What I read last month, with quotes and commentary.
This month: an abundance of killings, in war and in mysteries. Crime stories by Linda Barnes, Seanan McGuire, Jim Butcher, Margery Allingham and Rick Castle. War fiction by Sebastian Faulks, Frank Herbert and Thomas Pynchon. And, of interest to political readers, the major political works of Plato and Aristotle, where the whole sorry mess that is punditry began.
Mr. Bad Example: The Horse's Mouth, by Joyce Cary
"Mr. Jimson won't be back for some time," I said. "But he asked me to tell you that you haven't got a chance. He isn't going to talk to you about art. He's committed arson, adultery, murder, libel, malfeasance of club moneys and assault with battery, but he doesn't want to have any serious crime on his conscience."
"B-but Mr. Jimson, I want to be an artist."
"Of course you do," I said. "Everybody does once. But they get over it, thank God, like the measles or the chickenpox. Go home and go to bed and take some hot lemonade and put on three blankets and sweat it out."
"But Mr. J-jimson, there must be artists."
""Yes, and lunatics and lepers, but why go and live in an asylum before you're sent for? "If you find life a bit dull at home," I said, "and want to amuse yourself, put a stick of dynamite in the kitchen fire, or shoot a policeman. Volunteer for a test pilot, or dive off Tower Bridge with five bob's worth of roman candles in each pocket. You'd get twice the fun at about one tenth the risk."
I have now read all three books in Joyce Cary's trilogy that began with Herself, Surprised and To Be a Pilgrim (see last month's bookpost). They're extremely well-written and gut-wrenching, all of them, and each one disturbed me more than the last. These books have something important to say about the human condition, maybe a lesson I in particular need to learn, and it's not a comforting one. They hold up a funhouse mirror to the ideal that I try to be as a human being, and distort it until I want to scream.
Mine is the Path of the Frosted Mini Wheat. I believe that it is possible to have the best aspects of the Grasshopper and the Ant, live frugally, gather wealth for the hard times, enjoy life and be creative while being true to yourself, and that this is the best path to take. Too much ant and you can end up like Scrooge before the ghosts got to him. Too much Grasshopper and you can end up like Falstaff...or like Gulley Jimson, the antihero of The Horse's Mouth.
Cary's characters try to have it all and are not true to themselves. Tom Wilcher, who narrates To Be a Pilgrim is a born ant who dreams of being a grasshopper, succumbs to the creative instincts he's trying to repress, and ends up out of control. Jimson is his polar opposite: a born grasshopper who is so focused on the money he can't have that he fails as an artist. He considers his creative bug as a curse, hates it, betrays it, and achieves almost no success.
On the plus side, like all grasshoppers, he's witty and charming, larger than life, and a jolly rogue filled with irrepressible spiritedness. Also, he may have actual genius (you never can tell with Cary; all three narrators bullshit themselves so thoroughly that you can barely take what they say at face value), and has a spattering of devoted, sycophantic followers who think he's the new Messiah. Late in the book, when a nun advises him to stop laughing long enough to pray, he says, "It's the same thing, mother."
On the minus side, he's completely untrustworthy, leeches and cheats the people who trust him and still never seems to have the money to buy art supplies. He beats the women who love him. He steals from the wealthy patrons who like his art, and comes back to them with his hand out again. He destroys almost everyone and everything he touches, including his own best work--making a masterpiece of a mural, for example, on a building he knows is about to be torn down. He's worse than Jim Morrison as depicted by in the Oliver Stone Doors movie. The book is described as "comic", but I didn't laugh. Most of the humor is the kind of humor you find in children's books, in which Curious George or Amelia Bedelia create Awesome Fail through mistakes that a young child would understand. And when Jimson wrecks everything, he skips merrily away from the wreckage, one step ahead of the police, leaving his victims who liked him sitting in the wreckage. No amount of pretty grasshopper-song can justify that. It doesn't help that Jimson's best painting years are never described anywhere in the trilogy, and that the bulk of The Horse's Mouth is about Jimson in premature old age, getting by on his fading reputation for works already done.
