Waiting for the Barbarians.

I’d sort of avoided J.M. Coetzee for a while, given his reputation for dark, depressing themes; one of his two Booker Prize-winning novels, Disgrace, involves rape as a significant plot point more than once in the book. I was in a used book store in Manhattan in June, however, and saw Waiting for the Barbarians, which made the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, on the shelf for a few bucks, and figured at 156 pages it would at least be over quickly if I hated it – and maybe it would surprise me. I can’t see it as a top 100 all-time novel, but I got more out of the book than I expected, as it’s a fable that seems to combine some of the best of Italo Calvino and Kazuo Ishiguro (the latter of whom won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as did Coetzee), in a work that I’d call the better Darkness at Noon.

The story is set in an unnamed frontier town at the edge of the Empire, where the main character, the Magistrate, has served his country for some years when a Colonel arrives and “interrogates” some prisoners, including a father and son, about the activities of nearby barbarians who might threaten the town or the Empire itself. The Magistrate is dubious about the actual level of the threat, and is disgusted by the Colonel’s use of torture, which kills one of the prisoners and leads to questionable answers – likely the ones that the Colonel wanted anyway to justify a military effort against the barbarians. When the first effort yields a new set of prisoners, who are further tortured, the Magistrate takes pity on one woman among them who’s been blinded by the Colonel’s men. This decision and a journey to eventually return her to her people pits the Magistrate against the Colonel, who declares him a traitor and makes him a political prisoner and pariah in his own town.

Waiting for the Barbarians was first published in October of 1980, winning the James Tait Memorial Prize for that year, but it certainly seems to presage the United States’ two invasions of Iraq (1991 and 2003), especially the latter which, as we now know, was predicated on questionable intelligence about the Iraqi regime’s possession of or attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Coetzee’s use of nameless towns and characters only emphasizes its fabulist, universal nature; he’s discussing core features of leaders who operate without viable opposition and exposing how functionaries may work to provide the answers desired by their superiors rather than the correct or just ones. Coetzee exposes the worst of humanity here, but it’s all well-grounded in actual events that preceded the book’s writing, in dictatorships and democracies.

I read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, considered one of the peak novels of anti-communist literature, back in 2008, but couldn’t connect with any of the characters and found the narrative to be distant and cold. Coetzee infuses the Magistrate with more complexity; he’s flawed, a little bigoted, or at least mistrustful, but also highly empathetic, and less disdainful of women than the government officials or soldiers who come to the village and do as they please. The submissive response of the residents of the town, who seemed to respect the Magistrate until the Empire turned on him and labeled him a traitor, mirrors the inaction of many residents of past aggressors, including the Axis powers of World War II, who stood by while their neighbors were arrested, tortured, or murdered. The Magistrate seems to hope that if he stands up for what he believes to be just, others will support him; instead, people he thought were his friends act as if he’s not even there, until later in the novel when the tides shift the other way again and it’s safer to come out on his side.

This is a very grim worldview, but it’s an accurate one, and the 37 years since the book’s publication haven’t dulled its (deckled) edges one iota. Leaders continue to provoke conflicts and pursue wars on spurious grounds to distract their citizens or stage some patriotism theater. Had Coetzee made the Magistrate more of a one-dimensional martyr, it would have come at a great cost to the story’s staying power, but because his protagonist is so thoroughly human, it seems like a story that, while depressingly real, will have staying power for decades to come.

Next up: Angela Carter’s Wise Children, also on that Guardian list.

Advise and Consent.

“If you do that you won’t be liked,” a fatherly fellow Senator had advised him on some controversial matter soon after he arrived. “I don’t give a damn about being liked,” he had retorted impatiently, “but I sure as hell intend to be respected.”

Allen Drury’s dry political thriller Advise and Consent, winner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is set in an alternate universe where the Senate gives careful and thorough consideration to a candidate for a Cabinet post who is nominated by a bullying coward of a President. It’s a quaint novel, built on the extraordinary idea of a Senator standing on principle, even when opposing his own party, for the good of the country. It’s also too long by half and might be the most blatantly white male-centric Pulitzer winner I’ve read, without a single female character of any merit whatsoever in its 600-plus pages.

