The Information by Martin Amis

information

In my younger and more smart-assy years I used to like Martin Amis a lot, and as far as I remember, I enjoyed this novel very much ten years ago. I thought I’d enjoy it this time, too – the first sentences in any case were so good that I didn’t even continue reading that night because I was just swooning with pleasure.

„Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams.”

This here is perfection, enough to keep me happy for a night.

But despite the amazing first sentences, in the end I found this novel dead boring and irritating – perhaps because I’m not young and I’m not a smartass anymore. Oh, wait – I still am, so perhaps the real reason is that I now find this particular type of smartassery boring and irritating: this oh-so-sophistaced, forced-ironic, over-stylized type of smartassery makes me cringe now. (Except, of course, when I myself am doing it.)

Smartassery fits the novel, though, because The Information is very literary – in the sense that it’s main topic is literature (which is, as everyone knows, dying). More precisely: the main topics are writers, writing, publishing, and the question of what you can write about.

For example, the writers in the novel (or maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s – the fictional self of – Martin Amis, because, as usual, he wrote himself into this novel, so that he can be witty and smart at the reader from inside the book) once talk about how throughout the history of literature, heroes progressively got smaller and more and more insignificant. In ancient times, the heroes were gods and demigods, later literature was all about kings, knights, and bishops, still later about the man of the street, and still later about the people from society’s underbelly. Consequently, all that remains now for literature is to talk about writers and literature, but this is no solution – you cannot write metafiction until the end of eternity. (Fortunately.)

Anyway, metafiction was still in full swing for Martin Amis in 1995, so this novel is about two writers. One of them reinvents literature, or rather, he returns to a weird kind of ancient simplicity that probably never existed in the first place. He writes a couple of dumb, childish utopias that lack any drama, feeling, or life, and for some reason he ends up wildly successful. The other writer, in the meanwhile, goes to the other extreme: he writes unreadable literature, the kind that causes physical pain, and his latest novel (titled Untitled) is famous for its ability to bring on acute migraine, nosebleed, or any other illness after three or four pages. No wonder he doesn’t become successful.

These writers, by the way, are old friends, the kind who actually hate each other, and they both try to humiliate and destroy the other. While they are engaged in their petty little literary wars, the world out there is getting smaller and smaller and getting closer and closer to its end, and we are constantly reminded that compared to the stars and galaxies, we are all totally insignificant, with all our literary or other ambitions and successes and failures.

This is partly entertaining because Amis isn’t only a smartass – he’s really smart, too, and his style is admirably sarcastic, still – it’s boring, partly because Amis himself already covered the same things in roughly the same manner in London Fields, and partly because literature – for me – is more interesting when it deals with something else besides itself.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

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It’s nice to read a novel like this from time to time.

A novel that’s – old-fashioned.
A novel that’s – slow.
A novel where the author deeply cares about the characters and where you will deeply care about the characters, too.

At least I feel I must – reading 800+ pages without getting emotionally involved is impossible for me, so it’s also good that this here is not a postmodern novel where the author demands that the reader keep a distance from the characters and the events.

So yes, this is an old-fashioned novel, with dozens of characters and a whole lot of subplots and story-lines, with good guys and bad guys – but not good and bad in a black-and-white sense. If anything, the characters here represent several shades of gray, as regards the diversity of human nature and the millions of possible motivations.

The main character is – relatively surprisingly – a woman. Dorothea Casaubon (née Brooke) is an intelligent, benevolent, headstrong, energetic young woman who is lucky enough to be able to follow her desires because… – there are several reasons.

Because she has an independent income.
Because her friends and family always stand by her in the end, even if they initially object to some of her plans and ideas.
Because she’s brave and strong enough to defy the way things should be according to everyone else – multiple times, without fail, without damaging compromises.

Dorothea is quite an intriguing character: an independent woman who prefers to manage her estate on her own instead of trusting it to the care of a strong man, and who at the same time screws things up multiple times because she cannot assess and admit to what she really wants and how she could be happy. Still, slowly – very slowly – she learns from her mistakes.

Besides Dorothea, there are many other remarkable characters and story-lines, too: starting from the young doctor new to town (whose innovative plans don’t quite turn out the way he expects) through the young gentleman itching for an active life full of excitement to the hot-headed young poet who is willing to fight for his desires as much as it takes. (Pro quiz: whose heart and hand will our young poet win in the end? Yes. Exactly! But this is how it should be and the fact that the end is foreseeable doesn’t make it any weaker. And anyway, Eliot doesn’t waste too many words on things that are bound to happen. This is not a romantic novel.)

