dexter palmer, “version control”

Dexter Palmer
Version Control
(Pantheon, 2016)

I am probably not the person who should be reviewing this book, which is a time travel novel: I’m not especially familiar with how the trope has been used historically in the novel and elsewhere (my science-fiction reading has been nothing if not scattershot), and I’m certain that I’m oblivious to many of this novel’s engagements with past work in the field. It’s abundantly clear that Dexter Palmer is well-versed in the subject, and the reader who isn’t as well-informed is going to be missing parts of Version Control, maybe too much to have a full critical sense of what’s going on in the novel. With that caveat, I’ll continue: it’s an interesting book even for an amateur to think about, and I sense that it’s a book that deserves more critical reading than it’s received.

At the heart of this book, as the title suggests, is a consideration of different models of version control. This is important for understanding what’s going on here – and what’s interesting in the book as a whole. The characters distinguish between two forms. First, fork and merge, where different people can work on different chunks of code at the same time; the inevitable conflicts need to be manually sorted out. Second, lock, checkout, unlock: only one person can be working on the code at a particular time. The first is what is most commonly used when more than one person is involved in creation (this is the method that underlies things like Github); the second quickly becomes a pain and slows development.

In the novel, a government figure – who functions as a deus ex machina in this book – insists that a condition for the government funding the time machine the physicists are working on is that they use lock/check-out/unlock. This restriction is seemingly arbitrary; the characters are unhappy about this, but attempt to deal with this forced linearization of their project. This is also key to how Palmer’s concept of time travel differs from most others: in this version, if a person goes back to a moment in their own past, there would not be two people running around, but only a single one. The possibility of time travel here is frustrating (consciously changing the past is out of the question), though perhaps more useful as a thought device.

The government figure’s name is Cheever. This could be read as a reference to John Cheever; at a slight stretch, one could also point to Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevy,” a drunken man consumed with the past. (An unseen associate who turns up later goes by Sidney, perhaps a reference to the author of the Faerie Queen.) Cheever the character might be better understood as a man behind the curtain pulling the strings of the plot – in a sense, he’s a stand-in for the author, a slight intrusion of metafiction. Without him, there is no time machine; without him, there is no book.

A central condition of prose as we generally understand it is linearity: one word follows another, building up to form sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books. The reader is forced into linearity: we read words in sequence, building a picture of a world out of that sequence. This constraint of time is more pronounced when you look at how a plot in a book happens as opposed to how a plot in a video game might happen: there the narrative might be different every time the game is played. (One Dickian touch in the book is a CGI President, who says different things to different people simultaneously: he is all things to all people, but has no being as a person who lives a life from birth to death.) Version Control is committed to linearity, even in its model of time travel: the book doesn’t exist in a multiverse of possibilities but in a single line through time. The characters are full of regret: but they can’t go back in time to fix things, only to mindlessly change things.

This isn’t exactly to say that Version Control is straightforward. The reader reads Version Control linearly: but at certain points, one flips back to previous points and re-reads, understanding differently. A dinner party early in the book ends badly; the next day, two characters talk about what happen, and it is directly revealed that one of the characters is black. Reading the scene a second time with that added knowledge, the scene becomes uncomfortably racist; the reader may be uncomfortably confronted with his own assumptions.

The reader, then, has more control than the characters do. But the reader is also consciously stepping into a constructed environment. The reader understands that certain devices that appear early in the book are Chekhov’s guns, and that the plot will have to get to a point where they can be used. (Can one have a time travel novel where the time travel device doesn’t work? I imagine this has been done, but as I’ve said, I’m not as familiar with the genre as I might be.) It’s not incidental that a minor character is a Unitarian minister, agonizing over the minimal possibilities for God’s intervention in the world.

A better-read reader than I would draw more from this book. I was reminded of both of Shane Carruth’s movies – the second perhaps more than the first, though the first is more apropos – and Philip K. Dick (probably inevitable, more for the slightly dystopian universe created here than for the ways that time travel tends to play out in his novels). There’s a certain similarity with Orlando: the sense of continuity across time through biography. Towards the end of the book, a character is reading Ulysses: it seems pointed that the character is not reading Finnegans Wake, with its Viconian cycles, a very different model of the world than is presented here. But maybe the best way to think of this book might be as an exegesis of Mulholland Drive: the narrative splits in the middle; the second half is a variation of the first.

march 16–31, 2017

Books

  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman, With Her in Ourland
  • Somehow I’d never read this! Or even known that it had a sequel. (There’s another utopian novel that she wrote before Herland, which I’ll probably look into, though I think it’s unconnected.) The sequel is interestingly conflicted: a woman comes back frok Herland married to the dopey narrator of that book, an apologist for America, and is disappointed by the WWI-era world she finds. It’s hard to tell if she knows that the problem is her terrible husband? The unreliable narrator keeps these two books interesting (and funnier than you might imagine). A useful project would be re-writing these two books every fifty years.

