The Seventh Function of Language — Laurent Binet

The Seventh Function of Language is wildly funny, at least for the specialist group of humanities academics and those steeped in humanities academic nonsense of the last 30 – 40 years. For everyone else, it may be like reading a prolonged in-joke. Virtually every field has its jokes that require particular background to get (I’ve heard many doctors tell stories whose punchline is something like, “And then the PCDH level hit 50, followed by an ADL of 200!” Laughter all around, except for me). In the novel, Roland Barthes doesn’t die from a typical car crash in 1980; instead, he is murdered. But by who, and why?

A hardboiled French detective (or “Superintendent,” which is France’s equivalent) must team up with a humanities lecturer to find out, because in the world of The Seventh Function it’s apparent that a link exists between Barthes’s work and his murder. They don’t exactly have a Holmes and Watson relationship, as neither Bayard (the superintendent) or Herzog (the lecturer) make brilliant leaps of deduction; rather, both complement each other, each alternating between bumbling and brilliance. Readers of The Name of the Rose will recognize both the detective/side-kick motif as well as the way a murder is linked to the intellectual work being done by the deceased. In most crime fiction—as, apparently, in most crime—the motives are small and often paltry, if not outright pathetic: theft, revenge, jealousy, sex. “Money and/or sex” pretty much summarizes why people kill (and perhaps why many people live). That sets up the novel’s idea, in which someone is killed for an idea.

The novel’s central, unstated joke is that, in the real world, no one would bother killing over literary theory because literary theory is so wildly unimportant (“Bayard gets the gist: Roland Barthes’s language is gibberish. But in that case why waste your time reading him?”). At Barthes’s funeral, Bayard thinks:

To get anywhere in this investigation, he knows that he has to understand what he’s searching for. What did Barthes possess of such value that someone not only stole it from him but they wanted to kill him for it too?

The real world answer is “nothing.” He, like other French intellectuals, has nothing worth killing over. And if you have nothing conceivably worth killing over, are your ideas of any value? The answer could plausibly be “yes,” but in the case of Barthes and others it is still “no.” And the money question structures a lot of relations: Bayard thinks of Foucault, “Does this guy earn more than he does?”

Semiotics permeates:

Many is an interpreting machine and, with a little imagination, he sees signs everywhere: in the color of his wife’s coat, in the stripe on the door of his car, in the eating habits of the people next door, in France’s monthly unemployment figures, in the banana-like taste of Beaujolais nouveau (for it always tastes either like banana or, less often, raspberry. Why? No one knows, but there must be an explanation, and it is semiological.)…

There are also various amusing authorial intrusions and one could say the usual things about them. The downside of The Seventh Function is that its underlying thrust is similar to the numerous other academic novels out there; if you’ve read a couple, you’ve read them all. The upsides are considerable, however, among them the comedy of allusion and the gap between immediate, venal human behavior and the olympian ideas enclosed in books produced by often-silly humans. If the idea stated in the book and the author’s behavior don’t match, what lesson should we take from that mismatch?

Trick Mirror — Jia Tolentino

I read one of the essays in a magazine, but the book as a whole is dubious. Take the introduction: she writes that she wrote the book “between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018” which was, she says, “a stretch of time when daily experience seemed both like a stopped elevator and an endless state-fair ride, when many of us regularly found ourselves thinking that everything had gotten as bad as we could possibly imagine, after which, of course, things got worse.” “As bad as we could possibly imagine?” That’s a real deficit of imagination, then. As bad as things were during the Cuban Missile Crisis? As during the Able Archer exercise, which the Soviet Union almost took as preparation for nuclear war? As bad as even the Great Recession in 2009? Has Tolentino and “many of us” read Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment now?

Tolentino writes that one of her essays is “about ‘optimization,’ and the rise of athleisure as late-capitalist fetishwaear.” First, athleisure is not, to my knowledge, associated at all with fetish sexual practices (I could be wrong on that but didn’t see any citations or experiences to the contrary in the essay). Second, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen “late capitalism” intelligently defined, or that I’ve ever read a sentence that was improved by including the phrase. How do we know we’re in late capitalism? Is it possible we’re experiencing early capitalism? She later writes that our world is “utterly consumed by capitalism.” What’s that mean? What’s the alternative? We’ve seen examples of the state directing all or almost all economic activity (the Soviet Union, Venezuela), and the result is not good.

