David Foster Wallace is best known for Infinite Jest, but secondarily for his magazine and nonfiction writing. This collection of short stories is neither but is certainly worth the read, especially if you enjoyed his most popular novel. There is a reoccurring format here in which many stories (all of which share their title with the book) are presented as transcriptions of interviews with a variety of distasteful males. The interviewer’s questions are omitted, and both specific questions and the larger structure must be inferred only from the answers given, a technique that was also well-employed in Infinite Jest. In this story collection, standing on their own, these “interviews” are even better -hilarious and fucked up little vignettes that you don’t want to come to the end of.
The other stories here are thematically linked, even if their structure is radically different -although DFW does really gravity to the kinds of postmodern structures that depart radically from those employed in conventional narratives, so expect stories in the form of essay questions, lots of fourth-wall busting, and other assorted hand-waving. While sometimes irritated by the author’s drive for architectural novelty, I can’t help but admire his implementation. These stories are very, very good, and they stick well in the brain. And as to the thematic links, we find the staples of DFW: horrible people behaving badly while still somehow (sometimes) sympathetic, obsessively wrought recursions, B-list sexual deviancy, depression, and alienation.
Most of this book was written after Wallace had received a fair bit of critical success and approval, and it’s tempting to dismiss some of the more obsessively backflipping stuff as show-off literary masturbation -and I have to confess to being extremely dismissive of his work for a few years for this exact reason- it’s going to be a loss. This book is good, and it’s fucked up in the kind of ways that lead to productive thinking about upsetting shit, and it’s an example of a very difficult form of writing done very well. It might not be for everyone, and if it isn’t for you, you’ll know pretty quick.
Lorrie Moore is good at writing short stories. This surprises no one, I assume. I had read one or two of her stories in anthologies, but never took the time to sit down with an entire book. Some short story writers seem to come across better in small doses, but many of the best (Carver, Denis Johnson, and Thom Jones spring to my mind) seem to offer the most to the reader when their collections are read all at once. There’s some kind of cumulative effect, a thing that no doubt relates to thematic or narrative connections present within a collection, but which owes even more to the experience of spending more time within that writer’s own aesthetic universe, familiarizing oneself with a certain pacing or sense of humor or dramatic sentimentality, or whatever specific intangible it may be. Moore is definitely included here. I found myself enjoying this book more and more as I kept reading, and I don’t think it was because the stories themselves were getting better -I was getting better at reading them.
These stories are not often particularly engaging if read strictly on the level of plot, although there are certain exceptions to this. They are engaging mostly out of their wildly different and always enjoyable senses of voice. There are all kinds of people in Birds of America and they all have different ways of getting their identities out there. Even characters who might seem superficially similar when viewed from a strictly plot-looking synopsis cut markedly different lines in prose.
While the characters who inhabit this book each inform their stories with variance in a free indirect narrative sort of thing, there is something distinctly universal to the author in the descriptive prose, a way with metaphor and simile that is very hard to define, and is probably the single most important factor in the quality of Moore’s prose. She has a way of writing something novel that communicates an idea as effectively and as universally as a cliche would. I still can’t figure out the exact mechanics, or any kind of worthwhile definition, but, damn. It’s impressive both when you notice it and when you don’t.
Recommendation: Read it! Don’t sell yourself short by reading her work in isolation.
Ryū Murakami’s novel Coin Locker Babies was published in 1980, a fact that surprised me when I learned it just a few moments ago. It is certainly not timestamped -I would have believed that this book had been published at any time between 1970 and the present. It is also rather surreal (not unlike the works of a certain other Murakami in that regard) but I would have assumed that it pulled quite a bit of its inspiration from the counterculture fiction of the mid-80s and the 90s, from William Gibson, from the splatterpunk movement, and so forth. Maybe Ryū Murakami was synthesizing the same kinds of inspiration in a similar way, or maybe the underground Japanese fiction of this era was a partial influence on the way certain subsets of Western counterculture writing started to go. Having not yet even begun to gestate at the time all this was taking place, and not being especially familiar with the direction of influence, I leave my wondering at that.
Coin Locker Babies is very dark and very strange. It employs both traditional realism and the extreme and surreal in such a way as to leave the reader disoriented and unsure -it’s an unreliable narrative, with no unreliable narrator to fixate on on to contextualize away the uncertainty. This is a powerful narrative technique, although it can sometimes leave the reader feeling a bit at a remove from the narration. The story is also nihilistic to such a degree that the characters, who are well-rounded and interesting, are also set off at a distance. We care what happens to them, but more out of curiosity than anything else. There is no investment and there is no sense of urgency.
While most of what I’ve said above might be construed as negative, the combined effects synthesize well. This book’s component parts fit well together, and the end result is both engrossing and inclined to provoke a deeper examination -a hard marriage to achieve. I blew through the last 180 pages of small, tight typeface in a single sitting, unable to put the thing down, and that doesn’t happen to me often.
Recommendation: Read it, but maybe take a pass if you are squeamish or have a compulsive need to find the people in your books to be “likable” or “relatable”.
Reading Log favorite Matthew Vollmer edited this particular anthology, an artifact that began as a personal writing project and expanded to include the work of many writers. Everything in here is a variant of a prayer, specifically, an uncommon one, a prayer for people watching airline safety demonstrations, for people seeing their new home in the harsh light of objectivity, for people who bought Brazilian waxes on Groupon. Some of these prayers are very funny, some of them reveal an upsetting reality, some of them are simply thoughtful or meditative.
As will be the case with any anthology, some of these pieces didn’t do much for me, but the vast majority ranged between decent and excellent. Verbalizations are often an indicator of how deeply I am engaging with a book, and there were both audible laughings and muttered “fucks”. There were at least a dozen or so prayers in here that really stuck -not a bad ratio at all.
The rather novel conceit of this collection seems to have forced writers to either adapt existing work or to stretch themselves into a slightly different form, and with generally excellent results. I would recommend reading this collection over a week or two at minimum, rather than blasting through. The format holds up best when you aren’t subjecting it to a binge.
Recommendation: Buy it, read it. Very solid and diverse collection that does something different without trying too desperately to be different.
I still have not read any of the Russian behemoths, but my experiences with the novellas of Tolstoy and now Dostoyevsky are making that a rather untenable position. The Gambler is as good a short novel as any, a masterclass in the writing of scenes and in the propulsion of plot. While certain stylistic anachronisms -the heavy use of cliffhanger chapter endings and exclamation marks, for example- read a bit badly, the book itself is a pleasure. The narrator isn’t fully “unreliable” in the modern sense of the trope, but his narrative is incomplete, seeming to lack certain unflattering details.
The Gambler also deserves high raise for its depiction of the act of gambling itself. Dostoyevsky was a compulsive player, and we even owe the existence of this book itself to one of his gambling debts, so his way of describing the play, the emotions and motivations behind it -it all rings very true. But to compliment his scenes of gaming as mere descriptive fidelity would be to far miss their value -the reader is powerfully drawn in by both the narrative and the way in which that narrative is accounted. Suspense is never used cheaply, and there is a compelling sense of urgency and immediacy in the reading which mirrors the frenetic need for play being depicted. And the strict absence of any superficial moralizing makes the moral and philosophical considerations here stand more proudly upright.
Whenever I find myself in the position of reviewing some part of the literary canon, I feel limited in what I might say. These reading logs are short and superficial by design -I can’t say anything in this medium that has not already been said many times about Dostoyevsky’s ability with prose. And, having read little else of his, I can’t make this a comparative review. The Gambler was a wonderful introduction, and I eagerly anticipate reading more.
I recently came across an editor and writer who is in the process of putting together an anthology that I find particularly interesting. Flooded will deal specifically with brain injury and concussions, a collection borne out of project runner Victoria Griffin’s own painful experiences. While I have no direct involvement in the project, I plan to submit to the anthology and I plan to support its Kickstarter when that goes live in a few months.
If this project is of interest to you, Victoria is collecting the emails of interested parties. Get involved and support independent publishing and independent writers!
Alice in Bed is a wonderful concept play, a fantastic idea written deftly. A fantastic off-jumping from the real biographical details of Henry and William James’ sister, the play is an examination of gender, (historically, individually, and universally) a close look at a specific culture that still echos in our own, and one of the densest collections of literary references I can remember at the moment.
It’s a short play, somewhat simple, with extensive direction. There’s a lot of Beckett in here -the density of reference isn’t limited merely to name-dropping; many are stylistic, or variations on a form. It’s plenty cerebral, but at no point does the reader feel that he is watching people-shaped stand-ins for philosophical ideas talk at each other, like one might see in a Don DeLillo novel (no knock against the man, of course). The characters aren’t perfectly round -the whole affair is a bit too surreal for that- but they are entities.
Reading a play is always going to be a very different experience than seeing one performed, and writing a play requires an entirely different set of imaginative muscles than stories or novels. Sontag’s playwriting is clearly informed by the plays of the forty years prior, but is by no means mere emulation. Alice in Bed is a compelling look at depression, at gender, at creative and intellectual abilities and their fulfillment, and it deserves it’s own place at the table.
Recommendation: Go read it! And see it if you can.