Review- Stapledon, “Star Maker”

Olaf Stapledon, “Star Maker” (1937) – Do people still say that things “blow their minds?” I feel like you get a lot less of that sort of rhetoric now that it’s associated with online goobers and the hucksters who fleece them. Maybe it’s just an artifact of when I grew up. I knew teens and very young adults who were into getting their minds blown and expanding them in the various by-then traditional countercultural ways. Maybe it makes sense, in my thirties, I know fewer such enthusiasts. Seemingly every surprise since 9/11 has sucked pretty hard and I think this has made my generation skeptical of the idea you’re going to surprise them in a good way, which seems pretty basic to the concept of having one’s mind blown.

So, did Olaf Stapledon “blow my mind” with “Star Maker?” To a certain extent, yes, he did. I don’t know if I can still manage the sort of feeling of a thirteen year old seeing “The Matrix” for the first time, but I did feel a certain degree of awe. Perhaps the feeling could be compared to finding an old holy text in your tradition that is new to you. None of it was truly new to me but seeing it in its original form was an interesting and even moving experience.

The feeling is both tempered and encouraged by the simplicity and starkness of the text. As Stapledon himself put it, by most literary standards, it fails as a novel. It’s closer to a fictional report. An anonymous Englishman is standing on a hill in the 1930s when all of a sudden his consciousness is flying among the stars. After a few chapters of learning to control his flight, the narrator finds intelligent life somewhere and learns to cohabitate the brains of its inhabitants. After learning of these “Other Humans” and their ways, he teaches a local philosopher how to also zoom his consciousness around and they go exploring the galaxy. By and by, they form a group mind with representatives of all of the intelligent life they find. They realize that with their minds, they not only travel faster than light, but that they travel back and forth in time. They use this to bear witness to the struggles of life in the cosmos.

And struggles there are, as the group’s mental travel, at first, only takes them to worlds experiencing something like “the crisis” as understood by someone like Stapledon, a pacifist and (non-communist) progressive of the 1930s. Industrial society leads to class and national conflicts, scientific progress undermines old spiritual verities, ideologies of both extreme individualism and extreme collectivism run rampant. In many respects, what Stapledon is getting at is a lack of balance, a concept that will become important to this sort of thought later in the century but seems wasn’t part of the vocabulary at the time. The narrator reports on various planets full of varying life forms, including plant-folk and what amount to big sentient boats, and how they cope with crises that sound a lot like what was going on on Earth at the time.

But this is a story, for much of its run anyway, about ascendance- a sort of secular scientific/spiritual “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Eventually, the group mind learns how to contact more advanced civilizations. Lead among them are a symbiotic race of fish and aquatic arachnids that seem to have both their technological and their spiritual game pretty well figured out. They can do space travel, and their minds are clear of “attachments” and distractions and aware of the interconnectedness of things- that appears to be what Stapledon means by “spiritual,” missing out in the western Buddhism craze by a few decades. But at every level of ascendance, there are pitfalls- technological disaster, the temptation of interstellar empire. The group mind witnesses terrible wars, all the more terrible as they force the enlightened civilizations to become warlike and de-civilize themselves. But advancements in technology and in spirituality, including telepathy, eventually do away with war and lead to a galactic utopia.

This is very much a story of the apotheosis of mind. Stapledon values peace and love but sees neither as necessary properties of mind. As it turns out, even the stars have minds, and have violent objections to being manipulated by the planetary powers, which nearly leads to galactic catastrophe. The nebulae have minds. Everything has a mind!

In the end, the group mind (Stapledon switches between “I” and “we” pronouns for it) encounters the titular Star Maker at the end of the cosmos. The group mind has now spent millions of years contemplating the cosmos, the way the design of it seems to point towards higher and higher complexity and unity. Stapledon makes much of how the simple human mind of the narrator, separated from the group mind, can’t even adequately describe the utopian societies (or even the more highly advanced dystopian ones). This might seem like a cop-out, but together with what Stapledon does get across, it convincingly conveys a sense of scale and grandeur. But at the same time, the group mind has witnessed untold pain and misery. For every intelligent race that made it into the galactic utopia, hundreds more got close and perished, and thousands or millions more never got beyond their own planet. Moreover, the galaxy is dying. Energy is running out, the laws of thermodynamics doing their thing. It won’t be possible for all of the galaxies of the cosmos to commune, reaching that final level up. What was the point?

