Posts Tagged ‘chaos’

This book is ideal for those people who have left Christianity, but feel nostalgic about the shitty inspirational fiction.

“Cade, do you ever feel trapped in your life?” asked George instead.

Cade paused and smiled. “What do you mean?”

“I mean … I feel like I’m just headed down a path I can’t change. It didn’t happen all at once. It crept up on me. First you get a house, then the kids come along, and suddenly I’ve got major responsibilities. And one day I wake up and my life is half over. I mean, my life hasn’t been horrible, but I feel like I’m just along for the ride.”

Shitty inspirational novels often follow a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress pattern, where Everyman is guided through the trials of life by someone who moralizes a lot and stands in for his conscience, or God, or the Church, or whatever is meant to guide people through the trials of life. Kuhn’s guide is Shiloh, a physicist with an intense aesthetic sense. While he sees beauty and wonder in everything, Shiloh’s biggest message is about order and chaos. He argues that we need both, and that life is all about managing the balance between the two. He talks about culture as striving for this balance: rock and roll music, soccer, science, whatever he likes he sees as having achieved the perfect mix. If there’s something he doesn’t like, it’s either too structured (like baseball) or not structured enough. The thing that irritates me about this guide, other than the condescending attitude all these guides take, is that he is so subjective. George takes him to a baseball game and talks him through the theme and variations, so he becomes a bit more reconciled to it, but who decides how much order is enough? Shiloh does. He doesn’t have a god to blame it on, but really, it seems that his main concern is teaching George about his worldview and insisting that his personal tastes have cosmic significance.

The protagonist is the other essential piece to this puzzle. George is represented as an Everyman, someone who staggers blindly through life, content to let entropy take over as he falls into deeply ingrained habits of self-centeredness and insensitivity, until he meets the guide. First off, I don’t believe that everyone is like George. He’s a cishet white male, so he has a lot of advantages that most people don’t. He’s also quite comfortable with regard to his income, so to me, most of his problems are illusory. Yes, bad things happen to him, but he has a much wider safety net than I do, wider than most people I know. This sort of protagonist in this sort of allegory always makes me wonder about the author. How much privilege is necessary to see George as representative of anyone?

As I implied above, things change when the protagonist meets the guide. He’s been insensitive to his own feelings and those of everyone around him for years, but suddenly he becomes unusually articulate about his emotions. Overnight he drops the mental defenses we all have and becomes able to say exactly what he is feeling and why, without disguises or misdirection, to a man he barely knows. This aspect of the books is in my opinion less realistic than the sci-fi elements we’re going to discuss in a minute. It takes a lot of time to work through the mental blocks we create to protect our innermost selves. In a society where vulnerability is harshly punished, especially in heterosexual men, this style of opening up takes a long time to achieve. If someone does open up suddenly, it’s usually a misdirect designed to gain approval. George has had the same best friend for twenty years or more, but after chatting with Shiloh on the train a couple of times it’s somehow easier to talk to the comparative stranger than to Cade, despite their long history. These protagonists turn into a bizarre mixture of petulant immaturity and intense self-awareness.

And speaking of privilege, how many first marriages last twenty years? His wife is presented as perfect, the exact combination of capability and submission that gives conservatives confidence in themselves and in the perpetuation of the human race. With women like that at home, we can move forward in business and politics, knowing that all failures at home will be made up for by the stay-at-home mom. She’ll take care of the house and kids so that the men don’t have to raise children or clean up after themselves. Since Everyman is supposed to be a good guy, he’s going to try to wash dishes or talk with his son, but he’s going to do it poorly because the penis disqualifies him from recognizing dirt or giving appropriate emotional responses. There’s a daughter too, with whom he does marginally better <sarcasm> because her needs are so much simpler. We all know that girls only need a few trips to the mall with their friends to make everything all right. </sarcasm>

Another vital component of the shitty inspirational novel is cartoonishly extreme suffering. George has some trouble at work and might get fired, but then his daughter is in a car accident where she breaks a couple of limbs and loses an eye. Then his son gets alcohol poisoning and major counseling. Then his wife gets cancer and dies. It’s a bad year, but no one has this many bad things happening to them in this short a period of time. I suppose it’s the intensity of the suffering that gives him all of those emotional breakthroughs, but it’s so forced.

