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has dissolved and the series of laws and buffers that cemented the country throughout the twentieth century have been repealed and overridden.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.

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 is 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.

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.

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.)

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.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

palekingPreceding the main text is the editor’s note, which manages to be both hagiographic and self aggrandizing until it finally gets to the point in the very last sentence:

“But an unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look? David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.“

Paradox: We respect the man enough to treat his work with great reverence and it is a common reaction to feel connected to the author in a rare and unique way. Yet we don’t respect his obvious desire to not let us read unfinished work. It gets sort of extra questionable w/r/t publishing and capitalism and marketing (the paperback promises four unpublished scenes not in the hardcover!), but I can hardly act righteous or judgemental. I guess The Pale King is here and DFW is not.

A host of characters converge on the IRS Regional Examination Center of Peoria, Illinois, a drab and generic former factory town carved from the surrounding farmland. For reasons that never become clear (but are explained in DFW’s notes composed at the end of the book), there is a massive amount of transfers all arriving around this time in the mid eighties. All the main characters have various tragic or comic or incredibly self-absorbed backstories. There is a thematic bent to be explored through each of their situations (the character who is so incredibly nice and generous as to infuriate everyone around him, the character obsessed with finding people to “save” her, etc). The novel ends as you really start to know and establish attachments with the cast.

The IRS was undergoing massive changes in the mid-eighties. Another major theme is IRS as civics and as a noble, moral duty vs. IRS as profit generating entity run like a corporation to maximize profits by intelligently hiring and auditing and process-running. Thus the time period’s importance to the mid 2000’s era it was written in is exposed. Most of the cast are rote examiners, which involves examining IRS returns to determine which are worth auditing — a mind numbingly boring task. Boredom is the major question of the novel. Why is dullness so painful? Can it be overcome with some sort zen-type ultimate mindfulness? The content of the novel itself was supposed to embody this entire notion — instead of the normal building-tension-to-conclusion narrative arc, DFW’s notes explain the plot as:

“Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.”

The novel also runs a Princess Bride-esque gambit; William Goldman’s novel posits that it is not an original work at all, but an abridged version of the classic and impossible to find original written by one S. Morgenstern, which also happens to be a true account of real kingdoms. Likewise, Wallace, appearing in first person (“Author here.”), proclaims that The Pale King is not a novel. It’s is a memoir, detailing the year he worked at the IRS for a year when he was 20, with requisite backstory to explain getting kicked out of college and so on. While I knew most of the personal history was fictional, I had absolutely zero idea how much of the IRS minutia was — so the preceding paragraph’s IRS summary is probably false, at least in the real world. The Daily Beast has a fact checker on the issue.

The situation and real-life context here is impossible to escape. Every time a character contemplates suicide or knows someone who succeeded, there is a deeper pang than its mention in all of DFW’s other books and essays*. Worse though, is the finality, and contingent sadness. This is it. For the work and for the man even though he’s been dead a few years. Reading The Pale King means being sad for reasons that have nothing to do with the content itself**.

It is impossible to say how unfinished to the novel is. There’s occasional clunkiness or pacing weirdness that would likely have been smoothed out. The ghost, and I mean ghost, of a plot begins to materialize by the end — something considerably less solid than the plot of Infinite Jest, a novel notoriously low on cohesive and easy-to-ascertain plot. Its study of boredom and how to deal with it is not fully formed. The notes at the end reveal a major plot piece that is not even present in the existing text. In my imagination, The Pale King is at least as long as Infinite Jest.

*where suicide is seemingly omnipresent. Which sort of begs the question DFW poses in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again essay: Is it them or is it me? Is suicide — its ideation, contemplation, and fulfillment — a common but rarely intelligently addressed topic in general narratives (aside from maybe like tragic backstory or that one cousin or w/e) or is it specific to certain writers like DFW or is this all just a bunch of crap that I’m focusing too hard on because I know the writer eliminated his own personal map?