It’s also neither clear nor evident that “capitalism” is the best way to analyze many of the Internet platforms. To the extent capitalism involves monetary exchange, I don’t pay Twitter and Twitter doesn’t pay me; same with Facebook or Google. If I’m a business, advertising, I might. And if you don’t like the social media advertising business models, you can also host your own blog. That almost no one does, tells us something, but it’s something Tolentino doesn’t want to get to.

There are assertions like “Mass media always determines the shape of politics and culture.” Really? “Mass media?” Why not technology? Or why don’t politics and culture shape mass media? What way does the causal arrow run?

A while ago, “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now” appeared:

As Arts & Letters Daily puts it, “When did campy misandry become contemporary shorthand for communicating one’s feminist bona fides?” A favorite line: “Having a relationship is a lot like writing: To be good at it, you have to be interested in other people and believe you have something interesting to offer them in return. Many people who pursue either do so poorly because they are actually interested only in themselves.”

You can apply a lot of “Nice for What’s?” analysis to Trick Mirror, but with “the Internet” (exalted and degraded, parent and child, god and satan) standing in for men. Trick Mirror is a very well done version of the Brooklyn hipster writer worldview. Whether that worldview is correct, I will leave to readers.

It’s always been hard to make it in the arts. In some ways, the Internet makes it harder (the supply of writing, video, and photo is way up); in some ways, it makes it easier (it’s possible to become visible in a way that wasn’t in 1980). Today, writing is an incredible secondary skill but a harder primary skill: I see that in Seliger + Associates, where the blog is now a primary marketing mechanism. I also see it in the way every third English major I knew tried to make it as a freelance writer after college. Excess supply relative to demand has predictable effects on prices.

As a reader, the Internet is great: cheap books in the world’s largest used bookstore (finding ones really worth reading is the hard part). Niche interest books are written and made available like they couldn’t be before.

Many people take to the Internet to complain about the Internet. We can choose to live predominantly offline. What should we infer from the fact that many of us, including, it seems, Tolentino, choose not to?

As is too common, the author needs to read more evolutionary biology. Who are women competing for? Why? How does women’s intrasex competition tend to work? Then do the same with men. Many of the answers are out there, but they’re rarely discussed in MFA and English programs. Trick Mirror is a book partially about unexamined assumptions that nonetheless seems to import an awful lot of unexamined assumptions of its own. It’s got a better book lurking inside it, and that’s why it’s frustrating. A bad book is easy to dismiss and a good book is easy to love.

Almost all the reviews I’ve read have been too dutiful and too fawning. Over time it’s become apparent that many book reviews are written for insiders and by insiders, so the exceptions stand out.

City of Girls — Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls is Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, and it’s well-summarized by its protagonist’s comment on a play: “To my mind, there was never anything better than those simple, enthusiastic revues. They made me happy. They were designed to make people happy without making the audience work too hard to understand what was going on.” If you want a fun story about being young in the 1940 – 1960 area, with lots of sporting that doesn’t involve a foot-, basket-, soccer-, or ping-pong ball, this is that book. Had someone less famous written it, it likely wouldn’t have been noticed, but that’s not the case, so it has been, or is being, noticed. There’s some weak prose and many interesting moments, and the beginning effectively and rightly tells you not to work too hard, only for you to realize by the end that you’ve been deceived. It tells you not to work too hard and to have fun instead frequently: “People will tell you not to waste your youth having too much fun, but they’re wrong. Youth is an irreplaceable treasure, and the only respectable thing to do with irreplaceable treasure is to waste it,” lest you forget. And it lulls you. I was lulled. In a lot of books, characters focused on frivolous and intense pleasures get a comeuppance; in this one, they just have a good time, a bit like Funny Girl.

There’s a lot of great dialogue, which I can be a sucker for:

“Isn’t it your theater, Peg?”
“Technically, yes. But I can’t do anything without Olive, Billy. You know that. She’s essential.”
“Essential but bothersome.”
“Yes, but you are only one of those things. I need Olive. I don’t need you. That’s always been the difference between you.”

