31 August 2007

Coetzee, J.M. Life & Times of Michael K. New York: Penguin, 1985.

A novel that tells an entire life story, birth to death, in 184 pages. Granted, it's a little light on years 1 through, oh, 25? 30? But we get enough in flashback. Michael K is a man born with a harelip to incapable parents and grows up in an orphanage. As an adult he gets a job as a gardener, and then war hits South Africa and his mother becomes sick and they need to flee the city for the countryside where she was born. Thus begins a story that's part road novel (think The Road of course, but also What is the What), part adventure novel (a la Robinson Crusoe), and even part medical drama as K eventually ends up in a labor camp's clinic, refusing any food and wasting away.

What a dull novel, right? Except I almost couldn't put it down. The prose throughout is the sparsest of sparse. I think I came across five similes in the entire novel. Maybe four. What is it about the following that can be so absorbing?
He tried the water-tap beside one of the petrol pumps, but it was dry. He drank from a tap at the rear of the shop. In the veld behind the filling station stood the hulks of scores of cars. He tried doors till he found one that opened. The back seat of the car had been removed, but he was too tired to search further. The sun was going down behind the mountains, the clouds were turning orange. He pulled the door to, lay down on the dusty [!!! -ed.] concave floor with the box under his head, and was soon asleep.
How strong the temptation to metaphor the F out of those "scores of cars"! Or maybe "hulks" is a metaphor I'm just not reading correctly. Another writer—DeLillo probably, maybe Updike—would hammer home the way war has turned men into scrap the way it has these cars, and rhapsodize for at least a quarter of a page on the image. Coetzee's aim here is more urgent, I think, and so more honest. We can see the cars just fine, and to get all lyric about them would be in one way to if not glamorize his character's life, or life in general during wartime, then at least mystify the whole experience. K's life is monotonous and plain and so the language of the novel has to be as well.

It's like there are two ways to make a reader really see something beyond words on a page. One of them is through figurative language, which is to say to use other language to connect an image to other associative images with which we're all kinda culturally familiar. And the other one is to just put the thing in there and make use of it and keep writing toward the usage and behavior of things. Or maybe it's not like this at all. How much can you rely on a reader to supply critical information on his own?

27 August 2007

Schomburg, Zachary. The Man Suit. Boston: Black Ocean, 2007.

This is the second poetry book I've read this summer and the second poetry book I've read in almost two years. It's the first poetry book I've read this week, which puts me way ahead of a. in terms of his new reading resolution. This is the first full-length poetry book published by my new officemate, who just this afternoon bullied me into updating this blog. I'm teaching this book in November, but I thought I'd finish it now so I can have time to mull it over. Why am I deciding to teach all these books I can't figure out how to teach? The reason I'll never be a good literature professor is that my pedagogical stance begins and ends with Read This Isn't It Good Yeah God I Loved It Cool.

All this by way of background.

Zach's book seems to place itself somewhere near the difference between impersonation and impostorism. Impostory? Imposture? I think an impersonator is someone we reward for resembling another person, or if not "reward" then "are entertained by." An impostor is someone whose resemblance of another person is not to be trusted and is perhaps to be punished. So the question, given the title of the book, seems to be whether the business of social existence is an impersonation of some true self (maybe put that in quotes) or an act of imposture. And if we're impostors who's not to trust what we're doing? Who's to punish us?

There's a good poem in it (there are lots but there's also this one) called "I'm Not Carlos", Carlos being a character that pops up from time to time. He's like an impostor of the speaker of all the poems even though the speaker doesn't seem to know about it, I think because he's too busy wondering whether he himself isn't an impersonator. "Sometimes [the tree machines] call me on the telephone and whisper things," he says in this poem. "Give us the man suit, Carlos. Just give us the man suit."

Later we're told that calls asking for Carlos are the only calls the speaker gets anymore.

I think what I'll need to do is somehow convert my classroom between the time we discuss Zadie Smith's (check the initials) On Beauty and the time we discuss this book into the kind of space where people feel comfortable letting meaning elude them. What's hard about that is that I'm not comfortable letting meaning elude me. There are puzzles to solve! There are impressive scores to achieve on standardized tests!

(One thing I've completely failed to talk about is how funny this book is. How do you talk about something being funny without putting across the idea that it's just funny? Or that it's like "a humorous book"?)

24 August 2007

Johnson, Denis. Jesus' Son. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

This is a reread, though it's been a good six years or so since I read it. I have to teach this book in two weeks, and I'm not too certain what-all I'll have to talk about in four 75-minute sessions. One I guess will be the reliability of the narrator, who spends at least half the book (which itself seems wrong to say, as chronology doesn't really work; the linked stories work actively against a temporal sequence...something else to discuss, I guess) high, and so we're never really able to know what's going on.

If there's one thing Denis Johnson does (and does well, I think) in these stories is end them with quick and dramatic turns. His final paragraphs work almost like voltas in sonnets. Sometimes they fold back in on the story, like the end of "Car Crash While Hitchhiking":
It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.
And sometimes the push the story to what I want to call an inarticulately profound meaning, as in "The Other Man":
First I put my lips to her upper lip, then to the bottom of her pout, and then I kissed her fully, my mouth on her open mouth, and we met inside.

It was there. It was. The long walk down the hall. The door opening. The beautiful stranger. The torn moon mended. Our fingers touching away the tears. It was there.
If I want to argue, though, that this ending pushes for meaning, I should probably try to figure out what that meaning might be. Any ideas? We've got two weeks to figure it out.

21 August 2007

Sebald, W.G. The Emigrants. Trans. Michael Hulse. New York: New Directions, 1997.

Finished! this book almost two weeks ago and haven't yet figured out what to say about it. It being on my comps list I've got to write something down. But what do you say about a book whose words passed under your eyes over the course of five or six hours and never found a way to stick? Never left a mark?

This, I guess:
A fragmented novel/memoir (Sebald's preferred term is "narrative") about four men, some of them relatives of the first-person narrator, some just acquaintances, who left Germany at one time to another. World War II and the rise of the Third Reich lay in the shadows of the book, referred to obliquely in the many accounts that make up this narrative. In addition to the story as narrated to us by Sebald's stand-in, we're given monologues from other characters, letters, diaries, and even photographs printed right in the middle of the text. What results is a slipping of the idea of narrative—we're often unsure who is claiming authorship of what we're reading—and as a result the book becomes a meditation on the slipperiness of human experience and identity.
I'm not sure I even believe that last line, but it'll have to do.

Here's what Susan Sontag said about this book: "W.G. Sebald has written an astonishing masterpiece: it seems perfect while being unlike any book one has ever read. Bewitching in its subtlety, sublime in its directness and in the grandeur of its subject, The Emigrants is an irresistible book."

Everything I have in me resisted picking the book back up to read. Is (was) Susan Sontag, like, smarter than me or something? People you admire loving books you can't find yourself connecting with feels like being invited to an orgy on a night you have rampant diarrhea.

07 August 2007

Smokler, Kevin, ed. Bookmark Now: Writing in the Age of Information Overload. New York: MJF Books, 2005.

A collection of essays by young, contemporary writers all trying to write about how the book isn't dead and that reading is still vital. Much of the book is worthless, in that about 75 percent of the writers inside are more interested in telling their own dull stories than they are in connecting these stories to the issue at hand. One writer actually spends pages and pages writing about all the sex and booze she enjoyed during her MFA program. She actually does this and probably got paid for it. This, in an essay about whether or not one needs an MFA to become a writer.

It's called, the essay, "No, You Don't Need One But the Getting of It Sure Is Fun, If You're Horny, Or Need Social Lubrication". No, it's not actually called that, and no, I've never heard of Michelle Richmond either, and looking through he contributor's bio it doesn't seem as though many people have. So if you find yourself trolling a bookstore's remainder aisles while visiting, say, your parents one week, and choose to pick this up because it's half the cost of the issue of Dissent you picked up through some weird self-improvement urge that hit you like a bad smell, then just skip all the essays by the nobodies. Turns out one's writing career's success can be seen in direct proportion to the amount of genuinely valid things one has to say.

But Adam Johnson's essay on collaboration is what struck my eye when scanning the contents, and it didn't disappoint. Nor did Tom Bissell's defense of the importance of reading in the era of video games (which I may assign to my Intro to Lit students the opening day of classes), or Benjamin Nugent's essay on writing and job security.

Douglas Rushkoff has a lot of smart things to say about the way the Internet can not only increase readership for books but actually help increase sales. It'd a great defense of those who cry Napster!!! when confronted with the possibility of Internet distribution of texts. It was enough to convince me that, if I ever write a book and then sell it, to have this book's initial chapter available for free reading/download on some Web site.

From Rushkoff:
[Publishers'] dire predictions [about the end of publishing in the age of the Internet] are not unlike those made by silly record executives in the 1930s who, so fearful of the effects of radio broadcasting on their sales, actually forbade their recordings to be played over the radio! [. . .] Within a couple of decades, of course, record companies were paying DJs to get their records on the radio.

That's because media don't actually steal from each other. They feed each other. