A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

When I was a kid, there was this religious family in the neighborhood, real devout and sheltered, that I would visit on any pretense simply so I could play their suite of Christian Nintendo games. Specifically, the Noah’s Ark one, where you took control of Noah and scoured the 2d landscape seeking two of each 8-bit animal, stacking them one by one on your head, and heading back to the ark. Check it out.

Also when I was a kid, my parents forced me to attend catechism, which was mostly a disaster. Except this one sequence where each kid was tasked with creating a paper bag animal to perform an Ark presentation, wherein each kid was supposed to mimic the call of their assigned animal in all its cacophonous glory. I was assigned the horse. I had a mean neigh. I came down with an awful flu, barely able to crawl out of bed, mere days prior to the big event and could not participate.

Further kid tales: My aunt, religious in a way no one else in my family was and cognizant of my early love of reading, purchased a series of kids’ bible stories, wherein this little girl I’m pretty sure was named Alice could turn her bible into a magic portal that allowed her to experience various Old Testament tales in-person. Or maybe it included the New Testament too but I forgot about those dull morality lessons in favor of fire and brimstone. Given the format of this piece, you’d expect my favorite story to be Noah’s Ark. But actually it was #2, behind the Tower of Babel, which captures my imagination still.

While it’s unclear if I ever truly believed the Ark existed, it is otherwise crystal clear that the story of Noah fascinated me from a young age. Think about it for a second: God hit the reset button and basically wiped out the entire planet, tasking Noah with the incredibly dubious task of somehow getting two of every single animal into a single ship. There’s barely any mysticism to back him up. Yeah he had a much longer lifespan than regular people, so what? He lived most of it after the adventure. What is the lesson here? There is none. This is one. Don’t fuck with God or you’ll be made extinct in an arbitrary yet precise fashion.

Thus when I picked up this novel at a used bookstore in Fort Bragg and discovered the first chapter was an account of the voyage of the Ark, recounted by an illicit stowaway, I bought it immediately without bothering to consider what the other 9 ½ chapters were about. Not only was it a well-written story about the Ark, but it puts to the forefront many of my practical issues with the story: How do all the animals fit on the ark (there’s more than one), how does Noah find every single animal on earth (he doesn’t), what do they eat while on the ark (the animals), and so on. Barnes’ tone is wry, cynical. Noah is a harsh master commanded by a harsher master and the animal passengers face the consequences.

Then, following the close of chapter 1, what joy to discover that nearly all the rest of the stories have some allusion to arks, to boats, to epic and impractical journeys! Whether they be eighteenth century travelers to Mount Ararat, seeking the Ark’s wreckage, to an art history lesson on The Wreck of the Medusa and a meditation on misrepresenting reality in art to better communicate that very same reality. Other, Ark-less chapters, include Barnes’ rumination on the love, triggered by observing his wife sleeping in the middle of the night: What’s the point? Why love? Is it the answer or the question?

I was surprised to find how much this book has in common with two of my favorite writers, David Mitchell and Italo Calvino. I’ve heard of Barnes but never in relation to those two. Other than the uncommon structure itself, Barnes is clever with language and has clearly considered deeply the various injustices humans lay upon one another.  But where Calvino is playful and insightful and Mitchell is honest but optimistic, Barnes is far harsher, his wit expressed as  bemused cynicism. Humanity is far from a great steward of this planet, as the stowaway of chapter one details, and it’s been a series of self-inflicted misfortune since the flood. Especially in the late 80s, written deep in Cold War terror as this book was. Men especially are oafs. Women, like the animals to Noah, must suffer them (there’s one story as problematic at this sentence).

And in the bleak future to this history, humanity’s next extinction will be self inflicted. As the final chapter details, we won’t even be satisfied with heaven.

Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis trilogy) by Octavia Butler

liliths-broodThere’s a peculiar quality in media produced during the Cold War, especially the late five-minutes-to-midnight era. Not just the fear and hopelessness — that’s present in plenty of time periods and cultures. Instead, it’s the near-certainty that humanity had reached its apotheosis. That mutual self destruction was indeed assured. This is the end of the road. 

So when, prior to the events of Lilith’s Brood, the US and USSR have blown each other apart and the rest of the world is succumbing to the after effects, it’s no surprise. It’s a simple inevitability. But it’s what follows that I find truly peculiar to the time.

An alien ship approaches Earth, scooping up any surviving humans it can find. These aliens, the Oankali, spend generations seeking out new life to integrate with and mate/merge genetically. Starting with our heroine, Lilith, they plan to train squads of humans to return to a primitive earth and produce children with them. Any humans who refuse this offer are either permanently locked in stasis (to be experimented on) or allowed to return to Earth, but sterile. No more true humans are to be made.

Why? Science! Genetics! The Oankali are so fine-tuned at examining genes that they’ve concluded that humans are genetically inclined to eventually blow themselves up. It is the conflict of both intelligence and hierarchical behavior in all of us. Destruction is inevitable. This isn’t an alien conceit either — the narrative never challenges it. In the world of Lilith’s Brood, genes are everything, including the extinction of the species. Even when book 2 flirts with the notion that humans could have a future separate from the Oankali, that future too would eventually be doomed.