Well, I don’t want to give too much away. We’ll just say the Star Maker sets the mode for the cosmos, as Stapledon understands it- mind, all the way down. Not love and not life- mind. The answers the Star Maker gives to the group mind narrator prove both deeply unsatisfactory but entirely consistent, and while the narrator briefly protests, he/they ultimately accept. He then gets beamed back to England. He knows what’s going to happen to Earth and our species and knows it’s not the happiest (or worst) story, but he’s determined to play his part in it anyway. In 1937, the light was dimming throughout the world with the rise of fascism and the threat of world war, but he ends with the two lights to guide us: the inner light of love and creativity, and the outer light of the stars, pointing to infinity, or, anyway, as close as our finite minds can get.

This book is dated in a lot of ways. Seemingly everywhere, even with the fish-sea-spider-symbiosis people, there are two sexes and two genders and they more or less map onto human men and women as understood by a (progressive) man of the time. While Stapledon respects the speed of light limit on physical travel, his mental travel is pretty magical. He gets a lot of tech stuff ahead of his time — Freeman Dyson more or less ganked the “Dyson sphere” from him — but Stapledon completely whiffs on computers or anything digital, understandably enough for 1937 I suppose, but there’s not even Capek-style robots anywhere.

Most of all, there is the more or less unquestioned hierarchy of joint technical and spiritual achievement that structures the entire book. He doesn’t shit on “primitive” people, good liberal that he was, but does pity them and consider them less than in terms of complexity. This is a stupid idea. Yes, pre-industrial people would have trouble understanding the internet if you explained it to them. But I have trouble understanding agriculture and the woods, certainly in the way people who lived their lives by them understood them. The idea that earlier times were simpler, for better or for worse, is a fallacy. Complexity comes in a lot of guises. Of course, fans of science and space exploration insist their enthusiasms are the most specialest — I mean complex! — of all things, but that doesn’t mean we need to buy it.

Still and all- I couldn’t help but be impressed and even moved by this small, strange book. I don’t quite belong to the faith tradition — space utopianism, more or less — of which it is a foundational text. It sounds nice and if life goes that way I’ll happily go along, but I don’t quite believe in it. Among other things, I think values other than mind alone have some claim on us, even if I mostly live the life of the mind myself. But I’m not a Christian (anymore) and some parts of the Bible are pretty impressive, too. As various vernacular editions of the good book laid the foundation for their respective languages’ literary traditions, so did “Star Maker” set out many of the tropes and priorities of far-future “ideas” scifi, including Ursula Le Guin, Iain Banks, Vernor Vinge, and so on. That the ur-text of the genre was set out in this simple, report-liturgy way, makes it all the more poignant, to me anyway. ****’

Review- Stapledon, “Star Maker”

Review- Heller, “Catch-22”

Joseph Heller, “Catch-22” (1961) – Thirty-five is an unusual age to read this particular classic. In fact, I was given my copy of “Catch-22” roughly half my life ago by a dear friend. I was the right age then, but circumstance intervened: the prose reminded me of the speech of my high school girlfriend, and I put it down. Having now read it, I don’t quite see what teenage me was thinking in that, the memories don’t quite add up- adolescence is another planet. I assumed for years I’d never pick the book up again, and carried it with me through multiple moves mostly because my friend wrote a sweet note to me in it.

