Once A Slave…

Octavia Butler’s classic novel Kindred, published in 1979 with a graphic novel adaptation released just last year, uses a sci-fi time-travel frame to produce a powerful take on a historical narrative. The sections of the book are divided by each time Dana goes back in time from 1976 to 1815. Each time she goes back, she seems to stay longer, until after the midpoint, when her visits start to decrease in length. 

The book begins with the first-person narrator Dana noting that she lost an arm on her last trip home. She’s in the hospital being visited by her husband Kevin, whom the police suspect caused her injury, since neither Dana nor Kevin can offer a satisfactory explanation of what happened. 

In Part 1, “The River,” Dana notes that she and her husband Kevin have just moved into a new house the day after her twenty-sixth birthday when she suddenly vanishes from their living room and appears on a wooded riverbank, where she sees a boy, roughly five years old, drowning. She rescues him and gives him CPR despite the boy’s mother thinking she’s killing him. When the boy, Rufus, is resuscitated, a man suddenly appears and sticks a rifle in her face. Scared for her life, Dana suddenly returns home. Kevin says she vanished for only a few seconds, though she was gone for several minutes. 

In Part 2, “The Fire,” Dana is home later that same evening after explaining to Kevin what she experienced when she again vanishes from her house. This time she appears in a room where a boy about eight years old has just set some drapes on fire, and she throws the drapes out the window. Questioning the boy, she discovers that he’s Rufus, the boy she saved from the river, and realizes he’s apparently one of her ancestors–Alice is the mother of her ancestor Hagar–though she’d never realized one of her ancestors was white. She thinks she might have been called back to ensure Rufus’s safety so her ancestor Hagar is actually born (deciding to ignore the paradox that if Hagar failed to be born then Dana couldn’t be there trying to ensure that she could be born). When Rufus directs her to go to the cabin of a nearby free black woman for safety–the mother of his “friend” Alice–some white patrollers have gotten there first, and beat Alice’s father, who is a slave, for coming to visit them without a pass. Later one of the patrollers returns and tries to rape Dana, who suddenly returns home when she knocks him out with a fallen tree branch. Back home, Kevin, who says Dana was gone only for a couple of minutes when she experienced being gone for hours, surmises that Dana is drawn back in time to Rufus when his life is in danger, and returns when her own life is in danger. 

In Part 3, “The Fall,” Kevin ends up coming back with Dana because he’s physically touching her when she’s called back. Rufus, about twelve years old, has just fallen out of a tree and broken his leg. Kevin and Dana, after explaining where they’re really from, end up returning to the house with him, and Kevin is hired on as Rufus’s tutor while Dana helps out the slaves in the house and kitchen, struggling to deal with Rufus’s overbearing mother Margaret. Dana and Kevin live there for some time before Dana is whipped for teaching a slave how to read by Rufus’s sadistic father Tom, and suddenly returns home before Kevin can get to her. 

In Part 4, “The Fight,” Dana is called back after eight days at home when a black man is in the process of beating Rufus to death. The man is Alice’s husband Isaac, who’s beating him for raping Alice. While Alice is free, Isaac is a slave; Dana convinces him to leave Rufus alive to not make things worse for himself, and to flee with Alice while he still has time. Alice is eventually caught and Rufus buys her, her freedom forfeit since she helped a runaway slave. Alice was viciously beaten, but Dana manages to nurse her back to health. Rufus tries to get Dana to talk Alice into sleeping with him without having to be coerced by beating. Five years have passed there since Dana was there last, and she asks Rufus to write to Kevin, who wrote Rufus with his address after he moved north. When Dana eventually discovers that Rufus lied about mailing her letters to Kevin, she tries to run away, but another slave rats her out and Rufus and Tom immediately recapture her, at which point she’s viciously whipped again. Then Kevin shows back up because Tom wrote him to tell him Dana’s back, after finding out Rufus had promised and failed to do so. They try to leave immediately but run into Rufus, who pulls his rifle on them. Dana goads him into almost shooting her so he won’t shoot Kevin, and Kevin manages to fall on top of her when she’s sent back so that he makes it back too. He’s having a difficult time making the transition back home when Dana is sent back to Rufus the next day. 

In Part 5, “The Storm,” Dana appears in a rainstorm and finds Rufus drunk and facedown in a water-filled ditch. Six years have passed. After saving him, she has to nurse him back from an illness she eventually figures out is dengue fever. As soon as Rufus is out of mortal danger, Tom Weylin has a heart attack, and when Dana is unable to revive him, Rufus makes her work in the field as punishment. Rufus’ mother returns and he makes Dana take care of her. The other slaves, particularly Alice, mock her for being too submissive, but Dana still helps Alice with her plans to run away, despite being worried because she’s just had her second baby–Hagar. Rufus sells some slaves he insists are part of a sale his father set up before he died, but then later when a field hand takes an interest in Dana, Rufus sells him too. When Dana challenges him about this, Rufus hits her, breaking the unspoken code between them. Dana slits her wrists with the knife she brought with her to make it back home.  

In Part 6, fifteen days pass in the present before Dana’s called back again on July 4th, but only three months have passed in the past. She discovers that Alice has just hung herself and intuits she was called back to prevent Rufus from shooting himself. She finds out that Alice hung herself after Rufus sold her children, but it turns out Rufus lied about that to scare Alice after she tried to run away, and the children are really with his aunt in Baltimore. Dana convinces Rufus to write certificates of freedom for his and Alice’s two children. When Rufus implies Dana’s going to have to replace Alice and tries to rape her, Dana stabs and kills him. The place where Rufus was gripping her arm during the altercation turns into the wall of her house when she’s sent home, and when she tries to pull free, her arm rips off. 

After her arm heals, Dana and Kevin visit Maryland to search through historical records, discovering a record stating that Rufus died when the house burned down. Dana assumes that Nigel, the slave who she saw saw what she did before she was called back, burned it down to cover what she did. The End. 

Butler could have written a straight-up historical novel about slavery, but that would mean the main character would have to be someone from that time period. By framing her story with the time travel narrative, her protagonist has a different perspective than those around her–for Dana, slavery is even more horrific than it is for the slaves. While the novel is technically sci-fi due to the time-travel element, the time travel itself hardly dominates the story–rather the focus is what’s gained by it, the novel perspective. There is never any explanation offered about how the time travel works or what’s causing it, though Dana does note at the story’s beginning that she’s just moved into a new house; one could speculate that has something to do with it, though there’s no concrete confirmation. The fact that her arm fuses with the house at the end could perhaps be circumstantial evidence of this (literal) connection. Regardless, Butler has provided a powerful symbol that slavery takes something away from you, that you are no longer the whole person you once were once you’ve experienced it. She also provides a lesson in narrative tension and structure by starting the story with the fact that Dana’s lost her arm: she tells us the horrible thing that happens in the beginning, providing a hook to make the reader wonder what happened to cause such an incident that makes them want to keep reading. 

The explanation we do get about how time travel logistics is that Dana travels back to the past when Rufus’s life is in danger and returns to the present when her own life is in danger. These mechanics draw an implicit likeness between these two characters from the beginning, one underscored by the idea that Rufus’s being her ancestor is also part of the reason the time travel is happening. 

From the very first line, Butler plays with the theme of home: 

I lost an arm on my last trip home. 

Though on first read the reader doesn’t know her trip involves time travel, once you do know, the line still reads ambiguously, designating the time she’s traveling to in the past as home, or the time where she lives in the present as home. The word “home” appears in the book 183 times, and for the most part unequivocally refers to her home in the present, in Los Angeles in 1976 with Kevin. But as the book progresses things become muddier, starting with Kevin’s difficult adjustment to coming back after five years in the past: 

“Christ,” he muttered. “If I’m not home yet, maybe I don’t have a home.”

After several trips to the past, Dana notes a sense of relief in seeing the Weylin house: 

I could recall feeling relief at seeing the house, feeling that I had come home. And having to stop and correct myself, remind myself that I was in an alien, dangerous place. I could recall being surprised that I would come to think of such a place as home.

The complications of the home references underscore the difficult fact underlying the book’s whole premise: that without Rufus’s forced subjugation of Alice, Dana’s family would not exist. 

Another tie-in with the confusion-of-home theme is when the text draws likenesses between Kevin and Rufus: 

I was on my back when I came to and there was a white face floating just above me. For a wild moment, I thought it was Kevin, thought I was home. I said his name eagerly.

“It’s me, Dana.”

Rufus’s voice. I was still in hell. I closed my eyes, not caring what would happen next.

“Dana, get up. You’ll be hurt more if I carry you than if you walk.”

The words echoed strangely in my head. Kevin had said something like that to me once. I opened my eyes again to be sure it was Rufus.

Kevin is clearly characterized as a loving husband, but he inadvertently hurts Dana several times. After the very first time Dana disappears, he’s impatient for her to explain what happened: 

“Tell me!” he demanded.

“I would if I knew what to tell you. Stop hurting me.”

Contrast this with Rufus overtly hurting her but still doing so in a way that from his perspective is for her own good: 

Rufus caught me easily and held me, cursing me, hurting me. “You take your whipping!” he hissed. “The more you fight, the more he’ll hurt you.”

Then there’s when Kevin and Dana are finally reunited after having been separated five years: 

And he was off the horse and over the laundry yard fence, pulling me to him before I could take another breath.

The dull ache in my back and shoulders roared to life. Suddenly, I was struggling to get away from him. He let me go, confused.

“What the …?”

I went to him again because I couldn’t keep away, but I caught his arms before he could get them around me. “Don’t. My back is sore.”

“Sore from what?”

“From running away to find you. Oh, Kevin …”

Kevin then wants to enact vengeance on the one who hurt her–Weylin–but Dana discourages him from doing so because she believes that in the long run, such an action would hurt her worse, a repeat of a debate they had from early on in their coming to the past together. Kevin’s potentially making things worse for her with the good intention of defending her underscores the fundamental rift in their experiences of life due to their races.

Then, when Dana and Kevin make it home shortly after that, Dana insists they make love, though Kevin’s afraid to: 

He was so careful, so fearful of hurting me. He did hurt me, of course. I had known he would, but it didn’t matter. 

