Audio-book Review By Chet Yarbrough
A Prayer for Owen Meany
By John Irving Narrated by Joe Barrett
Like quick sand, every chapter of John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany” creates a mystery that pulls the listener deeper into its story.
Why is Owen Meany’s voice so high-pitched and single noted? Who is the “lady in red”? Who is Owen Meany’s illegitimate friend’s father? Why do the main characters keep practicing “the shot”?
What is Owen Meany’s recurring dream? Right foot, left foot, body, and brain; soon you are consumed by Irving’s mysteries.
Joe Barrett’s spoken presentation is terrific because it enhances the written meaning of the story. James Atlas precedes the narration with an interview of John Irving, the author. The Atlas’ interview sets the table for what you are about to hear.
Irving writes a story about growing up in Anywhere, America where the pious are weak, the rich are intimidating and the children are indulged. It is an age like today with ministers preaching and not believing, parents teaching right and doing wrong, and children maturing physically and wasting mentally. Owen Meany is an exception, as this story tells the listener.
Owen Meany is modeled like the little man in The Tin Drum, a book about a dwarf like German citizen observing the beginning, progress, and ending of the WWII German tragedy. Owen Meany is a stunted American citizen living at the beginning of an evolving Vietnam American tragedy.
The subject of Vietnam is generally understood as an American disaster. It earned its American anti-war rebellion. Irving’s story crystallizes the anxiety and frustration of that time. He offers an answer to what we can do when we become anxious and frustrated about things that seem beyond our control. It is not an easy path but redemption for atrocity begins with people of faith who see reality, have an inner moral compass, and act with a relentless commitment to stop senseless acts of war.
The only quibble about Irving’s story is linear time distortion that weaves the story in and out of the past; the movement back and forth is like re-starting a motor that is running smoothly but stalls because of a faulty timing chain.
There is more than an anti-war message in the book. It is a tale that tells how most humans live like cave dwelling shadows with little self understanding and no purposeful direction. Owen Meany does not live like a shadow of himself. He acts decisively. Owen Meany makes concrete choices; choices that he believes reveal God’s purpose and His pre-ordained plan. It is a matter of Faith to Owen Meany.
“The Harder They Come” is a novel about another America; not the America of idealized history but the America of three generations coping with loss in the twenty-first century.
T. C. Boyle creates three characters who feel beaten down by American life. Boyle reflects on their disappointments and perceptions of loss. A young man in his twenties loses identity, a fortyish woman loses faith in government, and a seventy year old loses self-confidence.
Boyle’s imagined characters live in America today.
Adam, a 23-year-old changes his name to Colter, the name of a member of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition. Colter explores Yellowstone National Park and the Teton Mountain Range in the 19th century. John Colter is considered by some to be the first American mountain man.
Historically, a mountain man is a hermit-like explorer that exchanges fur for the necessities of life and lives off the land. Adam’s assumption of the Colter name is a trans-formative event for Adam. He uses drugs and alcohol to escape the frustrations of his 21st century life. He uses the Colter identity to give him an anthropomorphic purpose in life. Adam becomes a mountain man.
Sara is a fortyish divorcee who adopts the philosophy of the sovereign citizen movement. She believes the 14th amendment of the constitution proffers absolute freedom to American citizens.
Sara, like Nevada’s Cliven Bundy, believes she is above the law and a federal level of government that interferes with her right to do as she wishes is an infringement on her independent sovereignty.
Though Sara considers herself non-violent, she appreciates actions of domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh who murdered 168 men, women, and children in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 .
Sten Stenson is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He is now 70 years old. As an ex-Marine and former high school principal, he is retired. Sten is a big man; over six feet in height.
Sten dislikes getting old but has a brief turn at fame, as a hero, when he kills a robber in Latin America that is threatening fellow tourists. In looking back at his life, he is reminded of American ridicule of Vietnam vets when he returned from war; he becomes unsure of his purpose in life and regrets having killed anyone either in Vietnam or the recent event in Latin America. Sten realizes every human being has a father and mother. He questions the usefulness and value of his life.
