Should you worry about your legacy? Lessons from a time-traveling poet, a TV comedy writer, and a crime novelist

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In a 1916 story entitled “Enoch Soames,” Max Beerbohm recounts the tale of a hack poet (Soames) who frets to his friend (Beerbohm) about his inability to enjoy the fame that will assuredly accrue to him posthumously. If only he could step into the Reading Room of the British Museum one hundred years hence: “Think of the pages and pages in the catalogue: ‘Soames, Enoch’ endlessly.”

Of course, the devil happens to be sitting at the next table and offers Soames the chance to do just that in exchange for his soul. Soames zooms to the Reading Room a century ahead. He checks for himself in the card catalogue. Nothing. He checks a few encyclopedias. Nothing. Finally, he finds a book on “English Literature: 1990-2000.” There he finds himself in the following passage: “For example, a writer of the time, Max Beerbohm, who was still alive in the twentieth century, wrote a story in which he portrayed an imaginary character called ‘Enoch Soames’ — a third-rate poet who believes himself a great genius.” History hasn’t forgotten Soames; it fictionalized him. 

This fear for our legacy recurs: Just yesterday I saw an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show that aired in 1963, where the title character — a TV comedy writer — laments, “All I write are jokes. Nothing I write has any real permanence about it. [It is said] on the television once and it’s gone forever.”

Maybe this desire to be remembered is all overblown. Perhaps the late great detective novelist, Robert B. Parker, had it right. When asked how his books would be viewed in 50 years, he replied, “Don’t know, don’t care.”

But in the present he brought great pleasure to many.

Notes

my genre fiction is telling me i should be reading literary fiction

school-days
About halfway through Robert Parker’s School Days, the detective Spenser sits down for a drink with his client, the elderly Lily Ellsworth:

“You seem an honest man, sir,” she said.
“‘Let be be the end of seem,'” I said.
She smiled faintly.
“‘The only emperor,'” she said, “‘is the emperor of ice cream.'”
“Very good,” I said.
“My generation read, Mr. Spenser; apparently yours did, too.”
“Or at least I did,” I said. “Still do.”

Here, Spenser is quoting Wallace Stevens’ 1922 poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” and Lily responds with the next line of the poem. The subtext — by my reading — is that in their generations, they read literature. (They’re not, after all, quoting Stephen King or V.C. Andrews.)

Two ironies stand out. The first is that Spenser actually misquotes the original poem; the line is “Let be be finale of seem” (which is less intuitive to the modern ear, but so be it). The second, of course, is that I’m reading this in a pulpy detective novel.

And yet, I adore Parker’s Spenser novels. I don’t read any other writer who matches Parker for witty dialogue. I haven’t read one in a while, and I found this on the free book shelf at the library in a beach town this summer, and reading it was like spending a few hours with a dear old friend. Spenser characterizes himself well: “I am persistent, and fearless, and reasonably smart.”

A few other quotes that I enjoyed:
  • On persistence: “Keeping at it is one of my best things.”
  • On overdoing things: “A thing worth doing…was worth overdoing.”
  • On making do: “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.”
  • On persistence (II): “I don’t know how smart you are,” he said. “But I’ll give you stubborn.”
  • On expertise in your field and out of your field: “You been a fighter…and you stay in shape, you don’t lose that many fights outside the ring.”
  • On seeking truth: “You probably can’t figure out the truth, if you think you know ahead of time what the truth is supposed to be.”
  • On self-mastery:
“You need to work on your inhibitions,” I said.
“Controlling them?” Rita said.
“No,” I said. “Acquiring some.”

(awesome) book review: Gun, with Occasional Music, by Jonathan Lethem

The book is awesome, not the review.

beautifully done crime novel with a subtle-ish dose of Where Are We All Headed? I read it in 24 hours

I’m currently reading Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, and he mentioned reading Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, which reminded how much several people I know loved Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, which in turn reminded me of a little science fiction (ish) novel that Lethem wrote back in 1994 which I had wanted to read. That’s the genealogy. I picked up the book last week, and I basically read it in the last 24 hours (while traveling from DC to Atlanta to Rio to Brasilia). It had me completely captivated.