Drury never mentions political parties in the novel, instead simply casting them as the Majority and the Minority, with the President, also never named, in the Majority party. The novel revolves around the President’s nomination of Bob Leffingwell, a dove on relations with Russia, to be his new Secretary of State, casting aside the current occupant of the position as too hawkish. The book’s four main sections each focus on one participant in the deliberations over Leffingwell – the Majority Leader, Bob Munson; a longstanding Minority Senator, Seab Cooley; a young Majority Senator from Utah with a secret in his past, Brigham Anderson; and Orrin Knox of Illinois, the idealized Senator who is faced with a choice between the Right Thing and his own Presidential aspirations. Each character is richly drawn in two dimensions – we get a tremendous amount of detail, including biographies of each from childhood, so much of it unnecessary – but lacks the real complexity of actual people.

Over the course of the first half of the book, the accusation that Leffingwell was once a member of a communist discussion group comes to light, is disproven, then resurfaces, and the second time the news gets to Sen. Anderson, who had a brief affair with another man while serving in the Navy in World War II in Honolulu. Now married with a young daughter, from the conservative state of Utah, Anderson is an easy mark for blackmail, and when information on his dalliance comes to the hands of the President, he has no compunction about using it. (The entire episode is modeled after the true story of Sen. Lester Hunt, who killed himself in his Senate office after colleagues tried to blackmail him over the arrest of his son for soliciting sex with an undercover officer.) The consequences of this extortion attempt put Leffingwell’s merits on the back burner and put his opponents, including Sen. Knox, in direct conflict with the President, who refuses to withdraw his candidate even with the evidence of his previous flirtations with communism known to him.

The book is as slow as it sounds; Drury’s pace is leisurely and his sentences tediously long. It’s not a book of action, but it’s also not a book of much dialogue, either, which slows its pace further and left me wondering how Drury intended to push the plot forward. There are maybe a half-dozen memorable scenes in the book – the first hearing where Leffingwell confronts his accuser and the resolution of Brigham Anderson’s section come to mind – and far too much time showing the Senators spending time with their generic wives or chatting with the stereotyped ambassadors from India, Russia, France, and England. The backroom dealing that determines the fate of the candidate should be front and center, but Drury distracts the reader from the good stuff too often.

Anderson’s story could have been the center of a better, if less ambitious, novel, but would never have seen the light of day in 1960. As it is, Drury evinces some empathy for his character, but every discussion of his past transgression is in the light of what a terrible sin it was, even beyond what it might have meant for the character’s political career. It doesn’t make the book flawed – every work of art should be evaluated at least in part based on the time in which it was created – but it does make it seem very dated.

There’s also a lot of setup here for future books, ones Drury did eventually write, that brings nothing to the table in this one – notably the marriage between the children of two of the Senators in the story and the decision by that son to begin his own political career. It’s all prologue but for a book I have no interest in reading, and only served to make this book longer. And if you strip out all this extraneous content I’ve identified here, what are you left with? The story itself is quite thing beyond the Anderson scandal, and that’s the one area where Drury gave us too little verbiage. Add to that the fairy-tale idea of Senators who take their job to evaluate nominees seriously beyond mere partisan rubber-stamping and you get a book that seems to talk about an America that never existed in the first place.

I’m down to eight unread Pulitzer winners, the most recent of which is Mackinlay Kantor’s mammoth 1955 novel Andersonville.

Next up: I’ve got about 100 pages left in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl.

Black August.

My latest boardgame review, of the family-friendly boardgame Flea Market, is now up at Paste.

Molly Knight’s fabulous book on the 2013-14 Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy, is finally out today, and if you haven’t already bought it, click that link and do so, or buy the iBooks version here.

I cannot for the life of me remember how I heard about Dennis Wheatley’s novel Black August (currently $6.15 for Kindle), the first of about a dozen he wrote that featured the dashing journalist Gregory Sallust, who was apparently an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. I’d had it on the amazon shopping list for ages, and had thought it was some other detective novel until I cracked it open and realized it was nothing of the sort. Black August is a violent dystopian adventure novel, highbrow pulp fiction with a significant body count, where Sallust ends up leading a core group of main characters through an utterly bombastic but entertaining trek through a collapsing United Kingdom.

Set before World War II, Black August begins with the accelerating fall of the British economy, coupled with a rise in Communist riots and sabotage that eventually bring down the state. Sallust is a minor character in the first quarter of the book, but ends up the leader of a band of refugees from London who first try to flee to the West Indies on a Royal Navy ship and eventually set up a sort of survivalist commune in southern England. None of their plans work out in the end, but it’s a cracking good time watching them try and fail, as long as you don’t mind watching a bunch of redshirts come to bloody deaths by gunfire.

Sallust quickly establishes himself on the page as a charismatic force, a man of bottomless optimism and an equally indefatigable supply of plans, typically illegal ones, although the question of law and order in a post-collapse England is a fair one. He’s brilliant, coldly rational, hellbent on self-preservation, and, unlike Mr. Bond, not the least bit romantic – he views the two women he takes into his motley crew as liabilities, at least at first. While there are some streaks of misogyny in the story, at least viewed from today’s vantage point, it’s a nice change from most novels of the sort to have the protagonist not just unable to get the girl, but flat-out uninterested. (Perhaps that’s part of why I like Nero Wolfe; the man loves his meals and his orchids, and that’s all.) There are romances within Black August; it would be unrealistic to run a group of people through this gauntlet without anyone coupling up. Wheatley just keeps much of that secondary to Sallust’s derring-do.

Like most popular fiction, there’s a bit of the ridiculous in how often the central characters in Black August survive their ordeals, especially with the sheer number of shell casings scattered across the book’s pages. Wheatley kills off a number of named characters, but the core half-dozen or so face lots of peril but always come out of it barely any worse for the wear. Characters who are shot but not mortally wounded seem to recover quickly as well. It’s the price you pay to read this kind of sophisticated adventure novel; the author has to give you danger, but he can’t kill off too many of the main characters.

I’d be curious if any of you have experience with Wheatley’s other works, some of which involved Sallust and many of which centered around the occult. While Black August was generally good fun to read, I didn’t finish it with any feeling that I needed to follow the character into the next book.

The City & the City.

China Miéville’s The City & The City, co-winner of the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel, takes the idea of the split city – Berlin, Budapest, Jerusalem – to an entirely new level, one where the boundaries are less geographic than psychic. His novel takes place entirely within such a metropolis, where a murder in one part involves the police in the other and eventually invokes the shadowy authority that governs the tenuous territory that connects them.

Besźel and Ul Qoma are twin halves of a whole city, one with a nebulous history that at some point split the population into two groups, with distinct governments, religions, and customs, albeit two languages that appear to be almost the same aside from their alphabets (as with Serbian and Croatian). Citizens of both city-states are taught to “unsee” everything from the other half – buildings, vehicles, people. Streets may be “cross-hatched” – located in both Besźel and Ul Qoma – or may include adjacent buildings in different countries, with salients from one side jutting out to include one Besź building between two Ul Qoman ones. While residents of one country can walk partway into the other, they are expected to unsee any foreign elements there, lest they “breach,” a psychic trespass that calls up the third power, called Breach, that can simply “disappear” anyone shown to have thus ignored the barrier between the two nations.

That setting is by far the most fascinating aspect of The City & the City, which is otherwise a fairly straightforward political thriller/murder mystery. A body is dumped in Besźel by a van that was stolen and apparently crossed the border from Ul Qoma, where the murder was committed. A legal manuever through the one true border crossing (a central building called the Cupola) keeps the investigation away from Breach and in the hands of the Besź Inspector Borlu, the narrator, eventually, an Ul Qoman counterpart who helps with the joint investigation when the trail leads back across the border. The investigation involves a sort of forbidden archaeology that hints at the shared origins of the city-state and the long-rumored existence of a third society, called Orciny, that exists in the spaces between the other two nations, people who would be unseen by both Besź and Ul Qoman people alike, and who’ve inhabited such spaces (called dissensi) for generations.

While review quotes on the book’s cover refer to Chandler and Kafka, Miéville never quite evokes the paranoia of the latter or the panache of the former. Breach is discussed, and eventually its agents appear, but it acts with clear rules and within clear boundaries to its authority – the story is marked by Breach’s refusal to investigate the original murder because the crime occurred beyond its jurisdiction. There’s no sense of foreboding here, or of patently unfair or arbitrary rulings; when Borlu is taken off the case, it’s not as if he’s suspended for no good reason or without an explanation. Miéville creates a wildly compelling setting, with a deeply consider geopolitical construct and even some clever portmanteaux to express it (although it took half the book for me to get some of them straight), but the story he layers on top of this milieu doesn’t measure up to it in depth or imagination.

