Rapture — Susan Minot

I like Rapture but it’s not for everybody: it’s too focused on relationships, too explicit (though I would prefer the word “realistic,” many would disagree), too much about artistic educated urban people who want some things that are incommensurate with other things, too didn’t-Anna-Karenina-already-do-this?. It dissects the moment into a million little pieces, like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach; we experience a succession of moments in a rush, and in writing we can slow them, reexamine them, reexperience them, or experience them from a new vantage.

Still, to my mind it’s about three people who aren’t ready or able to leap towards the obvious relationship-structure conclusion, even if the wrapping around that core idea is Kay’s afternoon with Benjamin. The narrative perspective shifting from Kay to Benjamin and back. Their thoughts are not so dissimilar but retain dissimilar enough to retain interest. They think in similar ways, as perhaps people in similar milieus and with similar “wrong” desires might. Neither Benjamin nor Kay knows each other, like we all don’t really know anyone, and we get that from the first page:

He had no idea what had gotten her there.
He certainly wasn’t going to ask her about it. There was no way he was going wade into those dangerous waters and try to find out why she’d changed her mind…

Probably wise on his part. We also get a similar idea later on, midway through: “What did other people know about what really went on inside a person?” Some things are unknowable, and fiction likes to remind us of this.

A few pages into the novel, we switch to Kay’s perspective for the first time:

It was overwhelming, the feeling that this was pretty much the only thing that mattered, this being with him, this sweetness, this . . . communing . . . this . . . there was no good word for it.

(Ellipses in original.)

It raises questions: how much does “pretty much” elide here? And if this is “pretty much the only thing that mattered,” why do we spend so much time and energy doing other things, like building civilization? This is an analytic novel, so Kay doesn’t answer, but we might consider it as we read. I also don’t know what to do with later, similar thoughts, like “This was real, this was the most real thing.” Getting down to what is really real is tricky, and answers tend to vary based on the moment a person happens to be in. Are things that matter real? Are real things things that matter? I don’t know either.

Sometimes the vision is blank:

He shut his eyes. He saw the empty landscape. He knew he had to get out of bed and get going and soon, but he was mesmerized by this vision of emptiness. It was telling him something.

Maybe I like the novel because I’m working on one that uses somewhat similar narrative perspective on material that isn’t so different. We all fantasize about knowing what someone else is thinking, but only in fiction do we actually get to switch perspective to see. That fantasy is as potent as flying, and while we can fly via planes or rockets or other external apparatus, we never get to fly the way we do in our dreams.

Re-reading Cryptonomicon

It’s still excellent, and it’s so excellent that it’s one of the books I re-read when I can’t find anything good to read. The density of Cryptonomicon’s ideas and the strange (at first) construction of its plot makes it a particularly promising re-reading, since getting the full effect the first time through is almost impossible.

CryptonomiconThe novel is very fond of explaining things and so are its characters. “Things” seems like a vague, loose word here but it’s appropriate given the diversity of explanation. To list the topics that come up would be too tedious for this post but would be in keeping with the novel. Take one example, as a character explains startup financing in the ’90s:

We begin with nothing but the idea. That’s what the NDA is for—to protect your idea. We work on the idea together—put our brainpower to it—and get stock in return.

Except that, as we know now, ideas aren’t that important (the execution is important) and the best ideas are usually mocked at first. But the rest is pretty accurate, and the dialogue shows that the characters have ideas, share ideas, care about ideas, and fight over ideas. Ideas—actual ideas, as opposed to what many intellectuals think of as ideas—don’t appear often in novels. To the extent they do, ideas usually appear as grand abstractions tediously embodied in specific characters.

Skip some sections if they don’t speak to you the first time through; they may later, though the famous Cap’n’Crunch scene still does little for me, or to me.

Few books describe real nerd culture:

“You have jet lag now?” Goto asks brightly—following (Randy assumes) a script from an English textbook. He’s a handsome guy with a winning smile. He’s probably in his forties, though Nipponese people seem to have a whole different aging algorithm so this may be way off.
“No,” Randy answers. Being a nerd, he answers such questions badly, succinctly, and truthfully. He knows that Goto essentially does not care whether Randy has jet lag or not. He is vaguely conscious that Avi, if he were here, would use Goto’s question as it was intended—as an opening for cheery social batter. Until he reached thirty, Randy felt bad about the fact that he was not socially deft. Now he doesn’t give a damn. Pretty soon he’ll probably start being proud of it.

Conversation is a skill and it’s a skill most nerds don’t develop, which may be why they face troubles in dating. Nerds spend lots of time with machines and to some extent that time begins to shape their minds to think like machines.

The psychologies of innovators and deep thinkers may not be viable subjects for literary writers, or, if they are, I haven’t seen the fruit of those writers’ labor.

