Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | March 29, 2011

On the Hundredth Idiot

Christmas brought the new Jonathan Franzen,Freedom novel that had been so heralded I put it at the top of the list. Starting it at the gym, friends came over to tell me how much they liked it. One even said she’d already read it two or three times. Said she couldn’t get through his earlier The Corrections but this one… was so much better. It was great! Uh huh. Well, maybe… but I’m curmudgeon enough to find popular things…  difficult.

So I moved on to Iain M. Banks, Matter. This was a random pick at Borders on round one’s closing sale. Oddly enough, the guy at the counter raved about it, made a couple of other suggestions, and told me how much he enjoyed the author’s other works. As my wife said, “This is why we go to bookstores. We’ll miss this place.” Yes we will. The book was actually night and day better than Franzen’s… maybe not as well written in language and detail, but writers of science fiction face difficulties in setting their backgrounds a “realist” like Franzen would never face.

Often in SciFi, the exotica  can overwhelm a good story, but not here. Banks is sufficiently creative and detailed that he even provides a touch of comic relief in the humor he attaches to the starship names. The plot is well developed… and the story includes a Worldgod religion to which he even gives reasonably balanced treatment but whether he had or not, it lends a dimension of fullness to the work that is so often missing. Yet I felt the ending was a bit unworthy of the rest: It’s too sudden, a bit of a downer, and presupposes you’re moving on to the next book. “Like f’sure.”  For my 550 pages, guess I expect better than simply jumping out the rear door, pulling the rip cord, screaming “See you next week…” and leaving you hanging in mid air with a landing problem or two. So you get ’bout 540 good pages… if you know what I mean… and the whole experience reminds me of that sort of horse know as “the Teaser”.

However, I thought I’d share the lone passage from the book that’s gone viral in its popularity on the rather high odds you’ll miss this one. Sounds so much like a Russian folk joke, how could you miss? Anyway, there are blogs all over that quote it. And of course it conveys one of those ship names:

“The source of my name,” the vessel had replied, “The Hundredth Idiot“, is a quotation: ‘One hundred idiots make idiotic plans and carry them out. All but one justly fail. The hundredth idiot, whose plan succeeded through pure luck, is immediately convinced he’s a genius.’ It is an old proverb.” p. 281

Undoubtedly. Wish I’d read this last spring.

From there, I’ve focused on my Lenten reading where of course reach exceeds my grasp. The books keep piling up, but we’re running out of journeying room. Looks like I’ll knocking off only one, but at least it’s a good one: Sotos Chondropoulos’s Saint Nektarios: The Saint of our Century. Given the passage of time, it might be retitled “their century”, but no matter. It is a delightful read, and Nektarios a gentle soul one enjoys following from Egypt to Greece and throughout. What appeals in particular is his balanced life in the world. Here is an example of an ascetic so thoroughly practiced in its humility the monks on Mt. Athos were astounded.  False accusations of an envious few seem to follow him all his days, topple him from his Metropolitanite, and drive him to great works of teaching, writing, administration. His charity embraced all the people of the Church, but especially the common men and women, the poor and the hungry. His joy in working the vineyard never ceases to amaze his companions. And ultimately you can’t help but sense that here is a good (if not monastic) model for manhood in an Orthodox family.  This is highly recommended, and Chondropoulos provides a well written narrative that is a relief from more typical hagiographies.

Okay, back to Freedom. Does modern fiction really have to be so dysfunctional? The contrast with Banks is that in this case Franzen’s pretense to unbalanced “realism” stands in the way of a good story. Odd, huh? Don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself… at the library. I guess we all have something wrong, but the wrongs in Franzen’s lives seem so much more exaggerated that the pretense to realism loses its believability. And though the unbalance in its tilt completes and complements the picture, we’ve seen it so many times before I have to wonder is this really all that much of an accomplishment anymore?

Without a sense of relief, or a sense that all this depression is leading somewhere… maybe even to repentance and new life, it seemed to this reader to miss the American spirit’s insistence on “fiddly-dee, tomorrow ‘s another day” to such an extent, it compelled a choice of TV or suicide about page 185. You usually switch off the TV to read, but how often do you put a book down to turn on the tube? ‘Nuff said.  And yes, I know it’s fashionable among some folks to insist ol’ Scarlett’s one-liner is nothing but nostalgic claptrap and emblematic of so much more that is wrong in American society, but y’know… to parallel the Woodman’s most famous quote, “As hollow experiences go, it’s one of the best.” So maybe I’m the hundredth idiot reader in this case and missing the balance of a great tale that turns positive, but until I hear otherwise, the book is closed and stayin’ closed.

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