The Third Policeman.

I have two Insider posts up this week, one on the Touki Toussaint trade and one on scouting Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers, and Javier Guerra.

I’ll admit right now that I only partly understood Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, almost as much as I enjoyed his most famous work, the metafictional masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds. He wrote The Third Policeman next, but couldn’t find a publisher at the time and eventually shelved the work and reused a portion of it in his final book, The Dalkey Archive, but the original work came out shortly after his death and has quietly obtained a cult following, one that rose when one of the co-creators of the show LOST mentioned that the book might give viewers a clue to the show’s underlying mythology.

I can’t discuss the book in full without spoiling the ending, but I’ll do my best to cover my thoughts on the book’s meaning without ruining it. The narrator is the ne’er-do-well son of an estate owner in Ireland who inherits the land and farm when his father dies, letting the tenant Divney take over stewardship so he can continue his reading of the incompetent philosopher de Selby, whose work shows up repeatedly in the text and in various footnotes discussing de Selby’s life and some of his most bizarre ideas. Divney somehow establishes some kind of primacy in the relationship and even possible ownership of the estate, which leads in typically nonlinear fashion to the two committing a murder to rob a wealthy neighbor. After several years of an uneasy alliance, Divney finally tells the narrator where the proceeds are, but just when the narrator is about to grab the missing box, things get really weird, with reality turning upside down on the narrator, introducing him to the supposedly-dead victim, the narrator’s own soul (which he helpfully dubs “Joe”), and two policemen who are totally obsessed with bicycles. The third policeman … well, he’s there, but never there, and you’ll have to read to find out how and why.

The novel itself is deeply philosophical, with the destruction of the line between reality and fiction a completion of the blurring that O’Brien began in At Swim-Two-Birds (#52 on my most recent top 100 novels ranking). It’s decidedly postmodern but not metafictional. O’Brien delves into the nature of matter, reverting in a way to ancient beliefs about the fundamental building blocks of the universe, and how we perceive the world around us. He also seems to argue that time is, indeed, a flat circle, although the exact meaning of that statement won’t be clear until you’ve read the book. The fictional writings of de Selby, with whom the narrator is obsessed, are utter nonsense – de Selby tries to dilute water because it’s too strong and argues that night is merely a collection of “black air” particles – lending to the unreality of the narrative while also exposing the narrator’s own tenuous grip on what is real. When the two policeman show him the road to eternity and introduce him to a machine that runs on “omnium” and can create anything you desire, he just tries to grab as much stuff as he can, without any thought to the potential consequences (which you’ll also have to read to learn).

Drawing as much from Sartre and Camus as from Descartes and Einstein, The Third Policeman is delightfully weird yet profoundly disturbing once you’ve finished the book and reconsider what you’ve read. Rather than make a specific metaphysical argument, O’Brien experiments with reality within fiction, moving targets and obliterating lines to create a foundation for humor while simultaneously knocking the reader off balance. It’s an uncomfortably funny read, and one I couldn’t stop pondering for days after I finished.
Next up: I just finished Joel Dicker’s global bestseller The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.

Cloud Atlas.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET. My list of the most prospect-laden minor league rosters is up for Insiders.

David Mitchell told the Guardian in a 2010 book club post that he was inspired to write Cloud Atlas by one of my all-time favorite novels, Italo Calvino’s metafiction masterpiece If on a winter’s night a traveler, in which Calvino alternates between chapters of author-reader “dialogue” and opening chapters to stories he never completes. Mitchell takes that idea in a different direction in Cloud Atlas, giving us the openings to five novellas, followed by a sixth complete story and then the second halves to the initial five. All of his stories are linked through explicit and implicit relationships among characters and archetypes, even while Mitchell dances across genres from the picaresque to the dystopian to the modern detective thriller.

