Briefly noted: Sweetbitter — Stephanie Danler

You may have read about Sweetbitter, which is a resolutely okay novel that you should not even consider unless you’ve already read and liked Kitchen Confidential and Love Me Back, both of which cover kitchen and restaurant stories (from page 9 of Sweetbitter: “When I got there they told me a lot of stories” about restaurants, Union Square, and New York). Like many New York novels, it has a masturbatory, self-important, and inward-gazing feel. Many of New York’s structural problems can be traced back to Matt Yglesias’s excellent book The Rent Is Too Damn High, but of course none of the characters in literary fiction ever read or know anything beyond what they themselves immediately experience.

sweetbitterYou will find many ridiculous lines like, “in New York City there are absolutely no rules.” The sort of lines that, spoken on a reality TV show, the literati would condescend to, justifiably, but here, in this package, it’s literature, or the sort of novel that makes literary moves. Maybe I’m unfair and the things that are profound or profound-seeming at 22 are different than the things that are profound or profound-seeming later. But there is too much, “Do you know what it means to be a server?” too much concern about “totems of who I was.”

There is also oddly little sex in a novel with too little else to recommend it. The protagonist, Tess, chases her own personal Mr. Big (although his name is appealingly Jake), and the results can either be predictable or more fairy tale than gritty realism.

I didn’t consciously realize until reading this novel and talking to a friend in the restaurant industry that the industry only really works for its employees if or when the employees get pre-tax food subsidies from other restaurants. Let me explain. Many mid- and high-end restaurant workers have an implicit or explicit deal you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours in which they give other “industry” people free food / booze, the value of which can probably add up to thousands of dollars a year, all of it untaxed. Since restaurant industry profits are notoriously low (some estimates are as low as 1 – 4%), some of the pay that would otherwise need to go to servers who’d get taxed on that pay instead goes to them in the form of food. And they expect that favor returned: On Monday you go to Joe’s restaurant, and on Tuesday people from Joe’s go to yours.

Still, it’s not worth reading the novel for that insight. It’s dubiously worth reading a novel with disconnected ejaculations like this all over the page:

“Appetite is not a symptom,” Simone said when I complained of being hungry. “It cannot be cured. It’s a state of being, and like most, has its attendant moral consequences.”

Okay, that’s deep, but so what?

There are good sentences, but they don’t add up to much. I neither regretted finishing nor skimming the second half. When people complain about “MFA fiction,” Sweetbitter is what they’re talking about. I’ll read the next thing Danler writes.

Briefly noted: The Course of Love — Alain de Botton

You don’t need to read The Course of Love: instead read Mating in Captivity or Neil Strauss’s book The Truth or even Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which, despite its murder premise, is truer to modern relationships than The Course of Love. You may be tempted by The Course of Love because of de Botton’s charming, hilarious, earlier novels On Love and Kiss & Tell. You’ll recognize callbacks to On Love; the new novel mentions a Chloe who the narrator broke up with, and the love interest in On Love is conveniently named Chloe.

Still, those novels work because they’re funny and this one you will forget because it’s not. There is a lot of tedium in sentences like “At the center of Kisten’s love is a desire to heal the wound of Rabih’s long-buried, largely unmentioned loss.” The characters never stop saying things like, “Everything around here is deeply sensible, rational, worked out, policed—as if there were a timetable all laid out from now till the moment we die.”

Perhaps the point is that we never emerge from our adolescent philosophical stupor, when people complain about sensible, rational, worked out lives—the sorts of things that many modern Syrians would probably like.

The good news is that the last pages work. The bad news is that neurotic humor is missing, and so is a real understanding of male-female dynamics. There are some good inversions of conventional thinking, as when Kirsten seems to think, “she knows, better than most, that there is no one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry.” But most of it is closer to the banal sentences quoted previously. One hopes for Flaubert and gets this. Wasn’t it Flaubert who said that every writer should write with a hard-on? Or is that a spurious quotation? Regardless of its genesis, one senses few if any hard-ons inspired this novel, to the novel’s detriment given its subject matter.

