The Song of Achilles — Madeline Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Briefly noted: The Idiot — Elif Batuman

The Idiot is absorbing for 50 pages, the next 50 pages drag, and the rest is a slog. I read it because Batuman wrote the hilarious The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which is an essay collection in which most of the essays are… 50 pages. Maybe not coincidentally. Read The Possessed or, even better, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History instead. You will find that in The Idiot

I had never heard of any Ottoman invasion of Hungary. As a child, I had been told that the Turks and Hungarians were related, that the Huns were Turkic, that both peoples had migrated west from the Altai and spoke similar languages.

In some ways the novel is about all the things the narrator, Selin, has never heard of. The novel captures well the feeling of not knowing anything, surrounded by others who don’t, but is that desirable in a novel?

There are implied problems in industrial and human organization, too:

The Constructed Worlds syllabus was a list of Gary’s favorite books and movies, without any due dates or assignments. We were just supposed to read books, watch movies, and discuss them in class. The discussions were never that great, because everyone chose different books and movies.

That seems predictable. Learning thrives off the right balance between order and chaos. Lean too far in either direction and things fall apart.

Much of The Idiot is an extended, awkward flirtationship between Selin and a slightly older guy named Ivan. Watching shy college students flirt for short periods of time is painful; watching it for hundreds of pages may be worse. Sex makes an appearance here and there:

“Sometimes I wonder about the man I’ll eventually lose my virginity too,” Svetlana continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll happen in college.”

Yet for relatively well-off and fit college students, the characters seem to spend strangely little time wanting to get laid, maybe because Ivy Leaguers are too uptight or wrongly focused to do so. Ivy Leaguers have a reputation for being too neurotic, cerebral, and obedient to do it much, but I don’t know if that reputation is deserved or accurate.

Still, Selin is aware of some of her own position:

In the train station, people were drinking coffee and reading newspapers. I felt glad to see that life was going on—actual life, where people were working and staying awake and trying to accomplish things, which was the point of coffee.

About two-thirds through I skipped to the end and began to read backwards, wondering if maybe things would improve. No luck. It is very long for what it is. So much promise. In some ways the novel delivers what its title promises, however, and many of the individual sentences are well done. Still, if you want a college novel try Joe College instead, after you finish The Secret History. If you have recommendations for college novels, leave them in the comments.

Good books I read in 2016

A reader pointed out that I didn’t write a “best of 2016” post, which is correct, but “best of” strikes me wrong, so I’m going to write about good books that I happened to read in 2016 and that you should read too.

* The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis, probably the best book I read all year, except maybe for Blindsight, but that is so different that the two aren’t really comparable.

* Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century by Masha Gessen, another narrative nonfiction book, though this one emerged and escaped my notice in 2009.

* The Map and the Territory by Houellebecq, still weird and likely always weird; Houellebecq has his misses, especially The Possibility of an Island, but his hits are strong, weird, and different—with “different” too often meaning “bad,” but not in his case.

* Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, one of those amazing books worth re-reading whenever you can’t find a new book to read.

* The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, which is novelistic in detail and beautifully reported. I didn’t fully know where the music everyone listens to comes from and now I do.

I’ve been having trouble finding really good novels, though my tastes are idiosyncratic and I don’t have rules for what makes a good novel besides the tautological, “Be really good.” If you have suggestions drop me a line.

The most-visited post I wrote last year is “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”

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.

Submission — Michel Houellebecq

Like almost all Houellebecq, Submission and invites diagnoses of anhedonia (Page 1: “I realized that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me;” Houellebecq rarely if ever writes of the “best part” of any character’s life). The weird mixture of ideas, from YouPorn (it is namechecked) to Huysmans, works and doesn’t work at the same time, and it is this paradoxical quality that I think attracts readers to Houellebecq.

Submission HouellebecqThat, and Houellebecq continues to be different in a way that almost no writers are. See also Adam Gopnik on Submission. Here is The Guardian. I mention Houellebecq in “All American fiction is young adult fiction: Discuss.” Here is Mark Lilla, in the New York Review of Books. All these pieces are excellent.

Oddly, almost no one has noticed Houellebecq’s attraction to Islam. Except for Elif Batuman, in the last part of the linked essay. In Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World, Houellebecq writes:

It’s painful for me to admit, when I think of my atheist, politically committed friends, but I’ve never really understood the root of their commitment, it has always seemed to me to have more to do with a Christian tradition than they themselves suspected. I am speaking from pure intuition here, but in all the Christian groups I tried in vain to belong to, one of the things I completely understood was their commitment. It was very clear: they had accepted the idea that, being sons of God, all men are brothers, and behaved accordingly.

