“Spice must flow”: Dune Reviewed

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Ace Special 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Ace Books, 1990.

Dune is apparently the most popular science fiction book ever published. I’m not kidding—you can google that shit. Anyway, this year is the 50th anniversary of its publication (1965–2015), and I had never read it. Then one night I was having a discussion with B about world building in scifi/fantasy and he said, “Every universe has one thing that it’s centered around. In Star Wars, it’s the Force. In Dune, it’s the spice.”

I was unfamiliar. Having just finished Solaris, I decided I would rectify that and dug out our copy.[1] Soon I was deep into to the world of the gom jabbar and the kwizach hadarach, the reverend mother and the melange. Many a night in the last few weeks I was up far past my bedtime, tellling myself I’d read just a few more pages before I turned out the light.

In case you, like me, have been living under a rock for the last my entire lifetime and then some, this is the plot (spoilers ahead):

Duke Leto Atreides, his concubine Lady Jessica, who is a highly trained Bene Gesserit adept, their fifteen-year-old son Paul (who has also been trained in his mother’s weirding ways), and the duke’s entire entourage pick up and move from Caladan, a normal-sounding planet with lakes and rainfall, to Arrakis, also called Dune, a desert planet where it never rains and the native Fremen wear special stillsuits designed to reclaim all bodily moisture for recycling. Arrakis was previously ruled by the Harkonnens, who are the mortal enemies of the Atreides, and the switch got made basically because the Padishah Emperor decided it should happen.

Not long after their arrival, the duke receives notice that there is a traitor in his midst. And then, returning from a night of supervising his troops, Duke Leto finds that the Harkonnens have engineered a plot to land highly trained imperial troops on the planet, kill him and his family, and take the place back.

After a daring escape and a lot of running around in which nearly every character you’ve come to care about dies in rapid-fire succession, Paul and the Lady Jessica wind up getting adopted by a band of Fremen led by a man named Stilgar. Lady Jessica actually takes Stilgar in close combat (unarmed) to gain their acceptance, and later on Paul knifes a guy, so it’s not like this part of their journey was easy. After they return to the Fremen home base, Lady Jessica (who is pregnant with the late duke’s child) is tested with the Water of Life and becomes a Reverend Mother (a type of religious leader), which means that she gets certain powers primarily related to communicating psychically (in a sense) with the band’s previous Reverend Mothers. This isn’t good for the fetus (who will grow up to be St. Alia of the Knife), but what can you do.

Meanwhile, Paul falls in love with a Fremen woman named Chani, and they will have a son together in fairly short order, because I guess condoms don’t exist in the year 10,191. Paul, now known by the Fremen as Usul (privately) and Maud’dib (publically), to say nothing of his other titles (Lisan al-Ghaib for one, and Kwisatz Haderach for another) is able to see the future to some extent because of the spice, his natural inclinations, and the Water of Life. Eventually, he leads the Fremen to freedom from the Harkonnens and bullies the emperor into abdicating and letting him marry his daughter in a political alliance, making him at about age 17 or 18 the emperor.

Whew. So it’s a long book. I actually haven’t touched on about 90% of what goes on, because there’s a ton of subplots. The gist of it is that everyone has a plan. The Bene Gesserit, for example, have been manipulating the various nobles in a breeding program to try and get the Kwisatz Haderach. What they intend to do with him is not clear.[2] Baron Harkonnen has a plan to get his nephew Feyd-Rautha on the imperial throne as well, which somehow involves his other nephew (“Beast” Rabban) taking over Arrakis as ruler and running it into the ground; that’s to say nothing of his initial plot to kill Duke Leto, of course. The emperor has his own plots involving control of the spice market and the nobility. The Guild (the ones who fly everyone around through space) take spice from the Fremen in exchange for preventing weather satellite and other disturbances, giving the Fremen time to execute their plan—the very gradual terraforming of Dune. I think there might be even more plots than that, some of which don’t really play out until the sequel.

This is an interesting and problematic book for a number of reasons. First, there are the women. I’ll just say that Lady Jessica is basically one of the best female characters I’ve ever encountered. Super smart, unflappable in the face of danger, highly deadly in hand-to-hand combat, and capable of undergoing the spice agony and transforming the Water of Life within her body—basically a bad ass. Highly determined and difficult to control, too—did I mention she’d originally been ordered by the Bene Gesserit to produce a daughter for Duke Leto rather than Paul? She does what she wants. She also has two kids who are highly trained Bene Gesserit adepts, trained by herself. I should mention at this point that Herbert evidently based Lady Jessica on his wife, which makes me pretty happy because in other respects he was a little bit shitty (I’ll get to this) and I feel like it redeems him for me a bit.

Unfortunately, the other women in the book are not quite as exciting as characters go, mainly because there is a strong male/female divide throughout the text. Not just within the Reverend Mothers, as I mentioned earlier, although there is that and it’s explained away by the fact that men take and women give and it’s hard for the two sides to look at each other, which would be an interesting sentiment if Herbert followed it to its natural gender-deconstructing answer in Paul, but he doesn’t. Beyond that, women are largely confined to the home and sietch (the Fremen settlements); they counsel and advise, and they have children, and they plot, but they have to have men to listen to them/to manipulate in order to actually achieve anything. Chani, the woman Paul falls in love with, is out on patrol with a group of Fremen when he meets her, and she actually knifes a couple of people over the course of the book . . . until she has kids and gets sent to a safe place for most of the rest of the story. Also, after she meets Paul she basically has no concerns besides his well-being throughout the rest of the book. Within the Fremen society, if you kill a guy, you are asked to take care of his wife and kids—and you’re given the option of marrying the wife or taking her as a servant for at least one year, and it doesn’t seem like she gets much say in the matter. The woman Paul inherits in this way seems very practical and totally willing to marry a guy who knifed her husband not 24 hours before. Women in the sietch basically exist to produce children; they do a few other sietch jobs but they’re there, and the men care for them. The other major female character is Reverent Mother Helen Mohiam, who is scheming and manipulative—scary and powerful, but only by acting through others, primarily the emperor.

In a somewhat related vein, we have the Harkonnens, who are the enemies of the Atreides and very evil. We know they’re evil because—and this is where the writing of Frank Herbert sort of fails to come into its own—the second chapter involves Baron Vladimir Harkonnen basically telling us his evil, evil plot to kill the Atreides through devious underhandedness while he strokes his mustache and laughs maniacally. If that weren’t explicit enough, we also get all these signs (and by signs I mean, I guess, stereotypes) that tell us the baron is a bad dude—he’s super fat, for one (he has to wear suspensors to maneuver his bulk around) and is a glutton for food and power. He’s homosexual, or at least seems to prefer men; he also expresses lustful thoughts about then-15-year-old Paul and not only buys slaves but has them drugged so he can have sex with them more easily. He makes his nephew, Feyd-Rautha, kill people—and okay, it’s not like his nephew was a good guy either, because we see him displaying his killing talents by fighting gladiators with a poisoned blade.[3]

Both of these things—the women’s rather distinct position in society and the rather heavy-handed “clues” to the Baron’s evilness (fatness, homosexuality)—feel like relics of the time period of the book’s initial publication. I’ve talked before about the feeling one gets, reading old science fiction, that while writers (inevitably men) were sort of sure that women would exist in the future, none of them are exactly clear on what they’ll be doing. “Women doing science? Having thoughts? Why would these things ever happen?” they seem to think, and so you see women along in various situations—spaceships and what have you—in which they serve as some sort of more or less sophisticated window dressing. I’m looking at you, Uhura. The Baron’s indicators of evil just feel dated. First, I have to wonder, given the average size of people in 1965 compared to 2015, how fat Herbert thought was so fat it needed anti-gravity devices to move around. Second—and this is what I mean when I said this is kind of shitty of Herbert—he had two sons. One (Brian Herbert) has made his living clinging to Dune’s coattails; the other, Bruce Herbert, was a gay activist who died of AIDS in 1993. Now, at the time Dune was published, Bruce would have been 14, which at the time was very young for a kid to be out of the closet, so I’m perfectly willing to believe that Herbert was mostly reflecting the unconsidered opinions of the time and may have changed his tune later on when he found out his son was gay. But still, kind of shitty.[4]

The book has a bunch of really interesting themes that Herbert addresses with varying levels of sophistication. For example, the tendency of people to follow leaders rather unquestioningly, the uses (and problems) of being able to see the future, the idea of fate and whether or not it can be avoided or changed, the question of the greater good, and different systems of government and their benefits and drawbacks. Perhaps most interestingly, Herbert is concerned with the intertwining of religion and politics; Paul benefits from the Bene Gesserit’s propagandists, who basically primed the community of Fremen to believe in him.

Actually, there are a lot more questions I have to ask about this book, like is it another example of the “White guy joins a foreign culture and becomes its most awesome member” genre (surprisingly hard to answer briefly), as well as the converse position, “Is everyone on Dune White?” (films say yes), but this review is already well over 2,000 words, so I don’t have time here. So to wrap up: Herbert’s writing is exciting if mostly unpoetic (he has his moments), and the text is very engrossing. This particular edition of the book is nice in that there’s a dictionary at the back as well as some other appendices that try to explain the world Paul’s living in. It does suffer from less-than-perfect typography, which includes not just quotation marks facing the wrong way, but also lines of text printed at different sizes and sometimes even randomly repeated. I’d guess that there’s been a better reprinting since 1990, so if you’re looking to read the book, seek that out.

[1] I was given my copy of Dune by a friend I’d lent a calculus textbook for a semester to as a thank-you present.

[2] Basically,when the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers look into their minds, they can see a sort of hallway with all the Reverend Mothers along it, and they are able to receive advice from those who came before—so history is preserved within them, as a sort of living racial memory. But there’s a male side to the corridor too, and none of them can access that information. So they have embarked on a breeding program to produce a man who can. Why they want that information and why they thought such a person would be someone they can control is not revealed.

