Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Western Canon

Dave Gottlieb's sophomore effort, The Western Canon, remains his most enigmatic novel, and it's fair to say the world didn't know what to make of it when it appeared.  It is difficult even to categorize the book—it is part science fiction, part coming-of-age story, part policy brief.  In any event it attracted neither the critical acclaim of his first book, Dizziness From Success, nor the commercial success of his bestselling memoir, My Year of Living Vicariously, which documents the year Gottlieb spent living and blogging as a vicar in the English countryside.  In recent years it has come to be seen as a minor work, thematically and temperamentally unconnected to the books that made him famous.

But The Western Canon may be due for a reappraisal.  It is true that the book has nothing like the frenetic energy of Dizziness From Success, but in its quiet way it paints an equally sharp critique of modern life.  The protagonist of the book is Miroslaw Jaworski, a second-generation immigrant who, although not socially isolated, feels a lingering sense of alienation from the world around him.  After graduating from CalTech, Miro lands a prestigious job at NASA, where he is assigned to a team developing computer simulations of exoplanets—planets that orbit nearby stars and that might support life.

When Miro receives his first assignment, he wonders whether he has fallen into a dream job or is being set up to fail.  NASA's computers have simulated not just the physical characteristics of exoplanets, but also their life forms, including in some cases intelligent beings.  Miro's job is to develop tools to assess these simulated societies—to measure their demographics, their economic output, and their technological capacity to communicate with Earth.  But the simulator's interface is far from user-friendly, and at first Miro can extract only raw data, so voluminous and devoid of context as to be unintelligible.

Miro's first breakthrough comes when he trains the simulator to retrieve the planets' electronic transmissions.  By consulting with a linguist, Miro is able to decipher many of the planets' languages, and soon he has come up with a shortcut:  instead of writing a program from scratch to compile and analyze data, he simply taps into the various statistical agencies that each society has developed.  If he wants demographic data, he consults the censuses of the major countries.  If he wants economic data, he translates reports published by the planet's equivalent of the Federal Reserve or the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  For less formal information, he consults newspapers or social media.

But now Miro must venture into deeper conceptual waters, because each simulated society compiles data differently.  Some of the differences make sense—on the hyper-intelligent algae planet Obos 8, no employment data is compiled, but the government keeps close track of average membrane permeability.  But many of the differences remain enigmatic, reminding Miro of a line in one of his favorite movies, the Sang-soo Hong classic Oki's Movie:

This theme of repetition, and slight but cryptic differences, permeates the book.  Despite a superabundance of data, or maybe because of it, Miro finds it nearly impossible to understand the differences among the planets.  Often institutions that are superficially similar take on different meanings and functions.  Democracies remain stable or give way to assassinations and bloodshed; ecological catastrophe is managed adroitly on one planet but devastates another.  Lenebras 4 and Tuleo are near-identical planets, with technologically advanced, slightly corrupt social democratic governments and secular, pluralistic civil societies.  Lenebras 4 has high self-reported happiness and a low suicide rate; Tuleans are miserable.

Desperate to make sense of these findings, Miro plunges into his old social science textbooks, and once he has devoured those, he looks further afield:  history, political philosophy, geology, religion.  Miro even spends a few weeks learning about architecture, going so far as to take an online class on Tulean architecture provided by the planet's biggest university.  The architecture is very much to Miro's taste—the planet's mild climate and low gravity allow it to build light, airy buildings, which Miro finds surpassingly beautiful—but Miro uncovers no clues to explain the planet's dismal population.

While all of this is happening, Miro starts a relationship with Fumiko, a grad student in economics.  Fumiko encourages Miro to delve even deeper into the humanities, and it is at this point that the book becomes somewhat heavy-handed as it explores the possibilities and shortcomings of a liberal arts education.  Luckily Gottlieb doesn't linger here very long.  When Miro learns that a NASA colleague has plagiarized two of the most accomplished astrophysicists from Lenebras 2 (including one who frequently emails with Miro), he faces a whole new set of personal and professional dilemmas, and the plot quickly accelerates to its sensational, almost cinematic final scenes.

I won't give away the book's ending, which in any case is open to multiple interpretations.  I will note, though, that it is quite unfortunate that The Western Canon stands as such an isolated piece of Gottlieb's work.  In place of its earnest sensibility and imaginative flourishes, Gottlieb has increasingly turned to politics and pop culture references, and it is hard not to regret the cynicism and self-conscious celebrity of his later (and admittedly, much better-selling) works.  In some ways, then, his recent blow-up on the Daily Show and his confessional, rambling interview on Fresh Air may actually be helpful for his career:  hopefully he will make a virtue of necessity, give up his celebrity lifestyle, and return to the kind of literary work that people will still be talking about 50 years from now.


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