Two for early 2020

Christopher Beha, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (Tin House Books 2020).Index of Self-Destructive Acts

The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the total number of hits batsmen, wild pitches, balks and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.

Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2003).

No spoilersBaseball, math, crime, and faith in New York City! What could go wrong? Beha follows his two earlier novels with a beautifully written narrative about a wealthy family and those who intersect their lives.

Frank Doyle is a baseball writer turned political columnist turned pariah whose career may be jump started by a magazine profile written by Sam Waxworth, wunderkind baseball statistician turned political prognosticator turned writer about all things that succumb to numerical analysis. Frank’s wife, Kit, is on the back end of a lucrative career in investment banking. Their adult children (Eddie and Margot) are largely directionless, but in interesting ways. Eddie has wandered into and out of the military, Margot has wandered into and out of graduate school in poetry. There is a rich collection of secondary characters who alternately stress and soothe the Doyles and Waxworth.

Beha’s characters have to deal with the central question of the novel: “What would you change if you knew it was all going to end?” For some of them the question is prospective—”What choices do I have going forward?” For some of them the question is retrospective—”What can I change about the choices I have made in the past?”

For all, like pitchers, they grapple with their tendency to self-destructive acts.

Highly recommended.

Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020).*

The Glass Hotel

No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven 106 (2014).

Emily St. John Mandel made our wait pay off, as she has matched her brilliant 2014 fourth novel with an equally brilliant 2020 followup. Although The Glass Hotel is superficially different than the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, the two novels clearly come from the same pen.

Mandel again weaves chronology and biography to form a pattern which does not become quite distinct until the last pages. This time the fragile narrative winds through the lives of at least ten major and perhaps another thirty minor characters, but with fewer chronological jump-shifts. (Two characters even reappear from Station Eleven, though the two novels cannot quite share the same timeline.) These characters range from the owner and employees of the Hotel Caiette; to the staff and executives of a Wall Street investment company; to the executives and crew of a shipping concern. There are more than a few musicians, artists and addicts.

No spoilersNo spoilers, here, but the many characters glide into and out of “the kingdom of money,” in which the subjects carry themselves with “with the tedious confidence of all people with money, the breezy assumption that no serious harm could come” to them. P. 44. In the kingdom of money, it becomes all too possible for the servants to become invisible. (“[F]or him coffee appearing out of thin air was so commonplace an occurrence it didn’t merit acknowledgement.” P. 70.)

But for Vincent no one ever becomes invisible, and she enters and exits the kingdom with a high degree of intentionality and clarity, even when her decisions may later prove wrong. At one point she thinks I’m paying a price for this life,  . . . but the price is reasonable. P. 65. She may have miscalculated, but she was not naïve.

Other characters are not so self-aware, and Mandel describes their predicaments with her typical crystalline prose:

A revelation earned only in hindsight: beauty can have a corrosive effect on character. It is possible to coast for some years on no more than a few polished lines and a dazzling smile, and those years are formative. (p. 95)

It’s possible to both know and not know something,” he said later [and] he spoke for several of us, actually, several who’d been thinking a great deal about that doubleness, that knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you’re not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad. (p. 168).

“If we are to be honest with ourselves,” [he] said, “who among us has never made a mistake?” But this was an error, [she] saw that immediately. . . . Could [he] see the error, too? Impossible to tell. . . . He’d made a mistake but he pressed on with the story, like a boy following a dwindling trail into the woods at nightfall. . . . (pp. 216-17)

Mandel’s characters don’t always live in reality, or they flinch from reality’s glare, and so delude themselves to survive.

This is not a perfect book, and Mandel, a Canadian, stumbles over some minor technical American legal points (FBI investigators are “agents” not “detectives”; the attorneys in the trial she describes would have been federal, not state prosecutors), but her sense of the relevant psychology is perfectly lucid—the lines crossed are evident to her characters only on reflection:

He left the office in a daze, but by the time he reached the corner, he realized he couldn’t pretend to be shocked, . . . , because he was already complicit, he was already on the inside, and had been for some time. “You already knew this.,” he heard himself murmuring, speaking aloud. “There are no surprises here. You know what you are.” (p. 192)

Mandel, like Vincent, plays with light and shadows, creating a precise recording of necessarily imprecise subjects—victims who are perpetrators, innocents who choose guilty actions, insightful people who are blind. In the end, the ghosts are all real, but the dreams are nothing but delusions.

Highly recommended.

*This review originally appeared online in The Englewood Review of Books [link].

Returning to reality

O'connor TSOMI have been reading about Flannery O’Connor in Jonathan Rogers, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor (2012), which is excellent.1

During her life O’Connor was often rebuked for the violence in her fiction, but she explained how it was not at all inconsistent with her Christian faith:

small quotes blueI suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.2

I was struck by this, I think, because it seems particularly apropos to our current situation in which our lives have been violently reduced, and much that was extraneous has been torn away from us.

It seems to me that O’Connor echoes C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (p. 81: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”) and in “Learning in War-Time” (The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”).

O’Connor, as diligent “sub-creator,” looked for ways that her character might be brought to grace — our creator (and hers) is now doing the same.

1Isn’t that a perfect title? The Terrible Speed of Mercy is a great place to start a study of O’Connor. [Ed. note: It turns out that “the terrible speed of mercy” is a phrase of Flannery O’Connor’s.]

2Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (1961) (emphasis added).

Herman Wouk 1915-2019

I was saddened to hear that Herman Wouk died last week, just 10 days short of his 104th birthday.

TheCaineMutinyHis novel The Caine Mutiny (1955) has long been one of my favorites, and I have had opportunity to teach it to several high school classes.the caine mutiny I was disappointed to read a recent piece by Professor Joseph Bottum* which seems a modern example of “damning with faint praise,” suggesting that Wouk was a good “middlebrow” writer, whose work (some of it, anyway) has stood the test of time better than others in his . . . league(?).

I think, that if Bottum were pressed, he would say that he was praising Wouk, just not “over-praising him.” But when Bottum says “In general, . . . he could be counted on to write a readable book with some serious ideas in it. Or, perhaps better, a readable book with some serious ideas on it, like figures embroidered on a tapestry,” it is hard not to hear that as a snide, uncharitable comment.**

In my view, The Caine Mutiny succeeds as a novel because it draws us in to care about a handful of deeply flawed people who actually grow in self awareness. Willy gains maturity, of course, but so do Maryk and Keefer — and May. The fact that Wouk does this in a long, believable, narrative, with deft humor and across many sub genres,*** is really quite impressive.

I hope that Bottum’s review does not dissuade a single person from reading (at least) The Caine Mutiny. Wouk’s accomplishment should not be disparaged for being accessible. That seems fair, doesn’t it?

*Joseph Bottum, “Herman Wouk, 1915-2019: Remembering a master of middlebrow,” The Washington Free Beacon (May 25, 2019) [link].

**Not convinced? How about this: “No doubt, [Captain Queeg] is wonderfully drawn as a character: memorable in every way, beginning with his name. But an author doesn’t get to give us a Dickensian type, and then reverse field just to flatter readers that they’ve just had a deep thought. All they’ve had is the picture of a thought, a simulacrum of ideas, unearned by the prose. Which is perfectly fine for a certain kind of fiction. This might almost be the definition, the archetype, of the middlebrow.”

***By which I mean, non-technically, that The Caine Mutiny is a war novel, a romance (modern sense), a comic novel, an adventure story, a legal thriller, and (yes) a morality tale neatly woven into one narrative.

Chilly review

imagesA striking, contrarian view of a war and a movie, by the clearly outspoken (and apparently curmudgeonly) Peter Hitchens.* “Not Their Finest Hour,” First Things (Feb. 16, 2018) [link]:

[Churchill knew that if] Britain wanted American help, we must accept American desires. To stay in the war, Britain must cease forever to be an empire and independent world power. Of course this prospect was far better than the alternative. Churchill had the global and historical understanding to grasp this fact, and enough American in him to reckon that America’s chilly mercy would be better than Germany’s smiling triumph.


This story is largely unknown to this day in Britain, where a childish fable of brotherhood and love is widely believed. I would welcome a motion picture that finally dispelled this twaddle and introduced British public opinion to the grown-up world. In this world, the Finest and Darkest Hours were in fact reluctant but necessary steps down the crumbling staircase of national decline.

*Peter Hitchens’ brother was Christopher Hitchens.  One of the things that the brothers disagreed about was Jesus. (This fact makes it slightly less surprising that this article is published in the eminent Catholic periodical First Things.)

NOTE: I have not seen the movie, so I am not endorsing the review, just interested in the view of history which it represents.

Now is the time . . .

ChurchillIn April 1941 (long before the entry of the U.S. into the war), the British had had some success in the tank campaign in North Africa, and it became necessary for “a terribly important convoy of tanks . . . to risk the perilous Mediterranean route” at which point Winston Churchill “informed the Cabinet of the timetable, adding:

‘‘If anyone’s good at praying, now is the time.’’

Andrew Roberts, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (2011) (Kindle ed. loc. 2424-26).

I love it.

May we remember that all times are the time.

A Hard and Heavy Thing

26542105Matthew I. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing is the best novel I have read in 2016.

AHAHT is the story of three friends, two men and a woman, who struggle in situations dangerous, terrifying and mundane.  It is written with a gritty wide-eyed realism, but conveys deep compassion for the flawed characters.

No spoilers here, but the narrator (Levi) self-consciously looks back on his history with Nick and Eris, and the choices which led two of them to enlist in the Army.  The story lurches back and forth between third-person narrative and Levi’s direct discourse to the reader, who fills in for Nick.

The back-and-forth is purposely a little clumsy, which works beautifully to further the author’s artistic aims.

Highly recommended.

Changing the Past?

Three quotations on changing the past:

26542105[He] thought, even if it was not true that he was a hero, perhaps it was true that he was not a criminal or a failure.  The possibility existed for him that the past was mutable — that he might have a new truth, a new narrative that was truer than his own tortured memory.  For the first time, he realized how subjective it all was and how the past was not as inviolable as he had come to believe.

Matthew Hefti, A Hard and Heavy Thing 207 (2016).

Now for you and me it may not be that hard to reach our dreams,
But that magic feeling never seems to last.
And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems
It would be easier sometimes to change the past.

Jackson Browne, ”Fountain of Sorrow,” Late for the Sky (1974).

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
   All time is unredeemable.

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton” l. 1-10, Four Quartets (1943).