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.

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.

The Cryptogram by David Mamet

crypto

I was somewhat surprised by The Cryptogram because Mamet’s plays I’d read or seen so far always contained some humor, and I didn’t find even a grain of humor here – this is a very dark and depressing play.

The play deals with existentialist topics: with the inability to communicate, with the lack of understanding among humans, with alienation, with the ultimate unknowability of other people. Besides this, there’s also a fair bit of philosophizing about who we are, why we exist, and how do we even know we exist. (These topics always fascinate me, and I can read any number of books about them.)

As regards the events in this play: the characters are a mother, her son, and a family friend. During the first act, the three of them spend the evening together, packing things, drinking tea, talking – mostly about little nothings, constantly interrupting one another, circling over and over the same ideas. Every once in a while they try to touch on more serious topics but someone always steers the conversation away – and anyway, it’s hard to conduct any meaningful conversation when the participants are often in different rooms of the house and they can’t hear or understand what the others are saying. In any case, this is supposed to be an average evening at home – the characters are waiting for the father to come home, and meanwhile they are packing some bags because the plan is that the father will take his son on a trip the next day. At the end of the evening, however, they come upon a letter that had been lying around somewhere – in the letter the father says he’s leaving his wife.

In the other two acts, the theme is developed further, we learn the details of the relationships between the characters and the missing father, and the characters wonder whether the father’s departure had already been in the air, whether the family friend had known about it in advance, and why he didn’t say anything if he had.

Besides the impending divorce, the other main theme is the son’s, John’s insomnia, which is not taken seriously by his mother – and this topic is much more prominent than the divorce. John’s been having a hard time falling asleep – he spends his time in bed wondering about life, he thinks he’s hearing voices, and he’s afraid of being alone with himself and his thoughts, which is not surprising, as he struggles with the kinds of thoughts that can be terrifying for not only a 10-year old boy.

The climax of the play is John’s extremely affecting, fragmented-frightened-desperate monologue where he tries to articulate his night-thoughts. In fact, the boy doesn’t want to deliver a monologue – he’s trying to have a conversation with his mother about everything he finds bewildering or confusing, but his mother’s reactions don’t amount to more than a few “well-well” and “aha” scattered here and there.

In John’s monologue there’s everything I mentioned in the second paragraph, and it left me shivering, the way he expresses how absolutely terrifying it can be – simply to exist, and how frustrating and hopeless it is – to try to understand anything or anyone, to try to crack an infinitely complex cryptogram. A cryptogram we make all the more confusing for ourselves – with lies, with interruptions, with lack of attention, with digressions, with deliberate misunderstandings.

I’m not a depressed existentialist in general – I like to think that understanding is possible, and that living forever and ever in our own private world is not the only option we have. But for the characters here, understanding is out of the question. And this is devastating.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

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Joshua Ferris’ new novel started out well enough, but then I got bored or tired of it. Based on my experience with two of his novels (this being the second one), this tends to be the way I react to his work. (Except for one amazing short story of his, Breeze – I wasn’t bored by that, not even after multiple re-readings. I can draw all kinds of conclusions from this fact – mostly about the length of time I can be mesmerized by Ferris.)

Staying in the realm of wild generalizations: the themes Ferris writes about are interesting and relevant to me, and in the beginning, they always excite my mind – and then my excitement slowly drains away. The same happened this time, even though I started this novel with great expectations. I am easily amused, and if the blurb says that this is an existentialist novel, 21st century style, I immediately become interested and put all my doubts aside.

Perhaps I shouldn’t. Especially not with this novel, as it turns out that the main theme here is exactly that: doubting.

The main character, Paul is an alienated New York dentist, a devout atheist, and an eternal doubter. Paul spends his nights thrashing about in his bed in anguish, afraid that he is the only person awake in the whole world during the godforsaken small hours, and spends his days contemplating the sad situation that entropy only increases, teeth inevitably rot, and we will all die one day – therefore it doesn’t make any sense to enjoy anything in life.

Still, Paul keeps trying. For one thing, he tends to get romantically involved with women who come from strictly religious families, and during his relationships, Paul tends to fall in love with the devout Catholic or devout Jewish families of his girl-friends just as deeply as he falls in love with the women themselves. It seems that Paul is looking for tradition, belief, past, history – but he never finds what he’s looking for, or doesn’t feel at home in what he finds.

