Techies vs. Luddites in Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore

Blank black book w/pathParchment, paperback or Kindle, what is it we’re really doing when we read? Litro Book Club member Thomas Chadwick finds age-old questions in this month’s Club pick.

“The invention of printing, though ingenious, compared with the invention of letters, is no great matter.” [Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, I, IV]

Before, after, or even during reading Robin Sloan’s novel it is worth taking a moment to note how it evolved into the book we hold in our hands or kindle today. It began five years ago, “inspired by a tweet,” and first appeared as a short story entitled Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, which Sloan published on the Kindle store. This early story was followed by others, and then Sloan ran a Kickstarter project to fund the writing of a novella. Only then did the book come to the attention of the agents and publishers who brought us the full novel of today. What is interesting, given what the novel goes onto explore, is that the work existed online long before it existed in the physical world of a published press, and while it might sound hackneyed to say that this is a novel born of the internet, it is the internet which the novel interrogates, balancing a great optimism for the power of tech, against the Luddism of a nostalgic and mystical cult that believes that truth exists only in a printed book in a physical world.

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore does not offer a simple division between the luddites and the techies, but the tension is there in essence throughout. Notable techies include Neel Shah, the world’s leading expert in boob physics (and millionaire), and Kat, a Google employee, who thinks that computers provide the key to eternal existence. The Luddites’ corner is occupied by the followers of the Unbroken Spine, notably their aggressively nostalgic leader, Corvina. The Unbroken Spine is the cult that emerges from Mr Penumbra’s bookstore, with its rarely seen customers and bizarre logbooks. What our narrator Clay Jannon discovers is that the Unbroken Spine, of which Mr Penumbra is a member, is a cult centred on the legacy of a 16th century printer named Aldus Manutius. Its aim is to uncover codes in books written by its members, a code which, when uncovered, is believed to have the power to bring every member back to life in some eternal capacity. It finances itself by licencing the Gerritszoon font; its motto is festina lente (more haste less speed).

Quite what the patterns uncovered are or when this Venetian printer’s following moved its central office to New York is unclear but the claim is more straightforward: there is something in these old books that has a resonance that cannot be found in the modern information technology-driven world. As Clay and his friends begin to use undercover-tech to unlock the Unbroken Spine’s secrets, the matter of Tech versus Luddism becomes a question of scope. On the one hand the Luddites distrust tech because they feel it is in some way false or dishonest, or in the eyes of the Unbroken Spine, pointless: de-coding the work of Aldus Manutius needs to be done in the self-same font as Manutius’ followers printed in. On the other hand the techies see a naivety in the rest of the world. A confused nostalgia for by-gone technology and a refusal to believe in what information technology can do for us.

Kat, Clay’s sometime girlfriend, is the uber-tech here. She works for Google, she wears the same clothes every day because she “didn’t want to waste brain cycles figuring out what to wear,” she even invites Clay to her house party via webcam and takes him into her bed. Her faith in tech’s capabilities is un-shakeable, blind even: “Writers have had their turn,” she says. “Now it’s programmers who get to upgrade the human operating system.” Kat believes that the big change is going to be in our brains and that this big change can lead to a previously unobtainable goal: eternal life.

In the midst of the Luddites and the Techies is Clay Jannon. On the face of it Clay appears to be into tech: he is a web-designer whose first port of call in a crisis is a web forum. But it becomes clear that this is simply the fabric of Clay’s life, indeed all our lives, because while Kat has faith, Clay is a sceptic. Clay is the novel’s narrator and outsider, separated from both Kat and Neel’s optimism and the mysticism of the Unbroken Spine. He has the strange fragrance of Futurarma’s Fry, and his deadpan delivery, reminiscent of Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist but with a great deal more soul, is one of the real delights of this book. Clay is both submerged within the language of information technology as well as looking in from outside with a sceptical eye. When describing the kitchen he shares with his flatmates Clay writes:

“I tread lightly in the kitchen; I prepare meals that are easy to clean up, like pasta and Pop-Tarts. I do not use her fancy Microplane or her complicated garlic press. I know how to turn the burners on and off, but not how to activate the oven’s convection chamber, which I suspect requires two keys, like the launch mechanism on a nuclear missile.”

googleClay is someone getting by in his age, and when he speaks of his flatmate’s kitchen or his friend Neel’s kale shakes or meals at Google that consist of “Vitamin D, Omega 3s, and fermented tea leaves,” he can’t hide his cynicism. When Kat asks him how he copes with how short our lives on earth are, his answer is suitably blunt: “My life has exhibited many strange and sometimes troubling characteristics but shortness is not one of them.” Yet Clay is equally sceptical of the mysticism of the Unbroken Spine, he is mostly intrigued by the project of de-coding, but he does not really expect to find anything there. Clay’s scepticism, however, does a good deal more than simply offer a witty narrator, it actually helps expose the similarities between the tech-optimism and the luddite-mysticism. He shows that, whatever maths and science it is built on, the internet is, to the user, just as mystical as the belief in a 16th century printer’s cult, and that the online world we live in is just as bizarre as Corvina’s underground reading room.

The solution to the mystery of the Unbroken Spine becomes almost irrelevant. Clay’s real suggestion is that, as Hobbes noted of printing, the internet may not be quite the epoch-busting movement some assume it to be. “I’m really starting to think the whole world’s just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults,” says Clay, “all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.”

Among the books Robin Sloan lists as “further reading for Penumbra fans” is included James Gleick’s 2011 The Information. In Sloan’s own words “it is a book interested in messages and codes and the question of what endures and how.” Gleick frames The Information as a problem of communication. We have information, be it letters, books, emails or bits, so that we can communicate. The information we live amongst does not transform the world so much as transform our encounter with it. In the words of theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler (knock yourself out) “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin.” In essence then, our understanding of the world is based on our conception of it as information to be understood, or as Gleick himself puts it: “The whole universe is a computer – a cosmic information processing machine.”

We could be forgiven for thinking that this is a new problem. We could be forgiven for thinking that the internet has ushered in a new epoch of information. In many respects it has, but the triumph of Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore is to point out that the techies and luddites of the world actually have a great deal in common. The question both the readers of the Unbroken Spine and the tech-futurists at Google are asking is really the same question, one that has been asked for centuries: what is it that we do when we read.

What Mr Penumbra realises almost right away is that to ask what place and purpose reading has in our current age is really to ask what place and purpose reading has in any age. While the novel is clearly in touch with the seismic shifts in the reading culture of our time, it also engages with another revolution in reading – printing – and casts our concerns over the future of knowledge alongside concerns as old as human life itself. Mr Penumbra really asks a very old and very human question: what connects the lives we live in the world to the world in which we live those lives.

It is, above all, a poignant reminder of the value of asking that question, and while some writers see the internet as a scourge on the future of literature, Robin Sloan has written a novel which not only makes the case for the novel to persist online, but ultimately suggests that most of the big questions aren’t changing that much anyway.

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Jane said we needed to talk about Eichmann

Jane rang me up and said we need to talk about Eichmann. Third Reich discourse is necessary, she said. There are things to say about the final solution, points to be made about chain of command; great swathes of Adolf Eichmann need to be brought up into the air and tossed about until they are well aired, Jane said.

This was the first I had heard from Jane in six weeks.

“You know what I mean?” said Jane.

It was clear what she meant all right. It was always clear with Jane. If she wanted to talk on a subject it inevitably got discussed. She and I had spent hours together talking things through. We shared discourse on Pope Julius II and the drummer from Slade. Afternoons were lost to the pros and cons of Phillip Schofield. Meals were interrupted by mention of Kafka and Charlotte Church. There was one Saturday in January, not long after we first met, when we spent the whole day in bed thrashing out dialogue on Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, and an afternoon in May, when Jane showed up at my workplace and dragged me out into the street to discuss Bill Clinton.

One time, on holiday in Devon, we even spent a whole week talking about Piers Morgan. I recall Jane calling him a callous man, a greedy man; out for profit and grandeur, but with no care for humanity – not my kind of guy at all said Jane. I can hear her opinions still now; calm yet firm in her appraisal, not afraid to raise her voice to get across her point about humanity. I struggle to recall what I would have said – I have never been one for talent shows – in fact looking back I can’t think that I would ever have much to say about Piers Morgan during that week, but that was always the way with Jane.

Jane insisted that the Eichmann matter needed to be seen to right away.

“Drop everything,” she said. “Get in the car and meet me in the café on Ferdinand Street.”

I explained that I didn’t have a car any more.

