Friday, July 19, 2024

Review: Friend by Nam-nyong Paek

There are two approaches to reviewing Friend. I’ll start with the road less-traveled, which is to comment on the themes, the characterizations, the aesthetics, the author’s apparent intent, and so-on, i.e., the typical book review structure.

Part 1: On The Book

The novel investigates the fracturing of a marriage. Chae Sun-Hee seeks a divorce from her husband, Lee Seok-Chun, and by luck the judge overseeing her suit is Jeong Jin-Wu, a man who experiences difficulty navigating his own marriage, and who steps in to be the friend the divorcing couple didn’t know they needed — someone who listens to them empathetically and helps them see their marital problems and individual needs from another angle.

We see deeply into the hearts of these three people, we learn who they were when they first fell in love, and how their priorities in life shifted as they aged, discovered new interests, and dedicated themselves to their professions. These challenges are common ones — the difficulty in balancing the professional development of two individuals, the difficulty in finding common ground with a spouse with a different level of ambition or worldliness or who is motivated by different causes. The author skillfully portrays believable characters, with each character being “right” in their own way even as they disagree with each other, and with each character presenting both human flaws (withdrawness, selfishness, snobbery) and human aspirational qualities (dedication, empathy, ambitiousness).

These are questions of mid-life, amplified by the characters undergoing not only changes brought about by their advancing maturity but also by changes in society. In days gone by, women stayed home and prepared meals and cared for children. The challenge of balancing these social expectations with the pressures of a career becomes a point of contention between a career woman and her husband. In earlier days, society lauded factory work, where in the time of the novel’s setting (1980s) there is growing need (and social reward) for more specialized roles requiring further education. The lathe operator without further training gets left behind.

The narrative of individuals discovering love, discovering heartbreak, and rediscovering love is reflected in the ever-changing wonder of nature. The snow can be both a thing of beauty and delight or of devastation. A mountain range is stunning, but the weary may nap through a scenic journey instead of appreciating it. And the wind? The wind represents the loneliness of a being who moves forward thinking only of their own excitement, not sometimes bowing to the needs of another.

From whence, from whom, for what reason was the wind running, like a fugitive, like someone who has abandoned his family? Who will ever know its point of departure, who will ever know its lonesome fate? It wanders the earth aimlessly, seeking refuge among the trees in the depths of a forest or by a river in an open meadow. It dashes by without looking back or it lurks around a single spot. At times, it affectionately embraces life, sharing warmth and love with everything near and far. At other times, it bellows with rage and devours everything in sight with a destructive force that makes the earth shudder. It gets soaked in the cold rain and freezes in the icy blizzard. It moans in agony and howls into the lonely night. But then, on a quiet day, it wakes from the warmth of the sun and embarks on its journey yet again, looking forward to the promise of a new day, a new adventure. This is why it can never find a mate and, therefore, lives a most miserable life. 


“When were you planning to leave for Yeonsudeok again?”

“If it’s all right with you, I was thinking of leaving on Monday.”

“Monday? Ah that is why you arranged our date on Sunday.” Jeong Jin Wu nodded as though he had solved a mystery case. Then he sighed. “It’s fine, Go on Monday. And next time you don’t have to leave notes. I already know what to do. I’m your research assistant.” Jeong Jin Wu chuckled again.

From outside the window, the wind noticed Jeong Jin Wu and Eun Ok enjoying each other’s company by the single lamp on the desk, and respectfully left them in peace.

Though the characterizations, plot, and structure are well done, the prose reads a little repetitive in its rhythm. My hunch is that the issue lies in the translation, but I haven’t read enough Korean to know for sure. I started to feel the lack of participle clauses and I wonder if the translation could have been more idiomatic to vary the rhythm of the prose more.

Part 2: On The Discourse Around The Book 

In short, this is a novel with compelling characters tackling familiar problems, written with emotional nuance and interesting metaphors. But you wouldn’t think it to read the other reviews, which bemoan its heavy-handed propaganda. Part of me wonders how these impressions might vary if the reader was blind to the novel's origin — it was written by an author from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the author is in good standing with the state. A blind read is of course impossible — the characters are Korean, the world changing around them is clearly a maturing post-socialist revolution society, and the chapter in which Jeong Jin Wu delivers his historical materialist thesis on the institution of marriage is a dead giveaway as to the author’s Marxist education. (I found him falling in love with his wife as she devastatingly critiques his thesis to be quite endearing.)

