April 21, 2015
I have to start this with a confession of my own naiveté. I had read about a third of the way through Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife before I realized how directly linked it was to the marriage of George and Laura Bush. I had recognized certain parallels, of course. That the narrator, Alice Lindgren, had been an elementary school teacher and a librarian suggested some sort of Laura Bush connection. And, then, later on, after a disaster in the novel, I remembered vaguely that Laura Bush, when she was a teenager, had been in an automobile accident in which someone was killed. What I didn’t recall was that Laura Bush had been driving and that the person killed was a fellow high school student, a boy she was reputed to have a crush on. But then, when I realized that the two accidents, fictional and historical, were virtually identical, that they had both occurred in 1963, and that the two girls, Laura and Alice, were seventeen years old, the nature of the novel I was reading began to come through to me.
I’m not sure how I missed the furor American Wife occasioned when it was published in 2008. It was widely reviewed by well-known figures, Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times, for example. Maureen Dowd wrote a searching column about it. The author was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, where the host expressed curiosity about the experiences of a woman with a man’s name, because she had, herself, encountered incidents of that sort, “Terry” being often a man’s name, though not as exclusively so as “Curtis” (Ms. Sittenfeld replied wittily that she had at times been harshly criticized for trying to write in a woman’s voice when the text showed clearly that the author had no concept of how women felt and thought).
Anyway, all this I missed, and a good deal more. It just goes to show one can’t always keep up with the whole news.
Republicans and conservatives were infuriated, even though the portraits of the wife and husband in the novel seemed to me to be more nuanced and sympathetic than the portraits of George and Laura Bush we got from the news.
When I was most of the way through the book, I asked my wife if I could just read it as a novel and forget about the historical parallels. She told me not to be ridiculous, that of course I couldn’t. I guess she’s right, but I regret it to some extent because simply as a novel American Wife is quite moving.
The reviews generally followed a pattern. The novel was considered to be quite well done in the first half, or so. But then when Charlie Blackwell, the husband, advanced to the presidency things more or less fell apart. I didn’t think that was true. As I asked myself why I wasn’t in line with most of the reviewers, I came to see that they were judging American Wife strictly as a work of literary art whereas I was judging it as a book. What I care about in a book is not so much the level of artfulness attained as the readability. I hope I’m not dismissive of the importance of art. When, occasionally, I read something like a mystery by David Baldacci, the language comes across to me as so flat, and the dialogue so dopey, I can barely push though to find out what the plot is going to deliver. But when the language is vivid enough to carry the plot along, and even leave a few memorable phrases echoing in the mind, I conclude it has contributed the essential element of what it ought to give the story. I enjoy Henry James at times, but every novelist shouldn’t be trying to outdo James’s linguistic tangles for the sake of supposed subtlety.
In the final third of American Wife, for example, there’s a good deal of description about what it means to be the wife of a U.S. president and to endure the over-the-top fame which accompanies that position. I suppose one could see that kind of text as just filler -- an explanation that one might get just as well from a sociological treatise -- but, still, I thought it functioned effectively in moving towards the narrator’s conclusions about who she was, who her husband was, and the kind of love and devotion they were able to attain.
The novel, after all, is a story about caring deeply for someone whose behavior one doesn’t admire. Is that possible, and, if it is, how does one manage it? Can it be that someone’s personal life can be kept almost completely separate from his public existence?
I had a conversation with my daughter while I was musing over these questions and she remarked she had often noticed that people who are doing quite bad things in their professional activities are courteous and likable when she meets them, whereas people who are doing things she admires often turn out to be utter jerks in their personal interactions. I told her I had noticed the same thing myself, particularly when I first went to teach at an extremely do-gooder oriented college.
Despite the very obvious connections to the story of George and Laura Bush, American Wife, strangely, does manage to be a story of its own. It is set in Wisconsin, not in Texas, Alice Lindgren Blackwell seizes the courage, or the conviction, to do some things different from what Laura Bush ever did. There were features of Alice’s upbringing which seem not to have been present in Laura’s. It’s a kind of “what-if” story. What would it have meant if Laura Bush had been more like Alice Lindgren? Maybe not very much, but it’s impossible to know, and the impossibility makes the question intriguing.
Aside from directing our attention towards a particular presidential administration the novel also asks us to think about the function and meaning of privilege in America. Can we, should we, expect it to provide us with a model of culture, with something that deserves to be emulated? The answer here is an unequivocal no. The privileged are seen as decidedly lower, with respect to defensible values, than those who practice solid, stuffy, middle-class virtue. The rich are poorly read, vulgar, essentially thoughtless, and lacking in wit -- though they consider themselves to be hilarious. I’m not sure whether this is a valid picture of the country-club class, or not, but the manner in which Sittenfeld’s novel presents their lives pushes a reader to think it’s probable. That, obviously, isn’t a new theme but I do think it’s one that needs to be newly considered.
Who are the leaders of America, and why should they be followed? If American Wife causes some persons to ask those questions, then it’s a worthy book as well as being an entertaining novel.
March 19, 2015
Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle ranks high on the list of disturbing books I’ve read. Whether it should may be questionable. Still, for some reason, I found it really creepy. Maybe that was because I’ve always had a difficult time seeing much difference between Heaven and Hell, or between God and the Devil.
The title refers to the biggest corporation of the future, which has gobbled up all entities like Amazon, Face Book, Google, Twitter, and shaped them into one behemoth that’s going to take over the world for the good of everybody -- or, at least, almost everybody. The driving motto of The Circle is that “All that happens must be known.” Secrecy will be banned as a kind of theft, so that everyone will not only know what everybody else is doing but also will be able to experience anything that anyone else is experiencing. As a result all crime will be extinguished, because who would commit a crime that everyone in the world could see? There would be no possibility of getting away with it.
The details of how all this is going to happen are laid out so extensively they become wearying, but that, I suspect, was Eggers’s intention. The near-frantic iteration of The Circle enthusiasts’ thoughts gives readers a sense of the environmental character that’s being created. It’s maniacal in its happiness. It produces mental states akin to drug-induced euphoria.
The novel’s protagonist, a young woman named Mae, secures employment at The Circle through the intervention of a friend, and rapidly rises to be the company’s public voice. In the process she is willingly brain-washed to the point she becomes what would normally be thought of as insane. With little hesitation she sacrifices old friends and even her parents to the vision of the future The Circle promotes.
At the end of the novel, Mae sits in a hospital room with her friend Annie, who has been rendered catatonic by the strains The Circle put her under, and reflects that sooner or later she, herself, will again make contact with her parents, because they will have been forced to recognize the evil of “the selfish hoarding of life -- any corner of it, any moment of it.” Privacy for Mae has become the ultimate crime.
Is this a farcical exaggeration, or is it a prophecy? I suppose the novel can be read either way. But I confess the first note I took during my reading said this: “The buildup towards pure horror here is fairly effective. That’s because you can believe that something like this is coming -- and not only is coming but has to come.”
There has been much commentary over the past decades that tyrannies of the future will present themselves not with whips and dungeons, as in the past, but with the happiest of happy faces. They will cause us to celebrate our own slavery. Hence, they will be complete. To reach completion is, by the way, the overriding goal of The Circle. Think of what that would mean. With completion no one, ever again, could know what it had been to have an independent mind. Consequently, there would be no sense of loss.
As I was reading, I couldn’t help wondering what percentage of my fellow readers had shouted, “Yes! Yes!” to The Center’s initiatives. I’m pretty sure there had to be some. For them, the novel was likely neither a warning nor a satire. It was a plan for perfection.
In the most interesting review I’ve read, Margaret Atwood ended her essay with this sentence: “To live entirely in public is a form of solitary confinement” (New York Review, November 21, 2013). That’s true for a mind like Ms. Atwood’s and for virtually all the minds we have celebrated in the past. But what if the minds The Circle is promoting (and building) take hold of humanity? On the novel’s final page, Mae muses:
All of that would be, so soon, replaced by a new and glorious openness, a world of perpetual light. Completion was imminent, and it would bring peace, and it would bring unity, and all that messiness of humanity until now, all those uncertainties that accompanied the world before The Circle, would be only a memory.
Can we assume there’s something inherent in the human makeup that’s hostile to the world The Circle wishes to establish? Or is the human mind flexible enough to gravitate towards such a presumed perfection? No one knows the answers to these questions, and that’s because no answers based on adequate evidence are possible. In other words, it’s probably all up for grabs.
It seems almost certain that many people will continue to labor towards some utopia or other, and to believe that it constitutes our destiny. Cheering it on becomes their primary duty. If you should be one of those peculiar enough not to want it, you’ll have to think hard about why it’s despicable, and even harder about how to thwart it. I think that’s the message Eggers, with The Circle, is delivering to us.
September 12, 2014
I seldom get into reading novels that TV series are based on. But after I watched the first two episodes of the Starz production of Outlander, there was something about them that suggested the book might be interesting. So I sent off for Diana Gabaldon’s gigantic novel and actually read the whole thing.
I had seen several reviews which praised the literary quality of Gabaldon’s series. I was skeptical because adventure tales that draw an immense readership don’t often display the subtleties of literary craftsmanship. But figured I should keep an open mind and see for myself. Now that I have seen, I’m still not sure how well Gabaldon’s talent will wear. I can say, though, that the quality of the writing is more complex than the effort exhibited in most popular novels.
