Wise Children.

Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 1984, and then won a special Best of the James Tait Black award in 2012 as the best of the 90-odd winners of the annual honor in its history, beating out such widely acknowledged classics as Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (which was shortlisted), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Robert Graves’ Claudius duology, and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I read it in April of 2016 and found it impenetrable, between her recursive prose and her seamless mixture of unreality into the realistic narrative, without any core characters to whom I could relate or with whom I could empathize. It’s been only a year and a half since I read it and I’d have a hard time telling you what it was about.

Her last novel, Wise Children, is completely different in everything but prose style – but here the almost Proustian prolixity is far more effective, as it reflects the effusive, vivacious personality of the narrator, Dora Chance. Dora and Nora are twins, the illegitimate offspring of the stage actor Melchior Hazard (I trust you’ve noticed these surnames already), who grow up in and around the theatre and whose lives intersect regularly with those of their biological father, their uncle Peregrine who pretends to be their father when he’s not wandering the globe, and Melchior’s various wives and other children, the latter of whom also come in pairs. The book is a bawdy, boozy, life-affirming comedy, told by Dora as she, her sister, and Melchior’s first wife, the Lady Atalanta, prepare to attend Melchior’s one hundredth birthday party.

Carter employs a ton of wordplay in the book, with double meanings, allusions, and rhyming. Referring to a little closet where a lost cask is found at one point, she has Dora call it “the place where the missus could stow away the master if the master came home plastered.” Her prose is musical, and the puns can be auditory or visual (Peregine calling his nieces “copperknobs,” a deviation from the British slang term for a redhead “coppernob,” and then referring to them getting the “key to the door” when they turn eighteen). I’m sure I only caught a fraction of the references to Shakespeare, English poetry, Greek mythology, and more.

The narrative itself is also unorthodox; it’s written like a memoir, but Dora can’t exactly walk a straight line (unsurprising, given her self-professed alcohol intake) when delving into the past, and her reliability is questionable – or Carter is employing a little magical realism, especially when Peregrine is involved. Much of the comedy is situational, as Carter weaves a web of love/hate relationships among the various half-siblings, parents, uncles, and associates, complete with mistaken identities and the Chances taking advantage of others’ inability to tell them apart. There’s a lot of booze, a lot of sex, and a fair amount of confusion over who is actually the father of each set of twins – much of that fostered by Melchior himself, as his interest in fatherhood is directly tied to its utility in his stage career.

This book appeared on the Guardian‘s list of the top 100 novels of all time, rather than Nights at the Circus, and although that opinion seems contrarian I’d have to agree with it. This is more accessible, funnier, and far more engaging. I’d challenge anyone who reads this to not adore the Chances, who make effrontery their primary coping mechanism in a world that would often rather forget their existence, and who turn the randomness of life into a series of opportunities. It wouldn’t make my top 100 novels list, but it is an incredibly fun, erudite book that regularly had me laughing out loud.

Next up: I’ve got 100 pages to go in Dan Vyleta’s Smoke.

Mister Monkey.

I was unfamiliar with American author Francine Prose’s work before stumbling on some glowing reviews in the fall for Mister Monkey, her 22nd book of fiction, a brilliant and funny book about the participants in and around the staging of a really terrible musical for children. Prose, whose work outside of writing has created some significant controversy, manages to touch on so many ideas and develop many fascinating characters in under 300 pages of high and low comedy, from the 12-year-old actor in the monkey suit who is growing up too fast to the Yale-educated actress at the end of her rope who has the worst part in the play.

The play is called Mister Monkey, and is based on a not-very-good children’s book by the character Ray Ortiz, whom we’ll meet over the course of Prose’s novel. Ortiz is a Vietnam War veteran who tried to write a book about his experiences there, but it ended up, through the wringer of publishing, a weird children’s book that was subsequently adapted into a bad musical that has become a perennial production, in the way so many mediocre works aimed at children do. This off-off-Broadway staging has more than its share of tragicomic characters and elements, and Prose manages to spin them off into a circle of stories that touch on everything from existential doubt to the fear of romantic rejection. It’s like Pulitzer winner A Visit from the Good Squad, except that it’s good.