The final element is the supernatural. Christian shitty inspirational novels focus on God, or angels, or Jesus, or finding a mystical shack in the woods. Here, the supernatural is replaced by technology. Shiloh gives George a watch that transports him between dimensions. He’s really interested in string theory and all that multiple dimensional stuff, which he claims is the only solution to some of the observed phenomena out in space. I guess loop quantum gravity doesn’t exist in Shiloh’s world (Leslie Winkle forever!). So, George gets a chance to travel back in time, to parallel dimensions, so that he can relive his days. At first he tries to recapture glory, but then he turns to fixing his regrets. The changes don’t affect his life, but they do change him, giving him more hope and a stronger sense of self-efficacy.

The moral of the story, because even agnostic shitty inspirational novels need a moral, is that we should all be kinder to one another, so I should probably stop calling these novels shitty. I mean, they are – about a quarter of the way in I asked myself why I was having such a hard time with this book, and I realized that it was because it’s poorly written – but it’s not kind to say so. I agree with Kuhn that being kinder is the best hope we have to make the world a better place, even if I have a hard time with his vehicle.

What really sparked my interest was at the end, when George has a chance to go back and live his whole life over. I would love that. I’d lose most of the people I care about because I would go back to before I met them and make different choices, but I would prioritize my happiness from an earlier point in my life. I would come out of the closet sooner, exercise more at a younger age, choose a new profession, and generally explore parts of myself that I’ve left neglected this time around. The chance to do everything over again, and do it differently, appeals to me strongly.

I’m an overly sentimental person when it comes to fictional characters, so I stuck it out and even got appropriately weepy at the end. Agnostic inspirational fiction is such a weird category, but that is definitely what this is. Perfect for people who can’t stomach Christianity but miss the poorly written novels. It’s like being uplifted against your own will.

This book glories in the use of pronouns. So much so, that at the beginning of a chapter it can be difficult to know whose perspective we are reading from. So much so, that the main character in the book is never named, but we have enough clues to deduce that he is Sherlock Holmes, nearly ninety, living in the country during World War II, keeping bees.

Holmes enters our story as a crazy old man yelling at children. More specifically, at a young German Jew who’s been evacuated to the English countryside to avoid the concentration camps. The boy is about to piss on the third rail that carries electricity to the train cars and the aged detective is trying to save his life, but since the boy rarely speaks and rarely understands English, all he sees is the crazy old man. The boy is always accompanied by a parrot who repeats strings of numbers. British spies keep trying to figure out the secret of these numbers, believing them to be a kind of code. This book even becomes a murder mystery because of the bird and his numbers. But Holmes is more interested in finding the kidnapped bird than the killer. I suppose retirement gives people a different perspective.

Throughout the story, people react to Holmes in different ways, but they seem to regard him as a relic of the past, a Victorian curiosity to have survived almost into the Postmodern Era. Yet, at the end, he comes to a very Modern, very un-Victorian conclusion:

The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings – the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted – had he not? – by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic cryptographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formations, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies’ wings. One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems – the false leads and the cold cases – that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot. One might so conclude, really, he thought, one might.

There were a few Victorian writers and thinkers who saw the lack of meaning in the world around them, who understood that human meaning is a human construction, but they were largely disreputable (which is not to say that their books didn’t sell). Dickens was so successful because you could read his books aloud to your children without the fear of any unchristian ideas entering their heads. He was a social reformer, it’s true, but he always approached his unpalatable subject matter with circumspection. He wouldn’t have made his doubts so explicit.

Much as I find the Victorian novels’ certainty about the world so comforting, in my own mind I side with Chabon’s Holmes. We have the inborn need to bring order to chaos – part of my discomfort with children is their apparent comfort with chaos – but the order is essentially manmade, not intrinsic to the things we arrange. Why do I fold towels the way that I do, or keep them in the places where I do? It doesn’t matter to the towels. Left to themselves, they’d end up on the floor in a heap. They want to become an undifferentiated mass of terrycloth, and I’m standing very firmly in the way. One of the things that I find difficult about living with a family is that my ordering hand is not master here.

