Month: October 2015

Infinite Jest… I think I can recommend this book? Depending on who is asking?

Since barrels of academic/Internet ink have already been spilled in discussion of Infinite Jest, I’ll keep it brief. This is a long book, and many sections of it are damn difficult to read. It also doesn’t really make much sense until you are well over 300 pages in, which is definitely a problem for some people. But I’m not a fan of a lot of the popular narrative that seems to have risen up around this book, the narrative that frames reading the damn thing as if it were some sort of feat of athletic prowess, trained and sweat and bled for. It’s just a damn book. It’s a great book and it’s going to take your full attention, but for Chrissake it’s not a goddamn marathon.

It’s also the nearest thing to a perfectly unique narrative voice that has come into existence in the past 30 years. The fact that Wallace manages this without it coming across as hopelessly affected is damn impressive, and the fact that this voice not only works in such a massive piece of wide-cast prose, but is the very thing that ties it all together… that’s another step up. I struggle to classify what exactly the novel is, but I can’t even decide where it stands in relation to a defined for like magical realism (Infinite Jest is nothing like magical realism except for the ways it is like magical realism). I’ve got no faith in my abilities to describe or classify.

Which brings me to the big questions -would I recommend this book to a friend? I certainly loved reading it, especially once I hit my stride. If you are a person who loves writing, who loves words and the interesting things people do with them, and if you are a patient person, I strongly believe that you too might also enjoy this book. There’s certainly nothing else out there quite like it. But can I recommend it? I’m still not sure. And I think some degree of intrinsic motivation must exist on the part of the reader, or they’ll never get through those first 300 pages. But goddamn, it’s worth getting through those first 300 pages.

The Case Studies of Oliver Sacks: Hallucinations and The Mind’s Eye


I read these two books after being completely taken in by Sacks’ wonderful memoir, On the Move. The thing I found most compelling in that memoir was his naturalistic prose, the kind of writings of a 19th-century British gentleman-scientist, distilled down into powerfully direct and energetic language. That kind of writing is still very much present in these two books, -essays and narratives about specific case studies related to their respective titles- but the prose is reinforced by Sacks’ encyclopedic knowledge of his professional field.

This knowledge is communicated excellently, without fail. The man never leans on jargon, but chooses the most appropriate words to communicate his ideas to an intelligent put general audience. When a system of understanding or a historical context is required to make sense of some particular example, that information is folded flawlessly into the narrative. Everything sits in its right place, and there is no linguistic fat to trim.

In addition to my admiration of his literary skills, I find myself completely taken in by his narrative approach to medicine. By structuring scientific analysis of the human brain as a narrative, Sacks opens up each of his particular examples, showcasing their value not only as object lessons in neurology, but as compelling, human stories. Brains are people, and people are interesting -Sacks never sees brains as mre globules of fat. Strangely enough, I find myself making better sense of the science in this book -science presented almost exclusively in narrative form- than I have in my external studies of science for it’s own sake (like when I was obsessively studying anatomy in the process of getting my personal training certification a few years ago). There’s nothing like a narrative frame to give weight and recognition to something that transcends storytelling -whether that be prescience, philosophy, or meditation.

Recommendation: Give them a read. For those of you partial to audiobooks, the episodic structure and direct prose make these excellent candidates for your auditory pleasure centers.

Sam Lipsyte’s “The Ask” and the problem with ironic distance

Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask is very funny. It’s also sufficiently dark and morbid. And it lacks something that I can’t seem to define, so I don’t think it’s really fair for me to bitch about it, on account of that inability to articulate fault, but I’m not going to let that stop me.

I think it has something to do with the ironic distance that the narrating protagonist, Milo Burke, puts between himself and his entire world. It’s a jaded cynicism that also keeps the reader at a distance from every moment of any kind of emotional heft. I’m not attacking Lipsyte’s ability to produce a powerful cringe of recognition in one of the comically unflattering iterations of Milo’s thoughts or deeds -there’s a gut-level connection borne of empathy and mutual embarrassment. This isn’t the exaggerated cringe humor of the office, but a painfully honest exhibition of the postmodern male’s most unflattering aspects. It’s a shame the extent to which these revelations descend into bathos.

