Quinn Dalton’s recent collection Bulletproof Girl contains eleven stories about women in peril. Not physical peril in the tied to the railroad tracks “save me Indiana Jones” way, but social and emotional peril. Each story is a snapshot, a day or two in the life of a woman who has come up against something in her life that is big and hard to move. My favorite story was “Lennie Remembers the Angels” about an elderly woman who is paranoid about her neighbors but turns a blind eye to her son’s transgressions. There is a physicality to her language in this story: damp heat, dark apartments and overpowering food smells. Like “Lennie,” several of the stories in the collection could be mistaken for chapters in a novel; they aren’t self-contained. Dalton is very good at fleshing out her characters, and we know their individual histories. As she leads her protagonists through their hard times, we are given stories that are as character-driven as they are plot-driven. The long title story broadens the themes the Dalton explores in the rest of the collection. Instead of one woman, we have three: Emery, May and Celeste, three generations from the same family, all at difficult crossroads and alternately comforting and pitying one another. Emery is smarting from the loss of her boyfriend, her mother May has been driven to odd obsessive behavior ever since her husband moved out, and old Celeste the grandmother is vibrant, but will not sympathize with her daughter, and instead takes them all on a macabre errand.
With the increasingly important role of intelligent machines in all phases of our lives--military, medical, economic and financial, political--it is odd to keep reading articles with titles such as Whatever Happened to Artificial Intelligence? This is a phenomenon that Turing had predicted: that machine intelligence would become so pervasive, so comfortable, and so well integrated into our information-based economy that people would fail even to notice it. —Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines 1. Things are in the Saddle Sometime in the sixth century, Saint Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine monastery in Italy, required his monks to pray at seven scheduled times throughout the day. Given this rather assiduous prayer regimen, it is perhaps unsurprising that Christian monks — requiring a more exact form of timekeeping — were the ones who propelled innovations in clock technologies. Ultimately, the mechanism they produced would have unexpected consequences on the world outside the hallowed confines of the monastery. By the fourteenth century, the mechanical clock was a staple of the European urban landscape, a clanging device that monitored the hours and announced the day’s exigencies. Applying new pressures of punctuality and scheduling to life, the clock dramatically revamped how people worked and traveled and leisured. It operated as a haunting reminder of time’s inexorable progress. As T.S. Eliot said, “Because I know that time is always time/and place is always and only place/And what is actual is actual only for one time and only for one place.” A simple ticking device changed reality. Throughout history the best minds have debated about the ways in which technology has impressed itself on humanity. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr outlines the argument rather nicely. On one side are “technological determinists” who believe that the technologies we use autonomously determine the type of people we become, without our consent. By way of example, one could point to the invention of the clock, or other seminal technologies. Marx wrote, “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” Emerson posited, “Things are in the saddle/ And ride mankind.” On the other end of the debate are “technological instrumentalists” who contend that our technologies are “the means to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own.” In the post-millennial world, the debate is one of paramount importance, but is rarely given serious attention and compelling dramatization in the contemporary literary novel. This is not to say that contemporary novelists aren’t interested in the subject (see Jonathan Franzen’s “Liking is for Cowards: Go for What Hurts” or Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why”). Or that historians and sociologists haven’t turned the subject into something of an intellectual G-spot (see Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, Sherry Turkel’s Alone Together, or Carr’s The Shallows). 2. A Master of a Language that Never Rears its Head Such questions about technological determinism occupy a vital space in the artistic medulla of the Portuguese novelist Gonçalo M. Tavares. Since 2001, Tavares has been publishing plays, story collections, essays, and novels while concomitantly snagging a whole bevy of literary prizes. Born in 1970, the Portuguese novelist’s Jerusalem won the 2005 Jose Saramago Prize and inspired the Nobel Prize-winning Saramago himself to rather hyperbolically state that “in thirty years’ time, if not before, [Tavares] will win the Nobel Prize, and I’m sure my prediction will come true...Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him.” It is perhaps unsurprising then that I approached Tavares’ books with equal amounts of skepticism and expectation, since there was simply no way a writer who’s only in his early 40s could be generating this kind of revelatory and cornea-brightening work without my having heard whisper and murmur of it. Turns out I was wrong. His books made me want to throw an envy-inspired uppercut, too. His novels Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, Klaus Klump: A Man, and Joseph Walser’s Machine (out this month in paperback from Dalkey Archive Press) constitute the twisted and ruminative series called The Kingdom, which explores the pathology of political ambition, the logic of human cruelty, the collateral damage of madness, and the senescence of morality in the technological age. Though soul-withered and psychotic, his characters are also breathtakingly smart and often interrupt the narrative action to pontificate on moral relativism, power, politics, and the telos of the individual. Combine the villainous unction of Hannibal Lecter with the grisly impulses of Patrick Bateman and you’ll have a composite psychological sketch of Tavares’s more disturbing creations. His less menacing characters range from the schizophrenic and mentally unstable to the pathologically detached. But his characters aren’t simply fictional renderings of Oliver Sacks's patients. Instead, Tavares creates an assemblage of people who take the prevailing ethics and logics of society — capitalism, corporatism, and intellectual technology — and radicalize them in an effort to muse about what would happen to humanity if our political and economic efficacy trumped the importance of our souls. 3. As if Humans Were Substances that Thought, Substances with Souls Joseph Walser’s Machine is a slender though pithy meditation on the ways in which systemic routines — economic, medical, industrial, and political — scour the human psyche to a bloodless husk. Like all Tavares’ novels, Machine is set an unidentified European city and is populated by characters with vaguely Germanic-sounding names. The year is unknown, but the psychic aura of the book suggests late-millennium panic. An odd hybrid of social critique, philosophical tract, and black comedy, Machine opens with an oblique snapshot of Joseph Walser’s life. “He was a strange man... He wore a simple pair of pants, almost like a peasant’s, and his hazel-colored shoes were absolutely out of style... Walser was a collector. Of what? It’s too early to say.” His days are existentially moored by routines: He gets up in the morning, shaves, eats a sensible breakfast, goes to his job in a factory owned by the most important business man in the city, reprieves for lunch around two, and walks home around six. Walser maintains a somnambulant existence in which the events of the outside world constitute a predictable landscape, a scheduled set change on a choreographed stage. Everything is ordinary, nothing spontaneous. Even the threat of war that looms over his city gets regarded as just another variable in the cyclical rhythms of history: “The technique of influencing men by frightening them about things that don’t exist yet is ancient. It’s happening again. There’s talk of a military unit approaching with great appetite.” Numb to these expected political events, Walser similarly views other people — his wife Margha, his boss Klober Muller, and his friends — with pathological blankness. Consider Walser’s impassive discovery of his wife’s affair with Muller. He fails to confront either of them and instead resumes the quiet fulfillment of the rote. Another staple of his routine is the weekly Dice Game he plays with his coworkers, some of whom eventually plan and execute an act of terrorism against the occupying army, which, even though it’s intended to be a catalyst for disorder, only further confirms that this type of violent resistance is to be expected during wartime. Because the Dice Game allows the men to gamble on chance, it seemingly offers a necessary break from the deadening routines of daily life. But the omniscient narrator explains the paradox of the game: “There was nothing lacking, everything was there already, in the game, nothing new could crop up to disrupt the proceedings. There were six numbers struck to the die and they weren’t going anywhere. There was no seventh cipher, no seventh hypothesis. Six was the limit.” It seems then the habitual decision to submit to chance and unpredictability every week is, for Walser, just another kind of routine. All this perhaps explains why his emotional potential amounts to that of a storefront mannequin. Other people misconstrue his silence and carelessness toward the outside world as a faculty for proletarian obedience. Walser’s relationship with his machine is the only bond in his life that demands his precise attention: Walser had long since operated the machine with unceasing concentration, since, from the beginning, he’d realized the following: if the machine could, in the worst case, as a result of a mistake, kill him, him the honorable citizen Joseph Walser, in peacetime, the most tranquil of times, while lazy children played in the parks on Sundays, then he, Joseph Walser, was, after all, at war, for he was dealing with a dangerous friend, a friend that was potentially an enemy, a mortal enemy, because it could — not in a few months or a couple of days, but in a second — turn into that which seeks to inflict bodily harm. The foundation of his very existence — this machine — which supported his family and was, therefore, what saved him, day after day, from being some other person, eventually his own negative, the opposite of the Man that he thought himself to