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03-24-13: How to Never Leave the House

Nathaniel Rich, 'Odds Against Tomorrow' ; Benjamin Percy, 'Red Moon'

As the world rockets to hell, it should not surprise us that horror fiction, dystopian visions and works that manage to combine the two are becoming ever more popular. Speculative fiction is often seen in terms of "Gee whiz!" It is important to remember that George Orwell originally wanted to call '1984' '1948,' but his publishers thought that was a bit on the bleak side.

Now that we have long ago left bleak behind, it's no longer possible to accuse authors like Nathaniel Rich and Benjamin Percy of writing unrealistic, escapist fantasies. The werewolves, the rising waters, may not have yet showed up on CNN, but what is there makes them look pretty reasonable by comparison. Reading stories with strong (strong as in "tear your beating heart from your chest") themes of the unreal is not unlike seeing the world sideways, and alas, not so sideways as we might wish.

But reading these books offers us the right perspective to help us wrap our brains around the wisdom of a "starve the poor" approach to government. Jonathan Swift gave us 'Gulliver's Travels' and he also made 'A Modest Proposal.' My modest proposal is that you can avoid the world at large quite cost-effectively by spending your valuable reading time with these titles.

You won't have to wait too long to read 'Odds Against Tomorrow,' (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; April 2, 2013 ; $26), the new novel by Nathaniel Rich, the author of 'The Mayor's Tongue.' In his first novel, Rich explored the literary world of New York and the surreal mindscape of a rather imaginary bit of Europe. Rich's approach to the fantastic is carefully grounded but deeply weird. With 'Odds Against Tomorrow,' he's back in New York again, but this time, the surreal terrain to be explored is within the world of high-tech consulting. His approach though, is quite similar; he starts us off in familiar(ish), grounded territory, then takes one logical step after another into terra cognito, a landscape of the mind of Zukor, a mathematician who gets a unreal job.

Zukor is hired to use his skills to craft worst-case scenarios for FutureWorld, which he does with a combination of reluctance and enthusiasm. When asked to use one's talents, and given free reign, who would not feel some joy? Especially a young man as dislocated as Zukor. But when those talents are being used to tabulate devastation on an almost incomprehensible scale, might one also feel some regret? But so long as everything remain theoretical, it's possible to remain lost in thought.

Rich, of course, likes to take his imaginary episodes out of theory and here he does so with a vengeance. Rich's mathematician hero and his prose approach will recall for some readers Stanislaw Lem and in particular, 'The Chain of Chance.' But Rich is of course out on his own limb here, as are we all, busily sawing away. Could this be a problem? Possibly, but not while you're reading this fine novel. It's time to greet the Apocalypse with snark in your heart and a smirk set firmly on your face.

If you make it past the first horseman of the Apocalypse, you'll have the time to immerse yourself in the history that happily never happened (yet), Benjamin Percy's lycanthropic 'Red Moon.' Percy posits that werewolves live among us, violently, chemically and physically muzzled. But — it's the 21st century, a time of tipping points. Small groups can find themselves possessed of immense power, and having done so, feel compelled to use it. Percy tells his story in a tense, terse prose style that is likely to keep you awake either trying to find out what happens next or thinking about the social, political and personal implication of what has passed before — either in your life, or his book.

Things start simply, but not without a fair amount of blood. Patrick Gamble, a teenager stuck by a window in a plane full of elders, needs desperately to take a pee, but a fellow passenger has a need even more desperate and more devastating. Claire Forrester is consumed with concern over which college she should choose, and not so worried about her ability to change. Miriam, Walter — Percy goes on to give us the epic cast of characters and the plot hooks to shred our flesh.