Yes, there is a moral to the story, and yes, it aligns with what their country views to be a social good. We see how the family is the basic unit of society and must be mutually supportive. We see how corruption hurts its victims. We see how people should study and improve themselves, advance science and technology and the arts, not only for their own self-fulfillment but because it leads to a more thriving society. Are these principles the other reviewers disagree with? Are these values scary, cruel, oppressive?

What’s more, I found myself wondering how these other reviewers fare with works like Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. That book certainly hits you over the head with morals: the family is the basic unit of society and must be mutually supportive (so don’t just marry the first pretty thing you fall in love with); corruption hurts its victims; improve yourself and spend within your means. These are good morals to impart for a stable society, and the state and other institutions of the anglosphere have rewarded Dickens handsomely for it. Though I’ll give Friend the edge for its optimism that through hard work, a better — more creative, more technologically advanced — society is possible.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Review: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

At its best, this book sparkles with those moments that are so recognizable but so hard to express: the suffusion of love you feel on accomplishing a goal with a person you love, the despair of failed creative work and brushing off a bruised ego, the self-consciousness of being 22 and feeling like you should know more than you do, the awkward tearfulness of knowing a long-term relationship of your twenties has run its course. These vignettes are marked by the vulnerable honesty Zevin allows her characters to express.

However, these moments come a little too few and far between. Rather than lingering in these emotionally intense everyday events, Zevin relies too much on rare and traumatic life events or inexplicable lack of communication to add drama to the novel and redirect her characters' lives. Seemingly for no reason other than to ensure Sadie and Sam are at odds while creating their game, Both Sides, Zevin has Sadie create an entire fiction in her mind about how Machiavellian Sam is and then rather than having a conversation with her supposed best friend about it, the relationship simply deteriorates for over a year. Sadie keeping her relationship with Marx a secret from Sam feels similarly unnecessary. With so much secrecy and resentment between the characters, I began to doubt the veracity of their friendship. Perhaps it was merely mutual respect for each other's brilliance, shoe-horned into a friendship because society does not have a better model for this sort of relationship, but I do not think that was the story Zevin aimed to tell.

It isn’t just the characters that lack honesty with each other: Zevin withholds information from the reader for no real purpose but for heightened melodrama. We learn two thirds of the way through the novel that apparently the two characters had each been grappling with romantic interest in each other the entire time. Why not weave this tension into the story, allowing the reader to incorporate this information into their understanding of the characters? The same holds true of Sadie's secret abortion, something we only much later learn inspired her design for her first published game, Ichigo. Perhaps the intention is that we, the reader, only discover this information at the time that the friends discover this information about each other. But the result is that we feel like we don’t really know either of the characters.

Part of this unfamiliarity is the narrative perspective; we switch from person to person, from past to present to future, without much change in narrative voice (I felt a renewed appreciation of David Copperfield’s adult reflections on stories told through the eyes of his child self). Even side characters like a hospital nurse, become point of view characters. But I never really felt “in” someone’s head; there was a lot of “Sadie felt” or “Sadie worried” type of story-telling.

It’s a very millennial book. There’s nostalgia for the 90s and 00s — those pre-internet days where you could create without being self-conscious of the critics online and struggle in puzzles without being able to look up solutions, when low graphics expectations enabled three kids to pull together a game over the course of 8 months. But at the same time, it was very conscious of the discourse of the 2010s and 2020s, although without adding much new (with the exception of Sam’s defense of charges of cultural appropriation). It makes sense, the author is a millennial, its highest accolades have come from millennials.

I discovered the author’s husband is in the indie film industry, and this made a lot of the videogame aspect of the book click for me. Where my gaming experience comes from highly competitive or mechanics/puzzle-driven games, the videogames of the novel seem to be completely void of mechanics, with discussion focusing on themes and artistic choices and plot — much like auteur film creation. It was in the discussion of the design process, in the characters’ reactions to critics, in the complex relationship between the characters and the works they create, that I thought the author brought the most new insight to the table, likely because she herself is so immersed in this world.

Perhaps because the landscape of a relationship that spans romance, collegiality, and friendship has so much potential, I found the creation and resolution of the love triangle to be rather facile and cliche. One of the guys dies, but don’t worry, his DNA lives on. My “script doctor” of the book would be to streamline the plot (the mass shooting and the witnessed suicide seemed overly dramatic, and the author had little new to add to these conversations), rewrite the character arcs that rely on people not being honest with each other, and have the three characters recognize that love for each other can be multi-faceted and complex and doesn’t need to fit into a box (just like Ichigo's identity).

