Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Conrad's Quarantine Reading Synchronicities

From Conrad: We are living through difficult times. If climate change, school shootings, and the day-to-day barrage of horrifying news weren’t enough to reduce us all to quivering jellies of nervous exhaustion, along comes a global pandemic to seal the deal. Reading has always been a solace and means to gaining perspective, and this is true now more than ever.

I recently came down with a cold. Bad timing. Where once I would have shrugged it off as a minor inconvenience, this time I had no choice but to sequester myself. In my two weeks of confinement, I read a few books which, coupled with a few more I had also recently read, seemed to form a kind of pattern. While it is human nature to find structure in random chaos, I seemed to be able to link these books into a grander scheme.


One of the more enjoyable things about being an avid reader is developing a stable of writers whose careers you follow closely and whose works you greedily devour as soon as they are out. Three of mine have new books this year: Arthur Phillips, Christopher Moore, and David Mitchell. Another perk is discovering new writers: some who are literally debuting, and others who have escaped notice until now: Steven Wright (debut), Daniel Kehlmann (his sixth book), and Tom Cooper (his second).

The King at the Edge of the World is Arthur Phillips's latest novel and, boy, it’s just great! As Elizabeth I of England lays dying, Protestants and Catholics scheme to determine just where her successor’s loyalties lie. Is James Stuart a Catholic, like the rest of his family, or is he, as he professes, a Protestant. The truth could mean a bloodbath for whichever side loses. Our main protagonist is, however, neither. He is a Turkish doctor and Muslim, abandoned in dreary barbaric England as a result of his own countryman’s petty scheming, who is forced to bear witness to the inscrutable conflicts between Christians, and play his own role in determining the outcome.

Conflict between Protestants and Catholics also forms the backdrop to Tyll, the new Kehlmann’s novel. We have moved a few decades forward to the height of the Thirty Years War, one of the most destructive conflicts in human history (it’s estimated that at least 20% of all Germans perished during this war, in some territories, over half the population died). Tyll Ulenspiegel is a legendary trickster from German folklore, but is probably based on a real person. He was a traveling performer, a bawdy vagrant who moved from village to village, court to court. For a time, he was the court jester for “The
Winter King” Frederick, so called because his reign barely lasted one season, after Catholic aristocrats drove him from the throne. This spark ignited the Thirty Years War. His Queen was the daughter of James I, the protestant king of England. As court jester to the now former King of Bohemia, Tyll revels in his role as gadfly and the only one who can speak plainly about the king’s pathetic fall from grace.

Shakespeare, who wrote during the reigns of both Elizabeth I and James I, made use of a jester to also speak plainly about King Lear’s descent into madness. Christopher Moore has now written his third satire based on the Bard’s plays, and employing Pocket the Fool as the migrating character. The first book, Fool, was a satire of Lear. The second found Pocket moving from the 8th Century Britain to the renaissance Italy of The Merchant of Venice. In Shakespeare for Squirrels, Moore has transported his fool to the ancient Greece of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (well, it might be Elizabethan era Greece, no one is certain, there IS a character named Theseus). Like everything by Moore, Shakespeare satire or otherwise, this book is shot through with bawdy humor and bumbling supernatural creatures. There’s always a bloody ghost!

Speaking of which, David Mitchell’s new novel Utopia Avenue, has plenty of ghostly hauntings. He seems to be writing one gigantic novel, as he freely moves characters from one book to another (this is his eighth), and has a carefully mapped out alternate universe that threads its way through each book, whether set in 18th Century Japan or a Polynesian island a few centuries from now, or (as here) in the 1967 Swinging London. Each time and place continues the story of sometimes benevolent, sometimes malevolent time traveling spirits. Utopia Avenue is the name of a psychedelic rock band that is just hitting the big time when their world collides with Mitchell’s universe. Their struggles and triumphs are mirrored by their guitarists’ sinister possession.

If the summer of love is an example of incurable, if drug addled, optimism, electoral politics is a cold slap in the face antidote. Election campaigns are often run by people who have slipped into a deep and abiding cynicism about its purposes and methods. You think you know cynicism? The Coyotes of Carthage will show you the true meaning of the word, and will have you on the floor laughing at the same time. A down on his luck and given a last chance political consultant fronts for a well-healed mining company that wants to get control of publicly held land in South Carolina. How do you get the flag-waving, god-fearing locals to vote against their self-interests? You get them to sell themselves out.

Just below South Carolina is Florida. If you google the words “Florida Man” up will pop a rogue’s gallery of misfits doing horrifying and horrifyingly stupid things. It seems that Tom Cooper did just that and pasted together the results to form his plot and characters in his novel, Florida Man. That may seem a bit too gimmicky (and may not be what he did at all), it nonetheless works incredibly well here.

I just googled Florida Man:
Florida man charged with assault after throwing alligator through Wendy’s window.
Florida man wears t-shirt insulting the police to court appearance.
Florida man attacked by squirrel during selfie.

Maybe laughter is the cure we all need.

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