Ghosts (The New York Trilogy part II)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

Ghosts is the second part of The New York Trilogy.  It was published in 1986.  It runs to a mere seventy pages in length, so I feel we would be better off calling it a novella. To be clear, when it is referred to as the “second part” of the trilogy, the reader must not think that these are interconnected storylines or continuations of plots/characters.

Its been said that these novels are detective story metafiction. That description is even more accurate of this second part than the first. However, calling it detective fiction conjures up examples of all kinds of gumshoes and private investigators. Literary thinking folks might immediately associate “detective fiction” with Poirot, Holmes, Sam Spade, and Henry Merrivale. None of those associations are incorrect, but the pulp/noir style novel wherein the detective traces the clues and catches a criminal are absent in Auster’s novels.

Again, like in City of Glass, the setting and location is very important to the story.  Auster seems to enjoy locating his characters in rooms. A lot of the scenery and storyline are guided by the presence of the four-walled room(s) that the characters inhabit. There is a sense of being enclosed, imprisoned, isolated, and contained.

In this story, Blue is the main character – he is the one that will face the existential crisis and the identity struggles as the story moves along.  Without being told why or being given any background, we are told that Blue is hired by White to watch Black. (The characters have colors for surnames.  And yes, there is plenty of symbolism and playing with words, too.) Black is staying in Brooklyn Heights on Orange Street. White has rented an apartment for Blue to stay in that is directly across from Black’s location. Blue collects his “detective gear” and goes directly to that location.

The story begins on February 3, 1947. Blue is excited about his job – he settles in to do it to the best of his ability. However, after some time, Blue becomes bored, restless, and then frustrated.  The man he has been hired to watch does nothing of interest.  Nothing really happens. In fact, most days, it seems that Black is mirroring what Blue does.  At one point, Black is found reading a book. Naturally, Blue buys a copy as well.  However, it is not until he is thoroughly bored and at wit’s end that Blue decides to read the book.

Blue ends up reading the book twice.  Mainly because the first time he felt ripped off and annoyed by it so he decided to re-read it in an effort to see what he had missed.  Frankly, I hate the book, so I totally understand Blue’s reaction.  The book is Walden by Henry David Thoreau.  Most folk have read the book and therefore know it is about a hermit-like existence. Thoreau wrote about his attempt to return to a simple life wherein he could contemplate society, ethics, and the nature of man.  It is full of introspection and reverence for nature.

Some vague parallels can be drawn from all of this.  As time progresses, Blue loses most of his “life,” thereby returning to a simple existence – contained within the apartment.  He loses contact with his girlfriend, his former employer, his personal aspirations, etc.  He turns into a brooding, empty shell of his former self.

Now, suddenly, with the world as it were removed from him, with nothing much to see but a vague shadow by the name of Black, he finds himself thinking about things that have never occurred to him before, and this, too, has begun to trouble him.  If thinking is perhaps too strong a word at this point, a slightly more modest term – speculation, for example – would not be far from the mark. To speculate, from the Latin speculatus, meaning to spy out, to observe, and linked to the word speculum, meaning mirror or looking glass.  For looking out at Black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself. – pg. 171

This is really quite insightful and skillful of Auster.  The subtle layering and connections between Walden and mirrors and spying and speculating are well done.  An excellent example of metafiction’s capacity to layer reality and characters.

Obviously, there are questions of identity here.  Auster really lays these on heavily for the entire piece.  Along with Blue, the reader is questioning just WHO IS Black, White, etc.  Is this a wild goose chase? WHO IS the one who started this whole circle of identity confusion?  These questions are particularly poignant when Blue uses disguises to interact with Black.

Secondly, but quieter, is the process of transference that also runs through the work. Blue kills time by creating possible backstories to the case. Blue also finds that eventually he does not need to constantly watch Black because they have gotten so “close” that he knows (instinctively? internally?) what Black is feeling, doing, thinking.

Well, like most metafiction, the reader is not given detailed and specific answers. The case falls apart (as do the characters) a la PKD.  In fact, since PKD, I doubt I have read anything besides Ghosts in which the characters have such an existential crisis which so disassembles them. The lack of information is frustrating because one does want closure and resolution.  However, because there are so many questions and layers, the interpretations are endless. For example, I feel like if one were to write a Reader’s Guide to this piece, it would be one possible interpretation after another after another….  After finishing it, one ought to ask:  and then what? what was the point?

This novelette can be boring. I mean, ultimately, nothing really happens. We sit alongside the main character in a small apartment for about a year and a half, during which he reads Walden, sometimes paces Black around the city, and otherwise lives a droll and dull routine. In order to appreciate this work, the reader must have some care and interest in the concepts of identity/transference/isolation.