Rufus’s capacity to hurt is shown to be a product of her resistance in the book’s climax: 

He took my other hand, held it between his own in a grip that I knew would only be gentle until I tried to pull away. … He was not hurting me, would not hurt me if I remained as I was.

This underscores that Rufus’s violence toward Alice and to a lesser degree Dana stem from feelings of love. 

The characterization of Rufus is probably one of the strongest aspects of the book for me. 

And Rufus was Rufus—erratic, alternately generous and vicious. 

Rufus is not an outright monster–his father is much closer to that, though this is also complicated by Tom’s characterization of being “fair,” manifest when he writes to Kevin about her when Rufus doesn’t–but Rufus seems a perpetual child. The fact that we get three episodes of her with him when he’s still literally a child, at ages 5, 8, and 12, help underscore this feeling of perpetual childishness. When we first meet him as a man (though at roughly 17, that term is debatable), he’s just raped Alice, a brutal gesture that’s complicated by the fact that he’s done it out of actual feelings for her: 

“I didn’t want to just drag her off into the bushes,” said Rufus. “I never wanted it to be like that. But she kept saying no. I could have had her in the bushes years ago if that was all I wanted.”

“I know,” I said.

“If I lived in your time, I would have married her. Or tried to.”

The logic that Rufus uses to manipulate Dana is infuriating, like when he tries to convince Dana to talk Alice into not resisting his advances, because if Dana doesn’t, he’ll beat Alice, and why would she do that to her friend? As if Dana is the one responsible for the harm to Alice rather than Rufus. This logic returns powerfully in the climax, when Rufus is about to rape Dana. She has long intimated that they’ve had an unspoken understanding that if he harms her, she’ll harm him in return by not saving his life the next time she’s called back to–this is in large part also why Dana’s experience of slavery is so different from her fellow slaves–she actually has some form of power over Rufus, though this is complicated by her knowledge that if she lets him die, she’ll be doing harm to all the slaves on the property, because they’ll be sold and separated. 

In the climax, when Rufus intimates he’s about to violate their unspoken understanding, she brings up his kids, as if to say, watch what you do, or you’ll kids will end up fatherless: 

[] He took my other hand, held it between his own in a grip that I knew would only be gentle until I tried to pull away.

“Rufe,” I said, “your children …”

“They’re free.”

“But they’re young. They need you to protect their freedom.”

“Then it’s up to you, isn’t it?”

I twisted my hand, tried to get it away from him in sudden anger. At once, his hold went from caressing to imprisoning. My right hand had become wet and slippery on the knife.

“It’s up to you,” he repeated.

“No, Goddamnit, it isn’t! …”

Their complicated relationship is symbolic of the slave’s relationship to their master, of how it’s not just one of pure simple hatred, that there will be moments where each recognizes the other’s humanity–however fleeting these moments may be–and the irony that these fleeting moments of such recognition actually make existence with such an institution more painful, not less.



Men v. Women, Part 1: Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping Beauties, co-written by Stephen King and his son Owen King, is a doorstop of a book with an ensemble cast that seems designed for a television series–and in fact was optioned for one before it was even published last fall.

In the small Appalachian town of Dooling, a naked woman mysteriously appears from the woods with a bunch of moths trailing her and proceeds to swiftly destroy the trailer of a nearby meth-head. She’s shortly picked up by the town sheriff, Lila Norcross, who along with her husband Clint, the psychiatrist at the town’s correctional facility for women, come the closest to constituting main characters and whose conflict comes the closest to constituting chronic tension: Clint has just realized that Lila has lied about where she spent the previous night; Lila spent it out after watching the basketball game of a girl she’s recently discovered to be Clint’s apparent daughter. Clint has to check the moth woman in to the prison; she says her name is Evie, and her self-inflicted wounds heal much faster than they should. 

The same morning Evie appears, women who fall asleep worldwide start to grow cocoons over their faces and bodies and won’t wake up. If the cocoon is forcibly removed from a sleeping woman, she will fly into a violent rage and likely kill whoever removed it, as several people learn the hard way. The sleeping sickness is dubbed “Aurora.” 

Across the wide cast of the townspeople, a couple are straight-up evil, including a prison guard, Don Peters, who abuses the inmates, and a group of classmates of Lila and Clint’s son Jared who are going to pee in a cocooned homeless woman’s ear before Jared intervenes. Another prominent character is animal controller Frank Geary, whose problem controlling his temper has cost him his marriage. 

Chaos descends as women try to stay awake and men are left increasingly to their own rudimentary devices. Lila discovers a giant supernatural tree with a tiger, snake, and lots of moths in the field where Evie came from, though she might be hallucinating from sleep deprivation. Right before Lila falls asleep, she confronts Clint about his alleged daughter and finds out that while a woman from his past gave the girl Clint’s last name, the girl is not actually his and he’s never been unfaithful. Clint grew up being shuttled between foster homes and has kept much of his violent past from Lila, who despite the fact that he didn’t cheat is still fed up with how closed off he’s been and how he always had to do things his way.

When we get to Part Two after Lila falls asleep, we finally get to see what the cocooned women are experiencing: they’ve gone to a version of the town where its dilapidation makes it seem like a lot of time has passed. They confirm time is moving more slowly there when new women show up months later telling them that only a couple of days have passed in the other world since Aurora started. Despite lacking a lot of comforts and amenities from the other world, they build a nice life for themselves. A former meth addict, Tiffany, who came in pregnant, is particularly better off, until she dies giving birth to a son. 

Meanwhile, Evie, who’s being kept in a jail cell and has demonstrated her supernatural abilities by getting rats to do things for her, by knowing things about people that she shouldn’t, and, most importantly, by being the only woman able to wake up after going to sleep, tells Clint that some of the men are going to try to kill her and that he can’t let them do that, or all of the sleeping women will die for real instead of having a chance to come back. The tension builds until Clint and his recruits have to defend the prison from an assault by a faction led by Frank Geary, who wants to take Evie and get her examined by a doctor to see if she’s the key to a cure for Aurora. Even though Clint and Frank want the same thing–for the women to wake up–they descend into a bloody battle in which several people are killed. When Frank and the few men he has left finally make it to Evie’s cell, defended by Clint and the few people he has left (which include a couple of women Evie has breathed new life into so they can stay awake), Evie tells Frank that if he kills her the women will wake up, but Clint says she’s lying as a test to see if they’ll continue to resort to violence, and she actually has to leave through the supernatural tree. 

(There was an altercation with the supernatural tree on the other side when the women figured out it might be the key to returning, and Frank Geary’s estranged wife Elaine decided they had better lives on their side of the tree and resolved to burn it down so they couldn’t return. Evie sends back a prison inmate, Jeanette Sorley, who’d managed to stay awake until then, to defend the tree, and just after Jeanette stops Elaine from burning it down, Lila Norcross shows up and shoots and kills Jeanette, thinking she was the one trying to burn down the tree. (Jeanette is black, btw.) Jeanette laments that she has a son as she dies.)

Frank is going to kill Evie, but then one of the men on Clint’s side has a heart attack, and when Frank wants to help him, Clint says he won’t unless they let Evie go. Evie then saves the man herself by breathing life back into him, and Frank agrees to let her go back through the tree. Once she does, she tells the women they can choose whether to stay on that side of the tree or to return, but that they have to come to a unanimous decision. The women all agree to go back, and go through the tree, and wake up. 

In Part Three, we get a very short resolution telling us about Aurora’s aftermath; some people are better off than others, naturally. Notably, Lila and Clint’s marriage dissolves after Lila, burdened by having killed Jeanette, adopts Tiffany’s son against Clint’s wishes. The End. 

The premise of juxtaposing a world without men and a world without women initially sounds promising, but in this case becomes reductive. The two men writing the book definitely got a little heavy-handed in pushing a moral that men are responsible for all the violent problems of the world. It feels like they’re trying to be like, “Hey, we’re on the women’s side!” But this is undermined by the basic fact of how little time they spend on the women’s side of the tree: the book is probably seven-eighths describing the world without women and one-eighth describing the world without men; it almost feels like the supernatural tree gets more description than the women’s world. The women get some airtime before they fall asleep and go to the other world, but still. 

There’s an interesting possible redemption of the disproportionate structure when Frank Geary’s estranged wife ends up being as hard-headed as he is in thinking she knows what’s best for everyone and trying to burn down the supernatural tree, which is an act of violence. Then there’s Lila shooting Jeanette further underscoring that women are capable of violence, despite the repeated lip service paid to how much better off the women are in their world without the horribly violent men. Then there’s the fact that women ripped manually from their cocoons turn into mindless killing machines, a seeming symbol of the violence necessary to survive in the world on this side of the tree. 

And then there’s the fact that all the women choose to come back pretty unequivocally, despite it supposedly being so much better off in their world without the men (though to be fair it seems a lot of them just want to come back so they can watch Netflix). This climax of the women all choosing to come back felt very anticlimactic. Not necessarily because it didn’t seem like a choice the women might conceivably make, but because there was no conflict in their decision. Lila and Elaine were two possible wild cards, women who might not want to go back, but when it’s their turn to vote, they both immediately decide that yes, fine, they’ll go back. The only one who was significantly focused on as being better off in the new world was Tiffany, and she’s dead, so. There was just no conflict in the decision, perhaps underscoring the point that women don’t have conflict, despite Lila and Elaine having just complicated that, temporarily. There was such a buildup to the climax in the men’s world that again it just felt like the implicit point was that men were more important, or at least more interesting. The lesson is that violence is more interesting, at least. 

One of the major female characters, Michaela Morgan, a Dooling native turned celebrity news anchor who returns to Dooling during Aurora and one of the women Evie breathes life into to keep awake, gets a lot of setup that pretty much goes nowhere. She’s around for the climactic confrontation over Evie, but contributes nothing to it but some throwaway statements of the obvious. 

Michaela turned to Evie. “Whoever sent you here thinks this is how men solve all their problems. Isn’t that right?”

Evie made no reply. Michaela had an idea that the remarkable creature in the soft cell was being torn in ways she had never expected when she appeared in the woods above that rusted trailer.

She turned back to the armed men, now halfway down the corridor. Their guns were pointed. At this range, their bullets would shred the little group in front of the strange woman.