Maybe it is not coincidence that in the first sentence of this post two of the better-than suggestions are nonfiction. If you’re militantly opposed to nonfiction, maybe The Course of Love is okay. For anyone not so militantly opposed, you can get similar subject matter that’s actually better written on a sentence by sentence level. Too much of the book feels like an amalgamation of nonfiction trend pieces and books rather than a novel. Here is one sample, chosen at random: “I Can’t Stop Bashing My Husband to Other Moms, and I’m Sorry.” Kirsten has problems bashing her husband to her friends and her husband’s response is basically to shrug. Perhaps the lesson is “Don’t get married” (or expect to grind it out if you do). That may be a valid reading of the novel. Rabih’s improbable affair may be the high point.

Unlike in, say, Michel Houellebecq, the sense of fiction never overwhelms the sense of outside reading in The Course of Love. Much of it feels ripped from time-wasting websites or New York Times trend pieces. I’ve followed de Botton for years and his books vary in quality from the sublime to the wasteful. His nonfiction, except for How to Think More About Sex, is fun and informative. One wishes for more of the good here.

There is too much good stuff for The Course of Love to matter.

Re-reading Cryptonomicon

It’s still excellent, and it’s so excellent that it’s one of the books I re-read when I can’t find anything good to read. The density of Cryptonomicon’s ideas and the strange (at first) construction of its plot makes it a particularly promising re-reading, since getting the full effect the first time through is almost impossible.

CryptonomiconThe novel is very fond of explaining things and so are its characters. “Things” seems like a vague, loose word here but it’s appropriate given the diversity of explanation. To list the topics that come up would be too tedious for this post but would be in keeping with the novel. Take one example, as a character explains startup financing in the ’90s:

We begin with nothing but the idea. That’s what the NDA is for—to protect your idea. We work on the idea together—put our brainpower to it—and get stock in return.

Except that, as we know now, ideas aren’t that important (the execution is important) and the best ideas are usually mocked at first. But the rest is pretty accurate, and the dialogue shows that the characters have ideas, share ideas, care about ideas, and fight over ideas. Ideas—actual ideas, as opposed to what many intellectuals think of as ideas—don’t appear often in novels. To the extent they do, ideas usually appear as grand abstractions tediously embodied in specific characters.

Skip some sections if they don’t speak to you the first time through; they may later, though the famous Cap’n’Crunch scene still does little for me, or to me.

Few books describe real nerd culture:

“You have jet lag now?” Goto asks brightly—following (Randy assumes) a script from an English textbook. He’s a handsome guy with a winning smile. He’s probably in his forties, though Nipponese people seem to have a whole different aging algorithm so this may be way off.
“No,” Randy answers. Being a nerd, he answers such questions badly, succinctly, and truthfully. He knows that Goto essentially does not care whether Randy has jet lag or not. He is vaguely conscious that Avi, if he were here, would use Goto’s question as it was intended—as an opening for cheery social batter. Until he reached thirty, Randy felt bad about the fact that he was not socially deft. Now he doesn’t give a damn. Pretty soon he’ll probably start being proud of it.

Conversation is a skill and it’s a skill most nerds don’t develop, which may be why they face troubles in dating. Nerds spend lots of time with machines and to some extent that time begins to shape their minds to think like machines.

The psychologies of innovators and deep thinkers may not be viable subjects for literary writers, or, if they are, I haven’t seen the fruit of those writers’ labor.

Most novels that are called “novels of ideas” are actually not. Finding a novel of ideas embedded congenially in a novel of intense action is unusual, especially when most novels of ideas are actually novels of navel gazing. Cryptonomicon also violates many of the rules one hears from MFA types and is useful for that reason: many “novels” are not actually novel.

Copies are available for $.01 on Amazon (which means $4 with shipping), and that’s a steal.

Briefly noted: Leviathan Wakes — James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is defiantly, definitely okay; the biggest problem with it isn’t the novel itself but having already read Blindsight, which its some similar notes but is just a much, much better novel.

Leviathan Wakes is big on game theory, empathy, and political questions. They start early—”The temptation to have an unexplained comm failure, erase the logs, and let the great god Darwin have his way was always there” happens on page 14—and don’t really relent. Still, I dislike the implication that “the great god Darwin” thinks that individuals and small groups are inwardly selfish; evolution has also endowed us with the ability to cooperate, and humans are super-cooperators, alone among animals.

Leviathan_WakesBut the divisions among people may change shape and form, but they always remain, at least as long as we live in a world of economic scarcity. In Leviathan Wakes, Earthers, Martians, and Belters (those who grow up and/or live in the Asteroid Belt) are the primary divisions. I write this in 2016, and in the current European and American political systems there are spasms around divisions that, viewed from the proper perspective, will seem trivial. The other day I heard someone say that Trump has a point about immigrants. I agreed and amplified, suggesting that he do something about the filthy, lazy Irish and Italians, with their Papist ways and mooching dispositions. The guy I was talking to didn’t know what to do with that; the Know Nothing Party may be gone, but its ideas live on for as long as humans have a powerful psychological need to divide ourselves into tribes.

In Leviathan Wakes some descriptions are good (on a space station, “The air smelled beery with old protein yeast and mushrooms” or “The circle of life on Ceres was so small you could see the curve”), but the text can usually be described as nondescript. It’s rarely bad but rarely stellar. For example, the sentence after the one about the circle of life on Ceres is “He liked it that way,” which is representative of the novel’s language.

The sense of mystery is strong, though, and mostly excuses the sentences. You’ve read worse. You’ve read better. The plot gets sillier as the novel progresses.

What else? There is a convenient magic drive that gets people from place to place relatively rapidly. It’s hard to imagine that genetic engineering won’t have re-made the human species by the time we develop advanced space stations with room for millions of people. Did people in 1750 imagine that in 2000 we’d still be riding horses and firing muskets? Because imagining 2250 without substantial genetic engineering is hard (unless there’s an apocalypse in the meantime, which is also possible).

Leviathan Wakes is guilty of many of Charlie Stross’s space opera clichés, but I mostly forgive it. I just can’t imagine wanting to re-read it.

My Amazon review of Peter Watts’s Blindsight

People read Amazon reviews and Watts reads his, so I left this one.

Listen to the positive reviews: Blindsight is one of the most stunning and incredible novels I’ve read, ever, and that’s among all novels, not just SF. To describe Blindsight is not to do it justice: Like Ulysses, the plot can be summarized but the texture of it cannot really be conveyed save through the reading itself. Ulysses might be summarized as, “Neurotic man wanders through Dublin, gets stuck in his own head.” In that sense, Blindsight might be summarized as “The link between humans and post-humans encounters aliens, and nothing will ever be the same.

BlindsightBlindsight is on my mind because I just finished Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey. It’s a competent, fun novel. It’s even good at times. But it covers territory similar to Blindsight’s, only less mind-blowing. It’s less developed. One can have literary blind sight and enjoyable read Leviathan Wakes, as I did, but reading them next to each other will show that something is missing from Leviathan Wakes. One needs total vision and a third eye to get Blindsight. To be sure, most people never reach enlightenment. But without reading it, you’ll never know if you can get there, or if you’ll be left at the foothills like most of us are.

The world is very different from ours in key ways but doesn’t yet have AI; before Firefall, Siri Keeton, narrator, who is supposed to have no feelings and only observation, is doing this:

I’d been liaising for a team at the Kurzweil Institute, a fractured group of cutting-edge savants convinced they were on the verge of solving the quantum-glial paradox. That particular log-jam had stalled AI for decades; once broken, the experts promised we’d be eighteen months away from the first personality upload and only two years from reliable Human-consciousness emulation in a software environment. It would spell the end of corporeal history, usher in a Singularity that had been waiting impatiently in the wings for nigh on fifty years.