The six stories move forward through time, beginning with the journal of an American notary on a merchant ship traveling the Pacific in the 1850s, with the fifth and sixth stories taking place after our present day in a dystopian world on the brink of environmental disaster and a postapocalyptic Hawai’i that is one of the last bastions of humanity. Mitchell shifts deftly across the various narrative voices required for the task, nailing the tones of the dissolute composer/amanuensis Robert Frobisher and the third-person narrator of the “first” Luisa Rey mystery with equal precision. The two stories set in the future were the least effective narratives, especially the one set in a world where North Korea has become one of the few remaining powers on a planet increasingly covered by “deadlands;” Mitchell tells this story via an interview between a graduate student and a clone sentenced to death for attempting to incite a revolution, a dry method made harder to accept by his use of one of the world’s least sustainable regimes as the last man standing. Yet the Luisa Rey mystery, a conspiracy-theory thriller where the eponymous reporter stumbles on a massive corporate cover-up of safety risks at a nuclear power plant – with executives willing to kill to keep those violations secret – reads like a James M. Cain noir classic, but with the pacing of a Hammett novel because Mitchell has to wrap up the story in about 100 pages. It’s remarkable that Mitchell can do that voice so effectively while also mimicking Dickens or Smollett (or even John Barth, who himself imitated the picaresque in The Sot-Weed Factor) in the opening passage, and then switching to the pansexual Frobisher’s egotistical, anguished tone in letters to his friend Sixsmith (who appears directly in the Luisa Rey mystery) as if these were the works of different authors entirely. Even Timothy Cavendish, the vanity publisher who inadvertently (and rather comically) ends up with a bestseller on his hands, jumps off the page as a three-dimensional character who struggles to stay out of trouble only to end up in more of it.

That characterization is what elevates Cloud Atlas beyond the mere storycraft evident in the half-dozen novellas that constitute the book. The shorter the story, the harder it becomes for the author to gain the reader’s investment in its outcome by creating compelling characters. Mitchell varies his techniques across each section; we know Luisa Rey is going to come out all right, since it’s titled the “first” Luisa Rey mystery and protagonists in such books always win in the end, but we have no reason to expect any specific outcome for Frobisher or Cavendish, and the clone at the heart of the fifth story is already doomed, just for reasons we don’t understand until her story is over. Only the middle story, the one of the six told without interruption, dragged, but that was more a function of Mitchell’s use of a pidgin English that was intended to show regression in the language and reflect the race’s loss of knowledge through catastrophe and isolation.

My struggle with Cloud Atlas comes from my search for a unifying theme; Mitchell indicates in that Guardian interview that he tried to depict some fundamental aspects of human nature on both the individual and the global levels, but beyond, perhaps, a pessimistic worldview that mankind is so driven by myopic greed that we are bent on self-destruction, I didn’t get that sense of thematic unity across the various stories. The shared or related details across stories, often tucked away like Easter Eggs, were more effective at forging connections across the different settings, although I was looking for a stronger link in the common birthmark that Mitchell used for a character in each story than the explanation he ultimately gave – each character is the literary reincarnation of the same ‘soul.’ Mitchell even hints at spiritual underpinnings with the ends of several stories, including the augury that saves the savage and the humanist in the sixth story – the pivot in the novel – but never fully explores that themes either. The resulting novel is clever and compelling, but only intermittently insightful, a tremendous work of invention yet a bit short of a literary masterpiece.

By the way, the amazon listing for this book contains the best disclaimer (“product alert”) I’ve ever seen. Are people that quick to complain instead of just reading a few pages further in the book?

I also recently finished Silent House, from Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. The Turkish author takes Tolstoy’s aphorism about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way to heart, presenting three generations of a Turkish family rent by alcoholism, infidelity, and death into a split structure where a 90-year-old widow employs her late husband’s illegitimate little-person son as a servant, who then ends up also waiting on her three grandchildren when they make their annual visit. The characters themselves, including the widow’s late husband, all come across as two-dimensional representations of various aspects of a broader cultural battle within Turkey, a country that is split in both geographical and metaphorical senses between west and east, humanism and religion, history and modernity. The narrative technique, with five different characters alternating their turn at the microphone, adds perspective, but the story itself seemed stale and predictable. I assume this wasn’t the best choice for someone looking for a single example of Pamuk’s work.