**I’ve rewritten this paragraph a few times because it sounds incredibly banal and rote. Of course it’s sad. A person died before their time. But it happens all the time. Maybe I’m just an uncaring monster, but I am feeling sadder than I do when most people I don’t know but know of dies. Like, I think, most people, death outside of my limited sphere of awareness is typically abstract.This is a cloudy sadness, a feeling of unfairness, and a deep feeling of unsettlement that something is wrong that will never be made right about the whole thing. The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has provoked a similar reaction in people. Like a hammer-blow. The world is not as it ought to be.

The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed

bae2013Consider an essay. It will be written in the first person and almost certainly the ‘I’ will reflect on their childhood or themselves as a younger person. There will be an important contrast from that period to time to this, perhaps a key moment that resonated throughout the I’s life or it will serve as an explanation for tumultuous events of the present — such as a catastrophic divorce. Did I mention they are probably divorced and bitter about it? Also, at least one parent will be absent and possibly dead. Probably dead. They will yearn for something more than the mundane and may be trying to make up for their wasted twenties.

You have now considered every essay that guest editor Cheryl Strayed chose to feature as 2013’s best essays.

My only experience with the “Best American” series was 2007’s, featuring David Foster Wallace as guest editor, and containing reviews, third person accounts of interesting people, investigative journalism, Iraq war reports, explanations for strange phenomenon such as the Dog Whisperer. While a wide range of topics is still covered, I found myself bewildered by 2013’s specificity. I looked up Cheryl Strayed online and discovered her big hit is Wild, which is, get this: Strayed reflecting on her journey across the Pacific Crest Trail, taken in her early 20’s after her mother died and her marriage ended in ruin.

Conclusion: Cheryl Strayed has very limited interests; or may be a narcissist.

Anyway, my three favorites were:

Keeper of the Flame by Matthew Vollmer — The author’s dad invites him to meet “the Nazi”. Turns out there is a castle filled with a rare and complete set of Third Reich memorabilia in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This combines two key elements that make a great essay: A strange and interesting topic paired with a shall-we-say, moral thrust, that interrogates the reader and their worldview.

The Exhibit Will Be So Marked by Ander Monson — On his thirty-third birthday, Monson asks for friends and family to send him mix-tapes (so that he can evaluate what they think of him and their relationship via their choice of music). He also receives a broken cassette in an unmarked envelope sent from Nebraska City, Nebraska. The author details his attempts to find a way to listen to the tape mixed with a hodgepodge of scenes from his life; a life mix tape. In less adept hands, this could be insufferable, but instead it is very clever and wearily uplifting.

The Girls in My Town by Angela Morales — Childbirth. It’s another topic covered in several essays and this is the best one. Morales, in her early thirties, gives birth and lays in a hospital room a curtain over from a fourteen year old who has just done the same. She goes on to explore the combination of sexism, racism, boredom, and mislaid-hope that has led to an enormous amount of teen pregnancies in her central Californian home of Merced. It is a very good (and I’m a sucker for righteous anger).

Possession by A. S. Byatt

possessionThe astounding part of Possession — affirmed by all who read it — is its attention to detail. A good portion of the novel consists of the love letters of fictional Victorian poets, poems written by these poets, and various journals and biography excerpts of past and present made-up authors. These are convincing. So convincing, that the reader does not spend time considering how convincing they are, but accepts them outright as real poets with a real passion and correspondence. Byatt’s research (and vocabulary) and her ability to integrate these into a novel is impressive and flawless.

Passive, life-mired Roland Mitchell discovers a forgotten love letter from great Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (based on a combo of Robert Browning and Lord Alfred Tennyson) to another poet, Cristabel LaMotte (based on Christina Rossetti). This launches Roland on a quest to track the movements of Ash and onto a blossoming love affair of his own with Maud Bailey, a scholar and descendent of LaMotte herself. Roland and Maud are combated by a host of antagonists — realized people that also fit convenient stereotypes — a shady American pederast who feels he “owns” the legacy of Randolph Ash, a blonde bully-bro who outperforms Roland in job promotions and once had a brief tryst with Maude, a near-robotic Ash devotee/academic who lacks passion and thus cannot understand the great poet.