Almost no character says what they mean and means what they say, delightfully. Yet early comedy moves into later pathos, and this is a paragraph, from the end of the novel, expressing ideas we see expressed too infrequently in the Internet, social media age:

In that moment, I felt overcome by a sense of mercy—not only for Frank, but also for that younger version of myself. I even felt mercy for Walter, with all his pride and condemnation. How humiliated Walter must have felt by me, and how dreadful it must have been for him to feel exposed like that in front of someone he considered a subordinate—and Walter considered everyone a subordinate. How angry he must have been, to have to clean up my mess in the middle of the night. Then my mercy swelled…

It seems there are many stories passed around online that could do with a little bit of mercy and understanding—thoughts and emotions hard to fit into a Tweet. Twitter is low-context medium, novels are full of context, and life has the most context of all, if we can notice it.

The playhouse where most of the novel occurs is like a startup: “I had nobody to report to and nothing was expected of me. If I wanted to help out with costumes, I could, but I was given no formal job.” Except in a startup, every duty is expected of everyone, but the lack of formality is because without constant effort, nothing happens. There are things I didn’t know exist—what exactly are “doeskin trousers?” The eye for fashion is novel to me. It’s not a type of leather, as I’d assumed: “It is similar to duvetyn, but lighter; usually softer and less densely napped than melton.” That clears things right up.

Most of all, City of Girls is about what it means to be a child versus an adult—an idea I missed the first time through. The adults pay for their fun with personal responsibility; the kids don’t, or don’t quite, and learn to deal with responsibility for frivolity and pleasure. Vivian is a kind of early Karley Sciortino, without some aspects of sex-positive modern culture to fall back on.

The book is humane: it doesn’t feel political and almost none are purely types; the absence of outright villains and heroes refreshes. The characters’s many weaknesses are not signs of evil, but signs of humanity. Weaknesses don’t cancel a person’s existence, particularly because weaknesses are often the flipsides of strengths. On some level these points are obvious, yet we seem to forget them easily, particularly but not exclusively on the Internet.


A so-so interview with Gilbert.

Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero — Tyler Cowen

The question underlying Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero is, “How can problems best be identified and solved?” (Although the book is much more interesting than my question may imply.) Sometimes individuals acting alone are the best agents; sometimes groups of individuals who agree to be lassoed together under a corporate aegis are the best agents (that is a long way of saying “business”); sometimes government(s) are the best agents, depending on the type, scale, and fixability of the problem(s). Many political arguments are essentially arguments that want to move problem domains or solutions from one of these classes to another.

Pages 22 – 23 deal with industries that exist despite selling products that, at the very least, likely don’t do what proponents say they will do—industries like dentistry, stockbrokers, sales reps, and food. The food industry is particularly notable, as a lot of food is what Michael Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances.” Another way of looking at those products, though, is that they’re selling hope or reassurance, and people like buying hope much more than they like buying evidence-backed products. Consumer Reports is not all that popular and their evaluations rarely if ever go viral. Perhaps most importantly, a lesson from industries Cowen cites, like dietary supplements, is that most people have bad epistemic hygiene—and, in most circumstances, don’t care about it. I spent much time attempting to teach undergraduates research strategies and how to evaluate claims and sources, and most of the time I wasn’t very successful. It took too long for me to realize that, rather than start with peer review, publication reliability, and that kind of thing, I need to start with a question: “How do you know what you know?” From there, it’s possible to build out towards epistemic hygiene, but the overwhelming majority of students seemed not to give a shit, and, indeed, if you go around asking normal people questions like, “How do you know what you know?” they will at best look at you strangely and at worst leave to talk to someone else about fun topics—at least, I speculate that that may happen.

Human rationality is often not that strong, and we like to give ourselves reasons for our failures while castigating others for theirs. People working in businesses are often engaging in similar activities and ways of arguing.

“How do you know what you know?” is a context question, and Cowen is a great expert in context. He asks us to “step back and consider what standard we are measuring business against. The propensity of business to commit fraud is essentially just an extension of the propensity of people to commit fraud.” The problem is mostly within us, rather than in the specific structures of business.

