08 July, 2012

The List: Reading April Through June 2012

Priming the pump. That’s probably the best metaphor for my speculative-fiction-reading jag, these last couple of months. After I completed work on my memoir manuscript last year, I was nagged persistently by the thought of what book-length writing project to tangle myself up in next. I was certain I wanted to try my hand at a novel — perhaps a sci-fi novel. Science fiction, as I like to tell people, was my first love. The Tripods, Asimov’s Robbie the Robot books, The War of the Worlds, and classic movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still — my early childhood memories of these are perfectly preserved even while those of most family gatherings, many special outings, and several birthday parties are but hazy half-recollections. I’m not adequately credentialed to assess what this says about me, except that my geek pedigree is solid.

But months dragged on without inspiration striking for my next writerly undertaking. It could be that I had focused for so long on essays and literary fiction that I was hobbled, unable to envision scenarios ungrounded in the here and now. A friend suggested this, then offered a solution. “Read more high-quality genre fiction,” she advised. “Maybe something will come to you.”

So I shifted my reading habits for awhile, picking up nothing but books of fantastika that were critically lauded, in the hope that doing so might jar a wild idea or two loose from my stuffy, logical brain. I started reading Locus, a monthly magazine of speculative-fiction criticism and related book-industry news. I also re-watched, on a whim, Aliens on Syfy, just to see if it would put me in the mood. (Forget Ellen Ripley, that xenomorph queen is the real babe of that film.) Whether or not all this was the cause, I had a breakthrough in mid-June: I’ve officially begun writing a sci-fi novel. Check back with me in a few months and you’ll be bound to read all about this endeavor’s progress. For now, though, you can see below what books I transitioned to in order to break free of the gravity of my sci-fi writer’s block.

* * * * *

Søren Kierkegaard (Alastair Hannay, translator), The Seducer’s Diary
One of the fathers of existentialism in the nineteenth century, Kierkegaard’s first major work was Either/Or, an exploration of ethics versus aesthetics from which The Seducer’s Diary is excerpted. It so happens that a copy of Either/Or found its way to me when I was in jail awaiting trial. It was wheeled in on the meager book cart that made the rounds every other week, and, because it was one of the few titles that didn’t bear a cheesily embossed, foil-stamped cover, I snatched it up thinking to distance myself from my daily bouts with that peculiar admixture of ennui and anxiety. I was facing double life sentences; existential philosophy was, as it turns out, something of a back-burner topic at the time. I scarcely read past the book’s first fifteen pages, and so never read the portion comprising The Seducer’s Diary.

It’s exactly what it sounds like, though. The book’s fictional narrator, Johannes, poetically describes his first sighting of the lovely young Cordelia, then his calculation to win her heart utterly, then, finally, at the point she is irrevocably his, his rejection of her. Johannes is the very model of an aesthete, his only interest in women being the beauty of the dance that is their seduction. In Johannes’s defense, he’s no libertine. Not in any strict sense, anyway. If anything, he has a very thoroughly developed sense of propriety, saying at one point that to make outwardly amorous advances, even after he secures an engagement to Cordelia, “would be really outrageous,” as it would “insult her profound femininity.” To him, romance is an art, nothing more, and this fictional diary reads with all the subversiveness and outrageous humor you’d expect to result from such a perspective. Assuming, that is, you’re in a calm enough mindset to assimilate it.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
Consider for a moment a man named Steve. Steve is described by his neighbor as “very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.” So, is it more likely that Steve is a farmer or a librarian? If you are like most people, your answer will be based on the resemblance of Steve’s noted personality to the profile of a stereotypical librarian. The trouble is, the question is one of likelihood, not profiling. Steve’s neighbor’s description is irrelevant to determining his occupation. Therefore, if you are like most people, your answer was probably wrong. In the United States, librarians are outnumbered by farmers by a ratio of more than twenty to one, yet most people tend not to think in terms of statistics, even when they believe they’re doing so — even when the alternative is more direct.

People are prone to the sort of simplifying and substitution in mental behavior that appears in the Steve question (the technical term for which is heuristics) because intuitive thinking is less resource-intensive than statistical thinking; and this is as straightforwardly as the subject of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s eye-opening book can be stated. Not that it’s a terribly complicated work. Kahneman does an outstanding job of making the fascinating concepts of loss aversion, duration neglect, and availability bias exceptionally easy for laypeople to grasp, avoiding the pedantic tone that would drag down a less well-written effort. He even introduces some humor, here and there, which is no mean feat for a text equally suited to be shelved in the psychology and economics sections of the bookstore.

