Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Freedom," Jonathan Franzen

Most present-day American archetypes will see a reflection of themselves somewhere in Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom: A Novel."

And they will most likely cringe.

The author may or may not be the second coming of the greatest American novelist, but he is definitely a good, and most American novelist.

And for sure, he forgoes a place in the classical canon with his frequent pop references and appeals to the current national sensibilities, but Franzen's got a few things to say about the people of the United States and gosh darn if he isn't going to say them.

It reportedly took the author 10 years to write "Freedom," but he was not simply grooming something that was drafted in 2002. He followed the nation's progress, or lack of progress as he seems to suggest, growing his story right up until the financial crisis of 2008.

"Freedom" represents the triumph of a kind of literary reporting. Franzen's people swim in the zeitgeist the way we all do, like it or not.

The novel charts a Midwestern family of four's wade through the 1970s all the way to the aforementioned sub-prime market meltdown with a keen eye on what makes an American throughout the epoch under examination.

This family of his mind's creation, the Berglunds, with the help of their antecedents, siblings and offspring, swim in the current of contemporary events without the author ever seeming to stretch things to fit his scheme.

He comments on our ugly national mood, growing intolerance, gaping inequalities, corruptions, perversion and decadence with irrefutable accuracy, sparing none, right. left, straight, gay, Christian, secular, blue or red.

There is a density to the prose. Some have said the author uses too many words, but if that is the case, it is rarely in useless or neurotic digression. The action moves along all the while employing the kind techniques that separate finer literature from a good potboiler.

And for all the darkness and foreboding Franzen thrusts upon his ample readership, he manages to close on an optimistic note, which, too, makes him very American.

All of it while seemingly riffing an effortless path through his own sentiments, when those in the know will understand how much more went into this fine and worthy work.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"The Bed of Procrustes," by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A better title for The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms might have been "Crusts of Bread from a Pro."

The classically accented moniker refers to a character in Greek mythology who fed guests at his road house and, afterward, either cut off some part of their body to fit the bed he offered them, or stretched them to achieve the same.

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb resorts to Procrustes' bed as a parable for modern thought. Taleb says his collection of disparate aphorisms are about the Procrustean bed in which humanity currently reclines, "facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences."

Fair enough, although it was not easy for highwayscribery to see a way that, "You never win an argument until they attack your person," however true, fits into the author‘s main idea of “how we deal, and should deal, with what we don‘t know...”

Not to say that there are no engaging or provoking passages found in this mélange of thoughts plucked from Taleb’s mind. highwayscribery liked this one and found it fitting the author’s purposes:

“Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases.”

Then there is this one, which many would probably take issue with:

“To understand the liberating effect of asceticism, consider that losing all your fortune is much less painful than losing only half of it.”

Tell that to Bernie Madoff’s clients. As a journalist, highwayscribery took exception to this offering as well: “An erudite is someone who displays less than he knows; a journalist or consultant, the opposite.”

In fact, if you’re a businessperson or academic or, worse, hold down a job, you may find yourself among those polluting the purity of classical thought Mr. Taleb so reveres:

“Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee.”

“The Bed of Procrustes,” is littered with criticisms of those who aren’t lucky enough to have Random House pay them for musings conjured during long, carefree walks through a blessed and jobless existence.

There may be, for certain readers, something off-putting about the author’s deigning to know what is right from wrong. These aphorisms imply that Taleb is on the side of the angels he hopes to hook us up with.

To wit: “I suspect that they put Socrates to death because there is something terribly unattractive, alienating, and nonhuman in thinking with too much clarity.”

(The way I, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, do).

Anyway, this assembly of vaguely organized sentiments possesses its gems and is usually entertaining, which may or may not have been the author's intent. You don’t have to agree with every thought you read to be engaged.

Besides, if nobody assumed they were smarter than the rest of us, there'd be no books attempting to advance our thinking.

Perhaps affecting this assessment is the fact highwayscribery is unfamiliar with Taleb’s earlier effort, “The Black Swan,” which appears to be his signature work and the foundation upon which “The Bed of Procrustes” is built.

Which is another way of saying those who seek this book may gain more from than those who are found by it.

"Small Memories," by Jose Saramago

The aptly titled "Small Memories" deals in the earliest recollections of writer Jose Saramago which are, themselves, diminutive in scale.

These memories are "small" because they recall a child, because of their size, and for what they ultimately convey.

The remembrances recorded here do not constitute a breathless page-turner, rather represent a look at the early formation of a future notable.

Childhood is childhood is childhood and only a handful of times does the Noble Prize winner connect the sapling person to the one he would become in full bloom.

That said, pretty soon they won't make memoirs like this anymore. It has been a curious paradox of modernity that so much time would pass before it truly affected all people in all places more or less equally.

While machines hummed and factories rattled, great expanses of the world, even in Old Europe, lagged behind. And literature has reflected this slowly evolving reality.

Writers from such laggard places as Portugal, Saramago's country, have regaled the modern among us with fairy tales rooted in their still-traditional cultures.

These stories offered an alluring literary time-travel, an escape on the time continuum, a chance to go backwards in history and contrast old ways with those foisted upon us by the relentless drive of industrialization to make everyone over in the same image.

Saramago was born in 1922 and died in 2010. He was long-lived and sprung from the rural and pastoral setting of Azingha, complete with farm animals, harvests, and tiny villages featuring operatic occurrences seemingly foreign to the big city or suburb.

And that is where much of "Small Memories" takes place, although he alternated between the capital city of Lisbon and the country home of his grandparents.

Perhaps the most attractive section of this slim tome is the final stanza, penned as a love-letter to the family elders whom offered him that door to Azingha where, he says, "I would one day return to finish being born."

It is probably true that the publishing of this memoir would never have occurred minus Saramago's fame as the author of "Blindness" and other literary tours de force; that, on its own, it is simply not striking enough.

But there are passages where the writer of world-renown surfaces to illuminate a distant time, assembling its simple elements into beautiful literature. We'll close with this remembrance of the young boy and his uncle driving pigs to market, by way of example:

"I sat up in the trough, blinking and still sleepy, dazzled by an unexpected light. I jumped down and went out into the yard: before me, pouring a milky light over the night and the surrounding landscape, was a vast round moon, making the white seem still whiter where the light struck it full on the black shadows still deeper. I would never see a moon like that again. We fetched the pigs and set off very cautiously down into the valley, where the grass was very tall and there were thick shrubs and rocks, and the piglets, not used to being out so early, could easily stray and get lost. Once in the valley, it was easier. We walked along a dusty path, the dust slaked by the cool of night, past vineyards in which the grapes were already ripe, and I leapt in among the vines and cut two large bunches that I slipped inside my shirt, looking around all the while in case a keeper should appear. I returned to the path and handed one to my uncle. We walked on, eating the cold, sweet grapes, so hard they seemed almost crystallized."

Without "Small Memories," this limpid world might have passed without comment. Instead, it is there for those curious enough to visit.