Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Brainy and Breezy: Smart books for stupid people

Reading. Is there a bigger waste of a summer? School's out, the days are long and the nights - even longer. Dostoevsky's great, but not while sucking down a belly shot or setting off Works Bombs during the 4th of July. But then the dog days hit. Your body wreaks of Kessler's and bug spray, and you've pissed off all those barflies you started June with after one too many Jose Cuervo-charged, "Real World" smackdowns. After the secondhand smoke clears, all that's left is you and your books. These are a couple of my favorites, originally recommended by my girlfriend the blogger at Where I Drown (love you, honey).

Ishmael Daniel Quinn has a secret he's not going to tell you - his large, telepathic gorilla will. Quinn sounds certifiable, I know, but Ishmael, the title character and the name of the aforesaid primate, will have you thinking it's the rest of us who're loony. The too-simple plot is an afterthought, acting as wallpaper behind the dialog. The navel-gazing protagonist answers a classified ad requesting a student who has a strong desire to save the world. When he answers the ad he is greeted by Ishmael who agrees to take the nameless main character under his tutelage.

Beyond the plot it's difficult to reveal much more without diluting the joy of discovery that accompanies every turn of the page. This much I can say: Ishmael promises to so profoundly alter your understanding of the human animal that you'll feel a subtle sense of alienation from the rest of the world. It takes until chapter two to start fearing he just might deliver. The trouble is not religious or racial or economic, although it encases all three. And, unlike many contemporary problem-spotters, Quinn offers a single solution which could save the world if only we had the courage to pursue it. By the end it is you, the reader, who become Ishmael's student.

Galapagos VonnegutRule number 6 for writing fiction according to Kurt Vonnegut: "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of." Kurt ain't playin' either. Not only does he put a character or two characters or even a cluster of characters under duress he puts humanity under taxing, even misanthropically fatal, conditions and watches it squirm. You need only recall Cat's Cradle to know we don't always make it out alive. Galapagos is Vonnegut's version of Utopia, which reads like a Dystopian saga for us technocrats. The narrative includes multiple continents and travels across a million years of human destiny. It's an interweaving tangle of characters colliding against each other all converging at the same place Darwin made his heretical discovery with his ship, "The Beagle," 180 years ago. After the onset of a worldwide nuclear war all of humanity is poisoned, except for that remote archipelago supporting the last survivors of the human race. From there we evolve into a species more suited for that environment - developing flippers, shedding hair and losing intelligence.

What makes the novel so terrifying is how right Vonnegut could turn out to be. Well-conceived satires like Network have proven the more outlandish one tries to portray the world the more closely the world adheres to his or her forecast. The reality of complete nuclear destruction is urine-inducing by itself, but to imagine mankind without its identity is petrifying.

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