Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

[Note: I'm not sure it's possible to spoil this book, but I do talk about events near the end of the story in relation to the rest of it.]

Lolita, of course, doesn't occupy a savory moral place, and might as well get that right out of the way. There's no forgiveness there, not on my part and not on Nabokov's, when it comes to an evaluation of the novel and its characters. If you could distill it from the language (second language? No fair!), it's a story about the serial rape of a minor by her stepfather, and concludes in a jealous murder, and unlike some recent selections of mine in which inhumanity is hidden by humor and shifts of emphasis, Nabokov never lets Humbert Humbert's depravity out of the reader's sight, and not all of the humor is of the sort that can soften the blow. Lolita is a cousin (though the thought must have the curmudgeonly literary Humbert spinning in his grave) of the Hollywood staple of the colorful and emotionally complex hit man, and it's the beloved daddy of novels about amoral time-traveling torturers and the like. Nabokov is not just manipulating assumptions that the reader makes with respect to the language and the form, he's doing it in a variety of very conscious ways, maybe working up an understanding of those relationships.

The story is told in the first person, and it's hard to sum up narrator Humbert in a paragraph, even if there's a temptation to try (Martin Amis takes a shot or two in the introduction*; the protagonist's fictional executor estate has some words; Humbert himself tries frequently; and Nabokov offers a summary or two of his own in the afterword). He's got a great writing style, a sarcastically lyrical twist, as given to unintentional irony as the intentional sort, full of both self-aggrandization and self-pity. He's the sort of tireless villain that, when easily thwarted, returns to his lab to double down on his calculations (or in Humbert's case, his words) with comic fervor, clamping down on defeat with forced dignity and sarcasm. (Could Peter Sellers have played Humbert? Could Alan Rickman maybe?) His self-regard (with all of its obvious but unspoken doubts) is amusing; his jealousies are comic; his moral double-standards are ridiculous. We spend a lot of time laughing at Humbert, which does help distance us from his predilections, but there's Humbert's power of words for us to contend with too, and so many of his barbs find purchase, and we sometimes laugh with him too. Nabokov pokes at the character in much the same way that Humbert cruelly invests his attention in everything around him.

Humbert's selective attention to detail is essential to the character, as well as the development of the story. He can recall (with a photographic memory, he brags), twenty pages of obsessive journal entries when he first meets twelve-year-old Lolita. He's got an eye for landmarks and names when they can take on a pun or a literary allusion. He remembers episodes of his travels for the poetic or storylike settings. But he's an imbecile when it comes to useful facts, chronologies, or detective-like connections. His pursuit of Clare Quilty, his rival and double, in the last quarter of the book gets a little bizarre, and it's because the intellectual performance it requires is outside of Humbert's skill set. It's remarkably self-centered, this outlook of his, and it also leaves no room for anyone else's humanity. Countervailing points of view are mostly invisible to the man, caricatured and bitingly mocked when Humbert can see them at all. (I really wish I'd encountered Humbert years ago. His spirit occupies a good number of online kooks, even if his writing ability is gifted to so few of them.  In the real world, it's furthermore clear that whatever could make professional monsters like Chuck Buckley or George Will tolerable was a certain Humbertness. What a fine epithet I've missed out on all this time.) It takes a while for the reader to gauge how much Lolita is suffering (or not suffering), because Humbert is incapable of perceiving it. It gradually comes out as he (comically) characterizes her complaints and apathy, or in the briefly-seen opinion of her educators. We can sense a trauma under there, a lost childhood that's eventually spelled out, but there's also a pervasive character that is adjusting to her circumstances regardless, a normal kid, who doesn't know better, dealing with it, sometimes better and sometimes worse. When Humbert is finally overcome with what he has taken from Lolita, he still doesn't get it.

Lolita herself, of course, is the star example of the chasm between Humbert's words and the underlying reality of their relationship. Humbert is furiously writing erotica onto the character. Lolita isn't "innocent" really, maybe a little precocious for a twelve-year-old, and she has heretofore approached sexuality in an age-appropriate fashion. In the moment when her proto-sexuality finally, briefly overlaps with Humbert's over-intellectualized lust, it's uncomfortable, it's a taken advantage and a disturbing rape, but (if Humbert is telling the truth) it's not completely incongruous. Quickly, the relationship returns to its normally skew character paths. Lolita continues as an insolent, indolent tween at every available reveal, and for all the abuse, she doesn't come a jot closer to Humbert's erotic portrait, nor does her stepfather ever approach her child-like level of sexual exploration. Humbert writes a great deal of plot and character onto her, but Lolita never ceases to be a young girl, as revealed by the details that Nabokov cleverly lets slip through Humbert's story. She is never womanly, never complex in a way that Humbert would understand.

The relationship between Lolita and Humbert is ultimately nasty and banal, but really there's a similar pettiness infusing everything that Humbert sees. It's almost embarrassing: the car trips; the shallow, simple people; the cheesy motels; my god, fucking suburbia. Humbert traipses through them like the proverbial Martian examining all the stupid details of existence and mocking them. The symphony of toilet flushes is entertaining, teenagers can be pustulent freaks, and middle age is relentlessly unflattering—it's mordantly funny stuff, but Humbert doesn't rise to assess life on higher terms for most of the novel. In the late scenes, among his imagined revelations surrounding the adult (boring, domestic) Dolores (she's only seventeen, but plenty of cause to grow up fast), she's no less misrepresented by Humbert's bathetic streak. Different subject, but more erotica, Humbert crying the fat hot tears of a poet, gifted with the ability to grant immortality. And the really brilliant part about the ending is that it succeeds in making this sad life beautiful, and fifty years later, Lolita is immortal enough. For all Humbert's evil, it does end up a beautifying sort of evil, which may be what sets him apart (even from the non-criminal but similarly degenerate Quilty).

I can run with this a little. We're reminded frequently that the novel is ersatz reality—there's Humbert as discussed, there's a distancing effect of the silly pseudonyms, there's the fact that most of the characters leave the novel to go off and perish offscreen, there's this obvious metafictional bit with the Enchanted Hunters play (a script fit to the events of the novel), there are revisitiations, doubles, and echoing scenes, there's the effort to sink the whole thing into a frame story. I hate to reduce the novel to some modernist experiment because it's too small a box, but let's imagine Humbert as Writer: is the reality of human existence always lesser and apart from the stories we build up to romanticize it? Is a writer's feeling both cheaper and more poetic than the scripts our lives proffer? Is it still beautiful when we inevitably get it wrong? Even though Lolita works plenty well as a novel, it's not about sexuality exactly, it's about language, observation and life.

*Wish I didn't read the intro, at least not until after I wrote this, but for a novel this famous, it's not very easy to act as an untainted jury. Amis makes a point about Nabokov's cruelty to Humbert (a bit beyond the "sarcasm" I was going with) but he's right and I'm going with it; he points out the significance of some of the where-are-they-nows in the introduction, that I indeed might have missed.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Review: Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

'Take a large bowl,' I said. 'Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei--which means "dry cup"--and drink to the dregs.' Procopius stared at me. 'And I will be wise?' he asked. 'Better,' I said. 'You will be Chinese.'
Of course, the tales of Master Li and Number Ten Ox are written with an audience of us pink-faced occidental barbarians in mind, a heritage (and, I assume, lineage) which Mr. Hughart shares. What we really end up with is a fusion of western storytelling (which playfully gifts some traditions and allusions directly to the older culture) and a Chinese setting and worldview that borders on mythic. I have no idea how Chinese it really ends up being, nor can I say precisely how deeply the history and folklore finally career off into the metatextual weeds. In the quote, a throwaway as far as the plot is concerned, the venerable but flawed sage Li Kao has just sold that Procopius a bill of goods with regards to silk production (so there's one early swerve). In terms of cultural history, Hughart is taking sudden turns and and liberally imbibing reality and fantasy, but who cares when it's such a fun ride. Kan pei!

