Laini Taylor should get paid by the sentence. I know that publishing contracts use the highly proletarian method of word counts. These conjure up images of writers on assembly lines in work jumpsuits trying to achieve a daily quota. I suggest however, and I do hope the publishing industry is listening, that if you can't pay writers by the quality of their sentences, then at least you provide bonuses for exceptionally well made ones. The idea that this novel, where the sentences echo and bounce around in your brain for days afterwards, or reach in and grab you by the heart and say "listen, this is true, this is what it means to be human...," is comprised only of words that in fact make up a word count that in fact make up a publisher's contract sum, well, it makes me want to hiss and spit, and fire off angry letters to editors. If I go online and find that Twilight(that pathetic piece of plodding that seems only a word association game, and has the sentence quality of a fifth grade essay) is of a similar word count, then my faith in western civilization is gone.
The woman writes a sentence like its been handcrafted by tolkien's elves, then cut and bevelled by international diamond carvers.
High praise also for the harsh world to which she subjects her characters. This feels like it must have been an emotionally draining book to write. The ravages of war, though biblical in scope and sweep, are equally devastating to the capacity of those involved to love. The romance that began so beautifully with a dream of peace in the book one now undergoes the descructiveness of hate and enslavement to a cause. There are no easy sides in this book, and I salute her for that choice.
Friday, November 23, 2012
I don’t normally like pirate books. When a pirate appears on a fantasy novel's horizon, I tend to close the book and abandon ship, swimming merrily into the pages of other novels. I tend to find them somewhat tedious and over blown romantic musings on the nobility of thievery and the free life of the seas. In reality most pirates were psychotic serial killers with bipolar or schizophrenic behaviors and would sooner gut someone than just rob them.
That being said, I was charmed into submission by Red Seas Under Read Skies. Locke has enough wit, charisma, and the skill to spin out endless webs of such fantastic bullshit, with wheels within wheels, and plots within plots, that I found myself not only not irritated by the pirate cast, but downright fascinated by its inner workings. After allowing myself to be first intrigued, then moved, then even more intrigued and held fast I succumbed to the inventiveness, and turns of cliché that Scott Lynch introduces to his pirates.
Why does it work, dear and constant reader? Because in a way that makes me feel stupid for not seeing it from the first, pirates are thieves, and Locke is the thief's thief. He'd steal from God, sell it to the devil, then steal it again and sell it back to god. In other words, he fits right in with the pirates in the book who are really a group of well organized anarchists(my kind of people).
So the pirates are not clichés. And the rest of the book? Vast, complicated, and as I said wheels within wheels.
For lack of a better definition there is a class war depicted in this book. Locke aspires not after wealth but instead does something far nobler( I know, the irony is just ball busting):chaos. He, and Jean, who I'm tempted to say sidekick but really is a partner, wreak havoc on the privileged and upper classes. In a wild twist this is not so much politically motivated as religiously. As a priest and member of the cult of the Crooked Warden, Locke and Jean live by a motto, "Thieves prosper, the rich remember." Part of the mission Locke inherited from his mentor Chains was the second part of the statement: that the rich remember they are not above the commons. That wealth is not a birthright, and that there is nothing so special about them they cannot lose all they have. Being rich does not remove them from their humanity. The book is very much about humbling the rich, about making them remember wealth is a matter of luck and fortune as it is anything else.
Which leads me to the next surprise of the book: the portrayal of religion and religious sensibility. I sensed this in the first novel of the sequence: The Lies of Locke Lamora, but found it to here be developed in unexpected ways. Or to put it a better way, in a fantasy novel for an author to invoke a world of gods, goddesses and mortals takes a lot of skill. He immerses you in the culture and lets you feel its presence in the reality of the lives that inhabit it. When Locke and Jean talk about being priests of the Crooked Warden there is something else that takes over the story. Something else, call it an archeological or dim anthropological part of our brains wakes up and we experience what the world must have been like for our pre enlightenment civilization. The gods are shadowy but real presences. Not in some super power God of War mentality where said deities become mouthpieces of WWF raw characters, but instead in something out of the Golden Bough. To write this into the story without endless info dumps, and to make it so the characters are aware of these presences took a lot of skill and planning. But he pulled it off. When the motivation for the characters are revealed to have been religious, the author has prepared you for this. Like being on the receiving end of a nine punch combo.
Lots of other aspects I could talk about: how he manages to pull off a confidence novel without using a lot of interior monologue(which would, you know, reveal too much), but still has to as a writer involve you in the characters inner worlds and make you empathize with them. A novel that is carried primarily through dialogue, making the story come together at the end and not having it feel like he pulled it all out of his ass(or as I like to call said endings deus ex arsena), all these deserve attention but alas for the limited space.
Looking forward to the next book. Great read and good second novel of the sequence.
Saturday, November 3, 2012
The idea that a group of video game players could form a union and with it stop the world economy seemed at first ludcrious then embarrassingly naive. But the gaming economy becomes, at first, a metaphor to look at the way all economies work, and then he gleefully destroys the idea of there being a "real" economy: he takes you on an guided tour of the world gold standard as the basis for printed money, and how it applies to the creation of currency, but does so with bright eyed savage satirism that in effect says "dude if you think a game economy based on imaginary gold is dumb and weird look at what you use to buy food, bread,and make mortage payments every day without even thinking about where it all comes from." All economies, he says, are essentially based on abstract notions of value. Do we even, he writes, know how many gold bars there are in the world, or where they are at? The last time Fort Knox's gold was inventoried was IN THE 50's.
That said the book is equal parts heartbreaking and life affirming. The characters and their situations with their lives in the real world afflicted by capitalism run amok, is enough to make a harvard MBA join the picket lines. But as a novel it succeeds for some very unusual reasons.
In most YA novels most authors delay "getting the girl," "getting out of trouble," etc. Not Doctorow. His characters frequently, and this is a motif in many of his books, find helpful people, find people they can rely on and who work with them toward common goals. At first as a reader I felt this was mere wish fulfillment(give the characters conflict all the writing guides preach). Then I got the larger message that the idea of people being essentially antagonistic towards each other is a very media influenced American view of the world. He not only says this, but then proceeds to demonstrate it throughout the course of the book.
Not only have a learned a lot about capitalism, and learned about online gaming communties, but more importantly I've questioned this ironically naive belief we Americans seem to have in the negativity,and usury of others.
Monday, October 15, 2012
Still getting over being creeped out by this series, but I've managed to turn off a few lights and stop walking around the house with my katana. So I think I'm ready to post about Sandman 1: Sleep of the Just.
These essays are not meant to be exhaustive. I am not attempting to turn this into the Annotated Sandman. Others reviewers far more knowledgeable of comics, myth, and the occult are better equipped to handle such a mammoth undertaking.
If I can find a toe hold that is an entry point to get into the book then I will be satisfied. Yes this is reader response criticism but hey, that's ok too. Not everything we reflect on lit has to be a school paper.
What I want to look at today is the major entry point into the story: the setting. An English country house which implies titles and lords and all the horrible things the English upper classes supposedly did. There were secret cults and initiations etc. and all part of the classic English horror fiction subgenre Gaiman was working in.
The World War I setting and background is significant. World War I was a massively fundamental shift in human consciousness(at least to Europeans and American). Prior to the Great War ideas like honor, nobility, love of country, etc were common coin. The greater good etc was supposed to be a worthy goal. But with the Great War and its destructiveness humanity would never be the same. Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory does a thorough job of exploring the collapse of the old value system. Hemingway perhaps summed it up best in A Farewell to Arms where talks about the terms honor etc. sounding hollow and embarrassing when compared with the names of places of battle with their numbers of casualties.
But how does that apply to a character, Dr. John Hathaway choosing to look for a supernatural solution to his problems? Dr Hathaway, is curator of the royal museum and has access to objects valued by the occult community. He has shown up at the mansion of Roderick Burgess with the Magdalen Grimoire. The book Roderick needs to complete a ritual designed to chain and imprison death. If Roderick succeeds, then humanity need not fear death, and no one needs to die, ever again.
Hathaway's son has died in a naval battle. The poor old man has no one else and is mad and desperate with grief. So he makes an error of judgment. He agrees to Roderick's need for an ancient and occult book to complete a ritual which may give him back his son. Its an error but as far as hooking the audience it’s a very understandable error.
And very human as well.
Again, interesting because of the time period and the world background to events. Imagine that during the battle of the Somme over a million men died in battle. In one battle, a million men. That is death on a scale heretofore unheard of. There hadn't been that kind of death toll since the bubonic plauge.