Why did I read it at age thirty-five? Well, out of general interest in American literature, is part of the answer. But I pulled the trigger now because I just re-read “A Confederacy of Dunces,” and reacquainted myself with the tortured story of that book’s publication. John Kennedy Toole, author of “Confederacy,” had a long correspondence with Robert Gottlieb, editor at Simon & Schuster and one of the most influential literary editors of his day. In it, Gottlieb repeatedly praised Toole and “Confederacy” but insisted on sweeping changes in the work, and in the end, passed on it. Gottlieb rose to prominence initially on the strength of discovering Joseph Heller and ushering “Catch-22” into print. So I was curious: what was in “Catch-22” that appealed to Gottlieb, that “A Confederacy of Dunces” (supposedly) lacked?

I wouldn’t call “Catch-22” story-driven or character-driven in the usual sense, maybe a little more the latter- I guess I’d call it “scenario-driven.” The scenario is this: in the waning days of World War Two, US Army Air Force bombardier John Yossarian doesn’t want to fly any more missions, because people shoot at him and try to kill him. No one else on his base, set on a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean, seems to understand this simple concept, except for possibly Yossarian’s friend, the chaplain. Plenty of Yossarian’s fellows look to avoid combat, but primarily because they’ve got other irons on the fire: playing the black market, getting laid, being a nefarious colonel looking to use their men to advance their careers. Realizing that getting in an airplane and flying out to drop bombs on people while other people shoot at you is crazy, as Yossarian does, leads to the original of several versions of the titular “Catch-22:” if you realize what you’re doing is objectively crazy, than you are sane enough to undertake it.

The narrative of the book proceeds non-linearly. We get chapters, mostly named after one or another character, that relate one or another anecdote of life on the base, of missions, or of leave spent in Rome or elsewhere in Italy. They illustrate a whole world of military screwballs, dickering with each other comedically in action that sometimes recalls the Three Stooges and dialogue that is sometimes a little “who’s on first?” Not that either is damning- that kind of humor can be funny, and while I didn’t laugh aloud much I can see why it appeals, especially when it was written. I don’t call the work character-driven because the characters, including Yossarian, are reasonably well-characterized but seemingly thin by design. This makes sense, given the here today, gone tomorrow nature of extended combat tours and the surreal world of the war (what Pynchon called “the zone”) around them. A narrative eventually reveals itself through the non-linear confusion, as we see the missions Yossarian went on, alluded to in previous chapters, that soured him on war, and as the nefarious colonels ratchet up their demands on their men, bringing Yossarian and many of the others to a breaking point. But I’d say the plot isn’t really the point, either.

What, then, is the point? An especially important question to me, as one of the main points Robert Gottlieb made against “A Confederacy of Dunces” was what he saw as the book’s pointlessness. Well, not to be reductive, but it seems to me the main point of “Catch-22” would be “war = bad.” A valid point, and one often eluded in mythology of World War Two, “the good war.” There’s also a fair amount of “bureaucracy = bad,” producing humor about the irrationality of machine society, which reached unheard of potency during the war and looked set to dominate the peace. Also reasonably valid, if overdone in subsequent decades. These points helped make it a favorite of the Baby Boom generation, and the man-vs-sick-society thing still resonates, especially but not exclusively with younger readers. It’s a classic for a reason.

What opened up the book some for me and helped with the “Confederacy” comparison was this simple question: What does Yossarian want? We all know he wants to not fly missions any more. He wants to live. Sometimes, he expresses concern for whether others live, primarily his buddies but also sometimes civilians he’s sent to bomb, but Heller is admirably circumspect in making Yossarian feckless, no paper Christ. What I didn’t know going in was how much Yossarian wants to get laid. Yossarian is both horny (he gets laid a lot with sex workers and nurses, and basically sexually assaults one of the latter with a buddy in a scene played for laughs) and romantic (forever falling in love with one or another of his scores). Other than officers, sex workers are the most prominent occupation of character in the world of the book, and one (mostly referred to as “Nately’s whore”) goes some way towards advancing the action of the plot.

