Friday, March 11, 2011

Simplex Thoughts: Babel-17 & Conversation in the Cathedral

The last two books I finished, Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa and Babel-17/Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany, have been reviewed and analyzed to death, so instead I'm going to give my initial, visceral reactions to both. Know that I find both novels to be wondrous works in their own right.

Conversation in the Cathedral

This book was difficult to wade through. Sometimes on one page there are three or four conversations happening at once - several happening as past events and usually one happening in the present. It's a little disorienting. Okay; it's a lot disorienting. Never have I read a book where the feeling of vertigo has come over me so often or with such force. Once you realize this is happening and you can kind of ground yourself - figure out which is up and which is down (and it changes chapter to chapter, by the way) - then the story becomes clear.  It's a pretty simple message Conversation conveys: dictatorships are evil. However, Vargas Llosa imbues his characters - the good and the bad - with such moral ambiguity it's clear that, on both sides, there are good and bad people - and that's what makes great literature. Essentially, what Vargas Llosa is doing is working toward an understanding of the monstrous within each of us.

Another way of putting this: Conversation in the Cathedral is very, very bleak. Even if the economy and government institutions have gotten better in Peru than during Vargas Llosa's writing, sadly, a lot of the discourse presented within the story will resonate today when we look at what's been happening, most immediately, in Egypt and Libya, but elsewhere as well in places like North Korea and Zimbabwe.

Babel-17/Empire Star

Chip Delany, whether he knew it or not, had been (and perhaps still is) working toward a particular conceit in his fiction: the novel as cyclical process; language, of course, its defining principle. This idea culminated, in my opinion, with his 1975 novel Dhalgren, but diagrams of the idea existed, perhaps starting with Babel-17/Empire Star and onward with The Fall of the Towers trilogy and the Neveryon series. In Babel-17, he explores the idiosyncracies of language, including body language and the minuteness of facial expressions. The main character of the novel, Rydra Wong, is a kind of telepathic linguist, in that she can determine what you're thinking or what you're about to say by the way you shrug your shoulders or the slight lift at the corners of your lips.

What struck me the most while reading Babel-17, however, was the differences in various languages (for instance, the sounds of L or R or V or W, etc), though I am aware this conflict, having studied Thai and French and some German; and the inferences we make about a person or people concerning our own limited knowledge of language.

I found Empire Star - the novella that accompanies the main novel - to be just as interesting, but in far different ways. Empire Star is half Flowers for Algernon and half mini-bildungsroman. Though Babel-17 is not, Empire Star is cyclical in process and it's always entertaining to watch a writer working toward something you know will pay off (in dividends!!) in a later work.

Empire Star is also a meditation on the actions of our choices and our perception of - not necessarily what is right and wrong - but how we choose what is right and wrong. Delany uses three different perceptions of thought - simplex, complex, and multiplex - to make his argument. (This might be a simplex way of putting it, by the way.)

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