Let’s read about hustlers and hackers (in the old school sense).
Some novels are guilty pleasures, others are simply de rigueur – I recommend, for your reading pleasure, Mule: A Novel of Moving Weightby Tony D’Souza and The Bug, by Ellen Ullman. Both are books dripping with detail, well researched and very, very convincing..
From the get-go:
I’m normally not much of one for novels, I read fiction and literature almost by a sort of forced compulsion, it requires discipline for me, with my will compelling the rest of me. I’ve always been more of a non Fiction guy even as a kid, though I enjoy the imaginative flights that a novel provides. If I can get into a novel, then I can enjoy it, but that initial hump of opening it up is like dragging a sled across my teeth on an icy day. Somewhere, deep within, novels always feel like substitutes for more valuable or rewarding reading.
It’s an engrained habit and attitude. I do value literature on many levels though, as archeology and historical annals – exposing attitudes and events of an age through a novelist’s distorted lens, and sometimes exposing things that would be otherwise lost. Or as propaganda and a record of a faction, group, class, or even individual’s attempt to persuade along ideological, philosophical, or religious lines, to mold and regiment and influence the thoughts habits attitudes and beliefs of others.
In particular for psychological insights, a novelist captures things in matters of hate, rage, love, lost, desire, antipathy, joy, and sorrow that the most trained psychologist is often incapable (and unwilling) of rendering clearly – with the craze for dating and relationship advice, one does have the distinct impression that if more men read more widely many questions about the thoughts and feelings of women would seem less opaque.
Yes, also literature’s also for rhetorical reasons. In an age in which most people do not master words, and in which mastery of words, of diction and of usage can enable one to achieve distinct effects, then reading those who do master words can convey distinct advantages.
So on to the Books:
D’Souza’s interview, today on NPR, prompted the opportunity to review and pitch his book. Ullman’s book has been a long and slow read for me, over a few years. My Dad gave it to me before he passed away, knowing my interests in computers and things hackerish. All his life he was an intense reader, mainly non fiction, scientific philosophical and religious, but towards the end he developed a deep interest in novels.
Reading both, they deal with interesting moral and ethical dilemmas.
Mule: A novel of moving weight:
This is a detailed, convincing, and in some sick way very funny, book. The basic story strikes a familiar chord with me, detailing the life of a hustler. I’ve known a few suburban and campus drug dealers, guys not unlike James, the main character of Mule, whose basic dilemmas sort of resonate with that Cable TV show – Weeds. The novel’s a well paced story of the descent of an otherwise conventional and ‘moral’, one supposes, Gen Y guy and his woman into the moral and ethical quandaries of Marijuana dealing, starting with simple transporting – as a drug mule, hence the title, to much, much, more.
But soon the book begs the question of “how much is enough, or too much“. This is something our culture collectively grapples with, White and Black, Lower Class and Upper Class, a classic American theme is the ambiguous, and corrupting, desire for ‘success‘ and money. By success it’s usually meant financial (and then social) success, in the form of Money. Money first as security and protection (the Golden Rule, he who has the Gold makes the rules) and then in luxury and power and, seemingly, a consuming pursuit in itself.
What do you do when your career opportunities are ripe within your grasp and then they are taken away? And you are given, in a fit of desperation, an opportunity you can’t refuse?
Unlike the character Mr. X in Layer Cake who is a man who knows his limits, and is almost obsessed by working strictly within them, James the main character of Mule strikes me as a bit of a tool. His wife wasn’t much better at times, in fact somewhat more unpleasant. But both represent not just types but real people, like real people I have known, with real stress and anxieties, and real problems.
The descent into financial insecurity that caught this couple by surprise reflects something millions of people, very much like them, have experienced. As for how they deal with it ranges from the absurd to the shocking – get the book and see for yourself.
The next book is slower paced, but just as gripping and in many ways more delicious to consume.
Ellen Ullman, a frequent contributor to Salon, and a long standing commentator on computer technology and it’s social effects, is herself highly technically trained and experienced, and thus well placed to author a most peculiar psychological techo-thriller, The Bug.
The novel is about a Software Tester and programmer in the early 80’s, at the heyday of the personal computer, and his disintergrating personal and professional life as he chases a most elusive adversary, a maddeningly slippery software bug. Do not underestimate this, the novel is a thriller, and a deeply psychological one, it rings as eerily authentic, not only is it a thriller taking place in rather ordinary and unlikely contexts (the least – seemingly – thrilling) but it deals with a subject that seems the least likely to arouse any sort of obsession – a computer bug.
However obsession rules this novel, obsession, lost love and infidelity, and personal tragedy manifested by a simple bug, an error, a glitch that slowly seems to acquire a life of it’s own, as a malevolent presence through the novel.
Reading it, the book appeals to similar instincts in me that William Gibson’s works gratify. To many people Gibson runs the risk of being Techo-Kitsch, at best a guilty pleasure, this is to underestimate him to a degree, though he’s sometimes guilty of the “telling them not showing them” condescension to readers he has a masterful descriptive power particularly concerning people and places. In some ways Ullman’s The Bug superficially called Gibson to mind.
However, in some ways, Ullman’s prose seems more patient and penetrating than Gibson’s. She displays a gift of masterful inner descriptiveness that somehow merges the inner fears, anxieties, and experiences of her characters into the cold facts of computer code.
Since she is career long technical person, whose computer expertise extends back to the earliest days of the personal computer, her mastery of computer and technical details is utterly convincing, from Unix core dumps, to shell commands, debugging, to the human aspects of a psychological insight into the intense cerebral isolation that programming and software testing evokes, these details will gratify the most discriminating geek, the novel’s detailing rings authentic and vivid. You get the impression of a writer who knows technology deeply, and yet even more deeply knows the human heart, its obsessions, and its fears.
So I recommend both books, read them and let me know what you think!