The Hunger Games

May 24th, 2012

I’ve just finished the “Hunger Games” trilogy, very popular among the teen women set.  The first volume, called The Hunger Games, is a real page-turner once you get into it.  It’s downhill from there.  The second volume is not as good as the first; it ends quite abruptly.  The third volume is something of a dog’s breakfast: too many characters introduced and killed off (I couldn’t keep track of a lot of them) and the politics got more and more confusing.  I’d recommend the first volume for a change of pace, but don’t bother with the others.

Geeky Genesis: Alan Lightman’s Mr. g

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.