Top Fives for 2008

December 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Every year Jaime and I send out a Christmas letter listing our top five movies, songs/albums, and books of the year. My books list is the only one that’s not really accurate: I leave out things that people seem to already know they should read. But hey, why not show both lists — the top five of lesser-known books, and the top five including classics?

First, the Christmas-letter list of lesser-known books:

5.  Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino.  A really funny book, perfect for bedtime reading or picking up over breakfast or lunch.  Mostly very short pieces, each named after a topographic feature of the moon: descriptions of art installations, linguistic flights of fancy, satires on pretension.  My favorite might be “Appennines,” with its “magenta neon” sign reading “ANOTHER NAIL IN THE COFFIN OF BOURGEOIS GENDER ROLES.”

4.  The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.  I wrote about this a while back; it’s really good, falling somewhere among nature writing, experimental fiction, and memoir.

3.  End Zone, by Don DeLillo.  Do people already know they should read this?  I don’t know, I love DeLillo and I overlooked it for a long time.  Turns out it’s a really good book, and important for understanding DeLillo, nuclear paranoia, and football in Texas.

2.  City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.  Because of travel, I didn’t have the opportunity to write about this much.  But, listen, it f’ing rocks.  It’s easy to underrate genres like fantasy lit because so many books are utterly derivative, and even if they’re not derivative they’re escapist or of interest only to a subculture you’re probably more comfortable not getting too deep into.  And it’s easy to overrate genre “classics” just because they are “influential”: sure, Tolkien’s inspired a lot of books, but how many good books?  But then you get someone like VanderMeer, creating a really compelling universe (the city of Ambergris and its environs) and using it to tell serious, interesting, complex stories, and you want to dive in, and never read anything else but books like this ever again.

1.  The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.  I am not messing around here.  Read it already.  And I want comments, dammit.

Okay, and now the list of the books I most enjoyed, classics included:

5.  The Decameron, by Boccaccio.  Only one of the most important books in Western literature.  Combines my loves of heavily structured fiction, stories within stories and framing devices, and lusty Italians.

4.  The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow.  The quintessential Chicago book; one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read on the basic level of language, with its wild idioms, jargons, fragments, soliloquies; a colossus of a text, which took me the better part of last December and January to read.  I’m convinced: I must read all of Bellow.  Could’ve included Ellison’s Invisible Man here, too: another American classic.

3.  A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster.  This was the year I caught up with the rest of the universe and discovered that, yes, Forster was a genius: I was just too lazy in college.  The scenes in the Marabar caves are utterly unforgettable.

2.  The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.  Just an unbelievable book.  I can’t imagine reading this when it was first published; my head might’ve exploded.  “Moon Lake” is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and it might not even be my favorite story here, because “The Wanderers” is just that good.  Difficult, obscure, and complicated in the best, most marvelous ways possible.

1.  Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.  Not as a quality judgment, necessarily (although I think it belongs in this company), but because it’s the book I’ll always think of when I remember this year.  In a year of awful surprises (and a few good ones), DFW’s death was the worst for me.  It’s funny: I first read this in the summer of 1999, right before we elected GWB; and I read it again right before Obama’s election.  Damn, but it’s been a long eight years, ain’t it?  DFW was always ahead of the curve, and so much of the book makes so much more sense to me now.  We’ll be a while in catching up to him.

Here’s wishing you all happy reading in 2009.

Hypocrisy and Irony

December 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Before reading this book, I’d never thought of irony as a form of hypocrisy.  But hypocrisy is one of the major themes of this book, and Dickens handles his most hypocritical characters with such a huge helping of irony that I couldn’t help but make the connection.

It’s most obvious with Seth Pecksniff, who really is eminently loathesome. Pecksniff is a hypocrite of the highest order: he pretends even to himself and his family that his motives are pure, his intentions godly, his actions just.  When we first meet him, Dickens already dislikes him enough to show him in a bit of slapstick: the wind slams the door of his house in his face, pushing him down the stairs.  However, he’s introduced as “a moral man: a grave man, a man of noble sentiments and speech.”

