Manhattan Transfer by John Los Passos – The Dawn of Chaos Theory

Manhattan Transfer is a novel by John Los Passos published in 1925 and much admired at the time by D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis. It describes life in New York, from the 1890s to the 1920s. This is not a single story, but an intermingling of dozens of narratives, seen from the point of view of a wide range of characters – wealthy college drop outs, lawyers on their way up, business men on their way down, tramps, actresses, journalists who have a vague idea to quit journalism and write a great novel. Some characters develop across the entire book, others only appear for a few lines. Point of view can shift from paragraph to paragraph.

Although this might sound potentially confusing and difficult to engage with, that was not my experience. The book worked as a whole, carrying me along so powerfully that I might as well have fallen into the swirling currents of the Hudson. I suppose this is because, amongst all the chopping and changing, there is a steady central character, and that is New York itself, portrayed in great descriptive passages. Some of the most vivid writing is reserved for New York at dawn, the beauty of early morning coinciding with many crises and turning points. The sunrise sums up the nature of the city, which has a machine-like relentlessness of operation, running on regardless of the people living there, which it often seems to use as fuel. And yet, whether dawn is bright and summery or cold and wintery, it always has an airy, ethereal, beauty, and is never the same twice.

Now, this next bit might not seem very literary, but I’m going to risk getting scientific for a moment. Bear with me. Recently I happened to be reading about this thing in Chaos Theory called ‘emergence’. Emergence is when a system changes according to the individual actions of its constituent parts adapting to circumstances without centralised goals, plans or coordination. These systems exhibit chaos and unpredictability in their development. However, despite their lack of plan, emergent systems tend to become efficient, complex and highly adapted over time. Examples of emergent systems include capitalist economies, societies, cultures, and, of course, cities – like New York. No one person or organisation set out to make New York as it now is, and yet here it is, a vast, almost mathematical grid of streets. Emergent systems are random and also highly ordered. I hesitate to stray into areas I don’t really know much about, with the associated risk of embarrassment; but I’m going to just put out there some interesting parallels between an account of the development of a modern city written in the 1920s, and aspects of a theory of complex systems devised by Edward Lorenz in the 1960s.

Whether Chaos Theory is relevant or not, there is a very modern feel to Manhattan Transfer, as remarked upon by the book’s eminent early admirers. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking story, with some beautiful descriptive writing.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library is a kind of philosophical fantasy, set in a half-way house between life and death. This place takes the form of a library where a troubled young woman called Nora Seed gets to look at all the lives she might have led if she had made different decisions.

To read a book is often to experience a different life, and I think it’s always better to see the good things about a book rather than look for negatives. This is also the message of The Midnight Library. So we seem to be off to a good start. Stretching for the positives, I did think that to some degree The Midnight Library found a version of Groundhog Day wisdom – taking the one life you have and seeing it in a better way. The subject of the story is interesting and gets you thinking.

But I have to admit there were aspects of this book I did not enjoy. Whereas Groundhog Day has a neat and charming central concept based on recognisable daily routine, the metaphor of The Midnight Library is a convoluted mishmash of quantum physics and parallel universes, no less. Basing your fictional universe on something like quantum physics is a bit like basing it on religion, something so abstruse as to be unchallengeable. You just have to trust in the author’s higher power. A simple reader like myself can hardly object to something he doesn’t understand. Well, respectfully, I would like to object. I do wonder how much a fiction author can really know about the outer reaches of physics. In one of the various lives lived via the library, Nora finds herself in a study where a few books on popular science are described as sitting on a shelf. Personally I think those books are somewhat reflective of the scientific knowledge in The Midnight Library. I’ve read a few popular science books too, including A Brief History of Time – thank you – but I don’t think that would qualify me to start getting metaphorical with quantum physics. And although I don’t know much about the subject, I do feel that whatever the universe is about at the quantum level, it probably doesn’t involve giving people lots of lifestyle options. That just didn’t make sense to me. It came over as a strained plot device.

The retrospective imagining of different possibilities was a good premise for a story. We can all identify with someone looking back over their life and imagining how things might have gone with different choices. But all the complicated underpinning just lost me. It would have been much better without it.

I suppose, there is also my personal feeling that life isn’t an endless series of choices leading in countless directions. Yes there have been turning points in my life where things could have gone this way or that, but the idea that I could have infinite other lives by making different decisions just doesn’t seem reasonable. For a start if I were to be a specialist in Latin ballroom dancing, or a pilot in an aerobatic display team, then I would have to be a totally different person with hips that move and eyes that aren’t short sighted. I recall reading Tolstoy’s War And Peace in a confused period after university, when it was difficult to know which way to go. War And Peace is a long study of peoples’ ability – or lack thereof – to make decisions about the direction of their lives. Tolstoy portrayed human choices as in some way fated. Perhaps that influenced me at a crucial moment, and informed the rather laid back view I have had of choices ever since.

