The Scapegoat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His topic: The trial of Manolis Gris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fake Accounts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware of Pity

The whole thing began with a blunder on my part, an entirely innocent piece of clumsiness, a gaffe, as the French call it. Then followed an attempt to put things right; but if you try to repair a watch in too much of a hurry, you’re likely as not to put the whole works out of order.

It is 1913 and 1914 and Lieutenant Anton Hofmiller of the Imperial Uhlans is stationed at a sleepy provincial garrison. Hofmiller is well-mannered and supported by an aunt who insisted he join the cavalry, but, unlike his fellow officers, he is not from a family of money. It comes as a shock, therefore, when a local lord, von Kekesfalva, requests his presence at a dinner party. Hofmiller goes as though in a dream, meeting important people and dancing the night away. Realizing at some point that he has not yet danced with Edith, his host’s daughter, he seeks her out and in his most cultured manner extends an invitation. Only then does he realize his gaffe: Edith cannot walk.

Embarrassed, Hofmiller compounds his shame by fleeting the party. In the clear light of day he decides that he must make amends, sending flowers and a note that entangles him further in the Kekesfalva drama and unwittingly initiates a courtship with the daughter.

Rarely does a novel’s title double as its thesis statement. Hofmiller’s tragic flaw is his sense of honor and propriety that leads him to want to dance with the host’s daughter, which leads to his simple attempt to make amends, which leads to his taking pity on Edith, which initiates his cascading series of social crises. Thus, according to Zweig, his pity proves his undoing as he has neither the callousness to extricate himself from the situation nor the calculated instinct to take full advantage of it.

“Our decisions are to a much great extend dependent on our desire to conform to the standards of our class and environment than we are inclined to admit.”

This simple conceit of Beware of Pity makes much of the plot eminently predictable. It was abundantly clear from the jump that the climax would involve an ill-fated marriage proposal, with the only question being whether they would follow through on it. But, like with Zweig’s other novels, its strength lies in the psychological depth that he builds into the characters, such that the conflict emerges from the life breathed into their emotional relationships and competing agendas.

Beware of Pity read like an allegory about the decay in Austria in the year immediately before World War One. There was peace, stability, and people like the doctor treating Edith trying to do what they can, but also runaway inequality and a wealthy class represented a crippled young woman and her sad, sick father who is revealed to be a fraud. All of this makes for an compellingly ornate novel––Zweig cannot be accused of being spare in his description––but also one rife with problems that cannot simply be excused as a product of its time (the late 1930s).

Take Kekesfalva’s background. Lajos von Kekesfalva, we learn, was in fact born Leopold Kanitz in a poor Jewish village along the the Hungarian-Slovak frontier, only to work his way up in society, “magyarizing” his name and pinching every penny until a chance inheritance gave him an opening to marry the naive and unsuspecting heiress, gaining title and fortune in one stroke. The genuine affection Kekesfalva has for his daughter seems to speak well for his relationship for his wife, but that doesn’t excuse that our generous and gregarious aristocrat is revealed to be an unscrupulous Jew painted using the antisemitic colors of the day.

I had a similar reaction to the disability plot, even beyond a possible interpretation of it as punishment for Kekesfalva, even though that actual condition sounded to my minimally-informed ear like polio. It was hard not to empathize with Edith’s resolve to be independent, but that only goes so far toward ameliorating that the novel is built around the idea that her disability was something to be pitied. This spilled over into believable aspects of the relationship––e.g. Hofmiller infantilizing Edith while considering her mobile cousin as a potential sexual partner––that introduced further complications.

The problem with Beware of Pity, as well as other Zweig novels, is that the same features that make it so compellingly readable––especially the way it luxuriates in the emotional lives of its main characters––magnify, and sometimes even introduce, its problems. I liked Beware of Pity, all told, and it is in a lot of ways a more complete novel than The Post Office Girl, which I actually liked better, but there were too many issues baked into its structure for me to consider it a masterpiece.

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I have developed quite a backlog of books recently, having finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. I plan to write about some of these, but am starting to doubt that I will get to them all. Next up, I just started Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

Go, Went, Gone

“Could these long years of peacetime be to blame for the fact that a new generation of politicians apparently believes we’ve now arrived at the end of history, making it possible to use violence to suppress all further movement and change? Or have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? Must living in peace––so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world––inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?”

Without memory, man is nothing more than a bit of flesh on the planet’s surface.

I came to Jenny Erpenbeck in a roundabout way. I had been reading Stefan Zweig through the recent NYRB Classics series when an ancient historian on Twitter lamented that people were reading Zweig and neglecting the current master, Erpenbeck. So I gave Erpenbeck a shot. She hooked me with her first novel, The End of Days, which examines the twentieth century through a series of deaths. In Go, Went, Gone, Erpenbeck is back with a masterpiece about the gulf between the citizen and the refugee in our present time.

Richard, an aging widower, has just retired from his position as a Classics professor in Berlin. Go, Went, Gone opens with him emptying his office and retreating into the mundanity of everyday life where his days are spent making food and watching the news. With his newly discovered time, Richard learns of a hunger strike in the Alexanderplatz staged by refugees from Africa. Fascinated by these men who seem so out of place, he resolves to get to know them and begins showing up at their residence.

Few speak German, but all are multi-lingual, and Richard often converses with them in some combination of Italian and English. Richard begins by treating the men as his new project, but that quickly gives way to genuine warmth as he gets to know these men who literally risked life to reach Europe. One surviving an accident that killed most of the passengers on the over-crowded boat, another sends most of the money given to him to live back to his family. They cling to the friends they have made among their fellow refugees and just want an opportunity to work while being stymied by the impersonal bureaucracies of indifferent-at-best, hostile-at-worst governments.

Richard is methodical in his approach, trying to do his due diligence by not treating these men merely as monolithic outsiders, but even he has to be shaken from his complacency:

For the first time in his life, the thought occurs to him that the borders drawn by Europeans may have no relevance at all for Africans.

But for all of Richard’s conscientiousness, generosity, and empathy for the plight of the outsiders, I found his character distasteful, as though much of his charity was purely self-serving. The Richard we don’t meet, for instance, has his head in the sand about the world around him while he carries on an long-time affair. It is only in the boredom that comes from his retirement that he can be bothered to see what is happening. Likewise, he conceives of the refugees as an academic project first, and, early on, spends almost as much time wondering whether their attractive, Ethiopian German teacher would be interested in sleeping with him as he does trying to help. Richard’s actions are altruistic even if his motives are not, but he nevertheless struck me as a sort of narcissistic humanitarian who is mostly interested in what is in it for him.

Despite my problems with Richard, Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant novel. In one of the first scenes, Richard learns of a drowned man in the lake near his house, creating a massive disruption in his life. Similarly, the disruption caused by the reunification of Berlin, now almost twenty years past, looms large in his existence. And yet, these are minor changes compared to the trauma experienced by the refugees. Richard even struggles to reconcile the present quiet with the memory of Hitler when faced with questions from a refugee whose lived experience was filled with violence.

Politicians in Go, Went, Gone howl about the refugees and make plans to deport them back to Italy––or anywhere, so long as they are not in Germany––but in the world of the novel, the refugees are just people. (In a nice touch that inverts two centuries of racist presentations, Richard takes to giving them nicknames out of Greco-Roman mythology and northern European literature.)

Such is Erpenbeck’s triumph, sitting alongside recent novels like Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. The plight of the refugees is not exceptional––peace is. As a recent review brilliantly puts it: “this is not a world of citizens beleaguered by a tide of refugees, but a world of refugees trapped in the age of the citizen.”

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I just finished David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a riveting history from the 1920s where white guardians conspired to kill their Osage wards in order to deprive them of their tribal allotments, and have now begun Tana French’s The Trespasser, part of her Dublin Murder Squad series.

The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book of Words – Jenny Erpenbeck

I slide my hands across the white letters on the fence boards, there’s a spotlight shining on them, and my father reads aloud: Silence is health.

The girl has a mother and a father, a wet nurse and a friend. She knows other people, too, obviously. Her grandmother, the gardener, her piano teacher. She is not allowed to go outside alone and she can hear cars backfiring, or are those gunshots?

Ostensibly set South America, probably during Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” between 1974 and 1983), The Book of Words follows the interior life of an unnamed girl. Her consciousness awakes gradually and her thoughts become more complex making it apparent that the book is built around the stories about the world that adults tell to children.

The Book of Words is a short book light on plot to put into a synopsis, particularly if one wants to avoid revealing the occupation of the girl’s father. Instead, there are the themes. First, the relationship between a child and the adults who answer her questions and teach her about the world. These relationships form the cornerstone of the book because it shapes how the girl interacts with people such her father’s friend the doctor who treats her when she has a fever and the woman she witnesses being dragged onto a bus by two men. She is shielded from the horrors of living under a repressive regime, until she is isn’t.

In short, The Book of Words is a powerful novella with a brilliant and subtle character development over the course of its 90 pages. Erpenbeck’s decision to anonymize the girl at the heart of the story universalizes it and places the emphasis on the visual imagery of the stories she is told, such as the saint who died crossing the desert and the snow-capped mountains that she has never seen. She lives in the world of the stories that she has been told, which she passes on to her friend who has stories of her own. The Book of Words floats through a dreamlike state before reaching a gutting a conclusion.

This is the third of Jenny Erpenbeck’s books I have read (all in translation, but hers are high on my list of books I’d like to try in German). I loved The End of Days, but was unmoved by the story collection The Old Child. In my opinion her stories felt underdeveloped, but, then, I often have this reaction to short stories. I had no such problem here. The Book of Words reaffirmed my love of Erpenbeck’s prose and I am looking forward to reading more.

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I am still running behind on writing about books I’ve read, having finished and developed opinions about Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer and Dan Simmons’ Ilium. I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Back to Blood – Tom Wolfe

“Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.”

On television you have to create a hyperreality before it will come across to the viewer as plain reality.

Oh, ineffable dirty girls.

Miami is seething, with racial tensions between African Americans, Cubans, and Americanos, with class tensions between the super wealthy (including Russian oligarchs) and everyone else, and with sex. In Tom Wolfe’s novel Back to Blood, it is mostly the sex.

Back to Blood is a book for which the plot—a slow-unfolding investigation into a wealthy Russian donating millions of dollars worth of forged art to a Miami museum—does not capture what it is about. Back to Blood is more appropriately described as a version of life in Miami told through multiple concurrent stories about five groups (the Miami Herald, the Cuban ex-pat community of Hialeah, Miami high society, Miami PD, and the upwardly aspirational family of a Haitian professor), variously connected by the intrepid and persistent duo, Officer Nestor Camacho and reporter John Smith.

Nestor Camacho is set up as our hero. Born to Cuban parents, he finds himself all-but disowned when his muscle-bound heroics pulling a Cuban refugee off the mast of a boat in Biscayne Bay are caught on TV and slapped on the cover of every newspaper. The police see this as heroics, the Cubans as betrayal, and not for the last time in Back to Blood, Camacho’s feats of physical prowess mostly succeed in making him a pariah in the eyes of the public. Since his Magdalena, a psychiatric nurse, has recently dumped him in favor of her (in her eyes, more manly and vigorous) employer, Nestor has some time on his hands to help John Smith out with his investigation into art forgeries.

The second most important storyline is Magdalena’s. Her employer, a renowned psychiatrist specializing in pornography addiction, has taken this beautiful young cubana out from Hialeah and introduced her to the sex-drenched world of Miami’s upper crust. Of course, he isn’t doing this own dime, but trafficking on the prestige of his high-profile patients who give him access to the best restaurants, art shows, marinas, and, ultimately, maritime orgies. Magdalena is initially attracted to the power this man seems to have, and certainly he is more sure of himself than is Nestor, but she also starts to see through this mirage, seeing him for what he is: a petty man who uses bluster, belittlement, and his degrees to manipulate people, all the while being as sex-crazed as his clients. But it is possible that one of the men she meets through these connections will genuinely appreciate her…

Back to Blood came out in 2012 and, like Wolfe’s other work, is heralded as capturing something essential about American society at that moment, in this case with Miami being the American city of the future. The fundamental question, then, is how accurate is this description? On the one hand, Wolfe’s vision of America has it deeply divided by racial divisions that can be transcended by wealth and status, with the appearance of both being more important than the actuality of either. Within this vision, everyone is in it for himself—women are objects for and appendages of the men who are sleeping with them or would like to sleep with them. There are parts of this vision that ring true in the contemporary world of social media and police violence, but I as far as capturing a larger Truth about American culture I was underwhelmed.

The biggest reason for my reaction is the seeming conviction that Wolfe has that everyone is a frothing mess of loins and lust. Miami plays into this vision because it provides ample opportunity to describe largely naked women and to have characters of both sexes ogle, judge, and imagine the variously covered body parts. It was as the Wolfe’s literary credentials were dependent on the number of ways he could describe sexuality. To wit:

Her beautiful legs were vulnerable, unguarded innocence in its carnal manifestation.

In this respect, Back to Blood is an orgy of literary proportions. So much so, in fact, that I found myself wondering where Wolfe fell on it all. On the one hand, he comes across as an ogler himself, taking every opportunity to look and to judge. On the other hand, the two Yale characters who are at some level the characters closest to the author both seem to exempt themselves from the vain, fleshy world of the other characters, run through with conservative WASPish tendencies regardless of their political leanings. Thus Back to Blood seems to simultaneously revel in the sex-crazed environment and to take a moral stand against it. Setting aside some problematic issues concerning gender and the absence of genuine discussion of economic precarity, in this dichotomy of morals, Wolfe may inadvertently be onto something.

