There is an interesting discussion of Severus Snape, over on Tor.com. It does, better than I’ve done here, to show that reading and thinking matters, so much more than just saying whether a novel is good or bad. The premise of the blog post, written by Emily Asher-Perrin, is simple: we know about the sacrifice that Snape makes in the Harry Potter novels. However, the portrayal of Snape as a paragon of unrequited, pure (i.e. Platonic) love might have been a step too far in rehabilitating his image. Ms. Asher-Perrin pulls pieces of evidence from the novels to show that Snape is selfish and childish, both in his conception of love and the way he deals with students, including Harry Potter. I thought point was well made, has relevance to the real world, and is accessible to fandom but also to casual readers. The act of discussing the character of Snape demonstrates why reading, even fiction, matters.
Buy this book. Please.
Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman collaborated on this anthology (Mr. Mazari told the stories to Mr. Hillman, who then reshaped and crafted them into The Honey Thief, and then confirmed by Mr. Mazari that the book is faithful to his words, motifs, and themes.) In the process, they created a work of simplicity, beauty and great emotional power. This book is the embodiment of a romance and a deep love for Afghanistan that Mr. Mazari possesses. This book is also a testament to the power of Mr. Hillman, in which he captured the words and beauty that Mr. Mazari imparted to him.
The book is a collection of short and medium length stories (frankly, they were all too short – I truly wanted each to last), threaded by some common characters. The main character is the story teller, whom we do not encounter in the stories, but whose voice we hear. And hear I did; I was entranced from the first sentence. I could imagine myself in the towns, fields, and mountains that Mr. Mazari speaks of, in the afternoon, passing time while tending to a flock of sheep or taking respite from farming.
The stories unfold like parables, with the elegance and directness of a child’s bedtime stories, all the while describing the horrors and atrocities of inflicted on Afghans as they take part in civil wars and in wars to repel invaders. Mr. Mazari is of the Hazara, what we would dryly describe as an ethnic and religious (they are generally Shiite Muslims in a predominantly Sunni country) minority living in Afghanistan. They have different physiognomy, possessing Asian features that set them apart.
Despite the violence and darkness encountered in these stories, what shines through is resilience. Part of that is the adaptability of humans; I mean, circumstances are dire, but if all you know is what’s around you, and you need to work to subsist, let alone thrive, then it might provide enough motive to just slog through. I am not saying this is desirable; in the worse case, this is fatalistic and nihilistic… work just to survive with no measure of joy or dignity. But in the best case, and what Mr. Mazari emphasizes, is simply that one must move on, bide time, and then take advantage of the bits of happiness that one encounters.
We see this in the stories that Mr. Mazari tells. These are not traditional Afghan tales, but ones concocted by him. The tales are woven with bits of history; even in the stories where atrocities are featured prominently, he never lets that overwhelm his characters. So I think that it was effective in sketching the backdrop against which his people act, rather than his characters serving as the window dressing on Mr. Mazari’s airing centuries old grievances. In other words, the story is what matters, and everything else should act to strengthen it.
For the most part, there is much happiness and beauty in these stories, even in those that address the violence suffered by Afghans. My favorite stories are “The Richest Man in Afghanistan”, “The Behsudi Dowry”, “The Snow Leopard”, “The Music School”, and the two stories about the life and death of Abdul Khaliq (well, that’s about half the stories. I can’t really decide among them, although “The Music School” does have a perfectly phrased ending.) In each of these, I would argue that rather than showing us an Afghan sensibility, we are shown a very humane way of engagement with the world, one that should appeal to a broad audience. The modern and the old coexist; people, foreign and native, come and go, moving freely and leaving behind stories. The tension is never about the Hazara and the outside world, with Afghans towards foreigners (i.e. invaders). One phrase that popped up in my mind in describing this anthology is “Hemingway-esque”; grace under fire matters. How well one carries himself is the point; life happens regardless of who you are, the only thing you can control is how you behave.
Through it all, Mr. Mazari’s memorable characters behave with honor and dignity, making decisions that represent those the best of us would make. It is because of this that I say the stories are romantic; there are really no unhappy ends. Sure, terrible things happened to the characters, but that is mostly in the stories’ past. Good behavior does not lead to tragedy. One might say that this removes much needed dramatic depth, but isn’t it just as contrived to see our heroes mired in melodrama, only to come through at the end? After all, not everybody dies. Most people make do. I choose to think that we are simply hearing some of the tales where people overcome rather than are overwhelmed.
There is a bit of agility in the way Mr. Mazari constructed the tales; there are equal parts fancy, history, and modernity in them. His tales move freely among different epochs, in a world where supercomputers can coexist with the rhythms of a simple shepherd’s life that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. This is a book for people who see magic in the world, are cognizant of the past, fully immersed in the present, and hopeful for the future. The stories are for people who see and accept the world as is and not wishing for something different; they are for people who are philanthropes, who sees a thread of humanity and dignity binding us all. I must admit, by all rights the book should be angrier. But as Mr. Mazari’s characters might note, what does that leave us? Anger takes from the world; anger wielded against anger is a tragedy made double.