The musical itself is all background – we get hints of why it’s so bad, of course, but that’s about all we get, which is probably a small mercy from Prose, who definitely enjoyed making up this artistic monstrosity. Instead it’s the spark that gives us Adam, the child actor who is twelve but looks eight, already knows his stage-mom is not well, and is struggling with the onset of puberty and, among other things, the fact that he has a crush on one of his adult co-stars. And gives us Mario, the server at a Rao’s-like restaurant who always waits on Ray, who goes there every time there’s a new production of Mister Monkey and gives Mario a couple of tickets to the play, because it turns out Mario just loves the theater … and he too develops a crush on the same actress who is the literal and figurative target of Adam’s affections. Everyone’s flawed, but they’re all flawed in entirely credible ways – shy, confused, frustrated, manic, resigned. Only Lakshmi, the costume designer who also plays the police officer in the musical, comes off as less than fully-realized, in part because her story has a bizarre twist that is a forced laugh and doesn’t fit with the rest of who she is.

That laugh stands out because it’s one of the only attempts at humor here that doesn’t land. Mister Monkey is very funny due to Prose’s wry, observational style that lampoons life but usually doesn’t mock its characters. Shifting focus with each long chapter means we get one character’s thoughts on everyone else, only to learn later on that we only had a fraction of the story, and often someone’s difficult or hostile behavior was merely a symptom of a deeper problem. It’s Gibby Haynes’ line, “you never know just how you look through other people’s eyes,” in prose form. (No pun intended, but how can you avoid it with an author named Prose?)

Prose also gives us an unconventional “here’s what happened to all the characters” section at the end that I thought elevated that gambit over the standard epilogue format without becoming excessively sentimental; such sections are always a little bit sappy, because the author obviously cares about her creations and knows the readers will too. In this case, however, she leaves a few of their fates open-ended, hinting at new beginnings as much as she does at new opportunities for disappointment.

And if there’s an overarching theme to all of the interwoven stories of Mister Monkey, that’s it. Everyone in the book is dealing with some sort of disappointment. The realization that the acting career isn’t coming. The loneliness of a lifetime of bachelorhood. The sadness of a widower whose family doesn’t have much time for him. The pathetic acceptance of the unloving boyfriend. They’re all disappointed in life by different things, but their disappointment is what ties them all together – that and a very stupid children’s musical about a monkey who is falsely accused of stealing someone’s wallet.

Next up: I just finished Michael Chabon’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union on the flight home from Arizona last night.

The Sellout.

My updated ranking of the top five farm systems right now is up for Insiders.

I first heard about Paul Beatty’s farcical novel The Sellout when looking at predictions of nominees for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which also led me to Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew … neither of which ended up a finalist for the prize, won by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. It did win the National Book Critics Circle award for Fiction, and ended up on several top ten lists for 2015. I’d already picked up Beatty’s book at Changing Hands during one of my trips to Arizona, however, and am glad I found it, because it is absolutely hilarious – offensive by design, taking Zadie Smith’s brand of hysterical realism and distilling it through a filter of American racism to produce a unique work of indignant comedy.

The narrator of Beatty’s book, known only as “Me” in one of many examples of absurdist wordplay in the novel, grows up in the Los Angeles-area town of Dickens, so poor that cartographers prefer to ignore its existence. It’s a segregated, neighborhood originally filled with farms, but the only farm remaining is the one the narrator runs, having inherited it from his militant black atheist sociologist father, who had some rather interesting ideas on child-rearing. (The novel’s satirical strain runs deep; the narrator is raised by a single father, and has no idea who his mother is, eventually finding the woman his father claims gave birth to him only to learn she had no idea what he was talking about.)

