Laughing At The Bleakness

30079724Title: Homesick For Another World

Rating: 4 Stars

I first encountered Ottessa Moshfegh last year when I read Eileen. It’s really hard to say that you love a book that tries so hard to be unloved. Eileen is one of the most unlikable protagonists that I’ve ever read. She’s resolutely unhappy and full of self loathing. Centering an entire novel around such a character and keeping you interested, if not exactly rooting for her, is a literary triumph.

Home For Another World follows along the same course. Instead of a novel, it’s around a dozen stories of bleakness. The central characters are almost invariably unattractive, whether it be their looks, their personality, or their motives. They all pick at scabs, sometimes literally. These are not people that, in the real world, anyone would root for.

Yet, in story after story, Moshfegh succeeds in pulling you into it and making you care. Beyond just making you care, there’s usually at least a line or two in each story that makes you laugh out loud, even if, after you laugh, you feel slightly guilty or uncomfortable about the laugh and wonder what that says about you.

For instance, Bettering Yourself features an alcoholic grade school teacher who screams at her students, tells them about her sex life, and obsessively calls her ex-husband until he pays her to stop.

Malibu concerns a man with pimples, a rash all over his body, and bad teeth out looking to meet a woman. His mentor giving him girl advice is his uncle on permanent disability who has a colostomy bag that he never properly cleans.

Slumming is the story of another teacher (high-school English this time) that has bought a summer house. At the end of every school year, she goes out to spend the entire summer at the house. While there, every day she gets a sandwich from the local sub shop and then walks over to the abandoned bus station, where she goes into the men’s room and buys whatever drug that is being sold that day. It changes from day to day and she never asks what it is, but somehow, magically, it is always precisely the drug that she needs at that moment.

I could go on, but I think that the point is made. In Moshfegh’s universe, you’re never going to meet a good person. You’re never going to meet anyone with unsullied motives. The happiest ending that you’ll probably get is that the person chooses to live another day.

Stylistically, her short stories owe a pretty strong debt to Carver. The characters live on the fringes of society. There is a best a minimal plot. Characters make their choices and willingly live with the consequences. You have small stories told in a minimalist style, but that punch way above their weight.

The opening stories are much stronger than the closing stories. If the quality had been maintained throughout, the collection would have entered Knockemstiff territory. Even if it doesn’t quite reach that level, still this was the strongest collection of stories that I’ve read in a while.


Slaves Built More Than The White House


Title: The Half Has Never Been Told

Rating: 4 Stars

This book has a couple of provocative themes. One is that the modern industrial world might never have happened without American slavery. The other major theme challenges the accepted wisdom that slavery was going to fade away over time because slave labor cannot compete in terms of productivity with a free workforce paid wages. Baptist makes the argument that slave labor is relentlessly and brutally efficient.

Most people with a passing knowledge of history are aware that the Haitian Revolution is one of the very rare instances of a slave revolt actually succeeding. It ended up creating a nation that was free of slaves and actually run by the former slaves.

During the uprising, Napoleon sent troops to shut it down. The French troops were defeated by the Haitians. As a direct result of that defeat, Napoleon agreed to sell to America the land that made up the Louisiana Purchase.

The territory in the Louisiana Purchase was fed by the Mississippi river, which led to the land being incredibly fertile. As soon as this was discovered, the American government began to negotiate treaties with Native American tribes at the point of a gun. The Native American were progressively pushed out of their homelands and settlers moved in.

As this was happening, demand for cotton was beginning to skyrocket. The rich, fertile land of the Louisiana Purchase was perfectly positioned to grow cotton.

The invention of the cotton gin was a significant advance in separating cotton from its seed. However, the act of picking the cotton was still a very labor intensive effort requiring many hands. Therefore, cotton farming generated a tremendous demand for slave labor.

Do you see what just happened there? Because of its success, a slave revolution in one country indirectly led to a dramatic increase of slavery in another country. Historical irony isn’t always subtle.

Concurrent with this, textile manufacturing was making tremendous gains in England. Technological advances were being made that allowed dramatically greater productivity with the same number of workers. This led to ever greater demand for cotton. In fact, if the cotton growers hadn’t been available to meet that demand, there wouldn’t have been such a dramatic increase in technology because there wouldn’t have been a point.

