Reviews

Mixed Methodology: On Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve

Does Ernest Hemingway really use the fewest adverbs? Do authors write about their own gender more than others’? In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, Ben Blatt uses statistical analysis to deconstruct popular and classic literature and interrogate truisms about writing fiction. Many of the claims he makes are intriguing. He finds that male writers tend to use the pronoun “he” far more often than “she” in their books, whereas female writers use “he” and “she” almost equally. Blatt also finds that over the last 200 years, writers’ tendency to use qualifiers (rather, very, little, pretty, etc.) in their fiction has decreased substantially. Blatt’s quantitative approach to literature is novel -- and very entertaining -- but the book is undermined by poor copyediting and methodologies that call into question the conclusions Blatt reaches. To a bibliophile, the flaw that jumps out is Blatt’s seeming unfamiliarity with some of the fiction he calls on to support his findings. In Chapter 4, “Write by Example,” Blatt claims that writers’ use of qualifiers has been declining for two centuries. (Between 1900 and 1999, he writes, qualifier use per 10,000 words dropped from more than 200 to a little more than 100.) He cites Jane Austen as prime example of 19th-century qualifier abuse: “Jane Austen is one of the English language’s most celebrated authors but her use of words like very is off the charts.” Blatt’s claim, broadly speaking, is believable, but the excerpt from the novel he cites is terrible evidence to justify that writers of a different era conformed to different stylistic standards regarding qualifiers. The quote he chooses from Emma is Austen’s summary of Harriet’s dialogue: She was very fond of singing. He could sing a little himself. She believed he was very clever, and understood every thing. He had a very fine flock, and, while she was with them, he had been bid more for his wool than any body in the country. She believed every body spoke well of him. His mother and sisters were very fond of him. (Emphasis Blatt’s) Later in the chapter, Blatt quotes Dead Poet’s Society to explain how qualifiers can vitiate speech: ‘“…avoid using the word 'very' because it’s lazy.”’ Or, to put it another way, using “very” too often can make a person sound dumb. In Emma, Harriet Smith is an airhead and her vacancy is crucial to the novel’s plot. Thus, those abundant "verys" in the passage aren't an indication either of Austen's laziness or her conforming to the style conventions of another era; Austen uses them deliberately to telegraph to the reader that Harriet is dense. Blatt’s relying on this passage as an illustration of unconsciously absorbed literary standards suggests either shallow familiarity with his source material or a failure of literary analysis. Blatt is also sometimes careless about the conclusions he draws from his data. For example, when he compares the relative frequency with which male and female writers use the pronouns “he” and “she,” Blatt concludes that, based on his sample, "Of the 50 classic books by men, 44 used he more than she and 6 did the opposite” and "Of the 50 classic books by women, 29 used she more than he and 21 did the opposite." Both of these statements, however, are, at best, misleading, and possibly false, as Blatt identifies two books in his 50-book sample, one by a man and one by a woman, that use "he" and "she" at equal rates. Blatt rounds to the nearest percentage point, so it is possible that what he writes is, strictly speaking, true; there may be barely more appearances of "he" in Lady Chatterley's Lover and barely more appearances of "she" in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, both of which round most closely to equal representation. If this is the case, however, why does Blatt not make this clear in the text? Perhaps more importantly, Nabokov’s Favorite Word did not get the attention it needed from a copy editor. (On page 70, for instance, Blatt titles a list "Most Probable to be Richard Bachman" [Stephen King’s pseudonym], when what he means is "Most Probable to be Robert Galbraith" [J. K. Rowling’s pseudonym]). In a book of statistical analysis especially, Blatt’s lack of care defining criteria for inclusion in his samples (and adhering to those criteria invariably), calls into the question the conclusions he draws from his analysis. For instance, in the aforementioned analysis of gendered pronouns, Blatt waffles about whether his analysis is confined to novels or just to “books.” On page 41, he writes that he drew his data from the "100 novels on [the] classic literature list." This list of “novels,” however, contains several collections of short stories, including A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Winesburg, Ohio.  It is unlikely that including short stories would bias the results determining how often writers use “he” and “she;” it may, however, mislead the reader about how writers use gendered pronouns in fiction in general, as opposed to novels in particular. Blatt’s sloppiness in choosing his samples is not limited to this analysis alone. In another case of “Breakout Debut Novels,” he states that to qualify a work had to be “an author’s first novel.” Nevertheless, he includes in his sample Alice McDermott’s second novel, That Night, published in 1987, though McDermott’s first novel was A Bigamist’s Daughter, published in 1982. Blatt’s problem defining criteria for his samples and adhering to them most profoundly undermines his investigation of different writers’ favorite words. Blatt concludes, for example, that Virginia Woolf’s favorite words are “flushing, blotting, mantelpiece;” Marilynne Robinson’s are “soapy, checkers, baptized;” and Lemony Snicket’s are “siblings, orphans, squalor.” Blatt designates only four criteria to determine whether a word is a favorite, one of which is that the word “is not a proper noun.” Blatt does omit all words that are unmistakably proper nouns; you won’t find Chicago, Arkansas, or Sahara among any writer’s favorites. Blatt, however, neglects to exclude words that writers use as proper nouns. This is most obvious in his choice of Virginia Woolf’s favorite word “flushing.” Based on searches performed on Google Books, Woolf only uses “flushing” (not as a proper noun) eight times in the nine novels that constitute Blatt’s Woolf sample. There are, however, 55 occurrences of “Flushing” in Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out, in which Woolf repeatedly refers to the characters Mr. and Mrs. Flushing. To determine a favorite word, Blatt also uses the criterion that the word “must be used in half an author’s books.” Excluding The Voyage Out, which never uses “flushing” as anything other than a character’s name, the word only appears in four of the nine novels that constitute Blatt’s Woolf sample. Thus, Blatt must be counting the erroneous appearances of “Flushing,” used as a proper noun, to arrive at his ranking. Though I cannot prove it with the same certainty, Blatt likely repeats this flaw in several other authors’ favorite word lists. One of Marilynne Robinson’s favorite words, as determined by Blatt, for instance, is “soapy.” In her novel Gilead, “Soapy” is the name of the cat, who is mentioned by name 11 times. Excluding references to the cat, however, Robinson only uses the word “soapy” twice in all the novels in Blatt’s Robinson sample and never in Gilead. It is also possible the same error occurred in the identification of “squalor” as one of Lemony Snicket’s favorite words; there is a supporting character named Esmé Squalor in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Blatt could argue that names should be included in the analysis because a writer handpicks them for her characters. Nevertheless, Blatt either needs to redefine his criteria to make this inclusion clear or exclude from his sample instances where a writer uses common words as proper nouns. Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve is a thoroughly entertaining romp, but the mistakes -- especially Blatt’s lack of rigor in sticking to the criteria he defines for his samples -- mean one should approach it with several grains of salt. Given the problems of methodology observed, one often can’t put faith in Blatt’s conclusions. It is unfortunate that his intriguing approach is compromised by lackluster execution. His analyses, approached with more rigor, could offer meaningful insight into the way great writers compose.
Reviews

Fiction’s No Stranger: On Doree Shafrir’s ‘Startup’

Men in power have always tried to insulate themselves from criticism and punishment. Doree Shafrir’s Startup is a sharp-witted debut novel that peels back the layers of those structures, revealing those in power who grasp to maintain their privilege at all costs. The title signals an ordinariness that acts as a preview of what's to come, a wink and a nod from a friend who asks if we see this, too. At its core, it’s a book about average men doing bad things and the women who take control of the narrative from them. Startup’s prose channels the youthful energy of a new tech company from the start. We quickly meet Mack McAllister, founder of the fictional startup TakeOff. McAllister serves as an all-purpose stand-in for startup culture's best and worst elements, and he’s on the verge of securing millions in funding for his business. The book doesn’t hold many surprises, and it’s clear from the onset that his hubris will bring him down. Mack -- who compares himself to Steve Jobs because he made a piece of mildly successful software -- creates his own problems; like many men in power, he can't wait to cast those problems as someone else's fault, so he directs his anger toward Isabel, his subordinate and office attraction. Still, in a moment when Mack looks around the office, proud of the jobs he's created with his company, it’s easy to see why people chase the next big idea. It’s intoxicating, and the book doesn’t shy away from this. Likely as a result of her work as a journalist for BuzzFeed, Rolling Stone, and Gawker, Shafrir communicates a lived-in knowledge of these moments, deftly taking the reader to school and back in a few sentences. On the relationships between startups and venture capitalists, she writes: …VC firms were built to understand and profit from this new world. They knew that it took money to make money. In fact, it was considered a bad sign if your company was profitable too soon; you had to spend the money you were earning to build your business or else your investors would wonder if you were thinking big enough and taking enough risks. That was Startup 101. Meanwhile, tech blogger Katya Pasternack stumbles upon what might be the story of a lifetime, a scoop that her editor would love to publish to “expose the hypocrisy of the tech world once and for all.” But she hesitates, for the first time questioning whether she has a responsibility as a woman to tell a particular story, or if the search for page views is worth questionable tactics. Katya’s chase for facts brings her up against her own boss’s wife, Sabrina Choe Blum, one of TakeOff’s older employees, a mom of two in her mid-30s with a secret shopping habit. Startup may have read as satire a decade ago but feels like historical record today. Shafrir's precise eye for detail takes stock of the tech industry's favorite answers for tough questions. “Now it seemed like these guys had all gone to the same school of ‘call women crazy whenever they do something that makes you uncomfortable.’” Mack, the tech-bro CEO, seeks retribution against an employee for his own misdeeds with the veneer that “this is a startup, things are always going to be changing and evolving and iterating.” The startup world has long been averse to criticism. Those who prod at the edges through journalism risk losing access to information, money, and power. A declarative crescendo comes from Mack's chief operating officer when he compares sexual harassment allegations to war. We saw this in real life with Peter Thiel's quest to destroy Gawker. He delineated his version of truth and pursued it with his incredible wealth. Thiel spent years secretly funding lawsuits against Gawker, telling The New York Times he considered destroying the media company, an employer of hundreds of people, an act of philanthropy. With his support of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, some started calling him an aspiring “villain.” In his book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Thiel asks, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” By posing that question, is he challenging readers to understand our own values? Or is he encouraging followers to go against the grain, redefining what qualifies as legitimate, like his offer to pay teenagers to skip college? And at what point does a counterargument become a distorted worldview? A major element of this distorted worldview is a belief in meritocracy, a concept originating from a satirical essay about a dystopian future by Michael Young. Meritocracy has become a favorite slogan of startups challenged by a lack of diversity, and Thiel stands as both a creator of this system and one of its ultimate beneficiaries. Shafrir’s novel takes aim at this virtual reality, “They thought everyone, including themselves, were where they were entirely because of hard work and innate creativity, and if you weren’t successful, that was because you hadn’t tried hard enough. They didn’t understand people who weren’t just like them.” So it comes as no surprise when Mack attempts to define his own narrative after a series of inappropriate text messages unravel his professional life. Startup is about more than business. It navigates the rocky foundation of relationships, journalism’s importance, sexual harassment, and digital careerism. It's about how all those things blend together, particularly as women come into power and the world around them reacts. “The stakes were just higher for her,” Shafrir writes of Katya. “People like Mack -- they could afford to make mistakes. They were forgiven. Young women with immigrant parents who went to college on scholarship and were one paycheck away from not being able to pay rent -- they couldn’t.” Ironically, Isabel, the story's real catalyst, gets the fewest pages. The plotlines move with momentum, perhaps because backstory is scarce. While we get to know the main characters by observing their daily lives, we rarely get a glimpse of how they got there. The novel is most relatable when it touches on the inner turmoil of its characters -- the fraying edges of Sabrina's marriage; Katya stumbling through her 20s; Isabel and Mack struggling to reconcile a situation that never should've been. At one point, Sabrina recounts an old romance that turns out to be one of the most electrifying moments in the book. Through this we observe people in and around startup culture in a way we don’t often see: flawed, scared, honest. Shafrir knows that technology can't fix human nature, and she argues that spending so much time personifying our tech causes us to lose sight of the human beings on the other end. Technology enables messy lives, allowing us to be in a coworker’s pocket or a stranger’s living room. In a world ruled by technology, the lines aren’t simply blurred, Shafrir points out -- they’re erased.  
Reviews

