Against the Day spans the time frame between the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and the close of the first World War. It involves boy scientists, densely described Steampunk airships, anarchism, Colorado mining, the era of "The Great Game," mole men, time travel, the Tunguska Event, union busting, private detectives, and warring Balkan states.
This being a Pynchon book, it also contains invented song lyrics, strange sexual practices, passages of unattributed and/or untranslated dialogue, the occasional absence of needed context, and very complex mathematical problems. In places, the novel is as compelling and readable as any potboiler, and in other places it is as abstruse and impenetrable as French critical theory. ("The less you understand, the better you listen," said Lacan.)
With hundreds of characters and locations both real and not real, I won't even try to recount anything like a plot, despite the fact that things happen and certain interests are carried forward in the manner that fiction typically required. A Belgian mayonaise factory blows up. A stock boy who may later become Groucho Marx appears for a page or two. Russian balloonists drop heavy cubes in quadratic formation, just as in Tetris. Ships sail on the sea of sand beneath the Central Asian deserts. There is romance and revenge and dynamite and coffee.
Did I enjoy the book? Long parts of it, yes.
Was it funny? It was amusing. I laughed out loud once while reading it, during a scene in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand plays the dozens in an African-American proto-juke joint in 1893 Chicago. (In fairness, I don't often laugh out loud while reading; most books, including ones mean to be humorous, really just result in knowing smiles. Also in fairness, I laughed out loud three times while reading the first chapter of Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.)
I do remain somewhat unsatisfied by the reading experience, particularly since I invested a lot of precious time into the project. I feel like there was a lot I didn't fully understand, a lot of nuance missed, a lot of metatextual jokes I didn't catch, and I'm sort of left wondering if that book wasn't f*cking with me. The question is put best by the British: "Are you taking the piss?"
It seems to me that what we culturally call "literature" is often that sort of writing that asks, please, if isn't any bother, would you consider sending the guacamole this way? Most fiction seems to seek to present what we know, as written by people who are writing what they know, for an audience that knows what it wants. It's interesting and remarkable, then, when a book or an author steps out boldly into the territory of assertion -- or, as we called it in the MFA program I attended, "authority."
Here's a passage from Jose Saramago's The Stone Raft, a novel in which the Iberian Peninsula breaks away from Europe and drifts out to sea:
The starlings kept on screeching and began to stir uneasily, some had awakened as the men spoke, others, perhaps, were dreaming aloud, that terrible nightmare of the species, in which they feel themselves to be flying alone, disoriented and separated from the flock, moving through an atmosphere that resists and hinders the flapping of their wings as if it were made of water...
This is bold. Saramago suggests -- no, by God, he asserts -- that birds dream, and dream in this particular way and, as we should infer from the familiarity in the words "that terrible nightmare of the species," the dreams of birds have been well-charted and quantified. This is an author who steps beyond writing a novel into the realm of universe-creation. Saramago as narrator becomes the voice of God, the world-shaper of genre fantasy and sci fi, the 19th Century George Elliot style omniscient narrator. This style of story-telling is rare in mainstream literature, probably since about the onset of relativity theory.
Machine, a novel by Peter Adolphsen that comes highly recommended from Jordan at The Inside Flap, is full of the same sort of authority as in Saramago. In following the creation of a drop of oil from its prehistoric creation to an ultimate end, Machine is as daring throughout as the passage from The Stone Raft above. In 85 pages, Machine delves into the thoughts of an Eocene-era horse, the nature of power, a comprehensive list of ethnic groups of the mid-20th-century Soviet Union, and the engineering flaws of the Ford Pinto, in addition to mounds of geologic and biologic data that explain the creation and dispensation of oil. One presumes, for most of its pages, that it's narrator is as all-knowing as Saramago's or Elliot's. The book, as fiction, seems to brim with fact.
But authority of the sort that fuels Adolphsen's machine is, as in Saramago, playful. One character, seeking out poetry similar to Emily Dickenson's, discovers in his local library the double-haiku's of Poems, the sole book from Seymour Glass. And here's the bold part, the part that approaches the dreams of starlings: Seymour is not fact. Seymour Glass is a central figure in every J.D. Salinger book except the one for which he is most famous, despite the character's suicide in his first appearance in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," from 1948. (A side note on Seymour: I haven't read "Bananafish" in a very long time, but it always struck me as kind of twee, and it's culmination in suicide a juvenile last grasp at getting some drama into the story. The rest of the Glass family novels and stories strike me as Salinger's attempt to make up for, excuse, or, you know, whimperate that first gloss.)
But, just as I love the terrible nightmares of starlings, I love that this book, so full of lore, sneaks in this bit that can refer only to a fictional world, the drop of magic that calls reality into question, that suggests a realm beyond the known.
A heartwarming book in which a wealthy but spiritually bankrupt author is visited by the spectre of the author's loyal but disobedient Labrador retriever, presaging Christmas night visits from The Ghost Dog of Important Life Lessons Past, The Ghost Dog of Important Life Lessons Present, and The Ghost of Important Life Lessons Future. At the emotional but uplifting conclusion, the author realizes that lightweight memoirs about one's dogs are are just the sort of thing America no longer needs.