In fact, the American South became a powerhouse for cotton growing. In 1800 the South produced 1.4 million pounds of cotton in 1800. In 1860, they produced 2 billion pounds.

Textiles were the engine for technology. Textiles were a significant percentage of all industrial output. The regular supply of cotton made sure that the engine was always running, and not only that, but always improving. It can be said that this symbiotic relationship of raw cotton and textile manufacturing was the most significant factor in creating the world in which we live today.

So, how did the South do it? How did it increase its output by a factor of more than 1,000 in about 60 years?

Sure, there was more land. There were some advances in the cotton seed that produced a slightly fluffier end product. These factors weren’t even close to enough to explain the difference.

The key factor was the increased productivity of the slaves. Closer to the year 1800, the best slaves were picking at most 100 lbs of cotton a day. When you think of how light and fluffy cotton is, I can’t even imagine the effort that it would take to pick 100 lbs of cotton in one day.

By the year 1860 rolled around, slaves were averaging closer to 500 lbs of cotton a day.

Yes, their productivity increased by a factor of five. Notice that there was no advance in technology for the cotton picker. No new tool was invented. There was no innovation that somehow automated part of the picking. It was hard, bloody, manual work. While England was gaining tremendous advances through technology, the slaves that fed the raw product for those machines were doing the same work 60 years later but were picking five times as much cotton.

How? By basically terrorizing and working the slaves to their deaths. Everyday, each slave’s output would be weighed. Each slave was assigned a specific quota. If the slave did not meet the quota, he/she would be whipped. If the slave exceeded his/her quota, then guess what? That new total became his/her new quota, and if the next day, he/she didn’t meet that quota, then a whipping would result. This remorselessly efficient process led the slaves to drive themselves to higher and higher productivity.

Accounts from slaves during that time tell the story of basically leaving their minds and just becoming a ruthlessly efficient machine, with both hands working independently in a blur.

This was how the modern industrial world was built.

A Journey Through Slavery


Title: The Underground Railroad

Rating; 4 Stars

Probably most people know the premise of this novel by now. Whitehead imagines the underground railroad as an actual railroad. Escaped slaves are conducted down through a hidden trap door to a train station, where periodically a train would come through to usher them to the next stop, hopefully arriving ultimately someplace in the North. This is the story of Cora, a slave trying to find her way to freedom.

The railroad itself is at most a minor part of the story. What is interesting is what happens to Cora at each stop after she gets off and is once again above ground. Each state that she stops at is a different manifestation of the slave experience.

She first escapes from Georgia. Georgia is the deep South cotton plantation kind of slavery. Life is hard, the overseer is brutal, and her owner is sadistic. Slaves are routinely tortured. Slaves that try to escape are always found and once returned, are executed slowly and brutally over days. This is slavery at its most bestial.

Once she escapes Georgia, she ends up in South Carolina. Here she thinks that she’s found peace. The races seem to peacefully co-exist. White people are educating the slaves. At the dormitory that she stays at, the white caretaker seems to be peculiarly persistent on some subjects. As she learns over time, all of the slaves in town are being sterilized and experimented upon. Specifically the men are being infected and not treated for syphilis (aka Tuskegee Experiment). As a slave, she learns once again that she has no ownership over her body. The whites see her as non human. There’s an indirect point here that slavery isn’t just black and white. There are parallels here between the slaves of America and the enslaved Jewish people in the death / concentration camps during WWII.

Her next stop is North Carolina. What is unusual here is that there are no black people anywhere. The station master there hurriedly sneaks her into his house and hides her in a secret part of his attic (again with the echoes to Nazism). There she learns the truth. In North Carolina they’ve have outlawed black slaves and are instead using white indentured servants. Black slaves captured in the state are hung and are then left swinging on a road as a warning for all to see. Eradication of a subjugated people is a historical trope.

Next up is Tennessee. Here you see God’s wrath upon those that practice slavery. Nearly everywhere she goes in the state has been burnt in a fire or is ravaged by plague. The remaining whites live in great sorrow.

Her last major stop is Indiana. Here, blacks have a realistic opportunity to break the bonds of their servitude. There is a large farm that is communally run by blacks. There is a large library in which Cora can read. Musicians come to play. Noted speakers come to lecture. This is as close to an escaped slave utopia that she can hope to find. As to be expected, the nearby white settlers hate to see this success and are determined to destroy it.

As can be imagined, this is a heartbreaking book of brutality. Cora loses everything she loves. Through it all, her spirit and determinism powers her.

Dimestore Dostoevsky


Title: Pop 1280

Rating: 4 Stars

Probably in response to spending the bulk of January struggling through Ulysses, I’ve been doing much lighter reading as of late.

I’m not sure if Jim Thompson counts as light or not. His style, from a purely literary point of view, is not complex, but his subject matter is pretty much as dark as it can get. If you like your humor pitch black without even a twinge of remorse, Thompson is the writer for you.

Jim Thompson is basically the Kafka of pulp fiction. While alive, he was virtually unrecognized. After his death, his work was reappraised and is now considered among the best that it has to offer.

If not familiar with Thompson’s life, here are a few tidbits:

  • During prohibition, he worked as a hotel bellboy, supplying customers with bootleg liquor, marijuana, and heroin
  • He worked in the oil fields and joined the Wobblies (a radical labor union devoted to overthrowing capitalism)
  • Between 1952 to 1954, he wrote about a dozen novels
  • He collaborated on a couple of projects with Stanley Kubrick
  • He was a hardcore alcoholic
  • He died destitute and forgotten

Pop 1280 is one of his classics. If you’ve already read The Killer Inside Me, then you probably already know what’s going to happen in the novel.

First of all, it’s told in the first person. The narrator is Nick Corey, the sheriff in Potts County, population 1280. It’s the smallest county in Texas.

When you first start reading it, Nick seems to be a pretty unambitious, slightly simple minded, good old Southern boy. He likes being sheriff, not because of any great love of law and order, but he earnestly believes that it’s about the only job that he’s capable of. Desperately seeking to hold onto it, he pretty much lets everyone do whatever they want and as long as they don’t cause too much of a fuss, he doesn’t much mind.

He’s married to Myra, who tricked him into marriage and is now a shrew to him. Her brother Lennie , who is truly simple-minded, also is now living with them. However, it’s not at all clear that Lennie is really her brother. He could very well be Myra’s secret lover.

There are also two local pimps that are causing him trouble. Nick doesn’t particularly care that they’re running a brothel, but even though he’s the sole lawman, they treat him with blatant disrespect.

This is Nick’s life. The world seems against him. He seems to be completely passive in the face of all of this abuse.

But wait…

Nick is not the man that he appears to be. He actually is a shrewd, callous, manipulative, murderous psychopath. Everyone that wrongs him gets their comeuppance. He puts plans into action and adjusts as necessary.

All of this is told with what can only be described as a dark, sardonic, dry humor. Nick appears to be so stressed that he can barely eat, but then eats two breakfasts. He claims to be exhausted, but sleeps soundly eight hours every night, takes naps, and is actively carrying on affairs with two different women. He claims to just want peace, but thinks nothing of killing people in cold blood without even a hint of remorse.

Remember that this story is told from Nick’s first hand perspective. This is a Thompson specialty (think Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me). You see the world from this aw-shucks, yes ma’am attitude but scratch the surface just a little bit and all of the sudden you’re seeing the world from the eyes of a cold-blooded killer. Since it’s told in the first person, you’re in the strange situation of finding yourself rooting for the sociopath. Will he get away with it? How many people does he have to kill / betray to do so?

Pop 1280 almost gets the coveted five star rating. If you want an introduction to Thompson, this would be a great gateway drug. If you enjoy it, he has a number of other works that are similar in nature, including The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, and The Getaway.

Too Little Justice Is Not Enough Justice


Title: Darktown

Rating: 4 Stars

This is historical fiction mystery novel set in 1948 Atlanta.

