“The Wheel of Time” as an adult

In middle school I read the first six or eight Robert Jordan Wheel of Time books; I’ve mentioned that before, but the other day I saw someone reading one of the books in a coffee shop and that inspired me to download some. From the opening pages they are badly written; we find of one character, “with his thick chest and broad face, he was a pillar of reality in that morning, like a stone in the middle of a drifting dream.” What is a “pillar of reality?” As opposed to a “pillar of fantasy?” Does reality typically have pillars? In dreams, stones can drift as much as they want. In isolation this kind of thing happens (not every sentence in a given book is to every person’s taste), but things like it recur again and again. Perhaps they were written too fast, or maybe the writer’s attention was elsewhere. But for very inexperienced readers, as I was, that doesn’t matter: everything is novel.

The novels are very Tolkien-esque, except worse. The novel concerns a quest to defeat “The Dark One,” but The Dark One seems like a bad deal. I mean, his nickname is the Lord of Lies. Yet various people in the Wheel of Time world are eager to sign up to serve him. Why would anyone make a deal with him? People try not to do business with people they don’t trust, and that just concerns money—not the soul itself. Truly evil people don’t announce they’re evil; they call themselves good. In Tolkien, Sauron is at least depicted as once having been fair, and being able to use his powers to daunt and seduce the men who haven’t been exposed to Elvish influence. Tolkien thought through a lot of subtle details that are easily missed in a first pass but picked up later on.

Perhaps the Dark One’s dealmaking skill is a metaphor for life under communist regimes, which are highly duplicitous and not very pleasant, but, if one’s government was part of the Soviet Union, that was part of the deal. Many people who ought to have known better were convinced socialism was a good idea. They may have sold their souls, in essence.

The Jordan view of sexuality is… curious. And very adolescent; as a work that might appeal to 12- or 13-year olds, it makes sense. As a work that appeals to adults, it does not. Many of the characters are very attractive and very attracted to one another, and yet none act on it, or only act on it after months or years of courtship that leads to marriage. This seems improbable. Most adults attempt to fulfill months- or years-long mutual attractions somewhat faster than that. The Wheel of Time‘s sexual world sounds a lot like middle school behavior but not much like adult behavior. A fantasy novel like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is much more reality-grounded in this domain, despite featuring far younger protagonists. As an adult I look at Jordan’s Wikipedia page and am unsurprised to find this: “He described himself as a ‘High Church’ Episcopalian and received communion more than once a week.”

Like a lot of thrillers, something happens in almost every chapter of every book (the early ones, anyway). A sudden attack. A reversal of fortune. The introduction of a new character. But, as with a lot of thrillers, the “something” often doesn’t make much sense. Why are the bad guys so ineffective? Why do they try the same sort of attacks, over and over again, which keep failing? Why do Dark friends not get a better name? Could they hire a branding consultant? Thrillers work if you don’t think too much about them—something I realized after reading Persuader, a novel that’s wildly plausible despite its absurdities. Sometimes I wonder if I could become a thriller writer through a deck of cards with plot points like “sudden betrayal,” “bad guy goes good,” “unexpected fight,” etc. on them.

And the attacks are mostly the same: the same Orc-like creatures suddenly appear, as if from nowhere, and execute the same attacks that fail in the same ways. They’re like video-game monsters. If the Dark One is so brilliant, perhaps he ought to learn new tactics? Or perhaps that’s the curse of a 14-novel series: there are only so many variations on a theme.

It feels like Jordan had a bunch of dice when he was writing. Roll a 2? New attack from Trollocs. Four? New magical items. Double sixes? Dark friends. Someone like Philip Pullman or Carlos Ruiz Zafon has a very different, more organic feel, as well as more bounded worlds that may ultimately be more satisfying worlds. The endless size of The Wheel of Time means flatter characters, more repetition, and the exploration of fewer ideas.