Next up: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, a prize Adichie won in 2007 for Half of a Yellow Sun, her amazing saga of five people trying to survive the Nigerian-Biafran civil war.

Let the Great World Spin.

My ranking of the top prospects for 2015 impact is up for Insiders, and I held a (somewhat hard to read) Facebook chat about that piece on Tuesday. I also have a piece up for Paste from my visit to Toyfair NYC earlier this month, talking about recent and upcoming releases from major boardgame publishers.

Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award (a prize I’ve always found to be even more eccentric in its choices than the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) in 2009, and the book is saturated with praise from critics and other authors for its scope, its structure, its characters, everything about it. I almost feel inadequate as a reader saying I thought it was a nice* book, but I just did not connect with it on any of those other levels.

*I’m using “nice” here somewhat sarcastically, sort of like saying it was “interesting.” It’s a very good book, just not a life-changing one for me.

McCann’s gambit here is to use the day that Philippe Petit walked the tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center as the central event that links all of the stories in the novel, stories involving a set of characters whose lives are improbably connected by tiny threads that strain credulity. It’s a short story novel, but far better structured and plotted than Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of the more perplexing Pulitzer winners I’ve read (which is a bit more than half of them). The first story introduces us to the Corrigan brothers, two Irishmen living in New York, one a monk (of sorts) whose mission is to help the various prostitutes who work under the Deegan Bridge, near his apartment in the south Bronx, a character at once incredibly compelling yet also drawn in impossibly sharp lines without enough graying around the edges. One of the prostitutes has two babies, who end up in foster care with a mother who’s lost three sons to the Vietnam War, who is in a social/support group with other mothers who’ve lost sons to the war, including Claire, the slightly neglected Park Avenue wife of a successful judge who happens to be the one who draws both the case Petit and of the aforementioned prostitute and her mother, arrested for robbing a john a year or so prior. Each of these characters takes a turn at the center of the narration, although only some get the first person treatment.

The precision of these narratives and the spidery fabric that connects them is itself impressive, but more from the perspective of respect for the craft than from a readability or even a literary point of view – ultimately, if those stories weren’t connected, this wouldn’t be a novel at all, but a story collection. Where McCann succeeds most is in varying his voices to put the reader inside the minds of the diverse cast of characters he’s assembled; the prostitutes and the socialite and the monk and his more temporally-minded brother all have to have different voices, even if it’s a third-person narrator and McCann manages to do that well and craft each character with great empathy, without ever coming off as overly sentimental or, given the racial mixture he’s describing, prejudicial. It would be too easy to turn his black prostitutes into blackface caricatures of a very real underclass, but McCann avoids that trap with great skill.

But by shifting its focus Let the Great World Spin also avoids your grasp; it’s hard to feel an emotional connection to any character or to the story when they change so frequently, but also because McCann keeps them at arm’s length from the reader, with the exception of the Park Avenue mother Claire, who misses her son and yet wants more than anything to find a kinship with other grieving mothers who begin to separate themselves from her when they see her home and assume she’s far wealthier than they are. Her husband, Solomon, was one of the book’s most hackneyed characters, yet she pulsed with life, with her grief intertwined with her social anxiety, her desire to be just one of the gals, each of whom has also lost a son in a pointless war. She felt so real that I could picture her gait on the expensive carpet, her expressions, her tiny movements and gestures, all because of how McCann depicted her inner monologue. If all of his characters had lived and breathed on the pages the way she did, I would probably be banging the table for all of you to read this book. Instead, I found it a skillfully written work, an enjoyable read, but not one I was rushing to finish due to narrative greed or a deep emotional connection with the characters.

