The Secret Agent (Joseph Conrad, 1907)

When you really come down to it, there really isn’t much to The Secret Agent, Conrad’s schizophrenic ensemble piece describing several “anarchists” in a sort of imagined historical account of the real Greenwich Observatory bombing of 1894. Yet its pages are rich and meticulously crafted, full of detail which could only be supplied by someone completely involved with his work. The framework of the novel, though, its “skeleton,” as Conrad refers to it in a conciliatory 1920 preface, is only the barest suggestion of a story. The title might lead you to think it’s a tale of espionage and high drama, but in fact it’s more of a progression of baroque character studies.

Conrad’s justification (for following reviews savaging the book for its supposed depravity and lack of any sort of real edification, he felt the need to append one) was simply that, having been told a few details of the bombing, he felt a set of characters and actions evolve in his head surrounding that “blood-stained inanity,” and simply set pen to paper. It was written quickly and fairly continuously, a fact that shows in the unvarying tone and inspired feel of the writing.

The perspective is one of omniscience, and Conrad puts his characters under the glass so minutely that pages and pages of description, narration, and thoughts will separate two lines of dialogue. It’s almost as if Conrad is narrating a film, and feels the need to stop it constantly in order to explain what you’ve missed. This applies to inconsequential events as well as serious ones: the detail with which the grotesque cab driver is rendered (a perfectly Dickensian caricature) is equal to that of the difference between the moral imperatives driving Chief Inspector Heat and the Assistant Commissioner. And while the former is certainly of a lesser fundamental weight than the latter, both are treated with the same slightly removed tone of levity that pervades the whole book. Conrad is a funny guy, it turns out, and though the events described might be of the most terrible import, they are all the same to our amused narrator.

It’s not a quick read, though it isn’t a particularly long book: my cheap Dover edition is around two hundred pages, and more normally-printed ones probably will reach three hundred or more. The subtitle for the book is “A Simple Tale,” and indeed the tale is simple, but the writing is dense and each sentence seems absolutely necessary. While in other books I can get away with accidentally skipping a sentence or two after looking away to pick up my coffee or what have you, in The Secret Agent I would immediately get lost. And yet so much of the book is completely irrelevant to every other part! Don’t ask me why it is this way, it just is.

The espionage and action in the book is so minimal that anyone looking for a thrill will be disappointed. The plot never takes off, but on the other hand, the plot is more of a red herring, a nail from which to hang the rest of the book. There’s a lot to like about The Secret Agent, but the independence of each enjoyable element robs it of profundity. That said, if you like the way Conrad writes in general — well, he wrote this.

The Inverted World (Christopher Priest, 1974)

The progenitors of science fiction had more right to call it “speculative” than the technobabblers of today who flinch at the apparently derogatory term sci-fi. Novels like Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea showed how man and the world would naturally react given the novel stimulus of an impossibility turned possible. Change one thing and watch events play out naturally with normal people, with the narrative usually some distance past the actual change. Now it seems that authors change everything but the stories; switch up everything in the universe and watch the old familiar thriller play out as it has for hundreds of years. Having learned nothing about The Inverted World before reading it, I wasn’t sure which to expect. As it turns out, it’s among the best examples of the old sci-fi I’ve ever read.

It won’t do to discuss the plot, though it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the main character is a denizen of “the city,” a large complex that must be slowly moved along rails northward, to escape a mysterious danger seemingly approaching from the south.

The world building is by the numbers at first, and the writing is unremarkable (and occasionally imprecise), but competent, and dialogue is good. Slowly, the secrets of The Inverted World are revealed to both the protagonist and the reader, and the process is so incredibly compelling that I read some 200 pages in a day, then finished it off just a few minutes ago.

To describe the book further would be to spoil the fun, though there’s no twist exactly, as one finds in movies these days, but rather a logical exposition of the nature of things, and it is both fun to read and interesting to unravel. Most importantly, the problems of this book, and of the world described, are problems that can only occur within the compass of this book and world. There is very little contemporary allusion, or borrowing, or padding with long descriptions of fights and events which, while exciting, are not strictly speaking consequential to the story. This flaw hobbled The Gone-Away World, which has a cloak of grandness but loses itself in minutiae (and for the record, seems to have taken several ideas from Priest’s book).