Boyle brings these three characters together. Adam is the son of Sten. Sara becomes Adam’s lover. The extreme behaviors of Adam and Sara are compatible on some level, but Adam’s violence and drug habit compel Adam to completely break from society. Sten loves his son but they have become completely estranged and evidence mounts to show Adam has become a lost boy.
The denouement of the story reveals a great deal about another America; i.e. “another America” that is a consequence of a capitalist culture that breeds psychotic murderers, deluded fringe groups, and psychologically broken seniors.
“The Sympathizer” defines the idea of a world citizen. It is the first novel of Viet Thanh Nguyen. In the beginning, “The Sympathizer”, Nguyen’s fictional hero, seems like another version of a war Americans would like to forget. Chugging through the story a listener nearly derails but the denouement spectacularly realigns one’s senses.
As widely acknowledged, America’s abandonment of Vietnam in 1973 left thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers in peril. (A scenario that may repeat itself in 2021 with America’s departure from Afghanistan, but that is another story).
In 1975, the last American marine leaves the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. Nguyen’s novel begins with hard decisions made by South Vietnamese commanders to identify native supporters, and their families, who would or would not be saved by American military transport. Nguyen’s main fictional character is chosen to be one of the lucky evacuees. The irony of that selection is that he is a communist sympathizer, a spy.
Nguyen’s spy is a Vietnamese outcast. He is one of the “children of the dust” noted in the musical “Miss Saigon”. He is a bastard son of a white American priest who seduces his teenage mother. As a sympathizer, he becomes an undercover agent working for a committed South Vietnamese general. It appears this communist sympathizer has gained the trust of the General by being the go-between for the murder of North Vietnam collaborators.
When evacuation from Saigon is imminent, the General asks the sympathizer to choose who should join them on their flight to America. The sympathizer has two close friends. One friend is a communist; the other is not. The three are “blood-oath” brothers, characterized as “The Three Musketeers”. The two friends are chosen by the sympathizer to go on the journey to America. The communist friend declines and stays in Vietnam to be the sympathizer’s handler; the other friend agrees to leave when his wife and son become collateral damage in the war. His communist friend tells the sympathizer to never come back to Vietnam. The significance of that statement becomes clear at the end of the story.
Most of the novel is about the sympathizer’s experience in America. He experiences a degree of freedom and independence never felt before. But he still reports to the General. His close non-communist friend is an assassin for actions demanded by the General. The sympathizer is the go-between when orders are given.
The obvious irony is that this communist sympathizer carries out orders to kill suspected communist sympathizers in America when he is the penultimate sympathizer.
The General is planning an insurgent action to be organized in Thailand to attack communists in Vietnam. The sympathizer’s best friend is selected as one of the people to go to participate in the insurgency. The sympathizer asks the General to let him go. However, his primary reason for going is to protect his friend. The General initially says no but recants when another suspected spy is targeted.
The General advises the go-between sympathizer that he does not feel he is qualified for the Thailand mission because he has never killed anyone himself. If he can murder the newly suspected spy, the General will let him go on the Thailand mission.
The sympathizer haphazardly murders a suspected spy and goes to Thailand. The valued meaning of the story becomes clearer.
The sympathizer and his friend are caught by a communist cadre. The cadre is led by the communist friend (the third musketeer) that told the sympathizer to never come back to Vietnam.
Both the sympathizer and the non-communist friend are imprisoned, under the command of their communist friend. Under the guise of communist re-education, the communist friend protects his two blood-brothers. The sympathizer is protected by his friend by using sleep deprivation to make him understand something he knows but cannot remember; the other is left to be physically tortured by camp rules, but not killed because of the camp commander’s orders.
While many escaped death from America’s abandonment of the South Vietnamese, the communist friend who stayed is severely wounded from an American napalm attack. His experience from the severe wounds and life under communist rule appears to have taught him an indelible lesson.