For all that this book is a mystery, and the subtitle links it to detection, it is not so much a story about finding as it is a story about losing. The boy loses his parrot. The minister loses his faith, and his son. Holmes walks into a clearing and for a few seconds cannot bring meaning to the shapes he sees – he loses his ability to interpret optical data. I suppose this could be my own sense to the book, since some of the lost things are found, but most of them are not. The numbers are a secret between the boy and the parrot, and not even Holmes discovers their sense. Life seems to be unravelling, which is not a sensation I particularly enjoy. And indeed, there’s some of that in my life – sleep is not knitting up the ravelled sleeve of care – I’d like to be able to bring the issues to a swift decisive conclusion, but that is not really realistic. By summer’s end, things will be done.


I love this book. In graduate school I learned that it can be dangerous to write about books I love, because it is difficult to convey those emotions in an academic analysis. The emotion gets in the way of the analysis, just as I lose my good judgment when I feel an emotional connection to the decision to be made. This explains why I’ve asked for a transfer closer to home, even though I’m in a good job and a decent social situation. I have an emotional connection with that landscape, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be content apart from it. My company’s closest location is five hundred miles off, but that’s a lot closer than the thousand miles away I am now.

This book seems to have been conceived as one of a series where our leading authors write about the myths that have shaped their lives and writing. I’m not sure if that series ever took off because I always see this one standing alone or with Byatt’s other work, and since she deals so much with fairy tales and myths anyway, it doesn’t feel out of place in her oeuvre. So yes, as the title implies, this is a book about Norse mythology. But it is also a story about Byatt’s encounter with Norse mythology when she was a girl, The Thin Child in Wartime. The Norse myths make more sense to her than the Christian ones, so while she doesn’t believe in them as a religion, they more adequately express her developing worldview.

The thin child thought that these stories – the sweet, cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one, were both human make-ups, like the life of the giants in the Riesengebirge. Neither aspect made her want to write, or fed her imagination. They numbed it. She tried to think she might be wicked for thinking these things. She might be like Ignorance, in Pilgrim’s Progress, who fell into the pit at the gate of heaven. She tried to feel wicked.

But her mind veered away, to where it was alive.

So while the stories take place in Midgard or Asgard, they also always have reference to living in the evacuated-to English countryside during World War II.

Odin was the god of the Wild Hunt. Or of the Raging Host. They rode out through the skies, horses and hounds, hunters and spectral armed men. They never tired and never halted; the horns howled on the wind, the hooves beat, they swirled in dangerous wheeling flocks like monstrous starlings. Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, had eight legs: his gallop was thundering. At night, in her blacked-out bedroom, the thin child heard sounds in the sky, a distant whine, a churning of propellers, thunder hanging overhead and then going past. She had seen and heard the crash and conflagration when the airfield near her grandparents’ home was bombed. She had cowered in an understairs cupboard as men were taught to cower, flat on the ground, when the Hunt passed by. Odin was the god of death and battle. Not much traffic came through the edges of the small town in which the thin child lived. Most of what there was was referred to as ‘Convoys’, a word that the thin child thought was synonymous with processions of khaki vehicles, juddering and grinding. Some had young men sitting in the back of trucks, smiling out at the waving children, shaking with the rattling motions. They came and they went. No one was told where. They were ‘our boys’. The child thought of her father, burning in the air above North Africa. She did not know where North Africa was. She imagined him with his flaming hair in a flaming black plane, in the racket of propellers. Airmen were the Wild Hunt. They were dangerous. If any hunter dismounted, he crumbled to dust, the child read. It was a good story, a story with meaning, fear and danger were in it, and things out of control.

In the daytime, the bright fields. In the night, doom droning in the sky.

I did not grow up during World War II. My parents weren’t born until afterward. My childhood war was very different. By the 1980s, American society had grown comfortable with the Cold War. The enemy was always there, there was the constant threat of invasion and nuclear holocaust, but this very constancy had inured us to it. The threat of mutually assured destruction kept us pretty much safe. Then, when I was a thin child of nine, the Berlin Wall came down, and a couple of years later the Soviet Union fell apart. There was a sense of relief, but I had never experienced the absence of loved ones as Byatt did, nor was I ever evacuated.

The real war for me was strictly domestic. My father was undiagnosed bipolar; most men self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, but since my father’s religion forbade those, he calmed himself down by hitting his children. I was too young and small to be a target, but I have four older siblings who caught rather a lot of it. I don’t remember much from the early years, but my sister assures me that I had every reason to be perpetually afraid. And I was. Not just of my father, though; I was afraid of everyone. Life is unpredictable, and as a kid that meant that I never knew when someone was going to go from happy to violently angry in less time than it takes to read this sentence. I think this is the key to understanding why I freak out in crowds; that’s a lot of people to keep from punching me in the face. You’re asking, why would anyone punch me in the face to start with? Because life is unpredictable, and my childhood trained me to know that every person is a potential threat. Especially family members who are supposed to love and care for me. These days I have friends that I trust, but they are people who seldom make sudden moves and do not raise their voices when they get heated in a conversation.

My mother had a quick temper too, but she handled her anger by distancing herself from the situation – the situation usually being her children. I don’t remember being hugged or kissed when I was young. The first clear memory I have of getting that sort of affection from my mother is from after I was married and had graduated from college. I remember how awkward she was at it, like this was something she’d seen other people doing and had always wanted to try but was never sure where or how to begin. For most people, hugs are not that complicated.

Shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, my parents separated. I hear multiple stories about it, but the one I remember is coming home from church one Sunday to find him gone. When I was twenty-one I found his nearly-suicide leaving note in my mother’s things; I imagine she still has it. When it first happened, I recognized that my father’s absence represented a new stage of life for me, but I wasn’t shocked. Life is unpredictable, and my brother used to run away with some frequency, and so did the teenagers on all the family-oriented TV programs of the time, so that my dad ran away was no big surprise. It’s what I understood people to do. I suppose this should have made things easier, but I still had nearly a decade of living with an emotionally unavailable parent who projected her own anger onto me and made me doubt my ability to achieve anything I set my hand to, despite all the clear evidence that I’m intelligent and capable.

Like Byatt, I turned to stories. The Norse legends weren’t readily available in middle-of-nowhere North Carolina, so I read the Greek and Roman myths instead. The Egyptian ones didn’t make sense to me, but the Hellenic Pantheon absolutely did. Their characters are driven by human desires, only played out on a larger scale. Unlike the Hebrew God, you can escape them. You may have to be turned into a tree to do it, but you can get away. People can run, hide from, and even occasionally trick the gods. And life is always trembling on the cusp of transformation. In Greek myth, there is always a way out, and I suppose that’s what I needed then.

The thing that always impresses me about Norse myths is the suffix –heim, home. Everyone and everything has a home. Death, evil, frost giants, dark elves, they all have their proper place. There isn’t really an outer darkness where people are cast out for their crimes, as in Christianity. All places can be known, rendered familiar, by describing them as someone’s home. Despite the monsters, there’s nothing so frightening that it can’t be realized in the imagination. In Byatt’s telling, everything also has a name: she names plants and animals and sea creatures and everything that I couldn’t even think to put a name to. The Acknowledgements section shows that she had to do some research, she didn’t have all these names at her fingers’ ends, but I appreciate that. If you’re going to write about the creation and destruction of the world, give things the dignity of their names.

Byatt places at the center of the belief system Loki, the agent of chaos, the force for change. He drives everything, and the others – Thor, Odin, Freya, etc – are all along for the ride. He and his children explain the way the world works, and how the world will eventually end. Order and Chaos will cancel each other out in a furious battle, the likes of which the world will never have seen before.

Everything ends, and everyone dies. Beautiful Baldur may have been the first (and how gorgeous does he have to have been, if already-beautiful Scandinavian men call him more beautiful than they?), but all the gods die. Not the gradual fading into disbelief of the Greeks, but violent sudden death. And then, even war ends. Sorry to be so morbid, but I believe most of the problems of Western civilization come from our inability to face the reality of our own mortality. Even this book ends, far too soon. It is beautiful, and it shows our world to be beautiful and fragile. And temporary. Use your time here well – love often and completely, create beauty where you can, and read this book.