05 December 2013

"Collected Fictions," "Reamde," "The Alchemist," "The White Tiger," and "The Years of Lyndon Johnson."

Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges
Reamde, Neal Stephenson
The Alchemist, Paolo Coehlo
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Passage of Power, Robert Caro

Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges

I must confess: I'm getting all out of order with reviews.  I read more than I write, and the list of books waiting for a review has steadily grown.  This was once to be a review of Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges, but that review has been overtaken by the Collected Fictions, which I borrowed from a gracious friend.

I called Borges' Ficciones the best book of fiction I read in 2011.
The stories are often mysterious or have a hidden conclusion. They are often self-referential, or otherwise "meta." Some of them are skilled metaphors. But almost without exception, they are conceptually brilliant. At the center of each weird, wonderful story lies a beating heart of an insight, animating all the strange parts and twisting limbs.
The larger Collected Fictions includes dozens more stories, and new translations of the older ones.  The translation is controversial, in fact: Borges' widow refused to permit further publication of the older translations (including those done by Norman di Giovanni in collaboration with the author himself).  The older translators had contractually enjoyed an unusually large share of the proceeds, but their work has also been described as uneven - both reasons probably played a part in the decision.  I'm not fit to judge its wisdom, although reviews by bilingual scholars have generally approved.

This career-spanning collection includes all the stories with which I was familiar - and which I happily reread - as well as some amazing work I'd never seen, such as the author's earliest work.  Arranged chronologically, in a comprehensive collection, of the most interesting things was the development of Borges' mystical rhythms.  The sentences grow gradually knottier.  What begins as the occasional tangles of his early prose, splicing a complicated thought into the simple thread of the writing, become a distinct weave.  In his mature style, Borges writes in a swooping rise-and-fall.  It invites rereading and rethought, and it allows the author to suddenly terminate the pattern with a moment of uncomplicated absoluteness.  The results resemble nothing so much as a prayer.
There are devotees of Goethe, of the Eddas, of the late song of the Nibelungen; my fate has been Shakespeare.  As it still is, though in a way that no one could have foreseen - no one save one man, Daniel Thorpe, who has just recently died in Pretoria.  There is another man, too, whose face I have never seen.
You can almost hear the Latin choir.

Another aspect of Borges' work that is made clear by a single unbroken experience is his utter devotion to the idea of infinities.  From start to last, he wrote of unending libraries, perfect memories that encompass every shade of color in every day, and loops of time that mirrored each other in eternal regression.  I'd noticed the pattern before, but I'd thought that it was a theme of the collections.  Instead, it seems as though Borges was singularly fascinated by infinity: his stories almost invariably describe people, places, or objects that have some aspect of boundlessness.

It bears mention that the earliest work of the collection can be a little clumsy, not only in the style of execution but in the elegance of the ideas.  The fractal brilliance that characterizes his mature ideas is less pronounced in his first efforts.  Those readers new to Borges should certainly begin with one of the smaller collections (Labyrinths, Fictions, etc.).  But for those who already love the author, let me assure you that this sturdy book is well-worth your time.

Reamde, Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson has gotten steadily better at writing as his career has continued.  That's remarkable for an author of such influence.  Snow Crash remains one of the most important works of modern science fiction (it introduced concepts like "avatars" and prompted virtual worlds like Second Life).  While the cleverness of his ideas has varied in his succeeding work, his mastery of his craft has - without exception - continued to improve.  Reamde fits in nicely with the trend, but represents a thematic departure for Stephenson: most of his previous work has been devoted to exploring the consequences of new technologies on society, whereas Reamde is (surprisingly) almost a completely straightforward thriller.

The book follows a variety of characters, including a wealthy video-game designer, his young niece, a Russian mercenary, and an Eastern European hacker, along a simple plotline.  The niece is held for ransom: can she escape or be rescued?  As the story unfolds, it's carried along lightly and well by Stephenson's easy writing, buoyed by occasional levity.
Until the high-velocity rounds began to pass down into their apartment from above, Marlon had never troubled himself to think about the possible drawbacks of having neighbors who shared his attitude about what constituted suitable real estate. He had the vague sense that the apartment above them was crowded, but that was frequently the case in buildings like this one. From time to time, as they climbed the stairs to play basketball on the roof, they would see people who seemed to be waidiren—“not from around here” types, internal foreigners—and perhaps even waiguoren—non-Chinese. If the wind was blowing the right way, they would sometimes get a whiff of chemical odors, but it was difficult to pin down their origin.

But now those chemicals were dribbling down into their apartment through bullet holes, and the dribbles were on fire.

Marlon stared in fascination at a puddle of burning acetone that was forming on a pile of magazines. Then it penetrated his awareness that the other guys, the younger ones, were looking at him wondering what to do.