I see just enough of myself in both Wilcher and Jimson to be thoroughly frightened by their lives. Either of their paths is one I might have taken, one I even came dangerously close to at some point, and one that I thank God and my lucky stars I've escaped so far, by steering down the middle. My creative bug is one aspect of me, contained and separate from my responsible, employed existence, with enough of an outlet online and at special events to give me a satisfactory niche and an opportunity to be strange and delightful without having to depend on that for my daily bread.
The world needs ants, and it needs grasshoppers. There is no reason for an ant to be dull and stifled and unable to enjoy the fruits of her labor. There is no reason for a grasshopper to be irresponsible and dependent on others for his material needs. At least, that's what I keep telling myself. Cary's characters, who try to prove it and fail, are disturbing evidence in the other direction. Very high recommendations, for the whole trilogy.
Six-Foot Redhead, PI: A Trouble of Fools, by Linda Barnes
When my Aunt Bea looked at you in a certain way, you knew all was lost. She knew you hadn't done your homework. She knew you'd failed that history test. She could see clear to the back of your soul, and plumb the depths of unworthiness lurking there. Imagine my surprise when I glanced up and found Margaret Devens peering at me with eyes like that--determined, purposeful eyes.
Quickly, she turned away, and made fluttery motions with her hands, distractions that came too late. I'd recognized her.
No, I didn't know her from some other time or place, not personally. But I have known women her age, women of steel who gre up in an era when feathers and fans and batted eyelashed were the name of the game. The smart ladies learned the score, played along. I recognized Margaret Devens's silly gestures and flowered dresses and woolly pink coats and white cotton gloves for what they were: camouflage fatigues.
Doing without any more Spenser books by Robert B. Parker has taken some getting used to, but I manage. There will always be more PI books in the genre. William G' Tapply's Brady Coyne mysteries involve a lawyer-sleuth in the same crime-ridden Boston environment, and Jim Butcher's Dresden files have an equally rich array of recurring heroes, victims and frenemies in an urban fantasy setting. My newest discovery involves a very Spenser-like Boston private investigator, a former cop who was invited to leave the force for insubordination. A PI with a soft spot for lost causes, connections with both police and organized crime, and a penchant for quoting poetry at gritty moments--except that this time the PI is Carlotta Carlyle, a 6' redhead who has the option of knocking a man down with her smile or her left hook. (swoon) Barnes wrote this first in the series in 1987; how come no one told me about her before this year?
It's hard to add anything to that. Come on: 6' Redhead PI! That's all you need to know. But, all right, it does have a plot involving finding a missing person, and a cab company, and some sentimental aging Irish guys and some big people with guns. Of course. The remarkable thing about this plot is that it ties details together to a degree I rarely see. Carlyle has a full life involving a tenant, a Big Sister sponsorship, a volleyball club and old friends and exes on the police force and at the cab company...and every detail ends up being wound into the arc of the novel. So thoroughly, in fact, that it's both a positive and a negative. It's clearly planned very carefully, but it's also so perfect as to be excessively coincidental, and it's almost difficult to imagine how there can be follow up books in the series, when the main character and her stats and background have been so clearly rolled for the purpose of having this one story.
But that's just details. 6' Redhead PI, remember? I'm glad Carlyle is fictional. If she were real, I might make an idiot of myself following her around.
Utopia, Ltd: The Republic, by Plato
Suppose the following to be the state of affairs on board a ship or ships. The captain is larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short sighted and similarly limited in seamanship. The crew are all quarrelling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they have never learned the art of navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it them, or that they spent any time studying it; indeed they say it can't be taught and are ready to murder anyone who says it can. They spend all their time milling round the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm. If one faction is more successful than another, their rivals may kill them and throw them overboard, lay out the honest captain with drugs and drink or in some other way, take control of the ship, help themselves to what's on board, and turn the voyage into the sort of drunken pleasure-cruise you would expect. Finally, they reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless. They have no idea that the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds and all the other subjects appropriate to his profession if he is to be really fit to control a ship; and they think that it's quite impossible to acquire the professional skill needed for such control (whether or not they want it exercised) and that there's no such thing as an art of navigation. With all this going on aboard, aren't the sailors on any such ship bound to regard the true navigator as a word-spinner and a star-gazer, of no use to them at all?
