Purity In Fiction (or, Jonathan Franzen’s Latest Attempt At…Something)

The most recent entry in the annals of attempted applied snobbery came recently from Jonathan Franzen, who, while certainly a gifted prose stylist, seems bent on making himself into the grumpiest white literary snob on the planet.

Disclaimer: I have read Mr. Franzen’s essays.  I have tried to read his fiction, but quite honestly found nothing much of particular interest. A cross, perhaps, between Dickens and Roth, with leanings toward Russo and Gardner. I admit to having been seriously put off by his antics back when Oprah Winfrey tried to draft him into her popular reading group series.

I also admit that I’ve never been quite sure what to make of all that. Till now.

He has offered Ten Rules For Novelist’s.  By the tenth you realize you are being lectured by someone who wishes to be regarded one way, suspects he may be regarded another way, but is afraid he is not being regarded at all, at least not as any kind of exemplar or Wise Head With Priceless Advice. His “rules” suffer from the curse of the “lit’rary.”  Distilled, it would seem he’s telling us that “if you don’t write like me, or try to write like me, you’re wasting your time and destroying the culture simultaneously.”

Others have weighed in on the problematic nature of these. It may seem self-serving to tilt at lawn ornaments with pretensions to windmill-ness, but frankly, I already know I’m not paid much attention to and nothing I say here will do anything for a career I do not have.

I am, however, much irked by this kind of thing. It’s disingenuous in it’s effect if not intent (how would I know how much of this he really believes?). By that I mean, it is not a set of rules to help aspiring writers, it is a set of reasons for not being a writer. Latent within these is the unspoken belief that, whoever you are, You Are Not Worthy.

Having said that, there are a couple of these I sort of agree with. Not, mind you, as proscriptions, but as matters of personal taste. Number 4, for instance: Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

I default to third-person because I tend to be a bit put off by first-person. To me, First Person is terribly artificial. No one goes through life narrating what they do. (Granted, all tenses, with regard to How People Actually Live, are artificial. Telling a story is an artifice, a Made Thing. Any “naturalness” to it all is part of the Art. It’s a seduction, convincing a reader to subsume his/her consciousness to the dictates of the narrative so that it feels natural.) Yes, once in a while, a story requires a different voice, even a different tense, because the writer is trying for a different effect. You make these choices for effect. You want the reader to go to a certain place in a specific way.

So while I agree with Rule # 4, I think Franzen phrased it in a way that tries to make it seem less of a matter of technique and more something that emerges from the zeitgeist. In other words, it’s a dodgy, deceptive way to say it.

There are too many little aphorisms and unexamined heuristics connected to writing that, if taken at face value, deter rather than aid the aspiring writer. We do not need more of them. For instance, Rule 1:  The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

Yeah…so? How is this a rule? An observation, yes, but in what way does this constitute necessary advice? And frankly, it’s not always true, nor is it even internally true. A “reader” is a stranger you hope to make a friend, of sorts, but they need convincing. Especially if you intend telling them hard truths, which seems to be what Mr. Franzen’s literary aim is. They will be, however briefly, a kind of adversary. And let’s face it, all art is initially a spectacle—requiring an audience, which is comprised of spectators. Many will stay for one game and never come back. They are not your friends. But they watched. As they read, they may shift often between these three conditions, and the adroit writer may wish them to do exactly that, because each state allows for different effects, which transfer aesthesis in different ways.  (And, really, James Joyce treated his potential audience not only as adversaries but occasionally as an angry mob with pitchforks—and by so doing created manifold aesthetic effects that are essential to the ongoing value of his works.)

Rather than go through them all, let me take the three “rules” I find most egregious. Numbers 2, 5, and 8.

Rule # 2: Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

I actually know what he’s trying to say here, but he said it in such a way as to betray the aristocratic self-image he wishes to convey and ends up doing disservice not only to a great deal of fictive output but reifies the academic nonsense about the nature of actually Writing For A Living.

What this is, firstly, is a variation on the Write What You Know, one of those aforementioned aphorisms that are less than useless. It seems to mean write only what you yourself have gone out into the world and experienced first-hand and even then be careful because you probably don’t know it as well as you think you do and in that case do another story about a writer suffering the self-doubt of the underappreciated. (Rules 5 and 8 underscore this, by the way.)

Secondly, it’s essentially claiming that writing, true writing, the pure quill, as it were, can only be done by the Elect. It’s a priesthood and defined by suffering and, often, by accidental success. I find it remarkable how many times we have been treated to lectures about the sordidness of writing for money from writers who have a Lot Of It. In other words, they are successful enough that they are offered platforms from which to tell the rest of us that we should just give it up.

Writing is, perhaps, a calling of sorts, but in its commission it is a craft and if one intends to do it as a vocation—which, in this instance, means having the opportunity to do as one’s primary activity—then you do it for pay. Otherwise, two things—you starve or no one ever hears of you because you choose not to starve and take a job that prevents you from writing all the time. (I can hear the rejoinder—“well, if no one wants to buy your work in sufficient quantity, then it must be inferior”—which both ignores the realities of the market and exhibits hypocrisy at the same time.)

Most of us never get the opportunity to make this our living.  We get paid poorly, distributed badly, and rarely get recognized outside our own little patch. To have someone whose books regularly debut on best seller lists tell us that writing for money is somehow disreputable and sullies our work is the height of snobbery.

Rule # 5: When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

What does that actually mean? When I do a great deal of research to make my work sing with verisimilitude and I find that my readers know enough to appreciate what I have done, it increases the value of that work.  Again, this is snobbery, based on the assumption that the True Novelist has the time and resources to do something the rest of us can’t do.

The only thing that a novelist can do that the hoi polloi can’t is tell a story that moves people. They can know or have access to everything the writer knows and has learned and yet the one thing they will still not be able to do is tell that writer’s story.

