Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Enigma of Completion

I think all of my interviews at WeatherNews went well. As usual I felt strongest when I was fielding technical questions or talking about design and architecture, but even the more personal ones felt much more comfortable than I usually feel. One I was most nervous about was with Mr. Vincent Zinck, who as a company VP was the highest-ranking person I spoke with. In person, he was one of the most friendly and personable of the bunch, and quickly put me at ease with some amusing anecdotes about his experiences with the company. At one point he asked me what I enjoyed doing in my spare time; this was the second time that day I'd been asked that question, and once again "reading" was one of my responses. As before he asked who my favorite authors were. In my first conversation, with the project manager (who is in his thirties) I had responded with, "Have you ever heard of Neal Stephenson?", which led into a great discussion about our thoughts on his work. This time, when Mr. Zinck (who is probably in his fifties) followed up, I responded, "I like a lot of things. My favorites are problably the modernist British authors."

Now, both "answers" (though the first one took the form of a question) are true; there's a huge group of authors whose works I enjoy, and I'd be hard-pressed to say whether I prefer Aldous Huxley over Neal Stephenson. I hope I can be forgiven for focusing on different areas of interest based on what I expected my interviewer would find interesting.

It paid off, though. Mr. Zinck had also studied English in college and remained an enthusiastic fan of British literature. We talked a bit about Conrad, and he sounded surprised that I hadn't read anything by V. S. Naipul. "If you enjoyed Conrad, you really should read 'The Enigma of Arrival,'" he said, and I dutifully wrote the title down in my notebook and thanked him for that.

I ended up turning down WeatherNews's offer and moved to the South Bay. I put "The Enigma of Arrival" on my Amazon wish list, where it languished for months and months. Finally I had an opening to tackle my reading list, and since that book was available at the San Jose libraries, I grabbed it along with "I Married a Communist." Even as I did so I felt like I was making a mistake - these were both major works by serious authors, and these days I tend to stagger such works with lighter reading in between.

It ended up going fine, though. I read more than half of "Enigma of Arrival" while flying to and from Chicago two weekends ago, and have handled the rest of it in my brief snatches between work and sleep. Once I gave up on trying to find any plot, it became a very enjoyable book, the sort of thing that makes me wish I was still taking literature classes so I could discuss it with others who had read it.

Somehow I doubt many of you will be reading this. Just to be safe, though, I'll block off the section below for MINI SPOILERS. Just so we're clear: the reason that these aren't "major spoilers" is not because I don't discuss the big shocking twist at the end of the book; it's because this is one of the most plotless books I've ever read and there really is nothing to give away (in my opinion, at least). The important part of the book isn't what happens, it's what the narrator thinks about his life.

Okay, so we now officially enter the

As much as I enjoyed this, there really doesn't seem to be that much to talk about. I guess I'll just jump around a bit and tackle things I thought about.

Strike that. Let's turn this into an essay on entropy.

I forget whether he ever uses the word "entropy" in the novel, but regardless, if this book is about anything it's about that. Now, when I hear the word "entropy" these days my thoughts usually jump to Pynchon, who explores that subject with a wonderful, crazy, kaleidescopic vision of change and chaos. When Naipul addresses it, though, he's more interested in the sense of decay than disintegration. Pynchon focuses on what entropy produces, Naipul focuses on what was lost.

The narrator of the novel shares many biographical characteristics with Naipul, and the final chapter seems to talk about him writing this very book, so I'll act like the narrator is Naipul... it's easier to write about, and the narrator is never named anyways.

The narrator's obsession with decay is immediately obvious and, frankly, a little annoying. He has this romantic, idealized vision of how grand and pure everything used to be, and the whole novel is a lament of loss: loss of people, disintegration of the manor, coarsening of society, and more. Sometimes he is personally witnessing a decline, other times he adopts a concern that predates his life. Even when he finds something to enjoy, he is either thinking of how much better it was before or how quickly it will cease to please.

There's an interesting device Naipul uses where he will suddenly introduce an object, refer to it several times in different contexts over a few pages, and then just let it go and possibly never bring it up again. I first noticed this with his description of the artillery ranges, whose noise torments him; he keeps bringing them up, over and over, just reminding us how much he dislikes them and how they intrude on his thoughts, but without giving any new information about them. One of the last times is when he discusses a particular painting (I forget the name) as representing a particular sort of European moral belief.

What purpose do these repeated interjections serve? I think they are successful because, first, it's a good approximation of how our own minds work; when I think of something, I'm more likely to use that in speech or conversation than something I haven't thought of recently. Looking back over my old blog posts, I'm sometimes surprised to see me using a particular phrase, like "I don't buy it" or "Leaving those aside" several times in a single post, even though it's a phrase I rarely use. I'm generally compelled to edit and put in a fresher phrase instead. By keeping these elements intact, Naipul helps us feel like we are really getting inside of his head, not just reading what he has decided to put down.

Another purpose they serve is to act as a sort of exemplar of his overall relationship with the world. Naipul's primary instinct is to hold on to things as they are: he resists and fears change, and wants to keep everything the way they are. That isn't the way the world works, though, and inevitably things slip away from him. In the same way he seems to treasure and hold on to these phrases of his, keeping them around longer than most authors would think wise; but eventually they can no longer fit the story and have to be reluctantly discarded.

This general motif of the problem with resisting change is a prominent one in literature. When examining the tone of Naipul, the closest match I can make is not Pynchon, but Tolkien. Undergirding The Lord of the Rings is a tremendous sense of loss; everywhere the heroes go they see ruins of great cities, relics of great warriors, traces of great magic. Everything is slowly falling apart, and many people finish that book with a strong melancholy: the heroes may have defeated the villains, but even in their victory the Elves are forced to leave Middle-earth, and one feels that future generations will lack even more than this one did.

Another similar story comes, oddly enough, in the latest Sandman I read: "Brief Lives." Here Gaiman explicitly addresses the question of change, primarily through the character of Destruction. In the past, Morpheus has hated and resisted all changes; over the course of this story and the series, he gradually begins to adapt (though at the end of this book he is still denying it). The choice is given in rather stark terms: one must either change with the world or die.

Ultimately, all three books agree, change is inevitable. Any mortal creature can create little enclaves where they may resist the forces of entropy for a time, but eventually it will be overwhelmed and cannot last. Children grow up, houses shift on their foundation, streams change their course, smells lose their intensity. In the long run even the stars move in the sky and languages are forgotten.

I would argue that, since change is inevitable, the one thing we can control is our reaction to it. We can either be like Naipul and see in every change a little death, or by like Pynchon and in every change see a little birth. Whenever something changes we lose the old and gain a new; by finding the good in the new and praising it, we can increase the pleasures in our life.

Of course, not all changes are good. I'm not suggesting we should all brainwash ourselves into thinking that all change is progress. But we should be conscious of the inevitability of entropy, and instead of asking "Why couldn't this stay the way it was?" we should ask "Could this have been any better? Could it have been any worse?"

Naipul is a spectator who watches but never acts. We, though, do have the ability to affect our world, and we should take advantage of the chances we have to guide the form a change takes. The Democratic party will never again look like it did in the 1940's. We can either weep over that fact and try to reunite the coalition of liberals, southerners, labor unions and minorities; or we can look to the future and think of what the next coalition will look like, and work to make it look like that instead of something uglier and more desperate.

I get the feeling that Naipul the author agrees with me, even though Naipul the narrator is stuck in his mourning mindset. One of the most poignant stories, alluded to early on and explained towards the end, is of a ninety-year-old woman coming to visit her childhood home, only to find that Naipul has remodeled it so she can no longer recognize it. Naipul is horrified by what he has done, seeing the way he has destroyed the past and replaced it with something unfamiliar. But if he had not made the changes, his house would suffer the same fate of the manor. All who saw the house would think of how far it had fallen. By remodeling, Naipul has actually created something new from the old, and chosen to take control of entropy instead of accepting stagnation. In the book he regrets his action, but I think this is the best path Naipul shows us, acting within our means to guide the things which are most important to us.

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