Virgin Soul is Judy Juanita’s first novel; it is, at heart, a conventional coming of age story despite taking place in 1960′s San Francisco and Oakland, during the rise of the Black Panthers. What gives the book its center is that it does feel, to me, more like Judy Blume than Ralph Ellison. This is not meant as a negative. What I mean is that, this novel is not about the larger events, but about a woman coming into her own in this turbulent time. Yes, the heroine becomes involved with the Black Panthers, but this novel is more about her thoughts and struggle to move forward. In this way, Ms. Juanita is able to integrate into the novel a discussion about the role of revolution and the form of social change.
The story opens with Geniece Hightower entering a 2-year college. She recognizes that it is the best path for her to progress to a 4 year school, in terms of what was available to her and what she can afford. The first part of the book deals with fairly mundane… bourgeois… concerns. The novel is elegant in how it portrays the varying pressures on Geniece; despite the general sense that Geniece is doing the right thing, there’s a fair amount of negativity in the comments her family makes to her. But what carries Geniece through is that she can distinguish between talk and action. She sees enough acquaintances who have tried and failed to move up, and she sees relatives who are actually successful. She later realizes that talk is just that; she understands that’s the type of person her Aunt or grandmother may be. If they are jaded it may be because their experience has taught them to put little faith in the process.
Another aspect of the book that I liked is that it is filled with the details of living. We see Geniece form friendships and think through day to day problems. There’s enough money issues, finding work, making sure she had enough to eat, and juggling school work so that she can attain her prize. It would have been easy to recount the list of injustices that blacks have faced, but Ms. Juanita chose to approach it from the bottom up. I happen to think that institutional difficulties are easy to dismiss because they are victims of their own generality. It is almost like knowing a story third or fourth hand, where someone knows someone who might have passed by a person who had the problem. Instead, the sum of the novel is a collection of the difficulties that a poor, black person, let alone a woman, would have faced.
The presentation here is masterful; we simply see a woman we grow to like, encounter trouble and soldiering on. Another fine touch is to show that, her most immediate problems stem from people around her, who happen to be her peers and from members of the Panthers. I think to highlight the massive scale of injustice, perpetrated not even by whites, but by institutions set up by whites, would have detracted from the story of Geniece’s growth and also the power of the novel.
Geniece is a subtle character; she is strong in the least obvious way: she knows herself. In her interactions with men, she comes as an equal. Her relationship begins as an infatuation, turns into one of mentorship, then into love. She eventually outgrows Allwood. It is with Allwood that Geniece comes to witness the rise of the Black Panthers.
Through Allwood, we begin to see the complex interaction of bottom up and top down revolutionaries. The characters have it wrong. While the Black Panthers and other such movements are populist, the goal might have been to impose change by cutting off the head of the existing power. Hence revolutionary change. The bottom up way is the change by evolution. Geniece is only one example. Allwood is another. An interesting point in the book is that Allwood eventually accepts a scholarship to Caltech, leaving the militant brotherhoods behind. It is a focal point for one of these arguments: the revolutionaries want people with guns and the threat of violent upheaval. The threat of societal upheaval is the only way to move the powers that be. Allwood simply states that you can’t replace engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and businessmen unless you actually have engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and businessmen. The brilliant move here is that Ms. Juanita simply has each party go their separate ways.
For a short time, Geniece sides with the revolutionaries. As many have pointed out, it is amazing how revolutionaries talk of change while always ignoring half of their constituents: the women. Despite all the meetings that Geniece attends, women generally remain in the kitchen and service the men, both as maids and as lovers. Geniece is actually ignored, and in one instance with Allwood, he was all but told to control his woman.
Here is where some of the weakness in the story comes through. There’s generally a bit of reworking history so the author can inject herself into significant events via the proxy of Geniece. So we see her sitting in on Black Panther meetings, meeting Huey Newton, hosting Stokely Carmichael, and having Elridge Cleaver complementing her work and installing her as the editor in chief of the Black Panther’s newspaper. **
** A huge mea culpa. In my research, I found that Ms. Juanita was a member of the Black Panther party, but I missed that she became the editor-in-chief of the Black Panther Intercommunal Newspaper (see comment by arthouseflower. See this interview and this essay by Judy Juanita that came out after I filed the story and after I left for vacation.) Although I had thought that this “authorial indulgence” was a negative (and I had to look hard to find the one thing that bothered me about the book), it clearly… isn’t. Ms. Juanita had an insider’s perspective on the BPP, and so this segment of the novel actually carries the power of the autobiography. Let’s be clear, though, I am not confusing this element with an actual work of documented, non-fiction. I am simply recognizing that there is great power in “writing what you know”, and, in this case, what one did.
