Sunday, March 31, 2013

Introduction to Wilkie Collins - Book Club 2013

For those new to my blog, I am participating for the second year in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know. I am no longer the token male member, as she has convinced her husband to participate this year. My selection is No Name by Wilkie Collins.  If you want to join in or see what we are reading, the link to that post is here:



Wilkie Collins (named William Wilkie after his father) was one of the most influential authors of the Victorian era, yet his name is often just a side note. He is known for The Woman in White and maybe The Moonstone, but little else. During his lifetime, his best known novels were classified as “sensation novels.” We now recognized them as early examples of detective and suspense fiction. Although Edgar Allan Poe wrote the first true detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which set the conventions of the genre that would eventually be associated primarily with Sherlock Holmes, it was Collins who expanded the form into the full length mystery. The Woman in White is his first effort, containing most of the usual elements; but it was The Moonstone that is the fully developed prototype of the genre. T. S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers (herself a master of the mystery) both gave high praise to The Moonstone.


No Name belongs to the other side of Collins’ writing: suspense fiction. There is no mystery to be solved - unless you count the mystery of what will happen next. The book begins a bit slowly, and appears to be a novel of domestic manners, perhaps in the vein of Jane Austen, or Anthony Trollope (one of my favorite authors); but it eventually goes completely off the tracks as tragedy strikes. The two daughters are orphaned, left without an inheritance or means of support and must fend for themselves. The elder, Nora, is quiet and staid - completely the conventional Victorian female. She finds work as a governess. Magdalen, on the other hand, is a force of nature. It is her adventures that are chronicled in this book. Actually, “chronicled” is a completely insufficient description of what happens. Magdalen drags the author and the reader along on her outrageous escapades at a breathtaking pace. When I first read this book in my late teens, I found myself gasping at the crazy things she does, and her supreme force of will. Whether she is a heroine or an antihero is an open question, but she is unforgettable.


Collins and Charles Dickens were close friends throughout a good part of their lifetimes. They were each influenced by the other, collaborated on several projects, and probably influenced each other’s writing. Certainly they both shared a concern for social issues, and brought servants from their roles as background figures to the forefront as human, sympathetic characters. Although Dickens was more successful in his social criticism, Collins has some good points to make in this book. The ending (which I will not disclose) would have been affirming to many Victorians, but it is about as convincing as the living statue in A Winter’s Tale. I believe Collins, like Shakespeare before him, backed away from the more realistic tragic ending, while understanding that those of his readers that would look beneath the surface would find the underlying injustice readily apparent.


You don’t have to be an official member of the book club to read along. We post our reviews the last week of April. Feel free to link your thoughts on my page in the comments.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Source of book: I own this.

Conrad is one of those individuals that I find amazing for unlikely achievement. Born J√≥zef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, in the Ukraine, but to a family of Polish nobility, he managed to become one of the most highly regarded English authors. This despite not attaining a fluency in spoken English until his 20s, and waiting until his mid-30s to switch from his maritime career to writing. 



His parents took part in the resistance movement, seeking to throw off Russian domination of both Poland and the Ukraine. As a result, they were both exiled to northern Russia when Conrad was a small child. Both would die of privation and tuberculosis by the time their only child was eleven. He was then raised by a maternal uncle, until departing for training for a seaman’s career at sixteen. Since Conrad showed no interest or skill in academic pursuits - although he was an avid reader - his uncle figured he needed to learn a trade. He also seemed to have a knack for languages, learning French, German, Latin, and Greek: a useful skill for a merchant sailor.


As the son of a dissident, he could not well return to Russia, so he sought foreign citizenship, eventually becoming a British subject and rising to the level of Captain in the Merchant Marine.


But for a fortunate meeting, he might have been a footnote in the ledger of the annals of the British Empire. On one of his voyages, he met a discontented young lawyer named John Galsworthy, who was himself considering a career change. As a result of this meeting, both resolved to seek their fortunes in literature. Both would go on to success, and the literary world may be forever grateful for this fortuitous meeting.


Conrad is generally a pessimistic author, and things do not typically end well for his characters. While this was not particularly popular in his time, it was influential on later generations of writers. Furthermore, the Twentieth Century played out in a way that followed his dark vision far more than the optimism of the late Victorian period. Removed from their time and technology, his books could easily represent our own times.


The Secret Agent was written toward the end of the early part of Conrad’s writing career, in 1907, before he gained a real literary reputation.


The title character, Mr. Verloc, is a lazy double agent of sorts. He is not a glamorous James Bond type, but a man seeking to make a living to support his wife, her mother, and her half-wit brother. To this end, he nominally runs a shop selling goods of dubious legality and morality, while working as an agent for the Russian embassy in London. At the same time, he also serves as an informant to the local police force.


These two jobs were not really in opposition in practice, however much they might be in theory. Verloc’s job is to infiltrate and inform on a local anarchist cell, which both the Russians and the London police wish to keep in check.


Compared with the far more successful Communists, the Anarchists never really accomplished enough to gain a significant following in the United States, although they were a key factor in the Spanish Civil War. (See my review of the excellent The Cypresses Believe in God.) They came to my attention a few years ago with their rather bungled protests of the World Trade Organization. While not a major factor in the last fifty years, they were once a force nearly as feared as the Communists themselves.


(Quick primer: Anarchists believe in the complete destruction of both government and all authorities and hierarchies. Many support the use of violence and destruction to accomplish this. While this much is agreed, the various branches of Anarchism differ as to what should replace the status quo. Some support complete collectivism resembling Socialism or Communism. Others envision a libertarian society. Still others believe that once the current institutions are destroyed, a new society will spontaneously arise, a kind of utopia perhaps. All of these viewpoints find their homes in characters in this book.)


Conrad uses the Anarchists as the basis for his plot, in the process giving a remarkable picture of their beliefs and goals. Impressively, he does this using very little of the book, sneaking it into the conversations of the characters in a minimum of space, never interrupting the narrative enough to bog it down.


The inciting event occurs soon after the opening. Mr. Vladimir, who works for the embassy, has become Verloc’s new boss. He demands that Verloc earn his keep by arranging for a bomb to be set off at the Greenwich Observatory, which would then be blamed on the Anarchists, leading (Vladimir hopes) to the British people suspending their pesky belief in the rule of law and simply liquidating the Anarchists without proof of overt acts. Verloc knows that this is not at all in his line of work, and he further knows that the motley group of “revolutionists” that meets at his apartment lacks anyone with both the nerve and the desire to do it. In theory, these are dangerous men, but in practice, only the “Professor,” who manufactures explosives, poses any danger in reality. And the Professor has no intention of getting his own hands dirty: he is, after all, the only one who can make bombs.


As becomes rapidly obvious, this cannot possibly end well. And, indeed, it ends in “success” for the authorities, the disgrace of Vladimir; but the utter destruction of the smaller players in the drama. The attempted bombing goes horribly awry; and an inexorable destiny leads to a stabbing, suicide, and insanity.


Along the way, Conrad takes jabs at both the Anarchists and the hierarchies they seek to destroy. Mr. Verloc himself is of the Establishment, as he muses early on.


He surveyed through the park railings the evidences of the town's opulence and luxury with an approving eye. All these people had to be protected. Protection is the first necessity of opulence and luxury. They had to be protected; and their horses, carriages, houses, servants had to be protected; and the source of their wealth had to be protected in the heart of the city and the heart of the country; the whole social order favourable to their hygienic idleness had to be protected against the shallow enviousness of unhygienic labour.


What I particularly love about this passage is that he cuts right to the heart of class snobbery. The great “unhygienic” masses.


Also in that vein is Conrad’s description of the wealthy patroness who supports Michaelis, the formerly imprisoned Anarchist.


A certain simplicity of thought is common to serene souls at both ends of the social scale. The great lady was simple in her own way. His views and beliefs had nothing in them to shock or startle her, since she judged them from the standpoint of her lofty position. Indeed, her sympathies were easily accessible to a man of that sort. She was not an exploiting capitalist herself; she was, as it were, above the play of economic conditions. And she had a great capacity of pity for the more obvious forms of common human miseries, precisely because she was such a complete stranger to them that she had to translate her conception into terms of mental suffering before she could grasp the notion of their cruelty.
She had come to believe almost his [Michaelis’] theory of the future, since it was not repugnant to her prejudices. She disliked the new element of plutocracy in the social compound, and industrialism as a method of human development appeared to her singularly repulsive in its mechanical and unfeeling character. The humanitarian hopes of the mild Michaelis tended not towards utter destruction, but merely towards the complete economic ruin of the system. And she did not really see where was the moral harm of it. It would do away with all the multitude of the "parvenus," whom she disliked and mistrusted, not because they had arrived anywhere (she denied that), but because of their profound unintelligence of the world, which was the primary cause of the crudity of their perceptions and the aridity of their hearts. With the annihilation of all capital they would vanish too; but universal ruin (providing it was universal, as it was revealed to Michaelis) would leave the social values untouched. The disappearance of the last piece of money could not affect people of position. She could not conceive how it could affect her position, for instance.


Lest one think that Conrad sympathises with the one side of the issue, there are corresponding passages in which he skewers the beliefs of the other characters in turn. None escape either his mockery or his sympathy.


For example, “Toodles,” the (unpaid) personal secretary to the Home Secretary (equivalent to our Secretary of State), has socialist ideals. But he never lets these ideals interfere with his desire to hobnob with high society.


Toodles was revolutionary only in politics; his social beliefs and personal feelings he wished to preserve unchanged through all the years allotted to him on this earth which, upon the whole, he believed to be a nice place to live on.


The characterizations are really the most memorable part of this book. The plot is necessary to reveal the characters, but they never are there just to serve the plot. The plot takes the shape it does because of who the characters are, and how they react to bad circumstances and worse luck.


Verloc, of course, is well drawn.


Mr. Verloc would have rubbed his hands with satisfaction had he not been constitutionally averse from every superfluous exertion. His idleness was not hygienic, but it suited him very well. He was in a manner devoted to it with a sort of inert fanaticism, or perhaps rather with a fanatical inertness. Born of industrious parents for a life of toil, he had embraced indolence from an impulse as profound as inexplicable and as imperious as the impulse which directs a man's preference for one particular woman in a given thousand. He was too lazy even for a mere demagogue, for a workman orator, for a leader of labour. It was too much trouble. He required a more perfect form of ease; or it might have been that he was the victim of a philosophical unbelief in the effectiveness of every human effort. Such a form of indolence requires, implies, a certain amount of intelligence. Mr. Verloc was not devoid of intelligence - and at the notion of a menaced social order he would perhaps have winked to himself if there had not been an effort to make in that sign of scepticism. His big, prominent eyes were not well adapted to winking. They were rather of the sort that closes solemnly in slumber with majestic effect.


The others of the Anarchist cell are interesting individuals. Michaelis, released after a lengthy prison sentence for serving as a locksmith in a prison escape that went wrong, who becomes a mystic and, as it were, a saint; content in his belief in the inevitability of the Revolution. Karl Yundt, the fiery old man - who has never actually lifted a finger in action. Ossipon, the lecherous and hunky young man, who lives more to leverage his Anarchism to aid him in bedding women than in taking any personal risks. The Professor, short and unimposing, who attempts to compensate for the lack of respect he gets through firmness of will -  who carries a bomb in his vest at all times to prevent arrest. The authorities also are memorable. The Chief Inspector, who would much rather be chasing burglars, who abide by a recognizable code. The Home Secretary, who seems more concerned with arcane domestic issues than terrorism. The Assistant Commissioner, who was forced to leave his preferred employment in Colonial Asia because of his marriage to a controlling woman.


The complex relationships between the members of Mr. Verloc’s extended family are also well drawn. Verloc himself fancies that he is loved simply for being himself, but the reality is more complicated. Mrs. Verloc intended to marry a poorer man, but was prevented because she was weighed down by her crippled mother and mentally challenged brother. She considers it her duty to make provision for their support. Thus, Verloc is primarily important to her because of what he represents as both breadwinner and as a father of sorts to her brother. When things unravel, these expectations lead to a tragic and violent end.  


The Secret Agent formed the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s early film, Sabotage. It was also adapted to film in a more faithful version in 1996. This scene between the Professor (Robin Williams) and Ossipon (Gerard Depardieu) in the cafe preserves most of the original dialogue, and is remarkably faithful to the original. And, the score is by Phillip Glass. The cello solo (played by Fred Sherry) undergirding this scene is stealthily sinister. (Note: I haven't seen this movie, so I assume it takes liberties elsewhere, but this scene at least is well done.)


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt

Source of book: borrowed from the library


“‘cause.”
“‘cause why?”
“Just ‘cause!”


Actually, that is the way every theory about why there is something rather than nothing seems to end. At the end of the speculation, there is some fact that simply must be assumed. (The book refers to them as “brute facts,” the philosophical term for a fact that does not have an underlying explanation. Philosophers debate whether “brute facts” can exist or not.)


