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[827] The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

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“Never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.”

The Luminaries is an entangled, convoluted story, at least told in a convoluted manner, that is set in the 19th century, during the last days of the New Zealand gold rush. It’s an action-adventure, sprawling detective story, well-plotted but owing to the stylistic choice Catton so scrupulously pursues, too long due to the reiteration of events. The style is that each successive part is half the length of its predecessor, such that before long the chapter introductions are longer than the text they preface. And Catton’s commitment to delineating a full year’s astrological changes requires looping back to events of 1865-1866 repetitiously for the last quarter of the book.

A string of coincidences is not a coincidence.

The novel attempts to unravel the mystery of a day when a chain of events unfold in the town of Hokitika. A very wealthy man—owner of a gold mine, disappeared. A prostitute tried to end her life. An enormous fortune was found in the home of a hapless drunk, who was overdosed on laudanum. His identity and mining tight had been stolen. These seemingly unrelated events turn out to be part of a bigger plan of an ex-con man. The arrival of a man who is running for councilman kicks off this string of strange coincidences. This ex-con man who has cheated Alastair Lauderback out of his ship then lost the shipping crate by which he had forced the politician’s hand. Inside this crate was a trunk containing gold, a fortune that had been sewn into the lining of five dresses. The seamstress was a crafty woman named Lydia Wells, a brothel owner who was, at that time, posing as the ex-con’s wife, and helping him to steal her ex-husband’s fortune. When the prostitute learned, some weeks after her arrival in Hokitika, that a trunk containing women’s dresses had been salvaged from a wreck, she purchased all five without noticing the added weight since she is an opium user and it as sober.

So a multiple storylines cram the 800 pages, winding up a skein of a mystery that’s rich with sibling secrets, sex, opium and drugs, a doomed love affair, murder, extortion, impersonation, fraud, forgery, and double dealing. It opens like a play, with Walter Moody stumbling upon a clandestine meeting of twelve prominent men in a hotel meeting hall. It’s highly wrought, artificial piece of tale-telling accorded to the astrological framing device. The opacity of this angle results in reiteration of events over and over again. In this respect, the novel appears too clever for its own good. That said, Catton’s use of contemporary slang, circumlocutions, and lexicons befitting the different characters are all spot-on.

830 pp. Little Brown Books. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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[821] Ubik – Philip K. Dick

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“Here’s what happened. We got lured to Luna. We let Pat Conley come with us, a woman we didn’t know, a talent we didn’t understand—which possibly even Hollis didn’t understand. An ability somehow connected with time reversion; not strictly speaking, the ability to travel through time . . . what she does . . . is start a counter-process that uncovers the prior stages inherent in configurations of matter.” (Ch.14, 191)

Set in the Northern American Confederation in time when interstellar commute is common, the book is largely told from the perspective of Joe Chip, who works for an agency of “anti-psis” that stops telepaths invading other people’s privacy. Society is such that every individual’s thought process can be monitored and that any thought can materialize in the mind. This prudence organization is run by a man named Glen Runciter with the assistance of his wife, who has died physically but is preserved in a state of “half life” in cryonic condition at a specialized moratorium.

Runciter’s agency dedicates to fighting a rival organization of telepaths, headed by Ray Hollis, that uses its psychic power to undertake corporate espionage and cause trouble. He lays a rat-trap for Runciter and Joe Chip in Luna where Runciter is killed by a self-destruct humanoid bomb. Those who survive the blast, upon returning to Earth, experience a curious deterioration process. But they realize they, and not Runciter himself, are the ones who are slowly perishing, by turning incredibly cold and drying up.

But this is where the mystery of time-slippage thickens. There seems to be an underlying, vicious force that aims for their death. The story takes a rather mind-boggling turn to a state of confusion that suggests it was actually Chip, not Runciter, who almost died in the explosion on the moon. But it’s this confusion, or deception, in a sense, that makes Ubik shine. Like reality, what we see as reality, anyway, does not make much coherent sense. The unease, the difficulty, the contradictions, the multiplicating realities, are partly the point. It’s about realizations that are not what they seem.

I find the plot less interesting than the characters, the theme, and the virtuosity of the writing. Dick’s explications of his fractual reality look easy to accomplish, but they really aren’t. It questions whether this thing we call reality might be just a collective hallucination.

224 pp. Orion Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[820] Belchamber – Howard Sturgis

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“He had an almost painful intuition of her sacrifices, her hopes, her frustrate ambitions for him, and of the disappointments he must inevitably be to her; he probably read into her not very complex emotions fine shades of sensibility from his own consciousness . . . It was this habit of deference to her lightest wish they sent him off against his wish . . . ” (V, 55)

Set in 1890s England, Belchamber is a novel of aristocratic life told in the perspective of a misfit. Its originality lies in how the protagonist, a high-minded, high-born weakling, slightly effeminate heir to a marquisate, is at odds with what the high society expects of a gentleman. Born Charles Edwin William Augustus Chambers, the Marquis and Earl of Belchamber, he is commonly known as Sainty. He has no taste for games, girls, or money; he dislikes sports and hunting but adores gardening and interior decoration. Another eccentricity that shows his unfitness for his social status is his exaggerated propensity for work. He has a genuine aptitude for scholarship and loves erudition for its own sake. In short, he is a loner content in his own world.

And he launched out a tirade, . . . on the barbarism of the English upper classes, their want of education and refinement, their inability to appreciate intellectual pleasures, their low standard of morality, and, above all, their entire self-satisfaction and conviction of their own perfect rightness. (VII, 87)

The great moment of Sainty comes early on, when he becomes friends with his tutor Gerald Newsby in Cambridge. Then his life is shaped, or shattered to pieces, by two powerful women if very strong will. His mother, Lady Charmington, with her severe morals and puritanical obduracy, exercises a tight reign over him. Lady Eccleston, a tireless schemer who constructs the marriage plot to ensnare him. Cissy herself, though also in a way a victim of her mother’s deceit, is a fortune-hunting girl who makes the most of her situation. She despises Sainty but spends his money with insolent abandon. She’s a heartless monster, an adulteress, who epitomizes the very vices of high society that Saint renounces. All the sympathy one might feel for her would quickly desiccate as the novel nears the end.

The book portrays a series of betrayals against Sainty and his spinelessness to fight back, for the sake of preserving appearance and avoiding scandal. He is crushed by the race for luxury, since he himself is rich enough to absorb his losses and quite indifferent to his possessions. There’s a ponderous, contemplative quality to the writing, often supplying psychological stings after a plot narrative. Despite being a misfit, Sainty remains an aristocrat; he is bored and repulsed by his class yet never ceases to belong to it. It’s a story about individualism thwarted and innocence deceived, and, after all, virtue is not its own reward.

334 pp. New York Review Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[819] Lost Horizon – James Hilton

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“Now he perceived that the unreasonableness, however fantastic, was to be swallowed. That flight from Baskul had not been the meaningless exploit of a madman. It had been something planned, prepared . . . For what possible reason could four chance passengers with the British Government aeroplane he whisked away to these trans-Himalayan solitudes?” (Ch.5, 103)

A British group of four, one of whom consular officer Hugh Conway, leaves India in the 1930s by plane only to be skyjacked and whisked away to the distant Tibetan mountains. In the fabled mountainous rampart of Shangri-La, in the valley of warmth and beauty, where a group of lamasery pavilions cling to the mountainside, they find a people leading lives of simplicity, moderation, and peace. Despite the hospitality offered, a part of Conway still insists that there’s something queer about the place that he cannot blame the truculence of his fellow Mallinson, who insists on leaving right away.

We want to return to civilization as soon as possible. (Mallinson) And are you so very certain that you are away from it. (Chang)

As the group becomes settled, a deep anesthetizing tranquility begins to sweep over Conway, who prefers the peace and quiet of Shangri-La over the racket of the world. He undergoes some curious transformation of the mind and becomes comfortable with the surrounding. A meeting with the reclusive High Lama affords him the secret behind the confounding mystery of the place.

This is a strangely absorbing and fascinating story that has sustaining interest in me. The atmosphere of the setting is soothing but the mystery behind is stimulating. There’s a spiritual force and an underlying philosophy that carries the reader’s imagination beyond the scope of the book. The power of this novel is in the sense of potential peace that is evoked. This sense of peace, calm and profundity is available to everyone but is not for everyone. Metaphorically, it’s the personal journey in search of that inner peace that is Shangri-La. That reaching true enlightenment for those who seek it, will find the Shangri-La.

231 pp. Pocket Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[818] The Angel of Darkness – Caleb Carr

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“As Marcus had said the night before, the jury was past caring about any psychological explanation of what context had produced a normal, sane girl who would one day be capable of murdering her own children; in fact, they were past believing that she had murdered her children in the first place…” (Ch.48, 606)

The Angel of Darkness is the sequel to The Alienist in terms of the same cast: the brooding alienist Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, his indomitable servant Cyrus Montrose, the high-living New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore, the detectives Lucius and Marcus Issacson, and feisty Sara Howard, now a private investigator for her own. The current story is narrated by a former street urchin taken in by Dr. Kreizler, the street-smart and observant Stevie Taggert, who figures prominently in this investigation of a peculiarly dastardly crime.

The plot is initiated by the kidnapping of a Spanish diplomat’s baby, then thickens, quite convolutedly, as suspicion falls on Elspeth Hunter, a malevolent nurse (actually an imposter) who left under the allegation of having suffocated several babies. Further probe reveals that she has been a suspected murdrress of her own children in upstate New York, under the name Libby Hatch. The most baffling aspect of this woman, and thus the long pursuit, capture, and attempted conviction, is that she is an unending string of paradoxes—some of them, unquestionably, possessing deadly dimensions. Her contradictory behavior confuses many: she looks like a predatory animal, but she seems genuinely caring for the girl she kidnaps.

The book is more a courtroom thriller than a police procedural; and the pursuit of Libby Hatch involves such notable historical figures as women’s-rights crusader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Libby’s defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Thomas Roosevelt.

The story sags here and there, but Carr’s presentation of the socio-politics is authentic of the period and cannot be easily dismissed, because the villainess is almost as much of a victim as the actual victims. The very theme is the role of females in that world, how females must assimilate to the roles expected of them—motherhood, housekeeping, nurturing children; and if they cannot fulfill these responsibilities, they are worthless. Dr. Kreizler seeks to connect the two sides of the character, leading to that shaky ethical question about a woman’s determination to gain over her life against society’s expectation of her. So what the investigation team and reader are faced with is not an inconsistency as much as a troubled unity.

The book can plodding at times, but characterization is detailed and nuanced, really getting into the mind of the criminal. Carr is attentive to historical details which makes the reading very enjoyable. Once again, forensics and psychiatry are used to nail a very dangerous perpetrator who is not only sane, but calculated, manipulative and meticulous to cover her trail.

749 pp. Ballantine Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[817] The Alienist – Caleb Carr

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“From that moment on, he said, we must make every possible effort to rid themselves of preconceptions about human behavior. We must try not to see the world through our own eyes, nor to judge it by our own values, but through and by those of our killer.” (Ch.13, 129)

The Alienist is an engrossing historical fiction taking place in New York City just before the turn of the century. It revolves around the activities of one of the first forensic investigations in world history. In 1896 a serial killer is brutally slaughtering young transverstite boy prostitutes and mutilating their bodies. With neither the public nor the police interested in lives or deaths of these abominations to society, and that the poor and the new-immigrated warrant little attention, there is very little incentive to investigate. Not only is the police not interested, along with church officials who are only concerned with their own monetary interests, they contrive to obfuscate and suppress facts of the crimes.

If we accepted the supposition of his sanity, then we were left with the nagging question of what possible satisfaction or benefit he could be deriving from the butchery. (Ch.15, 157)

The task of tracking the killer has been assigned to Theodore Roosevelt’s (Police Commissioner at the time) old friend from his Harvard days, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who is an alienist, or an expert on mental pathologies (minds that are alienated from themselves). Kreizler recruits John Schuyler Moore, a police reporter for the New York Times to investigate, along with Sara Howard, a woman detective who is looked down upon by her male colleagues. A firm believer in psychological causation, Kreizler thinks the context of life leads to a psychopath, The dredging up of this argument takes reader to the philosophical heart of the book, which explores the causes of sanity and criminality, and ultimately the nature of evil.

So unfolded is a challenging and tedious investigation on various facets. Between setbacks, interference, slow advances, with the help of modern forensic techniques, a profile containing the killer’s facts and personal histories is assembled. The team comes to terms with the mandate that they have to abandon their own preconceptions and start seeing the world in the killer’s shoes. When confrontation with the killer becomes inevitably imminent, on the killer’s schedule, the team comes to empathize with a man who is equal parts predator and prey.

The Alienist isn’t only an ingenious thriller, it gives authenticity of old New York. This I attribute to the fact that Caleb Carr is a historian and biographer. Beneath its rich historical trappings is a breathless and sometimes grisly detective story that reveals the social turmoil of the time. It shows, sadly, that a crisis like the serial killer is inevitable because he is himself an offspring of a society and its sick conscience. The killer dodges the law but craves the society, craves the opportunity to show people what their society had done to him. And the odd thing, as Carr has really nailed, is that society revels men like the killer who are easy repositories of all that is dark and wrong in our own social world. Society tolerates what makes the killer.

498 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[815] Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson

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“Why is the measure of love loss?” (9)

An anonymous and genderless narrator reflects about the affair with a married woman. It’s a thickly written literary fiction that amounts to no more than allusions and incessant tirade. The story (if it can be called so) is about the narcissist’s love for Louise, the kind of love that is completely situated upon her body. Her body is constantly compared to a territory to be discovered, mapped out, cultivated, and conquered. Then one would have the idea that the book is a tribute to love—until it is complicated, if not ruined by the presence of other bodies.

…I turn a corner and recognize myself again. Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones, myself floating in the cavities that decorate every surgeon’s wall. That is how I know you. You are what I know. (120)

For the whole duration of reading I constantly shift my idea of the gender of the narrator. The meager hints push me in one direction of thinking or the other. But it dawns on me that the whole idea is not to have imposed any gender stereotype on the narrator. Gender is fluid. The narrator reflects on his it was a mistake to let go of Louise—and exhausts the prose waxing on about bodies and love and Louise’s body in flowery language until she is so ubiquitous and encompassing of a landscape.

Phrases and themes are repeated throughout that it seems impossible not to be struck by her reliance on cliches of love and desire. It’s ironic how much the narrator tries to make the impression that Louise is a unique lover but the more s/he rambles on, the less Louise seems unique. Louise is just any other woman, married woman who makes excuses for adultery. Louise herself is a cliche. The embellished prose is much ado about nothing.

189 pp. Vintage Contemporary. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]