Why I feel Leif Enger is the next John Steinbeck. 📚

I started reading Leif Enger’s Virgil Wander yesterday. As expected, I got ambushed and clobbered by brilliant prose, and woke up groggy several hours later, with my face in the book pages, amazed that I was unconscious to the world for how long??

I’ve read all of Enger’s previous books in order of publication — not hard to do, since there are only two of them.  It’s fascinating to track the growth of a writer through the voices of his books. Peace Like A River is like a spark of fire, and has the sound of youth: bursting with energy and superlatives, plumbing the heights and depths of emotion. It’s brilliant in the sense that light is brilliant and blinding. I got swept up in its ferocious passion, and love it for that.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome seems like a classic sophomore case. It feels more hesitant, as if now uncertain of its voice, and the fiery spark that animated Peace seemed almost quenched. Enger’s prose is still lovely and his characters are more poignantly drawn, but somehow the turns of phrase and imagery don’t glisten like they did, and this second novel doesn’t quite reach the heights of brilliance of the first. Yet, I sense that the prose of So Brave is starting to move in a different direction, as if it’s departing from the sources that animated Peace and reaching toward a new source or quality of prose, whatever that is. This second novel mostly falls short, although it sometimes enters that new source. While I thought So Brave was inferior to Peace, those moments of mastery encouraged me: Enger isn’t trying to recapture the past, but trying something new in his prose. (To be honest, I don’t think any author can ever quite recapture the spark of a first novel, and it’s futile to attempt.)

And Virgil Wander… Enger’s third novel successfully reaches those heights. That ‘spark’ is back, but it looks different. It’s still passionate, though not the fiery passion of Peace, and it feels more settled and matured.  Imagery and narrative glisten again, this time with more texture and complexity. And Virgil has something that the previous novels didn’t: a settled confidence that comes with experience and mastery of voice. The prose has control and precision that Peace didn’t have (and instead made up with passion) and So Brave was starting to reach for.

Have you read an author who manages to pack so much imagery and emotion into so few words?  Enger writes two sentences of less than ten words, or a two-line paragraph — and they paint a lush landscape in my mind, or evoke so many feelings of longing and wonder in me. It’s amazing. All his novels contain such turns of phrase, and they are the most precise and concentrated in Virgil Wander.

It’s been more than a decade since I last read or thought of John Steinbeck, but I think Enger gives life to his characters in Virgil Wander in similar ways as Steinbeck enlivens the cast of Cannery Row (my favourite of his stories) and The Grapes of Wrath.  Both authors have a way of drawing highly-textured, full-bodied characters in a single sentence. Main characters or bit players, they all spring off the page fully alive and with a sense of weight and history. And I think there are similarities between Enger and Steinbeck beyond characterization. Both have a whimsical knack for characterizing animals — simultaneously anthropomorphizing them while preserving their animal natures.  Both authors write with a strong sense of place, a deep embedding of the American person in their parts of America.  They address universals by getting into minute specifics of place and person. (For the record, I stole this from Russell Moore’s interview with Enger.)  And finally, it’s hard to describe, but it’s like both authors are pointing out the same kind of universal truth to me and evoking the same kinds of feelings in me.  The melancholy sorrow and numinous longing for beauty I felt when reading Steinbeck, I also feel when reading Enger.

Leif Enger’s prose is so simple, yet profound.  I want to write like him when I grow up.

I’m not finished with Virgil Wander yet, and I’m caught in the delightful position of simultaneously wanting to swallow it whole and savour every sentence. This is Enger’s best novel to date, and I look forward to being ambushed again the next time I pick it up.

Process knowledge and STEM education

I recently subscribed to The Prepared, a weekly newsletter that collects interesting articles about engineering, manufacturing, industrial processes, and supply chain. (I can’t exactly remember how I found it, most likely through this other newsletter. So thank you to Robin Sloan for introducing me to it.)

I’m loving the newsletter. Teenage choices led me into the sciences, but I think if the coin-toss had landed differently, I could just as easily have headed towards engineering instead. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by engineering, a world that is almost mystical in its strange-but-familiar quality. My fascination with this mystique manifests in weird places, primarily in my world-building for fantasy worlds, where I write a disproportionate number of world-building encyclopaedia articles exploring technomagical engineering and materials and industry.

