Briefly noted: The Idiot — Elif Batuman

The Idiot is absorbing for 50 pages, the next 50 pages drag, and the rest is a slog. I read it because Batuman wrote the hilarious The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which is an essay collection in which most of the essays are… 50 pages. Maybe not coincidentally. Read The Possessed or, even better, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History instead. You will find that in The Idiot

I had never heard of any Ottoman invasion of Hungary. As a child, I had been told that the Turks and Hungarians were related, that the Huns were Turkic, that both peoples had migrated west from the Altai and spoke similar languages.

In some ways the novel is about all the things the narrator, Selin, has never heard of. The novel captures well the feeling of not knowing anything, surrounded by others who don’t, but is that desirable in a novel?

There are implied problems in industrial and human organization, too:

The Constructed Worlds syllabus was a list of Gary’s favorite books and movies, without any due dates or assignments. We were just supposed to read books, watch movies, and discuss them in class. The discussions were never that great, because everyone chose different books and movies.

That seems predictable. Learning thrives off the right balance between order and chaos. Lean too far in either direction and things fall apart.

Much of The Idiot is an extended, awkward flirtationship between Selin and a slightly older guy named Ivan. Watching shy college students flirt for short periods of time is painful; watching it for hundreds of pages may be worse. Sex makes an appearance here and there:

“Sometimes I wonder about the man I’ll eventually lose my virginity too,” Svetlana continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll happen in college.”

Yet for relatively well-off and fit college students, the characters seem to spend strangely little time wanting to get laid, maybe because Ivy Leaguers are too uptight or wrongly focused to do so. Ivy Leaguers have a reputation for being too neurotic, cerebral, and obedient to do it much, but I don’t know if that reputation is deserved or accurate.

Still, Selin is aware of some of her own position:

In the train station, people were drinking coffee and reading newspapers. I felt glad to see that life was going on—actual life, where people were working and staying awake and trying to accomplish things, which was the point of coffee.

About two-thirds through I skipped to the end and began to read backwards, wondering if maybe things would improve. No luck. It is very long for what it is. So much promise. In some ways the novel delivers what its title promises, however, and many of the individual sentences are well done. Still, if you want a college novel try Joe College instead, after you finish The Secret History. If you have recommendations for college novels, leave them in the comments.

Briefly noted: Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments’s annual question book, Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments, is out in paper—and it’s available in its entirety online. Many responses discuss global climate change, like this one:

There is no real difficulty in identifying the most important news of 2015. Global warming is the news that will remain news for the foreseeable future, because our world will continue to warm at a rate that has never been seen before, at least at the moment without a foreseeable end.

The choice is a good and important though depressing one, but one should note that some progress is being made in terms of decarbonization of energy, the spread of electric vehicles, and the like. It may also be that we need or want less stuff than we once did:

Chris Goodall and a number of other commentators have documented this decoupling extensively: UK government data also shows a reduction in material use from about 12 tons a year per person to around 9 tons from 2000 to 2013. Japan shows a similar pattern.

Maybe the most obvious avatar of this change is the smartphone.

The other big groupings are particle physics and genetic engineering. In the former group, for example, Sarah Demers writes:

The terrifying possibility floating through these “Higgs and nothing else” conversations is that we might reach the end of exploration at the energy frontier. Without better clues of our undiscovered physics, we might not have sufficient motivation to build a higher energy machine. Even if we convince ourselves, could we convince the world and marshal the necessary resources to break the energy frontier again and continue to probe nature under the extreme conditions that teach us about nature’s building blocks?

The particle physicists seem about split between optimism that we’ll get breakthroughs and the terror described here that we’ll reach the end of effective measurement and breakthroughs. Yet many of the writers enumerate the many unresolved problems in physics, which could be read as a rebuke to people who say or imply that there’s nothing left to do, no blank spaces left on the map, and nothing left to discover.

Briefly noted: Underground Airlines — Ben H. Winters

You may have seen the good reviews, but I gave up after 50 pages, many of which look like this:

Underground Airlines

The premise is clever—the Civil War is averted and slavery persists in four states up to the present day—but the writing is not. One wishes to read instead Elmore Leonard, who is a master of the kind of style attempted here. Almost every page is overwritten. Many of the pieces in Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliche apply here too.