Which is quite close to what the idealized Muslims in Submission do, and, I suspect, quite far from what many real-life Muslims do (or real-life adherents of any high-commitment, high-demand creed). Commitment itself, to something, is appealing, and one characteristic of all Houellebecq’s characters is their seeming lack of commitment (even those seemingly committed to hedonism don’t seem to enjoy it that much, or as much as I would).

There are many of the weird juxtapositions one sees in classic Houellebecq: “Cro-Magnon man hunted mammoth and reindeer; the man of today can choose between an Auchan and a Leclerc, both supermarkets located in Souillac.” Or: “Even the word humanism made me want to vomit, but that might have been the canapés.” Is this no context or overwhelming context? François seems to oscillate between the two. He cares deeply about observing what’s going on and does nothing with those observations; the word “bored” appears repeatedly, almost a stand-in for “whatever.”

Plus, modern grocery stores are amazing: their convenience is incredible and price competition means that consumers win. Grocery stores means that the man of today can choose to worry about something other than where to get food from. Or, maybe, he can worry about nothing at all. Even access to pornography had to be fought for, over decades. Submission implies that maybe we’d be better off without it, but the term “revealed preferences” comes to mind (and there is a small but noisy movement for “no fap,” which is what it sounds like).

No one feels a sense of a job well done. The presence of absence is felt everywhere. François never emerges from a class feeling that he’s reached someone. Has he tried? Does he want to? The answers seem to be no. Even the attractive women he improbably sleeps with seem to move him little. We find this about Steve, his colleague: “He’d almost always invite me for a drink—usually mint tea in the Paris Mosque a few blocks from school. I didn’t like mint tea, or the Paris Mosque, and I didn’t much like Steve, but I still went.” Usually I don’t go out with people I don’t like, and I don’t think I’m exceptional in this regard, but I am capable of liking people, which François it would seem is not.

Houellebecq respects ideas as almost no contemporary novelists do, but he doesn’t do so in an academically trendy way (as, say, Alena Graedon does in The Word Exchange). If anything he does so in an academically un-trendy way.

Houellebecq does not seem to believe in Enlightenment ideas of progress. For François, private tutoring only “soon convinced me that the transmission of knowledge was generally impossible, the variance of intelligence extreme, and that nothing could undo or even mitigate this basic inequality.” The last couple centuries of relentless progress would seem to invalidate this claim, however true it may feel in the moment, at the micro level. François thinks that his “boring, predictable life continued to resemble Huysmans’s a century and a half before.” Odd. I don’t feel like my life resembles the lives of people 150 years ago. Perhaps François has this problem because education as a sector has changed very little. This contrasts with numerous other sectors.

Maybe the problem with Houellebecq narrators is that few if any discover anything or make anything—even dinner. The true hero of Submission may be the microwaved dinner. No one I’ve read more frequently mentions microwaved food. But if microwaved food signifies tedium, what signifies the opposite? Did making food from scratch, as virtually all people 60 years ago had to do for economic reasons, somehow better?

Houellebecq imagines a France in which large, politically active blocs call for Sharia Law. Yet people fleeing from many Muslim and Arab countries in the Middle East are getting fleeing from people who’d like to impose Sharia. To be sure the West imposes major culture shocks. But when you want to see whose ideas are winning, look at where people are fleeing from and where they are fleeing to. During the Cold War the number of French, English, or Americans who wanted to move to Russia was dwarfed by the number of Russians who wanted to get the fuck out.

In “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World,” Kamel Daoud writes of how

Today sex is a great paradox in many countries of the Arab world: One acts as though it doesn’t exist, and yet it determines everything that’s unspoken. Denied, it weighs on the mind by its very concealment. Although women are veiled, they are at the center of our connections, exchanges and concerns.

Daoud ends his essay by saying, “People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.” I’m not convinced the sickness is spreading: Ideas in the West about the right of individual to control his or her own body are winning. Terror in many Middle Eastern countries is a sign of weakness, not strength. Ideas cannot win on their merits; they can only be imposed via the gun. There are no real votes for Sharia, even in countries that practice it, or a modified form of it.

Other events have overtaken Submission’s world. It imagines Saudi princes lavishly funding French universities. As of this writing, in February 2016, cheap oil prices are roiling petro economies like Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Chevy Bolt will arrive in the U.S. later this year. Tesla’s Model 3 is going to be unveiled shortly. These cars may permanently cap oil prices by allowing most people to switch to electric cars as oil prices rise. France shouldn’t worry about radical Muslim takeover. Petro states should worry about what will happen when every Western economy is not wildly, wholly dependent on oil.