This might be a bit of a reach, but Yossarian’s rejection of the military — an exclusively male institution, inhabited by men who seem to love being around other men, even as many of them also seek out women compulsively — strikes me as another instantiation of a theme in postwar fiction pointed out by academic and critic Michael Trask: a man “coming out as straight,” in opposition to institutional settings that would make him unnatural and queer. Yossarian just wants to be left alone to indulge the appetites every man has- sex with women, and indolence. In this way, Yossarian sets the pattern for the comedic Everyman for generations to come, from the characters in MASH to Homer Simpson. We know Heller influenced these later generations of comic writers- Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” wrote an amusing comic about meeting Heller, one of his favorite writers. “Catch-22” reminded me of nothing so much as the fourth season of “Arrested Development,” one of my favorite tv shows, and I’d be very surprised if the writers weren’t familiar with “Catch-22.”

From a distance, this doesn’t look all that different from “A Confederacy of Dunces,” which has had its own impact on comedy writing. Ignatius Reilly, the main character, also wants to be left alone, to rot in his room, eating, bothering his mother, writing down his untimely thoughts, and masturbating. Both “Confederacy” and “Catch-22” end with the promise of escape for the main character, flight to a promised land with sexual overtones. But there are important differences. Ignatius may be a slob, but he is no everyman. His sexuality — repressed, violent, fantastic, fundamentally solipsistic — is the furthest thing from the straightforward and frequently-gratified sexuality of a Yossarian. What Ignatius wants — either in his lazier modes or in the manias he goes into for much of the action of “Confederacy” — is not the sort of thing that would be considered normal or noble (those near-homophones!) by most American readers at midcentury.

Robert Gottlieb was (is, he’s still alive) a classic literary gatekeeper. You don’t get to be editor of the New Yorker unless you’re a safe pair of hands. Put it all together and you get a dispiriting picture of why “Catch-22” would appeal to him in ways “A Confederacy of Dunces” would not. You can slap a big moral — “war and bureaucracy = bad” — on “Catch-22” in a way you can’t with “Confederacy.” The non-linear aspect of “Catch-22” makes it more confusing and obscure and hence “literary” than “Confederacy,” which is basically linear in plot. Despite wallowing in death and futility, “Catch-22,” in its apotheosizing feckless everyman Yossarian, celebrates the agreed upon postwar values, at least of the literary set: peace, plenty, and heterosexual intercourse. That, and the moral he could put on it, was the “point” “Catch-22” had for someone like Gottlieb, I think.

“A Confederacy of Dunces” did not have that point and did not reaffirm those values. And those values, relatively recently, were pretty strongly challenged by a serious artistic avant-garde, many of whom chose the wrong side in the war that serves as a setting for “Catch-22.” Along with “Confederacy,” while reading “Catch-22” I kept thinking of the works of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the French fascist who for my money wrote the best literary depictions of the Second World War. His outlook was at least as bleak as Heller’s and, while not exacting denying himself worldly pleasures, Celine no more thought they justified the world and human existence than he believed in democracy or equality. We know Celine influenced Joseph Heller’s friend and fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut- I wonder if Heller read him? It’s worth noting that both Celine and Vonnegut present a ground-level take on the war (Celine as a refugee, Vonnegut as an infantryman), as opposed to Heller’s air war. The war was dangerous enough for American bomber crews, but you get a whole other look at the world and its quandaries from the perspective of people really in the meat grinder, like a Soviet infantryman, to allude to another ideological side of the war that postwar American literary culture strenuously sought to exclude.

John Kennedy Toole wasn’t a communist or a fascist, but “A Confederacy of Dunces” breathes just a little bit of that mephitic air of the tomb world of non-humanist ideology (reactionary Catholicism as practiced by Ignatius, the real old school stuff not this online “tradcath” horseshit, fits right in there). It emitted enough, I think, to scare someone like Gottlieb. Cynical and dark though “Catch-22” is, it would not ring the same alarm bells. None of this is to say that “Catch-22” is a less genuine book, or that it doesn’t deserve praise. It’s pretty good, though I think “A Confederacy of Dunces” is funnier and better. I guess I’m just interested in how the sausage of canon gets made, and I think the comparison of “Catch-22” with “A Confederacy of Dunces” illuminates the process. ****