Sitting from the vantage of 2016, where we’ve averred mutual destruction thus far and managed to survive the catastrophic world-breaking powers we gained in the 20th century, the moral center of the book is off-kilter and never truly believable. Not that humans can’t be prone to violence. Certainly we see that is still a world-spanning problem every day. But basic behavior being purely guided by genes? Not just violence but gender roles, sexual assault, etc. The behaviors Butler takes for granted as genetic truths is what we would deride as biotruths today. In other words: mistaking cultural habits for genetic ones.

This whole set of notions is more of an attraction than a repellent. Butler is a great writer. Her prose is crisp and leads to a comfortable story flow. The Oankali are a wonderfully realized and believable set of head-tentacled, three gendered aliens. It’s science fiction that exists without the shackles of genre trappings. If it feels dated, well, it is 30 years old.

That is, until book 3 anyway. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I’d suggest skipping it entirely. The first book is the aftermath of destruction. The second is the rebuilding. The third is a smaller, first person alien story lacking any of the greater human conflict. It’s very repetitive, repeating many of the same alien biotrait stories we’ve read before. My opinion, not supported by the narrative voice in any way, is that the Oankali really are just galactic parasites. That their promise of human-oankali hybrids was a lie, because we can see from a first person perspective that their children are simply Oankali with a slight human veneer.

As you can see, even when describing what I dislike, it’s within the context of the story, rather than “the writing was bad” or “the plot didn’t make sense”. It definitely sucks you in.

Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace

girlwithcurioushairThis is… *sniff*… the final published work by David Foster Wallace that I had not yet read.*

Published in 1989, many years before Infinite Jest, Consider the Lobster, or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, this collection features a younger DFW writing about younger people in a voice he hasn’t totally solidified or claimed yet. As a result, it’s more diverse, less experimental with some of the clearest and only examples of stories he wrote that were pure narrative fiction, free of literary affectation (mostly) or authorial asides. A complete absence of footnotes, even.

A list, not comprehensive:

John Billy

Should be a movie. I can see it. Plan the camera angles. Especially the buzzards. Plenty of buzzards in this one.

John Billy starts off with the first person narrator, John Billy, telling a story to an addled tornado-watcher in an Oklahoma bar about the larger-than-life characters of town. At first I thought DFW wrote this simply to make fun of southern stereotypes. But this attitude quickly fell away, so completely engrossed as I was in the small-town politics slash olympian feats of the herculean Chuck Nunn Jr., the blackly villainous T. Rex Minogue, and the cast surrounding them. The southern backdrop is there as a stage for American myth, not just humor.

It’s a weird story to come from DFW. All about myth, our worship of the land and its composite dust. See the cosmos through the plotted field. Not his usual topics of interest. Some might complain when the ending dives into metaphysical silliness and doesn’t entirely wrap up, when what is real and what is not are tossed into a blender, but I found it a perfectly apt conclusion to what the story set up.

 

Girl with Curious Hair

This story is hilarious. It gets across the point of American Psycho (and precedes it) in a fraction of the words. A wealthy member of the Young Republicans Group hangs out / is fellated by his nihilistic punk rock buddies, and he’s just so happy. Black humor at its finest.

 

Lyndon

Lyndon. Like LBJ, 36th president of the United States. One of the many unlikely subjects found in these stories. We see Lyndon through the eyes of his fictional mail boy, and later close confidante, David Boyd.

This is a story about love. And duty. LBJ is a workaholic obsessed with doing the right thing by the country, while also being a kind irritable blowhard assured that he’s the only one that’s ever right. The love part is the relationship between Boyd and the president. Not sexual or romantic love, as LBJ is straight and loves his wife and Boyd is gay and maybe doesn’t love his partners, but tries. There’s a bond between them. Based on a shared sense of duty, work? LBJ as a slide in father-figure, the ultimate patriarchal/presidential role? 

Most striking of all is just how believable this all this. Following the story’s close, I immediately went to Google to check if David Boyd existed. He did not. Which is impressive. Also not the only fictional character in this collection with the same first name as the author…

 

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way

I started this story and instantly knew it would be the weakest one. It was borderline insufferable. DFW getting too cute.  Three disaffected and unlikeable graduate students embark on a plane and cab journey to reunite with several thousand people for the reunion of Every Single Person Who Has Appeared In a McDonalds Commercial, Ever. There’s lots of grandiose statements on what’s wrong with our generation, coupled with a whole bunch of other musings on what’s wrong with our writing programs and contemporary american literature in general. It’s smug and sort of clever; the oppressive flavor of clever that makes you want to vacate the room.

I flipped forward a few pages to see if it ended soon, a common practice of mine. I noted the title still on the top right of the page and frowned, but returned to my place. A dozen pages later I did the same thing. It didn’t seem to end. I rapidly flipped through fingerfulls of pages looking for the end, only to realize with a sinking feeling that it was the entire rest of the book. It’s like 200 pages, nearly a novel in its own right. Half the collection! I thought this book was an instant favorite and now I had to come to terms with the gross, abominable growth attached to its backside.