[3] Part of this scene reveals that it’s typical to fight the gladiators when drugged, which seems unfair. Feyd-Rautha instead fights them undrugged, but with a conditioned “stop” word that he can use as a distraction to stab the guy. In one of those awesome literary parallels, Feyd also has a similar word implanted in him, but during their final combat Paul refuses to use it . . . and yet, his saying “I’m not going to say it” makes Feyd freeze enough that Paul can stab him. So. What happened.

[4] One always wants to believe that writers have more considered opinions than other people and think the “right” thing even when others are still against it. Of course, this is clearly not the case—there have been plenty of racist/sexist/homophobic writers who were still great writers (see the line about “The Earth, that with this strange excuse/Pardoned Kipling and his views” in the William Butler Yeats farewell poem written by W. H. Auden). Auden later removed that stanza, which makes me wonder if he actually decided that the Earth does not pardon Kipling . . . but regardless of his [Auden’s] thoughts on the matter, there are a lot of people who have forgiven Kipling.

Aliens Are Weird: Solaris Reviewed

Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. San Diego: Harcourt, 1987.

I have to make one admission here up front: I have been reading late at night to help my brain calm down so I can get to sleep. That isn’t really even a problem, and I’m sure a lot of people do this—see Joyce’s quip about how Finnegans Wake‘s ideal reader was the “ideal insomniac”[1]. But when you have a book like Solaris that is sort of moderately hard scifi, it does mean that I’m not super well equipped to give you an evaluation of the science-y aspects of the plot. I mean, not that I could really evaluate partical physics—or what passed for that in 1961 when the book was first written—on my best days, my published work notwithstanding. But I’ve noticed that when reading late, when I see something that would normally look off to me (some of the myriad mentions of neutrinos, for example, which I believe are uncharged charged particles that come from radioactive decay), I am just really accepting of what the author is telling me. Neutrinos? Sure, sounds good.

Don’t let my reference to the classiest subatomic particle of the 1960s frighten you away from Solaris, though. This book is not primarily a hard science one. Instead, it’s an attempt to construct an anthropology of a life form that would be completely alien to human beings.

Kris Kelvin arrives on the Solaris station to conduct research on the planet the station hovers above: a rather peculiar place called Solaris. It circles two suns, a red one and a blue one, but despite what physics would dictate, something is modifying its orbital trajectory to prevent it from crashing into either one. The planet is covered almost entirely by an ocean that appears to be alive, some sort of vast brain that is studying the researchers as they study it. On Kelvin’s arrival, he meets another researcher named Snow, who tells him that his mentor, Gibarian, has recently committed suicide. The ocean, it seems, has begun digging through the subconscious minds of the researchers to produce copies of loved ones from their pasts; it is unclear if the copies exist as a, perhaps hostile, response to an x-ray bombardment experiment, or if they are part of some sort of sophisticated research being conducted by the ocean, or if there is some other explanation entirely. For Kelvin, the only researcher whose “copy person” we see, the copy is of his deceased wife, Rheya, who committed suicide ten years before the mission began. The book alternates with Kelvin coping with the reality of having his former partner returned to him and with giving us a summary of research done concerning the planet.

This book was originally published in 1961 (in Polish), and there are certain aspects of it that remain highly rooted in the past. The characters contact each other as often through written letters or notes as by video phone, for example. The character of Rheya exists in the sort of gauzy, out-of-focus light that always seemed to me to accompany women in scifi in the sixties—she’s not a researcher, though clearly not dumb (she becomes aware of her own doubleness quite early on). Yet for the most part, her opinions on her doubleness, on Kris’s behavior, or on any other aspect of the situation are not given; Kelvin’s internal journey is what is important. (Well, he is the narrator, but for how much he professes to love her, he’s remarkably uninterested in her.) Like Uhura and other women in scifi of that era (and even still today to an extent), she’s very much in the background, existing primarily to give Kelvin someone to moon over, but also to prompt his failed hero’s journey. Which is to say, Joseph Campbell sees the hero’s journey as first interior, requiring the defeat of inner demons before facing down the outer ones; here, Kelvin’s inner journey taking precedence over anything the exterior world could offer. He is, in effect, a stunted hero, unwilling to complete the first stage of the journey to begin the second. In this respect, Snow is the real hero who, having conquered a similar visitor from his past (who is never seen), is willing to stay and try to make contact with the ocean.

Many of the film adaptations have focused on the Rheya–Kris relationship, much to Lem’s apparent displeasure. The real subject here is the alienness of the planet,how humanity is to approach such an object, how contact might possibly be able to take place (or might not). But at the same time, it’s difficult to blame the filmmakers entirely for the shift—despite Kris’s real lack of attention to Rheya, at the end, after she has left him again, his attention is still focused entirely on her and the possibility of her return.

The book makes an excellent point about the presumed humanness of alien lifeforms—looking at popular culture, we have always seemed to hope that we were going to meet Time Lords, or Vulcans, or Klingons, all of whom look largely human. Even Wookies and Ewoks are humanoid, as are the various species in the Cantina in Mos Eisley, and the most bug-eyed of bug-eyed monster, the Dalek, is descended from the human-looking Kaled, with their divergence from the human form serving as a shorthand for their descent into evilness. If we ever actually go into space and meet life, Lim says, will it be in a recognizeable form? It has been suggested that there could be fish, or fish-like lifeforms on Europa.[2] Suppose they’re intelligent—would we be able to recognize them as such? The answer is no. Perhaps because we’re too caught up in ourselves, as Lim suggests, unable to describe the behavior of non-humans without anthropomorphizing. Or our lens, our expectations, are just too strong.

Concerning the translation: Apparently, Lem was fluent in English and didn’t like the Kilmartin–Cox translation. I had never really felt like there were any deficiencies with it, but I have not compared it to the French edition, and of course I don’t read Polish. As I write this, I’m listening to a sample of a new (well, newer) edition translated directly from the Polish by Bill Johnston. Perhaps this is just because it is an audio book, but it feels very different. Rheya is called Harey, and some of the details are quite different from the edition I read. All in all I will probably not have time to go back and read or listen to the Johnston edition right now, and clearly I don’t have enough information about the original or the French version to really make a comparison, but I will note that it seems like it is a well-regarded edition.

One other note concerning the film adaptations: There have been three major film adaptations—one directed by Nirenberg and Ishimbayeva (1968), one by Tartovsky (1972), and one by Soderbergh (2002). For some reason, I thought that Event Horizon, one of the scariest and least comprehensible films of the mid-1990s, was also an adaptation of the text—I even told this to a friend at a party. It turns out that, although Event Horizon was clearly influenced by Solaris, they’re not related. However, going into the book believing this made it actually pretty tense; the first few chapters are already full of tension because of Kelvin’s arrival on the station, his immediate suspicions about Snow, the revelation of the death of Gibarian, and so on. Waiting for the characters to start ripping their eyeballs out just made that worse.

[1] This is attested in Herschel Farbman, The Other Night: Dreaming, Writing, and Restlessness in Twentieth-Century Literature, Fordham University Press, 2008, p. 91, but the page with the references isn’t shown on Google Books, and tracking it down this far is about as much as I’m willing to do for a book review. However, it looks like it came out of Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, which is kind of a warmup for the Wake in the same way The Crying of Lot 49 was a warmup for Gravity’s Rainbow . . . or possibly in a totally different way. As an aside, I highly recommend the letter of protest written by “Vladimir Dixon.” (Actually, that may be the only one that’s a warmup. It’s the only one I actually read.) Or, looking more closely at the quote in The Other Night, it may actually be in the Wake itself. I don’t know and I’m tired of chasing this down. Sorry. This is the longest failed footnote ever.

[2] Attempt no landing there.

Doing Something Stupid at the Kettle Morraine 100

My training cycle for this race was an exercise in restraint. Or laziness. I ran 20 miles only once, and did only a few runs in the 16–18 mile range. Instead, I focused on keeping my overall volume high (about 50 mi/week, with my peak weeks hitting 60+) and doing longer runs on both Saturday and Sunday, trying to get 25–30 miles across two days. Since the KM 100 is a trail race, I also tried to get out and do trails at least once per week if not more frequently, and I did my hill work on trails at a park near my house. It was kind of an experiment—in the past, I’ve experienced injury when running a lot of runs over 18–20 miles, so I wondered if there were a way to avoid that. If only there were a way to do such an experiment without, you know, actually putting down all the money for the entry fee and training for and running the race. But at least my point has now been empirically proven. Sort of, anyway.

I should note that I did a two-week taper for this race. I usually hate tapering, and this time was no different. Somewhat amusingly, I decided to use my extra time from running less to go to aikido three times in the week before the race. By Friday night I was wondering why I was so sore. Oops.

Fruitless Pre-Race Nattering

Okay, so the morning of the race, I got up late and kind of hung around, reading and having a cup of coffee. The race actually started at 14:00, but I had to arrive at the Nordic parking lot (the finish line) by 12:15 in order to get a bus to the start. I had toast with butter, peanut butter, and a banana a bit late in the morning, then dithered around for a while before finally leaving a bit before 11. When I arrived in La Grange, one of the two race directors recognized me, which was really nice. Seriously, if you ever want to flatter/impress someone who is face-blind (and while I’m not as bad as some, I’m pretty bad), just recognize them.

From the bus ride into the Scuppernong trail head.
From the bus ride into the Scuppernong trail head.

The bus to the start was a good chance to rediscover how school buses have no shocks. I sat quietly, listening to the guy next to me talk about how he treated his plantar fasciitis, his knee issues, how he had never run farther than a marathon but was expecting to finish the 50K in time to run the 38-mile fun run or at least pace a friend doing the 100 miler. He had brought with him, among other things, salt caps filled with Himalayan sea salt, pills filled with hydrolized collagen[1], pickles, smoothies, and venison sausage. I had brought: five salt tabs in a small plastic baggie and a Clif bar (as well as some sunscreen and bugspray I wasn’t bringing on the run).