Here is the first sentence (often a telltale sign): “It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.” It’s not up to Jane Austen’s beginnings, but there is promise and enough mystery to lead one on.
I suppose most readers who take up the novel know that the disappearance alluded to is out of one time, with a corresponding appearance in another. The times in this case are 1945 and 1743. Claire Randall, a recently discharged Royal Army nurse, is on a short holiday with her husband in northern Scotland, near Inverness. The trip is something of a second honeymoon because the war had kept Claire and her husband Frank apart through most of its duration. He is a historian who had been working in intelligence operations whereas Claire had been closer to the front lines as a combat nurse. Now peace has come and they are happily looking forward to normal life. But normality is not what they’re going to get, of course. If it were we wouldn’t have this sort of novel.
Claire is an avid amateur botanist. One day while visiting a circle of standing stones about ten miles outside Inverness, she noticed some flowers she couldn’t confidently identify. That night she tried to look them up in a handbook of plants, but still couldn’t be sure. So Frank suggested it would be easy enough for her to drive back to the circle and collect some samples the next morning while he was meeting with a local historian.
Claire found the flowers easily enough. The stones were just a short climb up from the road. While walking among them Claire noticed an object that seemed stuck on the back of one of the stones that was riven by a large cleft. When she reached out to touch the stone, all of a sudden she felt that she was “being slammed very hard against something that wasn’t there.” But actually nothing had moved. She was right where she had been before the terrifying experience. And yet she still felt she had been in “the heart of chaos.” Once she regained some composure she walked back down the hill to find her car. But the car wasn’t there, and, in fact, neither was the road. And thus begins the adventure.
It’s an adventure that goes on for eight hundred more pages, and involves complications and dangers even more radical than Claire had encountered during the Second World War. I can’t detail the plot here, other than to say that she meets a young Scotsman, marries him for complicated political reasons, falls in love with him, perhaps not until after the marriage, and faces dangers and physical pummeling that sometimes place her on the verge of death. The Highlands of Scotland in the 18th Century was not a genteel place. And yet, there’s a charm there too, and an intensity, which increasingly envelop Claire and leave her feeling that she cannot abandon it and the husband it contains, not even to return to her 20th Century life which continues to pull powerfully on her emotions.
The question becomes, is there anything here more than moderately entertaining escape literature? My uncertain judgment at the moment is, yes. The most obvious element that goes beyond the norm for this brand of writing is a decent degree of historical accuracy. Ms. Gabaldon has become a fairly good amateur historian, who can describe the social history of the era not only realistically but in a manner which conveys the flavor of existence. Readers can reasonably believe they are taking in what it felt like to enjoy a meal in the hall of a clan chieftain, to walk into the kitchen of a small castle, to watch horses being trained at the clan stables, to sense the pain of sickness and injury at that time. The historical backdrop conveys a confidence that there is something actual be learned from digesting the tale.
The characters are carefully drawn. We know what makes them laugh and what makes them angry. We can see them playing word games with one another. We can understand the intrigue and manipulation going on behind the scenes. We know, pretty much, who can be trusted, and who is loyal beyond common behavior.
There’s little doubt, though, that the feature which holds most fans is the sex. It’s not cheap, but it is fairly graphic, and in several cases it plumbs the depths of psychological perversity. I have read critics who have announced that this is what it’s really like. That assessment depends, of course, on the person making it. But I don’t think it’s purely melodramatic to conclude that what the two main characters say to each other about what they are feeling has much that’s genuine about it. When Claire decides to stay in the 18th Century at a moment when she appears to have a real chance of returning to the 20th, there is no doubt that the sexual wealth she has accrued makes up a significant element of her choice.
Though I remain unsure about the lasting quality of the tale, I wouldn’t warn anyone away from it. For one thing, if you find yourself liking it, you have many hours of pleasure in front of you, even though some of it may also make you shudder.
July 26, 2014
The thesis of Milan Kundera’s novel Slowness is that there is an alliance, on the one hand, between slowness and remembering and, on the other, between speed and forgetting.
This is true. I have noticed among my own acquaintances that those who are focused always on doing something have virtually no memory at all. Most of them can’t remember even a phone number. That’s why they are obsessed with having with them an electronic implement containing the practical information they need to get through the day. They do manage, somehow, to maintain the memory that the implement exists and that they can use it to make phone calls.
In our world, says Kundera, “a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.” I could make a fairly long list of aging men who have told me they are terrified of retirement because then they will have nothing to do. They have forgotten that the purpose of retirement is to have nothing to do. They have forgotten how to imagine the blessing in that. They have, in truth, forgotten how to imagine anything. That’s why inactivity frightens them so much.
One of Kundera’s characters is Potevin, who has devised the concept of the dancer, the stereotypical character of modernity. The dancer is an exhibitionist in public life, and he has no thought of living anywhere else except in public space. There he can be seen doing, and being seen by the public is the purpose of human existence. I think often of a movie character played by Nicole Kidman who announced repeatedly that you’re nobody if you’re not on TV. I knew when first I heard her judgment that there was something profound in it but I wasn’t yet aware that the sentiment would become the overweening curse of the future.
Kundera reminds us that Epicurus commanded his disciples to live hidden lives. This nowadays would be seen as blasphemy, that is if there were anyone who remembered who Epicurus was.
The loss of memory is also the loss of beauty because beauty depends on form, and without memory life is formless. As Kundera says, “What is formless cannot be grasped or committed to memory.”
Slowness is an expanded disquisition on an earlier novel, Point de lendemain, written by Vivant Denon, a grand 18th century intellectual phenomenon (who is remembered now by almost no one). Denon made scant effort to publicize (as we would now say) his story, leading Kundera to “imagine that the audience he cared about ... was not the mass of strangers today’s writer covets but the little company of people he might know personally and respect.” Just think, if one didn’t publicize his novel, then he couldn’t go on book tours and have thirty second conversations with hundreds, perhaps, thousands, of people, none of whom he will remember.
The author’s purpose is to become famous, to be interviewed, to be talked about, to have his life scrutinized by persons who, for him, have no faces. Thus he becomes, as Kundera reminds us, “a public resource, like sewer systems, like Social Security, like insane asylums.” But then Kundera carries on to caution that he who becomes famous can be useful “only on condition of remaining truly beyond reach.” In other words, the price of fame is to be known genuinely and honestly by no one.
I see that, so far, I have made Slowness sound somber, maybe even gloomy. So that’s a mistake I now have to correct. It’s a quite funny book. People who are dancers are also objects of great fun. In the first place, they are persons whose anguish we don’t have to worry about because they suffer from utterly silly concerns. One of the characters, Vincent, is trying to seduce a young woman he has just met, and who seems to be perfectly willing to succumb to Vincent’s efforts. But poor Vincent has fallen into long descriptions of the works of Sade, not because he hopes to corrupt the young woman, but as a way of forgetting a man he had encountered five minutes earlier who not only insulted him but exacerbated the insult by wearing a three-piece suit. It’s the suit, perhaps more than the insult, which is torturing Vincent and causing him to worry that he will not be able to achieve the erection necessary for his current plans. He finally tries to get out of the predicament by leading the young woman to the hotel’s swimming pool, directing her to undress, and then attempting intercourse at the pool side. The important thing for Vincent is not that they will be seen, but that they are situated where they can be seen. Yet his musings about arranging this dancer-charged setup get in the way of the more mundane functions he is supposed to perform. In the end the whole business gets so frustrating the only thing Vincent can think to do is get on his motorcycle and race away as rapidly as possible in hopes of inducing the forgetting which is his basic motive.
If we take Vincent as the symbol of the future we are hurtling towards by forgetting almost everything, we also see that our busyness carried with it an anodyne. We don’t sympathize with Vincent. How would that be possible? So as we forget how to sympathize the likelihood of being hurt by misfortune diminishes. We can’t remember the lives of others sufficiently to be damaged by their agonies. They become like the pictures of starving children in Africa with flies in their eyes. We see them, feel a quick spasm of regret, and then forget them as we hurry away to our dinner reservation, and maybe a concert after that, and perhaps on to a bar after that, so on, racing, racing, racing into the future by always having something else to do. It’s life as an appointment book.
It’s great, I guess, if you really can forget.
Intruder in the Dust
June 25, 2014
In the late 1940s, William Faulkner was concerned that his literary career was winding down. He knew that other writers had gained success, of sorts, with mystery thrillers which later were translated into movie scripts so he decided to make a venture in that vein. The result was Intruder in the Dust.
Although the novel fulfilled Faulkner’s basic intentions -- he did manage to sell the movie rights for a fair sum -- it was not warmly received by most critics and I think it continues to be regarded as one of Faulkner’s lesser efforts. On the other hand, though it was, so far as its plot was concerned, a mystery tale, it nonetheless came from William Faulkner and consequently didn’t exhibit the style of composition most fans of that genre seek out. For one thing, the stream-of-consciousness narration made it much harder to understand than is expected in light entertainment.
The plot itself is not ingenious. In fact, if one wanted to be sharp he could say it is based on a fairly stock situation. A black man in a small Mississippi town is accused of killing a white man, and given the habits of that time and place is assumed, without any doubt, to be guilty. In truth, he’s in danger of being lynched, and several of the characters, even those opposed to lynching, think that the mob murder is almost inevitable. He is saved by an unlikely trio, two teenaged boys, one white, one black, and a rather straitlaced, if eccentric, lady approaching eighty years of age.
