Saturday, April 28, 2012

To nurture the illusion

Basically, as far as Madame Thouret was concerned it was a disgraceful thing to get oneself murdered in an alleyway off the Boulevard Saint-Martin. She had planned her life in every detail, and not only her own life but also that of her family, and murder had no place in her scheme of things, especially this murder, with the corpse wearing brown shoes and a tie that might almost be described as red!

Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard, by Simenon, was my very first Maigret, and I was surprised and pleased to find that there were many similarities thematically to Simenon's romans durs that I've come to know and admire.

It is definitely a more traditional mystery novel — crime committed, police investigate, criminal apprehended.

It happpens that this murder victim had been living a double life. Although he'd lost his job almost three years previously, every morning he dressed and caught the train as if to go to work, and his wife was never the wiser. The wife was very much about keeping up with Joneses, and the man, despite his gripes and what may or may not have been unhappiness, somewhat ironically went to great lengths to keep up appearances.

My feeling is that while in the romans durs the reader faces existential angst from the inside, here Maigret observes it in others from a more tolerable distance. It's altogether softer.

In the old days he had been particularly struck, even one might say romantically stirred, by the sight of those who, discouraged and defeated, had given up the struggle, being swept along will nilly by the great, surging tide of humanity.

Since then, he had come to know many such people, and it was no longer them whom he most admired, but rather those just one step above them on the ladder, who were clean and decent and not in the least picturesque, and who fought day in and day out to keep their heads above water, or to nurture the illusion, or perhaps the faith, that they were alive and life was worth living.

This passage in particular has had the effect of making Simenon somewhat less dark in my eyes, less obsessive, more human, and easier to stomach, as a writer and as a person.

I don't see myself working through the entire Maigret catalogue (well, you never know...), but I do see how the occasional title might serve as a welcome antidote to Simenon's grittier work.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The woman with three names

Joyce Carol Oates was awarded this year's Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prix.

I read one of her novels for the first time the other week, and I didn't like it much.

This past weekend I saw her interviewed by Jack Kirchhoff, Deputy Books Editer of The Globe and Mail, on the subject of her crime novels.

I find Oates to be very creepy. Her physical persona, gaunt, pale, crazy hair that's being restrained, a bit Emily Dickinson, very gothic. Her subject matter too, uncomfortable. Even the book I didn't like, I loved hating it. Felt like rubbernecking.

Oates gave us a brief overview of crime writing as an exploration of the human dilemma, starting with Ovid, through Dickens and Dostoevsky, to the Americans Melville, Hemingway, and Faulkner, and she puts herself in the same lineage.

To write a crime novel seemed more ambitious to her than straight fiction, at which she was already practiced. When she started writing under the pen name Rosamond Smith, the idea was to produce something that was swift-moving and cinematic. She was very witty in describing the experiment of shopping the first pseudoymous novel with a new agent to a new publisher, like she was cheating on her established editorial relationships.

It was an interesting session, but I had a hard time keeping straight when she was talking about her crime novels and when she was speaking more generally about her entire body of work. Kirchhoff did little to keep her on topic, and Oates — you could tell she's done this before — just talked and talked about whatever the last sentence led her to. (The general nature of the discussion meant I decided to forego attending another interview with Oates later in the day.) So this report is a bit scattered, but such was the nature of the hour.

Her writing has a ballad-like structuring, and she refers to Dickens and Hardy quite a bit, with characters that are blind and heedless, but well intentioned.

She quips at one point that one tends to think of psychopaths as male, but then has to clarify to the nervous audience, "That was a joke actually."

She's interested in darkness. Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

One of the differences in writing crime is that the tradition demands tying things up; serious fiction allows for irresolute, mysterious endings.

Kirchhoff brought up the point that Oates has been accused of melodrama (but I'm not sure if this was leveled at the crime novels or her fiction in general). She counters that there's little difference between drama and melodrams — Shakespeare was the king of melodrama!

In her early work, Oates felt herself telling a story. Now, she mediates her voice; there's more dialogue.

She likes reading Michael Connelly, and James Ellroy.

Then there are her postmodernist gothic novels (I'm not sure which ones fall into this category). She loves gothic, surreal. She described the spectrum from domestic realism — John Updike, which is beautiful and contained — to the gothicism of Cormac McCarthy, with its rich language and story that is primitive, elemental, and deeply scary.

