33 RTB Books in Dark Times 9: Ben Fountain (JP)

Ben Fountain is far more than just the author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which won RTB hearts and minds (and the National Book Award) long before it became a weird Ang Lee movie.

What is consoling and engaging the author of the best novel about America’s dismal experience in Iraq? American novels, especially those about Americans abroad (Joan Didion. say) have always done something special for him. Marilynne Robinson’s and James Baldwin’s work make us confront the reality that’s happening around us all the time, “a freaking massacre.” He carried the the (fictional but genuine) facts of Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk in his head for forty years.

Allen Tate, Fugitive poet (and author most famously of the tricky post-Eliotic 1928 “Ode to the Confederate Dead“)

Joan Didion, The Last Thing He Wanted (1996; “a masterpiece of tone and mood and character and profound interiority”; the movie, not so much)

Joan Didion, Democracy (1984; she goes “straight after the heart of that mystery, what is America?“)

Marilynne Robinson. Listeners, do you prefer her incisive nonfiction (“Poetry of Puritanism“) or the deep, torqued interiority of her first novel, Housekeeping ?

Zadie Smith on the amazing, terrifying Americanness of Kara Walker

Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” (also referenced in our Bottinelli episode!)

The Sugar Sphinx (photo from The New Yorker)

James Baldwin, A Letter to My Nephew (1962)

James Baldwin, e.g. If Beale Street Could Talk (Ben loves those Library of America volumes…)

Another Country (1962)

Giovanni’s Room (1956)

Sewanee Review, The Corona Correspondence

Chronicles of Now

George Saunders “A Letter to My Students….

Listen to the episode here:

Read the transcript here:

Upcoming Books In Dark Times Episodes: Martin Puchner from Harvard’s Department of Comparative Literature, poet Elizabeth Bradfield, and Boston College’s Carlo Rotella.

32 RTB Books in Dark Times 8: Paul Saint-Amour (JP 5/20)

Who better to talk about Dark Times than the author of an unforgettable scholarly book about the grimness of the interwar years, Tense Future? Paul Saint-Amour, Professor of English at University of Pennsylvania and author of various prizewinning books and brilliant articles, joins John to talk about realism, escapism and the glories of science fiction.

Paul wonders if immersive reading is even possible during this terrible imminence. Can we really gaze at the dental work of the pandemical lion as its jaws open upon us? He goes on to praise “recursive” plots as glimpsed in time-travel narratives, which produce not interactivity with a text, but interpassivity; the immersion into a form that has its ending always waiting for readers from their very beginning. Throughout he manages to be pessimistic but hopeful.

Mentioned in this episode:

Russel Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980)

Boccaccio, “The Decameron

Patrick White, “The Eye of the Storm” (1973)

Daniel Defoe, “Journal of the Plague Year

Laurence Wright, “End of October

Contagion (2011)

The Lady Eve (1941)

Henry James “Wings of the Dove” (1902)

Ted Chiang “Story of Your Life

Arrival (an octopus-friendly movie based on Chiang’s story)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse Five” (1969)

Martin Amis, “Time’s Arrow” (1991)

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” ( 1940; on the Jetzzeit, the strait-gate through which the Messiah can enter-The Messiah just hates empty homogeneous time.)

Interstellar (2014)

Charlotte Bronte Villette (1853)

Naomi Mitchison, “Memoirs of a Space Woman” (1962)

Doris Lessing, “Canopus in Argos

Doris Lessing, “Making of the Representatives for Planet 8” (1982)

Tempest (John’s only arcade game…)

Tempest: not the one by Shakespeare….

Ludonarrative dissonance (e.g. the problem of the “canon route”in such games as “Tales from the Borderlands“)

Thomas Hardy, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” (1891)

Gillian Beer, “Darwin’s Plots” (1983; on “ghost plots”)

Thomas Hardy “Jude the Obscure” (1895)

Vera Brittain, “Testament of Youth” (although it is ostensibly about her youth in the Great War, it is very much a 1930’s book in its grimness, its pacifisim, its vision of an inevitable second Great War coming…)

It Happened One Night (auto-gyros bad, straight lines to use the shower, good…)

Philip Roth, Plot Against America (and this recent adaptation)

Philip K Dick “Man in the High Castle” (“a way of backlighting the 1930’s without actually looking very hard at them…”)

James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941, but far more successful when reissued in 1960)

Ursula Le Guin “The Earthsea Trilogy

Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas

Dodie Smith, “I Capture the Castle“(1949)

Stella Gibbons, “Cold Comfort Farm” (1932)

Andrew Miller, “Lives Unled in Realist Fiction” ( 2007; on the optative and choice-function with fiction)

Listen to the episode here:

Read the transcript here:

Upcoming episodes: Our next BDT guest is Ben Fountain, author of the amazing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, now a (not-quite-so-amazing) Ang Lee film. Followed by a return to regular Recall This Book programming: Harvard historian Vince Brown joins us to discuss Caribbean modernity and his recent book, Tacky’s Revolt.