The communist friend asks the sympathizer what is most important about being either a citizen of America or of Vietnam. After many days of sleep deprivation, the sympathizer says it is freedom and independence. Wrong says the friend. After more sleepless days, the sympathizer says death. Wrong again. Finally, after more wakeful nights, the sympathizer answers the question correctly.
The answer is a seven letter word–nothing. The answer cuts through political ideology. All people are human beings; subject to the sins of being human. All people are citizens of the world.
Go Tell It on the Mountain because God is not there. Go Tell It on the Mountain because no one listens. Go Tell It on the Mountain because no one cares. James Baldwin rages against culture that makes one, what one is not. Baldwin wins fame from a book that defines the chains of discrimination. He explains why and how culture is a curse. Baldwin tells a story that explains why being different denies equal opportunity.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is partly auto biographical. It tells of the author’s remembrance of his childhood and formative years. In broad perspective, Go Tell It on the Mountain shows how Americans are born as equals but deprived of potential by culture. Though published in 1953, the truth of Baldwin’s observations about culture is institutionalized in America.
Baldwin writes a story about three economic opportunities for early 20th century black Americans. They are announced by Baldwin as robber, pimp, or preacher. Today, some believe blacks are still not suited for more.
Baldwin’s story is about two fathers of the same boy. One is the natural father; the other is a stepfather. The birth father is characterized as naturally smart. He moves from the rural south to the urban north with a woman he does not marry. The father is arrested for being at a store when two black men rob it. Because the father is in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is sent to jail for trial. The father is accused but not convicted. He is so shaken by the experience; he slits his wrists and dies. What would this father have become if he had not been arrested and jailed? The innate skill of a human being may be a combination of genetics and environment but if one’s color says you can only be a robber, a pimp, a preacher, a sports star, or an entertainer; being smart is not enough. Only when human beings are treated as equal will stereotypes disappear.
The second father of the same boy, a stepfather, also gravitates from the rural south to the north but he is older and knows success as a preacher. He is not characterized as particularly smart but he believes in God and talks the talk of a good man who will rescue an unwed mother and her child from a life of despair. However, the stepfather is a martinet. He severely punishes his wife and children for what he considers sin or disrespect. The irony of the preacher’s abuse is that he is biblically as sinful as most human beings. (In retrospect, knowing that Baldwin is gay, one surmises how abusive a religious stepfather might be.)
What makes Baldwin’s book important is its reflection on a part of American culture that denies equal opportunity for all. A smart man kills himself because he is black and has experienced the hate and inequality of discrimination. A preacher beats his wife and sons because he believes he has a right, given by God, to assay sin and punish those who violate his limited understanding.
Being smart or being religious is not enough; particularly if you are a minority or a woman because cultures stultify individuality and restrict opportunity. Individuality and opportunity are hindered by poor education and biases that are eternally engendered (institutionalized) by discrimination. Blacks have shown they are more than criminals, preachers, sports stars, and entertainers. And women have shown they are more than child bearers and housewives but America continues to struggle with equal opportunity for all. Baldwin exemplifies America’s struggle in Go Tell It on the Mountain.
“The Death of the Adversary” is a chilling view of the rise of Nazism in Germany. Hans Keilson never mentions the word Jew or Hitler in his novel about the 1930s but notions of history inform the listener of what Keilson is writing about. Names are not named because Keilson writes the story while hiding during WWII. He flees Germany to join the Dutch resistance when denied the opportunity to practice medicine as a Jew.
The main character of Keilson’s novel refuses to believe his father or acquaintances at work and school of the threat of the unnamed adversary in Germany. This anti-hero pursues his life as though the threat of Nazism would pass without affecting his life. However, as events unfold, the anti-hero hears the radio voice of “…the Adversary” and begins to understand the underlying murderous intent of a charismatic political actor who will turn German lives upside down.
Keilson writes of a speech given by “…the Adversary” to give the reader/listener some insight to the power of words in the hands of a consummate actor. It is a terrifying realization both to the anti-hero and the reader/listener of Keilson’s book. The realized terror is that spoken words by one actor can lead to a genocidal mania on the part of a chosen people.
Next, Keilson tells a story of a meeting at a friend’s house where several young men congregate to discuss a local incident participated in by one of the young men. The anti-hero’s friend is a woman who is employed at his place of work. One of the young men is her brother. It appears the young men are relatively close friends that choose to allow the anti-hero into their conversation. One of the youngest tells of his recruitment in an obscure organization. He volunteers to go on a night mission under the organization’s leader.
The recruitment is for a team of hooligans to desecrate the graves of a cemetery which one presumes is a particular ethnic graveyard. The purpose is to defile the memory of a particular graveyard and the common beliefs which it represents. Some of the participants are ambivalent about the mission but go along with the leader’s direction. Head stones are overturned and graves are shat on.
Keilson recounts the love and guilt of his anti-hero by explaining how his father prepares a suitcase for himself, his wife, and his son. The suitcase for the parents is preparation for the knock on the door in the middle of the night. The parents do not plan to leave their country in spite of the danger which the father knows. The suitcase for the son is for him to escape the country. The son seems resigned to let life happen. He is an anti-hero that is prepared to let events control his life; even though the consequence may be the loss of his parents.
The final chapters offer the anti-hero the opportunity to kill “…the Adversary”. He chooses not to and history shows his decision to be both right and wrong. It is right in light of the ultimate death of “…the Adversary” because of actions of others to stop his reign of terror. It seems wrong because of the death of many (particularly the anti-hero’s parents), and his failure to confront “…the Adversary” before it was too late.
One is compelled to wonder about oneself in listening to Keilson’s story. Who will choose to confront the adversary? Who will “go along to get along”?
“Redeployment” is a work of fiction. It is written by Phil Klay, a Marine officer who served in Iraq in 2007/2008. (Klay is the winner of the 2014 National Book Award for fiction for stories written in this book.) “Redeployment” is about military’ enlistment, deployment, redeployment, and combat.
Joining the military, particularly when one is in their teens or early twenties, is often an escape.
Enlistment is often a way to escape (or transition) from parental control, poverty, or life’s rudderlessness. For a few, military enlistment is an adventure, a career, an opportunity to get in shape, a chance to see the world. For others, joining may be a family tradition, a romantic notion of defending one’s country, a desire to impress parents, guardians, or friends.
One of Klay’s characters joins because of financial help offered by the service to pay for an education; another character joins because of family tradition, another because it impresses his father. Klay’s stories offer insight by explaining most reasons are too simple, or clearly misunderstood by new recruits.
Orders are orders. Hierarchy of command is inviolable. If a commander orders flattening of a town, soldiers are expected to act without thinking and remember without conscience. Soldiers are able to act by dehumanizing those outside of their team. In Vietnam humans become gooks. In Iraq humans become towel heads. These are tricks of propaganda that allow short-term actions but often fail to leave soldiers’ consciences.
Klay tells the story of a soldier who wants to know how many of an enemy are killed in a bombardment. The soldier asks if there was an investigation. The commander says no and sees no reason. The soldier visits a behind-the-lines’ command post which cares for the dead. He asks if a team will be sent to the site that has been bombarded. The NCO asks if Americans were killed. The soldier says no. The NCO answers the question–“No, there is no investigation because we only concern ourselves with our own”.
Another story is written about a civilian contractor hired to build a waterpower station in an Iraqi community. The Marine assigned to oversee the utility installation is told by a local Iraqi that the pumping station being built will create too much pressure and blow-up the plumbing in town. The Marine explains the problem to the civilian contractor, but it does not stop the project. It is an assignment that is being paid by the American government whether it works or not. All the contractor is concerned about is completing the job and being paid. Klay offers more stories, i.e., equally appalling–examples of wasted dollars and efforts to rebuild Iraq.
Klay writes of the misunderstandings that compound America’s mistakes in Iraq. There is the story of the Egyptian American recruit that speaks Egyptian Arabic but does not know Iraqi Arabic and must learn the difference on his own because the military believes there is no difference.
The character Klay creates who oversees the water plant construction and an Iraqi baseball assignment is also responsible for producing Iraqi jobs. This Marine’s civilian subcontractors are often ill-equipped to do what needs to be done. One of the opportunities is farming but the civilian subcontractor assigned to help knows nothing about farming.
Another story is of an Iraqi who starts a women’s clinic to help women in Iraq who need medical assistance. However, because her clinic is not creating enough jobs, there is little financial assistance to expand the service. Klay implies Iraq is a “Bizarro World” where no one seems to communicate understandably, and most act without accomplishment.
Klay implies the experience of becoming a Marine saturates the being of some soldiers. Their experience in combat and the comradeship of belonging compels re-enlistment and/or redeployment. Being a civilian becomes too unstructured. In some cases, Klay suggests civilian life is threatening to a soldier with experience of combat. Some redeployed soldiers become command officers that live in a world of only “us and them” with all of “them” as expendable sub-human beings.
America’s pending departure from Iraq is a betrayal of “you broke it, you fix it”. America tried and failed. In that failure, the realization is–“the fix” can only be made by Iraqi leaders. Iraq’s dilemma is America’s forgotten lesson of Vietnam.
(Baghdad Bombing kills 32 and wounds over 100 on January 21, 2021.)
In a final story, Klay writes of a Marine veteran horribly disfigured by an IED. A Marine that joined and served in the same place and at the same time as the disfigured veteran is a close friend. The uninjured friend stays in touch with his fellow ex-Marine. They recall old times. They are close friends, but the IED has so profoundly changed their relationship that the friendship has devolved into a friendship of un-equals. Intimate civilian relationships, taken for granted by both before disfigurement, are now probabilistically experienced by only one of the friends. Klay’s stories show that combat is a psychological, often physical life changing experience.
Klay is a veteran. He seems to be saying it is important to understand what it means to become a soldier before signing up. “Redeployment” is neither right or wrong, but it can be right and wrong. The best civilians and soldiers can do is “try to do right”.
The author, Kurt Vonnegut, offers a fascinating glimpse of a mind teetering on, and then falling over the edge of reality into insanity. One might classify “Breakfast of Champions” as a surreal satire but that diminishes its insight to insanity.
“Breakfast of Champions” is an imaginative and underrated masterpiece. The underestimation is realized by the listener in John Malkovich’s excellent narration.
There are no heroes in “Breakfast of Champions”. There are three main characters. There is the teller of the tale, Kilgore Trout, and Dwayne Hoover.
Vonnegut clearly satirizes the maladies of the American twentieth century but he concretely reveals how wealth, poverty, and escapism grind people down and compel abhorrent, often violent, and insane acts. He exposes the American dream’s illusion of happiness.
In Vonnegut’s story, our Creator is a tinkerer who creates machines that are known as human beings. These human beings are set in motion, endowed with consciousness, and no longer controlled by the Creator. They are machines that follow the laws of physics and are self-sustaining, reincarnating machines that live forever without recollection of past lives.
The teller of the tale is not revealed until the last chapters of the book. It is the Creator of humankind.
Kilgore Trout is a science fiction writer who is invited by an admirer of his books to receive an award, in a coal mining town, for his pornographic science fiction stories. The award is for the greatest writer of all time. Trout is at first reluctant to take the trip to the coal mining town but succumbs to their acclaim for his fame and begins hitchhiking across the country to receive the award.
Dwayne Hoover is one of the richest men in the coal mining town from which Trout is receiving the award. Hoover is an auto dealer. He is the best employer in town, with the best employment package; including employee health plans.
However, the largest employer in town is a coal producer. The coal company is an environmental polluter, low wage provider, and the biggest cause of citizen illness in town.
Trout and Hoover may or may not know each other but the Creator knows what is going to happen when Trout finally arrives. In Trout’s hitchhiking progress he meets fellow machines (people who are coping with life). Their stories are of middle class lives that remind reader/listeners of the passions, weaknesses, and desires of all human beings. At the same time, the Creator explains what it is like for people that live in coal mining towns. There is Hoover’s “girl Friday”, the homosexual piano player, and an artist who is recently awarded $5,000 for a painting. Each machine (person) plays a role in a developing crisis that approaches at the speed of Trout’s hitchhiking progress.
A reader/listener feels bad things are going to happen as the story progresses. Hoover is taking what the Creator calls “bad chemicals”.
At one point Hoover cannot speak except to repeat one word of a sentence said to him by another. Hoover crosses the street and feels, with each step, he is sinking into the earth. Hoover returns to his office, calls his girl Friday, and says he needs her to come with him to a local motel room to relieve a persistent erection. Both Hoover and his girl Friday have lost their spouses; i.e. Hoover’s wife by suicide; girl Friday’s by war. They have been lovers for some time.
Hoover continues taking bad chemicals. The Creator arrives at a bar in town. Trout arrives at the same bar. The piano player is playing. It is somewhat unclear but Hoover shoots the piano player in the back of the head, and bludgeons his girl Friday.
Trout tries to stop the beating of the girl, and the tip of Trout’s finger is bitten off by Hoover. Hoover is arrested. The piano player is dead. Girl Friday is concussed, and Trout has his hand wrapped in a bloody handkerchief. Hoover is taken to jail; girl Friday, the dead piano player, and Trout are on their way to the hospital.
Vonnegut seems to be explaining that money is not happiness. Human beings have free will to be good, bad, morally upright, or insanely brutal.
Having a job that barely offers the basic necessities of life only reinforces machine-like living. Destruction of the environment diminishes those who work for dirty industries and those ancillary businesses that suck off polluter’s productivity. Drugs are a way of escaping reality but they have consequences. Some machines (people) fall off the edge of sanity, become violent, and sometimes murder innocent bystanders.
STEPHEN CRAIG PADDOCK (PERPETRATOR OF THE LAS VEGAS, NEVADA MASSACRE.)
“Breakfast of Champions” is not only a story of the 1970s. It is the story of yesterday’s school shootings, postal syndrome killings, the Paddock atrocity in Las Vegas, and Donald Trump’s delusional attempt to void America’s 2020 Presidential election. Vonnegut suggests a human being, whether there is a Creator or not, has free will. Vonnegut implies humans are choosing to be machines.
Sexual orientation, and what became known as LGBT rights, is hotly debated in America. Four rulings between 1996 and 2015 changed the rights of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. The Supreme Court invalidated a state law banning protected class recognition based on homosexuality; invalidated sodomy laws nationwide, denied the validity of the “Defense of Marriage Act”, and made same-sex marriage legal in America.
Nell Zink validates the direction of society’s recognition of LGBT rights in her book “Mislaid”. Zink creates four characters who illustrate how American equal rights for the LGBT community are changing. Lee, a husband, is gay. Peggy, his wife, is lesbian. Being gay or lesbian is a label implying gays only have sex with men and lesbians only have sex with women. “Mislaid” suggests that is a myth. Lee and Peggy clearly express their preference for same-sex liaisons; however, being gay or lesbian is a preference; not an inviolable mandate or predilection.
Humans may be seduced by the pleasure of sex regardless of sexual orientation. Though both Lee and Peggy are noted to have same-sex preference, they become man and wife and bare two children during their marriage. Just as the words gay and lesbian are labels, the same can be said of bisexual. Sexual acts are fundamentally gender neutral.
The disingenuous politicization of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by the governor of Florida is disgusting. The Disney corporation creates amusement parks for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.
A second myth that is exploded is that the children of gay and/or lesbian parents produce sexually confused offspring. Both the son and daughter of Lee and Peggy are heterosexual. Zink implies that sexual preference is a happenstance of genetics, not parental influence. Current science and sociological studies reinforce that belief.
Love between Lee and Peggy is not part of their sexual relationship. At best, it is a partnership of circumstance and convenience. Lack of love leads to divorce when their son is nine and their daughter is three.
Lee is the dominant presence in the relationship. Lee psychologically abuses his wife with extramarital affairs and ridicule that is focused on Peggy’s unrealistic literary ambition. Peggy’s reaction is to act out by driving her husband’s favorite car into a lake and eventually leaving her husband. Peggy expects to take both of her children with her but their nine-year-old son refuses to leave; in part because of Lee’s labeling of Peggy as psychologically unbalanced (another frequently misused label).
Each child grows up in starkly different environments. The boy becomes an academic athlete at William and Mary while the girl becomes a struggling scholarship-aid student at the same school. Their independent upbringing represents two ends of the spectrum of growing up in America. One, is a life of upper middle class wealth; the other a life of poverty. One shows the privilege of being a man and the difficulty of being a woman in a world largely controlled by men.
“Mislaid” could have been a much better novel. It deals with life’s complexity very well, but fails to engross its listener in its characters. A reader/listener’s empathy is rarely tapped by a story full of potential. However, Nell Zink deftly and intelligently covers a host of subjects that warrant the time it takes for the public to read or listen to “Mislaid”. It provides a better understanding of the LGBT community. It illustrates how much more difficult it is for an American woman than an American man to raise a child on her own.
ETHAN CANIN (AMERICAN AUTHOR, EDUCATOR AND PHYSICIAN)
“A Doubter’s Almanac” is a 21st century classic.
Though some may argue otherwise, Ethan Canin writes about a universal truth; i.e. “women are the sun; men are the moon”. Canin catalyzes one’s doubt and ambivalence about life’s meaning in a story about moral transgression, addiction, guilt, and redemption.
The story begins with details of a person with a superior intellect, and an amoral life. He is Milo Andret, a mathematician blessed with the ability to understand complex spatial relationships, even as they change shape.
Canin’s character, Milo. is a boy narcissist who matures into a misogynistic adult and dies as a repentant grandfather. Canin reveals the nature of geniuses who exploit their superiority.
Milo, like Ivan in “Brothers Karamazov”, treats others as superficial human beings who only have relevance in respect to what they can do for him. Milo is a self-absorbed genius that begins as a naïve young boy looking for recognition from others for a superiority that he only vaguely sees in himself.
Milo is a boy narcissist who matures into a misogynistic adult and dies as a repentant grandfather. Canin reveals the nature of geniuses who exploit their superiority. They will alienate others. Some will lie to win praise. They are awarded for presumed new discoveries that are beyond the reasoning ability of their peers.
Genius is shown to have a short productive life. Canin describes geniuses as God’s spies because they have momentary insight to the laws of nature. However, God designs human brains to deteriorate early in their lives. Once past the age of 30, God’s spies are blinded by mental deterioration.
Milo crosses that threshold just before discovering a mathematical proof that has escaped human understanding. Canin’s story suggests Milo fudges the truth of his mathematical proof by purposefully ignoring a false calculation.
Milo, like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, knows he has made a mistake, and punishes himself with alcohol, anti-social behavior, and misogyny.
Consciously, Milo attempts to redeem himself by teaching his son to become a mathematics topologist like himself. His son and daughter have inherited Milo’s ability to understand complex spatial relationships. However, Milo’s son also inherited his father’s addictive behavior.
Milo’s son turns to mind altering drugs just as his father turned to alcohol. They choose addiction to escape the pressure of their innate genius. Because of Milo’s misogyny, he discounts the nurturing role of his wife and innate ability of his daughter.
All who surround Milo are sycophantic because of his mathematics reputation. Milo knows his reputation is founded partly on a lie. He wishes to redeem himself with a new discovery but has lost his cutting edge genius. Milo is plunged deeper into misery by the realization that scientific discovery is an endless creation of new questions. One great mathematics proof only leads to another question and the search for another proof. Milo drinks himself to death, and his son is heading in the same direction.
Milo’s son abandons his mathematics career to become a financial Quant for an investment firm. He becomes a multi-millionaire before the age of twenty by arbitraging stock and commodities by hedging price movements in the market. The deterioration of his father’s health draws him back into the orbit of his father’s life.
The last two-thirds of Canin’s book is a dissection of Milo’s life and the future of Milo’s wife, two children, and two grandchildren. Milos is divorced by his wife after years of psychological abuse. His son returns to be with Milo to understand why Milo became the father and person he had become. Milo’s daughter and wife are estranged but eventually come back to see Milo in his last years of life.
The final scenes of Milo’s life are a summation of Canin’s view of human nature. Death is a Sisyphean struggle for Milo. The beginning of his life is symbolized by a long chain he carves out of a single piece of wood when a boy. It is a beginning recognition of his genius. It is later revealed in an interview with a mathematics professor that becomes Milo’s champion and mentor in college. This chain becomes the lynchpin of Milo’s life. The professor recognizes topographic genius in Milo’s ability to create a perfect chain out of one piece of wood.
MILO’S CARVED WOODEN CHAIN-This chain becomes the lynchpin of Milo’s life.
The chain’s linkage with seminal events in Milo’s life re-occurs when it is offered by him to his first love. She recognizes the chain as a proof of his genius. However, she refuses to take the chain as a gift. His first love leaves him; partly for another man, but primarily because of her youth and the wish to experience the adventure of life.
The chain reappears at the end of Milo’s life. The most important people in his life are present; e.g. an early mathematics competitor of Milo’s who marries Milo’s first love, his first love, his wife, his son, his daughter, and two grandchildren. A confrontation occurs. One of the links in the chain is chipped when the chain is thrown, by the daughter, at the husband of Milo’s first love. Milo’s former mathematics competitor explains to the assembled group that Milo is the failure he predicted he would be when they were young.
The uproar from the mathematics competitor’s declamation reinforces two themes in Canin’s story. One, science proofs are at best leaders to future unknowns or, at worst, false starts that are dead-end mistakes. In either case, a genius, let alone an average seeker, never achieves a satisfying conclusion. In searching for the unknown, life is wasted. Second, all the genius or average seeker can do is “never give up”.
Canin has written a good story; expertly narrated by David Baker. It is a tribute to the seekers of proof about the nature of existence. The nature of existence seems beyond the grasp of the human mind but Canin implies neither men nor women should ever give up.
What Canin’s hero confirms is that women are the sun and men are the moon. Nature and nurture make us who we are but the principal source of our power is the sun.
Anthony Horowitz offers a mystery within a mystery. Anthony Horowitz successfully suspends imagination and compels listeners to know “who done it” in two intertwined mysteries. As an added benefit, Horowitz offers insight to the writing profession. He explains the genre of mystery with a fictional editor who manages a curmudgeonly, difficult, and successful mystery writer. The writer commits suicide or is murdered while writing his last book, MAGPIE MURDERS.
An audio-book listener is drawn into the story of MAGPIE MURDERS but finds the last chapter is missing. The listener’s imagination is suspended. Who is the killer? Horowitz’s fictional editor trails the mystery of the last chapter. While trailing the last chapter, she investigates the suicide or murder of the writer.
Somewhat frustratingly, the listener wants to know who the MAGPIE MURDERS’ killer is. Was the last chapter completed? And then, the listener is drawn into the fictional editor’s mystery of whether the writer purposefully committed suicide or was shoved off a balcony.
At times, MAGPIE MURDERS has too many words. The distracting part of Horowitz’s book is the fictional editor’s digressive readings of other writer’s poorly written stories that show the difference between good and bad writing. Parenthetically, Horowitz explains why writing can be frustrating for financially rewarded authors. Bestsellers are a reflection of commercial success; not necessarily literary quality or contribution. What holds the story together is the listener’s captured desire to know who killed whom. Who is the MAGPIE MURDERS’ murderer? Is there a murderer of the mystery writer?
The audio-book director’s decision to have two narrators, one a woman; the other a man, helps make the experience of the book more understandable. The intertwining mysteries are clearly delineated by the change in narrators. Both mysteries maintain the listener’s interest in Horowitz’s book. The MAGPIE MURDERS is a primer for good writers and an entertainment for mystery fans.