Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Neo-Human, All Too Neo-Human

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 16, 2006 09:25 pm

Michel Houellebecq's newest novel is about a future Earth ravaged by disasters and inhabited by two classes of humans: a small number of highly evolved and medically improved "neohumans", and a starving race of devolving savages who subsist in the uncivilized territories outside the settled zones. We are with the neohumans, who have discovered a remarkable way to become immortal: their bodies are genetically duplicated at the end of each generation, and their original memory systems are continually ported from each aging body into the body's younger equivalent.

The hero of The Possibility of an Island is a neohuman variously known as Daniel1, Daniel23, Daniel25 and so on, who lives on the Canary Islands near Africa with two female neohumans named Esther and Isabelle. They all practice a religion called Elohimism, the common faith of the neohumans.

I find the novel's concept exciting because it refers to a classic metaphysical question: are our entire souls implanted in our memories? If I transfer my memory system into an precise implementation of my genetic blueprint, has this copy suddenly become me? If so, what is left behind in the old me? Philosophers like Daniel Dennett have examined this question, but Houellebecq's new novel simply lets the scheme happen and shows us where the chips fall.

Michel Houellebecq is a French sensation, a postmodern brutalist whose fables recall those of Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Pahlaniuk. But he is much darker and more cynical than Vonnegut, and he's probably even nastier than Chuck. He's also funny, with something like Douglas Coupland's droll computer-age satire combined with Norman Mailer's political outrageousness, and to top it all off there's a bit of William Vollmann's show-offy super-intellectualism.

That's some happy meal, and John Updike takes a bite and makes a face in his well-written New Yorker review of this book. John Updike is probably my favorite literary critic, just because his sentences are so damn amusing, and he doesn't disappoint in this thoughtful and tempered smack-down.

The usual Houellebecq hero, whose monopoly on self-expression sucks up most of the narrative's oxygen ...

Updike delivers the knockout punches early in the article, then props the pummeled author up and admits that he liked one of his earlier novels. But Updike makes the book sound interesting even as he tells us to skip it, and some of his criticisms seem cloaked, as when Updike criticizes Houellebecq's sentiment that "All energy is of a sexual nature" (this would certainly seem to be an Updike-ean thesis).

Later, Updike describes a dull moment in the novel as "an interminable blog from nowhere", which is a sudden unexpected swipe at my profession when I thought we were in the middle of beating up this French guy. Well, it's such a funny line I'll forgive Updike for it, even though it's totally unfair (A New Yorker writer is going to talk about interminable?) ...

Anyway, it's an entertaining review , but I think I'm going to read the book even though Updike doesn't like it. It sounds like my kind of story.

My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 9, 2006 09:18 pm

My Name Is Red isn't Orhan Pamuk's most recent book, but it might be his best. This is a surprise because Snow was so good, but in fact the books make a great pair. One is as current as yesterday's newspaper and paints a frozen world of whites and grays, while the other takes place in 1591 and bursts with color and pure vision. Both books are classics, in my opinion, but My Name Is Red is the bigger book, and reaches for the grander statements.

Orhan Pamuk has a calm and modest demeanor, but this book is much a tour de force as anything Chuck Pahlaniuk's ever written, and it's nearly as manic. The book is mainly a murder mystery, set among a highly exclusive community of artists, soldiers and politicians in Istanbul at the height of that city's golden age (the Sultan himself even makes a cameo appearance in this book). The best painters in the Ottoman Empire work here as manuscript illuminators, or miniaturists. They are treated like celebrities, and their talents are viewed as mystical expression of Islamic ideals by their customers and fans. But the artists struggle to find their artistic boundaries, because their religion disdains representative illustration, which they all indulge in, as a form of vanity.

Much of the dialogue in the book revolves around this problem, and in this sense My Name Is Red is similar to other works that encapsulate religious debates, like T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral or Chaim Potok's The Chosen. Pamuk, however, is clearly more interested in art than in religion (he used to be a painter himself), as are most of the characters in the book. In fact several of them are literally crazed by the beauty -- and the forbidden vanity -- of visual art.

