Mortals has lots of thought on the subject of identity, and internationalism, and love, and other Big Ideas, but they don’t quite coalesce into a whole. Still, to say a book is good but not up to the standards of Mating isn’t too terrible a comment, given the high standard of excellence. Ideas recurse through Mortals, growing bigger and smaller in relation to each other; in one early scene, Ray, a spy built closer to the ineptness of Austin Powers than the skill of James Bond but nonetheless an intellectual, thinks, “Like the development process itself writ small, the paving of the mall was a process of improvement that never seemed to get finished.” It’s not the only process of improvement that’s never finished. Yet those ideas and the events reflecting them are not so cohesive or moving as they are in Mating.
* The New York Times inquires: If you’re online, are you really reading? My response: isn’t it obvious? Steven Berlin Johnson already answered preempted the piece with his response, Dawn of the Digital Natives.
* The uses of book blogs over search engines, argued by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.
* Books Briefly Noted: Stephanie Kuehnert’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone shows promise that fizzles into too many stilted conversations, clichés (Carlisle, Wisconsin, is “a small, tight-knit community” and Emily’s face is “a mask of irritation” in a sentence that’s awkward as a whole), and banal statements. For example, from the air, “Emily lifted her eyes from the brown squares of land carved up by rivers and roads […]” Compare this to Bellow, as originally posted here:
“And at a height of three miles, sitting above the clouds, I felt like an airborne seed. From the cracks in the earth the rivers pinched back at the sun. They shone out like smelters’ puddles, and then they took a crust and were covered over. As for the vegetable kingdom, it hardly existed from the air; it looked to me no more than an inch in height. And I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily.”
—Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
(Notice James Wood’s remark in How Fiction Works: “Bellow had a habit of writing repeatedly about flying partly, I guess, because it was the great obvious advantage he had over his dead competitors, those writers who had never seen the world from above the clouds: Melville, Tolstoy, Proust.”)
Granted, it’s not entirely fair to compare first-time novelists to a master, but any novelist needs to realize that they should be comparing themselves to the best, because if they aren’t, they’re wasting their time and everyone else’s. Nonetheless, I will reiterate that Kuehnert might improve over time, and even Bellow’s first was clearly not his best. In one passage, Kuehnert writes, “Where I saw, grass struggled to grow in gnarly turfs, nourished by spilt beer and cigarette butts. Just a few feet away […] it was lush, green, and tall, which made the area surrounding the warehouse look like the patchy head of a balding man.” Notice the smooth alliteration and consonance of the first sentence, with the sibilant “s” of “saw” merging into the end of “grass,” then the repeated “g’s” and finally the harmonious end of “beer” and “butts,” in a sentence expressing anything but harmony. The comparison to a bald head works, and the contrast between where Emily is and what’s within easy reach functions as a metaphor regarding her larger experience. Alas: passages like this are far rarer than the one about flying. In addition, she keeps using bad near-synonyms for “said,” and, even worse, likes attached adverbs to those synonyms. Stop!
* The LA Times’ blog, Jacket Copy, asks about writing and running.
Of course, maybe I’m not one to talk: neither of the unpublished novels in my proverbial drawer discuss running or feature athletes, and this note bemoans the lack of writing rather than solving the problem.
(Ugh: look at five and a half minutes in the first transition zone. I was disoriented from the swim and couldn’t get my shoes on and then forgot my helmet.)
* Ars Technica tells us that Yahoo’s music store is closing for good—and anyone who bought music from them won’t be able to play it in the future. This fear is the major problem with the Amazon Kindle, as discussed here, here, and here.