Thursday, November 9, 2017

J.G. Ballard's THE UNLIMITED DREAM COMPANY

There are few genres of literature I loathe more than the mid-century White Male Narcissist novel, so given that, as much as it is anything, The Unlimited Dream Company is one of those, well,  it's a good thing I went into it cold out I never would have touched it. Especially not a used copy of it, because it would doubtless fluoresce under black light, if you know what I mean.*

That aside, this is still a J.G. Ballard novel, and hey, it's not as "bad" as, say, Henry Miller (whom I also admire even as he makes me roll my eyes a lot). Indeed, one might even point to this book as an example of what a Henry Miller sci-fi/ fantasy novel might have been like had Miller ever bothered to try these genres.

Interestingly, though, what drew me in, and drew me in so far that by the time I realized what I really had on my hands (ewwww), was this novel's resemblance to the work of one of my favorite film directors, Peter Greenway. Specifically, to one of his most eccentric and experimental feature films, The Falls.

This book, which starts off sounding so much like the "Tulse Luper" story "The Cassowary" that I all but screamed, could easily be taken as a description of the Violent Unknown Event which caused all of the effects catalogued in The Falls. The film, you see, is presented as a series of biographical sketches of VUE victims, with attention to their physical symptoms, their new languages, their dreams and new obsessions, all resulting from, it's generally understood, their sudden and unexplained, simultaneous and incomplete transformation into birds. A major feature of The Unlimited Dream Company is the frequent metamorphoses of the protagonist, a Mr. Blake (a nod to the poet / print artist William Blake, of course), and, at one time or another many or all of the population of a London suburb, into birds, as well as fish or various mammals.

So, I put up with all of the constant references to and descriptions of Blake running around naked and being all but worshiped for it, Blake causing luxuriant tropical plants to sprout everywhere that he sprays his considerable volume of semen (dude is a firehose), Blake entertaining taboo sexual fantasies about everything with a pulse, Blake daydreaming about one woman's body odor, etc. He never gets quite so self - aggrandizing as Miller (well, okay, he comes close on occasion, but never at Miller's, umm, length), nor as opaque as Greenway, at least.

By which I mean the prose is as clear and readable as ever, without ever getting too banal or clinical as one might expect a science fiction writer might do when getting explicit with a capital X. Hey, I'm surprised, too.  But I shouldn't be. I am a Ballard fangirl for life, and am now convinced that he'll never let me down.

I might just need to chill out with some nice Sigrid Undset or something for a while once I'm done with some of my current projects, one of which is a review of D. Harlan Wilson's critical biography/ bibliography of J.G. Ballard, which I'll be posting soon to Skiffy and Fanty. Hence my deep dive into Ballardiana I hadn't yet read!

*And if you don't, I envy you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

J.G. Ballard's THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION

The Atrocity Exhibition is best read as if one were the poor schmuck who has to pick up after a colossal accident in which a fairly banal narrative of obsession, injury and celebrity was dropped from a very great height and shattered into dozens of pieces, each composed entirely of very jagged and sharp edges. It's impossible to handle them without being injured by them, and it's useless to even think of trying to reassemble them into what they "originally were" because The Atrocity Exhibition wasn't finished until it was dropped from a very great height and shattered into dozens of pieces, each composed entirely of very jagged and sharp edges.

The annotated edition, which is the one that I read, at least comes with a few band-aids in the form of remarks made by the author years later, about what was going on historically or culturally that might be opaque to readers who weren't there for the original happenings, but band-aids is all they are, and your mind's body is still brutally slashed and hemorrhaging terribly and getting worse with each turn of the page, but still you read because you can't look away, and you wonder where Ballard is going with all of this, if he's going anywhere but into a more conventionally told version of the car crash angles when he gets around to writing Crash (which I've seen the film of but have yet to read).

It's one of the worst books that I've ever read twice, and one of the best books that I've ever screamed at and wanted to throw against a wall. It's gross and demented and beautifully written. One GoodReads reviewer brilliantly arranged its lines of prose into free verse a la The Wasteland and it works amazingly well that way.

It also gave me a new appreciation for the works of Max Ernst. I will be eternally grateful to The Atrocity Exhibition for this, even though this means that I'll never be able to look at an Ernst painting without thinking of car crashes and an imaginary breast reduction surgery performed on Mae West and the "protagonist's" "lovers" rendered in extreme closeups, reduced to geometry, and projected onto billboards that crowd the landscape from every angle. And lots of sex scenes that are most certainly not sexy. And...