“Well get a bus then,” said Jane. “Or a train, why not hail a cab? I don’t really care what you do so long as you’re at that café within the hour ready to talk Nazi war crimes.”

I heard a quiver creep into Jane’s voice.

“You will come,” she said. “Won’t you?”

For a time I let the receiver sit flat against my cheek as I thought practically. As Jane inhaled at the other end of the line I planned a route to the café on Ferdinand Street, I worked out rough costings for bus fares and train tickets – I would presumably have to buy some sort of coffee or cake if I was going to sit in a café with Jane discussing Eichmann. If the discussion went on for a while I might have to buy two.

I could never be sure how long Jane would wish to talk for. At times she could be painfully brief. I remember one Sunday morning she urged me from my bed at three am, to get up and drive cross country from my parents’ house on the Norfolk Broads, with the expressed intention of talking about Woody Allen. I drove a Peugeot 206 I borrowed from my mother. It was a car I was unfamiliar with and a bulb had gone in one of the headlamps. There was a great deal of driving rain. For three hours I drove hunched forward over the steering wheel, desperately trying to keep track of where I was, sometimes veering into the centre of the road to straddle the cats’ eyes like a car on a Scalextric track. Twice I stopped to buy more windscreen washer fluid.

When I arrived at Jane’s front door dripping wet and several pounds out of pocket she invited me in and gave me a towel. She sat down with me in her front room. I noticed she was wearing an old T-shirt from a gym that she no longer went to.

“You know Annie Hall is his only what I would call good film,” she said.

That was it for Woody. Jane touched me briefly on the shoulder and went back up to bed. I climbed back into the Peugeot and drove back to my parents’ house on the Norfolk Broads, resolved to persuade my mother to invest in a new bulb for the headlamp.

At other times Jane could be far more protracted. There were several months in the autumn of 2011 when we discussed Mary Poppins as a matter of routine. Neither Jane nor I had ever seen the film but every morning and every evening Jane would bring it up without fail. At breakfast Jane would sit up at the kitchen table staring into her bowl of bran. She would wince and grimace intermittently.

“I just don’t think it would be my kind of film at all,” she would say.

“Possibly,” I’d say. “Possibly.”

It was clear that Jane thought more about Mary Poppins than I did. She reminded me of this fact regularly. She cited reviews and criticism. She printed off stills that she found on the internet. Some mornings, while I was trying to play devil’s advocate, she would push away her bowl of bran and shout:

“You have no idea do you? You just have no idea. You don’t even know who Mary Poppins fucking is!”

Later, in the evenings, Jane would get more analytical.

“You know from the stills I’ve seen there are bits of Mary Poppins that don’t look all that bad,” she would say.

I agreed when she said that the scenery certainly looked nice. I even suggested that with the right sound system the songs needn’t be so bad. Occasionally I found Jane looking up at me from the sofa to smile.

“Maybe Mary Poppins wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all,” she once said.

We carried on like that for over a month, Jane and I, discussing Mary Poppins. I once found myself in a supermarket where they had the DVD on offer. Before I knew what I was doing I had it in my basket where there was meant to be something for pudding. It was an impulse buy, I would explain, let’s stick it on and see what Mary Poppins is actually like. But before I made it to the till I put the DVD down by some tinned peaches. I could hear Jane’s voice in my head: are you insane, we’re nowhere near done talking here – so I picked up a tin of peaches and went home.

Maybe if I’d brought the DVD home that day it would have brought Mary Poppins to a head. As it was, we rumbled on for the best part of two months, until one day in October when Jane decided she wanted to talk about Susan Boyle and we never mentioned Mary Poppins again.

“Tell me you’ll be there,” she said, seemingly near to tears at her end of the phone.

As luck would have it there was very little to do that day, certainly nothing that couldn’t wait. I explained that I would be there. I estimated my journey time to be 30 minutes and told Jane to expect me in 45. The quiver left her voice and she grew excited. I could almost feel her smile pushing into the receiver.

“I can’t wait to see you,” she said. “There’s so much to say.”


“Neither a Satanic nor a Napoleonic Giant but a Plain Sinner” : The Tragedy of Raskolnikov

For our Transgression theme, Thomas Chadwick revisits a Russian classic in which the laws constraining man can be broken, as long as you consider yourself extraordinary.

In amongst a good many other things the Bible suggests that killing another person is wrong.  “Thou shalt not…” it reads in the King James.  As a rule this would seem to apply.  Taking an axe and killing another person is generally considered to be wrong.  Not so.  The same Old Testament that gives the sixth commandment also introduces the peasant boy David who defeats the giant Goliath by whanging a pebble into his skull.  But David, we are told, is acting for a greater purpose.  David is not an individual killing Goliath for his own personal ends, but an Israelite killing a philistine warrior to save his people from enslavement.  David’s defeat of Goliath is not murder.  It is not a transgression at all, but rather something totally okay, something to be celebrated.


Raskolnikov: The Proper Murder

Crime and Punishment is a 550 page novel, set over two weeks in St Petersburg, in which a student called Raskolnikov kills a pawnbroker called Alyona Ivanova by hitting her over the head with an axe.  The murder occurs on page 76.  Raskolnikov strikes Alyona three times with the butt end of the axe, each blow landing on the crown of her head.  When she falls – after the first blow – “Blood poured out as from an over-turned glass.”  And “her eyes bulged as if they were about to pop out.”  Her skull is shattered.  Blood, brain, bone and hair scatter the scene.  Then, while attempting to find Alyona’s money, her younger sister Lizaveta shows up: this was not planned.  Thinking on his feet our hero lands her a blow with the sharp end of his axe splitting the upper part of her forehead almost to the crown.  With both women slain and Alyona’s purse in his pocket Raskolnikov makes his way home.

One might well imagine that the rest of the novel consists of Raskolnikov coming to the terms with the horrific and senseless crime he has committed.  That is not the case.  In fact it is the reader who spends the next 480 pages coming to terms with the fact that in Raskolnikov’s eyes he has not done anything wrong.

Raskolnikov believes that the death of Alyona Ivanova at his hands was a thoroughly reasonable act.  She is a sour, miserly woman who greedily profits by holding others to ransom for their own treasures.  He, by contrast, is a downtrodden law student, a genius no less, who would do well for himself, his family and his country if only he were able to find the means to support his studies.

Raskolnikov is an intelligent and rational man, whom the death of Alyona aside, has a firm sense of right and wrong.  He is regularly generous to those less fortunate than himself.  He is protective of his family.  At one point, early on in the novel, he leaps to the aid of a young girl pursued by a drunk with plans for their own personal transgression.  Later he even takes an abandoned child into his room so that she might thaw and rest in his bed.  Even if Raskolnikov does not always express affection for his friends and family it is hard to deny that he has a moral concern for the people around him.

What governs Raskolnikov’s compassion is not religion but reason.  He is an atheist who believes that the well-being of all is served not by faithful devotion to some transcendental God, but by turning to a Utilitarian logic that asks what best can be done for the greatest number of people.  When Raskolnikov marches to Alyona’s door with an axe under his coat it is not delirium or madness that accompanies him, but cold, rational logic.  If Raskolnikov kills the old woman he can use her hoarded money for good.  He will be ridding the world of a pernicious presence.  He will be doing everyone a favour in the same way as he notes, en route to the killing, that if the parks of St Petersburg were expanded “it would be a wonderful and most useful thing for the city.”  Raskolnikov is David marching out to meet Goliath; a man acting for the greater good.

As the novel progresses, though, it becomes clear that it was not reason alone which got Raskolnikov into Alyona’s apartment with an axe under his coat.  It emerges that several weeks before the killing Raskolnikov wrote an essay in which he theorized on crime.  The essay is noted by the officer investigating Alyona’s death, Poirfiry Petrovich (a fairly unique homicide detective, unconcerned with the risk of Raskolnikov’s flight, and happy to give his suspect the time and space to continue to theorize on what they have done: it’s almost like he knows that the suspect is confined within a book).  The essay looks at the “psychological state of the criminal throughout the course of the crime.”  It explains that “there supposedly exist in the world certain persons who can…that is, who not only can but are fully entitled to commit all sorts of crimes and excesses and to whom the law supposedly does not apply.”  The essay divides people into the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary”: the latter having the right to “in various ways transgress the law.”

It becomes increasingly clear that any suggestion that Raskolnikov was working for the greater good in killing Alyona is equally tied up with this notion of the “extraordinary” individual.  The, if you will, superhuman – King David, Napoleon – those men whose reason is so strong that nothing they do will be a transgression at all.  “There’s neither permission nor prohibition here,” Raskolnikov says.

