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.

Briefly noted: Delta-V, Permission, and The Stand

* Delta-V by Daniel Suarez is an SF novel with an SF novel’s typical poor writing. The second chapter begins with the scene: “The United States Senate Appropriations Subcommittee…” is in Washington DC. Two paragraphs later, “Three US senators sat…” Well, yes: would they be Mexican senators? Or Knesset members? Can’t we assume they’re US senators? Clumsy writing on almost every page made me give up, like “That meant eighteen people were definitely going into space on Joyce’s dime. Tighe hoped to be one of those people.” Suarez doesn’t need “of those people.” These basic errors are representative, not cherry-picked. Don’t be fooled, as the interesting premise can’t be sustained into a good novel because of consistently low prose quality.

There are some good moments; in one scene, on the first asteroid to be mined, two characters discuss creating metal parts via chemical vapor deposition (CVD):

“It’s existed since Ludwig Mond invented it back in 1890.”
“I’ve honestly never heard of it.”
“Back on Earth it’s less toxic to just use a blast furnace. Up here in space, though, CVD is going to be critical for precision manufacturing.”
[…] “It’s like alchemy.”
“No, it’s better than alchemy—it’s science.”

A fine point too rarely encountered, and a high end to the chapter.

* Permission by Saskia Vogel, an okay book but its timeline seems somewhat random and muddled to me. Too many novels are in the improbable reaches of the movie/TV glamor industries; people substitute “hope” for wages in those industries, with results that are often not good. In this novel, a dominatrix conveniently moves next door to a woman who becomes interested in her. Rather than what you may be thinking, more of the novel is like this: “Everything inside me, ocean. I inhaled with both my nose and mouth, greedy for air, feeling my lungs expand. My body was mostly water, but only mostly, still” than like this: “I was wearing a semi-sheer basque with a matching thong. He buried his face in my cleavage,” but there is some of both—like life, one could argue.

You have to be okay with the one-sentence paragraphs:

Only her.
Only this.
Only now.

So deep, man, right? Pass the joint. I didn’t regret reading it but am not sure it’ll stick with me, or most people. You could say that Nine and a Half Weeks got there first and is still colonizing this territory.

* I read Stephen King’s The Stand when I was 11 or 12, and it holds up better than Robert Jordan but not as well as I’d like: it has moments—a rural cop describes how his wife “neatens” the cells, for instance, the word being wholly appropriate—but it has some howlers in it too, like the doctor who says:

They are the symptoms of the common cold, of influenza, of pneumonia. We can cure all of those things, Nick. Unless the patient is very young or very old, or perhaps already weakened by a previous illness, antibiotics will knock them out.

Colds and influenzas are viruses, not bacteria, and antibiotics don’t affect them. If anyone had a cure for the common cold, they’d be a billionaire. It’s conceivable that we could today have a vaccine for the common cold, but the regulatory structure put in place by the FDA doesn’t favor it.

Still, the paranoid style in it is depressingly modern (look for all the mentions of not just government failure but active malice), although in the novel the paranoia and distrust are correct. It could be contrasted with the movie Contagion in “Bureaucratic Heroism,” a great essay with an unlikely title. Today, it feels like a product of disillusionment from the Vietnam war. But excess skepticism may be as bad or almost as bad as excess trust.

It’s also still scary, when the prose doesn’t interfere with the fear.

The Song of Achilles — Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is extremely brutal at the beginning and the end, although for different reasons—though know some elements of the The Iliad already, this version is told from Patroclus’s perspective. He’s born to a woman who is “simple” but whose family tricked Patroclus’s father into marrying her. On the first page:

When I was delivered, a boy, he plucked me from her arms and handed me to a nurse. In pity, the midwife gave my mother a pillow to hold instead of me. My mother hugged it. She did not notice a change had been made.

Brutal for the child denied his mother’s affection and brutal for the mother who doesn’t realize what’s happened to her. One can view The Song of Achilles as a U-shape, with extreme brutality at the start and end. One can also view it as being about the process of learning to speak; when Patroclus is to be a suitor to Helen, he makes a declaration and then “I had no more to say. My father had no instructed me; he had not thought that Tyndareus would ask me to speak.”

