Saturday, February 22, 2014

Whither Lei Feng, Part Two

(Lots of whithers, lately.  Apologies.  I shall use nary a one going forward.)

That Lei Feng fellow just keeps popping up.  This is kind of weird.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Whither the Public Intellectual?

Taking a break from our regularly-scheduled programming to bring you a pair of interesting pieces about the future of the public intellectual in America.  Nick Kristoff takes the academy to task for wallowing in its own irrelevance, while Jill Lepore politely suggests that both academic presses and the wild west of the blogosphere share the blame.  Along with academic reticence.  Lepore and Kristoff clearly have a mutual admiration society going, and why not?  Their work is always interesting, accessible, and makes you think.  Isn't that rather the point?  I might privilege lack of time over reticence as the individual issue that keeps women in particular out of the fray, except that I know Lepore has plenty of family obligations, and holds a senior academic position at the World's Greatest University, and produces great prose in various media on all kinds of subject all the time, so for her, I-don't-have-time-for-this is clearly not an option.

Do yourself a favor and don't read the comments following - they are in the best (read: worst) tradition of the internets, self-important jabs made safely from the anonymity of one's device, glowing the darkness of an isolated cave.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Woman Who Wouldn't Die

This is not going to be a long review because Colin Cotteril's latest entry in the Dr. Siri series, The Woman Who Wouldn't Die (2013, Soho Crime) is almost as good as its predecessors, and I've already written enthusiastically about them.

The gang's all here, although they split up to follow a crazy government request that involves a senior ministerial official, his dead brother, and a mysterious medium who is somehow a woman who has been killed twice and now is able to communicate with the dead.  Naturally, Siri, who has, how shall we say, an active spirit (and I don't mean spiritual) life, is intrigued, and hops on a slow boat up the Mekhong to learn more.  Madame Daeng goes along for the ride, as does Mr. Geung, who works and lives in Daeng's noodle shop these days.  Civilai shows up, entertainingly drunk as a skunk half the time, while Phosy and Dtui track down some other leads back in Vientiane and environs.  The characters are as delightfully smart and funny as always, and the goodwill and care shown for each other is infectious.   Despite the weird and at times tense story, you find yourself wanting to hang out with these jolly folk.

While the undead-woman plot line is interesting, it is not the one that really provides dramatic tension to the story.  The title might also refer to Siri's wife Daeng, whose very interesting backstory we finally learn her here.  You might have suspected a fair amount of what is revealed, but you wouldn't necessarily see this coming.  Milhist buffs, there's a neat twist toward the end, concerning the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu.  True?  Who knows, but maybe.  

All of this said, the split plot here mutes the dramatic tension a bit.  The resolution of that whole medium business is pretty fantastical, and I was disappointed that we didn't learn of Siri's reaction to the late unveiling of a particular character's dishonesty - that plot line felt incomplete. And while Daeng's story is vivid, it didn't have the same impact as the profound horror of Siri's experiences in Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, which I think has been the pinnacle of this series.

Still, it is a pleasure on a dreary winter day in New England  to read a passage like this:
  "Some twenty elephants on the far bank were knee-deep in the river, providing hosing services to one another.  They'd been there since Siri first arrived, their mahout drowsing beneath a Laundry-Fruit tree with no particular hurry to move on."  (196)  I don't know what a Laundry-Fruit tree is, but I would like to be drowsing under one now.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Secret Agent

I've been putting off writing about Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (originally published 1907, this edition Cambridge University Press, 1990) much in the way I put off reading it.  I tried this perennial resident of top-ten-mystery/thriller/espionage reads after finishing From Russia With Love, and the contrast in writing style and approach and well, pretty much everything, was just too much.  Yes, I put the Agent down because it felt too hard.  This is supposed to be fun!  A soupcon of guilt, with a dash of stubborn curiosity (there must be something to it, else it would not be on all those lists) sent me back, and I'm glad it did.  Reader, please be aware:  I've read no other Conrad (no, not even Heart of Darkness, but I have seen Apocalypse Now, like, twice!), nor have I read any lit crit about him.  And I'm not starting now.  So, this is a raw (although not as raw as Dallas Buyers Club, which I saw last night) response, unfettered by any notions of scholarship.

