Thursday, July 27, 2006

Book Reviews: DeLillo, Chabon

Don DeLillo, Underworld (B+)
(from October 2004)

DeLillo has an amazing ability to tell three narratives at once. Chapter by chapter, this is his favorite technique, and his best, placing the paragraphs of that section together like a shuffled deck, a seemingly random delivery of three projections of an interspersed thought. I balked at it early on, but ultimately it comes off as surprisingly natural. It creates the effect, intentionally I believe, of a disconnected reminiscence which is a good fit for this mid-life nostalgia piece.

The style is not a hard read on the sentence level though, and comes off very atmospheric, with text washing over you in such quantity that the defects would have been unnoticed if I were enjoying it more.

Underworld is quite the collage, and no character misses their part, however minor or tangential he or she may seem. Some are funny; most strive for poignant. The dramatic tension is borne by the serious and distant protagonist as we delve slowly deeper into his life to discover what made him what he is. Like most lives, the tension decreases with time, and DeLillo astutely paints the story arc backward in time to escalate the drama as we read along. The general problem is that the story just doesn't contain enough of this momentum to sustain its size. Couple that with a comfortable and easy prose style, and the whole thing is eminently put-down-able. And as someone who has not lived the fifties, the deep, narcissistic nostalgia for that time at the expense of all others, is a little annoying. The boomer angst gets laid on really thick near the end.

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (A+)

In his glancing piece on the NY Times best-of-the-quarter-century list, I caught my favorite dogma botherer comparing this to Don DeLillo's monster doorstop of a book, Underworld (as notable in its presence on the list as Amazing Adventures is in its absence). I'd have rather read this novel without the comparison rattling around my noggin, but I can see where he's coming from--they're both set in New York City, positioned in time on either side of the second world war. Both pull strongly for an iconic urban feel, slogging through poverty as well as riches and dropping names liberally. Both try to live in the glory of their golden ages.

But only one was an enjoyable novel populated with likable, interesting characters that I cared about.

Where Underworld was a gray, towering monster, crowded in with gables and looming gargoyles and trying hard to cram in all the gloomy city detail that DeLillo could muster, Amazing Adventures is a microcosm of Metropolis. It's a tidy city block, with hopes and fears, grime and splendor all captured without an assault of detail, a few streamlined and significant panels caught with a great comic artist's pen. For all DeLillo's efforts, Underworld failed to be very much alive, and frankly, his offensive idea that the nation's vitality ended in 1955 with his own felt like an apology for the dullness creeping in at every edge.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay follows fifteen years in the lives of two young cousins, Jews in wartime, one a natural pulp writer the other a gifted artist, in the golden age of comics, as they love, fear, marry, fight, and discover themselves. They're a natural partnership too, though they're only passingly aware how much they complement each other, and the book does a good job of expressing this relationship by following their times apart. (A natural paired reading may be with Christopher Priest's The Separation two entries above.) Chabon is a good enough writer to give it a touch of the comic book adventure (and he clearly loves the form), and if it's a little extravagant, I wouldn't call it excessive. It's not terribly optimistic either, though the tone makes it feel that way. Chabon is convincing in the idea that we're in the real story that lay behind all the grand hyperbole, and does a great job of it.

Oh, but for the record, I'm tired of how damn great New York City is for now, and tired of comic book hagiography too.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

On Libertarianism

Does libertarianism mean anything?

Maybe I should rephrase that: it does offer a useful concept as the antonym to authoritarianism, which, I suppose, at its extreme would imply unrestrained individual liberty, or anarchy. Maybe the better question is does Libertarianism mean anything?

I was reading Jim Henley's blog this week. I like Henley. He and his commentators remind me of those now-unnamable amateur thinkers, way back in the days of the proto-internet, whose intelligent banter first got me hooked on cognizance. Libertarians (bordering on misanthropes) the damn near lot of them, which is maybe what you'd expect from the nerdy entrepreneurial types who'd form online frontier communities well before inarticulate college students started to invade the joint.

My Libertarianism faded away, however, about the time I became motivated enough to start reading the Cato stuff. Any one of these reports would be more or well less argued, but they always read exactly the same: building an argument to support a foregone conclusion. (Surprise! The free market did it. Again.) Libertarianism is an excellent starting point for a philosophy (as a matter of 'do what you want, so long as it hurts no one else') but in practice it's problematic (as is every political philosophy).

