Reviews and riffs of June and July, 2015 (and an unrelated owl)

The second part of my (long) interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion. Chock full of all sorts of riffage: sincerity, authenticity, Vollmann’s visual art, etc. Special bonus: slightly frazzled Franzen pic.

I reread David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest in June/July. First time I’d read the whole thing since 2001. I wrote about reading the first 299 pages. I was also reading some of the essays in William H. Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life, and I riffed at some length on Wallace contra Gass, masscult entertainment, etc. From that riff:

…this is Wallace’s big insight in Infinite Jest, right?—that our consciousnesses, mapped in the muck, are framed in desire and reward, and we are conditioned/subjected into that system of desire/reward, so that we desire the desire, even as our consciousnesses…can sneer at something we love, can dismiss the muck that helped shape us even as we plunge into it, the muck. And—too, part of Wallace’s insight in Infinite Jest—too, the consciousness of the consciousness of the desire of desire—that that’s, like, the contemporary condition. And what Wallace…seems to want to point to is some way out of the muck of pop consciousness, a reconciliation toward a pure consciousness that doesn’t sneer—right?

I also wrote a brief note to readers new to Infinite Jest, and included a list of motifs, which (the list) may or may not be helpful.

Nell Zink’s debut novel The Wallcreeper is fucking incredible.

Loved loved loved J.G. Ballard’s degenerate debauched depraved novel High-Rise

—but his later novel Millennium People, despite a great concept and some fascinating ideas, really isn’t so good.

Here’s that owl—with a special guest no less!

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A review of Millennium People, J.G. Ballard’s novel of middle-class boredom and meaningless violence

Act of Violence, Rene Magritte

Early in J.G. Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People, our narrator David Markham remarks that “A vicious boredom ruled the world, for the first time in human history, interrupted by meaningless acts of violence.” The sentence delivers three of the novel’s key terms: boredommeaningless, and violence. These words (or iterations of these words) repeat so often in Millennium People that any connotative spark they might bear becomes dulled. Even the violence becomes boring.

The violence in the novel resonates from its central plot about a middle-class revolution in Chelsea Marina, an “enclave of middle-class decorum.” Corporate psychologist David Markham is drawn into this revolution after his ex-wife dies in an apparently-meaningless bombing at Heathrow Airport. (She dies at the baggage carousel—symbolically-overloaded and thoroughly-Ballardian). Initially, Markham’s goal is to infiltrate the group as a kind of unwitting police spy. However, he soon takes part in acts of terrorism and meaningless violence, led in large part by Kay Churchill, an ex-film studies professor who rails against the evils of Hollywood and travel. Soon, Kay ventriloquizes Markham:

…I could hear her voice inside my head: bullying, pleading, sensible and utterly mad. The middle class was the new proletariat, the victims of a centuries-old conspiracy, at last throwing off the chains of duty and civic responsibility.

Kay eventually leads Markham to Millennium People’s would-be heart of darkness, demented pediatrician Dr. Richard Gould. Kay and Markham:

‘Richard says that people who find the world meaningless find meaning in pointless violence.’

‘Richard? Dr Richard Gould?’

‘You’ll meet him again, when he’s ready. He’s the leader of our middle-class rebellion. His mind is amazingly clear, like those brain-damaged children he looks after. In a way, he’s one of them.’

Kay is a far more interesting character than Gould. Unfortunately, Ballard teases out Gould as the Big Bad, occasionally having him show up to dialogue with Markham on finding big-em Meaning in all the meaninglessness of the world. God as a Void, the evils of the 20th century infecting the new millennium, etc. These ideas repeat and repeat and repeat, bumping along a muddled plot. Indeed, much of the plot and many of the themes of Millennium People might be condensed into this conversation between Markham and his one-time colleague/boring-assed doppelgänger Henry the psychologist. Markham speaks first in this exchange, explaining the revolution to Henry (I’ve added bold-faced emphasis if you’re in a hurry):

‘Middle-class pique. We sense we’re being exploited. All those liberal values and humane concern for the less fortunate. Our role is to keep the lower orders in check, but in fact we’re policing ourselves.’

