Two Takes on Social Media

The algorithm that serves as Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.

I joined Facebook in 2004 in my Freshman year of college, deleted that account in 2012, and then rejoined the Facebook orbit with an Instagram account a few years later. (I dislike Facebook, but Instagram preserves the parts I liked without most of the noise and lies behind my growing interest in photography.) Along the way I picked up and discarded a variety of other social media accounts, most notably Twitter.

In short, my entire adult life has coincided with the era of social media.

2021 has been the year when social media finally made its way into my reading, starting with Fake Accounts earlier this year. Recently I added to this theme two more books published this year, Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife and Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia King’s An Ugly Truth.

I read the fiction first.

The Startup Wife is a send-up of start-up culture. Asha Ray is a brilliant coder working on a PhD on neural networks that seems to be going nowhere when she reconnect with Cyrus, the boy she had a crush on in high school. For his part, Cyrus is different. He spends his time wandering from reading and absorbing ideas, but also lives with a friend, Jules, who has a trust fund. Yet, people gravitate to Cyrus to create unique rituals. Asha likewise finds herself in Cyrus orbit, as well as his bed.

Soon, Asha drops her PhD to begin coding a new project: an algorithm that will harness Cyrus’ preternatural gift for ritual. With Cyrus’ mind, Jules’ money, and Asha’s code, the three found WAI (pronounced “why”), which stands for “We Are Infinite” and get inducted into a startup incubator, Utopia, that is preparing for the end of the world. As WAI begins to catch on, Asha faces the personal and professional challenges that come with managing a start-up—everything from how to monetize this platform without selling out to being forced to share her husband with everyone on the platform.

Tahmima Anam writes from the experience of her husband’s start-up company, lending believability to the steps taken to seeking capital, even when the specific details of the meetings are absurd. Likewise, this background infuses the story with the frustrations of a woman who has had the distinct displeasure of hearing how women get talked about in the startup world and of being overlooked in board meetings.

The post-IPO wife is the butt of many of our jokes. We’d been tetchy when that first lawyer brought it up (Your odds aren’t good!), but now that Cyrus knows more of these people, we realize Barry wasn’t singling us out, because divorce after great success is actually a trend. Not a dirty little secret but like a totally sanctioned and okay thing that men do once they hit the big time.

The personal side of The Startup Wife—Asha’s marriage and her frustrations with startup culture—provide both the comedy and the emotional resonance of the book. The WAI algorithm, by contrast, provides the depth. The premise of the site is simple:

We have devised a way of getting people to form connections with others on the basis of what gives their life meaning, instead of what they like or don’t like.

The founders of WAI are all generally well-intentioned, but what does it mean to do no evil? Obviously this precludes physical hard and predatory behavior, but does it extend to keeping the platform free? What about keeping profiles active after the owner dies? How much editorial control should Asha and the team exert over the community?

Ultimately, The Startup Wife is better at raising questions than answering them, but it nevertheless offers a romp through this world that is troubling and funny in equal parts. An Ugly Truth, by contrast, is just troubling.

Frenkel and King lay out thousands of hours of reporting in this new exposé of Facebook that tracks the last decade of its existence. The story opens with Facebook cresting a wave in 2012—ironically about the time I deleted my account. Sheryl Sandberg had joined the board and was successfully monetizing Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook still touted its utopian vision for society, but amid the obsession with growth lay the seeds of something darker—questions particularly about speech given that Facebook’s algorithm capitalized on engagement and amplified anything that received an emotional response.

Facebook technically barred hate speech, but the company’s definition of what constituted it was ever evolving. What it took action on differed within nations, in compliance with local laws. There were universal definitions for banned content on child pornography and on violent content. But hate speech was specific not just to countries but to cultures.

By the 2016 election, Facebook hit a crossroads. Zuckerberg and his inner circle resolved to be scrupulously impartial in order to counteract accusations that they were partisan when, in truth, growth and engagement were the guiding stars. Partisanship was good for business, but it also led to discontent in the ranks among some staff who saw the site as stoking divisions and others who were ostensibly hired for security but then sidelined. Around the same time, rumbling started in Congress about regulations.

Zuckerberg responded to criticism by reaffirming his faith in Facebook’s ability to regulate itself with algorithms and circling the wagons. Instagram and WhatsApp were integrated into Facebook to make them harder to spin off and Facebook proper doubled down on privacy and private groups. According to the people Frenkel and King interviewed, the latter was a particular problem not only because it led to the rampant growth of conspiracy theory groups, but also because Facebook’s transparency was the very feature that allowed the site to help root out child pornographers.

Research had shown that people who joined many groups were more likely to spend more time on Facebook, and Zuckerberg had hailed groups as the type of private, living room chat he thought his users wanted to see more of. But he was growing disturbed by the number of people joining groups dedicated to conspiracy theories or fringe political movements, rather than the hiking clubs and parenting communities he had envisioned.

Facebook has nearly three billion monthly users and enormous amounts of influence. In An Ugly Truth, Frenkel and King make an argument that Facebook’s naive optimism that the truth winning out over misinformation belies how social responsibility is incompatible with the mandates of growth and profit. In other words, An Ugly Truth is the answer to the questions raised in The Startup Wife.

