The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
Back in January, Casey N. Cep published a delightful essay at Page-Turner, The New Yorker’s book blog. The piece was about maps–particularly, the obvious affection so many writers feel for them. She mentioned, of course, the big-book fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin; but also, the map Sherwood Anderson commissioned of Winesburg, Ohio; the survey done of Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau; and the hand-drawn map of Yoknapatawpha County signed by William Faulkner (as “sole owner and proprietor”). “Every map tells a story,” Cep wrote, “and writers yearning for new ways to tell stories are drawn to them.”
I was surprised Cep didn’t mention David Mitchell, though. In his Paris Review interview from 2010, Mitchell told this wonderful, on-point story from his childhood, as a way to account for his own beginnings as a storyteller.
[My] parents discovered they could shut me up for hours by mounting a large piece of cartridge paper on a drawing board—beautiful quality paper, a big beautiful snowy expanse—and leave me to draw, and name, maps of imaginary archipelagos and continents. Those maps, I think, were my protonovels. I was reading Tolkien, and it was the maps as much as the text that floated my boat. What was happening behind these mountains where Frodo and company never went? What about the town along the edge of the sea? What kind of people lived there?
In his sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has taken this fascination with the characters at the edge of the action and built a book around them. With one very important exception (which I’ll get to shortly), the six novellas that make up The Bone Clocks take place on the margins of a grand, cosmic struggle, and explore the lives of the people who reside there.
In fact, the least interesting and least moving part of the book is the one that doesn’t occupy a point of some distance from the central action. The next-to-last novella, called “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” is set in 2024, and features the climax of a mysterious battle between good and evil, the dimensions of which have only been hinted at in previous chapters.
On the one side of this struggle stand the Horologists, an order of reincarnated immortals who have banded together to oppose the Anchorites. The Anchorites, envious of the Horologists’ natural immortality, have discovered a grisly method of obtaining their own version of everlasting life, one involving “soul-decantation,” and the murder of innocent humans.
Throughout the first four novellas, both Anchorites and Horologists beam in and out of the narrative, never taking up much time or attention (in a detail you might remember from the Men in Black movies, witnesses to horological or anchoritic phenomena find their memories curiously erased).
This fifth section, however, belongs entirely to the immortals, and the novel frankly suffers for it, particularly because Mitchell plants a stylistic belly-flop into one of the more egregious cases of Sci-Fi technobabble you are likely to witness this side of a Star Trek fan-fiction site. The immortals’ speech is full of these little idiosyncrasies and special meanings that don’t serve to make the story any more vivid–they’re more like the lumps left in a salad dressing after you’ve gotten too fancy with the spices.
“As I ingress, I hiatus her,” goes one sentence. “You could’ve suasioned me, if you cared so much,” goes another. “I’ve eaten trays of dim sum with more psychosoteric potential than you”–that’s Horology shit-talk, I suppose. And all terms of telepathic communication–the immortals can communicate telepathically, of course–for some reason are prefixed “sub.” All of them. You’ll see “subask,” “subvoice,” “subreply,” “suborder,” “substate.” “Subremark,” for Christ’s sake.
This is uncharacteristically bad, and actually pretty strange, when you consider how world-beatingly good Mitchell usually is at this sort of thing. Mitchell’s talent at using dialogue to flesh out invented worlds is unsurpassed by anyone writing today–compare the stiltedness of “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” with the science fiction portions of Cloud Atlas. And consider The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, where Mitchell had to pull off the same basic stunt, while also worrying about historical (semi-)accuracy.
What he’s done here, I think, is failed to avoid a problem he solved while writing The Thousand Autumns, of leaving off that “(semi-)” part. Mitchell has told the story in public several times, of how at first he strove for, and achieved, a truly accurate rendering of late 18th century dialogue. He showed it to his wife, who said, “It sounds like Blackadder!” (And apologies to Rowan Atkinson, but she didn’t mean this to be complimentary.) Mitchell went back in, and contrived a new version of the dialogue, written in a vernacular he nicknamed “Bygonese”–close enough that the spell is cast, not so close that it’s broken.
