The War of the Encyclopaedists: A Chapter 9 review

I’m currently reviewing chapters of War of the Encyclopaedists by Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson. As a Dune novel it’s pretty awful. This is pretty great reading material if you want to start writing fantasy novels. I feel like I’m learning a lot about the craft of writing just by obsessively pouring over these chapters.

Look forward to my own upcoming novel tentatively titled The Sword of the Blade Guild Masters.

Table of Contents located here.

Chapter 9 is the first chapter in the Boston section of the book, and probably where the story actually begins. I feel like everything up to this point has been introduction. The story, at least from what I’ve read and from reviews I’ve read, is split between Baghdad and Boston.

Uprooted from his world, Corderoy is undergoing the expected trauma of being in a new place.

But when he sat down at the long conference table, he’d felt intimidated. An older guy at the end of the table was most of the way through a volume of Proust. In Seattle, Corderoy would have considered that a pretentious pose…

I kind of like the alien landscape for Corderoy is a place where (potentially) people are sincere.

Interestingly, I assume that the volume of Proust is Remembrance of Things Past. I think the premise of that story is that a man eats a cookie then relives his life. It sounds like the ultimate cerebral nerd odyssey.

He then goes through some pretentious poses. I think what’s happened is that he’s yet to learn the dominate mode of coolness in Boston (he can’t speak Boston Cool). Naturally that’s pretty humiliating.

He had tried to look introspective…

and

prompting Corderoy to affect his best casual thug lean–an attempt to convey that, yeah, he was just as smart as everyone here, probably smarter, but it wadn’t no thang.

I really have nothing to add other than Corderoy’s obsession with what impression people have of him exceeds an interest in the “real” Corderoy. Like his aforementioned habit of imagining lives of strangers is the same engine he applies to himself. Remember that? It’s the reason why Mani loved him.

I guess Corderoy is trying to create narrative with an audience.

“Well, I like reading books. And playing video games. But there’s no degree for playing video games.” No one had thought it funny, and he’d slunk back in his chair as the spotlight had moved on.

If we pause for a moment and assume that Corderoy is now the Odysseus of this Bostonian Odyssey, then he’s an Odysseus who can’t tell a story, which means he’s missing the most defining feature of Odysseus. I have no point to make, I just love the Odyssey.

A Professor Flannigan is on the scene and proceeds to throw a pretty dense paragraph of jargon at them. I think it logical to assume that it’s supposed to be ridiculous and beginning to highlight the absurdity of academia.

Now, this isn’t a hermeneutic license to say that all reading is misreading, but rather, an exhortation to be ruthlessly self-conscious of the reductive impulse.

You know I find it weird in movies when characters talk about the craft of acting. I kind of feel the same way about characters talking about novels.

Professor Flannigan, who has an Irish accent (and I think the Irish accent will make sense in a minute), blows Corderoy’s mind:

Why isn’t this class, this activity, a waste of time?”

An unspeakable question. You didn’t start doubting God’s existence while gearing up for the Crusades.

I know a lot of people who feel pretty strongly that they don’t need a math classes.

I also assume by this level of college, most of the grad students have already sold themselves on some reason why they’re not wasting their lives accumulating a crushing mass of student loans.

Corderoy’s attentions, which I guess we’re anchored to, veers towards the physique of a nearby girl named Sandy.

She was a little chubby and had an overly large jaw, which made him feel conflicted about his ogling. When a girl was pleasant to look at as a whole person, you could call her beautiful and it was refined to admire beauty. But if you had to ignore her face to enjoy her breasts, you were effectively sectioning her into isolated chunks and only staring at the good bits. There was no way to convince yourself that it was noble.

From this I infer that Corderoy looks down on a sort of “crude” level attraction. His ogling requires a nobility, a concept of classical beauty. Again, Corderoy almost unconsciously favors the cerebral universe of ideas and concepts like nobility. I’m not saying ogling is a good idea, I’m just saying Corderoy can’t accept that he is, on some level, an animal. That kind of thing can make you crazy.

“Why isn’t this a waste of time, Mr. Corderoy?”

Corderoy faltered, then quickly retreated into cynicism. “It is a waste of time,” he said.

The way it’s phrased it sounds like cynicism is a cop-out. Admittedly, the world needs cynics, but Corderoy’s brand is, I think, a bunch of people who use cynicism as a shield against the bright light of sincerity. Though I think it’s also a kind of nihilism.

I think it’s a decent move from a game perspective. I think Flannigan phrases his question as a negative, and I don’t think you can prove a negative. So I don’t think you try to prove that the class is NOT a  waste of time, you would try and prove that the class IS a waste of time, and if you fail then you’ve got an argument that it isn’t a waste of time.

So Corderoy has basically reoriented the question in a way that I think can be solved.

“Because… we produce nothing consumed by the world outside of academia, and the opportunity cost of applying our intellects to something that’s basically useless, aside from whatever personal satisfaction we get from it, when we could be building rockets or curing cancer.

An elaboration on the theme about how some things are real and worthy of respect and some things are not. It’s interesting that Corderoy is actively undermining his own course in life, on some level I suspect he has a kind of inferiority complex with respect to the “real” people.

Flannigan veers into Darwin, which is kind of an interesting jump, and his premise is that the traits that ensure the species of professors and their departments is creating a need for such professors and departments.

“That’s how the clergy survived for centuries,” said the old guy at the end of the table. “They kept Mass in Latin, acting as translators for God.”

This stood out to me because of the Crusades reference from earlier:

You don’t start doubting God’s existence while gearing up for the Crusades.

There’s a link between the mechanism that generates the reasons for a war (Crusade) in the Middle East, and the creation of the academia that supports the lit majors.

It’s a pretty clever link I think, implying that the world Corderoy is entering is the very world that created the reason why his best friend is off on a Crusade.

But how it could it not be? Montauk was preparing for war–maybe a war based on bad ideas, but regardless, what Montauk was doing had real risks, real consequences–and here Corderoy was talking about fucking books.

Again, note that Corderoy can’t be involved with something “real”.

I find it fascinating, maybe the most fascinating idea in the whole book. Basically, it posits that the Priests make the War of Bad Ideas by using their position as the elect who understand what the Books are saying. Corderoy is standing on the edge of the world that created the War but can’t see the power there. It’s a study of the mechanism that creates the elect and keeps them in power.

It’s really interesting. The unreality of Corderoy’s world (the unreality that he disdains the way Montauk disdains video games) becomes the reality of Montauk’s world.

Flannigan asks for a text.

“Give us a text, Ms. Arrow.”

Ulysses?”

Oh, Ulysses. You mean the Latin name for the Odyssey? Which is a famous novel written by an IRISH man named James Joyce? This just happens to come up in a literary class taught by an Irish professor following several references to the Odyssey?

This is where I start to think Montauk’s journey is the Odyssey (a man returning from war), and Corderoy’s journey is the Ulysses (one day in Dublin, Ireland).

Oh, and if we’re going to be ridiculous, you’ll note that Ms. ARROW points to Ulysses.

But who would read that far into things?

Eventually the class comes around to discussing Star Wars.

Corderoy felt violated. Star Wars didn’t belong here. It wasn’t mean to be taken apart by the cold intellectual grip of academics. He thought back to the last time he’d watched The Empire Strikes Back. With Mani.

I’m not sure why Corderoy is offended at the thought of cold intellect (since intellect is probably the only thing he values) being applied to Star Wars. I guess it’s that Star Wars is linked to one of the few things he can like with sincerity, the one place he doesn’t cut himself off from with cynicism.

Oh and let’s take a look at a scene I find, well, silly:

She had stared at him lovingly as an uncontrollable child’s grin had overtaken his face. Star Wars was the one place in his life where he was totally sincere, without a shield of irony.

Oh. The novel just comes out and says it. That was easy.

Once again I feel like Mani is ridiculous. She stared at him lovingly while he watched a movie?

She loves him because he makes up stuff about people? She’s loves watching him watch a movie? I mean, there’s a reason why I didn’t believe in Mani and it comes down to the fact that the novel seems dead set on convincing me that there’s no way Corderoy is loveable.

Then follows a lot of Star Wars things that I’ve actually looked in to over the years. They are:

  1. Parsecs are a unit of distance, not time.
  2. Star Wars is Campbell’s Hero’s Journey
  3. Interpretations of the Dark Side and the Jedi from a like Jungian perspective
  4. Viewing the struggle of the Star Wars as sort of a class struggle
  5. Jedi as Diaspora

Corderoy suddenly felt small and excited, like a child at an amusement park, not tall enough for any of the rides. Here they were, in grad school, talking about Star Wars! And it wasn’t terrible at all.

I have some questions about Corderoy’s study up to this point. He seems pretty unfamiliar with what’s going on in this class. You’d think he’d be somewhat familiar considering he applied to grad school and so, theoretically, already has a background into this.

Oh, and one thing that makes this class not a waste of time? It allows you to revisit things you love as if seeing it again for the first time. That’s pretty cool.