In many ways, Auster took the section of City of Glass wherein Quinn becomes an alley-dwelling ascetic outside of the apartment he was originally hired to conduct surveillance upon, and magnified those elements.  It seems as if Auster really wanted to explore just that particular chunk of the first story.  And so, in a much shorter fashion, we have this layered noir tale that deconstructs another couple of characters.

Not to say that there are not moments of suspense and eerie weirdness.  Nevertheless, those are not breath-taking enough or sustained for this to engender being anything thrilling or exciting.  And maybe those feelings of suspense/eeriness are just more transference from reader to character/scene?

4 stars

City of Glass (The New York Trilogy Part I)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

I was uncertain if it would be best for me to write a review on each individual part of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy or if I should just write one big glopping whole. I decided to write individual reviews because a single review would probably be too long for a blog post and it remains true to the manner in which Auster originally published these works. City of Glass was originally published in 1985 and there has been a great deal of critical work regarding it proliferated. Everyone from Derrida-fans to Lacan-fans to Raymond Chandler-fans has felt the need to dig into the text. Deconstruct the text. Analyze the text. Etc. You know what I mean. I do not know that I have much in the way of original theory to add to all that has been said, but I can still share my thoughts.

This work is metafiction, I guess. Or postmodern. Or post-postmodern. It has been interpreted a hundred different ways. There are Freudian interpretations and ones that rely on Maurice Blanchot, etc. What is this book about? Is it a metafictional account exploring identity? Literature? Intertextual relationships? Cityscape architecture? Can one remain thoroughly neutral regarding this work and just comment on it – without, that is, seeming simple?  Well, sure, I guess it is all of the aforementioned. One of my biggest complaints about works that are so-called metafiction is that they always seem forced. Always, these works seem exaggeratedly wrangled to fit into a category dubbed “edgy” or “counter-cultural” by the intellectual debutantes or the created media industry.  If you force a work to match some presupposed concept, how can you then tell me that it escapes the boundaries that are supposedly “artificial” and imposed by the Establishment? Etc. Anyway, this story, while slightly forced into being metafiction, isn’t terrible. It is obvious and rather experimental-feeling, but I have read worse examples of the pseudo-genre.

First point:  I believe that this novel being situated in NYC is significant. Readers who are familiar with NYC (I am from NY) will have a better relationship with the context than readers who live in Iowa and have never left Iowa.  If I am asked why I believe this, I know I ought to be able to support my claim, but like many things in NYC, I can only say that “it is simply an understanding that is earned through experience.” Auster’s writing is spare and even. The fact that he spends several paragraphs just describing routes through the City, naming streets, pinpointing directions, is a fact that should not be dismissed.

Second point:  The plot, as in most metafiction, is secondary to all of the other elements of the story.  So, readers who are enthused to read this novel need to understand that this is not a plot-driven story like most traditional fiction.  The plot is vague and unimportant. There isn’t a set up, climax, resolution. There isn’t, really, an “ah-hah!” moment. Any details given are not about the plot. Therefore, there are a whole heap of readers out there who will dislike this novel and/or misunderstand it.

Those points being stated, I want to assure readers that if you like metafiction, you will probably enjoy this novel. Just like the best examples of the pseudo-genre, it has that noticeable ouroboros structure. Or, if you like, it feels like it is devolving and evolving – being deconstructed and then reconstructed throughout. This is what turns off most of the general readership; the layered, self-referential style that the novel uses.

In the first paragraph we read:  “In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences.”  And this is largely how this novel will operate.  Backstory and careful development of the background are absent – because they are not the important part of this style of writing. We meet the main character (and even calling him that is arguable, I realize) in the second paragraph:

As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance. We know, for example, that he was thirty-five years old. We know that he had once been married, had once been a father, and that both his wife and son were now dead.  We also know that he wrote books.  To be precise, we know that he wrote mystery novels.” – pg. 12

Basically, this is information will remain the extent of our knowledge of Quinn. Quinn writes mystery novels (think serial/house name style detective novels) under the pseudonym William Wilson. By page 12, Quinn adopts another persona (but mainly the name), viz. Paul Auster [sic].  To keep it clear at the start:  Daniel Quinn is a mystery novelist. He writes under the name William Wilson. In the first chapter of Paul Auster’s work City of Glass, the main character, Quinn, assumes the name Paul Auster.   There are several other name-changes and references that occur, but I do not want to spoil the book for readers. Needless to say, this is partially why it is so often said that this book’s theme is one of identity.

