Sharp Objects — Gillian Flynn

The first time through Sharp Objects I though it totally absurd, since the characters in it behave like fantastical morons perpetually rolling on ecstasy or akin to faeries from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The plausibility of the plot is so low that I almost gave up, exasperated.

But I kept reading the first time and was curious enough to reread the second time and realize that Sharp Objects is not about a realistic story of realistic detection; instead, it’s a mythic-Freudian* work about the anxiety that comes from two related phenomena: transitions to adulthood and the muddying of lines between the generations. Camille, the protagonist, is supposed to be an adult (she’s a reporter for paper, she covers murders, she pays the rent) but around her mother she acts like a child and around her 13-year-old sister she acts like a peer.

Sharp_ObjectsOnce this alternate reading became clear, Sharp Objects became pleasant. It’s not supposed to be realistic (or, if it is, it fails so badly at its purpose that it might as well be read my way). It’s a fairy tale with a bit of media critique thrown in, and it says that girls and women have the dark urges that are often absent from fiction and from the news. Camille needs to reconcile her family relationships and her family’s history in order to understand the murders she’s investigating. Conventional reportorial skills and abilities are of little use; at best one might say she employs some aspects of New or Gonzo Journalism, since she does in fact drop ecstasy at one point.

In the novel Camille is dispatched by her editor to her home town to investigate a murder that becomes a series of murders of girls. The novel signals its intentions early. Camille is describing the home town she came from, and she ends the first chapter with this:

When I was still in grammar school, maybe twelve, I wandered into a neighbor boy’s hunting shed, a wood-planked shack where animals were stripped and split. Ribbons of moist, pink flesh dangled from strings, waiting to be dried for jerky. The dirt floor was rusted with blood. The walls were covered with photographs of naked women. Some of the girls were spreading themselves wide, others were being held down and penetrated. One woman was tied up, her eyes glazed, her breasts stretched and veined like grapes, as a man took her from behind. I could smell them all in the thick, gory air.

At home that night, I slipped a finger under my panties and masturbated for the first time, panting and sick.

The blurred mental lines between sexuality, animals, reproduction, and early age remain a theme that runs through the novel.

Attention is also a scarce resource in the novel: Camille constantly seeks it from her mother, even at the risk of being dangerous, and also seeks it from men (at least at first). Her sister is repeating Camille’s experience. Parents are either absent (from page 21: “I wondered where their mother was”) or overwhelming. Family sexuality recurs; here is one early example, from Camille’s narration:

The Victorians, especially southern Victorians, needed a lot of room to stray away from each other, to duck tuberculosis and flu, to avoid rapacious lust, to wall themselves away from sticky emotions. Extra space is always good.

“Stray” is an exact quote. And if extra space is always good, why then does Camille go to her mother’s house? She returns to a point of danger in search of information, like Little Red Riding Hood entering the Wolf’s house. The novel itself keeps pointing to Fairy Tales. Amma, Camille’s sister, says:

now we’re reunited. You’re like poor Cinderella, and I’m the evil stepsister. Half sister.

A few pages later, Camille speaks with a boy who says that he saw a “woman” take the second girl, who turns up murdered. She thinks this of him:

What did James Capisi see? The boy left me uneasy. I didn’t think he was lying. But children digest terror differently. The boy saw a horror, and that horror became the wicked witch of fairy tales, the cruel snow queen.

No one believes that the killer is a woman because women don’t behave that way. But wicked and evil women are pronounced in fairy tales.

This details occurs in Camille’s mother’s house:

Walking past Amma’s room, I saw her sitting very properly on the edge of a rocking chair, reading a book called Greek Goddesses. Since I’d been here, she’d played at being Joan of Arc and Bluebeard’s wife and Princess Diana—all martyrs, I realized. She’d find even unhealthier role models among the goddesses. I left her to it.

There are more. These are enough.

Seemingly no one grows up in Sharp Objects. Nearly every woman in Wind Gap still gossips like she’s in high school. Growing up is hard and harder for some of us than others. Perhaps we never fully leave childhood behind. Camille can’t. Her sister Amma is in some ways eager to leave childhood (she behaves like a pro when it comes to the inciting the desires of men) but in other ways wants its protections. In our culture, she can legally at least get both,** and she behaves in both ways. At one moment Amma is behaving like an infant:

Amma lolled sleepy as a newborn in her blanket, smacking her lips occasionally. It was the first time I’d seen my mother since our trip to Woodberry. I hovered in front of her, but she wouldn’t take her eyes off Amma.

In others she doesn’t, as when she says that after her mother takes care of her, “I like to have sex.” Then:

She flipped up her skirt from behind, flashed me a hot pink thong.
“I don’t think you should let boys do things to you, Amma. Because that’s what it is. It’s not reciprocal at your age.”