But it hasn’t arrived. Not yet. Not in Blindsight’s world, which is also Siri’s world. To us it’s an odd one:

You hire people like me; the crossbred progeny of profilers and proof assistants and information theorists.

In formal settings you’d call me Synthesist. On the street you call me jargonaut or poppy. If you’re one of those savants whose hard-won truths are being bastardized and lobotomized for powerful know-nothings interested only in market share, you might call me a mole or a chaperone.

He works in “the rotational topology of information and the irrelevance of semantic comprehension.” Oddly, that may be what a lot of us do: understanding surfaces without understanding depth, if “surface” and “depth” have any meaning at all. That’s one of the (many) question Blindsight asks (Leviathan Wakes asks political economy and cooperation questions). To restate many of them would take many thousands of words. That is another way the novel is like Ulysses.

Submission — Michel Houellebecq

Like almost all Houellebecq, Submission and invites diagnoses of anhedonia (Page 1: “I realized that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me;” Houellebecq rarely if ever writes of the “best part” of any character’s life). The weird mixture of ideas, from YouPorn (it is namechecked) to Huysmans, works and doesn’t work at the same time, and it is this paradoxical quality that I think attracts readers to Houellebecq.

Submission HouellebecqThat, and Houellebecq continues to be different in a way that almost no writers are. See also Adam Gopnik on Submission. Here is The Guardian. I mention Houellebecq in “All American fiction is young adult fiction: Discuss.” Here is Mark Lilla, in the New York Review of Books. All these pieces are excellent.

Oddly, almost no one has noticed Houellebecq’s attraction to Islam. Except for Elif Batuman, in the last part of the linked essay. In Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World, Houellebecq writes:

It’s painful for me to admit, when I think of my atheist, politically committed friends, but I’ve never really understood the root of their commitment, it has always seemed to me to have more to do with a Christian tradition than they themselves suspected. I am speaking from pure intuition here, but in all the Christian groups I tried in vain to belong to, one of the things I completely understood was their commitment. It was very clear: they had accepted the idea that, being sons of God, all men are brothers, and behaved accordingly.

Which is quite close to what the idealized Muslims in Submission do, and, I suspect, quite far from what many real-life Muslims do (or real-life adherents of any high-commitment, high-demand creed). Commitment itself, to something, is appealing, and one characteristic of all Houellebecq’s characters is their seeming lack of commitment (even those seemingly committed to hedonism don’t seem to enjoy it that much, or as much as I would).

There are many of the weird juxtapositions one sees in classic Houellebecq: “Cro-Magnon man hunted mammoth and reindeer; the man of today can choose between an Auchan and a Leclerc, both supermarkets located in Souillac.” Or: “Even the word humanism made me want to vomit, but that might have been the canapés.” Is this no context or overwhelming context? François seems to oscillate between the two. He cares deeply about observing what’s going on and does nothing with those observations; the word “bored” appears repeatedly, almost a stand-in for “whatever.”

Plus, modern grocery stores are amazing: their convenience is incredible and price competition means that consumers win. Grocery stores means that the man of today can choose to worry about something other than where to get food from. Or, maybe, he can worry about nothing at all. Even access to pornography had to be fought for, over decades. Submission implies that maybe we’d be better off without it, but the term “revealed preferences” comes to mind (and there is a small but noisy movement for “no fap,” which is what it sounds like).

No one feels a sense of a job well done. The presence of absence is felt everywhere. François never emerges from a class feeling that he’s reached someone. Has he tried? Does he want to? The answers seem to be no. Even the attractive women he improbably sleeps with seem to move him little. We find this about Steve, his colleague: “He’d almost always invite me for a drink—usually mint tea in the Paris Mosque a few blocks from school. I didn’t like mint tea, or the Paris Mosque, and I didn’t much like Steve, but I still went.” Usually I don’t go out with people I don’t like, and I don’t think I’m exceptional in this regard, but I am capable of liking people, which François it would seem is not.

