The New Republic‘s online version has just published a chat between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman on the topic of fantasy fiction. Because I’m in the process of publishing a book on the contemporary novel’s uses of genre, I was quite intrigued. Some good points made here by both, especially on the relationship between publishers’ decisions and author’s positions on the question of what “genre” means.
I just finished reading Alexandar Hemon’s The Making of Zombie Wars, which, yes, I bought because it has zombie wars in the title. I suspect that I’m not alone in this, and that I’m also not alone in being a bit disappointment at a singular lack of zombies throughout the narrative. Lest it be thought that it’s this that clouds my somewhat negative impression of Hemon’s book, however, let me quickly disclaim that: I was hoping, but not expecting, more zombies; and, having been duly disappointed in my hopes, though not my expectations, I got into the book on its own terms.
And those terms are a bit, shall we say, disjointed. Between nods to Hemon’s biography (Serbian characters reflecting upon the devastation wrought on them by the Jugoslavian civil war, a writer protagonist a bit younger than Hemon now, but less younger in the story’s 2003 setting), the slightly improbable story touches base with a variety of subjects: Jewish family life, disappointed writers’ ambitions, the business of film-making, or at least, the business of transferring screenplay ideas into screenplay pitch into film (which the novel never manages to get done). These plot elements do, of course, intersect, even intersect organically: the protagonist, aspiring screen-writer and English-as-a-Second Language teacher Joshua Levin falls in love with one of his adult students, the Bosnian refugee Ana, whose war-damaged husband finds this, shall we say, obnoxious; needs to fend of the (inconsequential) attentions of his family, which seems so dimly stereotypical that it’s either a joke or just really, really bad; faces the problems which come along with having as landlord a Gulf War-1991 veteran with serious issues about private boundaries and a Samurai sword; needs to come to terms with the doomed relationship he has with a slightly-bland successful New York professional whose cat gets murdered by Ana’s husband; all the while writing a script called Zombie Wars, which (in 2003) must certainly seem like a big and new and interesting idea.
Yes, it’s 2003! It’s not exactly clear why it’s 2003, because it’s not like Hemon adds anything in particular to the greater political situation on the eve of and then during the Iraq War. To be sure, everything in this novel is falling apart: Joshua’s relationship, Ana’s marriage, Joshua’s sister’s marriage, his father’s health, and of course the poor cat’s health. Also his landlord’s at-best liminal sanity, and, in what is a clever meta-move, perhaps, Hemon’s novel. Having alternated between the novel’s plot of Joshua’s deflating, and for all that not very interesting, life, and his short vignettes of Zombie War’s growing screen-play, at the very end, in a move that seems like it would have been discouraged in the work shop for its blatant obviousness, the two narratives exchange forms: Zombie Wars ends as a third-person narrative, not a screenplay, in which the film’s protagonists recognize the futility of their quest for safety in a zombie-infested world; and the real-life narrative of Joshua’s life ends in a screenplay scene on Seder in the Levin family (plus by-now best friend insane-landlord Stagger) which is almost aggressively empty.
Now, it’s not difficult to suggest the things the novel is trying to talk about, maybe: the consequences of war (the past Jugoslavian civil war, the ongoing war in Iraq, and the fictional zombie war); issues of personal identity (Joshua’s Jewishness, inescapable, set against his job, also inescapable, and his dreams, unfulfillable); questions of love, relationships, and connection. It’s well-written in the kind of lyrical realism that predominates a certain kind of contemporary realist writing; it’s even funny at times, and certainly absurd, even grotesque. But, and this is the problem, it’s no more than that. Its repetitive screenplay-idea jokes, all of which end on a bad pun, suggest the central annoyance with the novel: Joshua’s screenplay ideas are all idea and no execution, all concept and no content; Hemon’s novel is all content and very little concept. The connections between the zombie wars of Joshua’s screenplay and the reality he lives are suggestive, but unexplored; the finale, which sees Joshua in the company of a family we have seen too little of for us to care about their relationships, is too clever by far, and too meaningless, too.
Of course, we (being literary critics and scholars) can make those connections that the novel doesn’t, and call it cleverly done on Hemon’s part to not spell them out—and really, I do not mean to say that Hemon should have spelled his points out. As the Washington Post notes, “some of [the plot] may strike you as unlikely, possibly as unlikely as mutilated bodies lumbering around in search of human flesh”—and means this, it seems, as a compliment, suggesting the weirdness which real life brings to the fore at every turn. The effect in Hemon’s novel, however, is not that: it’s all a bad screenplay, a zany romp through silliness, whose points (war is bad and leaves people wounded; relationships need—what? honesty?) are superficial. Did we need this novel? No. You’re better off reading books with more actual zombies inside.
