26 October 2011

"World War Z," "The Life and Times of Michael K.," "Mud, Sweat, and Tears," "Reading Lolita in Tehran," "Mezzanine," and "Daisy Miller."

World War Z, Max Brooks
The Life and Times of Michael K., J.M. Coetzee
Mud, Sweat, and Tears, Bear Grylls
Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi
Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker
Daisy Miller, Henry James

World War Z, Max Brooks

It's interesting to think of books as food.  This allegory forces you to consider the traits of a specific book, its overall "flavor" and "ingredients," and try to conceive of an appropriate analogue.  For example, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is an overpowering draught of bitterness, with its unwavering central theme of hope-despite-doom (a nuclear Gotterdammerung), and so it seems to me to be like a tall and strong iced coffee: powerful, cold, and lingering.  It's a fun game to play.  And in the terms of that analogy, World War Z is Quaker™ White Cheddar Rice Cakes® - fluffy, synthetic, and probably a little bad for you.

When Brooks wrote this, he was riding the crest of the zombie craze that struck popular media from 2004 and is only now slowly subsiding.  He had helped start the fad with his Zombie Survival Guide, a fake manual for survivors of a zombie plague.  That book made some positive statements about zombies, endorsing the "fast zombie" approach (as opposed to the slow staggerers of yore).  World War Z builds on this hesitant initial attempt at actual writing, telling a story about zombie apocalypse and gradual human recovery through a series of short essays from different viewpoints.  The different speakers all tell fragments of the larger story, building up a particular mythology in the voices of an American transport pilot, South African scientist, Israeli mother, and so on.

The story is interesting and fun, and the characterization is passable.  There is a distinct hint of Wikipedia at work in the details behind the lives of each of the characters - the details that flesh them out are wide but nonspecific, in the manner of research done over the course of an afternoon on the Internet.  Brooks is always just on the right side of plausible, like a child's fantastic lies about where he found a five-dollar-bill that most certainly wasn't stolen from your wallet.

There are frequent false notes in the overall narration, clumsy little mysteries solved in a later chapter, that rattle the reader with leaden obtrusiveness.  But on the whole, World War Z is written fairly well.  It's light and silly and not too bad, so check it out if you're in need of some meaningless entertainment.

The Life and Times of Michael K., J.M. Coetzee

Nobel-prize winner J.M. Coetzee has been recommended to me many times.  I get a lot of recommendations, though, because I know many readers and I am interesting in reading all genres, all periods, and all qualities of books.  But after hearing Coetzee praised to high heaven again last month, I had to start on him.

The Life and Times of Michael K. was an extremely interesting book.  It's the best kind of deep fiction - interesting and well-written on the surface, with deep allusions and themes that ripple far in the depths unobtrusively.  The protagonist, Michael, is harelipped and slow, and lives a very small life.  In the text, he and his mother try to take a journey from their home of Capetown, to seek a better life in a mythic countryside farm.  Sad and strange, the book follows Michael's life.  He doesn't have "adventures," but instead a few things just happen to him.  He lives long periods in silence, without contemplation.

I believe in many ways Coetzee's book is about the qualities of a person, and how they are lived.  In the text, there is depicted loyalty, endurance, asceticism, wisdom, intelligence, bravery, and other traits - all normally laudable and good.  Yet here, we see them blunt and pointless, like a fine knife in a ditch scummed with mud.  They're not twisted or mocked or treated nastily, but they just seem misdirected and quite beside the point.  It's a story about how a man's life can fit untidily into his world.

It is definitely worth reading.  While not a happy story, it's a not a sad one, either.  Take a look.

Mud, Sweat, and Tears, Bear Grylls

Edward "Bear" Grylls has lived a hell of a life.  He went to Eton, joined the elite SAS, broke his back with a faulty parachute, climbed Everest, was elected Chief Scout, and starred in several television shows.  Without a doubt, he is bold, brave, and tough.  But he is not a writer.

His autobiography is not a disaster.  But with such dynamite material, it's a study of missed opportunities.  It's plagued with structural problems caused by lazy organization, as well as some genuine moments of opaque prose, where the arranged words convey no meaning.

