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.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

trainspotting

I’d read this novel many many years ago, and I probably liked it even back then, but I don’t think it blew my mind as much as it did now. It must have been good to read Trainspotting as a young innocent smart-ass rebel, but – for me – it’s definitely a more shattering experience to read it when I’m not so young, not that innocent and not that big of a rebel anymore (I’m still a smart-ass, that one hasn’t changed).

I have no idea how Irvine Welsh knows this much about addiction (everyone’s an addict, allegedly, and recently I’ve been having lots of conversations with people about addiction and dependency, and I wonder whether there’s a significant difference between me being addicted to smoking, someone being a food junkie, someone else being a shopaholic, and someone else being addicted to computer games – and I don’t think there is – there are only surface differences – in that some forms of addiction are more accepted, some are less, some addictions ruin your life somewhat faster than others, and some addictions allow you to tell – seemingly – funny stories about them, while others don’t), about the hopelessness of things and about not giving a fuck about them, about rotting away and selling yourself out, about the secret romanticism of addiction, about the impossibility of change, about laughing at your pain, about the feeling that you will never ever have this (something, anything – normal this or that – life, perhaps) so you pretend that you wouldn’t even want that, and despise everything normal and scornfully laugh at anyone who dares to assume that perhaps you’d want that something, after all.

I won’t go looking into Welsh’s biography now because it doesn’t matter how he knows all this – it’s enough that he definitely understands it deeply: the massive self-deception and self-hate of addicts; the way how it always starts out as a game – why wouldn’t I try this, I’m smart, strong and in control, and I can do whatever I want; the fact that addiction is a wonderful way to fill time and while you’re deep in it, there’s no need to think and do anything else, which is awesome.

I sense the sarcasm in my voice but I’m not sure at what or at whom it’s directed at. Sometimes I wonder, for example, how many minutes a day I spend smoking, and I realize that if I didn’t smoke, besides being healthier and having more money, I’d also have a lot more time – but what would I do with all that time? Would I read one more book in a week? Would I watch three more films or would I translate two more of those things I translate? But – why would I want to do that?

And I don’t even live in the 1980s in forgotten and rotting Leith but in the 2010s in a very friendly and nice town where things don’t actually look hopeless. And I’m not even talking about heroin addiction, only about the relatively simple and innocent addiction to cigarettes – so if I multiply my feelings and my experiences with addiction by a thousand, then perhaps I can imagine how the characters of this novel live, and can imagine the things they do and the way they don’t give a shit and mock everything.

And it’s frightening and brilliant, by the way, when Welsh/one of his narrators starts to talk about all kinds of serious topics, for example, when Renton talks about the psychologists and social workers and other helpers who all wanted to rehabilitate him, and goes on to analyze himself in a deeply self-ironic fashion, and then I feel how my relatively good-girlish mind, always looking for explanations and always trying to gain understanding, soaks up Renton’s words with hope and enthusiasm, secretly thinking how there must really be such a connection that Renton’s a junkie because his relationship with his brother was like this and that, and because this and that happened to his other brother – my mind keeps clinging to the idea that there must be an explanation, and if there’s an explanation, then there must be a solution, too, when in fact there’s no automatic explanation, no automatic solution, and no, there’s absolutely no causal link between vegetarianism and heroin addiction, either.

I didn’t remember Trainspotting was such a dark novel. And I didn’t remember, either, that it’s such a funny one (I didn’t go into this but it’s extremely, laugh out loud funny). And I didn’t remember, either, how it’s full of perfect, precise and cutting sentences, such as this one, which perfectly sums up in 12 words what it feels like to be addicted to something.

„Ah came fir a pint, but ah might jist git pished yit.”

Medea by Catherine Theis

medea

I got the feeling that you have to be in a certain frame of mind to do justice to this play – when I first read it about two months back, I was unable to grasp it, which had more to do with the mood I was in than with the play itself, so I came back to it after a while and now I felt I had bigger success understanding it (even though I harmed no spouse or offspring in the intervening months).

Besides my earlier mood, my initial failure was partly due to the fact that I’m not up to date on my mythology, so at first I thought that doing some reading about Medea might be beneficial. I did that, but when I realized how big and far-reaching this myth is, I decided to stick to my favorite reading method: just read what’s in front of me and try to interpret it on its own. So that’s what I did in the end – and it turned out to be rewarding.

Theis’ play is a feminist tragedy or a tragedy of female self-realization (or perhaps not a tragedy – perhaps it’s just facing the truth, which can be ground-shaking enough), where Medea’s been together with her husband for about a thousand years, and their relationship is characterized by all the little pains and little boredoms of thousand-year marriages.

You know, by the kind of frustrated boredom and by the kind of feelings where you’d just love to discuss unimportant but extremely interesting topics, but your spouse is at that moment busy dealing with the bills and his official correspondence (and not just at that moment – but always, it seems), so the highest form of intimacy you can hope to get is licking the stamps your spouse will stick to the very important letters.

Medea is thus a frustrated wife – and I can deeply understand her feelings, even though I’m not frustrated and I’m not a wife. There are so many wonders in the world. There’s so much, both inside and outside, you could show to the other person. There’s so many experiences you could have together. You could – but in reality you won’t. The husband will never bother teaching Medea to drive a car; he will never really think it through whether he’d like taste an ant covered in chocolate; he will never take the time to get to the end of Medea’s wildly associative trains of thought.

(Naturally, the husband probably has his very own frustrations and little pains, but this play is not about him. Suffice it to say that here the husband tries to build himself an easier life with another woman, but – as far as we learn – his lover also possesses uncomfortable depths.)

Anyway, after a while, desire and anger erupt from Medea, and after that nothing remains the same.

Is this a tragedy – the destruction of dysfunctional relationships, the eruption, the great desire for truth, the real or metaphoric murder of everything that’s lifeless, routine, silent?
I don’t think so. I think it’s utterly thrilling and uplifting.

I don’t know how big a price you should pay for this (and fortunately I’m not in a situation now where I’d have to wonder about this), but Medea’s new, independent life (unprotected by the gods but swarmed in butterflies) feels like something that’s worth it.

If I were Medea, I hope I’d be strong enough to choose that.

There But for The by Ali Smith

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Words are all we have – said Samuel Beckett once, but I don’t know where he said it and in what context. Anyway, I agree with him, being a fanatic of words myself.

And Ali Smith is a fanatic of words, too. Sometimes she does get on my nerves (I’m not such a devoted fan of puns and word-plays as she is) but mostly I just look (and experience) with awe and wonder what she does with words.

For example, on the day when I wake up and suddenly realize the connection between the short story the main character had written once in his teens and the thoughts of an old lady about some awful event her daughter told her about a long time ago. I don’t want to go into details – suffice it to say that I was leaning to the kitchen table for a good long while the morning I made the connection, and I very much wanted to go back to bed, curl up, and cry, because it breaks my heart to think how one can make beauty out the horrible. (Must things be horrible before there can be beauty?)

Words are all we have. Imperfect, sometimes false, sometimes true.

And our lives are all we have. Imperfect, false, true, unknowable, impossible to share.

As far as I know her work, Ali Smith always writes about this. About unknowable lives – like here, about a man called Miles, who goes to a dinner party, and in the middle of the party he excuses himself, proceeds to shut himself in the spare bedroom, and doesn’t leave it for months.

Certain questions arise:

Who’s this Miles?
What the hell does he want?
Why doesn’t he leave the room?
And who are the other people in his life?

Words are all we have. Certainty – we don’t. So all we get by way of answers is:

He’s an average middle-aged guy.
I don’t know, perhaps he doesn’t, either.
I don’t know, perhaps he does.
Just people – nothing special.

More questions:

Why’s this good to read?
And what’s all this, anyway?

More possible answers:

It’s good to read this because this story is just as accidental as any life, and life’s accidental quality and randomness always fascinates me. And anyway – perhaps tomorrow you will shut yourself in a room. And perhaps you’re already shut in a room today.
And what’s all this – a celebration of imagination and of the power of words, words, words – most of all.

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

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As it often happens, it was enough for me to read the first couple of sentences to feel that I want to read this immediately.

The novel starts like this:

„Darlings! Welcome! And you must be Danielle?” Sleek and small, her wide eyes rendered enormous by kohl, Lucy Leverett, in spite of her resemblance to a baby seal, rasped impressively. Her dangling fan earrings clanked at her neck as she leaned in to kiss each of them, Danielle too, and although she held her cigarette, in its mother-of-pearl holder, at arm’s length, its smoke wafted between them and brought tears to Danielle’s eyes.

And this here is perfect, and it showcases the greatest talent of Messud: she has an amazing ability to capture the mannerisms, role-plays, and the games people play in elegant society, and to characterize people with their mannerisms.

And from this perspective, the first sentence is not the only perfect and enjoyable one – there are a great many descriptions of such details, and they never feel redundant. Sometimes I wonder when I read novels whether I really need to know what brand of pencils a character prefers (this is a detail from one of Stephen King’s novels), and I often find that: no, I could live without this, because it doesn’t add anything to the humanity and complexity of the character.

Here, though, these kind of details are essential – it does say something about a character when we learn what kind of tea she likes to sip during the evenings – and it says even more about her that she compulsively shares her sophisticated tea-drinking habits with her friend, this way subtly indicating that she is indeed in possession of the elegant habits of the New York elite, even though she hails from a no-name small town.

One of the reviews quoted on the cover says that Messud is a bit like Jane Austen – and as you might guess from the tea-drinking incident I just mentioned, this comparison is not off the mark (even though Austen is more ironic and sharper than Messud). In any case, here, as in Jane Austen’s works, the appearance of things is crucial – the characters are obsessed with the question whether their acts are elegant and socially acceptable, and whether they create the right impression in the observer. The story, however, is much more chaotic than in any novel by Austen – because here there’s no obvious goal the characters could strive for.

Messud’s characters, of course, want success and love, but they are not entirely sure what kind of success and love they want, so despite pushing 30, they are not an inch closer to their goals than they were 10 years earlier, but they are starting to realize that the kind of deliberation, procrastination, eternally childish behavior, and their whole existence based on the knowledge that mom and dad will surely help out – all that was cute and adorable when they were 20 isn’t quite so cute and adorable when they are already 30.

And though the novel is a lot more than that (an ironic love letter to New York, social criticism, and so on), for me it’s mostly a story of disillusionment, through the course of which every character finally loses their sense of entitlement, and learns something important at their own expense. As for the question, though, of what they do with this knowledge – fortunately, that remains open.

John Dies at the End by David Wong

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David Wong is the editor-in-chief of Cracked, and even though I don’t specifically remember reading his articles, the magazine’s style is quite unique and distinct. It’s very modern, deeply embedded in pop culture and American culture, intelligent, sarcastic, nerdy and it doesn’t shy away from cheap jokes, either – and somehow this combination appeals to me.

This novel feels very much like Cracked. It’s a horror (parody) with a lot of blood, with horrible monsters and with all the stock elements of the genre, plus it also features a million dick jokes, and besides all this, it’s nerdy to to core, so it’s entirely possible for the protagonists to argue whether it’s correct to use the apostrophe in the word „Morrison’s” when it’s displayed on the nameplate on someone’s front door.

And in a strange way, this is one of the most American novels I’ve recently (or perhaps ever) read. It’s American in the small details – for example, in that someone here once eats chicken fried steak. I’ve never encountered the concept of chicken fried steak in books before, I’ve only heard about it from an American acquaintance, and it was weird to see it in a novel.

It made me think how much is inevitably lost in translation – and I mean translation across cultures here – and my guess is that a lot. Because, for instance, chicken fried steak might have all kinds of cultural connotations, and if you’re American, you’ll probably immediately have some ideas or prejudices about the person who eats a chicken fried steak. Perhaps you’ll get an idea about his background, his home state, and so on. And here I come and read this as a European, and just maybe I understand the significance of this particular thing, but I’m sure I miss the significance of a whole array of other very-American details.

Anyway, the novel offers lots of American trivia and cultural and lifestyle details – which is something I like as I’m deeply interested in things American.

But on to the question of how this is as a novel – it’s pretty good. It works. It’s about two young slackers who somehow get involved in a very dramatic situation after taking a drug called soy sauce. The drug’s users gain special abilities and extremely sharply tuned senses, and in the case of the protagonists, this leads to some bizarre events where they have to face terribly horrifying unearthly creatures, and they also have to assume to role of superheroes.

But in the end this is too much for me – it’s too long, too dense, and after reading it I feel the same way I feel when, on certain nights when I’m only capable of passive consumption, I read Cracked way too long. I have a good time, and I even think through stuff while I’m reading, but after getting to the last of my 63 open browser tabs, my main thought is usually that: oh my god, I should have gone to bed hours ago, because this is smart, funny, and even thoughtful, but certainly not such a life-altering and fantastic experience that would justify staying awake until the wee hours.