Timequake

by Kurt Vonnegut

 

Timequake (1997), the last novel that Vonnegut published (so it goes), is what I would classify as semi-autobiographical meta-fiction. The story is presented as if Vonnegut were re-writing a previously published work, dubbed Timequake One, in which on February 13, 2001, everyone is suddenly zapped back to February 17, 1991. The nature of this “timequake” is such that every person must relive each minute of each day exactly as they did the first time. This means that every mistake you made in 1993 the first time, you make again the second time, and though you are aware that it is a rerun, you are unable to alter your personal history. Essentially, free will is completely lost during those ten years.

Much of the novel is told through the mouth of Vonnegut’s alter-ego Kilgore Trout, an eccentric writer that has great ideas for stories, but has never had a successful writing career. TimequakeTrout is a fascinating character. To me, he is the epitome of human bleakness, or what I like to call the existentialist’s burden. He is not so bothered by the timequake, as he spends most of those ten years writing, and “rerun or not, he could tune out the crock of shit being alive was as long as he was scribbling”. Throughout the novel, Trout talks Vonnegut through his unorthodox views on human existence. For an example, read Trout’s explanation of the rapid spread of diseases such as AIDS (found here). My other favorite Trout-ism is his version of the Book of Genesis, but I’ll let you read the book to find that one.

Back to the plot. After the rerun ends (on February 13, 2001, Take 2), Kilgore Trout realizes without a shred of doubt what has happened. But as he begins to execute free will again, he also realizes that nobody else seems to have figured it out. Everyone has grown so accustomed to playing out a script that they do not know how to carry on after the timequake. Ting-a-ling. So he begins spreading the mantra “you’ve been sick, but now you’re well again, and there is work to do” to encourage people to grasp a hold of their lives again.

Trout, however, is not a huge fan of free will. This is exemplified when, at a writer’s clambake post-rerun, Vonnegut asks Trout his opinion on John Wilkes Booth. He responds that the murder of President Lincoln was “the sort of thing which is bound to happen whenever an actor creates his own material”.

There are a few moments in Timequake in which Vonnegut mentions that he is getting old, older than he ever expected to be. There are many side-stories culminating in last words — by characters in history or characters in Vonnegut’s life. My personal favorite is a fictitious account of Hitler’s final moments, in which he considers his options for last words. He ends up saying ” I never asked to be born in the first place”, then shoots himself.

I think Vonnegut knew this was going to be the last novel he published. I think this book is his way of making sure his readers grasp his philosophy on life, as though he wants to get his final two cents in. As he puts it, when thinking about writing, Vonnegut asks himself “why bother?”, to which he responds, “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'” He uses Kilgore Trout as a device through which to describe all of his eccentric and extremist views, to find comfort in determinism. He uses the last words of others to say goodbye to his life as a storyteller. He uses the clambake as a goodbye party, and Trout’s speech as an epitaph for himself, written by himself. Perhaps he is just “much too old and experienced to start playing Russian roulette with free will again.”

For any Vonnegut fan, Timequake is an absolute must-read; it is so unique and special. The premise of the blip in time followed by a ten year rerun is not fully formed, but I was very willing to look past that. Vonnegut’s fictional anecdotes (as well as some autobiographical ones) are enough to make this book well worth a read. His philosophy is presented so hilariously, and parts of this book would make great short stories. As important as this novel was for me, I think it would not appeal to anyone who is not already a fan of Kurt.

If this isn’t nice, what is?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6

Created by Joss Whedon

 

Oh yes, there will be spoilers. And if you’ve seen the show, feel free to skip the first section.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows a group of friends (the Scoobie Gang) as they fight demons and navigate the challenges of young adulthood. Buffy Summers is a ‘Chosen One’ type, and every season involves her fighting a ‘Big Bad’ antagonist who threatens her world with apocalypse. Since twenty-two episodes is way too many for a single story arc- shorter seasons are one thing that I think HBO/Netflix/the British have actually gotten right- there are plenty of one-off, ‘monster of the week’ episodes, and in the earlier seasons especially these are often meant to symbolize problems that teenagers and twenty-somethings have. ScoobiesTypical examples: Willow, Buffy’s computer nerd friend, meets a boy on the internet who turns out to be a demon; Xander joins the swim team only to find that their recent success comes from exposing themselves to (Sovet-made, if I recall correctly) chemicals that make them better swimmers but eventually turn them into fish monsters; Buffy’s awful college roommate actually turns out to be a demon. These are metaphors for, respectively: the potential for meeting creepers on the internet, seemingly a huge moral panic from the 90’s; steroids; and the difficulties of the transition to college and living with strangers.

Later, the show moves away from ‘after school special’ issues, and begins to explore key themes without needing to insert a monster as a stand-in for each problem. The fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons explore relationships, family, and the transition to adulthood, without being tied down by any particular formula. Personally, I feel like the show grew with the characters; as the characters aged, they took on more responsibilities, and the show set its sights higher, as well. I know there are a lot of people who disagree with that, and I can respect that opinion. Perhaps it’s because I’m only now watching the show at age twenty-five, or maybe people want different things in TV shows now. Maybe it defies explanation; it just is what it is. Continue reading

The Ascent of Money

by Niall Ferguson

 

My attempt to grapple with economics and finance is a recurring theme of this blog (alongside my love/hate relationship with fantasy). This post falls right into that category.

Ferguson’s main argument with The Ascent of Money is that financial innovation leads to an increase in economic activity and, in the long run, individual prosperity, even if there are some bumps along the road. That this argument seems a bit defensive, in the wake of the recent market crash, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong. Ferguson writes as if he knows he’s fighting an uphill battle: convincing us, the unwashed masses, that banks and hedge funds aren’t responsible for our current predicament. In my opinion, he partially responds to this by dumbing down his explanations, presenting simplified histories, and essentially ignoring examples that don’t fit in neatly with his argument.

For me, this isn’t a problem most of the time. Ferguson’s histories of everything from credit to insurance are enlightening to a layman such as myself. I do have a problem, however, when I finally feel comfortable enough to have questions of my own, questions that Ferguson doesn’t really want to answer. The Ascent of MoneyOf course, it’s a book; perhaps it’s unreasonable of me to expect that the author is only presenting information exactly on the level of my understanding. That book would be impractical, and it probably wouldn’t sell a lot of copies. On the other hand, unanswered questions feed into this feeling I get, the feeling that when it comes down to it, financial experts don’t really want us to understand how the system operates. It might make us question the status quo.

But let’s turn from cynicism back to the book itself. I do feel like Ascent helps put into context the new financial techniques that are partially responsible for the most recent financial crisis. To hear Ferguson tell it, finance has always been an arms race between, on the one hand, whatever geniuses have the newest ideas on how to make money, and, on the other, industry regulators. From the invention of bonds to the first stock market to the derivatives of the last couple decades, people who handle money for a living are always looking for new ways to take the money they have and use it to create more money. Whether because these new schemes are initially too complicated to effectively oversee, or because those meant to oversee the schemes have a stake in seeing them succeed, or perhaps because there’s no regulation at all, the latest financial ideas often succeed wildly in the short term, only to do lasting damage to existing markets in the long term.

I’m guessing that’s not the message that Ferguson wants us to get from his book. As I said before, his thesis is that financial institutions, while often willing to use other people’s money for what turn out to be risky endeavors, actually help people by providing financial stability. For example, though the first insurance companies definitely made money, they also provided a needed safety net for widows; a service that the government couldn’t really provide. On this broad point, I agree: developments in the field of finance have generally made people better-off. But the connections between credit, debt, and wealth creation can’t be ignored. Even when the system is at its most efficient, there will be winners and losers, and when the system becomes unbalanced, there may all of a sudden be many, many more losers.

Again, I’m grateful that Ferguson acknowledges this truth; it makes his argument for the necessity of financial institutions that much stronger. Michael Lewis, in Boomerang, muses that people are justifiably angry about the way their financial futures were disappeared in the Great Recession, despite the lack of a natural vent for that anger. Ferguson, while willing to accept that people aren’t really sold on the glorious benefits of finance right now, essentially wrote Ascent to argue the opposite case. Rather than bemoaning a lack of easy targets for our ire, he readily identifies the responsible parties, and then proceeds to make a solid case in their defense.

As much as I complained about it, I didn’t actually hate The Ascent of Money. Ferguson clearly sees his role as defending the financial world from the wrath of the hoi polloi- but that’s fine, because he’s even-handed, and he never implies that finance has the ability to create a perfect world. Ascent can be pretty dry, but if you’re interested in the subject matter, go for it.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

by Neil Gaiman

 

I don’t really know what Gaiman meant to say with this book. I’ve thought about it, and I’ve got some ideas. But keep in mind that I know literally nothing.

I think that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about the connections between who we are as children and who we grow up to be. The book starts with a man- our narrator- coming back to his childhood home, and then visiting his friend Lettie Hempstock’s house down the street, though she has long since moved away. From there, he starts reminiscing about his life at age seven, when his family had just moved into the neighborhood.

As in the only other Gaiman book I’ve read, American Gods, there are fantasy elements, but Gaiman’s gift is his ability to construct two discrete worlds, one real and one fantastic, and then blur the lines between them. In the case of Ocean, our narrator remembers many things that could not have been real, namely a monster that comes into his life first as a worm in his foot and subsequently in the form of his family’s new housekeeper, Ursula Monkton. Housekeepers are real, but they’re not foot-worms. The Ocean at the End of the LaneSo I’m guessing there’s something else going on here. Gaiman heavily implies that the narrator’s memory is compensating for something in his past, filling in gaps or erasing unwanted events. He leaves open the question, though, of whether the magic was made up in a seven-year-old’s imagination to make life seem less horrible, or whether the magic was real, only to be forgotten by a more world-weary adult.

Beyond questioning the narrator’s memory, Gaiman invites us to compare his childhood and adulthood personalities. Throughout each, he’s a stoic; taking bad news well, not expecting too much, and describing the events of his life with little or no emotion. Kid or adult, he seems unable to relate to most people, and has a hard time making friends. But the narrator’s childhood shows another side of his personality, perhaps one that he still retains; he is capable of strong feeling. This is shown both in his love for his new friend, Lettie, and his utter hatred for Ursula Monkton. As a child, he sometimes lets his emotions get the better of him, often exposing him to potential dangers. It makes one wonder whether he consciously chose, as he grew up, to shed his emotion and become a person who couldn’t be hurt by others. We never delve too deeply into the narrator’s adult life, so it’s kind of up in the air.

I think when it comes down to it, The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells us that childhood is more important- and more real- than we’d often like to believe. Whether or not we interpret the magical events as real, the narrator’s memories of Lettie Hempstock and Ursula Monkton had a real impact on his life, helping to create the person he grew up to be. He may have concocted a make-believe back story for straightforward events, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand or doesn’t remember what ‘actually’ happened. The events of the novel could be chalked up to a child’s imagination, but Gaiman indicates that just because something is imaginary, that doesn’t make it irrelevant.

Ocean benefits from Gaiman’s simple and straightforward writing, and I mean that in a good way. Whether describing his disappointing seventh birthday party, or the appearance of a huge monster in the sky, the narrative never gets derailed. Gaiman really doesn’t need or want to distract you from the story in the narrator’s head; this story stands on its own. Frilly language or elaborate subplots would blunt the sharp focus that makes the book so powerful.

I started this blog partially thinking that my ‘reviews’ would reflect what I would tell someone who was asking me about a book. When it comes to Ocean, I was somewhat at a loss as to what I would say. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I want to give you a sense of what the book is like and what it’s about. I think that the easiest advice would be to just read the book; it’s short and simple, not a huge commitment. So yeah, as long as you’re not completely allergic to fantasy, I’d just say go for it.

Gaiman’s written a really good novel here. Simpler than American Gods, and possibly better. Check it out for yourself.

Duty

by Robert M. Gates

 

Yes, the title reminds you of poo. Moving on.

Duty is Gates’ memoir about his time serving as Secretary of Defense, under Presidents Bush (fils) and Obama. Appointed by the former to fix the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was asked to stay on by the latter, presumably to add a bipartisan flavor to Obama’s cabinet and Department of Defense. Duty describes Gates’ time at the Pentagon and provides his perspective on each administration.

If you’ve read about the book, you’ve probably heard the gossipy accounts of the successive administrations: who got along with whom, etc. I think one question everyone wanted answered was, “Who do you think made better decisions as President?” DutyWell, Gates knows enough to steer clear of that one, though he’s less comfortable with the Obama team than he is around Republicans or the military. On the other hand, he shit-talks Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden about equally, thinking that both were too political and too vocal in foreign policy meetings, while just about professing his undying love for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So he at least keeps an open mind.

But most of what Gates talks about is actually bureaucratic intransigence within Defense. His biggest problem at the Pentagon was that most of the top brass were focused on potential future wars, to the point of obsession. While this focus on upcoming problems and conflicts isn’t necessarily a bad thing- I’m glad that they think about tomorrow- Gates found that this attention came at the expense of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he felt he was brought in to fix. His mandate, as he saw it, was to realign the massive bureaucracy with the goal of winning our current wars. I find it hard to believe that the military paid as little attention to the wars it was fighting as Gates indicates, but he’s quite proud of his accomplishments in this area, especially the accelerated procurement of the life-saving MRAP, which I’ll get into in just a minute.

