Little Green Men — Christopher Buckley

Little Green Men not only holds up well, but might even improve with age and the stream of stories about lunatic politicians. The novel supposes that “alien” abductions are happening at the directive of a secret government agency named MJ-12. The rationale was originally to a) scare the Russians and b) inflate the defense budget, both of which seem so plausible that I wouldn’t be surprised if such a thing had or is taking place.

MJ-12 functions well enough that “Fifty years and more after the first UFO sightings, the vote was in: a full 80 percent of Americans believed that the government knew more about aliens than it was letting on.” Yet most serious thinkers dismiss aliens as a crackpot phenomenon. A computer program maintains this tension by abducting people unlikely to be believed; as a low-level bureaucrat named Scrubbs says, “the credibility algorithm seemed to have a bias toward overweight women. It would be nice if just every once in a while it picked, well, Claudia [Schiffer—who was then a desirable model] would be nice.” Once again, Buckley knows too much about government and the boredom so many government jobs entail, getting the details of tedium so right that I almost wonder if Little Green Men wouldn’t also be at home in a political science syllabus. Little details about Scrubbs, and the ridiculousness of the situation in general, provide the efficient comic combustion fueling the novel: it mocks both government, the media, and Washington D.C. at just the right levels.

Our friendly bureaucrat Scrubbs decides not to be as feckless as we suspected him to be, and he orders the abduction of a talk show host blowhard named John Banion not just once, but twice, causing Banion to make alien abduction his main topic, much to the ire of his sponsors, friends, and others, who respond with “Slammed doors, trenchant sarcasm, dripping scorn. He wondered if this was what the disciples went through.” Middle East peace and the Russia situation never seemed so simple.

Imagining himself as part of Jesus’ retinue is perfectly appropriate for a man whose ego has so long been inflated by punditry that he probably does imagine himself leading the sheep who are his audience. And yet at the same time, a series of byzantine turns causes him to get a much lower brow, higher rated show that, as one character observes, is more interesting anyway because his followers take action instead of pondering the universe over their morning coffee.

These followers might have some trouble with the intellect, however, as Banion’s messiah-like speech to them on the subject of government secrecy indicates:

People! [Banion says.] Do you know what we are?
Tell us! We want to know! What are we, anyway?
From the sea of perplexed looks, it was clear that Banion’s metaphor was not immediately apparent.
You know what you do with mushrooms, don’t you? Stick ’em in the dark! Feed ’em a lot of shit!
Ah! Yes, now we get it! It’s a metaphor!

A lower class but a larger volume: that’s Banion’s power. But his ability to change Washington itself is suspect; a presidential election following a NASA fiasco brings new faces to Washington who claim that they’ll crack down on influence peddling. One politico observes: “They all say that when they’re running. Then they get to town and see how it works and we all become best friends.” Banion steps outside the circle. What follows is hilarious because it’s both real and surreal, and things even stranger than fake UFO abductions happen in Washington when one departs the well-worn path. No wonder so few do.

Being Written — William Conescu

Being Written ought to be better than it is.

The idea is clever: someone is trying to go about his life aware that he’s being written as a character in a book. Some of the writing is clever, as when one character thinks “everyone at the table appears to Monty as if they’ve dressed for different occasions.” I’ve been to those parties. But other times the prosaic invades, as when we find, on the same page, that “pinstripes complement Natalie’s pale blue silk evening dress.” Is such an adjective train really necessary?

The novel bogs down. Quickly. The second person isn’t used as skillfully as it is in, say, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Its self-consciousness becomes irritating, as when a chapter begins, “This doesn’t seem like the kind of book you’d want to read. There’s so much talk. You prefer books like the new Richard Corrone novel that you’ve set across the table from you as an incentive.” The truth is that Being Written does seem like the sort of book I’d want to read. But there’s too much blather about what it is to be a writer and tell story, with too little actual story.

Chapters alternate between different characters’ points of view and the second person “you” chapters, as if the writer is writing you. The former tend to be more successful but more boring and the latter more interesting but frustrating. He’s not the first writer with similar problems. About The Trick of It, Kate of Kate’s Book Blog wrote:

I found the premise of the novel irresistible: a young scholar meets and marries the novelist whose work is the primary focus of his academic career. This seemed to me a very clever way to explore the vexing interrelationship between fiction, biography, and literary criticism. And it was. But I’m not sure that the book ever transcended its premise to become something more than a clever idea.

That’s how I feel about Being Written, except I didn’t love the premise, which reminded me too much of 60s experimentation gone wrong, right down to the cover, which pictures a guy bent double with a pencil on his back. Yeah, I get the idea: we’re all in the process of being written by the stories of our lives even if we don’t necessarily hear the voice that the narrator does, but this doesn’t feel original even if I can’t immediately cite an obvious predecessor. Still, I did like it enough that I’ll keep an eye out for Conescu’s next novel, since this one shows promise, while many novels fail even that test.

Note: this novel was provided by its publisher.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work — Alain de Botton

Perhaps sensing a gap in our current understanding of the world, Alain de Botton has decided to produce another of his unusual hybrid books that combine an ostensibly invisible subject (architecture, travel) and rendering it in extraordinary, philosophically tinged detail that forces one to reconsider what one previously knew of said subject. Certainly he accomplishes this in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, a fine (and finely wrought—the production quality is quite high) book as delightful as Neal Stephenson’s magisterial essay on fiber optic cables for its speculation on the minutia of the mostly ignored activities all around us: work.

Work and work-like activities aren’t literally invisible, of course: we can see them happening all around us, although the gap between it and play is frequently narrower than we give it credit for—I don’t sell the food I make, although many chefs do. In reminding us of the way work works, de Botton has a strategy: take a particular field, describe it some, and then pull back the zoom lens of history and philosophy to speculate on what that work might mean in the broader sense, once one steps away from the computer and gets on a celestial throne complete with philosophical telescope.

It’s an effective strategy. In a section about cookie manufacturers (called “biscuits” in England), for example, de Botton says

When does a job feel meaningful? Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others. Thought we are often taught to think of ourselves as inherently selfish, the longing to act meaningfully in our work seems just as stubborn a part of our make-up as our appetite for status or money. It is because we are meaning-focused animals rather than simply materialistic ones that we can reasonably contemplate surrendering security for a career helping to bring drinking water to rural Malawi or might quit a job in consumer goods for one in cardiac nursing, aware that when it comes to improving the human condition a well-controlled defibrillator has the edge over even the finest biscuit.

Yet he goes on to imply that perhaps cookie manufacturing has as much to do with well-being as neurosurgery if not more. If that goes too far, then at the very least cookie manufacture has been given too little thought, along with sundry other fields like shipping, logistics, transmission, painting, and so forth. Entrepreneurship gets its due as well; it’s a pity de Botton didn’t want to spend some time in the Seliger + Associates proposal factory, as we would have been happy to have him, but it’s nice to imagine that he might imagine doing battle with bureaucratic regulations as having nobility similar to doing real battle.

The impetus of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work comes at the end of the first chapter, which is itself a deep meditation on where something as seemingly invisible as a cargo ship: “I was inspired by the men at the pier to attempt a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern work place and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.” Once, many if not most people would have found that in God or Gods; in Flow, Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi finds it what the subtitle promises to be “the psychology of optimal experience;” others presumably find that meaning in sex, or drugs, or whatever, and de Botton’s exploration fascinates in part because relatively few books and articles seem to argue that one can or should find it in work. That might be part of what sets apart Joel Spolsky’s blog and Paul Graham’s essays: both argue for finding meaning in work, albeit in a particular kind of work—programming or hacking. Still, their ideas can be generalized to other forms of work, and Graham argues that “Curiosity turns work into play.”

