I am a Bad Jew by many people’s standards. Other people would deny me even that, since I never had a bar mitzvah and have never belonged to a synagogue. I am only very slowly learning Hebrew. I’m mostly committed to holidays for the food and a loose sense of seasonality. This year for Chanukah I said a blessing lighting candles but decided that I didn’t want to say the others. In recent years I’ve found myself feeling a stronger pull toward my ancestry within the Eastern European Yiddish community than the Hebraic Zionism that I find problematic for its assimilationist obliteration of specific Jewish heritage before considering the actions of the state of Israel.
It was with this background that I read Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews: A history of American Jewish Politics and Identities. For a history of Jewish people in the United States, the plural in “identities” is important, according to Emily Tamkin. Essential, in fact, because there has been a multiplicity of ways to be Jewish, so too is there a multiplicity of ways to be “Bad Jews,” in any number of respects deficient. Narratives and counter-narratives. Tamkin even includes in her introduction like the one I wrote above to explain how she might just be too bad a Jew to author this book, but perhaps that is just the point.
Bad Jews, which blends history, more than 150 interviews, and a streak of memoir, unfolds in chronologically, with each chapter constructed around two interlocking themes: what might prompt some Jews to characterize others as “Bad Jews” and how Jews fit into the broader patterns of American culture.
American Jewish history is a history, or a set of histories, of immigration and the subsequent oscillation between accepting and resisting acculturation.
While it is common to speak of Jews as a cohesive group, Tamkin invites readers to think otherwise down to the most fundamental levels. Ashkenazim from the Germany and Eastern Europe form the dominant image of what a Jewish person looks like in the United States (and have formed the majority of the population since 1730), but Tamkin notes that the earliest Jews to arrive here were Sephardim who arrived by way of the Iberian peninsula and, thus, early Synagogues followed Sephardic practices. This early arrival also inevitably entangled the Jewish community with slavery, both in terms of employing enslaved labor to construct their places of worship and owning enslaved people. She points out that the first Jewish person to hold a cabinet position was Judah P. Benjamin, a wealthy slave owner who became secretary of state of the Confederate States of America.
Tamkin weaves this same thread back in during the Civil Rights Movement when, in 1965, famously, the Jewish rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Many Jews are rightfully proud of this heritage and Tamkin cites polling form the 1950s that suggests that most Jews considered commitment to civil rights more essential for being a “Good Jew” than support for Israel. And yet, as a number of recent comments from Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, and other prominent African Americans indicate, there is also a longstanding frustration with, if not hostility in, this relationship. Tamkin builds from an analysis of James Baldwin’s essay “Negroes Are Antisemitic Because They Are Anti-White,” to identify the disconnect in that while Jewish allies of the movement emphasize the similarities in their place in American society, African Americans chaffed at the differences in lived experience when most Jews received the privileges of being white. In other words, it isn’t that Jews are not marginalized in essential ways in American society, but they also get to be the landlords.
In turn, this point again reinforces the tensions within the American Jewish community when it comes to Jews of color.
[Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Jews who participated in the civil rights movement are] American Jewish history, but…only a part of it. In the contemporary context, that means grappling with all of American Jewish history and with the various stances American Jews have chosen to take with respect to white supremacy. It also means that those who say that Jews aren’t white only to turn around and malign Jews who do not look white as not really being Jewish are only fooling themselves.
Race is a construct, but it is a construct with lived implications. And there are, in the United States, Jews who go through life as white. This is the majority of American Jews. If they—we—do not wish to be considered as complicit in white supremacy, a good place to start would be by not insisting that we’re more Jewish than Jews of color.
The issue of race stood out because of the current state of discourse in the United States and other books I have read in the past few years like Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene and Koshersoul, both of which address the intersection of his race and his Judaism, but it is only one example of the questions at the heart of Bad Jews. There is no one way to be a “Good Jew,” in Tamkin’s thesis, and thus there is a multiplicity of ways to be a “Bad Jew.” Moreover, these are contested definitions perpetually undergoing regeneration.
In many respects, the story that Tamkin tells about Jews parallels the evolution of the United States more broadly, and it is important to recognize those connections. However, “Jews” make for a compelling subject for thinking about the United States as a pluralistic polity because of the way that both mainstream Christian Americans and parts of the Jewish community have tried to articulate Jews as an eternal other, separate from and incompatible with the rest of the citizen body.
Bad Jews is not a book one can turn to for answers. That very idea is antithetical even to Tamkin’s project. Rather, this is a book that is designed to think with. I came into it with a strong sense of certain schisms within the broad Jewish community, but I quickly discovered that I had underestimated how deep and multifaceted these divisions were.
This is the second in a backlog of books I read months ago that I still want to write about. Since I am currently re-reading several novels that I’m teaching with this semester, I might even “catch up” before the semester overtakes me too much.
“But how does this happen?” he continued. “How does all the power from foreign languages just somehow accrue to England? This is no accident; this is a deliberate exploitation of foreign cultures and foreign resources. The professors like to pretend that the tower is a refuge for pure knowledge, that it sits above the mundane concerns of business and commerce, but it does not. It’s intricately tied to the business of colonialism. It is the business of colonialism.”
“Pamphlets. They’d thought they could win this with pamphlets.
He almost laughed at the absurdity. Power did not lie in the tip of a pen. Power did not work against its own interests. Power could only be brought to heel by acts of defiance it could not ignore. With brute, unflinching force. With violence.”
I didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s debut novel The Poppy War as much as most people I know. I wrote back in 2019 about how her voice and literary styling impressed me at the same time as I found myself frustrated by how much of the plot was taken directly from the headlines of the history of east Asia in the 19th and 20th century, which meant that I didn’t bother reading either of the sequels. However, I also speculated that the book would have been stronger had she abandoned the fictional world for the real one and expressed my interest in what Kuang put out subsequently.
Kuang did exactly what I had hoped for in her latest novel, Babel, or the necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution. The result was not only a brilliant fantasy novel, but also perhaps my favorite campus novel.
Babel is principally the story of Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton whose mother died in a Cholera epidemic in 1829 who comes into the care of Professor Richard Lovell, who whisks him off to England. Lovell rears Robin in his household for years, drilling him in Latin, Greek, and Chinese with the sole ambition of gaining him admission to the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, colloquially known as Babel, where Lovell is a professor.
This institute, which is housed in a tower at Oxford, is the radiant hub of Britain’s colonial empire. Scholars working at Babel discovered the latent power in the slippage in translation that they can inscribe onto bars of silver. With the right semantic links, British silver can do anything from create swift-moving transit to reinforce buildings to power weapons of war. They only require a steady supply of silver and a roster of fluent linguists.
“Professor Playfair put the bar down. ‘So there it is. It’s all quite easy once you’ve grasped the basic principle. We capture what is lost in translation—for there is always something lost in translation—and the bar manifests it into being. Simple enough?’
