My latest attempt to understand Philip Roth’s work is reading American Pastoral. It is set in a changing Newark, and features Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov as its protagonist, struggling keeping his factory open and his American dream alive through the 1960s.
- There is a novel-within-a-novel here, as we are unsure if the Swede actually exists or is merely the figment of Nathan Zuckerman’s imagination (Zuckerman is Roth’s narrator and feels a lot like Roth). We find out that the Swede is a person based on other people’s memories of him as Zuckerman talks to folks at his 45th high school reunion, but the recreation that we get does not include parts of the Swede’s life (a second marriage with sons).
- I was shocked to see how many bombings the Weathermen had done over the years. I don’t remember them as a reign of terror, which confuses me in the age of amber alerts, when we are supposed to be afraid all the time. Maybe my parents just kept us out of the fear, and of course I couldn’t read all the Twitter posts debating the bombers so I couldn’t, perhaps, get worked up about it.
- The novel feels Proustian in its intense immersion into characters’ heads, ranging from Swede to his first wife Dawn. Zuckerman as narrator invokes Proust, so I’m guessing the model is deliberate.
- The Swede is as caucasian as a Jew can get – nordic looks, blonde hair, factory owner, star athlete, married to an Irish-Catholic beauty queen, the works. Roth uses that juxtaposition neatly to talk about some of the contradictions at the heart of American Judaism – political progressivism with belief in capitalism, marginalized ethnicity vs. desire to be a part of the US mainstream, a need to be patriots (Levov is Marine vet) vs. an understanding of some of the basic contradictions of American society (and the resulting desire to tear that society apart).
- Roth’s American Pastoral is distinctly east coast and suburban. The Swede moves with his family to the farm country of New Jersey, and they go so far as to become almost gentlemen farmers, with the Swede driving in to his factory everyday in Newark (at least until he has to close up shop).
- The horror seems to come from the fact that the product of the perfect Jewish family can become an American-bred terrorist who bombs post offices as part of the Weathermen. That’s the question I can’t figure out – it feels as if Roth is looking to identify the sources of Merry’s radicalisation, and if so then he seems to identify them as equally part being a Jew in America and the United States’s bloody history of conquest. I’m not sure that blame is what Roth is trying to apportion – I’m reminded of an admonition that I heard lots of times in grad school and that I take to heart, that the best novels feature really smart people wrestling with nearly intractable problems – but some sort of trying to understand is definitely happening here.
- I’m tempted to see this novel as indictment of parents who try to understand their kids, but that might be too easy on my part…
- I struggle though with thinking of this novel as a study of why folks become radicals .Merry’s stuttering, her inability to live up to the glamour of her parents, her exposure to radical politics in NYC, these all felt too easy to me as a sort of psychological understanding of why people become radicalized.
After reading Lord’s Redemption in Indigo I felt the need to look up more of her novels, and downloaded The Best of All Possible Worlds from my local library. It’s completely different in setting although sort of similar in its intense concentration on relationships and what an earlier time might have called domesticity.
- Somehow, Lord writes a novel that describes both the plight and the courage of refugees that feels both grounded in realistic human behaviors and feels apolitical. I’m not saying it is apolitical, but…
- The ways in which the home planet of Terrans accepts their near-cousins (the Sadiri) neatly emphasizes how racial identity is a social construct. Terrans are capable of the same mental capabilities, but cultural differences and emphases have produced one race that relies on the powers of meditation and control and other that is more grounded in emotions and the qualities of resilience.
- Lord’s desire to add how partnerships and relationships are developed in different cultures to the scifi oeuvre would probably have made my teenage self go ewww, but reading these now makes perfect sense. I found the novel to be the sort that I trouble putting down despite the biggest risk to the protagonist being a former lover who controls people telepathically (but who is put in jail by those who set the standards for telepathic behavior) and losing her career over a move to get a slavery ring into the public eye. Not exactly riveting-type The Expanse-style stuff, but not romance fodder either.
- Her desire to make space not just human but also factor in what feel like genetic mutations of humans that did not originate on Earth is pretty cool. The novel does not make this connection explicit, but I get the feeling that the origin point of humanoid species is not Terra…
- Her questions about what constitues ideal masculinity are also pretty interesting, and helped me think about the ways in which scifi continuously constructs masculinity in what often feels like a retro fashion even with a generic history that includes Thomas Disch and Samuel R. Delaney.
The third book in the Sharpe series, Sharpe’s Fortress, has him at Wellesley’s attack on Gawilghur in 1803. The British take the fort, and end up not even suffering all that heavy of casualties, and Sharpe fights his last battle in India before he heads back to England for the next set of battles, this time involving Napoleon.
- This novel follows along the same lines – Sharpe is a hero, a warrior, someone who consistently uses his street-fighting background to be a great soldier. Hakeswill is still a cartoon character – I imagine him as Bluto, only less realistic – and British officers are divided into those who recognize Sharpe’s worthiness and those who can’t see beyond their class blinders.
- As a cypher, I’m becoming increasingly fascinated by Sharpe. Cornwell apologizes in an author’s note at the end of Sharpe’s Fortress to Colonel Campbell, who he gives an auxiliary role to in the improvised move to climb the wall in an undefended place, a move that allows the British to take the fort relatively easily. I don’t know how many British soldiers from the ranks became officers, but based on the need for money (the commission system of becoming an officer and raising a regiment) I can’t believe that it was many.
- From a story-telling standpoint, Sharpe as cypher enables Cornwell all kinds of latitude in looking at a wide range of lives in both the British Army and the army of the East India Company. He refines this technique in the Grail Quest series, and his portrayals become much more realistic and perhaps a bit humbler, but the use of the cypher gives him range he wouldn’t otherwise have as someone writing historical fiction.
- I don’t think I realized exactly how the British colonialisation of India worked, at least in regards to having a private company utilize an army to ensure their profitability. That is a scary model for the future, I’m guessing, but Blackwater will become the new East India Company if the current administration has anything to say about it. I can see nothing wrong with that plan.
- The ease with which the British take a fortress that had never been taken by an enemy shows the frightening power of artillery. It reminds me of a co-worker at the time of the first Gulf War who had received all his images of combat from war movies. He was amazed at how destructive artillery is, how many casualties it accounts for – he thought that most casualties came from soldiers shooting each other. I completely understand how he came to this point of view.
- Cornwell also identifies the range of nationalities involved in the war, with the British and French aligning with various members of the Indian royalty, and Arab mercenaries joining the fight on both sides as well. Clearly, war is expensive, although if what it enables a country to do is to gain a monopoly on trade and collect egregious taxes than I guess it can be profitable.
- I keep thinking, though, about how many humans over the centuries have died in these type of small “engagements.” I can’t think of a grand statement here that fits…machismo, hard-wiring for territorial acquisition, capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, tribalism – they all speak to a part of the picture.
The sixth in the series (and the last one that’s been published), Babylon’s Ashes takes humanity back to the ring gate. It’s more space opera, more of our favorite characters never really seeming at risk, and more of the same leadership (the Martians change, but after their one general betrays half the navy they didn’t have much of a choice). And also more of a logical move towards the stars.
- I have to remember that this is scifi, and that obvious solutions are often the best. The author’s inventiveness, I think, lies not in who among the characters does what, but in the scenarios that they imagine.
- For instance, the solution to the fact that the Rocinante is overwhelmed lies in one character’s ability to recognize patterns, but that solution itself is a very clever way to avoid a deus ex machina and yet solve the problem posed by the battle configuration. They set this up nicely so that the solution – although it requires some ingenuity and pattern matching – does not appear to be thrown in.