I saved The Republic for near the end of my review of Plato. It’s maybe the most popular discourse in all of Plato, and for good reason. It’s very readable from a dramatically interesting standpoint, just the way Laws and Timaeus are not, and it is comprehensive, covering most of Plato’s ideas all in one long work. The Republic moves from the definition of Justice to the best form of government to education to the world of forms, to the qualities of a philosopher to rule by philosophers and various other persons or groups to digressions on art and the afterlife.
I was surprised at how leftist Plato is in this one, verging on communism in some places and holding to the laughable idea that women ought to have equal rights and opportunities with men. I had become used, even after going through almost his entire works, to the idea of Plato as a reactionary, hate-spewing fascist fuddy-duddy who preferred the military culture of Sparta to the countercultural, licentious young Democrats of Athens—the ones who had banished the generals who could have won their war for them, and who had put his mentor Socrates to death. Like most original philosophy, Plato is more complicated than that. He wants an aristocracy of virtue, which both leftists and rightists of today will automatically assume means their own faction.
His Utopia is laughable, of course, beginning with the idea that a land with no luxuries will be content, and continuing with the proposal that children be separated from their parents at birth so that all citizens will treat all children as their own (Aristotle got it right in Politics when he retorted that children would more likely all be neglected equally), and Socrates as always fails somewhat for lack of an effective devil’s advocate. Nonetheless, I find it rewarding to play devil’s advocate myself during these dialogues and consider why I disagree with, for example, the insistence that actors are immoral when they portray villains on the stage, or whether I’m convinced that more happiness is found in subduing one’s appetites than in gorging oneself and being merry. The Republic’s best quality is that it encourages the reader to think. God knows we need more thinking in these troubled times. Highly recommended.
It’s Good to be the King.: Politics, by Aristotle
There are two sorts of wealth-getting, as I have said; one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former is necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censured, for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another. The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term interest, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of all modes for getting wealth, this is the most unnatural.
It was great reading Plato’s and Aristotle’s political works side by side and comparing and contrasting them. As it turned out, I was just as surprised by Aristotle’s sudden conservative nonsense on the subject of government as I was by Plato’s leftism. Again, I had been accustomed to Plato as the frothy-mouthed Teahadist, chanting nationalist and militaristic slogans while Aristotle was the reasonable, rational humanist who actually paid attention to facts. In their major political works, the roles are almost reversed, and it is Aristotle who makes lame appeals to established authority and the inherent rightness of patriarchy and slavery, while Plato is the egalitarian.
Among the standard recitation that governments are classified as Democracies, Aristocracies and Monarchies (and that Monarchy is the best, except when the king is a tyrant, in which case it’s the worst), and that certain people are designed by nature to be slaves, and it’s only right to go to war and take those people by force if they get uppity, we get hidden gems of crazy-logic. We are told that Northern races are “spirited” while southern races are “languid”, and that therefore we should have slaves from the south, who will be less likely to rebel (except that, we don’t really approve of our servants being “languid” either, do we? And also, what part of Europe is Greece in? Ooopsie....I wonder if Aristotle ever got around to rethinking his terracentrism when the “spirited” Macedonians to the North came to rightly subject the languid slave race directly south of them). Then, we are told that farming and husbandry are honorable jobs, while trade and business are unseemly and not fit for gentlemen. Worst of all is ANY lending of money at interest.
Among the few things Plato and Aristotle actually agreed on were their disdain for private property and their admiration for Sparta—a city that was Athens’s bitter enemy, and which produced no art, no science, and no philosophers. On the other hand, they were trailblazers, just beginning to show the civilized world how to organize thought. They were not the end, but the beginning, and can be forgiven for their whoppers.
Politics, along with the Ethics and maybe Poetics, are the most readable tracts in Aristotle, and the ones most widely read today. It’s a good introduction to political studies as long as you don’t take it too seriously and you keep your bullshit detector active.
The Ungrateful Dead: Dead Beat, by Jim Butcher
”What’d he do?” I asked. “What made him so evil?”
“He was best known for World War One,” Bob said.
“The whole thing?” I demanded.
“Mostly, yeah,” Bob said. “There were about a hundred and fifty years of engineering built into it, and he had his fingers into all kinds of pies. He vanished at the end of hostilities and didn’t show up again until he started animating mass graves during World War Two. Went on rampages out in Eastern Europe, where things were pretty much a nightmare even without his help. Nobody is sure how many people he killed.”
“Stars and stones,” I said. “Why would he do something like that?”
