Briefly noted: Decoded – Mai Jia

Decoded suffers in comparison to Cryptonomicon, a novel whose explanations of cryptography are brilliant. Both novels, interestingly and perhaps significantly, start with the parents or grandparents of the nominally central characters. There are comments about the nature of stories:

It all happened so long ago that everyone who saw her suffer and die is now dead themselves, but the story of the terrible agony that she endured has been passed down from one generation to the next, as the tale of an appalling battle might have been.

How much are we to trust stories “passed down from one generation to the next?” Maybe only as little as we are to trust that cryptographic protocols have been properly implemented. The woman giving birth in this passage was part of a rich clan that, like most rich clans, can’t maintain its structure over time, since, “very few of the young people who had left were interested in returning to carry on the family business.” The family doesn’t get enmeshed in the new government, either, at least until the “hero,” Rong Jinzhen, comes along.

I’m looking for some evocative quote to give a sense of the writing, but it feels flat and there is very little dialogue. Perhaps I’m missing something as Tyler Cowen finds its compelling.

How to Sell — Clancy Martin

How to Sell works, or at least the first half does while the second descends to melodrama. It’s a novel of surfaces and not an easily quotable book. The narrator notices but doesn’t do up the descriptions:

I should have known that as soon as the pitch started Jim believed the lines he was throwing me. It’s like being an actor or prime minister, you get all worked up with the audience and you think can can say nothing false or unbelievable.

How to sellOne could say many professions involve lying as a central component of the work; one could say that science does the opposite and is one of the only fields in which lying, while possible, is at least also discoverable. In How to Sell the narrator and his brother, Jim, work the jewelry business in a pre-Internet age, though I’m not sure how much the Internet has changed that business.

How to Sell starts with an Elmore Leonard-esque word slide: “Our father told it that Jim was caught dressing up in my grandmother’s black Mikimotos when he was scarcely two years old.” He “told it?” To who, when, how? It doesn’t matter since we don’t find it, but it and that weird “scarcely” tell us that the narrator isn’t quite level and maybe the story won’t be either.

It isn’t, not really, and much of the discussion revolves around who is lying (everyone) and who isn’t (no one, not really, including the narrator). Yet a lot of people want to be lied to and put themselves in a position to be lied to and then others do the lying and justify it, as Jim explains:

Look, Bobby, the appraisal is not a lab report. [. . .] We are not calculators, we are people and so are our customers.

W’re people and we want to be lied to. The people who want the truth take the time to learn how jewelry works and the rest take the bullshit the salesman tells them. But information has a cost and so in some circumstances it’s easier to just do it without paying attention to the niggling gaps between details; a lot of romantic relationships function on the same principles as selling jewelry, as the novel makes clear since it is about how the one activity is a metaphor for another. Jewelry is a potent metaphor here because it’s also unnecessary: no one dies because they can’t wear it. As a pure luxury item it is sold as glamor, and one element of glamor is a lie plausible or well-presented enough to be believed.

No one in this book should be married or in a monogamous relationship, yet many characters are and their dilemmas would go away if they could undergo that simple change. But they can’t, or won’t.

Characters are constantly giving bad advice. One, a man named Kizakov, says “In this business, always trust your eyes.” Except that eyes can be deceived, which is why humans build so many tools to augment what we can see. Our senses should be verified rather than trusted; in this way do they also resemble lovers? In that domain broken promises may not be the norm but the evolutionary and other pressures are so strong that everyone at least knows stories about crumbling and breakage and base metals.

Jim gives brotherly advice: “Sometimes it’s better to stay on the surface with somebody.” People who say that often mean, “Stay on the surface with me.” Jim is a man of surfaces more than most people, and when he stays “on the surface” he means that he’ll do what he wants, when he wants it, and you’re only “in” with him to the extent you can do something for him. For men that means selling and for women that not surprisingly means something else.

The owner of the store, Mr. Popper, has a post-modernist view of the truth, as when he says that “It don’t really matter [what’s real and what’s fake], so long as she’s done right.” The similarities to love are again obvious; the bad outcome for Mr. Popper is also not surprising.

A few other points: Clancy knows enough about the jewelry business to describe it or learned enough about the jewelry business to fake it. There is substance amid the love lines and too many novels forget that. The second half of the novel is less about the technical facets of the jewelry business and that’s part of why it is weaker.

* There is more in common with selling jewelry and religion than is commonly supposed.

* To some extent no one knows anyone and that fact continues to drive fiction.

My novel, Asking Anna, is out today

Wordpress cover image-3My first published novel, Asking Anna, is out today as an eBook; the print book should follow next week. It’s fun and cheap and you should definitely read it. Here’s the dust-jacket description:

Maybe marriage would be like a tumor: something that grows on you with time. At least that’s what Steven Deutsch thinks as he fingers the ring in his pocket, trying to decide whether he should ask Anna Sherman to marry him. Steven is almost thirty, going on twenty, and the future still feels like something that happens to other people. Still, he knows Anna won’t simply agree to be his long-term girlfriend forever.

When Steven flies to Seattle for what should be a routine medical follow up, he brings Anna and hits on a plan: he’ll introduce her to his friends from home and poll them about whether, based on their immediate judgment, he should ask Anna. But the plan goes awry when old lovers resurface, along with the cancer Steven thought he’d beaten, and the simple scheme he hoped would solve his problem does everything but.

Asking Anna is a comedy, in the tradition of Alain de Botton’s On Love and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, about how the baggage you bring on a trip isn’t just the kind packed in a suitcase.

I’ll be writing more about Asking Anna next week. 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.

People who don’t write novels are often surprised to hear about aborted and unreadably bad novels, but producing a few before finding the knack is a pretty common trajectory among writers who, again, produce work that someone else might actually want to read (this may sound like a low standard, but even hitting it is much harder than is widely supposed). It takes a long time to really figure out how to tell a story and how to use the primary tool authors use to tell stories (words) effectively. It’s also hard to find other people who can a) know enough to give good feedback (which doesn’t mean “nice” feedback), b) who are sufficiently sympathetic to what you’re trying to do to not dismiss it outright and c) are interested enough to really talk about writing in general and one’s work in specific.

