peteg's blog - noise - books

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Committed.

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Sequel to The Sympathizer. It's a bit of a dog that wants to have it all ways. There's a lot of gesturing at but not a lot of engagement with some purported deep thinkers, which is hard to square with the very generic foregrounded gangsterism that similarly gestures at but lacks Puzo's guile and indelible imagery. It did pass the time but I often felt like throwing it across the troopy on this wet, windy and wild Tasmanian Wednesday.

Dwight Garner. I concur that the second half or so really drags, as if the author realised that he's too far gone with cliche and is sick of the project. Garner doesn't appear to realise that "GOOAAAAALLLLLL!" is a direct lift from Trainspotting. Junot Díaz, also in the New York Times, uncritically loved it.

Richard Beasley: Dead in the Water: A very angry book about our greatest environmental catastrophe... the death of the Murray-Darling Basin.

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Kindle. 14.23 AUD from Amazon. Via a brief writeup by Steven Carroll in the Smage, and because I was just out at Menindee and thereabouts. An account of Bret Walker's royal commission (sponsored by South Australia) into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There is much anger at much mendacity, indicated by excess repetition and blue language, leavened by some funny bits. I wanted to know more about who has the standing to force the Basin Authority to make what Beasley strongly argues is an illegal Plan conform with the Water Act. It seemed weird that South Australia doesn't make more common cause with the Lower Darling. Entirely depressing.

Michael Pelly at the AFR.

Francis Spufford: Light Perpetual.

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Kindle. Spufford's second novel, after Golden Hill. As always his writing is brilliant and things are generally excellent. We can only really complain that he didn't write more, especially on the parts that were a bit more excellent than the others.

Here he recounts in episodic, fragmentary form the imagined lives of a bunch of kids who didn't actually survive a rocket attack on South London in 1944. (As I understand it the fictional children did not survive the actual rocket attack.) Clearly the closest structural referent is the 7-Up series of movies by Paul Almond (that I've never seen). Some of the characters are particularly interesting, others too tendentious, and yet others are left dangling. The reader is expected to indulge Spufford's philosophical shrugging about how life is, as well as his sometimes ungainly semi-spontaneous bursts of Christianity. Some themes are familiar. For instance a schizophrenic only finds peace/a future within another culture, which here is an inversion of the US tradition of going to Mexico for healing of various kinds (cf Vietnam vets). The description of his condition, and later his eventual wife's back is some of the best stuff he's ever done. (I would've liked to know how she (or her parents) came to London as well.) There's an opera-loving property shyster who thrived under Thatcher; one wonders if before then most English shysters were exported to, or were operating in, the colonies. This is England did more inventive work on skinhead culture. And so on. He is a master of mastering in the service of explication.

Lisa Allardice spoke with him in early February. Kate Kellaway loved it. Alexandra Harris trainspots more structural referents. Reviews are, or soon will be, legion.

Arthur Phillips: The Egyptologist.

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Kindle. His most-recent book was OK so I thought I'd give his earlier work a go. It's peak Egyptology just after the Great War: Carter is discovering Tutankhamen's tomb, and our historically minor figures are intriguing for an apocryphal king. Unfortunately the writing is again flabby and repetitive with too much foreshadowing; what seemed to be a promising premise devolved into a swamp of deluded characters with the exception of the knowing, mocking Marlowe and his Oxford set. Sometimes the Australian characters have the right tone and lingo, and perhaps the same is true for the boys who went up to the university. The epistolary format and heavy stereotyping made it hard to engage, and early on it was clear that the unreliability of the narrators was making a satisfactory ending impossible; the remains of these days don't amount to a hill of beans.

Tom Bissell observes this is a historical novel, of which Phillips apparently made a habit. I didn't enjoy much of the humour as I took the whole show to be a fiasco from the start; it's a farce not a comedy, not even a parody, just a dance with cliches. Bissell does not grapple with the themes of immortality, rhyming, repeating history, fakery and weak evidentiary bases. Goodreads was harsher.

Amor Towles: You Have Arrived at Your Destination.

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Kindle. A short written on commission for Amazon. This is one of those books that makes you wonder if the writer's editor isn't the magician, as for Shantaram / The Mountain Shadow. Clearly bashed out quickly and to spec; there's little of Towles's sophisticated remove here. I wasn't invested enough to divine the novelty or point of it all. Designer babies! In the USA! Ergo military-industrial complex conspiracy. It didn't smell truthy to me.

Goodreads has a range of opinions.

Amor Towles: Eve in Hollywood.

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Kindle. Offcuts from The Rules of Civility. Snapshots of the golden era. Eve befriends Olivia de Havilland, who passed only last year at 104. Eve is always perfectly appropriate to the moment, but also directionless and unmotivated. Eve would now be a chaos monkey at a startup a little further north. Yes, it's all about Eve.