The starting line was at the 31.6 mile aid station, which marked the turn-around/halfway point for the 100K runners and the almost one-third of the distance complete point for the 100-mile runners. We were starting eight hours after they were, and a lot of the middle-of-the-packers were trickling in. Actually, it looks like most of the people who finished the 100K finished in 13–15 hours, so these would have been the back-pack 100K people and the mid-pack for the 100 miler. I was both nervous about the race and kind of unsure of how to time my pre-race eating for such a late start. I had brought a bag with sunscreen, bug spray, body glide, and other similar sundries with me to the starting line; I put my race shirt in and tied the top. I was told that it would be treated as a drop bag and taken to the Emma Carlin aid station (at mile 15.9) and then to the finish line provided that I remembered to move it to the “done” pile at Emma Carlin. Okay, well. Mental note.

Cooling my heels before the race. I think my phone did something funny to this picture--my arms aren't that skinny.
Cooling my heels before the race. I think my phone did something funny to this picture–my arms aren’t that skinny.

After all the sunscreening and bugspraying was taken care of, I still had an hour to wait, so I ate my Clif bar and read a short story by Salman Rushdie that was in last week’s New Yorker. Highly recommend it.

Clif bar and Salman Rushdie.
Clif bar and Salman Rushdie.

Shortly before we took off, the aid station played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” which was pretty awesome.

The First Half

At 2pm (plus a few seconds) we took off. I had discovered a few minutes before the start that my watch was claiming it was low on batteries (despite being charged for a full 24 hours before the start!). I decided to use the stopwatch setting on my cell phone to time my progress between aid stations. This meant that while I had a general idea of my pace, I didn’t really know from moment to moment how fast I was running or how far I had gone, which is an interesting position to be in when you’re running 31 miles. Probably as a result, I took off going quite fast. After a while I fell into step with a woman from northern Illinois named Shelly, who was using the race as her last long run before Western States in three weeks. Wow! She was really moving, and pulled me along and provided awesome conversation for almost the first 20K. We hit the first aid station (mile 5) after 48 minutes, a 9:41 pace (it felt much faster than that). I was pretty aware that I was paying a lot up front that I might not be happy about later, but I really wanted company, so I pushed. It was probably a good idea, because after some rolling hills, the race headed out over some meadows, which were 1) grassy 2) beautiful 3) humid 4) unshaded and hot. Getting through those as quickly as we did (I lost Shelly right toward the end, before the Antique Lane aid station, which was mile 12ish) probably helped me a lot in the long run; left alone, the monotony and heat would probably have reduced me to a walk.

The meadows. Pretty to look at.
The meadows. Pretty to look at.

Antique Lane was an unmanned aid station, meaning there was just water jugs and some other necessities, like ice and a big tub of Vaseline I used on some chafing spots. It was only three miles from Antique Lane to Emma Carlin, but it felt like more, especially because I was beginning to develop some hot spots on my feet.


There were a ton of people at Emma Carlin—it was a big trail head with good access roads, so there was a little party going on. I ate some (M&Ms and boiled potatoes dipped in salt, I think) and found my drop bag. Originally I’d been just intending to move it to the “done” pile so it would get back to Nordic in time for me to leave, but I remembered I had body glide in it and put some on my feet. Amazing. I didn’t have problems with them the rest of the race, and when I got home and took off my shoes and socks, I found only one blister.

I spent a good nine minutes at Emma (I got there at 16:46, left at 16:55 or so), just trying to get as situated as possible. Up until this point, in an attempt to control my body temperature I’d been putting ice down my sports bra, and here I rolled some up in a wet bandana and tied it around my neck too. On the whole, ice down the bra cools one much faster, but it also melts faster. Ice in the banana lasts a surprisingly long time.[2]

The Second Half

After Emma Carlin, some single track.
After Emma Carlin, some single track.

Between Emma Carlin and the finish line, there were three aid stations: Horseriders, Bluff, and Tamarack, with legs of 3.1 miles, 5 miles, and 2.7 miles. The section between Emma Carlin and Horseriders was not too difficult to run; it was nice to be out of the meadows and on to some shaded single track. I have actually started to quite enjoy running morraines, which are both pretty and runnable if you’re in pretty good hill condition. The sun was starting to sink here, so I wound up taking off my sunglasses and stowing them. I knew that there were three women ahead of me, and I hadn’t seen anyone in a while coming up behind me—and also, on such a hot, humid day, you don’t make a move at mile 18. Thus it was with some shock that when I stopped to take off my shoe and clear some brush out of it, a woman in a pink shirt doing the 50K passed me by. No fair!

I put my shoe back on and sped after her. It didn’t take long before I caught and passed her.[3] Then I had to put a gap in between us to prevent her passing me back, so I started to run up the smaller hills and run/walk the bigger ones. Every few minutes, I’d hear something and think it was footsteps, or look behind me and think I saw pink, but after a while I decided I was hearing/seeing things. At any rate, you can’t run at mile 18 like you’re sprinting for the finish, so eventually I reconciled myself to possibly getting passed by her. I passed some people in here (mostly 100K runners), and made it to Horseriders 48 minutes later. I had been running for 3:34, making it just after 5:30pm.

The Tough Bit

I knew that the section between Horseriders and Bluff was going to be the hardest of the race. I have run it before as part of the Ice Age 50K, and it involves some stuff that is technical (i.e., roots and rocks you have to watch out for), some stuff that is sandy and unpleasant to run in, and a long hike up Star Mountain (also called Bald Bluff), which has somewhat old, rocky, difficult to descend stairs on the other side of it. Initially I figured I was just going to take my time with this section and that the 5.2 miles would take me an hour. Although the technical sections were not as bad as I’d thought they were the first time I ran this section during my first trail 50K (I have learned something about trail running!), it was still pretty slow going in parts. A guy in a yellow shirt cheered me on briefly as he passed me. Actually, I leapfrogged with Mr. Yellow several times during the second half of the race; other than him, no one passed me after I left behind the lady in pink. And he somehow passed me three or four times.

Sandy horse path from between Horseriders and Bluff. Not good running.
Sandy horse path from between Horseriders and Bluff. Not good running.

It took me 1:10 to get from Horseriders to Bluff, and I was so stunned and excited to be there. I came around a corner to be greeted by a pink lawn flamingo, and then walked into a party. The song “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage was playing when I came in, which seems entirely appropriate for an ultramarathon. Before I left, the song “Sister Golden Hair” by America came on, which would stay in my head for most of the rest of the race. I got yelled at for grabbing the ice here (“We’re trying to keep it clean!” the lady said). Maybe she was actually speaking quite reasonably, but I felt like that time in the second grade when I tried to touch a sculpture at the Art Institute and got caught by a docent. Yikes.
Bluff was actually a pretty intense aid station to be at because there were a bunch of 100-mile and 100K runners trying to collect themselves. The 100K people had as far as I did left, while the 100 mile people had nearly 50 miles to go. While I thought I was suffering here—my hip flexors were sore, my core had gone entirely to hell, my back hurt, and my quads were just done—seeing them reminded me that while my suffering might feel like a lot in subjective terms, it was probably objectively not that bad, comparatively speaking. I don’t know, maybe most people don’t find it necessary to remind themselves in the middle of a race that they’re not doing that much, but it kind of put things in perspective. Anyway, I should note that in a race like this, where I was pretty tired and out of it, having actual people and music and so on at an aid station made a big difference in psychological terms. If you ever decide to volunteer at an aid station for an ultra, know that you can really make a big difference in psychological terms to the runners. (This is probably true for long-distance tris too, like the half or full IM.)

The top of the hill just before Bluff.
The top of the hill just before Bluff.

The Last Bit

The Nordic trail--a big difference from the Ice Age stuff.
The Nordic trail–a big difference from the Ice Age stuff.

Bluff was mile 24, meaning I had about 7.6 miles to go. The first leg, Bluff to Tamarak, was 2.5 miles. Here we finally got off the Ice Age Trail and onto the wide, piney trails of the Nordic Trail, basically the same area I ran in a month ago when I did the Ice Age Trail half marathon. But nothing looked too familiar, either because it was starting to get dark or because we were running it backwards from the direction I did at Ice Age. Or we were on different trails, I don’t know. At this point, I was focused entirely on just running the distance to the next aid station. I pushed up a lot of the hills, passed some more runners doing the longer races, and eventually made it to Tamarak in 34:08, or at 7:21pm. I had originally hoped to be finishing the race at 7:30pm (and Shelly, my companion from earlier, actually did!). Oh well. I was still pretty confident that as long as I held my place, I was going to finish in the top 10 (my overall goal). I also really wanted to finish before 20:30, because that was when the sun set, and I didn’t have a lamp except the flashlight on my phone.

I was a bit dismayed to see at Tamarak that I still had 5 miles to go. My grasp on time and distance were pretty ephemeral here, even though I was sort of ostensibly tracking both. A mile outside the aid station, I passed a number “4” written in marker on a little ground sign. Four miles to go? I was excited. I started to run faster. (Or, really, “faster.”) This section had a good number of rolling hills that I had to walk all or parts of, but I still made good time. I had reached a point where stopping running and then starting again was much more painful than just running straight through, so that is what I did.

Coming into Tamarak. You can see it was starting to get to be twilight.
Coming into Tamarak. You can see it was starting to get to be twilight, so the exposure was blurry.

The signs seemed way farther apart than I thought they should be, so I tried to forget about distance and just focus on how pleasant it was to be running in a pine forest in the gathering twilight. The temperature was finally dropping, and I didn’t feel terrible except for the pain. I crossed the finish line to a gigantic cheer at 8:17pm, after 6:17:03 of running, and shook hands with the RD.

