Blog about Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Schrödinger’s Cat”

Screenshot 2018-04-08 at 7.02.26 PM

Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1982 short story “Schrödinger’s Cat” is a tale about living in radical uncertainty. The story is perhaps one of the finest examples of postmodern literature I’ve ever read. Playful, funny, surreal, philosophical, and a bit terrifying, the story is initially frustrating and ultimately rewarding.

While I think “Schrödinger’s Cat” has a thesis that will present itself to anyone who reads it more than just once or twice, the genius of the story is in Le Guin’s rhetorical construction of her central idea. She gives us a story about radical uncertainty by creating radical uncertainty in her reader, who will likely find the story’s trajectory baffling on first reading. Le Guin doesn’t so much eschew as utterly disrupt the traditional form of a short story in “Schrödinger’s Cat”: setting, characters, and plot are all presented in a terribly uncertain way.

The opening line points to some sort of setting and problem. Our first-person narrator tells us: “As things appear to be coming to some sort of climax, I have withdrawn to this place.” The vagueness of “things,” “some sort,” and “this place” continues throughout the tale, but are mixed with surreal, impossible, and precise images.

The first characters the narrator introduces us to are a “married couple who were coming apart. She had pretty well gone to pieces, but he seemed, at first glance, quite hearty.” The break up here is literal, not just figurative—this couple is actually falling apart, fragmenting into pieces. (Although the story will ultimately place under great suspicion that adverb actually). Le Guin’s linguistic play points to language’s inherent uncertainty, to the undecidability of its power to fully refer. As the wife’s person falls into a heap of limbs, the husband wryly observes, “My wife had great legs.” Horror mixes with comedy here. The pile of fragmented parts seems to challenge the reader to put the pieces together in some new way. “Well, the couple I was telling you about finally broke up,” our narrator says, and then gives us a horrific image of the pair literally broken up:

The pieces of him trotted around bouncing and cheeping, like little chicks; but she was finally reduced to nothing but a mass of nerves: rather like fine chicken wire, in fact, but hopelessly tangled.

Nothing but a mass of nerves hopelessly tangled: one description of the postmodern condition.

The bundle of tangled nerves serves as something that our narrator must resist, and resistance takes the form of storytelling: “Yet the impulse to narrate remains,” we’re told. Narration creates order—a certain kind of certainty—in a radically uncertain world. The first-time reader, meanwhile, searches for a thread to untangle.

Like the first-time reader, our poor narrator is still terribly awfully apocalyptically uncertain. The narrator briefly describes the great minor uncertain grief she feels, a grief without object: “…I don’t know what I grieve for: my wife? my husband? my children, or myself? I can’t remember. My dreams are forgotten…”  Is grief without object the problem of the postmodern, post-atomic world? “Schrödinger’s Cat” posits one version of uncertainty as a specific grief , a kind of sorrow for a loss that cannot be named. The story’s conclusion offers hope as an answer to this grief—another kind of uncertainty, but an uncertainty tempered in optimism.

This optimism has to thrive against a surreal apocalyptic backdrop of speed and heat—a world that moves too fast to comprehend, a world in which stove burners can’t be switched Off—we have only heat, fire, entropy. How did folks react? —

In the face of hot stove burners they acted with exemplary coolness. They studied, they observed. They were like the fellow in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, who has clapped his hands over his face in horror as the devils drag him down to Hell—but only over one eye. The other eye is looking. It’s all he can do, but he does it. He observes. Indeed, one wonders if Hell would exist, if he did not look at it.

Screenshot 2018-04-08 at 7.02.50 PM

—Hey, like that’s Le Guin’s mythological take on Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment!—or at least, part of it.

(Hell exists because we keep one eye on it, folks. Look away, maybe).

I have failed to mention the titular cat thus far. Schrödinger’s cat is the Cheshire cat, the ultimate escape artist and trickster par excellence who triggers this tale (tail?!). He shows up to hang out with the narrator.

Le Guin peppers her story with little cat jokes that highlight the instability of language: “They reflect all day, and at night their eyes reflect.” As the thermodynamic heat of the universe cools around our narrator and the feline, the narrator remarks that the story’s setting is cooler— “Here as I said it is cooler; and as a matter of fact, this animal is cool. A real cool cat.” In “Schrödinger’s Cat,” Le Guin doubles her meanings and language bears its own uncertainty.

A dog enters into the mix. Le Guin’s narrator initially thinks he’s a mailman, but then “decides” he is a small dog. The narrator quickly decides that not only is the non-mailman a dog, she also decides that his name is Rover. In naming this entity, the narrator performs an act of agency in a world of entropy—she makes certain (at least momentarily) an uncertain situation.

