Moving On — Larry McMurtry

Moving On is at least twice as long as it ought to be and probably longer. Which is a shame, because there’s a pretty good book waiting, even wanting to get out, but it’s hidden. Even its author seems to be aware of its flaws. In the introduction he writes:

A rather puzzling thing to me, as I look through the book today, is that it contains so many rodeo scenes. Few novels, then or ever, have attempted to merge the radically incongruent worlds of graduate school and rodeo. I am now completely at a loss to explain why I wished to attempt this.

That “puzzling thing” remains to this reader. In that introduction he also says something odd:

In the late fifties, with no war on, the romance of journalism tarnished, the romance of investment banking yet to flower, graduate school was where many of the liveliest people chose to tarry while deciding what to do next.

moving_onI take McMurtry’s word that “many of the liveliest people” chose grad school at that time, but by the time I started that time had long since vanished and no memory or residue of it remained.

So why read it, or more importantly, why finish it? The novel’s dialogue is often excellent and a a keen sense of humor runs through. In the grad school section we get incongruity like this:

There was a keen look of concentration on [Clara’s] face as she considered William Duffin. Hank had seen the same look on her face the day before when she was trying to decide whether to do her Chaucer paper on the “Knight’s Tale” or the “Prioress’s Tale.” She reached out and held his genitals, still thinking.

That shift in moods from cerebral to carnal is characteristic, as the novel likes to juxtapose mind and body, high and low, love and indifference.

Moving On is also a time capsule. It was published in 1970 and is set in the ’50s or early ’60s. Some problems that seem contemporary have a long pedigree; for example, “vacations” have been awful for children for a long time:

Every other year her parents would decide to go west and would bundle her and her sister Miri into a Cadillac and spend two or three weeks hurrying between scenic spots while the girls read comic books or Nancy Drew mysteries and waited irritably for the Grand Canyon or some other redeeming wonder to appear.

Or, to take another example, Patsy narrates, “She had read a lot about loneliness and knew it was one of the great problems of modern life, but it had never been very real to her” (393). That ought to sound familiar to anyone who’s read 2000’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Or anyone who’s read the New York Times, which is filled with stories about loneliness and the loss of community and so forth.* The interesting thing to me is not the stories about loneliness but the technologies that we often blame for loneliness. I wonder if instead the loneliness comes from within us.

The narrative of ceaseless social and technological change is attractive, but it’s also less true than is commonly assumed.

Moving On is also unusual in that it portrays the boring, discontented parts of marriage and long-term relationships. At one moment Patsy is stuck out on the road with her boring husband Jim, and “She felt cramped and sat with her back against her door, her legs on the seat, the soles of her feet pressed against Jim’s leg. There was nothing to do but watch the distances, gray and wavery with heat, and so endless.” She’s talking about the car trip, but she’s talking about more than that, too. Outside of Mating in Captivity I’ve rarely read those kinds of stories in Patsy’s tone.

Unfortunately, the novel comes to seem “gray and wavery” and “so endless,” at almost 800 reasonably dense pages. It’s like a guest that outstays his welcome. A pity. Much of it is acutely felt and observed. Its length, though, makes it a curiosity more than a must-read.


* Search for the string “loneliness site:nytimes.com” and you’ll find many, many examples. Like: “How Loneliness Can Make You Sick — and Might Even Kill You,” which could have a few dates and words changed and still be the sort of thing Patsy read decades ago.

Briefly noted: Undone — John Colapinto

Undone is okay and “John Colapinto Revives the Male-Centric Literary Sex Novel” got me to read it, but the novel is not particularly literary, not particularly sex-obsessed or even interested, and not even all that male-centric. So be prepared to be underwhelmed. I hate to recommend my own work, but if Undone seems remotely appealing to you try The Hook instead.

Undone is not really a page-turner like Gone Girl (and like the blurbs promise). Except among a small crowd of social justice warriors and English professors, it is not really scandalous. Still, like Gone Girl it does challenge the oddly dominant cultural narrative that women are pure and don’t do awful things and don’t manipulate others (including the media) by pandering to victimhood, and in this sense the novel does unsettle slightly contemporary New York Times and NPR thinking. That—not the sex itself, or the desire itself—is what the publishing machinery is talking about when it’s talking about the supposed scandal in Undone. The real discomfort is the challenging of the relentless victimhood narrative; that’s also how it’s like Francine Prose’s Blue Angel functions. Except Blue Angel is narratively more interesting and less obsessed with self loathing. Both do have writer-protagonists. Here’s Jasper, in Undone:

Typing fast, he began to sketch in the villain’s background, tracing his motivations to a childhood of deprivation and cruelty in an orphanage; he started to write notes on the grieving family, conceiving of them as a wealthy clan with deep New England roots. Freed from the agonizing writer’s block that had stalled him for weeks, Jasper wrote rapturously, without pause, stopping only when he heard the ringing of the doorbell.

The scene is very functional, but it’s hard to choose really evocative passages from the book.

I’ve heard guys say variations on the crude phrase, “No pussy is worth prison.” Undone maybe endorses this idea.

Should you read it? Maybe. As it is, reading about this wet rag flopping about is not quite satisfying, and the novel’s antagonists are not as brilliantly nasty as Amy in Gone Girl.

I want all the characters to be weirder and more obsessed and hazier and more like a fairy tale and more willing to go all the way. To be hard core. Being hard core is what’s admirable about a book like The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet. That book has some flaws that numerous critics noted at the time it was released. But it remains essentially literary and essentially hard core in a way most smut isn’t, and that’s what keeps it in the front of the mind when weaker novels are forgotten.

Based on this one I’d read the next Colapinto novel.

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.

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