The problem with Libertarianism as an ideology (at least as far as I got into Cato) is that at the bottom line, it's incorrect to assume that the optimal market solution always correlates with the fairest human solution. That's a tremendous assumption when you think about it, and it's easy to think up cases that disprove it (e.g., public health, zoning, military, etc.). How Libertarianism fails as a political movement is that exceptions like these are necessary for it to be even remotely practicable, and once you get into which exceptions are necessary, then you've got a movement balkanized, with official platforms as retarded as anything a Democrat or Republican could dream up, but without the high production values.

Those Henley-ish libertarians who upon a time whined about the Democratic nanny state are in a bit of a rhetorical bind these days. So-called small government conservatives played them hard in the social nannying arena. The twin Libertarian pillars of free market idolatry and a grudgingly sanctioned need for collective defense have had a tough go of it against the needs of the military industrial complex, which has neatly coincided with negligent planning for peak oil and other pending economic and environmental crises.Henley makes a nice distinction between "civil" and "market" libertarians, and I identify with both types (though more the former), but there's still a role for government even for the most raging individualist. Namely, there's got to be sufficient rules for the game to be fair for everyone, and they need to be enforced.

Democrats used to be the party that claimed government could be used to improve the American condition. When you redefine unsolicited 'improvement' down to 'set the minimum standard for' then I suddenly find it far less objectionable. When you further define it down to 'make the game fair,' then I'm right down there with it. This may also be the irreducible form of libertarianism I can get behind, but way down here, what's the point of the distinction? I'm doing my best to avoid isms of any kind these days.

Government is a big blunt instrument, but it's the best tool we have to act collectively. (The next-most-effective alternative being non-governmental groups, your Hezbollahs, your IRAs, your Klans, your warlord factions.) Government is a cumbersome, corrupt, power-mad whorehouse populated by used-car salesmen and privileged mama's boys, but for some jobs, its really the only tool we have. And after all, as that libertarian humorist P.J. O'Rourke has noted, the whores, ultimately, are us.

Keifus

Mideast Sympathy Calculator

[Not enough people liked this one. I liked it. So for posterity...]

This is a quasi-mathatical exercise meant to determine which of the currently notable middle eastern actors in the drama about Israel is most deserving of my sympathy. This isn't necessarily a contest of who's right, though that matters, but a question of whether these people are worth caring about in more than abstract humanitarian terms. I've considered the most visible players in today's events (Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine), but neglected other significant ones, such as Egypt and especially Syria. Details are further constrained to post-1945 or so

I've got neither Jewish nor Arab heritage, so I don't consider myself to have a dog in this fight. Nor do I feel any other first-principles loyalty for any of the states or parties involved here. In calculating sympathy, I do cop to an America-centric stance.

I may have inadvertently forgotten some categories, but here we go anyway:



Mideast Sympathy Calculator

1. They really deserve a homeland. Then again, who doesn't?
Israel: 1
Lebanon: 1
Palestine: 1


2. Israel and Palestine lay claim to said homeland based on millennia-old scripts crabbed by drunken shepherds. Zionism is annoying. The old Arafat-headed exile PLO was annoying too. Best I can tell, the Lebanese aren't quite so afflicted by this, their homeland being roughly unquestioned since the French colony broke up. (I think a lot of peoples' sympathy might go the other way on this one.)
Israel: 0
Lebanon: 1
Palestine: 0


3. They're all three violent places, thanks to their own actions and the actions of their neighbors. Tough to be an average Joe anywhere over there. Who started it this time? Who made the last ill-advised incursion? Who shot whom last? I don't think it matters much when the mortars are raining down. As far as the magnitude of atrocity goes, the various imprisonments, military or terrorist bombings, homeland grabs, invasions, and bigotry look about equally egregious from this angle, and I count that as a wash too.
Israel: 1
Lebanon: 1
Palestine: 1


4. They all were former colonial entities, artificially divided. Colonialism, like, sucks and stuff, dude.
Israel: 1
Lebanon: 1
Palestine: 1


5. I'm inclined to describe all three as having their politics unduly influenced by religion.* Israel, however, seems more liberal (small-l, with respect to human rights, personal freedoms &c.), with a relatively sane court to balance it's relatively insane expansionism. Lebanon, despite some nasty interim periods, has a history of democracy, and maintains a free press, liberal universities, etc. Palestine seems only to go through the motions, and is merely authoritarian to my eye. The effectiveness of the three governments seems to follow these lines too, though I'm not ready to scream causation.
Israel: 1.5
Lebanon: 1
Palestine: 0


6. Lebanon is a cosmopolitan place, and has been, really, since the times of the Phoenicians. That diversity has resulted in political ups and downs, as different ethnicities have obviously not always been comfortable with one another, and at the end of the day, centering your government around these religious differences is just plain nuts.* Israel has problems with its Palestinian minority as well, relegating them to second-class citizens, but still they have to all work at the factory together. Don't see much of anyone but Palestinians in those areas Palestine manages to control. I don't apply 'genocide' to what happens across the border or fence, by the way.
Israel: 1
Lebanon: 1
Palestine: 0


7. Culturally, Lebanon is easily the most appealing of the bunch, with some nice French architecture, outdoor cafes, the best food, comfort with the sin of alcohol consumption, and the sort of diversity that comes from a millenia-old hodgepodge of influence. Israel seems vaguely annoying with its attempt to be monolithic and Jewish. Though it's probably no fault of its citizens, the areas occupied by Palestine seems like flyblown shitholes. If these places weren't busy blowing each other to bits and kidnapping people, I know where I would most want to visit.
Israel: 0.5
Lebanon: 1
Palestine: 0


8. Hizbolla operates freely in Lebanon, beneath the government's eye or maybe with a nod and a wink. The Palestinian authority has armed militias over which it evidently has no control whatsoever. Israel guides it's questionable international relations under official state policy.* I'm not inclined to say that this excuses very much, but at least its military actions are technically accountable to/by its citizenry. Again, the effectiveness of government thing.
Israel: 0.5
Lebanon: 0
Palestine: 0


9. Israel is propped up by the U.S. for local political gain. Lebanon has been significantly influenced by Syria for (I imagine) similar reasons, as well as (I assume) expansionist ends. Palestine has been cynically held up as a martyr by other Arab states.
Israel: 1
Lebanon: 1
Palestine: 1


10. The holocaust was horrible, however (cue pile-on here) its significance becomes less relevant with time to the situations of the day. Especially since it was committed by Germans and not Arabs. I can't really get too much traction with anti-semitism as a reason to grant Israel sympathy. Minorities get persecuted anywhere, just ask a Frenchman of Arab descent. But then again, anti-semitism is what forced the hand of a lot of Jews to pick up and become Israelis.
Israel: 1
Lebanon: 0
Palestine: 0


11. Expansion is a rotten policy, really. Greedy, punitive, and short-sighted.
Israel: -1
Lebanon: 0
Palestine: 0


12. Israel displayed some big brass ones in their war of independence and then in the six-day war. Sure they bought their guns from us, but what the fuck, it took some real gumption to repel a whole region that wanted to annihilate them. They continue to live with the hostility of an entire region that wants to annihilate them. That gets some real sympathy.
Israel: 1
Lebanon: 0
Palestine:0


13. No nuclear weapons here. Wink, wink.
Israel: -1
Lebanon: 0
Palestine: 0


14. Israel is our U.N. voting buddy (whoopty-doo). They like us for everything, most of the time, except when they accidentally blow up Americans. We need somebody over there that likes us, don't we? And we're stacking the deck againt anyone else liking us, right?.
Israel: 1
Lebanon: 0
Palestine: 0


15. The World Trade Center bombers were from, uh, Saudi Arabia. But Lebanon has made nasty moves to Americans on occasion.
Israel: 0
Lebanon: -1
Palestine: 0


16. Lebanon denuded its famous cedars. Fuckers.
Israel: 0
Lebanon:-1
Palestine:0




So tally that up and how are we doing? Who gets my most sympathy points?

Israel: 8.5 sympathy points
Lebanon: 6 sympathy points
Palestine: 4 sympathy points


I guess a plurality of my sympathy goes to Israel, but not by a whole hell of a lot. Certainly not by a large enough margin to justify the U.S.'s lavish affection for the place.