Our boy Rover immediately calls out Schrödinger’s cat, and gives the narrator (and the reader) a fuzzy precis of the whole experiment, an experiment that will definitely give you a Yes or No answer: The cat is either alive or the cat is not alive at the end of our little quantum boxing. Poor Rover gives us a wonderful endorsement of the experiment: “So it is beautifully demonstrated that if you desire certainty, any certainty, you must create it yourself!” Rover gives us an unintentionally ironic definition of making meaning in a postmodern world. Agency falls to the role of the reader/agent, who must decide (narrate, choose, and write) in this fragmented world.

For Rover, Schrödinger’s thought experiment offers a certain kind of certitude: the cat is alive or dead, a binary, either/or. Rover wants to play out the experiment himself—force the cat into the box and get, like, a definitive answer. But the curious playful narrator pricks a hole in the experiment: “Why don’t we get included in the system?” the narrator questions the dog. It’s too much for him, a layer too weird on an already complex sitch. “I can’t stand this terrible uncertainty,” Rover replies, and then bursts into tears. (Our wordy-clever narrator remarks sympathy for “the poor son of a bitch”).

The narrator doesn’t want Rover to carry out the experiment, but the cat itself jumps into the box. Rover and narrator wait in a moment of nothingness before the somethingness of revelation might happen when they lift the lid. In the meantime, the narrator thinks of Pandora and her box:

I could not quite recall Pandora’s legend. She had let all the plagues and evils out of the box, of course, but there had been something else too. After all the devils were let loose, something quite different, quite unexpected, had been left. What had it been? Hope? A dead cat? I could not remember.

Le Guin tips her hand a bit here, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great dark romantic she is heir to; she hides her answer in ambiguous plain sight. Hope is the answer. But hope is its own radical uncertainty, an attitudinal answer to the postmodern problem—but ultimately a non-answer. The only certainty is non-certainty.

What of the conclusion? Well, spoiler: “The cat was, of course, not there,” when Rover and narrator open the box. But that’s not the end. The last lines of Le Guin’s story see “the roof of the house…lifted off just like the lid of a box” — so the setting of our tale this whole time, as we should have guessed, was inside the apocalyptic thought experiment of Schrödinger. Apocalyptic in all sense of the word—in the connotation of disaster, but also revelation. The revelation though is a revelation of uncertainty. In the final line, the narrator, musing that she will miss the cat, wonders “if he found what it was we lost.”

What I think Le Guin points to here as the “it” that we lost in these hot and fast times is the radical uncertainty of hope.

Advertisements

Portrait of Ursula K. Le Guin — Bill Sienkiewicz

duvls2lvwaanjbk

Portrait of Ursula K. Le Guin by Bill Sienkiewicz, via his Twitter

A review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven

The City I Dream, Victor Brauner

George Orr is not well. The meek protagonist of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven abuses prescription drugs in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to stop himself from falling asleep. Orr doesn’t want to sleep because he believes that his dreams come true—that they literally alter reality—but in such a way that no one but Orr realizes that the world has changed. Orr gets caught using a “Pharmacy Card” that doesn’t belong to him, and is court-ordered to begin treatment with a sleep research psychiatrist, Dr. William Haber. Although Haber initially doesn’t believe Orr’s claim to be cursed with “effective dreams” that transform reality, he soon realizes that Orr’s dreams somehow do come true. Then, via hypnotic suggestion (and an “Augmentor” device), Haber begins wielding Orr’s gift/curse as a clumsy tool to “better” the world.

The world of The Lathe of Heaven is grim, gray, dystopian. Published in 1971 and set in Portland in the palindromic year of 2002, Le Guin’s novel is depressingly prescient. Not only does she capture the onset of seventies malaise (the ashes of hope that burned out in the sixties), she also points to a future of environmental catastrophe:

Very little light and air got down to street level; what there was was warm and full of fine rain. Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth—70° F on the second of March—was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising…

This is also a world of urban sprawl, overpopulation, malnutrition, and total war (a clusterfuck in the Middle East, wouldn’t you know). The government is a vague and menacing presence here—vaguely totalitarian, vaguely Big Brotheresque. We learn of the “New Federal Constitution of 1984,” one of many references to Orwell’s book. (The most obvious is our passive hero’s name).

So it’s no wonder that Haber sets about to create a utopia, right? Wouldn’t you, like, try to make the world a better place if you could? Haber is repeatedly described as a “benevolent man”—Le Guin withholds the word dictator—but the central theme comes through repeatedly: Is it possible to alter reality for the greater good? Or do we simply exist in nature, a part of everything around us?

Haber’s experiments with Orr’s mind have unintended consequences. How might we, say, cure overpopulation? How about an awful plague. Orr’s “effective dreams” revise history, rewrite reality, remap consciousness. But he’s never quite able to pull off the massive tasks Haber sets for him—end racism, end war, cure the damaged ecosystem (Le Guin is extremely pessimistic on this last front). Orr is burdened with the consciousness of multiple realities, and feels deep guilt for his role in uncreation. He starts to go crazy:

“I am cracking,” he said. “You must see that. You’re a psychiatrist. Don’t you see that I’m going to pieces? Aliens from outer space attacking Earth! Look: if you ask me to dream again, what will you get? Maybe a totally insane world, the product of an insane mind. Monsters, ghosts, witches, dragons, transformations—all the stuff we carry around in us, all the horrors of childhood, the night fears, the nightmares. How can you keep all that from getting loose? I can’t stop it. I’m not in control!”

Continue reading “A review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven”

Read Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Stars Below”

“The Stars Below”

by

Ursula K. Le Guin


The wooden house and outbuildings caught fire fast, blazed up, burned down, but the dome, built of lathe and plaster above a drum of brick, would not burn. What they did at last was heap up the wreckage of the telescopes, the instruments, the books and charts and drawings, in the middle of the floor under the dome, pour oil on the heap, and set fire to that. The flames spread to the wooden beams of the big telescope frame and to the clockwork mechanisms. Villagers watching from the foot of the hill saw the dome, whitish against the green evening sky, shudder and turn, first in one direction then in the other, while a black and yellow smoke full of sparks gushed from the oblong slit: an ugly and uncanny thing to see.

It was getting dark, stars were showing in the east. Orders were shouted. The soldiers came down the road in single file, dark men in dark harness, silent.

The villagers at the foot of the hill stayed on after the soldiers had gone. In a life without change or breadth, a fire is as good as a festival. They did not climb the hill, and as the night grew full dark they drew closer together. After a while they began to go back to their villages. Some looked back over their shoulders at the hill, where nothing moved. The stars turned slowly behind the black beehive of the dome, but it did not turn to follow them.

About an hour before daybreak a man rode up the steep zigzag, dismounted by the ruins of the workshops, and approached the dome on foot. The door had been smashed in. Through it, a reddish haze of light was visible, very dim, coming from a massive support-beam that had fallen and had smoldered all night inward to its core. A hanging, sour smoke thickened the air inside the dome. A tall figure moved there and its shadow moved with it, cast upward on the murk. Sometimes it stooped, or stopped, then blundered slowly on.

The man at the door said: “Guennar! Master Guennar!”

The man in the dome stopped still, looking towards the door. He had just picked up something from the mess of wreckage and half-burnt stuff on the floor. He put this object mechanically into his coat pocket, still peering at the door. He came towards it. His eyes were red and swollen almost shut, he breathed harshly in gasps, his hair and clothes were scorched and smeared with black ash.

“Where were you?”

The man in the dome pointed vaguely at the ground. Continue reading “Read Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Stars Below””

If civilization has an opposite, it is war (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “integrity of the Kingdom’s borders,” lectures in history and ethics and economics, all in a ranting, canting, emotional tone that went shrill with vituperation or adulation. He talked much about pride of country and love of the parentland, but little about shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige. Had Karhide lost so much prestige in the Sinoth Valley business that the subject could not be brought up? No; for he often talked about the Sinoth Valley. I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something which the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness… Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both. It seemed to me as I listened to Tibe’s dull fierce speeches that what he sought to do by fear and by persuasion was to force his people to change a choice they had made before their history began, the choice between those opposites.

From Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The bold emphases are mine—mea culpa, I couldn’t help it.

On Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels

 

img_1190

“Are we not Men?”

— The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells (1896)

“A country, a people…Those are strange and very difficult ideas.”

— Four Ways to Forgivenss, Ursula K. Le Guin (1995)

—Each of the novels in Ursula K. Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle obliquely addresses Wells’s question by tackling those strange and very difficult ideas of “a country, a people.” The best of these Hainish books do so in a manner that synthesizes high-adventure sci-fi fantasy with dialectical philosophy.

—What am I calling here “the best”? Well—

The Left Hand of Darkness

Planet of Exile/City of Illusions (treat as one novel in two discursive parts)

The Dispossessed

—(How oh how oh how dare I rank The Dispossessed—clearly a masterpiece, nay?—so low on that little list? It’s too dialectical, maybe? Too light on the, uh, high adventure stuff, on the fantasy and romance and sci-fi. Its ideas are too finely wrought, well thought out, expertly cooked (in contrast to the wonderful rawness of Rocannon’s World, for example). None of this is to dis The Dispossessed—it’s probably the best of the Hainish books, and the first one casual readers should attend to. (It was also the first one I read way back when in high school)).

—The novels in Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle are

Rocannon’s World (1966)

Planet of Exile (1966)

City of Illusions (1967)

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The Dispossessed (1974)

The Word for World is Forest (1976)

Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995)

The Telling (2000)

—Okay, so I decided to include For Ways to Forgiveness in the above list even though most people wouldn’t call it a “novel” — but its four stories (novellas, really) are interconnected and tell a discrete story of two interconnected planets that are part of the Hainish world. And I pulled a quote from it above. So.

—I read, or reread, Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle close to the chronological order proposed by the science fiction writer Ian Watson. I don’t necessarily recommend this order.

—(I keep modifying “Hainish cycle” with “so-called” because the books aren’t really a cycle. Le Guin’s world-building isn’t analogous to Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. (Except when her world-building is analogous). But let us return to order).

Le Guin on the subject:

People write me nice letters asking what order they ought to read my science fiction books in — the ones that are called the Hainish or Ekumen cycle or saga or something. The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones. And some great discontinuities (like, what happened to “mindspeech” after Left Hand of Darkness? Who knows? Ask God, and she may tell you she didn’t believe in it any more.)

OK, so, very roughly, then:

Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions: where they fit in the “Hainish cycle” is anybody’s guess, but I’d read them first because they were written first. In them there is a “League of Worlds,” but the Ekumen does not yet exist.

—I agree with the author. Read this trilogy first. Read it as one strange book.

—(Or—again—pressed for time and wanting only the essential, read The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness—but you already knew that, no?).

Continue reading “On Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels”

Commodified fantasy takes no risks (Ursula K. LeGuin)

All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn into millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos becomes elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.

It’s unsettling. For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable.

We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go “there and back again,” and there is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill… So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.

And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.

Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth- telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.

What the commodifiers of fantasy count on and exploit is the insuperable imagination of the reader, child or adult, which gives even these dead things life—of a sort, for a while.

Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea. The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.

We have inhabited both the actual and the imaginary realms for a long time. But we don’t live in either place the way our parents or ancestors did. Enchantment alters with age, and with the age.

We know a dozen different Arthurs now, all of them true. The Shire changed irrevocably even in Bilbos lifetime. Don Quixote went riding out to Argentina and met Jorge Luis Borges there. Plus c’est la meme chose, plus fa change.

From Ursula K. LeGuin’s foreword to her 2001 collection Tales from Earthsea.

What if art is not communicative? | Ursula K. Le Guin

“Editorial. By the President of the Therolinguistics Association”

by

Ursula K. Le Guin

from

“The Author of the Acacia Seeds And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics


What is Language?

This question, central to the science of therolinguistics, has been answered—heuristically—by the very existence of the science. Language is communication. That is the axiom on which all our theory and research rest, and from which all our discoveries derive; and the success of the discoveries testifies to the validity of the axiom. But to the related, yet not identical question, What is Art? we have not yet given a satisfactory answer.

Tolstoy, in the book whose title is that very question, answered it firmly and clearly: Art, too, is communication. This answer has, I believe, been accepted without examination or criticism by therolinguists. For example: Why do therolinguists study only animals?

Why, because plants do not communicate.

Plants do not communicate; that is a fact. Therefore plants have no language; very well; that follows from our basic axiom. Therefore, also, plants have no art. But stay! That does not follow from the basic axiom, but only from the unexamined Tolstoyan corollary.

What if art is not communicative?

Or, what if some art is communicative, and some art is not?

Ourselves animals, active, predators, we look (naturally enough) for an active, predatory, communicative art; and when we find it, we recognise it. The development of this power of recognition and the skills of appreciation is a recent and glorious achievement.

But I submit that, for all the tremendous advances made by therolinguistics during the last decades, we are only at the beginning of our age of discovery. We must not become slaves to our own axioms. We have not yet lifted our eyes to the vaster horizons before us. We have not faced the almost terrifying challenge of the Plant.

If a non-communicative, vegetative art exists, we must rethink the very elements of our science, and learn a whole new set of techniques.

For it is simply not possible to bring the critical and technical skills appropriate to the study of Weasel murder mysteries, or Batrachian erotica, or the tunnel sagas of the earthworm, to bear on the art of the redwood or the zucchini.

This is proved conclusively by the failure—a noble failure—of the efforts of Dr. Srivas, in Calcutta, using time-lapse photography, to produce a lexicon of Sunflower. His attempt was daring, but doomed to failure. For his approach was kinetic—a method appropriate to the communicative arts of the tortoise, the oyster, and the sloth. He saw the extreme slowness of the kinesis of plants, and only that, as the problem to be solved.

