The God of Small Things

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I’m not going to compare this book to other novels. I’m not going to talk about books where the prose sings, where the characters make you ache with familiarity and fear, where death lurks in every corner and fate–or is it something else–hangs over every head. Temporal mix-up narratives, children’s viewpoints, forbidden love–all of these things are in other novels.

But none of those novels are like this one. Not one.

This novel is both complicated and simple. It is a sinuous and confusing read, the events playing out in an order that has nothing to do with logic. The language is unlike anything ever spoken or written before. The plot, which involves the complicity and choice of every character, whose cause-effect-cause-effect can be traced back to the beginning of time, to the beginning of a life, to the a few simple selfish choices, is extremely complex. The layers of choice and choicelessness, of fate and fear, are such that everyone is part of everything. All the time.

But it’s simple, too. It’s about human nature. About the Love Laws, that everyone knows. About the end of childhood. About death and the end of living.

Everything about the book is beautiful and complicated, in one glorious piece of achingly, gorgeously painful art. But everything about the book is simple, too. Because everything is about the things men do. And women. Governments and history. The arbiters of life and death. Big and Small.

“The Flamethrowers” and youth

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There are books that are completely different novels if you read them at different ages. Books about nostalgia, and looking back. Books about drowning in the ignorance and naivete of youth. Books about learning and discovering.

It’s hard to read those kinds of books when you actually are young. Very young. “The Flamethrowers” is about being young, about discovering, about entering a particular world and negotiating it. It’s about the simple tasks of being alive, loving, and seeking acceptance.

Reading this book as a twentysomething, it’s a book about observation. That’s what my entire generation goes through. The strange landscape of desire, shame, embarassment, fear, loss, rejection, confusion, ennui. That’s probably what every generation goes through, and thinks they’re the first.

Reading The Flamethrowers feels easy. It feels both deceptively simple and complicated.

It feels familiar.

The Texture of Reading

No, this isn’t a rant about the superiority of real books over e-books. This is just some observations about the complicated texture of different books.

All books can’t be read the same. I don’t know why. I mean the actual mechanics of reading, of the page.

Some books, the individual pages don’t matter at all. They just blur together, and when you think back it’s just one ur-page, a prototype page. Other books, the individual pages have memories. There’s a picture on one side, or an odd thing with the chapter start, or a repeated line. I remember some of the pages in “Life After Life” very distinctly, the various dead-ends and the beginnings, repeating over and over on those pages.

I read with a tracker. It increases my speed to have a bookmark or a pen below the words. My eyes move faster with some help.

But some books have to be read with a pen. Others need a certain type of bookmark, a certain color that complements the cream shade of the page, or the color scheme of the cover.

And the book I’m reading now, like a few others I’ve read, just can’t be read with a tracker. It’s a freestyle book. I need to just see the page, or I can’t really savor the sentence.

This Book IS Full Of Spiders

So, spiders do not crawl out of the book into your brain, I’m happy to report.

Unless…they’re invisible. In the book, only two of the characters can ever see them. No one else even notices the spiders are there, until they burrow into their brains.

But sometimes they don’t notice, either. Sometimes it’s just a little one, and it enters and you don’t notice. Not until you realize you can’t feel your teeth. Or your tongue doesn’t feel right. Your mouth isn’t yours.

But I’d notice that, right? Except…sometimes they enter through other body parts. And you also don’t notice.

Nah, I’m just being paranoid. There are no invisible parasites adjusting their grip on my brain. They will not tear my face apart on their way out. I will not sprout extra limbs. And I am certainly not about to become Patient Zero in Project Zulu,

just because someone told me “this book is full of spiders” and I was dumb enough to open it and keep it open, with my face right up close to it, for hours…

Uh-oh.

Somewhere, Darwin is smoking a pipe and smiling with satisfaction.

One Story, Two Novels

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With “The Last Colony” and “Zoe’s Tale,” Scalzi told the same story twice. The major events are all the same, and many plot points and scenes appear in both novels, nearly identically.

So what makes this as cool as it is? The feeling that each narrative complements the other. Each novel alone is a great read, but together they are a fantastic story.

The same story, told twice, stays interesting. Things that were minor in one novel, minor events in the life of one narrator, acquire apocalyptic importance. Events taking place offstage are literally seen through binoculars, or related in summary later.

And amazing things happen. What looked like a cop-out in one novel turns out to be of vital import in the other. What seems strange or underdone comes out as vibrant and fascinating.

But I will say this one thing: Scalzi, I have never met a teenager as quick and witty as Zoe and her friends. And I was a teenager not long ago. Forgivably unrealistic, that.

“The First Muslim” and Skepticism

How does a non-believer write about the holiest figure in someone else’s religion?

Some would say they can’t and shouldn’t. Some would say (like me) that only an outsider has the clarity to see without bias.

But the religious have legitimate grounds to protest a non-believer, a skeptic, analyzing and criticizing their holiest stories. For example, anyone who writes that Jesus didn’t literally perform miracles is going to be crucified by fundamentalist Christians. And anyone who satirizes Islam the world over is boycotted and protested by not-unjustifiably sensitive Muslims.

So how does an agnostic Jew like Lesley Hazleton go about writing a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, the holiest figure in Islam next to God? She holds her skepticism in check and analyzes with the eye of a historian.

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There’s no way to know what exactly happened during the miracles of Muhammad’s youth, or what happened during his interactions with the voice of revelation. But what actually happened doesn’t matter as much as what people, including Muhammad, believed happened.

The early biographers Hazleton claims as her primary sources were themselves even more skeptical than she was. Both rationalist Muslims themselves, they very doubtfully recount the miracles associated with Muhammad, and place a keen focus on the multiplicity of conflicting accounts about the life of the Prophet.

Hazleton has no belief to spur her towards saying “this happened rather than this.” She has only her rational and sensible mind, and her biographer’s understanding of the Prophet’s character. This gives her voice tremendous weight, when she for instance suggests that Muhammad’s wishful desire for peace and compromise led to the Satanic Verses. And when she says that Muhammad’s doubt, on his initial reception of the Quran, and Muhammad’s error in the Satanic Verses, make it clear that this is not only a man (flawed as anyone), but a man with a rational mind and honest character, it would seem strange not to believe her.

Skepticism is a term applied to faith, but where there is no faith there can be no skepticism. There is instead in “The First Muslim” the application of critical thinking and a great deal of admiration for one of history’s pivotal figures and most interesting–and indelibly human–men.

The First Muslim

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For a good chunk of humanity, it’s the greatest story ever told. The Prophet Mohammed, and the rise of Islam.

And like every great story in history, at the root is a man. The man is not divine. He is not miraculous. He is a human being who shook history.

It’s the man that Lesley Hazleton goes looking for in “The First Muslim.” She herself is an agnostic Jew, but her intense respect for Islam and the Prophet are clear from page one. For any historian, the book includes enough discussion of sources, their bias, and historiography to be comfortable. For general readers, the book is a great story of one of history’s greatest men.

Hazleton is not a believer. But it is only those who are outsiders who can see clearly. It is only those who doubt who can understand the awe and amazement of conversion. A believer in Islam could not have written a book quite like this one. That’s not to say that a Muslim couldn’t write about the Prophet: only to say that it would be something very different, at least in today’s world.

Mohammed was not the son of God. He was a prophet, and a man with a past, a genealogy, a career, and a family. Hazleton writes about this person, about his life and his loves, with compassion and understanding.

The book is not that of a believer, and there is nowhere a claim that Mohammed was the Prophet, that he was “right.” Indeed, in her accounts of miracles associated with Mohammed, Hazleton recounts the skepticism of early Muslim scholars trained in logic and Socratic methods.

Hazleton is not a skeptic. She is a historian. She recognizes that what “actually happened” when Mohammed was alone, when he was transported in his sleep to Jerusalem or when he received the revelation of God on a mountain, when the Prophet had his mystical experiences, doesn’t really matter. And it’s a good thing too, because there’s no actual way to find out what exactly happened. Doubt is necessary.

Bare facts mean little on their own. What matters is who believed what, and when. What matters isn’t whether something is true, but whether it is true to someone. What matters is not that a person walked around and talked, but what he did, and what his beliefs and experiences created.

It’s one of the great stories of history. The rise of the Prophet Mohammed.