Sir Vidia’s Shadow — Paul Theroux

V.S. Naipaul as a character in a novel would be unbelievable because his hysterical obtuseness would seem unrealistic; no one would want to read a book about him, especially as he’s seen at the beginning of Sir Vidia’s Shadow. Only Theroux’s perspective makes this one readable. Many greats are ornery—one favorite depiction is Dr. Swenson in State of Wonder—but this one seems not great enough to justify his orneriness; if I’d been Theroux I think I would’ve given up at or just after the first meeting. Phrases like, “Who needs all that negativity?” are overused and have been corrupted by New Age morons, but reading about Naipaul one does have to ask: Who needs all that negativity?

State of Wonder is a good comparison. Switch the literary examples for scientific ones and the sexes and this could be Swenson:

He knew his own mind. He knew what he wanted. It was clear that he would not find what he was looking for Uganda — anyway, he had already given up on us. He had impossibly high standards. He said there was no point in having standards unless they were high. He did not compromise. He expected the best, in writing, in speaking, in behavior, in reading.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow sometimes reads like a parody yet isn’t one. One sees the contradictions in Naipaul, in Theroux, and their relationship pop up; the many brilliant scenes the beginning of the memoir eventually set up this, which doesn’t occur until page 71:

I was just a young man in Africa, trying to make my life. He was one of the strangest men I had ever met, and absolutely the most difficult. He was almost unlovable. He was contradictory, he quizzed me incessantly, he challenged everything I said, he demanded attention, he could be petty, he uttered heresies about Africa, he fussed, he mocked, he made his innocent wife cry, he had impossibly high standards, he was self-important, he was obsessive on the subject of his health. He hated children, music, and dogs. But he was also brilliant, and passionate in his convictions, and to be with him, as a friend or fellow writer, I had always to be at my best.

sir_vidias_shadowA few people hate children, a few more hate dogs, but music? Almost no one hates music, not even me, who is not the most musically inclined or astute person alive. One gets the sense in this paragraph too of how irritating Naipaul can be: the repeated “He was” begins to weigh, like a literary weight, as it and variations on it is repeated, until the relief of the “But” that tells us the good sides of Naipaul, the shining sides, the reasons one would want to be around him.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow can be read many ways, which is one of its pleasures. It can be read as Theroux’s education in humanity; Naipaul is like no one else yet still somehow manages to operate somewhat. Theroux is educated in other ways. He is educated in the literary marketplace, which is brutal and poorly remunerated. He learns other things. At the beginning of the book Theroux’s lover is immediately eager to have his baby. After their three-month romance both discover she is four months pregnant. The lesson is clear yet it seems to be one each generation must re-learn.

What else? As noted in the preceding paragraph the book is about many things; being a writer is one, and peppered throughout we learn about writers’ struggles. Naipaul goes off on a journalism assignment that “meant breaking off work on his book, a hard thing to do.” Yet Theroux “was teaching every day and also working on a novel, so it consoled me to hear about his interruptions.” “Consoled” is an interesting word here, with its implication of grief or disappointment assuaged. Maybe teaching every day is a grief, but finding someone else in a condition of grief may make us feel empathy, but there is also a little notion, a whisper, of small-minded competitiveness here.

Maybe the best thing about Sir Vidia’s Shadow is the way every word feels essential, deliberate, chosen. It demands and rewards close attention the way too few books I’ve read lately do. Those that demand attention because of the quality of their sentences often have dull or empty plots. Those that demand attention because of their content often have dull sentences. Sir Vidia’s Shadow brings together both sides—or should I say “brings both sides together?” After reading such a book, the answer matters again.

Still, I keep noticing the struggles, especially about money. There is rarely enough of it and the principles do shockingly large amounts of work for shockingly small amounts of money. Scenes of privation are too frequent to quote at length, but I will give one touch from midway through:

My strategy has been to write and survive that way; my strategy was not working. A novel, a book of criticism, scores of book reviews, a collection of short stories — this in less than a year had produced such a paltry income that I was grateful to my wife for getting a job. Now I was at work on my seventh novel. . .

Grant writing may be hard but it is not so hard as this. The artists’ struggle with money is an old story and one told too rarely in schools. Reading about Theroux’s struggles also make me wonder how many writers and would-be writers are out there, living like Theroux, but never quite making it, leading them to mid- and late-life bitterness at their own struggles and fiscal catastrophes.

