Sunday, June 4, 2017

Page Gauge

June is upon us at last, and it is not a month particularly conducive to inside activities. Yet even June has quiet nights and rainy days when a book in hand is welcome. Below are reviews of the most recent five to stain my fingers with ink – yes they were paper-and-ink rather than electronic format.

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The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
Human minds don’t work linearly. It is why AI has so much trouble aping human thought. Even when computing in parallel, AI just doesn’t match the digressions, tangents, flashbacks, and fantasies that make up ordinary thought. One of the best fictional representations of this not-quite-chaos is Baker’s The Mezzanine. The entire novella is the thoughts of a man from his approach to an escalator to the moment he reaches the top. In between he thinks about his lunch, shopping bags, shoelaces, ear plugs, childhood moments, his wife’s fastidiousness, CVS drugstore aisles, the embarrassment of buying a men’s magazine from a female clerk, a Penguin paperback of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, drinking straws, the shininess of the escalator rail, and a myriad other things.

It is a truly marvelous and readable little book. I can’t help thinking though that trips up escalators might on average be less contemplative in 2017 than when the book was published in 1988. Might not the same journey today consist of watching a cat video on a cell phone?

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Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot by James B. Stockdale
Most of those old enough to remember the 1992 US Presidential election probably remember Stockdale as the Vice Presidential pick of Reform Party candidate Ross Perot in an election year that was almost as bizarre as last year. After choosing Stockdale, Perot withdrew from the race at a point when polls showed he had a real chance of victory only to reenter the race late in the election season when his moment had passed. In October of ’92 Stockdale suddenly found himself back in the race and scheduled for a televised Vice Presidential debate with Dan Quayle and Al Gore. He had no time to prepare and didn’t even have an operational hearing aid – too much time around jet engines had damaged his hearing. He came off as confused when he hadn’t really heard the question. A Saturday Night Live parody of him the next weekend was devastating. The Perot/Stockdale ticket nonetheless won 19% of the vote, the best showing for a third party since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

The doddering SNL parodic figure is not the Stockdale we meet in Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (published 1995), a collection of speeches and essays from the previous two decades. Here we meet the erudite Vice Admiral Stockdale: awarded the Medal of Honor, four Silver Stars, two purple hearts, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Navy Distinguished Service Medals, etc., etc. With an MA from Stanford in international relations and comparative Marxist thought, he was obviously more qualified than any of the other 1992 candidates. Shot down over Hanoi in 1965 he spent seven years in a POW camp where he got by with a commitment to his values and his hidden book by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Most of the entries in Stockdale’s book deal with maintaining one’s values under those extreme conditions.

I’m not a big fan of the ancient Stoic philosophers in a general way. (See my blog on Seneca a few months ago.) It’s not so much that their advice is wrong as that it typically is trite and comes from an unhappy place: all duty and no pleasure. Unlike the Epicureans, they seem to lack a sense of fun. However, in a POW camp where there isn’t fun to be had, Epictetus is not trite but deadly relevant.

If only for the reminder not to judge a person on a single un-telegenic debate appearance, this or another of Stockdale’s several books is worth a look.

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Schrödinger’s Gat by Robert Kroese
Anyone who has a blog site called Richard’s Pretension is not in a good position to call someone else’s book pretentious, but I’ll do it anyway. Kroese has written a scifi noir mystery into which he has infused his thoughts on free will, theology, time travel paradoxes, determinism, politics, and ethics while basing his plot on a popular magazine-level summary/interpretation of quantum theory. All that doesn’t make this a bad book. It is, in fact, modestly entertaining, but be forewarned that much of it is reminiscent of the nighttime exchanges of undergrad liberal arts students in dorm rooms under the influence of pot.

At the most basic micro level, events are probabilistic rather than deterministic. What if there were a way to change the odds at a micro level but with macro effects? A scientist discovers a way to do just that. A young woman named Tali tries to use the method to save lives, an insurance executive sees a way in it to turn a profit, and a young man (whose life Tali saves) pursues Tali but finds himself caught up in violence. What about the universe itself? Will it allow tinkering with the odds without broader consequences? If by writing this book Kroese inspires someone to invent a way to try it, perhaps we’ll find out.

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Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
In this weird but interesting almost-novel from 1999, interviews with unidentified men are interspersed with more or less conventional short stories. The interviewed men are usually talking about sex and they say what we’ve all heard men at various times. Some of the guys are sociopathic. Others play nicely but acknowledge they do so as a self-serving seduction technique. All are egoistic. Are they hideous? Maybe. Their utterings are certainly distasteful, but they are honest. That is the problem. They say frightful things such as, “I’d always had a dread of marrying some good-looking woman and then we have a kid and it blows her body out but I still have to have sex with her because this is who I’ve signed on to have sex with the whole rest of my life.” While the hideousness is overwhelming male, the female characters in the short stories are hard to like too: for example the woman in therapy with the bad childhood who not just suffers from depression but opportunistically seizes on it to excuse always making herself the center of attention and egregiously imposing on her friends whenever it suits her.

