My Brilliant Friend

At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, [Maestra Oliviero] had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth , those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.

Back in 2017 I made a conscious decision to start reading more books by women, and have been richly rewarded by this choice. At the same time, intimate portraits of female friendship is an entire subcategory of these books that I hesitated to approach. This trepidation is mostly irrational, but stories that are first and foremost about male friendship tend not to be my favorites, either. This was the excuse I had given for putting off reading My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante*. Having finished the book last week, I can now say that waiting was a mistake.

[*Elena Ferrante is a pen-name for an anonymous Italian author. The critical acclaim and HBO show have led to people seeing to uncover her true identity, but she maintains that the authorship is irrelevant to the novel.]

My Brilliant Friend opens with a prologue where the narrator, Elena Greco, receives a phone call from Rino, the son of her childhood friend Lila, announcing that his mother has disappeared. More than that, every trace of Lila has vanished. This shock prompts Elena to trace back the threads of memory to the old neighborhood of her childhood where she can write her friend back into the world.

In those days, Elena Greco lived in a poor part of town, the daughter of a porter at city hall, and shared a grade with Lila, the daughter of the shoemaker. The neighborhood had a hierarchy; Don Achille Carracci is one of the wealthiest men in town, but might as well be an ogre; The Solaras, who own the pastry shop and bar, flaunt their wealth and are rumored to be involved in criminal activities; Donato Sarratore, a railroad conductor and poet, is a notorious Lothario whose liaisons bring tragedy; other people, including Elena’s family, scrape to make ends meet.

School is the great leveler for the children. Much to the shock of her family, Elena excels academically, but not as much as Lila, who is preternaturally brilliant. Unlike Elena, however, Lila chafes at the repressive structure of school so while Elena continues on into middle and then high school, Lila goes to work with the family.

At every turn Lila outstrips Elena––she is a step smarter, braver, more determined, and, eventually, more beautiful––and yet Elena is the brilliantly educated friend. Their relationship evolves, through school, through adolescence, through relationships with boys, and building to a matrimonial climax.

My Brilliant Friend is an intimate portrait of the relationship between Lila and Elena, but it is a masterpiece because of how the two girls develop in their neighborhood. Ferrante breathes life into this poor corner of Naples, slowly awakening Elena to the wider world and imbuing all of the relationships with the depth of live-in experience. The result is that what begins as the light, childlike interpretation of serious issues grows in emotional depth as the novel progresses until the the final paragraphs land like an emotional avalanche. I declared on Twitter that the final two paragraphs are perhaps the most powerful conclusion I have ever read, because amidst a joyous reverie three different emotional arcs simultaneously reach their climactic resolution.

My Brilliant Friend only covers Elena and Lila’s childhood and adolescence, making the novel feel uneven with a frame story that sets up a larger, as of yet incomplete, mystery. Without that frame, the novel is a spectacular novel about a girl’s formative years (Bildingsroman), but with the frame Ferrante invites additional questions about memory, both in the development of relationships and in how adults remember childhood, but I will need to read the rest of the series in order to find these answers. At least My Brilliant Friend has made it clear that the investment will be worth my time.

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My recent schedule has mostly limited my reading time to the weekends, but I started reading Sara Novic’s Girl at War, which examines the trauma of the war in Croatia in 1991.

The Poppy War

About a year ago I started to hear buzz about a new fantasy book in a world modeled on east Asia. I adore Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books and other diverse settings for my fantasy novels, so The Poppy War quickly rose on the list of books I wanted to read. The fact that the author, R.F. Kuang, was a young Chinese-American woman studying modern Chinese history both added to the intrigue, even if it also threw up a caution flag.

The Poppy War opens with the official examination that will determine the future for the test-takers––that is, which academy they can attend. For Rin, a poor war orphan abused by her drug-smuggling adopted parents in the poor, rural, isolated South of the Nikara Empire, it provides one chance: earn the top score and earn admission to Sinegard, the academy for the children of warlords, or resign herself to an unwanted marriage.

Of course, getting into the academy creates new problems. Rin finds her new classmates, and particularly Nezha, insufferably arrogant, while they find her unprepared and uncouth. Most of her teachers don’t have the same concerns, as she shows potential and an flair for rash and risky solutions to impossible situations. Their problems arise in that Rin doesn’t always consider the consequences of her strategies. Nevertheless Strategy master Irjah and the eccentric Lore master Jiang take a particular interest in this impetuous student who, in addition to scoring well relative to her peers, is drawn to reexamining the official story of the destruction of Speer, a tributary of the Nikara, at the end of the last war with Mugen.