World War II is over. There are many black soldiers that have served their country with bravery and distinction. There are many black students who have become educated and sophisticated. Atlanta is still a deeply segregated city with fairly recent memories of a race riot in which whites rampaged through the black part of Atlanta (called Darktown by the whites and Sweet Auburn by the blacks) and murdered blacks.

Under political pressure, the Atlanta Police Department has agreed to hire eight black police officers. They can only patrol in Darktown, they cannot arrest white citizens, and are not allowed to carry guns. They also aren’t allowed to work out of the police department building. They are given a moldy basement at the YMCA. Despite that, the black community has high hopes and high expectations for the eight black police officers.

Into this political cauldron, a young black woman is found murdered. The white detectives are not interested in solving it (beyond trying to pin it on the woman’s step father) and the black police officers aren’t allowed to investigate (their sole responsibility is patrolling the neighborhood).

The novel’s plot is the attempts to get some justice for this young woman.

There are four main characters. The two black police officers are Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith. Boggs is the well educated, intellectual son of a local powerful preacher. Smith drove tanks in WWII and saw significant combat. The two white police officers are Denny Rakestraw and Lionel Dunlow. Rakestraw is also a battle hardened veteran of WWII and, as far as it goes in Atlanta at that time, holds somewhat progressive views. Dunlow, older, worn and brutally racist, treats Darktown as his own personal preserve and treats its citizens ruthlessly.

Eventually Boggs and Smith form an uneasy alliance with Rakestraw. Even so, their attempts at justice are thwarted at nearly every turn. Black people that they mean to help end up being brutally treated. The black community loses faith in their police officers. Even worse, the officers begin to lose faith in themselves. It seems as if the entire city is waiting and expecting for the officers to fail in an embarrassing fashion or just for them to give it up as a lost cause.

Ultimately, there is justice, but it’s at best a Pyrrhic victory. The best that can be said is that by the end, the experiment is continuing on, as shaky as ever.

There was a good balance of history, action, mystery, and social justice. The author has to walk a tightrope and Mullen does a good job. If you’re interested in any one of those four themes, I think that you could read it with satisfaction.

The historical element drew me in. It inspired me to do some research. In 1948, Atlanta truly did start to integrate its police force with eight black men. They operated under the restrictions as described in the novel. The eight men in the novel were completely fictional. It was interesting that most of the eight men from history actually did persevere. Three of them retired in 1980 (after 32 years of service). One worked in Atlanta until 1964, at which point he moved to Decatur to integrate the police force there.

It’s tough to understate the importance of this. In the South, the original police forces were primarily slave patrols, concentrating on catching runaway slaves and putting down potential insurrections. Even post Civil War, Southern sheriffs had a primary focus on enforcing segregation and disenfranchising freed slaves.

It is this history that makes so abhorrent modern comments like our current Attorney General (as in Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of Alabama). When he makes a comment in a public speech about the Anglo-American heritage of the Sheriff, that isn’t exactly a subtle racist dog whistle.

So, the result is a novel that was well written, fun to read, dealing with a little known but important historical event, and that is actually timely (to our great sorrow) to our world today.

Bachman > King


Title: The Running Man

Rating: 4 Stars

I just finished reading the novel The Running Man, which inspired me to re-watch the movie The Running Man.

I’d watched it in the theater back when it originally came out in 1987. This was during peak Schwarzenegger action hero time. Commando and Predator were in his recent past and Total Recall and Terminator 2 were coming up fast. He was not winking yet at his fans with films like Kindergarten Cop and Twins.

This film falls right into that full on action hero groove. There’s the muscle bound invincible man taking on all comers. The people that he’s fighting are cartoon villains. There is a basic dystopian back story but really, it’s about Arnold knocking off bad guys with comedic quips and getting revenge on the really bad guy that wronged him. Picture an extremely light weight Blade Runner crossed with Network crossed with, I don’t know, Death Race 2000.

That was my background going into reading the novel.