Keifus

* apply this lesson the U.S. as you will.

[note: a more poorly edited version of this first appeared here.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Book Reviews: M. Helprin; K. Roberts; V. Vinge; C. Priest; R. C. Wilson

Note: As promised, here they are. Let the solipsism commence.

These are reviews that I've written in the last two months or so. I've been keeping a book log for a couple of years, but have little desire to go back and edit my earliest screed, so May/June seems a good enough place to start. The letter grade, if you were wondering, refers more to my enjoyment and less to any objective level of quality.

Spoilers abound, and I don't care.

Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale (A-)

Winter's Tale is is a tall tale, and an intimate one, dense with hyperbolic prose, as though Helprin has an abundance of color (blues, whites and grays, mostly), stuffing about four hundred pounds worth of it into what's essentially a fifty pound story. All that fanciful description is nice though, and Helprin is evidently one of those guys that can just turn the crank and spew out the magic. Read it and let those words just keep washing over you.

But the book is long enough so that some language patterns get annoyingly reused. And it's not much in the way of plot either, and the millenialist latter two-thirds of it seems like an unnecessary appendage. He introduces whole new characters and a whole new perspective and a whole new historical setting, all after the good part wraps up the nineteenth century Peter Lake. The worst failing of the story, however, is that for a story that's about New York, it's not much like any New York I've visited. It sneaks by on the stuff that's hard to fact-check--I've never noticed the maritime geography much (and I doubt even the residents do) and I don't have a time machine to 1880--but the vitality and scenery and streets and cars and the rest all seem off. The existence and life of some characters never is quite explained or never quite makes sense (and Jackson Meade, Cecil Wooley, Mootfowl are a lot worse for the effort at explanation). The upstate mysticism increases over the course of the novel.

Still, Helprin is so effortless with the language almost every fault or faux pas can be forgiven.

Though Winter's Tale is in many ways inimitable, it still draws comparisons with other inimitable works. Foremost, it draws one with Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, which is also about a city. One much more bizarre and disfunctional than the other, and altogether quirkier. Helprin's probably the better talent (by a nose), but Peake's imagination and visual sense really rule that contest. (And Peake nailed a few paragraphs that are just plain untouchable.) Another comparison is with John Crowley's Little, Big what with the end of the world and all, and the return of innocence (Tolkein in reverse--the recovery of the Wild Wood and not it's loss), as well as other, lesser (and more, uh, imitable) gentle EOTWAWKI fantasy fiction (Stephen King's Dark Tower maybe).

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End (B+)

I feel a little guilty about plugging this guy's "(growing) writing chops." He's still a wonderful idea man, the best in the business maybe, but, well, he's not like Mark Helprin, who made the magic seem cheap. The characters grow and stuff, but not really in an organic manner. I like where he's trying to take them, but they just kind of drift there instead of develop. It's not that they're badly drawn, really, they just don't arc very well. A worse sin, he's got men who are poets, and well, he's got no poetry written into the story. (That would take real literary balls mind you, but the absence is conspicuous. One or two couplets would have done it.)

The plot turns the pages though, and the people are interesting enough to sell the ideas. The ideas really are great though. Better than anyone, Vinge can put together not just an idea, but a complete universe of ideas, and make it fit together with all the ramifications and all that subtext. We're dumped into a world of highly integrated wearable computing. Vision is enhanced with information. Touch interfaces are catching up. Present-day culture has adjusted believably. It's pre-Vingean singularity but things are moving fast. The characters repeat "it's hard to keep up." Kids are smarter than their parents, and mastery of the video game-like manipulation of technology is much more important than any mastery of the physics (a neat, but frightening angle, which Vinge credibly explored). Information is everywhere, and it is king. The distributed computing is similar to that in Neal Stephenson's in The Diamond Age, and no doubt elsewhere, borne out by ubiquitous and invisible network nodes.

(As is often the case in books like this, I wonder first, where the power comes from, and second, what do the rest of the 5.9999 billion inhabitants of the earth fill their time with.)

I really can't state enough that no one weaves a technological society better than Vinge does,
even if he's a so-so literary writer. Oh well.