I don’t need here to explain how they did it. Obviously, they had to succeed in order for the story to work, but the significance of the novel lies not in how the plot developed but rather in the observations of the characters about the social setting, the pathologies it reflected, and the possibilities of reform.
All the characters accept as a given that they live in a deeply racist world. And the major characters would prefer it not be that way though that condition has been such a normal part of their lives they have a hard time imagining anything different.
The major philosophic voice of the novel is the teenaged narrator’s uncle, who is also the lawyer representing the accused, though in the beginning he assumes the man’s guilt like everyone else. He has been educated outside the South but he sees himself as so thoroughly rooted in the region he can’t imagine existing as anything other than a native son. Gavin Stevens is the character’s name and he appears in several other of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels. He has been viewed by numerous critics as Faulkner’s voice. Though I think that’s too simplistic a reading, Stevens does, in Intruder in the Dust, express a number of sentiments that mimic statements Faulkner made about the South’s racial situation.
The main concept of what needed to be done Faulkner expressed this way: “The premise being that the white people in the South, before the North or the Govt. or anybody else must pay a responsibility to the negro.” In other words, it’s up to Southern whites to rectify the wrongs black people have traditionally suffered in the South, and if that effort is made by anybody from outside the region the results will be bad for everyone involved and, in fact, bad for the whole nation.
This is an attitude that would generally be viewed as twisted now and, probably, to some extent, racist. This current assessment may be correct in a number of ways, but, on the other hand, it’s worth recalling that little in the realm of ideas is perfect and that Faulkner put forward judgments that repay consideration even if one decides, finally, not fully to sign onto them.
Gavin Stevens pronounces the main theory succinctly, “So it will have to be with us. The Yankees can’t or won’t do it.” One, of course, is led to ask, “what’s wrong with having the Yankees do some of it?” And the answer is that when the Yankees introduce reform, they also insert their own basic values which are corrupt and vulgar. When you get Yankee reform, according to Stevens (and, perhaps, Faulkner) you may get some good things but the cheapness that comes with it is more weighty. Faulkner, you see, thought the South was flawed in many ways but at least it wasn’t cheap.
Here is Stevens’s assessment of the Yankee imports: “all the spurious uproar produced by men deliberately fostering and then getting rich on our national passion for the mediocre: who will accept the best provided it is debased and befouled before it is fed to us.” The two-thirds of a century since Intruder in the Dust was published should have taught us something about the national passion for the mediocre. After all, what is the primary product that rose from grafting what Stevens would have called Yankee ways onto a Southern mentality? It’s hard to ask that question and keep the mind from flowing naturally towards Bentonville, Arkansas.
You can almost perceive Stevens as a genuine prophet when you hear this concern about danger on the way: “to be threatened by a mass of people who no longer have anything in common save a frantic greed for money and a basic fear of failure of national character which they hide from one another behind a loud lipservice to a flag.” Remember this past Memorial Day when all the major league baseball players wore camouflage caps? I doubt Gavin Stevens would have been surprised by that.
It probably wouldn’t have been wise to follow Stevens and Faulkner all the way. But it’s not wise to forget them either.
The Transhumanist Wager
January 14, 2014
Zoltan Istvan’s novel about how a transhumanist society might come into being is an interesting book, which is not to say it’s an exemplary work of fiction. The latter it is not. The dialogue is mostly flat and tiresome, the characters are one-dimensional, the plot is fantastic. Yet the idea behind the book is fascinating.
What is transhumanism? It’s a future development when humans will break free of the age-old biological and social restraints which have made the human story up till now more a tragedy than a tale of confident adventure. Sentient life will no longer be confined to the short reach biology imposes on it. Mental existence will no longer be limited by the confines of an organic brain. Emotional experience will have new and heretofore unimagined opportunities.
Is such a condition possible? No one knows for sure of course. But a great many intelligent, thoughtful and imaginative persons think it is, and many are working on bringing a new form of intelligent life into being. Zoltan Istvan is one of them.
The transhumanist term being most frequently tossed about now is “the singularity.” It means the moment when non-biological organisms become self-aware and therefore start making plans for themselves and manipulating material in their own interests. It is the time when what is now called artificial intelligence becomes self-regulating intelligence. That, of course, won’t be possible unless humans cause it to happen. Should they do such a thing? The struggle to answer that question, one way or another, forms the plot of Istvan’s story.
Are there dangers in moving towards a transhumanist future? One would have to be an idiot not to recognize there are. Istvan is not an idiot. He knows there are dangers. That’s where the wager comes in. People will not only have to be careful, they will have to gamble that a future freed of biological restraints and limits can be superior to what we have now. But Istvan is more than ready to make that bet.
Istvan’s protagonist -- and hero, I guess -- is Jethro Knights. He is an admirable character in many ways but I think no one could deny that he’s a fanatic. The question the tale presents us with is whether a fanatic can ever be genuinely valuable. Nikola Danaylov, the host of Singularity Weblog, put that question directly to Istvan in an hour-long interview last April, and Istvan didn’t hesitate to say that Jethro, the founder of a transhumanist nation in the novel, was fashioned to be an ideal person. Istvan, though, also acknowledged that many readers despise Jethro and see him as a monster. When you think about it, how could it be otherwise? Jethro wants humanity to go beyond itself, to become something it has never been before, and in that process to trash many of the attitudes and artifacts that have heretofore been considered the essence of civilization.
Zoltan Istvan has a naive view of literary art. He argues that in order to make his work artful he had to set it up as a melodramatic clash of extremes. The good guys, the transhumanists, are opposed by conservative, religious forces that make Pat Robertson and his ilk look like progressive champions. Their leader, the creator of a relatively new organization called the Redeem Church, has scooped at least a quarter of the U.S. population into his net, including the president and leading senators. He is a charismatic figure, clothed always in flowing robes with golden embroidery on the sleeves, who presents himself as the defender of God’s timeless ways who will do anything to defeat the godless hordes of transhumanism. And when the Reverend Belinas says anything, he means just that. He is sincere enough to have no qualms about murder, torture and assassination.
In the novel’s climactic scene, when Jethro strangles Belinas to death, you have to say the reverend more than had it coming.
In the interview, Danaylov told Istvan that he loved the first third of the novel and hated the final two-thirds. If one is taking the book as a work of literary art, that’s not a bad criticism. But literature in the traditional sense is not Istvan’s purpose. He wrote a tract and put it in the form of a novel to attract readers. The book is peppered with long, and sometimes tiresome, disquisitions from Jethro, explaining to the public why transhumanism is the only healthy path to the future. Some of these might be okay as separate essays; others, I suspect, are too repetitious to hold most readers’ attention. The most gripping elements of them are Jethro’s take on present conditions and why they are intolerable. He says of the United States, for example:
America is a nation of submissive, dumbed-down, codependent, faith-minded zombies obsessed with celebrity gossip, buying unnecessary goods, and social- izing without purpose on their electronic gadgets. The crazy thing is that people don’t even know it; they still think they’re free. Everywhere people have been made into silent accomplices in the government’s twisted control game. In the end, there’s no way out for anyone.... The American Dream has become a death sentence of drudgery, consumerism, and fatalism: a garage sale where the best of the human spirit is bartered away for comfort, obedience, and trinkets. It’s unequivocally absurd.
Jethro’s a bit harsh, perhaps, but he’s not completely off the mark.
The Transhumanist Wager, whether we like it or not, is a book that will last. It’s in on the ground floor of a movement that’s not going away because it’s rising from scientific developments that can’t be stopped. They might be slowed down by religious beliefs and government timidity. But there’s too much force behind them, and too much curiosity and fascination pulling them, to permit them to disappear.
Zoltan Istvan’s vision of what a transhumanist future will bring is unlikely to be realized. But elements of it will come to be. And his conviction that we have reached a point where humanity has to change its ways dramatically is almost certain to be confirmed.
July 29, 2013
I’ve been hearing about David Baldacci for years, one of the hottest authors in America, with novels coming out annually, and all of them selling millions of copies. This guy must have some distinctive quality, I said to myself. So when I got a chance to pick up several of his novels for practically nothing at our local library sale, I decided to try him out.
I started with Saving Faith.
I guess it would be too strong to say I was astounded, but I don’t think surprised and dismayed would be out of order. David Baldacci is a seriously bad writer.
In the first few pages I learned that Robert Thornhill, the villain, had no thought of going out quietly and that he hated the FBI with all his soul. I also learned that Lee Adams, the hero, came out of the woods after a punishing trek, that he was exceptionally strong, and that he believed that when God punched your ticket he did so with authority.
Language of this kind, smeared over 450, pages can’t be endured, I thought. I set the book aside, thinking I wouldn’t pick it up again. But then I did. Was it because I began to see something in the text I hadn’t seen before? I don’t think so. The text was pretty steady all the way through. The answer I think is that curiosity got the best of me, but not curiosity about what was going to happen in the story. The outcome of the plot was obvious from the start. No, the puzzle I wanted to sort out was why millions would want to read a book like this?
If all you’re seeking from a book is effortless entertainment, then why go to the labor of reading? You can get entertainment from television and, actually, with more wit and irony included. Most writers for TV series are better than Baldacci. If you were to compare Saving Faith with the A&E series, The Glades, starring Australian actor Matt Passmore as a former Chicago police detective gone South, you would find the TV show has more complicated plots and far more gripping dialogue than the novel does.
