Cruise Ship Books

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I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors while perusing the books other passengers have left behind in shipboard libraries. While cruising in Alaska, I discovered Michael Frayn and couldn’t stop until I had devoured all of his novels and then looked around hungrily for more.

Spies is perhaps my favorite. A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village, where he tries to make grownup sense of things that happened there so many years ago, while he and his boyhood friend hid in the privet bush pretending to be spies. The dual perspective of middle age and childhood, as well as the contrast between the WWII setting and the “present” of 30 years later makes the book particularly evocative, and the mystery of what actually happened drives the story.

Frayn’s books often present a tone of detachment and loss, as expressed in these opening lines from A Landing in the Sun:

On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.

These hands, and the crisp white shirtsleeves that lead away from them, are the only signs of me in the room.

The separation of the action performed by his hands from his intentional, sentient will is also reminiscent of the book-burning fireman, Montag, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Montag . . . glanced to his hands to see what new thing they had done.” Both authors use synecdoche effectively to suggest the protagonist’s looming split with authority and his attempt to regain control over his life.

A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village.

It was on a cruise ship traveling around Australia and New Zealand that I discovered the historical novelist Tracy Chevalier. Her Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which she creates a compelling and poignant backstory for the supposed model of Vermeer’s famous painting, had recently been made into the film that launched Scarlett Johansson to stardom; but the book that hooked me was Fallen Angels, a name that refers to the memorial stones in a local graveyard but also to the fallen characters within the story. Beginning at the end of the Queen Victoria’s reign, the book’s multiple storylines focus on husbands and wives, friends and lovers, ruling class and servant class, and a gravedigger’s son.

From the moment I entered Chevalier’s world of shifting narrative perspectives set in turn-of-the-century England, I didn’t want to leave. I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century. Similarly, while viewing Manhattan from across the river in one of the books I review here, a character observes, “You wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.” That’s how I felt while reading many of the books I’ve mentioned in this review — I wanted to approach the end, but never quite arrive there.

This past month I was cruising the western Mediterranean when I discovered Rules of Civility by the talented author Amor Towles, whose fresh metaphors and unexpected developments delighted and surprised me. I had barely finished reading it when, craving more of his elegantly crafted sentences and trusting his storytelling skills, I downloaded his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, to my Kindle for the long flight home from Europe.

I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century.

The title Rules of Civility refers to George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a dog-eared copy of which is discovered by the narrator, Katey Kontent, on the bedside table of the central character, Tinker Grey. Towles’ book is a novel of manners set in 1938 Manhattan and framed by a 1966 photography exhibition. As the book opens, a middle-aged Katey spies two candid photographs taken of her long-lost friend Tinker at the beginning and the end of 1938. This chance sighting becomes the catalyst for her recollection of that year, a year that became a turning point in her life as she navigated between boarding houses and mansions, trust-fund kids and dockworkers, the upper West side and the lower East side, in her journey to define who she would become.

Katey begins 1938 living in a women’s boardinghouse and working in a steno pool. She and her roommate, Eve Ross, meet the posh and elegant Tinker Grey at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, and he becomes the direct and indirect catalyst for everything else that happens that year.

Like the original “novels of manners,” set in manor houses and often populated by governesses or impoverished heiresses who make satirical observations about the ruling class, Rules of Civility contains biting, cogent cultural commentary. Katey is paid well as a secretary, but when she decides to move on to a job in the literary world, she must accept a huge cut in pay. She wryly observes, “A secretary exchanges her labor for a living wage. But an assistant comes from a fine home, attends Smith College, and lands her positions when her mother happens to be seated beside the publisher in chief at a dinner party.” I worked under an executive director who landed her position in the same way, and it was just as galling. Katey also notes, after guests at a dinner party heap praises upon the hostess at the end of a fine meal, “This was a social nicety that seemed more prevalent the higher you climbed the social ladder and the less your hostess cooked.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer.

Katey is a philosopher by nature, and her thoughts begin to resonate with the reader. As she looks back on 1938, she recalls, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course . . . shouldn’t come without a price. I have no doubt [my choices] were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance — in this case, from the bright optimism of making right decisions to the mournful grief of cutting oneself off from other options — permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer. Consider the span of emotion in moments like these: “I tore the letter into a thousand pieces and hurled them at the spot on the wall where a fireplace should have been. Then I carefully considered what I should wear.” And: “Something fell from my jawbone to the back of my hand. It was a teardrop of all things. So I slapped him.” And this cautionary reflection: “In moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”

Katey wants everything to be neat and orderly and open. As a secretary, she “suture[s] split infinitives and hoist[s] dangling modifiers,” and she wants life to be as simple as that, with rules that allow no ambiguities and people who are who they say they are. But soon she realizes that “it’s a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon, a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact . . . there are tens of thousands of butterflies, men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings — one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage — and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.” Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Katey is not well-bred, but she is well-read, and her running references to such books as Walden, Great Expectations, Washington’s Rules of Civility, Agatha Christie novels, and others add depth to the story. I especially like the way she combines insights from Thoreau and Christie to deliver this:

In the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. . . . For the most part, in the course of our daily lives we abide the abundant evidence that no such universal justice exists. Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christie promises.

We all have turning point moments in our lives — moments that occur during the years when we’re deciding who we will be and making decisions so profound that they change our course completely and irrevocably. They often seem insignificant at the time, and the people who influence us most profoundly move on from our lives. Although we may never see them again, we think of them frequently. I have one such friend from my childhood who moved on from my life when we were 11, yet much of who I am today comes from the experiences I shared with her during the three profound years we spent together, just as Michael Frayn’s narrator in Spies is forever influenced by the events he experienced with his childhood chum.

Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Towles suggests the importance of these so-called minor characters when Katey begins reading a Hemingway novel from the middle rather than the beginning: “Without the early chapters, all the incidents became sketches and all the dialogue innuendo. Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way.”

And Katey learns to read life that way too — paying more heed to the side characters who influence us unexpectedly. Eventually she discovers that “when some incident sheds a favorable light on an old and absent friend, that’s about as good a gift as chance intends to offer.” Reading Rules of Civility gave me cause to reflect on many an old and absent friend, and that’s one of the many good gifts of this book.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spies," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2002, 261 pages; "A Landing on the Sun," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2003, 272 pages; and "Rules of Civility," by Amor Towles. Penguin Books, 2011, 338 pages.



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A Novel Attracting Attention

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Blythe is the debut novel by John Kramer. Because it has received considerable praise and interest from readers across the philosophical spectrum, but especially among libertarians, Liberty’s entertainment editor, Jo Ann Skousen, interviewed Kramer about story’s themes and popularity. Set in a nondescript village in an undisclosed time period, it begins with the strange disappearance and reappearance of several local residents wracked by a strange disease and marked by a strange branding. When the story’s title character, Blythe, is led into an underworld kingdom that proves to be the source of the disease, she must find a way to survive while her love interest, Aaron, must find a way to rescue her.

* * *

JAS: Blythe is set in a timeless and nameless world that is familiar in its human relationships and topography, yet unfamiliar in its lack of technology and its Dantean underworld located just outside the city. It could take place in the past, or in a postapocalyptic future. What were you trying to accomplish with your setting and character conflicts?

JK: It was a challenge to write Blythe in a way that was timeless; as you correctly point out, the story could be taking place today or it could have taken place 600 years ago or it could take place in the future. The only temporal reference is to Dante. But for that, Blythe is truly a timeless tale and that was important to me because its themes are timeless: good vs. evil, self-determination vs. captivity and oppression, and the ideas and ideals of faith, freedom, and forgiveness. Readers are used to being told stories with concrete facts — with recognizable places, set in a specific time and with detailed descriptions of the characters. Blythe is purposefully light on all of that, and once the readers figure out that they have the control to create this world and these characters in their own minds, it is empowering for them. I remember watching a video of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” for the first time, back in the 1980s. I was so disappointed by the casting of John the bartender and other characters. They were nothing like the characters my mind had conjured. Outside of what I considered characteristically essential observations, many of the details in Blythe will be created by the reader.

Blythe's themes are timeless: good vs. evil, self-determination vs. captivity and oppression, and the ideas and ideals of faith, freedom, and forgiveness.

JAS: Your title character, Blythe, is an artist who uses her own blood in her work. Art has a specific healing and protective power in the story. You’re a painter as well. Is Blythe the character with whom you most identify?

JK: I admire Blythe and her growth throughout this story. Even in her true-to-life frailties, she manages to hold herself to a high standard. But there are other characters I identify much more closely with, most specifically Augustus. Throughout this story, Augustus never speaks; he acts. And he always acts in a way that helps his good friend Aaron. That’s my kind of person. He was modeled on Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus, who in the entire Bible never speaks a word. He just does the right thing to look out for those he loves even when it seems like a fool’s errand. And Joseph’s actions, like those of Augustus, are essential to the story’s outcome.

JAS: For me, the best part of the book is the thought-provoking aphorisms containing libertarian ideas — sentences such as “Every manmade disaster begins when one man thinks for another. However benevolent they begin, the ultimate outcome is tyranny” and “Take liberties you shouldn’t and you’ll find your liberties are taken from you.” It reminds me of reading Emerson’s journals, which he relied on frequently as a source for his essays. What is the source of the quotable passages in your book, and how did you use them in creating the story? Did you collect them first and build the story around them, or did they rise of their own volition out of the story-writing process? Which are your personal favorites?

The need to act to stop injustice has been a driving force in my life from as early as the age of three

JK: Emerson has a special place in my life. I lost my father when I was two, and my Uncle Joe, who was a surrogate father, urged me time and again to read Emerson’s essay on “Compensation.” When I finally had the maturity to read it, it hit home, both in the sweep of its message and in its unique and memorable turns of phrase. I’ve since read all Emerson’s essays four times or more and I hope to never stop reading them over the course of my life. Both Emerson and Benjamin Franklin inspired me to create unique, true, carefully crafted, and memorable turns of phrase throughout Blythe. Nearly all of the quotes and all of the poems are my own creations. The quote that most closely reflects my aspirations and actions is the one I used as Blythe’s one-line prologue: “One of mankind’s greatest sins is inaction in the face of injustice.” The need to act to stop injustice has been a driving force in my life from as early as the age of three. I’m grateful to have worked over the past 25 years at an organization that allows me to turn that insight into action on behalf of individuals whose rights are being violated by the government. I can’t think of a better way to earn an honest living.

JAS: Blythe has been described as a story that defies genre. It focuses more on its themes of love, faith, forgiveness, and redemption than on traditional story tropes. Your protagonist, Blythe, is strong, willful, talented, and independent. Her love interest, Aaron, is also strong, loyal, and likeable. Through a series of choices — some hers, some Aaron’s — Blythe ends up inside a dark and despotic place where she and a growing number of villagers are imprisoned, perhaps forever. Blythe doesn’t seem to belong there by the rules of traditional forgiveness and redemption tales — unlike Edmund, for example, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she hasn’t deliberately chosen an evil path, hasn’t harmed anyone, and in fact she does whatever is possible to avoid harming others. In terms of your story trope, why is Blythe confined to this prison, and why does she need forgiveness and redemption? Why isn’t Aaron held equally responsible for his actions leading to her capture? You mention betrayal in the story; who has betrayed whom?

JK: I concluded a poem many years ago with the lines, “We are bound to make mistakes, but it’s what we do from there that can bring us back to God, and the life He wants to share.” We all make mistakes. We all sometimes take the wrong path even though we know better. Like Blythe, we can even have the self-awareness to point this out to ourselves as we are doing it, but we sometimes still continue to move in exactly the wrong direction, often at the urging of people we know we should not trust. That is what Blythe experiences. And following someone in such a way never leads to a good or happy place or experience. We should trust our instincts. Once Blythe is drawn into that other world, she not only has to figure out how to survive but how to preserve the better angels of her nature. When she enters, she is a broken person inside, but this new and threatening place acts as a crucible of sorts, purifying her, and — even as it works to destroy her — helping to make her good and whole. We are all individually responsible for what we do, and Blythe is not immune to that fact. So Blythe escalates Aaron’s betrayal, and, in that twist, she is betrayed by her rival, who herself is betrayed to an even greater extent. The lesson here is that when we ratchet up what we know is wrong, it only makes our lives and our worlds a worse place to be in. By recognizing and living up to the power of forgiveness, we can improve not only our own lives, but the world around us.

We all make mistakes. We all sometimes take the wrong path even though we know better.

JAS: You subtly suggest that evil is contagious, or at least that it loves company, when those who want to leave their imprisonment and return temporarily to the outside world must bring someone back with them or else suffer an agonizing, torturous death. Eventually whole communities succumb to the underworld. Is this a metaphor for social and political philosophies that seem to spread like a virus from person to person? Or is it a demonstration of the destructive power of peer pressure? Or am I reading something into this that wasn’t intentional?

JK: So many forces in this world are contagious: evil inspires more evil, but courage, love, and forgiveness can and should also be contagious; it merely requires an individual to stop, even in the midst of harm, and say, “No. I won’t continue or expand this harmful cycle. I am going to be the one to change this trend.” I grew up in a home with a lot of joy, but there was also a lot of hair-trigger violence. I knew it was wrong even as I was seeing it happen, and I vowed to myself that it would not happen in a home I would make my own someday. Each member of my family would feel safe in our home. My nephew, who stayed with us for a summer, described our home as “relentlessly positive.” I like that humorous description. It is what I’ve worked to build. We are free to pursue destructive paths, but all we’re left with when we’re done is destruction. On the other hand, one can decide to be a positive force. Others are looking for those examples, especially in our world today. And when one person stands and defends the defenseless, others are inspired to join, or do their own positive variation on the theme. Misery loves company, but so does joy. What you read was certainly a purposeful choice on my part with this story.

JAS: Is it significant that most of the early victims who succumb to the plague you describe are young men? Your description of the mysterious pustules that cover their bodies, the phlegmy cough, the wasting away, and the incurable nature of the disease reminded me immediately of the 1980s, when young men began wasting away and dying from an inexplicable and incurable form of pneumonia that eventually became diagnosed as the final symptom of AIDS. Eventually the connection between the kingdom and AIDS becomes explicit in your story. What is your point with this part of the story, and how does it fit with the underlying theme of choice and accountability, love, faith, forgiveness, and redemption? Did you mean to imply that sex outside of marriage is inherently evil and needs to be punished? Do you agree with the 1980s statement made by several orthodox Christian leaders that AIDS was a punishment from God? Why is HIV at the center of this Dantean world?

When one person stands and defends the defenseless, others are inspired to join, or do their own positive variation on the theme.

JK: You caught a commonality that has slipped by a lot of readers, certainly on the first time they read Blythe. In the early days of the AIDS crisis, its victims were largely limited to young gay men — social outcasts who operated outside of society’s mainstream. It wasn’t until AIDS crossed the gender line that suddenly the vast majority of people and especially the media started to take notice. Blythe follows this same turn of events. Complicit in this during the AIDS crisis, and in my novel, were those in authority who saw what was transpiring, but who said nothing publicly and did nothing officially because they didn’t agree with the life choices of those individuals. It was not, however, their place to pass such judgments, and they did so with disastrous effects across entire swaths of our world. In art, as in life, such errors in judgment must be paid for, which indeed is the case for one of the authority figures in this story who allows this plague to rise and take hold. For a time, it makes his life easier, but he pays very personally and in many different ways he could never have anticipated.

And just as AIDS doesn’t kill its victims, but weakens their resistance to other illnesses that take their lives, those in the kingdom who are going to die are sent away to die elsewhere, typically in what were once their homes.

To be clear, because some have asked me: I do not believe HIV is a punishment for sinful choices. (One ancillary character suggests that, but the more central and more persuasive character refutes that belief.) Ending up in the underground kingdom may happen as a consequence of the choices characters make or others make for them, but I do not see it as a punishment for the choice. To me there is a difference between a consequence and a punishment; the latter implies God’s judgment, and I don’t believe God would will that on His own creations; the other team would. As you once put it in an exchange with me, natural consequences are not divine punishments; God doesn’t make bad things happen, but He allows natural consequences to occur.

Just as AIDS doesn’t kill its victims, but weakens their resistance to other illnesses that take their lives, those in the kingdom who are going to die are sent away to die elsewhere.

JAS: The separate world of captivity you created for Blythe and the others is unusual in that the inhabitants are able to see and speak with their loved ones on the outside. I was reminded of Eurydice, alive and aware even after death, while Orpheus pleads with the gods to free her from the underworld. Blythe isn’t scary like a horror story and it doesn’t have the tension of a spy thriller or the panic I imagine of hell. In fact, this kingdom you create seems more like a leper colony than a prison. What was your intent in allowing this kind of ongoing communication between the villagers and those held captives in that kingdom?

JK: The structure of the kingdom and of this story is based on HIV/AIDS, and how it operates and how it spread throughout our society. So, in this sense, those who are infected with HIV are, by necessity, separated in many ways physically from those they love. They can be present and communicate with each other, but there is that separation, which provided some of the more poignant moments involving Blythe and Aaron — calling out and responding to each other across that vast separation that could only be crossed if Aaron forfeited his future — a line Blythe would never allow him to cross.

JAS: I noticed many traditional Christian morals and values within your story. Do you consider this book to be a Christian allegory?

There are many libertarian Christians out there who feel like they need to apologize for living in both camps. We need to stop apologizing.

JK: Blythe is a Christian libertarian work of literary fiction and yet it has been rewarding to hear from agnostic and atheistic readers who are inspired by Blythe for its focus on human freedom and self-determination.

One reader recently came up to me at a conference and said with a great deal of excitement: “This is the book I’ve been looking for! I’ve never understood why you couldn’t have both faith and reason. That’s what I’ve felt in my own heart — I can be led by both.”

I couldn’t have agreed with her more. There are many libertarian Christians out there who feel like they need to apologize for living in both camps. We — and I’m speaking as one of those people — need to stop apologizing. Both philosophies, when properly practiced, should reinforce the dignity of each person, when they act as free and responsible individuals.

We can and should be driven by reason. We should use the good sense that God gave us. Our reason should be nurtured and cultivated, and within our lives we must discern if what our faith leaders are saying and doing conforms with our personal knowledge of God and what he wants for us and our world.

And we should likewise nurture and cultivate our spiritual life. I’ve seen so many genuinely miraculous things in my life — here in the physical world — that cannot be explained by reason alone; they can only be explained with faith and trust in a Higher Being who loves us.

That combination of reason and faith — continually considered in such a way that it drives you to demonstrate love for those around you, hope for the future, and an ever improving and freer world — that should be the end result. This, I believe, is what God wants for us. As one character said, “Too much reason limits man to the physical world and blinds his imagination to the greater things that may be. But too much faith blinds him from curing the human suffering in this world. Men with too much faith accept suffering; they expect it and even seek it out.”


Editor's Note: Interview on "Blythe," by John E. Kramer. Freedom Forge Press, 2017, 420 pages.



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A Libertarian Novel of Ideas

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“You couldn’t make this stuff up, yet it all seemed so natural and matter of fact” — so says Free Dakota, William Irwin’s new novel, in a comment about some of its own plotline. The first part of the comment is, of course, as fictional as the novel itself: Irwin made all “this stuff” up. But the second part is real and true: Irwin’s unusual work of fiction does somehow seem natural and matter of fact.

The book demonstrates, for one thing, that you can start to make a fantasy seem real if you surround it with realistic detail. Free Dakota is as loaded with Americana as a Tom Wolfe book, or it would be, if it were as long as a Tom Wolfe book. Actually, Free Dakota is becomingly brief. Irwin selects exactly the right details to make a fictional small town feel like a real small town, to make a fictional diner in North Dakota seem like a real diner. He does the same with his characters. But descriptive details are never enough. Irwin adds to the details a story that appears to be real because the plot develops naturally from his characters’ psychology.

If there’s a protagonist of this novel, it’s Don, a middle-aged novelist with an enormous writer’s block and even more enormous ennui. Don finds a purpose in life in the attempt of a libertarian group to get like-minded people to move to North Dakota and then vote to secede from the Union. Vying with Don for the role of protagonist (the “apron” as the novel calls it, for various good reasons) is Lorna, a high-class madam who unexpectedly (but reasonably, as Irwin makes it appear) follows Don to North Dakota and becomes a libertarian activist. A third interesting person is Mackey, a dropout from a Catholic seminary who in place of formal religion has adopted classic libertarian ideas, and a desire to live up to them.

Irwin selects exactly the right details to make a fictional small town feel like a real small town.

The plot takes us all the way through the secession campaign, and I won’t spoil the fun by telling you how it turns out. Along the way, there are many arguments for and about libertarian ideas, arguments that most libertarians have encountered before, but probably not in so clever and attractive a guise. And this may be the place to record what Irwin told me about the genesis of his story:

I've always wanted to write a novel, but I wanted to have something to say. I love Plato's dialogues for their ability to raise questions and expose how little we know. I'm an accidental libertarian. I just didn't care much about politics or political philosophy until I was well into my 30s. I just wanted to be left alone, and it was becoming more and more clear to me that the government wasn't leaving me alone. I read [Robert] Nozick and others. Only much later did I read the novels of Ayn Rand, and Atlas Shrugged made a big impression on me. For all its faults, it's a great novel. I think you need to read it as being in the same genre as Brave New World and 1984. It's not meant to be completely realistic, but it conveys important ideas. So, along with Plato's dialogues, Atlas Shrugged is the main source of inspiration for Free Dakota. Readers will find plenty of allusions to Atlas Shrugged in Free Dakota.

That’s true, and charming. More remarkable is the novel’s wealth of libertarian ideas, and how easily Irwin gets us into and out of the arguments about them. Free Dakota is a “novel of ideas” that has freed itself from the melancholy history of its genre. The ordinary “novel of ideas” is all ideas and no novel — witness Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back (1951, 1966), a complete guide to free-enterprise capitalism, written by a good economic journalist. Time Will Run Back is one of the most intelligent books in the world, and one of the nicest. It’s even nice enough to offer a basic plot — a story about the conversion of a dictatorship into a libertarian society. But the plot doesn’t really matter, and neither do the characters. It’s only the arguments that count, and long before you reach the end, you’re ready for something else, such as a real novel.

Irwin’s book, however, is a real novel. You can read it without knowing anything about libertarian ideas and still get involved with the story and characters. And this is strange, considering the way in which Irwin, a professor of philosophy, says that his book developed: “I started with the exchange of ideas and added layers of detail concerning characters and settings in subsequent drafts. I had a basic idea for the plot but not a detailed outline, so I let it develop naturally.”

Free Dakota is a “novel of ideas” that has freed itself from the melancholy history of its genre.

I can think of no other literary work that was written in this manner — starting with the intellectual debates, and adding the details later — that still succeeded in recommending itself as a novel, as opposed to a series of essays. The vitality of Irwin’s story can result from only one source — a sustained interest in the varieties of human life and character. That’s why the plot could “develop naturally” and not mechanically.

There’s another unusual thing about Irwin’s narration, and I believe it has something to do with the “naturalness” of the book. In a normal novel, one learns a great deal about the youth, education, career choices, dietary preferences, and other features of the major characters. One often learns these things soon after the characters come on stage. Irwin’s novel, by contrast, functions on a rigorously need-to-know basis. Most characters are hardly introduced at all; they just show up. Later, one finds out more about them, but seldom anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to the movement of events.

This method never advertises itself; it’s simply a thing one begins to notice. It wouldn’t work in a story that tried to accomplish anything like a sociological survey, or depth psychology — but, come to think of it, it manages to preserve more of the alluring mysteriousness of the human mind than many a chapter of Henry James. And what one sees on the page is more realistic, more natural, in one definition of those terms, than the normal novelistic treatment. In real life, new people aren’t introduced to us with full accounts of themselves, extensively cross-indexed. They just show up, and if we’re interested in continuing the relationship, we learn enough about them to do that. The basis of Irwin’s tale might pompously be called the epistemology of normal life. Whatever you call it, it gives the book a good deal of its realism and credibility.

Something that Irwin told me suggests that for him, creating characters was a good deal like the experience of meeting people in normal life. We meet Person X, recognize similarities and differences between him and ourselves; then, perhaps, we establish further relationships, with the people he knows:

I started with the protagonist, Don Jenkins. Like me, he's an accidental libertarian, but there aren't too many similarities between us beyond that. . . . Most of the other characters developed in reaction to Don Jenkins. I would ask myself who Don would meet in a given situation and I would go with the images and ideas that occurred to me.

It’s a part of normal life to connect ourselves not just with real people but also with the people we meet in books. So it’s very natural for Irwin to add, “The diner owner, John Mackey, is inspired by Hugh Akston from Atlas Shrugged.” Readers who already know Hugh Akston will be interested, and I think amused, to see their old friend from a new perspective. But that’s the way the world really is; people change in interesting ways when we see them in new company.

In real life, new people aren’t introduced to us with full accounts of themselves, extensively cross-indexed. They just show up.

Almost as natural is another comment from the author about the images and ideas in his story: “Some of these changed in subsequent drafts, of course.” Free Dakota is natural in its method but well meditated in its execution. It’s a work of libertarian thought and action that libertarians will warmly welcome.


Editor's Note: Review of "Free Dakota," by William Irwin. Roundfire, 2016. 203 pages.



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Ayn Rand: Champion of the Working Class?

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In his libertarian manifesto For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard accused Ayn Rand of being a pawn of corporate people profiting from the welfare state. As evidence that she was out of touch with reality, he cited her famous statement that the businessman is America’s most persecuted minority (Mises Institute edition [388], quoting Rand, “America’s Most Persecuted Minority: Big Business” [1962]; reprinted in Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal).

Objectivism, to the extent that the general public knows anything about it, is often regarded as a rightwing position and can be seen as a boon to efforts to push libertarians into the hand of the Tea Party Right. While this belief is ignorant, the masses do not have a detailed and nuanced grasp of the details of libertarian doctrine, nor should we expect them to. Many people merely adopt a false and shallow impression that libertarians are some type of conservatives who are on the far Right, compared to moderate Republicans. Some left-libertarians, such as I, are very frustrated with the tendency of Objectivism to be classified in this way. The truth about Rand (like the truth about all things) is deeper and more surprising than a first impression would allow. Rand should not be considered a member of the Right. In several important ways, indeed, she resembled a populist leftist.

The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.

To examine the sense in which she was, historically, a friend of the working class and an enemy of the conservative Right, several things come into focus. First, let us consider Rand herself. She was a working-class woman, and quite poor during much of her adult life. It was only with the sale of the movie rights to The Fountainhead, when she was almost 40 years old, that she achieved significant self-made wealth, which was to last and grow for the rest of her life. To say, then, that Ayn Rand hated the working class and loved the rich would be to assume that she hated herself for many years — something absurdly contrary to her fundamentally self-loving and perhaps narcissistic personality.

Second, Rand always had a particular affinity for working-class people who want to earn their wages instead of relying on the welfare state. For example, Rand pushed to have The Fountainhead movie premiere in a working-class area, saying that she knew her “real audience” was there (Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Anchor Books edition, 212). When the audience in working-class Southern California applauded the movie at its premier, Rand said, “That’s why I like the common man.” The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.

Third, and perhaps most obvious and also most extremely inconvenient for rightwing libertarians, is the conservative movement’s frequent hatred of Rand, and her counterattacks against that movement during the 1960s. Any disciple of Rand knows what the hateful, anti-Randian sentence “To a gas chamber, go!” means and embodies; for those who don’t, a more extensive knowledge of the history of the libertarian movement is required (for which I recommend Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, one of the best works on the subject). Rand’s hatred of conservatives is undeniable. The title of her essay “Conservatism: An Obituary” (1962, reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) is self-explanatory. If one goes beyond the title to read the text, one sees that Rand held nothing back. She was full of anger. She once said that liberals seek to enslave the body and conservatives seek to enslave the mind, both conceding freedom to that part of human existence which they care about least. This comment is hardly flattering to the Right.

Fourth, and finally, consider Rand’s signature novels themselves. Of course, all her fans have read them, but few have read carefully. In The Fountainhead, Gale Wynand gets rich by pandering to the stupid masses in his newspapers. In Atlas Shrugged, James Taggart, the major villain, is, among many other things, a rich white male businessman who inherited vast wealth and is the CEO of a major railroad. Is this a character created to praise the rich, a character that rich people should love?

Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist.

Or did Rand seek to praise productivity and intellect, not the rich as such? Compare James Taggart to his sister Dagny, a hero of the novel. Dagny is a woman who actually runs, not simply pretends to run, a great railroad. Her role in the novel makes it years ahead of its time in terms of gender equality. Let us not forget that Rand was a woman, and, as such, a living embodiment of the freedom of women to pursue careers, a freedom by no means certain for most women in America during Rand’s lifetime. Most people would regard progressive feminism as a leftist element in Rand. The creator of Galt’s Gulch, the Utopia in Atlas Shrugged, is fairly prosperous in the Gulch itself, but in “our world” he is a mere day laborer who lives in poverty — and that’s where he lives during most of the book. It is easy to connect the dots and assume that Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist. One of the basic messages of the novel is that our world would condemn all such people to a meager existence.

Murray Rothbard despised the big business Right (at least before his “paleolibertarian” phase); I believe that Rand did as well. Contemporary conservatives may exploit Rand’s ideas, just as they exploit so many other ideas, both economic and philosophical; but that’s no reason for working-class libertarians and left-libertarians not to embrace Rand as one of their own.




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Still a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird

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As a professor of English literature I’ve heard more than one colleague comment wryly that the only legitimate purpose of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is that it introduces the character of Huck Finn. The same could be said of Harper Lee’s newly published novel Go Set a Watchman; its only legitimate purpose is that it introduces the characters of Scout and Atticus Finch, the main characters in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

The new book takes place nearly two decades later than the first, when the 26-year-old Jean Louise (aka Scout) Finch, now living in New York, returns to Maycomb, Alabama, for a two-week visit with her family. There she reminisces about childhood adventures with her brother Jem and friends Henry and Dill. The adult Jean Louise views her family and neighbors through more cosmopolitan eyes and finds them severely wanting, particularly in their attitudes toward civil rights and racial equality.

Watchman's detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene.

According to interviews with her current publisher at HarperCollins, Lee wrote this manuscript in the 1950s, when she was in her twenties, and although it takes place after the events in TKAM, it was actually written several years earlier. Lee’s agent submitted it to publishers, and in 1957 Tay Hohoff, an editor at JB Lippincott, picked it up. However, Hohoff recognized that the book wasn’t ready for publication and that the flashback scenes were far more compelling than the main narrative. She recommended that Lee rewrite the book using six-year-old Scout as the narrator. Better advice was never given to a first-time author. Hohoff worked closely with her, guiding her through several versions until, three years later, Lee’s Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird was published. It has been read and reread by admiring fans for over 50 years.

Meanwhile, Watchman had been sitting in a secure area of Lee’s Alabama home, attached to the original manuscript of TKAM, since at least 1964, but was uncovered only recently by Lee’s attorney — conveniently after Lee suffered a stroke that left her virtually deaf and blind, and just three months after Lee’s sister and executor had passed away. Permission was secured from Lee to publish the book, but controversy swirls about the question of whether the privacy-seeking author, who always maintained that she would never write a sequel, was competent to understand what she was being asked.

So what about the book itself? Is it good enough to sell out an initial run of two million copies and sit atop the bestseller list, which is what it has been doing?

Sadly, no. On so many levels! It just isn’t very well written. Its detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene to experience it in the way Scout would eventually do in TKAM. The book is didactic and preachy, full of long philosophical harangues between characters but without the episodic storytelling that would make TKAM’s lessons so bittersweet and lasting. Watchman is a valuable first draft, but Lee needed to mature and grow as an author.

As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge.

The themes of Watchman are certainly timely. Scout talks about white privilege (yes, she uses that term) when she confronts lifelong friend Hank Clinton about some of his compromising actions. She doesn’t see that privilege in herself, just as African-Americans today complain that whites don’t see it in themselves. But Hank, whose family is considered “trash,” tells her, “I’ve never had some of the things you take for granted and I never will. . . . You can parade around town in your dungarees with your shirttail out and barefooted if you want to. Maycomb says, ‘That’s the Finch in her, that’s just Her Way. . . . But let Henry Clinton show any signs of deviatin’ from the norm and Maycomb says not ‘That’s the Clinton in him,’ but ‘That’s the trash in him.’ . . . You are permitted a sweet luxury I am not. You can shout to high heaven, I cannot” (231–34).

