Happy Birthday to The Scrying Orb

One year.

Last April, I started this blog theorizing I had much to gain by composing my thoughts on the books I read. It has been a successful endeavor. While reading, I knew I must always come away with something to say. It made me a more careful reader, and made me consider more thoroughly the author’s decisions and whether they succeeded or failed or fell somewhere in between in their goals. I have become a better reader and, hopefully, a writer. At the very least, it has made me a more consistent writer.

While I created this mostly for myself, The Scrying Orb does enjoy a handful of visitors daily. I can’t really call this a bareboned, scant content blog anymore and have plans to improve.

1. I am going to improve the design of the blog. It’s sort of embarrassing that it is so sparse when visual design is a major part of my day job. Time to spend some time browsing themes and some labor spent in photoshop and sundry.

2. I wrote on a few games and movies, but the blog is almost entirely book reviews. I want to expand my writing on other media. Similarly, I would like to create some content that is not tied specifically to one creative piece. Actual articles, I mean.

I have updated the about page to reflect the above. Here’s to another year.

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Dark Souls II by From Software

dark souls 2A world locked in an endless cycle of decay. Sleek, gothic architecture. Imposing black angles and rain slicked stone. Or slimy, blighted lands, every bootstep a sickening squick, squoosh. Ruined forts that keep going down and down, through more ruins, and volcanoes, through the literal Yggrasil-world-tree roots of the world, and even deeper still to crypts intended to seal certain undesirables away for good (alas). Or up and up, atop peaks dotted with windmills, up lifts hanging in space to windswept steppes shadowed by dragons soaring overhead as you scramble across a rope bridge, swaying in the gust.

This is the world of Dark Souls. A bleak, medieval dream created by Japanese developer From Software.

To explore this world, you, a character with a flimsy narrative drive — merely being instructed to pursue The King (and collect more and more souls) — are thrust. Without guidance. I was partway through the first dungeon area, after a false start in another zone available from the onset, before I realized I had missed the vendor that could upgrade my character in an earlier hub town. Indeed, the Dark Souls series has a reputation for being difficult and obfuscatory. While the mechanics are certainly… murky, the vaunted difficulty is a tad overblown. The challenge is fair, and, with some exceptions, stacked towards the beginning before the player has grasped the systems and built their character in a specialization of their choosing. In fact, Dark Souls II goes a littler further than its predecessors. There is a bonfire (checkpoint where you return on death) close to most bosses, many tough enemies can simply be sprinted by, there’s a ring that eliminates all the consequences of death (lost souls, lost humanity), and ranged attacks make much of the game drastically easier.

Dark Souls also shows innovation in multiplayer and player-to-player interactions. One can leave messages to others, based on a set of templates, not free writing. This is often helpful, sometimes purposely misleading, and occasionally hilarious. Shaded versions of other players can be seen running throughout the world, alerting you that you are not alone. When they die, they leave bloodstains that allow you to view their final moments, perhaps giving you a tip on how not to die. Dark Souls II goes further than the original in its take on “covenants”, groups the player can join, many of which allow various cooperative and competitive bonuses. For instance, one allows you to set traps and build up a lair that sucks in unsuspecting players, who now have to navigate your dungeon or kill you to escape. From is one of the few console developers who has nailed a unique take on multiplayer — it combines the best parts of multiplayer (cooperation, humor, competition) but its forced limitations alleviate the worst aspects of spending time with strangers on the internet.

And unlike Dark Souls, the sequel does not taper off at the end. It’s an unfortunate truth that many long games, especially RPGs, display an obvious lack of money and time and the quality falls off a cliff in the final areas. As I mentioned, the goal of Dark Souls II is to find the king, and when you reach the kingdom’s magisterial seat — Drangleic Castle — the game reaches its highest points and does not let up for the rest of its playtime, bewildering easy last boss notwithstanding. The gameplay mechanics are tightened up and overall, there is only the briefest hint of staleness; the series definitely ought to innovate in the next chapter, but I’ll buy it regardless.

