Thursday, January 03, 2013

Brief Notes on Secondary Reading

Seeing as I am about 4 years behind on the notes on my primary reading you would think that would be a higher priority. And I am going to try to bring that somewhat up to date over the next few months. This post could also be skipped, since none of these books I thought was especially good, and two of them were more or less abominable, but I feel like I should examine my complaints about them and why I have not been able to do markedly better. In any area of life.

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

I have not been reading many novels in my official list for the better part of two years now--long poems, Victorian biographies, philosophical treatises and some works of the Fathers of the Church have filled up the space once dominated by them--and at a certain point in the late summer or early fall I was craving one. Why I chose this I cannot logically account for; every now and then I am overcome by an urge to look into something contemporary, this was named one of the top 10 novels of the year (2006) by the New York Times and was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and it apparently even sold decently. It was supposed to be an accurate depiction of a certain influential and refined milieu. I hope for the sake of the milieu in question that it was not.

Successful literary types often love to recount moments when some joker wannabe reads something by one of the legitimate geniuses of his own generation and realizes he cannot compete in that league, but Claire Messud has something of the opposite effect. She reminds the contemporary would-have-been author that the pool of literary talent in his time was evidently so thin that anybody possessed of even modest ability should have had a golden opportunity not only to break into the field but to become a substantial figure in it. That is how abysmal this book is.

Now it is true that I read it all the way through. This was in part because I wanted to be sure that I was not utterly deceiving myself about the book's quality, but the main reason was that, insipid and insubstantial as the  rich, good-looking, expensively educated, fashionably dressed, culinarily sophisticated, Manhattan residing cultural creative characters were, I am of course obsessed enough with such people to try to find out what the secret of their grip over so much of our national artistic and intellectual life is, because it does not appear to be stupendous intelligence or learning. Apart from snobbery towards provincials and working class people, and maybe the details of clothes and lunches with the smart set, the book is pitifully weak in detail and giving much sense of what being alive on a minute to minute basis in contemporary New York is like, unless the sum of all mental and visual sensation of living there now results in a kind of cumulative emptiness. There is no story, or part of a story, or character, or scene, that is remotely gripping. I suppose the likes of me can take heart that in modern creative class New York there are apparently no straight American-born men. I only noted 2 in the book, one a fat loser from the provinces who primarily subsisted on Coca-Cola and potato chips and did not bathe regularly (no sex for him, needless to say), and the other a prominent liberal intellectual in his 60s who, as if to underscore the dearth of men in their 30s and 40s who are both acceptable to modern educated women and are sexually inclined in their direction, did have a robust affair with one of the main characters, a well-endowed 30 year old working in television. This absence was so blatant in fact that after I got through the book I made an outline for a short comic novel tentatively titled A Heterosexual in New York, in which a character like myself 15 years ago manages to become a force on the young New York literary social scene just by exerting a little heterosexual energy; but of course I haven't gotten going with writing any of it yet.

For what it's worth, Claire Messud is married to James Woods, whose current ranking among the most important literary critics in the United States would put him safely in the running for a BCS bid with a real shot at getting into the title game. She also attended Yale, and one of the characters in her book refers several times to an old professor whose theories happen to be the same as Harold Bloom's, so it is not implausible to presume that she was a student of this luminary's as well. She is also listed as a fellow with the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study). She is obviously well-steeped in almost the highest literary and cultural circles our society has to offer, or at least that the general public is vaguely aware of, yet the dominant characteristics of her work are banality and a general lack of vigorous talent. She has a good grasp on the construction of sentences, I suppose we can grant her that. There is no meat or power in the sentences though.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack features in the book. I admit that the events of that day as they seem to have been experienced by people who were in New York at the time have never really gripped my imagination. My own memories of the day, from afar, granted, are of a kind of absurdity. The media was apparently telling people to give blood, so we had people showing up at the hospital where I work rolling up their sleeves and demanding that someone draw their blood, screaming "Do you know what is happening?" and that sort of thing. The organization was not set up to service all of these donors on the spot but they did schedule a blood drive for a couple of days later to appease the mob, which ended up being cancelled because of course there weren't any survivors who needed it. My sense with writers trying to write about the catastrophe is that something about it always seems incongruous with what it really was, not that I know what it really was either, but I don't think the note that is taken by most authors on the subject has been the right one.

King Rat by James Clavell

From 1963. Best Seller. Opposite situation to The Emperor's Children, in that the premise of the story and the main character have real literary potential, but I found the writing something of a chore to get through. It was somewhat like Forever Amber, in that when I would take it up and get into it I could plow through 30 or 40 pages in a sitting, but I was never all that eager to take it up again until several days interval had passed. The Emperor's Children I actually got through fairly quickly--fairly quickly for me meaning 15-20 pages a day--and on a regular schedule, even though the book was lousy. I think I felt like its very existence was such an indictment of myself and my whole lousy literary generation that I was compelled by association, however tenuous, to wallow in the shame that it represented for as long as it lasted. There was a part in King Rat that, while typical of its time and not especially well-written, arrested me, about one of the loser lower-middle aspiring to middle-middle class character's agony over his inability to persuade his wife to willingly have sex with him. All of his desperate requests and attempts at seduction are met with a frigid "No" and the night before he is to leave for duty--the book is set in a Japanese prison camp during World War II--he violently tears apart the expensive dress she has put on to go out somewhere and I suppose it is implied that he raped her, though I don't have the book in front of me anymore and don't remember whether that was implied or if he just gave up when he realized she was completely uninterested in having relations with him. That one passage about frustration really stuck with me. And the King is really an excellent character, though my memory of details where he is concerned seems to be fading already.

The movie based on this that came out in 1965 is very good. I got it expecting it to be one of those lumbering 1960s World War II films, because it is not especially celebrated, so I was surprised by how well it worked as a movie. Even my wife, who is not the target demographic for World War II prison camp movies, thought it was good, and handled its subject matter tastefully (maybe this is why it has not been more highly rated by the critics). The King was played by George Segal, who seemed positioned around this time to become a fairly major leading man if one or two of his films, such as this one, had taken off, but that did not quite happen. His timing was unlucky I think in that he had a kind of classic All-American look and demeanor which became suspect in the minds of many serious art people just at the time he emerged on the scene. I have not seen him in much, but I've generally liked him, perhaps because he never did make that ascent to superstardom. The co-star and foil of the King is Tom Courtenay, who starred in a number of notable British movies of the early 60s like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar.

Carlo Cipollo--The Economic History of World Population

From 1962. A very short book (117 pages). Demography is one of my peculiar fascinations, and interesting readable books about it are fairly rare, so whenever I come across anything on the subject that looks interesting I give it a try. I found my copy of this in the donations bin at the supermarket.

I always enjoy reading books from this time period because I find the tone and point of view which the authors of the era usually take to be more agreeable than that of contemporary writers. They may even be saying the same things, but they tend to be less hysterical about them. Carlo Cipollo for example, talks about the necessity going forward of adopting a more global point of view and the eventuality of resource depletion, but he manages to write about these matters, it seems to me, without the accusatory or imperious attitude that people promoting these positions feel compelled to inject into their statements on these subjects today. I am certain that he probably had such attitudes--his essays on human stupidity apparently rank among his better known works--but he was able to temper the urge to express them in his published work. Indeed, according to his Wikipedia page one of his tenets regarding stupidity was that "The probability that a person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person" which strikes me a sensible observation that people have totally lost sight of today.

The 1960s was, it strikes me, kind of a golden age of popular anthropological writing. I remember as a child my father's having numerous books that presented the story of prehistoric man in his journey from hunter and gatherer to maker of tools to his discovery of agriculture and language and primitive art and his eventual development into a creature vaguely resembling ourselves. It seems to me that this narrative regarding our human origins is not as prominent, or vivid in the collective consciousness anymore. Cipolla has a whole chapter in this vein which took me right back to the era of The Naked Ape and The Epic of Man and the opening scene of 2001 and the similar productions and imagery from that time.

Cipolla was quite concerned, and rightly so, at the time, about overpopulation. At the time he was writing, even though birth rates in the West had declined considerably since 1800 or so, they were still well above the replacement level everywhere, and of course in the third world they were absolutely astronomical. There seemed no likelihood that the birth rate would ever drop to a level low enough to meaningfully slow the rate of population growth, let alone stabilize it, though that did happen all across the West within a few years of the book's being written, and has since happened across much of the rest of the world, apart from sub-Saharan Africa and several (though not all) Islamic countries.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I wouldn't even consider this to be a real book. It's one of those ubiquitous modern non-fiction exercises where a bunch of disparate examples are thrown together--this one had employee training at Starbucks, the Montgomery bus boycott, Paul O'Neill's reviving of the fortunes of the Alcoa corporation, the deadly London Tube fire of 1987, the excruciating process of figuring out how to market Febreze, middle-class people who are dumb as rocks but somehow have access to hundreds of thousands of dollars to blow at casinos, and the relentless mining of personal spending data by all major corporations--in support of a not especially compelling idea. Given that most of the chapters are concerned in some way with a triumph derived from some application of the principles of habit delineated in the book that resulted in soaring profits for some mega-company, I am assuming it is aimed at the business crowd. The depiction of the world it offers I think would be too depressing for anybody else to contemplate. The author is a reporter for the New York Times. He seems to find the corporate vision for human life going forward to be acceptable, legitimate and perhaps even interesting. His whole 90s Ivy League package--that includes his picture as well as his style of writing--is as if calculated to be extremely annoying to me anyway. I don't know these people at all. I don't know why you would write a book like this.

Bonus Recommendations: Children's Books

My older boys are reading the Great Brain series of books by John Fitzgerald, which originally came out in the 1960s and 70s. I never knew about them at the time, though they are the kind of thing I would have read. They are reminiscences of the author's childhood in Utah at the turn of the 20th century, at which time that part of the country was still very much on the frontier in many ways, though amenities of civilization like running water and mass market toys have already begun to make their insidious inroads on the theretofore unsullied lives of the settlers. Indeed, one of the big events in the series is when the author's family (the Great Brain is the author's elder brother) gets the first flush toilet in town. Republican types will like it, as all of the boys in the book--girls aren't referred to much throughout the series--are resourceful when it comes to satisfying their material needs, and naturally entrepreneurial. If there is some desirable item that you want, your parents aren't just going to go out and buy you the identical thing, or give you enough money to ever get it yourself, so your only hope of obtaining it is to either swindle it away from another kid who has it, or device a scheme to relieve your peers of their own allowances. The Great Brain--who has a lot of similarities to King Rat now that I think of it--is the master of devising such enterprises. The series loses a little steam as it gets into the later volumes--there is less of a sense of continuity binding one episode to the next, and the tone of the stories becomes less warm, I think--but I think they make for more entertaining reading than the various fantasy/magic/kids versus dark forces of evil books that are so popular now, and that my own children also like quite a lot.

The Pink Refrigerator by Tim Egan is a book for 3-5 year olds that I confess to liking. The premise is that there is this middle aged male creature of some kind who owns a junk shop. He lives alone and has been stuck in a routine for years. He never misses his favorite television shows though he usually falls asleep in his chair in front of the set. It is never implied that he is unhappy, just that he is not living life to the fullest. One day a mysterious pink refrigerator shows up in his junkyard. It has an old rusty magnet on it that has a different message every day. It also has something new inside it every day. One day it was a set of old literary classics. Another a set of paints. On the third a horn of some kind or other. One day there was a globe. At first our marmot-man does not know quite what to do with them, but they seem to exert magic powers. He puts the books in his shop window for sale, but finds he is unable to part with them when someone wishes to buy them. At length even the urge to watch television is overpowered. By the end of the book he is closing up his shop and setting out on a trip. It speaks to me. The guy who sleeps and watches television all the time is not a hopeless moron who needs a major intervention to reach enlightenment, he has just become lazy and needs a nudge, a reason, to engage in some degree with mental life again.

I completely missed the Christmas season. I couldn't find any Christmas videos this year that I just loved, so I guess I will skip that for 2012 and see if anything strikes my fancy next year.

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