Upon making his way to Oxford, Robin joins the three other students who have been selected for admission to Babel, Ramiz Rafi Mirza (Ramy) from Calcutta, Victoire Desgraves from Haiti, and Letitia Price (Letty), a white woman whose father was an admiral in the British navy. The quartet settles into a routine, supporting one another during the grinding years of coursework. During this period, all four suffer what we might term micro-aggressions even though their affiliation with Babel insulates them from the worst effects of racism and sexism. However, it is also in this period when Robin meets Griffin, Professor Lovell’s previous ward and likely Robin’s half brother. A former student at Babel himself, Griffin introduces Robin to the Hermes Society, a secretive association of people dedicated to resisting Babel’s power. Before long it becomes clear that there is only one path forward: Robin and his friends must seize Babel and thus the means of magic production.
Babel is a fictional history, and Kuang notes in her author’s note that she moved certain chronological details to meet narrative needs, but it is also set against very real historical events and phenomena. The British Empire is a given, and the climactic events appear against a backdrop of the Opium Wars, but Kuang also introduces historical personages and linguistic texts omitted from most textbooks, which gives the setting the texture of reality.
At the same time, Kuang uses this story to address the very nature of the academy, without resorting either to the secretive cultishness of The Secret History or the (in my opinion) mean-spirited satire of Lucky Jim. Rather, the pages of Babel are filled with the characters immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time in college. Lovell’s stern and reclusive scholar who wants to be engaged with the grand affairs of the day is one archetype, but so too is the female scholar who has to work twice as hard to receive the same recognition and junior researchers who sympathize with radical social movements but also have to keep their heads down to receive promotion. I laughed aloud at a scene where the energetic senior professor who puts on a show in lectures and arranges the security measures at the tower that can kill or maim expresses his outrage that they can no longer reveal exam results with a ritual where students attempt to enter the tower: those who fail trigger the tower defenses. This sort of erudite bonhomie in class juxtaposed with a cruelty around exams and “qualifications” is altogether too common. Thus, with Babel, Kuang offers an incisive portrait of an institution that claims to be a progressive meritocracy while perpetuating a structure that is fundamentally conservative.
Then an interlude chapter told from Letty’s point of view opens with this sentence:
Letitia Price was not a wicked person.
The chapter goes on to dissect all of the problems with white feminism in just a few pages.
Put simply, Babel is a triumph, blending a clever magic system with a specific time and place, and themes that allow Kuang to speak to the present moment.
This is the first of several posts on that I read in late 2022 when I became chaotically busy (I finished Babel in October). I read a bunch of good books in the intervening period, so my goal over the next few weeks is to get caught up.
Disclosure: Dr. Ellis-Gorman ran a Twitter giveaway for this book. After I won the drawing I told him that I would post a review of the book to my blog.
One of my favorite computer games as a teenager was Age of Empire II. The civilization I played most frequently were the Britons, whose unique unit, the longbowman, I used en masse to devastating effect. I gravitate to the Britons in this and other games principally because the strengths that the game designers give to these units fit my play-style that tends to be quite deliberate, but the reasons for my particular fascination with the longbow and its practitioners were myriad and various.
In part, the longbow had literally become a fixture in folklore. I was, and remain, fascinated by Robin Hood even though the purported chronology of Robin Hood and his trusty bow is ahistorical (royal mandates that are sometimes discussed with this weapon date to the fourteenth century, more than a century after Richard I died). Despite some modern iterations of the story where Robin Hood adopts smaller recurve bows modeled on those he saw on crusade, the longbow nevertheless remains firmly entrenched in this story.
But my interest in those parts of the national folklore coincided with a period in my life when I was fascinated by the battlefield aspect of military history (as opposed to questions of logistics and messaging that I am more drawn to these days). In this context, it was only natural that I be drawn the pitched battles of The Hundred Year’s Wars like Crécy and Agincourt where, the story goes, the English longbowmen triumphed over the knights and hired crossbows of the French. These battles became an essential component of the British national narrative and thus the supremacy of the longbow over the crossbow became almost a shibboleth, at least in the anglophone understanding of the Middle Ages.
It was thus with great interest that I read Stuart Ellis-Gorman’s The Medieval Crossbow. This book, a revision of Ellis-Gorman’s PhD dissertation, is an up-to-date history of the crossbow that aptly explores the ubiquity of the weapon.
The Medieval Crossbow is divided into two broad sections.
The first part of the book is a technical dossier that offers a clear discussion of the different pieces that made this weapon function. While a crossbow is a crossbow, Gorman points out some of the subtle innovations in trigger mechanisms that would release the “rolling nut” and fire the bolt (15–16). While such details might seem like mundane concerns, they also allow Ellis-Gorman to touch elsewhere on the possibility that the European crossbow was not explicitly related to the much earlier Chinese one that used an entirely different trigger mechanism (72–73). This dossier also examines reloading systems (spanning devices) from the stirrup attached to the stock that allow an archer to use his leg muscles in spanning the bow (17–18) to the cranequin gearbox that winches a the string back (18–20)–and more.
The initial discussion of the parts of the crossbow then transitions into an evaluation of the wide range of different crossbows that existed. In short, while all crossbows shared certain characteristics, there wasn’t just one crossbow. In fact, Ellis-Gorman includes in this discussion the short-lived phenomenon of the “gun crossbow” that was a hybrid weapon that was simultaneously a wheel-lock musket and a crossbow (45–46).
This section concludes with a discussion of the different technical and, at times, fanciful, representations of the crossbow that appeared in contemporary art.
The second part of the book offers a chronological account of the medieval crossbow. As is often true in books of this sort, this history has little narrative to it. Instead, Ellis-Gorman leads the reader through a series of events in which the crossbow appeared in order to both demonstrate the how the bow and its use evolved over the course of the Middle Ages and to reevaluate a series of battles in which the crossbow featured. These episodes usually address two related issues: the ambiguity of the sources and the strategic and technical consideration of the crossbow in the event.
Take Crécy, about which Ellis-Gorman says that it would be “impossible to write a history of the crossbow without” (108). After all, this was the battle most conceived of as a showdown between the longbow wielding yeoman archer and the Genoese crossbowman. Ellis-Gorman works through the battle from the technical perspective of the two bows and concludes that the popular narratives about the superiority of one over the other are misplaced when the performance of the crossbowmen can be better explained by the failures of leadership, and points out in the process that even the English went on to employ Genoese crossbowmen in the years after the battle.
More than anything, this reevaluation demonstrates the ubiquity of the crossbow in this period. The bow was an integral and effective weapon of Medieval warfare, and I particularly liked how Ellis-Gorman’s treatment allowed for fuzziness both in when the weapon came into existence and in how it transitioned from primarily a weapon of war to primarily a weapon of sport in the later middle ages.
In fact, my least favorite part of the book had nothing to do with the arguments put forward. Ellis-Gorman opens every chapter with an anecdotal story related to the crossbow. For instance, the introduction opens with a narration of the death of King Richard I of England, who died after taking a crossbow bolt outside Château de Châlus-Chabrol in 1199. As a writer, I understood the impulse. The stories offered him an easy hook for that section while also allowing him to tell more crossbow stories that he came across while conducting research. However, this was also one place where I detected some unevenness in the transition from the extremely narrow audience of the dissertation and a wider audience of a monograph. Basically, outside of a loose chronological fit, I did not always see the relevance of the chosen story to the argument of the chapter. That said, this is a minor complaint: it was not that these sections detracted from the value of this book so much as I sometimes found them distracting while I tried to fit the pieces together.
All told, The Medieval Crossbow is a compelling book. I am neither a medievalist nor a military historian, but I nevertheless gained a new appreciation for this particular piece of technology.
A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of a novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.
Over the past few years I have found myself increasingly interested in reading memoirs. The problem is that memoir is a genre for which I have no great love. One of my favorite things to do to unwind is peruse lists of upcoming or classic novels and flag anything that looks interesting, but when I read lists of iconic memoirs the descriptions leave me utterly uninterested in reading on. What usually makes the difference for me is hearing the author talk about the genesis of the memoir, as happened with Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found. In the case of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books, my entry point was simpler: my partner had just finished the book and told me that that I might find it interesting. A blend of literature, the Iranian revolution, and teaching? Sure, sign me up.
Reading Lolita in Tehran spans the period between the early years of the Islamic Republic after the Revolution in 1979 when Azar Nafisi returned to the Iran and when she left with her family in 1997. Between these two chronological tentpoles, the discussion unfolds in a non-linear fashion. Each of the four sections of the books uses a different English-language author or book as its central focus. The first section, “Lolita” centers on an off-the-books class of young women who met at Nafisi’s home on Thursday mornings after she resigned from the her teaching post in Iran. The second, “Gatsby” takes as its central thread a class that read Fitzgerald’s novel in an Iranian University during the Revolution. The third, “James,” follows the events of “Gatsby” during the Iran-Iraq War, at a time when Nafisi had been expelled from her teaching position. The fourth and final section, “Austen,” follows from “Lolita” and focuses on the decision to leave Iran.
There was a lot I loved about this book. In part, Nafisi has a gift for spinning an elegant and considered phrase:
We complemented each other, because you my knowledge was impulsive and untidy, and hers meticulous and absolute.
Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.
But I also found the book profoundly moving as a teacher for two reasons.
The first is a function of teaching literature and its possibilities. For as much as I love literature, my entire experience in English classes past high school was most of a semester my senior year of college during which I sat in on a Western Canon class. Everything else I know about literature has been picked up through the lens of Classics or found in tidbits here and there along the way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, when I teach literature I end up teaching it as a historian, rather than as a literary scholar. The discussion found in Reading Lolita is obviously a curated account of classroom activities, but I was inspired by the way that she talks about the discussions and am hoping to steal bits and pieces for a class I might be teaching soon that puts literature front and center. Some of the technical details of these classes might not pass muster with accreditation boards these days, but those observations were compelling in their own way.
(I suspect that my own unfamiliarity with some of the books she discusses caused me to miss some of the thematic resonances that she weaves into the memoir, but this was not something that troubled me over-much.)
The second appealed to me as a teacher and a historian. This period of Nafisi’s career centers on her time teaching English and American literature in Iran concurrently with the revolution that led to students marching through the streets chanting “Death to America.” For as much as I found myself fretting this summer about how I’ll approach certain topics in the classroom and people are justifiably concerned about coordinated attacks on teachers, I can only imagine trying to teach under circumstances where a) your students are divided into openly hostile factions; b) some students often vanish from class to participate in anti-American rallies; c) other students vanish because they’ve been arrested; and d) the state is aggressively attempting to institute an authoritarian fantasy. However, this was also a potent reminder about how teaching—and living—conditions can deteriorate over the course of just a few years.
Many passages in Reading Lolita in Tehran were also remarkable for their mundane observations about the messiness of everyday life:
In retrospect, when historical events are fathered up, analyzed and categorized into articles and books, their messiness disappears and they gain a certain logic and clarity that one never feels at the time. For me, as for millions of ordinary Iranians, the war came out of nowhere one mild fall morning: unexpected, unwelcome and utterly senseless.
My reading of this memoir was also timely in that it coincided with the current outpouring of protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who had been detained by the morality police. Every time something like this happens, the coverage invariably asks whether this is the time that popular pressure will topple the oppressive regime—as though there is a switch that gets flipped. I found Reading Lolitain Tehran a useful reminder both that individual people are participants in events and about the messiness of any transition. I like to tell my students that while we can often understand history through the institutions and social structures, nothing is necessarily inevitable. We can create a better world by working toward it. The reason why literature is a threat to any totalitarian fantasy is that it has the power to unlock something that allows people to imagine a world beyond its confines.
Since my last book post I have mostly been struggling against the current of the semester with the result that my reading has slowed to a crawl. I finished Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, a fantasy novel in a world inspired by Mesoamerica that I found equal parts compelling and bafflingly-paced, and Saara el-Arifi’s The Final Strife, an African-inspired fantasy that played with issues of caste and race in a way that I really enjoyed. I am currently reading Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, which I don’t like nearly as much as I think a lot of people do and Ken Liu’s story collection The Paper Menagerie and other stories. This is a lot of fantasy, even by my standards, but I’m also preparing to teach a class in the spring on speculative fiction, so this is now a professional obligation as well as a private interest.
“I was enraged by the weight of the outmoded commands of our ancient heroes, but now I miss the comfort of their words of wisdom and tales of courage. Try as I might, I cannot cast off the pull of our collective memory. Mere survival isn’t enough. A people cannot be a people if they don’t know where they come from, if they can’t fear and trust the gods of their parents, if they’ve been cut off from the stories of their past.”
“Honor, pride, the commands of our ancestors–these are not unalterable laws of nature we must submit to. History is like the string of kite. It tethers us to the ground, but it is also what allows us to fly.”
“There are no whole stories, only fragments that suit the purpose of the moment,” said Jia.
Earlier this summer I finished reading what I believe to be one of the best—and most under-appreciated—fantasy series of recent vintage.
(There are genre issues with this declaration. I have been more impressed recently by science fiction than fantasy, and Liu’s infusion of a steampunk ethos might call into question the fantastical of these books. However, I have interpreted this series as epic fantasy if the genre’s story structure developed out of Medieval Chinese literature like Romance of the Three Kingdoms rather than out of European literature like the Arthur stories, so fantasy it is. For what it’s worth, Liu himself credits stories like Beowulf as inspiration and rejects sweeping generalizations about genre, while acknowledging that The Grace of Kings is based on the historical period about the rise of the Han Dynasty.)
The series opened in The Grace of Kings, introducing the land of Dara where the emperor Mapidere of Xana had conquered the six separate Tiro kingdoms only to be overthrown by the unstoppable warrior Mata Xyndu and the clever thief Kuni Garu. Their victory is short-lived and they are plunged again into war until Kuni Garu emerges victorious. However, this grand drama proves to be the prologue to another, more existential conflict.