- Holden and the narrator feel very close in this novel. Holden is on a mission to help humanity sees its commonalities. The destruction of Earth has been caused by extreme tribalism, although the point of views from the side of the most extreme tribalists are supposed to help us feel more sympathy for them (they do the opposite), and both the narrator and Holden spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the ways in which we try to kill each other despite all this great promise. I get it – Corey doesn’t want to write about war, but man that’s just how it is – we somehow need to kill each other. Hard to argue with that…
- For all that, I appreciate that these ships are not shooting lasers at each other but are instead still slinging big hunks of metal (albeit technologically-intensive) through space, and there are no ‘shields’ designed to mitigate damage but instead counter-measures that involve masses of metal and rock hitting each other.
- Humans are starting to utilize what they’ve learned through the protomolecule, and one of the cool things about this series is when it delves into the research that’s happening. There are chapters from the point of view of scientists, and without getting too nerdy (I think – it can be hard for me to tell) Corey portrays the difficulties of living in the stars while also portraying the pressures to keep moving outward.
- These pressures are not the glorious Star Trek bullshit, kowtowing to humanity’s desire to explore and discover – no colonialist sympathizing here. Instead, we are portrayed as a species that struggles to live within some sort of homeostatic framework, and that failure also forces us to find new worlds to exploit.
- The next couple of novels are set up for the move past the ring. Humanity essentially has no choice because of the fanatics in the Free Navy, and the powers-that-be are finally blessing this choice.
- For all that I get frustrated with the heroes-by-chance trope that Corey indulges in, the prognoses about science and humanity’s move to the asteroid belt is pretty cool stuff…
Pattern Recognition is the first of the Blue Ant novels, which I am reading out of order. While I missed the series of events that create the lived experiences of these characters, I did not feel like I couldn’t understand what Zero History was doing, which is probably either a tribute to Gibson’s incredibly dense prose style or a write-off of the repeatability of his storylines. In this one Cayce Pollard meets Hubertus Bigend for the first time, and he sends her to find the source of some mysterious videos that have appeared on the internet and that look like a fascinating combination of artistic invention and underground digital distribution. She has been following these videos intently as part of an online community, and she by trade is a cool-hunter, so she is the logical choice (rather than a detective, many of whom have already been hired to find these videos and their source) to pursue the leads. After much digging, she meets the person(s), and Bigend’s Blue Ant agency continues on its paradigm-shifting ways in creating marketing campaigns (or so we assume) by absorbing the lessons therein.
- Gibson’s obsession with how digital culture moves forward is consistent from his Neuromancer trilogy days. He’s moved on from Deep State conspiracies though to look more at how brands establish themselves, but like in Neuromancer he’s still fascinated with underground distribution and folks who create without worrying about acquiring wealth.
- Cayce earns her keep because she has a sixth sense about trademarks, but this sixth sense costs her because she gets physically ill looking at ones that don’t fit the pattern that she recognizes as cool…which is a horrible word here, as Gibson’s narrator (or maybe Cayce) says itself.
- It’s an easy critique to note that Bigend is the wealthy benefactor, a deus ex machina of sorts, but my guess is that Gibson is more focused on his usual obsession with when-it-all-changed moments than he is in recreating an 18th century conception of art patrons being the only ones capable of supporting artists and moving art forward.
- He recalls his own Cornell boxes in here, the one moment in the Neuromancer series that felt sort of odd amidst all the bloodshed and mayhem and shadowy assassin types hunting AIs on the verge of becoming sentient. Those Cornell boxes were his attempt to steer the conversation to machine-produced art, or art that comes about as a result of technogenesis, and as such led the way to this Blue Ant series.
Exit West is the first novel written by Hamid that I’ve read, and I will read more. This novel follows Saeed and Nadia as they flee their unidentified country and go through a series of metaphorical doors that lead to other places in the world. Thoughts:
- Hamid’s use of metaphorical doors neatly characterizes what must feel like the random and arbitrary nature of current migration patterns and policies. The doors are hard to find (indeed, often requiring some sort of mystical connection and a power that can command hard currency), but once found they remain open until they are guarded or closed forcefully.
