Nick Hornby in New York City for “Funny Girl”

Nick Hornby spoke at the Union Square Barnes and Noble on Wednesday, in support of his novel Funny Girl, parts of which he read and supported the claim to comedy in the title. Comedic writers may in general read more successfully than other sorts of writers, or perhaps Hornby is unusually engaging. His talk and the book suggested that perhaps obsession makes us interesting and shows who we are, though Sophie, the protagonist of the novel, has nothing in its beginning save what she wants to become.

Nick HornbyFunny Girl is well-observed (“He said that the bevy of beauties in front of him—and he was just the sort of man who’d use the expression ‘bevy of beauties’—made him even prouder of the town than he already was”) and a keen sense of absurdity shadows the opening of the novel (which is all I can comment on so far).

At one point Hornby said that “Acquiring a family of choice is the dream, isn’t it?” but the challenge of a family of choice may be that it is easier to choose to leave such a family than a genetically intertwined family. Some of his talk also implicitly asked why collaboration is simultaneously so hard yet so essential; the book explores that question on an interpersonal level but per Peter Watts it may also apply on a cellular level.

The audience questions were as usual mumbly democracy in action, but Hornby, like T. C. Boyle, seemed to like or fake liking them. Many, many of them took photos with their cellphones held up high, as depicted above; many saw Hornby through their phones as much as their eyes.

On a separate note, Hornby’s novel High Fidelity holds up well and among other things implies that lists are a way of eliding criticism, real knowledge, and rhetoric. This description however makes it sound boring when it is not.

Hornby Funny GirlHere is a Slate interview between Hornby and Dan Kois.

Interesting books I read this year

“The best books of the year” articles are useful but annoying: useful because there are often interesting books I missed but annoying because a book isn’t worth reading simply because it was published in a given year. So I’m doing a list not of books published this year but that I read this year and think deserve attention.

* Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel: Almost nothing in pop culture prepared anyone for long-term relationships, and Perel’s book is about many, many things, among them what happens after most novels, movies, and TV shows end. When it came out Tyler Cowen called it “the most dangerous book I read this year,” and that was in 2006. It is not a good book to admit to liking publicly.

* Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha, about a failed actor who becomes an inadvertent teacher who becomes an inadvertent amateur pornographer who becomes an inadvertent reality TV personage. I laughed, and the book’s final dialogues are still funny but also offer unexpected, powerful commentary on our time. Why isn’t this book more popular and getting more attention?

* The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel, about a latent yet pervasive phenomenon that was until recently underrated and even ignored by me.

* Related to The Power of Glamour, The Rosie Project, as recommended by Bill Gates. It starts promisingly and ends brilliantly, with me laughing at almost every page; if you know any geek, nerds, or programmers, you need to both read this and give it to them.

* The Great Man, by Kate Christensen, also very funny and with sentences that delight from start to finish.

* Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, another book that should be better known and hits many valences simultaneously.

* Zero to One by Thiel and Masters, which is notionally about startups but is really about the world.

* Echopraxia by Peter Watts, but do read Blindsight first. So good it’s hard to write about.

* Trust Me, I’m Lying, which I didn’t read when I first heard about it because I thought, “Meh, I already know.” I didn’t, and the prose is delightful. Note too the comments at the link.

* Bess adds Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee–A Look Inside North Korea, about a defector’s astonishing story. The sentences are strong, yet I feel like I already knew enough about North Korea prior to reading.

What have I missed?

Briefly noted: The Magician’s Land — Lev Grossman

(For background see this 2009 post on The Magicians and this less positive post on its sequel, The Magician King. Without those for context this post won’t make sense, and, as with most books towards the end of a series, the latest only matters to those who have read the earlier.)

At the beginning of The Magician’s Land we see a metaphor for post-2008, or maybe post-1973, diminished expectations, when things that are supposed to happen to other people happen to us (“It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job and a depression when you lose yours”):

Stuff like this was for people on the fringes of the magical world, people scrabbling to get in, or who’d lost their footing somehow and slipped out of the bright warm center of things, all the way out to the cold margins of the real world. All the way out to a strip mall in Hackensack in the rain. Things like this weren’t for people like him.

But they are, as literature reminds us. It can always get worse and at times the only thing we change is our reaction. Quentin is getting better at changing his reactions to circumstances and one could read the trilogy as a commentary on his shifting ability to do precisely that. As an alternate reading, it could be seen as the latest in a long line of works asking what is real: “This all seemed a hell of a lot more real than it had half an hour ago.”

MagiciansLandWelcome to the desert of the real. One professor in grad school, who otherwise took many dubious positions to the point of seeming like a character in an academic novel, liked to say that the real is what hurts. It’s a good working definition. I’d add that the real is what hurts or what works. The latter explains much of what’s wrong with philosophy, and its literary studies branches.

Quentin has also taken on some of the dullness of middle age, and though in the process he has gained the loss of most of his early petulance. Many of the description, including descriptions of family and friends, still resonate and hurt:

When he thought of his parents it was almost like they were old lovers, so distant now that he couldn’t even remember why his link to them had once seemed to real and urgent. They’d managed the neat trick of bringing up a child with whom they had absolutely nothing in common, or if there was something none of them had risen to the challenge of finding it.

Friends are arguably the family you choose, but friends are also hard to sustain in world of growth, evolution, and changing circumstances: people must grow together or apart, and in many cases friendships do not survive circumstances. One could be sad or stoic about such things.

The book raises other questions. What do the many odd metaphors and pop-culture references mean (“He’d been a good person, or good enough, but mostly what he’d showed Quentin was how to move through the universe while disturbing it as little as possible, and how to compile and maintain the world’s most complete collection of Jeff Goldblum movies on Blu-ray, apart, presumably from Jeff Goldblum’s” or “fairies thought all this military stuff was pretty silly, but they went along with it for the same reason that fairies ever did anything, namely, for the lulz”)? They undercut fantasy tropes but also make the characters highly associative. Another sample: “It was like a box with a whole herd of Schrödinger’s cats in it. With a little magical know-how you could alter the order in which your cards came out; with a little more you could guess what your opponent was going to play before she played it” (note that this comes just a few pages after Quentin explains his poverty—why not just do this in Vegas?).

Other notes: There is a MacGuffin. The initial plot about Quentin needing money seems unlikely; he has long had the same problem as the girls on Girls: he needs to get a job, or find a purpose greater than himself. Leading a generative life is important and yet we often get little guidance in this regard. One purpose of novels could be to give us guidance to leading a generative life. Novels show both failure and success, and arguably occasional transcendence towards a quasi godhood rarely if ever achieved by those of us outside books.

I would argue that Quentin succeeds or seems to at the end of The Magician’s Land—attend to that language about bridges and other connectors—but the possibility of success is there from the beginning, when Quentin finds himself in a bookstore, and “he felt at home in a bookstore. [. . . ] It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.” Bookstores represent what is effectively infinite possibility: they are like the Neitherlands, the world between the worlds.

I can’t get excited enough about the book to write extensively about it, which may say something about the book or may say something about this writer. Nonetheless, here is an interview on Vox. Here is Slate. Here is The Atlantic. Here is Grossman explaining how not to write your first novel. I think he said in my interview with him that publishing as an industry is no fair and fairly random, which the linked essay perhaps supports.


Note: This is based on a review copy.

Arts & Entertainments — Christopher Beha

Arts & Entertainments is among other things very good, very New York, a comedy complement to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (mid book: “I don’t like living this way. I’ve barely been outside in a week. I want to come home”), a defense of privacy and explanation of its importance (see also “Solitude and Leadership“), a surprise critique of the NSA, a reminder to trust liars, and a reminder that attention is the scarcest commodity of all and becoming scarcer.

Arts and entertainmentsI want to write that the plot is absurd. But is it? The vast celebrity-industrial complex is so large and amorphous that it is difficult to judge the plausibility of the plot, or of Eddie’s fatal sex-tape miscalculation. Does he not read the news? Every week some teacher or other gets fired not for being a stripper but for becoming known as one. Digital life is rife with such stories. People as a whole (and the culture we create) are hypocritical, as the novel is aware; though this is taken out of context it reinforces the point:

People don’t want to go overboard with the sad stuff. Mostly, they want to be able to judge people, and they can’t judge a girl in a coma. If she was older and had some kids, they could judge her for being selfish and irresponsible. But she’s too young for that. Maybe they can judge her father for a little while, but that’s his daughter in the coma, so that will only last so long. They can judge, like, the culture at large, but that means judging themselves, so that gets tiresome too. And there’s another episode of Desperately Expecting Susan to watch on Tuesday. Everyone will want an excuse to return their attention to the usual entertainment. We give them a nice opportunity.

The judgment reflex and public morality lag behind reality and rarely moreso than in putative education. The joy of altruistic punishment is real and rarely more powerful than in sexual mattes, with financial matters probably coming in second.

Arts & Entertainments picks up a millennia-old conversation about the self and how much, if at all, we can really know another person. In “In its second season premiere, Masters of Sex takes on the hardest questions of love,” Todd VanDerWerff writes:

One reason so many have tried to repress their sexual desires or legislate them away throughout human history is because when it comes to sex, we’re reduced to our most basic selves. There’s a moment where we are uncontrolled, and our true face appears, even if only for a second. To “fix” this, we try to introduce a rigidity, a script to stick to. We try to set up carefully delineated divisions between that true self and the version of ourselves we present to the world. Yet the fear is always there that in a moment of weakness, that face will appear, and we’ll finally be seen for who we truly are, even if no one would blink for a second.

This may be one reason people like porn, especially of celebrities or other people they know: they imagine that they are getting a moment of the “true” self, and that one gets to see through the personality. But Masters of Sex undercuts that: think of the scene in which Masters is told by Jane Martin, a prostitute in the show, that virtually all women can fake it and have faked it. Masters is astonished, and his astonishment comes from a massive revision about human nature. Most people, I suspect, go through such revisions over and over again, their views on nature changing until they come to a realization like this paraphrase of Terence, by way of Montaigne: “Nothing human is foreign to me.”

Art is filled with moments that remind us of the liars we are. Can we accept an answer of “no,” we do not know and cannot really know another person? Take a moment at the end of Generation War, a fantastic German miniseries that follows five German friends through World War II, in which a Jewish survivor returns to Germany after the war only to discover that a highly-placed Nazi shifted allegiances after the war and continued to be part of the German government. The Nazi’s allegiance was to power itself, and the implication is that we don’t know what a person will do when the circumstances in which they live change.

That we may not be able to know another is not a new idea, but the jones for “reality” TV and celebrity gossip fuels it. There is also an old idea that only God can see our true selves, but the true self may be an outgrown idea, like that other somewhat outgrown idea. In “Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke,” Nury Vittachi writes that “a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.” I’m unconvinced but I do think most if not all people need an attachment to an idea greater than and outside themselves. Celebrity, Arts & Entertainments suggests, could be that idea, but it is ultimately a hollow one. The cameras lie as effectively as we lie to each other and ourselves. Eddie’s weakness as an actor and a character is his inability to lie effectively. Poor deception skills make him ironically unable to exist on reality TV. The book is filled with subtle ironies like this, and that’s one reason why I think it catches the attention of critics who might be otherwise inclined to write it off as basic, lightweight satire. It isn’t just that. It’s a book of pleasures and of depth.

People who truly live and die an ideology or belief are the real exceptions. Standing for something is the uncommon thing, which may be why it’s so valorized in proportion to the number of people who actually do it. It may also be one of the many reasons religion keeps sneaking into this book. Eddie went to a Catholic school at which he teaches, and he appears to want on some level to do the time without doing the crime, so to speak, but this comment will appear inscrutable without having read the book, but I don’t want to give it more context for fear of spoiling the surprisingly twisty plot. Nothing feels like it’s happening as everything does.

One character, a reality TV producer named Moody, describes how he spent time in “a retreat house in Minnesota, run by the Order of St. Clement” while studying to become a priest; but he left after contact with a film crew that had arrived to make a video that showed what happened. As he says

The crew had their own problems. The things that were really going on in that place couldn’t be captured on film, because they were meant for God, not for the audience. They happened inside people. I watched all this, and somehow I knew what the audience would want to see.

If what you’re doing, or thinking, or feeling can’t be seen, does it matter? Does it “exist?” Is the audience God? Moody also highlights a challenge in any sort of narrative fiction, which can’t effectively depict what happens during the having of an idea, or when someone is doing an intellectual activity. Intellectual effort is mostly invisible, though it may be represented by books or typing or the like. Biographies of many artists are boring because the artists don’t necessarily do that much with their lives. Unless they’re unusually social or unusually sexual, they draw, they pain, they write—none of which lend themselves to narrative. One can write about influences and encounters and so on, but many people have interesting influences and encounters but never go on to do important work, as the artist does.

Movies have an especially hard time with boring writers and thinkers. The Social Network needs a lot of tarted-up, amped up drama to make it compelling; in real life Mark Zuckerberg appears to have spent most of his life at a keyboard and to have been in a monogamous relationship since he was 19 or 20. A Beautiful Mind also dramatizes the discovery moments in math, but the bulk of the movie focuses on dramatizing schizophrenia instead. Novels have similar problems. Few works of narrative art have plots that are motivated by ideas or intellectual curiosity—instead they focus on the interwoven meanings of sex, money, social status, and death. All are fine topics but one wonders if there is more out there.

TV and film, even more than the novel, are about dramatizing the exterior. Anything inside that can’t be represented outside doesn’t exist, but it’s so often what’s inside that counts most. If the soul does not live outside the body, it must not exist at all. The camera reminds us that we do exist, and we live for the adulation of others. That is so hard to resist that we barely know the people who do resist it; for one thing, they aren’t on TV, are rarely in any media, and as such they are the dark matter of contemporary society, everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Yet they may be the real-ist people of all. If there once was such a thing as natural existence, TV has taken that away, and those who actively cultivate the TV-social-media-Internet-gossip mindset may not have it all. They are faux people, pod people, and that scares because they cannot be relied on to produce a consistent set of behaviors over time, which we usually call personality. One purpose of religion is to enforce a set of behavior codes that allow reasonable forward planning and projection. Arts & Entertainments encourages us to think that maybe there are parts of religion that we think more seriously about, and that fame as a secular religion has its perils that are often not seen until after it has been achieved.

Life: Morality and majority edition

“The audience only has one way of expressing its interest—by watching. They might watch because they love you. They might watch because they hate you. They might watch because they’re sick. Doesn’t matter. Is that good or bad? The question doesn’t make any sense. Good is whatever the audience watches.”

—Christopher Beha, Arts & Entertainments, which is surprisingly taut and clever. The book is also a defense of privacy and an exploration of what the self might be.

One could write a surprisingly interesting comparison and contrast between Arts & Entertainments and F. H. Sandbach’s The Stoics.

A longer post will follow.

The Death of the Novel and Ryan Holiday’s “Trust Me, I’m Lying”

“As Chris Hedges, the philosopher and journalist, wrote, ‘In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle this frustration.’

As a manipulator, I certainly encourage and fuel this age. So do the content creators.” (67-8)

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Trust Me LyingI have read a million essays, most dumb, about the Death of the Novel or the Death of Literature; “Anxiety of influence: how Facebook and Twitter are reshaping the novel” is one recent specimen, though there will no doubt be others: the topic seems as attractive to the essay writing set as cat pictures and porn are to Internet users. Yet the quoted passage from Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator resonates more than most samples in the genre. Reality is complicated and the best novels, and narrative art generally, strives to capture that reality. Does a novel make a cultural sound if no one is there to read it?

“In an age of images and entertainment” it might also be useful to recall the Stephenson quote posted a few days ago:

Literate people used to spend a lot of time reading books, but during the Internet years those have begun to seem more and more like a distinct minority: a large and relatively well-off minority, to be sure, but one that simply doesn’t register in the electronic media, as vampires are invisible to mirrors. [. . .] Books, though, and the thoughts that go through the heads of their readers, are too long and complex to work on the screen—but it a talk show, a PowerPoint presentation, or a webpage. Booksih people sense this. [. . .]

If bookishness were just a niche pastime, like stamp collecting or waveboarding, none of this would really matter. But it’s more than that. It is the collective memory and accumulated wisdom of our species.

Not all hobbies are created equal. I wonder too if bookishness makes one less susceptible to the media manipulations Holiday describes in Trust Me, I’m Lying. “Less susceptible” is of course not the same as “immune.” Nonetheless, I would take from the book several lessons:

1. Beware the cheap, faux outrage that is seemingly everywhere online.

2. Realize that people are still herd animals—a point Holiday makes—and that while this is often adaptive (if everyone is literally running in one direction, there’s probably a reason) it has many drawbacks. Intellectually and economically it is often not good to be part of the herd.

3. Most people don’t separate news and entertainment, though few think explicitly about this point. Whatever larger cultural structures might have existed to enforce this separation at one point are if not gone altogether then mostly gone, and Trust Me, I’m Lying is a eulogy of sorts.

4. The environment in which we evolved for tens of thousands of years or more is very different from the one in which we live now; though that’s an obvious point, the many ways in which now and then are different still surprise me. Consider:

the public is misinformed about a situation that we desperately need to solve. But heartbreaking sadness does not spread well. Through the selective mechanism of what spreads—and gets traffic and pageviews—we get suppression not by omission but by transmission.

5. Trust Me, I’m Lying raises my estimation of academia, at least slightly.

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.

Thoughts on A Man of Parts — David Lodge

* A Man of Parts is surprisingly dull despite H. G. Wells’s salacious, important life; there are too many passages like this:

Amber seemed to him a golden girl that summer and autumn, an almost mythical creature, such as the gods of classical Greece coveted and descended from the heights of Olympus to ravish in human disguise or in the form of some animal or bird.

The novel is dutiful yet has a limited feeling for what it’s like to be a writer; the novel deserves comedy but it isn’t particularly funny. There are good moments:

“You hear so much talk about sex, and read about it in books, and you don’t know what or who to believe, and anyway, words can never tell you what it’s actually like. Is it wonderful, or just ordinary?”
“It’s both wonderful and ordinary,” he said.

which capture the feeling of much of life; so often it’s two or more contradictory things at once, and the question of ordinariness or extraordinariness say much about the temperament of the consciousness doing the observing.

* The travails and politics of the Fabian Society arise in so many novels set in the 1890 – 1929 period, but in this novel their machinations are dull. Something like A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book covers similar territory but much more effectively, and more strangely.

* Science itself is mostly absent, as it is not from, say, Ian McEwan’s Solar or Peter Watt’s Blindsight.

* Novels about people who really know things are surprisingly rare.

Briefly noted: The Great Man — Kate Christensen

The Great Man is one of the best novels I’ve read recently; it should be cited more often. Almost every page delights. It’s the sort of novel I should hate but yet don’t. A longer essay on it is coming, but it’s coming far behind work on Asking Anna, a novel of mine you’ll see more about shortly, and work-for-money. Nonetheless here is one characteristic passage from early in the novel:

“Please sit down,” said Teddy; she intended it as a command. She wasn’t impressed by Henry. She guessed he was forty or thereabouts. He looked like a lightweight, the kind of young man you saw everywhere these days, gutless and bland. He wore soft cotton clothing, a little rumpled from the heat and long drive in the car—she would have bet it was a Volvo. She could smell domesticity on him, the technologically up-to-date apartment on the Upper West Side, the ambitious, hard-edged wife—women were the hard ones at that age. Men turned sheepish and eager to please after about forty. Oscar had been the same way; he’d turned into a bit of hangdog at around forty and hadn’t fully regained his chutzpah until he’d hit fifty or so, but even then, she had never lost interest in him, and she was still interested in him now, even though he was gone.

We learn more about Teddy than about the stages of life and yet she, like almost every character, is half right half the time. One could spend an hour well on this paragraph in a fiction-writing class.

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