A hard-boiled detective addicted to dope and flowery metaphors goes up against the institutional cops to solve a murder. And there’s a kangaroo with a gun. And a house that’s a hologram. And people getting frozen (think Han Solo at the end of The Empire Strikes Back). But before you stop, the beauty of Lethem’s novel is that it doesn’t feel like science fiction. It feels like a captivating crime noir novel. The reason is that Lethem reels you in at the first pages with the story and the character, and only bit by bit, over time, do you realize that the world is different from our own (right now). (One problem with much science fiction and fantasy is that it requires such a massive investment to start the book: the planet of what? the what-reorganizing matter machine? huh?) And the science fiction elements all feel relevant: the walking, talking animals are the result of artificial evolution processes, and everyone is taking to dope to forget their lives (think a gritty Brave New World). The crime story itself has the requisite zillion twists and turns, and Lethem leads us right up to an impressively surprising finale.

Note: Lots of strong language, a fair amount of violent, and some sexual content.

a postmodern detective nods to a most decidedly non postmodern detective

On my last trip to Rio I started E. L. Doctorow’s City of God. After all, that’s the name of one of the most well known slums in Rio (and a book and movie that take place therein). Doctorow is talking about a different city though: New York. After reading ten of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels over the last year, this narrative struck me:

While I was at it, I bought half a dozen used paperback detective novels. To learn the trade … I just read the…things when I’m dpressed. The paperback detective he speaks to me. His rod and his gaff they comfort me. [p8]

Those last two sentence are classic Hercule Poirot sentence construction.  (Kind of like Yoda’s but also … different.)

 

On my last trip to Rio I started E. L. Doctorow’s City of God. After all, that’s the name of one of the most well known slums in Rio. (Doctorow is talking about a different city though.) After reading ten of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels over the last year, this narrative struck me:

While I was at it, I bought half a dozen used paperback detective novels. To learn the trade … I just read the…things when I’m dpressed. The paperback detective he speaks to me. His rod and his gaff they comfort me. [p8]

Those last two sentence are classic Hercule Poirot sentence construction. (Kind of like Yoda’s but also … different.)

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans: not to be missed!

A couple of months ago I posted a review of this fabulous Brazilian novel, Borges and the Eternal Orangutans.   I hadn’t read it in English and so couldn’t vouch for the translation, but today I stumbled on a collection of reviews of the English translation and they are glowing!

I’ll pass on two quotes:

“Luis Fernando Verissimo’s Borges and the Eternal Orangutans is a perfect novel. I’ll say it again: This book is a perfect novel. (…) The reader will mourn because the novel is so short, and it’s only the second by Verissimo to be translated into English” – Thomas McGonigle, The Los Angeles Times

“In the end, Verissimo’s pleasure in his own absurd intertextual universe is infectious: the two-way-mirror trickery of his conclusion is as satisfying as it is utterly predictable. As Borges wrote of Poe: “we might think that his plots are so weak that they are almost transparent”. Luis Fernando Verissimo’s is decidedly threadbare; but he knows, with his heroes, that a predictable detective story is not necessarily an imperfect one.” – Brian Dillon, Times Literary Supplement

More at The Complete Review

book review: The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie

a serial killer who leaves train guides with the bodies

In this novel, Poirot is rejoined by his old, marvelously obtuse friend Hastings (whom we haven’t seen since Lord Edgeware Dies, four novels ago, since when he has been at his ranch in Argentina). A serial murder goes on the rampage, sending challenging letters to Poirot in the process, and Poirot and Hastings are on the trail!

Hastings hasn’t gotten any smarter, but that’s not particularly unrealistic; I’m not sure that hanging out with a great detective would make me any more of a great detective myself, either.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book was the intertextuality. I’m a total sucker for references, even if they’re fictional – I loved the references in Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics and still loved them (albeit less) after figuring out that most were invented. Hastings comes to visit Poirot, and Poirot suggests that it would be very nice to have a really interesting, challenging murder to solve together. Hastings talks about how multiple murders would be better, as having one murder at the beginning followed by a long ruling out of suspects can be tiresome (which seemed a reference to the recent and lovely Death in the Clouds). At some point Poirot mentions that he recent almost got killed himself (an allusion to Three Act Tragedy), Poirot reminds Hastings how love can be found in the context of murder (an allusion to Hastings’ finding his own wife in Murder on The Links), etc.

