Book Reviews (8)

Books 8

Inherent Vice – Thomas Pynchon

PI Doc Sportello investigates a plot to kidnap a real estate mogul at the close of the sixties in California, becoming caught up in a complex, colourful tangle of hippies, cops, and criminals.

He’s a convincing and complex character, an analytically-gifted dope fiend steeped in counterculture, scornful of the LAPD and authorities – concerned the lifestyle he knows is slipping away as political tides shift. The large, diverse cast is well-realised, but with many characters slipping in and out fluidly, and many plot layers forming, it can be hard to keep track. Some plot threads seem to not quite come together – but perhaps this reflects the effects of Doc’s own recreational habits.

There’s brilliant humour and wordplay, like the ‘plastricrats’ living off credit, and Pynchon somehow managed to keep weed-culture humour fresh and funny. The absurd events and trains of thought provide a psychedelic romp atmosphere to this tie-dye noir, though someone who remembers more of the period would pick up on jokes and references I didn’t.

I couldn’t believe this came out in 2009 – Pynchon’s nostalgia for this time seems so strong. But was it really as rosy a period as it’s presented through Doc’s eyes? There’s a strong current of objectifying women here, for a start. The book’s stances on police wrongdoing, American foreign policy, etc, seem to come packaged with a not particularly critical view of the excesses and flaws of Doc and his associates.

The writing is amazing; the plot a bit knotty but balanced with levity; a time, place, and spirit evoked to entertain us while also challenging our own time and priorities.

On Anarchism – Noam Chomsky

I found ‘Who Rules the World?’ a bit long, while this could have used being a little longer. It’s a little book packing a lot of content: discussing the ideas of key anarchist thinkers; the Spanish Revolution; the disagreement with state socialism; responses to various questions and concerns; and how classical liberal ideas, taken to their conclusions, can actually imply anti-capitalist or anarchist perspectives.

The word is commonly associated with ‘chaos’, conjuring images of masked mobs throwing bricks, but this has nothing to do with the philosophy. Chomsky describes the core of it as being that ‘the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.’ In the case of capitalism, he points to ideas from the 19th century labour movement in America, which responded to early industrial capitalism as ‘wage slavery’ in which a worker rents themselves to factory owners for a wage, and had ‘the assumption, just taken for granted, that those who work in the mills should own them.’

For Chomsky traditional anarchism is ‘an antistate branch of socialism, which meant a highly organised society, nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally.’

What’s here is compelling and readable – there just isn’t quite enough of it. Some points could use more elaboration. If you’re not already fairly far to the libertarian left, you’ll have questions and disagreements that Chomsky doesn’t take much time to address in detail. However, this is a very good introduction to powerful ideas, worth reading for an exposure to the Spanish Revolution alone.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – Owen Jones

This is an excellent book, examining how class war has been waged by the elite against the majority from Thatcher through to Cameron and New Labour: looking at regressive policy, the media’s demonising stance, and the realities you won’t find in the Daily Mail.

With the demise of industry and crushing of the unions, millions lost reliable work, falling into unemployment and under-employment in exploitative service-sector roles. As social problems naturally resulted in formerly bustling areas, an anti-social minority (‘chavs’, an inherently classist slur) were unfairly cast as representative of whole communities.

[As] our society has become less equal and in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased. Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society. […] What if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? […] if you were to accept it, then surely you would have to accept that the government’s duty is to do something about it [but] if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom.

Successive governments peddled the idea that aspiration isn’t about workers as a whole improving conditions, but about individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle class – leaving behind, supposedly, a feckless, wilfully unemployed, benefit-cheating rump.

Problems caused by neoliberalism and austerity were blamed on individuals. Rare instances of depravity were signal-boosted in the media to suit a narrative – while the larger crimes of the wealthy were minimised. This provided justification for the welfare state to be further undermined to incentivise hard work (whether or not opportunities were actually available!), making inequality worsen.

Jones says that, ‘it was the might of the working class that was once mocked and despised. But, today, with their power smashed into pieces, the working class can be safely insulted as tracksuit-wearing drunken layabouts with a soft spot for Enoch Powell.’ He has hope that this power can be restored, the class war waged back: making suggestions along the lines of a Green New Deal, a national programme to build socially owned housing, more progressive taxation, more co-operatives, and bringing back the ability of unions to really stand up for workers.

Passionate and deeply researched.

The White Book – Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith)

It’s difficult to summarise this. Biographical prose poetry? Each short chapter shines with evocative imagery and crisp prose, brimming with beauty, grief, and thoughtful reflection on life. The narrator thinks back to an older sister that died just after birth, and how if she had lived then the narrator wouldn’t have been born – a life possible because of that loss. A present rooted in the past, the present continually falling away into an unknown future as one branch of possibility is selected instead of all the others.

That sounds really heavy, but the writing is delicate and meditative, focused on simple images and moments. Just because this is experimental and has deep themes doesn’t make it at all hard to read or appreciate. The translation retains a sense of the original Korean, representing some idioms literally, which is a nice touch.

