Sunday, August 21, 2011

On the edge of chaos and some kind of order (Books - Europa, The Great Journey, At Home in the Universe)

I have the second of my comprehensive exams coming up. Although this has not resulted in reading nothing at all, it has meant that I have not finished anything. I guess I'm a less constant reader these days. Anyhoo, I thought I'd report on what's in the works.

Tim Parks's Europa (1997) concerns Jerry, a philandering middle-aged English professor and writer living in Milan, who considers the hash he has made of his life while he rides on a bus to the European Petition Committee to air grievances regarding his college's teaching contracts. With an international group of faculty and students who posture, who lecture, who flirt, drink, try to impress, to get into each others' pants, all while Dead Poet's Society plays on the bus video system in the background. It's written as a first-person monologue that switches from interior to exterior perspectives, a sort of string of pathetic parenthetical justifications for his screwed up marriage and loss of ambition, laced with bitter whining about "totties" who will and won't put out.

Ordinarily I detest novels with misogynist characters, set in academia (and that rules me out of quite a few). The fact that Tim Park's is himself an ex-pat Brit living in Milan translating Italian literature while teaching at a university adds an autobiographic layer that turns my impression of this book from a novel about misogynist characters to a misogynist novel, however, what I am finding impressive about the book is a) the ferocity of its voice: high-velocity sentences drive on and on in a rhythm that compels me to keep reading:
You should have a slug of this, boyo, Vikram Griffiths said, turning from trying to bribe the driver to take us into town in the evening of his own initiative without referring the time and expense to the coach company. You look terrible, he said, What's up? So, lying with the instinctive fluency that years of betrayal engender (and if one is lying one owes it to the world to do it well), I said the combination of the coach's movement and trying to watch Robin Williams seize the day had given me the most atrocious headache, and I told Vikram Griffiths, this feckless fragment of Empire (as he himself once described himself), this genius of broken marriage, bizarre manners and interminable good causes, this man who cam to my house just once, his dog only a puppy then, and frightened my wife with his life story - told him that I had come to the front of the coach to speak to him because I had heard, in the Chambersee Service Stations, Dimitra and Georg and her agreeing that he, Vikram, would have to be replaced, because incapable of putting a presentable face, I said (partly inventing, partly quoting), to our claims; he would make us look ridiculous, I said, they had said, with his unkempt baldness, his bushy sideburns and wild gestures.
and b) while this piece often feels grossly personal either about the narrator, the writer, or both, it also manages to be a novel about the European Union. The EU, as you probably already know, is a supra-national body of independent governments charged with negotiating political and economic decisions made for the good of all its members while at the same time maintaining their autonomy. It's an arrangement that is a lot like, well, this narrator's relationships - with his employment, his marriage, his lover, his daughter. That may make it sound trite, but actually, it is a book driven by ideas while not being a book of ideas. Jerry is mostly outraged because his ex-paramour is now having an affair with someone else. The bus (a subset of the institute where he teaches) is polyglot. Everyone speaks a different language, has different priorities, and in the end they are all out for themselves, so no satisfactory union (or at least no easy union) is possible, the book seems to imply.

I am finding it particularly interesting how the interior personal concerns of this novel interact with the exterior, geo-political - exemplified in the seating arrangements on the coach as each rider vies to pair off with a suitable other as their roommate in the hotel that evening. It is striking me as I read that, if this were an American novel, the personal would not interact with the political but rather with the pervasive metaphor of technology or, these days, the brain. It's a different zeitgeist 14 years later. Even as I find myself liking the characters less and less, I am compelled by how Parks makes a dialogue of these two realms, and so I read on.

Speaking of ex-pats, historian David McCullough's latest book The Greater Journey tells the story of mostly well-known American writers, painters, and doctors who came to Paris between 1830 and 1900, that is, post- Napoleon and pre-World War I, what drove them there, and how that visit contributed to what they became. As with his fantastic biography of John Adams, McCullough links places, personages, and ideas with seamless narrative that is a pleasure to read. The experience of the month-long oceanic voyage, the contrasting squalor and splendor of 1830s Paris, the cholera epidemic of 1831, are all vividly portrayed. I am finding the contrast of the shared political influences of France and the United States, what staunch allies we were, and the difference in what French and American culture value in living daily life striking, particularly in light of the recent Strauss-Kahn scandal.

Lastly, Stuart Kauffman is feeding me lots of beautiful narrative about how a certain degree of complexity in a system can perpetuate self-organization out of initial chaos, particularly in the context of biology. In his book At Home in the Universe, Kauffman offers these self-organizing principles as endemic to all kinds of systems - economies, cultures, microscopic molecules, and macroscopic universes. He speaks particularly of when systems, such a the molecular morass that makes up the biosphere, are balanced along the edge of order and chaos and is talented at turning complex mathematical ideas into visual metaphors:
This poised edge of chaos is a remarkable place. It is a close cousin of recent remarkable findings in a theory physicists Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wiesenfeld called self-organized criticality. The central image here is of a sandpile on a table onto which sand is added at a constant slow rate. Eventually, the sand piles up and avalanches begin. What one finds are lots of small avalanches and few large ones. If the size of the avalanche is plotted on the familiar x-axis of a Cartesian coordinate system [that's a conventional graph with two axes], and the number of avalanches at that size are plotted on the y-axis, a curve is obtained. The result is a relationship called a power law. The particular shape of this curve, to which we shall return in later chapters, has the stunning implication that the same-sized grain of sand can unleash small or large avalanches. Although we can say that in general there will be more tiny avalanches and only a few big landslides (that is the nature of a power-law distribution), there is no way to tell whether a particular one will be insignificant or catastrophic. ... At this poised state between order and chaos, the players cannot fortell the unfolding consequences of their actions. While there is law in the distribution of avalanche sizes that arise in the posed state, there is unpredictablility in each individual case...
In other words, you are going to have to do some work to follow Kauffman's argument, he is writing at a fairly sophisticated level. But he combines complex mathematics and biology with a real appreciation for the beauty of the world, which phenomena in it can be predicted, as well as which cannot. I'm finding the reading well worth it and the concepts applicable to all sorts of observable phenomena.


Anne Camille said...

Good luck with your exams.

The Greater Journey has been on my TBR list since it was published, but I have yet to get a copy.

Ted said...

AC - Thanks! I'm enjoying it very much, particularly in light of my recent visit to Paris which I have always set in high esteem as these visitors also did.