The Bang That Whimpers

After eight years, the ABC show Castle has ended. Despite a strong premise and a superb cast and excellent presentation, the show exemplified dramatic entropy of the most annoying kind and after an earlier announcement that one of its two main stars would not be returning for a ninth season, the decision was taken to kill it.

I watched all eight seasons.  Initially, I loved it.  How could I not?  The title character was a writer—true, every wanna-be writer’s wet dream of a writer: successful, rich, sexually active, and cool—who manages to fall into a plum opportunity “riding along” with one of the best detective squads in the NYPD.  Richard Castle, because of his social status (privilege) can manipulate his way via the mayor into this spot, despite Detective Kate Beckett’s strong and perfectly reasonable protests.

So far so good.  He’s the loose cannon, the out-of-box thinker, she’s by-the-book and wicked smart.  They combine into an ideal team.

There was the story arc of Beckett’s mother’s murder that bound multiple seasons together in an ongoing manhunt for the real power behind the murder, which they played out in just the right amount while doing some of the smartest police/detective drama on tv.  The first three seasons were gems of the form.

But then the creep set in.  For whatever reason, Castle himself started losing some of the savvy that made him special.  He seemed often to have forgotten that he once knew these things.  The daredevil kid grew more cautious and in some cases lost his nerve.

Worse, he became the most gullible smart person on television.  He went from someone very grounded and aware of the world as it is to the ideal X-Files fan, believing in—or hoping to believe in—the dumbest, most debunked, infantile nonsense.  As a foil to Beckett’s far more consistent logic and common sense it was amusing.  But as it continued it just got tiresome.

And then they fell in love.  Very plausibly, I might add, and it gave the show another boost.  Why not?  It was the sense of impending disaster that kept Beckett from allowing herself to see what was happening between them.

And then there was the mystery of her mother.  That turned out to be a surprisingly plausible mcguffin.  When they finally found the culprit, it made sense, and then later when Beckett was able to arrest him, it was very satisfying.

But then what?  Marriage, more crimes, more of the same.  In the logic of tv series, someone says “They need a Nemesis!”  So a new one was invented.  A power behind the power.  Another layer.

Mishandled, though, with none of the deep logic of the original.  Just a faceless entity who was doing…what?  Aside from somehow being a bad guy, what exactly did this Locksat do that was so harmful to society?  To what end other than to bedevil Our Heroes did he exist?

Still, when the writing was on and the crime of the week was good, the show still managed to appeal.  And the byplay between Castle and Beckett was enjoyable.  But you could see that it didn’t have long to go before it all ran out of steam.

Last night, May the 16, the series finale aired.  Apparently there were two episodes filmed, depending upon renewal or cancellation.  We got the cancellation episode.

It was dire.  Never mind plot holes, the striongs that were being knotted to tie all the loose ends together were visible almost from the beginning.  We discover who Locksat is and it’s so out of left field as to have no impact,no satisfying “AH HAH!” moment.  The loony assassin is interesting, but he has no backstory to speak of.  Beckett and Castle both accept too many things at face value and walk right into—

They were all tired and wanted to be done with it.  The series has ended, we know what happens to Our Heroes, and there is finality.  If not a decent closure.

Why the decision was taken somewhere around the middle to end of season three to start lobotomizing Richard Castle, I don’t know.  It was funny occasionally but it just got painful.  Beckett remained consistent, even when she got a little ditzy over Rick (but love will do that, so it wasn’t really implausible).  There were a number of strong episodes in every season, even this last one, but overall…

It is not necessary for only one main character to be the smart one to make something like this work.  Those first three seasons proved you could have intelligence in both characters.  It didn’t even have to be the same kind, which was the point initially.  But they had hit upon a formula and it seemed top work.  And they rode it to the dismal end.

But it’s over now.  Maybe they’ll spin off a show featuring Castle’s daughter, Alexis, and her new best friend as a pair of female P.I.s. That could work.  But please, stop thinking that smart doesn’t sell.  Stupid is just that and not very good drama.

In Review

2015 is done and I have read what I read.  It was a year fraught with turmoil in science fiction, a year prompting reassessments, a year when required reading competed with reading for pleasure, and the time constraints of working on a new novel (two, in fact) impeded chipping away at my to-be-read pile, which mounds higher.

As in the past, I count only books I have read cover to cover here.  If I added in total pages of unfinished reading, I’m probably up with my usual volume (somewhere around 90 books), but that would be a cheat.  That said, I read 50 books in 2015.

One thing I concluded, both from what I read and the upheaval in the background about what is or is not worthy science fiction, is that the decades long pseudowar between mainstream and genre is over.  Skirmishes will continue to be fought here and there, certain elements will refuse to yield or concede, but by and large the evidence suggests that, on the part of the literary writers at least SF has made its point. A couple of examples:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is science fiction.  In fact, after talking it over for nearly a year since I read it, it seems to me to be Heinleinesque.  Better written, the characters less exemplars than real people, but in basic conceit and plot, this is a Heinlein novel. It has all the elements—survivors, a plucky heroine, a global catastrophe forcing those who remain to learn quickly a whole suite of new skills, and an ongoing discussion throughout about what is of value and ought to be preserved.  It is a superbly written work and that alone made the identification difficult.  Heinlein, at his best, could be as good as anyone in any genre, but to see the form raised to this level shows both his virtues and his weaknesses.  The population of the Earth is reduced buy a superflu.  The novel flashes back and forth around the life of a kind of patriarch whose biological and artistic progeny struggle in a post-technological world to both survive and preserve the best of that former world.  The novel prompts questions, challenges preconceptions, and draws us in.  It was not marketed as science fiction and it has continued to sell very well.  It is science fiction and no one has batted an eye.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.  An ecological thriller, an examination of a different kind of breakdown, a different kind of survival, peopled by characters as real as can be.  In a decade this will be historical fiction, probably, but it is SF and also mainstream and also uncategorizable.  Exceptional.

