“Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once, and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”
—Susan Sontag, quoting “an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy,” but part of which (i.e., the first half) is often attributed to John Archibald Wheeler (who “admitted to having found it scrawled in a Texas men’s room”), Woody Allen, and Albert Einstein, but which actually appeared before all of these figures were supposed to have said or written it in a novel by Ray Cummings from 1922 called The Girl in the Golden Atom and is spoken by a character named Big Business Man, so I guess one can only really credit Sontag (or, I suppose, the “old riff” to which she refers) with the part about space (which, admittedly, is a totally brilliant and enriching addendum; really makes the phrase, don’t you think?), and if you think this quote attribution is convoluted and confusing well then hold onto your hats, there, buddy, because shit’s about to get real weird
Tom Robbins, in his 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, abruptly interrupts the narrative and briefly expounds on the nature of time in literature. “Even though we agree that time is relative,” he writes, “that most subjective notions of it are inaccurate just as most objective expressions of it are arbitrary…even so, we have come to expect, for better or worse, some sort of chronological order in the books we read, for it is the function of literature to provide what life has not.” He has interjected, he explains, to inform the reader of some reordering of certain events — i.e., that the events of Parts I and II occurred after the events currently being described in Part III. “The author apologizes” for any confusion but “does not, however, disavow the impulses that lead to his presentation…nor does he, in repentance, embrace the notion that literature should mirror reality.” Moreover, he continues:
A book no more contains reality than a clock contains time. A book may measure so-called reality as a clock measures so-called time; a book may create an illusion of reality as a clock creates an illusion of time; a book may be real, just as a clock is real (both more real, perhaps, than those ideas to which they allude); but let’s not kid ourselves — all a clock contains is wheels and springs and all a book contains is sentences.
This passage — one of my very favorites — drifted into my mind (a psychological phenomenon referred to, I now know, as “involuntary mental time travel”) as I read through James Gleick’s fascinating new book Time Travel: A History, as Robbins’s quote seems to have anticipated (or, maybe, pre-emptively challenged) just such a work. What could any book, a mere vessel of subjective interpretation, tell us about time, an invisible system of measuring change? I suspected that by the end I’d either feel tricked or confounded.
It turns out that I felt neither deceived nor confused — or, rather, I did feel those things, but about the subject and not the book. Gleick’s hybrid of history, literary criticism, theoretical physics, and philosophical meditation is itself a time-jumping, head-tripping odyssey, and it works so well. Even though Gleick can elucidate complex ideas into accessible language, he’s even better at explicating notions that remain perplexing. That is, he’s good at explaining paradoxes — itself a sort of paradoxical phrase, paradoxes supposedly being logical contradictions that defy common sense and are thus difficult — if not impossible — to comprehend. But a subject like time travel, as we savvy citizens of the 21st century well know by now, is rife with paradox, and any account of its history must not only engage with those incongruities but transcend them in some powerful way. There has to be, in other words, more insight than one would find in a given episode of Doctor Who.
That’s not to say that elements of popular culture are out of the time-travel historian’s reach (Doctor Who, for instance, is fruitfully used by Gleick in Time Travel), but rather that such an enterprise’s primary subject must only ostensibly be time travel but that it’s truly about why we’re so interested in the subject and what that means about who we are. The infinite intricacies of moving forward or backward in time have been so thoroughly dissected by popular culture that, quite amazingly, these meta-cognitive and entirely theoretical ideas have become clichés. In her fun and insightful new book Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies, Hadley Freeman notes a plot hole in 1985’s Back to the Future: “But complaining about credibility issues in a movie about time travel is surely the definition of carping.” And to think that humanity, as a species, didn’t even consider the concept of time travel until a little more than 100 years ago, and already such innovative and cerebral ideas have grown so banal they’re barely worthy of comment. It is amazing what human beings can become bored with.