And one is more crazed than the others, because he starts killing people. That's the setup, and the murder plot gives the book plenty of forward momentum. But it's Pamuk's literary intelligence that raises this story to a much higher level than that of, say, a Turkish Da Vinci Code. Pamuk always writes with great control, and in this book he carries on a unique narrative conceit, allowing the story to unfold in a series of connected vignettes told in first person by each of the main characters in turn.

The first character to speak is the corpse of the murder victim. We then hear from a soldier, the woman he loves, a dog, each of the artists, a Jewish matchmaker, a horse, Satan, etc. As a writer, Pamuk probably got this idea from James Joyce and Ulysses (the vivid sex scene that closes the book, told in the voice of earth mother/mystical wife Shekure, recalls Ulysses as well). But, as an artist, Pamuk may also have borrowed this idea from Pablo Picasso, because his narrative has the same concise super-logical effect -- seeing the world from God's point of view -- as one of Picasso's Cubist paintings.

An overly clever narrative technique can doom a book where it doesn't belong, but this unique approach is a perfect match for this story, which is all about seeing. When the story finally reaches its crisis, I am pleased to report the surprise ending does deliver a strong punch (and it was better than any of the surprise endings I'd guessed). Here, the book begins to feel like The Alienist by Caleb Carr, as we approach the inner mental state of the killer and discover the secret object of art he has been hiding from the others, which he killed to protect.

I was also intrigued to discover a short chronology of Ottoman history at the book's end, which explains that one of the book's characters, the aging master artist Osman who yearns for blindness as the ultimate proof of sublime vision, is based on a real person. There is also a suggestion that another key character is based on a historical figure named Velijan, but Google turns up nothing about this name and I suspect Pamuk is just getting metafictional with us again.

Indie Reviews: April 2006

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 25, 2006 11:50 am

Slushpile recently presented a sporting rant that mocks annoying people who self-publish and then get way too excited about themselves. It's a good article, though it leads to the depressing conclusion that the future of literature remains in the hands of the large robotic corporations that occasionally bestow the magic word "published" upon a tiny selection of writers. Here at LitKicks, we've always supported the little guys in publishing, and we're happy to profile worthwhile new small press books, self-published books and poetry chapbooks. If you've got an independently published book you'd like us to review, we'll take a look. Here are a few we checked out last month:

The Garbageman and the Prostitute by Zack Wentz is a thrill ride down transgression alley, and if you go for this kind of thing (fragmented violent narratives with creepy psychological undertones) this book will probably please you. Wentz gets high marks for energy and consistency, because every sentence seems constructed for mind-numbing impact, and the excellent artwork (here's a sample, an animated version of the cover) neatly captures the mood. I did have trouble finding a clear plot in this book, though. I'm not sure if the plot is there or not, but I never found it. The Garbageman and the Prostitute is published by Chiasmus Press, and boasts a surprising array of endorsements from the likes of William Vollmann, Steve Aylett and Michael Hemmingson. The promo materials compare Zack Wentz to Richard Brautigan, Kathy Acker, Charles Bukowski, P. K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon. I see Acker and Pynchon here, but I don't see the simple, clear communication of Brautigan or Bukowski.

J Milligan's Jackfish has a great setup. A humanoid creature of some kind emerges from the ocean near Coney Island in Brooklyn, and gasps painfully to accustom himself to breathing air. Apparently this guy -- the Jackfish of the title -- is more comfortable extracting oxygen with his gills, which is mainly because he lives in the mystical underwater land of Atlantis. He's on some kind of noirish secret mission, and the whole thing reads kind of like City of Glass meets Aquaman, which is not a bad thing at all. In the end, it's not the suspense but rather the well-placed details (like the deep, jarring pain the fish-guy feels when forced to breathe air) that put this story over. Jackfish is published by Soho Press, a fairly large New York-based independent publisher that hasn't been swallowed up by a corporation yet, at least not as far as I know.