Somewhat amusingly, I stopped just past the finish line to stop my phone timer and try to take a screenshot, and while I was standing there, the woman who tracks results came over and said, “Emily, you were the first woman in the Masters division” (masters: ages 40–49). I was baffled, because I’m not 40, and told her so. Then I looked at the plaque she was holding out. “That says ‘open division’ ” (open: 39 and under). After some confusion, she confirmed that I had actually won the Womens Open division. This was a shock—remember I knew that there were at least three women ahead of me, so I figured at least one of them was young. As it turns out, there were actually four women ahead of me. One of them won the race overall (her name was also Emily![4]), and she was slightly younger than I am. The other three women were all Masters. Races typically don’t double up on prizes (you win either overall OR your age group, not both), so I got the Open award. Nice!

I won.
I won.


At the point I crossed the finish line, the drop bags had not yet returned from Emma Carlin. I wandered around a bit, felt dizzy, had a cup of Coke, and then realized I was freezing (all the ice down my bra all day had left everything I was wearing wet, and when I get done running my body abruptly stops generating heat). Luckily, I had my warmups in the car, so I changed and went back to the Nordic aid station for a cup of coffee with hot cocoa mix in it. There were at this point a lot of 50K finishers (as well as some 100K folks and a really chipper guy who had dropped from the 100 mile after 100K) who were all milling around, looking for their drop bags. The aid station actually closed at 8:40pm (so about 20 min after I finished), and a truck with the various supplies came back around 9pm—but no drop bags! Rather than hang around complaining, I got up and asked him if I could help unload the truck. Movement helped the shivering die down.

The finish area after dark.
The finish area after dark.

Finally, around 9:30pm, the drop bags arrived, so I helped unload those too, then headed out around 9:45pm. Yikes, what a long day. I called B to say hello, and he was a little worried that I would run into trouble driving when I was so tired, but I had The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett by the Eels to blare as I went. And the dogs were happy to see me when I got here. The cat also wanted to be fed.

This is already way too long, but to summarize, a few notes:

  1. Moving steadily in the later stages of an ultra is important. Even slow jogging is superior to hiking it in.
  2. You are passing a lot of people who may be having a rough time, so try to be happy and cheerful—tell them they’re doing a good job and looking good, even if they’re not. Also, be nice to the volunteers. They’re so important.
  3. Helping is better than sitting around when you’re freezing your arse off, even if you’re sore. I would not have thought to jump in and help if I hadn’t spent some time volunteering at races earlier this spring, but I’m glad I did.
  4. Gear: I had a 1-liter hydration pack, which proved to be a good size, and there were enough pockets to carry everything I needed to carry. I eventually got really sick of water though. I didn’t carry any food and probably didn’t eat enough.
  5. Food: This is what I ate: one-half a Hoho, some potato chips, one-quarter of a pbj, a handful of M&Ms, two or three boiled potatoes dipped in salt, possibly a piece of peanut butter cookie (I remember looking at them but not eating any), a cup of Coke, a small piece of watermelon. I think that’s it. Rather unusually, I drank a ton of water (probably three liters). In retrospect, I wish I would have started drinking calories as fluid earlier, because I wasn’t really hungry and I would have gotten some more in. (Post-race, despite how sick of fluids I was: a cup of Coke, a cup of coffee with cocoa mix, another cocoa from a gas station.)
  6. Clothes: I had only a little chafing and didn’t feel too warm. Didn’t get sunburned either. Probably would have chosen a different pair of socks in retrospect, but I survived fine, no big foot damage.
  7. I need to plank more. My core was a mess after 24 miles.
Post-race (pre-shower) selfie.
Post-race (pre-shower) selfie. I’m exhausted.

[1] He claimed that his chiropractor, who was also into ultrarunning, had recommended the collagen pills and that he take a bunch hourly during the race (he had settled on two per hour, which he said was a lower number). I didn’t lean over and tell him what I thought of the whole idea, which smacks of pseudoscience, but I’m hoping he learned something about that during the race. Hydrolyzed collagen, also known as “gelatine,” is the “active ingredient” in marshmallows.

[2] The downside is that it’s hard to gauge one’s perspiration level with all the ice melting all over. I was taking one salt cap per hour, and eating some salty things in each aid station, and that seemed to be enough. Although I had a headache when I finished, it was from caffeine withdrawal, not hyponatremia, despite having drunk probably three liters of fluid over the course of the race.

[3] I am almost totally sure this incident occurred between Emma Carlin and Horseriders rather than Horseriders and Bluff, just because the terrain of the second leg is so much harder to run. But I want to admit, in the spirit of transparency, that I was in a little zone and don’t quite remember.

[4] A total of three Emilys finished the 50K. Only one of the three of us was young enough to have been named during the whopping fifteen years (1993 to 2008) that the name spent on the “Top Five American Names for Girls” list. Actually, my suspicion is the woman in pink who nearly passed me was also named Emily. Or at least, the next woman to finish was also an Emily and was about 45 minutes behind me. Late edit: The next woman to finish was not the woman in pink–I couldn’t find her when looking through the race photos. She may have dropped; although 96 people signed up, it looks like only 76 finished. Or I suppose I could have hallucinated her.

Em oi! #406: Why I Am Still Awake





Hat tip, as ever, to XKCD for panel 6.

About panel 5: My cat is in late middle age (she’s 12 this year) and she is fine. She has a bladder stone, but other than that she’s in good health. It’s just that after the sudden death of a loved one, I have developed the neurotic idea that anyone I love can die at any time, so I tend to be a little weird about her. At least I’ve finally recognized that my neuroses are what’s getting in the way, rather than anything in particular about her.

I bought a new sketchbook (from what is apparently the kids’ aisle at Target, because why would adults want art supplies?), and it has both watercolor paper and regular pen and ink paper in it. I accidentally grabbed some pages out of the watercolor section for this comic, so I decided to pull out my brush and sit down with a bottle of India ink and make them pretty. I think I succeeded–a few of the panels are some of my favorites I’ve ever done. It was less time-consuming than I thought it would be, too, taking just a little more than one episode of QI. The uploading was a bit fussier–it’s harder to edit watercolor paper things because of the texture of the paper and whatnot–but all in all I’m pleased.

Anyway, life around here is mildly chaotic. B’s leg is recovering well. And this week we’ve had workmen removing all the insulation from our attics in order to air seal the house. When it gets done, it will be great, because our drafty old house will finally be actually warm (and cool, in the summer). Unfortunately, it was about 40 degrees yesterday with a few flakes of snow, and today the high is 49. Thanks, Wisconsin. I’m wearing four shirts right now.

The other thing is that we decided on Sunday to start letting the dogs sleep with their crate doors open, for a number of reasons but mostly that they’re adults and unlikely to destroy the house without our direct supervision. And it turns out that our neighbor leaves for work at about 5:30 in the morning–I know this because Monday morning and Tuesday morning he woke up (and woke us up) barking very loudly at just about exactly 5:34. When I went down to comfort him, he decided he wanted to go out, and so by the time I got back to bed I was wide, wide awake and had a hard time falling asleep again. This was especially icky since I’ve been getting over a bout of stomach flu and really, really wanted to be asleep and not vertical. Then today, I figured I’d just get up to run early-early (I thought we had to leave the house at oh-my-G-d o’clock so some of the work could take place). I figured Edgar would wake me up, but I set a backup alarm for 6:00 anyway.

You can guess what happened, can’t you? Edgar did not wake up at 5:30. But I did.

I think there’s something in the Geneva Convention about this, Edgar.

We’ll file this comic under RC548 .L86 2015, for Internal medicine–Neurosciences. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry–Psychiatry–Neuroses–Sleep disorders–Insomnia–General works.

Edgar relaxing on his new bed.
Edgar relaxing on his new bed.

Passover Comix

I wanted to get these up here before Passover ended and they became irrelevant for another year.

I have been toying with the idea of drawing comics to submit for publication (not in a newspaper, but maybe in a well-known national magazine), and if I had gotten some of these drawn a few months ago, maybe I would have sent them (well, potentially one of the three). But I didn’t. So whatever.
passover comix1

passover comix2

I should explain that we often substitute a carrot for a shank bone because we have never been able to successfully figure out where to get a shank bone. Also, um, gross. The hardboiled egg is actually supposed to be a roasted egg, but…I don’t know how to roast an egg. I had to look up how to hardboil one.

This last comic is part of a (now) long-running joke between B and I that began somehow when I took a boot over to a local place called Cecil’s Shoe Repair. I cannot explain more than that because like so many things, I don’t really understand what has happened. But if you need your boot fixed, I recommend Cecil’s.

schmaltz shack

The menu here says:

-Hun [chicken]
-Gandz [goose]
-Mit onions [with onions]

* “Pareve” means something that, according to the laws of kashrut, can be eaten with both meat and milk dishes. Usually it can be thought of as vegetarian, but that’s not always the case–for example, gelatin and rennent are both considered pareve (because they are too far removed from the animals to really be animal products by kosher standards) but they are strictly speaking not vegetarian. Also fish are considered pareve. I don’t really understand why, but hey, I’m not a mashgiach.

Also I should state up-front that I’m not actually sure if “hun” means chicken in the sense of the animal or chicken in the sense of the meat. Some languages have two words for the two items (like how farmers raise cows but people eat beef). I did this using Google Translate late at night. I don’t actually speak Yiddish.

What else. Oy. I have had a really hard week. I’ll say it. And yeah, I know people who are having actual hard weeks, and I feel really bad using language that might equate my life with theirs, as if having to go to Walgreens at 9pm to buy extra half-price Easter candy were really “difficult” in some way.

Easter candy shame
Easter candy shame

But I do feel just…ground down, unable to concentrate, tired, distracted…part of it is that I am a mammal, and I guess I need to actually take sleeping seriously instead of EVERY NIGHT setting my alarm for six hours after I go to bed, as if somehow I will suddenly (re)manifest the ability to get out of bed at that hour, which happens to be my current strategy. Then I lie in bed for an hour questioning my life choices. It’s fun.