Tiny Shudders: On Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Anything Is Possible’

Elizabeth Strout’s new novel in stories, Anything Is Possible, is in conversation with her much-lauded novel My Name Is Lucy Barton. Lucy Barton’s hometown -- Amgash, Ill., -- is the setting of several of these stories, and in “Sister,” Lucy returns to Amgash to visit the siblings with whom she survived an impoverished and abusive upbringing. In 2016’s novel, Lucy -- lying in a hospital bed, worried about her children, ecstatic over her mother’s brief, unexpected visit -- indulges in casual gossip about the people of Amgash and the Bartons’ extended family. These conversations, unsurprisingly, are aligned with the themes Strout explores compulsively in her work: strained love between mothers and daughters; once-vivid, now-faded marriages; dangerous men; the beauty of the natural world and the possible presence of God. Anything is Possible puts pressure on some of these elements, allowing a closer, more concrete study than My Name Is Lucy Barton’s elegant stream of understated hearsay and reluctant recollection. Here, bodies are bruised; here, people recall acts of cruelty with specificity, both the ones they have endured and the ones they have enacted. In “Dottie’s Bed & Breakfast,” Dottie, feeling slighted, spits in the breakfast jam. In “Mississippi Mary,” Mary admits to herself that she favors one of her daughters. Wars -- primarily the Second World War and Vietnam -- are inescapable to the men who fought in them long after they’ve ended. In “Cracked,” Linda Peterson-Cornell, a patron of the arts, uses a camera to spy on houseguests alongside her husband, Jay, who is eventually accused of raping one of those guests. Strout, who writes with astonishing control, is unafraid of repetition. Many of her characters declare, “it [he, she] makes me sick” -- a bold acknowledgement of visceral feeling. Far more typical in this book is the perspective of Tommy Guptill, a man who loses his farm to a fire and becomes a school janitor in “The Sign.” Thinking of the way the fire changed his family’s life, Tommy concludes, “Well. They had all lived through it.” This tone -- matter-of-fact, uninterested in sympathy -- is reminiscent of the titular character in Strout’s Olive Kittredge. In “A Different Road,” Olive sits in a hospital room, waiting to be seen by a doctor: “[S]he folded her hands and realized how every single time she went by this hospital, the same two thoughts occurred to her: that she’d been born here and that her father’s body had been brought here after his suicide. She’d been through some things, but never mind. She straightened her back. Other people had been through things, too.” In My Name Is Lucy Barton, Lucy asks her mother, Lydia, about her own anguished childhood: “‘Mom, why didn’t you feel safe?’ My mother closed her eyes as though the very question might drop her into a nap, but I did not think for one minute she had gone to sleep.” Lydia never answers. Like Lucy, readers are left to wonder, or to imagine the worst. Strout’s genius is her ability to wring deeply moving stories from such ungenerous sources; to reveal, through hurried gestures and single syllables, the welter of feeling the Lydias and Olives of the world are trying to conceal. When Strout gives us the same images again and again, in one story after the next -- “fields of green soybeans,” for instance -- she’s shifting our attention to the familiar and the bearable, to the things her characters would prefer to talk about. In the best of these stories, such reticence is balanced by outburst -- whether silent realization or, better yet, actual confrontation. “Sister” is one of the strongest pieces here, largely because Strout -- whose buttoned-up characters tend to fear nothing so much as seeming tenderhearted, whose unpleasant memories are shrouded in euphemism and denial, whose “I love yous,” if uttered at all, are rarely directed at their children -- allows Lucy and her siblings, Vicky and Pete, a good, loud, old-fashioned family argument. For the occasion of Lucy’s visit -- an addendum to the book tour that brings her to Chicago -- her siblings make efforts to please her that push them beyond the boundaries of their daily lives. Pete scrubs the house and goes into town for a haircut, a task he usually completes himself; for the remainder of the story, he agonizes over the fact that he didn’t know to tip the barber. Vicky -- overweight, underappreciated -- approaches the reunion with resentment, richly complicated by a desire to please, or to defend herself, or both. “But then [Pete] saw: Vicky had on lipstick. Across her mouth, curving on her upper lip and across her plump bottom lip, was an orangey-red coating of lipstick. Pete could not remember seeing Vicky wear any lipstick before. When Pete looked at Lucy, he saw that she had no lipstick on, and he felt a tiny shudder go through him, as though his soul had a toothache.” That tiny shudder -- a perfect depiction of compassion -- is an example of how much work Strout demands from even the slightest gesture. In their childhood home, Vicky wastes little time. "You know why I came over here today? To tell you -- and I know you give me money, and you never have to give me another cent, I wouldn’t take another cent, but I came over here to see you today to tell you: You make me sick." Though not the only one to make this claim in this novel, Vicky is far more direct than others about this “sickness.” She continues: "Every time I see you online, every time I see you, you are acting so nice, and it makes me sick." The problem is named -- niceness, perhaps incredible -- and Lucy concedes: "Well, it makes me sick too." For a moment, as Pete interjects with surprise, it seems that Vicky has said enough; but moments later, she accuses Lucy of being "Mommy’s favorite," to which Lucy reacts with astonishment. Strout is bold to enter this territory with the Bartons. Readers of My Name Is Lucy Barton will not recall Lucy believing that she is Lydia’s “favorite,” but we do know that Lydia took a plane, for the first time in her life, to spend several days sitting at the foot of Lucy’s hospital bed. We know that Lydia referred to Lucy as “Wizzle,” an affectionate nickname. We know that Lucy -- sick, and missing her husband and daughters -- feels waves of unsurpassable happiness in Lydia’s company: “I dozed on and off listening to my mother’s voice. I thought: All I want is this.” Could Vicky have made such a claim, had she been in the hospital bed in New York? It seems unlikely. Lucy makes her living telling stories, but it is Vicky who abandons the evasive language of My Name Is Lucy Barton (“the Thing, meaning an incident of my father becoming very anxious and not in control of himself.")  Vicky defines the Thing in language as vulgar as she can muster. Vicky illustrates the pain and humiliation of being a Barton child. She recounts, for example, trying to hide a serving of liver in the toilet, then being forced to eat it anyway; she remembers Lucy and Pete having to eat from the garbage when they dared to throw food away. She notes that they “were never supposed to cry,” recalling that once, when she cried, her mother cut her clothing into pieces. Lucy -- the wealthy one, the ostensible favorite, the one who made it out of Amgash and all the way to New York -- eventually interrupts her siblings’ speculation that their mother wasn’t “made right.” Her defense is feeble in the face of Vicky’s liver-from-the-toilet story: "She could have left us," Lucy says, scrambling for a hold on gratitude. "She’d have made money with her sewing. Just for herself. But she didn’t." Later, Lucy truly reveals herself by insisting, "It was not that bad." Vicky responds, "It was exactly that bad, Lucy." Lucy proceeds to have a literal panic attack. Repeating the phrase “I can’t,” she asks her siblings to drive her back to Chicago (Strout makes a point of naming the luxurious Drake Hotel). She does not have to stay, and so she does not. To see her frantically saying “I can’t,” to watch Vicky and Pete begin the long drive to the city -- tiny shudders all around. But something else is happening here: Strout is inviting her readers to contrast Lucy’s perspective, as presented in My Name Is Lucy Barton, with Vicky’s testimony. “Sister” invites questions, suspicions, doubt; in short, it makes our relationship with Lucy Barton as complicated and frustrating as real relationships are. Other people in Anything Is Possible seem to corroborate Vicky’s version. In “The Sign,” Tommy Guptill refers to “those poor, sad [Barton] children.” He recalls that “[Lucy] and her sister, Vicky, and her brother, Pete, had been viciously scorned by the other kids, and by some of the teachers too.” Regarding Lucy, “there were days he saw what seemed to be a bruise, yellow or bluish, on her neck or her arms.” It is one thing to catalogue the sorrows of this family; it is another entirely, Strout suggests, for Tommy to make these observations, to share them with his wife, and for the couple to “[decide] they would do nothing.” There is a not-too-subtle comparison between the slow-to-act Guptills -- who are classic Strout characters, earnest and hard-working, striving to do right and to be kind -- and Tommy’s brother’s experience in World War II: [H]e and the others had the job of taking the townspeople through [the camps]. They had somehow taken a group of women from the town through the camps to show them what had been right there, and Tommy’s brother said that although some of the women wept, some of them put their chins up, and looked angry, as if they refused to be made to feel bad. Compassion, that tiny shudder -- when is it too tiny, or too late? Tommy Guptill winds up visiting the adult Pete Barton under the guise of “neighbor to neighbor” friendliness, many years after he first harbors concerns. Pete -- a nervous, solitary man -- feels compelled to defend his father, Ken: "My father was a decent man, Tommy." He attributes Ken’s troubles to the war. The Vietnam war haunts Charlie Macauley in “The Hit-Thumb Theory,” a story that stands out for its rather dramatic stakes. Charlie, a veteran, is having an affair with Tracy, a prostitute (and the only clearly identified woman of color in the book). Tracy is desperate to borrow money for her son, who’s “in trouble with drugs.” Though compassion emerges -- after initial refusal, Charlie gives her the cash -- it is charged with anger and threats: “‘If I hear from you again, I’ll track you down and kill you myself,’ he said calmly.” He ends on an even more menacing note: "Because you will need more." Strout captures Charlie’s rage well, though his “love” for Tracy isn’t as convincing as his fury at her request.  It would be foolish to suggest that Strout limit herself to small town quibbles and nuclear families -- nonetheless, these are the settings in which her strengths flourish. “Snow-Blind,” which features famous actress Annie Appleby, never quite finds its center, perhaps because the story becomes distracted by Annie’s fame. “Cracked” devotes a lot of time to the salty, knowing dialogue among three artist friends, though Linda’s marriage to Jay is far more interesting. In “Windmills,” Vicky’s daughter, Lila Lane, unleashes a stunning verbal assault at guidance counselor Patty Nicely (Linda’s sister), calling her “Fatty Patty” and demanding to know why Patty doesn’t have children. "[Y]ou never did it with your husband?" Lila asks. The audacity is jarring. Later, “Windmills” confirms that Lila is right -- Patty and her husband never consummate their marriage -- but using Lila to introduce the topic feels over-the-top somehow, a way to create yet another connection among all these characters. The book concludes with “Gift,” a story that draws Strout back within the extended Barton family orbit. Abel Blaine -- Lucy’s cousin, and so hungry as a child he rooted through Dumpsters for food -- has made a small fortune and lives a comfortable life. Abel is so earnest as to be almost unbelievable. One night, having missed dinner because he was late home from work, he undertakes the errand of retrieving his granddaughter’s plastic pony from the last place she’d held it -- a local production of A Christmas Carol. In the darkened theater he encounters the man who played Scrooge, yet another Strout character to proclaim, "It has made me sick." In the actor’s case, he’s sickened by his job “teaching […] devil-brats.” More importantly, Abel -- hungry, tired, and just looking for a plastic pony -- agrees to be the listener this man so badly wants. The scene begins tensely, in a cramped space, with the actor serving almost as captor, demanding that Abel become a private audience. Abel does, his compassion less a “tiny shudder” than a full-body response: “a sudden pain moved through his chest,” and the actor can be heard saying “"Hurry," presumably to EMTs on the phone. Strout leaves us here, with the need for compassion as great as ever, with Abel possibly having given too much.  The actor tells Abel, “‘I want you to sit […] I’d like to say some things, you see.”  A less elegant plea, perhaps, than the one Lucy makes from her writing desk, or Dottie’s loquacious guest at the B&B, or Patty on the phone with her sister, Linda, though the meaning is always the same: listen to me.
Reviews

Rising Waters: On Omar El Akkad’s ‘American War’

American War, the debut novel from Omar El Akkad, presents a highly plausible dystopia in the not so distant American future. The Second American Civil War erupts over a dispute about the nation’s energy future, with the North embracing green technology and renewables and the South clinging steadfastly to fossil fuels. El Akkad deftly places climate change as a primary force of national disintegration; the geography of this future post-coastal America has been permanently altered by climate change and geographic sectarianism, leaving the battle for American identity to be fought between the Midwest and the South. The new Northern (Blue) capital is Columbus, Ohio, and the capital of the Free Southern (Red) State is Atlanta. The landscape is dramatically different, but the tenor of the politics in the novel is eerily familiar. The newly dominant Bouazizi Empire of Middle Eastern and North African states united from the “Fifth Spring” Arab democratic revolutions is now seeking to manipulate a civil war in the once “soaring, roaring, and oblivious” America. Here, El Akkad not so subtly suggests the corruptibility of democratic states to imperial pursuits. He creates the theatre of conflict in which the novel’s protagonist stakes her claim. Sarat Chestnut is a fascinating study of the border between justice and ruthlessness. Sarat grows up in a small river town in Louisiana just outside the Free Southern State until her father is killed in a “homicide bombing.” Early on, she doesn’t display inclinations that portend political consciousness, but, instead, an inwardness leading her to a crucial choice: resistance as an existential imperative or capitulation to the meaninglessness of war, death, and the transience of life. Sarat spends her early childhood examining her surroundings, once pressing “her finger to the needles of a yucca plant,” and finding them “brown and rigid, immune to sun and storm.” It seems to her that nature is the constant, and it is meaningless. Consequently, she views sexuality as an ulterior concern, noticing the “dramatic concern for things that seemed inane and devoid of adventure: the color and style of skirts, the arrival of facial hair, the mysterious topology of flesh.” It’s an unusually extreme kind of seriousness for a kid her age; then again, this is an unusually extreme historical moment in which she finds herself. When her mother, Martina, moves the family to a refugee camp, the stage is set for Sarat’s radicalization. At the ominously named Camp Patience, Sarat and her family subsist, waiting for the inevitable Northern incursion where they will be slaughtered. There, she is radicalized by a savvy ideologue named Albert Gaines. He hones her igneous intensity into a fixed bayonet of insurgent rage. Here, her naiveté is on full display. Betraying her provincial roots, she’s just not suspicious enough of the overly smooth Gaines. And the clues are not few. At one point even, Gaines, wearing an unwrinkled suit, jumps the shark by offering her caviar. Still, it is clear she is more taken by the persona of Gaines than by his ideas, which are little more than a melange of nativist and anti-imperialist tropes. She sees in him a cultured man, a man in the fray and above it, and it would be hard for any sensitive young person not to find that alluring. But the real radicalizing moment for Sarat is when Northern Blues storm Camp Patience and murder scores of helpless refugees. El Akkad is excellent here in judiciously refraining from making clear whether it is Gaines’s ideology or the wanton carnage that radicalizes Sarat. When the Northern militias storm Camp Patience, she fights for her life, even relentlessly stabbing a foe until she can’t slash him anymore. Is this the inspiration Gaines imparted to her, or her desire to wreak vengeance on the marauding hordes from the North? After she draws her first blood, she cuts herself as a form of anesthetic as “the heat of life left the man, but she did not feel it.” She achieves the paradox of the revolutionary, of the insurgent, which is ruthlessness in the service of justice. One weakness of the novel is the lack of development of Sarat's close childhood friend, Marcus Exum, who departs early for the safety of the North, where he eventually becomes a Union Blue officer. Later on, the two are reunited and Sarat feels genuine warmth toward him, even though he has chosen a life antithetical to everything she stands for. Nowhere does she show this same level of mercy or understanding for anyone else, and thus it falls flat. We all know the mere fact of being friends with someone in childhood is no guarantee of sentimental feeling later, especially in the context of the novel here, where Sarat’s entire identity if predicated on a fiercely sectarian orientation to the world. And that fierce devotion to radical insurgency should be her most noble trait, but, as the novel progresses, it proves to be the most damning. After she’s given up and betrayed by Gaines to the Northern forces, she is tortured in the “Non-Compliance Area” of the dubiously named prison, “Sugarloaf,” clearly a futuristic version of Guantanamo Bay. She is waterboarded and confesses to all crimes she’s charged with: “complicity in all manner of insurrectionist violence, things she’d never heard of before.” El Akkad here deploys a subtle critique of torture as not only immoral, but ineffective, as captives will say literally anything to make the pain stop -- a direct critique of the Bush administration’s embrace of torture and Donald Trump’s lurid flirtation with it. Roughly the final quarter the novel is narrated by Sarat’s nephew, Benjamin Chestnut. It’s the end of the war, and Benjamin is the voice of a postwar generation sorting through its cultural inheritance. He’s intrigued and ultimately disillusioned by his famous, war-grizzled aunt, living again with her brother (his father), Simon, and his wife, Karina, on the family property in Lincolnton, Ga., not far from Atlanta. Over time, he gets to know her. He feels affection for her, but, frustratingly, he never can get to the core of who she is. She remains inscrutable to him. Ultimately, in adulthood, Benjamin concludes that Sarat’s will to fight was an act of mourning, a profound unhappiness born of helplessness and protracted, pointless struggle. He recalls one day from his childhood when he and Sarat went swimming in the river near their home. As they get out to dry themselves, he marvels at her body, that intricately austere record of the ravages of war, with its “strange rivulets of scarred skin that lined her upper arms and shoulders, dead-looking and paler than the rest of her.” When she was waterboarded, the sense of drowning overwhelmed her, and she couldn’t resist anymore. No one could. Drowning is universal. There are limits to resistance, even if there are no limits to one’s capacity to resist. Whether it be the metaphorical drowning of American cultural disintegration or the rising seas of a warming, carbon-clogged planet, Sarat’s lust for vengeance is a fight against rising waters sure to submerge us all.
Reviews