Dickens more or less sticks to his strategy of having his narrator superficially present Pecksniff as an honorable man (so far, at least, halfway through the book), although calling someone moral  “especially in his conversation and correspondence” is a rather funny way of calling someone moral.  He lets the man’s actions and demeanor do the dirty work for him.  (Finally, 350 pages in, he resorts to a footnote to differentiate Pecksniff’s convoluted self-justification from “the Author’s” own beliefs; this is, I believe, the first time the narrator repudiates Pecksniff without using irony.)

Dickens wrote Chuzzlewit after visiting America for the first time, and his disillusionment with the New World seems to be the driving force behind the entire book.  The overwhelming hypocrisy of a “free” country justifying slavery to itself appalled Dickens.  (So did the lack of clean tablecloths, proper manners, and party politics, apparently, and Dickens does occasionally harp on these points in the American sections of the book.  It seems rather petty of him.)

On the other hand, the book also has its anti-hypocrites: whereas Pecksniff and Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague put on airs whenever possible, Tom Pinch and Mark Tapley serve and are never satisfied with their service, never sure they’re doing enough for those they consider as doing them a good turn (who have typically wronged them).  Tapley, especially, is a model anti-hypocrite: he seeks opportunities for “credit” for being “jolly.”  Of course, it’s no credit to one’s character to be jolly when things are going well, so he comforts himself in the worst of situations by reminding himself that his good spirits and service to others (especially the selfish, oblivious Martin Chuzzlewit) will finally give him the opportunity to stand out in a world which seems mostly happy, to him.  Both Pinch and Tapley think the best of others, or at least act as though they expect the best of others.

Dickens’s ironic descriptions of his characters and situations fascinate me in all of his books — that droll, frequently indignant, quintessentially Victorian voice, laying all that’s improper to delicate waste — but especially here, when attacking the very tactics he seems to employ.  I always wonder how much Dickens really did think it best not to say the worst of what we think of others, even when dealing with his own creations, and how much he simply knew his audience well enough to know they’d eat up these tactics.  Of course, Dickens is never one to play close to the vest, not really: his sympathies and antipathies are always clear, reading just below the surface, and he takes his vengeance mostly through incident, often brutal or deadly.  He is somehow a remarkably subtle and remarkably broad and obvious author, simultaneously; and it seems to me that his irony, especially his ironic stance toward his characters, is one of the things that keep me reading him.

A Chapter for Our Times

December 19, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dickens seems angrier in this book than in the others I’ve read (although he certainly has his moments in all of them, and especially in Bleak House).  I hope I’ll write a little something about hypocrisy — one of the major targets of ire — and Dickens’s irony in this book a little later, but for now let’s focus on one of the least hypocritical characters in the book: Jonas Chuzzlewit, who is, at least, a forthright scoundrel.

In chapter 11 we get a grotesque little domestic scene, with Anthony Chuzzlewit and his son, Jonas, entertaining the Misses Pecksniff.  The Chuzzlewits are two of Dickens’s monsters of commerce, obsessed with business.  They are especially fond of ill-gotten gains.

We are also introduced to one Mr. Chuffey, an ancient clerk in the Chuzzlewit’s employ.  Chuffey intrigues me as a kind of anti-Bartleby: both seem to be ciphers, blanks reduced in the drudgery of office work to a single characteristic, but whereas Melville’s scrivener would prefer not to do nearly anything asked of him, including anything asked of him by his employer, Chuffey is responsive only to the suggestions and commands of his employer, Anthony Chuzzlewit.  If anyone but Anthony asks him if he is ready for dinner, he either does not or chooses not to hear them; if Anthony suggests a joke is funny, Chuffey finds it hilarious.  He’s a human being who’s forgotten how to be, having become so used to someone else deciding for him.  Whereas Bartleby, the consummate misanthrope, preferred not to, Chuffey prefers to, losing himself in the opposite direction.

