Quick Review: my favorite novel to reread, The Winter of our Discontent

I have over the years read many “classic” works of literature. There is one to which I keep returning: The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. While it is not as widely read or discussed as his works like The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men (and I enjoy all three of these), it is the first one I think of when I look at my bookshelf of classics with the aim of rereading something. Here are the reasons why:

  1. Many key features of American life today are captured in this book. Steinbeck suggests as much with a single sentence on a page before the story begins: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of American today.” The narrative involves these plot points: the downfall of a once high-status family, looking for the next way to become wealthy and keep up with the Joneses, the main character tries to get ahead as a hardworking grocery store manager (suffering the indignity of a lower status job to help his family) while also pondering whether there are ways to shortcut the system (should he be skimming off the top? Should he turn in his boss?), and teenagers who want fame and fortune without a lot of hard work. In some ways, the story seems a bit unusual today: a white family with a long history in a community tries to regain their status. At the same time, the concerns motivating the family are very similar to those seeking fame today on social media or the many who are trying to weigh hard work versus getting ahead faster.
  2. Particularly compared to some of his other classic works, there is a good amount of humor in the main character Ethan Allen Hawley.  It may be bleak or black humor but Hawley has a way of using humor to help him navigate tough situations.
  3. The story involves connections to my sociological research. One of the key plot points is that local officials are looking to become wealthy from the development of land. In an older community, selling and developing land amidst suburbanization offers a new way to generate wealth as well as transform the character of the small town. This story is the one of numerous small communities outside major American cities from roughly the late 1800s through today. Similarly, local growth machines of politicians and business leaders can profit tremendously from these changes.
  4. I have no problem reading longer novels: I have read such texts like Les Miserables and War and Peace and enjoyed them. But, it does help that this Steinbeck text is a bit shorter. On the whole, Steinbeck was pretty good at working in shorter and longer mediums ranging.

Ultimately, in my mind the themes of The Winter of our Discontent still ring true for American society today. Delivered in a relatively concise format with some humor and tragedy, this is a worthwhile read over and over.

“Poetry as a sociological exercise”

A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship has a unique way of putting together poetry and sociology:

Poet Moten is working on a project titled “Hesitant Sociology: Blackness and Poetry.” The work was inspired, he said, by a piece written by W.E.B. Dubois, the African American sociologist and civil rights activist, called “Sociology Hesitant.”

Moten is a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his 2014 book “The Little Edges.” He was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry.

“I’m looking at poetry as a sociological exercise,” Moten said. “What I want to do is take on the term ‘sociology’ not as an insult or slur, but as a badge of honor, and be able to think that literature in general, at its best, is a sociological enterprise. Poetry is a form of rhythmic or syncopated sociology.”

One area of literature or writing that is often linked with sociology involves novels, particularly ones that provide social commentary or deeper portrayals of social life. Poetry could get at similar themes but in different forms – perhaps with a different rhythm as noted above.

The Dubois piece referenced here ends with this:

That there are limits is shown by the rhythm in birth and death rates
and the distribution by sex; it is found further in human customs and laws,
the forms of government, the laws of trade, and even in charity and ethics.
As, however, we rise in the realm of conduct, we note a primary and a
secondary rhythm. A primary rhythm depending, as we have indicated, on
physical forces and physical law; but within this appears again and again a
secondary rhythm which, while presenting nearly the same uniformity as the
first, differs from it in its more or less sudden rise at a given tune, in accor-
dance with prearranged plan and prediction and in being liable to stoppage
and change according to similar plan. An example of primary uniformity is
the death rate; of secondary uniformity, the operation of a woman’s club;
to confound the two sorts of human uniformity is fatal to clear thinking; to
explain them we must assume Law and Chance working in conjunction—
Chance being the scientific side of inexplicable Will. Sociology, then, is the
Science that seeks the limits of Chance in human conduct.

“Law and Chance working in conjunction” sounds like it could lead to fruitful creative interpretation.

New novel “The Megabuilders of Queenston Park” addresses McMansions

The problems McMansions can pose are addressed in a new novel where builders spread teardowns in suburban Princeton, New Jersey:

Author, translator, Greek poetry scholar and Princeton University Professor Emeritus Edmund Keeley tackles this issue in his newest novel, “The Megabuilders of Queenston Park,” published by the Lambertville-based independent Wild River Books. Joyce Carol Oates has called it a deftly written “contemporary comedy of manners.”

Set in present-day suburban Princeton, with its architecturally distinct buildings, the book’s “megabuilders” roam neighborhoods in search of modest homes to tear down. When a smooth-talking real estate developer tries to convince Cassie Mandeville to sell her beloved home and property, she and her husband Nick decide to take action. Nearing retirement, Cassie and Nick find themselves thrust into a battle with a father-and-son construction company that plans to erect an overgrown, high-end eyesore next door and convince the Mandevilles to sell their home as a teardown. As the couple tries to save their neighborhood, they run headlong into an insensitive and possibly corrupt local government as they navigate the maze of community zoning.

“The Megabuilders of Queenston Park” brings to life unsettling environmental questions that plague many families and communities, large and small. What is the true value of real estate? How do we measure the stability and familial loyalty our homes nurture and shelter? How do we protect our neighborhoods from large-scale development, construction, pollution and sewage run-off?…

Says the developer to the fictional Mandevilles: “I understand how you and a few others around here feel, but I’m afraid you’re all living in dream land. I promise you, if it isn’t Solar Estates working to revitalize the neighborhood, it will be somebody else moving in for their own kind of upgrading. The lots in your neighborhood are just too valuable and — forgive me — the houses are too old and small. Someday soon they will have to come down, and I’m afraid that includes yours.”

Novels have been a common way to express critiques of the suburbs since the early 1900s. Teardowns are common in numerous older suburbs with a higher quality of life as people want to move into homes with all the amenities but still live in quaint neighborhoods with plenty of character. I wonder just how many novels provide positive perspectives on McMansions and teardowns?

I hope the book isn’t as didactic as this summary makes it sound…

Critic: lack of good suburban novels

Since World War II, there have been a number of novels that have dissected suburban life but one critic says the genre has suffered in recent years:

Suburban novels, much like many American suburbs themselves, have fallen on hard times.

Yes, there are some terrific books about the ‘burbs, only few lately that feel like they’re trafficking in the great realist tradition of John Updike, John Cheever and Richard Yates, whose novels and stories in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s defined the quiet despair of the men of Metro-North.

Today, Tom Perrotta’s satires of strollerland feel overly broad. Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” brilliantly portrays the dark side of McMansion marriage, but it’s so brutal you want to avert your eyes.

Ted Thompson’s terrific debut novel, “The Land of Steady Habits,” feels like a natural extension of Yates’ classic “Revolutionary Road” or Updike’s Rabbit series. Call this elegant, witty and economical novel “Rabbit, Meltdown.”…

It’s not a stretch to say that this is the first great novel about post-crash American disillusionment, the flip side of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Inside the ruined heart and soul of Anders Hill is a warning: even the life you think falls short of your dreams must not be taken for granted.

Perhaps the suburban decline novel needs some updating. Many of these stories, whether in novels, in films, or on TV, have a similar narrative: the characters look like they have the good life in the American suburbs with a newer house, family, and other consumers (cars, television, etc.) but the main characters are repressed in some way so they lash out and the suburban facade falls aside. There is some truth to such stories: the American Dream is heavily based on particular notions of success that are more in the reach of some (privileged groups) than others. At the same time, there are a variety of suburbs from wealthy and exclusive towns to more working-class communities and the mythology of the American suburban Dream continues to survive.

Using algorithms to analyze the literary canon

A new book describes efforts to use algorithms to discover what is in and out of the literary canon:

There’s no single term that captures the range of new, large-scale work currently underway in the literary academy, and that’s probably as it should be. More than a decade ago, the Stanford scholar of world literature Franco Moretti dubbed his quantitative approach to capturing the features and trends of global literary production “distant reading,” a practice that paid particular attention to counting books themselves and owed much to bibliographic and book historical methods. In earlier decades, so-called “humanities computing” joined practitioners of stylometry and authorship attribution, who attempted to quantify the low-level differences between individual texts and writers. More recently, the catchall term “digital humanities” has been used to describe everything from online publishing and new media theory to statistical genre discrimination. In each of these cases, however, the shared recognition — like the impulse behind the earlier turn to cultural theory, albeit with a distinctly quantitative emphasis — has been that there are big gains to be had from looking at literature first as an interlinked, expressive system rather than as something that individual books do well, badly, or typically. At the same time, the gains themselves have as yet been thin on the ground, as much suggestions of future progress as transformative results in their own right. Skeptics could be forgiven for wondering how long the data-driven revolution can remain just around the corner.