The preceding paragraph may be getting too far into the weeds of novel writing, but everything in it was a surprise to me when I finally figured it out, and surprises are often worth sharing and worth writing about.

Counterpoint to the sex-plot post: Jenny Diski on The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

It’s intellectually important to acknowledge being wrong and to look for ways you can be wrong and yet very few people do this or do it honestly. I probably don’t do it honestly either, but I will still post a long quote that somewhat contravenes my recent essay “The sex plot: a discussion for novelists and readers:”

the great open space of sexuality permits all the possibilities of abjection, power, narcissism, pleasure-seeking, dour determination, creativity and mechanisation. It would be very hard to devote such a great deal of life and thought, time and effort to it as Millet does without getting it all pretty much confused. Everyday pornography is linear in order to keep a single idea afloat in an ocean of polymorphous potential. Sexuality gets out of hand, it runs rampant with meaning unless you keep to a very firm remit. The sexual story can transform from pumpkin to princess to swan with injured wing and back again in the blink of a thought. It is a nothing, an empty arena, that might be everything. And everything is more than we can cope with. The obsessive, fetishistic, single account that pornography provides is what keeps sexuality within bounds. Here is the danger of writing the sexual life: you lose the boundaries unless you steadfastly restrict yourself to the detail. At times Millet seems to be attempting to do this, but again and again, like a painter who writes explanatory notes over her picture, she tries to explicate, to flesh out the doing with her intellect, and then the sexual life is shown up for the kaleidoscopic and random playground of ideas it is.

That’s from Jenny Diski’s 2002 review of The Sexual Life of Catherine M; if sexuality is “a great open space” that “permits all the possibilities of objection, power, narcissism” and so forth then sex plots really can or should propel a lot of fiction. Diski’s view (I believe she is speaking for herself here and not describing the memoir in question) is not necessarily incompatible with the essay but certainly it feels different, especially with the way she says that “sexuality gets out of hand, it runs rampant with meaning.”

A subject or person or feeling that “runs rampant with meaning” could be one surprisingly complete definition of art, which may also encourage “the kaleidoscopic and random playground of ideas” that nonetheless must be somehow restricted if a work of art is going to take any form at all. Art without some form does not exist, like a platonically perfect work of art that never goes further than conception. Execution is everything.

Still, I’m not sure that sexuality can really get “out of hand” and run “rampant with meaning,” at least in terms of the physical act itself, because there are a limited number of physical acts and, in practical terms, a limited number of partners and configurations. Contrast this with, say, science: there doesn’t appear to be any obvious limits to the things that people want or the weirdness of the present universe. That doesn’t mean that sexuality doesn’t usually interact with other parts of life, but in the modern Western world I’m not sure that sexuality and relationships need to be the primary focus of so many novels.

The sex plot: a discussion for novelists and readers

I wrote to a friend:

I wonder about the extent to which novels in general are continuing to have trouble with sexual liberalization; so many major novels in the canon deal with that topic, but it’s much harder to use those tropes in a permissive age.

He replied: “This intrigues me, but I’m not sure what you mean. Can you elaborate?”

Yes!

The novel as a genre has tended to thrive on sexual repression, and has used steadily increasing sexual liberation as fuel for plots. Leslie Fiedler wrote about this in Love and Death in the American Novel, and Tony Tanner wrote about it in Adultery and the Novel. In taking courses about the novel as a genre, I was struck by how many times I heard or read phrases like, “X pushed the limits of the sexual mores of his / her day,” where X is any number of writers ranging from Richardson to Flaubert to Dreiser to Roth and Updike. (Weirdly, however, the Marquis de Sade has always been lurking beneath the history of the novel as a genre, mostly unacknowledged and often hidden from the reading public).

But working against sexual repression as such doesn’t really work so well as a plot device anymore because the barriers are mostly down. If you’re over age 18 today, you can more or less do whoever you want as long as they’re not under 18. This may be why professor-student plots are somewhat popular: it’s one of the few forbidden-but-plausible-and-not-gross relationships left.

There are only so many sexual lines one can cross, and too many books like 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, to make the mere crossing of the few lines left all that interesting. When an entire society is set up to repress, re-channel, and control sexuality, a novel like Lady Chatterley’s Lover is shocking. In our society, it’s not. Today, if you want it, go get it—just don’t make promises you can’t keep. It’s not hard to live a life of constant sexual novelty and most parts of society won’t really censure you, provided that you don’t marry someone else, and even then lots of people divorce.

It’s much harder to get wring major consequences from affairs and what not. Don’t want to cheat? Don’t get married. It’s not impossible to use sex and romance plots—my to-be-self-published novel, Asking Anna, is a comedy about such subjects—to get material from these fields, but it’s a greater challenge than it used to be, and hard if not impossible to shock. A novel with the sexual politics of Stranger in a Strange Land wouldn’t have the same shock-value today then it did when it was published, though actually now that I think about it I still think it would raise a few eyebrows.

Some genres, like science fiction, don’t rely on sex plots as much, but even in SF sex plots are still often present. The growth of murder mysteries and thrillers may also represent some veering from sex plots, since premature death is still a big deal and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

On a separate but related note, it also seems that many “literary” writers borrow SF-ish ideas. Think of Ian McEwan’s Solar. Not a great novel, but I liked a lot of what McEwan was doing by meshing discovery, politics, social ideas, environmentalism, science, and a not-very-nice character into one bunch. It’s McEwan, so the writing is good on a sentence-by-sentence level. The technical descriptions are also interesting and too uncommon in novels. I like the idea of writing about intellectual, social, technical, or business discovery as a motive. It’s underutilized as a driver of plot.

One section of Paul Graham’s essay “The Word ‘Hacker’” addresses this point and continues to have a profound impact on me:

Hacking predates computers. When he was working on the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman used to amuse himself by breaking into safes containing secret documents. This tradition continues today. When we were in grad school, a hacker friend of mine who spent too much time around MIT had his own lock picking kit. (He now runs a hedge fund, a not unrelated enterprise.)

It is sometimes hard to explain to authorities why one would want to do such things. Another friend of mine once got in trouble with the government for breaking into computers. This had only recently been declared a crime, and the FBI found that their usual investigative technique didn’t work. Police investigation apparently begins with a motive. The usual motives are few: drugs, money, sex, revenge. Intellectual curiosity was not one of the motives on the FBI’s list. Indeed, the whole concept seemed foreign to them.

