Review: Don DeLillo (1976) Ratner’s Star

 

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Ratner’s Star (1976) by Don DeLillo

This is DeLillo’s own personal favourite of his works; I happily agree. It follows an adolescent maths prodigy, Billy Twillig, and his employment by a research facility located somewhere in an Asian desert to decode a message apparently from a planet orbiting the distant Ratner’s Star. On the surface, then, a pretty familiar sci-fi, space opera plot, no? Well, we never really ‘lift-off’ from Earth because this novel ends up far more concerned with the subterranean than the extraterrestrial: it excavates over two millennia of human thought. Alongside Billy there are numerous Nobel Laureates –  whose research smacks of Balnibari-like Swiftian nonsense – at the facility: one of whom lives in a hole in the ground (a hole which contains its own hole), another investigating the archaeology of guano-filled bat caves, and, eventually a journalist who becomes a kind of meta-narrative mediation for the tale. What’s really exciting, for me, is the elaborate formal architecture of the novel. Two parts – named “Adventures” and “Reflections” as part of a sustained homage to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books: the first of which proceeding by allusions to various important milestones in the history of mathematics from pre-Classical to Pythagoras to, finally Cantor; the second part tunnelling backward through this history, this time explicitly naming those mathematicians. This technical compulsion might be a hard sell, so it’s worth pointing out that this is perhaps the most fun of DeLillo’s novels, especially in the extended dialogues of his carnival of characters. It also features some of the most beautiful prose on metaphysics (which, yes, includes cadenzas on mathematics and numbers) I’ve ever read. For fans of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, this is a must read.

  • ‘It occurred to Billy that U.F.O. Schwartz seemed to be sitting in his own lap.’
  • ‘Edna Lown was entering herself just as surely as if she’d been able to bend her arms into her mouth and swallow them to the shoulders; arms, legs, torso; a bewitchingly comic meditation technique; leaving the head balanced on a cushion, head and skull, abode of the layered brain, everything we are and feel and know; the universe we’ve made.’
  • ‘“The last time I was in this car there were two other people where you’re sitting.”
    “Then you weren’t in this car,” the man said. “You were with different people in a different car.”’

 

Review: White Teeth (2000) Zadie Smith

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White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith

I’m very glad to own the Penguin Ink edition of this, Zadie Smith’s debut novel. Lynn Akura’s arresting design brings together persistent nationalist symbols (Bengali Tiger, English Rose) and the fragility of skin, a dialectic of history and life in which the tattoo is fundamentally complicit. Divided into four major sections, each of which is double-dated (1974, 1945; 1984, 1857; 1900, 1907; 1992, 1999), White Teeth follows the fates of Archie Jones, Samad Iqbal, and their families, in an unremarkably notable corner of North London at the close of the millennium. Smith’s exploration of memory – cultural, historical, and personal – is driven by a syntactical pun: ‘the past is always tense, the future perfect’. This ‘wicked lie’ has the sharpest fangs and pierces the flesh of each character, most poignantly that of Archie’s teenage daughter, Irie. A (great-grand)daughter of colonial abuse, racial contradictions, and classist, sexist power structures (most explicitly illustrated in the radically English Chalfen family), Irie’s dialogues with and across the generations of multicultural Britain at the dawn of the twenty-first century showcase Smith’s energetic wit and understanding of living on the cusp –  between gritted and grinning teeth.

  • ‘They referred to themselves as nouns, verbs and occasionally adjectives: It’s the Chalfen way, And then he came out with a real Chalfenism, He’s Chalfening again, We need to be a bit more Chalfenist about this.
  • ‘Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.’
  • ‘No fiction, no myths, no lies, no tangled webs – this is how Irie imagined her homeland. Because homeland is one of the magical fantasy words like unicorn and soul and infinity that have now passed into language.’