Links: Generational gaps, dating apps, writing and dreaming, tech intellectuals, and more

* “How Anthony Weiner Exposed the Insecurities of the 1960s Generation: A half-century after the sexual revolution, the make-your-own-rules folks are no longer quite so sold on free love.” This has Camille Paglia-esque overtones.

* Dating app Tinder catches fire.

* Conversations with John le Carré.

* “An Aspiring Scientist’s Frustration with Modern-Day Academia: A Resignation.”

* Margaret Atwood on books.

* “The Tech Intellectuals;” perhaps I am one?

* “The Patriarchy Is Dead Feminists, accept it.”

* More on the fight between science and philosophy, except that science wins so soundly that characterizing the debate as a “fight” is silly.

* ‘Think About Characters Like a Sphere’: How John Cheever Wrote Inner Turmoil.

Links: John le Carre, the writer’s temperament, condoms, slut shaming, desire, transport, and more!

* John le Carre’s complete works discussed; I am most of the way through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and am amazed at how good it is, and how taunt even repeated stories feel. I have started and sometimes completed le Carre’s novels from the last fifteen years but seldom liked them, even when I wanted to. There may be a fuller post here.

* David Brooks: “Engaged or detached?” “Writers who are at the classic engaged position believe that social change is usually initiated by political parties [. . .] the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. [. . . ] She fears the team mentality will blinker her views.” Read the whole thing because the context is important, but as a writer I lean heavily towards the “detached” point of view.

* How ‘Slut Shaming’ Has Been Written Into School Dress Codes Across The Country, which should be obvious yet isn’t.

* “Why still so few use condoms;” spoiler: because it doesn’t feel as good.

* “What do you desire?, possibly NSFW.

* “Nobody Walks in L.A.: The Rise of Cars and the Monorails That Never Were” but should have been. L.A., Seattle, and other places have begun to recognize the obvious about the limits of car-based transport.

* “Who Killed The Deep Space Climate Observatory?” This story, along with pathetic “Superconducting Super Collider” debacle, is the sort of thing that, if the U.S. really does take an intellectual and cultural backseat to the rest of the world, will be cited by future historians as examples of how the U.S. turned away from the very traits and behaviors that made it successful in the first place. “Who Killed the Deep Space Climate Observatory?” is also an example of how the real news is very seldom the news you read in the headlines.

* “Documentary ‘Aroused’ explores what makes women turn to porn careers.”

* “[A]rtists and writers love to cast gigantic stores as misbegotten cathedrals.” I’m guilty.

* Frank Bruni on Amanda Knox and pervasive sexual double standards, with the somewhat stupid title “Sexism and the Single Murderess.”

* Why many streets are ridiculously wide.

* The role of a dictionary. People (most often students) often refer to me as a walking dictionary and say that I must not need one, and I usually say the opposite: I often use dictionaries, and in my experience most people who work with words do.

The Spies of Warsaw — Alan Furst

The Spies of Warsaw suffers, probably mortally, from the inherent deficiency of historical fiction that depends on an outcome that has already been decided—and therefore none of the characters can stop or change it. In this novel, Mercier, a French military attaché in pre-World War II Warsaw whose adventures lead him, with the creeping horror of a science fiction protagonist discovering that aliens inhabit the bodies of his friends, toward the startling revelation that Germany intends to attack France through the Ardennes forest. In retrospect, of course, we know this, making the constant references to the mystery—”Just precisely what forest were the Germans thinking about?” (85), “Still, it was—oh, not exactly dangerous, France wasn’t at war with Germany […]” (135), ” ‘Newspapers on the continent explain every day why there won’t be war. And I assure you there will be, unless the right people determine to stop it.’ ‘I can only hope this meeting is a step in the right direction,’ Mercier said. ‘We shall see.’ ” (225)—grow old with repetition and obviousness. Dramatic irony ends too soon, and the dramatic irritation begins. Invented worlds of fantasy, or the equally fanciful and usually poorly written worlds of Tom Clancy, let us imagine that single individuals can control global destinies, but we don’t have this luxury to prevent or alter the course of World War II in a world that remain in the bounds of history.

For a historical novel to work, it needs to focus on the individuals or on how something came to be. If it relies on a well-known event to generate tension without focusing on how that event touches the people involved, we know the fundamental outcome and that it cannot be changed. The Spies of Warsaw doesn’t transcend its focus on the pre-war atmosphere, and we know the efforts of Mercier to raise the alarm in France have to fail. Sure, a perfunctory romance blooms from nowhere and everywhere between Mercier and Anna, and it happens with as little surprise as the invasion of Poland, but nonetheless tries to generate authentic feeling from too small a base; I’d take the James Bond, anti-Romantic mode of spy romance, in which the characters reflect the cold of international politics instead of acting as counterpoints. I could imagine a great novel with love as that alternative, but The Spies of Warsaw isn’t it.