Gleick is particularly suited to the task of writing a history of time travel. His previous books include Genius, a rich biography of physics bad-boy Richard Feynman; The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, which traces the origins of the information age; and Chaos: Making a New Science, a work that tackles chaos theory and that made “the Butterfly Effect” a common term. Gleick was also the founder, with Uday Ivatury, of The Pipeline in 1993, one of the earliest Internet service providers. Time travel, for such a writer, must be almost bromidic. And to be sure, there is a slight trace of disdain in Gleick for his subject here, almost as if he’s getting annoyed having to explicate ideas he knows are hogwash — e.g., his takedown of “time capsules,” which he refers to as “a special kind of foolishness,” — or having the irksome duty of assembling such declarations as, “In point of fact, time is not a river.”
But by the end of the book I too developed a frustration with the myriad arguments surrounding time — not at any of the arguers but of the flimsiness of my hold on it as a subject of speculation. Every time I felt I had a grasp on a particular way of thinking about time, some new theory threw my understanding out the window. For example, Gleick begins his history with the creator of time travel, H.G. Wells, and his monumental work of science fiction of 1895, The Time Machine. In its early pages, the protagonist, the Time Traveller, Socratically explains the basics of his invention with some skeptical (and similarly ersatz) characters:
‘You know of course [said the Time Traveller] that a mathematical line, a line of thickness nil, has no real existence. They taught you that? Neither has a mathematical plane. These things are mere abstractions.’
‘That is all right,’ said the Psychologist.
‘Nor, having only length, breadth, and thickness, can a cube have a real existence.’
‘There I object,’ said Filby. ‘Of course a solid body may exist. All real things-‘
‘So most people think. But wait a moment. Can an instantaneous cube exist?’
‘Don’t follow you,’ said Filby.
‘Can a cube that does not last for any time at all, have a real existence?’
Filby became pensive. ‘Clearly,’ the Time Traveller proceeded, ‘any real body must have extension in four dimensions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and — Duration.”
Gleick calls Filby a “poor sap” for putting up such a “feeble resistance” to the Time Traveller’s points, but for me such a basic explanation was revelatory — to consider duration as a necessary component to existence seems not only true but rather obvious once you’ve learned it.
But it quickly becomes clear that the validity of time as the “fourth dimension” wasn’t going to last too long in the rapid development of subsequent time travel theorems and the physics and quantum mechanics that eventually joined the party. Just as my brain congratulated itself for its keen comprehension, it was thrown for a new loop. Not that this is Gleick’s fault, of course — the very subject of time travel invites headaches if pondered longer than a few minutes, and Gleick’s book totals 336 pages of mind-bending conundra: some mental pain is inevitable, both for author and reader.
Gleick, though, through his years of scientific authorship, has become an artful writer who clearly has a deep love for literature, consequently employing fictional techniques in his nonfiction work. He repeatedly opens sections with the mise-en-scène of novels or TV show episodes that feature time travel, as in this description of the opening of La Jetée, a film by Chris Marker from 1962 that is made up of only still images, and which was the inspiration for the 1995 Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys:
We begin again. A woman stands at the end of “pier” — the open-air observation platform at Orly Airport (la grande jetée D’Orly), over-looking a sea of concrete on which the great metal jetliners rest, pointed like arrows toward the future. The sun is pale in a charcoal sky. We hear shrill jet blasts, a ghostly choir, murmuring voices.
There is a ton of rhetorical work going on here, the kind usually associated with fictional narratives, from the thematic reference of the jets “pointed like arrows toward the future” to the asyndeton in the final sentence. Or consider Time Travel’s opening sentence, introducing Wells’s Time Traveller: “A man stands at the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods — a squat, ugly contraption, somehow out of focus, not easy for the poor reader to visualize, despite the listing of parts and materials.” Notice how subtly Gleick takes us from literal description (“A man stands…”) to metaphorical commentary (the 19th century as “a drafty corridor”) to literary criticism (“…the poor reader…”) to cluing us into the fact that he’s talking about a novel (“despite the listing of parts…”). Gleick may have a little of the frustrated novelist in him, but he’s certainly learned well how to exercise (and exorcise) that frustration advantageously. Time Travel is as elegant and eloquent as it is edifying.
