Veronica Roth – Insurgent

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Imagine if someone made a sequel to Brave New World and it consisted of people shooting each other.

Divergent is a smarter novel than people give it credit to. Every time it set clear heroes and villains, it pulled the rug and showed the other side. Cliches were there, but it was mostly a novel of no easy answers. The bad guys weren’t just power hungry, and Insurgent reminds us this a few times.

Most of the times, Insurgent is nothing but action scenes. These aren’t vivid or purposeful action scenes. Roth set out to write a trilogy, but she’s lost here. Tris’ journey mirrors Roth’s, but not in a clever way. Like Tris, Roth is busy going from place to place, looking for a purpose for this novel.

A sequel shouldn’t just continue the story. The criticism of ‘it doesn’t stand on its own’ doesn’t ask for the sequel to be completely accessible. Rather, something about it should separate it from what came before. Publishing it as a different book is easy. The author must find a reason for the story to be published in a whole new book.

Just look to Orson Scott Card. Speaker for the Dead is very different from Ender’s Game in terms of tone, ideas and even overall story. It’s a separate book because, despite continuing the story it works in different ways and has starts something new. This division goes so deep, even into the division into paragraph. We move to a new paragraph only when we conclude the ideas of the current one, or want to introduce something new.

The first novel had a clear ending, but this one just runs around without a direction. As an attempt to develop psychology, there’s potential there. Some criticized Tris for being ‘whiny’, but they are just silly people who wanted a power fantasy. Roth never forgets that violence and war are only glorious in action films. The horror of it all never escapes Tris, and it’s always in her mind and affects everything she does. The new tone is successful and makes for a fairly convincing psychology, but not enough.

Despite touching on PTSD a little, Tris is a boring heroine. For a novel about factions that represent personality traits, the characters are lacking. ‘Convenient’ isn’t the best word, since they do create conflict sometimes and have wants and needs. Their wants and needs are never their own, though. Some lost a family member, one person is sadistic and so forth. Mostly, though, all the personalities are tied to the story.

That’s not a compliment. A personality should be able to exist outside the story. Only Marcus can be transferred from this book into another one, and still be himself. Everyone else just serves an aspect of the plot. Jeanie doesn’t have a personality. While it’s nice that she’s revealed to be more than something to fight, having a different purpose isn’t enough to make a well-developed villain. She needs a personality that will separate her, a personality that makes her both villainous and understandable.

Roth barely tries to develop characters, though. Insurgent isn’t long because it’s filled with slow moments that should shed light on who these people are. Most of the pages are dedicated to wandering around and shooting some people up. Showing us how Amity and the Factionless live is necessary worldbuilding, but it’s not enough to create depth. They become curious surface details without significant meaning.

The worst offender is the structure and the abundance of action films. The definitive sign Roth was completely lost here is how the structure goes. It’s nothing but visiting the factions we haven’t seen yet, and with actions scenes in-between.

The amount of action scenes are ridiculous and unnecessary. This is a Dystopian novel, not a Thriller. It’s meant to examine and question ideas with perhaps some psychological portraits. A few shootouts can be fun or even necessary, but they cannot be the center of the story.

Everything that happens in the story simply leads to the next action. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad. If the novel was meant to take the series in that direction, then it would be okay. The tone remains grim and the action scenes aren’t fun and blazes of glory. They just hammer on how terrible violence is. Roth’s treatment is more humane than exploitative, but that’s all she has.

The world becomes almost a self-parody of sorts. Everyone totes guns and everyone is ready to shoot. On paper, this doesn’t sound like a bad idea for a dystopia but when everyone has no existence outside of it, it becomes hard to believe. The only significant development happens at the end. Roth gets her old self back. The plot twists aren’t just a ‘surprise motherfucker’, but they change how we view the characters and the world. Sadly, by the time it arrives it’s too late. The novel was already clogged with random acts of senseless violence.

Since this is a Young Adult novel we get a romantic relationship, and it swings between truly whiny and interesting. There are no love triangles, which is great. It’s no longer about the pursuit of love, but how we handle it once we got it. The relationship doesn’t really progress, though. A communication breakdown makes both partners to come off as unpleasant people who shouldn’t be near each other. They have had much personality, so their relationship was hard to believe. Now there’s finally some content to their relationship, but it’s only a lack of trust. How can you have a relationship that only has lack of trust?

The editors were clearly nicer to Roth this time around. The book is bigger and the writing is more elaborate. It’s still very smooth and easy to read. Nothing about it is special. It’s utilitarian almost to a fault, lacking stylistic quirks that elevate the novel or help make the ideas come through. At least if you’re going to write a novel that goes nowhere and consists mainly of shoot-outs, make it easy to read.

Insurgent is pleasant, but mostly pointless and doesn’t go anywhere. Roth was lucky to make me interested enough the first time around, but I’m sure many dropped off here. The worst sequel you can make is not one that betrays expectations, but one that has no purpose to exist. Despite the occasional moments, Insurgent mostly goes nowhere but just jumps from shoot-out to shoot-out. It’s not a new direction or even a terrible direction. It’s no direction at all.

2 factions out of 5

Margaret Atwood – Moral Disorder

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I’m not sure how to react this. This shouldn’t happen. Moral Disorder is part of a literary movement that’s close to me. Stories about the daily lives of people grab me like no other. I can forgive many flaws – lack of characters, lack of narrative structure – if the events are vivid enough.

Something about this literature is so lifelike. The grandmaster, Raymond Carver, didn’t have in-depth psychology and his stories rarely concludd. Yet his prose felt so intimate. He made you feel like you’re attached at the hip to these characters. I always held that the best authors have good prose by default. They can write anything and it will be a pleasure to read.

Atwood belongs to that line of authors, but that’s pure skill. This is why Moral Disorder isn’t as good as a random Raymond Carver story, although it’s close. Her prose is easy to read, focused and hardly rambles. She lacks a sense of style, though. Give her a good story – Alias Grace – and she tells it masterfully. When the prose needs to do more than just relay the events she’s in trouble.

It’s no surprise, then, that the best stories are the most eventful. The stories at the farm, especially the one involving butchering animals are the most fun. The events are interesting by themselves. Atwood is creative enough to imagine weird happenings with farm animals. All she has to do is relay them with her precise prose and you get the title story – a strong candidate for one of Atwood’s best pieces of writing.

Other great stories include The Headless Horseman and My Last Duchess. In these stories Atwood trumps Carver. Carver was a master of prose, but he was less good at imagining events. His prose breathed life into the mundane, but whenever he stretched himself he felt clumsy (That story about a headache always felt off). Atwood has a brimming imagination. Her events are never mundane. Rather, she mines the oddness of life – the last Halloween, a school project involving analyzing a poem. There’s something so lifelike in the teenagers’ conversation about the poem. The teenager’s complaint about the uselessness of it is the sort of thing I heard from my friends, too. Atwood recognizes the literary retarded without shaming them.

These stories also showcase Atwood’s main flaw, and that is characters. A common problem in realistic fiction is the removal of weirdness, but reality is weird. Atwood understands reality is full of weird events, but she forgets people are weird, too. The young sister is one of the few characters that are actually characters. Most of the time, what drives the characters is so basic it’s not important.

The stories are meant to be inter-connected. In order to connect these stories, though, we need to recognize that th characters appear again and again. It’s only seeing the name of Tig a few times that made me notice this. Until then, it felt like all characters were archetypical Everymen.

Atwood’s conflicts are believable, but not insightful. She has enough imagination to create a marriage that’s on a slow, peaceful divorce that gets uglier as it goes on. She doesn’t have the psychological insight to bring this relationship to life. The effort is there – Oona is almost a living, breathing character but not really. Instead of being something unique, she’s just a successful woman that hides a lot of secrets and can’t make it on her own.

Her character sketches are too generalized and not specific. The closest she comes to making a unique character is in Nell’s mom. The last story gives us some cues to who she is – her refusal to hear stories without happy endings, for example. Too bad that story also tries to expand on sideline characters with a sort of self-awareness that’s clever, but in the end doesn’t lead to much.

The worst offender is the main character. I’m a writer myself and I can somehow forgive that. Why is writing main characters so difficult? Why can we imagine odd sideline characters with quirks, yet our main characters always end up as observers? On the Headless Horseman, she brings the main character to life with her attitude towards youth, Halloween and all that stuff. In that story our protagonist reacts and makes decisions. In all the rest, she mostly observes.

Since her role in these story is mostly active – she’s the character that connects these stories – this observant behavior takes the life out of the stories. Nell is given a role that’s not suited her. The stories are about her, her experience with Tig and at the farm. If these stories were an assortment of tales about weird people Nell meets, then that flaw wouldn’t be so offensive. Even then, though, we’d need something about Nell. She’d need to connect all these tales. Moral Disorder is, however, about her but sadly she’s not very interesting. Atwood can imagine odd happenings, but not main characters.

Overall though, this is still worth picking up. Atwood is still excellent at relaying events in plain language. If she can’t mine life out of hr characters, at least the set-pieces are memorable enough. Atwood’s prose is also good enough on its own. It doesn’t have wide appeal, but if you enjoyed Atwood before or you like dirty, hard realism there’s plenty to enjoy here. At worst, read the title story or The Headless Horseman.

3 butchered farm animals out of 5

George Orwell – Why I Write

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George Orwell is a towering figure in writing. He defined how we think of totalitarianism, and created a language that’s a tool to demonize any regime or opponent. That’s ironic, because this demonization is one thing Orwell avoided. He’s an unavoidable author whose status is almost mythic. He’s a symbol.

Authors rarely become symbols. The activity is too solitary and unexciting. Orwell is one of the few famous writers who clearly wrote with hopes to improve the world. A lot of fiction is personal, even the satirical. Catch-22 reads more like a person trying to find humor in his military experience, rather than hoping the generals will read it and change their modus operandi.

The importance of the first essay relies more on the fact Orwell wrote it. It shows the human beneath the writing and the terms he invented. His four main motives are interesting, and I have a hard time thinking of another one. It’s more interesting to read how Orwell was a lonely nobody in the beginning. The writing is a little jerky, feeling as if Orwell is afraid to let everything out. He’s uncomfortable writing such a personal thing. There’s also an air of self-criticism, which is important for any serious intellectuals.

The second essay about the English culture/people is a problem. Too much of what Orwell writes is personal observation. It’s interesting and well-written, but nothing really verifiable. You have to take Orwell’s word for it. Since it’s a political piece, it’s harder to take that leap.

At least Orwell never demonizes anyone. He recognizes Hitler was the enemy back then, but there’s no joy or bravado in that idea. We need to defeat the enemy because he sadly exists, but that’s nothing to celebrate.

I’ll refrain from commenting on Orwell’s economic ideas, since I’m completely ignorant in that subject. You have to start somewhere, and Orwell is a decent beginning. He’s blunt that he’s in favour of Socialism. Again, his critique of Capitalism never descends into demonization. The essay doesn’t elaborate too much on the difference between Socialism and Capitalism, but Orwell gives the impression that he has sound reasons for his opinions.

One problem that happens over and over in that essay is Orwell’s calling some facts obvious. Phrases such as “anyone who understands” or “anyone who had eyes” and so on appear frequently. They’re not next to obvious facts. Maybe they were obvious back in the day, but in modern times you’ll have to look in history books to make sure Orwell is making sense.

The third essay is just a description of hanging. The prose is fantastic. There’s no point to it other than make the scene come alive, and Orwell does it. The prose is simple, with no stylistic quirks. It also has no bullshit. This prose was wooden in 1984, yet here it captures the sense of ‘this really happened’ that all realist authors aim for.

The last essay is not only the best, but should be spread around. Orwell’s criticism apply to every language. Complex language is overrated, especially when you’re dealing with ideas. If the purpose is to make readers understand you clearly, your words shouldn’t be a dense forest.

Complex sentences may work in fiction. Tone and describing sensory information is something authors do all the time. Fictional prose always borders on poetry. When you’re writing essays or talking about ideas/politics you need to be clear. You want to send a specific message, not something vague that can mean different things depending on the person.

There’s no reason for an intellectual person who understands his ideas to bury them. Words can be used to transmit ideas, or to blur them. The examples Orwell gives are a headache, and the way he transforms a Biblical passage into ‘intellectual language’ is hilarious.

He’s wrong about jargon, though. Jargon exists so the writing will be cleaner. Jargon takes a complex idea and sums it up in one word. These words are often obscure because people who use them often are passionate about their field and discuss these ideas constantly. Some even have subject-dependent meaning, like how ‘texture’ has its own meaning in music.

Of course, some people can use it to cover up not saying anything. You can feel your music review with ‘harmony’, ‘texture’, ‘idea’, ‘time signature’, ‘octaves’ and you still won’t be able to explain why The Beatles are so good. The way to test these people is to ask them what a certain jargon word means. An intelligent person will be able to explain it.

I’m glad Penguin Great Ideas put all these essays in one accessible book. Why I Write is an attention-grabbing title, and all of these essays help understand who Orwell is. Two of them are too personal and would only matter for writers or fans of Orwell. The last essay is a must-read no matter who you are. We all use language, after all.

3.5 politicians out of 5

Saul Bellow – Herzog

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Feminists got it wrong with the whole ‘strong female character’ thing. Anyone who talked a little about fiction should know that by now. What’s more puzzling is how they got that idea in the first place. When they obsess over the strength of female characters, what are the example of male characters they wish to emulate?