Next up: I’ve already finished The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry and begun George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

The titles listed in Bloomsbury’s 100 Must-read Classic Novels (actually 99 novels plus Chekhov’s short stories, which is totally cheating) were largely familiar to me before I’d even started working my way through the list, skewing strongly toward classics of British literature (42 of the 100 titles were by British authors, plus five by Irish authors). The list’s creator, Nick Rennison, did show one clear and regrettable bias in his selections, however, with several titles that advocate political change toward socialism, generally to the detriment of their value as works of literature. News from Nowhere was one such title, a dreadful utopian novel that, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, is the prose equivalent of an actuarial table. Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, published three years after the author’s death, resembles an actual novel more than News did, with real characters and proper plots, but there is so much sermonizing and so little character development that the book amounts to little more than 600 pages of didactic sludge.

Tressell, the nom de plume of the Irish-born writer Robert Croker (later Robert Noonan), based The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in large part on his own experience as a house-painter, working for subsistence wages while the merchant class and politicians grew rich off his and his colleagues’ labors. The title refers to these workers, who give so freely of their efforts to enrich others and seem, in Tressell’s view, to acquiesce to a system that is designed to exploit them and perpetuate that exploitation for generations. In that, Tressell was partially right – England’s labor laws were heavily stacked against the working class until the Labour Party took power in the 1906 election, before which a trade union could be held liable for losses resulting from collective actions such as strikes. Even as Tressell was writing his manuscript, completing it in 1910, the situation was only beginning to improve for the “philanthropists” of Great Britain.

Labor protection proved the solution to many (but not all) of the ills Tressell attacks in his novel, but his extreme naivete about human nature led him to advocate strong socialism, with little or no ownership of private property and penalties on savings or investment, rather than fair labor practices. Tressell has the two socialist characters, Owen and Barrington, deliver tiresome lectures to their fellow painters about the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism, all founded on now-discredited beliefs that people would still continue to expend maximum efforts when all incentives for good work or for ingenuity have been removed. By removing the possibility of large gains for the large sacrifices involved in inventing or developing new goods or processes, innovation will slow, and funding for high-risk projects (like most startups) will flow to countries where the potential for high returns still exists. Socialism as Tressell describes it has been tried and failed in countless economies, so reading his prescription for a command economy like those that collapsed across Eastern Europe and that have only enriched those in power in Africa is sadly comical.

Tressell’s awkward satire is actually more effective when he attacks the hypocrisy of those who profess to be Christians, mouthing the words of their Messiah while doing quite the opposite. Tressell limits his attacks on the religion itself – although I’d infer from his text that he was a nonbeliever – and instead focuses on those who preach the Gospel while doing nothing to help the less fortunate, and often would use their working hours to keep the lower classes in need of basic assistance like food, lodging, or medical care. Tressel’s primary antagonist, the painting-firm owner (and thief) Rushton, is found in the streets spreading the Good News – and making sure he uses these words to keep the poor and unemployed from banding together to try to improve their situation. It’s easy to see a parallel in the sliver of the U.S. electorate that professes ardent belief in the same religion and yet votes against programs that might help the very people Christ implores His followers to help.

Tressell also falls into one of the worst traps for the would-be satirist, violating what is now Roger Ebert’s First Law of Funny Names: Funny names aren’t funny. Tressell populates his novel with obvious and unclever puns, like rival painting outfits Pushem and Sloggem, two-faced philanthropists Crass and Slyme, the ineffectual city councilor Dr. Weakling, and the venal landowner and MP Sir Graball D’Encloseland. Satire need not be hilarious to be effective, but the failed attempts at humor here only serve to further insult the intelligence of the reader who might not have already given up in disgust at the author’s ignorance of basic microeconomics.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, the story of the Indian-born mathematician Ramanujan, whose brief life was marked by enormous insights into number theory despite his lack of any formal education in the field.

Dracula.