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The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

Last_sighWhat’s this book about, eh? Let’s check the back cover blurb:

“Its narrator is Moaes ‘Moor’ Zogoiby, a ‘high-born crossbreed’ who is the last surviving scion of a dynasty of Cochinese spice merchants and crime lords. Moor is a compulsive storyteller and an exile. And as he travels a route that takes him from India to Spain, he leaves behind a labyrinthine tale of mad passions and volcanic family hatreds, of titanic matriarchs and their mesmerized offspring, of premature deaths and curses that strike beyond the grave.”

Moor does indeed journey to Spain from India. In an airplane. In the last 20 pages of the novel.

Baldly misleading summaries are hardly rare; what is interesting here is what whomever wrote the above chose to omit and why.

Because what the The Moor’s Last Sigh is about is this: a man, near death due a supernatural ailment, tells the story of his entire family from great grandparents to himself, tying them to the tumultuous history of India. The exact same setup as that of Rushdie’s most celebrated novel, Midnight’s Children, the Booker of Bookers.

The same setup. Not nearly as good.

It’s not a total retread. Simply chronicling a different family in a different region of India changes the story greatly. But neither novel has a gripping plot — they are appealing due to Rushdie’s wordy, imaginative prose and the history he intends to capture. Moor’s origin is a collision between Christian and Jewish tradition. The locus of the story, and the Zogoiby-De Gama family, is Moor’s mother, Aurora. All roads, past and present lead back to Aurora. She is the magnetic core drawing all others in, both in-narrative and as external-reader. When the story focuses on Moor, it’s dull by comparison — which makes a sort of narrative sense but does not make the book any less bland when his mother exists center stage.

Rushdie’s writing does make it all worth reading. The man can turn a phrase. And perhaps if it didn’t feel like somewhat of a regurgitation of a greater work, I would have enjoyed it more. Nonetheless, I found it wanting.

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Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs_of_Hadrian

“One foot in scholarship, the other in magic arts, or, more accurately and without metaphor, absorption in that sympathetic magic which operates when one transports onself, in thought, into another’s body and soul.”

- Marguerite Yourcenar on writing Memoirs of Hadrian

Most authors have a style. They have tells and techniques and tics and quirks and words they overuse. Endless sentences interspersed with commas or short and terse with reverence for economy of language. Often this is a conscious choice. They want you to know. Others choose to present a character free of all authorial voice and rarely succeed. Seldom can a writer so totally subsume herself into the identity of a character or person as Marguerite Yourcenar does to the emperor Hadrian. Surely, this is not a novel written by a contemporary writer, but the actual memoirs of a 2nd century Roman emperor, composed as he succumbed to illness?

Hadrian, one of the “good” emperors, settled several of Rome’s economic and territorial woes whilst being certain of the empire’s eventual dissolution, regardless of his stabilizing acts. Casting aside the ascetic virtues of his time, he was more of a hedonist. And a searcher. Gods, good works, his next lover (non-discriminating w/r/t gender, but not to age…). The occasional self-aggrandizing tone of the book reveals that he sort of loved himself. He was a forward thinker in some areas — he detested slavery and created some laws to obviate its worst abuses — but not all; He was of the Greco-Roman pederast tradition and his “great love” was a 15 year old he met when he was like 40*. When the boy kills himself just shy of 20, ostensibly for the benefit of Hadrian, the great emperor has to perform some mental gymnastics to believe that it is not his fault. He continues to mourn the boy for the rest of his lift, as he solidified his reign, reluctantly crushes Judea, and chooses his successor — the book is addressed to Marcus Aurelius.

