The Caped Crusade – Glen Weldon

So there you have Batman: a crude, four-color slumgullion of borrowed ideas and stolen art.

It was as if Winnie the Pooh had escaped the Hundred-Acre Wood and run amok on the mean streaks of New York. Where he brutally mauled Piglet. And ate Christopher Robin’s face off.

Because that would be real. That would be badass.

Surprisingly for someone whose early life was largely sheltered from T.V. my Batman is the one from Batman the Animated Series that debuted in 1992. It probably only happened in reruns on a couple of occasions, but I have distinct memories of watching it in a car dealership on the Barre-Montpelier road in Berlin, Vermont. I mostly remember being enthralled, but, then, memory can be a tricky thing.

The reason I started with my Batman is that the concept of an affinity for a particular type of Batman, whether light or dark, is one of the core conceits of Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade. Weldon traces the cultural history of Batman through its various iterations from 1939 roughly through the current version, laying out three principal claims along the way.

First, Weldon situates the evolution of the Batman character within the cultural zeitgeist. In addition to Batman mirroring cultural developments such as 1980s macho culture, Weldon argues that he goes through a three-phrase cycle from lone avenger, to father-cum-partner of Robin, to pater familias to an extended Bat-family and then back again. Within this cycle, there is also the revolving dimmer-switch on Batman’s morality, between the campy, civic-minded Batman, sometimes embracing his billionaire alter-ego, sometimes not, and a grimmer, brutal dark knight.

These two cycles feed into Weldon’s second hypothesis, that everyone has their own personal Batman. Often the personal batman is the one experienced when young, with some allowance for variation in cases of backlash. Weldon makes a compelling case for these wild swings in Batman fandom, even though it ultimately can’t be substantiated and although he does not not totally follow through with the ramifications of this idea given gradual confluence of interested in Batman between nerd culture and “normals.”

Third, much of The Caped Crusade is dedicated to trying to understand the enduring popularity of Batman, which has resulted in his appearance in ten live-action feature films since 1989. Weldon debunks the putative notion of Batman’s “relateability”—the irrepressible idea that ordinary people are more able to identify with Batman because he lacks superpowers. As Weldon points out, though, Batman is supposed to be the world’s wealthiest person, with almost no responsibilities with his company, is a peak athlete who spent years honing his martial arts skills, and, in recent iterations, is a brilliant tactician who is (almost) never wrong. But, beyond that, Batman is totally just like you and me.

Weldon makes the case that the ability for many people to relate to Batman, particularly among people who were for years not in the mainstream, stems from the oath he swears after the death of his parents that he will wage a crusade against all criminals so that no one suffers the way he suffered. This oath, and the single-minded obsession that follows from it, Weldon says, makes Batman the original nerd.

The main difference now is that, somewhere along the way, nerd culture went mainstream.

I have never been much of a comic book person, truth be told. It isn’t so much antipathy as I never made the investment of time or money to get into the stories and I was somewhat turned off by never really knowing where to start reading. As such, some of Weldon’s detailing the ins and outs of the writers and inkers did not mean much to me, but the broad sweeps of the Batman tradition in Weldon’s hands (and lively prose) aptly reflect many of the fissures in American culture for the past seventy five years. The same may well be true of other superheroes (Weldon intimates as much when he talks about larger trends in comic book publishing), but Batman’s stature as among the oldest, most popular, and, importantly, most relate-able (such that he is) heroes makes Batman an apt study for American culture writ-large.

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Next up, I am currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in Mind. It is too soon to tell if I will like the story, but so far I am quite taken with both the structure and the characters.

The Broken Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin

Ten years have passed since the events in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the world as entirely changed. Sky, once a radiant white city is now bound to the Wold-Tree, among whose roots the lower city is set. The community has a clear hierarchy, with those of greater wealth and status residing higher in the tree. There is, however, a more fundamental change in the world: Itempas has been deposed, cast into a mortal form, and the children of the three, godlings of many stripes, have been allowed to return the world provided that they remain in the city.