Dracula, #98 on Daniel Burt’s original version of The Novel 100, gave us one of the best-known characters in all of literature, generated an enduring myth of the undead vampire (and yet another reason to love garlic), and provided enough fodder for sex-obsessed English professors to analyze for centuries. It’s also surprisingly uneven and even a little slow in parts, despite a strong opening chapter that is among the best pieces of horror writing I have ever encountered.

Stoker was apparently a hack writer before the publication of Dracula and didn’t produce much of enduring literary value afterwards, but that one book – in the public domain in the U.S. since its publication due to an error in its copyright notice – is one of the most influential works of fiction written in any language, spawning what Jasper Fforde has dubbed the “Sexy Vampires” subgenre and inflicting Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson on us all. There is some obvious sexual metaphor in Stoker’s work, with blood-sucking standing in as a symbol for sex, but it’s far less overt the modern glut of vampire-romance stories (I’m including non-literary adaptations, like the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – remember “When did the building fall down?”); I wonder if he had a more direct influence on D.H. Lawrence, who also explored religious and pagan themes with more frank depictions of human sexuality (especially that of women) that led to the banning of some of his works.

Stoker borrowed a narrative technique from one of my favorite novels, Wilkie Collins’ 1860 thriller The Woman in White, which told the story in a series of first-person narratives from various participants in and observers of the main story, resulting in a panoramic view by the end of the novel as pieces fall into place while allowing the author to add or remove clarity as he ses fit. Stoker’s version is more disjointed because so much of the novel is in diary form, with shorter sections that result in too-frequent changes of perspective and, for me at least, occasional confusion over who was speaking.

The more successful trick of Dracula is how Stoker builds up his antagonist early in the book, so that the villain becomes an ever-present force to the characters involved even though he barely appears in the novel’s final half. The opening segment, the longest from any single character, follows the young solicitor Jonathan Harker to Transylvania, where he is to meet a new client and help him with the purchase of an estate in London. Harker is unnerved by the locals’ apparent fear of the castle he’s visiting but is taken in by his host’s charm until he discovers that his host is keeping him prisoner, and that the castle is also home to three evil enchantresses (“the weird sisters,” which is itself a possible reference to the prophesying sisters of Macbeth, and a familiar term to the Harry Potter fans among you) who nearly kill him with their kiss. Count Dracula’s character is fully defined in this section, with some scattered details provided later with the appearance of Professor Van Helsing, but Dracula only physically appears in the text a handful of times after Harker’s escape from the castle. The fear of Dracula takes over the antagonist role from his incarnation, and if Stoker hadn’t used so many narrators to make the story internally reliable, he could easily have written a similar story where Harker hallucinated the initial episode and the characters are chasing a villain who doesn’t exist.

There’s a downside to that trick of Stoker’s, however. The final quarter or so of the novel involves a race against the clock as the protagonists chase Dracula around London and back to Transylvania to try to kill him (permanently), even though he only appears in the text via one character’s psychic connection to him. The novel suffers from his absence, as the characters seem to emphasize repeatedly the risks of failing to reach him in time rather than allowing him to demonstrate it – the narrative greed was lost for me. Where Collins managed to maintain suspense in his novel through mystery, Stoker built up suspense through fear and couldn’t hold that tension once the antagonist was on the run – or, more accurately, in a box.

One plot point I didn’t quite grasp, for those of you who read it, is how Dracula settled on his initial female victim, who is connected with Harker. I might have missed something at the start, but this seemed like an odd choice that never received any explanation; he just happened to target this woman, who just happened to be connected through a friend to a great expert on the undead. That worked out well for Stoker, but even in a book that requires substantial suspension of disbelief, those two coincidences jarred. I’m glad I read it for completeness purposes, but I think its presence on Burt’s ranking is more reflective of its popularity and historical importance than overall literary merit.

Next up: I’m almost through Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, #48 on The Novel 100 and part of the TIME 100 as well.