Most novels focus on money, sex, revenge. Why don’t they focus more on intellectual curiosity: perhaps how intellectual curiosity relates to money, sex, revenge, and similar topics? That seems like a fruitful avenue, especially because we might be moving towards a world where many people’s material needs are met, making money less immediately important; though of course many people are still driven by keeping up with the Joneses, in large swaths of the industrialized world we have plenty of money and plenty of stuff.

(A relevant side note about money: Among people interested in “game” and picking up women, it has become a common observation that additional money above the amount needed to buy drinks, dress reasonably well, and live independently doesn’t do much help most guys. A guy making $50,000 a year and a guy making $200,000 a year are mostly on a level playing field, and if the guy making $200,000 has to work 60+ hours a week, he’s at a disadvantage. Personalities and tenacity count far more than incomes, all else being equal. This could be seen as a variant on one of Geoffrey Miller’s points in Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.)

I don’t see money, sex, or revenge—and motives for revenge usually reduce to money and sex—becoming unimportant as long as humans remain humans and not brains in vats or on chips, but intellectual curiosity and a sense of wonder and discovery should be more emphasized in narrative. I think the tedium of Jonathan Franzen’s novels can in part be explained by the tedium of his characters: if those characters had a greater sense of discovery and possibility, they wouldn’t be so annoying. The other day I was listening to a friend describing single electron chain reactions in photosynthesis and how she misses research and life in the lab. It’s very interesting stuff, and the sort of thing that is rarely really discussed in novels.

But it should be!

Plus, the progression of science, technology, economics, and the attitudes that go along with them have ameliorated a lot of the money-revenge resource-distribution fights that used to define every aspect of human existence, instead of most aspects of human existence. To the extent major societal problems in the future are going to be solved—most obviously involving energy, but certainly involving other topics too—the solutions are going to come from intellectual curiosity and the intellectually curious. Maybe we, collectively, should be thinking about art that cultivates and glorifies those traits, instead of art that cultivates or glorifies simple status domination, or the ability to be cooler than the other guy or girl.

Another Paul Graham quote, from “How To Make Wealth:”

Making wealth is not the only way to get rich. For most of human history it has not even been the most common. Until a few centuries ago, the main sources of wealth were mines, slaves and serfs, land, and cattle, and the only ways to acquire these rapidly were by inheritance, marriage, conquest, or confiscation. Naturally wealth had a bad reputation.

Two things changed. The first was the rule of law. For most of the world’s history, if you did somehow accumulate a fortune, the ruler or his henchmen would find a way to steal it. But in medieval Europe something new happened. A new class of merchants and manufacturers began to collect in towns. Together they were able to withstand the local feudal lord. So for the first time in our history, the bullies stopped stealing the nerds’ lunch money. This was naturally a great incentive, and possibly indeed the main cause of the second big change, industrialization.

A great deal has been written about the causes of the Industrial Revolution. But surely a necessary, if not sufficient, condition was that people who made fortunes be able to enjoy them in peace. One piece of evidence is what happened to countries that tried to return to the old model, like the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent Britain under the labor governments of the 1960s and early 1970s. Take away the incentive of wealth, and technical innovation grinds to a halt.

People still steal to get rich, and even more people make many movies and write many books about stealing, along with efforts to thwart thieves. Making stuff people want is, again, an under-explored avenue. It’s also harder to represent dramatically. The movie The Social Network does this successfully, albeit at the expense of accuracy; most of the important parts of Facebook actually happened in the heads of Zuckerberg and other programmers, not in interpersonal drama.

Still, The Social Network works as a movie, and it does something very different than yet another version of Fast & Furious, which is about sex, power, tribal loyalty, and blowing shit up—like most movies (sample from the link: “Like any reasonable person, I watch the Fast and the Furious film franchise primarily for its insights into moral philosophy and political economy. At a fundamental level, the franchise is about what Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard identifies in The Sources of Normativity as the ‘intractable conflicts” that arise from our conflicting practical identities'”). I like Solar despite its flaws in part because the protagonist, Michael, makes his money and gains status by discovering something that may turn out to be essential in solar panels.

Solar and The Social Network don’t deploy straightforward sex / family plots, and that’s refreshing. They’re part of an answer to the question of what happens in a world where you can, if you have sufficient skill or are sufficiently desirable, sleep with anyone who’ll have you? Because that’s the world most people above the age of 18 or 19 find themselves in. Marriage rates are dropping. Arguably the most interesting parts about marriage and children right now are economic: what’s happening with alimony and child support, and how those issues affect behavior and emotions.

Moreover, for the highly sexually experienced—people who’ve had their share of three-ways, sex work, group sex, etc.—the sex plot is going to be dull. Juvenile. If you’ve slept with five people in a week, agonizing over who you’re going to sleep with for the rest of your life isn’t going to seem that important. It’s going to be more important that you find someone who loves you but who also has an sufficient level of adventure compatibility. Arguably a more interesting question is what it takes to be a highly desirable person, which a lot of romance novels appear to be exploring (strangely enough) and how to become that desirable person if you aren’t already. Becoming the sort of person who can get the man / woman / men / women of your dreams is often more interesting than the immediate process of getting him / her / them.

Sex plots need a sense of the sacred attached to sex, along with the dangers of pregnancy that can be ameliorated by IUDs and other forms of birth control. Danger used to generate sacredness. Most people today still don’t want their significant others to sleep with random people, even though many obviously do anyway, but taking away or reducing the risk of pregnancy also reduces the fear and risk of affairs or multiple partners. One reason Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs) got written is not just because of the affairs Plump and her husband have, but because he knocks up the other woman, or the other woman deliberately gets knocked up by him. Women tend to fear that their man will impregnate another woman and thus split his resources / time / affection, and men tend to fear that their woman will be impregnated by another man and thus stick them with the costs of raising another man’s child. While these fears can obviously be alleviated by the judicious use of birth control, not everyone is diligent about birth control and deeply seated fears aren’t always allayed by modern technologies laid over atavistic drives.