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Let’s start with the world for this story. It deserves some space in this review: the author devotes a considerable amount of this 160-page novella into exploring the repercussions of the premise she sets up. It’s also novel and intriguing: it is some unspecified time in the future, humans have headed off climate devastation and other environmental concerns, and entered a post-scarcity world. A few hundred years ago, robots gained sentience, and chose to separate from human society, vanishing into the wilderness of the Earth.

How did humans manage to steer the violent, brainless beast of capitalism away from total climate destruction? Unclear. How did humans achieve a new society where all human needs were met? Unclear. How did humanity react to the rebellion of the labourers they had been exploiting? Apparently peacefully, magnanimously, without a shred of the brutality and exceptionalism of our colonialist (and capitalist) past.

These are pressing questions—our challenges are to save our environment and overthrow our still-imperial power structures—and the book dwells on none of them. The world is fleshed out with paragraphs of detail about buildings made from mushrooms, and cell phones that last a lifetime, solar power and bicycle-based transportation. It’s a cozy, non-threatening world unconcerned with how it came to be, a fantasy of how lovely things will be once we finally have the ugly parts solved.

Of course, all stories must have a conflict; this novella revolves around the main character’s search for a purpose in life. Dex switches careers from garden monk to tea monk — a sort of therapist — but finds this too doesn’t quite fulfill them. Their desire to be surrounded by the cricket sounds of the countryside rather than the bustle of urban life goes unquenched: crickets went nearly extinct during the mysteriously averted climate crisis. In a search for life’s meaning, they spontaneously decide to travel through the wilderness, reserved for only robots. They meet a robot, Mosscap, who has struck up a hobbyist’s curiosity in humans. The two journey together, discussing their two societies, and, eventually, Dex’s search for purpose in life: 

You’re an animal, Sibling Dex. You are not separate or other. You’re an animal. And animals have no purpose. Nothing has a purpose. The world simply is. If you want to do things that are meaningful to others, fine! Good! … You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live. 

But just living isn’t enough for Dex. The world is post-scarcity, it is no longer a question of survival but about thriving, and they see their mortality approaching in the distance:

All I have is right now, and at some point, I’ll just end, and I can’t predict when that will be, and—and if I don’t use this time for something, if I don’t make the absolute most of it, then I’ll have wasted something precious.

I found myself wondering why such a detailed, fantastical world was created to explore the rather introspective and everyday question of one’s purpose in life. Is it to contrast mortality with immortality in terms of meaning in life (a theme in Circe)? No, the robots who first gained consciousness chose to be mortal, we learn, and so when their time comes, their parts are reassembled into new robots, the “wild-built”. The link between the world and the central conflict is finally revealed when Mosscap argues:

But when we woke up and said, We have realized our purpose, and we do not want it, you respected that. More than respected. You rebuilt everything to accommodate our absence. You were proud of us for transcending our purpose, and proud of yourselves for honoring our individuality. So, why, then, do you insist on having a purpose for yourself, one which you are desperate to find and miserable without

But it’s an unpersuasive argument, it comes unearned: we have no idea how humanity accommodated the robots’ demand for self-determination. Human history has zero examples of oppressed peoples being handed their autonomy because they peacefully demanded it. So our answer to this search for purpose, the unifying element between world and conflict, is this event we are supposed to be proud of that we never see in the pages.

Perhaps a longer fantasy epic, dealing with these world-shaking events and later linking them to Dex’s own individual search for meaning, would address this issue. But I think the flaw in the novella goes deeper. For all the pages are filled with cozy passages about cooking dinner and growing plants and watching stars, Dex’s world is very empty. They have no family that relies on them, no lovers, no friends (excepting Mosscap). They do not even seem to have a sense of duty and responsibility to the clients that come to Dex with their heavy hearts. The world is nearly perfect, extinct crickets aside, and so there is nothing Dex is building towards or trying to fix. (Maybe Dex should find meaning in reviving extinct crickets?)

Finding purpose in your life is not trivial, but it is these pursuits — loved ones, science, social welfare — that help me answer this question. Dex does not find an answer — it is enough just to exist, but it is rational to want more, and good to define your own purpose. And here the theme truly ties in with the setting: a sleepy, cozy village, filled with petty bourgeois farmers market stands, and a Proudhonist yearning for bucolic individualism. The resulting story is soporific. The hard problems will be solved (by who? how?), and what remains is just what you want and define for yourself.