The Wall of Storms, the second book in the series, is named after a meteorological curiosity—a literal wall of storms that surrounds Dara. However, in the time of Mapidere, scholars divined that the wall opens at predictable intervals and thus the emperor of Dara dispatched monumental city ships (modeled on the Treasure Ships of Zhang He’s fleets) through the wall in order to conquer the land of Ukyu and Gonde. The people of this land, including both the dominant Lyucu and the now-subservient Agon, are nomadic herders who live by training and riding enormous, fire-breathing, flying herbivores called garinafins. The result is a complete clash of cultures that allowed the Lyucu under the leadership of Pekyu Tenryu to defeat the invaders and claim the City Ships for an invasion of Dara that reaches a climax in the Battle of Zathin Gulf where Kuni Garu defeated the invaders at the cost of his own life. Nevertheless, the Lyucu continue to hold the islands of Dara and Rui under the leadership of Tenryu’s daughter Tanvanaki and her consort, Kuni Garu’s son Prince Timu, while the Princess Thera, Kuni’s second heir, married Takval, an Agon, and set off through the wall of storms in order to cut off Lyucu reinforcements before they could set out.
Such is the situation when The Veiled Throne, the direct predecessor of The Speaking Bones opens. Although these two books were published separately, Liu has said that he intended them to be read together as the final installment of the series, and it is easy to see why. Where each of the previous two novels had in one way or another overturned expectations, Speaking Bones picks up where The Veiled Throne leaves off in terms of plot threads and themes.
The conclusion of this sage unfolds along five interlocking story-lines: three in Dara, two in Ukyu-Gonde. Any attempt to summarize these five threads would be inadequate without the context of the rest of the series, so I won’t even try. The plots are in much the same vein as the earlier books: clever inventions, deep moral debates, and political machinations, all interspersed with moments of whimsy.
Instead, I wanted to highlight what I see as one of the strengths of the series. Liu’s characters usually have a clear sense of purpose. This is not to say that they always know what to do. Often, they do not. Nor is that purpose always honorable. Rather, without turning each character into a caricature, Liu draws each one in sharp lines that make the different collisions work in interesting ways. Sometimes this looks like a staunch advocate for genocide colliding with a ruthless warrior who believes that those actions are anathema to their way of life. Other times it looks like a greedy and selfish pirate getting his comeuppance. Still others, it is the child of the Lyucu finding a home in a monastery dedicated to repairing the harm made in the world.
But this feature can be seen most clearly in a central political conflict.
Empress Jia, Kuni Garu’s wife and mother of two emperors who handed off the throne in service of their people, is a renowned herbalist and cunning political strategist who favors an incrementalist approach. She carefully cultivates plans to destroy the Lyucu utterly, but those plans are indistinguishable from appeasement. Likewise, her political decisions that reject militarism seem designed to keep power in her own hands.
Facing her is the young idealist Emperor Phyro (the son of Risana, another of Kuni Garu’s wives). Phyro chafes at any delay and yearns for quick and decisive action that will liberate unredeemed Dara. Jia believes that Phyro may make a good emperor, but not yet and not if he falls prey to the dangers of violence.
What makes this conflict interesting and, at times, completely tragic, is that both, ultimately, are working toward the same end. In a recent Reddit AMA, Liu noted that: “[Phyro’s] the sort of boss I’d love to work for, a charismatic leader who really believed in the cause and wouldn’t ask his followers to make a sacrifice he himself wasn’t prepared to make.” He’s also more mature than Jia realizes. By contrast, Jia is an extremely competent leader for Dara, but she’s also someone with a significant amount of blood on her hands. She can speak in terms of ideals, but only if you look at the big picture.
The central theme of this debate is the term mutagé, which the glossary defines as “a dedication to the welfare of thee people as a whole, one that transcends self-interest or concern for family and clan.” Jia and multiple other characters invoke this ideal repeatedly, with Jia defiantly claiming that she regrets nothing despite the costs. She brilliantly helps lay the groundwork for a sustainable system (in the same AMA, Liu admits that he set out to write the origin of the Han Dynasty in a fantasy series and ended up writing a story about America), but neither is she the only person practicing mutegé, and her answers are not necessarily right. Just as it is inadequate to simply expect everyone to “do good,” it is also insufficient to expect one person to have all the answers.
Ending epic series is hard—the reasons vary by series, but in thinking about this I’m reminded of other authors who bogged down as they closed on an end—but Liu lands this one. From the very first installment this series was measured in decades, so it is only natural that the ending does the same. Likewise, the same writing style that allowed him to tackle so many other contemporary issues allows a transition to themes of legacy, history, and change that fits within the existing structure without coming across as preachy. As an ancient historian, I was particularly struck by one exchange about anxieties about whether or not the classics can change:
“The classics will be fine,” he said. “They have always adapted to changing readers. The Morality that Kon Fiji wrote and that Poti Maji glossed was not the same text that Master Zato Ruthi tried to teach me and that my father so gleefully reinterpreted. The logograms may remain the same, but the context is constantly shifting. If they continue to be meaningful to us, it’s because we have, without recognizing, translated them.”
“What?” Zen Kara looked at him as though he were mad.
“I believe the classics have survived because they are self-modernizing, self-translating. The ephemeral and the fashionable are washed away by the relentless pounding of time’s tides. Only hard shoals of deep wisdom could withstand the cycles–not because they’re unchanging, but because they are without vanity, without affectation, without pretension, humble enough to embrace new interpretations without yielding their essential nature. New readers are like the hermit crabs, sea urchins, anemones, snails, and seaweeds that colonize a tidal pool–only by first filling the bare rock of the classics with the colors of their own experience could the endless forms of meaning in the grandness of Life then blossom in the interaction of reader and text. The classics are always-already in translation.”
In short, this is a brilliant series that is by turns beautiful, clever, profound and filled with adventure. Liu created a rich and vibrant world that speaks to the present moment in the best ways even while exploring how such a world came about. These are long books, but they’re worth every page.
The combination of unexpected work and a writing funk from earlier this summer conspired to keep me from writing about books in the past few months. Since my last post on The Immortal King Rao, I have finished reading twelve books in addition to Speaking Bones. Four were non-fiction: Melissa Aronczyk’s Branding the Nation, Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, Michael Twitty’s Koshersoul, and Kelly Baker’s The Gospel According the Klan. Two were installments of the excellent graphic novel Saga. The two pieces of literary fiction I read in this period were James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is a beautiful piece of writing but one in which the story didn’t land with me the way some of his other pieces do, and Jen Egan’s The Candy House, which is yet another novel about a dystopian world created by social media. The Candy House had its moments and a nice literary trick of leading the reader from one point of view to the next through these oblique connections, but I didn’t understand the buzz around this book. Maybe I’m just too much of a rube to appreciate Literature. I also read the second book in Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series, Dead Lions, and once more thought that he writes a cracking spy thriller and I can’t see anyone else but Gary Oldman as the central character. Then there was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, which is a nice twist on a pretty formulaic gods-meet-humans story. Rounding out this list is the final trilogy in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series. I am now reading Saara El-Arifi’s The Final Strife.
Social media is a topic ripe for storytelling, and anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on a site like Twitter can understand why they often contain at least an undercurrent dystopia even when that is not precisely the genre the author is working in. I have generally enjoyed the novels I have read in this space, including The Start-up Wife and Fake Accounts, both of which came out last year, but I found neither one of them as strong as The Immortal King Rao. Perhaps because Vahini Vara steers harder into our impeding globally-warmed, algorithmic dystopia.
