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As Kingfishers Catch Fire

May 24, 2017

IMG_4836On Sunday we went to Oberlin for Walker’s graduation weekend, to walk through parts of the Allen Art Museum, see the kittens at the Ginko Gallery, meet some of his professors at Russia House, and have dinner with a few of his friends. We spent the night at a B&B in Wellington, about ten minutes away, and arrived on campus the next morning about 8:30 am to stake out some folding chairs, along with our college friends who drove up from Kenyon to see the last one of our children graduate from college.

The weather on Sunday was wet, with occasional thunderstorms and a beautiful full-arch rainbow right before sunset. On Monday morning, everything looked bright and full of promise. Some of the graduates, including ours, milled around with their families and friends before lining up for the procession.

IMG_4848The first speaker said that the reason for the ceremony was “to let our hearts catch up” with events, and that’s certainly what it felt like to me, under the warm sun in the wet grass in the middle of a campus I have become fond of but may never visit again, with hundreds of other people who were probably feeling about the same way.

Since Kent State, hats and gowns have been optional at Oberlin (the original idea was to donate what you would have spent on them to charity, although we didn’t know this until after the ceremony). So there was variety as we heard each name read out and watched each student cross the open-air stage.

I was thinking of some phrases from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” as we had to listen a little faster than we’re used to at Kenyon, where the list is shorter and so we take more time “to fling out broad” each name. The Oberlin list is about 700 students long.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Each of the graduates appeared “lovely in limbs,” most wearing traditional caps and gowns but some using hats and clothing to help them cry “what I do is me.”

The address, by the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker, focused on nothing less than the responsibility of these students to save our republic, and he noted that “ours is a nation where ideas have always existed in tension. The same country that declared all men to be equal was founded on slavery. The nation of the Statue of Liberty, which asks for the world’s tired and poor, “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” is the same nation that may build a wall along its border with Mexico.”

IMG_4838We have our graduate home with us for a few weeks, before we take him on a graduation trip to Spain and then wave to him as he embarks for Siberia at the end of June.

Our hearts and house are full, as Eleanor came for the graduation, Spain, and a few weeks beyond, and Walker’s girlfriend, a soprano from the conservatory, is also staying at our house for a little while. They will march with us on our town square a few times and then set forth to help keep the world safe for all we hold dear.

A Gentleman in Moscow

May 15, 2017

For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of the personal, the extent to which it’s true, as Rick says in Casablanca, that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Or whether the father in Special Topics in Calamity Physics is right: “Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.”

Finally, though, the authors who don’t believe that have moved to the forefront of my mind. There’s Tolkien, as always, saying “There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that ever happens to man is natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question.” I understand this to mean that since each of us only gets this one way of perceiving the world, as an individual, then each individual’s version of events is important; the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings popularized this idea with Galadriel’s line “even the smallest person can change the course of history” (in the book it’s “the future,” rather than “the course of history.”) And there’s Oscar Wilde, saying “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” That’s always the danger, with a reader—that she won’t keep trying to articulate ideas of her own, but allow the words of others to shape her thinking. (Obviously there’s an irony in quoting while talking about why it’s important for me to continue telling my story; it’s an irony I relish.)

And really, there’s nothing that can bring home the idea that the personal is political quite like reading a Russian novel, something I haven’t done very much since I was twenty. But I recently picked up Amor Towles’ novel A Gentleman in Moscow because Walker is graduating from Oberlin this weekend and I thought I could give it to him as a graduation present. In my family, it’s an even better present if it’s been “pre-read for your enjoyment” because that means once the recipient has read it, the giver is willing to discuss it. I meant to read the book as part of my gift to my son, who is voluntarily exiling himself to Siberia—a double-major in Biology and Russian, he’s gotten an internship to work at Lake Baikal this summer and fall.

But it turns out that this novel is exactly the book I needed to read just now, as I try not to despair about what is happening in my own country while trying not to worry as my youngest child leaves it for the country I grew up thinking of as the “evil empire.” One of the big questions the novel asks is why Russians kill what they love–how, for example, in 1812 they could burn Moscow rather than let it be taken intact.

The character who asks this question, Mishka, has been a political prisoner in Siberia, where he developed the habit of saying “we” instead of “I” because “for Mishka, ‘we’ encompassed all his fellow prisoners—and not simply those who had toiled on the Solovetsky Islands or in Sevvostlag or on the White Sea Canal, whether they had toiled there in the twenties, or the thirties, or toiled there still.”

Mishka asks his friend, the “gentleman” of the title,
“What is it about a nation that would foster a willingness in its people to destroy their own artworks, ravage their own cities, and kill their own progeny without compunction? To foreigners it must seem shocking. It must seem as if we Russians have such a brutish indifference that nothing, not even the fruit of our loins, is viewed as sacrosanct.”

The answer, Mishka says, came to him in a dream about the Russian poet Mayakovsky. “When I awoke,” he says,
“I suddenly understood that this propensity for self-destruction was not an abomination, not something to be ashamed of or abhorred; it was our greatest strength. We turn the gun on ourselves not because we are more indifferent and less cultured than the British, or the French, or the Italians. On the contrary. We are prepared to destroy that which we have created because we believe more than any of them in the power of the picture, the poem, the prayer, or the person.”

Yes, the person. The individual. The idea that telling your own story can make a difference in the world, can affect the way other people see it and then, perhaps, how they act. A person doesn’t have to be famous or important to do this, just persistent.

So I’m going to continue to resist, and persist in talking about books, buoyed by the friendship expressed in the comments to my previous post and the ideas I found in A Gentleman in Moscow, including that
“it is our friends who should overestimate our capacities. They should have an exaggerated opinion of our moral fortitude, our aesthetic sensibilities, and our intellectual scope. Why, they should practically imagine us leaping through a window in the nick of time with the works of Shakespeare in one hand and a pistol in the other!”

I haven’t even told you about the plot of the novel, which centers around a Moscow hotel called The Metropol where a Russian gentleman, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, spends his life under house arrest, as a “former person,” and yet persists in finding ways to express his love for the art, literature, music, spiritual life, and individual people of his country. He continues to make nice distinctions, such as the “difference between being resigned to a situation and reconciled to it,” throughout a period of politically mandated simplification and upheaval. The irony of the ending, which is delicious, is echoed, for me, by the way this novel about Russia re-awakens my hope that what an American character says–something I think most Americans have grown up believing–might be true again someday soon: “everyone dreams of living in America.”

Poem of Disconnected Parts

May 3, 2017

“Who do you write for?” This is the blogger’s perennial question. Lately blog writing has slipped farther down than usual on the weekly list of things I think I need to accomplish.

A friend of mine recently told me that he’s tired of everything being political. But it seems inescapable that everything is political these days. Maybe that’s partly because I have always sought out and celebrated satire, although never thought I would live in such a fertile era for it.

My thoughts are disconnected but keep coming around to the same topics, like in Robert Pinsky’s “Poem of Disconnected Parts”:

At Robben Island the political prisoners studied.
They coined the motto Each one Teach one.

In Argentina the torturers demanded the prisoners
Address them always as “Profesor.”

Many of my friends are moved by guilt, but I
Am a creature of shame, I am ashamed to say.

Culture the lock, culture the key. Imagination
That calls boiled sheep heads “Smileys.”

The first year at Guantánamo, Abdul Rahim Dost
Incised his Pashto poems into styrofoam cups.

“The Sangomo says in our Zulu culture we do not
Worship our ancestors: we consult them.”

Becky is abandoned in 1902 and Rose dies giving
Birth in 1924 and Sylvia falls in 1951.

Still falling still dying still abandoned in 2005
Still nothing finished among the descendants.

I support the War, says the comic, it’s just the Troops
I’m against: can’t stand those Young People.

Proud of the fallen, proud of her son the bomber.
Ashamed of the government. Skeptical.

After the Klansman was found Not Guilty one juror
Said she just couldn’t vote to convict a pastor.

Who do you write for? I write for dead people:
For Emily Dickinson, for my grandfather.

“The Ancestors say the problem with your Knees
Began in your Feet. It could move up your Back.”