Next up: Corinne Willis’ Hugo winner, the comic time-travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Les Misérables (book).

My breakdown of the Jeff Samardzija trade is up for Insiders now.

Victor Hugo’s The Wretched (Les Misérables) is by far the longest book I’ve ever read, over 1300 pages and well over half a million words, and if you’re considering tackling it too, I strongly suggest you just watch the musical instead. Cameron Mackintosh changed very little of the novel’s plot for the stage version and omitted nothing of significance; Hugo padded his novel with lengthy expositions on topics from Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo to the structure of the Parisian sewer network, none of which is remotely worth your time.

If you’ve avoided the musical in both its stage and film versions, the plot of the book is quite simple and linear given the tome’s thickness. Jean Valjean was convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family and ended up spending nineteen years in prison after multiple failed escape attempts. He gains his freedom but finds himself rejected by everyone in society, unable even to find a place to stay, only finding shelter with a bishop possessed of impeccable compassion, a night that leads Valjean to a religious awakening and gives his life new purpose – but also makes him (in modern terms) a parole violator, doomed to a life of fleeing the robotic law-and-order Inspector Javert. Valjean takes on responsibility for Cosette, the orphaned daughter of a fallen seamstress named Fantine, after a handful of coincidences – something that Hugo uses repeatedly to put his small universe of characters into incessant contact with each other. When Cosette reaches her late teens, she falls for the student Marius, who’s tangentially involved with a group of would-be rebels who set up a barricade in the streets during the uprising of 1832, after which everyone dies but Marius, who’s saved by Valjean … and I haven’t even mentioned Thénadier, who hangs around this book like a bad penny.

There aren’t any proper subplots and most of the characters get minimal development other than Valjean, leaving the book somewhere between a character study and a vehicle for Hugo to discuss his views on religion, politics, and French history, as well as the sewers. Valjean’s status as an iconic character of literature may result from his own impossible goodness, his willingness to subvert himself to help others, notably Cosette, but he’s far more interesting for his verbose internal debates over the proper course of action when faced with difficult moral decisions. Fantine’s story is sad and probably well-founded in reality, but it’s a straight-line descent, and Hugo makes them almost comically good – sweet, dainty, ladylike. Javert lacks any sort of nuance, rigid in his adherence to order and authority, devoid not just of compassion but of emotion. Marius is the standard romantic-heroic doofus, and he and Cosette deserve each other if only for their mutual insipidness – each of them has the personality of a root vegetable. Gavroche, the imp who dies helping the insurgents at the barricade, might get more character development than most of the adults, as well as some details that are left out of the musical, such as the fact that he’s Éponine’s younger brother – and that they have three other siblings. Éponine is a very different character in the book, less overtly tragic than in the musical. Her love for Marius isn’t lifelong, but fleeting, and he’s barely aware of her existence, but “On My Own” wouldn’t quite pack the same punch if Mackintosh had left it as a mere crush than unrequited love.

Hugo’s purpose in writing the novel was social criticism, particularly the French systems of economics and justice, which resulted in huge disparities between the wealthy and the poor, while creating (in Hugo’s view) a very high risk of recidivism for released convicts. He paints dismal pictures of the lives of the poor in France and the plight of women born or left outside the narrow upper echelon of society, especially those who, like Fantine, are left as unwed mothers, with no recourse to make the fathers of their children take responsibility. But to craft these polemics, he relies on endless coincidences and forces his characters to make choices or decisions that beggar belief, right down to Valjean’s final, ridiculous choice to remove himself from Cosette’s life after her marriage to Marius without explaining to her why he’s done so – or to Marius why his revelation of his criminal past should be irrelevant. (Marius is such a doofus that he goes along with Valjean’s self-imposed exile anyway.) Heck, even Fantine’s decision to house her child with the Th&ecaute;nardiers, a critical plot point several times over, makes no sense – yet without it, nothing that comes afterwards would hold together. She happens to work in Valjean’s factory, he happens to come upon her as she’s about to be arrested by Javert, and so on. Hugo writes as if there were only a half a dozen people in France and it was perfectly normal for Valjean to bump into Javert or Thénardier while walking down the street – or that all of these nitwits should end up at some point in the same ramshackle tenement.

