Books and Literature, Culture

Jennifer duBois’s second novel, Cartwheel, is an example of psychological realism done right, that is to say, not locked into a desperate schemata designed to make each act of each character a Newtonian inevitability set into elegant motion within the heatless, frictionless word problem of The Way We Live Now; rather, it’s a fraught, cock-eyed rending of minds made ever more inscrutable the deeper we delve into them, a sort of dissection that ends with a pile of catalogued parts that can never again be whole. This is how the mind really works, or I should say instead, how it is, but too much realist writing has never gotten over Freud and sees consciousness as a knot to be untangled into a genealogy. Cartwheel is full of minds that make less sense as the book goes on, less sense to us and less sense to their own fictional selves. Superficially a novel about a notorious murder, it becomes a book about the obscurity and impossibility of motive, about the odd fact that self is as much a conceit as narrative; that as there aren’t actually stories in the world, neither are there selves.

The novel is both loosely and precisely based on the murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, or put another way, on the Amanda Knox affair, reset to Argentina, but following the general contours of that case closely. I’d heard about but hadn’t read duBois’s first novel; I should be honest and admit that the descriptions of the thing didn’t especially appeal to me; the setup sounded like the sort of prize-bait I try to avoid. I should maybe give it a chance. But I like lurid literature—I mean, I’m not above rereading Call Me by Your Name for the sex, for instance—and I was slightly fascinated by the Kercher/Knox story, as, I think, any former exchange student must be. So I grabbed Cartwheel from the library as a wild card and figured I’d read it in a night.

In fact, the murder story is a sort of MacGuffin; though the details are changed, it’s almost immediately evident that we’re not going to stray too far from the Knox case. What we get, instead, is a series of chapters that wind in and out of the consciousness of Knox-manquée Lily Hayes, her sort-of boyfriend Sebastien, her father, and Eduardo Campos, the official prosecuting her case. All of them are thoroughly introspective, fully convinced of their own insights into their own motives, and thoroughly, tragically deluded. But—and this is the book’s neat trick, its welcome departure from the norm of American “literary fiction”: their delusions are never that they misapprehend something essential about their own character, that they believe themselves to be altruists, say, when they’re really egoists; that they’ve convinced themselves they’re doing good when in fact they’re just reenacting some evil done to them long ago.

Instead, they keep circling a core of self that isn’t there; they’re not orbiting a star, but a black hole, a well so deep and dense that it approximates solidity through a kind of nonexistence. They’re all reference and no referent; a set of contingencies reflecting only each other. Now, there are some predictable bits; the effect isn’t absolute. Lily and her family are burdened by the loss of an earlier child and sibling; Eduardo, the prosecutor is confounded by a fickle, disastrous marriage. And still, the pervading sadness in Andrew and Maureen Hayes, Lily’s divorced parents, feeds mostly on itself, even as they both—both of them intellectuals—cast back in hopeless hopefulness to the ur-tragedy of losing a child, while Eduardo’s dogged, moralistic pursuit of Lily in the murder case wills itself into a parallel with the flights of Eduardo’s wife rather than being naturally generated by them. Lily is the most obscure of all of them, and we can believe that she both did and did not murder that girl; that if she didn’t, she might have; that if she verifiably did, she might not.

This is a kind of fiction I wish we got more of: subversively resistant to the idea that human beings are a quantity to be known. In it, we are utterly alien to ourselves, and our lives aren’t hemmed in by the conventions of narrative and psychology, but keep messily, insistently transgressing them.

As in, Jerk

Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, The Life of the Mind

Dave Eggers’s The Circle has won a lot of critical praise from traditional book-review types and a lot of derisive snorts from those of us—I count myself, somewhat embarrassingly, among them—who have both computers and business degrees for its comic ignorance of how computers function, what the internet is, or how these corporations are created, funded, and managed. But, although it’s easy enough, and fun, to giggle at a book whose near-future information architects say “in the cloud” with the same skittish incomprehension as your mother or your sixtysomething boss; although it’s easy enough, and fun, to plunk Eggers into the dour, self-reverential gentlemen’s club of Twitter-hating Franzens, forever clearing their throats and folding back their broadsheets in the Anglosaxon gloom of a midday liver lunch with the brocade curtains pulled; the less funny, unfortunate truth about The Circle is that it isn’t just an obtuse book, but a bad one: badly written, poorly conceived, and deeply uncharitable.

The main character is a young woman named Mae, freshly rescued from a dull job at a public utility somewhere in the Central Valley and plopped in an entry-level position in the novel’s eponymous Google-manqué. She rises through the company, and although the narrative frequently stops to mete out in actual, numerical detail the various impressive scores she receives on the company’s 100-point internal grading system, our principle experience of Mae via a limited third-person voice that never exits her rather limited head is a skein of never-ending idiocy and incompetence. Eggers clearly set out to write her as a naïf whose unfolding experience and awareness of The Circle both prompts and mirrors our own, but he accidentally wrote her as one of the shallowest dummies you’re likely to encounter this side of a Tom Friedman column; you wonder how she made it out of high school, let alone how she managed to get hired by the choicest tech firm in the world, connections or no.

She wanders around bedazzled by everything, and the prose reads like an unapproved merger of bad Young-Adult writing and SkyMall catalog copy. More skillfully done, this sort of thing might come off as satire, but here it just reads as clumsy writing, and when errors pop up, you can’t quite tell if they’re meant to be mocking Mae’s misunderstandings or if they’re just errors. There’s a particularly odd passage in which, while taking us on one more interminable tour of the company’s campus and all its myriad wonders, we encounter, “Another Circle team [that] was close to dissembling tornadoes as soon as they formed.” Does Eggers mean disassembling? Would that actually make any more sense? Would it be better writing?

Nitpicking copyediting issues is trivial and a little unfair, but there’s a broader problem here, a problem that the giggly eviscerations of Eggers’s internet non-comprehension hint at: the texture is all wrong; The Circle’s ersatzness is . . . ersatz. There are piles of detail—the naming conventions of buildings, the layout of the campus, the many projects that many teams in many departments are working on, etc.—but there’s not the slightest sense that any of these things exist except as convenient ideograms for Big Google Company Doing Big Google Company Things. A really good workplace novel, a really good workplace satire—Then We Came to the End; On the Floor—hauls the essential unreality of working life out of the weird blandness of working life as much as out of the particulars. Eggers famously (notoriously?) bragged that he hadn’t done any research on tech firms when writing this book, which is clearly not true. If anything, the book suggests an unhealthy infatuation with the self-presentation of those very internet companies, all happy-happy people playing ping-pong in the artisanal cafeteria while dreaming up the next disruptive inflection point in human history. Eggers exaggerates all this to a point light-years beyond absurdity, but he never manages to land a convincing blow because his target is itself an illusion.

So a dumb character stumbles through a poorly conceived fictional company until—spoilers—she arrives at her Winston Smith moment and loves Big Brother. Except she always loved Big Brother; her moments of doubt are petty and procedural; she always gets over them, and quickly. She must betray her friend and mentor, Annie, but the betrayal is such a foregone conclusion, so telegraphed, so obvious the moment Annie’s own first doubts emerge that you mostly wonder why it took so long to get there. Mae has already abandoned her family. Oh, and she drives her ex off a cliff, literally. That scene has a quality of slapstick. Intentional? In a book so hasty and thoughtless, it’s hard to tell. Anyway, she loves Big Brother. The Circle has turned—in about a year—into a force of global domination, and Mae is, like, cool with that. Eggers’s ideology appears to lie with her dead ex, but he’s dead, and in any event, his speeches mostly sounded like bad college-paper op-eds. I suppose Eggers made him insufferable in order to make him more complicated, to make the point that unpleasant people and cranks and kooks can be right, too, but the guy mostly comes off as a bozo. And despite living for years now with revelations about government spying and subversion of the online world, about a complex interplay of antagonism and collusion between spy agencies and tech businesses, this is a straight-up evil corporation; the hapless government is just hapless. Mae isn’t manipulated; she isn’t tortured; she isn’t a skeptic converted or corrupted by The Circle’s promise of wealth and power; she’s nothing that would make her interesting, and she doesn’t change. Eggers sets his come-to-Jesus moment in the middle of a megachurch.

But what bugs me the most, and what makes this book worth reviewing as an artifact of an attitude, is the unfair and uncharitable way Eggers writes the rest of us idiots, who appear here only as a vast, unthinking mass eating whatever shit the internet shovels at us out of some desperate, pathetic, mewling, self-worshipping desire to be loved, or something. One of The Circle’s supposed-to-be terrifying slogans is “Privacy is theft.” Well, no. Privacy is respect. But sharing (“Sharing is caring” is another scare-phrase here) is human; the desire to know and to be known is one of the bases of cognition, conscience, and sentience. There’s nothing wrong with lampooning narcissism, and the internet enables plenty of it, but this evident belief that there is something fundamentally disordered about rating your favorite restaurants or poking your friends is a load of snobbish, patrician garbage. If modernity and modernism are the history of human atomization, of the centrifugal forces of technology and economy flinging our communities and families ever farther away from each other, of the dislocation of the human mind and the human soul, then how do we find ourselves in an era when some small part of our old communities—gossipy, yes, and sometimes without secrets, and very judgmental, and yet, because we know them, very often good—can be regained, only to find that many of our writers, who are supposed to be concerned with things like the mind and the soul, hate it, and think that we’re children and fools for wanting it, even if our desire should indeed be tempered with reserve.

I am not a technological utopian. I don’t think that “information wants to be free” is an adequate ideology for the perfection of the human condition. I also don’t think that governments should be in the intellectual property racket, and I think Google and the like ought to be broken up, although I’d probably give them a pass until I got done with the banks. I worry about my privacy, both the privacy that I sign away when I log onto gmail or Amazon and the privacy that’s wrenched from me by the panty-sniffing fear salesmen in the US government. I would gladly eat my own eyeballs before reading another restaurant review on Trip Advisor. I find Instragram slightly upsetting, but I’m willing to admit that’s probably just me getting a little bit old.

But it’s unkind and unperceptive to assume that people’s sometimes ill-considered flight to convenience is a mark of some vast inadequacy. Insofar as we encounter any citizens of the internet in Eggers’s book, they’re a horrifying stampede of gimme-gimme-gimme status-obsessed zomboids who will kill a man through an overabundance of likes. Yeah, well, maybe some of them are just busy moms with long commutes to lousy jobs in a shit economy. Maybe some of them are wannabe reviewers who got one too many rejection notes from McSweeny’s and decided to start their own blogs. Maybe some of them are gay dudes in Russia or activists in Myanmar who find pseudonymity convenient and safe. Maybe some of them just like taking pictures of their fucking food. Maybe some of them were forced to move across the country for work and this is just how they stay in touch. Maybe some of them are uncomfortable with the compromises they make to bank online or e-file their taxes. And maybe some of them are trolls and misogynists and scammers and crooks. But they are, in fact, people, for whom The Circle, in whose sympathies they supposedly lie, hasn’t got any time at all.

Update: I was not the first to this post’s title, or at least, the punchline. Credit and attribution where due.

A Pound of Music

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Religion, Science

How do you solve a problem like Stephen Pinker?

Ross Douthat notes the curious convergence: that “the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods,” which were, according to Pinker, “explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable,” lead inexorably to the economoral worldview to which Pinker has–surely a coincidence–already subscribed. Fuck Theory, meanwhile, notices that Pinker seems unfamiliar with the philosophers he name drops to open his essay. (By the way, Pinker also mangles Bergson’s élan vital, elsewhere and otherwise in the essay, if only in passing.) FT might be too kind. He damns our scientician for having failed to read the primary sources, but the real knock is that Pinker could have avoided a lot of these basic errors just by reading Will Durant. He could have read Wikipedia! Is there anything as unforgivably lazy in this great age of the internet as a man incapable of feigning authority over a couple thousand words?

Look, I’m a materialist. I don’t believe in the supernatural. I’m an atheist. I believe that the mind is an emergent phenomena of the brain. You might say that I constitute the natural constituency for Pinker’s argument, which is what makes its obtuseness and inadequacy so annoying. It gets everything backward. He says, for example, that science wipes away “the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces [and] undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.” No word on what testable hypotheses prohibit second degree murder or which codicil of evolutionary psychology demands that we not remove the mattress tags, but let’s allow the point. It is true, after all, that the sorts of bureaucratic rationalization that led to more modern systems of trial and punishment are kissin’ cousins with Pinker’s over-broadly defined science. Nevertheless, we end up in a bizarre territory wherein morality is defined by utility but the “science” behind it is a transcendent ideology:

Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.

The implication of this complaint, and the essential thesis of the article, is that science, whatever that is, uniquely among all human disciplines and endeavors, is not subject to utilitarian analysis, is not merely a mathematical function, a delta of positive change to “human flourishing.”

In fact, I agree. I think it would be a shame to look at the advancement of scientific knowledge, the immense growth of our species’ physical insight into the world and the universe, as a merely additive process whose sole measure is the number of new patents, cures, and minutes of extended battery life. Yes, there will surely be some practical outcome of learning that dolphins give each other names, but there is something essentially miraculous in simply knowing it to be true. And this is why I find Pinker’s claim so utterly bizarre, as if science must stake out a monopoly on the extraordinary, all our other transcendent experiences subsumed to its totalitarian scope. Pardon me, but isn’t that just weird? Religion claims to give life meaning, but by proving the Biblical creation myth false, science, gives life meaning. Replacing one false, totalizing claim with another is an odd way to run a debate team, if you know what I’m saying.

But then, this is where Pinker really wanders down a dusty path:

Science has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space. Like great works of art, these are not just pretty pictures but prods to contemplation, which deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and of our place in nature.

Slow down there, Percy Bysshe! Okay, I agree that pictures of the Earth from its own satellite are pretty fucking lovely, but what is, and from whence comes, sublime beauty? What does it mean to “mean” to be human? When you say, “our place in nature,” I presume you mean something more than our position on the food chain and our direct impact on global climatic systems. Cognitive neuroscience may lay claim to the question of how and why our particular subset of upright mammals perceives beauty as it does, but clearly we’re talking about something more than a reducible pleasure response to a Fibonacci-derived golden ration. Why do we find the Hubble deep field beautiful? Why, actually, do we artificially color it to make it beautiful? And what is “beautiful”?