“A wild guess? He was freaky insane. Plus evil.”
“You say ‘was’,” I said. “Past tense?”
“Very,” Bob said. “After what the guy did, the White Council hunted him down and wiped his dusty ass out in 1961.”
“You mean the Wardens?”
“I mean the White Council,” Bob said. “The Merlin, the whole Senior Council, the brute squad out of Archangel, the Wardens, and every wizard and ally the wizards could get their hands on.”
I blinked. “For one man?”
“See above, regarding nightmare,” Bob said. “Kemmler was a necromancer, Harry. Power over the dead. He had truck with demons, too, was buddies with most of the Vampire Courts, every nasty in Europe, and some of the uglier Faeries, too. Plus he had his own little cadre of baby Kemmlers to help him out. Apprentices. And thugs of every description.”
“Damn,” I said.
“Doubtless he was,” Bob said. “They killed him pretty good. A bunch of times.”
The Dresden Files arc has by now become so complex that it’s hard to discuss the mid to later volumes at all without spoilers. If you’re going to read these books, start with Storm Front (Bookpost, May 2011) and read them in order.
Suffice it to say that this is one of the better Dresden books, and one in which arc-changing things happen. The “baby Kemmlers” referred to above are grown up, and in Chicago, and eager to bring on the end of the world. To do so, they’re hunting for the “Word of Kemmler”, and for a spell to summon the Fae leader of the Wild Hunt (Think Blind Michael from the October Daye books, only even more badass), and Dresden has to prevent it from happening.
There’s a wimpy, bullied mortician named Waldo Butters, who sniffles and hates himself because he’s such a coward. Guess who ends up saving Dresden and the world? No, that’s not a spoiler, it’s a trope. So. There.
These books are mental candy bars. Not very good for you, but a lot of fun to devour.
CalvinSleuth: Big Six, by Arthur Ransome
The Death and Glories looked doubtfully from face to face.
“All the world believed them guilty,” said Dorothea. “Their fathers’ and their mothers’ grey hairs went down in sorrow to their graves...Were going down...” she corrected herself. “The evidence was black on every side...And I say...” She suddenly changed her tone. “William’ll make a splendid bloodhound.”
“But William ain’t a bloodhound,” said Pete. “Nothing like it.”
“Well, we need one anyway,” said Dorothea, and William’s the best we’ve got.”
“What’s the camera for?” asked Bill.
“Photographing clues,” said Dick.
“When there’s a murder,” said Dorothea, “they always dash in and photograph everything.
“But there ain’t a murder, not yet,” said Bill.
“There may be,” said Dorothea excitedly, “The villain fights like a rat once he’s cornered.”
Another book in the Swallows and Amazons series that doesn’t have any Swallows or Amazons, and isn’t on the lake. Big Six is back in the Norfolk Broads with the gang from Coot Club trying their hand at detection. Unfortunately, Ransome is much better at putting skill sets from The Dangerous Book for Boys into story form than he is at writing mysteries, or even at setting stories in villages with grownups instead of in natural settings off the beaten track. The Coots are falsely accused of setting boats adrift in the river, and set out to clear their names. The way in which everyone in town immediately assumes the guilt of local youths who have had a trustworthy reputation in that community all their lives stretches belief, and the identity of the real culprits is a mystery only to people who can’t decide whether Bugs Meany is lying or telling the truth to Encyclopedia Brown.
As always, the best part of the story is about the imaginations of the protagonists as they set about their adventures. They earnestly discuss detection tropes, analyze bicycle tracks, collect fingerprints, and develop photographs (you know, back in the days when photographs were developed chemically instead of with Photoshop). I kept waiting for them to disguise themselves with Groucho Glasses and flash fake police badges while saying “What’s all this, then?”
The October Country: One Salt Sea, by Seanan McGuire
Dugan was where the Queen said he'd be: in the armory, conducting a small army of pages in the complicated business of preparing for a war. Most of them were too occupied with their tasks to notice our arrival. I cast a glance toward Etienne, raising an eyebrow. He was frowning, his attention on the children. I shared the sentiment.
