Brandon Sanderson: Mistborn

Sanderson, Brandon (2007), Mistborn, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-5038-1

mistborn 1The speed and quality of fantasy writing is quite notorious. Fantasy writers are expected to crank out thick, brick-sized books, in remarkably brief periods of time. Remarkable novelists, such as Patrick Rothfuss, whose last novel had been published in 2007, and George R.R. Martin, whose last novel of his celebrated “Song of Ice and Fire” series had seen publication in 2005, have had to defend themselves against the ire of impatient fantasy fans. Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, has kept, so far, on the good side of his fans, publishing more than one new book per year, ever since debuting with the standalone fantasy novel Elantris in 2005. Since then he has not just released a trilogy of fantasy novels starting with Mistborn (2006), and continued with The Well of Ascension (2007) and The Hero of Ages (2008), but also another standalone novel called Warbreaker (2009) and he has written, from Robert Jordan’s notes, The Gathering Storm (2009), one of three projected sequels to Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, and is due to publish the second of them this year. This is an incredible amount of writing, but what’s more surprising, to be honest, is the quality of the resulting output. Mistborn is not on par with George R.R. Martin or even Rothfuss, but is still an above-average achievement, a smooth, smart novel that fuses literary, genre, religious (Mormon) and mythological inspirations to produce a great read. Nothing more but also: nothing less.

warbreakerFantasy fans have very specific expectations, and they fall, I think, into one of two camps these days. There are more traditional fans, grown up on a steady diet of Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks or Dave Eddings. They (a gross and unfair generalization, I’ll admit) enjoy books with swords and magic, orcs and elves, and an very clear set of roles and rituals. Whether it’s Goodkind’s Ayn Rand-inspired penchant for S/M-style sexuality, Tolkien’s Catholic sense of order, or just Jordan’s rank misogyny and elitism, these writers’ attitudes to power and class can be described, euphemistically, as traditional. The other camp contains writers like Martin or Rothfuss, who play with the elements of their genre, introducing a gritty realism (Martin) and even a careful consideration of class (Rothfuss). Mistborn doesn’t really belong to either camp or rather: it belongs to both, but doesn’t excel in either mode of writing. Neither Sanderson’s tepid realism, not his slouching use of the epic fantasy order is really fully convincing. This in-between nature of the book is probably its biggest problem, opening it to criticism from both camps. However, structure, original ideas and the heavy religious inspiration endow it with a very specific, unique feel, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy now and then. It’s on the strength of Mistborn that Robert Jordan’s widow approached Sanderson, asking him to finish her late husband’s unfinished series, and we can easily see why. Jordan’s main problem wasn’t his ideology. It was the terminal dullness that the books developed after a short while.

well ascensionWith a finite amount of authorized notes and ideas, Jordan’s widow needed a writer able to develop a plot quickly and satisfactorily, with effective and quick characterizations, yet with enough originality not to simply write a pastiche of Jordan’s style. Sanderson possesses all of these qualities in abundance, as Mistborn demonstrates. It’s rare for the first book of a sequence of fantasy novels, no matter of what length, to have a satisfying ending that isn’t at best a cliffhanger, wetting readers’ appetites for the next novel. The exasperation that fans feel with Martin and Rothfuss has, in part, its roots in the fact that they have offered no closure, the stories are in suspension, open ended. This is true for a great many writers, but not for Sanderson. As we finish Mistborn, we have been granted closure. The main story seems to be finished, almost all the open threads have been tied up and almost all questions answered. Within one book, Sanderson has told us the story of a rebellion against the Lord Ruler of the Final Empire, who appears to be God or at least God-like, he has, in deft strokes, introduced us to a wealth of characters, and sketched the history and culture of a whole new world, without any orcs or elves and with a very original, very interesting system of magic. His characters are so well sketched, so believable, that, as we pick up the second volume, The Well of Ascension, to enter a radically changed political landscape, and end up, almost directly, in an action-packed fight, we immediately recognize the characters from Mistborn. These are people we know, and due to Sanderson’s skills: people we know well. Sanderson does not, however, escape the trap of cliché in his depictions of both the characters and political machinations.