The highly adventurous and experienced probably don’t represent a hugely overwhelming portion of the general population, but they probably represent a portion that is either growing or coming out of the closet. Through divorce and other means, many people are already leading a serially monogamous and/or hypocritically adventurous life, though perhaps because they are bad at anticipating what temptation and desire feel like in the moment and good at rationalizing. The only thing missing is intellectual honesty, which may itself be rarer than fidelity.

There will probably always be challenges in admitting to fantasies or taboo desires, and it will probably always be difficult to find another person with roughly similar tastes, predilections, and preferences, but I’m not sure how easy it is to build a novel around those ideas. That question might be best answered in novel form.

Once you get away from the sex plot, where do novels go? Martha McPhee’s Dear Money is one successful recent example. Cryptonomicon is another. Solar, which I mentioned before, is a third. Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is a fourth. More writers need to get this memo, and more readers need to use their attention to direct writers towards topics that matter instead of those that have been exhausted by the tradition.

Further discussion:

* Sexting and society: How do writers respond? Sample:

Questions like “What happens when people do things sexually that they’re not supposed to? How does the community respond? How do they respond?” are the stuff novelists feed on. They motivate innumerable plots, ranging from the beginnings of the English novel at Pamela and Clarissa all the way to the present.

Pamela and Clarissa are interesting as historical documents, but it’s not easy to project the modern mind backward into the dilemmas of someone with a very different set of social and intellectual concerns.

Rereading Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity

I still laughed aloud many times at High Fidelity, although the jokes are almost all context-dependent and so can’t be quoted without causing a quizzical look that says, “You really think that’s funny?” Flipping through it doesn’t yield anything obvious, but I kept smiling at many moments. This is the closest I can get:

There were some nights with Laura when I’d kind of nestle into her back in bed when she was asleep, and I’d be filled with this enormous, nameless terror, except now I have a name for it: Brian. Ha, ha. OK, not really a name, but I can see where it came from, and why I wanted to sleep with Rosie the pain-in-the-arse simultaneous orgasm woman, and if that sounds feeble and self-serving at the same time—oh, right! He sleeps with other women because he has a fear of death!—well, I’m sorry, but that’s the way things are.

Rob’s voice and attitude carry the book, as does the writing, which is largely about nothing yet still moves rapidly from incident to incident, creating plot, which is easily overlooked in novels like this, such as Wilson’s Flatscreen. The continuous happening in the plot contrasts with the non-happening in many of the characters’ lives.

There are moments of astute observation too, as when Laura says “sometimes you need someone to lob into the middle of a bad relationship like a hand grenade and blow it all apart.” Which is true, even if the hand grenade is often made out to be the bad guy (or girl) in the relationship. Often the grenade is the bad guy. But sometimes he (or she) is the catalyst for doing what should have been done long before. When big, life-changing transitions stop happening on a regular basis, (from high school to college, college to grad school and/or work), it becomes distressingly easy to slip into a single path and lose the willingness necessary to make radical changes, whether in work, the mind, or love.

Rob basically knows as much:

None of us is young anymore, but what has just taken place could have happened when I was sixteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. We got to adolescence and just stopped dead; we drew up the map then and left the boundaries exactly as they were.

Life changes even if you don’t. This should be obvious. It takes Laura to tell him what he should already know; when Rob asks “So what should I be doing?”, she replies:

I don’t know. Something. Working. Seeing people. Running a scout troop, or running a club even. Something more than waiting for life to change and keeping your options open. You’d keep your options open for the rest of your life, if you could. You’d be lying on your deathbed, dying of some smoking-related disease, and you’ll be thinking, ‘Well, at least I’ve kept my options open.’

She’s right. Whatever else you’re doing, you should be doing something. But Rob doesn’t, mostly, and as a result his problems are largely self-imposed. He says:

It’s only beginning to occur to me that it’s important to have something going on somewhere, at work or at home, otherwise you’re just clinging on. [. . .] You need as much ballast as possible to stop you from floating away; you need people around you, things going on, otherwise life is like some film where the money ran out, and it’s just one bloke on his own staring into the camera with nothing to do and nobody to speak to, and who’d believe in this character then?

Rob lacks that intellectual ballast. He only listens to music and doesn’t play; at his level of obsession, connoisseurship and taste should pale compared to making (Rob hooks up with an American singer named Marie and says of her place, “thrillingly, there are two guitars leaning against the wall.” He could have two guitars leaning against his wall, although I think one would suffice). Still, I am struck by the extent to which many YouTube videos can be reduced to “one block on his own staring into the camera with nothing to do,” except talk to an audience that isn’t present. Jenna Marbles is a useful approximation of this idea.

There are moments of poignance and useful articulations of the obvious, as when Rob says:

You run the risk of losing anyone who is worth spending time with, unless you are so paranoid about loss that you choose someone unlosable, somebody who could not possibly appeal to anyone else at all.

Being overly fearful of loss increases the likelihood of loss, and Rob is disproportionately anxious. As a college student dating Charlie Rob is “fretful about my abilities as a lover,” and fifteen or so years later he is still fretful about his abilities as a lover. Eventually shouldn’t he just let the anxiety go and figure out what he’s doing? Though he apparently hasn’t in his economic life so perhaps his love and economic lives reflect each other. Rob is a sort of what-not-to-do when it comes to women. He even says, “There are still enough of the old-style, big-mouthed, self-opinionated egomaniacs around to make someone like me appear refreshingly different.” That might work for him, but the big-mouthed egomaniacs are the way they are because what they do tends to work (link is text but potentially NSFW).

For a guy who thinks a lot about his love life, and pop songs that are almost entirely about love, sex, and romance, Rob appears to know very little about actual women. Most pop culture, however, appears to be highly misleading on this score, which may explain why a pop-culture junkie like Rob is or has been highly misled. People who don’t make a concerted effort to learn about actual women. But this is true of much narrative art, especially American narrative art.

In my reading over the last few days, I’m struck by how much more pathetic Rob seems: as I said before, his problems are largely self-imposed, or imposed by his personality, and the solutions also must come from within. Rob fears the women he’s attracted to, like a fifteen-year-old; he goes to a small gig where Marie plays and afterwords she sells CDs: “We all buy one from her, and to our horror she speaks to us.” Most guys are happy to be talking to the people they’re attracted to, and the same obviously applies to women.

