Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

This book, the first novel I have finished in a long time, drew me in from the opening preface through to the ending scene, deepening its evocation of 1930s New York City right up to the closing sentence.  This 2011 first novel offers vibrant, complex characters, and deploys a surprising plot revolving around a romantic love triangle, but without succumbing to cliche. Differences in class and temperament complicate the plot, and twists and turns throughout the novel offer plenty of surprise and delight. A sense of time and place pervades the novel, ultimately enveloping readers in a delightful setting.

The strong and subtle voice belongs to the narrator, Katey Kontent. The male author writes in a woman's voice, which can be problematic, but he mostly avoids common pitfalls and presents Katey as a fully rounded character, writing skillfully and unobtrusively. The author playfully offers glimpses of Katey's character, doling out bits and pieces of her history as the plot advances, and the sharp observations he places in her mouth and pen add to the pleasure of reading. For example, when the main male character, Tinker Grey, learns her name and asks if she is -- content, that is, --  she answers, "not by a long shot." Then, when she ruminates on Tinker's name, she explains how WASPs tend to nickname their children after long-lost trades (Cooper, Smithy, etc.). Both observations offer clues to Katey's and Tinker's character that become significant later in the novel. The third leg of the love triangle, Eve Ross, "one of those surprising beauties from the American Midwest" who came to New York to make her way on her own, fits a type in some ways, but she is more than she appears to be at first, and her strength of character comes through in the end. After a scene involving a meeting at the Rainbow Room between Katey and Eve, Katey sums up Eve as a "butterfly" -- "with two dramatically different colorings -- one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage -- and which can be switched at an instant with a flit of the wings." While Katey's summary may actually be wrong, it is a skillfully extended metaphor, and beautiful in its own way.

Part of the art of crafting a novel is hiding significant facts from readers until their revelation later on. In this sense, Rules of Civility is a classic novel, along the lines of Great Expectations or even an Agatha Christie mystery -- both of which Katey significantly references in the closing chapters. The novel is also fresh and inventive, though, in that the revelations point toward the readers' own presumptions without compromising the characters. I can't be more specific without giving too much away, but suffice to say that this reader is impressed with the way the novelist positions his chess pieces. The setting, too, becomes a part of the story, with 1930s New York casting a shadow over the action. Instead of a brooding presence, this New York is very much alive, in spite of the Depression. The wealthy few who were insulated from the crash still live high in Manhattan, even as working class people face some raw realities. 

My one critique of the novel would be that it doesn't quite register the desperation of the lower classes -- when Katey talks of "inner Californias that were just as abject and unredeeming as the real thing" in the preface, I thought there would be more than just acknowledgement of that economic desperation. Only one character, Tinker's brother Hank, an artist with the WPA, seems to represent these lower-class people, and he is not as desperate as others, refusing support from his banker brother. Blacks and Hispanics play only bit roles. One use of jazz in the novel is to try to bring these people into the story, but it only succeeds in part.

The conclusion satisfies, and the preface and epilogue, along with an appendix, George Washington's "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation," offer an interesting frame for the novel. The last line is a beauty. The quips I have read compare the novel to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Truman Capote, and film noir of the era. While these references represent high praise to some, for me it is higher praise to state that the novel stands on its own two feet as a worthy way to spend your reading dollar and time.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Time Travel by James Gleick (kindle edition)

This mostly accessible book covers vast cultural, philosophic, and scientific terrain, under the premise of examining time travel -- a possibility, a paradox, a phenomenon? First, James Gleick is my favorite non-fiction author, bar none. So I'm a big fan. Second, the topic is of deep interest to me, not just because of my last name (Rip VW could be called a time traveller, sleeping for 20 years), but also because it is a fascinating trope in our culture that allows for some pretty fun storytelling. So, this is going to be a positive review, nicht wahr? Of course it is, but you don't have to skip to the end to know that.

The scientific worldview that Gleick comes from is a frame for examination of ideas. He takes the idea of time travel and traces its origins, beginning with the H.G. Wells novel The Time Traveller, but of course starting much earlier than that, in fits and starts, with let's say the industrial revolution. That's where we get our "modern" sense of time as something that can be synchronized and structured by things like time zones. In physics, time begins to be "measured" around the time of Sir Isaac Newton, but Newton used his heartbeat to time his experiments, I believe. The invention of mechanical clocks and the discovery of longitude are outside the scope of Gleick's book, but they are important scientific and technological achievements -- not the subject of the book, but related to it. Newton's laws of physics take time as an essential element (velocity = distance/time). But what is time?

Now we're really thinking. We discover through Gleick's analysis that time is both psychological and experiential, as well as paradoxical -- we know what it is until we try to describe it. Is it subjective or objective? Does it "flow" like a river? No, Gleick concludes, that is strictly a metaphor. And, I discovered by reading this novel, the Latin motto tempus fugit means not, as I had assumed, time flies, but rather, time flees. Time escapes rational characterization. And time travel turns out to be both a logical impossibility (causes lead to effects, after all) and a possibility in physics (time can run backward or forward, based on the sign in an equation -- just as the irrational number i, the square root of -1, is a logical impossibility that creates all kinds of interesting possibilities, so too is -t).

So, Gleick is having some fun with the idea of time travel, in a discursive, almost deconstructive way. He mentions an artist almost in passing, Chris Marker, who "may have been a time traveller," it appears, but created a work of art (film) named la jetee, about memory, remembrance, forgetfulness, and film, that I defy any modern filmmaker to beat. I haven't seen it, so I can't say with confidence that it is a good film, but it is interesting, to say the least. In any event, Gleick takes us through cultural and scientific ideas of time travel, ranging from time capsules (which he says are a somewhat foolish way to try to evade death) to novels like The Time Traveller, to Dr. Who (a hard-won favorite of mine, too), and aims at answering the question of whether time travel is possible or desirable, based on such cultural phenomena.

His answer is yes, but with some caveats. First, he believes time travel is an act of the imagination that is valuable, much as dreaming or fiction generally is valuable. He isn't interested in the paradoxes or "rules" of sci-fi time travel so much, though he does mention them. Instead, what he's interested in are the stories that break the rules -- the so-called "bootstrap paradox" gets a whole chapter, for example, based on Robert Heinlein's comic short story in which a character named Bob interacts with various versions of himself who have traveled through time. What he's after is what those stories reveal about the nature of time and life itself. Second, he doesn't think time travel is really possible, although it turns out the laws of physics don't contradict it necessarily, except maybe entropy. He talks about popular physicist Richard Hawking holding a dinner party for time travellers, invitations issued after the fact, to which no one came, as an example of the logical fallacy of cause coming after effect. He also mentions the Biblical account in Joshua where God stops the sun to create a longer day, but dismisses it as wishful thinking, "who hasn't wished for more hours in the day?" He doesn't dismiss the possibility of time travel outright, either in fiction or in real life, but he comes to a conclusion of sorts about the limitation of the scientific equations to really describe reality, in that what appears possible in some senses based on Einstein's space-time continuum and other physics equations, isn't possible in our experience, except in fiction.

Time travel is therefore essential to our culture. It is both possible and impossible. It is a paradox and a mystery, but also a cold hard fact, that time travel is not possible. Or is it? So much of our storytelling these days involves time travel that we've gotten used to it; it's part of the culture. In the end, Gleick's concluding chapter on our current times is a little disheartening. The future is dystopian these days, not just because that view of time travel has won out, whether from 1984 on or from the invention of the Internet, I'm not sure; but also because we have shorter memories and shorter futures than we thought we did in the 1960s, say. The Internet has a way of foreshortening both past and future -- after all, we have access to a wealth of knowledge there, but, as Gleick says, "who has time to think?" Books like Gleick's, though, give me some hope that we can rise above our current predicament and invent a future that is better than our present, still.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Martian by Andy Weir

I liked this novel well enough to finish it, even though I had seen (most of) the movie prior to picking it up. It has a lot of talk about measurements in it, which will be off-putting to some and reminded me too much of high school chemistry class and calculations of limiting factors. Still, if you skip some of the analysis of how much the hero needs of what, the story is  very entertaining and the characterization of Mark Watney is fun. Yes, I dare say fun in a scifi novel about a scientist likely to starve to death on Mars after being mistakenly abandoned there. His voice has enough humor and humanity in it to keep me reading through the end. I liked the ending better than the movie's ending, even though it is pretty outlandish, and that's all I'll say so as to not ruin it. Read the book before seeing the movie if you can.