The characters all fit a type, and as everyone converges on each other towards the end, the plot feels a ludicrous mirror of a Scooby Doo episode. One could expect villain Mortimer Cropper to exclaim “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddlesome kids/literary scholars!” Byatt is a strong enough writer that the story continues to work, and the characters are well drawn enough to not take the the reader out of the story. Beyond that, though, the plot is absolutely littered with coincidences. Disparate characters run into each other just because they happened to be in the same town, convenient side characters enter the story who just happen to have the ideal profession (i.e. solicitor/lawyer) the heroes require at just this time. That aspect of the novel did start to draw me out of the story. Coincidence-heavy plotting is definitely an irritance of mine.

And while I really enjoyed the second half of the novel, the first half is severely lacking. I considered this was simply because it was setting up the excellent second portion, but I just don’t think so. The pace is stolid, the romance of the Ash and LaMotte restrained. The writing, while still good, is quite dry. Roland is a passive nice-guy with no real drive and Muad is a distant ice-queen. Contrast that to part two where Roland has become a man adrift and Muad is a developed and sympathetic character who probably should have been the primary viewpoint.

But, really, if one half of a book has to be much better than the other, it ought to be the second half, right? As the characters are developed, the Victorian era storyline heats up, and the cast moves to the North English coast and Brittany in such vividly described detail that I’d consider moving my honeymoon there and at the very least, putting it on the must-visit list, it feels like a completely different novel. The mystery, the quest to untangle the poet’s love affair and muse-like inspiration they provided each other comes to feel urgent, even to someone like myself who does not find literary scholarship and academia exactly exciting.

There’s themes about love and sex prevalent in the novel. It seems to be celebrating the notion of waiting for sex like the Victorians did, that something is to be gained by not jumping right into it. The notion feels dated because it is clearly in combat with some sex-politics of the publication age (1990) that does not seems as relevant today. The present-day characters are lamenting the lack of romance and dissection of love into its constituent, sterilized bits, much like Ash and LaMotte had concerns about a world suddenly encountering Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection and the absence of a purposeful and romantically inclined God. It’s interesting in the context of the novel, but the idea that sex is just hormones feels eye-roll worthy to me; it’s hard to take it seriously like the novel’s characters do since it feels so passé.

There’s also some straw-men “feminists” referenced in the book, and Byatt sort of highlights Muad as a near-exceptional woman who is not caught up in a sort of frivolous re-writing of literary history like so many of her feminist contemporaries. It’s less of a strike to in-story literary scholarship that Randolph Ash had an affair than it is that Cristabel LaMotte was not a patriarchy-crushing lesbian. Muad is a sort of “exceptional woman” in this framework. It is interesting in the context that Byatt herself has rejected her work being submitted for the Woman’s Prize for Fiction, going so far as to call it a sexist award. That’s certainly a topic for discussion in of itself (and sort of personal since I know my own mother has turned down minority-based promotions in her line of work). But anyway: Possession — it’s pretty good.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Eight hundred pages later, I don’t know much more about the greater events of the French Revolution, but I know tremendously more of the major personalities that drove it.

This novel spans a cacophony of different voices — shifting tenses through the all-powerful third person omniscient point-of-view, through transcripts, quotations, and occasional first person narratives — but chiefly follows three of the major players:


Writer, orator, and “inveterate hell-raiser”, Camille Desmoulins.


The loud, physically-imposing lawyer-leader, Georges-Jacques Danton.


And enigmatic, doctrine-literalist, Maximilien Robespierre.

Mantel examines their complicated relationship with patriotism and revolution juxtaposed with their lust for (respectively) fame, wealth, and… well, it’s not entirely certain what Robespierre lusts for.  He seems to be lying to himself and is prone to bouts of hypocrisy for much of his political career. This is most evident in his opposition to the death penalty paired with the enormous amount of citizens he sent to the guillotine.

They’re all bad people. In one way or another. Yet Mantel keeps them sympathetic — not least of all by glossing over or making indistinct the number of deaths they directly or indirectly contributed to. This is good because the greater part of the novel is dialogue and those three spend a lot of time chattering at each other or another member of the prodigious cast. Their physicality is notable. Slight Camille pushing his long hair out of his face or putting his hands to said face; The physical presence and fright of Danton; Robespierre’s mental state tied to facial tics and whether or not his hair is powdered.