It is, as the title of this post says, a chapter for our times.  Jonas loves to abuse this old man, calling him “Stupid” and “Old Chuffey” and showing off his wit in cracking jokes at the clerk’s expense.  This figure lurks in the background of the scene in the Chuzzlewits’ den, choking on his food as Jonas “entertains” the Pecksniffs, attempting to woo them both simultaneously.  Jonas also scorns his father, calling him “ghost” and dropping unsubtle hints that the old man has hung around for too long and should probably feel free to die soon so Jonas can have his money.  Of this, his father approves, as signaling his son’s proper attitude toward the world of business.  (These interactions make me think of Jonas as the ancestor of Walker and Texas Ranger, the sons of Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, with their threats to come after their grandfather Chip “like a spider monkey” if he gets in their way.)

But this has been a week of $50 billion dollar Ponzi schemes, and a budget deficit nearing 14 digits, and very smart people like Paul Krugman pointing out that a huge chunk of our economy for the last decade has been more or less a sham dedicated to gigantic personal bonuses based on imaginary dividends, a massive theft from investors.  It’s been an unjolly week.  So here’s an exchange between Anthony and Jonas:

‘You may overdo anything, my darlings.  You may overdo even hypocrisy.  Ask Jonas!’

‘You can’t overdo taking care of yourself,’ observed that hopeful gentleman with his mouth full.

‘Do you hear that, my dears?’ cried Anthony, quite enraptured.  ‘Wisdom, wisdom!  A good exception, Jonas.  No.  It’s not easy to overdo that.’

‘Except,’ whispered Mr. Jonas to his favourite cousin, ‘except when one lives too long.  Ha, ha!…’

‘There’s another thing that’s not easily overdone, father,’ remarked Jonas, after a short silence.

‘What’s that?’ asked the father; grinning already in anticipation.

‘A bargain,’ said the son.  ‘Here’s the rule for bargains.  “Do other men, for they would do you.”  That’s the true business precept.  All others are counterfeits.’

It’s the refutation of any goodness in the world that Dickens so disdains.  This is the worldview that leads to monstrous unfettered capitalism.  When Alan Greenspan seemed so shaken by the utter lack of regard for shareholders and reputation in the financial services industry, I think this is what he was responding to: the shortsighted nihilism of its leaders.  Unchecked greed is, in the end, a horrible long-term business strategy, unless you only care about your own personal paycheck and making enough money before the bubble bursts that it doesn’t really matter to you that your company, your industry, your country has gone bankrupt.

Dickens and the Victorian Cinema

December 14, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Sweeping Assertion #27: In the entire history of literature, Dickens is the consummate scene-setter, the one to go to for a seemingly off-the-cuff evocation of a place and its people.  My favorite part of this book so far has been the beginning of chapter nine, “Town and Todgers’s.”  It’s too long for me to write out, so read the first eight paragraphs or so here.

What a piece of writing!  I love the section on the fruit-vendors, and the immediately following description of the scrubby churchyard trees.  What a brilliant metaphor, comparing these lonesome city trees to “birds in cages.”  This section reminds me an awful lot of Ambergris, the pseudo-Victorian city of City of Saints and Madmen: the grit, the soot, the commerce and mystery.  I’m going to indulge myself and write out probably my favorite sentence:

Among the narrow thoroughfares at hand, there lingered, here and there, an ancient doorway of carved oak, from which, of old, the sounds of revelry and feasting often came; but now these mansions, only used for storehouses, were dark and dull, and, being filled with wool, and cotton, and the like — such heavy merchandise as stifles sound and stops the throat of echo — had an air of palpable deadness about them which, added to their silence and desertion, made them very grim.

My god!  For those keeping score at home, that’s 14 commas, a semicolon, and one marvelous dashed aside.  Gordon Lish’s head would explode reading that thing; he’d cut it up into six to eight sentences.  But it’s sentences like this, I think, that got and still get people hooked on Dickens.  It just sounds so damn good: the commas flowing along, the punctuation so perfect that you can almost hear Dickens reading it aloud.  And the flawless word choice, the alliteration and assonance (the rich, full o‘s of wool, cotton, sound, stops, throat, echo filling up space like the “heavy merchandise” of the warehouses).