The three timelines in The Immortal King Rao are each narrated by Athena Rao, King’s daughter who has an illicit piece of technology he developed that allows her access to his memories. King Rao died three days ago. Athena is being interrogated.
The first story is that of King Rao as a child in Kothapalli, India, which we are told is the Telugu equivalent of “Newtown.” In 1951, King was born into a Dalit family that became marginally prosperous when they acquired The Grove from a Brahmin family no longer interested in living in this small town. This opportunity allowed Rao’s industrious grandfather to acquire land on which the extended family can operate a coconut growing and processing operation.
This is not to say that the world of The Grove is good. King is the child of a sexual assault, with his mother, Radha, marrying into the Rao family after his father, Pedda, assaulted her, and he is functionally raised by his aunt, Sita, who marries his father after the death of his mother. Likewise, the extended family is frequently dysfunctional, filled with bullies, gamblers, and layabouts, and the choices of the younger generations nearly drive the family to ruin. But it is also here that Rao first develops his understanding of social networks and interpersonal responsibility.
The second story chronologically follows Rao from his arrival in the United States (in Seattle) as an impoverished graduate student through the rise of Coconut, the company he starts with Margaret, the white daughter of his supervisor. Of the three, this is the arc I found least satisfactory, in large part because many of its beats simply fictionalize the growth of major tech companies like Apple and fold the rise of multiple companies into this one. This is arguably a necessary feature of a story that links this Dalit family in India to the dystopian future—after all, the best dystopias are built on the bones of reality—and Vara uses this story to explore the relationship between King and Margaret, but I also found it distinctly limiting, to say nothing of a little bit hand-wavy to get to where the entire world is beholden to the single tech giant Coconut and its “impartial” algorithm.
The third story is that of Athena herself, King’s progeny and greatest experiment. After his fall from grace at Coconut in c.2040, and after the death of Margaret (who was by now his ex-wife), King deactivated his Social, sailed to Blake Island, and set up a little isolated homestead. It was here that Athena, King and Margaret’s daughter by a surrogate mother living on nearby Bainbridge Island, grew up among the orchards of tropic fruits that King imported.
It is in this storyline that Vara imagines a dystopian vision of the future.
And then Hothouse Earth arrived. The wildfires that began in spring and lasted all summer; the droughts that were such old news that they no longer showed up in headlines; each new pandemic beginning just after the previous one was under control.
King’s grand triumph was the creation of a unitary world government enabled by the global reliance on Coconut technology. King creates a new Constitution that is, functionally, techno-socialism. All citizens become Shareholders who collectively own all corporations, all major decisions—from criminal justice to the global curriculum—determined by the Master Algorithm. Instead of money, individual worth would be measured by the “Social Capital” of an individual, as determined by Algo based on one’s intelligence, beauty, and productive value. In short, everyone is an influencer, and since a portion of their Social Capital is “extracted” monthly in lieu of taxation there is an incentive to continue to engage with the platform.
Of course, algorithms are only as good as their inputs.
The truth was that a person’s Social Capital depended almost entirely on the privilege they were broth with, not any effort of their own.
The prior richness of the rich and the poorness of the poor had been grandfathered in the Shareholding system.
Algo didn’t eliminate the existing ills of society, it merely put them behind a veneer of impartiality. If you disagree with this system, your only choice is to opt-out by becoming an “ex” on one of a few designated “Blanklands” that are off the Social. There you could scratch out a living through farming and illicit trade in drugs, sex, and surrogate pregnancy, and the Shareholders didn’t have to deal with your opposition to progress or listen to your doom-filled prognostications about the future.
If the rise of Coconut was the weakest part of The Immortal King Rao for me, the moment when teenaged Athena decides to abandon her father in favor of life among the Exes, scratching out a living on Bainbridge Island, I found the strongest. In addition to meeting a new cast of characters like Elemen, one of the original Exes, this society reveals to Athena nature of the world that her father created. This world might have been designed to bring people closer together in an efficient manner, but ended up breeding disillusion and complacency while the world burned. Opting out might have been the right move, but it condemned the rest of society in the process.
There were parts of The Immortal King Rao that required suspension of disbelief and much of both the optimism about technology and its consequences felt distinctly American, even though a third of the novel is set in India. And yet, I find that the most chilling dystopias are the ones that cut closest to the truth. The idea of a technocratic single world state might be implausible, but a world ostensibly guided by “impartial” algorithms that aren’t impartial, where every job is rebranded with corporate babble (“history teachers” are now “Progress Leaders”), where everyone’s worth is measured in social media clout, and where the next great advance merely replicates the existing social order very much is not.
I recently finished Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and am now reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain.
One of my favorite things to do when I meet people from foreign countries is to ask them what they think the best novel is from their country. This works almost as well to start a conversation as asking them about their country’s food and is an easy way for me to add interesting volumes to my reading list. A few years ago at a virtual gathering during an online conference I happened to be chatting with someone from the Netherlands who mentioned Herman Koch’s The Dinner as not necessarily the best novel, but as one that was particularly well-received.
A few centuries from now, when historians want to know what kind of crazies people were at the start of the twenty-first century, all they’ll have to do is look at the computer files of the so-called “top” restaurants.
The Dinner is a tidy novel that ostensibly takes place over the course of a single evening, the titular dinner at a fancy restaurant. Serge Lohman, the frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister, arranged this dinner so that he and his wife Babette can discuss some family business with his younger brother Paul and his wife Claire.
Paul narrates the story and is fond of recounting the truism from Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Lohman’s achievement in The Dinner is found in interrogating the blurred line between those two categories.
Paul can barely stand his brother, who he characterizes as a fraudulent boor. Serge, he thinks, represents much of what is wrong with society. He lacks imagination about food, while also being a wine snob who puts on airs about being an every-man. Similarly, he makes a big deal about how he adopted a son from Burkina Faso, but is entirely oblivious to how his behavior oppresses the citizens in the small French town where he owns a vacation home.
Like all younger brothers, he likes to make his older brother squirm. (Not spoken as an older brother, or anything.)
When the story opens, Paul seems to have a happy family. He and his wife Claire are a loving couple—even if they like to egg on Serge from time to time—and if their son Michel is having a hard go of it lately, well, he’s a teenager. It isn’t as though he’s into drugs. Paul has some sharp, jaded observations about the restaurant and his brother, but he does not, for the most part, vocalize them. Further, he seems genuinely concerned when Babette arrives at the restaurant and seems to have been crying in the car and frustrated with his brother’s superior attitude with the restaurant staff. In short, he seems like a nice enough.
Slowly, these initial impressions are disabused.
It turns out that this family has a nasty secret. Some months ago, video emerged of a brutal attack on a homeless person sleeping at ATM. Two teenagers walking into the ATM first threw objects at the woman, followed by a can of gasoline that erupted into flame and killed her. Nobody was apprehended for the crime, but Paul recognized the two boys: his son Michel and his nephew Rick.
