Monday, April 27, 2015

Read It, April 2015, Progress Report 4

Well, it's been an exhausting couple of weeks and I'm disappointed to report that I haven't made it through the rest of The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes. I do intend to finish it, and I am still making progress through it, but it is quite a dense work, even though it is not particularly long. It is filled with philosophical and historical digressions that don't lend themselves to reading quickly. I've been sleep deprived recently and so haven't been able to focus on it properly. I was reading a bit of it in the cafeteria at work the other day, trying to unpack one of the parts where a character's thoughts unfold into the book's theme:

The primitive truth about selfhood we battle against at our peril. For the absolute solopsist -- the self contained wholly within the ring-fence of his own innermost "I" and for whom "we" and "my" are words quite without meaning -- the asylum doors gape. it is the we-they and meum-alienum divisions which draw the sane man's true ultimate boundary on either side of which lie quantities of opposite sign, regions of opposite emotional charge: an electric fence [as it were] of enormous potential. Yet emergent Reason had attempted to deny absolutely the validity of any such line at all!

The author returns to this sort of musing later in the story. In the second part, we are in a pretty grim post-World War I Germany, where the characters hoard foreign currencies because of the hyperinflation of the mark:

The old older had shattered; even money was rapidly ebbing away from between men, leaving them desperately incommunicado like men rendered voiceless by an intervening vacuum: millions, still heaped on top of each other in human cities yet forced to live separate, each like some solitary predatory beast.

It seems quite insane as described in the novel but apparently hyper-inflation really was that bad. One of the great things about this novel is the way that Hughes makes the story personal to his characters. So:

At the Bayrisher-Hof, too, some at least of Lothar's meals were provided. But no one could expect so good a job all to himself, and Lothar shared his turn-about with a fellow student. On his off-days he lived chiefly on memories of his hotel meals, dining in retrospect. One night when he was supperless like this he dreamed he had been sacked, and woke screaming: other times he dreamed of his brother Wolff -- the wild one who had vanished -- and woke in tears.

Meanwhile, I picked a much lighter book off my shelf to read at in the mornings. Last year I read Harry Harrison's novel Bill, the Galactic Hero, a pastiche of military science fiction written in 1965. Harrison continued the adventures of Bill in a series of later books published starting in 1989. I read the first of these this week, Planet of Robot Slaves. It's entertaining in a completely silly way, and contains mini-parodies of other writers, including William Gibson and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Ultimately it's not as good as the first one, though, and the humor is less Swift and more Sandler (Adam, that is). I don't think I'll read any more of these, although I am planning to read some more Harrison -- I want to read the first Stainless Steel Rat book. I think that series fared better over time than this one did.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Read It, April 2015, Progress Report 3

I had a line-jumper. A copy of J. G. Ballard's last novel, Kingdom Come, showed up in the mail and I found myself compelled to read it before finishing The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes. The Hughes novel is going slowly. It's a very dense, slow book where the dialogue is loaded with what would be called, these days, "microaggressions," also known as "snark." So much of it is about class that I'm having a bit of trouble identifying with the characters. They are having dinner parties and self-aggrandizing conversations while nothing much has happened yet, except that meanwhile, looming in the backround, there is a young dead girl who isn't getting any fresher. I suspect she is the character I will wind up identifying with the most.

Meanwhile, I finished Kingdom Come. This book also starts with a dead character that looms over the rest of the book. Ballard is one of my favorite writers but I will freely admit that he isn't for everyone, and this book would be, I think, likely quite frustrating for someone who isn't already a Ballard fan. The introduction refers to the book as Ballard at his "most didactic."

That's one way to put it; one might also say that the dialogue is mostly an excuse for another Ballard lecture, and most of the characters various forms of Ballard talking at each other and setting each other up for the next Ballardian turn of phrase. Since I like his writing and thinking, I find this tolerable, and I basically imagine the story as a one-man play. But this is not really a good novel by the usual measures; it's just impossible to imagine real people uttering this dialogue. Was Ballard effectively a self-parody at this point in his writing career? Well, that's a matter of opinion, but I don't think he was writing this way unknowingly. I think, essentially, he had given up trying to write realistic dialogue. Are the events of the book convincing? Well, that depends a lot on your understanding of human nature. Ballard's wartime childhood continues to loom large here; he doesn't give humans much benefit of the doubt.