I’ve been writing on this book for a while now for my second book project, and the more I think about it, the more I am impressed by it—which is why this post. I know this was once supposed to be a theory blog (and I’ll say something on Slajov Žižek’s three latest books, all 2014, sometime soonish), and this is more like a review again. But bear with me, two or three people who actually read this.
Let’s give you a brief recap and few data points, the data points first: Equilateral is a very economical 207 pages short and four main characters. It is set in 1894-5 in Egypt, where, under the supervision of astronomer Sanford Thayer, the so-called Mars Concession is excavating a humungous equilateral triangle. Thayer believes (as do many of his colleagues) that there is a civilization on Mars, as proven by the excavation of the so-called “canals,” which resists the planets growing desertification and, given their landscaping prowess, must be old and powerful. Thayer wants to gain their moral and technological insight to prevent Earth following in Mars’s footsteps; the Concession wants Mars’s technology and markets. Assisting Thayer are Miss Keaton, his assistant and the manager of the project; Ballard, the chief engineer; and the Egyptian servant girl Bint (not actually her name, as we learn later).
Kalfus’s novel is inspired by the controversy over Martian civilization following Giovanni Schiaparelli’s real-life “discovery” of canals, which led to a veritable Mars-craze in the late 19th century until it was discovered to be something of a collective hallucination: an initial failure of optics compounded by the willingness to see what was not there. But the novel is more than a mere creative retelling of this craze: it is a meditation on the imagination, on the possibility of utopia, on the failure and success of transnational communications, on imperialism and power, on seeing and believing, on hope and loss. This is what’s the most astounding achievement to me: the sheer economy with which Kalfus manages to cram so much into so little space and such sparse but eloquent language—and with nary any action at all. It would be unfair to say that nothing really happens in the novel (there’s a Mahdi raid on the construction site, and of course the excavation itself), but what’s important is not so much what happens, as what is being thought. Thayer sees Mars as the possible source for all kinds of utopian possibilities, most of which remain mere gestures, but about which to think forces him to reappraise his entire world-view: if initially he holds with the Spencerian conception of social evolution, by the end of the novel, the possibility that Mars has taken a different track: a track that, quite possibly, includes some form of socialist polity.
There’s a variety of fascinating vignettes that say much about the human condition in few words: there’s the scene where Thayer elaborates expansively on the metaphysical and historical qualities of the equilateral triangle, only for Ballard to tell him that it’s “bloody difficult to dig, though”; there’s this scene:
“Merrikh,” he says, indicating the planet [Mars] again, and then he points to the ground. “Earth.”
She says, “Masr.” Masr is the Arabic word for Egypt. She pronounces it with a Bedouin drawl.
He corrects her gently. “Earth.”
“Uurth, Masr. Masr, Urrth.” She smiles again, believing that she’s learned another word of English.
Perhaps if Thayer knew the Arabic name of our planet he would set her right. But he doesn’t know it and the thought occurs to him that a separate word for Earth, analogous to other planetary names, presumes an awareness that Earth, Mars, and Saturn are analogous entities, similar spheres similarly hurtling through the same celestial environment, an airless, matterless medium know as “space.” It also presumes an awareness that other political and national entities have been established on Earth, apart from Egypt. (57)
Which says much few words: about nations as constructs that may be impossible to translate even here on Earth (not to mention to Martians), about the difficulties of communications between well-meaning people.
It’s an almost perfect book down to its ending, which refuses (I think) to decide on its central question: whether or not the Martians really exist. We’re left with an ambivalent image that could be either Martians arriving or Bint giving birth, and the possibility that anything that Thayer hopes for for contact with Mars will come true (a true betterment of the human condition); or that it will not, and that everything that the 20th century has to offer, from World Wars to Cold Wars, will come to pass. Yet whatever will come to pass: Equilateral sets forth a sense of hope that there’s nothing inevitable about these events, and that by extension, we should question our own inevitable events, our own necessary futures.
Post45, the online publication of the eponymous research group on post-World War II fiction, has just published my short essay on Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet in their Contemporaries section.
I’m rather excited. Thanks to Ian Afflerbach for his valuable commentary on the piece, and to the editors and Post45 for their work on it!
With a couple hours to spare on train journeys and elsewhere, I breezed through this series. Military sci-fi, I think you call it: it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. Considering that it’s basically like an action movie in book form, it’s really quite good.