Besides the many individual stories, we also get a sense of the important events unsettling the English countryside in the 19th century. I admit this historical-political story-line didn’t really touch me – some 15 years I must have studied the history of the Whigs and Tories to some extent but that knowledge has safely been buried since, so the political fights and intricacies of the novel left me somewhat baffled. What I did get was that regular country people weren’t exactly keen on such novelties as the introduction of the railway.

But in the end, my ignorance didn’t stop my enjoyment because Eliot’s greatest strength is that through the fate of her characters she can say a whole lot about how it was, how it could have been to live in that era in the English countryside.

Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes

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It’s great that I had quite a lot of real and exciting things going on when I was reading Infinite Ground – if I had been reading it in one of my more depressed, more introverted periods, I would have gotten even more depressed by this novel, and who wants any of that.

The novel starts out relatively innocently but then turns into a very unsettling read. The story is set in an unnamed city of an unnamed South American country, where one day Carlos, a reliable and hard-working office worker ups and disappears from the restaurant where he’s having a big meal with his family. As the convention of detective stories dictates, the case is assigned to an experienced old investigator who starts to follow the obvious clues but things take a bizarre and unexpected turn around page 3 (even more bizarre and unexpected than the mystery of a man stepping out to the bathroom and never coming back) when the investigator notices that all the witnesses seem to play a role and seem to recite their statements as if they had learned them by heart, and we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of double (or nonexistent) identities, lives outsourced and lives lived instead of someone else, simulacra, copies and imitations (which are often better and more authentic than the real thing), in an alien and intimidating world where the self crumbles to atoms (and not just metaphorically, but in a biological and chemical sense) and where even the fact seems ridiculous that we claim to have names – after all, names are only temporary and utterly unnecessary words we attach to that bunch of atoms that make up a human for a short while.

Infinite Ground is a biological-existentialist novel, and I’ve never read anything like this before. And as I say, it’s a pretty alarming novel – here your average existential angst doesn’t suffice anymore – here we have to be anxious about what goes on deep down in our cells because, after all, every single change in our cells changes who we are, and then there’s entropy lurking everywhere, ready to level out and smooth over our existence – how the hell are we supposed to have any sense of continuity of self then, a self that could be anxious about the questions of finding or creating meaning, and how the hell are we supposed to think that we have any kind of will (let alone free will), personal choices, responsibility for our actions, or any effect on anything at all?

We have none of this, surely, in this novel. Perhaps as a consequence of this, the story gradually disintegrates as we move on. It’s possible that this disintegration is intentional (it definitely emphasizes the disintegration of the characters), but towards the end I got the feeling that MacInnes himself succumbed to his own brand of bio-existentialism and didn’t even attempt to find meaning anymore as the search was bound to be futile.

The novel suffers from such typical shortcomings of first novels, but even though it’s not a masterpiece executed with sure hands, I’d love to read whatever MacInnes writes in the future because his thoughts are exciting, and he approaches this whole array of questions – who we are, what we are, when do we stop being humans – from a unique perspective.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

castle

As far as I know her work, Shirley Jackson is always deeply terrifying. Not because of the haunted houses, demonic persons, and ominous-magical practices that often appear in her novels and stories, but because of the casual and inexplicable brutality that seems to be ever-present in her world.

This novel is no exception. It’s set in and around the house of the Blackwood family (two sisters and a disabled uncle), who live in half-voluntary seclusion. The Blackwoods are either shunned or actively hated by the people of the nearby village, and the few people who don’t shun and don’t hate them only gets in touch with them because they hope to learn some juicy details about that exciting and gruesome event when a couple of years earlier one of the sisters went ahead and murdered half of the family (but which sister? And did it really happen?)

Looking for (and finding) a scapegoat is a recurring theme in Jackson’s work, and it’s one of the main themes here, too. Of course, a crime was committed (the family massacre really happened – allegedly), but this is only an excuse for the villagers to freely stare at, despise and bully the remaining members of the Blackwood family, and the real reason why the Blackwoods became pariahs never becomes clear.

In any case, the Blackwood sisters – Constance, who is forever pottering around in the kitchen and never ventures farther from the house than the edge of the garden, and Merricat, who lives in an invulnerable, childlike state of eternal superstition and magic but who’s also extremely pragmatic and practical, and takes a pilgrimage to the village twice a week – live in a world that’s impenetrable to outsiders. Their private world is full of simple, eternal routine, innocence and magic; this is a world without moral categories; this is a world that must be protected from the attacks of the outside world, no matter what it takes.