Not Having an Idea is a slim and expressive book of poems by Californian poet Donna Kuhn. Her work has a visual and visceral sense, marrying the random psychological splices of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to a distinctly feminine aesthetic:

particles of goat head fencing
cardinal of slouched fencing eyehole
smear a plot of murder i don't understand

fencing a platinum blong 4-plex
petty venders smoke up
i bend for your sandpapers
antlered sadness

Kuhn's book is a Lulu production, and so is Dutch-booked by Warren Weappa, a longtime friend of LitKicks. This is an ambitious and openly disorganized novel about a hapless sad-sack stuck in the ambiguities of his own mind, The best example I can give of this book's sensibility is Weappa's comically self-defeating comments to me as he sent it: "I don't want a review. I just want somebody in the world to read it." Well, Weappa is getting a review whether he wants it or not, because as I explained to him in my reply, I can't stand the responsibility of being the only person in the world to read anybody's book. The author's apparent agony about his book is very fitting, because the main character -- like the author, an expatriate in Asia -- suffers from the same endearing inability to seize the day. In the first two pages alone, he is referred to as "your antihero", "your valueless villian", "your working-class protaganist", "your serial loser" and "your clueless correspondent". John Kennedy Toole created a good book out of this type of self-deprecation (although, appropriately, he died before it was discovered). Reading Dutch-booked, I'm not sure whether to sympathize, laugh or yell at the author to shake it off.

Taking the Rest of the Week Off by Erik Linzbach is a humble, attractive chapbook that speaks clearly and simply, and I like it:

How you've changed
gone from the stereotype
divorce raged child
to the calm, secure
judgemental hawk,
flying high above all these
others, the rats from high school,
whom you'll eat one by one
by one, and you'll hate yourself
when they're all gone,
and no one can see your
new limitless brilliance,
no one can read your
gut check, relentless prose,
and you're once again found all alone.

Finally, it's not a book at all, but I've been meaning to point you all to Bear Parade, an online poetry exhibit designed by Gene Morgan and featuring enigmatic poet Tao Lin, the self-proclaimed Reader of Depressing Books who writes behind a mask of playful innocence and never breaks character. I like the clean presentation of this poetry exhibit, and I am looking forward to Lin's upcoming first hard copy publication, which he has promised to send me for future review.

That's it from the indie side of the street. I also have a few titles from more established publishers to review, and this will be up soon.

The Jeeves Codex

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, April 5, 2006 08:08 pm

There's a new name on my writers-I-like-a-lot list, though this name took a circular route to get here. I was introduced to the novelist Jonathan Ames a few years ago by my friend Christian Crumlish who'd apparently been his college buddy at Princeton. We'd dropped by a Jonathan Ames reading at a small Greenwich Village theater, but you couldn't call the performance a reading so much as, well, an astonishing spontaneous thirty-minute filibuster of disgusting personal facts and scatological observations regarding Ames's body and his highly varied sexual desires. It was all quite humorous, and the crowd seemed to like him a lot. But scatology is not my bag and I honestly didn't know what to think about my friend's friend.

But something compelled me to pick up his latest novel, Wake Up, Sir! and I am now a believer in the worthiness of Jonathan Ames. In fact I'm still glowing from this artful book, which radiates a complex warmth beneath its comic surface.

The book is an explicit homage to a favorite writer of mine, P. G. Wodehouse, in that it features a hedonistic narrator with a calm valet named Jeeves. Ames's hero Alan Blair is a modern slacker with a manic personality and a slippery grip on reality, and he speaks in the same bemused cadences as Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster.

But there are also echoes of Charles Bukowski and Fyodor Dostoevsky in the utter self-deprecation that permeates this narrator's every thought. Ames writes by letting his character spill out everything about himself, whether he wants us to know it or not. It's a cathartic, ecstatic kind of self-revelation, and in this context I have a better understanding of the performance I saw in Greenwich Village a few years ago. This book is tamer and has a surprisingly polite tone, but the veneer breaks often, as in the ridiculously detailed long scene in which the narrator discovers he has an STD and goes into a frenzy of suicidal yearnings and obsessive self-shaving and cleansing that lasts 14 pages. Somehow, believe it or not, the 14 pages are fun to read. It's all so remarkably childish as to be endearing; reading this book is like watching a child throw a hilarious fit.

Some reviewers of the book have hinted that Jeeves is imaginary, while other reviewers treat the character as fully real. I take a strong stand on this matter, because I believe the proper way to interpret this book is as a series of strong hints and clues -- a Dan-Brown-like codex, even -- which proves that, beyond any doubt, Jeeves is not real, and is in fact the central psychological metaphor of the book. Here's why I'm sure.