My feeling reading this book was that it was very impressive. Well written and incredibly well researched. But not exactly something I was dying to return to or filled me with wonder I still think this, though the author’s notes on writing it at the end of the book greatly enhanced the preceding text. Hadrian’s philosophical cogitations on the passing nature of civilization, man’s penchant for destruction (though not totally without hope) has a greater urgency and context when you know the words were written by a woman who lived through two world wars as an adult.

Also while reading her notes, I kept thinking “She writes like Hadrian!” which is yet another testament to her skill in transmitting, through the centuries, the Emperor’s Voice.

*It’s a common thought to look into the past and think of people partaking in acts we now deem immoral and excuse them as a “man/woman of their times”. This is true of course. But it generally ignores the fact that even in their times (and before), there was critics and dissenters to these societally approved acts. Not all Greeks and Romans (including Plato!) were so comfortable with man-boy sexual relationships.

Likewise, we already partially excuse moderate racism/homophobia/sexism in early-mid 20th century people — especially writers we like. This does a disservice to the many men and women of their times who did not think as they did, and already knew many widely accepted notions were wrong.

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The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

riseandfallSad to say, since I received this for free from Goodreads, but this is just not a very good book. The characters are two-bit stereotypes, the sense of place and setting is unconvincing, the writing is dull, and I came to find myself zoning out on the bus, listening in to other peoples’ conversations — addiction, rental prices, who’s dating who — rather than return to this novel’s overpowering blandness.

Tooly, an American running a nigh-insolvent bookstore in rural Wales, is suddenly thrust back into the mystery of her past, which involved several irresponsible adult caretakers she was on a first-name basis with as a ten year old, and no “Mom” nor “Dad” in sight. The novel is split between 1988, 1999, and 2011, across Wales, New York City, Bangkok, Greece, and a few other minor locales, all of which are largely indistinguishable (but more on that later).

Tooly ends up searching for an explanation of her real parents, and for another character from her convoluted past: a predatory Canadian hipster named “Venn”. Venn has been transparently playing and manipulating Tooly since her childhood, though she is oblivious to this and worships the ground he walks on. Here is where the poor characterization takes hold. Incredibly charismatic but terribly manipulative people do exist — and thrive. But Venn, with all his high-minded speeches and beard-splitting grins, is entirely unconvincing. We have to rely on Rachman to tell, instead of show, how charming Venn is. The result is that we find Tooly foolish to trust him since there’s no reason for us to find Venn particularly compelling.

The Tooly-Venn relationship also ties into a troubling theme that runs through the novel; there’s multiple women who seem to be staying with/pursuing men who are awful to, or terrible for them. This includes a college professor whose boyfriend and later husband happens to be a student whose every element of description is used to accentuate how much of a giant asshole he is. Which is a problem unto itself. And a common one at that — several characters are just types, not people. The overworked lawyer who ignores his family. The washed up cougar who now hates young women prettier than she. The unbelievably cruel principal who authenticates our protagonist as true outsider.

The thing about these globetrotting novels, even the ones that don’t even get the locations right, is that they need a stellar handle on setting. You need to feel like you’re there. Or at least be awed or fearful of this strange locale. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers fails spectacularly. Each city is dull and flavorless and might as well be the same blank urban void. Bangkok has prostitutes, I guess*. And Wales has horses. New York city is established by name dropping locations everyone knows (Oh look, it’s the Empire State Building!). Minor details are misses as well. Describing the squalor of a college boy’s NYC apartment, it’s mentioned that the roommates avoid the shower and wash in the “basin”, which is an immediate tell that the author is not American, and it’s kind of baffling that this wasn’t caught in editing**. For any non-American wondering, we call it a sink.

Towards the very end, I did get somewhat invested in the story and came to care for Tooly, which is why I rated this two stars instead of one on Goodreads. And by “the very end”, I mean the last 20-30 pages and not the last page itself which involved an unfortunate and silly change of perspective.