Pandemic in the Pacific: Kurt Vonnegut’s COVID novel

Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute. … This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.

There is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific that Polynesian settlers on their canoes never reached. In 1854, Herman Melville saw “The Encantadas” through a dark lens, darkly:

Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration. It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group.

Darwin, though,  saw the Galapagos islands quite differently when he arrived in September of 1835 He may not have wasted much time praising the landscape in the ways he praised the mind-bending sublimity of Patagonian steppes. But in The Voyage of the Beagle includes this teaser about those soon-to-be-famous Galapagos finches:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.

Galapagos finches in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle
finches in same order as Darwin’s illustrations: clockwise from upper left, large ground finch, medium ground finch, small tree-finch, green warbler-finch.

Much as I love Melville, I gotta give this  one to Darwin. Even if the  world is inclined to  forget everything else about these minuscule upwellings in the Pacific, we will remember the finches. And the flightless cormorants. And the  giant land tortoises. And the  marine iguanas.

into something rich and strange….Iguanas learned to swim on the Galapagos; what might humans become there, in time?

Little  wonder that quite  a few of the 30,000 inhabitants of the Galapagos are named Charles or Darwin. (I did not meet a single Herman or Melville during my  unforgettable week among those enchanted islands.)

COVID-19 has come to the Galapagos Islands. On the one hand they  lie rocks hundreds of miles out from South America, adrift in the Pacific. On the other hand for people fuel and food is the tropical port of Guyaquil, swampy, overcrowded and now a massive COVID hotspot. So it’s not shocking that there are now 107 reported cases and at least one death..

The news struck me hard, because  one of the best pandemic novels I know is about these amazing islands. Sort of.   Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos (1985) tells the story of a million years of hominid evolution on a remote Pacific island. It is narrated from a million years in the future, after homo sap. has managed to obliterate itself everywhere else by way of—you guessed it—a runaway pandemic (one that makes humanity sterile). Humanity’s only survivors turn out the be a bumbling set of castaways, trapped on a cruise ship they are to too ignorant to steer  properly,  crash  on a remote outer Galapagos island.

Vonnegut has a dim view of American ingenuity that brought us the atom bomb, napalm, and the Vietnam War (see epigraph above).He wants us to own our casual decisions and their unintended but foreseeable consequences: drill for oil, mine coal, split atoms—what could go wrong?

Still, he’s wiling to cut humanity a deal, if we manage to downsize our most deadly organ–the one between our ears. Just as Darwin saw finches and iguanas and mockingbirds radiating out and adapting in various isolated ecological niches, so too does Vonnegut trace how a tiny bumbling group of castaways gradually breed descendants with a thick layer of blubber and fur: human seals, not that different from the blubber-coated walrus-men of Neptune in Olaf Stapledon’s super-trippy Last and First Men (1930).

By Vonnegut’s telling it is an evolutionary jackpot when the castaways’ fingers turn into little nubs whose nails glow brightly during mating season. Good news, he means, considering what those fingers had been up to during the 20th century. As Vonnegut tells it, humanity’s troubles will only end when  “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain” stops building “useful” tools such as bazookas, flamethrowers and atom bombs.

Is it sad that Vonnegut’s take on the glories and pitfalls of opposable thumbs is giving me a lot of post-human comfort these days? Sad maybe, but also funny. Vonnegut—like his sf compadres Stanislaw Lem and Douglas Adams—owes a considerable debt to the saturnine cynicism of Mark Twain’s 1885 Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court­.

I love Vonnegut’s pandemic novel, with its ultimately jaunty vision of fat-swaddled humans-turned-seals, teeth their only remaining tools and fingernails their single remaining adornment. Ultimately, he may remind me most of that brilliant Czech modernist Karel Capek.  

Karel Capek’s 1920 “Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti

Even in Capek’s robots-kill-all-humans fantasy, RUR, he imagines robots falling in love. In The Absolute at Large  all  the world’s armies exterminate one another except nine soldiers who fall asleep  under a fruit tree, and awaken to begin the world again. And if you are looking for another (heartwarming) Pacific Ocean end-of-mankind story, try War with the Newts.

Vonnegut too offers a bargain with poetic justice. If like the flightless cormorant and the marine iguana, humans in Galapagos are willing to shed our former habits and adapt ourselves to an island niche, we may be good (good because harmless) for another million years. A tough pandemic lesson but a fair one. So I am rooting for Galapagosians to beat COVID. Even if the rest of us are doomed.

Upcoming: Next week, Paul Saint-Amour, Modernist to the stars (and the lucky students of U Penn) rhapsodizes about science fiction’s time travel metaphysics.

31 RTB Books in Dark Times 7: Vanessa Smith (JP)

U. Sydney professor Vanessa Smith–author of Intimate Strangers, and also of this lovely short piece about Marion Milner–joins John to discuss her pandemic reading. She praises a Milner (quasi)travel book, but she also makes the case for M F K Fisher and a book about the glories of hypochondria.

Tasmanian selfie: John, Vanessa, mysterious mathematician (r to l)

Then the old friends share their newfound love for spiky Australian novelist Helen Garner, doyenne of share-house feminism.

The indomitably introspective Marion Milner

Marion Milner, Eternity’s Sunrise (1987, at the age of 87)

Brian Dillon, “Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives

Lytton Strachey, “Eminent Victorians” (about Florence Nightingale’s hypochondria and agoraphobia)

Jane Austen takes on hypochondria in Emma (think of gruel-eating Mr. Woodhouse) and in Sanditon

M. F. K. Fisher, “How to Cook a Wolf

Helen Garner, “The Spare Room” (2008; rigorously honest about impending mortality)

Helen Garner, “The Childrens Bach” (1984; John and Vanessa planned a seminar on this one)

Helen Garner, “Monkey Grip” (1977; heroin, be the death of me….)

Listen to the episode here:

Read the Transcript here:

Upcoming Episodes: Next week, Paul Saint-Amour, Modernist to the stars (and the lucky students of U Penn) rhapsodizes about science fiction’s time travel metaphysics.

29 RTB Books in Dark Times 6: Kim Stanley Robinson (JP)

Kim Stanley Robinson, SF novelist of renown, has three marvelous trilogies: The Three Californias, Science in the Capital and, most celebrated of all, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. His honors include many Locus, Hugo and Nebulae awards. Small fact connecting him to RTB-land: he completed a literature PhD directed by Frederic Jameson with a dissertation-turned-book on the  novels of Phillip K. Dick.

Stan and John start out with Stan’s emerging from the Grand Canyon in late March. Then they discuss Stan’s sense that SF is the realism of the day and his take on “cognitive estrangement.” Finally, they happen upon a shared admiration for the great epic SF poet, Frederick Turner.

George Stewart, “Earth Abides

Mary Shelley, “The Last Man

M. P. Shiel, “The Purple Cloud

John Clute, Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (on “fantastika”)

Frederick Turner, “Genesis” and “Apocalypse

Ursula Le Guin, “The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia” (1974; KSR praises such works as this for “power of poetry alone”)

Darko Suvin, “Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre ” (1979; on cognitive estrangement)

The door dilated” a quote from Robert A. Heinlein in “Beyond This Horizon”

Listen to the episode here:

Read the transcript here:

Upcoming: We pivot briefly away from Books in Dark Times to discuss the ethics of deliberately exposing people to the novel corona virus. John discusses the moral quandaries around accelerated vaccine testing with Nir Eyal, a Rutgers bioethicist.

28 Books in Dark Times 5: Seeta Chaganti (JP)

Seeta Chaganti, medievalist extraordinaire (Strange Footing and The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary) joins John to discuss–wait for it–data visualization in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, philosopher, visionary and scholar. They go on to discuss past traditions that merge text and image in ways that foreshadow modern visualization practices, and close with beloved books that take readers “back of the tapestry” to reveal what everyday front-of-tapestry life keeps decorously hidden.

Seeta teaches at UC Davis (as a bantam owner, John has chicken envy)
Continue reading “28 Books in Dark Times 5: Seeta Chaganti (JP)”

A Book in Dark Times: Albert Camus, “The Plague”

I recognize that hearkening back to Albert Camus in our own post-existentialist moment is controversial. Heck, calling him controversial may even itself be controversial. He’s long struck many as a soft-left deviant in the Sartre circle, nether rigorous nor theoretical enough to pass muster in the long run.

I do love a motorcycle-riding Gauloise puffer, but I’m no dyed-in-the-wool acolyte. Still, I always admired Camus’ evident belief (reminiscent of Kierkegaard) that the best thing writing can do is hint at the complex, ambivalent, ultimately irreproducible ways the actuality of events shapes how individuals experience the world.

His fiction gets at what it means for people to adjust themselves, slowly to adjust themselves, to a new reality. Like, say, a plague that forces everyone slowly to acknowledge they are not going anywhere. Under those circumstances, Camus, hypothesizes, the imprisoned population becomes a collection of invalids: unable to act, unable to escape and barely able to do the only thing they can, which is to bear their present misery until it subsides.

Continue reading “A Book in Dark Times: Albert Camus, “The Plague””