Most novels that are called “novels of ideas” are actually not. Finding a novel of ideas embedded congenially in a novel of intense action is unusual, especially when most novels of ideas are actually novels of navel gazing. Cryptonomicon also violates many of the rules one hears from MFA types and is useful for that reason: many “novels” are not actually novel.

Copies are available for $.01 on Amazon (which means $4 with shipping), and that’s a steal.

Where does personality come from?

In “Sentences to ponder, The Strong Situation Hypothesis,” Tyler Cowen quotes from a study:

This hypothesis, based on the work of Mischel (1977), proposes that personality differences are especially like to be outwardly expressed in “weak” situations offering no clear situational clues and a wide range of possibilities as to how to behave. Conversely, individual differences are expected to have less room for expression in “strong” situations where the choice of behavioral outcomes is severely limited and where everyone is bound to behave in a similar way.

That’s especially interesting to me because I’ve long said that many literary novels are concerned with family, love, politics, and the like because those are open-ended domains that tend to be places where personalities can be expressed. In many “flat” thrillers, by contrast, there is one obvious right thing to do (stop the bad guys, don’t let the nuclear device go off, etc.) and the only important question is whether the thing can be accomplished and how it can be accomplished. In that respect personality becomes backgrounded to the task at hand. The interior mental state of the characters become binary: They succeed or they fail. Their sense of interiority isn’t that important.

In a genre like science fiction one can see the thriller model at work in a novel like The Martian, in which survival is the only important question, and the broader model at work in a novel like Stranger in a Strange Land, or in many others. In real life, the kind of music a person who is starving to death likes is not very important, but the kind of music a person who is on a date likes may be very important.

Alternately, one could say that personality is a relatively high point on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (whatever the other deficiencies of the hierarchy model).

(In another world, this point could be part of the “Character” chapter in How Fiction Works.)


I wrote a little more about this here, previously, in 2011.

My next novel, THE HOOK, is out today

The HookMy latest novel, The Hook, is out today as a paperback and Kindle book. It’s even available on the iTunes Bookstore for the masochists among you. The Hook is fun and cheap and you should definitely read it. Here’s the dust-jacket description:

Scott Sole might be a teacher, but outside of school hours he likes to think he lives in the adult world. That’s why he indulges his sometime-girlfriend’s request to install an adjustable length hook in his apartment wall—of the sort appropriate for hanging people, not paintings. The project goes so well that, at her urging, he writes a blog post about it. Nobody cares about Scott’s blog—until three students find the post and think they can use it for their own purposes.

Each has a motive: Stacy wants to find out if there’s any truth in the whispers that Scott and her older sister had an affair during her sister’s senior year; Arianna thinks she can use it to weasel out of a semester-long writing assignment; and Sheldon wants a way onto the school newspaper to pad his college application. At the same time, one of Scott’s former students returns to his classroom as a student-teacher with a crush on her supervisor. But as accusations fly regarding the blog post, his students, and the rest of Scott’s less-than-perfect life, Scott discovers that once rumors begin, they’re as hard to stop as dirty pictures on the Internet. They might not just cost him his job, but his freedom. It turns out that a good hook can keep you reading, hold up a kinky girlfriend, and hang your career all at the same time.

My last novel, Asking Anna came out on January 17, 2014. In the last year I’ve quit some things and started others; written about a quarter of my next (likely) novel; read a lot; almost died; and wrote down too many ideas to execute in the next twenty years. But the Asking Anna announcement post is similar to this one, and everything I wrote then is still true:

I’ve been writing fiction with what I’d call a reasonably high level of seriousness since I was 19; I’d rather not do the math on how long ago that was, but let’s call it more than a decade. It took me four to six false starts to get to the first complete novel (as described in slightly more detail here) and another two completed novels to finish one that someone else might actually want to read. Asking Anna came a couple novels after that.

What else? Other writers warned me about bad reviews. They were right that I’d get them, but they were wrong about my reaction: I mostly view bad reviews as entertainment. This “review” may be the best in that respect: “This is surely one of the worst books I have ever read.the author envisions himself as being cerebral by using vocabulary that does not even have any place in the story.” I’m not sure how anyone would envision the author of a novel envisioning himself just through reading the novel in question, but life on the wilds of the Internet entails some pretty confusing commentary.

I’d also like to thank everyone reading this who bought a copy of Asking Anna, and everyone who has bought or is going to buy a copy of The Hook. Books exist to be read. It’s because of your support of Asking Anna that I’ve been able to bring out The Hook. If you’ve gotten this far, let me suggest that you stop by Goodreads and leave comments there.

Defining fiction

“The relentless definition of feelings, states, and relationships” could be one definition of literature.