The writing itself is unremarkable and tedious. Despite the crux of the novel being a mystery, the prose might as well be breaking into your house and drawing maps on your face for how little it leaves to the imagination. It does not even allow you to come to the most basic conclusions by yourself. In 2011, we are told Tooly is in her 30s and when the chapter swaps to 1999, we have to be told she is 21, and then again in 1988, that her exact age is 10. No basic math for you. There is a character that starts or ends every obvious thing he says with “to be brutally honest”. Despite the fact that this speech tic is itself obvious, Rachman has to laboriously explain to the reader that this character, Fogg, likes to pre-empt or end every obvious thing he says with “to be brutally honest”. This may sound like mere pedantry on my part, but it permeates the entire novel. The prose is how we are communicated this story, after all. When the basic sentence structure is so uninspiring and flat, it is no surprise when the book itself turns out to be so.

*Blogger Requireshate has mentioned in the past that when white people write of Thailand, if you look at the acknowledgements, the people thanked for Thailand-specific info on that section will inevitably have Anglo-sounding names (in other words, they’re expats) instead of any Thai names. I checked and this is indeed the case for Tom Rachman’s acknowledgements.

**The advanced reader copy warns: “THESE ARE UNCORRECTED PROOFS. PLEASE DO NOT QUOTE FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL YOU CHECK YOUR COPY AGAINST THE FINISHED BOOK”. So I suppose you ought to take this part with a grain of salt.

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The Unwinding by George Packer

unwindingGeorge Packer weaves a tapestry of American stories, from rich to poor, their rises and downfalls and lost opportunities, to paint a picture of an American social institution come adrift and unbound. The old social contract has dissolved and the series of laws and buffers that cemented the country throughout the twentieth century have been repealed and overridden. The worst part of the 2008 recession was not the recession itself but the missing high-profile arrests, new laws, and checks that failed to materialize afterwards. And not for lack of evidence or persuasiveness.

The Unwinding follows many people, but three “average” and unknown Americans get several chapters devoted to their stories. One is Tammy Thomas, an assembly line worker coming of age during the collapse of the steel industry in Youngstown, Ohio. Tammy watches as her community implodes, jobs disappear, gentrification and white flight run rampant only for her to lose her job herself. In the past, a combination of industry barons and the unions had protected their own; they were no saints and the jobs were often unsafe, unhealthy and did not include stellar pay, but they were stable. They paid enough to feed your family, had safeguards for injury, and took care of retirement. Packer is careful not to turn the early-mid century into a halcyon golden age — the terrible racism is reinforced. In fact, the industrial collapse was even worse for the rising black middle class since their time was so short and they were hit the hardest in many of the industry towns as they were coming in as the whites were coming out (at least for the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs).

Next comes Dean Price, an entrepreneur and green economy evangelist whose story spans the Piedmont Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Shocked by the notion of peak oil and hyped up on self-help books, Dean starts a southern crusade to employ various combinations of crops or waste products to replace diesel fuel (a major dependency of the sprawling, decentralized, crop-run south). The plan is to make farming useful again and get the locals back to work. Shrink business and put the means of production back in the hands of the community. His businesses fail. Due to a combination of ignorance, petty infighting, political games, shifting economics (once gas prices stabilized, green fuel became too expensive), and poor financial sense (on Dean’s part). But he keeps on trying. A friendly politician tells him to stop using words like “sustainability” and “green energy” as they tend to scare the populace. Dean himself, despite his strict adherence to peak oil, rejects speaking of climate change as “too partisan”. The book paints a picture of an economically devastated south, entire industries wiped out with whole towns employed and shopping at Walmart. Plus a disdain leveled upon them by the richer cities (of which I reside!). But still, it’s hard to sympathize when massive global crisis is present but ignored or decried as partisan and when you hear what the most common word that Dean’s fellows have to describe Obama is (hint: it begins with an n).

