Michael Crichton — Congo, Sphere, and Eaters of the Dead

Curiosity and recommendations inspired me to read Michael Crichton, if one can really call that activity reading, because he isn’t a very good author; as far as I can tell, his one claim to literary style or merit is Eaters of the Dead, a decent novel with a structure that compensates for Crichton’s weaknesses.

Reading Crichton came in part for reasons mentioned in “On books, taste, and distaste,” where Jason Fisher asked:

Do you do any reading purely for non-intellectual pleasure, I wonder? I, for instance, read Palahniuk novels, Crichton novels too, and pulpy fantasy and science fiction, and so on. I know this isn’t great literature, but because I know that, and don’t expect it to be, I can enjoy it for what it is.

I answered, “probably,” but noted that a book needs to reach some baseline level of linguistic and literary skill before I could enjoy it. But most of Crichton’s work doesn’t get there, and I agree with Martin Amis’ comment:

That Michael Crichton gets on any lists is a bad sign: the best review I’ve seen of his wildly popular and equally wildly uneven, and usually bad, work is in Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliché, when he praises Crichton at his best as “a blend of Stephen Jay Gould and Agatha Christie” and then discusses what’s wrong in the context of The Lost World, but it could be transposed to most of his Crichton’s novels:

The job of characterization has been delegated to two or three thrashed and downtrodden adverbs. ‘Dodgson shook his head irritably’; ‘ “Handle what?” Dodgson said irritably.’ So Dodgson is irritable. But ‘ “I tell you it’s fine,” Levine said irritably.’ ‘Levine got up irritably.’ So Levine is irritable too. ‘Malcolm stared forward gloomily.’ ‘ “We shouldn’t have the kids here,” said Malcolm gloomily.’ Malcolm seems to own ‘gloomily’; but then you irritably notice that Rossiter is behaving ‘gloomily’ too, and gloomily discover that Malcolm is behaving ‘irritably.’ Forget about ‘tensely’ and ‘grimly’ for now. And don’t get me started on ‘thoughtfully.’

I wish this criticism from Amis weren’t representative weren’t representative. In Sphere, for example, take this passage of 429 of my edition: “Norman felt dull and slow.” “Norman mumbled something, and he vaguely felt Beth grab him strongly by the arm…” “He felt numb and stupid.” “They were under the airlock, and he began to feel surging currents of water. There was something very big out there.” “… Fletcher gripped him with strong arms…”

Apparently Norman feels everything but emotion or any larger sense of himself. If this is supposed to show him being numb, it fails, because there’s insufficient variation in register throughout the novel to even notice the change. Later, this fine sentence intrudes: “There was something very big out there.” Really? Is that the best you can do? What makes it big? What does the horror of sensing that thing outside feel like? Actually, don’t tell us what it feels like if you’re going to tell us in the same way as the passage quoted above. Crichton never moves beyond this. His plots move, yes, but it takes more than plot alone to keep me interested. I’m not in the same category as James Wood, who says in How Fiction Works that “[…] the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot,” which I think utterly wrong and will no doubt write about in greater detail elsewhere. Still, a novel needs more than plot to live sufficiently to move me; it needs… everything in an alchemical mix without a perfect recipe.

Crichton isn’t a very good writer under most circumstances. There are writers with strong senses of plot, motion, and characterization who are very good, the most obvious example being Elmore Leonard. Carl Hiaasen’s better books fall into that category too. They’re both pop writers, but they’re good; they don’t redundantly use the same words over and over again, and they’re subtle in ways Crichton almost never is. Leonard would never write a passage as bad as the one quoted above. Ian McEwan’s novels are tightly plotted, as are many of Graham Greene’s and Philip Pullman’s. The difference between Crichton and those other authors is that they go far beyond plot. Paragraphs like this, from Congo, are just unacceptable and too common:

The large male moved menacingly toward Peter, but he never took his eyes off Amy. Amy watched him without response. It was a clear test of dominance. The male moved closer and closer, without hesitation (219).

A more skilled writer would have made us know “menacingly,” without the adverb, avoided the “Amy. Amy” repetition, and not told us about the test but let us discover the test. And if the male is moving closer and closer, implying stops or at least motion, then it seems unlikely that he’d move without hesitation. I feel like I’m repeating myself because I am; it could be argued that I’ve taken examples out of context and treated them unfairly, or that the narrator’s voice is repetitive and unimaginative because he’s being attacked by apes, or a giant squid and in cold water, or whatever other attacking monsters inhabit Crichton’s novels. I don’t think it really matters. For a novel to be merely entertaining, as opposed to something else, it must at least not be actively bad, even if its prose doesn’t remind one of T.C. Boyle or Saul Bellow or Robertson Davies.

Still, in at least one circumstance Crichton makes us forgive him. Eaters of the Dead is told from the perspective of a medieval wayfarer from 921. He’s in a foreign country and obviously wouldn’t have the highly developed style one expects of contemporary novelists, and the documentary apparatus / frame story surrounding the book, complete with scholarly detritus and explanation, helps to excuse the intentional archaisms. On the journey, we learn:

The ship was fitted with benches for oars, but never were the oars employed; rather we progressed by sailing alone. At the head of the ship was the wooden carving of a fierce sea monster, such as appears on some Northman vessels; also there was a tail at the stern. In water this ship was stable and quite pleasant for traveling, and the confidence of the warriors elevated my spirits.

Like the other two novels in the edition I have, Eaters of the Dead is flat, without any interior light, and characters lack inner being, like a cyborg version of a person. Crichton barely uses metaphor, as if comparing something to another not entirely like it might be too complex. In Eaters of the Dead, this makes sense: the Ibn Fadlan writes long before many of these stylistic conventions re-developed in the West, and he’s probably not the world’s most introspective chap anyway, given that his occupation is killing and pillaging (and probably raping on the side, but we don’t hear about that). At times this kind of writing is fun, like a sugar high, but it’s not genuinely addictive and leaves one feeling empty at the end of its consumption. And it’s not The Name of the Rose, which paradoxically combines modern writing with that of the fourteenth century, giving us a dazzling portrait of both universes at once, like a Photoshop filter turned to 50% opacity.

The final section in my edition of Eaters of the Dead contains a soul-crushing essay on whether the events described would have been historically possible. Once couldn’t imagine such a thing accompanying The Name of the Rose. My question about Crichton’s essay: who cares? It’s a novel. The better question ought to be, “is this novel any good? Why or why not?” But Crichton’s work doesn’t endeavor to undertake that more demanding task, and I suspect that I know history’s answer.

Announcement: New Address for The Story's Story

This blog will have a new URL address as of late Friday: jseliger.wordpress.com instead of jseliger.wordpress.com. It might take a day or two for the DNS entries to propagate, so you might only get intermittent access between Friday and Saturday night. But if you go to old posts, you’ll be automatically forwarded to the new site.

Update your RSS feeds and bookmarks accordingly!

Stumbling on Happiness — Daniel Gilbert

The major takeaway from many of the recent behavioral economics and psychology books that have come out, like Predictably Irrational, The Logic of Life, The Time Paradox, and now Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, is that we don’t understand ourselves nearly as well as we think we do and simultaneously misinterpret how we should act. The rational actor imagined in the Enlightenment doesn’t seem to be as real as he or she once did.

Stumbling on Happiness is an excellent contribution to this major idea, and the book is better written and better researched than virtually anything else that might be nominally placed in the “self-help” category; indeed, his might be better considered a book about psychology for laymen, and, like Philip Zimbardo, Gilbert manages the transition from research paper to popular book well. Sometimes minor factual issues get in the way of his point, which he often likes to make in a way that can seem glib but is really essential for the “zing” of transmission discussed elsewhere. For example, in the afterward Gilbert writes that “Calculating such odds [regarding future actions based on present conditions] is relatively straightforward stuff, which is why insurance companies get rich by doing little more than estimating the likelihood that your house will burn down, your car will be stolen, and your life will end early.” Except that insurance companies don’t make money primarily for that reason: they make money because they give individuals an out from losses they couldn’t afford to bear alone and because while individual variation is enormous, collective variation is less so. The casino knows nothing about one spin of the roulette wheel, but they know everything about ten million spins.

Maybe it’s unfair to focus on the negative at the front of this essay regarding a throwaway economic observation because Gilbert does so many things right. He helps us think about the way we think about ourselves thinking, consider how we might respond to experiments, and know the potholes in our own mental functioning—like the gap between how we anticipate we’ll feel upon achieving something and how we tend to actually feel. We’re always constructing images of ourselves and anticipating a future that seldom happens as we think it will:

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain—not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.

Given how much humans are good at, the question becomes why we chronically make mistake that we ought to have the cognitive power to realize. But it’s taken until the last few decades for that cognitive power to be applied in ways that do make us realize those mistakes, and it will no doubt take much, much longer for such ideas to diffuse throughout society and the media. Then again, even Gilbert might be making a bias mistake, because it’s not clear how much of his research applies to all humans, or just to humans raised in Western cultures; there might be a bias in that general direction, which he acknowledges in a few places. Still, his big ideas fascinate, as when he says that “… human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed.” We need control but don’t always exercise it well.

