Saturday, December 28, 2013

Privacy Lost: Dave Eggers's THE CIRCLE

Why is this book typeset in “ragged right” rather than “justified”? Beats me. Mostly, it’s not noticeable, but at times, it’s sloppily done, with large gaps on the right that would easily accommodate the next word, and tremendous inconsistency with regard to hyphenation. Why mention it? It’s an odd choice that, to some readers, will stand out; also, in a book so concerned with technological innovation, the nefarious uses of technology, and the thoughtlessness with which some changes are embraced, the typesetting decision looks like what Eggers warns against: sloppy thinking in service to some ideal.

I hadn’t finished an Eggers novel before this one; I read perhaps a quarter of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius before losing interest. This novel does have a page-turning quality to it—enough of a narrative drive is generated, once you’re past the slow and uncompelling opening scenes—so one can move through it pretty quickly. With the exception of a few scenes in which descriptive writing takes over (often in ways that feel force-fed with symbolism and significance), the story is carried by dialogue. It’s not especially good dialogue. Everyone has the same voice, and only one character ever asks the questions an intelligent reader would ask. The main character is not only charmless, she’s a cypher. It’s possible that that’s what Eggers intends, given how she never makes a single good decision. (I’m not sure I’ve read another novel of which I could say that of the main character; I think even Humbert Humbert probably makes a few good decisions, or at least defensible ones.) This quality of hers may be why she’s hired, promoted, and successful.

In short: Mae is brought in, via an old friend, Annie, to work for The Circle, a Google/Facebook stand-in that has a cool campus in California and outsized ambitions to change the world using online technology. Mae quickly learns that one doesn’t merely work for The Circle; rather, one joins a community—a community that doesn’t like being snubbed and that wants to know everything about her. That, of course, becomes the tension-generating pivot around which the story turns, though Eggers’s handling of the technology isn’t convincing (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore does a better job of leaping several minutes into the future by way of Google while also feeling more grounded in tech-type thinking). There’s an interesting question at the heart of this book about knowing and being known, but the big moments are telegraphed, the insights are blunt, and the book’s set-up is so gradual and surface-level, it felt to me as if Eggers needed to rethink at least the opening in light of where he was going to take the character, shaping the narrative more subtly.

Fifty years ago, or even twenty, this novel would be a satire. For their times, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World were satires, taking real things to their next level as a way of critiquing them. This book, at this time, can’t find anything to satirize. Mostly, Eggers describes things as they already are. The sole satirical element, to my eyes, was the proliferation of screens on our protagonist’s desk. “No one told you about monitoring your third screen? Here,”—and another computer screen is hauled within view. The way in which information is thuddingly and incongruously dropped into our protagonist’s lap seems the stuff of comedy, but it comes across as flat, especially since Mae simply yields to whatever is thrown at her.

I did enjoy the novel, but it’s not an especially well-crafted thing. Fittingly, it seems to be getting the critical praise it was crowd-designed to earn, but I was happy to see that citizen reviewers weren’t quite so impressed. It’s light entertainment with some half-considered ideas and no real surprises.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Long-Distance Romance: Burroughs's A PRINCESS OF MARS

As if to prove my lack of pulp and SF cred: I had not read this book before.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first John Carter adventure, A Princess of Mars was originally serialized as Under the Moons of Mars. I prefer that more evocative title (the moons being an oft-referenced motif in the story), though in fact, A Princess of Mars suits the resulting story better—and identifies one of the novel’s two chief faults.

The tale starts well enough, and I was familiar with the beginning (or at least its most necessary elements) from the Marvel Comics adaptation from the 1970s. Trapped in a cave by a group of hostile Apache, one-time Confederate officer John Carter steps out of his body and is transported to the planet Mars. Burroughs does a wonderful job setting up his premise, providing teasing bits of information in advance, creating tense scenes, and capturing our hero’s confusion at each turn of events. Then there’s the implied subtext of the novel, with the Native/white man conflict in the U.S. providing a lead-in to warring species on Mars learning to cooperate through John Carter’s intervention (though largely they cooperate in slaughtering other peoples). Though the green, gigantic, tusked, four-armed Martians and the red-skinned, human-like Martians seem to each contain components of Native Americans, the green folks get the sorry end of the comparison, with their communal rearing of children, pragmatic dispatching of the disabled, and their warlike ways seen as barbaric in contrast with the culture of the red Martians, who only make war when they need to. However, by the time the book wraps up, it becomes evident that the culture is not its people, and green Martians aren’t innately bad, just badly led. I’m sure someone’s written a dissertation on how ERB distributes good and bad traits among the various Martian peoples.

I have no idea what the idea is behind the white Martian apes, who, like the green Martians, claim squatters’ rights in the ancient abandoned cities but only show up when the plot requires it.

The story’s main weaknesses are two: the Dejah Thoris thread, and the shaggy construction of the novel’s second half. Once the beautiful Dejah Thoris enters the narrative, John Carter is in love; not a terribly well-defined character prior to this, he now becomes focused on the source of his adoration, and thus his mood shifts depending on his reading of the moods of his beloved. It’s exhausting and not terribly interesting, and Burroughs withholds information so that he can provide us with some late-story entanglements that could have easily been avoided. Also, though the princess gets some bold speeches to indicate her self-regard, she’s a less interesting character than Carter—and somewhat petty emotionally. (This is repaired in the 2012 film version, though the movie was lumbered with a poor choice for its lead and a jumpy narrative.)

There comes a point where the story lapses fully into pulpiness in the style of A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, with psychic powers that come and go, convenient coincidences in every scene, and the clear case of a writer merely chattering away (and sending his characters lurching about) until he’s filled his word quota. Certain fight scenes which seem crucial get rushed as if Burroughs lost interest, while other moments drag out as he works to tie up the many narrative threads. The story does become vivid again near the end, setting up the reader marvelously for further adventures and intentionally leaving several elements unexplained and unresolved.

All-in-all, a mixed bag, but worth it for the premise, the sporadic strong scenes, and the many flights of invention.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Asimov's and the Old Man stories

My newest story in Asimov's Science Fiction, "Vox ex Machina," is a stand-alone tale that only exists because, in the real world, the guys who built the Philip K. Dick "android" lost the thing's head. Commence fiction.

My next story in the "Old Man" sequence, "Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key," will appear in the April/May issue of Asimov's, which comes out in February. The previous stories in the sequence continue (for now) to be available via Amazon for Kindle and the Kindle app. (Here's hoping that once I write the fifth and final story, "The World Will Be the World Again," someone will assemble all five stories between two covers.)

Though the stories jump around chronologically, they should be read in the order in which they were written: "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down," "Clockworks," and "Unearthed," which take place in 2001/2, 1962, and 1925, respectively. The new story takes place in 2006. As for the final story . . . you'll see.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Mirror Recognition: Karen Joy Fowler's WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES

If only there were a way to review—or even be aware of—Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without knowing the premise that drives the story, which the narrator withholds for more chapters than I had thought likely. I tried to read the book that way, taking in its story without seeing it altered by what I knew was coming. Read that way, however, the story isn't particularly engaging. There's a cleverness to the narrative voice, and the events move smoothly, but none of the early characters felt vivid or realized enough for me to even recognize them when they reappeared later in the novel, and, lacking the novel's central organizing problem, the early events sound too much like a standard family drama, lacking a sense that some great doom had befallen everyone, which is what would have helped give the first section some weight.

What's initially untold, though certainly known by most readers, is that the narrator, Rosemary, was, for the first five years of her life, raised alongside Fern, a chimpanzee; Fern was her sister, in some ways her twin, and Fern's disappearance from the narrator's life, and from the life of her family, has left damage, anger, and a hole no one will mention. We find Rosemary in college now, dealing with both memories and suppressed memories of Fern, unsettling new relationships, and the possible reappearance of her brother, who disappeared some years ago on—she believes—a quest to rescue Fern from who-knows-where.

There's much in this novel that is wonderful. Often I paused to marvel at or reflect on certain clever lines, philosophical queries, or scientific observations. The novel is concerned with how we see ourselves and how others see us, and, through Rosemary's first-person narration, we appreciate how little we know of the minds of others or even our own mind and motivations. The story's arc is a fine one, resolving well even while forcing new questions on us, but I often felt that the most interesting aspects weren't allowed room to completely develop. I recognize Fowler's desire to use the secondary characters to delve—at more oblique angles—into the same questions the central relationship delves into, but those efforts felt schematic to me. Even Rosemary and Fern seem too often at arm's-length. Since Rosemary's only memories of Fern are (conveniently) from the time before we tend to form solid memories, the impressionistic (though often precisely described) presence of Fern is understandable, but even when brought close, Fern slips away. (I never felt I could pin down the parents either.) All of this can be justified as serving the question, "Can a human truly know a non-human animal?" but I wanted something more. Perhaps the story felt too incredible, no matter how Fowler worked to keep it grounded in our world—and her delay in talking about Rosemary may have added to that sense that Fern was never completely there.

The novel also moves into practical areas beyond the "merely" philosophical, asking exactly why we should "have dominion" over all the non-speaking animals of the world, and asking, too, what we ought to be doing to save them from our dominion. While I liked that the novel moved in that direction, it felt like an idea that should have saturated the story from its first moments, regardless of the persistent naiveté of the narrator.

