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MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood

Note: this discussion includes the second and third books of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. I already wrote about Oryx And Crake, the first book in the series.

I cannot think of another trilogy where the contemporary timeline covers as little space as it does in this series. The Year of the Flood covers the same period as Oryx and Crake, introducing the perspectives of Toby and Ren, two women who live in the Pleeblands outside the compounds and find themselves caught up with the God’s Gardeners, a pacifistic nature cult that rejects the course society has taken.

Ren, born of the compounds, accompanies her mother into the Pleeblands where she spends many of her formative years, before returning to a life on the margins of the compound school. Toby’s life is harder, hiding from the authorities by working at a SecretBurger (real meat, a rarity!) joint for Blanco, a manager with a temper and a penchant for choosing female employees, compelling them to perform sexual acts on him, and in time raping them to death—if he doesn’t kill them some other way first. Toby joins the Gardeners the moment she quits because they hide her from Blanco. She doesn’t really believe the doctrines that say there is a Waterless Flood on the horizon, but is tough and resourceful, and the God’s Gardeners are willing to protect her.

Much as Jimmy/Snowman from Oryx and Crake, both women survive the flood, Toby through clean living in her job at AnooYoo Spa, Ren while in quarantine at “Scales and Tails,” the upscale strip club where she works. The Year of the Flood is thus a re-visitation of OaC, bringing the stories up to the present. MaddAddam adds a fourth core character, the enigmatic Zeb, Ren’s adoptive father among the Gardeners and Toby’s secret love, while Toby continues the work that Snowman began, teaching the Crakers about the world.

Most of the strengths of OaC carry through the rest of the series. The world remains disturbingly plausible, and its monstrosity is heightened by the Gardener point of view. We are introduced to their saints, such as Rachel Carson, their veneration of the natural world, and all of the cracks in the Utopian ideal of the Compounds. The Year of the Flood introduces Painball, a death-match between teams of convicts. The victors receive pardon, but leave something of their humanity behind. (By the contemporary timeline, Blanco is a three-time Painball victor.) MaddAddam explores the world of the PetroBaptists and the rise of CorpSeCorps security services through Zeb and his brother Adam, the original founder of the Gods Gardeners.

My main complaint with these two books was that everything fit together too well. That is to say, the world is large enough that people can vanish for years at a time, but small enough that everyone seems to know everyone else—and Jimmy in particular. The result is that the book feels like it is written around Oryx and Crake and reliant on that book, or at least Jimmy to give it meaning. These characters are more interesting than Jimmy (his dullness being one of my issues with the first book), but the whole process came off as reductive. MaddAddam deals less with the earlier time period outside of nested stories and thus mostly circumvents this issue.

The Year of the Flood was my favorite of the three, despite it suffering the most from the issue I described above. I liked the characters of Toby and, to a lesser extent Ren, and the God’s Gardeners are a fascinating set. I still believe that the strongest part of this series is the worldbuilding, at once fascinating, disturbing, and plausible. The storytelling is expertly done in all three books, but I found the characterization and plot lacking when held up to Atwood’s best.

I called Oryx and Crake an origin story, and this comment needs to be amended. The entire MaddAddam trilogy functions as a multi-faceted origin story wherein the ambitions of humankind climbed too high, leaving only a select few Adams and Eves and Crakers left to rebuild after a flood.

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I finished Wesley Chu’s The Rise of Io over the weekend and will post some thoughts about it soon. I’m now reading Charles Mann’s 1493, a global history of the Columbian Exchange and the development of the “Homogenocene” Epoch.

College and Industry

LMS tech support, freelance construction contractor, camp counselor, grocery store cashier/stocker, quick service restaurant manager, QSR assistant manager, history/classics/political science tutor, adjunct instructor, teaching assistant, research assistant/editorial work, furniture mover, visiting assistant professor.

I think that is every job I’ve held since I was 18. Going back further, I could add data entry, housekeeping at a resort, and some other odds and ends. This is something that some people on academic Twitter have been posting in response to this Times Higher Education opinion piece. In short, the author declares that “Too many academics have spent most, if not all, their professional lives within universities,” and therefore:

  1. all potential professors should be required to undergo a year-long internship before they begin teaching.
  2. And all academics should be required to return to work in industry every three to five years as part of their professional development and career advancement.