Dennis Glover: Factory 19.

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Kindle. 14.99 AUD directly from the publisher Black Inc. Third time around with Glover; I remember his previous historical novel as better than his polemic on industrial society. Here we are at their intersection, and a contemplation of what the internet has done to things.

The premise is simple: 1948 was the peak of blue collar workers' communitarian welfare, so what happens if a billionaire tries to recreate it as a refuge for the disrupted in Tasmania in our year 2022? This adventure in bleached Australian utopianism (a field long in decline) wobbles between Animal Farm-like satire and Anglophilia/Europhobia. Halfway through it enumerates the joys of the time, just as Red Plenty did for 1950s Russia. The thin disguise draped over David Walsh seems like an appeal to him to give it a shot despite this paradise being, of course, lost.

Glover's essential desire is to undo the impact of the computer on society and industrial practice. Apparently without it the destiny of humankind is controllable by humans who will therefore be happier. He takes it as read that an industrialised society is inescapable, and that a service economy slakes no thirst — humans need to build stuff, to materially and personally disturb dirt.

The central disappointment of the book is the long list of present-day concerns that Glover either ignores or inadequately responds to. Greenies are supposed to be bought off/provoked/triggered/quietened by militant fantasy. Nothing is said about religion and sectarianism; terrorism with religious motivations had certainly arrived by 1948. So it goes for colonialism and nuclear technology. The sexism of the day is described (accepted?) but not defended. Aborigines, post-war non-Anglo migrants and people with disabilities do not exist (which is weird as he does include industrial accidents). Maybe that was the Australia of the 1940s but it doesn't fly to continue to ignore them in the second thread set in the 1970s. Glover need not have addressed every last thing but it grates that he acknowledges other flaws of those periods, including such superficialities as fashion.

Glover's contention that blue-collar workers are poor in present-day Australia is belied by the common epithet "cashed-up bogans" — many contractors, mine workers, tradies, builders, etc have never had it this good. He has no story about creativity, just contentment via consumption. To him the glorious 30 year post WWII Keynesian economy was destroyed by overreaching strikers in the 1970s, led by a caricature of RJL Hawke. Glover is too blinkered to integrate the innovations of that period from elsewhere in the world, such as Toyota's total quality management that reputedly encouraged, for a time, more engagement and satisfaction in factory work.

Overall it's not as well constructed as A Gentleman in Moscow (brought to mind by the quasi-involuntary incarceration/co-option of the non-working-class, cultured main character/narrator), often indulgent and less provocative than I hoped. For all that Glover writes engagingly and if you're sympathetic to his conceit there's some fun to be had.

Jack Cameron Stanton summarised it for the Smage. Jack Callil at the Guardian. In another Schwartz venue, Anna Thwaites observed the equivocating voice that obscured whatever point Glover was trying to make.

Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls.

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Kindle. I read it quite slowly, resisting getting to the climactic battle as much as Hemingway did. I found it much easier to approach than his Old Man and the Sea, which I started but didn't get far with a few years back, making me think that that might be a gatekeeper suggestion, keeping the casual reader from the man's better works. He's definitely on the romantic and doomed side of things even as he writes unsentimentally about the Spanish Civil War. The structure is straightforward; he's not bothered with playing tricks with points of view, so it's very easy to follow in time, space and character. Given his reputation I was surprised at how strongly drawn his female character(s) were. I wonder what he would have made of present-day USA.

The Wikipedia page has loads of details. The Russian Karkov trashes the POUM, which George Orwell fought for. I think I'll give the movie a miss.

Amor Towles: Rules of Civility.

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Kindle. I was always going to circle back to Towles's debut after his masterful A Gentleman in Moscow. Unfortunately this is more of a generic The Great Gatsby with a dash of Great Expectations and a side of The Talented Mr Ripley. The first-person lady always seems happier when she finds her evening free, but of course if you're a social climber you've got to be out observing all the fine markers of class stratifications in late-1930s NYC that may help you avoid joining all the men going the other way. Many are faking it until they've made it alongside the old moneyed, it being read that you and everyone wouldn't be anywhere else or playing any other game. Towles reveals himself as a fan of guns, and the gutter press; I thought our heroine was going to end up at the New Yorker and not a glossed-up New York Post or Gawker. Pretty much every chapter pivots on a timely coincidental encounter. He's very opinionated about other writers — thumbs up for Dickens, Hemingway, Russians, Thoreau. It passed the time OK.

Liesl Schillinger adroitly gestures at the cliches and avoids assessment, doubtlessly the right strategy for a New York lass in a publishing orbit. Goodreads generally loved it, though some ladies were not persuaded that Towles did justice to his narrator's voice. Viv Groskop: these are the greatest hits of NYC.