  • Samuel R. Delany, Tales of Nevèrÿon
  • A re-read: something was reminding me of this? I don’t remember what. It does tie in well with the Gilman books. I read the whole sequence at once & my memory is taken up by the third volume’s shift to 1980s New York; but there’s something compelling about even the first volume here. Will keep re-reading.

  • Raduan Nassar, A Cup of Rage, translated by Stefan Tobler
  • This turned up in Bangkok unexpectedly (though vexingly without Nassar’s other novel); I kind of wish I had a little more context. Was Thomas Bernhard being translated into Portuguese? Did Nassar read German? Or is this some kind of convergent evolution? My knowledge of Brazilian fiction is so sparse as to make it impossible for me to say anything intelligible about this.

  • Bob Stanley, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop
  • Filling in time: I don’t think I’ve ever read a general history of pop music, and this one seemed decent.

  • Dexter Palmer, Version Control
  • Karen An-hwei Lee, Sonata in K
  • (writing more about this soon.)

  • Tony Tulathimutte, Private Citizens
  • It’s odd to find someone who can turn the tech world into interestingly written fiction. I can’t think of anyone besides Henry James who can get away with using the expression “hung fire”; I also like how the ending seems like a recasting of Nathanael West’s A Cool Million. Setting it in 2007 makes the occasional anachronisms here more visible to me; but this is a strong book & I’m curious where Tulathimutte goes next.

Movies

  • Don’t Bother to Knock, directed by Roy Ward Baker
  • Mayor of the Sunset Strip, dir. George Hickenlooper
  • La messa è finita, dir. Nanni Moretti
  • Palombella rossa, dir. Nanni Moretti
  • Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, dir. Declan Lowney

Galleries

  • “Wei Yifeng: Action In/Action,” Serindia Gallery
  • “Investigating Inspirations,” Thavibu Art
  • “Photo·synthesis,” Tentacles

jerzy kosiński, “the hermit of 69th street”

Jerzy Kosiński
The Hermit of 69th Street: The Working Papers of Norbert Kosky
(Zebra Books, 1988, 1991)

I can’t imagine there’s a great demand for the work of Jerzy Kosiński at this point in time: he’s remembered first as a vague fraud and second as the writer of Being There. (Maybe the latter, providentially plagiarized, will lead to a reassessment at the present political moment?) The Painted Bird used to be omnipresent in used book stores and presumably was still finding an audience of sorts; but the decline of used book stores has probably hurt its chances of finding an unsuspecting reader. I suspect there’s an edition of Steps out with a contrarian David Foster Wallace blurb, though I don’t know if even his endorsement would save the book. There’s certainly no demand for Kosiński’s last novel, The Hermit of 69th Street, though it’s been on one of my to-read lists for a while; and I was happy to come across an embossed mass-market paperback (printed a month before the author committed suicide) in a used book store in Los Angeles.

It is hard to imagine a stranger mass-market paperback. Almost every page is footnoted. The subtitle (“The Working Papers of Norbert Kosky”) gives a sense of the conceit: a writer, blatantly a stand-in for Kosiński himself (p. 10: “the year 1966 saw the publication of the unexpurgated edition of his first fictional tale, about a little Gypsy or Jewish toddler during World War II”), is trying to write a book, and (having been accused of citational looseness in the past) is citing everything for his editors/fact checkers/proofreaders. The text is larded with quotations, some real, some imaginary, bolded and italicized at whim; their citations are capricious and often willfully annoying.

