The Joy of Drinking

The Joy of Drinking is a slight and uneven book without a thesis or point, but it nevertheless delights. The nearest I can come to a reason for writing it is to defend the drinking is awesome idea in a way more highbrow and fashionable than movies about hookups. Parts should have been expanded—”Human companionship has dropped far down in our priorities and other people only interrupt more exciting options,” Barbara Holland writes. Really? How is this related to drinking? Parts are too long—which may seem odd in a 150 page volume, counting appendices and a bibliography—like the one dealing with Alcoholics Anonymous.

I liked it anyway.

Given its flaws, why the hell was it so entertaining? I suppose for the same reason friends report bad movies are: as long as you don’t think too much about them they work (there’s a reason to twice compare The Joy of Drinking to movies: it is like an oddly edited one that shifts rapidly from one idea to another). The book is fun as long as you’re not going to have a lawyerly argument and can roll like a cask down the lane of ideas. Certainly it’s nice to find a place defending the ancient and (dis?)honorable ways of drinking, especially given its apparent decline in some parts of Western society. Whether drinking has genuinely declined, or at least the better aspects of its culture, is hard to tell, but again perfect statistics are not Holland’s purpose—they are incidental to her celebration of drinking. Celebrating drinking might not be as fun as drinking itself, but the two can be combined more readily than, say, books about sex.

Holland mocks her perceived opponents, such as an ill-conceived work of “God”: “[... Carry Nation] had the courage of her convictions, and God Himself had appeared to her and told her that her mission in life was to stamp out everything alcoholic in the whole country, so she abandoned her husband and daughter and marched forth to do His bidding.” You can hear the tall tavern tale, which is appropriate given that the book is about drinking. In fact, the whole thing has the feel of chatter for when you are drinking with friends, rather than for when you want to argue with a friend about why drinking is wise and even historically acceptable. To hear Holland tell it in one section, our nation practically depends on tipping back a pint or pitcher.

I’ll roll with that rather than quibble at the means used to support the conclusion. Maybe I, like Holland, am just defending self-interest.


See reviews from The New York Times and The L.A. Times.

Life

“Turkmenbashi’s acolytes had recently pronounced him the “national prophet,” a harmless enough conceit if you’re a civilian, but a pathological,if not fatal, one in a despot. In support of this claim, Turkmenbashi had written a sort of national Bible, called “Ruhnama” (“Book of the Soul”), and he regarded himself as an accomplished writer—a clear sign of madness in anyone.”

—Paul Theroux, “The Golden Man: Saparmurat Niyazov’s reign of insanity.” From the May 26, 2007 The New Yorker

Girl, 20 redux

I reread Girl, 20 and had new thoughts about my previously uncharitable assessment. Some of the criticisms still stand: the novel isn’t a great one. But it does have moments of poignant humor, even if it doesn’t transcend its limits as social commentary anchored in the time and place it was written.

The hapless narrator, a nattering mandarin of the classical music profession, is of little use to anyone, including himself, although he does follow in the tradition of Gatsby and All the King’s Men in following a greater man. The narrators in those novels are more portentous and at least somewhat more self-aware than Douglas Yandell, whose perpetual bumbling is all the more amusing because he seems to take himself seriously enough that he’s not an idiot but not so seriously that we hate him. In the margin of one page I wrote “This is so ridiculous yet… good.” It came from a scene in which the older wife confronts the much younger mistress and a fight ensues for no particular reason—as fights often do:

[Sylvia the mistress] advanced on Kitty [the wife], who swung her umbrella; a mistake, for any umbrella, though a potentially dangerous lance, is an effective club. Sylvia easily fended off the blow, and the two closed with each other. I came out of my lethargy, or put away my distaste for the prospect of touching Sylvia, and moved to intervene. She brought her knee up into my crotch, upon which I retired from the conflict for perhaps half a minute, listening vaguely to sounds of struggle and to cries of outrage from Kitty.

The altercation continues in a manner more appropriate to drunken clowns performing or intellectuals, which, when it comes to physical exertions, are probably not so dissimilar.

The odd register of events isn’t limited to fights. Here’s Yandell acting older than his age while Sir Roy acts much younger as a member of the faux rock band Pigs Out: “I registered a strong impression that, should the choice arise, I would reject them in favour of a joint Nazi-Soviet tribunal as arbiters of destiny [...]” Sir Roy, Yandell’s idol, is behaving more like a man his daughter’s age, while Yandell, who is just 30, behaves more like a man Sir Roy’s age. This kind of mix-up drives Girl, 20, along with Kingsley Amis’ lucid, often understated prose, which improves as Girl, 20 advances and has traces of the liveliness of Lucky Jim. It’s still not a great novel, but something about Girl, 20 compelled me to pick it back up and give it another shot, which indicates that there’s something more within than I initially gave credit for.