My Secret Life — Anonymous

My Secret Life is a bizarre, disturbing, amazing, fascinating work of Victorian-era pornography. It is anachronistic to label it with a “trigger warning” but it is the rare work that actually deserves the warning; it recounts in great detail the author’s erotic experiences from youth to old age. My Secret Life feels like a book sort of thing that probably wouldn’t get assigned to undergrads today. Still, it is strange and curious enough for me to write about it here (I learned of it via The Voyeur’s Motel, a book that may be considered part of the same genre as My Secret Life). Originally published in or around 1902, it was 11 volumes (!), and the abridged edition I linked to is a single volume that still feels exhausting by its end.

my_secret_lifeIt’s hard to believe that all of My Secret Life is true, and it’s also hard to believe that it is wholly imagined. Today one might call it “creative nonfiction,” which seems to be a phrase that loosely means or connotes truthy, or specious, or “I need to make shit up to make the narrative more compelling.”

The interest in and curiosity about matters generally veiled was great then and remains great now, though today it maybe takes different shapes. There are ceaseless reportorial sections in My Secret Life, and moments when the narrator finds that someone, “One evening being unusually communicative,” explained the matter of “buggery.” That explanation comes from a woman named Camille; the narrator “went there when I wanted a quiet chat and information about sexualities.” That interest appears insatiable, even as its nuances eventually dull the reader’s senses due to repetition.

The need to report and imagine seem relentless. During one extended period with a single woman, the narrator says that “when not thinking of Charlotte, [I] spent my time in writing baudy words and sketching cunts and pricks with pen and ink.” So he is either engaged in the act or considering it in some other way. His work is almost Internet-ready, going even to anonymity.

Some challenges seem eternal, as when the narrator praises a women in this way:

Moreover she was not always plaguing me for money—asking me to pay this, or to lend her to pay that—which is the common habit and trick of harlots from high to low—I felt at sea when Sarah was gone, and recollect that for a month or so I was chaste.

That “chaste” month seems unusual in the narrator’s life, though his whole life seems unusual; that it may be more usual than is usually assumed may be part of the book’s frisson. Still, one hopes that the many vile things the narrator does are not eternal.

My Secret History is an easy book for skipping sections, as the narrator never seems to grow, change, learn, or seriously struggle. As he is at seven, so he is at seventy. But maybe the larger point is that the nature of humanity as a whole may change less than we might like, and that non-technological progress is rarer than we like to think and perhaps barely existent at all.

Briefly noted: The Map and the Territory — Houellebecq

The number of ideas in The Map and the Territory is too high to enumerate, and the novel is structurally weird, but it’s weird in a way that’s still functional. Like all of Houellebecq it’s fascinating, though not in a way that’s easy to describe, and it touches many Houellbecqian themes: The weakness of contemporary France; the need for tourism; the fight between stability and novelty; the status of the artist; the faux accepted role of the market as the arbiter of all value; the need to express sexuality and form relationships despite the futility of both acts. At least in this one a shocking unexpected terrorist bloodbath is not the denouement, however fitting and brutal it was in one of Houellebecq’s other novels.

Consider this:

Barely amiable in the first few minutes, the stocky estate agent went into a lyrical trance when he learned that Jed was an artist. It was the first time, he exclaimed, that he’d had the opportunity to sell an artist’s studio to an artist! Jed feared for a moment that he would declare his solidarity with authentic artists against the bourgeois bohemians and other such philistines who inflated prices, thus making artist’s studios inaccessible to artists, but what can you do? I can’t go against the truth of the market: it’s not my role. But fortunately this did not happen.

the_map_and_the_territoryThe notion of the “artist” has been made into a nostgalia item that was long ago marketized. Today’s artists still need cheap space, but they won’t find it in most “major” Western cities.

It may be that the best medium for a given time shifts. It was painting in the Renaissance, novels and what we now call classical music in the 19th Century, movies and what we now call pop music in the 20th Century, and maybe something like design in the 21st. Still, real artists ship and show their work:

You can work alone for years, it’s actually the only way to work, truth be told; but there always comes a moment when you feel the need to show your work to the world, less to receive its judgment than to reassure yourself about the existence of this work, or even of your own existence, for in a social species individuality is little more than a short piece of fiction.

Are we just neurons in a massive, transhuman brain, each of us thinking we are individual but actually just part of the mess, sending encoded messages from person to person via sound, light, or other mean? One sees Houellebecq’s taste for moving from the level of the individual outwards to the level of society or species. It’s a favorite move and one I see remarked on too infrequently.

It’s hard to convey the feeling of a Houellebecq novel from blockquotes alone, as the way sections connect do not feel like the way sections connect in other novels. Sometimes long times pass; few causal relationships, if any, are established. In that sense Houellbecq is a kind of anti-thriller, where everything is cause-effect in a way the real world isn’t.