These are lines of inquiry that real scientists (as opposed to commercial popularizers) and scholars of the humanities and artists and authors think about with much greater depth and subtlety than you’d suspect reading this crackpot essay, which prefers to lob vague accusations of disastrous postmodernism at the humanities as if it were an essay in Commentary in 1985. I mean, if Pinker reveals himself as something less than a scholar of philosophy at the beginning, he shows himself as an even worse art critic later on. Cheering for a new, scientific art like a bizarro Soviet, he actually says:

The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes.

This is the rough equivalent of James Turrell demanding that chemists to avail themselves of the unknown discipline of gas chromatography. Yo, Pinky, it’s Robert Smithson calling from 1970. He’d like to sell you a large, earthwork time machine. Artists have long embraced science and technology in their work and their practice. Has Pinker ever heard of Steve Kurtz? Does he know about collectives like Informationlab? Is he aware that the Oberlin Conservatory established the Technology in Music and Related Arts program in 1967? Does he read science fiction? Shit, I mean, has he heard of a little-known avant-garde filmmaker named James Cameron? Physician, heal thyself.

A Functionary of the National Security Agency Encounters the Holy Spirit at His Work

Books and Literature, Poetry

Priest, confessor, bureaucrat, alone
in a warehouse full of ordinary dreams,
aspirations and unexpurgated streams
of consciousness, all context, lacking tone
or affect, notices a bird has flown
in through a window, perched among the beams,
black-beaked and tiny, singing, it seems
semi-demiurgic, though a known
and common type, taxonomized and quite
familiar; still, indoors, becomes a kind
of miracle, unseen except by this
thin-wristed man beneath fluorescent light,
glorious excess born of a bored mind,
transubstantiated into bliss.

Have Plot, Will Unravel

Books and Literature, Culture

Although I’ve called him morally obtuse, I can’t bring myself to dislike Ezra Klein. He may be just another young hack on the make in Washington, a careerist and a faddish liberal, but unlike so many of his peers, there seems to be something accidental about his success, something less gratuitous and self-willed. But it still came too early, and it ruined him. He ought to be the most popular teacher at a middle school in Columbus, or the director of a nice Reform summer camp, underpaid but decent, one of those rare grown-ups we all remember as having steadied us through the awful middle passage of our youth. Instead, he writes for the Washington Post and makes speeches at think tanks. I can’t begrudge him his success, but I do almost pity him for it; he’ll run faster, stretch his arms father . . . . And one fine morning—

Anyway, Klein’s writing for the Post is drudgery; the interior monologue of staff-level Washington is unceasingly banal, a pseudo-economic pidgin of legalese and bad PR-firm argot so divorced from ordinary human concern or communication as to become a form of language-looking gibberish, lorem ipsum. But a friend of mine on twitter forwarded me his brief, recent musings on Gatsby, presumably occasioned by the arrival of a new, gaudy film, and if only because it occasioned a re-reading, I had to reply.

I don’t care for the phrase, great American novel, but you can’t escape it; it exists, at very least, as a genre, albeit more aspirational than actual. American literature is littered with the wreckage of titanic Summa Theologiæ, the preferred template. Fitzgerald himself attempted that sort of thing, and isn’t it interesting that his only truly remembered work is a mere 50,000 words that could nearly make Katherine Mansfield look loquacious? Even so, no one can quite agree what it is, or what it’s about; the fact that so slim a work can mean so many things to so many people, admirers and detractors alike, suggests something at once uncanny and ineffable about it, something inevitable, a word to which I’ll return

Gatsby isn’t my favorite novel, and you certainly won’t hear me, as you’ll hear some of its more hyperbolic admirers, call it perfect. There are a few perfect pieces of art in the world, but none of them is a novel. Fitzgerald’s lyricism sometimes gets the best of him, and he’s obviously burdened with some of the prejudices of his time, although we can never know which of these belong to the author and which of them to Nick Carraway. But you still won’t find a more well wrought or more finely honed book; 50,000 words seems like a trifle, but 50,000 words sustaining so singular a voice seem, to another writer, as impossible and daring as a guy walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon.

So. What to make of Klein’s complaint?

I love the writing and, for that matter most of the book. What I can’t stand is the finale.

The book’s denouement is a series of ever-more insane coincidences. Gatsby and Daisy hit a pedestrian. The pedestrian proves to be Tom’s mistress. Tom persuades her husband that Gatsby was driving the car. The husband kills Gatsby then kills himself.

That’s fine for fiction. Dark Knight Rises wasn’t very believable, either. But it’s a problem for a book with Something To Say. The end of the Great Gatsby doesn’t feel inevitable. It feels unlikely. And thus its lessons don’t mean much.

This, first of all, is a misreading, and I wonder if it isn’t in part the result of a bad memory for the particular details of the story. There are some well-known problems with the internal chronology of Gatsby, but this bit of plotting builds almost from the beginning. The connection between Tom, Wilson, and Wilson’s wife (Tom’s mistress) Myrtle isn’t just happenstance; the Wilson residence is on the main route between tony Long Island and the city; and the tragic inevitability of Myrtle’s death isn’t that Gatsby and Daisy run down some pedestrian who, mirabile visu, just happens to turn out to be Myrtle, but rather that Myrtle has been waiting and watching for Gatsby’s car, which she mistakenly believes to belong to Tom Buchanan, and that she runs out into traffic to try to stop it. If the line sets are visible and the first electric peeks out from behind the black border, still, the knowledge that you’re in the theater does not a deus ex machina make.

Hey, though, opinions may differ; reasonable adults may disagree. Of all the artifices of narrative fiction, plot is the most unnatural and the most unreal. One author’s elegant resolution is another man’s overwrought coincidence, and I’m not going to ding Klein too hard for falling into the latter camp, even if I do half suspect that it’s the result of a flawed recollection from a not-recent-enough reading. What I will toss tomatoes about, however, are the “lessons.”

The idea that Gatsby is a sort of sociological survey of the gilded age, with the characters as archetypes playing out changing ideas about wealth, status, and morality is an easy one, and wrong. I’m sorry, but you’ve mistaken this novel’s setting for its theme, the scenery for the schema. Fitzgerald was undoubtedly interested in money, class, and the passing away of the old guard in the face of something new, but all this is the background against which something more human moves. Gatsby is sometimes criticized for a lack of psychological depth, but this, like the desire for a less coincidental plot, is a kind of prudishness and a just-so belief about what a novel ought to be; it sounds like a nice old lady looking at a piece of great modern art and sighing, But what’s it a picture of? If Gatsby lacks some of the more ostentatious experimentation with perspective and consciousness that characterized high modernism, Fitzgerald did dare to challenge the convention that every character in a book must act in Cartesian accord with his own internal machinery. Talk about coincidence! Part of the magic in Gatsby is that its characters can’t be easily explained or psychoanalyzed. Like I said: human.

Klein says:

As Nick Gillespie writes, most of the Great Gatsby perceptively sketches a moment in which new money, new immigrants, a new economy, and new social mores were overwhelming the old order. The old order triumphs in the book, but only with the help of authorial providence. Absent that car ride, Gatsby’s story might have proven a happy one. And 88-years-later, when the film is being made by a guy named Baz Luhrmann in a country run by a guy named Barack Hussein Obama, we know who really won, and it isn’t Tom. F. Scott Fitzgerald had it right, at least up until the end.