I have been upping my mileage running, and also eating a lot of matzo**, which is lower in calories than my usual breakfast, so that might account for the low energy as well. (Although I have been also upping my Easter candy consumption.) We’ve also had a parade of contractors through our house as we prepare to fix some insulation issues, and then on Tuesday during the first rainstorm of the year, a window suddenly began leaking. We relatively quickly found the source of the problem and kludged together a repair (okay, B climbed a ladder [during a storm–eek] and pushed the flashing back into place). Since then it has continued to rain, meaning that it hasn’t really had a chance to dry out so we can fix it permanently. Also, B is having knee surgery next week, and I’m nervous about it. More nervous than he is, actually.

Okay, I’m pretty tired and I still have to take the dogs out so I’m going to wrap this up. Happy Passover to those who celebrate it, Happy Easter to those who celebrate it, and also Happy Ostara, and any other holidays I’m missing that might have happened. Happy National Poetry Month too. My favorite poem used to be “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but I’ve been getting a lot of rejection letters lately and it’s becoming harder to keep an ironic distance from the narrator. So, uh, let’s go with “Personal Ruin” by Claire Wahmanholm, which is in some respects on a similar theme but a lot more hip. What’s your favorite poem?

** I accidentally for various reasons bought five pounds of matzo. As of right now, one week from the first night Seder, I have eaten…one box (one pound). That’s with the people at the Seder helping me, and also with a friend coming over and eating some.

Dwelling on How Doomed I Probably Am

Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War: The Complete Edition. Read by Max Brooks et al. Abridged edition. New York: Random House Audio, 2013. MP3, 61 files, 12:12:26.zombies

Max Brooks must have been the victim of the most liberal of liberal educations; everywhere in this book are concerns about capitalism, oligarchies, religion, imperialism and colonization, international relations, race and racism.

Let me back up. This audio book, a full-cast performance of Brooks’s World War Z, was recommended to me by some friends in part because of the all-star cast; characters are played by the likes of Nathan Fillion, Mark Hamill, Jeri Ryan, Rob Reiner, Alan Alda, Common, Simon Pegg, and Martin Scorcese, to name a few. Since the book is set up as a series of interviews, the various narrators work really well (with a few exceptions, which I’ll come to in a minute). The effect was more like a radio play than audio books typically are, and in general I really enjoyed it.

World War Z is a survivors’ tale—it follows an unnamed narrator (voiced by Brooks) as he journeys around the world to interview and record the stories of those who fought in the zombie war, so from the start you know that humanity made it through, and that things are, in a certain sense of the term, all right again. The zombies here are your typical living dead: slow, shuffling, intent on eating any life-forms they encounter. Brooks is not interested in, and in fact explicitly rejects, any attempts to humanize the zombies. He doesn’t delve too far into how the plague appears, though he implies that it is related to the Three Gorges Dam project. He also seems clear that “the plague” is a virus, but doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the idea of treatment or a cure.[1] His characters ask questions about the weirder points of zombies as he sees them, like how they can be frozen and reanimate when thawed, or how they can walk on the ocean floor at depths far beyond what a human should be able to tolerate, but there are no answers provided.

The intriguing thing about WWZ is that it’s not just mindless genre fiction[3]; Brooks really uses his characters to land a number of solid and well-deserved blows against humanity, and the US especially. Zombies are actually really interesting this way—they reflect a lot of different neuroses or fears: they can be metaphors for capitalism or consumerism, represent our fears of our own inevitable deaths and the problems with a desire for immortality, or showcase a desire for a radical shake-up of society. Unlike natural disasters, which hit only a limited area, or even diseases or economic collapse, both of which are manageable if you have sufficient privilege (money), zombies are a nondiscriminatory evil. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as the recession started there was a zombie obsession in the US. Zombies represent the ultimate stock market crash, one where you never have to face paying off your credit card after you’ve lost your job.[4]

Although Brooks’s narrator tries to be objective, the book as a whole seems to be relentlessly Marxist. Some of the things Arthur Sinclair (leader of the US resource-management program, played by Alan Alda) comes up with, about people doing useful labor and feeling pride in the things they made, seem to come directly from The German Ideology. Brooks has strong criticisms of capitalism in the character of an unrepentent entrepreneur who used Dr. Oz-like canny to sell Americans a bunch of snake-oil vaccines before absconding to Antarctica to wait out the plague. Brooks is also strongly critical of coercive forms of government; under his projections, China becomes a democracy (United Federation of China), and he has a lot of harsh words for the old guard as they leave; Cuba becomes a democracy too, and he has nothing but scorn for the newly created Holy Russian Empire (primarily because of its co-option of [genuine?] religious sentiment to push a totalitarian agenda). In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place to say that he’s generally somewhat misanthropic, though some of the characters fare better than others. He also digs in deep to give a really diverse view of the problem; although there’s strong representation from the US, the story is also peppered with a South African military planner, a Chinese doctor and a sailor, a Sri Lankan translator, an Indian army engineer, and a variety of other people from the global south. He even manages to get a wheelchair-bound guy and a blind man in. In terms of representation, he’s batting a million.[5]

The cast was generally great, though—and I guess other reviewers have pointed this out as well—Steve Park cannot do a Chinese accent to save his life.[6] The characters are a mixed bag. Brooks is particularly interested in the blue collar, working class, soldier-level view, so while we hear from a few individuals who held positions of authority during the war, most of the speakers were or are army grunts, hired help, suburban homeowners, and others who are essentially powerless (or see themselves as such) in the face of “the system.” He even interviews the vice president, but not the president. I will say that in amongst all the scorn, Israel gets off pretty easy (having self-quarantined at the beginning of the outbreak, they suffered a civil war led by the ultra orthodox, but wound up reuniting with the Palestinians); however, I have to admit I found the character of the Palestinian teenager who believes the plague warnings are Israeli propaganda designed to lure Arabs to their deaths (until he sees the zombies for himself) was a very compelling character.

More troublesome in amongst Brooks’s misanthropy was his borderline misogyny. A lot of the female characters in the book are harpies, or else individuals who need men to save them. The first woman we meet, Mary Jo Miller (played by Denise Crosby, also known as Tasha Mutherfuckng Yar), is an unpleasant suburban woman in a loveless relationship with her husband who seems to hate her children and who comes off as really unintelligent and uninteresting. She’s said, at the time we meet her, to have become a developer making zombie-proof compounds, but the transformation from cliche housewife to entrepreneur is not chronicled. In another scene, we listen to a young woman (Jesika Hendricks, played by Michelle Kholos) recount a story in which, while her family is starving through a Canadian winter and she is on the verge of death, her mother bullies her father into trading a radio for some stew[7] by calling him a number of unpleasant names, including the f-word. This I cannot profess to understand; if your child is starving and you need meat, you don’t need to ask your husband to go get it; you as an adult human being are capable of making that decision and trading the radio yourself. Another woman is said to have the mind of a four-year-old child, owing to traumatic events in her past.[8] Maybe I’m just resentful that the men, even the male characters who were kind of scumbags, all seemed to have sweeping plot lines and interesting, exciting ideals they were clinging to (and make surprisingly few references to wives, girlfriends, or other females that populate most men’s lives), while the women seemed largely motivated by their husbands, children, and in one case by her mother issues, and they were almost all in need of rescue rather than being the rescuers. Yawn.

Science fiction and horror books can often be read as inherently regressive. Technology is dangerous, they seem to say; just look at what it has caused. Certainly by waving a blaming finger in the direction of the Three Gorges dam, Brooks seems to be saying the same thing with his zombies. But he doesn’t dwell on the technological aspect of things—the dam may have caused the problem (or perhaps not), but the real issue once the plague begins is humanity’s damn inability to stop fighting with itself and get on with fighting the real enemy. One former Iranian pilot describes the outbreak of nuclear war between Iran and Pakistan because the governments were unable to communicate; a Chinese naval officer describes having to blow up a submarine that spent valuable time and resources tracking down his sub after he defected; a US army grunt (Todd Wainios, played by an extremely effective Mark Hamill) describes being caught absolutely unprepared and overrun by the enemy at the Battle of Yonkers. The grunts typically understand the tactical errors and idiocy of their superiors; over and over, the general story seems to be “the government made decisions that seemed unethical/unintelligent/impossible, but I was powerless to change it.” Even in the face of the total collapse of the world’s systems, individuals are still largely disenfranchised. Scary stuff.

After all that, my favorite section, the one that nearly moved me to tears, was the interview with Darnell Hackworth, voiced by Common.[9] Hackworth runs a retirement facility for former zombie sniffer dogs; he describes the process of training them and the bond he shares with his partner, a now-elderly dachshund mix named Masie (“Maze”). In the midst of a long, long story entirely about man’s inhumanity to man (both in the inhumanity of the zombies and the stupidity of the various crises), the bond between man and dog really stuck out to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a sentimental animal lover myself, but the clear affection between man and beast stuck out as a wonderful, caring, normal moment in a sea of other unsettling details.

I don’t mean to sound entirely uncritical, since there were a few plot holes that never seemed to be well-explained to me—chief among them that the zombies freeze in the winter. How many zombies can you kill in a day if they’re frozen? Seems like that could cut down on the problem right there.[10] It’s worth noting that there were a lot of gory if clinical descriptions of zombies that turned my stomach. And certainly the weirdest moment involved Todd Wainios’s description of the liberation of Janesville, Wisconsin. That was kind of a “What the ever-loving fuck” sort of moment.

Sometimes, really great works of genre fiction transcend their genre and become something larger. World War Z is trying really hard to get there. I think it almost makes it. Scathing political commentary aside, it’s got some fun stories, a solid meta-narrative, and it’s also really thought-provoking. In a bad way. By which I mean that after a few days of listening to the story, I started looking around my house and making assessments: too many large windows at ground level—a great selling point when we bought the place, but not great for securing the building. Our fence is only six feet tall and chain-link, built for keeping dogs in rather than keeping zombies out. Our dogs are not really guard dogs and, while they might bark when zombies approach, they also bark when the neighbor goes outside, or sometimes just because they have dog brains and they bark for no reason. I am not really good at keeping plants alive, so growing our own food sounds difficult if not impossible (also there’s six months of winter here). Neither of us can fire a gun. If the economy collapses, my main skills are running long distances and speaking other languages, and B is a computer programmer. We are totally doomed. Doomed.

[1] My understanding is that his first book, the 2002 Zombie Survival Guide, mentioned a few ideas about curing the very recently infected and generally dismissed the idea as untenable—although he notes that in some cases, amputation of the bitten limb may have worked? (This is all based on the book’s wikipedia summary.) Which also makes me wonder about amputation as a treatment for rabies. Sorry, this is a digression.[2]

[2] OKAY I looked it up and it’s actually really neat. So the rabies virus—unlike other viruses, like HIV, which are blood-borne—actually hitches its way up the nerve axons from the place where a victim is bitten to the brain (where it kills you through a mechanism that is still not understood DESPITE HUMAN RABIES CASES GOING BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF RECORDED HISTORY). Thing is, this nervous-system travel is really slow, so if you cut off the affected limb, you can effectively cure the infection. One mouse study found that amputation within eighteen days of infection was sufficient. See G.M. Baer and W.F. Cleary, “A Model in Mice for the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Rabies,” Journal of Infectious Diseases 125, no. 5 (1972): 520–527, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30110879. So the question becomes now: are zombieism (and related conditions perhaps, like lycanthropy) blood-borne diseases like HIV, or do they move along the nervous system like rabies? The literature is remarkably silent on this point (although check this thread on the Straight Dope message board for some opinions). (Future PhD thesis topic anyone? You’re welcome.)

[3] No one is criticizing mindless genre fiction, I’m just not writing about it.

[4] When I bought a house, I read somewhere that a house is basically just an interconnected series of systems—electricity, water, gas, heat, walls/windows (the point being that keeping it in one piece, an intimidating idea for a first-time homeowner, is actually not so bad—you just keep the various systems going). The country as a whole, even the world, are all actually composed of interconnected systems: the delivery of utilities (water, electricity, the internet, natural gas), provision of security, shipping (gas to gas stations, food to stores, parts to factories), the economic system, the health-care system, schools, the roads—a million nodes in public and private networks that work together to make things happen on a day-to-day basis. The substructure, as Marx would say. And I guess the point of a rapidly spreading highly deadly “plague” like that experienced in WWZ is that it overwhelms and crashes a bunch of the systems at once worldwide, versus smaller-scale catastrophes that might crash only one of the systems on a less-than-global scale.

[5] Strikingly, North Korea is mentioned but does not appear; it appears the entire population of the DPRK has vanished. It is suggested that they are underground. (This is rumored to actually be possible.)

[6] In my version of the recordings, there’s also a weird part at the end where a few of the characters sort of inexplicably read the narration to their parts, making the whole thing sound like this. Maybe this got fixed in other releases?

[7] Strongly implied to be human stew.

[8] I didn’t buy this section, for a number of reasons. And she didn’t talk like any four year old I’ve ever met.

[9] Yeah, I know about him because he was on the Nightly Show a few days ago. Seems like a smart fellow.

[10] Wainios suggests the snow is so deep that it’s hard to find them all. Not sure I buy that explanation.

Such Tsuris: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Reviewed

Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. 978-0-00-714983-4.

First edition cover, via Wikimedia.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this review, or what my potential readers’ background on these topics may be. I guess the place that makes the most sense to me to start is with Yiddish. Or more specifically, this question: “Why is Hebrew the language of Israel?”

The answer is both more simple and more complicated than you’re probably imagining. Way back in the day, Hebrew was spoken. Then it wasn’t—those who saw that Mel Gibson film might remember that some of the characters in it spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew.[1] Also, during the diaspora, some Jews spoke Greek. I believe there were actually quite a few Jewish philosophers who wrote in Greek around the beginning of the Common Era. Hebrew survived as a written language through the Middle Ages in much the same way that Latin did; it was a language in which Jews all over Europe could correspond.[2] Gradually, however, people started actually speaking local languages that were to a large extent creoles—Yiddish (spoken mostly among Eastern European Jews) is the most famous, but there’s also Ladino (spoken in Spain), Judeo-Arabic (different variants of which were spoken in many places across North Africa), and Bukharian (spoken in Central Asia), to say nothing of the local languages of the places the Jews were living.[3]

So we have a linguistic jumble, and around the beginning of the twentieth century, we also have what is referred to as the first Aliyah (1882–1903), in which a bunch of Jews (35,000) immigrated from places including Eastern Europe and Yemen to what was then Ottoman Palestine.[4] What language to speak? Hebrew, as the language of the Tanakh, was perhaps an obvious choice, but there are a lot of problems associated with taking a basically dead language and reviving it. To give an easy example, as languages go along they get new vocabulary words as new things appear. So if a language was last really spoken in the Middle Ages, you suddenly have to come up with words for things like buses or electrical outlets.[5] This work was carried out by one guy: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is typically credited with basically singlehandedly bringing Hebrew back to life. Not only that, after making Aliyah, he and his wife raised their son (Ben Zion Ben-Yehuda) speaking Hebrew, making him the first native speaker in centuries.

Moving on from there, I think the history becomes probably better known to most people. Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine[6] increased greatly after WWII and the Holocaust. In 1948, Israel became an independent country and immediately survived the Arab–Israeli war (May 1948–March 1949); Hebrew became its official language, and Yiddish gradually diminished, as Ben-Yehuda had wanted. Actually, it’s not quite as simple as saying that Yiddish “gradually diminished”—the Israeli government adopted a policy of promoting Hebrew over Yiddish, even going so far as to ban Yiddish-language theatre in the 1950s. For a moment, however brief, Yiddish had a shot, and it didn’t work out.

This is approximately where Chabon picks up, beginning his alternative history of Jews with the question of “What if Israel hadn’t worked out the way it did?”[7] What if Israel had fallen, and Jews from all over Europe had instead made their way to somewhere else? During the aftermath of the Holocaust, there were proposals floated to give Jews a piece of land in Alaska. Of course, no one really wants to live in Alaska, so in real life nothing came of this. But in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, after the fall of Israel, that is where Jews wind up, in a settlement called Sitka, population 4 million.

Meyer Landsmen is a detective working for the Sitka police department, homicide division. Before divorcing his wife, he was essentially their top guy, but for the past two years he’s been in something of a decline. His partner is Berko Shemets, who is half Tlingit Indian and also his cousin. About two months before the Sitka territory is set to revert back to American control (think Hong Kong circa 1997), a man is shot in a room of the hotel Landsmen lives in. The man, Mendel Shpilman, turns out to have been a former ultra-Orthodox Jew (referred to as Black Hats in the book). Worse, he may have been the Tzadik ha-Dor, a man who might have, if the time were right, become the Messiah.

I have to give a little digression here on the Messiah, because if you are familiar only with the Christian idea of Messiah—Jesus descending from the clouds, seven trumpets, various pools of blood and people getting the end times kicked out of them—then you are going to be very confused by that last statement. In Judaism, the Messiah is more of a political position—like a king, basically. Somewhat more complicatedly, there are different ideas about how he gets to come do his job. Many people believe that it is up to people to perfect the world before the Messiah will come. Others put their stock in the rebuilding of the Temple (and I guess the reclaiming of Jerusalem? Although maybe that goes without saying) as the thing that will put everything in motion. These ideas are all sort of referred to in the book without really being named or explained in detail.[8]

Going back to the story: Mendel Shpilman is dead, and of course there is a cover-up and much push-back from higher-ups to keep things quiet. And so we begin a journey through a tiny, complicated, fascinating community. Chabon is playing with the oeuvre of Chandler, and the work is an interesting hybrid of the two of them, with Chabon’s poetry and Chandler’s precision of language. Chabon’s metaphors don’t surprise me as frequently as Chandler’s do; he’s too modern and not inspired enough by Hemingway. But he gets off a few good ones. For those who don’t know a ganef from a shlamiel, there’s a Yiddish glossary in the back of the book.

What else can I say? This book was intense. Unlike (many of) Chandler’s works, there’s something bigger at stake than just figuring out who killed one poor guy—the fate of the Sitka district and its inhabitants is constantly at the forefront of the characters’ minds. Like Chandler, though, Chabon plays a bit fast and loose with some of the plot details; thinking back, I cannot piece together the connection between the main plot and a particular tip given to the main character that leads him into a gun battle . . . but as with the case of who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, I don’t care. The story is too entertaining and engrossing to get hung up on tiny details like that.

The book’s ending is abrupt. Somewhat dissatisfying. Leaves room, perhaps, for a sequel. Of the first three of Chabon’s books that I read, The Final Solution, Gentlemen of the Road, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, all contain significant Jewish characters and cultural references. I think, in fact, his books have gotten Jewy-er as he went on. Unfortunately, since this one came out his next book was about record collectors and midwives.

Finally, I have to note that despite the book’s centering on Orthodox Jewish men, who inhabit a world in which women are solidly peripheral, there are still a good number of women in the book with not just speaking parts, but some measure of actual power. Of course the main actors (or shall I say villains) are male, but it’s a measure of how attentive Chabon is that over the course of the book Landsmen interacts with a good number of women; in the hands of a lesser (or less caring?) author, there could easily have been only two women in the whole book. Here I think he outdoes Chandler, whose women characters are often around to push the plot forward as villains or seductresses (or seducees), and who are rarely just included as characters who provide information to the detective and then leave in the way that the male characters do. The egalitarian treatment here, in the face of the pervasive sexism of the Orthodox, is a nice if subtle touch.

I don’t have much else to say about this. As a writer, I’m jealous of what Chabon has achieved here. The book is a real triumph—not just of voice, but of culture and world-building. As a (rather unobservant) Jew, I’m excited by the reflection of something I identify with as my culture (if in a distant, somewhat warped way) in the mainstream. And as a critic, I’m comfortable saying to you: read this book; you won’t regret it.

[1] Aramaic is a Semitic language written with Hebrew letters. Today, the place a non-Jew or non-academic is most likely to encounter it is in the Passover liturgy, which has a few songs in Aramaic (e.g., “Chad Gadya”). Parts of the Talmud are also written in Aramaic. Also, not having seen The Passion of the Christ before, I looked it up–turns out the film is also in Hebrew and Latin, which kind of obscures my point.

[2] For more on the transformation from Latin to local vernacular languages (and the advent of nations in the modern sense), see Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson.

[3] My great-grandfather spoke I think six languages, maybe seven, on his arrival in America. He taught himself English by reading the New York Times.

[4] There was also a Second Aliyah, 1904–1914, and then more immigration during the period during which the area was under British control (1920–1948), during which it was referred to as the British Palestinian Mandate.

[5] Latin has also faced this challenge, at least in Vatican City, where you can get the ATM to display in Latin. A friend of mine who is a grad student in Classics claimed that the neologisms they’d come up with in Latin were unpoetic. Hebrew’s neologisms are often drawn from other languages—for example, the word for “bus” is “autobus.”

[6] Seriously, they couldn’t come up with a better name?

[7] I’m simplifying a bit, both in the actual history of Israel and the history of the world as presented by Chabon—the fall of Israel is far from the only difference.

[8] I should emphasize that, unlike Christianity, the arrival of the Messiah in Judaism is not preceded or followed by “end times” of any stripe. Christianity is very much a millenarian religion in that respect. [Ok, since I first wrote this essay, I have been informed by my youngest brother that a religion is only considered millenarian if the apocalypse they are predicting is predicted to happen soon–so Harold Camping saying the world will end on October 21, 2011 (spoiler alert: it didn’t) made him/his followers millenarian, but the general Christian belief that one day the messiah will return doesn’t make Christianity an inherently millenarian religion. I apologize for any confusion my remarks may have caused. –Ed.]

New Year, New Year

rc2_8828 This morning, somewhat against my better judgment,[1] I ran the New Year’s Day Dash, a 5-mile (road) race. Thanks in part to a few friends pacing me the first mile and a half (or perhaps I mean letting me hang with them before they took off), I finished in 40:34, a personal best and about a minute faster than my time last year. Perhaps that will be auspicious.

Everyone has been posting about their New Year’s Resolutions: go to the gym, lose ten pounds, eat healthy, get eyebrows under control. Some good ideas, some not so good. Well, I already go to the gym and I don’t really want to lose any weight, and my eyebrows are a lost cause. Instead, I’ve been thinking about books.

I read a lot. But after Goodreads sent me an email congratulating me on reading three books last year, I started going through my records and memory, as best I could, because surely that couldn’t be accurate. And, luckily (surprise), it wasn’t. I just didn’t review everything I read.[2] But I also have a bad habit of reading in parallel, so I might get halfway through something, then put it down and not come back for a year. Also, I read a lot of books for work–last year, I edited books on topics ranging from screenwriting to the rhetoric of the gross anatomy lab to Asian philosophy to nursing. So if I feel like I read constantly, it’s because I do . . . but it’s not always reading for pleasure.

Having come to this determination, I have made a list of books I want to read in 2015. As a writer, it helps to keep the mind fresh, and I begin to find that it’s important to find an escape from the grind of reading to edit, which is a different type of reading. I have to shut down that part of my brain sometimes. There’s no theme to these books, other than for most of them I saw reviews in different publications and found them interesting, and they’re in no particular order. I can’t guarantee I won’t get distracted or add or subtract from the list, but I’ll see how far I can get with it. My other resolutions are to finish reading/blogging about Ulysses, remember to water the plants in my office, and get my SADs under control. Let’s do this!

  • Hawksmoor, by Peter Ackroyd Review
  • The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  • Tender is the Night and The Crack Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (maybe)
  • Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
  • A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimer McBride
  • Island, by Aldous Huxley (maybe)
  • Viviane, by Julia Deck
  • Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim
  • The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon Review
  • Relentless Forward Progress, by Bryon Powell
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert
  • Gligamesh, by the people of Babylon
  • The Way of Kings, by Branden Sanderson
  • Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  • Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, by Lauren Slater (maybe)
  • Blind Descent, by James M. Tabor Review
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Tom Stoppard
  • Blueshift, by Claire Wahmanholm (a pre-publication copy kindly provided by the author)
  • I’m not going to say I’m going to read Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre, but every year this time when my SADs get bad I try to.

Are you reading anything interesting next year? Or, alternatively: Any other resolutions?


You can check out book reviews I’ve posted here on the book review and book reviews tags, because apparently I suck at metadata. Also check out the writing category for reviews of films, plays, and other stuff (I promise most of it is not bitching about how difficult it is to write a novel).

[1] Against my better judgment ought to be the title of my blog sometimes. This particular race was against my better judgment because it was cold and I was up late the night before and also I have some tendonitis in my ankle.

[2] I usually only put reviews on Goodreads if I’ve written a review of them, and I only do that when something interesting strikes me about the books to write about.

I Do My Thinking Myself: The Modernist Detective and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. 1939. Reprint, London: Penguin, 2014.

Philip Marlowe takes a case for an old general by the name of Sternwood. A rich man, Sternwood has two daughters who run wild. He has received some IOUs—a spot of blackmail for one of the daughters (Carmen)—and wants Marlowe to look into it. As Marlowe is leaving the Sternwood mansion, the general’s other daughter, Vivian (Regan) calls him in to ask if he has been asked to find her estranged husband, who departed suddenly not long ago. He hasn’t, but he will before he gets out of the mess he’s just walked into.

The Big Sleep, Chandler’s first novel, furnishes a complex and twisty plot in which bad guys and good guys alike go down like dominoes. A woman’s ex-lover shoots a man who is photographing said woman in the nude and steals the photo plate, only to have it taken from him. The thief gets killed by the dead photographer’s lover; then the thief’s girlfriend tries to sell some information about the vanished husband’s ex-lover and winds up getting her intermediary killed by the ex-lover’s bodyguard . . . there’s more, but maybe I’ve made my point. At every turn, wisps of truth float through Marlowe’s fingers as he tries to figure out who knows what and who’s lying to him (hint: it’s almost everyone).

The book is set quite firmly in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Prohibition is over and so, largely, is the recession; the oil derricks[1], which were responsible for putting the city on the map, are beginning to lose their primacy on the landscape, and the place is starting to grow rapidly. Not every detail of the book holds up well by modern standards. For example, the amount of fuss Marlowe kicks up about some pornographic books seems silly by the standards of the internet. A young woman being photographed nude is potentially a major scandal, whereas today it can make someone’s career. There’s a gay character who isn’t treated very well (although to be fair, when Marlowe chews him out, he has just murdered a man in front of Marlowe), and there’s a somewhat perplexing racial slur.[2] In addition, the question of who killed the chauffeur is famously left unresolved—however, I have to admit that had I not read an anecdote in which Chandler confessed to not knowing either, I likely wouldn’t have noticed that detail. Throughout, if these petty complaints ever threaten to overwhelm the story, Chandler throws in another beautifully crafted line to make the reader forget her complaints—although calling them lines fails to acknowledge how masterful his prose is in sum, how well-chosen each word is.

At the end of the book, we leave Marlowe in a bar in something of a moral quandary. Midway through the book, he mentions a chess board in his room: “There was a problem laid out on the board, a six-mover. I couldn’t solve it, like a lot of my problems. I reached down and moved a knight. . . . The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights” (168–170). By the final pages, Marlowe has taken over the role of the knight, and in doing so proved himself correct. He cannot apprehend the murderer or even reveal the location of the murdered man’s body lest he give the game away. All his attempts to protect the general and his daughters have backed him into a corner. And so he drinks and ruminates fatalistically on death, “the big sleep” (250). This paralysis is intentional. In effect, Chandler is producing a treatise on the modernist detective novel, and does as effective a job in defining it as he does in his famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.”

The Victorian detective, epitomized by Sherlock Holmes, is a figure of romanticized panopticism. No matter how grave or petty a crime is, no matter how complex, Holmes reassures us that the criminal will be found. Marlowe, in his own words, is not Sherlock Holmes: “I don’t expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it. If you think there is anybody in the detective business making a living doing that sort of thing, you don’t know much about cops. It’s not things like that they overlook if they overlook anything” (131). Later he adds, “I’m a very smart guy. I haven’t a feeling or a scruple in the world. All I have the itch for is money. I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whisky, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it: I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of [gangsters]. I dodge bullets and eat saps and say thank you very much” (247–248). Unlike the comparatively aloofness of earlier detectives (such as the aforementioned Holmes; Philo Vance, who is also namechecked by Marlowe; or C. Auguste Dupin) who never get their hands dirty, Marlowe cares about his cases and spends his time sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted. He also reflects on the process of detection and how it has been represented to his clients.[3] The world has changed a lot since 1893; on the eve of the second World War, there are no reassurances to be found.

Ultimately I don’t think this is Chandler’s greatest novel—I’d give that accolade to The Long Goodbye—but don’t let that hold you back from reading it. Chandler, even on a bad day, is better than most contemporary writers could ever hope to be.

[1] Mentioned recently on Marketplace.

[2] Perplexing in that I’ve never seen an expression like that used. It was clear from context that it was slightly derogatory in some way.

[3] If the modernist detective novel is characterized by a greater degree of self-reflection, a willingness to get one’s hands dirty, and yet a feeling of futility or of being trapped by the situation in which one finds oneself, the postmodern detective novel is characterized by a broadening of focus in an attempt to solve crimes by looking at the ills of the society that produced the criminal, or by a sense that crimes are in some sense unsolvable. I’ll get back to you about the post-postmodern (i.e., contemporary) detective novel.

Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters

A few brief bits of housekeeping before we get going: first, I have back-linked all the episodes of


Ulysses so far commented upon to the introductory blog post, which will now also serve as an index. It can be viewed here. Also, in many cases I have made some small tweaks to the writing to make the style slightly less bombastic or grandiloquent or I guess casual and more something my MA advisor wouldn’t have shaken his head at and dismissed out of hand. Still not perfect. Oh well. Also, for those of you who are sick of Ulysses, I should have another comic ready to go soon. The summer sabbatical was nice, but I am starting to feel like drawing again. Hooray? Also, you might have noticed that I moved all The Joy of Fishes-related links to this page. Just a reminder, if you read it, please consider reviewing it on Amazon or Goodreads. Thank you!

And now, Ulysses. Enjoy.

This section of Ulysses, “The Lotus Eaters,” takes its name from an episode in the Odyssey referred to somewhat briefly in chapter IX of Homer’s text. Odysseus and his men land on an island to get fresh water and food. Odysseus sends a few men into town to see what’s up. It turns out everyone on the island eats lotuses, and the lotuses are so delicious that once you taste them, you don’t want to do anything else but lie around eating lotuses all day. (Please make your own joke about the 1960s here.) Odysseus marches his men back onto the boat and gets out of there tout de suite.

In their 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which happens to also be an adaptation of the Odyssey, the Coen brothers used the episode of the Lotus Eaters to refer to religion—specifically, as our heroes are wandering through the countryside, they come across a long line of (somewhat stoned- or hypnotized-looking) people dressed in white, waiting in line to be baptized.

Not coincidentally, although almost certainly unrelated to the Coen bros, this episode of Ulysses has a lot of religion in it. In fact, the whole book has a lot of religion—it’s set in Ireland, after all, a place where divorce was illegal until 1996[1] because of the influence of the Catholic church. But if you are about to quote Marx’s quip about religion being the opiate of the people and think we’re done, think again. This is Joyce—nothing is so uncomplicated.

In the first episode (Telemachus), we saw several different ideas about religion. Stephen, called a “fearful Jesuit” by Buck Mulligan, seems to believe in a deity he is unwilling to worship. Like Lucifer[2], at the end of Portrait, we get this scene between Stephen and his friend Cranly:

After a pause Cranly asked:
—What age is your mother?
—Not old, Stephen said. She wishes me to make my easter duty.[3]
—And will you?
—I will not, Stephen said.
—Why not? Cranly said.
—I will not serve, answered Stephen.
—That remark was made before, Cranly said calmly.
—It is made behind now, said Stephen hotly. (Portrait, 259–60)

Stephen claims that he “neither believe[s] in [the eucharist] nor disbelieve in it” (Ibid.), but his stance in Ulysses is a bit less equivocal, telling Haines, “You behold in me . . . a horrible example of free thought” (1.625–6). “Free thought” meaning “thought free from the dictates of ‘Christian revelation’ “ (Gifford 24). He is quite firm on this point, to the extent that he is unwilling to take communion to appease his dying mother. But as much as he makes these claims, he’s still very much in the grip of religion, seeing himself as well as “a servant of two masters . . . an English and an Italian. . . . The imperial British state . . . and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church” (1.638–43). In fact, like Lucifer whom he quotes, Stephen is defined by religion and God, regardless of the latter’s existence; his desire to disobey the church brings him into much more strife than simply not caring about religion would—compare his refusal to take communion to appease his dying mother versus Bloom’s relaxing through a church service he doesn’t particularly understand or care to learn about.

In the first episode we also see Haines, who “couldn’t stomach that idea of a personal God. . .” (1.623), and Buck Mulligan, who is an irreverent medical student (as I already quoted, his feelings about death are put to Stephen like this: “And what is death . . . your mother’s or yours or my own? You saw only your mother die. I see them pop off every day in the Mater and Richmond and cut up into tripes in the dissectingroom. It’s a beastly thing and nothing else” (1.4–6)).

Finally we get to Mr Leopold Bloom. His attitude towards religion seems to stand somewhere between irreverence and ignorance.[4] For example, it is difficult to know whether or not he is joking when, watching a service, he muses, “Letters on his [the priest’s] back: I.N.R.I? No: I.H.S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in” (5.372–74). Similarly, he attributes the use of wine during the Eucharist ceremony to it being “more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they [the parishioners] are used to Guinness’s porter or some temperance beverage. . .” (5.387). During the mass he thinks of sex: perhaps he will meet Martha “one Sunday after the rosary” (5.375); imagines the priest murmuring to the communicants “Shut your eyes and open your mouth” (5.349–50); considers the confession process as a sadomasochistic ritual in which the confessor asks the priest to “punish me, please” (5.426); and imagines a woman confessing her infidelity (5.427–32). It should be noted that Bloom actually proposes the idea of the mass as an opiate during this section: “Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first” (5.350–51) and sees the communicants as walking with “blind masks” (5.353) to take communion.[5]

What does this add up to? For Stephen (and probably for Mulligan, whose “Ballad of Joking Jesus” is showcased in several sections), religion is a source of creative energy if not comfort. For Bloom, it’s a source of mild interest. For none of them is it actually a sedative or distraction from the true woes of the world. But perhaps other things are—for example, Bloom ignores the gravity of the service to think about sex. While walking, he meets M’Coy, who is so wrapped up in preparing for a trip to the races that he will miss Paddy Dignam’s funeral (5.169–73). In another scene, Bloom calculates the amount of porter a local businessman must have sold in order to make a million pounds (answer: about 15 million gallons)—a lot of porter, and another common addiction (5.304–12). Bloom muses on drugs as well—cigars have “a cooling effect. Narcotic” (5.272), and the Chinese might prefer “an ounce of opium” (5.327) to learning about Christianity. All these things (sex, drugs, gambling) are in our modern time are commonly understood as things that one can become addicted to, which is to say that they can certainly be so distracting as to take one away from the duties of one’s life.

The message here is difficult to tease out, and of course different readers will draw different conclusions. Is Joyce suggesting that religion is problematic, but other things are problematic too? That “worldly” things like sex and gambling prove more of an opiate than religion? That somehow the removal of a deity from religion causes it to become one more distraction like any other? Any of the nice moral summaries I come up with sound pat, and I’m not convinced that Joyce actually believed any of them, since he notoriously indulged in both drink and sex himself (see for example Chiasson 2014). Ultimately there’s not an easy answer here, perhaps because there’s no author trying to pass judgment—although I’ve used the word “addiction” in the preceding paragraph, Joyce wouldn’t have, even were he alive today. This is just life—sometimes some things blind us to other things that are going on; preoccupied, we find ourselves unable to interact with every encounter the way that we should. In other words, perhaps everyone is an eater of lotuses.[6]


[1] As noted by (I’m sorry) Christopher Hitchens, the repeal of this law was opposed by, among others, Mother Theresa herself. (He noted this in several places; see for example his letter to the New York Review of Books here.) Also, I note from her Wikipedia page that she is now The Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, M.C., which is annoying because she’s from Macedonia.

[2] I’m not prepared to walk you through the mythology here. I suggest a reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s a good book. Or, the relevant reference, as summarized in Portrait:

Lucifer, we are told, was a son of the morning, a radiant and mighty angel; yet he fell: he fell and there fell with him a third part of the host of heaven: he fell and was hurled with his rebellious angels into hell. What his sin was we cannot say. Theologians consider that it was the sin of pride, the sinful thought conceived in an instant: non serviam: I will not serve. That instant was his ruin. (126)

[3] “Easter duty” refers to “the obligation to receive Holy Communion at least at Easter time . . .” (Catholic Essentials website, quoting “A Catholic Dictionary, 1951”; link below). Receiving communion requires that one have confessed first as well, so Stephen’s mother is essentially requesting him to go through the whole ceremonial shebang. See http://catholicessentials.net/easterduty.htm.

[4] Bloom later comments that Christianity is “more interesting if you understood what it was all about” (5.423–24). It’s hard to know how to take the INRI remarks in view of this.

[5] It’s worth pointing out that Bloom’s attitude towards Judaism is typically more reverent—and tinged with remembrances of his father. See for example 7.206–13: “Poor papa with his hagadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me. Pessach. Next year in Jerusalem. Dear, O dear! All that long business about that brought us out of the land of Egypt and into the house of bondage Alleluia. Shema Israel Adonai Elohenu. No, that’s the other. Then the twelve brothers, Jacob’s sons. And then the lamb and the cat and the dog and the stick and the water and the butcher. And then the angel of death kills the butcher and he kills the ox and the dog kills the cat. Sounds a bit silly till you come to look into it well. Justice it means but it’s everybody eating everyone else. That’s what life is after all.” Sharp readers will note this is as slightly wrong as the earlier INRI (it’s not “into the house of bondage”), which certainly leads to more questions. However, the topic of Bloom’s (putative) Judaism exceeds this essay, so I will return to it at a later time.

[6] Having spent my past week hanging out with a bunch of actors, I feel pressed to add something about the performativity of the mass scene—the way in which the priest seems to be moving through a series of steps (suggested by him reading things off cards and the like) rather than truly engaged in the service. So, too, one could ask if the predictable actions of the parishioners are meant to suggest members of an audience, or even of a Greek chorus, performing some kind of specific role. But no space for that here. Perhaps another time.


Catholic Essentials. “Easter Duty.” 2008. http://catholicessentials.net/easterduty.htm.

Chiasson, Dan. “ ‘Ulysses’ and the Moral Right to Pleasure.” The New Yorker, 16 June 2014: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/ulysses-and-the-moral-right-to-pleasure.

Hitchens, Christopher. “Mother Theresa.” The New York Review of Books, 19 December 1996: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1996/dec/19/mother-teresa/.

Joyce, James. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Seamus Deane. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.