By Adam Boretz
Let us begin our discussion of Louisa Hall’s Speak by quoting Ryan Henry Joe:
Here’s my fucking problem though: Individually, each subplot is a drag. The narratives work well only as pieces of a puzzle, and the character arcs really overextend themselves. Yeah, okay, Mary misses her dead, soulless dog and is repulsed by her new husband. After a while, Hall needed to either take those plot points to some more interesting place, or just let them drop. Turing’s section works a little bit better, especially given the imminence of his chemical castration and death by cyanide. And there’s some narrative movement in the Gaby-MARY3 dialog. But even then, I never feel Hall is building toward anything, and I really wanted her to. This is one of those novels that’s meditative to a fault. At the risk of sounding like a philistine, sometimes shit just needs to go down.
In his recent post, Ryan really summed up a lot of the issues I had with Speak — a novel I liked, but really, really wanted to love. And the more I think about it — the fact that I loved the themes Hall was working with; the fact that I loved the structure of the book; the fact that I was disappointed with the story arcs; the fact that I was disappointed with what almost seemed like a paint-by-numbers quality to the book — the more I think my issues with Speak come down to one thing: Math Rock.
By Ryan Joe
When your team sucks, there inevitably comes a point when you treat the season as a curiosity, like a mutated animal floating in a jar of formaldehyde. How did this happen to you? (Owner abuse.) Was there any chance that you would have lived? (No.) What does the future hold for you? (This. Rotating alone in a jar forever and ever and ever.)
This is liberating as it lets you off the emotional roller coaster most fans must endure. Did your shitty team win this week? Okay. With Blaine Gabbert? Weird. Did your shitty team lose again? Okay. You can devote your energies to more productive tasks like waxing the floor or, in this case, reading books while you sometimes glance at everyone else, screaming and laughing and sometimes vomiting as they ride that coaster.
Louisa Hall’s Speak is an ideal thematic companion, as it’s about the development of robots who approximate emotion.
It’s also one of those books I admired way more than I enjoyed. It has structural similarities to Cloud Atlas, though that’s a facile comparison.
Here’s what we’re dealing with: Through letters, court transcripts, and diary entries, Speak follows a group of people across four centuries who are responsible in some way for the development of an AI that can understand and respond to human interaction — though it’s unclear if it empathizes (Shades of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).
There’s a Puritan girl named Mary Bradford, fleeing to the Americas, whose diary forms an aspect of the AI’s personality; Alan Turing, who developed the famous Turing Test, and who muses about transferring a human consciousness into a machine; The Dettmans, an estranged couple, one of whom developed a rudimentary chat program, the other of whom discovered Mary’s diary; Stephen Chinn, incarcerated in 2040 for developing “baby bots,” which created an epidemic of children unable to have human-to-human interactions; Gaby, one of the infected girls, who speaks only to a AI entity named MARY3; and finally there’s MARY3 her/itself, being marched into cold storage with other bots.
In The Sixth Extinction, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was one of The New York Times Book Review‘s 10 Best Books of the Year, Kolbert explains how we — the human race — have dramatically altered life on this planet to the tune of a massive and cataclysmic extinction of a host of species.
Adam nominated this title for Football Book Club because, to quote Tyler Durden, “Martha’s polishing the brass on the Titanic. It’s all going down, man.”
By Adam Boretz
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts — a work of “autotheory” and a memoir of sorts — pretty much destroyed me. I loved the fragmentary, mosaic storytelling — which Dan described in his great post from earlier in the week — but more than that, I loved the way Nelson’s prose affected me.
While reading The Argonauts, I felt as if parts of my brain — unused and atrophied from the daily grind of days jobs and mind-numbing escapism — were lighting up, as synapses fired and curiosity and creativity were resurrected. And, take it from me: reading a brilliant writer and discovering that your brain/soul hasn’t been totally destroyed by the The Machine is both a pleasure and a relief.
By Dan Bjork
So, I made it through the first real test of my FBC: I did not watch Jets-Patriots. This is the first rivalry game I’ve missed since the late ’80s and Ken O’Brien. According to my Facebook feed, we lost “in the most Jets-y-est way possible.” But I don’t know what these means (and surely it’s hyperbole, because it wasn’t another butt fumble, was it?). This not-knowing is an active choice. I don’t write about football that much in these because I don’t know what’s happened — and not because of some moral high ground garbage, but simply because I couldn’t do it. I honestly don’t know how the rest of FBC does it — I couldn’t follow along on Twitter and not watch the game. The hardest this not-watching-football has been for me thus far was that very first week, when I was writing about my personal history with football. Even this week, I didn’t skip Jets-Patriots to sit on my couch in front of my cold television, reading The Argonauts — I was in Riverside Park, getting paid to be one of the adults in a fathers-and-sons non-American football match. I don’t even think I deserve all that much credit for missing it.
Included in this timeline of almost 30 years of not missing a Jets-Patriots game, is the four year stretch from 2007 to 2011 when I did not own a television. (Because I was that choosing-not-to-own-a-tv cliché. I’ve since fully embraced the cliché of my roots: I’ve got a mountain of debt and live check-to-check, yet still own a television bigger than most 11-year-olds; all I need is a Jetta with some imitation chrome hubcaps to complete this trifecta.) This meant I watched just about every Jets game (meaning all except Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. when I was on Long Island) at a bar in NYC.
Until my current apartment, all of the previous neighborhoods of NYC I’ve lived in have been devoid of actual New York sports fans. Because no one who lived there was from anywhere near here. (To be fair, I know dozens of native New Yorkers that live south of 110th street, but every one of them is under the age of 13.) It’s a strange experience to be at a bar at 81st and Amsterdam or 14th and 2nd and be the sole Jets fan, surrounded by Patriots fans. Especially given the one-sided nature of the rivalry. And honestly, what is there to be said to these clusters of drunken New England men as the alcohol and their numbers advantage loosen their mouths as their team pounds yours. It’s sort of a heavy-handed symbolist’s wet dream: a handful of the privileged digging out one who is not over something none of them have any control over.
By Ryan Joe
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts gets its title from the ship the Argo, which was replaced piece by piece over a long voyage – as described by Roland Barthes – until it was both the same ship and an entirely new one.
This is not unlike how the 49ers, a few years removed from their Super Bowl appearance, gradually replaced key pieces like Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Chris Culliver, Tarell Brown, Frank Gore, Aldon Smith, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis, Chris Borland, Jim Harbaugh, Vic Fangio, Ed Donatell, Mike Solari, and even Greg Roman. It’s the same team, yes, technically, though unlike the Argo which I presume was functionally the same, the new incarnation of the 49ers is shittier.
I admit, The Argonauts took some time for me to get into.
And while we’re not reading a new book this week — everybody’s busy resting, getting cortisone injections for nagging injuries, and bemoaning their teams’ records (expect Rob, and maybe Dan) — we’re still posting about titles we’ve read this season.
Also: Because it is bye week, here’s a special picture of Tom Brady looking like more of an asshole than usual:
If you’re digging this week’s book — Speak by Louisa Hall — here are two reviews of the novel, one from The New York Times and one from NPR. Plus, check out the below author interview with Hall from All Things Considered:
Naturally, it goes without saying, dear reader, that you should check in with FBC this week for more on both Speak and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.
For those of you keeping score at home:
Will we be watching the NFL? No.
Are we happy about this state of affairs? No.
Would it be nice if the NFL weren’t a corrupt and violent shit show? Yes. Yes, it would.
Hall’s second novel after The Carriage House, Speak — which explores the creation of Artificial Intelligence — received starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal, and was hailed by NPR “stunning and audacious. It’s not just one of the smartest books of the year, it’s one of the most beautiful ones, and it almost seems like an understatement to call it a masterpiece.”
Rob nominated this title for Football Book Club because: “My wife is the hardcore fiction reader in the household. When I asked her what novels I should nominate for the season, she suggested Speak by Louisa Hall. I know it’s about robots and feelings, and full of great writing. I tested out the first paragraph and was sold!”
By Dan Bjork
This week was tough for me. My S.O.P. for these entries — extremely close readings and (attempts at) abstract subtext analysis — wasn’t really an option. Everything in Hyperbole and a Half is presented with a single-entendre straightness I admire. I’m truly digging its blog-roots (the word blog being used without any pejorative, seriously) — that this is simply some time we spend with Allie Brosh, accompanied by her depictions of what’s on her mind/what’s she’s chosen to share.
I’d like to focus on the only story in Hyperbole and a Half that we are told twice. Or rather, the two chapters that hinge upon a two-month section of Allie’s life when a video needed to be returned. The first chapter is titled “Motivation” and opens like this.
One of the most terrifying things that has ever happened to me was watching myself decide over and over again — thirty-five days in a row — to not return a movie I’d rented. Every day, I saw it sitting there on the arm of my couch. And every day I thought, I should really do something about that…and then I just didn’t.
After a week, I started to worry that it wasn’t going to happen, but I thought, surely I have more control over my life than this. Surely I wouldn’t allow myself to NEVER return a movie.
Over the course of this chapter, the word ‘shame’ or ‘ashamed’ appears 13 times. The word ‘depression,’ or ‘depressed’ does not appear once. I’m referencing this solely because later on in the collection, when a strikingly similar story is told, the chapter is titled “Depression, Part One.”