23 February 2007

Wallace, David Foster. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999.

Okay so I didn't Finish! this book recently, but years ago. Recently, I reread 75 percent of it for a class. I think DFW takes care and practice to read. This is a concept I'm taking somewhat from Zadie Smith in her latest Bookworm interview (which is pretty much required listening, especially for anyone who might find themselves reading this little blog), who says that most people (reviewers) misread DFW as some freakishly, almost fiendishly clever man who writes to confound and show off his unmatchable intellect. He is this, yes, but this is not all he is. And how few of them are able to look past the packaging (which is of course not "packaging" at all, but the right and proper form to get the ideas across fully) to get to the very important things he's trying to say and mean in his work.

Here, by way of illustration, is an excerpt right from the middle of this story collection—which isn't his best, I don't think, despite being his most famous (the bro-y type who plays Jim on the U.S. Office has adapted the book to the silver screen, and it's coming out later this year), mostly because he spends a bit too much time refuting and destroying traditional notions of short-story form so that he can figure out how to rework the story to fit his personal interests*—from a piece called "Octet", which comprises a set of short Pop Quizzes:
In other words what you could do is you could now construct an additional Pop Quiz ... in which you try your naked best to describe ... your own feeling that the surviving semiworkable pieces all seem to be trying to demonstrate some sort of weird ambient sameness in different kinds of relationships, some nameless but inescapable 'price' that all human beings are faced with having to pay at some point if they ever want truly 'to be with' another person instead of just using that person somehow, ... a weird and nameless but apparently unavoidable 'price' that can actually sometimes equal death itself, or at least usually equals your giving up something ... whose loss will feel, in a true and urgent way, like a kind of death, and to say that the fact that there could be (you feel) such an overwhelming and elemental sameness to such totally different situations ... seems to you urgent, truly urgent, something almost worth shimmying up chimneys and shouting from roofs about. (131-133)
You can go ahead and dismiss this as po-mo posturing, except that by this point in the piece DFW has long since beaten you to the punch, and has also already gone a step further to explain to you why traditional po-mo "look at me looking at you looking at me" shenanigans are always false and self-serving, and that he's trying really sincerely to write beyond this, and actually "connect" or (in his parlance) "be with" his reader in ways that are so urgent he has to risk so much, in this case its the integrity of his writing itself. "Octet" must break down if DFW ever wants to connect with his reader. It's clear to me that he urgently wants to. And so it falls apart, beautifully, I think.
* Oblivion's probably the most important of his three story collections, but his first one, Girl with Curious Hair, remains my favorite.**

** What's a DFW post without footnotes? It's a set of pillow shams without a matching dust ruffle.

22 February 2007

de Balzac, Honoré. Père Goriot (1834). Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

The adjective form of Balzac is Balzacian. It rhymes with Haitian.

At one point toward the end of this novel the title character is called "the Christ of Fatherhood," which is supposedly famous, or at least key to the novel, and but I find it confusing, seeing as how Christ is, like, the ultimate son.

I'd heard comparisons between Dickens and Balzac, viz. "Dickens : London :: Balzac : Paris", but this is probably where the comparison also ends. Reading Dickens (all one book of his that I've read) is so full of joy and play and there's very little of that here. Maybe I shouldn't have read it in translation. Maybe these characters' names mean things like "Jaundice" and "Crook" and "Deadlock" and other such punny stuff in the original French.

No spontaneous human combustion, though. And, somehow, no real pathos either, I don't think.

13 February 2007

Gaitskill, Mary. Veronica. New York: Vintage, 2006.

Some writers are able to write novels. I'm not one of them (yet). Some writers, when they write the novels I'm not yet able to write, write them with structures that aren't conventional or traditional, but rather complicated and intuitive with respect to the specific demands of their subject. I'm not one of these writers either (of course, because this kind of writer exists as a subset of the previous kind of writer, so logically if I'm not the former I can't possibly be the latter, much like how as I'm not a rectangle, I can't also be a square).

Joan Didion is such a writer, and though it's not a novel the best example of such story structuring can be found by taking even the most cursory look at the essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem", in which the writing all splintered and sudden and detached from the project at hand, in order to embody the mood of San Francisco, 1967.

Mary Gaitskill is such a writer. Her book is about modeling and casual drug use and AIDS and hepatitis, mostly in the 1980s, but spanning before and after, and she's able to hop decades between paragraphs in a way that's never jarring but rather sensical. She has to jump time this way, it's like.

I don't know what else to say. This book is very good. It doesn't put the tsk in Gaitskill, it puts the skill in Gaitskill.

07 February 2007

Sand, George. The Country Waif (1850). Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1977.

