REVIEW: ‘Nested Scrolls: The Autobiography of Rudolf von Bitter Rucker’ by Rudy Rucker
REVIEW SUMMARY: An often sweet, but just as often distant and inchoate, recounting of Dr. Rucker’s life that brings out some of his personality but gives us only hints of the complexity of his life and his perspective on writing.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Rucker’s autobiography takes us through his life in an impressionistic way, from early childhood to the present. Roughly chronological, the story he creates looks back at how his life informed his fiction and how his fictional aspirations influenced his outlook on life.
PROS: Sweet and friendly, with some interesting details and moments that aptly capture Rucker’s personality.
CONS: Scattered, superficial prose; too little engagement; lacks sound editing.
BOTTOM LINE: Uneven in its execution, the book feels more like notes towards an autobiography than a penetrating assessment of Rucker’s life.
When I finished reading Rudy Rucker’s Nested Scrolls I placed the book in my lap and sighed with relief. I found myself conflicted; not about Rucker’s life, but about how he wrote about it. I flipped back through the book and saw that I had dog-eared pages (something I rarely do, as it offends the book-lover in me) to mark two sorts of noteworthy instances in the book; one on the top of a page for editorial errors, the other on the bottom corners for places where I felt something striking had been written. I was saddened to see that the top-ears far outnumbered the bottoms, because I wanted to like the book. I wanted to discover insights into the life of a writer whose work had been an early enjoyment of mine; I have fond memories of being startled and befuddled by books such as Spacetime Donuts and White Light. What I got instead was an extemporaneous, rambling memoir that gave me some tidbits of insight into Rucker’s life and mind, but that more often muddled the significance of life events or skipped away from in-depth exploration.
Early in the book Rucker sets the tone for his story. After rummaging through old papers (reorganized after his near-death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2008), he writes:
“There’s something deeply melancholy about old papers. I’m kind of hoping that I don’t have to root around in them again. I’d rather wing my autobiography, as if I were talking to you during a car-trip, letting the important stories bubble up.” (p. 4)
This combination of unbounded informality and genial reflection sounds like a promising formula for an autobiography, an opportunity to see a wild mind at work creating connections between experience, history, and remembrance. But the result is not as evocative as this approach could be; what “bubbles up” are sometimes intriguing observations on how Rucker’s life seemed to impel him towards writing science fiction, but these are diluted by a morass of recollections that divert the reader from significant engagement, or even empathy, with Rucker’s life story. While there is ample detail and anecdote here, there are a number of moments when Rucker closes off further revelation and maintains a surface palaver that reads as deflective rather than inviting.
While we get to know many of the details of Rucker’s life, I found that I didn’t really get to know him as a person. The casual style and relaxed tone do not translate into intimacy. I felt that as a reader I was being warded off from the deeper parts of Rucker’s life by a combination of arbitrary interjections and a paradoxical distancing caused by the excessively casual language and contingent progress of the story. While Rucker details many of the significant moments of his life, their weight feels dissipated by the tone and scattered approach to them. Sentence fragments, contractions, and other informal constructions make Rucker’s penned conversation feel very friendly and open, but the high selectivity of what Rucker actually shares soon became off-putting. All memoirs pick and choose, highlight and understate, but I eventually became frustrated with what Rucker shares with the reader and what he, often subtly, diverts the reader from examining.
Rucker has no problem telling the reader of embarrassing moments, especially in his childhood years. He was an adventurous, inquisitive child and many of the anecdotes related here are sweet and funny. Rucker also emphasizes certain significances in his story, often relating an incident to his burgeoning imagination and the development of an SFnal perspective. But Rucker rarely dwells on a moment at great length, capering from one episode to the next briskly. Events are marked with a concluding sentence that often tells the reader how it later appears in a story, or how it reinforces his ideas of “transrealism” and science-fictional ideas. The sense of accumulation that his title suggests is undermined by the episodic, impulsive discourse his prose creates, and when later in the book he tries to reiterate this, it feels flat:
“Over time I learned to see nested scrolls everywhere, even within my thoughts. And that’s where the title for my memoir comes from. A life story is made of scrolls within scrolls, divagations within tangential tales within related anecdotes — and all the stories are forever turning and rotating, throbbing with their own kind of life.” (p. 252)
That sense of nesting gets lost in the cavalcade of off-the-cuff remarks and asides and the rush of stories.
What does come through is Rucker’s love of math and fiction and complexity. The strongest moments in the book happen when he has a revelation about one of these subjects. He discusses the challenges of writing and teaching and these often relate to his revelations. But Nested Scrolls is like a box with several different puzzles in it that are supposed to create one large, amazing mosaic, but that end up being several different scenes side-by-side. This is not due just to the digressive composition, but to the growing realization in reading the book that several issues are not dealt with as the narrative proceeds. Part of this is the way that Rucker summarizes and (I think inadvertently) glosses over some of the troubles in his life (substance abuse, marriage difficulties, etc.). There are a number of story-paths not taken through the memoir, often because the reader is guided away from them. These choices result in a feeling that Rucker is withholding some of the connections that would enrich the mosaic and make the nesting clearer.
As a compendium of amusing memories, Nested Scrolls is an enjoyable read for awhile. But the more the reader seeks those unforeseen connections and a prose version of cellular automate to appear, the less they are rewarded This memoir is more a collection of little tales, of meetings with famous people and self-effacing reminiscences, of accomplishments and missteps. And indeed, this is what life is mostly comprised of, but as the memoir progresses the reader waits for more to emerge, and the narrative never comes to a moment where you feel all of these stories and strands create something more significant than the sum of the book’s discursive parts.
I will end with an explanation of why I gave it 2.5 stars instead of 3: because the book is riddled with editing errors. I counted over 30 across its 336 pages, and while a few may be stylistic disagreements (sentences fragments, for example), others are blatant errors, like “Cark Gable” for “Clark Gable” and “The science fiction world takes care if its own.” This became more pronounced in the second half of the book and was not only distracting, but made me pause and wonder why so many elements of the book seemed so irregular.
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