Straddling the boundary is Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, which is a curiosity.  It proceeds like a straightforward “survey mission” novel—specialists set down upon an alien world and struggling to unravel its mysteries before said world kills them.  Only in this case the “alien” world in a patch of reclaimed wilderness somewhere along the eastern seaboard, probably north Florida, that is undergoing some strange transformations due to an experiment gone wrong.  There are touches of zombie fiction, government conspiracy, and even Lovecraftian uber-malignancy evoked, but the story, as told by The Biologist, feels more meta than any of those suggest.  the landscape works to inform the soul-wrenching recognitions and evolutions within the Biologist as she works to understand what is going on in the aptly named Area X.  Vandermeer has created a work bordering on genius here by virtue of externalizing and foregrounding mystical revelation as ecological transmutation, but as you read you can’t tease the meta passages from the plot in any clear way, so the experience, when you give yourself over to it, is wholly immersive.

So what I’m seeing—in many more titles still on my TBR pile—is the embrace of science fiction by what was formerly an ambivalent cadre of artists who are using it to ends traditionally ignored by main-body SF.

In the other direction, the infusion of literary concerns, which necessarily drag real-world issues in with them, into genre writing has prompted a squeal of protest from those who wish to keep their starships pure, their aliens obvious, and their weapons decisive.  “Good writing” is still a poorly understood quality by too many in the genres (by no means a problem exclusive to SF, but because of the nature of SF a problem which yields far more obvious failures) and the clinging to an aesthetic attributed to the so-called Golden Age and exemplified by writers probably more often revered than actually read (and therefore misperceived in intent) has exacerbated the old antagonisms and a final flaring up of fires dying to ash.  The clunky sentence is a hallmark of much of this, more likely as consequence rather than intent, and the cliched scenario becomes more obviously so as the whole point of what we mean by “literary” in its most useful mode is overlooked or, perhaps, willfully ignored in a fit of defensive refusal to pay attention to what matters, namely the truth of human experience and the profitable examination of, for want of a better word, the Soul.

Where the cross-fertilization of mainstream and genre has been successfully accomplished, we’ve been seeing novels and stories of marvelous effect.  We have been seeing them all along and in the past such examples were readily offered as proof that SF wass “just as good” as anything published as mainstream.  I’ve always felt that being “just ad good” was selling our potential short, but the work has to rise to the challenge, and there always have been such works.

Among such that I read this past year were a few from that rich past, mainly for the reading group I host at work.  The Two of Them by Joanna Russ; Extra(Ordinary) People, also by Russ; The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis; Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock; The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell; and Engine Summer by John Crowley.  In retrospect, there have always been writers writing in the full embrace of science fiction but without any of the stylistic constraints of its pulp origins, and such works remain trenchant and readable and offer surprising commentary still on current questions.

The Sparrow was a highlight. I have known since its publicatin that it was sort of a riff on James Blish’s classic, A Case Of Conscience, but it so much more. Russell’s elegant reversal of the moral question elevates this novel to the top tiers of useful literary works. I have not yet read its sequel, but I am looking forward to it after this treat.

I also reread Harlan Ellison’s Shatterday for the reading group. It’s been a good long while since I did so and I was not disappopinted, although I read many of the stories through a more cynical eye. The opening tale, Jeffty Is Five, remains, for me, one of the most gutwrenching short stories of all time.

Another highpoint this past year was James Morrow’s new novel, Galapagos Regained, a neatly unclassifiable work of speculative history.  I gave it a lengthy review here and recommend a look. This is a superbly done work that deserves more attention than it has received.

I also read Morrow’s amusing novella, The Madonna and the Starship, which runs a delightful gamne via Fifties television and alien visitors who come to bestow an award and offer assistance in exterminating the irrational on Earth.  Morrow is acerbic even as he is funny.

Among the most interesting new works of science fiction I red this year is The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translation by Ken Liu.  This is the first part of a trilogy about alien invasion and resistance as written from a Chinese perspective.  It is an exceptional translation.  It won the Hugo Award, the first, I believe, translation to do so, and certainly the first Asian novel to win.  There is high-end physics, nasty politics, murder, and the conundrums of committed action. The cultural quirks made it even more interesting.

Like almost everyone, it seems, I read The Martian by Andrew Weir. This was great fun and well executed.  My quibble, along with many others, was with the opening gambit to explain the marooning of the astronaut, but I’m content to see it as a mere dramatic choice.  It didn’t preent me from enjoying the rest of the book, which, in the words of the screen adaptation, “scienced the shit out all this” and did so in an accessible and entertaining manner which I applaud.  I couldn’t help seeing it as a newer version of an older film, Robinson Crusoe On Mars, and naturally this one works a bit better.  Hell, we know more, there’s no excuse for bad science, and Mr. Weir that.  He wrote a realistic piece of speculation and followed through admirably.

Another novel that gave a far more “realistic” view of an old, favorite SF trope, is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora.  There is much to love about this book, but it is not lovable.  It’s a clear-eyed look at what an interstellar generation ship would actually be like.  And it is bleak, in terms of the traditions of SF.  Suffice it to say without giving away too much that Robinson fully incorporates entropy into his formula with predictably gloomy results, but for all that it is a thoroughly engaging work.

At the other end of the “hard” SF spectrum is Charles Gannon’s Fire With Fire.  Future interstellar expansion brings humanity into contact with our neighbors.  The resulting tensions drive the novel.  I reviewed it here.

Science fiction is a broad, broad field and has room for a magnificently wide range even on the same subjects.  It even has room, as I noted above, for exceptional style.  One of the most enjoyable reads for me, on that note, was Ian McDonald’s new novel, Luna.  There will be comparisons made to Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.  Look for an upcoming review where I will argue that the comparison, while in some ways valid, is superficial.  Anyone who has not read McDonald, treat yourself.  This would be a good one with which to begin.

In a completely different area of the playground, there is Daryl Gregory’s AfterParty, which I found excellent.  It’s about drug abuse and the workings of delusion and murder.  Anything I might say here would spoil it.  Go.  Find it.  Imbibe.

The bulk of my reading, after that and a few other titles, has been scattered.  I found a brand new history of the Group f64, which was the first dedicated group of photographers to push the pure art of the straight photograph.  Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, several others, in the 20s and 30s established the ground upon which all photography came to be viewed for the rest of the 20th century and even, arguably, into today. Mary Street Alinder, who has previously written a biography of Ansel Adams, did a superb job chronicling this group of prickly independent artist.

I read a history of a superhero, Wonder Woman, and discovered that the story of her creation was even stranger than the character herself.

A new work by journalist Johann Hari, Chasing The Scream, opened my eyes to the thorny issue of the Drug War.

In the wake of seeing the film Interstellar and beginning work on my own novel about (partly) interstellar travel, I dove into Kip Thorne’s Black Holes & Time Warps and had my mind bent in some ways I didn’t think it could be bent.  This has prompted a reengagement with science on this level which is proving difficult, tedious, and yet rewarding.  My mind no longer has the plasticity it once enjoyed.  On the other hand, experience has proven a benefit in that I seem to be absorbing and comprehending at a much deeper level.  We shall see.

Quite a bit of history, much of it unfinished.  In a separate reading group, I’m going through Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and reading in the history of the French Revolution, the Republic, its fall, all partly to complete the third novel of my trilogy, but also because the literature available is so rich and surprising that it has become its own pleasure.  It would seem now I’m about to embark on early American history again, anchored by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.

There was a new Mary Russell novel this past year, Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King.  I discovered a Dan Simmons novel about Holmes which I’d overlooked when it came out, The Fifth Heart, in which he is paired with Henry James, one more in a long line of novels and stories concerning Holmes’ unlikely interaction with historical figures.  Simmons is a terrific writer, but even he tended toward the tedious in this one.  He needs to learn to leave his research in his files.  But it was a unique take on Holmes and he even managed to elicit my sympathy toward James, a writer I find problematic at best, insufferable at worst, and annoying the rest of the time.

So much for the highlights.  Let me end by noting that the Best American series has finally realized that science fiction and fantasy are a real thing and launched one of their annual collections to cover it.  This after both Best Of infographics and comics.  Better late than never, I suppose.  The series editor is John Joseph Adams—difficult to imagine better hands—and this first volume was edited by Joe Hill, which I found interesting to say the least.  Mr. Hill is a horror writer.  Certainly many of the stories have a strong horror element, but over all this is a collection full of marvels, from the writing to the ideas.  I’ll try to keep track of this one in future.

So while not numerically great, 2015 was filled with many very excellent books.  I’m looking forward to 2016.  My stack awaits.

Happy New Year.

 

 

Time and Motion

William Gibson is, if nothing else, a careful writer.  You can feel it in the progress of any one of his novels and in the short stories.  Careful in his choice of topic, placement of characters, deployment of dialogue, style.  He sets each sentence in place with a jeweler’s eye to best effect.  The results often seem spare, even when they are not, and have invited comparisons to noir writers, minimalists, modernists.  Entering upon a Gibson novel is a step across a deceptively simple threshold into a finely-detailed maze that suggests multiple paths but inevitably leads to a conclusion that, in hindsight, was already determined had we but noticed just how sophisticated a writer it is with whom we’re dealing.

His last set of novels, the Bigend Trilogy, was not even science fiction, though they felt like it.  The application of a science-fictional perception of how the world works produced a dazzling bit of dissonance in which the ground itself became familiar through alienation.  He does that, shows us something we should be utterly familiar with as if it were an alien artifact.  As a result, the shock of recognition at the end contains a thick cord of nostalgia and a sense of loss mingled with new discovery.  The chief discovery, of course, is the realization just how close we are to what we think of as The Future.  Through this effect, he renders the future as both less alien and stranger at the same time.

Which is something he indulges fully in the opening chapters of his new novel, The Peripheral.

Author William Gibson. (by Michael O'Shea)

For a while you don’t know that the two points of view are not in the same world.  It’s a masterpiece of misdirection achieved through the intermediary of a game.