way of kingsThe hero of these kinds of books is often a young man, with the mind of a teenager and the budding skills of a medieval superhero. Vin, Mistborn‘s protagonist, is a woman, a teenager, with the budding skills of a medieval superhero. Oh, I exaggerate a bit, but not much. The one change here is significant and interesting, yet it also displays the full extent of the timidity of Sanderson’s realism. The story about (young) male heroes often turns around questions of heroism and masculinity. Stephen R. Donaldson’s cynical and arguably cowardly Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Robert Jordan’s trias of heros (exemplifying three facets of male adolescence and early adulthood), or “the Fool”, Robin Hobb’s fascinatingly glittering character from her two trilogies focusing on Fitz Farseer, are cases in point. Any change or departure quickly becomes part of this discussion. Whatever changes are made to the almost inevitably male hero, are just that, changes that reinforce the main template. Female heroes do turn up in number, though, especially in more recent years, but the context of their appearance is subtly (or not so subtly) different. Robin Hobb’s excellent Liveship Traders trilogy is a great example. Her heroine, Althea Vestrit, doesn’t get to be a heroine in the sense that the male heroes are. Her story is connected to female tropes, starting with water, to a very interesting communion with (some) living but (usually) inanimate objects. The focus is on questions of intuition, care, and fertility, rather than on discussions of power, violence, and strength. Even in Hobb’s able hands, these questions are channeled through and resolved by the still male characters. The same applies to Mistborn‘s Vin, although Brandon Sanderson goes further than Hobb.

rithmatistImpressively, Vin’s story is largely a very masculine one. She is quietly belligerent and the way she resolves problems is through seeking controversy and fighting her way through it. Through her use of magic she’s stronger than most men, and throughout most of the book, the only other person we know possessing this power (apart from the evil Inquisitioners and the Lord Ruler) is a man, modeled on the typical male hero. This may not sound like much, but it’s extraordinary, really. So much so, that Sanderson uses additional elements to weaken his heroine in other ways. Not only does she turn into a stereotypical little teenage girl as the book progresses, head over heels in love with a a mysterious and handsome young man, who softens her mistrust towards others. She also starts to wear dresses, going to balls, and enjoying the whole ladylike lifestyle. As if to ram the tedious point home, Sanderson has her defend ‘her man’ against another woman (possessing the same powers) in what feels uncomfortably like a catfight (though it is a fight to the death). Political power, meanwhile, is still elusive to women. It is debated and decided by men, all the important offices are held by men and all the planning is made by men. In fact, Vin (and the woman she fights) is the only noteworthy woman in the whole book. To Sanderson’s credit, however, she doesn’t become a stereotypical sorceress, queen, or mother at the end of the book. The usual fate of strong female characters, which sidelines them into the nooks and crannies of narrative, is spared her. She stays a fighter, soldier, assassin. She is and remains the strongest fighter in the book.

steelheartThis to and fro as regards Mistborn‘s attitude towards gender runs parallel to other instances of indecision on Sanderson’s part, such as his use of realism and originality. World-building is often considered one of the main tasks of speculative fiction: the invention of a world, distinctly different from ours, with magic, religion, science and, preferably, language newly invented or adapted for this new world. One of the predecessors to this kind of expectation is Tolkien, who invented a completely new language, elaborate mythology and history for his stories. In fact, by far the majority of his writing deal with mythical and historical stories, fleshing out the hints and allusions in his two main works of fiction. Sanderson’s approach is careful. He uses a well-known template, a simple medieval setting, he uses a generic understanding of roles and rituals (Vin is an exception), but he is also very inventive. His two main invention is his system of races and the kind of magic used in his world. In Mistborn, we only learn about two or three basic races. The Skaa, humans and Terrismen. Now, most of us remember China Miéville’s trenchant observation that no writing is innocent, not even fantasy writing. In our use of races such as orcs and elves, we don’t invent something out of the blue. Instead, we draw on stereotypes and images that we already have in our language and our cultural reservoir. Miéville asks us to be careful, to consider what the subtext is of using humanoid races like orcs, who are slow, big, and usually, with gnomes and goblins, the only non-white characters in books. Sanderson does not need such admonishment.

inheritanceHis races are, although I’m not sure about Terrismen, not necessarily racially different from one another. That racial difference exists in the heads of the occupants of Sanderson’s world, but we soon find that race in Mistborn is a signifier of class lines, so that humans are all noblemen, and Skaa are poor people, for example. The ability to use magic is hereditary and runs only in Noblemen, but not all Noblemen are able to use magic and any progeny of Noblemen and Skaa might be able to use magic, too. In a very deft move, Sanderson has found remarkably precise metaphors for racial and class tensions in our world. He also manages to anchor his magic in the earthly, bodily parts of his universe. They are not the amorphous weavings of Jordan’s Aes Sedai. In order to use magic, one needs to ingest metal and then ‘burn’ it. No metal – no magic. This dependance upon both the bodily process of digestion and the resources of the earth is laudable and quite unique. It’s quite saddening to see all these good ideas in a mind that isn’t able to put them to full use. Just as gender differences, on a deeper level, remain intact and problematic, so are questions of hierarchy and power affirmed in a traditional manner. The latter half of the book is infused by a deep mistrust of the common people. A people’s revolution is shown to be inevitably a brutal, rag-tag affair that will plunge the world into chaos. The people can revolt, but they need an authorized, upper-class leader to shape their anger into a politically sound result. This is what ails other instances of realism and originality, too. Sanderson’s take on a magically endowed thieving crew bent on overthrowing the empire eschews cliché depictions of ‘hard criminals’, so much, indeed, that this lack of grime has been criticized a lack of realism.

DSC01516I think it is an attempt to be more realistic, open, and humorous, but this doesn’t quite work, for one simple reason: Sanderson is a horrible writer about people. His mistrust of ‘the people’ translates into an unhealthy distance to them. Any decision to forgo cliché needs, I think, to be balanced by a strong alternative idea of how human beings behave, an idea which Mistborn severely lacks. Make no mistake: the characters themselves are believable, but their interactions and motivations rarely are. This is why the book so frequently feels lukewarm and a bit flabby. Too much of Mistborn feels conceptual without the sternness and consistency that good conceptual writing depends on. The concepts are partly the metaphors and structures I mentioned, but there is one other important pillar that they rest on: Sanderson’s Mormonism. Like many Mormon (and Catholic) writers, Sanderson’s religion heavily influences his writing in more than spirit. The most famous and popular Mormon writer, who leaves ample, obvious and specific traces and references to her particular religion (as opposed to a general Christian attitude) is probably Stephenie Meyer, the best one I know of is Brian Evenson. Brandon Sanderson, who teaches at Brigham Young University, is yet another one. Without attempting a thorough analysis, there are a few things especially that have a ring of Mormonism to it. The godliness of the Lord Ruler, specific basic properties of his magic and the “Well of Ascension” in particular evoke associations to LDS concepts such as the exaltation (actually, its hard not to read the three volumes as the three stages of theosis, but exaltation is a similar concept). Joseph Smith taught that “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens.” Through exaltation, we can all become ‘gods’. The Christ-like martyrdom of one of the book’s main characters adds an other layer to this.

DSC01322Finally, a catastrophe in the Mistborn universe that happened a few centuries ago, destroying many of the Terrismen, who are priest-like keepers of stories, history, religions and other knowledge, carries echoes of the Mormon doctrine of the “Great Apostasy”, which is a very particular version of a doctrine that many Christian churches teach. These specific references and allusions add a salvational urgency to Mistborn‘s narrative, which smoothly ties into the generic epic character of the story, but endow it with a more original power. As a whole, however, and despite all the specific changes and ideas that Sanderson brings to the table, there is an enormous amount of generic elements in his book, the worst of which is the actual writing. Without dropping to the abysmal lows of Terry Goodkind, his writing is at best serviceable, at worst dull, repetitive and, well, generic. He also displays the waste of spaced typical of his genre. While novels in other genres can describe a city, town or world, plus a set of full, believable characters in under 300 pages, many fantasy novels take twice as long without delivering twice the content. George R.R. Martin, who packs every page with action, intrigue and important observation is the exception here. More often than not, we are faced with page after page of ruminations, written in a laggard style and not serving any reasonable purpose, apart from helping to fill pages.

