A shameful habit exposed.

I don’t tweet and I don’t face-beak, but I do carry on a desultory back-and-forth with an email list consisting of a dozen or so of my oldest friends. Every month or two I’ll update them on my doings and they’ll update me on theirs, and we’ll chat a bit about uncontroversial topics.

The list used to be livelier, in part because I would share thoughts about politics and society that I now reserve for this blog. In fact I used to be something of a blowhard, replying to my friends’ terse comments with rants of a thousands words or more. Now I confine my rants to the overlooked corner of the internet where they belong. My blog was never a secret, but I haven’t advertised it to my friends. I believe some of them were unaware it existed.

The other day, one of my list buddies followed a trail of links from one of my music videos back to this blog. He then emailed the group some flattering comments about the essays he’d found here, linking to several of them. I found myself mildly annoyed. I started to compose this reply, but luckily recognized in time that I was falling back into my old ranting habit.

Why should I be annoyed that my friend drew attention to my blog? I suppose I’m ashamed of it. In olden days there was a kind of flinty dignity in self-publishing: humping your crudely photocopied comix around to the hippie bookstores; flogging your homophobic tracts on street corners; or, like high-school-age Michael, selling an ad under false pretenses to the management of the Lawson Heights Mall to finance your underground student newspaper. The self-evident futility of it limited participation to a few doughty eccentrics.

Nowadays any lazy schmoe (like grown-up Michael) can set up a free WordPress blog in five minutes, and Google will supply a steady trickle of visitors to validate his dronings, and incidentally to glance at the Google ads seeded ever more densely around his site, each glance reaping Google a fraction of a penny. At least Uber and its imitators, when they eventually destroy the taxicab business, will still be obliged to pay their drivers some bare percentage of what a taxi driver once earned; no-one drives random strangers around town as an act of self-expression. But narcissists like me are happy to undercut our professionally employed brethren by churning out copy for nothing. Then we bitch about the deteriorating quality of journalism.

So why do I keep it up? I have no illusions about the urgency of my contributions to human knowledge. When I was twenty I thought I was awfully smart; now I realize what I thought were carefully reasoned-out opinions were really only attitudes I’d picked up from the magazines and books I was reading at the time. Since then I’ve reversed nearly every one of those opinions, but I’m pretty sure that’s just a matter of reading a different set of magazines and books. It’s highly possible that I’ll revert to my earlier opinions by the time I’m sixty.

Often I forget exactly why I believe what I believe, and when I try to trace an opinion back to its foundations I realize it’s balanced on a lattice of worm-eaten two-by-fours: I don’t really know how national wealth is calculated, or how reliable crime statistics are, or how much I’m personally to blame for whatever’s going on in Syria. Occasionally I’ll attempt a bit of research to try and shore up the structure, but these topics are contentious, there are ten conflicting answers, and each one needs to be traced back to its foundations before you can decide which to put your trust in. In short, thinking is exhausting, and I’m a lazy man. To my credit, unlike most people who opine on the internet – including those who opine for money – I’m pretty upfront about my ignorance. But that doesn’t excuse my recklessly broadcasting arguments that I’m aware are no better than 50% likely to be true.

I should therefore probably shut this blog down, and maybe I will someday, once I’ve dialled my ego down another notch or two. In the meantime, strangers and friends are welcome to poke around.

M.

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No harm done: Racism and rape in Nevil Shute’s The Chequer Board.

There’s a small subgenre of mid-20th-century fiction concerned with black or brown men being railroaded by white authorities on charges of sexually assaulting white girls. Or at any rate, there are two famous instances that came easily to my mind, besides the much obscurer novel I came here to discuss – which together should be enough to wring a couple thousand words out of.

Set yourself to guessing which two famous novels I’m thinking of, while I tell you about Nevil Shute’s The Chequer Board, published in 1947. A lower-middle-class Englishman of no great brains or imagination learns that an old war injury will kill him inside of a year. He resolves to get in touch with three fellow soldiers who were kind to him in the hospital while he was recuperating from the wound. At the time all four had been at low points in their lives; the hero wants to see if the other three made it through all right, and if not, to attempt to repay their kindness during the time he has left.

It’s a pretty moving book, by the way. Among Shute’s several tales of stolid, decent, ordinary joes being dragged out of their routines into the wide romantic world, it’s the best I’ve read so far.

One of the men our hero tracks down, and the one whose story concerns us here, is a black ex-GI named Dave Lesurier.

Flashing back to the war years, we find Lesurier stationed near a village in Cornwall. He and his fellow black Americans, used to condescension and scorn from whites in their own country, are surprised to find that the English villagers treat them decently, and even tolerate them “walking out” with their white daughters. When a new white commanding officer arrives, he decides that these coloured boys are getting above themselves, and implements a more exacting regime to keep them in their place. The villagers side with the blacks, grumbling at the unfairness of the new rules.

Meanwhile, shy, tongue-tied Lesurier has developed a crush on a village girl, not quite seventeen, who works in the shop where he buys his cigarettes. Finding her friendly, but never having an opportunity to speak a private word to her, he approaches her on the street one night, intending to ask if she’d like to go for a walk. But when he tries to speak, things go awry…

Reading The Chequer Board, I wonder how the next generation, raised on current feminist orthodoxies, will interpret the scene where Lesurier “assaults” the girl. But before I get to that let’s consider the parallel cases in (did you guess?) Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India.

***

We never receive an objective account of what happened to the accuser, Mayella Ewell, in To Kill A Mockingbird. Our narrator, Scout Finch, can only report what she hears from the balcony overlooking the Maycomb County courtroom where Mayella, her father, and her supposed assailant give their testimony.

Nevertheless, no sane reader is going to come away believing that the accused is anything but perfectly innocent. In the Ewells’ version of events, Mayella hailed a random black man, Tom Robinson, as he passed their yard, offering him a nickel to “bust up this chiffarobe” – chop up an old wooden wardrobe for kindling. Tom entered the yard and, when Mayella stepped inside to retrieve the nickel, followed her in, jumped her, and viciously beat and raped her. Her father arrived home to find a man “ruttin’ on” his daughter, and chased him away.

In Tom’s much more detailed account, he’d been well known to Mayella already, having done various small chores free of charge out of pity for the dirt-poor, lonely white girl. Mayella invited him inside, threw her arms around him, and:

“She reached up an’ kissed me ‘side of th’ face. She says she never kissed a grown man before an’ she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don’t count. She says, ‘Kiss me back, nigger.’ I say Miss Mayella lemme outa here an’ tried to run but she got her back to the door an’ I’da had to push her. I didn’t wanta harm her, Mr. Finch, an’ I say lemme pass, but just when I say it Mr. Ewell yonder hollered through th’ window.”

What Mr. Ewell hollered, according to Tom, was “You goddamn whore, I’ll kill ya.” Tom ran off, leaving his supposed victim completely unharmed. What happened to her after she was left alone with her father, we can infer.

Mayella’s story seems to require her assailant to have been able to seize her by the neck while simultaneously beating her about the right side of her face, which Tom’s attorney Atticus Finch argues Tom, with his shriveled left arm, couldn’t have done. I doubt that a modern jury would disbelieve Mayella just because she was fuzzy on the details of her beating, or be moved by Atticus’s assertion that as a “strong girl” she should have been able to fend off her crippled but much larger attacker.

In fact, the reason we assume she and her father are lying, and that Tom Robinson is telling the truth, is simply that the narrator paints the Ewells as repellent racist cretins, and Tom as a noble victim. The same testimony presented minus the character portraits might lead to a different interpretation.

***

A Passage to India leaves more room for speculation, but not about the guilt of the accused: we’re told exactly what Dr. Aziz is doing at the time of Miss Quested’s ordeal in the Marabar Caves. Embarrassed over a moment of social awkwardness with his new acquaintance – Miss Quested has innocently asked whether Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, has one wife or several – Aziz ducks into the nearest cave to hide his confusion. Meanwhile the young Englishwoman wanders into a different cave, where…

“[T]here was this shadow, or sort of shadow, down the entrance tunnel, bottling me up. It seemed like an age but I suppose the whole thing can’t have lasted thirty seconds really. I hit at him with the glasses, he pulled me round the cave by the strap, it broke, I escaped, that’s all. He never actually touched me once. It all seems such nonsense.”