There are some interesting things to come out of this part of the book. We see the marginalization of women in this revolution. Again, it is because of the idea that war is looming. No thought really is given to a continuation of society, or even what to do once the war is won. The pie in the sky idea is that somehow, everything will continue as before but with more blacks involved.
So we see Geniece come to a nuanced understanding. We see her rage building, but it is telling that Ms. Juanita has her continuing to compile credits. She will finish, but she is torn; it seems like she will conform to the system if she gets her degree. She even exploits the 2% rule, which was in place to allow some flexibility in the allocation of matriculation spots. Why not use this rule to admit black and underprivileged students? So at the same time she is fomenting change quickly, she is also enabling a true bottom up movement. The most obvious point is that, we need a feeder system to create a professional class of blacks. Even if change happens overnight, who will be a proficient doctor when that spot opens up?
To my mind, I think the most significant point is that she spends a lot more time ruminating on what makes for successful social change. Yes, Ms. Juanita’s makes sharp observations about the marginalization of women in “revolutions”. But the strongest indictment of revolution is that the talk and action are easy. Stealing from whites, white gratifying, is in the end stealing. If the point of the revolution is to force whites to understand that blacks are equal and deserving of dignity, destroying their property, stealing from them, and threatening them with violence seems to be a counter message. This seems obvious: pleas for humanity and dignity from a hooligan is ironic to say the least.
One final note about Geniece; when she started college, of course she was more concerned with finding friends than with movements. Generally, she falls in with black student societies, all with a liberal bent. Until we arrive at her Junior year and her awakening of social injustice, I did not see rage and anger. At one point, Ms. Juanita has Geniece reflecting on how her anger had caused her to seek out these outlets, and drove her to set a goal of getting a bachelor’s degree. I’m not sure; I really think the first part of the book revealed much of Geniece’s upbringing and development. I would not count anger as the main tone. It is refreshing in that she had a fully formed goal of getting a degree, that her writing heroes were mostly white, and that she really had what we would might describe as a bourgeois/middle class intellectual upbringing. It is this self that meets the revolutionary persona, and the second half of book explores how Geniece reconciles the two. In this sense, it is a classic coming of age story.
There is much to recommend about the novel. However, I think the nuanced portrayal of a woman coming to terms with the world is what sets this novel apart.
When an author writes that he will tell you the truth and nothing but the truth, and rather helpfully frames his novel with meta-analytical comments throughout, you know you are in for a time. The only thing I had hope for is that the book is entertaining. Luckily, Ron Currie’s novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is in fact hilarious, dark, and observant of both external appearances and internal motives. I really liked it.
To begin with, though, there were a couple of novelistic ticks that red-lined my BS meter, even before the first chapter. Instead of an epigraph, we have an ironically pretentious discussion of why Currie avoided using a pretentious quote from Nabokov. Well, it’s more a justification for using a quote from the movie Rocky. The main character is named Ron Currie, and shares a similar biography, if not the same one, with the actual author. But why does that detail even matter for fiction? Yes, it’s that type of novel.
Oooh… that sounds bad. Let me start again. I mention the writing because, it’s the type of thing that can turn me off. However, Currie writes with a real brio and panache and makes the book work. The writing is compelling; there are enough chuckles in the beginning to capture the reader.
I thought the book essentially deals with the self-loathing, and if not that, then at least the self-destructive tendencies of the Ron character. The book moves along in a series of vignettes. Each scene offers as much exposition as it does thoughts and discussions. He jumps around in time; we know that he is narrating after the events in the novel. He writes about his time in New York, with his true love Emma, with his island drinking partner Charlotte, and with various island locals. Most importantly, at some point, he found it easier to leave his life behind. He fakes his own death. The novel is an attempt to frame Ron’s life in the context of this act.
The book works a lot like the movie Memento. Everything presented can be described as factual, but the order in which facts are revealed does matter. This is clever of Currie. Each scene or chapter is self-contained. Ron, the character, will tell us his thoughts or his version of events; one can imagine Ron just speaking, in a bar, over some beer or whiskey. He starts with some funny observations, and talks about island time and the locals; he tells us he’s following the love’s errand Emma sent him on; and he portrays his love for Emma as, ultimately, unrequited. In this way, we build up more sympathy for Ron than we otherwise would have. In short, Ron is an alcoholic and an asshole, who was not in a place where he could appreciate the good in his life. He takes more away from the world and the people around him than to add.
It gets much darker than simply gallows humor. Oh, Ron does seem to walk a fine line between being a downer and being outright nihilistic. The most symptomatic of this is that he treats his island housemate and erstwhile lover, Charlotte, badly. Here’s the thing: at some point, I forgot that he was writing about a time when he was in a relationship with Emma. His being on the island isn’t their being “on a break” or anything like that. Emma told him to wait while she finalizes her divorce and tie up loose ends. Sure, it is an overly long separation, but there was no question that she will join his life as soon as she works to close the current chapter. Ron just makes it out as if Emma will bail on him.