This love of literature manifests in other ways in the book, too, also beneficially. Though Gleick runs the gambit of physicists and philosophers and theorists (from St. Augustine to Stephen Hawking), he’s most fruitful and fun and alive as a writer when he dissects novels and films and television — which is more than fitting considering that time travel itself was the invention of a fiction writer; Gleick, by featuring more fiction than theory, as it were, is merely staying in the tradition that originated the notion. For instructive tools, Gleick takes the reader through, e.g., Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and William Gibson’s The Peripheral and, most interestingly, E.M. Forster’s bleak and just fucking weird novella The Machine Stops. But perhaps my favorite is that episode of Doctor Who Gleick discusses (which I at first wanted to summarize here to grapple with a bit but which proved way too elaborate to do in anything fewer than like seven or eight sentences, and this is already getting too long as it is). Part of the fun of these sections is the various ways Gleick uses them to demonstrate certain abstractions or murky concepts, but what really makes them sing is how richly palpable Gleick’s love for sci-fi is — for its inventiveness, yes, but more so for its playfulness, the way it can positively relish the paradoxes and the moral dilemmas and the general confusion of it all. (Best example: Robert Heinlein’s short story “By Your Bootstraps.”)
And his love is particularly noticeable when set against his growing irritation at now commonly accepted views of time — most of which he so obviously disagrees with. “Timelessness, eternity, the four-dimensional spacetime loaf,” he concludes, “These are the illusions.” Time, for Gleick, no matter how skillful the rhetoric or how tempting the logic, simply cannot be denied its reality (or at least our illusion of its reality), because of how completely it situates our experiences of everyday life. It is, rather, space that is the illusion.
By the end I found I concurred with Gleick about time’s irrepressible existence, which might have warranted more examination of our psychological perception of time, as in Claudia Hammond’s 2013 engaging work Time Warped, which mostly ignores those dusty arguments over whether or not time exists and instead focuses on the way we experience it as a phenomenon. She notes, for instance, that as humans we’re not only organized by time but also exceptionally skilled at it (though, Hammond notes, citing Jean Piaget, the “father of developmental psychology,” that as children, we “find it hard to distinguish between size as it relates to time and size as it relates to space”). Hammond shows how time affects more aspects of our lives than we might assume, like conversations:
To produce and understand speech, we rely on critical timings of less than a tenth of a second. The difference between the sound of a ‘pa’ and a ‘ba’ is all in the timing of the delay before the subsequent vowel, so if the delay is longer you hear a ‘p,’ if it’s short you hear a ‘b.’ If you put your hand on your vocal cords you can even feel that with the ‘ba’ your lips open at the same time as you feel your cords start to vibrate. With the ‘pa’ the vibrations starts a moment earlier. This relies on timing accurate to the millisecond.
If the abstract debates over time are inadequate at worst and irrelevant at best, then shouldn’t these be the kinds of ideas we focus on? If time (and not space) is fundamental to nature, and we’re stuck with its effects no matter how much of an illusion we “prove” it to be, then our clever excursions through the epochs in science fiction might not be the most productive use of our intellectual attention.
But what the hell do I know? With each thought regarding all these pitfall-ridden concepts, I second-guess myself, and I begin to relate to Tom Robbins’s meditation in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. After his apology for mucking up the chronology and noting that books don’t actually reflect reality, he adds that he’s got a repertoire of sentences at his disposal, to do with what he wishes. “This sentence is made of yak wool,” he writes, while another sentence “has a crush on Norman Mailer.” “This sentence went to Woodstock” goes another, and “this little sentence went wee wee all the way home.” It’s a fun bit, but the one I really relate to is the final one: “This sentence is rather confounded by the whole damn thing.”
In part one of this two-part series, Meaghan O’Connell and I discussed our experience reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. At that point, we were a couple of hundred pages into the novel. Now we are back to continue that conversation, and to illuminate for our audience just what it means to read (or not read) a classic in 2016…and to no doubt embarrass ourselves further in the name of honesty, entertainment, and, of course, literature.
