Dark Curricula: October 2016
Strange occurrences. A sense of claustrophobia. Missing bodies. An investigation that seems futile, or at least existential. There's something amiss. Something off-kilter. The disquieting sense that forces have organized against you, or that at the very least things have taken a turn for the worse. Although it's the month of Halloween, the psychotic mass murderer with a knife isn't the real terror, the conditions under which we find ourselves, the subtle and devious difficulty in navigating the average things, the mundane things, those are real monsters.
A cop procedural from a master of science fiction? It's not quite so procedural. There's intellectual subterfuge. It's weirder than you think. The central case in the book is about missing cadavers, perhaps the undead. With the expected Lem methodic extraction, you are put in a deeply confusing position of not understanding what may be true or untrue. In a larger sense, he makes you question questioning itself, and the nature of "evidence".
Lem has always been a favorite, although, sometimes, he verges on exposition, he usually creeps back from that edge. This one too, almost too much of Lem's personal fascination with the nature of the scientific inquiry -- but he focuses on the main investigator Gregory, much as he would do in Solaris, on Kris, and this centers it. The reactions of stress, confusion, self-doubt, along with a deep desire to understand the nature of things around him, keep the story from bogging down in the indeed heavy epistemological questions.
So too, like Pym, this questions the nature of reality, although in Lem's manner which is intellectual whereas Poe's is more visceral and desperate. However, you have to be interested in these kinds of questions, I think, to want to read this book. Lem never writes for the casual or disinterested. If you are, don't bother.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
Edgar Allan Poe
I have not limited myself to reading exclusively new books. In fact, I would suggest that selective rereading is important. You may notice new things, you may find new perspectives. I don't reread for comfort usually, but because of a sense that something is unfinished. It's a nag. I've reread Pym again. What is it about Pym that I can't shake? I'm not the only one. This is an influential bit of text, and a weird one. It's wormy with blatant mistakes, an awkwardness, and some places it's just bad writing. But overall it's insidiously effective at etching into your brain a sense of foreboding. Of course... Poe, right? But as perfect as "The Raven" or "The Cask of Amontillado" is, interestingly this is as imperfect. And that's what fascinates me. The character of Pym -- what a shithead, what a rube. I mean, he's just one misstep after another. This too fascinates me. He's not nefarious, he's not a hero, he's just some guy. He's just some guy who's been caught up, for whatever reason in Poe's universe, in a terrible series of terrible events. Much like Poe's mostly-contemporary, Melville, who uses an unsettling splatter of reality, reality of character versus the unreality of situation is the awkward juxtaposition. Or perhaps this is only the viewpoint from a fellow lazy misanthropist (true active misanthropy is too taxing). There's that interesting fuzziness between supernatural and natural events here too. An event happens in Pym and you're not sure from where it originates. There's no clarity or predictability whatsoever. Given that it, or may not, admit to supernatural forces, it runs like an existential exercise on an alien world. Pym is the hapless alien.