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.

Democracy by Joan Didion

Democracy was Joan Didion’s fourth novel. I began reading her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer, a few days ago, but it didn’t grab me, partly because the writing didn’t sound like Joan Didion. The writing in Democracy, published seven years later (in 1984), does.

The central character is Inez Christian Victor. She is from a prominent Hawaii family and married to a prominent mainland politician. The story Didion tells does not go in a straight line. Instead, she jumps around in time and space. The events she describes tend to involve Inez’s relationship through the years with Jack Lovett, a kind of “international man of mystery”. Lovett is apparently connected to the CIA. Events in the novel take place in New York City, Honolulu, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and, during the war, in Viet Nam.

Didion suggests at one point that we call her “the author”. This “author” supposedly began writing a different novel. She eventually focused on Inez, possibly because Inez is frequently in the public eye, written about and photographed as if she were Jacqueline Kennedy (except that Inez’s husband lost his race for the presidency). I can’t say we get a very clear understanding of Mrs. Victor. She sort of drifts through the novel, reacting to other people. Jack Lovett, the apparent CIA man, and a few other characters have more personality.

One way to look at Inez is to compare her point of view to Didion’s. I’ve sometimes wondered what point Didion is trying to make, especially in her essays. But recently I came upon an article about her written by Daniel Kaufman, a philosophy professor. He offers an answer:

It’s difficult to say, specifically, what I find so compelling about Didion’s work.  With most of the writers whom I admire, there are particular elements to which I can point — Hunter S. Thompson’s fierce independence; Kingsley Amis’s deliciously malevolent sense of humor; George Orwell’s unaffected, unpretentious humanity – but with Didion, the elements that make her work resonate so strongly with me are harder to pinpoint, because so much of it is characterized by ambivalence, sometimes studied, at other times bemused.  Ultimately, it is an ambivalence about whether we should view our lives and the things that happen to us and that we do as having a certain kind of significance; as playing into some meaningful, hopeful, and ultimately vindicating story.  It is Didion’s view that we feel a strong need to believe this – the opening line of The White Album reads, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — but she is doubtful whether any of these stories are true or even if it is good for us to believe them.

That doesn’t describe her prose, but it helps me understand what she’s often doing. As for her prose, Democracy contains passages like this:

We were sitting in a swamp forest on the edge of Asia in a city that had barely existed a century before and existed now only as the flotsam of some territorial imperative and a woman who had once thought of living in the White House was flicking termites from her teacup and telling me about landing on a series of coral atolls in a seven-passenger plane with a man in a body bag.

An American in a body bag.

An American who, it was being said, had been doing business in situations where there were not supposed to be any Americans.

What did I think about this.

Finally I shrugged.

Inez watched me a moment longer, then shrugged herself.

“Anyway we were together”, she said. “We were together all our lives. If you count thinking about it.”

I wouldn’t read Democracy for the story. There hardly is one. But I enjoyed it anyway.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

I’d never seen or read this play and think I’ve only seen parts of the movie. But it’s referred to so often and quoted so often (as in Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper) that much of it was familiar.

Streetcar was first performed in 1947 and its age shows. The four principal characters are the fragile Blanche DuBois, her new beau Mitch, and the married couple, Stanley and Stella Kowalski. I sympathized with Blanche, despite her “putting on airs” and preferring fantasy to reality. To some extent, I sympathized with her sister Stella. But she doesn’t mind Stanley punching her occasionally because the sex is great. She also prefers to take her husband’s word over her sister’s because otherwise she’d have to leave him. I hardly sympathized with the male characters at all. Both men are jerks. Actually, Stanley is worse than a jerk. Maybe Stanley and Mitch came across better in 1947.

Something I especially enjoyed were Tennessee Williams’s stage directions. For example:

It is first dark of an evening early in May. The sky that shows around the dim white building is a peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay. You can almost feel the warm breath of the brown river beyond the river warehouses with their faint redolences of bananas and coffee.

Perhaps Williams sympathized with the male characters more than they deserved. A gay man, he appears to have found Stanley attractive:

Stanley throws the screen door of the kitchen open and comes in. He is of medium height, about five feet eight or nine, and strongly, compactly built. Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependency, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens. Branching out from this complete and satisfying center are all the auxiliary channels of his life, such as his heartiness with men, his appreciation of rough humor, his love of good drink and food and games, his car, his radio, everything that is his, that bears his emblem of the gaudy seed-bearer. He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them.

Finally, here’s the scene from Sleeper in which Woody Allen’s character temporarily believes he’s Blanche Dubois. The dialogue is taken from the play.