Houellebecq respects ideas as almost no contemporary novelists do, but he doesn’t do so in an academically trendy way (as, say, Alena Graedon does in The Word Exchange). If anything he does so in an academically un-trendy way.

Houellebecq does not seem to believe in Enlightenment ideas of progress. For François, private tutoring only “soon convinced me that the transmission of knowledge was generally impossible, the variance of intelligence extreme, and that nothing could undo or even mitigate this basic inequality.” The last couple centuries of relentless progress would seem to invalidate this claim, however true it may feel in the moment, at the micro level. François thinks that his “boring, predictable life continued to resemble Huysmans’s a century and a half before.” Odd. I don’t feel like my life resembles the lives of people 150 years ago. Perhaps François has this problem because education as a sector has changed very little. This contrasts with numerous other sectors.

Maybe the problem with Houellebecq narrators is that few if any discover anything or make anything—even dinner. The true hero of Submission may be the microwaved dinner. No one I’ve read more frequently mentions microwaved food. But if microwaved food signifies tedium, what signifies the opposite? Did making food from scratch, as virtually all people 60 years ago had to do for economic reasons, somehow better?

Houellebecq imagines a France in which large, politically active blocs call for Sharia Law. Yet people fleeing from many Muslim and Arab countries in the Middle East are getting fleeing from people who’d like to impose Sharia. To be sure the West imposes major culture shocks. But when you want to see whose ideas are winning, look at where people are fleeing from and where they are fleeing to. During the Cold War the number of French, English, or Americans who wanted to move to Russia was dwarfed by the number of Russians who wanted to get the fuck out.

In “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World,” Kamel Daoud writes of how

Today sex is a great paradox in many countries of the Arab world: One acts as though it doesn’t exist, and yet it determines everything that’s unspoken. Denied, it weighs on the mind by its very concealment. Although women are veiled, they are at the center of our connections, exchanges and concerns.

Daoud ends his essay by saying, “People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.” I’m not convinced the sickness is spreading: Ideas in the West about the right of individual to control his or her own body are winning. Terror in many Middle Eastern countries is a sign of weakness, not strength. Ideas cannot win on their merits; they can only be imposed via the gun. There are no real votes for Sharia, even in countries that practice it, or a modified form of it.

Other events have overtaken Submission’s world. It imagines Saudi princes lavishly funding French universities. As of this writing, in February 2016, cheap oil prices are roiling petro economies like Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Chevy Bolt will arrive in the U.S. later this year. Tesla’s Model 3 is going to be unveiled shortly. These cars may permanently cap oil prices by allowing most people to switch to electric cars as oil prices rise. France shouldn’t worry about radical Muslim takeover. Petro states should worry about what will happen when every Western economy is not wildly, wholly dependent on oil.

The previous paragraph may be bizarre in the context of a discussion about a novel, but part of Houellebecq’s world in Submission depends on the financial condition of radically Islamic countries. Those countries’ positions and stability depend on selling oil. Take away the oil and we’ll see how stable and popular many of them really are. Their leaders are able to lead lives of incredible decadence and sexual pleasure because they can afford to. That may not be true three years from now, let alone in the elections of 2022.

In another moment, François asks, rhetorically, “How could anyone argue that Europe wasn’t in decline?” Easily: First, look at where people want to go, as mentioned previously. Second, consider an article like, “Plasma physicist discusses the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator.” That stellerator, built in Germany, is an important step towards fusion power plants. It’s an incredible achievement that is primarily being accomplished by Europeans. If that’s decline then sign me up. And when was Europe in ascent? Robert Rediger notes that Huysmans “was living at at a time when the European nations were at their apogee.” Which led them straight into two insane wars, the lead-up to which can only be compared to mental illness. European temperament may be oddly negative and declinist, but the temperament and being can be further apart than Europe and Mars.

Many of you will dislike Submission. I see people on the subway and in coffeeshops reading Ferrante and Knausgaard, today’s perversely trendy writers, but none reading Houellebecq.

Houellebecq is the sort of writer who makes reading his entire oeuvre rewarding. Not all writers are like this.

It is sometimes hard to write coherently on a work that itself seems to lack coherence.

The Possibility of an Island — Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is not a “good” writer in the way someone like Nabokov, Ann Patchett, Elmore Leonard, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, or countless others whose sentences sing, metaphors work, and who make one stop to save the rightness of their description. But Houellebecq is a different, unusual, or unique writer: he sounds like no one else I’ve read. He’s prone to writing like a nonfiction writer (“Undoubtedly there used to be a form of demotic happiness, connected to the functioning whole, which we are no longer able to understand”), a nonfiction writer who shifts suddenly into overly pornographic registers (“Women give an impression of eternity, as though their pussy were connected to mysteries—as though it were a tunnel opening onto the essence of the world, when in fact it is just a hole for dwarves, fallen into disrepair”), or a more conventional writer (“Fortunately Harry intervened, and the conversation was raised to more transcendent subjects (the stars, infinity, etc.), which allowed me to tuck into my plate of sausages without trembling”). To “tuck into my plate of sausages” is so normal in a book—The Possibility of an Island—so weird.

If you’ve read one or two thrillers you’ve probably read most thrillers; if you’ve read one competently but boringly written commercial novel you’ve read most of them; if you’ve read 50 Shades of Grey you should be ashamed because there’s much better verbal pornography available. But Houellebecq sounds like himself, and his concerns are almost random-seeming (sexuality, contemporary consumerism, philosophy, history) yet they drive me, and I suspect others, to try to figure out what braids them. Story is one possible answer, though it is a bad one and there are others.

Being unique without exactly being good still counts. Too many “good” writers do MFA-approved stuff taken from the Francine Prose and James Wood handbooks. I don’t want to knock that style—arguably I’m doing it at times—but it is a distinctive style (almost like the New Yorker’s) and school and if you read enough lit fic or better commercial fic you’ll recognize it and start to categorize it and start to use annoying abbreviations like “fic.”

I suspect that readers who don’t reject Houellebecq outright for reasons or psychological or moral outrage may worry: what if he does describe the world? That’s why he’s morally outrageous. What if his low-affect, high-description, no-content view of the universe is right? It’s unsettling, and for that reason he may be a bad signal: say you like Houellebecq and you’re saying there may be something amiss in you. I don’t fully buy the Houellebecq worldview—too much sunny American in me, I guess, and too tight an affinity with a Zero to One worldview—but I could probably ape or paraphrase it if need be: everything comes down to material conditions; the spiritual is dead; we’re either monsters of desire or we’re standing novelistically outside it, smoking a cigarette, and commenting on it.

I wish more MFA types would read Houellebecq, and read him with care. But he’s not a writer likely to be politically palatable to university types or to contemporary mores (which is also why I suspect he has a higher chance of enduring when today’s New York Times-approved hot author is forgotten).

In an odd way parts of Houellebecq feel like Elena Ferrante, another European export who in terms of content is the opposite of Houellebecq, and yet one senses that they’re both writing about the same currents and social conditions through fiction that doesn’t feel like fiction. He fascinates instead of bores.

I don’t claim to understand Houellebecq and very few writers do. The best and most convincing reading of his work I’ve encountered is Adam Gopnik’s “The Next Thing: Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic satire,” which views Houellebecq as nostalgic for the late ’50s and early ’60s. This seems odd to me—I view the present as better than the past and the future likely to be better than the present—but I wonder if my view is the minority one. Houellebecq’s future island is not a good one. He uses the pessimistic strands of SF in Island and The Elementary Particles. I like optimists.

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