It's hard to estimate age on fae kids--differing rates of growth and standards of physical maturity mean it's possible for an adolescent to be in his thirties, although most don't slow that sharply until they hit puberty--but even so, I wouldn't have placed some of those kids at more than nine. There's a certain ungainliness that comes with the years between eight and fourteen that tends to fade away on kids who get stuck at that age for more than the customary span. These kids didn't just look young, they were young.
"Should I be calling child welfare, Harrow?" I asked, leaning in the door frame.
Dugan's head snapped up, eyes widening, then narrowing as he took in the sight of me. He focused on Etienne, and spat. "You bring a traitor here, unbound? Is this a joke? Or have you elected to join her in her treasons?"
"Um, hello?" I raised a hand. "Not a traitor, and the Queen told us where to find you. Or do you think we're such major badasses that we fought our way through the knowe to come and loiter at you in an imposing fashion? Because I've got to say, I'm flattered.”
I suppose I should include a disclaimer: I know Seanan McGuire, have sung with her at several cons (she’s a kickass singer-songwriter as well as a writer), and some of her closest friends are my friends, too. Nonetheless, if something about her books bugs me, I’ll still tell you about it (see Late Eclipses, March 2011 Bookpost).
This is the fifth in McGuire’s October Daye series, and the first one I’ve read since I started going through Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. I found myself distracted by the desire to have Harry and October forced to work on a case together and annoy the living shit out of each other. I also found myself impressed with the higher quality of October’s world. A savory after the dessert, if you will.
You MUST read One Salt Sea after Late Eclipses, the fourth book. There are big game-changing reveals in the earlier book that are necessarily mentioned early on in the later one and, once again, I need to bite my tongue and taper off my own commentaries to avoid any spoilers. The children of the Queen of Saltmists (the sea faeries of the Pacific) have been kidnapped, and it looks like the Queen of the Summerlands (Toby’s territory) might have done it, and so war is about to be declared between the kingdoms, and it’s up to Toby to rescue the children and prevent the war. Classic Private Eye plot set in Faerie.
The story is told in classic detective format. Go to a location, find clues, ask questions, then go to the next location, find clues, ask questions, lather, rinse, repeat, with a few diversions to avoid traps and lurking villains come to do you in. I happen to love this genre, and try to solve the crime before the detective tells me who did it; in this case, the story is more about “finding” than about “finding out”. And then McGuire does what McGuire does best, and if you don’t know what that is, you’ll have to read the books and find out. You’ll be glad you did, once you stop twitching.
I was impressed with an episode, early on, in which October is faced with a diplomatic conversation challenge. Fighting, puzzling, outfoxing and seduction puzzles are a dime a dozen in this genre, but it’s much more rare to find the kind of social puzzle where you have to finesse your way through the Queen’s ball in the afternoon and go bar-hopping with goblins at midnight without blowing it. I also was particularly impressed with October’s narrated thoughts and Tybalt’s musings about war. I read two other books about the horror of war this month, Birdsong and Gravity’s Rainbow, and they’re both considered modern classics, but it was One Salt Sea that most made me feel what it means for large numbers, especially of young folk, to die forever. Maybe part of it was that, in Faerie World, you’re supposed to be immortal. Very high recommendations.
Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue: Dune, by Frank Herbert
Paul lifted his hooks, sighted along them, leaned in. He felt them bite and pull. He leaped upward, planting his feet against that wall, leaning out against the clinging barbs. This was the true instant of the testing; if he had planted the hooks correctly at the leading edge of a ring segment, opening the segment, the worm would not roll down and crush him.
The worm slowed. It glided across the thumper, silencing it. Slowly it began to roll—up, up—bringing those irritant barbs as high as possible, away from the sand that threatened the soft inner lapping of its ring segment.
Paul found himself riding upright atop the worm. He felt exultant, like an emperor surveying his world. He suppressed a sudden urge to cavort there, to turn the worm, to show off his mastery of this creature.
Suddenly he understood why Stilgar had warned him once about brash young men who danced and played with these monsters, doing handstands on their backs, removing both hooks and replanting them before the worm could spill them.
Poor Frank Herbert didn’t know when to let a good thing go, and he’s remembered as much for milking the Dune series to death as he is for the original work. This doesn’t change the fact that Dune is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest science fiction masterpieces of all time, and yes, it deserves it.
It’s been over 20 years since I read the original, and so I gave it a new look this month. I found myself bemusedly noting that, like Shakespeare, Herbert seems to be full of cliches. We have political-commercial intrigue in space; planetary emperors, noble kings and wicked barons, all ruling by combinations of brute strength and Machiavellian subtlety; a bard/fighter; an assassins’ guild; a chosen one foreordained by prophecy to achieve greatness and defeat Teh Evil; weird ecology; religion born of hardship; and a race of people with odd psychic powers. I’m not sure how many of these tropes were first used in sci-fi by Frank Herbert, but most of the big examples I can think of offhand are more hackneyed than those of Dune, and came later.
Put them all together, and it’s not cliched at all; it’s a completely original work, unique except that it’s been copied so extensively since. The desert planet Arakkis, the spice melange that can be found only on that planet, the prophet Muad Dib, and the great sandworms are household names among fandom. Everyone with an interest in science fiction should read it at least once, and twice isn’t a bad thing. The first couple of sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, I remember as being moderately interesting; after that, you can stop.
War and Piss: Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks
Stephen gradually stopped trembling. “I’ve always hated birds. That time I told you about when I hit that boy and they made me go back into the institution. He had been taunting me about some crows that the gamekeeper had nailed up to a fence. I went up and stroked one to show I was not afraid. It had maggots under its wings and drooling, milky eyes.” He shuddered.
Isabelle said, “So birds make you think of having to go back to that place?”
“It’s partly that. But I had always hated them, from long before that. There’s something cruel, prehistoric about them.”
She stood up and took his arm. For a moment she looked into his dark brown eyes, into the symmetrical beauty of his pale face. She nodded a little and smiled.
“So there is something that frightens you,” she said.
This “novel of love and war” has a magnificent reputation, but left me feeling dry. It’s part of a genre that includes All Quiet on the Western Front, Farewell to Arms, and The Ghost Road, in that it depicts normal civilian life juxtaposed with life in the trenches, with bullets, explosions and gas, to indicate that war is Very Bad.
When you are in a war, you die, and then you don’t get to live any more.
So goes the story of Stephen Wrayson, an Englishman who begins the story in Amiens in 1910, indulging in culture and illicit romance, and who ends up in Flanders tunneling under trenches with sappers and watching his friends get blown to bloody bits. There are descriptions of brain matter coming out of eye sockets, intestines putrefying in the mud, all sorts of nasty images like that, while in other parts of the book there are steamy erotic scenes of great tenderness. Neither set of images left me particularly in the mood for the other, but I suppose that’s the point. And also, on reflection, yes we do need to see stories like this again and again, as long as there are people out there who think running off to war in, say, Iraq, is a great thing.
I’m not giving it particularly great recommendations, but only because it wasn’t right for me. I can see how for other people, or even for me in a different frame of mind, it can be a very moving reading experience indeed.
Sex, Drugs and Rocket Science: Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Then come...the Space Helmets! At first you may be alarmed, on noticing that they appear to be fashioned from skulls. At least the upper dome of this unpleasant headgear is certainly the skull of some manlike creature built to a larger scale...perhaps Titans lived under this mountain, and their skulls got harvested like giant mushrooms...The eye sockets are fitted with quartz lenses. Filters may be slipped in. Nasal bone and upper teeth have been replaced by a metal breathing apparatus, full of slots and grating. Corresponding to the jaw is a built-up section, almost a facial codpiece, of iron and ebonite, perhaps housing a radio unit, thrusting forward in black fatality. For an extra few marks you are allowed to slip one of these helmets on. Once inside these yellow caverns, looking out now through neutral-density orbits, the sound of your breath hissing up and around the bone spaces, what you thought was a balanced mind is little help. The compartment the Schwarzkommando were quartered in is no longer an amusing travelogue of native savages taking on ways of the 21st century. The milk calabashes appear only to be made of some plastic. On the spot where tradition sez Enzian had his Illumination, in the course of a wet dream where he coupled with a slender white rocket, there is a dark stain, miraculously still wet, and a smell you understand is meant to be that of semen--but it is really closer to soap, or bleach.
There’s no way I can do justice to this book on a first reading. It took me up to my fourth attempt to really figure out what was up with Ulysses, at which point I loved it; asking me to describe it after the first three attempts would simply have revealed me to be woefully out of my depth. I was able to tell that Gravity’s Rainbow is an important work of literature that picks up where the Joyce era left off, and yet...there’s so much I must have missed.
Gravity’s Rainbow is “postmodern”. Pynchon feels no need to limit himself with conventional ideas of “plot” and “character” and “storytelling”. He combines the drug-induced hallucinations of William S. Burroughs, the political paranoia of Hunter Thompson, the guerilla ontology of Robert Anton Wilson, the detached fatalism of Kurt Vonnegut, and the surreal comedy of Zippy the Pinhead into 776 pages of major weirdness that draws upon hard science, ancient literature, comic book archetypes, woo-woo New Age cosmogony and gilded-era Hollywood for cultural sustenance in roughly equal proportions.
Characters come and go and are never seen again. Digressions into any academic topic and any part of the world you care to name exist. Various characters are presented as having low-level superpowers, and it’s hard to tell if they really have them, or are hallucinating them, or are indulging in magical thinking to reassure themselves that they have a way of influencing their own fates in the environment of WWII where V-2 rockets might fall and blow them up at any given moment. The central character is a guy named Slothrup, whose superpower is that wherever he has sex, a rocket will land within a few days afterwards, and who spends a good deal of the book searching for clues about one particular V-2, mysteriously called the 00000. I wasn’t quite clear on just why he was looking for information about this rocket; it’s not as if it’s some sort of God-Destroy-All doomsday weapon, because it was already launched and blown in the normal course of the war before Slothrup learned about it.
Most of the rest is theme. Rocket themes: long, phallic rockets that have explosive climaxes, and parabolic arcs (the “gravity’s rainbow” of the title is the arc of a rocket from liftoff to impact) from start to finish, birth to death, rise to fall. There is tarot imagery, but instead of the cyclical “wheel of fortune”, where death ascends to life and back again, there is an arc of fate with a sudden ending. To Pynchon, sex does not create life, but ends it.
I had a real problem with that.
There is an abundance of sexual imagery in Gravity’s Rainbow, most of it sickening and borderline pornographic. The choice of words like “jizz” and “cunt” in sex scenes instead of more imaginatively erotic words, it seems to me, debases human pleasure. Certain scenes that, I think, were meant to be comic, become merely pathetic. Or maybe I just lose my sense of humor where pain is on the line. There’s a scene where Slothrup discourages a warplane from attack by throwing pies at it; another scene where he is prevailed upon to don a pig costume for a peasant festival and ends up fleeing the Russian army and having a disturbing encounter with an actual, amorous pig; yet another where his mouth harp falls into a toilet and he risks getting stuck headfirst in the toilet and raped by “negroes” while trying to fetch it back out (compare with a similar “toilet scene” in Trainspotting. There’s humor to be found in those situations if you squint hard enough, I suppose, but I just couldn’t feel more than horror at it all.
More than anything, when dealing with Pynchon or any author from the late 1960s to early 1980s, I feel cultural dissonance. It seems to me that America peaked as a nation somewhere between the Johnson and Carter Administrations, and yet the literature, television and entertainment in general from that era seems distressingly surreal, hedonistic and banal to me. And Pynchon seems to pinpoint that. Was that really the apex of America’s arc, or did we take a wrong turn some place?
Heavyweight Campion: More Work for the Undertaker, by Margery Allingham
"Edward died worth 75 pounds in cash and one hundred thousand pounds in various shares."
"Where are they?"
"Oh, he left them to various people. None of them are saleable at the moment, I am afraid."
The lean man in horn rims sat looking at her for a moment or so.
"Well, it was a performance," he said at last. "Did he keep faith in these ventures? Did he hope they'd recover?"
"I don't know," she said softly. "I used to wonder if he knew they were valueless, or if he still thought of them as money. He was used to being rich, you see. There's a great deal in being used to a thing. I'm afraid he died just in time." There was a moment's silence before she said suddenly, "To the uninformed Edward's will might look as if he died wealthy. All our wills suggest that we have money. That is why I wanted you to come here and learn the facts."
"I see," he said. "You've all made little presents of a thousand or so Gold Gold Gold Uniteds to kind old friends everywhere, have you?"
"We've shown that we would have looked after our people if we had been able," she said stiffly.
"Dear me. And is there any hope at all of any of these securities gaining value?"
Miss Jessica looked a little hurt. "Not all the companies are in liquidation yet," she said. "Mr. Drudge watches them for us, but he says Edward was very thorough. That's a joke, of course."
Campion thought it wisest not to comment. Mr. Edward Palinode appeared to have had a genius for finance in reverse.
In the classic English cozy mystery genre, Margery Allingham was Euripides to Dorothy Sayers' Aeschylus and Agatha Christie's Sophocles, going for quirky psychological variations over perfect plots and writing a few masterpieces that change tones from delightful to deeply disturbing in the space of a single sentence. More Work for the Undertaker is extremely stylized. The culture shock of the setting is so pronounced that for the first few chapters, I felt like it was a bad book, that the characters were poorly drawn for the sake of interjecting the author's witty comments, and without motivation other than "because they're crazy" or “because they’re eccentric geniuses”. Then the mood washed over me, and I was suddenly enchanted. You just have to get used to the environment.
The location is Apron Street, a once fashionable nook of London where the Palinode family and the various local shops they used to almost single-handedly keep in business before the World Wars have decayed in the interval. The three surviving Palinodes have lost their ancestral home but still rent space in it, have genius IQs but are too quirky and set in their ways to be functional in society, and may or may not have murdered one or more recently deceased Palinodes. So might the local banker, the local chemist, the local barmaid, the local doctor, the local undertaker and his boy, and a handful of unorthodox street characters ranging the gamut from “lovable cockney” to “easily shocked colonel”.
Is the undertaker smuggling some kind of contraband in the coffins? What’s a notorious con artist doing hanging around town? Who is writing all the poison pen letters? Could any of the worthless stock securities be valuable after all? Why does the niece feel the need to disrobe before creeping in the upstairs window? Why are small time crooks, delirious in jail, overheard saying “Please don’t send me up Apron Street?” Can anyone get the Palinodes to say something that makes any sense? And has anyone actually been murdered, or not?
These are among the interlocking puzzles confronting Mr. Campion. The language of the characters and the narrative both take some getting used to, but once you’re in the Apron Street Zone, the little descriptive statements like He was not a man who believed in the smile as a social lubricant positively make you tingle with appreciation. Highly recommended.
Displaying his Best Profile: Heat Rises, by "Richard Castle"
When they entered the third floor walk-up office of the Step This Way Talent Agency, Phil Podemski was eating take-out oatmeal at his desk. As he swept old trade magazines and newspapers from his couch onto the floor so they could sit, the agent eyeballed Nikki and said he could really do something for her, considering her figure and looks. “You have to strip, of course. Not for me, I don’t go for any funny business, I mean in the act.”
“Much as I appreciate the offer,” she said, “that’s not why we’re here.”
“Oh...” Podemski sized up Rook and tugged at his orange Yosemite Sam mustache. “Sure, guess I could give you a bullwhip and a fedora. We’d market you as Indiana Bones. Or maybe go sci-fi. You sorta look like that guy who roamed outer space everybody’s so crazy about.”
“Malcolm Reynolds?” asked Rook.
“Who?...No, I’m thinking we give you a space helmet and some assless chaps and call you...Butt Rogers.”
This is the third novel based on the Castle TV series about a writer who solves crimes with his tough cop pal Beckett, and writes books featuring "Detective Nikki Heat" as a stand-in for Beckett. The books are presented as Nikki Heat novels written by the character Castle.
The first two in the series read pretty much like Book length Castle episodes with different character names. Heat Rises finally gets it right. It's more like what you would expect Rick Castle to write while fantasizing about Beckett. He makes himself into a suave world adventurer and a genius in the kitchen, Nikki Heat into a supercop who all but wears tight-fitting ninja suits while kicking ass, and the two of them into a perfect team that has endless steamy sex and 40s-era movie banter. There's a dedication that's significant to the TV show's arc and an amusing acknowledgments page that, for the first time, reads like it was actually written by Castle instead of a ghostwriter thanking people involved with the show.
The mystery plot part of it would be one of the better Castle episodes. It's fairly convoluted but satisfying, and I probably wouldn’t have solved it but for the use of a word that means more to me than to most other readers. A plot device that would not cause much suspense in the TV show works in the book. The character and atmosphere, for viewers of the show, is delightful. And the scene by Belvedere Castle made me miss NYC.