Henry watched me tolerantly over his whisky. ‘Do you believe all that?’

‘Who knows? The important thing is that the people at Chelsea Marina believe it. It’s amateurish and childish, but the middle classes are amateurish, and they’ve never left their childhoods behind. But there’s something much more important going on. Something that ought to worry your friends at the Home Office.”

“And that is?’

‘Decent and level-headed people are hungry for violence.’

‘Grim, if true.’ Henry put down his whisky. ‘Directed at what?’

‘It doesn’t matter. In fact, the ideal act of violence isn’t directed at anything.’

‘Pure nihilism?’

‘The exact opposite. This is where we’ve all been wrong – you, me, the Adler, liberal opinion. It isn’t a search for nothingness. It’s a search for meaning. Blow up the Stock Exchange and you’re rejecting global capitalism. Bomb the Ministry of Defence and you’re protesting against war. You don’t even need to hand out the leaflets. But a truly pointless act of violence, shooting at random into a crowd, grips our attention for months. The absence of rational motive carries a significance of its own.

While Ballard’s diagnosis of the end of the 20th century is both perceptive and prescient, the novel’s repetitions build to very little. Ballard puts his interlocutors into fascinating territory, but then squirms away. Here’s Gould holding forth to Markham:

We’re living in a soft-regime prison built by earlier generations of inmates. Somehow we’ve got to break free. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 was a brave attempt to free America from the 20th Century. The deaths were tragic, but otherwise it was a meaningless act. And that was its point.

Markham then immediately turns the conversation to the Heathrow bombing that killed his ex-wife. The potential for a shocking exchange simply veers back to the novel’s central thesis.

And that thesis becomes muddied. Markham, Gould, Kay, and other revolutionaries make bold, radical declarations, but often append them in a sentimentality at odds with their revolutionary claims. Ballard’s characters let us know that they think murder is wrong. The contradiction between the impulse for meaningless violence and the core (and very middle-class) values that often restrains the impulse remains unexplored. This unresolved contradiction might have been a purposeful tactic meant to highlight the limits of our narrator’s desire for real revolution, but there’s little to lead a reader to this conclusion beyond his own hopeful imagination. Ballard seems as uncommitted as the characters.

A lack of force and shock—that’s the problem of Millennium People, I suppose. It’s unfair and unproductive to expect Ballard to rewrite Crash or High-Rise here, even though he’s playing with many of the same themes and motifs. And yet those novels exist. Dr. Richard Gould is a pale answer to Crash’s Dr. Robert Vaughan (or Richard Wilder of High-Rise or Strangman of The Drowned World or Dr. Barbara of Rushing to Paradise…). Ballard’s satire suffers from a lack of full commitment. The hyperbole peters out; the tonal inconsistencies, far from clashing, become dull.

Still, there’s much to commend in Millennium People even if it falls short of Ballard’s finest work. The novel’s larded with little riffs and satirical observations: “America invented the movies so it would never need to grow up,” Kay remarks. Markham observes in a riot “the outrage of professional men and women who had never known pain and whose soft bodies had been pummelled only by their lovers and osteopaths.” We’re informed that “From now on ordering an olive ciabatta is a political act.” (I would love to read the notebook where Ballard recorded these phrases, if such a treasure exists).

Millennium People’s prescience—like most of Ballard’s previous work—only comes into sharper relief over time. The erosion of the middle class, the spike in income inequality, the inability of regular working people to live in places like London or New York City anymore—Ballard’s mapped it all out here. The contemporary world Ballard satirizes in Millennium People—published just a few years before his death in 2009—is already thoroughly Ballardian. The millennium caught up to the man.

