Stuff I’ve Been Reading: July/August 2011

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: July/August 2011

Nick Hornby
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  • Mrs. Caliban—Rachel Ingalls
  • Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay—John Lanchester
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain
  • The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers—Christopher Vogler


  • Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives—David Eagleman
  • Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball—Stefan Kanfer
  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea—Barbara Demick
  • Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay—John Lanchester
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain

No time spent with a book is ever entirely wasted, even if the experience is not a happy one: there’s always something to be learned. It’s just that, every now and again, you can hit a patch of reading that makes you feel as if you’re pootling about. There’s nothing like a couple of sleepy novels, followed by a moderately engaging biography of a minor cultural figure, to make you aware of your own mortality. But what can you do about it? We don’t choose to waste our reading time; it just happens. The books let us down.

It wasn’t just that I enjoyed all the books I read this month; they felt vital, too. If you must read a biography of a sitcom star, then make sure the sitcom is the most successful and influential in TV history. You have a yen to read about a grotesquely dysfunctional communist society? Well, don’t mess about with Cuba—go straight for North Korea. John Lanchester’s Whoops! is a relatively simple explanation of the biggest financial crisis in history; Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is, according to Hemingway, the book from which all American literature derives. A month of superlatives, in other words—the best, the worst, the biggest, and the most important.

And, as a digestif, David Eagleman’s Sum, which invites us to contemplate forty varieties of afterlife. It’s such a complete package that it seems crazy to carry on reading, so I may well stop altogether. I’m not giving this column up, though. It pays too well.

Stefan Kanfer’s Ball of Fire contains an anecdote which seems to me to justify not only the time I spent reading it, but the entire genre, every biography ever written. Kanfer is describing the early days of Ball’s relationship with Desi Arnaz, which was stormy right from the off:

Almost every Sunday night ended with a furious argument about each other’s intentions and infidelities…. It happened that two of the town’s greatest magpies witnessed many of the quarrels. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his inamorata, columnist Sheilah Graham, used to watch the spats from Fitzgerald’s balcony.

F. Scott Fitzgerald used to watch Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz fighting? Why didn’t I know this before? If this story is true—and there’s no reason to doubt it—then all is chaos. No biography can be left unread, just in case there is a gem like this lying there, undiscovered, within its pages. Maybe Thomas Pynchon repeatedly bangs on Sarah Michelle Gellar’s wall because she plays her music too loud! Maybe Simon Cowell and Maya Angelou are in the same book group!

The reason Kanfer’s book works so well, and why it throws up so many good stories, is that Ball, like the fictional Mose Sharp and Rocky Carter in Elizabeth McCracken’s brilliant Niagara Falls All Over Again, took the long road through the American pop-culture century. She worked in theater, film, radio, and TV. She dated Henry Fonda, worked with the Marx Brothers, knew Damon Runyon. A washed-up Buster Keaton helped her with her physical comedy. She found out that she was pregnant by listening to Walter Winchell on the radio—he’d obtained the information from the lab technicians even before they passed the information on to Ball’s doctor. She attracted the attention of HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, because she’d registered with the Communist party in 1936 primarily to humor her socialist grandfather. Hers was an extraordinary journey, and just in case you need a little more, there was a long, tempestuous marriage at the center of it. (Ball rendered the first divorce from Arnaz null and void by jumping into bed with her ex-husband on the way back from the courthouse.) We didn’t have a Lucille Ball in the U.K.; you have way more female comediennes than us. This is not a coincidence.

There wasn’t any logic behind my decision to go straight from ‘Ball Of Fire’ to the banking crisis, although John Lanchester’s ‘Whoops’ (published in the US as “I.O.U”) certainly bolstered the sense of elegiac melancholy that lingers after you’ve said goodbye to Lucy and Desi and the Golden Age of Television.  We now have more to worry about than the end of wholesome, nation-uniting family sitcoms; it turns out that the Golden Age of Everything is over.  One of Lanchester’s contentions is that “western liberal democracies are the best societies that have ever existed….Citizens of those societies are, on aggregate, the most fortunate people who have ever lived”. I’ll be comparing and contrasting with North Korea a little later, but when you consider that one of the indicators of poverty in the US and UK is obesity, you can see his point. Nobody is obese in North Korea.

Now, however, the citizens of the US and the UK have some bills to pay. One authoritative market commentator puts the cost of the bailout in the US at just over hour and a half trillion dollars – a number “bigger than the cost of the Marshall Plan, the Louisiana Purchase, the 1980s Savings and Loan crisis, the Korean War, the New Deal, the invasion of Iraq, the Vietnam War and the total cost of NASA including the moon landings, all added together – repeat, added together (and yes, the old figures are adjusted upwards for inflation).” If you were thinking of knocking on the door of a government body because you’re looking for a little help with your video installation…Well, I’d give it a few weeks. Here in the UK, the government is looking to make an unprecedented and almost certainly unachievable 25% cut in public services; we need to find in the region of forty billion pounds a year simply to service our debts.

