The Late George Apley.

I’m on a little run of past Pulitzer Prize for Fiction/the Novel winners right now, and just finished John Marquand’s extremely subtle satire The Late George Apley, which won the prize in 1938 when it was still only awarded to novels. The book is clearly a satire of the isolated, self-important life of the patrician class of the early 20th century, especially the so-called Boston Brahmins, but Marquand plays it so straight that I found myself vacillating through half the novel on just what parts he might have wanted readers to take seriously.

The book is a sort of fake biography/epistolary novel, where a longtime friend and former classmate of the title character has been asked by Apley’s family to write a private story of the man’s life, leaning heavily on his correspondence. The author (the fictional one, that is) traces Apley’s story back several generations, explaining the grand history of his family line within the United States, the first of many times when he tries to impress upon the reader the importance of the name. He gives us Apley’s birth and upbringing in a life of privilege and strict expectations, his attendance at the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts (then all boys, now coed, which would have made for an amusing postscript to the book) and at some liberal arts college in Cambridge, and so forth, with every step already laid out for him by his imperious father and the constraints of polite society of the time. He falls in love with an Irish Catholic girl, is forced to end it when he’s shipped off for a Grand Tour, comes home, marries a woman of proper breeding, bangs out a couple of kids, and so on.

It’s a dull story in its own right, which is part of the point, and how dull becomes apparent in the latter half of the book when Apley’s son and daughter take advantage of the lax attitudes of the 1920s to live a little. Apley’s letters to and about his children seem increasingly ridiculous as the world changes around him – he’s still worried about the shrubbery around the family estate when the stock market is crashing – and only when he realizes he has a terminal heart condition does it dawn on him that life has passed him by. His final letters are reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day was, full of regret without hope. Unlike the butler of Ishiguro’s novel, however, Apley’s heartbreak is darkly comic: He admits, not quite explicitly, that he should have sowed his wild oats when he was younger, gotten wasted more, gotten laid more, and told his parents to stuff it and married the girl he loved (she makes a brief cameo again at the end of the book).

I can understand why this would have won the Pulitzer in 1938, when I presume the board considering the candidates was all white males and this sort of American aristocracy was more prevalent in the culture. It didn’t resonate so much with me today, however; even though I went to that liberal arts school, the population was quite diverse ethnically and by gender, and they’ve since done quite a bit to improve the diversity of economic backgrounds too, making Apley’s experiences there seem as anachronistic as the semi-arranged marriage and emphasis on decorum and appearances. It’s an entertaining read, but it feels very dated today.

Next up: Michael Shaara’s 1974 Pulitzer winner The Killer Angels ($6 in paperback!), a novel of the Battle of Gettysburg that was adapted into the four-hour movie Gettysburg in 199.

A Summons to Memphis.

My NL ROY ballot will go up tonight for Insiders, once the winner is announced; my last post over on that other site is on the Craig Kimbrel trade. My favorite comments so far have been tweets telling me I’m wrong, from people (at least three) who haven’t actually read the article. Yay Internet.

While working my way through the list of winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (until 1948 the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel), I’ve been somewhat surprised at how few winners have remained actively read books over the years. Some of the winners were duds, and only a handful made my own top 100 list, but the majority have at least been good books – above-average novels, at least, which should be enough to keep them around; perhaps it’s just the flood of new titles that pushes them off of the mainstream reader’s radar. Peter Taylor’s 1987 novel A Summons to Memphis is one of these – a good novel, amusing and serious, distinctly American in theme and outlook, enough that I’d recommend it but wouldn’t put it on my own rankings.

The narrator, Phillip Carver, gets the titular summons from his two spinster sisters because their widowed father, now 81, plans to marry again, to a somewhat younger woman, which of course raises questions of inheritance as well as of public perceptions. The sisters are comic entities in themselves – virginal in fact and in behavior, as if their emotional development stopped at age 15 while their bodies continued to swell to near-obesity in their fifties – while Phillip, more put together, has also never married, bearing the same scars as his sisters do from the traumatic move of their childhood. When their father was caught up in a scandal in Nashville, he had to move the family to Memphis and restart his career, uprooting them all, including their mother and another brother who later died in World War II, from the comfortable life they knew in the genteel city that sounds like Margaret Mitchell would have approved of it. Memphis is depicted as rougher, déclassé, foreign to the family, with each of the three children having to give up a potential marriage somewhere along the way due to their father’s disapproval or outright meddling. Although the novel opens with the summons, Phillip doesn’t make the actual trip to Memphis – the first of several, as it turns out – until about two-thirds of the way through the novel, after he’s told the reader of his childhood and the lost loves of the three siblings via a series of flashbacks.