Wallace tries – perhaps too hard – to write unconventionally, and he strains the rules to absurd lengths without quite breaking them. A single sentence can go on for pages, but it is technically grammatical. Footnotes can be longer than the chapter being footnoted. One short story (the first one on page 0) is all of two paragraphs. He often resorts to bizarre abbreviations. The result is intriguing even though most of the subject matter is unpleasant.

Parts of the book were made into movie in 2009. I haven’t seen it but only 32% on Rotten Tomatoes like it: the consensus was “tries hard but doesn't match the depth of the book.”

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The Last Man by Mary Shelley
For more than half a century novels and films about the end of civilization and about its sole survivor(s) have been so commonplace as to be a genre. I even wrote one myself (Slog) in my more youthful days. Stories in which the end is caused by plague are numerous enough to be a subgenre. Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I am Legend about a sole healthy survivor of a plague was three times made into a feature film: The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, and I am Legend with Will Smith. The granny of the genre, though, is The Last Man.

Mary Shelley is of course best known for her wildly successful 1818 novel Frankenstein. Her 1825 novel The Last Man was not a hit in its day, but it suits 21st century sensibilities better than it did 19th.  After the anti-stylings of Wallace, I also found myself enjoying her highly literary prose with its unabashedly complex sentences and deep vocabulary.

The novel is set in the 2090s though Shelley’s vision of the future involves little technological change from her own day. The social issues of future England are also much the same as in her own day with a three-way power struggle among royalists, aristocrats, and commoners. The tale is told retrospectively by Lionel, a mysteriously immune sole known survivor of a humanity-destroying plague; it is written presumably for the benefit of any other immune survivors who might possibly stumble upon his record. As far as he knows, however, no such survivors exist.

Much of the novel involves the pre-plague personal romances and intrigues of Lionel and his coterie, which happen to include men and women prominent in society and politics. None of the characters acquit themselves well. There are charming aristocrats who lack ethics, ethical men who lack competence, personally likable royalists who are rudely power-hungry, and a leader of the commons who speaks the right words but lacks nobility in the broader sense. All fail to deal with the growing threat of plague and all fail in their personal lives as well.

Tragically having lost her husband and children in the years prior to this this book, Shelley did not entertain a cheery worldview, and it shows in this novel. In an era that believed if not in the perfectibility of mankind at least its amelioration, Shelley’s despair disaffected readers. Today her nihilism is better understood and shared. Her appreciation of transient life while it lasts is better noticed, too. Thumbs up.

Alice Cooper – The Last Man on Earth


  1. Sounds like you have been reading a lot lately. That's a good way to stay out of the weather. It's been humid, rainy, and overcast here too. Makes me miss West Texas at times. The book, Mezzanine, sounded pretty interesting to me too. The book by James Stockdale sounded interesting too. Wasn't Perot the one that said the line about rape, just lay back and enjoy it? I think that did more to end their campaign that anything. Stockdale may have been the more level headed between the two, although Perot certainly had business acumen. His old business, Electronic Data Systems, which he sold off at a hefty price in Dallas was a huge operation. I don't know how he came by knowing anything about computer science, but perhaps he just thought it was a merging technology. At any rate, I've been meaning to visit his new museum in downtown Dallas one of these days.

    1. Perot was talking off the record about bad weather, but it was a stupid remark that even in ’92 stood no chance of staying off the record. A populist businessman with no traditional left or right orientation other than emphasizing a balanced budget, he had Hamilton Jordon (Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff) and Ed Rollins (campaign director for Reagan) on his team. He absolutely hated George HW Bush and pulled out of the race (so he told 60 minutes) because he believed Republicans were going to disrupt his daughter’s wedding with faked photographs – a tale apparently originating with a conspiracy-theorist supporter. He exasperated his professional staff for constantly speaking off the cuff without consulting them… sounds familiar. The impact on the final election outcome is still debated with Democrats predictably saying it made no difference and Republicans predictably saying it made all the difference.

  2. I've never hear of the Shelley book. I'll need to check it out. When I revisited "Frankenstein" about a decade ago I really enjoyed it. I always meant to check out more of her work. Sounds like a good one to try.

    1. I now remember having seen “The Last Man” on a library shelf decades ago, but I too had forgotten all about it until I recently looked up the two Shelleys for other reasons.

      There was a time when I found early 19th century prose too florid for my taste, but now I find I enjoy it – at least when it is done with Shelley’s literary competence. As in any old scifi, one has to be willing to accept an alternate reality. In this case it is, “OK, in this version of earth history technological innovation proceeded at a snail’s pace.” It’s not so hard to imagine really. For a couple thousand years before the 19th century it did just that. The rest just falls into place in Shelley’s book.