When Elisa suddenly slips into a parallel world where her teenage son has not died ten years previously and is now an adult who is estranged from her,When Elisa suddenly slips into a parallel world where her teenage son has not died ten years previously and is now an adult who is estranged from her, you might think, as I did at first, that this is going to be a book like The Intuitionist or The City and the City, where the world of the novel is at a slight angle to our own, and the rules governing our reality are ever so gently bent, a kind of suburban magical realism.
But Elisa spends the entire story trying to figure out the rules of her new parallel world, where she must pretend that she hasn't just arrived and that she has been living here all along. This makes Lennon's book very different from those other novels, where it is the reader, not the protagonist, who must figure out the rules while the characters casually go about their business. Elisa's story is very explicitly about the principles governing world-building. Our puzzlement is hers.
Lennon largely resists the temptation to make this a meta-fictional novel that comments on itself, and there is no authorial hand reaching in from above (though a book called Familiar does briefly appear at the end). Instead, Elisa goes searching for a paradigm to help explain what has happened to her. She considers video-game design (her not-dead son's profession), talk therapy, science fiction, and physics with its theory of the multiverse. Elisa is herself a scientist, a plant biologist who has become a university administrator. Her mind is orderly and rational, and she is determined to find a true explanation for the impossibility--the fictionality--that has just erupted in her life.
Marco Roth in the journal n+1 has written about the recent trend in contemporary literary fiction for protagonists with faulty brains. He calls them "neuronovels," and sees them as the 21st-century heirs to early 20th-century modernist "stream of consciousness" novels, in which neuroscience has been given all the explanatory power for altered perception and heightened language. Roth deplores this turn to the materialist and wonders why novelists have ceded so much ground to science.
Lennon's book happens to rebut Roth quite neatly. Something is gravely wrong with Elisa--either in her mind with her perception of reality or with the quantum particles of her entire world--but she is not otherwise different from us. Perhaps if Roth had written this book, Elisa would run right to the library to read "The Metamorphosis." But applying science rather than, say, literature to her problem proliferates Lennon's story, instead of neatly reducing and resolving it as Roth fears. Science happens to contain exactly as many stories as psychology (i.e. an infinite amount).
Lest I leave you with the impression that this is a cold exercise in problem-solving, I hasten to add that the book contains a beating heart as well as a faulty brain. Elisa must figure out how to relate to her family in this new world, her husband and surviving son, as well as the son that died in her old world but has reappeared to her. And he is not okay. It is affecting and haunting.
If you like Tom McCarthy's Remainder, read this book. I suspect John Fowles' The Magus is somewhere in this book's ancestry. Right now I'm reading The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, which J. Robert Lennon recommended at his book reading here in Ithaca....more
Rushdie’s memoir puts me in the position of greatly admiring the life but lamenting its literary representation. I couldn’t put Joseph Anton down, desRushdie’s memoir puts me in the position of greatly admiring the life but lamenting its literary representation. I couldn’t put Joseph Anton down, despite all of the ways it let me down. This is a deeply flawed memoir by someone with a fascinating and immensely important story to tell. I recommend it with many qualifications.
Rushdie begins with an epigraph from The Tempest. The line in full, of which he quotes only the last three lines, is spoken by Antonio:
We all were sea-swallow'd, though some cast again, And by that destiny to perform an act Whereof what's past is prologue, what to come In yours and my discharge.
We’re meant, perhaps, to think of the opening of The Satanic Verses, in which two Indian men magnificently and protractedly fall from a hijacked airplane toward the sea, in the process transforming into Lucifer and the Archangel Gabriel, before landing on a British beach to lead new lives as expatriates. Rushdie himself made that journey from India to England, but it was The Satanic Verses that was his hijacked plane and that gave him a miraculous, eventful second life on the other side of a kind of social death.
Yet this is virtually the only echo that Rushdie makes between his literature and his life. Though I fully expected this author of magical realist novels to tell his tale of living under the reign of terror with irony and imagination, in Joseph Anton Rushdie has stripped away all of his own recognizable style. Gone is the exuberant language, the made-up words, the blending of myth, pop culture, and reality. Gone is the humor, even the blackish sort. Gone is the shapeliness. I had expected that the account of how he recaptured his voice under the fatwa would itself demonstrate his imaginative freedom, that the form of the memoir would redeem its content, that Rushdie would use literary style to counteract extremist politics and to transform his straightened circumstances into a kaleidoscope of words. Instead, Joseph Anton reads like it was written by a writer one big grudge and many, many small ones, marching through his diaries of eleven years to settle every score, augmented by an archive of his papers and an army of graduate assistants. It gets very tedious in the middle of those 633 pages.
Funny, often courageous, yes, but also superficial, baffling, and downright misleading.
My first question, upon reading the last page of Caitlin Moran’Funny, often courageous, yes, but also superficial, baffling, and downright misleading.
My first question, upon reading the last page of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, was: who is this book for? I had been thinking of it as a book to hand to my daughter someday when she’s in her mid-teens. Moran’s mix of forceful polemic and raw, hilarious memoir is enormously appealing for entry-level feminism, and the chapter titles (“I Start Bleeding!” and “I Need a Bra!”) seem geared toward a coming-of-age audience. But the polemic turns out to be far too soft for the feminists I want my son and daughter to become, and the jokes are probably best appreciated by someone who has already been there. Like me. Since I’ve mastered how to be a woman.
But if this is a book for those of us, like Moran, who are in the thick of child-raising and career-building, those of us still forming our identities out there in the world long after our politics have gelled, then this book is entirely inadequate. She gives a one-paragraph dismissal of the need to discuss structural inequality, and there is nothing remotely resembling a roadmap for changing our laws, workplaces, schools, hospitals et ad infinitum cetera.