I would absolutely be lying if I were to claim that I hadn’t enjoyed the damn book. But there’s some profound lack of satisfaction in the reading. I can’t fault the prose, and I can’t fault anything craft-related in the novel itself. Maybe the whole thing is just to self-aware. Maybe Milo knows his audience too well, and tells them what he knows they don’t want to hear -which is, of course, what they actually want to hear.

Recommendation: This is another tricky one. Give it a read if you get the chance, but don’t rush to put it at the top of your to-read pile, I guess.

The Ask
by Sam Lipsyte

Flashman at the Charge, The Flashman Papers, and my spotted history with historical fiction

I had never heard of George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” books before picking a few up on a recommendation. I’ve got an innate suspicion of historical fiction borne out of an unmitigated G.A. Henty binge I went on when I was about twelve, (eerily similar to the events that led to my current perspective on Ritz crackers) but I figured that the light-hearted nature of these books would be less likely to set off my Ponderous Edwardian Bullshit Meter than the aforementioned G.A. Henty. It also helps that these books (published mostly in the 70s) are both comically irreverent and obsessively researched. My knowledge of certain specific historical events has been absurdly sharpened by these quick/guilty pleasure reads. But, holy shit, the covers are so, so bad…

So where do books like “The Flashman Papers” fit in with my goal of obsessive and broad reading? Well, they’re damn good palette cleansers. After getting through Infinite Jest or something emotionally draining, (even in a good way, like Kundera)there’s an undeniable satisfaction in something that’s both engaging and undemanding. The writing isn’t bad enough to distract, and the plots -while always far-fetched- are interesting enough. But far more interesting is the window they provide into a particular moment in history. Fraser is seriously obsessive in his research, and he has a remarkable talent for distilling all that research down to a simple narrative (a narrative that’s often genuinely funny).

I don’t have any problems with reading genre, with reading pulp. Some of the most interesting art happens at the points where high and low culture bisect -this high/low dynamic would be impossible if artists had no familiarity or appreciation of “low” culture, pop or otherwise. Obviously, it’s possible to go overboard in either direction, but I’m suspicious of people who broadly condemn any particular subset (don’t be the guy who likes “all kinds of music, except country music”).

Recommendation: Try it. See if this particular incarnation of non-high-culture does anything for you.


Flashman at the Charge
by George Macdonald Fraser

P.G. Wodehouse and the Role of Humor (vs. Comedy)

The writings of P.G. Wodehouse might suggest themselves as antithetical to everything I cherish in literature, but that suggestion would be erroneous. In spite of my rabid disliking of golf, the foibles and struggles of a perfectly secure upper class, the utter lack of dramatic consequence, and in spite of my impatience for slapstick comedy and the excessively droll, I really enjoyed reading these two books. In what seems to be a continuation on a theme this year, I find that really good writing covers a multitude of sins.

Wodehouse writes about trivialities, but he manages to keep a dry distance from it, cultivating both a sense of self-awareness and objectivity. Wodehouse knows that there is nothing actually at stake in a miser winning fifty quid on an absurd wager involving who has the literally fattest uncle, but he makes it known that it’s damn important in the man’s own head, and this only adds to the absurdity of the situation (the story is far more hilarious than you’d think from my referencing it, but -as the saying goes- humor is like a frog in that it seldom survives dissection).

It all comes back to the language. Wodehouse deploys the same kind of precision command of the written word as Nabokov or John Gardner, but instead of pointing it at narrative (with occasional flashes of bitter comedy) Wodehouse uses it in the service of ridiculous humor. I quote here from a longer passage that describes Agnes Flack, a female club champion “built on the lines of the village blacksmith”:

“I have often seen the Wrecking Crew, that quartet of spavined septuagenarians whose pride it was that they never let anyone play through, scatter like leaves in an autumn gale at the sound of her stentorian ‘Fore!’. A dynamic and interesting personality.”

Recommendation: Read a couple stories. This shit is what the best sitcoms aspire to.

Tender is the Night and Re-reading Gatsby, or “Yes, Francis, We Know You Want to be Old Money”

I almost didn’t make it through Tender is the Night. I think I only pushed through the god-awful first act because the book is considered Fitzgerald’s best, and I wanted to be able to castigate the damn thing from a position of authority. Happily, the thing got much better after that insufferable kickoff.