Even as a kid, I gave up on the series. But I wonder about what adults see in it. Many people are of course comforted by and susceptible to simple good-vs-evil stories. When one becomes popular, like The Wheel of Time, pointing to it as being popular because it’s a good-vs-evil story isn’t enough. Maybe it’s popular because it’s simple along so many dimensions. The sentences are simple. The motivations are simple. The plot is less simple on its surface but fairly simple beneath. The good guys win at the end (or appear to: so say Internet summarizers). The Wheel of Time world of motivation is fairly simple. In a complex world, simple has appeal.

The chief protagonist is named Rand al’Thor, and the description of him working magic is notable and concerns what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call “Flow” or what might otherwise be called total concentration, which the channelers must use: “Tam had taught him the Void as an aid to archery, to be one with the bow, the arrow, the target. He made himself one with those imagined black wires.” One reading of Wheel might be about the value of total concentration, although that’s a funny lesson in books that don’t demand total concentration and if anything don’t reward it. But for the reader, especially today in an environment of digital distraction, admiring total concentration may be useful.

The Great Good Place — Roy Oldenburg

The Great Good Place is often dated but still interesting, and it’s highly congruent with Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression; Hari argues that one reason so many of us are anxious and depressed is that we’re spatially disconnected from other humans, and Oldenburg explains how that came to be—and how the physical space we inhabit affects us. Online life is a very poor substitute for in-person life, it seems, and articles like “Teenagers are growing more anxious and depressed” appear routinely. Friends who teach school say kids seem less able to handle their own lives and make independent decisions than the used to. While some of this may be “kids these days” grousing of the typical kind, at least some data indicates otherwise, and it may be that smartphones are bad for many reasons, like deleterious effects on relationships (an essay I wrote in 2012)—yet few of us will give them up or even significantly restrict usage. I have a smartphone too and annoy friends by being disconnected from it. Expected response times for texts seems overly low to me, but that seems to be the way the culture is moving. We’ve let phones replace places, and that’s not a good trade-off.

Our biggest barriers to good human space were and are legal and regulatory:

The preferred and ubiquitous mode of urban development is hostile to both walking and talking. In walking, people become part of their terrain; they become custodians of their neighborhoods. In talking, people get to know one another; they find and create their common interests and realize the collective abilities essential to community and democracy.

We take wealth and burn it through hellacious commutes: “The purchase of the even larger home on the even larger lot in the even more lifeless neighborhood is not so much a matter of joining community as retreating from it.” There are solutions, but they’re grasped tentatively and only with tremendous, pointless resistance. We can do better and choose not to.

Some challenges have gotten worse. Oldenburg anticipates the noise plague in today’s bars and restaurants:

Whatever interrupts conversation’s lively flow is ruinous to a third place, be it a bore, a horde of barbaric college students, or mechanical or electronic gadgetry. Most common among these is the noise that passes for music, though it must be understood that when conversation is to be savored, even Mozart is noise if played too loudly.

Vox says restaurant noise levels are climbing; excess noise seems to kill conviviality. Shouldn’t restaurants have figured this out? Or is Oldenburg, like me, just too far outside the mainstream for his view to matter? What should we infer from it is, rather than from what I want to be? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I pick restaurants and bars based on noise, or the lack thereof.

To me, the most interesting chapter concerned German beer garden versus Irish taverns. In the late nineteenth century, there were two major models for what might now be called bars: German beer gardens that served low-alcohol beer (usually around 3%) and Irish taverns that served potent whiskey. The former catered to families and whole communities while the latter catered to men alone:

Yet it was the Irish model that eventually prevailed. America adapted itself only to the German national beverage; it kept the beer and dropped most of the amenities with which the Germans had surrounded it. The nation never seemed able to allow the concept of a good tavern, and people who cannot envisage good taverns are doomed to have lesser ones.

German beer gardens are probably the better, pro-social model, but they didn’t prevail, and I’m not entirely sure we know why, although Prohibition seems a major culprit.

Another section on the French cafe describes a largely solved problem: Starbucks, along with innumerable specialty coffee shops, solved it. What was a problem when The Great Good Place was published has become a business. Parking and zoning are still serious problems, but a dearth of coffee shops is not.

Third places are overly-idealized in this book (one could write a counter-book about why they’re bad), but it remains an interesting book with a useful set of concepts.

Giving and receiving books

Tyler Cowen writes, “Why you should hesitate to give books as gifts and instead just throw them out,” which is a fine post, but I’d note that many people are cost-constrained when it comes to books, and many used books now end up on Amazon, where they must be specifically sought out. And I love to give friends books (and receive books), but the following rules for giving books must be obeyed:

1. Zero expectation. The sender must not expect the receiver to read or even consider the book. Books should only be given, never returned, particularly in the age of Amazon. Amazon has made book scarcity a thing of the past. It is even possible to rapidly scan books, using the right equipment, which may be relatively inexpensive. The majority of books I give or send are probably never read, and that’s fine with me.

2. Despite “zero expectation,” the sender must think the book will interest the receiver or be at least as good as the median book the receiver might otherwise read.

3. This is my own idiosyncrasy, but I very rarely throw out books, though I will donate unwanted ones in batches. Someone with different inclinations and hourly rates might automate the process of selling older books on Amazon. The net take from selling a book for even $10 or $12 on Amazon is like $4 – $6—not worth it for me.

4. I like writing in books and like it when my friends do. Receiving a book my friend has annotated is like getting the pleasure of the book and the pleasure of conversation.

5. “Zero expectation” also means “zero expectation” in terms of time. I mail books in batches whenever there are enough and it’s convenient for me. It may be months after I finish a book, and that’s okay. I have a stack sitting around right now, waiting to go out.

6. I like it when publishers send me books! But they often send emails first asking if I’ll promise a review, etc. My stock reply is always the same: Send the book, but I promise nothing.

7. When I was younger I thought I’d be rich when I have the money to buy all the books I can read. Now I have to limit the number of physical books I have due to space and practicality constraints. Large numbers of physical books are not compatible with high levels of mobility. This is very annoying but also true. Bad city zoning makes this problem worse by artificially increasing the price per square foot most people pay for housing in a given locale. Would we have a better media if writers had more space for books and consequently read more?

“How good is the very best next book that you haven’t read but maybe are on the verge of picking up? So many choices in life hinge on that neglected variable.” I say my problem today is finding the best book, which I no longer do so well on my own; if the five best readers I know would send me more books, I would be very happy, even if only one works for me.

It’s striking for me how many people with nothing to say get on social media to say it, relative to simply reading more or learning more. We have all these communication media and too little to fill them with, in my view. It could be that I’m guilty of that right now.

A good rule is, “Would you buy this friend a beer or coffee?” If yes, why not a book? I’d like to see book-giving become more of a social norm, like getting a round of drinks.

The Rub of Time — Martin Amis

Language is imprecise. Push words too far and they fall apart. This is annoying, for obvious reasons, but also interesting, for artistic ones, and Amis does “a great deal of polishing” in these pieces, “trying to make myself clearer, less ambiguous, and more precise.” And sometimes, I think, imprecise or allusive in interesting ways. As a writer he also confronts the way words also contain a lot of historical residue. Amis mentions Northrop Frye, “a literary philosopher-king to whom I owe fealty.” Fealty: a curious word associated with the Middle Ages and a set of social-economic circumstances that don’t exist in Western Europe or the United States anymore. I’m sure Amis knows it’s a curious word and one that does strange work, here. A lot of Amis words do strange work and that’s part of the reason we like him.

To me, if you’ve not read nonfiction Amis, you’re best off starting with The War Against Cliché, which changed the direction and tenor of my own work. My affection for War may be a historical accident: right work, right time, right mind for a major collision. But it may be that good, and it offers some context for The Rub of Time. The essay that most stands out to me may be the one on Larkin: suddenly, I want to read him, and that’s a great effect of a great essay. “No: Larkin is not a poet’s poet. He is of course a people’s poet, which is what he would have wanted. But he is also, definingly, a novelist’s poet. It is the novelists who revere him.” I’d never thought so. Yet now I do.

