Reading fiction is great!

What was on my mind when I thought about writing a blog post earlier this evening was something about an oncoming political crisis – but then I got distracted by the rest of the blogosphere. So much to read, so little time.

Within the last year I’ve made it a point to read fiction again. I’m pretty busy, because teaching and taking care of a baby will keep you busy, but I decided that I would feel better about the world if I could start and finish novels from time to time, and I was at least right about that. In particular, detective novels. To be specific, books by Dashiell Hammett.

Dashiell Hammett is most famous nowadays for having written The Maltese Falcon, which was turned into a legendary film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre (who would both later star in Casablanca). Hammett lived for a number of years in San Francisco, and the novel is set there, and has lots of references to places in the city. Having lived in San Francisco, it was fun being able to picture the action of the story – the fog, the streets, the cramped apartments. Hammett’s style is super classic hardboiled style. His protagonists are badass – hard drinking loners with a habit of bending the law in pursuit of a case. The dialogue is witty and sometimes hilarious, the plots are well constructed and clever. In addition to Falcon I’ve read The Thin Man and Red Harvest – both great. I’ve got a book of his short fiction sitting on my desk.

I’d never read Agatha Christie before but I got her book And then there were none for Christmas and it blew my mind. The story is diabolical, and yet basically about justice. Actually, most detective fiction is about justice. It’s maybe the most facinating thing about detective fiction. At some point I’d like to read more of Christie’s work, as well as Ngaio Marsh. In the meantime I read a book published in the 1990s called Out by Natsuo Kirino, which was completely amazing. It felt like a meditation on life under capitalism. Many of the characters spend much of their time worrying about money, and the plot is driven forward by various anxieties induced by the lack of money. But also there’s a lot about how factory work is degrading and kind of boring. It’s also a very dark novel. I could barely put it down.

A novel I read that was not a mystery – although I suppose there was sort of a mystery that drove the story forward – about a month ago now was The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm. What a delightful read! It’s essentially a story of the end of World War II in Hamburg, as told to a young writer in the 1980s by an elderly lady who lived through it. As the title suggests, there’s sausage involved, and finding out how is very much part of the fun of reading the book.

I sometimes feel as if everything is so heavy these days – so serious! And that I need also to be very serious! I need to be reading economics journals and trying to write about policy or something – but honestly, there are really much better sources for reading about economics and politics than my blog. I know, I read them.

Speaking of politics though – I will say one thing about what I’ve been reading in the news lately. I often get the sense that the folks who do take politics seriously (and these are the people who tend to write stuff I want to read) simply don’t understand how deeply unserious other folks are about politics. There’s lots of discussion about Trump and Congress and all that at the moment – and I honestly do not think Trump has seriously thought through what’s going on. Nor Paul Ryan, for that matter. Ryan put together a bill that said what he wanted it to say. And my current favorite response to the bill is “it is unclear what problem it is trying to solve.” Because Ryan isn’t really trying to solve a problem. He’s trying to cut taxes and make government smaller.

It seems to me that the conservative vision for the US is that government doesn’t really make all that many decisions. There would be a kind of business aristocracy that would do most of the decision making instead. Or maybe that’s my own pessimisstic vision. It’s certainly where I think we’re headed.

I’ve been slowly making my way through a short novel called The Maze of Justice: Diary of a Country Prosecuter by Tawfiq al-Hakim. It was published in Egypt in the 1930s. The author had gone to university in France and come home to Egypt all hyped up on modernism, and did indeed spend some time as prosecuter in a far flung village somewhere outside of Cairo. It’s very much a black comedy. This lawyer, he’s got a mystery on his hands, he’s trying to figure it out, but nothing makes any sense. Everything is broken and topsy-turvy and so on. It’s hilarious! But also depressing, of course. In Egypt, at least in those days, the legal system made not all that much sense to the country folk who were subject to it. And the system was terribly overworked and underfunded, so it was basically beyond comprehension. Nothing but a series of perverse situations, no justice at all. And yet! The protagonist is drawn into caring about a case. A political crisis erupts in the middle of case, but he perseveres. I don’t know how it ends, because I haven’t finished it. I enjoy how it plays on the “nothing is as it seems” although in some sense, things are exactly as they seem. Everything is all messed up and everyone is just trying to make the best of it.

One of the things that really attracts my attention to Maze is how distant justice seems in the book. Political power isn’t even in Egypt, it’s somewhere else, far away. Europe, I suppose? It doesn’t even really matter in the book. It’s just far away, and it doesn’t give a shit about people suffering. How do you keep your head in such a crazy mixed up world?

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