Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tower of Siloam, updated

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is short.  That redeems it.  It has been showered with accolades—e.g., the Pulitzer Prize and spot 37 on The Modern Library’s Top 100 novels of the 20th century.  At the risk of being accused of heresy—and the attendant burning at the stake—I’ll note that this book strikes me as overrated.  Not vastly overrated—it is good, I am glad I read it, and I can imagine rereading it someday (it is short, after all)—but, overrated nonetheless.

The book poses a question—and a quick Google search reveals that posing said question was Wilder’s sole intention in writing the book.  The question, in Wilder’s words: “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual's own will?”  Now that is a good question, and one well worth asking and answering—or attempting to answer. And it is the complete failure in that last regard that seriously mars this book.  Wilder doesn’t even attempt to answer the question.  As he explained, it is enough to ask the question well.  But, the question is asked well in the one sentence formulation.  What does the novel add?

The story is about five people who die when a bridge collapses.  A priest set out to prove that this was all for the best, that it is evidence for the existence of a Divine Plan.  The book then looks at the lives of each of the five people who died, and we are left with the question of whether these deaths look like part of a bigger plan or whether they were simply random happenstance.  The lives are constructed in such a manner that there is no answer to that question.  I suspect that the book is further written so that one can give high school seniors the following assignment: “Were the deaths in Wilder’s novel part of an overall plan or not?  Explain your answer using specific evidence from the novel.”  That essay question is a good one for this book because I think it would be a simple matter to write a convincing essay for each side. 

Writing a novel which is even-handed enough to allow for both answers to be given is an impressive feat.  But, does that make it a Great Book?  I don’t think so.  This is a work of fiction, after all.  The answer to the Big Question within the novel may or may not be the same as the answer to the question in Reality.  And Wilder’s deliberate lack of an answer to the question means that there is nothing to learn from this novel.  It allows one to simply project one’s prior beliefs into the novel.  There is nothing here to prompt a new thought or to test one’s faith.  In the end, the best this novel can accomplish is to induce a false sense of certainty: “See, I knew I was right in my beliefs because I can prove that my belief can be supported in Wilder’s novel.”

Now if this book was long, it would have been a waste of time.  But, it is short (as noted above) and Wilder writes well.  He sketches out the lives neatly, succinctly and in a compelling fashion.  The lives are intertwined, and thus the novel is a nice portrait of a town.  I enjoyed reading it, but was left unsatisfied.  That’s faint praise, but praise nonetheless.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cain's Clan's Revenge

Eaters of the Dead is a deservedly little known book by Michael Crichton.  It starts off dully enough as the travel journal of an emissary form the Caliph of Baghdad in 921 AD.  But after a few chapters of pointless wanderings, the book suddenly morphs into a rewriting of Beowulf.  And not a very interesting rewriting of Beowulf.  For a while it seems like the goal is to present the Ur-Beowulf, the story of what really happened before legend took over and there were monsters and dragons in the tale.  That idea might have had some promise, but Crichton seriously botches the whole enterprise.  First, he gets the order wrong; the dragon (really just an army carrying torches at night) comes before the battle with Grendel’s mother, and it is the latter which kills him, not the former.  That change alone ruins the conceit that this is the Ur-Beowulf.  Then, Crichton can’t leave well-enough alone.  In the story, Grendel is “wendol” which means “the black mist” from which a brutal army descends upon civilization.  Now that is a clever innovation.  But, then Crichton can’t help himself, and we discover that the wendol is really hiding a tribe of Neanderthals, who have survived the evolutionary change and persist until 921 AD.  Silly.  It would have been better to leave them as a bunch of barbarians if the goal was to retell Beowulf as an actual historical account.  So, instead of a monster Grendel, we have a bunch of Neanderthals with a bizarre mother cult, who are hiding out and attack only when the black mist descends on the land.  Oh, and throw in some prophetic dwarves (why?  I have no idea).  How exactly is this new version more believable than the orignal?

How did this crash-and-burn come about?  Crichton tells us in an afterword that the idea was born when a friend of his was toying the the idea of teaching a college class called “The Great Bores” all about books which nobody ever read for pleasure but were assigned in college.  Crichton, convinced that Beowulf wasn't boring, went home to write a story which would show that Beowulf was exciting.  To prove this he, in the end, wrote a boring book of his own.  Irony abounds.  The sad thing is that with the Heaney translation, I have a hard time imagining that anyone, Woody Allen perhaps excepted, thinks Beowulf is boring anymore. 

Crichton also ends his afterword with this rather telling remark:  “When Eaters of the Dead was first published, this playful version of Beowulf received a rather irritable reception from reviewers, as if I had desecrated a monument.  But Beowulf scholars all seem to enjoy it, and many have written to say so.”  Yeah—the book is so bad that Crichton actually wrote that.

So, what is it about Beowulf that it attracts bad adaptations?  I’ve never watched the recent Beowulf movie after hearing how horrid it was.  Though, come to think of it, after reading Crichton’s novel, I may watch it—after all, it can’t be as bad as this book.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fights a Never Ending Battle for...What?