I don't normally re-read very often, but this is probably my third time through this novel. I wanted something comforting for the plane ride to my most recent program crucifixion last month. Bridge of Birds unfolds wonderfully, riding along on that lovely re-imagined setting that has room for everything from ghosts to chemistry ("The supernatural can be very annoying until one finds the key that transforms it into science."), incorporating wild extremes of political horrors, human dignity, and real beauty. Hughart wrote a couple of sequels (one of which I reviewed), but you can only crack open the beginning of the story at the beginning. It remains pleasant to meet Ox and Master Li again for the first time. The middle of the story gets shaggy, and a little generous with ridiculous coincidences, but the ending remains sweet as ever. This is, at the end of the day, a princess story that can get even a guy like me a little sniffly.

As I read, my thoughts wrestled with similar questions as I found in the previous book (why do I love these drunks who wreck stuff and take liberties with the female students?) and, as it turned out, the next one (how can I take so much pleasure reading this Humbert monster?), which I guess makes it a surprise theme, and worthy of a review, comfort pick and all. Bridge of Birds has a spectacular body count, and yet it still goes down like a bedtime story. Not just talking historical bodies here, of which there are no shortage, but gory mass executions, unrepentant murders, torture and dissection, and bloody violent retribution, no few of which our beloved heroes are responsible for, or which occur with their sanction. For an explanation, I suppose we can start with the characters themselves. Li Kao is one of fantasy literature's finest rogues, and one half of one of its finest duos. Allegedly too bored with actual crime, he turned to detective work as a more worthy intellectual challenge. Apparently a decrepit alcoholic, he cavorts and argues like Father William (Lewis Carroll suffuses this fictional China), finding a curiosity, joy and satisfaction in life that is infectious to the reader. Master Li is sufficiently wise--and crafty--that he can distinguish the worth of others accurately, and apply the slight flaws in his character to only the deserving, letting (we discover to no great surprise) his affection for the gentle and the just survive unmolested. His counterpart, Number Ten Ox, we understand isn't the most reliable narrator ever, and much of his modesty is stylistic, but the big-hearted innocence of this character still manages to shine through in the pages, even when neck-deep in Li Kao's elaborate gambits of discovery.

This triumph of tone and theme over the bloody details is something that only happens in fiction, really, and children's literature and folklore has always thrived under that approximation. Bridge of Birds is explicitly intended as the marriage of these old forms with something like reality. ("Nothing on the face of this earth--and I do mean nothing--is half so dangerous as a children's story that happens to be real," says Li Kao) I mean, I've spent more than enough time reading books that explore that conceit, but Hughart does an exceptional job of embracing the unapologetic, eternal unreality of these old stories, and adding just enough cynicism and humor to give even deeper power to the simple ideas of love, justice, and beauty. It's doing something more elaborate than messing around with archetypes, it's finding the right adult setting for an entire storytelling form, and Hughart's imaginative view of China works brilliantly here. Injustice and superstition have rooted deeply in the old soil of its civilization, but human love has formed the bedrock, and in its most honest cases, becomes almost transcendent. The weight of the place is rock-solid and ancient, a seamless mixture of opposites, as timeless as a fairy tale.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The New Political Capital

Via multiple sources, I learned yesterday that there's a House proposal to put St. Ronnie on the fifty dollar bill, because, you know, an airport, an aircraft carrier, a dozen highways, another dozen schools, a think tank chair (presumably for doddering emeritus "thinkers"), a DC building complex, a hospital wing, not to mention the borderline necrophilic esteem of a whole generation of bow-tied opinionators, and it's just possible his legacy isn't getting all the attention it needs anymore. Seems like a fine time for a Facebook quip, right? They should, I reply, put the old bastard on a $50 treasury bill or some other debt instrument instead. (Another commenter adds: and they should put Ron Jr. on a three dollar bill!) Rather proud of myself, I hop on the hamster wheel and roll on over to find that Doghouse Riley and his commenters have already covered that, as well as a dozen or so other, better jokes than I'll ever come up with. The point? I'd better move fast. Don't let 'em tell you blogging isn't hard work.