Auster [real author] wants to shake the reader’s reality up. So, like PKD and Italo Calvino, the linear and the standard are tossed out. Auster wants you on unsteady ground and wants the reader to question WHO is the character, WHO is the author, WHO is real, WHO is just a nickname?  The everlasting job of postmodernism:  to deconstruct, shatter, and disturb conceptions of reality/identity.

It was a woman who opened the apartment door.  For some reason, Quinn had not been expecting this, and it threw him off track.  Already, things were happening too fast.  Before he had a chance to absorb the woman’s presence, to describe her to himself and form his impressions, she was talking to him, forcing him to respond.  Therefore, even in those first moments, he had lost ground, was starting to fall behind himself.  Later, when he had time to reflect on these events, he would manage to piece together his encounter with the woman.  But that was the work of memory, and remembered things, he knew, had a tendency to subvert the things remembered. As a consequence, he could never be sure of any of it. – pg. 15

This paragraph, early in the book, is my favorite paragraph.  It is magnificent, really. I could talk about it for a long time. It is totally packed with concepts and ideas, feelings and memories, etc. If the writing of the whole novel was on this level, I would have unreservedly given it five-stars. This paragraph resonated with me on a personal level as-well-as on an intellectual, conceptual level. I love the phrases: “he had lost ground” and “was starting to fall behind himself.”  I really like the comments on memory versus things remembered. And above all, I appreciate “Already, things were happening too fast” – because this refers to both the plot and the actual structure of Auster’s novel.

This novel is also, heavily, about language/linguistics.  The whole “detective story” revolves around the theory of a pure, pre-Tower of Babel language. A divine language, so to speak. The chapters that elucidate this part of the story are interesting and creepy, and definitely show us another layer of this wrap-around novel.  For those who like word play (who doesn’t?), I particularly enjoyed a quote on page 90 wherein another character is speaking to Quinn:

“Hmmm. Very interesting. I see many possibilities for this word, this Quinn, this . . . quintessence. . .  of quiddity. Quick, for example. And quill. And quack. And quirk. Hmmm. Rhymes with grin. Not to speak of kin. Hmmm. Very interesting. And win. And fin. And din. And gin. And pin. And tin. And bin. Hmmmm. Even rhymes with djinn.  Hmmm. And if you say it right, with been.  Hmmm. Yes, very interesting. I like your name enormously, Mr. Quinn.  It flies off in so many little directions at once.” – pg. 90

There is also a very famous deconstruction/re-construction involving the classic novel (and character) Don Quixote. It is worthwhile and interesting reading, but it is also one of the more frequently commented on parts of Auster’s novel. I was able to appreciate it, but I am not sure I was thoroughly impressed. Interested readers, though, should probably pay it more mind than I did.

Well, there is a lot more to this novel and not, all at once. I mean to say, there are usages/re-usages of names and elements and so forth. Found objects, red notebooks, baseball. Subtle twists and turns and even quite a dose of existential angst (Cp. chapter 12).  A lot more could be extrapolated from the text and commented on.  However, I find the work lacking the heart and soul needed to make this sort of entry fully established. Done correctly (Nabokov and Calvino) these works are unbelievably masterful.  Done poorly, they end up like parlor tricks (e.g. S. King’s The Colorado Kid).  Luckily, Auster does not kill the work, so I would rank it between the two groups I just mentioned. And then, in his defense, we haven’t quite finished the story – it is The New York Trilogy, so there may be a re-evaluation needed. But fragmentary deconstruction is not illicit in this case, I think.

4 stars

Southern Bastards #1

Southern Bastards #1 - Image Comics; Aaron & Latour

Southern Bastards #1 – Image Comics; Aaron & Latour (2014)

I used to read comic books as a wee one. I had a bunch of 1970s issues that I read and then re-read until they burned into my skull. If I concentrate I can still picture the frames and stories in my mind. I feverishly collected G.I. Joe and Ghost Rider comics through the 80s and early 90s. I let comics fall out of my life for awhile for a variety of reasons. But in 2005 I picked up a copy of Ghost Rider. Thus started the avalanche… again.  Well, this is good and bad. And I like different comics for different reasons. Mostly, its pure entertainment and fun, which is good. But the best thing about picking up comics again is comic book creator Jason Aaron.

I think this guy has loads of talent and I have tried to buy the titles/volumes that he has been associated with. He’s become a lot more popular and recognized in the last few years and he is well-deserving of this. But even in his earlier works, he was a great creator. One of the reasons that I know Aaron is good at this stuff is that a number of his titles are in settings I actually dislike. He has characters that I hate. And he also has storylines that I would normally avoid. But time after time I am drawn to his stuff and I enjoy the heck out of it.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Aaron’s work:  Ghost Rider, Scalped, Wolverine, etc. All of these titles are infused with a deep Alabama understanding. Setting is a major component to what Aaron writes. And he consistently authentically portrays that “Southern” (for lack of a better word) culture, counter-culture, stereotype, and worldview. I’ve been meaning to read his newest title, Southern Bastards, for some time. Finally, I picked up a copy of issue #1. And it was entirely as expected:  settings and characters and storylines that I grimace and cringe at – meanwhile seeing the depth and awesomeness to the whole thing. And now I am craving issue #2.