My Twitter feed was abuzz with outrage at this article, I think for good reason. Scholars in the humanities reacted to the article online responded by pointing to their work experience and then, in so many words, asking what industry the author propose they take their rotations in. That said, I wanted to unpack some assumptions about higher education, because I also don’t disagree with the top level idea: that it is necessary to find ways to support and improve college education.

First, there are a set of assumptions in contemporary discourse about college, if not the article explicitly, about how being a professor is not “real work,” which encompasses several broad categories that all come back to the cult of amateurism surrounding college. I am obviously poaching my core idea here from the issue of whether college athletes ought to receive greater compensation for their labor, but this cult extends beyond NCAA rules about amateurism. There is a perpetual cycle of hand-wringing about how college students are spoiled and insulated from the “real world” that they will face after graduation, whether in the service of lamenting “kids these days” or the failures of higher education. And if college is not the “real world” for students who are set adrift in their “Odyssey Years” (as David Brooks called it in 2007), then it cannot be the “real world” for their professors, either.

About those professors. There is a persistent myth of overpaid and unfireable professors who are detached from the goings on of that mythical real world. Compounding this problem is that many, if not most, people with advanced degrees have made sacrifices for their field by spending years on meager stipends in graduate school. A common explanation for this is that their research amounts to a passion project. Even glossing over the fact that most professors, myself included, are contingent employees with limited benefits, even most tenured professors are not overpaid, either for their level of education or their time. Professors are expected to be experts in their field, prepare, teach, and grade for classes, mentor students, perform world-class research in their field, develop outreach programs, and serve on institutional and professional committees, just as a baseline.

And yet there is also a bias that underlies this op-ed, namely that there is a distinction between “doers” and “teachers.” In the 2000 film “Finding Forrester” featuring Busta Rhymes, a gifted young writer (Rob Brown) is persecuted by his teacher (F. Murray Abraham) and is accused a plagiarizing the work of William Forrester (Sean Connery) until it is revealed that the teacher is a bigger failure as a writer. The argument, then, is that teachers are people who couldn’t hack it in their particular field. (The film makes no concession to the fact that most authors have a day job that may or may not involve writing.)

The author doesn’t go so far as to call professors failures, but she strongly suggests that there there is industry on the one hand and higher education on the other. “Professor” should not be a career, but a position that needs to be cycled through because it results in the professors being out of the loop. This model might be viable for some positions in some fields that rely on industry connections, but, at the same time, universities and colleges often work in tandem with industry in those fields already, with the schools providing cheap labor and resources. Where the model doesn’t work at all is in the humanities, where so much of the research is performed by scholars in higher education. In these cases, mandatory years off not only don’t improve the student education, but actively hurt it.

Higher education is an industry. It employs all sorts of people from maintenance staff to food service professionals to fundraisers and secretaries, but there are two groups without which it cannot exist: students and professors. Work as a professor is not manual labor and has its own schedule, but it is a form of modern white-collar employment.

Of course, the valorization of “real work” cuts both ways. There are plenty of examples of academics who simultaneously look down upon and feel nostalgia for labor that they would never do.

While we’re here, many students are employed, either by the university in the vicinity, and juggle those responsibilities alongside their coursework and professional development opportunities. College has its own set of rules and expectations, but thinking about it as something other than “the real world” is a lazy trope long past its expiration date.

Finally, a word about the point of education. The author concedes that “higher education is not all about career advancement,” but her basic thrust is nevertheless that disrupting the status quo for professors is the only way to ensure students “find their professional niche, alongside the robots.” Humanities and a liberal arts education that teach citizenship are given barely a sentence in the conclusion, without any recognition that these are disciplines that teach the sorts of analytical thinking and communication skills that perhaps most correlate to coexistence with an increasingly automated economy.