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I recently finished reading Nicholas P. Money’s book The Rise of Yeast. I hoped to glean information about beer and bread, but Money was more interested in the structure of yeast and biofuel—perhaps because he is a biochemist, as well as Leviathan Wakes, the first of The Expanse books. As a fan of the TV series, I am stewing over why I didn’t react as negatively going from TV to book as I usually do going book to series. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

The Plot

“I just care about the story. Either it’s a good plot or it isn’t. And if it’s not a good plot, the best writing isn’t going to help. And if it is, the worst writing isn’t going to hurt it.”

You’re only as successful as the last book you published, and you’re only as good as the next book you’re writing. So shut up and write.

Jacob Finch Bonner is a novelist of some promise, at least that is what the New York Times said after his first novel. The second book did less well, which is how he wound up teaching at Ridley College’s low-residency MFA program. His students almost never show any potential except for one summer when Evan Parker shows up. Unbearably smug, Evan assures Jake that his is a plot unlike any other—so unusual that it is inevitable that it will be a success. Much to his chagrin, Jake agrees with this assessment.

Ridley goes to an even lower residency program, though, and Jake bounces around a few positions until several years later when another writer at another cut-rate writer’s retreat where he has a job reminds him of Evan and prompts Jake to see what ever became of that promising plot. As it happens, not only did the book never come out, but Evan is dead. A drug overdose in his hometown of Rutland, Vermont.

So Jake writes the book himself, just transposing the details to upstate New York.

Crib, the novel, is a smashing success. Multiple rounds of book-tours. Meetings with Steven Spielberg to produce the movie. A beautiful woman who schemes to get him to come to her radio station before striking up a relationship with him.

In short, life is grand—you know, other than his agent asking for the next book.

And yet, Jake also finds himself trying to solve another mystery while hiding the details from everyone in his life. At the height of his success, he begins to receive emails from a mystery sender with the screen name “Talented Tom” (as in the Talented Mr. (Tom) Ripley) threatening to reveal him as a fraud. This story, the sender says, does not belong to Bonner and in time he will be exposed as a thief.

Of course, from a legal perspective the blackmailer has no leg to stand on. The “author” of the original plot is dead, but, even if he wasn’t, Bonner wrote every word of the book. A plot twist along doesn’t belong to any one person, but the combination of increasingly hostile messages and Jake’s insecurities about being a failed writer prompt him to begin digging into the troubled family life of his former student, only to discover that the mystery and plot twist might have been more auto-biographical than Evan had initially divulged.

There is a lot to like about The Plot. For one thing, Korelitz casts a jaundiced eye at MFA programs and writers in comic ways. Jake might have had promise once, but he’s also an indifferent teacher and his own worst enemy in terms of writing his next book.

“I’ve learned so much about writers. You’re a strange kind of beast, aren’t you, with your petty feuds and your fifty shades of narcissism? You act like words don’t belong to everyone. You act like stories don’t have real people attached to them. It’s hurtful, Jake.”

Korelitz also puts out a sophisticated narrative structure that follows Jake through time while weaving in Jake’s investigation into the mystery of Evan Parker’s background and snippets from Crib. This is a thriller restrained by writerly craft, pushing you forward but withholding the plot.

However, this was also a book that gave me several major hangups.

First, the story within the story. When we are introduced to the plot that becomes Crib, we receive several pieces of information:

  1. it is filled with compellingly overwrought characters who wouldn’t have been out of place in Infinite Jest.
  2. the plot is compelling because of an unforgettable, impossible to predict plot twist.

The passages of Crib that Korelitz provides are much like the rest of The Plot: solidly crafted, but with relatively unremarkable characters and a more somber atmosphere. I could absolutely see Crib being picked up for a prestige drama (though probably not a movie), but the idea that this book could have become a must-read national sensation defied credulity for me.

Second, while I was impressed by the narrative structure of The Plot, I had effectively guessed the twist by about the midpoint of the novel. This didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, but, in a story meant to mirror a book that is popular because it had a twist unlike anything anyone had ever seen, it certainly made my experience closer to “shrug, okay” than “oh, wow!”

(I’m also not convinced that Jake is correct that this plot is so unique since the very allusion that is keeping him up at night is itself a variation on this very plot.)

The Plot is a good read. I’m willing to forgive setting the opening scenes at a fictional college in a part of Vermont that doesn’t have one (I suspect the model is the low-residency summer program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, but it is set in the Northeast Kingdom), and I liked the nods to and cracks at writers because this, ultimately, is a story about Jake’s numerous flaws that drag him down. I correctly identified the twist in this literary thriller, but there was no other way to adequately resolve this plot.

This praise just also falls short, not only of the supposed excellence of the parallel story Crib, but also of the satisfaction of a perfectly executed thriller.

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I have another post in the queue for the tomorrow that has my thoughts on The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth. I am also planning to write about Omer el Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and have some thoughts about television adaptations involving The Expanse and Leviathan Wakes. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

How Beautiful We Were

The cover of Imbolo Mbue’s _How Beautiful We Were_.

I’d sighed after Nubia recounted this, and she’d asked me why I’d sighed. I told her that on all sides the dead were too many—on the side of the vanquished, on the side of the victors, on the side of those who’d never chosen sides. What good were sides? Who could ever hail themselves as triumphant while they still lived? Perhaps someday, I added, after all the dead have been counted , there will be one number for the living to ponder, though the number will never tell the full story of what has been lost.

