Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

hopscotchThere’s books you can’t put down, there’s books you can’t wait to put down, and then there’s books you sort of muddle and meander through unsure if you’re actually enjoying it or not.

Hopscotch, of course, is the latter.

Of the disaffected-intellectual in mid-century Paris genre, Horacio Oliveira is dicking around the city wondering over the nature of reality and carrying on a love affair with the Uruguayan, La Maga. Circumstances conspire to take La Maga away from Horacio, forcing him to confront how much his high-minded philosophy and personal elitism really mattered when compared to base body needs: love, human touch, etc.

The whole gimmick of the book is in the name: Hopscotch. You’re supposed to read until chapter 56, then restart at seventy-something and go in a 1-2-1-1-2 order back and forth through both the chapters you’ve already read and the new expendable chapters of 56+. I think the promise of this intriguing experimental quirk is what really got me going through all of the first 56 chapters, even as I started to flag and enjoy the book less and less. But once I actually reached that point, I discovered the hopscotch trick was actually pretty uninspired and uninteresting — not nearly worth reading through the whole book again. It’s the same damn book with some musings and vignettes sprinkled between them. 

The writing itself ranges from insightful to borderline incomprehensible. There’s many passages in french, many references to I’m not even sure what. It’s only loosely moored to any sort of narrative consistency. Oliveira is an asshole, as are most of the people he encounters. At times, I’d be midway through a dense, interminable paragraph and look back at the past few pages and wonder what percent of them I truly understood, and what simply floated by. There’s a certain charm to the first, Parisian portion of the book that makes all of this work. Sort of. Plus, there’s La Maga. If trying the hopscotch method of reading showed me anything, it’s that the early book is way better. Once La Maga leaves and we’re anchored completely to Oliveira, it takes a gradual turn for the worse.

I’m sitting here reading back over this review and finding it as banal and boring as the book itself. Not an intentional feat. Hopscotch just didn’t elicit much of a reaction. If the rest of my life wasn’t so busy during Oct-Nov, I probably would have just put it down. This! This is me too bored to write anything interesting.

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A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

nakedsingularityI just finished this novel a few minutes ago. Damn. It’s been awhile since I read a book so completely absorbing.

Casi is a young, all-star defense attorney in New York City. The plot, insofar as there is one, is Casi’s detachment with the system and seduction by the perfect crime, which he plans with some characters who begin to trigger suspicions of a very Fight Club-type twist. But the plot is totally secondary to the thematic weight of this dense novel. It’s a book of musings, of internal investigation of self. Primarily, this is a book of conversations. People talking to each other. The author talking to the reader. Casi talking to judge and jury.

They’re not the types of conversations that real people have, but the kind of big picture what-is-life type discussions that use vocabulary that even the most over-educated real people don’t regularly use. Characters jabber back and forth in 1-5 word phrases, in almost slapstick comedy fashion of mispronounced words and misunderstandings, and then launch into a several page soliloquy on the meaning of life, law, justice, existence, life after death, the universe. I’m not positive what makes this work, but I’d hazard it takes a specific kind of immensely witty & intelligent writer who understands deeply the way human conversations function and flow.  

A Naked Singularity owes an extremely heavy debt to David Foster Wallace. Most remarkably is not just how unbelievably in love with Infinite Jest this book is, but how often De La Pava succeeds at what DFW succeeded at. Many writers have tried and almost all have failed. It’s actually uncanny how similar they seem at times. There’s a sequence where Casi overhears two men having a conversation at a diner about how shitty they are to women that is the exact set-up as the stories in Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Wallace isn’t the only major influence, Delillo is as well. And it wouldn’t be a good law-room novel if it did not hearken to Kafka’s The Trial.

