26 April 2007

Ondaatje, Michael. Anil's Ghost. New York: Vintage International, 2000.


Proust, Marcel. "Swann in Love." Swann's Way. Lydia Davis, trans. New York: Penguin, 2002.


(What ideas can one form about books while the semester speeds toward its stupid, busy end?)

23 April 2007

Cornwell, Patricia. At Risk. New York: Berkley Books, 2007.

The other week in class discussion on the Eggers novel, I defended big-R Reading of all kinds from a classmate who seemed determined to differentiate between “good reading” and “bad reading.” It’s probably best to recreate the scene as dialogue. It’s probably best not to apologize for the pomp that may permeate my half of the dialogue. It’s how I talk, really, but I don’t know how else to go about it anymore:
ME: I think with, like, the book’s project, I guess, of y’know ‘getting the word out’ and all, it’s important that it be a novel. That it like be presented as a novel. Because I think there’s, like, something very vital about the way a novel forces us outside of our own, like, consciousness and into someone else’s. I think the book kinda ties in with the Wallace that way, or at least the Wallace essay [on TV that argues brilliantly for the way TV of 1980 and after has endlessly rewarded our selfish, solipsistic habits]. I think there’s something very vital and important about the way novels give us that.

HER: I don’t think it’s as easy as just reading a novel makes you a better person because you have to sympathize with someone else. There are a lot of really bad novels out there that ask the reader to sympathize with fake people, or characters taken straight out of movies, and there’s nothing sympathetic that people really get out of that.

ME: No but I think they do. I don’t think there’s any value here in, like, differentiating between good or bad novels. I think the novel as form works because it has to, um, ‘employ’ point of view, and these days, at least, that point of view is ... it’s not, like, omniscient. It’s tied to one person, and that person is not the reader. And it’s the only medium out there that does it, really. Nonfiction doesn’t. Movies don’t. I think this.... I think, like, I think the novel. This, I guess, is the value of the novel today.
Yes, I speak with finger-quotes. Yes, I’m feigning my self-deprecation.

At any rate, reading Patricia Cornwell makes me want to renege on my statement, O classmate. I was in the Reno airport a few hours ago and had nothing to read and needed after four days immersed in all aspects of the stuff to take a break from taxidermy, so I went to the book vendor near my gate and—what a lark! what a plunge!—bought a mass-market paperback. My rationale was that they’re perfect for passing the time in airports. That they’re made and marketed for this very specific activity.

I s’pose it passed the time, but what a dreadfully boring and terribly written book. I’m not going to bother ripping it apart for its lousy sentences and flat, silly language. That’s an element of genre I’ve no right mucking with. What I will bother ripping the book apart for is its action. Win, the hero of the novel, spends most of his time on the phone, or sitting down at tables or sofas talking with various characters. There’s one murder early on in the book, but this is done in self-defense, and the person killed is a complete non-entity. That’s it. The climax comes about when people have gone through a sufficient amount of old files in basements and storage rooms and can now put together all the clues. We don’t even get to watch the murderer(s) get arrested. I’ve never been so bored. I’ve read student stories that were more compelling.

My question now is this: why do people come back to this kind of crap? Not poorly written crap. People needing the Novel’s Gift of Displaced Point of View don’t need to get it in a package bowed and ribboned with gorgeous prose. Why do people come back to dull, actionless crap? The high, tense drama of paperwork?

Reading this book is like watching an episode of House (loathsome show!). I’ve seen only one, and this is how the plot goes:
  1. Character is admitted to the hospital with confusing symptoms.
  2. House guesses one possible diagnosis and demands his minions perform some kind of test.
  3. The test turns up negative. House, et al., are puzzled.
  4. Repeat nos. 2 and 3 several times, with one of the tests going drastically wrong, threatening to kill the patient.
  5. The third or so test finally works and the patient ends up okay.
It, yes, hurts to sit through. But people are eating that show up, if my semi-regular scans of TV ratings are correct. Something is going on in popular suspense entertainment where people are being held in suspense by the most paltry things: diagnostic tests, phone conversations, court depositions. The problem isn’t that these, in real life, are all very dull procedures. The problem isn’t forced, faux drama. The problem seems to be a lack of imagination. The problem seems to be a widespread unease with real forms of danger.

A simple formula I took from somewhere: drama = desire + danger. What does it say about contemporary audiences when sufficient forms of danger are found in tests going wrong, or old files never turning up? How is one to be optimistic about this? Why do I insist on ending posts with questions?

The answer is easy: questions allow one to dodge the tricky practice of thinking up answers.

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. New York: Penguin, 2005.

A reread. I’ve spent all my Finished! energies on the Cornwell coming up. If I write my final paper on this novel and not on elements of the pastoral in American Pastoral (could anyone possibly have any interest in that topic? could I, even?), I’ll write it on constructions of identity in the novel, perhaps blending that idea with technical constructions of character (like in terms of the words used to construct them on the page, how they’re revealed or unveiled to the reader) and maybe even constructions of Smith’s narrative identity itself.

Yawn. Writing academic papers has become this close the end of my coursework a silly exercise for feckless people unable to connect with others off the page. Here’s, though, where I’m beginning from, this quote here from Smith’s Bookworm review I linked to in the Brief Interviews post:
It’s not that [my characters] can’t express themselves well, but it’s that the thing they’ve been told is self-expression is a mistake. So to me someone like Levi ... feels himself to be some way inauthentic or not as black as he should be. Those kind of arguments, sometimes, you know, they’re serious to the black community ... and when I was a child I was constantly being told that various habits of mine—I suppose including reading—made me less black than I should be. The idea that you can be less authentic than you are is nonsense. There’s no such thing. And to struggle under that idea to concern yourself constantly about your identity seems to be a kind of prison, and it’s one what white people don’t have to anything like the same degree. They have a kind of existential freedom that they don’t even notice because of course it’s what every human being should have and deserves to have and is natural.

But if you don’t have it, if you’re constantly wondering instead not what it is to be but what it is to be black then you’re completely cornered. So I suppose all my characters to some extent are looking for identities, and constantly in interviews I’m being told, “Your books are all about the search for identity,” and I always think my books are about that search being entirely pointless.
It’s this last sentence I want to argue with, or “interrogate” as this novel’s Howard Belsey would say. There’s of course the self-contradiction—”all my characters to some extent are looking for identities” vs. “that search [for identity] being entirely pointless.” Is Smith deliberately putting her characters into pointless quests for identities, or are people misreading her novels? In other words, are her characters pawns for some point about identity she’s trying to make? Or is she making points about identity that people are missing?

15 April 2007

Madden, Dave. Letter. Harper's, May 2007: 5.

12 April 2007

Rich, Simon. "The Wisdom of Children." The New Yorker Mar. 26, 2007: 42-43.

This is unorthodox, but I'm going through the New Yorkers that have piled up over the past few months and just came across this in the Shouts & Murmurs department and found it to be the funniest thing I've read in a long time. Very playful and smart. I thought I'd, like, share it:
I. A Conversation at the Grownup Table, as Imagined at the Kids' Table

MOM: Pass the wine, please. I want to become crazy.
GRANDMOTHER: Did you see the politics? It made me angry.
DAD: Me, too. When it was over, I had sex.
UNCLE: I'm having sex right now.
DAD: We all are.
MOM: Let's talk about which kid I like the best.
DAD: (laughing) You know, but you won't tell.
MOM: If they ask me again, I might tell.
FRIEND FROM WORK: Hey, guess what! My voice is pretty loud!
DAD: (laughing) There are actual monsters in the world, but when my kids ask I pretend like there aren't.
MOM: I'm angry! I'm angry all of a sudden!
DAD: I'm angry, too! We're angry at each other!
MOM: Now everything is fine.
DAD: We just saw the PG-13 movie. It was so good.
MOM: There was a big sex.
FRIEND FROM WORK: I am the loudest! I am the loudest!
(Everybody laughs.)
MOM: I had a lot of wine, and now I'm crazy!
GRANDFATHER: Hey, do you guys know what God looks like?
ALL: Yes.
GRANDFATHER: Don't tell the kids.
The rest of the piece falls pretty flat, I guess,* but man what a start! Someone should try to write a novel or maybe just a short story from this perspective. I wonder how long it could be sustained.
* Looking at the Random House page for this guy's first humor book, Ant Farm, he doesn't seem so promising on the whole, despite behind the one-time head of Harvard Lampoon. This: "If your girlfriend gives you some 'love coupons' and then breaks up with you, are the coupons still valid?" isn't even one bit of funny.

11 April 2007

Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against Nature (1884). London: Penguin, 1959.

Original title for the novel is À Rebours, which translates to "against the grain" or "in the opposite direction" which I think is a better title for a novel about a man named Des Esseintes who does nothing but hole himself up in a country maison and seek to fill his life with artifice. Yes he goes "against nature" by creating his own perfumes from artificial materials, and by gilding the shell of a tortoise in gold and having it bejewelled with artificial stones, but what I like about the original French title is how it point toward a more general queering, if I can use the term, on the part of Des Esseintes than his specific thesis that man-made artifice trumps nature in terms of beauty.

If you've read The Picture of Dorian Gray then you know Huysmans'(s) book, which Dorian reads somewhere in the middle of the novel, before spending an entire chapter working his way through the aesthetic riches of antiquity and modern times. (It's a chapter pretty much worth skipping through.) And if you've read Dorian Gray in any situation outside of a high-school English classroom, you know that the novel is a canonical gay text, full, as all of Wilde's work is, of codes and innuendoes.

I want to argue (possibly in a paper, though assuredly it's been done before me) that À Rebours is as much a coded gay text as Wilde's book, if not more of one. This is not a hard argument to make. Here's a dream Des Esseintes has:
He now noticed the frightening irritation of the mouth and breasts, discovered on the skin of the body spots of bistre and copper, and recoiled in horror; but the woman's eyes fascinated him, and he went slowly towards her, trying to dig his heels into the ground to hold himself back, and falling over deliberately, only to pick himself up again and go on. He was almost touching her when black Amorphophalli sprang up on every side and stabbed at her belly, which was rising and falling like a sea. He thrust them aside and pushed them back, utterly nauseated by the sight of these hot, firm stems twisting and turning between his fingers. Then, all of a sudden, the odious plants had disappeared and two arms were trying to enfold him. An agony of fear set his heart pounding madly, for [...] the woman's awful eyes had turned a clear, cold blue, quite terrible to see. He made a superhuman effort to free himself from her embrace, but [...] she clutched him and held him, and pale with horror, he saw the savage Nidularium gaping open to expose the bloody depths.

His body almost touching the hideous flesh-wound of this plant, he felt life ebbing away from him—and awoke with a start, choking, frozen, crazy with fear. (105-6)
Paging Doctor Freud, right? Des Esseintes isn't gay per se; he has a history of "dating" women and bedding them and prostitutes. But throughout the novel he suffers from a kind of nervous ailment, and decides early on to devote all his energy (what little he has) to an aesthetic ideal. It's this pursuit, and the way it becomes a kind of mania for Des Esseintes, that makes him go against the grain. At one point the narrative asks, rhetorically: Had he not outlawed himself from society? He indeed has. Throughout the novel he consorts with no one. He has no sex. He shares no meals. He lives in the artificial world he's steadily creating and Huysmans makes it become a kind of heroic quest.

These things are connected in a way that's more complex than "gay men can't reproduce so they work to make homes fabulous," and this, I think, is what I'll write my final paper on for this class.

06 April 2007

Eggers, Dave. What is the What. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2006.

Eliot's objective correlative is, oh, eighty years old or so, and from what I understand it demands that writers find concrete ways of evoking the abstract. To write "We loved each other" is to create nothing in the head of the reader but an empty idea. In order for the reader to feel this love, it needs to be expressed through an object or some action. "We spent our time apart flipping though catalogues for pointless things to buy one another," is a poor but adequate example.

I was reminded of the objective correlative this week while reading this book, and but like I've been trying to put into words a kind of post-global revisiting of the idea. It's something like this: To talk about cultures or nations as cultures or nations does nothing for the reader foreign to those cultures or nations. In order for the reader to understand the foreign it has to be embodied in the personal: the story of a life.

No duh, right? I'm not trying to present these ideas as groundbreaking. I think the most interesting this behind them, and behind this book in general, is that the title page reads "What is the What / the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng / A novel / Dave Eggers". No autobiographies are novels, right? Why not write autobiography? Why not write pop political nonfiction?

As a novel this book accomplishes its aims—which are, sure, didactic and maybe even preachy...or maybe I'll say it's in the interest of "raising awareness"—far better than a nonfiction book on the Sudanese civil war ever could. We care about people and not issues; it's the human-like form of the fetus that impels the pro-lifer to carry signs outside Planned Parenthoods. It's hard to hate and vote against gays after someone close to you comes out.

Fiction as a form employs point of view in a manner that no other form can match. What keeps me reading novels is the way such a fundamental but complicated literary technique can orient my thinking in paths it wouldn't go on its own.

04 April 2007

Roth, Phillip. American Pastoral. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

I Finished! this book a week ago and blogging about it has completely slipped my mind, meaning I've already because of slogging through parts of Proust and steadily working through the new Eggers pretty much forgotten what's worth commenting on in the novel. I think I was in the minority of those in my class by loving the book as much as I did, and why I love it is its point of view. The book opens in the first person with Roth alter-ego Zuckermann narrating about his 45th high-school reunion and this mythic figure from his boyhood named the Swede, who was, like, the best athlete ever and is seemingly ripped right from the pages of any of a hundred "Ain't America Swell" novels for boys published shortly after the war. He's nauseating, if you like me are no nostalgist.

But then after running into the Swede's younger brother at the reunion and finding out the Swede's daughter was connected with a protest bombing that took place in New Jersey during Vietnam, Zuckermann is forced to rethink the ideal that he'd built up in his head all these years. And what happens is a kind of willful destruction of the myth of the Swede (which we come to understand is the myth of Old America, "Old" meaning American before the Sixties...façade America). Here's how and where it happens:
...I lifted onto my stage the boy we were all going to follow into America, our point man into the next immersion, at home here the way the Wasps were at home here, an American not by sheer striving, not by being a Jew who invents a famous vaccine or a Jew on the Supreme Court, not be being the most brilliant or the most eminent or the best. Instead [...] he does it the ordinary way, the natural way, the American-guy way. To the honeysweet strains of "Dream," I pulled myself away from myself, pulled away from the reunion, and I dreamed ... I dreamed a realistic chronicle. I began gazing into his life—not his life as a god or a demigod in whose triumphs one could exult as a boy but his life as another assailable man—and inexplicably, which is to say lo and behold, I found him in Deal, New Jersey, at the seaside cottage, the summer his daughter was eleven, back when she couldn't stay out of his lap or stop calling him by cute pet names, couldn't "resist," as she put it, examining with the tip of her finger the close way his ears fitted to his skull. (89, my emphasis)
This happens in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of chapter three and from that point on Zuckermann's "I" is not once used in the book. It drifts away and becomes a close third in the viewpoint of the Swede. The rest of the novel is the story of his life between, oh, 1965 and 1973.

It's nothing short of amazing, really, how Roth gets it done. How he both yearns for all the Swede connotes and yet also systematically destroys it and everything he stands for. Because this is what the Sixties and Seventies did, he's arguing. The Swede is destroyed because postwar idealism has been destroyed.

How this novel is, exactly, in the pastoral tradition is something I'll have to answer come the end of the term, after I write a paper about it.