A bonus source of interest to me was the striking frequency with which my own cognitive processes failed to jibe with those of the study subjects cited in this book. (Research questions are posed frequently throughout, allowing readers the chance to be surprised by their own responses.) Granted, I hardly needed a book to tell me I’m a more rational, analytical thinker than the average human. A single, early reference to a study of people’s impressions of causality fleetingly mentioned that people with autistic spectrum disorders were often exceptions to the rules defined in Thinking. It could have distracted somewhat from the author’s points if he’d contrasted neurotypical and autistic cognition further, but I’d still have been interested in reading such a divergence.

Phillip Lopate (editor), The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present
I think that when many people encounter the word essay, uncomfortable memories of high school English class come flooding back. That, or what comes to mind is some dry, didactic treatise they once read, which addressed a subject as tedious as the varieties of plumage observed in the European swallow during the writer’s two-week birdwatching tour of the United Kingdom. Either way, the essay has a bad rap. I blame the type of literary Ambien just mentioned — a case of a few boring apples spoiling the whole bunch. But some of the most entertaining and enlightening writing I’ve encountered has been essayistic in nature. There are a lot of great things to be said for the Best American Essays series of books, a new volume of which is published each year. In those I’ve found many pleasant surprises from pieces that begin with an apparently unpromising subject (a New England lobster festival, say) and, by virtue of a unique perspective and an amusing, conversational tone, are rendered remarkable. This is the essay’s power.

In the instance of this collection, The Art of the Personal Essay, the focus is on that subcategory of the essay form that implies, or speaks directly to, a certain universal human condition by dealing in autobiographical detail and avoiding formal, fusty language (unless it’s for laughs). This is a hefty book, packed as it is with selections from as far back as the first century. Two selections are by Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century patron saint of the form. His “On Books” and “On Some Verses of Virgil” failed to impress me. Better examples could almost certainly have been found. Plenty of other pieces here were a pleasure to read: Seneca’s relatable “On Noise”; Maria Edgeworth’s facetious sexism in “An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification”; George Orwell’s study of English boarding-school life, “Such, Such Were the Joys…”; Sara Suleri’s meditation on bull testicles, “Meatless Days”; James Baldwin’s powerful race-relations treatise, “Notes of a Native Son”; Annie Dillard’s sensory paean, “Seeing”; and Richard Rodriguez’s affecting, unsentimental view of San Francisco during the early AIDS epidemic.

While I may have read anthologies that were more fun or that I believed more effectively curated, The Art of the Personal Essay succeeds at least in being a broad-ranging introduction to the form — a good dock from which a novice may kick off his or her shoes and dip a toe into the essay’s open ocean of possibilities.

David Rakoff, Half Empty
“Warning!!!” reads the bright yellow seal on the cover. “No Inspirational Life Lessons Will Be Found Within These Pages.” And this is true; the contents of this collection of loosely interlinked personal essays (some previously published in well-known magazines) live up to its cover’s alert. Rakoff — journalist, author, frequent This American Life contributor, and sometimes actor, — is at his sardonic best here. Half Empty reads like I imagine David Sedaris might, if the edge of Sedaris’s bleak wit were honed on the whetstone of being a Jewish pork-lover and three-time cancer survivor. Although I got this book under the misapprehension it would be a tongue-in-cheek manifesto for pessimists, this quick read was nevertheless a dark delight. I lost track of how many times my bursts of laughter earned quizzical looks from my cellmate, who doubtless silently questioned why Mister Intellectual was reading a book with a cartoon bunny on its cover.

David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
Imagining what becomes of us after we shuffle off this mortal coil has preoccupied humanity since before recorded time. Disagreements between factions with incompatible theories blemish our history as well as our present-day, frequently causing believers from every camp to personally find out, a bit earlier than may have been hoped, whether or not their guesses were right. As fiercely as some hold to their belief in an afterlife, and given the preponderance of largely homogenous ideas those believers hold, this short collection of alternatives brainstormed by Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist David Eagleman is a refreshing reminder of just how unimaginative those beliefs are.

Its subtitle tells you exactly what this book holds in store: forty vignettes about different versions of the Great Beyond. Each averages a couple of pages and posits its own theoretical hereafter. Despite their profound differences — some are warm and fluffy, others cold and bleak — every one of Eagleman’s ideations is a testament to humanity. Each should also prompt a reader to think, perhaps uncomfortably, about life.

The first sentence of the titular chapter, “Sum,” reads, “In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.”

“Metamorphosis” begins, “There are three deaths.”

The melancholy “Spirals” starts with the humorous conceit, “In the afterlife, you discover that your Creator is a species of small, dim-witted, obtuse creatures.”

In “Scales,” Eagleman flirts with transcendence, writing, “For a while we worried about a separation from God, but our fears were eased when the prophets revealed a new understanding: we are God’s organs, His eyes and fingers, the means by which He explores His world.”

Then he goes in exactly the opposite direction, in “Microbe,” a few chapters later: “There is no afterlife for us.”

Big ideas presented by the simplest prose. Sum is witty, quietly provocative, and highly recommended.

M.R. James, Collected Ghost Stories
It was interesting to transition from Sum’s tidy syntax to this collection’s nineteenth century linguistic sprawl, while staying (in a sense) on the topic of afterlives. More than just in style, I hardly think these two books could be less similar.

A distinguished medievalist and internationally renowned scholar of biblical, antiquarian, and historical subjects, M.R. James took to writing spook stories on a lark, in the late 1800s, as after-dinner entertainment for his literary colleagues. So effective were his understated-yet-descriptive tales of terror that James was prompted to publish them, and a succession of four ghost-story volumes ensued, plus the stories’ various appearances in journals of the day, before his 1936 death. Collected Ghost Stories brings together his entire output of horror, save for the three stories he wrote after its 1931 publication. And quite the collection it is.

Readers know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but I couldn’t help myself in this case. The paperback copy from Wordsworth Editions’ 2007 “Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural” series, which I received, is ugly — not just ugly, but cheesy: a skull and a spatter of dripping blood are embossed here, where the badly photoshopped British country inn and ominous evening sky alone would have better fit James’s writing. There is scarcely a hint of blood in these tales, and of skulls only slightly more. James wasn’t interested in gross Lovecraftian exposition. He described only what was necessary to set a scene, then subtly, almost casually, unloosed precisely enough detail at the dramatic climax as to let readers’ imaginations deliver the chills.

From “The Diary of Mr Poynter”:
James Denton, not yet inclined for bed, sat him down in an arm-chair and read for a time. Then he dozed, and then he woke, and bethought himself that his brown spaniel, which ordinarily slept in his room, had not come upstairs with him. Then he thought he was mistaken: for happening to move his hand which hung down over the arm of the chair within a few inches of the floor, he felt on the back of it just the slightest touch of a surface of hair, and stretching it out in that direction he stroked and patted a rounded something. But the feel of it, and still more the fact that instead of a responsive movement, absolute stillness greeted his touch, made him look over the arm. What he had been touching rose to meet him.
And this is as explicit as James ever gets.

Subtle, conversational, and, above all, very, very British, Collected Ghost Stories represents what I believe is some of the best horror writing of all time. Hardly any wonder why James is still regarded as one of the genre’s greatest.

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
This debut novel kept popping up on readers’ lists of 2011’s best books, yet I confess to having acknowledged it with an initial dollop of skepticism. The title, The Night Circus, I thought belonged on a particularly awful Dean Koontz thriller. Circuses and carnivals have been the backdrop for innumerable crap-fests on page and screen alike. The off-kilter setting naturally appeals to writers who want to set a fantastical story where the otherworldly is credibly commonplace. Except it takes more than some popcorn and striped tents to create an effective atmosphere of this kind. The numinous isn’t easily invoked. Until I found a review of Miss Morgenstern’s literary talent, I was satisfied ignoring this book’s existence. I’ve never taken well to what some readers call “guilty pleasures.”

This novel begins in 1873, in New York, when a wager is made by two very old rivals. We’ll call them magicians. A complex strategy game is to be played; however, we’re not privy to its mysterious rules. Only the pair of bettors know what is to come — the instruction of their players, Celia and Marco — and the field in which the challenge will unfold, Le Cirque des Rêves. (I suspect this, French for “The Circus of Dreams,” may have been Morgenstern’s superior first choice of titles before Doubleday questioned its mass appeal. A pity, if true.) From there, abrupt shifts and gradual progressions of time treat the reader to a story replete with charms, illusions, and star-crossed love, but it’s the circus itself that’s the real star of this book.

