Malicious protagonists

A nice pair of evasive narrator-villains: in Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, Mrs. Duszejko, an old woman who lives in the forest and attributes a string of murders to vengeful animals, seeing them (retrospectively) in the stars. Philip Bowman in James Salter’s All That Is: we see through his eyes a lifetime of bad luck in love and money until in the end we see that we’ve been listening to a man who does not know himself, who can shock us but not himself. Salter’s slow reveal of all this is astonishingly well controlled. Duszejko is differnt – it turns out she’s just lying about events, and the interest in the book is more her perceptions of the people and place around her than either mystery or narrative performance.

Unreliable narrators are a dime a dozen, and my pairing these two in particular may just show that I don’t read enough. Or more to the point, didn’t pay much attention to fiction I read in my first fifty-odd years.

I’ll double down on this arbitrary match-making by claiming to see a family resemblance between Duszejko, Bowman, and such psychopaths as Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, and Mary Katherine Blackwood in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The latter cases are different in that, from early on, we know the characters for what they are; what they are, though, is so strange to us that an excellent story can be made from their continued ability to shock us by simply responding, in character, to new developments.

 

Derangement and collective action in Amitav Ghosh and Marilynne Robinson

How many books have I read, and then forgotten? Writing things down may help.

Continue reading

Heading for the land of plenty

Tomorrow I’m going to Chengdu, Sichuan, to teach for three weeks. You can find it on a map of China if you look inland, to the southwest. Heading west from Shanghai – far west – it’s the last big city, after that it’s mountains all the way to India. Simona, Leonardo and I were there four years ago. Before we left on that trip, I prepared by reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper, a memoir of her time as a cooking student in that city. Which is to say I was reading about food, which is one excellent reason to go there. On return to London I bought three of her cookbooks, (Land of Plenty [Sichuan], Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook [Hunan], and Every Grain of Rice), and they’ve been good investments.

Henry Adams, back when America was on the brink of terrible things

Papal_States_Map_1870

Reading The Education of Henry Adams is for a while a pleasant and edifying distraction from today’s troubles, but he will keep pulling one back in. Here he is visiting Rome as a young man in 1860, while his own country was edging toward civil war:

“Rome was actual; it was England; it was going to be America. Rome could
not be fitted into an orderly, middle-class, Bostonian, systematic
scheme of evolution. No law of progress applied to it. Not even
time-sequences–the last refuge of helpless historians–had value for
it. The Forum no more led to the Vatican than the Vatican to the Forum.
Rienzi, Garibaldi, Tiberius Gracchus, Aurelian might be mixed up in any
relation of time, along with a thousand more, and never lead to a
sequence.”

He might well be asking how we today wound up back in the 1930s.

The Education of Henry Adams (1907) is available, free, in various formats from Project Gutenberg.

Fast food ≠ low pay

Continuing the fast food theme (yum): BK in the USA vs. BK in Denmark, fast food work can provide living wages, if the institutional environment is right. Read the report by Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times.
The fast food restaraunt is an organizational technology designed to use low cost labor – a restaurant that can operate without any employee who knows how to cook! Continue reading

A Season in the Congo


Congo, Lumumba, Mobutu… we all know the ending of this one, and appropriately the play is in a Brechtian mode: there are characters, but the tragedy is created by material interests – colonial mining interests (played by a chorus of puppets) and Cold War superpowers are Fates holding forth from opposing balconies. Character (flaws, virtues…) serves only to shape the roles the different people are given in the tragedy. With fine performances, singing, dancing, puppets and set, wonderfully in your face in the Young Vic. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the lead. Continue reading

The Control Revolution

Brad DeLong helpfully links to Cosma Shalizi’s 1995 review of (the now late) James Beniger’s great book, The Control Revolution (first published 1986). It’s always worth recommending, though of Shalizi’s four-and-one-half complaints the most valid, in my view, is about Beniger’s long-windedness (and if Shalizi doesn’t like that aspect, he shouldn’t be complaining about Beniger’s failure to discuss the world outside of America, or the arts … think how long the book could have been!) My take on Beniger – and some comparison of his understanding of information and control in the economy with the similar view of Alfred Chandler and the very different one of Friedrich Hayek – can be found on pp. 98-102 of The Global Environment of Business.

Ma Jian’s Odyssey

Red Dust (2002) is marketed as a travel book, and I picked it up because travel books are appreciated in my household – any interesting one is a good present to bring home. And it is a great travel book, an account of Ma’s wanderings around China in the mid-1980s, with the travel book requisites of an outsider’s empathetic but detached and wry observations about people and places we don’t know ourselves. The sense of the separation between places – especially in the countryside, where the country’s big cities, or any city at all, seem to have mythical status – is vividly conveyed, as are the institutions of party and state, which bind together and control even the most remote parts. Poverty and emerging wealth, material progress and pollution, cruelty and kindness are all delivered economically, showing rather than telling, mostly in sketches of people Ma meets and of their circumstances. Whether for understanding people, or the country in a particular period, the book is well worthwhile.

But if Red Dust is a travel book, then Homer’s Odyssey is a travel book. Continue reading