Camille’s counsel is distinctly odd, coming from someone who did similar things at similar ages and, it would appear, for similar reasons. But she doesn’t at this moment have the power to break the familial cycle, with its hints and implications of incest. That waits until later.

Camille’s decision to enter this cauldron of weirdness reinforces the idea that Sharp Objects is more about family patterns and dynamics than detection. In one of the flimsier rationales in the book, Camille stays with her mother, her stepfather, and her adolescent sister, ostensibly for the sake of saving the paper money, but this decision is insane given her relationship to the family. That she continues to stay as events become more and more macabre and surreal are equally insane and implausible. Camille should leave, and that’s obvious to any sane reader and should be obvious to her. That she stays anyway indicates that the story has motives different than the ones I initially assumed.


* Freud has a much stronger mythic element to his work than is commonly supposed—and so I’m justified in using myth and Freud in this way. Much of his work is unfalsifiable, giving what is nominally a scientific body of work a distinctly literary quality, and the supposed universality of many of his concepts (the death drive, the Oedipus complex, etc.) are not supportable.

* Let me reproduce the footnote at the link:

As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Laws [. . .] reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.

I didn’t elaborate on what the “unpleasant” thing may be and won’t here, either, but you’re welcome to take a shoot at your best interpretation in the comments.

Love Me Back — Merritt Tierce

Love Me Back is compelling, worth reading, and strange: it is a novel almost without psychology, in which the protagonist, Marie, acts without asking herself why she acts (“Whatever is in me that makes decisions is now full of an accretion of plaque”). It is a strange book too to read back-to-back with Peter Thiel and Blake Masters’s Zero to One: that book is about startups, innovation, change, and societies, while Love Me Back is about Sisyphean repetition, ancient industries, grunt labor, and sex. The two books o occupy different market worlds, and Thiel and Masters mention restaurants repeatedly as the sort of low-margin high-competition businesses one doesn’t want to be in. Marie is in the business from necessity and because it provides opportunities she wouldn’t have otherwise: opportunities for sex and drugs, and opportunities to turn her mind off and make the money she can’t or couldn’t make otherwise.

Love_Me_BackThe novel’s chronology is chopped in an appealing way: Marie starts the story as an experienced worker and then jumps back and forward. It’s disorienting in a way that perhaps mirrors the disorientation of service at a restaurant. She is observational, though, from the start, imagining a customer thinking, “Would I be like Jordan?”, since Jordan “was a young blond waitress liberated by one of her customers.” The word “liberated” is key and yet Marie doesn’t seem to want to be liberated: she wants not slavery but structure. The novel is partially addressed to her daughter, who Marie bears as a teenager and whose father is unnamed, and in one early encounter with a man who “reminded me of a hairless mole we’d seen at the zoo” she snorts coke and then says:

I imagined her sitting on the counter, her short legs hanging off, swinging. I went back into the bedroom and said, I’m sorry, I have to go, I’m not well. I was shaking and I felt beautiful. I thought how beautiful it was that I had only one garment to put back on, my black cocktail dress there on the floor. I pulled it over my head. I don’t wear underwear. See you, I said. He didn’t try to stop me.

There is no antecedent to the pronoun “her:” we infer that Marie is speaking of her daughter. For a moment Marie feels something; it isn’t obvious that she often feels beautiful despite the action she gets. She senses without articulating it the power of glamour (one of her first restaurant men wears aviators, an object Postrel specifically discusses at the link). Marie is ambiguous in general; at moment she says “I hated staying the night because it was always different in the morning.” Was it? Is it? Why? The party ends, yes, and perhaps the illusion can’t be sustained and Marie wants the illusion. But relationships of any duration are the breaking of the illusion and the creation of something else in its place.

It is impossible to intelligently discuss Love Me Back without mentioning sex and the restaurant business. When Marie begins she says:

That was the best body I ever had, and the worst mind. I was seventeen. I was slender and strong and I also had swollen C-cup breasts. [. . . ] my mind was an open sore. It was black. I couldn’t tell if I was deep inside it or totally outside it. I would imagine being fatally cleaved all day long.

She never stops imagining being “fatally cleaved,” or so it would appear. The next three paragraphs spoils the novel to a minor extent, but the novel ends with Marie’s description of her getting ready for work, in a “professional” manner (with “professional” repeated often enough to make us skeptical of the term) and she says:

He starches everything to spec, so my long bistro apron can stand on its own and the creases in my sleeves will be so pointy that even at ten thirty tonight when I walk up to my last table for the first time they will see those creases and they’ll trust me just a little. My name is Marie, and I’ll take care of you tonight.

