Archive for the ‘Satire’ Category

Geeky Genesis: Alan Lightman’s Mr. g

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

A book that struck my quirky bone: Alan Lightman’s Mr. g [sic] — a story (for some reason I don’t want to call it a novel) about the birth, life, and death of the universe.  I remember enjoying his book Einstein’s Dreams, so I was willing to take the time to read this one on the basis of its premise: a first-person narrative of the creation of the universe and its subsequent history.  The eponymous Mr. g of the title wakes up from a nap one day in the infinite and eternal void and decides to create something, which turns out to be the universe more or less as we know it.

The first few chapters are obviously intended to track Genesis, and Lightman manages to find satisfying ways to map the stages of the familiar Big Bang onto the first biblical week.  I was charmed.

Mr. g is not alone in the void.  He has an (eternal and infinite) Aunt Penelope and an (eternal and infinite) Uncle Deva, who comment on and critique the process of their nephew’s project.  Penelope is constitutionally skeptical and given to gentle, but persistent complaining.  Uncle Deva is more open-minded.  Their (eternal and infinite) marriage is fundamentally affectionate with occasional bickering (enough to be amusing, but not so much as to be irritating).  They are an unlikely authorial device, but they work well, adding a parental touch without the story-muddling complications a mother and father might have introduced.

Things go smoothly until sentient mortal beings arise.  At this point, Lightman and his narrator lose the sure-footed, casual lightness of tone that has so pleasantly informed the previous chapters.  Sentient beings raise issues of good and bad, justice and iniquity, and Lightman thrashes a bit.  He introduces a new character, Belhor, a sophisticated, intellectual demon who states that Mr. g unknowingly created him as a consequence of creating the universe.  Belhor is attended by two bad-boy monsters both named Baphomet.

Aside from boorishly disrupting an operatic performance on some planet or other, the three B’s don’t actually seem to do much.  Belhor asks Mr. g some of the difficult questions about good and evil and about beauty and ugliness, but Belhor’s role doesn’t seem to be well thought out.  The two Baphomets seem to be no more than buffoons, possibly introduced by the author to serve as structural counterpoises to Aunt P. and Uncle D., which they don’t.

The sentient mortal beings in the universe invent religions and eventually Uncle Deva lobbies Mr. g saying that Mr. g ought to give the beings a glimpse of the glorious eternal void, I wasn’t convinced, but Mr. g was.  Mr. g agrees to give the beings a glimpse of heaven (Lightman never calls it that) at the instant of their death.  Oh.  That’s supposed to be something they have earned somehow.

So, from a promising, if somewhat sterile premise, Lightman creates an initially charming story that loses steam when he tries to tackle the Big Problems.  I liked Einstein’s Dreams better.

Richard Powers (2009) – Generosity: An Enhancement

Monday, February 1st, 2010

I always wonder when I find myself enjoying a book—devouring it with gusto, putting tasks on hold in favor of reading what happens next—whether my enjoyment is idiosyncratic or universal; whether if I recommend the book to friends they will experience the same pleasure or wonder what ever was it that made me think the thing was worth spending time on.  I wonder this particularly when I recognize particular narrative devices or subjects that I know I am a pushover for.


So it is with Generosity.  Ever since the protagonist of Miguel de Unamuno’s (1914) book Niebla went to visit the author himself and complain about the way his life was being written, I have been a sucker for narratives in which the author brings himself into the story itself, which creates at the same time a sense of intimacy (You are right here while I write, I want to share the experience with you) and distance (These aren’t real people, I’m just making them up as I go along, you know) while actually moving the story along. 


Although Generosity has long sections of familiar omniscient third-person narration, the author at times takes us behind the writing and shares some of his compositional musings.  Here are the first three paragraphs of the book (somewhat compressed) to give the flavor:


A man rides backward in a packed subway car….  I picture him … tunneling beneath … the world’s twenty-fifth largest city….


He’s just thirty-two….  I can’t see him well,  … but that’s my fault, not his.


Look again: … The blank page is patient, and meaning can wait.  I watch until he solidifies.


Several reviewers have complained that such interventions by the author character are distracting and/or Just Too Cute.  I find it fun.  Bottom line: this is not a book for those who like to suspend their disbelief at page one and leave it suspended all the way to the end.


I also like stories that tackle big life issues.  What is happiness?  How does one obtain it? These questions are at the center of Generosity.  The author shows (through the characters and their situations) and tells (through the characters’ internal and external musings).  There are as many points of view as there are major characters, plus a few more brought in by minor characters.  Sometimes, the treatment totters on heavy-handed, but for the most part manages to avoid unintentional parody.  Intentional parody there is (notably, a thinly-veiled simulacrum of the Oprah Winfrey TV show), and reasonably deftly handled with a light seasoning of satire, but I did not feel it got out of hand.  The author has a good ear.


The key character in the book is a young, Berber woman named Thassadit Amzwar (Thassa) born and raised during the Algerian civil war, the “Time of Horrors”, who would seem to be the perfect candidate for post-traumatic stress syndrome, serious depression and unhappiness, but who is invariably up-beat and enthusiastic.  She takes  everything life has thrown at her in stride and brings a wry, but genuine, happiness to everyone she touches.  One would think this is a tough character to make believable, but by golly Powers succeeds.  Yes, a willing suspension of disbelief is needed, but that only to accept that the impact of her charm on the other characters is as thoroughgoing as the author tells us it is.  She is rather delightful.


The book is about Thassa, although you wouldn’t call her the protagonist.  She’s actually a sort of “fifth business”, the catalyst that makes everything else of importance happen around her.  Thassa is “discovered” to be genetically hyperthymic, a term that etymologically at least, means something like too happy, and as used here preternaturally happy or unnaturally happy.  Note the ambiguity.  If her happiness is real, maybe it’s genetic.  That would be a Major Scientific Discovery and then maybe (big leap) people could be bred or genetically modified to be happy.  Another possibility—that she has discovered the bluebird of happiness, or somehow discovered its philosophical equivalent—is not seriously explored.  This is a novel of biological determinism as far as happiness is concerned.  Thassa becomes an overnight sensation.  If her happiness is not real and she’s just neurotically well-defended against negative feelings, then she is in for some totally misguided attention from people who (desperately want to) believe it is real.


Two other major characters show up: Tonia Schiff, a television personality who has made a name for herself doing popularized science documentaries, and Thomas Kurton, a high-profile, gung-ho, genetic biologist who believes (and wants YOU to believe) the destiny of the human race is to create itself in the future through designer genetic manipulations.  After all, who would choose not to have smarter, better-looking, happier offspring?  Who, indeed?


What is happiness?  The author, to his credit, leaves the issue unresolved.  In the end, happiness (unless you believe the Thomas Kurton scientist character that it’s all in the genes) remains comfortingly elusive.  The book offers a thought-provoking exploration, but as with pornography, one can’t define happiness, but one can reliably recognize it.  Ultimately, as human potential guru Stewart Emory is fond of saying, “It’s all in how you hold it.”  You, and not your genes, are determinative.


Some complaints about the characters, though.  Russell Stone, the protagonist (most of the time, anyway) is a rather depressing figure.  He spends most of the book in a marginally sub-clinical depression and is single-mindedly negative about himself in a way that puts Woody Allen’s stock depressives to shame.  I understand that this is a book about happiness or the absence thereof, but Russell seems to be a bit of overkill.  The bizarre back-story the author invents to account for Russell’s state of mind—Russell wrote some semi-documentary pieces about some down-and-out people he met and he was subsequently hounded and even threatened by friends and relatives of his subjects who objected to his violation of the subjects’ privacy and his distortions of some of the attendant facts—is arguably plausible, but seems strained.  Whatever.  The author has Russell sworn off fact-based reportage and even sworn off putting any of himself in anything he writes.  He now edits other people’s submissions to a new-age self-help publication.  As the novel opens, Russell has taken a job as the last-minute replacement teacher for a minor college’s “Creative Nonfiction” documentary writing course.  This is a tad ironic given Russell’s life decision to refrain from such writing.


Russell is, in short, unhappy, and rather determinedly so.  It takes him a long time to find the love of a good woman and work his way out of the depressing hole he seems to be hell bent on staying in.


The good woman I just alluded to is Candace Weld, who is a psychotherapist in the college’s student counseling center.  (I seem to be reading a lot of books with psychotherapists as characters.  I just finished Irvin Yalom’s The Schopenhauer Cure and Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You.  Must be some sort of Zeitgeist.)  Candace finds herself with problems centering on the rules and regulations governing the behavior of college psychotherapists.  Powers conjures up a milieu in which a combination of fear of lawsuits and knee-jerk ethical constraints conspire to make it impossible for a therapist to have friends.  It’s a problem.  What is or should be the role of psychotherapy?  How does one—how can one—draw the line between a therapeutic relation and friendship? For a long time psychotherapists got away with a lot of inappropriate behavior towards their clients, justifying it as part of the therapeutic process.  Now the pendulum seems to have swung to the opposite extreme: just about nothing is appropriate, regardless of the human issues involved.  When Candace tries to do what seems to be the right thing with respect to Thassa and with respect to Russell, no good deed goes unpunished.  Go figure.


There are some characters that it takes the author a long time to see into.  I know that’s perhaps an odd way to put it, but Tonia Shiff, the self-impressed television documentary journalist, and Thomas Kurton, the scientist consumed by dreams of making permanent upgrades to human nature, seem at first to have been picked from the Stock Characters bin and do nothing but Stock Character Things for three quarters or more of the novel.  Eventually, however, the author after long acquaintance seems to find some real characters to put behind their stock roles and they become more fully elaborated and at least comprehensible, if still not sympathetic.  By that time, I didn’t really care.


I enjoyed the good parts of the book so much—the Russell-Thassa-Candace parts—that it is only now, two weeks after finishing reading, that I realize that there is a lot of it that I read as fast as I could in order to get past it and back to the good stuff.  It does feel odd to be recommending a book much of which I found myself fast forwarding through.  On reconsideration, then, Generosity is a good book, but not a great book.