Historical counterfactuals, when well done, can be both quite entertaining and thought-provoking.  (When poorly done, they are just silly.)  That being said, it is hard to know how seriously to take such things.  On the one hand, a historical (“an historical” for the pedantically inclined—I have always thought the “an” before “h-word” rule was absurd—perhaps that is because in properly spoken English (i.e. California English) one pronounces the “h”) “What if?” can be a great parlor game; on the other hand, there is literally no way to ever figure out what would really happen if some small thing in history had changed; history has many cunning passages, and as a result we really aren’t smart enough to figure out all the implications of a small change.  Moreover, if one is a determinist, then the whole counterfactual thing is inherently problematic.

But, nonetheless, I read a fantastic counterfactual.  Though, come to think of it, I am not sure “counterfactual” is the right word.  What do you call a counterfactual, when the historical episode being rewritten was fictional?  Counterfictional?  That just sounds odd.  But, rewriting a fictional story is not a counterfactual, since there is no fact to counter.  I suppose you could just call it “fiction,” but that doesn’t really describe it.  I think we need a new word here.

Semantics aside:  if you like comic books, Mark Millar’s Red Son is a keeper.  The premise:  Superman’s ship leaves Krypton 12 hours later than in the canonical story.  As a result, the earth has rotated, and Superman’s ship lands on a collective farm in the Soviet Union.  And suddenly we have Superman, the Soviet hero.  And does he ever make a fantastic Soviet hero; a well-meaning Big Brother, who can make the world safe for everyone, and with his superpower hearing and X-ray vision, nothing escapes his notice.  He is quite good at reforming all those malcontents to make them see the beauty of the Soviet way.  Superman is a perfect benevolent totalitarian dictator who is happy to run every aspect of your life for your own good.  Who stands against Superman?  Lex Luthor, naturally—Luthor, the Great American Hero.  The cleverness of this story runs from the big picture to the smallest details.  Seeing how Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Green Lantern all fit into the story is fun.  There are great jokes everywhere you turn as the most routine things in the canonical Superman story are suddenly flipped around.  There is even a great riff on this.  Like I said, if you like comics, this is a must read.

There is one serious failure in the book, though, which almost detracts from the whole story.  The story is 151 pages long.  It really should have ended on the last panel of page 143.  Had it ended there, it would have been the perfect ending to a well told tale.  But, like far too many authors, Millar wanted that extra little kick, so he added a really lame twist starting on page 144.  Fortunately, the twist has no relevance to the story that came before; it is really just tacking on what could have been the ending to any old Superman story, and it would have been just as silly as an ending to any other Superman Story.  Why didn’t someone, anyone, tell Millar that he shouldn’t mess with perfection?  And that last panel on page 143 is perfection—subtle and satisfying.

And, speaking of Superheroes, Emma, Clara and I saw X-Men: First Class on Father’s Day (which was the same day as Emma’s turned 18).  It was a great superhero film.  Better than Thor  (don’t get me wrong; I liked Thor).   Alas, Green Lantern is sounding like a Netflix movie. I am still hoping for great things from Captain America, though.  I have absolutely no hope for Conan, but maybe it will surprise me. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dancing in the Rain

A bleak day prompts a review of a bleak book.  An excellent bleak book, though.

Henning Mankell’s The Return of the Dancing Master

I was unaware of Mankell’s existence—I think he was the Swedish author someone once mentioned to me over lunch at a conference, but I am not sure.  A former student (who graduated in 1996) stopped by my office earlier in the year and while chatting about books, she asked if I had ever read Mankell.  I said “No,” and then about a week later, a couple of his books (and a biography of Wodehouse) were in my mailbox.  All I can say, is that I am really glad I had never heard of Mankell, because it isn’t often you get the great joy of discovering a new author who writes really good books.

The book is a detective story, but a detective story with literary merit. The bleakness in this book is strong.  It takes place in rural Sweden at the outset of winter, so the landscape is cold and bare.  (That was one of my big surprises in moving to New England, by the way.  I had always assumed mid-winter with snow on the ground would be the bleakest part of the year, but it isn't even close.  Late November, when the leaves are gone and there isn't yet snow is much bleaker.  The snow actually brightens things up.)  The protagonist of the novel (the detective) has just been diagnosed with cancer (on his tongue) and he despairs.  The whole novel takes place in the time between his diagnosis and the time he goes in to start treatment.  The murder is all wrapped up in the legacy of Nazi activity in Sweden, so either the murdered or the murderer is a Nazi and there is a steady stream of aging Swedish Nazis who may or may not know something about the murder.  Bleak.  Yet shockingly well written and thoughtful throughout.  I eagerly look forward to reading the rest of Mankell’s work—and nicely enough, I already have another one on my shelf.

Hmmm.  That is a pretty bleak blog post.  I’d like to throw in a cheery detail or two, but come to think of it, there aren’t really any cheery details in the book.  It is really good at maintaining its tone throughout.  There is an interesting moral dilemma at the center of the tale—one with far too many modern applications—does the murderer of a murderer deserve punishment?  If a political radical of some stripe had tortured and killed a relative, and escaped punishment, would you a) be justified in killing the murderer, b) be willing to do so, and c) be justified in torturing the torturer first?  The last question is the easiest.  The first question is a nice staple of discussions of justice.  It’s the second one which is the hardest. 