The Sexless Idiot

1. A riddle: a woman and a man get to know one another in the 21st century. They flirt, go on long walks, exchange poetic emails, and stay up all night in his apartment. This goes on for months. But they never so much as kiss. Why? It's a state of affairs that makes us suspicious. At a time when sex is the starting point rather than the goal of most romantic relationships, we don't have a rich phrasebook for understanding why two seemingly interested people fail at step one. Our explanations tend to be base: one of the two must be ugly, or in the closet, or unfashionably religious, or simply not interested in sex. If they wanted to, we reassure ourselves, they would. Elif Batuman is skeptical of these reassurances. Her first novel, The Idiot, is a love story about two people who can’t bring themselves to kiss. The book has been praised for its humor, style, and linguistic observations, less so for what it has to say about the problem of sex. The few reviews that have mentioned sex at all have largely complained about its absence. But it’s precisely that absence that animates The Idiot and allows Batuman to present a more nuanced answer to the riddle: two people might fail to sleep together because they either can't or won't negotiate the power dynamic that physical intimacy inevitably requires. 2. Selin Karadağ, the novel's narrator, is a newly arrived freshman at Harvard in the early days of electronic mail, a teenager who’s spent more time wondering on what day she'll die than to whom she'll lose her virginity. She's cynically funny, with a keen eye for the absurd, but also possessed of an unsentimental idealism: she isn’t afraid to say she wants “a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity." She’s drawn to these sorts of confident, precise expressions, finding an almost existential comfort in the descriptive capacity of language, and feeling unmoored whenever she’s at a loss for words. In her introductory Russian course she meets Ivan. He's a senior, a looming Hungarian mathematician with the rarified aura that mathematicians have for laypeople. Selin's interest grows as she watches him move through space, as she hears him speak, and as they find themselves cast as dialogue partners performing "Nina in Siberia," a bizarre, elliptical love story made for teaching Russian grammar. One day, after overhearing his last name, she finds his email and writes him an impulsive letter, a playful sequel to their Nina dialogue, the sort of note that demands either an earnest reply or none at all. Ivan replies. Their relationship graduates from email to long walks around Cambridge and finally to sitting up all night in his apartment, talking about nothing. They lurch through cycles of heartbreak and reconciliation. Ivan disappears, Selin writes to him that she's in love with him, Ivan writes her that she's the most special person he knows, Ivan mentions a girlfriend who quickly becomes an ex-girlfriend, Selin calls him the worst insult she can think of, Ivan takes her to Walden on his motorcycle, etc. Like all young lovers, they struggle with voicing their expectations and feelings to each other but, at least to herself, Selin is able to articulate a clear idea of what constitutes true love. At one point, discussing Ivan with a therapist, she says: “Most people, the minute they met you, were sizing you up for some competition for resources…They’re always separating people into two groups, allies and dispensable people.” Ivan, she says, no matter how complicated he is, genuinely seems to care more about understanding her than about figuring out if she’s dispensable. This, to her, means he loves her. Nothing very tangible comes out of this love. The summer after her freshman year, Selin travels to Hungary as a volunteer English teacher, largely because Ivan will be there, and the cycle repeats. In the end they have a climactic heart-to-heart that resolves nothing, and he leaves for Stanford to begin his PhD. It's unlikely they'll see each other again. In what amounts to almost a year of knowing each other, the closest they come to physical intimacy is when he playfully touches her ear. Reviewers have found this fact -- by far the most unusual fact about the story -- hard to account for. Some have dismissed it as an unfortunate flaw, or else, by glossing over it, implied that if sex is lacking it's because sex isn't what the book is about. Others have blamed the characters: either Selin is too much of a brain for physical intimacy (obviously contradicted by the text) or Ivan is, variously, not into her, emotionally unavailable, or a bad boy whose advances Selin wisely rejects. We don't have access to Ivan's thoughts, and there's plenty of evidence for a cynical reading of his character, but these explanations feel forced. He never makes a move on her. He always calls her first (when they agree once that she'll call first, he later admits he couldn't focus on his work, so wrapped up was he in waiting). He’s not a paragon of vulnerability, but he's available in ways that matter to Selin: “All I had to do was write him an email, and then he walked around with me all day long. Who else in the world would do that?” Still, they don’t manage to move beyond walking. Once in a while Ivan makes superficially enigmatic statements about how much “easier things would be” if they were intoxicated: [Ivan said,] “I’m not saying we have to get hammered…You just bypass the suffering…Something breaks down. I don’t know what to call it -- those blocks, that obstruct a connection in your mind.” “Inhibitions,” I said. “Yes, exactly,” he said. I felt my face flush. “I don’t mean,” he added, “that you never talk about sex, and then you get drunk and suddenly you can talk about sex.” “Right,” I said. Time passed. I was thinking about how much time we had, and how little, at the same time. At some point, Ivan ask if I liked doughnuts. If your sexual initiation didn't take place in a John Irving novel, perhaps this scene is familiar. You sit around with your love interest, talking in suggestive generalities, trying to bait them into making the first move. We usually call this shyness, a little-respected emotion, because we think of it as the fear of committing to an action that we’re sure is totally fine and normal. We tell shy people: "Get on with it!" This seems to be the frustration that many reviewers circle around. But I don’t think Selin's inhibitions are mere shyness. She seems, at least in those moments, certain of Ivan's interest. What she unconsciously fears, I believe, is that introducing the demands of physical desire into their relationship would compromise the notion of love that she has articulated, according to which Ivan loves her because he lets no worldly concerns get in the way of trying to understand her. 3. One of two books that Selin reads in Hungary is Thomas Mann’s 1924 bildungsroman The Magic Mountain. The book's protagonist, Hans Castorp, is a kind of proto-millennial: he visits his cousin in a sanatorium and ends up staying there for seven years, living off his trust fund, cultivating hobbies and becoming an unpaid DJ. Selin says she sympathizes with much in the book, especially how they always eat two breakfasts, but as I read The Idiot, I kept wondering what she thought about one of The Magic Mountain's more objectionable scenes. Midway through the story, Castorp sleeps with a very ill Russian girl named Clavdia Chauchat, who he’s been making eyes at for 250 pages. She promptly leaves the sanatorium, and he waits for her, feigning illness. When she returns, however, it's as the “traveling companion” of a Dutch colonialist, Pieter Peeperkorn, who, despite his advanced age, radiates a charisma that’s both Dionysian and Christ-like. Castorp is disappointed but, amiable as he is, he develops a friendship with the Dutchman. At one point the pair spend a drunk morning theorizing about the nature of female desire. They arrive at the conclusion that it's essentially passive: “Desire intoxicates the male,” Peeperkorn sums up. “The female demands and expects to be intoxicated by his desire.” Castorp is then able to confess his liaison with Chauchat, because, as he assures his friend, this liaison was entirely the result of his desire, and so shouldn’t reflect on the girl. The Dutchman more or less accepts this, saying, in short, if I were younger we might have to duel, but since I’m old, let’s make a bond of brotherhood instead. They drink to it. Not exactly edifying reading, but it states shamelessly the algebra of desire that was assumed to be true for centuries and which, though it has largely passed from our discourse, still governs, often against our wills, sexual dynamics between men and women. In this algebra, desire is not fulfilled by a man learning what a woman wants. What she wants is obvious -- she wants to be overwhelmed. The man's challenge is to rise to the occasion, not to speak the right words but merely to speak, as loudly and shamelessly as he can. Desire, then, is inseparable from power. What we desire is either to overpower or to be overpowered, and pleasure stems not from some combination of physical stimuli, not from being understood, but from how purely we're able to play one of those two roles. And you don’t need to be a dyed in leather BDSMer or under-informed about consent to admit, with however heavy a heart, that this dynamic remains for many people an aspect of sexual pursuit and fulfillment, and that the concept of "intoxicating male desire" remains embedded in customs of who makes the first move, who pursues and who encourages pursuit, who emulates strength and who emulates weakness. These notions of desire disquiet Selin, and not because she worries about consent. To the possibility that Ivan is trying to "push" her in "the scenario known to us both in which boys pushed girls," she says that was "so obviously not what was going on." Rather, it's the thought that power might in any way have anything to do with love that makes her anxious. This is most apparent in moments when Selin feels unexpectedly hurt, because it’s almost always when Ivan suggests, even in a trivial way, that he's aware of a power dynamic in their relationship. In one scene, he gives her a box of cookies to hold, and a dog that he’d been teasing with the cookies jumps on Selin, ruining her dress. Ivan jokes that he didn’t do it on purpose. “The sense of hurt," she says, "took my breath away. It would never have occurred to me that he had done it on purpose.” In their climactic heart-to-heart, when Ivan admits one of his hurtful emails was “a power thing”, her breath catches in her throat: “It had never occurred to me that power was something he would actually use, on me of all people.” For Selin, power seems inseparable from the competition for resources that she sees as antithetical to love. Power, she suspects, is always used for extraction. She sees it in The Beatles, whose “harmoniously innocent warbling” hides for her a “calculating cynical worldview” where they're "keeping tally, resenting [their girl] for making them show her the way, waiting to be pleased in return." As in most Beatles songs (except “Run For Your Life”), power and sex are not explicitly linked in The Idiot, but the hints are clear. After their first long night together, when he walks her home, she pre-empts any possibility of a kiss by leaving suddenly, and thinks she's "won." By extension, if she'd lingered, and shown that she expected something from him, he would have won, by giving her what she wanted, by showing her the way. It's their first moment of sexual tension, and one of the few times she uses such explicit language about winning and losing. Ivan is caught in a similar bind. On the one hand, as the more sexually experienced man, the aesthetics of his situation are less ugly, because in any power dynamic he would be the stronger, the “winner.” On the other hand, he can't bring himself to make the first move, because if he genuinely loves her he doesn't want to see her in a weaker position. The best he can do is hint at the sort of role he could play, and see how she reacts (not well). In Hungary they walk by a river and Ivan says that he wants to throw a stray dog into it. She asks why he’d want to do such a thing. He says rivers make him want to throw things into them, and jokes that he can’t throw her in. She knows this is "meant to sound playful," but feels “insulted and humiliated." Ivan reads her mood correctly: "I think you don’t like to throw the dog into the river.” I don't think Ivan would throw a dog into a river, and I don't think they're talking about dogs. As the story progresses there are hints that Selin might be, if not coming to terms with power dynamics, then at least becoming more aware of their pleasures. She starts enjoying The Beatles. Even as she's ashamed of it, she admits how much she likes following Ivan's instructions. The most revealing moment comes during their heart-to-heart. At one point he asks her about one of her letters, and Selin feels “a shock, like when he had mentioned power, but this time the feeling was intoxicating. I felt it, his power -- but like he was going to use it delicately -- but not like he wasn’t going to use it.” Batuman is a crystalline stylist. Whenever her sentence constructions feel awkward, a character is trying to express something that language has trouble expressing. Here, Selin glimpses, however hazily, a power dynamic redeemed, and immediately undoes her hair clip, letting her hair down. But the hair covers her face, her self, and within the same sentence, she clips it back up again. They talk for a while longer, and make some important admissions, but in the end nothing they say bridges the physical distance between them, not even when Selin consents to Ivan killing a moth that’s buzzing around her room. He doesn’t kill it. With her help, he lets it out the window. The next morning Selin ponders the prescience of Dr. Seuss: “We would not, could not, here or there. We would not, could not, anywhere.” 4. The sermonic version of The Idiot might conclude with this: if power compromises love, and sex involves power, then sex always compromises love. To be intoxicated by someone's power is to allow your love for them to be compromised. True love will not save you: the truer the love the deeper the compromise. I don't think Selin sees a way out of this predicament. After her big talk with Ivan, she has a dream. She's in a bathhouse, and Ivan walks in, except in the dream he’s also her brother. He is followed by a deluge of water. They hold one another. They say I love you. The water will drown them. Coldness and wetness, throughout the novel, are associated with death. If sex is a debasement of love, only one option remains to stay true to that love -- confess it and die, chastely in the arms of your brother. I found something admirable about Selin's stubborn skepticism, perhaps because it's grounded in her faith in language. She's not skeptical of what she's able to articulate, like her notion of love or her dislike of The Beatles. But when she arrives at something she can't justify or explain, like why power dynamics must exist between two people in love, or why we drink so much, she refuses to go forward, no matter how much convention nudges at her back. She'll believe in something, but not before it is made legible. Her insistence on an explanation stands in contrast to two ways in which the rest of us make do with our compromises (three if you count alcohol). The first is by not talking about them. Many of us have internalized some vague idea that sex, whatever its myriad pleasures, is symbiotic with love, and that the two together represent the highest interpersonal fulfilment we can reasonably expect to achieve. When this assumption almost inevitably fails to hold, we think, well, desire is a strange thing that can't be put into words anyway. This idea may seem obvious, because it's so pervasive, but I think Selin would call it willful ignorance. The second, more subtle way is by labelling the power dynamics involved in sexuality and seduction as “performative” and “arbitrary,” as if anything as basic as sex could ever be purely performative. Even if it were, it's not obvious that what we perform on a regular basis doesn’t change us or how we're perceived. If we perform weakness for our partner enough times, they may begin to believe we are weak, or dispensable, no matter how much they love us. It's the fear of this, I think, that keeps many people from expressing their desires precisely to the partners they love most. How can you really ask someone, whom you love and respect as an equal, to put either you or themselves in a position of desirable weakness? In the absence of physical intimacy, there's a limit to how deeply The Idiot can explore these questions. Batuman has said that this novel is the first of a series, and I suspect she'll go farther in its sequels (about one of which she said, "I want to write more about sex in this one; I think sex is a really big problem that people don’t acknowledge enough."). Still, if The Idiot only describes the tip of the problem, it nonetheless points out both the problem and how much our language, so at ease with describing linguistic theory and croissants, struggles to articulate it. At the same time, Batuman presents this struggle not as the product of a fundamental rift between what can and can't be articulated, but as a basic tension in our development as people. What Selin, in her grasping attempts to say how she feels about Ivan's power, comes to understand is that we will always be pressing up against a reality that we cannot yet put into words. We will always, at the margins of our experience, be struggling with a new language.
Reviews

Transforming Florida: On Sarah Gerard’s ‘Sunshine State’

  A mother of two used to dance at a Tampa-area club called Mermaids. She orgasmed while getting her lower back tattooed, she believes in the Illuminati, and claims to have been abducted by aliens. She believes the earth is hollow. She believes in psychics. You know her as Florida Woman, Florida Man’s less frequently but no less gleefully derided counterpart. To you and many others, these superficial details are not only funny, but further proof of Florida’s endemic, statewide wackiness. From a comfortable remove, you extrapolate. You link headlines into a constellation: Two Jailed in Tampon-Tossing Melee in Port St. Lucie Naked Man Accused of Home Break-In Just Wanted "Sesame Seeds For His Hamburger" Belching Shirtless Woman Says Deputy is "Sexiest Thing" Hubby Drove with Wife ON ROOF OF Sport Utility Vehicle Instead of Orion immortalized for his hunting prowess, this constellation forms a fisherman shooting himself in the junk. As the police blotter rolls, the headlines stack, and now the national conversation around the Punchline State is more roast than dialogue. These days, only West Virginians can relate to the plight of Floridians. In the rest of the nation’s eyes, the welcome signs on both state lines might as well read, Abandon all class, ye who enter here. But this cruel elision robs people of their humanity, and it ignores the conditions in which they exist. What's funny about addiction, about spousal abuse? What is it about the addition of palm trees that makes misery comical? It's telling that the butts of most "Florida Man" (or "Woman") jokes are working class, strung out, or mentally ill, and that they're set in a place ranked among the bottom half of all states in education, poverty rate, and mental health services. Sadness overcomes sunshine. Behind every failure lies a murdered dream. That Mermaids dancer, for instance, was once Sarah Gerard's closest friend. She's the subject of "BFF," the first essay in Gerard's outstanding new collection, Sunshine State. In a series of short, remembered vignettes, Gerard catalogs the times they shared - both good and bad - and how their lives collided, intertwined, and ultimately diverged. "You were the closest thing I had to a sister," Gerard writes, recalling their intimacy the way an amputee might remember a lost limb. There's a sustained ache throughout, a sincere frustration with childhood naiveté, personal limitations and betrayal. "There was so much I didn't know about you," Gerard confesses, "and I'm angry with you for thinking that I did. I'm angry with myself for failing to see it." Memories of her friend's youthful quirkiness give way over time to Gerard's recognition of the scars that shaped them. Recalling the friend's unpredictability and mistakes, Gerard searches for cause, asking, "Were you mad at your father, who choked your mother while you watched when you were three?” Or your then-boyfriend, who once swung the broad side of his shovel into your pelvis; who came home drunk one night and peed on you while you slept; who dragged you across your apartment by your hair; who, you once explained, you find sexy because he’s primal? "BFF" sets a tone for the seven other essays in the collection, which work together to subvert the most common tropes about Florida's antic madness. Instead they focus on humanizing the state's inhabitants - inhabitants with hopes and dreams, who cope with systemic and visceral issues all too frequently omitted from national headlines. As the one who got away from the state when her friend could not, Gerard feels guilty. "You haunt me in my everyday," she writes, simultaneously addressing her one-time friend, but perhaps also addressing her home state itself. Gerard's writing has been described as "unflinching," but perhaps the better terms are "generous" and "patient." Her patience is what gets her close enough to her subjects that she can round them out, exhibit their complexities, and her generosity is what keeps her from mocking them. "I searched for the proper way to respond," Gerard writes at one point, in the midst of a conversation with a good-hearted man who's nevertheless unwell, criminal, or some combination of the two. In Gerard's hands, the people who would ordinarily be flattened into condescending headlines are given space to take fuller shape, and she's able to pick at the scabs to probe the scars beneath. In Sunshine State's eight essays, Gerard covers her family's years in the New Thought movement ("Mother-Father God"), her father's interest in Amway ("Going Diamond"), her grandparents's twilight years ("Rabbit"), and her drug-addled adolescence ("Records"). She embeds with a recovering addict working to help the homeless ("The Mayor of Williams Park"). She investigates allegations of grift in a bird sanctuary ("Sunshine State"), and she reflects on her life's journey ("Before: An Inventory"). In that last one, built out of quick, diary-like observations written about the places she's traveled, readers can tell Gerard's getting close to Florida when the descriptions of lizards grow more frequent. Throughout, Gerard's essays traverse a complete spectrum of themes familiar to anyone who's spent time in Florida - drugs, teenage boredom, nature, fraud, faith, and homelessness - but they also ground these themes within Florida quite subtly. Gerard's focus is on the people, less so the place. Better still, her focus is on their states of mind, less explicitly on their state of residence. Those looking for beach walks, zaniness, and neon hijinks ought to look elsewhere, because in Sunshine State, Florida is cast in relief: she's the recurrent rain in the essay on homelessness; the radiant sun scarring spots into the conservationist's face; the memory of spurs stuck in a child's heels; the "lizards on the porch (looking weathered)." The conceit is powerful. Florida is a state in constant flux, at once being reclaimed by the sea as humans remake her in their own image. She shapes her inhabitants in ways they don't consciously recognize, and only after leaving do they realize what's happened. Awakening to a thunderstorm, Gerard writes that morning storms in Florida are "a special kind of sign, a reminder that you're trespassing on Mother Nature's turf--that everything you know could be washed away in an instant." Later, in "Mother-Father God," Gerard remembers her father's interest in New Thought literature, especially the work of Ernest Holmes, who taught that "people are at all times engaged in their own transformations." At the start of "Records," a pitch-perfect rendering of intense, suburban teenage boredom, Gerard refers to the whole period as her "year of living dangerously." It's a nod to the risks she takes, but it's also acknowledgment that the year ended, that a transformation took place - that it's been taking place the whole time. Sunshine State is a welcome addition to the Florida canon, not only because it vivifies the state's cartoonish image, but also because it demonstrates how continuous the act of transformation can be, and how being engaged with something is not the same as being happy about it.  
Reviews

