Womanless Worlds

July 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished long, long ago: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray.

Big, fat SPOILERS abound below.

I liked Skippy Dies a lot, which is the desired response, but still an odd thing to say of a mighty dark book.  Its first edition comes in a sweet little three-volume boxed set, each volume in bright tartan wrappers.  It comes to be liked; it stays a while and its sweetness turns bitter.  (Incidentally, I wish this triple-decker throwback strategy would catch on.  I suspect it actually reduces publishers’ production costs — but would be happy to be disabused of the notion — but beyond that, it feels so much more like you’re making progress in flipping through the pages and volumes of three paperbacks rather than one narrow-margined doorstop of a hardcover.)

I won’t say much about the DFW resonances here, especially since they’ve been thoughtfully summarized here.  If you’re reading closely and have read Infinite Jest closely, you’ll see homages and responses all over the place.  Instead I want to focus on a particularly compelling passage, nearing the end:

He delivers his lessons mechanically, not caring whether the boys are listening or not, quietly loathing them for being so predictably what they are, young, self-absorbed, insensate; he waits for the bell just as they do, so that he can dive once more into the trenches of the past, the endless accounts of men sent to their deaths in the tens of thousands, like so many towers of coloured chips pushed by fat hands across the green baize of the casino table — stories that seem, in their regimented wastage, their relentless, pointless destruction, more than ever to make sense, to present an archetype of which the schoolday in its asperity and boredom is the dim, fuddled shadow.  Womanless worlds.

That’s about Howard “The Coward” Fallon, who has fallen into an obsession with World War I, having lost his girlfriend and most of his pride along with her.  But yes: “womanless worlds,” and the awful things that take place in them, are the subject of this book.  War.  Boarding school.  Fathers with sons without mothers.  Sporting competitions.  The priesthood.

Maybe you see where this is going.

I was surprised by how polemical the book ended up feeling; how strong the point of view espoused here really was, how strong the emotion contained in the satire.  (It’s rather an indictment of a lot of contemporary fiction that the reader must struggle to find any such identifiable point of view or emotion; that such things are even looked down upon in many schools of thought and practice.) Part of this is a credit to the way in which Murray puts the reader in the position of uncertainty about Skippy’s central problem; one notices some hints, but does not receive confirmation until Skippy himself remembers it, traumatically.

One could, perhaps, say that it is rather like shooting fish in a barrel to write a polemic advocating that sexual abuse of children is a bad thing, and that neither the behavior itself nor any attempt to cover up such behavior should be excused.  Perhaps.  But it’s not as though we’re all actually following through on this seemingly self-evident advice.  And this is an Irish author, writing about an Irish school.  There’s a strong vein of Irish mythology and folklore running through this book, and an engagement with Irish literature and history; it’s possible to position Murray’s polemic as another in the long line of Irish stories of betrayal and deceit among supposed friends and protectors.  Nothing should be taken away from an author willing to stand up to such institutions as the Catholic Church and the educational system, especially not in Ireland.

One could also say that self-congratulatory approval and encouragement of such polemics from afar is also rather like shooting fish in a barrel.  Perhaps.  But this happens everywhere.  The Sandusky abuse in Pennsylvania, and the response to it from administrators at Penn State, bears shocking resemblance to some of what happens in Skippy Dies.

If that astounding fragment, “womanless worlds,” tells us anything, it is that this is not a provincial issue, not a denominational one, not a national one.  There are connections to those big-world problems of war and evil in the structure of our schools, our religions, our relationships.  Railing against patriarchy and patriarchal systems has become fodder for jokes, but those remain real problems.  The institution which protects itself rather than the young, or that even demands their  “relentless, pointless destruction,” is not an institution worth preserving.  The institution which denies an honest exchange with women, and about sexuality, will always invite and even provoke abuse.   This is a funny, sweet, heartfelt book, but all of the laughs, camaraderie, and teenage love leads to those very serious conclusions.

The Data Discman of American Experimental Fiction

July 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long, long ago: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner.

Okay: back on the horse. This will begin a series of catch-up posts on books read in the past few months, when I’ve been too busy, distracted, or otherwise occupied to write about reading. But there’s been a lot of good stuff, so I’d like to post at least something brief about many of these books.

Beginning with this work, which features prominently in the David Foster Wallace essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.”  That’s where I first heard about it, in the mid-90s.  Frankly, the essay tells you all you really need to know about the book, though if DFW piques your interest as he did mine, it’s a very quick read.  When I finally came across a copy at a used bookstore, I snapped it up.  Especially since the back cover features blurbs by DFW and David Byrne:

Published as part of that ’80s-90s wave of trade paperback originals of avant-gardists, its packaging and paratexts are retro-futuristic throwbacks: each chapter begins with a very large numeral and initial letter in a raster font reminiscent of an 8-bit PC or game system.  The chapters are short, and each given two opening pages (one for the title and numeral, one blank); without this filler, the book probably would have been simply too short to be published at the time.  (As it is, it’s just 154 pages, 34 of that chapter intro pages.  But then, the chapter titles really are the best parts of the book.)  In both form and content, it’s a book that manages both immediate obsolescence and eerie prescience: the Apple II or Data Discman of American experimental fiction.  Those aren’t offhand comparisons for a book that is obsessed with technology: this is, as DFW points out, a book that would rather be a TV show or, perhaps, a video game.