For example, maybe we need to gork how the hedonic treadmill can make us crazed, how unlikely we are to understand what we’ll enjoy (like children (and the double meaning of this is intentional)), and how important it is to stop worrying about what’s outside our ken and start focusing on things that matter to us—and how to expand that ken. Of course, the big problem is that understanding what matters to us isn’t something we’re very good at, just as understanding that we’ll not be as devastated by not getting the job, lover, or acceptance letter we want probably won’t be as important as we imagine it to be. I’m mimicking a Gilbertian habit in the preceding sentence, because he likes cataloging items. At one point, he says that “people often value things more after they own them than before, they often value things more when they are imminent than distant, they are often hurt more by small losses than by large ones, they often imagine that the pain of losing something is greater than the pleasure of getting it, and so on.” Some of those lists are more entertaining than this one because he’ll slip something unexpected in, and the technique itself is useful because he often then goes on to innumerate what exactly he means by each item, given each paragraph, section, and chapter the best of academic structure without the irritating nattering that academic writing often entails.

One such flaw stood out because I might suffer from it. Gilbert says that “committed owned attend to a car’s virtues and overlook its flaws, thus cooking to the facts to produce a banquet of satisfaction…”, making me wonder if I do the same regarding computers, since I’ve mentioned mine, along with their peripherals, several times on this blog. Naturally, I think I’ve made a sound decision and continually evaluate it based on new information, but Gilbert makes me doubt myself—which is a compliment to him—and puts the endless OS X vs Windows vs Linux flamewars in a new context of people tending to talk past one another more than engage in a Platonic or journalistic ideal of objectivity.

It’s useful to note that most of Gilbert’s recommendations are implicit, like the one above; he isn’t necessarily outright demanding anything, except knowledge, which is what most good teachers seem to do; he lets readers figure out what it means to implement advice, and the closing of Stumbling on Happiness fits its theme:

There is no simple formula for finding happiness. But if our great big brains do not allow us to go surefootedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble.

The quest to see the obstacles might itself make us stumble at times: we can make ourselves happy by believing that we should be happy, wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we’re in. The question is, why don’t we? Or, rather, why don’t we more often than we do, since dissatisfaction can be a keen motivator for working toward change. But many of us who live in the western world and are beset by existential malaise despite living with material circumstances unparalleled in human history. Now we need guides like this one because the formulas we imagine for success, like wealth, status symbols, and the like, don’t seem to work. Gilbert says that “The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future.” The downside is that we have no surefooted path into the future, and Stumbling on Happiness tells us that’s okay, provided we have the tools to confront that future.

EBook Monday: Steven Berlin Johnson, Google Books, and more

* Steven Berlin Johnson speculates on “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write: […] a future with more books, more distractions — and the end of reading alone.”

* I keep being tempted by the Amazon Kindle, despite my many posts on the Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and other problems with the device. Then I see a post like “Amazon has banned my account – my Kindle is now a (partial) brick” and all those bad feelings return. The poster in question apparently returned too many items to Amazon, causing them to suspend his account and causing his Kindle to stop working.

* In other electronic news, a warning: Google Book Search settlement gives Google a virtual monopoly over literature. What am, random joe, supposed to do about it besides joining the Electronic Frontier Foundation? I have no idea. Still, the headline might be more sensationalistic than it should be, as this paragraph shows:

But the real risk is that Google could end up as the sole source of ultimate power in book discovery, distribution and sales. As the only legal place where all books can be searched, Google gets enormous market power: the structure of their search algorithm can make bestsellers or banish books to obscurity. The leverage they attain over publishing and authors through this settlement is incalculable.

(Emphasis added.)

I added a comment pointing out that the real response to this should lie with Congress and copyright law: at the moment, virtually everything published after 1923 is effectively under copyright. The solution is to start rolling the copyright year forward, so that 86 years (2008 – 1923) after a work is published, it automatically enters the public domain. Actually, 70 years would be nice, but the various Senators from Disney passed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, making it seem unlikely to happen, so I stick to the (sightly) more pragmatic hope for 86 years as a possible reasonable length for copyright.

If the material in question isn’t in copyright, Google has no special power over it. Two problems solved at once.

* Speaking of all things Google, Nick Carr’s post “Google in the middle” has some brilliant parts and some absolutely wrong parts. Being the kind of person I am, I like to start with the wrong parts:

For much of the first decade of the Web’s existence, we were told that the Web, by efficiently connecting buyer and seller, or provider and user, would destroy middlemen. Middlemen were friction, and the Web was a friction-removing machine.

We were misinformed. The Web didn’t kill mediators. It made them stronger.

But Carr misses the fact that a) mediators are easier to replace than ever, since I only have to click on another one, and b) fact a has made other mediators ever-easier to find: Hacker News has become my chief aggregator, for example, and Google has nothing to do with them. Furthermore, if I want to use a different search engine, it’s only a click away.

The web still is a friction removing machine even if Google has an unusual amount of (probably temporary) power.