Michaela raised her weapon. “It doesn’t have to go this way. Show her it doesn’t have to.”

One of the only extended passages that takes place in the women’s world seemed to have little importance in terms of impacting the overall plot. A group of women goes exploring and only one comes back after the men’s prison they stayed the night in slid down the unstable mountain it was at the top of (due to coal mining). The women thought they saw a woman inside the prison, but after Lila explores the ruins it turns out to be a blowup doll. This episode further cements Lila’s relationship with Tiffany, who went with her but, being pregnant, did nothing to help during the actual exploration, and it seems to somehow resonate thematically with further inverting the structure of the real world they came from (men’s prison in women’s world a counterpoint to the women’s prison in the men’s world), but no plot impact, making it feel like unnecessary baggage. The Author’s Note notes that there was originally a draft of the novel that was much longer, but it still feels like the book is significantly longer than it needs to be. 

One possible point to the above episode is to show that the women of Dooling are the only women who appear to have gone to this other world after falling asleep. Evie mentions toward the end that the women of Dooling represent all women, and that if they choose to stay on the other side of the tree, then all the other women in the world will wake up there instead of the world they went to sleep in. This begs the question of why the women of Dooling are the representative of all women. This question goes unanswered, as does the question of where exactly Evie came from–she says she was sent by a higher power and that she’s just an emissary, but that’s all we get. I’m fine for that level of explanation for this point–it doesn’t matter where Evie came from, per se, or how exactly Aurora works–what’s really interesting is to explore its possible consequences, exploring what a possible world without women, and on the other side a world without men, would look like. Though the nature of Evie’s actual connection to Aurora feels tenuous, she’s definitely necessary as a plot device, otherwise the men have nothing to fight over. But the explanation of why Dooling felt like it could have been shored up a wee bit more. Same for Evie as a general character. Same for why Clint is “the one who stands for all mankind.” 

While the writers excel on the level of vivid physical descriptors–the recurrence of the moths became an especially creepy detail–many characters felt more like a body-holder for a particular trait than actual people, like the alcoholic Magda who lives with her son and sits at home drinking all day, yelling at the television and slopping her drink all over herself. 

Though the novel attempts to complicate its neat, happy ending of the women all getting to wake up by showing that some women regret their decision to return, and by having Lila and Clint’s marriage dissolve, these efforts felt more heavy-handed than true-to-life. Lila and Clint’s failed relationship was a nice theory–that Lila gets fixated on something (the alleged daughter) that seems like a concrete manifestation of him being a bad husband that then turns out to be untrue, but still reveals her dissatisfaction with him anyway, but I was as dissatisfied with the actual execution of it as Lila was supposed to be with Clint. Their failed relationship was underscored by one of their son Jared’s that was even more two-dimensional. Jared had a crush on a girl named Mary who liked the totally evil asshole Eric Blass, but then Jared and Mary bond while she fights falling asleep. But when she wakes up at the end, she starts dating another guy (who had not appeared previously) for no apparent reason. Tough luck for Jared. Them’s the (undeveloped) breaks.  

Mary couldn’t have dated Eric Blass when she came back because, being a totally evil asshole, he was marked for authorial destruction, as was our other totally evil asshole, prison officer Don Peters. Of course, after Aurora hits, our two evil assholes team up, both volunteering to shore up the police force (and together they burn the homeless woman whose ear Eric tried to pee in earlier). Peters ends up accidentally shooting and killing Blass once the assault on the prison starts, and then Peters is violently and graphically killed by a female prison inmate Evie’s breathed life back into. Cue audience cheers for the triumph of good.      


Know Thyself

The initiating incident of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice (1813) is when a young rich man, Mr. Bingly, buys an estate (Netherfield) near the Bennets, who have five daughters between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three, all roughly marriage-eligibility age. Mrs. Bennet wants her eldest, Jane, to marry Bingly. (Jane and the second eldest, Elizabeth, seem to be the daughters with the most sense.) They go to balls at Netherfield and everyone is generally appalled by the cold manner of Mr. Bingly’s good friend, Mr. Darcy, while a relationship seems to be developing between Jane and Bingly. Meanwhile, the girls also go visit the town nearby, where there are many officers to socialize with because a regiment is stationed there. Elizabeth meets Mr. Wickham, whom she considers much nicer than Darcy and who tells her a story about how Darcy cheated him out of his inheritance. Then, after one ball where the impending engagement between Bingly and Jane seems almost certain, Bingly leaves for London for business and ends up not returning for months. 

After Bingly leaves, a cousin of the family, Mr. Collins, who’s been estranged because the Bennet estate has been “entailed” to him instead of the Bennet daughters, attempts a reconciliation with the family and proposes marriage to Elizabeth, but she turns him down, since he’s rather pompous and obnoxious, going on and on about his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Collins then immediately proposes to the daughter of the Bennets’ neighbor, Charlotte Lucas, who accepts. Elizabeth eventually goes to visit them at Charlotte’s insistence, and they have several dinners with the even more pompous Lady Catherine, who turns out to be Darcy’s aunt. Darcy eventually comes to visit Lady Catherine with his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, who lets it slip to Elizabeth how good a friend Darcy’s been to Bingly by saving him “from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage,” confirming Elizabeth’s suspicions that Bingly’s disappearance was due to Darcy’s influence. Later that same night, Darcy ends up confessing he’s in love with her and proposing, acknowledging he’s doing so in spite of her family’s lack of merit. Elizabeth does not react well to this and rejects him on the grounds of his rudeness, his interference with Bingly and Jane, and what he did to Wickham. He leaves, but the next day gives her a letter rebutting her accusations. He reveals Wickham to have been a liar so successfully–Wickham tried to elope with Darcy’s sister to get at their family fortune–that Elizabeth even starts to forgive his interference in Jane’s engagement, and she becomes ashamed of the way she treated him. 

Later, she goes to visit an aunt and uncle who want to tour Darcy’s estate, not knowing her connection to him. She agrees once she finds out he’s not there, and they listen to the housekeeper sing his praises. Then Darcy unexpectedly shows up and meets them. Elizabeth is shocked at how cordially he treats her aunt and uncle, people she expects him to consider beneath him. He introduces her to his sister. Then Elizabeth gets bad news from home: her youngest sister, the high-spirited Lydia, has run off with Wickham, and if they don’t actually get married this will be something that indelibly scars the family reputation. Since Wickham generally needs money and Elizabeth’s family doesn’t have it, things don’t look promising. Darcy comes in right after Elizabeth gets the letter and she ends up telling him what happened before she goes home. 

After some time, Elizabeht’s uncle locate Lydia and Wickham and arrange a marriage between them that Elizabeth’s father has to pay so little of an allowance for that everyone assumes their uncle must have put a lot of money in himself to get Wickham to agree to it. Elizabeth eventually finds out from her aunt that it was actually Darcy who located them and put up the necessary money to get Wickham to marry. 

Bingly eventually returns to Netherfield, and he and Jane are soon engaged. Lady Catherine comes to visit after hearing a rumor that Darcy and Elizabeth will also soon be engaged and is greatly upset because she believes that Darcy should marry her daughter. Elizabeth refuses not to accept a proposal from Darcy, should one be offered. Darcy eventually visits with Bingly, and when Elizabeth thanks him for what he did for their family, they confess their feelings to each other and get engaged. Though Lydia and Wickham sometimes hit them up for money, they all pretty much live happily ever after. The End. 

The plot of this novel is perhaps frequently characterized as about the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, but it’s also about the development of Elizabeth’s character, the development of which influences the development of the relationship. The development of the relationship influences the development of her character, and vice versa. Elizabeth misperceives the true characters of both Darcy and Wickham, and at about the novel’s midpoint this misperception is brought to her attention, and Darcy and Wickham shift places in her esteem. Darcy’s letter after his rejected proposal is the turning point, and Elizabeth herself describes the turning point, out loud to herself, thus: 

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

Now that she knows who Darcy and Wickham really are, she knows who she really is: someone capable of misperceptions because of her own vanity. But you can say this for Elizabeth before she has her character-revealing epiphany: she does not care about money or appearances, as so many of the women around her seem to, as much as she cares about principle. She does not seem to even momentarily entertain the idea of marrying Collins, despite the fact that it would return the house her family lives in to its rightful ownership and would ensure her family’s security (it would not have actually been that damaging to her character had she at least considered that reason). And she won’t entertain the idea of marrying upward if it’s someone she thinks is a jerk, even if he is super rich and handsome.  

For most of the novel Elizabeth’s actions are all reactions. The novel is a skipping stone of episodes across time, the stone hitting the water every time Elizabeth meets Darcy. She meets him by chance when she visits Charlotte Lucas and Collins, which is when he proposes, then after that by chance when her aunt and uncle want to visit his estate. The novel is bookended by her meetings with him when he comes to visit Netherfield.

There’s an amalgamation of events that raise Darcy in her esteem from his low point, the low point being when Colonel Fitzwilliam confirms her suspicions of his interference in Jane’s engagement, right before Darcy proposes (bad timing on Darcy’s part, good dramatic timing on Austen’s part). There’s his letter of rational explanations that makes Jane re-see Wickham, then the housekeeper going on about how great Darcy is when they visit his estate (coupled with his cordial treatment of her aunt and uncle, which he later tells her he did specifically to redeem himself), and then what he does to save the family’s reputation in the wake of Lydia absconding with Wickham, which Elizabeth only finds out about from somebody else. Saving the family’s reputation is especially fitting since one of his initial problems was his treating her family like they were beneath him.

The use of Wickham is in large part what makes the novel’s plot feel so tightly woven. He and Darcy are foils; as one rises (in Elizabeth’s esteem and/or financial matters) the other must fall (or at least pay out). One wonders (if one is me) if Wickham was for Austen a narrative spandrel–someone she put in initially for Elizabeth to realize how badly she’d misjudged someone(s), but who then was able to be used in the plot in an unexpected way to complete the trajectory Austen had started in her initial use of him. It’s the detail in Darcy’s letter about how Wickham tried to elope with his sister that made me wonder if this gave Austen the idea later to have Wickham abscond with one of Elizabeth’s sisters, providing the perfect opportunity for Darcy’s ultimate redemption. It felt too perfect to be pre-planned. 