A riff on J.G. Ballard’s superb degenerate satire High-Rise

  1. Ballard-High-RiseWith the bad taste of a recentish YAish post-apocalyptish novel in my brain, I riffled through some old sci-fi titles, hoping to find something to hit “reset.” J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise—which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager—wrapped me up immediately with its opening  sentence:

    Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

  2. (If the promise of that first line doesn’t intrigue you, High-Rise isn’t for you. Maybe you’ll enjoy all the old High-Rise covers I couldn’t help but to scatter through this riff).
  3. The first chapter of High-Rise is aptly titled “Critical Mass.” This is a book where things, uh, escalate quickly, if you’ll forgive my indulging in the parlance of our times. Ballard dispenses with any simmering in his tale of depraved debauchery (or is that debauched depravity?). He gets that pot boilin’.ballard-high-rise
  4. Depravity. Debauchery. Degeneration. The boiling pot of late-20th century consciousness.
  5. So, what is High-Rise about? Like, the plot, man? Class-war in a high-rise condo: A self-contained society that fails, its id overspilling into sex and violence: The veneer dissolved in piss and spite. And the best part? Ballard dispenses with any sort of explanation whatsoever. We begin at critical mass. He counted on his late-20th-century reader to intuit the whole damn deal (or throw down the book in defensive disgust).
  6. Ballard structures the book around three anti-heroes, who represent, probably, id, ego, and superego—or rather, what I mean to say is ironic send-ups of id, ego, and superego—with the high-rise itself a kind of consciousness in crisis.6001572752_4a601a081e_b
  7. From the middle-class (and perhaps ego)—the 25th floor—there’s Dr. Robert Laing—not really a practicing doctor, no, but he works at a teaching hospital. Ballard tricks us into thinking he’s the protagonist—which I guess he is!—by which I mean audience surrogate, and also typical Ballardian hero (divorced; mama issues; a drinker). His name may recall to you the (anti-)psychiatrist R.D. Laing (as well as, perhaps, Language).
  8. We might find a tidy—as in sanitary–summary of High-Rise in this brief excerpt, where our ego hero Laing packs away his tools and totems of the old world in anticipation of the new one to come:

    In this suitcase-sized cavity he hid away his cheque book and insurance policies, tax returns and share certificates. Lastly, he forced in his medical case with vials of morphine, antibiotics and cardiac stimulants. When he nailed the floorboards back into place he felt that he was sealing away for ever the last residues of his previous life, and preparing himself without reservation for the new one to come.

  9. The phrase “to come” — as in a future to come — repeats throughout High-Rise—a kind of irony, ultimately, that I shouldn’t step all over here. I’ll get back to that momentarily, but—
  10. Ballard soon trips us up by shifting his free-indirect style from Laing to Richard Wilder of the 2nd floor. A bestial brawny brawly dude (and the only father in this trio of anti-heroes) Wilder (c’mon with that name man!) is id id id all the way down (up). Wilder’s also a filmmaker, a camera in his hand, a sensing thing all the way down (up). He causes some problems.
  11. (The idea that a middle-class man like Wilder might represent the proletariat here is addressed in more (although oblique) depth in Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People).
  12. And then the super-ego/upper crust: Anthony Royal (O! c’mon with that name dammit!) of the penthouse. He’s the literal architect of the high-rise, which makes him possibly maybe probably responsible for its many, many design flaws, which boil down to intake, outtake, and power, but look like parking, garbage, and electricity.High-Rise
  13. And so Ballard shuttles us between these three consciousnesses, like the elevators that symbolically anchor this novel. (Anchor is a terrible verb for these mobile metaphors. Or maybe it’s the precise verb).
  14. Like I said in point 5, Ballard doesn’t really bother to foreground the causes for the high-rises’s society’s degenerate descent (ascent?)—instead, he offers concrete contours and psychological descriptions. Like this one, when a psychiatrist (yep) offers this analysis to Laing (and the reader, of course):

    I had a bucket of urine thrown over me this afternoon. Much more of that and I may take up a cudgel myself. It’s a mistake to imagine that we’re all moving towards a state of happy primitivism. The model here seems to be less the noble savage than our un-innocent post-Freudian selves, outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet-training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection — obviously a more dangerous mix than anything our Victorian forebears had to cope with. Our neighbours had happy childhoods to a man and still feel angry. Perhaps they resent never having had a chance to become perverse . . .