For all their blustering about this being the sort of thing that comes of mixing socially with the natives, the British authorities have every reason to assume Aziz’s guilt. He attempts to flee the arresting officers in a guilty-seeming way. The victim’s field-glasses, their strap broken, are discovered in his pocket. And he is found to have told his friends several small lies to smooth over the strangeness of Miss Quested abandoning the group without a word, scrambling down a hillside, and flagging down a passing car for a ride back to town.

Luckily for Aziz, the “queer, cautious” Miss Quested doesn’t share the prejudices of the local Anglo-Indians, and almost as soon as she recovers from her panic she begins to doubt her own memories.

I was reminded of Miss Quested while reading in the British press about three recent well-publicized rape cases that fell apart when exonerating evidence turned up. The barrister for one of the defendants commented:

I can’t talk about the psychology of those who make false accusations, but I do know that once a complaint is made and video evidence is recorded it is very difficult for a complainant to withdraw their allegations without facing prosecution. The whole thing snowballs. You can’t just go into a police station and say: “I was in a bit of an emotional mess at the time, I want to take it back.”

Despite her second thoughts, Miss Quested allows the prosecution to go forward: a skeptical observer comments that “[s]he has started the machinery; it will work to its end.” It takes great courage for her to dramatically recant her accusation mid-trial; she is shunned by the white community that had rallied to her so credulously, and exposes herself to the danger of a lawsuit from the outraged Dr. Aziz.

Still, something made the sensible young woman run in terror from the Marabar Caves that day. The question of whether she was in fact assaulted by a third person – perhaps the guide who disappeared immediately afterward, or “one of that gang of Pathans who have been drifting through the district” – or whether she hallucinated the whole thing, is left unanswered, and ultimately dismissed by Miss Quested as unimportant. She wasn’t harmed, after all.

***

One thing the accused have in common in A Passage to India and To Kill A Mockingbird is a complete lack of sexual interest in their supposed victims. Dr. Aziz feels it a disgrace “to have been mentioned in connexion with such a hag” as Miss Quested. Tom Robinson only feels sorry for Mayella Ewell, and is unwise enough to say so in his testimony; the comment doesn’t go over well with the white jurors.

The Chequer Board is a different case. Here’s what happens when Dave Lesurier, after standing around all evening waiting for her to pass by, finally spots the village girl he has a crush on:

He stood in front of her, and said, “Say, Miss Grace…” And then he stopped.

She said, “Oh, it’s you.” She smiled at him, a little nervously.

He said again, “Say, Miss Grace…” And then he stopped again, because it suddenly seemed silly to ask her to take a little walk with him one evening, at ten o’clock at night. And because he was uncertain what to do, and because he had to do something, he put his arms round her and kissed her.

For a moment she yielded, too surprised to do anything else. For a moment he thought that it was going to be all right. Then fear came to her, irrational, stark fear…

She started to struggly madly in Dave’s arms, to free herself. She cried, “Let me go, you beast, let me go.” And she cried quite loud.

Chagrined, and already ashamed, he released her. He said, “Say, I didn’t mean…Miss Grace, I guess I did wrong…” But she was gone, half running, sobbing with emotion and with fright.

When Dave hears the whistles of the American military policemen, he decides that the safest course is to scram – quite sensibly, as the MPs are prepared, in fact eager, to shoot the black rapist on sight. Eventually he’s cornered, and slashes his own throat in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, which is how he ends up in hospital with the hero of The Chequer Board.

The American officers are none-too-secretly pleased to have a black soldier to make an example of, but the locals don’t think much of the ruckus. A village girl brushes off the incident:

“[A] girl what’s got her head screwed on right doesn’t have to get assaulted, not unless she wants to.”

Even Grace’s father thinks it’s a lot of fuss over nothing:

“Be all right if her mother’d stop putting a lot of fool notions in her head. After all, many a girl’s been kissed in a dark corner before now, and will be again.”

***

Maybe it’s tacky to conflate these fictional cases, streamlined for dramatic and moral effect, with ugly real world crimes; but reading these blithe dismissals of Grace’s complaint, I thought of a story told by British Columbia’s then-premier, Christy Clark, a few years back.

In 1974, fourteen-year-old Christy was walking to her job as a waitress when she was grabbed from the sidewalk by a stranger and pulled into the bushes. She resisted, the stranger lost his footing, and she wriggled free and ran off. Arriving at work she slipped into her apron and went on with her day, never mentioning the attack to anyone. She later wrote:

I suppose I felt that if I hadn’t been physically hurt, people would think I was self-absorbed, overly upset about something that was just part of life for my half of humanity.

I told myself: Get over it. Bad things happen. It was trivial.

If this is really what Christy Clark thought at the time, it’s consistent with the ethos communicated by the authors of A Passage to India and The Chequer Board, who deem it a sign of moral fortitude among women as well as men to suck it up and move on. A kiss and a squeeze from a stranger? A little tug-of-war in a dark cave? No harm done, dearie. Get over it.

Maybe this ethos really did discourage girls like young Christy Clark from reporting “bad things” when they happened, but I’m pretty sure no grown-up even then would have advised her to keep her mouth shut about the attack. No doubt 1970s police were more skeptical when women turned up with unsupported sexual assault allegations, but in no era have cops been okay with strangers dragging young girls off the street. They might have decided that Clark’s story was too vague to pursue (she remembered nothing about her attacker’s appearance), but they might also have received other reports of a pervert skulking in the bushes, and pieced together something about his habits and whereabouts.

I’m not convinced that our modern culture of therapy and oversharing is actually healthier than the old one of swallowed emotions. Maybe Clark would have benefited from the psychological support that a modern police force would have scurried to provide, but the worst consequence of her silence wasn’t her mental trauma; she obviously turned out fine. It’s that a potential rapist was left free to traumatize other girls.

As for Dave Lesurier – we know he meant no harm, but Grace had no way to know. Nor did the military policemen summoned by her screams.

***

After Dave’s suicide attempt, the local innkeeper, concerned about the growing tensions between the black and white soldiers who patronize his pub, is moved to write a letter to General Eisenhower, describing the attempted rape charge as “a bit of humbug”. This results in a level-headed officer from the US Army’s Staff Judge-Advocate’s office being dispatched to investigate the case. He questions Grace about the kiss:

“What happened when you started struggling? Did he let you go, or did he hang on?”

She said, “I was ever so frightened. I don’t really know.” She thought for a minute. “I ran round the corner and bumped right into another man, that fat policeman.”

“That’s not what the lieutenant put in his report. He said that the Negro didn’t let you go until the policeman came. It makes a big difference,” he explained, “whether he let you go at once or not until the policeman came.”

She said, “I think he must have let go. I think he must have done. He wasn’t all that bad.”

With a little bit of time to reflect – and away from the influence of her overbearing mother – Grace decides that it was only a harmless misunderstanding after all. The charge is withdrawn; Dave stays in the army and, when the war is over, remembering the kindness of the villagers, makes his way back to Cornwall. When the hero tracks him down at the end of the novel, he’s living near the scene of the fateful kiss – and married to Grace.

M.

I’ve previously written about Nevil Shute’s autobiography Slide Rule (and evolving linguistic taboos) and his novel In The Wet (and the strange electoral reform scheme described therein).

A discerning elimination.

We’ll begin with Sam Spade sneakily entering a room in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon:

He put his hand on the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no farther: the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office-key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office-key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in.

In Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men, the reclusive criminological genius Nero Wolfe answers a criticism from his assistant that he has neglected to follow certain promising leads in their current case:

“In the labyrinth of any problem that confronts us, we must select the most promising paths; if we attempt to follow all at once we shall arrive nowhere. In any art – and I am an artist or nothing – one of the deepest secrets of excellence is a discerning elimination. Of course that is a truism.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes. Take the art of writing. I am, let us say, describing the actions of my hero rushing to greet his beloved, who has just entered the forest. He sprang up from the log on which he had been sitting, with his left foot forward; as he did so, one leg of his trousers fell properly into place but the other remained hitched up at the knee. He began running towards her, first his right foot, then his left, then his right again, then left, right, left, right, left, right…As you see, some of that can surely be left out – indeed must be, if he is to accomplish his welcoming embrace in the same chapter. So the artist must leave out vastly more than he puts in, and one of his chief cares is to leave out nothing vital to his work.”

Wolfe is obviously correct, at least insofar as his observation applies to the art of writing. (How it applies to the art of detection, I couldn’t say.) But I would extend it by adding that the amount of detail the artist elects to put in or leave out is a question of style.

