Archive » July 6, 2006
By Shelly Lowenkopf
Summer is icumen in Lhude sing cucu.
– 13th Century England
In much the same way as television networks determining that summer is a time of the rerun, the larger among the book publishers have set forth the months of June, July, and August as primetime for the plot-driven thriller, the chick-lit satire, and the women-are-different-but-men-are-more-different expose.
Few of these titles will be around come September and October, the get-back-to-work months, finding a comfortable and less expensive venue in the pages of the mail-order remainder catalogues and the Internet venues such as Amazon. One such title is “Telegraph Days,” billed by Larry McMurtry. Attempting to cash in further on McMurtry’s association with the West-of-the-Past, which is to say “Lonesome Dove,” and the West of the Present, which links us directly to “The Last Picture Show,” and “Horseman Pass By,” the publisher, Simon and Schuster, is attempting to draw us along in the slip-stream of these estimable books. Indeed, the publisher would like nothing better because now – repeat, now – they have used their economy-of-scale awareness to justify a hefty first printing. Lucky Daedalus. Lucky Amazon.com.
Told from the point of view of Nellie Courtright, a spunky – that’s what Simon and Schuster calls her – young woman who is faced with, among other things, raising a rebellious younger brother after the chapter-one suicide of their father, “Telegraph Days” attempts to be the literary equivalent of the 18-wheeler, passing a VW Bug on the highway, drawing said Bug into its momentum. S & S is pushing the book as literature, a thing it did not do with the aforementioned McMurtry titles, all of which are, indeed, literature. It is a big book in the sense of trying to incorporate real individuals into the life of this fictional lady, a big book in the sense of having a wide-eyed vision of the horizon. But as – and if – you read well into the work, you’ll quickly see that were the author not McMurtry, economy of scale would be the last thing a potential publisher would be looking at.
On the other hand.
What a difference 500 or 1,000 miles makes. There is a literary border running parallel to the southern expanses of the U.S. Above the border, we get one kind of novel of ideas; below it, starting with Mexico and working its way downward toward the extremities of Tierra del Fuego, we get another. Even writers who now live in the U.S. –Isabel Allende, say – and continue to write of Meso- and Latin-America, write around their subjects as opposed to the more American approach of writing at their subjects.
During the school year, Edmundo Paz Soldan lives in Ithaca, New York, teaching at Cornell. The rest of the time, he is “at home” in his native Bolivia. Frequently published there, he has come forth with his first novel to be published in English in this country, “Turning’s Delirium,” from Houghton Mifflin.
Originally published in South America as “Rio Fugitivo,” the novel was given a new and vital life thanks to its translator, Lisa Carter. The already intense ambiguity between oppressed and oppressor is enhanced by what is not said, making us waver in our conviction about moral certainty. The ambiguous goals of the specific characters in the novel add an even more tense conversation about who is the freer – the oppressor or the oppressed.
The city of Rio Fugitivo does not exist except in this book. There are frightening presences of CIA, FBI, iPods, computers, national security agencies, computer hackers, and virtual games. Some of the characters, educated in the U.S., have lost their regional accent. Even though they speak idiomatic Spanish, the thought of their “northern-ness” is ever present. So, too, is the fact of a number of them having preoccupations with The Enigma and other code-related machines from times past, while others, still, are looking carefully for meanings that might not exist within documents.
What about Kandinsky, the leader of a group of hackers who are fighting the government and transnational companies (who may or may not have been set up in the first place by the CIA)? Is his name real, or did he take it on simply because he liked the fact that it sounded like a code word? What about Miguel Saenz, the Black Chamber’s most famous code breaker of all time?
Or, for that matter, what about Ruth Saenz, his wife, who has felt a need to reveal secrets about her husband to a judge, who is at this very moment wrestling with a matter of moral weight? “There will be very serious consequences. For your husband, perhaps even you. You may regret it.” Ruth thinks this over for a moment before her reply: “Perhaps. But that comes later, and right now I’m only concerned with the present.”
The list goes on, including the daughter of a major character who has hacked her father’s records. “I think I know who could help us,” Marisa asserts. “She’s young, likely still in high school. Her name is Flavia, and she maintains the most up-to-date site on Latin American hackers. Sometimes – I don’t know how she does it – she manages to get exclusive interviews with them.”
Within “Turning’s Delirium,” which is a literary thriller, we have the ongoing battle of an electronic battle, in which the victim is the government, the perpetrators are the hackers. What do these hackers want? Why are they sending forth these worms and viruses? What will they do next?
Edmundo Paz Soldan has given us a fictionalized text book of a revolution that is, in fact, going on right now in blog sites and cyber-cafés. Lest you think I’m waxing rhetorical, check out some of the blogs dealing with so-called Net Neutrality.
“Those computers were used via telnet to launch the attack,” Soldan writes. “The owners are innocent. We’re tracing the virus’s steps – its fingerprints, so to speak. But we probably won’t find the source, the mother computer. Just like before. The Resistance tends to be very careful.”
Coming forth from Doubleday/Anchor Books, edited by Laura Furman, “The 2006 O. Henry Prize Stories.” There are 20 short stories, selected from the many hundreds published the past year in magazines and journals throughout the U.S. A number of the stories are from authors who have no reputation, making a nice salute of process to those responsible for winnowing the wheat from the chaff. Deborah Eisenberg, William Trevor, Louise Erdrich, and Melanie Rae Thon are names that call forth earlier pleasing results. My favorite among the relatively unknown writers appeared in Harper’s Magazine. It is David Means’s “Sault Ste. Marie,” and in large measure takes place on a ship plying the Great Lakes.
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