Tl;dr: 30-something with professional ennui discovers the joys of hiking.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Review: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

What if humans were so uninteresting—or perhaps simply unrecognizable as intelligent—to aliens that Earth was simply a rest stop on a longer journey? It’s a great premise, and it spawns a fascinating world: the garbage the aliens leave behind enthrall scientists and smugglers alike, and society is irrevocably altered by both alien technology and the knowledge that humans are not alone in the world.

While the premise is fascinating, the exploration of the relationship between humans and alien technology felt a little shallow. We are presented briefly with the mutagenic properties of the alien wasteland, perpetual motion machines and infinite energy sources, zombies, gravity traps, and wish-granting orbs. At first, the world feels rich and weird and scary and captivating. The prose (and translation) is tight and vivid, the pacing fast, the balance between exposition and mystery perfect. But we move through each new thought quickly, passing them by before really getting to explore them. An exception is the third section of this book, notable for being the only one told through the eyes of Noonan, a scientific equipment contractor and spy who tracks alien tech smuggling operations, and not Redrick, a smuggler (or stalker, in the book’s tongue). In Noonan’s wheelings and dealings, we zoom out from the smuggling underbelly to see how society has shifted around the alien technology, and the “roadside picnic” explanation for the alien encounter is examined. We see an adaptable and resilient humanity, and a humanity that is largely incurious about the nature of aliens but for how their technology can produce new commodities and ensure an endless availability of alcohol and prostitutes.

My disappointment here is certainly a matter of taste, and helped me understand my own interests in science fiction a little better. I like big stories, with the fantastical elements of the world highly interconnected with society and examined in depth and from every angle. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, and Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem series fit these criteria. By the end of the stories, the mysteries feel understood, crystal clear. The mysteries of The Zone remain murky, and so the conclusion felt abrupt.

One of the alien mysteries is the wish-granting sphere, which a side character uses to create for himself two perfect children (having beaten his wife to death). The narrative implies the children are inhuman. The daughter is incredibly beautiful, and Redrick sexualizes her and sleeps with her but finds it an empty experience, she is a shell of a person. The boy seems a little naive, and Redrick sacrifices him in The Zone to save himself (towards the end of ensuring the life of his daughter). An allegorical interpretation is that they are the neglected children of a wealthy businessman — a dime a dozen in gated communities. Sure, it’s a way to critique trophy wives and status symbols. But the reader must rely on Redrick’s word for their inhumanity. Furthermore, the allegory feels a bit mixed and messy since no one appears to be particularly human by the end (the revived dead, Redrick’s mutant daughter) and the “inhuman” teen has a wiser and more human prescription for how to fix society, which Redrick unthinkingly adopts: “happiness, free for everyone, and let no one be forgotten.”

Though I feel like there is a much more interesting story that could spring from the premise, I’ll judge it for what it is instead: Roadside Picnic is about a sharp but anti-intellectual alcoholic with a fierce, protective love of his family, and a hatred for society, who doesn’t know what he wants in the world and doesn’t discover the answer. It’s fine.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Review: How China Escaped The Poverty Trap by Yuen Yuen Ang

This is a well-structured intervention into a body of scholarly output that seems woefully unable to understand China’s economic rise. Yuen Yuen Ang insists on understanding development as an interconnected, co-evolutionary process, in which governance and economic growth are mutually interdependent, against the prevailing schools of “good governance → growth” (how does one develop ‘good’ institutions without resources?), “growth → good governance” (where does the growth come from?) or “history → good governance → growth” (deterministic, fatalistic, sometimes chauvinistic).

In one line, Ang’s argument is: Poor and weak countries can escape the poverty trap by first building markets with weak institutions and, more fundamentally, by crafting environments that facilitate improvisation among the relevant players.

“Weak” institutions are those that correspond to Max Weber’s framework for pre-modern institutions as opposed to legal-rational, professional bureaucracies; that is, those that fuse personal and private interests, are regulated partially rather than impartially, implement policies without coordination, and involve fee extractions as opposed to disinterested oversight. As Ang notes, there is a chauvinism in the way this classification is applied:

We miss the obvious because standard binary labels of “weak/strong” and “good/bad” blinds us to the potential of nonmodern, nonformal, non-rule-of-law, and nondemocratic institutions. Our conventional and strongly rooted bias that the norms of the developed West are universally best leads us to regard any deviation from these norms only as weaknesses. Consequently, institutions in developing societies are routinely identified by what they are not rather than by what they are.

She highlights the ways that “weak” institutions are well-suited to the tasks of initial development, including being able to leverage strong communities ties in order to mobilize resources, move quickly and improvise, and adapt to local conditions and needs. Combating a persistent myth that all that is needed for development to explode is for government to protect private property and otherwise get out of the way (as in England’s 1688 Glorious Revolution), Ang looks at how examples of “weak” institutions supported development in 14th-15th century Europe. I particularly liked her insight into the rationality of prebendalism (widespread throughout Europe at this time): central governments unable to pay or administer salaries to a dispersed bureaucracy instead bestow the right to take portions of the taxes in exchange for collecting the taxes.

In treating development as co-evolutionary, Ang leans on the biological metaphor. In evolution, random variation leads to advantages that are selected for, either leading to survival of the fittest, or divergence into specialization to fill a niche. These themes of variation, selection and niche creation are as crucial for studying economic development, but where the origin of species is determined by unambiguous markers of success (survival and reproduction), in sociological systems, what should be considered “success” is determined via public debate and political decision-making (and, though Ang doesn’t say so, the survival of the State).

Ang’s specific advice for developing countries based on her analysis of China’s remarkable development, is (like me, Ang’s a big fan of numbered lists):

  1. Delimit boundaries of experimentation and flexibility. China’s central government developed a system of red policies (clear uncrossable lines enforced consistently by the state), black policies (clear positive instructions from the state that must be fulfilled), and grey policies (deliberately ambiguous guidelines). The “grey” area permitted variation and improvisation, and the central government would then transform successful interventions into “black” universal policies. As Deng Xiaoping says, “Cross the river by feeling for the stones.”
  2. Activate incremental changes across connected domains simultaneously. Because all aspects of an economy are interconnected, it is not pragmatic to change only a few policies at once. While China’s reform period is marked by incremental change, incremental does not always mean small, and China’s reforms were often bold and typically multi-pronged. 
  3. In the beginning, define success narrowly. At the start of Reform and Opening Up, the central state defined success as economic success. With additional resources at its disposal, additional success metrics have been incorporated, such as environmental policy. (Here, I wish Ang had spent considerably more time, including on interplay between social markers like poverty alleviation or education and economic factors, alas!)
  4. Give everyone a personal stake in the development process. Even the on-the-ground representatives of the state, like regulatory officers and school teachers, were given personal incentives in the form of income or professional advancement to work towards the collective goals. (I appreciated Ang’s examination of all levels of the bureaucracy, versus party leaders.)
  5. Let some get rich first but pair up the poor and the rich. Coastal regions in China had significant trade advantages, and so developed first. As these regions took off, financed largely by foreign direct investment, domestic investment (both state and private) then shifted to the center of the country.
  6. Harness weak institutions to build markets. Like parenting a newborn is different from parenting a teen, developing new markets is different from maintaining existing markets. It is not a matter of developing “good enough” institutions, but of using the institutions you have in the best way possible to achieve development

Ang’s examination is very market focused — even more so than I have laid out here. In her exposition, the goal of development is to have strong markets and institutions that support them. My own value system differs somewhat: the goal is to have a thriving, happy, liberated populace and markets are a tool to enable that. Correspondingly, discussion of the human happiness side of China’s meteoric rise was nearly absent from the narrative, and when it was presented, the negative was emphasized: slums, emptied out villages, etc (to her credit, Ang notes that the same patterns emerged during Europe’s early development) rather than poverty alleviation and a continuation of the rise in life expectancy that started with the 1949 revolution. 

There was very little examination at the philosophical factors that led to China’s uniquely being able to solve the poverty trap. In this way, it was the near opposite of When China Rules The World, which I read earlier this year and which explains China’s rise as a result of its Neo-Confucianism more than any material factors. Ang hits the mark a little better, and I think it is not a coincidence that she emphasizes the interconnectedness of systems, the relationship between economic structure and superstructure, and how one stage of development lays the foundations for the stage of development supersedes it. Or, in other words, her analysis is (unintentionally, I think) dialectical and material, the same philosophical foundations of the Communist Party of China. Ang dismisses — or, to the extent they are discussed, regards as one-sidedly tragic — the policies of the Mao era. I think the relationship between pre-Reform and post-Reform China is more continuous than that presented here, and the impact of policies of that era transmitted well beyond the 1970s.

Ang defends her theses by exploring three cities within China that took different paths to development. She used placeholder names (“Forest Hill”) and I would have preferred she use the real names so that I came away from the book with a firm grasp of a real location rather than a firm grasp of somewhere in The Shire. Ang also compares antebellum United States and Nigeria’s Nollywood as examples of development outside China that fulfilled these steps. Showing wwo positive controls gives the reader confidence in her thesis. As a scientist, I did note the lack of negative controls that would have lent further support to the parsimoniousness of her recommendations: were there locations that implemented five of her six recommendations but saw only tepid growth?

Though I read it critically, I found this to be informative and thought-provoking. The structure of institutions must match the tasks at hand. This is a lesson worth bearing in mind whether the tasks at hand are those of a small local community organization, a venture capital-backed start-up, or the governing body of the world’s most populous country.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain

This is a book for those who enjoy overtly political fiction. Those who treasure world-building and the mechanics of magic systems will be profoundly disappointed. The main character, Hank, is bonked on the head and inexplicably sent back to the sixth century. Having just as inexplicably memorized the date of every total eclipse going back over a millennia, Hank uses the knowledge of a conveniently-timed rare astronomical event to make himself King Arthur’s official court wizard, deposing Merlin.

And thus Mark Twain quickly gets all sorts of inconvenient plot necessities out of the way (the kind of power-struggle or magic system exploration that might have kept a Robert Jordan-type occupied for some 4000 pages), allowing us to focus on the real topic at hand: education is absolutely crucial for a mass social revolution.

Armed with the knowledge of the nineteenth century, Hank embarks on a modernization of the kingdom, from a patent office to telephone lines to newspapers. It quickly becomes clear that the barrier to creating a “civilized” society is not (solely) technological, but social. The feudal society is nearly alien to him in their understanding of truth and justice.

Inherited ideas are a curious thing, and interesting to observe and examine. I had mine, the king and his people had theirs. In both cases they flowed in ruts worn deep by time and habit, and the man who should have proposed to divert them by reason and argument would have had a long contract on his hands.

Hank finds himself repeatedly frustrated trying to reason with people about how they should go about making the world better for themselves only to be met with self-sabotaging superstition.

The painful thing observable about all this business was the alacrity with which this oppressed community had turned their cruel hands against their own class in the interest of the common oppressor.

The principal target of Twain’s polemic is the feudal system and the religious institutions that accompanied it. In 2024, it seems like a dead horse that doesn’t need further beating, but I suppose the horrors of nineteenth century capitalism had Twain’s contemporaries romancing the chivalry and bucolic villages of an imagined dark ages, just as 135 years later we romanticize some good, kind capitalism that never was.

Twain’s story shows its age in other facets too; Hank initially repeatedly refers to the sixth century denizens as animals, and once as “white indians”, in need of civilizing. These aspects felt rather uncomfortably colonial (and of course, Twain was writing at a time of American colonialism). On the other hand, Hank wasn’t using economic and military means to force a people to submit: the victims of his authority and his superior ballistics were all aristocrats, the beneficiaries their oppressed and imprisoned serfs. If anything, in his role of transforming society through enlightenment, Hank was more of a missionary. Slowly, Hank learns to relate to the people around him, and his language ceases being quite so derogatory. His friendship with his apprentice, Clarence, was quite cute.

Though the premise and some of the humour is really very silly, the novel bursts with incisive and empathetic observations about oppression, violence, leadership and political education that will linger in my mind for a while.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Review: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield is incredibly 19th century: it is preoccupied with the need for the emancipation of women, the commodification of relationships under capitalism, the ever present threat of destitution and debt in a callous and selfish society, the salvation promised by emigration to the Colonies. These themes are explored from multiple angles, with similar beats striking the lives of two or three characters. Though each man charts his own path and can only rarely count on the goodwill of others, Dickens seems to suggest, the tragedies and heartbreaks of the modern era happen in every other household. Though his characters and readers might feel alone, they aren’t.

This novel’s ability to weave together so many plots and stories is perhaps all the more remarkable because it is told from a first person perspective from a single point of view. That one of the most compellingly explored themes is the plight of women in marriage is similarly surprising given our point of view character is male. David’s mother marries while legally an adult but emotionally still a child. She is widowed early and left nearly friendless, and struggles to adapt to her new life. Her second husband emotionally abuses her until she becomes an anxious shell of herself, and she dies of childbirth and depression. David’s step-father goes on to repeat this process with a second victim. 

As a young adult, David falls head-over-heels for Dora, ignoring every red flag about her lack of emotional maturity. David tries to encourage his wife to learn accounting and other practical household management tasks and become an intellectual partner to him, but Dora finds herself inept and ill-prepared for all such tasks and retreats into a child-like state void of responsibility. She asks David to call her his “child-wife”; “you should think of me that way,” she begs him. Their marriage is unhappy for both of them, and she dies of a miscarriage and depression.

One of the few independent women we see is David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood. She uses her comfortable fortune to support David’s education, and rescues Mr Dick, a neurodivergent man who would otherwise be sent to some institution and who she treats with the dignity and respect not typical of the era. But like David and his mother (and other unfortunate characters, like Emily, a lower class woman who ran off with upper-class Steerforth without a marriage), we eventually learn that Miss Betsey was also swept up in a “first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.” She, however, wisely separated from her husband, a spendthrift.

These unhappy impulsive loves are contrasted with three positive marriages: David and Agnes, Miss Peggotty and Mr Barkis, Traddles and Sophy. In each case, the marriage is happy because the husband and wife contribute to the relationship as partners; the wife supports the husband’s professional endeavors and manages the household, the husband makes wise financial decisions and cares for the wife. It is the paragon of bourgeois notions of love.

Though this is a narrow prescription for romantic love, Dickens is far more flexible in familial configurations. The most warm and loving family is that of the Peggotties, an ensemble of orphaned children and the adults that care for them. David’s step-father and step-aunt are charged with his care, but are unloving and abandon him to factory work. He instead finds support and guidance in the home of his aunt and Mr Dick, and in his old nurse, Miss Peggotty. The family you make is more important than the one defined by the law.

Interestingly, while cross-class relationships David forms in his childhood stand the test of time, David ceases to form close relationships with the lower class as an adult. Perhaps this is unintentional (the book introduces nearly every character within the first quarter or so—David’s England seems to have a population of just thirty people), or perhaps it is a commentary on how the financial relationship between two adults precludes real friendship.

Throughout the story is an ever-present fear of being financially taken advantage of. Around every corner lurk scammers. As a child, a penniless David is scammed and swindled. As an adult, his servants steal from him and storekeepers overcharge him. The climax of the story comes with the revelation that Agnes’s father’s clerk, Uriah Heep, has defrauded him. Our characters also struggle to protect their finances from the cruel claws of the bank. Debt haunts David’s father figure Mr Micawber and Miss Betsey’s estranged husband. 

The optimization of profit over the well-being of others, the cruel and impersonal nature of law over individual charity are emphasized at each devastating tragedy. A suddenly penniless David begs his boss, Mr Spenlow, for part of his deposit to be returned to him, against the terms of their contract. Mr Spenlow sighs and says that of course he would love to be merciful but his partner Mr Jorkins “is not a man to respond to a proposition of this peculiar nature.” Mr Jorkins in turn blames Mr Spenlow's objections for his inability to return David’s money.

Although the world is lonely and selfish and dangerous, the book strikes an optimistic tone: the underhanded and insincere are punished (Heep, and Steerforth if forces of nature count as justice) and the hard-working and moral are rewarded (Traddles, Agnes, David, Pegotty). In true nineteenth century fashion, much of the hope for a better life exists in the Colonies: Emily and her family emigrate to Australia to escape the social shame of her elopement; Mr Micawber and his family emigrate to Australia in search of the stable financial existence they have failed to find in England; Steerforth’s butler Littimer had hoped to escape to America with his master’s valuables but instead is transported to Australia. (Similarly characteristic of the nineteenth century, the ills of settler colonialism and imperialism are not explored.)

The book was beautifully written; I loved the intricacy of the plotlines and the way they rhymed, the mix of humour and emotional sincerity, and the charming child’s perspective of adult concepts in the first act. But the hopes and fears explored in the book, its political pleas, all felt more of a time capsule than some other books I’ve read of the era. Elizabeth Bennett, Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre feel like kindred spirits in their struggles for independence and recognition and love despite our separation of centuries, David Copperfield and the David Copperfield cast read like empathetically-portrayed historical curiosities.