To put it another way, Mitchell’s failure with these telepathic immortals and their “subs” and “scansions” and “suasions” is actually just a kind of over-success. He renders the Horologists’ language too completely, and strips the threads. Perhaps if this “Horologese” had been dialed down a little, it wouldn’t be a problem; or, if the war of the immortals had taken over a larger part of the book, there’d have been more time to develop the concepts that undergird this techno-dialect.
Of course that would have been to abandon the novel’s organizational subtext, this attention to what happens “in the edges of the maps.” And Mitchell certainly didn’t want to do that. In fact, he found this subtext so important that at one point, he brings it right into the novel, through the voice of one of his characters.
That character is Crispin Hershey, a novelist, who narrates the fourth section of the book, “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”; and while you might roll your eyes at a novelist writing a novel about a novelist, rest assured that Crispin is pointedly nothing like Mitchell. Crispin is a former “Wild Child of British literature,” whose first novel was edgily titled Desiccated Embryos. (There’s a reference to Kingsley Amis on the first page of Crispin’s section, and Crispin has a novelist father who was a grand old man of British letters; I think we’re supposed to make of these associations what we will.) Crispin is a terrible man, a dull and vainglorious womanizer, whereas Mitchell seems (to this fanboy at least) sincerely humble, intellectually radiant, and solidly dedicated to his family.
Which makes it all the more striking when Mitchell speaks so transparently through Crispin’s voice. Again, compare this, a portion of a lecture Crispin gives on Auden, to what Mitchell told the Paris Review:
Writers don’t write in a void. We work in a physical space, a room, ideally in a house like [Halldór] Laxness’s Gljúfrasteinn [the home and workplace of the Icelandic Nobel Laureate], but also we write within an imaginative space. Amid boxes, crates, shelves and cabinets full of…junk, treasure, both cultural–nursery rhymes, mythologies, histories, what Tolkien called ‘the compost heap’; and also personal stuff–childhood TV, home-grown cosmologies, stories we hear first from our parents, or later from our children–and, crucially, maps. Mental maps. Maps with edges. And for Auden, for so many of us, it’s the edges of the maps that fascinate…
Forgive me a little digression, but there is something big going on on our planet. We’re the first generation in history for whom extinction is a problem to be solved. And this problem is so big, so all-encompassing, that not one of us can claim to live in the edge of its map.
It’s this sense of global citizenship, I think, which accounts for why The Bone Clocks marks such a change of attitude in Mitchell, a turn toward something grimmer. He’s always been drawn to elements of darkness, of course. Predacity–the animal way humans have of making prey out of each other–has been his primary theme throughout the five novels that came before this. And those novels, to be sure, are all full of monsters.
In The Bone Clocks, though, Mitchell explores a new theme: regret. Previously, if his characters had regrets, they were, for the most part, regrets about how the world had treated them, about the hand they’d been dealt: Eiji Miyake, for instance, the hero of Number9Dream, who sets off for Tokyo after the death of his beloved twin sister, to find the father they never knew; or Jacob de Zoet, the heartbreakingly persnickety clerk for the Dutch East Indies trading company, nursing a forbidden devotion to Christianity while living in the swamp of greed and brutality that was the late-colonial Pacific. (And Robert Frobisher in Cloud Atlas is not wholly to the contrary–Frobisher is so youthfully rakish, so self-absorbed and talented, that you can’t get too upset with him. He’s a charming, artistic kid hounded by money troubles largely of his own creation, and what millennial can’t sympathize with that?)
But in each of the five novellas leading up to and away from the book’s climax in “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” Mitchell’s primary characters suffer regret for their own actions. Holly Sykes begins as a lovestruck teenage girl who runs away from home, and isn’t there to stand in the way of the horrifying tragedy that befalls her family. Ed Brubeck is a journalist who goes where the story is (in this case, Iraq), but who knows that his story, as a partner and a father, demands that he stay home with his family to tell it. Crispin Hershey commits a terrible, life-altering prank against the critic who broadsided his “comeback” novel. And the second novella, “Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume,” brings back Hugo Lamb, the intensely charismatic (but secretly psychopathic) cousin of Black Swan Green’s Jason Taylor; he drives a friend and classmate to suicide over gambling debts.
The four characters followed in these five novellas (Holly Sykes narrates the first and last sections) suffer the consequences of their own moral failures–failures of lust and self-absorption, of ambition and envy and insecurity. Unlike the characters in earlier Mitchell novels, these people aren’t so much victims of the world as they are creators of their own little world of sorrows, which follows each of them around, reminding them how they went wrong.
This theme is partly why Mitchell made two of his choices in constructing this novel. One, he called it The Bone Clocks, and the reader quickly realizes that he means us, humans–regular-order, plain-Jane, non-immortal human beings; it’s a title meant to remind us that we’re all just stopwatches counting down to some unknowable, but inevitable, zero.
The second choice was to end this story in Ireland (where Mitchell lives with his family), in the year 2043. We are not finding so much in the current fiction any visions of the future that could be called “optimistic,” and The Bone Clocks is no different. It’s not a dystopia–not quite. But it’s a world where precious little civilization remains–and what does survive hangs by a frail and unraveling thread. A world that is, itself, one very big Bone Clock. There is a deep worry about this book; a sense of regret for a planet that may already have passed the point of redemption.
Even so, there is a moment in the very last pages–you will definitely know it when you get there–where Mitchell reaches right into your chest, puts his fingers on your heart, and presses down. The kind of moment you would choose to live inside for all eternity, if you had to pick just one. Our greatest storytellers can remind us that these moments are possible; and perhaps I’m naive, but I think the more we are reminded of this, the more likely it is that we will ultimately gather together and save our world, and ourselves, before the clock runs out.
In the summer of 2006, on a small stage in downtown Toronto, the Emperor Napoleon was facing off in a game of chess against the “Mechanical Turk.” It was 1809, continental Europe, and Malzel, who recently purchased the legendary chess-playing automaton, was transporting this curious contraption from town to town to square off against the dubious and the delighted.The automaton was an historical oddity – a contraption consisting of a carefully-constructed cabinet, out of which emerged the fabricated, human-like, upper-half of an exotically decked-out Ottoman chess master. It was a hoax, of course, the cabinet being designed in such a manner as to conceal an actual human – small in stature, but large in chess-playing talent. Magnets, a pantograph, and an elaborate, clockwork-like mechanism enabled the Turk’s hands and arms to grip and move chess pieces, eyes to roll, head to nod.The play, “Napoleon vs The Turk,” written by Tom Robertson and staged by Luke Davies as part of the 2006 Toronto Fringe Festival, was my introduction to this famous hoax.Robert Lohr’s engrossing debut novel, The Chess Machine, goes back a bit further, to 1770 and the workshop of the Turk’s actual inventor: Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Baron with connections in the court of Vienna. A work of historical fiction, The Chess Machine also introduces us to Jakob, a fictional character who Lohr imagines as Kempelen’s valuable assistant and cabinet-maker.Above all, though, The Chess Machine tells the fictional tale of Tibor, an Italian chess-playing dwarf, recruited by Kempelen to be part of the grand deception, to spend countless stifling hours inside the automaton, monitoring the opponents’ moves, and responding accordingly.In one wonderfully gripping episode, the dwarf, concealed in the automaton for an outdoor match and deprived of the candle that normally helps him see what he’s doing, is forced to move his chessmen simply by anticipating his opponent’s moves, by the sound and feel of the game being played above his head.Tibor is the heart and soul of the automaton, and also the story. Rescued from a Venetian prison by Kempelen, who knew of his talents and was searching for the missing piece to his scheme, Tibor reluctantly agrees to go with Kempelen back to his workshop is Pressburg (now Bratislava). He must remain hidden from public view, on occasion venturing out incognito with Jakob for a late-night prowl around town. The tale is a captivating one, full of dreams, schemes and spies, deception and murder, lusty, clandestine encounters with women of various levels of repute, a jealous inventor, an affronted nobleman, and at least one seriously insane sculptor.A glance, too, at audiences of the day, and their willingness to suspend disbelief. As Tibor inquires of his master: “Are they going to believe in this?” To which Kempelen responds “The world wants to be deceived. They’ll believe in it because they’ll want to believe in it.”
If I can’t believe in God, I do believe in fiction. Reading a novel is an act of devotion that will slowly, I hope, build an empathetic understanding of people and experience beyond my own. I can learn how it might feel to be a young woman recruited for MI5 in 1972, or why I might have murderous urges towards my spouse while living in a declining suburb in Missouri, or how it was to be Cromwell with a sunburn after a day of falconry with King Henry VIII. Organized religion may be one way to find an understanding of the world, but reading fiction is mine.
When I set out to read The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, a short novel about Mary the mother of Christ, it was the author’s interest in the subject that caught my attention. Tóibín’s mother characters often don’t do what you might expect. In Mothers and Sons, his collection of short stories from 2006, each story is about a mother and son relationship, but focuses on their distance whether it be physical or mental. A recurring theme in New Ways to Kill Your Mother, his book of essays about writers and their families, is how to define a life outside the confines of the family fold. “Mothers get in the way of fiction,” Tóibín said to The New York Times, “they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.” He is more interested in a person than their role in a family.
When you close your eyes and picture the Virgin Mary, what do you see? There are countless possibilities, a woman with a halo of light around her tilted head, a cloaked figure with tears of blood or a vaguely burnt apparition on a slice of toast. Your answer will depend on how you were raised, the galleries you have visited, or the books you have read. Regardless of how you’ve come across her, Mary is part of a story you’ve been told. She is a powerful symbol of motherhood. And she is not only a mother, but the mother of Christ. Your view on him will probably dictate what she means to you. In Tóibín’s hand, Mary is more than her role as a mother or a symbol. Instead, she becomes the most interesting of creatures: a credible human.
How does Tóibín see Mary? This is the story of a woman living out her last days in exile with the excruciating memory of watching the torture and crucifixion of her only son. To read this book is to see, move and feel through Mary. While her thoughts and feelings are elegantly, yet simply, laid out, the author purposefully avoids description. He has said that this is to allow the reader to enter the character’s spirit and mind, “It’s first-person intimate rather than first-person singular.” In his hand, Mary is no longer a symbol. She is not defined by her son, but has feelings and thoughts of her own.
The novel is shaped around Mary telling her story of the crucifixion to the writers of the gospel. They are working on the book that will become the Bible, but Mary’s story is not what they want to hear. They poke and prod for a different version. She won’t bend. Plagued by her remorse over her lack of action during the crucifixion, she thinks back to when her son was a child, “beautiful then and delicate and awash with needs” and tries to reconcile this memory with the powerful leader. She sees him carrying the cross to his own death. He is clubbed. A large spike is driven into the soft point in his wrist. As she watches, she becomes completely overwhelmed in knowing that her son is more defenseless than when he was a baby in her arms.
Mary does nothing to stop the crucifixion. Fearing the political persecution of her friends and family she stays back in the crowd. She does not identify herself as his mother, nor try to pull his body down. “I was there…you say that he redeemed the world,” she says of what she saw to the writers of the gospel. “It was not worth it.”
Tóibín’s masterstroke in The Testament of Mary is to give the reader a way to believe. People who take things on faith often don’t require proof, but a follower of fiction can be a slightly more awkward creature. In trying to gain an understanding of the world, a reader looks for fiction that feels true. Only the very best writers can navigate the choppy waters of a reader’s conviction and this is the point where writing becomes an art rather than a skill. A novel exists in the space of what we know and what we don’t. It defines the gap between what we think and how we feel.
Tóibín reinvents the story of Mary by opening up this gap. We know the Bible. In Tóibín’s telling, the writers of the gospel were attempting to tell a story about redemption. When they hear Mary’s version of the crucifixion, they discount it and go on to write about a resurrection instead. We feel a mother who has lost her son. Tóibín’s intimate approach makes Mary feel more credible and human than the other versions of her we’ve come across before, whether they be in a crèche, a church or on a piece of toast. To her, the crucifixion was a horrific tragedy and this intuitively feels right. No parent could see the torture and death of his or her child in any other way.
Tóibín has set himself a similar task to that of the writers of the gospel. He is retelling story that shapes how we see the world around us. He has fit his story in between what we know and how we feel. The result, The Testament of Mary, feels true. Or this is how someone who has faith in fiction might read the book. And I am a believer.
We don’t have to read much of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a measured and accessible polemic against (primarily English and American) contemporary culture, to realize that “Modernism” is perhaps not the best term for what he is describing. A reader looking for a neat history of early twentieth century literature, or an analysis of the usual Modernist suspects, will be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised. What we have instead is a richer, broader and more exciting book than is signaled by the title.
Josipovici’s book is not bound by time. To him, a literary form like the novel is inherently “modernist,” and from its origins it has always “pretended or pretended to pretend to be something else.” Cervantes knew that “the novel is precisely the form that emerges when genres no longer seem viable” and because of this, Josipovici argues, Don Quixote is a more cutting edge novel than, say, the latest Booker or Pulitzer prize-winner. This seems like a bold claim, but it is well argued. His analysis of Don Quixote does what the best criticism should: it produces an itch to read the chosen novel or poem.
Contrary to the more comfortable notion of progress through the ages, Josipovici’s argument states that since the sixteenth century, secularism and revolution have eroded authority and undermined tradition, so that the artist is left only with his or her imagination and individuality to fall back on. To our ears this may sound like a blessing — a liberation — but it is apparently a curse, and not just in Josipovici’s mind. Samuel Beckett is quoted as saying that art is reduced to “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Spontaneous creation is drained, the Muse is vanquished, and the soul is absent. Art now has everything to explain, just when the tools and the desire to do so have disappeared.
One doesn’t have to take on Beckett’s bleak philosophy entirely, but its kernel of truth remains. Josipovici presents the example of Hadyn and Beethoven; the former composed a hundred symphonies, yet Beethoven, “no less gifted, no less industrious… could only write nine.” Why is this? “The answer, quite simply, is that Hadyn didn’t feel he needed to start from scratch every time” [my italics]. This is important, and the central point of the book. How many authors do we read who really seem to start from scratch every time, to wrench the book from within, ignorant of the market, uninfluenced by the clichés of contemporary literature? Where we used to have the comfort of tradition and the “sacramental universe,” we now have the ephemeral trends of popular culture, which could also be defined as a devious evasion of the difficult questions with which Modernism has left us.
Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan — they are all avoiding the responsibility of their art, its functions and its implications. To Josipovici, novels are “machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world,” not reflective mirrors or objects designed for middlebrow comfort. To confront this idea and take it seriously is all that is needed to dramatically affect the art. Josipovici gives us many examples of artists who have realized precisely that: from Beethoven to Picasso, Duchamp to Kafka. He finds modernism in unexpected places: especially striking is his reading of Wordsworth, which sits alongside the more predictable, and marginally less interesting, readings of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Wordsworth helps us to get away from the “clichés that everywhere impede a proper understanding of modernism.”
To write a book about this subject at this particular time takes a certain amount of bravery. England is the inheritor of Larkin’s and Waugh’s cynicism in the face of what they saw as artistic pretension. America, while perhaps more comfortable with its experimental side, still contains a climate of literary confidence, rather than self-doubt; certainty and realist narrative, instead of ambiguity.
A long time ago Philip Roth said that there are around 60,000 serious readers in the United States. That is 60,000 who would buy a Philip Roth book, maybe, but realistically there are much fewer serious readers. The kind of readers who sit up late with Ulysses, or who consider Kierkegaard’s Either/Or to be beach reading. What’s more, of these readers I would guess that a significant percentage of them have a go at writing fiction or poetry. Even if they were all lucky enough to be published, a single popular novel would be enough to sap all the media attention away from them (even in the age of the internet, which, by the way, is conspicuously absent as a force in this book. I’m not complaining; it was actually a serene delight to read a new non-fiction book that did not pour on the dreaded “e” prefix remorselessly.) The fault is not with the authors, as such, but with the culture and the criticism surrounding them. It is this that Josipovici wants to change.
And it is a gargantuan task. If contemporary culture has taught us anything it’s that a worldwide web, a few dragging steps towards equality, and a more inclusive attitude in general have almost no impact on public taste. Most people just don’t care enough about the arts to do anything other than lie supine and wait to be entertained, and one wonders if this book can have any traction in a culture that resists elitism so stubbornly. And yet I can’t help but feel that this book is so alive because the world is turned the other way. Even with insurmountable resistance, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an inspiring, sometimes electrifying, call to arms; a serious book for serious readers.