21 September 2013

"Railsea," "The Life of Galileo," "Gone Girl," "Cloud Atlas," and "The Use and Abuse of Literature."

Railsea, China Mieville
The Life of Galileo, Bertold Brecht
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
The Use and Abuse of Literature, Majorie Garber

Railsea, China Mieville

The word for this book is "rollicking."  From start to finish, it rollicks you with an imaginative adventure story that's partly a tribute to the venturesome spirit of Melville and partly a dystopian nightmare.  It follows a young hero as he joins the crew of a train that "sails" on the endless lines of rail that blanket the earth, as they hunt monstrous moles and flee the other mutant creatures that menace the scattered peoples of the future.

The book that leans heavily on its central metaphor: the earth transformed into a poisonous pseudo-ocean, trains taking the place of ships, and giant moles standing in for whales.  Fortunately, this dependence never becomes a crutch: this is a genuinely well-written book.  It uses a handful of odd phrases and orthographic choices to convey the flavor of a different world, and the pacing is light yet purposeful.  Mieville knows his craft.
The Medes headed north, but the eccentricities of rails & junctions took them briefly west, too. Enough that late one day, at the limits of vision, like a smoke wall at the horizon, loomed the slopes of Cambellia. A wild continent, a legend & a bad one, it rose from the railsea.
That would have been enough to get most of the crew out & staring at the horizon, but veering a little nearer it was clear that what might have been a line of bushes, some peculiarities of rock, was the fallen corpse of an upsky beast. Well that brought them all out. Muttering, pointing, taking flatographs.
It happened sometimes that those alien things fighting their obscure fights in the poisonous high air would kill each other, send each other’s strange carcasses plummeting to the railsea. It wasn’t unprecedented for trains to have to grind slowly past or even through them, pushing impossible meat out of the way with their front-plows, their figureheads getting sticky with odd rot. “No flies on that, eh,” said Vurinam.
There is much to admire in Railsea, which is almost the prototypical science fiction book.  The characterization is done moderately well but sparingly, in order to enlist our sympathies while still keeping the focus on the clashing events of the main action.  The world-building avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of the practice, giving the reader enough information so that the expanding strata of the setting envelops him, without overwhelming and turning into outright exposition.

It's a good book, and I unreservedly recommend it to all readers - especially those who'd like a marvelous introduction into the practice of science fiction.

The Life of Galileo, Bertold Brecht

When we speak of reputations, it can be useful to think of scale.  A writer or playwright might be one of the best in a new trend, like the new South.  Or they might be near the top of the ranks in a genre, such as the composers of musical theater.  Some few are called the best of their generation, singling them out among hundreds of prominent rivals over a decade's worth of material.

But when you talk about German playwright Bertolt Brecht, the scale of reputation is unqualified.  That is to say, you speak of Brecht in terms of "the best."  His stature is such that I have actually heard the question expressed in the simplest of ways: "Brecht, Aesychlus, or Beckett?"

I am not endorsing this triumvirate, mind you.

Those who are reading the work of such rarefied company, then, are presented with special problems.

First, it is tempting to be contrary, pitting yourself against the world and bravely declaring that you dislike the universally-praised classic.  This is attractive, because it is uncompromising (which is romantic and fun) and because it is seemingly bold (which is brave and fun) and because it's more interesting than joining the chorus of praise.  Why be the millionth person to love The Great Gatsby, when you can stand out from the crowd and call it overrated?

Second, there is pressure to discover what everyone else sees in the work, because even if you're going to disagree with the praise, you have to at least understand it.  And if you're not an expert or particularly versed in that genre or period, it can be hard to know if it's historical context or inherent beauty that has earned the vaunted reputation.  It's the same dilemma faced by first-time viewers of Citizen Kane: is this a good movie I should love on its own merit, or is this just an "important" movie?

Third, we come to this work with expectations, which is a serious problem for anyone trying to actually appreciate a work of art.  I'm not talking about the inevitable expectations, like "I expect this to be good."  But rather, we often build up in our minds an idea of the characteristics of a "great" play, and sometimes even the characteristics of a Brecht play, well before we ever get the chance to experience it.  For all the deepened delight provided by a broad education, sometimes the best way to see something new is the Pretty Woman way, when the hooker goes to the opera: with an honest heart and no preconceptions.