By all means, increase resources and opportunities for pedagogical training alongside research support, and find ways to ensure professors stay abreast of the latest developments in their field. As for the internship, there are already years of graduate school, so finding a way to work more pedagogical training into the curriculum ought to be doable. We should not excuse those professors who are oblivious to the difficulties facing students, but the rest of this proposal is a one-size-fits-all solution that frames the virtues of the liberal arts as incidental and therein lies the bigger problem.

Jews with Swords: Gentlemen of the Road – Michael Chabon

The gentlemen of the road are an odd couple, the thin, pale, Zelikman, a physician with his needle-like sword and the dark, burly Amram, a former soldier with his ax named “Defiler of Your Mother.” Their dissimilarity fuels their performances, spectacular duels over, say, a hat, that incite heavy betting; such moments offer opportunities for the canny and unscrupulous.

Other than destroying Zelikman’s favorite hat, everything was going according to plan until they are found out by Filaq, a Khazar youth. Filaq is not interested in exposing their confidence game, but turns out to be on the lam, hunted by agents of Buljan, the new Khazar Bek who had killed his predecessor, Filaq’s father. Owing partly to their natural heroism and partly to the need to retrieve Zelikman’s horse, Hillel, the gentlemen of the road follow Filaq all the way to Khazaria where they find themselves at the heart of a revolution that they have no claim to.

Gentlemen of the Road is a fun adventure story spun out with Chabon’s linguistic flourish. It holds certain positions when it comes to revolution and equality and gender, but does so with a light touch. In the afterward, Chabon explains that he wanted to write a story in a time and place where Jews could wield swords (hence the Khazars, a tribe of nomads who allegedly converted to Judaism), but even this central aspect to the story is not essential to the plot. These are mostly Jews who are not particularly driven by their Judaism.

The sum is a pleasant enough story, but one that is fluffy and insubstantial. It was a good palate cleanser from the emotional power A Tale for the Time Being, but not nearly approaching the level of the other Chabon novel I’ve read, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

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Next up, my partner asked me to finish reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books so that she can talk with me about them, so I’m now reading The Year of the Flood.

A Metaphorical Wall

I like metaphors, sometimes. A metaphor can be a non-sequitur, overly-wrought, or otherwise distracting, but sometimes they are simply good to think with.

A few years ago, I got caught up comparing my academic progress to my basketball jump shot At the time my jump shot wasn’t falling and, at the same time my academic progress felt stuck in neutral Literally and figuratively, I couldn’t put the ball through the hoop. I thought about this connection every time I played basketball, particularly as practice began to pay off with my shot. Little by little, I worked on balance, grip, form, release point, as well as making each of these pieces work together and repeating the whole process the same way each time. My shot never became perfect, and never will, but I developed into one of the better shooters at my regular game. The obvious question was how this related to my academic progress, and I came to realize that, much like my shot, this progress consisted of multiple moving pieces that required a) harmonization and b) consistency. An imperfect metaphor, to be sure, and an academic career is more akin to a basketball game on a team where you are the star, but this comparison helped settle down some of my anxiety and uncertainty and gave me the sense that I knew how I could go about bringing the discrete pieces into a coherent whole.

I have been thinking about a different metaphor recently. Writing is constructive, in a fundamental way. Every piece of writing is building an edifice out of words and ideas in order to convey some piece of information, argument, or entertainment. The blocks consist of evidence and ideas, fused together by word choice and turns of phrase. Well-built, the edifice will be able to withstand weight, but if the walls are assembled in an incoherent manner, they will fall at the slightest touch.

Enter peer review. I’ve had a mixed history with this process, as a lot of people have. “REVIEWER 2” might as well be an academic boogeyman, a harsh, anonymous critic who exists to tear down articles everywhere. Reading criticism of one’s own work is often uncomfortable, and even careful and astute reviewers can come across as cruel judges shining a spotlight on inadequacies. And tone is just the tip of the iceberg, with stories of reviewers who don’t understand what the article is trying to do, whether out of obliviousness, willful ignorance, or lack of clarity on the part of the author, and submissions that go unacknowledged for years.