Herzog belongs to the line of books that trap you inside the character’s head. It’s less of a story than a psychoanalysis of a character, which you probably already read in Pornoy’s Complaint and Catcher in the Rye. Like in those novels, a lot of effort is put into developing the main character. Also like these novel, the character is far from strong, independent and beautiful. He’s a wreck. He’s self-destructive. He’s a joke. Like the best characters, we’re encouraged to explore Herzog, not to wish to be with him.

That’s the key to making a great character. Good characters are not ones we wish to be, but ones who have an interesting psychology we want to explore. It’s easy to make a strong, independent women. All you’re actually making is a Clay Golem from Diablo II. Attempting a character like Moses is a harder and more rewarding effort. It’s not a wonder this style gave birth to a lot of acclaimed novels.

Herzog is weaker than those novels though. Bellow is talented, and the writing flows so smoothy it was jarring at first, considering I read Frog Music before it. Bellow has the skills to make enjoyable prose, but he doesn’t use it enough. He fails in the same way that other Jew failed, Bernard Malamud.

Paul Auster saw what was wrong and fixed it. A rambling style is fine. It could even lead to a great work, even if it’s difficult. This style works when all of the ramblings comes clearly from the character’s head. Everything the character says, then, reveals something about it. Even repetition, or copy-pasting paragraphs can have its purpose. The repetition of Something Happened is annoying, but it does wonders to build its character.

Bellow’s ramblings often seem to be outtakes from his essay collection. I understand Bellow was pretty prolific and had a lot to say. If you can’t say it via literary means, then maybe this fiction thing is not for you. Too often there are whole paragraphs which lose contact with the story. It’s not just when the letters Moses writes to others that these paragraphs appear. The novel is written in third person, which may make you want to take drugs. Any character study must be in first-person, because the third-person creates too much distance. When these snippets of essays appear in the mouth of the third-person narrator, the brain turns itself off.

The reason for this is because these snippets are pretty meaningless. There are people who think philosophy is pure bullshit and not worth anyone’s time. These people should have their rights revoked. Reading Herzog, though, you just might think these people may be on to something. What does a phrase like “the hedonistic joke of a mammoth industrial civilization”? It’s a great Marilyn Manson song title, but its meaning is lost. Philosophy should use jargon only when it makes the writing more clear. Piling a lot of big words is a way to cover up the lack of ideas.

Worse, there isn’t any lack to cover up. As a satire of the intellectual, Herzog is pretty good. Bellow is too slack on him, though. As a person that this book makes fun of, I wish I had such a great sex life. Intellectuals are often criticized for not being able to experience life. Yet, Moses is a bit of a pick-up artist.

This is a theme ripe for exploration. Intellectualism, the desire to know shouldn’t distance us from life but to bring us closer. Yet you could easily find yourself reading too much instead of going out to see the weather has changed. Moses can’t enjoy a house out on the country, surrounded by green scenary, animals and quiet.

This intellectualism can easily wreck your relationships with other people. Spend too much time in heavy thinking, and you can become self-absorbed. We should gather new ideas and experiences not just from great dead authors, but with people who we can interact with. Bellow understands that too many books and you forget how to interact with a human being. Moses is a person stuck in his own world of ideas who can’t reach out to others. This causes wrecked relationships and with bad people, sometimes at the same. The reason he chose Madeleine was because of what it said about him. He managed to get a beautiful, intelligent women. Yet, he couldn’t see she was also not right in the head.

If Moses is such a social wreck, how could he have all these affairs? Intelligence is not sexy. Having a lot of sex is always a good thing. It’s a sign you’re well-adjusted socially. Perhaps this was written before people understood that anyone who preached to you how awful sex is was afraid to admit he wasn’t getting any.

There is a great author buried in here, but Herzog is too indulgent. The book fails exactly where its main character fails. It’s too self-absorbed, afraid to reach out to others (in this case, it’s afraid to reach out to its main character) There are wish-fulfillment fantasies and incoherent paragraphs. It doesn’t reach out enough for the reader. Like Moses, though, when it does it’s great. Moses is less coherent than Portnoy or Caulfield, but he’s an enjoyable pinata. Bellow is a good enough writer to not let the pen get away with him too much. Despite the occasional pointless paragraph and weird sexuality, Herzog is a good satire of intellectualism. It’s a must-read for anyone who reads a lot. We all need to laugh at ourselves sometimes.

3 Jews out of 5