Shockingly enough, the novel was substantially better than the film. The chapters start at 100 and run down to 0 (a style copied by Chuck Palahniuk in Survivor). This might seem to be an obvious thing to do, but it really does ramp up the excitement as you read the novel. It’s the literary equivalent of a ticking bomb. It leads urgency to the story as you try to imagine how it’s going to wrap things up as it winds down. It seems like it shouldn’t make much difference (the number of chapters are the same, regardless of which way you count), but it does lend an urgency while reading.

The chapters are nearly all short. Again, this accelerates the pacing of the novel and causes the urgency to build as the countdown seems to moving onward ever so fast.

In both the novel and the film, the setting is a dystopian future. In the novel, the setting is 2025 (the novel was written in 1982). It is indeed a grim and bleak future.

Society is split into the haves and the have nots. The have nots, if they can get jobs at all, are relegated to the most dangerous and back-breaking of jobs.

The main character, Ben Richards (no Arnold here for sure) is definitely one of the have nots. His job was dangerous. He was fired for insubordination and now can’t get a job anywhere. He has a wife and a sick child. His wife occasionally turns to prostitution just to get medicine for the child.

In desperation, he tries to get on a reality game show. Free-vee is basically free television serving as the opiate for the masses. Its programming apparently consists of reality game shows where desperate people do desperate things in a usually fruitless quest to get some cash.

After a series of tests, he is selected for The Running Man. It is the most prestigious and highest paying but also the most dangerous. He’s given a 12 hour head start and then hunters hunt him down and kill him. He earns money every hour that he stays alive.

After the initial setup, the rest of the novel is Richards trying to stay alive and the hunters inevitably hunting him down.

The novel is significantly darker than the movie. There is a fatalism to the novel as Richards, knowing that he’s doomed and getting weaker by the minute, fights to stay alive. By the end, knowing that it is not possible, he focuses on at least getting his revenge.

The challenge with movies or novels that attempt to predict the future is that ultimately, the future arrives. The film is set in 2018 and the novel is set in 2025. The film’s technology is almost laughably outdated. The novel isn’t a whole lot better. It does get right the obsession with reality television. Although the disparity between rich and poor is not as extreme as that portrayed here, a real argument can be made that we’re well on the path. Amazingly enough, the novel talks about riots that took place in Seattle in 2005. The WTO riots took place in 1999, so that wasn’t a half bad guess.

The problem with trying to predict technology in the future is that the writer almost inevitably starts with the current technology. That makes sense but means that the writer is almost guaranteed to be ridiculously wrong. For example, in neither the film nor the movie is the concept of a smart phone anywhere to be found.

Some months ago, I’d reviewed (somewhat harshly) Stephen King’s It. It was overstuffed with characters and bloated with plot. Writing as Bachman, the plot and characters have been nearly completely leaned out. What is left is a taut, ticking bomb thriller. I have not read any other Bachman novels, so I don’t know if this was an anomaly.

However, at this time, I can definitely say that I prefer Richard Bachman to Stephen King.

Love In The Cloistered Manor


Title: Loving

Rating: 4 Stars

This is completely set in an English manor in Ireland during WWII. The Tennants (well, at least the mother and daughter-in-law) live there with a number of their servants.

The manor is effectively an island because no one in the house trusts the Irish. The Irish are currently neutral in WWII and therefore the inhabitants suspect that the Irish are somehow conspiring against them. Beyond this, the English, both the owners and the servants, believe that the Irish are barely human. This is most typified by the sole Irish servant in their employ. He’s a man named Paddy. When he speaks, there is literally only one of the servants that can understand a word that he says.

Beyond being isolated in the wilderness of Ireland, there’s all kinds of rumors that the Germans are about to invade and the unspeakable acts that they are rumored to commit, especially to women.

Between the German threat and the living in Ireland, the entire universe of the household has been constricted down to the manor itself.

Love is certainly in the air. Upstairs, the daughter-in-law has been caught naked in bed with another man (her husband is off to war), causing a furor among the servants.

The long time butler has just died, and a new man, Charley, has been promoted to his place, much to the displeasure of most of the staff. One of the maids, Edith, is not so secretly in love with him.

The other maid, Kate, apparently needing a man but having very limited options, is carrying on with the Irishman, Paddy. She’s the only one that can understand him.

