- Listen to This | Alex Ross
- Home Fires | Gene Wolfe
- Anathem | Neal Stephenson
- Embassytown | China Miéville
- Look at Me | Jennifer Egan
- The Tragedy of Arthur | Arthur Phillips
- The Ukulele Entertainer | Ralph Shaw
I read Anathem in a 982-page mass-market paperback edition, which halfway through began to fall apart under its own philosophical strain, shedding leaves autumnally. This should have been a warning. Anathem is a dense science-fiction novel with a rich setting and its own invented vocabulary, and you’re thrown into the middle of it all, which was really quite enjoyable until I hit the 100-page section where the author summarises the entirety of 20th century physics in pidgin English. Ugh. Stephenson has always needed a fearless editor: everything he’s written since Zodiac has been, more or less, a sprawling mess, sometimes interesting, sometimes infuriating. At best you skip lightly past the talky sections where he’s trying to invent a new philosophy of language or teach you predicate logic. But it’s hard to skip 100 pages without worrying you’ll miss something of critical importance to the plot. Don’t worry—you won’t.
Embassytown is far more satisfying, and instead of philosophical discourse we’re thrown into the middle of a thought experiment, the way SF does so well: what would it be like to not have metaphor or be able to tell lies? What if, in language, the signifier and signified were always the same? Miéville does a nice job exploring this, rather as he took on a different thought experiment in the wonderful The City and the City. I’m really enjoying the new direction his writing is taking, as the baroque and gritty world of his New Crozubon novels never really grabbed me.
Another experiment, this time in form rather than ideas, is The Tragedy of Arthur. The book includes an entire Shakespeare play, The Tragedy of Arthur (in case you were wondering), with an argument conducted in the footnotes between an Shakespeare scholar and author Arthur Phillips, whose father, also called Arthur Phillips, discovered this hitherto-unknown play between prison stints for, oops, forgery. Arthur Junior thinks the play is bogus, but he’s contractually obliged to write an introduction for Random House, which turns into a 256-page family history of his and his father’s tragedy. Shades of Pale Fire. It’s all postmodern as hell: just before the title page is a list of four titles “Also by Arthur Phillips”, beside a much longer list “Also by William Shakespeare”. Phillips is obviously mixing his real biography with a somewhat—we don’t know how much—fictionalised version of his family.
Finally, in the wake of Goon Squad I tackled Look At Me, an engaging read, and rather prescient in its deep-cover terrorist character, given it was written before 9/11. An exploration of identity in modern America, especially in the age of the internet, it has some of the best depictions of loss of identity, or the transition from one to another, that I’ve read. If it weren’t for the Listener book club I wouldn’t have tried it, so I’ll keep an eye on what’s coming up.