Friday, June 24, 2011

Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson

"Wait a minute--this snow crash thing, is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?" Juanita shrugs. "What's the difference?"

Snow Crash is not a good book. It somehow made it onto the Time Top 100 novels list, it’s widely considered one of the best of the science fiction genre, but it’s so full of missteps, poorly thought out ideas, and convoluted writing that I’m at a loss to explain why.

First, the good: Snow Crash, in the early going, serves as a pretty funny satire of cyberpunk in the style of William Gibson. It follows a samurai pizza delivery guy, Hiro Protagonist (haha), who’s a slacker in the real world but a hero in the “Metaverse”, a virtual world that seems Stephenson’s answer to Gibson’s Sprawl. It’s silly, but for the first half of the book, the silliness at least seems intentional. However, when the titular “snow crash”, a drug that is chemical, physical, and digital, is introduced, the book strives for a more serious tone that fits it very poorly.

Introducing elements of linguistics, Christianity, and microbiology through reams and reams of dialog-based exposition, Stephenson lays out the science behind the ideas which is ultimately far too far-fetched (and, for anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of Christianity, factually inaccurate) for me to buy into. It reads like Stephenson had a lot of ideas, but rather than organically integrate them into the narrative, they are shared in endless dialogs between Hiro and a computerized librarian. I was also fairly skeeved by the sexualization of the 15 year old co-protagonist, Y.T., which includes a fairly explicit maybe not-quite-consensual sex scene.

On a more personal note, I was somewhat offended by Stephenson’s dismissal of Christianity. The following exchange, between Hiro and Juanita, a self-described devout Catholic, is so condescending that it makes my condescending organ ache:
"Do you believe in Jesus?"

"Definitely, but not in the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus.", said Juanita.

"How can you be a Christian without believing it?"

"I would say, how can you be a Christian with it? Anybody who takes the time to study the gospels can see that the bodily resurrection is a myth that was tacked onto a real story several years after it was written. It's so National Enquirer-esque, don't you think?"

Snow Crash climaxes with a battle between two characters that are introduced in the last 70 pages of the novel, but it somehow seemed fitting: after a book full of characters with no real humanity, it's appropriate that the ending should feel like it doesn’t mean much at all.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence

He was brooding now, staring out over the country from under sullen brows. The little, interesting diversity of shapes had vanished from the scene; all that remained was a vast, dark matrix of sorrow and tragedy, the same in all the houses and the river-flats and the people and the birds; they were only shapen differently. And now that the forms seemed to have metled away, there remained the mass from which all the landscape was composed, a dark mass of struggle and pain. The factory, the girls, his mother, the large, uplifted church, the thicket of the town, merged into one atmosphere--dark, brooding, and sorrowful, every bit.

Paul Morel loves his mother. Saddled with a violent, unhappy marriage to an uncouth coal-miner, she dotes on her son, with whom she forms a tight friendship. As Paul grows to become handsome and ambitious, he becomes attached to two different girls, which strains his relationship with his mother. The grammatical ambiguity of the title is no accident; at times Paul seems more like a boyfriend to his mother than a son, and more a son to his girlfriends than a lover. It is difficult, Paul shows us, to inhabit these social roles at the same time, which threaten to cleave you into parts and prevent you from devoting all of your being to anyone, even yourself.

Sons and Lovers hits many of the same settings and themes as Lady Chatterley's Lover, but it is also hugely different. The latter book is a paean to the physical act of love, which frees Constance Chatterley into herself, but sex in Sons and Lovers is (accurately, I might add) a messy, confusing affair. Paul resists giving himself physically to his lover, Miriam, until very late in the book, and it is not an unqualified success:

And afterwards he loved her--loved her to the last fibre of her being. He loved her. But he wanted, somehow, to cry. There was something he could not bear for her sake. He stayed with her till quite late at night. As he rode home he felt that he was finally initiated. He was a youth no longer. But why had he the dull pain in his soul? Why did the thought of death, the after-life, seem so sweet and consoling?

I thought that Lady Chatterley's Lover seemed strangely void of the Christian mysticism that Lawrence is known for. Sons and Lovers has it in spades, and though I'm sure others have taken to forming a precise catechism of Lawrence's religious philosophy, I must admit that such an endeavor is beyond me. There is the "sweet and consoling" after-life, and the paradoxical life that comes with being still (unlike Lady Chatterley!), and much to do with images of size and importance:

All the while the peewits were screaming in the field. When he came to, he wondered what was near his eyes, curving and strong with life in the dark, and what voice it was speaking. Then he realised it was the grass, and the peewit was calling. The warmth was Clara's breathing heaving. He lifted his head, and looked into her eyes. They were dark and shining and strange, life wild at the source staring into his life, stranger to him, yet meeting him; and he put his face down on her throat, afraid. What was she? A strong, strange, wild life, that breathed with his in the darkness through this hour. It was all so much bigger than thamselves that hewas hushed. They had met, and included in their meeting the thrust of the manifold grass stems, the cry of the peewit, the wheel of the stars.