I’ve only read a few books this quickly in my life, which is certainly a compliment, yet at the same time I never felt it was fluff (as much modern sci-fi is) or overly taxing (as Last and First Men, and Book of the New Sun are). I’ll be recommending this to all of my friends who like an occasional break from contemporary and traditionally-set literature.

The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi, 2009)

The Wind-Up Girl came highly recommended by my family, and of course the usual breathless praise from within the sci-fi community made it out to be nothing less than a Neuromancer for this modern age. Biopunk, a dystopian future made from only the freshest fears of the present. It partially delivers on this promise, but also fails in the ways modern books I’ve read recently tend to fail.

The premise is certainly the best part of the book. Some distance into the future, perhaps a hundred years or so, bioengineered crops and organisms have supplanted natural ones, giving rise to new plagues and food shortages — not to mention a rising sea due (I assume) to global warming. The result is the “Contraction,” a reversal of the “Expansion” era of our day. Fuel and power are precious and the universally acknowledged currency is calories. The story takes place in Krung Thep, AKA Bangkok, in Thailand, where the Thai have maintained independence by ingenuity, independence, and grit. And, as a new and disease-resistant fruit introduced at the outset suggests, a seedbank and skilled bioengineers.

Unfortunately, the book never really delivers on its promises. The landscape is foreign in a way, but also filled with the lazy analogues endemic to modern sci-fi. The “kink-springs,” for instance, are nothing more than batteries, no matter how named. The privations of the Contraction are no barrier to most of the characters, poverty and heat seeming to be the main difficulties — whenever a “rule” of the new world is inconvenient, it is discarded, and guns, cars, and other things that should be impossible in this new world regularly appear; one is not convinced of their rarity simply by the characters gasping at their appearance. And the story itself is easily abstractable from the world; the Environment Ministry (the “White Shirts”) and Trade Ministry could just as easily be Pepsico and Coca-Cola, or Boeing and Northrup Grumman, since the conflict is more or less political. That’s where the book fails: despite the well-conceived backdrop, very seldom in The Wind-Up Girl (an almost peripheral character, incidentally) does anything happen that couldn’t happen in any other book or world. In the end, the meat and potatoes are generic thriller, and the bioengineering and global cataclysm are simply sauce.

The writing is also spotty. Like so many modern books, whatever isn’t a labor of love (often the premise and a couple inspired characters or situations) is filler, and you can tell when Bacigalupi is writing something he doesn’t particularly care about. There are a few nice turns of phrase here and there, and the beginning hints at a fragmented timeline that is abandoned shortly. He lacks variety in his phraseology as well (towards the end of the book, during a firefight, I read the word “chatters” at least six or seven times in the space of a few pages), and the dialogue is totally undifferentiated. Every character speaks in the same voice, though their internal narration is better.

Bacigalupi has written several other stories that take place in this world, and it seems to me that his great accomplishment was painting the background, but he has yet to actually produce anything but sketches in the foreground. For world-building, he gets a gold star, but for storytelling, no credit. Other modern sci-fi I’ve read has the same prose shortcomings, but in the Virga trilogy (and even in Mainspring, an inferior book by far) the story was unique to the situation. Not so here.

Acquired: Audubon’s Birds Of America watercolors (New York Historical Society folio, 1966)

The Monk (Matthew Lewis, 1796)

Literature which was considered shocking on its debut is but rarely shocking three hundred years later. The Monk is no exception (as opposed to, say, Fanny Hill), though it’s easy to see how in a time of great piety and fear of the church, a tale of this type might be both universally reviled and devoured.

There are a few stories loosely interwoven, all based in or around a convent and monastery in 18th-century Madrid. The primary story is of Ambrosio, a supremely virtuous monk who has never left the monastery since infancy. His bubble of sanctity is punctured by a young monk who (spoiler warning) reveals himself to be a woman, a beautiful woman at that, and what’s more, utterly dedicated to Ambrosio in every way. There are also the stories of Lorenzo, whose sister is trapped in the convent under the watch of an evil Abbess, and Don Raymond, who is in love with that sister, having met her in a series of adventures ranging from banditti ambush to ghostly possession. The three stories play themselves out, the characters occasionally encountering or indirectly affecting one another.

