version control by dexter palmer

It’s been a long time since I wrote a book review on here, and this won’t really be that either. It’ll be more similar to what I wrote about Patrick Rothfuss a few months ago.

Which is to say, it’ll be more about my experience as a person and a reader, and less like a formal book review, which I guess I don’t even really do on goodreads, where I’ve begun reviewing just about everything I read, even if only dropping in a few sentences.

version control


I discovered Dexter Palmer accidentally. His novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion was one of the first novels I bought and subsequently read on my kindle.

See, I bought my kindle way back in 2010, after I graduated college. I bought it because I was about to move to South Korea and knew I wouldn’t have easy access to physical books, so I took the dive into the ebook world and I still spend a lot of my reading there.

Anyway, I came across The Dream of Perpetual Motion somehow. I don’t even remember how, but what I remember is loving that title and its cover. Maybe more than anything else, those two things caused me to hit the buy button and wait for it to download.

Of course, that’s not when I read it.

What kind of maniac reads books the moment they buy them!

No, it wasn’t until I was on the first of what would be three plane trips that took me to Seoul, where I’d then take the bus to Gwangju. But I started reading this and I fell in love.

When I was growing up, I loved science fiction and fantasy. I fell in love with worlds and words but somewhere in my teenage years I became convinced that they were not proper Literature.

A foolish and ugly notion–I know. But so I spent a solid ten years not reading any science fiction and fantasy. It’s only in the last five years that I’ve really come back to it, and only last year where my reading was primarily speculative instead of literary. This is one of the novels [along with China Mieville] that brought me back.

I honestly don’t remember the novel very well anymore–such is time! But my thoughts on the novel, written months after I read it, are a bit instructive.

The thing is, I remember enjoying it and I remember feeling those things I wrote about in that review, but I didn’t really love it. It’s complicated, I guess, but I thought it was a fun, inventive, and clever novel, but it didn’t crawl deep inside me.

Or at least that’s what I thought.

The truth has become that it’s one of the novels I think about pretty often, even still, five years later. It’s grown in my estimation since then and I really want to give it another read, but I almost never reread books–who can say why–but after reading Version Control, I may just go back to it.

To be honest, I wasn’t super excited about this new book. I mean, I was, but what usually happens to me is that I get a book when it comes out and then don’t read it for months. This is probably one of the most persistent of my reading habits, unfortunately. So it’s very unusual for me to read books as they come out. Usually I’m a year or five behind, even if I preordered something.

For example, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84which I preordered way back in 2010. I still haven’t read even a word of it!

No real reason, either, especially considering how strange it is that I’ve read his newer novel already.

The other thing was that I go into novels knowing almost nothing about them. I don’t read excerpts or reviews or anything like that, except by way of gauging whether or not people seem to think it’s good or bad. I’m not really interested in what a book is about until I read it.

Sure, I often have a good idea. For example, when I picked up Game of Thrones I had a lot of assumptions about the book already–most of them proven incorrect–purely because of its genre.

But I knew this novel was a time travel novel, and though I grew up loving science fiction, time travel has never been something that really interests me. Even in Chrono Trigger, a game I love, the time travel wasn’t a selling point for me.

And still, I don’t much care for time travel in fiction or film, though Primer is devastatingly brilliant and La Jetee is so gorgeous I can barely breathe and Doctor Who is whimsically funny and terrible and worth watching. But, for the most part, I’m happy to skip over anything time travel related.

But the copy was available at the library so I picked it up.

And I started reading.

I’ve had a weird year of reading thus far. Most of what I’ve come across has been disappointing, to a certain degree. I haven’t really come across something yet that felt essential to my life or that changed the way I felt about the world. Or, I should amend that–though I won’t–because The Traitor Baru Cormorant might be one of the best novels I’ve recently read, barring this one, of course.

But most of what I’ve read this year has been somewhere between disappointing and just okay.

A lot of it has felt very thin, I guess. Very–I don’t know–shoddy? Books with high praise but little I found worth loving. Some of them have been extremely interesting or subversive or whathaveyou, but none of them have been what I really needed. Especially since last year was such a great year for me as a reader. It seemed like nearly everything I read was my favorite book!

So maybe I’m being unfair to the books I’ve read this year, especially since some of them have been quite good, but the point I’m coming to is that none of them were this.

None of them were Version Control. The book I needed but didn’t know. The book that would breathe into me in ways I haven’t felt in over a decade.

I was thinking about this, in the hour it’s been since I read those final words, tears on my cheeks, and now. How the closest I’ve ever felt to the way I felt after finishing this was when I discovered Steve Erickson, a writer who changed my life.

But more than him, even–giant that he is to me–I’m brought way farther back, to when I was sixteen and reading Crime and Punishment over and over. I read it the first time in three days when we had two months to read it. Immediately after finishing it, just crying my eyes out, I went back to page one and read it again.

I wept into that book. Nearly every page is underlined [which wasn’t useful, as a student, but maybe demonstrates how much this book meant to me] because every sentence, every word was precious to me. I was tattooing it on my heart. I was dying over those pages. Losing my mind.

That book broke me. It broke me to pieces. I was no longer the same person I was before I came across Dostoevsky’s words. He fundamentally transformed who I was and the way I saw the world. I’ve written thousands of words about him and read everything he’s written twice, and I’ve avoided him since I was eighteen.

I’m afraid of him.


Afraid to read him again, not so much because I fear he’ll be reduced by revisiting his work, but because I can’t bear to lose myself.

His books taught me to love myself, maybe for the first time.

They broke me apart and gradually rebuilt me. And I like who they made me.

If I read them again, and I fall again to pieces, who will I be once I close the book for the last time?

It scares me, even now, just sitting here.

Version Control wasn’t as dramatic as all that for me, no. But it hit me in ways that are very much familiar.Ways that I haven’t been hit in a long time.

Steve Erickson hit me in mostly emotional, existential, and aesthetic ways. I tore through his books twice and wept in a number of them, and he showed me how to live, how to write, how to love.

But Dostoevsky gave birth to me.

And reading Version Control–it’s similar to that.

It hit me in every way possible.

Intellectually, this is one of the most interesting novels I think I’ve read since Dostoevsky. Where Dostoevsky is all philosophy and existence, Palmer is more scientific. The intellectual capacity of this book is more cerebral than emotional–for me, Dostoevsky will always be understood emotionally as well as philosophically, and I think those are extremely linked in his work. I came across ideas in Version Control that were invigorating but also ones that were familiar.

Familiar in ways I’ve rarely shared.

The way he writes about social media, information, science, relationships–and he hits these on several registers–are all things that feel so much like reflections of how I’ve felt for years, living through this age of screens and avatars.

But more than that, he’s delving into the nature of reality, into the nature of the self and the other, into personal and cultural history.

This book was also genuinely funny at times. I laughed out loud through various scenes. So much so that my wife thought I was distracted by something else unrelated to the book! She asked me, from the other room, if I was on imgur because of how much I was laughing!

The characters are so fresh and alive. They feel lived in and real and familiar.

I feel like I could pick Philip or Rebecca or Carson or Kate or even Cheever and Sean out of a crowd if I had to. They feel so real to me, so obviously true.

And this goes down into the worldbuilding.

The novel takes place in the 2020s, and it’s all so well thought out, so reasoned, but no time is really spent creating it. There are all hints as background and implication. Palmer doesn’t need to write a chapter about how the world has changed. He shows you through the simple ways that characters react and interact with each other and the world around them.

It feels so solid.

This is, perhaps, what many of the books I’ve been reading have been missing–a solidness.

Palmer also lays out a world that is very much what I fear and expect the world to become.

You could label it a dystopia, but even in its harrowing implications, the book never deals with it in that way, because its characters don’t view it that way. Characters who are, for all intents and purposes, my generation. People who were in college during the financial collapse and spit out into a world of drones, social media, debt, and no jobs available.

He captures our loneliness, our ineffable sorrow for the things we can’t even name or describe. This wrongness we feel–or maybe just I feel–with the world. Like something happened somewhere, sometime to make the world slightly askew.

He delves into morality in interesting ways. The way we deal with the moral implications of the potential dystopia we consistently agree to and give into and let define us. The morality of relationship and our choices.

It really is an existential novel, with choice standing at its center, which is maybe why I keep thinking of Dostoevsky now that I’ve finished the book.

It’s not as heavy as him, because Palmer is still having fun. You can feel it.

He captures our awkwardness, our drunken shenanigans, our inability to do what’s right even when we know what it is, even when we truly want to.

He captures the distances between people and the times those distances evaporate until we’re almost one.

What I’m trying to say is that he does a little bit of everything and he does it brilliantly.

But what surprised me were my tears.

In this novel, I found pieces of myself laid bare.

I don’t often look for myself in art. I do often find myself there.

It’s an odd sensation, when you read something that sounds like your own brain, when you experience something that feels like your own life, that reverberates through your bones, that beats with the blood pumped by your own heart.

That’s what I discovered here. Even the cadence of my thoughts. Even the murmur or my own heart.

It was more of a recognition, at first. Seeing myself so clearly in a text that isn’t really about me.

It may be about my generation, but it’s not about me.

But then there I was, standing at its center, naked and alone and afraid but smiling, eventually laughing.

And ultimately crying.

It took me by surprise.

The emotions run deep in this novel. It’s easy to get lost in how interesting everything is, how clever the novel is, how real these characters are, how solid and true it all feels. Because of how well all these elements work, you don’t realise that you’ve already signed over your heart to these people, to Palmer.

He holds it and he knows how to squeeze it at just the right moments.

Even still, I didn’t think I’d cry. And I cried twice. In the space of about three paragraphs. On the last two pages of the book.

What’s maybe most amazing about this book is that it does a wide variety of things that would seem digressive or separate in most novels.

His exploration of race, for example, is breathtaking, and is also so tied into his explorations of science, society, relationships, capitalism, government, and emotional resonance that nothing feels out of place.

Every element works together, synergistically.

Dexter Palmer’s PhD is on the work of postmodernists like Pynchon, Gass, and Gaddis, but what he manages to do is never digress the way they do. They digress endlessly and you come to realise, maybe, that those digressions are part of the whole. But Palmer’s explorations into various facets of life never feel digressive. They feel like wholeness.

I’m endlessly impressed and in love with this novel.

I can’t imagine finding another book this year that’ll match it, but I am hopeful. But, yeah, this is already holding my vote for best book of 2016, early as we are into this year.

I hope you give it a chance and I hope you love it.

Dexter Palmer really does something gorgeous here. Something unforgettable.

25 influential books

This is going around facebook but I don’t think I could stick it to just ten so I’m going to give myself this larger but equally arbitrary number for my list. These are books that stayed with me/changed me/on and on. There’s no specific order beyond the first two.

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky – This may not be Dostoevsky’s best, but it’s my favorite, and it’s the first one I read. It literally changed my life. It changed every bit of me. It changed the way I saw the world, the way the world felt, the way I thought and still think. I think it’s the novel that caused me to give up my anger. It taught me how to live. It taught me everything I know about life. It broke my heart over and over and I wept into the pages. Not cried, but wept big alligator tears as my heart sort of fractured and disintegrated in Russia so long ago. It tore me apart and broke me to pieces for so long and then it rebuilt me slowly. Raskolnikov is so deep inside me, so fused to my life that I think Dostoevsky’s still building me, still trying to get me right. I read it twice the first week I held it in my hands. I read it four times by the end of that year, and I’m afraid to even pick it up. I have a few different translations of it but can never make it past the first couple pages. Not because I don’t like it anymore, but because I’m afraid of what’ll happen.

2. A Season in Hell / Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud – You’re only sixteen once and so you only get to discover the perfect books for you at that age once. This, along with Crime and Punishment defined my sixteenth year, and just about every year after that. This is when I still thought I was a poet, or at least when I was desperately trying to write the perfect line, and then Rimbaud disemboweled language for me. Everything I thought I knew about what words could do and what they could be shifted radically, and, still, every year I reread these, discovering more each time it drains into my brain. It invigorates me and it’s one of those cures for when I get absurdly depressed about the world I exist in.

3. The Waves by Virginia Woolf – Like Rimbaud, this just radically changed what I understood language to be and what it could do. It transformed narrative for me, and I still consider it maybe one of the only perfect novels I’ve ever read. It’s sublime and untouchable and she writes so beautifully that it makes you want to quit, but it’s also endlessly inspiring, pushing me harder and deeper.

4. The Magus by John Fowles – This is the novel that taught me that language needn’t be difficult or overpowering for a novel to be absolutely brilliant. It transformed what I understood about narrative once more, and it broke my heart. It’s beautiful and nearly perfect. And it begins so quietly, so unassumingly. The first 100 pages took me about a week to read and the next 600 took me about two days. It’s like falling into a kaleidoscope and hoping to never find your way back out, and even when the novel ends, you’re still trapped in the whirlwind, just hurting, just loving. And then the world shines, but from a new light. One you didn’t know could exist.

5. Moby Dick by Herman Melville – I don’t even really have words for this novel. It’s unstoppable. It’s one of the few perfect novels ever written and I could live in that language, in that world forever. It taught me so much about what a novel can be. Forget narrative and character and the language. It taught me that a novel can be so much more than just words or even just an experience. A novel can be this grand neverending world that exists nowhere but feels realer than the world around you.

6. A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin – Like many people in love with literary fiction and its genre constraints, I rarely read any genre fiction, which is a huge oversight in my reading that I began correcting a few years ago. That’s when I fell into this. Read the first five novels, all 5,000 pages, in about three months. If you want to see what plot can do, just pick one of these up. The writing’s not perfect, but he creates a world so profoundly complex and large and characters so real they drip off the page. But the greatest achievement, I think, even beyond all the mythos and legends and so on, is the unrelenting pacing of these novels.

7. Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas – I’ve been talking about this novel so much for the last two years it’s strange to think that I might have even more to say. But it’s perfect. It’s perfect in every way, even in the ways it fails. And Nadas does so many things that shouldn’t work. He takes a moment, literally a single moment, and stretches it over fifty or one hundred pages, and it’s somehow never boring. It’s invigorating. I generally dislike sex scenes in fiction because I think they’re pretty boring, but he writes these enormous scenes centered around just a minute of sex and cast over so many pages, and it’s the greatest writing I’ve ever read. Nadas is a master. Maybe the only one at his level living, and his enormous crumbling cathedral of a novel is absolutely sublime.

8. Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian – Imagine a Chinese Milan Kundera, and imagine him doing what Kundera does, but somehow better. Honestly, I used to always say that no writer writes like Kundera because no one could possibly pull off what he does, and then I fell into Soul Mountain. Part memoir, part ethnography, part history of the Cultural Revolution and Maoist China, part political treatise, part ecological report, part mythology, part noir, part travelogue, part mythology, part metaphysical exploration of the self and nation. It’s enormous and so beautiful, so readable, so perfect.

9. Our Ecstatic Days by Steve Erickson – Ever since I’ve read Erickson, I’ve been preaching his name to whoever will listen. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the greatest living american author, and my favorite writer maybe ever. He changed me in ways that haven’t happened since Dostoevsky, and so maybe this should be at the beginning of this list too. And, really, I could put any of his novels here. People had been telling me about Erickson forever, telling me how much I’d love his work, but I always just sort of wandered off to some other book. And then I discovered his first novel, Days Between Stations, at a secondhand shop in Dublin. Everything’s been different since then. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without him. I wouldn’t have ever been able to write a novel without him. His writing taught me that I could be the writer I wanted to be. I didn’t need to fit into a niche or some other well-trodden path of literature. I could carve my own way, write the stories I wanted to read and live in. I read most of his books twice the first year I found him, and I think this is his best. But it also only works at this level if you’ve read all the novels published previous to this one. It’s a gargantuan achievement, how he ties all of his novels together into a single world constantly in flux. Steve Erickson is a giant and we’re lucky to have him and you should read him now.

10. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu – If Crime and Punishment taught me how to live, then Lao Tzu taught me how to be human.

11. The Stranger by Albert Camus – Along with the Tao Te Ching, this novel taught me how to be human. Its influence is still felt today, and, outside of that, it’s just a great novel. It’s another book I discovered at the right time that led me to read everything he ever wrote. I think The Fall is probably a better novel and maybe even taught me more about what it means to be ydde, but I’m sticking with The Stranger because of what it opened up to me.

12. Factotum by Charles Bukowski – I actually don’t think Bukowski is very good anymore, bu he was extremely important to me when I was younger. Back when I was hating the world, drinking way too much, so angry and depressed about existence, he was the one who sort of tempered my anger and pushed me towards creation. I wouldn’t be the same person without Bukowski but I find him one of the hardest writers to return to.

13. The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin – This is a brilliant novel by one of the greatest novelists around. Read this while I was simultaneously seriously studying anarchism and it sort of opened up the world to me. Not only that, but it opened up the ability in me to dramatise politics in a way I never thought possible before. From here, I’ve read a great number of her books, though there are still many more to read. That’s one of the delights of discovering a prolific master.

14. Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata – Taught me what beauty really is. It fell so perfectly into my head and my constructs of reality that, rather than shift who and what I was, it crystallised aspects of me. And ever since reading this, I’ve chased after his delicate beauty, that brilliance. It’s not my favorite of his books or even his best, but I think it captures this aesthetic best.

15. Bird is Gone: A Manifesto by Stephen Graham Jones – This isn’t Stephen’s best or even my favorite, but it’s the one that does things I can still barely wrap my head around. It’s a novel I didn’t even begin to understand until I read it the second time, and every read becomes better, fuller, more rich. It taught me the importance of rereadability, and how important that is to a novel. Ever since reading this, I’ve always sought to get that subtlety and shifting quality that he captures here. And I could put so many of Stephen’s books here. Especially Ledfeather. Always and forever. My whole life caught in that little book, which also has the unique quality of being unputdownable. If I read that first page, I’ll be reading the last page in a few hours. I’ve read it four times, all of them in one sitting, the last three times accidentally, usually way too late at night.

16. Collected Stories by Amy Hempel – I don’t think you can read Hempel and return to writing the same way. I read this around the same time as I read Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson and Thom Jones’ short stories, and while I think all of these are pretty similar, I think Hempel does it best. Her aesthetic is so strong and so near perfect. If you want to learn how to write a sentence so full it’s nearly bursting, pick up anything by Hempel.

17. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link -Read this at a time when I forgot how great short stories could be. Such a unique and brilliant imagination, and just unstoppably great. Link is definitely one of the best around. Should probably put Yiyun Li here, too, since I read it around the same time, and though it’s unbelievably different, it captures that same kind of brilliance. Yoko Ogawa, too.

18. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card – This was the first novel to make me cry. I read it when I was, like, eleven, or something, and I just started bawling. I’d tell you at which part, but that might ruin things. I didn’t know books could do that to me. I didn’t know words could effect me like that. It changed everything I knew about art [which, at that point, was not very much] and I’ve read this book several times, always loving it, always learning from it. Card may be a reprehensible person, but he wrote a near perfect book about 25 years ago.

19. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – I don’t even know what to say about this novel. It does so much and so perfectly. I still think about it quite often and there are scenes here that will never leave me. It influenced a great deal of my writing without me every really even realising it. Especially, maybe, my obsessions with circles.

20. The Female Man by Joanna Russ – Just brilliant and visceral. Should probably include Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless and Samuel R Delany’s Nerveryon here, since they’re all so related in my head. They talk about gender and identity in ways that I never really thought about before, but that also fit so perfect and right in my head, in the way I had always looked at the world. It wasn’t so much as a revelation like having your eyes opened but more like someone turning on the light and realising you’re not alone in the dark with all these thoughts. And they’re all just brilliant books, too.

21. Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Just read these stories and discover how great short stories can be. Each one is so different and so perfect.

22. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes – Just unbelievable. Right when I was getting past how perfect language could be, I fell into this and sort of wanted to live there forever. Djuna Barnes writes like she’s on fire and the apocalypse is everywhere, but it’s also hilarious.

23. Girl with Oars and Man Dying by JA Tyler – I don’t understand why more people haven’t read this novel. It’s a fairytale and it’s beautiful and heartbreaking, and maybe my favorite JA Tyler novel, which is really saying quite a lot. It’s perfect, in every way, and it gave me that open eyed awe sensation that art’s meant to give you, but that I had almost forgotten about.

24. The Tempest by William Shakespeare – This, of all Shakespeare’s plays, influences me the most on a day to day basis. I think about it more than I can really explain. It’s so full of ideas and wonder. It’s literally bursting with awesome, and I still just want to live in it. It does everything so well, and it’s probably his best play for its versatility and depth.

25. The White Hotel by DM Thomas – Like Erickson, discovered this in a halfpriced bookstore after hearing about Thomas for a long time. It’s absolutely brilliant and on fire. It captures life in brutal and hallucinogenic tones and shades and hues. I’ve read several of his novels and this is still the best, I think, and also the most unique and perfectly realised.

So that’s the list as it stands today. It’s surprisingly western. I think if I had made this list last year or even the year before, you’d see a lot more asian and latin american writers on there, but I guess that’s why I’m allowed to make lists whenever I want. There are also few women on here, but that’s just the way the list happened. All kinds of people I forgot to make room for, too, but I’m sticking with my list and I’ll defend it to THE DEATH!

Maybe I’ll make one every year just to see what happens. Dostoevsky and Rimbaud are so fused to me that they’ll always be on here. Same with Woolf and Erickson, but a lot of the rest is probably up for grabs.

All right. Off to do other things.

Oh, also, wanted to mention my indigogo campaign again.

It’s insane what we’ve raised already, but there’s still a long way to go. Lots of great rewards still available and my eternal gratitude, always. And thank you to everyone who’s donated and contributed. I’ll be saying this many times over the coming weeks, but I’ll always mean it just as much.