  15. (“Perverse” is a term that repeats throughout High-Rise, and I had to leave in those bucket of urine and cudgel details).
  16. The concrete contours, the description, the late-20th century analysis—that’s the reason to boil along with High-Rise. The book is fucking fun in its thrilling awful decadence—it’s Lord of the Flies for adults, with the spiritual mumbo-jumbo replaced with psychiatric mumbo-jumbo. Or Salò.
  17. Back to that future to come thing, here’s another citation, at some length (enjoy those concrete contours), but with my emphasis in boldface if you’re in some big fucking hurry:

    Still uncertain how long he had been awake, or what he had been doing half an hour earlier, Laing sat down among the empty bottles and refuse on the kitchen floor. He gazed up at the derelict washing-machine and refrigerator, now only used as garbage-bins. He found it hard to remember what their original function had been. To some extent they had taken on a new significance, a role that he had yet to understand. Even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways. Laing pondered this — sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.

  18. Ballard’s describing the late 20th century there, but perhaps he intuits the beginning of the 21st as well.91ihsrhnexl-_sl1500_
  19. —Or maybe those are the same thing, I suppose—I mean, High-Rise was published in 1975, four decades ago, but doesn’t feel that old. For some perspective, Karel Capek’s War with the Newts was published in 1936, almost forty years before High-Rise, and that novel doesn’t feel horribly dated either, a tribute to its sharp satire.
  20. —Which is my way of transitioning to the probably completely non-controversial idea that High-Rise is wonderful dark satire. Ballard ushers our consciousness to the high-rise’s summit through surrogate Laing, the limited concrete prose focused on the failed doctor’s misperception of transcendence. Laing perceives himself as the conquering brute, alpha male par excellence, inheritor not only of the falling high-rise, but also its female cohort, his harem in a future to come, his genealogical generativity restored. Laing can’t see that he’s been x’ed out of this equation, the failed phallic figure jutting impotently into mother sky.
  21. So you know that High-Rise is going to be a movie? A Major Motion Picture? Starring Tom Hiddleston? As cynical as I am, I think the book should make a fine film—it’s adaptable, yes. It could even be a great video game. A video game where you eat a dog. A video game where you think you win, but you don’t.

A review of Nell Zink’s extraordinary novel The Wallcreeper

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The short review is, “Nell Zink’s début novel The Wallcreeper is extraordinary.”

But this argument is insufficient, unsupported, you, dear reader, may protest. Why should you spend your hard-earned time reading The Wallcreeper, eh? (I read the book in four sittings. I was late to Sunday dinner for finishing the thing). To invert one of the better book short book reviews I’ve ever read: Every sentence made me want to read the next sentence. Is that not a good enough reason to read The Wallcreeper? Maybe you want to read some of those sentences. Here’s the first one:

I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.

Or a page or two later when our heroine/narrator Tiffany describes how she met Stephen:

Our first meeting prevented a crime. He saw me standing in front of the open gate of the vault.

(Don’t worry about that crime). Oh, and, on that first meeting with Stephen:

It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck. It might take a while, though, because Stephen looked as respectable as I did.

And here’s a simile from Tiffany, just because I love the line and can wedge it in here:

After the cranes had landed, the geese passed overhead in so many Vs that they merged into Xs and covered the entire sky like a fishnet stocking.

It occurs to me now that I’m probably doing this wrong, right? I should be summarizing the book a bit, no? I’m not particularly interested in that—the plot is the sentences—I mean, yeah, there’s a plot, about Tiffany and Stephen in Berne and later Berlin—and some other places too—and the different lovers they take and the various projects they undertake—music, language acquisition, ecoterrorism—and lots of birdwatching.

Maybe I should lazily just reblurb Keith Gessen’s blurb:

Who is Nell Zink? She claims to be an expatriate living in northeast Germany. Maybe she is; maybe she isn’t. I don’t know. I do know that this first novel arrives with a voice that is fully formed: mature, hilarious, terrifyingly intelligent, and wicked. The novel is about a bird-loving American couple that moves to Europe and becomes, basically, eco-terrorists. This is strange, and interesting, but in between is some writing about marriage, love, fidelity, Europe, and saving the earth that is as funny and as grown-up as anything I’ve read in years. And there are some jokes in here that a young Don DeLillo would kill to have written. I hope he doesn’t kill Nell Zink

The DeLillo comparison is apt, but Zink’s novel is funnier than anything DeLillo’s done in ages. Maybe that’s not fair. “Funny” seems like a weak word, really, for Zink and her narrator Tiffany (and Stephen)—all the words I would use to describe what Zink’s doing here seem pale and imprecise. I mean wittysmartintelligent, devastatingconfounding. Extraordinary, right, that was the word I used above, yes? (He looks the word up in an online dictionary, somehow at 36 and a lifelong native English speaker unsure what it actually means). A placeholder like strange would work, except some of y’all take that word as a pejorative. Eccentric or quirky imply, I think, a rhetorical imprecision wholly absent from the novel. The Wallcreeper is a precise book. The book is very good. It is an interesting book. (What awful sentences those were! But true).

Can you know a book through the words the reviewer uses to describe it though? (No). Can you really know a character through the words she launches your way, anyway? In The Wallcreeper, Tiffany doesn’t really know herself, or Stephen, and the narrative is in some ways her kinda sorta finding out about herself (and Stephen, and other stuff), in a non-urgent manner. Or maybe very urgent, I don’t know—she and Stephen are in a constant state of crisis, sort of, or epiphany-making—

Our marriage had begun in the most daunting way imaginable. We had barely known each other, and then we had those accidents and that jarring disconnect between causes (empty-headed young people liking each other, wallcreepers) and effects (pain, death).

A wallcreeper is a small bird with crimson wings, by the way.

The titular wallcreeper, also by the way, is the thing that makes Stephen swerve in that opening sentence I shared for you above. The book is full of swerves, dips, dives, turns—each sentence swerves into the next, artfully, gracefully, precisely. Tiffany’s consciousness, or the language that Zink uses to represent Tiffany’s consciousness, swerves:

We walked down into the lower garden and sat on a bench. He looked into the pond and remarked favorably on the lack of goldfish. I thought of all the spawn-guzzling carp I had admired in the past and felt abashed. I shrank at the vulgarity of raptures over beauty, nature’s most irrelevant and unnecessary quality.

Beautiful!

But where was I? I think swerves was the metaphor I was batting about a bit—well, I suppose I could go on, suggest that all that swerving swerves up to Something More, that the novel swerves (swells? no, not swells) to an ending shot-through with mythical undertones (which our narrator punctures)—I mean to say that, yes, okay, the novel is a wonderful witty aesthetic read—each sentence made me want to read the next sentence—but readers who require More Than That will also get it. Or maybe not. The Wallcreeper, like all extraordinary novels, is Not For Everyone. The Wallcreeper was/is for me though, and I hope it will also be for you too.

The Wallcreeper is available directly from publisher The Dorothy Project and finer bookshops.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (a book I’ve always loved)I’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.].

Dwarves.

The Hobbit stinks.

It is just so boreing.

“DEATH TO HOBBITS!”

This is such a horrible book.

Gandalf the wizard is a bogus

Swoar, lil’ fools wack for REALL.

And what’s this thing about hairy feet?

Crying because the story will NOT END!

my mom liked it (what’s wrong with her? )

Spend your money on Harry Potter instead.

I dought we will ever finish this horrible book.

No offense, but the suspense was not at all amusing

I know for a fact that there are several of Hobbit fans.

Bilbo is a Hobbit who seems not to do much in the story.

it was as if a ten year old coul’ve made up these characters.

forget about all the other reviews. they just think bilbo the bimbo is hot.

This is a dangerous book and is an extremely bad influence on adolescents.

Not only that, it is also more boring than having tea with nan and the relatives.

There is no action and Bilbo Baggins is the biggest a$$ in a fantasy novel ever.

This is a prime example of what happens when Star Trek and Star Wars dorks pick up a book.

No originality whatsoever is involved and the pages make me wish I was not even in existence.

After reading literary masterpieces by Robert Jordan, and Aurther C. Clark, books like these seem pointless.

The book is about a young hobit that goes on an adventurer to get rid of a ring that if you w where it you turn e ebook

One more things on the dwarves. They are useless characters and this story makes me want to vomit.