Had Hugo published Les Misérables as a 300-page romantic/adventure novel, it would have been a much better read but might not have endured as a work of populist fiction. Yet despite a mediocre contemporary reception and the presence of those tedious harangues on social or political subjects, it ended up at #90 on The Novel 100 and made the Bloomsbury 100 too, which I have to assume is as much about the book’s renown as its quality. There’s a decent story in here, but it’s just not a very good book.

Next up: I knocked off the sixth Flavia de Luce novel, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, in a day – and feared, incorrectly as it turned out, that it marked the end of the series – and am now halfway through John Scalzi’s Hugo Award winner Redshirts, which is hilarious.

Tranquility.

My draft analyses went up over several days, so here’s a link to the key columns:

* Draft recaps for AL teams
* Draft recaps for NL teams
* Friday’s Klawchat, which came during rounds 3-4
* Day one reactions, covering just rounds 1 and 2

I’ll have one more draft-related post on Thursday and then it’s time to turn the page.

I’m not even sure where I heard about Attila Bartis’ book Tranquility, the only one of Bartis’ books available in English. Born in Transylvania but of Hungarian descent, Bartis has won several major awards for Hungarian literature, including a prize named for the writer Sándor Márai, whose book Embers appeared on the second version of my top 100 novels ranking, although it was pushed off in the most recent update.

Tranquility has nothing in common with the subtle Embers; instead, it beats the reader over the head with obscenity, taking its cue from Portnoy’s Complaint but upping the ante of demented familial relationships while shifting to the setting of post-communist Hungary. The Weers, the family at the center of Bartis’ work, are a new kind of train wreck. Narrated by the son, Andor, who lives with his reclusive mother, Tranquility jumps backward to retrace the Weers’ descent into a sort of controlled depravity while Andor attempts to sever his dysfunctional and possibly incestuous relationship with his mother so he can begin a new relationship with the troubled Eszter. Andor uncovers very uncomfortable truths about his own family history, including his father’s disappearance, followed by his sister’s, and learns that sexual misdeeds are sown deep in his lineage, along with madness, betrayal, and emotional and physical violence.

Reading Tranquility would have been a chore given its callous and graphic depictions of sex, violence, and the intersection between the two, but Bartis infuses the novel with black humor and what I believe was an angry metaphorical depiction of Hungary’s own difficult transition from communism to something like democracy. (I have no idea if this was Bartis’ intent, but the interpretation came to me pretty easily and I doubt it’s a coincidence.) That transition led to economic upheaval that hasn’t ended, along with the paradoxical desire by part of the population to return to the certain misery of authoritarian rule rather than the uncertain freedom of its post-communist government. In this interpretation, Andor’s mother represents the communist past from which the Hungarian population refuses or is unwilling to fully leave behind; Ezster, herself a victim in multiple senses who has several difficulties with conception and pregnancy, is herself a symbol of freedom, volatile and damaged, capable of evoking emotions in Andor with which he is uncomfortable or flat-out unfamiliar. Breaking with his mother involves coming to terms with awful events from the family’s past, known and unknown; forging a real relationship with Eszter, however, requires emotional depth and strength the callous Andor lacks. To make matters worse, Eszter introduces Andor, a writer by trade, to an editor, Eva Jordan, with whom Andor engages in a violent affair. Eva is his mother’s age, and Andor appears to be unable to stop himself from giving in to his hate-filled desires for her – or to revisit the relative certainty of the past. Even if the past was lousy, at least you knew what you were getting. The message seems to be that freedom is scary because it’s unpredictable; the “tranquility” of the title is ironic, clearly, as there’s nothing tranquil about this screwed-up mother-son relationship, but also refers to the safety of a life without upside.

Where Bartis diverges from the tradition of lunatic families and sexual perversion launched by Portnoy’s Complaint and more recently revived by Alessandro Piperno is in its association of sex with violence. Where Roth and Piperno use sex (especially masturbation) for laughs, Bartis’ depictions of sex are rife with violence, whether it’s outright violence as with Eva Jordan or emotionally violent as with Eszter, and Andor’s reactions after sex are shockingly clinical. It’s discomfiting, but I doubt Bartis wanted the reader to ever feel comfortable in a story about life in Hungary after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Next up: I finished Atul Gawande’s brief The Checklist Manifesto last week and have moved on to Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Dispossessed.