Catherine Lacey: Pew.

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Kindle. I was looking forward to another bout of Catherine Lacey internalism and was somewhat disappointed to be lead directly off the property instead. We meet the entity to be imminently known as Pew wandering into small town Southern USA and immediately drawing current-day identity political lightning, being something of a tabla rasa that other people freely write on. If (s)he/they had been Australian, she'd be a Terra Nullius, exhibiting the impossibility of self containment in spite of modest want. The individuals in the community, and sometimes the collective, do inscribe, unreliably, but Lacey's underdrawing mostly leaves us reinforcing our own prejudices. (I could see the relevance of identifying a gender but not a race; sure, the town is split black/white, that's customary in the USA, but what has skin colour got to do with the mechanics of helping someone in the first instance?) Ultimately the unbearable lightness of Christian charity evaporates in a forgiveness festival that goes as you'd expect if you took the horror movie tropes to be merely providing this otherwise (literally) quotidian work with a pulse. Some pages of description are absolutely cinematic: the old lady with the eyes and the shaking hands, identifying Jesus returned. I saw Agnes sitting at the gas station, lucid, capacious and comprehending, and Tammy in NYC with a Latvian parallel.

Nicole Flattery quotes Lacey explaining what she's doing, picks out some of the cinematic bits, and bemoans the lack of humour. I don't disagree but was more prepared to accept a Pew without volition. She concurs with Dwight Garner that Lacey's previous two long-form efforts (Nobody is ever missing, The Answers) are superior. Chris Power tries to be respectful with the pronouns. I've never found Lacey to be an "economical writer"; I'm drawn mostly by her iteratively-deepened elliptic style. Fiona Maazel.

Ned Beauman: The Teleportation Accident.

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Kindle. I conclude that the best thing Beauman has done was his most recent, and the first of his I read — Madness is Better than Defeat. This is set in pretty much the same era but indulges a weakness for pillorying ze Germans, especially the artistic ones. Beauman's leading man (never ours) goes from Berlin to Paris to L.A. on the trail of a McGuffin in the form of a young lady, encountering various deceptions along the way. The characters are sketchy and the reader quickly learns not to invest much effort in anything as there's a lot of "but actually" retconning in between the stale humour and adolescent sexuality. Beauman clearly wanted to be Martin Amis when he grew up but it's too late for that now.

The reviews at Goodreads sum it up well: the plot would embarass Scooby Doo.

John Brockman (ed): This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress.

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Kindle. I can't remember why I dug this up. Generally meh. Far too many psychologists got their responses to Edge.org's 2014 question recorded here, and yet others in even softer disciplines. Nearly all are obvious and unpersuasively argued, and many "ideas" proposed for retirement are not even scientific. Overall this project is more about eliciting sympathy than making progress, like a first year philosophy class. Goodreads.

Jonathan Lethem: The Arrest.

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Kindle. I gave this a go on the basis of the first few paras of Charles Yu's review. If I'd read further I'd have noticed that he mostly just summarised the thing and was only really sure that the author had written better books previously. (I did learn that Lethem authored the braver Motherless Brooklyn.) I don't think that dystopia and post-apocalyptica are quite as dual as either of them thinks.

Frank Herbert: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune.

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Kindle. At the suggestion of David S, prompted by the noise about a new movie and a nagging sense that I'd missed out on more than just Back to the Future as a kid. I'd put it off for so long because the books are so fat. The first lives up to its reputation, the second is OK, while the middle two are unremitting slides into indulgent unmotivated and unfocussed verbiage that showed no sign of abating. I'll therefore give the last two a miss. It's not really sci fi; if Herbert was writing this now he'd probably go in for unabashed historical fiction with a side of fantasy. For all the supposed erudition exhibited here, al-historical Lawrence is far more interesting. Perhaps Brunner lifted his style from Herbert, as both like to introduce each chapter with some fake journals or historiography and other random crap. Whereas Brunner sometimes made these more interesting than the main writing, Herbert never does.

Greg Egan: Uncanny Valley.

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Kindle. A short riff on what it might be like to be an edited, artificial revival/incarnation of a successful gay man. I don't really know what he was getting at; there were moments of Brunneresque social commentary but not in an imagined future.

Douglas Stuart: Shuggie Bain.

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Kindle. The best thing I've read in an age. Briefly, this is the story of a mother whose addiction to booze costs her her family. It's well constructed and somehow sufficiently familiar with just enough Glasgwegian to sound like a west-coast Irvine Welsh. Early on, at Blackpool, we get a variation on human observation: the woman looks at the brightly-lit world in wonder, while the man looks at the other men looking at his woman. That night, amongst many others, does not end well. I felt he accurately portrayed Scottish literalism, community, coarseness, concern, cliches, etc. His inventive description (like The Godfather) and masterful unfolding of his characters made it cinematic. Kelly Macdonald is a shoo-in for Agnes.

Leah Hager Cohen at the New York Times.

2020-11-20: won the Booker Prize for 2020. Presumably this prompted a tepid review in the LRB.

Ceridwen Dovey: In the Garden of the Fugitives.

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Kindle. The problem with reading on the Kindle is that it's too expensive to throw across the room every time a book gets too irritating. The legions of local reviews fawn over Ms Dovey's prose, but too often I see clanging repetition, contradictions within the same paragraph, and characters celebrating the awesomeness of other characters' observations and unsupported assertions, shading into authorial self praise. Much could be fixed with clearer thinking about what she's trying to say, and pondering if it's, you know, actually worth saying; the hiding behind unreliable narrators does not add layers via self perception, it just needlessly musses up the message. The Remains of the Day this is not.

Structurally this thing is supposed to be an exchange of emails. This almost immediately proves unsustainable and is replaced with the old reliable two-track. The voices, initially somewhat distinct, are entirely flattened, including the dialogue within the dual but not duelling monologues. All I concluded is that you too can go to Harvard (or New York University as the case may be) and come away with an unfurnished mind.

I picked this up because I remember enjoying her inventiveness in Only the Animals. There's none of that here, or any humour. The excess of researched, touristic and psychoanalytic detail is trying, reminding me of that fad from a few years back (Rushdie, Ghosh, ...) that requires a home for every factoid the author encounters. Overall it looks like we're watching Ms Dovey do her South African white guilt therapeutic exercises in public. A cursory scan of the reviews suggests this is easy to see but difficult to engage with.

Greg Egan: Incandescence.

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Kindle. I went in cold, forgetting that with Egan the blurb on the back is not an accurate guide to what he has in mind. The afterword tells us that he was playing Raymond Smullyan's didactic game for Einstein's general theory of relativity, and not the promised Star Trek V mystical journey into the centre of the galaxy to meet some isolationists. Being lazy I quickly stopped following the lessons too closely, and I'd say it's not worth reading unless you do try to keep up.

Initially I liked how his universe respected the physics we know, with life (not as we have it) moving around on a galaxy-wide data network with transit delays of millennia, but of course the didacticism gave him no other option. I was less of a fan of the sentients having backups, given his broader conception of consciousness in Permutation City and readiness to lean on quantum encryption. Why should consciousness remain local in such a system? More fatally Egan struggles to keep his epistemics straight: how do the Splinter critters know about the hub, the void and all that when they haven't been outside for generations? Why ever would they expect their local observations to hold universally? Why would they ascribe a speed to light? So much (too much) ontology is taken for granted.

As a story it reminded me of McGahan's posthumous sapient eco disaster. The two-track structure takes the edge off the didacticism, and many explanations are too hurried; more diagrams would have helped, as Egan admits on his companion webpages. Around the mid point I realised that the stories must be very separate in time, which while skilfully suggested made at least one into deterministic history, robbing them both of forward momentum. For all his understanding of science, Egan shows less awareness of and interest in how societies may need to be structured to thrive; it seems likely that some basic empathy, truth telling or goal sharing is necessary for collaboration to arise, and that seems like a prerequisite for technology. He did make me wonder if nature knows about binary search. Oftentimes there's a bit too much science and not enough engineering.

Goodreads has many words spilt on this one. Egan's page suggests this work is insufficiently self contained. He emphasises that (as is usual with physics) almost everything he says are white lies, implying that he is not playing with the right foundational concepts. For all his protestations I didn't feel like the Aloof ever turned up.

John Brunner: The Stone That Never Came Down.

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"Inside my head," Malcolm quoted, "a man is trying to ride a dog which is trying to ride a lizard."

Kindle. The best of the thin Brunners in quite a while. The VC total recall virus presented here as the all-saviour is a minor variant of the scepticism/science/rationality/Enlightenment meme-virus that ripped through Europe and later the world quite a while back. Apparently if our memories worked better we'd be able to solve all the problems of humanity. Then again, we might just end up with more movies like Kaufman's latest.

I guess his major failing as a novelist was his inability to construct complex characters. That and his unnuanced criticisms of religion etc.

Ron Rash: Burning Bright: Stories.

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Kindle. A 2010 collection of shorts from a much-feted writer from the Carolinas and (somehow) more specifically Appalachia. They're well written but thin. None have the kink Carver put in his. Good always beats evil; Southerners are redeemed by not all being Confederates, and no women are helpless but some could use a little help in their twilight. I'd forgotten that previously I'd read his Nothing Gold Can Stay and seen the feeble movie adaptation of Serena. I guess this is more of the same: the meth, the Civil War, the grinding poverty, the ties that bind. Mercifully brief.

Janet Maslin is a fan of the man.