This book is a story of your everyday savior (supposedly Bilbo) having adventures and slaying a dragon.

The ending of the story is horrible and it seems that Tolkien wasted his POOR and SENSELESS usage of his brain.

They also don’t fit the spirit of dwarves, but then again after time they evolved into the grumpy alchoholics fantasy tends to portray them as.

I sit there reading every single word of it, but I think about something else. I read “Bilbo blah blah blah,” but think “Oh what am I gonna do today after school?”

Bilbo is not exactly the character which you would find addicted to. He stammers and is basically a coward.

This yogurt tastes awful! This is the worst yogurt I have ever tasted!

And like all stories, there are monsters and strange happenings.

What was I drinking when I decided to read this piece of junk?

:-( Boo! :-( Boo! :-( Boo! :-( Boo! :-( Boo!:-(

I despise and loathe this series tremendously.

I’m just glad this guy’s dead. :)

Bilbo reminds me of a pig.

“DIE HOBBITS, DIE!”

Idiotic and Irritating.

to many characters!

this is some butt

Agghhh!

A brief note to readers new to Infinite Jest (and a very incomplete list of motifs in the novel)

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Much of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years (and, in particular, over the past six weeks rereading IJ), my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

(Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,”which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead).

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters. Readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.


Heads

Cages

Faces

Maps

Masks

Cycles

Teeth

Waste

Infants

Pain

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

Read More

Bloomsday blog

Portrait of James Joyce by Djuna Barnes

How to read Ulysses

Ulysses art by Roman Muradov

Selections from one-star Amazon reviews of Ulysses

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Ulysses manuscript page

A list of Irish heroes (from “The Cyclops” episode of Ulysses)

“Words,” a page from one of Joyce’s notebooks for Ulysses

Another page of Joyce’s notes, plus links to more

James Joyce talks dirty

Filming Finnegans

James Joyce’s eye glasses prescription

William Faulkner’s Joyce anxiety

Ezra Pound on James Joyce

Marilyn Monroe reads Molly 

Biblioklept’s lousy review (the review is lousy, not the book) of Dubliners

Joyce’s entry on the 1901 Irish Census

Joyce’s caricature of Leopold Bloom

Biblioklept’s review (not so lousy, the review) of a superior full-cast audio recording of Ulysses

James Joyce explains why Odysseus is the most “complete man’ in literature

James Joyce’s passport

Leopold’s Bloom’s recipe for burnt kidney breakfast

“What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?”

James Joyce’s death mask


Some notes from 299 pages into a rereading of Infinite Jest

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A note on the context of the first reading, subsequent ventures, and this rereading

I bought David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest in 1997 when I was a freshman in college, as required by law. I attempted reading it a few times without really getting to page 100. (I did read and reread the short stories and the essays and Wallace’s first novel in that time though. None were assigned readings. The DFW Academic Industry was not a Thing yet).

The first time I read the book the whole way through was in the weird fall of 2001, the first fall I hadn’t returned to school because I had graduated from school, the fall of 9/11, the fall I moved to Tokyo the week after 9/11, packing the book in a smallish suitcase that the airport security guy had to take everything out of with his latex-gloved hands, removing every item, all the clothes and books, because I was traveling on a one-way ticket to a foreign land. It was in that weird fall that I finally read the book, reading mostly in the very very early a.m., sometimes reading for hours, reading too late, becoming addicted.

In years since, I’ve poked at rereadings, often looking for very specific passages/sections, and always meaning to do a full reread, but there are all those other big books that need to get read (and then reread).

Well so and anyway: This reread has been prompted by back-to-back readings of Gravity’s Rainbow, which I take to be the most obvious precursor text for Infinite Jest (and likely the greatest source of Wallace’s Oedipal anxiety if we want to get all Bloomian). I thought about Infinite Jest a lot while reading GR.

So far, like any rereading of a big encyclopedic novelInfinite Jest seems much, much easier than my initial go through (although coming off GR almost anything would probably seem much, much easier). With the contours of the “big plot” in place (and the rhetorical dazzle of some of Wallace’s embedded-essays not as blinding as before), focusing on details, patterns, and motifs becomes simply more possible. (I don’t think I connected Hal’s clipping his toenails in Ch. 18 to the toenails Gately finds in Ennet House in Ch. 19 before, f’r’instance). (There are no actual chapter numbers in IJ, although there are circles separating chapters which can be counted).

