Battle Royale

Author:Koushun Takami

It's not often I read a book that's billed as a "high-octane thriller," but when I do, I guess I usually enjoy it. This was no exception - it's a gritty, ultraviolent story of 42 junior-high classmates who are forced by a totalitarian government to fight each other to the death. It could easily have turned into a one-dimensional hack-and-slashfest, but the author decided instead to give some little bit of personality to each character. It sort of felt like being in a big public school class - some people only appear briefly and you only know them as "track and field girl," "pop idol-crazy girl," or "baseball jock." The others - the ones you spend more time with - you get to know well, especially who they have a crush on. Yes, in between machine gun rounds, jungle tracking, and survivalist techniques, these 14-year-olds are realistically boy- and girl-crazy.

While I was along for the ride, I enjoyed Battle Royale, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations in the end. For one thing, it invited comparisons to Lord of the Flies, but I remember Golding's book as having much more to say about tribalism, mysticism, and brutality, while Takami falls short. The first few deaths did seem to symbolize the vicissitudes of life under a totalitarian regime - the student killed on a whim of a government agent, the couple whose love is so perfect that they commit suicide together rather than risk being murdered apart - but in the end, the story just hammers away on the idea that people will do anything if circumstances are extreme enough. I didn't really need "Sweet Valley Death Match" to tell me that.

My other complaint was that the ending was too easy to figure out. If you take it as a given that the end of the "game" can't go as the government intended, you're only left with so many possibilities. Really, most of the suspense comes from wondering which supporting character will die next, and how.

Most of the deaths are pretty gruesome and graphic. Seems like this guy hated junior high school even more than I did.


Author:Edward O. Wilson

I didn't get to finish this book because I moved from one town to another, and I had to return it to the library, and it was overdue anyway. But I'm reading another book now that deals with some similar themes, and I wanted to get this down before I start to lose it. I promise to go back and read the last thirty pages.

Consilience is the more or less personal manifesto of Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, who believes that all the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities should be united in one great chain of human endeavor. As a scientist, he holds science-centric views - he's especially unkind to the social sciences, which he considers a castle built on sand - but he does make some interesting points about how much the different fields of knowledge have to learn from one another. After all, the social sciences and humanities are basically elaborations on human nature, and what is human nature but a product of genes and environment?

The unifying thread here is epigenetic characteristics, the inherited traits that influence human learning and behavior. They are not rote instincts, like the bees' dances that do not change over generations, but exist on the boundary between genes and culture. The language-learning instinct, for instance, is an epigenetic characteristic, but the particular language that each individual learns is dependent on their cultural environment. Other examples that Wilson provides are the incest taboo (in spite of Freud, he says, this is not purely cultural) and fear of snakes. The point is that while human beings are diverse, the diversity is not limitless, and exists within boundaries that are more or less prescribed by our biology.

The great challenge, then, is to use the varied tools of neuroscience, anthropology, criticism, art, and philosophy to explore the boundary regions. Rather than being taboo areas that academics shy away from, they should be (Wilson says) the most active areas of study. Furthermore, as a natural scientist, he holds that all of these researchers should take their cues from empirical evidence of how the mind/brain works.

As a linguist, I find this idea appealing (and more or less inevitable). Linguistics is just such an interdisciplinary field as what Wilson is proposing. After all, language is a key component (perhaps the defining component) of human nature, and its students include cognitive neuroscientists, anthropologists, literary theorists, philosophers, and everyone in between.

Wilson himself is an interesting figure these days. With the likes of Richard Dawkins having such a loud voice in the science vs. religion debate, Wilson recalls his upbringing as a born-again evangelical and subsequent scientific training and "conversion" to humanistic deism. While he himself is not a science-bashing religious freak (he does take specific objection to the Intelligent Design movement), he does have respect and understanding for people of faith. As he outlines in his chapter on the relationship between epigenetics and ethics, he sees some benefit in scientists' and theologians' listening to one another. (This perspective has got him on the cover of this month's Seed Magazine.)

Palomar: The Complete Heartbreak Soup Stories

Author:Gilbert Hernandez
Genre:Graphic Novel

First, I'll point out that this is the largest comic book I've ever read. It's nearly six hundred pages, about 9x12 inches, hard cover, and weighs a ton.

At first it's a confusing read. The book follows about thirty important characters in this rural Mexican town, and you have to have some idea of the relationships among all of them to make any sense out of it.

Then, in a way, things get worse. When I'm reading a comic, I expect it to be picaresque; every new story starts off in more or less the same place. After all, I don't believe Archie and Jughead ever graduated from high school. This is different, though - it takes place over about twenty years of the life of the town. So, as you progress, you have to remember who has a crush on whom, who once slept with whom, who went to the big city, who went to jail, who moved to the United States, and why.

On top of this, there are some flat-out surreal episodes, especially the one where the town is infested with monkeys and some workers from a nearby archeological dig have to help kill them, and one of the workers turns out to be a serial killer, and one local kid is an artist who witnesses the killing but doesn't tell anyone. You have a feeling sometimes that these episodes are somehow symbolic, but they're also real in the lives of the characters, and they look back on them in future episodes.

Initially, it took me a while to get into the soap-opera (telenovela?) storyline, but eventually the characters' lives go through so many twists and turns that you get caught up in it. It's like one of the "big novels" of classic literature, where you really need to see the entire life of the family before it makes any sense at all. In fact, one of the blurbs on the jacket compared Hernandez to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton talks about recognizing people you know in the characters in great literature. Hernandez is one of those kind of writers; as you follow the characters over their whole lives, they become less like soap-opera types (the femme fatale, the snob musician, the strong earth mother) and more like real people.

Runaways 1: Pride & Joy

Author:Brian K. Vaughan
Genre:Graphic novel

Six kids find out their parents are supervillains. Then they learn about their own super powers that their parents had kept hidden from them. In the end (to nobody's surprise) they decide to team up and fight crime.

The metaphor is obvious, but superhero comics have always dealt in obvious metaphors. (See The Incredible Hulk.) Vaughan's dialogue is snappy, if not Whedonesque, and the more or less believable teenage characters should keep future installments from becoming a typical X-Men soap opera. All in all, it was a pretty interesting spin on the supergroup team-up story. Plus, Chapter 5 includes a kiss between the two kids with the coolest hair in all of comics.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Author:David Foster Wallace
Genre:Short Fiction

Most of these stories are brainy and quite dense. (Wallace himself describes them as "belletristic," and I had to figure out the meaning of the word before I could go on.

Did you get it yet? Comes from belles lettres. See what I mean?)

The most interesting story to me was "Octet." It's published as a failed attempt at a series of eight "pop quizzes" about human relationships. The quizzes are an increasingly complex series of impossible situations where the characters are using one another in some blatantly selfish but more or less abstracted way.

What happens is, the author can't manage to complete the series. Several of the pop quizzes don't work, he has to rewrite one of them (both 6 and 6A are included in the series), and you end up with a series of three-plus-one-rewrite of the intended eight. To resolve this, he adds a ninth pop quiz: You are a fiction writer who is trying to publish a series of eight pop quizzes ...

Pop Quiz 9 is a ridiculous attempt to salvage a failed piece of writing, so Wallace acknowledges how ridiculous it is. His acknowledgement is a cheap metafictional trick, so he acknowledges his own cheapness. In fact, the ninth story can be read as an (extremely verbose) apology for its own existence whatsoever - a fact which Wallace freely admits. The strange thing is that on a certain level it works: through his cheap trickery and desperate postmodern-lite artifice, Wallace is using his audience in the same way as his other pop-quiz characters are using their friends and families. It's a delicious paradox: if "Octet" is a failure, then that sneaks it in through the back door of success; but if it succeeds, then the ninth story makes no sense, and the whole thing is a failure.

In all the stories, Wallace loves/hates this kind of navel-gazing. Here are some more things he repeatedly analyzes/dissects/loves to hate/hates to love:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Pretentious psychobabble
  • Horrible people who speak deep truths in a horrible fashion
  • Vivid childhood memories
  • False, fabricated childhood memories
  • People using their difficult childhood as an excuse for their failure to be fully adult
  • Sex
I would probably read something else by him.