Lastly is Jeff Conaughton, a “Biden-guy”* with joint careers in Washington and Wall Street. Jeff’s story is largely an affirmation that the former is still in the latter’s pocket. His eventual departure from both involves him being unable to get an important audience with a politician as a Washington insider while his friends in a financial firm command eighty minute meetings. Meanwhile, the Republican party is now run on spite**. The democrats are largely ineffectual or just as bad. There’s a chapter profiling Elizabeth Warren that points out she espouses the same sort of views as Barrack Obama but seems determined to actually fulfill them without some kind of buddy-buddy ho ho let’s make a deal, guys schtick (Packer: “She actually seemed to hate the banks”). As a result, she was despised by members of both parties while in Washington. While probably the compelling personal story, Jeff Conaughton’s is the one with the most obvious and dire consequences. The highest levels of this country are a mess.

Interspersed between these three paths are exposés on famous people and three tumultuous locales — Wall Street during Occupy, Silicon Valley and its elite, and the housing crisis as it builds and smashes Tampa Bay. The character portraits are fascinating, Packer adopts a voice and language that fits the person he is writing about. Military based Colin Powell’s chapter uses high falutin language (glory, comrade, etc) with short sentences and an epic bent. Oprah’s uses more spiritual and floaty language. With the conspicuous exception of Elizabeth Warren, they generally have something negative to say. Oprah’s magical thinking ties wealth to goodness. Alice Waters inability to compromise has greatly assisted in what Americans eat being defined along class lines. Jay-Z is selling a cheap and false notion of rebellion. Raymond Carver was a pathetic, drunk asshole (not sure how that one ties into the greater narrative to be honest).

The Wall Street and Silicon Valley segments were interesting, but the implosion of Tampa and its environs was perhaps the best told and most harrowing section of the book. The real estate doomtrain and its inevitable derailment. The scrabbling at the ruins and the honest attempts to keep a house. The foreclosure machine in action — obfuscation of what is actually owed and to whom; three minute court hearings without the bank present. The fear and anger that led the Tea Party to emerge***. The Republican National Conference literally blockading the citizens of Tampa out of their own city. It feels like the setup to a dystopian fiction.

Packer’s America is one that has lost faith in itself, its people afraid of the future. Each chapter is preceded by a year and series of quotes, song lyrics, movies lines evoking that year. The last one, 2012, quotes the premise of The Hunger Games. The children of the starving and oppressed poor forced to fight to the death for the novelty of the extreme wealth. If Sci-fi represents how we view the future and fantasy how we dream, then we have become incredible cynics. Our Sci-fi/fantasy worlds are ones of decay, lands ruined by social upheaval and environmental disaster. It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones is so successful, in novel and television form. It’s the story of a corrupt elite repeatedly abusing the trust of their representative peoples, while they ignore a supernatural threat that comes literally from the glacial poles and negatively affects the weather.

*Jeff got into politics following a rousing speech that Joe Biden gave to his high school; it made an immediate impact on young Jeff and moved him to pursue politics. Later, he comes to learn that Biden is actually kind of a prick.

**a sad-but-funny chapter details the Republican National Convention. Romney is purposely not named — he’s merely the Nominee — and whenever major conservative figures are asked “Why him?”, they inevitably say something negative about Obama as a response.

***Again, the fear and anger is sad and understandable. The paradoxical self destructive behavior might even be. But the singular aim with which they smashed legitimate attempts to heal the economy is not. Just because the people got utterly hosed does not give them license to hurt others.

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf

orlando(Yes, my copy has this hideous cover)

The Great Modernists. I can appreciate them. I can comprehend and marvel at their skill. But like a peerless painting hung in a museum, I do not want to spend hours gazing (reading) upon them. I picked Orlando specifically because it contains many of my favorite hooks to a great novel — a sweeping historical narrative, a skilled writer of prose, humor, and a touch of the fantastic (Orlando is near four hundred years old by the end of the novel and inexplicably swaps genders halfway through).

Yet I went from moderately interested — the beginning chapters detailing a royal carnival upon the frozen-over Thames, before the ice catastrophically splits — to sort of ambivalent with the direction the book was taking, to utterly bored, to actually skimming the final few pages which I never do. The eponymous god-prince/cess wanders throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and barely learns anything. Nothing is ever explained and there’s no tension or plot, which I don’t necessarily need in a novel, but I do need something. The fantastical elements are never contextualized nor explained. The humor is excellent but rare, and while Virginia Woolf is a great writer, she’s not the type that resonates with me so acutely that I can read anything she writes and simply be enraptured by the sentence-by-sentence level prose itself.

The politics are dated. Orlando suddenly changing from man to woman changes very little (and that’s the point!). In fact, her clothes change her more. In an era when women are not prohibited from wearing pants, this is not particularly radical. This isn’t not some sort of sexism is over! tirade — but the book was written in 1928, there’s not much new or profound on the political front. It is actually sort of infuriating how little Orlando actually acknowledges any sort of change. This is most pronounced when she mysteriously has a son towards the end of the novel. She’s never pregnant, and at least in the visible narrative, hasn’t been anywhere near any suitable men the entire time.

The whimsy just did not hold it together for me, I guess.

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A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan

a-handbook-for-the-perfect-adventurer-3The existence of this book is, quite frankly, bizarre.

The preface introduces Pierre Mac Orlan — an influential but neglected French writer of the early twentieth century. A writer of absurdist tales and adventure novels, personal essays and accordion songs. Under pseudonym, an abundance of flagellation novels. Some of these novels were made into films including the semi-famous Port of Shadows. Yet almost none of his work was translated into English and that which was is all but impossible to find.

All of this is well and good, and the intro writer does a good job of conjuring curiosity and intrigue on the subject of Pierre Mac Orlan. I was ready. Give me the adventure. The flagellation and absurd.

So it came as a surprise that after all this hype, the book the publisher chose to translate was a pamphlet* steeped in a literary-philosophical conflict not of our time and filled with a constant slew of literary recommendations for novels and writers that would be incredibly difficult to track down, if they had ever been translated into English in the first place. The book was written in 1920 after all. There’s endnotes explaining each now-obscure point of reference or writer that contains nearly as many words as the main text itself!

Mac Orlan defines two different sorts of adventurers:

The active adventurer — The person (always a man, women are set pieces — more on this later) who goes off and has some adventure somewhere. He’s probably a sailor and quick with a sabre and off to lands unknown. Impetuous and with a low regard for personal safety, the book even comes with a list of traits these fellows show in childhood.

The passive adventurer — The one who does not travel anywhere farther than the local tavern (mythologized in loving detail), the one who coaxes the gullible active adventure on some perilous mission upon the high-seas and then writes a novel about it afterward. Their defining features are their voracious appetite for reading, their parasitic relationship to the active adventure, and their desire to put it all into writing.

Mac Orlan praises the passive adventurer as one who can write tales about lands he has never been to, who lives by reading and finds all the “research” he may need by familiarity with the great writers of his time (or, again, The Tavern). The introduction makes the comparison to Marcel Proust composing his opus without ever really leaving his bedroom. I would disagree with Mac Orlan, and surely that sort of attitude might explain the cringe-worthy books written by westerners of that time period (and now) about other countries that are hilariously inaccurate and probably racist. But I wasn’t really engaging with this argument because I can never tell when Pierre Mac Orlan is serious.

For he is always dry and mordant, and while he seems to be praising the passive adventurer and determining the active as foolish, there is also a World War I reactionary bent throughout. Is he applauding the passive adventurer or embarking upon a biting satirical take of the governments involved in the Great War — passive adventurers who gladly sent their captive active adventurers to their deaths en masse? The passive adventurer’s manipulation of (human) subject is stressed and at the end, Mac Orlan even warns that the active adventurer, should he survive his sojourn, occasionally comes back to beat the passive adventurer senseless.

This is a constant of the book. It’s impossible to tell if the man is being serious. Everything is written in a deadpan, deliberate tone. In one sentence, he is being a homophobe:

“An adventurer should never be made a homosexual, so as not to break with the prejudice that decrees that an individual with effeminate manners cannot act courageously.”

Then in the same breath, he contradicts his own edict:

“However, this vice has nothing to do with physical courage, which always leads to scorning death.”

Similarly, he refers to women as objects to be inserted into adventure stories like other “props”. His prime example involves comparing types of women to the accoutrements of a ship. Does he really mean it? I don’t know!

I’m still fascinated and Mac Orlan’s sentence-level writing is calculated wit and fun to read, so maybe this choice for translation was smart after all. Certainly it was cheaper than translating a full-length novel. I would like one of those.

*And pamphlet it is. Goodreads lists it as one hundred and one pages but there is an immensity of white space and blank pages. Seriously — there are five blank pages placed at the end of the book for no real reason other than to pad the sizing. The pages themselves are thicker than normal. It takes all of thirty minutes to read.

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The Castle by Franz Kafka

castleK. is trying to get to the castle. The surrounding town’s streets are always deserted. It’s often snowing, often dark, and time starts to lose reason and constancy. Mystifying supernatural events occur without explanation — divide two youthful twins, and now they are individually old and grizzled, unable to split their combined age between them. The town has its own internal rhythm and customs and idiosyncrasies, or so it would seem. What is devastatingly obvious w/r/t to social etiquette and procedure to the villagers is inexplicable to K., and to the reader. K. is often compared to a child in how little he understands adult affairs. There are lengthy monologues, personal histories, and bureaucratic minutia explained page after page by one character, only to be contradicted in the same fashion by another character.

This is the meaning of Kafkaesque. Nightmarish, bureaucratic monotony.

I remember reading the Phantom Tollbooth as a kid. And all of Roald Dahl’s works, one by one from the school library’s bottom shelf. I was enchanted and found them entirely natural in their grim absurdity, peopled by heroic albeit vindictive heroes. They often lacked a cogent moral lesson and horrible things happened, both to the protagonists and as a result of their actions. All this I loved and felt was proper. This is a child’s version of maturity, but important nonetheless, since its absence in other age-appropriate works is obviously felt by children.

Much later, as an adult I read analyses of why Juster and Dahl are so popular with kids. They spoke to the fear and bedevilment and chaos and cruelty that are all inescapable components of everyday childhood life, rather than endless summer afternoons amidst the dandelion fuzz like adults like to wistfully recall.

This implies one of two things:

1. The bedeviled nonsensical world is merely one of children, and as we become adults, things make more sense even if it is a somber kind of sense.

2. As adults, we gain some sort of pathos or maturity that allows us to handle the bedeviled world in some fashion.

Franz Kafka proves both of these false. The adult world is just as baffling, nonsensical, insoluble, and unfathomable. There is a reason that K. is constantly compared to a child. Except, unlike childhood and its apposite stories, there is no logical end, however fraught. Alienation in perpetuity. There is death, which is the conclusion Kafka apparently had in mind for K. had he lived to finish The Castle. Darkly ironic, but still no conscious end.

(I’m on a bend of great authors posthumously published great works lately. See The Pale King.)

(Also, I did finally find an image of the cover despite earlier troubles, albeit artifacted and grainy.)

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Book As Physical Object

this one

Reading an old 1959 copy of Kafka’s The Castle. It must be somewhat obscure. I cannot find an image of its cover online and the book itself only appears companioned by a fuzzy photograph on antique book sites.

The joy of the physical book confounds — the yellowed edges of the grainy-wood page, the elegant serifed typeface, and the papery book jacket that swishes and crinkles when the book is handled.

And the smell; that nostalgic blend of decay and dust and musty knowledge. It’s an avowal that the elements of the book were made from a living thing, damp and leafy.

It smells alive.

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