Some moments are useful in the age of distraction: “At the age of thirty, I had my first telephone.” One senses a conceivable link between that and the novels written.

I will not give away the end, which is hard to read and more emotionally powerful than one might initially expect. There are shades of the end of Michael Lewis’s much more recent book The Undoing Project. There is something powerful and terrible about broken friendship, which is beyond even the terribleness of romantic breakups. But breakup and breakdown is in Sir Vidia’s character. One sees it throughout the book. Theroux knows as much and takes his risks. In fairy tales and mythology it is rare that a mortal who consorts with supernatural beings comes out of the encounter, be it brief or be it a marriage, well. Sir Vidia’s Shadow is not a fairy tale but it has elements of the fairy tale in it, and one sees that the long friendship teaches Theroux much, yet the friendship cannot forever endure Sir Vidia’s nature.

Automatic, unthinking opposition is bad

Elon Musk actually believes Rex Tillerson could be an ‘excellent’ Secretary of State” strikes a skeptical tone about Tillerson, but so far I haven’t seen a strong explanation about why he wouldn’t be. There is much to dislike and fear about Trump—I in particular worry about the way he raises the risks of global nuclear war—but it is unwise to automatically oppose anyone he proposes for his Cabinet or anything he does.

It is also not impossible that Trump will appoint a good FDA commissioner. It is possible that House Republicans will reform Social Security, which is an unmitigated good for anyone under the age of 40 or so (barring a sudden, unexpected takeoff in growth, the Social Security and Medicare edifices will not provide anything like current benefits when people my age are the age of current recipients; workers my age are paying taxes for the fiscal services old people get that we ourselves are unlikely to get when we are that old, and that ought to affect our voting patterns (it doesn’t)).

One should reserve opprobrium for where it is deserved and not fire it off generically, especially based on innuendo or simple partisan affiliation. Again, that is not to approve of Trump or most things House Republicans favor, but it should contextualize the discussion. As far as I can tell, Tillerson could be an excellent Secretary of State (he could also be a terrible one). I know very little about him and wish to avoid castigating him or anyone else based on automatic partisanship.

Doing so is of course hard, for reasons Jonathan Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind and Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels describe in Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Those books are too long to describe briefly, but both show that most people are partisans first and thinkers about individual issues second, or third, or even fourth. There is much evidence for this case, perhaps the most interesting being the last election: Trump is not a Republican in an ideological or issue-based sense, but he did get the nomination and most Republicans and nominal Republicans voted for him anyway.

I’m also not sure I could enumerate the qualities of a good Secretary of State versus a bad one, and I wonder how many people with strongly stated views on Tillerson could. I wonder how many could say anything useful about his views and background. I can’t.

Links: Linux for writers, antibiotics, why the “Hobbit” movies are terrible, revenge of the bureaucrats and more!

* “Shallow Graves: The novels of Paul Auster,” from 2009 and one of the most hilarious reviews I’ve ever read; somehow I missed it at the time.

* “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich.” It’s a good article and has been making the rounds online; if I were super-rich I’d be doing the same thing, for reasons listed in “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse.” Again, look at history: The craziness of World Wars I and II are (almost) impossible to believe, if you really study them. Entire countries marched in virtual lockstop into existential horror. People follow the crowd and do what they’re told, even if the crowd walks off a cliff and the leader tells them to walk off a cliff. The probability of extremely bad things happening is low, but it’s higher than it was on Nov. 7.

* A shockingly good explanation of why the Hobbit movies were so terrible.

* We will miss antibiotics when they’re gone.

* Where the Second Avenue Subway Went Wrong.

* On Building the Skyline, a history of New York’s skyscrapers. Also, A single city in China built more skyscrapers last year than the US and Australia combined. Pretty sad.

* Tom Wolfe’s new book is terrible. I started it and gave up maybe a quarter of the way through.

* The Many, the Humble, the Ubuntu Linux Users. About using Linux from the perspective of a writer rather than a programmer. There are also now very good laptops that come with Linux pre-installed, like this Dell XPS 13″.

* The System Has Failed and a Con Artist Has Won.

* “Blue Lies Matter: How Video Finally Proved That Cops Lie.”

* Yes, there have been aliens.

* The next [debt or financial] crisis?

* “What the Death of the T.P.P. Means for America.” The short answer is, “Very little that is good.”

* On Forged Through Fire: War, Peace, and the Democratic Bargain

Links: Faux productivity, the novel, parenting by contract, global warming, and more!

