Pur Autre Vie

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dave's Latest Effort: World Enough and Time

In Dave's latest effort, World Enough and Time, scientists announce the invention of a time machine.  It is a limited-purpose time machine—it can't transport people or most physical objects through time.  But it is extremely efficient at moving money forward and backward in time.

The way the machine works is that an individual who wants to spend money, but who doesn't currently have enough, can use the machine to transport money back in time from himself in the future.  There's a catch:  the time-machine can't transport the money unless the customer finds a "sponsor" who is willing to collateralize the transaction.  So for instance, someone who wants to buy a car might find a bank willing to put up an amount of cash equal to the price of the car.  The sponsor's money goes into the "collateral chamber" in the time machine, and then the money appears in the "time-travel chamber," where it has come from the future.  Over time, the customer regularly deposits money into the time-travel chamber so that it can be transported back to himself in the past.  As these payments are made, the sponsor is permitted to withdraw identical amounts of money from the collateral chamber.  The sponsor typically charges an additional "money time-travel fee," which is a percentage of the amount of money sent back through time—generally it is a function of the overall economic conditions, the trustworthiness of the time-travel customer, etc.  (If the time traveler fails to put money into the machine when required, as occasionally happens, the sponsor must remove money from the collateral chamber and deposit it into the time-travel chamber so that it can be sent back in time.)

The time machine proves hugely popular, enabling all kinds of economic activity that would otherwise be impossible.  But then a rogue group of dissident scientists and economists (!) claims that time travel isn't possible after all:  the entire setup is a trick!  Really the money is not traveling through time.  Rather, the collateral posted by the sponsor is handed over to the customer, who gradually repays it to the sponsor.  The time machine is totally extraneous, and in fact all the scientists have done is reproduce the credit market under another name.  It is all a hoax.

Congress immediately demands an investigation into whether the "collateral chamber" and the "time-travel chamber" are truly isolated from each other.  But then the author drops a bomb intended to blow the reader's mind:  it doesn't matter whether the time machine works or not!  Maybe the collateral chamber is physically walled off from the time travel chamber, maybe it isn't.  But the effect on the world is the same.  We've had time machines capable of moving money across time since the invention of credit!  All that is needed to take advantage of this futuristic technology is for the government to get out of the way and let the free market work.  Taxes and regulations can be seen as not just anti-free-market, but anti-technology and anti-future, since they effectively shut down time-travel machines.

If this sounds much more crude and on-the-nose that Dave's previous work, that's because it is.  What I've just described is the plot of a book-within-a-book written by Lawrence Strong, the hapless protagonist of World Enough and Time.  Strong (barely) makes a living churning out libertarian screeds while living in a ratty apartment in New Jersey, frustrated by what he sees as a society increasingly dominated by central planning and the slow but inexorable extinguishment of liberty.

It emerges that Strong is being taken advantage of by his publisher (which is essentially stealing his royalties), but when this comes to light and prosecutors offer to help Strong recover his money, he hesitates.  Of course Strong believes that the government should protect property rights, but on the other hand he believes market actors like the publisher should be constrained by reputational forces, not raw coercion.  His family and his girlfriend are aghast as he considers passing up his opportunity to regain his stolen money.

I won't say more about the plot, except to note that Dave, normally not virtuosic in matters of form, has crafted a book that is technically perfect, starting out broad and engaging, and then slowly narrowing to a vortex of action and recrimination.  This is an "idea" book, in a way, but the focus is squarely on the human desire to impose order and intellectual coherence on a world that rarely makes room for either.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Gambling With Food

I bet that brie—not the rind, but the buttery part in the middle—would be really good on toast, with honey on top.  I bet it would also be good on waffles, with maple syrup on top.  Or on biscuits, with jam on top.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Sarang's Latest Effort

Has Sarang finally found the recipe for commercial success that had eluded him for so long?  I don't mean to imply that his previous books didn't sell—he made quite a splash with Yanqui Si!, which is arguably his most political book to date.  But we are still talking about sales in the high 5 digits, whereas his latest effort has already sold more than 5 million copies and flies off the shelf faster than it can be restocked.

Maybe its popularity stems from the recent trend toward nonfiction.  Although Sarang has written nonfiction before, perhaps most notably in Douche Nozzle, his apologia of "bro" culture, this is his first biography.  And what a biography it is:  996 pages chronicling the life of Robert Burns, the great Scottish poet, not counting an astonishing 23-page bibliography.  Drawing on intellectual and cultural influences as diverse as Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, Michel Foucault, and Nickelback, Sarang persuasively makes the case that you can't understand Burns's poetry unless you understand the pervasive role that illness played in his life.  "One can scarce imagine the sheer terror that lurked in even the most innocuous ache or pain, in an age when the doctor was as likely to kill or maim you as to cure you," Sarang writes.  This ever-present anxiety illuminates not only the poetry but also the life decisions that Burns made, and may help explain his frenetic search for romantic love.

All in all, I feel I've underestimated the reading public.  The book's merits are subtle and layered, not at all like some of Sarang's more bombastic works, and yet people are buying it in droves.  And I recommend you join them—that is, if you can find a copy of Sarang's Big Book of Sick Burns.  It is selling very fast.

Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro's fifth effort, When We Were Orphans, promises to use the mystery genre to explore deeper, universal questions about life (a bit like Chabon's The Final Solution, I suppose).  I think it falls short in important ways, but it is still touching and insightful.  I don't think I can explain what I mean without discussing important plot elements, so keep reading at your peril.

The book is narrated by an Englishman who spent his early years in Shanghai, where his father worked for a trading company and his mother organized opposition to the opium trade (a trade his father's company profited from).  At some point his father went missing, and not too long after his mother, too, disappeared.  The narrator was packed off to England, where he attended prestigious schools and developed a career as a detective in the mold of Sherlock Holmes.

But as the '30s progress, the world begins to teeter on the precipice of war and chaos, and in 1937 the narrator returns to Shanghai just as the Japanese are advancing on the city.  He is welcomed into high society in Shanghai, and at a ball he gives a little speech about how he is going to attempt to set things right.  (He returns to Shanghai in an attempt to find his parents.  In a bizarre conflation that is never squarely addressed, he seems to think that finding his parents will resolve the broader conflicts roiling Asia, hence the speech.)

At this point I should describe what I see as the main strategy that Ishiguro pursues in When We Were Orphans.  The book is narrated in several chronological segments, so that at each point the narrator is recounting the events that have occurred up to that point, while remaining ignorant of the events that will transpire in the future segments.  In the early segments, the narrator is idealistic, ambitious, and naïve.  The story is a bit of a fantasy, with the narrator fitting into the easy role of a renowned detective, untroubled by questions of politics, privilege, etc.  (Although even the early segments contain some gestures toward these matters.)  Over the course of the book, the narrator "grows up" — he sees the way that the Chinese are treated as almost sub-humans compared to the Europeans in Shanghai, he witnesses all manner of brutality, he is able to acknowledge painful facts like the attempted suicide of his adopted daughter.  In other words, he loses his innocence, an innocence his parents went to great lengths to protect.

The book deals sensitively with several ideas that I find quite compelling, in particular the difficulty of achieving a sense of self-worth in a world where we feel powerless against the forces that dictate our fates.  So why do I say it falls short?  Ishiguro establishes a gap between the narrator's "official" storyline and the world as we (the readers) know it to be, but he doesn't navigate that gap very well.  All too often, the narrator's blinkered view of reality is accepted by other characters, and while he increasingly acknowledges a dark, disturbing reality, the book's underlying story is still infected with childish fantasies.  The narrator gets his comeuppance, but in a rather crude way that feels unnaturally appended to the story.

Anyway I don't mean to be too dismissive, Ishiguro got a lot of things right, and the book was hard to put down.  But the story doesn't quite come together, it never quite becomes the book it could have been.