Into this uncertain scene comes an important new volume by Matthew Jockers, offering yet another headword (“macroanalysis,” by analogy to macroeconomics) and a range of quantitative studies of 19th-century fiction. Jockers is one of the senior figures in the field, a scholar who has been developing novel ways of digesting large bodies of text for nearly two decades. Despite Jockers’s stature, Macroanalysis is his first book, one that aims to summarize and unify much of his previous research. As such, it covers a lot of ground with varying degrees of technical sophistication. There are chapters devoted to methods as simple as counting the annual number of books published by Irish-American authors and as complex as computational network analysis of literary influence. Aware of this range, Jockers is at pains to draw his material together under the dual headings of literary history and critical method, which is to say that the book aims both to advance a specific argument about the contours of 19th-century literature and to provide a brief in favor of the computational methods that it uses to support such an argument. For some readers, the second half of that pairing — a detailed look into what can be done today with new techniques — will be enough. For others, the book’s success will likely depend on how far they’re persuaded that the literary argument is an important one that can’t be had in the absence of computation…

More practically interesting and ambitious are Jockers’s studies of themes and influence in a larger set of novels from the same period (3,346 of them, to be exact, or about five to 10 percent of those published during the 19th century). These are the only chapters of the book that focus on what we usually understand by the intellectual content of the texts in question, seeking to identify and trace the literary use of meaningful clusters of subject-oriented terms across the corpus. The computational method involved is one known as topic modeling, a statistical approach to identifying such clusters (the topics) in the absence of outside input or training data. What’s exciting about topic modeling is that it can be run quickly over huge swaths of text about which we initially know very little. So instead of developing a hunch about the thematic importance of urban poverty or domestic space or Native Americans in 19th-century fiction and then looking for words that might be associated with those themes — that is, instead of searching Google Books more or less at random on the basis of limited and biased close reading — topic models tell us what groups of words tend to co-occur in statistically improbable ways. These computationally derived word lists are for the most part surprisingly coherent and highly interpretable. Specifically in Jockers’s case, they’re both predictable enough to inspire confidence in the method (there are topics “about” poverty, domesticity, Native Americans, Ireland, sea faring, servants, farming, etc.) and unexpected enough to be worth examining in detail…

The notoriously difficult problem of literary influence finally unites many of the methods in Macroanalysis. The book’s last substantive chapter presents an approach to finding the most central texts among the 3,346 included in the study. To assess the relative influence of any book, Jockers first combines the frequency measures of the roughly 100 most common words used previously for stylistic analysis with the more than 450 topic frequencies used to assess thematic interest. This process generates a broad measure of each book’s position in a very high-dimensional space, allowing him to calculate the “distance” between every pair of books in the corpus. Pairs that are separated by smaller distances are more similar to each other, assuming we’re okay with a definition of similarity that says two books are alike when they use high-frequency words at the same rates and when they consist of equivalent proportions of topic-modeled terms. The most influential books are then the ones — roughly speaking and skipping some mathematical details — that show the shortest average distance to the other texts in the collection. It’s a nifty approach that produces a fascinatingly opaque result: Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne’s famously odd 18th-century bildungsroman, is judged to be the most influential member of the collection, followed by George Gissing’s unremarkable The Whirlpool (1897) and Benjamin Disraeli’s decidedly minor romance Venetia (1837). If you can make sense of this result, you’re ahead of Jockers himself, who more or less throws up his hands and ends both the chapter and the analytical portion of the book a paragraph later. It might help if we knew what else of Gissing’s or Disraeli’s was included in the corpus, but that information is provided in neither Macroanalysis nor its online addenda.

Sounds interesting. I wonder if there isn’t a great spot for mixed method analysis: Jockers’ analysis provides the big picture but you also need more intimate and deep knowledge of the smaller groups of texts or individual texts to interpret what the results mean. So, if the data suggests three books are the most influential, you would have to know these books and their context to make sense of what the data says. Additionally, you still want to utilize theories and hypotheses to guide the analysis rather than simply looking for patterns.

This reminds me of the work sociologist Wendy Griswold has done in analyzing whether American novels shared common traits (she argues copyright law was quite influential) or how a reading culture might emerge in a developing nation. Her approach is somewhere between the interpretation of texts and the algorithms described above, relying on more traditional methods in sociology like analyzing samples and conducting interviews.

Crafting the perfect Gothic McMansion in a 21st century novel

A review of the new novel Fallen Land suggests the McMansion at the heart of the book plays a big role:

The McMansion, that derisively nicknamed trophy home of suburban arrivistes, is different things to all people: the darling of building contractors, the forest-guzzling residential equivalent of the SUV to land preservationists.

Among American practitioners of the modern Gothic novel, the McMansion has rarely been rendered with the resplendent gloom of, say, Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, or the majesterial melancholy of Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher. In his smashing followup to his formidable debut novel “Absolution,” however, Patrick Flanery has fashioned a crumbling 21st-century manor that can hold its own among those authors’ most sepulchral, ALLEGORICAL inspirations.

The trappings of “Fallen Land’’ are pure old-school Hollywood. Imagine a housing development that evokes the splashy-cum-sinister Victorian fantasy of “Meet Me in St. Louis” and Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” and you have Dolores Woods, a Midwestern subdivision committed to a regressive aesthetic “in which the past was preferable and this country was at its greatest before it tried to tear itself apart in the middle of the nineteenth century.” The community’s pastiche array of gabled roofs and picket fences disguise the jerry-built nature of its construction: pop-up palaces whose yawning spaces and teetering infrastructure “terrify where they were meant to comfort,” the American Dream turned nightmare.

The development’s showpiece, classically enough, has been erected atop the site of tragic events from a darker epoch whose emotional undercurrents will haunt the home’s new tenants, Julia and Nathaniel Noailles. The Noailles have relocated from Boston with their smart, idiosyncratic son Copley (named for the hotel address where he was conceived) in pursuit of snazzier positions: she with a university lab, he with a mega-corporation that powers virtually every private enterprise on earth, including the fascistic private school in which Copley is newly installed.

I’ve noted before that the McMansion has become a popular tragic setting for modern stories. See this post about McMansions and horror films. The McMansion represents a hollow setting, a place that may look impressive but is empty at its core. The people who inhabit such homes are similar: people who thought purchasing a big home would bring satisfaction but are sadly mistaken. Even worse, the inhabitants – and it sounds like those in Fallen Land fit the bill – might be bad people, the kinds who squander money, are mean or amoral, and are up to nefarious purposes. All together, these stories suggest at the least that tragedies befall those in McMansions with the stronger argument that those who live in McMansions and their homes are rotten to the core.

Perhaps my argument would be strengthened by searching for counterfactuals: can we find many positive depictions of McMansion dwellers in novels, movies, TV shows, etc.?

Narratives built around the sociological “small world theory” of social networks

A review of a new novel highlights recent ideas in the sociological analysis of social networks:

In sociology, the “small world theory” holds that any two people can be connected to one another along a chain of no more than a few acquaintances (typically six, the fabled “six degrees of separation”). Though the research behind it is at best contentious, there’s something deeply appealing about its logic-defying simplicity, something exciting about what it implies. In a world that can seem vast and alienating, the idea that we’re all much closer than it seems is, at first glance, comforting. The flip side is that our influence may extend further than we realize.

In his second novel, “The Illusion of Separateness,” Simon Van Booy presents a cast of characters who have had a profound effect on one another’s lives, yet cannot see the bonds that link them. He divides his book into six separate narratives, each following a different character through different eras, from the Second World War to the present: Martin, a retirement home caretaker; Mr. Hugo, a disfigured Wehrmacht veteran; Sébastien, a lovelorn young boy; John, whose B-24 bomber is shot out of the sky over France; Amelia, a blind museum curator and John’s granddaughter; and Danny, a budding filmmaker. Van Booy presents their stories in a nonlinear fashion, shifting back and forth from character to character, decade to decade.

Van Booy’s premise — that we are all linked in ways we may not fully understand, and that our smallest actions can have a significant effect on the lives of others — is fairly banal, and its execution verges on overly sentimental. He builds to the scenes in which his characters cross paths with great ceremony, yet these intersections are the book’s weakest moments. While the plot seems to aspire to present an overarching sense of meaning, Van Booy never quite drives it home. For some, the significance is inscrutable, as when John and Mr. Hugo engage in a tense, but ultimately inconsequential standoff in a field in war-torn France. Others, like when Martin cradles the dying Mr. Hugo in the book’s opening pages, seem like contrivances meant to give the narrative the appearance of structure and meaning.

For more popular descriptions of recent sociological research on this topic, see Six Degrees by Duncan Watts, Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, and Linked by Barabasi (a physicist who covers a lot of ground).

This kind of narrative involving interweaving stories is not new. It seems to be popular in movies in the last 10-15 years – I’m thinking of films like Crash, Love Actually, and others that make use of intersecting characters. This leads to two thoughts:

1. Is this a good instance of social science discoveries, that social networks influence people without their knowledge, influencing popular culture? It could be relatively easy to track whether this is a new kind of plot or whether it has a longer history.

2. The reviewer suggests that while the author has impressive prose, the overall structure of the story is lacking. Since we do indeed live in social worlds strongly influenced by social networks, how can that be effectively translated into a compelling narrative? Going back to the movies I mentioned above, those intersecting storylines involved quite a bit of individual or small group interaction by the end of the movie. In contrast, this book seems to be going for a more disconnected set of stories. Setting up the structure of a social network narrative likely involves balancing the connections alongside the individual interactions that tend to characterize and propel narratives.