In a sense, it makes Roderick Burgess's desire to imprison and stop death appear almost heroic. He isn't going to convince world leaders to stop the slaughter. Nor is he going to be able to appeal to the masses to help him. If Roderick had been motivated by purer motives the story may have been different than what it is.
But Roderick isn't heroic. He may want to stop death but not for anyone else. Only for his own gain, his own prestige, his own "power and glory."
Its curious and jarring, and I believe well set up, how this character, who regularly traffics with the occult, with phenomena that would have even the most ardent skeptic convinced of another realm and would sway all naysayers and hard bit atheists, is such a complete and utter bastard. He wants money. He wants power. He wants to manipulate and control people's lives. He wants only to get over on people, to make their desires stuff his pocket books.
And poor Dr. Hathaway, whose desire to get his son back, ends up completely in Roderick's power. Roderick stole from the museum. He can be prosecuted and imprisoned for this. Roderick explains to his son that now the man is in his control and all the wonders of the museum are going to be at their fingertips.
Which is the other excessively creepy aspect of the story. Sleep of the Just is also a bit of a bildungsroman. It is Roderick's son's Alex education in the occult, and in grift. In controlling people. In using their supernatural fears to turn a profit.
But that's enough for post 1. More on Sleep of the Just next time.
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Volumes 1-6 arrived in the mail today. As I flipped through them I realized several things:
1) There is no way I'm going to do this all in a month.
2) However long it does take I'm going to do the read through until I finish the series.
Some initial impressions:
This is gonna be weird. I'm not a fan of weirdness. I've actually worked hard in my life to avoid weirdness. I don’t read horror. It took the promise of a story telling orgasm to get me to read my first Stephen King book(the dark tower). I don’t even watch horror films. I've never sat through more than five minutes of any Saw. Trying to watch a movie with an exorcism in it will have me turning on all the lights and calling my mom, or any other relative or friend who is willing to talk to me at 3 am.
So why am I doing this? One look at the covers of the Sandman books today had me wondering that. A quick flip through the books reveals graphic blood and guts scenes. Something as I said I've avoided. The pages abound with demons, ghosts, corpses, and a cornucopia of images that look like the prop department of a horror film set. The squeamish part of me looks at this and goes, yea why are we doing this again? You know how much of a chickenshit you can be.
Well, gentle reader let me put it this way. I've read Gaiman before: American Gods and Neverwhere and Anansi Boys and Fragile Things and The Graveyard Book. I learned much from those books but one thing stands out: Neil Gaiman knows things. Things about what it means to be human. Things about what it means to be mortal. Things about the limitations of death, desire, loss, and love. Not in some smarmy Mitch Albom the Five People You Meet In Heaven kind of way(in fact, if that were a Gaiman title it would be The Five People You Meet On Your Way to Hell). He's a man just like the rest of us, he eats and sleeps etc. But he has this way of saying things, of revealing things in a story, of knowing the right word and the right time and the right phrase.
As I said, the man knows things. Characters speak truths. Not some hallmark card planarization of the Buddha or Zen koan pithy aphorism that has me shaking my head, scratching my ass and reaching for another beer. But truths about real life and what happens to real people. He uses fantasy and urban fantasy to communicate these truths and so comes at you with what he knows obliquely, flanking your reason with his word hoard of myth.
For example this from Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere on becoming homeless and things getting worse from there: "He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn't occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.”
Or this from American Gods: "I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn't even know that I'm alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. "
Cause this is, in a wonderful paradox, what you get from Neil Gaiman's work: straight talk. About life that is. All the questions, the meanings, the searches. I don't mean my life of course. Gaiman's not the Delphic oracle(well, if the job ever becomes available I'm sure they'll consider him) and I don’t expect him to be for me. I mean the big questions about Life that most thinking people ask. That kind of stuff that brings you back to yourself. T.S. Eliot wrote "The end of all our searching shall be to arrive at the place we departed, and to know it for the first time." A Gaiman novel does give that experience. They are stories, I know. The stories are full of weird and wonderful and improbable and horrifying things. I know this too. But using these tools he has, in the novels I've read, managed to say some profound things. Things that have resonated with me.