But later the Americans gave Dost not only paper
And pen but books. Hemingway, Dickens.

Old Aegyptius said Whoever has called this Assembly,
For whatever reason—it is a good in itself.

O thirsty shades who regard the offering, O stained earth.
There are many fake Sangomos. This one is real.

Coloured prisoners got different meals and could wear
Long pants and underwear, Blacks got only shorts.

No he says he cannot regret the three years in prison:
Otherwise he would not have written those poems.

I have a small-town mind. Like the Greeks and Trojans.
Shame. Pride. Importance of looking bad or good.

Did he see anything like the prisoner on a leash? Yes,
In Afghanistan. In Guantánamo he was isolated.

Our enemies “disassemble” says the President.
Not that anyone at all couldn’t mis-speak.

The profesores created nicknames for torture devices:
The Airplane. The Frog. Burping the Baby.

Not that those who behead the helpless in the name
Of God or tradition don’t also write poetry.

Guilts, metaphors, traditions. Hunger strikes.
Culture the penalty. Culture the escape.

What could your children boast about you? What
Will your father say, down among the shades?

The Sangomo told Marvin, “You are crushed by some
Weight. Only your own Ancestors can help you.”

Right now it’s difficult for me to figure out how to pack each day with the most urgent optional activities on top of the required ones, to spend my energy on things that could possibly lead to results that will benefit my children, much less give them anything to “boast about.”

For whatever reason, my zeal for talking about books has flagged, for the moment. It’s a loss of faith in the thing that has always been of paramount importance but now seems more…frivolous.

What do you think?

Is this thing on?

Dreamers Often Lie

April 28, 2017

I heard about Jacqueline West’s YA novel Dreamers Often Lie at Your Daughter’s Bookshelf and thought that reading about a girl who has Shakespearean delusions after a head injury sounded pretty interesting, so I hunted up a copy and ended up thoroughly enjoying it. One of the things an adult should do from time to time is come into contact with someone (real or fictional) who goes to high school, because afterwards adult life will seem like a breeze, in comparison.

The protagonist of Dreamers Often Lie is named Jaye; she lives with her mother and sister in the wake of her father’s death in a car crash the year before. As the novel begins she is in the hospital with a head injury she suffered skiing, something the rest of her family loves and she has always hated. What Jaye loves is theater, and she has been cast as Titania in her high school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When Jaye wakes up in the hospital, though, she not only has a variety of characters from Shakespeare’s plays running through her head–and, seemingly, her hospital room–she sometimes sees and hears the bard himself acting as a kind of father figure.

It becomes apparent to readers, from how her sister and mother react to Jaye, that because of her head injury, she sometimes doesn’t remember things. So when she doesn’t recognize her doctor and says “I kept my eyes fixed on his face, but it was hard to focus on his words. Especially when Hamlet tiptoed around the bed and grinned at me over my sister’s shoulder,” we chalk it up to her head injury. When it keeps happening, though, we start to wonder, as Jaye herself does. She follows Shakespeare’s advice, “one finger against his lips,” because she’s not sure what’s real and what’s illusion.

I wasn’t sure what to think when Jaye walks haltingly out of the hospital and says she sees something behind her out of the corner of her eye:
“I glanced over my shoulder, expecting to see an impatient nurse or doctor stuck in our wake.
Instead, there were fairies.
Three of them. They had sparkly skin and pointed features and bare feet. All three of them beamed at me.
Then they started to sing, in little flutey fairy voices.
Over hill, over dale, thorough brush, thorough brier;
Over park, over pale, thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere, swifter than the moon’s sphere…
I clenched my teeth and turned away. The fairies kept singing, skipping behind us, showering us with petals that apparently only I could feel.”

