Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Woman in the Woods, by John Connolly

In The Woman in the Woods (2018), John Connolly uses a technique I’ve encountered in other suspense novels.  He constructs an intricate plot with an array of characters and a central mystery.  As the novel develops, we begin to encounter chapters that appears to be asides, with nothing much to contribute except for one small but significant detail.  As an example, in one chapter, a group of teenage boys are hanging out and drinking on a cliff next to a quarry.  One of them is pushing boulders into the lake below the cliff.  One large boulder produces a huge splash which causes a sunken car to rise to the surface.  In its open trunk, the boys see the body of a woman.  Hers is the corpse which other characters in the novel have been looking for.  It’s not an especially important point in the novel’s plot—many people go missing—but this is just one box in the narrative assemblage to be clicked off. The teenage boys play no other role in the novel.

The prose style of this novel is dense and literary--it reminded me especially of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, whose serial killing murderer has much in common with the killer at the center of The Woman in the Woods.

Some of the characters bear faintly allegorical names.  A secondary character is Angel, and the missing woman in the woods is Karis (close to charitas?). The two main characters are clearly representative of good and evil.  One is described as partially divine, and the other is a Satan figure.  This novel was well constructed, too well constructed, and the fact that it is a crypto Christian/Lovecraftian allegory of good vs. evil eventually made it tiresome. There are “buried gods” and “old gods” and so on, along with a mysterious book with missing pages.  When the pages are recovered, the reassembled book will bring about apocalypse.  The villain has supernatural powers—he’s lived for centuries.  In a book where powers of logic and deduction would seem important, his presence alters the narrative landscape.  Since he can do things beyond the powers of any human being, he is a kind of narrative cheat.  He may not be human himself.  I’d describe the novel as a Cormac McCarthy/C. S. Lewis/Charles Williams mashup.

What is Real: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Theory, by Adam Becker

Among the weird facts about the history of quantum theory, according to Adam Becker in What is Real: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Theory (2018), is that Niels Bohr, one of the originators of quantum theory, argued that the quantum world didn’t exist, as far as the normal Newtonian world was concerned, and that it was therefore impossible to ask questions about it.  Bohr wrote and spoke in such an obscure way that articles are written that argue over what he meant.  The irony at the center of this book is that although quantum theory is the source of precise measurements and of science that has produced many of the technological marvels of contemporary life, many quantum scientists and theorists aren’t sure what it means and how it works.  Quantum physics, as a way of explaining that the world isn’t really what it seems, is itself not what it seems. Moreover, the conflicts in personality and ambition, the political tensions, that characterize other avenues of life also plague research in physics.  The work of ambitious and personable physicists tends to get more attention than that of loners who prefer to work quietly. This is one of several reasons Becker cites for the relative success of the Copenhagen interpretation championed by the popular and influential Bohr, despites its flaws.

Every book I read about quantum physics I begin with the hope that it will do a better job than the others of making quantum physics clear, or at least clearer.  The uncertainty principle, quantum action at a distance, atomic structures, the measurement paradox, Schrödinger’s cat, locality vs. non-locality, wave-particle duality—I want to understand these concepts.  Becker does a better job than most in explaining them with some clarity, but as usually happens at a certain point my eyes glaze over.  My own cognitive limitations may be the problem.  Or maybe the complexity of quantum physics is overwhelming for someone who reads casually in the field. I continue to hope for understanding.

The Tragedy and the Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama, by Margaret Anne Barnes

I had heard from childhood stories about Phenix City, Alabama, a supposed cesspool of crime and corruption, that preyed on soldiers from Fort Benning, across the river in Columbus, GA.  It was part of the mythology of the recent Georgia past in which I grew up immersed. In The Tragedy and the Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama (1998) Margaret Anne Barnes narrates that story.  This is not a well written book.  It’s prosaic and long-winded at points, and it makes use, especially in early chapters, of recreated scenes that quote dialogue verbatim, as if Barnes was there listening when she was not.  I suspect she based these scenes on factual accounts in newspapers, her own interviews, and other sources, so that she felt free to create them based on what she knew.  At other points, as effective as she is in narrating the history of Phenix City, especially during the late 1940s and early 1950s, she doesn’t think as analytically as one would hope—she explains how, but not why, Phenix City got to be what it became. Despite its flaws, this was a fascinating book that I could barely put down.  Barnes did a thorough and painstaking job of investigating the story of Phenix City.

Gambling, bootlegging, prostitution, extortion, murder, assault, rape, kidnapping, ballot stuffing, drugs, slave labor, voter intimidation, and assassination are the subject of this book.   An attorney general-elect of Alabama was assassinated, and the standing attorney general along with the attorney and deputy sheriff for Phenix City were implicated in the killing (only the deputy sheriff was convicted).  The absence of interstate highways, of reliable communication, were one reason why crime and criminals in Phenix City could thrive.  Corruption was everywhere, from the saloons of Phenix City on up to the state house in Montgomery.  This story amazed me.  It made clear that the wild frontier hadn’t disappeared by the middle of the 20th century in certain parts of the nation. As recent events in Alabama have made clear, corruption in government there remains a problem.