As it happens, this is the family business that Serge wants to discuss—after all, he has a political career to consider. Paul’s instinct is to protect his son, and the only question left is how far he will have to go.
(There is more to the plot, but I’m ending the synopsis here so as to not give away some of the twists in this nasty family drama.)
The strength of the novel is found in the gradual reveal of Paul’s personality and how that shapes the reader’s understanding of the Lohman family. Koch starts Paul as the mild brother of a politician of some renown and slowly peels back that exterior to reveal a monster with vicious ideas and a history of assault. Actions speak for themselves even if he maintains his own moral superiority.
When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is to tell a barefaced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.
The Dinner can be read in some ways as a metaphor about getting to know someone. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story and many are convinced of their own rectitude. When we meet new people, we only know the face they present to the world and only later learn what type of person we are interacting with. Most of us don’t have nearly such odious skeletons in our closet, but neither are we literary creations.
I ultimately found The Dinner a little bit on the nose in how it revels in this family drama, but it is a tightly-crafted and compelling story that reads very quickly—even if I emerged from it wanting to wash my hands of the entire Lohman clan.
I recently finished Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, which seemed to draw parallel’s between a miscarriage and being an adjunct professor. While the novel had some uncomfortable observations about being an adjunct, I found the story weighted more toward the miscarriage side. Still, the implications of the comparison are uncomfortable. I also finished Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, which I ultimately found disappointing. It was cute and had some nice anecdotes, but I kept hoping for a stronger argument and kept bumping against implications about, for instance, Western Civilization. By contrast, the first volume of the Saga graphic novel was truly great.
Many authors tell people who already feel worn out and ineffectual that they can change their situation if they just try hard enough. What’s more, by making it individuals’ responsibility to deal with their own burnout, the advice leaves untouched the inhumane ethical and economic system that causes burnout in the first place. Our thinking is stuck because we don’t recognize how deeply burnout is embedded in our cultural values. Or else we’re afraid to admit it. Insofar as the system that works people to the point of burnout is profitable, the people who profit from it have little incentive to alter it. In an individualistic culture where work is a moral duty, it’s up to you to ensure you’re in good working order. And many workers who boast of their hustle embrace that duty, no matter the damage it does. In a perverse way, many of us love burnout culture. Deep down, we want to burn out.
I resemble this statement, and I don’t like it.
By the definitions established in Jonathan Malesic’s recent book The End of Burnout, I have never burned out—at least not completely. I have never reached a point of absolute despair that rendered me incapable of going on, which, along utter exhaustion and reduced performance, marks burnout. The other two, however…
I wouldn’t say that I worked hard in high school, at least on the whole. There were projects that I worked at and if something interested me I would work hard, but not so much overall. Midway through my undergraduate career something snapped. Seemingly overnight I became a dedicated, if not efficient student. I divided everything in my world into “productive” activities and unproductive ones and aspired to spend my waking time being as productive as possible. School work obviously counted as productive, but so too did exercise and investing time in my relationships. Spending time not doing things was deemed unproductive.
At first this was innocuous enough. I was young and productive time included fun things, right? My numerous and varied interests led to me to do all sorts of things and I was determined to do them all. By the time the second semester of senior year rolled around this was almost a mania: I was working, running a club, taking a full course load, working on two research projects, and auditing extra classes that just looked interesting to me, as well as exercising and generally spending time on the aforementioned relationships.
At a time when the stereotypical college student develops a case of senioritis, going through the motions while looking forward what was next, I somehow managed to define sleep as “not productive.”
I cringe thinking about it now, but I went through most of a semester averaging about three hours of sleep a night. I don’t think I ever pulled an all-nighter, but most nights I only got one or two hours, going to bed around midnight, getting up at 1:30 so I could grab coffee and food before the late night place closed, work until the gym opened, exercise, shower, go to class, and then either go do homework or go to my shift at work. I would get eight hours or so on Fridays after work and whatever recreational activities I had planned. Several people that I know of had conversations about when I was going to collapse, though not within earshot. It was bad. Trust me when I say that you shouldn’t do this.
According to the journal I kept at the time, under an April entry titled: “I guess I did need to sleep,” I slept for 13 hours straight.
I have never done something this self-destructive since, but there have been numerous times that I have edged in that direction.
The year after college I ended up working up to 90 hours a week, often for weeks at a time without a day off until I just couldn’t physically keep it up, at one point sleeping for more than 12 hours and forcing myself to take days off, even if the nature of the job made that difficult.
I worked almost 30 hours a week on top of my school responsibilities (a “full” course load and grading for a class) while completing my MA.
I nearly lost snapped while completing the work for one of the toughest seminars I took in grad school the week that I was also taking my comprehensive exams.
Another semester, while cobbling together jobs as an adjunct, I took on so much work (six classes, one of which was nearly twice as much work as I thought when I accepted it) that I had to stop writing entirely just to stay on top of the teaching.
The semester after that I developed (probably anxiety-induced) GERD and broke out in hives.
I frequently have to remind myself that taking one day off a week is okay, leave alone two. At least I usually sleep 7–8 hours a night these days.
Lest it sound like I’m bragging, these are not badges of honor. They are symptoms of the perverse relationship with work that Malesic describes, wedded with ambition and an anxiety oscillates between imposter syndrome and a deep-seated fear that I’ll once again become someone who does nothing if I let up even a little. The worst part: my behavior place within systems that celebrate discipline, but it was almost entirely self-inflicted.
However, I have never burned out like Jonathan Malesic.
Malesic had achieved his dream of becoming a tenured professor of religion and living the life filled with inspirational conversations with young people that he imagined his own college professors had lived. But that life wasn’t as great as he imagined. His students were apathetic, the papers uninspired and, at times, plagiarized. There were meetings and committees, and his wife lived in a different state. In short, the job didn’t live up to his expectations, which, in turn, caused his life to fall apart. His job performance lagged. He snapped at students. He drank too much and found himself incapable of getting out of bed. And so, eventually, he quit.
The End of Burnout is an exploration of the forces that caused his disillusion with his job and possible solutions to escape it. Put simply, Malesic’s thesis is that two features of the modern workplace cause “burnout.”
People derive personal meaning and worth from their jobs.
There is a gulf between the expectations and reality of those jobs.
That is, there is a broad expectation in the United States that your job determines your worth to society. This is obviously not true, but it is signaled in any number of ways, from making health insurances a benefit of employment, to looking down on “low status” jobs like food service, to the constant expectation that you ought to be seeking promotion or treating yourself like an entrepreneur. But if your worth is wrapped up in your job, then you might enter with a certain set of expectations that are out of sync with the conditions—doctors who want to heal people and end up typing at a computer all day, or a professor who got into teaching because of Dead Poet’s Society and ends up teaching bored, hungover students in general education classes. On top of it all, the responsibility for “solving” the issue is then passed on to the worker: you’re just not hustling hard enough. Have you tried self-care?
The End of Burnout is a thought-provoking book. Malesic examines the deep historical roots of phenomena that might today be called burnout, discusses the pathology of an ambiguous phenomenon that is likely overused, often pointing to acute exhaustion rather than true burnout, and explores how social pressures (e.g. the moral discourse that equates work with worth) exacerbate the phenomenon before turning to alternate models of work and human dignity.