First, nobody but the narrator ever interacts with Jeeves. When they go to a writing colony, we are told that Jeeves will dine with the kitchen staff, but no further mention is made of this and there is a chilling sense that Jeeves will not be dining anywhere. Likewise, when they are driving, Jeeves does not appear to ever take the wheel.

The second clue is the more subtle one, and is designed to be noticed only by hard-core Wodehouse fans like myself. There is a curious subplot involving some stolen slippers which the hero is accused of having absconded with, and when he then finds himself in a very uncomfortable situation at the end of the book, the stolen slippers return in such a way as to miraculously save the situation. This is a classic Wodehouse ending, and the hero even thinks to himself that Jeeves must have devised the solution. But that's the twist -- it turns out somebody else did it. This blunt reversal is the clearest signal that Jeeves can only reach the edge of reality in this novel, and is in fact, like Harvey the rabbit, like Donnie Darko, like the creepy twin kid in Thomas Tryon's The Other, like Leland Palmer's Bob, like Tony Soprano's Kevin Finnerty, like Hamlet's Ghost, an utter figment.

Despite this Matrix-like undercurrent of meta-meaning, the book's plot generally glides sweetly upon the author's felicitous prose. Two highlight scenes: the surreal moment when the narrator resumes his psychotic alcohol abuse at a party with several equally unbalanced writers, and the hilarious scene when he first arrives at a rural writer's colony (based on the real Yaddo) and becomes convinced that he has been deceived into staying at a mental hospital, based on the grotesque facial appearance of several nearby poets.

Ames hints on his own website that Wake Up, Sir! may be made into a movie. If this happens, I hope Ames will play himself and Stephen Fry will play Jeeves (he got it right in a recent television production, although co-star Hugh Laurie was absolutely absymal -- I'm talking Tom Hanks bad -- as Bertie Wooster, and made the series unwatchable). Perhaps this film will be the great Wodehouse movie that has never been made (in fact, Arthur starring Dudley Moore and John Gielgud was not too completely far from this mark; Wodehouse seems to inspire great homages).

I hope the Ames film happens. I think I'm going to pick up his new book of essays next. I'm not sure what to expect.

Rites of Spring

by Levi Asher on Monday, March 20, 2006 06:52 pm

1. To be a good litblogger, you can't just sit back and think up good jokes about whatever is happening around you. You have to get out and make stuff happen, and that's one reason why Ed Champion is probably the best litblogger on the planet right now. I'm inspired to declare this after reading his two (yes, two) recent mash-ups with the esteemed and intellectually intimidating William T. Vollman, who many avid readers wouldn't even approach once. I especially like this part in the afterstory: "I said, 'Gentlemen, that was a classic ditch technique'".

2. Then there's Jeff Bryant of Syntax of Things, who must be hooked into some secret private Google or something, because he always seems to get the alert before I do. He knew about DeLillo's Game Six a month before anyone else, and he got the scoop on the new Bukowski movie about six months ago before anybody else (actually, where the hell is this movie?). Of interest today: the London house where Symbolist poets Verlaine and Rimbaud gamboled and frolicked happily together when they weren't busy shooting each other is in jeopardy. Bob Dylan and Patti Smith are joining the effort to preserve this landmark, and we are glad to hear this. But somebody should have rung up Richard Hell.

3. The multi-day 2006 People's Poetry Gathering looks like it will be an amazing event. The broad lineup includes Robert Bly (whose poetry comes alive in performance), Miguel Algarin, Kewulay Kamara, Bob Holman, Galway Kinnell, Black 47 and many others.

4. A minor miracle recently occured on cable television. The BookTV network ran a show that featured a literary author whose latest book was not a biography of a dead President and did not involve a dead President in any way. I know what you're thinking: that's crazy -- but it actually happened. Norman Mailer was the author, and he appeared in a videotaped interview with his son, the wonderfully named John Buffalo Mailer, who seems to be stirring to follow in the old man's footsteps.

5. This is the best ode to spring I'm likely to read this year. Reclaim life! Eat jelly beans ...

Brothers in Underpants

by Caryn Thurman on Thursday, March 16, 2006 05:44 pm

No, they're not the Baldwins ... they're not even and . I'm talking about Mopekey and Humkin, the two underwear clad, cereal-loving brothers who make up the central imaginary characters of Lincoln-Mercury's new viral marketing campaign of "webisodes" known as "The Neverything".

Say what?

Have I lost my mind, you ask? Possibly, but before I cross over into the hyperreality of absurdist fiction and car commercials, perhaps you'd like to come along?

Quite simply, "" is a tightly crafted, well-produced mini-film series (and associated interactive website, of course) with the ultimate goal of getting people to talk about the sheer bizarre-kooky-Napoleon Dynamitesque approach ... and Lincoln-Mercury products. But it's not just the oddball factor that makes this so appealing (and it is appealing). There are dark elements, humor and real intelligence driving the concept behind the story.

"The Neverything" revolves mostly around two brothers living on a ship in the middle of a field. They have no outside contact with anyone but the milkman who brings their "sustenance". They survive on cereal (which looks an awful lot like Kix) and run around in their underwear all day. Sounds a lot like college, I know. The trick is -- they don't actually exist -- they're fictional characters created by a struggling novelist named Marian Walker (who is also, for our purposes, fictional). While we learn about the strange world of Humkin and Mopekey out in their field of nothing, we also find out that Marian has started to blur the lines of what is real life and what is happening in her developing novel. Which makes sense as she intentionally creates one of the characters to have an awareness that she's writing about him ... Are you starting to catch the /Calvino-style drift here?

As if that weren't enough to pull you in and make your head spin at the same time, there's a movie and corresponding site that focuses on the perspective of the author, called , brought to you by Lincoln (while "The Neverything" is specifically attributed to Mercury.)

What does all this mean? What does it have to do with selling a car and furthermore what does it have to do with literature? I'll leave it to you to come up with your own answers, but the whole phenomenon has already started to generate some buzz, mainly by ad industry types and perplexed onlookers. I'm not sure what more to say ... and perhaps I've said too much already; however the convoluted, intriguing, highly addictive storyline and motivation behind it may just possibly be the most clever bit of writing and creativity I've seen in a long while.

And I'm not even in the market for a new car.

Don DeLillo’s Game Six

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, March 14, 2006 11:16 pm

Don DeLillo has written a movie about baseball, Game Six, which is strange for several reasons.

First, DeLillo is a novelist, not a screenwriter, and he's not a particularly accessible novelist at that. He's known for taut, bone-clean postmodern prose about helpless, well-meaning adults facing the fear and anxiety of modern life. He sometimes brings in real-life characters like Lee Harvey Oswald or Chairman Mao, and he sometimes tilts the story towards the surreal, a la Harold Pinter, just to keep us guessing. His stories always maintain a hard, cold surface, never fully allowing the reader inside, and rarely delivering climactic moments. How this was going to translate into a baseball flick seemed not at all clear.

Game Six stars Michael Keaton as a nervous but brash playwright who loves the Boston Red Sox. He's feeling a bit nervous because his new play is opening on Broadway the same night the Red Sox face the New York Mets in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. Keaton's character seems to enjoy life, though he's struggling to juggle a vivacious girlfriend (Bebe Neuwirth), a moody teenage daughter and a bitter soon-to-be ex-wife. He takes solace in his hopes for a Red Sox World Series victory (not knowing, of course, that the Red Sox are about to lose badly in one of the most suspenseful baseball games of all time) and he frets over the possibility that a hip new drama critic played by Robert Downey Jr. will savage his new play.

Reviewing the Review: February 26 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, February 26, 2006 10:53 pm

The New York Times Book Review totally calls postmodern whiz-kid William Vollmann on his bluff today, assigning somebody who actually understands science to review his new impressionistic book about Copernicus and heliocentrism, Uncentering The Earth. The critic in the Times corner is Dava Sobel, who wrote a well-recieved book about the relationship between Galileo and his daughter, then followed it up with The Planets, a substantial but popular study of astronomy.

As much as I like Vollmann (which is, precisely, enough to buy his books and not enough to finish them), it is very pleasing to see somebody stand up to this awe-inspiring prodigy of knowledge, this legendarily long-suffering David Blaine of contemporary culture who goes by the name of William T. Vollmann. Because Vollmann's books really are painful to read, and his sentences really could be a hell of a lot clearer, and it's about time somebody with some intellectual heft stood up and got in his face. Sobel describes his new book as "an onslaught of taxing concepts expressed in an often wearying style." Welcome to the world of William Vollmann.

And, for the same goddam bizarre reason that I keep seeing Oliver Stone movies and I keep eating at White Castle, I will probably end up reading this Vollmann book too. Starting it, anyway.

Book Review regular Liesl Schillinger is usually excellent, but her review of Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic, leaves my head spinning. The book delves into the inflamed controversy between two major 17th Century European philosophers, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Liebniz. I'm not sure if it's the book's author or the critic who sees fit to reduce the issues between these two intellectuals to a trite Salieri-vs.-Mozart formulation, but it seems the culprit is Schillinger, who tells us a lot about Spinoza or Leibniz but very little about Stewart's book. These are two heavyweight philosophers, yet Schillinger speaks of them breathlessly as if they were characters in The Da Vinci Code. When she solemnly explains Leibniz's quirks by telling us "he was orphaned while still in his teens" it reads like a bad parody of psycho-biography.

It gets worse. This book's author apparently funded his career as a philosopher and a writer by founding a successful management consulting firm, and Liesl Schillinger lets us know that she's clueless about how the business world works when she equates the author's good fortune with "winning the lottery" and creating "his own good luck". I take it Schillinger has no idea what a management consultant does. But somebody at the Book Review should have an idea, and somebody should have fixed that before it went to print.

It's rare that I criticize the usually excellent Schillinger, and in that same bizarro spirit I have nothing but praise for today's endpaper about Betty Friedan by Rachel Donadio (whose previous pieces I've had nothing good to say about). Donadio makes some important connections, smartly crossing the gender line to compare Friedan's groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique to William Whyte's study of the conformist workplace of 1950's America and it's male archetype, The Organization Man. I also enjoy the way she places Friedan's book in its own context, informing us that it was published "the same month as the paperback edition of The Centaur, John Updike's myth-inflected novel of high-school life, and J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey."

Elsewhere in the Times, there's an informative obituary of the fiction author Frederick Busch in the News section, as well as an essay (of the heartwarming variety) about a mother whose daughter has become a latter-day Beatles freak, written by novelist Ann Hood, author of Three Legged Horse.

It’s All About The N’s

by Levi Asher on Thursday, February 23, 2006 11:10 pm

1. Whoa. Enigmatic novelist Don DeLillo has written the screenplay for a movie that's opening on March 10, Game Six, which apparently involves Michael Keaton, Robert Downey, Jr. and the most exciting baseball game of all time, 1986's sixth World Series game between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox. This is big news in and of itself -- DeLillo is always worth paying attention to -- but is especially so because of the subject matter. Perhaps Don DeLillo was not aware that a certain Queens-based writer and web developer named Levi Asher has already written a book about this game?

Well, I'm not going to get all uppity about it. The movie seems to have potential, based on a quick look at the website (via Syntax of Things). But my book is probably better.

2. The Beat Museum in North Beach, San Francisco is apparently rocking the house on a regular basis. Check out the party photos at this site, featuring good folks like Wavy Gravy, the whole Cassady gang, Larry Ferlinghetti and many others milling about and sipping wine. I met Beat Museum proprietor Jerry Cimino last summer when he came through New York City. He's been working hard on this project for many years and it's great to see it all coming together.

3. Brooklyn-based provocateur-publisher and Friend of LitKicks (FOL) Sander Hicks is running for governor of New York State. It's about time. We're ready for this guy to leave, or run for President or whatever he's going to do. Go Sander ...

4. Who knew that classic television humorist Carl Reiner just wrote a postmodern novel? It's called NNNNN and it's apparently about a guy named Nat Noland with a strange fixation upon the letter 'N'. Sounds kind of like Georges Perec meets S. J. Perelman. Check it out and see what the old guy who was straight man to the 2000 Year Old Man, boss to Dick Van Dyke and real-life father to Rob "Meathead" Reiner is cooking up.