Artistic Revolution: On China Miéville’s ‘The Last Days of New Paris’

China Miéville has been publishing speculative fiction for close to two decades, beginning with King Rat in 1998.  In the course of this career he has become known as the foremost exponent of the New Weird, rivaled only by Jeff VanderMeer.  VanderMeer and his wife, Ann VanderMeer, brought the existence of the fledgling subgenre to the attention of a wider reading public with The New Weird, the anthology they edited in 2008.  In his introduction, VanderMeer maintains that the (Old) Weird, which is epitomized by H.P. Lovecraft and includes the likes of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and William Hope Hodgson, is characterized by the combination of supernatural unease with visionary sensibility.  By contrast, the New Weird characteristically involves the triple combination of complex urban settings, surreal or transgressive horror, and covert or overt political awareness.  Miéville has prioritized the last of these in his critical work, describing the New Weird as a form of resistance against neoliberal globalization and rejecting the more inclusive definitions of the term.  This concern with the political in general and the relationship between art and politics in particular is conspicuous in The Last Days of New Paris, where it receives a singularly subtle treatment. It is difficult to avoid appreciating Miéville’s novella in one of two misleading contexts.  The first is as an Axis victory alternative history along the lines of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 The Man in the High Castle or Len Deighton’s 1978 SS-GB, both of which have been released as popular television series, the former in 2015 and the latter in January of this year.  The Last Days of New Paris weaves two narratives together – one set in a recognizable France of 1941 and the other in an unrecognizable Paris of 1950 -- and populates each with a mix of real and fictional people, but it does not invite one to ruminate on the possible consequences of, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s assassination (Dick) or a Luftwaffe victory in the Battle of Britain (Deighton).  Instead, the geopolitics that led up to and followed the “S-Blast” (presumably "surrealist blast"), the explosion that both created living manifestations of surrealist works of art and opened the gates of hell, are for the most part circumstantial.  The second context, which may be related to the first, is to see the novella as a response to the global rise of nationalism, often in extreme forms, in the second decade of the 21st century.  The phenomenon is no doubt of grave concern to Miéville, who is a left wing political activist, a founding member of the Left Unity political party, and a Marxist academic.  His third book on Marxism, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, is due for publication in May and has been praised for historical accuracy as well as effective storytelling.  In her review in the London Review of Books, Sheila Fitzpatrick writes of Miéville’s enthusiasm for the concept of revolution, and while his history may well be an artistic call for political revolt, The Last Days of New Paris is neither a call for resistance nor a naïve allegory of art’s revolutionary power. The novella consists of nine chapters, with the odd numbers devoted to events in the 1950 present and the even numbers to events in the 1941 past.  The story is followed by an afterword and notes section and my only criticism of the work concerns the inclusion of this supplementary material.  The afterword is subtitled “On Coming to Write The Last Days of New Paris” and constitutes a curious and anachronistic conceit in which Miéville claims to have met Thibaut, the fictional protagonist of 1950, and to have merely edited the manuscript passed to him.  This was a common device in Victorian fiction, a hangover from the novel as a literary form derived from history rather than poetry, and was supposed to enhance narrative verisimilitude.  Contemporary readers require no such faux guarantees, however, and the superfluity is exacerbated by Miéville’s reference to the sketches he has included.  The only illustration inside the book is a black and white frontispiece, a reproduction of the color cover which is in turn a reproduction of the exquisite corpse (a composite drawing or collaborative collage) created by André Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Jacqueline Lamba in 1938.  Miéville may be alluding to an illustrated edition that was either planned and abandoned or has yet to be published, or making a recondite joke, but the apparent slip is disconcerting for the uninitiated.  The notes are explanations of the artworks referred to in the narrative and feel gratuitous in an age where reader research is almost effortless, a glimpse behind the curtain that risks debasing the magic.  Miéville’s textual representations of these works are a seamless merging of the realistic with the oneiric and his expert evocation of the pervasive sense of the strange that is New Paris equips the reader with all he or she requires to experience the intense pleasure afforded by the novella. New Paris is Paris after the S-Blast, which occurred in 1941.  In Miéville’s alternative Europe, Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) -- the German drive to the Channel in May 1940 -- was sufficient to cause the collapse of France, making Fall Rot (Case Red, the push west and south the following month) unnecessary.  The S-Blast transformed Paris from a city of occupation to a city of resistance, with various French factions rising up against the Germans and the “battalions from below” rising up to join the chaos.  The resistance includes the Free French, led by Charles de Gaulle and backed by the United States, and the Main à plume, the surrealist irregulars, some of whom -- like Thibaut -- have been able to harness the power released by the detonation.  The most significant effect of the S-Blast was not the release of hell’s minions (who show only a passing interest in the city), but to create the living manifestations of surrealist artworks, “manifs,” that roam the streets either on their own or under the less than perfect command of surrealist or SS handlers.  By 1950 the Germans have sealed the city, which has become a "free-fire zone and hunting grounds for the impossible” and are attempting to destroy the resisters by all available means, including the control of manifs and devils and the creation of manifs of their own, using the work of National Socialist artists like Arno Breker.  The S-Blast has of course given literal meaning to metaphors such as art coming to life, having a life of its own, and being a form of life.  Similarly, this is art that wields power physically as well as through the imagination and emotions. The Last Days of New Paris is an extraordinarily original work that foregrounds Miéville’s considerable ingenuity and innovation.  The opening scene is wildly fantastic, a suicidal charge by the Vélo -- the manifestation of Leonora Carrington’s "I Am an Amateur of Velocipedes," a bicycle-woman centaur -- against the German lines.  There is also a satisfyingly overdetermined symmetry in the work’s design as the onset is bookended by the appearance of "Fall Rot," a Panzer III-giant man centaur, in the first stage of the story’s tripartite climax.  The symmetry is superbly complex: in the same way that science and the supernatural are the dual interests of Jack Parsons, the real-life protagonist of the 1941 narrative, so Fall Rot has been created by the combination of the biological experimentation of Josef Mengele and the perverted faith of Robert Alesch.  In a further parallel, both of the plots begin with the arrival of an American on the scene, Parsons in Vichy Marseilles in 1941 and an American photojournalist named Sam in the free part of Paris in 1950.  Sam is researching her own book, The Last Days of New Paris, a photographic essay-within-a-novella that pays homage to Dick’s The Grasshopper Lies Heavy novel-within-a-novel. Miéville is too sophisticated a writer to promote a conception of art as essentially opposed to oppression and his mention of Breker and the second part of the climax (which I shall not reveal) shows that he is well aware of the variety of ends art can serve.  While Breton’s surrealism provided a Marxist opposition to European fascism and American Fordism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s futurism provided active and enthusiastic support for Benito Mussolini, and the fascist sympathies of many prominent modernists are well documented.  Miéville is concerned with surrealism in particular over and above art more generally because movements like surrealism (and the New Weird in his own definition) resist nationalism and neoliberalism in virtue of being politico-artistic movements in the first instance.  Surrealism is not an artistic movement in the service of Marxism, but a Marxist artistic movement.  As such, The Last Days of New Paris calls for a revolt in art rather than a revolt in politics, for integrating politics into art rather than employing art as a means to political ends.  The link from New Paris to the contemporary world comes in the perfectly-pitched anti-climax with which the narrative concludes, as Thibaut takes it upon himself to write his own book, to start “from scratch, redo history, make it mine.”  In Thibaut’s return to the fray to write his revolution, Miéville urges readers to artistic revolt, to the reconception of art as essentially rather than circumstantially political and the New Weird as essentially rather than instrumentally resistant to nationalism and neoliberalism.
Reviews

Limits of the Soul: On Domenico Starnone’s ‘Ties’

