Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Postmodernism

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?"





Indie Writer on Exile Island

by Levi Asher on Thursday, February 9, 2006 09:57 pm


If you're a Survivophile like me, you might have noticed that one of the new season's characters is a writer. I'm pretty sure this is a Survivor first, and so I was curious enough to look up his stats.

Turns out his name is Austin Carty, and he's the author of one self-published novel, Somewhere Beyond Here.

It's apparently the story of some kind of twisted mother-son relationship, and the opinions on the Amazon page are deeply divided. The plot sounds intriguing enough, but I'm sorry to say the cover design is a disaster. The Venetian script font and the amateurish composition all scream out "designed by my high school art teacher who has Photoshop". Other details are similarly askew. The fact that Amazon lists the publisher as unknown drives home the point: this ain't Knopf.

A few ISBN lookups reveal the book's registered publisher, Trafford Publishing, which appears to be a respectable business. Unless their staff artists designed the cover, in which case they're not.

Anyway, LitKicks officially supports the effort of Austin Carty to win Survivor: Exile Island. He's 24, looks a bit doofy, doesn't talk much, and I get the feeling he lives with his parents back home. I'm guessing his biggest literary influences are a Dave Matthews Band CD and half a Dave Eggers book. But writers have to stick together, and we stand behind Austin Carty to win the million for all of us back home. The tribe has spoken.





Best American Short Stories 2005 (cont.)

by Levi Asher on Monday, January 23, 2006 10:16 pm


Here's the second and final installment of my Best American Short Stories of 2005 review. I finished about two-thirds of the stories (I said I read Houghton Mifflin's BASS book every year, but I didn't say I finish it). Here are my findings:

First of all, the 2005 collection is much better than average. I do heartily recommend that you buy it (especially since it only costs $14, miraculously, a fair price). I don't know how useful it is to consider a collection of stories as a whole -- clearly, the story and not the collection is the critical unit here -- but I will say that Michael Chabon's collection is a lot better than Lorrie Moore's from last year (even though I've always liked her better as a writer). Chabon deserves a lot of credit for putting together this package.

Suburban novelist Tom Perrotta's The Smile on Happy Chang's Face is a funny-serious little-league baseball tale narrated by a morally decrepit father who hates himself so deeply that the reader doesn't have to. Perrotta's plot ricochets around like a crazy grounder on a pebbly field, and when nobody's looking the author slides into home plate with a great ending. A story to remember.

Props to a former teacher of mine, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, for her quiet exhibit of controlled anxiety and aggravation, A Taste of Dust. This is a bitter-toned first person narrative in which two middle-aged but perky divorced parents "meet friendly" for dinner to make the kids happy (and to satiate their own curiousity about what might have been). I didn't like Lynne Sharon Schwartz as a teacher (in fact I wrote about the fiasco here; she's the writer who looks like Joyce Carol Oates but isn't Joyce Carol Oates). But let's put the Joyce Carol Oates lookalike jokes aside here, because Schwartz's story is razor-sharp and beautifully constructed, and reminds me why I once sought her out as a teacher in the first place.

Yeah, I'm gonna keep praising these short stories. You got a problem with that? Rishi Reddi's Justice Shiva Ram Murthy is a quirky fable about two Americanized Hindus in Boston. One of them orders a bean burrito at a cheap Mexican joint and is served a beef burrito instead. He's enraged and seeks legal retribution, and that's all the plot this surprising comedy of manners needs.

I could recuse myself from reviewing Cory Doctorow's Anda's Game, since Doctorow is one of three judges for this year's Blooker Prize, which LitKicks hopes to win. But, what the hell, nobody really cares. (My virtual entanglement with Doctorow, who I've never met, also includes a curious incident involving identical book covers. Please note that the Levi Asher/Christian Crumlish book came out first, though it unfortunately went out of print first too).

Doctorow's story is probably the hippest in the book, the one most likely to have been republished by Dave Eggers if Michael Chabon hadn't grabbed it first. It's about a shy pre-adolescent girl with great skills at a particular video game who gets roped into an apparently global scheme to barter game points for cash. As a non-gamer myself (I think the last video game I mastered was Centipede, and then I ran out of quarters) I really enjoyed the chance to understand what the world feels and sounds like (Tom Wolfe style, although Doctorow has a calmer approach) to an obsessive game freak. I was so engaged in the first half of the story, though, that I was disappointed when the avatars emerged into reality to interact with various shady government-sponsored or exploitative-capitalist organizations that apparently thrive in gameland along with the innocent young players. It was really two stories in one, but I wish the second one had been as vivid as the first.

Will the praise never end? There's more. David Means has a lot of nerve appropriating the title of J. D. Salinger's made-up story (Holden Caulfield's phony brother was the author) for his own Secret Goldfish. Luckily, he pulls it off. It's another divorce story, a nice complement to Lynne Sharon Schwartz's above, with a slightly grotesque but symbolic domestic fish bearing the emotional weight of the confused family that surrounds it.

Speaking of Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Joyce Carol Oates' The Cousins represents the quieter, darker side of this collection. It's an epistolatory tale about two elderly woman who don't know each other. One is a famous and angry writer who survived the Holocaust; the other is a placid and lonely humble lady who believes the famous writer is her cousin. Oates knows what to do with a great setup like this, and she does all that and more. It's a powerful, serious story; Joyce Carol Oates in a Cynthia Ozick mood.

I finished three more stories, all of which involve prisons, and none of which I am going to rave about. Dennis Lehane's Until Gwen, Thomas McGuane's Old Friends and Edward P. Jones' Old Boys, Old Girls all try too hard to be bad-ass, and Styles P said it better in a song called "Locked Up" that got played a lot on hiphop radio in 2005: "The walls is gray, the clothes is orange, the phones are broke, the food is garbage" There, we just saved a lot of words.

Finally, there are several stories whose first sentences didn't drag me in, but I didn't read them so I don't know if they got better or not.





Consider the Walster

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, January 18, 2006 02:29 pm


Ed Champion provides an amusingly detailed description of a recent David Foster Wallace reading in Haight-Ashbury.

I recently spent about an hour with David Foster Wallace's new book of essays, Consider The Lobster, in a comfortable aisle at a Border's bookstore (apparently my free review copy was "lost in the mail"). I'm finding him far more palatable than I used to.

I used to dislike Wallace on principle, because I don't want to support a novelist whose page numbers reach four digits and keep climbing. But Wallace has calmed himself down considerably since Infinite Jest was the hot book of the year, and he also began an appealing habit of dressing like a slob for author photos. All of this is enough to turn me around, and now I guess I like him.

The title piece in his new book is a winner. It starts as a compendium of general facts about the crustacean lifestyle, but slowly and sneakily builds to a study of the ethics of lobster killing. The most memorable moment is when Wallace tackles the question of whether or not lobsters feel a lot of pain when they are boiled alive. At least one lobster-industry organization has been spreading the word that lobsters do not have the brain power to suffer, but Wallace counters this by describing the way a lobster will often cling desperately with its sad claws to the rim of its container in a hopeless attempt to avoid being dumped into the roiling water. This seems like pretty good evidence that the lobster does actually feel pain, and it's about time somebody settled this question once and for all.

Wallace's pieces on Franz Kafka and John Updike are worthwhile but less fulfilling. It's hardly big news that Kafka is best understood as a comic writer, and Wallace really spends too much time establishing this point. He does better with Updike, but he misses two targets when he says Updike's twin obsessions are sex and death. Adultery and religion, lobster-boy! Updike characters don't have sex with people they're allowed to have sex with (unless they're having makeup sex after one or both is caught having an affair, and even in this case it's a sure thing the adulterous parties will soon be at it again).

All in all, though, it's a good enough book that I will probably pick it up again the next time I'm loitering in a mall. I will consider the lobster, David -- thank you.





Reviewing the Review: January 15 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, January 15, 2006 08:33 pm


The New York Times Book Review needs to publish a good slash-up job at least once every few weeks -- if nothing else, just to satisfy us bloodthirsty readers and keep us from subscribing to Vanity Fair. This week delivers a good mugging, although you're likely to miss it if you habitually skip over reviews of Anita Brookner books. Brookner is pounded and left for dead by Times critic Caryn James, who goes so far that she seems to feel sorry for her and tosses in a compliment halfway through ("Brookner can still do what she has always done best: write beautiful, piercingly elegant observations.") Yeah, okay, let's get back to kicking the old lady ...

I'm sure I enjoyed James's review more than I would have enjoyed Brookner's book. Similarly, I enjoyed Terrence Rafferty's informative and praiseful review of Julian Barnes's new Arthur and George, a dry postmodern collage regarding an episode in the later life of Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle is a favorite writer of mine, and I'd normally be excited about this book. However, I've already read a couple of Barnes' books (a dry postmodern collage regarding the history of the world, and a dry postmodern collage regarding the writing habits of a french novelist), and despite Rafferty's compliments this book seems destined to be boring and lead nowhere. I always *want* to read a new Barnes book for its subject matter (and it's strange that Rafferty says Barnes lacks a signature trait as a writer -- surely his signature trait is that he writes about historical events and literary lives), but I am always disappointed to find myself at the end of each book holding a postmodern handful of nothing. So I'll enjoy the review and skip the book. That way I come out ahead and nobody needs to get hurt.

Elsewhere in today's issue, we get a good variety of national backgrounds and literary settings. Lorraine Adams praises Palestinian novelist Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun, and Bella Bathurst makes Belinda Rathbone's Scottich oddysey The Guynd sound fascinating. Playwright Athol Fugard's daughter Lisa Fugard has written a novel, Skinner's Drift that apparently carries on her father's mission of capturing South Africa in literary form. We also get Andrew McGahan in Australia and Richard Lyman Bushman on Mormon writer Joseph Smith.

The Book Review's satirical endpaper seems to have missed its intended venue, which is McSweeney's. Henry Alford collects and pastes together individual sentences from the acknowledgements sections of numerous books, forming one strange and intentionally meaningless mega-acknowledgement, footnoted with the sources. Okay, clever stuff ... but Sam Tanenhaus blows it with an editor's note at the beginning of the publication that actually explains the endpaper in advance. Not necessary, and this pretty much shows why it is that the Book Review is the Book Review and McSweeney's is McSweeney's. I'm really not sure which is worse.





Close To Home: Finding Art Spiegelman's Maus House

by Levi Asher on Monday, January 9, 2006 10:45 pm


I have a lot of respect for Art Spiegelman, a manic-depressive comic strip artist and writer who holds nothing back from his craft. In the great self-effacing tradition of Robert Crumb, a Spiegelman comic is always "too much information", splattering personal urges and anxieties and weird notions around like a loose garden hose. But the best confessional comix artists have the artistry and wit to make the splatter beautiful. Spiegelman's graphical autobiography promises to be a deeply personal document, and it's off to a great start with the first two sections.

One reason I relate to Art Spiegelman is that he grew up about three and a half blocks from where I live now, in sunny Rego Park, Queens. I know this because Spiegelman drew a map of his street as part of the back cover of his signature work, Maus. Maus is the terribly sad and odd true story of Spiegelman's parents (who could have been role models for George Costanza's parents in Seinfeld, except reality beats fiction). Both were holocaust survivors, but Spiegelman's father adopted an infuriatingly contrary, almost cheerful tone about the experience, which apparently taught him important survival skills (but also made him cruel to women, emotionally dense with his son and generally crazy). Spiegelman's mother, on the other hand, never recovered from the shock of the camps. She committed suicide when Spiegelman was a young man. He had been recently released from a mental hospital when he walked home one day to find police cars outside his house. This was how he found out about his mother's suicide.






LitKicks Reviews

by Levi Asher on Friday, December 16, 2005 04:26 pm


Here are a few new indie publications you might enjoy:

A Voice Above the Din by Steven Holbrook Hill

Steven Holbrook Hill's first novel A Voice Above the Din kicks off like a buddies-travelling-together story, a sort of male Thelma-and-Louise. As in many roadgoing tales, the two main characters have complementary rather than similar personalities. John is the crazed, fast-moving one, and narrator Spencer supplies the caution and introspection John lacks. Anybody who knows On The Road will recognize the setup, but Hill's book is heavier on plot and lighter on tone than Kerouac's. One of the characters is dealing with a serious disease, along with legal problems and attitude problems, and the story takes twists you won't see coming. Hill has created a blog to promote this book ... he also contributes occasional excellent articles to LitKicks as Stevadore. Check his stuff out.






Stakes is High

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, December 13, 2005 10:57 pm


A courtroom trial is, in semiotic terms, the creation of a literary text. And a text of great import: a human being stands before his or her peers and faces up to society's moral judgement. The entire procedure is carried out as an exchange of words, which are recorded for posterity. It's a fascinating process, and some notable texts are being written right now.

Let's start with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, pounding his fist and complaining that the whole trial process is a theatrical fraud. Well, he's probably right, but then Saddam has his own penchant for theatricality. With Saddam in the hot seat and the cameras rolling, there's more bad acting flying around the Baghdad courtroom than in a Tom Hanks/Robin Williams buddy film directed by Oliver Stone. We yearn for the days of the Nuremberg trials.






Best American Short Stories of 2005

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, November 30, 2005 06:37 pm


Yeah. I'll admit it. I read Houghton-Mifflin's Best American Short Stories every year.

This series began in 1915. I've been reading it faithfully since, I think, 1984. I still remember the total shock I felt when I first wandered into, and got ambushed by, a Raymond Carver story. That was in one of these books. Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, T. C. Boyle -- I met them all here. I love it that the book's appearance has never changed -- it's still charmingly under-designed, feeling more like a galley than like a finished book, which is perfectly okay with me and probably helps maintain the unusually reasonable price of 14 bucks.






John Fowles: Death of a Magus

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 8, 2005 07:30 am


British novelist John Fowles died this weekend at his home in Lyme Regis, England at the age of 79.

The Magus was Fowles' definitive work, a tour de force in every sense. An earnest but vapid young man accepts an invitation for what appears to be a conventional teaching job on a small Greek island where an eccentric wealthy landowner holds court. Once there, the young man discovers himself imprisoned within an elaborate constructed world in which Greek myths come frighteningly alive and philosophical theories about mankind's Dionysian and Appolonian impulses are put to test.






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