Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Circle

Dave Eggers' brilliant novel veers from post-apocalyptic thriller to satire to parody as he takes the tenets driving social networking and Silicon Valley meglomania to their logical conclusion in the tale of a young ingenue, Mae Holland, who goes to work at The Circle -- a combination of Facebook and Google with a dash of Twitter thrown in -- and quickly become an integral part of a proto-totalitarian surveillance tool.

The world at the beginning of the novel is recognizable as our own, given a couple of years and mergers. The insight of the Three Wise Men who run The Circle was to combine existing social network capabilities in a seamless web, so to speak, of communication.

Quickly, however, the "social" in in social networking becomes a fascist imperative, with first the workers at The Circle and then the population at large expected to participate constantly. Mae is chided after her first week for not participating enough in the online networking and the real life events of the sprawling campus that is a city unto itself. In a dazzingly brilliant pun, Eggers has all the workers ranked according to their level of participation -- their PartiRank -- which conjures up 1984 and Darkness at Noon.

Mae adapts quickly and becomes ashamed of her independent ways -- going on a late-night kayaking trip, for instance, without sharing the experience with The Circle. She is susceptible to the influence of the wise men and becomes a useful foil for propagating their agenda. She sums up the credo of The Circle in words she's not even sure are her own in what becomes a manifesto for the company: Secrets are Lies. Sharing is Caring. Privacy is Theft.

Oh my. Mae is brought to the Circle by her college friend Annie, a star at the company, but Mae's meteoric rise quickly takes her even higher, so that Annie finds herself bitterly envious of her friend's success. Mae must deal with Annie's burgeoning enmity, with the resistance of her parents and old boyfriend in Fresno to the surveillance world envisioned by the Circle, and with her passion for the mysterious Kalden, who seems to have access to the inner sanctum of the Circle but may be a spy from a rival company.

The reader hopes against hope that Mae will wake up to the peril of the world she is embracing and that suspense drives the reader to the climax of the novel when she must choose between the totalitarian vision of the Circle leaders and the alternative presented by the enigmatic Kalden. It is worth reading the novel to find out what she chooses.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Summer reading

Summer has provided some good time for reading but not much for blogging. The best book I read this summer was Lily King's Euphoria, a fictionalized version of the love triangle experienced by Margaret Mead and her first and second husbands as they were all researchers in New Guinea. It was a beautifully written, sparingly told love story set in conditions beyond exotic. It was helpful that the author did not attempt to use the actual historical characters -- it gave her more freedom, as I noted in my WIRoB blog post.

Nell's husband became increasingly unsympathetic in the course of the novel, and in fact the reader wonders what the attraction was in the first place. But it realistically portrays how the charm of a particular moment or period can set our lives in a certain direction that then becomes hard to change.

Joseph Kanon's Leaving Berlin was one of his best thriller to date. He captures the ambivalence of a period that drew creative personalities like Berthold Brecht to the young German Democratic Republic even in the face of the appalling reality of Stalinism. Layered on top of this background is the personal story of Alex Meier, a refugee caught in his own vise of compromise compelling him to return as a spy for the CIA. If the East German Stasi is ugly, so is the American agency. Meier's rekindled romance with an actress there and its role in completing his mission rounds out a compelling read replete with tellingly accurate details.

Ben Winters' World of Trouble completes the Last Policeman trilogy. Predictably, this third book loses a little of the momentum and freshness that propelled the other two. The previous novel, Countdown City, had set up this quest for Henry to go look for his sister Nikki, one of the least interesting characters in series. She is so unsympathetic that it's hard to share Henry's concern for her welfare. Also, the plot is more plodding, with none of the clever twists and turns that characterized the previous two novels.

Far North by Marcel Theroux is another good post-apocalyptic novel, similar in many respects -- too similar sometimes -- to the Chang Rae Lee book. It too involves a picaresque journey of a young survivor with many twists, evil characters and a firm belief in the resiliency of the human spirit.

The Empty Quarter by David Robbins is another in the series involving the intrepid pararescue troopers, this time on a mission to Saudi Arabia's empty quarter that is off the grid in more senses than one. Not as good as the earlier one, but still easy to read.

