Monday, May 15, 2006

A Tryst for Two
"The Floating Opera"
by John Barth

John Barth says his novels come in pairs, and in keeping with his spirit, I'm rereading his first two novels as a pair. Out loud. It's very insightful listening to the words of someone you so admire, as I do John Barth, because you see the genius of his words and at the same time get that sinking feeling that no matter how hard you try you'll never be as good as that. Plus, several times, it was quite a challenge not to get tongue tied.

The Floating Opera, then, whose counterpart, according to its author, will be the soon featured The End of the Road (the two are sold as a pair under the same cover), is a raucous adventure through a day in the life of one very interesting anti-hero named Todd Andrews. That's right: one day. Barth is obviously attempting a literary tradition trying to pull a novel out of one day, the likes of which Joyce has done in momentous form with Ulysses as well as countless others. The upside is it's fantastic fun. Andrews is witty and clever, he's shifty and reasonable, he's the guy every guy wishes he could be without really ever wishing they could be him. Todd Andrews is a lawyer, he's been a saint and a cynic previously, and on the day in question, he's planning to kill himself.

So suicide in all its controversy (more so I'm sure in 1957) is highlighted gloriously, arguments made for its necessity and rebutted for its inherent paradox (if life has no value, and suicide is thus useful, then death has no value, and suicide is thus useless). Along the way we meet a cast of interesting characters, including the beautiful Jane Mack, wife of best friend Harrison Mack, who Todd has an affair with with both Harrison's knowledge and consent, their daughter Jeannine (who may or may not be Todd's), the Dorchester County Explorer's Club, and many, many more. It touches on everything from war to the law to relationships, and yet, like its narrator, commits to nothing. It's a full boat, The Floating Opera, but it will never sink.

The cover's great, and while it's about the author's beloved Maryland Tidewater area, which he writes magnificently about, it makes me really want to visit the south.

A Life of Abstraction
"The Seven Mysteries of Life"
by Guy Murchie

Ever wonder what it all means?

Guy Murchie did - for twenty some years (more, probably, because he's got more books). And the result of his fruitful ponderings is The Seven Mysteries of Life.

Life, Murchie begins, is only one part of existence, and to understand this, we must step back and take a look at the world from a birds-eye view. As an outsider, we see the intricate workings of the planet and are astounded by many things. Along the way Murchie finds and elaborates almost every conceivable mystery man has ever taken into consideration and turns them into a (most often) one-sided argument. Humans, according to Murchie, are interrelated with kingdoms, even species, evolutionarily and genetically (one and the same I suppose) so that we all are mere thousands of generations apart, given the species or kingdom. Plants behave maliciously as some predators, a flock of birds pictured from above resembles an island, and on and on until there are no delineations between anything and this world is a seed in germination of something larger. Examples abound to support Murchie's conclusions, but examples are not enough because examples do not hold up his argument alone.

The fallacy of the book is its age, and the fact that Murchie takes for granted some conclusions that have yet to be proven or even given credibility. The arguments may rest on faulty precis, but they lends to some interesting conclusions - even if they are falsely achieved. Its ability to ask questions, not answer them, is the strength of the book, and rightfully so, for it is called The Seven Mysteries of Life. So the bulk of his arguments ends up resting on a single card, paper thin, and all is needed is a semi-keen mind to blow it down. Still, the book does what its title suggests best: asks questions. Indeed, it makes connections between the cell of a human body analagous to the human body in relation to the earth, the earth to the galaxy, the galaxy to the universe. Even rocks have a place in the living, breathing, universe, and everything, from cars to plants to insects to humans is just a smaller part of a larger organism which behaves in much the same way (homeostasis-wise) as we humans do.

The best books get you interested in things. They get your mind going. They lead you to new interests and reinvigorate you to pursue old ones. This one has done it many times over for me, from a renewed interest in the microscopic world to finding out who my ancestors are. And even though the argument may be faulty, the conclusions lead to some interesting insights. Truth is a drop in an ocean of uncertainty, and most times imagining the possibilities those uncertainties have is enough to make one wish there never is a concrete answer to the seven, or any, mysteries of life.

This book weighs more than the soul does according to researchers quoted by Guy Murchie.