Somehow in those eight paragraphs, Dickens conjures up a world, taking you from the city to the neighborhood to the specificity of a grubby boarding house.  You’re there, lost in the labyrinth, viewing these grotesque bruised oranges and soot-covered windows and the scene from the scary roof of the Todgers’s.  And he segues effortlessly from this into the domestic comedy of the rooms in the boarding house.  Amazing.  (Some writers I love because I feel like they’re kindred spirits, and they write in ways I feel I have written or could write; with Dickens, I can’t imagine writing this way.  I’ve never lost my self-consciousness enough, my sense that I’m writing.  I literally don’t know how he does it — on tight deadlines, no less, the serial numbers coming out month after month.  He seems to feel his way into the page, into a kind of state where the words are effortless extensions of his thought.  And it comes out brilliant: something close to prose poetry.)

This section reminds me of the opening of Bleak House, another of my favorite Dickens scenes and, I have to believe, the best description and metaphoric use ever of a London fog.  That was the first Dickens scene I ever read that made me sit up and realize what strange, nearly avant-garde, modern, cinematic things Dickens was doing with words.  To say that Dickens writes cinematically is misleading, in a way, because the words were important to him, obviously, and they work so well together, and are integrally important.  (The metaphor of churchyard-tree to caged-bird, for instance, is perfectly suited to literature, not cinema, and Dickens is always pulling brilliant metaphors and turns of phrase out of thin air.)

And yet it’s there, somehow, isn’t it?  Doesn’t it seem like a camera, roving over this seedy warehouse district in London, in the opening of “Town and Todgers’s”?  The dollies and cuts, the effects of sound and his placement of objects and figures (his mise en scene, if you want) like what you would expect in the opening of a (really good) movie?  And the way he cuts to the interior from the exterior?

As it happens, there are books about this.  (And I have this nagging half-memory of a quote about Dickens being proto-cinematic by a famous director — maybe Godard — but I can’t find it right now.  Arrgh.)  Here’s one I hope to take a peek at.  Intriguing synopsis, right?

Casts of Characters

December 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens and Other Electricities by Ander Monson.

It’s all story, these two very different books agree.  From the perspective of someone even vaguely acquainted with literary history and criticism, these books seem wildly dissimilar and even oppositional: Victorian v. American postmodern, social realist v. belletristic, representational v. poststructuralist.  But to a 13th- or 30th-century person, they could seem very much the same: pretty lies with title pages, single authors, plots and pictures and casts of characters, all in the service of story.

It’s all story in different ways to Dickens and Monson, to be sure.  When I say “it’s all story” to Dickens, I mean that Dickens was a one-man storytelling industry, a factory, a marvelous machine that could create characters and plots and scenes seemingly out of anything.  And I guess that story, narrative,  seemed to him the way that life worked, the way to make sense of things, the way to get things done: see an injustice, write a story that would show people why and how the situation could be unjust to a person they might know, might love, and sometimes (at his best) even why and how the evil behind the injustice might be examined and understood.

Whereas Monson’s “it’s all story” is a little more about calling attention to the structure of the lenses through which we see the world.  To Monson, a conversation is a story; a list is a story; a table of contents is a story; a news report is a story; a diagram is a story; a memory is a story.  Another word for “story” is “fiction,” and another word for “fiction” is “construct.”  Reality is a mosaic of a trillion fictions.  Etc etc; if you were an English major (or minor or whatever) you don’t need to hear this all again.  (It is interesting, really, if only you can separate the idea from the way so many profs are so obnoxious and smug about it, and are so certain that it’s the only way of “reading” the “world.”  I digress.)

Maybe you know that I love those appurtenances of literature known in academic circles as “paratexts,” those pieces of supposed non-story which are nevertheless central to how we read books, to our understanding of how books work and what they are.  As it happens, both of these dissimilar books are pretty heavily paratextual.  Other Electricities in its first (only, so far) edition contains, by my count, 37 pages of paratextual material in a book of only 169 total pages.  (Plus one of these paratextual pages contains a web address where there’s even more.)