Obviously, I found a sober assessment of "The Life of Galileo" to be a challenge.

The story is the story of the historical Galileo.  A brilliant Italian scientist, he publishes a work that confirms the heliocentric model of the world, and he does so in the Italian of the masses rather than the Latin of the elite.  The Church investigates, condemns, and arrests Galileo.  Under threat of torture ("They showed me the instruments.") he recants his work, but, when released, publishes another and even greater heretical advancement of science.  Much of the play focuses on the question of virtue and self-interest: is Galileo a hero?

It's a loose play, with a script that's full of passion.  This Galileo is wrapped up not only in his work, but also in the philosophy of free inquiry and free thought.  As the learned scientist and focus of the play, he is frequently given his soap-box, which he uses in verbal combat and unwilling denouncement.
Don't you think the truth will prevail, even without us, if it is the truth?

No, no, no. Truth prevails only when we make it prevail. The triumph of reason can only be the triumph of reasoning men. You describe your peasants in the Campagna as if they were moss on their huts. How can anyone imagine that the sum of the angles of a triangle runs counter to their needs!  But if they don't rouse themselves and learn how to think, the best irrigation systems in the world won't do them any good. Damn it, I see the divine patience of your people, but where is their divine wrath?
I am in full-throated agreement with the play's ideals.  These include not only the necessity of epistemic rationality - a clear-eyed view of the world, uncluttered by dogma - but also the endorsement of a heroism that transcends physical courage and personal failings.  These principles are revealed with eloquence and beauty in the play.

You should probably read this play, if only to get an idea of Brecht, but also because there is an undeniable magnificence in some of the scenes.  A broken old man, who has betrayed the things he holds sacred, still dares to defy authority.  Read 1984 and be dismayed by the corruption of a man's spirit, and then read this and be reminded that redemption never dies.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Fifty Shades of Mildly Titillating Mormonism and Eat Pray WaitForAManToRescueYou are both good examples of how popularity can be completely meaningless.  Those books were hugely, enormously popular, but also just terrible: corpuscles on the face of literature.  But on the other hand, Jonson and Shakespeare survive to this day in large part because they were crowd-pleasers: goofy clowns and rousing swordplay really put pantaloons in the seats.  Shakespeare was a blockbuster, back in his day.

This book by Gillian Flynn was an enormous bestseller, which immediately prompts curiosity and suspicion.  There's nothing wrong with that, and I like to read everything, but "phenomenon" books are so frequently hit-or-miss.  They might be popular for the best of reasons, such as innovation or beauty - or for the very worst, like clumsy emotional manipulation.  Some are hits, some are misses.

Fortunately, Gone Girl is a hit.  It's a mystery - a series of mysteries - and one without a foregone conclusion.  I was surprised at the final few twists.  The story follows the dilemma of a man whose wife is abducted, possibly murdered, making him the obvious suspect.  He tries to investigate and clear his name, amid excerpts from her diary and flashbacks to their rocky marriage, but keeps getting deeper into trouble with every false step.  The writing is lively, with an interesting spring to it, and it spins the story in a wonderful way.
I could always turn myself off like a light. I’m going to sleep, I’d say, my hands in prayer position against my cheek, Zzzzzz, the deep sleep of a NyQuiled child – while my insomniac wife fussed in bed next to me. Last night, though, I felt like Amy, my brain still going, my body on edge. I was, most of the time, a man who was literally comfortable in his own skin. Amy and I would sit on the couch to watch TV, and I’d turn to melted wax, my wife twitching and shifting constantly next to me. I asked her once if she might have restless leg syndrome – an ad for the disease was running, the actors’ faces all furrowed in distress as they shook their calves and rubbed their thighs – and Amy said, I have restless everything syndrome.I watched the ceiling of the hotel room turn gray then pink then yellow and finally pulled myself up to see the sun blaring right at me, across the river, again, a solar third degree. ... It is a do-it-yourself era: health care, real estate, police investigation. Go online and fucking figure it out for yourself because everyone’s overworked and understaffed. I was a journalist. I spent over ten years interviewing people for a living and getting them to reveal themselves. I was up to the task, and Marybeth and Rand believed so too. I was thankful they let me know I was still in their trust, the husband under a wispy cloud of suspicion. Or do I fool myself to use the word wispy?
One interesting thing to think about, when it comes to mysteries such as this one on page and screen, is the importance of fairness.  For a mystery to be fair, it has to fulfill certain requirements.  If the author fails, then the mystery fails.

The narrative must be true, most importantly.  If the detective sees a fragment of blue cloth - a clue - you can't backtrack at the turn and reveal that he was wrong and it was really red cloth.  That's not to say the detective can't be wrong, especially in his judgment of other people or his guesses at the future.  But he must be the reader's witness and give solid testimony to form the basis for our speculations.

Much of the fun of a mystery is trying to anticipate the decisions the author will make.  What the text reveals to the reader must be reliable, or else there's no magic in trying to follow the twists of possibility - instead, there's just unpleasant chaos, a jumble of uncertainties (chaos can make a good book, but it's a different sort of book).  A mystery has to give reliable information, and when it's not reliable, it has to be qualified as such - the detective is injured, the light is poor, or uncertainty is expressed.

Another fascinating aspect of the mystery is the fact that there are two ways it can have a really successful plotline, and they are opposites: predictability and surprise.

The fact that a mystery can be fun when it surprises you is probably no great insight.  After all, that's frequently how people describe a mystery they've liked - "You'll never guess the twist!"  There is distinct joy to be had in revelation: here is how it was done, and this is the scene of the crime, and RIGHT THERE is the murderer!  If the book is well-written enough to invest you in the story, then it has become a puzzle you're eager to solve... and challenging puzzles are more fun than very easy ones.

It is less appreciated, on the other hand, that many mysteries are delightful when they offer no surprises at all.  We are not at all astonished if the murderer turns out to be the villainous, skulking heir that we hate so much.  When we read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, we're not surprised at the villain's identity (at least, if we're an adult), but we enjoy the unfolding of what becomes an inevitability.  Knowing exactly where the story is going can be its own pleasure.

In the case of Gone Girl, the pleasures are distinctly of the unexpected type.  There are numerous twists, and the author has aptly anticipated our expectations, in order to happily foil them.  It's engaging and fun, and most people would enjoy the excellent characters and clever plot.  Check it out.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is more than one story: instead, it is a collection of six stories, spread out over time and linked only in the most tenuous of fashions.  These stories are a nineteenth-century travelogue, an interbellum psychological thriller, a contemporary industrial espionage story, a futuristic horror about cloning, and a dystopian survival tale.  They vary in quality and tone enormously, but they fit together with the neatness of Legos.  That is both a strength and a weakness of the book, and it's exacerbated by the skill with which the book was written.

Cloud Atlas seems very consciously designed.  When you read it, you can almost see the series of notes that the author must have made, planning and linking out everything.  I imagine a yellow legal pad, scrawled with notes about concordances of names and numbers.  That may not reflect the actual process, which could easily have been haphazard and rushed; I don't know David Mitchell's methods.  But when I read the book, I felt as though it was a wholly constructed thing.  It's exceedingly well-constructed, and a very enjoyable read, but it was impossible to absorb myself in the story.  Cloud Atlas is well-mapped and impeccably laid-out, and that's good - but it means it's difficult to lose yourself.

