50 Books: The Twenty Days of Turin by Georgio De Maria

Evidently the only picture of Georgio de Maria

In workshop, we used to say “that’s not a story; that’s a situation.” It was shorthand for a common problem: stories that steadily intensify a set of conditions, until everything comes to a head. Usually these conditions were pleasing and interesting, featuring characters with mutually exclusive desires, natural dialogue, evocative settings. They were deftly rendered situations, but the pleasure of a story does not abide in situations. Narrative aesthetics operate in the relationships among situations, the progression from one to another. A situation is in place, but then something happens, so another thing happens that changes the situation forever.

A situation is the great strength of The Twenty Days of Turin, which most every review describes as “the Italian cult novel.” The incident De Maria imagines—a three-week period during which an epidemic of insomnia drives the residents of his hometown into the streets, where they are mysteriously and vigorously murdered—is uncanny and haunting. It creates an effect of not horror but terror, the fear of a mastering logic we cannot grasp.

The visceral pleasure of this sensation is complemented by the drier satisfaction of parsing two analogies. The first is to the domestic terrorist attacks that frayed the fabric of Italian society in the 1970s. I don’t know much about the history of Italy after Mussolini, but just knowing there were widespread attacks and the government clamped down is enough to appreciate the symbolism. The monsters in this horror story use the people of Turin as weapons against one another, not metaphorically but physically. It’s a touch of pulp gore that is nicely balanced by its political subtext, creating a high-low appeal similar to a Lichtenstein painting. The second intellectual pleasure of this novel comes from The Library, the weird conspiracy that drives the insomnia epidemic and happens to be a robust parody of social media, 35 years before social media was invented. It’s like if Shakespeare had included a machine gun and a trench-based war with massive casualties in Hamlet.

The terror, the analogies to Italian troubles and social media, and the elaboration of De Maria’s golden premise are all great. The problem is that while we learn more about this situation as we read on, it doesn’t change. It just gets fleshed out. The appeal of this novel is the world, not what happens in it.

This problem is endemic to speculative fiction, by which I mean the genres formerly called science fiction, fantasy, and horror. The classy reviews of The Twenty Days of Turin have called it magical realism, but it’s a horror novel. Supernatural forces kill people as the narrator tries to figure out what’s happening. He never really does, though, which obviates the ending to the horror story in which the heroes try to stop what’s going on. This story is about the situation during the twenty days, not one man’s struggle to address it. De Maria is not interested in his hero except as the flashlight on his spooky tour of Turin, so he uses a method for turning situations into stories established by Jorge Louis Borges. He tells the story of the protagonist researching the situation.

Borges’s story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is an exemplar of this approach. The big idea is a land whose inhabitants deny the reality of the world. Borges has lots of fun exploring this idea, including positing a language without nouns, but such conditions make it hard to think of what happens in act three. To get around this problem, he builds a narrative framework from the process of the first-person narrator finding out about this world. His friend remembers reading about Tlön in an encyclopedia, but then it’s not there, so they go looking for it and find a conspiracy to cover it up.

The beauty of this structure is that it allows Borges to substitute pacing—the gradual revelation of interesting details about this world—for plot. The story becomes the change in the protagonist’s awareness of the situation. That’s a thin story, but it holds our attention because we love finding out about this world, too, and we empathize with the protagonist’s curiosity. This solution to the situation-not-a-story problem works particularly well for horror, in which so many aesthetic effects are achieved by withholding information to give shape to the unknown.

That’s why The Twenty Days of Turin works, in my opinion. The story is set a decade after the twenty days, when the protagonist pursues various lines of inquiry about them and encounters mysterious resistance. From the beginning you feel like something creepy is going on, and the morsels of information you get about it only sharpen your appetite. This approach solves the problem of situation and not story, but only temporarily. It erupts again at the end, when the protagonist’s investigation must conclude. The conclusion can’t be him finding out everything there is to know; that kills the horror effect, like when you see the whole alien at the end of Alien and it’s a guy in a rubber suit. So De Maria goes with another ending that feels decisive but also tacked on, a violation of the aesthetic principles that have guided the book so far.

I am better at situations than stories. I think most writers are. The advantage of pacing the story by changing the situation, however, rather than parceling out ever more interesting details, is that it makes the ending easier. When every step takes you closer to the finish line, crossing it is easy. I feel like De Maria reached the last twenty pages of this novel when he was too far from the line, and he had to take an ungainly leap across it. It’s a beautiful day at the track, though. The world of this novel is worth it, even when the story is not.

I’m reading 50 books in 2018, and The Twenty Days of Turin was number eight. Next I’m reading Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, but that’s kind of a lie because I finished it while I was in Denmark. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. If you want to read along in real time, gazing up at the moon and wondering if I’m looking at it, too, I’m reading Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People now.

50 Books: Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming: Problematic?

I read my first James Bond novel—From Russia, With Love—last Christmas, and I was surprised by how good it was. The prose captured a sense of anomie and moral ambiguity that is missing from the movies, and the plot moved along briskly. It was a yarn, and I wanted to read it when I wasn’t—the mark of a good genre novel. The Book Exchange here in Missoula sells used Bond paperbacks for $1.88 apiece, and I picked up three more when I got From Russia, With LoveAmong them was Live and Let Die, which I finished yesterday. If I were going to recommend a Bond novel from the two I have read, I would go with From Russia, both because the prose is better and because I don’t want to develop a reputation. Live and Let Die is enjoyable, but only if you can get past the astonishing racism.

I guess we should all stop being astonished by racism, especially when we read books published in 1954. It’s fair to say that the exoticization of African Americans is not just an aspect but the central premise of Live and Let Die. The second novel in the 007 series, it is basically a crime/adventure story grafted onto the spy template. Tracing the source of ancient gold coins that have mysteriously appeared on the international market, Bond discovers the Harlem gangster Mr. Big, a genius endomorph who runs his criminal empire through a reputation for voodoo powers. One of the best parts of the novel is everyone’s agreement that voodoo isn’t real, right up until they get really scared and start to worry that it might be. Even Bond is not immune to this creeping terror, and it’s a great atmospheric effect.

To get to it, though, you have to wade through a lot of attitudes toward race that can charitably be described as “old-timey British.” The major set piece of the first act is America, and Fleming does not disguise his  disdain for the diner food, clipped speech, and retirement communities of the USA. If America is a foreign country through the lens of Bond’s wry English chauvinism, Harlem is another planet. Every man is a superstitious hustler in peg-topped trousers, and the only (black) woman is a jazz sex witch. Mr. Big’s whole gang is black—Fleming scrupulously uses the word “negro,” which was polite at the time—and the key to his hold over them is their natural superstition. They have colorful names like Poxy and Tee-Hee, and they speak in the apostrophized dialect of southern sharecroppers, even though they live in New York. When Bond sneaks into Florida, he is made by a black cab driver who calls him in to Mr. Big’s operation. Almost every black person in this book is part of the same criminal underground.

I was curious whether Bond would get a black love interest, but the girl in Live and Let Die is a white daughter of Haitian planters named Solitaire. Mr. Big believes she has psychic powers, and he is determined to make her his wife. The adventure that ensues takes them to Florida and then Jamaica, with plenty of booby traps, voodoo curses, and carnivorous fish along the way. Bond and his friends are in danger an impressively high percentage of the time, which keeps the pages turning. In order to enjoy the story, though, you have to overlook the author’s presentation of black people as a type—some good, some bad, but all as exotic as the barracudas and tropical islands that compose the rest of the mise en scene.

I could do that, because I like genre fiction and enjoy looking past the details to the mechanics underneath. Also, I’m white. It’s easy for me to forgive Fleming his “don’ choo move, Mistah Bond” and monologues about how black people are superstitious because they grew up without education in an atmosphere of terror. That’s just an unfortunate aspect of the past, and I condemn it in roughly the same way I condemn its contemporary manifestations, i.e. comfortably, from a place they do not reach. If I were black, Live and Let Die would probably not be a charming adventure story with problematic features, but rather another example of how most books in English were written on the presumption that I would not read them.

The sixty-five-dollar question is what we do with books like that now. We can throw Live and Let Die on the fire and read some China Mieville instead, but are we prepared to do the same with Othello? That’s a work by a well-meaning author that’s astonishingly racist by contemporary standards, too; it’s just better, probably, than a Bond novel. The easy solution is to approach racism in old books like the word “shan’t”—something that jangles the modern ear but was ultimately just a feature of the time. This calculus breaks down, however, when we ask why we’re excusing it. Was the racism of the 1830s any less bad because everyone bought into it?

These questions do not have simple answers, but I do think it’s possible to read Live and Let Die in spite of the racism, without endorsing it. I listen to a lot of Future, but I don’t endorse prescription drugs and cynical materialism. Those elements are part of a larger, ambiguous whole. I’d be willing to split hairs so finely as to say it’s not Future that I endorse so much as the act of listening to Future. Maybe this is sophistry, though, and we’re only trying to gloss over the sins of someone we like. If you haven’t read any Bond books, check out From Russia, With Love. I’m glad I read Live and Let Die, but the baggage may not be worth the trip.

I’m reading 50 Books in 2018; Live and Let Die was number seven. Next, we’re reading The 20 Days of Turin by Georgio De Maria.

50 Books: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I didn’t read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until I was 22 years old. I tested out of the freshman English class that would have assigned it to me in high school, thereby embarking on a career of being too smart to actually learn anything. I’m kind of glad I first encountered this novel as an adult, though, because I’m not sure 15-year-old me would have appreciated its charms. It’s about a kid, but it addresses a fundamentally adult theme: the way ignorance feels like knowing everything for certain, and actual wisdom feels like doubt.

Huck Finn is wise about only one thing, and it plants a seed of doubt in him that germinates over the course of the novel. He wants to help Jim get free. Every moral authority he knows has convinced him this desire is wrong, and he wrestles with it clear down the river. He tells himself that he should report Jim to Miss Watson or turn him in at the nearest town; he upbraids himself as an abolitionist and searches his character for some germ of decency good enough to betray his friend. When he gets to Arkansas and still can’t find it, he casts off the project of goodness entirely. “All right, then,” he thinks, “I’ll go to hell.” The reader cheers, because we know that Huck is actually doing the right thing. The whole effect of this novel turns on understanding what he does not.

The reliability of this comic device—ironic tension between what the reader knows and what a character doesn’t—is why Huckleberry Finn is still funny a century and a half after it was written. I don’t mean funny the way people routinely call novels “wickedly funny” or “laugh-out-loud hilarious,” i.e. contains identifiable attempts at jokes. I mean actually funny. Maybe my favorite gag comes when Huck and Jim are hiding on an island in the northern part of the river, swapping wisdom. Jim says that if a beekeeper dies, the bees must be told before sundown, or they will quit working and die. Huck adds that “Jim said bees wouldn’t sting idiots; but I didn’t believe that, because I had tried them lots of times myself, and they wouldn’t sting me.”

This joke is perfect. Huck dismisses Jim’s claim on the certainty that he is not an idiot, even as he tells us that he routinely hassles bees. The certainty of idiots is the wellspring of humor in Huckleberry Finn, whether it’s the Duke’s self-taught impersonation of quality or Tom’s convictions about how a prisoner must be freed. Jim is the only character wise enough to think of himself as ignorant. The rest, from the robbers on the steamboat to Tom’s relatives down south, are proud and suffer the comedy to which pride invariably descends. The novel is essentially a series of sketches on this theme. What elevates it to the level of art—above Twain’s many other humorous sketches and even his novel-length works—is that it centers on the deadly-serious topic of slavery. In the same way the nation’s was a decade before the novel was written, Huck’s soul is at stake. Fortunately, he has staked it on the one thing he isn’t wrong about.

It’s a good thing Twain has this inexhaustible source of tension to hold the novel together, because the plot is a wreck. It’s a picaresque, basically, but the Duke and Dauphin characters metastasize into the whole second act. Just as they become the most important antagonists in the novel, though, we leave them behind. By that point the reader is not sad to see them go—and neither is Twain, it seems—but their departure signals the beginning of the novel’s infamously bad ending. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it turns on the sudden (improbable) appearance of Tom Sawyer, who insists on a harebrained scheme whose very premise is that it is unnecessary. Twain is a master, and he makes it work as well as it can, but the sense of anticlimax is overwhelming. Huck’s struggle with his conscience has been real, and so has his relationship with Jim. Once these emotional stakes are established, they make Tom’s hijinks feel like a waste of time.

Huckleberry Finn might be my favorite novel. I would even go so far as to argue it is the best American novel of the 19th century, since that is a deceptively soft field. But the bad ending raises unsettling questions about the comic novel as a form. Twain is surely among the funniest to ever do it, and his skill at the sentence level is particular and underrated. Yet even he had to resort to picaresque, which is not a plot so much as a structure, and he still couldn’t stick the landing. If Huckleberry Finn is one of the best comic novels of all time, we may be forced to concede that such novels do not operate on plot. That’s a troubling possibility for those of us who believe the best comedy comes from characters and events. If there are reliable comic plots beyond the farce and picaresque, they have yet to be established.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature, and boy, are we running behind schedule. Work money blah blah. In order that we might not read 20 books in December, we’re going with something quick next: Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming. Join us!

50 Books: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

In my mind there is a class of prose stylists that includes E.B. White and George Orwell—monsters of sentence-level literature who attained their place not by astonishing but by economizing, authors whose lives’ work are scalpels rather than edifices. I like Faulkner and Hemingway, Carver and James. These are eminently recognizable stylists, but we recognize their style the way we recognize a person’s way of dancing. There is another class of author whose style we recognize the way we recognize a person’s gait. They are writers for whom the sentence is a means to an end, and they pursue their ends so diligently that their styles becomes unique not like the shape of an orchid, but like the shape of a fish. Their writing has evolved to move through the medium of consciousness, streamlined and precise. To me, Annie Dillard is the exemplar of this class.

I have read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek more times than I can remember. It is the only book-length work of nature writing I enjoy. People liken it to Walden by Henry David Thoreau—my Picador copy, which I got at a used bookstore in Bronte Beach outside Sydney, mentions Walden five words into the jacket blurb—which is weird, because I strongly dislike Walden. I admit there are similarities: Dillard and Thoreau both go live alone in semi-wild areas not far from human settlement. Both are essentially dilettantes; they experience the natural world first as a novel alternative to civilization. And both are concerned not just or even primarily with nature itself, but rather with the phenomenology of experiencing it. Like WaldenPilgrim at Tinker Creek is about what living in nature does to the author’s consciousness, the changes it wreaks on her soul.

So why is Tinker Creek among the greatest works of the 20th century, even as Walden sucks a fat one? Dillard wrote her master’s thesis on Walden, and it’s safe to say it influenced her own book-length nature/isolation narrative. One difference between the two books, though, is that Dillard approaches nature critically. She is willing to consider the possibility that the natural world is not shot through with the essence of the divine, as Thoreau found it, but horrifyingly wasteful and cruel. After discussing a glob of tar found floating in the Atlantic covered in barnacles, Dillard considers the millions of barnacle larvae that drift through the ocean and find nothing on which to attach. Mature barnacles release up to four million larvae into the water at a time. “What kind of world is this, anyway?” Dillard writes. “Why not make fewer barnacle larvae and give them a decent chance? Are we dealing in life, or in death?”

A recurring theme of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the senselessness of a natural world we often imagine to be elegant and efficient. The book opens with Dillard’s revulsion at seeing a frog collapse as its innards are dissolved from below by a giant water bug. We spend a lot of time on parasites, including those wasp eggs that, if they are not deposited in a host soon enough, will hatch in their mother’s abdomen and devour her from the inside out. This is not the living temple Thoreau found. It is a charnel house. Dillard cannily notes, though, that humans are the only ones who seem to have a problem with that. If barnacle larvae experience their high mortality rates as unjust, we don’t know about it. Fairness and efficiency are ideas humans bring to the world. Nature’s failure to be decent might more clearly be seen as our failure to reconcile ourselves to it.

This Sisyphean inquiry—in the sense that it resembles the question asked by Camus, not necessarily in the sense that it is doomed—is what makes Tinker Creek enthrall me where Walden does not. Thoreau goes to the woods and says “wow” for 200 pages. Dillard is out there looking unflinchingly at her own revulsion. Her response seems more true to me, not because I believe nature is fundamentally gross or evil, but because of that prose style. It is so precise and streamlined that it feels honest the way a protractor is honest, the way the Harvard-educated heir to a pencil factory might not be.

That’s a petty swipe at Thoreau, and I retract it as much as I can without deleting it. But I believe there is a morality to craft. It radiates from Dillard’s prose, which is at once plain and rare, like a piece of jade. She never uses two words where one will do, yet when necessary she breaks out “susurrus” or “viscid.” The whole body of the English language seems available to her, even as she cooks mostly with the prime cuts. Her prose reads easily in a way that conveys the tens of thousands of hours she has practiced to make it that way. As I get older, and the flaws in my own style become more evident to me, I find myself loving this kind of prose more than high modernism or the conspicuous minimalism of the last four decades. Dillard has become such a strong writer as to transcend her own style, so that her sentences become something close to their own objects. She is among the best to ever do it, in my opinion, and to say Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book about nature is akin to saying that a glimpse of a woman striding purposefully down the street is about the store.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next, we’re reading Earth Angel by Denis Johnson. Update: No, we’re not. We’re saving Earth Angel for real-life book club and reading Huckleberry Finn. It’s my favorite American novel. Come with me on this one.

50 Books: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Oh, that bitch?

God damn it, I love wizard shit. When I was a child I read approximately ten Bibles’ worth of TSR-branded novels, all containing heavy doses of wizard shit. From there I read the Robert Aspirin run of Myth, Inc. books—comic novels about a boy who learns magic from a demon and uses it to run a private detective agency. I read the Xanth novels, which I remember not at all because I was eleven but now understand to have been infamously sexist. I didn’t notice that part, because I was focused on the wizard shit. I would probably read Mein Kampf, if you told me there was a wizard in it. The only wizard shit I don’t like is Harry Potter, for reasons that I hope to gently make clear to you as our discussion progresses.

In order to demonstrate my goodwill toward you and your personal choice of wizard shit, which is not a matter of right or wrong but only of aesthetic preference, I will recommend you a book. If you liked Harry Potter, you should check out A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. It’s about a boy from an island village who learns he has great aptitude for magic, so he goes away to wizard school. I know that doesn’t sound like anything Harry Potter fans would like, but hear me out. There are some similarities between Le Guin’s novel, first published in 1968 and in print continuously since then, and J.K. Rowling’s 1997 smash. For example, in both novels, magic is accomplished by saying particular words.

Everything in the world of A Wizard of Earthsea, has a “true name” in an archaic tongue, and these names can be incorporated into incantations in that language to cast spells. People go by public names and keep their true names secret, since telling someone your true name gives them the power to cast spells on you. The revelation of one’s true name is therefore a gesture of profound trust. Also, it’s hard to memorize all these words, and the learning of magic is understood to affect the student’s mind. This is especially the case for Ged, the protagonist, who is impetuous and suffers multiple blows to his psyche as a result of magic gone awry.

Anyway, Le Guin does a great job of establishing two things right off the bat: magic is hard, and magic makes you weird. These two operating principles are, in my opinion, essential to the magic novel, a genre whose premise—anything can happen!—is opposed to the fundamental principle of narrative storytelling. The world of the story must be consistent. That’s especially true for speculative fiction, a genre that is often said to live or die on world-building. No one wants to read a story where stuff happens arbitrarily. A good magic story is not about a world where anything can happen; it’s about a world where magic can happen.

In order for events to matter in a world where magic happens, we have to believe there is a system behind the magic. This system has to be mysterious, therefore limited by what is known of it, and complicated, therefore limited by what that a given wizard can learn of it. These limitations are what keep magic from functioning as a deus ex machina. They tell us that, okay, magic will do some amazing things in this story, but it’s not going to solve every problem. Even in this world of miracles, there are going to be consequences, and those consequences will be irrevocable—the essence of a good story.

A good book about wizard shit shows us the limitations of magic by demonstrating that it’s hard to learn, and the learning process makes wizards weird. Early on, Le Guin shows us that magic will mess Ged up. He’ll pay a price for all this forthcoming wizard shit. Ged suffers injury early on, but he also suffers psychic wounds and unwanted changes in perspective. In A Wizard of Earthsea, practitioners of magic are known to become more committed to “balance” as they advance—a vague idea of equilibrium that seems to abandon any firm commitments to the details of the world, even the idea of good versus evil. Such changes—changes to ourselves, our values—are the ones we fear most. For the reader, the knowledge that magic will change Ged and possibly destroy him adds tension to a story that might otherwise be summarized as “lucky boy in the world of whatever we say.”

Which brings us back to Harry Potter. I don’t care for Rowling’s style, so that’s part of the problem. But the main reason I didn’t care for the first Harry Potter book is that the system of doing magic was not a arcane language of incantations that took weeks to memorize and pushed wizards into neurasthenia as a defense against madness. It was Latin. Or like, whimsical variations on latinate words. Harry waves his wand and says “luminem onnum!” and the lights come on. Doing that doesn’t make him crazy or unable to love for a few days or anything. He just does it and reveals the natural talent he always was. One gets the sense that magic in this world will be something Harry gets in this story, rather than something he pays for with his own humanity. Magic lifts too many constraints from Harry Potter without adding them back in somewhere else, and with too few constraints the flow of a story stagnates.

Anyway, I like wizard shit because it’s one of those genres that can be endlessly iterated, like vampires. Those stories aren’t about drinking blood. They’re about interesting variations on how the blood drinkers must live, and the gambits they might make to keep doing it. Le Guin creates s novel variation on how magic might work and makes it take a meaningful toll on Ged, even as he commits to it further. If you like wizard shit, or just stories about young prodigies who go to wizard school, you’ll love A Wizard of Earthsea. I’m afraid there is no comparable theme park.

I’m reading 50 books in 2018, and A Wizard of Earthsea was number four. Next I’m reading a longtime favorite, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. Join me!