A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
November 15, 2010, 6:59 pm
Filed under: Scientific fiction | Tags: , , , ,

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

Knopf, 2006

Synopsis: A thin, shadowy character–who makes a total or two or three one-page appearances in this book, and appears to be none other than the author herself–is obsessed with two towering figures in the history of math and science, Alan Turing and Kurt Godel. The novel is less a work of fiction than it is an imaginative re-creation and dramatization of the lives of these extraordinary men, so central to the development of the 20th century. (It seems worth noting, too, that the author is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College.)

Turing, boy genius and homosexual, was tormented in boarding school and fell in love with a boy who died of tuberculosis.  This caused Turing to lose his faith in God and eventually, to view human beings as deterministic machines, which led to his work in designing mechanisms that mimic or approximate thought (he is considered the father of both modern computing and artificial intelligence). Along the way, he happened to save the Allied Powers in WWII by breaking the Nazi code machine, the Enigma.

He made a mistake in admitting to a police officer, following a break-in at his apartment, that he was gay. Tragically, he was convicted under the antique Gross and Indecent Acts clause of UK law at the time–an offense punishable by chemical castration, via estrogen injections, which gave him breasts and made him horribly depressed. Turing killed himself with an apple laced with cyanide.

In a parallel narrative, Kurt Godel, the Viennese mathematician, has a horror of textures, a transcendent bent, and a near-outright allergy to most aspects of life on Earth. He was the only one who dared oppose the towering ideas of Wittgenstein within the Viennese circle, namely that the only thing solid in a subjective world was logic–science and math. Godel at a young age, in fact, had used the rules of mathematics to prove that mathematics is unprovable, much like the Liar’s Dilemma–the man who makes the statement “I am lying.” Namely, there are statements math can make that are entirely unprovable, and they shake the foundations of the entire discipline. This is widely regarded as the nail in the coffin of modernism, but Godel didn’t see it that way. He pointed out that his famous Theorem merely showed mathematics was unprovable–not that it was wrong.

Godels’s neurosis strangely mimics this theme of questioning the “obvious.” He thought that the radiator was spewing toxic fumes, not heat, so he froze; he thought his food was being poisoned by the government, so he wouldn’t eat. His fat, simple, often offensive German wife was essentially his Mommy–she cajoled him each day into eating something, anything. When she took ill, he starved to death.

Highlights: Really, the content of these two real-life stories, grim as they are. The author simply allows the parallels and contrasts to emerge upon reading. Godel had his wife bring him an apple every day (which he then threw away when she wasn’t looking); Turing killed himself with a poisoned apple. Turing believed there was no God, no reality beyond this one, and that even free will was an illusion; Godel distrusted this world completely, and put all his faith in a higher power and transcendent reality–in the end, he believed himself to be harnessing his free will by going against the pre-programmed desire to eat. Turing’s downfall was his admission of his homosexuality to the state, his inability to lie; Godel’s was his dependence on his wife. Both interacted with Wittgenstein, in person or on paper. Both were affected by WWII.

But perhaps most notably, both were intensely under-developed in the realms of self-knowledge and consciousness. They suffered not just the classic social ineptitude of geeks, but something more. These two men, as portrayed here, both seemed to be on autopilot concerning their attractions and repulsions, beliefs and actions. It’s almost as if they were deaf to the world inside–which was perhaps responsible, in part, for their extraordinary insight into the external world.

Structure: Very basic. The contemporary narrator is thrown in just enough to answer the questions: Who is telling me this, and why is it being told now? Otherwise, it’s simply these two narratives in parallel, told in chunks appropriate to the action they contain, switching back and forth. The ending possesses great power simply because both of them came to such a mind-bending end.

Language: Again, a very light touch. There are very few passages where we’re even aware of the author. In a book where the essential task is to get out of the way of the story, that’s to be regarded as an accomplishment. Where you do notice her, it’s in a positive light, particularly in the short section with regard to Turing’s short, ill-fated engagement to his friend Joan, which begins, “It wasn’t entirely his fault..” and ends “It was entirely his fault.”

