“Watchmen” by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

I used to update another blog every time I finished a book. I’d summarize the book and offer an opinion or two. An Ingenious Device For Avoiding Thought is still out there, but I’m going to discuss the books here now.

Watchmen is a 1980s comic book/graphic novel that deals with a bunch of caped crusaders, similar to Batman, in an alternate timeline in which America won the war in Viet Nam and President Nixon never resigned. There is one character with actual superpowers, the result of a horrendous accident. Watchmen has a terrific reputation:

“A work of ruthless psychological realism, it’s a landmark in the graphic novel medium.”—Time Magazine

“WATCHMEN is peerless.”—Rolling Stone

“Remarkable … the would-be heroes of WATCHMEN have staggeringly complex psychological profiles.”—New York Times Book Review

“Groundbreaking.”—USA Today

It was adapted for a movie in 2009 and an HBO series last year. I saw the movie and some of the TV series and was interested enough to get a copy of 2013’s deluxe, hardcover edition. I would finally see what all the excitement has been about.

I’m sure Watchmen would have been more interesting if I’d read the original twelve comic books when they came out in the 80s. Its “costumed adventurers” or “masked vigilantes” and their violent exploits would have been more novel back then.

Reading it in 2020, I was disappointed. It was good enough to keep reading, but overall it was repetitious and sometimes boring. There are two interesting characters (the dangerous, extremely intense Rorschach and the naked blue superhero with godlike powers, Dr. Manhattan) but too much of it has the feeling of a soap opera. The artwork is decent but the only reason I finished it (aside from a bit of Puritan work ethic) was that I wanted to see what one of the characters — said to be the smartest man in the world — eventually does to New York City. Recurring characters who hang out at a newsstand, an extended parallel story involving 17th century pirates and a troubled mother-daughter relationship were especially tedious.

So, that’s Watchmen, an entry in Time‘s list of the 100 best novels written since 1923 and, according to someone at the BBC, “the moment comic books grew up”. I guess you had to be there.

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The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

The English translation of Houellebecq’s best-known novel was published 20 years ago. It was widely-discussed, even controversial. I can see why.

It’s the story of two French step-brothers, Michel and Bruno, from their school years into adulthood. Michel is brilliant and becomes an important molecular biologist. But he is extremely emotionally detached. Bruno is bullied in school and very self-conscious. He becomes a writer and is mostly concerned with sex.

I’d say the theme of the novel is the decline of the human race. It includes a lot of science and a lot of explicit sex. Michel and Bruno don’t live happily ever after. Neither does humanity. Yet the story ends on what seems to be a positive development. Houellebecq is suggesting that things can only get better from here.

Submission: A Novel by Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is one of France’s leading novelists, maybe their leading novelist. He is known for being controversial. This is the only book of his I’ve read. It made me want to read another.

The story is told from the point of view of a middle-aged professor of literature at the Sorbonne. He is relatively well-known in academic circles, but feels his career is at a dead end. He has frequent affairs with his female students. He is especially attached to one young woman, but otherwise feels lonely.

The novel is set in the near future. What may have made it controversial is that Houellebecq imagines that a new political party is having great success in France. It’s the Muslim Brotherhood. An election is coming and it looks as if they may win. Nobody knows what will happen. The professor isn’t really interested in politics, but he’s nervous about his future in a country that appears to be rapidly changing.

The arabic word islam means “submission” or “submission to the will of God”. I suppose Submission is satire, and it’s funny at times, but it addresses serious themes. I only wish I had understood more of the cultural references. The author refers to lots of French historical and literary figures, as well as current politicians and pundits. If I’d known who he was talking about, I’d have appreciated more of the jokes.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This is a remarkable science fiction novel. It’s quite a story, quite a work of imagination.

What happens is that human beings have been screwing up the Earth to the point that it’s becoming uninhabitable. One response has been to try to create Earth-like conditions on planets in distant solar systems. It’s hoped that these planets will eventually become new homes for humanity.

The terraforming work on one such planet is sabotaged at the last moment. This leads to an enormous unintended consequence: some of the planet’s spiders rapidly evolve, becoming bigger, smarter and much more sociable than the spiders back on Earth.

Before the Earth becomes uninhabitable, giant spaceships are launched with thousands of people aboard. Most of the passengers are stored away as “cargo”, hibernating in an unconscious state, waiting to be resuscitated when their ships finally reach inhabitable worlds, many years in the future.

Throughout the book, the author switches back and forth between what’s happening to the spiders on their planet and what’s happening to the people in one of the spaceships. I felt closer to the people, but the author does a wonderful job explaining things from the perspective of the spiders. As you’d expect, the two species eventually meet.

Somebody is supposedly trying to turn Children of Time into a movie. It really deserves a TV series, possibly with multiple seasons. The author has also published a sequel, Children of Ruin. It’s probably remarkable too.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu

When I was a teenager, I read lots and lots of science fiction. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club early on and bought the magazines (Galaxy, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) as often as I could. But the only science fiction I can remember reading in the past forty years is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. So I’m surprised that I started reading The Three-Body Problem. The back cover’s extremely complimentary blurbs from The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and even Barack Obama helped get me started. The story was interesting enough and suspenseful enough to keep me going through 400 pages.