Oree Shoth, a blind street merchant selling trinkets lives in this city, among the shadows of the tree’s massive roots. Most people shy away from Oree because of her peculiar visage, but she has made friends among her fellow artists, among some of the godlings of the city, and with one homeless man she found in the muckbin and took into her home. Oree’s blindness is not total; but the only thing that she can see is magic. This gift will prove both a blessing and a curse, when it comes to light that someone is killing godlings—a development that deeply displeases Nahadoth, who has demanded that the killer be brought to justice with in the next thirty days. Present at the time of the latest murder, Oree and her house-guest find themselves at the center of the conspiracy.

The Broken Kingdoms is a worthy follow-up to Jemisin’s debut novel in just about every way. It deepens the series’ world, both in terms of introducing new races and places and by developing the cosmology. The latter remains a play on traditional cosmological tropes: surprise, the three have children! And these children embody fundamental characteristics such as hunger or mercantilism in their interactions withe world of mortals! But Jemisin fleshes these relationships out, developing what happens when mortals and gods mix (hint: they don’t) and how the traits manifest. For instance, the godling whose nature embodies hunger likes both consuming flesh and consuming the longing lost children have for love. Likewise in terms of story, The Broken Kingdoms retains the basic structure of a young woman without a clear understanding of what is happening interacting with the gods and a deadline come much too soon, trading the upper class for a lower one and the genre of political thriller for deadly mystery.

There are elements of The Broken Kingdoms that will come across as predictable for anyone who has read the first book, but this is not strictly a criticism since Jemisin does a good job at layering developments so that even the obvious feel right. Moreover, the mystery plot largely serves to move the narrative rather than being the be-all, end-all the way it might in a traditional detective novel. Looking at it in this respect, the mystery-on-a-deadline lends the novel with a sense of impending doom and makes sure that it does not lag. Its weakness, however, was also evident in that, for all of Oree’s protestations toward poverty, the immediate danger she is in and her wealthy godling friend had a way of blunting any social commentary established by setting the story in the lower rungs of society. Yes, the issues are there, but they take a back seat to the plot and the way our heroine interacts with gods in this world make them seem more superficial than another sub-genre might have done. This is a minor criticism given the constraints within the rest of the story but is something I noticed despite the thoughtful texturing of the book as a whole.

Some aspects of the writing and the world did not feel as fresh as the inaugural novel, but that is to be expected, and I appreciated the use of a blind character to give a new approach to describing the setting. All in all, I am looking forward to seeing how Jemisin finishes the trilogy.

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Next up, I recently finished reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade about the history of Batman and the comic’s role in American culture and am now reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind.

Confusion – Stefan Zweig

Editorial note: there will be spoilers in the penultimate paragraph of this post as it is impossible to express my concerns with this novella otherwise. With the understanding that some people disapprove of such reveals even in a ninety year old book, I have kept these until the very end..

This was the first real shock that, at the age of nineteen, I experienced—without a word spoken in anger, it overthrew the whole grandiose house of cards I had built during the last three months, a house constructed out of masculinity, student debauchery and bragging.

Zweig’s Confusion—not a direct translation of the original title—is a novella published first in 1927 that I am of two minds about, one that deeply appreciates some of its psychological observations and graceful structure, and one that is deeply troubled by its politics. In form, Confusion is an eminent professor reflecting on his intellectual life on the occasion of his Festschrift, a publication that memorializes and celebrates his career. Far from the parade of successes that the accompanying biography records, Roland, the professor, recalls a time when he was far more interested in women than in his studies and how he ended up attending a rural university away from the temptations of Berlin. Thus he says:

Everything it says is true—only what genuinely matters is missing. It merely describes me, it says nothing real about me.

It is at this rural university that Roland is mesmerized by the passion of an old English professor who awakens his intellectual curiosity.

Soon, the professor helps set Roland up in the building where he lives with his wife and Roland offers to help the professor by taking dictation on his magnum opus: a history of the English drama in the age of the Globe Theater. The two begin to work on the project diligently, but Roland finds the professor difficult to work with; some days the professor is hale and strong, other times distant and cruel, while still others he is absent altogether. It is during one of these intervals that Roland ends up involved with the professor’s wife.

The heart of Confusion is the relationship between Roland and the couple who live below him, that is, the professor and his wife. The former is Roland’s intellectual father, while the latter takes on the roles of mother, lover, and reminder of his past insecurities.