The characterization is also a somewhat famous aspect of this novel–the ones that stick out the most are the ones of the worst characters: Lady Catherine, Lydia, and Elizabeth’s mother. Lady Catherine in conversation demonstrates how she considers herself more significant than everyone else: 

“What is that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is.”

“We are speaking of music, madam,” said he, when no longer able to avoid a reply.

“Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient….”

My favorite characterizations of Mrs. Bennet and Lydia occur in both of their reactions to Lydia’s marrying Wickham. Even coming from a time when the idea of living with a man out of wedlock damaging that entire woman’s family’s reputations is, to say the least, absurd, I felt through the story what a terrible and selfish and significant thing it was Lydia had done. Elizabeth and her father immediately feel indebted to Elizabeth’s uncle when they think he must have put money up for the marriage, but when Jane raises this issue with her mother after she’s overjoyed at the prospect of Lydia’s marrying Wickham just because she’ll finally have a daughter married, her mother brushes it off: 

“For we must attribute this happy conclusion,” [Jane] added, “in a great measure to his kindness. We are persuaded that he has pledged himself to assist Mr. Wickham with money.”

“Well,” cried her mother, “it is all very right; who should do it but her own uncle? If he had not had a family of his own, I and my children must have had all his money, you know; and it is the first time we have ever had anything from him, except a few presents. Well! I am so happy!…”

Then there’s Lydia’s behavior when she finally returns to the house with her husband. 

“Oh! mamma, do the people hereabouts know I am married to-day? I was afraid they might not; and we overtook William Goulding in his curricle, so I was determined he should know it, and so I let down the side-glass next to him, and took off my glove, and let my hand just rest upon the window frame, so that he might see the ring, and then I bowed and smiled like anything.”

Elizabeth could bear it no longer. She got up, and ran out of the room; and returned no more, till she heard them passing through the hall to the dining parlour. She then joined them soon enough to see Lydia, with anxious parade, walk up to her mother’s right hand, and hear her say to her eldest sister, “Ah! Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.”

It really is an amazing feat that Austen can make a modern reader feel invested in circumstances fairly far removed from life now, but the stakes are clearly set, as are the emotions they invoke. 


Human Foresight

Once an A.I. surpasses us, there’s no reason to believe it will feel grateful to us for inventing it—particularly if we haven’t figured out how to imbue it with empathy.
-Tad Friend, “How Frightened Should We Be of A.I.? The New Yorker May 14, 2018 issue

Philip K. Dick’s classic sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep explores the advent of Artificial Intelligence, taking place in a period of a little over 24 hours in the year 2021 (originally 1992). We begin with Rick Deckard waking up in his San Francisco apartment and debating his wife over the merits of their “Penfield mood organ,” which they can program to make them feel like whatever they feel like feeling. Rick then goes up to his roof and tends to his electric sheep, which he’s ashamed of while lusting after his neighbor’s live horse. 

Meanwhile, in a completely abandoned apartment building out in the suburbs, John Isidore, a “special” or “chickenhead” due to his low intelligence (his impairment likely due to nuclear fallout), is getting ready for work driving a truck for an electric animal hospital, watching the “Buster Friendly” program on TV before engaging with his “empathy box,” through which he merges with Wilbur Mercer and everyone else also using their empathy box. Mercer climbs an endless hill in the desert and has rocks hurled at him by the killers who stopped him from using his gift to reverse time and bring things back from the dead. After disengaging from the box, Isidore gets very excited when he hears someone else in his abandoned building. 

Rick reports to work at the Hall of Justice as an android bounty hunter. Androids are the humanoid robots that became prominent after the nuclear World War Terminus, when the government used them as incentives to get people to colonize Mars. None are supposed to be on Earth, but some of the “Nexus-6” types have become so intelligent that they’ve killed their human owners and escaped and are on Earth trying to pass as human. The most prominent bounty hunter in Rick’s department has recently been severely injured by one of these Nexus-6 androids that he was trying to “retire,” and Rick is going to take over his list of androids. He flies up to Seattle to visit the Rosen Corporation that produces the Nexus-6 types in order to test the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test, their means of differentiating humans from androids. The CEO tries to trick him into thinking it doesn’t work by making him think that the young woman he’s presented as his niece, Rachael Rosen, is a human who has incorrectly registered as an android, but then Rick figures out she actually is an android. 

Meanwhile, Isidore eagerly visits his new neighbor, a young girl who initially identifies herself as Rachael Rosen but then amends this to Pris Stratton, and who is unfamiliar with common things like the Buster Friendly program. Isidore goes to work, picking up a dying cat he thinks is electrical but turns out to be real. 

Rick proceeds to pursue the androids on his list, retiring the first when it shows up posing as a Soviet officer sent to help him destroy the androids. When he pursues the next android on his list, an opera singer, she calls the cops on him and he’s taken to a police station he didn’t know existed that turns out to be run by the third android on his list, Garland, whom he barely manages to kill with the help of another bounty hunter there, Phil Resch, whom Garland tried to convince him was also an android. But Phil helps Rick capture and kill the opera singer, and though Rick thinks he enjoys killing too much to be human, he turns out to pass the empathy test and prove human. Rick realizes he’s started to feel empathy for androids. 

Meanwhile, when Isidore comes home after work and visits Pris, two other people show up, Roy and Irmgard Baty, whom Isidore eventually realizes are androids along with Pris. They set up defenses against the bounty hunter that got the others.   

Having earned more money than he’s ever seen from his bounties but nonetheless depressed by his work, Rick stops on the way home to buy a live goat. His wife urges him to use the empathy box and merge with Mercer, but he doesn’t find it helpful that Mercer’s advice is that he’ll be required to do wrong no matter what. His boss pressures Rick to retire the three remaining androids on his list that night so he can take them by surprise. He takes up Rachael Rosen’s offer to help him, though she only agrees to if he sleeps with her, which he does. After he finds out she’s slept with and manipulated several other bounty hunters, he says he’s going to kill her, but finds himself unable to and drops her off.

The androids and Isidore are listening to a major announcement Buster Friendly makes on his program that Mercerism is a hoax staged from a Hollywood studio and that Mercer is not really suffering. Isidore finds a live spider, and Pris cuts off half its legs to see if it can still walk. They confirm that Buster Friendly is an android. Isidore uses his empathy box and talks to Mercer, who says he is a fraud but that the announcement won’t change anything. He gives Isidore his spider with the legs restored. They hear the bounty hunter arrive and send Isidore out to meet him. Rick asks Isidore to show him what apartment they’re in; Isidore says if Rick kills him he won’t be able to merge with Mercer anymore, and won’t show him where they are. Rick proceeds on his own and runs into a man who identifies himself as Mercer, who warns him that one of the androids isn’t in the apartment but is sneaking up from behind him—the one who looks like Rachael. Rick manages to shoot her. He goes to the apartment door and impersonates Isidore to get the last two androids to let him in, and shoots them as well.

When Rick gets home, his wife tells him a young woman has killed their goat by pushing it off the roof. He gets back into his hovercar and flies north to the desert where no one lives. He starts climbing up a hill and someone throws a rock at him. When he confuses his own shadow for Mercer he gets back in his car, but then sees something move that turns out to be a toad, which are supposed to be extinct. He’s rejuvenated and flies home with it, but then his wife discovers it’s electric. Rick finally goes to bed and his wife orders some artificial flies for the toad, saying her husband is devoted to it. The End.

A big part of what makes this story so compelling, apart from the deft brushstrokes with which he paints his futuristic world–with mood organs and hovercars on the periphery of the main-attraction androids–is that it has an internal conflict to match its external one, the external one being Deckard versus android, and the internal one being Deckard versus himself when he starts to empathize with androids. Phil Resch turns out to be human, but exhibits a lack of humanity in his lust for killing, a counterpoint to the opera singer who produces such beauty, begging the question of why she actually needs to be killed. Though Rick never really asks this question directly or challenges his boss, it becomes manifest in the way his work depresses him. Isidore seems to be a version of Rick’s id (his name does have “is id” in it) in that he openly empathizes with the androids to the point that he actually defends their lives, doing what Rick can’t do. (And all the while Rick’s worried that what he won’t be able to do is shoot the Rachael Rosen lookalike, but he actually does that without much trouble.) It seems like Isidore’s function is largely thematic, then, because his defending the androids doesn’t actually do all that much in the plot—he doesn’t give up their location to Rick the bounty hunter because he knows Rick wants to kill them, but Rick then finds them on his own fairly easily, and they still end up dead. For as much setup as Isidore got, this felt like a little bit of a letdown. 

A nice trick that Dick used at the beginning was not revealing right away that Rick was a bounty hunter. We get a whole chapter of him before he goes to work without any clear clue as to what his work actually is. He is made sympathetic and patently human by a material desire–a living animal, which of course thematically is the perfect object for him to desire. The desire is nicely reinforced throughout the text by Rick constantly referring to his Sidney’s catalogue to check the monetary value of animals. (This life with a price on it seems to possibly parallel the androids, who have a bounty on them.) Rick’s desire for live animals seems to ultimately play more of a role in the plot than Isidore does when the android Rachael Rosen, in revenge for his killing the other androids, kills the animal that he was able to attain thanks to the money from killing those androids. I felt as Rick did in response to this, that he deserved this, not that it proved the androids’ lack of humanity; if anything, it seemed another piece of evidence of how human-like they actually were. This gesture made Rachael Rosen seem genuinely pained from the loss of her fellow androids, which one might even designate as her friends. The irony of the whole concept of the book is that the androids become more threatening the more human they become, but at the same time should actually be becoming less threatening. If an android were to achieve full humanity, then what would be the point in killing it? All the while there’s the backdrop of nuclear apocalypse, ironclad evidence for the dangerous and destructive impulses of humanity; it’s also thematically perfect that this is the environment that gave rise to the androids, which become symbols for nuclear arms themselves as they are a potentially destructive force that is the product of humanity’s intelligence.