According to the New York Times Book Review’s Terrence Rafferty, literary fiction “allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way.” The Night Circus’ gossamer plot is frequently blown aside by its heady atmosphere of magic. Morgenstern is a deft spellcaster, placing before her reader sights and smells so evocative that attractions within the black-and-white tents of Le Cirque des Rêves feel tangible. Ginger and cream and caramel confections tantalize. Velvety curtains part at a touch. Clouds of mist fill a tent of living creatures made from paper. A bonfire in the circus courtyard burns white as new-fallen snow. It’s all a sumptuous banquet for the senses that should meld itself with any reader’s dreams.

China Miéville, Kraken: An Anatomy
When the preserved specimen of Architeuthis dux — a twenty-eight-and-a-half-foot giant squid — suddenly vanishes into what seems to be thin air from the Darwin Center at London’s Natural History Museum, it looks like the end of the world to curator Billy Harrow. Because it is. In the aftermath of the squid’s disappearance, formalin-filled tank and all, Billy finds himself enmeshed in a looming apocalypse and hunted by an increasingly abnormal assortment of law enforcement, underground cultists, freakish gangsters, paranormal assassins, and casual practitioners of arcane magic. They all think he knows something special about the squid, something dreadfully important. At a loss for what the End of Days might have to do with him or his pickled cephalopod, Billy has a hard enough time staying hidden from the forces chasing him down. The places in which he holes up show him a side of London he never could have dreamed existed.

Kraken, by my new favorite fantasist (sorry, Neil Gaiman; your Sandman graphic novels are wondrous, but these days I crave a touch less whimsy), is an adventure in more than just the sense of plot. If Miéville’s tortuous story of warring fringe religions, tenuous alliances, and red herrings — er, squids? — isn’t enough to hold a reader’s attention, his always-dynamic prose is a particular delight. Dialog crackles these weird and sometimes horrifying characters to life, imbuing each with a vivid, distinct personality. Too, the author is generally a brilliant stylist. Every other page offers some clever turn of phrase, punning neologism, or postmodern kick. Kraken’s storyline takes some dark turns, but by the time its breathless conclusion is reached, the fact is undeniable that it was, throughout, some wild kind of fun.

Colson Whitehead, Zone One
In an essay that he wrote for The New Yorker’s special science-fiction issue (“A Psychotronic Childhood,” June 4 & 11, 2012), Whitehead wrote
I never lost sleep over humanoids from the deep, or murderous, severed hands, but I didn’t lose my fear of people. Some people have anxiety dreams about being late for a class they forgot they’d enrolled in, or about giving a speech stark naked. I had zombie anxiety dreams. They started after I saw Dawn of the Dead, in 1979, and kept coming back. For decades. Depending on what was going on in my life at the time, I was pursued by fast zombies or slow zombies. I was alone or with a group. I got away or didn’t. For me, killer robots and giant grasshoppers had nothing on people. I had those dreams until I wrote Zone One and finally found somewhere else to put them.
He distills this off-brand misanthropy into a potent elixir of cynical end-of-the-world action for this compulsively readable novel.

Most of the beloved zombie-story devices are in play here. The uniqueness of Zone One is that the three-day period of its principal plot is set in a period of reconstruction, when the aftereffects of the worst days of chaos and bloodshed are declared PASD — Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder — and the bureaucratic oversight of New York’s provisional government is more concerned with the well-being of its few surviving corporate sponsors than of its hoi polloi. Parts of this book were reminiscent of Max Brooks’s excellent “oral history,” World War Z, but even for Brooks’s canny imaginings, his world trying to recover from the ravaging of the walking dead never felt as true as the one brought to life by Whitehead, in this grisly, perfectly paced tale of existential tumult. Only an accomplished author of literary fiction could have known how to make a story of the undead move with such meaning and life.

Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man
What is it about Bradbury’s writings I can’t warm to? An esteemed member of sci-fi’s golden generation, he has millions of fans the world over. His decades in the field have yielded hundreds of stories and dozens of books. He’s been honored by the National Book Foundation, received a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, and was declared a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French (oh, the French). And yet, and yet. Some je ne sais quoi keeps me from enjoying his tales as much as seems commensurate with his purported greatness. For me, Bradbury’s simply blah.

Is it the era? The stories in The Illustrated Man certainly are superannuated, having first seen print in magazines between 1947 and 1951. They’re accordingly full of the trappings of atomic-age imagination: characters smoke cigarettes onboard rockets being guided to Mars by jumpsuited white men; vacuum modules propel residents to their homes’ upper floors, to be bathed and dressed by machine; beings from the inhabited worlds of our solar system — Venusians, Martians — are primarily bipedal and speak English. It all smacks of EPCOT Center’s “World of Tomorrow!” Except I enjoy even the most hopelessly dated  Twilight Zone reruns that Syfy airs periodically, so age shouldn’t be a substantial factor.