Rin thrives, despite the obstacles, but her life is again thrown into disarray when the neighboring nation, the Mugen federation, invades Nikara, determined to finish what they started in the previous war––a war only ended after brutal destruction of Speer and the intervention from distant powers. The trainees are thrown into war before they are ready; Rin is assigned to the shadowy Cike, a secretive force of assassins and shamans, and faces a choice: tap into her latent shamanic powers and destroy the Mugen by striking a deal with the Phoenix god or remain human and allow their crimes to go unpunished, losing all of Nikara, and quite possibly her life, in the process.

The Poppy War is a propulsive grimdark fantasy based on events in Chinese history where bad things happen and there are few good options. For all of the brutality and self-harm that Rin commits, though, its basic plot points, particularly through the first half of the book, follow a traditional wish-fulfillment path. Orphan works hard and turns out to be brilliant, goes to a school where she makes an enemy of one student and one teacher, but is adopted by the school’s eccentric master, who teaches her that she has powers she didn’t know about. Its Chinese setting and female lead are just trappings on this basic structure.

And this is fine. The novel is eminently readable and there are plenty of these stories built around white men, so there is virtue in putting this sort of story in Asian and female clothes. But neither did it make The Poppy War stand out.

What had initially piqued my interest in this story was the promise of Chinese history written. And is it. Chinese history oozes from the pages, starting with the map that posits Nikara (very)roughly the shape of China and Mugen Japan, the attention to bias within the Nikara empire, the primary geopolitical conflict modeled on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) right down to the playing out of the Rape of Nanking, and a sage-strategist whose maxims are literally those of Sun Tzu. After the fact, I saw Kuang say she modeled Rin’s trajectory on that of Mao.

And here’s the thing: I didn’t love it.

The fact that stories were ripped straight from the headlines of history consequences. Kuang fictionalized the names and places, but kept the maxims, plots, and even broad geography, which, in some ways, diminished the world-building because it came across like her contribution was to add a spot of magic and then strip away the complexity and depth of the real world. There were a couple of points where this wasn’t true in ways that hinted her promise, but these were the exception. Either dropping this story as a fictionalized history (think: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) or keeping the plots while doing more to fictionalize and develop the setting would have, in my opinion, mitigated all of these problems.

This is what I meant when I said that Kuang’s youth raised a red flag. Both of these features strike me as common to young authors. The fact that she wrote a propulsive, engaging, and fun novel while tackling an ambitious set of humanistic and moral questions, including radical inequality, is an enormous achievement. I enjoyed The Poppy War, even if I was simultaneously disappointed. While I am not going to hail it as the next great fantasy novel, my main takeaway is that I hope Kuang has a long career and am excited to see what she puts out next.

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I have been on a fantasy kick of late, in large part because I’m too tired to do the heavy lifting of some of the Literature I have on my shelf. I recently finished S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and just began George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood.

Never Any End to Paris

I shall never know why people write and how it is people don’t write.

When an old man fancies he looks like his idol Ernest Hemingway he must attend the Hemingway lookalike contest in Key West, Florida. When a young man idolizes Hemingway, he must go to Paris and learn to write. The narrator of Never Any End to Paris, a stand-in for Enrique Vila-Matas, does both.

Never Any End to Paris, which takes the form of a transcript of lectures delivered at a conference on irony, opens with the narrator’s ill-fated entry into the lookalike contest. The organizers disqualify him on the grounds that he doesn’t look anything like Hemingway. From there the novel unfolds in imitation of Hemingway’s retrospective of years spent in Paris, A Moveable Feast.

As a young man, the narrator moved away from his unhappy home life in Barcelona to be like his hero in Paris. He takes up a garret operated by Marguerite Duras in the hope of receiving words of literary wisdom that will launch his career. This works, but his experience was wildly divergent from Hemingway’s. Both lived in poverty and had a older female mentor amid the constellation of literary lights, but the narrator came to Paris after being a student, rather than having had some lived experience, and instead of working lived on a stipend from his father. Where Hemingway claimed to be poor and happy, the narrator is poor and unhappy. But he learns to write, completing an experimental novel called The Lettered Assassin that kills its reader when they finish the book.

