Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Memoirs Found In A Bathtub

I occasionally go through phases where I collect authors. Several years ago, I collected Stanislaw Lem. My first was Solaris. I loved it. And even though I knew it was an atypical example of his writing, I started collecting. The next Lem I read was The Cyberiad, a more typical example full of wordplay and a mix of science fiction, silliness, and folk-tale. I now own nearly everything Lem that's published in English (he wrote in Polish and worked with a translator, for which we can thank the retention of wordplay between languages), but I still haven't read a lot of it. I picked up Memoirs Found In A Bathtub. It has an interesting premise. It is the memoirs of a man living in a city-sized bunker where paranoia and espionage have become the rule. Everyone is a spy, or assumed to be, and must assume that everyone else is. Everything is a code, but nothing is. Our nameless protagonist (the book is written in 1st person) is new to The Building and is sent on or stumbles into an important Mission. Over and over again he is met with strange situations, miscommunications, misunderstandings, and inpenatrably complex (or, rather, meaninglessly complex) espionage operations. This occurs to the point where he doesn't know what his Mission entails, what his instructions are, or whether he is an agent of The Building or its enemy (if such an enemy actually exists anymore).

It's a theme that is now well-worn (relevant TV Tropes articles: ). Perhaps not original with The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G K Chesterton, but nonetheless where my mind starts its tracing of similarites, the theme of a spy finding that his marks are also spies is one that I find interesting. I will not claim to have the authoritative reading of The Man Who Was Thursday (it has been a while since I read it), but it felt like in that novel there is a bottom to the rabbit hole (to allude to yet another even more fantastical nonsense-world novel). Eventually meaning can be taken, where the point of Memoirs Found In A Bathtub appears to be the lack of meaning and understanding.

More than any other book, my mind is drawn to the tabletop RPG Paranoia. In Paranoia you play people who live in a city-sized bunker controlled by Friend Computer. Friend Computer is very concerned about communists and happines is mandatory. You and your fellow players are expected to spy on one another not just for Friend Computer, but also for a number of secret societies, some of which are made up entirely of infiltrators from other secret societies. Everyone is also a mutant, though mutations are illegal and you are to report mutants to Friend Computer for treason. Still, the ever presence of Friend Computer gives some cohesiveness that The Building, as a presumed mastermind, either literal or metaphorical, never achieves, perhaps on purpose.

What is present is Lem's wordplay. He has a way of writing crazy paragraphs full of bastardized words (who knows how bastardized they are in Polish) which feel perfectly off-kilter. It was this aspect of the book which I enjoyed the most and which reminds me of The Cyberiad. It is the aspect that will probably keep me reading more Lem.

Another fascinating aspect was the unresolved insinuation that the Mission instructions, of which our protagonist very briefly glimpses and which trace his movements from the beginning down to his thoughts, are in fact what we are reading rather than any sort of memoir. I love the ouroboros of it and it is one of the few thematic strands that resonates with me. Were the rest of the instructions a true prediction of what the character did? Or did they deviate? The memoirs never include the protagonist writing down his experiences and the ending is ambiguous as to the protagonist's survival. So it must be the instructions. In which case (as the protagonist himself questions), what is The Mission? How many people have walked this path before?

Content-wise, the "we're all mad" plot didn't do much for me. I can't decide if it is a plot that will never do anything or if it's this iteration of it. Perhaps I just needed more. I needed something or someone to care about. I need some window dressings. I need to know where the protagonist came from. Why is he new to The Building? What kind of life do people outside of The Building have? Where do people sleep? ect ect. It comes down to: If nothing makes sense, why should I care?

Additionally, I was turned off by the complete lack of female characters, one scene where the protagonist considers rape in an immediate but offhanded way, and a scene where a character's fatness is their sole characteristic and given as source for extreme disgust and assignment of evil morality (plus a bonus scene where another fat character is evil for their fatness). In my experience these scenarios were presented in ways that are typical of this era of novel, but an explanation is not an excuse. The book could have benefitted from not leaning on these tropes (i.e. the male heirarchy full of maleness and therefore authority, the girl whose existence is to tempt, and the fat villain).

I did not enjoy this book though I appreciate it. I was glad for its brevity. I will keep slowly reading through my collection of Lem so that I can hold up the gems for others to appreciate. This, however, is not a gem.