The Comedians.

What use to anyone was the body of an ex-Minister? A corpse couldn’t even suffer. But unreason can be more terrifying than reason.

I’ve made my adoration for the novels of Graham Greene, particularly his political novels, clear on this site many times; I’ve read more novels by Greene than those of any other author but Wodehouse and Christie. The Comedians (Penguin Classics) isn’t often listed among his greatest works, perhaps because it’s seen as less serious than his Catholic novels, but it remains a serious work in theme and tone. As an indictment of Third-World despotism in general and of Jean-Claude Duvalier in particular, it is searing and angry, yet Greene also manages to populate his novel with rich, flawed characters in whose struggles against the irreversible tide we find mirrors to ourselves.

The novel begins, with the wry humor that Greene always manages to slip into his works, with three men in a boat: Brown, Smith, and Jones, all “comedians” on the stage of life, each playing a part. Jones is the English confidence man, Brown the American hotelier in Haiti who has played his share of marks, and Smith the do-gooder American hoping to open a “vegetarian center” in Haiti with government funding. Brown returns from a lengthy stay overseas to find a government minister dead in his hotel pool; Jones is arrested as he tries to enter the country, triggering another long con for him; Smith and his wife find themselves unable to reconcile their good intentions with the corruption of the Duvalier regime. When Jones’ game turns around his fortunes, Brown becomes involved, putting himself at risk and that of his relationship with his unhappily-married mistress, Martha.

The tensions that result from Jones’ alternating hero/villain status with the State push the other central characters, including Martha, into situations that expose their rawest nerve endings. Every action they take bears multiple levels of meaning, for the regime is always presumed to be watching or listening, and punishment for its enemies is brutal, but not always swift. While the Smiths are innocents unable to adjust their worldview to fit a country ruled by a dictator with a secret police force, Brown and Jones are forced into the uncomfortable situation of having to confront their own histories of failure that they fled to Haiti to try to escape.

Brown narrates, but as with most Greene narrators, he’s adept at historical evaluations of his own emotions as well as those of others – but he’s also inept at anticipating the reactions of others. Brown knows he’s creating additional barriers between himself and Martha, beyond those of her husband, her needy son, and her social status, yet seems unable to stop himself from issuing the cutting remark or asking the wrong question. In the process, Brown manages to con himself, while also showing Martha a side of his personality she’d probably have preferred not to see. No one was better able to explore the nature of an affair of the heart in a novel that ostensibly dealt only with affairs of state than Greene, whether here, in The Quiet American, or even in a weaker novel like The Human Factor.

Failure looms as the other overarching theme of The Comedians, from the failure of Haiti itself to establish a functioning, democratic government to the failure of U.S. policy in Haiti, supporting a borderline fascist autocracy because it stands as a bulwark against communism; from the failures of Brown, a moderately successful confidence man now running a de facto bankrupt hotel in the world’s least desirable location, to those of Jones, whose invented history may contain some or no kernels of truth whatsoever. Brown can’t run a business, manage an affair with a woman who is more than willing to maintain the status quo, or even help a political refugee escape. He is the greatest comedian of them all, an actor on a stage speaking someone else’s lines.

Nothing new from me on ESPN since the last update, but Chris Crawford has weekend draft update and his first weekly top ten prospects ranking for fantasy players.

Also, for Top Chef fans among you, Hugh Acheson tweeted a link earlier today where you can vote for the West Athens, GA, community garden to get a large grant from Seeds of Change. You can vote once a day while the contest is open.

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.

The Dinner and more.

Two new breakdowns for Insiders – on the Jose Veras trade and the Scott Downs trade. More to come as we get more trade action.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner made it on to my to-read list about a year and a half ago after I caught a very positive review in the Guardian, a left-wing British paper that has one of the stronger arts sections I’ve come across. I finally picked the book up last month and … well, it’s a strangely mixed bag of bad writing and fascinating character study.

The story revolves around two couples having a dinner out where they are supposed to discuss the fact that their sons have committed a grievous crime, caught on CCTV that isn’t clear enough to identify the boys publicly but makes it clear to the parents who the guilty parties are – with the stakes rising when the video appears on Youtube with a telling detail at the end. Paul, the father of one of the boys, narrates the book; the other father, Serge, is a prominent public figure. The book’s path is nonlinear, with flashbacks and wobbly narration, but the slope of the plot line is negative, as one secret after another is revealed and it becomes clear that Paul’s narration isn’t as reliable as he’d like us to believe, while Serge, depicted from the start as something of an asshat, isn’t the root of the boys’ evil, either.