Flynn Fisher’s brother is ex-special ops military, living in an old airstream in a town in the middle of a mid-21st century rural America that is clearly struggling with the unstable economy.  To make extra money, he often moonlights as a beta tester on new games.  The novel opens when he brings Flynn in to sub for him one night while he goes off to confront a radical religious group he hates, known as Luke 4:5.  (The verse reads: Then leading him to a height, the devil showed him in a moment of time all the kingdoms of the world.  Even here, Gibson is playing at metaphors pertinent to the novel in its entirety.)  Flynn used to do this sort of work herself but quit when the games became more and more violent.  He assures her this isn’t like that, she’ll be running a security drone of some kind keeping paparazzi away from a high-rise luxury apartment.  He’ll pay her well, as he’s being likewise well-paid.  Just one night, maybe two.  She agrees.

The simulation seems to take place in a city she sort of recognizes and may be London, but it’s all different from the London she knows.  It’s as her brother claimed, flying interference, until the second night when the woman living there is murdered most horrifically and Flynn is a witness.  Thinking it’s still a game, she wants nothing more to do with it.

Meanwhile, Wilf Netherton, a publicist living in London, is working with a performance artist who has been tasked as a negotiator to a colony of self-modified humans living on an artificial island of reformed debris.  Wilf’s job is to keep her on task, which can be very difficult as she is very much a rebel and can go in unexpected directions without any warning.  As she confronts those with whom she is supposed to negotiate, something goes wrong and she ends up killing the leader.  Another murder.

Netherton’s associate, an operative in government intelligence, must divorce herself from the fiasco and cut ties with Netherton.  He goes to ground with a friend of his, a member of a powerful family of Russian descent, who has a unique hobby—he operates a “stub” in history.

At this point we realize that Flynn and Netherton are not simply divided by class and place but by time itself.  Netherton’s London is 70 years in Flynn’s future and is the London wherein Flynn witnessed the murder of the woman, who turns out to be the sister of the performance artist who just committed a second murder.  For her part, Flynn is in their past, a past Netherton’s friend has been playing with via a form of time travel that is based on the transfer of information.

And we are now fully in the grip of one of the cleverest time travel stories in recent memory.  Nothing physical travels, only information.  Gibson has taken a page from Benford’s classic Timescape and wrought changes upon it.  Flynn and Netherton “meet” once a police inspector of Netherton’s time becomes involved and starts running the stub Netherton’s friend has set up.  She needs a witness to the murder before she can act.  Flynn is that witness.  What follows is well-imagined set of antagonistic countermeasures that affect both worlds economically.

And that may be one of the most interesting subtexts.  Flynn finds herself the titular head of the American branch of a corporation which till then only existed as a device to explain the game she thought she was beta testing.  As such, she becomes enormously wealthy out necessity—she is under attack by the forces allied to the murderer in the future.  Politicians and corporations change hands, the economy is distorted, the world severed from its previous course, and everything is changed.

Gibson is indulging one of his favorite ideas, that information is possibly the most potent force.  Data has consequences.

Flynn is one of Gibson’s best creations since Molly Millions.  Smart, gutsy, practical, and loyal to family and friends, she adapts quickly to the staggering reality into which she and hers have stumbled.  She manages in both time zones admirably but not implausibly.  As counterpart, Netherton is an interesting case study of a man who hates the times in which he lives, is by far too intelligent to ignore it, and subsequently suffers a number of self-destructive flaws which he gradually comes to terms with as his interactions with Flynn progress.

At the heart of the novel is a question of causality, certainly, but also one of responsibility.  The pivotal point in history that separates Flynn’s world from Netherton’s is an event euphemistically called The Jackpot.  It’s a joke, of course, and a twisted one at that, as it was only a jackpot for a few who survived and became, ultimately, even wealthier than they had been.  The label refers to a collection of factors leading the deaths of billions and the loss of an entire era due to humanity’s inability to stop itself from doing all the things that guaranteed such an outcome.  It’s a cynical insight and not a particularly difficult one to achieve, but Gibson, as usual, portrays it with a dry assessment of how it will actually play out and how it will look to those who come after.  His conclusion seems to be, “Well, we really aren’t all in this together.”

The apparent simplicity of the narrative is another mask for the games Gibson plays.  It doesn’t feel like a profound or dense work.  Only afterward, in the assessment phase, do we begin to understand how much he says, how solid are his insights, and how rich are his conceits.  Gibson creates a surface over which the reader may glide easily.  But it’s a transparent surface and when you look down, there, below you, is a chasm of meaning, awaiting inspection, offered in a moment of time.

The Wimsey Principle

Recently I read my first two Lord Peter Wimsey novels.  An acquaintance has long held Gaudy Night to be an exceptional work, so I settled down to indulge a period mystery, only to discover a very different sort of work full of surprises of remarkable relevance.  Finishing that, I picked up Whose Body?, the first Lord Peter novel.  What I found between the two was a substantial exhibition of intellectual and emotional growth.

It is always striking to encounter a character at two far-removed periods.  Reading novels in a series in the order of their appearance can have a leavening effect of the profound changes visible.  You grow along with the characters, if there is growth (and too often, it seems, in murder mysteries there is little growth in the principle character—but then that’s not what such series are about, is it?), and what may be striking changes seem natural, depending on the author’s skill.  In this instance, Sayers’ skill was masterful in that the older Wimsey of Gaudy Night is so believably one with the much younger and more frivolous portrayal in Whose Body? even while the experiences of a life spent finding murderers and other assorted criminals have eroded the finely-modeled lines of youthful enthusiasm, allowing the layers beneath to rise, transforming as they emerge into a new kind of intellectual sensitive.

The real story in Gaudy Night is not the solution of the mystery driving the plot—which Wimsey solves in a fairly short time—but the demonstration of honest love rooted in genuine respect.  Demonstration rather than revelation since the latter has already been done.  It’s reception and acceptance are at question, hence the demonstration.

The hang up?  Harriet Vane, subject of Lord Peter’s amorous devotion, cannot get past the suspicion that she is in fact merely an object of his devotion.  She is invested, wholly, in being her Own Person. Their meeting (in the novel Strong Poison) was one more likely to elicit profound gratitude and a sense of obligation rather than the congeniality of equals, and Harriet has fended off his protestations of love and repeated offers of marriage since.  She does not trust either her own feelings about him nor his motives toward her, even though she is willing to take him at his word regarding their sincerity.  It is a delicate set of problems, a minefield around her heart, and in order to successfully consummate what is likely to be a fine companionship Wimsey is required to demonstrate time and again that he will not dominate her, will not coddle her, will not in any way treat her as lesser in any respect.  All this while wanting above all else to protect her.

This is the classic conundrum of true love.  In order for it to be true, one must not only allow but genuinely enjoy the independence of the one loved, even at the cost of letting them go.

Harriet Vane wants to be, and has worked very hard at being, her own person.

Sayers sets the story at a women’s college attached to Oxford, Vane’s alma mater, where a series of ugly, often childish, increasingly destructive acts of vandalism threaten to spoil the reputation of the school.  This is all the more threatening because this is at a time when serious public debate over the utility of women’s education is ongoing and scandals add fuel to the fires of reaction.  Harriet herself is emblematic of the pitfalls of living a life consistent with education and independence.  The man she had lived with—not married—had been murdered and suspicion fell on her.  This was the incident that first brought Wimsey and her together.  Wimsey proved her innocent, hence the weight of obligation that causes Harriet to distrust the sincerity of her own feelings.  She was held up as everything bad about the New Woman.  She knows the problems a woman has making her own way without a man, yet she has persevered and made for herself a successful career as a novelist.  Independence hard earned and not lightly surrendered, especially after having been nearly hanged for killing her lover.

What Sayers gives us turns out to be a thoroughly-considered examination of the problems of emancipation.  It is astonishing how the arguments, pro and con, seem as fresh today as they doubtless seemed radical in 1935.  Condescension is absent, questions of class and personality are examined, and the difficulties of maintaining individuality and pursuing ambition are laid out, all within the context of a thoroughly engaging mystery.

Harriet Vane is asked by the Dean of the college to come and help them discover the culprit.  Calling in the police has its drawbacks as the events could become very public to the discredit of the college.  Something, as it unfolds, the culprit very much wishes.  Harriet, frustrated by the intractability of the case, finally sends a letter to Wimsey.  The assistance she asks for is not what she gets.  Instead of advice or a suggestion, he arrives.

Here it becomes tense.  It would be easy for Wimsey to take over the case.  He is the experienced detective, Harriet only writes about detectives and detecting.  But Wimsey has far too much respect for her to simply butt in.  And he knows that would lose her forever.  He believes she can solve it.  He provides assistance and no more, although he does give her some needed distraction, and renewed attention.

The dance Wimsey undertakes is as finely-performed as any solution to any murder.  His object is to be what Harriet needs him to be and no more.  He is clearly bursting to just do for her, but he knows he cannot, because the fragile bridgework between them must be based on equity and sharing and mutual respect.  In some ways, it is a one-sided effort.

Gaudy Night is very much a comedy of manners.  It is also a disquisition on self-possession.  It is also a feminist critique.  And it is a romance.  All at once and successfully achieved.

Whose Body? on the other hand is a straight-forward Who-Done-It, an introduction to the character of Lord Peter Wimsey.  Serviceable.  The pleasure of the novel is the characterizations involved, which are ample and sophisticated.  Sayers portrays Wimsey as someone very much in need of distraction.  He is damaged by service in WWI.  He is too intelligent by far to be satisfied with the usual and stereotypical distractions of his class.  He is a rare book collector, a fair pianist, a gourmand.

He is also impatient with a tendency to be judgmental.  He is in a hurry.  Too lengthy an immersion into a case threatens to open old psychic wounds.  Therefore, what patience he exhibits in the course of solving a case must be an act of will.  He seems shallow to some.  This is a side effect of his aversion to too-deep an introspection, although he cannot avoid it.  At the end of the book, we are left with the impression of someone who needs to unravel and solve his own self as a way toward healing, but he can only do so indirectly.  Solving murders is his way of occasionally showing a mirror to himself, finding another piece.  Had he met Harriet then, they could never have worked together, they would never have found each other.  He would not have survived her rejection, she would never tolerate his insistent perceptions.

