John Derbyshire is a fine writer on topics mathematical (e.g., see PrimeObsession, 4 Jan 2004) and political, but his 1996 novel Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream is rather a disappointment. It's full of allusions to Chinese culture and history, along with a great richness of literary, linguistic, and historical information from Western society. The author is obviously brilliant, and his style is always clear and fast-paced.

But Derbyshire's attempts at dialogue come out stilted in the extreme, and that's not excused by his use of unconventional typography and a non-native-English speaker as narrator. Several unnecessarily perverse sex scenes distract from the story. Improbable plot devices, along with eccentric central characters, never quite manage to come to life. And at the end of the book it's still unclear quite what the point of the whole thing has been.

Or perhaps it's just me? Maybe I'm not ready to read this book yet; maybe there's a lot more to it than I've been able to glean; maybe it's a deep political/cultural statement that went 'way over my head; maybe it's pure comedy and I'm not getting any of the jokes. Seeing Calvin Coolidge does seem to have elements of all those things. I should read it again some day ...

TopicLiterature - TopicPersonalHistory - 2005-02-22

(correlates: ThingsPeopleAndIdeas, SturmUndLeuf, OntologyRecapitulatesPhilology, ...)