Unfinished: Book of Numbers and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

I’m usually pretty good at selecting books I’d enjoy, so it was with a frustrated sigh that I put down two in a row. 

Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

Fictional author-insert Joshua Cohen, a failed novelist, is tasked with ghostwriting the autobiography of a tech entrepreneur also named Joshua Cohen, founder of this universe’s Google.

Cohen’s prose is snappy and sharp, his vocabulary impressive in its range. It’s the type of language that is both entertaining and invigorating to experience. This book could be great, it should be great. Instead, it wallows in its miserable characters’ self pity whilst attempting to make points about modern life that largely fall flat.

I quit about two hundred and fifty pages in. The closing subplot went as such: Cohen is in Dubai, where after plenty of inner monologuing about how poorly Arabs treat women, he encounters a woman being beaten by her husband. He then heroically steps in and beats him up! Shortly afterward, he engages in a sexual obsession over this woman, who he saw for like 3 seconds crawling around on the floor, bloodied. He stalks her around the hotel for a while until miraculously, implausibly, she seeks him out in his hotel room for some immediate sex.

Maybe several hundred pages later (the book immediately pivots in form after this to a draft of the ghostwritten biography so it wasn’t happening any time soon), this exploitative and baffling scene somehow has a point, somehow makes sense, or is proven unreliable. I don’t give a shit. It’s virtually impossible to redeem this crap and nothing else about the novel gave me any confidence in Cohen’s thematic virtues.

Of the endless critical praise for this book (hilarious put aside the miserable Goodreads reviews), Cohen’s inevitably compared to David Foster Wallace, one reviewer going so far as to say The Book of Numbers is to the internet what Infinite Jest was to TV. This too is nonsense. For all his lingual skill and wit, Cohen’s insights are banal, things everyone knows already: tech people have too much money, the internet draws us closer while simultaneously making us more alone. It’s fertile literary ground expressed without depth. Falling to cheap jokes instead, ha ha, the rich-person restaurants in Palo Alto have gluten free and vegan menus, what a laugh.

This book is a waste.

 

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Nicole Galland and Neal Stephenson

An overworked, underappreciated Harvard lecturer and linguist stumbles into contact with a shadowy government agency that has been collecting info about the Big Disappearance of Magic, circa 1850 or so. The first chapter reveals our heroine is now stuck sometime in that very same 19th century, so time travel is sure to be afoot.

Here we have almost the opposite reaction — nothing about this book elicited much from me at all. The language here is very basic, without the verve required to pull that off. The plot unfurls through a series of conversations between the main characters, who hypothesize solutions to the origins and mechanics of magic, which then are apparently de facto truth, begging the question of why no one figured this all out beforehand if all it takes is a few 1:1 brainstorming sessions. 

I could also see the book was setting up a romance, but only because the book was sending signals at me, the reader, that hey! here’s a romance, not because I felt any chemistry between the protagonists. Tristan was blunt to the point of dullness, not charm. 

Only about 50 pages into this one and obviously it didn’t trigger the same emotional response as The Book of Numbers, just not for me.

I’m on to reading Borges now to guarantee something I’ll enjoy.

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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.

Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen

twains endI usually don’t copy and paste book blurbs here, or suggest reading them in general, but the description of Twain’s End is crucial to know why it is intriguing in the first place —

In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both. He proceeded to write a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, calling Isabel “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens, then slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family. How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy?

What becomes immediately clear is that Mark Twain / Samuel Clemens is an asshole. An emotional vampire with a cruel temper who absolutely loves himself (slash hates himself). A man who takes perverse delight in controlling those around him — withholding affection from his family, playing friends off against eachother, lording his literary reputation over people to coerce them into his desires, and when emotional manipulation doesn’t work, he resorts to brute force: locking his daughter in a room for 3 weeks because a man dared to make a call on her.  

The main character of Twain’s End is his secretary Isabel Lyon. She is a smart woman who is totally cognizant of the contents of the paragraph above, yet she still falls in love with him. This is why the the book fails for me, why I gave up on finishing it. The dynamic of ‘servant/X in love with married master’ feels done to death in general, but for it to work, especially when the recipient of the ill-gotten devotion is so obviously a jerk, the writer really needs to sell me on why the hell he is so magnetic. Clemens isn’t charming or witty enough to be the guy who sleeps with the only woman in the room. Lynn Cullen set herself the unenviable task of trying to pull off the mordant voice of Mark Twain and doesn’t really succeed. The ‘salacious slut’ line from Twain’s actual letter makes me go ‘Wow! Such vitriol!’. You could maybe see a man with that kind of command of language getting away with Clemen’s abuses, but the novel as-is mostly just elicits an indifferent shrug.

A Void by Georges Perec

voidI usually know that I won’t finish a book within the first few pages. Unbearable prose or unendurable monotony. Self gratulatory faux-cleverness or narrators throttling me with reprehensible social views. I give it a chance to turn it around but typically I’ve put it down by page thirty five or so. I do not write about these here. I’ve become quite good at selecting books, so it only happens a couple times a year. Rarer still is the book that I get well over halfway into and then quit. Which brings me to A Void.

I really wanted to like this. Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, which had the unlikely constraint of being a list of descriptions of rooms in a Parisian tenement at an exact moment in 1975, was excellent. A Void’s gimmick is that the text is entirely devoid of the letter e, both in its original french and its translated english. I thought this would be fascinating. It is, for a little while, and even though I did not like the book, the feat remains amazing, but the actual book as a novel one would like to read becomes tedious quickly.

The plot can be summed up thus: Anton Vowl is missing; his collection of unlikely and unrememberable friends set off to find him. Wacky hijinx ensue. I don’t care if they ever found him or not. It may have worked as a shorter work, because the beginning is enjoyable enough, but it rapidly becomes clear that english is a stilted, run-on, unfocused mess without the letter e. It is just not pleasant to read. Uncommon words replace commonly known ones with the letter e. What do Jonah and Ahab have in common? Not a whale, a grampus. This is what I was expecting and can range from clever to eye rolling, but is totally secondary to the actual pace and flow the sentences, wrecked by the missing vowel.

In addition, the novel is littered with references and allusions to great works of art. The literary ones I can handle fine but, what I assume to be links to great composers and painters, are unintelligible to me. There’s also plenty of latin, beyond the really obvious sayings that have made their way into english. And parts of the book are in french and not translated for some reason.

A frustrating read.