Patroclus was a prince who becomes a nobody who becomes Achilles’ central relationship, and in the process becomes somebody by proximity. In this telling, Patroclus always seems wrong-footed, not a warrior and not with a place in the political world. He is Achilles’s friend and lover and maybe a stand-in for the reader everyman: the person not special, but in this case near the special one.

Like the poem it’s based on, The Song of Achilles eschews a lot of psychological interiority. Characters do things because they do things—the modern love of motivation is mostly absent. Whether this is good or ill I cannot say, though to me it seems foreign—intentionally so, I have to think. So do other ideas: “In our lands a bow was mocked as the weapon of cowards.” This is curious, as it’s also the weapon of winners; if you can kill the other guy before he can kill you, you win.

It’s notable that in the ancient world many people focused on warfare and few if any focused on innovation. To me, winning is, in most circumstances, more important than winning the right way. Not here. As a novel, The Songs of Achilles feels closer to the humans than The Odyssey feels, whatever The Odyssey‘s other virtues (for a story to be passed through millenia, it must have some vital virtues apart from age itself). Yet overall I don’t know what to do with The Song of Achilles. I neither love nor hate it, reading it to the end and having it echo still in my mind, even as many other books have faded. There is something here, I think, but I cannot say what. Figurative language is restrained and metaphors rare. I look for evocative passages and find few. The fault might be in me.

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.

Novels that turn on scientific or technical breakthroughs

Spoilers ahead.

Andy Weir’s novel Artemis and Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder are different in many ways, but apart from being excellent they both share an unusual point: their plots are driven by technological breakthroughs. In Artemis, the breakthrough is a zero attenuation fiber optic cable; the acronym ZAFO appears early in the novel and remains opaque until about halfway through. The “Artemis” of the title refers to a near-future moon base that is in economic trouble: there is little economic reason for humans to inhabit the moon apart from tourism, which is insufficient to sustain the base. The novel posits, however, that a technical breakthrough could lead to a massive new industry. The moon base’s administrator says:

Just imagine what a revelation that was for O Palácio [a Brazilian crime syndicate or mafia group]. All of a sudden, their insignificant money-laundering company was poised to corner an emerging billion-dollar industry. From that point on, they were all in. But Artemis is very far away from Brazil, and they had only one enforcer on site, thank God.

This passage is characteristic of the novel in another way: it’s not very attentive to language. Perhaps the character speaking would say “All of a sudden,” instead of the correct “All of the sudden.” Artemis has a lot of the bad language habits that MFA programs, whatever their flaws, tend to help writers avoid or ameliorate.

In State of Wonder, Marina Singh goes deep into the Amazon jungle to find her former supervisor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is continuing her own mentor’s research into a tribal group where the women have extended fertility. At the same time, Swenson is seeking an anti-malaria drug that may stem from the same source.

I’m trying to think of other novels that have a technical breakthrough at their core. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is one (the data haven at the end likely qualifies as a technical breakthrough). Yet I can think of few others. If you know any, please leave pointers in the comments. Perhaps more novelists should be thinking about how technological or scientific breakthroughs might power the plots of novels. Alternately, perhaps more novels do this than I realize, and I don’t have a good sense of other, similar novels that have been published.

Ian McEwan’s Solar is another one.

I can’t recall any 18th or 19th century novels that turn on technical breakthroughs.

“Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?”

The good guy/bad guy myth: Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?” is one of the most interesting essays on narrative and fiction I’ve ever read, and while I, like most of you, am familiar with the tendency of good guys and bad guys in fiction, I wasn’t cognizant of the way pure good and pure evil as fundamental characterizations only really proliferated around 1700.

In other words, I didn’t notice the narrative water in which I swim. Yet now I can’t stop thinking about a lot of narrative in the terms described.

A while ago, I read most of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and found it boring, perhaps in part because the characters didn’t seem to stand for anything beyond themselves, and they didn’t seem to want anything greater than themselves in any given moment. Yet for most of human civilization, that kind of story may have been more common than many modern stories.

Still, I wonder if we should be even more skeptical of good versus evil stories than I would’ve thought we should be prior to reading this essay.

 

Kingdom of the Wicked: Book One: Rules — Helen Dale

Kingdom of the Wicked is one of the best, weirdest, and most fascinating novels I’ve read in recent memory; I’m amazed that it hasn’t garnered more reviews, both from Amazon and the press. It takes a seemingly simple premise—what happens if the Industrial Revolution occurred in ancient Rome?—and combines it with an insurgent campaign against an occupying power in the Middle East and the appearance of Jesus. Is the occupying power good, evil, neither, or both? Kingdom refuses to yield simple answers, which is part of what makes it addicting.

Many sections resonate with very current events: “These men really do believe a ragtag army of insurgents can defeat the greatest military power the world has ever seen. The result will be a bloodbath, you know that better than me” could easily be taken from a news story about contemporary Afghanistan. Yet in the context of the novel, it defamiliarizes the tropes that appear so readily in the news.* We also know from the last 50 years of real history that ragtag armies of insurgents can defeat the greatest military power the world has ever seen, at least by some measures of “defeat.” But in Kingdom, that power isn’t the United States; it’s the Roman Empire in the period Jesus lived.

I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s prediction that The Name of the Rose would be read in at least three different ways; Kingdom can perhaps be read similarly:

The first category of readers will be taken by the plot and the coups de scène, and will accept even the long bookish discussions and the philosophical dialogues, because it will sense that the signs, the traces and revelatory symptoms are nesting precisely in those inattentive pages. The second category will be impassioned by the debate of ideas, and will attempt to establish connections (which the author refuses to authorize) with the present. The third will realize that this text is a textile of other texts, a ‘whodunit’ of quotations, a book built of books.

Kingdom is not a whodunit, and if it is a “textile of other texts,” I do not know those other texts well enough to detect their presence. But I do think Kingdom is a kind of textile of history, though I don’t enough Roman or Biblical history to perceive those patterns, either. David Lodge suggests regarding Eco’s categories that “there is an implied hierarchy in the listing of these kinds of reading, the most approved being the last. A fully appreciative reading must, however, combine all three.” So while I can speak to the plot and coups de scène, as well as the many resonances between imaginary past and actual present, I cannot grasp what may be the deepest level.

That being said, the first two levels offer much material. I will caution, though, that the book may feel slow and strange to start: many odd (to my American background) names appear in rapid succession and are hard to keep straight. Some, like Pontius Pilate, are familiar even to me from history. Many others are not familiar or not from history, and it is not always easy to keep Camilla, Claudia, Caiaphas, Cornelius (whose last name is Getorex, and he is referred to by the one or the other depending on context) and many others straight.

Yet I kept reading, and about halfway through I could not or would not stop. I wasn’t wholly attentive at the beginning, either, maybe due to reading on a bus—or because I couldn’t make up my mind about the book’s quality immediately. Then I finished and immediately began again, to see all that I’d missed or not understood. And there was much to find in a second reading. This reaction might be idiosyncratic, but I forced the book on a friend who had the same reaction: caught halfway through, she finished and turned back to page one.

She also observed that there are a lot of “really hot sex scenes.” That’s true, and they intersect with the political and military contexts beautifully. To say more would be to give away too much of the novel.

Beyond the plot and the correspondences between imagined world and present, many individual sentences are beautiful: “[Caiaphas’s] mind ran like a rodent on a wheel as he tried to think how he was to explain himself to Pilate.” “Like a rodent on a wheel:” that is sometimes how one feels when preparing to explain the inexplicable. This novel combines a turbulent plot with beautiful sentences, as too few novels do. The word “combines” features prominently in this review, for good reason. This book is a combination of many ideas in an unusual way. Unlike most novels, it feels very novel.

In this world, Christianity hasn’t happened yet, so there are no Christians. Islam comes many centuries later, so there are no Muslims; this allows Kingdom to deftly sidestep many current controversies. There are Jews and we’re in a land that corresponds geographically to the modern Middle East, here called Judaea, where the Roman soldiers are unhappy to be living amid cultural aliens. Most of the novel’s narrative perspective happens within Romans, but sometimes we get Jews, who see the Romans a little like modern Palestinians might see Israelis, or as Afghans might see Americans. One senses, perhaps wrongly, that the author sides with the Romans, just as one senses that Umberto Eco sides with William of Baskerville, but everyone gets a hearing. Courtrooms and lawyers frequently appear in Kingdom, so the notion of a “hearing” is not purely metaphorical.