Modern industrial capitalism carries a steep cost. The price of abundance is paid in blood by the people working in dangerous factories and living on the land where natural resources are extracted.

The latter is the premise of Imbolo Mbue’s novel How Beautiful We Were.

Kosawa is a remote village in an unnamed African country, one of eight in the valley. Everything changed when the American company Pexton discovered oil in the valley. Rather than bringing prosperity to Kosawa as promised, oil from Pexton’s pipeline seeped into groundwater. Children died. Pexton taught the people of Kosawa to boil water before using it, and children died.

How Beautiful We Were is something of a fractal of a novel.

In some ways it is a generational novel centered on the family of the young woman Thula. Her family doesn’t lead Kosawa, but they are prominent enough that when the village madman, Konga, forces the town to kidnap four Pexton men by stealing their car keys — the inciting incident of the novel — people look to her father and uncle Bongo for leadership rather than the village leader Woja Beki. After all, Woja Beki has benefited from Pexton’s largesse. Thula takes up their mantle in the subsequent generation, getting an education in the United States and becoming an activist in defense of her people and democracy.

In other ways it is a novel about a place. The beautiful lost place of Kosawa is brought to life by the inhabitants. When Thula leaves her homeland we see her through letters home to her childhood friends.

Still in other ways it is a novel of customs and structures, involving both the encroachment of foreign customs on a traditional village in the tradition of Things Fall Apart and the corrupt national government and first world companies that trample on those traditional customs. Thula and her friends fight back, of course, but their numbers are small.

All together, How Beautiful We Were is a story that is both powerful and sad. The people of Kosawa only want to live in their village as they always have. This is a village so remote, we are told, that the snatchers bypassed it entirely, leaving Thula’s grandmother Yaya to wonder:

Now, in my old age, I wonder, what song would they be singing if we’d been stolen and displaced and no one was left to tell our stories? The ones who were taken, where are their descendants now? What do these descendants know of their ancestral villages? What anguish follows them because they know nothing about men and women who came before them, the ones who gave them their spirit?

Nothing can save the people of Kosawa. When they accept Pexton, they die. When they fight, the soldiers come. Their attempts at raising awareness and marshaling outrage follow a depressingly predictable pattern of momentary outrage and performative contrition before the proceedings get bogged down in court and the general public moves on to the cause of the moment with the systems left unchanged.

Perhaps the most impressive part of How Beautiful We Were for me is how Imbolo Mbue has crafted a novel that is simultaneously specific and universal. It is set in a country presumably modeled on her native Cameroon, but the country is never named and the capital city is not found on any map. I tend not to like fictional countries in an otherwise “real” world. These countries, like Qumar in the West Wing, strike me as ahistorical palimpsests meant to dodge the implications of the story. Mbue avoids this trap by making Kosawa the center of this little universe. The nation state is coincidental here and matters only in so far as it establishes the asymmetrical power relationships that bear down on Kosawa. The country could be Cameroon, but it could just as easily be any other of a dozen East African countries. Likewise, the story here might be about an oil company, but it could just as easily be a logging company or a mining firm.

I found How Beautiful We Were to be a deeply moving story that captures the destructive underside of modern capitalism at the same time as it celebrates the people who live on that toxic ground. They live, even as they are dying.

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I didn’t have much of a chance to write about what I’ve been reading last week because of other writing deadlines but the reading has continued. I finished (and plan to write about) Cal Newport’s A World Without Email, but also I have also read Ben Cohen’s The Hot Hand and the fifth volume of Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman. Most recently I finished Ilan Pappe’s The Biggest Prison On Earth, a history of the occupied territories in Israel. Pappe is a controversial figure and wrote this book as a condemnation of Israeli policy. While some of his strong stances might be said to be predetermined, that doesn’t mean that he’s wrong. This book uses Israeli government documents to argue that the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the apartheid-like security apparatus were not necessary retaliation against terrorist threats or accidents of right-wing governments, but the intended outcomes of Israeli government policy since the creation of the state.

I am now reading Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter, a compelling debut fantasy novel set on a floating archipelago in an endless sea. I am particularly taken by the setting, which features a long-standing empire that claims its legitimacy because the royal defeated an earlier generation of powerful and destructive beings and they now protect the people, except that the royal institutions also enforce a policy where they harvest bone shards taken from the skulls of the people that are then used to power constructs, slowly draining the life force from the person that shard belongs to. Some people die in the process of collecting shards; everyone dies sooner than they otherwise would if their shard is used. The people aren’t happy.

The Scapegoat

—That’s the danger with freedom: it’s an abyss. Will you fall in? It’ll depend on you Georgiou.

In May 1948 a Greek fisherman discovered a body floating in the Thermaic Gulf. George Polk was a CBS foreign correspondent then reporting on the Greek Civil War where he was unsparing in his coverage of government corruption and atrocities. Despite receiving death threats, he had nevertheless travelled to Thessaloniki, only to disappear until his body was fished from the bay. The government, naturally, blamed their communist enemies and arranged a show-trial that ended in the conviction of three men: two in abstentia (they also had not been in Greece at the time of the murder) and the journalist Gregoris Staktopoulos, who confessed under torture and served more than a decade in prison.