I picked up the end of Burnout for a few reasons.
Most obvious, perhaps, is my toxic relationship with work, as outlined above, to the point where I thought that I had burned out on multiple occasions. Based on the descriptions Malesic provides, I was usually acutely exhausted rather than truly burned out, with the result that, at least so far, I have always been able to bounce back with a few weeks or months of rest.
(The one exception might be the restaurant work straight out of college, but even that did not stop me from working in another franchise in the same chain for two more years while attending school.)
Cumulative exhaustion can lead to burnout, but I came away unconvinced that I have even really been walking down that path. I have been frustrated, of course, and can tell that I am creeping toward exhaustion when I start excessively doom-scrolling on Twitter, but I did not relate to the sheer disillusionment Malesic described. When I have considered other employment options over the past few years, it has always been because of a dearth of jobs.
The main difference, at least to this point, is that I have never viewed this job through rose-colored glasses. Writing about history is something I see as a vocation, but I have approached the teaching and associated work as a job, albeit one that aligns with those other aspects of my life and thus is more enjoyable than some of the others I have had.
At the same time, I have noticed a shift in my relationship to hustle culture now that I am in my mid-30s. I still work hard and have certain ambitions, but increasingly, they are around finding ways to spend my time reading, writing about things I find interesting and important—and having employment with enough security, money, and free-time to do that.
Likewise, the idea of treating oneself as an entrepreneur, which Malesic identifies as an element connecting worth to employment, has always left a sour taste in my mouth. When people tell me that I could (or should) open a bakery, I usually shrug and make some polite noises. I have managed a restaurant in my life and have very little interest in doing so again. I bake because I like the process and enjoy cooking for people I like, not because I want to turn it into a business with all of the marketing, bookkeeping, and regulations that would entail.
(I have also considered trying to turn my writing into a subscription business, but I find that incompatible with the writing I do here. If I made a change, it would involve some sort of additional writing with a regular and established schedule—say, a monthly academic book review for a general readership with a small subscription fee designed to cover the cost of the book and hosting. A thought for another day.)
However, I also picked up The End of Burnout because I am worried about the effect that this culture has on my students. Nearly every semester I have one or more students who report losing motivation to do their work. This past semester one student explained it as a matter of existential dread about what he was going to do with his degree, but it could just as easily be anxiety or concern over climate change or the contemporary political culture or school shootings.
I have long suspected what Malesic argues, that burnout is systemic. In a college context, this is why I get frustrated every time a conversation about mental health on campus takes place without addressing those systemic factors. Focusing on the best practices and workload for an individual class is (relatively) easy, but it is much harder to account for how the courses the professor is teaching or the students are taking interact with each other. I am absolutely complicit in this problem. One of my goals for next academic year is to reexamine my courses because the reality is that the most perfect slate of learning assessments is meaningless if the students end up burned out. I can’t fix these issues on my own, but Malesic’s book brought into greater focus why I need to be part of the solution for my own sake and my students’. I don’t ever want to let one of my students make the mistakes I did when I was their age, which probably explains why the most common piece of advice I give is “get some sleep,” and I can’t help them if I am also in crisis.
The back part of The End of Burnout turns to possible solutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his background as a professor of religion, this discussion frequently focused on groups with a Christian bent. He spends a chapter, for instance, talking about how various Benedictine communities apply the Rule of St. Benedict to tame the “demon” of work. Some groups strictly follow the Rule, limiting work to three hours so that they can dedicate the rest of their lives to what really matters, prayer. Other groups, like several in Minnesota, were less rigid, but nevertheless used similar principles to divorce work and worth, and allowing one’s service to the larger community change with time.
The other chapter in this section was more varied, and included useful discussion from disability activists, but it also featured a prominent profile of Citysquare, a religious-based Dallas non-profit that uniquely humane policies around work expectations and support for its staff. These examples sat awkwardly with my agnostic world view, as someone who believes that we should be able to create a better society without religion, and particularly without Christianity. However, Malesic’s underlying point is not that we ought to all follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Rather, he makes a case that each profile in its own way can help imagine a culture where the value of a person is not derived from their paycheck (or grade).
To overcome burnout, we have to get rid of the [destructive ideal of working to the point of martyrdom] and create a new shared vision of how work fits into a life well lived. That vision will replace the work ethic’s old, discredited promise. It will make dignity universal, not contingent on paid labor. It will put compassion for self and others ahead of productivity. And it will affirm that we find our highest purpose in leisure, not work.
Malesic’s vision here is decidedly utopian and hardly new, and his warnings about the consequences of the automating workplace are a modern echo of 19th century choruses. But the ideals he presents are worth aspiring to nonetheless. As long as we work within a depersonalizing, extractive system that treats people as interchangeable expenses against the company’s bottom line, then that system will not only continue to grind people down and spit them out, but also contribute to nasty practices elsewhere in society like treating food service workers with contempt. Severing the connection between personal worth and paid work won’t solve every problems, but it is a good place to start.
Seeing him then, you knew he would remake the world for the object of his desire, but what a world it would be, and it wasn’t as if you could stop him. I knew Gatsby right then for what he was: a predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours around and put them out of true.
I knew that there was something empty in him before, but now I could see that it wasn’t empty all the time. Now there was a monstrous want there, remorseless and relentless, and it made my stomach turn that it thought itself love.
The Great Gatsby has the distinction of being the only novel I was assigned to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. I liked a few other books where I got to choose from a list, but, while I liked a number of the plays (at least as much as I ever enjoy reading plays, which are meant to be performed), I came out of English classes with a visceral hatred of almost every novel from our reading lists. That Lord of the Flies is a book without any redeeming quality is an opinion formed in that crucible that I carry with me to this day and I have such distaste for it that I will never give it another chance.
I would be hard-pressed to tell you what, specifically, resonated with me differently about The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. I like Fitzgerald’s prose, but that is a later assessment. I also fondly remember the playlist project that the teacher assigned for the project, but I suspect that fondness stems from my appreciation of the book rather than the other way around.
What I like about Gatsby now is how Fitzgerald captures the ambiance of a period. This emerges in the character of Gatsby, obviously, who cloaks his personal reinvention in the glamour of the jazz age in order to hide the unsavory underbelly of insecurity, selfishness, and criminality. But it comes out in other ways as well. For instance, none of the main characters in this narrow, interpersonal story is much more sympathetic than Gatsby—even the narrator Nick Carraway is a creep who is chased away from a woman he is pursuing by her brothers. Fitzgerald also nods at the deep inequities of the period with metaphors like the valley of ashes that could easily have manifested as magical realism in literature of another generation.
Gatsby‘s limited perspective as narrated by Carraway also makes it ripe for a retelling, in much the same way that Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation inverted the Albert Camus’ The Stranger.
Such is the premise of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Gatsby, as told by Jordan Baker, with a healthy dose of magic, and a title that is a play on another Fitzgerald Novel (The Beautiful and the Damned).