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

by Bill Ectric on Tuesday, February 21, 2006 02:10 pm

Julian Barnes does a magic trick in his historical novel Arthur & George. He makes the index cards disappear. He scoops up what must have undeniably been copious notes and footnotes, shuffles those note cards, deftly blends them, and fans the deck into a colorful moving picture of the sites, sounds, intrigues, and essentials of a true turn-of-the-century London adventure.

Sometimes one reads a good book and thinks, "I could do that," but Arthur & George leaves one thinking, "How did he do that?" Well, perhaps Barnes employs patience, practice, and hard work; but it still reads like magic.

The book has two historical figures as characters, famous Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and Doyle's friend George Edalji. Both are introduced to us as children. Only gradually do we share George's realization that he is perceived as "different" by his fellow school children. When one bully accosts George on the playground, taunting, "You aren't a right sort!" we think at first maybe it is simply because George is shy and awkward, or maybe even because he is smarter than the other kids. But the reader learns, as George learns, that he is different because of his skin tone and ancestry: One of his parents is from India.

Low Level Spoiler Alert: I'm not going to give away the outcome, but I am going to reveal an unexpected irony from this story. I believe this gets to the heart of why Julian Barnes said in a Times interview that he doesn't actually care for Doyle's writing. I did get the feeling, however, that Barnes likes Doyle as a person.

George Edalji studied law and became an attorney. He was a published author; his book Railway Law for the Man in the Train was part of the Wilson's Legal Handy Books series. He was a logical man who believed in law as the foundation of civilization. When he was falsely accused, by anonymous letters, of mutilating horses in the middle of the night, he could never have expected the incompetent, wrong-minded police investigation that ensued. He couldn't believe what flimsy evidence they used to convict him. When Arthur Conan Doyle became aware of this travesty of justice, he (in Doyle's own words) "made a lot of noise" until Edalji's name was cleared. What troubled Edalji in spite of his gratitude is that Doyle's case, upon close examination, was no less circumstantial than the one that put George Edalji behind bars in the first place. No one else seemed to notice this problem. It was ultimately Doyle's popularity as a writer, a sportsman, and a grand Englishman that won the day, not his mastery of the law. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes' "science of deduction" is sometimes flawed.

Consider this exchange between Holmes and Watson in The Sign of the Four,

"A savage!" (Watson exclaimed. "Perhaps one of those Indians who were the associates of Jonathan Small."

"Hardly that," said (Holmes). "When first I saw signs of strange weapons I was inclined to think so, but the remarkable character of the footmarks caused me to reconsider my views. Some of the inhabitants of the Indian Peninsula are small men, but none could have left such marks as that. The Hindoo proper has long and thin feet. The sandal-wearing Mohammedan has the great toe well separated from the others because the thong is commonly passed between. These little darts, too, could only be shot in one way. They are from a blow-pipe. Now, then, where are we to find our savage?"

Circumstantial, my dear Watson. As is this passage from A Scandal in Bohemia,

"The man who wrote the note is a German. Do you note the peculiar construction of the sentence--'This account of you we have from all quarters received.' A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs."

In fairness to Doyle, it took some considerable time to glean those two examples of political incorrectness from a dozen Sherlock Holmes stories.

The point is, Arthur believed in George with the same emotional fervor with which he believed in Spiritualism. There is a very humorous passage near the end of Arthur & George in which George Edalji attends a spiritualist gathering of several thousand people at the Royal Albert Hall who are attempting to contact Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after his death. The 'medium' on stage goes into a trance. Presently, she tells the audience she senses many souls present behind her. She raises her arms and straightens her back as though the spiritual forces are pushing her forward. Then, apparently, the departed souls begin speaking through the medium to their still-living relatives in the audience. Barnes writes,

"George listens to the crowd of spirits being given fleeting description. The impression is that they are all clamouring for attention, fighting to convey their messages. A facetious if logical question comes into George's mind ... If these are indeed the spirits of Englishmen and Englishwomen who have passed over into the next world, surely they would know how to form a proper queue?"


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