Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

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The carnival:

I have a hard time imagining how carnivals and circuses can continue to function; I know no-one who likes them. Of course, I probably haven’t yet spoken with enough people about carnivals and circuses, but those I’ve spoken with all hate and/or fear them. Me too.

Friendships, especially the big, eternal ones:

The sense that no, they won’t last forever seems to have been coded into them from the very first moment. This is how it is here, too. Right from the opening scene where Will, the eternal American good boy politely replies to the questions of the lightning-rod salesman, while his best friend, Jim, the eternal American trouble-maker and trouble-seeker, a boy instinctively drawn to everything weird, unsettling and dark, keeps quiet.

One of the basic elements of novels about young boys growing up is that there’s a moment, somewhere around the age of 14, when the innocent boy-life is first invaded by adult life, and sure, you can go on pretending for a couple more years that nothing’s happened but the fruit stolen from the neighborhood trees on warm summer nights won’t taste quiet as sweet anymore. Bradbury captures the terrible melancholy of this perfectly.

Death:

I don’t know when the right time to learn about death comes – but whenever the knowledge comes, it always feels way too early. I’m not thinking about a particular death, rather about the realization or acceptance of the fact that death exists. After this moment, it seems we must keep asking ourselves: would I ride the magic carnival ride that can take me back or forward in time? And if I would, in which direction would I ride it?

Still – I was expecting this novel to be darker and more horrible. But Bradbury can always surprise me with his eternal optimism, his ability to see the good everywhere, and his ability to honestly believe that death doesn’t exist. (Why he writes about all this in such an extremely flowery, overcrowded language is a mystery, though.)

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Look at Me by Jennifer Egan

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Now I got to the point that I’ve read every one of Jennifer Egan’s book (I deliberately took my time because she just doesn’t have that many), and this is the first and only one I don’t absolutely adore and admire.

Of course, it’s still great, at least it passes my very scientific test, namely, that a book is good when it’s powerful enough to force its way into my dreams. And it’s also good because it has everything I love in Egan’s work (for details about what I love in them, check my earlier, enthusiastic posts; now, for once, I don’t want to repeat myself).

But I was not swooning with delight reading Look at Me, and there were things that bothered me.

For example, it bothered me that there’s just too many characters in this novel, and that it’s about way too many themes. In this respect, it foreshadows A Visit from the Goon Squad, with its multitude of characters, points of view, styles, and topics ranging over decades and continents, but in Goon Squad, Egan handles and juggles everything with a masterly hand, and her writing doesn’t get overwhelming. Here, though, I was sometimes asking: Just why is there so much stuff here? Do you really have to try telling everything in one novel? Can all this fit into a single book?

What’s all this? Roughly (and without attempting to be comprehensive): public and private identities, the connections between the two, and whether they are mutually exclusive; the connections between reality and non-reality (virtual reality, projection, reproduction – you name it); the cultural monopoly of the US that burdens every other culture in the world; the peculiar feeling of being lost that permeates our teenage years and that’s still full of hope and that secret thought that there will still be a whole life for everything; the eternal longing for being someplace else, sometime else. And these topics are all exciting or heartbreaking, it’s just that – all this, here, feels too much for me.

Another thing: to me, it felt that Jennifer Egan was sometimes repeating herself here. True, I read her books in random order, not chronologically, so perhaps it confuses me that I remember them both forward and backward. Still – I’ve read in at least two of her novels so far how she describes that weirdly specific feeling, using basically the same words, when a character (usually very young and naïve, and wishing for perfection) who’s deeply immersed in a situation and in an emotion, suddenly finds herself in the future in her thoughts, and realizes the temporariness of her current situation – and suddenly understands how the thing that hurts now won’t hurt anymore 20 years later, and how what’s real now will only be a memory then.

And yes, it’s fantastic how Egan can capture the essence of this feeling (of any feeling for that matter), and it made me shiver just as it made me shiver when I read about this feeling in her other novels, but still: it bothered me that I’ve already seen this – the same thing described in the same way. I want to see things I haven’t seen before. Or: I want to see things I know in ways I haven’t before. Here, it didn’t happen for me.

(And now I’m just looking forward to Manhattan Beach, Egan’s new novel out in October.)

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

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Tropper’s novel started out entertainingly enough (it even made me laugh out loud, twice) but I soon became annoyed and towards the end I kept thinking this novel was just too loud, too action-packed, too forced, too cheap. Just a whole lot of quick and supposedly witty talk, just a whole lot of cruising on the surface without ever getting deep into anything.

As for the story: the patriarch of the Foxman family passes away, so the family get together to sit shiva, the 7-day Jewish mourning period. The family members are none too enthusiastic, and not just because of the death in the family, but because their relations are the best when they are all far away from one another. Anyway, they must honor the last will of the dead father, so the widow and the four grown-up children, together with all the spouses, significant others, grandchildren, and so on resign themselves to the fact that they’ll have to spend a week together and mourn.

This period, naturally, brings all the hurts, fears and desires of the past to the surface, and because the family members possess no self-control whatsoever, their erupting emotions lead to extremely dramatic and spectacular situations. So much so that I got the impression that the book was written explicitly so that it could be turned into a film, even if, supposedly, that wasn’t the case.

Anyway, we soon learn – because Tropper hammers the point home on every fifth page or so – that the Foxman family is famous for being completely dysfunctional, and that it’s a family made up of utterly tactless people who are unable to express their emotions in any way that could be considered halfway normal. This is a very comfortable solution as it provides an excuse (to the writer, I think) why the characters constantly get into fistfights (because the poor little souls have no other methods of communication), and it also provides an excuse for the general shallowness of the novel – after all, if the characters are emotionally illiterate morons, then it cannot be expected that the author characterize them properly.

Wait, actually, it can be expected. But Tropper doesn’t care about characterization and depth, and most of the characters are exaggerated caricatures with approximately one defining feature – there’s the vulgar, bitchy old mother (something like Bridget Jones’ mom); there’s the belligerent sister-in-law whose only desire is to finally get pregnant; there’s the prodigal son who can get into the pants of any woman in about 3 seconds; and so on. After a while it starts to be a pain in the ass to read about such one-dimensional characters (but at least it goes fast).

The only exception is the main character, Judd, who’s in the middle of a messy divorce and in the process of disintegration, and who’s a bit like Rob from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, in a slightly less melancholic edition. His constant flow of emotional whining is good, darkly funny, and real – perhaps simply because he at least has some kind of depth, and in his case, we don’t only see that he’s messed up because Tropper says he’s messed up.

Fortunately, Judd is the most important main character, so we can read a whole lot of his whining, and that’s enjoyable, but the novel is still far from being remarkable.

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

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Lionel Shriver’s novel is an intriguing, smart and witty thought experiment about the question of what if.

The topic: romantic relationships. Of course, romantic relationships, because – as Shriver says in the afterword – it’s time to admit that everyone spends much more time thinking about romantic love and all the things it entails and involves than thinking about, say, global warming. (Perhaps not everyone – but I, for one, do.)

The protagonist is Irina, a woman in her forties, who’s spent the past decade or so with her reliable, loyal, smart partner, in a relationship that seems nice and peaceful and quiet. One day, however, at the end of a birthday dinner with an extremely hot and attractive acquaintance, Irina feels an irresistible desire to kiss her dinner partner. From this moment on, the story continues on two parallel story-lines. Irina One kisses her dinner partner, and – after a bit of agonizing and soul-searching – dives head first into the new, the exciting, the unknown. Irina Two resists the temptation because it’s important for her to save the old relationship that’s been functioning apparently well for ten years.

Which road is better and more satisfying, and which one leads to happiness? Fortunately, Shriver doesn’t really take sides (perhaps she does, just a little), and I like it that instead of providing answers, she prefers thinking and asking questions that don’t have a single good answer.

As usual with Lionel Shriver, reading this novel can be a rough and demanding experience – I’d guess it shakes up a whole lot of memories in everyone, memories centered around the topics of why did I (not) stay with my partner, why did I (not) listen to my heart/my reason, what I could have done differently, and so on. So yeah, this novel provides ample material for thinking, and it can be a great conversation-starter with our past, present, and future partners about questions surrounding the expectations in a relationship, intimacy, sharing a life, giving up ourselves, succumbing to routines, setting priorities, and so on.

Writing about it in detail, though – that would bound to be way too personal.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

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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 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.

Medea by Catherine Theis

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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.