After his father is killed by a white policeman – prescient, or merely evergreen? – the narrator embarks on a bizarre quest to reestablish Dickens on the map and improve its lot by reinstating segregation, first on the local bus route and then in the local schools. He even takes a man as a “slave,” although the slave sort of volunteers for the role, doesn’t work, and loves to rant about the lost Little Rascals films in which he appeared. He erects new road signs and paints a literal border on the ground around Dickens, all of which has intended and unintended consequences. Of course, he can only get so far in this effort without running afoul of white authorities, and he ends up facing the Supreme Court – getting high on one of his hilariously named strains of marijuana while waiting in the corridor.

The novel’s best character, however, is Foy Cheshire, the would-be intellectual whose ambition outstrips his abilities, and whose brand of liberation theology involves quixotic endeavors like rewriting classics to improve or star African-American characters, such as The Great Blacksby, Uncle Tom’s CondoThe Point Guard in the Rye. By turns fatuous and pathetic, Foy is part con man, part demagogue, representative of a brand of empty black intellectualism for which Beatty appears to have no use whatsoever.

Beatty doesn’t spare anyone or anything in The Sellout, and that includes many jokes at every race’s expense that, if we’re all being honest here, wouldn’t see the light of day if they came from a white writer. I have no problem with this; if anything, the parody is far more effective coming from a writer of color, lampooning many of the people and institutions that purport to help black and Latino Americans but are primarily there just to help themselves. Charles Dickens was known for social commentary in his work, some of it veering into satire; Beatty draws on that tradition of criticism, marrying it with realism run amok – what critic James Wood termed “hysterical realism” in an essay on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – for a sendup that scorches the very earth Me uses to grow his prize satsumas, watermelons, and weed.

I’m sure there are allusions and subtexts in The Sellout that I missed or simply couldn’t appreciate as a white man who grew up in a very white town and knew racism because I read about it once, but I still found the book by turns funny and thought-provoking. It’s one of the most laugh-out-loud books I’ve read in the last few years, and pushes the boundaries of what modern realism in literature can include. There may simply be more here that I didn’t catch.

Next up: Amir Alexander’s Infinitesimal, on how the Jesuits did everything they could to stamp out the mathematical concept that gave rise to the calculus.

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.

Foreign Affairs.

Alison Lurie’s 1984 novel Foreign Affairs is a comic drama with two interconnected narratives, each involving an American in the UK who becomes involved romantically with someone we might say was an unexpected match for each of them. Her prose is lofty but laden with wit, while she’s simultaneously exploring existential questions for each of her two protagonists. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1985, and while I often say I can’t understand why such-and-such a novel won that award, this time I absolutely get it: This is what I’d expect a Pulitzer winner to look like, a book that is strong but not an all-time classic (the Pulitzer board never seems to get those right), and that addresses a theme that lies at the heart of the American experience. In that sense, it’s a little disappointing that the book hasn’t endured at all – even the adaptation, a made-for-TV movie, has all but vanished – because it’s better than many highly-praised contemporary novels.

The two protagonists, the fifty-something divorcée Virginia “Vinnie” Miner and the young and married-but-maybe-separated Fred Turner, are both part of the faculty at Corinth University in upstate New York, and are both in England for roughly six-month research sabbaticals, Miner on English folk rhymes and Turner on the poet-dramatist John Gay. Vinnie is the more prominent of the two within the book, although Lurie weaves their stories together by connecting their social circles, in part via Turner’s affair with the rather high-maintenance TV actress Rosemary Radley, whose penchant for melodrama goes beyond her soap-opera role.

But it quickly became clear to me that Lurie enjoyed writing Vinnie more than she did Fred, both through the depth of the characterization and through her evident enjoyment of the more ornery parts of Vinnie’s personality:

For a moment she speculates as to what sort of man would embark on a transatlantic flight without reading materials, categorizing him as philistine and as improvident.