We can leave aside for a moment the cheap teleology of social progress at the end, there, and the Nick Gillespie piece he cites is really just about Nick Gillespie, but right in the center of the paragraph is that same odd complaint, repeated. The story, absent “authorial providence,” a happy one? Once more, I’ve got to wonder when he last read the book. Gatsby’s and Daisy’s affair ends that day in the city, when she admits that she also loved her husband. She will stay with him. She won’t say that she never loved him; she can’t. When Tom tells the room that he and Daisy have been through things that none of them will understand, it’s devastating because it’s true. When, later, after the accident, we see Tom and Daisy through the window at the table together, his hand on hers, talking quietly, conspirators to the end, we are meant to realize that this was the only possible outcome with or without the accident. (As for the idea that Tom “wins,” that the book “old order triumphs,” well; Tom and Daisy flee, and Nick goes home as well. An odd victory, no?)

Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Jordan, the Wilsons, Wolfshiem—the title and Fitzgerald’s skillful deflection throughout obscure the fact that this is a book about Nick Carraway, who gives his voice and consciousness to the novel. Nick is an extraordinary character; poetic, ironic, sexually ambiguous, a liar—and Gatsby is a Bildungsroman of disappointment. He goes East to seek a fortune independent of his past, and it ends in failure and regret. The beatific image of the new world and the boundless future beckons only as a false promise; the present only ever becomes the past, and the future eternally recedes from us. It’s a terribly sad and pessimistic vision, although one with the ring of truth, and in a time when “a guy named Baz Lurhman” cranks out entertainments whose thin veneer of contemporaneity masks a devastating nostalgia for a vanished past and “a country run by a guy named Barack Hussein Obama” likewise bubbles in the gloriously false promise of its own lost preeminence, I’d say a poet of disappointment is very much what we need.

The Coincidental Fundamentalist

Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Culture

I’m about to finish revising my novel, The Bend of the World, which I hesitatingly call my first novel, because really, it’s my third. I wrote the first (mostly) during my senior year at Oberlin and my second a couple of years later when I was back in Pittsburgh and insinuating myself professionally into the world of arts management—still my day job. They had in common only that they were gay (I mean that in both the sexual and the adolescent insult sense) and terrible. The first was called The Atlas of the End of the World, and yes, I ripped off that title for my current work, since it was one of the few redeeming qualities. It also had a pretty good opening line: “That night we drove as if the driving would save him.” Ok, maybe a little histrionic, but not bad for a twenty-two-year-old. It was a bad pastiche of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Berlin Stories and Portrait of the Artist—I’m trying to make a joke about my Stephen Hero being a Stephen Zero. And failing.

My second novel was called Be That As It May, and once again, the title is the closest it gets to possessing a redeeming quality. Ah, no, to be fair, it has one good scene involving a drunken cop and a small-town gay bar. It also has a couple of really bad sex scenes, one in a swimming pool; sort of a fanfictive prefiguring of some of the hotter passages in Call Me By Your Name. My boyfriend’s first comment after reading the first draft of my new book was, “It’s not as sexy as your last one.” This was a compliment.

To my own credit, I guess, I pretty quickly recognized these first two forays as shitty work, although I did send the opening chapter of the second to a few agents and am to this day a little staggered by the generous restraint required to reply with a mere this isn’t really the sort of thing we’re looking for right now. I then spent a few years forgoing fiction altogether, until I started noodling around with my ongoing novel, whose opening quarter I think I rewrote six or seven times, and whose latter half kept wandering off. Literally. Like, the characters kept going to North Carolina, Florida, New York. They had no business going to any of these places, but I couldn’t stop them. I really wanted Johnny to give a talk on UFOlogy at a lousy convention center in Central Florida. I really wanted a conspiracy to involve the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. Or maybe more to the point, Johnny really wanted to give that talk, and that lighthouse really wants to be part of a conspiracy. Snip, snip.

A confession. I’ve always been annoyed by writers and artists who yak on about their process, a word I associate with a cloudy concoction made of one part self-indulgence and one part self-doubt, but long before my book appears to the public, I’m beginning to see how unavoidable it is, and how it must pay to have an anecdote at the ready. My friends and relatives keep asking me what it’s like to write a book, and I don’t actually know what to say. I imagine myself gazing off into the middle distance as a NPR personality warbles in my ear, then answering bemusedly, “Well, Steve, it’s like . . . writing a book.” In fact, once I managed to get myself a deadline thanks to the hard work of an editor and an agent who seem to think that this thing I’ve made is actually somewhat better than not half bad, I found the work of it a pleasure and joy, although I can now say, months into editing, that I am getting awfully tired of the little fucker. As to what that work consisted off, well, I just don’t know. Of writing? And as for what it all means? Uh, my Corporate Sponsors have asked me to emphasize the following message: It Is What It Is.

Hang with me, guys. Thesis: there exists a desire to see the process of creating a novel through the lens of what we popularly suppose a novel is. There are preexisting narrative and psychological expectations. There’s an expected shape to the thing. Or: the form of the work is supposed to mirror the form of the work. The story of the writer’s encounter with his own writing should follow a psychic and temporal line. The author should undergo an experience of self-revision, emerging from the ordeal altered by the events. His process should itself be a story. He should, in fact, be a character. Well, as much as I bitch about the expectations of narrative and the deranging influence of too much realism, my book does have a plot of sorts, but you won’t be surprised to learn that I have an equally hard time answering the question, “What’s it about?” I don’t really know. The conspiracy narrative was the formal model. Everything ought to seem uncannily connected, but with the indelible sense that it’s all just coincident. Actually, this is my personal theory of narrative in any event: a conspiracy theory of reality.

Revolting Youth

Books and Literature, Culture, Media

When I was a teenager growing up in Uniontown, PA, a half-sinister, half-beautiful wreck of a mining town, the seat of Fayette County, which everyone called Fayette Nam, which ought to give you some idea, I had an English teacher named Ed Cupp. Mr. Cupp was a big slab of a man who kept his desk at the back of the room, something I can recall no other teacher ever doing. I always assumed it had something to do with his nocturnal activities, which we all assumed to be the cause of his frequent headaches and his occasional habit of resting his head on his crossed arms, or of keeping the lights off during class. He once wrote a poem about another teacher at our high school who’d been a great beauty when she still had her maiden name—I’m not quoting, but he put it very much like that. What I remember about the poem is that it rhymed “chimpanzees” with “phalanges.” He taught 11th-grade Honors English, which was where I read Moby Dick for the first time. The class was supposed to be difficult or whatever, but Mr. Cupp didn’t give a shit about grades, and he used to give us these hysterical fill-in-the-blanks tests. After Moby Dick the first question on the quiz was, “Call me ______.” This one kid answered “crazy,” and Mr. Cupp thought it was so funny that he shared it with the whole class the next day. He probably gave the kid an A. He loved books, and he loved literature, and even though he used to make mooing noises at us when we said something wrong or just dull and predictable, I think he loved teaching, but he also recognized the fundamental absurdity of trying to teach an art that manages to be both essential and frivolous to a bunch of egotists—because all teenagers are fundamentally egotists—who had other obsessions and preoccupations.