The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow traced a macabre experiment in 1871 New York that you realize only slowly is a chilling critique of modern medicine. It has the period detail and deft characterization that mark Doctorow's better known works, while the baroque pace is somewhat more streamlined.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Countdown City

Ben Winters tale of a world facing extinction as an asteroid approaches might seem like a one-joke novel that does not lend itself to a sequel, let alone a series. But this second of three novels is so imaginative and inventive that it continues to surprise the reader. The narrator, Henry Palace, is a straight-laced police detective who can't think of any better way to await Armageddon than to continue doing his job. He debuted in The Last Policeman, and this sequel has him investigating another possible crime even though the Concord Police Department has closed down its detective department and kept only uniformed cops patrolling as a way to maintain some semblance of law and order in a world that is rapidly losing its tenuous connection to civilization.

As the countdown to the asteroid goes on -- it is around 75 days away in this novel -- Henry, sometimes Hank, promises his former babysitter he will look for her husband, who has disappeared. Of course, people disappear all the time in this end-of-days scenario, no longer feeling bound by any obligations. Some kill themselves, others travel to hedonistic meccas (New Orleans seems to be the main one) to spend the final days in revelry, others have their personal bucket lists. But Martha Milano is convinced that her husband, a former state trooper, is not that type of person.

It would seem like a fools' errand "in the current environment," as his friends and former colleagues tell him. Hank knows there's a million other things he could be doing. "But this is what I do," Hank reflects on what drives him to continue working as a detective. "It's what makes sense to me, what has long made sense. And surely some large proportion of the world's current danger and decline is not inevitable but rather the result of people scrambling fearfully away from the things that have long made sense."

So Hank takes on the case, enlisting the help of his sister, Nico, who has joined a rebel group that believes there is a government conspiracy to stop a feasible effort to deflect the asteroid and save the world. Hank thinks she's crazy but she has contacts in the Free Republic of New Hampshire, a utopian student community set up in the former university, and his search for the missing husband leads there.

The description of this community and one of its leaders -- who is determined to prevent the free republic from descending to the inevitable bloody authoritarianism of Jacobin revolution by quietly exercising her own version of authoritarianism -- is an ingenious portrayal of a world that is part postapocalyptic and part satire. The individual characters are vividly sketched and a wry humor underlies Hank's narrative.

His search takes him to the Maine coast -- bicycle is the main form of transportation -- where he discovers that coastal defense efforts to keep immigrants from landing are more cynical than he imagined. Again, the real-life issues we face in the Caribbean and Mediterranean are only thinly veiled in this science fiction plot.

By the time Hank makes it back to Concord, the breakdown of law and order is nearly complete. He has successfully unraveled the mystery of the missing husband but his report is disappointing to his "client," and in any case the whole world is literally going to hell in a handbasket. The CPD has made its own preparations for survival as the forces pull out of town and leave the residents to their own devices.

Winters apparently has people contribute ideas of what they would do in this situation to his website, and perhaps that is the source of some of the entertaining detail in the various reactions of people to the coming catastrophe. It will be interesting to see how he wraps it up in the third volume, if that is indeed what he does.

The writing is compelling, the protagonist sympathetic, the far-fetched plot surprisingly realistic -- a great series.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Taint of Midas

Anne Zouroudi evokes the sight, smell and sounds of Greece in a language that is clear and crisp. Her descriptions of everyday life and the pain of the corrosive effects of tourism and commercialism (this in 2008 even before the current crisis) transport the reader to the country's cafes and scenic roads.

But her feeble mystery tracing the driver of a hit-and-run death amidst a developer's scheme to build luxury villas on a protected mountainside is thin and unsatisfying. Her "detective," Hermes Diaktronos, may be less opaque to readers of her first novel, but he remains a complete cipher in this book. There is virtually no interior life for this character and the author's insistence in referring to him always as "the fat man" is awkward and distracting. The sketchy details of his appearance bring to mind the young Peter Ustinov of "Topkapi," but that is doing the author a favor.

The villain of the piece, Aris Paliakis, emerges as the better drawn character, and even the two police officers involved show more personality than the fat man. There is not much mystery in this short tale of greed and corruption, and the fat man's elliptical search for clues borders on fantasy as he all-knowingly intervenes in the lives of those he has decided are the perpetrators of his friend's death or in some other way contravene his understanding of justice. This virtuous vigilante even straightens out the police department while he is at it.

The minor characters go some way to redeeming the novel. The opening chapter depicting the aging Gabrilis Kaloyeros as he harvests his watermelons to sell at his stall in town, or another episode with the barber Sosti who closes his shop to go fishing after 12 haircuts no matter what time it is are well drawn. Some of the vignettes -- how Paliakis dupes the tourists dining in his restaurant or tries to sway town council members to approve his planned development -- are amusing.

I bought this as a remainder and it may be Zouroudi never finished what seems from the subtitle -- "A Seven Deadly Sins Mystery" -- to be a projected series. If she did, perhaps the character of Diaktronos eventually takes on some depth. Unfortunately, even though the writing really is good, this story just barely works as a standalone novel.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

On Such a Full Sea

Chang-Rae Lee's dystopian picaresque follows the fortunes of Fan, a young fish-tank diver from the factory cities of a somewhat distant future. It may or may not be a postapocalyptic world, because Lee wastes no time with back story, relying on a few allusions from the narrator to let the reader discern that the world has changed.

Fan lives in a regimented town called B-Mor, formerly known as Baltimore when the "natives" lived there. She belongs to a clan descended from the "originals," a population of Chinese immigrants forced to flee New China and now settled in these factory towns to provide food and other products to the "Charters," an upper class that is a mildly extrapolated version of today's. The rest of the population is assigned to a wild and woolly outback known as the "Counties," characterized by Appalachian-like poverty.

The unusual first-person plural narrator makes the novel read like a cross between a Homeric epic and a Greek tragedy, seeming at times to recount the accumulated myth surrounding Fan, her departure from B-Mor and her adventures journeying through the Counties to a Charter village as she seeks her boyfriend Reg, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and her long-lost brother Liwei, who qualified for the dubious honor of being promoted to life in a Charter village.

As with the Greek prototypes, this type of narration gives little insight into the interior life of Fan or any of the other characters, aside from speculation by the narrator about the staged feelings that they might be experiencing. The overall effect is to depict life as a series of random events that we have no control over, and our only response can be to go with the flow and just keep trying to move forward. Indeed, the epigraph the title is drawn from, a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which includes the line "There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads onto fortune," and which counsels the reader, "On such a full sea are we now afloat,/And we must take the current when it serves/Or lose our ventures."

There are many lines in the novel itself that are epigraphical. When Fan leaves B-Mor on her adventure she realizes she does not miss the particular individuals in her clan, who live in close quarters with little interaction, but does miss them "in sum." "Do not discount the psychic warmth of the hive," interjects the narrator. Referring to the way an Uncle Kellen expressed skepticism about the perfection of life in B-Mor by saying nothing, the narrator says, "You can be affected by a person because of something particular they said or did but sometimes it is how a person was, a manner of being, that gets most deeply absorbed, and prompts you to revisit certain periods of your life with an enhanced perspective, flowing forward right up to now."

It is, in fact, the actions of people, rather than their words, which further Fan along her way, as she lands first with the enigmatic Quinn, a former Charter resident consigned to the Counties when a plague led to a ban of all pets and ended his career as a veterinarian, and then with Mister Leo and Miss Cathy in a chilling Charter episode, until she is rescued by the emergency room doctor Vik and grows nearer to her goal of finding lover and brother.

Despite the artifice of Greek epic, or maybe because of it, the narration sweeps the reader along on a full sea of his or her own as the surprises and twists of Fan's journey -- not least her own unpredictable behavior -- maintains a level of suspense up until the final twist at the end. The writing has an accomplished literary quality that makes it rich and readable at the same time. If Fan remains something of a cipher, the narrator's sympathy for her innocence is infectious and most other characters eke out some sympathy from the reader as well, even when their environment makes them less than admirable.

What is dystopian is the regimentation and stratification of society, the economic apartheid that brooks little mobility between stations in life -- and which seems based in part at least on racial or ethnic origins. Whatever the upheavals that have occurred, society remains relatively intact with a recognizable level of consumer gratification. Even in factory towns like B-Mor, residents have "vids" to watch and use "handscreens" for photos. The inexplicable wave of shortages and discontent that washes over B-Mor is probably much like the impact of a recession in the interior of China, a mystery to inhabitants who have no inkling of the wider economic forces at work. The ultimate sterility of the materialistic Charter villages is outright satire that is painfully close to the reality.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel skillfully weaves a compelling narrative of pre- and post-apocalyptic drama, of story within a story, and virtually a play within a play. And she does so in a language that is understated, but elegant and sometimes lyrical. Most of all, she makes the reader care about her characters, viewing all of them, even the sinister prophet in a fragmented post-apocalyptic world, with sympathy.

Once again, there is no single protagonist. It is in large part a story of Arthur Leander, a famous film actor who dies in the opening pages as he performs in a stage production of King Lear. A child actress in the play, Kirsten Raymonde, who briefly interacts with Arthur, is the focus of the post-apocalyptic scenes, which mostly take place 20 years after Leander's death.

That ill-fated performance comes literally on the eve of a flu pandemic that kills off most of the earth's human population in a period of just weeks and brings an end to civilization as we know it. Raymonde, as a young adult, becomes part of a group of musicians and actors, The Traveling Symphony, which circulates through the sparsely populated towns around the Great Lakes, performing Shakespeare and Beethoven to appreciative audiences deprived of most other forms of entertainment.

The back story of Leander, his three wives, his friend Clark and his son, Tyler, occupies a good half of the novel. These stories before and after the catastrophe are linked by characters running into each other -- the coincidences are highly improbable, but not impossible, so the author is forgiven -- and by a couple of McGuffins, especially a hand-printed graphic novel about a space station and its commander, Station Eleven and Dr. Eleven.

Kirsten is in possession of one of the few copies of the graphic novel, which was produced by Leaner's first wife, Miranda, a would-be artist who went on after her divorce to become a successful shipping executive. Station Eleven, the size of small planet, is largely covered with water, an Undersea which harbors a population of renegades who oppose Dr. Eleven and want to return to earth.

Through this fanciful, imaginative tapestry, Mandel weaves basic human emotions of love and affection, loss and regret, timidity and courage, with a force that is compelling -- I read the book in just four days -- and often moving.

J.K. Rowling once said that Harry Potter and his fellow students don't have computers and cell phones because they have magic playing the role these miraculous devices have in our lives. The magic things of civilization -- air travel, electricity, even books -- come in for their share of wonder in this novel. But the rediscovery of simple pleasures -- bread baking in the oven, catching fish in a stream, performing a play -- also become a source of happiness and fulfillment.

Ultimately, for all the devastation and deprivation in this post-apocalyptic world, the resilience of the human spirit and endurance of human emotion create an atmosphere of optimism, which survives deadly threats and unavoidable setbacks.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Windsor Faction

D.J. Taylor's novel starts with a great premise for an alternate history -- Wallis Simpson dies of appendicitis so that Edward VIII does not abdicate but stays on the throne as World War II commences -- and provides an entertaining portrait of England torn between pacifism ("defeatism") and war.

However, spoiler alert, Taylor doesn't alter history all that much. Edward is portrayed as a weak and vacillating individual whose half-hearted support for the defeatists did little in fact to change anything. Rather, the ham-handed conspiracy of the novel, involving several historical figures, ended largely as it did in real history. British intelligence monitored the conspirators closely and when Germany did invade France, abandoning all pretension of seeking peace, the conspiracy collapsed and everyone was arrested.

So as an alternate history thriller, The Windsor Faction doesn't live up to its billing. As a satire poking fun at British society and a richly detailed picture of England in 1939, however, it makes for a good read. The wit, to use a cliche, is rapier-sharp, and the dissection of motivation of the multiple narrators is surgical. From the king on down through the conspiring aristocrat, the upper-class ingenue and her more sophisticated mentor, the foppish publisher and traitorous editor of a literary journal, the laconic gadabout writer, the oily clerk in the American embassy, to the distracted intelligence agents, the middle-class proprietors of an antique shop and the thuggish prol who works there -- each character is sharply delineated, fleshed out and made more  or less sympathetic to the reader.

There is not much suspense because the characters are not a credible threat to the established order. Rather they are a marginal, quirky, misguided footnote to history, alternate or real.

The writer adopts several different points of view -- including one in first person via a diary -- so that there is no clear protagonist. Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a young woman whose fiance is killed in a tragicomic manner while her family is stationed in the British colony of Ceylon, comes closest to being the character who binds the action together. She is the first we meet and plays a key part in the denouement. But other characters get their chapters as well, including Beverley Nichols (male despite the first name), an historical character who is deployed in the novel as an amanuensis for Edward to produce a very different sort of King's Speech in that fateful December 1939.

The king's pacifist tones do little to significantly sway public opinion, however, and the authorities dispatch him ("this is not a suggestion, but an order") to the distant provinces for inspection tours to keep him out of trouble. In the meantime, the emboldened conspirators try to surreptitiously negotiate a peace treaty with Germany, but time runs out before the French invasion.

I'm not a fan of multiple narrators, no more than I am of small plate restaurants. The snippets may be tasty, but not as satisfying as a full meal. Also, the details of period brands and manners and jingles and language are sometimes too rich and inserted gratuitously in a way that interrupts the flow.

That said, Taylor is a talented and supple writer and the novel remains compelling even without a thriller's suspense.