Ouch.

Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy

It's proven impossible for me to regard the Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance) as anything but an inversion of the Strugatsky Brothers' Roadside Picnic and, by extension, Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker.

Both story worlds feature a section of territory that has been mysteriously alienated from the rest of the planet, reverting to an appearance of pristine nature while also becoming a place where the laws of that nature as we know them do not necessarily apply. As I detailed in a prior post, in Strugatsky's, the area seems to have been created by careless accident and its interaction with the rest of the world is based mostly on people sneaking into it and retrieving objects with strange properties, some useful, some harmful, and some unfathomable, for scientific research or for profit. Paramilitary authorities exist that seek to curtail this trade in Alien Crap but aren't terribly successful. A scientific bureaucracy exists to try to unravel the area's mysteries and origin (the Roadside Picnic metaphor being only one of many theories about the place), but it's mostly just reverse-engineering Alien Crap or otherwise trying to find practical human applications for it.

As I dove into Annihilation, I was quick to conclude that the Southern Reach, which is a scientific bureaucracy with strong ties to both the military and intelligence services, was basically the Strugatsky's Institute and that I would be getting it's side of the story to counter-balance the Strugatsky focus on ordinary schmoes trying to make a living off the Zone.

But then I realized there are important differences. The Zone in Vandermeer seems to have an intent, for one. Something or someone deliberately caused it. And while much human effort is made keeping the riffraff out of it, the Zone does a pretty good job of it all by itself. There is only one way in, though there might be many ways out. And while people sneak into Strugatsky land and bring stuff out, the Vandermeer Zone sends stuff out on its own accord, for its own mysterious reasons, by its own unknowable ways. A lot of the time the stuff it sends out is people, or seems to be. As in sometimes members of the official expeditions come back, but not through the entrance, and they're physically, medically and psychologically altered.  Maybe it's not really them. Maybe it's copies of them, sent back to perform particular functions, with the expedition members' identities as camouflage.

What the Zone intends is never really made clear, nor are many theories put forward by the Southern Reach, for all its thrity-some years of study. But to read these books as whodunnits or whydunnits seems to me a mistake; these are works of speculative phenomenology, more interested in the people trying to figure it all out and what their efforts do to their lives, than in the Truth.

Each of the three books concerns itself with different people, though there is considerable overlap. A biologist we only come to know as Ghost Bird (her husband's nickname for her) tells us first-hand (sort of) of her adventures on what turns out to be the very last Expedition into the Zone, in the company of a Psychologist whom we learn in the next book is actually the Director of the Southern Reach. They find a "tunnel" that Ghost Bird insists on thinking of as a "tower" that has simply been sunken into the ground. The Anomaly is its official term in Southern Reach-speak, and its inhabited by, among other things, a long and discursive, vaguely sermon-esque stream of consciousness written on the walls in letters picked out by living masses of plant and fungal material, material which periodically dusts visitors in a pollen that is more than pollen, and begins to colonize those visitors and transform them for the Zone's purposes. There is also a Creature, but it's so central to the trilogy and yet so unfathomable that I can't even find words to talk about it right now.

Then there's, apparently, nobody's favorite of the trilogy, Authority, which concerns itself with the guy chosen to take over as Director of the Southern Reach after the last Director disappeared on the expedition in Annihilation. Trained from childhood to think of himself as, and to ask others to call him, Control, this new Director has his work cut out for him. Nobody's cleaned up after the last Director, physically (her office is a cluttered mess full of weird stuff) or bureaucratically (her assistant director is none too pleased to find someone else got the job she thought would naturally fall to her), and then there's his own weird background to contend with, as he's a third generation public servant in that special cloak-and-dagger way, but it's his mother who was the apogee; he's just some schlub who gets by on being her son. Authority largely concerns itself with bureaucratic struggles as Control tries to find out what really happened to his predecessor, what his job is really supposed to be, and what the Southern Reach, long in decline, underfunded and raided periodically for talent, is actually for. A lot of people found this book unbearable, but I wound up liking it quite a bit. Even more than Annihilation, it felt like one of those maddening early computer games like Myst, long on mystery but, in my experience, short on solution (I sucked at Myst and have never finished it, yo). The Biologist, or something strongly resembling her, makes an appearance, as a subject Control must question endlessly but fruitlessly for explanations as to how she survived, how she got out of the Zone, and why she was found just sort of aimlessly hanging out in a nearby vacant lot. She becomes his obsession, even as he comes to realize that she's actually just some kind of copy of the person who went with the last exhibition (partially in pursuit of her own answers about what happened to her husband, who "returned" from a previous exhibition as an imperfect copy of himself that died of cancer, just like all the other returnees from his group).

