Anyone who enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Blink or Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics, will likely be interested in The Wisdom of Crowds by the New Yorker’s business columnist, James Surowiecki. Surowiecki’s premise is that groups of diverse people can collectively come to a better conclusion than even the smartest individual. Like other books of pop economics, Surowiecki employs dozens of real world examples. Among the most interesting was a discussion of why “groupthink” led to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia. Another was Surowiecki’s persuasive argument that a “market” where the probability of terrorist attacks (or other threats) could be bought and sold, would be better at predicting those attacks than our current system of intelligence. Unlike Gladwell, however, Surowiecki fails to make his examples sing. Crowds is weighed down by long stretches of prose in which Surowiecki touches on one academic study after another, continually referring back to his premise, “the wisdom of crowds,” as if trying to drill it into his readers’ heads. Certainly, though, anyone with a passing interest in economics – and especially the behavioral aspects of economics – will enjoy the book, but it fails to compete with the genre’s better examples.
When Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians first came out in summer 2009, I read a plot summary and scoffed. A young man gets tapped for having magical abilities and ends up at an elite boarding school where they teach him wizardry (though that specific term does not show up in the book). Sound familiar? Not only did I have zero interest in reading it, I actually felt surprised that Grossman—the Time book critic—could have gotten away with publishing such a Rowling rip-off.
I was wrong. But I wouldn’t say The Magicians is completely different from the Harry Potter series. There are many similarities, right down to specific plot devices and elements of the school, but Grossman gets by because he makes no secret of the influence. The characters in The Magicians fully acknowledge the existence of the Potter books, which, if anything, makes the realm of the novel feel all the more realistic. Its young people live in the same modern world (the protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is from Brooklyn) that we do. What happens to them, though certainly a farfetched fantasy, seems more plausible than any of the books that have preceded Grossman’s and from which he takes a great deal.
Just like at Hogwarts, Brakebills (a magical college in this case, as opposed to a boarding school) has a grand dining hall, a series of loony professors, and a protection spell around its perimeter to keep out those pesky non-magical peeps. It even has its own version of Quidditch, a far more boring game called Welters, a kind of life-sized chess. Just like the Potter gang (Harry, Ron and Hermione), Grossman’s has the token smart girl (Alice, with whom Quentin starts an important and moving relationship) and an orphan (Eliot, who has been disowned by his parents and spends holiday breaks at school or with friends, like Harry does).
The parallels continue. When an evil being invades a class, freezes time, and kills a girl, it’s hard not to think of a Harry Potter scene in which a girl almost dies after handling a bewitched necklace. In the magical land of Fillory—which occupies the second half of the novel—a scene with a stag drinking at the edge of a lake bears close resemblance to the stag that represents Harry’s Patronus animal.
Yet all of this almost doesn’t matter, because what makes Grossman’s novel terrific and definitively fresh is its tone and style. His dialogue is edgy and captures the banter of angsty teens better than Britishisms like “Dunno, Ron” ever could. His scenes are bold (in a treehouse of sorts, peering up from under a trap door, Quentin spies his friend Eliot on his knees in front of another boy). And the most crucial set pieces are original and utterly engaging (two come to mind—a stretch in which the students become geese and fly to Antarctica, and another, while there, in which they become foxes and give in to base animal instincts).
Then, of course, the difference that seems most touted in reviews of the novel: Quentin Coldwater is no Harry Potter. And that’s meant in the best way possible. He’s bitter, introverted, and lazy. He’s skeptical, untrusting, and unhappy. That sense of withdrawal has annoyed some reviewers (Michael Agger, in a mixed review in the Times, complains that the characters “mope about”), but to me, it’s far easier to buy a reticent hero just as confused by this world as we are than a bright-eyed superstar “boy who lived” that is truly the center of his universe. What’s alluring about Quentin is that within the magical world, he ain’t shit, and he learns that pretty quickly, and has to deal.
The final fourth of the novel lost me a bit, with overdone action scenes and a clichéd quest to regain a crown and overcome a villain. This part of the book takes place in Fillory, which is a magical world (yes, an actual magical world, not just Quentin’s world of magic at Brakebills) that the gang has all read about in a series of books that they thought were fiction, but turned out to be real.