The result is an engaging, ironic, and at times outright funny examination of the process of learning to write. As a piece of intertext, Never Any End to Paris is a brilliant inversion of and commentary on A Moveable Feast that simultaneously lavishes praise on and deconstructs Hemingway’s customary surety.

My sole qualm with Never Any End to Paris is that it is too erudite for me. I loved the intertext with Hemingway and the discussion of writing, but most of the literary references to the people the narrator meets in Paris were new to me. I came away with deep appreciation for for the first two threads of the novel, but the third, a literary portrait of Paris in the 1970s, went over my head.

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I also finished American Prometheus, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, earlier this month, and last night started R.F. Kuang’s fantasy novel The Poppy War, which I’ve been looking forward to reading for about a year. Kuang is a very young author and is working on a graduate degree on modern Chinese history. Both facts clearly inform the book in the early going. I’ve only read the first chapter, which feels a little bit like heroic wish-fulfillment that is common in the fantasy genre, but the setting has me wanting to read on.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.

There are adjustments one must make if one comes here from America; a different way of observing is required. I recall the Americanness of my own gaze when I returned to Lahore that winter when war was in the offing. I was struck at first by how shabby our house appeared, with cracks running through its ceilings and dry bubbles of paint flaking off where dampness had entered its walls…I was saddened to find it in such a state—no, more than saddened, I was shamed. This was where I came from, this was my provenance, and it smacked of my lowliness.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens with the simple question: “excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?” An unnamed, vigilant American is seated against the back wall of a cafe in Lahore when he is approached by the speaker, a bearded Pakistani who offers his assistance. The young man introduces himself as a lover of America and, in a one-sided conversation that lasts long into the night, explains his affinity for America and how he came to be in Lahore.

Changez was once a model immigrant to the United States. Elected from the cream of the international crop of applicants, he graduated at the top of the Princeton class of 2001 and won a job offer from the prestigious Underwood Samson corporate valuation firm. The sign-on bonus from the job allowed Changez to take a trip to Greece with scions of American wealth and fortune, where he meets Erica, a beautiful writer reeling from the death of her childhood love. Naturally, Changez falls for her.

The seeds of their courtship contribute to Changez’ charmed life, but the relationship that sprouts creates the first crack in the facade that will lead him back to Lahore. Memories of her old boyfriend form a labyrinth that Erica cannot escape; as much as she likes Changez and as much as he tries to help her, their relationship is doomed. Her condition deteriorates parallel to his relationship with America.

Then the Twin Towers fall. In an instant, Changez transforms from just another New Yorker to a Pakistani, a potential threat. He remains valued at work, but under a new level of scrutiny from his coworkers. Thoughts of the American war in Afghanistan and fears of a war with India intrude on his working hours, threatening his once-promising career. Now he grows a beard and soon he makes plans to return to Lahore where he becomes a teacher.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist uses a simple story-telling device to juxtapose two young men. The outgoing, talkative Pakistani Changez bears only passing resemblance to the guarded, watchful Changez in America. Mohsin Hamid gives no indication that Changez is an unreliable narrator, so the differences lay in his level of comfort. In Pakistan, Changez cheerfully talks about the women, the market, the waiter, the food, and his past; in the United States, even a successful immigrant is an outsider feeling his way around. At the same time, he is shocked to learn that the years in the United States alienated him from Pakistan when the home he returns to looks grungy and dilapidated to his western eyes.

This fundamental tension is at the heart of the book, with everything else serving to highlight it further. The romantic storyline, for instance, is effective, but feels like an extended metaphor about living in the past and the impossibility of Changez’ American ambitions. (The digital assistant for Bank of America is also named “Erica”.) I felt deep sympathy for Changez, particularly on the issue of feeling out of place, and could relate to the experience of relocating from the superficially new that is identified with America to the lived in that is somewhat worse for wear. In that sense, and not for the first time, I took slight issue with defining “America” synonymous with New York and New Jersey. But neither that complaint nor the somewhat predictable arc of the Lahore storyline detracts from a masterful novel.

In sum, I loved The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamid tackles the experience of disassociation and loss at a lively clip, with a protagonist who bears no visible scars. Exit West, his most recent novel is a bit more sophisticated and less predictable, but The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, deserves every accolade it received.