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. While that scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger.  Read More

Reviews and riffs of May 2015 (and an unrelated owl)

Reviews and riffs, May 2015

In which I read Playboy for the Pynchon article.

This is not a review of Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t.

What the hell is Pynchon in Public Day?

A review of Jim O’Rourke’s new record Simple Songs.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian reviewed.

A somewhat contrarian take on Mad Max: Fury Road.

Mad Men’s cynical finale.

Gravity’s Rainbow and Disney’s Fantasia.

Unrelated owl by Durer:

 

A last riff (for now) on Gravity’s Rainbow (and Disney’s Fantasia)

Screenshot 2015-04-24 at 9.27.30 PM

Disney’s Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. 

At least this thought zipped into my head a few weeks back, as I watched the film with my wife and kids. I was in the middle of a second reading of the novel, an immediate rereading prompted by the first reading. It looped me back in. Everything seemed connected to the novel in some way. Or rather, the novel seemed to connect itself to everything, through its reader—me—performing a strange dialectic of paranoia/anti-paranoia.

So anyway, Fantasia seemed to me an adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow, bearing so many of the novel’s features: technical prowess, an episodic and discontinuous form, hallucinatory dazzle, shifts between “high” and “low” culture, parodic and satirical gestures that ultimately invoke sincerity, heightened musicality, themes of magic and science, themes of automation and autonomy, depictions of splintering identity, apocalypse and genesis, cartoon elasticity, mixed modes, terror, love, the sublime, etc.

(There’s even a coded orgy in Fantasia).

But Fantasia was first released in 1940 right, when Pynchon was, what, three or four? And Gravity’s Rainbow was published in 1973, and most of the events in that novel happen at the end of World War II, in like, 1944, 1945, right? So the claim that “Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow” is ridiculous, right?

(Unless, perhaps, we employ those literary terms that Steven Weisenburger uses repeatedly in his Companion to Gravity’s Rainbow: analepsis and prolepsis—so, okay, so perhaps we consider Fantasia an analepsis, a flashback, of Gravity’s Rainbow, or we consider Gravity’s Rainbow a prolepsis, a flashforward, of Fantasia…no? Why not?).

Also ridiculous in the claim that “Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow” is that modifier “better,” for what other film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow exist?

(The list is long and mostly features unintentional titles, but let me lump in much of Robert Altman, The Conversation, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, that Scientology documentary Going Clear, a good bit of stuff by the Wachowksis, The Fisher King (hell, all of Terry Gilliam, why not?), the Blackadder series, which engenders all sorts of wonderful problems of analepsis and prolepsis…).

Gravity’s Rainbow is of course larded with film references, from King Kong and monster movies to German expressionism (Fritz Lang in particular), and features filmmakers and actors as characters. The novel also formulates itself as its own film adaptation, perhaps. The book’s fourth sentence tells us “…it’s all theatre.” (That phrase appears again near the novel’s conclusion, in what I take to be a key passage). And the book ends, proleptically, in “the Orpheus Theatre on Melrose,” a theater managed by Richard M. Nixon, excuse me, Zhlubb—with the rocket analeptically erupting from the past into “The screen…a dim page spread before us, white and silent.” Indeed, as so many of the book’s commentator’s have noted, Pynchon marks separations in the book’s sequences with squares reminiscent of film sprockets —  □ □ □ □ □ □ □. Read More

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

[Ed. note: I usually don’t preface these one-star Amazon selection riffs with much, other than to note the occasion for the post. In this case, the occasion is my coming to the end of a second reading of Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel that is very much about the military-industrial-entertainment complex. And so well anyway, I keep thinking about Infinite Jest, which I have not read in full since 2002, but plan to reread later this summer. I expected Pynchon to show up a few times in the one-star reviews, but he’s present throughout, often obliquely referenced. Otherwise, the one-star reviews are typical: Rants against academia, “literary elites,” etc. The term “self-indulgent” appears again and again. Only one reviewer bothers to engage the plot though.]

