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).

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.

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