In the spirit of this historic proposal, Keifus Writes!, in collaboration with the Franklin Mint, the U.S. Mint, environ-mint, firma-mint, and, by means of excuse, a few mint juleps, offers an exciting new investment opportunity in commemorative currency representing United States icons and luminaries. The Reagan 50-spot is only the beginning. Don't miss out on the entire collection:

the Chinese says: IOU, George Bush

  • The George W. Bush Memorial War Bond.
    Two series of these hot items began printing in 2001 and 2003. Although the debt has been running over the trillion mark, hardly any of these fascinating collectibles have been put in the hands of American citizens. This is a perfect graduation or christening gift. Be sure to let your kids own a tiny portion of the debt they'll enjoy paying off for their entire lives. The Bush War Bond will help them remember that it was all worth it. (Long-term yield subject to inflation.)

  • The Carly Fiorina Dollar-Peso
    It's difficult for lay people out there to understand the complicated deals of economic transactions, and that's why decisions are left to the serious political thinkers, such as Ms. Carly Fiorina, California Republican senatorial candidate currently challenging Barbara Boxer's seat. Fiorina also served as John McMaverick's economic advisor last year, and she's most famous of all for leading Hewlett-Packard as CEO, bringing on a merger with Compaq in those heady days when the internet was approaching peak profitability. Why is she a brilliant economic mind? Because shut up, that's why!

    Technical people of a certain age might remember HP as a top-line electronics powerhouse that used to employ people and make stuff. (Even older people probably remember the whole country that way.) The Dollar-Peso was established in the spirit of the fabled HP-Compaq merger.

  • The Sandra Day O'Connor Commemorative Decision Quarter
    If your eyes, dear reader, glaze like mine whenever supreme logic drifts onto the scene, then rest assured that SCOTUS opinions are merely lengthy rationalizations to confuse the uninitiated and keep lawyers employed. The actual decision-making process can be much more perfunctory. This limited edition quarter is inspired by the famous swing-voting justice's real-life deliberations in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. Heads, and Affirmative Action lives another day. Tails, and it's time for lunch.

  • The Gen. Stanley McChrystal Video Game Token
    In honor of our ninth year of whistling past the Graveyard of Empires, we're proud to announce this beautifully minted coin. On the front is the highest Afghanistan commander's face, and the opposite side depicts an unmanned aircraft gliding through beautifully engraved mountains. Drop one of these in the machine, and imagine that you too could control a Predator drone, delivering fiery death from the comfort of your armchair. (And really, celebrating a wedding outside and firing Kalashnikovs? What did you expect, you fucking barbarians?) No one develops eye-hand coordination like an American, and now it's a strategic national asset. Someone pass the Cheetos.

  • The Al Gore Carbon Chit
    If the 1990s taught us anything, it was that energy assets can be made even more valuable by dicing them up into marketable shares, and, much more importantly, trading them creatively and without close scrutiny. With new innovations, the cost of emissions can be disguised and swapped too (which may be better than ignored), and polluters can buy off honest farmers and ranchers to plant trees or some other hard-to-verify mitigating activity.

    The best part about capping and trading is that conservation that you must trust, can't verify, and can no longer understand will now become valuable. It's a great investment opportunity, that can only grow! Trust us. This America.

  • The Hank Paulson Cigar Lighter
    The rich, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, aren't like you or me. After all if they let us riffraff date their daughters, pretty soon they'd have teachers and toolmakers in their network, and how lucrative would that be? We hoi polloi are in no position to influence the free market. Only people that run financial firms can craft the policy by which financial firms thrive or die.

    Now, for an investment of only a hundred dollars, you can directly keep Henry Paulson, or one of his associates, in the lifestyle he deserves. Cough it up, peasant. It's your patriotic duty.

  • The New Barack Obama Five Dollar Bill
    The historic election of Barack Obama has changed the way we think about everything. Our parents always said that any kid could grow up and be a powerful centrist president, but we never thought they actually meant it. Obama proves it all wrong; it's the dawn of a new era. Warmaking will be different; new economic priorities will come into force; a focus on the disadvantaged will become prominent; and of course a constitutional law professor has brought a new emphasis to the Bill of Rights.

    Through a bloody war, Abraham Lincoln freed slaves in both the north and the south, and in honor of that, his portrait will remain on the new Obama five dollar bill. The note can buy as much product or capital as it used to. It's printed on the same paper stock, on the same machines, and is backed by as much full faith and credit of the U.S. government as it ever was. For a limited time, this revolutionary new bill can be yours for the low cost of $5.00. It's all about change!