It all begins with China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Scientists and other intellectuals are being persecuted, even murdered. A young woman watches three Red Guards beat her father, a professor of physics, to death. The young woman, a physicist herself,  eventually joins a secret government project that’s looking into the possibility of extraterrestrial life. This project way out in China’s middle of nowhere leads to humanity’s first contact with aliens (unfortunately, it’s the aliens’ first contact with aliens too).

I kind of regret finishing the book. There are interesting parts, mostly the ones that delve into fundamental physics. A chapter involving the relationship between subatomic particles and multiple dimensions is terrific. There is a bizarre assault on a ship passing through the Panama Canal. It’s intriguing how the characters, both human and alien, react to the possibility of first contact. There are plenty of other parts that are tedious, however. Some of the characters are tiresome. Their motivations are hard to believe. Lengthy excursions into a complex computer game made me start skimming.

It was the suspense that kept me going. What will happen when first contact finally occurs? I thought I’d find out in the book’s concluding 25 pages. I didn’t realize the last 25 pages of this paperback edition are devoted to postscripts about writing and translating the book and a preview of the author’s forthcoming novel. The abrupt ending was disappointing.

Aristotle said you cannot properly judge a work of art by considering its parts in isolation. You have to judge it as a whole. If it’s a story, you have to finish it. On that basis, I don’t think The Three-Body Problem, although intriguing, lived up to its blurbs.

The Story of the Eye by George Bataille, Translated by Joachim Neugroschel

If your local New Jersey library doesn’t have a book, you can usually get it through the state’s Interlibrary Loan Service. It’s usually easy to find several libraries that will loan you their copy of whatever you want. But New Jersey’s statewide system has only one copy of The Story of the Eye. Rider University must have acquired it because it’s a work of academic interest. Other libraries must have avoided getting it because it’s really, really dirty.

The author, George Bataille (1897-1962), was “a French intellectual and literary figure working in literature, philosophy, anthropology, consumerism, sociology and history of art” [Wikipedia]. He wrote “essays, novels and poetry”. He published The Story of the Eye, a novella, in 1928 using a pseudonym. An American publisher issued this translation fifty years later.

Briefly, the story describes the sexual and criminal adventures of two teenagers, an unnamed boy and a girl named Simone. They are joined for a while by another girl, Marcelle, and later by a British nobleman, Lord Edward. Along the way, there is an absurd amount of sex, described in explicit and bizarrely dramatic fashion, mixed in with suicide, murder and lots and lots of bodily fluids, especially urine. There is bullfighting, an interlude in a pigsty and goings on in a cathedral that the Catholic Church would not like at all. Eyes, eggs and eye- or egg-like objects also turn up in various, usually disgusting ways.

In a phrase, The Story of the Eye is an early example of “transgressive fiction”, a literary genre in which the characters violate the norms and expectations of society in various “unusual or illicit” ways. As such, it’s been discussed and celebrated through the years by a number of academics, intellectuals and artists. Someone even used it as the basis for a movie.

I wouldn’t say I exactly enjoyed reading it. It’s a curiosity. I assumed it was supposed to “mean something”, but didn’t know what. So it was a relief to find a brief final chapter that possibly provides a partial explanation. It’s called “Coincidences”. It describes events from the author’s life that may have given rise to his work. His father was disabled and died of syphilis. His mother tried to kill herself. The “author”, or Bataille, refers to “certain images …, the most scandalous, … those on which the conscious floats indefinitely, unable to endure them without an explosion or aberration” [105]. I don’t know if this final chapter actually describes some of the events from Bataille’s life that led to this story. I do know that The Story of the Eye is an explosion and an aberration.

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz

Eve’s Hollywood is labeled as fiction but it’s hard to know how much of it’s fictional. First published in 1974, it’s written in the first person and describes the author’s life growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and her adventures as a young woman about town in the 60s. It doesn’t have a plot. It’s a series of usually brief chapters that seem almost randomly placed. We learn about Eve’s parents, her junior high and high school days in Hollywood, various friends and lovers, with stops in New York City and Rome along the way. Perhaps the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.

The Eve of the novel, and probably the Eve of reality, are or were a lot of fun to be with. She communicates her love of Los Angeles and makes shrewd observations about human nature. She rhapsodizes about the taquitos you could get at Olvera Street and watching a terrific MacGillivray-Freeman surf movie at the Santa Monica Civic. She tells stories about people and places you’d have like to have known (or avoided). I doubt if some of the people she describes were as beautiful as she says, but maybe they weren’t real anyway.

Did Eve Babitz really let a guy who called himself Bummer Bob crash at her house for a few days, and later find out that he was Bobby Beausoleil, one day to be a key member of the Manson Family?

Did the three sentences that constitute the chapter called “Cary Grant” [269] actually happen?

I once saw Cary Grant up close.

He was beautiful.

He looked exactly like Cary Grant.

I’m glad her books are being reprinted. I’m looking forward to reading her second novel, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., and a collection of her journalism, I Used To Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz. There are much worse ways a person could spend their time.