peteg's blog - noise - books

Paul Theroux: Burma Sahib. (2024)

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Kindle. I've had a soft spot for Theroux since reading his Dark Star Safari a long time ago and more recently about his gaggle on Hawaii. I was wondering what he would do with George Orwell's early life after Dennis Glover's take on the other end. I haven't read Burmese Days and have long forgotten the famous essays about shooting an elephant and hanging a man. I thought Theroux did a decent and unsentimental job of showing how Blair may have survived and passed his time in Burma as a policeman but there are many loose threads. What motivated him to join the imperial police service in the first place? Did he have a choice of destination? How did he get into Eton and how did that affect his social relations? Most perplexing to me was how his Uncle Frank could spend a lifetime in Burma and not realise how socially unacceptable (Theroux asserts) his Eurasian daughter is.

As you'd expect it's mostly well written but there are a few bits that needed another round of editing and tightening up. It's mostly engrossing; the repetition and sense of going nowhere evokes tedium quite effectively. Some themes — the half-castes, the commercial morality of the British Raj, a loneliness assuaged only by sex (and later writing) — are overdone. It's not entirely clear why Blair needed to experience the pointy end of colonialism to understand its essential bankruptcy or what exactly caused him to pivot from complicit servant to critic. The concluding segue into the slums of Paris and London made far more immediate sense. I struggled with Blair's mortification at not participating in the Great War: surely he was too young.

William Boyd at the New York Times. Darcy Moore, more critically, nails down what's fact, what's fiction and what's erroneous. Lara Feigel: let's hear from the minor/marginalised players. Goodreads. Orwell has roared back into the cultural consciousness since (at least) 2016 and there's no sign of a let up yet.

Kaveh Akbar: Martyr!. (2024)

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Kindle. Prompted by Francine Prose's review in the New York Review of Books.

Briefly Iranian-American poet Cyrus Shams goes from his squalid bedroom in an Indiana college town to NYC in the hope of drawing artistic inspiration from a terminally-ill Iranian-American woman's dying-in-public installation. Unfortunately there's just too much repetition, too much unnecessary fleshing out and recycling of well-known-from-the-internet tropes (e.g. the Overton window, Marina Abramović's performance art). It's very much of the U.S. East Coast: art galleries, openings, pan sexuality, addiction, everyone everywhere pining for NYC. We're shown a woman on a plane that is shot down by the USA but we later realise that this was only for the purpose of actively misleading us. The pivotal loss of cabin pressure is ineffective when it comes; the critical moment is blown by excessive preceding dithering and would've been better left ambiguous. Too many assertions are tendentious and weak: "a meaningless life meant a meaningless death" is feebly proffered and immediately retracted. I guess it sounded too good to be killed.

I did enjoy this one specific observation (leaving aside its crass inaccuracy):

The whole Abrahamic world invests itself in this promise: Don't lie, don't cheat, don't fuck or steal or kill, and you'll be a good person. Eight of the ten commandments are about what thou shalt not.

The other two involve keeping the sabbath and honouring one's forebears. Arguably only the latter has a liveness aspect and the rest are safety properties.

Prose was far more forgiving of Akbar's structure and writing, positing "we have probably not been reading Martyr! for its mysteries and its plot [...] but rather for the immersion in his enjoyably hyperactive sensibility." Goodreads. I'm still waiting to extend the addiction lit canon beyond Trainspotting and White Out. Humour is key.

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World. (1932)

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Kindle. Inevitable after listening to Pendulum's Coma too many times. One day I'll get around to watching Coming to America.

Not what I expected. It seemed to echo Swift by satirising utopianism in the style of early earnest scifi (e.g. H. G. Wells). I thought it'd be more incisive. Defending the production of high art by pointing to Shakespeare as the English zenith made no sense as it implies nothing of significant value was created between 1616 and 1932, and if that's the case it cannot motivate getting off the happy-masses path. Huxley's take on man's relationship with God is crap, mere reductive teleology. Most of the scenarios are so shallowly drawn I couldn't think of it as a dystopia. The characters' emotional infantility is appropriate but also a cop out.