Then a mysterious online Paul shows up. He advocates the religion of eternal skepticism, and claims that the real Paul is a descendant of an almost-forgotten ancient nation, a nation who used to follow the religion of doubt. What follows is Paul continuing doubting everything – but this time it’s normal and expected, and he at least feels at home in doubting.

I guess this really is existentialism 21st century style. And it’s not bad, but it doesn’t blow my mind, because this is something I already know, and Ferris doesn’t throw an unexpected light on the thing I already know – he doesn’t make it unknown to me.

Anyway, while I was reading this novel, I dutifully flossed my teeth every night – a practice I tend to neglect because – in full agreement with Paul – I also think that flossing is a pain in the butt, something that’s always easier to start doing tomorrow. But if I did something for a long and joyful life during those few days then it was already worth it, and then I’d be willing to read other 21st century existentialist novels about doubting dentists – if any further such novels exist.

Mastodon Farm by Mike Kleine

The blurb of this novella was not too revealing for me, but I was lucky to know in advance that it was about existentialist-sad themes. As you might guess from the contents of this blog, I happen to like such stories. And if there’s one thing I like even better than a sad-existentialist story, it’s a sad-existentialist story written in the second person singular, so I was pleased to find that Mastodon Farm was written in this narrative mode. So you might say I was favorably disposed towards this novella from the very beginning, both because of its themes and its interesting narrative mode. And when I started to read it, it turned out that Mastodon Farm was indeed a good book.

The protagonist of the story is a rather well-known person (but we don’t know who he is, since in this novella he is „you”, or rather, „you” are him) who lives in a gorgeous New York City apartment and spends his time uselessly in a variety of ways: he attends parties and book launches; he drives around in his car; he talks to movie stars on the phone; he goes to the video store to rent Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and then goes home frustrated because the film is not available; he conducts pointless, circular, infinitely dumb conversations with (a man called) James Franco (is he the James Franco?) about whom you cannot decide whether he is the protagonist’s roommate, employee, lover, friend, or none of the above, or all of the above; and so on.

As for a „proper” story, there is none. The sentences are short, deceptively simple and sometimes mind-blowingly, sickly funny. The chapters themselves are short, usually only one or two pages long. Most of the chapters feel like separate short stories in themselves: they are „whole” on their own, and even though they do not tell a story and contain „nothing”, their emptiness feels like a form of wholeness, and the „nothing” they contain often manages to break my heart.

What’s more, you don’t even know for sure whether the reality presented in the novella is indeed real: you cannot decide whether the „nothing” really happens, or everything within the book is fiction (or a film). There are several elements here which make this book very cinematic. For instance, there’s always some background music going on, and the music definitely feels like a movie soundtrack to me – the individual tracks are always named, and even though I don’t know many of the songs mentioned in the novella (and didn’t check out all of them, though I did check out some), simply the song titles themselves suggest that the songs have something important to do with the contents of the episode they provide the background for. And the episodes themselves often feel like a movie: for example, there’s a chapter about a party, and while we witness what’s going on in the room, the scene is sometimes interrupted by „cuts” to events going on outside.

Moreover, many of the characters are „real” movie stars (e.g. the protagonist is on friendly terms with Gwyneth Paltrow and Uma Thurman; he knows Ashton Kutcher; he does drugs together with Kirsten Dunst; etc.). This in itself shouldn’t necessarily make the book strongly cinematic/fictional, but this is what happens here: the real movie stars mentioned in Mastodon Farm serve to make the reality of the novella’s world even more questionable/movie-like. Why? Because a „real” movie star is also a fictional character, an image called Uma Thurman or Kirsten Dunst – of course this image is not only an empty shell, there’s „content” in it, there’s a real person behind the public persona – only „we”, ordinary humans will never know this real person. However, Mike Kleine only borrows the names of these actors, (a fictional version of) their public persona, without the content (which is not available for us anyway), and this way he creates the effect that the world of Mastodon Farm is a fictional, unreal world (or rather: a fictional world raised to the second power) – something which consists only of names, of surfaces, of images without content.

This very powerful fictional quality makes the uncanny modernity, contemporariness and „real-ness” of the novella even more frightening. I mean: this book comes out in 2012 and the story is set sometime around the present day – I cannot pinpoint the exact year, but the year can be guessed with relative accuracy from, for example, the songs mentioned in the story. The characters often listen to or talk about music which might be aired on the radio right now, perhaps in this exact moment (mainly, I guess, in the U.S., but e.g. Lana Del Rey‘s „Born to Die” is aired on Hungarian radio stations, too). So it often seems that the novella indeed manages to capture the moment, this exact minute – and the implications of this up-to-date quality are infinitely scary to contemplate: if the novella is set in the present day, if I know the same actors the protagonist knows, if I listen to the same songs the characters listen to, then it means that the „nothing-world”, the imitation/fake world of this book is in fact my world, and the concrete reality I live in is the same as the highly unreal „reality” of the characters.

This scary feeling is even more intensified by the narrative mode: because the second person singular is not used here just because writing in the second person is cool or postmodern or fashionable. Mike Kleine manages to write more than a hundred pages in the second person with a consistency I very rarely witness, and since the fictional reality of the book highly resembles my real reality, Mastodon Farm becomes scarily, uncomfortably personal after a while and I start to feel that the „you” of the book is indeed „me”, and „I” conduct those meaningless conversations, „I” come up with different identities for myself depending on the person I’m talking to, and „I” contemplate my own life when I read about the emptiness of the life of the protagonist referred to as „you”.

And this is a deeply disturbing and unsettling experience – anyway, I like to read exactly to gain experiences such as this.

By the way, Mastodon Farm reminds me of the early novels of Bret Easton Ellis, with all their nihilism, meaninglessness and their nameless, interchangeable characters. And it also reminds me of Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, because that novel also features famous names devoid of their content and that novel is also written in these strange, monotonous-looking, often repetitive, minimalist sentences – the remarkable thing here is that I actually liked reading this novella (I read it twice within a couple of weeks, liking it even more for the second time), while I hated reading Richard Yates.

In connection with this Ellis-like quality and the contemporariness of Mastodon Farm, something else came to my mind. The first Ellis novels are set sometime at the end of the 1980s, and I guess they must have felt very contemporary when they were published because they featured elements of the then-present day reality. However, the cult of sunbathing, the music of the 1980s and the other contemporaneous details are not so contemporary anymore, therefore, no matter how scary I consider e.g. Less Than Zero (by the way, I consider it very scary), I don’t feel so strongly that that world could easily be mine as well. But here – I feel this.

Finally, something about the language usage and minimalism of Mastodon Farm. I love the way the author manages to simultaneously convey a whole array of thoughts and feelings with his simple, repetitive sentences. Here are two examples. The first one comes from the chapter where someone runs into the protagonist’s car and the woman driving the other vehicle dies. The police and the ambulance arrive, an EMT examines the protagonist and then the protagonist talks about the accident with some police officers. The following conversation ensues.

You talk to the cops.
“Am I in trouble?” you ask.
“You’re not in trouble,” a young cop says.
You freak out a little.
You can smell pomade in your sweat.
“Everything is under control,” someone says—another police officer.
You freak out some more.

What I like in this conversation is the discrepancy between the police officers’ words and the reactions of the protagonist. Because why on earth should you panic when you are told that everything’s fine? However, the protagonist does panic: his reactions are the opposite of any normal reaction, they are „unreal” – which suits the cinematic/fictional world of the novella just fine. What’s more, the conversation is funny as hell – and I think it’s a considerable achievement to depict the unreal quality of the protagonist’s world, show his disturbed state of mind and be funny as well at the same time – and all this in seven short lines.

The other quote is from the chapter where the protagonist is sitting by a lake with one of his acquaintances and they have the following conversation.

The water looks really nice like this,” Allen says.
“Yeah,” you say, looking like you are looking at the water, or, at least, how you imagine you would look looking like you are looking at the water.
You look at the water and don’t say anything.
Then you peek, just for a second, to look at Allen.
Allen isn’t even looking at the water.
He’s crying about something.

I don’t want to over-explain this excerpt, because I simply think it’s beautiful – beautiful in a kind of screwed up, melancholy, slightly ironic, very smart, 21st century way.

And in the end, this is what the whole book is like. And even though you probably won’t remember too many concrete details after finishing reading (because there aren’t too many concrete details to remember), and you won’t be able to tell the story (because there’s no story), the screwed-up, nihilistic, too-clever, yearning, disillusioned, sad, unreal, frightened-and-frightening feeling that pervades this book is bound to be memorable.