This book wasn’t for me. Physics might be about objective truth, but fiction is about ringing true, which is a bit different, more subtle, and more prone to individual experience. So if it worked for you I’m glad, because it is always better to enjoy a book. But it didn’t work for me.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson- You Can Check Out Anytime You Like But You Can Never Leave

Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories by Sherwood Anderson. Published in 1919, all the stories are set in the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio, based apparently on Clyde, Ohio where Andersen grew up. Although the stories feature a range of characters – farmhands, troubled school teachers, clergymen tortured by guilty lust, for example – the book as a whole is loosely centred on George Willard, a young journalist.

This is an unusual book, especially for its time. The writing is economical and straight-forward, when most authors were taking a wordier approach. There is very little plot, more the describing of atmospheres and psychological states, corresponding with periods of crisis or turning points in people’s lives. The linked short story structure was innovative.

The whole book seems to be about transitions rather than neat and tidy endings or beginnings. Winesburg stands part way between a rural past and an urban future. People look for definite things to believe in, but always end up with partial truths. The stories tend to peter out rather than concluding with some definite point. The railway is mentioned constantly. People go somewhere else before coming back again. And yet for all this sense of transition, Winesburg seems to be a place that is very difficult to leave.

The book culminates with George Willard, the young journalist, deciding to escape. He gets on a train at the station, determined to start a new life elsewhere. But as he does so there are indications that escape will be more difficult than he imagines. George may think he is leaving, but from the point of view of Tom Little, conductor on George’s train, Winesburg’s physical borders are fuzzy to say the least. Tom spends his working life in a kind of elongated ‘town’ which, starting with Winesburg, is made up of all the places along the track.

He knows the people in the towns along his railroad better than a city man knows the people in his apartment building.’

Unlikely as it may seem, I found myself thinking of the surreal 1960s TV show The Prisoner, where a British secret agent finds himself trapped in a mysterious seaside village. Big white balloons keep thwarting his escape attempts. Winesburg is tiny, but somehow, no matter how far you go, you can’t seem to get away from it. Some of the stories show Winesburg as beautiful, others as ugly, cold and bleak. There was the same ambivalent feeling in The Prisoner, where the mysterious village is deeply unsettling and also charmingly picturesque. Recalling the series, I can imagine that instead of getting stressed out trying to escape, I might settle down in one of the colourful apartments with a word processor and a pile of good books, one of which could be Winesburg, Ohio. Anyhow, I digress. The fact that I digress about a 1960s sci-fi television show, indicates the strangely modern nature of this selection of stories.

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris – A Civil War Re-enactment

In the royalist ranks at a 2008 recreation of 1648’s Battle of Maidstone

In 1642, civil war broke out in England. King Charles I and forces loyal to him, faced a rebellion led by Puritan religious fundamentalists. The rebels captured and beheaded Charles I in 1649. His son, Charlies II, continued the fight for two more years, before fleeing into exile. Oliver Cromwell then established his Protectorate, which endured, rather shakily, until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Robert Harris sets his historical novel, Act of Oblivion, in the aftermath of these events. With Charles II back on the throne, his government passed the Indemnity and Oblivion Act, which issued a general pardon to anyone who had fought against the royalists. However, a small group of people were exempt from the Act, notably anyone who had signed the death warrant of Charles I. These ‘regicides’ were to be tracked down and executed. Some were captured immediately, others handed themselves in, hoping in vain for clemency, while a third group went on the run. Act of Oblivion is an imaginative reconstruction of the lives of regicides Edward Whalley and William Goffe, who spent years evading capture in the American colonies.

In some ways the relationship between this book and actual history is loose to say the least. The character around which the story revolves, Richard Naylor, fanatical regicide hunter in-chief, never existed, although someone like him might have done. But before we get too purist, it’s worth remembering that creating any kind of historical narrative requires choosing some events and not others, which inevitably denies the messy nature of what actually happened. You could say that Richard Naylor is a personification of this artificial shaping process, a fictional centre around which historical events can be arranged.

Another typical way to arrange history is to choose events likely to resonate with present-day readers. In this case, potential readers live in a world where national division has increased in various major countries, and where extremists have become more prominent. The Civil War, it goes without saying, was another time of national division and extremism.

So a story playing fast and loose with history, actually tells us much about how history gets written. Richard Naylor as an artificial shaping device, lurks in every history book, whether he is acknowledged or not. And as for the resonance of the chosen subject for contemporary readers, this book offers its audience the chance to explore the complexities of conflict and fanaticism at one remove. Act of Oblivion makes it clear that divisions, of even the most vicious nature, hide a reality where enemies have more in common than they realise. Robert Harris doesn’t have to make up facts about people on opposing sides in the Civil War being friends, or that moderation and zealotry were present in both the rebel and royalist camps. Overall, this compelling historical story is truthful about the contradictory nature of human relationships, rather than about the exact nature of events, which we can never fully know anyway. That’s what makes this a good novel, rather than a dodgy history book

The Wings Of The Dove, By Henry James – Hiding in Respectabilty

Reading a couple of novels by Henry James recently – The Golden Bowl and The Ambassadors – I’ve been trying to work out exactly what I think about his books. They are fascinating, often beautiful, but massive and hard work to read. They must have been hard work to write. What exactly drove him to do it? A better question might be – why did Henry James write in the way he did, using that ornate, layered style, which obscures as much as it reveals? Was it affectation? Was something else going on?

