The Likeness — Tana French

If you don’t mind the crazy, improbable plot—and it’s crazy and improbable even by murder mystery standards, where authors strain relentlessly to think up new plots—The Likeness is an okay, functional book of its type. In the novel, Cassie Maddox is a cop who, prior to the novel’s start, developed a fake identity to go undercover in order to crack some victimless crime related to drugs. That assignment ends, and as the novel begins, police discover a dead woman who has an ID saying she is Cassie’s old identity—that is, the dead woman had enrolled in grad school under that name and developed a life using that name. But how’d the dead woman get the ID in the first place? Why would she use or need it?

So far, we’re in the land of extreme improbability. Then—and this is where “improbable” moves to “ridiculous”—Cassie and her boss decide to pretend the dead girl actually lived, but suffers from amnesia, and Cassie is going to pretend to be the dead girl, who was pretending to be one of Cassie’s old IDs, because Cassie so closely resembles the dead girl. Who had been living with four of her grad school friends in a big house, where they all see each other every day.

It’s not bad, but it’s also one of these doppelgänger books—books that are like another book, but often not quite as good. If you want a bunch of surprises among a band of tightly-knit college students who are hiding a shocking secret, start with The Secret History, in which an outsider joins a band of four other students who have a dark secret (besides their facility in Latin). Reading a book that’s similar but not quite as good just makes me want to go read the real thing. The Weight of Ink suffered from the same problem: it was like Possession, but without the wit.

When Cassie first hears from the gang she lives with, one says:

We were wrecks. Not Daniel, obviously, he would never do anything as undignified as get upset, he just stuck his head in a book and occasionally came out with some fucking Old Norse quote about arms that remain strong in times of trial, or something.

Daniel plays the role of Henry in The Secret History. The Likeness asks how well we can ever really know a person (answer: not very), and that makes it more interesting than many mysteries, but I flip through it, hunting for some bit of evocative writing, and I’m struggling. There is this, at the end:

I wanted to tell her that being loved is a talent too, that it takes as much guts and as much work as loving; that some people, for whatever reason, never learn the knack.

It’s beautiful, not commonplace, but not inaccurate, either. But more often the sentences can be dropped into any other cop novel: “This case had been different from the first moment.” Which is not a criticism, exactly (not every sentence in every novel is an original), though one does yearn for novelty or at least great precision. Or: “The possibility hit me like a wrecking ball: suicide.” But we know it won’t be suicide; that would deprive us of the pleasure of discovery.

Kingdom of the Wicked: Book One: Rules — Helen Dale

Kingdom of the Wicked is one of the best, weirdest, and most fascinating novels I’ve read in recent memory; I’m amazed that it hasn’t garnered more reviews, both from Amazon and the press. It takes a seemingly simple premise—what happens if the Industrial Revolution occurred in ancient Rome?—and combines it with an insurgent campaign against an occupying power in the Middle East and the appearance of Jesus. Is the occupying power good, evil, neither, or both? Kingdom refuses to yield simple answers, which is part of what makes it addicting.

Many sections resonate with very current events: “These men really do believe a ragtag army of insurgents can defeat the greatest military power the world has ever seen. The result will be a bloodbath, you know that better than me” could easily be taken from a news story about contemporary Afghanistan. Yet in the context of the novel, it defamiliarizes the tropes that appear so readily in the news.* We also know from the last 50 years of real history that ragtag armies of insurgents can defeat the greatest military power the world has ever seen, at least by some measures of “defeat.” But in Kingdom, that power isn’t the United States; it’s the Roman Empire in the period Jesus lived.

I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s prediction that The Name of the Rose would be read in at least three different ways; Kingdom can perhaps be read similarly:

The first category of readers will be taken by the plot and the coups de scène, and will accept even the long bookish discussions and the philosophical dialogues, because it will sense that the signs, the traces and revelatory symptoms are nesting precisely in those inattentive pages. The second category will be impassioned by the debate of ideas, and will attempt to establish connections (which the author refuses to authorize) with the present. The third will realize that this text is a textile of other texts, a ‘whodunit’ of quotations, a book built of books.