be... but in saving him day after day, the machine also constantly threatened him, without abeyance. This almost symbiotic relationship with his machine imbues Walser’s life with meaning. In fact, whenever he turns it off, he is overcome by an acute apprehension, wondering whether his own heart has stopped. Eventually, the machine makes good on its threat and severs Walser’s index finger, a gruesome incident that occurs while his friends from the factory detonate a bomb on a nearby street, which momentarily sends the city into hysterics. In the face of such chaos, the citizens begin the expected triage and abide a municipally enforced emotional prudence — carrying out routines to create some semblance of normal life. Walser’s own routine involves collecting shards of metals broken off from various mechanisms and storing them in his study as a kind of shrine to technological rationality. It is his way of constructing meaning — a personal logic — out of entropy. Despite the backdrop of war and the privations of his personal life, Walser all the while behaves with the chilly equanimity of a heart surgeon. At one point, he considers himself to be a great man because he is “prepared to not love anyone...” Such a formulation of human greatness allows him to commit twisted actions — having sex with his dead friend’s wife, stealing the belt off the corpse of recently murdered man, which he adds to his metal collection — the consequences of which converge in one of the strangest endings to a novel I’ve read, up there with Don Delillo’s Americana, Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones, or Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. What should by now be rather obvious is that Joseph Walser isn’t intended to strike us as a flesh-and-blood human being. This is not to suggest that Machine eschews the aesthetics of Realism, though. Instead, Tavares plumbs the internal life of a character who has or is slowly metamorphosing into a machine, a type of person whose morality is not a divine deliberation of how best to live, but is a mechanical operation. If the requested action is executed successfully — regardless of whether we find that action laudable or opprobrious — then the action is good. Such is the compassionless morality of Tavares’s Kingdom, where people value machines more than they do human beings. These characters are atomized individuals who are slaves to their own base desires, who fail to see themselves as part of a collective. I teach literature and writing at a small college in Wisconsin, and oftentimes center my composition courses on discussions about how digital technologies are changing our definitions of communication, friendship, love, and morality. We read Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr, Martin Buber and Ray Kurzweil. APA studies about how Facebook increases narcissistic tendencies among its users, a documentary about Internet Addiction Recovery Camps in Asia, and Thomas de Zengotita’s essay from Harper’s about “the numbing of the American mind” are a few examples of the vast catalog of arguments we encounter throughout the semester. Thoughtful and at times intimidatingly smart, my students have curious reactions to these texts. They at once confirm the desensitization to reality and the ablation of serious thought that digital technologies eventuate, while at the same time praising the convenience, efficiency, and sleekness of their smartphones, which they often utilize in class to fact-check my lectures (a practice that fills me with a kind of searing dread). Recently, my students and I were discussing the ways in which texting and Facebook posts and Instant Messaging reduce our expectations of human interaction — one should note that the majority of my students absolutely abhor making actual, vox-a-vox phone calls. They related anecdotes about text message conversations gone awry (“I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic!” or “I thought she was pissed at me!”). One student recalled a face-to-face conversation she recently had with her friend. She had said that friend is the kind of funny where whenever you’re around her you find yourself clutching your stomach and begging her to stop. Anyways, the friend told a joke, and instead of laughing, instead of giving the friend some expressive indication that she thought the joke was that delicious blend of irreverence and wisdom, my student sat there stone-faced and saw a familiar acronym fill up the IMAX of her head. It read: “LOL.” As she bravely recounted the anecdote, speaking with that special intensity that attends a kind of personal revelation, she seemed preoccupied in a haunted way. Now, I’m not saying that my student bears even a remote likeness to a single one of Tavares’ characters. In fact, she’s a terribly nice person who I have faith will do important things with her life. But we shouldn’t disregard the seriousness of the incident, for it speaks to the subtle and disturbing ways in which technologies sometimes limit or reduce our appreciation of reality, our ability to sensitively apprehend and partake in reality. While it’s easy to sneer or bristle at Tavares’ characters, to close his books and say, “Boy, that was weird,” I don’t think these are meant to be portraits of the cold and the sociopathic, the damaged and the damned. What makes these books necessary, urgent, and arguably genius is Tavares’ unapologetic presentation of characters who follow contemporary society’s prevailing ethics—the ethics of efficient machines—to their logical and devastating ends: a world without what Tavares calls “the efficient distribution of divine breath.” Told in pellucid prose, Joseph Walser’s Machine is a terrifying and mesmeric novel, offering a dark premonition of where we might be headed and what we might become.
At one point as I was reading Aimee Bender’s remarkable new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I was eating the food that is, to me, more delicious and comforting than almost anything else in the world: shredded cheddar-jack cheese melted on Tostitos tortilla chips. I stick a pan of them under the broiler and let the cheese bubble and harden a bit; the chips get just a little burnt so the whole thing is a crunchy, salty miracle. That same week, I devoured the very first lobster roll I’ve ever had, crisp buttery bread butting up against the cool, liberally spiced meat. Later, there was a batch of sangria made to salvage an overly sweet bottle of red wine, saved by some fresh lemon juice, tart nectarines and the strawberries that have just come into season. There were frozen pierogies. There were overcooked eggs cloaked with Kraft singles. What I ate while absorbed in the pages of this book seemed to matter more than with most others, because Bender’s latest is really about the intimate experience of food. Her protagonist, Rose Edelstein, has an excruciatingly sensitive palate. When her mother bakes her the titular lemon cake (with chocolate frosting) for her ninth birthday, Rose realizes she has the burdensome ability to taste people’s feelings in the food they cook. Behind her mother’s whirling energy and loving gestures, Rose tastes her emptiness, so bitter she can barely choke it down: [T]he goodness of the ingredients—the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons—seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary… On the surface, it’s a natural premise for an author whose odd, twisty stories have featured a man with a giant hole in his stomach, people who have pumpkins for heads, and a husband who returns home from war without his lips. But it seemed to me at first more like the seed of one of those fantastical tales than a premise that could sustain a longer narrative. But actually, it does even more than that: Attached to a gorgeous, devastating coming-of-age story, Bender’s descriptions of how feelings and flavors mingle manages to be some of the most sumptuous, original—and really, personal—food writing I’ve ever read. Ultimately, it was food writing—mouth-watering restaurant reviews, travelogues, narrative recipes, profiles of dishes and the chefs responsible for them—along with (somewhat embarrassingly) the televised insistence of Anthony Bourdain, that made me reverse thirteen years of vegetarianism last summer. I’m still not used to looking over a menu and understanding that the whole thing is open to me. I didn’t change my diet as part of any kind of manifesto or major ethical shift; I did it because I got addicted to reading and learning about food, and I wanted to know what it was like to eat an oyster. I wanted to taste the foods whose aromas that taunted me. Having grown up in a kosher home before I cut out meat entirely, there was a long list of things I'd never even tried. Changing my rules changed my sense of the world, and of my place in it. So maybe I was particularly good audience for a story so invested in the secret life of food. But as so many of us become obsessed with the story and singularity of what’s on our plates, the literalness of Rose’s tastes really speaks to the complicated life of a human appetite. Read with a certain mindset, the book can seem to portray a sort of locavore dystopia, subtly pointing out that we might not really want to know everything about everything we put in our mouths. Thankfully, Bender only hints at this ethical dimension of Rose’s abilities. She’s also not really interested in the rather fascinating implications of what could be understood as an eating disorder, barely describing the state of Rose’s body, or the character’s own sense of it. Instead, Bender cares about how we live with food, and through it: the subtle dramas behind a toasted bagel overwhelmed by cream cheese, the mind-bending Neapolitan pizza from the swanky new restaurant, a stale bag of chips, a berry crisp warm from the oven. I couldn’t help thinking: If I was like Rose, the juicy earthiness of the organic heirloom tomatoes I excitedly bought at the farmer’s market would matter less than the fact that they ended up tossed in some pasta thrown together by a frazzled, underemployed writer. I’m happy not to know the precise taste of disillusionment, but weeks after reading this novel, I’m finding Bender’s rendering of the possibility hard to shake. While I’m obsessed with food, I don’t really cook. For years, I didn’t even have a working oven. I love the idea of cooking: I bookmark recipes regularly and with optimism, and whenever I get it together to actually make something—peanut butter brownies for my boyfriend’s birthday, gnocchi with summer vegetables, a simple sauce made from cream, vegetable stock, lemon zest and capers—I’m overly impressed with myself. Mostly I eat overpriced takeout, and otherwise rely on jarred sauce, frozen burritos from Trader Joe’s, Indian food that comes in a little silver pouch and like magic, needs only two minutes in the microwave. While I eat, I watch the Food Network. I read the articles and passionate blogs about how cooking is so easy—and so worth the pay-off!—and I nod my head in agreement. I mean to do it. I aspire to do it. And then I order Thai. To avoid ingesting insights along with her meals, Rose learns to get by mostly on vending machine food, snacks produced on mechanized assembly lines and “made by no one.” But her powerful taste buds can still suss out the distinct essences imbued by different factories. As for produce, “[B]y the time I was twelve, I could distinguish an orange slice from California from an orange slice from Florida in under five seconds because California’s was rounder-tasting.” A few minor characters in the novel recognize Rose’s usefulness: a conniving high school pal has her over to taste things she cooks, in the hopes that Rose can decode feelings she can’t identify for herself (mostly, she wants to know if her affection for a particular boy is the real thing). Later, a woman offers to hire her to decipher the emotions of troubled children. But Rose isn’t interested in parlaying her skill into a career as some kind of food psychic, handy as that might be. She doesn’t feel superior or special; mostly, she’s just jealous of other people’s obliviousness. The food that tastes good to Rose has less to do with perfection than honesty. One cafeteria worker at her school makes pizza she can tolerate: “She was sad, true, but the sadness was so real and so known in it that I found the tomato sauce and the melted cheese highly edible, even good.” After she graduates high school, Rose starts eating with more focus, searching beyond quality for what can only be called authenticity. At an Iranian restaurant, she finds “such a rich grief in the lamb shank” that it “was like having a good cry, the clearing of the air after weight has been held.” A dim-sum place “knew its rage in a real way, and I ate bao after bao and left that one tanked up and energized.” And terrifically, “An Ethiopian place on Fairfax near Olympic made me laugh, like the chef had a private joke with the food, one that had something to do with trains, and baldness. I didn’t even get the joke, but the waitress kept refilling my water and asking if I was okay.” It’s not until late in the book that she confronts her fear of eating food she’s made herself—and when she does, her life begins to change. Certainly, despite her expertise in these pages, Bender doesn’t have the final word on which emotions translate to food and why. You can argue with the range of Rose’s perceptions: Why, for instance, does she taste people’s feelings, but not those of the animals she eats? When it comes to flavor, why is there such a difference between authentic sadness and superficial misery? But perhaps the most striking thing about Rose’s relationship to food is that it is intensely, almost unbearably, current. She tastes the way people are feeling in the moment, the sentiments absorbed by what their hands touch. Meanwhile, in the world outside the book, the emotion of food is mostly related to memories, and to the past: moments and people and whole seasons can be conjured by the taste of pancakes, chicken soup, or even just a thin film of blueberry jam on toast. Soon after I finished the book, I went to Toronto for my grandmother’s unveiling. At my aunt’s house after we returned from the cemetery, people milled around a table covered with platters of cookies and cakes and fruit, and drank icy pink lemonade of an unnervingly electric shade. As I stood next to my mother and talked to family and friends who were still in shock from my grandmother’s sudden death last summer, I picked at a slice of moist blueberry coffee cake my mother had made in a spate of focused, likely fraught baking for this gathering. In at least that case, I didn’t need to taste what went into the cake to know what did.
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At the center of Martin Clark's comic legal thriller Plain Heathen Mischief is Joel King, a fallen preacher from Roanoke, Virginia, who got in a little too deep with a young female parishioner. After a stint in jail, and facing a broken marriage and a life gone to shambles, Joel is taken under the wing of Edmund Brooks, one of Joel's former flock, a mysterious man whose dealings we quickly learn are rarely on the level. "I work the sag," Edmund explains, "Sag's the sneaky tax and the holdback and the cushion and the reserve and the contingency and the 'ol thumb on the scale." It's a whole lot of other things, too, but we soon discover that for Edmund, "working the sag" is mostly insurance fraud. Joel relocates to his sister's in Missoula, Montana, but by then, vulnerable and destitute, he has already been roped into Edmund's schemes. Edmund's co-conspirator is a Las Vegas lawyer of the slickest sort, Sa'ad X. Sa'ad, a smooth-talking con-man. Mischief would have been mundane as a straight thriller, but there's a comic aspect to the book that keeps it entertaining. The three co-conspirators play tough, each in his own way, but to certain degree they're each doing little more than playing the part of gangster, and part of the fun of reading this book is seeing through their big talk. Eventually the schemes and scams pile on top of one another and things spiral out of control, and while he has written Joel as an, at times, infuriatingly delusional character, Clark does a great job of untangling the Mischief in the end.