Thoughts on Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist

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It’s possible that I was the last English teacher on earth who hadn’t read The Alchemist. When did this book become so omnipresent on 9th grade reading lists? Many students list it as a favorite, and it’s not surprising that its be-yourselfy message appeals to the millennial and post-millennial set. To me it felt like a 167-page graduation card. It’s sort of Franny and Zooey meets The Little Prince meets Star Wars if Star Wars were just about Luke and Obi-Wan and Yoda and no one else.

Like The Little Prince, which the reviewers on the book’s back cover invoke more than once, this book is set in the north African desert and is about lots of vague mystical things. I love The Little Prince, which may be because I encountered it in my early teens, which is just the right age to encounter books like these. The Alchemist is about a shepherd named Santiago who goes to see a Gypsy who knows how to interpret dreams. The Gypsy tells the shepherd to sell his sheep and go to Egypt. While Santiago is still deciding whether to go, he reads a book and is surprised when an old man approaches and begins to talk about the book Santiago is reading. This book “‘says the same thing almost all the other books in the world say,’” says the old man. “‘It describes people’s inability to choose their own Personal Legends. And it ends up saying that everyone believes the world’s greatest lie.’

“‘What’s the world’s greatest lie?’ the boy asked, completely surprised.

“‘It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what is happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.’” (18)

Of course this is compelling. It’s compelling to ninth graders, and as I make my last few gasps in my sprint toward my 41st birthday, I’m not immune to its appeal either. The thing is, I feel the appeal, but I also feel compelled to mock it. I put the book down. I googled “Alchemist parody.” Is it possible this book has never been parodied? And if not, excuse me while I cancel all my plans and write a parody of it myself. But first I have to write all the other things I canceled plans in order to write.

This is the essence of my response to The Alchemist. I desperately want to mock it – but I am also compelled by it and wish the world were full of forces that were sitting there waiting to pull us to our best possible lives if only we were receptive and spiritual enough to gain access to them. What an alluring idea. But if all of us sell our sheep and go to Egypt in search of our Personal Legend (the capital letters are the best part), who’s going to stay put and work in the DMV? Who’s going to work in the grocery store and say, “Is that a chip card? Then you need to insert it” over and over and over again? Yes, of course I know that in an elevated, more spiritual world maybe we would no longer need to have a DMV, or someone would be born whose Personal Legend is to work in the DMV and who is absolutely delighted to be there serving you – though this then conjures up images out of a different novel common on high school reading lists: “Alphas and Betas have to work so hard, and Deltas and Epsilons are frightfully stupid. I’m glad I’m a Gamma.”

So Santiago sells his sheep and goes to North Africa, where he works for a crystal merchant for a while and learns cliché insights about life while doing so, and at some point he becomes obsessed with meeting someone called “the Alchemist.” He ends up in an oasis in the desert among people who remind me of the Prophet Muhammad’s extended family as described in a book I read earlier this year (excuse me, LAST year) – and since this book stubbornly refuses to reveal when in history it is set, this comparison might not be far off the mark. He meets an idealized female (all fake parables need one of those) named Fatima (see what I mean about the Muhammad thing?), and then the alchemist says some mumbo-jumbo things about her: “She knows that men have to go away in order to return. And she already has her treasure: it’s you. Now she expects that you will find what it is you’re looking for” (118), which is a little sexist, isn’t it – sort of like “he for God, she for the God in him” from Paradise Lost? And the alchemist tells Santiago that if he stays in the oasis and marries Fatima he’ll never be happy, because his soul will always want to go in search of its Personal Legend, which sounds more or less like the entire narrative of my life and excuse me for a minute while I drown my tears in some baby carrots.

And then Fatima says some Game of Thrones-ish things like “One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for the loving” (122), which apparently is how idealized females from the desert talk. Then Coehlo writes some sentences that more or less say “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well,” which is from The Little Prince and is way more profound than anything in this book. And the alchemist tells Santiago that “before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way… That’s the point at which most people give up. It’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon” (132), which is the sort of thing my Taekwondo teacher used to say when he wanted to scare people shitless about their black belt tests.

This book is a synthesis of pop spirituality. It draws on Christianity and Islam, hence the Muhammad vibe. Melchizedek and the Urim and Thummim make confusing cameo appearances. Every thirty pages or so someone says some bit of pseudo-wisdom like “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon” (32). And we eat it up, we 21st-century American seekers, who have no idea what we’re looking for but are pretty sure we’ll find it somewhere on the internet, if we could just figure out where to look. And there are plenty of moments that tempt one to write “these are not the droids you’re looking for” in the margins, so I did so, feeling all intellectual and superior, even though if I could make my eyes all focused and intense and speak these words to some hooded desert security guard and cause him to become dazed and wave me through, I would be as pleased with myself as you would.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - Fake Parables, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Paulo Coehlo, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno (by Jill)

 

tsar-of-love-and-techno-coverMy boss brought me this book to borrow a few months ago. I had to tell her that I had already bought it but hadn’t read it. This sort of thing annoys her—wasting paper and money (in that order) on multiple copies of the same book being purchased in the same circle of book readers. But on the day that she brought it in to work I promised that I would read it ASAP. So I did. I read a recently released paperback. That never happens. And she was right. I really liked it. It was great. It was totally a 21st century interconnected novella multiple perspective nightmare that Bethany would make fun of. But I think it was really well done despite the cliché. I read Anthony Marra’s first novel (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena) a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it, so I was primed to think that this was a good book.

So where to begin? The stories in the novel revolve around a nineteenth century painting, Empty Pasture in Afternoon, and the people who come in contact with it. The painter was a Chechen artist named Zakharov. I tried to find this painting online but couldn’t, which makes me think it might not actually exist (also one book blogger posted that it was fictional, and since I can’t find it, I’m inclined to believe her). Zakharov is real, however. Anyway. The timeline of the book is 1937 – 2013, with one story that takes place in outer space in an unknown year. That one was a little bizarre, much like the last chapter of A God in Ruins, but I’m nowhere near getting to write about that book yet, so that’s all I’m going to say. Zakharov is never a character in the novel, and most of the characters are from Kirovsk, a Siberian mining town that has seen better days by the time we get there. How a group of Siberians gets involved with a Chechen painting is actually quite fascinating. We also do spend time in Chechyna, but it isn’t the primary locale.

Each story in the novel is self-contained, but they do build on each other, and the total effect is greater than the sum of its parts. We first meet the painting in 1937 when an artist in the employ of Stalin’s government (his name is Markin) comes across Empty Pasture in Afternoon in the course of his job as a censor who modifies artwork to make it more appealing to the powers that be. He ends up on the wrong side of the powers that be at the end, and I don’t think I need to state outright what happened to Russians who ran afoul of Stalin in the years leading up to World War II. After we meet Markin, we jump ahead to the post-war years and into what I consider the present day (i.e. years that I remember happening), and to Kirovsk and Galina and Kolya and his brother Alexei, among others. Galina and Kolya are the star-crossed lovers of the novel, and Alexei is the lost and wandering baby brother of Kolya. Kolya is killed during the Chechen war, and Galina marries some rich guy. Kolya is killed in the field depicted in the painting, and Galina gets the rich guy to buy the painting from the Grozny Tourist Bureau (which is one man working out of his apartment), and then Alexei ends up with it.

I don’t want to do a ton of plot summary here because The Tsar of Love and Techno is actually fairly plot-driven, and to give too much away might be doing a disservice to the people who will read it later.

 

And I’m spent. I’ve been working on this post for probably three months and I am just done. I loved this book and am never going to do it justice. Read it! And tell me what you think about it in the comments.

Posted in Anthony Marra, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Novels Masquerading as Short Story Collections or Vice Versa, Reviews by Jill, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bricks

bricks

My First Official Literary Insight of 2017 is as follows: I like real Victorian novels better than fake Victorian novels.

More soon. Like tomorrow soon!

Posted in Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A Review of Orson Scott Card’s Magic Street

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Reading this book last week sounded like such a great idea at the time. I was away at a writing residency, living by myself in a tiny cottage on a hilltop (it was wonderful!!), and I was reading two very long books: Alice Munro’s Family Furnishings and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Alice Munro is a master, of course, but I don’t think the stories at the beginning of Family Furnishings are not her best work. They are LONG. We’re talking sixty pages. 45 pages. 52 pages. Sentence by sentence, they’re wonderful, and of course I love Munro’s lack of punchiness, the way her stories unfold slowly toward their inevitable-but-mysterious endings. But reading several of these stories in a row was a little much, so I put the collection aside. I will read more soon.

I brought Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to my residency because I was truly worried that I might spend too much time reading and not enough time writing. I have a habit of doing this sort of thing, as the entire decade of the ‘00’s can attest. My thinking was that if I brought these two long books and ONLY these two books, I could make them stretch over the two weeks and really savor them. But of course I didn’t bring only those two books. I had others that I needed to finish, and some that I wanted to bring along for novel research, and besides, using the words “only” and “books” in the same sentence isn’t really consistent with my personal brand*. And of course I had to bring my Kindle, just in case.

*Sorry. I’ve been spending too much time in Silicon Valley.

Close to the end of the residency, I was annoyed to myself because I hadn’t finished any of the books I brought, and it was the end of 2016 and it was important to me to read fifty books by the end of the year instead of the much-less-satisfying 49. So I decided to go through my Kindle and pick something quick and fun to read. I considered many other titles but chose Magic Street. Whatever else one might say about Orson Scott Card (cough – anti-gay-marriage propaganda – uncough), I’ve never once been bored by his books. I thought I would finish it in 3-4 days without interfering with my writing.

And once again, whatever else one might say about Orson Scott Card (cough – he thinks mothers are magical – uncough), dude knows how to write an opening chapter. The opening chapter in this book is SO good. Here are the basics: an English professor named Byron Williams is driving home from campus when he notices a sexy woman on a motorcycle and a homeless man standing on the street corner, whom Card describes as “a filthy, shabby, rheumy-eyed, chin-stubbled, grey-bearded, slack-lipped old bum of a black man” (1).** The man catches Byron’s eye and winks, and the next thing he knows, Byron is offering the man a ride. Byron is fastidious and uptight and can’t quite believe he is letting this man untangle himself from his plastic bag collection and load the whole bundle into Byron’s immaculate car, but he seems unable to resist the impulse to help the man, whom Byron calls “Bag Man.” This man has other names later on in the book, so don’t get too attached to “Bag Man.” In my head, he looks a lot like Ice-T, but with longer hair.