Kingdom is not a whodunit, and if it is a “textile of other texts,” I do not know those other texts well enough to detect their presence. But I do think Kingdom is a kind of textile of history, though I don’t enough Roman or Biblical history to perceive those patterns, either. David Lodge suggests regarding Eco’s categories that “there is an implied hierarchy in the listing of these kinds of reading, the most approved being the last. A fully appreciative reading must, however, combine all three.” So while I can speak to the plot and coups de scène, as well as the many resonances between imaginary past and actual present, I cannot grasp what may be the deepest level.

That being said, the first two levels offer much material. I will caution, though, that the book may feel slow and strange to start: many odd (to my American background) names appear in rapid succession and are hard to keep straight. Some, like Pontius Pilate, are familiar even to me from history. Many others are not familiar or not from history, and it is not always easy to keep Camilla, Claudia, Caiaphas, Cornelius (whose last name is Getorex, and he is referred to by the one or the other depending on context) and many others straight.

Yet I kept reading, and about halfway through I could not or would not stop. I wasn’t wholly attentive at the beginning, either, maybe due to reading on a bus—or because I couldn’t make up my mind about the book’s quality immediately. Then I finished and immediately began again, to see all that I’d missed or not understood. And there was much to find in a second reading. This reaction might be idiosyncratic, but I forced the book on a friend who had the same reaction: caught halfway through, she finished and turned back to page one.

She also observed that there are a lot of “really hot sex scenes.” That’s true, and they intersect with the political and military contexts beautifully. To say more would be to give away too much of the novel.

Beyond the plot and the correspondences between imagined world and present, many individual sentences are beautiful: “[Caiaphas’s] mind ran like a rodent on a wheel as he tried to think how he was to explain himself to Pilate.” “Like a rodent on a wheel:” that is sometimes how one feels when preparing to explain the inexplicable. This novel combines a turbulent plot with beautiful sentences, as too few novels do. The word “combines” features prominently in this review, for good reason. This book is a combination of many ideas in an unusual way. Unlike most novels, it feels very novel.

In this world, Christianity hasn’t happened yet, so there are no Christians. Islam comes many centuries later, so there are no Muslims; this allows Kingdom to deftly sidestep many current controversies. There are Jews and we’re in a land that corresponds geographically to the modern Middle East, here called Judaea, where the Roman soldiers are unhappy to be living amid cultural aliens. Most of the novel’s narrative perspective happens within Romans, but sometimes we get Jews, who see the Romans a little like modern Palestinians might see Israelis, or as Afghans might see Americans. One senses, perhaps wrongly, that the author sides with the Romans, just as one senses that Umberto Eco sides with William of Baskerville, but everyone gets a hearing. Courtrooms and lawyers frequently appear in Kingdom, so the notion of a “hearing” is not purely metaphorical.

Early in Kingdom, a Jewish cabbie is driving a Roman lawyer and notices the environment:

Whenever he saw Roman soldiers in dress uniform, he always had the same struggle to prevent himself from admiring them. When they were in the streets wearing their desert battle dress and coalscuttle helmets and heavy boots, one could despite them—the body armour even made them look non-human—but not when they wee preening like peacocks and charming the women who wished to reward the Empire’s warriors for their protective efforts.

“Body armour” can make modern soldiers “look non-human.” Many have argued that in the United States, “We Are The Empire” of the Star Wars films: culturally and militarily hegemonic, builder of massive war machines, masters of the physical world. In Kingdom we are Rome—yet we’re also the product of monotheistic religions. Yet even those monotheistic religions haven’t been sufficient to keep a libertine culture from growing; in Kingdom, the libertine culture is the majority culture and thrives in the mainstream; people want what they want and do what they do. In American culture, we often deny wanting what we want, and the next morning we deny what we did. We’re schizophrenic: simultaneously partaking and rebelling, affirming and denying, at war with ourselves, with self-denying, right-wing religious culture circling back around and sometimes combining with self-denying, fear-based left-wing feminist culture. It’s an odd world, if you really think about.

