Karen Jay Fowler, Terry Pratchett

It’s lonely being in Cambridge during the summer, when your friends are all back home in New York (or other places). Lab work is exciting, even when all I’m doing is pipetting isopropanol back and forth, but once I step outside the CGR building, a crushing sense of being entirely self-contained in my own consciousness, of having no single soul to talk to (other than my parents, of course), literally attacks me. I don’t think I feel fear, but sometimes I wonder if I’m that afraid of being alone. During school term, the quality of my solitude felt different, limited by the boundaries of my room. And even then, I had IRC or AIM—I was connected to people, even if I never saw them face to face. Here, the solitude crashes upon me wherever I go. Even at the lab, it seems to lie in wait—I imagine it as some kind of Aztec jaguar (perhaps a panther, even), that feeds and feeds on my heart, which in Promethean tradition never fails to grow back.

Despite the melodramatic writing, it’s also different from the self-absorbed adolescent angst that I tried my best to fend off during high school. I am detached from my loneliness—I observe it and feel it, but I am distanced from the emotion, as if there was a veil obscuring the intensity of the sensation. There is no pain, just a dull sort of emptiness, and I walk around Harvard Square every evening, half-noting this emptiness as I decide where to pick up dinner for the night. Still, emptiness is emptiness, and the sensation is hardly pleasant. Whenever I feel vaguely lost or stressed or upset, I immediately head for a high concentration of books, and since this is Cambridge, and I still haven’t found the public library yet, I head for the Coop instead. I’ve finished two books there so far (they so conveniently provide chairs for the browsers who won’t buy).

The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Jay Fowler: Currently on the NYT bestseller list and, for the most part, winning the praise and adulation of the critics, although there are a few who seem disenchanted with its cleverness. Perhaps I’m just a shallow/pretentious showoff/pedant but I appreciated the cleverness. Six characters, six books, six meetings—each character in some way parallels the Jane Austen book that she chooses. Also, stylistically, there’s an understated ironic tone in the Austenian tradition, and furthermore, the narrow scope of the setting and storyline does indeed capture the restrained, decorous (but very tongue-in-cheek) sense that I always get when reading Austen. I haven’t read all the Austen books of course (never had the incentive to read Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion; plus I never actually finished Mansfield Park, being too frustrated with Fanny), but I’ve read enough to catch some of the references (Fowler deliberately echoes Austen repeatedly throughout the book), and personally, I like that neatness of form. It gives me the same feeling of satisfaction I get when I, say, see a perfectly symmetric rose window (like the one in Annenberg). In other words, I’m anal, and I like to read fiction that shows the same sort of anal retention, although I would prefer to use the word “craft”.

What I like even better is the type of fiction where this sort of carefully wrought form and structure is embedded under a dizzying surface “messiness”—like David Foster Wallace’s work or Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. One of the reasons why I adored Nine Stories—some people felt Ms. D’Amico was stretching it when she pointed out how they descends “nine stories” on the ship (in the last story) and also the more overall structure of the anthology (children to adult to children), but I think that’s the moment when I realized why literary analysis is so important. I have a very visual, or should I say geometric?, conception of writing structure, and when I perceive a particularly beautiful pattern, I feel as ecstatic as when I read a beautiful mathematical proof. That’s another thing…burying the structure in seeming incoherence that resolves in the end to be perfectly self-consistent is like uncovering the systemic laws that underly complexity. (Why I want to research biology.)

Anyway, I definitely enjoyed The Jane Austen Book Club—the transparency of the writing (I mean, “transparent” like “lucid” not “transparent” like “obvious”) was refreshing. The critics talk about how it’s a sort of meta-commentary on the social patterns of book clubs themselves, but I actually didn’t concentrate on that (never having been in a book club myself). I perceived it more as a book about reading (hah! Northanger Abbey!), and how reader and book reciprocally alter each other. I do feel, very much, that I’m in some ways the sum of the books I’ve read. My opinions, my behavior, my language, my likes and dislikes all can be traced back to a book of some sort—albeit with considerable evolution of course. And at the risk of waxing too long on a trite sentiment, I also feel that I’ve, in a limited way, changed the books: the books I’ve read have a different personality than the books my friends have read, even when they coincide in having the same author, title, text.

A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett: What can I say? Terry Pratchett gets better and better. Ultimately, the substance of the message in his books are really simple—look past the surface, be self-reliant, don’t let other people define who you are, look for your inner strength—but it never, ever feels old or clich├ęd. Quite possibly because he’s such an unsentimental author. Because he’s so biting and witty, when he does bring out the empowering message of the day, it doesn’t feel like pop psychobabble, but a real fundamental truth. His children’s books don’t differ so much from his adult fiction. No actual swearing, of course, and a young girl as protagonist to appeal to the readers, but quite a lot of the parodic elements are rather sophisticated. I don’t know if the target audience would necessarily understand all the subtext. Of course, the pleasure of getting all the references and allusions is the preoccupation of Discworld fans or shallow/pretentious showoffs/pedants like myself, and I’m sure they would enjoy the book (and its prequel The Wee Free Men, which I read after my Korean final). But hopefully they’ll read the book again a few years later, to fully appreciate Pratchett’s writing.

But then again, I don’t know. Would I have understood the book when I was ten? Hm…maybe when I was twelve? I never know how to assess children’s intelligence: when I compare the average child to my own (admittedly faulty) memories of who I was at age [insert number < 18 here], I often grossly overestimate them. (Still can’t forget how bored my tutoring pupils were when I took them to the bird documentary—sure, it was a documentary and an Educational Film, oh the horror, but I watched the PBS broadcast of Nature with a passion when I was eight. How I collected my reservoir of pop science facts.) But when I talk with my friends, it seems that they were all either just as or even more intelligent/knowledgeable/precocious than I was, and then I feel guilty for underestimating people. I suppose it’s always best to err on the side of overestimation, but that often means I end up disappointed in people.

Perhaps the actual conclusion to draw from this is that I shouldn’t be trying to compare or assess people at all. Shame, shame. I should really squelch my arrogance, especially since I am more than ever unjustified in it.