Amis gets humor: this will make his own work age well, I think, particularly in an age when momentary political rage too often replaces humor. The humorous Amis is not readily quotable, though, because he’s too contextual. On Twitter, rage seems more common than comedy, when in life the opposite seems true. The smartest people I know seem much fonder of comedy than outrage. And the replacement by outrage of comedy in contemporary universities seems one of their problems, and yet one that no one is doing anything to address. Comedy pierces conventional pieties, of the sort that seem very popular on campus.

Some essays are, in my view, wildly skippable—like the one on a Republican National Convention, or the Trump one. Both the RNC and Trump are fact-free zones; to the extent either generates what might be termed “ideas,” those ideas are too unmoored from something like reality to be worth considering. The best one can hope for regarding the current incarnation of the Republican party is resounding defeat in 2018 and 2020, which leads to a reformation. Then again, I would’ve hoped for the same in 2014 and 2016, by which point the madness in the party had manifested itself, and it didn’t happen. A million intellectually sophisticated essays have done near zero to affect voting outcomes. Which is disheartening to someone who likes writing and reading such essays: if an essay falls in a forest, and no one reads it, does it make a sound?

And some Amis essays are just dated. The porn industry moves fast, and “In Pornoland” is useful historically and to someone interested in the history of the industry, but given that it was published in 2000, it feels its age. The first four paragraphs are hilarious, though, and I won’t quote them so as to not spoil the effect.

Amis is a noticer in his fiction and a noticer in his nonfiction: it’s fun to see the expert doing his thing. He’s done the reading, like most people haven’t. He’s got the context for the reading. He writes that, “Accusing novelists of egotism is like deploring the tendency of champion boxers to turn violent.” He also acknowledges when things have changed. He wrote a long piece on the actor John Travolta, but the postscript notes that “As it turned out, Travolta’s resurgence lacked staying power.” Lacking staying power, however, “is not to be compared with the death of Jett Travolta, in 2009 (a seizure, related to his autism). Jett was 16.” That’s how the piece ends, now: with perspetive, which can sometimes be absent in writing about celebrities.

Amis makes me want to be a better writer. I hope he does the same for you.

Adventures in the Screen Trade — William Goldman

I’ve cited Adventures before, and it seems to have aged 25 years since 2011. Still as a historical work, it’s of interest—like the way movies started as YouTube, shifted to what we’d call “movies” today, and maybe are shifting back towards YouTube:

By the year 1910, there were over nine thousand theatres in operation across the country.

Movies, of course, were shorter then. D.W. Griffith, in one five-year stretch, directed over five hundred ‘movies.’ Not only were they of less duration, they were also a good deal more simplistic than what we are used to today; one early hit consisted in its entirety of nothing but a horse eating hay. (The filmmaker who created the horse movie followed up with another smash—some footage of a pillow fight between his two daughters.)

Sound familiar? Animals eating, children being cute, no real story—it’s YouTube. YouTube gives us a distribution mechanism that takes us back towards the start of the film era. Had there not been laws and mores against it, one could imagine a good deal of pornography being shot and shown then: another topic of great interest today, albeit not directly on YouTube.

Goldman’s notion of “stars” may be changing too: the entitled behavior he describes seems to be going away, because today no one, or almost no one, goes to see a move just to see a particular actor. When Goldman wrote, narrative visual entertainment was limited to a small number of TV stations and movies. That was it. Today, narrative visual entertainment is effectively limitless. How people watch has changed, and that in turn has changed the industry.

Everyone has a take on Los Angeles; Goldman is not an exception.

But my particular crazies are not why I find writing so difficult. It’s more like this: Everything’s so goddamn nice out there. Sure, they bitch about their smog, but unless you’re a Hawaiian born and bred, the weather is terrific. And so many of the basic necessities of life are made so easy for you: The markets are often open twenty-four hours a day, nobody snarls at you in the stores when you’re trying to buy something. It’s all just . . . swell.

Is it still so swell? Some of those advantages have changed: I perceive Southern Californians as nice, but in a superficial way. The East Coast probably has 24-hour markets now—as many as California’s. Paul Graham even lists the California attitude as an advantage for startups:

What makes the Bay Area superior is the attitude of the people. I notice that when I come home to Boston. The first thing I see when I walk out of the airline terminal is the fat, grumpy guy in charge of the taxi line. I brace myself for rudeness: remember, you’re back on the East Coast now.

The atmosphere varies from city to city, and fragile organisms like startups are exceedingly sensitive to such variation. If it hadn’t already been hijacked as a new euphemism for liberal, the word to describe the atmosphere in the Bay Area would be “progressive.” People there are trying to build the future. Boston has MIT and Harvard, but it also has a lot of truculent, unionized employees like the police who recently held the Democratic National Convention for ransom, and a lot of people trying to be Thurston Howell. Two sides of an obsolete coin.

Today, though, California is less nice: cruel zoning and Prop 13 have made living there far more expensive than it was in Goldman’s day. Back then, maybe it was too nice. Now it’s slammed by traffic and the cost of housing is astronomical. The only people who can afford to live there are the rich and desperate to succeed. Maybe that makes the state better for startups (empirically, this seems to be true so far), but I wonder if the high cost of living, along with tighter profit margins, will eventually drive the movie talent cluster out.

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — Johann Hari

Here is a typical narrator in a Michel Houellebecq novel—in this case, François from Submission, but most Houellebecq narrators express similar sentiments:

My life was marked by real intellectual achievements. In a certain milieu—granted, a very small one—I was known and even respected. Financially, I had nothing to complain about. Until I died I was guaranteed a generous income, twice the national average, without having to do any work. And yet I knew I was close to suicide, not out of despair or even any special sadness, simply from the degradation of “the set of functions that resist death,” in Bichat’s famous formulation.

One could posit various reasons for François’s feelings, ranging from the literary to the psychological to the spiritual, but Hari offers another explanation, or set of explanations.

Many people are suffering from crises of meaning. Man’s Search for Meaning addresses one set of possibilities for making meaning. Lost Connections offers another, more systematic but complementary to Frankl. It’s a fantastic book, but ignore the subtitle, which makes Lost Connections sound more like clickbait than it actually is; I’d not properly considered loneliness until I read this book, though I thought I had.

He gives context to problems I’d not fully perceived: “If you can be everywhere—in vehicles, or online—you end up. . . being nowhere.” That’s something artists know. Many, maybe most, of the best novels are set somewhere very particular, and perhaps that isn’t by chance. Even The Lord of the Rings is set somewhere very particular, albeit imaginary, and the provincialism of the Shire is necessary to offset the grandeur of many other locations.

He takes his own advice and sees specific people living specific ways—like the Amish. Hari also grew up not far from Orthodox Jews and scorned them, but, when he goes to visit the Amish, he finds himself “reflecting on some of the flaws in how we live,” and he “wondered if they might have something to teach me after all.” Maybe religion is underestimated by a lot of modern secularists, myself included. Tyler Cowen has been saying that the top thinkers of our age are or will be religious thinkers, and, although I’m skeptical, I’m less skeptical than I used to be.

Hari cites nine causes of depression, while stating that they’re not exhaustive, including disconnection from meaningful work; other people; meaningful values; childhood trauma; status and respect; the natural world; and a hopeful or secure future. If you counted the preceding list, you’ll notice that it has only seven items; eight and nine are “the real role of genes and brain changes.” These causes are linked with potential solutions. The chapters themselves are detailed. For example, he tells stories about the research into what makes work depressing; a number of factors exist, including indifference:

If these tax inspectors worked really hard and gave it their best, nobody noticed. And if they did a lousy job, nobody noticed, either. Despair often happens […] when there is a ‘lack of balance between effort and rewards.’ It was the same for Joe in his paint shop. Nobody ever noticed how much effort he put in. The signal you get from the world, in that situation, is—you’re irrelevant. Nobody cares what you do.