When writers marry other writers, the union can prove to be painfully inequitable. One career often soars above the other, sometimes in a permanent fashion, with the spouse dwelling seemingly in the shadows. Nick Laird, despite his achievements as a prize-winning poet, is probably primarily recognizable to the public as the husband of Zadie Smith. Likewise, Raymond Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, is an accomplished but unheralded poet herself. Not since Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, one could argue, has there been a writer-couple of parallel impact, a husband and wife duo making contributions of equal standing to literary history. It was revealed last year that global phenomenon Elena Ferrante was married to another writer, Domenico Starnone, a name known primarily in Italian literary circles. Ferrante, of course, has achieved deserved renown in America and worldwide for her astounding Neapolitan tetralogy. As of now, Starnone, winner of one of Europe’s most prestigious literary awards, the Premio Strega, remains read and lauded mainly in his native Italy and parts of Europe. Yet if his brilliant new novel Ties (Europa Editions; translation by Jhumpa Lahiri) -- only his second to be translated into English -- is any indication, Starnone’s international reputation abroad may be due for a bump of its own. Starnone’s engrossing and masterful story of the Minori family, told from a trifecta of perspectives -- the betrayed wife’s letters in the opening section, the doddering husband’s viewpoint in the middle, the closing section recounted by the downtrodden adult daughter -- is almost too impeccable a work. Shaped and polished as meticulously as an Etruscan urn, no portion, no narrative ligament, no single word feels out of place. Starnone wastes no time gathering narrative steam but, almost before the first word is sounded, pitches the reader directly into the chaotic epicenter of a damaged couple’s erotic drama and then, in a way only geniuses can do, guides the tale grippingly toward a conclusion that has that rare combination of qualities: stupendous unpredictability alongside perfect inevitability. “All great art is inevitable,” goes the (probably apocryphal, but no less true) Leonard Bernstein aphorism. One lays down Starnone’s novel in the end almost exhausted at what the form can still do to us. The basic story itself is familiar. A man, Aldo Minori, betrays his wife, Vanda, and the resulting emotional devastation wrought upon the family, including their children, Anna and Sandro, turns out to be of far greater magnitude and implication than could have been predicted. Aldo’s world, inner and outer, becomes vulnerable to the savages of grief, fury, and revenge. For decades he tries to contain the damage, repress his past, but is thwarted by his own bungling aloofness and flawed memory. Using the simple conceit of infidelity and the protagonist’s futile attempts to transcend the past, Starnone manages to capture a glimpse of a human emotional universe much larger, far grander, and more intimidatingly incomprehensible than one could have imagined. Then as the simple machinery of the Naples-based drama churns, as Aldo Minori’s nose is forced into the filth of his past, a theme emerges that transcends the novel’s overlapping sub-themes of desire, escape, betrayal, family, discontent, chaos, time, and the myth of Pandora’s box -- it’s the idea of the nature of the human soul. What, if anything, does the soul contain? The familiar Delphic maxim “know thyself” comes to mind -- but can we really know ourselves, our souls? What is it that can or should be known? Why does Aldo, an ostensibly ordinary or even decent man, behave the way he does, why does anyone? During my reading of Starnone, I happened to come across another piece of wisdom, a fragment by Heraclitus that seemed more to the point. Heraclitus wrote: “You will not find out the boundaries of the soul, even by traveling along every path: so deep a measure does it have.” Here, the soul is not knowable at all, not inwardly containable, but just the opposite, it casts us outward, conceiving of the spirit as an infinite shadow-complex in which the person travels upon endless roads, drifting in a permanent state of displacement. Heraclitus’s forte was the metaphysics of inconstancy -- chaos, change, transformation, contradiction, the ceaseless disorder of the human spirit -- and it’s the idea of chaos itself, the eruption of dissonances between action and reaction, around which Starnone’s novel coheres. In the visual center of the novel, as Aldo Minori picks through documents containing his life’s work that had been scattered around the apartment after a mysterious act of vandalism in his home, the writer says of himself: Was I that stuff?...A concrete accumulation, through decades, of papers, hand-written, printed, a trail of scrawls, reports, pages, newspapers, floppy discs, USB fobs, hard disks, the cloud? My potential realized, Myself made real: that is to say, a chaos that could overflow, if I just typed Aldo Minori, from the living room to the Google archives? The examination of his own writing seems to show that all that work the aging artist did throughout his life was, itself, a regime of containment, a futile attempt to make knowable an unpredictable soul, an unwinnable struggle to which, as it happens, no less are his daughter and wife later fated. As are we, perhaps. What’s instantly noticeable about the book is the extent to which Ties is in conversation with Elena Ferrante’s early novel The Days of Abandonment. Both stories take place in Naples; both books are the same manageable read-in-one-sitting length. In both, a woman and her children are abandoned for no apparent reason by a man of good standing. Only, in Ferrante, we strictly follow Olga, the embittered wife, whereas in Domenico Starnone we cling largely but not only to betrayer Aldo Minori’s viewpoint and then to the perspectives of his wife and daughter. This is entirely appropriate, given that the central ideas in either book are essentially at odds. Ferrante turns us inward, forcing Olga to attempt to “know thyself,” an effort that, after a string of gut-wrenching domestic horrors, delivers her to her own body, her Self, her striving to know what lay within. Starnone does the perfect opposite, forces Aldo outward, revealing the soul’s ongoing volcanic eruption, the eternal outflow of indecipherable Everything, of which he is fated to learn nothing at all. It’s an interesting thought to imagine Ferrante and Starnone in dinnertime back-and-forths over the issue. Elena shouting “Within, within!” while Starnone barks back “Without, without!” The eternal question is never really laid to rest, can never quite leave them be, even after the publication of two brilliant novels on the topic. They are fated -- perhaps as all married couples are fated -- to engage in an unwinnable battle in which both are right, yet both wrong, and for which a satisfactory conclusion can neither rightly be drawn nor, perhaps, should be.
Reviews

Managed Discontents vs. Unimaginable Misery: On ‘A Line Made by Walking’

To the right of the entrance to my house stands a distinctly ragged old tree. The tree hangs limply for two thirds of the year until it starts to stir around February. A brilliant golden bulb starts to peek out from under its previously harsh exterior and by the beginning of March, the tree is flecked with gold. It starts to shed this gold almost immediately, leaving the effect of a just missed confetti shower around my driveway. In November 2015, I attended a reading from Jonathan Franzen in Dublin. Franzen was on something of a mammoth promotional tour for Purity -- his fifth and possibly most polarizing novel. After the reading and a standard interview, the floor was opened up for questions. One attendee asked him to relay a story about him once pointing out a beautiful bird to the late David Foster Wallace. He was visibly irritated by the question and batted it away. The snippet of a story about the bird comes from Franzen's 2011 New Yorker essay "Farther Away," in which he explores the impact Wallace's death had on him while bird watching on a remote island off the coast of Chile. He sums up the difference between his own "manageable discontents" and Wallace's "unimaginable misery:" Once, when we were driving near Stinson Beach, in California, I’d stopped to give him a telescope view of a long-billed curlew, a species whose magnificence is to my mind self-evident and revelatory. He looked through the scope for two seconds before turning away with patent boredom. "Yeah," he said with his particular tone of hollow politeness, “it’s pretty.” The objects and passions which sustain us are not the immediate subject of Sara Baume's A Line Made By Walking. It begins with an explanation of how narrator Frankie's grandmother died. A passing in the night, notable for the storm that uprooted a nearby tree. Frankie takes a branch of this tree and says she loves it for marking her grandmother's death. She goes to live in her grandmother's house and begins a project of photographing dead animals. She establishes some rules for this project: she must not be involved in their death in any way and she cannot photograph any creature that is merely wounded. The novel is marked by her photos of these creatures -- a badger, a rabbit, a rat, a robin -- and they become her documentation of a world that is dying around her. Early during her stay, Frankie comes across a number of "weird" trinkets that her mother has deemed to be sufficiently important to save from a clear out. She wonders what it is about these nondescript items that moved her mother to make such a decision. Why a small Eiffel Tower or a "wobble legged beetle in a nutshell" was worthy of keeping. Were they infused with her grandmothers gaze she asks? Was it because they kept her company during her final weeks? That they may have some sentimental value -- some cliched idea of worth because of circumstance -- never occurs to her. Aside from her photographs of dead animals, the novel is punctuated by the narrator testing herself on all manner of art projects. "Works about running, I test myself;" "Works about bed, I test myself;" "Works about flowers, I test myself;" -- in every instance Frankie displays almost total recall of the detail behind a particular art project and her interpretation of it. We are left with the impression of someone who believes they have failed at art and needs to test themselves in order to keep some idea of a passion alive. There is a regret about art here -- that it could not sustain her. It could not facilitate her manageable discontents. The fingerprints and shadow of Frankie's grandmother stalk the house, from the smell of her now dead dog to the creaks and murmurs of a house in disrepair, its loyalties still lie with its old occupant and Frankie is drawn to this. She is drawn to living in someone else's world, of sustaining someone else's life. Throughout the novel, Frankie remembers various episodes from her childhood. One such episode details a wheelchair bound friend in school who suffers a fall. She wails and screams and continues even when she has been picked up. Frankie equates this screaming with the girl's realization of all of the "cumulative indignity of every compromised school day gone by and yet to come, by the weeks after weeks after weeks of unspeakable unfairness which would not stop, not ever." The girl's façade of strength evaporates and we are led into her horror -- for Frankie, the scream is never about one incident, it's about all of the incidents to come. All of the dead things that will lie around her. A Line Made by Walking has the unusual quality of documenting Frankie's descent into depression and yet celebrating aspects of life taken for granted. By its end, Frankie is continuing her journey and cannot offer us any real kind of resolution, she is just going to keep moving. She is going to keep testing herself and hope things will get better. Frankie's tale reminds us that that gold confetti falls everywhere, we just need to see it and not merely look at it. But the book's great power is helping us to better understand those who can only look. It helps us understand the difference between managed discontents and unimaginable misery.
Reviews