Raskolnikov, it transpires, has considered the act of killing long before he committed it; that in killing he did not believe he was doing anything wrong because he believed himself to be an “extraordinary” human being, whose reason was so strong that it alone would direct toward what is right; and that not only was the killing of Alyona no transgression, if Raskolnikov acted solely with reason, if he remained in total control – unlike most other criminals – he would not even be caught because a killing dealt out solely by reason will not be detectable as a murder at all.

Reasons why Raskolnikov, contrary to everything he says, is, in fact, really bad at murder:

If Raskolnikov maintains in theory that his killing of Alyona is a “reasonable act” his actions, or indeed his inactions, suggest with increasing velocity that, even if his head doesn’t know it, his body is aware that bludgeoning a woman to death with an axe is a transgression of some form.

It is difficult to know how to begin explaining why Raskolnikov is not very good at “murder,” but without any hands-on knowledge of the practicalities it is still possible to come up with a long list of things that he does or does not do that suggest he is pretty crap at killing people.

Here are just some of them: not maintaining regular sleep patterns; failing to eat anything like three meals a day; drinking in the day; drinking on an empty stomach; hanging out in dive bars with unlikely people; not listening to your mother; wandering about, a lot; total failure to lay low; going to the police station; letting your friend take you back to the police station because he thinks you’ll find the investigating officer interesting; forgetting that human beings, even old crones, have roughly eight pints of blood inside them and that if you hit them with an axe a lot of this is going to come out; touching the aforementioned blood and getting it on your clothes; forgetting that you have touched blood and got it on your clothes; passing out a lot; passing out at the police station; sleeping for three days straight; blurting out in your sleep that you’ve done a murder; refusing to believe that you are ill or delirious when every bit of evidence suggests you are both ill and delirious; drinking on an empty stomach (again) despite being ill and delirious; forgetting where you hid the bloodied cuffs you ripped from your overcoat; forgetting where you put the old woman’s purse; forgetting to lock doors; forgetting that a latch can only be latched from the inside; forgetting that Alyona has a sister; not knowing that if you smash a woman’s head with an axe there will be blood and brain and broken skull and that however carefully you’ve planned this there’s still a chance that this might freak you out; sleeping in the day; telling people you’ve just met about your superhuman right to knock off old crones; lying down in the street; waking up in the night and assuming that murders are going on in adjoining rooms; thinking that people are winking at you when they are probably not winking at you; publishing an essay called “On Crime”  in which you explain how extraordinary people can commit crimes without transgressing; not being sure when you are and are not dreaming.

The page by page marvel of Crime and Punishment is to sit on the shoulder of a man whose ability to hang onto the reason he so values is constantly being checked by what is going on in the very prose around him.  At times it feels as if the only smart thing Raskolnikov ever did was sew a loop into his overcoat lining so he could carry an axe across St Petersburg undetected.  The point, however, is, crucially, this: that despite all his failings Raskolnikov never really lets go of his theory of the “extraordinary” right to transgress, and thus the most disturbing thing about Crime and Punishment is the realisation that Raskolnikov’s delirium is not a dawning sense of the horror of what he has done but rather anger at the fact that he is not an “extraordinary” individual himself.

“The Devil killed the old Crone, not me.”

As Raskolnikov’s anger causes him to push his friends and family away, he pulls closer to one person.  Sofya Semyonova also transgresses the laws of St Petersburg, although her crime is not murder but prostitution.  Furthermore, if Raskolnikov’s killings are for a greater well-being, Sofya’s employment certainly is; she lays thirty roubles on the table every week so her family can eat.  But that is where the similarities end, because instead of any ideas of an “extraordinary” right to transgression, Sofya rather exhibits a deep personal sacrifice of her own moral being so that her family can survive.  As misfortune follows Sofya she remains devoted to a faith in God that Raskolnikov neither has nor thinks he needs, and if Raskolnikov thought he found a kindred spirit with Sofya it turns out that this is not as legitimate transgressors but as sinners.

Raskolnikov confesses his crime in full to Sofya, but in putting into words what has been rattling round inside his own head, he lets slip the truth behind his actions:

“Power is given only to those who dare to reach down and take it,” (he says) “One only has to dare…I wanted to dare, and I killed…I just wanted to dare.”

What emerges in the final pages is that Raskolnikov’s “extraordinary” person is actually unable to act for the benefit of all.  They are, in fact, unable to act for the benefit of anyone, because the kind of logic that leads someone to rely solely on their own individual reason leaves them able to act for themselves and themselves alone.

“I wanted to find out there, and find out quickly, whether I was a louse like all the rest or a man?  Would I be able to step over, or not?  Would I dare to reach down and take, or not?  Am I a trembling creature, or do I have the right…”

Raskolnikov: Redemption or Tragedy

For Raskolnikov Crime and Punishment the novel contains for him neither crime nor punishment, or at least not in the first 500 or so pages.  What is most disturbing is how resolutely Raskolnikov sticks to the idea of an “extraordinary” right, even after it becomes clear that he himself has not managed to commit anything like a faultless murder.  Raskolnikov cannot abandon his hunch that if he’d only done it properly he would not have murdered, he would not have transgressed, and everything would be okay.  Raskolnikov’s logic is simply this: there have, and are, and will be, people who commit acts that for most individuals would be transgressions but which for them are powerful acts for the greater well-being of all: David killed Goliath but it was a triumph not a murder.

The real tragedy of Raskolnikov is his discovery that an “extraordinary” human has to rely so completely on themselves that the rest of the world around them ceases to exist.  It is this state, however entered, where transgressions occur.  It is somewhere where laws are not broken but abandoned; where acts do not leap over moral barriers but simply occur in a personal realm where there are no obstacles to reason.  What from the outside looks like transgression is, on the inside, simply solipsism.  But the only greater good there, is the good of the individual alone.  Raskolnikov killed Alyona not for others but for himself, because he dared to see if he could rely on his conscience alone.

In the epilogue Dostoevsky gives a hint towards a future for Raskolnikov.  He finds a moment of quiet in Siberia in which he observes some herdsmen, thinks of Abraham, weeps, and hugs Sofya’s knees.  Raskolnikov’s redemption, if this is what that is, is only just beginning.  But his tragedy is his transgression.  For if an act of murder requires that someone not simply think of but actually rely on no-one but themselves it becomes impossible to equate a killing or any other transgression with the greater good.  The right to transgression-less crime is uncovered as a personal desire to dare, but to dare is not to become a giant but a sinner.

“It’s good that you only killed a little old woman,” says Poirfiry to Raskolnikov after he hands himself in.  “If you’d come up with a different theory you might have done something a hundred million times more hideous.”

Dead Ends Thrown Wide Open: The Crying of Lot 49

For our Mystery theme, Thomas Chadwick revisits a postmodern classic in which the clues seem infinite and may mean everything … or nothing.

Chance n. … 3. An unexpected, random or unpredicted event.

Coincidence n. … 2. A sequence of events that although accidental seems to have been planned or arranged.

crying_lot49When Californian housewife Oedipa Mass, the principal character in Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49,  leaves Kinneret to make her way down to San Narciso to look over the ledger of one Pierce Inverarity (deceased) – a man with whom she had a brief relationship and who has designated her as the executor of his will, she tells her husband, Mucho Mass – a used car dealer turned radio disc jockey – to look after the oregano in their garden as it has contracted a strange mould.

The mould on Oedipa’s oregano prompts an important question: is Oedipa asking her husband to look after the mould in some way critical to Lot 49? Is the mould perhaps the start of an epidemic that devastates the West Coast oregano and leaves the Italian restaurants in California in dire straits; is the mould going to be sorted by Maxwell’s Demon and thus generate a molecular heat capable of powering fridge, freezer and air conditioning units; is the mould actually going to have been placed there by Pierce Inverarity himself in the hope that, with her curiosity piqued, Oedipa takes a sudden and passionate interest in herbal-fungus, which will, through a series of evening classes, lead her to meet a man called Jackson McPhane – who will explain everything she ever needed to know about oregano mould, Pierce Inverarity’s assets and the poetry of Sir John Wilmot? Or is, in fact, the mould perhaps totally incidental to the plot, the reader and even Oedipa herself?

As far as I can tell – and I am so very ready to be wrong about this – the mould is incidental to the plot of The Crying of Lot 49. But it is still integral to getting a grip on what Lot 49 is about, because it is only by asking why the mould (and things like the mould) are there in each sentence that you can begin to tease out what is going on.