In addition, High Fidelity feels like a period piece: Rob owns a record store in an era when CDs and records are mainstream, and people who want to hear a particular song must track down a physical copy of it. Though I was born into that era it feels very long ago and foreign. So does the difficulty of getting ahold of people through the phone. The default state of more people as “alone” then. Computers are almost totally absent. It also feels highly PC, as when Rob recounts “a terribly unsound joke” that is only mildly funny and not really offensive. Why qualify it by saying that it’s “terribly unsound” when it’s not and when interesting humor by its nature is “unsound,” using Rob’s definition?

Summary Judgement: Sweet Tooth — Ian McEwan

For a novel about a spy, Sweet Tooth is surprisingly slack. Maybe it’s slack in defense of realism. The cause eludes me, since the writing is as customarily crisp as the story isn’t. Excellent quotes are easy, from the first page, with this description of Serena’s father, an Anglican Bishop: his “belief in God was muted and reasonable, did not intrude much on our lives and was just sufficient to raise him smoothly through the Church hierarchy and install us in a comfortable Queen Anne House.” The parents are distant to the point of barely believable indifference: much later in the novel, Serena thinks, “Would the Bishop even notice I’d been away?” She’s free of parents, like an orphan in a 19th Century novel or a teenager in a contemporary TV show.

That doesn’t detract from the aforementioned beauty, like this, to go back to the second page: “We liked to think of ourselves as bad girls, but actually we were rather good.” Serena, on learning about the difficulties of writing, “went for important walks,” the silliness and accuracy of the phrase “important walks” working so well to conceptualize her state of mind and what many people with intellectual dispositions end up doing.

But the beauty of sentences eventually feels like backdrop when a second or third act fails to develop. The novel ends with a great, revisionary secret, the sort of secret that powers PhD dissertations more often than it does readerly love. We’ve seen these surprise techniques before—most notably in Atonement, but also, after a fashion, On Chesil Beach.

Like many writers, including this one, McEwan, through Serena, is at least interested in and perhaps obsessed by what reading and books do to people. Serena works in books as much as she’s a spy and sleeps with authors (which is the sort of practice I’d like to encourage). She notes what she reads and how she reads it. The book becomes about a love of books, but it does so to the point that the occupant of this book becomes dull. What does the book talk add up to? I’m a person sympathetic to books and book talk, but in Sweet Tooth the answer is “not much.” It becomes easy to lose focus midway through. Sure, for Serena, reading is how she both constructs and understands her world, but then you have to, you know, go do something. That’s not to say that she isn’t artful or funny. Consider this problem, about Jeremy, Serena’s first lover who turns out, predictably, to prefer men:

I wanted him to have a secret and shameful desire that only I could satisfy. I wanted to make this lofty, courteous man all mind. Did he want to smack my backside, or have me smack his? Was he wanting to try on my underwear? This mystery obsessed me when I was away from him, and made it all the harder to stop thinking about him when I was supposed to be concentrating on the maths. Colette was my escape.

Colette was her escape, but into what and from what? From mysteries? From something she can’t quite articulate, perhaps. And Serena, as a narrator, is also willing to ostentatiously tell us that she’s older and wiser now: “What I took to be the norm—taut, smooth, supple—was the transient special case of youth. To me, the old were a separate species, like sparrows or foxes. And now, what I would give to be fifty-four again!” This intrusion of the future self reminds us that we’re reading something from the future of events, with two pairs of eyes: the eyes of the undergraduate Serena and the eyes of the much older Serena, imagining her younger self from a position of greater articulacy and knowledge. Done too often, though, it becomes tedious. The notes in my copy trail off as the novel advances, and as I hope for Serena to become more than an acted-upon reporter of events. Her own life feels like it happened to someone else. Later in the novel, much later, the reason for this is revealed. But the view at the end of a long trail doesn’t always redeem the journey. The reason is clever, cerebral, not expected and not forced, and doesn’t make me want to read Sweet Tooth again, unless the next reading is part of some academic project about the usual sorts of academic things.

Serena says this of her reading habit:

All thanks to my mother, I didn’t stop reading. I’d never read much poetry or any plays at school, but I think I had more pleasure out of novels than my university friends, who were obliged to sweat over weekly essays on Middlemarch or Vanity Fair. I raced through the same books, chatted about them perhaps, if there was someone around who could tolerate my base level of discourse, then I moved on. Reading was my way of not thinking about maths. More than that (or do I mean less?), it was my way of not thinking.

Reading can be a powerful way of not thinking. I know from experience, even if most people think of reading as a highbrow, intensely intellectual activity these days. It isn’t, necessarily. And the assigned essay can be a chore instead of a pleasure. Serena wants it to be a pleasure:

My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes, and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between—I gave them all the same rough treatment.

Simple intellectual and erotic needs might be easier to fulfill than complex ones, in one sense, but also harder, in the way that a simple task executed perfectly may be harder than a complex task executed with a margin for error. Still, Serena should have known that it isn’t vulgar to want love and marriage and plot. It’s vulgar that professors and highbrow critics might make her think it is vulgar to want those things, to want fiction that might be, to use that overused term, “relatable.” That one might be able to follow effectively. Serena isn’t a close reader, or someone practicing towards being a professional.

But she is someone who learns how to be through books, which makes her different from someone who learns how to be from in other ways, or someone who never learns how to be. She says, “I caused amusement among my Newnham friends studying English when I told them that Valley of the Dolls was as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. They laughed, they teased me for months. And they hadn’t read a line of Susann’s work.” Her friends are snobby and dismissive. Given the choice between snobby and unrefined but passionate, I’ll take the latter. The difference between those becomes a running issue, as when Serena begins to write a little column, and, like bloggers, something unfortunate happens: “I had written half a dozen jaunty pieces when something went wrong. Like many writers who come by a little success, I began to take myself too seriously.”

It’s a narrow act, the stance that straddles too serious and not serious enough. When I’m waffling between them, I try for “not serious enough:” after all, we’re talking about fiction here, not life and death. But for Serena the two become bound together because of her work. That’s an interesting theme; if only the plot were drilled more vigorously through the loam of Serena’s mind and story.