And Dickens editions, in this day and age, are crazy with the paratexts; so many students in need of so much help.  This Penguin Classics edition I’m using (God bless ’em; where would the world be without Penguin Classics?) contains a one-page bio of Dickens, an expanded 4-page bio, a 16-page critical introduction, a note on the text, a short bibliography for further reading, a reproduction of the first-edition title page, a reproduction of the original dedication page, three prefaces to different editions (all by Dickens, all reworking similar material in slightly different ways and responding to slightly different grievances Dickens perceived or wanted to cut off at the pass), a detailed table of contents, a cast of characters, and at the end a postscript, two appendices, and explanatory notes.  Good God!  (Not to mention that Dickens does not exactly dive head-first into his narrative once you actually get to the text of the actual novel; Dickens was a throat-clearing sort of writer, it seems to me, and would often write his way into the narrative and into the characters’ lives with little mini-narratives: here, there’s a seven-page satirical genealogical history and a three-page description, almost a prose poem, of an early-winter wind before we meet any characters, Dickens seeming to just enjoy playing around with language, casting a kind of linguistic spell on himself as much as us.)

One of the things I find most interesting about paratexts is their aura of mystery, when you think about them: I mean, who writes this stuff?  And why do so many books look so alike, when you think about it: half-title, title, copyright, t.o.c., etc., etc.?  Am I the only one who’s interested in whether an author writes his own dust-jacket copy and bio?  Does anyone else hate it when there’s no info in a book on the book’s designers or illustrators or cover art?

I digress again (big time).  So both of these books contain long, complicated casts of characters.  In the case of Dickens, I’m not sure when this feature was first introduced, and whether it’s an addition to the text by Dickens for some edition during his life or was included once the book was mainly read in classrooms; however, the short notes certainly have a Dickensian flavor to them.  Characters are “weazen-faced,” “unpretentious but high-souled,” “starched and punctilious.”  It’s oddly ordered, in that there’s an alphabetical list followed by another, shorter alphabetical list, presumably of secondary characters.  Reading the cast gives us some sense of the kind of book we’re in for, and does form a narrative in that sense (although the notes are not revealing of plot, only of character), but I’m sure it’s actually supposed to be most useful for revisiting the work when writing a paper, or when you’ve gotten two characters confused.  A handy checklist, in other words.

In Monson, “A Helpful Guide to the Characters and Their Relationship to Danger, and an Explanation of Some Symbols Commonly Found Herein” is a story itself.  It tells, in a different form, the story we’re about to read, and other stories, too.  Probably my favorite entry in the cast is this:

JOSH: jumps off a cliff into the cold water & the dark below, the snow circling around him & falling on his body; compares himself to Jesus; drives his dad’s car without permission; might cease to exist at any moment; minor character who is barely worth consideration

I mean, that’s just brilliant.  It’s a heartbreaking very short story: that last clause made me give one of those surprised huffs of air that sound like a laugh but are often quite sad.  It’s also a great comment on all those untold stories: all the “minor characters” with major meaning, at least to themselves.  Minor characters in life can have Jesus complexes, too.  And Monson’s “Helpful Guide” shows us that a supposedly objective and non-fictional structure like a list of characters can be — is, in fact, in Dickens as much as Monson — a story we tell, a skewed view on the world and its people.

Melville in the Margins

December 2, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Redburn, by Herman Melville.

Reading next: Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens.

If you’re a fan of Melville but didn’t know what to read besides Moby-Dick, or if you’ve been intimidated or put off by that book, do yourself a favor and give Redburn a try.  It’s short(er), it’s a good story, and it’s got some terrific, Dickensian sections on New York and Liverpool in the early-to-mid-19th century.  Melville’s voice is there, and he digresses a lot, but in interesting ways, and not so much as in his masterpiece.