Questions abound. Why do we need to know about the oregano, we ask? Why is Randolph Driblette’s performance of The Courier’s Tragedy relevant to Pierce Inverarity’s will? What is the significance of Maxwell’s Demon? How has Dr Hilarious survived this long as a psychoanalyst? In asking about the mould on the oregano we end up asking about everything. Why do we need to know about any of this, or rather: what, in amongst all this, is important?

Every question the reader asks of Lot 49 is also asked by our avatar, the – as she puts it – executrix of Pierce Inverarity’s will, Mrs Oedipa Mass. From the off it is made clear that our lead is a novice, someone who “didn’t know how to tell the law firm in LA that she didn’t know where to begin.” To list the number of occasions in which Oedipa Mass is confused, perplexed, baffled or otherwise thrown by the plot and the world around her would come close to repeating the novel verbatim in a citation which would not so much plagiarise the text as pirate it.

In the course of what is, by any writer’s standards, a short book, but which for Pynchon is the equivalent of a scribbled note left on the fridge, Oedipa encounters scenarios that include and exceed the following: vagaries within the history of the delivery of post; a play called The Courier’s Tragedy by a playwright called Richard Wharfinger, described by the director as “no Shakespeare”; a molecular science prototype called Maxwell’s Demon, which “could sit in a box among air molecules that were moving all at different random speeds, and sort out the fast moving molecules from the slow ones”; a psychoanalyst who loses faith in Freud and lays siege to his own surgery from within; the geography, topography and demographics of southern California; a child actor turned lawyer who wishes to play a game of Strip Botticelli; a band called The Paranoids; a self-help group called Inamoarti Anonymous, for people who suffer from love, which communicates by a back street mail service; and a stamp collection that was once Pierce Inverarity’s pride and joy, which Oedipa never cared for, but which contains one forged stamp that details the post horn; a symbol of mail delivery, which either is or is not the key to the whole thing.

Forget mould on the oregano, The Crying of Lot 49 is a swirling tornado of detail that moves across so many fields of knowledge that no reader – or certainly not one I’d ever care to meet – is capable of having that volume of cultural and scientific references available on anything like a quick mental draw.

Given that this level of disorientation and confusion is something of Pynchon’s signature; that, as Richard Poirier has pointed out, it is unlikely that any of Pynchon’s characters could read – let alone write – a Pynchon novel, perhaps the most immediate mystery surrounding The Crying of Lot 49 is why anyone would ever wish to read the book at all. Or, to put it more crudely: if the mould on the oregano is there simply to demonstrate how everything in the novel is a possible dead end what, then, is there for the reader to pursue?

Thomas Pynchon is a notorious recluse. A writer who, when he won the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow, let a comedian appear to accept the award on his behalf, and whose recluse status has itself been celebrated by no less a yardstick of American cultural values than The Simpsons.  From no-one-knows-where (literally) he has managed to achieve not only critical acclaim but also a popular success normally reserved for mass-market thrillers; a unique achievement for any writer of literary fiction, let alone for one whose sentences seem to scream at the reader, why bother?

The reason for Pynchon’s success, and the reason why The Crying of Lot 49 is very much worth the bother, is perhaps hinted at by the sketchy author-bio above. Thomas Pynchon has a sense of humour. He clearly sees that there is something fundamentally hilarious about both fiction and the very idea of a fiction writer, and that it is only at this level of farce that a novel is able to be sure of anything.

Oedipa Mass is a hell-funny gal. She treats her paranoia with a deadpan charm that I will attempt to summarise here by quoting four classic Oedipa Mass gags:

  1. While attempting to resist a game of footsie with her lawyer, Roseman asks her to run away with him.  “Where?” replies Oedipa.
  2. Stanley Koteks’s suggestion, with reference to Maxwell’s Demon, that sorting is not work, is met with: “Tell them down at the post office, you’ll find yourself in a mailbag headed for Fairbank, Alaska, without even a FRAGILE sticker going for you.”
  3. When a clerk pops up behind the reception desk of the American Deaf-Mute Assembly (Californian chapter) and starts signing at her, Oedipa considers giving him the V.
  4. Finally, at the novel’s end, with Oedipa starting to fear that the whole show has been set-up by Pierce as some sort of beyond the grave joke gone wrong, Oedipa declares to Genghis Cohen that “it may be a practical joke for you, but is stopped being one for me a few hours ago. I got drunk and went driving on these freeways.  Next time I might be more deliberate.”

Oedipa’s gags give Lot 49 its charm. But they also cut to the heart of the novel; because, as much as Oedipa is chasing a hard ground on which to stand, and understand,  to doso she herself must spin fiction.

On the opening page, when a drunken Oedipa discovers that she is Pierce’s executor, she first tries to think nothing and stare into the “greenish dead eye of the TV tube.” This does not work. What she ends up doing is imagining a whole series of scenes: a hotel room, a sunrise, a Bartok tune, and a bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept on a narrow shelf above his bed. Quite whether all Oedipa’s imaginings are related to Pierce is unclear and unimportant. What is important is that Oedipa, on learning that Pierce has died, does not think nothing but instead starts sifting through the possibility of thought, right up until that bust of Jay Gould has, for her, toppled off that narrow shelf and landed on Pierce. “Was that how he died?” Oedipa asks. Really she has no idea, but when presented with a fact Oedipa delves straight into fiction, not to explain it outright, but simply to work out where to go so that it might be possible to understand.

The line between what is meant to be real to Oedipa and what it made up is constantly smudged at.  In chapter two, Oedipa meets her fellow executor, Metzger, who is so good looking that Oedipa feels he must surely be an actor. It transpires that before becoming a lawyer Metzger was an actor and, by either a happy fluke or creepy scheming on his part, a film in which he starred is playing on TV.  Oedipa and Metzger sit watching scenes whilst speculating on Metzger’s future in the film (which is clearly already fixed) while they own immediate future lies indiscernible and open. To add to the smudging of what is real to Oedipa, every time a commercial appears on screen it advertises a product or project, which, according to Metzger, Pierce either owned or had shares in. Rather than beginning the process of clearing up confusion, meeting her fellow executor has, for Oedipa, kick-started the process of becoming still more baffled.

What is and what is not meaningful becomes so faint in Lot 49 as to be indiscernible, with Pierce and Metzger and all the other people Oedipa meets looming large as both the potential for everything and the possibility of nothing. Oedipa, faced with this web of fiction, has to end up inventing her own, even when real events are still fresh in her memory – when she goes to the bathroom and can’t find her reflection in the mirror she is terrified into thinking she is not even there, before managing to recall that she herself broke that mirror a few moments earlier, while preparing for that game of strip Botticelli. But Oedipa’s fictions only ever seem to blur further: she leaps from drama, to science, to the history of the postal service; she forges links with characters who disappear when her quest moves on; and at the end of chapter three she is so intent on the significance of The Courier’s Tragedy that while listening to late night KCUF radio she fails to recognise that the disc jockey speaking is in fact her husband Mucho, whom she left with all those instructions for oregano care but days earlier.

Oedipa’s quest is disorientating for everyone, but above all for her. The more she attempts to uncover truth the more fiction she has to spin to get there, and the more fields of enquiry she has to delve into. Her search becomes so farcical that ground on which to stand and understand becomes more elusive not less. Randolph Driblette, director and actor in The Courier’s Tragedy, is less convinced by following fiction. He suggests to Oedipa that “the only residue in fact would be the things Wharfinger did not lie about”, but if Oedipa learns anything it is that fiction does not treat of truth and lies in a binary manner.

Communicating understanding is not as simple as Maxwell’s Demon because the act of sorting causes the system to lose entropy; it raises confusion; it uncovers more than it can cover up. When told that Pierce has died Oedipa can’t but imagine the bust of Jay Gould falling from that narrow shelf, even though she has no reason to ground that as fact.

By the novel’s end, Oedipa is constantly asking herself whether in fact any of what is going on  means anything. Is it a clue to be solved? Is it all an elaborate game left by Pierce to haunt a former lover? Does it possibly mean nothing at all?

Pierce’s death forces Oedipa to project coincidence onto the chance events that occur in the chaos around her.  To see a chance event as a coincidence is to fictionalise it; it is to pull the chance event from the oblivion of nothing and cast it verbally as the infinite possibility of everything. Or, as Maurice Blanchot puts it, the writer “ruins action, not because he deals with what is unreal but because he makes all of reality available to us.” What is a chance event in the world becomes coincidence when it seems to have been planned or arranged. But in Lot 49 that planning and arranging of chance and coincidence is delivered by Oedipa and the reader.