While its preoccupations with network TV, robots, and the fearsome Japanese economy now seem awfully dated, the work as a whole does beckon towards our current media-soaked age.  For instance, the 3-page “About the Author” send-up is straight out of social media’s identity-bending playbook.  The brilliant idea of a Hollywood blockbuster version of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” complete with “huge metal robotic women who come and go talking of Michelangelo” must have seemed among the most ridiculous ideas in the book in 1990; now we have both billion-dollar Transformers movies and a 3D version of The Great Gatsby.  The references to haute cuisine and fast food must have seemed like throwaway yuppie jokes at the time of publication; now, they seem harbingers of our country’s obsession with food (on the very first page, “a bright neon sign flashing on and off that read: FOIE GRAS AND HARICOTS VERTS NEXT EXIT”).  Its nearly complete lack of coherent plot or stylistic consistency point toward the snippets and mashups in which we now consume so much of our culture.  Its utterly superficial, drug-addled stand-ins for people have problems with health care, bodies upon which surgery, sex, and cybernetics are performed, and total disregard for the reality of others.  So yeah, that sounds about right.

Opened Graves, Emptied Coffins

March 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Art of Fielding.

SPOILER ALERT: You’ll probably want to skip this post for now if you plan on reading The Art of Fielding anytime soon.

Given that the Bible is the wellspring of 2000 years of Western culture, it’s not surprising that the empty grave, and the resurrected body, should be recurring features in our literature.  Early on in The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (through his character Mike Schwartz) introduces a lesser-known example from the life of Emerson:

“His first wife died young, of tuberculosis.  Emerson was shattered.  Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave.  Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of the woman he loved.  Can you imagine? It must have been terrible.  Just a terrible thing to do.  But the thing is, Emerson had to do it.  He needed to see for himself.  To understand death. To make death real….”

It’s a little surprising, when you start looking, how many of the open graves in our literature do not partake of the Christian joy and hope in resurrection: how many are full instead of terror, disgust, despair, existential questioning, grim humor.  Hamlet, of course.  The premature burials and morbid lovers of Poe.  The countless tales of “resurrection men” in penny dreadfuls, ballads, and sensational stories.

In the coda to this book, Pella (with the help of Owen, Henry, and Mike) digs up her father’s body to bury him at sea, as she believes he would have wanted.  Harbach is referencing a number of the empty graves in American literature with this finale — or at least, it reminded me of them.  Most obviously, there is the coffin of Queequeg in Moby-Dick, rescuing Ishmael from the Pequod’s doom.  The famous last word of that work is “orphan,” and orphans abound in this work: Affenlight’s death leaves Pella orphaned, of course, but Schwartz is also an orphan.  You can argue that Henry is also a kind of orphan in this work, at least spiritually.  His parents are nonentities in his life, objecting to the liberality of his college experience; further, his spiritual father, Aparicio Rodriguez, is present for his public humiliation, leaving him too ashamed to meet his hero.

The two other allusions are more subtle, but I think they are there.  The possibility entered my mind thanks to the seemingly innocuous fact that Westish plays Amherst in the national championship game.  Amherst: hometown of Emily Dickinson, and alma mater of David Foster Wallace.  With this choice of opponent, Harbach introduces connections to both the American Renaissance that forms the background of his work and the contemporary milieu of his work.

Dickinson, of course, is one of the great grapplers with death and the afterlife, testing possibilities and asking questions throughout her poetic career, imagining both death in the grave and life beyond it.  The questioning and constant self-inspection of Dickinson, and her interest in conceptions of an end to same, are reminiscent of Henry’s journey from “thoughtless being” to “thought” to “return to thoughtless being.”  Further, Dickinson is a weighty counterpoint to Emerson and the traditional, male-centered view of American literary history.  Pella objects to the Emerson story that Mike tells, “the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.”

Infinite Jest also contains (or at least looks forward to) the exhumation of a father: Hal Incandenza’s father James, whose head may contain the antidote to his unstoppably entertaining film.  The allusion points out a number of parallels between Harbach’s book and DFW’s, especially the campus setting, casually precocious students, mysterious drive and stamina of gifted athletes, addictions to pain and painkillers, and battles with depression and stasis.  But the different purposes for grave-robbing in the two novels point out the differences between the authors.  I think, in this scene, that Harbach is referencing Infinite Jest (by way of Moby-Dick, and Hamlet, and Dickinson) to attempt to move beyond the postmodern condition which DFW critiqued and which Affenlight diagnoses earlier in the book, the crippling self-consciousness and “profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action.”  In Owen’s eulogy over the body, he remembers Guert Affenlight’s belief “that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.”  He asserts the continuation of Guert’s soul in the people he loved, the works to which he devoted it.  The whole scene feels a little like a “didactic little parable-ish story”  at the close of a tragicomic, linear narrative of liberal-arts education.  But we’ve seen that it’s actually pretty complex, and that it’s about how to be an adult, how to move beyond education: how to choose what to think about.  The orator of the 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech would be proud.

DFW’s Horror Avant-Garde

August 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

Finished long ago: The Pale King.

A long-belated short note on The Pale King, and DFW’s oeuvre more generally.  To wit:

Is DFW secretly a horror author?  Or a literary author most deeply interested in horror?

Mixing and reappropriating genre conventions has been de rigueur for the belletrist since at least Burroughs, and DFW does some of that, especially with the science-fiction elements of Broom of the System and Infinite Jest (and the great Incandenza filmography, which is itself a parody of avant-garde genre-play).  But Wallace consistently writes in the horror tradition — both using the tropes of the genre (film and fiction) and using unusual techniques to evoke the responses with which it is typically associated — beyond a postmodernist’s appraisal.

Section 48 of The Pale King, which is a brilliant little chunk of discrete horror-comedy, brought this up.  That section, written entirely in dialogue, utilizes the central trope of horror going way back to its Gothic roots — the careful withholding of information to heighten fear of the unknown and let reader’s imagination do the dirty work itself.  But there are ghosts here.  And Toni Ware’s harrowing tale.  And IRS paranormals.  The title is a perfect horror title, with its allusion to the Grim Reaper or other mythic figures of inhuman power.  (Aside: By my count there are at least three characters in the book who could be argued to be the titular king, but I’m not sure any of them were really intended as such.)  (Aside 2: I’m deeply curious about the placement of section 48, which really seems like the kind of thing DFW might’ve placed near the beginning.  Though it strikes me as akin to the first chapter of Infinite Jest, in its cryptic description of a traumatic event integral to the action of the work, perhaps it was be more like the herd of feral hamsters or other asides in that book, and wasn’t actually going to lead anywhere.)

Once you start looking for it, it’s just about everywhere.  Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has horror throughout, in the interviews and elsewhere.  Oblivion has the nightmarish title story, elucidated by my lovely wife here.  Countless anecdotes and incidents in IJ beyond the “wraith” and the grave-digging; the mysterious events at Enfield, for instance.  The Broom of the System is a kind of Wittgensteinian horror tale: The Word Terror.

Beyond all of that, there’s something in horror that seems central to DFW’s worldview and its expression.  Being trapped in a web or spiral, being unable to express one’s self adequately or at all, being out of one’s own control as the unthinkable happens, having heightened consciousness in some ways but a sense of being buried in others: central motifs in DFW’s work, and in nightmares, and consequently in horror.  Almost all of DFW’s fiction is horror fiction at some level: work dealing with the uncanny, awful, and broken in human beings and their societies, the things that we try to keep submerged and the things that are nevertheless surfaced.

Trying to Eat All the Boat’s Food

July 31, 2011 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Pale King.

Reading next: The Third Book of Pantagruel, by Francois Rabelais.

This month in national politics has seemed like a nightmare, no?  Or one of those terrible anxiety dreams where you know what needs to get done, you want to do it, but you cannot make yourself move or do the necessary thing, and all the while terror builds and builds of some unknown disaster or monster awaiting you, as you continue to try to do or remember this very simple thing that keeps escaping you…

So yes: the debt ceiling crisis has played out, at least from my perspective, like some horrible emanation from the unconscious mind of the country.  (That description fits the hardline Tea Partiers pretty well, actually.)  And Obama is the avatar in the dream who cannot seem to do or remember the simple-but-impossible thing.  I suspect and kind of hope that he must feel like this at some level himself.  But it’s also felt like a personal nightmare.  There is in the citizen within me (and many others) a wish to wake up and take the government supposedly doing my/our bidding by the lapels and shaking, hard, and slapping forehand and backhand across the cheeks.  And knowing that the hardliners holding up the whole show do not care about my wishes; do not care about any of our wishes, if we do not agree with their ideology.  That’s a kind of nightmare, too.

Economics, government, civics, and nightmares have all been on my mind thanks to The Pale King.  I’ll say more about nightmares in another post.  For now, just let me say that it’s very worthwhile to read and reread section 19 and think about the discussion and/or debate therein, driven by a thoughtful, cogent, apparently conservative high-ranking IRS official, about the role of government, of taxation, and of civic responsibility.  And now I’ll shut up and just let a few excerpts do the talking.  (Except for saying that it’s somewhat useful to keep in mind that the excerpts take place in the very late 1970s, as a Reagan presidency is becoming a possibility.)

Americans are in a way crazy.  We infantilize ourselves.  We don’t think of ourselves as citizens — parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities.  We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities.  We abdicate our civic responsibility to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality.  I’m talking mostly about economics and business…

Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and to a government we expect to control them.  Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think — of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality.  Cleverness as opposed to wisdom.  Wanting and having instead of thinking and making.  We cannot stop it.  I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster — depression, hyperinflation — and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly.  Like Rome — conqueror of its own people….

Of course you want it all, of course you want to keep every dime you make.  But you don’t, you ante up, because it’s how things have to be for the whole lifeboat.  You sort of have a duty to the others in the boat.  A duty to yourself not to be the sort of person who waits till everybody is asleep and then eats all the food….

I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty….

There’s something very curious, though, about the hatred.  The government is the people, leaving aside various complications, but we split it off and pretend it’s not us; we pretend it’s some threatening Other bent on taking our freedoms, taking our money and redistributing it, legislating our morality in drugs, driving, abortion, the environment — Big Brother, the Establishment… With the curious thing being that we hate it for appearing to usurp the very civic functions we’ve ceded to it….

We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie.  So who makes the pie?

Corporations make the pie.  They make it and we eat it….

What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude.  That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves.

The [Internal Revenue] Service’s more aggressive treatment of TPs [taxpayers], especially if it’s high-profile, would seem to keep in the electorate’s mind a fresh and eminently disposable image of Big Government that the Rebel Outsider President could continue to define himself against and decry as just the sort of government intrusion into the private lives and wallets of hardworking Americans he ran for the office to fight against….

The new leader won’t lie to the people: he’ll do what corporate pioneers have discovered works far better: He’ll adopt the persona and rhetoric that let the people lie to themselves.

The Pale King, § 9 and the “Clever Metafictional Titty-Pincher”

July 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace.

The Pale King is classified on its title page as “An Unfinished Novel,” by David Foster Wallace.  The “Editor’s Note” that follows this title page (and the important copyright page on its verso) makes it clear that this is… well… not untrue, exactly, but also not the straight dope.  The book is by David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, his editor.  TPK, as DFW left it, was an unfinished novel, but this is not that TPK.  This TPK is an assemblage put together from DFW’s papers by Pietsch, in an order approximating what Pietsch thought DFW might have wanted, or at least what Pietsch and/or others at Little, Brown/Hachette thought most interesting and/or viable in bookstores.  It’s a collage.  It’s not how DFW left it; it’s something different.  The closest correlative I can think of is the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems, altered in a multitude of ways.  As I read it, I find that I have to keep telling myself: This isn’t even close to a finished piece of work.  This isn’t a novel.  This is a bunch of stuff put in a “best-guess” order by a knowledgeable editor who, while I will forever appreciate his putting in the time and effort to put this book together, is not David Foster Wallace, and had arguments with DFW about what belonged in his books, and put together a book as he, the editor, saw fit, without any input or pushback from the author, who wasn’t done with the thing to begin with.

Because of course DFW did all sorts of things with structure and fragmentary narratives and disjointed timelines and complicated plots in his finished fiction.  So it can seem like a real, live DFW novel.  But it’s not.  And that’s horribly sad.  (And seriously: I don’t think it was close to being done.  I think this was another Infinite Jest-scale work.)  But it is a helluva thing in its own right, and I’m glad to have it.

All of this ontological and classificatory speculation is germane to the book itself, as it turns out.  Section 9 is the “Author’s Foreword,” and it’s clear from the footnotes and other internal evidence that DFW did want this Foreword to be somewhere a ways into the book (I mean, I really don’t mean to say that Pietsch is a bad guy for putting the book together; it was clearly a heroic effort and labor of love, and he did his best with the assignment he chose, which was to make a pile of papers into a salable product.)  In it, DFW claims that the book is a memoir, not fiction at all, but is called a novel for legal purposes.  It’s weird and tricksy, exactly the “kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher” DFW claims in this very chapter that the book is not.

Because, look: for reasons that are as yet unclear to me (and I suspect may never be clear to me), DFW wrote himself into the book.  He claims to have served as an IRS employee in the mid-80s after leaving college, having written papers for cash.  Two of the biggest chunks of narrative in the book (though not the biggest) are concerned with this DFW character. He goes to some lengths to convince readers of this “foreword” that the book is factual, including the following:

Our mutual contract here is based on the presumptions of (a) my veracity, and (b) your understanding that any features or semions that might appear to undercut that veracity are in fact protective legal devices, not unlike the boilerplate that accompanies sweepstakes and civil contracts, and thus are not meant to be decoded or ‘read’ so much as merely acquiesced to as part of the cost of our doing business together, so to speak, in today’s commercial climate.

DFW explicitly dismisses the idea that he’s playing on different definitions or kinds of “truth” here (i.e., that the book is all true in an emotional or aesthetic sense, the typical claim for fiction’s “truthfulness”).  He also, interestingly, refers to himself as “primarily a fiction writer,” which is not the way most of the general reading public knew him: more people read his very popular nonfiction, at least before his death.  And maybe he hoped to bring together those two published personae — DFW the avant-garde fiction writer, and DFW the genius profiler and cruise-ship-interrogator — in this book.  But maybe what DFW was mostly up to with this “Foreword” was an attempt to sort of cut the Gordian knot which the reading of literary fiction of his sort has become.  The stakes, frankly, have become so small, and he wanted to raise them.  As he points out in this section, people care about “made-up stuff” in memoirs in a way that they do not in fiction, much less metafiction or belles lettres.  I think the Foreword might be a way of asking us to read and act like it’s all true, even if it’s not.  To pay attention to it, especially when it’s “user-unfriendly” or boring, as though it were as true as the “real world,” which was part of the point of metafiction in the first place (I think, though in the past I’ve thought of it more as pointing out that the “real world” is as structured and narrative-based and “false” as the fictional ones).  Because even if the work is demonstrably clever and metafictional, he absolutely did not want it to be a “titty-pincher”: a kind of low-stakes, slightly hurtful, slightly titillating prank.

All of this is somewhat undercut by the book’s unfinished nature: the discussions of legal reviews of final drafts and wrangling with editors and such is all obviously impossible, even if you take out the biographical information.  It gives the section a kind of melancholy hilarity, this knowledge that DFW wrote all this without any of said legal reviews or editorial agonizings having taken place.  Presumably some less grandiose approximation eventually did, made much easier by his decease and the chapter’s obvious falsehood accruing therefrom.

Stratospheric Abstraction in the World’s Largest Booklet

March 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace.

(Re)reading next: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, accompanied by The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, by Howard P. Vincent.

I just barely passed my AP calculus exam; I was seriously unsure about whether I’d done well enough until getting that blessed “3” in the mail one day in the summer after graduation.  College credit in hand, I happily forgot just about everything I’d “learned” in cramming for the exam.  This is a common experience, I suspect, at least for those expecting to go into the humanities in college.

Part of my disconnect with calc — my reason for scraping by just exactly as much as I could without trying to get much at all out of the class — was that I either wasn’t paying attention at the beginning of class or was never given an explanation about what, exactly, I was learning: what were all these crazy new theorems and formulas for, exactly?  What did the symbols, procedures, and functions signify?  AP calc was so compressed and results-based that there wasn’t necessarily time for these kinds of background explanations.  But I never even “got” what limits were, or why they were important, or what even differentiated calc from algebra, trig, etc.  It all just seemed kind of pointlessly complicated and wickedly disconnected from any level of empirical reality (which is more or less diametrically wrong, but that is how it seemed).

Which is to say, in DFW’s phrase, it seemed “stratospherically abstract,” divorced from human experience or even (my) comprehension.  So does much of Everything and More, to be honest, and at times I’m scraping by with the same bare modicum of understanding I did in AP calc if I’m scraping by at all.  But at least DFW has given me some sense of what calc is for — understanding and manipulating continuities like motion and time — and what limits and functions and derivatives are about, at a basic level.  All of this is somewhat tangential or at least secondary to the book’s main point, the history of infinity as a mathematical concept of central importance.  But I’m grateful for it.  DFW clearly had a really gifted and engaging teacher of calc, a Robert Goris, whose techniques for teaching many different concepts in calc are referenced quite often in the text.

I would never have considered reading this book if it weren’t for DFW-completist reasons.  And I honestly don’t care much whether I understand calc, advanced math, and/or mathematical infinities.  That ship’s long since sailed.  What I cared about was DFW’s approach to the material, which was obviously very important to him, and about how or whether he would adapt the  idiosyncratic style and voice of his fiction and creative nonfiction to what he presents as a “piece of pop technical writing” in his “Small but Necessary Foreword.”  (I’m not sure it’s all that “pop,” to be honest, even so far as writing about mathematical history goes; we get all of five pages of “Soft-News Interpolation,” padded by two photos, on the biography of its ostensible subject, Georg Cantor.  DFW’s titling of this section as “soft news,” and rather arbitrary placement at the “Last Place to Do It Without Disrupting the Juggernaut-Like Momentum of the Pre-Cantor Mathematical Context,” seems to me to suggest that even this tiny amount of non-technical discussion might have been forced on him by his editor.)

Some of the DFW quirks are here: the footnotes, of course, and the tendency to use abbreviations, acronyms, and symbols to save space within the text.  Actually, one of this text’s illuminations on DFW’s style is that these quirks in his literary works are reflections of his mathematical/philosophical academic background: these techniques are par for the course in those academic disciplines, and he found them efficient and natural ways to deal with his dense literary material, as well.  While I’d registered before the general academic/technical register of these techniques, their precedence in his own academic history had never occurred to me before.

Rhetoric is always a paramount concern in DFW’s work, with self-awareness in the text of the arguments and appeals that are being made, the techniques that are being employed, and the intended relationship between the author and the audience.  Everything and More is also rhetorical, though it is more subdued and consistent in its voice and its stance toward the reader than most of his other work, and much less self-conscious.  In fact, he discusses his rhetorical stance in the aforementioned “Small but Necessary Foreword,” like so:

The aim is to discuss these [mathematical] achievements in such a way that they’re vivid and comprehensible to readers who do not have pro-grade technical backgrounds and expertise.  To make the math beautiful — or at least get the reader to see how someone might find it so.  Which of course all sounds very nice, except there’s a hitch: just how technical can the presentation get without either losing the reader or burying her in endless little definitions and explanatory asides?  Plus… how can the discussion be pitched so that it’s accessible to the neophyte without being dull or annoying to somebody who’s had a lot of college math?

And then, in the first of the book’s footnotes:

Your author here is someone with a medium-strong amateur interest in math and formal systems.  He is also someone who disliked and did poorly in every math course he ever took, save one, which wasn’t even in college, but which was taught by one of those rare specialists who can make the abstract alive and urgent, and who actually talks to you when he’s lecturing, and of whom anything that’s good about this booklet is a pale and well-meant imitation.

This last seems to be an obvious allusion to the aforementioned Robert Goris.  So maybe it’s obvious that by and large, DFW is operating here as a teacher, rather than as an everyman or tour guide or friend or even expert.  He sprinkles the text with less formal sentences and phrases, and occasional restatements and reminders and examples and metaphors, just like a good teacher would.  He is more concerned with getting through the material than in his other works, where he’s more focused on maintaining an entertainment-informational-emotional balance.  In other words, though he never says it, it seems to me that DFW is simply enthusiastic about the content of the work, and believes it will shine if he gets out of the way as much as possible and presents the text.  He wants to help you understand the concepts he’s talking about.

Those quotes above also include one of the book’s more obvious rhetorical strategies, consistently employing the word “booklet” to refer to the text in hand.  This term is ridiculous in reference to a 300-plus-page hardbound book.  This is a booklet like Infinite Jest is a beach read.  DFW knows this.  I think he uses “booklet” to try to make the work seem less intimidating to the lay reader.  Or he was deluded or misguided by the publisher about the format or intended length of the work.