In the metaphor of the wall, peer-reviewers are fellow architects come to inspect the layout and construction. Some look at the wall as just that, finding the flaws and push it over to let the pieces fall where they may. There is really no way around the fact that those reviewers suck. But there are also inspectors who draw attention to weaknesses and contradictions, not to be mean, but because they want the edifice to withstand pressure. Instead of surveying the wreckage wondering where to even start again or whether to work on something else, the editing process involves pulling out braces and rearranging pieces to create the strongest final product.

I have had the good fortune to have had a fantastic experience with peer-review in all of my recent submissions, but that has only caused me to reflect further about this metaphor. My editing, it seems, involves inserting dowels, applying braces, and rearranging the blocks until they fit just right, not out of a sense of vanity, though I hope the final product looks nice, too, but so that it can withstand as much pressure as needed.

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

“That’s an interesting idea,” he says. “I’ve always thought time was a little bit iffy, myself.”

Ruth is a novelist living on a remote island in British Columbia with her husband Oliver and their cat she calls Pest. She is struggling to find words for her latest book, a memoir, when she finds a curious package washed up on shore after a storm. The Hello Kitty lunchbox contains the diary of a teenage girl from Japan tucked inside the covers of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, along with assorted other mementos. Suspecting the diary to be detritus from the 2011 tsunami, Ruth begins to read only to discover a mystery.

The diary belongs to Nao. She grew up in Sunnyvale California during the dot-com boom, but when her father’s company laid him off they returned to Japan where she was an outsider, brutalized psychologically and physically by classmates and totally without friends. Making matters worse, they went from affluence to poverty, her father attempted suicide, and Nao fell in with call girls. She declares her intention to kill herself, too, but only after telling the story of her great-grandmother, Yasutani Jiko, a 104-year old “anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun of the Taisho era” and whose son was a multi-lingual philosophy student conscripted into being a Kamikaze pilot during World War 2.

The confluence of events causes Ruth to fear for Nao’s life and she begins an obsessive search to find this person who doesn’t seem to exist anywhere online. Things don’t add up about about how the diary arrived on the shores of the island, and there are questions about the timeline between the chronological hints that Nao gives and the urgency that Ruth feels. The only available leads are in the diary, so Ruth has no choice but to keep reading.

A Tale for the Time Being largely unfolds in alternating chapters between an annotated translation of Nao’s diary and Ruth’s hunt. Woven into the narrative is both explicit and implicit commentary about time. Ozeki invokes both Quantum Mechanics and Zen moments, the different speeds of real life and the internet, and balancing the pace of life in New York and Tokyo with an island in the Pacific Northwest and a dilapidated Buddhist monastery. Finding the strength to accept, forgive, and adapt to the flow of time is, as Nao might say, an important superpower.

Similarly, there is commentary about life versus the written word. All three main female characters wrote books that reflect something personal: Nao’s diary, Jiko’s semi-autobiographical novel, and Ruth’s memoir that she is struggling to write. Ruth is taken by Nao’s self-presentation of her suffering, struggles that may well be accurate, but A Tale for the Time Being, a novel by Ruth Ozeki, blurs the line between the fiction of the novel and the memoir that Ruth is struggling to write.

These words are insufficient to express how much I enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being. There are scenes that are difficult to read, particularly with how poor Nao suffers, but these moments of suffering are balanced by moments of wisdom and serenity. I had a few issues with the plot points transitioning to the final resolution and thought that some of the symbolism came across as overwrought, and yet the beauty, the pain, and the relationships left behind a trail of emotional devastation that left me wanting to sit zazen and meditate. I have finished four novels so far in 2018 and A Tale for the Time Being is easily my favorite, an early front-runner for my top reads of the year.

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I am between books for the few hours during which I am writing this, having just finished Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road this morning. The short version is that it was a good reprieve from the emotional power of A Tale For the Time Being.

The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘—by which I mean, of course, latter adolescents who aspire to real manhood—gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism…’

‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.’

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

At the time of his death in 2008, David Foster Wallace was working on a new novel, a book to rival Infinite Jest. The Pale King is a posthumous publication of that incomplete story.

The author’s “forward” (actually chapter 9) informs us that this is an absolutely true vocational memoir of the things that happened to trainee David Foster Wallace at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria in 1985-6. Most basically, it presents the awkward situation young David found himself in on his first day of work when he is mistaken for a much more senior, and therefore valuable, David F. Wallace due to transfer to the center the following day. As a result, David receives insights into the inner workings of (and benefits from) the institution far beyond the typical new recruit. Interspersed with the narrator’s experiences are interludes introducing a wide range of characters (used broadly) that make up the staff of the Regional Examination Center.

Beyond the loose plot formed by the mistaken identities, The Pale King is not a book with a strong plot. There is a lingering sense of doom, perhaps formed by the threat of technology, or perhaps the threat of institutional reorganization, or possibly an internal power struggle…or all three. At the same time, the book creates a series of absurdist character studies that shape interrogate the trauma of early lives that would lead people to choose a life of tedium.

Having read much of Wallace’s oeuvre, I would not be surprised if he was trying to bore the reader toward a state of euphoria (as happens to one of the characters), but the unpolished organization, as well as disorienting chapters some of which use no names, is something else and made the book difficult for me to to follow. These problems were most obvious in the first half of the novel, which does it further disservice.

It is impossible to read The Pale King without looking at it with respect to Infinite Jest. The Pale King shows Wallace’s voice, attention to detail, expansive vocabulary, and style. Where IJ examined addiction, PK takes on tedium. Despite its incompletion, I can see the potential in PK. It shows some hints of the time that it was written, but the setting as a “memoir” creates the potential for a story that is more timeless than IJ‘s near future, and the repeated assertion that modern world is an endless morass of bureaucracy is spot on. If anything the evolution of clickbait social media and the turn to video actually underscores the point being made in the novel. And yet, I have a strong preference for IJ, which I thought was funnier and connected with in a more meaningful way such that I believe my opinion would have held true even if PK were complete.

In my writeup of IJ, I said that it is not a book for everyone. The same goes here to an even greater degree. There are moments and there are scenes, but in its current state, this is not an all-time great book.

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I am now reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and absolutely loving it. This semester has me swamped, but I am hoping to carve time to write about other topics soon.

Quiet – Susan Cain

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has been on my radar for a while, but never rose to the level of my seeking it out. Then it came into my household and now in early 2018 I picked it up as part of my initiative to read more non-fiction.

The premise of Quiet is simple: US culture in business and school idealize and valorize extroverts, but somewhere between one third and one half of all people are introverts. People with introverted personality types are at risk for depression, anxiety, and neutered career prospects, Cain argues, but this is because the gifts that introverts can bring to the table are misapplied or overlooked at best, and smothered at worst.

“Different, not better,” could be the book’s motto. In tracking through studies about performance, she is careful to point out that intelligence is roughly evenly distributed between introverts and extroverts, but that the personality types a) function best in environments with different types of stimulation and b) at different types of tasks. Neither is “better” than the other, and, Cain argues, both function better in situations where there is a symbiosis of the two (she cites, for instance, Jobs and Wozniak and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as particularly effective partnerships). Thus the flaw in the modern corporate environment is a failure to appreciate the needs and skills of employees. In these moments, Cain’s background as a consultant shows through.

Cain works through three bodies of evidence to make her case. She first examines the evolution in American culture exemplified by Dale Carnegie as a way to explain where the extrovert ideal comes from and how it shapes American life. Second, Cain lays out in approachable terms the (relatively) recent scientific findings regarding personality and character types to explain how the traits develop and how they affect performance under various conditions. Finally, she offers a bevy of personal anecdotes and conversations with people she knows to demonstrate living examples of the psychology and of the suggestions for how to thrive as an introvert. The last category, particularly the successful ones, are seemed designed to be uplifting to potential introverts—their equivalent of the Tony Robbins seminar Cain attends and feels deeply uncomfortable at. These were usually the least interesting part of the book, in my opinion.

I am an introvert, usually. (Every once in a while a Myers-Briggs test spits back an “extrovert” result.) As such, much of what Cain wrote struck home and I found myself nodding along as she described the way novel and crowded locations can result in absolute sensory overload. I immediately jumped back to the sensation of being in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and any number of parties where I had to excuse myself. Quiet was interesting for this reason, but not life-changing for me because most of the suggestions it gives are things that I already do in my life. Where it was useful, however, was by forcing me to reevaluate my pedagogy in that I am unconsciously falling into habits that reinforce the extrovert ideal under the guise of class-participation. I don’t yet know what I am going to do about this, and most of the suggestions on this front are not particularly well-suited for a college classroom, but at least I came away more conscientious.

Quiet is absolutely a worthwhile read, even if it comes off as a book that could be thrust upon shy people everywhere so as to say “it is okay that you’re shy, there are ways to overcome that.” The book has some virtue in that regard and Cain frequently reiterates that, yes, it is okay–even natural–to be shy. But the more important audience for Quiet is not for introverts everywhere, but for managers, bosses, and teachers everywhere to make them realize that the quiet person who they keep overlooking for promotion or marking down for not speaking up in class can be just as valuable as the person strutting about in the front of the room with his or her bright plumage ready for inspection.

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I also finished reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King last week and intend to write up some thoughts about it, but things have been hectic around here, so we will see. I am now reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. I love it so far, but see the above comment about writing blog posts—I just hope that it is not a casualty of the conditions under which I am reading it.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process – John McPhee

If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?

What counts is a finished piece, and how you get there is idiosyncratic.

Over the past year I have developed an interest in books on writing, academic and otherwise. This is part pretension, part aspiration, and part curiosity as to how books, objects that I have spent my entire life around, come into being. It was around the time this started in 2017 that John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 came out, to general praise. McPhee is a longtime New Yorker staff writer and creative non-fiction teacher at Princeton, experiences which he distills into under two hundred pages of institutional and professional memoir and commentary on the writing process.

Draft No. 4 was born from eight previously published essays on the writing process, though one of its lessons is that there is a difference between articles that appear abridged in pages of a magazine and chapters that appear in a book. Piece by piece, McPhee works through the stages of writing from developing a topic to relationships with editors and publishers, and from the victories of publication to the weeks and months of painful gestation before the first draft is completed. The eponymous “Draft No. 4,” which McPhee describes as the fun part, is final pass where he plays with the choice of words and phrases. Along the way, he offers reflection on the characters at the New Yorker and Time magazine. Writing might be a solo endeavor, but publishing is not.

Each chapter is well-crafted, with a subtle humor and ample examples pulled from McPhee’s career, but the advice was not particularly novel. Writing is hard, copy-editors are your friend, it is better to use a common, concrete word rather than using a thesaurus to sound smart. This last is the sort of advice one would get from Orwell or Hemingway on writing, for instance, but McPhee makes his points not only as a long-time writer, but as someone who teaches writing. The result is masterful, a clever combination of direct explanation, artful example, and epideictic display piece.

My personal favorite chapter was the final chapter “Omission.” The primary lesson here is that while writing is fundamentally a generative process, it is more appropriately one of omission. Writing involves choice: of words most basically, but also subject, point of view, structure. Writing is not a universal medium designed to capture everything, and any attempt to do so will result in fetid muck.

Draft No. 4 is not for everyone, but anyone interested in writing or in some small insight into how the New Yorker works could do worse with this book.

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I read Draft No. 4 as a break from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which I am about 60% of the way through. I’m hoping to finish it soon because I’m excited about a lot of the other books currently sitting on my shelf.

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Civilization has fallen and nature—GMO and natural—is once more taking over. Among the trees and the storms and the wolvogs and rakunks, there are the Children of Crake, green-eyed and naked and innocent. Snowman, formerly Jimmy, has survived the cataclysm that stripped him of the things he is addicted to and now spends his time watching over the Children of Crake and being watched over by them.

