January 26, 2011

Book 3: A Geography of Time

A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist
Robert Levine

The perfect nonfiction book may be a simply unattainable product: the few with more than passably good writing and fluid arguments are often distinguished by dry subject matter and delivery, while many with blockbuster concepts are undone by a complete inability to string together a decent sentence or two thousand. The latter are all the more tragic because they leave readers with the lingering feeling that an opportunity has been sorely missed, all the more important in nonfiction because, unlike good plots, good theses and interesting ideas often have few experts and the books that espouse particularly intriguing ideas often owe their genesis to the author alone. It is difficult to read A Geography of Time as anything but a painfully missed opportunity, an exhibition not of Robert Levine’s truly interesting take on the human condition but instead on all of the crucial errors he makes in attempting to create a high-impact pop-psychology bestseller out of his own experience as a Very Serious Scientist, Thank You. The result is a muddle of memoir, data, and that particular breed of arrogance showcased best when one is attempting hardest to avoid such accusations. This wouldn’t be so infuriating if Levine was writing a run-of-the-mill clunker, but the unique importance and ubiquity of time, his chosen subject, makes this painful result all the more tragic.

Levine wastes no time in demonstrating many of the ways a well-conceived book can veer dramatically off course, opening his preface with a personal anecdote about the flow of time in Brazil. This technique, of course, is a brilliant way to draw readers into an otherwise heavily fact-oriented narrative, but it becomes immediately apparent that Levine is no storyteller. The observations fueled by his recollections go incredibly wayward as he first attempts to embrace cultural relativity and then suddenly realizes his need to play to his audience, couching his language in ironically indicting, careful non-judgmental terms that play up his ignorance not only of Brazil, but of his audience as well. Levine clumsily dances around real issues throughout his book, absolutely unwilling to take a stand while simultaneously pretending to and offering value judgments where he promises objectivity. It is difficult to say what he is arguing at any given moment, particularly as evidence often contradicts facts due to his mishandling of English. Time and again, arguments are undercut while readers can only sigh and try to construct what Levine meant to say instead. In one particularly hilarious example, Levine reprints a story of a medieval duel left uncontested after one participant failed to show by noon and the other duly declared him a coward. What the author does not seem to realize is that the resulting intensive court inquiry as to the precise time of the challenger’s own departure does not, in fact, illustrate an "indifference" to time; rather, it demonstrates what appears to be his original point, that the understanding of time could be very fluid in a world without reliable, coordinated clocks. An indifferent court would have placated the duelist and needn’t have bothered ascertaining the precise time that the duel was abandoned.

This may appear to be a minor quibble, but this gross misunderstanding of evidence is just about the only consistency of Levine’s book. Despite being ordered into reasonably logical sections, the book bounces back and forth between subjects, repeating stories and observations and wholly unable to knit anything together at all cohesively on any level. Paragraphs are just as often non-sequiturs as enlightening follow-ups to those preceding, and the inconsistent deployment of line breaks and headings renders them almost pointless. The writing itself is often condescending and remarkably ignorant for all of the traveling Levine has done, his observations hollow in their inevitably numerous iterations and his eagerness to please undermining any scientific credibility he may have had.

Simply put, this book is ultimately undone by ambition and good intentions. It is admirable that Levine himself admits some of the flaws of a given data set, but after spending pages describing why, exactly, his data may be untrustworthy readers may be forgiven for failing to give it any credit at all. The author’s decision to include data this unreliable is questionable at best and perfectly illustrates the confusion that rests at the heart of this book. Levine wants so earnestly to write a pop psychology bestseller that his intent bleeds through where any semblance of a consistent thesis or even a reasonably reliable tone cannot. The book is at once organized thematically, chronologically, geographically, and not at all. Most galling, the end result of a globe-spanning exploration of the flexibility of human time perception yields no useful results. Interesting observations, such as the power associated with making people wait for you or the differences between individualistic and community-based societies, are illustrated with the same few bland anecdotes or are basically ignored as Levine remembers something shiny he either forgot to mention when it was relevant or simply cannot wait to divulge.

For all his misdirection and stumbling, Levine has constructed something useful. His enthusiasm for and appreciation of time as an under-recognized but crucial factor of the human experience is unquestionable and should motivate future scholars to follow up on his more interesting ideas. Unfortunately, Levine simply lacks the finesse necessary to make his ideas coherent and the good judgment to edit, well, anything. There is nothing wrong with embracing cultural relativity, and his decision to do so follows naturally from his experiences, but some things are just incomparable: it is beyond appalling that Levine quite seriously equates habitual Brazilian lateness with honor killing of women caught in adultery; this is no exaggeration. With that gem, Levine erodes any credibility he may have had only halfway through the book and readers can only grimace and prepare for the barrage of ill-supported, self righteous assertions that populate the text. A Geography of Time has the basic elements of success with a unique and important subject, combination of personal experience and scientific data, and the author’s unwavering enthusiasm; unfortunately, the last becomes so overwhelming that any useful insight can only be gained through sheer persistence as a reader wades through the muddled mess.