The previous paragraph may be bizarre in the context of a discussion about a novel, but part of Houellebecq’s world in Submission depends on the financial condition of radically Islamic countries. Those countries’ positions and stability depend on selling oil. Take away the oil and we’ll see how stable and popular many of them really are. Their leaders are able to lead lives of incredible decadence and sexual pleasure because they can afford to. That may not be true three years from now, let alone in the elections of 2022.

In another moment, François asks, rhetorically, “How could anyone argue that Europe wasn’t in decline?” Easily: First, look at where people want to go, as mentioned previously. Second, consider an article like, “Plasma physicist discusses the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator.” That stellerator, built in Germany, is an important step towards fusion power plants. It’s an incredible achievement that is primarily being accomplished by Europeans. If that’s decline then sign me up. And when was Europe in ascent? Robert Rediger notes that Huysmans “was living at at a time when the European nations were at their apogee.” Which led them straight into two insane wars, the lead-up to which can only be compared to mental illness. European temperament may be oddly negative and declinist, but the temperament and being can be further apart than Europe and Mars.

Many of you will dislike Submission. I see people on the subway and in coffeeshops reading Ferrante and Knausgaard, today’s perversely trendy writers, but none reading Houellebecq.

Houellebecq is the sort of writer who makes reading his entire oeuvre rewarding. Not all writers are like this.

It is sometimes hard to write coherently on a work that itself seems to lack coherence.

The Possibility of an Island — Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is not a “good” writer in the way someone like Nabokov, Ann Patchett, Elmore Leonard, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, or countless others whose sentences sing, metaphors work, and who make one stop to save the rightness of their description. But Houellebecq is a different, unusual, or unique writer: he sounds like no one else I’ve read. He’s prone to writing like a nonfiction writer (“Undoubtedly there used to be a form of demotic happiness, connected to the functioning whole, which we are no longer able to understand”), a nonfiction writer who shifts suddenly into overly pornographic registers (“Women give an impression of eternity, as though their pussy were connected to mysteries—as though it were a tunnel opening onto the essence of the world, when in fact it is just a hole for dwarves, fallen into disrepair”), or a more conventional writer (“Fortunately Harry intervened, and the conversation was raised to more transcendent subjects (the stars, infinity, etc.), which allowed me to tuck into my plate of sausages without trembling”). To “tuck into my plate of sausages” is so normal in a book—The Possibility of an Island—so weird.

If you’ve read one or two thrillers you’ve probably read most thrillers; if you’ve read one competently but boringly written commercial novel you’ve read most of them; if you’ve read 50 Shades of Grey you should be ashamed because there’s much better verbal pornography available. But Houellebecq sounds like himself, and his concerns are almost random-seeming (sexuality, contemporary consumerism, philosophy, history) yet they drive me, and I suspect others, to try to figure out what braids them. Story is one possible answer, though it is a bad one and there are others.

Being unique without exactly being good still counts. Too many “good” writers do MFA-approved stuff taken from the Francine Prose and James Wood handbooks. I don’t want to knock that style—arguably I’m doing it at times—but it is a distinctive style (almost like the New Yorker’s) and school and if you read enough lit fic or better commercial fic you’ll recognize it and start to categorize it and start to use annoying abbreviations like “fic.”

I suspect that readers who don’t reject Houellebecq outright for reasons or psychological or moral outrage may worry: what if he does describe the world? That’s why he’s morally outrageous. What if his low-affect, high-description, no-content view of the universe is right? It’s unsettling, and for that reason he may be a bad signal: say you like Houellebecq and you’re saying there may be something amiss in you. I don’t fully buy the Houellebecq worldview—too much sunny American in me, I guess, and too tight an affinity with a Zero to One worldview—but I could probably ape or paraphrase it if need be: everything comes down to material conditions; the spiritual is dead; we’re either monsters of desire or we’re standing novelistically outside it, smoking a cigarette, and commenting on it.

I wish more MFA types would read Houellebecq, and read him with care. But he’s not a writer likely to be politically palatable to university types or to contemporary mores (which is also why I suspect he has a higher chance of enduring when today’s New York Times-approved hot author is forgotten).

In an odd way parts of Houellebecq feel like Elena Ferrante, another European export who in terms of content is the opposite of Houellebecq, and yet one senses that they’re both writing about the same currents and social conditions through fiction that doesn’t feel like fiction. He fascinates instead of bores.

I don’t claim to understand Houellebecq and very few writers do. The best and most convincing reading of his work I’ve encountered is Adam Gopnik’s “The Next Thing: Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic satire,” which views Houellebecq as nostalgic for the late ’50s and early ’60s. This seems odd to me—I view the present as better than the past and the future likely to be better than the present—but I wonder if my view is the minority one. Houellebecq’s future island is not a good one. He uses the pessimistic strands of SF in Island and The Elementary Particles. I like optimists.

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