Zweig’s greatest strengths unfold in the turns in Roland’s relationships. He shows how a student might have limitless potential and how a teacher can (in some cases) change a person’s trajectory, but, even more importantly, Zweig builds into the structure the idea that an intellectual career does not unfold in terms of linear successes. Confusion in this regard is an excellent, subtle coming of age story.

And yet, I had deep reservations about Confusion that far outweigh any I have had about his other work. The dramatic climax in Confusion comes when Roland is tearing himself up over his transgression with the professor’s wife, only to discover that his advisor professes to have no control over what she does, just as she has no control over him. Far from a modern sense of an open marriage, the professor reveals in so many words that he is gay. This revelation fills in the gaps as to the snide comments people had been making about Roland’s relationship with the professor, but my problem wasn’t either this or the suggestion that he was working in oblivion at a rural school because of his sexual tendencies. My issue came in how the professor describes himself to Roland, in that he talks about both the joys and the challenges of constantly being surrounded by young, attractive, and vibrant young men and that it was for this reason that he sometimes went absent. As a plot device it worked well-enough, but it was both a regressive representation of homosexuality and troubling in terms of how it linked intellectual and sexual relationships. Moreover, I found it distasteful because of how it would have played had it been a male professor and female student, which is already a topic in the realm of troubling issues of gender politics on campus.

I don’t want to diminish Zweig’s accomplishments in Confusion. From the outset, I often found myself nodding appreciatively at his observations, but, as the trajectory of the plot became increasingly clear, I became increasingly soured on the entire story.

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I also recently finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, the second book in her Inheritance Trilogy and am currently reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade.

Odessa – Charles King

Situated on the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea, the site of Odessa was a backwater Turkish fort overlooking a small fishing village. During the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia (1762-1796) the fort fell to Russian forces and Jose Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, a Neapolitan man born to a Spanish father and Italian mother, then in Catherine’s service, saw potential for the site to become Russia’s southern port. With the empress’ blessing, de Ribas laid out the new city along a European pattern.

Despite problems with sanitation and clean water (the city is not set on a river), outbreaks of plague from Ottoman ships, and intermittent crises over Ottoman control of the Bosporus, Odessa flourished. Hard by three major rivers agricultural goods from the Russian interior converged on the city, while liberal trade policies made it an attractive destination for merchants, its mild climate and European accouterments made it attractive to ex-patriots, and Russian reticence to move south led to economic privileges to Jews that were not common elsewhere in the empire. Odesssa’s newness made it exceptional compared to other cities, with fewer regulations and a wilder population that fostered creativity and crime, particularly in the years before the revolution.

According to Charles King, the popular conception of Odessa (such that one exists) is a fiction made from nostalgia and propaganda that is perpetually being redrawn. After 1918, for instance, Odessa came to be regarded as one of the original cities for the Russian revolution, but this reputation was the product of the movie Battleship Potemkin that valorized a mutiny aboard an imperial naval vessel of that name. Likewise, Odessa changed fundamentally when it was occupied by Romanian forces during World War 2, both because a limited number of episodes added it to the list of Soviet hero cities resisting occupation and because the occupation irreversibly changed the demographics of the city. The Jewish population of Odessa was gone.

There is obviously a good deal more to Odessa than the briefest sketch laid out above, and King wanders into the realm of biography to flesh out the picture of the literary and political luminaries, as well as a number of the criminals, that left their mark on Odessa or had Odessa leave its mark on them. There were time that my attention flagged—I picked Odessa out of the library stacks for no other reason than that members of my family lived there before coming to the United States, though none of them rose to the level of inclusion—but that is going to happen. From a historical perspective, King’s greatest feat and perhaps the most fascinating part of Odessa the city is the extent to which the character of a community is constructed through both stories and monuments. To give one notable example, Odessa’s most famous monument is the Potemkin Steps, a set of staircases that connect the harbor to the city atop which sits a statue of Richelieu, a French expat and early governor of the city. One might assume that the steps were named for Grigory Potemkin, whose military campaign captured the town for Russia or at least for the Battleship Potemkin mutineers, but, in fact, it was neither. Naturally, the steps were named for the movie Battleship Potemkin. King brings this type of layered memorializations to the front of his narrative time and again, building the cultural legacy of Odessa into the series of political and economic decisions that shaped the population that inhabited this comparatively young city.