There are plenty of numbers in ‘Whoops’. Most of them are scary, but some are funny, if your taste in humour leans towards the apocalyptic. In a brilliant chapter about the catastrophic failure of the mathematical models of risk used by the bankers and economists, a chapter entitled “The Mistake”, Lanchester introduces us – well, me, anyway – to the notion of the sigma, a measure of probability. “A ‘three sigma event’ is something supposed to happen only 0.3 per cent of the time, that is about once every three thousand times something is measured.” According to the mathematical models, the 1987 Black Monday crash was a ten sigma event; this means that, were the life of the universe repeated one billion times, it still shouldn’t have happened. And yet it did. During the recent crash, the CEO of Goldman Sachs claimed that he was seeing twenty-five sigma events “several days in a row.”   (My italics, but I’m sure I’m italicising for all of us.)  Lanchester tries to give us some sense of the numbers involved here, but it’s basically hopeless: “Twenty sigma is ten times the number of all the particles in the known universe; twenty-five sigma is the same, but  with the  decimal point moved fifty-two places to the right.” Even if we presume that there are three particles in the known universe – and I’m no physicist, but I’m guessing that three is probably on the low side – then the number is still impossible to grasp. And these people saw events on this scale of incomprehensible improbability happening every day for a week.   They would presumably also have been staggered by Brazil winning the next World Cup, on the basis that they didn’t win it yesterday or the day before or on  any of the four and a half thousand days since their last victory in 2002 . (For those of you who don’t follow soccer: Brazil are quite good. They always have a decent chance of winning the World Cup. But the World Cup only takes place every four years, so…Oh, forget it.) Meanwhile, the reality underpinning the numbers and the credit swaps and the securitization was a whole bunch of people who had been persuaded to take out mortgages that they couldn’t afford, and had to pay more for them than people with a credit history and a job because they were riskier. One thing that had never quite sunk in for me is that, for Wall Street and the City, sub-prime mortgages and junk bonds are Good Things – or used to be, anyway – so it wasn’t as though the unscrupulous were hiding shoddy goods under the more attractive stuff. The shoddy goods were attractive, and they wanted in. The higher the risk, the more money you make. Lovely. And the bankers thought they’d fixed it so that this risk had no downside, ever, for anyone. Securitization and its trimmings was, almost literally, alchemy, as far as the banks could tell.

One of the reasons ‘Whoops!’/ ‘IOU’ has done well in the UK is that John Lanchester is One Of Us.  He’s not a financial journalist; he’s a novelist, and a critic, and an outsider, when it comes to this stuff. His dad was a bank manager, though, and he has the necessary interest, and the necessary anxiety. I watched ‘Inside Job’ this month, too, and between them, Lanchester and Charles Ferguson have achieved the impossible, and made me feel…not knowledgeable, exactly, at least I can see the dim light of comprehension breaking somewhere over the horizon. I don’t know you personally, but I’m sort of presuming that you know more about The Decemberists and Jennifer Egan than you do about Gaussian copula formulas. Is that right?  If so, then this is the book for you.

“Nothing to Envy” is a book about what happens when an economy fails completely, to the extent that there is nothing left – no work, no infrastructure, no food, no anything. I bought it after a forceful recommendation from a friend, and after it won a non-fiction prize in the UK, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever read it. But on the very first page there is a startling satellite picture of the Korean peninsula, taken at night, and I was hooked in. In this picture, the South looks like the US or the UK or just about any twenty-first century country, mottled with light from its cities, and great puddles of the stuff in the area around Seoul. In the North, it looks as though someone has a single candle burning in the capital, Pyongyang. Much of North Korea has no electricity. It’s packed up. It went some time in the early nineties, and it never came back. Sometimes – typically on the birthday of the Great Leader – it wheezes back into life for an hour or two, but the rest of the time North Korea is lost in a blackness of its own making.

Barbara Demick has pieced together a picture of daily life in this poor benighted country from the testimonies of people who got out. They weren’t dissidents, because dissidence doesn’t really exist in North Korea. How can it, when its citizens have never been presented with an alternative way of thinking, and when you have no access to books, magazines, newspapers, movies, TV, music or ideas from any other part of the world?  Even conversation is dangerous, when you have no way of knowing whether your friends, neighbours, even children are informants. You don’t have a  telephone, and you can’t write to anyone when you have no pen or paper, and even if you do, the postman may well burn your letters simply because there’s nothing else to burn. Meanwhile, everyone is starving to death. (Much of the book is about life in the 1990s, but, as Demick’s epilogue and the most cursory Google search makes clear, nothing much has changed.) One of Demick’s interviewees was a kindergarten teacher who saw her class go from fifty to fifteen kids. There is literally nothing to eat; they’re peeling the bark of trees and boiling it up for soup. This is a country whose inhabitants have literally shrunk, while the rest of the world has got taller: the average North Korean 17-year-old boy is five inches smaller than his counterpart in the South.

A review quoted on my paperback edition tells us that this book is “required reading for anyone interested in the Korean peninsula”; I’ve just spent a few hundred words telling you how harrowing much of it is.  We’re not selling it to you, I can tell. And yet ‘Nothing To Envy’ does have resonance, and it does transcend its subject matter, if that’s what you want it to do. Both ‘Whoops’ and ‘Nothing To Envy’ make it clear just how utterly dependent we all are on systems; without them, our much-cherished quirky individuality and our sense of moral self mean nothing. And I know this sounds weird and possibly callous, but Demick’s book was every bit as absorbing as ‘Ball Of Fire’: both contained a multitude of extraordinary stories, stories you want to remember. In other words, there is a kind of pleasure to be gained from the pain of others. That’s the trouble with good writers. Only the bad ones make you want to do the human thing and look away.

I have almost no room to talk about ‘Sum’ or ‘Huckleberry Finn’. Briefly: ‘Sum’ I enjoyed, although I wish it had come with instructions. Was I supposed to read all the forty essays in one lump, which is what I did? Or was I supposed to pepper my month with them, treat myself to a tiny contemplation of what the afterlife is or does or should be at odd moments of the day and night? I suspect the latter. I blew it. As for ‘Huckleberry Finn’, the most important novel in American literature: meh. That Tom Sawyer is a pill, isn’t he?

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