- The gradual closing down of Saeed and Nadia’s city is portrayed generically enough, I think, to make it stand in for any ideological or political movement. Hamid’s point is not to condemn a specific revolution – I think instead he is trying to humanize those who appear only as distant images on our teevee screens. He does this.
- He includes little snippets from other lives throughout, and the lives do not always directly connect. These interludes relieved narrative pressure while also giving me a sense of the concurrency of other lived experience around the globe.
- I almost postponed reading this one, but I’m thankful that I took the time. The images that kept coming to my mind are ones that often appear in my head with literature that I resonate with – scenes of almost pen-and-ink drawn green hills with lone trees, with clean lines that do not include the dirt and grime of ordinary living, spaces that echo with possibility and potential, and that also seem gentle and humble. It’s not that Hamid ignores the bad stuff; instead, he seems far more interested in how folks carve meaningful existences out of miserable fates.
- Near the end (but not at the end, where they actually return for at least a visit to their former homes), they end up in a refugee commune outside of Marin. This place is as close to utopic as Hamid goes, I’m guessing.
…the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge,unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief. (129)
- He also characterizes the feeling of watching your city disappear under a conflict that does not involve you, as particularly described in a scene in which she thinks herself the object of a photograph released on social media onlyh to find out that it wasn’t her.
…and she was startled, and wondered how this could be,how she could both read this news and be this news, and how the newspaper could have published this image of her instantaneously, and she looked about for a photographer, and she had the bizarre feeling of time bending all around her, as though she was from the past reading about the future, and she almost felt that if she got up and walked home at this moment there would be two Nadias, that she would split into two Nadias, and one would stay on the steps reading and one would walk home, and two different lives would unfold for these two different selves, and she thought she was losing her balance, or possibly her mind, and then she zoomed in on the image and saw that the woman in the black robe reading the news on her phone was actually not her at all. (96)
The Plot Against America finally came up on in my library list after having been on hold for weeks, so even though I’m trying to concentrate on southern gothic and magical realist fiction right now I plowed through it. I probably didn’t give it as a close a reading as it deserved, and I’m not sure I enjoyed it necessarily, but it also felt very appropriate in our current political climate.
Twelve-year-old Philip Roth is our narrator, and he tells us the story of Charles Lindbergh’s rise to power as the 33rd president. In this rethinking of our history, Lindbergh is only defeated after disappearing in what might be a plane crash, with the subsequent martial law declarations triggering an uprising spearheaded by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Essentially, the US comes to its senses, another election is held, and FDR resumes the presidency. We then enter WWII.
- Telling the story from a twelve year old’s perspective adds anxiety and fear that might not have been as compelling as if the narrator was an adult.
- Roth wrote the novel in 2004, and some of the parallels to our current political discourse feel prescient – both sides call each other fascist, for instance – while others feel consistent with past fascist tropes – peace through strength.
- The ending – the essential decency of people comes through in the end – felt a bit rushed. I’m guessing that Roth didn’t want to go whole hog into Harry Turtledove territory, which makes sense if his mission is to explore possible ways that anti-semitism becomes the type of force that can win an election.
- He hints at other types of discrimination (racism, anti-Catholicism) in ways that having his narrator being a young boy allows him to simply hint at. For instance, at one point Philip tells us that his recent-immigrant Italian neighbor doesn’t have to worry about discrimination since he’s a Catholic. Roth leaves that sentence hanging on his own in a way that calls attention to its naivete and biased perspective.
- And, once again, I’m afraid that I am missing the power of one of Roth’s novels, as I read over and over again about how he is one of our greatest living novelists. The narrative inventiveness for which he is often praised felt not all that inventive. I think I need to read American Pastoral in order to get a better sense of his strengths.