There is some discrete implied sexuality between the two maids, Edith and Kate.

The cook has a rather sadistic young boy that she’s just started taking of. It’s rumored to be her illegitimate son.

On top of all of that, Mrs Tennant has lost a rare and valuable ring. There is much confusion as it’s found, lost again, found again, and hidden by the children.

This is, I’m guessing, the progenitor of all of the various English upstairs / downstairs comedies. The two classes coexist and must work with each other, but their upbringing and perspectives are so at odds that nearly every communication between them ends up in confusion or dismay.

In such a situation, you’d assume that the owners of the manor would have the upper hand, but this really doesn’t seem to be the case. The old butler apparently knew of the affair that the daughter-in-law is having and profited handsomely by it via exorbitant tips. The new butler has already started inconspicuously padding the books to make a little profit every week. The cook is not so subtly raiding the liquor cabinet. With the war on, getting any kind of help is so difficult that the owners are willing to tolerate nearly any indiscretion just to keep the manor from being shorthanded.

This is a pretty typical English comedy of its time. If you are amused by the writings of Evelyn Waugh, then this could very well be your cup of tea. Don’t expect too much in the way of plot development. Don’t expect too much in the way of character development.

The humor here is in the dialog and in the interplay between the characters.

A Book About Play Should Have Been More Playful


Title: Wonderland

Rating: 2 Stars

The thesis of this book is interesting. The conventional idea is that society advances through pragmatic events such as scientific breakthroughs or productivity improvements. This book proposes that many advances actually come from entertainment or play.

One example from the 17th century is the introduction of calico. The Europeans, previously to this, primarily wore scratchy, uncomfortable wool, even for their undergarments.

The softness of cotton proved to be an immediate hit, especially with the women of the day. From that came the rise of stores, but not just any stores. Instead of the typical store where the exclusive goal was to acquire goods, out of the calico craze came the arise of shopping as a destination in of itself.  Stores were designed such that you could quietly shop in them or even just relax. The prices were reasonable enough in these stores that they became destinations for not just the upper class, but the middle class as well. This started to lead to the breakdown of the strict social classes. The more complete shopping experience led to such developments as department stores and ultimately the consumer culture that we live in.

Not only that, but the insatiable demand for cotton led to the American agriculture evolving past tobacco. Cotton agriculture being so labor intensive, this in turn led to mass use of slavery, which of course, ultimately led to the Civil War.

Another example is music. There is some evidence that music might predate language. The harmonies that sound so natural to us might have its roots in the difference in registers between the male and female voice.

Much work was done to try to automate the generation of music. Very early (from about the 13th century), there were inventions that allowed instruments to play themselves. It was based on the concept of a notched cylinder. From there, in the 18th century, work was done to automate looms. This time, using something very similar to punch cards, looms could be ‘programmed’ to generate any design. Do you see where I’m going with this? From the looms, there came musical instruments like the clavichord and the harpsichord. During the 18th century rolling sheets of paper were developed to play pianos. Finally, this led to the development of typewriters to type letters, and of course to the modern day keyboard. It’s interesting that the phrase keyboard is still in use in the 21st century when its roots date back several hundred years.

Yet another example is spice. Spice was unknown in Europe. In fact, it was at one time only available in the Spice Islands, way the heck out in the Indonesian archipelago. What’s interesting is that, at that time, Europe really had no idea that the Spice Islands existed, let alone where. The spices passed through many hands before it ended up in Europe. At one time, spice was worth substantially more than gold. Therefore, the risk of perilous journeys to find spice was more than compensated by the potential riches of a successful trip. Thus, spices ultimately led to the age of European exploration, with all of the negative and positive consequences thereof. An equal argument can be made that ultimately the pursuit and trade of spices led us to our current era of globalization.

This is all interesting. Unfortunately, all of this information came out in the first couple of chapters. The later chapters to me were simply more uninteresting. The chapters on gaming and on public spaces just didn’t resonate as much with me. They seemed to be much more obvious in their connectivity to the modern age, thus not as compelling.