This title has artwork by Jason Latour, who is also a born Southerner. I think the two creators work very well together – the art and the story are presented really well. Sometimes I feel there is a disconnect between writer and artist. Whenever that happens, I know because I find myself focusing solely on the art or the words. In this issue, I think the two parts are basically seamless.

This “sequentially-published graphic novel” is not for everyone. Definitely R-rated. Definitely not for the squeamish or for the superhero fan. Like many of Aaron’s stories, this title seems to pierce the heart of a deeply-southern small town. This isn’t pseud-refined antebellum English colonial stuff. This is backwoods, BBQ-loving, isolated country. The kind of place that has more churches than commercial businesses and focuses on high school football. The opening page artwork has a dog relieving itself on the outskirts of town.

But if you can get past the gritty and grisly stuff, the story seems very realistic.  And there is a depth and substance to the story beyond the frames of violence. Aaron always produces stories about people who are conflicted, stubborn, and while sometimes simple, are never simpletons. After you read the first issue you do not know where Aaron will go with the story, but you suspect it will involve baseball bats, pick-up trucks, town corruption, and characters taking a good hard look at their inner man.

Earl Tubb (Image Comics)

Earl Tubb (Image Comics)

We meet Earl Tubb in the cab of a U-Haul style truck as he drives into what seems to be his hometown – where he grew up. Immediately, we are given to understand he has not been there in a long, long time. Earl has conflicts right after eating his BBQ lunch. He runs into an old “acquaintance” who recognizes him. He stops that scraggly character from being beaten to death. Throughout, we are shown that Earl has issues with his deceased father, who’s grave he visits.  Earl has a USMC tattoo and he is a big, towering sort of chap. After finishing this issue, yeah, I want to know more about Earl – Aaron has made me care about Earl. Even if I hate his putrid little southern town…

4 stars

Level 7

Level 7 - Mordecai Roshwald; Signet

Level 7 – Mordecai Roshwald; Signet

I read Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1921 – 2015) because the author died earlier this year and I have heard good things about this novel. I do not think Roshwald was a prolific writer, and based on this novel, that is a sad fact. Nevertheless, I am glad I read this, even if it is a bit sobering for a summertime read. The novel was first published in 1959. I read the Signet 5th printing with 143 pages.

This novel was a very quick read. I was surprised by this because I was expecting a much worse novel. I think I somewhat expected a preaching, moralizing tale full of vagueness and woe.  Instead, this novel is a super tightly written piece that manages to examine dozens of aspects of atomic warfare within less than 150 pages.  That is really the thing that impressed me the most about this book; the skilled argumentation and presentation without endless stuffing.  The contemporary equivalent – though I warn you from taking that word too seriously – is probably Hugh Howey’s Wool (2012).  To compare these two novels is entirely unfair – and I’m gonna do it anyway!

These novels are hardly the same, but they are similar. Both involve underground living – because of a catastrophic event on the surface. Wool is driven by interpersonal actions, relationships, and emotions.  Character-driven and dramatic.  Level 7 is, in comparison, clinical and scientific.  The story plays out rather predictably, though. In Wool, I did not know what was going to happen next. In Level 7, yeah, there is only one place for this story to go. But it goes there without bulked up chapters and heaps of extraneous detours and words and subplots.

The main character in Level 7 is simply known as X-127.  We are actually reading his diary. He is quickly promoted to the rank of Major and deployed into the deep underground military installation. My first impression of X-127 is that he is naive and rather passive. That continues throughout the novel. X-127 arrives at “Level 7,” which is the deepest level of the facility – 4,000 feet below the surface. This level is self-sufficient in that it provides its own clean air, potable water, and food.  The entirety of the level is for the purpose of X-127 and his task.  So, all of the other personnel on the level are subsidiary to the purpose of X-127 (and his crew).  His crew are those “button-pushers” who will release the military’s offensive weaponry of mass destruction.

This is the novel that happens after all the faux-conundrums get asked. You know like the one:  “If you got paid a trillion dollars if you just pressed a button – but that button destroys so many people… would you do it?” This is that novel.