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**Note: All of the characters in this novel are black. Orson Scott Card is not. And yes, many of the characters in this novel speak in black syntax and offer prolific commentary on black culture. I was a little appalled. Then less so. Then appalled again. Then less so. More on this in a moment.

On the way home, Byron finds that everything goes his way. Every traffic light is green. When he stops to pick up takeout and leaves his car with a Spanish-speaking valet, Byron finds that he can mysteriously speak Spanish. Passing a See’s Candies, he feels compelled to stop and buy a box of chocolates that happen to be Bag Man’s favorites. And when they approach Byron’s home, Bag Man informs Byron that his wife is pregnant. Despite the unreality of this moment, Byron believes him. All he thinks is, “So Nadine is pregnant – and hadn’t even told him! Wasn’t that just like her, to keep a secret like that” (11).

When Byron arrives home, he finds Nadine in labor. She’s naked on their bed, surrounded by her ripped-open clothes. She has no idea what’s going on. Byron invokes Bag Man’s prediction, but now that Bag Man isn’t present, he starts to question how and why the man was able to influence and control him – and, of course, why he seemed to have advanced knowledge of Nadine’s plight. While he contemplates, Nadine gives birth. The baby is stillborn. Baffled, Byron cuts the cord and begins to clean up. In the meantime, the Bag Man knocks on the door, and Byron’s son lets him in. He leads himself to the master bedroom and exchanges some brief dialogue with Byron. “Baby like this, it can’t die,” he says, “How can it die? Ain’t alive yet. Can’t die less you been alive, fool” (15). You know, just like they say in Salt Lake City.

Bag Man snaps open a grocery bag and puts the baby, who still appears dead, in the bag. When Byron objects to the idea of carrying a dead baby around in a plastic bag, Bag Man says, “You kind of slow, ain’t you, Byron? Anyway, nobody suffocates in my bags” (16). He takes the baby to an open lot in Byron’s neighborhood and places it next to a drainage pipe. Byron gets busy disposing of the bloody sheets and towels, and Nadine goes to sleep. When she wakes up, she has no memory of what happened. Byron contemplates his situation: “Now this man knows where we live. This man can do whatever he wants in our neighborhood. Well, if magic like this is real, then I sure as hell hope that God is also real. Because as long as Bag Man is walking around in Baldwin Hills with dead babies in his grocery sacks, then God help us all” (20).

And then the book begins its long decline.

It turns out that Bag Man is really Puck, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I promise I am not making this up. The sexy woman on the motorcycle is Titania. And the baby that Nadine gives birth to in chapter 1 is a fragment of Oberon’s soul (cough – horcrux plagiarism – uncough). Apparently in his battles with Titania, Oberon somehow became totally evil. He trapped Puck and Titania’s souls in glass lanterns and hid them in Fairyland. I think Card explained how Puck and Titania could be walking around as themselves when their souls were in Fairyland,*** but I don’t remember. I do remember that their bodies aren’t Titania and Puck’s true bodies. They’re borrowed. Oberon himself is in hell, which one accesses through the drainpipe in Byron’s neighborhood.

*** As it happens, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell ALSO concerns itself with Fairyland, but its Fairyland is different from the one in Magic Street, so sometimes I get my details confused. If my younger self finds out that on the cusp of my 41st birthday I am reading two different books about Fairyland – and while wearing extremely ridiculous socks, no less – I may need to enter the Witness Protection Program.

So this is a novel about identity, of course. The baby that Bag Man left near a drainage pipe (covered with ants – Card has a knack for the chilling detail) in chapter 1 is adopted by a local resident and raised as Mack Street. The teenaged boy who found him and brought him to his neighbor is Ceese Tucker. Ceese is the youngest of several brothers and sort of a lost soul, but when he convinces his neighbor Ura Lee Smitcher to raise the baby, he promises to care for the child after school when Ura Lee is working, so in a way Ceese becomes Mack’s second parent. Flaws aside, one of Orson Scott Card’s real gifts is his portrayal of what I will call “weary goodness” – a combination of loneliness, compassion, contemplation, cynicism, and a hyperactive conscience that characterizes many of Card’s characters, most notably Ender beginning at the end of Ender’s Game and proceeding all the way through the three “adult” sequels. Ceese has this quality too – others might call it depressive realism and/or being an “old soul.” Even Mack Street has it. Early in the novel, when he doesn’t know the truth about his identity, he spends hours roaming Fairyland only to find that every time he uses, eats, or changes something in Fairyland, there is a corresponding change in the physical world. When he learns that the food he ate in Fairyland came from the kitchen of one of his neighbors, who then had nothing to eat, Card muses, “Magic always found a way to be cruel. Mack couldn’t even have a chili supper without hurting somebody” (122) – a very Ender-like observation.

