Category Archives: novel

The Art of Racing in the Rain

by Garth Stein

I found this to be a bit too sentimental and obvious. It’s difficult to criticize such a good-natured story, especially one told by a dog (Enzo), and if it were only a matter of the cliche-filled story of a man (Denny) who is talented and looking for a break, whose wife dies of cancer, whose troubles with difficult in-laws lead him to lose custody of his young daughter, topped by the accusation of child molestation involving his nubile niece… I might leave well enough alone.

But when the author tries to shoehorn little life lessons into the edges of this story by means of car racing parallels, it becomes a bit much:

“He says racing is doing.  It is being a part of a moment and being aware of nothing else but that moment.”

“Ideally, a driver is a master of all that is around him, Denny says. Ideally, a driver controls the car so completely that he corrects a spin before it happens, he anticipates all possibilities. But we  don’t live in an ideal world. In our world, surprises sometimes happen, mistakes happen, incidents with other drivers happen, and a driver must react.”

“Often things happen to race cars in the heat of the race. A square-toothed gear in a transmission may break, suddenly leaving the driver without all of his gears. Or perhaps a clutch fails. Brakes go soft from overheating. Suspensions break. When faced with one of these problems, the poor driver crashes. The average driver gives up. The great drivers drive through the problem. They figure out a way to continue racing.”

“When the pressure is intense and the race is only half completed, a driver who is being chased relentlessly by a competitor realizes that he might be better off pushing from behind than pulling from the front. In that case, the smart move is to yield his lead to the trailing car and let the other driver pass. Relieved of his burden, our driver can tuck in behind and make the new leader drive his mirrors.”

“No race has ever been won in the first corner. But plenty of races have been lost there.”

The primary life lesson that Stein wants to impart to us is the repeated refrain, “The car goes where the eyes go.” In other words, your life can go in a direction that you yourself choose. You have to make conscious choices, and keep your eyes on the prize… While I have no disagreement with this, I found these little set pieces of driving advice to be terribly unsubtle, clunky even. But Stein is relentless in this tactic. And having all of these nuggets of wisdom transmitted by a dog, who cannot drive or even hold a steering wheel (Enzo laments more than once on his lack of opposable thumbs), and who has gleaned all of this by listening to his master speak and watching television, seems to be reaching too far for one book.

Near the end, after his wife has died and the head of Ferrari’s testing program has asked our Denny to test drive Ferraris in Maranello (!!), we have a final analogy. Because of course, life doesn’t travel in a straight line, and there may be obstacles on the course, but the car goes where the eyes go:

“A driver must have faith. In his talent, his judgment, the judgment of those around him, physics. A driver must have faith in his crew, his car, his tires, his brakes, himself.

The apex sets up wrong. He is forced off his usual line. He carries too much speed. His tires have lost grip. The track has gotten greasy. And he suddenly finds himself at the turn exit with no more track and too much speed.

As the gravel trap rushes at him, the driver must make decisions that will impact his race, his future. To tuck in would be devastating: wrenching the front wheels against their nature will only spin the car. To lift is equally bad, taking grip away from the rear of the car. What is to be done?

The driver must accept his fate. He must accept  the fact that mistakes have been made. Misjudgments. Poor decisions. A confluence of circumstance has landed him in this position. A driver must accept it all and be willing to pay the price for it. He must go off-track.

To dump the wheels. Even four. It’s an awful feeling both as a driver and as a competitor. The gravel that kicks up against the undercarriage. The feeling of swimming in muck. While his wheels are off the track, other drivers are passing him. They are taking his spot, continuing at speed. Only he is slowing down.

At this moment, a driver feels a tremendous crisis. He must get back on the gas. He must get back on the track.

Oh, the folly!

Consider the drivers who have been taken out of races by snapping their steering wheels, by overcorrecting to extremes and spinning their cars in front of their competitors. A terrible position to find oneself in –

A winner, a champion, will accept his fate. He will continue with his wheels in the dirt. He will do his best to maintain his line and gradually get himself back on the track when it is safe to do so. Yes, he loses a few places in the race. Yes, he is at a disadvantage. But he is still racing. He is still alive.

The race is long. It is better to drive within oneself and finish the race behind the others than it is to drive too hard and crash.”

All of this might be acceptable in a light-weight, quick read. I’m a dog lover, and like a lot of guys I take pleasure in driving a car. But when on top of everything else Stein layers on a spiritual component:

“I don’t understand why people insist on pitting the concepts of evolution and creation against each other. Why can’t they see that spiritualism and science are one? That bodies evolve and souls evolve and the universe is a fluid place that marries them both in a wonderful package called a human being. What’s wrong with that idea?”

I remove a further star from my review. No further explanation or elaboration is given for this idea that “spiritualism and science are one.” But one of Enzo the dog’s refrains throughout the entire story is that dogs who are ready will return to this world as people in their next lives. Sure enough, when Enzo dies following Denny’s wife’s death, and Denny has moved to Italy with his daughter, and has of course gotten the chance to not only test drive cars for Ferrari, but actually race in their F1 program… to become world champion (!!), in the last scene of the book, Denny’s “greatest fans” come to say hello to him after he’s just won a race, telling him that he is “better, even, than Senna” (!!). An old man and his young grandson. Whose name is… wait for it… Enzo… *sigh*

Category: dog, novel, sports | Tags: ,

Zero History

by William Gibson

This was a fun read, and a fast read, but it didn’t blow me away. I’m not sure that anything Gibson writes from here on will ever top Neuromancer. That book set the bar for the particular brand of science fiction that places the future so near that you can practically smell it. And in fact the most recent books, Spook Country included, are set in what is recognizably the present.

And so while with Neuromancer Gibson seemed able to show us the world as it would be tomorrow or next week, Spook Country in some respects feels already dated. To be fair, it was published in 2010, and has been sitting on my shelf for months. A Gibson book published in 2010 must have been written in 2009, no? Therefore I should not be too critical of his use of the MacBook Air as the prop of choice, rather than the iPad… Plus the fact that the iPhone does play a prominent role, and this seems dead on. There’s an app for that.

Quicksilver

by Neil Stephenson

I bought the Baroque Cycle trilogy as they were published, but did not begin it until now… Somewhat daunting in length, this nevertheless was a pretty fast, enjoyable read. While I do like science fiction – and Snow Crash was my entry point to Stephenson’s work – I am not a particular fan of history, or of historical fiction. Still, he makes it easy. The characters are well drawn, and the physical environs vivid and palpable. Bringing historical figures such as Newton and Leibniz into the narrative only makes it that much more fun.

Science was in its nascence, and while we might think we’ve come a long way since then, it is well to remember that not all lines of inquiry are going to lead where we hope. Still, the goals seem familiar:

“…the trick of refining, from the base, dark, cold, essentially focal matter of which the World was made, the Philosophick Mercury–the pure living essence of God’s power and presence in the world–the key to the transmutation of metals, the attainment of immortal life and perfect wisdom.”

So too, some of the arguments:

“Here Daniel was a bit lost. ‘Fluxion seems to mean a flowing over time–so it makes perfect sense when you apply it the word to the position of a punt on a river, who is as a matter of fact, flowing over time. But now you seem to be applying it to the shape of a weed, which is not flowing–it’s just standing there sort of bent.’

‘But Daniel, the virtue of this approach is that it doesn’t matter what the actual physical situation is, a curve is ever a curve, and whatever you can do to the curve of a river you can do just as rightly to the curve of a weed–we are free from all that old nonsense now.’ Meaning the Aristotelean approach, in which such easy mixing of things with obviously different natures would be abhorrent. All that mattered henceforth, apparently, was what form they adopted when translated into the language of analysis. ‘Translating a thing into the analytical language is akin to what the alchemist does when he extracts, from some crude ore, a pure spirit, or virtue, or pneuma. The foeces–the gross external forms of things– which only mislead and confuse us–are cast off to reveal the underlying spirit. And when this is done we may learn that some things that are superficially different are, in their real nature, the same.’”

Which philosophical approach are we getting at here? Stephenson’s quoting of Galileo leaves little doubt:

“Philosophy is written in this immense book that stands ever open before our eyes (I speak of the Universe), but it cannot be read if one does not first learn the language and recognize the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without the means of which it is humanly impossible to understand a word; without these philosophy is confused wandering in a dark labyrinth.”

And later:

“Every assertion that Euclid, et al., made concerning geometry was backed up by a chain of logical proofs that could be followed all the way back to a few axioms that were obviously true, e.g., ‘the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.’ The truths of geometry were necessary truths; the human mind could imagine a universe in which Daniel’s name was David, or in which Ipswich had been built on the other side of the Orwell, but geometry and math had to be true, there was no conceivable universe in which 2 + 3 was equal to 2 + 2.”

In one scene, the distinction between science and superstition is paired with a little joke about Asians not being good at math:

“This Mandarin seems to have no desire to refine his philosophikal position–to disentangle the worthy science of number theory from the base superstition of numerology–most unfortunate for him and the rest of his race.”

Stephenson wants to set the stage for the Enlightenment, and the role of science and reason in bringing that forth, as well as everything that has followed. Today it is information, or data, that has become the focus of the knowledge trades. At Trinity College in London, in 1672:

“And whereas the ’Change-men made common cause to buy shares in sailing-ships or joint stock companies, and traded Jamaica sugar for Spanish silver, these men were transacting diverse small conspiracies or trading snatches of courtly data.”

The story contains men of books, as well as men of action. They are to be contrasted, but their techniques are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

“And being an excellent commander, about to go into a real battle, he had the wit to bring along a few people who could actually get things done for him. It may seem hard for you to believe, but mark my word–whenever serious and competent people need to get things done in the real world, all considerations of tradition and protocol fly out the window.”

And unique men:

“No, even without lenses and parabolic mirrors, Newton and Hooke see things that you and I don’t. Leibniz is proposing a strange inversion of what we normally mean when we describe a man as distinguished, or unique. Normally when we say these things, we mean that the man himself stands out from a crowd in some way. But Leibniz is saying that such a man’s uniqueness is rooted in his ability to perceive the rest of the universe with unusual clarity–to distinguish one thing from another more effectively than ordinary souls.”

I look forward to reading further about unique men in The Confusion.

Category: novel | Tags: , , ,