This was probably closer to a 2.8 score, but in keeping with my natural inclination to avoid the boring 3 score as much as possible, it fell back to a 2. I don’t regret reading it, but I was expecting more fun out of a book that proclaimed that play is the genesis of our modern world.

What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been


Title: Ulysses

Rating: 4 Stars

So, I’ve done it.

I’ve read Ulysses. This is a major milestone on the road to my final goal, which is reading Finnegan’s Wake. Having completed Ulysses, I have to say that that final destination has never looked further away.

Usually I try to start a book post off with a quick plot summary. I’m not even going to bother, other than to say that it’s a day in the life of Leopold Bloom. The rest of this blog is probably just going to be a random set of thoughts, which is probably appropriate considering the subject material.

Back in 1998, the Modern Library published the list of 100 best novels of the 20th century. Not all that surprising, Ulysses topped the list. Somehow, I don’t remember how it happened, way back before Facebook and Twitter, but the list went viral. Back in those days, Amazon was still primarily known as a bookseller. Accordingly, for a short period of time, Ulysses was the number one bestselling book on Amazon. Even at that time, I found that fact to be quite amusing. I can just picture, I don’t know, possibly tens of thousands of people saying to themselves, well, if this is the best book, then I must read it. A week later or so (remember, this was before Prime), it’d showed up on their front door step, they’d crack it open, and there must have been a collective “Holy, What the Fuck” tidal wave of opinion crashing across America.

Even more amusing, due to feedback regarding the closed process of how the 100 best novels were selected, Modern Library later did a reader’s choice list based upon popular vote. The main winners? Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard. In case you needed any further evidence of the general internet audience composition in the year 1998.

I think it was T.S. Eliot who said that all literature is contained within Ulysses. I have no doubt. One section is written in the form of a play. Another section is written in the form of a catechism. Another section is pure stream of consciousness. Yet another section encapsulates the entire history of literature temporally. It starts off in Latinate prose, moves on to Anglo-Saxon, parodies the King James bible, Bunyan, Gibbon, Dickens, and finally ending up in early twentieth century Irish slang. All the while it’s doing this, it’s still telling the story of Bloom’s day. It’s an absolutely brilliant tour de force, although possibly at an insane level. I read a review on Goodreads where the reviewer said something like, she was awed at the brilliance of the novel but also wanted to dig Joyce up, resurrect him, and then beat him to death. I have to admit there were times when I could relate to that.

All of the time that he’s doing this, he’s juggling multiple themes. The overarching theme is, if you know anything about it at all, the retelling of the Ulysses. Instead of the conquering hero desperately trying to return home to his wife and son, you have an inconsequential man kind of wandering around Dublin. At the same time though, each section (as I’ve just described) is focused on a different aspect of literature. Each section also usually is based on a color. Each section is also based upon an organ (ie heart, kidney, stomach, etc).

Of course, one of the themes is Ireland itself. As Bloom wanders around Dublin, Joyce takes special care to exactly, precisely, minutely detail where and what he’s doing. In one of the supporting materials that I used while reading it, references that Joyce made can be traced specifically back to a house or to a shop on a specific street in Dublin in the year 1904. Considering the fact that this was way before the internet, he was writing Ulysses ten years (or more) after 1904, and living in continental Europe, this seems to me to be an amazing feat. Did he have a prodigious memory or access to materials or friends that could confirm its authenticity? This extends beyond Dublin’s geography. He also included a vast array of Irish mythology and Irish politics. He wasn’t just trying to write the great novel but he wanted to write the great Irish novel. He wanted to place Irish literature in the same sphere as English.

At the same time, he’s slips in low brow humor, including phrase such as, “If you see Kay, tell him he may see you in tea”. If not obvious, speak aloud the first four words and the last four words in the phase. He uses low slang for sex, body parts, condoms, etc.

And, oh yeah, by the way, the last page or so of the novel is absolutely breathtaking in its beauty. Seriously. It’s possibly the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever read.

Pretty clearly there are many aspects of Ulysses that have inspired other authors. Samuel Beckett (who was Joyce’s secretary at one time) certainly later made heavy use of stream of consciousness. Numbingly long lists of items (on a variety of subjects) shows up in multiple places, most recently for me as I was reading Danielewski’s House of Leaves. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the absolutely immersive nature of Ulysses is later found in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Ulysses is patient zero for a number of trends that unfolded in the literary world during the remaining part of the twentieth century.