Edan Lepucki: I’m 80 pages from finishing David Copperfield…and I’ve given up. I just can’t do it anymore. The endless scenes with characters’ verbal tics on full display; the moralizing about the beauty of a woman’s purity; Mr. Micawber’s debts and heart; Uriah Heep’s writhing. I just can’t. I am so bored! I found that I was barely reading and when I stop reading my life takes on a sad, lifeless tone, like my hair before I get my blonde highlights. My former English professor, the brilliant David Walker, wondered on Twitter why we didn’t try Our Mutual Friend or Bleak House. Why didn’t we? I guess I wanted a comic novel, a famous crowd pleaser. But I am far from pleased.
Where are you in the novel? Are you compelled to continue?
I am left with a few thoughts from this project. The first one being, what does “Dickensian” mean? Want to take a stab at defining that, based on what you’ve read of Davy C.?
Meaghan O’Connell: Oh, Edan. When I got this email from you I cheered out loud. I still have 200 pages to go and I can barely remember what it’s like to truly love a book. I am so behind and the book is starting to feel endless. Every night I tell myself, “Okay, go to bed early. Read for an hour or more.” Then I get in bed, read two pages, and fall asleep at 9 pm or whatever it is.
I am still a little invested, mostly in D.C.’s romantic prospects, but I, too, would prefer to never read the name Uriah Heep again. I think I want to finish it, but I need to bring a few more books into the rotation, save it for when I am in a certain mood, I guess the mood to be somewhat tediously entertained?
IT’S SO LONG.
I wanted to read David Copperfield because supposedly it is the author’s favorite, and based largely/vaguely on his own life. And the book does make me curious about Dickens himself, or at least the narrator. Like, hi, D.C., please, step forward, talk to me in like 200 pages instead of 860. Maybe tell a different story altogether? Great Expectations perhaps? I probably should have just re-read that. I love reading things I read when I was younger and understanding things that passed by me then.
Dickensian. I think in casual conversation people mean it to be “about poor people”? Things that are bleak. I picture a small boy with soot on his cheeks, begging for bread, maybe a starving cat in the background. It’s all very grey. There are waistcoats, which it turns out are simply VESTS, and they are threadbare. I think this is based almost entirely on Oliver Twist?
Having read 70 percent of the book I would say that I guess that isn’t totally off, but if you said a book was Dickensian, well, for one, I would not want to read it, at least not for a long time. I would imagine it to be bloated but funny, obsessed with class, tragicomic? An orphan? A lot of failed romance but probably some sort of happy ending (I may never know the end of this, but he does reference his future children at some point — which was weird!)
It’s been strange to read a book I just like okay, to be missing that big propulsive drive in my life. This book is not really making me think about anything? It’s not inspiring, or not in any way that is conscious. I guess I am inspired that Dickens took up so much damned space. Mostly it’s felt, much as it did the last time I read his work, like homework. I need a breath of fresh air! I have no urge to write lately and I never thought I’d say this/provoke lovers of Victorian literature in this way, but I blame Charles Dickens.
Have you really abandoned poor Davey? (Edan, you know he probably has abandonment issues!!) Are you on to other books? What’s it like on the other side?! I’m really left feeling like, God, maybe I should just watch a BBC version of this book and see if he ends up marrying Agnes after all. I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is not a scholar of some kind, which seems like a pretty brazen pronouncement, but, you know what, I stand by it. Do not read this book!! Life is short.
Edan: What’s amazing to me is how many people, when I told them I was reading David Copperfield, said that they had read and loved the book when they were younger. This is startling to me because, while Dickens isn’t difficult on the sentence level, there are still quite a few cultural and era-specific references that were unclear to me, as a worldly adult. (For instance, all the stuff around Copperfield’s career, before he starts writing for money, confused me.) And the intense moralizing about young women made me worried about all the women who read this as kids. Don’t run off with the hot asshole, little girls, or you will never recover! (Well, hey, that’s maybe kind of a good lesson to live by…) It did make me consider David C. as a (very) long young adult novel, or even middle grade novel. The reader, for a time, is Davy’s age, and can grow along with him. There were a lot of plot turns that I saw coming for hundreds of pages, which might be less obvious to a younger audience.