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I’ve fallen behind again and am giving up on writing about every book. I still plan to write about Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, but am delaying because I intend to watch the film again first. I also finished Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer, which is a perfectly pleasant installment in his Stormlight Archive world, but not something to read on its own. I’m now in the middle of Tana French’s The Broken Harbour, a riveting murder mystery set in Ireland.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Idiot

“But civilization is based on lies.”

The Idiot, 361

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Saw Her That Night

It all stank of slivovitz and death. It was nonsense, that oath, nonsense, as Veronika would have said, she who laughed at our first meeting when I told her why we ride into battle, nonsense to fight against everyone who’s ganged up against us, as well as those who betrayed us. But then fight we did, we killed, and it stank of fear and death.

Everywhere life is resurgent, but I’ve been colonized by death, I’ve seen too many dying people to be able to enjoy this summer as everything starts over against, human death has occupied my thoughts like a gnawing rat

As a woman I know that memories of past love are sometimes more powerful than the chains we bind ourselves with, even if just symbolically and for fun.

In the waning months of World War 2, chaos reigns in Slovenia. Nationalist and communist insurgents hold the forests, the reeling Germans still hold the towns, and normal life is practically impossible. In the confusion, Veronika Zelnik and her wealthy husband disappear, taken from their home one night, never to return. I Saw Her That Night unfolds like a mystery trying to uncover what happened from five distinct viewpoints, linked only by their relationship to her. Each chapter is told by the narrator blending the discomfort of the present with the nostalgia and trauma of the past. The result is a brilliantly realized novel.

The first chapter opens with Stevan Radovanović, a Slovenian soldier turned guerilla whose horseback lessons for Veronika turned into an illicit liaison that saw her run away with him. But their romance was doomed from the start, and the second viewpoint is that of Veronika’s mother, who convinced her to return to her husband. The mother gives way to the German doctor who she writes because he was friendly with Veronika and therefore might know if she survived the war. The doctor gives way to Jaži, the housekeeper, and finally to Jeranek, the Slovenian man who sometimes worked on the estate.

Each person is haunted by memories of Veronika and filled with questions. What happened to her? What could I have done? Did I do the right thing? Was I complicit in her death?

Despite not being a point of view character, I Saw Her That Night is built around the character of Veronika Zelnik. Her narrative arc begins innocently enough, with her husband commissioning a cavalry officer to give her riding lessons while the country was at peace. Around the time she returns to her husband Slovenia is occupied by German forces, and her husband frequently hosts their officers which gives her a chance to show off the fluency in the language and fascination with German culture she acquired while studying in Berlin. Leon Zelnik also gives supplies to the insurgents, but his coziness with the Germans nevertheless breeds resentment among those who have less than he does.

I was occasionally disappointed in the presentation of Veronika, though. In particular, she comes across as a manic pixie dream girl who everyone cannot help but love. She is a strident pacifist who the soldier hates at first encounter, a charming and persuasive hostess, and a caring woman who rescues Jeranek and drives his girlfriend to a doctor, but whose flirty interactions with other men nevertheless stoke the flames of his jealousy. This presentation is made more acute because we are never given Veronika’s side of the story and I was reconciled to it because each narrator gives a slightly different picture of the same woman. It is clear that each character is operating with partial information and they are all frequently mistaken about Veronika’s actions and intentions, with tragic consequences.

I Saw Her That Night, which is primarily set a couple of years before its author Drago Jančar was born, is a deeply moving novel about the memory of national trauma, with Veronika’s disappearance standing in for the larger conflict. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked this one from a list of “best” Eastern European novels, but was richly rewarded with one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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I am now reading William Gibson’s Nebula- and Hugo-winning, classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. So far I’m finding it to be a disorienting read.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Cram them full of noncombustable data, chock them full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.

Once, years ago, I picked up this book, possibly to complete the triptych with 1984 and A Brave New World. I found it painfully dull at the time and never finished, until now. (I only have vague memories of being bored by A Brave New World, too, and should give it a fair shake outside of English class.)

Fahrenheit 451 is fundamentally the story of Guy Montag. Guy’s profession is “fireman”, his job is to burn contraband books, to prevent the spread of illicit knowledge. Houses these days are fireproof, but books still burn, so the firemen simply turn on their kerosene-spewing hoses. “It was a pleasure to burn,” Guy thinks in the opening line.