A funny thing happened about halfway through, though. My boredom and distaste with the story began to metastasize into something else entirely. When I realized the commute of the three students, plus Ronald McDonald and his dad/creator, was never going to end. That they would swirl in banal misfortune and their own solipsistic misery forever, I found myself somehow soothed. It still wasn’t very good, but its misery and repetition became comfortable

 

*Exception being that book he wrote about math. Skipping that one. I think.

The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

war of the end of the worldWhy do you put down a book before you finish it?

Okay, there’s some really obvious answers here. Number one, it’s bad. Number two, the writing is terrible. Number three, you’ve read this same story before, and better. Number four, the writer is an asshole. And so on.

I didn’t finish The War of the End of the World. Two hundred pages in, it was pretty good, the writing was solid if not scintillating, I hadn’t read precisely the same story before and as far as I know, Vargas Llosa wasn’t an asshole. In fact, I’m kind of struggling with why exactly I put the damn thing down.

Let’s read the back-of-the-book blurb:

In the remote Brazilian backlands was Canudos– home to all the damned of the earth, to prostitutes, freaks, bandits, beggars, and the most wretched of the poor. And it was paradise, a Utopian state led by an apocalyptic prophet, a place without hunger, money, property, taxes, or marriage. And so in 1897, the Brazilian government decreed it must be destroyed.

Compelling. A good ‘ole, country-spanning, apocalyptic epic. tWotEotW details each of the major figures of Canudos — from ex-slaves to hermits to reformed bandits to the physically handicapped. Their origin story is revealed and how they came to seek the Prophet and Canudos is told. Some are very engaging. Meanwhile, there are perspectives from the Brazilian government on the vigilante abomination that’s growing in the hinterlands. Lastly, many chapters are dedicated to Galileo Gall, a rationalist-scotsman-revolutionary obsessed with violent revolution, who eventually makes his way to Canudos.

Like many great latin american works, society sucks. The rich fleece the poor. Crime pays. Hunger is hard enough to sate, forget happiness. When fleeing from the oppression of political systems, the disenfranchised instead end up in the hands of religion, with harmful superstitions and an assurance that the world will end, shortly. 

Really, if we’re going to get down to it, and be honest with myself: the reason I didn’t finish it is that this book is long. Dense. It’s ‘only’ 700 pages, but has the smallest margins I’ve ever seen and tiny text, so it’s likely more than 1000+ in regular pages. I don’t mind long books — I typically relish them. But the coup de gras here was that I felt like I got the whole point of the book in the first 100 pages. The same structure seemed to repeat ad infinitum. There was no more learning to be had. I had an epiphinal reaction that I can only read X books in my life, and that X was going to be lower one or two books if I stuck it out and finished The War of the End of the World.

So I put it down.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

cathedralThis book is called Cathedral: Stories but probably it ought to be called Alcoholism: Stories given the content it explores.

As I mentioned in my review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver explores a white working class life familiar to my childhood that very few authors write about. At least not well. The practical but inimicable relationship to hated jobs, the centrality of an always-on television, a grim fatalism that can’t quite eliminate hope from the equation. But my family had this weird sort of asceticism: the dependency of the drinking class was basically absent. My grandfathers would drink a light beer in front of the TV and that was about it. My parents only started drinking, sparingly, in the last few years. Forget MJ or any hard drugs. So this collection doesn’t resonate as well, and despite being superb (Carver prose = magic), I think personal-familial musing aside, it’s just not as strong as the other collection.

Alcoholism in Cathedral is a demon. The demon. It unmans men, invokes violence and cruel madness, puts people in an early grave. Wives are willfully destroying marriages, husbands are hiding their 9am 2nd bottle of champagne behind the toilet, fathers are slapping their sons around. It’s effective, and the influence on Infinite Jest’s black comedy/horror scenes of AA meetings where people admit horrific-to-the-point-of-hilarious abuses due to the drink is crystal clear. But it does start to repeat a bit, in a less than compelling way. 

The first story is the best story; a man brings his wife to meet his work buddy, at the latter’s country ranch where he has a pet peacock and an ugly new baby. It shows us guileless, pure love, and then flips the switch to this helpless melancholy triggered by missing out on that same love, even when you tried pretty hard. It feels like maybe you only get once chance to get it right.

A shorter story from WWTAWWTAL appears here as well, except about four times the length. The first collection leaves us in a hospital with a dying child, this one kills him and shows us the aftermath, which involves repeated calls from a baker who made the dead boy’s birthday cake that no one picked up. Actually you know what? The stories about love are better than the ones about alcohol. My favorite boozing story — a couple, divorced due to the man’s alcoholism, gets together for one last magical summer — merely uses the drink as a backdrop. 

I’ve also heard this collection is supposed to be when Carver got happier and injected hope into his stories. While I guess this collection is slightly brighter, as it contains a whole two stories with hopeful endings (after a whole bunch of other bad stuff happens), it’s hilarious to call this collection happy or hopeful. It’s not happy! It’s grim! Grim with shades of survival.

 

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.