Sunday, November 17, 2013

Book Review: S, Classical Writers and the Meaning of Literature

I am a book guy, for lack of a better term. When I bought my new house, the first major project I started on was remodeling the basement, with built in bookshelves on which to stack my collected tomes. I have nothing against e-readers, in fact I own both a Nook and a Kindle (I prefer the Kindle Fire, quite useful device) but still when I decided to take the leap and read Ulysses I went with an old hardback version (A US first edition I proudly managed to pick up at a used book store for the paltry price of $7) even at the risk of damaging it, rather than simply reading it off the screen.

So I suppose it should not come as a surprise that I would be fascinated by a book that I had come across at the local Barnes and Noble, not for its content, in fact I was completely unfamiliar with the author (although not the creator, more on that later) or the subject of the book, but by its physical appearance.

There it was, lying on the table in a cardboard sleeve and shrinkwrapped, the story S, created by noted film and television director J. J. Abrams, and written by relative unknown college professor Doug Dorst. I could make out the format of the book based on the description and what I could see of this spine, but it was not until I got it home and ripped off the plastic with my greedy little hands, that I truly saw what I was in for.

S, is the story (as opposed to the actual novel) of a mysterious character and amnesiac who knows himself only by that initial, and the mysterious stylized letter that keeps on popping up everywhere. What S consists of though, is much more complicated, but that is not the book itself. The book itself is in the form of an old library book, published in 1949, titled the Ship of Theseus, written by the entirely fictional enigmatic author V. M. Straka, a world renowned literary legend and contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

OK, following along? Now the story, as opposed to the novel, is that of Straka, which is taken to the second level by the translator F. X. Caldeira, who uses the foreword and the footnotes to communicate to both the original author, and the reader, both overtly and through codes and clues scattered throughout the text.

But wait, we aren’t done yet! The story, once again as opposed to the novel, begins not with the text of the novel, or the comments of the translator, but with a handwritten note scribbled in the margins in blue pen:

Hey – I found your stuff while I was shelving. (Looks like you left in a hurry!) I read a few chapters & loved it. Felt bad about keeping the book from you, though since you obviously need it for your work.
Have to get my own copy!

Jen, who we soon find out is an English student at the fictional Pollard State University then begins communicating with the original owner of the book, a grad student named Eric. So the book itself, an aged yellowed and stained library book, complete with stamps bearing the checkout dates of previous patrons, we discover that Eric swiped it from his high school library, becomes the medium for the story, not the story itself!

So Eric and Jen communicate their personal stories and develop a relationship as they analyze the book the Ship of Theseus to discover more about what the identity of the great literary legend V. M. Straka. As a result, this work ends up existing on several different levels, not just as a book, but a tribute to books itself. The book not only contains the story, it is part of the story itself. It is the book as theater, and its pages are the stage upon which the play is presented.

Now based on what I have said, it should be no surprise that I enjoyed it immensely, although by its very nature it is an extremely complicated read without a clear ending. At some point I am going to have to go back through it and reread it to see what I missed. I think much of this intentional, as the story exists in much more than just the text of the novel, but in the actions of Jen and Eric and the backstory of the author itself. Another clue to this is that the publisher has also provided other resources to follow the story, chief among them two websites and which provide even more about Straka. Of course it is no surprise that fan generated sites have already been created to discuss the secrets of the book and share insights and discoveries.

The theme of the novel, which is even hinted to in its title The Ship of Theseus, is that of the nature of identity, which is of course also the subject of the wider narrative as to the identity of Straka. An even more intriguing point it raised though, is what is the nature of literature? What defines a great work of literature and what quality makes up a classic?

As I mentioned earlier, the original concept for this story was created by J. J. Abrams who apparently being too busy making Star Trek and Star Wars movies then had his production company Bad Robot search for an author to bring his concept to life. They found Doug Dorst, a writing teacher at Texas State University – San Marcos, known mostly for a comedic ghost story called Alive in Necropolis. Now Dorst seems like a reasonably talented writer, although I have not read his previous work, but Abrams obviously had a rather difficult challenge in front of him in casting his author.

A quick aside – I am a big fan of the HBO show Entourage, a series about a movie star named Vincent Chase and his childhood friends who make up the show’s title. A few years ago I watched one of those “making of” specials where they discussed the difficulties they had casting the young stars in the show (the only really established actor being the super agent Ari Gold, played by Jeremy Piven). The main problem being, who do you cast to realistically play a movie star, who isn’t already a movie star? The show’s producers ended up going with the completely unknown Adrian Grenier, an actor with movie star looks, if limited acting ability, which is indicated by the fact that despite the popularity of this award winning show, he has appeared in little else.

