My review of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”

"A Very Different Pakistan," my review of Daniyal Mueenuddin's story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, appears in the 5 November 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books. You need an electronic subscription to the NYRB in order to read my article online; to buy one, or to buy an old-fashioned ink-on-paper subscription, click here.

Mueenuddin has been nominated for a National Book Award in fiction, which he surely deserves. The New York Times published an interesting profile of him in July. As you'll see if you read my review, I was struck by the parallels between Mueenuddin and the nineteenth-century Russian novelist Turgenev. Sometime after finishing my review, I discovered yet another such parallel. Mueenuddin's description of a woman's scorn for her father's new lover struck me as sharp and amusing, and I quoted it in my review:

When the lover speaks up one day at lunch, Mueenuddin brilliantly captures the daughter's scorn: "Sarwat looked at her in amazement, as if the furniture had spoken."

It turns out that Turgenev used a similar metaphor in Virgin Soil, to describe the scorn that the landowner Sipyagin came to feel for Nezhdanov, the young anarchist whom he had hired as a tutor for his son:

For Sipyagin, Nezhdanov had become simply a piece of furniture, or an empty space, which he utterly—it seemed utterly–failed to remark! These new relations had taken shape so quickly and unmistakably, that when Nezhdanov during dinner uttered a few words in reply to an observation of his neighbour, Anna Zaharovna, Sipyagin looked round wonderingly as though asking himself, "Where does that sound come from?"

I don't know whether this is Mueenuddin's clever homage to Turgenev, or an example of great minds running on similar tracks. In either case, I highly recommend Mueenuddin's book.

The People who go to California to die

In Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939), the character at the focus of the novel, if not quite its hero, is Tod Hackett, an artist who has come to Los Angeles to design sets and costumes for the movies. Hackett is fascinated by a character type he finds there—"the kind of person who comes to California to die"—who seems to be the clay out of which an American fascist could be modeled. Here's his first description of the species:

Scattered among these masquerades were people of a different type. Their clothing was somber and badly cut, bought from mail-order houses. While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred. At this time Tod knew very little about them except that they had come to California to die.

When, in preparation for writing my New Yorker article "It Happened One Decade," I began reading around in the literature of the nineteen thirties, I had the impression that the idea of going to California to die was metaphoric. I was surprised to discover in Edmund Wilson's American Jitters (1932) that it wasn't. Wilson wrote that at the time, San Diego led the United States in suicides, perhaps because "a great many sick people come to live in San Diego." If one allows for the poetic license of substituting Los Angeles for San Diego, it seems probable that West was inspired by Wilson's description:

The climate of Southern California, so widely advertised by Chambers of Commerce and Southern California Clubs, but probably rather unhealthy with its tepid enervating days and its nights that get suddenly chill, brings invalids to San Diego by the thousand. If they have money to move about and have failed to improve in the other health centers, the doctors, as a last resort, send them to San Diego, and it is not uncommon for patients to die just after being unloaded from the train. In the case of "ideational" diseases like asthma—diseases which are partly psychological—the sufferers have a tendency to keep moving away from places, under the illusion that they are leaving the disease behind. And when they have moved to San Diego, they find they are finally cornered, there is nowhere farther to go. According to the psychoanalysts, the idea of the setting sun suggests the idea of death. At any rate, of the five-hundred-odd suicides during the period of fifteen years mentioned above [i.e., between 1911 and 1927], 70 per cent were put down to "despondency and depression over chronic ill health."

I'm quoting here from the revised 1957 version of Wilson's essay "The Jumping-Off Place," because that's the version I happen to have access to at the moment, but the quotes of Wilson in my article come from the original American Jitters, which Wilson published in 1932, when his youthful vitriol was not yet tempered and his faith in Marxism still intact.

Venice in April

Turgenev, Diary of a Superfluous Man A few weeks ago, after a visit to friends in Garrison, New York, I spotted a sign for a bookstore and made Peter get off the highway. We ended up in a shop called Antipodean Books, where I stayed so long that our plans for that evening were ruined, but where the proprietor, in an act of generosity, offered me thirteen out of the seventeen volumes (what dealers poetically call a "broken set") of the Heinemann edition of Turgenev's complete works (Constance Garnett's translation) for just twenty-five dollars. They are still in their original dust jackets, a fetching, hazardous-materials shade of orange! Since I'd already read a few of Turgenev's better-known titles in other translations, the broken set suited me perfectly. Also, aesthetically speaking, I am weak-willed about duodecimo hardcovers, and each of these is just 4.5 by 6 inches—genuinely pocket-sized. And did I mention the highway-worker's-raincoat orange?

This is by way of bloggy-autobiographical prelude to my point, which is just to present a couple of quotes that I like. The two novels I've read in the set so far are about revolutionaries, but for some reason the passages that have most pleased me in them were about spring.

In Virgin Soil, when the hero Nezhdanov wanders in the garden of his employer one May afternoon, Turgenev writes:

Nezhdanov sat with his back to a thick hedge of young birches, in the dense, soft shade. He thought of nothing; he gave himself up utterly to that peculiar sensation of the spring in which, for young and old alike, there is always an element of pain . . . the restless pain of expectation in the young . . . the settled pain of regret in the old. . . .

I don't have anything to say about the quote, other than that I like the precision and the poignancy of it. (The ellipses are Turgenev's, by the way, not mine.)

The other passage that particularly struck me comes toward the end of On the Eve, a novella about a Bulgarian revolutionary and the Russian woman who falls in love with him, when the hero and heroine find themselves staying in Venice much longer than they intended to and somewhat against their wishes. The Venice chapters come as something as a surprise, a surge of sentiment in a book that has seemed up to that point to be concerned mostly with conflict, and if the book offered no more, they would make it worth the price of admission. The passage seems uncannily to prefigure Thomas Mann, but the bittersweetness is Turgenev's own. Reading it, I discover that my few visits to Italian cities have all taken place in the wrong months, but that's the least of the regrets evoked.

No one who has not seen Venice in April knows all the unutterable fascinations of that magic town. The softness and mildness of spring harmonise with Venice, just as the glaring sun of summer suits the magnificence of Genoa, and as the gold and purple of autumn suits the grand antiquity of Rome. The beauty of Venice, like the spring, touches the soul and moves it to desire; it frets and tortures the inexperienced heart like the promise of a coming bliss, mysterious but not elusive. Everything in it is bright, and everything is wrapt in a drowsy, tangible mist, as it were, of the hush of love; everything in it is so silent and everything in it is kindly; everything in it is feminine, from its name upwards. It has well been given the name of 'the fair city.' Its masses of palaces and churches stand out light and wonderful like the graceful dream of a young god; there is something magical, something strange and bewitching in the greenish-grey light and silken shimmer of the silent water of the canals, in the noiseless gliding of the gondolas, in the absence of the coarse din of a town, the coarse rattling, and crashing, and uproar. 'Venice is dead, Venice is deserted,' her citizens will tell you, but perhaps this last charm—the charm of decay—was not vouchsafed her in the very heyday of the flower and majesty of her beauty. He who has not seen her, knows her not; neither Canaletto nor Guardi (to say nothing of later painters) has been able to convey the silvery tenderness of the atmosphere, the horizon so close, yet so elusive, the divine harmony of exquisite lines and melting colours. One who has outlived his life, who has been crushed by it, should not visit Venice; she will be cruel to him as the memory of unfulfilled dreams of early days; but sweet to one whose strength is at its full, who is conscious of happiness; let him bring his bliss under her enchanted skies; and however bright it may be, Venice will make it more golden with her unfading splendour.

Meaulnes’s romance

Le Grand Meaulnes, photo by Peter Terzian

In The Magician’s Book,
her lovely, impassioned account of the Chronicles of Narnia, my friend Laura Miller suggests that the magic of C. S. Lewis’s books may owe more to medieval than to modern sensibilities. She points out that in his scholarship, Lewis defended medieval literature from the condescension of twentieth-century critics, who sometimes saw it as crudely allegorical. In fact, Lewis insisted, it was these critics’ understanding of medieval allegory that was crude. Writes Miller:

What made allegory powerful, and in Lewis’s eyes “realistic,” is that it was a sophisticated way of representing the inner lives of human beings at the time the great allegories like The Romance of the Rose were written. Though we now take for granted the notion of psychologically conflicted characters (who are “torn” or “divided” by forces contained within their own hearts and minds), the medievals didn’t have an artistic and conceptual toolbox quite like our own. Instead of imagining each person as possessing a complex interior mental space full of warring impulses, their picture of character was more external. So for them the natural way to portray what we would regard as a debate within a person’s psyche would be to write a passage in which a figure labeled (for example) Reason stands in a garden quarreling with a figure called Passion. . . . In a true allegory, where aspects of a woman’s personality are made to walk about and otherwise behave like independent people, the woman herself—the territory on which the conflict is being played out—becomes a physical space, a plot of land. The medieval self is, in this sense, geographical.

In later chapters, Miller suggests that Lewis’s Narnia books are romances, not novels, and belong to an alternative tradition that includes not only J. R. R. Tolkien and William Morris but also Dante, Thomas Malory, and Edmund Spenser. After crediting the critic Northrop Frye for the categories, Miller writes that “Most romance . . . belongs to youth and speaks to the desire to get out in the world and prove oneself, which may be why the form proliferates most luxuriantly and in some of its purest strains in children’s fiction.”

Recently, I read a book that turned out to be a romance, though I wasn’t expecting it to be one. When I began Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, first published in 1913, I thought it was going to be about French schoolboys. The narrator, François Seurel, opens by looking back to a November day in the 1890s when he was fifteen years old and studying to earn his teaching certificate at a school where his father was headmaster. In describing the day that a new boy arrived at the school, Seurel’s tone is wistful, a little melancholy:

He arrived at our house one Sunday in November, 189…

I still say “our house,” even though the house no longer belongs to us. We left that part of the country almost fifteen years ago and we will surely never go back to it.

The new boy’s arrival coincides with Seurel’s recovery from a childhood hip disorder, which all but crippled him and left him shy and quiet. The new boy, Augustin Meaulnes, is in perfect health and is two years older than Seurel. Because of his height, the boy is soon to be nicknamed by his classmates “le Grand Meaulnes,” Tall Meaulnes (which sounds more cryptic in English than in French, and so in English the book either bears its French title or another one altogether). Meaulnes is also a little wild. Even before Mme. Meaulnes has settled with Seurel’s parents on the terms for boarding her son, Meaulnes finds in the Seurels’ attic two as-yet-unexploded fireworks and detonates them in the schoolyard as Seurel stands by. Seurel describes himself as “holding the tall new boy by the hand and not flinching.” Meaulnes, who reminds Seurel of a young Robinson Crusoe, is to be his guide into risk and adolescence.

Such a commencement doesn’t necessarily promise romance in C. S. Lewis’s sense of the word. The story of a mild boy looking up to a bolder one could be told novelistically, with a very modern psychology. But even in these opening chapters, it’s evident that Alain-Fournier isn’t a psychologist of that sort. Seurel describes his crush on Meaulnes without any embarrassment; he isn’t in any conflict about it. Nor is Meaulnes in any conflict about his wildness. He never apologizes when he breaks the rules set by Seurel’s father; he certainly never shows any signs of feeling guilty. For their part, Seurel’s parents are never petulant about Meaulnes’s behavior. Everyone treats everyone else with a kind of plainness and straightforwardness that is probably the first sign that this is a romance and not a novel. The second sign comes when Meaulnes runs off one day with a horse and carriage, becomes lost in the countryside, and, following a stone tower, stumbles into a ruined castle where he is invited to join a strange pageant, performed entirely by children . . .

To say much more would give too much away. The charm of the book is that it moves from realism to romance (and back again) without acknowledging any incommensurability between the genres. The people that Meaulnes finds in the castle are human; the bewitchment of the place is not by magic but by a kind of family history. But if, as Miller writes, “the medieval self is geographical,” then Meaulnes’s self is medieval, and so is Seurel’s, because the two boys will struggle with their geographic knowledge of the castle, or rather geographic ignorance of it, for the rest of the book. As in Lewis’s romances, all the characters find doubles, and in some cases triples. These doubles aren’t named Reason and Passion, or Childhood and History, or Wealth and Poverty, but they have the same internal simplicity and interactive complexity that Lewis, in Miller’s paraphrase, credits to allegory. By the end, there is nothing childish about the story at all, except insofar as the tragedy of adult love is one first perceived in childhood.

“The great postmodern uncertainty that we live in”

I was very sorry to read this morning that David Foster Wallace died on Friday.

A fan of his work, I was lucky enough to interview him for the Boston Globe in October 2003 about his book Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞ [Infinity]. The interview took place in his room at a hotel that he was briefly staying at, in New York. According to my notes, when I arrived, Wallace “had been air conditioning the room in preparation for a nap, but he kindly stopped the fan, for the sake of the tape recorder. He was wearing a blue Pomona College sweatshirt with the sleeves torn off. Before the interview started, he served me a glass of club soda and applied a nicotine patch to his upper left arm, over which he put an armband. During the interview, whenever I managed to empty my club soda, he refilled it.”

He was a little wary at first; it seemed that he didn’t expect that I would have read his book. When he found out that I had, his first question was, “Does it seem halfway clear to you?” and once we started talking about the math, he seemed to relax and, as I wrote in my notes, was “certainly more self-composed than this reporter,” who was star-struck. Throughout, he was focused on helping me interview him. When, for example, he called a book that sentimentalized a mathematician’s life story “horseshit,” he immediately upbraided himself for saying something unquotable: “Shit fuck fuck shit—none of it can be used.” He repeatedly asked if he was answering my questions satisfactorily and repeatedly apologized for not being more clear or more concise.

The published interview, as is conventional with the genre, was an edited and condensed version of the conversation we actually had, which went into much more detail on the math and a bit more into what really intrigued me: parallels between the mathematics of infinity, as resolved by the nineteenth-century mathematician Georg Cantor, and certain ideas in Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest that for lack of a better adjective might be called “religious.” For example, during one exchange, part of which does appear in the published interview, Wallace and I were talking about whether numbers exist outside the minds of the mathematicians who think about them. People who think numbers do have an independent reality are called Platonists, and I wanted to ask Wallace if he was one, because he’d been a bit cagey about his own beliefs in the book.

CRAIN: So are you a Platonist? Do you think mathematical concepts exist?

WALLACE: [Pause.] How, if this is going to be in the article, how would you provide enough context for the question to make sense?

CRAIN: That would be the challenge for the—

WALLACE: Personally, between you and me, yeah, I’m a Platonist, and I think, I personally think that God has particular languages, and one of them is music and one of them is mathematics, and that’s not something I can defend, it’s just something I’ve felt in my tummy since I was a little kid, but how exactly to try to make sense of that and to fit it in any kind of a working philosophy, much less cross the street to buy a loaf of bread is a different matter. In a certain sense, really really in the ultimate sense, it doesn’t matter what I think, what the book is about is what Cantor and Godel thought. The fact that Kurt Godel was a Platonist, when Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem—

At that moment, aptly but unfortunately, the tape ran out, and I didn’t notice for a few minutes. Here is my memory of what we talked about in the interval, according to the notes I took at the time: Since Wallace had introduced Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, I asked about the Infinite Jest character Pemulis (which, because I asked, Wallace said that he pronounced with a long e, but that I was free to pronounce however I liked)—I asked about Pemulis’s reassurance to Todd Possalthwaite that “you can trust math,” (p. 1071) and how Godel shows that this turns out not to be true. Wallace responded that it had been a long time since Infinite Jest, but that he had intended Pemulis to be “one of the book’s Antichrists,” and so readers shouldn’t take anything he said unskeptically. Then I asked about the physicality of Wallace’s fiction and how it felt to write about something as abstract as math. His first answer was to ask me if his fiction was any more physical than anyone else’s. Shortly after that, I noticed that the tape wasn’t moving, and flipped it over.

Somewhat later in the conversation, we came back to the topic, because of a line in Everything and More that I was curious about. (You probably have to have read Wallace’s book to follow every twist and turn in his reply, but the glory of the internet is that paragraphs don’t have to be perfectly intelligible to everyone to be worth posting.)

CRAIN: One question we haven’t really talked about is, you have a line where you say, “analogies to certain ideas of God are obvious.”

WALLACE: The book is rather odd, because there’s kind of the opening straw-boater-and-cane chapter, where you’re kind of trying to give a general overview about why this whole thing is going to be kind of mind-bending. I think the idea is that in the anthropology of religion, you basically build an idea of god by simply removing all the limitations you see, all the limitations and imperfections you see in the real world around you, is that what we’re talking about? And that infinity is kind of the same thing. Everything’s limited—imagine something without that. Probably a Kroneckerian [i.e., someone who doubts the independent existence of mathematical concepts—CC] would say, infinity and god are the same sort of thing, they’re pie-in-the sky dreams of people who haven’t adjusted to the ineluctability of limit in the universe and so like to dream of something without that, and it’s really just a unicorn. We’re just sticking various concepts together.

You have an odd facial expression when the person is answering the question because it usually looks like stark incomprehension. Did that make any sense at all?

CRAIN: Yeah yeah yeah.

WALLACE: Is the part of the book that I think your question’s referring to what it’s referring to?

CRAIN: Yeah. There’s a part in Infinite Jest, I don’t know which character it is, talking about, having trouble with the Higher Power and AA, and having to accept that— I think it’s Gately—that if he has a merely technical response, it will eventually work.

WALLACE: Interesting.

CRAIN: And I was sort of relating that to the idea of infinity as being mysterious and then Cantor coming along and having this technical apparatus for interfacing with it.

WALLACE: My guess, and again I’ve got to confess I don’t remember Infinite Jest very well, is that Gately’s talking about certain spiritual realities, and what you have to do to cultivate a relationship in a churchgoing or twelve-step-program-going versus, um, . . . You could say then that the whole agenda of this book [Everything and More] is very—diametrically?— different. We want not just to have a technical understanding of this. ‘Cause it really could be a booklet and could start at the last chapter and simply give you these . . . And there’s a certain interest about it. And in fact you really don’t need calculus to understand, for instance, Cantor’s diagonalization. Helps to know a little bit about the philosophy of math when you get into Cantor’s paradox and the Continuum Hypothesis and stuff. Much of the stuff in the book that’s hard in a math way is just providing context. Cantor just didn’t wake up one day and decide to do this. He was very much part of this math world. And to be honest, the whole reason for doing that is that it was the only way to write about this in a way that hadn’t been done before. And seemed to me to be somewhat worthwhile and was an interesting challenge. I sure wouldn’t say, if you’re interested in Cantor, just read the last chapter. I don’t think you can really understand Cantor if you don’t know something about Dedekind and the schnitt method, because the two of them, well whatever, they’re really twin towers. But he [Dedekind] doesn’t get much billing. He did a lot more for solidifying math, because he came up with a way to define irrationals that’s absolutely clean as a whistle.

Whereas Cantor, yeah, codifies the transfinite, but Cantor’s paradox is the first step into Godel’s incompleteness and self-reference. It’s at once this beautiful climax of the two hundred years before it and the first note of the funeral dirge for math as something that you can just, ‘You know what, we can explain the entire universe mathematically. All we have to do is come up with the right axioms and the right derivation rules.’ I mean, Cantor’s paradox starts the wheel of self-reference.

I don’t know if you know much about Godel’s incompleteness theorem. But in a lay sense, Godel is able to come up mathematically with a theorem that says, ‘I am not provable.’ And it’s a theorem, which means that math is either not consistent or it’s not complete, by definition. Packed in. He is the devil, for math.

Cantor’s paradox, that whole ‘If it’s not a member of the set, it is a member of the set,’ and then Russell’s paradox about twenty years later, those were the first two . . . You know, when you start coming on a really interesting theme in a piece of music, you usually hear it in echo notes that foreshadow it, those are the foreshadowings. And I don’t imagine Godel would have come up with the self-reference loop if it hadn’t been for Cantor and Russell. [Sotto voce] Whatever. You’re not interested.

CRAIN: When some of the technical questions about infinity are answered, this other abyss opens up.

WALLACE: Yeah. Infinity was the great albatross for math. Really ever since calculus. Infinitesimals were horseshit, and everybody knew they were horseshit. But the limits thing used natural language stuff like ‘approaches,’ which math isn’t supposed to do. So it’s this great shell game. Weierstrass, Dedekind and Cantor close all those holes, and it’s beautiful, and at the same time they open what turns out to be a much worse one, and that’s Godel. . . .

After Godel, the idea that mathematics was not just a language of god but a language we could decode to understand the universe and understand everything, I mean, that doesn’t work any more. It’s part of the great postmodern uncertainty that we live in. Very few people know about it.

CRAIN: Yeah, yeah. It’s a chilling way for the book to end.

WALLACE: The book ends very abruptly, because you come to the shore of an ocean I’m not even going to dip a toe into, because then we’re into three hundred more pages. . . .

I can’t think of any other contemporary novelist who thought about such philosophical questions with the same combination of depth, rigor, and feeling.