Sunnyside III – Fueled By Randomness

by John Holbo on May 25, 2011

I had a simply heart-breaking experience, reading Sunnyside. (Strictly, I listened to it on Audiobook. So the following page numbers, courtesy of Amazon search-inside, do not correspond to my original ‘reading’ experience.)

Leland “Lee Duncan” Wheeler is about to audition.

The house lights went up momentarily, for the judges to introduce themselves. Each in turn stood up, announced his or her associations, then sat. Mrs. Franklin Geary, head of the Liberty Loan Committee, Christopher Sims of the Institute for Speech Benevolence … (246)

Then, on p. 256.

“We didn’t understand half of what he was doing. Mr. Sims, did you understand what he was doing?”

“I liked the kick to the face.”

Mrs. Geary frowned. “I thought he was swimming.”

You get it? Sims? Of the ISB? And the kick to the face seals the deal. I was so proud I spotted it. I emailed Sims to report my discovery of this wonderful Easter Egg and … he’d … already noticed it … himself. Way to let the air out of my little Easter Egg.

But now you know. That’s something they can put on my tombstone, I guess.

(I wonder how many more Easter Eggs there are. For example, to impress people at cocktail parties, Charlie is writing fancy words on note cards. “Iconoclast. Meme. Hegemony. Cynosure. Epistemology. Fungilble. Cyclothymia. Casus belli. Trope. Atavistic.” Meme? A word coined in Dawkin’s 1976 book, The Selfish Gene? Oh, and the Anti-Life Equation gets a mention on p. 117.)

The Sims point can be used to illustrate another. It is greatly to my moral credit that I was a very early adopter of the modern technology of always reading Chris Sims. Way back when, in 2006, when John & Belle had a blog they actually, y’know, blogged at, I made multiple links to Sims, when he was still small enough that J&B link traffic meant a big boost, relatively. (I know. Sims told me himself. I’m not suffering delusions of grandeur.) Of course, he would have gotten famous anyway, from all the Batman-holding-car-batteries stuff he’s done since. But it’s just possible – just suppose – that Sims got well-known, because of me, to the point where he came to the attention Glen David Gold, who wrote him into a novel, which I was then invited to write about, by Maria Farrell, thus completing the circle of random life. Except, as in real life, it turned out Sims already spotted the Easter Egg, which was a bit of a let-down, there at the end. Hell, for all I know, Gold emailed Sims and told him. Maybe there are connections of which I know nothing.

So what’s the point? The point is: this is just the sort of damn circle of randomness that Gold traffics in, in Sunnyside. Lots of little interpersonal links, and funny stuff, which is made slightly more funny by the elaborate linkage. But no strong, overall story arc, dramatically, and the random collisions are not played for slapstick effect, comedically. As Maria says, the point is that there is no point.

Stuart Evers is right that ‘towards an American myth’ is a good gloss on Gold’s theme. But ‘fueled by randomness’ is just as good. Gold is trying to perform the weird Platonism of celebrity culture over a drumbeat of Talebian black swannish skepticism. Evers quotes Gold: “Such is the nature of the inexplicable that, as long as it does not involve money, it can be ignored.” That’s a very Talebian thought. So is this bit Maria quotes: “The happy ending is only about knowing where to end on a smile, at the very moment where fortune is still on the ascent.” Maybe you haven’t read any of Taleb’s popular books. (I think they’re good. Not as good as Taleb thinks. But good.) Anyway, his themes are easily summarized. Wikipedia, take it away:

1) we overestimate causality
2) we tend to view the world as more explicable than it is. We offer explanations when we don’t have them.
3) survivorship bias [judging those who survive to be the norm, because those are the ones you can see]
4) skewed distributions [long-shot bets that tend to pay off small, but which may lose big, for example]

The Black Swan, Taleb’s follow-up to Fooled By Randomness, focuses on 4, seeing 1-3 through that lens. In terms of Gold’s maxim: there comes a point when we have suffered serious losses (or reaped gains), due to the inexplicable. But by that point we’ve been ignoring the inexplicable for so long that it’s pretty much in for a penny, in for a pounding, at least epistemologically speaking.

There are several Black Swans in Gold’s novel. Random, never-explained apparitions of Charlie Chaplin suddenly appearing around the country. World War I (that’s one of Taleb’s favorites, too). And black cygnets, gaming around the big mamas (or whatever swans do in groups. Lamentationing?) Like Duncan Cody’s Wild West troop getting attacked by the Kaiser’s troops, mid-performance, on the eve of W.W. I. I think it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say Gold structures his curiously arc-less story around these events to teach Taleb’s lessons 1-3. We see non-survivors as well as celebrities, to help us see, and overcome, survivorship bias, so forth. We see that the web of actions and events around any given character is more extensive than that character is going to be in a position to understand, much less control. (I don’t mean the book is epistemologically lecture-y. It isn’t.)

Running the comparison the other way: Taleb likes stories, too. But it’s hard to write good stories about Talebian themes. At one point in The Black Swan (p. 93) he summarizes the plot of a Dino Buzzati novel, The Desert of the Tartars.

Giavanni Drogo is a man of promise. He has just graduated from the military academy with the rank of junior officer, and active life is just starting. But things do not turn out as planned: his initial four-year assignment is a remote outpost, the Bastiani fortress, protecting the nation from the Tartars likely to invade from the border desert – not too desirable a position. The fortress is located a few days by horseback from the town; there is nothing but bareness around it – none of the social buzz that a man of his age could look forward to. Drogo thinks that his assignment in the outpost is temporary, a way for him to pay his dues before more appealing positions present themselves. Later, back in town, in his impeccably ironed uniform and with his athletic figure, few ladies will be able to resist him.

What is Drogo to do in this hole? He discovers a loophole, a way to be transferred after only four months. He decides to use the loophole.

At the very last minute, however, Drogo takes a glance at the desert from the window of the medical office and decides to extend his stay. Something in the walls of the fort and the silent landscape ensnares him. The appeal of the form and waiting for the attackers, the big battle with the ferocious Tartars, gradually become his only reason to exist. The entire atmosphere of the fort is one of anticipation. The other men spend their time looking at the horizon and awaiting the big event of the enemy attack. They are so focused that, on rare occasions, they can detect the most insignificant stray animal that appears at the edge of the desert and mistake it for an enemy attacjk.

Sure enough, Drogo spends the rest of his life extending his stay, delaying the beginning of his life in the city – thirty-five years of pure hope, spent in the grip of the idea that one day, from the remote hills that no human has ever crossed, the attackers will eventually emerge and help him rise to the occasion.

At the end of the novel we see Drogo dying in a roadside inn as the event for which he has waited all his life takes place. He has missed it.

Don’t know anything about Dino Buzzati myself, but I sort of liked this bit, courtesy of 50 watts (formerly, Journey Round My Skull). Very death-of-myth meets black swan.

Taleb nests this plot summary within a short story about a woman who becomes obsessed with the story of Drogo. Well, never mind about that. His point is that there are two kinds of people, black swan-wise. Those who are exposed to black swans, without realizing it. And those who are waiting around for the black swan to show up, without being able to make it. Gold writes a lot about both types in his novel. Leland Wheeler, the ‘hero’ (according to the cast list at the start of the novel) is a lot like Drago, for example. He even starts the novel in a lighthouse, overlooking the sea – different sort of desert – watching out for invading Germans. He doesn’t spend the novel in that tower, but he does spend the novel waiting for the main opportunity for stardom that doesn’t, exactly, materialize. He doesn’t die in a roadside inn, but the novel does have a ‘that’s it?’ ending, Leland-wise.

So really. What’s the point? Again, I don’t want to suggest that the novel is moralizing – that there is some heavy-handed moral to the story. There certainly isn’t on, on the page. But I guess the typical enough human problem this author took as his subject, as it were, is that we humans find it hard to role-play – find it hard to think of ourselves as being such-and-such a kind of person – in ways that aren’t at odds with our epistemological position … although that makes it sound too epistemological.

As I said, I listened to it on audiobook. That’s some serious hours put in. So I must have enjoyed it. (I’m not one to commit the fallacy of sunk costs, upon reaching an unsatisfactory half-way point.) But it was a challenge, in that the whole novel is a challenge to the promise the first pages make: ‘this evening’s entertainment’ ‘starring’ … ‘the hero’, ‘a friend’, ‘an enemy’, ‘a baby vamp’, ‘a square cop’, ‘a crooked cop’, so forth. It took me a helluva lot longer than one evening, and there weren’t any heroes, exactly, etc.

Thematically, the idea of the novel makes sense to me. Not that novels need to be about themes (shudder) like this is high school English. Man vs. Black Swan, or whatever. I just mean I think I get how and why the author thought it would be a good book. But just as the characters acutely suffer from an inability to inhabit their designated roles, so the reader may suffer, to some degree, as that suffering stretches over hundreds of pages.

That’s not exactly a ringing advertisement, I realize. Since I actually enjoyed it, I’m sort of casting about for something a bit more. I guess it’s just this. Lovely prose. Lots of great characters, including minor ones. It’s really very self-controlled, sprawling scope and Chris Sims Easter Egg kicks to the face notwithstanding. I haven’t read Carter Beats The Devil, Gold’s first novel. I’ll bet I’ll like it, if I ever get around in this busy old modern life.



John Quiggin 05.25.11 at 4:26 am

It’s an enjoyable book to read, but a hard one to review, which is why I ducked out of this event.

It’s a problem, not unique to books, but certainly significant for them, that the book has to be more than the summary provided by a blurb or review, yet the limits of time mean that we have to decide what to read on the basis of a summary.


Petteri Sulonen 05.25.11 at 5:11 am

That Giovanni Drogo story sounds an awful lot like the Jacques Brel song, Zangra.


glen_david_gold 05.25.11 at 11:54 am

I’ve read The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily but not the other Buzzati. I love the illustrations you put in your post — they remind me of Tom Gauld. Thanks for tipping me off about him. When I was making notes on Chaplin’s 800 appearances, I wrote down that he would be an “analogue meme,” which — accurate or not — made me laugh enough to think a bit. Hence the tachyon-fueled spread of the word “meme” itself.


John Holbo 05.26.11 at 3:14 am

Hi Glen, glad to meet you. Yes, the illustrations are great (I think). Ah, tachyons. Well, that explains it.


dave 05.26.11 at 9:46 pm

Why, Holbo, can you never, ever, ever bring yourself to having a point?


John Holbo 05.26.11 at 11:24 pm

That’s a good question, dave!

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