On the other hand, this bit is brilliant:

As I’ve written before, the essential problem facing the online news business is oversupply. The cure isn’t pretty. It requires, first, a massive reduction of production capacity – ie, the consolidation or disappearance of lots of news outlets. Second, and dependent on that reduction of production capacity, it requires news organizations to begin to impose controls on their content. By that, I don’t mean preventing bloggers from posting fair-use snippets of articles. I mean curbing the rampant syndication, authorized or not, of full-text articles. Syndication makes sense when articles remain on the paper they were printed on. It doesn’t make sense when articles float freely across the global web. (Take note, AP.)

Once the news business reduces supply, it can begin to consolidate traffic, which in turn consolidates ad revenues and, not least, opens opportunities to charge subscription fees of one sort or another – opportunities that today, given the structure of the industry, seem impossible. With less supply, the supplier gains market power at the expense of the middleman.

Newspapers are engaged in an almost Marxian race to the bottom in terms of production, and the more efficient the Internet makes news gathering and dissemination, the worse this race will become. It was obvious to me in 2002 (which I wrote about in Media myopia and the New Yorker), when I graduated from high school, that newspapers were bound to contract enormously (and catastrophically for those employed by newspapers); I was tempted to go to a big-time journalism school and try to make it as a journalist, but a rare bout of good sense stopped me. This is why.

(Incidentally, the New York Times has also noticed that J-Schools are Playing Catchup because of changes in journalism. Strangely enough, the Times seems to imply that journalism might become more like something akin to Grant Writing Confidential: people who find niches and then write the hell out of their subject.)

T.C. Boyle — The Women

(Note: I posted along interview with Boyle about his new novel here.)

T.C. Boyle’s The Women begins towards the end, chronologically speaking, and yet it ends with a different kind of end in the form of a fire, which reminds one of the transience of all artistic endeavors. The novel’s structure is appropriate for such a wittily recursive work, in which diva-esque architect Frank Lloyd Wright is examined chiefly through the perspectives of the various women who attracted him (and vice-versa). Those women represent an evolution of his own being, but they never just function symbolically; even the throwaway characters have fabulously apt descriptions attached to them, as when the vindictive Miriam’s attorney is described as having “a low, considered voice, deeply intimate, as if he’d been born to collusion.”

The Women is “written” by the imaginary Wright apprentice Tadashi Sato, and the sophisticated but clear narrative structure could have long academic papers written about it. Tadashi’s his grandson, however, is Irish and has “translated” the book, meaning that Tadashi’s frequent footnotes sometimes deal with the translated aspects of the story, giving at least four levels of frame: from Wright to his wives and lovers to Tadashi to O’Flaherty-San. One need not notice these narrative games to enjoy the novel and its presentation of numerous reactions to the great and greatly narcissistic man at its core. Even calling him a narcissist might be unfair: he’s more a man obsessed by his art, and in that respect virtually everything else comes second or lower. Consequently, what seems like narcissism might simply be drive.

We see Tadashi’s influence in moments like this:

Of course, all this happened a very long time ago and I’m aware that it is peripheral to the task at hand, which is to give as full a portrait of Wrieto-san as I can, and I don’t wish to dwell on the negative, not at all. Suffice to say that I stayed on at Taliesin, grudgingly at first (and perhaps I should have defied Wrieto-San and Daisy’s father and all the rest of the world…).

That, anyway, is the line of reasoning that excuses his sometimes ill behaviors. A less forgiving reader might see him as taking “from the rich and [giving] to himself and he didn’t give a damn about anybody so long as he got what he wanted,” as Miriam thinks in one of her bitter stages. The same could apply to her, since she’s constantly belittling those she considers inferior—which is virtually everything. Miriam thinks of herself as “high, higher than any of them,” with little reason that’s apparent to us. Still, her charges are not utterly baseless despite her grandiose posturing, and the alternate view of Wright sees him using his abilities as a cloak against charges of making and breaking promises with impunity and discarding people like excess building material.

Building metaphors occur throughout The Women and make for an obvious commentary on the artistic process more generally, but Boyle is too canny a writer to make Wright’s “process,” if he has one, explicit. The New Yorker chastised him for this, saying “Unfortunately, the novel avoids any sustained consideration of Wright’s relationship to his art—a passion arguably more important in forming his genius than any of the women in his life were.” But I think that’s part of the novel’s point: an artist’s relationship to his art can’t really be explained or depicted. We can only see its effects, like a black hole whose presence we discern by the debris around it. The metaphor isn’t perfect, since artists throw off light while black holes absorb it, but in Wright’s case he might absorb the personalities of the women and disciples around him. The novel’s fundamental tension revolves around how Wright “really” is versus how he’s perceived, and the novel’s strength comes from leaving that tension unresolved: we’re left with a debate more than a resolution, as we so often are in life. That’s mimesis to the world and faithful to the view of the great artist as inexplicable.