* “How ‘time-saving’ technology destroys our productivity: The endless tasks it can be used to create leave us working longer and longer hours.” Maybe the most important link in this batch. In my own work, I’ve seen this phenomenon and wrote about it in “How computers have made grant writing worse.”

* “Considering the Novel in the Age of Obama,” much better than the title implies but also a good exploration of why most people neither read nor care about “literary” fiction.

* We need a contract for co-parenting, not just for marriage, a point I expect to keep becoming more important over time.

* Roivant, an important pharmaceutical startup that’s trying to cut the time necessary to develop new drugs.

* “America, America,” scary, important.

* That Time I Turned a Routine Traffic Ticket into the Constitutional Trial of the Century.”

* Do dating apps fuel a rise in casual sex? Funny story, weak data, the kids today are out of control, just like they’ve always been.

* 2016 was the hottest year on record, surpassing the previous record holder (2015) and the one before that (2014).

Caught in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble

In a Tweet Benedict Evans mentions, “I’m always baffled when people are surprised by charts like this. What do people think the world was like 250 years ago? Isn’t this obvious?”


I replied, “I teach undergrads; it isn’t obvious to most, and most either don’t think about it or rely on TV-based historical fiction,” but that’s too glib; the chart’s demonstration of growing wealth is obvious to people who’ve read a lot of history and who’re immersed in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble, but that’s a small part of the population. Most people don’t really, really think about or study history, and to the extent they think about it at all they rely on hazy, unsourced stereotypes.

I’ve read lots of student papers (and for that matter Internet comments) saying things like, “In the past, [claim here].” Some will even say, “In the old days…” In the margins I will write in reply, “Which years and geographic areas are you thinking about?” When I ask those kinds of questions in class students look at me strangely, like I’ve suddenly demanded they perform gymnastics.

The past really is a foreign country and unless someone has made the effort to learn about it directly, meta-learn how to learn, and learn how the people in a given time period likely thought, it can look like the present but with different clothes. That’s often how it’s presented in TV, movies, and pop fiction (see e.g. “Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels“). To take one obvious example, characters in such TV shows and movies often have modern sexual and religious mores, ignoring that many of the sexual mores and rules of the last ~500 years of European and American history evolved because a) reliable contraception was unavailable or extremely limited, b) a child born to a single woman could end up killing both child and woman due to lack of money and/or food, and c) many STIs that are now treated with a quick antibiotic were death sentences.

In most countries today, people don’t worry about starving to death, so the kind of absolute poverty that’s stunningly declined in the last couple centuries takes a strong imaginative leap to inhabit. People also seem to experience hedonic adaptation, so the many things that make our lives easy and pleasant become invisible (that’s true of me too).

So the average person probably never thinks about what the world was like 250 years ago, and, if they do, they probably don’t have the baseline knowledge necessary to conceptualize and contextualize it properly. Those of us caught in the nerd-o-sphere and researcher bubble, like myself, do. Our sense of “obvious” shifts with the environment we inhabit and the education we’ve had (or the education we’re continuing all the time).

And about that education system. Years ago I used to read tech sites in which self-taught autodidacts would fulminate about the failures of the conventional school system and prophesize about how the liberation of information will remake the educational sector into a free intellectual utopia in which students would learn much faster and at their own pace, leading to peace, harmony, and knowledge; in this world, rather than being bludgeoned by teachers and professors, students would become self-motivated because they’d be unshackled from conventional curriculums. To some extent I believed those criticisms and prophecies. One day we would set students free and they’d joyously learn for the sake of learning.

Then I started teaching and discovered that the conventional school system exists to work on or with the vast majority of the population, which doesn’t give a fig about the joy of knowledge or intrinsic learning or whatever else Internet nerds and PhDs love. The self-taught autodidacts who wrote on Slashdot (back then) and Hacker News or Reddit or blogs today are a distinct minority and at most a couple percent of the total population. Often they were or are poorly served in some ways by the conventional education system, especially because they often have unusual ways of interacting socially.

Now, today, I’ve both taught regular, non-nerd students and read books like Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and I’ve realized why the education system has evolved the way it has. Most people, left to their own devices, don’t study poetry and math and so on. They watch videos on YouTube and TV and play videogames and chat with their friends. Those are all fine activities and I’ve of course done all of them, but the average person doesn’t much engage in systematic skill- and knowledge-building of the sort that dedicated study is (ideally) supposed to do.

In short, the nerds who want to reform the education system are very different than the average student the system is designed to serve, in a way similar to the way the average person in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble is likely very different from the average person, who hardcore nerds may not know or interact with very much.

I’m very much in that nerd-o-sphere and if you’re reading this there’s a high probability you are too. And when I write about undergrads, remember that I’m writing about the top half of the population in terms of motivation, cognition, and tenacity.

Links: Why your city has no money, Thiel’s weak defense, novels, movements, and more!

* The Real Reason Your City Has No Money.

* “Peter Thiel, Trump’s Tech Pal, Explains Himself,” wildly unconvincing and specious; it’s bizarre to read Thiel’s criticisms of others that apply primarily to himself. He wrote Zero to One.

* Thinking about the process of being an artist and a writer: Lessons from David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses.

* There’s “No proof music lessons make children any smarter.”

* “The Novel as Math Problem: As a formal exercise, Paul Auster’s 4321 is impeccable. As a story, it’s curiously cold.” I’ll pass.

* Why Most Economists Are So Worried About Trump.

* An excellent, important point: “Every movement…has a smart version and a stupid version, I try to (almost) always consider the smart version. The stupid version is always wrong for just about anything.” I have sometimes been guilty of attacking the stupid version.

* “Housing supply is [finally, almost] catching up to demand.”

* “Elena’s career exemplifies two cultures in women’s writing that are not supposed to mix: the unimpeachably high, where abstract desires are worked out in texts accessible only to educated elites, and the thrillingly low—writing that, driven by big, vulgar passions, grips the popular imagination but is not to be taken seriously.”

Links: Writers and cash, hate, friendship, laptops, book making and mending

* “Make America Mate Again,” very much an underrated issue that has not made it much into the general culture.

* “The Friendship That Created Behavioral Economics,” on Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project.

* “Anatomy of a Hoax: How the physicist Alan Sokal hoodwinked a group of humanists and why, 20 years later, it still matters.” I’m not sure it does still matter, but it is entertaining!

* “U.S. Says Putin Ordered Broad Campaign of Influence to Help Trump Win Election.” In short, Americans fell for it.

* “How Japan has almost eradicated gun crime.” The secret is unsurprising.

* Rake’s Progress: A Look at the Well-Traveled Casanova.

* “Donald Trump isn’t Hitler, Mussolini, or even Putin. He’s Trump; but that, in itself, presents a real danger.”

* “Dell’s latest XPS 13 DE still delivers Linux in a svelte package.”

* “He Fixes the Spines of Books, Without an Understudy: Donald Vass has been mending books in the Seattle area for 26 years, but his craft is a fading one.”

* “The Soviet Union Is Gone, But It’s Still Collapsing: And 5 other unlearned lessons from leading experts about modern Russia and the death of an empire.” Better than the title makes it sound.

* “Buffalo Becomes First City to Bid Minimum Parking Goodbye,” good news.

* “Why is it so hard for writers to talk about how much money they make?” Probably because for most the answer is “not much.”

Briefly noted: Underground Airlines — Ben H. Winters

You may have seen the good reviews, but I gave up after 50 pages, many of which look like this:

Underground Airlines

The premise is clever—the Civil War is averted and slavery persists in four states up to the present day—but the writing is not. One wishes to read instead Elmore Leonard, who is a master of the kind of style attempted here. Almost every page is overwritten. Many of the pieces in Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliche apply here too.

Good books I read in 2016

A reader pointed out that I didn’t write a “best of 2016” post, which is correct, but “best of” strikes me wrong, so I’m going to write about good books that I happened to read in 2016 and that you should read too.

* The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis, probably the best book I read all year, except maybe for Blindsight, but that is so different that the two aren’t really comparable.

* Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century by Masha Gessen, another narrative nonfiction book, though this one emerged and escaped my notice in 2009.

* The Map and the Territory by Houellebecq, still weird and likely always weird; Houellebecq has his misses, especially The Possibility of an Island, but his hits are strong, weird, and different—with “different” too often meaning “bad,” but not in his case.

* Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, one of those amazing books worth re-reading whenever you can’t find a new book to read.

* The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, which is novelistic in detail and beautifully reported. I didn’t fully know where the music everyone listens to comes from and now I do.

I’ve been having trouble finding really good novels, though my tastes are idiosyncratic and I don’t have rules for what makes a good novel besides the tautological, “Be really good.” If you have suggestions drop me a line.

The most-visited post I wrote last year is “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”

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