The Mercer thread also offers an interesting exploration of humanity’s reliance on religion—and Mercer comes to play a direct role in the plot when he warns Rick about one of the androids sneaking up from behind him. The empathy box which allows the merging with Mercer and the androids eventually revealing Mercer to be a fraud seem to show that religion is as real as people’s belief in it. Mercer showing up to Rick outside of the empathy box would seem to show him to be literally real, but this is undermined when Rick flies out to the desert by himself and inadvertently becomes Mercer, which implies that Mercer exists within the individual and not independently of it, and so maybe he just manifested to Rick outside the empathy box as a manifestation of Rick’s own will. The toad that lifts Rick’s spirit so much but turns out to be fake also underscores this reading of the function of religion, especially in conjunction with concluding lines of the book in which Rick’s wife declares his devotion to it. Meanwhile, the question of whether these androids really needed to be killed to protect humanity seems to be left open. The question of whether empathy actually makes us human seems to be left open as well, since Phil Resch and the near nuclear apocalypse show humanity showing a manifest lack of empathy.

In some ways, we seem a world away from the world that in the book is only a couple of years distant—we’re not ready to colonize Mars and while we are developing A.I.’s, we haven’t reached the point where they’ve evolved to near human. In other ways, the question of our humanity in conjunction with nuclear war is as pertinent as ever. The different plot threads spool out the question of how we view and value life, which perfectly intersect in an exchange Rick has with Rachael Rosen when he first lands at the Rosen Corporation:

“You have no difficulty viewing an android as inert,” the girl said. “So you can ‘retire’ it, as they say.”

“Do you have the group selected out for me?” he said. “I’d like to—” He broke off. Because, all at once, he had seen their animals.

Rick will turn out to have trouble viewing the androids as “inert,” and the book’s exploration of humanity manifest through the androids’ increasing likeness to humans recalls another recent New Yorker article, in which Paul Bloom, a philosopher who analyzes empathy, argues that it’s not dehumanization that enables us to commit atrocities against our fellow humans, as so many have hypothesized, but in fact the opposite, since we’re able to better relish a particular group’s pain and humiliation because we perceive them as human:

“What might look like the dehumanization of the other is instead a way to exert power over another human.”


A Novelist of Interest

Susan Choi, a graduate of the High School for Performing and Visual Arts here in Houston, returned to talk to the students this past March. Discussing her writing process, she described how she’s incorporated aspects of people she knows into her characters, and shared the evolution of the idea behind her third novel, A Person of Interest (2008). Choi’s father, a Korean math professor, went to graduate school with Ted Kaczynksi, who would later become the notorious Unabomber. Naturally, Choi found this tidbit fascinating, and started writing with the idea that the main character, occupying her father’s position, would, while the bombings were ongoing, recognize that he knew the bomber, and would be conflicted about whether he should turn him in. But she said she soon realized this did not actually make a very interesting story, and what would be more interesting was if the character in her father’s position started to act increasingly suspicious when he crossed paths with the FBI’s investigation. This was an aspect of the character she could personally identify with, saying she got nervous around policemen when she had absolutely no reason to be. This also provides a nice general rising-action arc: the more suspicious the character acts, the more he’ll be suspected, which will in turn cause him to act even more suspicious, which will cause him to be increasingly suspect…

And so, a summary of how A Person of Interest plays out: When a mailed-in bomb goes off in the adjacent office at the midwestern university where Korean immigrant Dr. Lee teaches math, it kills a popular young prodigy professor named Hendley, and Lee is forced to confront the extent to which he disliked Hendley without previously acknowledging it. (But he still speaks to news reporters that night decrying the heinousness of the crime.) Lee nonsensically tells the bomb squad when they enter his office that he needs to call his wife, thinking not of his more recent ex-wife Michiko but of his dead first wife, Aileen. He met Aileen when he was in graduate school, where, after failing to befriend the top student in the class, Donald Whitehead, Lee became friends with another student, Lewis Gaither, then Aileen’s husband. Eventually Aileen and Lee began an affair that went on hiatus when Aileen told him she was pregnant with Gaither’s baby. When she split with Gaither, Gaither took the baby, then called John, and once married to Aileen himself, Lee did nothing to help her get John back, implying he would leave her if she tried because he did not want to raise another man’s child. He has one child by Aileen, Esther, who was fourteen when Aileen died of cancer after she divorced Lee. Now grown, Esther’s work with wild eagles keeps her transient and frequently out of touch entirely. 

After the bombing, Lee receives a letter in his university mailbox from someone who refers to himself as his “graduate school colleague” and who references committing the bombing; Lee assumes the letter is from Gaither. When Lee is eventually questioned about the letter by FBI agents who were tracking the school’s mail, Lee lies and says he’s thrown the letter away, then later, under further questioning, admits that he still has it and shows it to the agent, Jim Morrison, telling him about Gaither. After this (and taking a polygraph test that comes back “inconclusive,”) Lee becomes a “Person of Interest” in the case, and when rumors get out about his being questioned, in conjunction with the fact that he had animosity with Hendley and didn’t show up to Hendley’s memorial, his colleagues, students, and neighbors begin to believe he’s the “Brain Bomber.” The FBI searches his house and seizes his possessions, which Lee, in front of news cameras, does not react well to. Morrison also tells Lee that Gaither is dead. The FBI puts a tail on Lee that Lee causes to rear-end him when he stops suddenly in an intersection. He manages to throw the tail off and sneak back to his house, where he sees he’s been mailed a page torn out of his doctoral dissertation. Lee, believing Gaither has staged an elaborate setup to frame him, flees the state and makes it to his old university’s library, where he finds the copy of his dissertation with the page torn out and in its place a note from the bomber. 

We then jump to the perspective of Mark, Lewis Gaither’s son. He was raised by Gaither and a woman named Ruth whom he believes to be his mother; they lived a transient lifestyle moving to different countries as missionaries. Mark drifted from them in his late teens and got into drugs and alcohol; he was surprised Ruth was even able to locate him to tell him when Gaither died in Indonesia. Recovered now but still transient, he lives an isolated existence in a small mountain town and enjoys hiking. When FBI agents turn up questioning him about his father, he’s disturbed by their question about his father attending graduate school for math in the Midwest, which he had never heard about and which Ruth continues to deny despite Mark’s calling the school and confirming it’s true. Starting to put the clues together that there are more significant questions about his origin, Mark feels himself on the verge of a crisis, exacerbated when he runs into a big garrulous family while hiking and holds a baby for the first time, thinking that the baby won’t remember anything from this time and will have to take his parents’ word for it. 

We go back to Lee on his cross-country trek to Sippston, Idaho, where the bomber’s note has directed him to a public library. The drive reminds him of all the drives he used to make between the midwest and Rhode Island, where Aileen moved with Esther after divorcing him. He recalls her dying days in the hospital, where Aileen’s sister Nora called him out for not helping get John back from Gaither when they first got married. Lee considered asking Aileen if she wanted him to try to locate John before she died, but delayed so long that she died before he did. He arrives at the Sippston library as it’s closing, and the librarian, Marjorie, tells him she has instructions from “Dr. Burt” to bring Lee up the mountain. Lee initially resists but lets her drive him up nearly impassable terrain to the cabin, where he meets not Lewis Gaither, but Donald Whitehead. Whitehead is excited to see him, but right after he admits to killing Hendley they hear an engine outside and Lee bolts; someone outside grabs him and bundles him into a car and down the mountain. It turns out to be FBI agents; Lee initially thinks they followed him to Whitehead but it turns out they followed an independent lead from a correspondent of Whitehead’s, so it’s a complete coincidence. He reunites with Agent Morrison, who tells him a news team has gotten hold of the story and so they’re on a strict timeline to nab Whitehead before Whitehead and everyone else learns they know where he is. That his place is so inaccessible and that his cabin is likely booby-trapped leads Lee to semi-volunteer, despite being ill, to go back up (in a blizzard and weighed down by a bulletproof vest) and lure Whitehead out of his cabin so they don’t have to risk getting killed going in to get him. Whitehead is suspicious due to Lee’s sudden disappearance the night before, but Lee engages him in a discussion of how he was jealous of Whitehead’s gifts. From his doorway Whitehead expounds on how he’s killing individuals to save the world from the larger harm caused by their inventions, invoking the damage of the atom bomb, and when Lee counters that Hendley would not have hurt anybody, he’s suddenly overwhelmed by grief for him and starts weeping, which finally draws Whitehead out to help him, and the FBI agents who have been concealing themselves pounce on him without anybody getting hurt. Before Lee leaves Idaho, Morrison returns a personal effect of his he knows Lee will value, an old letter from Aileen.

When Lee gets home after the news of the Brain Bomber’s capture, people are still wary of him, thinking him somehow involved. His old colleague Fasano comes to visit, and he gets a postcard from Esther that she’ll be arriving soon. Before she does he gets another visitor–Mark, who’s located a copy of his birth certificate with Aileen’s name on it. Lee confirms she was his mother and tells him she’s dead. He cooks dinner for him but before he can eat Mark reads the letter from Aileen Lee had left out on the table, which discusses him when he was a baby, and collapses into sobs for what he’s lost; Lee sits with him until he falls asleep. Mark goes with Lee to the airport to pick up Esther so he can meet his half-sister, and in the final line Esther arrives. The End. 

This novel provides a near-textbook example of acute tension (in this case the bombing of his colleague Hendley and himself becoming a pseudo-suspect) pushing chronic tension (Lee’s role in the destruction of his marriage to Aileen) to the surface and forcing it to a new resolution. As in A Canticle for Leibowitz, the acute tension of the bombing appears in the novel’s opening line: 

It was only after Hendley was bombed that Lee was forced to admit to himself how much he’d disliked him: a raw, never-mined vein of thought in an instant laid bare by the force of explosion.

This line could serve as a symbolic description of how acute and chronic tension interact generally, the “force of explosion” the symbol of acute tension and the “raw, never-mined vein of thought” a symbol of the chronic, while the “in an instant laid bare” describes how the acute brings the chronic to the resolution of a new epiphany. 

More specifically, this particular “never-mined vein of thought” is referring to the chronic tension of Lee’s dislike of Hendley, which exists before the novel starts, but that chronic tension is really indicative of the deeper chronic tension of how Lee’s shortcomings as an individual have manifested in his most regret-worthy mistake(s). Choi does an excellent job of running the development of the chronic tension on a parallel track with the acute, so that the chronic has its own narrative arc, which climaxes with the revelation of what Lee’s most regret-worthy mistake is–his not offering to find John when Aileen is on her deathbed. It’s also narratively appropriate that this mistake is not fully revealed to the reader until near the end of the novel because it shows how deeply Lee has buried it in his psyche, how much he does not want to confront it, and can only be pushed to by the mounting events of the acute tension.   