Conclusion: This book is noteworthy not because of its brilliance as a novel or its faculty with language, but rather because it is an almost entirely different kind of book, and so helps to redefine what a novel is and can do. It is more a re-imagining of the truth than a true fiction–and where there is something very important in history to tell, this can work better, perhaps, than a work of nonfiction or biography, which must adhere to its austerities.

The primary imaginative leap of this book is in recognizing the parallels between the lives of these usual and influential men and in putting them in the same book, though their actual lives were unconnected in any causative sense. The author simply presents the parallels, without drawing conclusions. That is her great act, in this book, as an artist, and that is what distinguishes this book as a novel, a story that could fit no other form.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
August 1, 2010, 8:02 pm
Filed under: Bestsellers | Tags: , , , ,


Jacob Jankowski, a nice Polish kid from New York (or somewhere) is studying at Cornell to become a veterinarian like his Dad. Unfortunately, in a rather abrupt narrative development a few pages in, Ma and Pa are hit by a truck and lose the farm to services his father rendered for eggs and tomatoes (rather than requiring payment from the neighbors, and paying the mortgage). Unable to face his final exams, Jacob drops out of school and hops a train. The train belongs to the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth, and Jacob embarks upon a life providing services to exotic animals in a Depression-Era train circus.

During the course of this adventure, Jacob befriends an illiterate dwarf with a dog, develops a thing for the star of the horse show, Marlena, a hatred for her husband August, the abusive animal trainer, and a desire to protect the apparently useless elephant they’ve picked up from another circus, Rosie.  Along the way, we learn many historically-accurate details of circus life while developing a dislike for Uncle Al, the capitalist impresario.

The Plot Thickens when Jacob and Marlena consummate their passion, the hitherto unresponsive elephant is revealed as understanding Polish, and Camel the roustabout becomes paralyzed from drinking Jamaica ginger extract (a.k.a., “jake”). Fearful that Camel will be “redlighted” (dumped from the train), Jacob and Marlena are unable to leave the circus when they discover she’s pregnant with Jacob’s child.

It all comes apart in One Fell Swoop when the animals break free and stampede, resulting in a circus disaster of epic proportions, supplying Rosie the Elephant with the opportunity to crack a tent stake over the head of August, the abusive animal trainer, doing away with any further obstacle to Jacob and Marlena’s Happily Ever After–with a few rescued horses and an indigent elephant (the circus dissolves), a vet’s license hastily procured through a re-taken test (and a few odd years with the Ringling Brothers, prior to Wedded Bliss in Suburbia, one assumes).

All of this is supposedly recollected by Jacob Jankowski, a doddering 90 year old who ends the book by running away with a present-day circus when it sets up shop next to his nursing home.


In case it wasn’t apparent in the synopsis, I wasn’t terribly impressed with this book. Yet this somewhat bald, awkwardly plotted and overall rather predictable tale was a New York Times bestseller. What is about his novel, exactly?

The answer seems simple enough: it allows you to exist in a time and “place” that’s deeply fascinating, the Depression-era train circus. It’s educational and predictably entertaining.  It teaches us about terms like “kinker” (circus performer) and “straw house” (a packed crowd), the division ins circus hierarchy between performers and workers, the process of acquiring circus equipments, animals and performers by rushing to the scene of another circus’ demise, and it’s set during an interesting time in history (Prohibition, the Depression, etc.).

Apparently, that’s it takes to wind up a bestseller, given some fortunate timing, a good publicist and a serviceable plot. People want to be transported in time and space. There are plenty of people who would most likely cite this as their chief reason for reading fiction. Perhaps they even compose the majority.

Hearken, literary high-brows with dreams of an actual paycheck: ignore this at your peril.


Rumor has it this book was a NaNoWriMo one-month wonder, and the plot certainly bears evidence of that. Case in point, the beginning of this story: Rather than starting with Jacob’s exam and offing his parents a few pages in,  this tale could easily have begun with Jacob was sitting on the train, flashing back into what happened to get him there, then having that reverie broken by the first real action of the story–a more elegant and efficient to have gotten us into this thing.

Plot developments in general here seem somewhat artificial. I don’t even remember Jacob even glimpsing Marlena, the love of his life, for the first time. All of a sudden, he’s just in love with her. The first real piece that feels organic–surprising yet natural–is when the circus acquires Rosie the Elephant.

Gruen does a good job of conveying August’s Jekyll and Hyde persona, and with the predictable escalation between Marlena and Jacob. But the thing about them having to stick around to take care of Camel (who got Jacob a job with the circus, it’s true, but with whom he’s had very little contact since) feels obviously fabricated to keep our star-crossed lovers from jumping ship prior to The Big Circus Disaster of 19Whatever.

As for the disaster itself, which destroys both evil August and the circus itself, there’s not much narrative satisfaction in an ending like that, although it serves its purpose. It’s like the author built up tension around a madman, a pregnant girlfriend, and a sick friend, then it all just goes up in smoke, literally, with no one having to figure anything out, reveal or develop character, or make any tough decisions.

In other words, other than the fact that Jacob finally gets laid (with Marlena, thank God, not those saucy gals from the Cooch Tent!) and successfully impregnates the object of his desire, there’s no character arc whatsoever.


Once again, serviceable, predictable. The dialog in this book reads like a Hollywood period piece:

“That’s cockamamie. When you’re lying, you’re lying.”


“Well, that’s that. Join me for a drink, old boy.”


“Do…you…understand?” he asked, through clenched teeth.

Not to be too hard on the author–she did do some fine research on circus slang, etc.–but there’s nothing special about the language in this book.


This story was a good idea. Writing the synopsis, I was struck by how great it sounds on paper. What went wrong? I think it has to be the fact that Gruen wrote the story too quickly [editor’s note: I made this notation before finding out that Water for Elephants was a NaNoWriMo book].  She knew some of the details but not enough to do it justice, and forged ahead anyway.

As a consequence, there are many elements which, to the writer’s eye, were clearly invented on the fly, of necessity to ferry us (somewhat) logically to the end of the novel. Edith Wharton was right: Many young novelists don’t sit with anything long enough to fit to gel, to reveal its depth and complexity, to become an organic whole. Then again, Sara Gruen made a whole pile of money pretty quick by doing so. If this was her foremost goal, then clearly she succeeded.

In short, this is the kind of book where the beginning clearly doesn’t know its end. Things are not set up throughout the narrative so they seem natural when they occur. Gruen did not know the shape of this tale well enough to render it elegantly.

However, it’s worth noting that we’re often either writing with the goal of becoming a bestseller or the goal of securing a place in The Hallowed Halls of Literature. Perhaps if you’re writing for the former, it doesn’t make sense to take too long concocting intricate structures. As long as you’ve got a good idea, Joe Public won’t notice anyway.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
July 26, 2010, 2:27 am
Filed under: modern classics | Tags: , , ,


Elderly John Shade is a great American poet who is befriended by a new neighbor, our narrator, the preposterous Charles Kinbote. Preposterous because he is the new professor at Wordsmith College,where both men teach, who claims to be from Zembla, a fabulously improbable northern European kingdom in close proximity to Russia.

In the Foreword, Kinbote expresses his regret at John Shade’s recent, tragic passing, and also his great honor is providing commentary to the great man’s epic unfinished poem, posthumously published. Indeed, he sees himself as the only one capable of doing so with any faculty.

What follows is the poem itself, so rich, modern and ancient in its own way that we are absorbed completely into it. We are also absorbed with curiousity about Shade, as the poem is intriguingly autobiographical, describing his love for his wife, his daughter’s suicide, and his own mystical revelation in the course of a near-death experience.

The intelligent commentary and illuminating scholarship we seek by the time we reach the unfinished end of the (fictional?) poem contrasts sharply with what we are actually given; Kinbote takes the entire thing as an allusion to himself, and the strange tale of his life, on which he’s stuck,  like a dingleberry on a furry butt. The analogy is crude but apt in terms of the reader’s feelings towards this pompous meglomaniac, butting in on the depth of Shade.