I’m not sure if the theorists of literature have devised a name for this element of a writer’s style, so let’s call it granularity. The fine-grained writer will include more details of his characters’ actions, of their inner thoughts, of their surroundings, while the coarse-grained writer will include fewer. The parodic extreme of the fine-grained technique would be Wolfe’s narration of the hero’s tortured progress toward his lover in the forest: “First his right foot, then his left, then his right again…”

(…Which, as shown by that excerpt from The Maltese Falcon, is not that much of a parody.)

Its polar opposite, the quintessence of coarse-grainedness, would be a bare plot outline: “She meets him in the forest. They make love. Afterward…”

This isn’t to say that the fine-grained style is more precise, let alone better. A fine-grained but clumsy writer will include every detail of a character’s action but the one that matters; a talented coarse-grained writer will include that detail and no others, and the reader will be perfectly satisfied.

The famous quip about Henry James, that he “chewed more than he bit off”, could be applied to most fine-grained writing. But while James may too often have tried to stretch a stare, a blush, and a fluttered eyelid into a four-course meal, he was no more fine-grained than hard-boiled, hard-drinking Dashiell Hammett. Fine-grained writers are alike only in their high estimation of their readers’ level of wakefulness. One may be fine-grained on matters of psychology, another on sociology, another on technology. The one who transcribes every flicker of a character’s flow of consciousness won’t say a word about that character’s appearance, while the one who’ll specify which hand the hero uses to pluck his keys from his pocket will expect you to deduce said hero’s emotions from actions alone.

Assuming a work of finite length, the more fine-grained the writer’s treatment of any aspect of the story – internal or external, personal or historical, metaphysical or concrete – the more coarse-grained must be the treatment of all the others. The trick is to choose the degree of magnification, adjusting to the length of readers’ attention spans and to the overall size of the story you want to tell.

By these means, a story of any size can be shrunken or enlarged to fill any number of pages. Nicholson Baker’s intensely fine-grained 1988 debut The Mezzanine describes an office worker returning from lunch, crossing his building’s atrium, and heading up the escalator to the mezzanine floor, reflecting on the mundane events of his morning. Many a science-fiction work has narrated the rise and fall of a galactic civilization in fewer words.

You might quibble with my use of the word “size”; you might say that The Mezzanine‘s visit to the CVS for a new pair of shoelaces is no bigger or smaller, literarily speaking, than Frodo and Sam’s march to Mordor. To me it’s obvious that stories do come in different sizes – that Ulysses’ wanderings around the Mediterranean are bigger than Leopold Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin in Ulysses, that To Kill A Mockingbird is bigger than Catcher in the Rye. A “normal-sized” story would involve two or three main characters, take place in an area no smaller than a neighbourhood but no larger than a city, encompass a timespan of between a few days and a few weeks, and have an outcome affecting people besides the characters themselves…but not too many people.

These parameters, you’ll notice, are distantly descended from Aristotle’s three unities, but unlike Aristotle I don’t mean to suggest that stories adhering to these rules are somehow superior. They are, I think, easier to write. To successfully tell a very small or very large story requires special skill as an author; for large stories, Nero Wolfe’s discerning elimination – knowing what to leave out – and for small stories, what I’m calling magnification – the enchanted lens that allows a Nicholson Baker to expand a broken shoelace or a stop at the men’s room to chapter size without losing his readers.

The master of magnification is that proverbial padder of word counts, Charles Dickens. In an old post on Sentimental Education I compared Flaubert unfavourably with Dickens:

[When Flaubert’s hero] fights a duel with a flighty aristocrat, or attends a ludicrous meeting of a radical political club, or serves an evening on duty with the National Guard, one wishes for a bit of Dickens’ comic expansiveness, his eagerness to digress, his concern to endow every character, no matter how minor, with a quirk or a verbal tic or, at the very least, a funny name. The fleas that harass Frédéric while he huddles in the guardhouse would have been good for a couple paragraphs in Dickens; Flaubert mentions them and moves on.

But whether you’re eliminating or magnifying, the key is to do it discerningly. Henry Fielding in Tom Jones compares a good writer to a tourist,

who always proportions his stay at any place to the beauties, elegancies, and curiosities which it affords. […] The woods, the rivers, the lawns of Devon and of Dorset, attract the eye of the ingenious traveller and retard his pace, which delay he afterward compensates by swiftly scouring over the gloomy heath of Bagshot or that pleasant plain which extends itself westward from Stockbridge, where no other object than one single tree only in sixteen miles presents itself to the view[.]

Inappropriately fine-grained writing, then, we might visualize as a slow, rattling buggy-ride across the naked prairie, with an overfamiliar driver directing our attention to every shrub and hillock as it passes.

Fielding is in my view guilty of the opposite impropriety, whipping his horses too briskly through the final chapters of Tom Jones, crammed as they are with revelations and reconciliations which the reader would enjoy the luxury of examining at greater length. Take the reaction of Squire Western upon learning that the penniless bastard Jones, whom he has been damning and blackguarding through the preceding 800 pages, is to be reinstated as Squire Allworthy’s heir. Western’s profane rants against those who would undermine his sacred right to tyrannize his daughter are some of the novel’s most hilarious passages; we chuckle as we wonder how he will step down from his habitual perch of enraged dignity. But Fielding only informs us that

No sooner, then, was Western informed of Mr. Allworthy’s intention to make Jones his heir than he joined heartily with the uncle in every commendation of the nephew, and became as eager for [his daughter’s] marriage with Jones as he had before been to couple her to Blifil.

One sentence! This is the same Fielding who expended four entire chapters on the life story of a random hermit Jones encountered on a hilltop outside Gloucester. Discerningly, my good man, discerningly.

M.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Crazy Years.

Before Stranger in a Strange Land made him a household name in the early sixties, Robert A. Heinlein was best known as the author of a string of juvenile sci-fi adventure titles – still worth reading – and a loose sequence of short stories taking place in a single timeline, now known as the Future History.

The chronology stretched from what was then the immediate future – the mid-20th century – out to the year 2210. Somewhere between World War II and the first man on the moon Heinlein prophetically placed the Crazy Years – “a gradual deterioration of mores, orientation and social institutions, terminating in mass psychoses in the sixth decade”.

In 1987’s To Sail Beyond the Sunset the heroine gazes back from the distant future on that era of mass psychoses:

So many casual killings in public streets and public parks and public transports that most lawful citizens avoided going out after dark…

Public school teachers and state university professors who taught that patriotism was an obsolete concept, that marriage was an obsolete concept, that sin was an obsolete concept, that politeness was an obsolete concept – that the United States itself was an obsolete concept…

Cocaine and heroin called “recreational drugs”, felony theft called “joyriding” … felonious assault by gangs called “muggings”, and the reaction to all these crimes was “boys will be boys”, so scold them and put them on probation but don’t ruin their lives by treating them as criminals…

Millions of women who found it more rewarding to have babies out of wedlock than it would be to get married or to go to work…

As disgusted as he was by hooligans, bums, and tenured anti-intellectuals, Heinlein actually cheered on most of the cultural changes that emerged from the sixties. He was an emphatic anti-racist, disdained organized religion, practiced nudism, and favoured open marriage. He foresaw and foreliked the reformation in sexual morals that progressives are now working to lock in: open homosexuality, gender fluidity, “sex work” as a respected career. Going by Heinlein’s prognostications, we shouldn’t expect the taboos against incest and polygamy to endure much longer.

But when I talk about Heinlein’s Crazy Years, I’m not talking about his politics or philosophy or sex practices, but the way those obsessions colonized and undermined his storytelling, starting in the late sixties – coincidentally or not, around the time the success of Stranger in a Strange Land meant he no longer had to tailor his writing to please anyone besides himself.

Heinlein had always specialized in seat-of-the-pants stories that careened his characters from one implausible scrape into another. This had led to a lot of efforts in the forties and fifties that would start out full speed, zip along at high efficiency, then suddenly break for the nearest exit as an arbitrary word limit drew near. In his best and most popular works he’d somewhat curbed this picaresque tendency – for example, he mentions (in an essay in Expanded Universe) that Stranger was one of the rare stories in which he’d “plotted every detail before writing it, and then stuck precisely to that plot.” And it shows! I’d guess Starship Troopers, Farnham’s Freehold, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress were also mapped out in advance. But sticking to maps had never really interested Heinlein – and it turned out, once he was liberated from commercial concerns, that even telling stories was only of secondary interest. What he really wanted to do was imagine his characters chilling in a future free-love Utopia, getting naked and bantering about sex.

