I re-read The Master and Margarita as a way to better understand the possibilities of KRZ, and wow…it brings back memories…
I first read it at the insistence of a guy I met working as a coder for EDS in Dayton. He had brought his family out of the Soviet Union, through a lot of risk and danger that I can barely comprehend, and he and I became friends, so much so that I learned how to drink pepper vodka (straight from the bottle, peel that foil cap off and enjoy!). He didn’t necessarily give me the keys to reading it, as there are so many layers that such a key would be as long as the book, but he gave me a firm sense of how important something like literature (and literary resistance) could be in a culture where the biggest lies were simply told as if they were truth.
This drawing is not of the cover, but it’s so gangster…
I’m sure there are no resemblances to the current moment.
And that brings me to the thoughts section of this post: Continue Reading
Thoughts on Paul Beatty’s latest, The Sellout:
- Beatty’s book feels a bit like George Saunders’s work – funny in a biting, oh-shit-that’s-so-fucked-up-but-so-true kind of way. The landscape he creates – a sort of agrarian, pastoral inner suburb that is almost entirely African-American – hints at the larger dysfunction surrounding it without revealing much.
- Yes, this is about race, and I’m still puzzling out several pieces. It also reminds me a bit of Their Eyes Were Watching God in the way it ends, with the narrator returning home after a landmark court case. It concerns itself with how minorities function in an absurdly racist society, and this narrator tries to turn contemporary cultural mores on their head by having a slave (not really, but the guy calls himself that and won’t let the narrator alone) and forcing a school to be segregated.
- There’s some complicated psychological stuff going on here – by forcing the school to keep out whites, whites want to go (resulting partially in the narrator ending up in the Supreme Court as a defendant). Hominy Jenkins, the guy who wants to go back to slavery, does so because he feels that he has a place and a role.
- Both, I think, show Beatty taking standard right-wing talking points and putting them in a petri dish…neither does what those folks think it would.
- I’m guessing RBG asks the question that this novel plays with – “what do we mean by ‘black’?” This isn’t what does it mean to be black, or how does being black affect one’s identity – Beatty’s question is more fundamental (and the narrator approves) – we pay lip service to the idea that race is a construction, but how does that improve the lives of people? Our narrator, who grew up as a social experiment in race, is a farmer who produces delicious fruit, is a surfer who loves surfing enough to consider making his farm a huge wave pool, challenges all kinds of status quos by turning buses back into vehicles of segregation, by convincing a middle school principal to segregate her school, and by having the aforementioned slave.
- Finally, the onslaught of pop culture references I think speak to the impossibility of knowing the origin of anything, especially since the strings that Beatty places them in can be wildly various.
- I have a feeling that this book is one I will return to…
I probably will not have time to finish Quadrilateral Cowboy, which makes me a bit sad, so I decided to post on it before my memories of the game fade. It was released in 2016 by Blendo Games, and feels like a beautiful blend of an alternate cyberpunk universe, the one that Gibson might have written post Pattern Recognition.
My thoughts on it follow:
- The game is 2D, sort of, and these screen shots show, and I have not played a game where my avatar looks so unusual. Blendo Games, which is really just Brendan Chung, has developed some off-the-wall shtuff, but this one has an aesthetic that is about as close to what I imagine the dataverse looked like to those of us who survived cyberpunk in the 1980s as is possible. The game goes out of his way to show the player-character when at least I was least suspecting it, through blocky shadows and sudden reflections in mirrors.
- The game’s landscape also felt very dataversian in its complete lack of other people, except for those in your hacker hangout. I robbed houses, stole courier packets from trains, and entered ventilation ducts, and all the time I saw no one. When I died, I was killed by a stationary sentry gun set in the ceiling, or by running out of air on one mission in space.
- Even the houses of the folks whose stuff I took were clean, corporately-sterile, with no sign of habitation aside from furniture that looked as if it could still be in its plastic wrap.
- Even though the player can die, there is no other violence. I was excited to get a gun, even if I couldn’t pick it up and shoot it like a hand cannon, only to find out that it shot bean bags that could be used to trip levers. Damn – no body count here.
- Chung has said in interviews (consult the wikipedia page for direct sources) that he wanted to make a game that helped people understand what it takes to be a hacker without having to code. I picked up on that, and I found that I had to think about the puzzles in very different ways than other games required me to think. I don’t usually enjoy puzzle solving games, but this one had me hooked because the puzzles were ingenious but somehow useful.
- Perhaps they felt useful because we as hackers got paid. By who was never made clear.
- I did feel a bit off put by the linearity of the narrative. The game is absolutely not a sandbox – there’s no place to go, a function I am guessing of both the lack of programmers to add more space and an adherence to the dataverse, full of heavily protected data in the cyberpunk ecosystem.
- This linearity reminded me a bit of the game I’m trying to finish now, What Remains of Edith Finch, which is just as linear from a narrative standpoint but restricted in different ways.
- At some point I will need to think about what these sorts of borderless boundaries mean for game worlds…
- As a fan of the Sprawl trilogy, I enjoyed how this game invoked the Gibsonian conception of cyberspace. It felt intensively machine-drawn, with clean shadows and no dirt whatsoever (even in the air ducts the player crawls around in).
- Again, it felt all very intentionally machine-drawn, a beautiful contrast to the nastiness of the outside world in Gibson’s Sprawl. It almost felt as if the machines that drew it were trying to either make humans feel comfortable or ignoring them completely.
- The only messy spaces were ones players share with their fellow hackers, all of whom look vaguely Japanese and none of whom really interacted with the player-character.
- And the player-character is definitely in the machine – you simply appear and disappear as if you hooked a ride in a Star Trek transporter.
- Unfortunately, there were no malevolent AIs. Even the corporations we rob didn’t seem evil, just sort of negligent for leaving all these holes in their security. I’m not sure what styles of security the game is designed to present for circumvention – it’s clearly set in 1980, as a banner tells us early on, but there are space stations that we have to hack as well.
- The aesthetic also felt vaguely as if I was an analog remnant of an increasingly digital world, but that might be other work of mine bleeding into this one.
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.
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.