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Three Books I Didn’t Finish (and One I Did): Reamde, Dragon Tattoo, Bag of Bones & State of Wonder

Book #1 for 2012: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

This is going to be a long post. That’s not because I have a lot to say about the book in question but because I first want to talk about why it’s the first book I’ve read (or at least the first book I’ve finished) since I wrote about Stephen King’s 11/22/63 last November.

2011 was my year of reading long books. In the spring I plowed through the first five volumes of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, something I’d grown convinced I would never do in the remainder of my lifetime, and I found time to read Robopocalypse between books four and five. (It wasn’t worth it. Robopocalypse was a snooze, a brief precis for an upcoming Stephen Spielberg film that has no other excuse for existing in book form.) After the approximately 1,100 Nook pages of Martin’s A Dance with Dragons I felt pretty much prepared for anything and polished off the 1,000-plus  pages of King’s Under the Dome in nine or ten days. I galloped through Jonathan Franzen’s compulsively readable Freedom in about a week, but that was only 500 pages, which by that time seemed trivial.

And then I got cocky. When I blithely attempted to read the 900 pages of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde I hit a brick wall. Stephenson is a writer that I admire and enjoy, roughly in that order. His books are bursting at the seams with inventive, slightly twisted, yet oddly believable ideas and when he chooses to he can write high velocity action that never leaves the reader feeling that his/her time would have been better spent curling up with something more intellectually edifying. Even when Stephenson writes an action scene he is intellectually edifying. I’ve carried on about this before, but the opening two chapters of Stephenson’s Snow Crash are the most amazing balancing act of characterization, sociopolitical speculation and sheer edge-of-your-seat suspense that I’ve ever read. I had heard that Reamde was more of a conventional terrorism thriller than Stephenson usually deals in, but I hardly found that off-putting. I love thrillers and I love Stephenson. What combination could be more appealing?

My mistake. Reamde may be crammed with action — almost too much for its own good, if truth be told — but it has all the excitement of watching a chess game played by mail. The premise is clever. A computer virus called Reamde — a corruption of the familiar computer filename Readme, so named because the virus creates a file of that name on your hard drive that holds all your vital information prisoner in an encrypted format with an unbreakable key — is propagating across the Internet. If Reamde snares your valuable data you must pay a ransom in the form of virtual merchandise within a massively multiplayer online game similar to World of Warcraft, where the virtual value of the virtual merchandise can be converted to real-world coin by Chinese hackers who will then pass you the key to your data. (This isn’t that farfetched given the bizarre crossover economies that actually exist within such games.) But Stephenson fills the novel with too many characters and they feel boringly interchangeable. Despite the author giving them distinct if perfunctory characteristics that can be used to distinguish them, I kept having to remind myself who every character was each time they returned to the novel’s viewpoint stage (and I never came up with a convincing reason to care about any of them). I managed to read more than 400 pages of the novel’s 900 pages and that’s 400 pages of reading that it looks like I’ll never get back.

Then I decided to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I can’t tell you whether it was a good book or a bad book because I never got far enough to decide. I came up against the same problem I always run into when attempting to read a book in translation, the disheartening sensation that I wasn’t really hearing the author’s voice. One of the joys of reading for me is the sense of having a direct mind-to-mind connection with another person, which consists not only of sharing their thoughts in as direct a manner as our physically separated brains allow but of hearing in my mind the very words with which they choose to express those thoughts. Word choice tells you a lot about another person (and I say this with some trepidation, knowing that you will immediately start paying much closer attention to my own word choice than you might have otherwise). Reading the words chosen by a competent or more than competent author can be as electrifying as watching a beautiful sunset (or, to stick more precisely with the analogy, it’s like looking at a beautifully composed photograph of a beautiful sunset).

With works in translation, though, the connection is lost, or at least it takes place only indirectly, with words being relayed through an intermediary much like in that old game where one person whispers a message to another person who whispers it to another person until, at the other end of the line, it comes out thoroughly garbled. I’m sure that Stieg Larsson’s translators are the best Swedish-to-English translators available and yet on page 37 of the Nook edition I came across this sentence:

“Instead of giving Salander the boot, he summoned her for a meeting in which he tried to figure out what made the difficult girl tick.”

Give her “the boot”?  Figure out what made her “tick”? Those are cliches from a bad 1940s movie. When’s the last time somebody under the age of 80 used the phrase “give her the boot”? This isn’t just bad writing; it’s lazy writing and I blame the translator for it. Of course, I don’t know Swedish so maybe the original phrase as written by Larsson actually involved placing a piece of footwear on Salander’s posterior, in which case it was Larsson who was the bad writer. (Somehow that doesn’t make it any better.) Someday maybe I’ll go back and read the book again to see if it manages to be a powerful piece of suspense fiction despite the encumberment of its trite narrative style, but by then I’ll have seen the movie and probably won’t care. Fortunately I only wasted about 50 pages on this one.

Finally I picked up Stephen King’s Bag of Bones because there was an upcoming miniseries version. I love King and am continually impressed by the amount of intelligent writing, vivid characterization and richly imagined detail that he is willing to invest in what are, after all, fairly disposable thrillers. And I liked Bag of Bones, at least as far as I got into it. (This was between 200 and 300 Nook pages, I believe.) But I’m beginning to realize that the last couple of months of the year (it was late November or early December by the time I started it) are not a good time for reading. I was exhausted by my marathon sprint through earlier King novels and the Martin quintology (pentology?) and there are far too many distractions at holiday time. I also found myself caught up in playing The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, a game I had waited all year for. (I’ve played every game in this series since it began in 1994 and Bethesda Softworks never fails to deliver a richly immersive, immensely time-consuming experience.) So eventually I lost all momentum on the King book and by now I’m sure I’ve forgotten the character names and most of what the book was about.

But a new year always renews my excitement in reading, if only because dozens of publications and Web sites post their Best Books of the Year list and in them I see one book after another that I’m instantly convinced will be the best thing I’ve ever read. I picked the book at hand, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, entirely at random, having no idea what it was about or what Patchett had written before.

Cover of Ann Patchett's State of Wonder

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

And, indeed, it’s an excellent piece of writing, with an ingenious story, believable characters and a graceful style so filled with rich observations that a reader could linger over a paragraph for hours extracting its wealth of precisely and wittily described detail. (Given how tired I was of spending weeks and months over books, this wasn’t entirely a good thing.)

I have two negative observations about the book. The first — and it’s the weaker of the two — is that though the plot was intricate and ingenious I never found it compelling, though I suspect the fact that I’m looking for “compelling” here at all is merely a sign of my increasing jadedness as a reader and a human being, a symptom of advancing age and a faltering attention span. I want a book in which the stakes for the main character are so emotionally heightened that turning a page becomes almost an act of desperate need (though I dislike it when such books degenerate into overripe melodrama). The second problem is that I found the main character, Dr. Marina Singh, something of a boring cipher, which made it difficult for me to become involved in her story. This may well have been a deliberate choice on the author’s part, but it wasn’t one that sat well with me as a reader. The story is about Dr. Singh’s journey to the jungles of Brazil to find a research scientist working on a miracle drug being financed by the pharmaceutical firm for which Singh works, and it isn’t until that scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, who had been Singh’s teacher at Johns Hopkins, enters the story that the book comes to life. Swenson is a dynamic, excitingly imagined character, and she develops unexpected depths as the story proceeds, evolving from the ogre that she has always been in Singh’s mind into a fully rounded, fascinating human being.

But, alas, she is only a tiny part of what the book is about. The story is really about Singh finding herself and finding something even more important that I’m not going into here because I really didn’t find it as interesting as the author seemed to think it was. Looking back at it now I think there was symbolic value in the discovery, but I can’t work up the energy to suss out exactly what it was.


The Future as Interactive Children’s Book: Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age

Book #17 for 2011: The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson wrote one of the best, and certainly most surprising, science fiction novels of the 1990s. It was called Snow Crash and it started off with one of the most dazzling opening sequences of any book I’ve ever read in any genre. In the first two or three dozen pages Stephenson manages not only to introduce the main character (whose name is — get ready to groan — Hiro Protagonist) and dole out extensive exposition about the novel’s complicated premise (a post-nationalist future where countries have, in effect, been replaced by franchises), but also holds the reader almost continuously spellbound with one of the most audacious action sequences I’ve ever read, all of of it concerning…a pizza delivery.

But perhaps the greatest surprise of Snow Crash was Stephenson’s writing style, which at its best combines the balls-out head-over-heels velocity of Tom Wolfe with the Japanese-influenced geek hipness of David Mitchell. His prose is funny, satirical and deadly serious, pretty much all at the same time. In fact, Stephenson is one of those rare novelists who is equally at home with plot, character, style and — most importantly for a science fiction writer — ideas. And in the opening sequence of Snow Crash he manages, in an amazing balancing act, to excel at all of these things simultaneously.

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer was his 1995 Hugo-Award-winning follow-up to Snow Crash and it’s one of the most impressive novels of ideas I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, he doesn’t repeat the marvelous expository balancing act of Snow Crash and he too often lets the ideas overwhelm the other aspects of the story. Instead of the high velocity introduction to the novel’s future millieu that Stephenson gave the reader in Snow Crash, we get approximately 200 pages (out of the 537 pages assigned the book by my Nook) of dense exposition, world building and character introduction, without any clear idea of the direction in which the novel is going. Once that direction becomes clear, however, the novel takes off and becomes as readable as anything I’ve had my hands on this year.

The Diamond Age (which is what I’ll call it from now on) is about a future in the process of transitioning to a nanotechnological economy. In layman’s terms, this means that almost any kind of object, from clothing to food to vehicles to buildings, can now be manufactured in a few hours from relatively cheap raw materials using a “matter compiler,” or MC, a kind of programmable mini-factory that everyone has access to. Poverty hasn’t gone away, but the poor are no longer hungry or shabbily dressed. Because the business of making things is now handled almost entirely by computer, the activity of human beings has shifted largely to the business of entertainment, mostly toward “ractives,” interactive diversions that are closer to a cross between a play and a video game than to current TV shows and movies (which in Stephenson’s future are known as “passives”). Much as society had balkanized itself into franchises in Snow Crash, the society of this nanotech-driven world has broken down into “phyles,” social groupings bound together by common ethnicity or philosophies. The most influential of these phyles are the Neo-Victorians, or Vickies, who have essentially reinvented the Victorian Age.

The plot of The Diamond Age, when it finally emerges, concerns a very extraordinary ractive called the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, which takes the form of a children’s book. The Primer is interactive not only in the sense that it interacts with the reader but in that it changes with the state of the world around it, and not always in predictable ways. The book is supposed to be one of a kind, commissioned by a high-ranking Vicky lord for his granddaughter, not only to teach her her ABCs but to instill in her (unknown to her stodgy parents) a kind of subversive mentality that refuses to accept the status quo of the society she lives in.

The book doesn’t remain a one-of-a-kind item for long. The programmer who designs it has a second copy surreptitiously (and quite illegally) made for his daughter. But that copy is stolen by a group of young thugs, one of whom gives it to his little sister. And the book’s existence comes to the attention of a benevolent Asian crime lord named Dr. X, who has copies made to give to thousands of orphan girls who have been abandoned in the wilderness by parents who simply have no interest in raising daughters.

If that (very incomplete) description of the plot strikes you as a bit overwhelming, it’s nowhere near as overwhelming as it is in the book, and that’s the novel’s central flaw. Stephenson has no interest in making this story easy for the reader to get into, the way he did in Snow Crash. You shouldn’t even attempt to read it if you don’t know what nanotechnology is, don’t know what a Turing machine is or have no idea what makes a shape “fractal.” I do know something about these things and I still very nearly gave up on the book in those first 200 pages, where I wasn’t sure what characters I should be focusing on or what plot threads would turn out to be rewarding. But I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t. The latter half of the book (much of which is a story within a story, based on the contents of the Primer) is often exciting and stirring and Stephenson ends the book on a hopeful note of revolution concerning those thousands of girls raised on the subversive primer. If The Diamond Age lacks the sheer pyrotechnic velocity of Snow Crash, it also shows Stephenson’s subsequent maturity as a writer, and I’m looking forward to reading the books — there are five of them so far — that he’s written in the 16 years since he wrote this one.