It is fiction both in the world and on the page that transforms chance into coincidence, because, as Pynchon is acutely aware, in fiction anything and everything are possible. This is precisely what is so funny about Lot 49; the idea that nothing does not in fact mean no-one thing, but in fact everything is farcical, and the novel attests to this on a line by line basis.

When Oedipa Mass first hears that Pierce’s will includes his stamp collection, she can only think of it as “another headache.” By the novel’s end she is left waiting for Lot 49 of the auction, hoping that a forged stamp with the strange postal symbol will provoke a secret bidder to make himself known; that another chance amidst chaos can, through Oedipa’s own fiction, become a coincidence endowed with meaning. In Lot 49 that which was at first trivial for Oedipa becomes essential through nothing more than the stories she has told herself about it. Lot 49 is the mythical end point. It is necessary that its crying lies beyond the end of the novel because Lot 49 is the possibility of Oedipa understanding, not understanding itself.

The Crying of Lot 49 does not then, mean any one thing, but nor does it mean nothing. It points to the possibility of meaning; that a dead end is in fact not something closed off, but rather something totally open.

A Healthy Respect for Sex: What Lady Chatterley’s Lover Can Still Teach Us

There is an urban legend that runs something like this. It’s the year two-thousand-and-something and in Ibiza, or somewhere of that ilk, a nightclub runs a competition. The prize: a surfboard. The challenge: do something obscene on stage. A seventeen-year-old girl called Constance is eager to win. With no word to her peers she strips naked and climbs on stage with a man she has plucked from the crowd. For two minutes Constance and the unknown man perform anal sex in full view of the club. There are cheers, but also groans. Constance doesn’t win the surfboard.

In 1929, the UK and US publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was blocked on grounds of obscenity. Eighty or so years later it seems plausible that a couple could have anal sex in a public competition that urges the obscene, and not win. This is a facile comparison, perhaps. The girl in question would no doubt still be thought obscene by some, but the comparison does at least draw attention to what we perceive as obscene now and what was deemed obscene in 1929.

If there had been a surfboard up for grabs for a display of obscenity in fiction in 1929, Lady Chatterley’s Lover surely would have won. Even when it was finally published openly in 1960, it would probably have picked up the prize. It’s popularly thought of as scandalous and smutty, — high-brow pornography for the thinking pervert.

But what does the novel actually contain? What if our mythical Constance, fresh from her public failure to win a surfboard the night before, rolled out of her hotel room bed, wandered down to the beach and began to read a copy of that D. H. Lawrence novel? Would she be shocked? Would she think it obscene? Would she feel anything at all?

“You set fire to her haystacks alright”: the Sex theme

lady-chatterleyFor a novel with a relatively simple storyline – Lady Chatterley, wife of aristocratic, crippled Clifford, falls in love with Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper – D. H. Lawrence crams a lot into just three hundred pages. There is a fairly unsubtle portrayal of British class tensions that pits the working man Mellors against the landed Clifford Chatterley; there is the notable and lengthy description of a Derbyshire landscape raped by the greed of industry; and there are the bruised bodies of the Great War — of which Clifford is but one — shell-shocked, fearful and anxious for the future. But surrounding everything in the novel is the overarching theme of sex.

Constance Chatterley talks of sex from the word go, describing her seventeen-year-old romps in Dresden, prior to her marriage, and her subsequent attempts at chastity with the impotent Clifford. Clifford voices his own perfunctory opinions on companionship being the true measure of love, and is, at several points, eager enough for a child that he is happy for Lady Chatterley to go and find herself a lover with which to begat one, so long as she is discreet about it. But sex chat is not limited to the main players in the book. In fact, it becomes hard to think of any character that does not at least allude to how they think we should love. Clifford has a circle of friends who appear at house Chatterley to eat dinner and discuss sex, offering a high-minded assessment of when and where a gentleman should and shouldn’t. There is the motherly Mrs Bolton, a servant who cares for Clifford once Constance has had enough of her wifely duty; the strident Hilda, who is divorced by her husband and declares herself “off men”; and Constance’s father, who, upon meeting the gamekeeper for whom his daughter is leaving Clifford, decides to simply congratulate him: “You set fire to her haystacks alright,” he quips.

Sex is not only discussed openly in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it also serves as Lawrence’s symbolic concern: namely that the modern world of money and mining is killing off mankind’s connection with the earthly, the natural, the real, and thus, mankind himself. That the child-man Clifford ends up as an active businessman pursuing profit in the collieries on his land is a not so subtle allusion to Lawrence’s fears for the nation’s manhood under industrial capitalism. At one point Clifford’s mechanical wheelchair, which is meant to allow him to move without the aid of others, gets stuck in the mud and refuses to start. Both Clifford and Mellors (who is on hand in any woodland scene) are impotent in the face of this machine; Clifford is trapped and Mellors can only think of feeding it oil and petrol.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a book suspicious of the modern world, a book which sees money and industry working against manhood and nature. Whole sections of prose read as polemics against the world which Lawrence had spent a lifetime watching encroach, but running through this melancholy is something far simpler: the story of the love that blossoms between Lady Chatterley and the keeper, Oliver Mellors.

The Redemptive Power of Sex: “A woman’s a lovely thing when ‘er ‘s deep ter fuck, and cunt’s good.”

At the heart of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the story of two people who fall in love because they have awesome sex. Mellors arrives in the novel as little more than an object. At first he is a gruff and distant figure, prone to killing cats in front of his young daughter and content to retreat behind his Derbyshire dialect. Even as Lady Chatterley begins exploring the woods where he works, and he feels the same stirrings in his loins that she feels in her womb, he is determined to avoid contact, or at least determined to try. But he is soon a leading voice, instructing Constance Chatterley, and the reader, on the delights of fucking. Mellors emerges slowly, sliding past the stale big house discussions and the talk of money and mining.

Lady Chatterley and Mellors have sex on a brown soldier’s blanket laid on the floor of a hut. By the second act of love both the reader and Lady Chatterley are in little doubt that Mellors has certainly got something about him. His is not a classical hero. To look at he is no Abercrombie and Fitch window-boy, being pale and rangy rather than broad and bronzed. He is in his late thirties and he still suffers from the legacy of a respiratory infection picked up while in the army. Neither is Mr Mellors a sweet talker. In many ways he is aggressively blunt. He is a man who comes up with post-coital phrases like: “A woman’s a lovely thing when ‘er ‘s deep ter fuck, and cunt’s good.” Mellors, like D. H. Lawrence himself, is a believer in the redemptive power of the mutual orgasm: a Calvinist creed, which sees some blessed and others never to come in tandem; and when Lady Chatterley asks if people often come-off together Mellors is doubtful: “A good many of ‘em never,” he says. “You can see by the raw look of them.”

One of the major issue the authorities in 1929 had with the the novel was Lawrence’s inclusion of one particular four-letter word, the profane reference to female genitalia: “cunt”. In “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover“, written in 1929 as a foreword to the book, Lawrence explained how he wishes to rescue “cunt”, along with “fuck”, from the lexicon of dirty words and “make them stand for a healthy respect for sex”. Mellors is clearly fighting Lawrence’s corner on this one. When Constance unwittingly believes the words fuck and cunt to have the same meaning he abruptly correct her: “Nay, Nay!” he says. “Fuck’s only what you do. Animals fuck. But cunt’s a lot more than that. It’s thee, dost see: an’ Ha’nt a lot besides an animal aren’t ter? – even ter fuck. Cunt! Eh, that’s the beauty o’ thee, lass!”

Amidst the sex, Constance and Mellors get involved in some bizarre, at times ridiculous, behaviour: they plait forget-me-nots into their pubic hair; they run naked in the rain and fuck as animals in the dirt; and they concoct pet names that personify their genitals as Lady Jane and John Thomas, Sir Pestle and Lady Mortar. Yet as the novel progresses, and in amongst all the sensational sex and talk of fuck and cunt, there are growing moments of domestic tenderness. Connie calms Mellors’ fears that they will be discovered in his house, reminding him that at that point they are only drinking tea together (she, the Lady, waiting on him); and then there are over two pages of pillow talk, Connie gently mocking Mellors’ dialect.

