Oh, Zuckerman…

“I gave myself to him and he’ll never forgive me for it. He’s not merely a monster, he’s a great moralist too.”

—That’s from Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound, although the edition I have is called Zuckerman Bound. It’s funnier still in context. I’m reading Zuckerman because I was inspired by a quote in Katie Roiphe’s much-discussed essay, “The Naked and the Conflicted:”

“The sight of the Zipper King’s daughter sitting on the edge of the bathtub with her legs flung apart, wantonly surrendering all 5 feet 9 inches of herself to a vegetable, was as mysterious and compelling a vision as any Zuckerman had ever seen.” I can’t decide what’s so compelling—I think it’s the middle, with the adverb adjective duo of “wantonly surrendering,” which seem like they should be pornographic but are mostly comic, or vice-versa. “Vice-versa” seems like a useful pair of words when dealing with Roth, because he’s constantly got me wondering exactly where in the circuit I stand: at the bottom, the top, the sides, somewhere else? It’s complexity that isn’t complex to read or enjoy.

Or maybe it’s something else about the sentence, like how incongruous or outrageous it is: the Zipper King has a sense of pathos, the idea of the daughter of the Zipper King is vaguely medieval despite the American seen, and the mystery that Zuckerman feels is almost religious in a very much not religious context. It’s got a lot of ingredients in the stew, and trying to pick them out isn’t easily accomplished, even if we appreciate the taste.

Books I've started and stopped lately

* John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River. His newest book is better, at least in its first 50 pages, than the abysmal Until I Find You, but still doesn’t that umph that animates The Hotel New Hampshire, Garp, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, which seem to me his best books, although I still haven’t read The Cider House Rules. Yet.

* Nicola Keegan’s Swimming, which has an interesting premise about a rising Olympic swimmer and her obsession with the pool and, presumably, how that does and doesn’t translate to dry land. Only the dialog is rendered in annoying italics (a minor point, but still), and, at least in the early sections, too many parts say things like, “The window sits still, boring a hole in the flat sky. Why are you mean to me all the time?” Overall, Swimming is tough to get into and awakens a strong, almost irrepressible urge to read Lolita instead, which is perhaps the ultimate novel dealing with obsession (among other things). Really, why resist?

* Robert Kaplan, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts. An up-close look at the parts of the military that work, and probably a useful corrective to hit’n’run media coverage of foreign places (Yemen is in the news again! Give me a 30-second soundbite!). As with Imperial Grunts, Kaplan delves deep, but stretches read like the spec sheets in Tom Clancy, and I’m looking for more… what? Synthesis? Something like that? Tough to say. The book isn’t bad, but it doesn’t feel essential, as something like Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience does, although that covers a wholly different subject.

I’d write more, but I just can’t summon the energy for it. As Orwell said:

[…] the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in [the reviewer] the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless, and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every care the only truthful review he could write would be: “This book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.”

I don’t think of myself as a reviewer—I prefer to imagine myself someone who happens to like to write about books—but the truth is that the works above inspired few thoughts in me whatsoever. None is outright bad. They just leave me… unfeeling. Too many books leave me feeling, or at least knowledgeable, to spend a lot of time on those that don’t.

Books I’ve started and finished lately:

* Francine Prose’s Touch and Goldengrove. Why didn’t I read these earlier?

* Most of Alain de Botton’s oeuvre, including On Love, The Architecture of Happiness, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. This is half pleasure—everything de Botton has written, except The Romantic Movement, is enormously pleasurable—and half for a project I’m working on.

* A.S. Byatt’s Possession, as discussed at the link.

Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate — Diego Gambetta

Criminals use nicknames both to separate insiders from outsiders and to stymie potential investigations into their activities (which is itself a form of stonewalling outsiders). They use violence strategically rather than randomly, and prefer to send hard-to-fake signals about their badness and their inability to fit in any part of the larger world: hence the tendency toward showing incompetence at tasks other than criminality, as seen on The Sopranos, the tendency toward extreme tattoos, and the tendency toward group participation in criminal events. The last binds the participants together. You can see some of the same behavior in almost any group of people; for example, a group of teenagers might decide they’re poor math students, they like to wear black, and they prefer to smoke weed with one another, the last being necessary to ensure group culpability—”they try to force each other to participate and torment or ostracize those who refuse.”

This comes from Codes of the Underworld, a clever book that is actually about signaling, semiotics, and economics more than any other subjects, despite my introduction. Its conclusions feel obvious after reading, but I doubt I could’ve articulated them prior. It has an impressive range of detailed examples supporting its general observations.

For example, criminals are good at finding liminal spaces where criminality might be implied, but not completely; Gambetta cites drivers who would nominally “forget” cash when handing over their license to police:

A quick-witted and corrupt policeman could choose to pocket the banknote (or bargain for more); if not corrupt, he was unable to treat the display of the ostensibly “forgotten” banknote as sufficient evidence of attempted bribery.

Steven Pinker makes similar claims about linguistic issues in The Stuff of Thought, where he describes the verbal tango people in crimes, love affairs, and other situations undergo. In both crime and love affairs, very good reasons often exist for evading overt, blunt language: being caught by police in the former and being unambiguously rejected in the latter.

As the above issue regarding bribes perhaps shows, criminals are more rational than they’re often made out to be: “Far from being driven by a feudal or monarchic mentality, mafiosi display a surprisingly modern mind-set in managing their organization, at odds with much of the Italian nepotistic and corrupt style.” I like the sentence itself as well as the thought behind it: the sentence compacts a lot of material into a short space (“monarchic mentality,” “Italian nepotistic”), which alludes to allegedly common knowledge while also correcting that knowledge. Some parts are wonderfully academic in their obtuse cleverness, as when Gambetta says, “This sort of usage seems a jocular custom, a form of bantering, and it would be a stretch to attribute it to an instrumental motive.” In other words, friends sometimes greet each other affectionately and informally. But those moments are few, especially relative to the easy density in Codes of the Underworld and the fact that it also nearly functions “semiotics for dummies,” with a fair amount of the theory one might otherwise find in Umberto Eco or Roland Barthes. In short, it’s multidisciplinary and academic in the best sense of both words.

A blurb from Thomas Schelling on the back says that “[…] the book’s interpretations will carry well beyond the field of conventional crime.” He’s right, and one major strength is that, as with the best nonfiction books, Gambetta uses a particular field or example from a particular field (in this case, criminality) to comment simultaneously on a much larger issue (how people communicate and form social bonds) without straining too far to either side, which would destroy the whole.

(Here is Tyler Cowen’s take, or rather citation. I don’t know of any other interesting posts about the books.)

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