No, no fooling on Level 7.  This is a serious place.  No tricks, no jokes, no April fools.  We are all wise down here even on April 1.  Or are we? Perhaps we are April fools all round the year.  We are deceiving each other.  We are doing it all the time. X-107 is deceiving me and I am deceiving him. And the soft-voiced lady on the loudspeaker is deceiving both of us. We all pretend not to feel what we do feel – and know that we feel.  We are doing it all the time.

We do not deceive just other people; we deceive ourselves.  Each of us is making a perpetual April fool of himself, the biggest one imaginable.  Each tells himself lies which he pretends to believe, though he knows they are lies. – April 1 (pg. 34)

Well, Roshwald really made this a tightly-written novel. Throughout the work, he examines and explains the situation and looks at dozens of aspects that would come up as potential issues with such a situation.  And there is one element that I want to point out that Roshwald uses early in the novel.  He has a philosopher on Level 7.  Now, all of the personnel on Level 7 are functional and practical.  We are told that space and resources are extremely close and therefore there cannot be waste or extra.  Each human is only referred to with letter/number designation.  The letter designates their job – which really does define their whole lives – and the number, which differentiates them from others with that same letter. Even so, there is at least one philosopher. Now, I’m an Aristotelian.  I know full well that philosophers are “useless.”  They do not serve a particular task-oriented result. But deep in Level 7, the philosopher’s job is to convince the people of the level that they are in the best of all possible situations.  His first speeches are on the topics of democracy and freedom.

However, in my opinion, Ph-107 isn’t the true philosopher of the level. Instead, I think X-127’s roommate, X-107, is the true philosopher.  The discussions that X-127 has with his roommate regarding all of the various aspects of the underground installation are fascinating because Roshwald worked to make them logical or at least reasonable.  And that is the real part that convinces the reader that this is a very possible scenario.  It isn’t the fears and the dramas, it is rather how easily X-127 is convinced by the very logical argumentation of his roommate.  And once convinced, he can commit to his job of being at the ready to press the buttons.

Why did I have such a long and intensive training?  Was it really necessary? Or was it really training?  What skill had I acquired?  Enough to push the buttons!  And I had learnt all sorts of technical things seemingly unrelated to this imbecile function.  My guess was that the training staff introduced them to make me feel that I had an intricate and important job to do, and to camouflage the simplicity of my basic task. This sort of ‘training’ must have been the crafty invention of my wife’s colleagues – psychologists.  They studied monkeys to learn about men, and then turned men into monkeys. – June 12 (pg. 102)

The trajectory of the storyline is obvious from the start.  But though it is obvious, it remains horrifying. Or at least it should – if not, you may be a psychopath. It is chilling to the bone to even imagine these sorts of things. But do not pass over this novel because of its obvious storyline.  And don’t ignore it because it seems like we have read it/watched it before. There are a few twists, which serve to further dehumanize the characters and their actions.

This is a good novel because it balances on a fine line between totally sanitized and clinical and yet extremely shocking psychologically. Only one element is really “dated” (that of the tape recordings), but everything else in this novel survives the test of time and that in itself is one scary fact.  It is eerie and fundamentally disturbing that this novel was written in 1959, but yet is still so relevant/applicable in 2015. This is the success of keeping many of the main story components general, but focusing on a few very specific characters and their insanely specific tasks.

Recommended for philosophers, soldiers, dystopia-readers, students of the Cold War, and those who liked Zamyatin’s We.

4 stars

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District - Nikolai Leskov; Penguin Classics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District – Nikolai Leskov; Penguin Classics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov (1831 – 1895) is a major work that is often forgotten or ignored. The whole history of this work – and its derivatives – is controversial and shocking. Yet, what else could be expected from a story that showcases violence, love, ennui, sex, revenge, obsession, betrayal, and societal classes? What is at the heart of the story – money? Love? The story is shocking, disturbing, gripping, and wild. I maintain it is one of those stories that a reader either hates or loves, there’s no middle ground, and they never forget it once they read it (for better or worse).

In our parts such characters sometimes turn up that, however many years ago you met them, you can never recall them without an inner trembling. – Chapter 1

This story first appeared in the magazine Epoch in 1865. Epoch was a literary magazine published by Dostoyevsky; it featured chapbooks, articles, and serials in its short two-year span. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District has 15 short chapters and was likely titled to imitate Turgenev’s 1859 Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District.

The story then was the subject of a four-act opera by Dmitri Shostakovich. It was first performed in January of 1934. Here is where the most well-known controversy comes in. The opera was a success until it was attacked by an anonymous article in the Pravda. (Legend has it that the author was Stalin). Nevertheless, the opera was then banned in Russia by the Communist Party for thirty years and Shostakovich suffered the fallout for this condemnation/censorship.

In 1962, the story was made into a Polish film by Andrzej Wajda entitled: Siberian Lady Macbeth. Finally, in 1966, it was made into a Russian film by director Mikhail Shapiro: entitled Katerina Izmailova. It was an entrant (one of twenty-four) into the 1967 Cannes Film Festival.

That is the bare bones history of this piece. The main character is Katerina Lvovna, who is dubbed the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. She was born in the Kursk province and at age 23, married a merchant named Zinovy Borisych Ismailov. Zinovy is an averagely wealthy merchant who runs a mill. He is a widower. His previous marriage lasted twenty years and produced no offspring. At the property also resides Zinovy’s father, Boris Timofeich, and a variety of workers.

Katerina was born and raised in poverty, we are not told much directly, but compared to her new married life we assume she grew up in freedom and simplicity. The contrast here is relevant particularly to the time in which it was written. The existence of a raznochintsy social class (meaning: a variety of middle-class persons) is often overlooked in understanding Russian society. It is one aspect that Leskov, unlike other writers, focused on with great success. The manor in which she now lives is boring. Everything is strict, stark, clean, and business-like. Katerina spends the first five years of her marriage in boredom. She moves from room to room in the manor doing nothing.

Katerina Lvovna would wander and wander about the empty rooms, start yawning with boredom. . . she would doze off for an hour or two, then wake up – again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant’s house… Chapter 1

Zinovy eventually leaves on a business-trip. Katerina ventures out to the storehouses and stables. Here, she interacts with the workers and meets Sergei, a farmhand who has a reputation for being a womanizer. In chapter three, the sly Sergei has had his way with Katerina.

Boris finds out and has Sergei whipped mercilessly and locked up on the property. Katerina kills Boris in Chapter 5. Chapter 5 has a spare four paragraphs, but Leskov manages to show the abrupt change in Katerina. Or is it really a change at all? Perhaps Katerina has always been thus, as if her personality were behind a dam that has now cracked. This is my opinion, because Leskov begins chapter two by telling us:

In the sixth spring of Katerina Lvovna’s marriage, the Izmailov’s mill dam burst. At that time, as if on purpose, a lot of work had been brought to the mill, and the breach proved enormous: water went under the lower sill, and to stop it up slapdash was impossible.

And compare this with the words of chapter 5, right after she poisons Boris and frees Sergei from his imprisonment:

Having settled this matter, Katerina Lvovna let herself go entirely. She had not been a timid one before, but now there was no telling what she would think up for herself; she strutted about, gave orders to everyone in the house, and would not let Sergei leave her side.

The rest of the story details Katerina’s chilling obsession with Sergei.  The two lovers kill Zinovy, after he confronts Katerina about her adultery.  Unlike so many stories with this theme, Katerina is brazen, daring, and fearless. The most disturbing and chilling part of the story, for me, was how Katerina coldly cleans up the blood from Zinovy’s murder.

Katerina Lvovna took the copper basin and the soapy sponge. – Chapter 8

The story proceeds further to include cruel murder of Katerina’s nephew. Sergei confesses and the two lovers are sentenced to prison.  Katerina’s obsession with Sergei continues, though he now finds her repugnant and disturbing. He often savagely taunts and menaces her.  He remains a womanizer in the prison convoy, although it is difficult to say if this is because it is in his nature, or if these actions are to spite Katerina.  Unlike a lot of Western stories, Katerina does not become melodramatic or overemotional.  Instead, Leskov tells us that the result of all of Sergei’s taunts has made Katerina emotionless.

Katerina lvovna, however, was by now offended by nothing.  Having wept out her tears, she turned to stone, and with a wooden calm prepared to go to the roll call. – Chapter 15

Katerina’s obsession once again drives her to a murder-suicide. This story is consistently shocking and brutal.  The characters are so much more realistic and human than many portrayals of such people. I think this is because Leskov spent much of his life around criminal investigators and criminal court offices.  Leskov’s brutal honesty in this story is what makes the story so good – it is upsettingly real and tragic.  After reading it, one should go back and re-read chapters and continue to ponder the story.  It is really well-done and though it is hardly a tale of good morals, the psychology and the characterizations are outstanding.  It will haunt readers.

4 stars

The Watch Below

The Watch Below - James White; 1966

The Watch Below – James White; 1966

Today I finished The Watch Below by James White (1928 – 1999).  It was first published in 1966 and the copy that I read is the February 1966 edition.  It is also the first of White’s novels that I have read. Since reading it, I have been considering whether or not this novel would be different if it were written this year. In many ways, the outcome would be very different. Definitely more negative.  But at the same time, I do not think this novel is particularly dated – an interesting fact for a mid-1960s work.

