How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu is the rare book that is both kinds of science fiction. Traditionally, a sci-fi work either bases its conflict in technology and explores its potential problems and advantages, or it simply transplants a fantasy story into a futuristic world. The most talented science writers, like David Deutch, Brian Greene, and Stephen Hawking, frequently confront the problem that language lacks the vocabulary and nuance to describe scientific phenomena. How do you describe time’s movement beyond the metaphorical “flow” or define quantum entanglement as anything other than Einstein’s “spooky action?” Time, slippery as it is, requires real imagination to be precisely described. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is self-consciously rooted in a universe that is “wrapped” by science fiction, a place where Luke Skywalker and the Death Star are real and concurrent with “reality.” However, Yu also constructs his novel through a deep reading of physics, particularly theories of time travel and the multiverse, and the novel is explicitly about those things, but also narrated by a time machine repairman in “Minor Universe 31,” a sci-fi universe.
Charles Yu’s narrator, tellingly named “Charles Yu,” is not just the narrator but also a fellow reader, reading as he’s writing, traveling by his writing. The perspective of the narrator is the axis the book turns on, the place where the science and fiction, and the “fantasy” and “reality,” meet. The science of time travel becomes the act of writing, and is even formally theorized as a branch of science called “chronodiegetics,” whose foundational theory is, “Within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine.” The science of time conflates with narrative. Yu’s universe is traversable through time as easily as pages are written or read, and language becomes the mode of experiencing time rather than an abstract signifier of time. In other words, the book is a time machine. Continue reading “Review: HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu”
Mary Beard writes a “greatest hits” of Roman history. SPQR is simultaneously engaging for the lay reader and rigorous for the history scholar.
Classics departments around the country are being shut down or folded into other departments. Perhaps, ironically, in a time where citizens require, more than ever, a sense of history, ancient history is being shoved aside. In what possible way could Cicero compete with pithy, 140-character long proclamations? Like a rock band in decline, Mary Beard, a Cambridge Classics scholar and noted New York Review of Books contributor, has released a greatest hits collection covering the “First Roman Millennium,” entitled SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. As in popular music, this collection of the hits is lengthy and full of the familiar. However, unlike most greatest hits anthologies, SPQR is more than a simple rehash of the basics. Standing at one of the most famous and able Classicists of her generation, Beard achieves a rare feat, a history book that is able to appeal to the humiliores audience while pleasing academic honestiores (the two being the lower and higher classes, respectively, after the third century C.E. where Beard’s book ends). Continue reading “Review: SPQR by Mary Beard”
When The Names was first published in 1982, a Time magazine review referred to it as “[Don] DeLillo’s most accomplished novel.” Thirty-five years later, after career milestones like White Noise, Libra, and Underworld, calling The Names his most accomplished novel seems ludicrous — because it is — but DeLillo was on an upswing, building up to his better works. His development was not linear or exponential. If, like me, you consider Ratner’s Star (1976) to be one of his best, then you agree that DeLillo in the late 70s, through the early 80s, was in the wilderness, literally and figuratively, taking sporadic steps backwards and forwards. The Names represents a strange split in both directions, the loose blend of a reluctant thriller and a philosophy of language slog.
The Names is narrated by James Axton, an expatriate risk analyst, based out of Athens, Greece. He is separated from his wannabe archaeologist wife, Kathryn, but he visit’s her and their son, Tap, who live on another Greek island. In Athens, Axton is enmeshed in an expatriate group of friends in similar lines of work: banking, security, and (potentially) espionage. When a mentally challenged person is brutally murdered on Kathryn and Tap’s island, Axton begins to track a mysterious, violent language cult across the Near East. Continue reading “Review: THE NAMES by Don DeLillo”
A German painter’s life is changed forever when he attempts to cross the Argentinian cordillera. A biographical novella twists into a hallucinatory meditation on art.
César Aira has established a reputation as a prolific, peculiar writer, and that reputation has steadily grown over the last few years in the United States as his books have gradually been published in translation from the original Spanish. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter in particular has been cited as an example of his mastery over the novella form and representative of his style and interests. Presented as a straightforward and objective historical account, An Episode in the Life recounts the life of Johann Moritz Rugendas — the story of his artistic family, his own introduction to painting and Humboldt’s procedure, and the success of his first trip to South America — before detailing the story of Rugendas’s life-changing second trip to South America, where he attempts to cross Argentina from Chile to Buenos Aires. Rugendas, along with another German painter, Krause, means to artistically capture the landscape following Humboldt’s procedure, a naturalistic method of knowledge production based on visible physiognomic traits separate from the scientific Linnaean system of classification. But when Rugendas suffers an accident, the story turns into something different than what it appears. Continue reading “Review: AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF A LANDSCAPE PAINTER by César Aira”
The townspeople of a collapsed farm estate wait for change when an old friend, a mysterious drifter who may be a conman, a spy, or the devil, returns to bring the town a suspicious opportunity. Dark humor in the face of decay and oppression characterizes this postmodern Hungarian classic.
Originally written and published in the waning years of Communist Eastern Europe, Krasznahorkai’s modern classic, Satantango, was translated into English in 2015 when it won the Man Booker International Prize 2015. Meticulously structured and plotted over twelve chapters in imitation of the steps of a tango, each chapter focuses on a different character or characters around “the estate” where the collapse of a collective farm has left an aimless group of peasant townspeople unable to leave their bleak situation. When the mysterious Irimiás and his assistant Petrina return to the town, they offer the townspeople hope for a new beginning. Despite the townspeople’s devotion to Irimiás, his true nature and intentions are questionable. The novel follows Irimiás and the townspeople as they argue, drink, dance, and try to better their lives in their forgotten town.
Krasznahorkai’s writing has always stood out stylistically to his contemporaries. Even though he has become the most famous Hungarian writer of his generation, his own maximalist style stood in contrast to the minimal, short sentences of his peers in Hungary. In America also, minimalist writing became trendy in the 1980s with writers like Raymond Carver, with more extreme results contemporary to Krasznahorkai in Kmart or Dirty Realist writers like Frederick Barthelme, who aspired to dry, minimal sentences with a focus on the mundane and de-enchanted Capitalist sprawl. Funny that Krasznahorkai also focuses on mundane social realism, from the ideological flip side of de-enchanted, failing Soviet Europe while his style stretches sentences to the point of exhausted enchantment. Continue reading “Review: SATANTANGO by Lászlo Krasznahorkai “
A Vietnamese double agent straddles racial, cultural, and ideological binaries as he moves between falling Saigon and California. Viet Thanh Nguyen takes an unflinching look at the failings of Vietnamese and American society.
The Sympathizer is written from the first-person perspective of a Communist Vietnamese double agent, writing a confession for a Communist commandant. The novel follows the (unnamed) narrator’s life from Saigon to America and back. After making a childhood pact with his two best friends, the war tests the narrator when him and his friend Man become Communist agents, while their other friend Bon fights for the South. When Saigon falls, the narrator becomes a Communist spy embedded in the Vietnamese American refugee community. Continue reading “Review: THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen”
A tennis match stands in the valence of esoteric vectors ranging from the hair on Anne Boleyn’s head to the mellifluous featherwork of Mexica craftsmen. Mexican writer Álvaro Enrique investigates the beginning of Modern history in chiaroscuro.
Sudden Death fictionalizes a tennis match in 1599 in Rome between the painter Caravaggio and Spanish poet Francisco Quevedo. Between games and sets, Enrique adds quotes, clips, and other scenes that establish the boundaries of his own game far beyond that of a conventional novel. The story also traces the journey of Anne Boleyn’s hair from her head to the tennis ball Caravaggio and Quevedo use in their game, the political turn of the Catholic Church into the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, and Hernán Cortés’s conquest of the Aztecs. Enrique does not craft narrative arcs as much as he creates a back and forth pattern of historical lines, like a tennis volley, which serve as a fictionalized origin story for Modern history.
The criteria applied to the typical form of the novel are inapplicable here. As a novel, Sudden Death never quite starts. Characters do not change or round out. For a book of its scope, it is quite short at 262 pages. The pace is quick and the touch is light, which is for the best, given the erudite nature of the novel’s subjects. Enrique avoids getting bogged in the details or perfect descriptions of the historical world. He manages to always stay interesting, choosing to blend the best of a well crafted work of history with the free-ranging characterizations and philosophizing of smart fiction. Continue reading “Review: SUDDEN DEATH by Enrique Álvaro”