It turns out that the plot isn’t actually the most important aspect of The Dinner, but is a vehicle for Koch’s studies of multiple characters, which all seem to be wrapped up in a greater examination of the latent sociopathy of modern middle-class parents. Koch never quite labels anyone a sociopath, but his scorn for such parents and their willingness to subvert their own morals to protect their children is evident. Even when one of the parents appears to want to do something resembling the right thing, it’s from base motives that do credit to neither parent nor child.

Koch is playing the fabulist here by creating parents who are more caricatures than realistic characters, bearing elements we might recognize in our friends or neighbors (or, heaven forbid, ourselves), but with wholes that feel flimsy. I’m avoiding too much discussion of specific characters to avoid spoiling anything, as Koch peels back the onion of his story over the course of the book’s 300 pages, but none of the four parent characters felt remotely real to me, and the two fathers are both drawn with sharp edges yet without internal shading. Koch created these characters so that they’d have to speak and behave in specific ways to achieve his desired outcome – and while the outcome itself reveals much about his characters, and at least will provoke readers to think about how close these actions and words come to reality, this artifice detracted greatly from the entire exercise for me.

Koch also made some curious decisions with the screen time granted to his four main characters, spending too much time with Paul and Serge while largely leaving their wives in the background. Clare, Paul’s wife, deserved far more attention, but her actions are largely on the periphery and mostly in reaction to Paul – although it’s unclear whether she views him as a partner or an antagonist to be managed. Babette, Serge’s wife, spends half of her scenes in tears, and only develops as a character in the final scenes, so late that her true motives are never apparent at all.

I don’t know if Koch is simply a clunky, awkward writer, or if the translation is poor, but I found his prose very weak and phrasing choppier than rough seas. (I’d offer examples, but the book is in Delaware and I am not.) The narrator is not entirely stable himself, so I’m willing to cut Koch some slack in this regard as a character like that shouldn’t think in clear, fluid sentences, but that doesn’t make it any easier to read.

Yet despite this laundry list of flaws, The Dinner does do two things very well. The suspense created by Koch’s decisions to hide most details from the reader at the beginning, unfurling everything in discrete, small steps, creates tremendous narrative greed that led me through the book at high velocity until it ended. And if his intent was indeed to explore or expose the banality of evil in middle-class families, he at least begins the excavation process, especially with Paul and Serge. It’s more fun-house mirror than looking-glass, but the picture staring back at us isn’t pretty.

I’ve also been moving through more of the Bloomsbury 100’s classics, including Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or the Two Nations and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Disraeli’s legacy as a politican is stronger than his legacy as a writer, but Sybil holds up well as a work of political fiction, a furious rant about growing inequality in 1840s England and the aristocratic class’s refusal to acknowledge the issue or make any accommodations to address it. Disraeli grafts a romance on to his polemic, where a manor-born lord falls for the sweet, pretty daughter of a working man and socialist agitator, but the purpose of the book is clear – to stir up indignation in the hearts of the readers, against the country’s caste system and in favor of workers’ rights and a stronger social safety net. While many of his arguments are dated, the book’s core message about income inequality and the chasm between capital and labor feels just as relevant today. He even cites the often-heard argument that the lower classes are better off today than they’ve ever been, which is true but doesn’t mean they’re objectively as well-off as they could or perhaps should be, even if the issues Disraeli covers have been replaced by matters like lack of job security or spiraling health-care costs.

Hogg’s book reads today like a proto-novel for numerous genres – it’s a supernatural mystery, a gothic horror story, a religious parable, very early metafiction, and, most of all, it’s creepy-weird. The sinner of the book’s title is raised to believe he’s one of God’s elect – the novel is a clear attack on the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, now a quaint relic – and, in the process, becomes one hell of a sinner. The first third of the novel is a lengthy prologue, leading into the “memoir” itself, where the sinner tells of the extraorindary stranger who leads him down the road to perdition, a stranger whose true nature is never fully revealed to the reader. The satirical elements will likely pass by a modern reader, but it was a fascinating read for how it presaged so many subgenres of fiction and likely influenced later novels like Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (#12 on my all-time novels ranking).

