I just read the first few chapters of The President in Her Towers, Tom Whalen’s satire of academia—good stuff: short, punchy chapters that illustrate the reality of academia in all its paranoid surreality. Here’s publisher Ellipsis Press’s blurb:
Through the corridors of the university’s Humanities and Sciences Towers, rumors are swirling about the President: her bizarre decrees, her midnight meetings, her strange projects (the Head-in-Progress, the Activated Eye, the Gestation Chamber). The President’s dedicated personal assistant, Thomas (a.k.a. Herr Abjectus), is charged with investigating and reporting on these and other matters, but it won’t be easy—especially since the President has disappeared. And now there is a new rumor: that she has been marked for assassination
At Hark! A Vagrant, satirist supreme Kate Beaton sends up Wuthering Heights. Beaton’s book is now available for preorder.
Even though the plot of War with the Newts may not shock audiences accustomed to its “human-invention-intended-for- good-becomes-in-the-end-not-so-good” story, readers shouldn’t neglect this often-overlooked science-fiction classic from 1937 by notable Czech writer and satirist Karel Capek. Humans, motivated by a range of impulses: greed, curiosity, and sometimes even the best of intentions, have created an uncontrollable menace and brought about the end to their dominion over the planet. Computers, robots, even monkeys have spelled doom for mankind, but Capek warned, in this short and sparkling book, that while masses of intelligent amphibians must be dealt with cautiously, true danger arises from our manipulation of the natural world, the unceasing capitalist drive to increase production by exploiting the weakest, and our inability to foresee the consequences of our actions.
The action begins when a drunk but benevolent sea captain discovers a new species of amphibians inhabiting the waters near an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean. These docile creatures are able to breathe on land, walk on their hind legs, and communicate using rudimentary sounds and gestures. The captain trains them to speak a pidgin English and dive for pearls before arming them so that they might fend off the sharks that prey on their young. Once he receives generous financial backing from a Dutch conglomerate, he ships them to similar islands where pearl harvests have been been impossible or unproductive. Eventually big business determines that the tireless and fecund newts are valuable for the expansion and development of economic activities near the coasts and under the seas and develop a global marketplace for trade in their labor and bodies. Educated, well-equipped, and trained to use with the most advanced technologies, the newts produce the greatest expansion of wealth in the history of the world before taking it all for themselves, returning the continents to the bottom of the ocean while requiring a small cadre of humans, relocated to the mountains, to produce the steel and weapons required to support their new Atlantis.
Written as a history book, Capek brilliantly footnotes his narrative with carefully crafted primary sources: newspaper reports, academic studies, religious tracts, political manifestos and corporate minutes in order to illustrate human reaction to new, unsettling circumstance. A nimble author blessed with the knowledge and skill to write comfortably about a wide variety of subjects, Capek captures both the progressive and cautious voices that shape human reaction to the slow advancement of a new and underestimated intelligence. He shows that agreement against economic interest is impossible; labor, for instance, bemoans loss of work to newt hordes while agriculture comes to rely on the millions of new mouths that have to be fed. Scholars measure, analyze, and categorize; anonymous tract-writers urge an uneasy populace to take up arms against sea-dwelling usurpers while the young and fashionable flock to newt cults, giving themselves up to sexual licentiousness they relish the mysterious and taboo.
But though Capek capably documents trivialities, most of his accounts reflect the time in which he lived and wrote, between the two great European wars, situated between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s new Germany, at the height of colonial exploitation, not yet separated by a century from the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the American Civil War. In a report written by the “Salamander Syndicate,” the organization responsible for the organization and dissemination of the world trade in newts justifies the “humane” husbandry, categorization, and sale of newts according to their physical attributes. Exemplary newts are invited to join committees and expound on their visions for a future shared with humans. Echoes of American abolitionist thought appear in the debates waged in the media regarding the existence of newt art and culture, their assumed “soullessness,” and the minimal levels of education required for their lives as workers.
The newts, masters of human technology, eventually take over. Humans, fleeing to higher ground, are incapable of bringing the fight to the seas. War with the Newts is an indictment not only of our ability to take without question unearned economic value, but also of our inability to halt the mechanisms by which we accrue those benefits once it becomes evident that the process of enrichment, by itself, is detrimental to the common good. This is a very good book, a satire of the institutions that will fail when we need them the most, created by a writer whose demonstrated virtuosity deserves more attention.
I liked pretty much all of the assigned reading in high school (okay, I hated every page of Tess of the D’Ubervilles). Some of the books I left behind, metaphorically at least (Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye), and some books bewildered me, but I returned to them later, perhaps better equipped (Billy Budd; Leaves of Grass). No book stuck with me quite as much as Candide, Voltaire’s scathing satire of the Enlightenment.
I remember being unenthusiastic when my 10th grade English teacher assigned the book—it was the cover, I suppose (I stole the book and still have it), but the novel quickly absorbed all of my attention. I devoured it. It was (is) surreal and harsh and violent and funny, a prolonged attack on all of the bullshit that my 15 year old self seemed to perceive everywhere: baseless optimism, can-do spirit, and the guiding thesis that “all is for the best.” The novel gelled immediately with the Kurt Vonnegut books I was gobbling up, seemed to antecede the Beat lit I was flirting with. And while the tone of the book certainly held my attention, its structure, pacing, and plot enthralled me. I’d never read a book so willing to kill off major characters (repeatedly), to upset and displace its characters, to shift their fortunes so erratically and drastically. Not only did Voltaire repeatedly shake up the fortunes of Candide and his not-so-merry band—Pangloss, the ignorant philosopher; Cunegonde, Candide’s love interest and raison d’etre and her maid the Old Woman; Candide’s valet Cacambo; Martin, his cynical adviser—but the author seemed to play by Marvel Comics rules, bringing dead characters back to life willy nilly. While most of the novels I had been reading (both on my own and those assigned) relied on plot arcs, grand themes, and character development, Candide was (is) a bizarre series of one-damn-thing-happening-after-another. Each chapter was its own little saga, an adventure writ in miniature, with attendant rises and falls. I loved it.
I reread Candide this weekend for no real reason in particular. I’ve read it a few times since high school, but it was never assigned again—not in college, not in grad school—which may or may not be a shame. I don’t know. In any case, the book still rings my bell; indeed, for me it’s the gold standard of picaresque novels, a genre I’ve come to dearly love. Perhaps I reread it with the bad taste of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor still in my mouth. As I worked my way through that bloated mess, I just kept thinking, “Okay, Voltaire did it 200 years earlier, much better and much shorter.”
Revisiting Candide for the first time in years, I find that the book is richer, meaner, and far more violent than I’d realized. Even as a callow youth, I couldn’t miss Voltaire’s attack on the Age of Reason, sustained over a slim 120 pages or so. Through the lens of more experience (both life and reading), I see that Voltaire’s project in Candide is not just to satirize the Enlightenment’s ideals of rationality and the promise of progress, but also to actively destabilize those ideals through the structure of the narrative itself. Voltaire offers us a genuine adventure narrative and punctures it repeatedly, allowing only the barest slivers of heroism—and those only come from his innocent (i.e. ignorant) title character. Candide is topsy-turvy, steeped in both irony and violence.
As a youth, the more surreal aspects of the violence appealed to me. (An auto-da-fé! Man on monkey murder! Earthquakes! Piracy! Cannibalizing buttocks!). The sexy illustrations in the edition I stole from my school helped intrigue me as well—
The self who read the book this weekend still loves a narrative steeped in violence—I can’t help it—Blood Meridian, 2666, the Marquis de Sade, Denis Johnson, etc.—but I realize now that, despite its occasional cartoonish distortions, Candide is achingly aware of the wars of Europe and the genocide underway in the New World. Voltaire by turns attacks rape and slavery, serfdom and warfare, always with a curdling contempt for the powers that be.
But perhaps I’ve gone too long though without quoting from this marvelous book, so here’s a passage from the last chapter that perhaps gives summary to Candide and his troupe’s rambling adventures: by way of context (and, honestly spoiling nothing), Candide and his friends find themselves eking out a living in boredom (although not despair) and finding war still raging around them (no shortage of heads on spikes); Candide’s Cunegonde is no longer fair but “growing uglier everyday” (and shrewish to boot!), Pangloss no longer believes that “it is the best of all worlds” they live in, yet he still preaches this philosophy, Martin finds little solace in the confirmation of his cynicism and misanthropy, and the Old Woman is withering away to death. The group finds their only entertainment comes from disputing abstract questions—
But when they were not arguing, their boredom became so oppressive that one day the old woman was driven to say, “I’d like to know which is worse: to be raped a hundred times by Negro pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the guantlet in the Bulgar army, to be whipped and hanged in an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to be a galley slave—in short, to suffer all the miseries we’ve all gone through—or stay here and do nothing.
“That’s a hard question,” said Candide.
It’s amazing that over 200 years ago Voltaire posits boredom as an existential dilemma equal to violence; indeed, as its opposite. (I should stop and give credit here to Lowell Blair’s marvelous translation, which sheds much of the finicky verbiage you might find in other editions in favor of a dry, snappy deadpan, characterized in Candide’s rejoinder above). The book’s longevity might easily be attributed to its prescience, for Voltaire’s uncanny ability to swiftly and expertly assassinate all the rhetorical and philosophical veils by which civilization hides its inclinations to predation and straight up evil. But it’s more than that. Pointing out that humanity is ugly and nasty and hypocritical is perhaps easy enough, but few writers can do this in a way that is as entertaining as what we find in Candide. Beyond that entertainment factor, Candide earns its famous conclusion: “We must cultivate our garden,” young (or not so young now) Candide avers, a simple, declarative statement, one that points to the book’s grand thesis: we must work to overcome poverty, ignorance, and, yes, boredom. I’m sure, gentle, well-read reader, that you’ve read Candide before, but I’d humbly suggest to read it again.
As always, the stack overfloweth. Here are a few of the more interesting titles that have landed at Biblioklept International Headquarters recently.
Banana Republican is the first novel by historian Eric Rauchway. The book is a send up of American Imperialism in the 1920s, satirizing the naked greed, corrupt capitalism, and ugly jingoism that infused the rise of the global economy. Fortunately, all of these ills have left American foreign policy forever, right? Satire! Seriously though, Banana Republican looks to the past to reveal that our current foreign debacles are merely an extension of policies that have been around for decades. The protagonist is Tom Buchanan (yes, that Tom Buchanan, the racist football-playing, mistress-slapping lout of The Great Gatsby). Rauchway sends Buchanan into the fiasco of American intervention in Nicaragua in the early 20th century. In an interview with The St. Petersburg Times, Rauchway points out how this scenario allows for an exploration of the American dream from a decidedly different viewpoint than the one we find in Fitzgerald—-
People always see Gatsby as the novel about the American dream. But the character who represents that dream of upward mobility ends up floating facedown in a swimming pool. Tom Buchanan represents the real American dream: having it all and not having to suffer the consequences. I wanted to get away from the somewhat suspect view of the narrator in Gatsby and let Tom speak for himself. . . .
I was interested in writing about the irresponsibility of American foreign policy, so if you take Tom Buchanan in the 1920s, where are we? We’re in Nicaragua. When you look at American foreign policy, in Europe we do pretty well. In South America, not so much. And there’s that tradition in places that are on the edges of empire: Dissolute people get to go there and act badly and no one calls them on it.
Evgenia Citkowitz’s Ether collects seven short stories and a novella, all united by psychological and emotional complexity. Citkowitz’s characters explore moral dilemmas as they quest for identity, and if that sounds like the stock of contemporary fiction (which it is), the prose, terse, often chilly, and darkly funny, is what set these apart. Here’s Ligaya Mishan, reviewing the hardback edition last year in The New York Times—
Citkowitz’s book is peopled by mothers and fathers who are fumblers at best, unrepentant alcoholics at worst. A few are simply absentees, like the father of Beatty, the British schoolgirl in “Leavers’ Events,” who is omitted from family suppers, “disqualified by his status as a heroin addict.” The girl’s mother, a high-level fashion editor, is hardly more present. The only grown-up in Beatty’s life who actually behaves like one is, oddly enough, the rakish novelist she invites to the opera. After initiating a lazy seduction, he wisely thinks better of it. Again, Citkowitz flouts expectations: her heroine may be momentarily crushed, but soon she has moved to New York, ascended the editorial ladder at a chic magazine, landed her own office and effectively supplanted her mother — a modern-day Electra.
In his promo vid (below) for The Oregon Experiment, author Keith Scribner suggests that, ”It’s a novel that explores the ways in which the political, the social, the personal, the domestic are inseparable.” Those are some pretty grand claims, so here are the details: The Oregon Experiment recounts the story of Scanlon and Naomi Pratt, a couple who move from the East Coast to Oregon, where Scanlon begins his first tenure-track job as a professor who studies radical action mass movements. Naomi was once a “genius nose” who worked for perfume companies, but she’s lost her sense of smell; she’s also pregnant with the couple’s first child. Scanlon quickly becomes enamored of Oregon, and becomes particularly intrigued by local separatists and anarchists; Naomi’s nose returns, but she isn’t quite as thrilled as Scanlon about the new scene (particularly Scanlon’s enchantment with Sequoia, leader of the secessionists), although she does connect with Scanlon’s young subject Clay, an anarchist. Scribner propels his novel with ideas rendered in crisp, realistic dialogue. The Oregon Experiment is new from Knopf.