The chapter “Is Work Fun?” resonates:

I am not trying to whitewash the burdens of the workday and the workplace. Nonetheless, a lot of the other evidence points us toward the more positive side of work. Work provides us with a lot of what we value in life, including affirmation of our social worth, a structure for problem solving combined with rewards, and an important source of social interactions [. . .]

Yet we can rarely say as much in public or among our friends. Why not?

This paragraph is also characteristic of Cowen’s thought, where words like “but” and “nonetheless” play key roles. He’s really trying to get us to rejigger our levels. The “burdens” are real, but so are the benefits, even if those aren’t emphasized. Cowen is great at connecting ideas that are underemphasized and not often foregrounded. Chapter 9 asks us, “If Business Is So Good, Why Is It So Disliked?” Many possible answers are advanced. I will add one that I didn’t see or that I missed: it is easier to blame abstract “business” than ourselves.

I want to quote the book’s last sentence and paragraph but would prefer you to experience it after reading all of Big Business.

One chapter discusses tech companies; many of the criticisms against tech companies are misguided, as you’ve read here. More vitally, I see those criticisms as really being criticisms of individual people. If we, collectively, wanted to, we could all switch to DuckDuckGo for search—a boon for privacy—and many of us could be using Linux as a primary desktop operating system, especially today, when so much software is delivered via the browser. Dell offers high-quality Linux laptops, and using Linux is probably an improvement for privacy; homing beacons and tracking seem much less prevalent in open-source software. Yet most of us—including me when it comes to Linux—don’t choose the privacy-focused option. We don’t choose free software. We choose convenience. Is that the fault of tech companies or individual choices? To me, it looks a lot like we see the faults of tech companies when we look in the mirror in the morning. The number of people who really care about freedom, broadly defined, seems to be small, and far smaller than the number of people who say they care about freedom. Most people want convenience more than freedom or privacy, just as most people want junk food more than they want physical health. To return to my photography examples, most people want greater sharing convenience than the best image quality or artistic effect.

It’s possible to imagine an even more pro-business book than this one; a company like Amazon is amazing, for example, in that what I order, almost always shows up, and it’s convenient too. Contrast that with the many dealings I’ve had lately with New York’s tax office; I could go into detail, but the reader would likely want to stab their eyes out, as I have often wanted to do.

Cowen touches on alternatives to for-corporations:

Another possible way to test the honesty of business would be to compare nonprofit and for-profit organizations. If you think profits induce corruption, you might then conclude that nonprofits should be especially trustworthy. The evidence, however, will show that for-profits and nonprofits, at least if we are comparing enterprises in the same basic economic sector, usually operate in pretty similar ways.

This has been my experience; it’s also apparent to me, having worked for nonprofits for years, that nonprofits are much more like businesses than most people realize. I’ve also spent a lot of time working in and around universities, and they are the ultimate businesses: just try taking classes for grades if you can’t pay tuition. Try returning a low-value, high-cost degree. For a while I’ve been advancing the argument that many parts of the university system are self-interested (and sometimes just bad) actors that have great marketing skills. Most people react to that argument skeptically, but as evidence of student loan burdens grows, the skeptical reaction seems to be declining.

I’m not against nonprofits and the best ones are very important. The science research function at most universities still works fairly well, despite having some well-known incentive problems. The gap between university-in-theory and university-in-practice, though, remains wide, and most universities don’t want to publicize some obvious truths—like the idea that not everyone should go, or that not everyone has the conscientious and IQ necessary to thrive in an academic setting.

Among nonprofits, one possible purpose of the grant system is to keep nonprofits both honest and effective. It is possible to be honest without being particularly effective, and vice-versa. Ideally one wants both. Few of us do both perfectly, despite the way we often demand that others do both perfectly.