The major flaw with late Heinlein, therefore, isn’t that his books became kind of aimless – they’d always been like that. The problem was that their already aimless plots were now broken up by lengthy scenes of characters bathing each other, trying on sexy clothes, and arranging who was to bed down with whom tonight. If that froth had been swiped away by an unforgiving editor, his final seven novels could have been every bit as good, on average, as his fifties and sixties classics. Heinlein never lost his knack for whiz-bang storytelling – he just grew bored with demonstrating it. Here are the first paragraphs of 1985’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls:

“We need you to kill a man.”

The stranger glanced nervously around us. I feel that a crowded restaurant is no place for such talk, as a high noise level gives only limited privacy.

I shook my head. “I’m not an assassin. Killing is more of a hobby with me. Have you had dinner?”

Two pages later, the stranger slumps over the table, murdered by an explosive dart fired from offstage. Intriguing! But another two pages on, Heinlein is already making excuses, as the narrator – disgraced ex-military, now a hack fiction writer – grouses to his girlfriend:

“The total stranger who gets himself killed while he’s trying to tell you something – a cliché, a tired cliché. If I plotted a story that way today, my guild would disown me.”

A bad sign. Heinlein is able to simulate enough interest in his age-worn scenario to animate a couple hundred pages of entertaining space-hopping, as the hero and his girl escape from an orbiting space habitat, crash-land on the moon, shoot their way out of a moon-buggy ambush, and so on. It’s fast-paced enough that you can overlook the protagonists sharing a bed with an underage moon-maiden who snuggles up to the hero and asks to be spanked. But then around page 250, with our heroes under fire in a Luna City hotel room, the girl shouts something into a communicator, a portal opens up in the bare rock wall – and we’re whisked away to Heinleinland, the story waved to the background, while our hero spends the last third of the novel submitting to the advances of gorgeous naked lady geniuses.

***

How did it come to that? Let’s skip back to 1970’s I Will Fear No Evil, set in the Crazy Years (though not in the Future History timeline). The well-off have retreated into walled compounds, going out for an unprotected stroll being a virtual invitation to murder. An immensely aged, ill-humoured billionaire tycoon, on the verge of death, hires a mad scientist to transplant his brain into a healthy young body. (Brain-dead bodies being a cheap commodity in this anarchic world.) Against all expectations, including his own, the operation is successful, and the billionaire wakes up in the body of…wait for it!…his gorgeous secretary.

We can predict that the sexist tycoon will resent being stuck in this voluptuous female body…erm, no, actually, he adapts to it pretty quickly. He’ll struggle comically to walk on high heels, apply makeup, pee sitting down…no, it turns out Eunice’s consciousness is somehow in there with him, giving him instructions on how be a lady. He’ll attempt to reconcile his attraction to girls with his body’s contradictory sexual urges…no, he starts hitting on dudes pretty much right out of the gate.

One more try: the tycoon will track down his secretary’s murderers, uncovering evidence that he himself gave the orders that…oops, forget it. Eunice’s bodyguards took care of the random muggers already. The tycoon shows her gratitude by having sex with them.

Okay, okay. My ideas are all pretty humdrum. But they at least offer the potential for drama, conflict, suspense. What happens instead in I Will Fear No Evil?

The billionaire eagerly screws everyone. The end.

I’m only slightly exaggerating. One source of drama is a lawsuit filed by the billionaire’s parasitic grandchildren, claiming that the supposed brain-swap is a hoax being perpetrated by the secretary. That’s promising – how does our heroine prove she’s really who she says she is? But this subplot takes place mostly in the background and is wrapped up by the two-thirds mark.

The billionaire goes to pay her condolences to Eunice’s bereaved husband, whose new live-in girlfriend resents the arrival of what she sees as her predecessor’s reanimated corpse. Drama! …But this lasts only a page or two, before the three meditate together to chase off the bad vibes. Then they all get naked.

Look, I’m a fan of E.M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot. I can verify that you don’t need spaceship crashes, blaster duels, and telepathic aliens to supply drama. But in the absence of those things, you need something – for instance, characters with clashing personalities and objectives.

Heinlein’s biggest weakness as a writer is his odd lack of interest in interpersonal conflict. When the action lets up, his characters don’t really have anything to do except get naked.

***

Overgeneralizing recklessly, I’d say Heinlein had three and a half character types at his command. Their names, professions, and biographies change from book to book, but their beliefs and behaviours don’t: any non-plot-related exchange between Richard and Gwen, heroes of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, could be swapped into a Zebby-and-Deety scene in 1980’s The Number of the Beast and the reader would never notice.

(Am I being too hard on Heinlein? Philip Roth and P.G. Wodehouse got by with four or five characters. Kingsley Amis could draw on a multitudinous supporting cast but his narrators were all the same guy. “More characters” doesn’t equal “better”. If you like an author’s characters – find them interesting, I mean – you don’t much mind when they reappear under new names in a new book and a new predicament.)

The Omnicompetent Lunkhead is the basic-model Heinlein hero. He’s got a hands-on trade – engineering, soldiering, space-piloting – or, if still a teen, displays a precocious aptitude for one of the above. He can calculate the profit in a three-way business deal or the trajectory of a flight to Venus. When in danger of losing his temper, he’ll count backward from ten in an exotic foreign language.

Despite the OmniLunk’s evident near-genius IQ (which he would humbly disclaim), he’s weirdly clueless about history, politics, and philosophy. If another character (usually the Patriarch, see below) attempts to discuss one of these topics at the level of your average undergraduate lecture, the hero will reply “Huh?” or “You’ve lost me” or “I must be dense”.

The Genius Sexpot is the female version of the Heinlein hero. If the main character, she’ll have all the traits of the OmniLunk, plus fashion sense, maternal instinct, and an even greater distaste for abstract philosophy. If romantically paired with an OmniLunk, she’ll defer modestly to his masculine leadership, but in at least one skill – often math – she’ll surpass him.

She gets her name from her tendency – absent in her male counterpart – to discuss her sex urges in ickily straightforward terms:

“[T]here is nothing that beats the tingling excitement of lying back, legs open and eyes closed and bare to the possibility of impregnation.”
–Maureen Johnson, To Sail Beyond the Sunset

The Heinleinian Patriarch is the OmniLunk aged up and given a more philosophical turn of mind. In other words, the author’s mouthpiece. Given half an opportunity, he’ll ramble for a chapter or more about the problems besetting humanity – or formerly besetting humanity, back in the dark ages of the twentieth century. (People in the far future remain deeply interested in twentieth century affairs.) The Patriarch has retired from the active life and now writes, or teaches, or maybe bosses some large organization that puts him in the company of much younger people. A bachelor by temperament (whether or not he participates in some kind of plural marriage), he appreciates female beauty but doesn’t chase girls – they’re drawn to his rumpled charisma and constantly offering to crawl into his lap. He may harbour outmoded inhibitions about, say, walking around pantsless, or having sex with his female relatives. He knows these inhibitions are silly – he’ll tell you why at chapter length – and they’re easily shed.

(There are, of course, a handful of major characters that don’t fit into one of the above buckets – for instance, the All-Powerful Naïfs who propel the plots of Heinlein’s two best books, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But he tended to lose interest and kill off or sideline anyone who didn’t fit into one of the three categories above.)

The OmniLunk, the Sexpot, and the Patriarch will argue playfully. Sometimes they’ll even have genuine fights, which quickly end with one side or both apologizing for their bullheadedness. But they never really disagree about anything. If they don’t start out as gun-toting libertarian atheistic polyamorous nudist body odour fetishists, they take smoothly to the lifestyle when given the opportunity. Therefore all drama in Heinlein’s novels must arise from conflict with character type three-and-a-half:

The Booby is cowardly, conceited, irresponsible, and susceptible to gross mental deformations such as socialism, pacifism, race prejudice, and prudishness. Since the bulk of humans would be boobies in Heinlein’s eyes – I’m one; so, in all likelihood, are you – you’d expect this type to loom larger in his fiction. In fact, few of these feeble creatures are drawn with sufficient detail to qualify as “characters”. The brainless mass of boobies are there in the background, obstructing our heroes with their petty regulations, irrational taboos, and general unreason, but their representatives are rarely granted more than a line or two.

The trouble is that Heinlein can’t stand boobies. He finds them so exasperating that he’ll write them out of his stories as swiftly as he can. When a presumed ally or friend is revealed to be a secret booby, the reader perks up – maybe for once another character will stand up to our heroes, upset their assumptions, force them to defend their beliefs. The excitement never lasts. Boobies either get themselves quickly killed, or banished from the group, or are converted through firm yet compassionate discipline to non-boobyhood, at which point they cease to be interesting characters and fade into the scenery:

• In Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw’s salt-of-the-earth employee Duke objects to the customs of Harshaw’s Martian-born houseguest – specifically, ritual cannibalism. This earns him a chapter-long rebuke from Harshaw which cures Duke of his boobyism – and banishes him to the background.