Unlike Wolf Hall, this book is more difficult to follow without some knowledge of French history. I only have high school history class at my disposal and suffered at parts. It focuses heavily on a certain of kind of middle class intellectual — the frequenters of the Jacobin clubs of the time and anyone with interpersonal relationships involving the three main protagonists. The common person is rarely more than a fickle element of a volatile mob. Uneducated and requiring society’s elite to guide them. Major events such as the King’s execution are skimmed over or summarized in a single line*. There is also an endless cavalcade of committees, sections, clubs, deputies, ministers, conventions, assemblies, and so on. I could not keep track. Maybe this is the intention. I am sure it was difficult to keep track as a bystander during the time and that might be the point, but I am not certain.

The writing is masterful; not quite as polished as in Wolf Hall and its sequel, but very good. It’s quite funny at times. It oscillates perspective and tense with ease. And it proves that the third person omniscient narrative (narrator knows all characters thoughts at any given time) is not dead in the modern novel and is excellent if used correctly. On the other hand, it really did not have to be so long. There’s a lengthy head scratching sequence following Madame Roland despite her role in the overarching narrative being minimal. It certainly did not need every working day conversation between Danton and Camille, but part of the charm of the novel is that time passes but feels natural rather than the author pressing fast forward on the time remote. It’s not just about the society shattering events, but the day-to-day.

Anyway, like most books about revolution and political upheaval, A Place of Greater Safety asks: When you topple the old regime and overthrow the despot, how do you prevent the new boss form just being as bad as the old boss? It doesn’t attempt an answer. It does leave us with an evocative quote courtesy of the Comte de Mirabeau:

“Liberty is a bitch that likes to be fucked on a mattress of corpses.”


*The line is something like “And Louis, the King, is quicklimed.” I only understood this due to a distant child association of my grandfather gardening. The King has become fertilizer. Intensive googling revealed that I understood very little. Quicklime hastens decomposition, meaning the sentence is literal — the king was killed and some one(s) used a chemical reaction utilized in soil balance to melt his corpse. There’s further meaning behind this, according to this website, the practice was typically used for pauper’s graves. They were shallow so the less you had to bury the better.

I don’t know whether to be impressed or annoyed.


The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion

lastthingThe dull and overwrought title, the fuzzy monochrome cover art dominated by letters, not to mention the plot and published date (1996) delineates this book as a certain kind of novel, native to the late 80s and 90s. The political-thriller involving shady arms deals and some person or persons just caught in-between. The American government is corrupt. Parts of it anyway. But it’s a sophisticated hands-off puppetmaster corruption. Bad things happen. People in third world countries die. American power and its politicians’ personal wealth increases.*

Yet, this story is hardly rote or typical. Joan Didion wrote it. The writing, as always, is superb. Even through the cynical lense of 2013, the events of 1984 as translated through 1996 are truly abominable. That the topic feels slightly dated may not be because it is a conception of American imperialism circa 1996, but that we have seen the process played out so often in the interim that it has become obvious and everyday.

The writing itself, told through a framing story of a reporter putting together the story many years later, is sparse and enamored with repetition. Didion observes the doublespeak and murky insubstantiality of political speak in interviews and speeches. Then repeats segments of it, over and over. She may go a little overboard, but the effect and pacing gives the novel a recursive feel. All of this has happened / is happening / will happen. Again and again.

Like Play it as it Lays, and, I suspect, most-if-not-all of Didion’s novels, the protagonist, Elena McMahon, is a woman becoming unhinged. The writing conveys an overpowering anxiety, whilst Elena maintains an aura of perfect control. Didion uses tricks like telling us when she (Elena)  has stopped crying without ever telling us she had began. Or giving us a running record of how many hours it has been since she has last eaten. Again, like Play it as it Lays, the protagonist confronts a personal emptiness; they try to invoke meaningfulness through their family, their daughter, their ex-husband. Largely unsuccessfully. They have become too isolated by society, too absorbed with the abyss.


*As the novel’s central scandal is the Iran-Contra affair, this isn’t just cheap drama but an affirmation of the truth — There were virtually no consequences to all involved, and least of all to those in the highest positions.