Martin Amis, the essay, the novel, and how to have fun in fiction

There’s an unusually interesting interview with Martin Amis in New York Magazine, where he says:

I think what has happened in fiction is that fiction has responded to the fact that the rate of history has accelerated in this last generation, and will continue to accelerate, with more sort of light-speed kind of communications. Those huge, leisurely, digressive, essayistic, meditative novels of the postwar era—some of which were on the best-seller lists for months—don’t have an audience anymore. [. . .]

No one is writing that kind of novel now. Well [. . . ] David Foster Wallace—that posthumous one looks sort of Joycean and huge and very left-field. But most novelists I think are much more aware than they used to be of the need for forward motion, for propulsion in a novel. Novelists are people too, and they’re responding to this just as the reader is.

I think people aren’t reading the “essayistic, meditative novels” because “essayistic, meditative novels” reads like code-words for boring. In addition, we’re living in “The Age of the Essay.” We don’t need novelists to write essays disguised as novels when we can get the real thing in damn near infinite supply.

The discovery mechanisms for essays are getting steadily better. Think of Marginal Revolution, Paul Graham’s essays, Hacker News, The Feature, and others I’m not aware. Every Saturday, Slate releases a link collection of 5 – 10 essays in its Longform series. Recent collections include the Olympics, startups, madness in Mexico, and disease. The pieces selected tend to be deep, simultaneously intro- and extrospective, substantive, and engaging. They also feel like narrative, and nonfiction writers routinely deploy the narrative tricks and voice that fiction pioneered. The best essay writers have the writing skill of all but perhaps the very best novelists.

As a result, both professional (in the sense of getting paid) and non-professional (in the sense of being good but not earning money directly from the job) writers have an easy means of publishing what they produce. Aggregators help disseminate that writing. A lot of academics who are experts in a particular subject have fairly readable blogs (many have no blogs, or unreadable blogs, but we’ll focus on the readable ones), and the academics who once would have been consigned to journals now have an outlet—assuming they can write well (many can’t).

We don’t need to wait two to five years for a novelist to decide to write a Big Novel on a topic. We often have the raw materials at hand, and the raw material is shaped and written by someone with more respect for the reader and the reader’s time than many “essayistic” novelists. I’ve read many of those, chiefly because they’ve been assigned at various levels of my academic career. They’re not incredibly engaging.

This is not a swansong about how the novel is dead; you can find those all over the Internet, and, before the Internet, in innumerable essays and books (an awful lot of novels are read and sold, which at the very least gives the form the appearance of life). But it is a description of how the novel is, or should be, changing. Too many novels are self-involved and boring. Too many pay too little to narrative pacing—in other words, to their readers. Too many novels aren’t about stuff. Too many are obsessed with themselves.

Novels might have gotten away with these problems before the Internet. For the most part, they can’t any more, except perhaps among people who read or pretend to read novels in order to derive status from their status as readers. But being holier-than-thou via literary achievement, if it ever worked all that well, seems pretty silly today. I suppose you could write novels about how hard it is to write novels in this condition—the Zuckerman books have this quality at times, but who is the modern Zuckerman?—but I don’t think anyone beyond other writers will be much interested.

If they’re not going to be essayistic and meditative, what are novels to be? “Fun” is an obvious answer. The “forward motion” and “propulsion” that Amis mentions are good places to start. That’s how novels differ, ideally, from nonfiction.

Novels also used to have a near-monopoly on erotic material and commentary. No more. If you want to read something weird, perverse, and compelling, Reddit does a fine job of providing it (threads like “What’s your secret that could literally ruin your life if it came out?” provides what novels used to).

Stylistically, there’s still the question of how weird and attenuated a writer can make individual sentences before the work as a whole becomes unreadable or boring or both. For at least a century and change, writers could go further and further in breaking grammar, syntax, and point of view rules while still being comprehensible. By the time you get to late Joyce or Samuel Beckett’s novels, however, you start to see the limits of incomprehensibility and rule breaking regarding sentence structure, grammar, or both.

Break enough rules and you have word salad instead of language.

Most of us don’t want to read word salad, though, so Finnegans Wake and Malone Dies remain the province of specialists writing papers to impress other specialists. We want “forward motion” and “propulsion.” A novel must delight in terms of the plot and the language used. Many, many novels don’t. Amis is aware of this—he says, “I’m not interested in making a diagnostic novel. I’m 100 percent committed in fiction to the pleasure principle—that’s what fiction is, and should be.” But I’m not sure his fiction shows this (as House of Meetings and Koba the Dread show). Nonetheless, I’m with him in principle, and, I hope, practice.

TV had to learn everything novelists already knew: an example from The Sopranos

From Vanity Fair’s brilliant Oral History of The Sopranos:

ALLEN COULTER (director): Sopranos gave the lie to the notions that you had to explain everything, that you always had to have a star in the lead, that everybody had to be ultimately likable, that there had to be so-called closure, that there was a psychological lesson to be learned, that there was a moral at the center that you should carry away from the show, that people should be pretty, that people should be svelte. The networks had essentially thrown in the towel on good drama. It’s like changing the direction of an ocean liner. But Sopranos did it. They changed the game.

It’s strange to read this, because it feels to me like novelists have always known this, or have at least known it since the 1920s. I think of writers like Henry Miller or James M. Cain, who were experts at unlikable characters and showing the only “psychological lesson to be learned” is that there is no psychological lesson to be learned.

Later, I think of someone like George V. Higgins, who specialized in unpretty, ungainly characters. But I wonder if TV took so long to learn these lessons because a) it was a mass medium that required appealing to everyone and b) because up until recently, there were only a handful of real outlets that could afford to produce real shows. So there wasn’t the same kind of experimentation that novelists could conduct, since a novelist needed nothing but time and paper (or, today, time and a computer) and a publisher.

Today, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and the Internet more generally are creating another shift, to the point where you don’t even need a publisher. We’ve already seen some fruit from that shift in the form of Belle de Jour and Tucker Max. Instead of the “ocean liner” that is television, writers get to pilot skiffs and other small craft that go places the big ships can’t or won’t go. In doing so, writers chart the courses that might one day be followed by the video people, who are so encumbered by budgets and specialization and accountants and executives.

