Monday, September 23, 2013

Ubiquitous Incoherence

The Library of America (that authoritative guide to all things Classic in American Letters) has a three volume set of Philip Dick, the science fiction author from the 1960s and 70s.  I just finished UBIK, the fourth novel in the first volume of that set.  And now four novels in, I must confess to a certain wonder why Dick deserves this All-Star treatment.

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed UBIK.  Reading it was a pleasant diversion from reading economics books.  Dick writes in a style which is not particularly great, but makes it easy to just go along for the ride.  But, where is this ride going?  That is surely a question worth asking before elevating a book to Great Book status, and it is here that Dick trades in cheap tricks as a substitute for substantive ideas.

UBIK offers up a bewildering array of science fiction tropes, but as it turns out most of them are the literary equivalent of the magician’s trick of waving a hand to divert attention from where the real action is happening.  There is an entire story of people with psychic powers and an organization set up to stop people with psychic powers from using those powers.  There is a plot of a woman with the ability to change the past, generating a new present—though how she knows what she has done in the new present is totally unexplained and likely internally incoherent.  But neither the woman nor the whole psychic power thing matters in the end.  The real story is about half-life—a state which people enter after death in which there conscious self still lives on in a bizarre dream world.  Living people have some odd ability to talk with those in half-life, but only at some sort of company which specializes in enabling contact between the living and those whom Billy Crystal would call the Almost Dead.  Those Half-life people move along in some sort of odd time which seems to be shorted as they spend more time talking to the living, susceptible to interaction with other Half-life people whose bodies (corpses) are physically close, but sometimes the physically close corpse can take over half-life person’s world or even that person’s channel of communication with the living  and if this is making any sense at all, then I am providing clarity where there really isn’t any in the book.  And, all this is totally irrelevant to the real story too.

The real story.  Our hero may be alive or he may be in half-life and he doesn’t know and we don’t know which either.  Indeed, neither our hero nor we have any idea what is going on--until the penultimate scenes in which we discover that our hero is, in fact, in half-life and while there he has to fight against nefarious evil plans of another half-lifer.  Why the plans of an evil half-lifer to do evil things to dead people matters is a bit unclear.  And then we get the final scene in which—ready for mind-blowing conclusion?—we find out that the person who was revealed to still be among the living may be in half-life after all, so maybe that previous conclusion isn't right after all.  The most coherent conclusion would be that everyone is in odd parallel half-lives, but that conclusion isn’t really coherent.  Indeed, I suspect there is no coherent storyline in this book.

So, where does that leave us?  A pleasant, but totally incoherent story.  If that was the aim, it would be one thing.  But, I suspect the author has delusions of grandeur here.  This book seems designed to make us question the nature of Reality.  Are we too living in some sort of half-life state, just imagining we are still among living?  It’s the old “How do you know you aren’t a brain in a vat somewhere imagining that all of this is real?”  A trippy, unanswerable question?  Or, like Samuel Johnson, when faced with an older incarnation of the idea, kicked a rock and said, “I refute it thus”? 

So, UBIK takes an old philosophical question and converts it into an incoherent science fiction novel.  Fine.  But the Library of America treatment?  I have two more volumes of Dick to go; perhaps the answer lies there.

In the meantime, I’ll wonder if this is real or not.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sharia Don't Like It

My earliest political memory is the Iranian Hostage Crisis.  I remember the shock that Americans were being held hostage in Iran.  I remember wondering why we didn’t do something about it.  I remember acute shock when the rescue mission failed because...and it is still shocking…our military helicopters couldn’t fly across the desert.  I  remember wondering why we didn’t try again after the first attempt failed.  And by the end of it all, I remember thinking Jimmy Carter was one lousy President.  In addition to the obvious joy, I felt a certain schadenfreude when the hostages were released at the moment Reagan became president.  Obviously, we now had a better President.

Apparently Marjane Satrapi’s first political memories are also the events surrounding the Iranian Revolution. But, she was on the other side of the matter.  She grew up in Iran.  She is just a few years younger than me.  And while my reminisces of the experience of the Iranian revolution take up a paragraph, she got a book out of hers.  And, I am pleased to report: it’s a rather good book.

Persepolis gives us the view of a 10 year old as the Iranian Revolution unfolds.  At times, it reads a bit too knowing to be truly the recollections of a ten year old, but then again, that makes it a better book.  We get the whole run—from the collapse of the Shah’s government and the hope and optimism of the early days after the Shah falls through the creation of the Police State that followed the Revolution.  We get the joy of the Shah’s political prisoners being released and the shock as a new round of political prisoners are rounded up.  We get the initial enthusiasm for the war with Iraq through the disillusionment with that war as children are sent to die.  Interestingly, the only part of the revolution I remember from those days rates just a page in Satrapi’s story—and the effect of the hostages in Satrapi’s story was simply the death of any hope of emigrating to America. 

As a story of political upheaval, this book is good; it’s not at the level of Maus by any means, but it is still good.  The comparison with Maus, by the way, is the obvious comparison; Persepolis is also a comic book.  This makes me wonder whether comics have some advantage in telling stories of oppressive governments.  This book would be far worse if it was just Satrapi’s words; the pictures are rather effective at conveying a mood. They are all black and white drawings, not terribly sophisticated, but crisply drawn.  You feel this story as it move along; you feel the chaos and the hopes and the crushing disappointments over and over and over.  It would not have been fun to live in Iran during this time; and by the end of the book it is not clear whether Satrapi’s parents are to be admired for their courage in sticking it out or pitied for their foolishness in not leaving.  The story ends as her parents send Satrapi off to Vienna for high school so that she would have some hope of getting an actual education.

Well, truth be told, that isn't the end of the story.  Satrapi wrote a second volume Persepolis 2 which is included in the book I read, The Complete Persepolis.  To say that the second book is worse than the first would be a mammoth understatement.  The first book is really good, detailing events of some importance and capturing an era.  The second volume: imagine the worst book you ever read all about teenage angst.  Imagine the whining and pointlessness and utter banality of it all.  That is Persepolis 2.  It isn’t worth reading.  At all.  It starts with a whiny adolescent in Vienna.  Sure, she goes back to Iran eventually and hope springs that the book will recover and be as interesting as the first volume, but alas, it’s just as pointlessly annoying when she gets back to Iran.  This is, in other words, the sequel problem.  And it is a rare case when just buying the original Persepolis is a much better value than owning the second volume too.

Reading Persepolis these days is a fascinating case of déjà vu all over again.  My first memory is of an incompetent President totally at the mercy of events in the Middle East and unable to act decisively.  And then I read the papers and discover lo and behold we have a hopelessly incompetent President letting the Russian (the Russians!) gain the upper hand in Syria.  A total national embarrassment unfolding once again.  Sigh.

But, at least the problems in the Middle East did result in a rather good song.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

I Know You'll Catch that Villain

Detective stories are a literary genre which has long intrigued me.  When I was young, I loved the whole “Can I solve the mystery before the answer is revealed?” game.  I read every Encyclopedia Brown book in the local library.  I owned every Hardy Boys book.  When my aunt told me about Agatha Christie, I thought I died and went to Literary Heaven.  But, over the years, my enthusiasm waned as more and more I realized that for many of these Whodunit books, there was no real way to solve the mystery before the detective did so.  The solution hinged on some esoteric bit of trivia or some fact which was not really explained. 

All of which is merely prelude (note the clever use of “prelude” as if there is actually a deliberate design in the construction of these ruminations which really began as I sat down, stared at the book (or, as will be soon revealed, books, plural—a shocking plot twist which will surely delight the reader) to be reviewed and mused upon what might be said about the tome.  I thought about discussing cocaine, but realized that I don’t have all that much interesting to say about cocaine (well, other than that it is not nearly as addictive as you think it is (unless you actually know how addictive it is, in which case it is exactly as addictive as you think it is)).  But then (here comes the plot twist), I realized that the tome in question combined with another tome awaiting ruminations (out of a large stack—going two weeks without writing on this blog (ah, the start of the semester…) causes the stack of books to grow to heights threatening teetering (you know, I should chose books to read by their length—the higher the stack of books awaiting review, the longer the next book is)) might make for some interesting reflections).

The original book: Doyle, The Sign of Four
The partner book: Augustyn, Gotham by Gaslight

Both books set in the Victorian era.  Doyle’s book is the second Sherlock Holmes novel.  Structurally, it is interesting.  One can see what Doyle was thinking; he invented this really interesting character in A Study in Scarlet and decided, presumably because the first volume sold well, that the character should come back.  He followed the pattern of the first novel—detective solves mystery stapled together with anther mini-novel in which the culprit tells his life story.  (Incidentally, after these two novels, the next volume is short stories in which the secondary book is dropped and we just get Holmes solving mysteries.)  The quick review: it’s a good story, but there is no doubt Sherlock Holmes does much better in the short stories than in the early novels.