Jim Holt is an author, but also a philosophy major. This book straddles the lines between science, religion, and philosophy as it explores contemporary and historical thought about the title question. The existential question.


Why is there something rather than nothing?


Or, as Julian Huxley put it (as quoted in the book):


“The clear light of science, we are often told, has abolished mystery, leaving only logic and reason,” Huxley wrote. “This is quite untrue. Science has removed the obscuring veil of mystery from many phenomena, much to the benefit of the human race: but it confronts us with a basic and universal mystery - the mystery of existence...why does the world exist?”


Holt starts by laying out the three ways of approaching the question. The optimist point of view is that there is a reason for the universe, and we may well discover it. The pessimist point of view is that while there may be a reason, we probably won’t discover it. The rejectionist view is that there is no reason for the universe. The universe and the question are both meaningless.


Since there wouldn’t be much of a book without the optimist viewpoint, Holt spends most of the book on various ideas of the reason there is a universe.


To that end, the author discusses the ultimate question with a number of scientists and philosophers, challenging the weaknesses of each position. Holt’s goal is not to draw a conclusion, but to explore the question and its potential answers.


Although this book can be enjoyed by the average educated person, I must say that it helps to have a working knowledge of philosophy, quantum mechanics, and string theory. Especially philosophy, since the language and technique of philosophy permeate the book. I highly recommend the venerable textbook  Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy as a good starting point for neophytes. (It is readily available used for very little cost.)


First of all, there are some things I found annoying about the book. Pretty much all of them are to be expected from a philosophy major (and perhaps philosopher) writing a book of his experiences. The most egregious is the fact that not one, but two scenes in the book involve the author sitting in Sartre’s favorite cafe on Paris’ Left Bank, reading. (Hegel in one case. Surprise. Or not.) Similarly, the book occasionally focuses too much on what read as set pieces, where he thinks about what he discussed, while dropping the name of a pretentious wine he is drinking. (I have a feeling I could easily write like that, so I know the temptation. I excoriate his editor, however.)


The other thing which was disappointing (to me at least) is that he mentions his own philosophy near the beginning, but never goes on to explain it or how he came to that conclusion. (He says he has adopted a variation of the gnostic belief that the physical world was created by a malevolent being, but one that was largely incompetent, thus giving rise to a world that failed at being the worst possible world.) I am curious how he came to the conclusion (particularly in light of the rest of the book.) The only clear clue here is his conversation John Leslie, in which Leslie posits that of all the possible universes, ours was pretty far from the most perfect. However, he opined that, “Still, I think you’d have to go quite far below us to have a world which was not worth having at all.


Those flaws notwithstanding, this was an interesting and worthwhile read. Here are a few that stood out to me:


I did not realize that Edwin Hubble’s theory of an expanding universe that can be traced back in time to a singularity (colloquially known as the “Big Bang”) was initially embraced by Christians, particularly Catholics, as proof of a creator. Or that for the same reason, it was rabidly hated by atheists. Essentially, the idea of a definite beginning implied that something (or nothing) existed before that. An eternal, unchanging universe better suited the premise that there was no need for a creator.


(Personal note here: As a theist, I find the idea of creating the world through a singularity to be great fun. If I could create the universe, I think it would be a gas to use a tiny pill that would expand to make everything - kind of like the best of all possible versions of those expanding foam animals my kids play with. Bang! It would be awesome.)


Also good was the point made by Heidegger that fear has a definite object. Anxiety, in contrast, is directed at the unknowable. The nothing, as it were.


It was also interesting to be reminded that nearly everything in the history of philosophy can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Despite all of the scientific advances that have illuminated so much of the physical world, the two of them asked so many of the great questions - and answered them in contrasting ways that are reflected in philosophy throughout the ages.


The age old ontological proof, first used by Plato in his forms, and best known, perhaps, as stated by Aquinas, rears its head throughout the book. But its flaws are also apparent. (As I stated above, everything boils down to “‘cause!” The competing scientific theories at some point are reduced to a brute fact as well. Perhaps the laws of the universe inevitably give rise to a universe. But why are there laws? “‘cause!” Or perhaps all universes and all laws are possible. But why are they possible? It all eventually goes to the same place, and one must choose what seems to be more likely in view of the fact that there does appear to be a universe, governed by rational and discoverable laws.