When we were introduced to Charlotte, he was more or less setting up Emma as an ice princess, as someone unattainable (more on this later). Emma was the manipulator and instigator, not a bystander or victim. When Ron wound up cohabiting with Charlotte (Ron makes sure to let us know that it’s her doing), it began as a drinking relationship. Due to her efforts, however, he does eventually enjoys her physical charms. His relationship with Charlotte, and its placement in the novel, makes for a fuzzy timeline as to what his precise status with Emma is. That’s a bit of good writing, I think. Random details are a setup, resurfacing later to give the lie to Ron’s story.
The story is structured to show two things: 1) that Ron hates himself, unwilling to invest of himself in order to better avoid being hurt, and 2) that Ron cannot understand that Emma might need to work things out, independent of where they are in the relationship. To be fair, a lot of this book can be interpreted as either men not understanding women or as a cynical, male commentary on relationships. I see it as something more simple; Ron is self-absorbed, he requires of others that which does not himself offer. He does not want the doubt, the possibility that Emma has her own mind and may in fact choose a life without Ron. It isn’t that she would, but that there is the possibility. He refuses to accept that Emma is not simply a lover, but is an actual autonomous being.
Throughout the novel, Currie name checks Vernor Vinge and the Singularity. I don’t know what the reader’s background is, but it’s a simple take-home idea. At some point, the density of computing power will become so high, and so connected, that it may be able to contain and allow for alien, superhuman intelligence to arise. Alien because its motives will be distinctly non-human understandable. This intelligence might be some mutated form of simple or weak “artificial intelligence” bots, to engineered, pseudo-intelligent decision-making algorithms. Regardless, it is possible that these programs may behave in a manner that feedbacks positively upon itself, and because of the speed of computational cycles, the generation time is much shortened and algorithmic evolution will be exponential.
True AI will arise, and we won’t know it nor can we stop it: it will process much faster than the human brain can. There are all sorts of attendant mythologies related to what happens when such super intelligences arise, but it is possible that humans will be 1) be unaware, left behind and wither away, or 2) be killed in some machine-engineered apocalypse. Regardless, we will not understand it, because the intelligence is hyper-intelligent and/or alien. There is a line of sci-fi writing that talks of humans transcending, a rapture of the nerds*, if you will, where humans will be able to engage the alien/artificial intelligence by uploading their thoughts into the computational network.
*Charlie Stross has written much about the silliness of the Singularity being a happy event for humans, let alone actually occurring. Stross can’t help but notice and poke at the undertone of the uploading into a mind-hive is actually quite similar to the mythology of a Christian Rapture. See Stross’s blog, here and here.
This is a long way to go to say, that, in the face of such potentially catastrophe for humans, Ron (and Currie, the author), invokes the Singularity as a way for humans to upload into the ether, instantiate as a part of the collective mind, and be able to offer its human life for computational forensics. Perhaps as a case for why humans were superceded by a superior intelligence form. In other words, the dream of Ron may be to be able to consider his relationship with Emma, such as it as, in perpetuity, by his uploaded mind or by the other aspects of the AI. It is a solipsist heaven.
That’s really also the novel’s main motif, I think. Ron is wrapped up with his thoughts and interpretation of events. Sure, perhaps Emma doesn’t help matters when she does also have an emotional distance. In fact, one might argue that she is the female Ron. She too cannot engage on a deep emotional level with Ron, perhaps because she is strongly independent. But I am unsure if we can blame that, as it might be that she realizes Ron isn’t the most reliable type.
This is the weird thing: what level of relationship does Ron need? At some point, it isn’t about the woman, but about Ron. It is his actions, his feelings, his hang-ups, his depression, his alcoholism that interferes with Emma. In the end, she does come to him. They spend time on the island. They are intimate. But he turfs it all, as if he can’t stand the “happily ever after” part, which he knows isn’t simple. He knows that work makes relationships work, not the romance and drama. His is unable to live in this moment, since he knows that the next bit of drama, the next moment, will be a break-up. That’s really the only next movie scene available. He sure as hell can’t enjoy paradise in the arms of a hot woman, forever. I can see it as a pre-emptive strike. Or it could just be his inability to deal. Either way, that’s the bit of ambiguity left for us to mull over; the fact is, motive almost doesn’t matter. He messes up the happy ending.
It’s the usual novel of the human condition, but it’s a really fun read. There’s a great courtroom scene (you didn’t think that faking one’s own death would be painless?) Reading this trial, I can’t help agreeing with Currie that events would unfold precisely in this manner. He also gives a resounding defense of the need for fiction in society; it’s a painless way to engender empathy. It might not sound like it’d fit, but it does. The magic of the novel is that, although it is funny and dark, Currie treats each separately. It’s not a confused smear; it is comic and deep in equal measure, dosed out at the proper times. Something that Ron can learn from.