Okay, PSA over.  Let’s talk about the Melville I love: Melville the trickster, the pre-postmodern, writing his books in the margins of other books while affecting a scorn for book-learnin’.  This book taking place mostly among the very poor and at sea doesn’t stop books and other printed matter from showing up everywhere, in interesting ways: what’s most interesting in Redburn is the variety of uses to which books are put, and the variety of meanings they hold for their owners:

-The book as moral guide, obviously: The ship’s black cook, Mr. Thompson, is rather more learned and curious than most of the white sailors.  In Redburn’s description from Chapter 17:

All that Sunday morning, he sat over his boiling pots, reading out of a book which was very much soiled and covered with grease spots: for he kept it stuck into a little leather strap, nailed to the keg where he kept the fat skimmed off the water in which the salt beef was cooked.  I could hardly believe my eyes when I found this book was the Bible.

Thompson uses this book not only for his own devotions, but to attempt to edify the steward, a “dandy mulatto” named Lavender.

-The book as object — pillow, specifically: There’s a terrific section in Ch. 18 (which is all about books) in which Redburn, having already read two books (a compilation of shipwrecks and a tract on the DT’s) loaned to him by a fellow sailor, pulls out Smith’s Wealth of Nations, loaned by a New York acquaintance.  I love this sentence for its apparent insight into a youth’s decision-making process in reading matter: “I glanced at the title page… I caught sight of “Aberdeen,” where the book was printed; and thinking that any thing from Scotland, a foreign country, must prove some way or other pleasing to me, I thanked Mr. Jones very kindly…”  There’s some humor about the book being unreadable, and Redburn says that “the best reading was on the fly-leaves,” where an inscription from 1798 is found; Redburn, like any good sub-sub-librarian in a special collections library, is most interested in provenance, the history of the book.  Finally, Redburn wraps his jacket around it, and uses it as a pillow in his tiny sleeping berth.

-The self-help book: A sailor named Jack Blunt has “an extraordinary looking pamphlet, with a red cover, marked all over with astrological signs and ciphers,” called the “Napoleon Dream Book.”  This provides Blunt a method of divining the meaning of his dreams, and is supposed to be the same system of dream-interpretation that Napoleon used to guide his rise to power.  Blunt faithfully follows this system every morning, making cabalistic marks on his chest to discover the meaning of his dreams.  (n.b.: there was, apparently, a popular song called “The Dream of Napoleon,” but I’ve found no extant divination guide with the title Melville provides.)

-The book as lost paradise: Most touchingly, chapters 30 and 31 deal with Redburn’s guidebook to Liverpool, entitled The Picture of Liverpool.  This is a real book, published in many editions.  Redburn’s is an almost religiously adored copy, used as it was by his father.  Things are quite autobiographical here: much as Melville’s father was once prosperous but slid into debt, so Redburn’s father dies penniless, and the Liverpool guidebook is a token of his glory days, crossing the Atlantic on mercantile business.  Redburn tries to follow his father’s route using the map his father marked up, and visit the sites his father saw, and take the roads he took; but he finds the city has grown, and changed, and the hotel where his father stayed was torn down, and many of the other sites pictured in the book’s plates are now gone, or radically transformed.

Throughout the book — as throughout much of Melville — there’s a tension between the knowledge gained from books and the knowledge gained in lived experience.  Ishmael famously said that a whaling ship was his Harvard and Yale, and this is commonly taken to stand for Melville’s belief; but then, Melville’s Harvard and Yale were also books by Charles Henry Dana and Milton and Shakespeare and Hawthorne and encyclopedists and anonymous balladeers and Moses and the Apostles.  He used them and learned (or stole) as much from them as from his years at sea.  Experience changes, memory fades; print remains.

Melville is fascinated by the palimpsest, the written-over text, the vainglory of print.  In Liverpool he remarks on the advertising broadsides, the quack-medicine handbills, and the song sheets hastily printed for the balladeers who sing of murders committed only yesterday.  Two quotes from this section are marvelous guideposts to Melville’s thoughts on literature, and on life:

Guide-books, Wellingborough, are the least reliable books in all literature; and nearly all literature, in one sense, is made up of guide-books….  Every age makes its own guide-books, and the old ones are used for waste-paper.

…I never could look at Death without a shudder.

Where Am I?

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