A fictionalized version of this murder and wrongful conviction serves as a jumping off point for Sophia Nikolaidou’s The Scapegoat (trans. Karen Emmerich).

The Scapegoat consists of two intersecting storylines, though neither strictly adheres to a single chronology. The first plot centers on the 1948 murder of the American journalist, here named Jack Talas, who we meet in the opening pages. At the same time, we are introduced to Manolis Gris, a journalist who accompanies an officer to the police station thinking he is dealing with the theft of his laundry by gypsies that he had reported earlier that day:

“It was twelve years before Manolis Gris made it home. His eyes were still chestnut brown, but his hair had turned gray.”

This narrative unfolds through the voices of people around Manolis, including his sister Violeta, his mother Kyria Maria, and Jack Talas’ widow Zoe (Zouzou), as well as a host of others. We learn how Manolis and his family were refugees relocated from Pontus during the forced population exchanges of the 1920s and how he generally kept his head down while diligently working to support his family. And we learn how Zouzou faced a torrent of accusations after the death of her fiancé as the institutional forces in Greece worked to close the case quickly and ensure that the “right” people took the blame. Manolis’ signed confession seals the deal.

The second plot line flashes forward sixty years. In the 2010–2011 school-year, at the height of the financial crisis in Greece, Minas Georgiou has decided that he does not want to go to college. Previously a star student, Minas’ decision has shattered the peace of his household, particularly devastating his mother, Teta, who gave up a career after college to raise him. Minas’ decision also caused his grades to start slipping in advance of the mandatory exams, which serve as a critical point of divergence for the rest of his life. His history teacher Souk (Soukiouroglou) makes him an offer: instead of completing homework for the class, Minas can complete a research paper and presentation for his grade.

His topic: The trial of Manolis Gris.

Minas throws himself into research, aided by materials put together over the years by his own journalist father — albeit distracted the ordinary pursuits of high school seniors, like trying to strike up a relationship with Evelina, the other star student in the class.

Each plot works on its own, the second somewhat more than the first, but The Scapegoat comes alive in the resonances between the two stories. Nikolaidou takes the universal position that the 1949 trial was a sham that turned the convicted into scapegoats who absolved a community of responsibility for its sins. (These were called pharmakoi in Ancient Greek practice, though the original Greek title of this novel is Χορεύουν οι ελέφαντες, or The Elephants are Dancing.) In and of itself, that part of the story is not particularly exceptional except that she uses the kaleidoscope of voices who articulate the layers of disruption in 1940s Greece.

The second plot, set at another time of disruption in Greece that was creating waves of new sacrificial victims, responds to the first. Three generations of Greeks are invested in Minas’ investigation, and are caught up in a tighter web of relationships than they first realize. Minas’ investigation eventually leads him to Evelina’s grandfather Nikiforos, the lawyer who defended Manolis Gris in 1948, but the old man refuses to speak to him until he arranges a meeting with his grandmother Evthalia — who Nikiforos admired from afar as a young man about to marry. Meanwhile, Souk is the sort of eccentric literary teacher who is easy to admire until you realize the consequences of his methods (his father Tasos knew Souk’s advisor and can’t stand him, but his grandmother, a former teacher, approves). Nikiforos doesn’t see the value in re-litigating the past, but Souk demands that Minas do just that in taking a stand. Minas concludes:

In studying them carefully, in marking passages with his highlighter, Minas had come to realize that justice is an abstract concept. Perfect on paper. But in practice, riddled with qualifications, asterisks, interpretations, clashes of opinion. History books offered no catharsis, as tragedies. did; there were no happy endings, as there were in fairytales or soap operas.

In sum, The Scapegoat is an impressive novel that grapples with the living consequences and echoes of historical events, even as Nikolaidou injects light into that darkness through a number of sweet relationships, none more so that the clumsy tenderness and unbridled optimism of young love.

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Since my last books post, I finished reading Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year and David Elliot’s Bull. The latter is a verse re-imagination of the Minotaur story where each character receives a different meter. It wasn’t my favorite riff on the Minotaur story (that would be The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break), but it had some powerful moments. I am now reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, a memoir about trying to find information about the six family members none of his relatives will talk about — the six who were killed in the Holocaust.

Fake Accounts

I had to finally admit that Twitter was not a distraction from reality, but a representative of it, a projection of the human drives and preoccupations that with free time and publishing platforms had been allowed to multiply and evolve. The superficiality this encouraged—pithiness and oversimplification were rewarded—felt appropriate not merely because it mimicked the way most of us choose to moved through life but also because it had compounded those aspects of life that felt so desperate and precipitous.

Technology in a work of fiction is a tricky needle to thread. On the one hand, technology is a ubiquitous part of life. On the other, the speed with which it develops risks dating the work immediately. One solution might be to steer clear, acknowledging its existence but centering the story on universal aspects of human relationships. Or, like Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, one might embrace it entirely.

Fake Accounts opens on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. For the unnamed female narrator, a blogger for an feminist internet website loosely modeled on Oyler herself, Trump’s election is a catastrophe of enormous proportions, but that is only a secondary catalyst for the events of the novel. That night, she finally peeks into a forbidden phone that belongs to her boyfriend Felix.

She had met Felix in 2015 in Berlin where worked as a pub-crawl tour-guide and instantly struck up a relationship that had gradually made its way back to New York. Theirs was a modern relationship — sexual, without being overly intimate — but Felix has his quirks. He is a little distant, for one, rarely having her over to his apartment, and he doesn’t have social media. But, above all, he makes a game out of small lies, conjuring new stories out of thin air.

Unlocking his phone causes everything she knows about Felix to unravel. Not only does he engage with social media, but it turns out that he operates an extremely popular Q-Anon style account called @THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED that traffics to radical politics and nonsensical conspiracy theories. She resolves to dump him, just as a soon as she gets back from the Women’s March on Washington.

That’s when she receives news that really sends her life into a tail-spin. Felix is dead. Bike crash in upstate New York.

Before the narrator knows what is going on she has quit her job and moved to Berlin to write her novel — or, at least, to scroll through Twitter in bed. Once there, though, she comes to a realization: not only does nobody here know who she is, few of them particularly care. She, too, can indulge in little lies, like telling a Scottish man at an English-language ex-pat dinner that she was a dancer. What began innocuously enough begins to spiral as she creates a new persona for each new Tinder date or job application as she works to find herself through a myriad of inventions.

Fake Accounts is an identity novel for the internet age that interrogates the gap between the digital space and the meat space. We project a vision of ourselves into the digital world, curating social media profiles and manipulating words and images. Our avatars are ourselves, but not our whole selves. In Fake Accounts, Oyler expands these internet paradigms back into meat space. What if the interactions we have online are no more real than are interactions we have in the physical world? Are physical interactions any more lasting than online ones? What stops someone from simply reinventing themselves again and again and again?

I found Fake Accounts to be an incisive novel in a number of respects, but what sets it apart is Oyler’s clear, intimate, and striking voice. This is the confessional of a woman looking for herself after a series of events knocked her from her arch, ironic, millennial perch in Brooklyn. Her reinvention is this novel, in which she details her lies, talks about the intimacies of sex, and banters with an unseen chorus of ex-boyfriends. The ironic remove never entirely drops — Fake Accounts is divided into sections such as “Middle (Something Happens),” “Middle (Nothing Happens),” and “Climax,” and Oyler-as-narrator plays some with the style — but the voice remains constant throughout, promising to confide in the reader all of her dirty secrets. The result is a both funny and compelling novel that I thoroughly enjoyed even when the plot turned predictable.

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I have a half-completed review of Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire I keep meaning to finish, but have continued to read much more than I’ve been able to write at this time of the semester, finishing Anne Zouroudi’s The Lady of Sorrows, C Pham Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, Glen Weldon’s Superman, Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman: Season of Mists, and Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax since my last reading update. I’m not sure that I will write an individual post about any of these books, but my favorite was How Much of These Hills is Gold, a wrenching story about two Chinese-American girls in nineteenth-century California. It is well-worth reading, I just didn’t have enough to say about it to justify an entire post. On the other end, I found Sin and Syntax a deeply frustrating book. I am now reading Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year, a funny exploration of what might happen in a world where a person suddenly had access to 108 utterly specific, precisely accurate predictions about the future.

The Shadow King

Ettore, bear witness to what its happening. Make living your act of defiance. Record it all. Do it relentlessly, with that stubbornness and precision that is so very much like your father. This is why I gave you your first camera. Do not let these people forget what they have become. Do not let them turn away from their own reflections—

Every photograph has become a broken oath with himself, a breach in the defenses that he set up to ignore what he really is: an archivist of obscenities, a collector of terror, a witness to all that breaks skin and punctures resolve and leaves human beings dead.

Haile Selassie at the League of Nations, image credit.

Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, delivered a speech in Geneva, Switzerland on June 30, 1936. An Italian army had invaded his country the year before, attempting to for the second time to conquer the last uncolonized region of Africa. The people of Ethiopia had resisted, but the Italians unleashed the horrors of modern warfare, including chemical weapons, on soldiers and civilians alike. The world had imposed minor sanctions on the Italians and proposing resolutions to the conflict that Benito Mussolini simply ignored, claiming that this war of conquest was, in fact, an act of self-defense because of a frontier clash on the frontier with Italian Somaliland. He simply denied the accusations of chemical warfare. Now Haile Selassie addressed the League of Nations general assembly, speaking in Amharic, begging the member nations to stop this fascist aggression. Haile Selassie might have been a head of state, but whether the league was toothless or the members ambivalent about expending resources to help an African state, his appeal fell on deaf ears.

In The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste’s difficult and beautiful novel, the horrors of this campaign are given life.

The core of The Shadow King weaves together two stories.

The first follows Hirut, an orphaned Ethiopian girl in the household of the local nobleman, Kidane. The lady of the house, Aster, makes Hirut’s life miserable. She takes her frustrations out on Hirut, viewing as a sexual rival and accusing her of theft—first falsely, then accurately. After the Italians invade, Kidane even confiscates Hirut’s prized memento from her father, an antique rifle called Wujigra to use in the war.

The second story is that of Ettore Navarra, a Italian photographer of Jewish descent charged with documenting the invasion. His is a complicated relationship with the invasion: he harbors the Ethiopians no particular ill-will and is deeply disconcerted by the atrocities, but he is also Italian and this is his job. However, even in Ethiopia, Navarra cannot escape the radicalization taking place back home where Benito Mussolini’s fascist state is beginning to draw sharp lines between Jews and “real” Italians.

Inexorably these two plots come together. The women of Ethiopia refuse to stay home while Kidane’s forces wage a guerrilla war against the Italian forces, a war that continues even after Haile Selassie fled the country. First Aster and Hirut follow Kidane’s men to care for and supply the men, but gradually become more involved. Eventually, they hatch a plan to choose a “Shadow King”—a lookalike stand-in to inspire the people to resist the invasion—for whom they serve as the guard.

On the other side, the Italians and their African ascari begin to dig in, and Navarra documents it all. His commander, the sadistic Colonel Carlo Fucelli, puts his men to work building a prison where they can hold captured Ethiopians, to say nothing of debasing them. Naturally, this prison will serve as the focal point for a final showdown.

These two stories would make for a compelling book on their own, particularly given Mengiste’s gift for characterization. For instance, even the brutal and vicious Colonel Fucelli, who earned the nickname “The Butcher of Benghazi” for his cruelty in Libya, is not a straightforward fascist caricature. He is undeniably cruel, yes, and racist, both traits on display in his sexual relationship with the African courtesan Fifi, which itself violates the ban on such couplings. Fucelli is also willing to ignore orders forcing him to out Navarra as a Jew, at least for a while. Mengiste leaves his motivations for both decisions masked: perhaps Fucelli simply believes that the rules don’t apply to him, but perhaps his prejudices are not quite as deeply held as one might think—not that that changes how much one might root for him to be punished.

However, what elevates The Shadow King to my list of favorite novels is how Mengiste layers other voices onto these two stories. She imagines interludes where Haile Selassie reflects on the plight of Ethiopia, often invoking Verdi’s opera Aida, whose eponymous character is an Ethiopian princess. Elsewhere, choruses of Ethiopian women raise their voices up in an echo of Greek tragedy:

Sing, daughters, of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes who rushed like wind to free a country from poisonous beasts.

Photographs captured in text punctuate the narrative:

A woman slumped against a walking stick, paralyzed leg dangling beneath her long dress. A row of braids that fan out to thick, dark curls. Tattoos gracing the line of her throat to her jaw. bruises near her eyes, at her mouth, a thread of blood dried against her ear. She is mid-sentence, her tongue against her teeth, curving around a world lost forever.

A boy in a stained shirt rests his cheek against a tall boulder as if it were a father’s chest. He stares at the camera, doe-eyed and curious, his lips folded around a mouthful of food, a stream of words, a cry for help, a burst of laughter. One palm balances against the hard surface of stone, his finger raised and pointed ahead, the gesture an accusation and a plea for patience.

These layers harmonize with the two core stories, reinforcing them, expanding them, and humanizing them, before building to a climax years later during the last days of Haile Selassie’s reign when Hirut meets Ettore Navarra once more to return his pictures.

I found the combined effect of this novel stunning. Mengiste is a beautiful writer, to be sure, but it is also a brilliantly structured novel. It would have to be. Mengiste tackles themes of race, identity, gender, and memory, all of which are easy to do poorly, either because they come across as caricature or moralizing. This goes double with fascism. There are no easy answers in The Shadow King, but each element adds to the texture that earns every moment.

ΔΔΔ

I’m still working through the recent list of things I’ve read with these posts, and particularly want to write one about Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Kim Un-su’s The Plotters.

A List of my Favorite Novels (2021 edition)

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place. I rarely fiddle with the rankings from year to year other than to add new books and iron out disagreements between this list and my fantasy rankings, but sometimes it happens.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites. Once the list hits 100 or so—maybe 100+my age at the time I publish the list— books at the back end will begin to fall off.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists; hopefully in the same order.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 16
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2020 (Piranesi)

Tier 5

75. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
74. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
73. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
72. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
71. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
70. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
69. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
68. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
67. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
66. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
65. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
64. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See (2005)
63. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
62. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
61. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)
60. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
59. The Brothers Ashkenazi, I.J. Singer (1937)

Tier 4

58. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
57. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
56. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
55. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
54. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
53. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
52. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
51. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
50. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
49. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

48. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
47. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
46. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
45. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
44. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
43. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
42. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
41. Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin (2006)
40. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
39. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
38. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
32. The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste (2019)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

The Sympathizer

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.

So begins The Sympathizer, the confession of a prisoner. Although Nguyen withholds the context of the interrogation until the end of the novel, we quickly learn that the narrator received CIA training as the aide to a general in charge of the South Vietnamese secret police, all the while working as a mole for North Vietnam.

The novel’s plot quickly kicks into high gear as the narrator arranges, sometimes at gunpoint, for the general, his family, and staff to flee Saigon as the North Vietnamese army approached. This access also allows him to secure a seat on the plane for one of his two sworn brothers, Bon, whose fervor in fighting for South Vietnam promises him a future of hard labor. The other, Man, is his handler.

The first stop from Saigon is a camp on Guam and then on to Los Angeles where the refugees try to pick up the pieces in America. Some adjust. The narrator secures work at the school where he studied as an exchange student, builds relationships with women, and even picks up work as a consultant on a blockbuster Hollywood film about the war, based on Apocalypse Now. Others do not. With neither family nor country, Bon descends to alcoholism and the general opens a liquor store that he uses as a front to raise money, plot a return to Vietnam, and eliminate anyone who threatens his cause. Of course, the narrator continues to report on these movements with letters relayed through Man’s aunt in Paris, at least until the General organizes his return to Vietnam.