I’ll give the plot only the briefest of nods here: two factions of humanity are at war, the apparently democratic Alliance and the corporatist Syndics; the Alliance are aiming a strike at the Syndics home planets to end what’s already a 100-year-war, and on their way they find John Geary in stasis in an escape pod. Geary is their greatest hero, presumed dead since he singlehandedly defeated the first Syndic attack 100 years in the past; now, as the Alliance fleet suffers defeat through treachery, he must take it back home, fighting against Syndics, internal fleet politics, and the decline of professional competency that has set in since he was lost.
It’s a little like Battlestar Galactica and it’s a little like David Weber’s increasingly turgid Honor Harrington series; but especially when compared to the latter, Campbell’s series shines. For a good long while, Weber’s plot revolved around the war between a star kingdom of impeccable morals, and a society which was essentially a weird quasi-socialist dystopia ruled over—in the wake of a revolution, no less—by a guy named Robert Stanton (?) Pierre…or Rob S. Pierre, for short. Yes, that’s the kind of cleverness you’re in for in Weber. Weber’s characters are cardboard cut outs (as E.M. Forster would say) at best; so any comparison which makes the point, as I do here, that Campbell’s series is better at that ought to take that into account. But really, he is better. His characters aren’t exactly rounded, but at least they have odd hang ups and worries; and while, yes, John “Black Jack” Geary wins (almost) every battle and makes (almost) no mistakes, at least Campbell gives that a plausible reason: the Alliance fleet has gotten used to head-on attacks, to voting on courses of action, and to promoting based on politics, not ability. Geary is old-school, by comparison: he knows tactics, knows that commanders decide, and so on. So I suppose I can buy that.
And here’s the turn to literary analysis: two things stand out to my mind in Campbell’s book. One is the enemy side, the Syndics. A society apparently based on the laws of capitalist competition in all things, the Syndics are a corporate society in which the quest for profit rules everything. It’s not investigated in any detail, but it’s a very interesting choice of opposition. The second thing is the character of John Geary, and his backstory. Essentially, he is a historical figure that intrudes into the contemporary (always understanding these times to be in the far, far future), opening up the hope for a better future through the knowledges of the past. What is interesting is that in this regard he functions very much like characters in a number of other recent novels (Upton Sinclair in Chris Bachelder’s U.S.!, the nuclear physicists of Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, and William Howard Taft in Jason Heller’s Taft 2012–or, to go to the more classical references, Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle or Edward Bellamy’s Julian West (from Looking Backward)). I’m not sure what (if anything) this move signifies in what’s essentially pulp fiction; but it’s an interesting thing to see, at least to me.
San Francisco: Alfred A. Knopf / McSweeney’s, 2013. 491pp.
Alright, so I finished this. Let’s start with a recap. Our protagonist, Mae, gets hired by the eponymous Circle, a Google-look-a-like that isn’t Google (because it has bought Google), but acts very much like Google. She is dazzled by the opportunities offered (free health care, outstanding infrastructure) and not at all bothered by the weirdness: the biweekly medical check-ups, the requirement for social participation, the incessant processes of ranking and being ranked, the increasing takeover of her life by the Circle. While we read about her answering customer inquiries and surveys at dazzling speed and with a 99-out-of-100 rating, we witness also her struggle with her parents (her father has MS), her ex-boyfriend, her new “boyfriend” Francis, her friend Annie (who is a top-40 executive at the Circle) and a mysterious stranger named Kalden. Mostly, however, Mae remains a cipher, the vehicle through which Eggers can show us the Circle’s campaigns for total human transparency through personal (and public) surveillance. There are microcameras that can be installed everywhere at 50 bucks a piece and which are remotely accessible and controllable (pitched as a way to prevent genocide and terror, they end up sitting in private homes, ostensibly to allow family members’ “peace of mind”); microchips in the bones of children to make abductions impossible and later to track medicinal and school data; finally, an around-the-clock internet streaming, audio-and-video device that creates complete transparency of anybody’s life (and those of everyone around them), designed to hold politicians more accountable by making their every action public. (Scientology tie-in (!): having your every action recorded as a public servant is “going clear”. There’s actually a number more of these odd allusions (?), such as calling the microcamera system “SeeChange” (SeaOrg?).) On the way to this total surveillance, the Circle breaks politicians by placing fake data in their personal accounts.
The novel is modestly clever at making some level of this quite plausible, depending on your feelings about technology. Yes, it might be a good idea to have all medical data available to all doctors simply by letting them scan a chip in you (bear with me, I say “might”). But, and here lies the crux, the easy translation which Eggers offers here (“if this is great, wouldn’t it be even greater if that also happened”) makes the story waver quite uneasily between stark vision of the future and simplified parable. 95% of the Circle’s inventions—up to and including the idea that Circle membership should be made mandatory, because elections will take place through it—go over without so much of a murmur. The novel takes until page 423 until somebody even mentions privacy laws, only to hand-waive that concern (“I don’t think that’s a problem.”). The characters blithely disregard the multitudes of concerns for their own privacy, or are easily bowed by the convictions of the Circle when something comes up, such as Mae broadcasting live her mother’s manual stimulation of her father’s penis. And so, surprisingly, does the government: Eggers doesn’t bother to acknowledge the obvious legal problems of any of this (even the Roberts court would probably look askance at the perpetual surveillance of company employees). In a parable, where we might say the message is king, this might be less of an oddity, and The Circle might work better as an exploration of the dangers of an unfettered data accumulation. But it’s clearly not a parable, given that it does nod towards the law: it’s affirmatively set in the not too distant future, when we’ve all already gone through our own concerns for our (especially digital) privacy, and where you can sue Google not to publish a picture of the outside of your house; and nevertheless, nobody really complains or points to the dangers that are obviously part of the Circle’s ventures. The law, constitutionality, other nations than the U.S.: they all play no major role in this. That, however, makes it increasingly unbelievable.
The heart of the novel’s problem is probably Mae, about as insipid a character as one has seen in Eggers, and for large swaths of the book merely the camera through which Eggers can present his growing menagerie of surveillance technologies, all of which follow the same logic: pitch it as half-way sensible idea: “hey, if every kid had a chip embedded in their very bones, there would be no more abductions!” (cheers, whoops, whistles: yeah, that sounds great!); follow it up with an expanded version that opens the vista of possibilities: “oh, and if they already have such a chip, why don’t we save all their educational data on there? And then also, through some technological wizardry, couldn’t we just compare everybody’s educational stats to show them where they stand in the nation? Wouldn’t that be great? “Hey, Mary, congrats, you’re 120,497th of 130,000 students in the state!” Oh, and then the Ivy League could just take the 12,000 best without the hassle of, you know, talking to them or anything. It’ll be super!” Eggers is inventive about the products he has the Circle invent and purchase, but things become repetitive quickly.
Remaining all too frequently merely the necessary device to let Eggers show these products, Mae simply cannot carry the novel; and problematically, it never becomes quite clear what she is supposed to be: a stand-in for the reader? Someone the reader may feel superior to? Someone who represents the mass of people interacting with Google today? The question is what we are to make of a passage such as the one below. This is Mae, finally finding her way into the social media requirements of her employer, and now faced with the apparently arduous choice of clicking or not clicking a button, first in support of an escapee from a Guatemalan guerrilla army, and here in denunciation of those same guerrillas:
Just as important, Tania wrote, is that we send a message to the paramilitaries that we denounce their actions. Below the picture of Ana María was a blurry photo of a group of men in mismatched military garb, walking through dense jungle. Next to the photo was a frown button that said “We denounce the Central Guatemalan Security Forces.” Mae hesitated briefly, knowing the gravity of what she was about to do—to come out against these rapists and murderers—but she needed to make a stand. She pushed the button. An autoresponse thanked her, noting the she was the 24,726th person to send a smile to Ana Mariá and the 19,282nd to send a frown to the paramilitaries. (243)
This might have been a good, and relatable, scene: Mae clicks herself through surveys, questionnaires, idly condemns rape and murder, goes back to work. But “the gravity of what she was about to do”? Eggers clearly cannot expect the reader to relate to that: but the consequence of that would be that Mae is Eggers’s image of the kinds of people he believes are willfully ignoring the dangers of (let’s face it) Google today. But then the novel argues that those are all of us—the reader included. Wake up reader! You’re Mae! Only, really, you’re not, because do you really think clicking anybody’s “like”-button is a big deal? Mae remains a puzzle, and that hurts Eggers book.
Eggers, now, is not exactly a subtle writer. Remember, for example, the painfully obvious symbology of the hologram in his A Hologram for the King: in The Circle, you’ll find yourself hit over the head frequently by word choice and imagery. In Eggers’s prose, the Circle’s innovations spread with “blitzkrieg speed” (311); Mae’s ex-boyfriend is a (non-digital) small-time artist making things that exist “in one room” only and who suggests (it’s clearly not a revelation to the reader) that the Circle seems very like a “cult” (258). But perhaps the weirdest example of this style is the scene where Mae, now herself “clear,” broadcasts the feeding of a shark brought up from the Marianas trench (!) by one of the company heads, the three wise men. The shark’s transparent body (!) digests its food at rapid speed, leaving only something like ash (!) at the end. The shark, as sharks are wont to, is “circling” (!) in its tank, eating first a lobster and then, apparently for shits and giggles, a turtle that (as a viewer comments) “[l]ooks like my granddad” (!). It gets better: towards the end of the novel, the company heads witness the various creatures brought up from the Marianas trench put together in one habitat (just like in the real world!, they think; only not really, because: it’s a frickin’ tank, not an ocean): the cute seahorses, the majestic octopus, and finally, the ravenous shark. Who proceeds to eat and kill and digest and “turn to ash” everything. Gee, one thinks, it’s eerily like a metaphor for the Circle itself, which devours the old (turtle!), taking no heed of personal sympathies, and turns all that it encounters (in a transparent process, in a transparent environment) into ash. It’s subtle like a croquet mallet to the balls. Likewise, exactly nobody will be surprised when Mae, in a wholly bizarre scene, haunts her ex-boyfriend to his death with drones in an endeavor to present to the world the powers of the Circle’s ability to find anybody, anywhere. And exactly nobody will be surprised to find out that mysterious stranger Kalden, who can apparently move freely within the Circle, turns out to be the reclusive third wise man Ty, who, helpfully for symbolism-challenged readers, explains the whole shark situation to us: “We saw every creature in that tank, didn’t we? We saw them devoured by a beast that turned them to ash. Don’t you see that everything that goes into that tank, with the beast, with this beast, will meet the same fate” (485). Ty tried to convince Mae to do something, to use her public image to stop the Circle’s final encroachment. It is to Eggers’s credit (but again, hardly surprising) that Ty’s efforts fail, that Mae betrays him to the other two company heads, and that he is in typically “don’t do evil” fashion relegated to an advisory role at the company. But the question remains: what did Ty ever see in Mae in the first place? She has shown no potential for critical thinking, not desire to be her own boss, continually flees into the repetitive question-and-answer job she initially had at the company. She’s the designated heroine for Ty because she’s the focal character; and that’s just bad plotting. More to the point: why does Ty really need anybody at all? He’s a tech wizard who can disable the Circle’s technology from within itself; and yet he wants Mae, instead, to broadcast a simple manifesto. Perhaps this is meant to indicate that even the most highly-trained opponents of the Circle fail to understand its power; but if so it merely claims and tells, rather than showing.
The Circle is a timely reminder of the dangers of too much surveillance, too much loss of privacy, and too much agenda with a too small literary toolkit. Charitably, it’s an update of Brave New World. Just as with Hologram for the King, one is tempted to ask why Eggers felt the need to fictionalize his soap box.
Reading (in my copious spare time) Lawrence Wright’s history of Scientology, Going Clear, I’m struck by this theoretical gem:
Wright is speaking here of Scientology’s educational principles:
“The ‘Undefined Word’—the third and most important principle—occurs when the student tries to absorb material while bypassing the definition of the words employed. “THE ONLY REASON A PERSON GIVES UP A STUDY OR BECOMES CONFUSED OR UNABLE TO LEARN IS BECAUSE HE HAS GONE PAST A WORD THAT WAS NOT UNDERSTOOD,” Hubbard emphasizes in one of his chiding technical bulletins. “WORDS SOMETIMES HAVE DIFFERENT OR MORE THAN ONE MEANING.” […] The solution is to have a large dictionary at hand, preferably one with lots of pictures in it. […] The need to understand the meaning of words, Hubbard writes, “is a sweepingly fantastic discovery in the field of education and don’t neglect it.” [my emphasis; Kindle loc. 3810—hey, sue me, I haven’t got the shelf space!]
You better pay close attention here: words may mean different things, and often more than one. I’m not sure it requires access to the mysteries of the universe, really, but it’s true nonetheless, and that’s a useful start. And because it’s true, you should read carefully, elsewise you may not understand things—and then, you should go back, and re-read. It’s not exactly close reading, but it’s certainly closer reading than some people are doing.
So there, folks. Not only does close(r) reading help you understand literature, but it’ll also help you become an Operating Thetan. Not too shabby. Though I suppose that getting at a useful interpretation of William Faulkner is going to be more helpful than going clear…