It seems to me that the world the Blackwood girls (and the disabled, consequently non-threatening uncle) inhabit is some kind of a female world – I was often reminded of Péter Esterházy’s novel, The Transporters, because something similar happens here: the masculine brutality of the outside world wants to invade the idyllic-neurotic world of the sisters, and it almost succeeds.

Still, what remains in the end is again a kind of innocence. An ever narrower, even more feminine, even more restricted world that’s forbidding and unapproachable to everyone else. A ruined, yet warm and homely castle where Constance and Merricat have always lived and will always live.

The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

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Isn’t it fun and interesting to witness other people’s depression?*

Just kidding. The depression of others is usually not the least bit interesting and/or extremely – hm, depressing, depending on how I am doing at that moment. If I’m feeling down, then the depression of others isn’t interesting at all, because my own depression is surely more interesting, more painful and more unique, and who gives a shit anyway. And if I’m feeling wonderful, then I surely don’t need the depression of others – life is wonderful, let’s go rollerblading into the sunshine.

Lucky that there are writers like Janice Galloway, who can make the depression of a person extremely interesting, unsettling, relevant and painful – regardless of how I am doing at the moment.

I’ve been planning to read this novel for ages, purely because I thought the title’s great – all throughout these years I’ve never actually bothered to find out what it’s about. The title, however, has always fascinated me – I thought this must be a darkly ironic self-help title, you know, as if you asked someone in deep existential despair how you’re supposed to live, and the person answered: Oh, it’s easy – the trick is to keep breathing.

Turns out I haven’t been far from the truth. The grieving, neurotic, depressed heroine of the novel, not-exactly-happy Joy spends the story trying very hard to figure out (again) how to live (and why) after a couple of tragedies destroyed her life as she knew it (of course, she’s depressed – so you can imagine how enthusiastic and upbeat her attempts are).

Joy employs different methods and strategies: she takes depression pills and sleeping pills; she drinks a lot; she engages in casual relationships with men; she bakes pastries and biscuits with therapeutic intensity every Sunday; she develops bulimia because sometimes the only thing you can hope for is that you’ll have control over at least one single area of your life; she seeks supposedly professional psychiatric help; and she reads glossy magazines that helpfully advise her to embrace chaos and disorder because that will surely help.

Do I spoil the story if I say that all these tricks are useless?

And does it sound too much like Cosmopolitan if I say that the Solution (if there is one) Lies Within You Only? Oh well. Galloway does a wonderful job alternating between the different phases of Joy’s depression and her attempts to escape from it, and all this is heartbreaking and disturbing – but also funny like hell. I’ve noticed (in literature mostly, where else) that people who are sufficiently (or perhaps too) smart are able to view their own depression from the outside and even while they’re up to their necks in their misery they can still relate to it with scary, clever and also liberating black humor. And Joy’s like this, too – she’s an achingly smart, self-pitying and self-destructing, imperfect, sarcastic, helpless woman with a terrific sense of humor as her only weapon – still, she is aware even while she’s hitting rock bottom that there will be change, there must be change. Only not this week yet. Not tonight. Not yet.

And I think it would be futile to hope for more than this, to trust that things will turns out more spectacularly than this. If there’s an optimistic ending here (but what’s an optimistic ending, anyway? When I read about characters like Joy I can imagine neither that they’ll just put an end to it [they are far too curious for that] nor that they’ll ride their unicorn away into the rainbow-colored future in the end [they are way too smart to believe in rainbows and unicorns]) then it’s really only this: There will be change. Just not today.

* Obviously, I know these two are not interchangeable, but in this text I’m referring to clinical depression and the experience of feeling low somewhat interchangeably – for purely stylistic reasons.

The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme

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Ten years ago I spent my spring days writing a master’s thesis about this novel. It was a great spring: my supervisor was fortunately fully engrossed in his own doctoral thesis, which meant that he didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what I was doing, and there was hardly any secondary source available about this novel, which made me ecstatic as it meant that I wasn’t obliged to cite the thoughts of 826 experts but could go with my thesis wherever I wanted to.

Reading this novel at that time, as a relatively inexperienced reader of postmodern, when any literature out of the ordinary could easily make me swoon, was an eye-opener for me.

I read The Dead Father forward and backward many times then, but haven’t read it since – this was something like an anniversary re-reading (or an investigation into the ways the brain of a young postmodern-lover literature student’s changes in 10 years out here in the so-called real and adult world.)

I was happy to see that my brain is still more than fine with this novel. Even if nowadays I tend to be impatient with the average random postmodern novel (I don’t like it when something is postmodern just because that’s the way things are done), The Dead Father still titillates my brain (though a little bit less now).