The first book in the MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake is at its heart an origin story—for the Children of Crake and for the state of the world that Snowman is now living in. This story unfolds through a contemporary storyline and Snowman’s flashbacks to his childhood and early adulthood when his name was Jimmy. In the present, Jimmy is a prophet for the Children because he actually knew Crake, a mythic and godlike figure to them. In the past, Jimmy and Crake were friends, one an artist in a world that does not value it and the other an arrogant, brilliant scientist determined to solve the world’s problems by playing god if need be. Oryx is their shared obsession, an oriental girl sold into slavery and exploited in pornographic films who flits in and out of their awareness since they first put eyes on her at the age of 14.

I found Oryx and Crake simultaneously brilliant and disappointing. Atwood imagines into being a frightfully realistic world where there is a stark divide between the haves and the have-nots. The haves live gated compounds, lauded for their intelligence and given the advantages of technology and genetic modifications that give them the world. The have nots live in pleeblands, dirty, diseased, and judged inferior without the opportunity to prove otherwise. Competition between compounds is fierce, with corporate espionage and sabotage the norm as scientists develop new genetically modified animals, sources of meat, or treatments to “improve” the lives of humans. This dystopic vision is not particularly novel, but it is effective for its completeness. What is new, I think, is the Children of Crake, who, both in the novel and inside the story, are a return to prelapsarian society. (Appropriately, the second book in the series is The Year of the Flood).

Why, then, do I call the book disappointing? Part of the problem for me was Jimmy. Snowman/Jimmy had a rough childhood and never really fit in among the geniuses at the compounds, but what mostly stands out about him are his negative qualities: his relationships with women and his obsessions that cause him to float along, caught up by the things going on around him. Not liking him here is not the problem—very few of the characters in the books are genuinely “likable”—the problem is that I didn’t find him compelling. Other characters viewed through Jimmy’s characters were consistently more interesting, while the main thing that makes Jimmy interesting is the fact that he survived.

My second issue with Oryx and Crake is its pace. The book features a lot of lead-up to an abrupt resolution. This pace makes a certain amount of sense within the narrative, but it also means extended periods with Jimmy in isolation of other characters, going on an adventure that showcases more about the world and leads toward that conclusion, but not really being interesting in its own right.

I should be clear here: my disappointment largely stems from my high expectations for Atwood’s novel. Oryx and Crake has its moments and the world is compelling enough that I expect to read the remainder of the series, but fell short of her best.

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I am now reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom.

In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. to awaken them is to reveal that they are en empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

I do not want to raise you in fear or false memory. I did not want you forced to mask your joys and bind your eyes. What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness.

The first book I completed this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letters to his son, a memoir examining issues of race in America. Coates recounts his experiences growing up in rough neighborhoods in Baltimore, his awakening at “the Mecca” (Howard University), his years of writing about racial issues, and the losses he suffered along the way.

Between the World and Me is an angry book, but also a fearful one, and fear is the source of much of the anger. Coates appropriately focuses on black bodies and how, whether through slavery, limitation, incarceration or, particularly recently, police brutality, those bodies are destroyed. If, as he argues, the government is the “legitimate” authority of white America, the police represent the force, the killing edge of that authority, a blade that is often wielded against black bodies. This violence is often racial, but it is not exclusive to white people. It deputizes members of minority communities, making them complicit in the ongoing racial violence.

I read most of Between the World and Me in Washington DC, including a brief stint outdoors sitting between the Capitol and the Library of Congress—one building built by slaves and another that uncritically commemorates Thomas Jefferson. The overall appearance of the Capitol and its accompanying monuments would likewise be much different were it not for other racially constructed legacies such as the white-washing of the polychromic appearance of classical antiquity. Reflecting on these issues is not sanitizing history, but the first steps in grappling with it in search of a better future.

There are points at which it is possible to disagree with Coates and he admits but does not address how many of the same things he talks about apply to other minority groups. But this is a memoir, not a history of race in America, and Between the World and Me is all the more powerful for it. This should be mandatory inclusion for any civics reading list and my only regret is how long it took me to get around to finally reading it.

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Earlier this week I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a book that is as immersive in its dystopic vision as any of Atwood’s other work I have read and yet fell short of her best in its achievement. I am now reading (and am somewhat baffled by, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.