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I also recently finished reading Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, a psychological novel that I found simultaneously insightful and problematic, and the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, The Broken Kingdoms. Next up is going to be something non-fiction, either Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade or Chuck Klostermann’s What if we’re wrong.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin

Yeine Darr is the ennu of a small, wooded, backwater kingdom in the Northern part of the world, but has had to give that life up because she is summoned to the Arameri city of Sky, a floating palace from which the world is ruled. Though she has never been to Sky and is woefully unprepared for what she will find there, Yeine is not like other outsiders because her mother, now deceased, was the sole daughter and presumed heir to Dekarta, the ruler of Sky and chosen of Itempas (god of order and ruler of the universe). Now Dekarta is nearly dead and Yeine is summoned to join two of her cousins as his potential heirs and so finds herself thrust into a political conflict that, if she is to have any chance at survival, requires her to learn about Arameri customs, hierarchy, and brutality. Complicating matters further, Yeine meets the legendary weapons of the Arameri, Nahadoth, Sieh, Kurue, and Zakkarn, all gods bound by Itempas into servitude at the conclusion of the God’s War thousands of years ago and beings with their own agenda and know more about Yeine than she knows about herself. The ceremony to anoint the next chosen of Itempas is set to take place two weeks after her arrival and Yeine must uncover Arameri secrets, her family secrets, quickly if she is to be more than simply a sacrificial lamb.

There is a lot I really liked about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It is a political thriller set in a fantasy world and like all books that introduce a world, the reader needs to have a way in. The more fantastical the world, the more important this entry is, but, the more time the author spends developing the world, the more he or she may be criticized for caring more about the world than the story. Jemisin does an astoundingly good job of introducing our protagonist (Yeine) who knows some things about the world, but transferring her to a part of the world where she knows nothing so that the reader learns everything right along with her. Combine this with thrusting Yeine immediately into the heart of the action where she must learn about the world in order to survive the conflict and you have a book that is in some ways entirely about introducing the reader to the world without sacrificing the plot for worldbuilding one iota.

The world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms may be taken in two ways: the cosmology and the mundane setting. The novel’s cosmology is a play on a fairly traditional triad of original deities, one who embodies chaos, one who embodies order, and one who embodies change. From these three deities come all of existence, including their children and their creations. In this world, however, the god of order reigns supreme, because in the dim twilight of history there was an event called the God’s War where Enefa, the god of change, was killed and the god of chaos, Nahadoth, along with their surviving children were bound into servitude. Not only do these divine forces act directly upon the world, but some of them are forced to do so by mortals, which brings me to mundane setting. There are (perhaps) a hundred thousand kingdoms in the world, all with sovereignty, but under “benevolent” Arameri hegemony. The Arameri largely reside in Sky, a palace and city that serve as the seat of world power where disputes are resolved. Peace (order, really) is the objective, provided that the lesser powers bow to Arameri demands. Some of these are to a contemporary mind benevolent—no slavery, human rights restrictions—but Arameri guidance is absolute and any opposition is to be brutally crushed. For plot reasons, the world setting largely takes a backseat to the cosmological one, but it nevertheless serves as a clever way to build contrasting views of the Arameri among whom Yeine finds herself.

I had minor quibbles about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Occasional, passing comments seemed somewhat out of place in their addressing of what seemed likely particularly modern concerns. This is not to say I disagreed with the stances taken, but rather that such comments seemed particularly “of their time.” There were likewise a few scenes, including one involving a bathroom, that I found a little cheesy. None of these should take away from what is an enormously entertaining and very thoughtful debut novel. By way of recommendation, I will say that I am very much looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy and to pick up Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which won the Hugo Award for best novel.

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I just finished reading a history of the city of Odessa (in Ukraine), chosen in part because I have ancestors who came to the United States from there. Next up is probably going to be Stefan Zweig’s Confusion.

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.

