book reviews

Book review: Zero Hour for Generation X

Initially, Michael Hennessy’s book Zero Hour for Generation X says it’s about a coming showdown between generations. It’s time for Generation X, he says, to show lazy, shallow, tech-obsessed millennials what it means to make sacrifices and fight for what matters. As Generation X occupies the prime middle age years, it’s time for us to claim our moment setting the national agenda or else we’ll get usurped by those younger and less capable than we are.

The book does follow through on this premise. There is a section contrasting the economic woes of Generation X and millennials, in which Generation X is seen to have it worse off, and there is a short chapter laying out the now predictable argument that millennials have been so coddled by a culture of self esteem and safety that they now inhabit an alternate reality of safe spaces and social justice where free speech and self reliance are impossible. Only some of this is convincing. 

The book has plenty of bile for Baby Boomers, too. Though they presided over the end of the Cold War and the unprecedented economic boom of the 1990s, a formative time for Generation X, Hennessy argues that they suffer from the same self-importance as millennials. This has led them to keep too many of their economic gains for themselves and to fail to lay a real foundation for long-term prosperity. But worst of all, says Hennessy,

… has been their flaccid acquiesce to the still-incoming wowy-zowy technological utopia dominated by Internet connectivity and artificial intelligence, in the process of putting untold numbers of artists, businesses, trades, and traditions on the road to extinction. This betrayal is at the heart of the economic and social riddle that Gen Xers will have to help unwind.

ZAnd it’s here that Hennessy gets to the strongest arguments in the book, and the only ones that ever lend any real support to the somewhat spurious concepts of generations. In the postwar era, the most powerful shared experience people born around the same time can have is the effect of new technology, and Generation X will be the last American generation to know from experience what life was like before the Internet co-opted every part of it. And when I say every part I’m not exaggerating. 

Boredom, privacy, silence, uninterrupted concentration and direct experience, and the exhilaration of discovering something or someone not because an AI shoved it into your feed, but because chance and sensibility led you to it–all these are being given up in exchange for whatever else the Internet may have to offer. 

Hennessy is the Op-Ed editor of The Wall Street Journal and Zero Hour for Generation X is a conservative book. I don’t agree with his criticism of a universal basic income or of the supposed vapidness of social justice culture, but I do agree with his assessment that it is a shift in the main medium by which we experience life that is changing its essential character and that too little attention is being paid to this fact.

Americans have not become dumber or less virtuous since the late 1990s. But we have changed the way we experience life. Where once we saw one another face to face, now we spend most of our time peering at screens.

Hennessy is a conservative, but he is no lover of Donald Trump and the thoughtless social media culture which helped bring him to power. Like Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, Hennessy is an educated, cosmopolitan conservative who feels alienated by the Republican party and the America it represents, and Zero Hour‘s call for a more mindful future is one that thoughtful people on the left and the right can share. 

In the end, as with other technological critics, Hennessy has little to say other than to turn away from the new devices and spend more time in the world. Put down your phones, he says, and set a better example for the millennials.

Short Story Review: Miao Dao by Joyce Carol Oates

Since a friend read aloud the entirety of The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood while we were sitting in Central Park at dusk, I have been on a short story binge.

The Wendigo took about two hours to get through and produced in me a sense of strangeness, horror, and wonder I have not quite experienced before.

I’ve mostly ignored short stories as an adult reader. Why take just a bite of an alternate world when you can have the full meal of a novel? But The Wendigo reminded me that there are certain mental states that only short writing can induce. Blackwood’s story depends on the evocation of an atmosphere, which a novel length work would attenuate to the point of inefficacy. Much of odd or uncanny fiction has been disserved by the modern literary market place, which makes novels the sole focus for anybody but the few people who read literary magazines.

But short stories, as Michael Chabon says in one of his essays, were at one time synonymous with the odd and uncanny, so much so that all short stories may be descended from ghost stories, depending as they do on the single unexpected turn or the use of brief atmospheric effects, like a magic trick or a poem. To avoid short stories is to miss out on just how weird and enchanting writing can be.

Kindle Singles, which is designed to showcase short fiction, has a number of great stories on offer this October in their Dark Corners series. They are perfect for a single sitting, to be read on whatever screen is at hand. It’s probably most similar to the way the Victorians, the first great market for short writing, would’ve consumed short fiction. They were published in newspapers and magazines to be read in the spare moments of a busy life. And they were somehow of the moment, more like news reports than novels.

I recommend Miao Dao, by Joyce Carol Oates. Before ascending to literary recognition, Oates wrote mysteries and the kind of Gothic novels popular in the 1970s. Think of a lurid cover with a woman in a dress fleeing from a castle with a single light on in the window, and you know the type. Miao Dao has that easy readability of pop fiction. But it’s also nearly perfect in its craftsmanship.

It’s about Mia, a young girl who is going through puberty and doing a bad job of coping. Assailed by bullies at school, domestic upheaval at home, and strangely attracted to the feral freedom of an empty lot infested by stray cats, Mia is a narrator who is more interesting after every page.

I don’t know how Oates does it, but there is a horror about this story that seems like it could only explode from a much longer fuse. Like the terror that can emerge from the sterilized corners of suburbia, where Miao Dao is set, the mental disturbance of this story comes out of nowhere, but strikes like an avenging devil. Spend 45 minutes with Mia, and you’ll have a chill that’s far deeper than any spooky film or TV show I can remember.

Book Review: Frankenstein at 200

Frankenstein broke into my boyhood consciousness like a thunderclap. I read it over a series of August afternoons in my parents’ living room in Santa Fe where, in the high summer, each day begins in dry heat and sunshine and ends in a rumbling electrical storm that arrives at 2 or 3 p.m. Perfect weather to read a moody, romantic masterpiece with at least two big scenes that take place in similar conditions.

I came to the book for the horror and weirdness, which it delivered, but stayed for the larger world it opened up to me. It was the first Great Book I ever read that I had just enough outside knowledge to glimpse its greatness. After that first page, when we’ve gone from the day-to-day details of the narrators life to soar over the polar regions and into interplanetary space, I was caught in an enchantment which didn’t let up until the final page.

Rereading it now, that first page seems like a portal into science fiction for all of Western literature. It’s also the start of a tale within a tale, which links Frankenstein to Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights. As a boy, I knew none of this. I was interested in the way that alchemy and early electrical science show up in the story. After a span of nearly four decades, I was not quite as as transported or transformed as I was in my first reading. But I am still in awe of this book. Here’s why.

It is a myth. Like Dracula, She, Peter Pan, or Sherlock Holmes, this book endures because it taps into something primal, deeper than any reader or even Shelly herself could understand. It’s about depression, unintended consequences, guilt, the loss of innocence, and the cosmic tradeoff of consciousness and free will–all at once. You can’t intend to write a story like this. You have to channel it like a sibyl (or like the sibyl that opens Shelley’s other masterpiece The Last Man).

It is also a nightmare. [SPOILERS] According to Gestalt therapy, you are everybody in your dreams. This could be true of Frankenstein. In an anticipation of Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde, the creature is both a separate demon conjured by Victor the magician and also a projection of his own worst impulses. The monster is like a huge shadow of his creator, full of lust, resentment, and rage. Certain sequences feel like nightmares, like the time Victor spends in prison accused of murdering his best friend. I don’t know about you, but I can vividly remember dreams in which I know I’ve somehow committed a terrible crime, even though I have no memory of it.

It is beautiful. Some of the narrative events feel like forced set pieces. There is no real reason that Victor and the creature should end up arguing on a glacier in the Swiss Alps, racing through the steps of Russia, or in a crowded graveyard at night in Geneva. But it doesn’t matter because it’s all so deliciously brooding and Romantic. Take a look at pretty much any painting by Caspar David Friedrich or Eugene Delacroix and you’ll get the same sensibility. In one passage, the dead eyes of one of the hero’s loved ones are transformed, in Victor’s mind’s eye, into the watery grey eyes of the monster he’s created, and he’s surrounded by the echoing laughter of his creation, all as he’s kind of zoning out while looking at a twilight ocean off the coast of Northern Scotland. It could be an impressionistic sequence from a film.

It is fun without sacrificing complexity. [SPOILERS] You can read Frankenstein as a straight up horror story. It races along from location to location in short, punchy chapter. But if you pause over any of the major moments, you’re suddenly in a maze of ambiguities that quickly feels like real life. After Victor’s dying words, a speech worthy of any Romantic hero, you think you’ve got the perfect ending ringing in your ears. But then the creature shows up to get the final word, and you almost believe his side of the story, which calls into question everything you’ve read up until that point.

It is a treasury of smaller stories. The book starts out in epistolary form, narrated by a minor character named Walton, who feels as fully fleshed out as any of the narrators who succeed him. Thereafter, a series of villagers, servants, citizens of Geneva, faculty members of Victor’s University, and a few other characters show up, each replete with their own story. A later novelist, like Wilkie Collins (or modern horror maestro Justin Cronin, in whose books even the dogs get backstories) would’ve told every last story. But Shelley, like her contemporary Jane Austen, is a miniaturist who captures whole universes with economy and style.

It is short, but richly detailed. Somehow, Shelly understood that odd fiction can’t bear the weight of length. The whole section in which Victor furiously creates the monster is sketched out in perhaps 2-3 pages, but they are richly detailed enough that you feel as though you’ve read 20 or 30 pages. The entire book wraps up in just 216 pages. The best modern practitioners of uncanny stories, like Isak Dinesen, David Mitchell, Adam Haslett, and Cormac McCarthy also write in this highly compressed style. The same is true of all great science fiction. All of H.G. Wells’ most famous novels, for example, are barely 200 pages.

It hasn’t been tarnished by sexism or racism. [SPOILERS] Questions of race and gender show up and are given an enlightened treatment, even by today’s standards. The creature himself, as a narrative embodiment of enlightenment tabula rasa thinking, speaks to the idea that all consciousness is equal, regardless of the body it inhabits. In one scene, Victor’s dawning feminism leads him to shrink back from creating a female monster, even though the demon demands one. When he realizes there is no natural order that will make his female creation bound to the agreements made before her birth, he destroys his work. And the whole question of creating full-fledged intelligence from nothing, and of being careless what that intelligence learns from its human creators, is about to be relevant. We are perhaps ten years from true A.I. and already grappling with these issues. Will A.I. be our shadow or our savior? Shelley the sibyl somehow foresaw this dilemma.

Frankenstein turns 200 this year, and it is still as bright as beautiful as it was in 1818. Yet the Shelley family had no inkling of the novel’s lasting fame.

Shelley’s father hastily sold the rights to a theater production, cashing in while they could. Despite scribbling 2000 words of revisions into the margins of one printed copy of Frankenstein, she left it with an innkeeper as a gift, unsure there would ever be a reprint in where she could use them.

This year a number of books about Frankenstein are out, along with rewrites that use the story to examine our own moment, even the U.S.’s foreign wars in Iraq and elsewhere. Like the monster in the story, Shelley’s creation seems to have a size and strength its original creator could never have foreseen.

Saturday Book Review: The Atlantic Abomination by John Brunner

The Atlantic Abomination by John Brunner

The Atlantic Abomination by John Brunner

What if a Lovecraftian horror actually made an attack on a modern mainland city? Find out in this hastily written trifle by John Brunner, from the glory days of the 75,000-word supermarket rack SF novel.

A few good details will stick in my mind — like “Old Hundred,” the hymn chosen by the citizens of Jacksonville to worship their new abomination-overlord, or the naked fat woman plugging the hole in a sinking boat with her own body. This book came out in 1960 with three others by Brunner, so you have to admire his industry.

Won’t stop me from reading more by him.

Saturday Book Review (one day late): Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

You will encounter more than one conjurer in Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, and one of them is Davies himself.  His novel unfolds before your very eyes in ways that are delightful, mysterious, and scarcely to be believed.  The title comes from a stock character in opera and theater.  The fifth business is not the main plot, yet is still necessary for the main plot to work, and its carrier is neither hero nor villain, but is nevertheless essential to the story.

In the world of Fifth Business every character has his part to play, and in classic Daviesesque fashion, those parts are inscrutably rooted in our ancient mythical past.  But the story is no allegory.  Davies’s characters are believable people and you grow to love them and hate them over the course of the book.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the story starts on a snowy Christmas day in the remote Canadian village of Deptford with the throwing of a snowball, an act which sets in motion a strange and outrageous series of events which span five decades and three continents.  Davies is by turns hilarious, learned, disturbing, and compassionate.  If you slow down and give it a chance, Fifth Business will leave you not quite the same reader, or perhaps even person that you were when you started it.

Saturday Book Review: Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain


Mark Twain

This is a disjointed, outrageous, hilarious, fascinating, meandering tour through a strange, lush, vanished America. It is also a series of autobiographical meditations by a singular genius, whose voice you will find yourself imitating in your speech and writing as you immerse yourself in this lovable book. It is an example of writing meant foremost to entertain and educate, which also attains the level of high art. Twain never neglected his audience.

The most engrossing sections describe the author’s education as a steamboat pilot. Vivid details and anecdotes link up to tell the story of a young man gaining confidence in the world, and also give you a peek into the prodigious feats and odd habits of the fraternity of steamboat pilots.  The rest of the book is an account of Twain’s trip down the Mississippi decades later as a rich old man.  The transformation of America during his lifetime is remarkable, and drew comparisons in my mind to what I am reading about life in China today.

Life on the Mississippi is a wonder and one of the great American books.

Saturday Book Review: FEED by M. T. Anderson

Feed(novel)FEED is the story of a group of teenagers in a future where something like a combination of Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon can be implanted directly into everyone’s brain.  We follow Titus, the narrator, and his friends through a world where the only thing not on the verge of extinction is relentless consumption fueled by ubiquitous advertising.  On the moon, Titus meets a quirky girl who questions the feed, and their relationship becomes the center of the story.

FEED is fast-paced, brilliantly written young adult science fiction.  But it is such a powerful, clear-headed book that it cannot help but leave readers of any age deeply uneasy about the world they inhabit.  This is the effect of all great sic fi, and I put FEED into that category.  It belongs on the shelf next to Flowers for Algernon, Fahrenheit 451, Neuromancer, and 1984.

What FEED gets right that even most of those other books don’t quite grasp is that the most important human technology is not rockets or computers, but marketing and advertising, once known by the more honest name of propaganda.  (more…)

Saturday Book Review: FIASCO by Stanislaw Lem

FIASCO by Stanislaw Lem

FIASCO by Stanislaw Lem

FIASCO is a science fiction novel with all the trimmings, but it is also a mind blowing work of literature.  It begins with a man alone inside a giant mechanized transport getting lost in a hostile alien forest, and unfolds into a ripping good first contact story, of cosmic proportions.

Along the way, you get an encyclopedia of weird environments, science fictional ideas, actual scientific knowledge, satire, philosophy, theology, history, game theory, and adventure.

You get all that because Lem was an irrepressibly enthusiastic genius, bursting with a desire to let his love of these subjects into the world.  Think of this book as a (mostly) benevolent Pandora’s Box.  Once you open it, there is no going back for you.  It’s one of those rare books that entertains you all the way to a slightly different view of yourself in relation to a suddenly bigger, weirder universe.

Philip Larkin’s “Collected Poems”

Bleak, unrelenting, and full of wit, with a sense of irony that cuts to the bone, something that the Norse would have identified with while sitting around a fire telling stories of Ragnarok. In Larkin you get that deep Northern sadness in the voice of a fussy, overeducated, exquisitely miserable English fuddy-duddy.  To fall in love right away, open it up to “Livings,” or “Church Going” and read aloud.

His Master’s Voice, by Stanislaw Lem

Here we have more of Stanislaw Lem’s tragic scientists, deep characters whose interactions read like a novel of manners from another dimension.

His Masters Voice can feel like a series of disconnected essays on grand themes, but the whole thing adds up to a wrenching statement about the impossibility of knowledge in a vast universe. The patchwork of ideas in this book fuses with a weird, white hot intensity that will move you, despite yourself.

It’s sad that the Nobel Prize eluded the author, who will surely be remembered as one of the great souls of his age. Reading his books informs people what it was like to be a sensitive, thinking person alive in the latter half of the twentieth century, even if most of his stories take place on other planets or in other dimensions.