I don’t know enough about Kosiński’s life to know exactly how close this matches or doesn’t match his own; the promotional blurb in the front matter of the book says that Kosiński dubbed it an “autofiction” (citation needed, though the word is repeated on the back cover; looking into what the word “autofiction” meant in 1992 might be useful). I’ll also say that I don’t particularly care that much about Kosiński’s hoaxing or status as a fake (not mentioned in the book’s promotional elements, though they would have been well known when this was published), though it’s hard to escape how much this book seems like an apologia: this is manifestly a book about fact-checking and the process of making books. At the same time, the book has a cavalier disregard for actual fact-checking. On p. 23, for example, the narrator (who is not Kosky) reports:

Thus among its newest sex ads, the seven character cryptogram USA-GIRL is, in fact, 872-4475, while the innocent looking 825-5739 can mean ISS-SINS and JKJ-KISS turns into 955-5477.

Looking at a telephone keypad (or even a dial!) would have shown anyone that while the first is correct, the second and third aren’t close to being so. There’s the same looseness with the book’s many citations. A representative passage:

Kosky trusts Dustin’s intuition. It is purely American since, as his name indicates, Dustin comes from a very pure Boston family. Propelled by an inner wind, Reverend Dan Beach Bradley Borell,(4) Dustin’s most revered ancestor, bravely sailed from Massachusetts all the way to Bangkok, where he – a typical Boston Brahmin! – hoped to introduce the Gospel to Siamese Brahmans – the all-time champs of what is latest in the art of meditation – to start a Meditational Church in Siam. (p. 103)

There’s a footnote:

4. The Reverend Dan Beach Bradley, M.D., author of Medical Missionary in Siam, 1836–1873, op cit., was “one of the many proper Boston Brahmins fascinated by the Orient and by its rigorous – almost puritanical – physical and mental discipline.” (Kosky, A Floating Lotus Lecture, 1986).

I choose this passage since Mr. Bradley and his two wives are buried five minutes down the street from me in the Bangkok Protestant Cemetery, which is why I happen to know about him. Today anyone can go to Wikipedia and learn about him; however, when this book was written I suspect he was unknown to almost all of Kosinski’s readers. There are a few odd things to note here. While Bradley studied at Harvard and did sail from Boston, his family was from New York, not Boston Brahmins; and his last name was not “Borell”. (As far as I can tell, this is done so that Dustin, “the nation’s supreme literary accountant,” can be referred to as “Mr. Beach Borell”: there are a lot of puns in this book.) A Floating Lotus Lecture is fictional; Medical Missionary in Siam, 1836–1873 is cited a bit oddly, as it’s probably Abstract of the Journal of Rev. Dan Beach Bradley, M. D. Medical Missionary in Siam 1835–1873 a posthumous collection published in 1936. After the quoted text, Bradley exits the book’s narrative for almost four hundred pages, until he calls the protagonist, who answers “Good to hear from you Reverend Dan” and there’s another footnote:

8. Rev. Dan Beach Bradley, M.D., “had an impressive number of accomplishments: He played a leading role in the introduction of printing to Siam; he was the first person to perform a surgical role in that country, and, after years of futile experimentation, in 1840 he performed the first successful vaccinations for smallpox. His was the first newspaper to be published in Siam, and it was he who printed the first royal decree (against the sale of opium) that came off a press in Bangkok. Most of all, he was a respected friend of the Siamese people, and through his journalistic enterprises in particular, he looked after Siam’s national interest in its relations with France and England.” From William L. Bradley’s Siam Then: The Foreign Colony in Bangkok Before and After Anna (1981). (p. 488)

What, exactly, is Reverend Bradley doing here? I will assume that Siam Then came into Kosiński’s library at some point and was raided for the quotation. Certainly the life and work of Anna Leonowens – whose deeply fictionalized memoirs The King and I were based on – seems more apropos to Kosiński’s project, though she’s only mentioned in the citation. I can’t make sense of what he’s doing here: and in this, he’s not unlike many of the book’s seemingly arbitrary quotations. Kosiński’s citations are willfully capricious and often seem a bit off (e.g. the text refers to “such films as Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)” and a footnote reads “Shoah, an Oral History of the Holocaust, the complete Text of the Film by Claude Lanzmann, preface by Simone de Beauvoir, Pantheon Books, N. Y. 1985”); verifying them wouldn’t be terribly hard at this point in time, but it’s not clear that it would be particularly useful.