When I think about “Dickensian” I, like you, first imagine waistcoats and soot, a bad cough. Certainly orphans. But also long narratives that rely very much on coincidence. Now that I’ve read most of David Copperfield, I’d say, too, that the Dickensian style has colorful and immediately memorable characters with distinct names and ways of speaking: Peggoty, Mr. Dick, Miss Murdstone. As much as I began to dislike this novel, I’m in awe of how efficiently he brought these figures to life, and with such joy, it seems.
In his terrific introduction to the Modern Library edition of the novel, David Gates does a bang-up job of citing the book’s flaws, from Mr. Micawber’s anti-semitic one-liner to Dickens’s flawed and flat depiction of women, such as Agnes, whom Gates calls “the celestially backlit hall monitor.” He goes on to argue that Dickens “writes best about damaged, dark, and dangerous women.” Gates cites the scarred Rosa Dartle in the novel, whom I was also very much mesmerized by. Aside from the needless length of the book, I do think the depictions of women were what made me finally put it down. I started skimming right around when Dora asked Davy to call her Child Wife. Just no.
Since you asked, I’ve given up D.C. for good and I’m enjoying reading again. I ate up Charles Yu’s metafictional How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which is like Italo Calvino crossed with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure crossed with George Saunders. Then I read the forthcoming debut novel Home Field by The Millions staff writer Hannah Gersen, which was so beautiful and compelling that she and I joked my blurb should be: “Better than Dickens!”
Speaking of Hannah, she told me that she appreciates Dickens’s influence more than Dickens’s work. What do you think this means?
Meaghan: It’s funny you wrote today because I picked the book back up last night! I’d read enough of Charlotte Shane and then Rebecca Curtis to be ready to reenter the fore. It was very pleasant. If I can keep reading intense lyric memoirs and bizarro short stories between chapters of this doorstopper, I might just finish it.
The “my great love is so delicate!” shit is pretty tedious, though I did laugh when he described her to Agnes, making excuses for how fragile she was, how she couldn’t be troubled with this or that. Getting relationship advice from the unassuming girl everyone else knows you SHOULD be with felt so modern — a satisfying set up! If he isn’t headed for one in a series of falls and if he doesn’t end up with backlit Agnes, I will be bitter indeed.
And you’re right — efficient! Who would have thought we’d use that word to describe Dickens? The very name Miss Murdstone makes me so angry. Mr. Micawber evokes dread, awkwardness. They flit in and out of the story so any lasting impression seems like an achievement. There’s a sort of necessary hamfistedness? Or if it’s deliberate maybe it’s just over-the-top, but good over-the-top. He’s having fun with it, there seems to be this continual raised eyebrow throughout, and yet he maintains such sincerity with David Copperfield! Maybe that’s what feels sort of YA about it? He’s so pure of heart and unflagging and “honorable” and so on. He’s good-humored but never totally self-aware? It’s SO sincere even as it’s funny.
Poor kids being assigned this book in school. At least with Great Expectations there is the spider cake to cling to.
I totally get the influence versus the work thing, what a smart, gentle thing to say, like maybe he might read this. A friend, when I told her I wanted to read some Dickens, was like, “Or maybe read some Nancy Mitford? Or Jane Austen even?”
To me “Dickensian” evokes what I was trying to get at earlier, a sense of playfulness (I hate when adults say “play” but there it is), a very kind evisceration, wit, and a noble heart. It is fun, though I think it’s more fun to have that foundation and then undercut it. It’s thrilling in a way, how tired so much of it feels, while still being full of life. To have him be brilliant but also to feel like we (“we” lol) have made progress, literature-wise! Is that crazy to say? We’re better than you now, Dickens, but thank you for your service.
Edan: I love your phrase, “a very kind evisceration” — this is such an accurate description of what Dickens is up to in David Copperfield. I definitely appreciate this gift of his. But gift-appreciation is different from pure enjoyment.
Again, though, I circle back to this idea that perhaps we chose the wrong book; certainly we wouldn’t say that the contemporary novels we adore are better than, say, Bleak House, which everyone seems to agree is a masterpiece. I would bet that most Dickens scholars and lovers would choose another book of his for us to judge. Maybe David Copperfield is too of its time to truly work for contemporary readers such as ourselves. I get the sense that it was written to be an immersive, rousing text for the readers of its day; perhaps his more “serious” novels were striving for something other than immersion: complication, profundity.
All the 18th-century literature I read in college, like Pamela, or Humphry Clinker, were fun to talk about but a chore to read — their storytelling techniques were just so obvious and clunky. While David Copperfield was a far better read than those novels, I’m still having a better time discussing the book with you than I did reading said book. Back when I was in that 18th-century literature class, I remember feeling that The Novel, as a machine to entertain and move the reader, had become much sleeker and more powerful over the years. But by the 19th century, the machinery had improved considerably. We have Austen, as you mentioned. (Emma was published in 1815.) And George Eliot — my god, what brilliance! Middlemarch came later in the century, in 1874. David Copperfield, published in 1850, came between those two books. Perhaps some learned person can step forward to tell us why and how novels got so much more refined in the 1800s — only a century (or less) later. And is Copperfield’s episodic/picaresque quality (is it a picaresque?) a throwback to these older books? I wonder, I wonder.
I asked Hannah Gersen what she meant by Dickensian influence and she echoed what we’ve been saying, and she also remarked that Christmas movies owe a huge debt to Charles D. She’s right!
Will you read more Dickens in 2016? Ever? What do you take away from this experiment in ye olden classics?
Meaghan: God. It’s just TOO LONG. My edition is 866 pages. Life is too short to read something so plodding. And yet, I’m still reading it. I have a hard time giving up on books. I keep thinking maybe there will be some revelation near the end that will have made it all worthwhile. Like something big will unlock for me, literature-wise.
I am still a good 200 pages from the end and I just read the chapter about him marrying Dora (spoiler alert) and he totally elided the sex, while still referring to it in a sentence that manages to be both not quite comprehensible and totally revolting:
It was a strange condition of things, the honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home, when I found myself sitting down in my own small house with Dora; quite thrown out of employment, as I may say, in respect of the delicious old occupation of making love.
A run-on, but a lot of nice language I think. “My own small house” is good. “The honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home,” also really good, I’d say! BUT THEN, he ruins it all with “the delicious old occupation of making love.”
Coming from him, it reminds me of that SNL skit where they eat meat in a hot tub and call each other lover. Also I’ll admit I don’t quite know what he means by “quite thrown out of employment, as I may say” — NO YOU MAY NOT SAY, because it makes no sense. Is he fucking too much to go to work or did she fire him from fucking her? Is he just done doing it around the clock and settling into married life? (Probably.)
Anyway, not a word about the sex except that it was delicious, which, good for you, but gross. Very Jonathan Franzen.
There is a part of me that wants to try a different book because I am so stubborn and I don’t want to have given over like six weeks of my reading life to this book that is not as good as Austen! To think they were written around the same time! I am no expert in “what the novel does or is or wants to be” but, wow, the ladies were doing it better (If I may say! And I may!).
Maybe if I read Bleak House and it’s a masterpiece that opens up my brain, this will all have been worth it? These are the thoughts I’m left with, Edan.
I just read Rachel Cusk’s Outline and it was the perfect antidote, which is what other books are to me now: antidotes to David Copperfield.
I divide this year’s shortlist into three categories: Tales Well Told, Fun Stuff, and Miracles of Voice.