Lee’s dislike of Hendley resurfaces in a narratively satisfying way during the climax of the acute tension–when Lee is luring Whitehead out of his cabin. In this moment, when Lee invokes Hendley, he finally feels grief for him rather than bitterness, and it’s his weeping for Hendley that draws Whitehead out, while also showing that Lee has overcome some of the pettiness that has marked him as a character and been responsible for his biggest chronic-tension mistake (one can read into the moment that he’s weeping for more than just Hendley here). This is narratively neat but didn’t (to me at least) feel too heavy-handed; it felt more like a narrative spandrel, that in seeking a way that Lee was going to be able to lure Whitehead out, Choi looked back to what was prominent in the novel’s beginning and in it found a way to show Lee’s progress as a character, manifest in his weeping, which leads to his successfully completing a mission for the same guys–the FBI–who were largely responsible for wrecking his life over the previous months, though notably Lee’s own actions played a significant role in their actions toward him wrecking his life–their suspecting him wrecked his life, but they suspected him because he was acting suspicious. 

The use of an object associated with Whitehead–his houndstooth jacket–also felt like a possible spandrel in how it came to play a role in the acute-tension climax. It’s mentioned in the early flashback scene with Whitehead near the book’s beginning: 

Whitehead was wearing a rumpled green-and-gold houndstooth jacket that was slightly too large but that somehow, for this flaw, was more flattering. 

A moment later, when Whitehead tells Lee he’s “tragically impoverished,” we get: 

Lee doubted it, looking at the old but well-pedigreed jacket. He’d never found something like that at the secondhand store.

Near the novel’s end, when Lee goes into Whitehead’s cabin, it’s been raining and he’s not wearing a waterproof jacket, so Whitehead offers him one of his: 

“Here is the woodstove, Lee, here is the peg for your jacket, here’s ancient raiment of mine you can wear while that dries.” …

A blast of wood smoke and intimate odor scorched Lee’s eyes and nostrils; yet despite the strength of these foul exhalations, the houndstooth jacket drooped, a windless flag, from Lee’s hand. 

“Lewis isn’t here,” Lee said–telling himself, reprimanding himself, wringing the jacket with fury.

…he absorbed these impressions instantaneously, his mind’s shutter held open, as he turned for the door, half an arm’s reach away, and plunged through it, skidding down the two moss-slickened steps, belatedly rejecting the houndstooth jacket and then tripping over and trampling it into the mud.

Then, when Lee returns the next day, now at the behest of the FBI, the jacket appears again: 

Lee realized [Whitehead] was wearing the old houndstooth jacket. He must have ventured out to retrieve it from where Lee had dropped it in the course of his flight. And then dried it, perhaps carefully draped on the smoking woodstove. It was true that the decades had made it too small for his frame. It barely stretched from shoulder to shoulder and winged out on both sides from a gap where it should have been buttoned. Even the sleeves ended short of the thick, hairy wrists. Now Lee knew, from Agent Morrison and Dave and Wing Tips, that Whitehead had never been the scion of a moneyed and lettered East Coast family, as Lee once romantically thought. He was the midwestern son of a husbandless mother, who had raised him in sooty brick houses against a background of smokestacks. The jacket must have come from a secondhand store, like Lee’s briefcase. Perhaps it had never quite fit. 

The jacket has become associated with Lee’s realization that he’d been completely wrong in his conception of Whitehead when they were students, and that he’s been wrong in thinking Gaither’s the bomber. These two mistakes are directly connected and explain how Lee misreads the original letter that makes him believe the bomber is Gaither (a mistake that by novel’s end becomes obviously a manifestation of his own guilt), a conclusion he largely infers from the reference that “I can admit that you bruised me, that last time we met.” The last time they met is in the scene where the jacket is initially referenced, and Lee doesn’t even register that he’s been rude to Whitehead because he’s so preoccupied with his own problems with Aileen, and thus has no chance whatsoever of connecting the letter to Whitehead. The acute tension forces Lee to confront how he misunderstood Whitehead, which forces him to confront the chronic tension of how he misunderstood himself and his marriage. 

It’s a convenient coincidence that the FBI shows up at the bomber’s at the same time Lee does. Choi calls attention to this coincidence by having Lee initially think he led the FBI to the bomber because they followed him all the way from Iowa, but this turning out not to be the case. This, in conjunction with the fact that the coincidence is narratively necessary, otherwise Lee would not have the chance to redeem himself, is why I think in large part she gets away with it. 

The narrative doubles down on mistaken identity: Lee as mistaken suspect–while Agent Morrison is careful never to call him this, his colleagues, neighbors and the media end up treating him as such–and Lee is mistaken in whom he suspects of the bombings when he thinks it’s Gaither. This major mistake of Lee’s in the acute-tension situation seems symbolic of his mistake in his chronic-tension situation; both reflect his inability to see what’s really going on. The novel is so satisfying because Lee’s chronic tension makes him the perfect character for this acute-tension situation: he deserves to be misjudged and mistaken for a suspect because of all the ways he’s misjudged other people: Gaither, Whitehead, and most importantly, himself.   

That Whitehead gets a couple of mentions and a scene of seemingly little consequence in one of the early flashbacks in which Lee rashly confesses to him his affair with Aileen will lead some readers to pick up on the fact that when Morrison tells Lee Gaither is dead, he’s telling the truth, though Lee continues persists in believing for quite some time after this that Gaither’s death can’t be true, that the FBI is either messing with him or Gaither changed his name and went off the grid. Lee’s persistence in this belief is a sign of something else readers will have picked up on by this point in the narrative–his capacity for denial in the face of evidence to the contrary of whatever it is he’s denying. This will manifest most specifically in his major chronic-tension issue, his role in the destruction of his marriage to Aileen due to his unwillingness to raise John. 

Another object that plays a prominent role in the novel, perhaps coming into play in the plot more directly than the houndstooth jacket, is the letter from Aileen that Agent Morrison gives back to Lee. This gesture on Morrison’s part after Lee has helped capture Whitehead shows that he’s redeemed himself to those who once considered him a possible suspect, but it also shows how this redemption goes beyond the acute tension and extends to the chronic–Lee has regained something of Aileen by confronting how he failed her. The object also adds layers of resonance to his early utterance to the bomb squad that he needs to call his wife–in a sense, she’s answered him. The letter then comes into play directly when Mark reads it, and since it’s about how Aileen cared for him, it brings into stark relief for him what he’s lost. The object of the letter also recalls the other prominent letter in the plot, the one Whitehead initially sends to Gaither. This is what leads to Lee becoming a person of interest, but it’s important to remember that Whitehead sent Lee the letter because–in a twist that resembles how the bomber himself is eventually caught–he read the news story about him decrying the crime against Hendley (and secretly getting off on his “eloquent outrage”). Lee is not being elaborately framed as he comes to believe at one point; he’s actually brought all this on himself. 


So Very, Very Cold

Don DeLillo’s most recent novel Zero K (2016) is one of his slimmer volumes, divided into two ten-chapter parts with an anomalous sliver of a section in the middle. In Part 1, the first-person narrator Jeffrey travels to a remote area in the former USSR to a facility known as “the Convergence,” where he’s meeting his wealthy titan-of-global-finance father, Ross Lockhart. Ross (whom Jeffrey refers to as such) is having his wife, Jeffrey’s stepmom Artis, cryogenically frozen as a way to preserve her life since she’s dying from complications related to multiple sclerosis. The facility is highly ascetic, with its defining features being tasteless food, female mannequins, knobless doors, an absence of windows, and screens playing a series of apocalyptic images. Jeffrey hears talks about the philosophy behind the facility from its twin-brother founders, who believe they’re at the forefront of a new consciousness, and, with a pseudo monk, visits the hospice section where people are waiting to die before being frozen. We get some backstory about Jeffrey being raised alone by his mother after his father left; she’s since died of a stroke. As a person Jeffrey is generally obsessed with numbers and labels, especially the fact that his father changed his name as a young man. He is very upset when his father tells him that he’s decided to go with Artis and be frozen himself, ending his life prematurely, but then at the last second Ross backs out and decides to return to New York City with Jeffrey. Right before they leave, Jeffrey sees a video of panicked people fleeing something on one of the screens and it occurs to him that the images aren’t real but digitally manipulated, but then apparently real people come barreling down the hall toward him, including the founding twin brothers.

We then get a brief section depicting Artis’s consciousness inside her Convergence pod, which consists largely of first-person questions stated as sentences and third-person italicized actual sentences, apparently reflecting her now split self:

She is first person and third person with no way to join them together.

In Part 2, Jeffrey is in New York City two years later, dating a woman, Emma, who has a 14-year-old adopted son from the Ukraine named Stack who only visits her rarely and becomes increasingly delinquent and/or disconnected, eventually quitting school. Jeffrey goes on lots of job interviews but eschews his father’s drive for money. His father is deteriorating in Artis’s absence and eventually tells Jeffrey he wants to go back to the Convergence, and Jeffrey, after finally taking a new job as a “compliance and ethics officer” for a college, agrees to travel with him. They go back right after Emma tells Jeffrey that Stack has disappeared, seemingly voluntarily. Jeffrey hears another lecture, this time from just one of the twin brothers, about how they’re escaping the world’s eventually ending in war, and then he watches as Ross is readied for his cryogenic chamber. He’s told by an escort how Ross’s benefaction enabled a lot of the work and shown the room with all the bodies in pods, then Artis in a special pod with an empty one next to her where Ross will go. He watches images of war unfold on one of the screens showing a bunch of soldiers, and one of them is Emma’s son Stack, whom he watches get shot and die. He returns to New York, picks up his job at the college and settles into a “soft life.” Emma tells him what happened to Stack and returns to live with Stack’s father, while Jeffrey doesn’t tell her he saw it happen and regrets not sharing more of himself with her, like his history with his parents, instead attempting to present himself to her “in isolation.” He witnesses the moment that occurs once a year when the sun’s rays perfectly align with Manhattan’s street grid and appreciates a possibly mentally disabled boy’s corresponding cries of wonder. The End. 

