The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

“He is a scoundrel, else he’d not have taken such advantage of my innocence.”

“That only proves him human, as you shall learn.”

Ebenezer Cooke, virgin poet and nincompoop, is booted from his aimless life in London, for more or less wasting his time and his father’s money, and journeys to his famalial estate in Maryland to manage the Sot-Weed (old timey name for tobacco) trade. It’s 16XX. The colonies are at eachothers throats, living out the same petty-but-deadly religious conflicts as the old world, and the french and native tribes creep at the door. Plot’s afoot, intrigue abounds.

Part of the pleasure of The Sot-Weed Factor is immersing thyself in its sordid universe. Not just the period dialogue — your thou’s and marry’s and i’faith’s and anon’s. Much like Don Quixote, a novel The Sot-Weed Factor owes no small debt to, characters tell each other stories. A choice encounter in a stable leads to a freshly introduced character spinning a yarn a dozen pages long. These tales, entertaining in their own right, inevitably become entangled with the greater plot. Coincidences abound. If a character is mentioned at any point, they’re sure to show up later, often dramatically. Perhaps they’ll turn out to be a character already introduced. Indeed, the people of this universe can simply don another’s dress and adopt a manner of speaking to become someone else entirely.

This extends to the bizarre sexual character of the universe. A significant plot point is the protagonists hunting the secret journal of John Smith, wherein he details his perverse sexual exploits, beginning with Pocahontas. Pretty much everyone is under constant threat of being raped. From pirates, sailors, “salvages”, colonists, anyone. There’s actually a rape boat, the less spoken of the better. At times, it’s unclear whether you’re supposed to laugh or shiver.  Ebenezer’s virginity and how he may lose it, through force, love, or mad lust is a constant focus.  It is no exaggeration to say it that the various pornographic interludes are as core to The Sot-Weed factor as American history or period dialogue.

As a young writer, Barth’s interest lied in nihilism. Writing this novel led him to realize he was concerned more with innocence. Despite being around thirty at the onset of his voyage, Eben Cooke is innocent of the world. In part, this is due to his nature as bumbling protagonist, a device the novel embraces wholeheartedly to guide him from one folly to the next. But only in part. Other aspects of his innocence are more realistic and timeless. It is the privilege of his station as a wealthy Englishman that allows him to be innocent of, or shall we say ignorant of, the plight of virtually everyone else in the world.

Naturally, Eben must grow. He cannot remain an innocent nonce, clueless of the world, battered down repeatedly, captured by pirates, abused by gentlemen and common workers alike, forever. He is not Don Quixote.  While it takes many pages, the reader groaning at his latest dubious decision, he learns. Take this paragraph for instance, wherein Ebenezer is captured by an Indian-African alliance and about to be executed:

This conclusion, which the poet reached more by insight than speculation, was followed by another, whose logic ran thus: The point in space and time whereto the history of the world had brought him would be nothing perilous were it not for the hostility of the Indians and the Negroes. But it was their exploitation by the English colonists that had rendered them hostile; that is to say, by a people to whom the accidents of history had given the advantage–Ebenezer did not doubt that his captors, if circumstances were reversed, would do just what the English were doing. To that extent, then, that historical movements are expressions of the will of the people engaged in them, Ebenezer was a just object for his captors’ wrath, for he belonged […] to the class of the exploiters; as an educated gentleman of the western world he had shared in the fruits of his culture’s power and must therefore share what guilt that power incurred. Nor was this the end of his responsibility: for if it was the accidents of power and position that made the difference between exploiters and exploited, and not some mysterious specialization of each group’s spirit, then it was as “human” for the white man to enslave and dispossess as it was “human” for the black and red to slaughter on the basis of color alone; the savage who would put him to the torch anon was no less his brother than was the trader who had once enslaved the savage.

(Wise words from 1960. Don’t praise Barth too much though. Those very same natives are played as stereotypes and often the target of sexual gags.)

The writing is very good. Very, very good. I hope the samples I’ve pasted above illustrates this. It’s hard to read a small-print 800 page novel that isn’t pleasant to read or has a gripping plot and The Sot-Weed Factor nails the former and surprisingly flirts with the latter. Due to the holiday break, I’m only writing this now, nearly a month after I completed it, but the feel of the language, of being immersed within it is still clear and brings a grin to my face to briefly re-live it.

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.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

crimson petalVictorian England. Plucky orphans getting by on the strength of their wits. Wealthy old men who just need to be taught a good lesson. Top hats and crinoline. Grinning chimney sweeps and slapdash policemen.

Right??

No. More like a brutal clash between the have and have-nots, wealthy hypocrites celebrating poverty and paying lip service to charity on holidays. Brutal oppression of women. Poor children forced into backbreaking labor. Cheap life, rich industry.

We follow Sugar, a nineteen year old woman and professional whore, forced into the sex industry at thirteen by her nihilistic mother. Sugar is determined to increase her lot in life and not spend it all on the streets, where she’s as like to succumb to disease as be strangled by a customer.

