Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead: Impressions

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead was a uniquely interesting if not entirely enjoyable novel. It's been on my TBR list for years, after a good friend told me I absolutely had to read this book (I can't recall whether or not he gave me a specific reason, but I do remember the emphaticalness of his recommendation), and it won the very small poll for August's book club pick because it sounds particularly intriguing and deceives one into thinking it will be fast paced right away. It is not. The pace does not quicken substantially but rather accelerates very slowly until about midway through the novel, after which it maintains a good page-turn inducing speed.

The story, as far as I can tell, is a bit of speculative fiction with a fair amount of absurdism thrown in. It seems to be set in an alternative version of the late 50s or early 60s (they mention the "famous reverend"). In this alternate reality, the Elevator Guild has substantial power in city operations (the city is probably New York, but it's never actually called New York City). The reality seems to have begun, or split, down this different path sometime in the 1850s, when elevators were first introduced. At the time of the book, there is a heated rivalry between the Empiricists, who need to see everything about the elevator in order to determine what's wrong, or if everything is running smoothly, and the Intuitionists, who have some sort of intimate interaction with the elevators they inspect and can determine any problems by communing with the elevator itself - no need to check the physical gear. An Empiricist name Chancre is currently in power, but elections are coming up.

Lila Mae Watson, the protagonist, is the first black, female elevator inspector, and she's an Intuitionist - three strikes against her. Race relations in this reality are no better than they were in ours in the 50s and 60s. Lila Mae can blend right into the background, become invisible, due to her color and everyone's tendency not to take notice of anyone non-white. It is still blatantly threatening to black people, as Lila Mae describes her natural inclinations ("Because her father taught her that white folks can turn on you at any moment") while entering a bar (O'Connor's) looking for her one pseudofriend in the guild:
They can turn rabid at any second; this is the true result of gathering integration: the replacement of sure violence with deferred sure violence. Her position is precarious in the office, she understands that, and in O'Connor's as well; she's a lost tourist among heavy vowels, the crude maps of ancestral homelands, and the family crests of near-exterminated clans. Her position is precarious everywhere she goes in this city, for that matter, but she's trained dread to keep invisible in its ubiquity, like fire hydrants and gum trod into black sidewalk spackle. Makeshift weapons include shoes, keys, and broken bottles. Pool cues if their handy. 
The underlying threat of violence flows throughout the novel, but unevenly, and at times, unnecessarily. (Would someone please explain to me the relevance of The Screaming Man? Because as far as I can tell, that small scene in there solely to mislead, and adds unnecessary violence.)

Lila Mae's character is an interesting choice - she's a woman, black and an Intuitionist, but her personality is calculating, cool, observant and distant, basically turning gender and race stereotypes on their respective heads. Perhaps it's only objects that Lila Mae can relate to, as an Intuitionist who understands the wants and needs of elevators but not those of people.

The novel, overall, didn't go as far as I would have liked. The elements of the absurd (Intuitionism, for example) took a while to recognize in the light of an alternative reality. The wordplay was enjoyable, but it often slowed down the pace of the novel. (At one point a character is described as "that vapor, that meandering cumulus masquerading as a man.")  It's a short novel but not a fast read. I'd recommend reading it (I'm almost positive I'm missing something) but only when you're looking for something different and a little challenging.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Too many books in the air

I am reading too many books at the moment, or maybe just the right amount. As I mentioned previously, I've embarked on a journey with Infinite Jest, the coconspirator's favorite book. While it is quite good and insightful, I'm still early in (about a fifth in) and having a little trouble gathering momentum. The book is massive, the size of a law school tome, and the pages are larger than normal - although, it's easy to see why. No one would want to pick up a complicated novel that was so obviously 1600+ pages long! 1000 pages is one thing, but 1600? No way. But if it had ben printed in 'normal' paperback size, based on the kindle "lines" and other kindle line to physical book pages comparison, Infinite Jest would be infinitely long.

For those of you with any IJ experience: The Wardine and Poor Tony sections (and the section with Hal's grandfather going on and on to Hal's father as a kid) have been the most challenging to read so far, and I'm growing fond of Marathe and Steeply. I love that there are dangerous Quebecois wheelchair assassins. The halfway house complaints are also hilarious. I have no experience as a drug addict, but DFW seems to be giving an uncomfortably accurate window into various thought processes of addicts. Anyway. The book keeps alternating between enjoyable and entertaining and completely uncomfortable.

My book club is reading The Intuitionist by Coleson Whitehead, and since  we're meeting next Thursday to discuss it I thought I might want to start reading it. It looks promising, but I've barely started. A friend of mine also recommended Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which I found available for audio download at my library, so I've started listening to that. It's very interesting so far. I didn't read any description ahead of time, and it's nice to go in blind. It's also an easy way to read while doing mindless tasks or not feeling so well.

Anyway, I thought I'd throw out a quick update since I sense it might be a little while before I get another review down. Anyone else prefer to be involved with more than one book at a time? Or are you a book monogamist?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: Impressions

In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell manages to connect the past, present, and two levels of dystopian futures in an engaging and insightful novel consisting of loosely interlocking narratives told in drastically different styles. The structure is very different from anything I've read before - it is somewhat modeled after Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night, A Traveler, a collection of stories that seem to stop in the middle or just before the climax. Cloud Atlas, however, picks up those threads later in the novel and finishes each story.

The characters range from a gullible young lawyer to a scheming and talented obscure composer to an "awakened fabricant" (think Blade Runner) in the future. An aging publisher, who manages to get himself trapped in a retirement home, laments upon his life's chosen profession:
Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don't, will is pitted against will. 'Admire me, for I am a metaphor.'
The most difficult section for me to read was "Sloosha's Crossing," which is written in a sort of future ruralspeak dialect, but it was also such a riveting section that I couldn't help but read it quickly. The narrative's main climax occurs here, basically, in the middle of the novel, and yet you still want to pick up the threads of each of the other stories.

The overarching themes in the background occasionally seem heavy-handed, but never in an offensive way. In one aside, a tertiary character offers this explanation of how humanity has arranged itself:
'Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence, is the instrument of this dreadful will... The nation state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence.'
Quite a bleak outlook on the state of things, and one that currently can't help but ring mostly true. But out of this hopelessness, one finds optimism at the conclusion of the novel, one of my favorite reads this year, and one I'd recommend to anyone looking for something different and does not mind elements of dystopian futures. I'd also recommend reading it at the same time as others - it was a joy to read this with Erin & Anita, even if I was the slow one in the group!
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