But mostly I enjoyed reading Sons and Lovers more than Lady Chatterley because it is a novel more in tune with its protagonist's psychology, more interested in human detail. Lady Chatterley's reputation as pornographic, I feel, may have as much to do with its positivity about sex as its graphicality. Most of us, I think, simply have never felt as unabashedly pure and overjoyed about human intimacy as Connie does--though if you feel otherwise, I am quite happy for you. I feel much more in tune with the confused, needy, insolent Paul, who says things like this:

"You know," he said, with an effort, "if one person loves, the other does."

"Ah!" she answered. "Like mother said to me when I was little, 'Love begets love.'"

"Yes, something like that, I think it must be."

"I hope so, because, if it were not, love might be a very terrible thing," she said.

"Yes, but it is--at least with most people," he answered.

Love is a terrible thing, as Paul will find out, at least terrible in capability. Paul is never able to give himself wholly to either Miriam or Clara because the prospect is too frightening; he uses words like "freedom" but the subtext is of diminishing, of vanishing into the other, which is both appealing and horrifying.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

One question after this only remained undecided between them; one difficulty only was to be overcome. They were brought together by mutual affection, with the warmest approbation of their real friends; their intimate knowledge of each other seemed to make their happiness certain, and they only wanted something to live upon... they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a year would supply them with the comforts of life.

(Spoiler alert!) Marianne Dashwood is all feeling, and quite hot-headed; her sister Elinor is reasonable, pragmatic and cool. Sense and Sensibility is about the difficulty of both of them to procure a husband with either approach, as Marianne allows herself to be suckered into a passionate relationship with a cad and Elinor must suffer silently from the knowledge that her intended is secretly engaged to someone else. The Dashwoods are, in fact, so much the obvious precursors of the Schlegel sisters from Howards End that it makes me retroactively enjoy the latter book a little less.

That is my first observation about Sense and Sensibility. The second is this: Sense and Sensibility is, of the four Austen novels I've read, the strongest condemnation of the connection between marriage and money among them. No one wants to see Elizabeth Bennet marry Mr. Collins just for the stability, but it's awfully convenient that Mr. Darcy just happens to be a bazillionaire. And it is hard to condemn her friend Charlotte, who has few of Elizabeth's charms, for marrying Mr. Collins in a fit of practicality.

In Sense and Sensibility, however, everyone who marries for love is a saint and everyone who marries for money is a scoundrel. Marianne's tempestuous dalliance with Willoughby finally ends when he marries an heiress. Edward Ferrars, whom Elinor loves, is disowned by his wealthy family for his proposed marriage to Lucy Steele, and his inheritance promised to his brother Robert, who first appears in the novel buying a toothpick-case:

At last the affair was decided. The ivory, the gold, and the pearls, all received their appointment; and the gentleman having named the last day on which his existence could be continued without the possession of the tooth-pick case, drew on his gloves with leisurely care, and bestowing another glance on the Miss Dashwoods, but such a one as seemed rather to demand than express admiration, walked off with a happy air of real conceit and affected indifference.

I dare you to find a better (and funnier) sentence that so perfectly captures the shallowness and the selfishness of the supremely wealthy.

There are no Charlottes in this book. Even Elinor's practicality can't prevent her from marrying Edward when his engagement falls apart, though she understands perfectly the difficult road ahead of her. That Edward is provided with a living as a priest is fortunate, but it needn't have happened, and it's significant that Elinor, unlike Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, or Anne Elliot, takes a real risk for love.

Yet Sense and Sensibility is not quite the equal of those books. The characters are weaker (you can say almost nothing about Edward Ferrars except that he's a better man than his brother and Elinor loves him) and the plot forced, as when Austen foists a sudden illness on Marianne to bring Willoughby back into the picture. I hope for better from Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

"What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for."

"Anything worth living for," said Nately, "is worth dying for."

"And everything worth dying for," answered the sacrilegious old man, "is certainly worth living for."

When Joseph Heller was asked, late in life, why he had never written another book as good as Catch-22, he responded, “Who has?” Cocky, perhaps, but not unjustified—Catch-22 is certainly one of the densest, funniest, most rewarding books I’ve ever read.

The plot ostensibly follows Yossarian, a bombardier captain in the waning days of World War II, who wants nothing more to be sent home. He first tries completing the required missions, but his captain keeps raising the number. He carries on, faking sickness, faux insanity, and even talking to his largely inept or uncaring superiors, but nothing works—he is caught in a catch 22, a term that is never directly defined in the novel, but which has passed into popular usage as an impossible situation, and is exemplified throughout the novel, both explicitly and more subtly. Defining the novel as Yossarian’s story is misleading though, as any first-time reader will quickly learn.

Structurally--and I’m a serious geek for structure--it’s right up there with Ulysses and As I Lay Dying, completely unique and sometimes bewildering in its presentation. Chapters jump from person to person and place to place, sometimes in mid-scene. The novel is constantly folding in on itself, jumping through timelines, shifting perspectives, and recasting previous events as the backstories and motivations of supporting characters become more fully fleshed out. There’s really no way to explain how all this works; it just does. It brings to mind the film technique of showing a character, say, looking into a mirror, and when the camera pulls back, the character’s face is now on a photograph being held by someone else. It’s remarkably effective, both comedically and dramatically, throughout Catch-22, and I’m fairly certain I’ve never seen another novel use it. Nothing is unimportant or frivolous—even the most insignificant character arc pays off as the story goes on. As the disparate strings were woven together, it was honestly pretty amazing.

Catch-22 has a reputation as a funny book, and it definitely is, for much of its bulk, laugh out loud funny. Even the pervasive humor, however, works toward the novel’s unexpected final third, where everything comes together in a way that’s both nightmarish and bleakly (VERY bleakly) hilarious. It’s a scathing satire not just on the military or the long-term futility of war, but on the very core American values. Nothing escapes unscathed—God, country, capitalism, government—but the satire isn't without buried affection, and the ending is almost joyful, relative to the very bad things leading to it.

Still, this is a challenging book. Anyone expecting a comic novel to be an easy read will probably be put off fairly quickly—just check out some of the scathing Amazon reviews for proof—but this is serious literature covered in a thin candy shell, and it deserves to read that way. It’s almost a Catch-22 itself.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Othello by William Shakespeare

IAGO: ...Divinity of hell! When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows

As I do now. For whiles this honest fool

Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes

And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,

I'll pour this pestilence into his ear:
That she repeals him for her body's lust,
And by how much she strives to do him good,

She shall undo her credit with the Moor.

So I will turn her virtue into pitch,

And out of her own goodness make the net

That shall enmesh them all.

As is sometimes true in Shakespeare, Othello is not really the main character of his title tragedy. The tragedy, to be sure, is his, but we are never so close to him as we are to Iago, who is nearly as accomplished a soliloquist as Hamlet, and who dominates the play. Othello himself is, as A. C. Bradley points out, "the most romantic figure among Shakespeare's heroes" and becomes something like a ruined fairytale, distantly horrific, while we hew more closely to his destroyer. This is, I think, the genius stroke of Othello: Nowhere else in Shakespeare, even in Macbeth, are we so close to evil.

The guiding sentiment of the play is jealousy. It is not, at first, Othello's; he is, as he says at the end, "not easily jealous." But Iago harbors a deep jealousy for Cassio, Othello's newly chosen lieutenant, and it is this jealousy which he manages to push, like a disease-carrier or an accomplished politician, on to Othello. Conventional wisdom holds that Iago has no motivation for his jealousy, but as I read it, Iago has several, including the fact that Othello passed over Iago for Cassio's position and that Iago has suspected Cassio of sleeping with his wife, Emilia. At one point, Iago makes this startling statement:

If Cassio do remain
He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly...

I find this fascinating--Iago, who has chosen evil as his good and constantly touts the power of his will, retains a deeply held jealousy for those who make the opposite choice.

The creature that Iago reduces Othello to is like Iago in the seething bitterness of its envy, but in its shallowness and foolishness it resembles also Iago's companion Roderigo, who is deeply in love with Othello's wife, Desdemona. There is some irony to the spectacle of Othello, the romantic warrior-prince, reduced to insanity at the idea that his wife is not his completely:

I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others' uses.

What is most frightening about Othello is that Othello--just, valiant, accomplished, romantic--is turned into a weapon against himself--

No, my heart is turned to stone. I strike it and it hurts my hand.

--not through any flaw of his own, but because he is overpowered by a stronger will. In any other play, Othello should have towered over every other character, but his misjudging of Iago extends not only to his dishonesty but also his immense intelligence and power. I would venture to say that Iago is the strongest of all personalities in Shakespeare, and that no one but he could have left behind the ruin that he does, extending even to himself. He is like the witches of Macbeth, but more frightening because he is more human.