That isn’t to say The Spies of Warsaw is unredeemed: the beginning and end move with swiftness the middle lacks, and bits of description are wonderful in their accuracy: “From some distant century, an ancient waiter in a swallowtail coat moved toward them, parchment face lit by a beatific smile, parchment hands holding a silver tray, which trembled slightly, bearing two glasses of champagne” (50). The word “ancient” might be overkill, but otherwise the subtle resonance between the elegant but decrepit waiter and the horror of Europe being overtaken by the barbaric young who don’t understand the lessons of past wars is strong, and the theme is well-developed. Others aren’t so carefully done, and when Mercier says, “You work for people, madame, and I work for people. Maybe they’re not so different, the people we work for” (165), the long shadow of John le Carré falls across another spy thriller that could be improved by dropping the now-obvious implication that the methods of the free West are similar to those employed by its authoritarian enemies—a subject that could make a great paper for college sophomores but is by now a standard trope of the spy novel. Whether the equivalent between Western and authoritarian regimes is an intentional or subconscious allusion to current events in Abu Ghraib and other black sites I don’t know, but the point has been made so many times elsewhere that to have it so bluntly reiterated is mere repetition, both from other books to The Spies of Warsaw and within it: “None of us are saints, my friends; we all watch each other, sooner or later” (181).

Elsewhere, the quiet dread and pathos of a letter from Jews elicits this: “Mercier read it more than once, thought about answering the letter, then realized, a sadder thing than the letter itself, that there was nothing to be said” (117). The alliteration of the “t” sound doesn’t give the sentence the musicality it could otherwise have, but the sentiment of a futile desire for decency is nonetheless powerful. Boring parties are well-described, especially given the stultifying rules so often governing them. The spying machinations are clever enough to be worth following but not so clever as to be cartoonish. Somewhere in Alan Furst there is, I think, a better novel gestating, and I hope one day to see it. Night Soldiers showed potential, but I fear that potential has yet to be fulfilled, and I can only hope it will be even as I suspect it won’t.

The Other Boleyn Girl and Starship Troopers

How odd it was, standing in a bookstore 7,500 miles from home and pondering the choices in a small but reasonably good English section of an airport bookshop. The most appealing books I’d already read: On Chesil Beach, The Golden Compass, The Name of the Rose (oddly enough, given that I’d read it on the first leg of the plane ride). The choices left dwindle to John le Carré’s* latest or Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. I take the latter, figuring that once I’ve read four or five of le Carré’s novels I’ve read them all. Earlier I described them as “trust no one and everyone, including you, is guilty of something, or would be in the right situation,” novels, and I eventually tire of their torrid, in-the-know sentences.

And so I chose The Other Boleyn Girl and came to a novel I dread writing about because it is awfully, unabashedly bad, filled with adverbs as egregious as the two I just used, and I was stuck with it for too many hours on a plane. Normally I would’ve stopped after a few chapters. Trapped as though in the Tower of London, I had nowhere to go but on with the story, reading endlessly of the narrator, Mary Boleyn, reminding herself of how she is a Howard, and having other characters constantly tell her that as well. Most of the characters speak in platitudes, as though aware of history’s spotlight on them, and yet the characters are simultaneously self-absorbed to a degree tiresome in anyone, including monarchs and their playthings.

Then there is the writing: on page six a “moment of pure envy swept through me,” and on 90 a horse is coiled like a spring. Adverbs proliferate like the plague and, worse for me, I just finished The Name of the Rose, a novel with a powerful, inflammatory inquisition scene that lights up like an inferno, while Gregory offers a brief, sputtering description on page 716 of my mass-market paperback. The theological discussions are similarly opposite, with The Name of the Rose like a gorgeous Ph.D. thesis and The Other Boleyn Girl like the musings of a pupil. There is much discussion of wit and little evidence of it, just as there is much discussion of what it means to be part of the family and little evidence of it meaning anything more than being part of a band of nitwit navel gazers.

There are bizarre anachronisms in the novel, as when characters use the term slut, which, as Geoffrey Pullum’s quote from the Oxford English Dictionary in this post on contemporary usage shows, slut has meant that “bad housekeeping, loose sexuality, general uppitiness and terms of endearment have been all mixed together since the middle of the 17th century.” The Other Boleyn Girl is set towards the beginning of the sixteenth century. Likewise, despite repeated references to skill in French and Latin, no characters display any knowledge of either language or its literatures; Anne’s linguistic ability extends to saying “Bien sur!” once. Indeed, the characters seem caught purely in their own times, as if history was absent and the future as well. No culture exists outside of mentions about Thomas More and jousting. If not for the device of the king and the mention of horses, this novel could be set in a frat house, or any number of contemporary settings.

All this is frustrating because The Other Boleyn Girl shows rare moments of genuine feeling, as when Mary acknowledges to her brother that she cannot wed the man she wants. These few evoking moments come amid the tedious descriptions of royal maneuverings that read like the post-season situation in basketball. By the end of the flight I wanted to take back all those snide thoughts about le Carré, who is by comparison a writer of tremendous greatness.

