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.
The plan is simple. Get on the train in Boston, just like all those other folks heading to work, except when they get off, keep going. And going and going and going until you can’t go any more. You’ll end up in Patagonia, at the far tip of South America. Such is the conceit of Paul Theroux’s 1979 book, The Old Patagonian ExpressThis, like many of Theroux’s books, is not a story of a place, but of all the places and people on the way to that place. The destination is of no consequence, merely a lodestar to set one’s bearings by and each layover, turn-off, and station platform bench is the reason to leave home. As Theroux himself puts it, in the opening chapter of Express,The convention is to telescope travel writing, to start – as so many novels do – in the middle of things, to beach the reader in a bizarre place without first having guided him there… My usual question, unanswered by these – by most – travel books, is, How did you get there? Even without the suggestion of a motive, a prologue is welcome, since the going is often as fascinating as the arrival. In Express, there is much to be fascinated by, thanks to the peculiarity of Latin American rail systems and Theroux’s desire to stick to his plan. Throughout the region, rail systems have been almost universally neglected. They are slow, old (he rides a steam train at one point), and out of the way (Theroux often notes how the stations are placed on the outskirts of towns rather than in the centers.) The interiors aren’t much better – heat, dust, insects, odors. Bouts with altitude sickness as he heads across the Andes only heighten the discomfort. More orthodox travelers take buses and planes, modes of transport that Theroux only stoops to when the rails are impassable thanks to jungle, landslide, or political strife. And so Theroux contrives to give us a book that is all prologue, all “going” and no arrival (or only a very small one, anyway).There is a very enjoyable tongue-in-cheek element to Theroux’s travel books, wherein he bemoans the dull and sometimes capricious people he encounters as well as the unpleasant traveling conditions and muses at how foolish he was to even think that such a quest was a good idea. These complaints are both sincere and immensely entertaining thanks to Theroux’s skill as a storyteller. For example, there is Theroux’s detour to Machu Picchu, when he has occasion to ruminate on the student traveler (and those masquerading as student travelers):There were advantages to being a student: student fares, student rates, student hostels, student entry fees. Great, hairy middle-aged buffoons complained at ticket counters and shouted “Look, I’m a student! Do me a favor! He doesn’t believe I’m a fucking student. Hey–” They were cut-priced tourists, idlers, vagabonds, freebooters who had gravitated to this impoverished place because they wanted to save money. Their conversation was predictable and was wholly concerned with prices, the exchange rate, the cheapest hotel, the cheapest bus, how someone (“Was he a gringo?”), got a meal for fifteen cents, or an alpaca sweater for a dollar and bunked with some Aymara Indians in a benighted village. They were Americans, but they were also Dutch, German, French, British, and Scandinavian; they spoke the same language, always money. Their boast was always how long they had managed to hang on here in the Peruvian Andes and beat the system.This is not to say that Theroux looks down upon these backpackers because of their thriftiness – he travels in much the same way they do – mostly just their insensitivity.Theroux’s many complaints, entertaining as they are, set us up for the moments when his trip is worthwhile. Unlike basic cable travel and food shows, on which the hosts coo with glee at every sight and taste, when Theroux is impressed by something, the reader knows it is impressive, and when he is pleased, one knows his experience is sublime. The highlight of the book, at least for this bibliophile, is his series of visits with Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires. Theroux reads to the blind Borges almost nightly for a stretch, and mischievous Borges takes Theroux to dinner at the local restaurant. Theroux’s peek into Borges’ life and mannerisms is fascinating, and the episode epitomizes the the best elements of travel, when surprise encounters can lead to friendship. Similarly rewarding are the friendships Theroux makes with many other less well known locals throughout the two Americas. So too are the simple moments of exhilaration, when Theroux has disembarked from a rickety train in a place that is new and closer to his ultimate goal. In these moments, all the painful, stuffy, dusty rides are worth it. And home, however far away, isn’t missed quite so much.See Also: Andrew’s Travel Writing by Train and Mrs. Millions’ thoughts on the book.
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.I recently bought Aleksandar Hemon’s latest book, The Lazarus Project, on a whim. Always a sucker for fiction with photographs I had not heard of the book, Hemon’s name a vague item on a mental list of contemporary authors I’ve been told to read. The jacket copy raves about Hemon’s ability to invigorate the English language, his second language, telling the two stories that comprise the novel.The book’s title makes itself an obvious choice as the two parallel narratives unfold: one shadows Vladimir Brik, an expatriated Bosnian living in Chicago under the pall of the war on terror; the other makes fiction of a historical event, the 1908 killing of Jewish immigrant Lazarus Averbuch by the Chicago chief of police. Both stories concern themselves with returns that unlike the title’s biblical namesake cannot be resurrected.We meet Brik at a Chicago celebration of Bosnia’s Independence Day where he unexpectedly reunites with his old friend from Sarajevo, Rora, who unlike Brik suffered through the Bosnian War. Married to an American neurosurgeon, writing a newspaper column about expatriate experiences and working on a novel, the American life Brik has built for himself since his 1992 arrival in Chicago is one of a self-inflicted, guilty complacency. Rora, a photographer, shares a worldview more aligned with a resignation to struggle indicative of something that not even America’s abundance can slake: “a poor people’s affliction: the timeless feeling that plenty never means enough.”Brik receives a grant so he can travel to Eastern Europe to research his novel about Lazarus Averbuch, planning to retrace the immigrant’s path to America, which is signposted by pogroms and refugee camps. Brik decides to bring Rora along, and the journey becomes a homecoming of sorts. What both narratives share in common is the fact that home is not a place one can always return to, or find it easy to create elsewhere.Using newspaper clippings and imagination, Hemon’s examination of the circumstances resulting in the death of Lazarus focuses on Olga, the only person in Chicago that really knew her brother. Speculation about anarchist leanings and the persistent bigotry that neither Olga nor her brother could escape cloud the actuality of what really happened to Lazarus, the police and the press favoring their assumptions over the facts.It is here at this intersection of history and imagination where the two stories weave in and out of one another. For Olga, as news of her brother’s slaying evolves into an issue of great civic import, she has no way of knowing what really happened to her brother, and therefore cannot fathom how to break the news to their mother, who is still in Europe. The lack of any objective clarity about Lazarus inspires speculations about the man he had become, the friends he made, the meetings he attended, as contrasted with her memories of their happy pre-pogrom upbringing. On a grander scale, this inability to connect the dots, or even discern them, speaks to the development of the American experiment during the early 20th century, something that was in full swing but nearly impossible to decipher.For Brik, his imaginative indulgences not only make stark the rift between history and imagination, but also reveal his solipsistic selfishness. The ostensible reason for this trip is to learn about the past, the personal history that delivered Lazarus to his demise. But before Brik and Rora leave, intimations are made that for Brik, it is only about him. Rora’s presence is not so much about companionship but to serve as a foil for Brik to absolve his guilt about not staying in Sarajevo.Discovering Lazarus Averbuch’s past becomes a secondary activity as Brik and Rora shuttle through the Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Bosnia. As Rora does little more than drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and snap photographs, Brik is either considering his marriage or needling Rora about the sordid details of wartime life. Both lines of questioning reveal the inadequacies Brik sees in himself, though it doesn’t seem that anyone else sees them in him.The photographs in the book – a mix of images shot by Velibor Bozovic and culled from the Chicago Historical Society – separate the chapters, which trade back and forth between the two narratives. The photographs do correspond with the two plots, but they also insinuate vagueness. Rora and the photographs he takes serve in the same capacity within the context of the book. Photographs rely on the imagination of the viewer. Whatever photographers see in a scene they shoot, whatever they do or do not capture, they are present at the moment of the photograph, but the viewer is not.Before Brik and Rora depart, Brik reminisces about his pre-American life: “The one thing I remembered and missed from the before-the-war Sarajevo was a kind of unspoken belief that everyone could be whatever they claimed they were – each life, however imaginary, could be validated by its rightful, sovereign owner, from the inside.”This internal validation defines Brik and his quixotic quest. His endless string of questions for Rora (which for most of the book Rora deflects with jokes) finally results in Rora calling out his travel companion: “Even if you knew what you want to know, you would still know nothing. You ask questions, you want to know more, but no matter how much more I tell you, you will never know anything.”After a booze-fueled argument with his wife, Brik is locked out of their home, leaving him to wander. Having nowhere to go gets him thinking about “home.” Without home, everywhere is nowhere. Later, he defines home as a place where people miss you when you are gone. But, where Brik wants to be missed is a place where no one knows him.In The Lazarus Project, birthmarks rhyme with eye color; sparking bottles overflowing from a dumpster elicit pleasure; twiggy arms emerge from sleeves like tongues; Jesus is either “Mr. Christ” or a “nailed gymnast;” sunflowers are coy, despair “brick-thick.” The lively writing makes for a vivid read that casts a glaring light on the horrors of pogroms and the Bosnian War and what was left in their wakes. Some of the book’s most intriguing ideas are not followed through, however, because of Brik’s single-mindedness, which eclipses the Lazarus Averbuch story, leaving us with a character who cares only about himself.
We live in a performative age. This is an era when restaurants have had to adopt formal camera policies, because so many diners persist in taking pictures of their meals on their iPhones to post online. On any given day, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with self-portraits: This is my new haircut. This is my new shirt. This is the face I make when I wish to convey that I am wry and self-aware, and this is my confident, I-can-take-on-the-world grin. Or details of lives, broadcast to the world: This is my dinner. This is my cat. This is how I feel at this moment. Look, I made a pie! Etc. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players,” but it seems to me that only the first half of this statement remains true. The conventions of social media encourage us to see ourselves not as players in a larger drama, per se, but as the stars of our own individual reality shows.
There are moments when I love social media. There are other moments, actually a lot of moments, when I question how much of my finite life I want to spend on the Internet. In the plus column, I’ve met some wonderful people via social media, including a few who I’d count among my dearest friends. It’s an easy way to keep in touch with my siblings, who are as phone shy as I am and live 3,000 miles away. There are people who use social media in interesting ways. The conversations are occasionally good.
But I’ve been a sporadic and somewhat ambivalent participant of late. Long periods of time go by when I post almost nothing of my own and only respond to other people’s updates, because what it comes down to, I think, is that either you have an instinct for broadcasting your life on the Internet, or you don’t. It’s not that I find my life uninteresting, it’s just that I’m not at all sure why anyone else would be interested, aside from my mom. I keep a sporadic diary, because I want to remember my life, but I have a hard time imagining why I’d want to display that life for public consumption. I deeply value my privacy.
Mary MacLane, on the other hand, would have been a natural. Mary MacLane’s enthusiasm for broadcasting her life to the world was unparalleled in her time. Her staggeringly self-obsessed first book, I Await The Devil’s Coming, was published in 1902, and, as I read it, I found myself thinking that this was a woman who was temperamentally perfectly suited to the social media age. And then, a week later, I read Emily Gould’s excellent introduction to Melville House’s new e-book edition of I, Mary MacLane, the book that followed a few years later, and Gould said more or less the same thing. So much for my original insight.
But in any case, these are the facts: Mary MacLane’s main interest was herself, she found it necessary to exhaustively explore her own personality, and it wasn’t enough to write to herself in the pages of a diary. She required an audience. The audience, it turns out, was waiting for her. I Await The Devil’s Coming, originally published under the more sedate title The Story of Mary MacLane, sold 100,000 copies in its first month.
I Await The Devil’s Coming is a peculiar and fascinating piece of work. At the time of writing, Mary MacLane was an intellectually frustrated, profoundly restless 19 year old living a middle-class life with her family in Butte, Montana. Little was expected of her. The days passed slowly. High school was finished, and college didn’t seem to be part of anyone’s plan. She did a little light sewing, she wrote in her notebook, she read, she went on long walks. She was unbearably lonely.
She seems to have been unable to relate to anyone in her family, or even in Butte, and felt like a foreigner among them. She alludes to a miserable, loveless childhood. She has one friend and one friend only, referred to throughout as the Anemone Lady. She is in love with the Anemone Lady, but the Anemone Lady has left town. “My life,” MacLane wrote, “is a desert — a desert, but the thin, clinging perfume of the blue anemone reaches to its utter confines. And nothing in the desert is the same because of that perfume. Years will not fade the blue of the anemone, nor a thousand bitter winds blow away the rare fragrance.”
The Anemone Lady, she wrote, offered her the first and only glimpse of love she’d experienced in her life. She fantasized about meeting and marrying the Devil, although it isn’t entirely clear to me whether she actually believed the Devil exists, or if this was more of a vague desire to be rescued combined with an instinct for shock value. Regardless, the overall impression is of a young woman driven half-mad by loneliness and boredom. “My life lies fallow,” she wrote. “I am tired of sitting here.” MacLane called this book “the record of three months of Nothingness.”
Those three months are very much like the three months that preceded them, to be sure, and the three that followed them — and like all the months that have come and gone with me, since time was. There is never anything different; nothing ever happens.
In that nothingness, she wandered the plains outside Butte, and her descriptions of that spare landscape contain some of the most beautiful language in the book. When she could focus on subjects other than herself, she was capable of sublime prose.
It was rare, though, for her to focus on subjects other than herself. Mary MacLane’s primary interest was Mary MacLane. But she was extremely self-aware, and there are moments when she seems to recognize the corrosive potential of her self-absorption: “If I were not so unceasingly engrossed with my sense of misery and loneliness,” she wrote, “my mind would produce beautiful, wonderful logic. I am a genius — a genius — a genius.” It’s a startlingly candid admission: If I weren’t so engrossed with myself, I could accomplish greater things.
It’s a slippery thing, genius. The above quote isn’t an anomaly. In I Await The Devil’s Coming, MacLane informs us that she’s a genius again and again, until the question becomes unavoidable: okay, sure, but a genius at what? MacLane was a good but not transcendently gifted writer. (There’s something underdeveloped about her writing. There are glimpses, here and there, of what she might have been capable of if she’d been more interested in writing about subjects other than herself; if perhaps she’d lived a little longer, if some editor had perhaps taken an interest and redirected her talents; if she hadn’t been quite so cripplingly self-obsessed.) Her genius didn’t lie in any other obviously identifiable fields: she wasn’t developing new mathematical theorums, composing symphonies, or elucidating groundbreaking philosophical ideas. She was prone to curious leaps of logic: “A genius who does not know that he is a genius is no genius,” she wrote.
Just after I read I Await The Devil’s Coming, I read Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford’s exquisite biography of the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. There are certain similarities between the two women. They were more or less contemporaries — MacLane was born in 1881, Millay in 1892 — and neither had much interest in living within the constraints of societal convention. At 18 and 19, Millay, too, was writing about an imaginary consort in the pages of her diary, and living a life shot through with desperation in Camden, Maine: “Sweep the floor,” Millay wrote at 19, “and sweep it again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the day after that and every day of your life; — if not that floor, why then — some other floor.” This is MacLane’s territory, these endless interchangeable days, this narrow life.
Both Millay and MacLane were sprung into new lives by works written at 19. Millay wrote a magnificent long poem, “Renascence,” that propelled her to Vassar and then a new life in New York, while the wild success of I Await The Devil’s Coming gained MacLane the fame she craved and enough money to escape Butte. Both women were bisexual, took many lovers, passed through Greenwich Village a few years apart, and lived bold and unconventional lives.
It’s important to note that MacLane made no claim to literary genius, but reading Savage Beauty and I Await The Devil’s Coming back to back throws one of the difficulties of MacLane’s work into sharp relief: one can’t help but notice that while MacLane was busy declaring herself a genius, certain other people were busy actually being geniuses without spending too much time announcing it.
But as the nature of MacLane’s “genius” is gradually revealed, there’s something deeply poignant about it. MacLane was excruciatingly sensitive. “I am not good,” she wrote. “I am not virtuous. I am not sympathetic. I am not generous. I am merely and above all a creature of intense passionate feeling. I feel — everything. It is my genius. It burns me like fire.”
That year, she stood watching the sunset in the landscape outside Butte and let her mind wander to a daydream of standing by the sea: “I stood on the shore and looked at the rocks. My heart contracted with the pain that beautiful things bring.” Against the beauty and pain and loneliness of her life, of the world, she had no armor. She barely had skin.
She was driven by a fervent longing. She wrote, “My wailing, waiting soul burns with but one desire: to be loved — oh, to be loved.”
MacLane was condemned and widely mocked for her immodesty, her self-stated lack of morals, and her open self-absorption, but I Await The Devil’s Coming turned her into an overnight sensation. It turned out there was a vast audience waiting for confessional writing, before confessional writing existed.
MacLane specifically wanted fame. She longed to be seen. As Emily Gould notes, she would have been a Tumblr and YouTube star. I’ll take this a step further and suggest that MacLane was someone who might have benefited immensely from the existence of the Internet, a person who might have been shaped, for the better, by the exposure to a wider world that the Internet can provide to isolated people. MacLane was cursed with a certain narrowness of imagination: she could summon up an imaginary Devil in perfect detail — the look in his eye, his tone of voice, the cut of his suit — but at 19 she couldn’t conceive that in all of this vast world, very little of which she’d actually seen, there could possibly be anyone remotely like her.
In a 1986 article about confessional writing in The New York Times, Patricia Hampl made reference to MacLane’s “repellent self-absorption.” I find myself repelled too, but also I am fascinated. MacLane was an original. I Await The Devil’s Coming is frequently irritating, but it’s also audacious. This was an era when women were expected to be modest to the point of invisibility, to all but disappear into the wallpaper, and MacLane refused. The new Melville House edition of her first book has gained considerable traction, including a recent long excerpt on The New Yorker website. I find myself wondering if what seemed repellently self-involved when Hampl wrote that article in 1986 seems merely mildly eccentric in the social media age. We expect self-involvement in the social media age; we are, after all, publishing photographs of what we had for breakfast. The only eccentricity is in openly declaring one’s own genius.
“But I would give up this genius eagerly,” MacLane wrote, “gladly — at once and forever — for one dear, bright day free from loneliness.”
Our household is in the middle of a paradigm shift—new city, new occupations. The timing of this transition worked so that I should have had approximately one month to do nothing but read novels, eat sardines on toast, and fan myself. Predictably, various things popped up. Having repressed the memories of past moves, I had forgotten that moving is never a two-day affair, but rather a weeks-long nightmare represented by a massive Venn diagram showing the things you need to do and the things you did, the middle part of which is very small. Add to these obligations the things that invariably happen when one has some free time (getting rashes, waiting for the bus, vacuuming the underside of rugs, panicking about money, breaking things that turn out to be important, misunderstanding the labels on cleaning products, accidentally working, having houseguests), and I realize that I do not actually have anything like the time I thought I had.
That’s life and I’m not complaining. I tell you all this so you will understand the circumstances in which I read David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I had half-open boxes all about me, a room full of upside-down rugs, two sneezing cats, and lots and lots to do. But I was yearning to read this book, so I left the apartment wild-eyed, dust-streaked, and sweat-soaked, and handed over a shocking twenty-eight dollars. Then I marched home with my long-anticipated booty, sat down amid boxes, and read until night. In the morning I woke up, put on my dirty clothes, and read until it was finished. And then I cried, and picked up my vacuum and went to work feeling sort of elevated and melancholy for the rest of the day.
It’s hard to imagine a better reading experience.
I read Wyatt Mason’s profile of David Mitchell in the New York Times, in which the journalist catalogued the bewildering list of authors to whom Mitchell has been compared. Basically, it’s a litany of the canonical writers, and it’s absurd. Mitchell is a phenomenal writer and a master mimic when he wants to be, and comparisons are the bread and butter of readers and reviewers. I think, though, that throwing out names like Nabokov, Melville, Twain, Sterne, Joyce, Tolstoy, shows a poverty of something, effort, maybe, though I don’t wish to impugn the various august readers who have weighed in on Mitchell’s work. But it’s hard for me not to imagine a reviewer in a nightcap with a hot cocoa and a Mitchell novel. He wiggles his toes at the pleasure of good fiction and thinks to himself, “This is a wow. You know who else was a wow?” I’m saying I think many of the comparisons have to do with the relative enthusiasm of the reader, rather than similarities in the authors’ respective styles. Because Mitchell is not like any of those writers, who are not like one another, except in that they are all artists, and much beloved.
At any rate, in this new work, Mitchell owes much to film and television. I am not the only reviewer to note (cf. James Wood) that this novel is highly cinematic. For one, it takes place (jarringly, I thought, until I got used to it) in the present tense, like a screenplay. Some scenes end almost with an audible “Dum dum dum . . . ” timpany flourish. Some scenes are pure visual slapstick. The gross scenes are excruciatingly gross, the kind where everyone in the theater groans. The first scene in which the titular De Zoet makes an appearance (Chapter 2, the trial of the waggish Snitker) is so camera-ready I pictured Russell Crowe in his Master and Commander outfit, or Leonardo DiCaprio reprising his accent from Blood Diamond.
Lest you think I bring up screen hunks to mitigate the power and style of Mitchell’s novel, I should say that this cinematic quality is one of the things I so enjoyed about the book, and why, I think, I read the thing almost in one sitting. You don’t watch a movie over days and days, no matter how long. Obviously books, like movies, can be absolutely vivid and transporting, but it’s rare to find a transporting book that doesn’t manage to embarrass you at some point with its prose. It’s rare also to find one that creates so much so well within a largely unplumbed historical context.
The historical context here is the closed Japanese Empire, circa 1799, specifically, a Dutch trading post off of Nagasaki, and the novel addresses the fortunes of the men and woman thereon and around. The novel is about a lot of things—love, of course, and trade, and medicine, and language, and religion, and country, and lost children. I didn’t realize until I finished the book, but there are so, so many lost children. I don’t wish to exhaust you with my rendering of the novel’s plot, which has been rendered elsewhere, better. It’s a lot of great storytelling, is what it is, set in a moment I imagine few people know much about.
In addition to enjoying his prodigious stylistic gifts, I find David Mitchell’s novels refreshing because they are in their way morally unambiguous. It’s usually not clear right away who the good guys are, and there are lots of bad guys disguised as good ones and good guys doing bad deeds. Nonetheless, Right and Wrong are things in Mitchell’s universe(s), and his work seems to have a lot invested in righting wrongs. I’ve read all of his novels but one (Number9Dream), and in each I have been surprised and touched by the author’s care for people.
This novel is no different; by the end, you know just who to root for. I don’t look for morality in my books, but it’s nice to read something outside of the young adult section that reminds us, just to be on the safe side, what’s what. It’s kind of retro, actually, considering the decades of post-war literature that told us there isn’t right or wrong, just our own confused, fucked-up feelings (man). Maybe I’m the victim of some haute post-modern joke, but Mitchell seems very earnest to me. To throw my own potentially bizarre comparison into the mix, David Mitchell is a little bit like Lois Lowry (The Giver, Number the Stars), writ large and writ for grownups.
Despite that fact that I’ve basically (I realize now) presented The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as a made-for-TV movie for a juvenile audience (starring Russell Crowe), I loved this book. It’s the best thing I read on what was supposed to be my summer vacation. If you have free time or can fashion some, you should read it too.