Houellebecq’s pessimism seems easier to countenance given recent political events. One wonders if he will eventually be seen as a deeply political writer who connects the personal and political in ways that most trendy or PC writers don’t, or can’t.

Briefly noted: All That Is Man — David Szalay

I don’t get the book at all, but James Wood likes it and lays out the reasons why at the link. After about a third I gave up, thinking, “Who cares?” Maybe you’ll know, and get it.

I’m on to re-reading All the King’s Men, which is still essential and beautiful and alternates between sounding like it’s narrated by God and by the greatest political hack ever. An appropriate thing around election time.

Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency — James Andrew Miller

There is a really excellent book lurking inside Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency, but it is condemned to be of niche interest because it’s told as an “oral history,” which means interviews with the various participants are stitched together, often banally. One hopes for something like The Making of the Atomic Bomb or The Power Broker and instead gets interviews mostly devoid of context and insights. The strengths and weaknesses of the format shine through, but one mostly sees weaknesses: there isn’t enough context for many of the decisions; the narrative continuity authors impose is lose; the damn thing is just too long; too many people don’t say the right thing, exactly, so what they say must be used anyway.

powerhouseSo why write about it at all? The book is going to be of great interest to anyone involved in startups, law firms, consulting practices, or changing industries. CAA rode a number of waves and mastered a number of key and unusual businesses practices, and it perceived how to adapt to a changing media and business landscape in a way that most of its competitors did not. In another world this could be a Harvard Business Review case study.

The movie business continually changes, and CAA is founded and then evolves based on those changes. For example, the book’s hero is probably Michael Ovitz, or the pairing between Ovitz and fellow agent Ron Meyer. Ovitz says, “The thesis for CAA that we developed was to be able to play roulette with a chip on every number, odd and even, red and black.” That worked. CAA emerged from the William Morris agency, which “was an incredibly rigid, compartmentalized business. Pay scales were incredibly unfair. There was little entrepreneurialism.”

At CAA, the opposite occurred: Agents were incentivized to cooperate; clients were (relatively) shared; initiative was rewarded. When the first five agents left William Morris, Ovitz says this about their departure:

Sam Weisbord loved Judy and he loved me, but he looked at me and said, ‘You’ve really screwed yourself this time.’ That’s what he said to me. I learned an amazing lesson from that moment. If he’d started that meeting differently, attempted to check his ego at the door, told me he didn’t want to lose me, and then offered me an insane amount of money, there was at least one chance in a thousand I would have stayed. Instead, he did me a favor, because instead of being compassionate or even making me feel guilty, he pissed me off. He attacked me and tried to belittle me. There was no way I was going to stay.


CAA remained cooperative within the organization and competitive outside it—a difficult balancing act, because wildly competitive people often want to compete everywhere, all the time, even in ways that are inefficient.

CAA comes up with clever branding strategies. For example, when the agency started most scripts were sent from studios to agencies, and agencies then further distributed the scripts. CAA stripped the existing covers and replaced those covers with their own. So every script started to look like it came from CAA, rather than the studio. A small point but a clever one, and one that is a synecdoche for the agency as a whole.

They also do one simple thing right: pay:

We always made it a point to take really good care of the agents who worked for us. They were all overpaid. We wanted to reward them and also make sure no one else in town could afford them. We would literally ask each other, ‘How much could this person get somewhere else?’ and we’d give them 30 percent more. There were a good chunk of our agent making over a million dollars in the late ’80s.

We’ve seen the same problem among nonprofit and public agencies: They frequently underpay grant writers, and that’s part of the reason Seliger + Associates exists. You’ve also probably seen the articles going around about how manufacturers can’t find the skilled workers they need (here and here are examples from one second of search).

So the strong material is present in Powerhouse, but there is too much Hollywood gossip and status raising (or, less commonly, lowering). Too many passages like Ridley Scott saying, “Goldie Hawn brought me breakfast, and she was hysterically funny. She made it clear how much she wanted the part.” And, on the same page, “Geena Davis had gotten ahold of the script and I met her for tea at the Four Seasons where she made her case” (shouldn’t there also be a comma?). Passages like these help explain why a book that does a little too little to explain the movies and shows themselves can still be 700 pages. 700 fluffy pages, but in the long middle it’s hard to get excited about long-dead deals that don’t delve deeply into something important beyond the deal itself. There is good detail and excess and too often we get excess.

EDIT: Here is a longer treatment, in the London Review of Books.

%d bloggers like this: