January 30, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Gambler.
Reading next: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.
I love gambling, though I’m too cheap to gamble for anything but small stakes. Gambling as a powerful force in American life has forced its way to the surface in the past fifteen or so years after a long, long existence underground: the poker craze (now, maybe, dying out, though the World Series of Poker events and online poker rooms are still drawing more and more players each year, I believe), offshore Internet gambling, stocks and other sordid financial risks. Maybe most of all, gambling on sports. I remain convinced that the two biggest reasons why pro (and to a lesser degree, college) football has become the overwhelming spectator sport of choice in the last 30 years have been the perfection of its scoring system and statistics to facilitate gambling (on point spreads, over/under total points, fantasy leagues, and the like), and the matching of the pace and flow of the game to television broadcast. College basketball might have died out completely by now, were it not for gambling on the NCAA tournament.
All of which has nearly nothing to do with Dostoyevsky. Nearly, but not absolutely nothing: the darker aspects of American culture that are revealed in its gambling economy (in its various forms, from semi-secret to publicly financed) are also examined in the section of The Gambler in which Grandmother, the matriarch of the group waiting and hoping for her to die, goes on a spree at the roulette wheel.
Grandmother’s gambling is crucial to the plot, but Dostoyevsky also structures his telling of her spree as a kind of self-contained vignette: a primer on how not to gamble, or the worst that can happen with gambling to the wrong sort of personality. Grandmother has the bad luck to have very good beginner’s luck: seeing zero come up on her first bet (zero being the number in roulette that loses all bets except those on zero), she becomes convinced that she should bet on zero until it comes up, and it does, twice more, soon thereafter, and becoming convinced of her mastery of the wheel, she then bets everything she’s won on red — and wins again. Satisfied, she stops for the night, having won a massive amount.
But now she has the fever. Grandmother is quite used to things going her way, to people obeying her commands — she is a Russian noblewoman, after all, owner of entire “villages” of people. Her first observations of people playing roulette convince her that people are just “fools” for placing the wrong bets; they just don’t have God on their side, they just aren’t marked for greatness the way she is. And so she goes back, and the bets she placed the previous day don’t work now, and she loses, and loses, and loses, and exchanges her Russian funds at a truly usurious rate, and loses some more, and even when she’s full of rage at how much she’s lost she remains convinced that she’ll win it all back, and cancels her first train back to Moscow, and goes through one more round of losing nearly everything she has.
This is how pure gambling (in games with no skill at all involved) works. It reveals the obvious: there’s no rhyme or reason to luck. God is absent, on no one’s side, particularly — unless it’s the house’s, which is a rather monstrous thought. Or isn’t He? Does He abase Grandmother? All of this is interesting in relation to Dostoyevsky. His telling of the passages in the casino is quite detailed, in terms of the wagers placed, the outcomes, the ebb and flow of the game; there is an investment in the play-by-play of the action which reveals his own gambling obsession, his attempts to work out how and why roulette seems so maddeningly simple and yet continues to take her (and his) money. He is interested in these minutiae, and you can almost hear the frenzy of his narration of the events.
Most of the time the outcomes and wagers are realistically inconsistent, if that makes sense. Dostoyevsky (through Alexsei, his narrator) inserts observations of how the game seems to work, with runs of numbers coming up over and over and then passing out of favor, with red or black coming up more than the other on a particular night and how this affects the wagers. He seems honestly perplexed about whether these observations actually mean anything, reveal any system operating behind the random motion of the ball and the wheel.
This pattern breaks during Grandmother’s losing streak, when zero emerges as a Satanic figure. Twice it comes up at crucial junctures right after she has forsaken it, speeding her fall while also fueling her rage and determination to win it all back; the cruel timing of these appearances in Dostoyevsky’s narrative, after zero has tempted Grandmother into earlier belief in its power, suggests that his roulette is not random, that it is an expression of the metaphysical. (That Grandmother has been gambling with funds she’d originally earmarked for the renovation of a church is also quite suggestive of the Satanic power at work here.) But this is not the end of the story. Will Alexsei gamble his own money? What will happen when he does?
January 26, 2010 § 2 Comments
Now reading: The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read Dostoyevsky, or any Russian writers at all, for that matter; I think the last thing I read was The Brothers Karamazov, maybe six or seven years ago. I’m amazed at how suddenly the force of his writing came back to me. Partly this is due to the nature of The Gambler, which begins very much in media res and plunges headlong, with part of the “fun” being to determine what’s going on among these seemingly sordid characters. But I think it’s also at least in part due to the very distinctive world Dostoyevsky creates in his books.
We don’t hear much about Dostoyevsky the creator of imaginative recreations of the world, of cities and places, as we do with, say, Dickens. Mostly this is because Dostoyevsky spends precious little time doing any sort of describing or scene-setting. And yet his focus on psychology, voice, relationship, and character create a kind of claustrophobic universe just as visceral and recognizable as the London of Dickens. You’re plunged into an alternate reality — or, if you prefer, a fantasy — with Dostoyevsky just as surely as you are in a science fiction novel; it’s just the alternate reality of a mind, usually a mind in serious trouble.
For me, this intense, almost hallucinatory quality to Dostoyevsky’s works makes for an odd reading experience. I find myself quite involved with the books as I read them, gobbling up chunks of text, catching intricacies of interrelationship and forebodings of coming events, savoring Dostoyevsky’s little flashes of surreality and powerful emotion. And then, when I finish… they somehow vanish. I’m astounded by how little I remember of what I’ve read of his. I remember more of Anna Karenina, read about ten years ago, than any of the three major Dostoyevsky works I read since. I’m baffled by this.
No one claims The Gambler is Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece; it’s better known for his having to write it in a hurry under great pressure, and for its autobiographical elements, than for anything actually involved in the text itself. But in a way its subject and setting — a group of nobles desperate for money and love, set loose on the roulette tables of a fictional spa town — are perfect for the fevered tone of his prose (or at least, his prose as it seems in translation). The most remarkable passage so far is in chapter two: in a single three-page paragraph, the narrator (about whom we know next to nothing at the point) discourses on the “two kinds of gambling: the genteel kind, and the plebeian or mercenary, such as that played by all sorts of riffraff.” (The translation I’m reading, by the way, is by Victor Terras.) He ranges over a variety of observations and anecdotes; he is witty and interesting on the various kinds of gambling; and yet the length and intensity of the discussion, and the switchbacks and asides and seeming contradictions and pronouncements such as “of late I have been finding it somehow extremely repulsive to apply any kind of moral standard to my actions and thoughts” contribute to a sense of derangement. The narrator (and an author?) plunge into their monologue to such a depth as to barely find their way back to the surface, the masterful tics and ramblings giving the sense of a character seriously lost in their subject, betraying a very likely problematic fascination.
January 22, 2010 § 2 Comments
Just finished: The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.
Reading next: The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
The Jade Cabinet — my wife Jaime’s pick for me for our annual exchange of books we force the other person to read — is rather too cool to belabor with my typical blather. So I’ll just give you a sense of a few of my favorite plot points and devices. If they intrigue you, pick up the book. You won’t regret it:
1. Two words: ibis mummies.
Millions of them, in fact, from the plundered tombs of Egypt, being crushed into a powder to be used as fertilizer by an evil British industrialist.
2. “The cabinet was Ming and of sober elegance, and the jade of such rare perfection that as he fingered them our father trembled…. the jade represented an insect, a cicada…. ‘Han period… southern China…” breathed my father.”
The figurines in the jade cabinet are an awesome device. I know it’s Angus Sphery’s fault for being such a damned fool and trading his daughter away for the jade, but come on… pretty gorgeous stuff. Jade cicadas were placed in the mouths of the dead as symbols of immortality in ancient China.
3. Etheria and Memory are photographed and befriended by Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. Ducornet’s handling of this is admirably nonjudgmental.
4. Etheria’s beloved gardens and grotto at the New Age, tragically paved over to make way for Tubbs and Baconfield’s “Temple to Industry and Infancy,” a windowless building to house the nursery of Tubbs’s unborn son and instill in him a proper appreciation for clockwork, mechanization, and all things industrial and efficient, no sunlight or nature required. (I’m guessing the clock tower on the Baconfield building is something Brutalist like this, but less fanciful.)
5. My favorite character: Feather, Tubbs’s subversive servant, who teaches Etheria magic and presents fat-cat Tubbs calling cards from Mr. Marx, so that, when Tubbs says he’s never heard of him, Feather can respond, “Indeed, Sir, you are bound to, sooner or later.” My heart broke a little at his tragic fate.
January 6, 2010 § 1 Comment
Just finished: Dombey and Son.
For all that talking I did about its comedy, Dombey is a melancholy book, as dark as Bleak House in some sections. In fact, it’s dark enough that I was actually relieved that there was some redemption at its end: Dickens was beginning to seem downright deterministic until the last few chapters when some characters actually change. There’s a lot of death in the book, and a lot of talk about capital-d Death. It looms over the book.
Also, contrary to what its title would lead you to believe, the business of this novel is almost never business, at least not on the surface. For all the talk of how rich Dombey is, and how respected his firm is, we get nary a glimpse of the work the firm actually does. It involves pursuits around the world (or at least around the British Empire, amounting to nearly the same thing at this point). At least according to the title, it sells goods “Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation.” That’s it. That’s all we know.
But death and business come together at some of the key moments in the book, in its most famous passages. The first time we hear little Paul speak, he asks his father, “Papa! what’s money?” This eventually leads to his asking the heartbreaking question, “If it’s a good thing, and can do anything… I wonder why it didn’t save me my Mama.” Then there are the passages on the 1840s boom in the railroad industry. In chapter 20, we read a sustained litany on the train as Death embodied: death for the landscape, for the village, for the traveler. In the three other sections on the train or the building of the railroads, this motif is continued, an astoundingly pessimistic view of this “progress” tempered only by the example of employment and advancement that work on the railroad provides the lower-class Toodle family. It’s interesting to me how the coldness and calculation of Dombey, the consummate businessman, can be contrasted with the hellish fire and sordid waste of the railroad as presented by Dickens. That coldness and calculation, in fact, are what support and allow the Death — the brimstone and destruction of the countryside, the inhuman pace — that the railroad brings.
But most of all, there’s chapter 55. It has one of the great Dickensian chapter-titles, a cruel, riddling little joke: “How Rob the Grinder Lost His Place.” It’s brilliant, a classic example of the vengeful Dickens savoring the murder of one of his wicked creations from inside that creation’s own skin (it’s so odd, this feeling that Dickens is both suffering along with his character and enjoying the frenzied narration of that suffering). It reminded me of his treatment of Jonas Chuzzlewit in his previous novel, though I found Jonas’s death more affecting and more successful as a work of literary art. The paragraph of the train closing in on Carker as he realizes where he stands is a great example of the proto-cinematic Dickens: all jump-cuts and close-ups, it could’ve been filmed by Eisenstein. There’s also the strange parallel to the ending of Anna Karenina, which is kind of neither here nor there; the similarity in circumstance, however, makes you somehow question whether Carker’s death is actually an accident or somehow suicidal, too. I’m glad, at any rate, that it’s Carker and not Edith that is destroyed; while I don’t think Dickens ends up making any grand feminist statement on Edith’s behalf, at least she doesn’t end up dead (and also doesn’t allow Carker to get his filthy cat-like paws all over her).
Carker’s dispersal by train into “mutilated fragments” is perfect, in that Carker represents the combination of Dombey the businessman’s calculation with the locomotive’s excessive heat and (blood)lust. Dickens is always looking for ways to direct capital in the right directions, in ways that can help common people. I can’t help but thinking that, in exploding the ambitious but overreaching businessman who makes reckless gambles for personal gain without a thought for the people he is affecting, he is allegorically commenting on the flow of money to support the building of railroads.
January 3, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Dombey and Son.