I doubt that easy entertainment can be the answer to Baldacci’s success. So what is? I can think of only two things. One is interesting and the other is scary.
The single element of quality I was able to find in Saving Faith was a driving cynicism about the people who conduct the nation’s affairs. The novel depicts a Washington that’s an even more noxious stew of corruption than the one we get from reading the newspapers. The plot turns on the shenanigans of a high-ranking CIA official -- the aforementioned Robert Thornhill -- who has concocted a scheme to get the Congress to give the CIA more money, more independence, and more secrecy, by bribing and blackmailing senators and members of the House. When Thornhill learns that a bright young lobbyist named Faith Lockhart -- thus the title -- is testifying to the FBI in a way that might bring down some of the legislators he has in his pocket, he decides she has to be killed. And since she has been hanging out with the FBI, any FBI agents with her at the time of the murder have to be killed also. Thornhill admits this is regrettable, but, as he reminds his co-conspirators, the good of the nation requires sacrifice. This is the sort of thing Thornhill has been doing throughout his career.
Mixed with this rampant cynicism, though, are occasional remarks to assure us that despite the surging filth inundating the nation’s capital, everything somehow works out in the end so that democracy remains secure and that the nation remains grand. How this fits with a depiction which includes no hint of genuine democracy and a nation busily engaged in destroying the lives of millions around the globe is not explained.
The implication, I suppose, is that there is always some good guy like Lee Adams around, who’s also exceptionally strong, to thwart men like Robert Thornhill, who really are patriots, and also quite sophisticated, but who have gone a little off the track. We are regularly reminded that Thornhill is a Yale man, which set me to wondering if Yale should institute a required course on moral balance for all its students.
Anyway, back to the appeal of the contradiction. I suspect it’s a contradiction that many Americans like. They like to imagine a national government in which people are doing terrible things incessantly but which manages to bumble through. It’s a melodramatic notion, and it appears to be the fate of the United States to be the melodramatic capital of the universe. Why that is our fate I do not know.
Onward to the scary feature. The language in the book is so flat, and so devoid of meaning that the characters also have to be flat and devoid of meaning. If they do engage the emotions it can be no more than a flitting thing. It’s hard for me to imagine why -- other than temporary melodramatic seizure - anyone should care whether Lee Adams and Faith Lockhart get together in the end. And yet, that’s what the story purports to be aiming towards. So why is that scary? It forces me to wonder if the relationship between Lee and Faith is the sort of relationship many people covet, and also, if the manner in which Lee and Faith speak to one another is the sort of conversation people think they would like to have with those they love.
I read an article this morning which claimed that Americans are, by far, the most anxious people on earth. If characters like Lee and Faith are serving as models for a goodly number of us, it’s no wonder.
July 5, 2012
Two years ago when Jonathan Franzen's big new novel, Freedom, came out, it was heralded as a stupendous literary achievement. It seemed as though everybody important was reading it. Then, after a bit, the comments cooled. Quite a few critics announced it wasn’t up to his previous sensation, The Corrections.
I am seldom willing to pay the price for a new hardback novel, so instead of leaping on the new big thing, I decided to read The Corrections to get some sense of what Jonathan Franzen was about. I found it to be a readable novel, displaying considerable talent, but with a general sensibility that troubled me to some degree. The feature that may have bothered me most was Franzen’s propensity to use excruciatingly long lists of things -- such as the entire contents of a closet -- to portray cultural reality. The device may work to some extent, but it can be annoying. It makes life appear drab, as though human existence were little more than a three-year-old leaky toothpaste tube. But, then, maybe that was his whole point.
Now I have read Freedom and so can weigh in on the comparative quality of the two books. The first thing to be said is that they are quite similar, which is not surprising. Some critics have said the only thing Franzen can write about is middle-class Midwestern life. But all in all I think the latter novel is superior, primarily because it has more memorable characters.
Freedom is about the Berglund family -- Walter and Patty, plus their children Jessica and Joey -- and the people they meet, and interact with, and have sex with, lots of sex, over about a thirty year period from the later 1970s up until near the beginning of the Obama administration. The story is set mainly in Minnesota, but with sizable excursions to New York, Washington, New Jersey and Virginia.
I suppose you could say it’s a happy story -- in the end. Yet there’s so much agonizing to get to the end the main impression it leaves on the reader is misery. The only way to avoid the misery is to conclude that these people are not worth caring about because they are abominably stupid. It's not very easy to swallow that judgment, though, because in the midst of a flood of foolish decisions and ill-considered remarks, the characters manage to pump out a host of intelligent comments and engage in sprightly and amusing conversations.
The novel is strongly political, and I can imagine that one of the pleasures of writing it was the opportunity it gave to construct political analyses of the controversies in American public debate, analyses which are far more intelligent and penetrating than anything you’re likely to encounter in newspapers. Here, for example, is what one the characters says during an informal conference to talk about the problem of overpopulation:
Capitalism can’t handle talking about limits, because the whole point of capitalism is the restless growth of capital. If you want to be heard in the capitalist media, and communicate in a capitalist culture, overpopulation can’t make any sense. It’s literally nonsense. And that’s your real problem.
There are dozens of quick assessments like this scattered through the text, and most of them work to make the point that it’s not hard to see what’s wrong, or to devise processes of improvement. But the human capital America has accumulated is not only too ignorant and stupid to make use of these insights, it’s also too resentful, indignant, bedeviled by an unacknowledged sense of inferiority, and consumed by hatred. If there’s one thing Freedom is conclusive about it’s that America’s problems are political and that they’re insoluble, given who Americans are. I guess that’s good to know, but it adds mightily to the drabness of the overall scene.
In the midst of the horror of the social environment, sex is the primary relief. There’s a lot of sex in Freedom, and it’s described graphically, you might even say disgustingly. As a consequence, it’s not sexy. Obviously, a novel doesn’t have to have sexy sex to be enjoyable -- though it sometimes helps. But I think a novel should, if it’s going to deal with sex at all, offer the reader a view of what sex is, or can be. In this respect, Franzen is, for me, a mystery. I can’t tell whether he thinks his sex scenes are sexy or not. If what he’s trying to say is that sex is merely pathetic, then that’s okay. But he leaves us dangling between a view of sex as the meaning of life and sex as something delusional and dirty. Maybe that’s a tension he wants to promote. If it is, though, it’s again an element that promotes drabness.
I’m not sure you can achieve what’s commonly called greatness in literature by presenting humanity exclusively as a neurotic sea of longing that can almost never be realized. The most positive message you get from Freedom is that despite existence as pathos, life goes on. Is that enough?
Franzen has talents; there’s no doubt about that. I’m not sorry I spent time -- quite a bit of it, actually -- reading his two most famous novels. But I’m not sure I’ll be eager to read the next one that comes along.
June 5, 2012
I bought Elizabeth Kostova’s novel The Historian off a remainder table several months ago because the price was low and I recalled its being spoken of a few years back as one of the big books of the year. I vaguely remembered that it had something to do with delving into ancient manuscripts which seemed like a promising feature for a story. I didn’t know that it was a vampire novel. If I had I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Vampires are not a subject which have perfectly seized my interest.
In fact, I didn’t realize it was a vampire novel until I had got about fifty pages into it and then it seemed like I had gone too far to turn back. So I ploughed on through to the end, a total of 642 pages. I can’t say I’m sorry I did. It’s a somewhat sprightly tale. And at times it approaches what I guess is the main goal of vampire stories, that is, inducing a sense of horror.
Yet, as a novel, it left me doubtful about its literary quality. The characters didn’t strike me as being well-developed or fully understandable. Furthermore, its depiction of scholarship, which was supposed to be of a world-class character, seemed a bit simplistic. For me, its best feature was as a travelogue of southeastern Europe, particularly of places in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. I don’t know how accurate the depictions are but they convey a sense of a world still more rooted in ancient traditions than anything you can find in Western Europe or the United States.
The plot, though unrolled with a vast number of details, is at its heart quite simple. Vlad III, a 15th century ruler of Wallachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler, managed after his death in 1476 to preserve himself as a vampire. Then, for the next five centuries he went about building up a network of vampire servants, all of whom were connected to books and scholarship in some way, so they could assist Vlad collect the greatest library in the world, one that was particularly rich in vampire lore. This novel is about a small number of people who have been marked by Vlad for inclusion in his empire. But this, of course, you don’t find out until you’re about ninety percent of the way through the novel. Vlad, of course, was the model for the biggest vampire story of all history, Bram Stoker’s late 19th century best seller, Dracula (which was the family name of the Wallachian dynasty).
That’s as much as I need to say about The Historian in order to get to my main interest here, which is the question of why vampires have become so fascinating in the early 21st century. I don’t suppose there’s anybody who really believes in vampires (though about that, I can’t be perfectly sure), so why do they attract the attention they do?
True, they have the potential for immortality, provided they can avoid wooden stakes, silver bullets, crosses, and perhaps garlic, though I’ve never been certain whether that pungent root is actually lethal or merely unpleasant for the vampire breed.
I’m not sure if vampires have a good time. They seem avid to keep themselves alive by drinking other people’s blood, but whether that makes them happy or not isn’t clear. Most of the time they strike me as a rather droopy brood.
In The Historian, Vlad himself was very proud of his commanding powers. And he lived quite sumptuously in the underground lairs he constructed for himself -- or had constructed. Vlad didn’t strike me as the sort of person -- or non-person -- who would dirty his hands with mining or carpentry. Yet, I couldn’t feel that pride alone was enough to make him happy.