I was introduced to a fabulous writer, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya through her anthology, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her SIster’s Husband and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories.* One caveat: I have not read any Soviet-era Russian authors before. For better or for worse, the one impression I have is that I encountered an utterly alien world. The people who populate Ms. Petrushevskaya’s stories are recognizable. The dramatic tension is in their making do with what they have. Their responses are dramatically logical and realistic in motivation. Their environment is claustrophobic and, if short of dehumanizing, then at least one that continually sandblasts the dignity of its inhabitants. It might be too simplistic a statement, but it is a wonder that the Soviet Union survived for so long, given the lives that Ms. Petrushevskaya portrayed.
*I was asked to review this book by a representative of Penguin Publishing. I received an advanced copy of the book and no other form of compensation.
The stories were translated by Anna Summers, who also penned the introduction. In this text, we learn that Ms. Petrushevskaya, when young, and her mother were without a home. They “lived under a desk in her insane grandfather’s room, while occasionally renting cots in nearby communal apartments.” Later, when she grew older and had a child of her own, she was left a widow and had to care for her mother as well. This is simply the first of many details that astound. The other detail we need to know is that, following the Russian Revolution, cities (re: Moscow) began burgeoning. The response was for the state to outlaw private housing. Once appropriated, the apartments were divided into the tiny rooms, ubiquitous in these stories. Much as one envisions tenements and ghettos in early 20th century New York and European cities, with extended families piled into small rooms, so these Russians lived. It is in this milieu that we encounter Ms. Petrushevskaya’s characters; her experience informs the stories in this collection.
I realize that short stories depend on stereotypes and a presumptive common experience, so that the writer can convey her ideas with an economy of words. I realize that, whatever reaction I have, for the people to whom Ms. Petrushevskaya wrote, they would have different thoughts. The shock I experienced may not occur to them, as the events may be commonplace for them. Anna Summers, who grew up in Moscow, in those communal apartment buildings that these stories take place in, states as much in the introduction:
When her stories first circulated, the shock of recognition was terrible indeed among my parents’ generation. Petrushevskaya, it turned out, had been writing about their lives; it was their claustrophobic apartments that she described, their ungrateful children, their sick parents, their frustrated marriages.
The brevity of these short stories unfolded in unrelenting fashion, without nonsense. Each sentence hurls the reader forward. The first story, “A Murky Fate”, exemplifies this: a nameless, unmarried woman invites a man to her studio apartment, and so she needs to convince her mother to vacate the premises for the night. The object of her affection is a 42-year old man, married, no career prospects, ill-health. She knows that this is a one-night stand, but she wants more. The following day, she cannot bear the thought of facing her old life and proudly tells her co-worker that she has a man. Except now she realizes that she will be the other woman, pestering his home with phone calls. Despite this, she cannot help but be happy. The story is really not much longer than that (well, I exaggerate), but utterly compelling.
This is one instance of the lives that Ms. Petrushevskaya sketches, but it is illustrative of the whole collection. The feelings her story engendered are complex, and to be outraged at the indignities of life in the Soviet Union would be too simple and besides the point. There is a fair amount of sadness, hopefulness, and some measure of happiness. It is more proper to say that, her characters are simply living, although not striving to transcend their system or institution. It is in this living, despite their circumstances, that makes the stories so moving.
The common thread in all these stories is that life is claustrophobic, an irony given the spacious geographic area of Soviet Russia. Entire families are crammed into a small space, and familiarity breeds contempt. There is no physical and psychic room to grow; physical boundaries are reflected in the interior lives of Ms. Petrushevskaya’s characters. The men seem infantile, or drunkards, or both. For the most part, the people seem powerless to effect change, so they focus on what is in front of them. In some cases, they – and usually women – are certainly aware (such as the nameless woman in “A Murky Fate”, or Pulcheria in “Eros’s Way”), and consciously pursue happiness that is temporary at best and illusory at worst. These characters are missing that spark of daring to accept no less than perfection that comes in a world with almost unlimited potential. Instead, there is just endless gray, and one must simply find the meager allotment of happiness.
I think a similar set of stories, written by an American author about life in the tenements, will have the converse distribution. Those heroes and heroines would likely be striving for the pinnacle of perfection and happiness, and the drama comes in their failing to do so. This is not an indictment of the way we might write the stories in that setting; it simply reflects the approach we might take. I think most characters, Russian or Soviet, or American or otherwise, tends to end up in the same place.
About the happiest story, I think, is “Like Penelope.” In this, the heroine does in fact have that bit of daring. Oksana lives with her mother, a woman who has remained kind-hearted and generous, to her daughter’s dismay. The mother takes in her her mother-in-law, Klava, from her first marriage. The older women mean well, but Oksana seems ungrateful (a recurring motif in these stories). For her part, Klava was a tailor and wished to make Oksana a wonderful dress for her to go out in, as it is New Year’s Eve. While there are no better options, Oksana scoffs at the reworked clothes offered to her by Klava. It is not materialistic selfishness that causes Oksana to act out: it is the simple observation that she will end up like Klava or her mother. Old and alone, without romance or happiness, and toil her only company. She felt no future. But it does sound like a lovely dress, with embroidery that, for shame, will not be noticed. Something moves her, and she puts the dress and make-up on. She is now physically changed. The metamorphosis completes when Klava’s son, Misha shows up to visit (it was his clothes that had been re-worked for Oksana). He is stunned by the now ravishing Oksana. She introduces herself as Xenia (a plainer name that she had wanted) and moves with elegance; she seized the moment, remade herself, and constructed her happiness. The final sentences summed it up:
Mama Nina observed her daughter and wondered where this new slow grace in her movements had come from, the twinkles in her laughing black eyes, the wave in her hair, the gorgeous dress…. Of course: she had made it herself.