This is getting bleaker by the moment.  And it’s raining outside.  Again.  I suppose I should go read some more Shelley:

I met a Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Yeah, that’ll cheer things up…

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Old Mortality

Having spent the last week cobbling together a paper on Percy Bysshe Shelley, it is nice to return to writing about a different author.  I have developed quite a love/hate relationship with Shelley, and I still have another 10 days to spend in his company before the deadline arrives and he leaves.  In the meantime, however, I am seriously behind in the book review department, and while being seriously behind in said matter does give me ample material on which to write meaningless ruminations, it also presents the problem of selecting which matter upon which to ruminate, a not particularly terrible problem, but nonetheless it does lead to digressions like this one (though, come to think of it, is it possible to digress before you start the subject at hand?) which will probably end only when one of the books in the stack in front of me rises up and says, “Enough is enough; write about me,” not, dear Reader that said book will actually speak, but you know what I mean.

Scott wins out.  Which isn’t really a surprise—he is the Grand Old Man of the lot, and I would really like to refile the book on the shelf in my library devoted to Scott.

As I mentioned earlier (long ago, it seems), I read Scott because Anne Fadiman mentioned uncut pages and my edition of Scott’s novels has many novels with uncut pages.  The book:
Old Mortality
An oddly named book because the title character is really just a ploy to launch into the story itself, but I suppose authors are allowed to give books odd titles in much the same way that bloggers can do the same.  Speaking of odd, I just read this morning that Marx is reported to have had a fondness for this particular book by Scott but he never mentioned the book in any of his writings.  This is the sort of useless trivia which I find far too intriguing and you, Dear Reader, simply stand astounded that anyone would ever bother to mention in a blog post—but then, as long-time readers of this space surely know, one does not come to this blog for useful information.  The best thing about the Marx anecdote is that, if true, it shows that Marx had good taste in books—though why he would like this particular Scott novel above all others is not something I can fathom—then again, Marx was presumably had more interests than Marxism.  But enough about Marx.

Scott is easily one of the most underappreciated Great Book authors in the modern age.  Once upon a time, he was The Man—he was bigger than Jane Austen.  And, as I have noted often before, I am not sure why Scott is not beloved of those who are fanatical for Austen.  Austen’s best novel is better than anything Scott wrote, but nonetheless, Scott’s best is as good as Austen’s other work.  He has fantastic characters in romantic locations doing heroic and chivalrous deeds.

Old Mortality is about one of the many conflicts between the Scotland and England.  But, it is a multi-sided affair, with the Scots divided between the radical and moderate Presbyterians, and the English divided between the accommodating and harsh overlords.  Our hero, a moderate Presbyterian, is seeking to navigate his way between the bloodthirsty radical Presbyterians and the English who want to stamp out the radicals.  Our hero's love interest is torn between our hero and an English soldier, whose loyalties are torn between Crown and the fact that he owes his life to our hero.  The leader of the radical Presbyterians is alternately trying to convert and kill our hero.  The leader of the local English army troop is alternately trying to hang and enlist the aid of our hero.  There are a host of memorable minor characters, some of whom speak in marvelously fun Scottish brogue.

The central conflict of the book is figuring out how to navigate in a world where the extremes are constantly threatening to tear everything apart. 

For example:
“You are right,” said Claverhouse, with a smile; “you are very right—we are both fanatics; but there is some distinction between the fanaticism of honour and that of dark and sullen superstition.”
“Yet you both shed blood without mercy or remorse,” said Morton, who could not suppress his feelings.
“Surely,” said Claverhouse, with the same composure; "but of what kind?—There is a difference, I trust, between the blood of learned and reverend prelates and scholars, of gallant soldiers and noble gentlemen, and the red puddle that stagnates in the veins of psalm-singing mechanics, crackbrained demagogues, and sullen boors;—some distinction, in short, between spilling a flask of generous wine, and dashing down a can full of base muddy ale?”
“Your distinction is too nice for my comprehension,” replied Morton. “God gives every spark of life—that of the peasant as well as of the prince; and those who destroy his work recklessly or causelessly, must answer in either case.”

The extremes are so nicely done that rather than simply viewing them as extremes which can be dismissed, both of the extremes are allowed to make their case in a thoroughly persuasive manner.  After all, if the radical Presbyterians are right in their theology, then surely any compromise with the Crown and the Anglican church is siding with Evil.  And if the English are right that order needs to be preserved in a state, then surely the uncompromising radical Presbyterians need to be ruthlessly suppressed—after all there is no way to compromise with them.  So, in the face of that, is it right to try to craft a middle ground or is such a middle ground simply a wishy-washy attempt to muddle the Truth?  And how far does a personal debt of honor extend?  What compromises must be made when one owes something to an individual on the other side of a grand debate?  Those debts of honor lie everywhere in this book, and the grand causes keep intruding.

In the end, I think the book teaches the importance of Honor.  A much neglected virtue, that.  Perhaps it is time for a Scott revival.