The title, by the way, is perfect, as you'll see.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How to Say What Hurts: D.T. Max's bio of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace has given me some great reading experiences as well as pieces I was compelled to put down and a towering novel I can't convince myself to pick up. (In addition, I enjoying his video and print interviews.) I love his essay on David Lynch, a piece that expresses so well ideas I'd sensed but which had, until that essay, remained inchoate. "Good Old Neon" is a marvelous short story—though, sadly, part of what makes it compelling for me is that I only read it after his death, and it's a story of a suicide. I find the use of footnotes maddening in some of his work, and the heavily footnoted structure (as well as the sheer length and openly professed irresolvedness) of Infinite Jest has kept me from feeling much more than mild curiosity about that novel.

I do feel some personal connection to Wallace. He was, like me, a child of 1962. Like me, he watched way too much television as a kid. He spent some time in Syracuse, where I live, and I'm pretty sure I met him once when he attended by (now defunct) parish church. As a writer—and as a much smarter person than I am—his influences and areas of interest bore little resemblance to mine, though what he wanted from his fiction, if Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, the biography by D.T. Max, is to be believed, was moral consequence, work that mattered because it affected the reader (though he struggled with the tension between "entertaining" the reader and expecting the reader to work).

What I enjoyed about Max's work was hearing how Wallace struggled to find ways through his fiction (less through his nonfiction, it seems to me) to express his deepest hopes and anxieties. What one really needs to see, perhaps, is less the finished works than all the false starts and crumpled pages Max mentions. How did Wallace arrive at that casual-yet-erudite pose in his writing or the piled-on conjunctions at the start of a sentence. By the time we see those moves, Wallace has them figured out and can explain their purpose. Such an exploration would require a different sort of volume, one of pure literary investigation (assuming early drafts of anything survive).

This volume spends a lot of time on Wallace's personal life. Arguably, the information about relationships—with humans, dogs, and harmful substances—is instructive: we see how the relationships inform the fiction and how, problematically, the relationships are one more element of an addictive personality that can's focus enough to produce the fiction. (Wallace isn't an especially slow writer, I think, but given that, when he's cooking, his output is enormous, he ends up with less to show for his years on earth than someone who produces consistently and doggedly, or someone who is more sure of what he means to produce. He does go through long periods in which nothing emerges, even drafts—unless I've misunderstood Max's characterization of those times.) These elements of Wallace's life are so intertwined, it's hard to imagine a successful literary biography of the man that didn't attempt to address Wallace's personal life. His successes and struggles as a teacher of writing were, though, worth more to this reader: most writers teach, and Wallace went at teaching with seriousness and joy, giving his all to the process. Even so, Dix quotes a comment from a Charlie Rose interview that had, when I saw the interview, also stood out to me: teachers learn from their teaching, probably learning more than they impart, but after two or three years, that effect is diminished or halted altogether. I don't think that's true, but for a mind like Wallace's—restless, brilliant, dissatisfied—I can see how even doing this important thing well loses its charm once it's been (as he would have seen it) "mastered."

Such restlessness informed Wallace's approach to fiction as well. Better that, better a dissatisfaction with how one lives and how one writes than the spiritual death that accompanies satisfaction. Unfortunately, Wallace's mental health issues led him to conclude that suicide was the only solution to the profound suffering that left his mind unable to think its way clear. Before that, Max does give readers a sense of Wallace's gifts and his questing spirit—but the book in toto left me unhappy with the project and wanting to read (and talk to) Wallace rather than read his post mortem.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Everyone's damaged: Iain Banks's THE WASP FACTORY

I tried an Iain Banks novel a few years ago, Matter, one of the Culture novels from Banks's SF side. I didn't get far, as I don't care for "court" dramas if they aren't Shakespearean, and a glance at the glossary at the book's rear told me I had a lot of learning to do if I was going to fully appreciate the book's world. As this is one of the elements that keeps me from enjoying Tolkien, a directory to another world didn't entice me.

With Banks's death two months ago, I wanted to give this respected writer another try, so I went with The Wasp Factory, his first novel, a sample of his non-SF side (though the book has a fantastical feel).

This book is a compelling narrative that works for most of its length, has some ragged moments near the end, then makes the mistake at the very end of explaining the message it wants you to have.

Frank Cauldhame was maimed in a way we only have fully explained several chapters into this short novel—though even then, we have to wait for an even fuller explanation. His maiming doesn't seem, at first, connected to the other events of the novel: his odd treatment by this father; the insanity of his brother, who, escaped from a mental institution, is headed home; his own history of violence; the mechanisms and charms by which he holds his world together. All of these elements are interconnected more than they first appear, though some of the connections require a fantastical leap—which is fine, given the narrator's tone. Some components of the story don't feel believable—a rabbit attack which turns into a mini-war stands out, though some of the murders seem to lack logistical logic—but everything and everyone in the novel is so damaged, the quirky plot doesn't come off as quite so unhinged as it otherwise might.

The plot moves between Frank's strange daily activities( enacting his bloody personal religion on his island home, playing by himself on the dunes, getting drunk with a buddy), his preparations for the arrival of his AWOL brother, and the horrifying bits of backstory with which Frank gifts us. We know it's all heading toward a bad scene. In fact, what's odd is how Frank isn't that worried about his brother's potential for chaos. Even when he has truly disturbing phone conversations with Eric, Frank insists that he loves his brother and wants to see him. I don't quite buy it. I also don't buy the relationship with his dwarfish drinking buddy, as Frank comes off as an adolescent; Banks never makes us feel that Frank is of age, and the scenes of him in a bar seem to involve another character.

Frank's father knows that Eric has escaped, but he doesn't know Frank is in touch with him. The obvious crisis toward which the book moves also turns out to move the novel into the foggy past, finally bringing clarity to the event that—in some ways, but not all—triggered everything terrible that would follow.

It's a fine first novel, captivatingly told, though grim going and, again, not managed smoothly at the end.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Unrequited and Requited: Faulkner's THE MANSION

William Faulkner wraps up the Snopes trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion) by veering from low comedy to stirring romance to prison revenge tale in a novel that covers more ground (literally and figuratively) than the previous novels. As with the other books, the events all circle around—when they do not directly address—the rise of Flem Snopes from his low-born station in life to his success as a wealthy bank president and landowner. Snopes himself appears less often in this final novel, but his presence is felt; he has withdrawn into his mansion, but his crafty machinations have affected every character's life, often in profound ways.

The novel takes some time to get going, by my lights, as Faulkner revisits events from the previous novels in circular, recursive form, making this book stall for quite some time. Aside from that slow start, the novel moves adeptly to cover a host of characters, all of whom are heading for a mutual resolution of plot and theme.

The novel's comedic bits work well, and the source of much of the humor throughout is our old friend V.K. Ratliff, at the top of his form here after a weak showing in the second novel. Ratliff's voice is compelling when he takes on the narrative, but also he's allowed to be the heroic figure he seemed set to be back in The Hamlet. He's never quite ahead of Flem Snopes, of course, whose sheer singlemindedness about money and quality of rapacious acquisition make him hard to beat, but he's typically ahead of Faulkner's mock romantic figure, attorney Gavin Stevens. Ratliff's visit to New York City (to attend a wedding we don't get to see) is both hilarious and touching, as this self-sufficient man who handles himself well in any situation is knocked down by the notion of spending 75 dollars on a tie.

Gavin Stevens continues to be a dependable knight, (almost) always sure to do the noble thing, sacrificing his happiness for obscure reasons, remaining absurdly chaste in his relationship with Linda Snopes, daughter of the mythic Eula Snopes from the preceding novels. His quasi-romance is full of both comedy and truly heartbreaking moments, but Faulkner works this story—which consumes much of the narrative—into the overarching tale of vengeance against Flem (whose refusal to act and then commitment to action results in a cousin spending 38 years in jail).

Along the way, we meet a host of amazing side characters, all of them engaged in quests of one kind or another. Faulkner sees something to praise in most of them, as they all resist the pull of the earth (there's a beautiful late passage concerning this) in order to somehow make their mark.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Everything's black and white: Cormac McCarthy's THE SUNSET LIMITED

Cormac McCarthy's "novel in dramatic form" (so says the cover), The Sunset Limited, leans toward allegory in its pas de deux of a black ex-con and white professor hashing out "to be or not to be," but it remains too grounded in its particulars, and too invested in its arguments, to go wholly in that direction. Instead it's an argument fraught—or overwrought—with significance, in which one man's life comes to represent, in its particularities, the human predicament as a whole.

Rather than give these characters names, McCarthy labels the men "Black" and "White." It's a decision that implies something about each character's cultural narrative, though that's a problematic road, requiring, as it does, broad assumptions about these cultural types that, while aiming to load them with significance, strips them of individuality. The black man is poor, uneducated, a former convict, a man who has known and done violence, a reformed soul, and a reader of but one book, the Bible. The white man is a college professor of whose background we know even less—he's not only white, he's pallid, character-wise—save that he has reached a nihilistic conclusion about life and made what seems to him to be the obvious choice, to jump in front of a train (the titular "Sunset Limited"). The black man, having appeared from nowhere on the trail platform, somehow "catches" and rescues the white man and transports him back to his below-humble abode, a lair that, we are told, is frequented by society's rejects. McCarthy's labeling of the characters "Black" and "White," however, doesn't quite satisfy his need to stereotype them, so in the stage directions, the white man is "the professor" and the black man is "the black." Why McCarthy didn't see this as problematic phrasing baffles me, and suggests that, shrewd as the dialogue is, his ear was tin for at least this decision. Additionally, the labeling suggests, in its sheer American-ness, that the piece will have something more to say about race, but that's not a direction the work goes.

The black man's dialogue is the gem in this work. Easy to hear, richly phrased, full of life and intent, the language shifts in tone as the man works every rhetorical trick to convince the white man to live. Much of this circles around an argument for God . . . maybe. Though White is convinced that Black is trying to convert him to religion in order to save him, Black doesn't argue that belief in God is a necessity in order to see value in life. The finest argument in "the trick bag" is likely (and I assume McCarthy agrees with this) the one he doesn't explicitly make: in a discussion of cooking, Black gets White to see that, though the poor have castoff ingredients with which to work, the meal becomes a thing of both sustenance and joy because the poor "improvise." What White lacks is the necessary empathy to see that other people keep living not because they've figured things out nor because they refuse to see their own suffering but because, moment to moment, they make do with what that universe makes available.

The ending wasn't completely satisfying, mostly because it let me down rhetorically rather than in its expression of ideas. The characters just seem to run out of room to negotiate and run out of energy for each other.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dead or Undead: Colson Whitehead's ZONE ONE

Had I known going into Colson Whitehead's "zombie novel," Zone One, that the story took place over only three days, I'd have seen the first third of the book as less resistant to the novel form and more as the kind of tight narrative, dense with delineated or implied backstory, that makes something like The Great Gatsby or On Chesil Beach so effective. As the plot crept forward in the early going, I knew why some online reviewers had complained about the book, though I thought, regardless, it was excellent and riveting. How could those reviewers not, once they'd reached the latter part of the novel, seen the purpose in the structure? I suppose they were expecting something with more "beats," a crisis-to-crisis heartbeat-accelerator in standard "genre" mode.

For my money, this novel got under my skin more than a typical horror narrative, and it's largely due to how little time Whitehead spends on "zombie attacks." What takes their place? 1) Anxiety about what might be behind any door. Whitehead hits us with that right away. 2) A deep history. Our protagonist, nicknamed (and never named) Mark Spitz, though now part of a civilian sweeper team prowling Manhattan, has seen, engaged in, and fled from any number of zombie attacks, and the farther into the book we proceed, the more time we spend in scenarios in which he's awaiting those engagements, so that the past becomes more horror-filled than his present—while also portending something terrible for the narrative's arc. 3) How the past overlays the present. Every moment sends Mark Spitz into his past. How can it not? The undead people look like people he's known. The city is a place where he's spent time. Some zombies don't attack, but remain stuck in some repetitive behavior, as if they were sealed in nostalgia for a particular moment, and those moments look like moments Mark Spitz has known. This is a haunted world, but it's haunted by the living and inhabited by the dead.

The last conceit is part of a larger schema in which things are flipped on their heads. The world we knew is dead, the undead now move through that world, but did we progress through it any more meaningfully? While this may seem an obvious and merely cynical modern commentary on the circular and purposeless nature of much human behavior, Whitehead's expressive writing and trenchant observations make it a point he never exhausts, though he moves from subtle to explicit comparisons later in the book in a way that doesn't help his point. The writing itself is cleverly saturated with words that take on double meanings or horror-inflected implications. Thus, for example, when someone "shuffles" off to work, the "shuffle" of a zombie is nodded toward.

Mark Spitz himself is a sign of this upside-down world. We hear only rather late in the novel that he's black, and the character observes that notions of race have, if not collapsed, at least become less relevant, even though one of his colleagues, he thinks, surely knows the signifiers for every stereotype. Ironically nicknamed for the white champion swimmer, Mark Spitz is a man who "dog-paddles" through life. He is successful in this new world because he doesn't stand out—and because he wasted so much time watching horror movies, playing first-person-shooter video games, and imagining himself in post-apocalyptic adventures. Now he's in one, more fully alive than in life, living out a Friday-to-Sunday reversal of the Resurrection narrative.

Highly literate, rich in detail, and existentially haunting, Whitehead's novel might be seen as another look at the milieu of Camus' The Plague. There, too, people move through life without real purpose, and the plague gives them purpose because they become aware of death's imminence. But whereas Camus' people are locked inside the walls of Oran with the plague, Whitehead's people imagine themselves to have sealed off the plague behind stone walls. In either case, the disease proves inescapable.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Their master's voice: GOING CLEAR, by Lawrence Wright

The early days of any religious or cultural moment hold great fascination for me, and likely for many readers, as we consider: What was the original idea? What were the founder's motives? How did people initially respond? What conflicts exist between history and legend? Where did the originating action or idea shift to become something else?

As much as one can, Lawrence Wright answers these questions in Going Clear, his jumpy and extensive exposé of Scientology and its founder, prolific science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. For those who've read previous works on Hubbard and his "religion," including Wright's piece on director Paul Haggis, disaffected former Scientologist, there's little new here in terms of the story's arc and outline, and many of the elements have been more fully covered elsewhere. But Wright does a fine job fleshing out a host of people associated with the movement, and he provides far more detail on the treatment of those who signed on for the long haul in the days of Hubbard who came to wonder where the glory went.

In addition, Wright isn't writing an "attack piece"; rather, he attempts to understand Hubbard, his ideas, and the organization. The answers are disquieting, but he gives Hubbard's ideas—both his socio-psychological ones and the ones Hubbard himself referred to as "space opera"—a fair hearing, comparing Hubbard's codifying of internal human processes to the way Freud came up with id, ego, and superego. Wright presents Hubbard's system, but then also details how that system is reshaped as one progresses in Scientology, the early ideas being subsumed into a tale of galactic battle and clinging, invisible aliens who cause all our anxieties. Aside from pointing out that no one thinks the universe is as old as Hubbard's narrative relates (quadrillions of years), Wright lets the story stand in all its absurdity, allowing the reader to conclude, "Well, that's just nuts."

The reason I threw the word religion into quotation marks above is because it's unclear that that's what Hubbard created, but the word is a fluid one, and Wright takes pains to point out that any explanation for life that provides an all-encompassing belief system is arguably a religion. (I've argued that French secularism is actually a religion, just as Khmer Rouge communism was; the presence of a deity isn't the issue.) Hubbard seems, at the outset of his explorations, to have invented an alternate schema for grasping and dealing with human psychological problems and interpersonal dynamics; later, however, he brings in the science fiction trappings. Is that religion? Hubbard himself may have opted to call his "research" a religion entirely in order to evade snooping by authorities, as Scientology ran into problems even early on by exceeding both its reach and grasp. (Some of the early misadventures are harrowing and hilarious; Hubbard often constructs plans that resemble pulp-fiction plots, but he uses real people to act out these scenarios.)

Wright also discusses Hubbard's possible dementedness, but he never simply says, "The man was crazy." Nor does he merely assert that people caught up in the movement are fools (or that the leaders are purely mercenary in their aims, though the church's current head, David Miscavige, does seem the one character lacking all virtue in this tale). In the end, we're left with the mystery of human personality and behavior.

Wright turns out to be a terrific author for this project, as he'd also examined, without some preconceived notion of the "evil" of those involved, the roots of al Qaeda in his masterful The Looming Tower. He does not come to bury Hubbard, but to investigate and engage him. In this, he reminds me of Fawn Brodie, author of No Man Knows My History, the fascinating biography of Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith, and Garry Wills, whose book Reagan's American: Innocents at Home marvelously captures the elusive Ronald Reagan. All three authors have plenty of reason to think ill of their subjects, but both also make sure the reader is aware of their subjects' virtues, the ways in which they succeeded in inspiring people and triggering movements in their names. Like Brodie, Wright identifies his subject as a con man and a liar, but that doesn't prevent Wright from recognizing how much of himself Hubbard invested in his outsize project, whatever his motivations and whatever the consequences.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Nook and Kindle story sales

[UPDATE: As of mid-July, I removed my stories from Barnes & Noble's site. Though I liked the upgrade to the interface that came when B&N's Pubit migrated to NOOK Press, my resentment about the way payments were handled (see below) led me to, at least for now, remove my stories.]

Hm. In the past week, I've sold six e-book copies of the bundled "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" and "Clockworks." I've sold two copies of e-book "Unearthed."

When I put these stories online, stories that had already appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, I didn't know whether people would seek them out—especially since I'd provided "Helping Them Take . . ." as a free PDF on this site for a year before trying to sell copies. I'm glad people have found and enjoyed the stories, which have gone through (usually explicable) sales patterns, with, for example,  sales of the first two bundled stories taking a jump when "Unearthed" was published in Asimov's.

So what has given rise to this recent spate of purchases? And, a separate puzzle, why have I sold three copies of the bundled stories via Barnes and Noble (through which I have not made "Unearthed" available)? I had recently considered removing those stories from B&N: only 10 percent (at most) of my sales have come through B&N, and authors are paid only once they hit each 10-dollar bar—at which point it takes many months before one is actually paid. It's an awful arrangement. Amazon (via Kindle and the Kindle app) have in place a much more author-friendly, sane system.

Recent purchases at B&N did bump me up to that next 10-dollar sales point, so at some point, I'll actually see that money. (It's not about the money, it's about how people paid for something and then the money just sits with B&N; I'm grateful that people feel they ought to pay for the reading experience—especially since every reading experience is a risk, more likely ending in disappointment than satisfaction—so for them to not actually have their kind gesture reach completion seems unjust to me.)

The Pulpster, the journal released each year at Pulpfest (coming up at the end of July), contains a piece I wrote about my Old Man stories. I expect that will generate a few more sales, so I'll leave up the stories, for now. I'm working to complete the fourth story in the series, so I probably ought to leave the tales up at the online sites for new readers who want to understand the full background when (if) that story is published. But I intend to get the fifth and final story finished more quickly, and I don't intend, at this point, to put the fourth one online, in the hope that all five stories will (once the first three are withdrawn from e-book publication) instead be published in book form by some visionary publisher. (Heh.)

If you've read and enjoyed these stories, please let me know. And if you're looking for a copy of "Unearthed" for your Nook, just get the free Kindle app and download the story to your computer.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Enduring a proliferation of Snopeses: Faulkner's THE TOWN

For about the first hundred pages, I thought this second "novel of the Snopes family," William Faulkner's The Town, bore the same relation to the preceding novel, The Hamlet, that Tom Sawyer, Boy Detective bore to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: a thin revisiting of a place and its people. But the novel grows significant, and even tragic, as it advances, even as it never loses (for long) its comedic tone and structure.

The novel consists of a series of episodes (two published as short stories) all depending directly on or circling around Flem Snopes, the rapacious, amoral striver from The Hamlet. In that novel, which is more fragmented because it incorporates separately published stories that, together, possess a less-coherent focus, we see Snopes at a distance, from the perspective of sewing-machine salesman V.K. Ratliff, who recognizes that an Enemy has come to town. Though that novel, too, features some comedic scenes, the voluptuous writing and Ratliff's sense of impending catastrophe make the book feel like a Greek tragedy. We hear less from Ratliff in The Town, and what we hear doesn't sound like the raconteur of the (much) earlier novel.

Whereas the narrative of The Hamlet unfolds through novellette-length tales, each tragic, the stories here are briefer, and almost all are comic. The three voices, Ratliff, county attorney Gavin Stevens (referred to by Ratliff as Lawyer Stevens), and Stevens's nephew Charles ("Chick") Mallison, who was too young for many of the early chapters and thus must relate some stories second hand—take turns, telling overlapping tales, picking up where each other left off, providing different perspectives on the same events. Stevens's voice becomes the most evocative, culminating in a kind of hymn linking the small events of his town to the entire natural world.

Ratliff's task in this novel is to keep an eye on Flem Snopes—and on the proliferation of Snopeses in Jefferson. However, Snopes seems less an evil force in this book. People interact with him, albeit warily; we hear more from him; he takes a more public role in the town; we gain insight into why he behaves as he does; and Faulkner finally allows us to sympathize with him. Snopes is, I suppose, a sociopath, unable to form the kinds of bonds other people take for granted, unfamiliar with the kinds of motives that drive others. He merely acquires, even when he doesn't yet know the true value of an acquisition. Ultimately, he wants to be respectable, to have lifted himself from his dirt-poor beginnings.

After the novel slows and deepens, its final chapter is another lark, a goofy tale of four dangerous Snopes children who terrorize families and resist civilizing. It seems an odd note on which to end, what with all the preceding ruminations on mortality and loss—which should make one ask what Faulkner sees in this anecdote, and how it connect to the other stories that form the novel.

One element that runs through everything is this sense that Flem Snopes embodies some kind of acquisitive force, so much so that the name Snopes itself, no matter to whom its attached, conjures up Flem's propensity to dominate. Yet Faulkner also repeatedly undercuts this notion, pointing out how no other Snopes is quite like Flem, and that instead their failures lead Flem—the person who brought them all to Jefferson—to find ways to repudiate them and remove them from his social sphere.

This connects to the larger idea of family, and how one's name and background carry certain ramifications from which one struggles to escape. Snopes attempts to alter people's perception of him (while also following his acquisitive aims) by marrying, in the previous novel, the already pregnant Eula Varner. But Eula's infidelity throughout The Town complicates this attempt, and Faulkner follows those complications to a dramatic conclusion. Likewise, one never forgets the family histories that provide every character a context, and characters see themselves mirrored, sustained, or trapped by their families. Gavin Stevens has a twin sister, and her understanding of him means he can't escape other people's sense of why he does what he does.

Eula's infidelity and Gavin Stevens's attraction to her (and, later, to her daughter) link to another overarching theme, the sexual desires of people in the town. Though Faulkner novels are always rich with "perversion," and The Town has some of that, refreshingly, Faulkner places front and center a married couple—Maggie, Lawyer Stevens's sister, and her husband Charles, whose son is one of the narrators—who bring ribald humor and a healthy sex drive to the fore in many of their scenes. No other character is so fortunate. Whether impotent, frustrated, cuckolded, or satiated, every other character has a sex life that isn't following the expected path—certainly not the path proscribed by the firm Protestants of Faulkner's South.

And thus we get "the town." Faulkner could easily have presented the problematic sex lives and judgments of watchful eyes as the typical unpleasantness one associates with small towns and left it at that. But Faulkner tells us repeatedly, through little Chick Mallison, that people in Jefferson are nice, that the town is a good place to live. Yes, people judge one another, but they're pragmatic, too, withholding judgment or at least withholding a verbal response because to treat every sin as if it requires quashing would upset the progress of things. People want banks that protect their money, even if they have their doubts about the people in charge; they want progress, though cars have often been a sign of trouble; they want to continue this experiment that brings men and women together in painful, frustrating ways—because isn't that how the world proceeds?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Unrapturous: Tom Perrotta's THE LEFTOVERS

Tom Perrotta's work explores much the same territory as John Updike (though less rhapsodically and lyrically), the suburban world that many of us often mistake for a post-apocalyptic nightmare: possessions as expressions of the self; imploding and exploding nuclear families; secrets along every nostalgia-lined street; the meaninglessness of it all. It's familiar territory for Perrotta, but it must also have seemed like a fitting location to study the aftermath of an actual near-world-death event in The Leftovers.

One day, right around now, millions of people vanish (Perrotta doesn't give us a figure or even a percentage, but it seems to mirror the losses in the Soviet Union from WWII—if it wasn't your family, it was still several people you knew). Is it the Rapture, awaited in all its literalness by evangelical Christians? It meets one criterion, that of people simply popping out of existence, but the selection process throws any religious interpretation into question. So people are left with an unexplained decimation of their families and communities. What do they do now?

In interwoven narrative arcs, Perrotta traces the lives of about a dozen suburban citizens, showing how they cope and fail to cope (simultaneously, really), unpacking the choices they make about the shapes of their lives. All of this reconstruction—or deconstruction, or just plain destruction—revolves around the notion of family and relationships. People need desperately to connect with one another, but none of the standard patterns seem to work (if they ever did; one has to assume that that's part of Perrotta's intent, a critique of modern life). New sects and activities develop in response to the Sudden Departure, but other behaviors, such as applying to college and summer softball leagues, continue on as if their context hasn't changed.

The flip side of this scrambling to bond is a sense of guilt: each character has his or her own burden of guilt, but perhaps more important is the guilt imposed from outside, either by the watchful eyes of those who knew us before the big event or the watchful eyes of the quasi-religious sect that, in pairs, follows people about, endlessly smoking cigarettes in a quaint and gradual embrace of mortality.

The book is a breeze to read, providing interesting characters and situations but writing that's merely efficient. It's reflective, but never dense; literate, but not literary. Do we still use—with respect—the term "middlebrow fiction"? This is it, though I think even middlebrow work usually provides a passage that brings you up short, which this doesn't. The book is smart but the narration has a light touch, and most characters sound like the same person. There's plenty of humor, and never at the expense of the characters. It's something of a Stephen King novel, an Under the Dome that has no intention, once its one fantastic event has taken place, of returning to the world of fantasy, but instead leaves us trapped in the strangeness of suburbia, a place in which people may not experience rapture, but still experience human connection.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Events that don't quite happen: Pynchon's THE CRYING OF LOT 49

I'll say this, boys and girls: It contains some fine sentences. It also contains some truly strange sentences in which the syntax has come unsprung; these pop up every few paragraphs like a nervous tic. Then there are sentences that hint beyond whatever they're ostensibly saying, sentences that point beyond the material world, lines that linger over their subject and call down holiness on the meanest scrap of earth.

However, what Thomas Pynchon's short novel The Crying of Lot 49 lacks is anything resembling a character. We follow Oedipa Maas on a journey shorter than that of Odysseus and longer than that of Leopold Bloom (how her journey is Oedipal eludes me; it's Homeric in its meandering and Joycean in its particularity); named co-executrix of a will for a man with whom she once had a fling, Oedipa, in attempting to fulfill her duty, stumbles upon the symbols, texts, and history of what may be a secret organization . . . or may not. The plot is something of a hash, a shaggy-dog story (that I'm sure accrues meaning at the symbolic level, but feels drunkenly assembled, part of the joke being its haphazardness) in which Oedipa goes from place to place picking up clues, the aimlessness of her wanderings indicative of the thinness of her character. No one ever speaks anything that sounds like real dialogue; that could be a fine stylistic choice, but Oedipa herself is deprived of any consistent style, so the words she speaks do not help us see or hear her.

This, too, is purposeful, I suppose. With a cipher for a main character, it is the reader who wanders the streets of San Francisco (among other places), banging into evidence for nothing but other evidence. The novel is meant to be funny—at several levels—and manages that, to my taste, in some of the more comedic lines and juxtapositions, but mostly it feels like the abstract idea of humor instead of a story worth a laugh.

If you're curious about the novel, it's blessedly short. I'd suggest reading it in as few sittings as possible; each time I picked it up again, I felt as if I'd stepped on word-scree, with nothing to cling to, nothing solid from the previous reading to even recollect. It does build well at the end, though the climax is—and you can see it coming from a mile off—insistently anticlimactic.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Drama in Scranton: Jason Miller's THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON

To most people who've even heard of him, Jason Miller is famous for two things, both of which took place in 1973: winning the Pulitzer for his play That Championship Season and starring as Father Damien in the William Friedkin–directed The Exorcist. The play may be weirder than the movie, and certainly a darker commentary on its times.

Four men who, years back, were on a winning basketball team, are joined for a reunion with their coach (whom the play labels "Coach"): George, the mayor, up for reelection, is incensed to be running against anyone, but especially bothered by his opponent's environmentalism and Jewishness; Phil, his campaign manager, had a fling with George's wife (this will come out), and is a businessman who relies on political favors; James is a junior high school principal who is expecting an endorsement from George to be head of the school board; his brother, Tom, drinks and makes cynical comments from the sidelines.

There was a fifth member of the winning group of starters, but the reason he hasn't stayed in touch is revealed, eventually, to be the fault of Coach. While the men drink and generally fall out with each other, Coach tries to remind them of their greatness, but the more he speaks, the more we see that he's a bigot, a brute, and that his version of manhood—built around winning at all costs—is perhaps one reason these men remain trapped in an eternal adolescence, none of them truly comfortable in his life.

Almost immediately, the play is marvelously foul—not rich with profanity, like Mamet, but locker-room brutal with sexual, racist, and misogynist language. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, always audible, and the characters bounce their lines off each other as if they were passing the basketball from one to another in that famous winning game's final seconds—which is likely the exact effect Miller was after.

Aside from Tom, who is likable simply because he stands back from much of the fighting, making smart remarks, none of the characters seems better than pathetic, and over the course of the three acts, everyone slips lower in your estimation. In Coach's exhortations, you hear a dying gasp of a clawing, grasping world that is often portrayed as full of men who worked hard and prayed to be good; these men aren't good, and the world they've made has nothing permanent or kind about it. This is another Lost Generation, the kind Updike captured in Rabbit, Run—another tale of the (post-war) modern damned man for whom the metaphor of life-as-a-game hasn't paid off in any satisfying way.

The play's three acts come right atop each other; we're witnessing a few hours in these characters' lives, which makes the rapid unraveling somewhat unconvincing. Like many American plays of its time, its oddly structured, caught between literalism and symbolism, ending abstractly, more satisfying in the moment than taken as a whole.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Blues He's Playin': Bill Cheng's SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG

I can't discuss this book without the discussing another book, which I set down at the halfway point. The Yellow Birds, by Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers, came highly recommended from some-list-or-other. I felt that novel moving too slowly, circling a central event that felt like it might not be terribly compelling, in language that, while often lovely and evocative, failed to advance its flawed-men-at-war story to my satisfaction. The prose worked too hard without much to show for it, reminding me of a metaphor from Henry James: "a screw hammered into wood." It's not a bad book, and the writer is possessed of skill and thoughtfulness, but I grew tired of it, jumped to browse its climax, and put it aside.

The next book recommended to me by someone's list was young writer Bill Cheng's debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog, and at first, I worried that I was seeing another book that functioned by style rather than story. There's some of that—and the story doesn't come together at the end as I'd hoped it might—but Cheng is capable of more variation in his tempo. He might linger over a description, but more often, he dispenses his observations both briskly and poetically, and there's a pulsing momentum to the entire novel. He reminds me of Ron Hansen, turning any available part of speech into a verb when need be, and the sentences don't catch in your throat or eye, but flow marvelously.

The story follows several characters, and it took some time for me to realize that the center of the tale is Robert Chatham, a black boy who becomes a man of his own making in the course of the novel. Eight years old at the time of the Mississippi Flood of 1927 that displaces his already damaged family, Robert becomes an itinerant and rootless figure who gets knocked out or nearly killed way too many times over the years. (Several ploys and plot elements are visited too many times in the book.) People come and go and come in his story, and the coincidences would probably perturb evens Dickens. Various other vivid characters intersect with Robert, most notably ex-con and blues musician Eli Cotter (who, sadly and surprisingly, doesn't return after too early a departure). Robert sweeps floors at a brothel, flees the Klan, winds up among backwoods trappers, and clings to life even at its most painful.

Reviewers have noted the border crossing done by the author: a Chinese-American who lives in the Northeast, Cheng writes of a time, place, and people of whom he has no direct knowledge, his sources, largely, the blues musicians he loves. For my money, he pulls off the endeavor, capturing various styles of speech and the troubled souls of suffering blacks and whites. I do wonder what a black reader would make of it—especially a Southern black reader.

It's an exciting debut, terrific for much of its length, and, though not completely satisfying at the end, often satisfying in its parts.

Postscript: It gives nothing away to reveal that the title—which is not explained in the novel—refers to two railroads, the Southern and the Dog: as in, "where the Southern cross[es] the Dog." I'm relying on the New York Times for that explanation.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Omega Woman: Marlen Haushofer's THE WALL

[Somehow, the full version of this, which was posted, got replaced by an earlier version. Urgh.]

I knew nothing of this novel till I saw the trailer for the film:

Published in 1962, The Wall is the only work of Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer's to have been translated into English. It's unrelenting.

The story's initiating event, established in the first pages of the book as it's established in the first moments of the trailer, comes when a woman visiting friends in the Austrian countryside awakes in the morning to find the friends have not returned and a transparent wall has blocked the road. This wall, after some investigation, seems to have no end, and every form of animal life on the far side has frozen in place, dead.

That's it. Our protagonist quickly sizes up her situation and sets to preparing for an uncertain period in which she must provide food and other necessities for herself, the dog and cat who live on the property, and a single female cow. Other animals live on this side of the wall, but they are non-actors, prey, or predators in relation to this small family circle. In Robinson Crusoe–fashion, the narrator takes the contents of her own diary and turns it into a reconstructed narrative of survival, recounting everything from haymaking to beangrowing to the illnesses that afflict the tiny group. Interspersed throughout, and integrated beautifully into the tone of tense description and observation, are more philosophical thoughts prompted by the terrible isolation, thoughts honed more sharply because they come from a point after certain sad events which the narrator mentions often, though she doesn't encounter them directly till near the end.

What is a human without other humans? What is a human without something to care for, some project to engage in? And, she wonders, what does it mean to be human if humans are the cause of the wall? Is this what we do, destroy one another out of our confusion?

Though the plot is little more than a succession of days and minor events, the profound isolation of the character lends to every moment a vividness, a clarity the narrator recognizes as missing from her former life of time and tasks, and this pulls the narrative along, that and a sense of unease about such a depopulated world. She is now dedicated to that which is necessary, but also acutely aware of what is beautiful, what touches her, and what endures after the last human observer is gone. There is an arc to the narrative, both dramatic and intellectual, so the work does have more shape than my description might suggest, and it's more riveting than the reader might expect.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

That Flem: Faulkner's THE HAMLET

As a novel, Faulkner's The Hamlet is something of a cobbled-together affair, built in part of some free-standing stories, but it's also expansive about elements that don't seem central to whatever the larger plot might be, thus confounding those looking for a novelistic experience. Nevertheless, there's a narrative arc at work, a moral trajectory that tracks an immoral trajectory, the progress of Flem Snopes in taking what he will from the people of Frenchman's Bend.

I read this novel during my freshman year in college for a course in 20th-century American literature, my prior reading of Faulkner having included things I'd loved ("The Bear," the long version) and a novel I'd failed to get through (The Sound and the Fury). I knew of the other two novels in the trilogy (The Town and The Mansion), but until recently, I didn't own both of those. Now that I do, I though I'd try the entire "Snopes sequence."

I recalled only three moments from The Hamlet: a teacher who has developed a terrible crush on a student puts his face to her vacated classroom seat; a mentally retarded man is observed in an indelicate situation with his one true love, a cow; and Flem Snopes, in response to something done by Ratliff, the sewing machine salesman, spits on the ground. The grotesque sexuality aside, the gesture by Snopes summed up the novel for me: Snopes did what he would, brushing aside anyone who got in his way.

Rereading the novel, I find Snopes's evil to be less direct than I remembered. He is rapacious, but like a force of nature. He doesn't run wild, unlike the wild horses he unloads on the town through an intermediary; he also doesn't possess the kind of seductive charisma as Eula, the nymphet who draws men the way a magnet draws filings. Rather, he is smart and methodical, though never overtly so. He brings to the town an absurd and never-ending series of relatives—even Ratliff, the moral center of the book, can't keep track of them, which means the reader is also at a loss—and they seem more an expression of the vegetative advance of his family rather than expressions of his will. They often complicate matters for him, in fact. Yet Flem pushes onward, working hard at what job he aims to do yet also possessing a kind of effortlessness that never reveals how hard he's actually working and how far ahead he has planned.

Snopes doesn't intend ill toward anyone, but that's why his brand of evil is so distressing: there's no motive except acquisition. Bad things will happen to people, but Snopes hardly sees the people except as means to his ends, and the ends constantly shift beyond what anyone might expect—as indeed there can be no "end" to acquisitiveness.

Faulkner gives us some of his finest writing, and some of his finest comic writing. The chapter describing the beautiful, vacant, disturbingly voluptuous Eula, daughter of the prosperous Varner clan, is worth endless rereadings, as Faulkner rhapsodizes in tones both horrified and elevated, presenting Eula as a jiggling mass of flesh that won't be contained and a kind of goddess. Naturally, once she's found pregnant and, thus, somewhat damaged good, she ends up with Snopes. Other astonishing scenes include sale and escape of the wild horses (Faulkner slowing down the action, accelerating it, reversing it—whatever he needs to do to capture the terrific and baffling violence); a murder and its aftermath, as the murderer can't seem to properly dispose of the body or the weapon; and the loving pursuit and abduction of the cow (another love goddess) over many miles and days.

