Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Right Book For an Overturned Life

During these overturned weeks, immersed in moving and holidays and endless work stuff, I've been plowing through a few books to help keep myself centered.

I started out with Gulliver's Travels which -- excuse me -- is mostly just annoying. Yes I recognize that literature has changed an awful lot in 250 years, and I also understand that it was conceived as a social satire and not an adventure story. But yikes, Jonathan Swift simply cannot make a point and then move on...he needs to bludgeon you with a single idea for five or six pages, slyly winking at you in the meantime -- "Get it? Get it?" -- before he moves on.

I suppose my mistake was approaching it as a novel -- with, say, a plot and at least one interesting character -- while it's really more of an upside down essay. "Our European government is wacky," sez Swift, "and so are people in general!" Well, no kidding. I know that. But I'm having to FORCE myself to finish the damn book.

In the meantime, during my first few nights at my new place, I found myself craving a COMFORTING book. A book that doesn't ANNOY me. So I retreated to the basement and dug through the boxes that I previously kept squirreled away in my storage locker, boxes containing hundreds of short horror anthologies...and a few scary novels as well.

The one I settled upon is a book I find myself re-reading every five years or so: Shadowland, by Peter Straub. It has been part of my imagination since I was very young and it never fails to amaze me: an ambitious (but not particularly long) combination coming of age story, fairy tale, adventure serial, philosophical treatise, and absolute nightmare, with an ending that STILL shocks me and fills me with deep sorrow.

On reflection I realize now that the book is, like many of Peter Straub's books, incredibly sloppy -- basically a collection of great ideas and set pieces. Shadowland only "works" because it never tries to resolve itself. It's an early example of the "Metahorror" field that would briefly eclipse the straight-forward hacks like Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz: the reader drifts along with a plot that keeps unexpectedly diving off the path, into a 1950s prep school, a train ride through the midwest, a scary house in Vermont, field hospitals in WWI, England during the 1920s, Los Angeles in the 1980s. My more critical mind recognizes, now, that a convoluted path does not automatically make a coherent or meaningful novel, and much of the dialog that seemed deep and inscrutable to me in the past now seems to be what it REALLY is: random, random, random.

But I love the book regardless. The ideas don't gel, but they're wonderful ideas. The characters are perfectly fleshed, and I think that "The Collector" -- a homicidal rubber bodyguard with "blowtorched features" that hides in the bathroom mirror -- is still one of the scariest things around. While kids are so Harry Potter mad, why doesn't somebody turn it into the great movie it could someday be?

While looking for heavy books to help me soundproof my bedroom wall, I came face-to-face with William T. Vollmann's seven-volume Rising Up and Rising Down. I tried to read it a few years ago and ended up totally confused. I vowed to learn a bit more about Caesar, Pol Pot, Stalin, and Trotsky before trying it again.

Halfway through the first volume I'm recognizing my crucial problem. Vollmann is an unconventional storyteller who -- I believe -- doesn't care much that other people don't perceive things exactly the way he does. When he writes a novel this isn't a problem; it's all part of the strange world (AKA "Vollmann's head") that you step into when you pick up his books. But when he writes a 3,500 page essay covering all facets and permutations of human violence...well, the reader wants to UNDERSTAND what Vollmann is saying. But Vollmann, full of digressions and poetry and personal obsessions, doesn't try to conform to what we expect in an essay. His chapter headings are obscure, his references scattershot, his digressions just plain confusing.

Fortunately I realize this now. The book must be read S-L-O-W-L-Y, without any skimming. I also realize that he has a horrible tendency to refer back to complex ideas -- ideas that he never presented as being particularly important at the time -- using a personal shorthand that's really freaking annoying. We have the "Machiavellian Caveat," for instance, which Vollmann paraphrases as "Never turn the other cheek or they'll take your head off." He talks about "the Asian woman" and "the tortured woman" as though we should remember who they are. When he keeps making offhand references to people, events and philosophies -- in a book that is JAM PACKED with such things -- and he doesn't bother to refresh your memory, you wind up getting lost in outrageous paragraph excerpts like this:
We heard Hobbes insisting that since my great-grandfather once agreed to form a commonwealth, I thereby agreed and will always agree to every new act of government; hence "no Law can be Unjust;" but I cannot remember giving my consent to anything so sweeping, and if Hobbes did it, I beg him to bind only himself, not me, nor my comrades who are likewise discontented; like Ivan Karamazov, who found himself dissatisfied with an order of divine providence under which any child on this earth might be tortured, we must be able to announce that we reject our entrance ticket; like the pseudonymous commanders of an insurgent group in Mexico, we must be able to say whenever and to whomever we will: "Our objectives are for the people, with the people, and against the government. We are ready for anything." By the Machiavellian Caveat, mostly we are not. "No government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people," says Gandhi, but he then adds the bitterly necessary qualification, "voluntary or forced." Force may partake of outright violence, craft or mutual obfuscation. Possessing all little power in their popular assemblies, the Roman plebians, for instance, knew not how to reject the whole ticket, although by means of riots an ill-omened corner of it might get torn away, and they could shout demands at gladiatorial shows...
YARGH! To make a single point -- that governments exist because people are either afraid of governments or because governments and pundits tell us we're part in a pre-birth binding contract with them -- Vollmann referenced Hobbes, Dostoevsky, Mexican insurgents, Machiavelli, Gandhi, and Roman plebians. This wouldn't be so bad if the next paragraph didn't reference ANOTHER bunch of groups and individuals, and so on, and so on. Vollmann is suffering a wealth of information, and he doesn't seem to notice that the REST of us aren't as familiar as HE is with his sources.

Knowing this makes the book easier to understand, however. I realize now that the KEY to understanding "Rising Up and Rising Down" is by paying close attention to the "mini-chapter" headings, and keeping them in mind while reading the chapter itself, so I'll gradually figure out which direction he's heading in and arrive there with him. Then, when he finally makes his point (more or less clearly) I'll also better understand how he got there.

You might ask "why bother?" Other than not being able to admit defeat after conquering all his OTHER books, it's because his insights ARE very interesting, and needing to WORK to understand them makes them that much more fascinating. I don't necessarily agree with all his points so far -- I've always been a bit nervous about his gun fetish, for instance -- but it's still cool to see how HE arrived at his conclusions, and he's nothing if not rigorous in explaining his methods (that's the whole point of the book, in fact). And besides that, his experiences and interviews make great reading, the unpretentious photographs from his travels have a way of grabbing your head, and the historical information is welcome too.

Will I manage to finish the whole thing? Maybe not. But at least it's making me think about things: what do *I* stand for? Why would I ever "rise up?" In defense of self, homeland, earth, animals? Hmmmmm...


VanillaJ said...

In University I read books like "Manufactering Dissent" and "The Everyday As Problematic". In short: it depressed me. The conditions under which people rise up or perpetrate violence is akin to a receipe of economics, demographics, sociology, etc. Being young and stupid, I thought "righteousness" might be in the mix somewhere, but alas, no. Violence can be predicted by something as simple as population density, or imbalances in male to female ratios. Something about the anaylsis in these books that remove individual agency in violent behaviours, and the story becomes one of observing an ant colony.
Except I've never known ants to repeatedly prod an unarmed man with a tazer for merely being annoying.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

It would be incredible if ants COULD taze each other...I bet they'd explode!

It did seem to me that most forms of sociology reduce humans to "ant status." It was viewed as necessary, to get away from the bias of case studies, but resulted in all sorts of other problems that I think you're getting at, especially: why does an INDIVIDUAL do something?

Tada! Symbolic Interactionism:


This is what really turned my head around in my last years of University. There's lots not to like about the Symbolic Interaction paradigm -- it doesn't make reliable predictions, or produce statistics -- but when it comes to learning about how the individuals within groups feel about other people in the group, people outside the group, and the objects in their environment...wow, it's good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Sheesh--where to start?

Happy New Year!

Don't forget that Swift didn't know anything about organic form--his model is Juvenal, who would intensify his points by saying the same thing a different way over and over again. So did Lenny Bruce.

Satire comes from the Latin word for a mixed dish--kind of a stew. So if it seems as if Swift throws in the kitchen sink--he does it purposefully.

Part IV is the crux of the work. Does Swift agree that Gulliver is right in identifying with the Houyhnhms?

I'd like to talk about Vollman, but I wanted to keep this "nasty, brutish, and short."

Eric the Leviathan


Muffy St. Bernard said...

And a Happy New Year to you as well! May it be!

Well, Gulliver. I'll admit upfront that reading the book came at a bad time -- when I was so distracted by other things that I could barely pay attention to it. I even have a pretty high tolerance for 18th and 19th century fiction, what little I've read.

You're right, it's the lack of organic structure that's weighing me down. There certainly IS a structure, but it's one of repetition...here we are back in the same cycle again, where the foibles of today are turned upside down so we can more clearly see them.

That's certainly effective satire...but after just a hundred pages of it I started hoping for something else, and NOT just another culture that shows how backwards WE are.

I'm stuck at the beginning of the Houyhnhm chapter. If men were horses and horses were men, and if men were compared with a species unable to tell a lie...GAH! HAVEN'T WE GONE OVER THIS ALREADY?

Am I missing something by not finishing the book, or is there something to be gained by finishing it...keeping in mind I haven't enjoyed it much at all?

As for Vollmann, I know, it's hard to be short and Brutish with him. That's not a level playing field. :)