That is the lesson that most of Ms. Petrushevskaya’s characters do not learn. To be fair, most of them had been beaten down too much to see that; all that is left is to settle.
My favorites in this collection are “Two Deities” and “Ero’s Way”. The former is about the relatively successful life the heroine, Genya, leads – only to realize that all is for naught as all that she and her partner, Dima, have a son, who seems weak-willed and will likely lead a dissolute life despite his relative advantages. But the way that story unfolded was just stunning. I had said that each one of Ms. Petrushevskaya’s sentences propel the story forward. It was a simple, forward march; an uplifting story, really, to hear about Genya’s obstacles and how she overcame them. And just as we reached the summit, she tumbles us back down as we find out what the future holds for the couple. When I go to the end, it felt like Ms. Petrushevskaya pulled the rug out from under me. It stunned me.
“Eros’s Way” was a bit of the opposite. Most of the story is about a woman navigating the treacherous waters of office politics. She does so successfully; the tension came when she fell in love with the husband of her nemesis. The man seems like a layabout, a mathematician who might be lazy, or exploited, or both. A little bit mad, but who somehow might be finding his way to women who will mother him. Pulcheria, our heroine, could be simply the latest in a long line of surrogate mothers, but it is a role she takes gladly. There is a delicacy of feeling that Ms. Petrushevskaya preserves, along with some sharp observations along the way. The end is a little bit sad, rather tender, and made me sigh with relief that no further depredations await.
I really enjoyed seeing how these Russians lived in the Soviet Union. Anna Summers noted in her introduction that, despite some of the things the characters do in these stories, we tend to sympathize rather than to judge them harshly. I agree. Somehow, these stories are not self-pitying. Sure, some of them are sad, and some definitely would make you catch your breath in their naked, raw desperation. But the characters are memorable, they do their best, and we root for them.
I just read Arthur Krystal’s piece ”Easy Writers” (behind paywall) in the May 28 (2012) The New Yorker, in which he examines the critical response to genre writers and makes some attempt to explain the differences between literary writers and mere story tellers.
Every time I read a piece such as this, whether it be by high-brow critics or writers, I can only become saddened by what seems to me their increasing irrelevance. I might not have the talent to be such a writer, but I can certainly see it as nothing less than self-sabotage by telling your potential readers that 1) they do not have the intellect to appreciate your verbiage describing the mundane and that 2) even if they think they do, they should not bother (as if one making money from one’s book precludes one from writing a literary masterpiece – because, you know, it means that the language is somehow too easy and accessible to the proles.)
Krystal rehashes the basic gripe against genre writers: by definition, they write with a formula in mind, and this formula is propelled by plot. The fact that a detective must catch the killer or that a lawyer must find evidence to exonerate his client limits the tools a genre writer can use. Because the writer needs to resolve the plot, the focus is lessened on dramatic closure or catharsis than on solving the case. More often than not (and the critics would argue, always), stereotypes reserved for short stories are transplanted into a full length book. The result is that heroes and villains are good and evil, black and white, with nary a shadow cast to suggest a more complex reality.
One final point Krystal makes is that the word-craft seems to be missing from churn-it-out modern day pulp (I mean, genre) writers. As the self-named guardians of quality (which I find ironic; I find today’s a great many literary authors today compare poorly to luminaries like Melville, Wharton, James, Thackeray, and Hemingway) continue to cycle towards irrelevance, in the very same issue of The New Yorker we find a brilliant surrogate for the plotless, psychological profile that Krystal suggests is the domain of the literary writer.
David Grann’s profile of William Alexander Morgan (“The Yankee Commandante“) is exciting, with all the elements of an adventure tale. Except that Grann also presented actual, documentary information from the FBI, CIA, and various intelligence personnel assessing Morgan’s use to them. In other words, we actually have evaluations of Morgan’s psyche, or at least opinions from people whose livelihoods depend on making judgments about people.
My point here is that, with the wealth of historical and biographical works available, drawing on real events and the analyses of people of significance, do we really need self-congratulatory high-lit writers teaching us about the human condition? And even if we disagree with the authors of these biographies, isn’t it desirable that we focus on actual historical persona, where we can rely on documentary evidence and not the imagination of a fiction writer?
Let us move on from this idea of the genre versus the human condition (or, plot versus characterization.)