On comes William Rackham to the scene, heir to a booming perfume business. He’s Sugar’s salvation, and also one of those most hateable characters in all literature. William isn’t terrible because he drowns puppies or murders innocents. He’s not Jack the Ripper. Instead, he’s a spineless, self pitying coward, who abuses his wealth and privilege to the great detriment of everyone around him, while constantly self-justifying and also whining about everything. Watch him make excuses for himself while his whims deliver terrible consequences to those that depend on him. After traipsing around town trying to find the exact prostitute to sate his depravity, William comes upon Sugar. So entranced is he that he decides he must have her entirely for himself. That’s the plot of this enormous, dense novel.

It’s a good old fashioned epic. London is wonderfully realized, enchanting in its own grimy, bustling way. The witty, omniscient narrator is entertaining and delivers fashion lessons on the changing dress of the era, progressively more revealing and sexy to counter the more conservative societal outlook on language and politesse, and keeps it interesting. The cast is engaging and their philosophical quandaries compel. William’s brother Henry is another main character and a religious man tormented by the contrast between his faith and the London clergy versus the poverty in the streets. Faber is clearly interested in preachers in conflict, as it’s a major theme in his excellent The Book of Strange New Things too. I sometimes characterize books as “I can read them forever” or “I have to stop after a few chapters, because it’s too dense/harrowing/difficult/meandering.” Crimson Petal is clearly the former and I had long, multi-hour sittings where I did nothing but read.

Did it have to be 900 pages? Eh, not really. It’s quite good, but also extremely slow and repetitive at times. The story will seem to muck around for 50-80 pages and then suddenly accelerate and major turning points are covered in a few pages. I don’t begrudge it much, though. My bigger gripe is that the novel begins with an omniscient narrator speaking to the reader, establishing a metaphor that the book is a whore for you to use, and desirous to make you feel dirty for purchasing it and expecting a thrilling romp through Victorian London and not the filth the novel opens to. It’s great. The narrator pops in and out at times and the conceit is that the reader is following around the main characters at a safe distance. He makes jokes. But, bafflingly, the voice of the narrator almost entirely disappears in the final 35% of the book. And, partially due to that, the first three acts are superior to the last two. I was tapping my foot towards the end, ready for it to be over, but was still sad when I finally did finish and knew I was leaving these characters behind.

The majority of the characters, and almost all of the sympathetic ones are women. This book buries the axe in male privilege and the subtext implies that much of what William Rachman is capable of is not constrained to one hundred and fifty years ago, but persists today. He’s infuriating. Sugar is writing a novel about a literary facsimile of herself that lurks around London, torturing the hapless men who casually purchase women’s bodies for pocket change. The first line is “All men are the same.” The tone of the novel is often humorous but it delves seriously into the lives of its prostitute characters and examines what their life may have been, instead of using them as a set piece or for titulation, like media generally does.

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3 is huge. Enormous. Gigantic, massive, humongous. Here, let’s cut to the chase and pull out the thesaurus.

huge

 

(Moby??)

I spent like one hundred thirty hours on the thing. Prior to this, I think the longest game I ever played was Persona 3, an RPG that came out like ten years ago(!), that involved a group of diabolically powered teenagers who, between fighting evil, had to play through every single day in a highschool year. The Witcher 3 blasts past it, featuring more than the interior of an anime highschool, indeed 3 separate, massive regions of gameworld. 

But is it any good? Is the length justified? How padded is? Yes! Sort of. More than a little bit.

Some unspecified time after the events of The Witcher 2, Geralt of Rivia starts to have dreams about his adoptive daughter: the young sorceress and heiress to the Nilfgaard Empire, Ciri. This means she’s in trouble. He hooks up with his on and off girlfriend, Yennifer, discovers that Ciri is indeed in danger and fleeing from The Wild Hunt, a host of spectral horseriders from another world. What’s interesting about the plot is that most of the characters involved are from the source materials books, and not the games. We know Ciri is important because Geralt thinks she’s important, not because we actually know who she is at the start of the game (‘We’ being people who haven’t read the Polish novels). It’s a testament to the game’s storytelling and character development that this is pulled off near flawlessly. I cared.

So the plot unfolds with Geralt learning of a series of leads on Ciri’s whereabouts; he sets off to investigate and as you collect clues, you trigger flashbacks where you get to play as Ciri and come to know what happened to her. It’s alright. The plot, I mean. I think the more focused plot of The Witcher 2, with its political murk and super assassins was stronger. The Wild Hunt’s plot is a bit more generic, too steeped in magical nonsense. For some reason, this game turns the villains themselves — the eponymous Hunt — from ringwraith-esque ghoulies, to world-hopping hedonist elves with muscles. This sets up some cool set pieces like marshalling your friends (a… fellowship, I’d say) to a fortress to defend an assault from the Hunt’s armies, but overall it’s not entirely compelling.

