Random reading

The reading lately has been eclectic: a family member gave me The Rejection Collection, an excellent and hilarious book of frequently contrarian cartoons. I picked up Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising from the library, where it was swiftly returned when I finished it; the style is straight from a poorly written technical manual on human emotion and idiocy in war, but a post on some of the interesting aspects of it 20 years after its first publication will be forthcoming. I can only hope that admitting reading it won’t kill my credibility.

Then there were two melancholy and elegiac Big Fiction works from Britain: The Sea and Atonement, neither of which need much introduction given their fame, prizes and praise.

Finally, I also checked out George Trow’s Within the Context of No Context after reading about it in The New Yorker. The essay itself certainly doesn’t have any context: aside from decrying the depravations of pop culture and lamenting some form of old order, I’m not sure what it was about. If the world doesn’t make sense anymore—a point I’m not about to take sides on—that’s no reason to imitate one’s view of the world in writing.

Oh, and television is bad—very, very bad. That much was evident. What’s good? That wasn’t so evident, but I guess we need context to find it. Perhaps context is good. It might be. It’s hard to tell from this essay. Getting it from the library was also a wise choice.

I’m going on a trip shortly and will probably start Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey after. Reading it is supposed to be an odyssey in and of itself. I hope it’s a worthwhile one.

The Quiet American

This should be required reading for anyone involved in Iraq—its lessons about the problems of idealism and nation-building continue to go unheeded, as does its larger message about what most people really value. Here’s a clue: it isn’t abstract ideals, but rather the self, perhaps the family, and maybe the tribe. Everything else is at best of secondary importance, except as it relates to and affects those concentric circles.

But let’s back up some: Fowler, a cynical journalist—is there any other kind?—covers the disintegrating country of Vietnam with one hand on the bottle and another on a native girl, whose hands are occupied with the obvious, his wallet, and his opium pipe. Contrasted with him is Pyle, an American convinced he’s found the solution to intractable political and historical problems through the worship of an idea. Implementing the idea and hence solution is the hard part, but with enough fortitude and adherence to the greater good while allowing gritty compromises, Pyle believes he can arrive at the solution. History gives us the answer as to whether Pyle’s beliefs are accurate.

Despite their apparent positions, Fowler’s cynicism prevents him from being co-opted and morally compromised, while Pyle’s idealism and his desire to do good by choosing the right side ultimately makes him complicit in a crime far worse than anything Fowler could have imagined. And yet, like many writers, I fall into the same trap as Pyle in the first sentence of this entry by prescribing solutions based on books of ideas that may or may not have any relevance to the situation I’m trying to apply them to. For me to hold The Quiet Ameican up as an example of what we should be doing isn’t so different from Pyle’s zealous adherence to the fictional York Harding.

The plot itself has its own turns, and combines aspects of hopeless love stories, political thrillers, and buddy novels. Although not explicitly about spy novels, The Quiet American also has all the elements Jerome Weeks identified in his post I Spy: The story of betrayal, of brutalization, and of sacrifice. In a later post he adds the persistence of history. The Quiet American doesn’t explicitly have much of the latter, however much it hangs in the subtext, but I’m sure its about successors about the direct American experience do, and I’m sure whatever literature emerges from Iraq will too.

I’m not the only one who noticed the importance of The Quiet American. Roger Cohen uses it for his lead in “Some Lessons for U.S. in Vietnam and Iraq Parallels”, a Dec. 2, 2006 article only available to subscribers. Frank Rich mentioned it in his September 24, 2006 column. The book is remembered—but evidently not by current decision makers. Too bad. The Quiet American is “about” Vietnam, but it might as well be about Iraq, or any number of other well-meaning failed efforts.


“No doubt for others elsewhere she persists, a moving figure in the waxworks of memory, but their version will be different from mine, and from each other’s. Thus in the minds of the many does the one ramify and disperse. It does not last, it cannot, it is not immortality. We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations. I remember Anna, our daughter Claire will remember Anna and remember me, then Claire will be gone and there will be those who remember her but not us, and that will be our final dissolution. True, there will be something of us that remain […] yet none of this will be us, what we are and were, but only the dust of the dead. ”

—John Banville, The Sea

Appointment in Samarra

Appointment in Samarra depicts the cruel undercurrents of small town life: like Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street and Babbitt, and Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, it chronicles the disappointment and pettiness among the nominally upstanding citizens. Its writing is still crisp, 72 years later, and the story filled with astute analysis of the eternal pack hierarchy. Keen social commentary from the omniscient narrator dissects each socially fraught situation, with money and attractiveness being the chief determiners of rank, as they so often are. But even those with both sometimes fall.

Appointment in Samarra stresses conformity. The descent of Julian English and his wife begins with a faux pas and continues with a general disregard for trying to regain their society’s grace. Although they are supposed to conform to a set of place-specific standards, their dilemma is almost palpable. There are standards, both obvious and not, that do offer rewards for adherence and punishment for deviation in all societies.

Although the setting doesn’t have as much resonance as it once did—who cares about the smallville country club set?—the characters could be easily transplanted to the contemporary suburbs. I wonder if the suspicion of the dominant physical place in literature has changed: for a long time the city and civilization were seen as corrupt and corrupting, a strand running from Cooper to Edith Wharton and beyond. Then the revisionists wrote about the country, including John O’Hara in Appointment in Samarra and the others named above. Finally, suburbs seem to chiefly occupy the contemporary writer, with Tom Perrotta’s Little Children and movies like American Beauty expressing skepticism of the dominant living structure of the late 20th and early 21st century.

"So what should I read?"

On book recommendations:

They want a book more compelling than sleep or sex, more engaging than googling old boyfriends or catching up on The Wire. The book you grab for as soon as you wake up, and read at stoplights. The term may be a sorry cliche, but for want of a better one, let’s just call these books what they are: page-turners.

It’s harder still for me to know what to recommend since I (probably) don’t know you, but to see the books that maybe aren’t quite as compelling as Jennifer Reese suggests, see the Top 5, above, or look for the ones I gush about.

I can recommend Critical Mass, the National Book Critics Circle Blog, which consistently posts posts as compelling as Reese’s. As with most books, I’d probably prefer sleep or sex if I’m desperate need of either, or even in slight want of the latter, but it’s still a good read.

“So what should I read?”

On book recommendations:

They want a book more compelling than sleep or sex, more engaging than googling old boyfriends or catching up on The Wire. The book you grab for as soon as you wake up, and read at stoplights. The term may be a sorry cliche, but for want of a better one, let’s just call these books what they are: page-turners.

It’s harder still for me to know what to recommend since I (probably) don’t know you, but to see the books that maybe aren’t quite as compelling as Jennifer Reese suggests, see the Top 5, above, or look for the ones I gush about.

I can recommend Critical Mass, the National Book Critics Circle Blog, which consistently posts posts as compelling as Reese’s. As with most books, I’d probably prefer sleep or sex if I’m desperate need of either, or even in slight want of the latter, but it’s still a good read.

The Player

Good existentialism isn’t dead, even if it is dressed in unusual clothing like The Player, Michael Tolkin’s story about an amoral Hollywood executive more intrigued by puzzling, anonymous postcards than about why he murdered a screenwriter who he thought authored them.

The protagonist, Griffin Mill, is oddly sympathetic; we can sympathize both Griffin and with the many well-meaning but foolish writers he turns down. The writers are far from heroes, because they scorn the Hollywood machine even as they’re determined to break into it by toadying up to people like Griffin. There’s more than a hint of envy in the desire for the glamour and power of the Big Time, regardless of whether that Big Time is Hollywood, sports, CEOs, or even writers and academics.

I normally don’t like seeing a movie before reading the book it’s based on, but The Player, like Out of Sight, is fabulous in both. The ending of The Player the movie was even more astonishing than the book’s, because both stories are all about someone fighting the Hollywood story machine, yet the movie and book manage to both accommodate and defy the Hollywood story.

You can see the some of the tensions by listening to this worthwhile Bookworm interview, in which Tolkin discusses the many maladies faced by the wealthy and successful as well as the eternal question of the soul.