However, we begin to realize the tale being told by Kinbote in footnotes to Shade’s poem, regarding Zembla’s exiled king, is meant to be construed as his (Kinbot’s) own autobiography. He claims to be Zembla’s exiled king, who’d been pursued through his time in America by an assassin. Though Kinbote is a pain in the ass (and oddly fixated with both man/boy love and transcendent Christianity), we realize that attaching this incongruent commentary to the tail end of a famous man’s unfinished poem may be the only way for him to tell his story.

In the end, though, it all seems to go up in smoke. The person sent to assassinate the King shoots Shade and Kinbote makes off with the poem– then alludes that the greater part of this tale has been an elaborate (though hilarious) lie.

But whose lie, exactly?


Language, language, language. Nabokov is fearless. He stacks three or four adjectives on top of one poor noun and it doesn’t even protest. Of two dudes kicking a ball, he says they were:

“…punting it rocket straight into the melancholy, surprised, bleached, harmless heavens.”

It’s a particular way with language that has not so much to do with the sound of the words (though if something may equally be as ‘helpless’ and ‘hopeless,’ you can bet he’ll do it) as it does for the concepts behind words. His language arises from a place seemingly deeper than audible poetry, deeper than visual, too–an almost conceptual poetry, for lack of a better way to describe it. Kinbote, describing his “close friend,” John Shade, says:

“My sublime neighbor’s face had something about it that might have appealed to the eye, had it been only leonine or only Iroquoian; but unfortunately, by combining the two it merely reminded one of a fleshy Hogarthian tippler of indeterminate sex. His misshapen body, that gray mop of abundant hair, the yellow nails of his pudgy fingers, the bags under his lusterless eyes, were only intelligible if regarded as the waste products eliminated by his intrinsic self by the same forces of perfection which purified and chiseled his verse. He was his own cancellation.”

(And if you read Nabokov’s own unfinished masterpiece, preserved and published in act of literary grave-robbing oddly parallel to the one described in Pale Fire by his son, Dimitri Nabokov, you can be sure that the original impetus of this character description were the words ‘leonine’ and ‘Iroquoian.’)

Much is made of Nabokov’s Mind Games Forever, and I can see just enough of it here to know there’s more than I can see–anagrams, games, puzzles, etc. I’ll admit I love such play when it’s pointed out to me, but in general lack the patience to figure it out; whatever’s lurking here has confounded better minds than mine, I’m sure.

The great thing about Nabokov is, you don’t have to have a head for any of that to be absolutely and deeply amused by his writing. His is, as much as anything else, uproariously funny.


Wholly invented, wholly novel. Of that wonderful class of centaur-beings known as fictional scholarship, produced by two other of my favorite authors, among others: Jorge Luis Borges and A.S. Byatt.

This is a book you read with a finger marking the page from the poem, even though the commentary has so little to do with the poem–you really can’t read it any other way. The Index (which I could only bring myself to scan) is a primary text in and of itself. And, knowing Nabokov, an elaborate academic joke.

It’s a novel-in-parts, and each part changes the way you see what came before. Re-reading would shift each equally, no doubt.


See, Highlights.

The poem Pale Fire is, in and of itself, such a fine amalgam of iambic pentameter and modern sentiment it makes you want to want to try your own hand at it. How fitting, after all, for the form of a nursery rhyme to reveal truths of the nuclear age inaccessible to free verse. Wow.


As far as plot, almost no conclusion is possible. One scholar argues Shade invented Kinbote; another, Kinbote, Shade. Still another asserts a 3rd, shadowy figure, a possible anagram of the author himself, who contrived the two of them. (Stunning, I know.) While I like to feel smart just as much as the next gal, I don’t care enough to beat my head against Nabokov’s hall of mirrors.

What I find remarkable, in the end, is how much we’re readily able to accept, in terms of suspension of disbelief. Is it really realistic that Kinbote could have known exactly what his would-be assassin had for breakfast that morning? (Sauerkraut, ripe melons, and sausages.) No, but who cares?  The sheer narrative power causes us to abandon even the most basic commonsense, like our clothes on the shore of some tremendously seductive body of water.

Incidentally, Nabokov once said the whole thing about characters taking on a life of their own was trite; he said his characters were “galley slaves.” And it makes sense, actually. Words are inherently magical, powerful, lifelike. At the first stage, the goal of all aspiring scribes is the point at which language to become a living thing. Nabokov calls to us from that high, windy place well beyond that goal, where the author herself becomes the language–so that what rises to the surface of the page is merely the overflowing of some immense liquid contained within. The arising of language in such a case is no Golem, asserting a will of its own, but a dutiful genie, capable of all wonders, arising to the rub.

Thank you, Nabokov.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl


Blue Van Meer, kid genius, has a brilliant political science prof for a dad and a very special relationship with him. They travel around the country, never styaing put more than a year. When they settle for her senior year, Blue meets a charismatic teacher with a ‘set,’ a la The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Things get freaky when Blue,  Miss X and her set embark on a camping field trip, fulfilling bits of dark foreshadowing, and Miss X dies (suicide? murder?) causing clique-y set to turn against our heroine. Bothered by unexplained details, Blue constructs an elaborate explanation of the teacher’s death involving a semi-mythical leftist underground organization, the death of an investigative journalist, assumed identities, and a plan to disappear without a trace that backfired on Miss X, resulting in the teacher’s death. When Blue narrates said hair-brained but strangely convincing argument to dear old Dad, he disappears from her life forever, taking all of his things. Blue sucks it up, graduates valedictorian and goes on to Harvard–older tougher, tragic, but also lovable and wise.


This is easily one fo the best debut books by a young author I’ve ever encountered. Perhaps the only thing that comes close is Bee Season by Mya Goldberg, with its heartwise clarity, imagination and beautiful, even majestic, but deeply unhappy ending.

This succeeds in a way that is, if not more powerful, perhaps more engrossing, more capable of enveloping your world. One, it is much longer. Two, it is paced more slowly, truly giving us time to to feel the story as it develops.

Also, we enter the world a very beautiful, funny and compelling intelligence here, wherein gestures, people, actions, situations, etc., fit into Types of Things Like That, and all those things are connected to books and movies (see, The Entirety of the Western Canon, Vol IV). Therefore, by means of constant reference, the world of this large novel is made even larger.

The voice of Blue has a tremendous faculty for analogy–which, come to think of it, is that same thing again. “She smiled at me and abruptly looked away, like offering me a handkerchief she didn’t want to get wet.” These analogies are so good they feel entirely natural, never forced, never too extended, either.

The ending, with its final exam of unanswered questions, is close in spirit to The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This is postmodern fiction, truly, with heart.


This novel is mostly a slow build-up to a rapid-fire series of events that turn it abruptly into something resembling a murder mystery at the end–but not nearly to the annoying degree of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Because it’s not thin slices of hte present diving into a bottomless pit of backstory, but rather a slow but steady acceleration towards the action-oriented part of the tale.

The plot twists are foreshadowed, so they’re when you look back, but you’re not looking for them when they occur. This has a wonderful effect, because you don’t realize you’re reading a murder mystery until the end.


(See, Highlights)

A realization; a story built around language, in the 1st person, is a story about character. The language is their perception, the way they view “the” world (as we know that any possible world is subjective) that has the effect of creating the world of the novel. Think of Vernon God Little by X–perfectly coherent voice = perfectly coherent character.

And character is destiny, they say. Which seems to suggest that once you really know the voice of a character on paper–what’s easy, comfortable, interesting and amusing to yourself–then you know not only who your character is, and can figure out, without too much backtracking, what’s going to happen.

An interesting theory, at least. Of course, we’re all reinventing the wheel as we go, but consider this as a mechanism for building character-driven fiction.


A pitch-perfect debut, equally balanced between the head and the heart, which is rare.

A novel that arises from knowing who you are–rather than simply who you’d like to be–at a young age.

Bravo, MP.

Hello world!
June 8, 2010, 12:42 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

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