“Zombies,” he announced, and turned toward the nearest window.
It's a fun read, though it curiously lacks that cerebral impact I usually find in his writing.  The Baroque Trilogy remains his best work to date, but if you're not especially looking for that kind of commitment, or you just want an interesting thriller with the occasional element of techno-speculation, pick this one up.

The Alchemist, Paolo Coehlo

The enduring success of The Alchemist is a sad thing.  The book is derivative, cloying, and it cloaks its clumsy New Age grandiloquence under a thin veneer of humility.  Many people love those traits, so The Alchemist's status as a modern classic makes sense.  But it's still a sad thing.

Spoilers ahead!

The central trick to the story is the dream experienced by the protagonist.  A young Andalusian shepherd has a vision one night, as he sleeps near a ruined church, of a hidden treasure buried at the base of the Great Pyramids in Egypt.  At the end of the book and at the end of the boy's clumsy ideological journey, he finally arrives at the pyramids - only to find nothing, and to be beaten and robbed by an embittered band of thieves, one of whom mockingly tells the boy about his own dream, of a buried treasure in a ruined Andalusian church.  This treasure actually does exist, and the boy becomes rich.

It's a great little tricky plot... but I could have sworn I just read that same story in The Arabian Nights!  It was much shorter and snappier there, since it was only a page-long story rather than a hundred pages of nonsense, but it's hard to forget a clever little plot-twist like that one.

It took only a few seconds to confirm this thought (it's even on the Wikipedia page for The Alchemist).  It's not acknowledged in the text anywhere that I could find, though.  That prompts the thought: is that okay?

Obviously, it's not always wrong to borrow a plot.  Sometimes they take the essential story in order to draw a deliberate parallel, as when Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land followed the same path as the New Testament's Jesus.  Other times, an author might borrow well-known elements in order to rebut or build on the original, like when Margaret Atwood told the story of Odysseus' wife in The Penelopiad.  And the borrowing need not stop at the basic plot or a few elements: Shakespeare took almost the entirety of several works and reinvented them wholesale, taking the whole plot and most of the characters from existing plays about Hamlet and King Lear.

So borrowing and allusion are not necessarily wrong.  They form the basis for some of the most wonderful texts that we have, and you could hardly accuse Heinlein, Atwood, or Shakespeare of being really dishonest in any solid sense.  Because the tales of Jesus, Odysseus, and Hamlet were so well-known, borrowing elements from them didn't detract from the originals.  The new works incorporated the old and transformed them, and the borrowings gave an even greater depth.  Much of the meaning of The Penelopiad - maybe most of the meaning - comes from the role of Penelope as a character in the original Odyssey.  But the Odyssey isn't lessened by the borrowing.  It's enhanced.

How are these allusions different, then, from The Alchemist?  Well, the essential distinction is that it is rather unlikely that many of Coehlo's readers would ever discover the author's appropriation from Arabian Nights.  It's only one short story in a very large book of short stories (and it doesn't even appear in all editions).  The clever trick to the plot is one of the most appealing aspects of The Alchemist, and one that readers will probably attribute to Coehlo.  He should have known this.

The unpleasant thing about Coehlo's appropriation, then, is it seems a lot like theft, rather than allusion.

That discussion aside, which may be best left to literary theorists, I found much else to dislike about the book.  The writing, for example, has about the same elegance as a strangled cat covered in pink frosting.  The characters converse in banalities, and simplicity is disguised as profundity.  There's nothing wrong with simplicity, of course, but kindergarten-grade philosophy shouldn't be dressed as Rumi.
The boy continued to listen to his heart as they crossed the desert. He came to understand its dodges and tricks, and to accept it as it was. He lost his fear, and forgot about his need to go back to the oasis, because, one afternoon, his heart told him that it was happy. "Even though I complain sometimes," it said, "it's because I'm the heart of a person and people's hearts are that way. People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don't deserve them, or that they'll be unable to achieve them. We, their hearts, become fearful just thinking of loved ones who go away forever, or of the moments that could have been good but weren't, or of treasures that might have been found but were forever hidden in the sands. Because, when these things happen, we suffer terribly."

"My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer," the boy told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.

"Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second's encounter with God and with eternity."

"Every second of the search is an encounter with God," the boy told his heart. "When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I've known that every hour was part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I've discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve."
I can honestly say, without any exaggeration, that The Alchemist seems like it was written by a freshman in college.  The slight shadiness of borrowing the plot from an obscure story; the lumpen nonsense Coehlo gussies up with broad language; the Deepak Chopra shotgun-style philosophy that suggests that anything pleasant must be true... this is a terrible book.

Do not bother with The Alchemist.  It's not even fun to hate.  It's too depressing.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

During my time in India, I read numerous books by local authors.  I have already written about the abysmal work of superstar author Chetan Bhagat.  At the same time, I was fortunate enough to encounter almost the polar opposite of Bhagat in the form of his countryman, Aravind Adiga.