Review- Heller, “Catch-22”

Review- Mahoney, “Fair Trade”

Jack Mahoney, “Fair Trade” (2020) – I’m not one hundred percent certain I know what a “thriller” is, and especially where the line is drawn between thrillers that depict crime and conventional crime fiction. As it happens, I know the author of this new thriller, so I asked him. He said “Fair Trade” and its predecessor, “Clearcut” (which I read as a manuscript- it’s good to know writers, sometimes!) are both crime fiction and thrillers, but what distinguishes “Fair Trade” from his other, non-thriller crime novels are the emphasis on generating the emotion of suspense and de-emphasis on figuring out a puzzle. Thanks for the clarification!

“Fair Trade,” the second of the Adrian Cervantes series, certainly does deliver suspense and thrills aplenty. Adrian is an Army Ranger whose unit was betrayed in Iraq during a delivery of cash. None of his squad survived a helicopter crash in the northern hills except Adrian. Nursed back to health by some friendly Yazidis, Adrian goes back stateside with a mission: deliver a fair share of the cash his squad got fucked over for to each of his squadmate’s families. He exists in a liminal space, not formally dead or alive, existentially AWOL, living off his share of the cash and his sense of mission.

This installment brings him to New York. It doesn’t look like his buddy Barry’s family needs the money- Barry’s wife married a rich agribiz dude who works “fair trade” deals in Central Africa. But just as Adrian meets the family, Barry’s son gets kidnapped by some very professional operators, who demand an oddly specific ransom amount out of Mr. Fair Trade’s price range. Adrian and Barry’s post-collegiate daughter Lori go into action and discover betrayal by a hipster-douche boyfriend, narrowly escape death at the hands of mercenaries, find out terrible secrets of the agricultural business, and have a fling. Adrian is a badass but not a superman, Lori is resourceful and insistent, and the action is fast-paced and more-or-less believable. The author provides the sort of interesting explanations of both combat situations and Adrian’s social engineering feats that make a feature of this sort of writing (think “The Bourne Identity”) without dragging the pace. In the end, Adrian is prepared to make another “fair trade” – him for the boy, as it seems whoever did the kidnapping might be tied in with whoever betrayed his Ranger squad, and wants Adrian for their own purposes.

One thing I wonder about thrillers, based largely on the Cervantes books and movies and TV I’ve seen: they seem tied to a realism so stringent as to verge on blandness, sometimes. Adrian moves through a world of high-end hotels and apartments, office complexes, abandoned lots and parks, among people dedicated to tasks. Their relevant attributes are largely those of tactical significance. Sometimes, this can be revealing of the character of a given person or place, as with the big bad in this installment. I understand that the thriller mode needs to be stripped down to deliver the pulse-pounding goods, but I did find myself cherishing the descriptive and character moments in “Fair Trade” and in other similar works. Michael Mann is good with this, often giving little background tid-bits on his characters that flesh things out within the attention economy of the stories he tells. How much color can a thriller hold before it ceases to be a thriller? I guess I’d ask if I had to frame it as a question. My impression is that some thriller writers “color” by throwing in a lot of gun-pedantry and militaria, which I’m glad the author does not, but I think the answer is “more than the Cervantes novels presently have.” Still, the core of the experience is there: if you like the experience of being thrilled, you should pick these books up. ****’

Review- Mahoney, “Fair Trade”

Review links – O’Connor, “Blood Red Lines” and Greenidge, “Black Radical”

As it happens, I had two reviews published in two different outlets on the same day.

I write about journalist Brendan O’Connor’s forthcoming book on nativism and the far right, “Blood Red Lines,” for Dissent here.

I write about historian Kerri Greenidge’s biography of Boston antiracist activist William Monroe Trotter for DigBoston here.

Review links – O’Connor, “Blood Red Lines” and Greenidge, “Black Radical”