The Devil in the White City

Chicago was an eventful city in the 1890s. It had a booming population, reaching the status of second city in time for the census at the start of the decade and, as a center of industry, its leading citizens were determined to make Chicago the site of the World’s Fair commemorating Columbus’ voyages to America. To the eastern elite Chicago was unsuited for this distinction as a smelly, uncouth, backward city. But win the bid it did, commissioning the architect Daniel Hudson Burnham to design a fair that had to be ready to open in 1893 and surpass the grandeur of the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, by any means necessary.

The end result was the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, an event that set a single-day record for peace-time attendance at nearly three quarters of a million on Monday October 9. The White City and accompanying Midway with its massive Ferris wheel, the first of its kind, spinning above it, was a marvel of engineering and science. The designers had to overcome monumental challenges of the landscape during construction, and the final product featured the latest technological marvels, including widespread lighting systems powered by a grid using alternating currents.

But just a few blocks away from the fair there was another building designed with the utmost care. But where the fair was designed with an eye toward grandeur and beauty, this other building, designed by an amateur, was sinister in its functionality. This building was owned and operated by a charming young man who went by H.H. Holmes, the first known serial killer in the United States.

Erik Larson weaves a narrative from these two stories as they build toward their conclusions, with interspersed vignettes from a young man named Patrick Prendergast who believed he was owed a political appointment. The result is a highly engaging book that brings to life in 1890s Chicago and makes the case that this remarkable event shaped the direction of modern America in a myriad of ways.

From a purely aesthetic point of view I loved this book and I can see why it is a popular choice to assign students. But at the same time, the more I read, the more I thought it was a remarkable coincidence that Holmes was active at the same time as the fair. The details of Holmes’ method and the reality of his building offer the perfect counterpoint to the opulence taking place down the street, even if the two narratives are practically unconnected. Nor do I doubt that the broad strokes of the chillingly fascinating account of Holmes’ life are accurate, but Larson breathes life and pseudo-sexual motivation into the killer in a way that is based on supposition.

(Larson acknowledges the difficulties of the sources about Holmes in his notes, and it is not actually clear whether Holmes killed anyone in town just for the fair.)

The result is that while the part of my brain that was reading The Devil in the White City for pleasure ate this story up, the academic side of my brain was left asking what this part of the story contributed to Larson’s case that this fair shaped modern America.

There were other, smaller quibbles that gnawed at me at times, including Larson’s seeming obsession with gout that emerges from being overly enthralled by the characters in the book at the expense of systems that were taking place at the fair (tell me more about the food not at banquets, please). But these complaints notwithstanding, The Devil in the White City is a deeply engaging read that brings the city of Chicago of that era to life and death.

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I have been spending more time reading than writing over the past week. I’ve also finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I’m on the fence as to whether I will write about the first two, but I absolutely loved the third and have thoughts.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

There is social unrest in England in 1806. Napoleon appears invincible and with Admiral Nelson dead the question on everyone’s mind is when, not if, he will invade. But there are other developments afoot. 

These events by all accounts began at an otherwise unremarkable meeting of the Society of Theoretical Magicians in York, where the scholarly society  congregates to discuss issues of the history of magic. The participants are not actual magicians, but learned in the history of British magic—or they were until the first practical magician any of them had ever met appeared and forced them to recant their pursuit. That practical magician, Mr. Norrell, with the aid of his trusty man Childermass who has been collecting every available book of magic, stakes a claim to being the only magician in Britain. Norrell makes himself of service to the government and restoring the life of Lady Pole, albeit with the help of a fairy, the man with Thistledown hair, to whom Norrell bargains away half of Lady Pole’s life.

Of course, Norrell is presumptuous in assuming his singularity, and it soon appears that there is a second magician, Jonathan Strange who the raving street magician Vinculus prophecies will help restore magic to England.

Norrell and Strange form a partnership that is complementary and combative. Norrell is bookish and controlling, where Strange is ambitious and creative. As their skills grow, Strange becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the secrets Norrell keeps and the restrictions he establishes, and they particularly clash over the fundamental nature of magic: Norrell wants a magic for the modern man, but Strange believes all magic is of the Fairy and therefore incompatible with the modern world. Where Norrell hones his skills in the refined security of a library at the beck and call of government ministers, Strange’s magic is put to the test in on the battlefields of Spain and Belgium.  These crucibles lead Strange to wildly inventive magic, but, to Norrell, they also engender a dangerous wildness in his erstwhile pupil.

