Briefly noted: Lonesome Dove — Larry McMurtry

Lonesome Dove is one of the best novels I’ve read, ever, and as much as I like physical books it may be easier to read on a Kindle: at more than 800 large, physical pages, it takes space. But that may be appropriate to the content, ranging as it does from Texas to Montana in the age of horse. I couldn’t decide whether the novel is any good until about 400 pages in, when a sudden-seeming shift happened. Lonesome Dove seems mostly comic, tonally, at first, with characters sitting around and speculating to each other. But then one finds that unexpected, brutal, and shocking shift, like a standard romantic comedy morphing into science fiction when the aliens land.

Don’t quit two hundred pages in, though you’ll be tempted to. As with The Name of the Rose, another of those fantastical, insane works I wish someone had forced me to read sooner than I got hold of it, patience is rewarded.

I’m reminded of James Wood’s remark about how good novels deploy “different registers:” “One way to tell slick genre prose from really interesting writing is to look, in the former case, for the absence of different registers. An efficient thriller will often be written in a style that is locked into place: the musical analogue of this might be a tune proceeding in unison, the melody separated only by octave intervals, without any harmony in the middle.” Richer novels are supposed to be polyphonic. Lonesome Dove isn’t. The narrative viewpoint scans from character to character, but they share a linguistic world that reflects their time and place. To Wood that’s a problem but to me it’s a shared world reflected in ideas and language. The common world has its own strange beauty, reflected in metaphors tied to the land and to fighting on horseback.

In Lonesome Dove characters often bury stories within stories within stories, sometimes in dialogue and usually not, describing the way things came to be. If those stories weren’t so damn interesting they’d be a crisis. But if “be interesting” is the first command to any artist, Lonesome Dove follows it. The world it depicts is implacable and hard and full of rational and irrational people. Like these:

The shadow of Augustus McCrae had hung over their courtship; Bob had never known why she chose him over the famous Ranger, or over any of the other men she could have had. In her day she had been the most sought-after girl in Texas, and yet she had married him, and followed him to the Nebraska plains, and stayed and worked beside him. It was hard country for women, Bob knew that. Women died, went crazy or left. The wife of their nearest neighbor, Maude Jones, had killed herself with a shotgun one morning, leaving a note which merely said, “Can’t stand listening to this wind no more.”

Leaving out the “a” in “It was hard country” seems odd but, again, part of the linguistic universe. One feels very rich, reading Lonesome Dove as a contemporary person with immediate access to infinite information, much as one feels rich and also terribly sad reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Other worlds exist now and have existed before, and it’s useful to remember them—and to think of how the future world will be different from the present.

Much of Lonesome Dove, on its own, seems basic, yet as a whole it’s beautiful. Like this:

The other men were easy to talk to, but they didn’t know anything. If one stopped to think about it, it was depressing how little most men learned in their lifetimes. Pea eye was a prime example. Though loyal and able and brave, Pea had never displayed the slightest ability to learn from his experience, though his experience was considerable. Time and again he would walk up on the wrong side of a horse that was known to kick, and then look surprised when he got kicked.

If I were James Wood I wouldn’t like “prime example” (it’s a cliché), but here it’s fine. The eye passes over it, and it’s the sort of cliché Call (who speaks here) would use. We see Call’s mind on horses, and we can generalize from the sort of person who is always surprised by a horse’s obvious behavior to a person we know, who is equally puzzled when he misses the obvious. Horses are as ubiquitous to Lonesome Dove as computers are to modern Americans.

There is an odd fatalistic determinism in the novel that is again not easy to parse out in a sentence quote but that is easy to feel. In the quote above we see that Pea Eye is who he is; the next paragraph starts, “Deets was different. Deets observed, he remembered,” as if that too arises from nothing. Almost no one in the novel has formal schooling, yet some minds race ahead while others are as lame as overriden horses. One sees other examples of this that I won’t share, because they spoil vital plot points.

It’s hard to say what you might expect going in, or what I expected going in, but whatever I expected wasn’t what I got. Usually novels about the west feel silly, pointless, and remote to me; this one is sophisticated, especially about ways of being and about gender relations. It’s never dogmatic, either: Augustus and Call are opposites in many ways, but the narrative voice never seems to choose one over the other as the two debate and act throughout the novel (in this respect the narrative voice is polyphonic, even if the characters think and sound characteristically similar).

The novel’s last sentences are strange and haunting.

There is enough in this novel to spend many years unpacking and experiencing it.

I fear to read the second one, for fear that the sequel won’t match the original, yet I also feel I have to do it.

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.

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