De Botton tells us that

… the mention of faraway ports will hence always bear a confused promise of lives unfolding there which may be more vivid than the ones we know here, a romantic charge clinging to names like Yokohama, Alexandria, and Tunis – places which in reality cannot be exempt from tedium and compromise, but which are distant enough to support for a time certain confused daydreams of happiness.

I’m not sure what exactly “a confused promise” means, and the repetition of the word “confused” seems more a mistake than artistry, but his point is well-taken and had someone told me it came from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I probably would’ve believed them. Well, except for the mention of Yokohama, but the larger point still stands. When he leaves the cookie factory, opening one box of thousands if not millions produced there, he thinks

about societies where exceptional fortunes are built up in industries with very little connection to our sincere and significant needs [whatever those are], industries where it is difficult to escape from the disparity between a seriousness of means and a triviality of ends, and where we are hence prone to fall into crises of meaning at our computer terminals and our warehouses, contemplating with low-level despair at the banality of our labour while at the same time honouring the material fecundity that flows from it – knowing that what may look like a childish game is in fact never far from a struggle for our very survival.

That causes me to think too, including about how difficult it is to find a short quote from de Botton that will still do him justice. But I don’t know what to do with the blockquote above, or how to integrate it into a unified theory, or a unified review of a book that, like all of de Botton’s, jumps from central topic to brilliant tangent, from the mundane to the metaphysical, in a single sentence, helping us to see the small in the large and vice-versa, making the ridiculous noble and the mighty silly. Furthermore, one person’s boredom is another’s pleasure. This rationale sounds surprisingly similar to what others have propagated about similar issues. For example, in “Elegance,” Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software says:

People, for the most part, are not playing with their software because they want to. They’re using the software as a tool to accomplish something else that they would like to do. Maybe they are using a chat program to try and seem witty, in hopes that the person they are chatting with will want to spend time with them, so that, ultimately, they have a better chance of getting laid, so that, ultimately, their selfish DNA will get to replicate itself. Maybe they are using a spreadsheet to try and figure out if they can afford a bigger apartment, so that, ultimately, dates will be more impressed when they come over, increasing their chance of getting laid, again, benefitting the DNA. Maybe they’re working on a PowerPoint for the boss so that they will get a promotion so that they’ll have more money which they can use to rent a larger apartment that would attract mates, thus increasing their chance of getting laid, (getting the idea yet?) so the selfish DNA can replicate. Maybe they are looking for a recipe for goat cheese ravioli on the Internet, etc., etc., … DNA.

Maybe it’s useful to remind ourselves of how we are all, on some level, a commodity provider for someone else; certainly most people must regard fiction writers as entertainment for its own sake, rather than the almost sacred duty with which many teachers and professors regard their own profession.

Delightful moments abound in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, as when a woman “has a business card which she hands over in meetings and which tells other people – and, more meaningfully perhaps, reminds her – that she is a Business Unit Senior Manager, rather than a vaporous transient consciousness in an incidental universe.” A blog might perform the same function for me, or school, or Seliger + Associates, or any number of other identities that ground me, and prevent me from mentally dissipating into a vaporous transient consciousness. A woman named Katie inspires lust; according to de Botton, speaking as a (very superficially) objective narrator, “The feelings elicited by Katie’s shorts are incendiary because they threaten to subvert the firm’s entire rationale. They risk bringing to light an awkward truth: how much more interesting we might find it to have sex than to work.”

Occasionally de Botton’s speculations are banal, as when he says that “Living with science without understanding it forced one to consider machines in the same quasi-mystical way in which a sparsely clothed Waiwai might have contemplated the phenomena of the heavens.” This is banal because people have been writing about the perils of specialization and dependence for at least a century if not more, and simultaneously wrong because de Botton knows that, if he really wants to learn how a rocket is made, or how electricity works, or how to program an operating system, he can find out. It might take him a very long time and have a vast opportunity cost, but if he wants to enter a university and master, say, electrical engineering, he at least has a path with reasonable certainty of success. The Waiwai member, on the other hand, has no such guarantee for studying the heavens. Such false notes are uncommon and more than excused. Still, they’re a perpetual danger in de Botton’s style of philosophical musing and journalistic reporting.

I heard Alain de Botton interviewed on Talk of the Nation. At the end he recommended Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape a book that the dilettante in me would love but I’m not sure when I’ll actually read; I use my shopping cart as a catch-all for books of interest, and it currently lists $2,467.47 as the purchase price. Even if I had a couple grand to drop on books, I wouldn’t have the time for them.

In any event, he also made a few other points worth noting, chiefly because they’re so easy to forget: the sheer amount of work, thought, and effort that must go into virtually every item. Almost anything that has been shaped by humans has seen fantastic and often unappreciated labor go into it. If we can admire the sunset, the mountain, and the breeze on a warm day, perhaps we should also admire the seemingly mundane that would once have been marvels: the computer, the kitchen knife, the cupholder, the desk lamp, the Aeron, and so forth. I like to think of myself as slightly ahead of the curve here—witness my posts on Unicomp Customizer keyboard, which is a remade IBM Model M, or this post about workspace, or my identification with Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister’s Peopleware, and so forth. At some point, admiration might slide into mindless consumerism, but de Botton argues that we’re too far on the opposite side: taking for granted the extraordinary ordinary.

In the discussion on Talk of the Nation, de Botton also laments the dearth of art—including novels, poetry, paintings, and so forth—that depict work, echoing his call for “an ambitious new literature of the office.” I’m not sure the extent to which there is a genuine shortage of work about professions, as teachers, cops, lawyers, nurses, strippers, and soldiers often get top billing in popular fiction, sometimes to the derision of literary elites. Maybe de Botton’s view says more about the kind of art he’s involved with than with the nature of art itself. The genre of “stripper memoir” is apparently common enough to elicit an analysis of its common tropes. Perhaps what de Botton really means is that there aren’t enough well-written, literarily ambitious books about occupations; judging from Katie Roiphe’s stripper memoir summary, most tend to be formulaic and aren’t even aware of their competitors, which is seldom promising when it comes to literary endeavor.

Granted, I have yet to see ads for a tawdry TV program featuring accountants, economists, professors, middle managers, or NASA supervisors. But the profusion of professions, is hard to deny, even if those professions tend to be somewhat skewed. The absences might be due to formal difficulty more than lack of interest. Representing abstract, cerebral work in print or via screen might be the hardest task of all; almost no one has shown what it’s like to write a computer program, to be in the flow of the moment, or to slow through dozens of legal opinions because it’s fundamentally boring, like writing about sex: there is no substitute for the real thing, and the descriptions are bound to be metaphors that fail. At best they’re adequate. You can describe the kinds of people engaged in cerebral work (or sex), but not really the thing itself; you’re stuck circling, endlessly, because there’s no other person to represent a point of view. Cerebral work is seldom a dialog. This might be why all those shows and novels gravitate to cops and nurses and so forth: they can show a suspect being interrogated, or a patient being restrained, or someone dying, or whatever. It’s very unusual for someone to die because of a buffer overrun, and even buffer overruns are rarer for hackers who use modern garbage collected languages.

Or maybe de Botton’s ideas about Katie’s shorts, and what they presumably contain, answer the question of why more novels do not focus on work. As he says of those shorts, “They risk bringing to light an awkward truth: how much more interesting we might find it to have sex than to work.” That would answer the question of why so few novels focus on work.

Fifteen books in fifteen minutes

Via Terry Teachout and CAAF: “The rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

My list:

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon
Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox
Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty and Out of Sight (I count them as one book—so what?)
John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor
Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem
Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum
Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy
Robertson Davies’ The Cornish Trilogy
Alain de Botton’s On Love
Richard Russo’s Straight Man

(I purposefully didn’t read either Terry’s list or CAAF’s before writing mine. If I had to add a 16th, I’d probably take How to Think Like a Computer Scientist, which definitely doesn’t fit with the list above.)

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