Cold, Fat, and Jolly: Why We Need a Toy Revolution—And How It Can Renew Christmas
The New York Times columnist who didn't win the Pulitzer Prize for Economics argues that, due to climate conditions and a lack of supply chain innovation, the elf-led toy creation in Santa's Workshop is headed towards global irrelevance. Friedman finds private shipping ventures to be faster and more reliable than reindeer, who are often unable to get toys to children until last minute Christmas morning. And while elves historically made high-quality wooden toys, their unfamiliarity with plastics and electronics suggest an emerging obsolescence, unlike the cheaper, faster, and highly educated labor available in places like Bangalore, India.
Twilight Before Christmas
A young adult novel in which abstinent and therefore moody teenage vampires refuse to have either sexual or vampiric relations with petulant yet beautiful teenage girls who totally want to do it with them.
The author conveys some hastily drawn anecdotes, building an argument by example that seems to suggest an approach to life that will make one both rich and happy, except then it doesn't. In this case, Gladwell argues that the best Christmas presents are ones that come from the heart. Just as Outliers contains a stunningly fact-free reduction of The Beatles into four kids who tried really hard, this book posits that Jesus was just all right.
If the reaction to the shoe-throwing is anything like the reaction to other acts ranging in severity from civil disobedience to outright terrorism, the response will be a reduction in the number of places where I can peaceably wear footwear.Places Where One Is Expected To Remove One's Shoes (or Soon Will Be):
- The airport.
- The homes of certain Japanese people.
- The homes of people with new carpeting (or, more likely, a weird fascination with peoples' feet)
- The pre-toddler room at day care.
- Presidential press conferences.
Also, feet are kind of nasty. They're pale and callused and yellow in parts, and they smell and collect sock lint and, thousands of years ago, they were hands. Gross.
(By the way, several of today's news reports have revealed that throwing your shoe at a person is considered an insult in Muslim cultures. Thanks for that, press corps. If this is the sort of work you've been doing instead of throwing your shoes at the president, you might have found other things to do with your time.)
Just as people largely stopped using commercial airplanes once they had to take off their shoes to do so, now people are going to stop asking news-type questions of their president. I mean, it wasn't that long ago that the threat of having their patriotism challenged prevented the press from asking hard questions about the run-up to Iraq, and now -- or at least for the next 35 days -- they'll be too busy getting their shoes on and off to notice the last-minute fire sale on democracy.(Post title by Townes VanZandt, my near namesake.)
On an as-yet uncomposed Nick Hornby-ish All-Time Top Five Favorite Desert Island Books list, I'd probably rank Peter Doyle at number one or number two. It pert' near blew my mind when I first read it in the early 1990's, around the same time that I read Doctorow's Ragtime and was otherwise reading as much William Faulkner as I could get my hands on. These books and authors were tied to an American past, connected to Huckleberry Finn and the Civil War and the particular American problem of promised but undelivered equality that underscores everything from the Declaration of Independence to the presidential election of 2008. Amist some undergraduate writing workshops and advice to "write what you know" in a time where short stories hewed to kitchen table domestic realism and Raymond Carver minimalism, these books held mysteries, loome large, and certainly seemed as "real" (or perhaps "realer") as any "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" or "Cathedral."
Vernon's book opens at the autopsy of Napoleon on St. Helena, and the surruptitious removal of the Mighty Corsican's right thumb and penis. One of these, erm, units appears in the form of a totemic necklace that travels through the hands of Peter Doyle, a bus conductor and/or merchant marine who is believed by some to be the true love and muse of poet Walt Whitman. So Napoleon's penis transfers from Doyle to Whitman, from Whitman to Emily Dickinson, and ultimately follows Horace Greely out west, where it ends the novel with a plunge into the Colorado River. These characters strike you as accurate portrayals and, while a funny book, nothing is played for laughs.
After finishing the book, I was left with a lot of questions about what was real and what wasn't. I called the downtown library's Ready Reference, the precursor to the internet and the godmother of Wikipedia, to see if someone could tell me whether there was an actual, historical, real Peter Doyle. I wanted to ask about the dismemberment of the little Napoleon, too, but modesty held my tongue.
If there's a better novel out there about about a dessicated sexual organ of an imperial European and its effect on the lives of late 19th Century American poets, I'd sure like to know about it.
Vernon's book is currently out of print, but it may well be worth the hunt. I also enjoyed the same author's A Book of Reasons, a non-fiction account about cleaning out his reclusive late brother's house, with diversions into the history of tools and questions about how well we can know each other anyway. Lucky Billy is a new novel/history/ontological puzzle which seems to concern someone called "Billy the Kid," but not this Billy the Kid.
Sam felt that a puppet show about the three little pigs really needed to be sabotaged by a shark. "We're going to need a bigger boat," says the third little pig.