This is what we around here like to call foreshadowing, but, more to the point, this is exactly how I view people who get on a long flight without bringing any kind of distraction. Vinnie fears that her seatmate will try to initiate a long, boring conversation to occupy himself, something she dreads because she has prejudged him, and while I’m not quite so quick to one-look a fellow passenger I would generally rather read my book or write whatever it is I intend to write than spend a flight in idle conversation. (There have been exceptions, of course, and those tend to be pretty rewarding, which should encourage me to chat more often, but I don’t, because then I wouldn’t be me.) Vinnie is a woman who judges everyone in comic fashion in her internal monologues – she terms someone else “a person without inner resources who splits infinitives,” although I personally keep a silver axe on my desk specifically for infinitive-splitting – which, of course, is a window on her problems forming long-term relationships, both platonic and romantic.

Lurie drops words like “percipient” and “meretricious,” although she saves that voice for Vinnie’s chapters, but her shifting tones make it seem as if she looks down somewhat on Fred, who has squabbled with Roo over a subject simultaneously trivial and credible and thus went to London alone even though they’d planned to go together. Fred ends up having the affair mentioned above, with a woman who’s older than he is but whose emotional development appears to have been arrested, and, like many men who believe themselves deeply in love, he acts like an idiot. Vinnie’s affair is more sensible, if sedate, whereas Fred just makes you want to reach into the page and smack some sense into him. Vinnie, of course, can’t quite figure out what Fred’s up to – seeing him at a cocktail party shortly after her arrival, her thoughts run, “she knew he was alone here, having somehow misplaced his wife, though she had no idea how he had done this” – and ends up having to get involved against her own insular nature, which dictates no nonrequired interactions with other people.

Neither affair ends happily; they are affairs, after all, which end more or less by definition (cf. Greene, Graham), although one gets a comic ending while the other a tragic one. Lurie seems more focused on the effects of the dalliances on the characters, and indeed the effects of being out of one’s home country on two characters who see the experience so differently, which comes back to why this seems such a fitting winner of the Pulitzer. This book’s core theme is distinctly American, and by depicting two of us abroad in different emotional circumstances, she delivers some insights on what defines Americans and binds us together.

Next up: Ah, I’ve fallen a bit behind, but in addition to ripping through the Nero Wolfe mystery (I do love those) Death of a Doxy, I’ve finished Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (and now need to see the movie) and am halfway through Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

A Bell for Adano.

John Hersey is probably best remembered today, to the extent that he’s remembered at all, for “Hiroshima,” his mammoth piece for the New Yorker that took up all of the periodical’s August 31st, 1946 issue, and was later republished as a standalone book. A year before that remarkable piece of non-fiction, first-person journalism, however, Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his satirical war novel A Bell for Adano, a spiritual precursor to Catch-22, one that allows the absurdity of military life and bureaucracy to satirize itself while also humanizing the American occupation of Italy through one character, Major Joppolo, who becomes the wartime mayor of the Italian town of Adano.

Adano has lost much in the war; the people are starving and thirsty, and the ousted Fascist mayor was a corrupt coward. But no loss seems to matter as much as the loss of the town’s 700-year-old bell, recently taken by Mussolini’s government and melted down to make more munitions. As Major Joppolo attempts to restore order to Adano, reestablishing basic services and some semblance of the rule of law, he also makes it his main mission to find the town a new bell, one that has some historical significance and will have the “right tone.” Of course, other military officials think he’s crazy, and the General overseeing that part of the occupation, based on George S. Patton, is a single-minded tyrant. The scene in Patton where the titular character shoots a local merchant’s donkey appears here, and, like much of the book, is based on an actual incident; the shooting and Major Joppolo’s response to it sets up an obvious if poetic conclusion to the story that also creates some comedic pressure for the Major to find that bell before his time in Adano runs out.

While Joseph Heller’s book spares nothing and no one in its farcical look at the pointlessness of war and the human machines we build up to wage it, Hersey grounds his story in reality and lets the book’s rich humor come from very believable personal interactions, from the concupiscent Captain Purvis’s unending attempts to seduce Italian woman with whom he can’t communicate, to naval Lieutenant Livingston, whose snobbish first impressions of Major Joppolo give way when the latter employs a little bit of flattery. The return of Mayor Nasta and his subsequent arrest are almost slapstick comic moments. The memo that describes Joppolo’s countermanding of General Marvin’s order stopping all carts from entering Adano takes the most circuitous route imaginable to the latter’s desk as various underlings try to “lose” it before it does any harm. Some parts of the book were just laugh-out-loud funny, and most of it was smile-inducing, other than the occasional intervention of the details of the war, or the strongly sentimental notions connecting Joppolo and the citizens of Adano.

So why hasn’t A Bell for Adano endured as a work of American literature, especially war literature, when it’s based on true stories from the occupation (Major Joppolo himself was modeled on an actual American officer), is funny, and would be easily accessible to high school readers? I’ve long been appalled at how little of the American canon we present to American students; many great authors are omitted from even honors or AP reading lists even though books like Adano could be read and covered inside of a week. Perhaps it’s just been overshadowed by later works – it may have inspired Heller’s novel, but Heller’s book was funnier, more vicious, and covered far more ground – but it’s worth pushing it back on to the modern bookshelf.

Next up: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

Mother’s Milk.

I have an Insider post up today on ten All-Star candidates, five who I think belong and five who probably shouldn’t make the cut. I’ll also hold a Klawchat today at 1 pm ET.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels first came to my attention somewhere around five years ago in an email exchange with a blogger whose name I don’t remember, but whom I’d contacted because we seemed to have a significant overlap in our literary tastes. She was a particular fan of Graham Greene’s work, as am I, and I asked if she had similar authors whose work she’d recommend. She mentioned St. Aubyn and specifically the novel Mother’s Milk, which is actually the fourth in the five-novel sequence, although it’s quite readable without the background of the previous three novels, and, by what I could tell from reading interviews with St. Aubyn, not quite as dismal as the first.

These highly autobiographical novels revolve around Patrick Melrose, whose childhood and early adulthood greatly resemble those of St. Aubyn, including the physically and sexually abusive father and the complicit, emotionally detached mother. By Mother’s Milk, Patrick is married with two young sons: Robert, Patrick’s mini-me, with an impossibly advanced vocabulary and talent for sarcasm; and Thomas, an infant at the start of the novel and Patrick’s rival for the attention of Mary, Patrick’s wife. This roman á clef is full of mordant humor, with Patrick and Robert providing the kind of sardonic and often obnoxious observations that call Greene’s work to mind but with Waugh’s merciless wit. But amongst the ripostes is a serious examination of Patrick’s attempts to escape the life carved out for him by his parents, and then to try to give something better to Robert and Thomas than he was able to receive for himself.

St. Aubyn begins the book more from Robert’s perspective than Patrick’s, as Robert’s world is upended by the arrival of a baby brother, while we get glimpses of Patrick molding Robert into a younger version of himself: a spectator to his own life, brimming with clever arguments and incisive quips that often fluster the adults with whom he comes in contact. From there, the focus shifts (or, I suppose, returns, based on the three previous novels) to Patrick and his deteriorating marriage. Feeling abandoned by his wife in favor of their new child, Patrick first engages in a fairly stupid affair with an ex-girlfriend, then falls into the bottle, sabotaging most of the relationships in his life along the way … yet the story remains both humorous and surprisingly hopeful. This isn’t The Lost Weekend, where he has to hit some sort of bottom before he can turn himself around, nor is it a cautionary tale where he destroys everything before he has a chance to turn himself around. That lack of artifice gives the novel a base of relaism that makes the humor that much more effective: St. Aubyn, through his stand-in Patrick, cracks wise as a coping mechanism, but refuses to give up on his main character.

To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Connie Willis’ Hugo-winning novel To Say Nothing of the Dog is a tight mélange of three distinct styles of fiction: A comedy of manners, a time-travel novel, and a literary parody, all tied up into a coherent single narrative that reminded me of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, less witty but more sophisticated in structure and story.

Ned Henry works as a time-travelling historian in the 2040s, helping the imperious Lady Schrapnell rebuild the Coventry Cathedral in as authentic a fashion as possible, which means jumping back to just before the Luftwaffe’s raid on Coventry to see what the cathedral looked like, including the evasive (and very ugly) bishop’s bird stump, a wrought-iron monstrosity that has disappeared from the records and the scene. When one of Ned’s colleagues, the beautiful Verity Kindle, appears to break the rules of time-travel by bringing a non-insignificant object back from a trip to the 1880s, Ned is sent backwards in time to try to undo the damage, dropping himself into a Wodehousian setup of mismatched couples, mistaken identities, charlatans, mad mothers, and precious fishes – to say nothing of the dog.

Willis’ title comes from Jerome K. Jerome’s fictional travelogue, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), which I’m reading now to try to catch up on the allusions I missed. (One is off base, though; Willis puts an actual dog in Jerome’s boat, even though the real-life boat trip that Jerome used as the basis for his book did not include the canine Montmorency.) Fforde’s literary allusions and stabs at satire were broader and easier to catch; Willis succeeds more in the other two aspects of her novel, mimicking the Victorian comedy of manners (and, later, early 20th century English mysteries) and utilizing time-travel as more than just a plot device.

Willis’ time travel involves a self-correcting “continuum” that works to prevent historical incongruities that would change future events; for example, historians who attempt to travel back in time to assassinate Hitler can’t land anywhere close (in space-time) to him. Jumps into the past can create “slippage” of time or space that increases around a potential incongruity, so when Verity brings back something she shouldn’t have (in fact, that the “net” of time-travel should have prevented her from bringing back at all), the scientists assume they’ve created an incongruity and worked to correct it.

The shift from the imitation of comic novels – including the Jeeves-like butler Baine, who did, in fact do it, but “it” isn’t the it you think it might be – to a mystery that takes on aspects of those of Agatha Christie and especially Dorothy Sayers (the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries), with Ned and Verity working together to try to figure out where the bishop’s bird stump has gone, what the incongruity might be, and how to fix it. As in Christie’s novels, there are side mysteries, such as what Ned’s colleague Finch is doing running around in 1888 pretending to butle while on a secret mission for the time-travel department, or why the continuum sends Ned back to a dark tower in the late 1300s when he was just trying to get back to the present.

The greatest strength of the book is the Victorian characters, who are mostly of the upper-class twit variety, including the domineering yet gullible Mrs. Mering, her simpering daughter Tocelyn (“Tossie”), and the fraudulent psychic Madame Iritosky. We’re also treated to an ongoing debate between two professors of history in 1888, Professor Overforce and Professor Peddick, whose argument on the nature of free will and the causes of history itself dovetails nicely with the overall theme of the net, the continuum, and self-correction of incongruities. There’s also a plethora of silly (but still funny) jokes around confusion of names and people, and a fair bit of physical comedy as well.

To Say Nothing of the Dog drags for a short stretch after Ned has first arrived in 1888, once when we’re waiting for him to realize what he’s brought back for Verity (it’s obvious to the reader from the start) and another time when we’d really like the Merings to just get on with whatever it is they’re supposed to be getting on with, two sections where the situational humor can’t mitigate the glacial pacing of the plot. Those are temporary, and once Ned and Verity get cracking on the ultimate mystery of the continuum’s odd behavior, the narrative steps on the gas and doesn’t let up until a rousing, pitch-perfect finish that wraps up almost every plot thread but leaves one critical question unanswered for us and for the characters, an ambiguity that would have driven Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells to spontaneous combustion.

Next up: Before tackling Jerome K. Jerome, I knocked off Jo Walton’s Hugo winner, the wonderful novel Among Others, which is on sale for $2.99 in the Kindle edition through that link.

The Teleportation Accident.

I had never heard of Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident before a conversation with a restaurant hostess in August, where she noticed I had a book with me (The Magic Mountain, which, let me tell you, is just a great book to get the ladies interested) and we started chatting about novels, mostly classics. She raved about Beauman’s book so much that I bought it, and just crushed it over about 72 hours this past weekend because it is totally insane, clever, and hilarious, even though I’m not really sure it’s “about” anything at all.

Winner of the peculiar Encore Award (given to the best second novel of the year) and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize (so top twelve), The Teleportation Accident follows the transparently-named Egon Loeser, a set designer in Berlin in the early 1930s who is obsessed with the 17th-century set designer Adriano Lavicini, whose prop “teleportation device” failed in spectacular fashion, killing over two dozen spectators and the designer himself. Loeser is also obsessed with sex, of which he’s not getting any since his breakup with his most recent girlfriend, only to become infatuated with the unfortunately-named Adele Hitler (no relation), whom he eventually chases to Paris and then Los Angeles, where he gets entangled in a giant conspiracy involving an attempt to make an actual teleportation device at CalTech. Through all of these escapades, mostly occurring between 1931 and the end of World War II, Loeser remains blissfully ignorant of the charged political atmosphere around him, even when it puts him or his friends in immediate danger.

That last bit is part of how Beauman subverts almost everything about the modern historical novel – where any other author would insert his protagonist Zelig-like into the major historical events of the era, Beauman keeps Loeser in the dark, makes only oblique references to the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust, and even mocks the standard practice by using a secondary character, the bizarrely-named Scramsfield, who claims to know all the famous people in Paris (referring to James Joyce as “Jimmy”) but actually knows none of them. You expect Loeser to be pushed or dragged along by the force of history, yet every plot twist comes about due to accident or coincidence. This is Zadie Smith’s hysterical realism grafted on to Isherwood’s Berlin, Pynchon’s grandiose plotting with Vonnegut’s cynicism and Fforde’s wit. It’s madcap absurdity without devolving into the impossible (except for one last masterstroke in the final few pages).

Beauman’s decision to make Loeser’s obsession sexual is really a Macguffin, as his long dry spell is more of a plot convenience to keep him chasing after Adele and to push him into these bizarre conspiracies and a sort of meaningless competition with the fatuous English writer Rackenham. In fact, I’m not sure the book is about anything at all, which is probably why the blurb on the back does such a poor job of describing the story. It’s not about sex, and it’s only slightly about Lavicini or teleportation. It is, however, wildly funny, often in ridiculous ways, such as the wealthy car-polish magnate whose agnosia makes him unable to distinguish a picture from reality, so a glass of ginger ale spilled on a map leads him to shout “Ambulance! Thousands drowned!” – and that’s before it deteriorates further into “ontological agnosia,” which might be the most apt description of the book’s central theme (assuming there is one at all).

Also tucked into this bizarre picaresque are a grotesque murder mystery, a quack doctor who claims to promise eternal youth by sewing monkey glands onto your testicles, a conflict over public transportation in Los Angeles, a scientist whose mind (at least) jumps back and forth in twenty-year intervals, and eventually another attempt to tell Lavicini’s story and build another stage version of a teleportation machine. Beauman masterfully ties up all his loose ends in that concluding passage and the three epilogues, each more bonkers than the previous one, yet never veering so far from the central plot’s threads that he can’t narrow it all down to a singularity in the final few words. It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year, and I can’t wait for his next novel, Glow, to come out here in the U.S. in January.


I’ve been busy on the baseball side too, with Insider posts on All-Star snubs, the Samardzija-Hammel trade, and the Brandon McCarthy trade.

John Scalzi’s Hugo Award-winning novel Redshirts takes Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (#52 on the Klaw 100) and transplants it into a science-fiction setting, where the characters in question appear on a Star Trek knockoff TV series rather than in a book. Metafiction where the characters interact with or rebel against their author is nothing new, and Jasper Fforde (who gets name-checked in one of the book’s three codas) pioneered the destruction of the wall between fiction and metafiction in his Thursday Next series, leaving Scalzi with a narrow space in which to craft something new, without settling for some light satire of the “redshirts” phenomenon. By focusing on the redshirt characters and allowing them to muse on their metafictional status, he has created a witty yet intelligent philosophical novel that covers themes from the writer’s responsibilities to whether man has free will.

The term “redshirt” refers to the disposable characters found in the original Star Trek series who would join three regular/named characters on away missions and never make it back, typically dying before the show’s halfway mark. They’d appear to represent the danger of a situation without the need to sacrifice a series regular. In Scalzi’s universe, a few techs and ensigns on the starship Intrepid have started to pick up on the trend that such crew members typically die horrific deaths on away missions, often as a result of rash or irrational actions. When Andrew Dahl, a new crew member who realizes that the ship and its inhabitants are all behaving in weird ways, decides to investigate, he realizes what they are and what’s causing all of these calamities, cooking up with a crazy plan to try to save all of their lives by using the Narrative’s illogicality in their favor.

The setup here is truly brilliant as Scalzi sends up Star Trek and its many derivatives in so many ways, targeting the obvious and the subtle equally well, while even hitting problems that plague non-sci-fi series like the various crime-solving shows that make use of bullshit scientific explanations and impossible coincidences to get the perpetrators caught (or killed) and everyone home by the end of 44 minutes of screen time. Most of the jokes will make sense even to folks who’ve only seen a few episodes of any sci-fi series, and some, like the Box, are just funny in their own right – only funnier if you realize Scalzi is mocking every hack writer in Hollywood who decides to hand-wave away days or weeks of science because that won’t fit in the show’s timeline.

Around the midpoint, when Scalzi has his characters come to the realization one-by-one that their will may not be their own, he sends the core quintet back in time to our present to confront their Creators, relying on one significant coincidence to push the plot forward but otherwise driving it by the consequences of their appearance in the wrong timeline – and in the wrong universe. (There’s some many-worlds-theory quantum thinking behind this, but Scalzi wisely stays out of that sort of digression.) After that, the novel doesn’t lose much wit, but it’s more dialogue-driven than satirical humor, as Scalzi shifts course, mixing in more philosophical musing on free will and the nature of existence. If the show is cancelled, do the characters disappear? Does their whole universe end? How can they believe in free will if the Narrative turns out to be real?

The novel itself only runs about 225 pages, after which Scalzi gives us three codas, all worth reading. The first one delves further into a question first broached in the novel proper: Does the writer have a responsibility to treat his characters more seriously? Ignoring the novel’s conceit that characters put on paper or screen become real, there’s a legitimate argument here about using death or injury as a cheap plot trick. I’ve read and still do read many classic novels, and few use a character’s death as a mere convenience to move the story along; the main exceptions revolve around wills and inheritances. Characters’ deaths may be exploited for the responses of others, but they don’t usually come cheap. (Mr. Krook notwithstanding, and besides, that’s the best example of a character killed for humor’s sake in literary history.)

I enjoyed Redshirts as a brilliant satire that turns into a compelling adventure story with surprising dashes of heart, but there’s also an exhortation here for other purveyors of fiction to just write better. I can see why it earned the Hugo Award and why FX is trying to turn it into a limited-run series. It’s an outstanding mix of humor and action layered on a thought-provoking concept. Even if you’re not a Trekkie – I’m far from one myself – it’s a must-read.

Next up: I’m about halfway through Paolo Giordano’s Premio Strega-winning debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers.