Beatrice and Virgil

I’ve just finished reading Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil. I came to the book a little unusually, in that I had no idea before I picked it up, what it was about. I’d read The Life of Pi, and enjoyed it, and I loved the movie, so I saw his name on a shelf, and thought it’d be good to read. [SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers follow from here out].

My memory of The Life of Pi is of a sudden, visceral reaction when Martel recasts the whole story, towards the end of the piece, changing everything you thought you knew about the story.

In a similar way, Beatrice and Virgil finishes with sudden, gut-wrenching chapters. There’s a sudden shift in tempo and subject matters, and a similar, strong, visceral reaction. Having just finished reading only moments ago, I’m genuinely uncertain how I feel about the whole thing. Truthfully, I think it leaves me with more questions, than anything else; but rather than questions about the subject matter, they’re questions about story-telling, about narrative and voice.

Beatrice and Virgil has had some quite negative feedback, particularly compared to Martel’s earlier work. A New York Times review called it a ‘disappointing and often perverse novel‘, and the Washington Post calls it ‘not alive, not even lifelike‘.

I don’t know that my reaction is that strong. Some of the obvious critiques – a slow moving plot, unfleshed out characters – aren’t necessarily terrible things in themselves. Other writers have written exceptional books with slow moving plot-lines and simple sketches of characters (Murakami and Saramago come to mind).

As I think of it though, most of the visceral power of the final, gut-wrenching chapters comes from its depiction of the Holocaust, and not necessarily from anything that Martel has done to imbue his characters with personality. It is simply the Holocaust, transplanted into the pages; and it doesn’t have any personal relevance for any of the characters, really (except for a suddenly introduced connection to the taxidermist at the end). To me it feels a little as though the book uses the Holocaust, rather than saying something important about it.

There is a torture scene where Beatrice suffers terribly; it’s not clear to me, though, whether that’s meant to be an allegory of torture done to donkeys, or of something that happened during the Holocaust. He shifts back and forth between the two frames of reference, and by the end if feels a little lost.

And the final, sudden twist that reveals the taxidermist for a different person – it feels sudden, and jarring. Perhaps there is a space for a character to realise ‘everything I knew was wrong’ – but as readers, we’re reliant on the narrator. If the narrator is suddenly to change his or her mind, and demonstrate their fallibility, it needs to be handled carefully; this felt as though it jarred a little (although it happened so quickly it was harder to notice).

Writing novels is hard, and I think everyone who tries and succeeds deserves credit for that alone. But as a piece of writing, this doesn’t live up to The Life of Pi. It has two memorable characters – Beatrice and Virgil – but otherwise there’s nothing that I’d recommend about it.

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More books :)

I just finished The Diving Bell & The Butterfly (and, on googling, I just found out there’s a movie). I enjoyed it. I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but it felt as though it was a little different than whatever it was I expected. Perhaps because he didn’t talk so much about the mental experience of being trapped in his own body? I’d thought there would be more of that, perhaps – but it was more reminiscing, imagining, drifting. Lovely, but I didn’t feel that I understood much better, at the end, what it was like to be him, as a person with locked-in syndrome. 

The other one I read was The Naked and the Dead. Which was excellent. Mailer creates an in-depth world, one that feels real, and present, and because he picks the right scale, it manages to be a story about a part of the war, where you see the soldiers and the general. No sense of the overarching sweep of it, but a sense of what it might have been like to be there, a little bit. 

Some of his flashbacks felt incongruous – possibly it was as simple as the formatting, a typographical marker when there weren’t any others anywhere in the novel, and it might have been done more simply with words. 

One thing I did really enjoy was how he portrayed human minds, human experiences of the world, shifting rapidly between one state and another: 

But the moods all change. After they become drunk, there is the pleasurable sadness of late spring evenings, the cognition of all hope and longing arrayed against the casual ugly attrition of time. A good mood …

There are others, but I’ve lost the pages. It’s worth reading. 

Oh; and while I won’t say too much, for fear of spoiling the plot, Mailer in this one does a brilliant job of investing in every character, even in those who will die suddenly halfway through. Well before Game of Thrones was willing to kill characters you’d started to care about, apparently Mailer was already doing it. 

Context

I read an article from Rolling Stone the other day – ‘Last Tango in Kabul‘. It wasn’t bad, as far as it went; decently written, and a mildly interesting insight into a world that isn’t normally accessible.

It took me a few minutes to put my finger on what bothered me about it. And then I realised what it was. I think it’s the fact that in the story, very few Afghan people … exist, I guess? Aikins describes attacks on foreigners, isolated incidents that reflect the turmoil in the world outside their bubble

Of course, in the rest of the country the war was getting more and more violent, and the dead, mostly Afghans, were piling up. But it was easy to ignore it inside the Kabubble, as we called it. There were occasional, brutal intrusions like the attack on a pair of guesthouses in 2010 that killed 16 people, 11 of them foreigners, but normalcy returned quickly. Maybe it was the constant turnover, the fact that most people came and went after a year or so, but we were like a city of amnesiacs.

Aikins does tell a story of an Afghan and his family, killed in a safe location within the expat bubble. And later, he says

Kabul had finally lost its sense of distance from the war …

and

For all the schools and health clinics, it sometimes feels like the U.S. has managed to prop up only a polite veneer of democracy stretched over a naked and brutal landscape of power, the product of decades of warfare, gangsterism and the Pentagon’s cynical expediency in choosing its allies. Instead of real commitment to the rule of law, we’ve had ad hoc responses that careened from crisis to crisis, each time tearing up the common playbook of laws and norms that form the basis for mature democracies …

The days of the Kabubble are over, and for those who have watched the Surge come and go, it’s hard to feel nostalgic for an imperial misadventure whose participants were more concerned about their bank accounts and careers than the people of this country.

It’s this part that gets me. To write about death in a place that has been as decimated, as brutal a struggle as Afghanistan, and to only focus on the deaths in the expat bubble and not those outside, seems like ignoring the enormous elephant in the room. This is a context where thousands have been killed, and drone strikes seem to be reasonably common, from the little I understand.

It’s not that I don’t think the change in situation Aikins is writing about isn’t interesting, and possibly even important. It’s part of the context of what’s happening for people on the ground in Afghanistan, and for decision makers, and it may mark a turning point in an important conflict. But to write about it without even acknowledging the enormous tableau of death behind it seems obtuse in the extreme.

The robots are coming

I’ve been wanting to think intelligently about labour, mechanisation/technological progress, and control of resources for a while. I haven’t gotten there yet, and there’s still a whole bunch of reading I want to do.

But, there are a lot of other people thinking pretty hard about it already. So, for now, a set of links to some ideas that I think are extremely interesting, extremely important, and almost certainly connected somehow. I will, I hope, have the chance to think about this in more depth when things are a little quieter.

There’s a nice video over on YouTube, about mechanisation. It’s well-put together, with a voice that somehow manages to sound terribly convincing, even if the video isn’t terribly deep in terms of material. Some key points:

1. Technological change has changed the way the economy works. This is indubitably true; and, in many or most cases, it’s resulted in lost jobs.

2. Yes, technology also creates new jobs. But, he argues that there’s no necessary rule that it will create enough, or even any at all. I hope to read and research more on the area, but as a first guess, that sounds pretty reasonable.

3. This is happening for mental work, not just physical work. This is really important. There isn’t necessarily a clear line between those two categories – it is complicated. But, put bluntly, I think lots of jobs that we used to think of as medium to high skilled, could be next in line. I think it’s the timeframes that are uncertain here, not the trajectory.

4. This has really big implications. For all kinds of things, from economic growth to politics, government, capital ownership and how we structure our society (and yes, the first four are really different parts of the fifth).

So, some initial thoughts that I think are interesting. I’m not sure how exactly they’re connected – think of this more as a brainstorm, than a coherent set of ideas.

1. Population matters. I haven’t read as much as I’d like on technology and fertility rates; but it seems like there’s a possibility that there may be fewer people, in a few decades. I’m not sure how that fits in exactly, but I think it’s important. UPDATE: I came across this article on pets replacing children, recently. Maybe the problem won’t be too many humans, but too few?

2. There may come a point, when only a tiny proportion of the population needs to work. If you think of increased technology as raising living standards for humans, and of work as being bad for living standards, it seems like there could come a point where we get to (much) fewer hours than we think of as a ‘normal working week’ now. I’m not sure about this one – it’s pure speculation. It seems like there’s been a decline over the last odd century and a half, although perhaps it’s not a clear trend over the longer term?

Either way, I think we have an interesting question, about how society changes when people no longer need to work to meet material needs. The crux of the issue, I think, is that humans are simultaneously economic agents, moral agents, and quite effective machines. Economic agents in the sense of actors in the economy, people who make choices, gather information, and make decisions about allocating resources. Machines, in the sense of working effectively at different roles. And moral agents, in that above and beyond the question of how resources are allocated and things are made, they make moral choices in interacting with other moral agents (I won’t get into an exact definition here, but something along the lines of Gewirth’s ideas, maybe? I leave this as an exercise for the reader :p).

But, of course, those three things can be separated. Slavery is effectively removing a human’s other two aspects, and treating them simply as a form of capital, appropriating the value of their labour – treating them as machines. You can do that, and it’s that kind of approach that lets you say there were $3.5b worth of people (slaves) owned prior to the US Civil War.

Conversely, you could see humans as being moral agents, and workers, without necessarily being economic agents. To the extent that human workers are driven by automated algorithms (say, for example, trading bots whose decisions have implications for service jobs), that’s already happening.

But imagine if you took both of those away; you simply had moral agents, without any role in the economy as agents, and no practical labour to sell. What then? It gets interesting, and complicated, and I don’t quite know how it fits together. One model might be something like a guaranteed minimum income. That seems like a better outcome, all things considered. It’s easy to be much more pessimistic, though.

For what it’s worth, I think the video ends with exactly the right questions. Things are changing; they’re going to change quickly, and I don’t think we really know how – but at this point, it doesn’t seem like we’re necessarily asking the right questions.

APPENDIX: I came across the video through this website, in turn via a link from the Lowy Institute. That intermediate website puts forwards two arguments – both of which I think are extremely weak – as to why the trend in technology shouldn’t bode poorly for humans.

This is all speculation, and it’ll be decades before there’s an answer, but for what it’s worth, the arguments I find extremely unpersuasive are:

1. Humans are useful as consumers. I’m perhaps constructing a straw-man, but this argument seems to me to be simply ‘we’ll still need demand for an economy to function, so …’ [actual quote:]

How will this happen? The most obvious way is that a collective agency will step in to ensure those people can pay for the product so that normal market based prices will be formed and transactions will take place. That agency is obvious in democratic society: the government. And before you think that this is some leftist notion (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I’m not theorising that here: I have faith that if it is in the interests of both business and consumers that money go from the employed to unemployed, it will. It will happen. So there may be unemployment but that does not mean that the humans adversely affected will become horse meat.

I think any argument that relies on people acting in their own self interest is too optimistic. More fundamentally, though, I think this is again missing the point; if the resources are controlled by a smaller group (let’s call them the ‘auto-owners’), who have no need for other humans (why would you, when robots can make everything?), then there’s no benefit from the auto-owners from allocating resources to those without. They can trade resources with other auto-owners (this trade will probably be Pareto-efficient), and … the remaining humans will have nothing left to trade, because their labour value is now zero.

2. Maybe the displaced workers will buy the robots?

Why would it be the case that a pure capital owner will purchase the robot rather than a displaced worker any more than it was the case that those who drove horse drawn wagons where [sic] displaced by pure car owners?

I’m not even sure where to start with this one [and yes, mistake in the original]. It seems to be an argument that somehow the ownership of capital will work out okay. I’m deeply pessimistic about this one, but I won’t go into the details here; suffice to say, it strikes me as a variant of the ‘market will solve everything’ wishful thinking that sometimes prevails in economics. But, this isn’t about an efficient market; it’s about how moral agents will get access to the resources they need to live and function, when they have nothing to trade for them.

The Borgias – consistently confusing

I finished the first season of The Borgias a little while ago. I was disappointed, because there was so much potential.

Historically, the period The Borgias is set in is fascinating. Like all politics, I suppose, there are complex, interlocking networks, and at the same time there are historical trends shifting the way things work (think the French development of cannon from a siege weapon to something you can use on the battlefield).  And the show does deliver some beautiful cinematography; rich colours, sometimes juxtaposed in what could be a still life – some of the scenes can be quite beautiful.

But for all that, the show falls over quite heavily on the writing side. The characters felt terribly stilted to me; most simply because they seem inconsistent over time, verging on the incoherent at points. Rodrigo Borgias, the patriarch of the family, is shown in an extended montage in the first episode, bribing his way into the papacy. That’s a nice piece of one of the underlying ideas in the show – that here is this deeply cynical, corrupt person who’s made their way onto the papal throne. But in the first few episodes, we see the same man refusing to hear his son tell him about an assassination, on some pretence of upholding his honour. That’s just one of a number of points where Rodrigo flips back and forth between pious and deeply cynical. There’s no coherence to it that I can detect, no underlying rationale, or story about why this character might be changing. It’s simply as though there’s some kind of coin that’s being flipped, as to whether he’ll be cynical and manipulative, or pious and godly.

Which makes me think about the writing process. I think it can be very hard, sometimes, when you have a scene in mind – a particular image, or a sequence of events you want to see play out, or even just a piece of snappy dialogue – not to focus on that, to the detriment of coherent character development. I guess that’s what happened here; the writers had particular scenes, particular ideas, and they ended up bending the characters, awkwardly, to fit into their preconceived set pieces.

Which is a shame, because there is so much potential here. If the characters were just filled out a little more, a little more coherent, this would be fascinating. It’s an intriguing setting, and there are some rich stories; it’s just that none of it quite comes together. I want be watching beyond the first season.

Chef – fun but not filling

I saw the movie Chef last night. It was fun; there were a lot of things to like about it. At the same time, it wasn’t exactly filling; I don’t know if I’ll remember it much a year from now, and I wouldn’t re-watch it.

There is, to be clear, a lot to like about Chef. Probably highest on my list was was the food. It is, as one critic described, food porn. And it’s well done. There are luscious meals constantly whipping across the screen. There’s the sound of sizzling, and close-up shots of frying, grilling, succulent meat and tender vegetables. I made sure to eat beforehand, but I was still hungry afterwards.

There are other things Chef does well. The music is great, and carries the visuals well. And, as Noah Gittel writes over at the Atlantic, it has a better, and perhaps more balanced portrayal of social media than you might see in most movies. I particularly liked how tweets were visualised; they were clear, readable, and not too distracting – but at the same time you weren’t craning over someone’s shoulder to read grainy pixels stretched over a big screen. The father-son relationship is nice too; you genuinely care about how that interaction will go, which lends a little more depth to a movie that otherwise would probably be about a guy making delicious sandwiches.

But for all that, Chef is a fluffy movie. Fun, but not something I’ll feel particularly strongly about a month or a year from now. Partially it’s because it sets out to be fluffy, I think. The movie outlines different relationships, different struggles, but nothing’s in too much depth. The protagonist is struggling with being fired and rejected? Give it a few seconds, and bam! Scene change. Now you’re in Miami. Probably the most obvious example for me is a scene where the father/chef gives his son a chef’s knife. It feels a little weighty for what’s come before and after, and there’s a sense that the filmmaker is earnestly saying ‘You have to take this seriously. The. Father. Is. Giving. His. Son. A. Talisman.’, as though somehow putting a father, a son, and the giving of a chef’s knife will magically invoke significance, rather than it being dependent on the story and the relationships the movie’s built (which are much too flimsy to carry that scene). Because you know what? We don’t see that knife for the rest of the movie.

I watched a good two-thirds of the movie waiting for the son to hurt himself in the truck. It was touched on lightly – he burns his finger, but pushes through – but beyond that, there’s nothing. I kept thinking that there’d be more, more narrative tension, some kind of critical turning point. There wasn’t, really. Things just happened, randomly, light-heartedly. In a way it was kind of fun, but felt slightly hollow at the same time; without a challenge, it was hard to know if I cared that much.

The final scene, for me, was extraordinary [MILD SPOILER ALERT; but, as I said, narrative’s certainly not what’s driving this movie, so I don’t know why you’d care]. Throughout the movie the chef/protagonist is seen flirting with the head of his wait staff (and there’s a hint of a history), and there’s some degree of his interaction with his ex-wife.

And then bam! In the final scene, after he’s been given his own restaurant through a deus almost-ex machina, he’s getting re-married to his ex-wife. Which is lovely, and a perfectly plausible ending; but because we barely saw any of how he got there, it seemed slightly disconnected; like if it had suddenly cut to a shot of his grandkids by a different woman working in the food truck, a generation later. Either of those might have seemed equally plausible.

So, overall, fun, but not filling.