I had mixed feelings about this book.
First, the good.
Jordan Baker is an inspired choice of narrator for this book. Fitzgerald leaves the women of Gatsby unrealized, and this is true of Jordan even more than Daisy. Jordan appears primarily as an object of Nick’s lust, and disappears for long stretches of the novel. However, this provides an opening that allows Vo to expand the story beyond the heat of one New York summer, giving life to Jordan and Daisy’s experience in Louisville where, among other issues, Jordan helps Daisy acquire a medicine that will induce an abortion.
Vo transformed Jordan in compelling ways. This Jordan is not a biological member of the Louisville Baker clan, but an adopted child taken from Tonkin under dubious circumstances. This background offer an explanation for Jordan sitting on the periphery of the story in Gatsby, while also giving a vehicle for Vo to bring up contemporary issues like immigration restrictions that go unmentioned in the original.
I also appreciated how much of the original story that Vo weaves into The Chosen and the Beautiful, which made the language and story appear as a genuine homage to a classic novel. I felt similarly about the frequent and varied sexual encounters. One of the questions in the supplementary materials at the back of the book prompted discussion about whether the book ought to be read differently because many of the main characters are queer. I found these elements to be a natural extension of the sensuality on display in the original. Fitzgerald’s characters only talk about heterosexual encounters and desires, but it seems like a small jump to add homosexual liaisons in a world drenched in sweat, sex, and alcohol. Non-hetero-normative sex is hardly a modern invention.
Other aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful gave me more trouble.
One of the biggest was how Vo incorporated magic into the story. Most of the magic in this novel is lightly done—ghosts that haunt family homes, charms against pregnancy, and simple tricks that ensure that unwanted guests can’t find their way into a speakeasy. Other magic, such as Gatsby having sold his soul and trafficking with the denizens of Hell or a demon’s blood tonic that is prohibited alongside alcohol, were closer to the heart of the action, but largely peripheral to the plot. Only one type of magic, an ability to bring cut-paper objects to life that Jordan has because of her foreign heritage, plays a significant role in the plot.
I went back and forth on these magical elements the entire time I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. On the one hand, they were a natural extension of the metaphors Fitzgerald used in Gatsby and the magic in this book might be read as a form of metaphor. On the other hand, though, I found that going from the light touch off metaphor, past magical realism, and into the realm of actual magic took me out of the era. That is, the sense that a house is haunted by the ghosts of the past works for me in a way that actual ghosts do not. Gatsby appearing as a man possessed, entirely consumed by his selfish desire for a married woman, works in a way that his being a literal envoy of Hell did not.
Hell was as expansionist as France or England—and Jay Gatsby, with his singular focus and ability to harness the power of human desire, was the perfect envoy to gain them a foothold in the world above.
Ultimately, I found that the magic resulted in one too many things going on, which, in turn, distracted from the really compelling ways in which Vo put The Chosen and the Beautiful into conversation with Gatsby on issues of immigration, class, and gender. There is still a lot to like, but I thought that this limitation kept the linguistic flourishes at the level of pastiche and kept Vo from quite achieving the book’s promise: reviving aura of Gatsby that so incisively commented on its time, but in an entirely new hue.
I spent most of the first weekend after the end of my semester ended reading, with the result that I plowed through Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (a kung-fu movie in novel form), Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty (a history of eating in the United States from 1930 to 1991), Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (fantasy stories that resemble Calvino’s Invisible Cities in many ways), and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (a really satisfying spy story that I was willing to read despite wanting the recent TV adaptation because this is typically the only genre that I don’t mind such adaptations). I hope to write about a few of these. I am now working through two books, Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.
Memoir is a genre that I mostly avoid. If one were to ask why I only read one or two memoirs a year, I would wave generally at the idea that the intimate details of someone’s life are not really of interest to me, but the reality is that I almost always enjoy the handful that I do read. The truth is that I enjoy process stories, so memoirs like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, David Chang’s Eat a Peach, and Dessa’sMy Own Devices are very much my thing, and I can appreciate a good writing about heritage or society, as in Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost and Ta Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
Maybe I just don’t like the idea of the genre. Clearly, the aversion isn’t borne out in practice.
When I first came across Kathryn Schulz’ Lost & Found through Keith Law’s podcast I initially hesitated. I knew Schulz could write—she has a Pulitzer for her feature on the risk of a catastrophic earthquake in the Pacific Northwest—but the subject of her memoir, losing her father and falling in love, seemed to follow all of the stereotypes of the genre that leave me cold when I look at lists of memoirs that critics deem “the best.”
Then Shulz started talking about her father. Before the podcast had finished, I had acquired Lost & Found as an ebook from the library.
Lost & Found is divided into three thematic sections that unfold in loose chronological order: Lost, Found, and, as one might expect from the title, &.
We lose things because we are flawed, because we are human, because we have things to lose.
Lost is, predictably, a story of loss. But it is also a story imbued with the deep love of family. This opening section is about her father, a Jewish immigrant who moved from Łodź to Tel Aviv and then to the United States. Schulz describes her father as an erudite, intelligent man with an insatiable curiosity about the world and the people who live in it. He was also someone who habitually lost his wallet and other simple objects. Her love for him radiates from the page as she weaves his story with the heartbreak of losing him and meditations on the existential imperative of loss.
Of all the things that can make finding something difficult—false positives, false negatives, moving targets, incorrect search areas, lack of resources, the vagaries of chance, the general immensity of the world—one of the thorniest is this: sometimes, we don’t really know what we’re looking for.
Found, a natural complement to Lost, is a story about falling in love, written as though it is a meet-cute.
The first meeting took place in the Hudson River Valley where Schulz was living, alone, when friends introduced them. C lived hours to the south and stopped by when she passed through on a separate trip. The first date stretched into hours. The second lasted even longer. Schulz says that she had already decided to marry C, despite their differences.
Found is both saccharine and overflowing with joy. Schulz fills these pages with the exhilaration of falling in love—the long dates, the thrill of discovering an unexpected shared love (country music, in this case), the dawning realization that you don’t want to spend your life with anyone else. And, of course, learning how to communicate in a relationship with another person who is, by the nature of existence, different from yourself.
All of this is also made all the more profound given that it happens concurrently with the loss of her father.
The astonishment is all in the being here.
& is the story of being, about joining lives and the choices that get made along the way. It starts with a discussion about the meteor that created the Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula where C grew up, in a life that could hardly be more different from Schulz’s own upbringing suburban Ohio. It reaches its climax at a wedding in the same region.
Some published reviews of Lost & Found remark that Schulz’ proclivity for wonderment borders on the tedious, but it worked for me. Schulz is not impervious to the crushing weight of contemporary events—she describes the concern that C’s extended family might raise objections to their marriage at their wedding, for instance—but she fills page after page of Lost & Found with reminders to seek joy in being because loss is a certainty.
I am expecting that I will write more of these posts (along with a number of other posts) now that the semester is coming to an end. Most recently, I finished Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, an Icelandic thriller. I am now reading Babylon’s Ashes—the sixth book in the series—which means that I am likely going to finish the last three books this summer.