Reading next: Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic.
Snowbound in Nebraska on Christmas night, we watched Funny People. Underrated movie, great performance by Adam Sandler, a nice peek into the craft of stand-up performance and comedy writing.
It’s a dark movie, though, and not a lot of people like their dark and their light mixed. But it is a commonplace to point out that comedy comes from dark, weird, even ugly places; that comedy is often cruel. (One of my favorite scenes in Funny People is when Sandler’s character sings a song in a comedy club about how everyone will miss him when he’s dead and there’s no one left to make them laugh — it’s a funny song, but there are also layers of mock- and non-mock egomania, ironic posturing, Kaufmanesque comedy of the nervous audience, and genuine terror, sadness, and self-hatred involved. It’s cruel to himself and to the audience to sing the song — and somehow, he finds this funny; and somehow, he is right.)
Here’s how this connects to Dickens: while every Dickens novel includes comic interludes and tragic (or potentially tragic) storylines, Dickens is usually careful to keep the comic and tragic scenes separate, with very different tones for each, at least until the ending, when the comic overcomes the tragic. But there is, nevertheless, a lot of darkness and cruelty in Dickens’ comedy, however unintentional. In Dombey, I find his treatment of Mr. Toots rather cruel.
Mr. Toots is a typical secondary comic-relief character: an older classmate to Paul Dombey Jr. at Dr. Blimber’s house, he is regarded as something of a simpleton but befriends Paul, becomes enamored of Florence, and begins to kindly and gently… well… stalk her, I suppose, once he’s come of age and received his inheritance. His dominant trait is his cheerful self-deprecation, expressed in his constant chuckling and the catchphrase “it’s of no consequence,” with which he typically ends any statement of his desire or feeling.
Toots is incapable of wooing, too nervous to engage in any sort of direct courtship of Florence, instead hanging around to do whatever kindness he might for her and hoping to catch a glimpse of her beauty. He’s quite funny, in his weird mannerisms and foppish love of tailored clothes and selfless devotion to whomever will befriend him. But somewhere in the last third of the book, for some reason, I stopped thinking of Toots as merely a comic character and started rooting for him to win Florence’s heart.
But of course, that is an impossibility in Dickens. The characters he represents as ridiculous do not marry the main characters; they marry maids, servants, other members of the comic-relief portion of the cast. What I find cruel about the treatment of Toots is that he is handled so deterministically; that his serious devotion for Florence is dismissed so casually, so lightly, by both Dickens and by her; that he is seen, in his comic behaviors, so unworthy of the love of someone less odd, though he has the means and the passion to marry and provide for her; that he is kept in his place as firmly as any Untouchable. Dickens’s cast, in other words, can function as a caste.
I suppose this would be the opposite of how Dickens would like to think of his characters, that they are locked into their certain roles and must perform them as required by the book’s fictional society. Certainly Dickens saw much of the cruelty of the Victorian class system, and in Dombey there’s the obvious commentary on the evil of loveless marriage for class status and wealth. And yet there’s “the Native,” Joe Bagstock’s dark-skinned servant, scarcely a tertiary character, rumored a Prince in his (undefined) homeland, frequently beaten and abused as nothing more than a commentary on Bagstock’s core rottenness and hypocrisy and, yes, I’m afraid, as comic relief.
And yet there’s also Mr. Toots, whose insistence on his inconsequence becomes very sad, to me at least, after many repetitions. After he repeats his “it’s [read: I’m] of no consequence” catchphrase so many times, throughout the book, in virtually every appearance, you can come to think of it as a kind of metafictional mantra: that Toots knows his role in the novel is unimportant, in the grand scheme of the plot, like a Beckett character in a Dickens novel. I do not know yet whether Toots gets paired off with Florence’s servant, Susan Nipper, or stays a bachelor, or what (I’d bet on marriage to Nipper, though); I just know that the experience of seeing this character, so much more vivid and alive to the reader than Florence or her long-lost beloved Walter or nearly any other character in the book, so easily dismissed is rather tragicomic.