Fortunately or unfortunately, most of us don’t. Not actively. You don’t have to think too hard about the correspondences between our world and Kingdom if you don’t want to: the story itself keeps one’s interest. Speculative fiction readers may have an advantage here, because the world is extremely disorienting at first. Historical figures like Saul of Tarsus and Pontius Pilate appear, but people who don’t know the New Testament won’t necessarily see how strangely these figures are changed. And lots of people don’t know it: I was recently teaching Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and asked students about the famous historical-mythic figure who died at age 33. No one knew.

The novel switches perspectives often at first, but the narrative voice remains similar. It took me till about halfway through to get the characters straight and begin to piece together who everyone was and the main things that most characters might want. But the disorientation is the pleasant sense of being in a foreign place, much like Peter Watt’s novel Blindsight.

I mentioned the novel’s sex scenes. They’re tied to the Roman celebration of sensuality. Many characters notice each other in a way that real people do and fictional characters often don’t. Mary Magdalena, for example, is “a newsreader on JTN” and she is “bar none, the most beautiful woman” one character has ever seen. She is like Ben Yusuf in that she has something of the supernatural about her, so much so that “He could imagine her telling him to do something ridiculous and complying without hesitation.” In the Roman world, sexuality is highlighted rather than sublimated, and when Linnaeus is too intent on her, he says, “Please accept my apologies for staring at you like that.” She replies, “That is the best of Rome . . . You do not pretend.” A world where, if not everybody, then many people have such an attitude is a cultural change.

In the real world, the second-best-known pornographic movie is probably Debbie Does Dallas, which even has its own Wikipedia page (the first is of course Deep Throat, which is immortalized by its role in Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein, and the taking down of Nixon). In Kingdom, a movie called Deborah Does Damascus plays a similar role.

The sly winking to Deborah Does Damascus also reminds one of the novel’s frequent humor. Though that humor is hard to take from its context, I laughed out loud reading it and so did a friend. When the disorientation from entering Kingdom’s world subsides, be ready to laugh.

In the novel; there is a lot of argument about how “women are not free in their country;” maybe the novel is also an experiment asking what freedom, or some definitions of freedom, actually look like. “Freedom” means a lot of things, and it does seem like few people are actually free, or want to be. Even people who want freedom for themselves would often deny it to others; politically salient examples of this seem too obvious and numerous to cite.

If there is a single lesson from the novel it may be that governing is hard, culture is hard, and there is no way to make those problems not-hard.


* Here is Dale’s essay, “What if the Industrial Revolution happened in Rome?” and she is also on Twitter. Here is Mark Koyama, “Could Rome Have Had an Industrial Revolution?” I’ve seen very few American reviews of Kingdom, which is odd considering how good the book is. The next book is supposed to be out soon in “Early 2018,” but from what I can tell it isn’t yet available for pre-order.

I know almost nothing about Roman history but am now reading Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, which is readable, fascinating, and thus far recommended (although I can’t speak to its accuracy because I lack sufficient knowledge to do so).

The Last Picture Show — Larry McMurtry

The Last Picture Show ought to be one of the most boring novels ever written: It’s about a handful of losers in a nowhere town who don’t do very much. Stated like that you wouldn’t want to read it. But the delivery makes it work and that delivery can’t be easily excerpted.

The Last Picture Show feels humane; I can’t exactly define that term in this context and I can’t point to a single sentence that encompasses it, but the feel permeates the novel. When people talk about politically correct art, they are talking about the opposite of The Last Picture Show, which is never doctrinaire yet often honest about its characters their foibles. Maybe the best is Lois, Jacy’s mom, who is scary and desiring and wants everyone around her to fuck off and wants to be gone but never quite can be.