There are a huge number of these citations; I can’t tell that they add up to anything, but the effect is that of a massive commonplace book, a sense of what Kosinski the person was reading. There’s a hint later in the book:

His head swimming from the overflow of seminal thoughts (“the brain’s semen” Jay Kay) Kosky takes out from his ever present shoulder-bag a bunch of Plot-Quote cards, “the portable table game of literary invention,” in the words of the nameless inventor. Each card contains a short fragment from a certain novel. The body then becomes, as it were, a Book of Revelation. In it is condensed much of out secret history. In it are latent the necessities of our future. (Gina Cerminara, op. cit., p. 69) (p. 400)

The bold text is of course Kosiński’s. Perhaps this is an admission of the process that constructed this book: quotations chosen at random and assembled to construct a book. Another quote:

Writing is creation. The Hellenistic period saw the birth of the novel. The earliest complete specimen, that of Chariton, is not later than the second century of our era, and the genre is certainly earlier. (A.D. Nock) Kosky cannot write his own story telling story – a full length novel at that – without writing, one way or another, about the very lengths to which a storyteller must go in his various trials of the writing process. Here, don’t confuse process with trial, particularly not the writing process with putting a writer’s writing – worse yet, a writer! – on trial. And writing means to him, skoaling life in the sizzling Swedish fashion since it is the Swedes who, awarding yearly the Nobel prize to a novel (not the other way around printer!) consider fiction – that is, a novel, or even a novella – more powerful than dynamite invented by Nobel. (p. 377–8)

Again, the bolds and italics are Kosiński’s, as is the capricious punctuation; I’ve left out a long footnote that’s another quote from Nock’s book about the recognition plot. Here we almost get an interesting defense of the writer’s ideas about creation and originality before it gets lost in dumb puns and alliteration.

* * * * *

This is a tiresome book. (This is at least partially intentional: pedantry is key to what Kosiński’s trying to get at, though he undercuts himself by being unreliable.) Every character speaks in exactly the same way, using dumb puns, copious and recondite literary quotations, and ending half of their sentences with exclamation points, which, combined with the often randomly sprinkled-in quotations, sometimes gives the reader the impression of stumbling upon a novelization of a particularly depressing Mary Worth. Every female character is a sex object; the male characters all leer or don’t lear because they are gay. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fetishization of copy editors and proofreaders, the book has been sloppily edited. The book’s length appears to be an effort to physically wear out the reader; not much would be lost if this were a tenth of its length.

Part of the interest of this book is its status as a roman-à-clef: a good literary historian could certainly dig through the characters and pin names on them. There’s a lot of score-settling. But at this distance, who really cares that, for example, Kosiński hated Hannah Arendt? At least as much time, if not more, is devoted to a recounting of the protagonist’s handing out of awards at the Oscars (as Kosiński did); there is a spirited defense of polo as a sport, and I will assume that Kosiński was criticized by someone for being a polo enthusiast.

One wonders whether the book was actually meant to be read: it almost seems like an act of self-sabotage in the tradition of Melville’s Pierre, a novel reworked to be about failure in the literary world. (Moby-Dick is mentioned in passing in Hermit, but none of Melville’s other works.) It also seems to prefigure David Markson’s work from Reader’s Block on – if you took out the narrative and only left the literary examples from this book, you’d end up with something very much like a Markson novel, complete with the writer’s overdeveloped sense of self-pity. (I suspect that Kosiński figures into those books, though I haven’t gone back to check.)

There’s the gem of something interesting here: an author accused of literary crimes attempts to defend himself in fictions as the worlds of the protagonist and the author increasingly intertwine. (Late in the book, for example, the protagonist watches the film version of Being There on television.) The protagonist identifies himself with various figures, literary and not – Bruno Schulz, Joseph Conrad (with whom he has a vexed relationship), Cagliostro (!), Chaim Rumkowski (!!!). There’s something unsettling with the way the horror of the Holocaust is presented as being a mitigating circumstance for literary misbehavior.

This is a strange book. It’s hard to imagine that this was pitched at the same general public who were the target of the ads in the back pages (a page and a half on the books from the woman who killed the Scarsdale Diet doctor; a page advertising books about an unfrozen Japanese aircraft carrier full of samurai fighting a Libyan madman; and so on). Certainly it could be read as an extremely prolix suicide note, and maybe there’s a rubbernecking appeal to that. But it feels like the work of a writer who was left to hang himself with his own words.

march 1–15, 2017

Books

  • Steve Erickson, Shadowbahn
  • Reminiscent of both Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 and Scott Walker’s The Drift but ending up as a light version of Dhalgren. I like the idea of Erickson’s writings, but he’s never really clicked for me. Here what fails is the way he talks about music: rhapsodizing about the extreme cultural importance of pop music (especially the same old guys with guitars) almost always seems tiresome, if not reactionary, to me.