Another strong point of this book was the way the author made his various interview subjects come to life. Their conversations are a high point of the book - and much more interesting than the author’s own navel gazing. For example, the interview with the late John Updike revealed a man far more fun and human than I would have expected. He sounded rather delightful to talk to - not always the case with famous authors or celebrities in general.


Or his visit to the house of David Deutsch, who a previous journalist described as “setting international standards of slovenliness.” Holt adds his own memorable description of it as “experiments in indoor composting” and (my favorite) “an adventure in high-entropy housekeeping.” (Some days, my own house could be described as rather “high-entropy...”)


Holt also gets points from me for his clever use of quotations from The Devil’s Dictionary by the poisonously pithy Ambrose Bierce.


Beyond the stuff that was interesting, thought provoking, or amusing, two additional passages stood out to me.


The first is the chapter (at the end) devoted to the return to nothingness. Death. The author’s mother passes as he watches, and he is forced to confront why death causes us anxiety. Why, after all, can we not make peace with it? Holt notes that (with a very few exceptions), we can imagine a time before we were born, but have great difficulty imagining the universe without us. We understand beginnings, but resist final ends. Why do we “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”? Or, as Ecclesiastes puts it, eternity has been placed in the hearts of men. Holt has no real answers here.


The second passage is one that I find explains a problem that I have been struggling with over many years. Holt interviews Richard Swinburne, an Oxford professor and Eastern Orthodox Christian, (not to be confused with Algernon Charles Swinburne, the poet) who lays out a case for the existence of God. In fact, a pretty good defense of the Gospel is given by Swinburne. I found it interesting that Swinburne came across as remarkably understated. He didn’t claim that he could prove more than he could, acknowledged the weaknesses of his arguments, and didn’t name-call. (A total contrast to Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist, who commonly resorts to flame-throwing and name calling rather than intellectual proof. Holt quotes him at length, and acknowledges that he is rather a bully.)


The argument made by Swinburne was not revolutionary to my thinking. It built on Aquinas and others, and was interesting.


What has stayed in my head since reading it, is his explanation for why so many philosophers violently rejected the concept of God.


“Many philosophers were brought up in strictly religious households. As adolescents, they found their religion in conflict with things that were obviously true, and they rebelled against it. Then later, when someone shows them a more appealing sort of religion, they’re not going to grasp it.”


I have had conversations with a number of friends about why many of my generation (and the next) have left the Christian faith. This tendency seems to be particularly strong among those who were raised in strict environments. (Such as the Christian Patriarchy movement.)


This explains that, and even more, it explains the struggles that I have had with my faith and my worldview. It explains why those who suffered abuse by their parents in the name of Christ have rejected everything.


When one is told that something is true, when it clearly is utter bullshit, and then told that one is rebellious for not believing it, it is natural to reject the entire worldview.


And then, many within the Church double down by claiming that all those who reject Christianity do so simply because they prefer to sin. In addition to being self-righteous, condescending, and cruel, this statement is false. Obviously false, to anyone who actually has friends who are Christians-turned-atheist, always-atheist, or even atheist-turned-Christian. There are many reasons we believe or disbelieve. Some are intellectual. Some, admittedly, might be moral. But so many more stem from hurt and pain. To tell the child of an alcoholic mother who beat him, while all the time pretending to be a perfect church member that he just “wants to sin” is truly lacking in truth, understanding, or love.


I’ve already written about a few of the patently untrue things I was expected to swallow, and I hope to do more in the coming year.


In summary, this book has flaws, but it is a worthwhile read. I believe it is vitally important to understand the arguments on all sides of this issue, particularly before making moral judgments about the intentions of those who hold to different viewpoints.


(And yes, I still loathe Sartre...)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero by Robert Kaplan

Source of book: borrowed from the library
Date originally published on Facebook: December 3, 2010.

I am republishing my early Facebook reviews on my blog. This book was fascinating. Definitely one of my favorite books in the sciences and mathematics category.

The title for this book comes from Wallace Stevens’ poem, The Snow Man.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

I quote the whole poem because I like it, not that it is central to the book. Except for the last line.

In order that there be no confusion, I want to clarify that this book is written by Robert Kaplan the mathematics professor and author; not Robert S. Kaplan, of Harvard Business School, also a professor and author; or Robert D. Kaplan, of The Atlantic Monthly; or even Bob Kaplan, former Canadian MP. Since all except for the last have been published recently, it is easy to get mixed up.

Robert Kaplan teaches an interesting variety of subjects. Math, of course, but also several languages including Sanskrit. He also has taught “Inspired Guessing”, which sounds intriguing. This book is mostly about math and the history thereof, but also about the intersection of math and philosophy.

The Nothing that Is looks at the history of the concept of zero. For anyone who has attempted to multiply using Roman numerals, it is clear that zero was a revolutionary change in mathematics. The use of a placeholder simplified notation, certainly, but it also opened up new worlds of calculation.

I am not a mathematician like several in my family and in my wife’s family. I did fine in high school, but never went beyond trigonometry and coordinate geometry. It would have been fun to take calculus, but I never was able to fit it in. That said, I still remember my algebra and plane geometry pretty well. Thus, with this limited scope of knowledge, I was happy that I made it through 150 pages before my head got spun. I’m thinking I should take a look at calculus sometime, but I probably need someone to walk me through it until I get a “eureka” moment.

This book could have been boring, but wasn’t, largely because Kaplan writes with both skill and enthusiasm. Kaplan uses his broad knowledge of literature and philosophy to connect the math with the era and its ideas and prejudices. His discussion of the Mayans alone was worth the time spent.

I do not intend to reiterate the substance of this book, as I could, at best, make a pale imitation. Zero’s story is fascinating whether you liked math or not, and Kaplan tells it well.

In addition to the history, Kaplan spends some time discussing philosophy. After all, numbers (other than counting numbers used for specific things) are an abstract construction. We define them, and manipulate them using rules that are as much invented as discovered. Despite this, as we have built ever more complex systems of calculation, we have discovered that they in fact represent the nature of the world. The development of calculus enabled every science dealing with curves from engineering to astronomy. If the math can be used to predict the actual world, how in fact are they related? Kaplan has no axe to grind here, and doesn’t tip his hand as to his own philosophy. Instead, he examines through both math and philosophy how both attempt to approach and define truth.

I suspect the book may seem simplistic for a true math scholar, but for a dabbler like me, it was both entertaining and thought provoking. Unless you hate math, history and philosophy (in which case I pity you), give this book a read.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, by Yiyun Li

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

I think I have mentioned before that I am fond of the short story. During my formative high school years, I read voraciously. My beloved two volume set of the complete O. Henry. The complete Jack London. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, some Maupassant, and of course Saki. Thurber’s short works, fiction and otherwise, I also devoured. Later, I would discover Balzac and Flannery O'Connor. Although I have read fewer short works lately, I did enjoy (and review) stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sarah Orne Jewett, Sandra Cisneros, Henry James, and Tolstoy



This book is one of my occasional forays into modern literature. Yiyun Li came to the United States from China in her mid 20s, originally intending to continue her studies in immunology. She became sidetracked by her writing career, and switched to English, which she now teaches at the University of California, Davis. Although English was not her first language, Li read English language classics extensively as a child and young adult - and it shows in her writing. Dickens in particular is named often in the book, and Li herself cites Jane Austen as popular and easily available.

Li’s writing is not merely competent. It is beautiful and haunting, with a light touch and a personal focus. These stories are mostly achingly sad, filled with loneliness and fear of vulnerability. They are not, like Maupassant, truly pessimistic and biting. They lack the edge of menace often present in Saki (although Saki ranks as one of my favorites), and also the cynicism that one rightly associates with both. I think that there are two reasons for this. First, Li isn’t writing about the malevolent forces of fate that crush the characters. Second, her focus is narrow and personal. True, there are outside forces: the setting is China in the years after the revolution through the present. Characters are affected by the executions of imagined “enemies of the state,” the torture of dissidents after Tiananmen Square, and the constant threat of punishment for unpopular opinions. Li chooses to look closely at the distance that her characters keep between each other and with others. Thus, I would not describe the mood as one of pessimism but one of pain. The sadness comes from what might have been if a connection had been made.

In this sense, the book is aggressively non-political. Li has admitted that one reason she does not publish in China or in Chinese is that she is not prepared to deal with the fallout that would occur to her family there. On the other hand, the lack of overt politics makes those moments when the atrocities of the regime do intrude that much more devastating.

The first part of the book is devoted to a novella, Kindness, which is told by a now older woman of her life to that point. Her dysfunctional parents figure prominently. Her father married a much younger, but mentally ill woman, who later commits suicide. The narrator is befriended by an older neighbor, who introduces her to literature, but warns her not to give her heart away. Unfortunately, she takes this advice far too much to heart, and she is already damaged anyway. She does her stint in the military, and lives out the rest of her life to that point utterly alone except for her books and memories.

There are some great observations in this novella, which, despite the degree of sadness, contains love as well. Professor Shan, despite her dubious warning, is a true friend until her death. Lieutenant Wei tries to reach out, despite repeated rebuffs. There is indeed kindness, but it isn’t enough. The narrator describes how she avoided her mother’s disapproval: “I had learned that if one remained unresponsive in such situations one could become transparent; when my mother’s eyes peeled my clothes off piece by piece they would meet nothing underneath but air.”

Professor Shan also shares another gem. When explaining that her status as an orphan led to difficulties in finding employment, she notes, “People who think they know their own stories do not appreciate other people’s mysteries.” I have been turning this one over in my head, and I think that it represents more than just it’s obvious meaning in the story. Those who believe they know, that have a tidy little package of their beliefs, whether political (as in the communist regime) or religious or philosophical, cannot be bothered to understand the pain of others. Those who don’t fit in the worldview are just ignored or dismissed, like the orphan, fired because her story was uncomfortable.

The descriptions of military life were interesting to me as well. There are more similarities than differences between the Western forces and the Eastern - even female units as in this story. (I am watching Band of Brothers on my ironing nights, and the resemblance is uncanny.)

All in all, a memorable tale, with the “if only”s lingering in the air long after I finished it.

Li’s characters are primarily middle aged or older, which is a notable choice. Li herself is close to my age, and while I suppose I am not middle aged, most of these characters are at a completely different time of life. Children are grown and gone - or there never were children. Parents are either aged or dead, and friends have moved away or become estranged. “A Man Like Him” muses on aging and the loss of desirability - a rather disconcerting thought - and Li handles it in a way that heightens the sense of discomfort and loss.

On the other hand, in “The Proprietress,” the author lets in a bit of dry humor. “she herself had been watched by older people, though the number of those who remembered her as a young girl with two pigtails, or as a new wife with a plump and desirable body, was dwindling now. In a few years the memory of her youth would be gone with the oldsters, and nobody would contradict her even if she told the wildest lies about her life.”

“The Proprietress” may be my favorite of the bunch, a tale of a shrewd woman who practiced (rather illegal) capitalism by smuggling goods into a prison for political prisoners and selling them at a profit. All while befriending and assisting the wives and children of the prisoners.

Another theme that undergirds the stories is that of the arranged marriage. Many of the key relationships are formed under the old cultural rules, and there are thus entanglements. As one character puts it about a marriage where the bride was (gasp!) not a virgin, having been widowed, unbeknownst to the groom, “What kind of father would foist a secondhand woman on his own son as a wife?” The ties that bind are not often love, but some sense of desperation, duty, or fear.

And then, when the wheels come off of one marriage in “House Fire,” there is the puzzlement about what went wrong. If I have heard this once in my family law cases, I have heard it more times than I wish to recall.

“An old man in love is like an old house on fire, which burns easily and burns down fast,” went a popular joke that circulated as a text message from one cellphone to another around the city. The joke must have been made by some young, carefree soul, but how sadly true it was. Mrs. Fan was taken aback by the intensity of the fire that engulfed her marriage: Three decades of trivial arguments and unimportant disagreements turned out to be flammable material.

It is a story that repeats itself whenever one spouse is disregarded for years. As soon as a better offer comes along, he or she is gone.

A few more quotes stayed with me. From “A Man Like Him.”

“The weak minded choose to hate,” she said. “It’s the least painful thing to do, isn’t it?”

From “House Fire.”

The world was intolerable of men with sensitive hearts.

And finally, in what is perhaps the summary of the collection, the closing lines from the last story, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.”

They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.

All of these lines - and many like them - are perfectly placed in the context of the narrative. This collection is full of food for thought about how we protect our hearts at the expense of love, and how we often fail to care about “other people’s mysteries.”

As a final note, I appreciate that the author refused to give in to the all-too-common modern tendency to use language and sex to garner attention. Those sexual references that exist (and are not nearly as graphic as, say, Shakespeare) serve the author’s purposes. If anything, the author’s general restraint and avoidance of all sensation work to make these miniatures more powerful in their effect. Li uses the smallest of gestures to twist the knife.