Keith Roberts, Pavane (B+)
6/25/06

Pavane is an introspective alternate history hinged on the untimely assassination of Elizabeth I and the 400 extra years of middle ages which occurred as a consequence. I'm okay with the downer mood, but I can see why new writers are often advised to move things along with dialogue and to go easy on the adjectives (especially for shorts, several of which this novel is composed). Roberts does a lot of telling, less showing. He's a tolerable writer for all that, though, and I do like his name. You don't necessarily have to rely on those snappy plots when you're good enough, and Roberts almost is.

Pavane as a whole is better than some of its parts. Occasional stumbles in pacing and too-much narration persist, but the story improves drastically when, the greater arc finally becomes apparent (about the fourth segment in, which is too long to wait), and by the novel's end, things are fitting together fairly nicely. There's a sweeping theme that's revealed as well, a theory of alternate histories, wheels of time, and fairies that holds together better than I would have guessed, had I read a synopsis of it. (A pavane is a court dance, with a formal pattern. So's history, Roberts would say here.) It's a long way to get there, however, and the early cues are pretty subtle.

(Pavane was brought to you by the word "skirled")


Christopher Priest, The Separation (A)

Starry-eyed review: Whoa!
Cynical review: I liked it better when it was called The Prestige

But hey, you see that grade? I've got little cynicism in store for this one. It's just that it's difficult to miss Priest's general fascination with twins, and almost impossible not to compare his different twin stories. (He's got twin children of his own, according to the book jacket, and I've gotta wonder how comfortable they are with it.) The Separation is the superior of the two. It's all that, plus a nice bag of alternate history.

The Prestige was a great story in it's own right--playing with doubles and twins and with the intriguing secrecy (and disappointing reality) of professional magicians--but it was regrettably scuttled by a really stupid science fictional premise (Nikolai Tesla had built and endowed a teleporter that left behind plastic corpses). Priest gets out of this one by avoiding revealing the premise altogether. It's twinning in the verb sense, splitting of a single entity, here about a historical turning point.

The main characters are twins too, formerly close but now estranged, and they pull a switcheroo of sorts into alternate realities. We're introduced to the pair via a war historian, in whose reality the second world war ended in 1941 with an accepted German peace proposal. The story is told in fragments, including notes of (imagined) history texts, letters, and, prominently, the diaries of each twin. It's hard to do justice to how well Priest weaves these all together.

The first twin is a pilot, and while passing the German peace delegation (twice) over the English channel, somehow enters another reality in which his brother dies, and, we slowly realize, it's the reader's (i.e., our) universe. The second twin survives in his version, but has realistic sidebars in several other alternate realities, each increasing in length, and each going kablooey with a sudden and dream-like fraternal confrontation. There is evidence for at least two of these being "real" under the premises of the story, however (our historian and the deliverer of the notebooks are real people in different timelines), but I suppose it's best to assume that the most real is the one in which the reunion was indefinitely forestalled.

A final note: the historian is the only part (and it's the dullest part) told in a third-person omniscient viewpoint. Some definitive closing this voice was very much in order, but it's infuriatingly neglected. I'm sure Priest did it on purpose. I don't know if I approved.

(The word that Christopher Priest couldn't get out of his head: "obsessed")


Robert Charles Wilson, Spin (A+)

Robert Charles Wilson may well be my favorite author. He writes in a manner and on themes that appeal to me greatly on a personal level. I can't think of anyone who speculates more interestingly and more sensitively on the biggest questions of all. Why are we here? Are we alone? Is there a point to it all? Even when he answers no (or a plaintive I don't know), he makes it feel like there's a point in asking, even if it's only from the worm's perspective. Especially when it's from the worm's perspective. Yeah, there are better eyes for character and better stylists and tighter plotters even in science fiction (but you have to look hard for them in the ghetto: I'm more inclined to delve among the famous or canonical), but Wilson is unparalleled in defining just how small is the scope of humanity and in the face of that, just how much it's worth caring about. And as ideas go, they're always big and brave and smart (even when they're silly).

I can't say he's ever really disappointed me, but just the same, one leg of the stool or other was always a little weak. I've been waiting for some time for Wilson to crank one out of the park on every level. I've been waiting for something I could take to my wife and my friends, hold it up proudly, and say this is what science fiction can do. Spin just may be it.

Read it already.

(R. C. Wilson brings this to you with the word "regolith")