I didn’t love Back to Blood as much as I’d hoped, but, despite some early frustrations, I came away with a grudging respect for it. I may read some of his other books yet.

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Next up, I am almost finished reading The Dogs of Riga, one of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. It is another book where I find myself asking how it would hold up in a more recent setting, but I am quite enjoying its depiction of the Baltic at the very end of the Soviet era.

The Republic of Wine – Mo Yan

Experienced detective Ding Gou’er does not really know what to expect when he travels to Liquorland on assignment. He is there to investigate unsavory rumors coming out of this region where, allegedly, the people are feasting on the flesh of children and washing it down with their fabled alcoholic beverages. (Local officials insist that the food is only crafted to look human.) Inspector Ding Gou’er (not much of a drinker, we are told) needs to keep his wits about him, but neither can he dare insult the local officials and so finds himself deeply intoxicated by an abundance of toasts. Worse still, Ding Gou’er quickly learns of the local appetites for flesh in all its guises, sexual, sensual, or gustatory, finding himself in debate with Yu Yishi, a dwarf whose stated goal is sexual conquest of all the regional beauties and in bed with the beautiful wife of a local official. Are the poor of Liquorland bearing children in order to supply the culinary academy with “Meat Boys,” or is that just a story told by a local writer with too much alcohol and an overactive imagination? In either case, the environment of Liquorland has a powerfully deleterious effect on the (formerly) respectable inspector.

The corruption of Ding Gou’er, however, represents only one of the three narrative threads that form The Republic of Wine. The other two threads consist of the ongoing epistolary relationship between the eminent author Mo Yan and his younger contemporary Li Yidou, doctoral candidate of liquor studies at Brewer’s College in Liquorland, and the stories written by the latter author. Most of their correspondence involves Mo Yan’s critique of Li Yidou’s stories and their plans to bring Mo Yan to Liquorland to write the biography of a dwarf Yu Yishi, which Mo Yan can only do after completing his latest novel The Republic of Wine. At no point do you read Mo Yan’s novel because, of course, that is what the entire book is. Each chapter in The Republic of Wine consists of all three narrative elements that create a deep discussion about life in Liquorland (a.k.a. a fictional stand-in for modern China), combined with the hallucinatory sensation of wondering what is “real” and what is just another layer of storytelling.

Mo Yan’s weaving together of these three distinct vantage points of a single story while inserting himself and treating all three as varying shades of textual (as distinct from real) makes The Republic of Wine and impressive novel. The closest comparison I can think of to this novel is Curzio Malaparte’s grimly surreal The Skin, but Mo Yan is much more subtle in his visions. And yet, it is only Mo Yan’s literary technique that may be called subtle since The Republic of Wine is an orgy of sensation. This is no straightforward detective tale or psychological thriller, but a story where the reader is sucked into the sensory world of hallucination where he or she is besieged by a riot of colors, tastes, sounds, and smells that threaten to overpower and it is in this aspect of the novel that I most saw Mo Yan’s critique of modern Chinese consumer culture.

For all that I appreciated The Republic of Wine and understood Mo Yan’s 2012 Nobel Prize, I did not love the book. It might have been all the more powerful for its rawness and inconsistencies, and some of my disorientation was, I am sure, intentional, I sometimes had a hard time following along. This was particularly true when there were allusions or references to Mo Yan’s other books, and I sort of wish I had begun with one of his others. More problematic for me, though, and something that I have had trouble with in other translations of Chinese-language novels, was that I did not particularly love any of the characters and in the absence of a strong plot, I sometimes found myself adrift.

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Next up, I recently finished (and loved!, minor peccadilloes aside) N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I am going to read the other books in that trilogy in short order, I suspect, and I picked up the second from the library yesterday, but I am currently reading a history of the city of Odessa, in part because I have family that lived there before coming to the United States.

The Foundation Pit – Andrey Platonov

“It’s the way things are done,” replied Chiklin. “The dead are all special—they’re important people.”

"Telling me!" Exclaimed Nastya in astonishment. "I don't know why people go on living. why doesn't everyone die and become important."