Early in Kingdom, a Jewish cabbie is driving a Roman lawyer and notices the environment:

Whenever he saw Roman soldiers in dress uniform, he always had the same struggle to prevent himself from admiring them. When they were in the streets wearing their desert battle dress and coalscuttle helmets and heavy boots, one could despite them—the body armour even made them look non-human—but not when they wee preening like peacocks and charming the women who wished to reward the Empire’s warriors for their protective efforts.

“Body armour” can make modern soldiers “look non-human.” Many have argued that in the United States, “We Are The Empire” of the Star Wars films: culturally and militarily hegemonic, builder of massive war machines, masters of the physical world. In Kingdom we are Rome—yet we’re also the product of monotheistic religions. Yet even those monotheistic religions haven’t been sufficient to keep a libertine culture from growing; in Kingdom, the libertine culture is the majority culture and thrives in the mainstream; people want what they want and do what they do. In American culture, we often deny wanting what we want, and the next morning we deny what we did. We’re schizophrenic: simultaneously partaking and rebelling, affirming and denying, at war with ourselves, with self-denying, right-wing religious culture circling back around and sometimes combining with self-denying, fear-based left-wing feminist culture. It’s an odd world, if you really think about.

Fortunately or unfortunately, most of us don’t. Not actively. You don’t have to think too hard about the correspondences between our world and Kingdom if you don’t want to: the story itself keeps one’s interest. Speculative fiction readers may have an advantage here, because the world is extremely disorienting at first. Historical figures like Saul of Tarsus and Pontius Pilate appear, but people who don’t know the New Testament won’t necessarily see how strangely these figures are changed. And lots of people don’t know it: I was recently teaching Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and asked students about the famous historical-mythic figure who died at age 33. No one knew.

The novel switches perspectives often at first, but the narrative voice remains similar. It took me till about halfway through to get the characters straight and begin to piece together who everyone was and the main things that most characters might want. But the disorientation is the pleasant sense of being in a foreign place, much like Peter Watt’s novel Blindsight.

I mentioned the novel’s sex scenes. They’re tied to the Roman celebration of sensuality. Many characters notice each other in a way that real people do and fictional characters often don’t. Mary Magdalena, for example, is “a newsreader on JTN” and she is “bar none, the most beautiful woman” one character has ever seen. She is like Ben Yusuf in that she has something of the supernatural about her, so much so that “He could imagine her telling him to do something ridiculous and complying without hesitation.” In the Roman world, sexuality is highlighted rather than sublimated, and when Linnaeus is too intent on her, he says, “Please accept my apologies for staring at you like that.” She replies, “That is the best of Rome . . . You do not pretend.” A world where, if not everybody, then many people have such an attitude is a cultural change.

In the real world, the second-best-known pornographic movie is probably Debbie Does Dallas, which even has its own Wikipedia page (the first is of course Deep Throat, which is immortalized by its role in Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein, and the taking down of Nixon). In Kingdom, a movie called Deborah Does Damascus plays a similar role.

The sly winking to Deborah Does Damascus also reminds one of the novel’s frequent humor. Though that humor is hard to take from its context, I laughed out loud reading it and so did a friend. When the disorientation from entering Kingdom’s world subsides, be ready to laugh.

In the novel; there is a lot of argument about how “women are not free in their country;” maybe the novel is also an experiment asking what freedom, or some definitions of freedom, actually look like. “Freedom” means a lot of things, and it does seem like few people are actually free, or want to be. Even people who want freedom for themselves would often deny it to others; politically salient examples of this seem too obvious and numerous to cite.

If there is a single lesson from the novel it may be that governing is hard, culture is hard, and there is no way to make those problems not-hard.


* Here is Dale’s essay, “What if the Industrial Revolution happened in Rome?” and she is also on Twitter. Here is Mark Koyama, “Could Rome Have Had an Industrial Revolution?” I’ve seen very few American reviews of Kingdom, which is odd considering how good the book is. The next book is supposed to be out soon in “Early 2018,” but from what I can tell it isn’t yet available for pre-order.

I know almost nothing about Roman history but am now reading Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, which is readable, fascinating, and thus far recommended (although I can’t speak to its accuracy because I lack sufficient knowledge to do so).

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