There’s an element of King Lear in this book, although it’s not as explicit as the allusion made in a later Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the torpid A Thousand Acres. King Lear had three daughters, two of whom earn his favor through false flattery with an eye toward increasing their inheritance at their sisters’ expenses, but Lear descends into madness in his old age and the infighting between the siblings leads to … well, it’s a tragedy by Shakespeare, so you know they all die. A Summons to Memphis relies instead on emotional violence: the father wrecked the lives of his children, especially the sisters, so they have now come around to wreck what remains of his by blocking his attempt to marry again. Phillip, the one child who moved away from Tennessee and thus has escaped somewhat unscathed (a slight parallel to Cordelia, especially as both characters are reserved when discussing their emotions), ends up the one with some semblance of a thawing of his relationship with their father, even as the girls continue to plot their revenge to the bitter end.

The move a few hundred miles west, without even crossing state lines, seems to underscore the extent of the betrayal by the father’s business partner, who engineered the kind of financial scam that will never go out of style; while the elder Mr. Carver was cleared of any wrongdoing, it seems that he was unable to escape the shame in his own mind of his involvement, and, more importantly, of the fact that a man he considered his best friend was capable of such treason. This one event fractured their life as a family twice – once when he relocated the whole unit, including their servants, to Memphis; then again, when he exerts his authority over each family member to bend them to his will. So many individual moments and elements of the book are humorous, but the overall effect is one of deep emotional scarring.

I looked to see if any critics inferred the Lear comparison, and one of the greatest living American novelists, Marilynne Robinson, did just that in her 1986 review of the novel for the NY Times. Robinson, author of Housekeeping and the three related books that began with her own Pulitzer winner, Gilead, is a master of words and of characterization, so if she agrees with me on something, I view that as an enormous validation.

Next up: Another forgotten winner of the Pulizter, John P. Marquard’s 1938 satire The Late George Apley.

Mona Lisa Overdrive.

My buyers’ guide to the outfielder market is up for Insiders. Also, I’ll have my annual boardgame rankings post up later this week, but as a preview, my #1 game is still Carcassonne and it’s on sale now for $22.59 on amazon.

William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy began with the seminal 1984 novel Neuromancer, which was the first book to win the trifecta of sci-fi awards (the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick); the book kickstarted the cyberpunk movement, foresaw all manner of cultural shifts that would come about due to the wiring of the world, and may have even helped shape some of the Internet’s early development. I read it in 2005, and it still stands out as a unique work of speculative fiction, one that is overwhelmingly intelligent without ever becoming inaccessible, with a bleak yet expansive vision of a future that isn’t quite dystopian but is certainly light on flowers and rainbows.

I read the sequel, Count Zero, around this time last year, and it didn’t move the needle much for me, as the tripartite storytelling technique felt disjointed, and it was never quite clear why I cared about any of what was going on. The conclusion of the trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive, ties the Count Zero plot together with threads from Neuromancer (bringing back Molly, one of that book’s two protagonists), in a highly ambitious storyline that was engrossing but never gets the coherent ending that Gibson probably had in mind.

The narrative of MLO starts from scratch, as we are dropped into four subplots that, as in the preceding book, will all come together by the conclusion, including a not-quite-dead hacker on a stretcher who is comatose and permanently jacked in to the “matrix” and the simstim (a sort of cyberspace reality TV show) star Angela Mitchell whom we met in Count Zero. Someone is after these two people, for reasons that even at the end of the book aren’t exactly clear, leading to a sort of creeping chase throughout the novel where, at first, the targets aren’t even aware anyone’s after them, and various other characters are “used” without their knowledge as part of the hunt.

Gibson’s brilliance in Neuromancer was in his foresight, seeing the potential gains and dangers of the then-nascent technology and concocting a fictional environment that built a culture around the tech – being connected, or interconnected, will change us all in substantial ways, from how we work to how we interact with each other. (It already has, in the First and Third Worlds, albeit in differing ways.) He became a cyberpunk prophet for the depth and incisiveness of his vision; he didn’t just talk about hacking, but about what hacking and hackers might be like. It’s not hard science fiction where we get lengthy explanations of how stuff works; Gibson takes that as a given, which can make his prose a bit confusing at times due to his neologisms and colloquial dialogue, but also has the effect of putting the reader more directly in the story while allowing him to focus on character and emotion.

