Steven Millhauser: The Wizard of West Orange

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 8

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I selected the Two of Diamonds for Week 8 of my Deal Me In 2015 Short Story project which is also my first Wild Card.  I decided to jump into the twenty-first century for this one and read Steven Millhauser’s “The Wizard of West Orange”.  I stumbled upon this story as I browsed my branch of the local library and found the 2008 edition of the Best American Short Stories edited by Salman Rushdie. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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I have occasionally heard that there truly exist only thirteen story plots.  I’ve never heard exactly what any of these plots are so I don’t know how true that statement is.  As I’m reading “The Wizard of West Orange”, I found myself thinking that maybe Millhauser has discovered a fourteenth plot because the story is so unusual.  As I read further, I realized that the story did significantly resemble Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; however, “Wizard” contained uniqueness and ingenuity in rare form.

In 1889, the Wizard, while not the protagonist, manages a research laboratory specializing in invention, and among other things, testing a new machine called a phonograph.  This information calls to mind another Wizard from Menlo Park.  I found it interesting that Menlo Park, NJ is also near West Orange, NJ.  In the story, no names are mentioned – he is simply the Wizard.

A research librarian tells the story through his journal entries and he is the character the reader gradually gets to know.  In addition to what could be called the conventional inventions or those machines that have become commonplace in the world, the Wizard and his associates are experimenting with a machine called a haptograph that records sensations to the skin or touch – similar to the way a phonograph records sound or a camera records sight:

Mimicry and invention.  Splendor of the haptograph. Not just the replication of familiar tactile sensations, but capacity to explore new combinations – pressures, touches, never experienced before.  Adventures of feeling. Who can say what new sensations will be awakened, what unknown desires? Unexplored realms of the tangible. The frontiers of touch.

The reader understands that the Wizard is aware of these experiments; however, he isn’t involved in the story to the degree that the narrator and other associates are. He’s simply always there – in the background.  As one might expect with a story like this, not everything goes according to plan. Ultimately, it’s the Wizard that determines how far the experiment will go.

Thinking about the fact that so many of the senses are able to be recorded or replicated, it came to me as a surprise that the recording of touch has never become commonplace. Perhaps that’s why this story seems so unique.

Millhauser is an imagination worth reading.

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Salman Rushdie: Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship (Santa Fe, AD 1492)

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For Week 42 of my Deal Me In 2014 project, I drew my third wild card, the Two of Hearts.  I chose a short story from Salman Rushdie’s collection East, West: Stories.  The collection contains nine stories: three relating to the Eastern world, three the Western world and three that are a combination of the two.  The story I selected is from the West section: “Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship (Sante Fe, AD 1492).”  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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I am amazed at how well Rushdie develops his fictional characters of Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain in so few pages.  I think the title is longer than the actual story.

He portrays Queen Isabella with all of the emotional complexities that come with being an absolute monarch set on taking over the world – known or unknown.  Christopher Columbus is suave and sophisticated on the outside.  Inside, he is the crazy person wandering in the wilderness wanting to sail off the edge of the world.

What does Columbus request of Queen Isabella?  Consummation.  Is it consummation of a business deal that will give him the means to accomplish his mission to the world’s edge?  Is it the more traditional, well-known meaning of consummation?  That’s the question and there is no exact answer.  Does it matter?

History has given us the answer to the business deal question.  Read the story (it’ll take twenty minutes) to see about the answer to the other one.

In spite of the subject matter, Rushdie handles the story very delicately and perhaps even modestly.  A sweetness exists to the relationship between the two historical figures – a sweetness in a world-domination sort of way.

Banned Book Awareness Week 2014

This week is Banned Book Awareness Week and typically during this week each year, I read a banned book in celebration of my freedom to discern for myself what I will read or not read.  I actually have two books that I plan to read; however, due to an extra busy work schedule, I’m fairly certain that neither will get read completely this week.  So look for future posts about these books that have been found on banned book lists during the last few decades:

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

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Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

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I also have two more wild cards in my Deal Me In 2014 Short Story Project and whenever one of those pops up, I plan to read a short story by Salman Rushdie, one of the more extreme victims of book banning that I can think of in my lifetime.  I would also recommend Rushdie’s literary thriller of a memoir Joseph Anton,  an entertaining thriller if it wasn’t for the fact that it was true.  I posted about it here.