Indeed, A Naked Singularity is at its best when it’s in the courtroom or its environs (prisons, law offices, etc). There’s a real moral force behind Casi as he tries to represent people society has collectively discarded. A plot line later on delves into the baffling cruelty of the death penalty and it pierces, both Casi and the reader. When the book is focusing on family or media absorption (there’s a cadre of roommates obsessed with Television and philosophizing on entertainment), it’s not quite as good. In fact, I think De La Pava cheats a little bit here: The novel ostensibly takes place in modern day but the technology isn’t quite right — everyone is obsessed with Television and news stations and the internet, etc doesn’t quite exist. Events that would surely occur online or tasks people would fulfill with smartphones (which no one has) just… don’t. Even though the internet is occasionally mentioned. This was written in 2012, (not 1996 like Infinite Jest!). So yeah, De La Pava’s notes on television are cogent and interesting but it’s trodden ground and I wonder why he didn’t take on the same kind of issues with modern tech. 

De La Pava also deploys employs another DFW staple (or I guess to go further back, a Miguel De Cervantes staple): characters telling stories to each other that become as engrossing as the main narrative itself. One of Casi’s clients opts to become a criminal informant and launches into a thirty page long story of how he came into the drug trade. It’s completely absorbing — I experienced an almost physical jolt when he finished the tale and the book returned to the main narrative thread. Similarly, boxing is to A Naked Singularity as tennis is to Infinite Jest. At several points in the book, Casi purposely abandons his conscious thoughts and relates the story of boxer Wilfred Benitez, in scintillating detail. It’s a thread that runs the entire length of this lengthy book and it’s completely absorbing, like just about everything else written here.

Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes

terranostraThis book is physically daunting. It’s big. Dense. Heavy. Flipping to a random page reveals a tightly woven blanket of text, tightly packed and in small type. The prose is occasionally impenetrable. It took me a month to finish. Its themes are no less than Time and History and Religion.

Terra Nostra follows an alternate history of Spain’s past, with King Philip II (El Senor, Don Felipe!) married to Queen Elizabeth. Sick of war and government, El Senor has dedicated his life to raising a necropolis to the dead where he plans to shut himself away from the world while slowly awaiting death and unity with God. His plan is stymied by a trio of identical youths, born with crosses imprinted on their backs and six toes on each foot. In this version of history, it is one of these youths who discovers the New World and the entire middle section of the book (separated into The Old World, The New World, and The Next World) is his journey and immersion in the myths and religion of the Aztecs.

Along the way we meet Don Quixote, Don Juan, view a literal transcript of the first page of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis written and stuffed into a bottle by this universe’s Cervantes analogue. We also hang out in ancient Rome with Tiberius in a scene reminiscent of the Pilate scenes of The Master and Margarita, and no doubt countless literary references I am forgetting or missed. The power of books and the written word — the past conversing with the future — comes up frequently. El Senor only believes what is written, not spoken.

The cast is a cadre of terrible, awful people. Murderers intent on genocide, rapists, oppressors of chaotic nature. The way Fuentes handles women is questionable even in this supra-cruel world peopled by the worst of scoundrels. And the way he handles the sole little person is downright deplorable. There is a lot of sex. The sex is weird. Sex with animals, sex with skeletons, sex with god-beings, sex without jaws, sex with the supernaturally elderly, sex with a Frankenstein-like conglomeration of corpse pieces… or did she not actually have sex with that last one but just fantasize about it? The very last scene refuses to disappoint this trend and the reader concludes the book amid bizarre, transformative, cosmic lovemaking.

As I mentioned, Time is the central theme of the novel. In Fuentes vision, time is not linear. Everything happening — El Senor building his necropolis, the pillaging of the New World, the apocalypse of 1999 (haha), Emperor Tiberius being a sadistic prick, The Crucifixion, the creation of the world in Aztec mythology — is happening at the same time. Will happened, but has happened, is happening. Multiple universes of slightly different results occurring in tandem. One scholarly character hypothesizes it’s impossible to become a full and integrated personality until you’ve lived several lives in several times and possible worlds.