The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, is a magnificent book.  It's the kind of work that's so varied and clever that you want to describe it in cliches: "I laughed, I cried" ... "A powerhouse of a book." ... "A tour-de-force."  That impulse aside: this is a good book.

Adiga's epistolary novel, which takes the format of a series of letters written by an Indian businessman to the Chinese Premier, is simultaneously extremely cynical and extraordinarily affecting.  The narrator, Balram, tells the story of how he rose from village poverty, and the murders he committed along the way.  It's what is known as a skaz narrative - colloquial and conversational.
It is a little before midnight now, Mr. Jiabao. A good time for me to talk.

I stay up the whole night, Your Excellency. And there's no one else in this 150-square-foot office of mine. Just me and a chandelier above me, although the chandelier has a personality of its own. It's a huge thing, full of small diamond-shaped glass pieces, just like the ones they used to show in the films of the 1970s. Though it's cool enough at night in Bangalore, I've put a midget fan -- five cobwebby blades -- right above the chandelier. See, when it turns, the small blades chop up the chandelier's light and fling it across the room. Just like the strobe light at the best discos in Bangalore.

This is the only 150-square-foot space in Bangalore with its own chandelier! But it's still a hole in the wall, and I sit here the whole night.

The entrepreneur's curse. He has to watch his business all the time.
The letters are written over a short period of time, so Balram writes from a consistent viewpoint.  Yet he saw the world differently as a child.  Accordingly, Adiga was presented with the problem of credibly describing the growing awareness of a maturing child from the outside.  This is not easy.  Most books, like Midnight's Children, solve the issue with framing.  They express the limited understand of the narrator's younger self with traditional narrative of the past, qualifying as they go (along the lines of, "I didn't know it at the time, but I was seeing the ocean for the first time.")

I was interested to find that The White Tiger chooses the less common solution to the problem.  In each chapter - in each letter - Balram begins from the same point in the present, before setting the scene and throwing us back into the past.  He transitions, then, into what he was thinking at that time (establishing narrative distance).  His mindset becomes that of a child, or teenager, or innocent.  It's difficult to do, and requires a great deal of discipline of style, since we can so easily lose the illusion.

The text is funny and sad.  It stands in judgment of modern Indian society (as superficial, as cruel, as provincial), while standing in testament to some of the best things about the country by virtue of its very existence, as a work of profound beauty and artistry.  Almost everyone will enjoy it; the prose spins perfectly and cleanly like a Swiss watch.  Read it.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Passage of Power, Robert Caro

Biography is narrative.  The raw facts of any life are innumerable and boring.  To simply write down a manageable amount - much less in a way that someone would want to read - necessitates selection.  Biographers pick the events they want and create the story they see.

In these four volumes, which will eventually be joined by a fifth, Robert Caro has told a story of Lyndon Johnson.  Born to the dust of the Texas Hill Country, burning with patrilineal ambition and possessed of a preternatural will, the Johnson of Caro's telling was a peerless political animal.  At the earliest opportunity, his genius for people and for organizations allowed him to rise to power.

As a young man, Johnson ingratiated himself to the administration of his college, and soon began using his position for leverage.  He gave out jobs to those who begged, and broke those who'd sneered at him (and it was easy to sneer at him, since he was a liar and a coward).  And he took a casual social club and made it into a personal enforcement organization - within a single year.  That political skill was perhaps only matched by the drive that made him a wonderful local campaigner for a Texas politician, and both attributes were certainly what led to his selection as a Congressional aide.

Only Johnson, perhaps, could have turned the small job of an aide into a role of surprising power, as he ran for the leadership of a fun mock-parliament called the "Little Congress."  He saw the potential in the organization, and he turned it into a proxy for the real Congress.  Johnson would stage previews of upcoming legislative debates, enacted by aides rather than the actual Congresspeople, and soon enough reporters and legislators were showing up at the meetings.  Johnson became the man to see among Congressional aides, as he'd been the man to see at his college.

He didn't stop there.  He seized on the spirit of the moment - pleasing FDR and earning the great man's endorsement at a time when it was invaluable - and was elected to Congress for Texas.  Johnson's drive to win was inhuman.  Caro describes long days of campaigning, visiting every street in every small town.  Shaking every hand.  Kissing every baby.  Bribing every election official.  Johnson's ambition didn't let anything stand in the way - including votes.

In the House, Johnson continued a meteoric rise.  He was a "reader" of people, and knew them with a glance... that's how he'd pulled the strings at college, and how he'd gotten FDR's nod.  He read Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, and found a man who was lonely and secretly wished for a son.  Johnson made himself that son.  And ten years later, after a decade of power in the House?  Naturally, Johnson ran for Senate.  Upward, always upward, burned that ambition.