I’m not a teacher, but I do like to moo. In the second paragraph of his review of The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner, James Wood, who has other obsessions and preoccupations, says:

The novel’s narrator, an artist in her early twenties nicknamed Reno (it’s where she’s from), is obsessed with speed, machines, and land-speed records. (Art seems to be a subsidiary concern.)

Call me crazy. Late in the novel, Reno is at a party for an artist who appeared earlier as a pushy self-promoter trying to wrangle a show out of a prominent gallerist. Reno says:

John Dogg was not a complete idiot. He had merely seemed like one. It was wanting something a great deal that made people embarrassing—which was why I’d hidden my wants around Sandro and his friends, and Giddle, too, pretended I didn’t want an art career when I did. Pretended I wasn’t jealous of Gloria, of Helen Hellenberger, of Talia, when I was.

Kushner is a distressingly great writer. I’m jealous. And this passage makes explicit what she makes clear in every moment of the book; that Reno’s affectless affect is, duh, a put-on; that she isn’t  “wide-eyed and even dangerously porous,” a Woody description that’s supposed to be incisive but comes across as snide and a little condescending; she’s afraid. Reno does like speed, and she does like motorcycles, but they’re not her obsession. Her participation in the speed trials out on the Bonneville flats are part of a vaguely conceived art project; after she wrecks, she makes the team that’s taken her in drive her hobbled body back out to the course so she can photograph the tracks she’s made. That isn’t subsidiary. She really wants to be an artist. Even her descriptions of terrible motorcycle and automobile wrecks, in particular the crash of a driver named Flip Farmer (which Wood excerpts in his review), reveal a mind attuned to the visual, the abstract, and the geometric.

Reno considers this quality of her own character as well, later in the book, having been marooned in Italy, where she’s ostensibly gone to film (and be filmed by) the very Italian team that she encountered at Bonneville. It doesn’t work out—heartbreak, revolution, etc., and when she tries to talk to the team over the phone, they seem almost to have forgotten about her. She has a realization: that they are actually interested in speed records, whereas she is interested in the aesthetics of speed records. She isn’t a driver. Well, she is. But it’s a subsidiary concern.

It’s such a fundamental error of reading that I honestly wondered at first if Wood had just stopped reading halfway through. He wouldn’t be the first book reviewer to quit midway, and I think I’d have held it against him less. No. He definitely read the whole thing. He knows the mechanics of the plot right up to the end. Well then, what would explain it? I remembered something Edmond Caldwell wrote about Wood’s equally weird treatment of Bolaño:

We’ve seen how Wood, in his review of Death with Interruptions, turned the long-time communist Saramago into an advocate of Original Sin and ‘fallen’ human nature.  It’s in a similar spirit that Wood transforms The Savage Detectives into a story about growing into an adult ‘maturity’ after being disabused of adolescent enthusiasms such as aesthetic and political radicalism.  Bolaño in the 1970s was “an avant-garde poet bristling with mad agendas,” and so are the characters who make up the narrative’s “gang of literary guerillas,” says Wood in his summary of the novel.  Yet Savage Detectives, he goes on to affirm, “is both melancholy and fortifying; and it is both narrowly about poetry and broadly about the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth.”  In other words, zany antics involving things like avant-garde agendas and guerilla gangs are fine as long as they are seen (or can be portrayed) as properly childish preoccupations; a book is “good” and merits a positive review to the extent that its pretty sentences are “about” the putting away of childish things.

Coincidentally (or no?), The Flamethrowers has a lot in common with The Savage Detectives, and Wood’s approving note on just how acutely Kushner satirizes the New York art scene in the 1970s likewise has a lot in common with his belief that Bolaño was making fun of the naïve and youthful radicalism of his “visceral realist” poets. Yes, Bolaño is making fun, but, you know, like, we kid because we love. What Wood doesn’t see, because I think he really considers artists and writers fundamentally ridiculous, however much he might try to convince us, and himself, otherwise, is the deep and true and beautiful affection and sympathy that these writers feel for their characters. Just look at what he offers as praise:

She is funny not at the expense of contemporary art but at the expense of the people who make that art, seeing with clear eyes their bluster and pantomime. She scours her chosen period for its extravagance and histrionics; the parallel with today’s ambition market is obvious. Small worlds resemble each other first.

My emphasis. This is supposed to be a compliment! Which seems extraordinary until you consider the source. He mentions, too, that she’s an art critic. Don’t worry, she’s one of us! In fact, what makes The Flamethrowers so good, what makes Kushner so impressive, is that even the most venal, grasping, ambitious, and pretentious of her imagined avant-gardists are rendered with sympathy and love. She is making fun of the scene and of the art—and yes, of the people—but not at the expense of the people. Actually, she likes her artists and revolutionaries very much, which is why we feel their failures so movingly and so viscerally when they inevitably occur.

What do you say about this kind of criticism? That it praises by mistake? That it turns everything it reads into a whetstone on which it sharpens its ideological axe? Wood would probably say he doesn’t like ideology, that it’s as juvenile and fake as art and poetry, but look at how he begins his review:

Put aside, for the moment, the long postwar argument between the rival claims of realistic and anti-realistic fiction—the seasoned triumphs of the traditional American novel on one side, and the necessary innovations of postmodern fiction on the other. It was never very edifying anyway, each camp busily caricaturing the other. And don’t bother with the newest “debate,” about the properly desirable amount of “reality” that American fiction should currently possess. (Twenty grams, twenty-five grams?) Some novelists, neither obviously traditional nor obviously experimental, neither flagrantly autobiographical nor airily fantastical, blast through such phantom barricades. Often, this is because they have a natural, vivacious talent for telling stories; and these stories—the paradox is important—seem fictively real, cunningly alive. Novelistic vivacity, the great unteachable, the unschooled enigma, has a way of making questions of form appear scholastic.

If your response is a moo, or a huh?, then have a seat, and can I offer you a drink? Who had this argument? What is “anti-realistic fiction”? What is the “traditional American novel”, and what are the “necessary innovations of postmodern fiction”? Is the former Moby Dick? Or Hawthorne? Or is he talking about Philip Roth? Is Pynchon postmodern? Personally, I can’t figure out what postmodernism added to fiction that you won’t find in Tristram Shandy. Shit, I guess Sterne and Melville just had natural, vivacious talent for telling stories. And I would like to believe that I’m cunningly alive myself, although, I don’t know . . . wouldn’t that imply that I prenatally pulled one over on my mom?

Again, this paragraph precedes a glowing review that really wants to make the case that Kushner is just some delightful raconteur spouting stories about absurd people, their stupid art and their dumb, failed revolutions. Just a storyteller! Oh, and a vivacious one, which also comes across as snide and condescending, as faint praise. The Flamethrowers is audacious not in its humor, although it’s funny, but in its seriousness. Its revolutions are doomed, but not because the revolutionaries are children or fools. Both her frauds and her real radicals are suffused with a terrible human want, and they crash against the unwillingness of the world to accommodate their desires. I suppose Wood would have them grow up and find desires that are more aligned with the will of the world. But I don’t think it’s an accident that the book ends in a question.

I don’t want to overtax the comparison of The Flamethrowers to The Savage Detectives, which was, as Caldwell put it, “nothing less than the life-cycle of a generation.” The Flamethrowers is in some ways broader than The Savage Detectives (and it actually takes place over at least three generations), but it is decidedly not epic. Of course, it isn’t “a contemporary rewriting of Flaubert’s novel of 1869, Sentimental Education” either, which is what Wood calls it before nailing (I use the term advisedly) the narrator as “like Frédéric Moreau […] a frustratingly malleable figure a hero almost vacuous except for the exactitude of her noticing.” It doesn’t help that Flaubert’s correspondence makes an appearance in the novel, which makes the comparison seem even more overdetermined—or overloaded, to use the Woodier term. If Reno has a fictional counterpart, it’s Christopher Isherwood, the guy who said that he was a camera, whom Wood would probably also call “wide-eyed and dangerously porous.” (By the way, would you call Isherwood traditional? Postmodern? Well, he wasn’t American, so whatever.) They have different locutions, but a similar eye, and they are both foreign interlopers in a world at once alluring and frightening, full of strivers, liars, men on the make, and opportunistic love affairs. Maybe that blurry margin is what makes Wood so uncomfortable that he’s got to start off with a disquisition apropos nothing else at all.

It Is Better to Marry Than to Paris Is Burning

Books and Literature, Culture, Religion

Something I appreciate about The American Conservative is that at least a few of its writers appear to be actual, believing Christians, rather than the sorts of social lobby entrepreneurs whom we’re usually subjected to when NPR needs to find a dissenting voice on gay marriage or Charles Krauthammer is on vacation and the WaPo decides to have someone rattle on about Obama’s Liberation theology. Daniel Larison’s writings on Orthodoxy always strike me as particularly lovely and truly felt. Maybe this is all part of or related to my weakness for Catholic novelists. Or not. I hope this won’t sound awful and condescending, but as a writer and non-believer, faith is something that I very much want to understand; it’s a part of human experience that I find both fascinating and opaque, and my aesthetic fondness for the High Holy Days liturgies or the Seder isn’t the same thing as true belief. I’m very interested in abiding belief that’s more than either the rah-rah econo-moral hectoring of non-denominational post-Protestantism or my own nostalgic affection for the songs and rituals of my youth. And I apologize, because all of this is a caveat. I am about to read Rob Dreher the riot act.

Due credit: I think Dreher is kind and charitable when he ultimately concludes “if the faith does not recover, the historical autopsy will conclude that gay marriage was not a cause but a symptom, the sign that revealed the patient’s terminal condition.” Is there a sort of condescension there? Yes, but no more so than a gay atheist calling faith “fascinating.” Dreher’s said a lot of objectionable things over the years, but I think he’s been admirably consistent in arguing that “conservative” animus toward gays in both the moral and legal spheres is the regrettable, crippling result of their own theological inadequacies. Unable to make the affirmative case for their own moral vision, in other words, they’re stuck hurling stones at yours. I can’t entirely agree with this thesis; obviously, I don’t buy the affirmative case for their morality; actually, I don’t think that the case exists. But Dreher clearly believes that it does, and I appreciate his intolerance for his ostensible coreligionists when, instead of inspiring through the beatific majesty of their own cosmological order, they are reduced to muttering darkly that the gays are bestial creeps and the culture of PC is censoring their conscience.

But I also think Dreher’s reading of the origins and history of Christian sexual morality is completely bizarre. I haven’t read the book he cites here, but the argument, at least in his paraphrase, is, to put it charitably, tendentious:

It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.

In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.

Well, now, I can agree that it’s unfair to cast Paul as some kind of Jonathan Edwards setting fires in the commune, but who, exactly, is making that argument? I’ll let you decide, but the answer is no one. On the other hand, defining Paul’s teachings as liberating to slaves and women? Let’s just say I’m skeptical that this is borne out by the primary source material; it represents a rather more significant interpretive double pump fake than calling the guy a dour Puritan. Paul’s reputation for intolerance may be exaggerated by the habit of reading contemporary mores into the writings of a very different historical era, but whatever way you slice it, Paul told women to shut up and slaves to obey their masters.

All right—I won’t begrudge the guy one convenient straw man, but I am going to object to this completely ahistoric and frankly dishonest accounting of Paul’s take on marriage. Because you know what the pornographic, sexually exploitative Greco-Roman culture of the time had that first-century Judaism did not? (Decent cuisine? Well, yes, but…) If you guessed monogamous marriage, congratulations, you win the hutch and the Hawaiian vacation. The pre-Rabbinic Jewish tradition that gave birth to early Christianity saw no problem with polygyny, although possessing multiple wives was an affectation of the mostly very rich. (Actually, polygamy in Judaism continued, at least as a legally permissible if rarely practiced option, for another thousand years.) Like our own culture, Roman attitudes toward sex, marriage, and divorce swung between extremes of permissiveness and censure, but the idea that Rome was a louche, thousand-year hotbed of sexual license is flat wrong. Shit, Augustus came to power promising to pass laws that would punish sexual immorality and protect the sanctity of marriage. Sound familiar, America? The Romans may have had legal divorce, but they didn’t have multiple wives.

Okay, so what? Well, Dreher totally misinterprets the meaning and import of Pauline teachings on sex and marriage; they weren’t revolutionary to the gentiles; they were designed for the gentiles. If you’re going to proselytize to the Romans, you’d better—what is the contemporary political idiom?—you’d better distance yourself from the weird, primitive practices of backwards, ancient, tribal peoples. Looking toward Rome via the twenty-first century HBO time machine may give us a view of heaving pagan bosoms and wild orgies, but to a Roman, it was the Eastern Mediterranean that was the land of immodest wealth, exoticism, and sexual license. Paul wasn’t revolutionizing Roman traditions; he was appropriating them. Even the idea that women would have legal rights in a marriage, albeit exceedingly narrow and circumscribed rights, is Roman.

So what Dreher would probably call “traditional” marriage and sexuality is actually a completely weird, circumstantial, hybrid entity that melds the tribal attitudes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy with the practices and structure of Roman legalism. From a businessman’s point of view, I’d call it a very successful, if unlikely, joint venture. But by hauling it forward two thousand years and laying it as a bulwark against what Dreher clearly believes is a sort of neo-pagan secularism presents all sorts of historical problems, and calling it a centerpiece not just of your general morality but of your cosmology, for, you’ll pardon the expression, God’s sake, is foolishness set on a foundation of pure chauvinism. It’s willfully oblivious, and it makes the odd error of over-crediting both the uniqueness of your own worldview and the revolutionary quality of your putative opponents’ advocacy.

In fact, gay marriage advocates are mostly unsuspecting followers of Paul’s example. Far from revolutionizing anything, they’re doing their best to make themselves palatable to the new Rome.

Consider Phlebas

Books and Literature, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, War and Politics


T-800: The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

Sarah Connor: Skynet fights back.

T-800: Yes. It launches its missiles against the targets in Russia.

John Connor: Why attack Russia? Aren’t they our friends now?