More importantly, Watchman destroys the reputation of one of the most beloved civil rights heroes in American literature. As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge and the lesson to be learned — for Hank to be right when he said of Atticus, “He joined . . . to find out exactly what men in town were behind the masks. . . . A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them” (229–30). Lee does give a faint nod to the revolutionary battle cry, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” when Uncle Jack explains, “People don’t agree with the Klan, but they certainly don’t try to prevent them from puttin’ on sheets and making fools of themselves in public” (267). But this does not take away the bitter taste of hearing Atticus Finch saying, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia? . . . You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? . . . You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to fully share in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?  . . . You’d have Negroes in every county office. . . . Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world? Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?” How can these words come from the mouth of the man who defended Tom Robinson so eloquently and taught his children that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird?

I don’t believe they could. As Harper Lee took the advice of her original publisher and returned to her manuscript, she came to know her characters better. I don’t think she quite knew them when she began writing. She had a sense of them, but she only knew them from their dialogue, not from their hearts. Her title, Go Set a Watchman, comes from a passage in Isaiah suggesting that Israel needed a moral compass. In her early twenties, Lee thought that she, through her character Jean Louise, was that moral compass. She even called herself “Scout,” the one who blazes a trail through the wilderness.

Many authors did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed.

But Hohoff recognized something more significant in a short flashback scene, where Jean Louise reminisces about Atticus defending a one-armed black man against a rape charge brought by a white woman. That was the real story. As Lee struggled through the editing process with Hohoff, she finally discovered that the moral compass was Atticus all along. Scout’s liberality came not as resistance to her father’s bigotry and paternalism, but from following her father’s example. Ironically, the younger Harper Lee in her twenties drew the old Atticus Finch through the eyes of a woman rebelling against patriarchy. But the slightly older Harper Lee, in her thirties, writing through the narration of a six-year-old girl, understood the father character with a maturity that allowed her to draw him exactly right.

Foreseeing their deaths, authors have often instructed their servants or their heirs to destroy their unfinished manuscripts. Adam Smith, Thomas Hardy, Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, and even Virgil are among them. We lament the loss of some treasured works (others, such as the Aeneid, were saved), but perhaps the authors usually knew best — they did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed. If Harper Lee had the mental capacity to realize what has happened to her beloved Atticus, I’m sure she would be ready to throw all two million copies of this printing into the fire. Already possessing more millions of dollars than she could possibly spend in the time she has left, she has been betrayed by the desire of her attorney, her agent, and her publisher to make money — a lot of it. They have discovered a new golden goose, but they have finally killed the mockingbird.


Editor's Note: Review of "Go Set a Watchman," by Harper Lee. HarperCollins, 2015, 278 pages.



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Boswell Gets His Due

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What is Enlightenment? The title of Immanuel Kant’s most famous essay asks that question. Kant suggests that the historical Enlightenment was mankind’s release from his self-incurred tutelage, an intellectual awakening that opened up new freedoms by challenging implanted prejudices and ingrained presuppositions. “Sapere aude!” Kant declared. “Dare to be wise!”

Tradition maintains that the Enlightenment was an 18th-century social and cultural phenomenon emanating from Paris salons, an Age of Reason that championed the primacy of the individual, the individual’s competence to pursue knowledge through rational and empirical methods, though skepticism and the scientific method. Discourse, debate, experimentation, and economic liberalism would liberate society from the shackles of superstition and dogma and enable unlimited progress and technological innovation, offering fresh insights into the universal laws that governed not only the natural world but also human relations. They would also enable individual people to attain fresh insights into themselves.

Boswell was a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul.

Robert Zaretsky, a history professor at the University of Houston and the author of Boswell’s Enlightenment, spares us tiresome critiques or defenses of the Enlightenment by Foucault and Habermas and their progeny. He begins his biography of James Boswell, the great 18th-century biographer, with a historiographical essay on the trends and trajectories of the pertinent scholarship. He points out that the Enlightenment may have begun earlier than people once believed, and in England rather than France. He mentions Jonathan Israel’s suggestion that we look to Spinoza and company, not Voltaire and company, to understand the Enlightenment, and that too much work has focused on the influence of affluent thinkers, excluding lower-class proselytizers who spread the message of liberty with a fearsome frankness and fervor. And he maintains that Scotland was the ideational epicenter of Enlightenment. Boswell was a Scot.

All of this is academic backdrop and illustrative posturing, a setting of the stage for Zaretsky’s subject, Boswell, a lawyer and man of letters with an impressive pedigree and a nervous disposition, a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul. He marveled at public executions, which he attended regularly. He also had daddy issues, always trying to please his unpleased father, Lord Auchinleck, who instructed his son to pursue the law rather than the theater and thespians. When word arrived that his son had been sharing his private journals with the public, Lord Auchinleck threatened to disown the young James.

Astounded by the beauty and splendor of Rome and entranced by Catholicism, Boswell was never able to untangle the disparate religious influences (all of them Christian) that he picked up during his travels. He was equally unable to suppress eros and consequently caught sexual diseases as a frog catches flies.

Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon.

Geography and culture shaped Boswell’s ideas and personality and frame Zaretsky’s narrative. “With the European continent to one side, Edinburgh to the other,” Zaretsky intones, “James Boswell stood above what seemed the one and the same phenomenon: the Enlightenment.” This remark is both figurative and literal, concluding Zaretsky’s account of Boswell’s climbing of Arthur’s Seat, a summit overlooking Edinburgh, and his triumphant shout, “Voltaire, Rousseau, immortal names!”

Immortal names indeed. But would Boswell himself achieve immortality? Boswell achieved fame for his biography of Samuel Johnson, the poet, critic, essayist, and wit — who except for one chapter is oddly ancillary to Zaretsky’s narrative. Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon and treated, poor chap, as a celebrity-seeking minor figure who specialized in the life of a major figure. If Dr. Johnson is Batman, Boswell is a hobnobbing, flattering Robin.

Boswell’s friends have fared better — countrymen and mentors such as Adam Smith and David Hume, for instance, and the continental luminaries Voltaire and Rousseau. But there are many interesting relationships here. To cite only one: Thérèse Levasseur, Rousseau’s wife or mistress (a topic of debate), became Boswell’s lover as he accompanied her from Paris to England. The unsuspecting Rousseau, exiled in England, waited eagerly for her arrival, while a more astute Hume, who was Rousseau’s host, recognized matters for what they were.