I think it was in discussing Blonde that Oates went off on a tangent about the United States being "such a tragic, farcical country" and the "demonic forces" among the Republican candidates with their warped nationalism and sense of American exceptionalism, that America is special, and therefore everything about it is good and right. She got pretty worked up. That was something to see.

Of her own novels, Oates' favourites are Blonde (and she spoke at great length about her fascination with Marilyn Monroe, and how public figures can have such vast loneliness), My Sister, My Love (which was suggested by a real-life unsolved case, because we all have the right to speculate, to look at the evidence), and as a straight-up crime novel Take Me, Take Me with You (written as Lauren Kelly).

Definitely I will pick up one of these and give Oates another shot.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Suddenly there you are naked

I want to fuck you, is one of the things in the letter.

Also, I am in love with you.

Isn't language amazing? I can't get over it. Sometimes you can just say things and it's like a bomb that blows all your clothes off and suddenly there you are naked. I don't know if it's disgusting or beautiful.

— from Mathilda Savitch, by Victor Lodato.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Simenon and the man who didn't stay to lunch

Circumstances conspired against it. The damp cold on its own might've kept me home with a book and a blanket, but Earth Day manifestations meant roads were blocked and kept other people away from the downtown core and the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

Despite a handful of people having expressed interest in Lunch and Literature: A Georges Simenon Salon, only one gentleman actually showed up. He was there with a genuine enthusiasm for Simenon, but he's also on the festival board of directors, and he absolved me of the responsibility of lunching with him. I admit I was a little disappointed, as he claimed to have read all 400 Simenon books, and I'm sure he could've told me a thing or two.

Evidently Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote an introduction to Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, did not feel obligated to attend.

It does make wonder who are all these people reading Simenon and responsible for the renaissance Simenon is reportedly enjoying. Is it you? (Drop me a line. I'm seriously interested in the demographics of the Simenon appeal.)

I have not yet finished all the homework I'd assigned myself. I'm still reading a biography of Simenon. There are a lot of facts in it. And I know for a fact that Simenon was a very interesting man. But ohmygawd-it-is-sssoooo-boring-shoot-me-now. I will skim through what's left of it in hopes of finding some meaningful insight, but I doubt I will find anything worth sharing with you. Simply, I would so much rather be reading a Simenon than reading about Simenon.

I have posted a version of my discussion notes, along with some supplemental material, to their own page. (These notes are subject to further editing for clarity and flow.)

These notes are deliberately very general in nature — even had the event attracted a full room, given Simenon's output there's no guarantee there'd be any overlap in the books everyone had read. The idea was to talk about Simenon in a general way and examine the attraction to his works via some common themes, with a focus on the romans durs (as opposed to the Maigret mysteries). You may find these notes useful in your own discussions on Simenon.

I will consider fleshing out this page with other Simenon resource material. For example, I'd like to add short (50-word) synopses of Simenon titles, something I'd started doing for my own easy reference.

Anyway. I'll keep reading Simenon, and maybe we can try to meet up for lunch again next year.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

On translating DFW

This afternoon at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, a dozen or so people (of which I was one) sat in on a discussion panel with author and translator Edoardo Nesi (winner of this year's Strega Prize, Italy's most prestigious literary award) and literary critic Scott Esposito (Conversational Reading), moderated by Juliet Waters, on the difficulties involved in translating the works of David Foster Wallace. Nothing particularly revelatory here to anyone familiar with DFW's work or who's given the problems of translation the slightest bit of thought, but interesting nonetheless.

Nesi very neatly summarized Infinite Jest as a book of weakness, where everyone is incapable of doing the right thing, everyone is recovering from something.

It's agreed that Infinite Jest is a very American novel. When Nesi first urged Italian publishers to take it on, they saw it as a too expensive proposition. It is long, its use of language is intricate, and there's a lot of tennis in it. Nesi, who played tennis as a youth, was well poised to complete the Italian translation that was started by somebody else.

A translation constraint: Since IJ already has copious footnotes, a layer of translation notes wasn't practical, so the translated text really did need to speak for itself, without further explanation.

It's a book a lot of people talk about it Italy, but not so many people have actually read it, daunted by its size (and I'd venture to say that's true among English speakers as as well).

Esposito characterized IJ as positively Dickensian, in how it plays with language (may I add — even revels in it), and the scope of the story — hundreds of pages go by before the strands come together and the connections become clear.