And then there’s Card’s silliness – the set of twins named Ebony and Ivory, the black panther (Black Panther – get it?) that roams around in Fairyland and the self-referential “[she] looked like an alien out of a sci-fi book they made him read in school. Like a big ant” (141), the somewhat-clever recognition that Puck’s famous line “Oh, what fools these mortals be!” is spoken (sort of: the “be” part anyway) in Black English (164) and the out-of-nowhere nod to Harold Bloom, in reference to “a book that claimed Shakespeare somehow invented human beings, or something wacko like that” (166).

Among his many other qualities, Mack dreams other people’s dreams. He calls them “cold dreams.” In each cold dream, Mack witnesses the dreaming person achieve their fondest wish, but in a twisted and tragic way – and these dreams come true in the physical world when Mack wakes up. The most arresting of Mack’s cold dreams is the one in which a girl who loves to swim dreams of being a fish so she can be enveloped in water all the time. During the dream, the girl is actually transported to the inside of her parents’ waterbed. Her father feels a solid bump under him in bed and wakes up. He assumes he imagined the bump but gets up to see if anything is wrong in the house. When he can’t find his daughter, he searches the house and the yard with no luck. Eventually he makes the connection between her absence and the solid object inside his waterbed. He cuts into the mattress, spilling water everywhere, and pulls her out. She survives but with serious brain damage. These sort of twisted wish-fulfillment exercises are the work of Evil Oberon, but we don’t know that until the end. Titania explains to Mack, “You are the Keeper of Dreams. You are the guardian of wishes. Deep desire, it flows to you. From the moment you popped out of that chimney up there [i.e. the drainage pipe], all the desires around you, they got channeled. They flowed. Right to you, into you, all the power of all the wishing in your whole neighborhood” (224). Nothing like some sewage metaphors to go along with your fairies and your cultural appropriation.

Ah, yes – cultural appropriation. I’ll end here and I’ll keep it short. Over and over again I wondered how the hell Orson Scott Card thought he could get away from writing a novel that not only features an all-black cast of characters but also does a fair bit of ruminating on black culture. I marked many passages but will spare you the details. I was somewhat pleasantly surprised to find that Card ends the book with an explanatory note explaining that a black friend of his challenged him to write a novel about black characters. Card reveals that his initial response was the same as mine – I can’t do that! – but that his friend agreed to read his drafts and help him revise anything that struck the friend as inauthentic. This epilogue made me happy on the one hand because at least it demonstrated that Card isn’t clueless, but on the other hand should writers do anything that requires an apology at the end of the book? I honestly don’t know. I respect boldness in the abstract, but in my own writing I am not often bold, at least not in this area. I have three different works in progress – two of them still in the early planning stages – that take place among people from cultures very different than my own. I can see how good these characters and narratives can be, but the arrogance of running roughshod over a culture not my own keeps me timid. I don’t have an answer. I’m not sure I could write a novel like this one, which is steeped entirely in a culture not the author’s, though on some level the fact that this is a fantasy novel makes it easier for Card to experiment. In a novel about fairies and magic flying circles (don’t ask) and five-minute gestation periods, maybe a white author from Utah can slip a little Black English in among the silliness and get away with it.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Orson Scott Card, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A Review of Khaled Hosseini’s And The Mountains Echoed

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When I ranted a few weeks ago against Gods without Men and against the use of multiple points of view in general, part of my touchiness had to do with the fact that at the time I was reading And the Mountains Echoed. This book starts off so good. The first chapter is a story told by his father to his children, Pari and Abdullah. The story is about a child who is kidnapped by a Krampus-like evil spirit called a div. The div steals the child in an especially cruel way: he insists that her father choose which of his five children to sacrifice. If he refuses to choose, the div will kill all of his children. After agonizing about the decision, the man decides to put the matter to chance and choose a child’s name through a random drawing. The child whose name he chooses is his youngest son, his favorite. He follows through on his decision, but he is devastated afterwards and his grief does not fade with time. Finally the man goes to the div’s fort – a long, tortuous walk from his village – intending to kill the div and reclaim his son. Instead of fighting him, the div offers him a chance to look out of a window where children are playing happily. The man spots his son. The div tells the man that his seizure of the child was “a test of [the man’s] love.” The div goes on to say, “It was a harsh challenge, I recognize, and its heavy toll upon you does not escape me. But you passed. This is your reward. And his” (10). The div goes on to describe the excellent education the son is receiving, the plentiful food he’s eating, and the choices he will have when he grows up and is ready to choose a career. The man initially tells the div that he wants to take his child home – excellent life or no excellent life at the div’s fort. The div does say that the man is allowed this choice, but if he chooses to take his son home, the son will never be allowed to return to his privileged life at the div’s castle. “You are a good father” (12), the div says when the man turns around to go home, without the child.

In chapter two, it becomes clear that Saboor – the man who told the story to his children – was on the way to “sell” his young daughter, Pari. The circumstances are complicated but have to do with the family’s poverty. Abdullah and Pari’s mother has died, and Saboor has married a second wife, Parwana, whose first baby died of cold the previous winter. Saboor and Parwana are desperate to make sure this does not happen again. Parwana’s brother Nabi is a servant to a wealthy, childless family in Kabul, and he arranges to sell Pari to that family in exchange for money for food and firewood and some kind of basic insulation for their house. Saboor’s struggle is like the struggle of the man in the story: he knows that his daughter will have a better life, but the fact that this life comes at the cost of abandoning her is devastating, both for Saboor and for Abdullah.