The Sympathizer is in many ways an inversion of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which similarly explores issues of identity and colonialism. Where Greene’s novel follows the story of Alden Pyle, an American CIA agent working against communism in Vietnam, Nguyen’s narrator works from the opposite direction, while holding an ambiguous position between the two. The illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, the narrator literally straddles the line between east and west, and he declares as a point of pride that he can pass for American over the phone even as Americans talk down to him. From this heart, the theme radiates from him like an aura, extending to his two blood brothers who are equally balanced to either side and the General’s concern that his oldest daughter is becoming too Americanized with her singing career to find a proper Vietnamese husband.

However, this core theme works by offering several different types of conflict and preventing it from striking just one note. The narrator has both types of expected conflict as a refugee double agent, trying to fit in in the new country while not getting caught, but his sexual relationship with the Japanese-American secretary at Occidental College and a competitive one with a Vietnamese reporter he knew when they studied there introduce issues of representation of Asian Americans and rivalry. Similarly, his parentage offers a recurring conflict because while he is a useful asset he is neither sufficiently dedicated to the cause to be integrated into the Communist society nor a proper-enough Vietnamese man to warrant a good marriage.

I found The Sympathizer a good, but somewhat unspectacular novel for most of its length. There are excellent individual scenes, including the sheer terror of trying to escape Saigon, but, on its own, this close focus on the narrator’s reflection of his own identity struck me as somewhat prone to navel-gazing. Where Nguyen earned all of his plaudits was in the final section of this novel. The final seventy-odd pages of The Sympathizer pull back to reveal the circumstances under which the narrator is writing, which, in turns adds layers of depth and meaning to the 306-page confession of a man without a country.

ΔΔΔ

I have fallen behind on writing about books I’ve finished, in equal parts because of other writing commitments, complacency of summer, and not being inspired enough to write speedy reviews. I have been reading, though, blowing through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay We Should All be Feminists, dragging myself through Rachel Kushner’s The Firestarters, and working through Mark Kurlansky’s Salt at a pace somewhere between those two. I still hope to write about some of my backlog, but given that my guiding principle on this site is to write what and when I am inspired to say something, we’ll see what I actually do.

I am now most of the way through Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, the first of his Marseille Trilogy.

Day of the Oprichnik

CW: although glossed, this post includes allusions to sexual assault that took place in the novel.

My mobilov awakens me:

One crack of the whip—a scream.
Two—a moan.
Three—a death rattle.

Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of an Oprichnik is like? Well, you might be, if you Western readers knew what an Oprichnik was. When his majesty ended the Red and Grey Troubles and restored Russia, he wisely followed the precedent of Ivan Grozny in reconstituting the Oprichnina, a fanatical bodyguard dedicated to rooting out his majesty’s enemies. Work and Word!

Now, for the first time, Vladimir Sorokin has shared with the world the important work that the Oprichnina is doing on behalf of Russia by following Andrei Danilovich Komiaga for a full day, from the moment he awakens hungover from one long day until the moment he returns to bed in the wee hours of the morning.

Between those moments of rest, Komiaga flies around Moscow, and even all of Russia, in service of the Czar. One moment he must make an example of a disloyal nobleman, executing him, of course, while giving his wife a lesson she will never forget and sending his children to a home where they will be raised to be loyal. Then he is off to hear a petition from an actress on behalf of a prisoner and then to the far east where he must put straight petty bureaucrats and Chinese diplomats about a commercial dispute. On the way back to Moscow he must visit a clairvoyant and upon his return he sits witness to a play with potential slander against the Empress, who immediately summons him to his side while she breakfasts as the rest of Russia sups, enjoying the appropriate rewards of her position. Finally, Komiaga concludes his day with the essential Oprichnina communal meal at Batyas, which provide opportunities to greet important guests—even his highness may come!—and build a sense of hierarchy and purpose. This is why we must applaud Batya’s decision to end these gatherings with the caterpiller in the bathhouse.

As I said, a day full of important business on behalf of the Tsar. Laser guns are merely tools without men to use them. Who else will help oversee the Western Wall and European pipeline dispute? Or so carefully enforce his majesty’s wise bans on profanity? Or keep those jackals among the nobility in line? Work and Word!

We must make some concessions for all of this work, of course. His majesty properly banned drugs like the aquarium for people, but shooting up these little fish reinvigorate us and hone our sense of purpose, while the Oprichnik leadership soars as a seven-headed dragon! Greasing is the only way anything gets done, so we must get our cut, and it is only natural that we secure our position by ensuring a steady stream of dissent. It would be a tragedy if his majesty were to not see our worth and rashly disband us, his most loyal servants! Hail!

The Czar has put Russia back to rights. We might use Chinese technology and our children might learn Chinese slang, but men are men and the church again ascendant. No longer is society oppressed by the loose morals of the west or tainted by atheism or “feminism.” What nonsense, and just look where it got them. No, traditional Russian values are best, just as Russian literature is best. His majesty was right to build the wall. With the help of God and the Oprichnina, Russia is more powerful than ever. This power came with casualties, but these are a small price to pay. We have the technology to put dissenters under surveillance and the will to take care of them, if need be. Anything for his majesty. Hail!

Perhaps with Sorokin’s feature, the children of those grasping people who were in business only for themselves will finally understand the purpose of our labor. Work and Word!

Work and Word!

ΔΔΔ

How else to write a review of a satirical critique of technology, monarchy, and modern Russia other than to offer the portrait unreserved praise? The Day of the Oprichnik is a frequently disturbing portrait of near-future Russia, in a world with a restored monarchy, border walls, and modern technology turned toward protecting a brutal regime that exploits its people in the name of protecting them. A select few live large in this system, while everyone else suffers.

ΔΔΔ

I’m chipping away at my backlog of books that includes Sudden Death, A Gathering of Shadows, and Sugar Street. I am now reading David Epstein’s Range, a book about education, learning, and why we should develop general skills before, and sometimes in lieu of, narrow ones.

The Savage Detectives

And after screwing, mi general liked to go out in the courtyard to smoke a cigarette and think about postcoital sadness, that vexing sadness of the flesh and about all the books he hadn’t read.

I said, boys, I’ve been looking at it for more than forty years and I’ve never understood a goddamn thing.

Sometimes I worry I am not a particularly discerning reader. My concern manifests in two instances: when I learn that my takeaway from a book is radically different from other people, which is usually a product of how I relate or don’t to individual characters, or when I don’t understand a book that I read. The second problem rarely happens, at least on a structural level, and I adore a number of fiendishly complicated novels, including Infinite Jest, but occurs instead when a book embeds itself a world of characters and concepts that are beyond familiarity and it becomes homework to understand the depth of the story, as was the case with Never Any End To Paris.

The Savage Detectives is another such novel.

At its heart, The Savage Detectives is a send-up of avant-garde poetry in mid-1970s Mexico City. Part One, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico,” consists of the diary of Juan García Madero who, in his first year of law school, gets entangled in a movement called “visceral realism,” although he admits that he isn’t “really sure what visceral realism is.” Nevertheless, the leading figures in the movement, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, who had put out two issues a poetry magazine called Lee Harvey Oswald, take a liking to the young man. García Madero effectively quits school in favor of poetry and all of the sex that comes with joining the movement, including with the María Font, the bohemian daughter of one of their biggest supporters and, in their opinion, the best young poet in Mexico. The plot takes a turn for the dark when the visceral realists decide to save a friend of María’s named Lupe from her brutal and violent pimp, Alberto, which culminates in a García Madero, Lima, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima tearing out of Mexico City in a Chevy Impala.

The longest part of the book, “The Savage Detectives,” tracks Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano around the world through interviews with dozens of characters (some familiar, some new) from Mexico City to Venezuela to San Diego to France to Spain to Rome to Israel. Linking these stories are Ulises Lima, Arturo Belano, or the object of their obsession, the foremother of visceral realism, Cesárea Tinajero, though we only ever see one of her poems, which is primarily identifiable as a poem because Cesárea said it was and one character declares “if that woman told me that a piece of her shit wrapped in a shopping bag was a poem I would have believed it.”

This is the section I had the hardest time making sense of, with its kaleidoscope of voices and lack of identified narrator, though my personal theory is that it is actually the novel we see Arturo Belano writing at several points in this section. Running through this section are meditations on art, memory and the transitory nature of human connection.

Finally, The Savage Detectives snaps back to the plot that opens the novel with “The Sonora Desert,” in which the Impala roars away, drawn in search of Cesárea and fleeing Alberto’s wrath.

Parts of The Savage Detectives are grippingly readable and at times laugh out loud funny, particularly with its wild swings between discussion of literature on the one hand and the graphic scenes of their sexual pursuits on the other. The “movement” at the heart of the story is imbued with a youthful pretension, such that its most die-hard followers only grudgingly admit that they also read popular fiction, while many of its practitioners (e.g. Maria Font) are poets themselves, they are as much caught up in the whirlwind for the exhilaration of youth and its orgiastic celebration as for being devotees of poetry.

I rarely read published reviews of the books I write about here, but found myself at a loss when trying to make sense of The Savage Detectives. The universal conclusion is that it is at its heart a sendup of the poetic culture that Bolaño himself participated in in 1970s Mexico City, a fact I was somewhat aware of coming into the book. However, this hyper-specific context and the absence of a clear plot for the longest part of the book left me with the sensation that there was a barrier between me as a reader and the novel. The most ardent fans of this book could abuse me for just not getting it, mimicking the attitudes of its characters, as I saw happen on one discussion board post, but that does the Savage Detectives a disservice. This is a book I am glad to have read, but one with enough meat to warrant discussion that, at least for me, is the only way to penetrate that barrier.

ΔΔΔ

The semester finally came to a close and I have a lot of writing projects that have kept me from posting here with any regularity, but I have been consciously carving out more time to read, plowing through Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadows, Vladimir Sorokin’s The Day of the Oprichnik, Naguib Mahfouz’ Sugar Street, and Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death, all in the last week and a half.

I have thoughts on all of these that I’m hoping to write up posts on most or all of them, as well as returning to using this space for a wider range of topics as they strike me. The last post I started working on here turned into something substantial enough that I wanted to find a more productive venue to publish in, so that one is embargoed, at least for now. Stay tuned!