I still feel this is a wonderfully rich, multilayered and expressive novel. You could write whole theses about all the things this novel says about the way power works, the way it’s handed down from generation to generation, about the ways it can be disrupted and recreated; about gender roles; about language as an instrument of power, repression and brainwashing; about patriarchal society; and a whole lot of other things (but that’s exactly what I did ten years ago, so this time I try not to write dozens of pages here).

Well, then, there’s a Dead Father here – a childish despot, the symbol of the past, who’s nearing his end but is willing to do whatever it takes just to stay alive a little bit longer and rejuvenate himself. His children (and/or subjects) are seemingly working hard to fulfill his wishes and they act as if they were taking the Dead Father to the mythical Golden Fleece, the source of eternal youth and power – but in reality the wayward children are making plans to disrupt the old order and create a new one, an order in which they won’t be forced to make fools of themselves all their adult lives; in which they can determines the power structure on their own; in which they are allowed to make their own stupid mistakes instead of obediently doing whatever the Dead Father orders them to do.

Will they succeed?

According to Barthelme (according to me according to Barthelme) the question is silly and meaningless – power regenerates itself, and no matter what kind of structure we create, most probably it won’t be any better than the previous one.

It’s a strange game – both the Dead Father and the children know how it will end, yet, they play their roles to the best of their ability, as if they had no other option. And most probably they really don’t have another option. And it’s a depressing and cruel world here, with all these complicated power games and hierarchies where power arises out of the symbol of power; where women sometimes seems to be the owners or guardians of the greatest power but only when and until there are men who lust after them; where fathers say it won’t hurt but then it starts hurting immediately; where sons want to become fathers and tear down the whole structure of fatherhood at the same time; where the one who has the power controls language and the one who possesses language has the power.

And the way Barthelme keeps most of these things unsaid, only hints at them and implies them still fills me with awe.

And it also fills me with awe that this is a very humorous, playful, open novel in which you’re not forced to look for logic and meaning in every line – I probably tried to do that ten years ago but this time around I often just sat back and enjoyed Barthelme’s imaginative, colorful and absurd dialogs (mainly between the two main female characters), and no – I didn’t want to understand everything. I don’t think power games are designed to be understandable and logical anyway, so it feels just right to me that Barthelme doesn’t always try to create meaning and logic where no meaning and logic are to be found.

The Bug by Ellen Ullman

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Though I’m not a software developer or tester, I often test software in my unsophisticated way and I do about three lines’ worth of coding from time to time if I really can’t avoid it, and my all-time best friends and collaborators in my work are testers and developers.

And I encounter this problem every day that, for example, a client complains about the mysterious and undesirable behavior of the software, and then the first step towards the solution is that the tester tries to reproduce the error, which isn’t necessarily easy, and which often brings up several questions: is the client’s situation so special or unfortunate that no-one else experiences the problem? Is it perhaps the case that the problem only occurs if there’s a full moon and there are exactly 24 users trying to do the same thing at the same moment and the stocks of the company dropped 2 percent that day and the cousin of the CEO gave birth to twins? Is it perhaps the case that the bug is not a bug at all, and the software is supposed to work like that? (But who is to say how things are supposed to work?

Questions abound, and there are often no comforting answers. And I often see and experience the frustration and desperation a tricky software error can cause, but I must admit I’ve never so far thought of software testing (and development) as a deeply existentialist act and a never-ending search for meaning.

When in fact it’s exactly that – we’re standing completely alone in the face of the unknown, a basically hostile, unknowable and meaningless world (problem) and though we know (we think we know) how everything should be, things are usually not the way they should be, nothing is simple, and the solution (if we’re lucky enough to find any) is often just that the software only works when there’s a waning moon, there are only 23 parallel users, the stocks are rising and the cousin of the CEO gave birth to a daughter; or in a worse case it’s just that this is how it works, this is how it always worked, this is how it will always work, and life’s cruel, anyway.

Perhaps I would never have realized this philosophical dimension of my everyday reality without this novel, so I’m glad I read it. Partly because from now on, I’ll always see software testing and development as a more exciting, more romantic, more adventurous, more heroic, more tragic, more meaningful activity, and partly because this is a good novel.

As you can guess, the main characters of the novel are a young and very determined tester, Roberta, and a developer, Ethan, who team up to catch an evil bug that always appears at the worst possible moments then disappears for weeks, that sometimes gets tantalizingly close and sometimes retreats to a hazy distance, as if mocking our hapless adventurers who are out to get it. The quest slowly reaches epic proportions as the bug starts to threaten the sanity of the characters and threatens to ruin the company.

There’s a fight against time here (because the investors want to go to market with the software as soon as possible but they can’t do that because of the bug), there are sexual and other tensions among the characters, there are malevolent enemies with scornful smiles on their face who can hardly wait for Ethan to fail – so this story could well turn out to be a Hollywood-style romantic action movie. It doesn’t, though.

Like I say, this is a pretty dark existentialist novel which also explores the topics of human vs. machine, analog vs. digital, existing in time vs imperfectly capturing individual moments of time.

The scariest part is that it’s perfectly understandable how a supposedly simple bug hunt slowly leads to ruin, to mania, to withdrawal from life, to panicky, all-night attempts to find the culprit. And the fact that the enemy is not in the physical reality but in the hidden circuits of a machine doesn’t make Ethan’s struggle less desperate.

The main story is, by the way, set in 1984 – which probably has a symbolic significance, too, but I was most taken by the idea that programmers in 1984 were already struggling because they had no idea just what the hell their predecessors wanted to achieve with their code. In my naivety, I thought this must be an issue of the 2010s but apparently this problem is eternal, and every single line of code has always been just an attempt to interpret and use the lines of code that came before that.

And the death of human relations is perfectly understandable, too – a human relationship is also a game of life (a topic which deeply fascinates Ethan) – it dies or lives on depending on the surrounding conditions. And what goes on in the circuits of the computer can have very real consequences, even if the software in question isn’t a high-tech tool responsible for the safety of airplanes or nuclear power plants but only a boring little database management application.

Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin

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If a book is compared to Trainspotting on its cover, it has the same effect on me as when it’s compared to The Catcher in the Rye – I want to find out immediately if the comparison is apt. Besides, despite the predominance of originally English-language books in my reading list, I don’t think I’ve ever read a Northern Irish novel. And guess what, this is a Northern Irish novel that’s supposed to be like Trainspotting in some respects. I’ll get this straight right away – I don’t think Skintown is much like Trainspotting, but that’s fine because it’s a good novel.

The novel is set in a remote Northern Irish town in the 1990s, right around the time when the Provisional IRA announces the ceasefire in 1994, which, of course, doesn’t put an immediate end to hostilities, and there’s still a lot of violence going on between nationalists and unionists, and not just in faraway Belfast but right there in front of the pub door.

(Now it strikes me as very strange, official, remote and impersonal to talk about „hostilities” – as if hostilities were something that always happened to and among other people. McMenamin quickly makes it clear in vivid detail, though, right in the first chapter what such hostilities can look like.)

Still, we know (or remember) that young people will always be young people, so despite the turbulent political situation, the main character, catholic Vinny also lives the life of an average country boy, playing truant, being cool, and being a wannabe alcoholic, while sometimes dreaming about how one day he might find the woman of his dreams, or how one day he will move to Belfast or London or somewhere. (This is one reason, for example, why Skintown is very unlike Trainspotting – the characters here actually want to do something, and anyway, they’re still very very young and only beginner addicts, so they haven’t yet developed their attitudes of toughness and they don’t yet think that all is already lost.)

The story revolves around a once-in-a-lifetime drug deal. Vinny gets into this business by pure chance, and he needs to cooperate with the local protestant tough guys if he wants to get out of it alive. The story, by the way, seems quite accidental to me, as if its only purpose were to enable McMenamin to write as many scenes of drinking, hangovers, drug-taking and rave as he can – but I’ve nothing to complain about as he’s awesome at writing such scenes. Indeed, I’m with Vinny in every pub and party and rave and after-party, and I’m having a lot of fun.

And the way McMenamin paints the political background through the eyes of an almost-adult is also great. Again, what’s described in the news as „hostilities” or „atrocities” looks quite different in reality. It may be that you’re forced to be a gentleman and be the pretend-boyfriend of a girl you know so that she’ll get home safely in the car of two protestant tough guys who – perhaps not so gently – offered her a ride, and you’re scared brainless throughout the drive home because you know that the tough guys know that you’re a catholic and you’re fully aware of the possibility that they may beat the shit out of you after taking the girl home. And it may be that they really beat the shit out of you, yes, exactly you. (Just to be clear – I have no idea about McMenamin’s political or religious stance but it doesn’t matter – the novel is not about which side is good and which is bad.)

The only thing that distracts me sometimes is Vinny’s voice – I have a hard time believing that an 18-year-old kid like Vinny talks like this. Sure, he’s supposed to be really intelligent and perceptive, still, I can’t believe that at the age of 18 someone can express himself so lyrically, cynically, philosophically and wisely. Other than that – this is a good read.