Tadashi sometimes strikes an aggressive posture for a seemingly passive character, but all of his passion shows through passive aggressiveness—perhaps the act of “writing” a history of Frank Lloyd Wright that often doesn’t show him in a flattering light is his ultimate revenge, and one we are meant to see through as we proceed through the novel, and especially in its last pages. Tadashi also undermines some of the novel’s claims; Miriam, Wright and others ceaselessly vilify and try to use the press. At one point, Miriam thinks that, “The papers were full of the story, headlines trumpeting disaster, the least detail pried from the wreckage by the ghouls of the press…” This description might be one of the more charitable considerations of the press. One wonders if Wright would have thought of Boyle what he does of the press, but Boyle has the advantage of writing long after the fact, when a reinterpretation of a figure who slides perilously towards myth can, in turn, re-appropriate that figure for the present. Boyle succeeds in doing so with panache that fortunately defies my analytic descriptions.

April Links: EBooks, Zombies, Writing, and more

* Terry Teachout’s prescience regarding e-books deserves to be noted and commended, despite my reservations.

* Speaking of ebooks, Randall Monroe describes how to read a Kindle while in bed. Personally, I prefer to just hold my forearms up with a book in front of me.

* It’s hard for me not to like this description, from Amazon’s review page, of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem.

* Although I disagree with the conclusions in Life On Venus: Europe’s Last Man, I find it fascinating:

Precisely because novels are not, and should not be, political documents, they offer a less guarded, more intuitive report on the inner life of a society. And when novelists from different European countries, writing in different languages and very different styles, all seem to corroborate one another’s intuitions, it is at least fair to wonder whether a real cultural shift is under way.

Kirsch cites three major novelists—Ian McEwan, who is one of my favorites, W.G. Sebold, and Michel Houellebecq—as major examples of modern European-ness, and then looks at a book by each:

Three more different writers could hardly be invented. Which makes it all the more suggestive, I think, that their portraits of the spiritual state of contemporary Europe are so powerfully complementary. They show us a Europe that is cosmopolitan, affluent, and tolerant, enjoying all the material blessings that human beings have always struggled for, and that the Europeans of seventy years ago would have thought unattainable. Yet these three books are also haunted by intimations of belatedness and decline, by the fear that Europe has too much history behind it to thrive. They suggest currents of rage and despair coursing beneath the calm surface of society, occasionally erupting into violence. And they worry about what will happen when a Europe, gorged on historical good fortune, must defend itself against an envious and resentful world.

This, however, could also describe a great deal of science fiction since the 1970s, or any number of major American writers, who often take it upon themselves to demystify the American dream—and here I’m thinking of Philip Roth’s later novels, much of much of Melville, and so on.

(Once again, I found this somewhere on the web and forgot to write down the original linker. Sorry!)

* William Zinsser on On Writing Well, a book I often recommend to those interested in, well, writing well:

I would write from my own convictions—take ’em or leave ’em—and I would illustrate my points with passages by writers I admired. I would treat the English language spaciously, as a gift waiting for anyone to unwrap, not as a narrow universe of grammar and syntax. Above all, I would try to enjoy the trip and to convey that enjoyment to my readers.

(Hap tip to somewhere, but I forgot where. Sorry!)

On Writing Well is, along with James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s How to Read Like a Writer, an important discovery in my own writing life. T.C. Boyle said you can’t teach writing, and maybe he’s right, but you can learn the principles that’ll make it easier to learn through experience and teaching yourself.

* Men, women, and reading:

A study of reading habits showed almost half of women are ‘page turners’ who finish a book soon after starting it compared to only 26 per cent of men.

The survey 2,000 adults also found those who take a long time to read books and only managed one or two a year were twice as likely to be male than female.

(For a really fun time, now debate whether this is cultural or biological.)

(Hat tip Marginal Revolution.)

* Although I’ve praised Amazon’s prices elsewhere, those prices come at, um, a price:

Is Amazon.co.uk targeting Britain’s indie publishers with an offer they have little choice but to accept? That’s what the trade group the Independent Publisher’s Guild is saying after a Friday meeting with Amazon in which the American internet retail giant refused to negotiate a new demand for greater discounts from the indies.

* Rouss Douthat on The Tough-On-Crime Trap.

* Regarding Literacy and Suicide, from Alan Jacobs:

Dr Andrej Maruai, a Slovene psychiatrist involved in organizing the conference, presented a paper called “Suicide in Europe: Genetics, Literacy and Poverty” which convincingly shows the links between the social factors of literacy and poverty, and suicidal behavior. . . .

According to Maruai’s theory, the higher any given country’s literacy rate and the lower that country’s GNP, the more likely the country is to have a high suicide rate. The theory can be convincingly applied to the countries with the highest suicide rates in Europe, namely the three Baltic states, Hungary and Slovenia, where literacy is at almost 100 percent and where the GNP and standard of living have been adversely affected by the transition process.