Instead, Moran takes on cultural subjects that strike me as very, very easy targets. And even on these she is perplexing. Germaine Greer and Lady Gaga are her unoriginal lodestars. With great vigor, she calls out for more and varied women-created pornography, and then in the next breath says that we need to ban strip clubs. Oh wait, strip clubs are tacky and should be outlawed, as they are in Iceland, but we should fully embrace burlesque, “lap-dancing’s older, darker, cleverer sister.” Huh?
This is not a politics, this is a personal preference, a class-based taste (highbrow over lowbrow) disguised as a radical, fresh new kind of feminism. Moran makes this category slippage over and over. You could come out of this book thinking that feminism can be gotten from tasteful consumption: boyshort underwear instead of thongs.
Now let me back up. It takes guts to reveal just how awkward, fat, and naïve you were as a teenager, to write about that former person honestly but not scathingly. It is flat-out brave of Moran to discuss how poor her family was. Most of all, I applaud anyone who will discuss her abortion in public, especially one that was neither traumatic nor regretted. But tell me this: why does the world need yet another story of a birth gone terribly wrong? How will that empower women?
And there are some curious silences in a book that styles itself as a brazen revelation. The book might have had more traction with me if Moran had shown how she’d actually become a feminist, from being a clueless young reporter who was the butt of casual sexism, to the informed and gutsy writer she is now. She lets us know it has something to do with her husband, Pete, “the most Strident Feminist I’ve ever met,” but this, curiously, is one area of her private life she is unwilling to explore in the book. For all that she divulges to us, sex and a mature relationship remain offstage.
Her sister Caz, though, gets plenty of airtime, and Moran perfectly channels her acerbic wit. “I don’t want children anyway,” Caz says when she is eleven and gets her first period. “So I am getting nothing out of this whatsoever. I want my entire reproductive system taken out and replaced with spare lungs, for when I start smoking. I want that option. This is pointless.” If I have a say in the matter, Moran’s next book should be about sisterhood. ...more
If one measure of a book’s worth is the number of times it causes one embarrassment by forcing one to laugh aloud in a public place, then John JeremiaIf one measure of a book’s worth is the number of times it causes one embarrassment by forcing one to laugh aloud in a public place, then John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead is very great. Other measures of greatness it exhibits: total layover hours in airports that flew by while reading (9), nicknames for my son acquired from (1), number of people who would be getting a copy of the book were I not going to link to most of it here (3).
You know what's funny? I found myself hesitating to include this book on my shelf, and I realized that even confessing to have read it feels like confYou know what's funny? I found myself hesitating to include this book on my shelf, and I realized that even confessing to have read it feels like confessing to having once been under Ayn Rand's spell. I came to the book hoping to find an intellectual and cultural history of Rand's ideas, which intrigues me because she herself claimed no intellectual forbears except Aristotle. She perceived herself as entirely outside of history and above the academy, though she was deeply engaged in American politics.
I was fascinated to learn that two of Rand's biggest early influences were both women intellectuals: Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane. Rand's history with libertarians is the real draw of this book, and where Burns' prose really comes alive. And I loved reading about William F. Buckley's takedowns of Rand in the National Review, and the anarchist Libertarians' attempts to convert her to their cause. Also: "not beatniks but buckniks" and Randian "heads" who embrace both logic and LSD.
Jennifer Burns had full access to Rand's papers in the partisan Ayn Rand Archive, so this book stands as one of the first scholarly books written about Rand by someone who does not identify as an Objectivist. Burns does at admirable job of taking Rand seriously while also fully acknowledging her faults. It is clear that Burns, an academic historian publishing with a university press, does not agree with Objectivism, but the need to exercise stylistic restraint when writing about such a lightning rod takes its toll on Burns' prose, which is at times a little too generic. I would have appreciated a more spirited and personal engagement with her subject.
Goddess of the Market mainly traces a vector from Rand outward to the various factions of the right wing, not inward. I found that the book still hewed too closely to the biography, to Rand's own account of what she was doing. That account is quite fascinating and new to me--from her campaigning for Wendell Willkie in 1940 to her utter rejection of Reagan as she exited public life--but it is clear that work remains to be done on why her and why then....more
I picked up this book because it recently was mentioned on NPR in the company of two other books that I love: John Crowley's Little, Big and Mark DaniI picked up this book because it recently was mentioned on NPR in the company of two other books that I love: John Crowley's Little, Big and Mark Danielewki's House of Leaves. Turns out, The City & the City isn't really like either of those, but I loved it anyway. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't actually reading a book by Philip K. Dick. Crossed with Jonathan Lethem. This is pitch perfect metafictional noir.
The conceit behind The City & the City is textual, though it isn't framed as such. Two cities share the same geographic space, each one visible but unreachable from the other. The inhabitants of each city are prohibited from interacting, though they can see and sense each other. I couldn't help but interpret this as a kind of physical palimpsest, and a metaphor for the author and the reader, present in the same book. Late in the book, Mieville more or less makes this explicit:
"It was not a good feeling of power, to be present a ghost in that holding message, knowing them, seeing them from inside the words which would be like one-way glass, so they could not look back in and see me, one of the writers."
So what does this make the book itself, if it begins and is wholly justified by the appearance of a dead woman?
But to be honest, I didn't spend the book looking for hidden literary meaning behind each corpse. It was the conspiracy itself that pulled me through, the hint that between the two cities might lie a third, the source of frightening, invisible power. That, and the deadpan, straightforward, transparent voice of the narrator, whose thoughts flowed into my own head with no impediment. And I loved the words Mieville invented without defining. Now that the book is over, I'm sad that I don't have occasion to think about unseeing things which are grosstopically proximate. I miss that world. ...more