DFW is a unique voice; no one compares to him. Nesi gives the example of Pynchon (with whom DFW is often thrown into the group of American postmodernists), whose Vineland was translated as if it had been written by an "old master." The language of DFW, on the other hand, demands that it be treated fresh.

Waters asked if there was anyone writing in Italian today who might compare. She suggested Umberto Eco — (apart from the footnotes in Foucault's Pendulum, I don't really see it, but) she contends there's something monastic and arcane (and therefore Eco-like?) about The Pale King (which I have not yet read).

To write like DFW, with the "foolish idea" of explaining youth, says Nesi, is too high an ambition for Italians, who have lost the ability to explain their own country.

There is no French translation of Infinite Jest. The conversation touched briefly on whether and how to preserve the grammatical errors and misspellings in DFW's French (given his meticulousness, it's hard to imagine these weren't deliberate, no matter his rationale for them). Also, how it might be politically touchy.

I had assumed a French translation would be rendered in Quebec French. I think the language allows for an Americanness of spirit, and with more registers, than France French. But I didn't think to ask about this. Also, I missed the chance to ask if someone could enlighten me on Gilles Duceppe's role in endnote 304.

On a side note, I know what this summer's big read is. I'm in, and I'm psyched.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Reeling from the rot

Esi Edugyan is the author of Half Blood Blues. Her second novel, it won the 2011 Giller Prize and was a finalist for several other awards, including the Governor General's Award and the Booker. I have not read this novel yet, but it's been on my list owing to the endorsement given it in Kim's review at Reading Matters.

This afternoon she was interviewed on stage by Shelagh Rogers, and Shelagh asked the question that I'm sure is on everybody's mind: "Did The Wire have anything to do with this book?" The answer is No.

Shelagh asked because some of the characters hail from Baltimore, and there's something in the clip of the language in that television program and in this novel that's similar. Esi later came back to The Wire actually, in talking about the time she lived in Baltimore, that it's a city of stories, if you get into a cab you're going to hear a story, and that it's weird, and well, very much like it's depicted in The Wire (a show I've never seen, but which comes highly recommended — maybe I'll start watching it tomorrow).

The novel is about a group of jazz musicians in Nazi Germany. Today's conversation discussed some of its themes: whether talent is "god-given" and how it differs from genius; the black experience in the Weimar Republic and the seeming randomness and sometime contradiction in its laws with regard to... what's the correct term here? non-Aryans? (for example, a Jewish teacher was fired and replaced by an African-German teacher); the nature of friendship, how people slip into patterns in any relationship, and whether friendship can withstand betrayal (of which there's some in the story); how creativity thrives (or not) under an oppressive regime; how we define and establish identity, whether by blood or geography (which reminds me of some of what Vasily Grossman had to say in Life and Fate).

It's clear that Esi did a lot of research in writing this novel, on the dialect and slang, on Berlin, on jazz, the politics and the day-to-day circumstances of the time, on Louis Armstrong. She admits that several elements (what Louis said, or some of the slang terms) may not be true to life, but she feels no qualms about this because she believes them to be true to the spirit. (When she was taking journalism classes she shied away from doing interviews for her assignments to the point of making up quotes — a sign, I think, that fiction was a better career choice.)

I picked up a copy of the book and had it signed afterward, and felt like an idiot for having nothing to say, just "I hear it's really good," which may be the dumbest thing I've ever said to an author. But truly, I'm more eager to read this now after having heard her — she's thoughtful in her responses, seems very sweet and honest if shy, and really does have a lot to say about all sorts of things.

Excerpt from Half Blood Blues:
Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot – rot was cheap, see, the drink of French peasants, but it stayed like nails in you gut. Didn’t even look right, all mossy and black in the bottle. Like drinking swamp water.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The sound of things

I'd planned to see Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez this evening at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, but the event has been cancelled.

Vásquez's 2007 novel The Secret History of Costaguana (published in English translation in 2010) riffs off of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, a book I've been trying to read for the last 26 years, and it occurred to me that Vásquez might be my way into that story.

His first novel, The Informers, is about Colombia's Jewish and German Immigrant populations, and The Sound of Things Falling (I love this title!), due out in English later this year, tackles the subject of the drug trade.

I'm disappointed that I won't have the chance to hear Vásquez speak (but this means I can spend the evening going over my notes in preparation for talking about Simenon on Sunday).

I'll be back at Blue Met tomorrow, and I'll be checking out the onsite bookstore for Vásquez's novels too.

Further reading

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hot art

This evening I attended Blue Metropolis Literary Festival event Crime Writing: Hot Art and Montreal.

Joshua Knelman, author of Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art, spoke about the state of international art theft. The book came about from an award-winning article he wrote for The Walrus, of which he is a founding member.

I have not read his book, but I am fascinated by the subject. Here's what he said in a Q&A on the Indigo non-fiction blog:

The minute a Picasso is stolen from a museum there are pictures of it in every paper across the world, with the value of the painting, every auction house and art gallery knows this piece has been stolen, every collector knows its been stolen. It's a headache for the thieves because suddenly everyone is looking for this painting. It's a headache for the police because if it's a really famous painting stolen from a cultural institution the police get pressure from the political side.

Headache art cases make up about 5% of what is actually stolen every year. So you're talking about a very small piece of the art theft pie but it gets probably 95% of the media attention. So again it's the complete inverse.

He's out to dispel the glamour I (and many others) tend to associate with this type of crime.

Most stolen art is worth a fraction of a Picasso, but theft from private collections is apparently going on all the time — it adds up to ahuge black market art industry.

It's complicated by the difficulty of establishing a work of art's provenance, and the fact that the business of art is completely unregulated. Further, very few people are equipped with the knowledge of art and understanding of how the art world operates required to investigate crimes of this nature. The people who do have specialized knowledge are usually dealers and collectors, who with their interests at heart very often turn a blind eye. Art cops are few and far between.

For about an hour Knelman talked about his research, with anecdotes about the art thiefs and the detectives he's met who devote themsleves to this niche — and how remarkably similar their skillsets are.

I still think it's glamorous, and I'm thinking about a career change.

Read Joshua Knelman's article "Artful Crimes" for a taste.

Art theft fiction
Since I tend to turn to fiction, here are some titles I dug up — novels that involves art theft, though generally of the more sensational kind. I'm somewhat surprised there aren't more, but it occurs to me that art crime doesn't need fictionalizing to be a good story.

  • The Raphael Affair, by Iain Pears — Featuring detective art historian Jonathan Argyll investigating the destruction of a newly discovered painting thought to be by Raphael.
  • Doors Open, by Ian Rankin — A bored, self-made man decides to commit the perfect crime: rip off the National Gallery of Scotland.
  • Artists and Thieves, by Linda Schroeder — By day Mai Ling recoveres stolen art for Interpol. But she is also duty-bound by her family to steal a priceless object, and return it to China.
  • The Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva — Retired spy Gabriel Allon is pulled into a race across the globe when an art restorer is murdered and a portrait by Rembrandt stolen.

Art appreciation?
Complex as it is to pull off a theft of this nature, and as beautiful as the objects of these crimes are, what intrigues me most is the question of who is actually in the market for stolen art. I imagine the filthy rich eccentric who goes down to his cellar occasionally to admire the genuine Mona Lisa that hangs there. (See also The Eiger Sanction, by Trevanian, whose protagonist is an assassin and an art collector.)

But the idea of such a connoisseur isn't very realistic either. Stolen art tends to move to dealer to dealer to collector to auction house to dealer, etc. It's not about the art — it's the money.

Making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear

There were phrases of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that still made Coe cry. He always thought it had to do with the circumstances of the composition itself. He imagined Beethoven deaf and soul-sick, his heart broken, scribbling furiously while Death stood in the doorway, clipping his nails. Still, Coe thought, it might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.

— from "The Man with the Miniature Orchestra," by Dave Algonquin.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A sense of futility

Four blacks slid the coffin into the too-shallow hole. They used hoes to rake the dirt over it.

The idea that one day he might also be interred like this made Timar unbearably conscious of his life since La Rochele. This wasn't a cemetery! This wasn't a burial! He wasn't at home!

My God! How did I get here! And hours later:

At that point it wasn't just the misery of homesickness that had him in its grip: it was a sense of futility. The futility of being here! The futility of struggling against the sun that penetrated his every pore. The futility of the quinine that lifted his spirits and that he swallowed every night. The futility of living and dying, only to be buried in a fake cemetery by four half-naked blacks.