If you are serious about your crime and espionage fiction, yes, you should read this.  With The Secret Agent, Conrad is clearly the literary forefather of  Eric Ambler and John le Carre.  You are dropped into a story where you don't quite know what is going on, but it seems that there may be a decent fellow or two, some hopelessly naive folk, and Authorities who are stupid or worse.  The story changes perspective and jumps ahead in time with no warning, so you've got to keep your wits about you you to figure out what exactly is going on.  I can't even say who is the protagonist.  Is it Verloc, the first central character whom we meet?  He is the secret agent, after all, there is no doubt about that.  But then maybe it is Chief Inspector Heat who seems to occupy everyone's attention - and his own - for a while.  No, clearly it is the Assistant Commissioner.  He's the most likely candidate until we get to Mrs. Verloc.  It's that kind of story.

Having made the comparison to JlC and his lonely patriots, I should note that there aren't really any heroes here.  Even the Assistant Commissioner, who keeps Chief Inspector Heat from pursuing one suspect at the expense of procedure and evidence, seems driven more by a desire to mitigate potential damage to his marriage than by What Is Right.  In some respects, only Mrs. Verloc's motives at the climactic moment are clear and comprehensible.  Yet this is very much an internal story.  A brief conversation takes pages and pages, as every possible thought that might rush through a character's mind is laid out, parsed, debated, and dispensed with before he or she says anything.  It is like reading a story in slow motion.

Conrad's prose is dense and wordy and you might find yourself reading sentences a second time, partly to just understand but also in a way to savor.  I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of choosing an example, but consider just this grim description of night-time London:
"He left the scene of his daily labours quickly like an unobtrusive shadow.  His descent into the street was like the descent into a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off.  A murky, gloomy dampness enveloped him.  The walls of the houses were wet, the mud of the roadway glistened  with an effect of phosphorescence, and when he emerged into the Strand out of a narrow street by the side of Charing Cross Station the genius of the locality assimilated him.  He might have been but one more of the queer foreign fish that can be seen of an evening about there flitting round the dark corners."  (114)  Don't you love that?  It's all gas lamps and fog but there is no witty sleuth around the corner, just more primordial ooze tossing up a few survivors.

This splendidly turgid prose contains within it some intense social commentary.  No one is exempt from Conrad's sarcasm (not like today's hel-LO sarcasm, this is far more subtle), his is a society peopled exclusively by the faulty or those lacking in some critical positive element.  Mr. Verloc disdains work, and the revolutionaries are laughable in their self-absorbed idiocies.  "The terrorist, as he called himself," (there is that sarcasm) "was old and bald, with a narrow, snow white wisp of a goatee hanging limply from his chin.  An extraordinary expression of underhand malevolence survived in his extinguished eyes.  When he rose painfully the thrusting forward of a skinny groping hand deformed by gouty swellings suggested the effort of a moribund murderer summing all his remaining strength for a last stab. . . . His worn out passion, resembling in its its impotent fierceness the excitement of a senile sensualist, was badly served by a dried throat and toothless gums which seemed to catch the tip of his tongue."  (38)  But how do you really feel about revolutionaries, Joseph?

You get the sense that for Conrad, there isn't much good to say about any of these characters, and that this is just the human condition.  Mrs. V's sad backstory and family are cruelly laid out for the reader, and Chief Inspector Heat is obviously all that is wrong with law enforcement in any decade!  The Assistant Commissioner is a more nuanced character, but descriptions of his high-ranking government contact make a plain statement about Conrad's view of high-ranking government officials.  Here's what I have learned about Conrad:  for him, you are what you are, and you cannot escape your fate.
"The head of the Special Crimes department debarred from his position for going out of doors personally in quest of secrets locked up in guilty breasts [see what I mean?  Implied criticism of police work in general, and of higher ranks who don't actually work in the field.], had a propensity to exercise his considerable gifts for the detection of incriminating truth upon his own subordinates.  That peculiar instinct could hardly be called a weakness.  It was natural.  He was a born detective.  It had unconsciously governed his choice of a career, and if it ever failed him in life it was perhaps in the one exceptional circumstance of his marriage - which was also natural.  It fed, since it could not roam abroad, upon the human material which was brought to it in its official seclusions.  We can never cease to be ourselves."  (92)
Indeed, humanity has few redeeming qualities.  The Secret Agent is not a story for those in a dark place but it is worth reading.  Just make sure to hang out with some jolly children afterwards or something, to banish the darkness.