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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten


Rand - Jan Kjærstad Sometime in the 90s, I was visiting a friend I hadn't seen for a while. She asked me about a common acquaintance, a guy she'd briefly been involved with, who was also working in research.

"Well," I said, "He's too optimistic. If research were romance, he'd expect all the ideas to behave like women in porno movies, and just lie down in front of him, panting and moaning. He doesn't realize that he needs to seduce them first."

She blinked. "Hm," she said, "I haven't heard many philosophical jokes recently. I'm a little out of practice."

One way to think of Rand is as a series of elaborate philosophical jokes. It's also a serial killer police procedural, a science-fiction novel, a meditation on the nature of God, and a post-modernist pastiche; books I thought of while I was reading it included American Psycho, The Name of the Rose, Lolita, Last and First Men and Philosophical Investigations. The story is narrated by the killer, a mild-mannered software engineer who shares an Oslo apartment with his flight attendant girlfriend and writes down the details of his latest murder while she's away at work. It's edited, in a language written in an unknown script, by a presence that might be an angel or an extra-terrestrial being. The style is alternately reflective, pedantic, ironic and poetic; sometimes it reminds me of a Bach fugue (Kjærstad likes Bach), and sometimes of a David Lynch movie.

A theme Kjærstad loves to explore is recursion. In Forføraren, the novel itself is represented in the text as Jonas's TV series, "Å Tenke Stort"; later on in the series, it turns up again in multiple forms. In Rand, I read the police procedural thread as standing in for the reader's attempts to understand what the book is about. The narrator just kills people every now and then, for no obvious reason. Perhaps he's mad; perhaps there's some purpose behind what he does, that you don't immediately grasp; perhaps he's the tool of a non-human intelligence, that's somehow using him to study life on Earth; perhaps this is God's way of talking to the narrator, a kind of Zen koan that's meant to break him out of his accustomed way of looking at reality and let him see what's behind it. The police invest more and more resources in the hunt for the killer, and develop more and more elaborate theories; these provide much of the humor. Similarly, Kjærstad invites you to speculate about the meaning of the book. He's warning you ahead of time that he's probably going to laugh at you.

You've no doubt gathered by now that Rand is unlikely ever to outsell Twilight, and it's indeed almost unknown. Kjærstad certainly didn't waste his time, though; he wrote it immediately before Forføraren, his masterpiece, and you can see he's warming up for it. Many of the themes that are fully realized in the later book are sketched here. If you liked Forføraren as much as I did, you'll find Rand worth reading just for that reason. Or at least, you will once the English translation comes out; annoyingly, it exists, but apparently hasn't yet found a publisher. Sibyl says that the Dutch translation is quite good.

Let me close by quoting you one of the book's more obvious philosophical jokes. The last page is a short lexicon of key concepts, compiled by the mysterious editor. A dozen or so Norwegian words appear in the left-hand column. On the right-hand side, you can see their definitions in the unknown script. The definitions for "whale", "tree", "alphabet" and "orgasm" are all about a line long. Clearly that's straightforward stuff. You think "conscience" might require some explanation, but its definition is even shorter. Finally, we get to "as if". The editor goes wild, and spends a whole long paragraph discussing it. If you also thought that was funny, you might enjoy Rand.