'Red Moon' crafts new territory with every page, but always keeps the reader riveted with the mystery of the world (What is it like? How did it get this way?) and the mysteries in the world (How will these characters we like come to terms with the violence of repression and repressed secrets that can no longer be concealed?). It's easy enough to identify the various genre strains that run through this novel and easy enough to forget about the labels and worry about what the hell is going to happen in this story. When you come up for air, you might spend a bit of time wondering what drugs you're being given, and what parts of yourself are being held in check. If the answers are unpleasing, actions, while they don't always speak louder than words, might at least come to mind.

03-21-13: Nathaniel Rich Speaks 'The Mayors Tongue'

The Story Where We Live

Editor's Note: I spoke with Nathaniel Rich about this novel back in 2008; he's currently about to go on tour for his new novel, 'Odds Against Tomorrow.' About which; more tomorrow!

It's our perception that the world we inhabit, the specific locale where reside is a place, but that's not the case. There is, of course, a physical reality that underlies what we call place, but our understanding is not one of borders and terrain. We do not live in a place. We live in a story. 'The Mayor's Tongue' by Nathaniel Rich resides in the same sort of borderland the characters within the novel inhabit; a world where the perceptions of those who experience it will alter the terrain to both suit and undermine any expectations.

Rich eschews traditions and immerses us in two unusual narratives. Eugene Brentani has just graduated and is actively engaged in avoiding his former life. He's told his father that he's moved to Florida, but he's only just moved to a different neighborhood in New York City. From working with a moving company, he finds employment working for a scholar who is authoring a biography of Constance Eakins, a larger-than-life Hemingway-eqsue figure, now supposedly residing in a remote Italian mountaintop village. Eugene's a fan, and this is a dream job. Perhaps more than he expects.

Mr. Schmitz and Mr. Rutherford are lifelong friends and aging retirees living in New York, until Rutherford hares off to Italy. Schmitz becomes increasingly concerned as Rutherford's letters become increasingly strange. His friend seems to have escaped into a dream world of mental illness, and Schmitz will have to journey to Italy to find him.

Rich lays out each story in impeccable style, with an understated humor and a surreal sensibility. Since we're in Italy, we get to hear Italo Svevo's name pop up and not just in the name of Mr. Schmitz. (Svevo's real name was Ettore Schmitz.) Svevo, a translator for James Joyce, is the author of 'Zeno's Conscience,' an eerily relevant and prescient novel about a man trying to find his way through life, written with verve, humor, insight, and a slightly surreal sensibility. It's strange, funny and hovers in the mountaintop fog of 'The Mayor's Tongue.'

'The Mayor's Tongue' is a book that is rich in strange, as well as rich and strange. Rich successfully eludes your expectations and offers snippets of fairy tale, post-modern academic satire, and most importantly, characters we love to encounter. Fans of Svevo will be delighted, as will anyone who likes elements of the fantastic seamlessly integrated into a delightfully droll exploration of that borderland between fiction and reality.

Eugene's journey into the Italian landscape maps a world that does not quite exist and crosses the border into the surreally fictional. We see glimpses of creatures from myth and legends — or are they merely a misperception of the people who have lived here for so long that borders any kind no longer matter. As Eugene's story and the story of Schmitz and Rutherford converge, a new, mythic terrain emerges. Rich creates a vision of the world where myth, history, fantasy and story mingle and become one.

How many people do you know who have a "Truth turns to fiction" button? How often do they lean on it and how heavily? Rich's novel is an hilarious and poignant exploration the land of lies, the land that lies between our eyes, the land we create every time we see something and apprehend a vision. We take charge and make it our own, even if in doing so we change it beyond recognition. We don't often realize that we ourselves change beyond recognition.

03-18-13: Lawrence Wright is 'Going Clear'

The World According to Pulp

The difference between belief in fact and the beliefs of faith should be quite straightforward. We know the facts of day and night; we have faith that we know good and evil. Our beliefs in both fact and faith shape all our actions in this world. We control ourselves by keeping our behavior within the limits of what we know and what we believe. But because everything is complicated, we seek advice from outside ourselves as to what is fact and in what we should believe, and whether or not the separation between the two is as clear-cut as it seems.