Even so, there must be something appealing about the thought of being a vampire. Why else would there be so much writing and film-making about it? Could it be that the world is divided between people who would like to be vampires and those who are horrified by the thought? In vampire stories everyone, supposedly, fears being inducted into the vampire kingdom. But why? I tend to think that’s just goody-two-shoes talk.
One of the required features of vampire tales is a set of hints about whether the vampire has actually been vanquished. And The Historian remains true to that demand. But you’ll have to read right to the very end to find out about it, and even then, you can’t be sure.
The Red Badge of Courage
February 9, 2012
I'm pretty sure I previously read Stephen Crane’s classic about the Civil War, but I confess it was so long ago I can’t remember when. So when I read it again, over just the past several days, it was almost like a new book to me, and it held a few surprises.
For one thing, the education of the main character, the farm boy Henry Fleming, struck me as far more problematic than I remembered. I’m aware now that Stephen Crane was a very young man when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage, only twenty-four years old. So there’s little reason to expect that he would have attained a satisfying sense of character development. The novel presents Henry as having reached something grand as the result of two days of fighting. That’s scarcely a believable result, nor are the conclusions Henry came to especially enthralling.
Here’s the passage which explains Henry’s epiphany, so to speak:
He found that he could look back upon the brass and bombast of his earlier gospels and see them truly. He was gleeful when he discovered that he now despised them. With this conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, non- assertive but a sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
I suppose there’s something useful in this, but there’s also a great deal of nonsense. What had happened to Henry was that he had been in severe danger and he had been lucky. He had emerged without a scratch. Suppose a bullet had gone a few inches from where it did go and ripped into Henry’s entrails. If that had been the result, if he had been lying in agony on a filthy hospital bed, would he have been thinking tranquilly about “the great death?”
This is immature philosophy, and it serves to make war just one of those parts of life that one shouldn’t worry about too much. After all, as Henry muses, the great death is but the great death.
To be fair, I should note that some late 20th century critics found drafts of the novel with discarded elements containing a more ironic perspective on Henry’s conclusions than the final publication included. I don’t suppose we can know whether Crane left them out because of the publisher’s urging or because he, himself, decided against them. If he did drop them because he felt pressured by his publisher then we probably should credit him with finer qualities of mind than the book in its official version achieves. Here, I’m writing about the book, and about Crane as the author of the book. I certainly have no right to judge his overall intellect.
Crane could crank out some memorable metaphors, but in the midst of the cranking he overwrote badly at times. In the passage above, Henry felt “a sturdy and strong blood.” What do you suppose that means? Crane was doubtless evincing the influence of a melodramatic habit of his period, the notion that one’s character flows in his blood. We shouldn’t blame him harshly for being a creature of his times, especially since he didn’t live long enough, to rise completely above its less than brilliant usages. But The Red Badge of Courage, though it is generally considered a radical step into realism, still contains quite a bit of the verbosity of a dying romanticism. I suppose we should ask, how could it not?
On the realism front: though some depiction of the soldiers’ suffering is fairly graphic, it certainly doesn’t reach the detailed savagery that has become fairly common today. As a consequence, though Crane speaks of “the heat and pain of war,” he still falls short of its full atrocity.
By far, the strongest feature of the novel is how the soldiers talk and behave to one another in the midst of their marching, and camping, and facing the enemy. The book is effective in describing the utter confusion of war, the way rumors run amok, the way reputations transmogrify almost instantly, the way petty quarrels can escalate to something just about as intense as the struggle with the enemy, and most of all, how the individual soldier has no sense of the overall situation in which he is involved. The novel is supposedly set in the battle of Chancellorsville. As Henry and his friend march away from their involvement they are confident they have scored a victory because in the particular element of the battle in which they participated, they were fairly successful. But their army had suffered a significant defeat. And at the moment, it doesn’t really matter to them.
The Red Badge of Courage is certainly a readable tale. The characters are, for the most part engaging, the action is engrossing. It was a brilliant achievement for so young an author. But one should not go to it expecting to find a definitive explanation of combat in the American Civil War, and certainly not a balanced assessment of war itself.
July 26, 2011
Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel Admission is a strangely bifurcated product, one part very nearly an extended essay on a bureaucratic process, the other a psychological tale of repressed but aching emptiness.
The bureaucratic process is the system of admission to highly selective colleges, and in particular to Princeton. The psychology story involves a young woman who works as an admissions officer at the New Jersey university. It’s not that the two parts are not connected. Admissions work has become a substitute for everything else in the life of Portia Nathan, the novel’s heroine -- using that term loosely. But many other types of work could function similarly in the predicament Portia has endured during virtually all her adult life.
She did something when she was twenty years old -- I won’t tell you what it was except to say it wasn’t criminal -- which threw her into an emotional stasis which she assumed could last for the rest of her life. Yet it’s obvious from the beginning of the novel that her assumption was incorrect.
Viewed from the outside, Portia is a highly successful young woman of thirty-eight. She has an important job which she likes and at which she is very good. She has a quiet but satisfying link with a likable man which has persisted for sixteen years. She enjoys the small everyday pleasures of life in a university town, the good coffee shop, the faculty dinners, the get-aways with her colleagues to admissions conferences, where they can gossip happily about how standards of acceptance are evolving in the selective universities. But, then, there is the thing, hiding there in her barely conscious thoughts and her dreams.
For fully half the novel however the thing, though hinted at, doesn’t play much of a role. The plot is devoted mainly to Portia’s defense of how admissions are conducted in the face of numerous criticisms and misunderstandings by persons who think the Ivy League remains no more than a bastion of privilege and snobbery. And we have to admit that Portia does a good job defending what she and her colleagues do. She is articulate, very sure of herself, and quite idealistic in a way. Still, there’s something wrong with her position, and in that wrongness lies one of the novels true mysteries. Does the author know there is something wrong with Portia’s stance or does she, herself, advocate it? She is after all -- Ms. Korelitz that is -- married to a Princeton professor, and for a couple of years before writing Admission, she worked as an outside reader for the admission office at the university. You can read the entire novel and not be sure where Ms. Korelitz stands on the issue. And perhaps that’s as it should be.
She does say, repeatedly, that admissions workers are do-gooders, and that term, of course, often has a double meaning. The novel is in many ways a disquisition on doing good, and both the author and her main character appear to be in a state of tension about that practice. And we can certainly say that’s as it should be. In any case, if you have any interest in how the prominent universities acquire their students, Admission is worth reading for that subject alone.
When we turn to Portia’s inner condition we confront something even more puzzling than the worth of elite selection. Not only is Portia suffering from a vacancy, almost everyone she knows is suffering similarly. We have here a plethora of empty characters, most of them likable, and seemingly decent, but not the kind of people you would want commanding the platoon on your left flank. You can’t be sure where they’re going to be when trouble arises. Maybe Korelitz is simply telling us that’s the way people are, and in that respect she’s probably right. Yet, I suspect she’s trying to tell us something else also. I’m not sure what it is.
One of the fascinating minor portraits in the book is of Clarence, the director of admissions at Princeton. Throughout ninety percent of the novel he is presented as an intelligent, sensitive, decent, caring man. But, then, at the critical moment, he does something I regard as a deep failure. I came away from the reading disliking him intently. But should I dislike him? Wasn’t his action exactly what any ethical person’s should have been? Maybe my problem is I’m not high enough on ethical persons. I finished the book not sure what Ms. Korelitz thinks about Clarence and, again, perhaps that’s all right.
How much Portia engages one’s sympathy depends more of the reader than it does on Ms. Korelitz’s presentation. I came away liking her somewhat, but troubled. For one thing, I’m not sure how intelligent she is. At one point she ships an applicant’s essay off to a professor in the philosophy department because she can’t make sense of it and wants to know if the boy is simply blowing adolescent smoke. Yet the portion of the essay we are given is perfectly clear and indicates a precocious and fairly bright young man, perhaps not a genius but fully worthy of admission even to Princeton. What does that little episode tell us?
On the central, underlying, act, of Portia’s life we also confront a mystery. Why she did what she did isn’t perfectly clear to me. I guess you could say it was merely a form of escapism, but if that’s the explanation, it’s a desire to escape that appears to trump everything else in Portia’s character. Nor, at the end, can we be sure she has overcome it. She has made some gestures in that direction, though not enough to make me confident. We can go away thinking Portia will now live happily ever after. But perhaps not.
Admission is a very readable book, but I suspect mainly for those who are fascinated by the bizarre workings of the modern university. If you have even tripped briefly into the interior, you know that universities are very different from what they present themselves as being. I suppose all institutions are that way, but universities are that way in a neurotically Byzantine fashion.
It’s a novel I would recommend to a selected number of my friends. Maybe in that respect I would be behaving much as the Princeton admissions office does.
June 18, 2011
I don’t visit Barnes and Noble as often as I once did. At the store in Burlington, the inventory has declined considerably in quality. I’m less likely now to find books that tempt me than I was two years ago. Still, I do occasionally browse through the racks there and whenever I do, it sets my mind working on something.
Yesterday I was thinking about novels, the good of them, the use of them, the fun of them, and so forth. It’s a subject that attracts me now because I just brought my own novel into public view and so, naturally, I’ve been wondering how I might get people to read it, or, at least, look at it. In turn, that sets me to asking why they should give it any attention at all.