Tales Well Told includes books with stories that captivated. In some cases I wasn’t sure why I liked the book, but I just wanted to keep reading. More, more! These were the books I left parties early to go home to read (or for which, more likely, I skipped the party), the ones that might have caused me to miss my subway stop had I read them on the subway, but I usually didn’t because I had already read them through the night before. Gripping stories, unexpected turns of plot, I have to know what happens next! More, more, more! Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which I picked up having been entranced by her reading at last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival; Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, every bit as wonderful as Wolf Hall; two impressive and chilling debut novels: The Kept by James Scott and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You; Robin Black’s Life Drawing, which I read in one sitting; Elizabeth Kadetsky’s transporting The Poison that Purifies You; Jay Cantor’s Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka, hand-sold to me by a very smart bookseller; and Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade, recommended to me by some wise person on Facebook when I said I was looking for something sad — what that man does with dialogue!
I tend to read a lot of Fun Stuff — by which I mean lively work that makes me laugh, enjoyable books, playful books, entertaining and absurd books. Among the best I read this year were Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi; Jeremy Bushnell’s The Weirdness; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; and the brilliant, moving, and otherwise-perfect-in-every-way How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Charles Yu.
The largest group of loved books this year and probably every year are Miracles of Voice, almost all of which, perhaps because of their eccentricities, are small press books: Alissa Nutting’s riveting collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls; Lore Segal’s witty and sad Half the Kingdom; Jeff Jackson’s startling Mira Corpora; Submergence, J.M. Ledgard’s gorgeous tour de force; Catherine Lacey’s stunning Nobody Is Ever Missing; Kevin Barry’s captivating City of Bohane; and, perhaps above all, Patrick McCabe’s heartbreaking The Butcher Boy, the voice of which stayed in my head for many inconvenient days when I was trying to write my own original pages.
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Since The Millions interviewed Gene Luen Yang four years ago, he has been writing and drawing prolifically. His graphic novel Level Up portrayed a young Asian American man destined for medical school who secretly dreamed of playing video games. His next project was the epic Boxers & Saints, a diptych that follows two characters living through the Boxer Rebellion in China. The two intertwining Boxers & Saints graphic novels—they were sold as a set—string a coherent narrative from a complex period of history at the turn of the 20th century as the crumbling Qing empire tussled with European colonial powers. Yang’s clean line drawings bring order to the chaotic events, and all of the characters in the story are fallible and believable.
What unites Gene Luen Yang’s varying projects is his ambition. In many ways, Yang has taken on the task of bringing untold stories from Asian and Asian American history to readers in the U.S. And remarkably, he moves easily between literary works and popular culture, because while he was busy finishing Boxers & Saints he was also writing comic book adaptations of the popular Avatar: The Last Airbender animated cartoon. He did so not just out of love for the series but also in response to the live action movie by director M. Night Shyamalan, who cast a Caucasian boy for the leading role of Aang, and generally weakened the role of Asian culture in the story. (The movie was widely panned.) That Yang was willing to continue an extremely successful and already fully realized universe in The Avatar demonstrates his willingness to take risks and to collaborate.
Gene Luen Yang is not the only Asian American writer exploring myths and superheroes. Korean American author Chang-Rae Lee also depicted the Japanese colonization of China in his exquisitely written novel The Surrendered, in which the character Hector Brennan possesses the immortality of a god yet becomes mired in his own, very human failings. The novelist Charles Yu’s short story collection Third Class Superhero examined superpowers with humor and sensitivity, and his follow-up How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is in many ways the capstone of the genre of meta-science fiction. A walk down Artist Alley in any comicon will introduce you to numerous skillful Asian American comic book artists hocking their wares in what is slowly becoming a more diverse profession.
Gene Luen Yang’s latest effort is The Shadow Hero, a graphic novel no less ambitious in scope than his previous works. Yang came up with the story after learning about one of the first Asian American artists to work in the comic book industry, Chu Hing. Chu Hing worked during an efflorescence of comic book stories during World War II, and created a series called The Green Turtle to support the struggles of America’s ally against the Japanese—China. The Green Turtle, a super hero who fought against the nefarious Japanese with his side-kick Burma Boy, never revealed his face or his origin story in the comics. There is also little biographical information about the creator Chu Hing himself, and the series was canceled after only five issues.