Finally Jaye does tell someone about how she can’t tell the difference between dreams and reality. She says to her sister, Sadie:
“Ever since the hospital, I’ve been having these dreams. Sometimes it’s like I’m stuck inside them, and they’re so real that I don’t even try to wake up, and sometimes I know I’m awake, but pieces of the dreams—people from the dreams—are still there….I know they aren’t really there. But I can’t make them go away.”
Her sister reassures her, saying “lots of people see and hear things after a head injury. Medications can make you hallucinate too. That, on top of a concussion…” But Jaye keeps seeing Shakespearean characters, and she begins to get to know a new guy at school named Rob, who she first imagined was Romeo. That impression doesn’t fade as the plot develops; it gets stronger, especially since a family friend (his name is Pierce and she never sees him as Paris even though that is the part he plays) has also begun to pursue her as a romantic interest.

At one point when Pierce is about to drive her home from school, Jaye tells us she sees
“a flash of motion in the rearview mirror, and I looked around to see Hamlet and Ophelia making out in the backseat. Delightful. I sank down in my own seat, feeling prickly and trapped.”

When Jaye sees a scene that she initially describes as “two actors…dueling,” the reader can’t tell whether she is awake, asleep, or hallucinating. She says
“I thought they must be Laertes and Hamlet, acting out their final scene. But when they changed direction, I could see their faces for the first time.
It was Pierce and Rob.”
Jaye doesn’t see that she has cast the people in her life into Shakespearean roles, but it becomes increasingly clear to the reader.

As the end of the story approaches, after another hit on the head, Jaye begins to refer to Rob as “Romeo” when she is thinking about him and “Rob” when she sees him in person. So if you’ve seen (or read) Romeo and Juliet, you know something about the ending, except that in this novel, Juliet has seen the play she’s in too, and so she can act to affect how it ends.

I found this a fairly charming update of the play’s main theme, with much less-sheltered young lovers. The playwright’s appearance, along with characters from other plays, adds a level of predictability to a story that keeps a reader guessing for the first few pages.

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce

April 26, 2017

I love poetry, but haven’t written about as many poems as I used to since November. I think it’s because poetry involves emotion, and I haven’t wanted to stir any up; it seems like we already have too many people going around almost entirely ruled by their emotions.

But I’m still reading poems, and some of the best I’ve read lately are in Morgan Parker’s volume There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce.

From the very first poem, entitled “All They Want Is My Money My Pussy My Blood,” these poems are full of unforgettable lines:
“Okay so I’m Black in America right and I walk into a bar.
I drink a lot of wine and kiss a Black man on his beard.
I do whatever I want because I could die any minute.
I don’t mean YOLO I mean they are hunting me.

The way Parker can turn a phrase is beautifully concise:
“They ask me about slavery. They say Martin Luther King.
At school they learned that Black people happened.”

From the title of the volume, we understand that the poems are going to combine admiration of women who seem to have it all, like Beyonce, with respect for other black women who shouldn’t be expected to try to live up to her almost-impossible ideal.

A few of the titles of the individual poems can give you a taste of what the volume is like:
“The President Has Never Said the Word Black”
“Beyonce on the Line for Gaga”
“Beyonce is Sorry for What She Won’t Feel”
“13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl”
“The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”
“The President’s Wife”
“Ain’t Misbehavin’”
Beyonce Celebrates Black History Month”
“99 Problems”

Some of the poems are about readers and writers like you and me. At the end of “Another Another Autumn in New York”:
“…I breathe
dried honeysuckle
and hope. I live somewhere
And in the middle of “Welcome to the Jungle”:
“art is nice but the question is how are you/making money are you for sale”

Other poems in the volume are about lives that people like me can’t know much about, but Parker short-circuits any preconceptions we might have, as in the poem “Afro”:
“I’m hiding secrets & weapons in there: buttermilk
pancake cardboard, boxes of purple juice, a magic word
our Auntie Angela spoke into her fist & released into
hot black evening like gunpowder or a Kool, 40 yards of
cheap wax prints, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a Zulu
folktale warning against hunters drunk on Polo shirts &
A different kind of short-circuit begins a poem entitled “The Book of Negroes”:
“Summertime and the living is/extraordinarily difficult.”

