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Archive for September, 2018

The former “Teen the Younger” gave me a couple of books for Christmas last year, found in their thrift shop outings (my favorite kind of gift). One was Queen of the Underworld which I very much enjoyed. The other is a Modern Library edition of The Trial billed as “the definitive edition.” I decided a couple of weeks ago, when I’d finished a book I read for Kirkus, that I had time for a “tough” book like this before my new year in grad school began. Classes started yesterday and I just finished The Trial at lunch today. It was definitely not a fast read.

What I didn’t realize, but the rest of the world is hearing about (or remembering again) because of a new book out last week (Kafka’s Last Trial by Benjamin Balint) is that Kafka might never have meant for The Trial, one of his most famous works, to be published. He left directions for his executor, Max Brod, to burn his papers, manuscripts, letters, etc. The Trial was unfinished; one thing that makes my copy “definitive” is that it was published with unfinished chapters, passages that Kafka deleted, and three postscripts that Max Brod wrote for various editions.

I admit that by the time I reached the end I didn’t feel motivated to read these “extras.” To say The Trial is a downer is putting it mildly. Especially in today’s world, to read about a man caught up in a legal system that is labyrinthine, sprawling, overreaching, all powerful, impersonal, and corrupt is somewhat distressing. If there’s hope anywhere in this story I didn’t find it — even the few people who show Joseph K., the self-proclaimed innocent (but not very likable) accused man some kindness are not really very kind, nor very helpful. My edition opens, “Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.”

It doesn’t get any better. K. begins by trying to fight the system, but is soon undermined at work, mocked at home, and thoroughly ensnared in “the Court.” A lawyer friend of his family seems ineffectual and encourages his maid to have affairs with his clients. A priest who seems to show an interest in K. is an employee of the Court and only tells K. a convoluted parable which he then makes more complicated by offering multiple interpretations. K. — and the reader — are left wondering whether the priest means any comfort or solace or is just playing a part in the same system that is grinding K.’s life down. Other people cause most of K.’s suffering, and he brings on some himself.

Still, I knew it wouldn’t be uplifting. But I’m not sure I even enjoyed it, and I almost feel better knowing it wasn’t really finished when Kafka died. It felt disjointed to me, and I don’t know whether that was intentional or inadvertent. And I don’t know I would like to read something else he did finish, to see whether I like Kafka or not. The Computer Scientist points out that conveniently, he picked up a collection of Kafka’s shorter work in a used bookstore this summer, so I’m in luck.

And now, back to reading about policy for my class.

 

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I haven’t looked at trees the same way since reading The Hidden Life of Trees. So when Richard Powers‘ latest novel, The Overstory, came out, I was immediately interested, because the reviews mentioned how Powers incorporates a lot of what’s in that book — trees have the ability to communicate, to adapt, to care for each other — in this novel. And he does, to amazing effect. 

Reviewers have also referred to The Overstory as “magisterial” and “operatic,” both of which may be code for “really long.” It takes just over 500 pages to tell decades of stories, about characters whose lives don’t even begin to intertwine until about a third of the way through.

But if you persevere you’ll begin to understand, perhaps in a muted and not very clear-eyed human way, how the characters are connected to each other and to the heart of the story — the overstory — of man’s inhumanity not only to man, but to the planet. The message is, there are some of us who see and understand that we’re on a self-destructing over-consuming mission, and some of us who don’t, but if we would just pay attention, trees, with their long memory, learned through thousands of years of interconnectedness and cooperation, could teach us to live. 

I’m still not exactly sure of all the characters’ roles — it may take me some time, and conversation with someone else who has read the book, to get how Ray and Dorothy connect with the others. And whether Patricia, the independent, earthy scientist whose work on tree communication is discredited and decades later, celebrated, is based on a real person. 

But a little uncertainty doesn’t detract from enjoying The Overstory. It’s a work of fiction that incorporates science and philosophy and economics, that digs into the way we and our world works and why, and what we can do about it. It’s a reflection on how much we don’t know, and how many of us live blindly, and might not even choose to know what we don’t know. Powers manages to work into his characters’ lives many of the seminal shifts in our lifetimes — communism, terrorism, globalization, environmental degradation, the computer age. And he works in the history of human threats to trees, which can be summarized as environmental mismanagement and cluelessness.

I love his writing, too. Take this description of Ray and Dorothy’s reading tastes: “Ray likes to glimpse the grand project of civilization ascending to its still-obscure destiny. . . . Dorothy needs wilder reclamations, stories free of ideas and steeped in local selves.” Or this description of two characters with a tenuous relationship: “Douggie steps from the car with that stupid, air-eating, sun-eating grin Mimi has come to enjoy,  the way you might enjoy the yips of a dog you’ve rescued from the pound.”  

In the end, I’d describe this as a literary psychodrama in parts. There is the central thread, about five people who come together as environmental activists and turn to eco-terrorism after being ignored by the public and challenged by corporations and the law. That leads to a cataclysmic event. On the periphery are the stories of the aforementioned tree intelligence scientist, the married couple who seem to me to represent the ability of people to grow and change, and a brilliant computer programmer who creates a smash hit game that he comes to see as reflective of all the worst human instincts.

The programmer and the tree scientist are the people whose legacies may turn the tide. But Powers doesn’t say their work will be enough. He leaves us with a clear understanding of only one thing: it’s not over. Nick, one of the environmental activists, is in an unnamed place using downed branches and snags to create an art installation that consists of a giant word — STILL — on a forest floor. He’s done, ready to move on, when he hears a whisper: “This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.”

 

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