  • Benedict R. O’G. Anderson & Ruchira Mendiones, editors, In the Mirror: Literature and Politics in Siam in the American Era
  • It’s not particularly easy to get a handle on Thai literature; this collection of short stories from 1955–1976 with a long contextualizing introduction by Benedict Anderson is easily the nicest I’ve found. Anderson doesn’t shy away from political analysis, almost always politely sidestepped in a Thai context; but that’s crucially important for understanding Thai writing (or more accurately the general lack of it). Unfortunately, this book isn’t that likely to show up outside of Thailand, having been printed in Bangkok by Editions Duang Kamol in 1985; a reprint wouldn’t be a bad idea, though I’m not sure who’d be willing to do it.

  • Roberto Bolaño, The Skating Rink, translated by Chris Andrews
  • Roberto Bolaño, Monsieur Pain, trans. Chris Andrews
  • Roberto Bolaño, Antwerp, trans. Natasha Wimmer
  • Roberto Bolaño, A Little Lumpen Novelita, trans. Natasha Wimmer
  • I burnt out on Bolaño after 2666, which seemed rambling, unfocused, and not nearly as good as the short novels that were the first translations of his published in English. While I’m glad that so much of his work is available in English, a lot of it does seem rather minor, more like excerpts from some bigger corpus. The Skating Rink (with no real writer figures) and Monsieur Pain (an attempt at historical fiction) seem like outliers in his work; Antwerp seems very obviously to contain seeds of later work; A Little Lumpen Novelita is accomplished but feels like an overgrown short story.

  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul et al., Apichatpong Weerasethakul Sourcebook: The Serenity of Madness
  • A collection of material related to Apichatpong’s recent (ongoing?) gallery show, published jointly by Maria in Chiang Mai and the Independent Curators International in NYC. Surprisingly interesting contents: a collection of emails from Apichatpong to the late Benedict Anderson, a long narrative by actress Jenjira Pongpas Widner on growing up in 1960s Isaan across the river from Vientiane, and an interview with Withit Chandawong about politics in Isaan in the 1960s and 1970s. Inadvertently sheds light on the stories in In the Mirror; what’s most striking about this collection is how forthright it is about politics in Thailand: it’s a bit surprising it was for sale in Chiang Mai. Recommended.

  • Jerzy Kosiński, The Hermit of 69th Street
  • Elif Batuman, The Idiot
  • I don’t know that I feel enough distance from this to say anything objective, but it’s a lovely book and worth reading.

  • Joshua Cohen, Four New Messages
  • A re-reading, kind of – I read (or heard) all of these pieces at one point or another, but never got around to reading the book version. Cohen’s diction seems unmatched among American fiction writers (who am I forgetting?), especially when he goes into Bernhard-style ranting (Witz) though his singular voice doesn’t necessarily lend itself to imitation, which he sometimes tries to do here: the voice of a Midwesterner relating the stay of a New Yorker among them strains credibility a bit. But these are quibbles.

  • John Darnielle, Universal Harvester
  • Darnielle, on the other hand, has the Midwestern voice down cold – that’s largely why I liked this book, a pleasant diversion.

  • Leonora Carrington, The Oval Lady, trans. Rochelle Holt
  • Reading Silvina Ocampo reminded me of Carrington, so I went back to look at this short collection, looking forward to the full edition whenever I get my hands on that.

  • Brix Smith-Start, The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise
  • There must be a book tracing the history of the male creative genius being an asshole: one would like to know when being an asshole as a side-effect of being a genius crossed over and people thought they needed to be assholes because they were geniuses.

  • Benedict Anderson, A Life Beyond Boundaries: A Memoir
  • This book isn’t as long or as interesting as one would like: Anderson clearly lived an interesting live, and this is more formal and detached than it needs to be. But there’s some useful thinking about interdisciplinarity and its intellectual history here; it reminds me I should go read his Indonesian writings.

Films

  • The Assassination of Trotsky, directed by Joseph Losey
  • Le Gai savoir, dir. Jean-Luc Godard
  • Gargandi snilld (Screaming Masterpiece), dir. Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon
  • Mal de pierres (From the Land of the Moon), dir. Nicole Garcia
  • สันติ-วีณา (Santi-Vina), dir. Thavi Na Bangchang
  • Turnabout, dir. Hal Roach
  • Alle anderen (Everyone Else), dir. Maren Ade