February 2009 Links: Book Reviews, Literary Blogs, Amazon, and more

* The Washington Post’s Book World supplement won’t be available in print any longer. Terry Teachout expresses my sentiments in Omega/alpha:

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: it is the destiny of serious arts journalism to migrate to the Web. This includes newspaper arts journalism. Most younger readers–as well as a considerable number of older ones, myself among them–have already made that leap. Why tear your hair because the Washington Post has decided to bow to the inevitable? The point is that the Post is still covering books, and the paper’s decision to continue to publish an online version of Book World strikes me as enlightened, so long as the online “magazine” is edited and designed in such a way as to retain a visual and stylistic identity of its own.

* Cynthia Crossen answers a reader’s question about books that change lives in much the way I would: by saying that no book can be the universal answer, since the right book has to find the right person at the right time.

(But, for the record, I’ll give my personal answers: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.)

EDIT: * Cynthia Crossen part duex:”How People Reveal Their True Colors” asks for literary expression of how masters treat slaves in a Hegelian sense. My answer to the headline, however, would tend to be that no one behavior or situation tends to reveal “true” colors, whatever those are.

* Patrick Kurp on blogs:

Maintaining a literary blog is like keeping a big band on the road during the waning days of swing music. The audience is aging and no longer guaranteed. They look elsewhere for diversion – television, bop or R&B. As the boss, you make sure the arrangements are in order, payroll is met, dates booked, players rehearsed and reasonably sober. You’re not Basie or Goodman but you’re a professional and people count on you. You’re never certain who’s listening, if anyone, but you still love the music and probably aren’t suited for doing anything else. Tomorrow’s another gig and you’ll be there.

* Strained metaphors and questionable analogies probably capsize the argument of “Technology is Heroin,” but I’d also never considered the entertainment evolution ideas contained within.

* Nigel Beale lists ten wicked quotes on writing.

* Sad:

Why is the newspaper business losing readers at an accelerated rate while television viewership is stronger than ever? Here’s a speculative idea: A tipping point has been passed in the competition between print and screen that has been under way since the beginnings of broadcast TV and now continues with video and other media.

Consumers are increasingly avoiding newspapers — and books, too — because the text mode is now used so infrequently that it can feel like a burden. People are showing a clear preference for a fully formed video experience that comes ready to play on a screen, requiring nothing but our passive attention.

* Tim Berners-Lee, who in effect invented the Internet as we know it, on Net Neutrality, which might turn out to be one of the essential rights of our age.

* I wrote about Amazon.com and prices earlier, and a New Yorker review piqued my interest in Robert Crawford’s The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography. The book’s retail price is $35; Amazon.com is selling it for $23 as of Feb. 7. I called the Barnes and Nobel and Borders in Tucson, both of which are selling it for… $35.

This is why Amazon.com is doing so well. On a side not, Farhad Manjoo argues that “Amazon’s amazing e-book reader is bad news for the publishing industry” on Slate. He’s probably right, but, like Microsoft’s operating system hegemony with Windows, it’s unlikely that much will change the larger trends he’s examining.

* CNet’s “Tech coalition launches sweatshop probe” offers yet another reason to like the excellent Unicomp Keyboards (as discussed previously in Product Review: Unicomp Customizer keyboard, or, the IBM Model M reborn):

A tech industry watchdog plans to investigate conditions at a Chinese hardware factory that supplies IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard, following a damning report on conditions there by a human-rights organization.

The National Labor Committee report, “High Tech Misery in China,” said these tech giants use Meitai Plastic and Electronics, a keyboard supplier that operates a factory that “dehumanizes young workers.”

In response, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a self-regulating body set up by tech companies, will carry out a third-party audit into the working conditions at the factory, IBM told ZDNet UK on Friday.

* Although it has almost nothing to do with books, Mark Bowden’s “The Last Ace” is a compelling piece of contrarian reporting that demonstrates the trade-off issues frequently left out of other articles, like Fred Kaplan’s “The Air Force doesn’t need any more F-22s.” The F-22 is among the most maligned expenses in the federal budget, and yet Bowden implies that buying more of them might paradoxically mean they’re less likely to be used.

American air superiority has been so complete for so long that we take it for granted. For more than half a century, we’ve made only rare use of the aerial-combat skills of a man like Cesar Rodriguez, who retired two years ago with more air-to-air kills than any other active-duty fighter pilot. But our technological edge is eroding—Russia, China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan all now fly fighter jets with capabilities equal or superior to those of the F-15, the backbone of American air power since the Carter era. Now we have a choice. We can stock the Air Force with the expensive, cutting-edge F‑22—maintaining our technological superiority at great expense to our Treasury. Or we can go back to a time when the cost of air supremacy was paid in the blood of men like Rodriguez.

See this post for more about the issue, including Bowden’s clarifying point that he’s not arguing for the F-22, but rather trying to understand the consequences from not building more of them. In other words, he’s evaluating trade-offs. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to read between the lines of his article and come away with the impression that building more F-22s would be a smart idea, even if it might not actually be the optimal use of resources.

(Why “almost nothing” to do with books? Because although this isn’t between hard covers—yet—Bowden wrote a number of fascinating foreign policy and nonfiction books, including Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam and, perhaps most famously, Black Hawk Down.)

The Secret Currency of Love — Hilary Black

A Time magazine interview called “The Truth About Women, Money and Relationships” with Hilary Black, the editor of The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships inspired me to buy the deceptively titled book, which has little if any truth in it and no useful financial advice save that it’s not a bad idea to play defensively with one’s cash, lest it come to affect other aspects of one’s life. As Terry Teachout recently quoted from Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Black solicited essays about money from a bunch of women and published the results, which are less than the sum of their parts. The confessional tone man adopt often seems forced, as one’s partner might after having paid for an hour or two of time, and the reductive nature of the problems—am I selling out? If so, should I? And why is it so nice to sell out?—grates by halfway through; you’re better off reading the interview and skipping the book, thus avoiding the trap I fell into. Black says, “One thing I noticed over the many years I worked at More was that although people often wrote about divorce and Botox and sex, they didn’t really talk about money in a way that was as profound or exploratory.” That’s still true. To read profound and exploratory discussions about money, try Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. Or, hell, try Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Martin Amis’ Money, which tell you more about the issue through fiction than The Secret Currency of Love does through superficial fact.

The openings of two essays might help convey the genteel banality, which smother, like wrapper over an eggroll, the insight that genuinely exists in sections of The Secret Currency of Love:

I didn’t have a regular cleaning lady until I was thirty-seven years old. I would have loved to be free of the daily drudgery of sweeping, dusting, and the Saturday scrubbing of the toilet, but paying another person to clean up my mess felt wrong. Overindulgent. Spoiled. Excessively first world.

(Ah, the joys of wealth: worrying about how one’s wealth functions on a symbolic level more than on a practical level. Is the overly examined life really worth living?)

Some women wake up at forty-five and realize they forgot to have children. I realized I forgot to make money.
I’ve never given much though to personal finance. Truth be told, it hasn’t been a serious problem: I’m grateful I’ve never had to worry about having enough or finding a place to sleep. Nor has money ever been a major goal, accomplishment, or dirty secret: I did not get an M.B.A. or go public with a company, and I don’t worry about having to hide my wealth for fear of attracting the wrong friends.

Another woman opens with a generic-seeming description of a playdate for a son at a new school, only to find that the friend’s family is loaded to the point of Google-level wealth. And it’s hard to care about another fish out of water story, or another story about the tortures of picking between money and love. Although each essay is well-written in a way that lets the seams show, many authors tell tales of financial deprivation by way of their profession, since writers are not as a rule remunerated highly. Consequently, I begin to suspect a sample bias problem: writers are, tautologically, better at writing than most people; the editor needs writers to fill a book about money; therefore, the nature of the people who offer their services affects the content even more than usual. Writers are often conflicted about commerce and thus are more likely to feel the schism when others would simply take the money—or not. And many of the contributors have absorbed the idea that writing in an unheated garret is romantic and that money is corrupting, which makes their relationships to money more tortured that those relationships perhaps need to be.

This essay’s tone is critical, and perhaps overly so, since The Secret Currency of Love is nonetheless instructive in showing that many people, even the wannabe bohemians, have more uncertainty about how income shapes us than they might admit under other circumstances. It would be nice to have enough money to live above it, like someone who has taken their company public or someone who has inherited enough not worry, but even that is fraught with intellectual and perhaps corrupting peril.

There are clever bits, which come chiefly at the beginning, when the repetitiveness of the problems suffered hasn’t yet drawn one’s attention to where the next essay starts rather than where this one is going, as when Abby Ellin writes:

In other words, I live life on my own terms.
The only problem with this lifestyle is that “freedom” is generally just another word for “nothing left to deposit.”

In which case, are you really free? I get the sense that one is paging Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own. More recently than Woolf, Philip Greenspun dealt with the same issue in his unfair but still fascinating essay “Women in Science:”

In the personal domain, young people are very different from old people. If you interview old people and ask “What are the greatest sources of satisfaction and happiness in your life?” almost always the answer “my children” comes back. At the age when people are choosing careers, the idea of having children is often unappealing and certainly few have the idea that one should choose a “kid-friendly” career. Old people, on average, also have higher income requirements than young people. A youngster is happy to backpack around the globe, stay in youth hostels for $20 per night, and sleep in a tent. Most oldsters become devoted to their creature comforts and get cranky in anything less than $200 per night private hotel room. Young people don’t mind one $400 per month room in a dingy 4BR apartment shared with three or four other young people; most oldsters need their own apartment or house (edging up towards $1 million in America’s nicer neighborhoods).

The long blockquote might seem irrelevant, but because of the age of the contributors to The Secret Currency of Love, I suspect that their choices in career and other terms have come to seem less sagacious in retrospect than they were at the time such choices were made. Hence the fear of penury, the desire for a family, and the fact that, as Greenspun says elsewhere, “Any resource that is scarce, such as real estate, is snapped up by society’s economic winners.” Writers are seldom among that group.

Alas: I suspect that reading Greenspun’s essay along with a regular dose of The Atlantic would be more instructive and insightful regarding money, as well as innumerable other subjects,than The Secret Currency of Love. Don’t be fooled by an alluring topic—underneath its cosmetic marketing, the book is fundamentally shallow.

John Updike's "Lifeguard"

John Updike’s “Lifeguard” is too deep a story to be so clever and too clever to be so deep. In it, an unnamed lifeguard and theology student beautifully conflates his two worlds, living in one nine months of the year and the other for that last quarter around the sun, to paraphrase the narrator. In sitting on the chair, he surveys the beach as one might imagine God surveying the Earth, with the power to save lives. The distance of the guard from his patrons and the slightly patronizing air he must assume to protect them from themselves is in part the image of God in the lifeguard, raised up and looking down, just as the narrator’s perspective takes on the heady quality of one above the fray. Maybe he just hasn’t joined it: “Someday my alertness will bear fruit; from near the horizon there will arise, delicious, translucent, like a green bell above the water, the call for help, the call, a call, it saddens me to confess, that I have yet to hear.”

Is there any point in summarizing the short story? It’s five pages, and in explicating its beauty I destroy it, like stepping on the flower I mean to pick. “Lifeguard” might answer that “Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.” We thrash to describe what we experience, too, and like the student, we’re lost in metaphoric clouds, and yet aware:

You are offended that a divinity student lusts? What prigs the unchurched are! Are not our assaults on the supernatural lascivious, a kind of indecency? If only you knew what de Sadian degradations, what frightful psychological spelunking, our gentle transcendentalist professors set us to, as preparation for our work, which is to shine in darkness.

I feel that my lust makes me glow; I grow cold in my chair, like a torch of ice, as I study beauty. I have studied much of it, wearing all styles of bathing suit and facial expression, and have come to this conclusion:

But to read the conclusion, you’ll have to read the story. It’s not a conclusion that, I suspect, many are likely to agree with, but it’s oddly appropriate, like a recipe mixing cocoa and chili that nonetheless works. And notice the little binaries and paradoxes Updike sets: the lust in the student of God, the “torch of ice,” the shining in darkness not thanks to goodness, but thanks to that lust. Updike would probably chastise me for confusing divinity and theology students, if there is some difference between the two I’m unaware of it. But I am aware of how astonishing this story is, even to me, the person who usually doesn’t like short stories because they end just as I’m finally getting into them.

In another, the eponymous lifeguard thinks that “I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train” It shows a bit of the Northeastern character of the story, since California, Arizona, or Florida, the first two being places I’ve lived, wouldn’t have express trains—they’d have cars, and you’d be crushed by an SUV rather than an express train. “Lifeguard,” published in 1961, came to me by way of the New Yorker’s “Picked-Up Pieces: Moments from a half century of Updike.” In 2006, “My Father’s Tears” was published, and it included this paragraph:

We did not foresee, that moment on the platform as the signal bells a half mile down the tracks warned of my train’s approach, that within a decade passenger service to Philadelphia would stop, and that eventually the station, like stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up. It stood on its empty acre of asphalt parking space like an oversized mausoleum. All the life it had once contained was sealed into silence, and for most of the rest of the century it ignominiously waited, in this city where progress was slow, to be razed.

Perhaps Updike was aware of the anachronistic train metaphor when he used it. Or perhaps he wanted us to place “Lifeguard” in an earlier era, one where religion was more likely to be taken seriously by serious people instead of being usurped by the unbelievers like me or the foolish Sarah Palins of the world. Or Updike recalled his own youth in “Lifeguard,” standing with his father on the soon-to-be-closed platform. Regardless of its temporal meaning, that sentence—“I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train”—could so easily be a cliche, and yet in the context it’s not. “Lifeguard” is a short story that makes me suddenly appreciate the short story and perceive the potential of the form, and it makes me want to read more short stories and more Updike in the search for other works as profound and clever. I’ve not read much Updike—friends keep recommending the Rabbit novels and The Witches of Eastwick, which I keep delaying for no articulated reason beyond the lengthening of my “to read” pile, which grows faster than the time in which those books are to be read. Updike, however, might now have taken a shortcut to the top.

John Updike’s “Lifeguard”

John Updike’s “Lifeguard” is too deep a story to be so clever and too clever to be so deep. In it, an unnamed lifeguard and theology student beautifully conflates his two worlds, living in one nine months of the year and the other for that last quarter around the sun, to paraphrase the narrator. In sitting on the chair, he surveys the beach as one might imagine God surveying the Earth, with the power to save lives. The distance of the guard from his patrons and the slightly patronizing air he must assume to protect them from themselves is in part the image of God in the lifeguard, raised up and looking down, just as the narrator’s perspective takes on the heady quality of one above the fray. Maybe he just hasn’t joined it: “Someday my alertness will bear fruit; from near the horizon there will arise, delicious, translucent, like a green bell above the water, the call for help, the call, a call, it saddens me to confess, that I have yet to hear.”

Is there any point in summarizing the short story? It’s five pages, and in explicating its beauty I destroy it, like stepping on the flower I mean to pick. “Lifeguard” might answer that “Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.” We thrash to describe what we experience, too, and like the student, we’re lost in metaphoric clouds, and yet aware:

You are offended that a divinity student lusts? What prigs the unchurched are! Are not our assaults on the supernatural lascivious, a kind of indecency? If only you knew what de Sadian degradations, what frightful psychological spelunking, our gentle transcendentalist professors set us to, as preparation for our work, which is to shine in darkness.

I feel that my lust makes me glow; I grow cold in my chair, like a torch of ice, as I study beauty. I have studied much of it, wearing all styles of bathing suit and facial expression, and have come to this conclusion:

But to read the conclusion, you’ll have to read the story. It’s not a conclusion that, I suspect, many are likely to agree with, but it’s oddly appropriate, like a recipe mixing cocoa and chili that nonetheless works. And notice the little binaries and paradoxes Updike sets: the lust in the student of God, the “torch of ice,” the shining in darkness not thanks to goodness, but thanks to that lust. Updike would probably chastise me for confusing divinity and theology students, if there is some difference between the two I’m unaware of it. But I am aware of how astonishing this story is, even to me, the person who usually doesn’t like short stories because they end just as I’m finally getting into them.

In another, the eponymous lifeguard thinks that “I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train” It shows a bit of the Northeastern character of the story, since California, Arizona, or Florida, the first two being places I’ve lived, wouldn’t have express trains—they’d have cars, and you’d be crushed by an SUV rather than an express train. “Lifeguard,” published in 1961, came to me by way of the New Yorker’s “Picked-Up Pieces: Moments from a half century of Updike.” In 2006, “My Father’s Tears” was published, and it included this paragraph:

We did not foresee, that moment on the platform as the signal bells a half mile down the tracks warned of my train’s approach, that within a decade passenger service to Philadelphia would stop, and that eventually the station, like stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up. It stood on its empty acre of asphalt parking space like an oversized mausoleum. All the life it had once contained was sealed into silence, and for most of the rest of the century it ignominiously waited, in this city where progress was slow, to be razed.

Perhaps Updike was aware of the anachronistic train metaphor when he used it. Or perhaps he wanted us to place “Lifeguard” in an earlier era, one where religion was more likely to be taken seriously by serious people instead of being usurped by the unbelievers like me or the foolish Sarah Palins of the world. Or Updike recalled his own youth in “Lifeguard,” standing with his father on the soon-to-be-closed platform. Regardless of its temporal meaning, that sentence—“I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train”—could so easily be a cliche, and yet in the context it’s not. “Lifeguard” is a short story that makes me suddenly appreciate the short story and perceive the potential of the form, and it makes me want to read more short stories and more Updike in the search for other works as profound and clever. I’ve not read much Updike—friends keep recommending the Rabbit novels and The Witches of Eastwick, which I keep delaying for no articulated reason beyond the lengthening of my “to read” pile, which grows faster than the time in which those books are to be read. Updike, however, might now have taken a shortcut to the top.

New Kindle, same problems

As seemingly every media outlet has mentioned, Amazon released the Kindle 2.0, and the press fawning is more notable than the gadget itself. To be sure, its stats are impressive, and maybe this one will be better made than 1.0. Its big problem, however, still looms: DRM and software. You don’t own a “book” bought with the Kindle—you have a temporary license for it. If Amazon discontinues the Kindle, or declares bankruptcy, or has any of the myriad of other problems companies are susceptible to, your investment is as solid as the wireless transmission of the book itself.

To quote an earlier post:

Gizmodo tells us that we might or might not be able to resell “books” that have been “purchased” with the Kindle or Sony eBook reader. The scare quotes are intentional because whether the physical embodiment of words or the words themselves constitute a “book” hasn’t been decided, and whether one has actual control over a Kindle or eBook hasn’t been decided either. From my initial comments:

Furthermore, I know that I’ll be able to read my copy of A Farewell to Alms in ten years. Will Amazon still produce the Kindle or Kindle store in ten years? Maybe, maybe not. I have books printed a hundred years ago that have journeyed places I doubt their original owners could’ve fathomed. Most Kindles will end up in consumer electronic junk heaps in five years, just like most iPods.

To be sure, in a few circumstances the Kindle is superior, and Megan McArdle enumerates some here: “I don’t think it’s for everyone, but for a subset of people like me–people who buy a lot of new books every year, so that the half-price books make it cost effective, people who spend a lot of time in transit, and people who travel a lot for work–it’s a godsend.” If you’re moving every six months, or likely to be deployed on a Navy ship or sub, or tend to read any given book only once but read many books per year, the Kindle might be worthwhile. For the rest of us, its End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) makes it terribly unappealing.

The Sot-Weed Factor — John Barth

In John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, a small, abstract decision to remain “innocent”—whatever that means—propels would-be poet Ebenezer Cooke to flee London for colonial Maryland, largely because he refuses to “swive” a prostitute thanks to his sudden love for her and then refuses to pay for her time, causing her pimp and maybe boyfriend (except for his lack of, um, ability, as we later learn), to threaten him. In turn, Burlingame—who formerly tutored Ebenezer and his twin, Anna—miraculously reappears in a variety of guises. Identities are constantly mistaken, and the shifting desires of characters revolve around Ebenezer like planets around the sun, and yet Ebenezer’s attempts not to be part of what he first sees as degraded life that causes him much pain and us much mirth.

There is something about vast, extraordinary novels like The Sot-Weed Factor that makes it hard to begin writing about them, for, if done poorly, a warning is sufficient, but if done well, they contain such multitudes that to dwell on only one seems foolish, like describing only the Northeastern cities of the United States as representing the whole country. To write about The Sot-Weed Factor as a whole would take a book half as long again as the 750-page book already in hand. The Sot-Weed Factor almost defies summarization by casting a mocking eye on the ability to simplify a hopelessly entangled world. Ebenezer’s hopeless attempts at stability certainly to fall apart:

“The world can alter a man entirely, Eben, or he can alter himself, down to his very essence.  Did you now by your own testimony resolve, not that you were, but you’d be a virgin and poet from that moment hence?  Nay, a man must alter willy-nilly in’s flight to the grave; he is a river running seawards, that is ne’er the same from hour to hour. What is there in the Maryland Laureate of the boy I fetched from Magdalene 
College?”

“The less the better!” Ebenzer replied. “Yet I am still Eben Cooke, though haply not the same Eben Cooke […]”

Is he? He seems quite a different Eben Cooke at the end, doubting not only the beliefs of the earlier Eben Cooke but doubting beliefs altogether, indicating that the world has quite altered the man or vice-versa. It’s probably not a coincidence that one chapter title says Ebenezer “reflects a reflection,” and one character tells him to “Speak literally, an’t please you, if only for a sentence, and lay open plainly what is signified by all this talk of death and midwives and the rest of the allegory.” Eben can’t, naturally, and calls of “contrivance!” and “S’heart!” He chastises his servant, Bertrand, for Bertrand’s unusual take on morality that’s worth quoting in full to give some flavor of the novel:

“The fact is, sir, my Betsy, who is a hot-blooded, affectionate lass, hath the bad luck to be married, and that to a lackluster chilly fellow whose only passions are ambition and miserliness, and who, though he’d like a sturdy son to bring home extra wages, is as sparing with caresses as with coins. Such a money-grubber is he that, after a day’s work as a clerk’s apprentice in the Customs-House, he labors half the night as a fiddler in Locket’s to put by an extra crown, with the excuse ’tis a nest egg against the day she finds herself with child. But ‘sblood, ’tis such a tax on his time that he scarce sees her from one day to the next and on his strength that he hath not the wherewithal to roger what time he’s with her! It seemed a sinful waste to me to see, on the one hand, poor Betsy alone and all a-fidget for want of husbanding, and on the other her husband Ralph a-hoarding money to no purpose, and so like a proper Samaritan I did what I could for the both of ‘em: Ralph fiddled and I diddled.”

“How’s that, you rascal? The both of ‘em! Small favor to the husband, to bless him with horns! What a villainy!”

“Ah, on the contrary, sir, if I may say so, ’twas a double boon I did him, for not only did I plow his field, which else had lain fallow, but seeded it as well, and from every sign ’twill be a bumper crop come fall.”

Bertrand, the novel implies, might be more right than Ebenezer in the topsy-turvy morality that life tends to inspire. Notice within that passage the clever echoes and doublings within: the alliteration of “tax” and time,” the repeated “l” sound in “lackluster chilly fellow,” and the “sturdy son.” Rhymes play a role too: “Ralph fiddled and I diddled!” Doubling (and tripling) plays a role throughout the novel: Anna’s dedication both inspires and causes great trouble, while Burlingame switches sides so many times that one ceases to know which “side” is which.

“Miraculous” should appear in any attempt at describing The Sot-Weed Factor, as coincidences abound enough to make crossing the suspension bridge of disbelief as perilous as that the ocean in a colonial ship. For Ebenezer, the ship crossings certainly are perilous. Oh, and all this happens in the late 1600s, a time more given to delicate evasions of savagery, lust, lasciviousness, and violence in Barth’s reading than any other I know. Seldom have more attributes more normally found in tragedy employed in comedy comedy. The “French Pox,” also known more recently as the clap and many other nicknames besides, is extraordinarily amusing, even in a time when it more commonly led to death and disfigurement. And the heroic explorers of the “New World,” turn out about as heroic in many circumstances as Ebenezer is a poet. At the same time, the taboo attraction between Ebenezer and Anna might not be as dark as one expects it to be, and the only so caught up in sibling relationships I’ve found is John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire.

A vast and improbable web forms between characters, like the web so well described in All the King’s Men:

Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping.

For Ebenezer, that web is infested with voracious and lascivious spiders, and in his attempts to stay off the web Ebenezer only becomes more trapped in it. He touches those strands, sending vibrations ricocheting outwards even when he doesn’t mean to. There can be no onlookers in life and stories, only players, and trying to sit out is itself a play, as Ebenezer discovers to his displeasure and our glee.

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