I think it ties into why Corderoy has a shield of irony. In Seattle, I suspect in a similar situation Star Wars would be torn to pieces in front of him. Corderoy was defensive earlier because sincerity was a weakness from where he was from.

Maria Sardi, one of the students, offers up an interpretation of Han Solo.

Corderoy stared at Maria Sardi, prepared to judge the living shit out of her for whatever minor interpretive flaw she might apply to this sacred fictional personage.

Again, notice the aggression that comes easily to Corderoy in a pretty intellectual conversation. I suspect the hipster culture he comes from was rife with aggressive judging, hence the shields of irony.

Maria kills it regarding Han Solo.

Maria Sardi: officially cute.

I guess Corderoy finds girls that agree with him about Han Solo attractive. It’s a pretty benign fetish as fetishes go.

Hokey religions and ancient weapons,” Corderoy said to her.

And who creates and interprets the hokey religions? The intellectual elect. That Corderoy is sitting in the stronghold of.

Who uses the ancient weapons? Montauk.

Then comes the part of the chapter that really pissed me off.

That all sources of information are biased. Maybe that can explain certain inconsistencies. Like, why are the storm troopers, highly trained shock troops, incapable of hitting the heroes with a blaster shot?”

This student’s name is Mr. Lee. Fuck Mr. Lee.

He’s fallen prey to the Storm Trooper Accuracy Fallacy. This is, of course, based at least partially on the clash between the heroes and Storm Troopers on the Death Star in the first (chronologically) Star Wars movie.

Why do Storm Troopers miss all the time? It’s BECAUSE they’re highly trained shock troops.

Princess Leia Organa: They let us go. It was the only reason for the ease of our escape.
Han Solo: Easy? You call that easy?
Princess Leia Organa: They’re tracking us.

The Empire didn’t WANT to kill them. It wanted them to escape. They weren’t trying to kill the heroes, but they were willing to enter combat with people they were instructed not to kill, but basically let themselves be injured or killed.

It’s not an expression of their incompetence, it’s an example of why they’re so terrifying.

Seriously, fuck you Mr. Lee.

Professor Irish, who is is from Ireland which is coincidentally the same place James Joyce is from, rambles on for a while about stuff Star Wars related then basically concludes that this class has value because:

But I offer you this to ponder: the search for human meaning–what could be more important?–must happen through intellectual investigation that is not tethered to empirical knowledge or scientific progress. Where would we be if we didn’t have a million people searching for the truth?”

You wouldn’t have tenure.

It’s pretty insidious, that Profession Ireland Flannigan can come so close to seeing the truth of the link between his intellectual priesthood and the War, but even he doesn’t seem to fully realize it. The search for truth exists because those millions of people are searching for it, the Elect have said that there is a Truth and that it exists out there and that’s why you need the Elect.

This class has value because it’s the study of how people generate meaning from meaningless things. Yet not a study of the effect that artificially generated meaning on reality.

As he stood up and shuffled out the room, he [Corderoy] decided to buy  a copy of Ulysses on the way home.

Yeah, Corderoy, I bet that’s exactly what you did.

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6 thoughts on “The War of the Encyclopaedists: A Chapter 9 review

    • HA! I appreciate the thought! I definitely plan on keeping at it, though it’ll take FOREVER.

      EDIT: That Storm Trooper thing still rankles me. I expect better from the professors in our universities.

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      • I’m honestly surprised they did so well. Even most nerds screw that up. Which is my very favorite thing about Star Wars, really. Almost every one of the little details in the movies meshes together into something that rewards further thought.

        Upon reflecting on the book and your analysis so far, I’m pretty sure that the biggest problem with the novel is that Corderoy and Montauk are so obviously stand-ins for the authors themselves. And because they’re trying to be taken seriously by serious people, they can’t sell you on why the main characters are actually lovable or endearing to anybody. Because if they did, it would smack of a Mary Sue sort of thing. So they just say that their primary virtue is that they’re funny and then prove that to you with the writing in the book itself instead of giving good lines to the characters themselves.

        Although the more I think about it, the more I’m leaning toward your seemingly-crazy Fight Club interpretation of Mani as a Tyler Durden fiction. It’s actually a surprisingly compelling thesis.

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      • That Mary Sue observation is a really good one, and I think that’s what happened. I’m starting to suspect that the absurdist joke WAS the novel, but honestly it’s not absurd on a scale I’d expect, like Fight Club or Catch-22.

        I think it’s worse in the Corderoy chapters, since Montauk at least gets to be kind of nice to people.

        I’m kind of surprised myself that the Mani/Tyler Durden idea is working out as well as it has.

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