The final novel, Acceptance, divides its narrative into three pieces, in three different time frames. Control and, eventually, the Biologist, in the overall narrative's "present" meet up in the aftermath of the last novel's climax, which involved, among other things, the Zone overflowing its previous boundaries behind the triumphant striding return of a copy of the Director who has become larger than life in more ways than one, and decide to follow a weird pathway back into the Zone the Biologist literally coughs up into the ocean and see what they can discover there, now that the Zone might well be everywhere.

In other narratives, the Director's own story, including her childhood in the exact region that became the Zone and later career with the Southern Reach (under an assumed identity because we're all pretty sure they wouldn't let an actual native of the Zone head up Zone studies because who knows how those people have been affected), unfolds in the middle-past, and a figurant from the first novel, the Lighthouse Keeper, becomes a proper character as his story unfolds in the more distant past. And yes, the Director knew the Keeper when she was a little girl and he was a man in his late middle-age. He went on to become the Creature in the Anomaly, once the Zone became the Zone; she was removed from the area by external circumstances just days before it happened, and always wondered what happened to her friend the Keeper.

We meet the Biologist again, the original one, unmistakeable but irrevocably altered (and freaky), and we get some answers, but not all of them, about what's been going on with this place all these years. I'm still making up my mind about whether or not I'm satisfied with it all, but I did read the trilogy straight through, non-stop, and that says something about its quality. I'll probably return to it again after I've seen the first movie. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

G.K. Chesterton's THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY

Mention Gilbert Keith Chesterton to most people nowadays, and they'll probably know him as the author of the Father Brown mysteries and not much else (unless you're mentioning him to Roman Catholics, who might know him for a lot of excellent apologetics for their faith). Unless that person was me, for I have mostly thought of him as that guy who wrote that epic poem about "the last knight of Europe" and the Battle of Lepanto, and I'd have said, "oh, he wrote prose, too?"

So he's kind of like the elephant encountered by all of those blind men who could never agree on what kind of creature they were meant to describe, which is of course hilarious because G.K. Chesterton was himself a pretty large and imposing figure of a man, much like the enigmatic driving force of The Man Who was Thursday, a fantastic allegorical thriller/detective story that (REMEMBER THE VERY BLOG DESCRIPTION TEXT ABOVE SAYS "WARE SPOILERS" SO, YOU KNOW, NO BITCHING) pits a small army of secret policemen against another small army of not-so-secret anarchists, only to eventually lob a bomb of a revelation into the reader's lap that there's actually just the one small army, yuck yuck yuck.

I say yuck yuck yuck as if to mock the story's attempts at humor, but those attempts are actually quite successful. Each plot twist and reveal is skillfully done even as the broad slapstick silliness of each ramps up the broad slapstick silliness of the whole. But where humor usually relieves tension in a scene or story, Chesterton's humor, here, actually manages to make the tension "worse" -- scare quotes here because the worsening of the tension is just so damned enjoyable, whether the reader has yet figured out the final punchline of the joke or not.

I suspect that nowadays, most readers will have anticipated that punchline by at least halfway, if not a quarter of the way, through the story, but as I often maintain (especially when people complain about spoilers), a story that relies solely on surprise for its ultimate effectiveness is not really much of a story. Citizen Kane is still enjoyable if you first heard the secret of Rosebud decades before you actually got to see the film; ditto The Man Who Was Thursday if you've figured out who Sunday "really" is early in the reading.

I put "really" in scare quotes because, of course, Sunday (the characters' names are all their day-of-the-week code names within the anarchist society, the governing board of which meets in glorious public view the better to make the public and the police assume they're just a bunch of ridiculous dilettantes) has an allegorical identity quite beyond his dual role within the world of the story, though both within and without the story, he is the puppetmaster, and seeing him as that and no more is just fine. Seeing him as God, as some chose to do, has about as much impact on the enjoyability of the work as seeing Aslan as Jesus does for the Chronicles of Narnia. Well, aren't you clever.

