The great fire of London [a novel of interpolations and bifurcations] by Jacques Roubaud

great fire of londonIn his youth, Jacques Roubaud had a dream that changed his life. The dream, which was honestly little more than him getting off a train in London and observing the passerby, revealed the following:

  • He must write a novel, titled The Great Fire of London.
  • He must compose an extensive poetry project, which he called the Project.
  • The novel and the poetry must be intertwined completely.
  • The poetry Project must also be a math project (Roubad’s second career was mathematician)
  • The essence of the dream must be realized through the above (by the way: the dream included London but no fire nor poetry; it was a pretty unremarkable dream to impart such a grand vision)

Jacques never wrote the book.

He waffled over its complexity for thirty years, performed endless research on ancient troubadours and the evolution of language. Made lists, excuses.Then his wife suddenly died; He declared the completion of the Project & The Great Fire of London impossible. Following three years of total bereavement — non-being as he terms it —  he started writing again.  He adopted an inflexible regimen of waking up around 3am (on a very precise schedule based on seasonal light) and writing in the same small notebook in the same black ink whilst refusing to ever go back and edit.The result was the book I actually read, not The Great Fire of London but instead: The great fire of London. (A capitalization distinction the publisher refused to acknowledge on the cover of the book)

So here we are, meet the great fire of London, the first book since The Dictionary of the Khazars that forced me to use three bookmarks.

That is why every path that opens up but is not immediately followed, nor forever abandoned, will be signaled in the text, unobtrusively, with directions that allow it be found again somewhere in the book, a book which like all others however can be read sequentially, for themselves. The reader, armed with eyes and patience, if he’s the sort who isn’t too put off by the more or less simultaneous exploration of divergent branches (a simple extension moreover of silent skipping with your eyes from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, from one page to another (an ascending movement this time), not to mention the concurrent reading of several books, or of notes, of glosses…), will be able, theoretically, to make a more varied, less “pedestrian” measure of the chaotic landscape of this novel.

What Roubaud is getting at here is this: There’s parts of the main ‘story’ that he absolutely wants to tell you about, but are a digression or distraction. He numbers these sections and that number corresponds to a section in the back of the book where he elaborates on the point (sort of like Infinite Jest’s endnotes). He might briefly mention his morning routine involving a bakery stop, but leave his obsessive list of requirements for the perfect croissant for the corresponding segment at the end of the book. He labels these diversions the interpolations of the title.

The second innovation is the bifurcation. What’s a bifurcation? At points where Roubaud absolutely could not decide which direction to take the novel, he went both ways. If a section of the main story has a number prefaced by a ‘b’, there is a bifurcation at the end of the book where he writes the chapter in the alternate flow he wanted to take.

I really like the idea of this book. Way more than actually reading it. The structure is fantastic; the actual content is a hodgepodge of all kinds of nonsense. Autobiographical episodes of his life, his family, his childhood. Long descriptions of rooms, photos. His love of England, love of reading, walking, swimming. Ruminations on poetry, math. Some of it is quite good — it’s fascinating reading Roubaud describe the making of jelly from a fruit(?) I’ve never even heard of, wisdom from old Provencal France. But it’s disordered and does not hold together. Some of the sections get abstract or theoretical and I appreciated them more than I actually enjoyed reading them. Worse, there is an interminable chapter where Roubaud pontificates on the mechanics of the how the novel, project, and dream all held together, how he would have written The Great Fire of London and the Project if he had actually written them. Larges swathes of it are borderline incomprehensible:

The novel would contain mysteries, while also being told with mystery. These are not the same thing. In the appearances of mystery, there would be the mystery of its form. The mystery of its form would bear a substantial relationship to the Project’s riddle, most particularly to that aspect of the riddle identified with reflexivity; the Project, in itself, a riddling presence.The mystery of the project-riddle’s manifestation as a novel would assume a public form. It would be medieval monstration. The fiction would move through the necessary “variations” of narration and description. The mystery of the ‘with mystery” implied numerals and “numberings”.