Through it all run themes of desire without check, the way even the smallest amount of money can bespeak a person's whole self, and the careless violence of both nature and humans. It's a great performance that embraces a variety of narrative styles, a symphonic piece that, though it drops its familiar motifs for long stretches, never forgets, as Snopes never forgets, that the long game is what matters, that everything returns and comes to fruition in the final movement.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Space Seed: THE SPARROW, by Mary Doria Russell

It's a surprise, following my reading to D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, to find another book equally saturated with sex, but here it is, Mary Doria Russell's debut science fiction novel, The Sparrow.

I came to the book because in the wake of a friend asking about it, I saw the book described in terms of the theological question, "Why does God allows evil?" The book does not, in fact, confront that issue. Rather, though the main character, Fr. Emilio Sandoz, lone survivor of a mission to another world, angrily asks about the will of God, the question is misplaced, and I don't know whether the author or the character is more mistaken about the book's point. The long-suffering priest isn't really asking about why God allows suffering; after all, he didn't need to go to Alpha Centauri to pose that question. Instead, he's really asking about his own attempts to divine the will of God, and in the end, his complaint is less about what happened to his friends than about why all these horrors happened to him, making this, ultimately, a book about placing oneself at the center of the universe. I don't think the author realizes this.

The book's premise is that, following a coherent signal of music from another world, the Jesuits launch a mission at breakneck speed, sending a group of colleagues (all tangled in a web of healthy desire) and other specialists toward the source of the interstellar singing. These events are told in the past tense, as, 40 years in the future, when the book begins, we've already seen Fr. Sandoz come back alone and mutilated, the focus of an investigation that's less about why everyone's dead (no one really seems concerned about that) than about the state of affairs in play when the good padre was located by another Earth team.

The book has the strengths and weaknesses of typical genre writing. Characters are clearly delineated with rapid gestures; the plot is briskly explained; there's a nice use, from the beginning, of suspenseful beats; the writing is efficient. The book truly is a page-turner: the prose isn't either clunky or dense enough to slow you down; you definitely want to know what happened next . . . until rather late in the book, when you'd rather not know, because you've already been told that everyone's going to be killed. Even so, Russell shifts perspective from a moment-by-moment approach to one in which events are reconstructed, thus sparing you some of the worst moments, filtering them through the reactions of the characters. Point of view is, in fact, a weak area, or at least an area over which she demonstrates inadequate control. She opts for a multi-person omniscient POV, so we can slip into anyone's thoughts; it's the most difficult POV to pull off, the POV favored by Tolstoy and Morrison, and it requires a deft touch. Russell awkwardly and abruptly drops out of one person into another, nevertheless leaving us in the dark about the thinking of even the main character at many times, so the technique functions to alternately enhance and prohibit understanding.

Since she wants to use suspense to drive the plot, Russell leaves characters unaware of things they ought to notice, things that we notice. It's, again, a standard approach in genre fiction, the withholding of information until it's too late. Some of it works well, but sometimes, you see the seams. The science came across, to this non-scientist, adequately handled, but you have to roll your eyes at the notion that first contact is planned by people who haven't any clue as to what they're doing, the whole thing reminiscent of Reed Richards et al sneaking into the spaceport to steal a rocket ship because they just can't wait. I suppose some analogy to the Jesuit missions among the Native Americans is intended, but, really, those folks went with as much knowledge as possible rather than as little as possible. Once you get past the goofiness of the premise, Russell's on safer ground with human interactions and cultural differences. She's an anthropologist, and this is her territory. Characters are a bit too jokey and casual, dropping way too many current references for my taste; they should be much more terrified than they appear to be. However, Russell's easy way with characters and dialogue does make it easy to connect with most of the people, even when they stay two-dimensional, so their loss hits us hard.

Sex and desire are the source of conflict and the subject of much reflection and outright discussion. The characters are far more forthright in discussing these matters than any humans I know, and, early in the book, it seems that this particular angle is overworked. However, human sexuality is a crucial theme that Russell is working, and though the Jesuit interrogators seem a bit more dense than they need to be, the theme is brought to fruition, resulting in a thoughtful connection of the personal and the cultural.

The book received an extraordinary amount of praise when it came out. I think it does pretty well what a lot of other genre fiction doesn't do well, to wit, approaching its subject in a literate, thoughtful way . . . and without flubbing the third act.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Wild World: Lawrence's LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER

D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: That was strange.

Everyone knows the story. Lady Chatterley’s husband, Clifford, is paralyzed from the waist down due to blast in the Great War. Though she doesn’t seem to miss the sex, having seen what all the fuss was about in her youth, and she was never that keen on it anyway, she starts looking for someone or something to connect with physically, and after a brief and unsatisfying few romps with a family friend, she catches sight of her estate’s gamekeeper stripped to the waist and splashed with water, and after that, the lady just can’t help herself. Though the story is often remembered as an attraction of opposites or a scandalous bridging of the gap in social class, that’s more in the perception of others than in the facts; in truth, Mellors, though born in the working class, is educated (Mellors often speaks "broad," slipping into his lower-class accent, but he's slumming, doing it partly for effect and partly to comfort himself) and has been an officer, and Lady Chatterley, though of the landed classes, doesn’t wear easily the mantle of her husband’s title and expresses strong sympathy for the workers.

It’s a love story, replete with scenes of explicit sexuality and largely inexplicit sex, but larger crises are at work in the novel than the crisis caused by the affair. WWI has physically and emotionally damaged everyone involved, but Clifford’s inability to either stand or produce children is Lawrence’s way of saying that the entire class structure is hobbled and impotent. Intellectual discussions take place in the Chatterley’s Wragley Hall, but they’re weightless, modern in the worst possible ways (and strangely reminiscent of Brave New World, as these colorless upper-class twits discuss making children in bottles). As for the outer world, industrialization is stripping away whatever was beautiful in England. It’s also causing encroachment on the estates of old, which can no longer survive, and though the loss of these estates is painted in morbid tones, it’s clear that Lawrence doesn’t truly bemoan that world's demise. Sterile, out of step, and inward, the old England has nothing to recommend it, but neither does Lawrence find anything to recommend the world to come, nor the lower classes bound to inhabit it. They have babies, and they’re not a bad sort, but they’ve become unmannered, their lives governed by money (a foul word in this novel) and gossip.

I was often reminded of Orwell’s 1984, which, for all its interest in the politics and psychology of fascism, also has some of Lawrence’s concerns and solutions. Life too sterile? Go off to the woods for a romp among the flowers. Worried about the future? Eventually, this present structure will fade. But Orwell’s characters are all in the Party, making it easy to forget, for much of that novel, that most people are leading rather different lives than the protagonists. “Salvation will come from the proles,” Winston Smith thinks, but Orwell doesn’t tell us much about them, keeping them at arm’s length. Lawrence shows us something of working-class life, and the ability (and marked tendency) of the working classes to reproduce is pushed in the face of Lady Chatterley, who does want a child. And though salvation won’t come from “the proles,” we’re given to understand, in the novel’s strangely melancholy ending, that a return to honest work, and an embrace of some sort of honest relations between the sexes, will at least make life feel meaningful.

As most know, what got the novel in trouble was all the sex. Three pages in, Lawrence is waxing about the female orgasm. You have to sympathize with Lawrence, who wants to write about sex but doesn’t have any literary model to follow. In the early going, he seems to struggle with how to talk about it, even saying “orgasm” and “crisis” in the same sentence as if they were two different things. He often says that Lady Chatterley is moved “in her womb” or “in her bowels” when she feels sexual stirrings. There’s an odd vacillation between bluntness and euphemism. I think, though, that what Lawrence wants to have happen is for the language to become more direct as Lady Chatterley herself comes to embrace a more vivid sexuality than she’s previously known. Thus, though sex enters the story early, the scenes gradually become more explicit and the characters grow more comfortable with the language and with their own bodies. It often reads goofily, but it works better than I initially thought it did.

Further, the book is tonally ragged. It's funnier than I expected. There are sharp exchanges and clever observations, but there are also just silly moments in which you feel Lawrence’s revealing honesty. The characters are hard to picture, as Lawrence’s descriptions seem inconsistent. Characters speak inconsistently, too, allowing Lawrence to vent his spleen about some subject and then, moments later, take it all back. And the book ends without completing what would appear to be its climax, leaving the characters suspended between the choices they’ve just made and the consequences. That follows 40 pages of jumping about in a rushed way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the novel. Perhaps he just wanted to be done, having put everyone though quite enough hell.  

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Drop by Drop, History's Weight: Rachel Seiffert's THE DARK ROOM

Though billed as a novel, Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room is in fact a triptych, each of its three stories examining a different era in Germany's recent history—the early years of WWII, the aftermath of defeat, and modern life—in order to unpack German culpability and guilt. The questions raised by the stories might by applied to any culture which has, at some point, participated in terrors: How does one assign culpability? Is it transmissible? Can it be forgiven? How guilty should any one person feel, regardless of their proximity to the events?

Seiffert provides no direct answers, only questions that lead to other questions. Even when it appears she's about to provide a kind of moral formula, she refuses to yield to any such statement. The book reminded me, in this, of Toni Morrison's Beloved, a novel that confronts American slavery only to conclude, in part, there is no way to successfully confront such horrors, no matter how fine our intentions.

This is not a multigenerational family novel; though we move through time, we're never allowed that kind of continuity. We never see what we might expect, a familiar face from a prior tale. Instead, the book is bound together by its themes and by geography, a kind of moral topography like something out of Dante. The cities send forth their young men, defend their border, receive the Allied bombs, empty of people, endure years of deprivation, and rebuild atop mounds of memories.

Photographs form a motif that binds the tales. "Helmut," the first story, tells of a physically handicapped boy who learns, via a generous employer, the trade of photography. From his childhood documentation of the comings and goings of trains he moves to the documentation of the life of his city, learning how to capture its beauty even as he uses the evidence of his photographs to track the departure of the city's residents. The story's one weakness, though I suppose the author doesn't see it this way, is Helmut's naiveté. I'm fine with the idea that he supports the Führer and spouts his pronouncements, but he fails to truly see how people are being treated even as he's photographing them. It's meant as irony, the camera framing what he sees but also distancing him from his subject, but the execution of the idea strains credulity.

Photographs appear in the second story, "Lore," when young Hannelore, a child of privilege who must guide her siblings to safety in postwar German, joins a crowd of people studying photos from the death camps. Here again, reality is both documented and problematized: Who are these people? Are the photos staged? What possible narrative could they support? The characters themselves, Lore and her family members as well as the young man who joins them in their journey, prompt similar questions: In what context are we to see them? What have they done? What do they deserve? Lore doesn't even understand the context of her own life, though she'll gain some knowledge of it by the end. (This story was adapted for a new film, which is what led me to Seiffert's book.)

After reading that long middle tale, it was hard for me to enter the new reality of the final story, "Micha." (A shifting narrative focus is what led me to stop reading the recent novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie; though well written and full of vivid characters, the shifts in perspective that created a structure of a linked series of short stories kept me at arms length, and I had to stop reading. Though no characters bind the tales in The Dark Room, Seiffert won me over, three thematically connected stories being more compelling for me than a dozen connected ones.) The third story here provided me with some resistance, Seiffert's drip-by-drip approach to narrative finally feeling too slow, but once the story gets going in earnest, I flew along (perhaps too quickly, the terse but frequent dialogue and repetitious movements of the character allowing for skimming). Micha (Michael) wants to find out whether his grandfather, a member of the Waffen-S.S., participated in atrocities. Here we enter the problem of modern Germany, surely divided between those who want to move on from the past and those who want to remind everyone about it—and Seiffert does not make the morality of the situations simple. In Belarus, in search of "the truth," Micha meets a local man and his wife with their own complex past. Now the camera surfaces again, but what is pictured and what cannot enter that picture bespeak the limits of both vision and forgiveness.

At times, the narrative would have benefited from a shift in pace or some stylistic variation. However, Seiffert's largely direct, moment-by-moment style suits these tales, as one of their subjects is the slow accumulation of detail and where those details lead us, whether we are witness, victim, participant . . . or reader.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, by James Lasdun

Despite the title, and despite the first of this memoir's four sections, James Lasdun's Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked is not solely a tale of obsession and threat. If that's what you're expecting—and the book certainly sets you up for such expectations—you'll be disappointed. What I took to be a digression about D.H. Lawrence in the second section was really an announcement as to the book's true nature. Thus, assays into Lasdun's family history (especially his father), anti-Semitism, Sir Gawain, and the swamp of Israeli political become much of the book, the pursuit via internet by a former (clearly unhinged) female student slipping to the margins. And when Lasdun, mostly known for his (terrific) short fiction, says on more than one occasion that he ought to mention now something he failed to mention before, thus undermining our confidence in this chronology of creepiness, you aren't meant to fault the misleading structure of the book but rather, I think, recognize the Lasdun has taken this awful aspect of his present life and shaped it so it can fruitfully address larger issues.

In truth, we're never allowed to set aside "Nasreen," the former writing student who becomes obsessed with Lasdun, and whose infatuation turns, as such things do when humans become objectified, into bilious hatred. Even when Lasdun shifts to other matters, his aim is to show how Nasreen's endless, invective-filled e-mails become for him a pair of lenses on the world, lenses that he cannot remove. So Lasdun's concern about the amorphous issue of "reputation," his tense reflections on his responses to any attractive woman, his dream-life, and an article he researches on construction of a temple in Jerusalem's Old City—all are altered by Nasreen's narrative about terrorism, rape (both real and metaphorical), and plagiarism.

What comes through is Lasdun's personality. He's certainly naive in the early days of the relationship, though he's no fool; another writer, however, might have made himself seem either more insightful or more the victim. Lasdun, who's English, doesn't react as one imagines most Americans might, with anger and a desire for vengeance. He's a quiet sort who knows the pestering has become a prosecutable assault, but he's more driven by anxiety and dread and an unwarranted hope than the desire to fix the problem.

The story's end reminds me of Anne Sexton's poem "The Awful Rowing Toward God": "This story ends with me still rowing." The attacks, via e-mail, wikipedia, Amazon, and through colleagues, have been dialed back, but they haven't altogether ceased. Lasdun's temperament, though, allows him to see his story as part of a larger history of desire and violence; his intellect, which got him into this mess, allows him to stay sane.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Enduring Chill: Jan Costin Wagner's ICEMOON

German writer Jan Costin Wagner's novel Das Schwiegen was made into a movie in 2010 (The Silence, German); recently a trailer for the movie popped up, so evidently it's now in release in the States. Made curious by the film, a dark mystery about a missing girl, I sought out Wagner's work at the library and found Icemoon.

This is one of those mystery novels that makes me think I could write mystery novels . . . as long as there's no mystery. Very little actual detective work is done by the Finnish police detective who connects two murders; in fact, he works largely by hunch, often drifting from his work due to his despondency over the death of his young wife. Readers know who the killer is from the outset. There's some mystery as to his motives, but that's not a puzzle that leads to him being caught. If you're looking, then, for a novel of detection, don't look here. This did frustrate me initially, but then I chose to judge the book for what it aimed to be rather than what I'd expected.

The true mystery in this novel is death. Detective Kimmo Joentaa is with his wife when she dies, and he obsesses over both her memory and her last moments. He gets close to death, but can't truly enter the experience. This motif connects him to the killer as well as to other characters. Death is unfathomable and irreversible, and so it frustrates both the intellect and the intentions of every character—even the murderer.

There's much about the novel that reminds me of Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist's vampire novel, Let the Right One In. It's the same cold landscape (though here the daylight is long, as it's summer), the same separation of narrative that tends to isolate the characters, the same tendency to create character and plot threads that feel (and perhaps are) digressive, and even, at one point, the same concrete apartment building, backed by trees and facing a playground. 

The book flies by: The language is spare, the syntax straightforward, the details compressed. Also, it's not as long as it appears, relying on one-sentence paragraphs (a standard suspense-story form) to keep the tale artificially clicking along. 

The book is involving, and its characters linger. The mysteries at the heart of it, though, remained unsolved.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Signifying Nada: THEY LIVE (Carpenter) and THEY LIVE (Lethem)

In a converse of the usual advice, I proclaim: Watch the film, then read the book.

1988's They Live, which seems to beg for a concluding exclamation (in like fashion to the superior 1954 monster flick Them!), is a shaggy John Carpenter construction, a B-movie masquerading as a better B-movie than it turns out to be, a story of an alien invasion that turns out to be not a metaphor or symbol but the underlying truth about class warfare in the '80s.

And then there's Jonathan Lethem's They Live, the first book in the Deep Focus series, a set of books about film written by terrific writers who aren't film critics. Lethem—who loves the movie both in spite of its defects and because of the way the defects themselves entertain you and raise interesting questions—walks you through the film, breaking it into small segments, slowing down for key moments, analyzing oddities of plot and character and concept. It's a pleasure, and the film itself provides fertile ground for some weedy reasoning.

Though aware of the film (I still remember the original ad campaign, and I knew the basic premise that one man can suddenly see that the world has been taken over by "ghouls" who walk among us), I'd never seen a frame of it, and I started reading Lethem's book in the belief that I didn't need to watch the film to appreciate the text. But Lethem's details, and the way he describes his own love for the film, made me seek it out. There it was, in HD glory, on youtube. I thought I would go back and forth between film and book, but Lethem gives away key plot elements (few though there be) before he gets to them, so I watched the rest of the movie in toto, then turned back to the book.

I can't, in this space, comment as fully on the film as Lethem does, but I would like to provide some response to it. The difficult thing to get my head around is that this was made by the guy who did one of my favorite films, The Thing. Though that movie has a few tell-tale moments of awkwardness, mostly in the dialogue, by and large it's tight, professional, and utterly involving. The actors are great, the space feels real, and the threat is believably horrifying. There's a minimalist soundtrack that's effectively haunting. The practical effects remain a hallmark of how to make the fantastic believable in the age before CGI. How did Carpenter go from that to They Live? Certainly the low budget is one factor, and Lethem constantly mentions budget as a means to explain the narrow set of locations for the on-location shoot, the unimpressive "ghoul" makeup, and the lack of acting talent (aside from Keith David (of The Thing fame), who's mostly quite good, and Meg Foster, who is flat and unreadable). But is that valid? Hitchcock intentionally shot Psycho on the cheap, using his TV crew and a smaller budget. Does Psycho look like it was shot by undergrads? No.

Even when They Live is at its smoothest—smart framing of a shot, a nice pan, a seamless use of its one clever effect—it feels off. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper is partly to blame; from the first shot, he is so obviously a person trying to act rather than an actor. (As Lethem comments—or, if he didn't, he thought it—the character's lack of a name, only revealed in the credits as "Nada," suggests not only that he's a blank slate but that Piper's casting is a nod toward a kind of lumpen, amateur-hour verisimilitude.) Other non-actors litter the set, screaming with their very presence, "A friend of somebody's sister!" The script, pseudonymously by Carpenter, is built entirely of leaden lines. The sound is muddy and the editing jumpy. There's one great shot setting up one surprising moment; otherwise, it's like a toss-off TV movie from the '70s. And the story is oddly structured, taking its time in the first half hour, lurching into a shoot-'em-up for a few minutes, retreating into slackness, inserting the longest two-man fight in film history (purportedly; it certainly feels like it), seeming to build toward greater excitement, drifting instead into lazy sci-fi blahness, then ending weakly (and with a sardonic, poke-in-the-eye coda).

Lethem captures all of this and helps you see what's worth discussing about the film. He does it, too, with a minimum of "film language" (diagetic being the one exception; he unhelpfully, for non-film people, defines it in the notes at the back rather than at the time he uses it) and a minimum, too, of mere snarkiness or cleverness. He honestly wants to understand what's compelling about this misbegotten creature, and he wants you to join him on the sofa to talk about it.

I look forward to reading more books in the series. And I look forward to watching that goofy film again sometime with a bunch of friends.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Depths and heights: Robert Olmstead's COAL BLACK HORSE

On the back cover of Robert Olmstead's 2007 Civil War novel, Coal Black Horse, author Richard Ford refers to the book as a "fable." This may seem nitpicky, but I think it's important to challenge that description in order to get at the kind of tale Olmstead has actually told.

Technically, a fable involves anthropomorphized animals. (Orwell labels Animal Farm "a fable," but he's being cheeky, since it's more of an allegory, given its particular historical referents.) This book is no fable, but the use of that term made me wonder whether some other familiar term would fit. The story of a boy who sets out, at his mother's oracular insistence, to fetch his father back from the war, the novel unreels increasingly brutal horrors before our formerly innocent protagonist, who, by the end, has certainly been altered, in ways necessary if not virtuous. Is it a "parable"? Arguably, though a parable ought to contain a moral lesson, and I think Olmstead means to resist anything transparently informative; still, a parable could also be viewed as a story that tells us something about "the way things truly are," so perhaps that'll do. Robie, the young boy, does discover how the world moves and the frailty—physical and moral—of the people who move upon it. I think the book may also be a "fairy tale," for though it lacks supernatural beings, the boy resembles those innocents who set off at the start of a story only to find the world changed from what they thought it to be; additionally, against all reason, the boy (and the titular horse) manage to not get themselves killed, the boy certain early on that he'll live to tell this tale, and the charm that encompasses boy and horse as they journey out and back seems lifted from a story of the fantastic. Fairy tales too, though typically told to the young, often contain no moral beyond "Beware."

It occurs to me, while writing this, that the book may rather intentionally follow the pattern of Dante's descent into hell. Each circle Robie enters, each new encounter, exposes him to some new human horror, and surely the scavengers, both men and beast, moving among the fields of the dead at Gettysburg resemble the demons doing Lucifer's work in the deeper pits of the Inferno. Early on, it becomes evident that Robie is following a downward path in a story that can only get worse as it proceeds. (So when he returns home at the end, still with his guide, is he now in Purgatorio, the next stage of Dante's journey, a place of suffering that is, however, not utterly without hope?)

As with Olmstead's Far Bright Star, which I read in 2009, the novel is densely poetic, most tremendously during times of great violence. This can get confusing, as the complex syntax and use of abstruse language sometimes work against clarity; the result, though, is to slow down the violence, so that no matter how swiftly it comes, the impression is of something momentous and drawn out. Olmstead's vocabulary is rich, and he had me reaching for the dictionary at least a dozen times; he also uses words creatively, constructing adjectives and verbs from other parts of speech. Even so, the book reads smoothly; it's beautiful writing that's carried along, in the manner of Cormac McCarthy, by a narrative voice like God's from the whirlwind . . . or like Lear's into the storm.

The language is rich with nouns, with words having to do with the earth, growing things, parts of horses and human bodies; even as the narrative plunges into the depths of human suffering, the language transcends by refusing to transcend, refusing to leave behind mortal things. The boy's eyes reach upward, too, seeing stars and constellations, watching birds and changing skies, but the boy sees things for what they are and does not see signs of another, better world. The story is a grim one, and the protagonist at times participates in the grimness, but he also works to bring coherence and peace to this shattered world, which is just what Olmstead's writing achieves.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

PKDick's "High Castle": Alt-history and motorcycle maintenance

I had to read it. A friend had referenced it in relation to a new short story of mine (he assumed I'd read it), and it's often mentioned as an important book in the history of science fiction . . . and I own it, having just bought the novel last year.

When I'd finished Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, one place my post-reading ruminations took me was to Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a novel I deeply disliked when I read it and which has not been improved by the fog of memory. Perhaps my own education in philosophy was shoddy, but I didn't think the book did a good job presenting a History of Western Thought, which seemed to be its primary purpose. The bigger problem, though, was that there wasn't much of a story; additionally, the main character didn't do much—he just talked about philosophy, though not in a way I found interesting or particularly coherent. 

Plot and character. If Aristotle is right on this (as he sometimes is), those are the primary elements of a good narrative. (He applied this to tragedy; and he's talking about plays, since novels don't exist yet.) In these two matters, The Man in the High Castle falls woefully short, though I believe I understand its strengths, even if they don't move me to much praise. It's a novel of ideas. The people in the novel talk about ideas, think about those ideas, and act on those ideas. But rather than characters, the people seem like means to advance or consider a concept; and by the end, the concepts have become muddled by the plot itself.

The book is set in a world in which the Axis powers won WWII; following the victory, the Germans and Japanese split the U.S. between them, with the middle of the country and the Mountain States somewhat left to their own devices. The Nazis got overzealous in their efforts to remake Africa, we're told, and turned it to ash. The story takes place in San Francisco and Colorado, the two venues tied together by Frank Frink and his ex-wife, Juliana. 

Dick uses this set-up to explore issues of authenticity and the weight of history, both indirectly and directly. (Perhaps no other writer would have seen these as the issues to explore in this context, and it's possible that the strange-bedfellows pairing of the alternate-history conceit with this particular set of ideas is at the heart of why the novel seems, to me, such a misfire.) Several of the characters are in disguise: a Jew who changed his name (though "Fink" to "Frink" seems a weak effort); a Japanese general assuming an alias; a hired assassin who seems to be a working-class truck driver. There are characters at opposition with themselves: a German who questions everything about being German; a white American who has adopted the manners and speech of the Japanese overlords. People change their hair-color, struggle with their culture, imagine themselves in a fortress, imagine other worlds. Japanese and Americans both consult the I Ching, a Chinese text. (Oddly, there's no mention of a cult of the emperor continuing past the end of the war.) Throughout, people respond variously to a popular book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate-history novel (written by "the man in the high castle") that imagines the Axis powers losing WWII—though with an outcome that looks nothing like our own world. (Though the novel is quoted from at length, it's not an especially vivid text.) Characters question the character of their own cultures and judge the other cultures. Japanese collectors hanker after "authentic" Americana even though the provenance for such artifacts is questionable. A man holds a lighter that was owned by FDR—he has the paperwork to prove it—though we know that the paperwork itself is fraudulent.

The ideas are interesting, but they don't cohere into a plot with a satisfying arc or resolution. The conclusion is stiff and unconvincing, and it comes in the last few pages. Seeing that there were only a few pages left, I worried that, like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a complicated explanation was going to be shoehorned into a quick final scene. However, Dick instead undercuts the scene, has people act in oddly formal ways, and deflects questions with a final jab at questions of authenticity and reality. 

Stylistically, the book is annoying. Much of the novel consists of characters' reactions and reflections, but Dick almost never allows himself to paraphrase a character's thoughts; instead, we get each character's fragmented running commentary. I can read Joyce and Faulkner; I can handle stream-of-consciousness writing. That's not what this is. This is stream-of-talkativeness, stream-of-blather, stream-of-chattiness. It strikes me as a lazy way for Dick to spew out ideas, letting people ramble on. Some of what they say is interesting, but it often reads as merely erratic nonsense, full of emotions that lack adequate external or internal prompts. The worst examples of these internal narratives come from Robert Childan, the white seller of Americana; Tagomi, his potential client; and Juliana, the one person who manages to reach the man behind the controversial novel. Throughout the book, Japanese characters speak a clipped English, English that often lacks its articles. There are non-idiomatic constructions, novel uses of words, and struggles to say what's meant. While that makes sense, it doesn't make sense that someone's internal narrative would suffer from the same problems. Why is a native Japanese thinking in broken English? Why is Childan, who has adopted this speaking style in order to fit in with his customers, thinking this way? These are grating, amateurish choices. Juliana's internal voice simply falls apart as the character, introduced so solidly, becomes a set of inexplicable choices and reactions.

I flew through the book—initially, because it was involving; later, because one could move through the characters' increasingly redundant or circular internal blather rather rapidly. As the characters—especially Juliana and Tagomi—lost all coherence and became jumpy sets of responses (like something out of a slapdash pulp novel by Van Vogt), the only thing holding my interest was the man behind the book-within-a-book. But then he turned out to be a let-down, also neither compelling nor coherent, a rushed and incomplete aspect of a novel that aimed for great things but that didn't evince the necessary care to reach those great things.