I did some background reading. Some biographers, like Lyndall Gordon, prevaricate, but others, Kosofsky Sedgwick for example, suggest that James was almost certainly gay, which during his lifetime in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was a serious crime. Sedgwick wonders if this contributed to the obscurity in James’s writing. It certainly makes sense of the focus, in his most famous books, on hidden relationships. There’s the affair in The Golden Bowl between Prince Amerigo and Charlotte Stant, and the secret liaison between Chad and Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors.

And then there’s The Wings of the Dove, which I found myself thinking about in terms of hidden relationships. Writing it, James was probably in the position of having to hide part of himself. The risks were frightening and no one was safe. Not long before The Wings of the Dove was published in 1902, Oscar Wilde’s status as a massively successful playwright, could not protect him from prison, from which he emerged with his health ruined, his wealth gone, fit enough only to sit around in Parisian pavement cafes.

Ironically, given all this, the first part of The Wings of the Dove seems to present a surprisingly positive picture of people united wherever and whoever they are. This hopeful first section begins in early twentieth century London, Kate Croy has lost her parents. Her mother is dead, and her father has been lost to drink. Kate finds herself in the guardianship of wealthy Aunt Maud, who makes it her mission to marry off her charge to the most eligible bachelor she knows, Lord Mark. Unhelpfully, Kate has secretly fallen in love with Merton Densher, a clever chap – a writer of all things – who works on a newspaper and has none of Lord Mark’s cachet. He gets posted to America soon after he and Kate declare their inconvenient, and concealed, love for each other. Meanwhile, in America, a young woman called Milly Theale, has inherited great wealth, various maladies having carried away all the other members of her rich family. Not knowing what to do with herself, she decides to take a trip to Europe with an older companion, a widow called Susan Shepherd. And who should Milly meet and befriend before she travels to Europe, but Merton Densher. This sets the scene for travels in a world sometimes portrayed as a vast place in which it’s easy to get lost, on other occasions appearing as that kind of ‘small world’ where you might unexpectedly bump into someone you know. One minute we might see Milly sitting on an Alpine cliff edge staring into an endless abyss, the next she’s in London, discovering that Aunt Maud and Susan Shepherd were at school together. Milly and Kate become close friends, the young American quickly accepted as ‘one of us’. Milly even discovers that she has a spooky likeness to a portrait of a long lost girl in the family of Lord Mark, which hangs in his ancestral home. You might say the first half of the book is about the hidden closeness of the human family.

Then we get to the second part, set in a dramatically depicted Venice, where Milly becomes mortally ill. The feeling changes. Kate cooks up a scheme for Densher to get close to Milly, partly to console her during her illness, partly in the hope that some inheritance might come Densher’s way, allowing the secretly engaged couple to marry. Kate is forced into this deception by a society that values a feckless lord far above a clever, down-to-earth, working writer. Kate pretends to be distant from Densher in a ruse to be close to him. Densher is close to Milly, while he is secretly engaged to Kate. It’s very dark and twisty. If the first half of the book was about the hidden closeness of the human family, the second half is about the deceptions that hide beneath the surface of relationships.

Henry James describes all this in his ornate style of long sentences, with sub and sub-sub clauses. Ironically the writer depicted in the book is someone who you don’t feel would write in this way. Merton Densher is uncomfortable with stuffy tradition. There is a kind of dark humour in watching a straightforward chap caught up in both labyrinthine paragraphs and the lies they describe. Caught in these toils, Densher struggles to work out if he has behaved well or badly. Henry James is considered a modern, forward-looking writer in the sense that values are unstable in his books, rather than tending to the religiously-centred certainties of previous centuries. Perhaps he was helped to this position by seeing people he admired, by seeing himself, judged by society, as criminal. Henry James wrote in a style of heightened respectability, when ironically, his writing expressed a sense that respectability is precarious and fragile. Judgements of value have no firm basis, like a golden bowl that might appear expensive, only to turn out, on closer examination, to be a piece of glitzy junk.

The way people treat each other is a tragedy really, but despite the dark second part of The Wings of the Dove, the hopeful first part is still there, depicting a human family linking the most far-flung of people. Reading Henry James’s books is a bit like being part of that family, sitting down to Christmas dinner with a posh uncle who might talk too much, but is fascinating nevertheless. I, for one, am very glad he was invited.