There are an ungodly number of novels. It seems, sometimes as if just about everybody has written one. Though that’s not true, the number is nonetheless daunting. They range widely in both quality and motive. A person’s reason for pumping a hundred thousand words, or so, into a story is deeply personal, though I suppose there are strong overlaps in purpose. I’ve know, for example, many people who wish to be known as writers. They write primarily so other people will recognize them for what they do. I don’t understand that desire but it’s evidently quite common. Among such persons it is also common to choose stories based on what they think people wish to read. The thought appears to go like this: people are interested in financial crime right now -- or whatever -- so I’ll write a novel about financial crime. It strikes me as a terribly industrious process. I would never have the dedication to try anything like that.
Other people are seized by a story. They may not know where it came from but once it floats into conceptualization, it creates a terrible compulsion to give it life. It doesn’t matter whether it’s about a popular topic. It doesn’t even matter if it’s important, in the normal definition of that word. It cries out somehow to be born. That’s the only sort of proceeding that would drive me actually to select thousands of words and force them into a sequence.
Yesterday I thumbed through a half-dozen novels or so, chosen mainly because they were lying flat on tables rather than stuck on shelves. And I found examples of both types.
If you consider Steven Saylor’s The Triumph of Caesar, which is described as a novel of ancient Rome, it’s hard to imagine its being a tale that had to be told. That’s not to say that it might not be interesting and enjoyable. But I doubt it came to life through compulsion. You could say the same thing about Cody McFayden’s The Darker Side, which tells the story of Smoky Barrett, a cracker-jack female FBI agent, who is so driven to solve a series of wicked crimes that she, herself is tempted to do wicked things. Any novel whose heroine is named “Smoky” is likely to be of the reader-seeking character.
I skimmed through Days of Gold by Jude Deveraux, a “sweeping” historical romance set in Scotland in the 18th century. Scotland has been romantic for a long time. I suppose Mark Twain would blame Walter Scott for it, but that’s probably not the whole answer. In any case, the romantic Scotland of two centuries ago, worked up by an American writer, may well make for an entertaining yarn, but I doubt it was dragged out of Jude by irrepressible urges. Since she’s the author of thirty-seven New York Times best sellers, an irresistible drive would have depleted her had it been at work in all her books.
On the other side, I glanced through A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman. It tells the story of several women in Sri Lanka. The cursory look I gave it can’t tell me for sure whether it’s a better novel than Days of Gold but I confess I suspect it is. A novel that rises from the desire to tell is not automatically going to be better than one coming from the desire to sell books for the author, but all in all I think the telling category will generally turn out more memorable stories than the selling category will.
Anyway, all the time I was looking at these novels, I was asking myself why someone should read Adair Street (my own effort) [link] rather than them. It’s hard to construct an argument in my favor. To the degree I can do it, it is based on the memorable quality. I guess I can force myself to be immodest enough to think that, for the average reader, the characters and events of Adair Street will last longer in the mind than the incidents of a hot FBI agent on the edge of going wild. But, I have to admit, I’m prejudiced. Also, I know Adair Street quite a bit better than I know The Darker Side. So though I’m reasonably confident, I would certainly understand dissenting views. Besides, my confidence has nothing to do with getting people to read Adair Street. That’s a different process from any I’ve talked about here. I wish I were better versed in that process but I’m not sure I have the kind of self-promotional ethos to become an expert.
I do think novel reading is a healthy practice. Even if one is reading simply for entertainment, what he or she takes away from digesting a novel is likely to be more fulfilling than the results of watching a TV show. But that, too, is a controversial opinion. In the end I can only hope that you’ll read Adair Street, but that you’ll read other novels in addition to it. Just make it first.
June 7, 2011
The reason there has been a break in my postings here is I’ve been in the toils of trying to bestow the blessings of correct grammar -- such as they are -- on the text of my novel, Adair Street. I went ahead with a preliminary printing, thinking the text was reasonable if not perfect. I was quickly cured of that notion. Errors began to pop up everywhere. Though most of them were minor, misplaced commas and so forth, I couldn’t abide the number of them. So I set out with the help of my family to produce a “corrected” text that would be as near-perfect as we could make it. I’ve been through this process before, of course. I know how onerous it is. But doing it this time has set me to thinking about grammar more inquiringly than I have before.
The truth is that the text we were working on, though considerably flawed, was perfectly readable. A number of my friends read through the novel and noticed almost nothing wrong with it. Others, though they did notice a few mistakes, didn’t find that they interfered with understanding the book. So why was I so appalled?
One reason, obviously, was simple habit. I have spent many hours of my life -- actually far too many -- trying to help students produce acceptable academic papers, and one feature of such works is that they are expected to be grammatical. It doesn’t seem right for me not to apply the same rules to myself that I have tried so vigorously to apply to others.
Another reason was that though most readers don’t care about grammar, unless it’s so egregious as to interfere with the story or theme, some readers do care. I have no wish to offend the latter.
Then, naturally enough, there is my own sense of persnicketiness.
I’m aware that great writers of the past paid little attention to standard usage. Jane Austen spelled words in all sorts of ways and employed punctuation in a manner that would drive a modern grammarian to distraction, as did Thomas Jefferson and even the Great Cham himself. Correctness is not, by itself, going to allow anyone to stand on a level with them. Yet today we say things have to be right.
If one were to write a history of the comma since the beginning of English literacy, he would be laying out at least a life’s task. And when he had finished what would he have? Actually, little more than a barrage of pedantry. I had a message from a reader a few months ago telling me that he would like to show my essays to his students for the quality of their thought but that he could not do it because of certain errors pertaining to commas I often fell into. I was both grateful and annoyed. I was glad to take his advice -- after I had checked it out -- about a particular comma use, but on the other hand, he seemed terribly moralistic about something that is, after all, nothing but a matter of contemporary convention.
As far as I can tell, recent style has turned away from using commas in places the Victorians almost always put them. I have no sense that one mode is better than the other. I can discover no moral evolution in language. When writing dialogue, I have an inclination to place commas at points where I think a speaker would naturally pause. I have been told that’s not a valid rule, but on the other hand it seems to be okay in certain instances. Exactly what those instances are I have seen no one explain cogently.
Like everyone else, I have certain crotchets, some logically defensible, others merely eccentric or personal. In the former category is proper use of “lie” and “lay.” These are different verbs, one transitive and the other intransitive. The distinction between them is easy to understand and significant. Yet they are misused constantly in public speech, most often when someone speaks of “laying down beside someone else.” Maybe it’s unfair of me, but when I hear anyone say that, I place him or her, instantaneously, in the category of the ill-educated. More personal are certain spellings. I hate to see a place where people go to see plays or movies written as a “theater.” It strikes me as vulgar, which I know is excessive, but which I feel nonetheless. I would never spell it other than “theatre,” except when, as here, I’m denouncing the common American spelling.
Linguists and lexicographers tell us that language is constantly changing and that there’s nothing we can, or should want to, do about it. It goes where it will, like a thing driven by its own desires. I’m not sure that’s true, completely. Language does change over time, but the rate of change can be affected by our practices. I don’t like to see it change often, which I guess is a reflection of my basic conservative character. On the other hand, it’s not a thing I really get riled up about, except in cases like “lie” and “lay” where genuine meaning is being lost. All in all, I’m in favor of slowing change, without going nuts over the issue.
In the case of Adair Street, it’s certainly now more “correct” than it was a week ago, which pleases me considerably. Whether I have a right to that pleasure is doubtless an issue of epistemology, and ethics, to some extent.
P.S. There probably are grammatical errors in this piece, itself. At the moment, though, I don’t care.
May 8, 2011
My novel, Adair Street, is now for sale on Amazon.com. [Link]
I used the CreateSpace process to get it published, after I had read that more and more established writers are doing the same thing, some of them with considerable success. It's very difficult to get a novel published in the traditional way nowadays, and gradually I've come to see that there's nothing evil about taking personal action to get a work of fiction before the public and then let readers themselves decide about it.
I have little anticipation of major success, but there is a certain satisfaction in getting a manuscript into book form and having at least a few readers take it in. Physically, CreateSpace does a creditable job. Their books are well made and easy to read. A curious thing is that accounts take on a different aura, and become, somehow, more compelling when they transition from the typed page into a book.
Adair Street is a story I wrote some years ago, set in Decatur, Georgia, over the course of a single week in July of 1947. One of my intentions was to, at least, capture that time, and place, in words so it wouldn't disappear completely into the mists of history. It may not be a very important place by conventional standards, or a very important time. But it meant something to me. When I first began to study Thomas Hardy, I learned that he was determined to let people know what the Dorset of his youth had been. I figured if that were a valid motive for Hardy it was good enough for me. Any time, and any place, can come alive if someone looks at it and describes it in the right way. That's a truth we should all hold on to. Whether I've been able to bring something alive is for others to say.
There are subtleties of life, general understandings, that pretty well fade away, even after as short a time as a half-century.
The tale has eight chapters. It starts on Tuesday, goes through Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and, then, Tuesday again. Quite a bit happens in a single week, if you try to imagine almost all of it. The basic notion of the plot is that a ten year old boy is staying with a neighbor family for several months while his mother and father are away, in the West, on a temporary work assignment. They didn't want to take the boy out of school and subject him to the frequent moves, and life in a series of hotels that would have been necessary if he had accompanied them. So they asked a lady on their street to look after him while they were away. And she agreed.