So little to say about this little book, so I'll cheat and paste my in-class response:
Reading this novel, I couldn’t get My Ántonia out of my head. The two novels and the approaches they take to telling their stories, are extremely similar. The waif, of course, as central figure—here in the form of Francois, there in the form of Àntonia. The pastoral setting, of course. But also the nested frames in which each narrative is told. Here, Sand qua narrator opens with the preface that stages the occasion for his telling; he is meant to recount a story that he and a friend have heard, but this time in a style suitable for “literature.” This provides an open-ended frame, “open-ended” in that we never return to these two figures. Once the narrative begins, however, it is framed by the telling of the hemp-dresser and the curé, who actually have to bow out of their job as narrators and retire for the night, before beginning again the following morning.

Similarly, My Ántonia opens with Willa Cather qua narrator writing about a recent train trip she had with an old friend named Jim, who brings up this waif from their youths: Ántonia. They decide to sit down and write all their memories of this girl, and when they meet again, Jim has produced the very novel we are about to read. He is the narrator, the ubiquitous “I” setting his gaze on his subject, the title character.

There’s a slight difference here, in that the hemp-dresser and the curé are never more than voices, really. Their presence never takes our minds as readers off the subjects whose stories they are telling. And yet they can’t help interrupting their own story, and their little bickering I thought provided some of the novel’s most compelling passages. In a very surprising way, this little novel seems to be about storytelling and narrative. I think Sand is beginning with the very simple story at the core of this novel—and how simple! how far a cry from the psycho-sexual complexities and ping-pong travel of Indiana!—and constructing all these layers of narration over it as a means of showing her reader the importance of this, this ongoing practice human beings have of sitting down with one another and listening to a person (or, in this case, two people) relate a brief story about people very much like ourselves.

The value, then, of The Country Waif doesn’t seem to lie so much in the realm of social comment. What I mean is: I don’t think this is a novel that’s trying to “say something.” The value, as I see it, is simply in its existence, its ability to sit in our hands as a sequence of events, narrated plainly by people we want to listen to. I think what Sand is saying is that this should be enough, for literature.

05 February 2007

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Knopf, 2006.

I expected myself to dislike this book, mostly because of what I'd imagined McCarthy's style being: too gritty and tough and neo-post-manly, whatever that means (I imagine it being a kind of performative terseness and gritty tangibility in the very far wake of Hemingway and the very near wake of the Seventies' men's movement).

I loved it, though. I think, in terms of recent post-apocalypse novels, I much prefer Atwood's tragicomic approach—her delving into characters' lives and histories, seeking proof or explanation for the events she's narrating—than McCarthy's bleak one. Here, his characters ("the man" and "the boy" who is his son), wander along the road heading south after some kind of unnarrated event has destroyed the planet, including its flora I think but especially its fauna. The cow is extinct, and as such people are now eating other people.

Bleak, bleak shit. This perhaps explains the cover but I still think it's inexcusable. Of course, McCarthy is one of the five best novelists of the last twenty-five years, and so his books don't need such cheap gimmicks as compelling covers to sell. I'm being a little too cynical; I think McCarthy is extremely talented. He's incredibly good and making all the actions and tensions of his characters' lives palpable. (What I felt when the man and the boy, near starvation, come across a bunker filled with canned goods was a kind of warming ecstasy in my chest.) His sentences are some of the best I've read in a long time. Behold:
In that long ago somewhere very near this place he'd watched a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain and break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked and trailing its loose and blowsy plumage in the still autumn air. (17)
Have you ever met those minor savant types at certain points of your growing up who seemingly have outleapt everyone in your age bracket in terms of vocabulary, dropping words like "inconceivable" or "ostensibly" or other such vague smart-sounding Latinate terms into conversations about video games or pooping? Reading McCarthy is like spending time with that sort of person, except that instead of dropping nerdy "big words" into the conversation, he's dropping very tangible Anglo-Saxon words we've all always known in our guts but have too easily forgotten, spending as we have been altogether too much time with the comforting and easy and vague Latinates.

01 February 2007

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Nan Talese, 2003.

I've got very little to say about this book, despite having liked it a good deal. I could tell you the general premise (takes place in North America in a future where the ice caps have melted and toying with DNA of creatures and plants has become the driving industry of the market...everyone seems to be dead, except for one man and a race of superhumans). I could tell you some interesting themes/approaches to sci-fi it takes (the way Atwood calls it not a science fiction, but a speculative fiction, and that she doesn't invent anything she just carries things to their logical (?) conclusions...but isn't this what all sci-fi does anyway?). But I don't really want to get into these things.

What is there to say about books that are great stories about people you care about having to deal with pretty tough obstacles, all the while unfolding themes are very much relevant to today, and that subsequently make you think about your actions in the world you live in?

What's funny is that it takes a book like O&C, one that did pretty well in terms of sales, I imagine, to remind me that this is why the majority of the world reads: to stop and spend some time up-close and personally with somebody made up, to follow them through hardships, to think about things they've known all along but have often forgotten to think about. It seems to me that this is an extremely hard thing to do, make people care about your stupid creations/ideas. I don't think I can ever write a book like this one.

What a great title, though, eh? Say it aloud: Oryx and Crake. Oryx and Crake!