However, Mona Lisa Overdrive‘s climax falls quite a bit short of his lofty goals. Gibson began to touch on the topic of digital immortality, of uploading one’s “personality” into the matrix to continue to function after the death of the body, but it becomes a mere plot device here, with no exploration of any of the myriad questions around the possibility. The reasons for the conspiracy to kidnap Angela Mitchell or the hunt for the comatose man are still ambiguous after the conclusion, while the actual denouement seems deliberately open-ended and rather unsatisfying. I read Gibson for his vision, but I think here he didn’t offer enough of it.

Next up: Peter Taylor’s 1987 Pulitzer-winning novel A Summons to Memphis.

A Fable.

My ranking of the top 50 free agents for this winter, with scouting/stat notes on each player, is now up for Insiders.

…thinking how war and drink are the two things man is never too poor to buy.

William Faulkner is, I think, a pretty divisive figure in American literature; his lengthy sentences and often obscure descriptive style can make you insane, but he tells vast, emotionally complex stories that capture huge swaths of American history (especially of the South) through the lens of just a handful of characters. The connected novels Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury are both on my top 100, as is The Reivers, one of two novels for which Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (posthumously, in this case). The other, A Fable, is largely overlooked today even within Faulkner’s oeuvre, despite its grand scale and rich subtexts, which seem ripe for literary analysis, but it may suffer from Faulkner’s obtuse prose and adumbration of character descriptions and plot details. (And his vocabulary; “adumbration” appears at least twice in the text, and Faulkner engages in his own wordsmithing at times, such as “cachinnant,” a Latin word that means something like “laughing immoderately.”)

A Fable is a highly allegorical work that takes the Christ-like Corporal Stephan, referred to for most of the book merely as “the corporal,” and puts him in the trenches in World War I, where he leads a group of 12 other commissioned officers in a mutiny of peace. The novel opens just after the corporal and his disciples have convinced an entire regiment of three thousand French soldiers to refuse to fight, after which their German enemies similarly lay down their arms, causing a spontaneous outbreak of peace in the midst of a war. The book itself covers the various reactions to the corporal’s move, where the French army wants to execute him while also covering up the incident so that the war can continue. Woven into this is a second, loosely related story of an injured American racehorse whose rider and trainer rescue him from either death or work as a captive stud, traveling to small towns where the horse still wins various races even though he’s running on three legs, with the rider becomes a sentry in the war and the trainer adopts a new identity and travels to Europe to find his partner.

The corporal’s Christ allusions are blatant, perhaps too much so for modern analysis. He’s 33 at the time of the mutiny and eventual execution. He’s tempted by his father (“the general”) before the order for his execution, and the night prior to his death he has a last supper with his disciples, including the one who betrays him and the one named Piotr who denies knowing Stephan three times. His mother was Marya, and his fiancée was a prostitute from Marseilles. After his death, his corpse disappears (thanks to a German air-raid). Even his name alludes to Christianity – Saint Stephan, who is mentioned in the New Testamant, is considered the first martyr in the history of the Christian Church.

The novel is virulently anti-war, as you might expect with a Christ figure at its center, but there are elements of the picaresque in the book as well, such as the ragtag group of soldier’s at the book’s conclusion who need to find a corpse to bury in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris. I don’t know if Joseph Heller read A Fable, but there’s a similar vein of lack of respect for military authority and an awareness of the absurdity of war as a solution for most international problems and of the war machine’s desire to keep the combat going as a way to feed itself. Faulkner thought of this novel as his masterpiece, which leads me to believe that he viewed it as a strong pacifist statement that would incorporate satire and religious/moral arguments as a statement against war, with World War II ending around the time he began the novel and the Korean War occurring while he was still writing it.

I found the reading itself to be difficult, in part because his prose is too prolix, perhaps Proustian, but even more because he refuses to use his characters’ names, sometimes failing to name them at all. Keeping the corporal, the runner, the sentry, the general, and so on straight is hard enough without using their names, and it’s worse when there’s another general (Gragnon, who oversaw the mutinous regiment and realizes his career is over when they stop fighting) and a handful of corporals running around the book. There’s one point where Faulkner connects the horse’s groom (Mr. Harry) with the sentry, but I kept forgetting the two were the same character because he never uses the name with the term “the sentry,” who’s also a bit of a loan shark in his new regiment. A surfeit of descriptive prose can be acceptable if it’s actually descriptive, but much of the first third of A Fable felt shrouded in fog to me, including the opening section with the mutiny and the scene where a German general flies through a faked firefight to reach a negotiation to resume combat. So while the plot itself is elegant and simple, with much to ponder and analyze, it’s a book that probably requires a second or third reading to fully grasp the specific details of the story. That’s the best reason I can conceive why it’s so little read or discussed today, even as less ambitious works like As I Lay Dying continue to receive copious praise.