After these two chapters, I was hooked. But then we flash back in time to Parwana’s childhood: more poverty, plus a crippled sister. Then in chapter four, Nabi the child-selling middleman is elderly, and the whole chapter takes the form of a tell-all letter to someone named Markos. Then we meet an eastern European nurse who is caring for an Afghan girl with a terrible injury, who reaches out to two Afghan-American cousins who have made it big in Silicon Valley and have come to Kabul to sell their family’s property. And so on. Even in the last hundred pages of the book, we are still meeting new characters, and the book’s central purpose seems to be one long game of “let’s figure out how this person is connected to the main story.” There are books out there whose authors make this gimmick work (The Hours comes to mind, and there are others), and of course there are plenty of examples of excellent novels that use shifting point of view without creating the sense that the novel’s primary purpose is to be some kind of narrative Sudoku puzzle that comes with a Happy Meal at McDonalds. A novel is supposed to be driven forward by narrative. This is such a simple idea that I am almost embarrassed to take the time to say it – though as someone who writes fiction I do know that following a narrative as a writer is harder than it sounds. I remember what it felt like to be bogged down in backstory, and I still struggle with the “middle” of every piece of fiction I write. But Hosseini is a big boy, and he should have figured these matters out by now.

I would have happily read the story of Abdullah, Pari, and Saboor and the aftermath of Saboor’s decision to sell Pari, and if Hosseini had rotated among these three points of view while still moving the story forward, that would have been fine. I would have been similarly fine with a well-executed omniscient point of view, after a model like Anna Karenina. But as it stands, this book is more of a scrapbook than a novel. In each chapter we read about another set of characters who are somehow connected to Saboor’s family, and/or to the rich family that Nabi worked for, the family that adopted and raised Pari. I know that sometimes authors see the shifting point of view as a philosophical statement – something along the line of “everything connects.” Again, I think that when this technique is done well, that statement might emerge from the text (the classic novel that insists that we mull over the motif of connection is Howards End, which can be a bit stodgy sometimes but which ultimately I admire), but in the case of And the Mountains Echoed it doesn’t matter if everything connects. If I’m not invested in the characters, and if I’m annoyed because the characters I did feel invested in have disappeared, who cares if everything connects?

I also know that part of Hosseini’s purpose is to share the stories of Afghanistan with a Western audience, and I support that mission. Hosseini’s foundation has done good work in Afghanistan, largely using the proceeds from The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns (both of which I liked). This would be a very different review if Postcards from Purgatory were a blog about social justice, about global humanitarian crises, or about the impact of the U.S./Coalition presence in Afghanistan between 2001 and the present. But that’s not who we are. We’re a book blog, and I’m here to tell you that this novel isn’t great. But if Khaled Hosseini were to ask me for a donation for his foundation, I would give.

***

P.S. For more thoughts on books that don’t live up to their initial chapters, stay tuned for my review of Orson Scott Card’s Magic Street.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Khaled Hosseini, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men

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This book begins with a short chapter entitled “In the time when animals were men.” This is the only chapter in the book that has a title. This chapter is clearly meant to allude to Native American mythology, but with a twist. Case in point: “Coyote took an RV and drove into the desert to set up a lab. He took along ten loaves of Wonder Bread and fifty packets of Ramen noodles. He took whiskey and enough pot to keep him going. He searched for a long time and found a good place. ‘Here, I will set up-aikya! There is so much room! There is no one to bother me here!” And just a couple of paragraphs later: “He lit a cigarette. There was an explosion. He died” (1).

But Coyote doesn’t stay dead for long. The next thing the reader knows, he is alive again and scheming with some other denizens of the desert: Gila Monster, Cottontail Rabbit, etc. Then “he choked on the poison gas and died” (1). Finally, on page 2 of the novel, after dying three times, Coyote succeeds in cooking some crystal meth, and then the novel begins.

This playful opening establishes the novel’s center point: a set of three pinnacle rocks in the desert near Victorville, CA. I believe this specific set of rocks to be fictional, though other pinnacle rocks certainly exist, and I know Victorville to be a real place, exactly the sort of place where a dead coyote in an RV might be cooking crystal meth. But it’s clear that Kunzru is conflating his desert lore here, since the Coyote myth is Navajo and would be more at home in Arizona or New Mexico.

With the exception of the first one, each chapter in this novel begins not with a title but with a date. The novel’s primary plot takes place in 2008, and approximately every other chapter takes place in that year. The other chapters are set in some year other than 2008 and involve other characters, but they always involve the same set of pinnacle rocks, and many of them involve some kind of spiritual quest.