Zaretsky believes Boswell was an exceptional talent, notwithstanding his weaknesses, and certainly worthy of our attention. Glossing several periods of Boswell’s life but closely examining his grand tour of the Continent (1763–1765), Zaretsky elevates Boswell’s station, repairs Boswell’s literary reputation, and corrects a longstanding underestimation, calling attention to his complicated and curious relationship to the Enlightenment, a movement or milieu that engulfed him without necessarily defining him.

The title of the book assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s large claims for his subject might seem belied by the author’s professedly modest goal: “to place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment.” To this end, Zaretsky remarks, “James Boswell and the Enlightenment are as complex as the coils of wynds and streets forming the old town of Edinburgh.” And so they are, as Zaretsky makes manifest in ten digestible chapters bristling with the animated, ambulatory prose of the old style of literary and historical criticism, the kind that English professors disdain but educated readers enjoy and appreciate.

Zaretsky marshals his evidence from Boswell’s meticulously detailed missives and journals, piecing together a fluid tale of adventure (meetings with the exiled libertine John Wilkes, evenings with prostitutes, debauchery across Europe, and lots of drinking) and resultant misadventure (aimlessness, dishonor, bouts of gonorrhea and depression, and religious angst). Zaretsky portrays Boswell as a habitual performer, a genteel, polite, and proud socialite who judged himself as he imagined others to have judged him. He suffered from melancholy and the clap, among other things, but he also cultivated a gentlemanly air and pursued knowledge for its own sake. The title of the book, Boswell’s Enlightenment, assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s book matters because Boswell matters, and, in Zaretsky’s words, “Boswell matters not because his mind was as original or creative as the men and women he pursued, but because his struggle to make sense of his life, to bend his person to certain philosophical ends, appeals to our own needs and sensibilities.” We see ourselves in Boswell, in his alternating states of faith and doubt, devotion and reason. He, like so many of us, sought to improve himself daily but could never live up to his own expectations. He’s likeable because he’s fallible, a pious sinner who did right in the name of wrong and wrong in the name of right, but without any ill intent. A neurotic, rotten mess, he couldn’t control his libido and didn’t learn from his mistakes. But he could write like the wind, and we’re better off because he did. He knew all of us, strangely, without having known us. God help us, we’re all like him in some way.

is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon and treated, poor chap, as a celebrity-seeking minor figure who specialized in the life of a major figure. If Dr. Johnson is Batman, Boswell is a hobnobbing, flattering Robin.


Editor's Note: Review of "Boswell’s Enlightenment," by Robert Zaretsky. The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2015, 269 pages.



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Election Day, 1849

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On the afternoon of October 3, 1849, a young printer discovered a man wallowing in a gutter outside Gunner's Hall, an Irish tavern in Baltimore. The man was disheveled and semi-conscious, dressed in soiled clothes that were not his own, and clinging to a malacca cane. The stricken man was Edgar Allan Poe. He was taken to a local hospital, where he remained virtually delirious until his death four days later at the age of 40. One of the most important writers of the 19th century, Poe basically invented the short story and made several publishers rich men. But he struggled his entire life with alcoholism and poverty, never earning more than $300 a year.

Literary historians have long speculated how Poe came to be dressed in a stranger's clothes that day. Poe was poor, but he was always fastidious about his attire. Had he sold his trademark black suit to buy liquor or food? Had he been robbed? No one will ever know for sure.

Recent speculation, however, has turned to a theory that is quite timely considering this election day, in what appears to be the tightest and most contentious presidential race in history: Poe may have been trading votes for drinks. October 3, 1849 was a local election day. "Vote early and often" is a cynical phrase that is often attributed to Tammany Hall and the Chicago political machine, but it did not originate there. Unscrupulous politicians from the East coast to the Midwest would often offer five dollars and a beer to anyone who would vote for them, using the names of deceased residents to vote multiple times. To prevent recognition at the polling place, these repeaters would be induced to change their clothes. Out of money and craving alcohol, Poe would have been an easy mark, and that would explain why he was wearing the stranger's clothes.

On this election day, how many people are acting for themselves, and how many are wearing (symbolically) a stranger’s clothes?




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Atlas Huh?

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Cloud Atlas is an ambitious project, encompassing half a dozen story lines spanning hundreds of years but played by the same actors.

The story concept reminded me of an engagement video I saw recently in which a young man induced his friends to create a dance video for his girlfriend. As the romantic pair walked along a path together toward a beach, friends danced for them and then ran ahead to appear in the next scene of the video. It looked as though hundreds of people were involved, but they were actually the same friends appearing over and over, with the entire crowd gathering at the beach for the final chorus. In Cloud Atlas the 6 billion people who live on earth today are an accumulation of all the people who have ever lived, reincarnated to return and play out yet another scene in earth's continuing saga.

But at nearly three hours, Cloud Atlas is overlong and often hard to follow. As with another "Atlas” film that was released this month, viewers who have read the book before seeing the film enjoy a distinct advantage. The opening scenes jump from character to character and scene to scene with virtually no exposition. And because there are so many disparate scenes, the result is disjointed and incoherent.

Early in the film a bombastic author, Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks), complains about a critic who has written a poor review of his book, Knuckle Sandwich. The critic has called it "flat and inane beyond belief." I considered it a brave move on the part of the scriptwriter to include that phrase from Cloud Atlas in its book form, since it invites the same critical assessment of the film itself — which is, for the most part, flat and inane beyond belief. It tries to be profound, with high-sounding quotable quotes. But most of it amounts to philosophical mumbo jumbo on par with "it takes a village." Here is just a sampling:

This world spins from the same twine that twists our hearts.

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others.

Knowledge is a mirror. For the first time in my life I was allowed to see who I am, and who I could become.

You have to do what you can't not do.

Only those who have been deprived of freedom have the barest inkling of what it is.

To know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.

Something as important as this [a musical piece called "The Cloud Atlas Sextet"] cannot be described as yours or mine, but ours. (Shades of "You didn't build that" . . .)

The philosophy behind the film is that "death is just a door to another room" where one encounters many of the same souls one knew in a previous lifetime, but in different guises and with different purposes and relationships. But this is no Somewhere in Time, where two people who have fallen in love in the past fall in love with each other again in the future; instead, the characters switch roles entirely, playing significant characters in one scenario and minor parts in another.

Tom Hanks, for instance, plays a murderous antagonist in two scenarios, a classic protagonist in two others, a minor character in a fifth, and a woman in a sixth. Although he does fall in love with characters played by the same actress (Halle Berry) in two of his scenarios, he does not have meaningful relationships with her in the others. In other words, the film does not seem to imply, as other reincarnation films have, that finding one's soul mate across the eternities is the main purpose of life.

The controlling theme in these stories is not just the idea of finding the same lover in different lifetimes, but of fighting against tyranny in every age. In each scenario someone brave is needed to stand up against evil groups. This might seem a libertarian theme. But the cosmic conflict between "rebel good" and "societal evil" lends Cloud Atlas an undeserved gravitas, since the film never fully or accurately identifies the underlying philosophies or actions that lead to tyranny. In one scene, for example, the protagonist sneers at her society's rule that "the first catechism is to honor thy consumer," an obvious dig at free market principles, not tyranny. (And apparently no one knows what a “catechism” is.)

Despite its philosophical inanity, Cloud Atlas can be admired and even enjoyed artistically. The film is worth seeing for the disguises alone; they are stunning, and will surely garner Oscar nominations for costume and makeup. And halfway through, the stories and characters begin to sort themselves out enough to become compelling and empathetic. The acting is superb on all counts. This is a tour de force for Tom Hanks, who revels in his makeup and accents, although there is an unfortunate hint of Forrest Gump in one of his characters. Halle Berry is gorgeous, as always, and so, for that matter, is James Sturgess. It is a pleasant surprise to see Hugh Grant outside the familiar romantic comedies where he has been most comfortable. Moreover, the music, cinematography, and special effects are splendid. Be sure to stay for the credits, where you may be surprised to see which actors played which characters.


Editor's Note: Review of "Cloud Atlas," directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Twyker. Warner Brothers, 2012, 164 minutes.



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Bowdlerizing Huck

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Professor Alan Gribben, who teaches at Auburn University in Montgomery, has introduced a sanitized version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Controversy has gathered around this latest incarnation of the novel because of its substitution of the word “slave” for the “n-word.” Somehow lost in the controversy is the editor’s decision to change “Injun” to “Indian.” At any rate, Gribben’s book has become a media sensation and has resurrected long-buried arguments over the legacy and import of one of American literature’s greatest works.

So much has been made of the words “political correctness” that it is difficult to know just what meaning they retain. If they mean anything, surely they apply to Gribben’s editing, which seeks to satisfy modern taste and decorum at the expense of accurate knowledge about the past. Of course the novel is problematic — American history is problematic — but erasing problems of the past will do little to aid our understanding of history and culture in the present and future. In light of the number of scholars working at the intersection of race and culture, America today hardly risks, as it once did, suffering from historical amnesia. Yet bowdlerizing texts could affect the way we remember racial history.

One thing that Twain probably wanted his novel to do was address the multivalence of racism by viewing it through the eyes of a young boy. Doing so would allow him to critique Southern race relations while avoiding offense. This unfortunate edition undercuts Twain’s critique.

None can challenge the idea that the “n-word” is hurtful and strong. But editing it out of Huck Finn, however understandable and well-meaning the effort may be, simply removes the book from its social and historical context. It is an historical text — not just a delightful work of fiction. It follows that reading the actual text can give us insights into the past.

Twain’s prose mimicked the vernacular of folks in the Mississippi valley. What other word than the n-word would someone in Huck’s time and place have used to refer to black people? Apparently the editor thinks the answer to that question is “slave.” But of course, this is nonsense, as even a cursory acquaintance with contemporary documents will show. Like many if not most of Twain’s contemporaries, the characters in his novel use the n-word casually. Examining its use is more than an exploration of authorial intent. It is studying a way of life in a world in which some people are grappling to overcome the racism that others casually accept. Twain’s book has that overcoming as its goal. Twain’s use of the “n-word” is ironic. He isn’t endorsing the word. He’s criticizing it. The way the n-word is used in Huck Finn shows very clearly Twain himself never would have applauded that word in “real” life.

Of course the novel is problematic — American history is problematic.

If Huck Finn is a narrative seeking out racial understanding — and this is a plausible and common reading — then Gribben’s editing undermines themes of racial and cultural understanding. Jim, a black slave and a principal character in the novel, is a courageous and complex figure. His place in Southern culture — both the fictional culture of the novel and the real one upon which the novel was based — is critically compromised by a whitewashing of the offensive diction that he is forced to confront.

Huck is also a complex character. The n-word may mean one thing to Huck at the beginning of the book, but it means something different to him at the end. At first, Huck never considers what the word might signify to Jim, but as Huck himself develops as a personality, and as his bond with Jim grows stronger, he begins to think, well, differently. Huck decides to “steal Jim out of slavery” despite his belief that he’ll go to hell for doing so (“All right then, I’ll go to hell,” he says). That grave decision seems less morally significant when Huck’s culture becomes, with the sweep of an eraser, less racist than it actually was.

It will not do to pretend that distasteful epithets did not exist in history. Nor will it do to sugarcoat history or historical texts in order to validate one man’s legacy, even if that man is a cultural and literary father figure (Faulkner called Twain the “father of American literature”). Twain hardly needs us to validate his legacy, especially since his sophistication is apparently far beyond that of today’s editors, who seem to miss the irony and criticism with which he loads his words.

I suppose the editor has a point when he claims to want to avoid teaching children that the n-word is OK, because Twain used it. But this little touch up — substituting “slave” for the n-word — risks undoing the racial tension in the novel and in the culture that influenced Twain. The deepest understandings come from investigating tensions. Even Huck learns that, as he challenges racism in subtle and nuanced ways.

We are not products of culture, but we are, all of us, influenced by it. Culture does not excuse our actions or beliefs, but it does help to explain them. Readers of Huck Finn would benefit from understanding the culture of the novel and of the novel’s author. How can we understand the present if we don’t understand the events and attitudes that shaped the present? Rather than altering Twain’s text, we should teach the novel, with all its fraught diction intact, to students who are mature enough to handle it.

The edited version of Huck Finn forces young students to skip over critical thinking about race relations in America. Yet the classroom is the very place where students are supposed to confront harsh realities and to learn from them. Isn't it the point of critical learning to hold social and cultural phenomena under a microscope, so as to understand them better? If students in schools or universities are not allowed to consider harsh truths about the past, even truths about offensive lexica, where will they learn about truths? Contemporary and popular film, television, and music are rarely good sources for learning about the past.

Changing the “n-word” to “slave” does not redeem Twain or Huck Finn — not that they need redeeming — but it does rob students of the opportunity to learn from history. Worse, it robs students of the opportunity to become, like Huck, more racially sensitive as they experience, withHuck, life on and around the Mississippi — as they read, in other words, about Huck’s gradual coming to “terms.”

That’s what this whole debate is about: coming to terms. The particular term at issue is the “n word.” The larger issue is American history. I’m not sure I would say that the bowdlerized novel sets us back, because I’m not convinced we’re moving in the right direction anymore, but I would say that blotting out history never lends itself to social progress.




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