But the problem was far greater. The art he sought, if it exists, is a non-communicative art: and probably a non-kinetic one. It is possible that Time, the essential element, matrix, and measure of all known animal art, does not enter into vegetable art at all. The plants may use the meter of eternity. We do not know.

We do not know. All we can guess is that the putative Art of the Plant is entirely different from the Art of the Animal. What it is, we cannot say; we have not yet discovered it. Yet I predict with some certainty that it exists, and that when it is found it will prove to be, not an action, but a reaction: not a communication, but a reception. It will be exactly the opposite of the art we know and recognise. It will be the first passive art known to us.

Can we in fact know it? Can we ever understand it?

It will be immensely difficult. That is clear. But we should not despair. Remember that so late as the mid-twentieth century, most scientists, and many artists, did not believe that Dolphin would ever be comprehensible to the human brain—or worth comprehending! Let another century pass, and we may seem equally laughable. “Do you realise,” the phytolinguist will say to the aesthetic critic, “that they couldn’t even read Eggplant?” And they will smile at our ignorance, as they pick up their rucksacks and hike on up to read the newly deciphered lyrics of the lichen on the north face of Pike’s Peak.

And with them, or after them, may there not come that even bolder adventurer—the first geolinguist, who, ignoring the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen, will read beneath it the still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.

Bulgakov, Bowles, Gass (Books acquired 31 March 2017)

I like to shuffle around my favorite used bookstore on Fridays if I have a loose hour. This afternoon, I picked up three: A first-ed. U.S. hardback Bulgakov, an Ecco-Press-imitating-Black-Sparrow-Press Paul Bowles, and a stately-but-too-stately-too-prestigish-(as-opposed-to-“prestigious”) copy of William H. Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. 

I read the devastating  “The Pedersen Kid,” the first novella in the In the Heart of the Heart of the Country collection of collected novellas a few years ago when I checked this book out of the library. Some helpful joker inscribed a map in this copy:

img_5637

Said joker also appended three ball pen inked cursive notes to the end of the tale:

“Coming-of age

Christ / resurrection

Oedipal”

I think I read the next story (it’s much shorter), “Mrs. Mean,” but I confess I can’t recall it right now. I do remember returning the book to the library though.

The design of the Paul Bowles Ecco Press edition of The Spider’s House kinda sorta matches the design of In the Heart of the Heart of the Heart of the Heart (Nonpareil Books, btw). I recently finished Up Above the World (after reading and being slightly-disappointed in the more-lauded debut The Sheltering Sky). I liked Up Above the World’s sinister slow-burn. My understanding is that The Spider’s House is considered superior, so we’ll see. (2017 is turning into The Year I Finally Read Paul Bowles).

Mikhail Bulgakov’s samizdat Soviet-era novel Master and Margarita has improved in my memory; reviewing my review of it a few years ago, I find that I remember it fondly, and stronger. (I wrote that it “sags at times”; I don’t remember the saggy bits, but I recall its fun effervescent evil bits).

Anyway, I couldn’t pass up on this first-edition U.S. copy (1968 Harcourt, Brace & World) of Bulgakov’s novel The Heart of a Dog (English translation by Michael Glenny, with jacket design by Applebaum & Curtis, Inc.).

I also took note of this cover for Edges, a 1980 sci-fi anthology edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Virginia Kidd (and featuring authors like Thomas Disch and Gene Wolfe)—but I didn’t pick it up, mostly because I didn’t particularly have any desire to read it, even though a much younger version of me out there would’ve loved to read it. I mean, I was thinking about that younger version of me out there; maybe that version—a different version of course—will find it.

img_5630

Le Guin/Abish/Farber (Books 2.03.2017)

img_5054-1

I picked up this handsome hardback collection of early Ursula K. LeGuin stories last Friday when I went to my local used bookshop. I was there looking for something else.

I wasn’t looking for stories by Walter Abish (and I can’t remember how or why I picked this up, but I read part of it in the store…I mean I can’t recall why I was in the “A’s” for Atwood or Abish):

img_5055-1

And I wasn’t looking for essays by Jerry Farber (this weird mass market paperback was crammed into a completely wrong section—misshelved as if someone was trying to hide it. The font on the spine prompted me to pull it out, and I knew that the guy had written “The Student as Nigger”….I started reading “Why People Love Capitalism” and decided to pick it up):

img_5056-1

What I was looking for was Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky, which is prominent on my to-read list after devouring The Stories of Paul Bowles. But I simply couldn’t come to terms with these covers:

img_4987

I mean, look, I know I shouldn’t care about the cover, but these are dreadful, and it this point if I’m going to own a paper book, it needs to have some aesthetic merit. Aesthetic merit like the cover for this collection:

img_4985-1

(I didn’t pick it up because the seven stories are in The Stories of Paul Bowles).

A last thought on covers:

The people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both (Ursula K. Le Guin)

In high school I was, like many American intellectual kids, a stranger in a strange land. I made the Berkeley Public Library my refuge, and lived half my life in books. Not only American books—English and French novels and poetry, Russian novels in translation. Transported unexpectedly to college in another strange land, the East Coast, I majored in French lit and went on reading European lit on my own. I felt more at home in some ways in Paris in 1640 or Moscow in 1812 than in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1948.

Much as I loved my studies, their purpose was to make me able to earn a living as a teacher, so I could go on writing. And I worked hard at writing short stories. But here my European orientation was a problem. I wasn’t drawn to the topics and aims of contemporary American realism. I didn’t admire Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, or Edna Ferber. I did admire John Steinbeck, but knew I couldn’t write that way. In The New Yorker, I loved Thurber, but skipped over John O’Hara to read the Englishwoman Sylvia Townsend Warner. Most of the people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both. Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there.

These are the first two paragraphs of an excerpt of Ursula K. Le Guin’s introduction to her collection The Complete Orsinia; the excerpt was published in The Paris Review this week.

Three Books

img_3268

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. First edition mass market paperback from Ace Books, 1969. The marvelous Klimtish cover is by Leo & Diane Dillon. I wrote about the novel here.

img_3270-1

The Order of the Day by Marcio Souza. English translation by Thomas Colchie. First edition mass market trade paperback by Bard/Avon, 1986. No illustrator credited.

img_3267

Neuromancer by William Gibson. 1988 mass market trade paperback by Ace Books. Cover art by Richard Berry. A friend foisted this on me; I never gave it back, which was wrong. I don’t think I can overstate how important this book (and the following two in the so-called “Sprawl Trilogy”) were to me in the late nineties. In fact, Gibson was one of the first things I wrote about on this blog. (Don’t click on that link; the early days of this blog were Bad).

Le Guin/Corvo (Books acquired, 4.27.2016)


Thanks, Jon. 

I conclude now I have no inner resources (Reading/Have Read/Should Write About)

img_2152

For twenty years now Berryman’s line I conclude now I have no inner resources has been plinking around the inside of my dumb skull. The line is plinking like crazy lately, as I shuffle final exam essays into some kind of order (what order?) that might align with my ability to offer the student, the writer, some meaningful note, some suggestion for improvement, some revelatory remark. Plink plink plink. No inner resources.

It is bad to start with a complaint so I will dress up the preceding paragraph (I dress it mentally) as an apologia. (Why the hell did I decide to write about books online?!).

I’ve been reading some really great books lately, folks. People, yes, you, listen. It’s not true that I have no inner resources. I am unstuck as a reader. I’m all gummed up with what I’ve read. Well-fed. And yet I go to scribble out a, like, review and plink plink plink. Nothing.

But like I said, the reading’s been really good. From the bottom up:

Let me strongly recommend American Candide by Mahendra Singh. I recommend this book for people who enjoy laughing at tragedies that should otherwise make them weep. You can and should purchase this book from Rosarium.

tumblr_o6f5s07t9a1s4y9aso1_1280
Illustration to American Candide by Mahendra Singh

Above American Candide in the stack so lazily pictured above is Yuri Herrera’s neon noir novella The Transmigration of Bodies, which I also highly recommend. I managed a few words on it here.

If you were to describe Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle 1956 book to me, I might politely decline with a small gesture of my hand. It’s about a guy who takes mescaline and writes about the experience and he draws these pictures and then he later takes “Indian hemp” and compares it— you might say to me, you, knowing as you know that I dig weird books, but I would cut you off at with an em dash, polite but firm, Not interested in drug novels these days (and besides dude, you know that Aldous Huxley did kinda the same thing at kinda the same time). And then you, having the book with you might press it into my hand, declaring, No, look

img_2156 img_2154 img_2155 img_2158

—and I would say Thanks and consume the book in two sittings.

And so after a few years of false starts, I finally broke through the second chapter of Stanley Elkin’s satire The Franchiser. The many years of recommendations, exhortations (and scoldings) to read The fucking Franchiser were correct and good and now appreciated, as I work my way into the novel’s rich fat middle—but I admit it was Mr. William Gass who finally sold me on a commitment. I read his introduction published elsewhere—in A Temple of Texts—and that was that.

Thanks to Jon for sending me Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay collection The Language of the Night. The collection collects the collective introductions to Le Guin’s so-called Hainish collection, which I read this winter, and wrote about here. Not one of my editions featured the reflections Le Guin (or more likely her editors) called “Introductions” in later essays, and reading the Hainish intros is, in a very slight sense, like rereading those books. Lovely.

Last and never least: Tom Clark’s The Last Gas Station and Other Stories. I’ve thought often of Clark’s poems as stories pretending to be poems so maybe these are poems pretending to be stories. Or maybe I have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about. (Plink plink plink). I read most of them except for the longest one, “Incident at Basecamp,” which I will save save save for the future, an old habit, maybe a bad habit, that, to read all but one story in a collection, to maybe keep the collection afresh somehow or not wholly discovered—eh? Plink plink plink. Wag.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of DarknessI’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. I love Le Guin’s novel, by the way, and wrote about it here.  More one-star Amazon reviews].


 

I burned this book

I don’t have a college education

I started reading this book years ago

How they kemmer (Another word for mating)?

I find the use of made up language difficult to interpret

The Left Hand of Darkness it nothing but some sort of feminist garbage

After reading just over 100 pages of this utterly worthless book

no depth of character or feeling coming thu

I was just forced to read this book

I don’t care what her father did

I haven’t read hardly any Sci Fi

as good as a warm cup of milk

no story whatsoever

no plot

I’ve read a lot of scifi

I read couple of chapters

I was forced to read this novel

I will NOT be reading any more Sci Fi

I was a biology and psychology major in college back in the mid 70’s

I think she was trying to impress people back when she originally wrote the book

Ask youself why people keep on bringing up the fact that her father was an anthropologist?

Being an honors lit. student thu high scool and college, I am no stranger to classic lit

minor cultural concepts (language, religion, hierarchy)

there are no kemmering in a pornographic sense

I could NOT follow what was even going on

I’m still trying to read my way through

My taste is sophisticated

I love Sci Fi on TV

no excitement

I read 75%

just a description of a planet

He certainly isn’t particularly manful

Give me a setting that isn’t a prescription for Prozac waiting to happen!

the jumping from old folklore stories on the planet and the tale being told

she gives characters such crazy names that it’s hard to remember who’s who

I read up to the chapter where the main character was imprisoned, and I don’t care

Some cultures belong in a petri dish and should be treated with biocide rather than respect

a totalitarian pesthole notable only for the biological oddity of its people

Is Ursula Le Guin the worst writer in American history?

dated, cumbersome and boring

Enough said

boring

Hated it

It’s about an envoy

bizarre characters and other minor details

A good candidate for the first sci-fi book burning

The author should have gone into anthropology like her great father

Nothing but some dude wandering around curious about gender roles

This was purchased and read for a book club. Absolutely no one liked it

Simply put, this book is just a 60’s retread going through a mental exercise

It is just a silly exercise in exploring what a world without genders would be like

Is Shakespeare’s daughter a good storyteller just because her father was the greatest writer ever?

the culture she has created in this book is uninteresting, unbelieveable, and sounds like the more dismal parts of New Jersey anyway

The author waste a lot of pages on unnecessary side stories

Had NO idea what was going on throughout the entire book

The worst (psudo) ethnography I have ever read

Could NOT follow the author’s train of thought

and then they kemmered

A conversation on Ursula K. Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World

After I posted a review on this site of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven, the novelist Adam Novy recommended that I check out her under-read first novel, Rocannon’s World. So I did. Our email exchanges about the book developed over a few weeks (during which time I ended up reading all of Le Guin’s so-called Hainish novels), and Adam’s analysis of the novel is, I think, especially perceptive. An edit of our conversation is below.

Adam Novy’s novel The Avian Gospels is fantastic. Buy it from Hobart.

img_1534

Edwin Turner: Thanks for suggesting Rocannon’s World, Adam. I’m not really sure how I missed it in my first few forays into Le Guin—when I was younger it might not have been in my school library—but I’m glad I read it. Very vivid stuff. You told me it was your favorite Le Guin. Why?

Adam Novy: There are many reasons why I love Rocannon’s World. The beautiful and exact descriptive writing, and the syntax. Le Guin can really sing. The sadness of the heroes for their vanished civilizations. The way so many passages evoke the feel of hiking. The flying cats. The incomparable ending.

But it’s the way Le Guin explores the idea of agency sets the book apart for me. The protagonists, Semley and Rocannon, take decisive action they believe in, which sets in motion plots that spiral out of control and annihilate their intentions. Rocannon and Semley end up being massive historical figures, yet also tiny cogs in galaxy-sized machines. This comparison of the massive and the tiny is not a calculated stalemate—not the cultivated balance I think a lot of writers feel we must produce these days, as if our calculations will be checked and we might get partial credit—but an ambivalence that’s immune to human desire or even narrative. It’s one of the things I love about Le Guin. Her idea of a human being’s influence in the world is like the ancients’.

This is fascinating to me in a lot of ways, first at the level of plot. How much should a character affect the world around her? Too much power can seem unserious and thrillery, like a fantasy, like competence porn. (A possible new definition of literary fiction is “incompetence porn.”)  Le Guin is just so elegant with this. Semley and Rocannon may be important figures in their communities—Semley is a kind of Duchess and Rocannon is a government anthropologist with administrative dominion over half the galaxy—and yet, by merely performing their own social roles, they ruin everything they care about, including the context in which their identities exist. Le Guin’s formula is magical: a central figure in a community commits a deliberate act, and the consequences are massive, unforeseen, accidental, and diminish this central figure to almost nothing. And yet, despite their total disempowerment, their influence endures in major ways. But even this is misconstrued by people in the future, who tell the history. There is no linear connection between intention and result. The reader feels the ages passing every time Rocannon takes a step.

This leads to the other aspect of the plot I really love, which is political. Rocannon is a bureaucrat in a colonial hegemony, and by honestly yet patronizingly trying to protect the subjects he administrates, he initiates a plot that will destroy them, and himself. He’s a kind of blinkered, well-meaning liberal who does not know what the hell he’s really doing, or how power works, since the force that does the destroying—an anti-government entity called “the enemy”—seems to emanate from the government Rocannon works for. In the end, his people simply don’t belong on the planet, which he only learns when he, too, is a refugee.

ET: But there’s also the sense that Rocannon integrates into the planet—he marries into the Angyar at the end, although we don’t really hear that story. It’s an epilogue that fulfills the legend-structure of the tale. So, on one hand Le Guin’s written this story that’s highly ironic—especially in the ironic title, Rocannon’s World—a title that points to the novel’s themes of colonialism. On the other hand, there’s a sense of discovery and exploration—a kind of High Adventure narrative à la Verne, where our viewpoint character ascends, peers down over the planet from his flying machine (in this case a winged cat).

And then Rocannon sort of achieves his Romantic quest of attaining Semley, or rather the idea of Semley—the exotic, the beautiful, the aristocratic—by marrying into her ancestral chain, and becoming a sort of Duke. This is all very much Fairy Tale stuff, Fantasy stuff. And Le Guin isn’t really synthesizing fantasy tropes with sci-fi in Rocannon’s World. It’s more like she’s tapping into a deeper, mythic vein—so on some level, I think that the novel is really about storytelling itself. There’s something oral and episodic about it, with its riffs on Eurydice and winged men and Valhalla. I reread The Dispossessed after Rocannon’s World. The Dispossessed strikes me as more deliberately structured than Rocannon’s World—more dialectical, more focused, but also centered much more on dialogue-monologue (similar to The Lathe of Heaven). Rocannon’s World is literally more fantastical than The Dispossessed. Do you think that Le Guin’s first novel has been overlooked as a book of ideas? Continue reading “A conversation on Ursula K. Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World”

Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal (Book acquired, 1.28.2016)

img_1401

Yann Martel’s novel The High Mountains of Portugal is new in hardback in the U.S. from Speigel & Grau.

Here’s the first two paragraphs of Urusla K. Le Guin’s review of the novel in The Guardian:

The High Mountains of Portugal, in Yann Martel’s novel of that name, turn out to be grassy uplands rather than high mountains; and the book turns out to be three stories rather than a novel. The stories, connected ingeniously, vary greatly in tone and quality. The first two display so little of the author’s narrative skill that they may offer more temptation to stop reading than to go on. Liking the last part of the book much better, I could wish that it stood alone.

In Martel’s Booker-winning Life of Pi, the author within the story tells us that he went to India with the intention of writing a novel set in Portugal. Then he met the Indian who told him the tale of Pi, and Portugal was forgotten. It’s recollected in the first part of this book in great detail: “He heads off down Rue São Miguel on to Largo São Miguel and then Rua de São João da Praça before turning on to Arco de Jesus.” This sort of street-rosary may delight Lisbon initiates but to others is made interesting only by the fact that the protagonist, Tomas, is walking backwards, and that he always does so. After some elaborate rationales for walking backwards, and a farcical encounter with a lamppost, we learn that he walks with “his back to the world, his back to God”, not because he is grieving for the sudden, recent death of his wife, his child, and his father, but because “he is objecting”.

Read the rest of Le Guin’s review.