Regardless of whether one is the kind of reader who seeks to decode literature, who, I suspect, might not like this work quite as much as the kind of reader who is happy to enjoy a surface narrative and maybe idly speculate a little about its Deeper Significance does, The Man Who Was Thursday has quite a lot to offer, quite apart from the slapstick humor of its plot twists and reveals. There are some exquisitely intense scenes when the protagonist provocateur might be about to have his cover blown; there are some genuinely thrilling chase scenes that, as I said before, are even more exciting because they are also funny as hell.

It's a classic for a reason.

Hilary Mantel's BRING UP THE BODIES

As a title, Bring Up the Bodies sounds to a modern book-browser like it must surely concern the uncovering of a previously unknown mass grave, or at least of an exhumation, but as Hilary-Mantel-As-Thomas-Cromwell explains in this sequel to Wolf Hall, it's an old phrase meaning simply to bring the accused into the courtroom or other facility in which they are to be tried, as opposed to just leaving them in their cells while their fates are decided. The bodies, in other words, are still alive.

For now.

As the previous book chronicled the rise of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, as documented by one of the chief architects of that rise, so this second chronicles her fall, and, incidentally, that of several brash young noblemen who all, coincidentally, once staged a simply hilarious masquerade play in which several demons dragged the soul of Cardinal Wosley to hell. Wosley was Cromwell's patron, and so Thomas was not impressed with these theatrics, except in that they gave him a bit of an Arya Stark list of people who needed to eat turd before he died. He remembers the performance so vividly that, despite their masks, years later he is given to referring to them in his mind based on which of the pretend Cardinal's limbs each man held during the dragging scene.

The suggestion that maybe not all of Anne Boleyn's supposed lovers actually were her lovers is only occasionally entertained, and not all that seriously, both in the world of the book as a whole and in the internal musings of Cromwell as viewpoint character, but this habit of Cromwell's of referring to them by limb strongly suggests it anyway. Maybe some of them did help her cuckold Henry VIII, but pretty much all of them were on Cromwell's list, from the play and from some other events.

The list joins the looming fact of Wolf Hall (family home of Jane Seymour, lady-in-waiting to both Queen 1.0 and Queen 2.0 and, of course, destined to become Queen 3.0) and its inhabitants, and also Cromwell's eventual fate as another cast-off of Henry's*, as sort of haunting omnipresent ghosts-to-be in a way that really distinguishes these books from more ordinary and straightforward works of historical fiction -- though of course this is less apparent in the television adaptation. Expressive as Mark Rylance's face is, you can't really tell which bit of his list is being checked off after a conversation, unless you have read the books and have very good recall. A lot of nuance and ambiguity gets lost in the translation.

Speaking, though, of ambiguity, Bring Up the Bodies is a bit easier reading than its predecessor, with a more conventional prose style and a lot fewer ambiguous pronouns -- though it's still a good idea to remind oneself that if it's not immediately obvious that a "he" or "him" is referring to somebody else, it's probably Cromwell, even if he's not the subject of the sentence or paragraph in question. It still amuses me to no end to see this, for, of course, in any ordinary account of this period the He who needeth no attribution is Henry VIII.

The focus on Cromwell, self-made and no-nonsense and sympathetic without in any way seeming like the kind of guy who'd have wanted anyone's sympathy (though his loss, last novel, of his wife and daughters to the "sweating sickness" is delicately and tragically portrayed), is a refreshing change from the kinds of fictional biographies of kings and queens that I mostly seem to come across in, e.g. Jean Plaidy or Philippa Gregory, or of the larger-than-life heroics and histrionics of Dorothy Dunnett's unbelievably accomplished heroes. Cromwell feels more accessible and believable than any of these, sound and unflashy (but never boring) and perfectly transparent of motivation and still very firmly in control of it all as the Bodies are Brought Up.

I almost don't want to read the legendary and long-promised third book of this series, whenever it sees the light of day, because watching his fall might be more than I can bear.... But who am I kidding? Of course I'll read it, if and when it happens.