The book begins in media res.  This is becoming nearly mandatory these days, and is getting more and more irritating.  At some point, authors (particularly of autobiographies) realized that writing an actual introduction to set the mood and catch the reader's attention required some degree of skill, and that they could do without that difficult work if they just plunked the most exciting part of the book at the beginning.  No need for context, transitions, or that difficult first sentence: you start off right in the action.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the Iliad demonstrates, but I'm starting to see it as a crutch.  Writers like Bear Grylls and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love, Committed) do it because it's easy.

There are other problems with laziness.  Mud, Sweat, and Tears has 110 chapters, despite being only 350 pages.  These short chapters, ranging from one to seven pages in length, exist for the express purpose of artificially jacking up the sense of drama.  You probably recognize the technique from Dan Brown's nonsense (The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons) where each paragraph would be set off by a section break, chapter break, and a small illustration of Dan Brown bathing in money.

The way it works is by taking advantage of the reader's natural rhythm.  Certain moments in any text are heightening in importance by their placement: the first sentence, the last sentence, and any sentences set off in their own paragraph.  These sentences are contiguous to a moment of mental pause, induced in a reader by transitions.  It's a stepped-up version of the pause introduced by a period, as the reader's attention is held up for a moment.  Thus.

The technique is effective in small doses or when it naturally occurs, but it's also a tempting way for a bad writer to artificially crank up the potency of their sentiments.  And because Grylls is a bad writer, he does this all the time.

It gets old.

Worse than this, though, are the times when Grylls offers up something that looks like a coherent expression, but isn't quite intelligible.

In truth it was probably luck, but I learnt another valuable lesson that night: listen to the quiet voice inside. Intuition is the noise of the mind.
What does that mean, that intuition is the noise of the mind?  It's not just an uncommon aphorism (I googled it), and it seems to contradict what Grylls is trying to say.  It's bad writing, and not uncommon in Mud, Sweat, and Tears.

There are some brief moments of interesting phrasing.  When Grylls writes about his ascent of Everest, his fashionable staccato prose almost becomes decent:

Breathe. Pause. Move. Pause. Breathe. Pause. Move. Pause. It is unending. I heave myself over the final lip, and strain to pull myself clear of the edge. I clear the deep powder snow from in front of my face. I lie there hyperventilating. Then I clear my mask of the ice that my breath has formed in the freezing air. I unclip off the rope whilst still crouching. The line is now clear for Neil to follow up. I get to my feet and start staggering onwards. I can see this distant cluster of prayer flags, semi-submerged in the snow. Gently flapping in the wind, I know that these flags mark the true summit – the place of dreams.
But bits like this only remind us of the wasted potential, of a life of adventure told in such an incompetent way.  This book is not worth reading, and you should skip it.

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi was the daughter of a mayor of Tehran, raised during the time when Iran was a liberal beacon of progress under the oppressive tyranny of the Shah.  She went to school abroad, and returned to teach English literature at the University of Tehran.  Her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, relates the story of her time teaching in her homeland.  Her first semester coincided with the peak of the uprisings, and within a few years the country would be completely transformed into the Islamic Republic, crushed under a new sort of tyranny.  Unwilling to teach under the new theocratic viciousness, Nafisi abandoned the university.  Some years later, she took on a small group of select students, to meet in her home and study the work of Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen.  The episodic story flashes back and forth in time between this small class of students, sipping tea and discussing Gatsby, and the early years of the revolution.

Nafisi is a professor, and writes like one.  Curiously, she seems to be unpublished when it comes to criticism, but her understanding of the discussed texts is more than adequate as relates their themes to her life and the changing atmosphere of Iran.  She is also, unfortunately, unable to prevent herself from reading symbolism into everything, and one of the flaws of her book is a tendency to break off into navel-gazing, losing the central dramatic thrust of the moment.  Despite this problem and an occasional self-indulgence that has left many sentences uncut that would have been better eliminated, her writing is decent enough.  It helps a great deal that she is telling a compelling story, of young men roaming the streets to enforce morality with guns in their hands and of the dawning horror that her blind radicalism, unexamined and reactionary, had helped lead to the growing horror of Islamic oppression that crushed out the light from the most advanced country in the Middle East.

It is a very good book and sparked a lot of controversy when it was published, when an Iranian professor at Columbia accused Nafisi of being a sort of elitist fifth column within the Islamic world for Western imperialism (I won't address that here, because his criticism is almost entirely unconnected with the actual book and is tediously venomous).  Read it, and see what you think.

Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker

My wife got me Mezzanine for a present.  It took a dozen pages before I said to her with happy gratitude, "This is really good!"  I was delighted once I realized its nature: Mezzanine is a book about our fractal lives. Baker's story - if it can be called that - is scarcely a narrative: the protagonist spends the entire book engaged in a scant handful of unimpressive actions.  For example, one chapter is about the moment he spends exchanging greetings with a maintenance man and a subsequent trip up the escalator.  And yet, as impossible as it sounds, this is not boring.

The protagonist's seemingly trivial actions are each the subject of beautiful, insightful thoughts - what Baker later calls "philosophy."  Each facet is discussed and its interesting points are revealed, before he fluidly moves into the next point.  It's careful, wonderful, and very well-written.

And this was when I realized abruptly that as of that minute (impossible to say exactly which minute), I had finished with whatever large-scale growth I was going to have as a human being, and that I was now permanently arrested at an intermediate stage of personal development. I did not move or flinch or make any outward sign. Actually, once the first shock of raw surprise had passed, the feeling was not unpleasant. I was set: I was the sort of person who said “actually” too much. I was the sort of person who stood in a subway car and thought about buttering toast—buttering raisin toast, even: when the high, crisp scrape of the butter knife is muted by occasional contact with the soft, heat-blimped forms of the raisins, and when if you cut across a raisin, it will sometimes fall right out, still intact though dented, as you lift the slice. I was the sort of person whose biggest discoveries were likely to be tricks to applying toiletries while fully dressed. I was a man, but I was not nearly the magnitude of man I had hoped I might be.
Baker also presents further digressions in footnotes.  Footnotes have been particularly fascinating for me since I have read some Borges and David Foster Wallace, and Baker's cogent defense of the very practice (within one of his own footnotes, naturally) hits the nail on the head with why they can be such a necessary thing.

Boswell, like Lecky (to get back to the point of this footnote), and Gibbon before him, loved footnotes. They knew that the outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph, but is encrusted with a rough protective bark of citations, quotation marks, italics, and foreign languages, a whole variorum crust of “ibid.’s” and “compare’s” and “see’s” that are the shield for the pure flow of argument as it lives for a moment in one mind. They knew the anticipatory pleasure of sensing with peripheral vision, as they turned the page, a gray silt of further example and qualification waiting in tiny type at the bottom.
The examination of our lives and the objects in them and the history that has gone before is endlessly intriguing, as Baker demonstrates, and there is no bad time to indulge in contemplation of that mystery.  The conclusion of the text is a paean to that contemplation, done with a perfect enthusiasm.  I recommend this book very much, and you should check it out.

Daisy Miller, Henry James

Daisy Miller is one of the most feminist books I have ever read.  It feels strange to say that, and I'm not sure if that's a common take, but it is definitely true.

The book is brief and astoundingly simple in scope.  A young man, an American residing in Europe, meets beautiful Daisy Miller, also from America and traveling on a tour of the Continent with her nervous mother and rambunctious younger brother.  Daisy is gorgeous and intriguing, but also troubles the young man, who thinks she must be uncultivated.  She doesn't make a fuss about spending time with him alone, even though it's improper, nor does she seem to be bothered by other social niceties.  This is not to say she is impolite - she is quite pleasant and not at all rude.

In time, they part ways, only to encounter each other again in Rome.  Daisy causes a scandal in Rome by spending a great deal of time in her friendship with a local bravo, stirring up a chilly reception from other Americans in town who don't want her giving them a bad reputation.  The story ends quietly and unhappily, and everyone moves on.  There are no great scenes of high drama - life continues, and the book ends.

I call the book feminist because the whole of the action is driven by the young American gentleman's inability to comfortably categorize the free-spirited Daisy.  Is she a simple tramp, sleeping around town with her gentlemen friends?  Is she a foolish ingenue, unaware of how she appears to others and in need of rescue?  She is none of these things, but the others around her cannot understand this.

It was, frankly, astonishing to read the book and find that it had such a marvelous and direct moral, yet was written with such natural expression and beautiful prose that it was still a great pleasure to read.  The theme isn't forced down the reader's throat, which is especially curious because it is the sole conflict in the text and single focus of the action.  This one has exquisite prose, unforgettable characters, and a sparse discipline you only see in masters of the craft.  Definitely read Daisy Miller.

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