***

slop

passably clever

completely pointless

superfluous logorrhea

spawn of PC Elitist writers

reads like a math textbook

This is the T.S. Eliot Effect

terminally adolescent drivel.

The footnotes have footnotes.

Big words and run-on sentences

utterly lacking in aesthetic merit

I only read the first 50 pages or so

wow, that’s a heck of a lot of words.

challenging, involving, and horrifying

A humorous book? – no. Absurd – Yes.

never made it to the end of chapter one.

I never did get through Gravity’s Rainbow

the magnum opus of American hipsterism.

the worst science fiction novel ever written.

If you like Pynchon, fine, go ahead, you’ll like this.

over a hundred pages of notes that serve no purpose

I pride myself on being an intelegent well read person

At least Pynchon, has humor, literary references, etc.

He probably sold more books on hype than on talent.

All in all, I suppose Wallace will just become a footnote.

this book(?) would not be worth the money if it was free

I trie d to think of Catcher in the Rye, but no comparison.

If you want to be warm, burn your overrated copy of Infinite Jest.

Wallace makes up words which does not help one reading a story.

I think it was in that book that I learned the word “omphaloskepsis.”

I’ll bet Dave had to beat off the nubile young co-eds after they read this one

obviously didn’t follow Elmore Leonard’s last tenet of his “10 Rules for Writing”

I suppose that some might consider Wallace a great writer, but was he popular?

It’s written in the first-person from the point of view of a mentally ill teenager.

he filled it with worthless footnotes that pretend to enlighten the victim of his prose

I just don’t understand how my fellow Amazon reviewers could have scored this book highly.

I realize that this book is considered to be “literature” but IMHO the internal ravings of mentally ill people isn’t literature.

It is called “INFINITE JETS” but there is not a single aircraft within, in fact the book is about people on land with drugs problems.

The book contains an anecdote plagiarized from the humorist, Gerard Hoffnung, who recorded it in the 1950s.

700 pages of clumsy sci-fi and the kind of smarty pants absurdist nonsense you’d expect from a precocious middle schooler

The premise for this novel derives from a Monty Python sketch in which the world’s funniest joke is also fatal.

Oh one other thing that drove me crazy: he started so many sentences with “And but so..” or “So but and…”

if Finnegans Wake was a rancid fart that was proudly left to rip, Infinite Jest is a weak one, lacking sound and odor.

Just a bunch of irrelevant words to set the scene…. not to mention he described everything into painful detail.

a kid thinks he’s going to the dentist but it’s really some sort of counselor and they have a long battle of wits to see which one of them is the bigger booger-eating nerd

DWF is desperately trying to emulate one of the century’s greatest authors, and utterly fails.

Put down the bong, go outside and get some real world experience before putting pen to paper.

Comparing Wallace to Pynchon is like comparing a kettle of sponges to Disney World

Academics also praise it as a badge of courage for (allegedly) reading it

It’s just the narrator’s interior thoughts about trying to buy drugs.

I was two pages in and started to feel confused, zoned out, and lost.

It reads like the stream of consciousness of a spoiled 10th grader.

What I read would have gotten an F in a freshman writing class.

The style is Pynchon. And by style, I mean, an exact duplication

At least, now I know where Dave Eggers ripped off his garbage

sorry Amazon,you definitely missed the boat with this one.

completely lacking in any kind of moral or ethical center

He and this book are simply silly, and a waste of pulp.

Book was a work of art, one I wasted my time viewing.

seems to spend forever talking about tennis and drugs

Characters are unbelievable and are over analyzed

Sure, he was making good points, for the 1990s!

Reading a thesaurus does not count as research.

Over 1000 pages of pseudo-subersiveness.

It’s the tyranny of the English Deparment

I only read about four percent of the book

For my taste, there were too many words

I think his suicide inflated his reviews.

I still feel awful thinking about it.

narcissistic garbage

wannabe Pynchon

Bad read no stars.

…is this an essay?

Generic Pynchon

Troglodyte.

Boring.

Skip it.