The Prometheus Deception
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I am giving up on yet another book, Robert Ludlum’s The Prometheus Deception. I made it to page 89 but I feel as though it is written for high schoolers who need help seeing things.  First, a synopsis of the first few pages because it is an interesting idea.  Bryson is a spook working for The Directorate, a super secret organization fighting the evil commies.  So super secret that the Presidential award he is awarded cannot be given to him, he is given only a glimpse of it.  An error happens and Bryson is put to pasture as an academic in Pennsylvania.  At first I was offended, as though academics were so easy to get into, but then it is Pennsylvania (remind me someday to tell of my experience with an education major from a tiny liberal arts school in central PA).

A few years go by and Bryson is contacted by the CIA who tell him that The Directorate was instead a KGB (or was it GRU?) front set up to recruit the best and the brightest (common knowledge in the Reagan years that we were much smarter and capable) who did not have to pose as Americans.  Bryson then goes to uncover the current workings of The Directorate.  An intereting idea, so interesting that I am fairly certain I have encountered it somewhere else.  Have I tried to read this book before and gave it up then as well?

The scene where I finally called no mas finds Bryson on a large container ship that is an arms merchant platform.  His cover is blown and he is on the run.  He runs into the engine room.  The lights are turned off and he is being pursued by four men using night vision goggles, never mind the heat from the engines ought to wreck the utility of the NVGs.  Bryson is trapped against a bulkhead and shooting blindly.  Someone else enters and shoots his pursuers dead.  The other, a woman – sacre bleu! – turns on a light and tells him to follow.  Bryson, of course, argues and tests her for it not being a trap.  A trap?  Even if it is a trap, of course it is you undercover spook, you go with her because not going with her means death.  Ludlum decides to lecture the readers with the following nonsensical exchange.

Bryson stared at the woman.

“Come on!” she called, her voice rising in desperation.  “If I wanted to kill you, I would have done so already.  I’ve got the advantage, I’ve got the infrared – not you.”

“You don’t have the the advantage now,” Bryson called back, his grip steady on his stolen weapon, lowered at his side.

“”I know this ship inside and out.  Now, if you want to stay here and play games, be my guest.  I have no choice now but to get off the ship.  Calcanis’s security force is large – there are plenty of others, probably on their way right now.”  With her free hand she pointed toward an object mounted high on one of the bulkheads near the ceiling of the generator room.  Bryson recognized it as a surveillance camera….Unlatching [a hatch cover], she glanced back and jerked her head toward the opening, signalling him to follow.

Bryson hesitated no more than a few seconds before he did so. (95)

Really?  We needed all that?  Of course not, but for some reason Ludlum thought we did.  And.  And, I had left out about a paragraph of her explaining to him how following her was his only option.  No shit. I also left out the end of the previous chapter where she is again telling him he has no option but to follow her.

There were other moments of the book, but that passage was the straw that broke my back.  I love thrillers and even mysteries but why are so many of them written with such disdain for the reader?  I think of writing as I think of TV.  Maybe the audience is fille dof mainly idiots, but that’s okay as long as the story is interesting and the writing good.  People comeback for more, they understand there are smarter people in the world and most people are fine with that.  ER was a show that proved that theory.

Here is the problem now, what to read next?  I am away from my library and I only have heady stuff left but I am in the mood for some lighter fare.  Just not Ludlum light.

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Paul la Farge has a review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones in the newest issue of The Believer.  Criticized as too encyclopedic and too sadistic (the protagonist is an SS officer that killed his mother and stepfather, anally rapes his sister and enjoys his job overseeing the Lublin concentration camp) la Farge, agreeing with those sentiments, wants to find out why it is such a compelling read.

La Farge seems particularly captivated by the encyclopedic nature of the book.  Max Aue, the protagonist, is painted by la Farge more as a scanner and less person, taking in everything and remembering everything with inhumane clarity in a strategic realism– a “refusal to sort important from unimportant”. (4)

There is then a meander through Eichmann’s trials and Arendt’s reporting of the trial culminating in her Banality of Evil.  To avoid the banality of citing the banality (la Farge’s joke, not mine) he paraphrases it (well done, in my opinion) as “the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away…?” (6)  Why is this banality, this overemphasis of information over knowledge so compelling?  La Farge does not venture a guess except to cite the constitutive lack, that people are intrinsically incomplete.  This is also the reason la Farge claims The Kindly Ones is so compelling: “it offers a complete world that masks the reader’s incompleteness; its fantastic descriptions set ablaze those lazy (or young, or sad) minds that want nothing to be left to the imagination.” (8)

I do not believe la Farge is honest when he says this method is persuasive to the lazy, young or sad.  La Farge was compelled by The Kindly Ones and I doubt he would group himself into those pejorative labels.  Instead, it is quite likely that la Farge believes all people are compelled by the constitutive lack and consequently all people find the totalitarian story compelling.  This is where la Farge’s argument breaks down: psychoanalysis can reduce people’s urges to a primal cause but all people then interpret the solution to that same cause differently.

Some may be drawn to the totalitarian state and yet others may be drawn to classic auto shows while some are drawn to Furry Conventions or picking navel lint.  In a strict reduction we may appear alike but we all manifest differently.  The constituent lack does not explain why The Kindly Ones is compelling.  La Farge knows this problem exists for his argument which is why he sets out the purpose of the essay with a qualification that denies the very exigency for the purpose: “The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers[emphasis mine].  The question I want to ask is, why?”  Why does the question need to be asked if this book, like all books, is about preference?

What la Farge’s essay completely overlooks in the success of The Kindly Ones is style.  I am surprised to see this error in a post-Seinfeld world.  Jerry and George launched a sitcom about nothing.  They realized that content is irrelevant as long as the writing is good.  People want to be entertained and what they find entertaining is nearly irrelevant.  ER also provided this lesson.  Critics and producers told Michael Crichton the show was to jargon filled.  Too technical.  Crichton correctly took the chance that people were engaged not by the accuracy of a technology but by compelling characters and stories.   No content can sell and too much content can sell.  It’s all about storytelling.  La Farge spends no time talking about style.  He does, however, cite (4) a passage towards the end of the book to demonstrate his scanner theory, but the passage really demonstrates less realism and more style.  Good writing sells even if, nay especially if, we hate the protagonist.

La Farge’s essay is useful for other questions though.  His description and paraphrasing of Arendt’s banality of evil is one of the better concisions I have ever encountered.  La Farge also provides a persuasive account, not at all unlike Erich Fromm’s, of why people are drawn to submission.  There is also a nice walk through ancient Greek literature particularly the Orestes (otherwise known as The Kindly Ones.)  The best part of la Farge’s essay though is a theory about information and knowledge drawn out of Arendt’s theorizations.  Eichmann had information about the camps he oversaw but he did not know the camps.  This break is helpful when analyzing our own world for resistance to change.

For example, Easterly has recently decided to take on the critics who call poverty a human rights violation.  He claims a human rights violation is best reserved for when a victim and a perpetrator can be (easily?) identified.  Easterly then says that while he knows how bad poverty is that these calls are counterproductive.  I will admit that history is on Easterly’s side but that is only because the game is rigged.  The transcript of success can only measure immediate causes and their effects.  The larger calls which shape policies are ignored and the ‘true’ human rights violations are treated as deus ex machina.  Easterly’s criticism fails because of the information/knowledge distinction la Farge raises.  Easterly has information about the ravages of poverty but he does not know poverty.  If he knew poverty he would be more adamant about solving it if for no other reason than he would not sit in his current position en-privileged by the very poverty he wants to fight.

In conclusion I offer William Blake’s words in “The Human Abstract”:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

Easterly, William.  (2009).  Aid Watch, http://blogs.nyu.edu/fas/dri/aidwatch/2009/06/paul_farmer_and_the_human_righ.html.

la Farge, Paul.  (2009).  A scanner darkly.  The Believer, 66, 3-8.

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