Audiobook review: “Then We Came to the End.”

My review of Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End – the audiobook – can be seen amongst other editorial reviews at Amazon, and is forthcoming in the print edition of AudioFile.

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Chip Kidd’s “The Learners”.

Chip Kidd’s work (as a well-known and talented cover designer) was featured in a collection.  He’s also written two books: The Cheese Monkeys, and The LearnersI’ve written here about my appreciation of his covers, but to be honest hadn’t felt much interest in his writing.  You know – actress turns to singing, singer turns to acting, movie star with great skills turns back to writing poetry/painting/photography after starring in a really big popular series of movies, the usual. 

I became interested in the new one right around the time I was turning up the heat on studying for my counseling/psychotherapy exam:

Fresh out of college in the summer of 1961, Happy lands his first job
as a graphic designer (okay, art assistant) at a small Connecticut
advertising agency populated by a cast of endearing eccentrics. Life
for Happy seems to be — well, happy. But when he’s assigned to design a
newspaper ad recruiting participants for an experiment in the Yale
Psychology Department, Happy can’t resist responding to the ad himself.

What experiment?  This experiment:

 

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience
are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most
people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at
Yale University to test how much pain
an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he
was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted
against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives
against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears
ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than
not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on
the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study
and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

 

 

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular
hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive
process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work
become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions
incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few
people have the resources needed to resist authority.[4]

So, did I like it?  Yes.  I liked the book.  But.  I liked the humor, but at times felt a little bit like I was stuck in a sitcom.  And I was confused by what appeared to be Kidd’s disinterest/inability in really digging into the ramifications of the experiment and the effect participation in the experiment had on Happy.  I know, he’s happy, he’s unhappy, he’s not feeling like himself, so he’s the un-happy.  Right, I get it.  But considering the moral crisis Kidd wants us to believe Happy is going through, remarkably few words are actually devoted to the crisis, except as asides, reminders that Happy isn’t happy.  But I didn’t want asides mixed in with chuckles; I wanted the experiment to take center stage, because look, Happy, you just fried a dude.  Or at least, you thought you did, and thought you had become the sort of person that could do that sort of thing.  I didn’t want hijinks involving a very large dog name Hamlet wearing shoes as a promotion and then going PG-13 berserk. 

 

But look, that’s a minor quibble, no doubt made larger because of my background in this field, my interest in the subject matter.  If you’re really interested in Milgram’s work, you’d be better served elsewhere.  I doubtless would have been happier if Happy (sigh) had, after the experiment, endeavored to recreate the experiment over and over and over with paid actors.  That’s probably just me, though.  The takeaway here is that it was an enjoyable enough read, made me laugh, didn’t feel like a waste of my time.  In all the ways this book could have been spectacularly bungled, my complaint’s probably pretty low on the list.

(As a final note, I read an interview with Kidd – I think it was with Birnbaum – in which he indicated yes, he would very much like to see this made into a movie.  Which would be good, except too late Shatner beat you to it!)

Wall of background/window of background.

The always-thoughtful Brian of Five Branch Tree considers Joseph Coulson’s Of Song and Water (the former) in relation to Steinbeck (the latter) – grist for further thought, given the comparison made between Steinbeck and Coulson with regard to his prior work, The Vanishing MoonI haven’t read Steinbeck in many years, so can’t really comment on his take.  I greatly enjoyed Of Song and Water and interviewed Coulson in March.

Remainder.

At this one moment, everyone here is asleep save myself.  I should be, but I wanted to get something down about Remainder before moving on to my next read, which I anticipate to be arriving by mail as soon as tomorrow.  More reasoned & seasoned minds have already written about this book’s many wonders, probably much better than my tired head could at this point, but this is one great goddamn book.  The quick and dirty:

A man is severely injured in a mysterious accident, receives an
outrageous sum in legal compensation, and has no idea what to do with
it.

Then, one night, an ordinary sight sets off a series of bizarre visions he can’t quite place.

How
he goes about bringing his visions to life– and what happens afterward–
makes for one of the most riveting, complex, and unusual novels in
recent memory.

That’s the best summary I’ve seen of it, and every word there is true and pointed – it is riveting, the time you could spend thinking about the complex ramifications of some of the events within this book multiplies the further into it you read, and it is unusual in its single-minded focus on creating a feeling of having one’s actions be true, real, not encumbered by any sort of ironic or other knowledge of those actions.  This book gleams, it hums, and I found it to be perfect in that way – that way, you know, where you finish a book and you close it and you think "this guy took this idea, this concept, and he could not possibly have done a better job bringing it to light."  Which is, of course, different from foolishly calling it "a perfect book,"  but if what McCarthy explores here – existentialism, trauma, amnesia, etc. – floats your boat, then here’s the perfect wave.  (Yes, I should be in bed.  It is true.)

Richard and Dan have written about this book – in fact, Dan’s offhand mention of it in a post a few weeks back was what set me to looking into it, and then purchasing it – better than I’ll be able to tonight.  I strongly encourage you to have a look at what they’ve written, and here’s the first chapter to further tempt you.  I’m usually pretty squeamish about flat-out pushing a book on readers here, knowing diverse tastes etc., but kids you should sell some old CD’s or savings bonds or platelets and get this book pronto.  And then come back here and thank me.

After Dark – Haruki Murakami.

Dooley again with the Murakami.  I’ve had his review of After Dark saved in my Google Reader for a few days and just got around to it.  I’d been thinking I’d hold off on reading this review, and Ed’s, until I got around to writing my own review, but kids, I read the book months ago, and have read a lot since, and I’m not going to reread it to write a cogent review.

That’s my review: I’m not going to reread it. 

I think most of what Dooley says mirrors my feelings, at least with regard to this particular book.  There is a whole lot of inscrutability going on here, some especially bad dialogue, and no Murakami-doppelganger first-person main character to speak of.  I can tolerate a certain level of inscrutable (in part, because it’s such a fantastic word – inscrutable) – at times, it’s the best thing going.  I like it when some of the cards are being played so close to the vest, when you’re done reading, you wonder if the cards were ever even there.  I don’t have any need to solve the puzzle, figure out what he’s saying metaphysically/existentially, if I get a sense of where he’s going, and if he’s making it enjoyable to ride along.  No sense this time; some enjoyment, but in the end, not enough.  Unlike Dooley, I’m not at a point of writing Murakami off; maybe I’ve just read less Murakami than he has, and will get there after Kafka, or what-have-you.  Maybe not. 

I’ve got mixed feelings about After Dark.  Bad/tired & busted Murakami is better than tired & busted Auster, or pretty much anybody else, but as I said, I won’t feel a need to re-read it.

Review: “The End of Mr. Y” by Scarlett Thomas.

Warning: what could be considered spoilers follow.

Here’s something from Mark Sarvas to get us started:

That hoary workhorse, "the novel of ideas," gets an invigorating kick in the pants in Scarlett Thomas’ imaginative new novel The End of Mr. Y.
Among the ideas on offer for our reading pleasure, one can choose from
the works of Samuel Butler, Schrödinger’s Cat, Erasmus Darwin’s
Zoonomia, relativity vs. quantum mechanics, the power of prayer,
Jacques Derrida, homeopathy, the search for LUCA (the Last Universal
Common Ancestor), Victorian science (luminiferous ether, anyone?),
Heidegger’s Being and Time, and the genetics of laboratory mice. And that’s a partial listing.

But The End of Mr. Y is considerably more than a precocious
recitation of seemingly disparate ideas. It is, above all, an
exhilarating, breakneck narrative that leaves the reader dizzily
impressed with Thomas’ brio and talent as she takes each new
preposterous plot development (an 8-foot-tall mouse god? a secret
government plan for mind control?) and makes it utterly convincing.

Well, I can’t say as I’m on board with that.  In the end, it felt like Thomas had pulled together a collection of fascinating puzzle pieces from different puzzles and laid them together to create something new – but the edges of the pieces overlapped in ways that, to me, were dissatisfying. I did enjoy reading it, for the most part, and the chapter with her riding the train of fear was great.  When the book was good, it was really good – and I intend to track down a copy of Thomas’ PopCo at some point.  I’d rather read a book that shoots for such lofty targets and misses than a book that plays it safe.

I think this book had a failing in meshing the philosophical/scientific pieces of the book with the plot/action of the book – it was trying to be both, but they felt like two pieces of writing, instead of one larger piece.  (An example of a success in this area would be Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World – a book that covers some of the same ground.)

So, I’m on the fence, and then the deal breaker –

And then I realize: We’re together, alone, in the Troposphere.  Adam is actually here.  Or at least, it certainly seems that way.

"Adam," I say softly.

He walks closer to me.  So much for not feeling anything in the Troposphere.  The syrupy feeling intensifies to a point where it’s almost uncomfortable, but only in the sense that an orgasm is uncomfortable.  And everything in me seems to slow down.  This doesn’t feel like it would in the physical world: There’s no racing pulse; no sweaty hands.  My body feels like a misty landscape, melting into its sky.

"Ariel," he says.

Ugh, I say.  Sorry, not to be a jerk about this, but here we’ve got two characters who are completely in love for no discernible reason – the development just wasn’t there.  We get this syrupy reunion, and then they (after setting free the 8 foot tall mouse) (…) have universe-shattering sex straight from the imagination of every comic book store enthusiast across the land. 

And while I don’t mean "universe-shattering" literally – well, that’s not far from the mark. 

I felt cheated – cheated out of an ending, or maybe a non-ending, a more-loose-ends-than-in-the-beginning sort of ending that befits a book that takes such much philosophy and theory under its wing.  There should be unanswered questions, questions raised by answers.  Instead, a trillion orgasms and life eternal.  This is a book where attention to ideas should have trumped cheap love drama, but in the end, it went the other way. 

Others loved it.
Website, with excerpts.