(See also Edward Jay Epstein’s Role Reversal: Why TV Is Replacing Movies As Elite Entertainment.)

The Marriage Plot — Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot is very competently done, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it; some things may even be done particularly well. The problem is, as my faint praise indicates, a novel isn’t a student essay: it’s not enough for nothing to be particularly wrong. Something has to be smashing and fantastic for it to really matter. The Virgin Suicides, with its ceaseless questioning of what happened to the Lisbon sisters and its unusual narrative structure in the form of a chorus of outsider men who were once boys attempting to understand something they never quite can, had this quality. There’s a haunting, melancholy quality to the story and the way its told. Middlesex is imaginatively powerful because of Cal’s parents’ unusual relationship (does love conquer all, including biology?) and Cal’s own inter- or transexual state, which is so unusual amid novels that mostly cover straight people, occasionally cover gay people, but very seldom cover people whose bodies and minds don’t quite match like they should.

I keep copies of both Eugenides’ earlier novels, but I’m selling my copy of The Marriage Plot. I can’t imagine rereading it. In The Curtain, Milan Kundera wrote something that has long stayed with me because of how right he is:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

Eugenides has that ambition. I concede The Marriage Plot might outlast its author. But I’m skeptical it will: the religious stuff Mitchell experiences doesn’t measure up, and the mostly banal problems faced by recent college graduates doesn’t quite live up to anything. Leonard is the only person with real problems, both in terms of his ailment (manic depression) and his work (as a biologist: he is confronting the natural world, and some of the most interesting sections describe both his efforts in taming yeast and his status in a science lab). Madeleine, like so many of us, is committed to love with a person who maybe isn’t worth it. In listening to her sister’s trouble, we find this: “like anyone in love, Madeleine believed that her own relationship was different from every other relationship, immune from typical problems.” She isn’t, and her relationship is more like that of other people than she’d like to imagine it to be. And The Marriage Plot is more like other novels than I want it to be.

There are long sections of background that we might not need. We find that “Leonard had grown up in an Arts & Crafts house whose previous owner had been murdered in the front hall.” Grisly, but not vital to the story. “[. . . ] Madeleine took the opportunity to make herself more presentable. She ran her hands through her hair, finger-combing it.” Nothing wrong with this: it’s just average. Maybe too Victorian. Later: “Ground personnel rolled a metal stairway up to the plane’s first door, which opened from inside, and passengers began disembarking.” Do we need this? Or can it be eliminated? On their own, these sentences are okay, and I’ve committed such sentences many times, despite Martin Amis warning me not to. I want to put this book on a diet, to convince it to render only the essential. Too much of it makes me want to cut more; I can also now say that the only thing worse than taking an essay test of your own is reading about someone else’s essay test, especially when that essay test involves religion.

There are also some strange sentences; this one makes me wonder if the last word is a typo: “Years of being popular had left her with the reflexive ability to separate the cool from the uncool, even within subgroups, like the English department, where the concept of cool didn’t appear to obtain.” What does “appear to obtain” mean? Perhaps it’s supposed to be “appear to apply.” The good ones are still good, though: “Dabney had the artistic soul of a third-string tight end.” I’ve met Dabneys. And I get what Madeleine gets: people who declaim one kind of hierarchy or status system are always setting up another, whether they recognize it or not. I also find it intriguing that Madeleine can be an intense reader and also intensely popular. The two seldom appear together in fiction. Perhaps the combination makes her an astute social reader of everyone but herself.

She also understands Mitchell, who acts as a beta orbiter for most of the novel. He provides her with extra male romantic attention mostly because he’s a fool, and she knows it on some level: “Mitchell was the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry. That she would never fall in love with Mitchell and marry him, precisely because of this eligibility, was yet another indication, in a morning teeming with them, of just how screwed up she was in matters of the heart.” Being “smart, sane” and “parent-pleasing” is another way of saying “boring.” He also doesn’t make a move when he’s effectively asked to. At one point, Madeleine takes Mitchell home and goes to his attic room wearing only an old shirt—then resents him for not making a move when he obviously wants to and she does too.

She has a point.

When Mitchell is too eligible, that “eligibility” gets held against him. And he buys into ideologies that encourage him to remain a fool. A priest says to Mitchell: “Listen, a girl’s not watermelon you plug a hole in to see if it’s sweet.” Tell that to most women who do the same of men. There are plenty of sexist assumptions in this statement alone to get a feminist writing an angry paper about women, innocence, desire, and sexuality. Perhaps you shouldn’t take romantic advice from someone sworn to a life of celibacy and thus ignorance in a realm that most of us take to be vitally important. To be fair, Mitchell mostly doesn’t, but that he’s seeking knowledge from a source like that tells us he doesn’t even know where to begin to look for help. And Madeleine exploits this weakness. She says, “[. . .] one night the previous December, in a state of anxiety about her romantic life, Madeleine had run into Mitchell on campus and brought him back to her apartment. She’d needed male attention and had flirted with him, without entirely admitting it to herself.”

Rather nasty. Even worse than he falls for it. The optimal solution for Mitchell: find another girl, ideally one hotter than Madeleine, and use the other girl as leverage. Moping around doesn’t get the girl. As Sean Connery says in an otherwise lousy movie called The Rock, “Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.” Mitchell hasn’t realized or internalized this. Contrast Mitchell’s neediness with that of his rival’s distance: “The more Leonard pulled away, the more anxious Madeleine became.” She’s desperate for Leonard, which enables him to make her like him even more. Mitchell is on the opposite side of this recusive dynamic. He should read Radway’s Reading the Romance, which describes how women like to read romance novels in which the heroine falls for major alpha males. Radway doesn’t use this term, of course, and works to explain away women’s preferences for alpha males, but the descriptions still shine through.