So maybe October will be Banned Book Month for me.  In the meantime, celebrate your freedom to read!

Summer Reading Plans

It may not  be officially summer, but with Memorial Day weekend behind us, I started thinking of what I will potentially be reading for the next few months.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has taken me longer than I had planned.  I am on page 506 out of 536.  Look for a final post within the next few days.

Non-fiction tends to always be a little scarce on my reading list so I am going to start out the summer with two non-fiction titles that I’ve wanted to read for a while.  One of them is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  Over the last year, this title seems to pop up frequently.  As I’ve heard that Cain’s focus tends to be introverts in the business world, I’m very curious about what she has to say.

The other non-fiction title I have on my list is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.  This book is perhaps the book that has been recommended to me the most that I still have not read.  I also thought it would coincide well with our family vacation to Philadelphia and New York City in about a week.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Starship Troopers

It’s also time for my third annual summertime Heinlein/Hemingway match-up.  I started this tradition inadvertently during the summer of 2011 prior to blogging.  A friend of mine recommended Robert A. Heinlein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and my then book club The Indy Reading Coalition had selected Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as our book for June of that year.  I didn’t think anything of it until last summer (2012) when I read Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land just before rereading Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.  It was then that I decided to do the same thing this summer.  My plan is to read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and reread Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  I’m looking forward to both of them.

A Farewell to Arms

I also want to finish Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories and read Kurt Vonnegut’s collection Welcome to the Monkeyhouse.  

I could possibly throw in a newer book such as Khaled Hosseini’s And The Mountain’s Echoed.  I enjoyed his novel The Kite Runner a number of years ago.  I want to at least read one of Salman Rushdie’s novels this year.  The summer might be a good time to do that.  Midnight’s Children is the one I’ve got my eye on.

As usual, the best-laid reading plans can change in an instant, if a different book catches my interest.  We’ll see how the summer plays out.  How about you?  What are your plans for reading this summer?

Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie

I’ve now finished the other book I started at the end of 2012, Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie.  It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been 24 years since Iran issued a fatwa (death sentence) against Rushdie after he published his novel The Satanic Verses, a novel deemed blasphemous by some fundamentalist Muslim leaders.

I’ve never read any of Rushdie’s novels (that will hopefully change this year) but I happened to see an interview with him on the gloriously boring BookTV (weekends on CSPAN-2) channel and was surprised at how humorous and good-natured he appeared.  His thoughts on free-thinking and freedom of speech prompted me to check out his memoir that he recently published.  I now highly recommend it.

Born and raised in India by parents with Muslim backgrounds, Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, won the Booker Prize in 1981.  He seems to have always considered India to be his home even when he was banned from stepping foot in the country.

If it wasn’t for the fact that a man’s life was at stake, I would find the situation with The Satanic Verses rather humorous.  The leaders of the free world don’t want to appear to be against free speech and free thought but at the same time they don’t want to appear to be blaspheming a major world religion.  A man simply writing fiction put them in quite a conundrum.  I laughed when Rushdie said Margaret Thatcher was much more “touchy-feely” than one would have imagined.  He didn’t have much fondness for her; however, he doesn’t display much fondness for any heads of state regardless of their political persuasion.  Many of them found it easier to blame him for “stirring up trouble” than to blame an actual nation.

Rushdie’s story at times takes on the feel of a literary political thriller:  one has to stop and realize that this really happened.  He seems proudest of the fact that through all of this he was able to maintain a relationship with and be a father to his two sons.  With all of the frustrations of being under police protection, he developed a bond with his protectors that lead to a gracious parting at the end of the book.  They all called him “Joe” as his code name was “Joseph Anton” (because it had a better ring than “Conrad Chekov”).

He also talks about socializing with the world’s literary aristocracy.  Some supported him, some didn’t.  I found his letters back and forth between John LeCarre, who did not support him, surprising.  He talks of hanging out with Kurt Vonnegut; however, prior to the fatwa, he gave Vonnegut’s book Hocus Pocus a less-than-stellar review.  They didn’t have much to do with each other after that.  I’m dating myself, but I remember Vonnegut appearing on a talk show around the time that all this broke out.  He spoke in support of Rushdie and of free speech.

Rushdie has some great thoughts on freedom of speech and freedom of expression and the book is very quotable.  I think this paragraph superbly sums up his ideas about the importance of this freedom and the importance of literature itself:

All writers and readers knew that human beings had broad identities, not narrow ones, and it was the breadth of human nature that allowed readers to find common ground and points of identification with Madame Bovary, Leopold Bloom, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Raskolnikov, Gandalf the Gray, Oskar Matzerath, the Makioka Sisters, the Continental Op, the Earl of Emsworth, Miss Marple, the Baron of the Trees, and Salo the mechanical messenger from the planet Tralfamadore in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan.  Readers and writers could take that knowledge of broad-based identity out into the world beyond the pages of books, and use the knowledge to find common ground with their fellow human beings.  You could support different football teams but vote the same way.  You could vote for different parties but agree about the best way to raise your children.  You could disagree about child rearing but share a fear of the dark.  You could be afraid of different things but love the same music.  You could detest each other’s musical taste but worship the same God.  You could differ strongly on the question of religion but support the same football team.

Slaughterhouse Five and more ramblings on book banning

I’ve never been a black and white thinker.  Most issues in life seem to fit into gray areas for me.  It’s why I rarely discuss politics with friends.  I’ve come to be perfectly fine with that.  I have a feeling many people who advocate banning books somehow do not see the world in these gray areas.

I wonder if Kurt Vonnegut was a gray thinker.  I saw him once on a talk show where he defended Salman Rushdie at the time when religious zealots were trying to kill Rushdie for a novel he wrote – book banning at it’s extreme.  I also read a letter he wrote to politicians reminding them that the United States (including Vonnegut, himself) has fought wars against countries who burned books.  I probably would not be as much of a book fan if I did not appreciate the power of storytelling and the written word.  At the same time, books seem significantly less threatening than weapons – like guns.  What is there to be afraid of about a book?  Apparently, there’s something.

I finished re-reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five today although it seemed like I had never read it.  I didn’t remember much of it.  I remembered it being a fictional account of Billy Pilgrim, an American POW in Dresden, Germany when the Allied Forces bombed Dresden toward the end of World War II.  I also remember that Vonnegut, himself, had been an American POW in Germany.  I did not remember that Vonnegut makes himself a background character in the novel.  Billy becomes unstuck in time due to an extraterrestrial encounter on the planet Tralfamadore.  He jumps back and forth between childhood, adulthood, parenthood, marriage and soldier.  I recently read a description of Vonnegut by his son who said that his dad was an optimist trying to be a pessimist.  The humor in each paragraph of this book combines with Billy Pilgrim’s depression to provide more than adequate evidence for his son’s observation.  One sentence that struck me as both hilarious and sad describes Billy’s mother when he was a kid during the Great Depression on a trip out west:

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

In regards to books, on Tralfamadore, one of its residents beautifully explains to Billy how they view books:

There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.  What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

If I had to explain to someone what I love about books, I would probably use this quote.

Finally, in a hospital conversation between Billy and a retired military professor, Rumfoord, I think Vonnegut gets to the heart of the matter about his views on his war experience which do not seem as black and white as many of his critics would try to paint him:

“It had to be done,” Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.

“I know,” said Billy.

“That’s war.”

“I know.  I’m not complaining.”

“It must have been hell on the ground.”

“It was,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“Pity the men who had to do it.”

“I do.”

“You must have had mixed feelings, there on the ground.”

“It was all right,” said Billy.  “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.  I learned that on Tralfamadore.”