Saturday, 18 March 2023

Ubik - Philip K. Dick (1969)


Rating: Admirable

Warning: this rather lazy review contains something close to a spoiler, but if you are already familiar with Dick's work, then read on with impunity...

I've been a Dickhead for a long time, a Dickhead among many, and as we Dickheads know Ubik is one of his more revered novels. Having read most of his significant novels, such as A Scanner Darkly (1977) and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), strangely I have long overlooked Ubik. For a newbie reader of Dick, Ubik would stand as a fine introduction to his work, but as an experienced Dick lover the novel is diminished by familiarity, for me, at least. Set in the early 1990's, the novel concerns a society in which telepaths and pre-cogs have emerged and they are both a menace and a solution. Glen Runciter oversees a company that provides protection for companies or individuals who are being targeted invasively by those with psychic abilities, using his own array of telepaths and pre-cogs in his employ to counteract the abilities of their own type. Also the dead, if attended to promptly, are able to be held in cryogenic suspension (half-life) and can be communicated with for advice and comfort. Oh, and humanity has colonised the Moon. So far, so typical of Philip K. Dick. Also typical are the characters, such as the 'everyman', Joe Chip, down on his luck financially (people have to pay doors in order for them to open for them), yet he is integral to the narrative. The other characters are a mostly crew of eccentric and suspicious characters trying to make their way inside a Philip K. Dick novel, which, ultimately, is unfortunate for them.

P. K. Dick, thinking about getting there first

I did enjoy Ubik, however, as mentioned above, over-familiarity did curtail my appreciation of its prime Dickheadian moments. Dick developed his narrative shtick early on and a great deal of his career as a novelist explored the same theme, that characters believe that they inhabit one very solid reality, only to find that another reality can be found beneath that seemingly solid surface. They work it out, especially Dick's everyman characters (Chip, in this case...), who are at the heart of most of his novels, but then, right at the end, there's another twist and they are trapped in multiple layers of reality, not knowing what the real one actually is. This pretty much sums up Ubik. As an experienced reader of Dick I grokked the clues early on, then it was just a matter of seeing if I was right, and I was pretty close. The cliche about Dick is that his narratives seem a lot like the reality we live in today, which is fair enough. Humans in this era seem to really want reality to be Dick-like, never trusting information or intention, always looking for conspiracy or duplicity, the layers below so-called reality. I wish that he had lived to at least see the beginnings of the World Wide Web era. I wonder whether he would have been disappointed or inspired? Either way, as the Terry Gilliam quote says on the cover of my edition, "Remember: Philip K. Dick got there first."

Sunday, 26 February 2023

Beautiful You - Chuck Palahniuk (2014)


Rating: Admirable

Palahniuk is known as a transgressional author, one who takes on taboo or controversial themes in a manner that pushes their boundaries to the extreme. Beautiful You is undoubtably thematically extreme, featuring weird sex, hyper capitalism and male emasculation. Penny Harrigan is the kind of female protagonist, hyperconscious and awkward, just getting by in corporate culture, who would helm an American sit-com across ten seasons, only learning her lessons in the last season. Only this is a Palahniuk novel and Harrigan ends up in the clutches of the worlds richest man, C. Linus Maxwell, who proceeds to experiment on her with an array of sex toys of his own devising. Harrigan is literally driven to life threatening physical extremes by his ministrations. At the same time she's drawn into the world of the super-rich and the attentions Maxwell's former sexual muses, a famous actress and a woman who has become the first female president of America. This is, at least initially, all quite entertaining stuff, especially as you anticipate what Maxwell's plans will do to society, virtually making men and their ineffectual penises and clumsy techniques, obsolete.

This does indeed occur (male obsolescence) and once Harrigan is freed from Maxwell's ministrations after a set amount of time (136 days), she realises just what trouble society is in as Maxwell's new line of sex toys takes the female population by storm. Maxwell is a true evil protagonist flexing his capitalist muscle. a walking cliche, but that's part of the point. In this regard the implacable logic of how he goes about his business in this age is high capitalism, surveillance capitalism and downright exploitative capitalism, really rings true. Harrigan's attempts to rectify the situation are entertaining enough, but about two thirds of the way through what was quite a good novel, things start to become slightly ridiculous, as Palahniuk turns up the dial of extremity. Beautiful You never promised to be an example of sober realism, but where the novel eventually goes to is absurd, particularly the denouement, which involves women driven to homelessness by their sex toy habits, a shotgun wedding, a naked sex guru from Tibet and death by a fiery flying dildo. This novel is a wild ride that fills in some time on the train-ride to work, but it also leaves you feeling a bit empty, kind like impulse buying, followed by buyers regret. Fortunately I didn't buy this novel, nor any sex toys.

Sunday, 19 February 2023

A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway (1964)


Rating: Excellent

I haven't read Hemingway for thirty years! I'm pleased that the book club has forced my hand in this case, as it has proved to be a most enjoyable read (most of the book club members concurred). Hemingway visited Paris in 1956 and recovered some storage trunks from the Hotel Ritz. Inside the trunks he found his journals written while living in Paris in the Twenties. He then pieced together A Moveable Feast as a memoir of that period before he died in 1961. It's fascinating reading, giving an evocative impression of life in Paris during a time when many artists from England, America and Europe lived in France due to the favourable exchange rate and its reputation as an artistic hub. Yet to pen a novel, Hemingway is making a transition from journalism to short-story writing. He rubs shoulders with an amazing array of important historical figures, such as James Joyce (who does not feature greatly in the memoir), Ezra Pound (who does), Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis and most significantly, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The three chapters that feature the Fitzgeralds make for intriguing reading. Hemingway paints a picture of Fitzgerald that is both critical and flattering. Hemingway, on the other hand, makes it known that he despises Zelda, labelling her as mad and jealous of Scott Fitzgerald's writing.

Hemingway's life in Paris, and latterly for a brief period, Austria, is beautifully portrayed. The characters he interacts with are all rendered fully alive throughout. Interwar Paris was undoubtably a colourful time, but what really makes this book special is the quality and style of Hemingway's prose, something that he is still famous for (other than his apparent 'outdoors man ' machismo). His short, declarative sentences, pared back to the bone, are a pleasure to read. The fact that he talks about writing and trying to become a writer of fiction, rather than to continue as a journalist, makes reading A Moveable Feast all the more compelling. During the time that I haven't read any Hemingway, I've read some of his imitators, or at least those who were inspired by his style, such as Charles Bukowski. Finally reading him again makes me want to go right back to the Hemingway source and read some of his novels. A Movable Feast would make a fine introduction to his writing for those who have never read him, after all, it goes right back to a time when he was a struggling writer, swaying through the streets of Paris after a few too many wines, and associating with writers who had been published already. Now I truly know why Bukowski said that when he was on fire, Hemingway was simply untouchable. 

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Helgoland - Carlo Rovelli (2020)


Rating: Excellent

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist who has written a number of fascinating books about quantum theory, some of which are still languishing unread in my collection, but I bought Helgoland recently on a trip to Melbourne and, for some intuitive reason, I needed to read it now rather than later. I'm pleased that I did. Rovelli is an important physicist who has worked on the problem of linking classical physics with quantum physics, developing the theory of loop quantum gravity (not the subject of this book). Helgoland begins with Werner Heisenberg's allergy lead retreat to the German island of Helgoland in 1925, where he worked on the the mysteries of atomic behaviour and came up with the observational interpretation of quantum theory. Such insights led directly to the famous thought experiment by Erwin Schrödinger concerning the cat in the box that could either be alive or dead until it is observed. Here's where Rovelli comes in, with the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics, which helps to deal with the problem of reality needing an observer in order to collapse the probability wave functions of the quantum realm into solid observable 'reality'. Confused? Well, first I'd advise you to read one of the best books about quantum theory for the lay-person, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You by Marcus Chown (2005), and then read Helgoland. Cutting to the chase, however, relational interpretation posits that as quantum objects interact with other quantum objects, they are 'observed' in the course of interacting. Reality is like a hall of mirrors. In this regard Rovelli's arguments appear sound and compelling.

Heisenberg, had bad allergies

Rovelli is a fine writer, able to convey difficult concepts in a way that can be deciphered by the average person. In my opinion getting some kind of grasp on quantum physics is essential for having a deeper relationship with the universe, and therefore, reality. Rovelli also ventures into philosophical territory, but in a manner that avoids potential eye-rolling. The characters than founded quantum theory are also fascinating characters, Heisenberg, Bohr, Born, Einstein, Engels and Schrödinger, among others, are worth reading about in their own right. Rovelli touches upon these physicists in regards to how they reacted to Heisenberg's insights (that were then backed up by experiments), and it is a compelling story, one that continues today, as Rovelli is just one in a long line of thinkers to tackle quantum mechanic's mysteries. If the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, then the implications are massive, including doing away with the need for an observer (in terms of humans, life and 'God'). It also, quite possibly, makes the concept that all probabilities exist all at once, with most hidden in parallel universes, redundant. It's a theory that always seemed ridiculous to me. In any case, although Helgoland does not need someone to be reading it for it to exist, go out and buy a copy and give it a read, it will spark those synapses and change the way you view the world.

Helgoland, had no pollen

Monday, 9 January 2023

Losing Face - George Haddad (2022)


Rating: Excellent

The first book club read of the year, and it is a doozy. Losing Face is George Haddad's first full length novel and it is superb. Firstly, Haddad's prose style is snappy and authentic, he hasn't tried anything too stylistically audacious, and the novel is all the better for it. The narrative is well constructed and deals with such weighty themes as rape culture, toxic masculinity, failure to launch, the nature of friendship and generational dysfunction and trauma. If it all sounds bleak, well perhaps it is to a degree, but Haddad writes so well that the story is absorbing and is therefore a pleasure to read. The main protagonist, Joey Harb, is a nineteen-year old lost in Sydney's western suburbs, barely holding down a job at Woolworths and hanging with his best mates, Kyri and Emma and also an assortment of fuck-ups content to put life on the back-burner in order to chase the next high. There's Joey's extended family, his mother Amal, brother Alex and, most significantly his grandmother, Elaine, who is an important character in her own right. All of the characters are totally authentic, it's as if you are there among them, part of the family, or out of it on drugs at a dance festival. Haddad gets the dialogue totally right, in particular the interactions between Elaine and her Lebanese friends and between Joey and his mates, forever on their phones and using slang to express their inarticulate trains of thought.

The reader gets to know Joey quite readily, which makes his inevitable descent into a terrible situation an ever present threat. When this part of the book begins the dread is palpable. The sexual assault scenes are brilliantly written, being both too much to bear and unputdownable. Joey's life is forever changed due to his naiveté and lack of awareness of the severity of the situation he finds himself in. The aftermath is compelling in its inevitably. Haddad cleverly weaves many shades of grey into the narrative, both in terms of Joey's situation and that of his grandmother's, Elaine, who has her own dysfunctions to deal with. The court scenes are mainly told through her eyes, adding layers of pathos to an unfortunately familiar tragic story. Most impressive is the denouement, in which Joey still finds it hard to find a way forward beyond the kind of aimlessness and lifestyle that endangered him in the first place. There's a path to redemption, but it's uncertain. Losing Face should be read by all of the Joey's out there, but they'd never read such a novel. Perhaps Losing Face should be part of the school curriculum, it would be a challenging but worthwhile read for teenagers growing up in the me-too era.