L. Ron Hubbard sought to close that gap, first with Dianetics, and later with Scientology. He considered his creation technology, a mental toolkit, not theology, but sought to have it presented and treated as the latter. Or perhaps he considered it all science fiction, an art form he was particularly prolific at writing. There is a sense that he saw it all as a show that must go on.

The stories Hubbard created and the story of his life sprawled out to create the entire hermetic subculture we now know as Scientology. It's a big story, but Lawrence Wright manages to wrangle it all into his immersive new book, 'Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.' It proves to be an intense and compelling story that will keep readers involved long after the book is finished.

'Going Clear' covers more than 100 years of history to explore belief at every level, from the ability of Hubbard to believe in himself to his ability to inspire belief in others, to the beliefs that others created based on his work to the readers' own beliefs about psychology, religion, society, and who hits the truth-turns-to-fiction button.

Wright's a very smart writer, who gets readers in at ground level with Paul Haggis, as the now-famous director at the age of 21 has his first encounter with the group. What follows, over the next three-hundred-something pages is a superbly orchestrated tale of men with huge egos making a permanent mark. We meet young L. Ron Hubbard, and watch him become a pulp writer who can crank out more than 100,000 words per month. (That's three-hundred-something pages.) We see the birth of Scientology as Dianetics, a "science of the mind" inspired by Freud, that its creator thought would be greeted as genius. Instead, it was rejected as quaint, uninformed folk-art, and that rejection by the establishment of psychology was a wound from which Hubbard would never recover.

But Hubbard was, as described here, no less than a genius at "floating over the facts" and the art of self-promotion. He eviscerated every opportunity he found, and from the bloody entrails of self-aggrandizing failure built a mind-boggling success. Wright's mini-biography of Hubbard is superbly nuanced, gritty, insightful and generally generous. It's pretty clear that Wright does not have an axe to grind. On the other hand, he's willing to cut his way to the truth as revealed by his extensively notated text.

In 'Going Clear,' we read compulsively as Hubbard's empire grows beyond his own ability to control it, and it does both good and ill. Haggis reaps some significant benefits, and not just in terms of Hollywood connections. But current Church leader David Miscavige who starts out as a precocious fourteen-year old boy, ends up as a tyrannical prophet, who spends lots of time doling out punishment, every episode of which is carefully denied by the Church in footnotes. Belief is ever an issue in 'Going Clear,' even when it comes to the "facts," which can be easily denied, though not so easily disproved.

The Hollywood stories and stars are enjoyably entertaining, but also crucial to the narrative. Hubbard was a visionary in terms of knowing the power that media could hold. He never actually made a decent movie, but he was savvy enough to know that those who did could be potent allies. Wright only brings in the relevant and riveting aspects of the Hollywood connections, even if he does have a bit of fun with them. Sometimes, the truth manages to smile a bit.

Wright's detailed, transparent prose makes 'Going Clear' a constant pleasure to read. Every word and sentence carries its weight, and makes an almost impenetrable maze seem easily understood. While the proceedings here are disputed by the Church, which has a web page dedicated to the book, Wright's assiduous annotations dispel any inclination to suspect that he came to this project with any animus. For a book that has clearly raised the ire of many mentioned here, 'Going Clear' feels very even-handed, even though the prose, the plotting and the characters have the rich feel of a novel.

Lawrence Wright's 'Going Clear' is, in the final analysis, a remarkably straightforward treatment of a particularly weird story. Hubbard got his start in the pulps, and he had an amazingly fruitful imagination. It's only when we step outside, with the clarity that Wright provides here, that we can realize that Hubbard's story seems very much like a story he himself might have written. Of course, he did write this story, in a very real sense, by living it with such zest, such force that the reality he created for himself is now a world within our world. In the gulf between fact and faith, human imagination proves to have powers that even imagination itself may find hard to believe.

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