Told in a format that blends the prose in an nineteenth century style with a presentation as a learned historical text of the sort that the theoretical magicians produce in the story, the windings of the plot in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are too long and intricate to do any justice here. What I can say is that while there is no love lost between myself and Mr. Dickens, whose stories this in some ways mimics, I was completely taken by this alternate history.

Clarke does a remarkable job of bringing the world of magic into early-nineteenth century England, seamlessly fitting an entire alternate history of this one aspect into the wider concerns of the day. Moreover, she breathes fresh life into an old trope from nineteenth century literature of the buttoned-up, scientific, modern man being challenged by unbridled forces that threaten him with destruction.

I had just one main complaint, which requires discussion of a particular plot point. (Consider yourself warned.) Vinculus’ prophecy about the tells of a third person, a man without a name who will become king. One person who feasibly fulfills this description is Stephen Black, the black servant of Sir Walter Pole. The man with Thistledown hair takes a shine to Stephen while visiting the Pole household, commenting on the nobility of his bearing and greatness of his spirit, showering him with royal gifts, and taking him into his entourage for the fairy balls. I liked the inclusion of a black man who would fulfill the prophecy and Stephen’s abhorrence at the methods of the man with Thistledown hair speak well enough for him, but for all of the buildup to Stephen’s greatness he is a passive character carried along by the whims of another who serves only to fulfill the prophecy. In the world of prophecy this works because it is an unexpected resolution, but in the world of a hefty novel it lags behind the rest of the characterization and plot.

My complaint about Stephen Black notwithstanding, though, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a brilliantly realized novel worth every one of its many pages.

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I recently finished Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon and Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive novella* Edgedancer, and am now reading Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

*novella is a relative definition here, barely squeaking in at 40,000 words, by any measure except in comparison to the main novels in the series.

The Idiot

“But civilization is based on lies.”

The Idiot, 361

The Idiot is a college novel that follows a single year in the life of a young first-year student. Selin is Turkish-American, the daughter of divorced parents, and arrives at Harvard in the fall of 1995.

At Harvard, Selin has a typical array of experiences for new students, meeting her roommates, making new friends, and getting adjusted to school. Selin’s classes are a mixed bag, but she particularly likes her Russian conversation class where she meets a fellow first-year Svetlana who becomes her closest friend and a senior mathematician from Hungary named Ivan. Selin finds herself falling for Ivan, engaging in an awkward and chaste romantic correspondence via email. This infatuation, one that is drawn out with the promise of consummation just over the horizon, drives Selin’s actions and therefore the plot, taking her finally to rural Hungary to teach English the following summer.

But overarching idea that lies behind The Idiot is the course Selin takes in her first semester: “Constructed Worlds,” a disorganized hodgepodge of movies, books, and ideas. Selin begins to see worlds constructed everywhere, from her own writing projects, to the traumatic story in the Russian conversation textbook, to the Hungarian villages—and, above all, in her digital relationship with Ivan.

The cover flap praises Batuman’s dry wit, and there is a certain ironic, observation humor that emerge from the absurdity that emerges from the admixture of the self-seriousness of college with that time in life. But it was not for me a laugh-out-loud comic novel. The strength of The Idiot lay in the raw emotions of Selin’s naïve love for a boy who both does and doesn’t have any idea what he is doing to her. The senior and the first-year are at very different places in their life, overlapped by a class and bridged by the tenuous and incomplete medium of email. And yet, for a year, Selin’s decisions are dictated by the whims of this older, unavailable man.

I read several reviews of The Idiot before picking it up that speculated about how much it is based on Batuman’s own experiences at a Turkish-American woman at Harvard in the mid-nineties who has also written extensively about Russian literature. Certainly Batuman infuses The Idiot with sense of place that feels like Boston in general and the Harvard area in particular, but this issue of Harvard stayed with me while I read the book. There were, on the one hand, numerous points that were universal to the college experience, but, on the other, I was struck by the sense of Harvardian [sic] exceptionalism. Everyone is smart, everyone is talented, and they come from diverse backgrounds. This makes for a colorful cast of characters, but also underscores that this is not a typical college story. Rather, it is one about the constructed world of Harvard.

In short, I enjoyed The Idiot. It is a smart novel, thoughtful and well-written, but I also thought it fell a bit short of its lofty praise. 

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Between a brief trip and the end of the semester, I’ve fallen off writing about books I’ve been reading about in the past few weeks, but have recently finished both Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. I plan to write about both in the near future. Last night I started reading Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer.