Friday, December 04, 2009

Wandering thoughts about books about men in robes

As I creep up on the end of Moby Dick, I find myself seriously contemplating The Brothers Karamazov for the next Borrowed Fire series. Contrary to my previous impression, MD is really not that long of a least not compared to BK, which is 940 pages in my very tiny print version of the Constance Garnett translation (the same one they have on Project Gutenberg, so it's almost like a sign that I should do this). It would be quite a slog. But I found myself rereading "The Grand Inquisitor" section last night to help me figure out something for my novel...and, well, it's just freakin brilliant. "Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy?" says the GI. Dostoevsky was a rebel against the God he loved and craved to believe in. That's why Alyosha Karamazov, the novice monk, is a sweetie but pales in comparison to his rebel brothers, who suffer so palpably.

Speaking of monks, it looks like I am finally going to finish Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I started about four years ago, then misplaced, then restarted on the plane to and from Cleveland. It's quite interesting, about the rediscovery, many centuries in the future, of atomic-age technology that ended up destroying the planet. As they did in the first Dark Ages, Catholic monks have been preserving technical books and diagrams, which they don't really understand; I've just finished the part where they finally manage to construct a generator to power a lamp in the library. (Leibowitz was a former engineer from the atomic age who repented and became a monk himself.) The writing is strong, witty, and compelling, and the characters are less flat than in other genre novels--especially in the first section, where we spend a lot of time with the charmingly meek novice, Francis. He has unwittingly discovered a cache of papers that will allow Leibowitz to be canonized, and we share his disappointment and cheer his patience as the hierarchy squabbles over what to do with the find.

But then at the end of section one, Francis is shot between the eyes and eaten by mutants.* (The eating part is not shown.) Centuries pass, and we meet a new batch of monks, still puzzling over relics and trying to form alliances with the "savage" clans prowling the blighted American landscape. (It is one of the other great joys of this book that the new Roman Catholic church is rooted in the American west, so the great centers of religious civilization aren't Rome and Constantinople, but Texarkana and Denver.) But the abrupt end of Francis teaches us not to care about these new monks. Even though Miller gives them reasonably compelling quirks and dialog, we now assume that any of them could get the ax--or the arrow--at any time. We realize the characters, for all the work that Miller puts into them, are just vehicles for the real subject of the book, which is the process of technological discovery.

Is that what makes Canticle, ultimately, a genre rather than a literary novel--this clear signal that character is a secondary concern? The quick and dirty answer is "yes"--genre fiction's about plot; literary's about character. But...that's a boring answer. Don DeLillo is considered a literary artist; yet he's always knocked for creating unmemorable characters who exist solely to express ideas. In his recent New Yorker story, that's certainly the case. Of course it's a story *about* overly intellectual college students, who are aware of and dramatize their own detachment from others. Maybe the self-awareness of the characters (and the author) about their condition gives the story more artistic ballast than Canticle. But I read both in a similar emotional state; a kind of warm, hmmm, interesting, what's-this-all-about feeling, with no real concern for the "people." Maybe DeLillo's a little smoother at integrating interesting ideas with interesting-enough characters.

Anyway, for ideas dressed up as human beings, you can't beat Dostoevsky. And DeLillo's story is called "Midnight in Dostoevsky," and it's kinda sorta about Dostoevsky...See, another sign...BK, here I come...?

*Or "sports," as Miller calls them. I spent about a week being fascinated by this term--is it a slur? Does the term of endearment "old sport" mean "old mutant"? Turns out it's a term from biology, and thus neutral in its implications, I guess.

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