A Ladder to the Sky — John Boyle

A Ladder to the Sky is a surprise, and has many mini-surprises in it: I kept almost putting it down, thinking that writers writing about writing has been done too many times. Every time I started to think the novel basic, it confounded me. If you have the “Seen it already” impulse, push through the next 30 pages, as you may be surprised, as I was.

I don’t want to spoil those surprises; if the regular writerly bildungsroman is about books progressively emerging, this one is about the ambition monster getting progressively bigger, like a dragon, until it eats its owner. Or does the owner thrive at the end? I can’t say more here.

The third section is narrated by Maurice’s wife; she’s a writer, too (one possible reading of this novel: writers should spend less time with each other), and has just taken a gig at the University of East Anglia teaching creative writing. She has a Polish student who “just seems to hate everyone, me included. I don’t know why.” Hate is an underrated fuel for art and for achievement more generally. We ought to give it greater respect and pride of place. In today’s twee, overly genteel literary environment that seems impossible, which is part of the reason it’s nice to encounter hate as a motivator in this novel.

“I want to be a success,” the early Maurice Swift says, but it’s an oddly empty formulation, like “I want to be an entrepreneur.” A success—but at what? Measured by who? How? It’s an aspiration too vague to be useful, and maybe even counterproductive: don’t focus on success, focus on what you need to do, today, to achieve it.

Maurice doesn’t, and if he did, there wouldn’t be a novel. Instead, he goes through increasingly gross gyrations to be a “success.”

“A ladder to the sky” is, of course, a ladder to nowhere—which may be what this book is about. It reminds me, in some odd ways, of Clancy Martin’s How to Sell. To sell, first believe the lie. Maurice seems to believe the lie.

There is a lot of “And are you working on anything at the moment, Maurice?” talk. It works, yes, but how about a novel about plumbers? The literary status-jockeying does begin to tire, like a long day of riding horses in a circle. By some point, isn’t it nice to do something else or go somewhere else? It’s tempting to call for a five-year ban of writer-narrators in fiction.

Many of the naive statements are deliberate—they are the statements of naive people, or a naive person—but there are a whole lot of them. Getting A Ladder to the Sky requires at least two readings, though, and that’s one mark of a good book.

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.

The specific objects may change but the effect remains the same

In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library. . . . They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy’s cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.)

The specific objects may change but the effect remains the same. Replace “transistor radio” with “iPhone” or similar. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was first published in English in 1984. I think some version of the clerisy will always exist, and, fortunately, membership is not restricted to the degreed; it is open to anyone who wishes to read and think.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay — Elena Ferrante

By now everyone who follows the book-o-sphere has read Ferrante, whose books are very hard to excerpt: there is something weird and hypnotic about the way they roll on, through characters’ lives, in ways that seem banal in the moment by moment but add up to something. They just keep going and though they should be boring they somehow aren’t. Laura Miller says that, “The real heart of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is the economic striving that drives their heroine throughout her life,” which may explain why they are boring when they are boring: at times they are too close to New York Times editorials about supposed income inequality. In the time and place Ferrante writes about economic striving was probably much harder than it is today, and Italy has long been an economic basket case relative to other first-world countries, but one still senses lurking editorializing beneath the story, and it’s hard for me at least to believe that anyone was crazy enough to believe those who identify with communism, which has been definitively shown to fail.

Yet those long sections end and move back into the specific and personal (“it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth”). Elena, the protagonist, is pleased at one point that “I had married a respectable man.” But “respectable” to her transmutes to “predictable” and thus boring: is that the way of most relationships today?* One wonders: every strength has a weakness and the sameness of “respectable” is dull to her and, she feels, dulls her. Respectable is a word that connotes a person’s character in the eyes of an imagined community, rather than the eye and mind of a single individual. To the community respect may be valuable. To Elena it becomes a drag. She needs to re-start the relationship process, which is charted in so many novels (one favorite is On Love).

In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’s world of broken relationships, it is hard to perceive why anyone marries at all. Perhaps they do it because they feel they should. Perhaps they do it for the struggle that is (mostly) lost. Ecstacy plus time means fermentation into misery. Where does one go from here? To the next cycle.

Boredom incites riots and deaths and breakups. It is the characteristic modern feeling, which is why Houellebecq is so popular. He gets boredom like no one else. In the first three books, at least, Elena never understands herself. Critics have praised the depth of Ferrante’s characterization. I perceive the opposite: most of the characters, except perhaps gangster Michele Solara, are all surface and no depths. They don’t perceive themselves. Maybe none of us does. Maybe that is our curse, which is to consciousness’s curse.

The book feels very nineteenth century in its scope, and that’s a good thing. I keep looking for “representative” quotes and finding none. Certain words, like “felt” and “feel,” recur so many times that there are good essays to be written about them, just like the idea of being “respectable” mentioned earlier. The books need a book of entire response to do them justice; even the essays I’ve read pull a single strand and, in doing so, ignore the rest of the world.

As Elena says: “I was unhappy. I lay in bed, discontent with my situation as a mother, a married woman, the whole future debased by the repetition of domestic rituals in the kitchen, in the marriage bed.”

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

Keep reading this book: the first three-quarters seem aimless, and I gave up. What’s at stake? Who gives a damn about this video game? (I also have an anti-video-game prejudice.) But enough people I admire recommended the book that I kept going, and I’m glad I did.

And after The Three-Body Problem, I read the next two which are in some ways structured similarly: somewhat meandering first halves followed by shocking reversals and revelations, culminating in a work of deep time that does not seem to break special or general relativity but does work with them.

The real terror here is not the many monsters of fairy tales, whether ancient or modern, but knowledge itself: “If even an extremely simple arrangement like the three-body system is unpredictable chaos, how can we have any faith in discovering the laws of a complicated universe?” Wang asks about two-thirds through the novel. I will not offer the answer, but I did read Martin Rees’s essay “Is There a Limit to Scientific Understanding?” just before re-starting The Three-Body Problem. One hopes there is no limit to scientific understanding, but that is a hope, not a guarantee.

In the “game” Wang plays in The Three-Body Problem, a civilization keeps being destroyed by perturbations in the orbit of three suns around a planet (hence the title). Each time he enters the world, he needs to observe or solve a problem in order for the civilization to advance—it’s a bit like the computer game Civilization or Age of Empires. Except this game seems to have unnerving, mysterious consequences in the real world.

Not much is explained, and it’s hard to identify the “missing” information pieces in the novel; The Three-Body Problem doesn’t seem to have rules, as other novels do. In a mystery novel, the implicit rules are there, and the killer is human, with human motives and values. He (usually a he, but not always) cannot destroy humanity itself. A mystery novel is like a war using conventional weapons. Unpleasant and miserable, perhaps, but unlikely to be existentially destructive. Nuclear weapons are different: they could be existentially destructive, and war with them is different. Some novels seem to have no internal rules and no guarantee that the good guys will win, or even that any guys will survive. These novels are existentially unsettling, and they tend to be classified as SF; Three-Body is one of them (Blindsight is another).

Initially the novel starts in China’s Cultural Revolution: “During those years, everyone had a special sensitivity for their own political situation. The sense was especially acute in Ye Wenjie. She felt the world around her closing in like a sack being drawn shut, and everything press in on her.” We may think the novel is about politics, and it often is, but science is its bedrock, for reasons I don’t want to elaborate here but that will become apparent over the trilogy’s course. The novel’s world depends on science, but also on the fear of contact with a more technologically advanced society. In Three-Body, Wang finds that “This civilization seems to have developed to a very advanced state.” The implication being, of course, that it may soon be destroyed.

Some spoilers follow. In later books, the possibility of civilization extinction is explored and occurs. The third book in the series, Dearth’s End, finds that one threat had, from humanity’s perspective, “lasted close to three centuries [. . .] yet what took its place was an even crueler universe.” People—in the broadest sense possible—who don’t struggle and win, die. There is no long-term respite from competition.

We don’t often see modern fiction imply this. A nonfiction book like Zero to One may, but most who read Zero to One aren’t seeking its darker depths. Perhaps we should go there.

If you read The Three-Body Problem, don’t give up halfway through, as I did. Often, when the book (and not just the first one) seems like it’s at best dully meandering, something shocking happens. That sense of complacency and direction shattered happens again and again, perhaps as a metaphor for life. I don’t fully understand the extensive metaphoric readings the books could be given, and that’s good news: they’re rich enough for re-readings and many readings, in a way many books aren’t. There are also many sub-genres of science fiction stashed in it, ranging from first contact to deep space exploration to the many-worlds theory.

Some things remain strangely absent—we don’t get AI centuries from now?—but they can be ignored because there’s so much on the page.

Briefly noted: Nexus – Ramez Naam

Read Nexus for the plot rather than the sentences; I’m looking for an evocative sentence to quote by way of example and not finding any, while banal sentences are everywhere. In this world, Nexus is a drug or treatment or process (the “right” word doesn’t exist) can link people’s minds directly together, allowing people to experience what another person experiences—or to invade and control another person’s mind. The protagonist is a grad student who figures out the next technical step in the Nexus process.

One could say that the Nexus drug / treatment will radically increase empathy, with unexpected or unforeseen results. In-group empathy seems to have been important to the evolution of human cooperation, so artificially further increasing empathy could have unpredictable outcomes, just like no one foresaw Facebook as being a central part of the Internet experience for most people. Making empathy radically common could decrease some kinds of violence. But it can also leave people susceptible to predation. But as one character observes, “If Nexus 5 ever gets out, it’ll spread like wildfire. Permanent integration means a user only ever needs to procure a single dose for a lifetime effect. You can’t fight that on the supply side.” He’s right about the supply side, as we’ve seen from the supposed “war on drugs,” and he’s right that people will likely want a drug that leads to unbelievable euphoria, sex, and knowledge—but note too that the character resorts to cliché: “it’ll spread like wildfire.” Do things spread in some other fashion? Can we fine something better here?


Kim and William furiously hit keys [. . .]

Sam took her time in replying. “I’m human, Kade”.

Does a person take time “in replying” or “to reply?” And is just saying “paused” easier? These kinds of language infelicities can be called minor but when they recur throughout the novel they become major.

Still, properly read, Nexus may be about the dangers of dual-use technology: “They’d built Nexus OS to give people new freedoms, new ways to connect, new ways to learn. Not to use it as a tool for control or assassination.” The Internet was arguably invented in part for new ways to connect and learn, and now it’s used for virtue signaling, character assassination, and petty rivalry blown up to the world stage. Things have not gone as I once imagined they would. I used to be an Internet utopian. No more. Yet maybe Nexus would be different, though Nexus also raises the essential philosophical question: “What is real?” If another person can reach into your mind and rearrange it, what stops them from planting whatever memories or preferences they want? What, in this scenario, makes an individual an individual? “Nothing” seems to be the answer to that last question.

In Nexus, as you can likely tell from what I’ve written so far, the ideas seem more important than the words expressing them, which may say something about the underlying work. The book seems destined for TV, where the quality of its sentences won’t matter. I’m not unhappy to have read the book, but if you’ve not read Blindsight and like SF, start there. Still, I’ll read the next Naam novel after the Nexus trilogy.

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.

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