The Foundation Pit opens with the worker Voschev being “made redundant” in the factory where he works. In a modern setting this redundancy would be the result of automation, but in 1920s Soviet Union it is a euphemism for any sort of expendability—in this case, a more mundane issue of growing old and being unable to keep up with the pace of work. So Voschev is set adrift only join in with a team of workers digging the eponymous foundation pit that will allow for the construction of palatial halls for all of the region’s collectivized workers to live. As the ambitions of collectivization grow, so too do the plans for the building and so the pit has to be ever expanded…but there is an irony in that while the proposed building grows up, but the work only ever goes down. What is intended to be the foundation for future growth can just as easily turn into a grave.

In the place of a strong plot (which defaults to, “dig more!”), The Foundation Pit is built from scenes with stock characters: a disabled revolutionary veteran, the tireless worker, the morbid child, the black-smithing bear. Platonov builds these characters from three main sources: the gospels and other orthodox literature, Russian folklore, and Soviet political propaganda, as well as taking from other contemporary Russian literature. I appreciated the density of these references in part because I can see echoes of the same traditions in later books about Soviet collectivism (e.g. Animal Farm) and thus believe that The Foundation Pit is an impressively erudite work of literature. And yet, as someone who is not particularly well-versed in any of those traditions, I found the book esoteric and unapproachable. I have long been an advocate for the New York Review of Books translations, but this installment was deeply disappointing because the lengthy explanatory notes were inconsistent in their coverage and poorly connected to the actually references in the text. In sum: my ignorance limited my ability to appreciate The Foundation Pit and the edition did little help me out.

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Next up, I finished reading Mo Yan’s deeply disturbing novel The Republic of Wine earlier today and am now reading Jack McCallum’s Dream Team.

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

You will subjugate the unknown beings on other planets who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficent yoke of reason. If they fail to understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to compel them to be happy.

As schoolchildren we all read (perhaps you have, too) that greatest literary monument to have been handed down to use from ancient days–“The Railway Guide.”

In the distant future, after the two hundred years’ war threatened to end the human race, there is a more civilized age that promises to bring people happiness under the aegis of the One State. Mankind lives in a state of logical, mechanical perfection, separated from nature by Green Walls. They are to consider themselves appendages of the collective body and are thus assigned numbers, roles, and schedules. People request sexual partners, receiving coupons to be redeemed within allotted times; only during these times are people allowed to lower the shades on their transparent apartments.

Life in the One State is dictated by their holy book handed down from ancient times: The Railway Guide.” The twin pillars of religion are Taylorism and the state. The Table of Hours, found in the Guide, structures the day, with only the briefest period wherein people are left to their own devices. All other time is devoted to the One State; to do otherwise is treasonous.

D-503, the author and protagonist of We, is the lead engineer on the Integral, a ship designed to spread the civilization of the One State to other planets. The project is nearing completion, so D-503 is pleased with his contribution to society and happily registered in his relationship with O-90. Then he meets I-330, who interjects herself into his life and challenges his entire world view. More than preying on D-503’s glimmer of biological urges, I-330 is part of a secret sect of “Mephi,” people who fundamentally reject the tenets of the One State and are working to undermine its existence, and who see the Integral as an opportunity to do just that. As a result of this encounter, D-503 becomes infected, he thinks, with the disease of imagination—an epidemic that threatens the very being of the One State.

Written in 1920/21 in the Soviet Union and (perhaps unsurprisingly) denied publication, We is a novel that pushes collectivism to its absurd extreme. Art still exists, but only in rational terms such as mathematical couplets. Imagination is a disease, nature a threat. Happiness comes from the absence of freedom and choice. Crime is unheard of and desires are met. The central narrative arc in We is one number’s (D-503) gradual awakening as an individual and the pain he suffers when this process causes him to be rejected from his community as though a cancerous cell. It is story of fall and salvation, with an overt parallelism to the Biblical story about the fall of man, this time from a mechanical Eden.

I have been meaning to reread We for a while because I had it high on my list of favorite novels, but found myself unable to remember much about the story outside a few turns of phrase. I worried that, perhaps, I had it listed too high. In short, I did not. We is a masterpiece, unrelenting in its vision of totalitarian society. Zamyatin is not blind to the virtues of collectivism or the importance of one’s community, but simultaneously exposes the importance of nature, of individualism, and even of heresy.

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It might be a little while before I write another of these book reviews because, on a whim, I decided to start reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I am both super excited to finally start in on this novel by one of my favorite authors and nervous that a) I’m not in the right headspace to read it; b) that it’ll suffer from being overhype; and c) that I won’t get it. There is only one way to find out.

In the meantime, I am going to be writing about a few other topics, coming up, including hopefully more little vignettes from ancient sources and some reflections on the PhD process after my defense.