The Senate was harder.  It was tough to shake every hand in all of Texas, and expensive to buy every vote (even with the support of those businesses he'd been doing "favors" for).  He lost the first time, and the second time he won by the slenderest of margins and the most stuffed of ballot boxes.  Johnson became Senator Johnson, but the mocking nickname of "Landslide Lyndon" would follow him for years.

Once in the Senate, though, Johnson reached his apotheosis.  He knew everyone in both chambers of Congress, he knew procedure inside and out, and he had not the slightest compunction about turning the world's greatest legislative body into an instrument of his will.

Caro's writing is sometimes a bit inconsistent, but for long stretches, it becomes truly artful.  It might be a kind of awe at work, but then, Johnson could be awe-inspiring.  He was, as Caro calls him, the Master of the Senate in a way that has never been equaled, before or after.  Reading Caro's description of this ascension and enactment is the literary equivalent of a grand, trembling, masterful musical solo: you witness a human being doing the thing he was born to do.  For seven years, Johnson played the Senate like a fiddle.

The final volume of these four is dramatic in a very different way.  Johnson runs for President, and fails.  He fails massively and humiliatingly, trying all the tricks that had always worked in Congress. But the presidency was different - you couldn't master the whole country one person at a time.  He spun his wheels in the sand, and finally accepted the Vice Presidency as a consolation... only to discover that he, Lyndon Johnson, the most powerful man in Washington, was now a powerless joke.  He could do nothing.  No one would speak to him.  And there was nothing he could do about it.
The inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was one of the memorable days of American history, for a presidential inauguration is a day for inspiration. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”; “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty”—the phrases of Kennedy’s inaugural address were so gloriously inspiring even before the ringing voice said, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” that they summoned up, and, in some ways, summed up, the best of the American spirit, igniting hopes so that, almost on the instant it seemed, they summoned up a new era for Americans, an era of ideals, of brightness, of hope. “Oh, Jack,” his wife said afterwards, her hand stroking his face, “Oh, Jack, what a day!”

It was a very different kind of a day for Lyndon Johnson. The stands erected for the inauguration were in front of the Capitol’s long eastern façade. During Johnson’s time as a young congressional aide, he had passed along the length of that façade every morning on his way to the House Office Building from his basement room, with its uncovered steam pipes running across the ceiling, in a shabby little hotel near Union Station. The young woman who worked in the same office with him, and who would sometimes see him coming to work, noticed that as he was passing the façade, he almost always broke excitedly into a run, as if the façade’s sheer majesty, with its towering white marble columns and its parapets and friezes jammed with heroic figures, all gleamingly, dazzlingly white as they were struck full by the early-morning sun, had, perhaps, in its symbolic evocation of what he was aiming for, and in its contrast with the shabby little houses of the Hill Country from which he had come, touched something deep within him. Perhaps Lyndon Johnson had dreamed on some of those mornings of a presidential Inauguration Day. But he certainly hadn’t dreamed of a day like this one; whatever he had dreamed, it had not been of sitting on the inaugural platform, squinting into the sun, listening to another, younger man speak. And as he sat there on this day, he knew that his plans to obtain some measure of independent power of his own, separate from the new President’s, had been thwarted. He was going to be completely dependent on whatever that younger man chose to give him—for years to come.
But then, Dallas.

Dallas, and three shots.  Dallas, and a bloody pink pillbox hat.  Dallas, and a big sweaty Texan bullying everyone around until he had his oath and his new office.  Dallas, and a President Johnson.

He was made of ambition, there was also a morality to Johnson.  He'd worked the cotton as a young man, in the Texas dust.  He knew poverty and injustice, and he hated it.  At times, he'd fought it.  The ambition came first, of course, and no moral scruple ever held him back from something that might lead to power, but when there was no conflict... then, Johnson could be beautiful.

Caro relates the story of a young Mexican-American soldier who was killed in action, and how a funeral home in the soldier's hometown refused to bury the young hero because "the Whites wouldn't like it."  When he heard the story, Johnson - freshly a Senator - bristled and barked in anger, "By God, we'll bury him in Arlington!"  Immediately.  Thoughtlessly.

He gave way and backpedaled, of course, the moment it seemed like the racist uproar might hurt his career.  Always the ambition!  But it was that sort of instinct that would lead to the Great Society and its rising and beautiful harmony of legislation (immigration reform, the war on poverty, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and the clear clarion notes of the Civil Rights Acts).

Johnson was a creature of ambition, but somehow, he became magnificent.

There's another volume to come.  It will be yet a different story, with thousands of dead young men in Vietnam and a broken, lanky, unscrupulous President finally reaching ambition's end.  I am looking forward to it very much.

Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson is the best biography of this sort I've ever read.  I wish I was still reading it.

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