• In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress an earth-born booby named Stuart LaJoie nearly gets himself killed by responding too handsily to a Lunar floozie’s advances. Our hero is luckily there to intervene, and to lecture the new arrival on Loonie sexual etiquette. Stuart starts out as an interesting character, but once he commits to the Lunar lifestyle he recedes into complacent blandness.

• In To Sail Beyond the Sunset Maureen’s youngest daughter shows her boobyhood not by hooking up with her older brother (she does that too, but Maureen approves) but by whining, lying, using drugs, and catching a venereal disease – by acting, in other words, like a real-life teenage girl. Her rebellion lasts only a few chapters before Maureen sends her packing to live with the ex-husband whose lax discipline ruined the child.

• In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls a homeless ragamuffin named Bill is hired by unknown enemies to lure our heroes into a trap. Seeing through his clumsy deceit, they take him into their custody – then, feeling sorry for him, decide to bring him along on their escape. Bill tags along willingly and mostly silently until, on arriving in Luna City, he pipes up to complain about being expected to pay an “air fee”:

“Nobody should have to pay for the breath of life! It’s a natural right and the government should supply it free.”

As the hero can’t let such idealistic ravings go unopposed, he reminds Bill that he has a full belly, and is partaking of Luna City’s expensive oxygen, and is alive at all, only because of the heroes’ charity. This leads to a fight between the hero and his girl, whom he accuses of coddling the booby. Girl and Bill storm off one way, our hero the other. That happens on page 190-91.

On page 196-97, the girl returns and apologizes:

“But you were right, dear. Bill’s attitude about paying for air reflects his wrong-headedness in general. … Bill has the socialist disease in its worst form; he thinks the world owes him a living. He told me sincerely – smugly! – that of course everyone was entitled to the best possible medical and hospital service – free of course, unlimited of course, and of course the government should pay for it. He couldn’t even understand the mathematical impossibility of what he was demanding. But it’s not just free air and free therapy, Bill honestly believes that anything he wants must be possible…and should be free.” She shivered. “I couldn’t shake his opinion on anything.”

The next time the booby appears, on page 208, he gets two brief lines, the last we’ll hear from him. On page 234 we learn he’s been secretly communicating with the bad guys. And on page 240 he’s among the gang of disguised assassins lurking outside the protagonists’ hotel room. The hero spots him and knocks him out – clear out of the story. Poor Bill! If he’d just kept his mouth shut about the stupid air fee, he too could’ve gone to naked lady heaven.

***

Let’s skip back again. The last entry in the Future History timeline, concerning the interstellar peregrinations of a cantankerous 213-year-old named Lazarus Long, was Methuseleh’s Children, originally published in 1941 and expanded to novella length in 1958.

In 1973 Heinlein picked up the adventures of Lazarus Long in a novel set two thousand-odd years later, Time Enough For Love. After lifetimes of intrepid roving, Lazarus has grown tired of the grind. Before he can kill himself he’s kidnapped by distant descendants living on a faraway planet – free-loving nudists, obviously – who insist that he record his life story for their archives. As he narrates his memoirs, and gets mixed up in the affairs of his extended family, his zest for life returns, and he accepts their offer to regenerate his body to youthful good health. Then, learning that they’ve mastered time travel, he decides to pop back to his own childhood in twentieth century Missouri where – obviously – he winds up having sex with his mother.

Time Enough For Love is quite readable, stands more or less on its own, and satisfactorily wraps up the saga of Lazarus Long. No-one – I assure you, absolutely no-one – has ever closed the book thinking, Gosh, I wonder what happens next to Lazarus, his crew of bare-ass time travellers, and their sassy sentient spaceship.

Therefore no-one was expecting The Number of the Beast, which came out seven years later, to reveal itself midway through as a stealth Time Enough For Love sequel. Beast starts out excitingly with four stock Heinlein characters – a widowed father, his adult daughter, and their respective love interests – narrowly escaping assassination by unknown enemies. The father has been working on a theory of six-dimensional spacetime, along with a practical method for hopping between parallel dimensions, the number of accessible dimensions being six to the power of six to the power of six, or:

6 to the power of 6 to the power of 6

Our heroes install the father’s gadget in their own sassy sentient spaceship and flee into the multiverse. Beast is heavy on clothes-doffing, open-mouthed kissing, and sexy dress-ups, but despite all that the first three hundred pages chug along pretty tolerably until our heroes materialize in what turns out to be the Land of Oz…and it becomes necessary, sadly, for me to describe to you the premise of what would come to be known as the World-As-Myth books. These are:

  • Time Enough For Love (1973, sequel to Methuselah’s Children, but can be read on its own)
  • The Number of the Beast (1980, sequel to the above)
  • The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985, sequel to the above, and to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress)
  • To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987, sequel to all the above)

Nothing about the World-As-Myth will be especially mindblowing to anyone who read those old DC comics where the Flash could vibrate into a parallel universe and interact with his creators, or for that matter the Merrie Melodies cartoon where Daffy is tormented by a sadistic animator. In short, all imaginary worlds are real; Heinlein and his books exist in the Number of the Beast reality; therefore Lazarus Long is a character known to our dimension-hopping quartet. By the time they run into Lazarus they’ve already blundered through Lilliput, Wonderland, the Lensmen universe of E.E. Smith, and, as mentioned, the Land of Oz, where Glinda the Good installed a pair of fully-equipped magical bathrooms in their spaceship. (No writer has ever lavished as much attention on bathrooms as Robert A. Heinlein.)

By the end of The Number of the Beast, the protagonists have all married into Lazarus Long’s extended family, and using time-travel and dimension-hopping have roped characters from a half-dozen other Heinlein works into their far-future pool party. The final chapter, concerning a pan-universal gathering of famous characters and their authors, most of them referred to by first names only, is so dense with in-jokes it seems like something meant to be read aloud for yuks at a sci-fi convention, not shared with a general audience. This is the low point of the Crazy Years.

***

Things got better. The eighties brought Friday and Job: A Comedy of Justice, both of them entertaining and mostly fully-clothed standalone stories (though Friday turns out to be linked, superfluously, to the 1949 novella Gulf). The hero of Job was something new – a rube from a parallel-universe Bible Belt America who believes in the literal truth of the Genesis story and sees no problem with killing witches…who finds himself bouncing unpredictably into a series of alternate Americas with radically different customs and manners. Job is like The Number of the Beast reconceived as a good idea. It’s kind of miraculous that Heinlein didn’t assimilate Job into the World-As-Mythoverse and wreck it.

After that, Heinlein made it through half of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls before being hit with the brainwave that the hero’s girlfriend should be Hazel Stone, the feisty grandma from the 1952 juvenile The Rolling Stones who was also the feisty kid in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, regenerated to her youthful hotness and sent back in time by Lazarus Long because…you know what, forget it. The first half is fun.

Heinlein’s final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, trots out another endearingly hoary premise – naked woman wakes up in bed with a corpse, with no memory of how she got there – but the woman turns out to be Lazarus Long’s mother, the one he went back in time to have sex with, and the bulk of the book retells the incest-fantasy parts of Time Enough For Love from her perspective.

It turns out – who’da guessed? – his mother was a polyamorous nudist all along.

M.

 

Breakfast of Champions: Unsanitary ideas.

As I’ve explained already, over the last few years I’ve been systematically making my way through the books I own that, for one reason or another, I’d never gotten around to reading. It’s taken longer than it might have because simultaneously, but less systematically, I’ve been revisiting some of the books I loved as a teenager, trying to decide whether they’re worth re-reading – or whether they were worth reading the first time around.

A few days ago I came to Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which was among the first “grown-up” novels I ever read – if it is a grown-up novel – aged twelve or thereabouts. [1]

If you’ve read Vonnegut at all, you probably encountered him, like me, pretty young, when his idealism, irreverence, and offhand eschatology seemed deep, and the Duplo-brick clarity of his prose made him a welcome alternative to Camus or Dostoyevsky or whatever woolly tome your older sister was lugging around in her backpack. As you aged up a bit maybe you spotted a Vonnegut paperback poking out of the rear pocket of your little brother’s low-hanging jeans and thought, gosh, well, maybe I’m too grown-up for that now. And maybe you’ve at last reached the age where you can un-self-consciously revisit the pleasures of your youth, but you’re not sure you’re capable of hearing Vonnegut’s voice over the stirrings of half-buried adolescent angst.

Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve now re-read Vonnegut’s novels in chronological order from Player Piano through Breakfast of Champions­ – roughly the first half of his career, when his most famous stuff was done – and, to my surprise, a couple of them I had trouble even finishing. But I’m not sure whether my impatience is with Vonnegut’s writing, or with extraneous factors.

Here’s how Martin Amis, in a generally sympathetic appraisal of Vonnegut’s career through the early eighties, summarized his subject’s reputation in highbrow circles:

[H]is work has remarkably little currency among the card-carrying literati; his pacifistic, faux-naïf “philosophy” is regarded as hippyish and nugatory; he is the sort of writer, nowadays, whom Serious People are ashamed of ever having liked. Cute, coy, tricksy, mawkish – gee-whiz writing, comic-book stuff. [2]

Why, then, might adult-me be resistant to Vonnegut?

Hypothesis One: The Serious People are right, and he’s not very good.

Hypothesis Two: The Serious People are wrong, but I’ve internalized their disdain, via sources like Martin Amis, and whenever I start to get caught up in Vonnegut I’m distracted by a tiny, haughty “pff” from my subconscious.

That was as far as my hypothesizing had taken me, until the other day, when I got started on Breakfast of Champions – which, to summarize, is about a successful Midwestern auto dealer who, under the influence of severe mental illness and a satirical science-fiction novel he unluckily reads, decides that he’s the only person in the universe with free will, all others being soulless robots placed on earth to test him.

Breakfast of Champions is probably best-known for the juvenile doodles that litter its pages:

breakfast of champions doodles

Some of them serve as punchlines for jokes, but the rest have no apparent purpose except as large-scale punctuation marks, places for the eye to rest. (I’m sure the doodles were a big part of what made the novel so inviting to twelve-year-old me.) Vonnegut explains in the preface:

I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly – to insult “The Star-Spangled Banner”, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen….I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there – the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes, there is a picture in this book of underpants.

At several points, Vonnegut suggests that Breakfast of Champions is the record of some real-life spiritual crisis he has survived:

I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbors believed.

He writes an avatar of himself into his novel, lurking in the bar of a Holiday Inn where his characters have assembled, watching them through mirrored glasses (leaks – don’t ask):

“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself behind my leaks.

“I know,” I said.

“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.

“I know,” I said.

(In the Amis profile, Vonnegut discusses the “legacy” of his mother’s suicide:

“As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.”)

In his previous novel, the fabulously successful Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut had outlined a philosophy of perfect resignation, as expressed by his alien Tralfamadorians, who could see all points in time simultaneously:

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will’. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Kilgore Trout, co-hero of Breakfast of Champions, writer of the sci-fi novel that will tip the mentally-ill auto dealer into violence, has arrived at a Tralfamadorian perspective on the misery and banality of modern American life:

But his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how they really were. There was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was.

…While the Vonnegut avatar, watching his creations go about their mundane business in the bar of the Holiday Inn, follows the same logic to its pitiless nadir:

I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.

But by the end of the novel, the words of one of his characters have convinced the author that he’s wrong – that human life, all life, has value; while Kilgore Trout has learned from the auto dealer’s rampage that the ideas in his books, good or bad, have consequences in the real world. Trout becomes a crusader for mental health, “a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases”, is awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine, and dies a revered humanitarian.

Here’s the speech that jolts the Vonnegut avatar from his nihilistic despair. It’s delivered to the denizens of the Holiday Inn by a self-promoting abstract-expressionist painter in defense of his work The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a narrow day-glo orange stripe on a vast canvas of avocado green:

“It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us – in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”

So the ego, soul, self-awareness, whatever you want to call it, of every human, along with every other living creature on down to the cockroach, may be sacred – according to this fictional character who his creator admits is pretty much a baloney artist. You’d have to be awfully deep in the cosmic weeds for this insight to count as optimistic, but if it really did the trick for Vonnegut, good for him.

That’s about as uplifting as Vonnegut’s oeuvre gets. But I’m at least as big a sourpuss, so that can’t be my complaint about him.

***

Vonnegut dedicated Breakfast of Champions to an old mentor in the ad copywriting business:

She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.

I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty.

Here are a few of the things Breakfast of Champions is impolite about:

  • 1492: “the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill [Native Americans].”
  • “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “pure balderdash.”
  • Thomas Jefferson: “a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.”
  • West Point: “a military academy which turned young men into homicidal maniacs for use in war.”

I doubt if even in the early 1970s there was any penalty attached to being impolite about these subjects. The New York Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback – “He wheels out all the complaints about America and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful, and lovable, all at the same time” – suggests not. By the time I encountered it a decade and a half later, it never occurred to my baby boomer father that his twelve-year-old son should be protected from a book filled with drawings of assholes and “wide-open beavers”, let alone from rude comments about American heroes and institutions.

As for 2017…well, here’s a screencap from a recent Google News search for “star-spangled banner”:

The Star-Spangled Banner actually is racist so here are some (Ebony.com) ... Americans like me are programmed to respect the national anthem (The Independent)

Here’s what came up for “christopher columbus”:

Woman arrested in vandalism of Christopher Columbus statue (Los Angeles Times) ... Another Christopher Columbus statue gets vandalized in NYC (New York Post)

Which leads me to:

Hypothesis Three: Whatever the Serious People may feel about his writing style, Vonnegut’s philosophy, politics, and humour are so mainstream nowadays that he has lost whatever ability he once had to surprise us.

***

I share, or rather sometimes I share, Kilgore Trout’s belief that bad ideas are a kind of sickness. For every essay I post on this blog there are four or five I discard, often after many long hours of work, because I worry that the arguments I’ve made are untrue, or, even if true, unhelpful.

Here’s a premise for an essay I’d hesitate to upload, for fear it might infect some innocent bystander: that writers should be held responsible when their ideas are misinterpreted by weak-minded readers who go on to commit destructive acts.

Here’s another idea I’d be reluctant to disseminate: that even a fuzzy, apparently harmless platitude like “be kind” can lead to disaster, as people may choose to interpret “be kind” in crazy and unsustainable ways; and that therefore writers should just shut their traps altogether.

I’m uncomfortable with another idea, yet it’s one that Kurt Vonnegut was unafraid to promulgate in many famous and profitable novels: that the heroes, institutions, and symbols our culture holds most sacred should be mercilessly razzed, noogied, and farted upon.

Vonnegut, who despite the reservations expressed in Breakfast of Champions was apparently much more cavalier with his ideas than I am, didn’t worry that this one might backfire terribly. He seemed to think that once those old symbols were thoroughly trampled down and covered with profane graffiti, our culture would somehow end up wiser, saner, and more peaceful. I believed it myself for many years – because I had been exposed to the idea, by Vonnegut, at a very young age, when my immunity was low.

Over the years I noticed that while we were ever more free to ever more viciously ridicule the same old symbols Vonnegut had taken aim at – the national anthem, the Founding Fathers, the Bible – a new set of symbols had arisen which, for some reason, were exempt from ridicule. Try farting on the rainbow flag, or Anne Frank, or the Prophet Muhammad, and see how far it gets you.

I’m torn between two ideas: that we should feel free to fart on every symbol, no matter whom it might offend; and that we should be respectful of symbols, because people’s feelings can be hurt when we fart on them, and agreeing not to deliberately hurt each other’s feelings is one of the ways we make living together bearable.

I definitely don’t like the idea that we should consult the latest list, which can be updated by any maniac at any time, specifying which symbols are currently to be farted on, and which ones are exempt. I think that’s a terrible way to run a culture.

I’m not sure how Kurt Vonnegut or Kilgore Trout would have felt about it. I suspect they would’ve thought it was hilarious, and pretty much what us boobs deserved.

***

Getting back to Hypothesis Three: I shouldn’t claim that Vonnegut has lost his power to surprise “us”. As far as I know, his books are still pretty popular. The fact that he aims mainly at safe targets is hardly likely to limit his potential audience. And there’ll always be his unchallenging prose style and funny pictures to draw new readers in.

So let me move on to:

Hypothesis Four: Whatever I may feel about his writing style, my own viewpoint was so shaped by Vonnegut from an early age, that I have lost the ability to be surprised by him.