There’s a question that runs through the book: if someone could live life over again, would they change the actions they took, the decisions they made? The negative outlook of the novel announces a resounding No. The New World is still raped and pillaged, destroyed and oppressed even though Don Felipe had a chance to alter it. The Spanish Inquisition is just as terrible. In the Year 2000, things have become even worse. In an effort to reduce overpopulation, countries have turned to depopulating measures that match a ‘national character’ — Mexico brings back the blood sacrifices of the Aztecs, France very rationally kills someone for every someone born. It’s a little silly and very dated. Overpopulation may have been a giant, apocalyptic concern in 1975 when the book was written, but I feel like we’ve moved beyond it as a serious fear in 2014. I hope in 2055, global warming based dystopia is a similarly laughable and outdated sci-fi future trope.

Finishing this book I feel like I am climbing, bleary eyed, out of a cave. No, not a cave, a pit. A dank and endless cylinder with stairs spiraling to its interminable depths. I’m crawling out of the mind of Carlos Fuentes and the depravity of Don Felipe and friends. The tone of the book, its self absorbed characters, its physical weight — these are the things that will stay with me, more than any triumph of theme or historic analysis. I liked it, but I’m not even sure I’d recommend it. It’s incredibly overwritten and longer than it should be. I am quite certain several sentences honestly do not mean anything and are complete word-salad nonsense. Yet I am also certain that it will stay with me, long, long after I’ve placed it back on the shelf.

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso

marriage.cadmus.harmonyLet us try to decipher this strange, dense book. Roberto Calasso takes on Greek mythology.

But what is Greek mythology? Capricious gods. Adulterous heroes. Many headed monsters. Irony. Hubris.

Calasso explains the difference between narrative and myth: A myth has several different versions, different retellings, but the thrust is often the same — there’s always a labyrinth and a monster and a hero and princess but how they got there, who they were, just how the plot played itself out must change. This is the essence of the myth. A narrative is a singular, crafted story. When a mythical tale is pared down to a single interpretation, specific plot-characters-theme, when its variants are lost, it is no longer a myth.

But what is Greek mythology? A panoply of sexual assault and women hanging from trees.

But what is Greek mythology? Duality. Phantoms. Twins.

“There are two strands to the story of the Pelopids: the tale of a king’s descendants, a succession of atrocities, each worse than the one before; and the tale of a series of talismans, each taking over from another in silence, each deciding the fate of men.”

Meanwhile, the Helen who launched the Trojan War, may have only been a phantom twin, swapped out when she was initially journeying to Troy (a point Calasso delights in returning to the whole book long). Athena finds her childhood playmate looked exactly like her and this is why Zeus tricked Athena into killing her. There should only be one Athena.

The heroes of ancient Greece all have godly-antecedents. Theseus, the Minotaur(bull) slayer, becomes a bull in the end, his stories all mirroring earlier feats of Dionysus, often depicted as a bull. The tale of Ariadne can be drawn back to multiple different goddesses. The warrior women of the time fall back to Artemis or Athena. Echoes.

But they all fall short. Achilles’ life is so brief because of how close he is to the gods.

But what is this book? Occasionally a straight retelling of many Greek myths, both popular and obscure and seemingly with an emphasis on rape and abduction. Laced with thematic analysis, historical conjecture, and anecdote, Calasso rewrites the ancient tales of gods and heroes, often multiple times with different results. He sounds kind of smug about it.

But what is this book? Fascinating symbolism extraction mixed with metaphysical nonsense. An unintended duality, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony vacillates between wholly engaging and hopelessly monotonous. One chapter, we are following Calasso down an engrossing tangent, as he introduces a king from Ancient Greece whose entire history and character has been lost to time, save for one repeated trait: hospitality. A very hospitable king. That’s all we know. Hospitable. Calasso then extrapolates this to mean that actually, this king was the king of the dead, the most hospitable king of all, as he welcomes all. Calasso fills in all this backstory and conjecture to make this somehow make sense.

Follow this into another chapter about the birth of ‘necessity’ and the goddesses who commanded such and how they can never be cowed and lord over gods and men alike except that one time when one of them got tricked and impregnated by Zeus as a goose (it rhymes!) and what this means is that man’s relationship with necessity displays its overarching conflict with beauty and Zzzzz.

But what is this book? Eh, it’s okay I guess.

“What conclusions can we draw? To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories.”