The Monk was written by a 20-year-old nobleman, and was instantly banned upon its release for being lewd and sacrilegious. And so it is: Ambrosio indulges in a laundry list of violent and carnal sins, all the while justifying it with a perverted religiosity, and the other religious figures are either evil and conniving or useless nonentities. There is frequent sexual violence, which is not to say (for the most part) rape, but a frank and unflinching treatment of the dark side of human sexuality, where it overlaps with other appetites and vices.

For all its worldliness, the book is clearly an amateur effort, though a largely successful one. Lewis was a talented writer (even his most vehement critics admitted so), and his style adapts equally well to the internal struggles of Ambrosio as to the romantic adventures of Don Raymond. Sentence by sentence Lewis is unimpeachable, and occasionally inspired (some of his poetry, inserted awkwardly into the narrative, is quite good), but the narrative barely hangs together and the characters seem arbitrarily motivated, traversing the book like wind-up toys. The pace is unsteady and the tone unregulated. The strength of expression and lack of structure remind me very much of another young author’s first novel: Fitzgerald’s excellent but lopsided This Side Of Paradise. Both are worth a read, though both are more enjoyable for the promises they make on their authors’ behalf.

Reveries of a Bachelor (Ik Marvel, 1847)

This winning book was a find in the “Old and interesting” section of Half Price Books. I learn from the foreword and some little research that it was a wildly popular production early in the history of Scribner, in which the author muses about love and life, riffing on whatever is nearby. This admittedly sounds like a recipe for a sentimentalist disaster, or a collection of trite epigrams, but the author’s talent for expression, direct and conversational tone, and the (slightly glib) truths he utters are actually compelling, even affecting.

The first reverie is upon a fire in a charmingly-described country cabin. First there is “Smoke – Signifying Doubt,” in which the benefits of bachelordom are expressed. Then comes Blaze, which brings to mind hope to our narrator, and all the possibilities of a loving union. Last is Ashes, a heartbreaking meditation on loss and desolation, most simply and poignantly summarized: “Ashes always come after blaze.”

Then follow three more reveries – with similar sentiments arising from coal in a city fire grate, three methods of lighting a cigar, and the phases of the day. The collection isn’t really meant to be read straight through; if you do so, you risk emotional overload.

The book succeeds on its most powerful passages, and glides by during the rest on the strength of the author’s easy style. The first reverie begs to be read aloud, and resonates with the trepidation towards commitment and fear of abandonment common to most humans. There is little literature of this sentimental, musing type these days and Reveries of a Bachelor is a refreshing break.

Ten Thousand A-Year (Samuel Warren, 1841)

I have yet to meet a single person who has heard of, much less read, Ten Thousand A-Year. Yet it was extremely popular in 1855, from which period much literature is generally remembered. It is a British legal drama-comedy concerning the rise and fall of one Tittlebat Titmouse, a miserably poor London dandy who lives in squalor but aspires to aristocracy, not to say gentility.

He comes unexpectedly into an enormous fortune after some legal hijinx displace the Aubreys, a placidly virtuous family occupying the country seat of Yatton. They are thrown down and he is elevated to wealth and popularity. As one might expect, the experience is edifying for the pious Aubreys and nearly fatal to the unprincipled Titmouse.

The book is quite long: nearly a thousand pages of very dense text (as you see), and encompassing several years of the characters’ lives. The farcical early life of Titmouse, the legal proceedings, a contested election in Yatton, and a huge amount of scheming, mannered dialogue, and much more all figure. Warren writes in a sort of unedited fashion, taking pages and pages to dilate on minor events or moralize (he was a preacher, and it shows); he has a decent style and an occasionally hilarious or remarkable turn of phrase, but it’s easy to tell when he is inspired and when he is simply getting through the story. Poe wrote in Blackwoods that it was “shamefully ill-written” and called the characters “stupid and beastly indecencies.” He was probably right; Warren is frequently sentimental and affected, and the absurd names of characters don’t help.

The book seems to set out with a different focus than the one it gradually acquires, which, in its defense, was probably a common occurrence in serial fiction of the sensational type. The readers are taught to sympathize with Titmouse, and Kate is set up early as a major character – but both are reduced to window dressing within a few hundred pages, ceasing to act and lacking any power to move the story.

In fact, with Titmouse being reduced to a mean-spirited sot and the Aubreys being tiresome in their virtue, the prime mover and chief villain, Mr. Gammon, essentially becomes the protagonist. Unlike the rest of the characters, who are merely described as being “of superior understanding” yet never show it, Gammon actually is superior to all around him, and manipulates them at will by every means at his disposal, from lying to perjury to blackmail. He is a consummate scoundrel, but he is also realistic and unique, and I found myself more interested in his next move than in the fates of the rest of the characters, mere pawns.

I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t interested in this particular kind and style of book. It was a rewarding read and I am glad to have read it, but there are surely better examples of this genre, and hundreds of superior books from the era. That said, it was fascinating to get into the mindset of the average reader of the mid-19th century. It’s not all Dickens and Twain and Melville — Ten Thousand A-Year was the John Grisham or Tom Clancy paperback of its time, and was easy to appreciate as such.

The edition I have (which has received more comments than probably any other book I own) is an undated Thomas Crowell & Co. printing, probably from the late 1840s or early 1850s. The binding is very fragile but remains bright, though the paper is of somewhat low quality and has darkened over time. The close-leaded type is unlike most I’ve seen, as the characters are fairly large but the spacing close enough to overlap. It was still easy to read, though Warren seems to have trouble dividing his writing into paragraphs, and there are occasional two-page spreads without a single break, giving the book a medieval air.

Postscript: this novel really is remarkable for the sheer number of characters, rivaling Dickens at his most indulgent, and while none approach the effortless characterization accomplished by that author, the cast of Ten Thousand A-Year is at least a memorable rabble. Here is a partial list, since if I don’t create one, it’s doubtful anyone else ever will:

Tittlebat Titmouse — destitute aspiring dandy
Charles Aubrey, Esq. — MP and occupant of the estate of Yatton, in Yorkshire
Agnes Aubrey — his wife
Miss Catherine Aubrey — his sister
Geoffry Delamere — young gentleman, in love with Kate Aubrey
Lord De La Zouch — Delamere’s father, a great lord, friend of Aubrey
Lady Stratton — wealthy aunt and helpmeet to the Aubreys
Lord Dreddlington — a proud and powerful noble, distantly related to Aubrey
Lady Cecilia Dreddlington — his daughter, eventually married off to Titmouse
Robert Huckaback — Titmouse’s colleague in poverty
Thomas Tag-Rag — Titmouse’s employer before his fortune
Oily Gammon — solicitor and chief schemer, in love with Kate Aubrey
Caleb Quirk — senior partner at Quirk, Gammon, and Snap
Messrs. Fussy Frankpledge, Mouldy Mortmain, Tresayle, Lynx, Subtle, Quicksilver — solicitors and counsel for the plaintiffs
Messrs. Runnington, Parkinson, Sterling, Crystal — solicitors and counsel for the defendants
Mrs Squallop — Titmouse’s landlady early on
Dr. Tatham — Parish priest of Yatton
Barnabas Bloodsuck, Cephas Woodlouse, Mr. Centipede, Mr. Going Gone — agitators and operators of the Yorkshire Stingo paper
Toady Hug, Alderman Addlehead, Mr. Viper, &c. — various self-interested gentlemen
Mr. Grasp, Mr. Grab — operators of a private debtor’s prisons
Mr. Pimp Yahoo, Mr. Algernon Fitz-Snooks, Sir Harkaway Rotgut Wildfire, &c. — hooligans and hangers-on of Titmouse
Mr. Venom Tuft — sycophantic socialite
Phelim O’Doodle — strategist for Titmouse in the Yatton election
Mr. Crafty — strategist for Delamere
Swindle O’Gibbet, Micah M’Squash, Mr. O’Shirtless, Mr. O’Toddy — Irish stereotypes
Dr. Diabolus Gander, Esq. — quack to the nobility
Duke of Tantallan — friend to Lord Dreddlington
Rev. Smirk Mudflint — leader of Yatton’s radical Unitarian church
Dr. Flare, Mr. Quod, Mr. Pounce — officers of the Ecclesiastical court

Dedication, King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard

Buck Rogers!

Here are the cover and the first two pages of comics. Yeah, those are some big images. The book itself is coffee-table size.
Click through to get the full size.

Page 1
Page 2

Isn’t this stuff absolutely amazing? It just gets more insane, and the stories run into one another like movements in a ridiculous space symphony.