In Gaudy Night there is a long discussion of principles and morals.  Principles, Wimsey maintains, are inherently destructive, morals possibly a chimera.  Yet he clearly has both and knows it.  In Whose Body? the question arises as to why he bothers with criminal investigations and clearly the answer is that a principle is at stake.  He can do this, he has the skill and talent, so how could he—morally—not do it?  It’s never asked quite so baldly, but it threads through the entire book.  It does, in fact, put the question forward.  By Gaudy Night it seems Wimsey has answered it, at least for himself.  And the evidence for the principle is the way he is willing to walk away from Harriet rather than impose anything on her.  The imposition of one’s will on another is abhorrent to Wimsey, and what is murder if not the ultimate imposition, the total denial of self?

But even without murder, the principle maintains.  Even built in to the crime being enacted at the college, there is the question of imposing wills on others.  At the heart of the vandalism is a different sort of crime, or perhaps the same sort at a different level, a lie, a libel.  Choices are all we have, really.  To be able to make a choice freely is a kind of ideal state.  But it is what we strive for, one hopes as a civilization.  Wimsey goes to impossible lengths to guarantee that freedom.  It is fascinating to see the answer to the questions he poses himself emerge between these two novels.

Life On The Dark Side

There is a moment in Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night in which the protagonist, Joe Coughlin—Joseph to his father, the man against whom Joe gauges himself all his life—realizes that he is not what he wants to be, what he always asserted himself to be.

“How many men have you killed?” Estaban asked.

“None,” Joe said.

“But you’re a gangster.”

Joe didn’t see the point in arguing the definition between gangster and outlaw because he wasn’t sure there was one anymore. “Not all gangsters kill people.”

“But you must be willing to.”

Joe nodded. “Just like you.”

“I’m a businessman. I provide a product people want. I kill no one.”

“You’re arming Cuban revolutionaries.”

“That’s a cause.”

“In which people will die.”

“There’s a difference,” Estaban said. “I kill for something.”

“What? A fucking ideal?” Joe said.

“Exactly.”

“And what Ideal is that, Estaban?”

“That no man should rule another’s life.”

“Funny,” Joe said, “outlaws kill for the same reason.”

Throughout the novel, Joe is teasing at distinctions.  He gets involved in crime to distinguish himself from his father and his older brothers.  He disobeys his boss in order to fulfill an image of himself as his own man.  He takes as lover his boss’s moll because she is someone he wants more than he ever wanted anything before and cannot see why he should not risk all in order to be who he wants to be.

It costs him and in the end he loses—constantly and dearly—even as he achieves exactly that goal, to be himself.

Live By Night may be a turning point for Lehane, who has been consistently raising the bar in his own work by engaging his worlds and his characters at a level beyond the expectations of noir.

Joe Coughlin considers himself an outlaw.  Not a gangster.  For him, there is a fine by significant difference.  While both engage similar tactics, the reasons are different, and in his own way Joe seems to think there is a moral distinction.  The outlaw sets his own rules, but reserves the right—indeed, believes in the necessity—of setting limits on what he will and will not do in pursuit of his goals.  He will not kill indiscriminately.

This alone sets him at odds with his putative superiors.  As far as Joe is concerned, if he achieves the same thing without indulging in what he believes to be senseless violence, why should anyone be disappointed.

Sometimes this works out well and everyone is happy.  Other times, it runs afoul a deeper motivation on the part of the people with whom he is in league.

Set during Prohibition, Lehane gives us a rich view of the borderline landscapes where the illicit and licit blur into each other.  In Joe’s own view, he and his “live by night,” where the rules are murkier, the motives different, the standards other than for those who live in the day.  Day and Night are almost metaphysical concepts.  Similarities abound, but in many ways superficial.

Joe begins in Boston, the son of a prominent man in the police department who despairs of his youngest boy, even while he loves him.  The Oedipal tangles binding them in an impossible relationship are revealed but only as foundational constructs.  Nothing can be resolved between them.  Life has taken them in such directions that they cannot accommodate each other.

And yet their lives intersect tragically when Joe is sent to prison and falls into the orbit of one of the most powerful mob bosses on the east coast.  Joe plays the situation masterfully, but the game is ultimately rigged and the house claims it tonnage of flesh over the course of a career that sees Joe rise to power in Florida, becoming the chief rum runner in the Gulf.

What sets this story above the standard-issue gangster novel is Lehane’s insistence on a moral center that, flawed as it is, possesses real force for Joe and takes him in directions that often irritate him because it would be simpler, easier to just go along with the power structure.  In this, Joe becomes iconic—a moral man (such as he is) caught within a broken system.

As well, Lehane’s wordcraft—his art, his dextrous use of image—puts him on par with Chandler and Cain, Ross McDonald and Hammet.  There is a flavor of Scott Fitzgerald in his evocations, in the in-built tragedy, in the almost Shakespearean psychologies at play.  Even the minor, bit players feel fully fleshed and viscerally authentic.

And the passion is narcotic.  Joe loves two women in the course of the novel and Lehane makes it real.  Through this as much as anything else he shows us the costs of being an outlaw, of refusing the safer trajectories of life.  Joe makes his choices—because he can and also because he can’t not—and accepts the risks.

A superior read.

Detecting Sauvage

Savage DetectivesA couple of years ago I read Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives.  I still have the one for which he gained considerable fame posthumously, 2666, waiting for me to tackle.

I say “tackle” fully cognizant of its implications.  For a book like this, one should prepare.  Stockpile food and water, coffee (my god, yes, coffee!) and tell friends you’re going on a long trip and to maybe take care of your pets for you.  One should be prepared to leave one’s life by way of the page and cut what ties are possible, because it will be a journey.  This is not “light reading.”

