As we pass into the reality of a cyberpunk future, and stories about brain-hacking move away from down on their luck noir-types in trench coats infiltAs we pass into the reality of a cyberpunk future, and stories about brain-hacking move away from down on their luck noir-types in trench coats infiltrating space stations, it starts to feel like the future of the genre will simply consist of various rewrites of Flowers for Algernon--which I am surprisingly okay with. Certainly, we're bound to get uninspired rehashes, like Speed of Dark, but we'll also get more interesting looks, like this one from the famously anonymous Aussie Hugo-winner.
Appropriately enough, I found this story on my Kindle with no recollection of where I'd gotten it or what it was meant to be--jut another overlooked blip in the system. For the first few pages, I assumed it was some Gawker-style first person confessional that I'd saved for later--until it became obvious that the 'cutting edge' medical science being discussed is somewhat beyond our present capabilities.
The fact that Egan can so readily capture the confessional style without pushing it too far speaks of his prose skills, as he delivers on the timely theme of 'what makes a mood disorder?' Instead of a journey through IQ, as in Algernon, we get one through emotional capability, from one extreme to the other, and Egan does an excellent job of hitting the right notes throughout.
His final question: what might we choose for ourselves, if we could choose our own emotional reactions (or would we be able to make the choice at all, without sliding into a self-destructive spiral of highs and lows) is poignant, and I would have liked to see him push it a little further, make it a little dirtier and uglier--instead it's left largely as an open question.
But even without that final push, it's a solid story, and I'm glad that I found it--or that it found me....more
I came to a strange realization while reading this book: that practically every instance I can think of where an author used an unreliable narrator, iI came to a strange realization while reading this book: that practically every instance I can think of where an author used an unreliable narrator, it's always the same character: he's an intelligent, introspective guy with a slight cynical mean streak, a man with a fairly high opinion of himself (which is constantly reaffirmed by the world around him)--he succeeds without trying too hard, usually in a number of fields, though the success never lasts (because where would the plot go if it did?), he gets into fights and scraps due to his pride, yet always wins out in the end--and of course his life is full of a succession of lovely women who flit in and out, flirting, desiring him, ultimately discarded.
It's such an overt, laughably transparent fantasy of the life of a writer that it's simply not possible to take it seriously--which means of course that no serious author would condescend to write something so blatantly adolescent. But, if you take that concept as the base of your story, and then place a veneer of deniability over it, then you can suddenly claim complexity and depth without actually having to write a more unique and intriguing protagonist--you can have your cake, and eat it too.
And yet, I don't quite buy the excuse--it's too convenient to simply say that anything in the book that is stupid or insulting should be taken as sarcasm, while all the good parts were on purpose. It can work in a book like Flashman, where the character is so obviously execrable, and the story so obviously a farce--but the more subtle it becomes, the more it is mixed with realism and genuine sympathy, the more character thoughts and motivations become vague, the less pointed it is.
Just as with satire, in order to capture the unreliable narrator properly, you have to do the hard work of separating the object from the subject it is mocking or commenting on, otherwise, all you have done is recreated the subject, nearly whole--creating a supposed satire that is hardly distinguishable from the original. Just because an author did something on purpose is not an excuse--they still have to do it well.
I've known compulsive liars and they simply aren't that interesting. Their lies are petty, and a bit sad. Their ideas of what will impress are always lacking, and remarkably telling. They are trying to fill a certain void in themselves, and the more they speak, the more conspicuous that void becomes.
In this way an honest person ironically ends up being more strange and mysterious to us than a liar--because the liar is always speaking circles around their insecurities and fears, and so by their speech you come to know precisely what it is that haunts them. But an honest man does not reveal himself in this way, his plain speech does not reveal by ellipsis the shape and depth of his weaknesses.
Compulsive lies become absurd, they contradict one another, they place vital importance on the most vapid and pointless details. But in writing a book, very few authors are willing to write something that is not clever, that is not engaging and witty--and so they end up with these unreliable narrators whose lies are witty and attractive and engaging. This is why such narrators rarely work: they fail to get at the deep insecurity that necessitates the lie, the foolish hamartia of trying to lie to one's self.