But that rule offers a glimpse into the requirements of the priesthood. When you can go to the library and look up the secret handshake of the order, the value of joining that order—or, more pertinently, living in awe of that order—diminishes.

But people still might go to the temple for the pleasure of the spectacle. So make it good spectacle.

Rule # 5 is a bizarre kind of anti-intellectual classist elitism.  And a rule for what?  Hiding information from people so you can look more impressive?

Rule # 8:  It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

This is a kind of corollary to #5 and suffers the same flawed reasoning.

This is of a species with the whole “the novel is dead” nonsense someone brings up every so often. The last time it came up, it was obvious that the Novel being obited was the Great American Novel Written By A White Male.  It ignored women, nonwhite writers, and genre.

(Oh, genre! My ghod, what a smear upon the face of Great Literary Art!)

I said above that I have read Mr. Franzen’s essays.  I have dipped into his fiction. He is quite a good writer. I concede he can write a scene and turn out a fine sentence. In his fiction, he writes about things in a way that I can find no traction. He might be saying some things I would be moved by, but his approach leaves me cold. For this reader, he commits the one unforgivable sin—he is uninteresting.

He also seems to lead with an expectation that he will be disappointed. In us, in the universe, in himself. His essays exhibit a glumness that becomes, after a while, a drag on my psyche.

These rules suggest an answer.  He seems really to believe he should be regarded in ways that he fears he is not—and probably isn’t. The nonsense with Oprah led me to see him as pretentious and these rules have convinced me. The regard of the general public moved on in the latter half of the 20th Century as the balkanization of fiction categories multiplied and the position of Great Writer as Conscience of the Culture sort of dissipated.

But that doesn’t mean regard for novels diminished, nor does it mean the value of those novels has lessened, it only means that no one group can dictate the Standard Model of Significant Fiction anymore. The podium has, in fact, expanded, and the work that constitutes what is most worthy now includes things the Pure Writer seems to feel is beneath them.

 

 

On Time and Attention

My word. It’s November and this is the first post I’ve made since…May. Shame on me.

It’s not that I haven’t read anything worthy of comment. On the contrary, I see several titles on my read list I had ever intention of reviewing here, but…

It has been an unpleasant year. The deaths have mounted. Friends.

In June, Harlan Ellison passed away. I’m told he died in his sleep, a remarkably peaceful exit for such an iconoclastic, enormous personality. I’ve met few others for whom it can be said that he made every second count. That he considered me a friend still humbles me.

Before Harlan, Vic Milan died. He was one of the first professional SF writers I ever met. We were roughly the same age.

Then in the last month or so two friends outside the field died. Both were younger than me.

I have no larger point here other than to say that attention to other things has been difficult to maintain. This blog, these reviews, originally began as a personal amusement and a significant amount of time this year has been swallowed up in not being amused.

We were invited to attend Harlan’s memorial in September. It was an expensive trip, not only because we had a bit over a week’s notice, but there was no way to not go. We had been to Los Angeles only once before, to our first world SF convention in 1984. This time we were going to be in the heart of Beverly Hills.

We spent four days in L.A., met with Susan and close friends that Friday evening at Mel’s Diner, and attended the memorial at the Writers Guild West Theater Saturday evening.

I’ve already written about Harlan and the unexpected friendship. I won’t add to it here except to mention the warmth of those attending.

It takes it out of you after a while. There’s a childhood conviction that heroes should not die. That the very stuff of being a hero includes immortality. The adult knows better but the 8-year-old bristles with injustice.

I’ve managed to begin writing short fiction again. That was more difficult—and remains hard—than I expected. It requires time and attention, both of which seem less available.

And then there are the books that need reading.

I read Jo Walton’s new An Informal History of the Hugo Awards and came away delighted, amazed, and a bit intimidated. At several points, she mentions how often she rereads. Some books she rereads annually.

I can name the novels I’ve reread easily because they number so few. I read slowly. In high school I became a speed reader. At one point I estimated I was reading close to 3000 words a minutes, which would be somewhere around seven or eight pages. I tore my way through the Classics that way at the public library and read scores of SF novels.

Most of which I have forgotten.  After a dozen years my retention crumbled. I intentionally slowed down. I read pretty much at a snail’s pace now, which meansd it might take a week or more to get through a decent-sized novel.

But even when I could read at a heady clip, I rarely reread. There were too many new books to get through.

I’ve missed the boat on that. The last few years I’ve been hosting a reading group and I’ve had to reread some of the novels and it has been an unexpected revelation. I still don’t know when I’ll ever have time to seriously tackle a thorough reread, but I hope to.

On the plus-side, I have on my desk James Mustich’s magesterial 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die.  It’s an impressive catalogue. I did a quick tally and it turns out I’ve read roughly a quarter of them already. If I add in books by the same authors as those mentioned, it edges up toward 300. To be fair to myself, there are at least 300 books listed that I have never heard of.

There’s no time. And often we lack the requisite attention. We must cherish those times when the two coincide. I have been fortunate in my associations and my encounters. People, books, music. It is a trap to bemoan what you can’t get to when there are things you can and have. I look around at my office at rows of books I have read bits of or never opened. There’s a sense of wealth, in a way, to owning books. There is a greater wealth in knowing people.

Some of them have left the scene. It doesn’t seem that long ago that they were such vibrant, striking impacts on the intellect. In the case of writers, they linger. You can know them again, even if they’re gone.  We can’t know everyone. We should perhaps be careful choosing friends, but I think too often we have no choice. Friendship happens, it’s not a conscious decision. Had we set out to meet and befriend those who became most important to us, likely we would have failed.

Or not. Some people are simply that open.

I’ve reached a point, though, where I have to make such choices, because I am, through the loss of friends, aware in ways I never was before how little time there is.

I’ll try to be a bit more attentive to this blog, though, because I think it is important to note the impacts of friends and words.

Read deeply. A good book always offers more than what is on the page.

 

Stars, Orbits, Crossed Trajectories

William Least Heat-Moon is renowned for his travel writing. Blue Highways, his first book, is a marvel of fine prose, careful observation, poignancy, and great storytelling.  It is deservedly considered a classic. Books that followed were no less fascinating, and each took an unexpected route to give us a look at life on various roads, some by water, others by history, always with an eye on the landscape.

Now he has turned his skills at close observation to fiction.  Celestial Mechanics is Heat-Moon’s first novel and it is as unexpected as any of his past works.

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Silas Fortunato, thirty-three, has come home to inhabit a hundred acres inherited from a deceased aunt, and by happenstance encounters Dolores Heppernan, who goes by Dominique, arguing with an inn-keeper over a misplaced reservation. Silas gives her his room and so begins his pursuit to bind the fey Dominique to him. He is smitten. In an idiosyncratic courtship, he convinces Dominique to marry him and move to the Hundred, with its aging ramble of a house and the unimproved woodland around it.

Dominique is a real estate agent–this after having been many things. We’re never entirely sure what Silas was, but it had to do with academia, to be sure, for his is a deeply-read man with a fascination for Marcus Aurelius and aspirations to write a play.  No astrologer, he nevertheless puts great stock in the stars and even builds a platform for stargazing at the top of the house.

Rarely have two people been so mismatched. Heat-Moon understands something about obsessive love because he never explains what it is about Dominique that draws Silas.  He simply chooses her, devotes himself to her, and works mightily to make her happy to be his wife. For her part, almost from the start Dominique questions her own motives for agreeing to the marriage and starts looking, sporadically but with growing urgency, for a way out. To be fair, she does try to pull Silas into her view of life—tries to convince him to sell the Hundred for development, get a house in town, travel.  But Silas—the name means “Wood Dweller”—while willing to make great concessions to her, will not part with the property for any reason so venal as money.  He sees the land as a source of regeneration and hopes Dominique will eventually come to find peace there.

But Dominique is not interested in peace, not that kind, anyway.  She is in headlong pursuit of security of the kind that requires her to depend on no one else.  She wants wealth, travel, independence.  She wants no one to trap her, confine her, or limit her in any way.  While Silas never wanted to do that, the very stability he offers to her is an illusion, a trap, a set of walls.

The truth is, Dominique is on the run. From herself more than anything else.  She sees people as wanting nothing more than to define her and restrain her and her entire life has been a series of escapes.  She is smart, clever, but just enough to know how to manipulate the systems around her to keep from being caught by them.

Silas wants nothing more than to find and understand his place within the world Dominique seems determined not to yield to. Their relationship becomes a congeries of misunderstandings and evasions.

Into this one more person enters, Dominiques sister, Celeste, who is in the process of taking orders in a convent.  She hears of her sister’s marriage and the odd man to whom she has committed herself and now seems ill at ease with, and comes to visit.

It is clear to us that Silas married the wrong one.  Silas, though, has no such thoughts, and though we suspect Celeste does, she is conflicted about what to do.  She wants to stability and peace of the convent but she chafes under the restrictions on imagination within.

In certain ways, the novel proceeds along well-trod paths.  But Heat-Moon knows that the well-trod can surprise, that roads, pathways, trails, and highways can deceive if one does not look close enough at what there is along the way.  Here he gives us the unexpected enfolded in what seems familiar.  People, he shows us, are the least predictable of maps, and even when they seem to be going an obvious direction, the journey can still surprise.

There is even a ghost of sorts in the book.

But this is, as per Heat-Moon’s past offerings, a very layered story, and nothing is quite as neatly comprehensible as it may seem.  Dominique…well, Heat-Moon understands the power of names, as well he should.  Dominique, seeking to be self-contained, is her own passion.  Dolores means “sorrow” and is a not very sly reference to the Virgin Mary.  Dominique means “lord.” She seeks to be her own chosen apotheosis.  But she is stuck entirely in the flight to Egypt.  Celeste, not surprisingly, means “heavenly.”  But Celeste is looking for a very tangible, terrestrial salvation. Heat-Moon plays the full range of contradictions and potentials implied by all these meaning-laden labels and pulls the expected story inside-out.

What we end up with, then, is a road trip of souls.  William Least-Heat Moon has taken a story of people making choices incompatible with their own desires and natures and given us a travelogue of the spirit. The trajectories of these three people, each one trying to find their place in a cosmos crowded with distraction and uncertainty, reveal the geography of the self and the gravity of choice. In the end we’re offered a map of roads oft-traveled and too little remarked on the journey to hope.

2016

Tardiness comes in direct proportion to chaos. The year ended and all was in flux.

However, reading goes on.

I did not finish nearly as many books in 2016 as I tried to. At least, not other people’s books.  I did finish drafts of two of my own.  My desk, at the moment, is clear, and maybe I can do a better job in 2017 of keeping abreast here.

A good deal of my science fiction reading was pretty much for the reading group I host at Left Bank Books. That group affords me opportunity and motivation to read novels I might not otherwise get to.  So I reread Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination for the first time in three decades, but I also read The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time ever. I do not regret the delay. It is a mature novel, with a great deal my younger self may well have missed.  As to the former, it came very close to not holding up.  I had forgotten (if I ever realized it this way) just how brutal a novel it is, and not just in the character of Gully Foyle. Bester’s achievement way back in the Fifties remains remarkable for its unyielding insistence on a fragmented, painful, chaotic, and historically consistent future.

I also reacquainted myself with Tiptree, in the form of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. It seems fitting in this period of reassessment and revolution, when the face of science fiction is—has—changed and brought forth a volatile reaction to that change.  Tiptree was doing much of what is being so rancorously challenged within the field today, but as she was a singular voice and not a “trend” she provoked different challenges then while becoming accepted generally as a brilliant writer and a jewel in the crown of SF stars.

I also reread (for the first time since it came out) Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, which I reviewed in the previous post.  I was much too inexperienced a reader the first time to appreciate everything Silverberg was doing, so I probably forgot the book as soon as I finished it.

It is true that some books must be “grown into”—I am currently rereading Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble On Triton for the book group and realizing that, while I read it eagerly the first time, I probably missed almost everything important about. Likewise with another reread, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is ostensibly a novel about colonialism.  I say “ostensibly” but that does not mean it isn’t.  It very much is about colonialism, all three of the novellas which comprise the whole.  But it is as much about how we colonize ourselves, sometimes to our loss, as it is about colonizing foreign soil, in this case another world with a native population that strives to adapt but may have found in the end their only options were extinction or counter-colonization.  As always, Wolfe’s subtlety is rigorously slippery, his points less direct,  corrosive of expectation.

Titan Books has rereleased Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius Chronicles, a story cycle that is the very definition of indirect.  Moorcock took as his template the Romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, et al—and displaced them into a near future chaos in the form of his “hero” Jerry Cornelius, who wants to save the world only to resurrect his dead sister so they can be together.  The prose are rife with Sixties hip, but not so overwhelmingly anachronistic that the novels aren’t just as readable now as they were then.  The response to them is perhaps necessarily altered and certainly the themes play out differently. Moorcock may have been the grown-up in the room at the advent of New Wave.  He did go on to write some marvelously rich books after these.

I finished Ann Leckie’s delightfully subversive Ancillary trilogy.  I need to do a full review soon.  Treat yourself.

A smattering of other SF titles I can recommend whole-heartedly:  Lavi Tidhar’s Central Station; Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants; Carter Sholz’s Gypsy; Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.

And Nisi Shawl’s wonderful Everfair.  An alternate history steampunk done the way steampunk ought to be done.  I owe it a full review, but let me say here that this is one of the best first novels I’ve read in a long time.

I read two China Mieville books this year, one very good.  This Census Taker I have to count as a failure.  It has good writing fascinating bits, but failed to come together the way I’ve come to expect from Mieville.  The other, newer one, is The Last Days of New Paris, which is excellent.  This pair allowed me to understand that one of the primary passions Mieville indulges in his work is cities.  His best work portrays a city as a complete character.  This Census Taker lacked that.

Of the non science fiction read this year, I did Moby-Dick with my other reading group.  I resisted doing this book.  I’ve never liked it.  I find it turgid, convoluted, often opaque.  There is also a darkness to it that can be suffocating. Over several months we tackled it, dissected it, ran through various analyses.  I conclude that it is a superb work, fully deserving of its reputation.  It is A great American novel if not The American Novel, because America is its subject, though it takes place on a whaling ship far at sea.  It is not a flattering picture, though, displaying throughout the contradictions, hypocrisies, and shortcomings of the then young nation which continue to plague us.  It does this brilliantly.

I still don’t like it.  I find little pleasure in the actual reading.  That, as they say, is my problem.

A colleague and coworker, Kea Wilson, published her first novel, We Eat Our Own. I commend it.  I reviewed it here.

A novel that straddles the genre boundaries somewhat that caused some controversy upon its initial publication is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.  This is a post-Arthurian quest story with much to say about memory and community and the price of vengeance.

This was a big year for nonfiction.

Robert Gleick’s new tome, Time Travel: A History is an exceptional soliloquy on the concept, science, and cultural use of time travel, beginning with Wells and covering both the scientific realm and the popular fiction realm, showing how they have played off each other and how the idea has evolved and worked through our modern view of the universe and our own lives.  Previously in the year I’d read his magnificent biography of Richard Feynman, Genius.  Gleick is a great explainer and a fine craftsman.

As well, Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons About Physics.  They are brief, they are accessible, they are to be enjoyed.  And, along the same lines, Void by James Owen Weatherall, about the physics of empty space.  It’s far more fascinating than it might sound.

I can recommend Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads, which is a history of the world from the viewpoint of the Orient.  The shift in perspective is enlightening.  Along the same lines I read Charles Mann’s 1491, which was eye-opening and thought-provoking—and in some ways quite humbling.

I also read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land, especially in the wake of what I think I can safely call the most surprising election result in recent history. This book is a study of the right-wing culture that has developed in many startlingly contradictory ways.  I believe this would be worth reading for anyone trying to make sense of the people who continually vote in ways that seem to make no sense—and also for those who do vote that way just so they might understand what it is about their movement that seems so incomprehensible to many of their fellow citizens.

I read a few short of 50 books in 2016 cover to cover.  I will be reviewing some of them in the future.

Here’s hoping for a good year of reading to come.

 

 

 

Quantum Branching…As Literature Embraces Science Fiction, the Past is Again and Again

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Life After Life, is a remarkable achievement.  It’s several hundred pages of exquisitely controlled prose contain the story of Ursula Todd, who is in the course of the story, born again and again and again.  Each life, some so very brief, ends in a tragic death, accidental, malevolent, heroic, painful, and each time she starts over, comes to the point where that mistake was but is now sidestepped, turned away, avoided.  She lives multiple times, each one different, and yet she remains herself.

The novel opens with a shocking scene—Ursula, a young woman living in Berlin, enters a café wherein she finds Adolf Hitler, surrounded by sycophants, enjoying his celebrity.  She pulls a pistol and takes aim,

Then she is born.

It is 1910, in the English countryside, and snowing heavily.  The scene is reminiscent of Dickens.  She is born.  First she dies from strangulation, the umbilical cord wrapped around her with no  one around who knows what to do.  Then in the next life that obstacle is overcome.  And so it goes, as she ages, staggers through one life after another, growing a little older each time, her family battered by one damn thing after another.  Ursula herself, a middle child, watches as much as participates in the homely evolution of this middle class English family, and we are treated to an almost microscopic study of its composition—its hypocrisies, its crises, it successes, its failures.

Ursula endures.  As her name almost punningly suggests, she Bears Death, over and over.  She never quite remembers, though.  She has intense feelings of déjà vu, she knows such and such should be avoided, this and that must be manipulated, but she never quite knows why.  At times she comes perilously close to recognition, but like so much in life her actions are more ideas that seemed good at the time than any deeper understanding.

Unlike the rigor of traditional time travel, the past does change, but then this is not a time travel novel, at least not in any traditional sense.  You might almost say it’s a reincarnation story, but it’s not that, either, because Ursula never comes back as anyone other than herself.   At one point in the novel, time is described, not as circular but as a palimpsest—layers, one atop another, compiling.  The result here is a portrait more complete than most not of a life lived but of life as potential.  But for this or that, there wandered the future.  It is a portrait of possibility.

The big events of history are not changed, though.  Nothing Ursula does in her manifold existences alters the inevitability of WWII or Hitler or the Spanish Flu or any of the mammoth occurrences that dominate each and every life she experiences.

What she does change is herself.  And, by extension, her family, although all of them remain persistently themselves throughout.  It is only the consequences of their self expression that become shaped and altered.

We see who are the genuine heroes, who the fools, the cowards, the victims and victors as, where in one life none of this might emerge clearly, in the repeated dramas with minor changes character comes inexorably to the fore.

Atkinson does not explain how any of this happens.  It’s not important, because she isn’t doing the kind of fiction we might encounter as straight up science fiction, where the machinery matters.  She’s examining ramifications of the personal in a world that is in constant flux on the day to day level even as the accumulation of all that movement builds a kind of monolithic structure against which our only real choice is to choose what to do today.  Consequently, we have one of the most successful co-options of a science fiction-like conceit into a literary project of recent memory.

On a perhaps obvious level, isn’t this exactly what writers do?  Reimagine the personal histories of their characters in order to show up possibility?

Light Fallen

I’ve read three books in tandem which are connected by subtle yet strong filaments.  Choosing which one to begin with has been a bit vexatious, but in the end I’ve decided to do them in order of reading.

The first is an older book, handed me by a friend who thought I would find it very much worth my while.  I did, not, possibly, for the reasons he may have thought I would.  But it grounds a topic in which we’ve been engaged in occasionally vigorous debate for some time and adds a layer to it which I had not expected.

William Irwin Thompson’s  The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light  is about myth.  It is also about history.  It is also about grinding axes and challenging paradigms.  The subtitle declares: Mythology, Sexuality & the Origins of Culture.  This is a lot to cover in a mere 270-some pages, but Mr. Thompson tackles his subject with vigor and wrestles it almost into submission.

His thesis is twofold.  The first, that Myth is not something dead and in the past, but a living thing, an aggregate form of vital memes, if you will, which recover any lost force by their simple evocation, even as satire or to be dismissed.  Paying attention to myth, even as a laboratory study, brings it into play and informs our daily lives.

Which means that myth does not have a period.  It is ever-present, timeless, and most subtle in its influence.

His other thesis, which goes hand in hand with this, is that culture as we know it is derived entirely from the tension within us concerning sex.  Not sex as biology, although that is inextricably part of it, but sex as identifier and motivator. That the argument we’ve been having since, apparently, desire took on mythic power within us over what sex means, how it should be engaged, where it takes us has determined the shapes of our various cultural institutions, pursuits, and explications.

It all went somehow terribly wrong, however, when sex was conjoined with religious tropism and homo sapiens sapiens shifted from a goddess-centered basis to a god-centered one and elevated the male above the female.  The result has been the segregation of the female, the isolation of the feminine, and the restriction of intracultural movement based on the necessity to maintain what amounts to a master-slave paradigm in male-female relationships.

Throughout all this “fallen” power play, ancient myths concerning origins and the latent meanings of mutual apprehensions between men and women (and misapprehensions) have continued to inform the dialogue, often twisted into contortions barely recognizable one generation to the next but still in force.

There is much here to consider.  Thompson suggests the rise of the great monotheisms is a direct result of a kind of cultural lobotomy in which the Father-God figure must be made to account for All, subjugating if not eliminating the female force necessary for even simple continuation.  The necessity of women to propagate the species, in this view, is accommodated with reluctance and they are, as they have been, shoved into cramped confines and designated foul and evil and unclean in their turn, even as they are still desired.  The desire transforms the real into the ideal and takes on the aspects of a former goddess worship still latent in mythic tropes.

Certainly there is obvious force to this view.

The book is marred by two problems.  I mentioned the grinding of axes. Time was published originally in 1981 and, mostly in the first third, but sprinkled throughout, is an unmasked loathing of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.  He takes especial aim at E.O. Wilson for promulgating certain reductive explanations for prehistoric cultural evolution based wholly on biological determinants.  Thompson’s prejudice is clear that he wants even early homo sapiens to be special in its cultural manifestations and he derides attempts at exclusively materialist explanations.  The fact that E.O,. Wilson himself has moved away from these earlier “purely” biological considerations one hopes would result in an updating.

But interestingly, part of Thompson’s rejection of such early modeling comes from an apparent belief in Race Memory.  Not, as I might find plausible, race memory as deeply-entrenched memes, but apparently as some undiscovered aspect of our genome.  He never quite comes out claims that such race memory is encoded in our DNA, but he leaves little room for alternative views.

Hence, he asserts, the genuine power of myth, since it is carried not only culturally, but quasi-biologically, as race memory.  Which we ignore at our peril.

He does not once mention Joseph Campbell, whose work on the power of myth I think goes farther than most in explicating how myth informs our lives, how myth is essentially meaning encoded in ideas carried in the fabric of civilization.  He does, however, credit Marija Gimbutas, whose work on goddess cultures extending back before the rise of Sumer and the constellation of civilizations commonly recognized as the “birth” of civilization was attacked by serious allegations of fraud in order to undermine her legitimacy and negate her thesis that early civilizations were certainly more gender equal if not outright female dominated.  (Just a comment on the so-called “birth” of civilization: it has been long remarked that ancient Sumeria appeared to “come out of nowhere”, a full-blown culture with art and some form of science.  But clearly common sense would tell us that such a “birth” had to be preceded by a long pregnancy, one which must have contained all the components of what emerged.  The “coming out of nowhere” trope, which sounds impressive on its face, would seem to be cultural equivalent of the virgin birth myth that has informed so many civilizations and myth cycles since…)

My complaint, if there is any, is that he undervalues the work of geneticists, biologists, and sociometricians, seeking apparently to find a causation that cannot be reduced to a series of pragmatic choices taken in a dramatically changing ecosystem or evolutionary responses to local conditions.  Fair enough, and as far as it goes, I agree.  Imagination, wherever and whenever it sprang into being, fits badly into the kind of steady-state hypothesizing of the harder sciences when it comes to how human society has evolved.  But to dismiss them as irrelevant in the face of an unverifiable and untestable proposition like Race Memory is to indulge in much the same kind of reductionist polemic that has handed us the autocratic theologies of “recorded history.”

Once Thompson moves out of the speculative field of, say, 8,000 B.C.E. and older and into the period wherein we have records, his attack on cherished paradigms acquires heft and momentum and the charm of the outsider.  (His mention, however, of Erich von Daniken threatens to undo the quite solid examination of the nature of “ancient” civilizations.)  It is easy enough to see, if we choose to step out of our own prejudices, how the march of civilization has been one of privileging male concerns and desires over the female and diminishing any attempt at egalitarianism in the name of power acquisition.  The justification of the powerful is and probably has always been that they are powerful, and therefore it is “natural” that they command.  Alternative scenarios suffer derision or oxygen deprivation until a civilization is old enough that the initial thrill and charm of conquest and dominance fades and more abstruse concerns acquire potency.

But the value of The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light  may be in its relentless evocation of institutional religion as a negation of the spiritual, as if to say that since we gave up any kind of natural and sane attitude toward sexuality and ignored the latent meaning in our mythologies we have been engaged in an ongoing and evermore destructive program to capture god in a bottle and settle once and for all what it is we are and should be.  When one looks around at the religious contention today, it is difficult if not impossible to say it is not all about men being in charge and women being property.  Here and there, from time to time, we hear a faint voice of reason crying out that this is a truly stupid thing to kill each other over.

Iain Banks Is Gone

I have nothing much to say that I didn’t already say.  He wrote some of my all-time favorite books.  I envied the scope and depth of his creations.  If I imagined what kind of work I wanted to write in my ideal world, Banks’ Culture  stories would be one of the examples.

He went much too soon.  He thought he’d have more time.  We thought so, too.

One of the pitfalls of science fiction is that we can read about all these wonderful places and times where things like this can be dealt with and the world is more at our command than it is, but when the book is finished and we close the cover, we still live here.  And here we lose people every day to things we know we should be able to beat.  Because we’ve seen that future, laid out for us by fine writers and great minds.

Some day.  Writers like Iain Banks showed us.  Some day.

A Country Of Distant Voices

In the opening scene of his new novel, And the Mountains Echoed,  Khaled Hosseini shows an Afghan father telling his children a story. The story is about life’s fragility in the face of an unpredictable and unnegotiable universe, the loss of children, and the tenacity of memory. In the story, the father is offered a choice—having a lost child returned to him to live a life he knows will never be more than difficult, often harsh, or leaving the child in the relative paradise to which it had been spirited while the father is granted the gift of forgetfulness, so he might return home with no memory of loss. The father chooses the latter.

But all around him, when he returns, memory remains, part of the landscape, continually troubling his life with fleeting moments of doubt about something he cannot name.

He has left his memories far away, in the mountains.  But the mountains are always there.

So, it turns out, are the memories, recognized or not. The real mountains in the novel are the tectonic accumulations of intersecting lives, which in some ways seem to have no real point to their connections, but over time—generations, really—build into massively instantiating forms, repositories of meaning.  Some of these characters climb over them, others live at their roots, still others move away from them, trying to lessen their dominance. But every word they speak echoes back laden with the textures of their beginnings.

The novel begins with the story of Abdullah and Pari, brother and sister who share a deep bond. Pari collects bird feather in a tin box, feathers Abdullah helps gather for her, and their playground is the village of Shadbagh. Life is crushingly hard for their parents. The father is a laborer. His first wife, Abdullah’s and Pari’s mother, died giving birth to Pari. His second wife has given him another son, Iqballah. Her brother, Nabi, lives in Kabul, the personal servant to a man of wealth who is married to  a woman more at home in Parisian society than in her native Afghanistan. The necessities and desires of these people bring them into association with each other in the most unexpected way, resulting in the separation of Abdullah and Pari.

Thus the series of separations which are the echoes of the novel.

Pari is taken into her new home, much too young for the memories of her time spent with Abdullah to be retained in other than a lifelong sense of hollowness.  The woman who becomes her mother is a poet, herself severed from the connections to home and family that might supply a sense of welcome in the world through which she moves.  Talented, beautiful, she is nevertheless a refugee even in her own country.  When her husband suffers a stroke, she takes the opportunity to flee, back to Paris.  With Pari, who over time forgets almost everything and is left with a persistent feeling of separation she cannot quite explain or ignore.

The trajectories all these people follow seem at a glance to have little to do with each other, even though certain events lie at the start of their paths.  Their lives settle into orbits that are tethered by those events, and no matter how far they go or where they settle in, a constellation forms of which each of them represents the rough boundary of a country that, while it seems to have no place on any map, claims them as native.  The echoes from that initiating event form the borders.

Which makes And the Mountains Echoed an exploration of that country, through the eyes of its unwitting inhabitants, all of whom, regardless of their point of origin, are native to a specific topography, bound by common experiences—of loss, abandonment, and escape.  He takes us on an expedition of a place of which the only maps are in the psyches of its residents.  Along the way he works a variation on the old aphorism “You can never go home” by showing that, in profound ways, we never leave it.

On another level, there is a very real country at the center of these explorations. Hosseini is writing, as always, about Afghanistan—its wonders, its tragedies, its costs, and its possibilities.  It is, he seems to tell us, a land of incredible potential, but to date the only possibility to realize it is for those with the talents and will to leave it, go where their particular gifts—themselves—can manifest, beyond the overwhelming gravity of a past that too often has no history of a future, no memory of what could be different that is not bound up in forgetting.

Like the story Abdullah’s and Pari’s father tells at the start.

At least one of his characters recognizes the innate conflict:

It saddens me because of what it reveals to me about Mama’s own neediness, her own anxiety, her feat of loneliness, her dread of being stranded, abandoned.  And what does it say about me that I know this about my mother, that I know precisely what she needs and yet how deliberately and unswervingly I have denied her, taking care to keep an ocean, a continent—or, preferably, both—between us for the better part of three decades?

Hosseini writes with an unflinching clarity of what Afghanistan is, tempered by hope for what it could be.  It is not that this potential Afghanistan does not exist—it does, he shows us, just not there.  It exists in the imaginations of those who have left and are nevertheless citizens of the country of their heart. That country is nascent in the echoes that will some day return from their journey.

Knowing Who To Follow

Choosing the right character to carry the story is one of the essential jobs of constructing a solid narrative.  Often that character will seemingly do the work for the author in the telling of his or her story.  Everything follows from viewpoint.  If the wrong one is chosen, the work can still be finished, the story told, but it can be an arduous task and, except in the hands of the most skilled, the effort shows in the finished product.

From certain writers we expect the right choices as given.  It never occurs to us to question them the way we might question a less seasoned author.  Reputation is based on the repeated nailing of all the important factors.  Such respect can be so ingrained that when a mistake is encountered, a wrong choice made, and the narrative doesn’t flow as it feels it should, there’s a tendency to blame ourselves.  We’re not reading it with sufficient attention, we’re not getting all the cues, we have failed to pierce the caul of metaphor and see into the purpose of the work in hand.  We are deficient, not they.  If we are bored, it is because we are boring, never that the author to whom we grant such status has bored us.  We are philistines, unworthy of the temple secrets.

Sometimes, this is true.  There are such works that are so densely construed and meticulously articulated that they require superior attention, often more than a couple of readings, and demand that the reader bring something substantive to the text before page one is even begun.

There are also works which pretend to be like that.  They can be difficult, opaque, and on the surface pointless.  Often, rather than admit the possibility that the work is flawed, we may find ourselves inventing the nous and telos of such a work, doing ourselves what the writer actually failed to do, or at least failed to get right.  If nothing else, the elegance of the sentences, the lexicon and vocabulary alone, convince us that this work must be good.  We couldn’t write anything so self-evidently beautiful, concise, lush…artful.

Doubt is also an essential element in literature.  The writer doubts in the act of writing, because there are many choices that must be continually made, from the macro to the micro.  There are doubts the reader has as the story unfolds, questions to be asked and, we hope, answered.  But also the basic doubt—is this book worth our time?

The work must earn our trust, assuage our doubts.  Being kicked out of a narrative, something we’ve all experienced, even with the best work, is an aspect of unanswered doubt.  The writer loses us when the work fails to keep interest high and doubts low.

With some writers, those with Reputations, this process gets reversed, and a work that might otherwise be set aside had it been written by a lesser light then consumes us in a quest to find the flaw in ourselves that causes us the discomfort of entertaining the possibility that this work is not what it should be.

In a recent piece in Salon.com, Robert Lennon tackles this idea.  We are told certain works are worth our time because they are the epitome of what we should aspire to, both as writers and as readers.

A case in point—with regrets—is William Gass’s new novel, Middle C.  The prose are fine, there is a playfulness with language reminiscent of Pynchon and Gaddis and, occasionally, Fowles, and some passages are beautiful.  The whole does not live up to the potential of its components.

This is a difficult realization.  Gass is one of those with Reputation.  His essays are acknowledged masterpieces, his novel The Tunnel is considered a 20th Century classic.  Middle C  is his self-professed Last Novel.  The conceit that launches the narrative—a man who changes cultural identities in order to survive the coming catastrophe of World War II, and then continues to drag his family from one set of personae to another, trying to stay one step ahead of those who may force him to conform to moral conditions he cannot abide—is fascinating, and the stage is set beautifully.  Distantly reminiscent of Gaddis’s The Recognitions, fraud and imposture inform the lives of his family throughout.  The attempt to find a place while simultaneously seeking an identity with which they can comfortably live, set against the backdrop of a post-war America that seemed to change both its sense of self and its expectation with each passing fad should have produced an electric work of neon clarity.

Instead, the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, is so intent on passing unnoticed through everything and among everyone that he never becomes his own Self, but remains a potential buried within the layers of subterfuge and fraud he uses to get by.  If it was Joey’s intention to keep everyone out, Gass allows him to succeed, and we are left with a skilled cipher who never engages with anything.  His passion is music, but, presciently, one of his early instructors tells him flat out that he pretends to play well, that he does not let himself know the music, and so will remain a talented mediocrity.

Gass seems to have chosen the wrong character to follow.  We know everything we are going to know about Joseph Skizzen by page 50.

Now had he gone with Joey’s father, we might have had a narrative with some unadorned vigor.  Rudi Skizzen took chances, acted, moved, and seems to have possessed a moral center that, while manifesting in rather unexpected and abstruse ways, drove him.  Had Gass followed him when he abandoned his family to head for Canada…

But we don’t have that book.  We have the careful examination of the near wreckage of his family as they try to get by.  Not succeed.  They don’t try for that (except the sister, Debby, who embraces the plasticity of America and seems to become a Happy Suburbanite—not much a choice, perhaps, but wholly hers and made without apparent regret) but turn inward to self pity and a constant fear of being found out.

Joey Skizzen—Professor Joseph Skizzen—does not wish to be noticed.  When people notice you, he suggests, then you are expected to do something, to live up to their criteria.  This is well and good if you have a set of criteria of your own and work to live up to them,  but Joey’s phobia removes from him any desire, apparently, to have any expectations at all of himself.  He just wants to pass through, get by, be left alone.

The reader doubts, especially when confronted with a book by someone we are expected to appreciate, that his or her reactions have any merit when those reactions are negative.  At best, this leads to a bit of wasted time spent muscling through a novel searching for what we are told to expect.  At worst, we take our inability to gain intellectual purchase in the novel as proof that our intellect is wanting, that our taste is lacking, that we are ourselves the philistines at the gate.  It is hard to realize that sometimes even a great artist produces flawed and occasionally fatally flawed work.

I was reminded of another work while going through Middle C, namely James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, which also told the story of people trying to change identities and pass as other than they were and dealing in various moral frauds in order to achieve questionable short-term ends.  The difference was that in Cain’s work all of them had something to lose, all the way up to the end, which made the work a first-rate tragedy.  In Middle C all the loss happens early, nothing is regained, and instead of tragedy we find farce.

There are some fascinating passages in this book, and the ideas with which Gass is playing are rich.  But the path he followed seems to take the long way around and doesn’t go where the beginning would suggest it should.  No one ought to feel inadequate as a reader in the face of such a work.

To Be Good Again

Redemption is a complex thing.  We like to pretend it’s straightforward.  Do this, forgiveness, atonement, compensation can be made.  The greater the need, the larger the act required.

There are two things wrong with this.  The first is that we can know everything about what we have done (or not done) that requires an act of contrition.  The second is that contrition—forgiveness, atonement, compensation—is the same as redemption.

Khaled Hosseini shows how this is a mistake in his deceptively simple storytelling in The Kite Runner.  He understands that redemption is not about atoning for something you did wrong.  It is about changing what it is that allowed you to do something wrong in the first place.  It is about becoming.  One is redeemed by taking the responsibility—and the risk—for who one is and making that consistent with what one can and should be.

He also understands that part of the journey to that new state is learning the truth of our life.

Sometimes that may be simply impossible.  Things disappear, memories fade, people die.  The components that comprise our Self can be lost or overlooked, the connections broken or never made, and without a sufficiency of such information we may simply be unable to know what we need to do.  This fact has been central to tragedy since Sophocles, probably even before him, and has never become untrue.

In the absence of knowledge, choice is necessarily limited.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but sometimes it means we live with a sense of guilt difficult if not impossible to explain—usually because we did something for which atonement is necessary.  Where redemption comes in is when we know we must atone, but in order to do so we must become something else, someone else.

The elements of young Amir’s life in Kabul, son of a local hero, a wealthy man larger than life who has done much good for those around him, combine in a negative way to render him not the person his father wants him to be.  He senses it in so many ways, from the belief that he is at fault for killing his mother (in childbirth) to the disappointment he feels from his father because he is not athletic, to the jealousy he feels for the affection his father shows to Hassan, the son of their servant, who is also Amir’s best friend.  Amir cannot be wholly himself because there is a conflict between who he seems to be and what he wishes to be in his father’s eyes.

Here, then, is where Hosseini  displays the depth of our complications.  The faults Amir senses in himself react with the faults his father clearly sees in himself.  The only genuinely unconflicted person among them is Hassan, but even he is not wholly unalloyed.  There are layers upon layers, ethnic divisions, class divisions, history itself seems bent on distorting the clean emotions among them.  Amir comes to resent his friend, not for anything his friend has done, for Amir’s failure in his own mind to be what he should be for Hassan, and ends up driving Hassan and his father away, an event that breaks Amir’s father’s heart.  The need for redemption here is thwarted because the truth of the situation is not shared, not even admitted.

And then the Russians invade Afghanistan, forcing Amir and his father to flee, first to Pakistan and then to America, where they start over.

Here, in a new place, with new rules, Amir grabs a chance to leave all those uglinesses behind.  No one knows, no one sees, he can live up to altered expectations, take on a new life, be someone his father can respect. He falls in love, he marries, he begins a career as a writer.

During all this, his father passes away.  Baba dies proud of his son.  And yet it is not enough.

Then Afghanistan reaches out for him and brings him back for one more chance at a redemption Amir thought—hoped—was no longer necessary.

His father’s best friend calls him in 2001 and asks him to come to Pakistan to see him. There is a way to be good again.

That is the key to Hosseini’s understanding of redemption.  A way to be good again—but one which requires Amir to finally become who he had never been able to be before.  In order to fully achieve it, though, he must learn things he never knew, could not know, things kept from him which nevertheless contoured his life, forced him into certain channels, directed him, and stunted his potential.  He fights it, of course, but inevitably he sees that he simply can’t avoid becoming the person he always needed to become.

That is redemption.  Transformative.  Atonement and forgiveness, he suggests, are pointless if they are only rituals, acts that leave the essential person unchanged.  Redemption is in the change, in the new life, in recognition and response that remake us.