November 2   I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.  I accepted, of course.  There was no initiation ceremony.  It was better that way.

So it begins.  Might as well say he had been invited to join Life.  It’s rare that anyone is “cordially invited” to do so, although there are many opportunities along the course of our living to join at a more engaged level.  Too many people pass these opportunities by, either because they do not recognize them or because they do and would rather not.

November 3   I’m not really sure what visceral realism is. 

Of course not.  He goes on to say he’s only 17.  How many of us ever know so early what life is?  But Bolaño sets out to show us.

He never explains it.  He simply takes us through a long journey, immersing us in the viscera of other lives who are all desperately trying to be real.  None of these people know what they’re doing, what they’re after, what they hope to get out of whatever it is they’ve gotten into.  But they go, and that’s the entire point of the several hundred pages of what amounts to a hero’s quest for the internally tangible.

Most of them fail.

They try to find it in art, doing radical experimental poetry, through sex, having affairs that, while not exactly forbidden, are at least not likely to be fulfilling, through violence, through alcohol, through fleeing their country, through poverty and work and opportunistic spiritual muggings.  They are purposeful while lacking a purpose, at least beyond short term stand-ins for purpose.  They hurt, get hurt, love, suffer, burn out, and none of them end up where they began, although there seems to be a return.

One character is named Ulises and this is not capricious.  If anything, Savage Detectives is a recapitulation of The Odyssey.  Years of travel to find home.  But, like Odysseus, they come back, some of them, to find home has left as well.  You get the sense that one or two of them finally understand that home is something you carry with you, not a geographic location, but it’s hard to tell because the mysteries they strive to uncover and reveal mutate in the hard light of day.  Just about the time you see them find something and say “That’s it!  That’s the thing!” it’s gone, slipping away with serpentine grace and telec perversity.

You come back from your own journey, having stayed true to the quest, and feel…reworked.  You’ve been through living and followed the clues to answers that have only the suggestion of questions.  For some, it might feel like a cheat.  In that regard, Savage Detectives is kin to novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, The Sunlight Dialogues, and, yes, Ulysses.

But I suspect it really had more in common with Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.  Bolaño seems to have fractured the character of Larry in several pieces and sent them all on the same kind of quest, to find Meaning, only to have it all turn pointless on them.  Larry expresses the realization in himself that he had gone about it backwards when he admits that he thought Sophie would be his reward for having lived a good life.  (Sophie, sofia, wisdom, and in a way, Larry achieved it, but Bolaño has a darker view.)  It’s the living that’s the reward and we ignore that at our peril.

Of course, living can be a punishment as well, and it may be that you can’t have one without the other.

I still have 2666 there, waiting.  Daring me.  I have some vacation time coming…

Multitasking

Me-Colored EyeHow many books do you read at the same time?

Once in a while, a book so grabs me that I can’t read anything else till I’ve finished it.  (Also, once in a while, I have to read a book that is by its nature a struggle and if I read anything else during the effort I’ll never get through it.)

There are days I miss the ability to do multiple things at once—read, listen to the radio, watch television, carry on a conversation.  I think we all remember a time when we could do this, but I also wonder if we remember how much we actually got out of it.  I know that if there are voices around me now, spoken or sung, reading is impossible.  I write to music—instrumental music—but that’s the limit of my cross-discipline multitasking.  (I’m writing this to Glen Gould’s performance of Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto.  I find myself recognizing passages during the pauses between thoughts, but the rest just flows by, creating a kind of aural creative cushion, a continuity that fills in the gaps left by interrupted imagination.)  I rarely read to music.

But I do generally have three or four books going at the same time.

Right now I’m reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and at the same time working my way through Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.  (Does that count as a kind of musical background?  Nah!)  In between, I’ve been reading short stories in current issues of Asimovs SF  and I’m about to start research into Madame de Stäel for the next book in the trilogy I’ve been working on.

The trick is to mix them up.  I almost never read two novels simultaneously.  History and a novel, essay collections and a novel, science, politics, etc.  From time to time they color each other, to interesting (but I’m not sure to superior) effect.  I recall once reading Michael Moorcock’s marvelous The War Hound and the World’s Pain and C. V. Wedgewood’s history of the Thirty Years War more or less at the same time.  Whatever else I might have been reading got overwhelmed by the totality of those two books.  Sort of like reading Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead and a biography of Admiral Halsey together, or just a good history of World War II in the Pacific.

While we read with our entire brain (especially fiction, in which the internal creation of images is strongest), it seems we can compartmentalize detail.  I wonder sometimes if when I put down one text and pick up another, what I’m doing is giving my subconscious an opportunity to process the first text.  It feels curiously relaxing sometimes to go from one to another, like changing up an exercise routine.

I am a slow reader.  I read roughly 80 books a year, cover to cover (probably if I added in the total page count of articles, short stories, partial reads, and such it might get closer to 120, but nevertheless) and it can sometimes take me a seemingly inordinate length of time to get through a book.  (Having done two works now with a reading group—Ulysses and Dante’s Commedia—the upper range now stands at seven years to get through a text.)  Many factors are involved, the chief being the time to sit down and read.  Life interferes.  Where once it seemed I had a whole day to go through a book, now I read them in 20 minute to 2 hour chunks.  And the depth of the text places its own constraints on how quickly it will be absorbed.  (I can read a standard murder mystery in a couple of days, but I’m looking at a book on my shelf that I know will take a month at least—Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, a history of the United States from 1815 to 1848.  The older I get, it seems, the more attention I find I must give to such books.  I zipped through William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in high school and did it in less than a week.)  “Processing time” is more necessary, but the urge to keep reading is abated only by picking up a different book for a while.