Another motive I had was to see if I could bring out certain characters. This is a work of fiction, so none of people in it are meant to be portraits of single persons, and none of the events took place in history. But I did want the characters to live their lives in a real place, so most of scenes are as close as I could make them to the Decatur, Atlanta, and north Georgia of that time. With a few exceptions, the places aren't made up.
I decided to dedicate the book to certain women of the South born in the second decade of the 20th Century. By saying "certain women," I didn't mean to imply that they were normal, or ordinary. The Mrs. Cameron of the novel is not identical to any particular person I ever knew, but she does combine the characteristics of several people who, had they lived in a less constricted time and place, might have made a bigger splash than they did. But being who, and where, they were, they made their peace with their surroundings and enriched them. I confess that I admire that sort of life, perhaps as much as almost any other.
I don't know how evident it is, but this is a love story. There are many more loves in the world than we generally acknowledge. They may not fit the pattern of Hollywood romance, but they are nonetheless intense for all that. Many are never openly expressed, but they work in the heart. And though they may seem to be transient, they have a kind of lasting power.
I never made very energetic efforts to have this book published in the normal way. I've always been hesitant about trying to promote myself. It feels unseemly to me. But I did once manage to get a reader for a major publisher to look at it, and I was told it was the sort of story her company would once have been ready to publish but that now they took only "high concept" novels. I didn't know what that meant, but I found out later that it referred to plots involving newsworthy events -- murders, incest, excessive violence, bizarre treatment of people. There is nothing of that sort in Adair Street, so I guess it's old-fashioned. Still, some of the things that happened to the characters were exciting to them. I hope I managed to get that across.
It has generally been considered unwise for a writer to produce this kind of "review" of his own work. The thing has to stand on its own, it's said. I certainly agree with the latter. It does have to stand on its own. And nothing I say here can modify that. Still, I'm no longer respectful of common notions of what's wise and unwise. What's wrong with explaining a few of one's intentions?
I hope Adair Street will find a few readers, and that some of them will take it to heart. If that should happen it will be more than ample reward for me.
April 27, 2011
Reading this two-year-old novel which rose out of a more famous one of one hundred and twenty-six years ago, I was reminded of a theme which has more and more strongly impressed itself on my mind recently. American literature does not tell the same story of this country that we get from our public commentary. The latter informs us that we are the greatest nation on earth, the greatest people who have ever lived, and that we enjoy more freedom than any humans have before. But if you go to significant American authors you get a different tale, one of brutality, of viciousness, of fear and doubt, of bigotry and hatefulness, and of an encasing psychological oppression which is the antithesis of freedom.
Jon Clinch extracted his novel from Huckleberry Finn, and in particular from one passage, the scene where Huck finds a ramshackle house floating down the river, and in its upstairs bedroom the body of his father, surrounded by a rather peculiar assortment of items. Clinch decided to explain how those items got there, and, in doing it, to tell the story of Huck's father.
We know from the earlier novel, that "Pap," as he was called, was not a very nice person. But we don't get the full details of his lack of niceness. In Clinch's story we get them to a degree that's hard on the stomach. Yet at the same time there is supposed to be -- I think -- an element of sympathy extended to him. Perhaps it's no more than the inevitable sense of understanding that comes from taking in the fullness of a life.
The brutality and pathos of a single life, however, is not the whole of this story. It is rather the exposition of an entire society and poison that has been sprayed over it by racial attitudes. And in being that it is also the tale of America.
It seems that the offspring of a race-based system of slavery will never end. Though each new transmogrification may be a slight mitigation of what came before, the essence of the thing does not change. It spreads its filth over everyone, regardless of their intentions. No American can get completely away from it. That was true a century ago and it's true still.
The protagonist of Clinch's novel both detests and is drawn to black people and particularly to black women. The tension created by those opposing passions finally tears him apart. It's as though he is the human exemplar of Lincoln's proclamation about a house divided against itself. In playing that role he also models the absence of freedom America represents. Nobody could be more resentful of restraint than Finn is, and nobody could be more imprisoned in the tangle of his own psyche. He is a trapped man from the start and there is nothing to suggest that he ever could have escaped the trap. That condition may deliver another shred of the sympathy the reader feels for him.
By watching him twist and struggle in his agony we are shown a great many things. It would be hard to find a novel in which alcoholism is described more graphically. The underside of life along the Mississippi is rendered in nauseating shades of brutality, dishonesty, greed, human indifference and perversion. In the midst of it all the great river rolls along bearing all the refuse humans can manage to toss into it, down to the lands below. There is also a great deal about fish -- eating fish, skinning fish, gutting fish, throwing the entrails of fish into stinking piles.
It's certainly not an easy or a pleasant novel to read. There is no element of genuine humor in it, and very few of humane behavior. But having taken it in, you do feel as though you have learned something.
There is this, too, which imposes a decision on each individual reader. Is it a good or a bad thing to have something for ever after modify your thoughts about a great literary classic? I'm not sure. But I am fairly sure that if you digest this story, you are unlikely ever to think of Huckleberry Finn in exactly the way you did before.
To the Lighthouse
March 17, 2011
To the Lighthouse was the fifth novel, out of ten, that Virginia Woolf wrote. It was published in 1927, when she was forty-five years old. It seems to be considered the finest of her books. I don't know if I agree with that judgment, but it certainly is a complex story and, if you know anything about her life, probably the most revealing work she produced about who she was.
I have said that in some cases an author's books are more interesting than the writer, whereas with others, it's the opposite. In the case of Virginia Woolf, I think it's clear that she is more interesting than any book she wrote and, actually, more interesting than all of them put together. Consequently, she's a writer whose biography is an important -- I would say almost essential -- complement to her work.
The first time I went to Rodmell, a village just outside of Lewes, in Sussex, where Leonard and Virginia Woolf settled fairly late in their married life, I walked from the house through the pastures below the village, down to the River Ouse, along the same path Virginia Woolf followed the morning of March 28, 1941, when she went to the river to drown herself. As I watched the cows grazing and the sea gulls drifting overhead I wondered what was in her mind as she took that last walk. There was not a soul along the path that day as there wasn't on the day she went. When I got to the river, I sat and looked at the water for about forty minutes and it got into my head more deeply than almost any other natural scene that has held me. It's rippling and motion seemed to tell me about her mind, a mind that could never find a place to settle.
Virginia Woolf is considered to have been mentally ill during several periods of her life. I suppose, using common definitions, she was. But common definitions don't get right up against the truth in cases like hers. She seems to me to have been gripped so tightly by the question of what life means that the pressure was for her, at times, intolerable.
To the Lighthouse was her attempt to get at the meaning of her father and mother, and both she and her sister Vanessa believed she succeeded fairly well. The novel is ostensibly set in the Hebrides, on Skye, but there is no place on the Scottish island that fits the description of the house in the novel and its surroundings. There is, though, a place that fits perfectly, and that is Talland House in St. Ives, about twenty miles up the coast from Land's End in Cornwall. It was there that Virginia Stephen spent her first thirteen summers. She was taken to St. Ives initially when she was six months old, shortly after her father had leased the rambling white house with extensive gardens on the hillside above the bay. The lighthouse was then, as now, off the coast a little to the north.
It was a place of great happiness for the little girl growing up, and she lost it at the same time she lost her mother. After Julia Stephen died in 1895, the family did not go back to Cornwall for the summers.
Both Leslie Stephen and his second wife Julia were complex persons, immensely admirable in some respects and troublesome in others. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay of the novel are possessed of those same characteristics.
Mrs. Ramsay is a very beautiful woman, as was Julia Stephen, who might have served well as a model for Coventry Patmore's famous concept of the angel in the house. The trouble with an angel, though, is that she's too angelic; she can want to give too much. And in giving to everyone she may fail to give enough to specific persons, like her children, or her husband. There's just so much time and energy in a day.
When an angel is married to a man who is distinguished in some respects, but hideously hungry for sympathy and praise, some tension is inevitable. It's the tension in this marriage, and how if affected everyone around it, that forms the subject of To the Lighthouse. It also created the central issues of Virginia Woolf's life.
She felt herself torn between the family duties of the 19th Century and the desire for modern freedom, which carried with it the possibilities of fresh creation. All the characters in To the Lighthouse, other than Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, are trying desperately to free themselves from the central figures, at the same time they feel themselves irresistibly drawn back into that parental orbit. It's not really a resolvable problem but one that simply has to be lived with.
There is very little action in To the Lighthouse, outside what goes on inside people's heads. When an author is depicting mental life, she has to project what her characters might be thinking out of what she is thinking herself. Probably the most likely criticism of the novel is that its people are too much imbued with Virginia Woolf's thoughts. Ordinary people tend not to think that way. But that's what gives the characters their interest. That's what makes them worth thinking about.
They are not people who leave a reader feeling easy or happy. If one is looking for "they lived happily ever after," Virginia Woolf is not going to be his cup of tea. But if you want to discover genuine sympathy for the agonies of doubt about the people in your life, you may find yourself revisiting To the Lighthouse over and again.
The Catcher in the Rye
February 4, 2011
I drove up to Morrisville, Vermont, over frosty roads last night to lead a discussion on J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Believe it or not, this year marks the novel's 60th anniversary. So a book that has long been thought to convey an accurate and sympathetic portrait of youth is itself moving into at least middle age -- as novels go.
It has been astoundingly successful. More than sixty-five million copies of it have been printed.