* I love this quote, provided courtesy of Daring Fireball: “My muse for the session was this quote from Walt Disney: “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” To me, that’s it. That’s the thing.”

* Alexander McCall Smith writes “Lost in Fiction” for the WSJ, saying that

This, and many other similar experiences, has made me think about the whole issue of the novelist’s freedom — and responsibility. The conclusion that I am increasingly drawn to is that the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and-blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent.

I don’t buy the moral act comment, or at least not in all cases (see additional comments here). As for Smith, he wrote “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” books, of which I read, or, rather, tried to read the first two, and I quit because they were tremendously boring and kitschy. I wonder if his political views on fiction are part of the reason; later in the same article, Smith writes, “It is one of the jobs of fiction to report on the sorrows and tragedies of this world. This must be done, though, from a morally acceptable standpoint.” That line could require an entire essay to refute, but I would say rather than part of what a novel does is a) explore what is and b) explore what “morally acceptable” means, rather than reinforcing what is already considered by most of society as morally acceptable. And a novel doesn’t have to accomplish a) and b) at once, and it could accomplish neither and still be an excellent novel. I would argue that Lolita is such a novel.

* Megan McArdle asks, Whither GM? Notice this:

As GM moves through its forecast period, its cash needs associated with legacy liabilities grow, reaching approximately $6 billion per year in 2013 and 2014. To meet this cash outflow, GM needs to sell 900,000 additional cars per year, creating a difficult burden that leaves it fighting to maximize volume rather than return on investment.

This seems, if not impossible, then at least very close to it. Someone is going to write The Reckoning for this time period.

* Check this out: “The School Edition:”

One way to see the difference between schoolbooks and real books like Moby Dick is to examine different procedures which separate librarians, the custodians of real books, from schoolteachers, the custodians of schoolbooks. To begin with, libraries are usually comfortable, clean, and quiet. They are orderly places where you can actually read instead of just pretending to read.


Real books conform to the private curriculum of each author, not to the invisible curriculum of a corporate bureaucracy. Real books transport us to an inner realm of solitude and unmonitored mental reflection in a way schoolbooks and computer programs can’t. If they were not devoid of such capacity, they would jeopardize school routines devised to control behavior. Real books conform to the private curriculum of particular authors, not to the demands of bureaucracy.

* On The Radical Honesty Movement:

Once again, I felt the thrill of inappropriate candor. And I felt something else, too. The paradoxical joy of being free from choice. I had no choice but to tell the truth. I didn’t have to rack my brain figuring out how to hedge it, spin it, massage it.

“Just being honest,” I shrug. Nice touch, I decide; helps take the edge off. She’s got a thick skin. She’ll be okay. And I’ll tell you this: I’ll never get a damn gift certificate from her again.

* Alain de Botton: Brilliant or poseur? I tend towards “brilliant” with a dash of “neither.” But I think he speaks to modernity better than many other writers, and you can expect a post on his novel On Love shortly.

(Hat tip Mark Sarvas.)

* Although I haven’t actually read any of the novels mentioned in this paragraph, I’ve read about all of them prior to reading further about them in Slate’s thoughtful “Readin’ Dirty: Wetlands is the ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ of novels.

Looking in the most obscure corner of the Grove/Atlantic library, you might notice that the publishing house has imported such hits as 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, an “erotic coming-of-age novel” crafted by a Sicilian authoress of jailbait age; The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a French art critic’s Foucauldian analysis of having many trains pulled upon her; and Baise-Moi, a revenge thriller that is somewhat an odd duck in this subgenre as it boasts an actual plot. While studies have shown that every boat on the sea will be floated by something, even Helen’s grill tools, these books don’t rate as erotica; seldom does anything like an Anaïs Nin fever shiver through them, except perhaps Catherine M., which is kind of hot. On the whole, these books do not intend to arouse but to titillate, and, in this respect, Wetlands is the epitome of the form.

* The battle against barbarism continues, per “Video of girl’s flogging as Taliban hand out justice: Mobile phone movie shows that militant influence is spreading deeper into Pakistan” from The Guardian. The horrific video attached is difficult to watch.

* That battle isn’t just far away, either, since the Phoenix police raid[ed the] home of [a] blogger whose writing is highly critical of them. Apparently no one can find out any specifics regarding the alleged reason the police raided Miller’s house, as this Arizona Republic article shows.

Tolkien conference this weekend

This weekend, I’m presenting “A Hegelian Reading of the Elves: Synthesizing the Master-Slave Dialectic in The Silmarillion” at Tolkien at the University of Vermont 2009. If you’re in the neighborhood, you should drop by—though I imagine that Vermont’s small population makes the “in the neighborhood” part highly unlikely. In any event, expect posting to resume next week or the week after, thanks to travel, practice, paper changes, etc.

Product review: Pens, including the Pilot G2, Uniball Signo, Mont Blanc Extra Fine, and more

EDIT 2014: I’ll skip preliminaries and say that I now use Pigma Micron pens, usually very thin .25 or .2mm, for most purposes. They’re less fussy than the pens below and yield the best, thinnest, most consistent lines. Fountain pens have too many problems for someone like me, who writes on the go and isn’t trying to baby the pen or make it an art object. The discussion below is still valuable.

A good pen is a wonderful thing, and its connection to the right paper is one of those tiny victories that accumulate and sometimes affect us more than the major and obvious ones. I’ve sought such a victory recently: like many people, I become fond of the particular pens I use over time and bond with them, imagining that the pen is an extension of myself. That effect isn’t limited to pens, as my post on keyboards and other tools shows, and I become attached, perhaps irrationally, to the tools I use on a regular basis. Since my life is bound up with writing, such tools tend to mean pens, notebooks, computers, and computer programs.

The difficulty comes in finding the right one. So I decided to try a variety of pens, each of which seemed plausible based on its description and reputation. Part of my contest was inspired by the blog “Rands in Repose,” where a post about the “Joy Vectors” and The Gel Dilemma made me realize I had more choices. In other words, Rands underwent a similar pen crisis to mine. I’ve chiefly used fountain pens over the last few years: I like the way many of them write and didn’t mind the occasional hassles around cleaning, leakage, and upkeep. Somewhere in the last six months, however, the once-minor downsides regarding fountain pens became steadily more acute because I’ve been writing by hand much more often, and the Omas Paragon I began using with Baystate Blue ink has a habit of leaking in a most irritating way.

Moving back to a Mont Blanc Noblesse Oblige solved the problem temporarily, but the cap is loose—requiring a $45 repair to fix it. I don’t feel like paying when disposable pens are readily available and quite inexpensive. And the fountain pens I prefer have extra fine points, which require me to write slightly slower. This isn’t a big deal when you’re chiefly writing notes to yourself or marking your own work, but when I have 50 papers to grade and at least six hours of note taking per week, the difference adds up. If you’re running half a mile, the difference between a 7:10 and a 7:00 minute mile are marginal. Over a marathon, they add up.

With that in mind, I found the following pens:


The contenders include:

* A Uniball Vision Elite Micro .5mm

* A Uniball Signo Gel RT Micro .38mm

* A Pilot Precise V5 RT Extra Fine .5mm

* A Pilot G2 Extra Fine .5mm

* A Uniball 207 Micro .5mm

* A Pilot G2 Ultra Fine .38mm

* The Mont Blanc Extra Fine fountain pen for comparison purposes.

I sought a pen that wrote with a very fine line, had color that didn’t smear or bleed and looked good to me, wrote swiftly and smoothly, and fit my hand. The .38mm pens threw me at first: they seemed like they would be too fine. The following picture shows some of them writing:


The picture doesn’t convey the thickness of the lines well, but it was obvious that the Pilot G2 Fine .7mm (not pictured among the contenders) was too thick for my purposes. The Pilot Precise wasn’t a gel pen of the sort that seems superior to the others, and the Uniball Vision Elite suffered the same problem: it spread over my moleskine notebook like blood. The Pilot G2 Extra Fine .5mm seemed a tad thick. At the end, I realized that the Signo Extra Micro .38mm, G2 Ultra Fine .38mm, and the 207 Micro .5mm were the best pens of the bunch. Japanese pens seem to be the winners: both Sanford Uniballs and all Pilot pens I tested were made in Japan and seemed to be the best regarded online.

The question: How to choose among them?

I couldn’t decide. All seemed like strong contenders. I didn’t like the 207 Micro housing as much, but it did produce a lovely sky blue color. The Pilot G2 .38mm ultimately seemed darker than I wanted. By process of elimination, I’m going with the Signo RT .38mm for now. For a while I tried swapping the 207 Micro housing with the Signo RT housing, which worked, but I’m not sure I wanted to stay with the .5mm. Thinness counts if I’m going to have any real chance at legibility, and although the .5mm and .38mm were indifferent for most note taking, writing in books with smeary pages made the .38mm shine. I could use one pen for notebooks and another for bound books, but that sounds like more hassle than it’s worth to me. I’ve now been using the Signo RT .38mm for about three weeks, and over the last month I’ve spent about a week with the Pilot G2 .38mm. The two are so close that I could be happy with either, so the .38mm wasn’t far from a coin toss. In the end, I could only pick one.

All the pens survived well. Most packages claimed that the pens would resist alteration. Although I’m not sure what a determined counterfeiter could do, but in these tests by Jet Pens simple water won’t make the ink run. I tried my own test with the finalists and found the same. In addition, Jet says that “The Uni-Ball line is known for its quick drying and waterproof characteristics, making it a favorite among artists.” I’m not an artist, at least in the visual sense, but I do appreciate quick drying and a narrow tip. The Signo RT meets those requirements, and it’s my go-to pen for the foreseeable future.


Get Shorty and Out of Sight redux — Elmore Leonard

Two years and change ago I wrote a short post about Elmore Leonard, introducing him by asking “Why is Elmore Leonard so damn good when he’s at his best?” (the linked post has a long passage that’s still among my favorites for its verisimilitude in terms ofs form and content). I still have no answer, but seeing him at the Tucson Festival of Books inspired me to reread Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Mr. Paradise. At boring panels when I couldn’t gracefully leave, the mass-market paperback edition of Out of Sight helped pass the time, but it’s not the sort of novel one can quit after 60 pages.

Leonard writes women with teeth, which numerous reviewers have noted; as Peter Wolf wrote in 1990, “Since Stick (1983), [Leonard’s] female characters have taken on a dimension rivaling that of his men; as a result, they generate more plot movement and spring more surprises than their earlier counterparts.” Describing just how Leonard does it might demand an entire academic paper; one of my favorite examples popped up in Out of Sight when Karen Sisco, the Marshall, says that, “Once you’re into it and you’re pumped up and you know who the guy is and you know you can’t give him one fucking inch . . . he has the choice, you don’t.” That might be as accurate a comment on human affairs as anyphilosophy book ever written. Or it might be empty pop commentary; another such moment happens when Sisco compares her bank robbing lover, Jack Foley, to Harry Dean Stanton in affect but not looks, saying that they were “both real guys who seemed tired of who they were, but couldn’t do anything about it.” One pleasure of the pulps is the blurred and indistinct line between the profound and silly, and one gets the impression that Leonard doesn’t care about the difference, if there is one.

The same kind of realism pervades Get Shorty. In describing Harry Zimm, Leonard says, “Forty-nine movies and [Harry] looked more like a guy drove a delivery truck or came to fix your air-conditioning when it quit, a guy with a tool kit.” Dropping the “who” and other connectors is a classic Leonard move; it looks ostentatious in a single sentence, as if the novel was poorly edited, but in the context one quickly adapts to the rhythms of speech. Martin Amis’ Money is the only other novel I can think of with so distinctive and vigorous a voice that also succeeds. And notice that description of Harry the movie guy: it’s so good because it’s accurate and tells us that many producer and production people are essentially technicians, and the skills they employ aren’t fundamentally different in deployment than the guy who fixes your car or Xerox. Leonard compresses into a sentence what Julie Salamon conveys without stating in all of The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood.

Harry is desperate and foolish; when he makes a mistake he’ll rationalize, as he does here after disobeying Chili Palmer’s advice regarding discretion:

“I had to,” Harry said, sounding pretty definite about it. “I’ve got a chance to put together a deal that’ll change my life, make me an overnight success after thirty years in the business. . . . But I need a half a million to get it started.”

In Chris Matthew’s wonderful nonfiction account/short story collection/political primer (the book has elements of all three) Hardball, he has an entire chapter called “Don’t talk unless it improves the silence.” Chili knows that. Harry doesn’t. And yet that quote conveys all of Harry’s greed, desperation and vanity all in one spot, and the link between Hollywood hustlers and drug/mob hustlers is so pervasive and intertwined with this novel that merely pointing it out is almost gratuitous. And yet the section is compelling because one always thinks of that big chance to change your life—what would you do to accomplish it? It’s an enduring question and reminds me of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, where the answer seems to stretch a little bit more with each passing act until the answer effectively becomes, “anything.”

Earlier I mentioned that Leonard probably wouldn’t care for elaborate discussion about the difference, if any, between genre and literary fiction. You almost hear his derision through one of his characters when Karen Flores, the woman consistently underestimated as the bimbo, says

I got the feeling the studio forced the script on her and she has to go with it. She said… [the story is] involving, reflective, has resonance, a certain texture—those are all story department words.

All of them are weak, empty synonyms for “I like it.” Why not just say that? Leonard would. Maybe that’s why he can write a novel that so effectively mocks Hollywood, feels some bizarre compulsion to dress its rationalizations—there’s that word again—in jargon to try and prevent people from seeing beneath them. Leonard doesn’t, and I think that’s part of the reason his female characters are so effective when they’re so often props in wiseguy novels: he writes them in with their own desires and hopes and goals, beyond mooning after the hero. They’re competent. So are many of his heroes: competent but flawed describes them well. His writing, on the other hand, is so competent that it transcends competence and becomes nearly flawless. I have a short list of writers whose new books I will buy almost automatically, and Leonard is on it for good reason.

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