Is it Bradbury’s prose style? Doubtful. He is sometimes wooden (a shortcoming he all but rubs in the reader’s face by way of exclamation points thrown onto the ends of otherwise drab declarative sentences), but he’s also capable of rendering some downright poetic passages. I’d say his technical skills are therefore fairly sound.

Is it that he’s a mediocre storyteller? Not hardly. Granted, with a couple hundred plots to his name, a few are bound to miss their mark (here it’s “The Man,” which hinges on a spaceship captain coming unhinged in a context that makes no sense, and “The Long Rain,” which, though an interesting concept vividly delivered, failed for me by letting life-or-death stakes assume the duty of making characters interesting). He’s usually adept with the twists and turns of narrative.

So we’re left with attitude. Not the attitude of Bradbury’s stories, for these veer from comic to melancholy, but the apparent attitude of the writer himself. With vision aplenty, he nevertheless renders his tales without a futurist’s thorough foresight. He’s cavalier and slapdash. We get rockets like they’re going out of style, but their crews’ sidearms are projectile guns rather than ray blasters. We get a man who lives by a busy highway and receives frequent stop-ins from travelers, yet he somehow doesn’t know there’s a world beyond the desert expanse he calls home. We get a sentient twenty-century-old city that possess the bodies of nine men who happen into its boundaries, and, although they share one consciousness, the unfortunate automatons spend the rest of the story explaining their plan to one another and calling each other by their dead human names. It’s clumsy. I want my sci-fi to be thorough, very thorough. Bradbury tosses out a couple of golly-gee technologies here and there, and expects the tech to be taken at face value. Technology begets change, though — often widespread and sometimes surprising. This childish lack of analytical consideration on the author’s part, with both his old-time high-tech and his more general conceits, is what keeps me from leaping aboard the Bradbury bandwagon.

Philip K. Dick, Now Wait for Last Year
Time travel. Precognition. Artificial intelligence. Telepathy. Alternate realities. The continued relevance of The New York Times in 2056. The sheer number of out-there concepts in this uneven novel is outrageous, even for Dick, the mad emperor of gonzo futurism. The plot centers on an organ-transplant surgeon named Doctor Eric Sweetscent (one of my favorite Dickian character names, along with Horselover Fat, from VALIS) and his efforts to end his hellish marriage to a drug-addicted psychopath. (For a while, I really empathized with him.) An ideally timed job transfer allows Sweetscent to get away from his psychologically abusive wife for awhile, but it also places him in a position to influence the interstellar war to which Earth has been bound for years as an impotent ally. This is all harrowing enough before his wife shows up at his door, addicted to a weaponized opiate that sends users on a real trip…through time.

Will he help her or won’t he? That’s the question the rest of the story devotes itself to asking, never mind that piddly matter of whether the classified information Doctor Sweetscent discovers along the way, in a subplot about Earth’s leader’s perpetual verge-of-death health status, will be of any use to save humanity. Will he or won’t he? — nearing the end, I wished the Doctor would swallow that toxic G-Totex blau and put us both out of our misery.

Charles Stross, Wireless
Before a search on the prison library’s computer (search term: “futurist nonfiction”) inexplicably turned up this short-story collection, I don’t know that I had ever seen the name Charles Stross; though, he’s evidently a somewhat highly awarded sci-fi writer. Wireless seemed an opportunity to expand my horizons, as well as a chance to get the lingering bad taste of Bradbury out of my brain.

I’m glad I checked it out. Stross’s style — generally brisk and unforgiving of ignorance — took a bit of getting used to, like stepping into an icy bath, but I took to these stories and novellas quickly enough, making a short read of this 352-page sampler, once his techniques became evident. Uncharacteristically for me, it was the more lighthearted stories in this collection I most enjoyed. “Rogue Farm,” about a freakishly consolidated community’s harassment of a rural couple and their hookah-smoking dog, showed off Stross’s knack for satire. Ditto, “MAXOs,” a parodic letter he published in the august pages of the science journal Nature (I’d love to learn how). His take on the old deal-with-the-Devil tale, “Snowball’s Chance,” was similarly amusing. If Stross is as consistently clever a novelist as these stories of revisionist history, deep time, and the multifarious potentialities in between lead me to suspect he is, I’m going to feel like an absolute troglodyte for taking this long to find out.

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