Friday, September 23, 2011

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

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Great stories can have all sorts of aspects that make them great, and I believe one of the more common ones to be an incredible opening for voyeurism.

Now I know that the term carries heavy sexual weight in colloquial usage, usually taboo. And sometimes, the voyeurism that appears in stories deals with one person (typically the reader, right?) watching a sexual act involving any number of people. But what I mean here is the broader definition of the word. Any story, unless it is the reader's own autobiography, involves a great amount of peeping into another world, another life, often even another mind.

Part of the reason for this great voyeuristic tendency is that we want to experience moments that are not our own. Hell, we enjoy such vicarious living through reading. Or at least, we do when the voyeurism is good. When the world we're spying on is engaging. When it's enthusiastic about its own existence.

I find that Philip Roth captures this particular enthusiasm in American Pastoral. What do I care about gloves, right? If they're not keeping my hands warm, I don't give a flying hoot. Then he (or rather, his character) gets to talking about gloves of all sorts. The styles. The stitches. The sizes. The materials. The manufacturing process, the shifts in the industry in the last century, the exportation of labor and the decrease of quality.

All that information could be a total yawner. However, the enthusiasm of the Swede (the central figure) is entirely contagious. Not only did I buy into it within the context of the story; he got me caring about gloves in my own world.

The voyeuristic window is two-way, in that regard. You can see through to the characters, who usually cannot see back through to you, but they are able to radiate influence through the pages. Done well, this influence smacks you where it counts. The magic is that although you, the reader, are the one gifted with sight, you are always unable to exert such an impact on the characters. The sensation of story-irradiation is rare enough, and done well, I believe it's an experience worth treasuring. Those are the stories that change the world we live in.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, and Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

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My my, this is an unlikely pairing: a new publication from the rock-star physicist unveiling his latest theory of the universe, and a hilarious long novel from a new Irish writer.

The pairing is perfectly suitable, though. Both of these books are woven through with M-theory.

If you want to know about M-theory, go do some reading up. Undoubtedly some bloggers more scientifically-educated than I am have discoursed on it at great length. (It's some pretty cool stuff. Such as: All possible universes could exist, and we just happen to be in the one where we exist. It makes our very existence at once inevitable and awe-inspiring.) And, you know, Hawking's book is eminently readable, even for the not-at-all scientifically inclined. He sticks true to the formula stated in his A Brief History of Time: for every mathematical equation included in the book, his sales would halve. So he keeps it in the vernacular, with lots of pretty pictures.

Actually, for a novel, Skippy Dies handles the potentially-sticky subject quite deftly, too. If you believe that stories should be about the more tangible and more emotional aspects of life, then you haven't read about how M-theory (and astrophysics in general) can affect the life of socially-excluded teenage boys.

The point of this rambling is that, whatever the definition of art, if it contains beauty, then it can (and should, and does) encompass the creation of the universe and the meaning of life and other such important things in mathematical terms as well as the philosophical, religious, and emotional ones we're so familiar with. Theoretical science can be as poignant as a master painting, a deer grazing grass, or the heart broken by first love. When Murray and Hawking get their hands on M-theory, they evoke it with the same passion they clearly feel for the subject and thus bring forth its inherent stellar beauty.