*Cromwell, instrumental in the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and in the rise of Jane Seymour, when called upon to find yet another wife after Jane's sad demise, finally failed in that mission, after a fashion, when he helped arrange Anne of Cleves' becoming Queen 4.0. This Anne was great on paper, an eligible Protestant who seemed okay looking in official portraits, but in person was not attractive enough for Henry, who never consummated the marriage, tucked her away in a nice estate with a decent little household far away from him, and referred to for the rest of his life as his dear sister (I'd argue that she made out the best of all of his wives, since she never actually had to put up with him). Cromwell's standing with the king never recovered, and he was eventually himself executed on the king's orders.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Lois McMaster Bujold's THE WARRIOR'S APPRENTICE

It's considered simply scandalous in many of my circles to have never read any of Lois McMaster Bujold's famous and sprawling Vorkosigan saga, but as it turns out, I'm pretty glad that I hadn't until now, because that scandalousness landed me in the best and most amusing circumstances in which to read these books at long last, to wit, I am a Reading Ranger over at Skiffy and Fanty*, part of a revolving crew of podcasters who occasionally get together for a group geek-out over them now. Some of us are Vorkosigan veterans (of the likes of Alex Acks and Paul Weimer) and some of us, including Stina Leicht (yes, that Stina Leicht) and myself, are reading these books for the very first time. There are two episodes of Reading Rangers so far, covering the first two books (going on narrative internal chronology, rather than publication order), Shards of Honor and Barrayar, over at Skiffy and Fanty, so if you want to hear my thoughts as well as the rest of the gang's, go give those a listen. I'm only a little bit of a heretic over there.

But so, this time around I'm not in the rotation for the show, so I'm just treating this third novel, The Warrior's Apprentice, as a regular read here at Kate of Mind.

Spoiler alert: I loved it.

I wasn't entirely expecting to, mind. As those who've already listened to Reading Rangers know, I was quite taken with the heroine of the first two novels, one Cordelia Naismith, who is the mother of the hero of, I gather, pretty much all of the other novels. When I learned that the focus was going to shift rather abruptly (from my perspective) to her son, Miles, I was a little let down, because Cordelia is everything I never get in a space opera hero: not only a woman, but a single and middle-aged woman, who nonetheless kicks a lot of ass and only takes names when she marries maybe the only dude in the universe possibly worthy of her, a crusty, battered, smart and tough-as-nails artistocrat from another world.

But so, Miles. Remember Miles? This is a book about Miles. Except to understand Miles one needs a bit more backstory: Cordelia's aristocratic military husband, Aral Vorkosigan, is a man of such high position and influence, and so incorruptible, that he has a ton of enemies, some of whom want him dead, one of whom actually tried and almost succeeded, but Cordelia, while pregnant with Miles, was also affected by the attempt, and fetal Miles even more so. So he's short, a little malformed, and has extraordinarily brittle bones. And he's grown up in a culture that is equal parts Roman and Russian Empires, meaning that quite a lot is expected of aristrocrats' sons, including excellence in military service. Which means it's a wonder he's even been allowed to live.

So Miles has grown up watchful and wily, smart and observant and thinking around corners and pretty much like the literary bastard offspring of Tyrion Lannister and Francis Crawford of Lymond, except he's not a drunken lecher, nor is he a pretentious emo pain in the ass. One of the greatest characters ever to grace genre fiction, is Miles Vorkosigan.

Here in his first novel we meet him as a young man, struggling through the entrance requirements for a military academy/officer candidate school. He's aced all the written stuff but as for the physical stuff, well, not-quite-dwarf and not-quite-straight-spine and brittle bones, what do you think? Soon his career is under a cloud and no one is quite sure what to do with him, so he gets sent off to visit his maternal grandmother on Cordelia's home planet, which has a very different and more accepting culture, by the bye.

Not that he's there long, either. Along with his bodyguard, the gruff and dangerous Konstantin Bothari (who has a long and complicated history of his own and whose fortunes are very much tied up with Miles' parents) and his beautiful daughter Elena (Miles' childhood friend, very much an Arya Stark type, as her father is trying to shoehorn her into a life of genteel femininity, but she likes to fight and think and drink and know things), he's soon off on a half-assed adventure out in space on an obsolete freighter he's mortgaged himself to the hilt to lease/purchase because of reasons and he's running blockades and bluffing mercenaries and telling lies and meanwhile, back at home, his adventures are having bizarre and Byzantine consequences because did I mention his home world is an honor culture nightmare?

All this told in a great, elegant prose style with a lot of vivid imagery and analogy. We like, at Reading Rangers, to linger and dote over our favorite bits, and I have a lot of them, but probably my favorite favorite bit is really Bujold's style in a nutshell. As Miles prepares to go into battle, he thinks "This must surely be the worst part, waiting helplessly for Tung to deliver them like cartons of eggs, as fragile, as messy when broken." Oh man, that is the stuff!

So, it's with difficulty that I'm not plunging right into Miles' next adventure, but I'm waiting for more Reading Ranger adventures, and meanwhile, I've got lots of ARCs piling up for review over at Skiffy and Fanty. And other things.

And I'm not sure what Vorkosigan book we're doing next anyway.

*Speaking of Skiffy and Fanty, I'm now a book reviewer over there, too, which is why I've not been posting on books to this blog as often as I once did. It's a WordPress blog so I'm having difficulty creating an overall link to my posts there, but the most recent one, on a recently Kickstartered anthology called Strange California, is here.

Michael Lewis' FLASH BOYS: A WALL STREET REVOLT

I always pick up a volume of Michael Lewis' special brand of financial crisis literature expecting a whole lot of anger, a whole lot of despair, and a whole lot of edification about just how messed up our System of the World* really is. As I've mentioned before, it's kind of a sickness of mine. I can't stop reading about it, but to no end other than to raise my blood pressure, it would seem, because what can I do about it? I'm not an investor and never will be. I've been a politician and don't ever want to do time in that barrel again. And since my arms and hands went to hell, I don't even write much anymore. But still, these books.

But then comes Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, and what's special about it is all there after the colon in the title. For while of course this book lays out in gruesome detail yet another way in which the world of high finance is designed to screw over the little guy, right alongside its anatomy of a giant scam is the story of a handful of very smart and very strange guys who not only figured out how it all worked, but figured out a way to fix the problem and actually put their plan in motion and created a whole new stock exchange built on the principles of fairness to the investor.

The problem these Flash Boys tackled is the kind of thing that should make any decent person's blood boil: with the computerization of all of the world's stock markets came a myriad of opportunities to rig the game against not just the ordinary Joe Blow investor throwing a few thousand dollars around trying to get rich, but also against all of the even more ordinary Joe Blow workers whose pension funds are being thrown around Wall Street, too. And of course those opportunities were not overlooked.

It's all to do with High Frequency Traders (HFTs), many of whom invested ungodly amounts of money in high speed data connections to the stock markets and to investment banks' dark pools, and in computer server placement as physically close to the machines that actually run these as possible, because this allowed them to engage in front-running. When their software bots saw someone buying shares in a particular stock, they triggered other software bots to buy up all of that stock that was available in fractions of a second before the original schlub's order was fulfilled, and thus to drive the price of that stock up a little, and make the schlub pay more for the stock than he should have, to the slight profit of the HFT. Thousands and thousands of times a day. Meaning ungodly amounts of money was transferred from small time investors, hobbyists, pension funds, hedge funds, what have you, to these HFTs, making an incredibly handsome return on their ungodly investment in fiber optic cable, land easements, construction fees and server real estate. Yeah, I know. And it gets worse, because this was all made possible by some newish Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rulings. That were, of course, made by members who have worked in and later tend to go back to jobs in the big investment banks, etc. Foxes, henhouse....

But so, most of Lewis' books that I've read so far have been concerned chiefly with financial villains, and this book certainly felt like another one of those for quite a while. I was hunting up my pitchfork and rounding up some torch-bearers (this was before Charlottesville, OK?) and ready to go knocking on doors in New Jersey, if not Manhattan itself.

But that's not who Lewis' Flash Boys are. The Flash Boys are Brad Katsuyama, once an obscure employee of the Royal Bank of Canada, and the team he put together to figure out why his trades had suddenly become impossible, and then to try to figure out how big the scheme was, and lastly to design and build a stock market that leveled the playing field again. I could almost cheer them as heroes, but in doing so, I'd be celebrating something that in itself still makes me mad, because this is what regulators are supposed to do, except over the years we've cut back on regulators' power, numbers (as in staffing), scope and compensation, all assuring that the revolving door between the public and private sectors of Wall Street keeps spinning faster than Karl Marx does in his grave. How many Brad Katsuyamas has this world produced, this man who would rather figure out a problem and fix it than figure out a problem and profit handsomely from it?

At bottom, Flash Boys is a pretty good detective story, unraveling and explaining very well a very complex and bewildering scheme in a way that gave me a nice strong illusion that I sort of understand it now, but am still powerless to do anything about it except vaguely cheer for Katsuyama and continue to nurse a major hate-on for Wall Street, even as I know that most of what makes my life possible is inextricably tied to its machinations, for good or ill.

Dammit.

*To borrow Isaac Newton's phrase by way of Neal Stephenson.