Working from the original texts, Yang resurrected The Green Turtle with a fully fleshed-out origin story and adventure in The Shadow Hero. The main character Hank is now a Chinese-American boy growing up in Chinatown in the fictional coastal city of San Incendio. His parents own a dry goods shop, and he is happy working beside his father as a stockboy. Yet his mother has bigger ideas for her son. While being robbed, she is rescued by a superhero named The Anchor of Justice, and she decides that her son should grow up to be just like him. The only problem is that Hank has no super powers. After a series of comical ordeals in which she tries to inspire him, Hank only gains powers after his father is murdered by a Chinatown kingpin. It turns out his father had made a deal with a turtle spirit from mainland China, and young Hank can inherit the spirit and ask it for whatever powers he desires. Hank then sets out to avenge his father’s death, confronting gangsters, kung fu vixens, and corrupt police along the way.
In The Shadow Hero, Gene Luen Yang collaborated with Singapore-based illustrator Sonny Liew, and it becomes apparent why this was a wise choice after a few pages. Sonny Liew’s panels pop with vitality, and he has mastered the flow of sequential action with original paneling and styling. The book crackles with Yang’s slap-stick humor—so difficult to portray in comic book art—and the characters feel fully imagined. Hank’s mother in particular is a complex, flawed, and totally believable character and Sonny Liew’s drawings of her are charming.
However, certain elements which made Yang’s other works so enjoyable are less compelling in this volume. The story moves along at a nice clip, and there are glimpses of Watchmen-creator Alan Moore’s influence in Yang’s treatment of The Anchor of Justice. But it is not exactly clear what 1940s America thinks of superheroes—are they vigilantes or saviors? Also, the racist stereotypes that made Yang’s bestselling graphic novel American Born Chinese so provocative are not quite as well considered in this story. To be sure, racism against Chinese Americans abounded in the 1940s, but they could perhaps have used more elucidation in this text than they receive.
Those are minor quibbles because there is only so much you can pack into an origin story. To truly appreciate The Shadow Hero, you need to apply two more lenses. The first lens is provided in the book itself and the second lens relates to Yang’s greater oeuvre as an author. At the end of the text, the book includes an issue of the original Green Turtle as created by Chu Hing in the 1940s. It’s not an especially interesting story—the Green Turtle wins the day by firing “2,000 rounds per minute” into the “Japs”—but in several panels there is a peculiar black shadow that hovers over the superhero. Chu Hing apparently never explained what the shadow is. It’s amazing that Yang developed a credible explanation for it and created a logical structure that incorporated the other elements of the original Green Turtle. He was, in short, able to develop a new story while adhering to the limited parameters of the original, and this is nothing short of remarkable. It’s like coloring within the lines of a Jackson Pollock painting.
The second reason why The Shadow Hero is worth reading is that it has the elements of an enduring Asian American superhero story. Yang’s comic leaves enough avenues for future explanation that he could comfortably create more volumes in this series. (I wouldn’t mind if he incorporated the Green Turtle’s cool jet from the original comics.) There is still a disturbing lack of published entertainment created by ethnic minorities that feature characters driving forward the narrative with agency.
Gene Luen Yang is enabling a generation of Asian Americans—or, let’s be specific here, because the community is diverse, Chinese Americans—to imagine their own stories. And he has set a very high bar. He writes serious, contemplative works, he entertains, and he is an excellent line artist who is humble enough to put down his own pencils and to allow someone else to draw it better. He takes risks that don’t always pan out, but he shows the courage to take on widely differing projects across a variety of genres. One day perhaps, we’ll all have our own personal super heroes, and if they are as thoughtful, humorous, and principled as the Shadow Hero, there’s nothing wrong with that.