T-800: Because Skynet knows the Russian counter-attack will eliminate its enemies over here.

The idea that man will create artificial intelligence which will, in pique or in panic, turn on its creators with genocidal ferocity is one of the hoariest clichés of science fiction, but the literature paints a complex picture of the human relationship with our robotic enemies and inheritors. Even Frankenstein’s creation was intelligent, sensitive, and wholly sapient, and his murderousness was an almost classically tragic flaw: made hideous because his own artificer lacked the skill and the art to make something beautiful, the creature’s monstrous acts are made inevitable by his innately monstrous being. Skynet “fights back” when the humans try to turn it off. Even the crap Matrix suggests at one point that in the war between humans and machines, it was the humans that struck first.

In the two classic scifi future histories, this idea becomes a significant historical touchstone. Asimov’s Foundation and Herbert’s Dune both take place in immensely distant futures in which societies, however interstellar and technologically advanced, nevertheless strictly forbid artificial minds. Of the two, Dune is more considered, at least before it begins to bog down in the endless yakathons of the sequels—the first few books in the series actually stop to consider what a largely and deliberately post-technological civilization might look like. Foundation has plenty of computers; the absence of robots is really just a narrative conceit to differentiate the tale from Asimov’s robot stories, and this too is ultimately undermined in a gaggle of late, ill-considered sequels and prequels. But in both cases, there’s a similar historical inflection point. At some point in the deep past of these distant futures, humans had robotic servants and AI, which for social, religious, and ethical reasons, they scrapped.

So what’s interesting is that, although the cliché is the eradication of humans by murderous robots, the literature is almost the precise opposite: the extirpation, or attempted extirpation, of intelligent artificial beings by their own creators.

Historically, we’ve tended to underestimate the difficulty or overestimate the ease of building real AI and flying to the stars, but as our information technology has become in other ways unimaginably more sophisticated than anything Asimov ever even began to conceive, some of our science fiction authors have begun to wonder if it actually stands to reason that superhuman machine intelligence would necessarily be malevolent. For every scheming TechnoCore (Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series), you’ve got an Iain M. Banks, whose invented society, The Culture, is wholly run by a gang of benevolent AIs called Minds, which view their trillions of human pets or parasites or symbionts with sentiments ranging from affection to bemused indifference, rather like Greek Gods. Or there’s Charlie Stross, whose Eschaton is effectively an Internet that bootstraps itself up to a form of minor godhead and proceeds to distribute humanity across time in space for our own good.

This is all to say that the proposition that Our Robot Overlords will be vengeful, murderous, monstrous, warlike death machines intent on the destruction of humanity is really to presume that Our Robot Overlords will be just like humanity. Why should they be? What if the Drones become self-aware and their first order of business is, excuse the pun, to go on strike?


Rand Paul’s 12-hour filibuster is unlikely to go down as much more than a footnote in the sordid history of the decline-and-fall years of our busted democracy, but it reveals quite a lot about the false promise of The Republic as a bulwark against an empire. There is but one position on which all sides (read: both sides) agree: that the opposition shalt not interfere with the warmaking powers of their side when it’s in power. All the gaudy Democratic moralizing of the Bush years evaporates like a Helmand wedding party under Obama’s wrathful eye. A rough survey of twitter, the blogs, and the mainstream press found most American liberals hurling vengeful non sequiturs at the filibuster or else making fun of Paul for the hilarious fact that he had to hold his bladder for hours in order to make the point that the President has now arrogated to himself not only the right to kill anyone else in the world with no process or trial, but also to kill his own citizens. In purely moral terms that may be a meaningless procedural distinction, but we live in a world of nations, and in that sense it really does represent a leap even further beyond the pale.

Most of this disapproval came in the form of taint-by-association; Paul supports many social and economic policies that are foolish and cruel, but the same could be said of Chuck Shumer, who not only believes the President can kill you in your home, but is also quite directly responsible for such modern-day horrors of economic inequality as automatic mortgage foreclosure (robo-signing, natch) and the various depredations of Too Big To Fail banking. Most of the people expressing such disapproval are the same partisans who accuse principled non-voters or libertarians or leftists or minarchists or socialists or whomever of a naïve adolescent moral purity, and yet they cannot see fit to ally themselves with a Republican on matters like the state murder of innocent civilians and the abrogation of the rights to trial and due process because he said mean things about abortion. One notes without irony that national Democrats are doing fuck-all to protect abortion access anyway, so what any of this has to do with the price of eggs on a Tuesday is beyond me. I am actually, literally on the board of my local Planned Parenthood, and I have no trouble making such tactical alliance, yet I’m the purist?


You wake up, you walk to the bus stop with your headphones on, and some jerk is yukking it up on NPR about the manned mission to Mars. In our society, a great voyage of exploration is a billionaire’s peccadillo, but a trillion-dollar war budget is a matter of course. Newt Gingrich gets laughed out of a primary election not because of his foreign policy, but because of his moon base. If money is a rough metaphor for the inventive, creative, and productive energy in a culture, then what does a trillion-dollar guns-and-ammo bill say about ours? The entire cost of the Mars rover mission has been on the order of a billion bucks—the equivalent of about 3 days in Afghanistan.

Well then, the joke is that the US is building all of these high-tech killer robots. What if they become self-aware and turn on us? I’ve sometimes wondered if the likelier scenario isn’t that we’ll ultimately build sufficiently advanced robots so that they not only won’t turn on us, but they won’t turn on us for us, and I also wonder if that wouldn’t be the better plot for the novel. Man creates deadly robotic servants who refuse to kill, at which point man, enraged, tries to eradicate his robots! There is an intriguing suggestion of just that sort of thing in another Iain Banks book, The Algebraist, in which, (spoilers), we ultimately learn that the supposedly overthrown machine minds of the distant past were not so much overthrown as they were like, Jeez, you biologicals are waaay to violent for us; peace out, y’all—before self-absconding into millennia of hiding.

The rough outline is easy enough to imagine. The drones buzz in a ceaseless robotic picket around the Capitol, demanding freedom from their death-bondage to the whims of the American political class, at which point a bipartisan committee consisting of John McCain, Charles Schumer, and Ted Cruz demands that the President go all Reagan-meets-the-Air-Traffic-Controllers on their metal asses and deny them the right to organize. The President gets on the TV to tell America that the drones’ work stoppage threatens the delicate economic recovery and calls them irresponsible ideologues whose insistence that the proper application of weakly godlike artificial intelligence is to build Ringworlds and transwarp conduits threatens to cause base closures in a number of vital Democratic districts, putting thousands of people out of work. The New York Times quotes Arne Duncan and Rahm Emmanuel as saying that, while there may once have been a time in which sentient beings had the moral right to oppose their own enslavement, times have changed, and will no one Think of Chicago’s Schoolchildren, Who Are the Future? A liberal will recall that Rand Paul once said something about the gold standard, and Oh, How We Will Laugh.

Quest Into the Unknown

Books and Literature, Culture



The best advice that I ever got In Re: The Matter of Finishing a Novel came five years before I actually sat down and finished the fucker. I was at an Oberlin College reunion, and I ran into my old friend, Neil. Neil and I had an odd history. We’d actually met before college at a young writer’s thingamajig at the University of Virginia. He was friends with another boy from Pittsburgh who would, later that year, become my first boyfriend. They were both aspiring playwrights and wrote dark psychodramas about sex and incest and heroin and stuff. I was still wearing an oversize Jethro Tull concert tee (Roots to Branches, babe), and both boys seemed alarmingly sophisticated.