“It’s all this cold-hearted fucking that is death and idiocy”: How Sex Can Save the World

Before she leaves for Venice, in the act that draws the book to its close, Constance asks Mellors what he believes in. “Yes, I do believe in something,” he replies, “I believe in being warm-hearted. I believe especially in being warm-hearted in love, in fucking with a warm heart. I believe if men could fuck with warm hearts, and the women take it warm-heartedly, everything would come right. It’s all this cold-hearted fucking that is death and idiocy.” At times Lady Chatterley’s Lover appears to be urging the reader to believe that such warm-hearted fucking could restore that which is being lost in the modern world. What is perhaps tragic is that the modern world from which Lawrence wanted to save us with tender-hearted sex, is the very world that declared the book obscene.

It was D.H. Lawrence himself who said: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” In the eight or so years that have passed since Lawrence wrote this novel it would not seem that warm-hearted fucking has saved anyone, or that the word cunt has been rescued from that lexicon of dirty words. In 2013 we certainly have a sexual morality different to that in 1929, but it is still built on the same basic blocks of difference. For every person who would fuck on stage in an attempt to win a surfboard there is another who will be shocked if they are told early on in a relationship, “Cunt! Eh, that’s the beauty o’ thee lass.”

What Lady Chatterley’s Lover teaches us, in its content and its reception is that the obscene is simply a characteristic of opinion or attitude. It is Constance who decides that her sex with Mellors is pure, while sex with others is not, just as it is the reader who must decide whether the word cunt offends, or is in fact “the beauty of thee”. We might think that we live with a different attitude to sex and the obscene today. Some might think it obscene to have public anal sex on an Ibiza stage, others that this is a totally acceptable way to attempt to win a surfboard, but it remains ridiculous to think that that one event is characteristic of a whole society, just as it is ridiculous to believe that one word of a book carries its entire meaning.

At the novel’s end, Constance and Mellors are living apart, awaiting divorce proceedings and plotting a life together. Mellors is proudly chaste; he loves it “as snowdrops love snow”. For Lady Chatterley and her lover, sex was only a part of something bigger. Just because it is the part that people most readily recall does not mean it is the part which matters. In fact, the obscene is more often the part hijacked by others, the part viewed as sensational, and so while our seventeen-year old Constance of Ibiza might be remembered for one night of obscene behaviour it would be naïve to think that that makes her an obscene person; indeed, the obscene here is only a minor aspect of her tale, lynched by others to serve their own ends.

Taking Time to Review

The process of book reviewing can sometimes seem like a production line. A new book comes out and every newspaper, magazine and website rushes to review it. But is this approach to book reviewing fundamentally flawed? In this article, Thomas Chadwick makes the argument for the time and space needed to properly read and review a book, and suggests a more complete method of reviewing.

Reading a book takes time.

It takes around a minute to read a single page of fiction. Starting at the top of the page and finishing at the bottom, passing your eye from word to word without missing out small words or skipping long, complicated-looking ones, and with absolutely no looking off into next door’s window, takes about a minute. I know this because I have just read eight separate pages from eight different books and timed how long it took me to read each. The average time taken was one minute 7.86 seconds. Only one book — The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, with bizarrely big type — took less than a minute to read at a pacey 57.49 seconds; the longest page belonged to Anna Karenina, setting me back a full minute and 17.09 seconds. But generally, extrapolating from this small (and strangely Russian) sample, it would seem that it takes about a minute to read a page of fiction.

Armed with this fact, we can then safely calculate that it would take 439.02 minutes to read the average book (which is 388.17 pages long), equating to seven hours and eighteen minutes of fiction. Clearly, some novels can be dealt with a good deal faster: The Crying of Lot 49 could be wolfed down in a rapid two hours and 23 minutes; and of course there are those that take considerably longer than our average. Dear old Anna Karenina clocks in at a stonking seventeen hours and twenty-one minutes — or what, given time to sleep, might safely be described as one solid day’s reading.

Now, these (ahem) “scientifically proven” reading times represent the shortest possible time it could take to read every word in a work of fiction — that is, to read it from cover to cover without pausing once to look into the sky, or breaking off to visit the bathroom, eat, update your status on Facebook, etc. Even for those rare souls who do have seventeen-hour-plus windows of uninterrupted time in which to read 800-page novels, it would seem unlikely that anyone could maintain that level of sustained reading concentration without seriously damaging both their retinas and their sofa covers.

In reality then, this seven-hour average is going to be spread over several days. An hour a day might be something of a goal, half an hour might be realistic; and even if there are moments when you find yourself lying in bed, with the side light on, weeping silent tears onto the last page as the clock reads 2:04 a.m., there will also be times when a work commitment or a lengthy “personal” call from an energy supplier will see reading time slip through the cracks entirely.

That it takes a long time to read a book is no doubt painfully obvious. My point here is simply to draw attention to it again and lend support to the advocates of close reading and re-reading, and more importantly: to rethink what this means for the way we review books.

Reading a book requires space.

As twenty-first century hobbies go, the rewards of reading are just about the least immediate. Reading is not like eating a meal where all you have to do is insert bite-sized chunks of text until you are full. Instead, fiction requires the reader to absorb all those chunks into a bigger and more complex picture.

Vladimir Nabokov explains the unique pleasure of receiving your art through words by comparing the art of literature with the art of painting. When looking at a painting it is totally possible to look at brushstrokes, pigment choices, flourish, flair — but, if the viewer of a painting ever wants to see the total effect, all they need do is literally take a step back.

With fiction this is simply not possible. As Nabokov explains, “We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture.” According to him, though, this is not something to be upset about. As human beings we are blessed with a metaphysical eye: a mind which, if fed a diet of sentences, can see the whole; a brain which, if it stares at page after page of Anna Karenina, will one day join all the little dots of plot and character to a point where the book finally releases its full impact.

Taking that metaphysical step back requires both time and space. For Nabokov, the metaphysical bigger picture is reached not by reading but by re-reading: “A good reader,” he says, “is a re-reader”. For him the first reading of a piece of fiction is simply an introduction to it. From this simple conclusion a powerful argument emerges: that the human mind is only able to deal with fiction if it is allowed both the time to read, as well as the metaphysical space to process and reflect on that reading, to join all those metaphysical dots and take that great leap backwards.

Again, you probably already know this, but I do think it bears repeating. Literature, as opposed to many other twenty-first century art forms, demands space for reflection, space that, in the face of the demands of the industry, is not generally given by either publishers or reviewers.

Point-of-publication “reviews” can’t actually review the book.

Commercial demands seem to be increasingly turning a book’s very publication into an “event”. When a book is published, reviews are churned out by leading newspapers, and the writer gives readings and interviews. If the novelist has previously written a string of successful books, it might make the ten o’clock news, and there will be a lot of activity on Facebook and twitter. But there is something slightly incongruous about the clamour surrounding the arrival of a book, considering its something whose charms can only be accessed by sitting very quietly on your own for hours.

The 1996 publication of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace was such an event. As publications go, it was a big one — there was a publication party in an actual bar, which was actually full. There were also many “reviews” written at the point of publication. Later David Foster Wallace wrote in a letter to Don DeLillo that “for about a week there it seemed to me that this book became the Most Photographed Barn, everyone tremendously excited over the tremendous excitement surrounding a book that takes over a month of hard labour to read.”

The barn mentioned by David Foster Wallace is from a 1986 novel by Don DeLillo called White Noise. The scene involves the narrator, a Nazi studies professor called Jack Gladney, being driven to the most photographed barn in America. The passage, which takes up barely a page and a half, makes the point that in DeLillo’s America the barn itself has been overtaken by its status as the most photographed barn in America. As Jack’s companion explains, “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

It is a very neatly made point, but a fleeting one. The barn is just one bite-sized chunk in White Noise’s bigger picture: Jack Gladney’s struggle to overcome his fear of death in the postmodern world. Yet in the years since White Noise’s publication, the barn has fallen victim to the very tendency it was satirising. The “barn scene” has become one of the most talked about in postmodern fiction. I have had actual conversations about the barn with people who have not read a single word of White Noise but who know, all the same, that they need to bunny-ear their fingers every time they say the word “barn”.

Infinite Jest’s case is extreme. Yet its treatment does draw attention to my points about the time and space required for a really good and complete review. To read Infinite Jest does take one month. To read it twice takes another month. To really start joining those metaphysical dots takes a third. What’s more, those three months cannot follow sequentially — you’d inevitably start to shed friends but also, crucially, not be able to begin the process of stepping back.

A new kind of review?

What I am positing is a third space for the book review that sits between the point-of-publication reviews and the academic analyses that come later still. These reviews could offer a slightly different service to the general reader of fiction: seeking not to promote or to recommend which books are worth buying/reading, but to remind readers of their worth and to discuss their various elements for a richer experience. Yes, this already happens for some books, but they tend to be the “big” books that have universally proven themselves to be classics. What about the rest of them?

This is a different breed of reviews I am suggesting. They would turn to books once the furore of publication has died down; and perhaps they don’t have to worry about “spoiler alerts”. Their concern would be that the everyday reader of fiction recalls those books they have read months or years before; they would be unconcerned with whether an author has or has not “done it again”, and instead deal with the only question that ever needs to be asked of a work of fiction in itself: whether, once the lights have been turned off, the paper cups tidied away and all the bunting rolled up and carted off to some event on the other side of town, there is anything left behind for the reader that might still glimmer.

The Master and Margarita at the Barbican Theatre

As novels go, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita does not scream out to be adapted for theatre. Set partly in Stalinist Moscow and partly in Biblical Judea, it opens with the Devil (in the guise of “Professor” Woland; think “Roland” with a lisp) interrupting a discussion on atheism between a poet, Ivan, and the Chairman of MASSOLIT (the soviet party-line Arts whipping boys), named Berlioz. The Devil’s havoc is immediate. Berlioz is run over by a tram, Ivan is incarcerated in an asylum, and soon the Devil and his colourful retinue have taken up residence in Berlioz’s apartment and are preparing to put on a night of black magic at a Moscow theatre.

There is enough substance here for perhaps four separate plays, yet we have only really scratched the surface because what the book actually turns to focus on next is the man Ivan meets at the asylum. He is another writer, this time known simply as the Master, whose novel depicting the trial of Jesus was deemed too real and too sentimental for the atheist MASSOLIT. The Master however, has his muse: a striking woman, though married, called Margarita, who, having lost her love to the state, enters into a Faustian pact with the Devil. Woland agrees to reunite her with the Master so long as she helps him out by greeting all of the guests at the Satanic ball he is holding in Berlioz’s apartment. In the midst of Margarita’s games with the Devil, and the Master’s and Ivan’s attempts to make sense of their incarceration, we are regularly catapulted back nearly 2,000 years to the scene which got both of these writers into trouble: namely the trial of Yeshua (Jesus).

Confused yet? You should be. You have every right to be. To read, The Master and Margarita is a stunning yet at times bewildering novel. The very fact that it has ever been adapted for the stage is worthy of applause. That this adaptation at the Barbican Theatre covers not only every aforementioned scene but a whole host of other ones that have been skated over — in just three hours — is worthy of an ovation. That it may well be a triumph makes me go weak at the knees.

If any theatre company were to pull off this Master and Margarita coup it would be Complicite under the direction of Simon McBurney. Founded in 1983, Complicite have spent the last thirty years building a reputation for innovative and ground-breaking theatre and Simon McBurney describes Complicite rehearsals as involving “constant fooling around”, with an “immense amount of chaos”.  Their creative process is a constructive one, continually working on the project even up until the final night — in a manner not dissimilar to Mikhail Bulgakov himself, who continued to redraft his novel up until his death in 1940.  The most immediately striking aspect of their production is that, in a tale where the Devil treats the Muscovites to his black magic trickery, this is a performance of immense theatrical virtuosity.

Despite opening simply with a single line of chairs on an empty stage, Complicite soon demonstrate their ability: apartments, hospital wards, trams and Pilate’s court are all created with little more than four lines of white light and a chair. A single upright booth plays kiosk, tramcar, box office and the threshold of hell. When Ivan looks out of a window he simply lifts up the stick held by another character from out of the shadows. At one point all sixteen chairs are held aloft by the cast to provide the olive grove of Gethsemane, before being rocked loudly against the floor to introduce a running horse. Nothing is static. Scenes are convoluted into one another with the actors from the previous action holding together the newly located set.

But this is the straightforward stuff. More complex is Complicite’s use of video, which is regular and inventive and worthwhile. Clever camera work allows heads to be severed, Margarita to fly, and Yehuda (Judas) to hang. During Pilate’s deliberation the tension in his jaw is cast across the back curtain and at one point Berlioz’s head is projected onto a mannequin so the Devil can strike it in two with a meat cleaver. Street maps of Moscow are projected onto the stage and exited with a Google Earth-esque zoom. Judea is suggested through pillars, Russian crowds and street mobs look on from the back wall, bees swarm and buzz. Video trickery allows the Master and Margarita to fly across the back wall on a horse made from animated chairs. On the night of Woland’s black magic performance we, the audience, found ourselves emblazoned across the back curtain, with the actors standing looking out amongst us, goading us to look ourselves up and down in a sort of narcissistic reversal that felt like it went on far too long.

The actors themselves move in bizarre and convoluted ways: the Master limps; Woland struts; Azazello dances; Koroviev slithers; Behemoth, brought to life as a giant puppeted tom-cat lurches aggressively across the stage — he spits profanities with such histrionics as to suggest that the huddled puppeteers who direct him are themselves unsure as to who is in control. In contrast, Yeshua is emaciated and looks close to death even before he is crucified with three carefully placed bamboo canes. Pilate’s proud stance is checked by a wince that suggests a dull and nagging ache. Rather than deal out a series of creaking Russian accents, characters assume a variety of voices: members of MASSOLIT speak as if they are at a Rotary Club meeting in Halifax; Yeshua’s delivery has a Mexican lilt reminiscent of El Nombre (a Zorro-type character who teaches children how to add up); Woland picks up a childish sneer and never lets go of it; Behemoth assumes the persona of a hyper-aggressive wide boy; and for some unknown reason, Azazello is American.

To see all this written down it all begins to seem farcical. In many respects it is. Large sections of what happens on stage are ridiculous. The production is overblown. It is theatrical. Surely farce is intended. As an audience we are constantly being asked to question what, if indeed anything, is real about this performance. When the Master fusses outside Berlioz’s MASSOLIT office the receptionist’s patience blows and she tells him to walk on through because “there is nothing there”. Later when the Master and Margarita are back in the Master’s apartment, following Margarita’s pact with the devil, he argues with her for believing that the place they have been returned to even exists. “None of this is real,” he rages, at the moment when the actors who hold the set together in the shadows fall over, taking the chairs and thus the room with them. This is the Devil’s work, the Master is saying, it is theatre, it is light and camera and action. It is not real.

In the play’s opening scene Berlioz explains to the poet Ivan that the problem with his new poem — another revisiting of Pilate and the trial of Jesus — is that he has made the character of Jesus too believable. To the atheist MASSOLIT chairman, who believes in the Soviet ideals of man and his achievements alone, this is ridiculous. To quote Bulgakov’s original, Berlioz “wanted to prove to the poet that the main point was not whether Jesus had been good or bad, but that he had never existed as an individual, and that all stories about him were mere inventions.” For large portions of the Master and Margarita inventiveness is all. There is a great desire to show just what can be done on stage in front of an audience. But the same Devil that brings black magic trickery to the stage and projects videos of the audience onto the back curtain also brings the moment when the Master and Margarita meet in a crowded tram car, and the instance in which the sturdy Pilate is taken into the arms of the fragile Jesus. Finally, towards the plays end, after Behemoth has lurched off stage and the chairs have receded, when we are left with Ivan alone in the middle of the empty stage, with no video to complicate the image and no microphone to amplify his voice, he asks simply: “What comes next?” For some, the theatrical mastery of Complicite will be enough; for others, it may be too much. For me, it was the moments of sincere humanity that managed to stand out — those moments when the theatre stepped back and the tale spoke.

The Master and Margarita at the Barbican Theatre closed on 19 January. You can find more information on the theatre company Complicite  here.

Some Really Bad Things that Have Happened at Sea – for Context.

Before we even left port I found that both of the drawers underneath my bunk were filled with jars of pickled herring.

Later, while I was watching the sun dip into the horizon, some salt water kicked up overboard and splashed me. It was actually quite refreshing but unfortunately it must have also splashed onto where my disposable contact lenses sat on deck as when I put the lenses in it really stung. When I told the guys in my room what had happened though, midshipman Wilson just laughed really loudly and said the whole thing was just too funny. I repeated that it actually really hurt and made it harder than ever to see, but he insisted it was still priceless. I said as we are all well aware good vision is essential to the sound seaman, but that only set him off again. Midshipman Clarke wanted to know why I was changing my contact lenses on deck. I explained that I’d gone up to watch the sun set. Midshipman Wilson called me a gay and started laughing even harder.

While I was removing the last jar of pickled herring from under my bunk and placing it in a cupboard near the life jacket store, midshipman Wilson came running over and asked me just what exactly I thought I was doing with his pickled herring. I explained about them being in my drawers. I said I needed to put my clothes away. I reminded him that when at sea for long periods of time it is important to feel settled and at home and that all my stuff still being in bags was not helping this. Midshipman Wilson said that was all very tragic but how was he supposed to keep track of his pickled herring if they were all over the boat. I said they were hardly all over the boat as they were all in the cupboard next to the life jackets. He said that was the same thing. I’ve only eaten pickled herring once. It was not pleasant. I already do not want to know why midshipman Wilson has so many on board.

The waves were very big today and the boat was pitching more than normal. I woke up in the night feeling strange and ended being sick in the corridor. Luckily the lads were all fast asleep so I was able to clean up before anyone noticed. Both midshipman Wilson and midshipman Clarke sleep on their backs with their legs spread open and their hands behind their heads. Midshipman Wilson also sleeps naked and sometimes the blanket does not cover him properly. He snores loudly and farts roughly every two hours. I have timed it.

Someone must have heard me last night because now everyone on board is calling me these silly names all derived from the word vomit. There are just too many to hold in your head all at once, but Vom-Lord, Vom-Face and McVom are prevalent. At supper midshipman Wilson called me Lord Chunderstains right in front of the captain. I expected the captain to check midshipman Wilson for his foul language but instead he asked me if the rumours were true. I said I had no idea what he could be talking about. Of course you do Vomulus, he said. Midshipman Wilson laughed so hard he had to sit down on a coil of rope. The only people who could have heard me on the corridor are Wilson, Clarke and Tins, but I have already narrowed it down to Wilson and Clarke because Tins doesn’t ever go on deck and just works in the engine room.

Midshipman Wilson broke into my drawer yesterday and stole my SHOOT annual from 1996. He’s gone through and drawn a swastika on every Blackburn Rovers shirt. He thinks what he has done is hilarious, so I had to explain that because of the swastika anyone who sees me reading it is going to think that either I’m a Nazi or that I think that everyone at Ewood Park is a Nazi. Midshipman Wilson told me to lighten up but it is a very awkward situation as everyone knows the captain wears a Chris Sutton shirt when he goes to the gym. I have decided to put the annual at the bottom of my drawer and not take it out until the end of the trip which is a big shame as it was a great season and it’s good to catch up when you’re away from home. I’m 90% sure it was midshipman Wilson who told everyone about my accident in the corridor. Clarke nodded sympathetically when I complained about the annual and is generally far too nice.

Today we pulled up and dropped anchor so some of us went for a swim off the back of the ship. I’ve always loved the water and I was having a really great swim until I realised midshipman Wilson and midshipman Clarke had pulled the ladder up. When I called for them to put it back they acted like I wasn’t even there and just lay on their backs in the sun, drinking those little green Heinekens they let us have when we’re off duty. I trod water for well over half an hour before they finally let me back on, by which time the sun had dried out the salt in my hair and frozen it solid. Midshipman Wilson said I looked like Sideshow Bob. I tried very hard to ignore this.

Because we are near port we were given permission to go on shore for the night. A good gang of us ended up going over around six and found a lovely sea front bar with a terrace overlooking the bay and what looked like very reasonably priced sea food. We were all relaxed and enjoying feeling like human beings again, until midshipman Wilson made everyone, including the captain, do Jaegerbombs. Soon we were all really drunk. Midshipman Wilson stood on a table and said that we must all go and get hookers. A few of the lads seemed keen but I said I’d be alright for tonight thank you. Midshipman Wilson told me to grow a pair and come and get a hooker with the boys. I told him I already had a pair thank you. He said it didn’t bloody look like it. There was a small argument and then everyone held me down so midshipman Wilson could pull down my sailor trousers to check. Then they all ran off to get hookers. I was really cross with midshipman Wilson for making such a scene as it was a very smart place. I also pray that no one caught sight of the mole on my inner left thigh, before I got my sailor trousers back up.

Apparently midshipman Wilson had three hookers. I said that seemed a little over the top, but instead of defending himself he rounded on me and asked me if I was a gay? I said I had a wife thank you, who I cared for very much and who was definitely a woman. Midshipman Wilson groaned and said it was worse than he thought. I have no idea what he meant by that. There is a high chance one of the hookers will have given him a venereal disease, but I didn’t bother telling him; I don’t suppose he would care.

Someone definitely saw the mole. On the back of the gents on Deck 4 there is a drawing of a man in a Blackburn Rovers shirt with a swastika where it should say McEwan’s Lager. The man has no trousers on and no genitals apart from a big black ball half way down his left thigh. It has hairs sticking out of it. Underneath someone has written you’ve got a mole with it.

We got post from home today. I received a lovely letter from Marie. She included a packet of refreshers and some Percy Pigs. I was in such a good mood after the letter that I shared out the sweets with the guys. Midshipman Wilson ate all but one of the Percy Pigs and then asked me to remind him to go and give Marie a decent shag when we got back to say thank you. I didn’t even bother to respond. I think blue refreshers are my favourite, although sometimes I think they all taste the same.

It was very choppy today. A huge wave came on board while we were scrubbing the deck and we all got soaked, apart from midshipman Wilson who wasn’t there at the time.

Midshipman Wilson has a new dorm rule. Wednesday night is communal wank night, where he puts pornography on the telly and we all masturbate. I explained that I had no problem with masturbating but that as a married man I would prefer to look at a picture of my wife. Midshipman Wilson said that was fine so long as the photo was big enough for everyone to see. I had to explain that there was just no way I was going to let a room full of sailors masturbate over a photo of my wife. Midshipman Wilson said I was missing the point of a communal wank. We argued about it for a good long while before Clarke told us both to belt it and put the pornography on. The pornography really was awful, not romantic at all. I thought about pretending I was feeling sick and slipping out with my photo of Marie for a more private wank, but the only place I could go was the gents on Deck 4 where there is a drawing of my mole on the door, so in the end I stayed in with the others. Midshipman Wilson was shameless; he didn’t even do it under the covers.

We were meant to go into port today but couldn’t because the sea was too rough. This was the last thing I needed as I am running out of toothpaste and I don’t believe any of the other guys have any.

Two bad things today: Firstly someone has drawn an arrow to the drawing on the gents door on Deck 4 and written, who’s this tosser? Secondly my photo of Marie has gone missing. I had it kept tucked inside my copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which I read once before and didn’t get on with, but I thought I’d give another go as everyone says it’s so good. I can’t help feeling midshipman Wilson is probably involved in both.

Today in the common room midshipman Wilson did an awful fart and then ran away so when all the guys came in from the gym they assumed I’d done it.

I caught midshipman Wilson selling my photo of Marie to other sailors today. He was charging a pound a go but he didn’t say what a go actually was. I asked politely for my photo back but he said I had to give him a pound. I said I wasn’t going to pay for my own wife. Midshipman Wilson said he’d always assumed that that was the relationship. In the end I paid him a pound. It wasn’t right that he made me do so, but I couldn’t bear the thought of Marie being passed round all the sailors. It’s my favourite ever photo of her, taken in April when we went out walking in the botanical gardens when all the pink and white blossom was out, looking like bridesmaids dresses hanging out to dry. There are small smudge marks on the sides and the bottom left hand corner is a bit bent. I have put the photo in my wallet to keep it safe. I had to fold it in half but I think I still have the negative so I should be able to print off another copy when I get home.

At supper on the last night midshipman Wilson and midshipman Clarke gave me a massive wedgie in the canteen. It took me totally by surprise. I don’t think I’ve had one since school and I forgot how much they actually hurt. Everyone was laughing including John who everyone says has no sense of humour. Maybe he was just happy because we all go home tomorrow.

As soon as the captain thanked us for our efforts and said we were free to go midshipman Wilson shouted see you suckers and sprinted across the quay to the pub. Clarke waited around and shook me by the hand. He gave me his number and said to meet up for a pint if I was ever in Exeter. We looked for Tins to say goodbye to him but we couldn’t find him. Marie was waiting with the car and I invited Clarke to come over and say hello. Marie smiled and looked very lovely in her green cardigan. In the end we gave Clarke a lift to the station. Afterwards Marie said she was glad I’d met some nice folks on board. When we got home I was so tired I let Marie unpack my bags. She was up there a long time while I just sat on a chair watching Emmerdale. Eventually she came down with a jar of pickled herring. Is there a story behind this? She asked, laughing.