A minor annoyance is that Christie tries so hard to make Hastings the real narrator that she has a big explanation at the beginning about how it is that Hastings is narrating certain things he didn’t observe; I think it’d have been better simply to drop Hasting’s role (or leave those things out), but it clearly wasn’t my call!

I found the ending a little unsatisfying although I cannot put my finger on way. Christie had me completely fooled as to who the murderer was, multiple times, but somehow the final identity left me less convinced than some, like the last book (Death in the Clouds). But it was an entertaining read for my hotel in Tanzania.

Next comes Murder in Mesopotamia, but I think I need a little break from Poirot. Little Dorrit, anyone?

book review: Death in the Clouds, by Agatha Christie

the solving of an airplane murder soars above the average

When I started this book, I admit that I hoped what would happen is that someone would get killed and then Poirot would somehow solve the mystery before the plane ever touched ground. It would be like Murder on the Orient Express except … on an airplane. Which was just two Poirot books ago, which is probably one of the reasons Christie didn’t do that. (For an author so prolific, I find her wonderfully creative from book to book in her contexts and twists and even the flow of action.)

Instead, the murder takes place on an airplane in plain view of everyone, which narrows quite a bit both the field of potential murderers (tough to have someone stowed away on a plane) and the method. Poirot works through, candidate by candidate, until he reaches a wholly surprising conclusion.

I found it engaging, interesting, and the ending was satisfying.

book review: Three Act Tragedy, by Agatha Christie

a novel conceit but not among the better Poirot outings

A retired (but still youngish and handsome) actor holds a dinner party and – surprise! – a guest is murdered! (One thing I enjoyed about Christie’s book of short stories, Poirot Investigates, was that occasionally Poirot investigated something besides a murder. So much murder, quite exhausting.) The actor, his young and attractive admirer, and another friend play the detective. Although the famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is present at the first murder, he does not get involved in the case until more than halfway through the book. I found it a pity, as his special charm (and pleasant arrogance) always warms the page.

The ending of this case felt less resolved than many. We learn who the murderer is, and something of the reason, but it feels less tidily wrapped up; and Poirot seems to rely on that old method: Accuse the murder a few times until he confesses, even in the absence of very solid evidence. (We often see this in courtroom dramas: Bad guys always explode and say unwise things if righteous prosecutors badger them enough.)

Yet I still stayed up late finishing it. It’s not The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd, but then again, it’s also not The Big Four (horrible).  [The other month I was in Brazil and saw a copy of The Big Four translated into Portuguese, and I thought, Of all the Poirot novels to translate, not THAT one!]

(audio) book review: The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, narrated by Jeff Woodman

It was better when I was a kid, but the climax is still pretty impressive

Millionaire Sam Westing dies and leaves a will inviting 16 potential heirs to play a game to find the murderer. I remember loving this book as a youth, and after being reminded of it in an episode of Veronica Mars*, I revisited it. My first complaint is that it never lets you forget that it’s Young Adult fiction. The characters feel a bit too caricatured sometimes, perhaps, something of which younger readers are often more forgiving. (I was.) This stands in contrast to some young adult fiction, notably Harry Potter books, in which I managed to forget that I was reading a book for a younger audience. My second complaint is that the ending is too indulgent. Hitchcock supposedly said, Always give the audience what it wants. And normally I’m a fan of epilogues that tell me how everything has played out, but with two epilogues and endings that are – to my liking – just a bit too clean (I won’t say more in case you haven’t read it), it just felt like too much dessert, leaving me uncomfortably full.

BUT although I think I missed some clues, I was truly drawn in as we neared the climax, and I was genuinely (and pleasantly) surprised by the way the puzzle played itself out.

I would definitely recommend this to a young adult. If you’re an adult, there are probably better puzzle books. (Or read this awesome science fiction novel I finished yesterday – The Day of the Triffids. It was exceptional!)

Note on content: The book is about the solving of a murder, and there is some talk about a corpse with maggots crawling out of its sockets.

* Season 1: The one where Deb from Napolean Dynamite finds her biological mom. Her younger sister is reading The Westing Game.  The episode is called Silence of the Lamb.