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Book Report July 2023
I’ve been thinking about Joan Didion again lately, because I’m always thinking about Joan Didion. As for so many writers, she remains one of my bedrock inspirations for the possibilities of the essay form. She was a brutal observer and her withering assessments never lose their humor or potency. Crucially, she did not exempt herself from her own sky-high standards. After eviscerating the sentimentality she saw in others in Slouching Toward Bethlehem she turned that unsparing gaze on herself and wrote The White Album, reckoning with the bubble-puncturing effect of her multiple sclerosis diagnosis and her new inability to narrativize her life and imagine its course going forward.
The White Album is best remembered for its opening sentence, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s a breathtaking line. And, though its meaning is clear enough in context, just ambiguous enough that it’s still quoted as a cutesy aphorism about the power of fiction. In fact what Didion means is that we use our self-conceptions and our conviction that our lives are “going somewhere” as a bulwark against the sense that it’s all pointless.
But there’s another reason that opening line hits me like a thunderbolt every time. To start an essay with a floating claim like that, an axiom that establishes in one sentence the terms on which the entire following inquiry will take place, is reminiscent of no one less than Aristotle. He begins most of his key works with just such a claim, including the Nicomachean Ethics and the Physics, but none compare to the opening line of the Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.”
I have wondered why more writers don’t use the Aristotelian Axiom, as I think it’s a potent and enticing way to start an essay. One answer, I imagine, is humility—unless you believe your topic is grand enough and your writing capabilities truly up to the task it’s probably not wise to set yourself up for comparison against the one of the bedrocks of the entirety of Western thought.
Nonetheless, I tried to think of other examples of this technique. I mostly failed but one that came to mind is Janet Malcolm’s opener to her classic New Yorker piece The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” It’s another fun one that combines the Aristotelian Axiom with Didion’s beguiling ambiguity. Though it is honestly more of a challenge—“Let’s see you prove that,” we think—than a genuine axiom. Demonstrating that claim is the task Malcolm sets for herself. If you can think of any similar opening lines, comment them down below.
The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño, 1998
Bolaño, who died twenty years ago this month, has been on my list for ages so here we are. This big novel was his breakout work of fiction after spending his early career as a poet. He pokes fun at his own past throughout. In the 70s he was a founder of a poetic group in Mexico City known as the Infrarealists; this book, beginning in 1975, follows an insurgent poetry group called the Visceral Realists, led by founders Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. Belano is a stand-in for Bolaño and he carries his real-life backstory—a Chilean ex-pat who returned home to Allende’s Chile just in time for Pinochet’s coup and had to flee again. Whether the Visceral Realists’ work has any merit and their disdain for the literary establishment justified is left as an open question—none of their writing is ever quoted.
I’m not much of a poetry guy, much less an expert on 20th century Latin American avant garde poetry, so the breadth of references within the book is dizzying. Adding to the problem is the fact that some characters are fictional, some real, and some fictional but modeled on real people. I recognized the names of maybe two books that characters are noted to be carrying and reading. One character, named Manuel Maples Arce, talks about how he knew Borges and has had his own work translated into English by John Dos Passos. It felt like the kind of thing you just don’t put in the mouth of a fictional character so I looked him up. I learned he was real and the founder of stridentism, an artistic movement in the 1920s that had commonalities with surrealism and dadaism but was specifically informed by the values of Mexican Revolution. This was all news to me! The point is, the novel works even if you’re as oblivious as I was.
Following an opening section that situates us within this world, narrated by one character in a limited timeframe, the novel sprawls outward over years and continents. Belano and Lima’s lives are narrated by many, many characters whom they come into contact with as twenty years eventually pass and they drift from Mexico City to Barcelona, Paris, and elsewhere. The craft on display in this structure is undeniable. Each narrator speaks distinctly and feels like a full character with a life of their own. Each of them bring their own histories to bear on their observations and judgments of Belano and Lima, evaluating them from whatever sliver of their lives overlapped.
With two characters named Arthur and Ulysses, would you believe these guys are on a quest? They are clearly seeking something, though what that something is is never articulated. If only it were as simple as chasing the Grail or getting home to Ithaca. What’s a postmodern hero to do? Instead Belano and Lima wander, couchsurf, work odd jobs, never settling anywhere but not in a rush to get anywhere else. Their old social circle scatters; some find success but most are swallowed up by life, unable to find a firm footing in their careers or communities.
On the other hand, maybe they’re not seekers at all. There’s a countercurrent in the novel about the renunciation of ambition and literary recognition that suggests the quest is a flawed paradigm to begin with. One critical character I can’t be specific about has fully proletarianized herself—Trotsky’s name comes up several times throughout—and works as a washerwoman. She nonetheless always carries her notebook and continues to write knowing full well it will never be read by anyone else. So yes, Lima never publishes a line and lives like a bum but is he less the poet for it?
The Savage Detectives reminds me most strongly of Pynchon, if he were a staunch realist. In its depiction of its social scene and in the travel and quest elements, it feels like a version of V. that has had all the absurdity and fantastical elements excised. When those absurd elements work, they cohere into a feeling of real revelation. The Savage Detectives, by keeping it so stripped down and by keeping its principle characters so enigmatic, ultimately lacked some of that build and payoff for me. It’s a very good book and a meticulous achievement on a literary level, but I would be lying if I didn’t say it left me a bit unsatisfied emotionally.
Normal People, Sally Rooney, 2018
The tragic story of a brilliant woman whose dreams are repeatedly thwarted and her hopes dashed by her catastrophically bad taste in men. It’s a testament to Rooney’s prodigious skill as a writer that this book is as good as it is despite being written in the fucking present tense.
The Open Mind, Robert Oppenheimer, 1955
I wrote about one of the lectures in this book earlier this month, but I read the whole thing to get a better sense of Oppenheimer’s thinking. He is, unsurprisingly, a very systematic thinker who frequently breaks his points into numerous subsections before flipping the argument around to tackle the question from the other side. Broadly speaking, the first four lectures concern the problem of atomic weapons control and the latter four concern science’s place in society and how it is to be taught. They range from 1946 through 1955, making the one I wrote about, Prospects in the Arts and Sciences, the last chronologically and by far the most interesting.
More than what Oppenheimer says in these lectures, the interesting thing to observe is something more akin to his mood. In the first talk on atomic weapons, delivered in May 1946, he strikes a genuinely optimistic tone, voicing a hope that the atom bomb might provide the place to begin building genuine global peace, through its newness and obvious need to be strictly controlled: “It did not take atomic weapons to make wars, or to make wars terrible, or to make wars total. If there had never been and could never be an atomic bomb, the problem of preventing war in an age when science and technology have made it too destructive, and too terrible to endure, would still be with us.” By the final talk on weapons, he sounds weary and frustrated. The proposals he worked on for the Committee on Atomic Energy, which asked essentially that all nations give up holding atomic weapons and turn all research and production over to the UN, were flatly refused by the Soviet Union and the world lapsed into its Cold War stalemate.
On the topic of physics and science generally in the world, he has some interesting musings on the difficulty of teaching scientific inquiry in a meaningful way. He worries that straightforward teaching of scientific fact drains the findings of their provisional and hard-won character—it makes science into something received, not something made. But he also worries that lab sessions in which students reenact the great experiments of the past are little more than pantomime with a foregone conclusion. He ends up saying basically that the only way to grasp the process of scientific discovery is to participate in it for real, which, okay, sure.
There’s one other passage I want to quote, which comes somewhat randomly in the talk “Physics in the Contemporary World.” Discussing the interplay between theoretical work and the war effort, he says, “The physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”
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