On the other hand, the character work is superb. The dialogue blows away most video game talking, which is further impressive since it’s a translation. Geralt is a great hero. His witty exchanges with the female leads feels natural and is only embarrassing sometimes, instead of all the time like in Dragon Age. But where it really shines, and what feels innovative, is how well the game takes on non-verbal communication. Characters exchange glances. Their eyes widen or narrow. They look pained or defeated without appearing overly theatrical. Immense amounts of information are characterized through these actions and many more, just like they are in the real world. One of the strongest sub-plot lines in the game has little to do with interdimensional invaders or magic crystals but is actually centered around domestic abuse and family drama. Geralt encounters The Bloody Baron, a man known to lose himself in drink, beat his pregnant wife, alienate his daughter. In other words: he’s scum. Most games would leave it at that. But he’s also somehow magnetic, his story and dialogue compelling. I really wanted to know what happened to the fucker. The game had me wondering if repentance is real, how we ought to handle people who do cruel and terrible things. At some point I shifted from thinking “Listen to this asshole make excuses” to “What if he’s really one hundred percent sorry?”, starting making excuses for him like “But, but, he was genuinely kind to Ciri!”. It’s surprising a game could do that.

witcher 3

There’s several side quests that might as well be main quests. They have expansive plots and tie in major characters. There’s just as many, if not more, that are just sort of filler. Or a quick joke. Hunting down a serial killer who turns out to be a vampire disguised as a mortician is cool, telling yet another parent that their son got eaten by a ghoul, or losing a game of poker so you can punch some guys who stole your clothes gets old after a while. Moreover, if you try and do most of the quests, you’ll quickly outlevel them and start getting zero experience/useable loot, not to mention any combat will be super easy since you’ve far outpaced the danger of the enemies.

In fact, the biggest weakness of the game for me is the combat and scaling. I played on the hardest difficult, supposedly only for the insane, and it was pretty hard at first, but became button-mashing trivial fairly quickly just by completing quests and crafting the best loot I could find. The character progression itself is pretty lame. Like the previous game, you can choose to specialize or mix and match between a witcher’s three specialties: Signs (basic magic), Sword mastery, and alchemy (though regardless of specialization, any witcher worth his salt is proficient in all 3). But unlike the previous game, many of the abilities you choose are weak, only providing marginal or very specific bonuses. It wasn’t particularly exciting to unlock a new tier of abilities. You’re also limited on how many you can equip at a certain time.

Anyway, as you can guess, something that I willingly spent so much time on honestly did captivate me, combat and filler side quests aside. And I haven’t even written about Gwent, the in-universe card-game you build a collection for, which I also totally conquered. The characters are lightyears ahead of most games, and felt real in a way the rest of the plot/world didn’t. I kind of miss them. The game has two(!) expansions as well. Who needs that much Witcher?? Maybe me. I’ll get to them eventually. 

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.

Paradise by Toni Morrison

paradiseThey shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.

These chilling lines always appear on lists of the greatest first lines in literature, and always piqued my interest, but for some reason never led me to pick up Paradise. Until now. Which is a shame because it is really fucking good.

The all-black town of Ruby exists for reasons of virtue. Work ethic, godliness, community. Its founders, following the collapse of Reconstruction, were reduced from governors to street sweepers. Fleeing the abstract, omnipresent violence of whites and turned away from other black towns for being too black, they continued their Biblical journey to settle in the middle of the Oklahoma prairie. A generation later, their descendants are continuing their legacy, but failing to create their own; events in the real world are pulling their children away. A die-hard devotion to the old ways reveals the flaws in their patriarchal wisdom, and frustrated at the erosion of their status and control, they direct their ire outward, at undeserving targets, and yes, you guessed it, the oppressed become the oppressors.

Outside of Ruby lies the ‘Convent’, formerly a wealthy embezzler’s estate, then a re-education religious school for native girls, it has now become a home for lost women, fleeing predatory life situations and, though they don’t know it, desperately in need of the company of other women. These are the subjects of the first lines of the book, targeted for their free approach to sex and dress, paganism, and especially their independence from men. Their names mark the chapters of the book. These relate their their stories and how they arrived at the Convent, and are interspersed with the history and points of view of the citizens of Ruby, as unrest builds toward the shootout at the Convent — related in the first and penultimate chapters.

The themes of Paradise — the contagion of oppression, violence against women, the pursuit of utopia, the conflict on interpretation of religion — are obvious but deftly told. Morrison has a wonderful way of getting in a character’s head and asking you to empathize with them, then switching viewpoints to another character who just does not care or rejects the principles the first character held. As I mentioned in my review of Ancillary Justice, the difference between approaching current topics of human rights and politics by a lesser skilled writer who takes you out of the narrative and a master who just makes you angry on behalf of the characters is immense. Toni Morrison is the master here. I was enveloped by the plot and characters, not distantly pondering topics of feminism and civil rights. Or I was, but they were entwined. No academic detachment.

The sentence level writing is stellar. Toni Morrison is often described as lyrical and I guess she is, but that word is kind of vague and imprecise. The language in Paradise alternates between personal and biblical. The dialogue feels like it could be spoken aloud. The characters have depth but are familiar — they have traits you see in those around you. Then there are moral proclamations that strike to the bone. Fire and brimstone seem right around the corner. There feels like there is much more at stake than a few lives, or even an entire town.Taken together, it all reminds me deeply of a western — there’s something intensely hopeless about it all, similar to Warlock, another tale of biblical-American destruction.