The book sits strangely high on many best-novels-of-the-twentieth-century lists and is more interesting to read about. Wikipedia: there were many charges of plagiarism, the moving-picture adaptations all suck, it got censored (obviously for the sex; the call-to-arms as such is inoffensive pap), how it compares to George Orwell's timeless 1984.

Amor Towles: Table for Two: Fictions. (2024)

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Kindle. Towles's followup to The Lincoln Highway. The writing is often as elegant as his earlier efforts but none of these shorts are fantastic. In order:

  • The Line. Queuing was a big part of life in Moscow after the revolution and looking at how people queue can tell us a lot about a society. (Similarly for toilets and therefore for toilet queues.) Things get confusing as the bloke eventually waits multiple days for an exit visa interview and somehow communicates with the bloke he's in the queue for which presumably calls for another placeholding queuer. (Initially Towles takes care of these kinds of details but steadily loses resolution as Manhattan approaches.)
  • The Ballad of Timothy Touchett. Poor behaviour in the NYC rare books market. The resolution involves Paul Auster who died recently.
  • Hasta Luego. Community-supported alcoholism in NYC.
  • I Will Survive. A prolix domestic drama with a very minor payoff; at 20% of the length it would've been punchy. This is perhaps Towles expressing some permissible doubt about the totalitarianism of human centricity (in cities).
  • The Bootlegger. Social mores come unstuck and a moralising/OCD Wall St money man gets some comeuppance at a concert series in Carnegie Hall. Bach's Cello suites star; these had a moment a few years back.
  • The DiDomenico Fragment. An American dynasty has been parting out a DiDeminico masterpiece (of the Annunciation) for generations until one member decides it's time for a heist.

The hard-boiled novella Eve in Hollywood (a mild reworking of what I read previously) is superior to the shorts. I conclude Towles is better at length and just maybe his new stuff is not as good as his old stuff.

Hamilton Cain at the New York Times. Goodreads.

Elliot Ackerman, James G. Stavridis: 2054: A Novel. (2024)

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Kindle. Some days you just want to read a competently-executed airport novel and instead you pick up a sequel significantly worse than its predecessor. Ackerman is deep into negative rewards now.

I've forgotten the specifics of what happened in 2034 but that turned out not to matter. What's at stake in 2054 is more-or-less what's at stake in 2024: a presidential assassination sets off January 6 militia activity and the military fragments along ideological lines. Kurzweil and his one-man creation of "The Singularity" are mentioned regularly but not analysed. Its use as a plot device is woefully underbaked. A major character from 2034 presents as Wintermute and these authors have all the problems William Gibson faced in the early 1980s: cyberspace can be accessed from everywhere but these guys only understand zooming around in meatspace. Just go read Permutation City already.

Perhaps it's supposed to be more about the themes or what isn't explicitly spelt out; they make and repeat many assertions unsupported by argument. The "blood and soil" trope is deployed to explain the recruiting of an ethnic Chinese/American citizen corporate woman by the Chinese Communist regime via a redundant Nigerian cutout and yet the same essentialism does not apply to the American or Indian characters. This isn't plausible for people whose parents were killed or bullied by the state — just look at the huge Chinese diaspora, especially the departure of so many from Hong Kong over the last 30 years, the Irish, the Russian emigres, the Poles and Nordics. Consider the name Hendrickson! In any case there's a far more sophisticated take on national and political loyalties in The Sympathizer. Are the authors demonstrating the inability of America to understand Asia or learn from history?

Their history is all key man, that there are a few choke points that can control the application of knowledge. At scale this may be so (developing nuclear technology for instance) but as the army of digital nomads and the hackers working for nation-states well know, much can be done remotely with widely distributed teams and hardware. The future may have no locus to nuke, no individual or tractable group to assassinate, no Assange to serve as a warning to the others. Perhaps that's what happens in 2074.

Their solution to America's problems is to install a wise military man (an Eisenhower?) for a limited-duration reset and (literally) marry China and move to Vermont. (The whole process is undemocratic but somehow placates the various mobs.) The Supreme Court is totally absent and they don't explain how the power-mad institution was tamed between now and then. The veteran in a wheelchair is an obvious nod to Oliver Stone (a plea to direct the movie version?) and Ron Kovic. The rising country of India (so important in 2034) does not feature. There's some Herzogian madness on the Amazon ... and a touch of The Boys from Brazil as they approach their heart of darkness/enlightenment. The gambling is tiresome.

Hari Kunzru at the New York Times did say it wasn't much chop. Goodreads was generally disappointed.

Dashiell Hammett: The Collected Dashiell Hammett (1929 to 1951)

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Kindle. Having read all his novels it was time to plough through the shorts and these proved as addictive as I expected. The Continental Op ones did get a bit shallow at times but you have to admire his stamina. The final The First Thin Man ends on a cliffhanger which makes complete sense when you read at Wikipedia that's it an early draft of The Thin Man.

Most anomalous is the short Tulip apparently first published in 1966. Hammett put all his styles into it and something new; the scattered autobiographical elements, the sharp observations and lack of sleuths suggest an attempt at renewal that didn't eventuate.

Dick Locthe in 2000. A lengthy biography by Claudia Roth Pierpont in 2002: beyond the well-known stuff much is disappointing.

Dashiell Hammett: The Thin Man. (1934)

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Kindle. Private dick Nick Charles retires to San Francisco upon marrying sassy west-coast lumber heiress Nora but returns to NYC to dodge Christmas social obligations. There, of course, old entanglements suck him into a murder mystery and you've got to wonder if these people are any better than those the couple were avoiding. Hammett uses very effective first person narration and gets in some cracking lines. Nora is a fun interlocutor but I felt her character could've been rounded out some more. I'd say it's the best written of his novels but that might be sacrilegious as it's not in his signature hard-boiled style. It struck me as wildly inventive at times and then I remembered The Maltese Falcon.

Having completed his novels I took a look at his biographical details at Wikipedia. I'd just say I didn't see a lot of politics in these books.

Goodreads. I saw the contemporaneous film a decade ago but don't remember a thing. Roger Ebert gave it four stars as a "great movie". Apparently it has five successors.

Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key. (1931)

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Kindle. Again Hammett adopts and is more successful with third-person narration. This time around the main character, always addressed by his creator using his full moniker "Ned Beaumont", is a political svengali / consigliere who outsources the private dickery. His boss Paul Madvig runs a city somewhere not too far from NYC. There's some extreme violence in and around the speakeasies of the day. The central thread — the killing of a Senator's son — seems tepid in comparison to the other events and its resolution is icy cold. He gets off the odd cracker of a line but I wish he'd found room for an interlocutor as he did in The Dain Curse; we get a bit too much mouthing off by drongos.

Goodreads. Wikipedia tells me the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing drew on it.

Dashiell Hammett: The Dain Curse. (1929)

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Kindle. The second and last of the "Continental Op" series, inevitable after Red Harvest.

Our private-dick first-person narrator stays local to San Francisco for the first two thirds and then relocates to Quesada which Google Maps suggests is a long way south. It's a bit more Holmes and Watson with an interlocutor who presents as smarter than our main man. He gets off some snappy lines. There's also the Doyle-ish (and unconvincing) theme of a family or blood curse that centres on a young lady of odd appearance; I didn't know what to make of her pointed lobeless ears, small teeth and pastiness. Was this some image of a demon? One might expect that to make her less effective as a femme fatale but Hammett has it otherwise.

There's a bit of everything here: the lethal cults of California, the drugs, the guns, the vapid lifestyles, the Mexicans — it feels so modern! There's even a Trainspotting-esque relinquishing junk (morphine) sequence. Hammett must've felt the plot got away from him as he spends a final chapter explaining it all back to us. Be that as it may he didn't obfuscate the perp too well as I picked them out by about the halfway point without much effort.

Goodreads.

Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest. (1929)

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Kindle. I found it a bit strange. Having been hired out of San Francisco to investigate a murder, our unnamed first-person narrator decides for reasons unknown to clean up Personville (or in a Looney Tunes accent, Poisonville) which is apparently not too far from Ogden and Salt Lake City in Utah. It has all the tropes: the busted police department, the mob, the godfather, the gamblers, boxers, a solitary femme fatale, many shootups/outs, love triangles and so on. There are a few elements of Basic Instinct. Despite terminal issues with their operation the mob doesn't send help. As far as I remember Hammett doesn't develop a few of his named, notionally central characters: Lew Yard for instance.

The narrator always seems to know more than he's told us and that gets annoying. The episodic resolutions reflect its serialized form and suggest that Hammett made it up as he went along; the ultimate ending is nothing very special. I think his use of the third person and tighter control of the overall narrative arc in The Maltese Falcon was more successful.

Goodreads. The source of many a movie.

Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon. (1930)

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Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: "Well, Wilmer, I'm sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn't be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but — well, by Gad! — if you lose a son it's possible to get another — and there’s only one Maltese falcon."

Kindle. Prompted by the Bogart adaptation and the lack of promise in anything newer on the stack. First time around with Hammett. It's mostly a novel-length character study of Sam Spade which is more show than tell; I guess these were the days before things got so psychological. He doesn't do much more than show up, cogitate (we don't get to hear his thoughts) and provoke other people to tell him more than they want to — in other words it's essentially a script for a talkie. There's a lot of detail in the descriptions and apart from the incessant smoking all of it points away from casting Bogart. Set in San Francisco.

Immediately afterwards I read Hammett's Spade shorts A Man Called Spade, Too Many Have Lived and They Can Only Hang You Once. None are as good as the novel but all passed the time. Hammett is addictive but perhaps not that satisfying.

Goodreads.

Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms. (1929)

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Kindle. Not as good as For Whom the Bell Tolls. As the tin says Hemingway takes us autofictionally to the Italy v. Austria front of World War I. The first-person narrator is an Italian-American ambulance driver/organiser who doesn't get much driving in. He's keen on the ladies and gets an English rose interested; initially he puts up a fight emotionally (let's just get physical) but the nurse's self-deluding/abnegating chatter and submissive willingness wears him down. (She regrets not having got it on with the now-dead love-of-her-life.) After Hemingway exhausts us with lengthy and recurring bouts of the idleness and boredom of war, they end up in Switzerland, eventually Montreux. This isn't something I'd usually wish on anyone but the parts adjacent to Italy and France do sound civilised. It's readily affordable if you have a family that keeps sending you money to feed your alcoholism and obliviousness. There's a touch of Samuel Beckett in his self talk.

Goodreads. Yep, the girlfriend was a doormat, which made me expect more parallels to be drawn with Twilight. Not a love story. The connection the narrator has with Doctor Rinaldi is well drawn.

Dwight Garner: The Upstairs Delicatessen. (2023)

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Kindle. Notionally an autobiography / bibliography by New York Times books man Garner with a side of food. I remain thankful for his pointers to Paul Beatty, Atticus Lish and especially Francis Spufford but since 2015 he's given me mostly bum steers, and so it goes here: after an amusing introduction things rapidly bog down in gobbets engineered for short attention spans.

Perhaps the central flaw for me is that a lot of it falls into the uncanny valley of having been almost read before: much of the material (quotes and opinions) appeared in his New York Times reviews. He tends to return to the same authors a bit too often, specifically on the topic of Asian cooking where he leans heavily on Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer, The Committed — where's that final entry in the trilogy?). I guess Garner's project here is very similar to Andrew X. Pham's A Culinary Odyssey: My Cookbook Diary of Travels, Flavors, and Memories of Southeast Asia which (at least) has healthier aspects. As far as I remember African cooking isn't mentioned. Australia is represented by Les Murray.

He is similarly limited in his account of coffee: too many words are spilt on Starbucks. I saw no mention of the best of the South: the soups (I have fond memories of jambalaya and gumbo). I wanted to hear more about growing up in West Virginia and Florida. There's no posturing with typewriters or fountain pens — it appears his book duties are hard sedentary labour. He remains an unabashed fan of Chistopher Hitchens. There's a bit too much social and dinner party chaff, characterization-by-product.

Jennifer Reese had the thankless task of reviewing it for the New York Times. Goodreads.

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness. (1899)

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Kindle. Standard Ebook edition. Perhas the third time around with this classic. The ambiguities, inspecifities and vagueness bothered me less though I still got stuck on such basics as whether Marlow was specifically commissioned to remove Kurtz — we're not exactly told but that's all he does. I was a bit more prepared to accept Conrad's game of personifying extractive European colonisation in the Congo and therefore was less put out by all the claims made about Kurtz that are not substantiated, such as his oratory powers.

There's also the question of locations and routes. Obviously we start on the Thames and Marlow proceeded down the west coast of Africa, past the erstwhile French colonies, and up the Congo River to the Belgian outposts that were accumulating ivory. I expect the sepulchral city was and is Brussels. I was at a loss as to where his boat left from, it being French: Brussels, or perhaps Marseilles? It struck me that the company he worked for was overly dependent on other organisations and people for getting dirty work done.

The Orson Welles broadcast from 1938 is available at the Internet Archive. I'd forgotten that Patchett's State of Wonder is a reimagining.

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar. (1968)

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Kindle. Second time around. I couldn't help noticing how much William Gibson cloned for the last two-thirds of the Neuromancer trilogy. Apparently this belongs to the genre of social science fiction.

Francis Spufford: Cahokia Jazz. (2023)

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Kindle. Two years on from Light Perpetual: he's speeding up!

Spufford tries his hand at holistic world building, taking us to a 1920s America which is essentially the same noir as everyone else's (prohibition, racial divisions, the Klan, ... jazz ...) but bent in one specific way: Cahokia is a large Native American city on the Mississippi. (He explains the counterfactual fracture in an afterword which really should have been an introduction or, more Spufford-ly, stuffed into a character's mouth in the main text.) This and actual Utah are not-quite republican states: here there's a hereditary monarchy of the Sun and the Moon, of Aztec undercurrents fused with Catholicism by the actions of farsighted men and women. This functions just fine as mythmaking if only because it is so far beyond what is possible in the actual here and now.

The plot (murder, what else) moves slowly and sometimes unsatisfyingly, often finding excuses to explore his construction; the tone is didactic (Spufford can't help himself): this is how you do a recap! — but we needed a few more recaps. That's how you introduce an invented language! — just like Tolkien. Drop your clues like this! What, you think that coincidence was too much? That's just how it goes for this character, it's fate. Did I just lift a bit too much from The Godfather? Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain!

Spufford's bursts of Christianity feel less forced here (c.f. Unapologetic) but stinking things up are the transactional relationships (which is most of them; the ladies all want leading man Burrows but never on his terms), the cold calculational utilitarian vibe, the forced symmetries. Sometimes he can't keep his characters in character: their speech patterns become too playful.

It's lengthy and cinematic which invites the question of when he's going to get a film deal. (I'm now trying not to think of it as Spufford's Wakanda.) I felt it was well-researched — his hinge of history was as plausible to me as any story he told in Red Plenty — but could've stood more analysis. Clearly much of it is inspired by the topical breakages in present-day society though it is not reassuring that he has the idiocy of the Klan save the city at a critical juncture. As always I'll take what I can get.

Widely reviewed. Most are summaries. Much thoughtful criticism at Goodreads. Could've used an edit. It bears the scars of a sprawling pandemic project.

Xavier Herbert: Larger Than Life: Twenty Short Stories. (1963)

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On dead tree from Caerwen Books. Herbert's own introduction overlaps with his autobiographical Disturbing Element, which was apparently published in the same year. In it he derides the work contained here, dashed off rapidly for the money and accepted by venues with no taste. I had hoped for some Henry Lawson-esque colour and perhaps the odd insight into the remote places and work he found out there. Mostly tedious. He's far better at length.

Sam Wasson: The Path to Paradise. (2023)

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Kindle. David Kamp's review at the New York Times lead me to think it'd be mostly about the production of Apocalypse Now and related interesting things with a side of present-day where-are-they-now. Well, if I'd read it carefully I'd have known that the focus is Francis Ford Coppola's mutating mania for a utopian creative space invariably called Zoetrope. That makes it one for the industry types, those who know and care more about the Hollywood studios and non-artistic mechanics of movie making than I do. Matthew Spektor explored adjacent spaces in his Always Crashing in the Same Car with more success.

It may have been that the ebook I was reading was poorly edited but I found the structure to be too scatty to enjoy. Wasson jumps around a lot in time and often omits dates, leaving us to wonder what caused what, where we're up to in some fable of mental (dis)integration. Werner Herzog is mentioned but not his Apocalypse-esque precursor masterwork Aguirre or his more transparently self-aware thirst for experience via filmmaking. I got very bored with all the Zoetrope bits (party, party, party) and have no idea why Coppola went more than all in on One From the Heart which I still won't see despite now knowing it has Tom Waits music. (Wesson gets epically bogged in this production in the second part of the book.) Similarly I have even less desire to dig through twenty-first century Coppola.

What was David Lynch supposed to be doing at Zoetrope in the early 1980s? We're told that he was very bored but not bored enough to direct Revenge of the Jedi (yep). Did he learn something from the implosion of that incarnation of Coppola's ideas factory? George Lucas comes off as a genius for maintaining an appropriate distance after having his fingers burnt at the start of his career. I realised at some point I'd be better off reading Eleanor Coppola's Notes: On the Making of "Apocalypse Now" which probably eclipses all other coverage.

Wasson interviewed a lot of people and some of his material is right-up-to-the-minute: there are accounts of Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel on the set of the as-yet unreleased Megalopolis. He makes it sound like a dog.

Goodreads. A Cesspool's review struck a chord.

William Gibson: Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive. (1988)

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Kindle. Revisiting the latter parts of the "Sprawl trilogy" was inevitable after re-reading Neuromancer. As with its derivative The Matrix, this pair feels like a tacked on two-part sequel. Many words are spilt on colour but not on anything critical to the plot. For instance I had no idea why Kumiko (sprog of a big cheese in the Yakuza) felt it so important to inform Sally Shears / Molly Millions ... well, about what? Also the ultimate "marriage" of Count Zero and Angie Mitchell seemed to have no consequences, and nor does Angie's replacement with Mona Lisa on the TikTok of the day. Slick Henry's robotic sculptures were derivatives of what we saw in Bladerunner. What made no sense at all was the use of payphones when everyone is jacked into cyberspace, and more generally, having all these characters zoom around in meatspace. Gibson seems to have conceived cyberspace as mostly a spectator thing apart from those cracking crypto (ice) or living in it (artificial intelligences and insane reconstructions of humans). He nailed the ghosts of Yakuza past though ... we're there now. Wintermute gets a walk-on role in the first and is little more than a shadow in the second.

I guess I just wish there was more there, here.

Benjamín Labatut: When We Cease to Understand the World. (2021)

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Kindle. Inevitable having read The MANIAC despite not being sold by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim's timely review nor its appearance on the New York Times list of the best of 2021.

This is a collection of shorts that end up being a bit of a sprawling mess. The MANIAC worked better as Labatut went narrower and deeper: all the ventriloquy centred on illuminating von Neumann. Here we're made to think that almost all of modern theoretical physics arose from fever dreams, that Einstein was the last sane man and that's only because he ran out of imagination in confronting the extreme weirdness of quantum mechanics. I think the central theme was that there's a void at the centre of everything (physics, mathematics, morality, so on); Labatut doesn't to know that there is a crack in everything, or more prosaically, that we're stuck in the realm of unsatisfying phenomena. Alexander Grothendieck's life gets embellished; we get merely a sketch of Shinichi Mochizuki. Erwin Schrödinger at a TB clinic in the Swiss mountains, philanderer, predator, opposed by unstable Werner Heisenberg. Fritz Haber: the process, the poison gas. Karl Schwarzschild's solution to Einstein's field equations of general relativity, black holes, wartime. It's too much and not enough.

Labatut writes well and moves us around fluently but to what end I know not. One of these years Francis Spufford will teach someone to write a masterpiece of this genre.

Goodreads. Most reviews recount the tales and gesture at the imponderable.