are writers who can make a novel work despite uncompelling plot, characters or prose style merely by giving us a steady stream of compelling thought. Sadly, Eggers is not one of these authors. He gives us a plot with no real surprises-- as the NYT reviewer noted, the basic shape of the novel is clear from the opening line, and the climactic reveal is obvious pretty much from the first time we meet the relevant character. He gives us characters who are not merely unlikeable, but one-dimensional. The protagonist starts out unattractive and (at a maddeningly plodding pace) finds ways to perfect her unattractiveness. But the ultimate failure of the novel is that Eggers treats the book's sole issue (what's wrong with eliminating human privacy altogether) superficially. Yes, we see a number of examples of eroding privacy, and Eggers provides some tantalizing particles of argument as to why we might want to sacrifice that privacy. But the perspective remains almost exclusively within the Circle, and we see hardly anything of the real consequences of these reforms. Eggers places all too vague discomfort and hysterical warnings of totalitarianism in the voices of a few message-delivering characters. As a result, even the philosophical debate in the novel seems immature and under-explored, written fleetingly in crayon. I do think that Eggers captures something of the specific idealism of the current plugged-in youth. But he should have asked such a youth to direct him to the EFF website so he might get a richer grasp of the state of debate over digital privacy.(less)
The fourth thousand-page tome in the series narrowly missed getting just one star from me. What happened to this story? We've hit bottom. At least I h...moreThe fourth thousand-page tome in the series narrowly missed getting just one star from me. What happened to this story? We've hit bottom. At least I hope so.
The problem is that Martin wrote a mass of chapters, each, as usual, taking a close third person perspective on a different character. He then found himself with 2000 pages worth of material all describing events going on more or less at the same time. So he separated it into 2 books, mostly be character.
He chose to fill this book with stories about characters we generally care less about (Sansa, Brienne, Jaime, Samwell, Cersei). At least that's my sense of things. No Tyrion, no Jon Snow, no Bran, no Danaerys, hardly any Arya. And what happens to the remaining characters is so small, such faint echoes of the epochal movements of the preceding novels, that it just left me bored. Ah, but we do have many stirring descriptions of what people wore and what they had for lunch.
What of importance happens in this novel? To be perfectly honest, I think a fan of the series could skip this one, all 1000 pages of it, without missing much.(less)
As readers get drawn into the later installments in a massive popular series like this, the incentives for good writing diminish a great deal. In the...moreAs readers get drawn into the later installments in a massive popular series like this, the incentives for good writing diminish a great deal. In the case of Martin's series, Book 3 begins at around 2000 pages into the story. Anybody still reading at that point is seriously dedicated, and unlikely to be deterred. Which is a real shame.
I thought Book 2 was a little weaker than Book 1, mainly because it started to rely more heavily on ill-defined magic and mysticism. But it was still fairly well plotted, and the narrative stayed focused on intrigues between the main, er, 20 or so characters.
Book 3 starts to lose that sense of narrative cohesiveness while relying ever more on supernatural stuff. And one starts to get the sense that there was no editing whatsoever. Martin is continuously going off on tangents, often inventing new characters and new places for those characters to go. The politics become serpentine, the stakes diffuse and we start spending dozens of pages recounting how peripheral characters get up to speed on things the reader already knows. I began to lose faith that Martin actually intended to bring his massive narrative to any sort of satisfying conclusion. I began to stop caring what would happen to the main characters.
That said, the book still offers some satisfaction at the line level. Martin is a rich storyteller with extraordinary patience for detail. That's what bears comparison to Tolkien. Sadly, with this book, the series has stopped being as coherent as Lord of the Rings.(less)
William Gaddis was one of the most groundbreaking of post-war American novelists-- a stylistic precursor to Pynchon and Delillo, a towering master beh...moreWilliam Gaddis was one of the most groundbreaking of post-war American novelists-- a stylistic precursor to Pynchon and Delillo, a towering master behind such youngsters as Franzen. His first two massive novels (Recognitions and JR) grappled with huge themes of artistic authenticity and the culture of capitalism. He wrote two more relatively accessible novels, and then this, his fifth and last.
I read "Agape Agape" (96 pages) while taking a break from reading his first novel, "The Recognitions," (956 pages). The earlier work is intimidating in much more than scope. It maps a vast sky of erudite references that overlaps the constellations of my own learning only at the edges.
"Agape Agape" (two different words, actually-- the first from the Greek for spiritual love and the second the English one meaning open or in a state of gap) was written as Gaddis lay dying of cancer. It was published posthumously in 2002 and hailed immediately as one of a handful of works (like Delillo's "Underworld") that straddled the new millenium in its sensibility.
Actually, the book seems to project a modernist, if not romanticist, sensibility into the digital age. The dying protagonist (a version of Beckett's Krapp) fumbles at his lecture notes, accumulated over decades, trying to piece together his magnum opus as the Prednisone ravages his consciousness. The struggle is basically Benjaminian-- the speaker champions some kind of artistic authenticity against the mechanization of the arts. And he tells this central modernist story through a social history of the player piano-- a cipher for all machines that replace human artistic conduct. Along the way, Benjamin holds discourse with Huizinga while Plato looks on.
For Gaddis, the history of the player piano situates the arts at the center of the digital revolution. His protagonist laments the binary-based player piano roll as a triumph in the impulse to replace (admittedly elite) artistic experience with consumer entertainment and to make the human artist obsolete. The apotheosis of this development would be the replacement of new musicians by sophisticated computer-driven mashup programs or the replacement of fiction films and tv by cinematic video games.
This is one of a small number of books (Woolf's The Waves is another) that will remain on my A-list of novels worth reading more than once. It isn't that I hear my own voice in Gaddis. Or Woolf. Both authors are far too unique for me to empathize that directly. These works reach me not by identification with character or familiarity of voice, but by directly, poetically stirring an empty feeling in my gut, the ongoing aching failure to reconcile my desire to make a mark on this world with an acute sense that the crucial moment has already passed.
Joseph Tabbi, in a thoughtful Afterward, offers Gaddis' translation of a passage by Michelangelo: "Who nearer to me Or more mighty yes, more mighty than I Tore me away from myself. Tore me away!" It is the power of the machine to become "a detachable self" (as Gaddis puts it throughout the novel) that makes it a menace as terrible as God himself. Artaud, likewise going mad at the end of his life, proclaimed that there could be no artist, no real freedom until we have done with the judgment of God.
God, who inspirits the automaton and casts out Adam from the Garden.(less)
Saramago introduces Amado as the voice and spirit of Brazil-- yet another major world author all but unknown in the US. Given that, I was delighted to...moreSaramago introduces Amado as the voice and spirit of Brazil-- yet another major world author all but unknown in the US. Given that, I was delighted to find this little novella in an airport bookstore at LaGuardia-- what with delays, it just about covered the flight to Dulles. The story takes place within a community of recent Arab immigrants (mislabeled as Turks by Brazilians) creating new economic and social lives around Brasilia around the turn of the 20th century. From a sociological perspective, this is hardly a thick description-- one doesn't learn all that much about the cultural mores of these folk. The provocative title seems to promise a complex reflection on globalization and colonial histories. There's some of that-- it was originally composed as a contrarian entry for a grand literary tribute to the quincentennial of Columbus. However, the work is mostly a sweetly vulgar adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. Stylistically, however, Amado has more a touch of Rabelais than the Bard, and it is the bawdy fruition of unlikely romance that makes this a satisfying read. Hard to think of a writer in English who can be crass and tender this well.
Also notable is an afterward in which Amado's wife explains how she rescued the entire manuscript from the trashbin many years earlier. Amado had written it as one chapter of a longer novel and rejected it for being way too long. Thank god for attentive literary spouses!(less)
My fourth DeLillo. Not my favorite, but worthy and thought-provoking. Having read White Noise and Underworld, I can see that here, as in Falling Man,...moreMy fourth DeLillo. Not my favorite, but worthy and thought-provoking. Having read White Noise and Underworld, I can see that here, as in Falling Man, a sobriety has taken the place of the earlier postmodern irony. There was always something elegaic in his prose, even when thick with parody as in White Noise. But his post-9/11 sensibility isn't having so much fun anymore. Not timid-- indeed, there is still much bravura here, but he's not clearly enjoying himself as in those earlier novels. This shift in DeLillo's style is a pretty good window into how much innocence we had to lose through the end of the last century even as we congratulated ourselves on being post-everything.
Three characters move the plot. There's a journalist and a young woman. However, the fulcrum is an academic (a rhapsodic philosopher) who served as a high-level adviser to DOD through the Iraq War. Spewing some kind of theoretical malarkey by way of providing a theoretical framework for our military adventures. Classic DeLillo absurdism. This "hero" skulks in the southwest desert like a Hunter S. Thompson or William S. Burroughs. And makes portentous philosophical pronouncements like several of DeLillo's earlier characters (and many old geezers I overhear in Berkeley cafes).
But here's what's revealing about the novel. Absurdism, which is the true underground poetics of failed socialist states, pushes the experience of terror to the point of bitter laughter. There is a grim, mature pleasure in it. If comedy asserts a community of insiders (who share the joke), absurdist tragicomedy asserts a community of sardonic survivors. However, the America reflected in DeLillo's post-9/11 novels is too proud to share such bitter laughter. It reacts to terror indignantly, not by recognizing a need for new theories. And our protagonist has no new theories, not really-- just an ironic jumble of old metaphysics. And even as it presents such absurdities, the over-arching tone of the novel is rather sad, as if mourning the lack of intellectual brilliance or of American greatness perhaps.
But DeLillo, the consumate 20th century New Yorker, finds salvation in modernist art. The novel is wrapped in an experience of an actual video installation that DeLillo apparently saw at MOMA in 2006 in which Hitchcock's Psycho was slowed to play over the course of 24 hours. DeLillo is very good at describing visual art, and using it as a framing device for characterization and narrative development. You see this in Underworld and Falling Man as well. Here, his descriptions of watching classic scenes from Psycho fill a room in slow motion convey an experience of living within the height of modernism. A common artist's perspective, especially from the cosmopolitan parochialism of New York, of the height of American civilization itself.
Wouldn't it be nice to escape from the downward spiral of our disappointing domestic and foreign politics and dwell in a frozen moment of high modernism? DeLillo softens our disappointment with this odd hope. (less)
Reading this book was like doing an entire book of easy sudoku at one sitting. A trivial guilty pleasure. The genre here is "thriller," yet I found th...moreReading this book was like doing an entire book of easy sudoku at one sitting. A trivial guilty pleasure. The genre here is "thriller," yet I found the books pleasures had little to do with edge-of-the-seat anticipation. More to do with the very traditional satisfaction of watching the formula play itself out.
Also distinct pleasures (presumably aimed primarily at male readers) from describing how things work in technical detail, especially things that the reader might see as useful survivalist tips. E.g. calculating how long it would take a car to stop on an icy road to avoid hitting a broken down bus and then spacing flares accordingly. And exultantly describing the specifications of the beloved Mag-lite before our hero fulfills every security officer's fantasy and uses it as an effective blunt weapon.
Don't get me wrong-- it was well done. And very interesting for me to see how the genre works. Absolutely straightforward plot and character all moving in a clear, inexorable line. All plot developments presented clearly and unambiguously. Bottom line-- nothing ambiguous whatsoever going on. You can read a novel like this while half-asleep, forgetting dozens if not hundreds of pages as you go and still come out with a clear and satisfying experience.
This is the pinnacle of easy reading. Which, no doubt, is hard to do really well. Being most generous, imagine it as a baroque partita for solo instrument. Because it is so simple and pure, any falseness or mistake will loom large. (less)
My last experience with "Frankenstein" before this was reading a fascinating play written by Sukarno while under Dutch arrest in the decade before the...moreMy last experience with "Frankenstein" before this was reading a fascinating play written by Sukarno while under Dutch arrest in the decade before the Indonesian revolution. Sukarno had somehow seen the Hollywood "Frankenstein" movie while in custody and adapted it into a tale in which the Monster became the spirit of Indonesian nationalism that could not be killed. Even in bowdlerized form, the story of a terrible second genesis gone awry grips the imagination. Shelley's original novel would have provided an even richer source for such an anti-colonial narrative!
Hollywood has so warped our impression of Shelley's creation that a series of corrections are in order. Frankenstein is the creator; the monster is provided no name (referred to mainly as "the fiend" or "the daemon.") Shelley under-tells the creation and animation of the monster-- there's no description of any kind of "mad scientist's laboratory"; Frankenstein studies chemistry and Galvanism and engages in labors that Shelley describes as unsavory, but declines to describe any specific techniques; we have no idea what the experiment looks like. Frankenstein creates a "bride" in response to the monster's threats, but his duty to humanity compels him to destroy the new female monster before she is even finished. There is no scene in which the bride comes to life and look at the monster in horror (although Frankenstein does contemplate this possibility).
Most significantly, Shelley's monster is not at all the physical and mental infant portrayed by Boris Karloff. Rather, as MK Joseph writes in the Oxford edition's Introduction, he becomes Frankenstein's double. Both creator and creation are familiar Romantic heroes-- highly articulate, poetic and sensitive in their self-analysis and vessels of profound stormy sorrows. Yes, the monster, deprived of an education, begins feral. However, Shelley has little patience with this and provides the monster an instant education as he observes an educated family through the window of their Swiss cottage. The monster himself narrates several chapters, explaining with great pathos how bigotry caused him to hate all mankind. Could Karloff's monster comment "When I die, I am well satisfied that abhorrence and opprobrium should load my memory"? Likewise, Shelley's monster possesses the power and agility of a great cat-- he leaps in and out of windows faster than any human could react; he bounds up and down the Alps and drives dogsleds across shifting ice-fields.
In all respects, the monster seems not like a cripple, but rather like a kind of ubermensch. Or is he deficient in some respect of human spirit? Therein lies the real fascination of the novel, which is completely lost in the Hollywood/Karloff incarnation. Yes, the monster becomes a cruel, homicidal demon bent on revenge. This aspect of the novel calls Goethe's Faust strongly to mind. Man, as scientist, becomes the modern Prometheus (the Prometheus who creates life, not the more familiar myth of stealing fire). The romantic's anxiety about the scientist (evident in Goethe and Shelley) is that although he may mimic and even improve upon the outward mechanics of Creation, he will inevitably fail to inspirit his creations with the moral and spiritual character that can only come from God.
Frankenstein's monster is not a troll; he is a demon, a mighty and cunning devil. Is this nature or nurture? Shelley gives the reader strong reasons to conclude that it is nurture-- little wonder that a solitary creature, the only of his kind, will turn against a creator who deprives him of any hope for community or companionship. However, Shelley also suggests that the monster's rage is so terrible that it must come from some extraordinary capacity for evil. Loneliness, after all, is no excuse for serial murder. On the other hand, Frankenstein and his monster make a sobering pair. Shelley takes care to present both as brilliant sparks, sensitive and inspired souls whose passions have power over their fellows. And yet both are catastrophes, warped and deformed by the piling up of misfortune and bitterness. Shelley leaves us with Frankenstein dead, an utterly broken man and the monster wracked by guilt and despair embarking on a final suicidal journey to the North. Like Superman's double, he removes himself to the Fortress of Solitude, recognizing that no true fellowship can exist between himself and a planet that regards him with awe and fear.
Last note: I read Shelley's 1831 corrected edition for this review. The original 1818 edition is messier in some respects, but politically sharper in others. That deserves a separate review someday.(less)