So what is this novel about? A recently filed advertising executive finds himself in a London suburb where his father has been killed in a shooting inside an enormous shopping mall, the Metro-Centre. This is the "king dome" that looms over the surrounding community. This is the setup for the kind of descent in to madness that is Ballard's stock in trade in previous novels like Concrete Island and High Rise. Ballard's fascination with how architecture affects human emotion is also a major theme in his work. Here the consumer madness afflicts the entire community of shoppers. Consumerism has become their religion, and the Metro-Centre is their church, and their community activity center around shopping and violence, because as their existence is largely meaningless, sports fandom has grown, and part of sports fandom is participation in xenophobic attacks on anyone who doesn't look and act just the way they do. This slide into suburban fascism is not just mentioned but dissected, with explicit references to the Third Reich and the role of ordinary Germans.

I am reminded strongly of a non-fiction book I read years ago, Among the Thugs by Bill Buford, in which the author infiltrates violent football clubs, except in this case the instigators are middle-class and upper middle-class people: doctors and lawyers. Our hero wastes no time in becoming an agent provocateur, turning his skills as an ad man into creating psychopathic images just to see how easy it is to whip up the slightly bored citizens. It turns out that it's pretty easy. How realistic is this? I don't know. But I am inclined to go along with Ballard, as a thought experiment, even if this is not so much a novel as a polemic.

And now back to another book that is ultimately about Hitler as well. I didn't plan this, I swear!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Read It, April 2015, Progress Report 2

This is a quick update. I have finished Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. I was already somewhat familiar with the history of Scientology, having read many articles on the subject over the years, but Wright's book really takes it to the next level. I found his details about the life of Hubbard and the story of the Sea Organization especially interesting. Since most of my reading on Scientology was done decades ago, I also was not aware of the stories involving David Miscavige. It's also fascinating and disturbing to read about how Scientology now has so many adult members who have grown up in the organization since birth. It's weird to consider the notion of a "cradle Scientologist."

I think it's a very well-researched and interesting book, but I do feel that it suffers just a bit from a fundamental problem: how do you organize such a huge amount of material spanning so many years and about so many people? In order to fit things into chapters organized by theme and specific key people, Wright often sacrifices chronology, so you might find yourself getting confused as the text jump back and forth in time. With so much testimony from so many people, I realize that a single chronology would be very hard to read, because then you'd be jumping constantly between people and places. So I'm not quite sure what Wright might have done differently; I think he did a heroic job presenting the material, but still find myself wishing it was easier to follow as a story. But even so, I think it is very much worth reading, and I hope that between this book at the HBO movie, Scientology's supporters will have to confront the truth about its past (and present).

I'm now working on Richard Hughes' novel The Fox in the Attic. This is a really dense and dark piece of writing and I won't rule out possibly setting it aside to finish later, and moving on with something lighter.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Read It, April 2015, Progress Report 1

I'm going to try something a little different for April. Instead of writing just one long entry at the end of the month, I'll post some progress reports, and at the end of the month list books I completed. It will give me a chance to write a little more frequently. I'll see how that goes.

I finished reading Andy Weir's The Martian, which I picked up in paperback a few weeks ago. This is a hugely entertaining, engaging book, a fast-moving story and a quick read, very nicely paced and structured. It's hard science fiction, in more than one sense. It follows our understanding of science and physics closely, and the plot itself hinges on various plausible physical realities about the technologies in use for exploring our solar system. Mostly. You will have to go along with a few things that aren't so plausible, but don't worry too much about that. It's a story.

The protagonist is part of a team on Mars, stranded when the rest of his team has to flee due to an intense sandstorm; because he's been knocked down, his suit punctured, and his vital sign telemetry has flat-lined, they think he is dead. Because their own lives are in imminent danger, they don't have time to double-check. But he survives (this is not really a spoiler; it's the book's premise) and we are immediately pulled into his journal of survival.

This sounds like it could get dull but, instead it is nerve-wracking and funny. I am going to give my wife this book to read. She does not typically like to read fiction, but one day a few years ago I gave her Ender's Game and she felt compelled to stay up all night reading it -- it's short and very engaging. I have a feeling she will have the same reaction to this book. Oh, and it will be a movie soon, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. So we might have an opportunity in just a few months to compare the book with the movie, an exercise I often find interesting and revealing.

Anyway -- on deck this month: Lawrence Wright's book on Scientology, Going Clear. We do not have cable, so I will probably not get the chance to watch the HBO documentary, at least not for some time. I have a long-standing interest in sects and cults; in college, I took a Religious Studies class called American Sects and Cults and studied several of them, including the Rajneeshees. One of the texts we read in that class was a book by Kate Strelley and Robert D. San Souci called The Ultimate Game: The Rise and Fall of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh. That was a great class, and as a person interested both in religious cults and the history of science fiction, this is right up my alley.

Also on deck: Andrew Hodges, Turing: The Engigma, a massive and apparently authoritative biography of Alan Turing; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, and so many others. In fiction, I'm chipping away at my shelf full of New York Review Books Classics with The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes, a dark and amazing novel. More later!