The genuine egomaniac doesn't lie, because he believes himself to be interesting already. That is his delusion, and so he would see no reason to lie. Perhaps this is why authors have such a hard time with such characters, because to be an author means being unsure and self-loathing (at least, the kind of author who writes avant garde fiction)--why else go to such great lengths to prove one's self through clever words?
So they create these 'perfect liars', who tell extravagant, desirable lies to pointlessly cover up their extravagant, desirable lives. But without genuine feeling, real sadness and dread at the heart of it, there's nothing substantial to tie the lies to. There is no heart to reveal, just a great deal of clever flash: a gilt box lacking anything worthy to be held within it.
And it's not just the main character, Van, who feels like an escapist ideal of the intelligentsia, it's the whole structure--one that should be recognizable to any fan of Wes Anderson movies. It's all so aspirational, yet carefully calibrated so as not to trigger simple jealousy from the moderately sophisticated reader, who feels insulted at being openly pandered to, but will take all the slightly-obscured pandering he can get.
So, we have the wealthy family of good blood--but of course, they've fallen on hard times, they're a bit out of favor, a bit worn down. Money is never really a problem, but neither is their wealth outrageous. The children are all brilliant and charming, well-dressed and good-looking, knowledgeable and full of clever banter. They're good at everything, but they never really pursue any of it (like good idle aristos), and so just have the occasional success, here or there--the sort of thing the average literary person would kill for: a successful book, a following, an appointment to a major academic post--but these are always downplayed by the characters as not really important to them, not really as great as you'd imagine them to be. And of course they have oodles of free time to waste in little projects, or bits of melodrama--can't be rushed, darling.
All these pretty people who are just fucked up enough to avoid being totally perfect--though even their flaws are desirable, the sorts of things romanticized in Victorian poetry: they don’t fit in, they are biting and cruel, they are careless, they take too many risks, they're prideful--any ostensibly negative trait that falls neatly under the auspices of being ‘cool’, and doesn't really end up being problematic. It's just so fucking precious I can hardly stand it.
The whole section about Van's supposedly transformative theory of time was just so dull and long-winded. Some authors are able to present a fascinating philosophical or scientific digression in their works, but the long pages outlining Van’s thoughts didn’t feel profound or intriguing, they didn’t confront assumptions, they just seemed vague and half-cooked. The whole final section, about how great the book is and how Van’s thoughts on time changed everything felt entirely contrived. Clearly, this is Nabokov, so we’re supposed to assume that it’s ironic and tongue-in-cheek, but I simply don't see how that reading makes it any more interesting.
The fantastical elements were a fun twist, but used too sparingly--they weren’t pervasive as in a work of Borges, or Gogol, or Conrad and Ford’s mostly forgotten The Inheritors. I find such experiments are most effective when they are allowed to change the very texture of the book, to rush through it and alter its meaning and interpretation, as in Harrison’s Viriconium. Here, they ended up feeling too much like interludes, not really integrating with the downright quotidian everyday of the very light plot.
The plot really doesn’t move, aside from a few more frantic chapters, such as the picaresque series of failed duels a la Dumas père--indeed, even the inner lives of the character remain mostly static, so that they are the same people at the end, in their nineties, as they were in the beginning, in their young teens. Of course, this is all meant to relate to the ‘illusion of time’ as Van explores it, but since the theory itself isn't particularly interesting, it doesn't do much to improve the experience of watching a few unchanging people pass through rather everyday events. Indeed, they don’t even same to be creating the sort of false melodrama that we all make of our lives, making coherent stories out of unconnected events and coincidences.
The unreliable narrator shtick also means that we we don’t really get Ada’s side of the romance. We’re constantly being given all the little things Van finds attractive, what excites him about her, physically, but we don’t get to see any of her attraction, how it progresses, what she sees in him, what excites her. It all becomes rather blandly male-gaze, where the charms of the woman are described over and over, yet the man’s physical presence is largely ignored. I mean, we do get Ada's voice peeking through, here and there in notes, but it's never quite enough to tear through Van's veil and let the reader inside some deeper story. Plus there’s the fact that Nabokov had already tackled that dynamic with greater ironic force in Lolita, so it’s rather unfortunate that a supposedly transgressive author like Nabokov would just end up revisiting the same territory over again.
Then there's the prose itself--the first thirty pages are famously overstylized--with the wit jangling and clanking along so conspicuously that it doesn’t leave much room for subtlety or naturalism, for genuine emotion and connection. It’s all such an obviously indulgent performance, like that of a precocious child who must be interrupted: ‘Yes yes, you’re very clever--now was there something you wanted to tell me?’.
After the initial bombast, it settles down and the style almost completely changes for the rest of the book. The change is jarring, and didn't seem to have any purpose, or reason behind it--though it's not as if Nabokov lays off the wordplay at that point, it just settles out a bit. Indeed, it started to make me tired of puns--which is odd, since I’ve been a longtime proponent. It began to feel like too much work for too little payoff, that puns simply work better in conversation than in books, because a book is so carefully crafted, one can afford to take one's time and perfect it, polish it up--while a rough pun's strength is in its suddenness, its extemporaneous quality. But then, with Nabokov, the sheer amount of work seems to be the point: that all the glitter and movement on the surface is worth all the trouble it takes, that we’re not meant to appreciate the joke itself, or the punchline, but all the circuitous labor the author went to to set it up in the first place.
I began to feel a funny parallel between Nabokov’s style and the chapter about the fellow who cheats at cards with mirrors, surrounding himself with all of these ostentatious, flashy bits that he’s constantly tweaking and nudging to get them to work--and we’re supposed to think of him as pitiful, watching as he’s easily dispatched by the ‘true’ sharpery of Van, who instead manipulates the cards without it ever being obvious, due to his sheer mastery (well, until he’s unable to hold it in and flashes one from his sleeve at the end)--yet one begins to think that if Nabokov were at the table, he wouldn't be able to resist flashing his sleeve every hand, and thereby ruining the effect from the outset.
And such a style can work for a farce, because it is so overblown, and the characters and plot aren't really central, but act as set pieces for absurd situations and wry commentary on the nature of life. It can also be effective in works like Sartor Resartus, or Moby Dick, or Gormenghast, where the language is inextricable from the characters, where an almost overbearing style is used as a tool to delve deeply into their minds, their point of view, to force the reader into the thoughts and senses of a person that is completely different, a world with colors and textures and relationships that pierce through its very fabric, through the land itself, the characters' flesh and hearts and minds, then drag the reader back through that hole on the baited hook.
But Nabokov's voice is not pervasive enough, it spends its time flitting along the surface, and so fails to enmesh wholly with his world and characters. It begins to feel more like a compulsion for wordplay than a deliberate construction--a love of words just spilling out onto the page because Nabokov is fascinated with language. The fact that the book spends a chunk of time discussing how to play Scrabble should tell you all you need to know. After all, he was a man who grew up a multilinguist, suspended between various languages and dialects and forms of communication--who wrote the English version of Lolita himself.
Of course, it should be noted that my own skills in languages outside of English are fairly pathetic--my years of Italian and Latin were some time ago, and so I unquestionably missed innumerable little asides and jokes. Yet, the jokes I did get, even the more obscure ones (like a veiled reference to an old name for Tasmania which I only got because I happened to reference in my book) weren't especially amusing to begin with--and so it simply didn't seem worth the time to go through and decode the rest of it--just another case of more time spent for insufficient reward.
And yet conceptually, it has its strengths--it is an interesting and unusual book, clearly a case of an author throwing himself into a wild experiment, which certainly takes courage, and if he didn't always succeed, at least he was always moving, always probing and doing something. It wasn't an insulting work, it wasn't simplistic or flat, and that was what kept me reading through to the end, that even if I don't think all the pieces quite came together to make it work, it was something curious, something worth experiencing and rolling around in my mind....more