I have yet to confuse texts.  I always manage to keep whatever I’m reading this way separate.  That might change were I to read similar books simultaneously.  (In fact, I do recall confusing sources during a period of intense research into the Civil War, wherein I switched from one text to another regularly in an attempt to glean a collective comprehension of the period.)

Almost all of my reading, however, is linear (as probably is most people’s).  There are some I’ve known who open books at random and read in the middle, then the beginning, then somewhere else (though not novels, but I wonder how this might work in history?) but not me.  Beginning to end.  Yet I keep them all separate—multi-linearity?—which might seem difficult, since I put one down to pick another up and each return is like starting over.  Yet…

It makes for an interesting, often fascinating journey.  Dancing down the Yellow Brick Road on the way to Versailles at the height of the Sun King’s reign and finding the legation from Vega waiting in the trans-Plutonian consulate fora.  Metternich and Monroe are over there in corner, at the end of the buffet, discussing the Euro with Aragorn while Peregrin and Meriadoc introduce Nero Wolfe to delicacies from Canopus.  There are serious issues under discussion among the gathered dignitaries, not least of which is the true location of the Maltese Falcon and whether or not the heirs to the Dukes of Burgundy have right of return, for which cause Chingachgook represents them to the Culture Minds who may or may not intercede.  The whole arrangement of the imaginative universe could be altered.  Everyone is waiting for arrival of the next book in the series.  in the meantime, we read widely to grasp the multiverse in which existence itself is given meaning…

Comfort

In another thread, the question came up “what is ‘comfort reading’?”  It didn’t occur to me that the idea might not be universal, that some reading is done purely for the pleasure and affirmation of a pleasant visit.

I recently finished Margaret Maron’s new novel, The Buzzard Table, which is the 18th entry in her Deborah Knott series of mysteries.  For those unfamiliar with Maron’s work, she writes a solid murder mystery, in the vein commonly referred to as “Cozies.”  Which, I suppose, differentiates them from the harder edged thriller idiom employed by writers like Dennis Lehane or Tess Gerritsen, in which plenty of the details and arcana of death and mayhem are on display along with a much darker examination of the sociopathic or psychopathic criminal mind.

Not that the murders in Maron’s work are less gruesome, just that much of the gore is left off-stage or examined with a lighter touch.

I scratch my head sometimes at the fact that I’ve now read 18 of these, from the first  (Bootlegger’s Daughter) to the new one, in order.  There are a couple other series I’ve been making my way through this way.  I’ve kept current with Laurie R. King’s excellent Mary Russell series, which chronicles the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his wife, the eponymous Ms. Russell.  (I’ve also read all of Ms. King’s other series, the Kate Martinelli novels, the last one of which cleverly dovetailed with Mary Russell.)

I find myself reading these in between books that seem to demand more from me.  I hasten to add that when I began them I did not find them less demanding than, say, the latest Michael Connelly or Laura Lippman, but as one volume followed the next, I found myself able to slip into these worlds more easily, as if coming back to a favored vacation spot.  I was, in a word, comfortable.

This is not the same as easy.  Maron’s character development over the course of 18 novels has been consistent, charming, and engaging.  These people live and breathe on the page and I go along with them as much for who they are as for the adventures in which they are caught.  Also, her exploration of place is a layered experience, book upon book.  The community is alive, the landscape familiar now and yet surprising in its variation.

I’m tempted to call this “snack” reading, but that might suggest an insubstantiality that I do not intend.  Each book shows me something new.  But I don’t live with these characters the way I might with those I might find in a William Gibson novel (and I certainly don’t have to work to navigate the fictive ideascape as I would in a Gibson).

Some comfort reading—it is not all the same, nor does it offer the same comforts—is more like ritual than exploration.  I’m thinking of certain fantasy series that have gone on inordinately long.  I suspect some read these less for the new they might find than for the utterly familiar, and doing so—especially repeated readings—eventually becomes a matter of revisitation as to a shrine.  (I won’t name them, but I imagine people might know of which I speak.)  The value of ritual is unique to each of us, so I intend no derogation here.  But it’s different.

I think most of us who read as a substantial aspect of our lives have certain books which are simply there for the familiarity and comfort they offer.  Fresh ginger between heavier courses.

When I pick one of these up I know I’m going to be refreshed, relaxed, and ready for something else at the end.  It’s reading, so it does all the important things I think reading does for the brain and the mind.  Just about anything, I suppose, can be considered comfort reading, though I have a hard time imagining James Joyce or Proust falling into such a category.  I’ve read most of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels but because each is so different, even while sharing a background milieu, I don’t consider them “comfort reading” even though I am by now fairly comfortable within their conceits.

Interestingly, there seems to be nothing in science fiction I consider comfort reading.  So far, such books have all been mysteries.  Long ago I lost interest in ongoing series in SF and Fantasy, but in the last few years I’ve discovered a taste for them in mystery.  I may examine this at some point, I find it curious, but for now I’m enjoying myself too much to question it.

Right now I’m reading China Miéville’s Kraken.  Not comfort reading.