Part of being humane entails familiarity with brutality, desperation, and annihilation—all of which appear, in various guises, as when Ruth Popper finds that a teenage boy has become everything to her: he “was what made the days worth confronting” (the word “confronting” being a better one here than “living”) and “the thought of going back to the existence she had had before he came was too much to face.” Yet on some level she must face it: he’s a high school senior and she’s married to his former football coach. Their relationship is by its nature has a terminus, but fighting the terminal nature is part of what makes the novel work—and part of the nature of its melancholy, melancholy being a feeling that is rarely if ever named yet one that pervades the whole thing. It isn’t melancholy the way someone like Houellebecq is, but all the characters yearn to be somewhere else.

The Last Picture Show world is very different from today; we learn that Sonny played football for four years at the local high school, but the football coach is “a man of most uncertain temper. He had already shot at Sonny once in his life, and with a new under-over he might not miss.” It’s hard to get the tone of this sentence in the context of the novel. Is it supposed to be farcically funny? Reported straight? A sign of the town and the boy’s resignation? Something else? I don’t know and not knowing is part of what makes it good.

Sometimes, but not too often, the sentences hit classic beautiful metaphors:

after an hour’s slopping necking with Charlene even the fantasy that he was kissing Jacy had a dangerous power. Charlene kissed convulsively, as if she had just swallowed a golf ball and was trying to force it back up.

If that is Charlene to Sonny, we know everything about their relationship.

Or, not in metaphor form:

“But I don’t care about money,” Jacy said solemnly. “I don’t care about it at all.”
Lois sighed. “You’re pretty stupid then,” she said. “If you’re that stupid you ought to go and marry him—it would be the cheapest way to educate you.”
Jacy was so shocked at being called stupid that she didn’t even cry. Her mother knew she made straight-A report cards!

And report cards are of course the surest, most steady sign of intellect devised by man.

The first sentence is, “Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town.” “Human creature?” What and where is “the town?” “Lonely,” “lonesome” and similar words about the lack of human contact and camaraderie are the most-used in the novel. There is of course no social media, but even if there were it probably wouldn’t help much. The town is too far from the big city. For Sonny and Duane, the military may be a way out. For many others, there is no obvious out.

I love this book because I don’t get it, and it should be bad, but it isn’t.

La Belle Sauvage — Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage is good but suffers from a problem: it occurs a little more than a decade before His Dark Materials and concerns Lyra as a baby. But anyone who’s read His Dark Materials knows that she survives. The supposed threats to her are drained of potency and that in turn drains the book of vibrancy. It feels more like a kids’ book than His Dark Materials, too.

There is even a strange moment on the third page, about Malcolm: “he took tips to be the generosity of providence, and came to think of himself as lucky, which did him no harm later in life.” So we know he survives, too.

Many sections are charming, though not in a flashy way:

There was probably nowhere, he thought, where anyone could learn so much about the world as this little bend of the river, with the inn on one side and the priory on the other.

There are probably many people who do think that you could learn more “about the world” somewhere else, but an 11-year-old could very easily believe otherwise, as Malcolm does.

Malcolm is also charmingly unmanaged; many passages like this:

“I lent the canoe to someone, and that man brought it back.”
“Oh. Well, get on and take these dinners through. Table by the fire.”

between Malcolm and his mother feel not of this world, or at least the chattering-class part of it. Valuable items like canoes would probably be the subject of much supervision today. Too much. Articles like “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed” came to mind as I read Malcolm’s journey towards antifragility.

Scholars are important in the Pullman world, which is a refreshing change from much of our world.

Sprinkled throughout the book is a sense of malevolent bureaucracy, religious in form here but transferable to other kinds. The Consistorial Court of Discipline, the “Environmental Protection” people, the League of St. Alexander: they all have an undertone of official harassment, and even people not formally part of the organization can act like people in the organization. Yet suspicion of bureaucracy is not enough to impede its growth. The individuals matter, even the ones who are “terrifying” like Sister Benedicta. Even those adults who aren’t part of bureaucracies, per se, are making or speculating on bureaucratic pronouncements, like “I should think every boat that exists will have been requisitioned by the authorities.”

Despite moments of interest, La Belle Sauvage is not as narratively compelling as The Golden Compass, though I don’t entirely know why. Even apart from the issue of Lyra surviving, I often found my attention wandering, thinking about other books.

This piece is excellent and discusses the thematic elements, although it’s also spoiler-laden.

“Persuader” by Lee Child is actually a modern-day fairy tale

At first I was going to write a post about how ridiculous Persuader is: this is a novel in which not once but twice the protagonist somehow outwits opponents who have guns pointed at him. In both circumstances, the obvious, logical thing for the antagonists to do is shoot Jack Reacher, but instead they do the stupid talking villain thing, like no one would do in real life. One of those opponents is so stupid that he throws his gun away in order to engage in hand-to-hand combat with 6’5″ Reacher, like no one would ever do. But this level of inanity, or inanity interpreted in terms of realism, must point to something else, much as the implausibility of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects made me realize that it isn’t trying to be realistic.*

Persuader is a fairy tale about a knight who is caught between the dark forces of chaos, evil, and greed on the one side and the grinding powers of bureaucracy—FBI and military—on the other. He’s a kind of small-c conservative who is interested in the intensely personal and where it intersects with larger forces of darkness, chaos, and excessive order. Chaos is bad because of the way it destabilizes relationships; excessive order is bad in the Reacher universe because it inhibits Reacher from inflicting his own moral code on the universe, and it’s a universe where the bad guys are conveniently universally bad and the good guys are conveniently universally good.

So what myth, or myths, are we getting from Persuader? That the military is sacrosanct and its training superhuman; that bureaucracy is stupid and the individual not; and perhaps most of all that we are less part of a network than we are a making, doing, acting, achieving supernode. This last is a particularly appealing idea, like life after death, and also in most ways a wildly inaccurate one, which is where the mythic elements of Persuader (and maybe the other Reacher books) come into play.

The novel feels paradoxically fascistic and libertarian at the same time, with different strains predominating at different moments, like someone who cannot quite decide between Judaism and atheism, but Reacher is a person of the immediate moment, not of the mind, so he never considers bigger pictures. His is not philosophy. He does think a little about his own past but not in any systematic way. He likes the specifics of gadgets but not of culture. What details he knows (about guns, say) tells as much as those that are superfluous.

The writing is not especially bad for its genre but not especially good either. Towards the beginning, the narrator (likely Reacher) says things like, “Connecting the pillars was a high double gate made from iron bars bent and folded and twisted into fancy shapes.” “Fancy shapes:” that’s a Reacher-like phrase, as he’s too busy kicking ass or whatever to know the term. “I” and “it” have to be the most common words in the novel, apart from the basics. College students sound like they’re described by someone’s hard-scrabble dad (“He had long messy hair and was dressed like a homeless person” or “He was majoring in some kind of contemporary art expression thing that sounded a lot like finger painting to me.”) We never really get out of this basic register.

Often the novel is just boring: “It showed me she and Eliot had at least five guys who would follow them to hell and back.” We can do better than the cliché but we don’t. Not here, not in many places.

How Jack Reacher was built” persuaded me to read Persuader, but one Child novel is enough, especially because Lanchester says it’s the best of them. Overall, the myth of military invincibility does more harm than good, and I prefer my supermen in different guises, perhaps with some weaknesses and humanity.

Still, the novel is not as offensively written as Camino Island, but I still have no desire to read another, ever, and love for Lee Child tells me something important about the person who loves his work (just as someone’s admiration for Elmore Leonard tells me something important, and positive, about theirs). As always I’m open for suggestions and if you have them leave them in the comments.

I did read to the end and remember very little, apart from the plot’s many absurdities. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more analyses of thrillers and similar works in terms of fairy tale and fantasy, which is what a lot of these works really are. Are they out there? I can’t imagine Child being a popular target for academics today, but perhaps there’s work I don’t know of.


*
When I teach Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, students sometimes ask how I (or someone) figure out that the story probably isn’t meant to be interpreted literally. Part of the answer involves implausibility combined with coherent writing: If something is well-done but seems ridiculous, it may be that symbolism or other non-realistic modes are involved, and if we as readers suspect that’s the case, we should start asking why and how.

Briefly noted: The Weight of Ink — Rachel Kadish

The Weight of Ink invites comparison to A. S. Byatt’s , and after I’d read about half of The Weight of Ink I was inspired to re-read Possession, which is amazing and one of the best books I’ve read, ever. In the beginning of Possession I noticed this; the protagonist, Roland, is studying a fictional Victorian poet named R. H. Ash, and his supervisor is Blackadder:

Blackadder was discouraged and liked to discourage others. (He was also a stringent scholar.) Roland was now employed, part-time, in what was known as Blackadder’s “Ash Factory” (why not Ashram? Val had said)…

That re-use of “Ash,” from “Ash Factory” to “Ashram” (which sounds a lot, intentionally, like ass-ram) gives a lot in a short space: about Blackadder’s drudgery; Roland’s feelings towards Blackadder and the work; and even about Val’s witty personality, which is weighted by material circumstances and her shriveling relationship with Roland. We get a lot of material in three sentences that later resonate throughout the novel as a whole. For a while I spent time trying to find something analogously clever in The Weight of Ink, and failed. It’s impossible to prove a negative, but most of the book feels a little dull by comparison.

In The Weight of Ink there are too many sentences like, “He knew that whatever her reputation—and her staunch defense of departmental requirements, her insistence on diversifying the list of acceptable qualifying languages, and a half dozen other hard-fought battles over the years had earned her a fierce reputation—Helen Watt did not make scenes.” As far as I can tell this is meant as straight comment, not as a joke, and the obvious question—who gives a damn?—isn’t asked. People who have actually fierce reputations don’t have them from university department teapot politics. In Possession academic politics are the joke, for good reason, and human needs are at the humane center of things. The Weight of Ink misses this basic philosophical point and feels silly for it.

Or:

Had Aaron Levy chosen to study Shakespeare’s Catholic roots, it would have been different; that field had been blessed relatively recently with the astonishing gift of fresh evidence—a religious pamphlet found in the attic of Shakespeare’s father. That single document had upended and revitalized that arena of Shakespeare studies, leaving young historians room to work productively for years to come.

Perhaps the real answer is, “Go study a field that is vital and important?” Unfortunately, the modern-era scholars don’t, or can’t. Aaron has the same problem in his personal life. He yearns for a woman he had a one-night stand with, right before she left for Israel. Solution: Go find someone geographically proximate and available, like everyone else. In Possession, scholarly and romantic problems beautifully mirror each other; here, they grind against each other and the reader’s patience.

I gave up about halfway through. The re-read of Possession was great, though. Don’t believe the comparisons. They’re superficially right but in terms of depth totally off.

Statistical analyses of literature: let’s see what happens

I got some pushback to the link on what heretical things statistics can tell us about fiction, and I’ve read pushback like it before: the objections tend to say that great literature can’t be reduced to statistics; big data will never replicate the reading experience; a novel is more than the sum of the words chosen. That sort of thing. All of which is likely true, but the more interesting question is, “What kinds of things is nobody doing in the study of fiction?” (Or words, or sentences, of writers’ oeuvres). Lots and lots of people, including me, closely study individual works and connect them to a smallish body of other works and ideas.

Over centuries, if not longer, thousands, if not millions, of people have engaged this practice. Not very many people have attempted to systematically examine thousands if not millions of works simultaneously. So that may tell us something the usual methods haven’t. It’s worth exploring that domain. And just because that domain is being explored, the more usual paths via close reading aren’t closed off.

In other words, don’t think that an argument along the lines of “x is interesting” means “we should always and only do x.”

At the moment, we also appear to be at the very start of the field. Maybe it’ll become extremely important and maybe it won’t. The potential is there. People have (arguably) been doing some form of close reading and analysis, even if the practice didn’t use those specific words, for millennia. Certainly for centuries. So I’d be pretty surprised to see statistical analyses produce whatever good material they’re likely to produce in just a decade or two.

Part of what art and analysis should do is be novel. Another part is “be interesting.” We’re looking for the intersection of those two zones.

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