So Abrams was left with a similar dilemma, how do have someone pull off writing a classic novel written by a literary genius, without having a classic literary genius to write it in the first place? This also brings us to the more basic question, as to what defines a classic work of literature in the first place?

Now this is a subject I can hardly answer in one short essay, and this review is getting too long to begin with, but I would argue that it would consist of three things.

1.       The use of prose in a sophisticated and stylistic manner.
2.       Thematic depth which goes beyond just the storyline.
3.       A book which is appreciated over time and not just by one generation.

Now the collaborators of this work certainly can’t directly address the third point, since they won’t know the lasting effect of this book for quite some time. As enjoyable as I thought it was it may just be a flash in the pan, all but forgotten in a few years and relegated to the clearance bins of history. The first two are where they seemed to have focused their effort.

First of all, the style, while this is entirely subjective of course, and hardly universal, nobody would argue that James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway write in similar styles, literary fiction is generally regarded to have been written in some unique and well thought-out style, not just generic prose as one would find in a newspaper column. Dorst addresses this through the use of flowery, period specific vocabulary, and almost Kafkaesque imagery.  For example from the text on page 274:

He is swimming in a mountain lake, and she is waiting for him on the far bank. They are at high elevation: the flora consists solely of twisted krumm-holz formations, and the moon, fat and gold, takes up an eighth of the night sky. He strokes and kicks through ink-dark water but gets no closer to her. She waves, calls out something that might be his name, and he strokes faster, kicks harder, but gets no closer – he might even be drifting backward- and this is when he feels tiny punctures breaking the skin of his belly, thighs, feet and legs as leeches begin feeding on him, and the dread that grips him has nothing to do with losing blood or realizing he has become some other creature’s prey but rather has to do with fear of what he will look like to her when he gets out of the water, and he wonders whether perhaps it isn’t better to drown-

The second point, the use of multiple layers of meaning,  I have already addressed, which of course exist in this story even one layer deeper through the further story of the author and Jen and Eric. So does the author create the illusion of a classical work of literature through this? This is entirely subjective of course, but I would argue yes. Like any book it has its weak points, some strained metaphors and awkwardly worded passages, but it at least gives the impression of a novel which could have been considered a classic at some point in time.

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that what we perceive as “literary classics” are the most successful novels, but that they fit into a certain perceived class, as opposed to the controversial taxonomy of what is often referred to as “genre fiction”. One can certainly have an incredibly popular and well received novel and not have it considered literary. Consider the works of John LeCarre and Tom Clancy. They both wrote spy thrillers, but the former is considered literary, while even rabid Clancy fans would not consider him a writer of literary fiction, even though as far as thriller writers go he was arguably much more successful.

This is of course an argument with no true boundaries or solutions, but that is what I found most intriguing about this work, S, it is a tribute to the book, in its physical form, worn and tattered pages yellowed and smelling faintly of mold and mildew, and it is also a tribute to the written word in general, great writers in all of their eccentricities, and the never ending question of what great art truly is. As such, it succeeds in existing beyond mere printed words on a page.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The Brilliance of James Madison

I have to shake my head at all the people who are incensed by the fact that Congress is using its budgetary powers as a check on executive authority, as if this is some new overreach. This is not a bug, it is a feature. The system was designed that way.

From Federalist 58:

The House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose, the supplies requisite for the support of government. They, in a word, hold the purse that powerful instrument by which we behold, in the history of the British Constitution, an infant and humble representation of the people gradually enlarging the sphere of its activity and importance, and finally reducing, as far as it seems to have wished, all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of the government. This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure. 

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Monday, August 12, 2013

Arsonists for Trayvon!

Yeah, this makes a lot of sense. A Hispanic man shoots a black teenager, so get your revenge by burning down a Greek restaurant. Apparently he had something against the Tzatziki Sauce.

The fire was started about 2:15 a.m. at the corner of 23rd Avenue and East Union Street in Seattle's Central District. The first arriving engine company found flames coming from the back of the Med Mix restaurant near a storage area, and light smoke was found inside the restaurant.

On the building the arsonist used red spray paint to write, "4 Pratt and Trayv."

The owner believes that message refers to Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen killed by George Zimmerman, and Seattle civil rights leader Edwin Pratt, who was shot to death in 1969. Pratt's case is technically unsolved, though deputies believe he was killed by hitman Tommy Kirk, who was killed in a dispute later that year.

Unfortunately this is the natural result of certain political figures who have been using this incident to drum up racial tensions.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Clueless Economist of the Day

Joseph Stiglitz, who has been one of the leading economists calling for more government intervention in markets over the last 30 years is shocked to find that student loans are a financial bubble. With a complete lack of self-awareness though, he claims that rising tuition is the problem.

America is distinctive among advanced industrialized countries in the burden it places on students and their parents for financing higher education. America is also exceptional among comparable countries for the high cost of a college degree, including at public universities. Average tuition, and room and board, at four-year colleges is just short of $22,000 a year, up from under $9,000 (adjusted for inflation) in 1980-81.

Uhh, yeah, ever think soaring tuition might have something to do with the fact they are being subsidized by goverment loans?

Then he, of course, blames this on the relatively minor for profit sector.

Yet education loans are almost impossible to write off in bankruptcy court — even when for-profit schools didn’t deliver what they promised and didn’t provide an education that would let the borrower get a job that paid enough to pay back the loan.

We should cut off federal support for these for-profit schools when they fail to graduate students, who don’t get jobs and then default on their loans.

While I am not opposed to that, what about the non-profit schools? It can cost $150,000 to go to law school, in an industry where there is little need for new lawyers.  I am pretty sure the University of Phoenix doesn't cost that much.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Academic Standards

It has been nearly two years since I first blogged about Greg Valentini, the Hero of Tora Bora, and was ignored by LA Times reporter Steve Lopez after I pointed out to him that he was making up his story.  The lawsuit itself seems stuck in that legal purgatory that major lawsuits usually get mired in, but Valentini's bogus stories continue to make the rounds, this time in the left wing magazine, The Nation.

Greg Valentini is a homeless vet in Los Angeles who took part in the initial invasion of Afghanistan and participated in the assault on Tora Bora that sought Osama bin Laden. 

 Now to be completely ironic, the article was written by a rather distinguished Harvard graduate history professor at UC Irvine by the name of Jon Weiner, who, irony of irony, lists this in his C.V.

Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Power in the Ivory Tower. New York: New Press, 2005. 

I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Oh, Now He Has Standards

Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times, my favorite no standard journalist, has now suddenly decided that while truth may not be a journalistic standard, not having to work for a company owned by a libertarian is.

At a Los Angeles Times in-house awards ceremony a week ago, columnist Steve Lopez addressed the elephant in the room.
Speaking to the entire staff, he said, "Raise your hand if you would quit if the paper was bought by Austin Beutner's group." No one raised their hands.
"Raise you hand if you would quit if the paper was bought by Rupert Murdoch." A few people raised their hands.
Facing the elephant trunk-on, "Raise your hand if you would quit if the paper was bought by the Koch brothers." About half the staff raised their hands.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Paul Krugman Finally Gets Something Right

This guy is just too easy of a target. Back during the Bush administration:

With war looming, it's time to be prepared. So last week I switched to a fixed-rate mortgage. It means higher monthly payments, but I'm terrified about what will happen to interest rates once financial markets wake up to the implications of skyrocketing budget deficits.

And today:

For three years and more, policy debate in Washington has been dominated by warnings about the dangers of budget deficits. A few lonely economists have tried from the beginning to point out that this fixation is all wrong, that deficit spending is actually appropriate in a depressed economy. But even though the deficit scolds have been wrong about everything so far — where are the soaring interest rates we were promised? — protests that we are having the wrong conversation have consistently fallen on deaf ears.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Want to Make a Bet?

The newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced new rules this week limiting "risky mortgages".

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is releasing Thursday much anticipated new mortgage rules, which will restrict the kind of subprime lending practices that caused both the financial and housing sectors to crash five years ago.
 The new rules come at a time when regulators and banks are trying to find a middle ground between overly lax and overly tight lending standards.
 About a decade ago, mortgage lenders started broadening their base of customers by offering an array of exotic loan products with esoteric names: subprime, Alt-A, or low-doc loans that required little to no documentation of income. Teaser rates and option ARMs that offered low initial monthly payments that later ballooned.
 Those loans got millions of borrowers into loans they ultimately couldn't afford, and it resulted in one of the worst crashes in modern history.

 Now this sounds great in concept, but since it has been government policy to force banks to make home loans to as many people as possible, want to beat that they will soon be suing those same banks for failing to give out those very same risky loans that they are legally prevented from making?

OK, that isn't really a fair bet, since the government is already doing that.

Wells Fargo has agreed to pay $175 million to settle allegations that it discriminated against minority borrowers, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.

The DOJ accused Wells Fargo, the nation's largest residential home mortgage originator, of pushing African-American and Hispanic borrowers into more costly subprime loans or charging them higher fees than comparable white borrowers. More than 30,000 minority borrowers between 2004 and 2009 were affected, the Justice Department said.