Unrelated: So a smart, professional person of my acquaintance saw I was reading this book the other day and mentioned how she heard Faulkner speak at Montgomery College about “five to seven years ago.” Faulkner died in 1962. I didn’t know what to do with that so I just smiled and nodded.

Next up: James Essinger’s Ada’s Algorithm, a biography of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the creator of the world’s first computer algorithm, about a century before we had the first true computer.

Starship Troopers.

My latest review for Paste covers the app version of Camel Up.

Robert A. Heinlein was both a prolific and critically-lauded writer of science fiction, with an emphasis on keeping the science somewhat grounded in the possible and using it as the platform to explore themes of liberty, individualism, and the role of government. Yet as far as I can remember, I’d only read one of his books, one of his young adult novels called Between Planets, and none of the four core Heinlein works that won Hugo Awards for Best Novel. (What I remember most strongly about that book was the absurd notion that humans could colonize Venus, but apparently at the time Heinlein wrote it scientists were unaware of that planet’s hellish atmosphere and climate.)

Starship Troopers won Heinlein the second of those four Hugos, four years after he won for Double Star and two years before his magnum opus, Stranger in a Strange Land, did the same. I was turned off from reading the book after seeing the trailer for the apparently very unfaithful 1997 film adaptation, but the book is nowhere near as dumb as the movie. (Casper Van Dien, who starred in that film version, was most recently spotted in a straight-to-DVD film called Avengers Grimm that holds a 13% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) Heinlein’s book, written as a first-person memoir of the protagonists youth and first few years serving as a space marine, touches on many of the themes I mentioned above, while also apparently drawing controversy for its overtly militaristic setting … although I don’t agree with criticism of the work as somehow pro-war or even pro-fascism.

Johnny Rico is the space marine and narrator of Starship Troopers, having defied his wealthy father’s wishes and signed up for the service, only to find himself in a boot camp of unimaginable intensity, one designed to weed out most of the recruits. In this future society, Earth is ruled by a single government, and is engaged in war against sentient ant-like creatures just called “Bugs” from another solar system, and only retired veterans of the armed forces are allowed to vote. Rico’s personal philosophy is shaped by his experiences at boot camp and through “moral philosophy” professors he encounters (although he also takes a lot of math), but his presentation is hardly such that the reader should take his views as Heinlein’s. The one-world government arose after western societies collapsed due to rampant crime, much of it committed by undisciplined juveniles, and gave rise to this military-focused regime, one that seems built to feed the machine even when no conflict exists and thus to extend any conflict when one arises.

That bit of cynicism is more mine than Rico’s, but led me to believe that Heinlein was presenting a somewhat extreme scenario – a veiled dystopia – to show one potential outcome of contemporary social and economic trends. While Heinlein seems to come down on the side of harsher discipline of errant children, he also clearly presents the one-world government as one that sees war as the answer to many questions, and thus is somewhat unable to find non-conflict resolutions. If Heinlein is praising the military at all, it is for the way that such experiences can shape the character of an undisciplined young person or one who feels no sense of personal responsibility – although in Rico’s case, it wasn’t so much a lack of discipline or responsibility as a case of teenaged rebellion and a lack of motivation to work because of his father’s wealth. The world of Starship Troopers is hardly utopian; while individuals have a wide degree of personal liberty, the lack of the franchise is a significant debit, and the war-torn world where Buenos Aires and San Francisco are “smeared” by alien attacks is hardly one to appeal to any readers and make them want to sign up for the space marines.

If anything, Starship Troopers comes across as lighter fare than the discussion around its themes might indicate; Heinlein gives Rico a colloquial tone and matter-of-fact delivery that breezes through the philosophical lectures and lets the tension of the book’s few military encounters take over. There isn’t a single central narrative; the plot is the memoir itself, rather than a single military mission or even a story of the war with the Bugs. You could just as easily read the book without worrying about whether Heinlein was promoting fascism or capital punishment or revoking most citizens’ right to vote.

Next up: Still slogging through William Faulkner’s A Fable.

Inherent Vice.

I was oh for two with Thomas Pynchon books and figured that was enough to assume I just didn’t like his writing style, but two strong recommendations from friends for his 2009 novel Inherent Vice: A Novel, and seeing it available for $6 at a local B&N, were enough for me to give it a short. As much as I disliked Gravity’s Rainbow and just didn’t get The Crying of Lot 49, I loved Inherent Vice, which is a laugh-out-loud funny detective story and homage to/sendup of noir fiction, replete with the cultural allusions that mark all of Pynchon’s work, but in this case in a package that you can actually read, understand, and enjoy.

Doc Sportello is the detective, a private investigator in LA in the early 1970s, working out of the standard shabby office with the standard fetching secretary out front, but replacing the alcohol usage of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade with pot – and a lot of it, to the point where reality and hallucination start to blend for Doc and for the reader. The case walks in off the street, a woman who thinks her dead husband may not be dead after all, and as is par for the course in classic detective fiction, the superficial case opens the door to a broader conspiracy that involves crooked cops, organized crime, and a lot more pot. (That last part may not be standard for the genre.) Doc ends up knocked unconscious, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, in trouble with three or four different groups, and making a lot of wisecracks when his head is clear enough to permit it.

Nobody in Doc’s circle of friends and associates is remotely normal except perhaps his sort-of girlfriend Penny, who works in the local DA’s office and isn’t shy about using him as a chip to get something she wants from the feds. Doc’s attorney, Sauncho, is actually a marine lawyer whose comprehension of criminal law is about as clear as the marine layer, and who is obsessed with a ship of unclear provenance, the Golden Fang, that turns out to be significant in Doc’s case. His friend Denis – you pronounce it to rhyme with “penis” – is so THC- and other drug-addled that he provides some of the book’s funniest moments, one involving a waterbed, one involving a lost slice of pizza, and the other involving a television set. There’s a crazy former client, Doc’s ex-girlfriend (who is also tied up in the main case), the “masseuses,” the ridiculously-named feds (Flatweed and Borderline, or F&B like food and beverage?) …

…and the cop-antagonist, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who simultaneously bows to and blows up the stereotypical cop from all hard-boiled detective fiction, the thickheaded guy who gets in the way, hates the PI, always tries to arrest the PI for something, and ends up getting the collar thanks to the PI’s hard work. Bigfoot is big and thickheaded and doesn’t particularly care for Doc, but he’s far from the dumb or useless cop we typically get in the genre – he’s a character of some complexity, more so than any other character but Doc.

While the crimes at the center of the book are involved and take some time for Doc to sort out, to the extent that he does actually sort much of it out, Pynchon chose not to employ the labyrinthine prose and highly allusive style that made Gravity’s Rainbow, for me, an unreadable mess. You may not entirely follow Doc’s thinking or his actions, but that’s only when he can’t, because he’s stoned. That much mind-alteration can make users paranoid, and Doc is paranoid … but they’re really after him, too, and his paranoia tends to serve him pretty well. Pynchon does nothing to clearly distinguish the hallucinatory sequences from reality, but it’s also not that hard to tell when the haze has set in, and Doc gets some time on the page to sort these out himself in case you’re still confused.

Inherent Vice speaks to me because I love the genre that Pynchon is both satirizing and honoring; Doc is hard-boiled to an extent, except that he’s walking around in huarache sandals and, for reasons I can’t begin to explain, gives his hair a sort of perm at the start of the book that takes much of any hard edge off the character. But more than anything else, Pynchon has finally taken the humor that his adherents have long found in his books and put it in a format that the rest of us can appreciate. The book is flat-out funny in multiple ways – situational humor, clever banter, the absurdity of most of what Denis does, and even comedy around sex that comes off as, if not exactly highbrow, less lowbrow than most attempts at sexual humor too. Stoner humor doesn’t always hit the mark because much of it just makes the stoner out to be stupid, but stupid alone isn’t funny. It has to be a certain kind of stupid – in the stoner’s case an absurd twist on it, much in the way that Andy on Parks & Recreation was funny because his lack of intelligence manifested itself in these wildly illogical paths in his mind. Marijuana use isn’t funny, kids; it’s hilarious.

Making the book so readable means that the things Pynchon has always done well, like cultural references, are suddenly accessible to the rest of us. Pynchon loves to make up names – silly character names (Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Trillium Fortnight, the loan shark Adrian Prussia who happens to have the initials that stand for Accounts Payable), but also band names (Spotted Dick), radio stations, songs, movies (Godzilligan’s Island), and so on, and they get sillier as the novel goes on. Many names refer to plants (trillium, flatweed, japonica, charlock, smilax), although if there’s a broader significance to that than that marijuana is also a plant, I missed it. Doc is obsessed with the actor John Garfield, who played hard-boiled characters and refused to name names when called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which also comes up when Dalton Trumbo’s name is broached; the whole post-McCarthy era looms large as then-President Nixon was trying again to crack down on “subversive” elements, which is a small part of the novel’s main plot line. We even get Doc’s parents, which you never get in a detective novel, worrying about their son’s career and bachelorhood and providing one last bit of comic relief before the novel closes.

I’ve since seen some contemporary reviews of the book that were disappointed that it wasn’t vintage Pynchon, and one that cited a lack of suspense (that reviewer had to be unfamiliar with the tropes of hard-boiled detective fiction), but I haven’t read a novel in some time that hit on this many cylinders for me. It’s phenomenally funny, very smart, and yet at its core is a very well-crafted detective story. Maybe I will have to try some more Pynchon after all.

Next up: Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

House Made of Dawn.

N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969, making him (I believe) the first Native American author to win the award. Momaday, a Kiowa member who was already at that time on the faculty at UC Santa Barbara, is now credited by critics and other Native American authors with spawning a renaissance in literature by Native Americans, even though reviews at the time were somewhat mixed because of the inherently foggy nature of most of the narrative in the book. I’m inclined toward the latter, but with the recognition that there is something in the experiences described in House Made of Dawn that are so utterly foreign to me as a white American of entirely European descent that the fog will not apply equally to all readers.

The subject of Momaday’s first novel is named Abel, a young Native American adult who grew up on the reservation but was drafted and served in Vietnam, only to run into the common difficulties experienced by soldiers returning from that conflict. He returns to the reservation in New Mexico, yet, scarred by the conflict and returning with a drinking problem, he’s unable to resume his previous life and ends up stabbing a man he claims is a witch to death. After serving a term in prison, he’s paroled to Los Angeles, where he finds himself unable to assimilate into society, drinking to excess, losing any job he gets, sabotaging his only relationships, and eventually returning to the reservation after nearly dying from his own inability to manage his rage.

Part of the difficulty contemporary reviews had with House Made of Dawn was the hazy way Momaday narrates three of the novel’s four main sections, telling mundane stories of Abel’s life in the manner of myths passed down via oral traditions, speaking in metaphors or losing himself (and the reader) in lengthy descriptions of natural elements of the scenes. I found it hard to follow the narratives in the first two sections, and I can’t tell you whether it was the ambiguous writing of the active elements or the fact that I got so bored with the Dickensian details of the environment. This style of writing may draw on a literary history with which I’m unfamiliar, but I found it worse than distracting and actually offputting.

I have no Native American blood and close to zero knowledge of the cultures of the various tribes that exist or have existed within the borders of the current United States, so I was at an insurmountable cultural disadvantage in trying to read and understand House Made of Dawn. That said, I’m a white guy who enjoys much African-American literature that engages in similar techniques of metaphorical writing and magical realism, works that draw on experiences I haven’t had and probably can never fully grasp. Those authors, the Toni Morrisons and the Alice Walkers and the Zora Neale Thurstons and so on, manage to translate those experiences in ways that readers without them can appreciate, even if we can’t connect with them on the same fundamental level. That to me is Momaday’s failure here: I could barely tell what Abel was doing, and I never had the chance to relate to the emotional side of his character. We know he came back from the war a damaged person, but never get the details of why; suddenly he’s knifed a guy for no apparent reason other than that he was drunk. I know there’s more to it than that, but it wasn’t on the pages and that prevented me from getting anything close to what the Pulitzer committee must have seen in the book.

Next review: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.

Lord of Light.

I’m en route to Arizona to cover the Fall League this week, so I’ll be at games Monday to Friday and hope to see many of you out there. That also means I won’t be commenting as much on the LCS till I get back home.

I have a vague recollection of someone telling me while we were both in college that he loved Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, winner of the 1969? Hugo Award for Best Novel, because it was so funny. Perhaps the memory is off, because the book is intensely clever and sardonic but only rarely funny. It’s also a bit inscrutable and, while very intelligent, it didn’t seem to have a clear point to me – if its intent was metaphorical, which I can only assume it was, I had a hard time relating its players to forces in the modern world.

The book is set in the distant future in a world other than Earth that has been populated – or, really, invaded – by humans, the first of whom are now known as the First and who have used advanced technologies to achieve a sort of immortality, where they can transplant their personae, including their memories, knowledge, and even some special abilities that I have to think inspired Gary Gygax at some point, into new bodies when their old ones are injured or wear out. These humans have taken on the identities of Hindu gods, and have used their powers to subdue the native species of the planet and deny the humans and other denizens, the rights to any advanced technologies, even the printing press, that might lead to a popular revolt against their powers.

Into this comes the Lord of Light, the reincarnation (so to speak) of the one we know as the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, Mahasamatman, or, as he prefers to be called, “Sam.” Having been divested of his mortal coil by the gods in a previous era, Sam returns to the physical realm, brought back by Yama, the “deathgod,” to challenge the status quo and perhaps return power to the people. (Deathgod is the name of my new black-metal project with members of Puig Destroyer.) This leads to a series of intrigues and bloody battles, not to mention numerous body switches, as Sam’s return leads to the revival of Buddhism, albeit with a lot of killing that the real-life Buddha would not have liked one bit.

Some of the repartee between Sam and his various Hindu-pantheon antagonists is indeed humorous, but I sensed more satire or even farce in that and in the cartoonish violence of the numerous clashes between Sam and whoever’s fighting on his side in that particular melée and the main “gods” on the other side who will stop at nothing to maintain their grip on power. Was Zelazny, a lapsed Catholic, mocking the religion-fueled wars that define so much of human history? Or merely taking aim at tyranny and the increasingly brutal steps any dictatorship must take to maintain its hold on power, especially once technologies take hold in the populace and allow for the faster spread of information? (Witness how closed North Korea must remain to keep its people in the most abject state-mandated poverty.) Is he calling into question the historicity of key religious figures, like Gautama or Jesus? Or is there nothing more to this than a giant free-for-all that features power-hungry people playing with weapons that no single person should possess?

I think I got more from Lord of Light as an obvious influence on the work of Neil Gaiman, who’s quoted on the cover of the book, than as a story in its own right. It’s impossible to read this work and not immediately think of what Gaiman did in American Gods, and did far more successfully, not just stealing names but repurposing myths and then writing his own legends, an exponential improvement on Zelazny’s work but one that may have needed Zelazny to come first and open the door.

Evaluated on its own, however, Lord of Light seemed rather soulless, no pun intended. (Okay, pun intended.) Although the reader is obviously supposed to side with Sam, he comes across as a disinterested revolutionary, one driven neither by self-interest nor selflessness, only pushed by the desire to topple the gods themselves. None of the characters earns much development or depth, which is disappointing in cases like Tak, the ape with an apparently human brain and personality, who deserves a back story here as much as any more central character. The gods want power because they want power. They desire their immortality (as opposed to the “real death”) because, hey, immortality – but allowing the proletariat to reincarnate themselves via mind transfer won’t end that practice. Without fleshing out his characters, Zelazny presented us with a work of great ingenuity that ultimately isn’t much less cold than hard science fiction works like Rendezvous with Rama that focus so much on the technical details that the authors forget the need to craft characters with whom the reader can identify or at least to whom they can relate.

Next up: My posts are a bit behind my reading but I’m currently about ¾ of the way through Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which I already like more than I liked either of the other two Pynchon novels I read, including the impenetrable Gravity’s Rainbow.

Saturday five, 10/17/15.

No new Insider content this week as I was writing up free agent capsules for the annual top 50 ranking, which will appear after the World Series at some point. I did review the Game of Thrones card game, which is surprisingly good (I hated the first GoT book), for Paste, and held a Klawchat on Thursday.

  • President Obama interviewed one of my favorite American novelists, Marilynne Robinson. She’s best known for the trio of novels, beginning with the Pulitzer winner Gilead, revolving around a family in Iowa, but her 1980 debut novel Housekeeping is the one on my top 100.
  • “Reporters don’t just find facts; they look for narratives.” Isn’t this a big problem? And, hey, what do we really know about the death of Osama bin Laden? Mark Bowden, one of the writers whose recounting of that story is questioned in the Times piece, responded in Vanity Fair.
  • ON a related note, the BBC’s Assignment radio program looks at the U.S.’s use of torture to fight terror, with some horrifying details of what we did in the name of security (with dubious benefits). The host, Hilary Andersson, undergoes some of those techniques, while an American operative is (voluntarily) waterboarded during the program as well.
  • The Guardian ran a very open, honest essay on how quickly others expect us to stop grieving, in this case after the writer lost her mother to cancer.
  • Van Pierszalowski, lead singer/founder of WATERS and a diehard Dodgers fan, spoke to MLB about their season and the direction under the new front office, although this was before they lost game 5 to the Mets.
  • J. Kenji Lopez-Alt makes the list again this week with his ten commandments of eggs. I’m glad to see someone agree that salting eggs before you scramble them is the right move. I always did so for better flavor distribution but it turns out there’s good science behind it too.
  • Vanity Fair ran a piece on the “ermahgerd” girl, an unusually neutral, non-hysterical piece on how a woman became part of a very popular meme without her consent and what effect it had on her life (spoiler: it’s not actually that bad).
  • A short celebration of the short fiction of John Cheever, whose collected short stories won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1979. I haven’t read that yet, but it’s on my short-term to-do list; I did read and loved Falconer, but was a little less wowed by The Wapshot Chronicle.
  • The Guardian also ran a great piece explaining this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to several scientists who discovered that neutrinos emitted from the sun could change “flavors” en route toward (and through) earth, which answered the question of where all those solar neutrinos had gone. (They were there, but not in the flavors we’d been looking for.) The footnotes are rather spectacular, too. I read and reviewed a book last March called The Neutrino Hunters that described the experiment that earned these scientists the Novel.

All the Light We Cannot See.

Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, defies the standards for that prize in its complete lack of American characters or themes, but the work itself overcame the prize rules’ stated preference for a work “dealing with American life” with exquisite plotting and searing character portraits. The novel seems ripe for sentiment – I can only imagine what Hollywood will do to the conclusion – but Doerr manages to dance on the line separating emotion from mawkishness without crossing it, building up to a single moment lasting no more than two pages that brings his two protagonists together in one of the most memorable scenes I’ve read in years. (It’s only out in hardcover in the U.S. but is available in paperback in the U.K.)

Doerr gives us two narrative threads for most of the book, adding a third a bit later on to help tie the first two together, with each of the pair of primary subplots featuring one of his two main characters: Marie-Laure, a blind 12-year-old girl who flees Paris with her father, a locksmith at the French Museum of Natural History, when the Nazis invade in 1940; and Werner, a German orphan who saves himself from a life in the mines by showing an early aptitude for working with electronics, especially radio transmitters. Marie and her father, who may have been entrusted with a priceless jewel from the museum’s collection, end up in Saint-Malo, a walled city on the northern coast of Brittany that was badly damaged by Allies near the end of World War II; when her father is taken prisoner by the Nazis on questionable pretenses, her care falls to her shell-shocked great-uncle Étienne, who has a sizable radio transmitter in his home’s hidden top floor. Werner ends up in a draconian military academy before a little age-modification lands him a spot in a roving military unit that’s assigned to locate and snuff out Resistance radio transmitters within occupied Europe. When Marie and her great-uncle join the Resistance and begin such transmissions, it’s obvious that Werner’s unit will end up in Saint-Malo to try to find the source … but she’s also sought by the Nazi treasure-hunter von Rumpel, who believes her father took the genuine diamond and is desperate to retrieve it before he runs out of time.

The story comes to the reader in very short bursts, too short to be called chapters, with interludes toward the very end of the war interspersed throughout the longer sections that lead from 1934 (when Marie-Laure and Werner are still little children) to the war’s outbreak, eventually catching up to the second timeline in the interludes where all three subplots collide in Saint-Malo. Flashbacks are themselves a tired technique, but the brevity of each passage gives the novel the quick-reading feel of an epistolary work, and in this case there’s value in forewarning the reader of the tension of the final denouement while also tipping us off that certain secondary characters might not be around for it.

Doerr relies a bit too much on coincidence to deepen the tie between Werner and Marie, a detail that in some ways overshadows the generosity of spirit in their single encounter, where Werner takes multiple actions that save Marie’s life. However, he avoids so many other hackneyed devices both in the path to that scene and in that meeting itself that still manages to explore new emotional territory, looking into the possibility of kindness within the heart of darkness in ways I’ve only seen before in fictionalized parent-child relationships. (All the Light is also one of the only contemporary novels for adults I’ve read recently that has very little sex or profanity, both of which are frequent and overused crutches in modern adult fiction.)

Marie-Laure is a bit romanticized, the innocent girl waiting for one of various men – her father, her uncle, and eventually Werner – to save her, but Werner is a fully-formed character with ambition and remorse, driven by emotional and physical needs to succeed at his task yet haunted by knowledge of the results of his triangulations and scarred repeatedly by assaults on the shreds of his innocence. He is the moral center of the book, this teenaged Nazi soldier through whom Doerr shows us the horrors of war via an unusual and new lens.

Next up: Roger Zelazny’s Hugo winner Lord of Light.