One chapter asks whether CEOs are paid too much: Cowen mostly says no, they’re not, and he cites a lot of empirical evidence on the subject. But he also says, “it’s hard to find someone who can both run the day-to-day operations of a company and do these other things [like social media and PR, communication, Congressional and other testimony].” I wonder if it’s really hard to find people who can do those things, or if there’s a kind of weird selection and vetting process going on through which only a small number of people are considered by the relevant people, and thus the number seems smaller than it is because those doing the selecting won’t broaden their search criteria. Think of it as the CEO equivalent of companies that only want to hire from certain schools that reject as many qualified applicants as they admit. I also wonder what level of compensation, if any, is necessary for satiation: many CEOs seem to reach, and to have reached, that level long before. Can we shift from money to some other yardstick? If so, how?

Is the business world changing faster than it used to? If so, is agility more important than it used to be? Many businesses may not be “set it and forget it” anymore (if they ever were). My personal favorite example is camera companies: standalone camera shipments have been dropping for the last six years, and the response of photo company CEOs has mostly been to shrug. No companies have made substantial efforts towards making their camera bodies into smartphones combined with superior image sensors. As a result, Apple and Google have come to dominate the imaging and video worlds, while camera makers seem to lack the agility necessary to compete. In many consumer industries, competition seems to be increasing; to cite another example I’m familiar with, large bike companies like Trek are facing a host of Internet startups like State, Priority, and numerous others that source direct from China and Taiwan. Innovators in electric bikes have not been the biggest companies. Low agility may result in eroding market share and profits. The future is happening and it doesn’t seem to be happening evenly, to everyone.

The modesty of many Big Business claims stand out: “[CEO pay in the aggregate] could be better, but it works much more effectively than many people think.” “Much more effectively than many people think” could still be not all that effective; in this and in many other sections, Cowen is trying to move the needle a bit. He’s describing situations with a large number of potential analogue, intermediary places, and in this he’s moving against the modern Twitter tendency to see things as binary: good or bad, zero or one, shit or brilliant. Most of things in the most of the world are in this intermediary space, including all humans, however virtuous all Twitters may portray themselves to be (in contrast to their vile enemies).

Big Business is much more story-based than one might expect from Cowen, who argues that we should be more suspicious of simple stories. Fortunately, Big Business is not a simple book.

As with all the Cowen books I’ve read, there’s much to think about and much more I could write here; he is very good at finding the space where “rarely argued/articulated” and “possibly correct” intersect. Common arguments and ideas are common, and incorrect or ridiculous ideas are common, but finding the Cowen quadrant is too rare. I sometimes worry that my own ideas are too common to be worth repeating. Finding ones that hit the Cowen quadrant is satisfying, like a deadlift PR.

The world is filled with problems and our goal as humans is to solve them until we die. We very rarely see life formulated in that way, but maybe we should say this explicitly more often. “What problems have you solved recently?” may be a more valuable question than, “What do you believe?”

Digital Minimalism — Cal Newport

All of Cal Newport’s books could be titled, “How to Be an Effective Person.” Or, maybe, “How to Be an Effective Person In This Technological Epoch.” Digital Minimalism is, like Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, about why you should quit or drastically limit the digital distractions that have proliferated in much of modern life. To me, it seemed obviously necessary to do so a long time ago, so there’s a large component of preaching-to-the-choir in me reading and now recommending this book. I’m barely on Facebook or most other social networks, which seem anathema to doing anything substantive or important.

A story. A friend sent me an email about Newport’s article “Is email making professors stupid?” I told him that, even in grad school, I’d figured out the problems with email and checked it, typically, once per day—sometimes every other day. The other grad students were in awe of that (low?) rate. I was like, “How do you get any writing done otherwise?” I leave it as an exercise to the reader to square this circle. You may notice that some of my novels are out there and their novels are not.

In my experience, too, most profs actually like the distraction, the work-like feeling without having to do the hard part. In reality, it is not at all hard to open your email every other day and spent 90%+ of your time focused on your work. If you don’t do this, then, as Newport says, “The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.” And yet many of us, as measured by data, do just that. I buy many of Newport’s arguments while also being skeptical that we’ll see large-scale change. Yet we should seek individual change; many of the online systems are psychologically bad for us:

The techno-philosopher Jaron Lanier convincingly argues that the primacy of anger and outrage outline is, in some sense, an unavoidable feature of the medium: In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs that positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy Internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity—a steep price that many don’t even realize they’re paying to support their compulsive connectivity.