I have this problem with Fitzgerald. Notice I did not say I have a problem with his writing -although I suppose I do, by extension. But his particular obsessions and carnivorous social aspirations seem to have left the man with an alarming lack of self-awareness, which he is able to overcome only by the virtue of being a really fucking good writer. As I reader, this entire situation is incredibly frustrating -I keep getting distracted by Fitzgerald’s desperate inner child, hungering for acceptance and recognition as it tugs on my sleeve and makes it impossible for me to appreciate more than a few of those wonderful sentences at a time.

Part of this has to do with the stakes -for the majority of these two novels, there isn’t anything at risk. None of this shit matters. I have no issue with reading about bad people behaving badly, (see my list of favorite books) but I have no interest if their bad behavior is completely meaningless, absent of consequence and lasting effect. There is only the most petty kind of drama in that, and both of these books require a lot of slogging to get to anything like an action of consequence (and I’m not using “consequence” in its moral sense here, but in the sense of one thing leading to some other result).

But I noticed how much more I preferred the act of reading Gatsby compared to Tender is the Night, which I found surprising, since I can subjectively say that Tender is the Night is the superior book. I think the act of re-reading a book flawed in this particular way is a bit more redeeming, because all of the previously unimportant interactions -while still completely without interesting consequence- provide a more codified system of behavior that inform those later moments of genuine consequence. Maybe people with my particular sensitivities just aren’t going to enjoy Fitzgerald on the first read. Since there are a few of his books out there that I have yet to read, I’m sure I will be able to test this hypothesis.

Recommendation: Read one. While Gatsby is more culturally relevant, Tender is the Night is a better book -if you can hang in through the first act. (Also, all of the covers for Gatsby look like shit for some reason. I have literally never seen a cover of The Great Gatsby I did not immediately dislike. If any of you are familiar with one, please show it to me.)

Great Gatsby (Scribner Classics)
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Literary Privilege, MFAs, and that Marxist chip on my Shoulder

cartoon-me maxist chip

Writing is less and less a thing that people can do as a job, and the price of admission is getting higher. With their spreading proliferation, MFAs in Creative Writing are becoming the postmodern equivilent of an undergraduate diploma -sure, you can succeed without one, but, seriously, you need to get one. And the idea of spending the amount of time and/or money that an MFA demands with (likely as not) nothing of substance to show for it at the end of the program is an idea that only appeals to:

A) the hopelessly naive and/or optimistic.

B) those who are in position of privilege such that they can freely spend that kind of time and money without regard to the consequences.

The problem here is that good writers and clever people with compelling shit to say don’t always come from the uppermost bracket of society. In fact, that bracket seems to have saturated the literary dialog over the last few hundred years (more ranting on this shit when I get around to writing about “The Beautiful and the Damned”). I want to read more literary fiction written by the grown children of the California migrant workers who came into this country in the 80s, and more short stories by Appalachians who made it out of towns spiraling into oblivion, former Oregon tweakers and our very own transplanted Bakersfield Okies. These are people, generally speaking, with little to no support from home, people who don’t want to take the risk of their lives going nowhere after they’ve worked so fucking hard to get out of a shitty situation. They become doctors or high-tech petroleum engineers and they swell the ranks of upper management. In spite of being just as clever and far more interesting than the cookie-cutter East Coast private school kids that seem to dominate the best MFA programs, they aren’t going to take the risk. I’m so much more interested in reading people who were drug addicts because their parents sold meth than people who were art-school drug addicts to get back at Mom for being too distant.

I’m not trying to romanticize poverty or desperate childhood struggles. Those kinds of experiences are born out of legitimate social ills that we, as a country, need urgently address. With that in mind, these kind of narratives are both incredibly powerful and woefully underrepresented. There is a kind of empathy that grows through the shared experience of narrative, and making that experience widely available through good art seems pretty fucking important. I don’t know what changes have to happen to make that a reality. My cynical prediction is that there is absolutely nothing that can be done, no hard changes that can be made to fix this shit. But it isn’t completely hopeless. There seems to be a strong current of disfavor pushing against privileged narratives, demonstrated in everything from television to Reddit memes mocking “first world problems”. If this tide starts pressing into the literary establishment via widespread and deep-seated impatience for pretentious bullshit stories about white American dudes Thinking About Life whilst drinking some local beverage at a super cool place somewhere in Europe that only the locals know about, we might just be OK.