So this newsletter gives me a window into real-world thing… and boy, have I fallen through this window, down the rabbit hole of long-form articles, into engineering Wonderland.  This is amazing, fascinating new stuff to me. I have no doubt that ideas gleaned from this newsletter are going to appear in my world-building and novels.

So it was through this newsletter that I read this fantastic long-form article which articulates many thoughts I’ve developed, in one way or another, mostly through my job. And it’s the thought that process knowledge, or tacit knowledge, is the most important skillset out there, that every person has to learn in their vocation, but is completely neglected in formative education. Mass education is rife with acquiring theoretical knowledge and learning how to apply them to scenarios, but the successful transaction between theory and application is a process – and learning process only comes from repeated hands-on exposure.

I never cease to be grateful that my vocational choices have led me to work that isn’t entirely desk-bound, where I have to execute theory into application in the physical, tangible world.  It’s also given me first-hand experience at how anaemic, how attenuated is the current education system at cultivating process knowledge. While I think that process is impossible to teach, it can be (and indeed, has to be) learnt, and the learning is best measured by producing physical, tangible outcomes.  Tracking and quantifying process, however, is elusive and too subtle for the brute-force theory-to-application methods in mass education, so it doesn’t get tracked, if it gets noticed at all.

That article focuses primarily on technological innovation and doesn’t address education, but I think the loss of manufacturing and industry in Western nations has direct repercussions on STEM outcomes in education. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in this government about how the nation lags in STEM outcomes compared to world-wide standards. But STEM achievement is primarily bound up in process knowledge, as the article states.  How can you effectively learn STEM processes if manufacturing is shutting down all over the country and has moved offshore?

Because science, engineering and technology is about manipulating the physical world, which is embodied through manufacturing and industrial processes. Moving bits and bytes in a disembodied, abstracted space can’t hold a candle to manipulating the physical world, with my body and equipment, into products and outcomes that can be evaluated by the five senses and spatial analysis.  In the physical world comes tangible, embodied risk, and therefore, the greatest opportunity for embodied, embedded learning.

Over the years of working in secondary education and tertiary academia, I’ve concluded that process knowledge, not theory nor applications, is the most important thing to be teaching people both young and old. If I had to stay in the education sector for the rest of my life, I want to end up in the trade and vocational schools. Because, in this nation where manufacturing is but a shadow of what it once was, trade school is a place where process knowledge still stands a chance of being valued and taught in any meaningful way.  At the end of the day, humans live in a physical world, human civilization is built on physical processes.  Even in a post-human world where human consciousnesses have been uploaded into computers, someone still has to keep the power on.

Apropos of an avian gossip session outside the house

Do crows know that their voices sound horrible? Do they simply not care? Or are they oblivious, and sing out because that’s just what they do?

I like to think they know they’ll never win a birdsong competition, but they sing out anyway, because they are joyful.

Similar post here.

Piranesi and Clarke

Kicks Condor alerted me to the imminent release of Susanna Clarke’s new book, titled Piranesi. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is long overdue for a re-read. I definitely was too young and obnoxious to appreciate it back when it was published.  (I sure hope I’ve gotten humbler and wiser by now; or at least, be able to enjoy Clarke’s apparently-genius writing more.)

But enough about Clarke. Piranesi is the name that grabbed my attention far more than hers. Le Carceri remains a profound influence upon my subconscious mind and imagination, far more than any other fantasy world-building. I wrote an essay about my visceral experience, but words can’t really describe how grand and otherworldly the Prisons are. My folio-sized artbook of full-sized art plates, laboriously hunted down after months via Abebooks, remains a prized possession in my library.

I suppose Clarke is the only author out there who’d conceivably write a whole novel about Piranesi and his Prisons. I look forward to reading it!

Thick darkness covered the earth

Last night, I sat at my computer tinkering in a spreadsheet, music tinkling in my headphones, with the lights turned on in the room and in the corridor, the comfortable sound of whirring machinery all around — when a brilliant light flashed outside the window, followed by loud a ‘whoomf’ sound, and between one breath and the next all the machines went dead silent and all the lights went out, plunging me into darkness–

thick darkness

for five seconds
(two breaths, enough for me to exclaim, “What the heck?”)

–then a ‘bump’ sound came from outdoors, the lights came back on, the machines spun up again. The world righted itself and all was back to normal.

It was between those two breaths that I thought, This is it. The apocalypse has arrived, and I am utterly helpless without my life-support machines and intravenous drip of electricity. What do I do now?