Augustyn’s book is a Batman story—non-canonical because in this story Bruce Wayne is living in the late 19th century.  Jack the Ripper is running wild, and Batman stops him—in Gotham, not London.  The short review: It’s OK.  The idea is clever, but the story is weak.  The art is interesting, it all looks like the comic book equivalent of faded newspapers. 

So, what makes these two books comparable beside the temporal setting?  In neither case does the solution to the mystery really require all that much cleverness by the detective.  As for the Batman story, while the character was originally conceived to be a Detective (indeed, his first appearance was in a series entitled Detective Comics), it is not all that surprising to read a story in which his detective skills rely more on noticing an absurd coincident than on actual, you know, deduction.  For Holmes, however, the fact that a good part of the solution relies less on deduction and more on an improbable series of leaps of faith which just so happen to turn out correct is a bit more striking.  Now many Holmes stories are like this, it turns out.  They look like things the reader should figure out, but in reality, Holmes’ reasoning is less than airtight.  There is, in other words, a bit of a logical failing in many Holmes stories.  Doyle carries off the sleight of hand because Homes and Watson are so amusing, so you have to pay careful attention to notice that Holmes’ deductions are not always the only possible explanation.  But, truth be told, the BBC Sherlock series is having a harder time with this—the characters are good (very good, actually), but the plots are, on the whole, a bit painful—this is surely a real testament to Doyle’s artistry.

The comparison interests me—the thing that makes The Sign of Four much better than Gotham by Gaslight has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the mystery at the center of the tale.  In my appreciation of this genre, artistry trumps mystery now.  This is not a terribly shocking conclusion, to be sure.  But, it is a conclusion which would have amazed me many decades ago when I was eagerly reading Encyclopedia Brown or even later when I fell in love with Hercule Poirot.

Mysteries on TV used to interest me too.  While it was nowhere near my favorite when I was young, in retrospect, it isn’t hard to figure out the greatest mystery series of all time.  It even has a great theme song.

Monday, September 16, 2013

But 'tis strange

                                                               But 'tis strange
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.

If you knew that was from Macbeth, congratulations!  If you are wondering why I would lead with that quotation, then you are, apparently, not a Mount Holyoke student.
I am now in my 20th year at Mount Holyoke.  On every single syllabus, for every single class I have taught here, I have put a quotation from Shakespeare at the top of the syllabus.  I don’t note from whence the quotation comes, and I don’t ever mention it or explain why it is there.  For a few courses, I always use the same quotation (Money and Banking, Macroeconomic Theory, and Western Civilization always have the same quotation).  For any other course, I just read a play right before the start of the semester, found a few lines which struck me a particular interesting with some relevance to the class, and put it on the syllabus.

In twenty years, I have had less than a handful of students ask me about the quotation.  Now the money and banking and Western Civ students are off the hook of being accused of having a total lack of curiosity—the relevance of the quotations to the course on those two syllabi was obvious to anyone who bothered to read the quotations.  But the other students?  It’s come to the point where I think I would be really surprised if two students ever came up to ask about the quotation in a single semester.  I usually go years between such questions.

Now why is that?  I suspect the quotation is just ignored for the most part.  Every now and then some student may wonder, but then thinks that she is supposed to know what it is doing there and thus is too ashamed to ask.  I suppose some students read the quotation and just don’t care.  But I must say, you would think that in a typical year with well over 100 students getting a syllabus with a strange quotation at the top, at least one would ask about tit.  Wouldn’t you?
Anyway, I reread Macbeth recently.  It’s great.  But you knew that.  I also think it is the tragedy I would be most likely to assign to high school students.  The plot is pretty straightforward, and there are some great themes in there for a teenager to ponder.  Imagine getting a class of 16 year olds thinking about ambition.  It could be really interesting.

The quotation above, in case any student ever asked me, really struck me this time—it’s a lot like not being an economist.  Sure it seems like the things you learn before you learn economics are telling you the truth, but such things are honest trifles, betraying you in deepest consequence.  Learning Economics is a sure defense against the guiles of the witches upon the heath.

[For the curious:

Money and Banking:
            This kindness will I show.
Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond; and, in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express’d in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me. 
Western Civilization:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Macroeconomic Theory:
Sure, He that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused.

As, noted, the other classes have a different quotation every year.]