Imagine fifty dense pages of that!

Jacques also has this hilarious affectation w/r/t the english language. He’s admits he’s an anglophobe and is in love with England; but any reference to english or England must come with a follow-up clarification that he means english-english and not american-english, usually with an anecdote to show how inferior or soulless the american version is. I got so used to this that, late in the book, when he’s describing how much he loves english parks, I already knew he was going to write something negative about how little he liked Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. And lo’ and behold, the impugnment shortly followed. Blech, give me the dirt and chaos of GGP over highly manicured, sanitized english lawns that you cannot even step foot on any day.

Anyway, I really liked this quote so I’ll end here (topic is reading):

My passion is as old as myself, that is, as the self that counts and walks and remembers. All these things exist on a more or less contemporary plane (viewed from the distance of time where I am today). At every moment of the past I see books: books open and overturned in the grass, books piled near a bed; books on a table, shelves, in school bags, in plastic bags, in suitcases; books in buses, trains, subways, planes. Every picture of my surrounding world contains at least one book. The world teems with a plurality of books, books being read.

Dragon Age II (2011, Bioware)

da2

I loved the first Dragon Age. I avoided the second. When it was released, all I heard about it was that it was a rushed, overwrought, poorly developed mess.

Now I’ve played it.

And it is an incredibly rushed, somewhat overwrought, occasionally poorly developed mess. But, it’s a mess with heart. A mess with some great ideas. It’s a jumbled ride that simultaneously sheds RPG standard cliches and standbys and innovates, while being rushed out so quickly that half the ‘dungeons’ are the same repeats of the same exact drab terrain. It’s almost comic when you enter the same exact map of a warehouse or cave as you just did fifteen minutes earlier somewhere else in the world except some passages that were previously sealed are now open for you and some rooms that were accessible before are now blocked. Sometimes there is no pretense — you are just asked to go to the same exact portion of the world you just visited.

But, but, but. It does many interesting things. To wit, the premise —

Due to the events of the first Dragon Age (a monstrous darkspawn invasion (see: Lord of the Ring orcs) sweeping across fantasyland), the Hawke family flees their endangered home to their ancestral city of Kirkwall. Kirkwall lies in a part of the world called the Free Marches, a collection of city states largely untouched by the monster party rockin’ across the land. The entirety of DA 2 takes place inside Kirkwall and its environs. As the protagonist (simply called ‘Hawke’), you and your family arrive to the city penniless with the aim of improving your clan’s lot in life.

With the vast majority of RPGs, or honestly any kind of video game, focusing on saving the whole damn world, being the chosen one, whatever, the small scale was incredibly welcome and kind of novel. Your first major quest series is funding an expedition to a subterranean treasure trove (naturally full of monsters) with a host of greedy dwarves. The in-game timeline shifts between major story arcs by 3-5 years and while the scale of conflict increases, it never goes beyond Kirkwall. You’re not trying to save the world — you’re trying to stay alive, create wealth, and later stop your home city from eating itself.

But, like basically everything else in this fantastical imbroglio: Any good idea is coupled with some mystifying and sloppy implementation or major detraction. Kirkwall is uninspired beyond belief. The neighborhoods are literally named ‘Hightown’, ‘Lowtown’, ‘Darktown’, and ‘The Docks’. They’re almost entirely without distinguishing landmarks nor do they make cohesive sense as a place of residence and trade. Despite the fact that several years pass between chapters, nothing in the city changes. All of the major characters and random townspeople stay stationary, the merchants spout the same nonsense. The most egregious example — you kick a large foreign force out of the city in act II that had occupied half of ‘The Docks’. 3+ years later in act III, the area these guys were in is blocked off and empty and the docks are even more pointless.

Further examples of this game’s split personality:

The combat is honestly fun. It’s an improvement over the stuttery pace of the original, which was too married to older RPG combat systems. DA2 is fast, the abilities are interesting, and while it’s mildly silly that rogues are teleporting ninjas, the whole of it ties together to make difficult battles visceral and satisfying, while still strategic if you choose to micromanage your party’s tactics. The specializations you can customize for Hawke and companions change the way they play in noticeable ways and are not just a variation of +1 damage or -1 armor when you press X.

Again, the dark mirror — the combat is indeed fun but there is like 3 different types of enemies to actually engage in fisticuffs with. Melee guy (whether it be a bandit or a demon, they act the same), archer, wizard, and a handful of special demons with slight ability changes. OK, so like 5. I’ve killed enough bandits to depopulate a small country. They also just arrive in waves at random intervals, dropping in a poof of smoke (just kidding, no smoke, just pop-in). It was downright innovative when I played a downloadable chapter where enemy archers actually utilized high ground to shoot at my crew.

The good: the characters you can recruit to join your party are fairly well characterized, and rather than just choosing dialogue options that the character most wants to hear to gain their approval, DA2 rewards either befriending them or making them a ‘rival’ by constantly shitting on their dumb ideas. Like I did with Fenris, an elf once enslaved in a nation run by mages. Every time he went off on how mages should be imprisoned, killed whatever, I told him how wrong he was. Or if he was in my party while I helped some mages,  he had some smartass comment or angry outburst ready. By the end of the game, he was maxed out on the ‘rival’ end of the buddy spectrum; he stuck around because he respected Hawke but he was angry all the time and it fed into his actions and the way some plot events play out. I want to call this feature out specifically because I have read that in DA3, this gets thrown out the window, and party member interactions regress to ‘tell them what they want to hear’.

The bad: Hmm, this part is actually kind of solid. My only complaint is that it is sort of fluff, and has little impact even when the lynchpin of the catastrophic third act involves one of your party members making a monumentally stupid decision that you cannot affect at all.

OK, maybe I’m a sap or have low standards*. Maybe I’m enabling large corporations to vomit out half-finished work while I willingly line up to hand out money. But I enjoyed it a great deal.


*It’s not true!

Occultation and other stories by Laird Barron

occultSome horror stories are character driven — the interpersonal drama is as important and interesting as the creepshow. Others rely heavily on mechanics of the horrorstuff — the characters are just vehicles to drive us from one slavering monster to the next abandoned mountain cabin. The stories of Occultation try to do both, but they are at their best when they are embracing the latter.

While there are occasional echoes of Stephen King (the title story), Barron is primarily a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft. Weird, unknowable horror. Unfathomable, ancient entities breaking our protagonists minds. Terrible, ominous wilderness. It works, sometimes; there is occasional piercing, stomach dropping visuals, like a woman opening her closet and seeing saggy skin corpses hanging amongst her clothes. Or the creepy whispering one protagonist hears, late at night, floating up from the vents in his apartment:

Intestines. Kidneys.
Ohh, either is delectable.
And sweetbreads. As long as they’re from a young one.
Ganglia for me. Or brain. Scoop it our quivering.
Enough! Let’s start tonight. We’ll take one from—

Other times it’s a little too campy. Anyone not named Lovecraft using the word ‘cyclopean’ in a horror short comes off as a bit of a poser. And sometimes the darkness comes off as a murky adjective soup that is barely comprehensible, let alone scary:

(group of hikers finds a mysterious cave with a pool of water in the center, described in the quote below)

The trough was a divining pool and the water a lens magnifying the slothful splay of the farthest cosmos where its gases and storms of dust lay like a veil upon the Outer Dark. A thumbnail-sized alabaster planetoid blazed beneath the ruptured skein of leaves and algae, a membranous cloud rising.The cloud seethed and darkened, became black as a thunderhead. It keened–chains dragging against iron, a theremin dialed to eleven, a hypersonic shriek that somehow originated and emanated from inside my brain rather than an external source. Whispers drifted from the abyss, unsynchronized, unintelligible, yet conveying malevolent and obscene lust that radiated across the vast wastes of deep space. The cloud peeled, bloomed, and a hundred-thousand-miles-long tendril uncoiled, a proboscis telescoping from the central mass, and the whispers amplified in a burst of static.


This is only an excerpt; it goes on. Slothful splay indeed.

These stories occasionally have way too much backstory or don’t know when to end. A great example is my favorite story of the collection, Strappado, about a group of people going to investigate some edgy, modern performance art. It unfolds rapidly, chills, and leaves a disturbing impression in its wake. The people involved absolutely don’t matter. So the 3-4 page leadup introducing the main character and his relationship with his on and off boyfriend is a totally cutt-able bore. It probably could have ended a page or two earlier too — an image of a man trying to slice his wrists with a cut-up credit card, failing, and calling the cleaners was all it needed.

These stories were written individually and arranged in a collection later — this causes an issue that would never have occurred if I was reading them as one-offs. Namely, they start to feel a bit samey. The characters fall into a few (wealthy) types. Everyone smokes*. The wilderness of Washington state is thoroughly plumbed. I found myself saying, satanists, occultists, again? And after the Nth time it happened, I wanted to alert Laird Barron that not all stories need to end with the protag succumbing to madness or ripping off the zipper on his human suit. Sometimes watching our mangled hero scrabble to escape is the far scarier experience, whether he/she makes it or not.

The sum is lesser than its parts, though. I feel this review is too negative for the generally positive outlook I have of this book. 7 of 9 of these stories are solid, good reads.


*This book feels really old. I have a beat up used copy with a cheesy 90s cover. Everyone smokes cigarettes or has dusty old cars. Satanism is an earnest, not laughable, fear. So I always felt sort of confused when the book mentioned recent events like the recession or prop 8. The book was published in 2010 and this edition in 2014!

Lunch With a Bigot: The Writer in the World by Amitava Kumar

lunch with a bigotReading and writing are a major topic of exploration in these essays. Kumar is an advocate of writing as an expression of the real, a way to decipher and interpret the everyday — politics, identity, culture — the sacred role of fiction in making palpable these essential things. The well known strategy of the writer infusing their personal experiences and family character into the plot.

He also determines economy of language as required. Short, direct sentences. Avoidance of adverbs, overuse of adjectives, all flowery language whatsoever. Carver, Hemingway, Roth, Naipaul*. I enjoy most of the named writers and styles. Certainly I love many books determined to translate ‘the real’. Yet, I’m utterly baffled whenever anyone makes grandiose declarations of what literature should ultimately be.

I mean when I hear anyone anyone, not just this writer, say something along the lines of:

  • Writing should be a translation of real life, serious in aim, and high in pursuit.
  • Never write anything that doesn’t directly serve the story; no diversions.
  • Vampires / magic / future technology should be done in this way. (it happens in all genres)
  • Never use two words when one would do (and don’t tell Proust!).

To that I say: literature can be a million different things! Many of them good! Use ornate language even if it isn’t strictly necessary! Divert away, so long as it is interesting! Adverbs surely aren’t always so bad.

It’s this hardline notion more than anything else that makes me unlikely to read Amitava Kumar’s fiction, or of many lit critics who espouse similar. But what he does excel at is journalistic concerns — recording public events, interviewing ‘common’ people, conducting talks with filmmakers and writers. There’s some really insightful pieces here. I’ve added Indian films to my to-watch list that I would never have heard of otherwise.

Kumar does an excellent job of translating the presence and importance of great writers to the page. And also less known personages, like a muslim taxi driver who was assaulted after the Boston bombings. The words of the bigot of the title — a Hindu radical who hates and dehumanizes muslims — are chilling and well recorded, and show that extreme right wing rhetoric is basically the same everywhere, no matter how applied. And it is Arundhati Roy’s line, in an interview with Kumar, about using court injunctions as napkins that sticks with me after finishing this book.

*Kumar names some other Indian writers too, but having not read them, I can’t recite from memory. With a handful of exceptions, the vast majority of writers namedropped are men.