This section of the novel hearkens back to Narnia (it is young children that first access Fillory, and their ram guide is a lot like Aslan) and Oz (Quentin and the gang must find that royal ram, and they pick up various friends along the way, and I kept thinking, “They’re off to see the Wizard”) far more than Hogwarts. But the romance between Quentin and Alice, and the biting humor in the dialogue (specifically that of Eliot and Josh) saves the book from eleventh-hour collapse.
The novel is also surprisingly emotional. When Quentin and Alice finally get physical, it’s as foxes, and they’re not completely sure what they’re doing. The scene is inventive and sexy: “He locked his teeth in the thick fur of her neck… Something crazy and urgent was going on, and there was no way to stop it, or probably there was but why would you?” And when Quentin completes a ravaging physical challenge that many of his friends did not even attempt, his professor wraps him up in a bear hug and says, “Good man. Good man. You made it. You are going home.” I was almost in tears.
The Magicians has been called “Harry Potter for adults,” and in many reviews that label has been eschewed as an oversimplification. It is, but it’s not that erroneous of a summary. The Magicians and the setting of Brakebills is a mature, brutally honest version of Rowling’s Hogwarts. For me at least, the Harry Potter books are receding into the past and my childhood, and Grossman’s version is the fantasy that the 2000s—in all of their political, economic, and interpersonal disillusionment—deserve. I’ll eagerly await the sequel.
It creeps up on me in the middle of a Friday, like the gnawing sensation of possibly having left the oven on: I haven’t been reading enough Lynne Tillman. Thus I don’t know if there’s a precedent for this charming, maddening, brilliant, painstaking, and utterly mesmeric book. Certainly, there are shades of Hemingway and Stein and Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance here, passages on textiles reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Jamesian syntactical snarls. But the voice of Tillman’s fifth novel, American Genius, A Comedy, strikes me as sui generis. And it is the voice, gradually and then suddenly, that gives this novel its form, its heft, its suspense, and its unique quality of beguilement.Along the way, American Genius offers an effulgent answer to the question Benjamin Kunkel posed in N+1‘s recent symposium on American writing: Whither the psychological novel? The opening pages throw us into the mind of an as-yet-unnamed narrator who muses on food, farts, Eames chairs, the Manson family, her own family, and skin, among other things. In fact, this woman’s consciousness acts not like a brain but like a skin – “the body’s largest organ,” she points out. That is, her genius is not for solving problems, but for registering them. She is, as she puts it, “sensitive.” Which is another way of saying clinically neurotic. She has trouble living in her own skin, and retreats to the life of the mind.Eavesdropping on her quotidian obsessions, we slowly gather that she is middle-aged, that she has studied and taught American history, and that she has endured the loss of many loved ones. And, importantly, we learn that she has checked in to an enigmatic New England retreat for scholars, all of whom seem to be in crisis somehow – Chataqua via The Magic Mountain. An eccentric cast of characters – a man who, like my college roommate, lives nocturnally; a woman longing to commune with Kafka’s dead lover, a man who lugs his laptop to breakfast – seems to promise drama, or, like the title, comedy. The precise nature of this scholarly colony, and the narrator’s precise reasons for being there, hover at the periphery of her consciousness, and thus at the periphery of the novel. But, in the absence of a traditional plot, our questions – Why did the narrator’s brother run away from home? What is the nature of her crisis? Why this obsession with dermatology? – serve as hooks, drawing us deep into the fabric of the prose.And what prose it is. Unlike some other experimental novels, American Genius unfolds in sentences so clear as to be pellucid. Like a sensitive skin, Tillman’s language registers every flicker of doubt, every shift in the book’s emotional weather. Simple clauses, phrased perfectly and spliced with Kafkan commas, double back to bite their own tails, or to measure the tension between past and present, or to erupt, via figures of speech, into fullness of feeling. Here, for example, is the narrator – Helen, it turns out (surely not the Helen of Tillman’s earlier novel Cast in Doubt?)- ruminating on therapeutic massage:When I’m in the place I call home, where I have a young wild cat and an old, frail mother who may or may not miss me, I see a Japanese therapeutic masseuse, whose attitude toward the body is vastly different from the Polish cosmetician’s, who twice has massaged me with gentle strength and kneaded my body respectfully, though she may not respect it or me. The Japanese masseuse acts against my body, she forces it to comply, as if trouncing a truculent enemy, and I can see her wringing her hands and canvassing my legs before moving toward them, to exact revenge.And here is Helen remembering her father:I watched my father charcoal broil while sitting on the grass or on the poured concrete steps that led from the blue and gray slate patio to the storm door to the back of the house, where my mother pushed her arm through the glass, and he was happy broiling steak over a fire, which he composed of briquettes and newspaper but never doused with fuel, which would, he explain, ignite it quickly but ruin its taste.The cumulative effect of these quiet surfaces, punctured by the abrupt humor of the masseuse’s imaginary adversary or the horror of the mother pushing her arm through the glass door, is at once soothing and hair-raising. The reader is charmed and made anxious, as Helen is. Her sentences, apparently evenhanded, turn out to be deeply subjective, and in the spaces between periods, much is repressed, withheld, or held for later. Ultimately, we come to know her not as we know characters in novels, but as we know others, or ourselves… which is to say deeply and incompletely, intimately and mysteriously.But American Genius does not merely aspire to the level of character study or prose experiment. By juxtaposing Helen’s personal concerns with her scholarly ones – or, more aptly, razing the distinction between the two – Tillman is concerned to craft a national novel. “I wanted to go for it,” she tells Geoffrey O’Brien in a Bomb Magazine interview, “[to] fully write about who and where we are – or, even, how to think about being an American now.” There is a feminist daring in the way Tillman goes about her work, eschewing battle scenes or historical pastiche in favor of awkward encounters in the colony’s dining hall, private memories of watching the Kennedys on TV. Still, as in Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica – a book whose form and mission complement this one’s – a vivid sense of the Zeitgeist emerges. Tillman reaches the apogee of her powers in bravura passages where world-historical events and painful memories and wry observational comedy are all braided together, shot through with Helen’s obliquely sad sensibility. And when events in the residents conspire, as they must, to goad Helen out of her inertial rut, the smallest action feels charged with the weight of centuries.In case I haven’t made this clear already: Lynne Tillman is a writer in full command of her effects. I am reminded of my recent and belated discovery of the short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg Twilight of the Superheroes, who also made me want to kick myself for having overlooked her work for so long. These writers’ mastery is so evident (and so hard-won), that to critique either feels almost like arguing with her sensibility.Nonetheless, I’m contractually obligated to record my quibbles (that is, Max has me chained in the basement here at The Millions and is withholding my gruel). The first – really more of an open question – concerns the deployment of Helen’s considerable erudition. Usually, her factual disquisitions seem to spring organically from her private fixations – that is, from her character. Nonetheless, I found some of the more undigested chunks of learning, particularly those explaining various medical conditions, to be slack places in the novel. At times, I felt the hand of the writer directing her narrator’s consciousness to areas of thematic fertility. Is Tillman researching this? I thought. Or is Helen thinking it spontaneously? Given the generally seamless illusion of life created here, calling attention to its status as a composed artifact felt like a mistake, however interesting. These bumpy passages generally smoothed themselves out after page 100, and perhaps it’s a case of the book teaching one how to read it. Nonetheless, in a novel as deserving of broad readership as this one is, the dips into the encyclopedic may present barriers to entry.Another initial hurdle arises from the setting. As a present-tense peg on which to hang the narrator’s past, the constrained environment of the intellectual colony at first seems to limit the book’s dramatic possibilities. As in a campus novel, there’s a faint plumminess to the surroundings, and one wonders how Tillman will reconcile the ambitions of the title – American Genius – with a setting so socially attenuated… so uppercrust. That she does is a testament to her immense gifts. The novel took possession of me about a third of the way through, when Helen decided to explore beyond the confines of the colony. And it didn’t let go until the end. Even afterward, at night, in bed, I’ve found myself missing the cadences of Helen’s sentences, the surprising and bewildering turns of her mind.Unlike some other ambitious novels I can think of, American Genius doesn’t require that the reader be a genius, too. It doesn’t try to overwhelm its audience – at least not with shock and awe tactics. Nor does it condescend to us. What it does require is patience. Readers eager for plot, dialogue, characters delivered in a single stroke… the sturdy appurtenances of conventional fiction, will have to open themselves to American Genius, to surrender to its magic, to trust. But they will be richly rewarded. And perhaps even changed.Sidebar: Recent “American” Novels:American Purgatorio by John Haskell (2004)American Desert (2004) by Percival EverettAmerican Skin (2000) by Don De GraziaIn America (2000) by Susan SontagPurple America (1997) by Rick MoodyAmerican Pastoral (1997) by Philip Roth
My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
Detective fiction and theory have a surprising history, one that I sometimes use to rationalize my childhood love of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. And I’m not alone: T.S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, and G.K. Chesterton were obsessed with popular mysteries. We like whodunits, Bertolt Brecht thought, because our lives are filled with structural problems and social contradictions that aren’t caused by single agents. Crime-solving sleuths, people like Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew, help us put back into place a system that no longer functions: it’s only in detective fiction that we start with a bunch of evidence, follow it rationally to a conclusion, and, in the end, apprehend a villain. Reading detectives, the thinking goes, helps us do what we can’t normally: piece together fragments, forming something coherent out of the madness.
Or at least, traditionally. Enter, then, Laurent Binet’s newest novel, The 7th Function of Language, a madcap sharply irreverent French theory mash-up that’s part mystery and part satire, by the Prix Goncourt winning author of HHhH. The new book turns Roland Barthes’s accidental death in 1980 into a murder investigation set against French intellectual life. With a cast of characters that includes Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva with guest appearances by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Umberto Eco, and John Searle, it’s no surprise Binet’s book is way more dizzying than most detective stories. What is shocking, though, is how it manages to respect the theories and mock the theorists all at once.
The question that prompts the book is simple: who killed Roland Barthes and why? On the case is Bayard, a grumpy inspector who’s more than a bit impatient with the posturing of French intellectuals (who can blame him?). Simon Herzog, his sidekick, shares more than initials with Sherlock Holmes; he’s a young semiology instructor brought on to help decode and interpret the case’s signs. Together, they navigate a blindingly bizarre and often raucous set of worlds: picture a chase scene through a gay sauna with Foucault, Bulgarian secret agents with possible ties to Kristeva, drug-riddled parties after the infamous Derrida-Searle debate, and even a Logos Club competition, which is the kind of intellectual fight club that Plato wishes he would have invented.
What the troublesome twosome learn along the way is that Barthes, just before he died, was working on the so-called (fictional) seventh function of language: the ability—first introduced by linguist Roman Jakobson—of language to persuade, convince, and seduce. In the novel, French intellectuals and politicians like socialist president François Mitterrand and his one-time opponent Valéry Giscard d’Estaing are all after the function for themselves.
But all of this —deciphering the mysteries of the seventh function and figuring out who killed Barthes—isn’t why you keep reading. Sure, mystery propels the book forward, though we’re certainly not going to get the clean resolutions Brecht thinks we want: The Seventh Function revels in a world where randomness and madness reign.
What really drives the book is Binet’s irreverence—Philippe Sollers is a loudmouth dandy, Foucault masturbates to a Mick Jagger poster, Umberto Eco gets urinated on by a stranger in a Bologna bar. All of this might lead you to think of Binet as a writer of long-form libel. But Binet’s cheek is grounded in a serious familiarity with and respect for the theories, if not the personalities, he uses to populate his book (a lot of the anecdotes are non-fictional, and he provides in-depth treatment of the philosophies at hand.) I bookmarked a page with titles of talks from a Cornell conference; Searle’s giving one called “Fake or feint: performing the F words in fictional works,” while Spivak lectures on “Should the subaltern sometimes shut up?”
For all its lightness and raucous humor, The 7th Function can sometimes feel a little heavy handed, especially when it comes to the blurring of fiction and nonfiction.“ Life is not a novel,” the book begins, and a few hundred pages later after I’d started to ignore the self-aware interruptions of the narrator, the semiologist-sidekick Simon Herzog himself starts suspecting he’s in a novel, one by “an author unafraid of tackling cliches.” Maybe Herzog’s paranoia and distrust are the result of reading too much philosophy. I couldn’t help but feel, though, that the narrator was wearing brass knuckles spelling out “postmodern” and trying, repeatedly, to punch me in the face.
In spite of this, what’s most shocking is that Binet’s novel works, although perhaps more to draw attention to our mad, mad world than to help reconcile us to it as Brecht hoped—for that, we might need more than the fictional seventh function of language.