Now, I happen to agree that, for the most part, most published books are dreck; it isn’t that we need to elevate genre writing, but we simply must recognize that good writing can come from many sources. It is the same heavy handed message at the end of Ratatouille, when Anton Ego, Remi’s nemesis, recognizes that popularizing cookery does not elevate all cooks, but that it makes the ground fertile to nurture more talent from non-traditional sources.
This point is, I believe, at the essence of the Jodi Picoult criticism of the high-brow crowd. Popular writing might be awash in mediocre writing, but we shouldn’t be surprised when we do find excellent writing from genre authors.
Hence we arrive again to Krystal’s thesis. He points to a 20th century literary giants, for example Auden, who felt Raymond Chandler to be a high-calibre talent, despite slumming it. Krystal echoes this sentiment, which I find condescending. Why should we grade Chandler’s writing on a curve, judging him against his peers? If literary standards were actually objective, then one can simply judge all authors by some criteria for good writing.
Either Chandler is a good writer, or he isn’t.
I was left annoyed by Krystal’s piece, not because of his opinion, but in that he seems unwilling to follow the high-lit stance to its conclusions. Krystal identified both the type of novel and the writing style as paramount to be considered worthy literature. We must delve into the psychology of a character using highly stylized language.
I would argue, as do most high-brow writers and critics, that the beauty of language is paramount (naturally, we differ in specifics). Where we truly differ is the idea that plot and story must take a back seat to laying bare the psychology of protagonists.
I wanted to have my say, but Charlie Stross has made similar points on his blog, in better way.
Interestingly, he launched some salvos against the perception that science fiction can be defined by the presence of technobabble and spaceships. His point can be summed up by this quote:
In fact, those people who are doing the “big visionary ideas about the future” SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation. Greg Egan’s wonderful clockwork constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe, fall on the deaf ears of critics who are looking for depth of characterisation, and don’t realize that in his SF the structure of the universe is the character. On Hannu Rajaniemi’s brilliant “The Quantum Thief” — I have yet to see a single review that even notices the fact that this is the first hard SF novel to examine the impact of quantum cryptography on human society. (That’s a huge idea, but none of the reviewers even noticed it!) And there, over in a corner, is Bruce Sterling, blazing a lonely pioneering trail into the future. Chairman Bruce played out cyberpunk before most of us ever heard of it, invented the New Space Opera in “Schismatrix” (which looked as if nobody appreciated it for a couple of decades), co-wrote the most interesting hard-SF steampunk novel of all, and got into global climate change in the early 90s. He’s currently about ten years ahead of the curve. If SF was about big innovative visions, he’d need to build an extension to house all his Hugo awards.
Can you imagine? He’s criticizing reviewers (but also readers) who ignore that another approach to high-brow fiction might actually be the depth of characterization of the context surrounding the actors in a story.
In the same way that high-lit authors seem intent on showing us that humans are complicated, one can imagine a writer describing complex interactions with technology, with societal changes, with ethical dilemmas in medicine, and so on. Just as people are not saints or demons, our relationship to our culture is not simple. That an author chooses to make prominent a battle scene before detailing the devastation of his hero’s psyche does not mean he has become a writer of war stories.
Clearly, most critics do already focus on language. Gary Shteyngart and David Foster Wallace are two examples. The blending of science fiction and absurdist elements into their shrewd commentary on society hasn’t hurt their acceptance. Onion skin ™ pants? Augmented Reality updates as to one’s consensus f***-ability? Paraplegic Canadian commando assassins? Ending a novel with a firefight? I think Super Sad True Love Story and Infinite Jest were actually enjoyable stories, in addition to being a showcase for the talents of the authors.
My problem with the so-called gatekeepers of literature is that they confuse their form with what they wish to achieve through fiction. Their form is the novel; what they wish to achieve is understanding of the human nature. Clearly, there are many paths to this understanding; biographies, long-arc histories, a study of society are some of the other means. Since a novelist is not a scholar, the burden of proof, as it were, is relaxed.
Instead, the means of demonstrating the human truth lies in the aesthetics and beauty of language, and perhaps bitter and disquieting ideas can be made palatable by a bit of storytelling, of entertaining. To assume that the whole enterprise can succeed only when we drain the pleasure from novels (like seeing interesting things happen to interesting people) seems to mistake the novel for a dry social science text. If that is their goal, then there is actually no point in fiction.
Over dinner at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, I was recommending Gordon Shepherd’s book, Neurogastronomy, to a friend, who is a foodie. He seemed really interested in it, having read Herve This’s Molecular Gastronomy and other books like it. I’ll say here what I told my friend.
Shepherd brings with him both expertise and experience on the subject, having actually worked in olfaction for many years. The people he works with are my friends and peers, as I have also worked in olfaction until recently. The way this book is presented is a model I wish to emulate; it is a synthesis of both scientific findings and their meaning to us. By combining these elements with clear descriptions of the experiments involved, Shepherd is able to place the mechanics of smell within the context of odor and flavor perception. How the system works, how quality of life can be impaired, possible evolutionary consequences, and ultimately how we can subvert human flavor perception to improve our diet, nutrition, and yes, pleasure.