The ending of “Black Woman with Chicken” reveals an image that’s set up to reveal something below the surface of a thousand conventional portrayals, but then how can it, considering the source of the view?
“Long black dress.
I’m what you want.
If you don’t
like what you
see, remember
I’m only
a figment, screen
of hunger & pining.
A spook
& you
feast your eyes”

Admiration of Beyonce and condemnation of the circumstances that require a black woman to be so extraordinary before people give her anything like her due is conveyed in the poem “White Beyonce”:
“She’s un-revolutionarily flawless
Feminist-approved she vacations daily

She woke up like a million bucks
slipped into lacy panties it’s always sunny

Her husband is upstanding of course
The tabs call him Mr.

She performs and the coverage is breezy:
What rosy cheeks what milky vacancy

Her daughter learns about beauty
Discovers nothing surprising”
Aren’t these lines fantastically economical in the amount of information and emotion they convey? Even someone like me–who spends a lot of time absent-mindedly bumbling through the kinds of daily minefields a black woman has to stay sharp to survive—can feel a little of what this kind of life must be like.

In the title poem, “Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce)” there is a declaration:
“There are more beautiful things than Beyonce: self-awareness,
Leftover mascara in clumps, recognizing a pattern
This is for all the grown women out there
Whose countries hate them and their brothers
Who carry knives in their purses down the street.”

And then there’s an invitation to readers, to help extend the speaker’s list of
“more beautiful things than Beyonce:
Lavender, education, becoming other people,
The fucking sky
It’s so overused because no one’s sure of it
How it floats with flagrant privilege
And feels it can ask any question
Every day its ego gets bigger and you let that happen”

The cumulative effect of reading these poems adds up to more than just the experience of unforgettable lines of amazing conciseness; the poems in this volume offer many readers the chance to feel things that we couldn’t otherwise feel, about circumstances we will never otherwise experience.

Thanks to Serena for reminding me that it’s National Poetry Month, which encouraged me to write about poetry again.

Mitzi Bytes

April 15, 2017

Let’s take it as a given that I’m going to be hard on anyone who tries to write an adult novel imitating the plot of my favorite children’s book, Harriet the Spy. It’s like someone coming along and trying to “update” the recipe for my favorite comfort food. (No, I don’t want bacon or truffles or anything else in my macaroni and cheese, thank you.) So I’m holding Kerry Clare to an almost impossibly high standard for her novel Mitzi Bytes, and it’s no wonder she falls short.

“Mitzi Bytes” is a name made up by Clare’s protagonist, Sarah, wife of a computer programmer and mother to two little girls, one in kindergarten and the other in second grade. Sarah has been writing her blog under this pseudonym for fifteen years and has achieved some success, with a couple of books developed from her blog writing and ad revenue from her site. The blog began as an online journal-type dating tell-all site and morphed into a mommy blog. As the novel begins, someone has connected Sarah with her online persona and is threatening to expose her.

If you know Harriet the Spy, you can see that Clare has set up some interesting observations about a woman’s public identity in the age of online journaling, a worthy successor to Louise Fitzhugh’s exploration of the role of honesty in the formation of a child’s identity. And yet Fitzhugh manages universality in a way that Clare does not.

It’s not for lack of trying. The parts of Clare’s book I like best are about motherhood and identity, especially how the former can erase some of the latter. For example, when Sarah’s husband asks her if there’s “anything I need to know?” on a day she’s upset, she knows that “what he was asking her was if tonight was the night he had to leave work on time because she had her book club, if she wanted any groceries picked up on his way home, and if there was something else she needed him to remember. These were practical things. He was certainly not inquiring as to the status of the depths of her soul, the reason for her fear and dread, about her strange mood this morning. He didn’t want to know any of that.”

Sarah thinks that her relationship with her readers online is that “we’re all just figments of one another’s imaginations.” I don’t agree with this, but then I’ve never gone by a pseudonym or shied away from consummating my online relationships by meeting in real life. There is a section in which Sarah talks to younger people about a “a blog….Like Tumblr….blogs were for old people.” The young people—her students—tell her that “online you can be who you really are.” When Sarah says “I wonder about the consequences, though…of these divided selves. If we don’t all get a little scrambled by the whole thing,” one of the students points out that “it’s like I have a hundred parts of me anyway, never mind on the Internet.”

When the friend who has told everyone Sarah’s online name finally confronts her in person, she asks “what is the point of what you’re doing?” and Sarah thinks “she’d asked herself the same question many times, and she’d never been able to come to a satisfying answer. And whenever she got close, it was always different from what she’d answered before. Her blog was a record, a place where she worked out what she thought of things, where she reflected on the world around her, which was not the same as being a reflection of it.” The friend doesn’t like the way her life is reflected by the mirror Sarah holds up to it. In fact, as other people confront Sarah, we see that they believe she has written about them, when in fact she has not–they’re applying what she’s said about someone else to themselves.

Sarah, as Mitzi, finally articulates something important about why her writing is important to her: “It’s a virtue, I think, having an open mind. It’s not waffling or flip-flopping, but instead it’s the gift of perspective, which is a far more complicated gift than obliviousness is.” And for Sarah, as for many other writers throughout history, writing is a way of defining her perspective. (Rohan–who alerted me to the existence of this novel—has more thoughts about identity in her review.)

What’s sad about the end of Sarah’s story is that she is content to let her husband validate her identity when he says “I need you….you’re everything. This whole life—you’re the centre. You made it for me, the kind of life I never could have imagined for myself. And without you, none of it means anything.” How lovely, I thought. He’s not going to be saying that any more when their little girls have graduated from college and left home. Then Sarah is either going to have to move into the center of something else, or she’s going to become one of those fussy former home-makers who bustle around the house with a set of holiday decorations for almost every month, demanding that the adult children come home for Easter, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July (in African-American families, maybe it’s Juneteenth; in British or Canadian families, perhaps spring bank holiday and Orangeman’s Day).

At the end of the novel, Sarah becomes a journalist (like blogging, sadly, a dying endeavor).

The part of this novel that I like least is Clare’s strange idea of homage, naming Sarah’s two friends Janie (a chemist) and Beth-Ellen, who “tended to be underestimated.” There’s also a throw-away line about how her husband’s sister calls him “Sport” and an overly-contrived scene of Sarah hiding in a dumbwaiter. Like I said, though, mine is an impossibly high standard. It’s not a bad novel; it’s just that it’s not a masterpiece.

Version Control

April 10, 2017

This is it. Already. The best book of 2017.

Jenny enticed me, saying that this book is “a weird, weird book. It reminded me a little of Nick Harkaway with the quills retracted (does that metaphor work? do porcupines retract their quills ever?).”

The metaphor does work, because when I looked it up  (at National Geographic),
I found out that porcupine quills “detach easily when touched.” They can’t pull them in, but if you get too close, you’re involved.*

I got so involved. From the first image from the main character’s dream (“tomatoes that hung heavy on thorn-laden vines, juicy, icy blue”) and the initial description of her party for her husband’s work group (to view his appearance on “the Pscience! network, one of those half-dozen cable channels that broadcast sensationalist science and nature programs twenty-four hours a day, an endless procession of flashy animated renderings of Jovian orbiters, and experts on supernatural phenomena, and lions tearing out the throats of their prey”), my intellect was pleasurably engaged in what I thought of, at the time, as sorting out the fascinating details about this world of the future from the main character’s descriptions of “a certain subtle wrongness” about her life.

The novel has a first layer, which starts with the description of a world that has a “Pscience! network,” and then the rest of the story builds layers of structure on top, to gradually reveal a new perspective, visible only from the height of the superstructure.

I love the way Palmer reveals information about the characters; these are the kinds of people I know best—smart, driven, and more concerned with ideas and the life of the mind than anything else. Even the main character, Rebecca–whose roles include wife (of a physicist), mother, and part-time employee (of an online dating service)—is more interested in ideas than anyone around gives her credit for (not that I identify with that or anything). She asks the deceptively simple questions, like “what is history made up of, if not people’s lives and stories and memories?”

And I love the way my image of this world gets built up. At first it’s funny and weird:
“If you had never watched that much television, then you might wonder how it was that the President of the United States had found the time to record a video introduction to every program that appeared on every one of the hundreds of available channels—not just a generic twenty-second speech that gave his imprimatur to the program about to commence, but a short monologue that always seemed to be tailored to the program’s subject matter, linking it to some larger political or spiritual meaning. But keen-eyed viewers knew that the President repeated himself: he almost always delivered one of a finite number of canned speeches, perhaps tweaking a word or two in a halfhearted effort at personalization.”

Later in the novel, though, we find out that “these days it was hard to even have a conversation without the President butting in,” which he does on a phone call between Rebecca and her father because “things had gotten really bad in the Dakotas: a member of one or another secessionist faction had actually assassinated North Dakota’s lieutenant governor, which made it lot harder to pretend that these guys were just a bunch of wackos that could be dismissed as crackpots or handled with drones….So for the past couple of weeks the President had been showing up everywhere, on a major PR offensive.”

When I read a novel for the first time I turn down a corner of the page anywhere I find something interesting that I will want to think more about, and usually those are the quotations I write about here. My copy of Version Control, however, has the corner of the page turned down on almost every page; it’s not selection, it’s just the record of my enthusiasm. I had to go back to select a few that I want to share here so you get a feeling for how lovely the thinking and writing are:
“In Dad’s day, when you graduated from a four-year school, you magically found a forty-hour-a-week job that let you take on a mortgage if you wanted. But the paths to success were not so well marked out for Rebecca’s generation, and so with diplomas in hand they returned to their old bedrooms for a period that was part extended adolescence, part premature senescence. The period did not have a name, because to name it would be to acknowledge its existence, which would in turn lead to an admission of failure—of the promise of higher education, or of methods of parenting, or of such vague concepts as the System or the American Dream.”

There is a lot about identity in the internet age, much of it said by characters who are not as smart and self-aware as some of the others—for the arch, ironic tone, but also to create occasional moments of insight, for the character and the reader:
“When you’re meeting people online, you’re not totally out there at first….you message each other for a little while. Then you can…switch over to IMing, which is like talking in person, except you can edit yourself: if you find yourself about to say something stupid, you can just delete it and say something better.”

The plot of the novel revolves around time travel, but that’s not the whole point of it, and I find that anytime I try to give an example of something really great about how the “causality violation device” works–the one that Rebecca’s husband Philip has dedicated his life to building and testing—it doesn’t convey the idea well at all, because the idea is expertly woven through all 495 pages. The best I can do for you is to quote a sarcastically short explanation given at one point by Philip’s post-doc Alicia, one of the most dedicated and driven members of his team:
“First of all, time travel is real: you just have to believe. Second, when we get that machine working, I’m going to be the first one to use it, because you know what I’m sick and tired of? Reliable birth control and the right to vote. Just absolutely fed up.
Old times were great, weren’t they? You got an apron and a bunch of squalling kids hanging on your legs, your husband just died from some damn disease hasn’t even been discovered yet, you bit into a boiled turkey drumstick and it pulls out two of your front teeth.
Then your mother says, ‘I warned you: this is what happens to a woman when she turns twenty-three.’
Seriously, to hell with time travel.
I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”

That gives you a taste of how complicated the idea of time travel is in this novel, without which passages like this don’t work as well:
“She was sitting on the couch, watching this time travel movie. It was about the time of the civil rights movement: you know, there are these black maids scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets and white women not even noticing they exist, except when they want something from them….** The kind of movie you watch so you can get good and pissed off and talk to the screen, you know? ….”Oh, if that white woman talked to me like that it’d be her first and last time. I’d snatch that apron off and slap her like she’d lost God’s love….See why it’s a time travel movie? The time machine isn’t in the movie, on the screen: it’s in your head. You watch a movie like that and you get to imagine yourself going back in time so you can trash-talk a bunch of dumbasses.”

In addition to all this good stuff, you get momentary delights like descriptions of the best tattoo ever and the future of clothes shopping. Oh, and biting analysis of where we might be headed with the relationship between technology and power.

This is a novel that everyone I know should read. Eventually I’m going to insist, so you might as well get started now.

*I don’t want Nick Harkaway to retract anything, ever.

**could he be any more explicitly referring to The Help?


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