Maybe now you’re starting to see Eliot’s point. There is possibly everything that is literary encompassed within the pages of Ulysses (well, with the possible exception of the graphic novel, which maybe didn’t exist at that point yet). It’s truly a breathtaking work of a genius that really can’t even be imagined.

So, why the four stars? Well, as brilliant as it is, there is no getting around the fact that it’s also, unless you’re willing to spend quite literally your entire life diving deep into its complexities and nuances, not an enjoyable read.

In an earlier essay, I hearkened it to climbing Mt Everest. I have a friend that’s a serious biker and she abides by the rules of the Velominati (it’s a thing, look it up).

Rule #5 is: Harden the Fuck Up.

So, if people ask me why I read Ulysses, when it was such a long, difficult, and not in any conventional sense, an enjoyable experience, I’d have say that I did it because of Rule #5.

Nikki Takes Charge


Title: Young God

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a minimalist, raw as you can get novel about a thirteen year old girl named Nikki living her life as furiously as she possibly can.

She starts the novel with her mother. Almost immediately, her mother dies accidentally. She stays for a bit with her mother’s drug dealing boyfriend, but ultimately she leaves him (stealing his drugs and his car) to live with her father. Her father was once a local big time drug dealer cocaine dealer but now is a pimp. Pretty much through the force of her will, he gets back into the drug dealing business. All along the way, she determinedly experiences everything, whether it be sex or the drug ecstasy or shooting heroin or even robbery and ultimately murder. There is pretty much nothing that she doesn’t try, even the most forbidden of social taboos.

The protagonist, even though at some level you get drawn into her life and you kind of feel yourself rooting for her, is truly a horrible person that is a curse on society and will continue to be. There is not going to be a happy ending for her. If she lives, she’s going to be a mass murdering drug kingpin. At the same time, as you read, you develop an understanding that this is a case of nurture over nature. She wasn’t born a nihilist, her to this point thirteen years of life have made her a nihilist. As such, it’s a pretty crushing statement that, while other thirteen year old girls are going to school and taking their first innocent steps to adulthood, that there’s undoubtedly a large number of girls like Nikki in America for whom childhood is a brutally short interlude to the realities of a gritty, hardscrabble life.

All of this is told in an intentionally sparse style. It’s at best 200 pages long. Nearly all of the chapters are less than two pages long and some consist of only a sentence.

It’s a work of transgressive fiction. How you’re going to feel about this novel is going to be dependent to a large extent about how you feel about the genre. If you’re a big fan of Trainspotting, Requiem For A Dream, or American Psycho, you should at least consider reading it. It’s not in the same league as those, but it’s definitely in the same ballpark.

If, on the other hand, you think that those novels are pornographic or a blight upon our society, you should really stay away. You will be horrified that someone wrote a novel about what can only be described as an evil, nihilistic, thirteen year old girl.

The reviews on Goodreads pretty much exactly reflect this. A number of reviews were horrified by the subject. A number of reviews were dismayed by the writing style. I’m always kind of interested in these strongly negative reviews. It’s one thing if a reviewer is a professional that must review the book. In such a case, expressing revolt and disgust can be a natural reaction. However, I’m guessing that very few of the reviewers on Goodreads are professional. They are people like me that just like to read. If you just look at the plot, the back page blurbs, and just a couple of random pages, you should know what you’re getting yourself into.

So, why buy it? For example, I know that I’m not a fan of romance genre novels, but it’s not like I go to a book store, buy the most extreme bodice ripping title that I can find, read it, and then write a blistering review about how horrible the genre is.

Do such people that read this book and are outraged realize that they are one of the reasons why books like this exist? To a certain extent, art like this exists to shock. Does anyone think that the Piss Christ photographer didn’t know exactly what was going to happen when it went on display?

Be that as it may, I enjoyed it. However, be very aware that it might not be your cup of tea.

Caveat emptor.