But that’s not quite right either. This essay proves that Breakfast of Champions still gives me lots to think about, and might do so again, in ten or twenty years, when I get around to reading it again.

M.

1. I’d probably read some science-fiction already – H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein – and maybe Gulliver’s Travels and The Princess Bride, before arriving at Breakfast of Champions.

2. The Vonnegut profile is included in Amis’s 1986 collection The Moronic Inferno.

I previously found Catch-22 to be less great than I’d remembered and posted an unflattering picture of myself revisiting Catcher in the Rye.

Why read?

I’m coming up on a milestone. Sometime in the next few weeks I will have read every book I own.[1]

That might not seem impressive to those of you who assembled your libraries in the ordinary way – by buying books you were interested in reading, reading them, then sticking them on the shelf when you were done. Which is how I assembled most of my own collection.

But of the 750 or so volumes on my shelves, maybe a fifth were passed down to me by my father – most when I was a teenager and he purged his possessions in preparation for a big cross-country move, the rest upon his death five years ago. My “dad books”.

These weren’t books I wanted to read, exactly. They’re books I thought, at the time I received them, I ought someday to read. So I kept them around through numerous downsizings. Each time I moved, or each time my shelves got too crowded for new purchases to be squeezed in, I would dispose of some fraction of my collection – books I’d read once and doubted I’d ever want to read again, books I realized I would probably never read at all. But most of the dad books I retained, for a variety of reasons, sentimentality being one – the knowledge that these had been some of my father’s favourite (or at any rate longest-held) possessions:

  • His copy of East of Eden, its cover more tape than paper, which he plucked off some drugstore magazine rack a half century ago.
  • His copy of David Niven’s Hollywood memoir Bring On The Empty Horses which, when I finally got around to cracking it open, split in half like a year-old pita. (I inexpertly glued and taped the halves back together.)
  • His copy of Jean Bowie Shor’s travel adventure After You Marco Polo, an oft-repaired library discard with the title handwritten in black marker on the spine, so embarrassingly ugly that I Photoshopped and printed a new dustcover for it.

Through the years, I picked away at this unasked-for cache of old books. Some of them, against expectations, I wound up loving – I’ve come around to an equivocal admiration for my dad’s favourite author, John Steinbeck. Others did nothing for me, and after giving them a good-faith try I moved them with reluctance to my discard pile. But it was a project of decades. Taking priority were all the newly-bought books that I was actually excited to read.

A couple years ago I decided – as much for space-saving as cost-saving reasons – to scale back my book purchases until I’d read all the ones I already owned. And at last I began to make rapid progress through my dad books. Soon the unread were few enough that I could tag them all on the spine with coloured Post-It placemarkers. Now, scanning my shelves, I count just four remaining Post-Its.

I already know which one I’m saving for last: Robert A. Heinlein’s final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, with its title borrowed from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

***

What does it mean to have “read” a book? To select an example at random, from my desk I can see John Cheever’s Falconer, which I read seven or eight years ago. If you’d asked me shortly afterward, I could have supplied a sketchy summary of its plot, stammered for a minute or two about its “themes”, and maybe hazarded some half-formed speculations about its place in the canon of 20th century American literature.

Seven or eight years later, what do I remember about Falconer? Practically nothing.

Did I enjoy Falconer? I can’t remember. Apparently I found it interesting enough to keep around, with the idea I might want to crack it open again in another decade or two. Did I learn anything from it? Maybe it helped me form some hazy ideas about the American penal system, or about upper-middle-class attitudes toward homosexuality in the 1970s. Maybe I picked up a couple bits of trivia, or quirks of English usage, that helped me better understand books and news stories I’ve read subsequently.

Most likely, Falconer passed through me without leaving a trace. As will To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

If so, why read at all? Just to kill time? But if it was only time-killing, why did I bother to advance beyond Mad Magazine and Encyclopedia Brown? Why did I torment myself with Chaucer and Plutarch and Pynchon? Am I a happier or better person for it?

***

I recall in my early twenties being so taken with a certain line of William of Baskerville, the proto-scientist hero of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, that I quoted it to friends:

We are dwarfs, but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of […] giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they.

I was chastened to learn, some years later, that this is a paraphrase of a comment by Isaac Newton so well-known that it appears on the British two-pound coin; and it’s only now, via Wikipedia, that I learn Newton was himself paraphrasing earlier thinkers.

Perhaps one advantage of being widely-read – if there is any – is that it enables you to recognize a wider range of references.

  • When Lord Peter Wimsey, prodding a slow-witted witness to recollect various details of a crime scene that he was unaware of having noticed, compares the witness to Socrates’s slave;
  • When Emma Bovary, basking in an uncharacteristic moment of maternal feeling, imagines herself as Sachette in Notre Dame de Paris;
  • When the unexpressed love of Tom Jones for Sophia Western is described as eating him alive from inside, “like the famous Spartan theft”;

…I understood what the author was getting at.

But this advantage only goes so far. First off, it’s quite possible to read and enjoy Whose Body?, or Madame Bovary, or Tom Jones, without picking up every allusion. What’s more, these days if an unfamiliar name or phrase leaves you puzzled, you can reach for the phone on your bedside table and resolve the mystery with a quick internet search.

(This is in fact what I had to do when I came across Flaubert’s reference to “Sachette” – an epithet which doesn’t appear in my translation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where Sister Gudule is instead referred to familiarly as “Sacky”.)

Midway through Tom Jones, Henry Fielding semi-facetiously apologizes for padding his novel with quotations (some translated, some not) from classical literature:

To fill up a work with these scraps may, indeed, be considered as a downright cheat on the learned world, who are by such means imposed upon to buy a second time in fragments and by retail what they have already in gross, if not in their memories, upon their shelves; and it is still more cruel upon the illiterate, who are drawn in to pay for what is of no manner of use to them.

He goes on to compare authors who sprinkle their stories with Latin and Greek to auctioneers who “confound and mix up their lots [so] that in order to purchase the commodity you want, you are obliged at the same time to purchase that which will do you no service.”

Though by Fielding’s standards I would be lumped among the illiterates, I don’t mind paying a little extra for the classical padding. My paperback Tom Jones was bought (by my dad) at a secondhand store for 25¢ – I can tell because it’s written in black marker on the cover – so the cost per unwanted quotation seems reasonable. A bigger obstacle to modern enjoyment of Tom Jones is its labyrinthine 18th century syntax. Luckily, after slogging through Dryden’s translation of Plutarch, Fielding’s windiness barely ruffles my hair.

Which is great – at age 41 I can read for pleasure books that at 21 I would only have finished out of a sense of duty. But this doesn’t answer the question I posed at the top of this essay. The purpose of reading cannot be merely to expand the range of texts one is capable of reading.

***

Via Richard Carroll’s blog Everything Is Oll Korrect I recently encountered C.S. Lewis’s comment that “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” While Lewis (in his introduction to a translation of De Incarnatione by Saint Athanasius) was referring particularly to books of theology, his advice is applicable to readers of all faiths, or none:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

(He later adds, “To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”)

All contemporary writers [Lewis continues] share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth.

A couple months back, Alan Jacobs posted on his blog a similar passage by the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, arguing that scientists should acquaint themselves with the history of scientific prejudice and closed-mindedness, because:

The man who learns how difficult it is to step outside the intellectual climate of his or any age has taken the first step on the road to emancipation, to world citizenship of a high order.

Lewis and Eiseley (and the bloggers approvingly quoting them) would seem to agree that by stepping outside the mainstream of present-day thought, by taking a longer, cooler perspective, we can, if not identify the unexamined assumptions that warp and maim our reasoning, at least recognize that those assumptions are probably present – in short, that by reading widely we can become humbler, more perceptive thinkers, and therefore better citizens and human beings.

I share this belief, but part of me fears it’s self-flattery. Those who’ve devoted a large part of their lives to reading – among whom I’ll include myself, though my activities in this vein have been laughably tiny beside Eiseley’s or Lewis’s – would like to believe their efforts have amounted to something.

***

In Bring On The Empty Horses, David Niven describes being enlisted, among other movie stars, to act as host during Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s 1959 goodwill visit to Hollywood. After dinner, the group visited a soundstage at 20th Century Fox where Shirley MacLaine was shooting a big dance number from Can-Can. Khrushchev watched silently as the dancers swirled their skirts and saucily exposed their frilly pantalettes. When filming was complete, the Premier was asked for his opinion of the proceedings. He replied – presumably through a translator, but I like to imagine him speaking with a thick Boris Badenov accent – “Deesgustink!”[2]

The story is amusing because, even by the standards of Hollywood under the Hays Code, Can-Can was hardly risqué. Khrushchev’s reaction must have seemed to Niven’s contemporaries as absurdly old-fashioned as someone in 2017 declaring himself shocked by Elvis Presley’s hip-shaking.

Now imagine the response of, say, a twenty-four year old op-ed writer at Salon to some other amusing David Niven anecdotes:

At a banquet to celebrate his impending wedding, a huge serving dish is placed in front of James Stewart. The lid is lifted to reveal “a midget dressed as a baby”.

Deesgustink!

Socialite Dorothy di Frasso, separated from her Italian nobleman husband, takes a series of handsome young American men on glamourous trips to Europe, inspiring one wit to remark, “The best way to cross the Atlantic is on the Countess di Frasso.”

Deesgustink!

Errol Flynn drops by one afternoon and invites Niven to come take a gander at “the best-looking girls in L.A.” Thinking they’re off to see some showgirls, Niven hops in the car and is surprised when Flynn pulls up across from Hollywood High School just as classes are letting out. Watching the teenagers spill onto the sidewalk, Flynn lauds the charms of the “jail bait…San Quentin quail” until a cop leans in the window and tells the aging perverts to take a hike.[3]

Deesgustink!

Here’s a good reason to proceed cautiously along Loren Eiseley’s “road to emancipation”. Thanks to my acquaintance with mid-20th century British writers like Nancy Mitford – I refer you to the discussion of the “Lecherous Lecturer” here – I can project myself into the forgiving humour with which David Niven would have regarded his friend Errol Flynn’s pedophilic effusions. Our fictive Salon editorialist would not see such forgiveness as broad-minded, but as deluded, dangerous – deesgustink.

“Perhaps from my emancipated perspective,” I say, “I see the question more clearly than you.”

“If you can defend such monstrous behaviour,” says my progressive critic, “the only thing you’ve emancipated yourself from is common decency.”

“I’m not defending it. I’m just saying…”

…What am I saying? Reading Mitford and Austen and Thackeray seems not to have made me any quicker-witted. Tongue-tied, I give up the argument. Abandoned by their last defender, the films of Errol Flynn are tossed onto the ash-heap beside the Cosby Show DVDs and the Greatest Hits of Rolf Harris. I comfort myself that in a hundred or a thousand years, a less censorious people will excavate the ash-heap and wonder at the 21st century Puritans who were so quick to disclaim everything their parents and grandparents had created; the Salon editorialist is confident that our cultural successors will applaud her moral firmness while treating her as-yet-undiscovered moral failings with more lenity. The issue won’t be settled until long after we’re both dead, and it won’t really be settled then, because the generation that comes after the ash-heap-excavators will drop napalm on the excavation site and blame their parents for unleashing the evil juju buried therein.

My own experience is that taking the long view, rather than spurring me to exhibitions of enlightened world citizenship, just makes me too depressed to go outside.

Why read? I genuinely have no idea.

M.

1. Let me clarify my opening statement. Sometime in the next couple weeks I will have “read” (in the minimal sense of having passed my eyes over every constituent word of) every novel and at least part of every anthology, omnibus, collection of stories, essays, poems, or plays, or non-fiction book I own.

Most of my books are novels, so the percentage of unread pages will be pretty small. Even counting my small shelf of reference books it should be under ten percent.

I’d wager I’ll get to most of the stories and essays eventually. But my shelves will always include a certain amount of dead weight. Will I ever read all 750-odd pages of the Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Milton? Probably not. One of these days I mean to take another crack at Paradise Lost and that’ll be it.

2. Niven’s book is not renowned for its perfect fealty to the facts. Here’s a more detailed account of Khrushchev’s 1959 Hollywood visit, and here’s a clip of the Premier having what looks to be a pretty good time watching the Can-Can dancers.

3. I should mention that in 1943 Errol Flynn was prosecuted for statutory rape – and acquitted. But he’s known to have had affairs with underage girls, including Beverly Aadland, who at age seventeen accompanied him on his fatal 1959 trip to Vancouver.

The Gell-Mann Amnesiac’s guide to Canadian penal statistics.

Earlier today I was doing some research for an essay I’ve been working on. I was trying to answer what I thought was a straightforward question: what percentage of Canadians have served time in prison?

Turns out it’s not that easy a question after all. (If you happen to know the answer, I encourage you to leave a link in the comments.)

As a starting point I took the dummy route and simply typed into Google.ca the phrase, “Percentage of Canadians who’ve been in prison”.

The #2 result was a page from Statistics Canada – a pretty dependable source – and while it doesn’t quite answer my question, it does at least tell me roughly how many adult Canadians are in prison right now. Here are the daily average prison populations for the year 2014-15:

Remand: 13,650
Sentenced (provinces and territories): 10,364
Sentenced (federal): 15,168
Total: 39,182

I had to extract these numbers from a somewhat confusing table, and they require a little glossing:

“Remand” means that the prisoner is being held awaiting trial. (In the United States, the phrase “pre-trial detention” is more typically used.) These prisoners are in the custody of the provincial or territorial justice systems.

Upon conviction, prisoners sentenced to any term under two years will remain in the provincial or territorial system, while those sentenced to two years or more will be transferred to a federal prison. (Hence a term of “two years less a day” is common in Canadian sentencing.)

As you can see from the above numbers, within the provincial system, in 2014-15 more prisoners were in remand than had been convicted of any crime. But in the justice system overall, unconvicted prisoners were about 35% of the total.

(The 2015-16 stats are also available, showing that the share of prisoners in remand has since risen to over 37%.)

Going back to my internet search, the #6 result was a 2015 editorial from the Globe and Mail – Canada’s equivalent of the New York Times – with this headline:

Most of Canada’s prisoners have never been convicted of anything. Why are they in jail?

The second paragraph proclaims that:

Across the country, 55 per cent of prisoners in provincial and territorial jails are not behind bars because of a conviction.

And the editorial ends with the question:

Is there a politician in Canada with the courage to take up the cause? Someone who won’t pander to fears whipped up by the tough-on-crime crowd, but will instead build a better system based on evidence, enlightened self-interest and a genuine respect for the right to liberty? Or will we continue to be a country where two out of three people behind bars haven’t been convicted of anything?

There’s no explanation, by the way, for how the anonymous editorialist managed to get from 55% at the top of the page to “two out of three” at the bottom.

In any case, neither the headline nor the closing peroration is in any conceivable sense accurate. And the second paragraph, while technically true, leaves out the important information – probably unknown to the majority of readers – that there are separate federal and provincial jail systems. With federal prisons included, “most” Canadian prisoners – in 2014-15, just under two out of three – have indeed been convicted of something.

I read this deceptive editorial in “Canada’s newspaper of record” and shook my head. “Well, that’s why I buy the National Post,” I thought, resuming my research.

Oh, wait:

More than half of Canadian adults in jail awaiting trial rather than serving sentences in 2014 and 2015: StatsCan

For over a decade, jails across Canada have held more adults awaiting trial than convicted offenders serving sentences…

Thus begins the National Post’s version of the same story. Once again, the lede is technically true – but the phrase “jails across Canada” misleadingly neglects to mention the difference between provincial and federal prisons.

At least – small comfort – the very final paragraph of the Post’s article acknowledges that:

The numbers do not include the approximately 15,168 prisoners who were serving sentences of two years or more in federal custody over the same period.

***

At a talk he gave in 2002, author Michael Crichton introduced the concept of Gell-Mann Amnesia (named in honour of his friend, physicist Murray Gell-Mann, with whom he had formulated the idea):

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward – reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Unlike Murray Gell-Mann on physics, or Michael Crichton on showbiz, I’m not an expert on the Canadian penal system. If I hadn’t happened to be researching the subject when I came across these articles, I would have assumed their numbers were accurate. Our most respected national news sources wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

But what’s particularly galling about these misleading articles is that the number of people in Canadian jails is pretty easy to count. There is little argument about what constitutes a “prison” or a “prisoner”. Accurate figures aren’t hard to find – they’ve been made available on the internet by our government. The National Post article actually links to the Statistics Canada website that was my source for the table above.

If our national media can make such a hash of readily calculated, easily accessible statistics, how badly are they scrambling the statistics that aren’t so easy to pin down?

And what about me? The next time I read an op-ed piece confidently quoting reams of numbers at me – will I remember this incident?

M.


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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area.

Michael is the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss and the creator of Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker.

You can find many of Michael's videos on the Gallery page.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker