A Farewell to Arm Candy

Gore Vidal, discussing Mailer's The Naked and the Dead: "[M]ost war books are inadequate. War tends to be too much for any writer, especially one whose personality is already half-obliterated by life in a democracy. Even the aristocrat Tolstoy, at a long remove in time, stretched his genius almost to a breaking point to encompass men and war and the thrust of history in a single vision. Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms did a few nice descriptions, but his book, too, is a work of ambition, in which can be seen the beginning of the careful, artful, immaculate idiocy of tone that since has marked both his prose and his legend as he has declined into that sort of fame which, at moments I hope are weak, Mailer [seems] to crave."
The Wikipedians apparently consider "careful, artful, immaculate idiocy of tone" to be complimentary but Vidal has really nailed EH.
Read almost 90 years after publication, Farewell is a trifle, and EH appears through luck, force of personality, or connections to have been undeservedly canonized with this work.
The plot in a nutshell: Frederic Henry is a rich kid who for unexplained reasons has joined the Italian army as an ambulance driver in WWI. (The Italians fought the Germans and Austrians in that war.) Henry drinks and banters with Italian soldiers. A shell explodes while he is eating cheese and he goes to the hospital for several months. He drinks and banters with nurses and falls in puppy love with a British (or maybe Scottish) nurse Catherine Barkley. After many pages of puppy love banter he heals and goes back to the front just in time for a major Italian retreat. To avoid the stalled vehicles on the main exit throroughfare he takes the back roads and gets his ambulance hopelessly stuck. Wandering around the countryside on foot with his company he shoots one of them (an Italian) for desertion and then in the confusion of the retreat is mistaken by the main Italian force as a deserter himself.
Frederic jumps into a river and escapes the Italians, then tears the stars off his uniform because war is no fun anymore. He finds Catherine the nurse and discovers she's pregnant. After more puppy love banter they escape to Switzerland and hole up in the mountains, where he drinks, cashes checks from home, and banters with Catherine. She has a difficult pregnancy and both she and the baby die in childbirth. The End.
"I didn't care about the characters" is a hackneyed complaint but in this book the reader truly doesn't. We don't know enough about Frederic or his history to be involved when he gets shelled or meets his dream girl. We don't know enough about Catherine to know what she sees in this shiftless playboy. But we get lots of banter:

“It’s a fine room,” Catherine said. “It’s a lovely room. We should have stayed here all the time we’ve been in Milan.”
“It’s a funny room. But it’s nice.”
“Vice is a wonderful thing,” Catherine said. “The people who go in for it seem to have good taste about it. The red plush is really fine. It’s just the thing. And the mirrors are very attractive.”
“You’re a lovely girl.”
“I don’t know how a room like this would be for waking up in the morning. But it’s really a splendid room.” I poured another glass of St. Estephe.
“I wish we could do something really sinful,” Catherine said. “Everything we do seems so innocent and simple. I can’t believe we do anything wrong.”
“You’re a grand girl.”
“I only feel hungry. I get terribly hungry.”
“You’re a fine simple girl,” I said.
“I am a simple girl. No one ever understood it except you.”
“Once when I first met you I spent an afternoon thinking how we would go to the Hotel Cavour together and how it would be.”
“That was awfully cheeky of you. This isn’t the Cavour is it?”
“No. They wouldn’t have taken us in there.”
“They’ll take us in some time. But that’s how we differ, darling. I never thought about anything.”
“Didn’t you ever at all?”
“A little,” she said.
“Oh you’re a lovely girl.”
I poured another glass of wine.
“I’m a very simple girl,” Catherine said.
“I didn’t think so at first. I thought you were a crazy girl.”
“I was a little crazy. But I wasn’t crazy in any complicated manner. I didn’t confuse you did I, darling?”
“Wine is a grand thing,” I said. “It makes you forget all the bad.”
“It’s lovely,” said Catherine. “But it’s given my father gout very badly.”
“Have you a father?”
“Yes,” said Catherine. “He has gout. You won’t ever have to meet him. Haven’t you a father?”
“No,” I said. “A step-father.”
“Will I like him?”
“You won’t have to meet him.”

Only occasionally witty, this stuff goes on for pages.


"I wanted to find the fool who invented closure and shove a big closure plaque up his ass."
--James Ellroy, My Dark Places

David Marusek's Upon This Rock: Book I - First Contact (some notes)

David Marusek produced two brilliant science fiction novels in the '00s, Counting Heads (2005) and Mind Over Ship (2009), and then went dark for a few years.
He's back with the above-titled novel, the first of a projected three-parter.
In this installment an E.T. lands in the Alaska wilderness, planting mysterious artifacts encountered independently by a young park ranger, Jace Kuliak, and a Bible-quoting survivalist, Poppy Prophecy. The novel bounces between their points of view. Excellent and highly recommended with one minor quibble, discussed below.

Excerpts from the book published in a short story collection a few years ago introduced the park ranger character (then named Casey). His seemed to be the main POV and his narrative contained some of the novel's early exposition. The finished book, however, was apparently jiggered around to become mainly Poppy's story, beginning with scenes of his large, pioneer-style family coping in the Alaska outback. This is all fine, but Marusek has chosen to move some of the Jace material to what he calls "sidebars," something between footnotes and DVD "deleted scenes," which are placed at the end of the book and hyperlinked in the e-book text. This decision creates a few continuity issues.

In an introduction Marusek proclaims the sidebars "generally" not essential to the story but a couple of instances in the main narrative refer to events that happened in them (section headings from the book are used to identify these):

1. CW3 1.0 mentions the "mountain of grief unloaded on [Jace] and Danielle...on Lucky Strike Lane," referring to the shenanigans of Poppy Prophecy and family during a brief spell when they lived next door to Jace. Marusek describes those antics in the sidebar "Sex on a Glacier" (SG1 1.0); if you skip it, you have no idea what he's talking about.

2. More importantly, "Sex on a Glacier" gives the reader an objective description of what Poppy and his family look like to outsiders: a sizeable clan ("Dozens of children played in a yard already worn down to bare dirt... Older children tended goats in a makeshift pen or hauled water in plastic jerry jugs or helped prepare dinner at the fire pit") including three sons who are large and somewhat menacing ("In an instant, the three older boys were surrounding him. The eldest... was tall and dark. The middle one was heavyset and gentle looking. And the fiery youngest one was wearing a patch over his right eye. If Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa and his sons had evil twins, these Prophecys could be them").

Reading the book from the beginning, from Poppy's POV, you don't know the sons are big fellows; Poppy describes them as "boys" and punishes one of them with a switch, creating the impression they're young adolescents, not grown men. Later descriptions eventually reveal their size but this seems more bug than feature.

3. CW2 1.0 in the main narrative also refers to the sidebar (SG1 1.0) descriptions of the "quarrelsome family" in the "lot next to [Jace's] house" that "pulled up stakes" and moved to a new location .

4. The "Sex on a Glacier" sidebar (SG1 1.0) refers to events in a later sidebar (HP1 1.0), confusing the chronology even more. Jace mentions the "odd pioneer family and their encampment" located at the "private parking lot at the end of McHardy Road." The Prophecys' brief control of a town parking is chronicled in the sidebar "A Herd of Picnic Tables" (HP1 1.0), which follows "Sex on a Glacier" at the end of the book.

5. The basic chronology of the Prophecy family, told asynchronously in the book and sidebars, is as follows: they travel from the Anchorage suburb of Palmer to a parking lot (which they camp out in and administer) in the smaller, more remote town of McHardy, then to the house next door to Jace (also in McHardy), then to an abandoned mine in a wilderness area outside of McHardy. The family's management of the parking lot and relocation to the mine are described in sidebars (HP1 1.0 and TM1 1.0, respectively). Well along in the main narrative, in a flashback, Poppy first learns about the town of McHardy and the parking lot is mentioned (LL4 1.0), again, without context. We aren't given any particulars of how the Prophecys actually obtained the parking lot concession when they first settled in McHardy.

Marusek has indicated that Book I may be revised at the time of publication of Books II or III of his saga. The above chronology could be clarified with a few paragraphs in the main story. It might be a good idea, at that time, for the author to kill his babies and ditch those sidebars. They're a distraction.

6. The main narrative (CW4 1.0) uses the phrase "go all kitten on them." This refers to an anecdote in a sidebar, "Kitten of Our Discontent" (KD1 1.0).

late Maigret

Within the framework of short, satisfying detective plots featuring his recurring character "Inspector Maigret," Georges Simenon maintains a steady flow of observations about class, sex roles, economic tensions, and everyday etiquette in mid-20th Century France. In ambition and quality, the project recalls the human comedy of Balzac (who Simenon admired), spread over years of genre installments. Simenon also wrote "real" literature during this period -- stellar books such as Monsieur Hire's Engagement and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By -- but taken as single project, and given changing ideas of the relative value of "genre" within the literary fraternity, the Maigret books are real enough.

The novels don't follow a strict chronology; however, by the time of Maigret and the Lazy Burglar (1961), our intrepid Parisian police functionary is nearing retirement. Simenon meditates on the aging of his character and the changing nature of police work since the series began thirty years before. In the early stories Maigret could run an investigation as he desired, whether it meant wandering the streets waiting for intuitive connections to present themselves, or hauling in suspects and (non-violently) sweating confessions out of them.

By the 1960s, police departments had begun shifting case management and decisionmaking away from inspectors and more towards prosecutors' offices, within a modern, scientific system of justice that, in Maigret's opinion, elevated "exams" and "efficiency" over street knowledge. Meanwhile, the rights of the accused received more recognition than they had in the 1930s -- perhaps in imitation of the American system? Maigret doesn't tell us. Even though he rarely if ever abused his earlier powers, by the time of Lazy Burglar, he resents having the discretion taken away, and especially having to cede it to remote bureaucrats who lack his judgment and life experience. This is less Dirty Harry than it sounds.

In Lazy Burglar [caution: plot points], Maigret covertly rebels against prosecutors by pursuing his own investigation of a case after they have assigned it to another detective, and then rebels again when his digging "solves" the crime. He simply declines to bring the truth to his superiors, reasoning that because the murder victim, a burglar whose professionalism Maigret somewhat admires, is a marginal figure (reminiscent of Monsieur Hire) and the likely murderer a sheltered aristocrat, justice will not be served in any event. Ultimately Maigret retains the Godlike power not to prosecute, which, as the reader well knows, he exercised many times in the course of a long career. Despite the crook's getting away with it, the story has a happy ending, which will not be revealed.

early Maigret

michael wetzel + stanislaw lem



These sculptures by Michael Wetzel appeared in a two-person show (with Jeffrey Tranchell) called Standards of Living at Honey Ramka gallery last year. Of the artworks in the show, these objects most drew my eye and lingered in my thoughts afterward. These are blurry screenshots I made from the gallery's photos and don't do justice to the intricacy of the work, but serve as visual notes to accompany a passage from Fiasco (1986), a Stanislaw Lem novel I am reading for the first time. Lem is describing a field of bizarre, fanciful-seeming mineral deposits on the surface of Saturn's moon, Titan.

For the very reason that here nothing served a purpose -- not ever, not to anyone -- and that here no guillotine of evolution was in play, amputating from every genotype whatever did not contribute to survival, nature, constrained neither by the life she bore nor by the death she inflicted, could achieve liberation, displaying a prodigality characteristic of herself, a limitless wastefulness, a brute magnificence that was useless, an eternal power of creation without a goal, without a need, without a meaning. This truth, gradually penetrating the observer, was more unsettling than the impression that he was witness to a cosmic mimicry of death, or that these were in fact the mortal remains of unknown beings that lay beneath the stormy horizon. So one had to turn upside down one’s natural way of thinking, which was capable of going only in one direction: these shapes were similar to bones, ribs, skulls, and fangs not because they had once served life -- they never had -- but only because the skeletons of terrestrial vertebrates, and their fur, and the chitinous armor of the insects, and the shells of the mollusks all possessed the same architectonics, the same symmetry and grace, since Nature could produce this just as well where neither life nor life’s purposefulness had ever existed, or ever would.

Addendum: The first sentence is eloquent and rather long and at first it seemed ungrammatical (perhaps it's the translation from Polish). The core of it is "nature could achieve liberation" but the word "nature," surrounded by other clauses, tends to get swamped, or appears to be paired as a synonym with the word "survival" that precedes it. Regardless, once you have it, this passage is a good example of Lem's Borgesian talent for extrapolation from known phenomena to create "unthinkable" vistas and thought processes. It comes at the end of a description of a volcanic crater where minerals have run riot over millions of years of geological time to create landscapes that seem like amalgamations of our worst nightmares. There is beauty there, as well, which got me thinking about those quasi-biological Wetzel sculptures. Lem is one of the most visual sf writers, and his book Solaris has been stripped down by film directors into something like a simple love story, when the essence of it is his poetic description of the surreal life forms constantly churning in the Solarian "ocean" and human inability to ever understand them.

Addendum 2: Clearer photos of the artworks