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A few years ago I found myself close to an episode of tabloid intrigue. A friend’s uncle was accused of murdering his wife in a rich Connecticut town. He attempted suicide before the case went to trial. I sat in a hospital waiting room watching Maury as he was taken off life support. Some of his belongings—a loaf of Wonder Bread, cloth napkins—came into my possession. Long after his story dropped from the front pages, I thought of him whenever I wiped my mouth.

I enjoyed talking about the crime—having it to talk about. I was at a safe remove from all the suffering that came with it, but I was near enough to have gotten the bread. I considered the callous pleasures of this position as I reached the end of Dinah Brooke’s Lord Jim at Home (McNally Editions, $18), which dwells unflinchingly, sometimes gleefully, on the way that scandal washes over a community, and the sorrow and schadenfreude that follow in its wake.

“Split Stack Taped,” by Mary Ellen Bartley © The artist. Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York City

“Split Stack Taped,” by Mary Ellen Bartley © The artist. Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York City

First published in 1973, the novel is essentially a bildungsroman that shatters into atrocity and gossip in its final act. It follows Giles Trenchard, an opaque young man whose crowning achievement is—skip to the next sentence if you don’t want the ending ruined—bludgeoning his parents to death with an iron pipe and wheelbarrowing them off a cliff. But there’s really not much to spoil: It’s clear from infancy that Giles is destined for mediocrity. Prone to fits of torrential weeping, he holds himself “as stiff as a plaster saint in a church procession” and “doesn’t seem to see anything, or even know where he is.” He’s born in interwar England, among mahogany, silver, and ermine, with a full-time nurse and entrée to one of the finest schools in the land. His father is an undersheriff, a man who walks in parades wearing velvet knee breeches, while his lecherous grandfather, imperious and spiteful, has always held a “secret ambition to be the first centenarian judge.” This privilege means that Giles’s formless softness—“no bounce, no spring to his character”—goes unchecked into adulthood. Today we’d call him a failson. His family makes do with “miserable worm” and “namby-pamby little milksop.”

Everyone in Giles’s world speaks this way, spitting an ultrafine acid mist that feels distinctly British. Giles himself is disciplined almost programmatically to keep the stiffest of upper lips. His nurse presses his soiled diapers to his face and dangles him from a window, and his drunkard father forces him to eat gristle plucked from the garbage, “now decorated with a few tea leaves and portions of Saturday’s dog track results from the News of the World.” At school, Giles “looks as if he spends his life underground, buried under a heap of other little boys,” and his headmaster beats him “over the arm of a chair covered in blue grosgrain.” He finds pleasure only in the bath, alone with the smell of his farts.

We’re in the vicinity of Philip Larkin and Pink Floyd—how can you have any pudding, etc.—and Brooke has as cool a hand as the former. Ottessa Moshfegh, in the foreword, calls the novel “an instrument of torture,” and notes that Giles “lacks the lowest level of agency and self-definition” necessary to arouse the reader’s sympathy. And yet you keep turning the pages. Brooke has a limpid, assured style: cruel, yes, but not detached or apathetic. Even her persistent foreshadowing, which would be labored from another writer, plays into her brutal game of determinism. It’s frigid fun. When Giles returns home from a long stint in the Navy, his mother can hardly be bothered to pause her bridge game: “She dithers, clutching her cards, and looking from the table to her son.” He tells her he nearly died. “Shouldn’t they have given you a medal for it?” she responds.

Cornish Coast, by Walter Elmer Schofield © akg-images

Cornish Coast, by Walter Elmer Schofield © akg-images

Hence the business with the iron pipe. Giles goes to the movies while his parents’ bodies bloat in the surf. Before his arrest, he runs into a couple he knows. They’re “not very thrilled” to see him, Brooke writes, “but later they have cause to be grateful as they dine out on the story for several months.” The rest unfolds in a delirious montage—reaction shots of people brought to life by murder. We see journalists “licking their pencil stubs,” women “huddled together in small groups all over the county, heads bent, short sharp sighs, voices echoing like a whisper in church,” and “saliva gathering at the corners of their mouths.” We hear from a cousin (“Rather a terrible thing’s just happened in our family”) and from Giles’s old shipmates (“He seemed a decent enough bloke. Who’d have thought he’d do a thing like that? It makes something to talk about in the pub though”). People play up their proximity to the crime, their bits of inside information. Those of us who’ve had the good fortune not to be murdered can be such assholes about it. The living lord it over the dead. It’s a bravura finale, and Giles is enveloped in its noise, lost as always. Brooke compares him to “a barnacle clinging to the bottom of a ship,” noting that it would have perhaps been better if he dropped off and sank “down through the blue and slate grey and black water until he was crushed into a jelly by the increasing pressure.”

The sinking at the center of Helen Garner’s This House of Grief (Pantheon, $27) does not literally crush anyone into a jelly, but it may as well, such is its implosive force. In 2005, Robert Farquharson, a window washer in Victoria, Australia, drove his car off the highway into a reservoir. He survived. His passengers—his three sons—did not.

Recul, by Jean-Robert Alcindor © The artist

Recul, by Jean-Robert Alcindor © The artist

Farquharson claimed he’d suffered a terrible accident: a coughing fit made him black out behind the wheel. Improbable, sure, but as Garner says, “The statistical rarity of any adverse event is of little comfort to the person whose number has come up.” The jury, peering for weeks at his hunched, ravaged figure, decided he was a murderer. In a retrial, a second jury reached the same verdict: embittered and emasculated by his divorce, he’d sought revenge by drowning the children. “The ex-wife swore at the committal hearing that he loved his boys,” Garner writes. “So? Since when has loving someone meant you would never want to kill them?”

This is nominally a legal drama. Garner sat through the whole trial—twice—and she gives its onslaught of forensics and withering cross-examinations a novelist’s treatment. She tries to hold herself in abeyance, as a juror would, but Farquharson’s predicament sunders “the vital link of loving duty between men and their children.” Why did he flee the scene rather than call for help? Why, as his boys’ bodies sat seven meters underwater, did he keep asking people for cigarettes? Did he intend to kill himself alongside his kids? His behavior leads observers to seek the moral high ground, unaware that the terrain is all craters and chasms. When Garner is brought to tears with pity for him, another journalist looks at her with scorn: “I was at the funeral.”

Like Brooke, Garner has an ear for the voice of mass condemnation—man-on-the-street hot takes, steaming with obtuse inference; gloating, fear, pride. Chatting with women in a pilates class, she mentions fathers “who stated categorically that in Farquharson’s position they would have gone to the bottom and drowned with their kids,” noting “the four of us agreed in very low voices that this could only be a fantasy.” One woman makes an uneasy confession: while wading in a lake with her toddler, she’d seen a snake approach and felt “the blind urge to save herself.”

This House of Grief was published in 2014. Its reissue, along with two of Garner’s novels, is intended to win her a wider readership in the United States. It would be nice if a woman could write about a murder trial without being propped up beside Janet Malcolm. Garner at least invites the comparison—she’s written of her admiration for Malcolm—but I’m not sure it flatters her. She grasps people in a way that Malcolm doesn’t. She has horse sense: I cringe to call it that, but that’s what it is. Malcolm wouldn’t know to linger on details like the shittiness of Farquharson’s car, a “clapped-out bubble of steel and glass” that was “the only home he has to offer” his sons. (His ex-wife, Cindy, had taken the nicer car in the divorce, though he’d earned it with the sweat of his brow, and this may have ignited something in him.) And it’s impossible to think of Malcolm describing the libidinous appeal of a man who lays concrete for a living, as Cindy’s new boyfriend does:

Having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight on a young woman in Cindy Farquharson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect.

By contrast, Garner calls Farquharson “this stump of a man,” noting “his silent-movie grimaces and spasms of tears, his big clean ironed handkerchief.” “I believe I’m a very good citizen in life,” he says, as if this might excuse him from the predations of the public gaze, or of Garner’s. Only in the book’s final lines does she slacken a bit. “Every stranger grieves for them,” she writes of the children. “They are ours to mourn. They belong to all of us now.” It’s a capitulation to the treacly norms she’s spent hundreds of pages defying—an ironed handkerchief of a paragraph. Brooke, in Lord Jim at Home, would never have allowed it.

“Fear of Snakes #4,” by Susan Rankaitis © The artist. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York City

“Fear of Snakes #4,” by Susan Rankaitis © The artist. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York City

Just my luck that Benjamín Labatut’s The MANIAC (Penguin Press, $28) also begins with a filicide, framed this time as an act of charity. In 1933, Paul Ehrenfest, an Austrian physicist, shot his son in the head and then killed himself. In the depths of a depression, Ehrenfest had had a premonition of mathematics as a “diabolic machine.” Its unrelenting rationality mirrored the rise of Nazism, creating “a profoundly inhuman form of intelligence that was completely indifferent to mankind’s deepest needs.” This “incorporeal wraith” was “both logic-driven and utterly irrational . . . preparing to thrust itself into our lives through technology.” Better the sweet embrace of death than a world governed by AI.

Labatut calls the book “a work of fiction based on fact.” Like his previous work, When We Cease to Understand the World, it pitches the lives of scientists against the maelstroms unleashed by their research, yoking lofty ideas to the intimacies of biography. Many of the leading scientists of the twentieth century, Labatut writes, were paranoid and melancholy, driven mad by the march of progress. Bertrand Russell dreamed he saw a librarian of the future trawling the stacks with a bucket of fire, deciding which books would live on and which would perish; he was pensively handling Russell’s Principia Mathematica and may have consigned it to the ash heap. Georg Cantor, the creator of set theory, was institutionalized, always screaming—he feared that a cabal wanted to eliminate him. Kurt Gödel “developed a severe eating disorder, and subsisted solely on a diet of butter, baby formula, and laxatives”; he, too, believed that other mathematicians would kill him, perhaps using the gases from his refrigerator.

A gelatin silver lith print, from a hand-embellished paper negative, by Tim Pearse © The artist

A gelatin silver lith print, from a hand-embellished paper negative, by Tim Pearse © The artist

But the bulk of The MANIAC, after the opening with Ehrenfest, is a would-be oral history of John von Neumann, the Hungarian polymath who worked on the Manhattan Project, and whose study of self-replication anticipated later research in DNA and machine learning. Short chapters narrated by von Neumann’s family and friends provide glimpses of his ostentatious lifestyle—driving a Cadillac into Los Alamos—his peerless intellect, his talent for weaponizing math. The attempt at polyphony is sometimes strained, but the anecdotal approach helps to revive a man often reduced to an encyclopedia entry. Now we can imagine him looking up women’s skirts or taking “two books to the toilet,” as a classmate says, “for fear that he might finish the first one before he was done.”

A kind of Luddite in reverse, von Neumann was captivated as a child by the Jacquard loom, which knitted patterns by reading information stored on punch cards, prefiguring the computer. It “kindled in him the same macabre attraction that he only ever felt toward games and explosions.” When he went to work on the bomb, it was his idea to detonate it in the atmosphere rather than at ground level to increase its destructive power. He calculated an altitude of six hundred meters, “exactly how high our bombs were when they exploded above the roofs of those quaint wooden houses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Then he outdid himself and established the concept of mutual assured destruction.

He later developed the Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator, and Computer, from which The MANIAC draws its name—a machine whose halting steps toward self-sufficiency led the way for more sophisticated forms of artificial intelligence. Where other mathematicians blanched and went crazy, von Neumann persevered, following the contours of rationalism into a black hole. He aspired to invent “a self-building, self-repairing, and self-improving spacecraft that we could launch to colonize the outer planets of our solar system.” What we got instead—at least so far—were machines that can crush humans at chess and Go, and that sometimes write like MFA students.

Von Neumann’s collaborator Oskar Morgenstern, whom Labatut presents as a voice of reason (i.e., a voice for humanity), says, “Is there really a rational course of action in every situation? Johnny proved it mathematically beyond a doubt, but only for two players with diametrically opposing goals.” His conclusion—that “life is so much more than a game,” and that people need not regard themselves as rational agents—should feel obvious, but increasingly it does not. I thought ruefully of the grief counselor from Farquharson’s trial, who took the witness stand with the unenviable task of proving that his “bizarre responses to the calamity” were in fact coherent: logically illogical answers to a stimulus of soul-scraping despair. The jury didn’t buy it. They handed down three life sentences without parole.

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