I was partially inspired to start this blog by a bookseller’s comment that a novel didn’t “work”; that novel was Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, which I still haven’t read and probably won’t for awhile, after this most recent reading experience. The bookseller’s comment led me to declare a philosophy that in evaluating creative work my students and I are “not looking for what is ‘wrong,’ but for what it can teach us,” and, at the risk of sounding snarky, it seems like what’s predominantly to be learned in this case is that if you’ve published fifteen novels to general acclaim and are a familiar name, you can publish a book that if written by a nobody would never see the light of day, namely because it would seem like a hackneyed DeLillo ripoff.  

I had to slog my way through this book–this is the term that recurred to me repeatedly as I listened to the audiobook, slog, and I don’t know that I would have been able to complete this slog through the print version. I was really only able to make it through with the hope that Part 2 was going to offer a significant narrative shift in which we leapt to the future and discovered what life was really going to be like for the people who had elected to cryogenically freeze themselves. The closest we get to this is the middle section with Artis’s narration from her pod, which for me was the most painful of the entire book. Her sentence-question “Does it keep going on like this” defines my experience, and the answer is, unfortunately, yes, it does keep going on like this. In a charitable reading of the novel, it seems like DeLillo is intentionally withholding what lies on the other side of the pod in a replication of real-life experience; after all, as Jeffrey puts it to a completely random figure who appears in a completely random simulation of an English garden after he’s struggling with his father’s decision to be frozen with Artis: 

“It’s only human to want to know more, and then more, and then more,” I said. “But it’s also true that what we don’t know is what makes us human. And there’s no end to not knowing.”

This quote is also as good an example as any of the novel consisting predominantly of philosophy with a veneer of character so thin you can see the blankness through its eyeholes. Jeffrey’s defining characteristic of being obsessed with names and labels felt like quintessential DeLillo, and it also made me want to throttle him–and “him” can apply to both Jeffrey and DeLillo–before smashing his head–and my own for good measure–against a brick wall. To perform a DeLilloan quantification, the word “name” appears in the book 167 times. Clearly the “character” is trying to impose order on a disordered world, and the repetitiveness and redundancy of it is likely commentary on the redundancy of life and our struggle to make sense of it, but this is not packaged in any kind of a remotely compelling narrative. 

Part of what seems to contribute to Jeffrey’s utter lack of compellingness is his utterly passive nature. He is a witness, a peripheral figure thrust into the center. While witnesses can certainly tell a more compelling character’s story–The Great Gatsby being perhaps the most famous example–Nick Carraway’s understanding of the world is irrevocably shifted by the events he bears witness to. While I could sense a technical reversal/revelation for the character of Jeffrey in the final chapter in his preferring to appreciate the ugly sounds of a disabled boy’s excitement over the more objectively beautiful source of that excitement, it left me cold as it must be in the Convergence pods. Which again seems like it could be the ultimate intent, considering the tile, explained thus:    

The guide explained the meaning of the term Zero K. This was rote narration, with plotted stops and restarts, and it concerned a unit of temperature called absolute zero, which is minus two hundred and seventy-three point one five degrees celsius. A physicist named Kelvin was mentioned, he was the K in the term. The most interesting thing the guide had to say was the fact that the temperature employed in cryostorage does not actually approach zero K.

I did not feel Jeffrey’s shift, because I never felt like he was a real person. If it was DeLillo’s goal to execute a cold, emotionless novel, then well done, though I’m still struggling with what the purpose of this would be. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the lives that the people who are freezing themselves will ultimately be living, against the grand declarations of the facility. Though Part 1’s conclusion that as soon as Jeffrey starts to think the images on the screens are fake they prove to be real, further underscored in Part 2 by Emma confirming Stack’s death, seems to undermine this reading, since Jeffrey is a primary advocate of the idea that the Convergence is offering a false promise.

It seems that part of his character’s reversal at the end is supposed to be regret over his cold emotionlessness, for his presenting himself “in isolation” to Emma, but this reversal achieves no emotional warmth for a character who’s always been a hollow mask for the philosophy of what a slog life is. Perhaps we’re meant to perceive his embracing of a “soft life” in the face of his father’s grandiose ambitions to embody a heretofore unknown consciousness as heroic, but it’s hard to feel this without feeling him as an actual human being. Jeffrey seems to show the most emotion when Ross tells him his decision to be frozen with Artis, but this quickly devolves into nonsensical melodrama when he asks

“Do you understand how this reduces me?”


“I’m shamed by this, totally diminished.”

There’s not a clear context for why he feels this way, as he himself admits later:

“You thought you knew who your father was. Isn’t this what you meant when you said you felt reduced by this decision?”

“I don’t know what I meant.”

He has no clear fears or desires, and so does not feel human.  

Then there’s the character of Artis, whose name is comprised of the words “art is,” seeming to offer art as a potential balm to life’s slog–she’s the one who gets Jeffrey’s money-grubbing father to appreciate art and history, after all–in which case DeLillo’s apparent goal to replicate life’s slog so exactingly seems doomed from the outset. It frequently seems like the meaning he’s aiming for is that words are meaningless shells, which for a novelist would be fairly self-defeating. 

Of course, this is just one reader’s opinion. Joshua Ferris fairly drooled over the novel in his New York Times book review, concluding the polar opposite of what I have: 

…it all adds up to one of the most mysterious, emotionally moving and formally rewarding books of DeLillo’s long career. 

Perhaps I’m just tired of reading a white man’s world. The female reviewer for The Atlantic, Meghan Daum, while moderating her tone more than I’ve been able to, concurs that 

DeLillo’s characters can often sound more like delivery mechanisms for existential inquiry than like real people. 


…Jeff is not so much his own man as a case study in contemporary alienation.


I confess that Zero K drove me a bit mad.

I feel less mad knowing I am not alone. 



Buzzards, Bombs, & Burlap

Perhaps there was a time, post Cold War, when the exploration of nuclear fallout in Walter M. Miller’s 1960 post-apocalyptic sci-fi classic A Canticle for Leibowitz seemed out of date. It would seem now that time is up. 

Part 1: Fiat Homo (chs 1-11; six centuries after Flame Deluge)
The novel opens with Brother Francis Gerard, a novice in the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, in the desert on a Lenten vigil that’s required before he can take his official vows. A “pilgrim” approaches his encampment who offers to find Francis a rock to fit in the gap of a structure he’s building to protect himself from wolves. When Francis removes the rock the pilgrim has pointed out after the pilgrim has left, he discovers an old fallout shelter he presumes is from the time of the “Flame Deluge.” His higher-ups at the Leibowitz Abbey don’t want him to explore it because they’re trying to get Leibowitz canonized as a saint and fear it will look to outsiders like they’ve fabricated evidence. After the Flame Deluge came a period known as the “Simplification,” during which books were burned, since human knowledge was seen as the source of the Flame Deluge, but “bookleggers” arose to try to preserve some of this knowledge, Leibowitz starting an organization of such before being hung for doing so, while the efforts he started eventually evolved into the Abbey which still tries to preserve human knowledge six centuries later. Rumors spring from Francis’s descriptions of the pilgrim that the pilgrim was actually Leibowitz himself, and Francis is not allowed to take his vows for several years. He undertakes a project to make an “illuminated” copy of a particular blueprint made by Leibowitz himself that he discovered in the shelter for a “Transistorized Control System for Unit Six-B,” though he has no idea what the blueprint actually means. He works on the copy intermittently for fifteen years before Leibowitz is finally canonized, and Francis is chosen to go to “New Rome” for the ceremony, bearing both the original blueprint and his illuminated copy as gifts. On the way he’s accosted by bandits who take the illuminated copy, presuming it’s the original. He makes it to the ceremony with the original, with the pope informing him that his effort in making the illuminated copy is what saved the original. The pope gives Francis some gold that Francis then takes back to the bandits’ encampment hoping to exchange for his illuminated copy. While waiting for the bandits, he sees a figure approaching in the distance that looks similar to the pilgrim from the beginning, but the bandits kill him before the pilgrim arrives.

Part 2: Fiat Lux (chs. 12-23, year 3174, 12 centuries after Flame Deluge)
Amidst rumors of war involving the ruler Hannegan and tribal leader Mad Bear, the scholar Thon Taddeo makes a request of Monsignor Marcus Apollo to request that the “Leibowitzian documents” be fetched from the Leibowitz Abbey to his collegium. The request is denied due to the dangers of imminent war, and eventually Thon Taddeo travels to the abbey himself, a moment that the abbey’s current leader Dom Paulo considers that which the past twelve centuries of the monks’ maintaining the memorabilia has all led up to. In preparation for the visit, Dom Paulo displaces a drunken poet from their guest quarters and goes to talk to his old friend Benjamin, who claims to have been alive for hundreds of years and who is one of few remaining Jews left. Around the time Thon Taddeo arrives at the abbey, one of the monks, Brother Kornhoer, succeeds in powering a lamp with electricity for the first time since the Flame Deluge, fortunate timing since it enables Thon Taddeo to be able to better discern the text of the old documents. The scholar is amazed at the wealth of information the monks have been sitting on and believes it a travesty that the documents have remained essentially hidden for so long. He predicts that men of science will soon rule, arguing with Dom Paulo about whether he condones the bloody expansion currently being waged by his half-brother Hannegan and saying that while he doesn’t condone it personally that his collegium will benefit from it and thus so will the human race. Thon Taddeo also predicts that “[a] century from now, men will fly through the air in mechanical birds. Metal carriages will race along roads of man-made stone. There will be buildings of thirty stories, ships that go under the sea, machines to perform all works,” also predicting these changes will occur via “violence and upheaval.” He further conjectures that the current race of man is not the original race but a clone race meant to be servants, believing the creators of such great things in the past could not have fallen so far, though Dom Paulo believes this is a way of avoiding man’s responsibility for the Flame Deluge. Despite their differences, Thon Taddeo hands over to Dom Paulo sketches that his escorts have made of the abbey for the purpose of using it as a military garrison in the upcoming conflicts. The section ends with the poet–whose glass eye that he referred to as his “removable conscience” Thon Taddeo took from him in jest–dying after inadvertently getting involved in a military skirmish on the plains. 