I’m reading Paul Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, and it includes this: “In Cathy’s flat I always feel like a guest at the very out limit of her welcome.” It’s a brilliant description of a feeling I’ve both had and inflicted on others and never thought explicitly about before. The description, while brilliant, is also brilliant like millions of similar descriptions in millions of other books; I’m not singling it out because it’s extraordinary, but because it’s ordinary, and for whatever reason it triggered in my mind the description that composes the first paragraph of this post.

Why we like characters who battle institutions

David Brin’s “Our Favorite Cliché: A World Filled With Idiots… or Why Film and Fiction Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools” is great, and you should read it. He observes that novels, TV shows, and movies routinely depict heroic individuals standing up to corrupt or evil institutions or organizations. This tendency is “a reflex shared by left and right” to associate villainy with organization. Moreover, “Even when they aren’t portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted.” Brin notes some exceptions (Contagion is another, and the link goes to an article titled “Bureaucratic Heroism”), but those exceptions are exceptionally exceptional.

Nonetheless, I’d like to posit a reason why institutions and organizations are often portrayed as evil: they behave in ways that are evil enough with shocking regularity, and few of us have the means or fortitude to resist broken, evil, or corrupt institutions. The most obvious and salient example, much taught in schools, is Nazi Germany; while some individuals fought against the state murder apparatus, the vast majority went along with it, leading pretty much everyone who learned afterwards about the Holocaust to ask, “What would I do in that situation?” Most of us want to think we’d be heroic resisters, but the push to conform is strong—as the Milgram Experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s research shows. The Soviet Union murdered tens of millions of its own citizens.

Other examples exist closer to home: the Civil Rights movement fought corrupt institutions in the U.S. All the President’s Men exposed criminal actions, cruelty, and simple mendacity at the heart of the White House. The Vietnma War got started based on the invented Gulf of Tonkin. More recently, the Bush Administration made up evidence (or incompetently accepted made-up evidence) to justify the Iraq War. On a smaller basis, many of us have gotten caught in various nasty government bureaucracies in schools, universities, or elsewhere. Here’s one example from Megan McArdle’s struggles with the DMV.

Brin observes:

Now imagine that your typical film director ever found herself in real trouble, or the novelist fell afoul of deadly peril. What would they do? They would dial 9-1-1! They’d call for help and expect — demand — swift-competent intervention by skilled professionals who are tax-paid, to deal with urgent matters skillfully and well.

He’s right. I called the cops when a random asshole pounded on my door and threatened to kill me. They did show up (albeit later than I would’ve hoped!) and did arrest the guy. I’m grateful to them and for the police in that circumstance. But a lot of us are less grateful to cops, as reading Alice Goffman’s amazing book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Police as an institution have largely failed inner cities. Ask black people about their interactions with the police, and you’ll get a very different view of police than that of many white Americans.

So we may be getting stories of (exaggerated) institutional incompetence both due to history and due to everyday experience with institutions that (sometimes) don’t work well. Nonetheless it’s worthwhile for those of us who write stories to contemplate the truth of Brin’s observations about cliché on the level of plot, because we should try to be aware of our own dependence on cliché and to break that dependence whenever possible.

Nick Hornby in New York City for “Funny Girl”

Nick Hornby spoke at the Union Square Barnes and Noble on Wednesday, in support of his novel Funny Girl, parts of which he read and supported the claim to comedy in the title. Comedic writers may in general read more successfully than other sorts of writers, or perhaps Hornby is unusually engaging. His talk and the book suggested that perhaps obsession makes us interesting and shows who we are, though Sophie, the protagonist of the novel, has nothing in its beginning save what she wants to become.

Nick HornbyFunny Girl is well-observed (“He said that the bevy of beauties in front of him—and he was just the sort of man who’d use the expression ‘bevy of beauties’—made him even prouder of the town than he already was”) and a keen sense of absurdity shadows the opening of the novel (which is all I can comment on so far).

At one point Hornby said that “Acquiring a family of choice is the dream, isn’t it?” but the challenge of a family of choice may be that it is easier to choose to leave such a family than a genetically intertwined family. Some of his talk also implicitly asked why collaboration is simultaneously so hard yet so essential; the book explores that question on an interpersonal level but per Peter Watts it may also apply on a cellular level.

The audience questions were as usual mumbly democracy in action, but Hornby, like T. C. Boyle, seemed to like or fake liking them. Many, many of them took photos with their cellphones held up high, as depicted above; many saw Hornby through their phones as much as their eyes.

On a separate note, Hornby’s novel High Fidelity holds up well and among other things implies that lists are a way of eliding criticism, real knowledge, and rhetoric. This description however makes it sound boring when it is not.

Hornby Funny GirlHere is a Slate interview between Hornby and Dan Kois.

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