Women of the Silk – Gail Tsukiyama

I read The Samurai’s Garden early in 2016 in my push to start reading a more diverse array of books and liked it well enough that I decided to pick up a copy of Tsukiyama’s acclaimed debut novel, Women of the Silk.

Women of the Silk is a slow story that unfolds over nineteen years (1919-1938) in southern China. Pei is the second daughter of a peasant son-less farmer who dedicated his life to mulberry bushes and fish ponds. A series of lean years force the family to make difficult decisions, one of which is to ostensibly sell Pei, about age eleven, into servitude at the Yung Kee silk factory where her wages will help support the family. The novel unfolds slowly, following Pei and her new family (the eponymous women of the silk), be they her surrogate mother Auntie Yee or her friends like Mei Li and Lin. It is a story about friendship and everyday life, with characters grappling with love, labor, and their liminal position between the truly rural existence that Pei was born in and the urban environments of Hong Kong. There are limited climaxes as tension builds over some conflict, but the story ultimately builds to the end of this existence when there appears the specter of war with Japan.

Unlike most stories that deal with child labor, Women of the Silk portrays the situation in terms of sadness, not horror. The work is difficult, but, while there is one incident of labor unrest, it is not brutal and the women are taken care of. Moreover, Tsukiyama focuses on how Pei and the other women formed a surrogate community within a culture extremely dependent on family, doubly so when the women perform a commitment ceremony to symbolically wed the work. Work is difficult, but the pay offers freedom that did not exist for women like Pei’s biological sister whose life is entirely at the whim of her father or husband. Thus, silk work is likewise attractive even to Lin, whose background is diametrically opposite Pei and equally as restricting.

Tsukiyama’s prose is lyrical in a way that suits Women of the Silk‘s narrative as it builds the relationships in the silk factory. That said, I found myself frustrated because the book seemed to be giving vignettes of particular importance that I did not think were all completely earned. It goes without saying any book will have to focus on these episodes and none of them were necessarily inappropriate for the characters, but in several the story drops in without either developing the characters directly involved in the episode or focusing on Pei’s reaction to the events. The result is a dissonant sensation where the prose gives a sense of depth, but the story only sometimes allows for this to be realized. It was for this reason that while I didn’t dislike Women of the Silk, I much preferred The Samurai’s Garden. In other words, Women of the Silk is a first novel with a lot of promise, but left me wanting more.

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Next up, I finished Andrey Platonov’s curious and increasingly esoteric novel The Foundation Pit and am now reading nobel laureate Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine.

The City & The City – China Miéville

China Miéville is an author whose work has been vaguely on my radar for maybe a decade now, but I never I picked up or even learned more about it than a few titles. I was aware, barely, that there were people who like his books, but, other than that, he existed in an enormous blind spot. Until now. I finally picked up a copy of The City & The City and read it in two days.

The City & The City is, in some respects, a straightforward murder mystery noir, following Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad as he looks into the death of a young woman. What sets The City & The City apart from most noir is that its setting that forces Borlú into a unique course of action.

Borlú is a detective in the city of Beszel, an ally of the United States with Balkan overtones; twinned and overlapping with Beszel, though, is Ul Qoma, interdicted by the United States based on Cold War allegiances, though that has not dampened recent Ul Qoman economic prosperity. There is speculation that the two cities stem from a common “Pre-Cleavage” ancestor, but they have been rivals and opponents since time immemorial. Large portions of both cities are cross-hatched such that many buildings and streets exist simultaneously in both, so existence requires a constant “unseeing” of vehicles or people that threaten collision should they end up in the same space. Rarely are there physical boundaries, but the chasm is preserved by tradition and by Breach—a mysterious and magical force that exists primarily to protect the balance. Borlú’s case thus becomes significantly more complicated when he learns that his victim was killed in Ul Qoma and transported to Beszel. Even more perplexing is when his request for Breach to take over the case is rejected because, in fact, no Breach had occurred.