In the interview Tolkin doesn’t give away The Return of the Player, but reading at least The Player and ideally both makes sense if for no other reason than because the abstract concepts discussed won’t make as much sense without the concrete mooring of the art itself.

You can get away with reading only one—the two books are sequels only nominally. The Return of the Player references events in The Player, but they’re not any more important than background in most standalone books. The Return of the Player is also concerned with very different things than its predecessor; while The Player still plays in the Hollywood and conventional world, The Return of the Player is much more philosophical and metaphysical, to the point where it is concerned with ideas and issues far above and beyond Hollywood. The movie business is just a symptom of a greater decay and malaise, and The Return of the Player is a macro view of the world compared to The Player’s micro view. And yes, a post on The Return of the Player itself is en route.

In The Player, the individual is becoming conscious of himself. As is so often the case, the person with no conscience and little consciousness slowly awakens, maybe just enough to perceive himself—but will this lead to a greater unfolding? Sometimes it seems very unlikely, as in Martin Amis’s Money. In these novels something, some trial, comes along to knock the character out of his emotional stupor. Rising through the sludge takes time, and so does trying out fresh feelings. Griffin’s trial is the mysterious shadow who is uncomfortable because he points out what Griffin is, and he isn’t much.

The writing itself is understated in the way I would imagine a screenplay to be, and I sprinted through the last quarter, wanting to see what would happen; the conclusion was abrupt and somewhat puzzling, and it highlights the undercurrent of the freewill/fate debate that is an undercurrent throughout. Once Griffin commits the act that starts things, how much control does he have over the way they will end? It sounds like description of current American foreign policy problems, and it also applies to murder stories. Or, as Gandalf says, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Griffin is hardly among the wise, and the results of his actions are most unusual. If he is a modern Raskolnikov, then the world of Griffin is indeed a very fallen place. And a funny one, too, but also a sad one (The Return of the Player looks at society in a larger sense). Funny and sad: they are different angles of looking at the same thing, but Griffin is too obtuse to really see either. His inner vision is restricted two areas: money and power, although they might also be different ways of looking at the same thing.

The most fascinating part about Griffin is how much I came to like him in spite of his mortal sins; at times I found myself nodding along with him before remembering what he is and what he’s doing. I suppose that’s part of the point: I do relate to the Hollywood moneyman and mogul, whose job it is to be the slime that greases the wheels of the dream industry. But what does that say about me, the reader? It is an unsettling thought, and one that need not arise if one just rips through the story, which is fun in its own right. The reader can be like Griffin and just go along for the ride. But then you live your life without realizing the shadow that follows you, because you don’t have a rejected writer to remind you of it.

You only have the writer whose book you choose to pick up.


Solaris is a strange and marvelous novel with much haunting beauty and a tint of the surreally inexplicable. Its damaged protagonist explores the mystery of Solaris—and through it the mystery of himself and identity itself.

A simulacrum of Rheya, Kris Kelvin’s dead lover, appears on Solaris, a planet that inspired many strange stories and fruitless investigations. Kelvin attacks the problem of understanding the physical embodiment of Rheya with the scientist’s desire for a truth, yet understanding is unforthcoming. The technical mysteries (where did the simulacrum come from and how does it work? Should one call it “it” or “she?”) blend in with the personal ones: what is the nature of their relationship? How much does one really know of a person outside of the narrow lens of what the other reveals to us?

The human in Solaris is far from Earth and from our society, but he is never far from his own dreams and memories; confronting their physical manifestation takes more than the scientist in him can give. The nature of Kelvin’s methods eventually become humanistic too, and Solaris indicates that the two cannot be fully separated. Stanislaw Lem may have been reflecting the preoccupations of his time: the Soviet Union had embarked on a vast and cruel experiment to attempt to accomplish exactly that, and his native Poland suffered for it, as did many other countries. He may also be commenting on the inadequacies of any single method to offer full explanations of life or purpose. For Kelvin, science is a way of life and a purpose that is ultimately hollow.