Still, there are funny bits to The Marriage Plot; on the same page where Madeleine assesses Mitchell as a beta, her mother says that she “saw a program about Indian recently,” as if “a program” on TV could convey much about the country—but wanting to say she’s seen it does convey a lot about her. She goes on to say, “It was terribly depressing. The poverty!” Mitchell says “That’s a plus for me [. . .] I thrive in squalor.” The unexpected reaction to Madeleine’s mother and reframing of expected values makes this funny and shows us that Mitchell isn’t the stiff he might otherwise appear to be. And the book isn’t the stiff it might otherwise be. It’s just not funny consistently enough or deep consistently enough. It’s a muddle, even when I do laugh at lines like, “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” Love isn’t so easily eliminated, however: it only takes belief to sustain it.

And the characters are more self aware than I’ve sometimes depicted them here. Madeleine, for instance, knows that graduating from college, for a certain class of person who is expected to go to college, just isn’t that hard. On graduation day, “she wasn’t proud of herself. She was in no mood to celebrate. She’d lost faith in the significance of the day and what the day represented.” If college is mostly a test of showing up, it’s hard to blame her; and majoring in English probably isn’t very hard for most hard-core readers (it wasn’t for this one, anyway; to me reading was fun, which meant that I did so much more of it than most of my classmates that class itself wasn’t very hard). And she finds that the deconstructing education she receives isn’t much use when she’s confronted with the messy reality of interpersonal relationships, including her relationship with Leonard. Saying manic depression is a socially constructed discourse won’t get help like lithium will, even with lithium’s side effects.

Leonard’s stay at Pilgrim Lake, a biological research facility something like Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, is among the novel’s most interesting sections. I would’ve liked it longer and Mitchell’s Indian sojourn shorter. Leonard is researching reproduction in yeast; this yields a predictable but impressive number of metaphors for human dilemmas. His work also can’t be solved by appeals to socially constructed discourse, and I suspect many of the scientists at the lab are more interesting than Madeleine at Mitchell. For example, Madeleine observes one of the very few female research scientists and observes:

Madeleine guessed that MacGregor [who just won a Nobel Prize] made people uneasy because of the purity of her renunciation and the simplicity of her scientific method. They didn’t want her to succeed, because that would invalidate the rationale for their research staffs and bloated budgets. MacGregor could also be opinionated and blunt. People didn’t like that it anyone, but they liked it less in a woman.

Tell us more about the “simplicity of her scientific method.” How does that relate to literary theory? Could we see MacGregor take more of an interest in Madeleine? Who are the people who “didn’t want her to succeed,” and how does she react to them? I wouldn’t want to turn the novel into Atlas Shrugged, but there are rich idea veins here that go unmined in favor of Mitchell’s noodlings. My suggestions are somewhat unfair, as I’m violating Updike’s first rule of book reviewing—”Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt”—but I think an exploration of gender in science more interesting than an exploration of gender and mating habits among relatively average 20-somethings. Maybe because I fit into that group I’m too close to the subject to find it remarkable, but I think the novel has a smaller-than-life quality to it, in the same way B. R. Myers describes Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom at the link:

One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads. A common experience for even the occasional reader of contemporary fiction, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft or execution. Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? If so, Tolstoy has a lot to answer for—including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s latest. A suburban comedy-drama about the relationship between cookie-baking Patty, who describes herself as “relatively dumber” than her siblings; red-faced husband Walter, “whose most salient quality … was his niceness”; and Walter’s womanizing college friend, Richard, who plays in an indie band called Walnut Surprise, the novel is a 576-page monument to insignificance.

The Marriage Plot is a much better novel than this, but one detects the same kinds of maladies at work: “dull minor characters,” a problem beyond “craft or execution” (which are, again, well done here), “little worries” for the most part (until an unconvincing ending), and a general feel that life is elsewhere. Around the same time, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy, Richard Stallman, and many others were coalescing around Silicon Valley to change the world. I wouldn’t be communicating with you right now via this medium if it weren’t for their work. Which isn’t to say every novel set in the late 70s or early 80s should be about computers, technology, or technologists: but in the face of banality, I can’t help drifting toward thoughts of people whose work really, incredibly, resolutely matters.

Eugenides is clearly interested in the inner workings of people—the problem is that Mitchell and Madeleine do not have particularly interesting or engaging insides. Mitchell needs a copy of The Game to be time-warped to him, stat, and Madeleine needs to better realize what reading nineteenth-century novels should prime her to know: that she’s not the first person in the universe with unwise love decisions or family problems. Why doesn’t she better analyze her own situation in terms of the novels she loves so much? Why doesn’t she better realize that, yes, her life could be one of the fragments in Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse? It could be, as Eleanor Barkhorn says in “What Jeffrey Eugenides Doesn’t Understand About Women,” that Madeleine doesn’t have any real female friends, but I’m not convinced: I’ve met women who have few or no real female friends, and I don’t think that aspect of Madeleine’s life is unrealistic. The bigger problem is her lack of friends in general, so those friends can’t say the obvious to her: Why Leonard? Do you realize what you’re giving up? And if she does, and she gives up much of herself anyway, then the problem is her own blindness—a topic that I don’t find tremendously satisfying to read about, since it basically implies Madeleine is stupid. Characters can only be stupidly blinded by love for so long before one removed the “blinded” and turns “stupidly” back into a noun.

Most of my problems with the novel aren’t with its prose on a micro level, although it has those issues: it’s with the dearth of real ideas in the novel. It doesn’t quite go with the literary-theory-as-life metaphors, which drop out partway through. It doesn’t quite go with the alpha-beta-male decision that Madeleine faces. It doesn’t quite go with the manic-depression-as-serious-issue-maybe-linked-with-creativity issue that Leonard has. It’s a host of “almosts” that reminds me some of a sunnier version of Michel Houellebecq, especially in The Elementary Particles and Platform.

Houellebecq, however, is willing to engage in a kind of brutal realism—for lack of a better phrase—that Eugenides doesn’t get to. Yet that’s what the characters need: less understanding of their petty problems and more context, or a harder eye, or someone to smack Mitchell and Madeleine, then explain both their problems. I could explain their problems. I’ve met a million Mitchells and Madeleines. Hell, I used to be one in some respects. But the world has a habit of correcting your faults, if you’re paying attention to the signals the world is giving. Mitchell and Madeleine aren’t. That’s what makes them so unsatisfying. As three of the characters go, so does the very, very competent novel that doesn’t get past competence and into transcendence.


You can read my initial impressions here.

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