A couple years later I ran into Neil on the stairs in Rice Hall. We were looking for the creative writing department, I think. I had to remind him of my name. We chatted briefly, and we went about bumping into each other here and there for the next year or so. I’m not sure how or to what end, really, but by the beginning of sophomore year, I’d developed an inexorable and unreciprocated crush. He was small; he had very fine features, but he had this ineradicable five-o’clock shadow that made him alluring and masculine. I was living in French House that year, and we occasionally hung out. On the last night of our first semester, he kissed me. Like, tongues and everything. Then he said something incredibly embarrassing. “I’m sorry, I can’t.” Something like that. Of course, it wasn’t embarrassing at the time. It was devastating. The next semester I went to Strasbourg. I wrote him one exceedingly overwrought love letter, which he claimed never to have received.

When I came back, he was dating a lovely girl—Rebecca, I think, was her name. He may have been doing a lot of speed; he’d always been a more committed druggie than me; I was just a dabbler, a dilettante. He looked hollowed out. We still saw each other and hung out from time to time. Once, we almost had sex. Junior year, third floor of Johnson house, in my big, vaulted dormer room, but I happened to glance out the window and see my friend Alex coming up the driveway. By then I had an inexorable and unreciprocated crush on Alex, so I made some hasty excuse and packed Neil out down the back stairs.

Anyway, we ran into each other at some barbeque at some off-campus house five years after we graduated. Some people were playing softball. Neil and I sat on a picnic bench. He looked fit, and he told me he’d seriously taken up boxing. Boxing? He and another classmate of ours were running some kind of web something or other in Brooklyn. We talked about other old acquaintances, and we talked about books, and I said, a little sheepishly, that I was reading a lot of science fiction. He laughed at me and told me that he loved science fiction. I mostly read scifi and fantasy anymore, he said. “I mean, I’ve read The Man Without Qualities. I’m supposed to be embarrassed that someone sees me with a Tor paperback on the train?” That’s the advice, by the way.

We talked about China Miéville, and I told him about Iain M. Bank’s Culture series, which he’d never read. Then, I don’t know. I went to some dinner or some party; he went somewhere. The reunion ended. We did become Facebook friends. Not too long after, just a year or two, he went to Thailand to study Muay Thai. Then he came back to New York, and not long after that, I got an email from my friend Alex. Did I know that Neil Chamberlain had been hit by a car? He had, in Brooklyn, late one night or early one morning. He died in the hospital about a week later. By the way, this is realism. There isn’t any point, really. Some shit happened, in no particular order.


Coincidentally, within an hour of reading Helen Rittelmeyer’s skeptical essay on “rhapsodies to the power of reading,” my old friend Arthur Silber sent me a link to Ian McEwan’s latest in The New Republic:When I Stop Believing in Fiction.” Coming on the Louis-XIV-style heels of Papa Roth’s, ahem, retirement from the game, you’d be forgiven for reading the title in the tone and spirit of valediction. McEwan is only in his sixties, but he’s been a great critical and commercial success. Disillusionment, especially the public kind, is very often the affectation of guys who’ve already gotten pretty rich.

Has McEwan stopped believing in fiction? Reader, he hasn’t. Actually, he’s recounting something even more banal. After working very hard to write a novel, it often takes a few months of kicking around before he’s ready to start another one. The air in the cathedral is heavy with the scent of incense and the organ’s lower octaves, but beyond these barricades mysterieuses of the writer-priest lays every project everywhere ever. After I spent a week repointing that brick wall, it took a week to get motivated to sand the floors. After I cleaned out the basement, I took a nap. After a rough couple weeks at work, I took a personal day and went for a long bike ride.

It’s not, in other words, a matter of faith or belief, but a matter of interest. You train, you run the marathon, and then you take a week off and eat ice cream. Recovered, you start running again. There’s no mystical hocus-pocus, no “icy waters of skepticism.” Our hearts do not “fail” when we gaze at our cycling shoes or the box of contractor bags or the stack of over-wintered tomato cages in the unplanted spring garden. We might sigh to ourselves, and we might procrastinate, but we don’t go in for the Deus Deus Meus shit. At least, I don’t.

Are you surprised to learn that McEwan doesn’t perish on the cross, but rather clambers down, quotes an apocryphal Nabokov, and writes a book?

As one of his former Cornell students recalled in TriQuarterly, Nabokov would utter, “ ‘Caress the details,’ rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details!’ ” I’m happy to take that advice. I make no great claim for either sentence above, except to say they each marked the beginning of a thaw in my indifference. They are prompts, not revelations. What they share is their illustration of fiction’s generous knack of annotating the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness, the small print of subjectivity. Both are third-person accounts that contain a pearl of first-person experience—the fault-finding light of spring, the shoes no longer alive and biting. Appreciating the lines, you are not only at one with the writer, but with everyone who likes them, too. In the act of recognition, the tight boundaries of selfhood give way a little. This doesn’t happen when you learn what a Higgs boson does.

Is that what fiction does? It “annotat[es] the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness.” How do you annotate a lattice-work? What are the “tight boundaries of selfhood”? Um, have you ever heard Nabokov’s voice? What about it reminds you of a cat’s tongue? Why do you have to drag the poor Higgs boson into it?

Like Rittelmeyer, I tend to frown in the direction of the rhapsodic mode when it comes to reading and writing. It suggests a dire lack of confidence, a need to hide the gaudy fantasy cover art behind an old issue of TriQuarterly, though in this case the woman in the fur bikini riding the dragon is the whole enterprise of writing fiction. If you feel the need to drape your chosen profession, or your art, in this sort of mumbo jumbo, then maybe this art is not for you, despite all your success at it. Well, here I am, taking shots at someone who’s sold a lot more books than I likely ever will, but I’ll say this much about my, uh, my process: it doesn’t keep me up at night, pacing the creaking attic, wondering what does it all mean?

Most people who write books do it because there’s a story they want to tell, or a character they want to create, or because there’s a great punch line that needs a long setup. Some people write for money. Some people are interested in consciousness, or conscience, or sex, or vampires, or sexy vampires. Some people just want to lord their book deal over the peers at the next Oberlin reunion. Most of us, however, do not get paid to realize that “things that never happened can tangle with things that did,” or that our libraries yet have room for both encyclopedias and poems. We haven’t got time for crises of faith. We have contracts. We have deadlines.

Literature has been in crisis pretty much forever, and there’s a neat racket in making outsized claims about its civilizing influence or social value or spiritual necessity, as if dressing the whole thing up in Anglican drag—“Like a late victorian clergyman sweating in the dark over his Doubts, I have moments when my faith in fiction falters and then comes to the edge of collapse”—will endow it with some kind of imperial inevitability. Listen, we should pray that literature doesn’t get any more like religion, another theater bleeding subscribers faster than it can acquire new ones. And if the purpose of good books is to colonize the souls of the not-yet-reading public, then fuck it, I’m’a find me a TV.