Recent Reading

FWIW, some thoughts from the latest batch of reading:

  • A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith
  • The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Set in a decaying Californian wasteland, PKD dedicates his novel to friends lost to “slow death”, fictionalized as the narcotic Substance D.

An undercover cop Fred poses as small-time dealer and burnout, Bob Arctor. The cop/Bob’s personality cracks after the police task Fred with surveilling himself. Fred must bug his house and analyze recordings of himself/Bob through “a scanner darkly.”

His schizophrenia is intensified by wearing a scramble suit, an outfit that loops “a million and a half physiognomic fraction-representations of various people” and projects all the variations of eye color, hair, facial structure, etc. so that “the wearer of a scramble suit was Everyman.”

Suffering from the psychological demands of auto-surveillance and the physical pains of Substance D withdrawal, the police ask Fred/Bob why he does this line of work. To which he responds, perhaps channeling PKD on why he wrote this novel, “On a horrible positive reason: to have watched a human being you loved deeply, that you had gotten real close to, head and slept with and kissed and worried about and befriended and most of all admired–to see that warm living person burn out from the inside, burnt from the heart outward. Until it clicked and clacked like an insect, repeating one sentence again and again. A recording. A closed loop of tape.”

Definitely a good read, albeit with some disturbing misogynistic undertones.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Crime novels are difficult to describe without giving away too much, but this book earns its praise as a page-turner even if it won’t win a spot on literature lists.

A not-so-newly-wed couple move from NYC to the husband’s hometown in Missouri in search of brighter job prospects. Matrimonial disharmony ensues. Each chapters reveals more knotted coils in the relationship and all the ways the couple will try to sever/untangle/tighten the knot.

It’s a crime novel that manages to be fun to attempt solving while also capturing the little moments between people in love, and in hate, with one another: “Maybe he understands that you’ve made a witty remark, but, unsure of what to do with it, he holds it in his hand like some bit of conversational phlegm he will wipe away later.”

Could be a fitting way to describe finishing this book, too.

NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith takes us through a concatenation of events in NW, the North West of London, a neighborhood years ago could be described as “well-appointed country living for those tired of the city.” Now “Fast forward. Disappointed city living for those tired of their countries.”

The novel is anchored by two NW childhood friends, Leah and Natalie, who now struggle with adulthood. “Overnight everyone has grown up. While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.”

Not knowing much about the real NW, I can’t attest to the novel’s verisimilitude, but little descriptive bits color it well. (The local accent “drops their aitches”, for example.) By trying to compare descriptions of NW with other neighborhoods, one realizes how comparison itself is a central theme of the novel. Leah vs. Natalie, Natalie vs. her husband, haves vs. have-nots, happy vs. sad.

The characters are always measuring themselves against one another, deciding that, for example, “marriage is the art of invidious comparison” or more tellingly, that “happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.”

One can’t help compare NW with other Smith novels, and while this one was a good read, I prefer The Book of Other People and have heard White Teeth is probably her best.

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

This story follows Loeser, a set designer/dilettante, who in 1931 leaves the wild warehouse parties of Berlin for Hollywood in pursuit of the seductive Adele Hitler (no relation).

Loeser is enamored not only by Adele but by a legendary Venetian tinkerer, Lavincini, who built beautiful stage sets and a teleportation device, which “magically” delivered actors from one part of the stage to another. The device was used once, in Paris, in front of Louis XIV.

With the device, Beauman draws an arc from Venice to Paris, to Berlin and Hollywood. And with it follows the debate about special effects: “Enlightened critics [in Venice] complained that genuine dramatic values had been surrendered to this obsession with ‘the marvelous’, continuing a debate about the overuse of special effects that had begun with the Reformation and would presumably last until Hollywood fell into the San Andreas fault.”

In a novel about theater, the theme of masks can’t be far. The main character Loeser is fascinated by Carnival in Venice during which everyone wears a mask so one doesn’t know a prince from a pauper. To Loeser, “the glamour and intrigue of the old Carnival were nothing compared to its unacknowledged political radicalism.” Although he remains pathetically apolitical throughout the novel.

All in all, the book was enjoyable and not a typical of stories set in Germany in the 1930′s. Even now it’s hard to decipher what, if anything, Beauman is saying about that period and just used it as a backdrop.

What else

Any good reading recommendations?

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