Still, at the end of Mistborn, lots of things have happened, and the reader has been swept away by the tide of events. It is, despite its faults, a very readable book, at least if you happen to like the genre of high fantasy. This is not one of the books that will appeal to those who dislike fantasy, but if you enjoy this sort of writing, Sanderson is a safe bet. He is an enjoyable, reasonably original and prolific writer who I very much look forward to reading more of in the months to come.


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You’re healed then / from the night

Mary Oliver: Morning at Great Pond

It starts like this:
forks of light
slicking up
out of the east,
flying over you,
and what’s left of night –
its black waterfalls,
its craven doubt –
dissolves like gravel
as the sun appears
trailing clouds
of oink and green wool,
igniting the fields,
turning the ponds
to plates of fire.
The creatures there
are dark flickerings
you make out
one by one
as the light lifts –
great blue herons,
wood ducks shaking
their shimmering crests –
and knee-deep
in the purple shallows
a deer drinking:
as she turns
the silver water
crushes like silk,
shaking the sky,
and you’re healed then
from the night, your heart
wants more, you’re ready
to rise and look!
to hurry anywhere!
to believe in everything.

Mary Oliver is one of the great living American poets. Her work shines with an extraordinary poetic sensibility, a unique sense of how lines and rhythms work. This poem is from her 1983 collection American Primitive, one of her best books, but she continues to write intriguing poetry. Her three most recent collections explore a strong spirituality and epiphanies that seem close to mysticism. It’s strong work, maybe her strongest in years.


In the Guardian, Toby Young evaluates the success of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.

Part of his problem is that Americans don’t take kindly to being reproached, particularly by one of their former colonial masters. They are quick to take offence, detecting traces of snobbery and condescension in almost any critical remark, however well intentioned. In Britain, Jamie’s high-minded didacticism is softened by his cockney accent – he can get away with criticising dinner ladies because, socially, they’re not a million miles apart. Not so in Huntingdon, where his accent is just thought of as “British” and he’s assumed to live in a castle and have a butler. “Who made you king?” asks an angry local in the first episode.


Tobias Wolff: Ugly Rumours

Wolff, Tobias (1975), Ugly Rumours, Allen & Unwin
ISBN 0-04-823117-7

When Tobias Wolff, the acclaimed short story writer and memoirist, published a novel called Old School in 2003, the publisher and many reviewers referred to it as Wolff’s ‘first novel’. In fact, it wasn’t. Ugly Rumours, his actual first novel, had been published in 1975. That same year he won a creative writing fellowship in Stanford, and only a few years before this he’d returned from his tour in Vietnam. There has been only one edition of Ugly Rumours, and it was never mentioned or discussed in promotional material issued by his publisher, all this at the author’s behest. Tobias Wolff repudiated the book, telling interviewers in recent years that reading portions of it made him ‘cringe’, and this disdain meant a slow fall into oblivion for Ugly Rumours. To this day it stays out of print and there is no notable interest in this book, even a search in academic databases comes up empty. A shame, really. Ugly Rumours is not a waste of time, although it’s certainly no masterpiece. It’s neither very innovative, nor particularly well written. Furthermore it’s indulgent, frequently complacent and derivative, curiously noncommittal for an autobiographically inspired work of fiction, and harsh in its moral conclusions. But it’s still interesting, it’s a smooth, quick read by what’s clearly a very talented young writer, with the right instincts and considerable skills. If you are interested in Wolff, especially if you’ve read This Boy’s Life (1989) and In Pharaoh’s Army (1994), his two volumes of memoirs, this book is worth reading. It’s certainly not worth the obscene prices that it fetches on the Internet, but if you can get your hands on it (e.g., through libraries), you might want to give it a try.

Ugly Rumours is not groundbreaking, and honestly, there isn’t much ground to break these days, as far as its setting and topic is concerned. Movies, novels, even video games about the war in Vietnam have become ubiquitous. From Things They Carried to Tree of Smoke, from Apocalypse Now to Good Morning Vietnam, we had our fill, and it’s become hard to entertain us, to tell a new story about this war that we seem to know so well. And in this light, it’s not terribly astonishing that Ugly Rumours doesn’t shock or surprise. But the real problem is elsewhere: Tobias Wolff’s debut novel lacks an energy, drive, and a feeling for the described situations. The novel can be described as almost mannered, distanced. Wolff focused on its odd sense of humor rather than upon the war that serves as a setting for it. And while the brutality of war (and the difficulty of describing it) has forced many writers to create books that are innovative of form or powerful in language and imagery, Ugly Rumours appears to stand aloof. Every page tells us that Wolff is a very talented writer, but one who doesn’t look eye to eye with his subject here, turns away, pushing jokes, and wooden dialogue between himself and the subject matter. The reader, even if he or she hasn’t read In Pharaoh’s Army, can’t help but feel the effort involved in this evasion. This is why the book, although it often aims for laughter, never feels light or fresh. When we laugh, it’s a stifled, affected laughter, and one which sucks all the life from the book. The book feels like a walk through a dimly lit, dusty house. It’s very well constructed, and there’s much to admire, and you may even enjoy your time there, but you’ll be glad to be out again.

All this means that if you come to this book with the expectations that its subject matter evokes, you’ll be disappointed: in many ways, Ugly Rumours just isn’t the kind of novel that one would expect from a war novel, nor from an autobiographically tinged book. In spirit, I think, it owes more to books like Catch-22 and movies like M*A*S*H than to fellow war texts like Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) or O’Brien’s novels. In Ugly Rumours, Wolff shows himself less concerned with the details of warfare, with blood, murder, tactics and the jungle, than with his two protagonists who do not really ever see battle. Instead they drink away their nights, joke around, get laid, cheat, scrounge and talk. They never wanted to fight or be endangered and so they bribed their way into a situation that would keep them safe in one of the least safe places for an American soldier in those days. And when we do see battle, gore or mayhem, we find that Wolff hasn’t yet found the language or structure to properly deal with this. The stark brutality of the situations in question does shine through each time but I think it can’t help but do so in a vaguely competent hand. The fact remains that Wolff seems intent on keeping us away from the action, offering us a glimpse, but moving away again swiftly. The problem is not the length of these scenes: in these small situations, we can already see the nascent short story master, with his ability to compress a lot of meaning and feeling into one, almost emblematic, scene. But this early in his career, he hasn’t yet overcome a distance and a stiffness that hurts the emblematic quality; the violence and shock doesn’t work as you feel it should or could.

You can, however, see that these scenes are very well-constructed and reasonably well-placed in the book, and no matter how disappointing these passages are, there is raw talent that keeps shining through, and a glittering intelligence. This is true for the whole book. I’ve already mentioned part of its plot, but it’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t all take place in Vietnam. We are actually introduced, in a slow and considered manner, to the two central characters, Christopher Woermer and his friend Stanley Grubbs. Grubbs is a big, tough man, who “liked people to say what they meant.” He used to be a criminal teenager, until he was taken in by a priest, who encouraged him to use his talents. In the army he met Woermer, who is the main protagonist. Not only does Woermer have a name of Germanic origin like Wolff, his vita also conspicuously mirrors many elements in Wolff’s own life. Readers of This Boy’s Life will recognize “Toby/Jack Wolff”’s stepfather Dwight in the descriptions of Woermer’s stepfather, but they might also be puzzled at the cold treatment of Woermer’s past history. We learn that Woermer’s stepfather had a profound influence on the way Woermer lives his life, but this is empty, uninvolving information. It could have been used to bring Woermer, as a character, alive, by introducing a biography that unites all his odd traits and preoccupations. Instead, it serves as just another one of his odd qualities.

Woermer feels awkwardly constructed. He is an opportunistic character, one who likes to put on a show, wear a clean and ironed uniform to impress men and women alike. He would wear forged medals if he didn’t fear to be exposed. Being a soldier, for Woermer, is all about the reputation that you’ll have afterward, about the mysterious and heroic air that someone, returning from their tour abroad, can put on display. On the other hand, it is his stepfather’s drills and discipline that made him into what is actually a quite able soldier. He can shoot, make his bed, and organize the personnel on a base when disaster breaks out. He just doesn’t like it much. There are many strange contradictions in Woermer’s character. On the one hand, he eschews authority, trying to push against the rules as much as he can, offending superiors, stealing jeeps and bribing his way through life. He’s a scrounger, an imp of sorts. On the other hand, his vanity, and the fact that he knows where to stop, that, indeed, he has an uncanny sense of when to stop, suggests a man who has no real issues with authority, who, in fact, reaffirms and supports it and its associated values at every turn. He is slow to make friends, but a raucous and chummy person. He is a ladies’ man but doesn’t appear to take much delight in the actual fucking. There’s nothing in Ugly Rumours that really connects all these traits, no narrative that explains the logic underlying these contradictions. The fact that Woermer’s biography could have been such a connectional narrative becomes clear if we consider the complexities in This Boy’s Life, which shows that Wolff is, in fact, able to pull off the kind of characterization that is sorely missing from his debut novel.

It’s moot to unravel all these contradictions here, but one among them is remarkable in still other ways: neither Grubbs nor Woermer are womanizers. In many respects, Woermer is a ladies’ man, he knows how to impress women and invests quite a bit of time and effort into achieving just that, yet the actual sexual intercourse seems to disgust him or leave him, at best, indifferent, although he “tried his best to simulate interest; passion was beyond him.” Granted, the women we know him to have sex with, do sound a bit icky, but we only see them through his point of view, and his disinterest in the fairer sex could well color his perceptions. There is a homoerotic tension throughout the book, and even his fights and scuffles with authority often come down to a kind of teasing of his superior officers. Woermer, one might say, is a flirt. There are no actual homosexual acts in Ugly Rumours, but with an admirable consistency, Wolff creates an ambiguous perception of all the inter-male dealings in the book. This is something that is threaded through many books dealing with male cultures, and usually its not consciously done, but Wolff achieves a fascinating balance between making this outrageously obvious, thereby foregrounding something that is at best a subtext in other books, and lapsing into camp. Ugly Rumours is never campy, although I daresay it comes close sometimes. Its hard to say how the homoeroticism is supposed to work here, the use of father figures, the cultural context of army and church, one can’t help but see a potential that is wasted here, because Wolff’s novel is helplessly disparate, distant and cold. The artistic commitment, conviction and vision that usually makes novels like these cohere is largely missing.

Instead we get an assortment of motifs and tropes, although they are usually very well crafted. Perhaps the largest trope is the one suggested by the title. Despite the occasional awkward or wooden dialogue, any act of communication in the novel feels purposeful and replete with meanings, especially if writing is involved. Often we don’t quite know whether something is reliable, although Wolff switches the focus of his novel between his protagonists, and although we know or suspect that Grubbs and Woermer have been fed contradictory information, Wolff doesn’t opt for an easy exposure of errors. The vast majority of doubtful facts remains just that: doubtful, rumors. Newspaper articles and reports are skewed, but any kind of communication in Vietnam is suddenly problematic, unclear, bound to involve misapprehensions and confusions. It’s quite apt that near the end, an important message is not sent directly to the person who is meant to see it. Instead its pinned to a message board, in the hope that it will, after all, reach the right person, like a message in a bottle. The unclear quality of communications is reflected in the shadowy relationships between many characters. Although, sometimes, Wolff seems to reference the criticism of wartime bureaucracy and scheming of Catch 22 and books like it, Ugly Rumours lacks the lucid descriptions of the best of these books that keep the absurdities from collapsing into chaos. In Wolff’s novel there isn’t chaos, but he also toned down the criticism and the satire, which leaves the reader with what feels like an weak in-between effort, but this quality is part and parcel of the mistrust of communication that pervades the novel everywhere. To reproduce this trope on so many levels is very impressive, but doesn’t, necessarily, make for good reading.

This mistrust may be due to a personal mistrust of Wolff vis-à-vis autobiography. One can’t shake the impression that the autobiographical inspiration was both hampering and helpful. Helpful in the conception of the book, but hampering in the execution. In his actual memoirs we’ll see a writer who has perfected both the impulse to be truthful about his path and to be artistically flawless. His memoirs are so well written, structured, and arranged that they read like great fiction, and the artfulness of it all seems to have liberated Wolff to communicate fear, hurt and terror in a much more open fashion. Ugly Rumours is caught in a net of shame, not just shame about writing one’s self, but also shame about the things one did in the war. In his fine debut, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), Tim O’Brien writes “Do dreams offer lessons? Do nightmares have themes, do we awaken and analyze them and live our lives and advice others as a result? Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.” Wolff isn’t ready yet to “tell war stories”, which we see in what develops as the main moral fiber of the book: Grubbs is quietly berated by the priest (whose creation seems inspired by Victor Hugo’s Monseigneur Myriel) that merely not doing harm, by doing nothing, is not enough. “I’m glad”, the priest, Father Cavanaugh, writes, “to hear that you’re in a position where you don’t have to hurt anyone else. Just be sure in your own mind that doing nothing means that you’re not hurting anyone. Sometimes the only way we can be sure of that is to get out and help them.” There’s a suggestion here what being morally good means, a suggestion that, as the protagonists find, is certainly hard to follow, especially since we’re always happy to believe that doing nothing is good enough, and resisting to do a bad thing is sufficient. Ugly Rumours, to its credit, bears out Father Cavanaugh’s suggestion, summoning an immense amount of guilt and resentment until the dramatic finish.

In this moral line of thinking, Ugly Rumours is harsh on its characters, uncomfortable for its readers and harsh on its author. This is perhaps the most admirable thing of them all: a book powered by moral doubt and shame, not seeking easy resolutions, not needing to shock or devastate the reader through violence. The downside, however, is that the shame may have kept Wolff at this point in his career to come into his own as a writer. The book appears cobbled together, it keeps the reader at arm’s length and is very unevenly written. Some pages are tortuously dull and awkward, but now and then sentences shine with an intense brilliance. As a whole, it shows a writer who doesn’t have the breath and scope to make such a long narrative cohere, nor the ear to make dialogue work. Small wonder he found his voice when he wrote short stories and novellas. Even books like In Pharaoh’s Army consist of smaller pieces, each structured not like a chapter but like a proper short story. This is certainly an interesting book, and a reasonably entertaining read, as well. Read it for the instinct, the signs of craft, and the insight into the beginnings of a great writer, whose hand and voice is visible here already, if through a veil. In its best moments, there is a great pathos in Wolff’s words and we witness the gifted awakening of an uneasy literary spirit. For this alone, it’s worth a peek at least.


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The Lost Booker: Shortlist

I already mentioned the so-called Lost Man Booker Prize awhile ago, and, so far, reviewed one of the longlisted books (click here for my review of Shirley Hazzard’s Bay of Noon). Now the shortlist has been announced:

The shortlist for The Lost Man Booker Prize – a one-off prize to honour the books published in 1970 that were not eligible for consideration for the Booker Prize – is announced today, Thursday 25 March.

The six books are:

• The Birds on the Trees by Nina Bawden (Virago)
• Troubles by J G Farrell (Phoenix)
• The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard (Virago)
• Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault (Arrow)
• The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (Penguin)
• The Vivisector by Patrick White (Vintage)

Everything sounds better with Science!

Some recent nonsense (especially the publication of The Male Brain, the newest installment of what one expects again to be the usual dose of bad science by Louann Brizendine), and the generally dismissive attitude towards alleged ‘non-scientific’ knowledge that swamps so much impoverished contemporary intellectual discourse, have reminded me of “The seductive allure of neuroscience explanation“, a 2008 article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Here is the abstract:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) x 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

(via the always excellent Language Log)