Grade: D

January 14, 2011

Book 2: Austerlitz

W. G. Sebald

It is difficult for me to make a kind of assessment of this book. On one hand, it is lyrical, poetic, moving; on the other, plodding, confusing, and pompous. Sebald has a gift for language, deployed wonderfully through translator Anthea Bell, and there are times when this talent is so luminous that it masks a digression or a lack of plot. At others, however, no amount of lyrical beauty can persuade the reader that the text at hand is anything but the author's indulgence, prioritizing a favored technique or Daring Literary Idea over the needs of the story being told which, all things considered, is quite a powerful one. Peppered with thematic and stylist diversions and distractions, the story is at heart a powerful exploration of identity and anonymity, strangely intertwined and the driving forces between both the erratic style and half-dreamed substance of the book. Constructed primarily of the patchwork narrative of Jacques Austerlitz, told to an unknown acquaintance over a period of thirty years, Austerlitz retraces individual and collective disturbances caused by the Holocaust and the ways in which the past can shape how one views oneself as an individual or within the context of a larger community.

The ethereal nature of identity, its fluidity and inescapable insecurity, are captured effectively by many of the same literary methods that often make the book a chore to read. The displacement of the primary narrative, accomplished through ambiguous, unnamed first-person narration and deliberately evoked through self-referential third-hand quotation, makes the act of reading the book in some ways as unstable as its original telling. Constructions that call attention to the story's murky provenance are frequent and, though jarring, create a chord of thematic harmony as the narrator relays information across several channels of communication ("He said, Austerlitz continued…"). Though these reminders highlight how difficult it often is to remember who, exactly, is narrating at a given moment, the ambiguity reflects the questions of certainty that drive the story. Austerlitz is, in many ways, a man without a history, and his gradual uncovering of the past serves both to solidify his identity and to make him feel increasingly out of place in the world. Sebald's exploration of this dual-pronged result of historical inquiry is an extremely perceptive and appropriate method by which to examine the horrors of the Holocaust and the insanity that occupied Europe throughout the early mid-20th century.

Just as Europe could not, and to a certain degree still cannot, reconcile its past with its present identity, so Austerlitz re-traces his own history, both aimlessly and with an inevitable, inextinguishable desire to progress further. The journey, in Sebald's hands, is both painful and strangely beautiful. There is a lyrical sadness to the book and a heavy weight to both its words and images, many of which are reprinted in stark black and white throughout the text; frequent foreshadowing creates an air of constant slight unease paired with a desire to see where, exactly, the story is heading. The novel in its construction echoes brilliantly its theme, yet it is often cumbersome and seems to be intentionally difficult, much to its detriment. One sentence stretches on needlessly over the course of five or six pages until, exhausted under its own weight, it collapses and allows readers to glaze over. Moreover, the story is presented in large chunks of prose, without chapter distinctions and suffering for want of more than about five paragraph breaks. The structure may mirror the course of the conversation and the neverending flow of history and relational thinking, but a constant battering of words and images and ideas will exhaust many readers and will distract from the greater importance and, yes, beauty of the book. Austerlitz is, as is its central theme, in many ways a paradox, a brilliantly conceived, brilliantly constructed, and brilliantly written novel that suffers from the burden of its care and its uncompromising capitulation to form over substance and readability.

Grade: A-

January 7, 2011

Book 1: The View from the Seventh Layer

The View from the Seventh Layer
Kevin Brockmeier

A week into the new year, I've finished my first book, Kevin Brockmeier's incredible story collection The View from the Seventh Layer. I was first introduced to his work after "The Year of Silence" was published in a Best American Short Stories collection, and the stories that accompany it in this collection showcase a similar emotional sensibility and Brockmeier's immense and unique talents. Though the collection is drips with the overly artistic tradition of MFA programs, Brockmeier saturates his stories with beautiful prose, and his language floats along effortlessly. This is a remarkable achievement especially in his stories that use nontraditionally "literary" genres, and his introduction of fantasy and science fiction elements only does a service to genre work, which Brockmeier shows can be every bit as subtle and well-constructed as mainstream literary darlings. There are moments in each and every one of these stories, even those that tug a bit too hard on the heartstrings, where a turn of phrase stops the reader dead in their tracks due to its sincerity, sorrow, or hope. Language is clay in Brockmeier's hands, and he is able to shape it precisely as he wishes with some of the best talent I've been fortunate to come across.

His stories aren't bad, either. The collection beautifully navigates that emotional space between sorrow and hope, so brilliantly interconnected that a single sentence can make the reader realize that a story is now operating in one realm rather than another. The effect of these already wonderful stories is enriched exponentially when they are allowed to marinade a bit, and their occasional surface simplicity unfolds to expose their true richness and complexity. There is a definite playfulness and humor to most of these stories, but this is balanced nicely with a hint of sorrow and, ultimately, these stories reflect reality with their mixture of the inalterability of the past and, yet, a delicate hope for the future.

In a collection with this much quality, singling out standout stories is akin to reciting the table of contents, but it is worthwhile to note Brockmeier's incredible range. "A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets" sets the tone for the collection with its final chord, and with its cousin "A Fable with a Photograph of a Glass Mobile on the Wall" adopts an overtly didactic story form and strips it of its overtness, showing rather than telling and being in the end far more illustrative and effective. "Andrea Is Changing Her Name" is a testament to love and loss that does not rely on the familiar clich├ęs but instead shapes them to better reflect the layered complexity of emotions that unfold over time. Most daring is "The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story," which indeed adopts that structure but which uses it to make a greater point about the human condition, with a delightful science fiction twist ending. This story, like some of the others, is entertaining as it unfolds but it is only after a bit of distance that its true meaning really hits home; this is, I believe, a mark of great literature, and these are stories that will stay with readers if not in their details then in their remarkable insight. Kevin Brockmeier shows that The View from the Seventh Layer is indeed one of loss and longing, but, ultimately, one of love.

Grade: A