But Guy has a crisis of faith that is prompted by two events. First, Guy meets his neighbor Clarisse on the way home from work. Clarisse, he thinks, is a little bit strange, and so is her family. She walks places, for instance, and looks at the stars and the moon, and her family sits on their porch and talks to one another, rather than surrounding themselves with the usual immersive video screens. Clarisse asks questions that make him think. Questions like “are you happy?”

The second strikes to the heart of things, when Guy discovers one night that his wife Mildred has gone through her usual routine of putting on her seashells (headphones), but also consumed an entire bottle of sleeping pills, forcing him to call for medical aid to revive her. Instead of doctors, he gets technicians, who revive Mildred, but also callously dismiss it as a plumbing problem. When she wakes, Mildred has no memory of what happened and returns to her stories.

These two things cause Guy to reevaluate life and start to ask questions about the books he is sworn to burn. His crisis is kicked into overdrive when a woman decides that she is going to burn with her books. Despite the best efforts of Captain Beatty to rein in his man and Mildred’s horror at the changes in her husband, Guy becomes a pariah, an unlikely devotee of the written word and slips into a conspiracy to revive book culture.

While Fahrenheit 451 didn’t stand out as one of my favorite books, there was a lot I liked about the world Bradbury dreamed up for it. This is a world where people are surrounded by screens, but instead of the screens watching you or being watched, they become an immersive experience to make the viewer feel like part of the action. At the same time, Mildred seems to represent a facet of the existential emptiness that this “engagement” creates, particularly when juxtaposed with Clarisse’s habit of looking at the stars and talking with people in person. (I also appreciated that while Mildred and Clarisse represent a binary, almost allegorical choice between civilization and nature, Clarisse was never an object of sexual interest.) There was also a fascinating moment near the end of the book when Bradbury (perhaps unintentionally) opened the door to the return to an oral culture. Memorization of individual texts was offered as a way to legally preserve knowledge, with the idea that each person has a text that they could then pass down to another generation until such time that books were legal again. But any student of oral tradition could tell you that there is a tension between the amazing longevity of oral knowledge and the fact that it is not a static text the way that a book is. So my question is what do these texts look like in multiple generations?

Perhaps I’m just being contrary, but I did have a beef, not with the book, but with the marketing. The key conceit in Fahrenheit 451 is that people need to be sedated, calmed by unimpeachable facts and seduced by immersive stories. There is a war about to happen, so perhaps there is a government mandate on these policies, but it comes across as self-policing since it is a book about the people who burn books and the people who snitch on those who read books. Any totalitarian apparatus is largely invisible. Moreover, we are told that the problem with books is that they make people melancholic, confused and troubled by the contradictory ideas. Is this censorship? Maybe, but I think there is a difference between cutting a single book or parts of a book for expressing ideas deemed inappropriate, and burning all books for having ideas, while filling minds with advertisements, immersive soap operas, and anodyne facts that are the facsimile of thinking.

In sum, I liked Fahrenheit 451 and understand what makes it a classic, but it spoke to me less as a broad critique of society and more as a critique of its time of which there are still resonances.

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Things are starting to pick up since the semester starts next week and job ads starting to come out, but I am determined to keep reading. Right now, I am in the middle of Charles Mann’s 1491, the companion to 1493.

Five Short Reviews

I’ve been struggling to find words to write about books I’ve read recently, for a variety of reasons. It has turned into a very busy summer teaching, preparing to teach, and writing my own (non-fiction) book, and the result has been that I just want to retreat into whatever book I’m reading in the little downtime I get. I am still reading and want to say something about these books, so I’ve decided to clear out some of my backlog with five short reviews of fewer than 100 words each. Some of these are deserving of more, but this is about catching up and I liked each of these books, so brevity should not be taken as an indictment.

The Company She Kept — Archer Mayer

Joe Gunther is a Vermont detective of the old type. Gunther’s depth comes because the novels have charted the lives of him and his team for three decades. In this 2015 installment, Gunther’s team is brought on to solve the murder of Susan Raffner, a state senator found hanging from a cliff, “DYKE” carved into her chest. The deceased is a confidant of Gail Zigman, the governor and Joe’s ex-girlfriend. This is a lesser novel in the series, being much more interested in debates about sexuality than in the team and building to an anti-climactic reveal. Adequate, but unspectacular.