Solaris is also an unusual book for me to like because even long after the period when I read deeply into science fiction—though then I mostly the adventure in space variety—I can still praise it, and the novel holds up in a way the weak or formulaic stuff can’t. In this respect Solaris reminds me of Hyperion, another novel I read after the end of my science fiction period. Unlike that book, however, Solaris ends with a sense of ambiguity and melancholy, which is appropriate; sometimes the lingering sense of incompleteness works. Dune did too, and the rest of the books were just worthless attempts at explication, when the mystery of the first was sufficient for readers, if not for Herbert and his descendants’ wallets. Dune was art while the later books were at best philosophy and at worst trash, while Solaris is art: ethereal and yet concrete, with a quiet lyricism blended into the reality of existence.


Among the more amusing reviews I’ve read recently is Cristina Nehring on Esther Perel’s new book, Mating in Captivity. The last sentence of this paragraph in particular is a standout:

Even though [Esther Perel] was born in Belgium and schooled in Israel, and speaks eight languages, she is fundamentally, deeply American — indeed, announcing that you speak eight languages is a deeply American thing to do. (As I write, I am living in Crete, where half the people who wash floors in hotels speak eight languages and don’t tell you.) Perel is American in both the best sense and the worst in which Europeans use the term: She is American in her can-do conviction that people will live happily ever after. She is American also in her self-promotion[…] She is American, finally, in her unquestioning assumption that we should work like hell on our sex lives.

Straight Man—and short stories

For a really funny book, try Straight Man, which, like its literary predecessor Lucky Jim, takes place in academia. Lucky Jim is better than Girl, 20, another Kingsley Amis novel—Lucky Jim has many of its strengths and none of its flaws. Straight Man builds on Lucky Jim and the other campus novels that preceded it; the good news about life, whether academically or elsewhere, is that it provides plenty of absurdity for writers.

Straight Man finds academics fighting for budget and prestige like dogs over a scrap of meat, while the more reasonable narrator stumbles, perhaps intentionally into ludicrous situations—such as threatening while on camera to strangle a goose, which he calls a duck—in part because of his environment. It’s a long book that never its pacing or jokes; I’m thinking about Straight Man in the context of an e-mail I sent about why I prefer novels to short stories. By the time I get into a short story it’s already over, and I’m forced to learn a new set of names and circumstances and assorted other trivia that too often feels too much like trivia. The kinds of longitudinal narrative arcs (and jokes) that make the best novels what they are interest me, and short stories by their nature cannot encompass them. One could certainly argue the opposite, and I’m not about to quibble with taste, but I understand mine well enough to know what I like.

And I like Straight Man because it takes us through Hank Devereaux’s world. That means repeated references to William of Occam’s Razor, the ultimate fate of the duck, and the way his students, peers, and superiors inadvertently conspire against him. Or he conspires against all of them, depending on one’s perspective (“Orshee,” who adds “or she” to any sentence referring to a person of indeterminate gender with a singular male pronoun, would no doubt consider Hank a nemesis). That’s not to say I always demand brontosaurus novels, as I also like some that are closer to nibbles—Tom Perrotta writes short, for instance—as well as really long ones, such as Neal Stephenson’s awesome, 1,000 page opus: Cryptonomicon.

Bear in mind that I like novellas too: Heart of Darkness, if that counts, and Byatt’s Angels & Insects—which, like Possession, takes place in the Victorian era. But both are long enough to engage me and last long enough that I can get my bearings in the story’s world.

Once I’m fully in a novel, I don’t want it to end; my real issue with short stories might be that either a) I don’t have enough time to decide a short story is excellent before it’s over or b) even if I do decide it’s excellent, I know how quickly it will end. Short stories are vehicles for the pure power of language, while most novels have more plot to unfold. As the title of this blog shows, stories—their content—is what I most care about. Obviously form can never be fully separated from content and vice-versa, but if you put them on a continuum, I want more of the story. And that usually means novels.

Straight Man has both, and it is Richard Russo’s best novel, followed just behind by Empire Falls. Short stories, though, don’t, and though I read them when I had to for school, I never really wanted to. So now I read chiefly for pleasure, and few books offer as much as Straight Man.

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