This might be peculiar to my own experience, of course.  Other people have told me they found it easy to fall into the various tales, and didn't notice the meticulous structuring.  Mitchell certainly characterizes each story with an astonishing level of skill, tailoring his tone and diction into six very different styles.  One of the stories set in a future Korea, for example, blends both a cultural and chronological distinctness into the text:
So … after the Sermon, New Year’s Day was business as usual?
Business, yes; usual, no. The Starring Ceremony was perfunctory. Two Twelve starreds were escorted into the elevator by Aide Ahn. These were replaced by two Kyelims. Yoona939 was replaced by a new Yoona. Seer Rhee inserted our new stars into our collars in grave silence; applause was deemed inappropriate. Soon after, Media streamed in, flashing nikons and besieging the office. Our seer could get them out only by first letting them nikon the new Yoona lying in the elevator with a 939 sticker on her collar, covered in tomato sauce. Later, Unanimity medics xamined each of us in turn. I was fritened of incriminating myself, but only my birthmark provoked any passing comment.
Notice the genericized trademark, nikon, used to refer to cameras: it's instantly recognizable, because it mimics a process we've seen in our own time (c.f. Xerox, Kleenex) and uses a brand we know, while also demonstrating the passage of time, and - most importantly - advancing the action of the story.  Notice, too, the spelling irregularities, which are infrequent and unobtrusive enough so that they don't impede the reader at all.  For example, we mentally voice the "ex" sound in "examined" so prominently that its reduction to "x" is easily managed by our reading eye.

At the very least, Cloud Atlas is a remarkable achievement as a work of art, even if I found it difficult to forget the process of reading.  If the worst thing I can say about a book is that the careful craftsmanship was distracting, then you know it's good.  Read it when you get a chance.

The Use and Abuse of Literature, Majorie Garber

It's pretty easy to ask Big Questions.  Cultural commentary is really not so hard, because everyone's life is touched by problems and it's fairly easy to extrapolate them into larger patterns in a community, nation, or the world.  The world has many flaws and it's no challenge to find a few.

Giving Big Answers is the tough thing, of course.  And for all that I sometimes disagreed with her, Marjorie Garber deserves an extraordinary amount of credit for making the attempt to not just deride the status of literature in the modern world, but to try to point the way forward.

Garber's Big Questions focus on the role of literature in an era where quantifiable knowledge is assuming increasing prominence:
Are we trying to assess why a college student should major in literature, or even in the humanities, rather than in something more pragmatic, more lucrative, more amenable to the generation of data, or more directly applicable to the improvement of society? Or are we asking whether there is still, or was ever, anything persuasive in the poet Shelley’s statement that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Is literature useful because it is beautiful or moving (both of these are claims that have been made by some commentators and dismissed by others as impressionistic and unprovable)?
The hand-wringing over literature in a data-driven age - or rather, the whole of the humanities - has been going on for at least twenty years now.  It evolved from an earlier and co-extant concern about standards-based education.  We worry now not only about whether we can effectively implement standards for English teachers and history teachers and art teachers, but also if those skills will have a place in the world of the future.

I'm not worried about this.  There are certainly structural issues with the American education system (which may have led to the increase in enrollment in humanities subjects at American universities), but there is real evidence that studying the humanities gives you valuable skills.  And by and large, that's not going to change.

Still, many are concerned about the future of literature and the humanities.  To answer these concerns, The Use and Abuse of Literature takes on the question of literature's utility and proposes a role for the discipline in our lives.
In the pages that follow I will attempt not only to argue for but also to invoke and demonstrate the “uses” of reading and of literature, not as an instrument of moral or cultural control, nor yet as an infusion of “pleasure,” but rather as a way of thinking. That is why, in my view, it is high time to take back the term literature. To do so will mean explaining why reading—not skimming for information or for the plot (or for the sexy, titillating “good parts” of a novel or a political exposé)—is really hard to do; and why the very uselessness of literature is its most profound and valuable attribute. The result of such a radical reorientation of our understanding of what it means to read, and to read literature, and to read in a “literary” way, would be enormous. A better understanding of these questions is the only way to return literature to the center, rather than the periphery, of personal, educational, and professional life.
Garber's task is a gargantuan one, even though this is a relatively small book, and her summaries of cultural trends show her erudition and intelligence.  She aptly condenses and assesses the practical and ideological tracks taken by literature (which is often synecdoche for the humanities at large) over the years, even when it comes to the twistier bits of Continental philosophy.  It's fantastic and well-done - just as long as you're really into that sort of thing.  Otherwise, it's as dry as a mummy's tongue.
Furthermore, the rise of cultural studies and other interdisciplinary approaches to social and cultural practice caught the eye, and the disapproving glance, of many former, retired, or disgruntled academics, some transformed into journalists or government officials, who unilaterally declared a culture war. Wielding the three most effective weapons for such a battle, intolerant anti-intellectualism, jingoistic super-patriotism, and nostalgia for a past that never was, these self-appointed guardians ridiculed what they did not demonize and demonized what they did not ridicule. Deconstruction, a reading practice developed directly out of the New Criticism, was parodied as a plot of the left. When deconstructive critic Paul de Man was discovered to have had a complicated past involving possible collaboration with the Germans during World War II, deconstruction also became a fascist plot. Race-class-and-gender, or race-class-gender-and-sexuality, were deemed unworthy “political” objects of humanistic attention, and attention to colonialism (even for a discipline like English studies, which emerged as a university subject at the height of the British empire) was likewise dismissed as irrelevant political meddling by scholars who would be better off restricting their activities to the library, the archive, the museum, and the (undergraduate) classroom. What was most disturbing about these attacks was their mean-spiritedness and the shoddiness of the “research” that produced them, often consisting of sitting in on a single class by a given professor, or listing and belittling the titles of courses or conference papers, many never read in their entirety by those who mocked them. But there is no doubt that this strategy was effective, and doubly so, since those targeted began to retaliate, providing precisely the kind of partisan evidence their critics had wished into being. 
As her argument matures, Garber begins to describe many of the reasons I am not worried, and becomes in danger of rendering her book redundant: in many cases, I'd suggest that her demands have already been met.
The best way for literary scholars to reinstate the study of literature, language, and culture as a key player among the academic humanities is to do what we do best, to engage in big public questions of intellectual importance and to address them by using the tools of our trade, which include not only material culture but also theory, interpretation, linguistic analysis, and a close and passionate attention to the rich allusiveness, deep ambivalence, and powerful slipperiness that is language in action. The future importance of literary studies—and, if we care about such things, its intellectual and cultural prestige both among the other disciplines and in the world—will come from taking risks, not from playing it safe. 
Still, I think that her summary of events is cogent and - for the most part - fair.  Garber sees a literature that challenges and rebuilds the world, and that is absolutely an idea with which I agree.  You should check this book out if you have her same concerns, because she will soothe you, or if you are interested in a socio-political history of literature.  But it's probably not a good beach read.

This has been a very quote-heavy review, but before I close, I'd like to highlight two last things from the text.  They are related to the role of literary analysis, and answer a frequent objection I have gotten from people who like to read, but not to read critically.  There's nothing wrong with just enjoying a book, but it really does bother me when people suggest that trying to understand a book somehow ruins your enjoyment of it.  Garber aptly refutes:
I want to stress a point I’ve made before about literary analysis—that it does not damage but tends to strengthen the status of the texts being analyzed. Their greatness, however we want to define that term, is enhanced rather than undercut by the discussion, interpretation, and examination of historical context. The works of Chaucer do not need to be protected from feminist analysis—just to give one example—any more than the Pledge of Allegiance needs to be protected from its origins in advertising tie-ins and marketing. The more we know, the more we discuss, the more we interpret, the more familiar we become with the language, nuance, history, and meanings (in the plural) of these texts, the better. And this is especially the case, I’d contend, with works that have achieved canonical status. They should be alive to us, which means that they grow and change as the times change and readers change. If they are immobile, marmoreal, and untouchable, venerated rather than read and interpreted, then they are no longer literary and no longer living. 
I’ve often encountered undergraduate and graduate students who were concerned that literary criticism, literary analysis, and literary theory would take away their pleasure in reading rather than making it richer and fuller. Happily, that tends to be a brief moment rather than a lasting one, since the delights of literary immersion, whether through an examination of imagery, symbolism, prosody, rhetoric and syntax, historical context, and/or performance, tend almost always to produce new ways of loving familiar texts as well as encounters with new texts to love. Still, there are moments of evasion, avoidance, disavowal: “I don’t want to spoil it for myself.” But there is no cause for concern. Poems, plays, novels, critical essays, aphorisms—these are all vivid, vigorous, healthy, tough, resistant: they will survive. Dismembering them through analysis and interpretation is one of many ways of engaging with and remembering them. Works of literature are not soap bubbles or daylilies or meteors or mirages: they will last, indeed much longer than any reader or critic.