Life

“It never takes longer than a few minutes, whenever they got together, for everyone to revert to the state of nature, like a party marooned by a shipwreck. That’s what a family is. Also the storm at sea, the ship, and the unknown shore. And the hats and the whiskey stills that you make out of bamboo and coconuts. And the fire that you light to keep away the beasts.”

—Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union—so far

Maud Newton liked it and so did the New York Times. The Elegant Variation heard Chabon in L.A. for what sounds like a fascinating discussion.

Judging from the links above, everyone compares it to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, although I haven’t read any in-depth analysis comparing the two. Superficially they have much in common: Jews, alternate history surrounding World War II and the Holocaust, writers normally associated with capital-L Literary fiction. I’m haunted by the suspicion that Chabon’s first detective fiction may not be his best; like early Leonard, it has too much explanation and not quite enough flow. As much as I like the idea of the Literary Writer expanding their horizon, I’m not sure he’ll pull it off, although I’m becoming more engrossed as the story develops.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union still qualifies for being Literary, at least if you’re willing to accept science fiction and Raymond Chandler. One obvious stylistic quirk stands out in Chabon’s book compared to Chandler and Elmore Leonard in that the first few chapters—all I’ve read so far—have a surprising amount of exposition interspersed between and maybe even interrupting the dialog. This is atypical of science fiction, which usually lets the reader pick up the “rules,” and it’s not at all like Leonard, who he conveys so much through dialog and little through direct speech. I find the running backstory in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union distracting, but perhaps without it I would be confused.

Two big metaphors dominate the book so far: chess, a game Landsman, the protagonist, hates because of his complicated relationship with it as a child, and the perpetual uncertainty stemming from the status of the Jews. The political situation of Sitka, a semi-autonomous state in Alaska looms large, and the angst of its status reflects much of the angst Israel has felt over all the years of its existence. The point is direct: all states are changing and no state permanent; while the Jews feel that issue more acutely than many, they are not alone in their anxiety or the larger push and pull of the world’s forces.

I’m looking forward to Chabon’s talk in Seattle on May 16 and will be there for it.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—so far

Maud Newton liked it and so did the New York Times. The Elegant Variation heard Chabon in L.A. for what sounds like a fascinating discussion.

Judging from the links above, everyone compares it to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, although I haven’t read any in-depth analysis comparing the two. Superficially they have much in common: Jews, alternate history surrounding World War II and the Holocaust, writers normally associated with capital-L Literary fiction. I’m haunted by the suspicion that Chabon’s first detective fiction may not be his best; like early Leonard, it has too much explanation and not quite enough flow. As much as I like the idea of the Literary Writer expanding their horizon, I’m not sure he’ll pull it off, although I’m becoming more engrossed as the story develops.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union still qualifies for being Literary, at least if you’re willing to accept science fiction and Raymond Chandler. One obvious stylistic quirk stands out in Chabon’s book compared to Chandler and Elmore Leonard in that the first few chapters—all I’ve read so far—have a surprising amount of exposition interspersed between and maybe even interrupting the dialog. This is atypical of science fiction, which usually lets the reader pick up the “rules,” and it’s not at all like Leonard, who he conveys so much through dialog and little through direct speech. I find the running backstory in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union distracting, but perhaps without it I would be confused.

Two big metaphors dominate the book so far: chess, a game Landsman, the protagonist, hates because of his complicated relationship with it as a child, and the perpetual uncertainty stemming from the status of the Jews. The political situation of Sitka, a semi-autonomous state in Alaska looms large, and the angst of its status reflects much of the angst Israel has felt over all the years of its existence. The point is direct: all states are changing and no state permanent; while the Jews feel that issue more acutely than many, they are not alone in their anxiety or the larger push and pull of the world’s forces.

I’m looking forward to Chabon’s talk in Seattle on May 16 and will be there for it.

Never Let Me Go — Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is the softest of “soft” science fiction: it focuses not at all on science as a process or its industrial applications, but on how science affects a small group of people who know little about the genesis of their situation. The clever premise didn’t become fully evident to me until most of the way through the book, though it defines the characters’ lives because, unlike most of us, they know the approximate date of their premature death as well as the means of its delivery. They learn steadily more about the purpose of their lives always just before they are old enough to fully comprehend it, like someone being told they are adopted before grasping what society thinks adoption means. Ishiguro’s technique is a variation on the older stories that grant some unlucky soul the ability to see his own death, like the story Appointment in Samarra, except that the characters in Never Let Me Go take no futilely evasive action.

That they perceive their purpose and yet seem curiously resigned to it seems odd and foreign to me. I actually asked the professor I had in college who recommended Never Let Me Go about this, and she said they were acculturated to accept their fate, and thus had no mental framework they could use to question the outcome. Ishiguro is pointing out the importance of culture in our lives.

It’s a sound explanation if one I find unsatisfying, as the self-preservation instinct seems too high to ignore. But that was my former professor’s point: that the self-preservation instinct, or the drive toward individualism, liberalism, and liberty, are culturally constructed, and that people raised away from those concepts would react in ways that do seem alien to me. In addition, Never Let Me Go takes places in England, and the characters have some contact with the outside world; how likely is it that they would encounter none of the innumerable works, including books, songs, and movies, that privilege the individual over the group?

Despite my expectation of an escape attempt, or at least some thrashing about against the tide, neither came because the characters are raised in environments without such thoughts. Maybe Ishiguro is playing with his Western audiences here, who know that science fiction is filled with improbable escapes and moves toward freedom (like in The Stars My Destination). The weakness of the explanation remains, even if it does make artistic sense.

The book does get at the issue obliquely. Around Chapter 10 the question of fleeing arose in my mind, and I kept expecting to find some evidence of an attempt by the Hailsham students to go, despite the foreboding that remained from Chapter 1 where we discovered their destiny immutable. That it took ten chapters for me to think about leaving demonstrates how we learn about them in the same understated way they learn about themselves. The link between the way the story is told and the subject of the story is tight, the form making the content make sense.

As I said, ‘Never Let Me Go differs from the science fiction of, say, Heinlein or Dan Simmons, where the characters fight to escape the inescapable instead of being resigned to his—and the hero is usually a “him”—place. Even calling Never Let Me Go science fiction is a stretch—something closer to an alternate reality or possible future fits better. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America falls in the same category or sub-genre. Yet the genre tells us something beyond what most science fiction does; for all the strangeness of the preordained characters, there are points of universal description of those moments of life and culture that have nothing to do with the underlying story. The recognition of life’s feelings make Never Let Me Go so familiar and thus dreadful, allowing its exotic elements to be more jarring than the aliens in Speaker for the Dead or futuristic weapons in Dune. All fantastical literature inevitably comments on its own time, but Never Let Me Go does so by mostly being in its own time with twists that are paradoxically both subtle and tremendous. The recognition aspect happens when Tommy looks for a remembered song, or brief sightings students have of teachers and the speculations as to why something half-seen and misunderstood happened the way it did. The sense of mystery remains far into the book.

So does the almost elegiac tone, which bothered me at times in an emotional rather than stylistic way. In the first few chapters I didn’t understand why it was being used or how to differentiate the characters. Never Let Me Go explains why Chapters 2 – 6 seem elided: “The earlier years… they tend to blur into each other as a kind of golden time, and when I think about them at all… I can’t help feeling a sort of glow. But those last years feel different.” Again, the structure and the form come together. Later on, starting in Chapter 7, come more adult years, and the axe above Hailsham students is more palpable than the ones hanging over everyone, because they have definite knowledge more foreboding of its arrival. The clarity of the novel follows the clarity of childhood turning to adulthood.

The transition is without the fireworks often accompanying the transition. Never Let Me Go is a quiet book that still expresses loud emotions, and that is a valuable thing when it’s comparably easy to use explosions and exotic journeys as metaphors for feelings that most of us experience inside or only in conversation. Kazuo shows those emotions, quietly and significantly, as they are, rather than employing external manifestations to represent them.

I see why the book earned its reputation. Not long after writing the above, I saw an article which has since gone offline from the Guardian about A-Level exams in Britain that included this quote: “You sense [Ishiguro’s] nearly-Booker of last year, Never Let Me Go, is destined to be a set text. It has the winning combination of apparent simplicity (the narrator has a limited vocabulary and intellectual horizon) and real complexity (the better the reader, the more is to be inferred).” Though the purpose of the article is to dissect what puts modern novels on reading lists, the slighted compliment about Never Let Me Go is accurate and even if its description signals the sophistication of Never Let Me Go because it’s easier to make something overly complex than simple. The writer is correct in that there is more unsaid than said, and much to be read between the lines Never Let Me Go (Maybe the title refers to the book itself). I’ve only begun the process of reading what’s not written.

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