Borlú doesn’t particularly stand out as a protagonist and mystery novels are so plot-driven that I hesitate to say more about it. Both are competently realized, but what made The City & the City such an achievement is how Mieville melds these traditional elements with the breathtaking setting that speaks to a huge number of contemporary issues. Alluded to above, the touchstones for the setting were almost all Eastern European, building on resonances of the Muslim and Christian cultures of the Balkans. Then there is a commentary about split cities like (Cold War) Berlin and (contemporary) Jerusalem, but intertwined to an extreme degree. But, even more, Mieville weaves in a subtler critique of modern cities with the idea of “Unseeing”, that is, seeing what is happening enough to avoid it, but actively and immediately forgetting what was just seen. Unseeing is a plot device in terms of Breach, but it can also be seen as a commentary about issues of economic inequality and the homeless—worlds that are intertwined, but, ultimately, entirely distinct.

I have found myself saying some variation on this a lot lately, but I am ashamed it took me as long as it did to read anything by Mieville, but am glad that I got around to it eventually. It won’t take me nearly as long to read something else of his.

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I built up a bit of a reading backlog this week, finishing Gail Tsukiyama’s Women of the Silk and Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit. Now I am between books and don’t know what I am going to pick up next.

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

“We know you need wifi like you need air.” – hotel commercial.

“We want unlimited entertainment.” – Mark Wahlberg, in a phone commercial.

“Nobody but Ludditic granola-crunching freaks would call bad what no one can imagine being without.” – Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest is a notoriously complex and torturous novel, full of arcana, errata, and opacity. IJ is set in a dystopic near-future where chemical accidents have created a toxic “Concavity” (or Convexity, depending on P.O.V.) in what was once upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, creating something of a no-man’s land infested by feral hamsters where children are born without skulls. Enormous fans north of Boston keep the toxins from spreading south. The U.S., Canada, and Mexico have merged into a singular entity called O.N.A.N. (note the pun) under the presidential leadership of the singer Johnny Gentle, though many decisions are actually made by Rod “the God” Tine, director of the “Office of Unspecified Services,” an agency formed by combining law enforcement and intelligence services. Johnny Gentle’s presidency, largely post democratic and deeply corporate (naming rights to years are purchased, such that much of IJ takes place in “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”) is marked by “experialist” policies, which consist of forcing other countries to accept pieces of land (that are often now toxic) which contribute to fairly widespread separatism, particularly in Quebec.

Functionally, IJ has three narrative pieces that are variously interwoven. The basic plot of IJ is an operation by Tine’s agent Hugh (sometimes Helen) Steeply meeting with Remy Marathe, a member of Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants (Wheelchair Assassins, a.k.a. the A.F.R.) and turning him with promise of medical treatment for his wife born in the Concavity. Steeply needs information from Marathe because the A.F.R. are looking for a weapon of mass destruction: a movie created by the apres-garde director James O. Incandenza (a.k.a. The Mad Stork; Himself) titled Infinite Jest that, when watched, renders the viewer mad, with no ambitions other than repeatedly and endlessly watching the film. Steeply spends one night with Marathe in Arizona to thwart the A.F.R.

The scenes between Steeply and Marathe form the narrative backbone for IJ, but they are equal parts philosophical dialogue and framing device for the bulk of novel, which largely takes place in two parallel institutions in “Enfield,” MA (in the vicinity of Allston-Brighton), the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol House. The Ennet House story follows Don Gately, a enormous, small-time crook and drug addict who, after a stint in jail and rehab, is now a live-in staffer at Ennet House. The story at Enfield Tennis Academy is that of the Incandenza family—Himself, now deceased, his widow Avril (tall, beautiful Quebecker, militant grammarian, strange sexual tendencies, a.k.a The Moms), brother-in-law Charles Tavis, and two youngest sons Mario (deformed, childlike) and Hal (brilliant intellectually and athletically, habitual drug user), though the latter is the primary character for this arc. Both stories are linked by the past relationship between Orin Incandenza (oldest son, now NFL punter with troublesome erotic tendencies) and Joelle van Dyne (former cheerleader, star of Infinite Jest, drug addict, cripplingly beautiful, member of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, a.k.a. radio personality Madam Psychosis). Further, the relationship to J.O. Incandenza make all of these characters A.F.R.-targets in their pursuit of the master tape of IJ.

Explaining IJ in these terms, however, understates its complexity, neuters its brilliance, and doesn’t even touch on what the book is actually about.*

[*To the extent even that one person can claim any sort of authoritative understanding.]

Drugs and alcohol feature prominently in IJ, both in the sense that most of the characters (ab)use substances or are in N/AA and in that there are many endnotes that are nothing more than the commercial details of the drugs mentioned in the story. These features, however, more serve as an entry point for a novel that is, in a much more catholic sense, about addiction and longing. My understanding of IJ is that it is about the universal human desire to have some sort of meaningful connection in the world.

We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately — the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly.

As simple as this sounds, it is actually heinously complex. The world, not so different from modern America, is consumed by tele-entertainment, consumerism, looks, and unapproachable idols such as (in a slightly dated reference that stood out to me because of teaching last semester) Raquel Welch. Everyone wants to feel something and to find some sort of connection, but most of what people actually do in pursuit of meaningful connection leaves them addicted and alone. Usually the act in question is some form of drug abuse, but for others it is sex. One such is Orin Incandenza, a serial adulterer whose perversion is in seducing young, often married, mothers and needing them to fall desperately, totally in love with him before he breaks off the relationship. In dialogue with Steeply, Marathe posits that Americans fetishize freedom, but that their definition of freedom is a “freedom from…constraint” and, elsewhere, there is a discussion of “idolatry of uniqueness.” Of course, the bounds of these freedoms are set by the entertainment because that entertainment sets the parameters of what it means to be hip, which is equated with being admired and accepted. Each new innovation adds depth and complexity to omnipresent social anxiety.

“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.”

There is a tension between the need for connection with other people and the superficiality of a world saturated with entertainment promising immediate freedom from displeasure without regard for anyone other than the individual. When people go to increasingly depraved lengths, whether to find connection or relieve their neurasthenia, they become increasingly isolated—in no small part because they end up hurting the people around them.

This summation only scratches IJ‘s surface. There are individual scenes that are particularly disturbing to read and others that made me laugh aloud, including a film presentation that is nothing but a real-time film of the audience and lasts exactly as long as there are people in the theater and Eschaton, an abstract global war game using tennis balls in place of nuclear warheads. There are the roots of all the reasons why a particular type of man idolizes Wallace’s exacting and raw style, only doing so in such a way that might repulse women, and there is plenty of fodder for a discussion about the gender and sexual politics in D.F.W.’s writing*. There are limitations in his setting, in terms of globalization and nationalism. There are deep readings to be had about the literary qualities of IJ‘s postmodernism**, and reading it in line with Hamlet where “Infinite Jest” is used in the scene with the skull, adding another layer to Concavity’s effects because it causes children to be born without skulls, and with its lengthy scenes with a ghost. Likewise: the whole story takes place as a flashback, so is Hal’s condition at the start of IJ the result of his consuming a drug or is it a symptom of withdrawal? (I believe it is the latter.) Could the whole story be a hallucination? If so, whose? If not, who is the author? Is there also the hand of an editor? And on and on.

[*I asked a friend whether, had he lived, Wallace might receive similar critical reception that Dave Chapelle had with his latest specials, only on the issues of gender.

**A term that can mean anything or nothing. I mean something specific in this sense, but don’t want to get into it here because I have already gone on too long.]

Let me conclude with this question: did I like Infinite Jest? I certainly appreciated it. I have appreciated everything I’ve read of Wallace’s, improving my vocabulary at the very least and usually coming away with a deeper appreciation for something in the world. It is a book that lingers, that you start to see everywhere, and, in final calculation, I think I did like it.

This does not mean, however, that I recommend that everyone go pick up a copy. Reading IJ is a chore that, partly because of several stretches where I wasn’t able to read at all, it took me nearly a month and a half to do and even then I felt that I missed a lot. Reading IJ takes time and determination and lends itself to a particular type of stubborn personality that crops up again and again in the book. If you made it this far but reading this post gave you palpitations, then I would not recommend the book; if you’re intrigued and want to give it a read, then I can promise that there is something to be gained in the investment.

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Next up, my palate cleanser from Infinite Jest was China Mieville’s excellent The City & The City, a fantastical noir story set in twinned and overlapping rival cities in Eastern Europe. I am now reading Gail Tsukiyama’s acclaimed first novel, Women of Silk.