The Monkey Wrench Gang

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Another book which has gained in relevance over the past few years, The Monkey Wrench Gang is the story of four brave souls who set out to stop the ecological destruction of the American West by sabotaging construction machinery, bridges, and power plants. Complete with a happy ending, this story mixes Hunter S. Thompson hi-jinks with a deeper environmental and sociological message.

Part of the reason why I picked this book up was because of the legacy of Edward Abbey himself, a legitimate representative of the great American tradition of independents, libertarians and free thinkers a la Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, and Muir. Abbey clearly drank deeply from the the sacred font of wisdom which is Walden. One of Abbey’s most well known quotes is “growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell” which is directly inspired by Thoreau’s meditation on ant society; where the business of American society is directly compared to an ant hill. “Of course we are busy” asks Thoreau, “but what are we busy about?” Or something to that effect.

Abbey is best thought of as the same generation of Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Abbey’s frame of reference and reading of the American political and social landscape is distinctly that of the early Baby Boomer generation; by that I mean that formative group of people who seemed to shepherd in the Hippie movement.

I will admit to being disappointed in this book – especially since several people commented on how much they loved Edward Abbey while I was reading it – therefore a little disillusioned with people in general. I still cannot decide if Abbey consciously modded himself after Hunter S. Thompson or they shared a similar cast of mind and similar audience. Simply put, Abbey is the poor man’s Thompson and the ecologically concerned man’s Kerouac (Kerouac was always about being cool).

Rather than focus on the why – the deep and multifaceted justification for their actions – and evaluating and reflecting on the powerful corporate and social forces which perpetuate ecological destruction, Abbey likes to dwell on the actual details of the sabotage escapades; what stands out in the book is the sensuous landscapes of the south west, lovingly described, followed by desperately mediocre character scenes followed by not-all-that-suspense sabotage scenes which often feel more like a fraternity hazing stunt  rather than action that would be instantly labeled “ecoterrorism” by the Media.

The four characters do strike an interesting symbolic balance. There is Dr. Sarvis; a gentleman and scholar, a character who represents classical Enlightenment thought an the academic’s concern for the natural world based on the large, classic sense of Reason. Then there is Seldom Seen Slim, a jack Mormon and river guide who can be understood to represent sincere and open faith, viewing the destruction of the landscape and ecosystem as a crime against God. Third is George Hayduke; probably the most pathos-filled character and could only have been created in the universe of post-Vietnam America. Hayduke is a Vietnam veteran who sees the destruction of the environment as simple a continuation of Vietnam; the war has shifted to his home. He is the only character who consistently advocates violence and a path towards true terrorism; he is by far the most unrealistic character. Last is the lady interest. She’s from New York and Jewish; chic and into Buddhism, she lends glamor to the otherwise sex-appeal-less male characters.

Abbey does a poor job of making a case for environmentalism. He flounders at articulating exactly why we as a society should be motivated to take action. His characters are one-dimensional and forced. Some of his other books might be better – I understand that he has something of a autobiography – but The Monkey Wrench Gang is pretty easy to skip. Read Ecotopia instead.

Gai-Jin

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When I was teenager, was handed James Clavell’s Shogun, a masterpiece of exciting historical fiction. Drawing inspiration from real historical figures and a real global-historical context, Shogun was vivid and dramatic, and intoxicating mix of cloak-and-dagger, Robinson Crusoe, and epic, sweeping narrative. It was a book that read like a movie.

I have re-read Shogun several times, and each time enjoyed it throughly. I am sorry to report that Clavell’s other ventures in writing are far less successful. Clavell actually wrote about half a dozen novels based on a similar formula to Shogun: a culture clash between East and West, set in East Asia, dramatic characters caught up in wheels-within-wheels intrigue and passion. Gai-Jin is the third in the “series” set in Yokohama in the early 1860s, when foreign governments where first trading with Japan after the expedition of Commodore Perry. I have previously read Tai-Pan, the second in the series; the books are all linked in many ways, though each can pretty much stand on its own.

Gai-Jin, like Tai-Pan focus more on European/English characters; and both badly fail to live up the awesomeness that is Shogun. What is used to great effect in Shogun comes off as kitschy or trite or cliche in his other books. The tricks seem predicable; the endless cunning and seeming depth of characters in Shogun are recycled, but clumsily. Not only did I not care about the plot in Gai-Jin (there was no sense of building towards a climax, no sense of larger purpose), but each character seemed essentially the same: calculating, but blinded by their rather shallowing passion.

I picture James Clavell, the toast of society after Shogun. Then, after a month or so, his editor calls him in and says “Wow, James, Shogun is amazing. When can we expect the next one? Oh, and by the way, can you write it with a screenplay in mind?” And to me, that’s the secret of Gai-Jin. It was meant to be turned into a movie, or a TV series. It’s very much like a HBO series in book form (I’m specifically thinking of The Tudors here): the same dozen-or-so-characters swirl around in pomp and splendour and cunning and drama but really not all that much happens, despite many dramatic scenes. Really, the fact that the Clavell books are not HBO-ized I find seriously shocking.

Read Shogun. Do not bother with the rest.

Silence

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Silence by Shusaku Endo is an intense, personal exploration of faith and a meditation on Japan and Japanese christianity. It’s no wonder then that Endo is known as the Graham Green of Japan, an author who similarity broods on the mysteries of (Catholic) faith. I’m thinking here of The Power and the Glory, and The Heart of the Matter, books that center around a man in a sticky situation wrestling with faith.

Set in late 17th century Japan, after the golden age of Catholic expansion and influence  had come to an end and persecution was the order of the day by Japanese authorities, this is the story of the last Catholic priest and his apostasy. To provide some historical background, the Portuguese established Nagasaki in 1570 and proceeded to get rich as the middleman of the silk trade between China and Japan. At the height of Jesuit power and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Japan was the target of serious missionary work, and at one point there was thought to be over 400,000 converts. This all came to a close as the Tokugawa Shogunate established itself and in part an effort for social homogeneity, effected not only the sealing off of Japan to the outside world, but a brutally effective campaign to snuff out Catholicism. The appeal of Catholicism in Japan was based on the misery of the peasants, often treated as less-than-human. I think it’s fair to say that Catholicism has had an appeal in all feudal societies.

Father Rodriguez, the main character, travels to Japan to investigate the apostasy of Father Fierria, the last ranking Father in Japan. After an arduous journey, he meets a strange Japanese man in Macao who guides Rodriquez to some still-believing Japanese peasant villages. Initially things go well, but Rodriguez is eventually captured by the samurai and begins his own personal Calvary. Rich in dazzling caparisons to the Biblical story of Jesus, the conclusion is complex and complicated. Some readers will find it deeply fulfilling, others will be less happy with it.

I would not call this book “enjoyable” but it certainlly is interesting and works on the level of personal faith but also on the cultural level of “why did Catholicism not take root in Japan?”

 

The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the top-shelf works of dystopian fiction that has suddenly become urgently relevant with the Trump presidency. While America in 2017 chillingly reminds me of 1984‘s “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”, The Handmaid’s Tale addresses a different side of the strange alchemy of conservatism which made Trump possible: the Mike Pence-ian, Evangelical, vision of America.

The Tale is set in a future New England town, after the liberal-democratic order has truely fallen, subverted by a mixture of violence and political manipulation. In this dark, religiously fuelled totalitarianism known as the “Republic of Gilead,” women truely are the property of men. The underlying logic and assumptions behind the Old Testament vision of sexes are taken to is logical conclusion. Thus, “Offred,” our heroine, is a “handmaid,” sort of fertility prostitute for a high-ranking “Commander,” who presides over a walled-off suburb for the elect with his “Wife” and “Martha” (housekeeper)”.

This is a deeply stirring book – I was struck by the subtle depth of the writing, which often resembles poetry as much as descriptive narrative. Atwood as a writer is a master at using the “gaps” – what is not said, or what is said when – to allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Silences are eloquent in the Republic of Gilead. The story thus manages to be a intense psychological and emotional journey through loneliness and exploration of the relationships between women and women, and men and women and a scathing, eerie depiction of what a truely Evangelical America would mean.

For example, the “Aunts” – the women who train the Handmaids and are the ideological shock troops so to speak – shame the Handmaids in training for being sluts, i. e., “its your fault you got raped” and then extol the new theocratic order because it “protects women” even as the Republic of Gilead is more or less a system of systematic, institutionally approved rape.

My wife literally could not put this book down, and it’s clear why: this books is a mix of first class writing, intense psychological perspective and dystopian terror.

The Limits of Disenchantment

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In the sickly, demented light of the post-Trump world, the basic problems and ideas of the book remain perfectly relevant and important. The ideas, problems and insights of books like this seem ever more rare and baroque to me; something like the last ember of a dying campfire.

The main strains of European philosophy: Critical Theory, Psychoanalysis and Deconstructionism are in tern examined and put through the philosophical ringer by Peter Dews, who is clearly a master thinker in his own right.

It’s a tour de-force of sheer thinking about thinking. Not for the uninitiated, untrained or faint of heart. I do not think that Dews even has a main point; this book is a buffet of – well – contemporary European philosophy.