strictures and structures

if only we stopped trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time

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the goldfinch, by donna tartt–a strangely overrated and underrated book

The Goldfinch came out a couple years ago, so I’m late to the party, but Donna Tartt spent eleven years writing it. If she can take her time, so can I. I picked it up not knowing anything about the book proper, or even that that’s supposed to be a painting of a bird on the cover. All I knew was that there was a huge controversy over its winning the Pulitzer. Half of the literary establishment thought it was amazing, the new Dickens–a definite black mark, as I am a Dickens-hater–but the other half thought it was horrible, that it was a children’s book posing as literature and a sign of the decay of the modern reader. That sounded like the kind of snobby sentiment I could sympathize with, but the hater half included Francine Prose, who I hate as much as I hate Dickens. How to balance these two heuristics? So I was very excited about this book. I thought my reaction would reveal something important about who I was as a reader, as if the discovery of my feelings about it was a literary version of the Sorting Hat.

So how disappointing was it when I fell smack in the middle? I neither loved the book nor hated it. While I was reading it, I was engaged and entertained, but I couldn’t see what the fuss was about either way. Some of it, I suppose, is that my heart thrills to the tropes of bad fantasy fiction most of all–if I’d been raised on books that weren’t Dungeons and Dragons manuals, maybe I would have loved this book more.

One criticism I’ve seen of The Goldfinch is that it is a book full of ridiculous, implausible coincidences, starting with the very premise itself. The book begins with the narrator losing his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, an old man, who in his dying throes regresses back to his life in WWII Europe, rescuing priceless works of art from invaders, encourages our hero Theo Decker to steal the titular painting, “The Goldfinch,” to keep it safe from said hallucinated invaders.

Having read the book, I do not think that the psychology of the old man seems implausible. I don’t see why the combination of the shock of a large explosion, and a failing mind from mortal injury, might not scramble his brains. The old man was an art-lover who knew that works of art were under threat, he sought assistance in rescuing it–is more required? Perhaps it wouldn’t ever happen that particular way in real life, but this is what artistic license is all about. No real-life situation survives the novelist’s transcription, and to quibble too strongly about implausible coincidences would mean throwing out all of Charles Dickens’s oeuvre. (Not that I would be personally opposed to this, but a lot of the Tartt-haters really like Dickens and seem offended she’s compared to him, so presumably this argument is a gotcha for them.)

But probably the premise would have seemed more plausible, had the rest of the book been more emotionally sound. The very best part of the book is the middle, where a teenaged Theo, still deeply traumatized from his mother’s death, bonds with another damaged boy, a Russian with an abusive father named Boris. If I had to guess, Tartt was the kind of goody two shoes in school who was a bookworm after school, but she puts on a convincing and fun display of juvenile larceny and dissipation. Boris introduces Theo to vodka and worse drugs, and eggs him on in all sorts of petty theft, but nevertheless, he becomes the best friend and brother Theo could have ever wanted. It is here, in the friendship between Boris and Theo, that the true heart of The Goldfinch beats.

But then Tartt ruins it with a strange and snobbish fixation on the glory of antique furniture, and Renaissance-era painting techniques. I finished the book feeling rather cheated–the book so clearly wants to be about art, its ability to link the far past with the far future, and the possibility for grace and redemption that loving and protecting great art can offer–but the book is really about trauma, and attempting to process it. Theo spends a great deal of money self-medicating on any pill he can get his hands on, for instance, and his endless misadventures with drugs play a far greater role in his character development than keeping the painting does. I read the last thirty pages or so, a sophomoric disquisition on the beauty of The Goldfinch, the painting, and on the power of great art in general, that felt like a high-schooler’s thoughts on art–and I kept thinking, surely this is Theo being an unreliable narrator, surely this is some postmodernist trick, and there will be hints that all is not well, Theo is deluded about the role of art in helping him to heal? But no, evidently it was entirely sincere.

And that, I think, is the truth behind the accusations of “implausibility”–Tartt wrote a book about one thing, and then insisted at you that it was really about another. Much as I don’t like Dickens, his books hang together better than that, and he never had the bad manners to lecture at you.

So there you have it, I suppose. The critic James Wood accused Tartt of writing on a level fit only for children, thus infantilizing adult literature, but I suspect he felt a need to push back against the enthusiastic overreaction this book received. The truth is, The Goldfinch is a deeply flawed book, but it’s still a good, readable book, which puts it on par with most every other good book that is still bad enough that it will be quietly forgotten.


swing time, by zadie smith–a negative review

Like many others, I often worry about the effect of digital devices on the human attention span.  Swing Time is the culmination of my worst fear–that the modern world is now so full of distractions, nobody can write a decent novel any more.

This is not to say that the book is a disjointed series of tweets. Smith has a fine eye for characterization, though the protagonist is yet another one of those passive, socially awkward introverts that is so clearly inspired by the writer’s own personality. The prose is unquestionably good–at times aphoristic, it is always fresh and amusing. The problem is that Swing Time is the product of a mind that is intelligent but not wise–an observant mind, but one that is not particularly good at making connections, elaborations, or drawing implications. Just the kind of mind I’d expect to result from an age of truncated attention spans.

The central relationship of Swing Time, if it can be called that, is a My Brilliant Friend-esque frenemy-ship between the nameless protagonist, and her childhood friend, Tracey, who is a dance prodigy. Both girls are black, and grow up in council housing (that’s affordable housing for us Americans–like Section 8 but a great deal nicer, I gather). Our loathsome blank of a protagonist, while as interested in dance as Tracey, possesses only modest gifts. Regardless, their life paths diverge since the protagonist’s mother insists that she go to college, while Tracey’s mother is negligent, and poor Tracey never manages to get out of the ghetto, despite her superior talents.

You know, though, I err in saying that it’s the central relationship. Smith is one of those writers who abuses the use of broken narrative threads as a cheap shortcut to establishing verisimilitude.

This is an example of what I mean by “abuse.” Tracey and the Nameless One end up parting ways about a third of the way into the book, and we see only rare glimpses of her afterwards, mostly secondhand. Tracey is darker-skinned than Miss Nameless One, and comes from a broken home. It makes sense Tracey would remain in poverty, while the lighter-skinned narrator, with her intact family and educated mother, would escape. It makes complete sense that they would lose contact. But this consequence of racism and poverty doesn’t go anywhere–the tragic divergence in socioeconomic circumstances just happens, and there are no further implications, no emotional heft. Later, in the novel, they do reunite once for an incredibly awkward and strained conversation, but nothing happens. It’s awkward, as one might realistically expect, and that’s it.

That’s the problem with drawing too much inspiration from real life–when you part ways with a childhood friend, that generally means the end of learning anything from that relationship. You move on, you forget, it fails to affect you further. Such a development can be inevitable in real life, but it is a fatal flaw in a book. Real life is noise, books are about signal. It’s good to fuzz your book a little bit to make it more convincing, but too much, and any signal is lost. The point of a book is to unfold a story, and so, letting a character drop off the face of the earth is a waste of the time spent developing that character.

This would be excusable had Tracey’s friendship left some sort of notable impact on the narrator, but as I said earlier, the narrator is one of those passive low-reactors who feels nothing, and carries emotion about as well as a colander carries water.

What infuriates me the most, though, is that the book is trying to say something about race, but it never manages to say anything interesting. It’s like reading a series of superficially glib blog posts, instead of an actual book. We don’t need any more books on race that have no more insight than, “hurp durr, it sure is complicated!” Nor do we need any books that regard that message with no more emotion than one might feel for a funny tweet.

Crazy Rich Asians: Some cultural context for non-Asians

I don’t have a lot of thoughts about this movie, so this is going to be short. Fundamentally, it’s a rom-com, and the demands of that formula soften the keenness of whatever social commentary was buried in there. But I do want to clarify one thing for any non-Asians watching this movie. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to say that the movie hinges on the difficulties Asian-Americans have navigating the filial duties demanded by more traditional Asians, and that the resolution is ultimately positive and uplifting. I want to explain why, given the realities of East Asian culture, the happy ending is psychologically unrealistic.

It’s common for Western leftists to discuss these axes of oppression: gender, race, and class. Disability, fortunately, is also achieving more recognition. I’ve often thought that the discourse ought to include age as well. Because very roughly speaking, Chinese families are run as gerontocracies, and age-based oppression, where the youth are firmly under the thumb of the old, is one of the organizing principles of Chinese culture, and East Asian cultures in general. (And probably many Indian cultures too, though I intend to stay in my lane.) Any good leftist worthy of the name should want to abolish age-based oppression as well.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that children are property, in the way that enslaved humans were treated as property, and to my knowledge, there aren’t explicit laws enshrining younger people as second-class citizens. As far as I know, it’s a matter of informal custom. Regardless, older people are at the top, and people at the top have little incentive to develop empathy for their lessers, and even less reason to develop any respect for them. Imagine a white person listening to a black person’s concerns about police violence, and imagine that white person telling the black person to get over it. Or imagine a man telling a woman that she’s silly to be afraid of walking alone at night. Get on Facebook, and see all the abled people who don’t know a single disabled person, confidently expound that disabled people don’t need plastic straws and the straw ban should go full speed ahead. Take that breezy, unconscious, even unintended, contempt, take that inability to admit that the other person might know something you don’t, or have different feelings that are as valid as your own–now imagine a country full of old people doing that to their children, and any younger person within striking distance.

A happy ending for Crazy Rich Asians is even more impossible when you apply some intersectionality and account for the fact that the main antagonist, the potential mother-in-law, is a woman. Chinese culture is pretty sexist, and when I think about it, I’m quite surprised that the story of Mulan is as popular as it is. When you’re a Chinese woman, doomed to being a second-class citizen your whole life, you really, really look forward to being the mother-in-law and getting to boss around your daughter-in-law. Who else are you going to boss? Up until your own mother-in-law kicks the bucket, you’re the bottom of the totem pole. When your mother-in-law isn’t even dead yet, are you going to put up with any guff from your potential daughter-in-law? Oh hell no. At the very least, you will make her suffer. And you will believe that you deserve to do so. It’s your reward for putting up with so much crap in your own life. This is somewhat analogous to the psychological wages of whiteness, as first explained by WEB Du Bois.

Is it a bad thing that the movie didn’t address these nuances of East Asian culture? Well, Roger Ebert had a delightful sentence in his review of Shaolin Soccer that I’ll never forget–“It is piffle, yes, but superior piffle.” Meaning, that one ought not compare apples to oranges, or in this case, a rom-com to the output of an Asian Spike Lee. For what it is, Crazy Rich Asians is superior. But I don’t want anyone to mistake it for something more than piffle.

guardian angel, by jake ritari–a story about extreme introversion as a rational response to an irrational world

As a software developer born and bred in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m no stranger to odd people. It is the only place in the world where you can meet young devs who will stare into your eyes and explain, with all sincerity, that the only reason they can make as much eye contact with you as they can right now, is because they took a class at the Center for Applied Rationality. I have not been to CFAR myself, but my understanding is that if you go to the bathroom there, you will see flyers strategically positioned by the exit that say, “Have you been rational today?” So. My homeland is a magnet for quirky, shy nerds, but even so, I don’t think it has anything on Japan. Because Japan has hikikomori.

Predominantly young men, hikikomori are those Japanese people who have chosen to stop leaving the house completely, in a kind of modern monkhood–though with video games and anime in place of religious contemplation. The standard stereotype is of someone with extreme social anxiety who lives with their parents but does not leave their own bedroom, keeping the door shut at all times and communicating through notes. The technical definition, as used by the Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare, Ministry is someone who has not left their home or interacted with someone for at least six months. Some half a million Japanese citizens fit the definition, though due to social stigma, and the private nature of the phenomenon, the official number is likely to be a significant underestimate. Unofficial estimates are around a million.

Guardian Angel, a novella by Jacob Ritari, has an excellent premise. Protagonist Kyouko Satsumura is a Japanese millennial laboring beneath the same burdens that curse her American peers–a poor job market, and student loans for a worthless college degree. And like any American millennial, her income is inconsistent and she has to resort to–well, I don’t know what catchy slang they used to describe intermittent piecework during the first Gilded Age, but these days we call them “side hustles.” One of her side hustles is coaxing hikikomori out of their rooms and back into the real world. She’s delightfully cynical and blunt about the job in a way that truly warms my heart. In her own words, “The best part about the job is, I get to see that there are even bigger losers than me.”

While Kyouko’s problems (and maybe some of that attitude) will resonate with any American reader of a certain age, the story maintains a convincingly Japanese feel, thanks to little touches like a school club named the Fighting Carp, or characters asking Kyouko what the proper kanji to use for her name is. It reminded me of the conversations my parents have had when meeting new acquaintances–“ah, your name is Li? Is that li like the character for ‘beautiful,’ or li as in ‘powerful’?”

The plot follows Kyouko as she accepts a job to bring out a particularly recalcitrant hikikomori, Ryoji Tamura, out of his room. What makes Ryoji a difficult case is that his hikikomiri-ness is not due to some innate mental illness, but a considered, rational response to society. And why not? Work sucks. As my friend Larry is fond of reminding me, there’s a reason it’s not called play. Being a grown-up period, sucks. If you’re sufficiently introverted and your parents aren’t willing to let you starve, why not retreat from the world?

There’s the potential for a lot of interesting parallelism and a well-matched psychological cat and mouse game, as Kyouko turns out to be just as much of a misfit as Ryoji. Both of them have failed to live up to the standard norms of what a successful adult should be, and each of them have chosen their own form of rebellion. Overall, I enjoyed the story, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend reading it, but it feels incomplete. The ending comes together well enough as Kyouko’s hikikomori side hustle unexpectedly collides with her yakuza side hustle, but it’s something of a pity that Ritari doesn’t take his premise all the way to its logical conclusion. If it’s true that Japanese society is insane enough that becoming a hikikomori is a sane response (and frankly now that I think about it, I don’t understand why more Americans aren’t doing the exact same thing), then what kind of reintegration is really possible, and on what terms? What’s wrong with Japan, and why would it be worth returning to? There’s questions enough for a thousand-page novel here, but sadly, Guardian Angel just isn’t long enough to answer them.

backbeats are the new iambic pentameter

I was thinking about why literary heavy-hitters like Shakespeare and Pushkin prefer to write in iambic instead of trochee, but I suppose before I go on to speculate why, I should explain what iambic and trochee are.

You know how when you say a word, some parts of it are louder than others? Like the word “vehicle”–the “ve-” is a hair more emphasized than “-hicle.” Try saying “veHIcle,” or “vehiCLE.” It won’t sound right.

Each of these word parts is called a “syllable.” The correct pronunciation of a word means that you have to pronounce each word with the right amount of volume. The technical term for a loud syllable is “stressed.” A quieter syllable is “unstressed.”

Iambic is a type of syllable stressing pattern. It’s one unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one. Weirdly, each unstressed-stressed combo is called a “foot.” Here’s an example from Shakespeare:

“but SOFT, what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS.”

This is much more interesting than writing in iambic’s opposite, trochee, which is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Here’s some trochee:

“JACK and JILL went UP the HILL”

This is the kind of thing that gets accused of being “sing-song.” How unfair to trochee, relegated to the stuff of nursery rhymes, while iambic is immortalized by the Bard. They seem so similar, but they sound so different. Why?

And here’s my bullshit speculation. Stress patterns convey an enormous of information, including the pronunciation of the word, the speaker’s emotional state, and telegraphing natural breaks in the information being conveyed to the listener. With trochee, the strong first syllable always coincides with the introduction of a new thought. This is great for, shall we say, less sophisticated consumers of language, but too obvious and therefore boring to those with a little more taste.

Writing in iambic, whenever Shakespeare starts a sentence, the very first syllable is unstressed, even though we know that syllable marks the beginning of a new sentence, a new thought. This contrast sets up a pleasant dissonance between the stress pattern and the semantic pattern. A lifetime of conversation has set you up to expect some respect for the beginning of a sentence, and here comes iambic to trash that expectation.

The same goes for backbeats. You could put on a song with a backbeat starting halfway through, and listeners would be able to tell whether the hits are on the 2 and 4 instead of the 1 and 3. It’s the same principle at work. The melody line clues you in as to where the beginning of each musical phrase is, i.e. where the 1 is, and the backbeat plays against your expectation that the 1 is the beginning of each phrase and therefore important, by hitting the 2 and 4.

Anyway, this is just one little thought on how deeply music and language are intertwined. And a small example of how art works in general–first the setting up of a formal expectation, and then the playful dashing of it.

george orwell, woke dude

It is popular in many circles to deride political correctness as a form of oppression. Here is what the Man Himself, George Orwell, had to say on the subject:

As I Please 2
Tribune, 10 December 1943

“The coloured worker cannot be blamed for feeling no solidarity with his white comrades. The gap between their standard of living and his own is so vast that it makes any differences which may exist in the West seem negligible. In Asiatic eyes the European class struggle is a sham. The Socialist movement has never gained a real foothold in Asia or Africa, or even among the American Negroes: it is everywhere side-tracked by nationalism and race-hatred. Hence the spectacle of thoughtful Negroes getting ready to vote for Dewey, and Indian Congressmen preferring their own capitalists to the British Labour Party. There is no solution until the living-standards of the thousand million people who are not ‘white’ can be forced up to the same level as our own. But as this might mean temporarily _lowering_ our own standards the subject is systematically avoided by Left and Right alike.

“Is there anything that one can do about this, as an individual? One can at least remember that the colour problem exists. And there is one small precaution which is not much trouble, and which can perhaps do a little to mitigate the horrors of the colour war. That is to avoid using insulting nicknames. It is an astonishing thing that few journalists, even in the Left-wing press, bother to find out which names and which are not resented by members of other races. The word ‘native,’ which makes any Asiatic boil with rage, and which has been dropped even by British officials in India these ten years past, is flung about all over the place. ‘Negro’ is habitually printed with a small n, a thing most Negroes resent. One’s information about these matters needs to be kept up to date. I have just been carefully going through the proofs of a reprinted book of mine, cutting out the word ‘Chinaman’ wherever it occurred and substituting ‘Chinese.’ The book was written less than a dozen years ago, but in the intervening time ‘Chinaman’ has become a deadly insult. Even ‘Mahomedan’ is now beginning to be resented: one should say ‘Moslem.’ These things are childish, but then nationalism is childish. And after all we ourselves do not actually like being called ‘Limeys’ or ‘Britishers.'”

There you go. If the guy who took a fascist bullet in the throat, and invented Big Brother and doublethink and Newspeak and all the rest, thought political correctness was a good idea, it IS a good idea.

to write about the planet

Climate change news has become a bigger vice for me than even crappy genre fiction, and in celebration of Earth Day, I’d like to note a longstanding issue I have with these stories.

For some scientifically literate people with a good imagination, it’s enough to know that major disruptions to the mild and stable climate we’ve enjoyed for the past ten thousand years would be disastrous, without needing to know the exact form such disasters would take–but that’s not most people. And there’s precious little in the news that really brings home what the actual lived consequences might be like. Take, for example, the Earth Day article Vox released, the big above-the-fold listicle. Item number one is about the size of the plastic pollution problem. It’s gotten to the point where most drinking water contains microscopically small plastic fibers. Well, so what? Presumably you, and I, and countless others have been drinking it for years without visible side effects. I had to do more googling to find that these contaminants can be carcinogens. And even now that I’ve done this, it’s hard to keep myself from thinking, so what? Doesn’t everything give you cancer? I guess I could keep researching and find the numbers somewhere on exactly how cancer rates have been impacted, but I’m on vacation.

Item number two is a reminder that the last male Northern White Rhino is dead. It then goes on to say that there are Southern White Rhinos left, and the northern one was a mere subspecies. Also, the planet is now short a bat species, a kind of gecko, and two kinds of skinks. I feel vaguely that these must be terrible things, but it sounds like we have more rhinos on the backburner, and I don’t know what a skink is.

Item three is about the ecological recovery of a handful of species, and the discovery of some brand-new ones. Once again, nothing that an actual human’s day-to-day might be impacted by.

Item four is about the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and how it will raise sea levels by twenty feet, but most people who are alive now will be dead by the time that happens.

Item five is about seagrass bouncing back. Whoop de doo, I don’t know what that is either.

Item six is about Hurricane Maria and the devastation it unleashed on Puerto Rico, which is definitely good as an example of the kinds of consequences actual humans might have to live with.

Item seven is about the search for new planets, which to me feels like a sad abdication of responsibility to our current planet, but I suppose could be construed as uplifting to other people.

It is a little unfair of me to crap on these journalists too much, because part of the problem is the reticence of scientists themselves. Their job is to be absolutely correct, and they can’t know with any great confidence the behavior of big, complex systems like the planet and the global society supported by it. With that said, a few things are well-established enough that I think journalists could focus on these to encourage people to actually care, particularly feckless Americans:

1. Climate-driven migration. If you’re an American who dislikes Mexican immigrants, boy have I got some news for you! From “In fact, climate change may lead to a 40 to 70 percent decline in Mexico’s current cropland suitability by 
2030. Worse, this could soar to an 80 to 100 percent decline by the end of this century. We’re talking about Mexico potentially losing over half its workable farms in less than 12 years – and all of them by 2100.” Where are people going to go? Probably here. I’d like to think that America will recognize that its profligate and disproportionate guzzling of fossil fuels is ultimately what’s responsible for Mexican climate migrants fleeing north in search of cooler temperatures, and that it will therefore react in a humane and rational manner, but I’m not stupid.

2. Decreased crop yields. From “Analysing data for US annual harvests of corn, soybeans and wheat, the study finds that yields were approximately 2%, 4% and 4% lower, respectively, in “warm” Arctic years compared to “cold” years.” (Of course, that figure will only get worse as time goes by, and it will be far, far worse for the more southern parts of the globe.) Percentages are such dry things. But hydrating them into stories that can convey what it’s actually going to be like to live in a world defined by those percentages is the kind of thing that journalists can excel at. Not being a journalist, my best guess, alas, is that I won’t get to live in a world where I can continue to have matcha pancakes with lavender syrup for brunch.

3. Disruptions to global supply chains. I have actually never even seen an article about this, and I read a lot. But I’d like to see someone write about this. Is a highly complex, highly interconnected global society that’s getting its ass kicked by climate change going to still have iPhones, or raspberries imported from Chile? Suppose Shenzhen, home to many an iPhone factory, is hit by a massive, climate-change-supercharged storm one year. (As it will be, since it’s a coastal city.) Are the dudes at Apple even thinking about this?

4. What an actually sustainable civilization would look like. What the hell does this look like? Will we still be able to have streaming services like Netflix? I actually think we might not, since the manufacture of electronics and maintenance of data centers are both so carbon-intensive. Probably we won’t be able to travel as much, drive as much, or move as much. There might not be any more flights across country to visit family for the holidays. Certain parts of the country just might become uninhabitable, because the cost of keeping on the AC or the heat will be too high. How would the kinds of homes we build change, how would our urban planning have to change? What will commutes look like? What will happen to art, music, and fashion, when everything becomes more expensive? I think that your average well-meaning liberal thinks that they’ll get to live the exact same lifestyle, but they’ll have to remember to bring their own shopping bags to the store, and everyone will have solar panels. I suspect–I know–an honest examination of this question is going to piss off a lot of people. You can already see this in the battles between young environmentalists who want to build denser housing, and their older counterparts who still think of a single-family home and two cars as the American Dream.

It seems to be de rigueur at the end of most professionally written climate stories to end on a note of optimism, to talk about how there are still rhinos left, or how new technology is imminent, but I’m not a journalist, so I won’t.

the impossible burger–a lukewarm review

The Impossible Burger is the most high-tech attempt yet to create a vegetarian meat substitute that might appeal to meat-eaters. The creators analyzed the various chemicals in beef that give it its distinctive flavor, and concluded that the most important one to duplicate was hemoglobin, a complex protein which you may already know of due to its role in oxygenating blood. Hemoglobin is why blood is red.

Instead of hemoglobin, the Impossible Burger contains a plant analogue with the painfully un-mellifluous name leghemoglobin, which is harvested from genetically modified yeast.

It pains me to say this, because I’m a weepy environmentalist, but the Impossible Burger isn’t quite there yet. The texture is really loose and the flavor sort of one-note. It’s intensely umami at first, as if it’s trying to overcompensate for the lack of whatever other billion proteins give beef its flavor. If you’d told me that it was a real meat burger, I would have believed you, but I also would have said, what kind of shitty burger is this, and the next time we hang out, can it not be here? You could trick me into thinking it was real meat, but only by taking advantage of our friendship.

Sadly, this is not yet an impossible burger. More like an improbable burger. But it’s definitely the best meat substitute I’ve tried so far.

the witches of eastwick–a bad review with style

China Mieville has a favorite quote that says, in essence, that writers ought not to be too proud of themselves. That the kind of self-conscious observation they engage in is in reality done by everyone, and that writers are alone in thinking that these mundane observations are of such importance that they ought to be committed to paper. This is, in my mind, uncharitable to good writers, who do not merely set their boring observations down on paper, but go on to synthesize something interesting out of them. They record the noise, and draw out the essence that is the signal. But John Updike demonstrated no writing talent in The Witches of Eastwick, and ought to take this stricture to heart.

The Witches of Eastwick is not a good novel because it sets down the observations, but does not go on to make anything out of them. Updike is clever and observant and has a way with words, but a failure to conceive of the characters in anything like a truly lifelike manner means that the book is just a string of scenes disrupted by interminably long purple passages. This is probably because John Updike, for all his celebrated imagination, can only conceive of women in terms of their sexual differences from men–that they give birth and that they like fucking men. They have little personality beyond those differences.

This, for example, is what John Updike thinks a liberated woman thinks about for a nearly page-long paragraph right before she enjoys a good hot tub orgy with her two best friends and the tall, dark, but not handsome, stranger who’s just moved into town:

“…she was reminded now of her four babies, how as they came one by one it was the female infants suckling that tugged at her insides more poignantly, the boys already a bit like men, that aggressive vacuum, the hurt of the sudden suction, the oblong blue skulls bulging and bullying above the clusters of frowning muscles where their masculine eyebrows would someday sprout. The girls were daintier, even those first days, such hopeful thirsty sweet clinging sugar-sacks destined to become beauties and slaves…”

This book is written the way a white guy dances–no beat, no rhythm. Too in love with his own cleverness to ask any bigger questions, to see that something logical links scene to scene. He had a few interesting thoughts about babies while writing this orgy scene, and he just jammed them in without considering the context. Who the fuck thinks about babies right before an orgy starts? Who would want to go back for seconds with that person? Updike characters, apparently. Or–is this some of that magical realism?

It’s all even worse when you consider that the book is set during the Vietnam War. The two characters who care about the unjustness of the war are a man branded as effeminate, and a woman branded as a shrieking harpy, whose husband literally murders her in an effort to get some peace and quiet. That’s what passes for moral complexity in Updike’s world–sure, it might be bad that a great superpower invaded a weaker country and massacred its citizens for no good reason, but have you considered that the people who think this is bad are really annoying?

As satire, this is just shit. Satire is supposed to be clever criticism. Equating the deaths of Vietnamese and Americans with annoyingness displays a sad and stupid lack of perspective that is no doubt also responsible for how unsexy the orgy scene is.

I still can’t get over how bad the orgy scene was. I bet even Burning Man has better orgies than this.

I suppose now I should finally say a word about the premise. The book is about a triumvirate of witches who are divorced or widowed, and their inescapable magnetic attraction to a rich new guy who moves into town. And they have a lot of sex with him even though he is very annoying. Unbelievably, this is supposed to be a feminist book. As far as I can tell, Updike is the kind of guy who sees feminism, and thinks it means it’ll be easier for average-looking guys like him to get laid. An important observation, but one that misses the point, which explains why this book doesn’t have one.


The day I drank goat blood

So here’s the Tanzanian countryside.


Tanzanian friends reading this, please forgive me for what I’m about to say, but as an outsider, it looked depressing, sere, sterile. It was paralyzingly hot, so hot the air became thick against the skin. The soil was so dry it was sublimating into dust. In short, not nice.

One fine Sunday, most of our hostel piled into a van, and we drove through this for an hour and a half to arrive here.


A true oasis, this hot spring was the result of water seeping up from the ground. What a miracle. And certainly it was the most bountiful, clear, and gorgeous source of water for miles around, so when five Maasai led a string of goats by us, I didn’t take it seriously when my friends Katy and Crystal speculated that they were going to kill the goats. So convinced was I that the Maasai had only brought their goats for a drink that I got up and found our tour guide, Rufano.

“Yo, Rufano. They’re not going to kill the goats, are they?” (I don’t think Rufano even knew my name yet at this point. I’m a direct kind of person, especially when there’s something I really want to know.)

“They are, actually. They’re going to do it over there so they don’t upset you mzungus.” (“Mzungu” means “foreigner” in Swahili.)

Damn it, I was going to have to go back and tell Katy and Crystal that they were right.

“Do you want to go see them kill the goats?” Rufano asked.

I weighed the chances of being judged cruel to animals against the certainty of the pleasure of a new experience. Certainty won. It usually wins.

We walked through tall grass and low trees to a clearing. We’d missed the start of the killing. Both goats were on the ground, throats cut, but one had already stopped moving. The remaining goat’s legs were jerking, and its body thrashed out small arcs through the dirt. One man was kneeling at the dying goat’s throat, and catching the blood in the kind of cheap white bowl I would have expected to see at Ikea. He was drinking it. I knew that the Maasai, when they are thirsty, would cut the vein of a living goat and have a drink when they were thirsty, but it’s one thing to read about it on Wikipedia, and another to see it live. The first reaction I had was to wonder, how could drinking blood possibly make you less thirsty? Blood is salty, after all.

The second reaction was deep satisfaction that I had managed to see something that most tourists wouldn’t have seen.

The third was pride that I was not averting my eyes.

The man at the goat’s throat was refilling the bowl for another drink. Rufano said, “Would you like to drink it?” He had a teasing sort of look on his face.

Later, I would tell everyone that I had felt peer-pressured into it. The Maasai had looked so thrilled that a mzungu would join them in one of their customs. There were big, big grins all around, brilliant against their dark skin, and a happy, festive feeling in the air. The Maasai to my immediate right had even pulled his phone out and was filming the whole thing, and for some reason, keeping the flash on. In the glare of that tiny limelight, how could I not want to make them happy? But the truth was, if Rufano hadn’t offered, I would have asked.

The goat blood was bright red, the same color I’d seen any time I had cut myself. There was only a little in the bowl, perhaps a tablespoon. The goat had been mostly dead–mostly drained–by the time I’d arrived. I put the bowl to my lips, and drank it all. The taste was not salty. In fact, I would describe it as tasting like a goat soup made by an inexpert cook who had forgotten to put salt in. With the addition of some chopped chives, and salt, I believe that most people might enjoy the taste.

But I don’t really want to encourage you to drink the goat blood. Because the more mzungus do it, the less special I will feel. But fortunately, I have a feeling that even if I were to try to persuade you to drink it, you still wouldn’t.