The other novel I bought during a layover back in the United States: Starship Troopers, which I think a family member has lying around somewhere but I also knew would make for good and quick reading. As a teenager I missed its political context, which startled me now because that is the entire novel. Sure, the politics are simplistic and lack even the depth of Stranger in a Strange Land, but I can see why arguments for independence and power appeals to boys. There are even flashes of Wilde-like aphorisms, as when a comment from the protagonist’s History and Moral Philosophy instructor is repeated: “He says that you are not stupid, merely ignorant and prejudiced by your environment.” Glimmers of tolerance in an otherwise militaristic novel appear, when the narrator says “But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Bugs are just stupid insects because they look the way they do and don’t know how to surrender.” Grudging, yes, but you get it.As I come back to Heinlein I see his many flaws and the reasons literati snub him, and were I to read him for the first time now I don’t think I would have much use for him. But for all his weaknesses he serves a need, much like the often-hated Ayn Rand. On a plane, when you’re inclined to skip over the more foolish discussions, Heinlein is pretty good—just as he is when you’re 12.

The title of this post may startle you, but there is a slim connection between a novel about sex and power in the sixteenth century and one about militarism and politics in the distant future.

I haven’t yet commented on The Name of the Rose, mentioned here, but that’s only because it’s so good that I both want to save the best for last and struggle to formulate something to say, as the novel is so vast that it’s hard merely to decide which aspects of it to discuss.

* For a fascinating essay on le Carré, see—as usual—B.R. Myers’ essay in The Atlantic.

Night Soldiers

I heard about Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers from Book/Daddy, whose comparisons between a writer as bad as the 1940 Russian winter like Tom Clancy and a much better, though not perfect, writer like Furst are accurate. For some still-inchoate reason I decided to read Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, whose style I called “straight from a poorly written technical manual on human emotion” and about “idiocy in war.”

Furst, in contrast, follows the John le Carré mold of thrillers with some thought. I’m not a reader of the genre, but I’ve hit some of the big posts: Raymond Chandler, who was a predecessor to many spy stories, and most of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, which I read in old paperback copies bought for $5 each from a small used bookstore in Oregon before they were reissued. Graham Greene is a favorite, although he is not a genre writer in the pejorative sense of the term.

I’ve only read le Carré where he was meant to be read: in airports, on planes, and in the other dead zones of time created by modern bureaucracies, during periods when I can ponder his easy “trust no one and everyone, including you, is guilty of something, or would be in the right situation” mantra until I’m interrupted by someone asking if I’d like a complementary beverage or cocktail ($5, $10 for a double). The message, if there is one, in Night Soldiers is closer to “once you start a thing, you may not be able to control it or what it does to you.” Or, as Tolkien said in The Two Towers, “[…] their coming was like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains.” In Night Soldiers the stone is Nikko Stoianev mocking local fascists in a Bulgarian village, who beat him to death and ultimately cause his brother, Khristo to flee with his helper or guardian (in the sense of Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), who is a communist. The cast rapidly expands and remembering people can become confusing as you try to remember who’s who of villains, potential villains, and friends, but the story is satisfying and brisk without losing its sense of place.

Sometimes Furst descends into cliche, but at other points he rings the bells of the time and the language he used to express it: “This might have been a deception, meant to sow suspicion among allies of wildly different passions: Basques and Catalans seeking their own nationhood, communists of several disciplines, anarchists, democrats, idealists, poets, mercenaries, and those moths who were forever seeking the flame of the hour in which to immolate themselves” (emphasis mine). The first the alliterative cliche “sow suspicion” caused me to suspect Furst’s skill, but it mirrors well enough the sound of forever […] flame, and that last metaphor is so wonderful that I’d forgive “sow suspicion” even were it not echoed later in the sentence. Yet then Goldman, a character about whom the group’s voice says “Give him an inch and he took a mile!” Three pages later, a steal from Orwell: “[…] they had discovered that in this egalitarian society some were decidedly more equal than others.” Another character has “thick sensual lips,” and I’d like to never again hear about a character’s lips or eyes. Khristo is compared to a pawn. The good writing outweighs the bad but also makes the bad more noticeable. Some characters also have a tendency to pontificate in a way more suited to a political tract than a conversation, but this too is forgivable, like the ceaseless pointing to the idiocies of Communists and Fascists ideology and results.

Book/Daddy says Furst is aiming for the movies with Night Soldiers, and if I was inclined to doubt that judgment the ending made me a believer. In addition, the byzantine characters, situations, and places melted together in the novel’s last section, such that I lost track of who was doing what and why and how they knew Khristo from hundreds of pages and ten years earlier in the Soviet Union. (Give me a break with that last sentence: it’s supposed to mimic the book’s structure.) Book/Daddy also says Furst has improved with time, and next time I have the misfortune of being on a plane for ten hours at a stretch, I’m going to skip le Carré’s airport paperback if I see Furst nearby.

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