Book Reviews (1)

Three Parts Dead – Max Gladstone

Part of the Craft Sequence, which I’m going to get more of because this was dank. It’s a fantasy legal thriller with an inventive contract-based magic system, Craft, tied into a richly developed world.

The fire god Kos, god/power source of the city of Alt Coulumb, has apparently been murdered. New Craftswoman Tara Abernathy has to work the case and resurrect him with the help of a chain-smoking priest, Abelard, her new boss, Elayne, and Cat, a magic cop addicted to having vampires suck her blood.

Fast-paced, highly imaginative, a very clever work with great characters and an intriguing setting.

Among Others – Jo Walton

Mori got crippled and lost her twin sister while stopping their mother’s black magic scheme. At boarding school it begins to seem that her mother’s at it again, while Mori spends the time she isn’t dealing with that or in classes reading so much sci-fi – more than she could possibly be managing while attending lessons and, presumably, sleeping sometimes – that the book’s meta-ness reaches meme tier proportions. (Yo dawg, heard you like books so I put a book in your book so you can read about reading while you read…)

The diary format lends itself well to establishing her likeable character, the ‘magic as seemingly insignificant actions leading to chains of coincidence’ thing is handled well, and the fairies are interesting enough as truly alien figures that they really ought to be featured more. It’s not exactly fast paced, which is fine, but maybe Mori needs another hobby. When she joined a book club I was torn between feeling glad for her getting bookish friends and groaning ‘crap, there’s gonna be even more books in this book!’

Kill All Normies – Angela Nagle

An interesting but flawed look at the growth of the far-right online, viewing it as a reaction against the left. Nagle does a good job sketching out the key players – 4chan’s /b/ and /pol/, the Manosphere, alt-light figures such as Milo, and the alt-right. She makes some neat observations on the right adopting traditionally left approaches – irony, leaderless online movements, subversiveness – in the attempt to cause political change via cultural change, c.f. Antonio Gramsci.

Less solid are her arguments regarding ‘Tumblr liberals’, an alternative for ‘SJWs’ she coins to refer to those with a politics based on identity and ‘the emotional injuries of systemic cultural prejudices’. She makes valid – straightforward – points about the toxicity of some callout culture and the need to address material conditions and class rather than solely identity and so on, but this doesn’t mean those darn ‘SJWs’ don’t also raise actual problems for real people!

The ‘snowflake student’ stuff here feels a bit reactionary, as do other dodgy takes. And while internet culture was a worthwhile thing to investigate, there’s limited grounding in material events.

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

Hecking heck. This is good, folks.

IJ is a thousand-page behemoth with some obscure words and a lot of its content in tiny font as endnotes, but it’s not excessively hard. It’s immensely entertaining and about a lot of deep stuff: depression, addiction, criticism of reflexive irony as evasion of real human feeling, etc. In plot terms, it involves a halfway house for recovering addicts, a tennis academy, Quebec’s wheelchair assassins, and the search for ‘Infinite Jest’, a film so entertaining that people will sit watching it on a loop until they die in ecstasy.

I guess some of the pretentious vocab could be made normal English (why ‘aleatory’ when ‘random’ would do?), and the Wardine and yrstruly bits are grating. Some sections are a struggle to slog through, the chronology might be confusing, but have faith in DFW and it will be rewarded.

This has feels, laughs, big ideas. The challenge absolutely pays off. It’s an extraordinary picture of the human condition and a deeply profound, unique work of fiction.

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

A couple of essays on feminism, with the title entry being the one that led to the coinage of the term ‘mansplaining’. Solnit’s a convincing writer with some sharp touches of humour, raising a number of gender issues with stark clarity, consistently coming back to the right of women to be heard, taken seriously, to have a voice, to be free to participate on equal terms.

Some of the book is more obscure – the essay on Woolf, and ‘the spider essay’. They do connect to her general message, but I found them a bit more ambiguous and less strongly rooted in specific events than the others.

Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

A girl goes missing on holiday in a small village. This sounds like the start of a murder mystery or something, but don’t expect a thriller. This is a slow burn without much in the way of conventional plot, kept going by poetic prose bringing to life a wide cast of characters, the natural landscape, and the village’s social dynamic.

Each chapter swoops through a year in the life of the village, starting with the search party having ‘gathered at the car park in the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do.’ The way everything unfolds, the deft touches painting each personality, the passing of the seasons, the twists and turns in intertwined lives, makes this a successful un-novel-like novel.

Who Rules The World? – Noam Chomsky

Wow. Reading this made me realise that, among various other things that feel obvious in retrospect, Obama wasn’t so great, US foreign policy has been even worse than I thought, and Israeli policy… yeah…

Chomsky basically just barrages you with facts and quotes – ‘the US/Obama/Israel/etc did this bad thing’, often adding, ‘this is them openly saying why they did it in terms not out of place in a Bond villain monologue’. This does all get repetitive, with the plus side that some of it has lodged in my memory through iteration. After a while, there was noticeable deja vu. Chomsky also isn’t the most engaging writer in the world, although he can be delightfully bitter and sarcastic.

I have no idea how Chomsky remembers so much stuff. His work here is an eye-opening deluge of deeply disturbing information, all of which should be much more widely known.