Set in and around Libreville (Gabon), the events of Simenon's Tropic Moon are presumably fairly contemporary with its 1933 publication.

I had a harder time getting into this book than I have had with any other Simenon novel. It thought it might be because it's a relatively early novel, but I checked the dates of the ones I've read, and no, that's not it.

I think it's because it's heavy on the foreignness of Africa, and I need a certain frame of mind for that sort of thing.

The story: Joseph Timar arrives in Libreville — his uncle had arranged a job for him. Within 48 hours of arriving, he's had an encounter with the hotel proprietor's wife, a black servant is murdered, and the proprietor himself dies of snail fever. There are racial tensions, the local government operates pretty loosely, and Timar finds that Adèle's been pretty, um, friendly with a lot of the white men about town.

Anyway, it's really short (133 pages), and there's a huge payoff — the final scenes are unforgettable.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The man who wasn't Maigret

Come discuss Simenon over lunch.

Sunday, April 22, 2012, at noon
Koko Restuarant, OPUS Hotel
10 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal

Email Irène Raparison to reserve a spot.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Living like a mushroom

After that he had spent three months in a hospital, although without suffering from any particular ailment; simply because he could not adapt himself to the state of being no longer a child.

Then, without any period of transition, he had become used to being nothing at all! Used to living like that, without the need to be greeted by other men and not caring for their opinion. Used to living like a mushroom or a tree, eating and drinking, doing anything for anyone.

— from The White Horse Inn, by George Simenon.

Written in 1938, and translated anew into English in 1980, The White Horse Inn is described on its book jacket flap as "one of Simenon's most admired novels" and featuring one of "his most powerful characters." (It struck me when I was browsing the library shelves that most of the Simenon novels there were described in a similarly superlative way, even though most of the titles don't ring any sort of bell.)

Distinguishing it from many of the other Simenon works I've read, the heart of this novel is a place, not a person or event.

So far, Simenon has a pretty consistent output — I can't say his earlier novels are any less mature or less psychologically complex than the later ones.

This was a library loan, and I almost didn't read it because of the gross tacky feel of the wrapper. Yuk.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Not a fair maiden at all

"You do mean it, Katya? You're not just saying this humor me?"

Humor? Katya wasn't sure what this meant. Unless Mr. Kidder was asking if she was lying to placate him. As girls and women do, to placate men.

Really? Am I missing something? I don't question that girls and women do this, and they learn to do this at a very early age, but for a 16-year-old to use the word "placate" in her head while not understanding the expression "to humor someone"?!

A Fair Maiden is the first book I've ever picked up written by Joyce Carol Oates, and I really didn't like it much at all. Thank gawd it was short.

I'll be seeing Joyce Carol Oates next week at the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival — she's the recipient of this year's Grand Prix. I thought it only appropriate that I should read something of hers before then.

Oates succeeds in making A Fair Maiden an uncomfortable read — what does a wealthy old man want with a teenage nanny? — but the characterization is poor, the langauge is off (the narration switches from Katya's perspective to if not exactly Mr. Kidder's, then Katya's approximation of what Mr. Kidder's perspective might be; all the adverbs are in awkward places; and "mansion-sized houses" just sounds dumb), and the fairy tale element thrown in toward the end is laughable (or make the whole thing fairytalesque and throw out the first 100 pages).

Every other page is he's funny, no he's creepy, is he sincere in his quaint way, or is he mocking me, he wants me, pervert, no he really loves me, I want everyone to look at me, everyone wants me, no don't look at me I'm ugly, and this gets very tiresome. Yes, 16-year-old girls are confused, and often naive, but some of the contradictions Oates builds into Katya's character make her stupid, and I don't buy it.

There's simply no subtlety in it.

There are a few points in the Paris Review interview (1976) that lead me to suspect that in writing A Fair Maiden, published in 2010, Oates actually identifies with the old man.


Some reviews
(Despite their reservations, they're still much warmer than my feelings toward this novella.)
The Guardian
The Independent states that Katya is "only vaguely aware of his more sinister intentions" but this is false — she perceives (rightly or not) perverted sexual intentions by page 8!
Popmatters ranks this "as one of Oates' stronger works," but then quantifies it as a 7 out of 10 (the rest of her work rates lower?).
Washington Post

Is Oates possibly still riding on the success of 1969's Them? Is there a particular novel of hers you would recommend? (I'm not much for short stories, of which I know she's written quite a few, but I'm game to try one of her crime novels before next week's event.)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Simenon in Montreal

If you're in Montreal next weekend, join me in discussing the work of Simenon over lunch, part of the 2012 Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival. You don't even have to know that much about Simenon. He's dead, so he won't be there to say you're wrong.