Part 3: Fiat Voluntas Tua (chs. 24-30, year 3781, 18 centuries after Flame Deluge)
Man once again has spaceships and atomic bombs. Word is out that “Lucifer is fallen,” and we get a press conference with the country’s Defense Minister asking him about why radiation counts on the Northwest Coast have significantly increased and the suspicion that hydrogen weapons exist in space as a workaround to a treaty banning nuclear arms. We then follow the current abbott of the Leibowitz Abbey, Dom Zerchi, who’s having trouble with translating technology as he’s trying to get a radiogram to a cardinal in New Rome about their plan Quo peregrinatur. An old beggar “clad in burlap” that people refer to as Lazarus still skulks about the area around the abbey. Two different nuclear detonations are reported in violation of the treaty, and tensions rise. Dom Zerchi asks Brother Joshua if he will head the Quo peregrinatur mission where all the abbey’s memorabilia will be transferred to space and the order will continue in a space colony; Joshua struggles with whether he’s called to be a leader but accepts, and a group of monks leaves for New Rome, where they’ll board a starship. Another blast happens in a large American city that kills two million, and the abbey takes in refugees affected by the fallout. Dom Zerchi fights with the doctor diagnosing people as hopeless cases about advising them to go to mercy camps, since voluntary euthanasia has been authorized under the Radiation Disaster Act but is against the religious beliefs of the order. Despite his promise to Zerchi, the doctor advises a woman to euthanize her extremely sick baby to spare its suffering; Zerchi, considering this murder, desperately tries to convince her otherwise but ultimately fails. He then goes to hear the confession of “an old tumater woman” named Mrs. Grales who has an “excrescence” growing from her shoulder that resembles a second head she’s named Rachel, and which her priest refused to baptize as she wished. Zerchi’s in the church with her when there’s another nuclear blast, and he hears a strange voice though Mrs. Grales is the only other person there. The building falls in on him, and as he’s dying slowly and painfully, forcing himself to try to endure since that’s what he wanted the radiation-afflicted mother and baby to do, Mrs. Grales comes up, except now it’s only Rachel talking, parroting what he’s saying and seeming very young. He tries to baptize her but she resists and ends up offering him a communion host he blesses and takes instead. Overwhelmed with gratitude that he’s perceived a state of “primal innocence” that he believes is what man lost when expelled from the Garden of Eden, he finally dies. Meanwhile, the monks board their starship as a mushroom cloud blooms on the horizon. The End. 

One of the most notable features of this book is that it spans several centuries, but this structure also produces the possible pitfall of losing a main character to carry us through the entire narrative–as with a lot of sci-fi, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, the book is more concept- than character-driven. In the first section we have a main character, Francis, who we’re with from the opening line and whose death at the end of Part 1 has the potential to leave the reader feeling adrift. The character we start the second part with, Marcus Apollo, seems positioned to be the focal character of that section but then turns out not to be; for Parts 2 and 3 the abbots of the Leibowitz Abbey, Dom Paulo and Dom Zerchi, become our main characters, though not to the extent that Francis is, as is reinforced by Part 2 starting with someone else (Marcus Apollo, who’s later reported killed as new rulers assert their dominance) and ending with a scene of the poet, and Part 3 starting not focalized on a character at all but with a general description of man. Man, or humans, really turns out to be the main character of the book–though it’s worth noting that individuals have to be focused on to maintain narrative momentum. The book is charting the cycle of man’s rise and fall, though actually in reverse order, with implications that this cycle will continue, since the monks survive to keep protecting the memorabilia at the end despite the likely destruction of earth. The cycle of man’s fall and rise is ruminated on by Dom Zerchi: 

Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk: Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America–burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again.
Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?

Something that fills the void of a single main character are certain recurrences between sections. Buzzards appear frequently, serving as transitions across centuries and as a symbol of death’s constancy; they eat the bodies of Francis at the end of Part 1 and the poet at the end of Part 2. At the end of Part 3 we no longer need them for transition’s sake since we’re no longer leaping ahead in time, though it also seems notable that we don’t end the overall book with death, but with life–after the monks survive to leave in their starship, we get a final passage about how the fallout dust is swept into the ocean, killing shrimp, but that a shark is able to swim to “cold clean currents,” with the last line of the novel being:

He was very hungry that season.

The fact that we end with a creature still alive–which seems very symbolic of the still alive but now isolated monks who have left with the memorabilia–could potentially be interpreted as a tentatively happy ending, but since we’ve seen that man’s survival ultimately engenders repeating the cycle of destruction, the implications of the ending become more sinister. 

The sinister nature of what seems like it should be a good thing extends to the mission of the monks at the Leibowitz Abbey. It’s interesting that their patron saint, whose becoming a saint is a big part of the plot in Part 1, was a scientist who the transistor diagram in Part 1 implies is in large part responsible for the nuclear destruction–this caused Leibowitz to lose faith in scientific knowledge (according to scripture-mimicking lore anyway) but ultimately he’s still martyred for some version of it when he becomes a booklegger. The wood carving of Leibowitz that we see one of Francis’s fellow monks carve in Part 1 resurfaces in both Parts 2 and 3, present in the abbott’s offices as they ruminate. 

This recurring carving is connected to another recurring figure, the old man in burlap, “burlap” being our indicator that these figures across the three different sections are connected. The burlap technically appears in the very first line of the book–a line which provides possibly no better example of immediately introducing acute tension–but without being called such specifically: 

Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert.

The loins will turn out to be girded in burlap, which will be what causes Francis’s fellow monks to start the rumors that this pilgrim was actually Leibowitz himself, since this is what Leibowitz wore. In Part 2 the burlap is given to old Benjamin, an acquaintance of Dom Paulo who claims to have been alive several centuries, claiming at one point to have been mistaken for Leibowitz himself and thus directly connecting him to the pilgrim in Part 1: 

The priest looked puzzled. “Mistook you for whom? Saint Leibowitz? Now, Benjamin! You’re going too far.”

Benjamin repeated it in a mocking singsong: “Mistook me for a distant relative of mine–name of Leibowitz, so I throw pebbles at them.”

 Later in Part 2 Benjamin enters the abbey when Thon Tadio is lecturing about what he’s found there and declares after looking closely at him: “‘It’s still not Him.'” The Lazarus figure in Part 3 seems the least consequential, though does connect him back to Leibowitz when Zerchi thinks: 

Lazarus? There was, in the region, an old wives’ tale to the effect that–but what a shoddy sort of myth that was. Raised up by Christ but still not a Christian, they said. And yet he could not escape the feeling that he had seen the old man somewhere.

If the reader is picking up on the clues they’ll likely connect that Lazarus is familiar from the wood carving of Leibowitz we saw Zerchi considering earlier. The figure in burlap feels decreasingly significant to the plot in each successive part: he’s extremely integral to Part 1 and thus the rest of the book in helping Francis locate the diagrams that are implied to be what will, through the aid of Thon Tadio’s taking it from the abbey in Part 2, be the knowledge that will enable the reconstruction of nuclear arms. 

One recurrence that’s not in Part 1 but in 2 and 3 is the poet’s eyeball, in a way that again seems to be serving more thematic symbolism than actual plot. In Part 2 after Thon Tadio takes the poet’s eyeball, Dom Paulo explains that he calls it his “removable conscience,” an idea the scholar seems to like, and in Part 3 Dom Zerchi recalls a legend about this eyeball: 

No one, indeed, had ever found evidence that such a person as Saint Poet of the Miraculous Eyeball had ever lived: the fable had probably arisen out of the story that one of the early Hannegans had been given a glass eyeball by a brilliant physical theorist who was his protégé–Zerchi could not remember whether the scientist had been Esser Shon or Pfardentrott–and who told the prince that it had belonged to a poet who had died for the Faith. 

One can see here how realities are distorted to the realms of myth over time, since we got to see the reality in Part 2, and in that reality the poet did not die “for the Faith” and was more a nuisance to the monks than an adherent of religion himself. This distortion is interesting in light of how prevalent religion–specifically Christian, even more specifically Catholicism–is in this centuries-spanning tale, with the original religious myths that existed before the Flame Deluge still in tact eighteen centuries after it, while most scientific knowledge did not survive. It’s a little hard to believe that religion would exist so unchanged, but the interplay between religion and science, with this religious order of the monks existing predominantly to preserve scientific knowledge, does provide for an interesting plot arc that can be sustained across such a long time span.  

 It’s worth mentioning that this book is not just worth reading for the plot, but also for the prose, with descriptions like

Disappointed, the black sky-horde rode back to altitude on their invisible elevators of hot air, then disbanded and dispersed toward their remoter aerial vigils.

This passage about buzzards early in the book humanizes them with the emotion of disappointment and and giving them their own religious-seeming rituals–“vigils.” It’s also echoed by a poetic description of a detonated atomic bomb near the end: 

The visage of Lucifer mushroomed into hideousness above the cloudbank, rising slowly like some titan climbing to its feet after ages of imprisonment in the Earth.

This description also likens a non-human thing to a more recognizable human form (if titans aren’t technically human) and also invites consideration of how man, supposedly created by God in his image, then created Lucifer, which in this description bears a subtle likeness to man’s image.

The symbolism of someone being mistaken for Leibowitz seems possibly symbolic of the monks mistaking their work as a good thing, mistaking knowledge for salvation. In this context the invocation of the Garden of Eden near the very end is significant: Zerchi gets to see a version of what man would look like if he hadn’t been cast out of the Garden of Eden, which is to say if he hadn’t eaten the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. By preserving memorabilia of scientific knowledge, man is essentially partaking of this fruit again. Though Zerchi does not directly acknowledge this implication about the purpose of the abbey’s existence before he dies, the reader must. Man, by nature, can ultimately only destroy itself with this knowledge: the “progress” that is made with it is progress toward our own destruction. It is not so much the fault of the knowledge itself as the fault of the nature of man, which seems reinforced through the figure of Hannegan trying to consolidate his empire in the second section, when nuclear capabilities don’t exist yet. But figures like him will still exist when those capabilities are regained, rendering destruction inevitable. Which is maybe why one shouldn’t read this book in our current times…since ignorance is bliss, as we’ve seen.