A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh – Deep Layers Of Dust

Pillars of space dust in the Eagle Nebula (NASA ESA/Hubble)

A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, published in 1934, is the story of country squire Tony Last, who, after the collapse of his marriage, takes a trip into the South American jungle.

I found this a difficult book to get my head around, but it wasn’t hard work to read. Far from it. While there were many jumps in viewpoint, these shifts were so deft that the book read as easily as a country house comedy, which is where I suspected we were as the book opened. Then Tony’s son dies in a riding accident, and it becomes clear that country house comedy isn’t what we are dealing with. The humour takes a dark turn. For example, we have the dreadful Jenny Abdul Akbar getting muddled about the casualty’s name:

‘Quick,’ she whispered, ‘Tell me. I can’t bear it. Is it death?’

Jock nodded. ‘Their little boy … kicked by a horse.’

‘Little Jimmy.’


‘John … dead. It’s too horrible.’

So what to make of it. I had a look at what other people said about the book. There was much debate about Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism which was on-going at the time of writing. Apparently the critic Frank Kermode thought A Handful Of Dust portrayed the awful, frivolous world which exists without religion, specifically the Catholic religion. This seemed ridiculous. The idea that the characters in A Handful Of Dust might have avoided their collective disappointments if only they had converted to Catholicism, was far fetched to say the least.

Besides what good novel has ever been propaganda for a particular religion? So I forgot about Catholicism, and went back to A Handful Of Dust and my reaction to it.

A Handful Of Dust features polished lives hiding all kinds of depth, whether it’s depth of resentment, hurt and depravity on the one hand, or beauty, comfort and stability on the other. Sometimes superficiality is painful, and sometimes it’s light relief from pain. During Tony’s post break-up jungle trek, he falls ill with a fever, and discovers that both poisons and medicines are to be found amongst the tropical trees and flowers. Similarly, back in England, superficiality can be a medicine or a poison depending on how you prepare the raw material.

Although my reading about the background of A Handful Of Dust had mostly been a matter of wading through paragraphs debating Catholicism versus humanism and so on, there was one thing I did discover that interested me. Waugh was an admirer of his contemporary Anthony Powell, author of A Dance To The Music Of Time. Powell is one of my favourite writers. He had a great ability to take the surface elements of life – English life in particular – and plumb hidden depths. I realised that Waugh might be seen as a reluctant Powell, playing with the same themes whilst appearing more uneasy about them. Rather than seeking a religious shortcut to the apparently profound, Waugh might have done better to have gone all-in with the apparently superficial, embracing and enjoying it for good or ill, which is the secret of the wonderful A Dance To The Music Of Time.

Maybe Evelyn Waugh wrote a good novel despite himself. I much prefer Powell’s writing, but I still enjoyed A Handful of Dust, which remains primarily a novel rather than a demand that we look at the world through the lens of a particular religion.

Network Effect by Martha Wells – Human Meets Machine and Art Meets Science

Network Effect, by Martha Wells, is the story of a part human/part machine ‘SecUnit’, basically a futuristic body guard. SecUnit, unofficially known as Murderbot, has managed to disable the device which human controllers use to direct its actions. Now working freelance, Network Effect finds him in a kind of zombie scenario where planetary colonists have been infected by an alien virus. Murderbot, in an uneasy alliance with ART, the computer pilot of a large space ship, has to help out in a confused situation where it’s hard to tell friend from foe.

So, let’s deal with the less good things first.

I found the plot confusing.

Most of the peripheral characters in the book, of which there are many, are little more than names.

The writing style is what might be termed ‘workman-like’. Words tend to be repeated. As a quick example, what do you think about the word ‘before’ in the following sentence?

“I’d watched family dramas before, but I’d never spent much time around human families before coming to Preservation.”

Brackets are used so much they are distracting.

Now onto better things.

As far as the plot is concerned, I learned not to worry about it too much. It just sets up difficult situations, where our human/machine hero has to use human elements to deal with the unexpected, and machine elements to mitigate the consequences of humans doing stupid things. As for the characters, while the peripheral figures lack any real definition, the small, central group is well drawn – Murderbot, ART, and Amena, a teenage girl who likes to ask probing questions about her SecUnit’s ‘feelings’ in regard to a less than straightforward relationship with ART. The interest of this story comes down to this small group and its interactions, which develop in a way that sets you thinking about fate and destiny. Network Effect isn’t outwardly a heavy, philosophical novel. The upfront things are action and a wisecracking central character of souped-up masculinity trying to get in touch with a softer side. But there is something else going on when, for example, during an argument between Murderbot and ART, Murderbot says:

“You can either have an existential crisis or get your crew back, ART, pick one.”

Along with the ‘getting-the-crew-back’ elements of Network Effect, there is, it has to be said, existential crisis. Murderbot would probably react to such an idea in the same way he does to feelings. But, dammit, like feelings, existential crisis is one of the consequences of becoming sentient.

If we are compelled to follow a course, would that same course be different if we followed it through our own choice? Are we ironically more free when we don’t have to make decisions? While manipulation is never nice, some pointers along the way would be helpful; but where do pointers become direction, and where does direction become manipulation? Such questions run through the whole of Network Effect. And then there’s the ambivalent nature of the most powerful and central force in the book – ART, the spaceship computer. ART is a term of ‘affection’ used by Murderbot – meaning Arsehole Research Transport. But isn’t it ironic that a computer that’s all data feeds, analysis and scientific tech, should be called ART? Art is an activity people engage in, not to control the world in a strict scientific way, but to understand it in a vaguer, more intuitive sense. Actually, terms of affection aside, ART’s real name is Perihelion, an astronomical term referring to ‘the point nearest the sun in the path of an orbiting celestial body’. Now, recall the stuff where not being directed can allow an individual to find their own direction more fully. ART is very capable, protective of its crew, not above manipulation, and inclined to be bossy. But ART is not the sun at the centre of everything. ART, and the rest of the Network Effect cast, seem to be orbiting some other centre which, you might say, provides direction in not actually being present to point the way to go. It’s hard to explain. Maybe Murderbot, enjoying and enduring his new found freedom, would say it’s something you have to work out for yourself.

See what I mean? Existential questions.

Overall, Network Effect is a very interesting book. By the end, Murderbot was inclined to forgive ART’s transgressions. I was in a similarly forgiving mood.

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – A Reminder To Vote, Amongst Other Things

Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, All The King’s Men, charts the rise and fall of fictional 1930s American politician Willie Stark. Narrated by reporter and writer Jack Burden, we begin by reading about the early days of Stark’s political career, when he values such things as truth and competence, and talks to voters about the technicalities of tax policy. Inevitably, this does not go well. Ruthless state governor, Joe Harrison sets up Stark as a candidate in an election campaign, not because of his sophisticated tax ideas, but as a means to split the opposition vote. After finding out about this plan, a humiliated and shattered Stark is only able to put himself back together again with the glue of cynicism. He vows to adopt the tactics that defeated him, while promising himself that such compromises will eventually be used to do good.

This beautifully written, often gripping, sometimes meandering novel, reminded me of a Greek tragedy where a great leader is brought down by a tragic flaw. But in this modern version it is very difficult to distinguish flaws from virtues. Is there any point being decent and honest if such qualities never get you into a position of power to make a difference? This is typical of the dilemmas Jack Burden ponders over as he watches Willie Stark’s career. Coming to terms with unpleasant compromise is a difficultly that many people face. Even writers like Jack Burden, are not immune. Try as he might to remain a neutral observer, the fact is Jack works for Stark, using his ivory-tower academic training in historical research, to ferret out damaging information on people who stand in his boss’s way. I don’t know what it says about me, but I resonated with the way Jack comes home from a rubbish day at work, doing stuff he does not want to do, and just wants to sleep for as long as possible. I found myself highlighting all the sleep passages.

At the end of the book, idealism and cynicism destroy each other – I won’t say how, out of respect for your reading pleasure. Suffice to say, extremes cancel each other out. But after a shocking denouement, there is a hint of a more moderate and reasonable future, in the shape of politician Hugh Miller. I’m not saying that All The King’s Men is any sort of manifesto for a particular brand of politics. In the usual way of a good novel, All The King’s Men presents problems to explore rather than supposed solutions to live by. But maybe this lack of prescription is all part of the book’s nuanced suggestion that maintaining our own personal involvement will give us the best chance. Robert Penn Warren based Willie Stark on real life politician, Huey Long, governor of Louisiana, who used the slogan ‘every man a king’. Ironically, while Huey Long, and his fictional counterpart Willie Stark were both vocal in proclaiming ‘power to the people’, their dictatorial actions and personalities tended to work in the opposite direction. They did not live up to the idea of making everyone a monarch. Perhaps that was their fatal flaw.

In real-world politics it can be generally said that high turnouts, and proportional representation – giving more weight to individual votes – increase the likelihood of politically moderate outcomes. And the middle is probably the best place to find reasonable government, of the sort Hugh Miller represents in All The King’s Men. This gives a bit of real-world support for the idea that it’s a good idea to haul ourselves out of bed and get involved, even if it’s only to vote – just as it is better to try to write a novel, or a review, even if you will never write the perfect one. That’s what “the responsibilities of time” mentioned in the last line probably involve.