Whether Maigret is your all-time favourite detective, or you've fallen hard (as I have) for Simenon's romans durs, if you've only ever seen Monsieur Hire, or if you think Simenon was a misogynist pig, or even if you've never read a word by Simenon and just want to see what the fuss is about...

Lunch is at noon on Sunday, April 22, 2012, in the Koko Restuarant of the OPUS Hotel on Sherbrooke. The event is free, but you're expected to buy a lunch. Email Irène Raparison to reserve a spot.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

He ate slowly and methodically

Four browned goose necks landed on Mock's plate. He cut this delicacy into strips and arranged them on round, crunchy slices of potato. Enclosed in a sheath of goose skin was a stuffing made from onion, liver and goose fat. Mock placed soft, braised onion rings on top of these pyramids and began a concentrated assault. He ate slowly and methodically. First he plunged his cutlery into a dish where hunks of roast pork swam in a thick sauce of flour and cream. On top of a piece of meat now speared on his fork, he balanced a mound of potato and goose. When he had devoured this complicated formation he slid a layer of fried cabbage with crackling onto his fork as if it were a shovel. The plates gradually emptied.

Isn't that revolting? The mutilated corpses are described with similar gusto.

I am so hooked on these books. The Phantoms of Breslau, by Marek Krajewski, is the third in a series of Eberhard Mock investigations. (Eberhard Mock! — what a name!)

The initial appeal to me was the unique choice of historical setting — interwar Breslau (a city I got to know as Wrocław). It's at a kind of crossroads, in time, and between cultures.

The series is also interesting because the books are in reverse chronological order — i.e., this third book is set in 1919, years before the events recounted in the preceding books take place (set in 1927 and 1933). So if you read these in order of issue, as I have, you have a picture of what becomes of the man, and with each book you learn a little bit more of how he came to be that way, with some mystery remaining as to the intervening years. Of course, this gimmick can't be sustained forever — just a couple more books and little Ebi will be in diapers. But at this point I want to revisit the previous novels to see how he came to be married, and how his father is remembered.

I have to admit, I have trouble keeping all the characters straight. There's just so many of them! Most of them are minor, so I just keep on, knowing it's probably not that important, but now and then I realize that when I confuse some of the officers names I'm missing some subtlety of departmental politics.

The cases themselves deal with esoteric matters verging on occult. They strain credibility at times, but the richness of the atmosphere is fair recompense.

The killings in Phantoms are a personal message to Mock, advising him to admit his mistake or others will die. Mock spends a month on the case, trying to determine what that mistake might've been. In fact, the book starts at the end of that month, with Mock unable — refusing — to sleep. It's a helluva month.

Of the series so far, I think Phantoms is the tightest — it doesn't sprawl too far outside of its own story. Certainly it can be read as a standalone.


If you like your cops hardboiled, your prostitutes disease-ridden, and your meals puddled in fatty sauces, you might try this original series on for size.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The rhythmic scansion of well-oiled machinery

Mock looked up at his colleague, Herbert Domagalla, who was clattering on the platen of a Torpedo typewriter, transforming the statements given by the prostitute sitting opposite him into the rhythmic scansion of well-oiled machinery. Mock grabbed a pencil and snapped it in two. A small splinter of wood hit the prostitute on the cheek, and she glared at Mock. He was looking at her too, but he did not see her. Instead he saw himself the day before: an energetic police officer who blackmails his chief, gets carte blanche to do what he likes and then, his head brimming with ideas, follows in the murderer's footsteps with his loyal helpers from the criminal underworld. After the death of a prostitute covered in rashes, that same police officer turns into a dried-up, moaning little soul who renounces everything he is doing and at night shakes with terror at imaginary ghosts.

— from Phantoms of Breslau, by Marek Krajewski.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Everything just went on and on and on

Sometimes Michelle tried to remember what it was like before the baby came, when it had been just the two of them and they could lie in bed all day, and have feverish, exhausting sex and then eat toast and jam and watch television on the tiny black-and-white set that they used to have at the foot of the bed until Michelle knocked it over because Keith was watching the snooker (on a black-and-white set, what was the point of that?) and the baby was screaming and she just couldn't do it any more.

She did love them, she really did. She just couldn't feel it.

They weren't bonded together, they were like molecules, molecules that couldn't bond together into stable elements and instead bounced around like bingo balls. She should have done science, not spent all her time with her head in novels. Novels gave you a completely false idea about life, they told lies and they implied there were endings when in reality there were no endings, everything just went on and on and on.

— from Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson.

I'm reading this just a few short months after having watched the television series, and maybe that's too close, as I can't help but see and hear those TV characters as I read. I can't say which was more enjoyable. The TV production was wonderful; the book is perhaps funnier (I laughed out loud) and grimmer. Both are rather punch-in-the-gut — almost unbearably — honest. People are so complicated. Sigh.

I love how all the cases are interwoven. It's not a big city, it's only normal there should be overlap. And because, of course, an investigator doesn't have just one case at a time.

I can't pinpoint why Jackson Brodie is such a sympathetic detective. He's a middle-aged, heavy-drinking fuck-up. That's fairly cliché for a detective. So what makes this guy so special? Have you read or seen Case Histories? What do you think?

I will definitely be reading more Kate Atkinson. And I can't wait to see more TV episodes. I highly recommend both the novel and the televisation.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Never quite to zero

The Robots of Dawn, by Isaac Asimov, is the third Lije Baley & R.Daneel Olivaw novel (the second that I've read).

Baley is called to the planet Aurora to investigate the "murder" of Jander Parnell, a humaniform robot — and one of only two in existence, the other being Baley's partner Daneel.

More so than The Caves of Steel (which I thoroughly enjoyed), this novel is an extended exercise in logic. Right near the start, in fact, there's a pretty intense discussion regarding whether a robot could be said to be "alive," and whether a robot could then be said to have been "murdered," a victim of roboticide. Generally, one would say a robot is destroyed, its usefulness terminated, and should it in questionable circumstances, the crime would be considered an act of vandalism. Here, the humaniformity of the robot is a factor in taking the case to another level.

The novel is almost all talk, dialogue, in the form of cross-examination and explication, and very little action. Asimov, through the Baley character channels Hercule Poirot, in conducting the investigation generally, and Raymond Smullyan, in negotiating the paths of logic related to the Three Laws of Robotics.

While Smullyan's logic puzzles may make my brain hurt, the type of paradox in which complex instructions given a robot are in contradiction of one or more of the Laws — and sorting out the the relative worth of defying an order versus breaking a Law — could immobilize a robot, or cause it to short-circuit.

Baley said, "And something like this, I take it, was what happened to Jander Parnell. He was faced with a contradiction in terms and his brain burned out?"

"It's what appears to have happened, though that is not as easy to bring about as it would been in Susan Calvin's day. Possibly because of the legend, roboticists have always been careful to make it as difficult as possible for contradictions to arise. As the theory of positronic brains has grown more subtle and as the practice of positronic brain design has grown more intricate, increasingly successful systems have been devised to have all situations that might arise resolve into nonequality, so that some action can always be taken that will be interpreted as obeying the First Law."

"Well, then, you can't burn out a robot's brain. Is that what you're saying? Because if you are, what happened to Jander?"

"It's not what I'm saying. The increasingly successful systems I speak of, are never completely successful. They cannot be. No matter how subtle and intricate a brain might be, there is always some way of setting up a contradiction. That is a fundamental truth of mathematics. It will remain forever impossible to produce a brain so subtle and intricate as to reduce the chance of contradiction to zero. Never quite to zero. However, the systems have been made so close to zero that to bring about a mental freeze-out by setting up a suitable contradiction would require a deep understanding of the particular positronic brain being dealt with — and that would take a clever theoretician."

It's a very entertaining novel and not at all what I expected. It reminds me a little of Stanisław Lem in its simple compelexity, following a set of basic premises to their logical conclusion.

Oh! And! There's robot sex! Or at least, human–robot sexual relations. On a planet where everyone sleeps with everybody else (including fathers and daughters). Which is, in the context of the conditions under which humans colonized the galaxy, all very plausible speculation as to how society and its morals might evolve in the circumstances of a given planet.