Ignore the slightly awkward shift into second person narration and attend to the idea: indifference can actually be worse than constructive criticism. If someone is trying to help a person improve, their job matters. If no one tries, it doesn’t. We think of depression as a disease of the mind, but it may be impossible to separate mind, body, and social environment.

Another possible solution, or piece of the solution? Psychedelics. Here is a current review of psychedelics research. Psychedelics are not a panacea, but neither are prescription antidepressants or the many other things currently being used to deal with depression/loneliness.

Loneliness is everywhere, but it’s striking how little I read or hear about it. It’s improper to admit deep loneliness on Facebook, or all those other repositories of digital loneliness. Loneliness is effectively enshrined into law through our building codes, which prevent us from constructing housing that encourages people to talk to each other. Yet it’s often felt and rarely discussed. Lost Connections could easily be named, Loneliness: Causes and Consequences. But loneliness is often a second-, third-, or fourth-order consequence of many other decisions, so we never get to it—we stay at the surface level, not the deeper levels, as Hari does. Lost Connections can be seen as an indictment of the way we live and the way we’ve built our society. But how many people are listening? I’m not sure the answer. The book is easy to read, in the sense of having a normal vocabulary and being wrapped in stories, but it’s hard to read, in the sense that many of us will recognize ourselves and our own life mistakes in it. It’s akin to Deep Work, another book about the mistaken ways we live.

It’s striking, too, that the Internet was supposed to connect us and make loneliness easier to cure. But if it’s had that effect on net, we’re not able to see it show up statistically or in depression data. There are obvious advantages to the Internet: I know lots of people who hooked up through online dating. I myself have met other nerds (or “intellectuals” if one prefers) through this blog. But:

The Internet was born into a world where many people had already lost their sense of connection to each other. The collapse had already been taking place for decades by then. The web arrived offering them a kind of parody of what they were losing—Facebook friends in place of neighbors, video games in place of meaningful work, status updates in place of status in the world. The comedian Marc Maron once wrote that “every status update is just a variation on a single request: ‘Would someone please acknowledge me?'”

It turns out the Internet is just a tool, and like so many tools it can be used well or poorly, to facilitate or attack loneliness. Or maybe, as Hari writes, it’s neither countervailed nor enhanced trends that “had already been taking place for decades.” Maybe the Internet has actually arrested the social isolation trends already at work.

There are many further insightful passages I could cite, at the risk of merely summarizing it, but I’ll say that I’m keeping the book and look forward to rereading it. In the last sections of Lost Connections, Hari lists possible solutions, and most seem wildly implausible—which is why anti-depressants are so popular. Anti-depressants are easy, cheap, and uniform (at least in formulation). Hari’s solutions are hard, expensive, and difficult to scale (from the perspective of a society or organization).

But hard things are often worth doing. It’s hard to build social networks and meaningful relationships. Rejection stings. It’s tempting to stop trying. Most of our world, from the way we zone cities to the way we get around the world in cars, is designed to cut social connections rather than build them (no one asks about the psychological cost of mandating single-family houses in suburban areas). To rebuild lost connections takes a lot of time and effort. Scanning Facebook is easier than getting a drink. The alternative to doing hard things is worse. Advertising and marketing cultures seduce us with promises of ease and convenience. We’re reluctant to embrace the difficult and inconvenient, which is to say the human and humane.

I don’t have final answers for creating a meaningful life, but I do think there are parts of the U.S. educational and cultural systems that are systematically misrepresenting what’s important in life. We spend 12 – 16 years in school and yet often never take a financial literacy class or psychology of meaning and satisfaction class. Sometimes psychology or English classes may accomplish the latter, but they do so on an ad-hoc basis and rely on instructor charisma and passion that is hard to systematize and reproduce. Instead, those of us curious about such topics have to learn about them on an ad-hoc basis, through books like Lost Connections. Lost Connections is good. Don’t expect to understand all of it during the first read. It’s a book that may grow with your life.

Kolyma Stories — Varlam Shalamov

Tyler Cowen praises them, justifiably, and links to a good review of them, albeit one that’s somewhat difficult to access. Despite that praise, though, I sense that I’ve read “enough” stories, both fiction and nonfiction, about the gulag experience and the madness of totalitarianism; after The Gulag Archipelago and Darkness at Noon and others, do I need another?

If you’ve not read about this period and these systems, go ahead and get a copy and trust the praise. The stories are brilliantly realized, and yet I feel like a little reading about the gulag goes a long way, and my feelings about gulags are unlikely to change much.* So this is probably a book for some of you, and it’s extremely good for a book of its kind, and I hope it is not a timely book (even as China rounds up and forcibly encamps members of at least one ethnic minority—you saw that in the news, right?).

Still, as with reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers or similar books, it can be useful to remember just how rich we really are in the modern United States. In the day-to-day, that’s easily forgotten; it’s also easy to forget how adapted we are to a particular environment. Do you know how to salt-cure meat? Especially from a freshly shot bear? Me neither. Yet a group of prisoners does just that. I could look up a how-to on the Internet, but if you stuck me in a prison camp tomorrow, I’d have to learn from others or suffer or die.

The prose has been described as straightforward, but I am not always so sure:

Time spent under interrogation in pretrial prison slips from your memory, leaving no noticeable sharp traces. For anyone who is detained there, the prison and its encounters and people are not the main thing. The main thing is what all your mental, spiritual, and nervous energy is spent on in prison—that is, the battle with your interrogator.

“Leaving no noticeable sharp traces” makes you wonder: does it leave noticeable but not sharp traces? Or noticeable dull traces? And that “anyone:” with it, the narrator attempts to speak for everyone, and maybe he does. It’s another of the moments when the stories oscillate between the universal and specific.

Yet, as I said, there are many, many passages I call relentlessly grim:

Those who’d been badly beaten under interrogation and whose souls had been reduced to dust by a thousand interrogations, while their bodies were wrecked and exhausted by unbearably heavy work, prisoners with sentences of twenty-five years plus five years’ deprivation of rights, sentences that were unsurvivable, which you could not hope to come out of alive…. All these people were trembling, yelling, and cursing Fedorenko, because they were afraid of catching leprosy.

The sentence keeps going, perhaps in imitation of the prison lengths, until its sudden end. Perhaps it isn’t relentlessly grim, as that last clause may be a bit of humor, however dark.

The details are good:

He was, of course, a cardsharp, for an honest game among thieves is a game of deception; you have the right to watch and catch out your partner, and you have to be just as good as he is at cheating and at holding on to your dubious winnings.

And here, again, the microcosm of the cheating game reflects the macrocosm of the cheating legal and political systems. Those systems have changed since Stalin’s day, but Russia’s legal system remains a tool of the Putin apparatus. There are no apparent mass murders—but the mass repression remains.

Which raises another point, at least in my mind: for the last two hundred or more years, the smartest thing a Russian person could do is leave Russia. Certainly that’s true over the past hundred years. It was true in 1918 and remains true today. The amazing thing is that Russia still has 140 million people living in it. That may be testimony to the power of the human spirit and body to suffer, as well as the difficulty of emigration.

In the introductory essay, the translator writes that “Shalamov disapproved of novels as elaborate structures that falsified their material.” Yet that is precisely what I like about them! Novels need to be structured by plot; if they are not, they tend to be boring. Kolyma is disconnected in most ways, which may be truer but can also, at least in my view, be numbing. Which, again, may be appropriate to the material.

Next up is The Seventh Function of Language, which looks supremely entertaining and unrealistic, based on this review. Like Kolyma, it features people behaving meanly to each other.


* I’m opposed.

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