Some Necessary French Pessimism

Over the past few months, bookstores have seen a spike in the sale of dystopian novels. George Orwell’s 1984 reached the top of Amazon’s bestseller list in January, followed soon after by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Predictably, this news was fox chased by trend piece writers -- who then became the target of protesting think piece writers: “Forget Nineteen Eighty-Four. These five dystopias better reflect Trump’s US” shouted one; “Grave New World: Why "Nineteen Eighty-Four" is not the book we need in the Trump era,” claimed another. Meanwhile, away from the mud and scrum, in the hothouse of independent publishing, French author Antoine Volodine’s eighth book in English translation, Radiant Terminus, was released by Open Letter. Deftly translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, it’s the first major apocalyptic novel to come out in a year stacked with books in the genre, notably Omar El Akkad’s American War and David Williams’s When the English Fall. As with most titles without big marketing budgets, Radiant Terminus may struggle to find its way into popular discourse. This is a shame. Not just because it’s the most stylistically courageous, entertaining dystopian novel in recent memory, but because of all possible scenarios leading to our cataclysmic end, the one imagined by Volodine might be among the timeliest. Rather than caused by the direct result of aggression, he envisions the world ruined by a bright idea. Far in the future -- keep following, this shouldn’t take more than a minute -- engineers of the Second Soviet Union beat warheads into sizzling fuel rods, transforming their planet into a hive of energy self-sufficient cities, resource extraction centers, and prison camps, each powered by a nuclear reactor. But after generations of implied slack and harmony, the reactors fail, a cascade of nuclear meltdowns follow, and this “project of the century,” born of the purest egalitarian spirit, collapses society. Entire continents become uninhabitable. Dog-headed fascists lunge from their dens. Counter-revolutionary armies raze oblast after irradiated oblast. It’s here that Radiant Termius begins. And where the fun begins. Narrowly escaping the fall of the last fortified city, comrade-soldier Kronauer flees into the Siberian taiga. In scenes evoking visions of present-day Chernobyl -- birch roots wedging cracks in irradiated concrete, atomic heaps steaming under evergreen canopies -- he seeks help from a settlement believed to be across the steppe, within a dark wood. As if stumbling into a folk tale dreamt by Strugatsky Brothers, the crippled kolkhoz that Kronauer enters is nuclear-powered yet primordial, existing in a fabulist realm between dreams and reality. This community of “Radiant Terminus,” whence the book gets its title, is led by the monstrous Solovyei, “a gigantic muzhik in his Sunday best, with a beard and a wreath of hair sticking out here and there as if run through by an electrical current.” Unfortunately for Kronauer and all those who meet him, Solovyei is a jealous giant, a twisted psychic tyrant. In the words of one victim: Nobody was permitted to exist in the kolkhoz unless he’d gotten control over them in the heart of their dreams. No one was allowed to struggle in his or her own future unless he was part of it and directing it as he wished. Rather than fell Kronauer with his axe, Solovyei makes him a prisoner of the communal farm. Expected to work on pain of being cast as a drain on socialist society, Kronauer meets Radiant Terminus’ residents: Solovyei’s three grown daughters, all prey to their father’s incestuous, oneiric violations; a handful of shambling proles; and Gramma Ugdul, the witchy keeper of a radioactive well, two kilometers deep, at the bottom of which lies a reactor in eternal meltdown. Together they join in the endless labor of gathering and “liquidating” irradiated items by hurling them down Ugdul’s abyss. The book’s heroic narrative progresses with dreamlike logic, leading, as most would expect, to an almost unbearably tense confrontation between Kronauer and Solovyei. What results isn’t an end. Instead, it precipitates a pivot in the narrative -- or, better described: a concussive break of the central narrative, cracking the skull of the story, opening a consciousness unable to differentiate between nightmares and waking life, declamations and ramblings, physics and shamanism, she and they, he or I. If this all seems odd, it is -- in the best sense. Part of the joy of the book is the playful seriousness with which Volodine goes about his world building; another is spotting his influences. Samuel Beckett is clearly one. So are the aforementioned Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, perhaps best known for their 1971 sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, adapted into the feature film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. The nightmarish, irradiated atmosphere of that world -- a world in which the most terrifying perils lie unseen, often imperceptible -- is reflected in Volodine’s. So too are other fantastic elements, including Solovyei’s psychic projections. In Radiant Terminus, what Volodine brings to the French -- and now, through Zuckerman, to the English -- is perspective on a genre that’s refreshingly distinct from the two or three upsetting novels America read in high school. Unlike 1984 or Brave New World, he evokes a post-urban dystopia -- a communal, agrarian dystopia, slowly receding into an apocalypse of open steppes and endless woodland. This may seem unprecedented, but not within the Russian tradition. After witnessing the Terror Famine of 1932 and 1933, Andrey Platonov wrote The Foundation Pit, a brilliant short novel brought to English by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson in 2009. Unpublished in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, it follows a team of rural workers tasked with excavating the foundation of an unimaginably brilliant edifice, a “future building for the proletariat.” With little prospect of seeing the project realized, they spade deeper into the clay, oblivious to the pit’s semblance to a mass grave. Meanwhile, in the village where the workers are barracked, an activist hurries along the process of total collectivization -- culminating with the gathering and liquidation of the region’s kulaks. The satiric atmosphere of The Foundation Pit is so toxic with jargon and slogans that the prose itself mutates; description becomes sooty with language from official mouthpieces: “Most likely the rooks felt like departing ahead of time,” the narrator muses as a worker scans the sky, “in order to survive the organization collective-farm autumn in some sunny region and return later to a universal institutionalized calm.” In Radiant Terminus, Solovyei’s psychic intrusion into his subjects’ minds, his joy at “walking supreme throughout [their dreams]” seems only a fantastic reframing of what Platonov’s diggers experience when they return to their barracks, “furnished with a radio … so that during the time of rest each of them might acquire meaning of mass life”: This oppressed despair of soul from the radio was sometimes more than Zhachev could endure, and, amid the noise of consciousness pouring from the loudspeaker, he would shout out: “Stop that sound! Let me reply to it!” Adopting his graceful gait, Safronov would immediately advance forward. “Comrade Zhachev, that’s more than enough…It’s time to subordinate yourself entirely to the directive work of the leadership.” This same imperative hits Kronauer when he first steps into the boundary of Radiant Terminus, halting at the sound of a piercing whistle. Hands over his ears, he looks to his guide, one of Solovyei’s subordinated daughters. Her eyes were obstinately focused on the tips of her boots, as if she didn’t want to watch what was happening. —It’s nothing, she said finally. We’re in one of Solovyei’s dreams. He’s not happy that you’re here with me. Kronauer walked up to Samiya Schmidt and looked at her, aghast. He kept his ears covered and he found it necessary to talk loudly to make himself heard. Within the communities of both novels, truth is subservient to the barreling pace of activity: neither Solovyei nor the unseen spirit of Stalin would pause to consider the objection to a posited statement: in company, with frenetic movement and reprisals, they act as their will dictates; in seclusion, behind doors barred to dissent, they recuse themselves from question. Unlike the urban 1984 and Brave New World, where rigid control is needed to maintain the hard science fiction of the state, the rural setting of these two microcosmic dystopias can tolerate facts that counter its leaders. They’re simply ignored or dismissed, brushed away by hapless followers. Existing within a cycle of work and days, the power of these tyrants becomes as intemperate and natural to them as the weather -- even, to some, as entertaining. All considered, it wouldn’t be wrong to view the kolkhoz of Radiant Terminus as reconstruction of the village of The Foundation Pit. Stolen from the Russian, charged with psychosis, radiation, and incest, Volodine rebuilt it slat by slat, hut by hut, within a darker world. In his foreword to the novel, Brian Evanson reminds us that Radiant Terminus is just one book in a forty-nine volume set that, when complete, will form Volodine’s ambitious, interconnected “post-exoticist” project. “One of the key features of [his] work,” Evanson explains, “comes in the echoes that operate both within individual books and between books.” Certainly, within the book’s last quarter, these echoes rebound -- becoming as taxing on the reader as they are to Volodine’s characters: —It’s just repetition, Noumak Ashariyev insisted. It’s hell. —It’s not just hell, Matthias Boyol corrected. It’s more that we’re within a dream that we can’t understand the mechanisms of. We’re inside, and we don’t have any way of getting out. Long after the point is taken, the book persists, nearly to the point of page-flipping exhaustion -- the same exhaustion that meets every reader of Bouvard and Pécuchet -- but it would be cruel to dismiss Radiant Terminus on this charge. In truth, to be fair -- what other conclusion could we expect? “Death occurs,” John Berger wrote, “when life has no scrap to defend.” At the end of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, as either implied by or explicitly stated in their respective appendices, future academics discover the texts or recordings that form the books’ core narratives. But in Radiant Terminus, in a future irreversibly collapsed from the start, there are no academics -- only snow, steppes, a shamble of survivors, “existences wasted and millennia gone for nothing.” Without the ability to rebuild civilization, the novel, its world, and its world’s inhabitants lose common language and temporality: overcast months become years, years become decades, decades become “one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six years or more.” As humanity atomizes and recedes, surrounded by Platonov’s “universal enduring existence,” its narrative deltas into a frozen sea. As Ben Ehrenreich wrote in his exploration of Volodine’s “post-exoticist” project for The Nation, “this, you’ll remember, is literature of defeat”; Radiant Terminus offers nothing in the way of hope. But perhaps an injection of French pessimism is warranted -- overdue for those who still assume the spirit of humanism to be indomitable. Volodine reminds us of a truth we can easily forget, distracted, as we often are, by the luxuries of technology and moral outrage: namely, that the civilization we’ve inherited is an heirloom so terribly precious, at risk of shattering into one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six irreparable pieces, yet in constant motion -- passed and plundered from generation to generation, hand to shaking hand. At the height of the Cold War, in his speech to the Swedish Academy, Solzhenitsyn claimed that the massive upheaval of Western society is “approaching that point beyond which the system becomes metastable and must fall.” Over the decades that followed, most considered his prediction delusional. Today, to many, it seems less so. Future scholars may agree or disagree, but only in the chance they exist. As Radiant Terminus demonstrates, Kafka’s axe -- the axe of a book that can split the frozen sea -- is useless without the knowledge to wield it as a tool. Present circumstances considered, the thought alone makes Orwell and Atwood seem cheery.