Gordon Shepherd has made a huge impact in neurophysiology and in the field of olfaction. I think it is wonderful that he has written this book, to emphasize that olfaction is an important sense, playing a role in shaping human culture by its role in flavor perception. This is a direct counter to the notion that the human (and primate) olfactory system compares “poorly” against other sensory systems because the amount of brain space devoted to processing olfactory data seem so small. It also counters the perception from an olfactory detector consideration, such as that other mammals have both a greater number and variety of odor sensors, and thus as a result that they are better smellers than humans.
For me, I also had the vicarious thrill of seeing people I know depicted in a book meant for a wider audience.
From the standpoint of a neuroscientist, it was refreshing to see how a distinguished scientists view as the most important pieces of neurophysiological evidence fitting into the concept of flavor perception. This is the bit of curation that I am such an enthusiast for. We have a wealth of data, and often, scientific reviews are a great place to being reading about a field. Reviews are as much about synthesis of existing scientific threads as much as about historical perspective and charting future research directions (i.e. what hasn’t been yet addressed). With so much great writing today, having forty or fifty years of experience may not be necessary to provide proper context for a given research environment.
With that said, it is always nice to see someone with the stature of Gordon Shepherd present such a broad picture of the field and to hew closely to underlying research.
He spends the first chapters discussing some anthropology findings, laying the groundwork for the importance of flavor in shaping human culture. It seems that cooking – with its transformation of food at the molecular level and in the unlocking of huge stores of nutrition – provides a huge impetus in humans retaining a strong smell sense. The rest of the book recounts both his own and others’ contributions to the field of olfaction.
His presentation of neural activity is that brain works by encoding and extracting information that can be described as literal, physical patterned activity. Evidence from open brain surgery, to anatomical tracing, to functional imaging supports this idea. In each case, patterns arise from ephemeral neural activity, grouped into physically discrete locations on the brain. Hence one hears about the visual and audio cortices, the somatosensory cortex, the hippocampus as a site of early memory formation, and so forth.
For the olfactory system, this is also true: at increasing levels of topologic precision, we can say that the main olfactory processing structures include the olfactory bulb, the olfactory cortex, and the orbitofrontal cortex. As we progress to more microscopic descriptions, we can describe groups of active neurons within these structures. The whole point of the brain’s wiring is to funnel external stimuli into combinations of activated neurons.
The connections between these neurons tend to lead to reactivation of the same groups of neurons to the same stimulus. Brain centers located downstream than operate on these patterns, recognizing them, storing them, retrieving them, and matching them. At some point, this stream of information is combined with other sensory inputs (aural, visual, taste, smell, and touch), resulting in higher order, conscious thoughts.
What I say next is not meant as a criticism but as a way to understand why Shepherd is so effective at presenting the science behind “neurogastronomy”. He left out a significant area of research, that of timing. A full description of how the brain works will have to include not only which neurons are active, but when they are active. There is not enough space in such a book to detail the underlying mechanism of smell: the identity of active neurons, how they are connected, and the timing of their activity.
My old boss (among others) was combining smell discrimination-decision making behavior task with simultaneous neural recordings. He, and others, have shown that within a sniff a rat can gain sufficient information to make a decision. This is on the order of a quarter of a second. Such a system likely functions as a time-based code. This is a huge part of understanding how the brain works.
Yet I have to say, it isn’t necessary to Shepherd’s story. Shepherd paints a compelling picture by simply presenting neuronal activity as a pattern, allowing him to describe a huge arc in a few strokes. But this stroke does reveal his thinking; he clearly places a central role in the anatomical organization of the brain, which groups neural activity into patterns. At ever more minute levels, the specific connections underlie the feature extraction processes going on in the brain. In a sense, the fact that neurons, at some point, activate represents the mechanics of actualizing information processing that we had already determined to take place in these neurons, based simply on how they are connected.
Depending on your viewpoint, when the neurons activate may prove important in these processes. Is timing then a peripheral phenomenon, since the most important observation is how these neurons are wired, or could the same wires actually transmit different “information”, depending on the sequence of activity? These are questions researchers continue to spend entire careers answering.
I can imagine a different investigator may have written the same book, but emphasize the ephemeral nature of neural ensembles where the real significance may lie in timing of the activity. In this case, the sequence of neurons firing, how their activity coincide, and the precise synapses activated in downstream neurons are just a few of the parameters that affect perception.
It isn’t a matter of discrediting one versus the other; it is just a point about presentation. In no way am I suggesting that the viewpoint put forth by Shepherd as deficient, merely that he probably made an editorial decision to provide a coherent framework for the edification of non-scientists. I really admire this book, as an exemplar of a rigorous book meant for popular consumption. Most importantly, I feel that he has described the wealth of experimental detail about how current theories of olfaction and flavor perception were arrived at.