Though his book was interesting, by and large, I would get kind of annoyed when I felt that Gates was using his bipartisan label to elevate himself above decisions he didn’t like. In addition to disagreeing with and arguing against these decisions on their merits- which, to his credit, he does- he tends to adopt the posture of a neutral observer. The implication of this is that if you disagree with him, you’re behaving like a partisan hack. Gates consistently tells us that everything he did, by contrast, was for our country and our troops on the front line. While I don’t doubt that he’s telling the truth, I can see how it would get frustrating dealing with a man who believes his motives to be purer than anyone else’s in the room.

A couple months ago, while I was reading DutyNew York magazine came out with a cover story about race in the Obama era. In case you missed it, Jonathon Chait basically said, “Sure, Republican policies and politics can be racist, but Democrats are just as bad when they call Republicans racist. Everyone’s at fault.” What bothered me about this line of reasoning was best articulated by Elias Isquith on Salon as “the view from nowhere.” Essentially, Chait needs to retain his credibility as a neutral journalist, meaning that he can neither fully endorse either side’s actions or fully impugn either side’s motives. If he did so, he would immediately cease to be ‘neutral.’ The result? A piece pretty much devoid of actual content, all in the name of fairness.

I don’t think it would be fair to put Gates on the same level as Chait, but his tone sometimes bothered me. There are a few people in government that he would respect, even when he disagreed with them, but there were many whom he would often accuse of being hacks. The Obama White House, and particularly Joe Biden, are singled out as making foreign policy decisions based almost purely on politics. This is an especially strange charge given that during the Bush Administration, by Gates’ own account, national politics had a very strong influence on war policy in Iraq. Motives are not called into question in this case, but because Gates has taken the stance of an impartial observer, we’re supposed to trust that he knows the difference between a ‘political decision’ and an ‘informed’ decision.

Similarly, Gates likes to claim that he’s not a politician, and moreover that he has weak political instincts. A closer look reveals that the opposite is the case. In the aforementioned example of Iraq, Secretary Gates, the civilian team at the Pentagon, the military, and the White House were very adept at setting timetables for the surge, knowing how far away a deadline would have to be to avoid immediate accountability, while dodging a situation in which they could be criticized for setting a ridiculously distant (and therefore nearly irrelevant) date. This is not me calling them out for trying to outmaneuver Congress and the nation without us noticing. Go read the book. Gates is pretty open about politics driving aspects of decision-making in his time at Defense before the 2008 election.

A more subtle example of Gates’ political instincts is the MRAP program, which is credited with saving many, many lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates writes that he had to fight the Pentagon for the procurement of these vehicles, which were better-suited than any other to withstand IEDs, and therefore protected soldiers on patrol. If his account is accurate, this means that a) top officials at the Pentagon didn’t place the highest priority on protecting their soldiers, at least not to the extent that they would go around the normal procurement process to do so, and b) the Pentagon and the White House failed to recognize that American casualties were driving opposition to the war in Iraq. I think it’s fair to say that American opposition to wars largely develops when we see our fellow Americans fighting and dying for reasons we don’t understand. A good way to keep opposition from spiraling out of control, therefore, would be to place the highest priority on protecting American lives. Hence, the MRAP. If Gates was as integral to the MRAP procurement as he tells us, either the Bush Administration and the military were incredibly obtuse about the impact of casualties on American war fatigue, or Gates is much more politically savvy than he lets on.

I feel a little bit bad, because it must seem like I’m criticizing a high-level government official for acting like a politician. I often find myself in the position of defending politicians, even those that I disagree with, when people write them off as self-interested blowhards. I think it’s rare that anyone gets into public service, politics included, without a real desire to see people’s lives improve. From Bob Gates to George Bush to Barack Obama to Stanley McChrystal, I don’t think there’s anyone in Duty that I wouldn’t assume to be a patriot, and it saddens me that Gates is so adamant about certain individuals not always having the public interest at heart. But of course, it’s his book, and he’s entitled to his opinions. It’s likely that Gates is just trying to be honest about his experiences, and I can’t fault him for that.

I’ve kind of gotten bogged down in the political crap, which I really tried not to do, but it is simply amazing to me how openly Gates disdains political theater while just as openly engaging in it. Regardless, most of the book isn’t really about that. Gates talks about the Defense budget, our relationships with Russia and China, changes in military culture (including the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell”), and other challenges that we’re facing or that we will face in the near future. He makes his opinions known, and tells it like he sees it. I’m guessing that Gates’ tenure at the Pentagon will turn out to be an important one, and it’s pretty interesting watching the changes at the Pentagon from the perspective of a man who clearly wasn’t always comfortable with the way things went down.

Duty is a fascinating memoir for what Gates says- the great anecdotes from his relationship with Obama, Bush, Clinton, etc- as well as what he doesn’t say. There’s probably no better vantage point on the foreign policy pivot between the Bush and Obama Administrations.