The 2008 plot is by far the most interesting of the novel’s several plot lines. This narrative concerns Jaz Matharu, his wife Lisa, and their autistic son Raj. Jaz and Lisa’s marriage is strained, as Lisa has abandoned her career to stay home with Raj, who is nonverbal and throws constant tantrums: “Lisa had a shitty deal and he knew it and she knew he knew, and that was the hairline crack in the bowl, the start of their trouble” (48). The Matharus have been visiting Lisa’s family in LA and have taken a side trip to the desert to see the Pinnacle Rocks, and they are staying at a motel run by a woman named Dawn, who is the protagonist of the 1970 plot line.

Before we meet the Matharus, though, we meet Schmidt. His plot line takes place in 1947 (though much of it is backstory and takes place during World War II), and it was his chapter – right after the one about the Breaking Bad coyote – that really hooked me to this book. After serving as an airplane mechanic in the war, Schmidt drove out to the desert near the Pinnacle Rocks, where he “ran a couple of tests, used the divining rod and the earth meter,” and discovered that “there was power here, running along the fault line and up through the rocks: a natural antenna” (5). Schmidt’s section was my favorite part of the book – it got me excited about this novel, which never quite lived up to its early promise. I did enjoy the book overall, but I finished it less excited than I was when I started.

So the basic outline of the Schmidt chapter is that after the war Schmidt settles in the desert because of some ill-defined spiritual joo-joo and does his best to commune with aliens. His intention is as follows: “The world had split in two, either side of the Iron Curtain. He would heal the wound. His intention was to summon the only force powerful enough to transcend Communism and Capitalism and halt the cascade of destructive energies. Since the dawn of history there had been contact with extraterrestrial intelligences. Ezekiel’s wheels within wheels, the Mayan space pilots, the cosmic weaponry of Vedic India – the visitors possessed a spiritual technology far in advance of the crude mechanisms of earth. It was time for them to manifest themselves, to intervene in the lives of men” (13). You get the idea. You read it in a Time-Life book you ordered off TV in 1985.

The connection between Schmidt and the rest of the novel’s plot takes a couple of forms. First, there is a “prospector’s burrow” under the pinnacle rocks that Schmidt uses to escape the heat of the day, and many of the plot lines involve this place, which is described elsewhere as a pit, a cave, and a tunnel. Second, a man named Davis – in 1947 a “young buck, twenty-one or so, head of dark hair, little dandyish moustache. Rich kid” (7). Davis is never a major character, but he is the leader of one of the groups that comes to the pinnacle rocks later in the novel – a group that believes they can communicate with aliens. Schmidt tells Davis his life story, from a violent youth to the strange spirituality he develops around the idea of flight: “Watching the great machines take off and land, the way Earth relinquished them and gently welcomed them back, he felt that here was the secret made manifest” (10). At the end of his section, he does what the people in the Time-Life books always do: “he stepped forward into the light” (14).

Other plot lines include Joanie and her daughter Judy, who are members of some kind of sketchy cult in 1958, when Judy is still a child. Later, for reasons we don’t entirely understand, Judy is the leader of the cult – or not so much the leader but the center point. One gets the impression that she was kidnapped by aliens or some such and returned in a state of inner peace or understanding of some kind. In the 1970 chapters, when Judy is at the center of the cult, Dawn – later the motel manager – is a young woman, and there is also a cult member named Coyote, who lives in the pit underneath the Pinnacle Rocks and – oh! I just figured it out. Of course I connected the meth-taking Coyote in the cult with the Coyote in the short introductory chapter, but I was thinking the connection was symbolic. This explains why a coyote would be able to drive an RV and cook meth, though it does not quite explain why he would be able to die multiple times and still return to cook more meth. Maybe because of aliens? Or because the “deaths” are just blackouts or progressions to superior levels of consciousness or what-have-you? If I owned this book in hard copy, I would take myself on a little scavenger hunt and find out, but browsing around in a Kindle just isn’t fun. Especially when the touch screen on your Kindle is slowly dying… just in time for the release of a new model, no doubt. Yay, capitalism.

In addition to the Matharus, who take center stage more and more as the novel progresses, the 2008 plot includes Nicky, a British pop star and drug addict who is holed up at the same motel near the Pinnacle Rocks. I did not enjoy Nicky’s chapters much – they reminded me of the “Charlie” episodes of Lost – but eventually his story intersects with the Matharus’ and I enjoyed his character more. Overall, the primary plot line involves the Matharus. Jaz and Lisa’s marriage is at a breaking point. In addition to the stress of raising a developmentally disabled child, they are struggling with some cultural issues. Jaz was raised as a traditional Sikh, and his marriage to a white American woman upset his family, who often send Jaz little amulets and other doo-dads that are supposed to cure Raj of his autism. Lisa sees these objects as superstitious pieces of crap and symbols of Jaz’s family’s intolerance. When Jaz gives one of these amulets to Raj and he likes it and refuses to take it off, Lisa is furious and storms off in the rental car that is their only transportation. In Lisa’s absence, Jaz and Raj accept a ride into town with Nicky, to whom Raj is inexplicably attracted. Raj’s behavior also improves during this section, which is not explained but could be for any of several reasons: the absence of his stressed-out mother, the amulet around his neck, the spiritual joo-joo of the Pinnacle Rocks and/or aliens, or, as I suspect, the fact that he is being cared for by a parent who has been forced (by Lisa’s decision to abscond with the car) to slow down and actually pay attention to Raj’s needs and signals rather than to some abstract idea I of how a child is supposed to behave. OK, end of Child Psychology lecture.

While Jaz, Raj, and Nicky are getting acquainted, Lisa goes to a bar known for catering to lowlifes, and who does she run into but Coyote? The human one. He and some of his buddies are in the process of dragging Lisa off to nowhere good when Lisa is rescued by Dawn from the motel, who drives her out to the Pinnacle Rocks for some reason and then back to the motel. When Lisa returns she is chastened by the whole experience, and she and Jaz forgive each other and decide to go on a hike back to the Pinnacle Rocks so Jaz can see them. They bring Raj in his stroller, and they leave him in the shade when they walk in a circle around the rocks, and when they come back, he is gone. The empty stroller is sitting there, but no Raj. They’re in open desert and can see for miles, but there’s no sign of Raj. Things proceed as you would think – manhunt, etc. – and then after a LONG time – months, I think – he’s found by some teenagers on a Marine base, just wandering around along the perimeter of the base.

And – wait for it – he’s not autistic any more. The assumption that whatever happened to Judy back in 1958 happened to Raj in 2008, and now presumably he is the new central point of the cult? The novel never really tells us what happens – whether Raj was kidnapped by a UFO (I don’t think this is where Kunzru wants us to go, but who knows?) or whether something special about the Pinnacle Rocks “cured” him, or what. He was just inexplicably cured, like when Adam from Little House on the Prairie (TV show only) got hit on the head and then wasn’t blind anymore.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this contemporary preoccupation with examining an event from every possible perspective can be exhausting sometimes. As I’ve also said before, I just finished writing (and am still editing) a novel that uses more or less this same format, though it doesn’t jump around in time like Gods Without Men does. Kunzru manages the multiple perspectives and timelines just fine, and ultimately this is a well-executed novel. But at times I found it so slow. I craved more forward motion than I was given. You know what I’d like to read? I’d like to read a novel that starts where this one ends. In chapter 1, Jaz and Lisa’s son has been returned to them mysteriously after a two-month absence. He was autistic before he disappeared but seems cured. The community around the Pinnacle Rocks is all atwitter about the incident, and many have theories about UFO’s, etc. that might pertain to the boy’s disappearance. Maybe Jaz and/or Lisa does some research into these theories; they could learn about Schmidt, about Davis, about Coyote, about Joanie and Judy, and about the 18th-century Spanish explorers (oops! Forgot to tell you about those guys!) without breaking the forward momentum of the novel. And speaking of the momentum of the novel, let’s get the Sikh grandparents on stage. Let’s send Lisa out to get Raj into school, into swimming lessons, soccer camp. As he learns to speak, what does he say? What is his personality like? Does he have nightmares? Can he articulate what happened to him, or how it felt to be autistic? And what about Jaz and Lisa’s marriage – do they salvage it? I forgot to mention that they’ve had major financial trouble, but let’s add that to the list: what happens when Jaz returns to New York, where his company is in disgrace?

This book is good. I recommend it. If, like me, you liked Cloud Atlas but never figured out that the story was all being told from another planet, this book will be just your speed. However, if also like me you find rotating points of view a little tiresome or overdone – not bad, just tiresome and overdone –  you might want to save this one for later. I’m thinking that my 2017 reading challenge should be to take on a big pile of stolid midcentury, third-person-limited novels about midlife crises and spouses that can’t connect and war being scary and whatever else people wrote about in the fifties with only one point-of-view character. I can feel my brain stretching out and making itself comfortable just thinking about it.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Hari Kunzru, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of James Romm’s Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

cover-image-of-dying-every-day

Is it just me or is everyone talking about the Stoics lately? One of the adult students I tutor works them into conversation at least once per session, and somehow or other I am part of a Facebook group called “the Daily Stoic” – a group that I swear I didn’t sign up for, though I don’t mind seeing its daily reminders about self-control, balance, and endurance.

All of this is an election thing, of course. If Stoic philosophy could be summed up in one sentence, that sentence would be “You can’t let yourself care about things you don’t control.” And if I could add another sentence, it would be “The only thing you can control is yourself.” People have been turning to these philosophers – Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius – for consolation for centuries when they’re struggling to accept a reality they find unacceptable, and the more appalling reality becomes, the more relevant the Stoics feel.

The formal philosophy of Stoicism came into being during a horrific time in human history. The Roman empire (as opposed to republic) was relatively young, and after the prosperity of Augustus’ long reign, the Julio-Claudian dynasty had devolved into an orgy of violence and madness. I remember when I was a kid I was taught that the Julio-Claudii were all suffering from lead poisoning because they were the only ones in Rome rich enough to install indoor plumbing, and the pipes were all made of lead. I’m not sure if this theory is still current – since it is never mentioned in this book, I tend to think it isn’t – but I can understand why the theory came about.

This book begins under Caligula, who was declared emperor just as Seneca was starting his philosophical and political career in the Roman senate. Seneca was known for “his unique verbal style – seductive prose with short, punchy clauses and pithy epigrams” (9), and he quickly caught the attention of Caligula’s sister Agrippina – an ancient-Roman version of Cersei Lannister. Romm writes that the Roman senate at this time lived in denial of the fact that they were no longer a decision-making body. Both Augustus and Tiberius struggled with the senate and executed senators who refused to bow to their authority. In another book about ancient Rome that I am currently reading, an emperor (I forget which one – either Nerva or Titus, I think?) is praised for “promising not to kill any senators,” which struck me as an awfully low bar to set until it occurred to me that our own nascent autocrat has made no such promise – but I digress.

Romm writes that “Caligula stalks through Seneca’s later writings like a monster in recurring nightmares, arresting, torturing, and killing senators, or raping their wives for sport and then taunting them with salacious descriptions of these encounters” (11). Romm returns often to an anecdote from Seneca’s On Anger, in which a man must sit calmly and smile placidly while the emperor tortured and killed his son. “‘How could he bring himself to do it?’ asks Seneca, who then gives the answer: [The man] had another son (and Caligula knew it)” (19). I don’t know much (yet) about living under an autocratic government, but in the abstract this seems to be as good a metonym as any for the experience.

After Caligula (who also enjoyed shooting arrows at his enemies at close range and serving people their dead loved ones at dinner) died, Seneca was tried for adultery with one of Caligula’s sisters. He was sentenced to death, but the new emperor, Claudius, commuted his sentence to exile, and Seneca spent the next several years writing philosophical texts and enjoying the Mediterranean lifestyle on Corsica. During this exile, he really came into his own as a Stoic, for whom “true happiness comes from Reason, a force allied with Nature and with God. All that Seneca had left behind – senatorial rank, half his property, and what he called gratia, the public esteem he had won as a writer, thinker, and decent, fair-minded man – were “indifferents” in Stoic terms, inconsequential to the search for a good life” (27).

Long story short, Seneca was recalled to Rome by Agrippina, with whom he had colluded in the past and would again. Claudius, who had “decided to scrap all previous dynastic assumptions and start his family over” (30), married Agrippina, who was determined that her son Nero would become the next emperor instead of any of Claudius’ biological sons. Seneca was brought to the royal household to tutor Nero, who was still a child, and as much as possible, teach him to rule the world.

I am fascinated by the pairing of philosophers and absolute monarchs that pops up occasionally in the ancient world. The most famous, of course, is Aristotle’s long-term teaching and mentoring of Alexander the Great. I believe there are some more examples among the Romans but can’t think of specific names. If we descend into dictatorship and madness, could we try this – send, I don’t know, Ta-Nehisi Coates to be Barron Trump’s tutor? I say this in jest, not only for the obvious reasons but also because such a move would in effect silence Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I would never want to do that. Romm emphasizes that Seneca is an extremely difficult philosopher to study because circumstances required him to be cagey. There are more recent examples of writers who lived and worked – and, in general, died – under Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and so forth.

Seneca died under Nero, too, though he was not executed. Nero executed a fair share of people, including his mother, but when he wanted to kill off an advisor or other adult male of rank and status, he preferred to “suggest” that they commit suicide. One of the most well known facts about the Stoics is that they considered suicide to be a viable, honorable reaction to an unacceptable situation. This is a tough idea for a modern Westerner, most of whom grow up steeped in some combination of Christianity (whether active or vestigial) and pop culture’s I’m-okay-you’re-okay rhetoric, and in both traditions suicide is a great taboo. In Christianity, the party line is that suicide is an unpardonable act because it emerges out of the sin of despair – yet Seneca and other Stoics didn’t approach suicide in a despairing way at all. Seneca saw suicide as a rational choice that prevents a person from staying in a situation that might destroy him. “Everywhere you look you find an end to your sufferings. You see that steep drop-off? It leads down to freedom. You see that ocean, that river, that well? Freedom lies at its bottom. You see that short, shriveled, bare tree? Freedom hangs from it. You ask, what is the path to freedom? Any vein in your body” (20).

My least favorite thing about this book is the fact that so little is known of Seneca’s true experienced and beliefs once he arrived at Nero’s court (the passage about suicide above was written from exile) that Romm was never able to say with any certainty how his years with Nero affected him. This time and place needs its own Procopius, who wrote his Secret History while serving under Justinian in Constantinople as a loyal courtesan. Romm does an admirable job combing through Seneca’s essays and plays and drawing conclusions about connections between his writing and his time at Nero’s court, but I would have loved a bit more active, personal story.

My favorite thing about this book is its portrayal of Nero in his early twenties, content to allow others do the daily business of ruling while he sneaked into various performance venues both in Rome and elsewhere to feed his hunger for performance. He fancied himself a singer and a poet and was happy to devote the vast majority of his time on stage, forcing innocent people to applaud mightily to his every off-key offering. I find these anecdotes adorable on the one hand and have actually jotted down a few notes for a short story about a fictionalized version of the young Nero as Theatre Kid – but on the other hand, it is terrible to be given so much power, to understand how much good could have been done with that power, and then trivialize it by tramping from club to club, performing and feeding his ego. Celebrity Apprentice, anyone?

Posted in Authors, James Romm, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment