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.

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.

Problems by Jade Sharma

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I kept wondering while I was reading this novel whether there are other novels about drug addiction and kicking the habit out there that feature a female protagonist.

A couple of examples about alcoholism came to mind immediately, but none about drug addiction, and as Maya, the protagonist says once when she compares her drug habit with her husband’s alcoholism, drinking is much more accepted socially than doing drugs. Add to this the fact that drinking is much more accepted when it’s a man who drinks, so if you think about a woman doing drugs, then it’s something truly and absolutely inexplicable and unacceptable.

I’ve never read about this topic before through the eyes of a woman. If I bring up my memories about drug novels, they usually only feature females in minor roles, for instance, there might be some junkie whores in a drug novel, or something like that. And who would think that those junkie whores are also persons? They are.

There’s Maya here in this novel – a female addict who’s initially still on the surface of things despite being a junkie (in fact, I would argue she’s way above the surface: she has her own flat; she has an extremely patient – though alcoholic – husband; and she even manages to hold down a job), still, the problems are just waiting to happen, and when the problems come, they come from all directions at once: Maya suddenly finds herself in the face of a marital crisis, a job crisis, and an increasingly loose control over her addiction.

And it’s interesting here, whether her problems arise because of her addiction, or whether her addiction was an answer to the problems in the first place (or a way to run away from them). My guess is the latter because Maya’s troubles started very early in her life, and if I want to simplify things (a lot), they arose because Maya never learned to exist alone, and she’s never had the chance or ability or desire to develop an individual personality. And from all this you can get (not necessarily in a straight line, but in a weirdly logical line nevertheless) to the concept of always depending on something – be it a husband, a lover, drugs, or useless but at least still living parents.

So in the end it seems to me that this is in fact not a drug novel, but a feminist novel; all the addictive behaviors and dependencies displayed here are only symptoms, and the real question is how to learn to be a separate – well – independent person if you’re a woman (and whether it’s possible at all).

Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker

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Kathy Acker’s book is a lot of things at once: a nightmarish, surreal collage/novel/text/drama complete with drawings and doodles; the life story of a bodily and emotionally damaged, brutally exploited girl, told sometimes in the first and sometimes in the third person; a whole lot of social criticism and analysis, mostly from the perspective of power and who has it; and connected to this last one: an exploration of all the (possible) ways a woman can be vulnerable (with abundant, extremely graphic details).

The story is very fragmented, but mainly it’s about ten-year-old Janey, who lives in an incestuous relationship with her father until he chases her away from home. Janey then goes to New York, where later on he gets imprisoned by a Persian pimp who turns her into a whore. Finally Janey somehow ends up in Morocco, and she dies not long after.

The story is, by the way, strangely impersonal – I can hardly find a word for this quality. Janey, for a long time, hardly even possesses a sense of self or an identity of her own, because her identity has always been defined by her relations with men, and she has mostly come into contact with men who were eager to tell her that – being a woman – she’s even lower on the hierarchy of beings than animals.

There is, however, a kind of development in the novel – as time passes, Janey slowly awakes to herself and she wants to get out, wants to get away from – from men, from capitalism, from mechanical sex – but she doesn’t stand a real chance, and she cannot be (is not allowed to be) other than what she is: a totally dependent and vulnerable girl/woman who is forever denied even her most basic needs (food, shelter, love), a woman who channels all her desires and needs into sex because that’s the only thing she’s known from time immemorial and the only things she’s always been given – but only until the men in her life realize that Janey uses sex to express and experience all her emotions. As soon as Janey’s elemental need for love surfaces (and this doesn’t take long, usually – she’s unable to control her emotions), men even deny her the relief of sex.

The text – like Janey’s life – is often full of vulgarity, there’s a whole lot of cocks and cunts here, Janey’s mind is constantly filled with erect penises and violent sex, but I think the reason for all this is that Janey only has words for this. It’s not detailed, but it’s very probable from the text that Janey’s been a victim of sexual abuse from a very early age. What we learn is that her mother died when Janey was one year old, and from then onward she depended on her father for everything and used his father to fill all the roles – friend, boyfriend, brother, sister, father – in her life.

Throughout the story, by the way, Janey learns a language, too – a different one from the language of sex – this is also a part of her development, her increasing self-awareness – and the most unsettling part of the novel for me is when she writes/translates poems for the Persian pimp with whom she falls in love, for lack of a better option. Her poems are filled with rage, pain, desire and destructive love – they are devastating and beautiful.

And as regards the whole book: it’s unbearably real, brutal, upsetting, and extremely sad – reading this was a similar experience as reading Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

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Garth Greenwell’s novel is beautiful, tender, and very lyrical – even though it’s about awful sadness and brutality.

The sadness and brutality of desire, and all the emotions connected to and growing out of it, all the emotions the narrator, an American teacher living in Sofia feels for Mitko, the extremely attractive hustler he picks up in a public toilet.

The nameless narrator has an immediate crush on Mitko. This is at first only about Mitko’s body, but the narrator would also like to learn about Mitko’s soul, if it were at all possible (it’s not), and he soon wants to have Mitko forever by his side, wants to save him, redeem him, spoil him – and so on. But – again – this is impossible, a fact which is clear from the very beginning: that no matter how beautiful it would be for a real relationship to develop between a middle-class university teacher from the US and a penniless Bulgarian hustler, this is not meant to be.

For about a million reasons. For one thing, even if their relationship was based on something other than money and „gifts” changing hands, even if there was equality between them, they still wouldn’t understand each other. And it’s not only because of the lack of common language – it’s also because of their wildly different backgrounds and cultural heritage, and because they both want something else, their feelings are completely different, and they use their relationship for different things.

Just one example to show the difference of worlds Mitko and the narrator inhabit: at one point, Mitko thinks he’ll frighten the narrator when he threatens him with revealing that he’s gay. In Mitko’s hyper-masculine world, saying that someone is gay is still a serious insult, it still means something, but for the narrator, who’s already come out, this doesn’t mean anything serious anymore (not that revealing his sexual preferences had been met with universal acceptance, and not that it had been easy for him to get over all the betrayals of family and friends he had to suffer in consequence). So when Mitko threatens him with destroying his life, for the narrator that’s all just a weightless threat.

This is not something they can discuss, though – and they can’t discuss anything else – at all. This is not love, after all. This isn’t a relationship in which the partners can talk things over. This is a relationship based on buying and selling, a relationship in which the partners are mutually using each other, a relationship that contains lust and erotic pleasure (from the narrator’s side certainly – and we don’t see Mitko’s side of the story), and a relationship the narrator infuses with emotions, which only cause him pain and suffering. And how would they not – there’s no place for emotions here, but of course they just develop on their own sometimes – and they are the basis for the novel’s beauty.

Because the narrator’s feelings are real – it’s real when his heart is breaking if he thinks about leaving Mitko; it’s real when he’s jealous and angry because on their first night together, Mitko spends the time speaking with his friends or clients on Skype; and it’s real when he’s disgusted by Mitko, when he desires his touch, and when he’s afraid of him.

Reciprocity?

This isn’t a relationship where there’s reciprocity.

And the beautiful title of the novel (which was the main reason I wanted to read this) means this to me. What belongs to you, what is yours is what you feel. And what you remember, what you desire, what you are afraid of. The other person, though – the eternal unknown and unknowable – can never belong to you.