White’s genius in this novel is to juxtapose the survival efforts of two generation ships:  one human and one alien, one earthbound and one in outer space.  There are a number of pseudo-opposite items that White uses to create the comparison and contrast among the two generation ships.  For example, the aliens are sentient, scientific, and fallible.  They are also aquatic “water-breathers.”  Their planet has suffered from their sun’s effects and their race has been forced to evacuate in an elaborate effort to seek out a new “homeworld.”  Naturally, such a new world needs to have significant water resources.

The Gulf Trader is a converted tanker that in the early 1940s suffered a torpedo assault.  Probabilities and magic aside, though the ship is hit twice by torpedoes, several humans survive the attack and remain trapped within the partially submerged Gulf Trader. Of course, their first concerns involve the necessity of oxygen resources and keeping the remnants of the tanker from being flooded by water.

I was far more interested in the Gulf Trader than the fleet of survival ships with the aliens.  Mainly because having survivors in a sunken vessel seems more unique and exciting than flying around space looking for a new homeworld.  In fact, if the novel had solely been about the Gulf Trader, I would still have enjoyed it.  The contrast with the aliens is worthwhile and interesting, but maybe not as exciting as just focusing on the submerged ship.  Anyway, the survivors include a doctor, a first officer, a Lieutenant Commander, and two nurses.

One of the issues with the novel is that the nurses (women) are treated like they are idiots.  To be nurses in the merchant navy or the Royal Navy, I would assume they would have some medical knowledge and functional skills.  Instead, White writes them as if they are helpless, hapless, empty-headed dolls.  Several times, I found myself asking: “well, aren’t these women nurses? shouldn’t they be able to provide something to this stranded group?”  And, yes, of course White has them provide something – they are the mothers of the “generations.”  Basically, the plot has these two women survive so they can repopulate this sunken vessel and turn it into the “generation ship.”  Aggravatingly, they have to be coddled and reassured and treated with kid gloves.  (Has White ever even met a nurse?)

Anyway, I took a rather immediate shine to Lieutenant Commander Wallis – even before the torpedoes hit. After the explosions, he becomes the leader of the group.  However, he has big help from Dr. Radford.  In fact, it is difficult to say who is more integral to the survival of this group – Radford or Wallis.  The key point regarding the Gulf Trader is that this is a survival episode wherein the survivors are forced to suddenly adapt, innovate, and struggle on their own.  The humans are thrust into an entirely unbelievable situation and forced to deal with it.

The alien fleet which is headed toward Earth is the result of the whole civilization’s efforts to create a survival situation involving a strong and planned strategy.  And maybe this very fact is why I was more fascinated by the humans below the sea than the aliens in space.  The unexpectedness of the Gulf Trader’s scenario engenders more sympathy and excitement than the strategic efforts of the aliens.  Several times as I read, I was slightly annoyed by the interruption of having to read about the aliens.

The most important fact in the humans’ survival is not that they creatively solve the mundane issues of oxygen, waste-removal, flood-prevention, heat-sourcing, and nutrition.  Rather, it is that they find a way to, almost error-freely, transmit knowledge.  They are able to adapt to their surroundings and maintain their level of intelligence through several generations.  The first group of survivors begins to practice “The Game.”  This is first suggested by Wallis, but adjusted as needed by everyone else who ever lives in the vessel.  The Game is never completely outlined in detail (how could White do this?) but it does remind me of both Hermann Hess’ Magister Ludi/The Glass-Bead Game as-well-as Iain Banks’ The Player of Games (1988).

The Game, is it is always called, is how the humans survive the claustrophobia, monotony, and other psychological effects of their experience.  It is used for transmitting knowledge, ideas, and for entertainment.  It does seem so implausible, but there is something that is also very appealing and interesting in this concept.  Ultimately, it explains how generations after the original crew, the survivors still have someone called Wallis that is considered a doctor/Commander – and he thinks cogently on topics of bacterial infection, survival tactics, and leadership.

Another downside to the writing:  it gets a bit confusing as to the layout of the Gulf Trader.  So many compartments and “tanks” that I think the reader can get lost or stop caring too much about the specifics of the locations.  Also, while this novel focuses on the parallels of surviving generation ships, I think a little more description and environmental development could have helped out.  Yes, the reader is exposed to the many issues facing the crews.  However, I think a few moments of “descriptive prose” could have enhanced the eeriness and tension of the setting.  White’s writing tends to be factual and direct.

The ending is a lot more positive than I expected it to be.  Frankly, if this story was written today – I doubt it would be written with such a positive outcome.  Maybe 2015 is a lot more negative and apocalyptic-minded than 1966…. that’s kind of depressing, I guess.  In any case, the latest Wah-lass is a hoot and I liked him just as much as his ancestor.

4 stars

I, Robot

I, Robot - Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

vintage-sf-badgeIt is Vintage Science Fiction Month – so designated by my fellow blogger friend, the Little Red Reviewer. Generally, I like participating in this non-challenge reading fun, but this January I’ve been traveling and busy and I am worried I will not have many entries. Nevertheless, I managed to eke out one novel so far. I went with a “classic” vintage work to start off. Honestly, I do not remember if I have read I, Robot before – all or in parts, or other. I do know I have never read further in the “robot series,” so I thought this was a good way to march back down the Asimov-pathway.

I, Robot is generally considered a collection because it contains stories that were originally published in periodicals in the 1940s. I think it can be successfully referred to as a sort of fix-up novel at this point, as well. The collection as titled I, Robot was first published in 1950 and I read the 2004 (movie cover art) version this time around.  As we all *should* know, the movie starring Will Smith has only a basic and tenuous connection to these stories.  The nine stories contained in the collection form a general timeline utilizing the life of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men employee Dr. Susan Calvin as a waypoint marker. Therefore, the collected stories form a more cohesive, although faceted, whole than I think Asimov originally created.  For anyone interested in trivia, this collection is dedicated to “John W. Campbell, jr., who godfathered the robots.”

I, Robot is considered a classic for a number of valid reasons.  It is an “early” science fiction work that is not embarrassingly dated by today’s milestones.  It is an intelligent read, unlike much of the 1940s pulp fiction that was being published.  It contains new and exciting ideas that demonstrated Asimov’s wit, knowledge, and forward-thinking mastery.  It ended up influencing and spawning all kinds of science, science fiction, and literary offspring. So, not only were Asimov’s ideas new at the time, but they didn’t wear out after a decade had passed, either.

Since this collection was published in 1950 and is so extremely well-known, it is difficult to know what to say that has not already been said hundreds of times. I am certain that this work has been examined every which way and with all sorts of hermeneutics. Many readers are already quite familiar with this book. If you are not familiar with this book, there are some key things I think you should know.  First of all, don’t connect the same-titled movie to this novel. There is not much connection there, so do not be put off by that.  Secondly, this is a quick-read, therefore it will not pull you too far from your current to-be-read stack trajectory.  Thirdly, it is an intelligent read, but it is not pretentious or high-brow.

The book is an undisputed classic.  However, I only give it four stars for a rating.  The main thrust behind each and every story in this collection is logic.  Literally, logic is what this collection is built upon.  That is fairly congruous since this is a book about “mechanical men” and mathematics and machines.  Asimov is a talented logician.  From only what this book tells me, I can promise that Asimov was comfortable with Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferio, etc.  Building all these stories on logic – while making them actually suspenseful and interesting – is really awesome.  However, at the end of the day, the skeleton is just logic and its really not enough.

Since the skeleton is logic, we must say that the Laws of Robotics are the flesh of the stories, the meat as it were. And boy, Asimov does drill these laws into the reader! He actually takes these laws and looks at them from a multitude of contexts and usages and no reader is going to escape this book without a very solid understanding of the laws.  Sometimes, this gets a bit exhausting. On the other hand, Asimov was an excellent teacher. He’s the guy you want teaching you logic, physics, and mathematics. His is the challenging class that you struggle through but your knowledge grows by leaps and bounds. Therefore, even though the laws are hammered at throughout these stories, the number of ways in which Asimov constructs the stories around them is quite masterful. Nevertheless, some readers might get a bit bored.

The most important character throughout this collection is Dr. Susan Calvin.  I am pretty sure someone, somewhere has ruefully commented on her last name and made some sketchy connection to John Calvin and his ideas, so I don’t need to go further on that point. But if this is a valid juxtaposition, it is something some enterprising student should run with in a paper or two.  Calvin is a robopsychologist.  She works for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, although most of the time I feel she would rather not.  It is unclear if there exist other such robopsychologists or if Susan is the only one.  Anyway, this “soft science” balance to the hard science of mechanical, mathematical robotics shows that Asimov was a keen observer of humanity.  When I first met Calvin in these stories, I really disliked her. Overall, she is really aggressive and hostile.  She is also, allegedly, really good at her job.  She is definitely a character study for those interested in such things.  More food for thought:  casting her role in a motion picture. . . who is that actress?

Overall, I give this four stars because I can see what Asimov is capable of – and, frankly, he is capable of so much more.  Yeah, I am saying it:  Asimov was a big intellect – but I want to push him for more and better. The skeleton and flesh of these stories is good – but at points also a little monotonous. This is a necessary, classic read that should satisfy most readers.

4 stars


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