Assassin’s Quest — Robin Hobb

The culmination to the trilogy that began with Assassin’s Apprentice. King Regal has abandoned much of Buck kingdom to the raiders and withdrawn inland to his mother’s home, surrounding himself with sycophants and violent criminals. Fitz, who most believe dead, must set off into the mountains to find Valiant—the rightful king—before it is too late. Hobb sticks the landing for this set of novels, carrying through a fantasy series driven by emotional stakes and putting Fitz through the emotional ringer by forcing him to give up his youthful fantasies in the process of becoming an adult.

Nazi Literature in the Americas — Roberto Bolaño

Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers come in all shapes, and not all wear a sign of their affiliation. This idiosyncratic books is a fictional encyclopedia of Nazi authors in the Western Hemisphere from the early twentieth century through first quarter (or so) of the twenty-first. The format does not lend itself to plot and many of the characters are presented in a flat, clinical manner, but their stories are nevertheless told with a degree of dark, dry humor. The horror, by contrast, comes from their normalcy. Probably not the Bolaño book to start with, but I’m looking forward to reading another.

The Vegetarian — Han Kang

Yeong-hye is normal enough before a singular act of defiance, the decision to become a vegetarian, changes everything. Told in three acts through the eyes of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister, The Vegetarian is about one woman’s attempt to reclaim her body by controlling what goes into it. The three external narrators give this book a surreal and horrifying aspect since everyone else sees her as an insensate lunatic to correct or exploit, but utterly irrational, while, in return, she is totally removed from the ways in which her choice—and it is her choice—has consequences for her family.

Visitations — Jenny Erpenbeck

Lingering at a property on Brandenburg Lake near Berlin, this novel is woven from the lives of the inhabitants that lived there in the twentieth century, even if fleetingly. Between each episode, the gardener trims and maintains. Erpenbeck’s ethereal prose, even in translation, gives the sense that the characters are ghosts brought back to share their experiences. Each episode is linked by the connection to this place, and I found them variously affecting on their own right, with the story of a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis particularly powerful.

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Since resolving to do this, I have also finished reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and am now taking a second crack at Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book that I gave up on once before.

The Mersault Investigation – Kamel Daoud

The central event in Albert Camus’ The Stranger is Mersault’s cold-blooded murder of an unnamed Arab in the 2 o’clock hour on the beach. The murder leads to his trial and execution—albeit more for his failure to weep for the death of his mother than for the actual act. The Arab, we are told, is the brother to a Frenchman’s mistress, but otherwise remains utterly unknown. Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation breathes life into this space.

The story unfolds as told some seventy later by Harun, the nameless Arab’s younger brother in a series of conversations with a student who has come to Algeria to learn the truth behind The Stranger.

Harun reflects on the irony of how his brother is erased in Camus’ text, making him simultaneously famous and unknown. In telling the story about his life after the death of his brother, Harun realizes that he is the Algerian mirror-image of Mersault. He kills a Frenchman for more reasons than Mersault has in killing his brother, but where Mersault is sentenced to death, Harun is dismissed without trial, perhaps because his mother yet lives. He has a failed relationship with an urban woman and where Mersault dies shunned by crowds, Harun lives with an audience of one, if he is to be believed.

The result is a brilliant post-colonial response to the The Stranger. Daoud takes what is effectively a philosophical story about the absurd that focuses on colonizer and turns it on its head. He condemns the original book for its solipsistic gaze on the colonial establishment that eliminates the colonized—up to and including the way in which is labels Algerians “Arabs”, but develops many of the same themes of absurdity and isolation equally to the colonial experience. For instance, Harun tells how his interpretation of religion has left him unusual among his countrymen after the revolution. The Mersault Investigation largely avoids the political and historical consequences of colonialism, but instead uses its intertextuality as a lens through which to explore issues of identity and colonial narratives, including the absurdity irony that this story is prompted by an unnamed, probably French, student setting out to learn the truth of this famous book.

I really loved The Mersault Investigation and think that it lives up to the accolades it received, but feel compelled to add that this is best read in conjunction with The Stranger since its strength derives from the resonances and dissonances with the earlier book.

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I just finished reading Han Kang’s rather horrifying novel The Vegetarian, which is fundamentally about the abuse of a woman’s body by all of the people in her life.