Another motivation for this read through is Story. Its kind of the last muse we have left after structuralism, deconstruction, and feminism carpet bombed the humanities. I see her as a thin shouldered girl, sitting on a hilltop, lonely for her sisters. She is the last inspiration we have left. No matter what academic departments may think or say about the death of the author, she is at least still going strong. The idea of story is something we humans just can't detox ourselves from. And this is a good thing. And Gaiman is one of our story masters. On a barstool, in the movie theatre, on your couch, at a bookstore: story lives and breathes in all these places. She whispers to us Don’t you want to know what happened?
The Story Muse hangs out with Gaiman. They are probably on a first name basis. They probably text each other when bored. Compare notes, promise to do lunch. You get the idea.
So to summarize why I am doing this: I have much to learn from Neil Gaiman. And much, I suspect, to learn from the Sandman series. And you, lucky constant reader, will be witness to this adventure. I hope you have read the series. I also hope you haven't. I hope if you read you share thoughts.
Some points about method: I'm going to review each individual story piece as its presented in the books. For example, the first review will cover Sleep of the Just. This is the first story in Volume 1. The second story, Imperfect Hosts, seems to continue the same story line, but I'll review it as its own individual piece. And so on and so on all the way through the series.
So, here we go.
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Obviously I'm tipping my hand with the above title but I think the subject bears writing about.
I bought my ereader for several selfish yet practical reasons:
1)Portability. June 2011. I had just finished reading A Dance With Dragons. I liked the book and story. But curling up with that book was about as realistic as curling up with a cinder block. It had the heft and weigh at of a cinder block. It was a portable as as cinder block. Construction workers nearby asked if they could use it for a foundation stone.
Now, I'm reasonably strong and fit, I work out a lot, but that beast just kept getting in the way. I read all the time everywhere: At the gym in between sets, in doctor's offices, in line at banks and at the dreaded Department of Motor Vehicles, where I consider it a civil obligation to show the petty beauracrats I am not going to completely stop my day so they can make me wait for fees and forms to continue driving a car I own. But it was hazardous to try to take Dance With Dragons out anywhere but on my desk where it was supported by a solid foursquare oak frame.
I felt a sense of accomplishment when I had indeed finished the book and looked back over the size of the thing and saw that I had indeed passed through it all. But it was damned uncomfortable. Taking it out didn't just elicit odd stares which I generally cultivate "That's right, I'm reading you monosyllabic motherfuckers." But "Look at the guy struggle with that big book." I felt a bit like Charlie Brown in a Christmas special dragging War and Peace around. Like having a plus size girlfriend give you a lap dance. "Honey stop, people are staring.."
After purchasing the kindle the first book I downloaded was Brandon Sanderson's the way of kings. That too is a tome. It weighs in at over 1000 pages and is another doorstopper of a book. True it was in paperback but the paperback was the thickness of three metropolitan phonebooks. Opening the book and keeping it open was like trying to bend a nail with your fingertips.
2) Availability. I recently rediscovered several classic authors whose collected works were available for free on the kindle. Did I mention that part about for free? All these wildly obscure texts that are an English Majors wet dream like Wilkie Collins lesser known novels, Jane Austen's Juvenilia, Dickens Essays, Coleridge's LSD journal(ok the last one was made up). And for my (handful of) faithful readers consider this: No library anywhere in a 100 mile radius has a copy of Jack London's The War of the Classes. No book store in a 100 mile radius has a copy of that book. Amazon only has it as a Kindle book. There is no hard copy available. When I reflect on my thinking patterns and ideas over the past year no other book has been more influential. A game changer if you will. All possible thanks to the ereader.
Another aspect to availability is location location location. I live in the country. The nearest bookstore is an hour a way. The nearest decent bookstore complete with coffee shop, computerized inventory, and large breasted baristas is about two hours away. To buy hardcopies in a bookstore I'd have to spend about twenty dollars in gas just to get there.
Along with availability of texts was the fact I can have it right now. Yes, I sound like the annoying girl from Willy Wonka. But you know what? Getting the book right now spares me the shipping and handling fees. Spares me looking to my neighbors like a wacked out crack fiend amped on conspiracy theories while I check the front door every five minutes for the book to arrive via snail mail. Not only does the ereader keep me from waiting, but it also forced me to be a little more organized when it came to planning the book purchases. I want that one that one that one that one…wait, why is my amazon wish list over 2500 books long? Ok maybe its time to be honest with what I really want to read and what I hope to someday read and what I might maybe someday hopefully get excited about reading(I'm looking at you Jane Eyre).
3) Multiple texts at once. Another reason an ereader is the greatest invention since the condom Gutenberg press is the value of multiple texts in hand at one time. Someone once remarked that going on a trip with Hemingway was a pain in the ass because he spent most of his time packing books to take with him. He was afraid of being bored(like there weren’t enough animals to shoot or women to hump?). K I'm like that but without the native coolies to carry my bags so my family tends to get pissed off at me. Having an ereader gives you the option of if a book is boring the shit out of you, and as Nancy Pearl librarian extraordinaire says the world of books is too large and time too short to waste on a book you are not enjoying, a few clicks and you are on to the next one like a Kardashian through millionaire boyfriends.
4) Books in a series. For fantasy and sci fi geeks, as well I suspect of mystery lovers, the idea of having an entire series at your fingertips and in hand is immensely valuable for cross referencing. I have the following entire series on my kindle right now: The Wheel of Time(all 13), all the Malazaan series, all John Scalzi's Old Man's Universe series, the uhm er Halo series of books, etc. You get the point. When a text in one book makes you question something you thought you saw from a previous book(Wait..what year did Ms Marple contract syphilis?) the ability to check is again in your hands and only a few clicks away.
And to add a social dimension to the argument: pulling out a kindle in line, the dmv or doctor's office says a few things. You are obviously a committed reader because you've gone through the trouble of buying an ereader. You are genius level material because you read so often. Whether that translates to you are a superiour species that can demand prima nocturne on all females within a five mile radius though is doubtful. Still, you never know. People that don't read are highly suggestible are often easily duped.
The one counterargument I can understand is wanting to display all your books in your home. Dostoevsky, Hemingway, and The Wheel of Time novels occupied pride of shelf space for a long time. Like exotic pets they were on the top shelf. Then I picked up my copy of The Eye of the World and the prologue fell out. The books don’t look that cool if you have to wrap rubber bands around them to keep the pages together.
That and the idea that after a move I realized I had four copies of the Brothers Karmazov(2 of which were the same translation), I realized I might be overdoing it.
So maybe you can't display all your books and brag to your houseguests about your book collection. So what? The idea is to read, internalize, and understand the books. Do that and I'm quite sure it will be obvious to people who meet you that you are a reader.
And for a final unselfish reason consider the following article:
"Let’s do some math. In the USA in one year, 2 billion books are produced. To get the paper for these books requires consuming 32 million trees. We can estimate that one tree yields enough paper for 62.5 books. (Of course, these numbers vary depending on which expert you choose to believe.)
The 200 million free ebooks downloaded from Project Gutenberg and the WEF saved three million and two hundred thousand (3,200,000) trees." (sourcehttp://epublishersweekly.blogspot.com/2009/09/ebooks-save-millions-of-trees-10-ideas.html)
Translation: if you step outside with an ereader don't be surprised if a tree hugs you, or starts humping your leg out of gratitude.
Monday, August 13, 2012
I know, this is a strange follow up to a war of the classes(not to mention the clash). On the other hand, I felt so strongly moved by this book that I can't escape the need for a response.
The Lies of Locke Lamora was a surprise. For a fantasy novel it is a curious specimen that sets up and breaks expectations faster than a bull on meth in a china shop. The story is a wild ride and you will be holding on by the whitening tips of your fingers to find out what happens next.
Camorr is divided up between the have's and the have nots. The haves, the aristocracy, wealthy merchants, and varous dukes and duchesses, have a lot. As in private summer barges, courtesans, expensive clothes, mansions and enough money to feed a third world nation for a year. Of course they do what most people with money do: they keep it.
The other half of the haves are the wealthy criminals. Camorr is a city where crime is as natural as the tides, and the Capa, the man who holds all gangs, cutpurses, whores, thieves in sway, rules with the absolute power of a tsar. Cross him and death is the least of your worries.
The only unforgiveable crime is to violate The Secret Peace. That is, the peace between the nobles and the thieves. Arranged between the Duke of the city and the Capa, the theives and criminals can steal, murder, and defraud all of the middle and lower classes that they want and can get away with, but they are not permitted to touch the aristocracy. For this freedom the nobles do not root out crime and drag the various gangleaders into chains. No summary exectutions. No raiding of gang warehouses. As long as the nobles, their wives, and their families are left alone, crime remains the most profitable business in Camorr.
Of course, Locke and his crew have other plans.
I can't remember the last time I genuinely had such fun with a book. I can unreservedly recommend the book for its plot construction, characterizations, and world building, but the sheer glee you feel when reading this novel, the delight in the anarchy that Locke trails behind him, is enough to hook the most experienced and perhaps jaded reader and a reading experience not to be missed.
My only problem with the novel is that it does have "first novel" flaws. Although I hate to use that term because usually when an author publishes a novel it may be his first published novel but not usually his first written one. Some of the descriptive passages try for effects which they don’t accomplish: broad canvas background scenes that don't really convey mood or tone. The book succeeds though with dialouge, and with his structual design.
The dialogue is always witty, always cutting, and entertaining. Characters speak like real people with individual personalities born from private experiences. Even minor and secondary characters come through as original creations and not merely mouthpieces. In one scene a sergeant on a night watch is fleshed out by the way he addresses his subordinates. Very skillfull handling of the material there and the extra effort adds to the many cool things to enjoy in a novel filled with cool things.
The thing that blows my mind though is the plot construction. It is a plot that is as twisted and torqued as a contortionist with cerebral palsy, but the amazing thing is it actually flows and fits together. It never feels like he is pulling an Indiana Jones and "making it up as he goes along." Handling flashbacks and info dumps is a fantasy author's nightmare. Simply no way around it this is part of the genre. But in Locke Lamora the author found a way to travel back and forth and uses carefully selected scenes to highlight the upcoming plot points. The past informs the present and round and round.
But where I think the book rises in comparison to others is in its uses of genre expextations. Locke is an orphan. The majority of the people in his crew are orphans. So the question of identity itself becomes a major plot point and the whole Aristotelian idea of recognition looms unforgettably in the reader's mind. Who is this wise ass little shit, where did he come from, and what is there about his past that causes such mystery.
Like a good con artist one of the things Locke does over the course of the book is dodge the question of who he is and where he came from. We don’t actually know that his parents were killed and he was an orphan. He may have chosen to go to the thieves world and make his living as that. We don’t know what the parents connections were. Locke may simply have been an impossible child and the parents dumped him off dockside to get rid of him. The book does a neat job of slipping that question the way a boxer expertly slips a punch. And in a novel supposedly concerned with orphans I found myself surprised that he had so often dodged it.
For a book about a con, the best con is the one enacted on the reader: what do we really know about these characters? If this were a dickens novel we'd be subjected to a relentless pursuit to find out the orphan's identity. And although that question is constantly being evoked and hinted at in the story, Scott Lynch is the artful dodger himself, making us forget then remember then have a burning desire to know, but never actually telling us. Well played sir. Well played indeed.
Great fun. Don't miss it.
Friday, March 9, 2012
The clash "clampdown" by GO-GO-STALIN
Thought about what kind of music would match the blog and this is what I found. Reading The Windup Girl by Paolo Baciagalupi and this could almost be a soundtrack for it. Love how it starts: "What are we gonna do now?" And the beginning is pure Strummer.
Friday, January 27, 2012
I knew Jack London had written socialist works, but for some reason I never took their existence seriously. That is, I never believed London wrote anything meaningful about socialism. I attributed books like The People of the Abyss, War of the Classes, and Revolution and Other Essays, to the idea that sometimes authors write works "with their left hands." A comment famously made about Tolstoy's religious writings, and refer to a type of by-product of a writer's interests, but don't truly reflect the author's best work on major themes.
As a teenager I found it hard to reconcile the man who had written Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea Wolf ever had an interest in socialism. Laid bare in the pages of his books was the blind struggle for existence in all its Dawrinian and Nietzschean brutality.
But allow me to backtrack a bit my dear and constant reader. And herein you should be forewarned: this is a deeply personal essay and not strictly speaking simply a book review. The best books in our lives do more than excite our interest or motivate us to reflection, they speak deeply for us and through us, articulating our own sometimes unknown and feared thoughts. A book has the power to damage our way of life, change our existence, and divide us from ourselves and our best interests. The same book also can truly validate what we feel and think to be true, despite all the prejudice of the society around us.
Once in a great while a reader with years of experience and thousands of books behind them will say of a particular book "it spoke to me." I mean no cheap sentimentality here, nor anything approaching a religious revelation. Instead I draw on a certain real experience familiar to the tribe of those who read, one that awakens a deep sense of being and connectedness. The awareness that these thoughts we have in our most private selves can be shared and brought to light, regardless of the fear of consequences.
But I understand I digress too much. Let me transport you back in time. To the hey dey of the late eighties, that era of Republicanism and the Communist "menace." The world was more simply divided back then. At least to my pubescent eyes. Russia was bad, America good, and the cold war raged quietly behind the world events. At 12 I was beginning to formulate questions on this state of affairs, but since my questions were in such contradiction to the zeitgiest I kept my thoughts to myself.
When I was 14 I read Jack London's Call of the Wild. I enjoyed the book and found the writing from the perspective of a dog an odd yet compelling way of telling a story. I also recognized, even at that age, that Buck's perspective was meant to challenge the perspective of a children's tale wherin animal protagonists stand for humans trying to find their way in the world.
From there I went to White Fang, which I don’t think I finished. Then I read some short stories, and finally to The Sea Wolf. The Sea Wolf is London's tale of literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden who survives the wreck of a San Francisco ferry only to be taken aboard a seal hunting ship led by the Nietzschean Wolf Larsen. On the ship Van Weydon is introduced to life among the lower classes, the laborers, the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed.
At 15 I saw myself reflected pretty clearly in Van Weydon. An aspiring writer and rabid consumer of novels I was fast developing an aesthetic appreciation for the written word. I was eager to enter the world of books and stay in them.
But there was a bit of a problem with this world view. My hometown. I grew up in a town in the Pennsylvania Coal Region. The mines had long since closed for the most part but their legacy remained: the world was a weekday laborers world and the weekends were beer fests and bar fights. Surrounded though we were by an edenic world of natural beauty.
This story, which showed quite clearly the darwinian struggle for existence in all its brutality, which took the survival of the fittest to be the mantra and religious creed for the world, affected me profoundly. I never really lost the view of the world in those pages. I never really lost the idea that the world around me was going to forever be one in which the strong subjugate the weak, and the weak endure or die off. I never became a follower of this belief. In fact I lived a very long time in denial of it. But of the fact that humans were cruel, vicious, and that it was all somehow sanctified by Nature never sat well with me. Had I been a better reader at that age I might have realized this was the character Wolf Larsen's perception of the world.
Enter the later day me in 2011. Years of experience behind me and many novels I begin to see the claims made by socialism and communism as having some legitimacy. Since the 2008 financial crises and its subsequent fallout the country has remembered just how fragile a thing an economy can be.
In an effort to save money I purchased a Kindle. So many downloadable books for free, prices cut on paperbacks and hardcovers so that I will literally save hundreds, and the portability means no more lugging around cinder block sized 900+ page fantasy epics.
One of the first books I download is London's War of the Classes. Im intrigued and the financial problems of the past few years have made me more aware and curious as to the possibility of alternate economic structures. I'm intrigued at this London, the man who claims to be a socialist but yet wrote such brutal books about the struggle for existence.
Like the constant and thorough reader you are you can probably anticipate the ending here. Not only is the London I find in War of the Classes not a fraud, but probably one of the most compassionate, humane and mature voices I have ever read. Yes the world is a brutal struggle for existence, but this does not justify continued brutality, in the best of humans it evokes a desire to change the world and make it better. It is possible to so organize a society that the people are no poor, that there is no hunger, no want of work; that it is not a crime against god or an obstinate laziness to desire a shorter work day so as to pursue the arts, a higher quality of family life, and a way of existing in the world that is not just a fight and a daily competition but instead a contemplating of the existence we are in. In a moving essay London talks about the people of his era who tell him socialism is a thing for young men and he will grow out of it. The same men, he states, who own everything.
Jack London is no saint. He frequently trades in cultural stereotypes, and sometimes his writer's voice gets carried away by the polemics of a revolution he hopes will come soon. But as near as I can tell nowhere does he argue for a violent overthrow of the existing regime.
What he does argue for, and passionately, is the need for Americans to wake up and recognize that they are in a class struggle. Their lives are one of conflict between the owners and workers. One exploits the other. The London I imagined in the Sea Wolf would have said so it is and will ever be. But I was wrong. That is not the London presented here. This is:
"Why should there be one empty belly in all the world, when the work of ten men can feed a hundred? What if my brother be not so strong as I? He has not sinned. Wherefore should he hunger-he and his sinless little ones? Away with the old law. There is food and shelter for all, therefore let all receive food and shelter."
All written over a hundred years ago. And yet, so very contemporary.