Is “the primacy of anger and outrage” really “an unavoidable feature?” I like to think not; I like to think that I try to avoid anger and outrage, making those tertiary features at best, and instead I try to focus on ideas and thinking. So I like to think that I’m avoiding those things.

Still, compulsive connectivity online may also be costing us offline, real-world connection. That’s a point in Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, which you should also read.

The book describes how modern social media systems and apps exploit our desire for random or intermittent positive reinforcement. Because we don’t know what we’re going to get anytime we boot up Twitter or similar, we want to visit those sites more often. We lose perspective on what’s more important—finishing a vital long-term project or checking for whatever the news of the day might be, however trivial. Or seeing random thoughts from our friends. Newport doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t have friends or that social networking systems don’t have some value—he just points out that we can derive a huge amount of the value from a tiny amount of time (“minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them more more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make life good”). But our “drive for social approval” often encourages us to stay superficially connected, instead of deeply connected.

In the book, we also get visits to the Amish, suggestions we take a 30-day break from digital bullshit, and case studies from Newport’s readers. I don’t think “Solitude and Leadership” is cited, but it might as well have been.

Another version of this book might be, “opportunity costs matter.” If there’s anything missing, it’s a deeper exploration of why, if many digital social media tools are bad for us, we persist using them—and what our use may say about us. Perhaps revealed preferences show that most of us don’t give a damn about the intentional life. Probably we never have. Maybe we never will. Arguably, history is a long drive towards greater connectivity, and, if this trend is centuries, maybe millennia, old, we can expect it to continue. Many older religious figures worried deeply that technologies would take people away from their religious communities and from God, and those figures were actually right. Few of us, however, want to go back.

For a book about craft and living an intentional life, the paper quality of this book is oddly bad.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe — Chris Taylor

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe isn’t bad but the writer relies overmuch on cliche: “James’s wartime story was enough to make my jaw hit the floor when I met him” or “I must have seen that Star Wars poster a million times.” I kept taking my pen to the book, as there is a better one waiting to unlocked from this one. But the middle section, especially about the creative process that went into Star Wars, is very interesting and even redeeming; the book feels rushed to press, maybe to hit a deadline or because the writer needed the advance money, which is too bad: I’m reminded of Thomas Ricks’ description of the Churchill and Orwell rewrites. Had How Star Wars received the same it might have been a great examination of where art comes from.

Instead, it’s okay, and you have to wade through some tedious chapters. One wishes Taylor had had more time. He loses the war against cliché. He writes of “a genre that liked to recycle plots.” Arguably all plots are recycled, at an appropriate level of abstraction. Famously, few of Shakespeare’s plots are his own. We get many statements about plot like every story being about “A stranger comes to town or someone leave town.”

Some of the best writing comes from others:

Normally, when this most private man [Lucas] goes into public at a press-attended gathering, he wears the face best described by Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, who compared Lucas to a small-town banker: “impeccably polite and implacably distanced, as though fearing you might ask an inappropriate question or request a loan.”

Odd, though, that “editor in chief” isn’t “editor-in-chief,” right?

The close reading of the original script, versus the shooting script, begins on page 111 and continues from there. It’s an impressive section that’s too long to quote, and it’s impressive because of Taylor’s close reading of everything wrong in the original that goes right in the later versions. Lucas’s then-wife, Marcia, played a critical role in the process. Lawrence Kasdan worked on the second two movies. Lucas alone would have created a disaster; he’s like raw iron that needs to be alloyed to create steel. Marcia Lucas and Kasdan helped unlock the good version within; the three “prequel” movies released after the original three were so bad in part because Lucas accepted almost no outside influence and had the money to do whatever he wanted. “Infinite resources” turned out to be a drawback rather than a virtue for him. The parallels between the writing of this book and the making of the movie are notable.

The real question is unanswered, and unanswerable: why did George Lucas do it, and not thousands or millions of others? Why do so many people attempt and fail to do what he did? We don’t find out; likely, we can’t find out.

Here is an article, better written than the book, that covers some of the information. If you deeply like Star Wars or are deeply interested in creative processes (I’d count myself among the latter), this book is for you. Those casually interested in either should read elsewhere.

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.

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