She’s where she started. Nothing changes in the restaurant business, or change happens so slowly that it isn’t perceived by the workers in the business. The work is cyclical, mythic, like economics prior to the Industrial Revolution. Hence the jarring feeling of reading Thiel and Masters next to Tierce. Love Me Back is about elemental matters, sexual and economic, and their book is about change. Both are beautifully written but in very, very different ways; Love Me Back took longer to enter but its proffered rewards turned out to be real.

The restaurant business is ugly and fascinating and un-PC. One man, Christopher, dispenses this advice, before he fucks teenaged Marie: “There’s only two times in a restaurant: before and after. You walk in, you white-knuckle it, try not to fuck up till it’s over and then it’s over. You made your money or you didn’t.” The third time in a restaurant business might be when you write about it. Marie likes it because exhaustion keeps her from thinking: she is “always that heavy, iron kind of tired” and her “exhaustion was metallic.” She likes it. She doesn’t have to think and doesn’t want to, which is curious given another seemingly throwaway detail: Marie has been admitted to Yale but shows few real interests or abstract thoughts. What is she interested in? Art? Science? Startups? Philosophy? We don’t see much. Certainly plenty of otherwise vapid students with good grades and test scores get into high-status, highly marketed schools, but Marie seems an extreme example.

She does learn outside of work:

I learned a lot of things while I worked [at Chili’s]. I learned how to sweep aggressively and efficiently. I learned how to anticipate and consolidate, which is all waiting tables is. I learned how to use work to forget. I learned how to have an orgasm and I learned I was a bad wife.

Many of those things are not like other things; they are so disparate that one learns both much and little about Marie at once. Marie learns that “there were rules to being a waitress. The main one was don’t fuck up.” Arguably that’s a rule of relationships too; the lack of punctuation, italics, or some other separation between the word “was” and “don’t fuck up” is also characteristics of the novel’s overall tone, which is chatty but not shallow. It seems like one should tire of it by the end, but I didn’t.

Marie rejects the support system she has: she leaves her parents because they treat her daughter more like their daughter, and while when she first leaves “They didn’t live far from us” she “didn’t know what to report. I hate that I hate my life?” The language here is clever: a weaker writer would’ve simply said “I hate my life,” but hating that she hates her life makes sense, and makes me pause: she chose her life and as such it doesn’t make sense to hate it. She’s too smart for simple teenage hate, but the perpetual restaurant life and the perpetual need for cash don’t sound fun either. Reading between the lines might also make Love Me Back a very subtle argument for making IUDs widely available, since they are tremendously effective and safe. But that would require acknowledging what people and especially teenagers want, and we live in a culture where that doesn’t happen; Marie doesn’t quite want to acknowledge what she wants, either. Want is somewhere in the rush to perpetual action, whether at the job or through sex. Let’s not ask why.

I hesitate to include the above paragraph because it makes the novel sound like a policy brief, which it isn’t. But it will in some quarters be read as one. Marie’s poverty is too persistent; for one holiday she says that “Thanksgiving dinner was the rice and beans with the onion and Ro*Tel added for flavor, which is what we usually ate, and the pie. He said the pie was the best thing he had ever eaten in his life.” But that’s also the night her husband learns that “it hurts when I piss,” and Marie knows why: “I knew that I had given Danny chlamydia and I knew I’d slept with my husband since then.” That undercuts whatever domestic success Thanksgiving might otherwise have entailed. One of the guys she chooses to fuck is described this way:

On his chest the tattooed face of a pit bull he said was the best friend he’d ever had, on his left calf a beckoning, bare-titted mermaid. Over his entire back a flaming skull, the fire burning up toward the nape of his neck [. . .] On his wedding finger a black band where a ring would go.

He is signaling his beliefs and attitudes effectively. During a three-way with two men, neither of whom is her husband, Marie says that one “Held me in place like that and I kept myself taut against him almost as if I were trying to resist or get away but it was the best thing I had ever felt with a man.” The divorce is almost foreordained. The other guys are too good, the variety too fun. A different sort of person could say, “Be wary of marrying teenage mothers.”

Does Marie learn over the course of the book? I think not. She does, however, speak, and her voice keeps me reading, and keeps me thinking about Love Me Back after I’ve moved onto other books, other worlds, other words. Marie’s words stay with me. She is like the narrator in True Things About Me or Catherine Millet in The Sexual Life of Catherine M. bizarrely, powerfully honest. I wish I’d read all three books long ago—perhaps the trajectory described in detail here would have been faster. But then again I might not have had the base of knowledge I do know, and into which Marie’s life can be incorporated and seen for what it is, rather than what others wish it to be.


Love Me Back is too intense to be for everyone and yet as you can gather above I love it. Here is an interview with Tierce, and here is a visual review.

True Things About Me — Deborah Kay Davies

True Things About Me is disturbing and compelling, especially because it doesn’t want to explain. Its unnamed protagonist doesn’t want to explain. She just wants to act and in acting without explanation she may in some ways be truer to life, in which we so often act and then come up with rationalizations about why we acted after the fact. The disturbing implication of the novel may be that our reasons for doing things are opaque even to us and always will be. Like markets, we just can’t predict our own behavior.

True_things_about_meIn the novel the unnamed narrator has unplanned, unexpected sex with a man just out of prison who is registering for benefits. It is unexpected, a disjunction, a call to action in a mythic sense, and beyond the initial bang, so to speak, True Things About Me is at most loosely plotted. The scary thing about the story is not that it may be sick but that it may be normal, or at least more common than is commonly supposed, despite the evidence in fiction and art that few of us, Paglia aside, want to face. Much of the online commentary mentions “mental illness,” which is a comforting but wrong misreading. Desire can be neither legislated nor medicalized away. It will reemerge in different forms, and its verbal component is weak or nonexistent. When Alison, the narrator’s boring foil friend, wants to know what’s happening with the narrator, the narrator says “Somehow I couldn’t be bothered to explain it all.” “Somehow:” why bother analyzing what can’t be fully analyzed?

Her parents are either delusional or right; when the narrator invents a boyfriend for her parents’ benefit her mother says, “I just hope he’s a nice boy.” The irony is obvious. Her mother describes Alison as “so sensible,” which may read here as a synonym for boring. There may be no greater modern relationship sin than being boring or needy.* When madness intrudes in normal life we don’t know how to react, unless perhaps we live a continually mad life, like a different Alison, the protagonist in Story of My Life. For the narrator of True Things About Me everything is permitted and nothing matters, which may be the nature of modern adulthood for many nulliparous people.

For the narrator internal changes inspire external changes. After her encounter she thinks that “It seemed to me that I hadn’t looked at clothes properly before.” The clothes she buys says things other than what her old clothes presumably said: “a pair of low-slung cream linen trouser, and a scarlet and cream striped bustier” are new to her, and make one see fashion as part of the story. Silence is power, which is strange in a book composed of words; at one point she says that “He didn’t say much.” What and how he does counts.

Alison and her coworkers are twits. At one moment “They were talking about a television programme. Everyone was really into it. Alison was the most knowledgable.” There is nothing wrong with being into a TV show but in this context the TV show is a stand-in for a life the coworkers are too scared to live. The narrator becomes an outsider by dint of secret knowledge. She drifts away or is separated from from Alison’s world and that is arguably an improvement. Halfway through the novel she considers getting “back into the real world,” raising the usual question of what constitutes reality beyond knowing it when you see it.

In Nine and a Half Weeks one gets many sentences like “His face is blank. The gray pupils on which mine are focused reflect two miniature faces.” There are many descriptions of movement (same page: “I walk slowly across the carpet”) but few of feeling or context. Here is one extended, reasonably representative passage from True Things About Me, and it’s representative in both style and in raising questions about whether one should trust this narrator:

I began to see how it was, how it had always been. Alison was one of those types who loved to sit on the sidelines of someone else’s fascinating life and shout advice at them. She fed off me, and I let her. It made people like that feel even more smug about themselves when they could observe another human being struggling. Unravelling, if they were lucky. . . . She sounded like a second-rate actress in a daytime soap.

Who does the narrator sound like?

True Things About Me may be obliquely related to Susan Minot’s Rapture. Both could be construed as arguments that things don’t matter—people and experiences do. True Things About Me is also a commentary on soulless bureaucratic jobs and their deadening effects on the human condition.

At one point an old woman says, “That girl is on the game [. . .] living off immoral earnings. It’s disgusting. Someone ought to come round and investigate.” The contemporary term “hater” describes her well. The old woman hates the player because she is “living like she doesn’t have a care in the world. It shouldn’t be allowed.” Why not? The narrator doesn’t ask and the old woman doesn’t volunteer. The narrator is about to live without a seeming care in the world either. She leaves her work as an anonymous, Houellebecq-esque bureaucrat processing welfare claims forms to meet a dissolute but presumably sexy man. She blows off her friend, Alison, who is the voice of boredom, restraint, wisdom, and creation, to go “underground.”

There are numerous references to going underground, with connotations that go back to Persephone if not earlier. While there her mind “had stretched and blanked, like a washed sheet on a clothes line.” Is that how the best sexual encounters always happen? Maybe. But the metaphor can be extended through the novel, in which her mind is never really not “blank.”

True Things About Me is probably too uncomfortable to be of interest to most people; in this respect it resembles Never the Face, an underrated and under-known book. I imagine True Things About Me doing better in Europe than here, based solely on stereotype. The truth is out there, the book implies, and you will not like it.

See also Rebecca Barry’s NYT review, although she doesn’t get the novel and wants to throw around the word “abuse,” as if the novel is a cautionary, modern liberal, story about leading a sanitized life purged of dark impulses. Camille Paglia would be the ideal reviewer: she might not like the book—in some ways it may stick too close to the tradition—but she would get it.


* Reminder: Linking does not imply endorsement.

Arts & Entertainments — Christopher Beha

Arts & Entertainments is among other things very good, very New York, a comedy complement to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (mid book: “I don’t like living this way. I’ve barely been outside in a week. I want to come home”), a defense of privacy and explanation of its importance (see also “Solitude and Leadership“), a surprise critique of the NSA, a reminder to trust liars, and a reminder that attention is the scarcest commodity of all and becoming scarcer.

Arts and entertainmentsI want to write that the plot is absurd. But is it? The vast celebrity-industrial complex is so large and amorphous that it is difficult to judge the plausibility of the plot, or of Eddie’s fatal sex-tape miscalculation. Does he not read the news? Every week some teacher or other gets fired not for being a stripper but for becoming known as one. Digital life is rife with such stories. People as a whole (and the culture we create) are hypocritical, as the novel is aware; though this is taken out of context it reinforces the point:

People don’t want to go overboard with the sad stuff. Mostly, they want to be able to judge people, and they can’t judge a girl in a coma. If she was older and had some kids, they could judge her for being selfish and irresponsible. But she’s too young for that. Maybe they can judge her father for a little while, but that’s his daughter in the coma, so that will only last so long. They can judge, like, the culture at large, but that means judging themselves, so that gets tiresome too. And there’s another episode of Desperately Expecting Susan to watch on Tuesday. Everyone will want an excuse to return their attention to the usual entertainment. We give them a nice opportunity.

The judgment reflex and public morality lag behind reality and rarely moreso than in putative education. The joy of altruistic punishment is real and rarely more powerful than in sexual mattes, with financial matters probably coming in second.

Arts & Entertainments picks up a millennia-old conversation about the self and how much, if at all, we can really know another person. In “In its second season premiere, Masters of Sex takes on the hardest questions of love,” Todd VanDerWerff writes:

One reason so many have tried to repress their sexual desires or legislate them away throughout human history is because when it comes to sex, we’re reduced to our most basic selves. There’s a moment where we are uncontrolled, and our true face appears, even if only for a second. To “fix” this, we try to introduce a rigidity, a script to stick to. We try to set up carefully delineated divisions between that true self and the version of ourselves we present to the world. Yet the fear is always there that in a moment of weakness, that face will appear, and we’ll finally be seen for who we truly are, even if no one would blink for a second.

This may be one reason people like porn, especially of celebrities or other people they know: they imagine that they are getting a moment of the “true” self, and that one gets to see through the personality. But Masters of Sex undercuts that: think of the scene in which Masters is told by Jane Martin, a prostitute in the show, that virtually all women can fake it and have faked it. Masters is astonished, and his astonishment comes from a massive revision about human nature. Most people, I suspect, go through such revisions over and over again, their views on nature changing until they come to a realization like this paraphrase of Terence, by way of Montaigne: “Nothing human is foreign to me.”

Art is filled with moments that remind us of the liars we are. Can we accept an answer of “no,” we do not know and cannot really know another person? Take a moment at the end of Generation War, a fantastic German miniseries that follows five German friends through World War II, in which a Jewish survivor returns to Germany after the war only to discover that a highly-placed Nazi shifted allegiances after the war and continued to be part of the German government. The Nazi’s allegiance was to power itself, and the implication is that we don’t know what a person will do when the circumstances in which they live change.

That we may not be able to know another is not a new idea, but the jones for “reality” TV and celebrity gossip fuels it. There is also an old idea that only God can see our true selves, but the true self may be an outgrown idea, like that other somewhat outgrown idea. In “Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke,” Nury Vittachi writes that “a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.” I’m unconvinced but I do think most if not all people need an attachment to an idea greater than and outside themselves. Celebrity, Arts & Entertainments suggests, could be that idea, but it is ultimately a hollow one. The cameras lie as effectively as we lie to each other and ourselves. Eddie’s weakness as an actor and a character is his inability to lie effectively. Poor deception skills make him ironically unable to exist on reality TV. The book is filled with subtle ironies like this, and that’s one reason why I think it catches the attention of critics who might be otherwise inclined to write it off as basic, lightweight satire. It isn’t just that. It’s a book of pleasures and of depth.

People who truly live and die an ideology or belief are the real exceptions. Standing for something is the uncommon thing, which may be why it’s so valorized in proportion to the number of people who actually do it. It may also be one of the many reasons religion keeps sneaking into this book. Eddie went to a Catholic school at which he teaches, and he appears to want on some level to do the time without doing the crime, so to speak, but this comment will appear inscrutable without having read the book, but I don’t want to give it more context for fear of spoiling the surprisingly twisty plot. Nothing feels like it’s happening as everything does.

One character, a reality TV producer named Moody, describes how he spent time in “a retreat house in Minnesota, run by the Order of St. Clement” while studying to become a priest; but he left after contact with a film crew that had arrived to make a video that showed what happened. As he says

The crew had their own problems. The things that were really going on in that place couldn’t be captured on film, because they were meant for God, not for the audience. They happened inside people. I watched all this, and somehow I knew what the audience would want to see.

If what you’re doing, or thinking, or feeling can’t be seen, does it matter? Does it “exist?” Is the audience God? Moody also highlights a challenge in any sort of narrative fiction, which can’t effectively depict what happens during the having of an idea, or when someone is doing an intellectual activity. Intellectual effort is mostly invisible, though it may be represented by books or typing or the like. Biographies of many artists are boring because the artists don’t necessarily do that much with their lives. Unless they’re unusually social or unusually sexual, they draw, they pain, they write—none of which lend themselves to narrative. One can write about influences and encounters and so on, but many people have interesting influences and encounters but never go on to do important work, as the artist does.

Movies have an especially hard time with boring writers and thinkers. The Social Network needs a lot of tarted-up, amped up drama to make it compelling; in real life Mark Zuckerberg appears to have spent most of his life at a keyboard and to have been in a monogamous relationship since he was 19 or 20. A Beautiful Mind also dramatizes the discovery moments in math, but the bulk of the movie focuses on dramatizing schizophrenia instead. Novels have similar problems. Few works of narrative art have plots that are motivated by ideas or intellectual curiosity—instead they focus on the interwoven meanings of sex, money, social status, and death. All are fine topics but one wonders if there is more out there.

TV and film, even more than the novel, are about dramatizing the exterior. Anything inside that can’t be represented outside doesn’t exist, but it’s so often what’s inside that counts most. If the soul does not live outside the body, it must not exist at all. The camera reminds us that we do exist, and we live for the adulation of others. That is so hard to resist that we barely know the people who do resist it; for one thing, they aren’t on TV, are rarely in any media, and as such they are the dark matter of contemporary society, everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Yet they may be the real-ist people of all. If there once was such a thing as natural existence, TV has taken that away, and those who actively cultivate the TV-social-media-Internet-gossip mindset may not have it all. They are faux people, pod people, and that scares because they cannot be relied on to produce a consistent set of behaviors over time, which we usually call personality. One purpose of religion is to enforce a set of behavior codes that allow reasonable forward planning and projection. Arts & Entertainments encourages us to think that maybe there are parts of religion that we think more seriously about, and that fame as a secular religion has its perils that are often not seen until after it has been achieved.

“Some Hope” and “Bad News” — Edward St. Aubyn

Both Some Hope (the better or at least less gross novel, since it lacks the precise drug descriptions) and Bad News are novels about nothing, or self-destructiveness, or family, or themselves, or critiques of a lack of financial need that leads to a lack of financial discipline that leads to both snobbish and waste. But it is redeemed by humor, on almost every page, though of a nasty sort. There are clever descriptions everywhere:

‘It’s too bad your not being able to come,’ said David Windfall to his wife, slipping a couple of condoms into the inside pocket of his dinner jacket, just in case.

Is “come” a double entendre here, whether intentional or not? Maybe. Or consider this this, when a girl begs her father to read a story to her, and he eventually caves:

‘Of course I will. I’d be delighted,’ said Sonny with a little bow, as if he’d been asked to address an agricultural fair.

“An agricultural fair:” he is pompous, distant, and yet slightly pleased to oblige an inferior at the same time. As a father he will inspire therapy, an inability to form close relationship, cloying clinginess, or all three paradoxically at once. One can only hope that he will spend enough of “his” money—the scare quotes are warranted—to not perpetuate the next generation of vaguely aristocratic and worthless assholes of the sort that make one see why Europeans were more susceptible to the otherwise idiotic temptations of Marxism than Americans. The U.S. has plenty of rich, pointless heirs and heiresses, but few have been enshrined in ten or more generations of land-holding assholes.

Every work of fiction creates its own moral universe. That universe may be obscured and debatable, but it’s there. In Some Hope, the good guys recognize their own snobbishness, ridiculous beliefs, nastiness, pettiness, forbidden desire, awkward desire, and cruelty (petty or mortal). If they don’t recognize those aspects of themselves, they at least recognize the search for them. Patrick and Johnny may be the only good guys in the novel. The bad guys don’t recognize their own snobbishness, ridiculous beliefs, nastiness, pettiness, forbidden desire, awkward desire, and cruelty (petty or mortal). By this definition almost everyone in the novel is bad. Like Seinfeld, there is no hugging and no learning.

No one builds or makes anything except jokes (“[Bridget] ought to get on with the arrangements, which, in her case, meant worrying, since all the work had been delegated to somebody else”). There are only parties, art, aesthetics, and jockeying for status for its own sake, rather than based on some external measure of achievement. Social form without content is meaningless and spiritually deadening, a fun place to visit—which is why the Patrick Melrose novels work—but not a great place to live. The Patrick Melrose novels can be read as an argument against large hereditary transfers of wealth and against a basic or guaranteed annual income.

There are no social obligations aside from being witty and beautiful. “Witty” usually also means “self-aware,” as only Patrick and Johnny might be.

Their lives are works of art paid for by the industriousness of their ancestors, or by others in their society. Do most people who are doing or making interesting things have time to think, “The meaning of life was whatever meaning one could thrust down its reluctant throat”? That may be true; on the same page Patrick is thinking about Measure for Measure “while he bared his teeth to rip open a sachet of bath gel.” Is this a brilliant example of the profound and banal mixing, as they do in real life, or an example of the flight of ideas and intellectual incoherence?

At one point another rich dilettante named Kitty says:

So, you see, I know what I’m talking about. Children give off the most enormous sexual feeling; they set out to seduce their parents. It’s all in Freud, I’m told, although I haven’t read his books myself.

Some Hope is filled with people who have strong opinions despite or because of not having read the books themselves. Most haven’t cooked for themselves, cleaned for themselves, or other activities that might connect them with reality, and they don’t realize how much of life’s fabric they’re missing. Their regular complete missing the point—any point—makes them funny. Kitty in context is comedic, though out of it she may not show it. Almost everyone can, in the right context, be shown to be ridiculous, but the characters in the Patrick Melrose novels need even less removal than most.

Here is The New Yorker on Aubyn. Here is Tyler Cowen, and note his genre description (“Derelict” fiction?). Most reviews and interviews focus on his life’s relationship to his fiction, which I find an uninteresting and unedifying set of concerns, yet I appear to be almost alone in that regard.

Briefly Noted: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, and the meaning of the thriller

Francophone Hit, American Letdown” inspired me to read The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, but “Francophone Hit” describes the book’s sentence-by-sentence weaknesses well:

The dialogue barely surpasses lorem ipsum in its specificity: “Do you have any change?” “No.” “Keep it, then.” “Thank you, writer.” “I’m not a writer anymore.” And life advice from an alleged literary genius takes the form of shampoo-bottle nonsense: “Rain never hurt anyone. If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.”

Let me add to that list: towards the beginning of the book, Marcus’s first novel is an incredible sales success; he says that “Even the harshest critics on the East Coast all agreed: young Marcus Goldman was destined to become one of our great writers.” I don’t think I’ve read any critic, ever, who announces that a writer is “destined” to become great, because no one is destined to do anything. The vagueness of “East Coast” critics—who are these people, exactly?—is symptomatic of a vagueness infecting the entire novel, as if the narrator has learned to speak through advertising platitudes and brand names: “New Writer! More Popular and Absorbent Than the Competition!” There are occasional bursts of cleverness (“I bought a new laptop, in the hope that it would come pre-loaded with good ideas”), but they are rare. More often we find that “I treated myself to a five-star hotel in Miami.” Which hotel? What makes a “five-star” hotel? Little of the novel rings true to life, and it also doesn’t ring true to an alternate reality constructed from artifice in the fashion of someone like Carlos Ruiz Zafón. For writers, both Marcus and Harry Quebert seem incredibly uninterested in the work of other writers.

There are shades of Gillian Flynn but the comparison does not flatter Dicker; anyone tempted to read Harry Quebert should start with Gone Girl and work backwards through Flynn first.

What made Harry Quebert popular in Europe? I don’t know, though the mystery of why some works become popular and others don’t continues to fascinate me. It isn’t the literary quality of a book: bestseller lists are filled, seemingly indiscriminately, with a mixture of books so horribly written that they’re unreadable to me, along with some books so good that I recommend them to everyone. Being poorly written, or at least not well written, isn’t a barrier.

The real answer to “Who killed Lola Kellergan?” is “Who cares?” Most thrillers are not thrilling and most mysteries are not mysterious; they’re simply boringly written, as if the authors have not read thousands of other books before and lack the will, interest, or ability to try something new and/or beautiful. Literary fiction, whatever its characteristic generic flaws, generally tries to do something linguistically different, and few readers or critics of lit fic consider a specific example successful unless it does something fresh with the language.

The books that do something different—like Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. I’m not a person who sniffs at fiction because of the tags marketers choose. Every book is begun with the greatest hope. Few fulfill it. Dicker shows promise and may eventually write something great, but it will probably come at the expense of an obsession with greatness as a concept.

Annihilation — Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation works and lives up to its hype but may not live up to predecessors like Solaris or Peter Watt’s brilliant, bizarre novel Blindsight. I say “may not” because Annihilation is a simpler book, which I say descriptively rather than derogatorily, written in an easy-to-understand style that isn’t as demanding as Blindsight. Because the protagonist of Annihilation knows very little, she doesn’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to explain what is happening to her. Most of the characters in Blindsight speak in sentences like this: “The geometry—it’s not so symmetrical. Looks almost like the Phaistos Disk.” The what disk? And the chapters skip confusingly around.

Annihilation_coverBlindsight is much harder SF, but the last third, like the novel as a whole, is as good as any fiction I’ve read, ever. It is a book that needs to be started again from the beginning to be understood, which is both a strength and weakness. One could say that Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written—I don’t think so, despite the commonness of the view—but it is also not for everyone or even most people.

Annihilation and Blindsight should be compared because they share an important theme: what happens when we can’t trust our own senses. Annihilation is scary not just because it’s about exploring the unknown but because the protagonist can’t trust memory, which can be directly manipulated in the novel. In a world without reliable memory it becomes impossible to know what you know or don’t. There is no real way to make sense of human life or to receive meaningful feedback from the environment.

This isn’t a totally new fear—Lovecraft’s stories often involve cosmic horror overcoming the senses of humans and causing madness in them, such that they can no longer rationally evaluate what they see and process with their senses. Descartes asked how we know what we know and how we can trust it in 1641’s First Meditation. The difference between then and the near future is the possibility of being able to systematically alter memories. Contemporary science fiction (and, increasingly, science), however, points out that we’re getting much closer to the point at which direct brain or sensory manipulation could be used to make it impossible to trust one’s senses. That sort of thing existing as a fantastical horror scenario is very different from knowing that it could be done to you and, almost as bad, you might not even know.

The narrator’s epistemological gaps are wide. She says: “We had also been assured that it was safe to live off the land if necessary.” Who had done the assuring? When? Why? The party reaches “the camp” and “set about replacing obsolete or damaged equipment.” What equipment is gone and what remains? The narrator doesn’t say. She hears “a lot, powerful moaning at dusk,” but no one tries to figure out what it is. Blindsight is a voyage of discovery; Annihilation is a voyage of strange passivity.

The part of the brain that deals with curiosity seems to have disappeared, and a few pages later the narrator says as much: that “Curiosity could be a powerful distraction.” For someone exploring the unknown, however, curiosity is a motivator, not a distraction. The term “unreliable narrator” is common, but it doesn’t describe Annihilation’s narrator, who better be termed “wildly delusional.” She seems not to search for explanations when the explanation might save her life and its lack might kill her. At times she is anti-rationalist:

I found the psychologist’s faith in measurements and her rationalization for the tower’s absence from maps oddly. . . endearing? Perhaps she meant only to reassure us, but I would like to believe she was trying to reassure herself. Her position, to lead and possibly to know more than us, must have been difficult and lonely.

Almost no one could know less than the narrator. She knows nothing at the beginning of the novel: of one of her party, she says “I think we all believed she came from some kind of management background.” I’d want to know more about someone I hired to edit proposals, let alone someone I’m accompanying into an unknown area long cut off from the rest of the world and human society. She realizes that “we might now be living in a kind of nightmare,” and that sense never goes away. Neither do questions about the narrator’s reliability; towards the end of the novel, she says:

It may be clear by now that I am not always good at telling people things they feel they have a right to know, and in this account thus far I have neglected to mention some details about the brightness. My reason for this is, again, the hope that any reader’s initial opinion in judging my objectivity might not be influenced by these details.

Worries about “objectivity” are standard fare in novels. The quality of the writing in Annihilation, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, is average, but the novel remains fun, even if the narrator’s ineptness is not to my taste. That the ineptness may be an artifact of whoever sent her is scarier than the things she sees, or think she sees, in Area X.

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