I hadn't read it in quite a few years and, so, didn't any longer have a firm grasp on the details of Holden Caulfield's odyssey and descent into a hell called New York City. But what I did remember, almost perfectly, was the novel's tone. It is so striking, and so consistent, and so clear that once it lodges in your mind it's unlikely ever to go away.
It's the tone of a bright teenager who finds the world unnecessarily brutal and to some extent inexplicable. He has a pretty good perspective of what the world is, but he can't comprehend why it should be that way. And he is unable to find a single adult who can explain or justify it.
Early in the tale, Holden, who has just been informed that he is to be expelled from his prep school because of inadequate academic performance, goes to say good-by to one of his teachers, who, he feels has been reasonably kind to him, an elderly gentleman named Mr. Spencer. And here's what Mr. Spencer tells him: "Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules."
It's not hard to imagine the empty feeling a sixteen year old boy would get from being told by a man more than seventy years old that life is a game and that it has to be played by the rules. The guy has lived for seven decades and this is what he has learned? What specifically are the "rules" of life? Clearly, if life has "rules" then life can't take account of individual tastes and propensities. Nobody can jump offsides; nobody gets a fourth strike. It's the same for everybody and you've got to bury yourself in that sameness. It's enough to send a kid into complete despair, and that's pretty much the effect it has on Holden.
Over and again throughout the novel Holden is forced to repeat this Spencer-like experience. He meets someone with whom he hopes to have a genuine and honest conversation. And virtually every time he is met with dead convention. The conventions vary, of course, with the persons he's encountering. Mr. Spencer's convention is not the same as the practices of a pimp/ elevator operator he meets in his cheap hotel. But in every case, what he gets is pure reaction without thought, without freshness, without a spark of ingenuity or even of mercy. He finds himself in a world where imagination has been banished. It is truly Hell.
The exception is with little children and, perhaps, partially, with a former teacher who is a drunk and a homosexual who may be trying to seduce Holden. He is troubled that his rejection of this teacher may be unfair, but there are too many doubts about the guy to permit Holden to trust him.
He can feel perfectly safe only with his little sister, a ten-year old girl who, though she's bratty at times, is always honest and not yet cankered by conventional views. It is her presence in the background of his mind which permits Holden to think of the only avocation he would truly enjoy. He would stand at the edge of a field of rye where children were playing, and if any of them were in danger of running past the field and over an adjoining cliff, Holden would catch them. It not a precise job, of course, and not one you could find in the real world. But it does have metaphorical truth and helps Holden define not only who he is but who he wishes to become.
We can read The Catcher in the Rye as an early precursor to the rebellions of the 1960s when so many young people rose up against what they regarded as the stifling customs of the past. But I think it can also be read more generally. Holden's stance, and his tone, are perennial cries against the notion that life is no more than bowing down to the least thoughtful among us. That resistance is always present among some youth and for that reason I think Holden will keep his place as a notable figure in American literature. He may not rise to the utmost heights but he will last. And that, in itself, is something quite wonderful.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God
February 2, 2011
When I first began reading Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of Go, I said to myself that it was a clever novel and therefore would be enjoyable. But knowing that it takes more than cleverness to produce a genuinely fine piece of fiction, I also thought it would more or less second rate. Having now completed reading it, I think it's better than second rate, but I'm not sure it make it into the first rate category. It's in limbo. But it's still a lot of fun.
Ms. Goldstein is generally described as both a novelist and a philosopher, and has a list of writings which support each designation. She seems to write about driven people and I suspect, though I can't be sure, that she, herself is driven. She is also intensely interested in Jewish identity, and her latest novel explores various approaches Jews have taken in their response to the modern world, ranging from the most liberal and secular to forms of wild conservatism.
Her main character is Cass Seltzer, a likable scholar in his forties, who has managed to write a best seller of huge dimensions concerning the illusions of religion. In fact, Cass has played on William James' famous work, The Varieties of Religious Experience by titling his book, The Varieties of Religion Illusion. Its gigantic commercial success is a bemusing mystery to its author.
The story is told by dipping into Cass's life at various periods. The episodes are not arranged chronologically, yet as they proceed, there's no trouble in discerning what happened, and when, to Cass.
Though he is, himself, easy going and fairly attractive, he has trouble with women. The reason is he manages to attach himself to women with whom anyone would have trouble. You might even say that such women are a kind of addiction for him. The novel may be saying that the sort of relations Cass has with his women are inevitable in the modern world for any man who wishes to have a girlfriend with a mind of non-bovine character. I wonder if that's true. It could be, or it could also be that writers who think of themselves as up-to-date are required to see women in a light which shines on only a limited sector of femininity. I remain uncertain, being, myself, pretty well excluded from up-to-dateness.
The most pleasurable feature of this tale is that it's a roman a clef, that is a story with characters based on actual persons. The novel's finest creation -- beyond any doubt -- is a kind of genius, monster and gargantuan fool named Jonas Elija Klapper who comes to us courtesy of Harold Bloom. I have even asked myself if Klapper rises to the realm of Mr. Collins, and though I'm not ready to say that Ms. Goldstein sits in the company of Jane Austen, Klapper is quite a thing. Not only does he descend from Harold Bloom, there are also whiffs of Leo Strauss emanating from his person. It's a combination that is wildly comic. I would say it's worth reading the book just to get to know Jonas Elija Klapper, and thereby to arm yourself against such figures in the real world.
Most novels don't have appendices. Not only does this one have an appendix, it's a useful, funny and enjoyable one. It lists thirty six arguments that have actually been put forward prove the existence of God, accompanied by thirty-six refutations which demonstrate their absurdity.
I trust everyone understands that theodicy, though sometimes a batch of fun, is a hopeless enterprise. No one has ever justified the ways of God to man, and no one ever will. The gap between the concept of a loving, merciful God and the ways of the universe is unbridgeable. Ms. Goldstein's appendix shows this to be the case, and does it succinctly and pleasurably.
This is not to say that Ms. Goldstein rejects believers. There's a good deal of fondness for them in the novel. But what she does seem to be saying is that if you want to believe in God, don't argue about it, just do it. If you start arguing about God, you descend into chaos and silliness.
It's not a bad message for a novel, and it leads me to predict that if you should read 36 Arguments for the Existence of God you'll find it not only enjoyable but worth thinking about from time to time. What more can you want?
The Black Book
March 24, 2010
I said to myself in the midst of working through Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book that it was either the most profound novel I had read or the most boring. I was teasing myself with the latter. The Nobel Prize winner's story is not boring, but it is so packed with symbolism that to decipher it all would take years. Deciding how much mind and energy to give the book is bound to produce, at times, a frustration for the reader.
The basic plot, such as it is, isn't particularly complicated. A man's wife disappears, leaving behind her only a nineteen word farewell note. He sets off to find her, in the process poking into the myriad crannies of Istanbul, and describing them all with astounding attention to detail.
If you wished, you could read the novel as a travelogue of the ancient Turkish city on the Bosporus. On you could read it as an analysis of the Turkish soul. Either reading would be amply productive. Yet the tale takes us well beyond Turkish geography or psychology. It thrusts us into the core of human mental functioning and its fumbling attempt to use language to delineate reality. Throughout most of the text, the reader remains unsure whether he's listening to a mad man or to a voice of profundity.
The central question all this raises is whether a person can ever hope to be himself or herself. At one point we're told that we all have a second person buried inside us, and exactly who that person is or what that person might do remains a vexing mystery. We can attempt to find out by reading our dreams, or by reading the signs in the city around us. But regardless of all our efforts at discovery our real selves and our second selves continue to elude us. As we delve into that cauldron, it even becomes impossible to accept that which we have come to see as natural. The message appears to be that humans are very mixed up creatures -- always have been, always will be.
One the novel's major characters -- a character we never encounter directly -- is a columnist for a major Istanbul newspaper. His columns are filled with stories of the sort that would never appear in an American newspaper. Because he spins out tales more wild and mysterious than any American editor would tolerate, he is rewarded with readers more obsessed and passionate than any American journalists could dare hope for. The relationship between the columnist and his readers constitutes a major portion of the novel and in doing so it presents a scheme of reading and writing far richer than ordinary life in more efficient lands can accommodate. I'm not sure if this picture of Turkish literacy is accurate, but if it is all of us who attempt to put words on paper ought to pull up our stakes and head out straight away for Anatolia.
The supposed superiority and glamour of the West -- by the way -- is one of the book's continuing motifs and in being raised as it is functions to undermine the common assumptions.
The novel's charm, which to some extent offsets its gloomy metaphysics, lies in careful description of ordinary people's daily rounds. We learn how the denizens of Istanbul get up, the clichés they employ in family discourse, what they eat, what they find in the shops they visit, the sounds and odors of the streets at night, and perhaps most fulsomely what happens to the stuff they throw away.
The power of the novel resides in the world it wraps around a reader. Once you're insider of it you begin to doubt that you can ever again get fully out. The book transforms you into a resident of Istanbul. Whether it's the Istanbul of the present, or of history, is problematic. But that doesn't matter much.
Melville said somewhere that with literature we create a world not like our own but one to which we feel the tie. Come to think of it, Melville is probably the American writer who can best lead us towards a comprehension of Orhan Pamuk. That could be seen as compliment enough but in truth Pamuk deserves more for the Istanbul of the mind he has built and for the portals and intricate passages into it he has provided us.
©John R. Turner
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