It Can’t Happen Here.

Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on.

Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here is the best-known of his works after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 (making him the first American author so honored, although they resumed their habit of giving the award to western Europeans the following year). It’s a protest novel, less purely literary than his classic novels of the 1920s (led by Arrowsmith, Babbitt, and Main Street), while angrier and livelier and a faster read.

It Can’t Happen Here melds two protests into one. Lewis depicts a United States leading up to and in the first few years after the 1936 election, where the nation seems to wilfully ignore the tyranny and pending genocide happening in Europe, and is also ripe for the rise of a demagogue of its own, a role filled by Berzelius “Buzz” Wintrip. Wintrip, a blowhard right-wing senator who spouts populist nonsense aimed at propelling himself to the White House, is backed up by Lee Sarason, the brains of the operation to elect Wintrip and a man who similarly desires power but does so for different ends. Wintrip’s ascension to President and establishment of his own dictatorship comes despite the claims of several characters early in the book that what happened in Germany and Italy “can’t happen here.”

Doremus Jessup, a liberal newspaper editor in a small town in Vermont, stands as one of the few voices of reason before Wintrip’s election, stating quite clearly that it can. He is the book’s great moral center despite a lack of moralizing; his goals are fundamental and based not on orthodoxy or theology, but on simple concepts of basic human rights and dignity. He also knows a charlatan when he sees one, and fears Wintrip’s rise because he recognizes that human nature will push him into office and then will allow the same people who voted for him to be ruled by his iron fist.

Jessup’s observations and Lewis’ simultaneous use of broad and fine strokes to define his setting give the book such tremendous staying power, so that even seventy-five years after its publication, Jessup’s observations (these before the election) still seem so familiar today:

“Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage‘ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles?’ And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the – well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimee McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it? Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy? … Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina moutnaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their Children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution? … Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? (…) Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for dictatorship as ours!”

I don’t remember those incidents, and a few of the names were completely unfamiliar to me, but I remember Freedom fries, and I remember the Kansas evolution hearings, and I remember a whisper campaign about the religion of a major party Presidential candidate, and I remember hearing a crowd cheer the governor who mentioned the 234 executions during his tenure, and I don’t really think anything is all that different today from the nation Sinclair described 75 years ago. We have more money and better toys and the tremendous degree of freedom afforded by the Internet, but we are still the same people subject to the same forces of persuasion.

The downside of Lewis’ anger is that he spends so much time setting up his alternate history and having the narrator and/or Jessup verbally knock it down that the personal part of the plot comes in fits and starts. Wintrip is elected and within hours declares martial law and begins a Khmer Rouge-like process of rolling back the clock on progress while rounding up enemies, real and potential, a process that accelerates as time passes and leads to the introduction of concentration camps. Jessup joins the opposition, supported by a government-in-exile based out of Canada, as do several members of his family and his circle of friends and business associates (with a few turncoat exceptions, including his son), with largely predictable results. There’s some narrative greed from the macro storyline as unrest begins to build locally and nationally, and more from the government’s reactions to Jessup’s treason, but the two storylines aren’t well-blended. When I was fifteen, I would have been riveted by things like descriptions of how Wintrip abolished the states and established new subdivisions to the country, but now I find them boring.

The other problem with It Can’t Happen Here is inherent to the genre of protest/dystopian novels – you know where they’re going. The individual rebels, ends up arrested, some people close to him will suffer or be killed, he’ll get out of prison, and so on. 1984, written thirteen years later, follows a similar structure but spends far less time on the political storyline and far more on Winston Smith himself. The timeless nature of Lewis’ observations on human nature and American culture balance out these flaws, but you have to be ready for a little preaching, as in these (very reasonable) lines from Jessup:

“I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.”

That could refer to battles today over stem cell research or vaccination, or to the murder of Hypatia sixteen centuries ago. I’d give Lewis a 50 for storyline, but a 60 for his incisive take on the baser side of our nature.

Next up: A change of pace to some non-fiction – Donal O’Shea’s The Poincare Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe, the story of the history and solution to another one of mathematics’ most famous problems, which lay unsolved for a hundred years (despite many attempts) until an eccentric Russian came up with a proof, only to decline the accolades that came with it. It’s a “bargain book” right now on Amazon at $6.38 new.