20 June 2012

"The Turner Diaries," "The Aquariums of Pyongyang," "Cryptonomicon," "Reginald," "Reginald in Russia," "The Chronicles of Clovis," and "Fabliaux Fair and Foul."

The Turner Diaries, William Luther Pierce
The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Kang Chol Hwan
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
Reginald, Reginald in Russia, and The Chronicles of Clovis, Saki
Fabliaux Fair and Foul, trans. John DuVal


The Turner Diaries, William Luther Pierce

The Turner Diaries is the vicious screed of white supremacist William Luther Pierce.  From the first word to the last, it is a remorseless torrent of racism, drowning any flicker of reasoning or compassion in the vile stew of a poison mind.  There is nothing to redeem this book, except as an exhibit of the depths to which a person can sink.  It is not ironic or unintentionally funny, and it is very badly written.
Indeed, we are already slaves. We have allowed a diabolically clever, alien minority to put chains on our souls and our minds. These spiritual chains are a truer mark of slavery than the iron chains which are yet to come.
Why didn't we rebel 35 years ago, when they took our schools away from us and began converting them into racially mixed jungles? Why didn't we throw them all out of the country 50 years ago, instead of letting them use us as cannon fodder in their war to subjugate Europe?
More to the point, why didn't we rise up three years ago, when they started taking our guns away? Why didn't we rise up in righteous fury and drag these arrogant aliens into the streets and cut their throats then? Why didn't we roast them over bonfires at every street-corner in America? Why didn't we make a final end to this obnoxious and eternally pushy clan, this pestilence from the sewers of the East, instead of meekly allowing ourselves to be disarmed?
The book is set in the near future (or what was the near future at time of publication), and follows Earl Turner, a veteran and electrician, as he works with a shadowy group called the Organization, which comprises several hundred thousand white supremacists.  In Pierce's lunatic vision, the manipulations of the Jewish forces that control the world, their African-American thugs, and the simpering of foolish liberals - all known collectively to Earl as the "System" -  have all set America on a steep downward decline.  Earl and the Organization launches a brutal series of terrorist attacks and murder sprees to destabilize the government, culminating in the secession of most of California from the United States.  This is embraced by the vast majority of white people, because everyone really secretly agrees with horrific racism.
Katherine had been apolitical. If anyone had asked her, during the time she was working for the government or, before that, when she was a college student, she would have probably said she was a "liberal. " But she was liberal only in the mindless, automatic way that most people are. Without really thinking about it or trying to analyze it, she superficially accepted the unnatural ideology peddled by the mass media and the government. She had none of the bigotry, none of the guilt and self-hatred that it takes to make a really committed, full-time liberal.
Once they have control of that area, the "good guys" use captured nukes to stave off any attacks from America, while they engage in a bloody pogrom within their territory.  Everyone who is not white is exiled from the country, on pain of death.  All "race-traitors" - i.e. anyone who has married a non-white, or who is an academic - are hung.

The book concludes as the Organization nukes the Soviet Union, provoking a massive response that lays waste to most of the globe.  Only a few areas, including the California Republic of Hating Black Folk (not the name given in the book) are spared.  The protagonist becomes a suicide bomber, flying a plane into the Pentagon.  A postscript and various intertextual notes inform us that the world is now a white supremacist paradise, thanks to the nuclear sterilization of Asia and Africa.

The Turner Diaries is appalling in its casual advocacy of some of the most abhorrent rhetoric imaginable.  Ordinarily, I might pause to mock or refute some of the astonishing things in this book.  But Pierce's text is so far beyond the bounds of reasonable thought that it refutes itself.
And is that not a key to the whole problem? The corruption of our people by the Jewish-liberal-democratic-equalitarian plague which afflicts us is more clearly manifested in our soft-mindedness, our unwillingness to recognize the harder realities of life, than in anything else.
Liberalism is an essentially feminine, submissive world view. Perhaps a better adjective than feminine is infantile. It is the world view of men who do not have the moral toughness, the spiritual strength to stand up and do single combat with life, who cannot adjust to the reality that the world is not a huge, pink-and-blue, padded nursery in which the lions lie down with the lambs and everyone lives happily ever after.
Nor should spiritually healthy men of our race even want the world to be like that, if it could be so. That is an alien, essentially Oriental approach to life, the world view of slaves rather than of free men of the West.
But it has permeated our whole society. Even those who do not consciously accept the liberal doctrines have been corrupted by them. Decade after decade the race problem in America has become worse. But the majority of those who wanted a solution, who wanted to preserve a White America, were never able to screw up the courage to look the obvious solutions in the face.
All the liberals and the Jews had to do was begin screeching about "inhumanity" or "injustice" or "genocide," and most of our people who had been beating around the edges of a solution took to their heels like frightened rabbits. Because there was never a way to solve the race problem which would be "fair for everybody or which everyone concerned could be politely persuaded into accepting without any fuss or unpleasantness, they kept trying to evade it, hoping that it would go away by itself. And the same has been true of the Jewish problem and the immigration problem and the overpopulation problem and the eugenics problem and a thousand related problems.
The writing is abysmal, self-indulgent almost to incoherence: The Turner Diaries is one long hateful stretch of an idiot applauding himself on his gruff manliness.
I undressed, got a towel, and opened the door to the shower. And there was Katherine, wet, naked, and lovely, standing under the bare light bulb and drying herself. She looked at me without surprise and said nothing.
I stood there for a moment and then, instead of apologizing and closing the door again, I impulsively held out my arms to Katherine. Hesitantly, she stepped toward me. Nature took her course.
There is no reason to read this book, unless you are doing research on the grimmest sort of racism.  This book is highly influential among white supremacists, and if you are curious to know about their vision of the world, this is a good place to start.  I just hope you have a strong stomach.


The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Kang Chol Hwan

The adults went on trading news and whispering in each other’s ears, holding back the tears as best they could. What a sight these people made with their threadbare rags, their overgrown hair, their filth. How out of keeping their appearance seemed with the civility of their manner and their politeness toward the new arrivals. The welcome would probably have gone on for some time had not the guards intervened. They reestablished order in a wink, commanding all the prisoners back to their barracks and work details. That put an end to my somewhat abstract fascination, bringing me back to reality and my all-important fish. Alas, half of them were already dead. At a loss for what else to do, I started counting the victims. The few prisoners who had managed to tarry stepped closer and stared silently at the extraordinary spectacle standing among them: a child in the middle of the camp, crying softly over an aquarium in which floated, stomach up, the most fantastical assortment of exotic fish.
The release of The Aquariums of Pyongyang was a sensation.  Kang Chol-Hwan survived and escaped from one of the mildest of North Korea's concentration camps, which is rather like escaping from one of the milder circles of Hell.  When he was a young child, he and the rest of his family were arrested because of their grandfather's alleged "crimes" and taken to a work camp, where he would spend ten years.  Even after they were released and Chol-Hwan learned to live in "freedom," his life was still a horror, staying ahead of the authorities with bribes and scrabbling for deals.

Perhaps because the book is an English translation of a French adaptation of a Korean oral history, it is not very well-written.  There are frequent mistakes with homonyms, poor grammar, and occasional word omissions.  They do not interfere with the story, however, and the grey grimace of life in North Korea is firmly communicated.
Soft-skinned city boy that I was, I was lucky to get out of there alive. Yet the harsh living conditions and never-ending work were precisely what saved me, because they left me no time to dwell on my condition. My every minute was accounted for. There were lessons to follow under threats from brutalizing instructors, trees to chop down, sacks of gold-laden earth to haul, rabbits to watch, fields of corn to harvest. My life was absorbed entirely in my efforts to get by and obey orders. I was, fortunately, able to accept my condition as fated. A clear-eyed view of the hell I had landed in certainly would have thrown me deeper into despair. There is nothing like thought to deepen one’s gloom.
The book is interesting as a spectacle - terrible things happen - but also because it's actually informative.  Living in South Korea, I often spoke of North Korea with friends and relatives back home, and I heard frequent disbelief that the peasantry of the country endured their privations.  Not that there was doubt about their condition, but many people simply can't fathom what people in that situation are thinking.  Did they really believe Kim Jong Il (now supplanted by his son, Kim Jong Un) is a sort of demi-god wunderkind?  Do they really think America hates them?  The Aquariums of Pyongyang presents a level account of the evolving beliefs of a person who went through almost every conceivable stage of life in that North Korea: immigrant, believer, prisoner, rebel, and exile.

I don't recommend the book on its own merit as a story - it's more journalism than anything else - but anyone even slightly interested in the very real dystopia of North Korea should check it out.


Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

I am not sure how I feel about Neal Stephenson at this point.  I liked The Diamond Age, since it was clever and well-written.  I didn't like Snow Crash - I don't care how much this damages my geek cred - since its interesting and innovative ideas were swamped in the terrible writing.  I loved The Baroque Trilogy, since it was a rowdy picaresque that served up fascinating historical subtexts.  When I started Cryptonomicon, the book that has probably surpassed 1992's venerable Snow Crash as the basis for Stephenson's reputation, I was ready for anything.  But I just don't know.

Cryptonomicon follows two groups of people and several very different subplots, all only tangentially connected.  Much of the action is set during the Second World War, and the legacy of that war is the focus of the plot.  As you might guess, the science of cryptography (making and breaking codes) is the most prominent legacy.  Some of the major historical cryptographers are characters, such as Alan Turing.  And in this area, Stephenson shines.  His nerdy delight in the intricacies and magic of numbers becomes infectious.  Even if you aren't interested, such material appears to have been carefully and deliberately compartmentalized: you can skip the micro-treatises without loss.

The writing, though, is uneven.  While usually fairly decent, every few chapters Stephenson gets an idea stuck in his head, and doesn't stop until he's obliterated it.  He beats the horse until it's dead, then goes on beating it for several weeks.
The room contains a few dozen living human bodies, each one a big sack of guts and fluids so highly compressed that it will squirt for a few yards when pierced. Each one is built around an armature of 206 bones connected to each other by notoriously fault-prone joints that are given to obnoxious creaking, grinding, and popping noises when they are in other than pristine condition. This structure is draped with throbbing steak, inflated with clenching air sacks, and pierced by a Gordian sewer filled with burbling acid and compressed gas and asquirt with vile enzymes and solvents produced by the many dark, gamy nuggets of genetically programmed meat strung along its length. Slugs of dissolving food are forced down this sloppy labyrinth by serialized convulsions, decaying into gas, liquid, and solid matter which must all be regularly vented to the outside world lest the owner go toxic and drop dead. Spherical, gel-packed cameras swivel in mucus-greased ball joints. Infinite phalanxes of cilia beat back invading particles, encapsulate them in goo for later disposal. In each body a centrally located muscle flails away at an eternal, circulating torrent of pressurized gravy. And yet, despite all of this, not one of these bodies makes a single sound at any time during the sultan’s speech. It is a marvel that can only be explained by the power of brain over body, and, in turn, by the power of cultural conditioning over the brain.
Another flaw of Stephenson's writing, and this is one that follows him from book to book, is that he seems to have trouble reliably voicing a viewpoint other than that of a white male.  While I think he has increasingly managed to overcome this flaw (The Diamond Age was almost free of it), it can be pretty glaring in Cryptonomicon.  His attempt at a Japanese general's train of thought, for example, seems like nothing more than ham-handed maskery:
The Americans have invented a totally new bombing tactic in the middle of a war and implemented it flawlessly. His mind staggers like a drunk in the aisle of a careening train. They saw that they were wrong, they admitted their mistake, they came up with a new idea. The new idea was accepted and embraced all the way up the chain of command. Now they are using it to kill their enemies. No warrior with any concept of honor would have been so craven. So flexible. What a loss of face it must have been for the officers who had trained their men to bomb from high altitudes. What has become of those men? They must have all killed themselves, or perhaps been thrown into prison.
These missteps are not fatal, and don't detract from the otherwise excellent characterization.  People in his world seem to be divided into Thinkers and Doers, with no overlap.  This is touched on obliquely in the book ("There are people who talk about things, and people who do things").  It functions as a sort of dramatic division; the contrast between the different sections works very well to manage a reader's level of tension.  It ends up looking something like this:
  1. Long discussion of the Caesar cypher.
  2. Exciting prison escape.
  3. Board-room meeting, regarding Caesar cypher.
  4. Explosions, and also more explosions.
  5. Discussion of investor reactions, and subsequent paperwork.
  6. A man eats his own head.
It has to be said that Stephenson is the geekiest of geeky writers.  This has many good aspects.  He has absorbed a great deal of intricate history and bursts with detail, and he has the clever geek's gift for metaphor.  And he's certainly very good at writing geeks, for obvious reasons.  Unfortunately, Randy the hacker, from whose viewpoint we see all of the plot set in the modern day, lurches into some disagreeableness at times.  It's very clear that in his discursive moments he is a voice for the author, and so we must hold Stephenson to account for the reasonable-seeming but very silly attempts at amateur evolutionary psychology - that tired sort of "men had to focus on impressing women, so they evolved to be good at focusing" sort of stuff.

On balance, this is an interesting book, but I would not recommend it to most people.  I would wager that the geekier you are, the more you'll like it - and vice-versa.  If you want to read something of Stephenson's, I think your best bet remains The Diamond Age.


Reginald, Reginald in Russia, and The Chronicles of Clovis, Saki

In Arguably, Christopher Hitchens praises British author Hector Munro (better known by his pen name of "Saki"):
I agree with [Noel] Coward that H. H. Munro—or “Saki,” the author of the book in question—is among those few writers, inspirational when read at an early age, who definitely retain their magic when revisited decades later. I have the impression that Saki is not very much appreciated in the United States. Good. That means I can put into my debt many of you who are reading these words. Go and get an edition of this Edwardian master of the short story. Begin with, say, “Sredni Vashtar” or “The Lumber-Room” or “The Open Window.” Then see whether you can put the book down.
I had never read Saki.  This was a terrible omission, because Hitchens wasn't the only one to consider him a master of the craft - I've seen him mentioned in the same breath as Henry James, more than once.  Further, Saki's role in normalizing a certain style of public homosexuality has been the subject of discussion in recent studies of queer theory, which is always interesting.

So, I picked up a Complete Works of Saki and read his first three short story collections.  Sadly, after the twentieth story, I began to feel that I really didn't want a Complete Works, but rather a judiciously Selected Works - there is a lot of mediocrity mixed in with the truly excellent efforts.

The titular characters of Reginald and Clovis appear in about half of all the stories in these three books.  They might as well be the same character, in fact, as they are both extremely intelligent but helplessly rude young men.  The only difference seems to be that Reginald is very concerned with his clothing, while Clovis' obsession is luxurious food.  Their true function is simply as a vehicle for Saki's own wittiness, delivering outrageous retorts and engaging in spectacular verbal gymnastics.

The other stories have widely variable topics, although there are common themes.  The light-hearted stories all have a similar sort of wry humor, while the sad stories host an air of alienation and a plainly-stated, quiet horror.

As Hitchens said, "Sredni Vashtar" (the tale of a boy and his cruel aunt) is indeed very good.  I just wish it wasn't accompanied by so much that is mediocre.  You would be well-advised to seek out recommendations on just a few of the stories (perhaps off Project Gutenberg), rather than reading them all.  I recommend "Reginald at the Carlton," "The Reticence of Lady Anne," "The Sex That Doesn't Shop," "The Strategist," "The Peace Offerring," "Sredni Vashtar," and "The Unrest Cure."


Fabliaux Fair and Foul, translated by John DuVal


A "fabliau" is a humorous medieval French story, told in verse.  They are raunchy and rude, and frequently quite funny even today.  They reached the peak of their popularity in the twelfth century, and seem to have been read by both the aristocracy and the new-rising merchant class.  I was already familiar with the form thanks to one of my favorite instructors from undergrad, Dr. Mary Schenck - a scholar who is frequently cited, as it happens, in this 1992 collection of twenty fabliaux.

People are often surprised to discover that literature has been obsessed with smut since its earliest days. This is part of the reason why these old stories are still so funny - we remain intimately familiar (no pun intended) with their context.  In fact, the oldest bit of humor on record is a sex-and-farts joke from ancient Sumeria, written in cuneiform circa 1900 B.C.E.: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."

Okay, that one's lost a bit of its punch.  But not these fabliaux!

Here is an abbreviated example, from a short tale called "The Priest Who Peeked."  The cast of characters is the most common one: a lusty priest, a hapless man, and a beautiful wife.  In this story, the priest has observed the latter two having dinner.  He peers through the keyhole with great jealousy.  Luckily, he's a clever man.
The priest indignantly observed
The way the peasant led his life,
Taking no pleasure of his wife.
And when he'd had enough of spying,
He pounded at the doorway, crying,
"Hey there, good people!  You inside!
What are you doing?"  The man replied,
"Faith, sir, we're eating.  Why not come
In here to join us and have some?"
-"Eating?  What a lie!  I'm looking
Straight through this hole at you.  You're fucking."
...
The peasant leapt from where he sat,
Unlocked the door and hurried out,
The priest came in, turned about,
Shut the door and set the latch.
(This wasn't fun for the churl to watch.)
Straight to the wife the parson sped,
Spun her round and caught her head,
Tripped her up and laid her down.
Up to her chest he pulled her gown
And did of all good deeds the one
That women everywhere want done.
He bumped and battered with such force
The peasant's wife had no recourse
But to let him get what he was seeking.
And there the other man was, peeking
At the little hole, through which he spied
His lovely wife's exposed backside
And the priest, riding on top of her.
"May God Almighty help you, sir,"
The peasant called, "is this a joke?"
The parson turned his head and spoke,
"No, I'm not joking.  What's the matter?
Don't you see: here I have your platter.
I'm eating supper at your table."
-"Lord, this is like a dream or fable.
If I weren;t hearing it from you,
I'd never believe it wasn't true
That you aren't fucking my good wife."
-"I'm not, sir!  Hush!  As God's my life,
That's what I thought I saw you do."

The peasant said, "I guess that's true."
 Poor peasant!  Poor peasant's wife!  Wicked priest!

A lot of things have changed since these tales were first sung in taverns.  Severe sexual assaults, for example, are no longer winked-at.  But such things are the exceptional, rather than the rule, and the stories are frequently very enjoyable.

Unfortunately, some of the fabliaux have lost a great deal in translation.  The foreword mentions some of the complicated French puns that occur in the stories, and the description-heavy stories such as "William and the Falcon" are dragged down by translator John DuVaul's efforts to maintain a lovely rhyme.  But I suspect that these raunchy and humorous stories would be much damaged by a Nabokovian slavishness to the original text's meaning.  As it is, they're positively jaunty.

I recommend this book for any reader, because poop and sex jokes are truly universal.

3 comments:

  1. I do wish you'd give each book its own post. My post coming just after the poop and sex jokes book... yikes. :)

    Anyway! I think you've persuaded me not to read Cryptonomicon. My first Stephenson book was Anathem, which I enjoyed, though it took a while to get into the story since I had to get used to the vocabulary. But I think the pay off was worth it. Then I read Snow Crash and lemmed it halfway. (Speaking of which, are you familiar with that term? I found it on Goodreads recently.) I imagine you were bored at the same parts I was in Snow Crash--the giant infodumps about Inanna.

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  2. If I gave every book its own post, then I'd be unable to put them on FB or G+, since they'd swamp my feed. Too many books!

    You heard about "lemmed" recently from Goodreads because it was invented last month by a Goodreads moderator, to describe a book by Stanislaw Lem.

    Yes, I found the Inanna crap to be pretty tiresome, one of Stephenson's clever-idea-beaten-into-the-ground sorts of deals. I haven't yet read Anathem or Reamde, although I imagine I will. If you enjoyed any of his work, I recommend The Baroque Trilogy and The Diamond Age. The former, especially, since it avoids another major Stephenson problem: endings. He has problems with resolving plots in a satisfying way (not because he's not trying, but just because he often fails).

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