Do DFW’s rhetorical strategies succeed for his stated purpose?  Marginally, at best, I think.  DFW’s writing here was well received by critics as a promising step in his career (as I recall), and I suspect that’s because he’s subdued his style and concentrated on clarifying his dizzyingly abstract subject.  Critics are often lazy, and dumb.  DFW is trying not to make you work at understanding him here, in order not to pile rhetorical difficulty onto his subject’s difficulty.  This is rather different than what he’s trying to do in his literary registers, where he’s frequently emphasizing that we all need to work a little harder at understanding texts and people and the fiercely concrete complexity of life.

Top Ten of the 2000s, and New Year’s Reading Resolutions

January 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

I don’t read a ton of hot-off-the-presses contemporary literature, but I suppose I read enough to have a top-ten list. Herewith, my top ten books of the past decade, as originally presented in our Christmas letter this year:

10. The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.  A seriously entertaining mindbender, not the most original or avant-garde work I’ve ever read, but an extremely well executed piece of postmodern lit, with a ton of hidden goodies for obsessives to find online to continue the story if they so choose.  (Published in 2007, read in 2008; see four posts beginning here.)

9.  Pieces of Payne, by Albert Goldbarth.  I love Goldbarth’s poetry, and this lyrical novel of fragments, digressions, tangents, and footnotes is just awesome.  Goldbarth’s something of an alchemist, and his linking of the microcosm and the macrocosm, the human to the natural, the high to the low, the tragic to the comic, are perhaps not unparalleled in American literature, but he does it better than anyone I know.  (Published in 2003, read in 2006.)

8.  Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, by David Foster Wallace.  I am not one of the people who think DFW’s essays are superior to his fiction.  I think they are verifiably not as good, in fact; I just think people who are not passionate devotees of DFW set the bar of literary excellence lower for essays, and therefore think of his essays as “better” than other published essays in a way that they do not think of his fiction as “better” than other published fiction.  “Up, Simba” remains one of the great and most important pieces of creative nonfiction published in the 2000s.  It’s too bad his piece on Federer was published later; that is one of the great pieces of sports writing of the 2000s.  (Published in 2005, read in 2006.)

7.  after the quake, by Haruki Murakami.  My favorite book by Murakami this decade, a beautiful set of stories.  “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” is one of my favorite short stories, period, and is a good primer on what’s great about Murakami if you’re looking for a place to start (and don’t want to commit to a novel).  We were lucky enough to see an adaptation of stories from this book at Steppenwolf in Chicago.  (Originally published in Japanese in 2000, U.S. edition published in 2002, read in 2003.)

6.  Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link.  I am somewhat surprised to find four short-story collections on my list, because I’m always thinking that I don’t read enough short stories.  But this was a great decade for the short form, and also a great decade for playing with genre.  Link is the reigning champion of the “interstitial” or genre-defying or genre-appreciating-and-transcending story.  This is the best example of same which I’ve read yet, and I think the explosion of interstitial lit was one of the coolest trends of the decade.  Here’s hoping it keeps gaining momentum, and that Kelly Link writes a novel or ten.  (Published in 2005, read in 2006.)

5.  The Secret Life of Puppets, by Victoria Nelson.  I’ve raved about this before; there are at least 10 great books I’ve read since reading this just because they sounded so damned fascinating in Nelson’s book.  A great, great piece of literary and cultural criticism.  Caves, mannequins, automatons, and horror films will never seem the same to you.  An impassioned defense of the irrational, the surreal, and the uncanny in art and in life.  Seriously.  Pick it up.  (Published in 2001, read in 2004.)

4.  Pastoralia, by George Saunders.  Proud to say I’ve been a fan since the beginning.  The best satirist working today, and I personally think this is his best book so far.  Another writer who could do with stretching out and trying a novel; it’s time, isn’t it?  The title novella may be the funniest thing I read all decade, and an absolutely perfect snapshot of America at the turn of the century.  (Published in 2000, read in 2002.)

3.  American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.  The most entertaining book of fiction published this decade, period.  I will accept no other answers.  (And Gaiman’s got a good claim to Writer of the Decade status, when you stack it all up.)  A book that felt as though it were written as a gift to me, by a great friend who happens to be a genius, from a blend of transcripts of my dreams, short stories I’d written, and ideas I’d tossed out at 2 a.m. in dormitory bull sessions.  Of course, it made me jealous as hell, but at least it convinced us to go to the House on the Rock.  I am sure the inevitable movie franchise will be a gigantic success in 2015 or whenever it finally gets made. (Published in 2001, read in 2003.)

2.  Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace.  It will never cease to piss me off how this book was dismissed as DFW stuck in a rut, or a step backward, or whatever.  Total bullshit, written by lazy, conceited, and/or envious reviewers.  I think the fact that “Mister Squishy,” probably the most challenging story in the collection, is the first, had something to do with that: probably an editorial mistake, setting the wrong tone for said lazy reviewers.  “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” and “Good Old Neon” are masterpieces — not just of form, or execution, or craft: of feeling, of connection with the reader, the lack of which was the supposed knock on DFW.  You cannot read those stories and tell me he wasn’t progressing as a writer.  Whatever; the stories will live on in anthologies forever, if there’s any justice.  (Published and read in 2004.)

1.  House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski.  He’ll never top this, I’m afraid.  Hardly a week goes by that I don’t pull this off the shelf and think about rereading — but I’m a little scared.  The perfect storm of fear, paranoia, domestic turmoil, technological and textual overload: the book of the Horror Decade.

So that’s my list.  Now, looking forward: my friend Danelle is starting a project to read twelve books this year which she’s been putting off for years, and inviting others to join in.  I’m game!  So here’s my list of long-neglected hopefuls for 2010, in the order in which they occurred to me:

  1. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
  3. GraceLand, by Chris Abani
  4. Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace
  5. The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6. Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov
  7. The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning
  8. Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare
  9. Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino
  10. The Divine Husband, by Francisco Goldman
  11. Poems, by Emily Dickinson
  12. Possession, by A.S. Byatt

My two alternates, should I give up on any of these, are South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami and Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl.

The Preoccupied Text

October 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Reading next: Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.

The most surprising thing about this book isn’t the erotica, or the range of genres and voices employed; that’s always somewhat startling in a 19th-century work, but it’s really par for the course in the Boccaccio-Chaucer-1001 Nights stories-within-stories tradition.  What’s surprising about Potocki’s book, at least to me, is its self-consciousness, its reflexivity, its — dare I say it? — its metafictional tendencies, and its occasional seemingly contemporary sensibilities.

These moments can be hard to track, and may be an effect of translation as much as content.  However, there must be something undeniably modern in a passage like this, from the end of the tenth day, as van Worden is puzzling over the strange way that a story seems to apply to his own situation: “The bell for dinner sounded.  The cabbalist was not at the table.  Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself.”

Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself. Couldn’t that be Fitzgerald, Carver, or even a Dylan lyric?  That anxiety, disaffectedness, alienation?  That projection of inner turmoil onto environment?  They rattled me, those flat, modern sentences, coming as they did after the retelling of a 17th-century religious parable/spook story.  This juxtaposition itself seemed further evidence of a rather jaded, modern sensibility; evidence that the history of literature is much weirder, more tangled, and idiosyncratic than its presentation in survey courses; evidence that seeming historically inevitable, societally molded progressions are often more like cycles of discovery, rediscovery, recycling, affiliations among fellow thinkers.  (Call it the Tristram Shandy hypothesis.)  The passage, and others like it, seemed a window onto the mysterious Potocki: losing himself in his maze of stories and characters, eminently preoccupied, unable to connect with others.  Facing a quandary, perhaps, about the need for entertainment and the need for human contact.

It’s a very flat work, emotionally.  I am uncertain how conscious of this Potocki was, or whether he cared.  Compared to Boccaccio or Chaucer, certainly, Potocki evinces much less concern or compassion for his characters and much more concern for his structure, for the mapping of his narratives and the relationships among the work, the author, and the reader.  There is an ongoing motif in the framing narrative of characters coyly voicing the concerns Potocki feels the reader (and perhaps he himself) has about the direction the book is taking.  Much of this Potocki works rather brilliantly into the romantic subplot between Rebecca/Laura, the caballist’s daugher, and Velasquez the geometer (of whom I’ll write at more length later).  At the end of the 28th day, Velasquez complains that the stories-within-stories that the gypsy chief Pandesowna is telling have become impossible to follow, and, even though he’s hearing rather than reading the stories, he states,

“It is a veritable labyrinth.  I had always thought that novels and other works of that kind should be written in several columns like chronological tables.”

“You are right,” said Rebecca….  “That would no doubt clarify the story.”

After Velasquez clarifies that he wishes the stories would be presented more systematically and logically, Rebecca replies: “Yes, indeed….  Continual surprises don’t keep one’s interest in the story alive.  One can never foresee what will happen subsequently.”  After one more dig, van Worden realizes “that Rebecca was making fun of all of us.”  The author takes the last word here; but at the end of the 35th day, with its four layers of tales, Velasquez the geometer states, “I was right to foresee that the stories of the gypsy would get entangled one with another….  I hope the gypsy will tell us what became of fair Ines.  But if he interpolates yet another story, I’ll fallout with him…  Meanwhile I don’t believe that our storyteller will be coming back this evening.”  He is not refuted.  In these passages, Potocki performs the neat trick of sympathizing with and challenging his readers.  Potocki seems keenly aware of the “level of reader annoyance” (I seem to recall DFW using the phrase, as applied by an editor to himself) for which he is aiming, and which he thinks the interest of the work can withstand.

There are many more examples of these metafictional flourishes; the convenient summoning and dismissal or departure of the Wandering Jew, and the discussion of same, form another fascinatingly self-conscious thread, especially in its play with the supernatural and listeners’ (and readers’) attitude toward it.  But more on that shortly.  Another simple but telling example: the continuation of the gypsy chief’s tale with the phrase “the gypsy, having nothing else to do, continued his story as follows.”  Having nothing else to do.  Does Potocki intend his metafiction and modernism as avant-garde gestures and comments on his society, his self?  Or does he have nothing else to do, and amuse himself by complicating his narrative, even to the point of talking back to himself?  Part of the attraction and the frustration of reading historical works is the difficulty of grasping the mind behind the work — their frame of reference, the culture and society and family and history and canon to which they are responding.  Potocki is clearly and explicitly writing in many traditions here, and responding to them, but it is hard to find the motivations behind those responses.

Hypochondria and the Gothic Imagination

January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

There was a reading and reception for Poe’s 200th birthday yesterday at the Duke library — a fine event, with some exceptionally good readings of six Poe works (three prose, three poetry).  Ariel Dorfman, who read “The Cask of Amontillado,” made a great point about how appropriate it was that Poe lived and died in Baltimore, the dividing point between the cold, rational North and the Gothic South, just as his works feature both some of the first detective stories and some of the most overheated Gothic prose ever.

Plus I’ve been reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy very slowly, as bedtime reading, for the last few months.  It is really quite a fantastic read — a page or two at a time is perfect, since the whole book’s basically one big digression after another anyway.  And it has me thinking about all the things we’ve meant by “melancholy,” down through the centuries, and why and how the word and concept persist.

So: let’s talk about mental illness.  Specifically, hypochondria.  Ishmael’s famous “hypos.”  (And the comparison is illuminating: when Ishmael felt suicidal, he was able to run off to sea.  Lucy had no such option; her short trip across the Channel was harrowing enough, and then, if she wanted to keep a measure of independence,  she had to find some place to do respectable work — viz. the passage on p. 329-331 in which Lucy reveals to the de Bassompierres that she is a teacher.)

We now use “hypochondria” to refer to the condition of constant fear of illness; the meaning in the nineteenth century was similar, but referred more to low spirits, melancholy, a depression-like state, with no apparent cause.  I am not a psychiatrist, so I use the following terms as a layman, but what we now call bipolarity and depression seem to have been considered symptomatic of hypochondria.  Oh, and hallucinations could also be a symptom, in some cases.

Of course, you can find Gothic and/or Victorian attitudes toward psychology and mental illness discussed ad nauseam; and you can even find studies of Brontë’s writing and the psychology of the time in books like this.  It can all seem fairly played out.  But personally, I never seem to get tired of the subject: the time was the crossroads between so much superstition and speculation and so much new science, thought, and experimentation.  That pre-Freudian century contains so much potential energy in the enthusiasms for phrenology, spiritualism, evolution, utopian thinking and living.  Plus, no matter how much Brontë is contextualized and demythologized, Charlotte really does seem a special case, and Lucy Snowe — well, Lucy Snowe’s something else entirely.

(A crabby aside: the academic party line now seems to be contextualizing and historicizing the Brontës, products of their time and environment and all that.  I hear this from profs, I see it in books and articles.  Now, I know the Brontës have been considered these utter anomalies, writing their wild imaginings in the hinterlands, but must we really insist that no one is special, that there’s nothing strange or amazing about these sisters’ writings, that they’re just products of their historical moment((s), I’m sure the lit profs would add) like all the others?  Can we keep the humanities at least a little non-scientific, please, and savor something that smacks of miracle?  I know, I know: no one’s getting tenure savoring a miracle.  End crabby aside.)

Hypochondria pops up over and over again in Villette, and there are times when Lucy certainly does seem clinically depressed or manic.  The writing at the times of depression can be quite heart-wrenchingly sad and beautiful.  Chapter 15, “The Long Vacation,” when Lucy becomes desperately lonely and resorts to a Catholic priest’s confessional, and the beginning of chapter 24, as she suffers a seven-week silence from Dr. John, are especially memorable.  But the two episodes most directly touched by hypochondria (so far, at least) are the appearances of the ghost-nun and the king of Labassecour.

The nun, a legend of Madame Beck’s school, appears to Lucy in chapter 22, and the circumstances are quite intriguing.  Lucy has received her first letter from Dr. John, and read it in the garret, and been made very happy by its warmth and “good-nature.”  (Lucy, that tricksy narrator, is coy on this throughout, but I do think she is in a fairly conventional kind of love with Dr. John, even if she doesn’t admit it to herself.)  “The present moment had no pain, no blot, no want; full, pure, perfect, it deeply blessed me.” Then we get a remarkable run of paragraphs — I love how the textures and rhythms of this passage telegraph their Gothic-ness but nevertheless powerfully build suspense:

Are there wicked things, not human, which envy human bliss?  Are there evil influences haunting the air, and poisoning it for man?  What was near me?…

Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely.  Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a solitary foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks.  I turned: my light was dim; the room was long — but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.

Say what you will, reader — tell me I was nervous or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow — I saw there — in that room — on that night — an image like — A NUN.

Dr. John soon diagnoses this as an effect of hypochondria, and I, at least at first blush, am inclined to agree.  The image of a silent, celibate woman — one of the dreaded Catholics, no less — appearing to Lucy after a glimmer of romantic hope is simply too powerful to resist as a figure out of her own mind.  The nun reappears to Lucy thereafter, and there remains some degree of Gothic mystery about whether the nun actually is a ghost.

But turn it around: what if it’s not a phantasm of sexual fear and frustration or some long-lost relative of Lucy’s, but a bloody ghost?  What if it’s an affront to Reason?  There is, after all, the remarkable dialogue between Lucy and her Reason on p. 265-6 (beginning at no. 19 in the e-text), and the ensuing castigation of the “hag” Reason to the glorification of Imagination and Hope. What if the nun is exactly what Lucy Snowe needs to acknowledge as the reason behind her impulse to flee to the continent — the missing (or repressed) part of herself?

The other remarkable passage on hypochondria is Lucy’s observation of the king, sitting in the royal box at a concert Lucy attends with Dr. John, and her recognition in him of a kindred spirit:

There sat a silent sufferer — a nervous, melancholy man.  Those eyes had looked on the visits of a certain ghost — had long waited the comings and goings of that strangest spectre, Hypochondria.  Perhaps he saw her now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng.  Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands — dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well-nigh strong as Death.

And but so here it is again, in another form: the great white shark of pain.

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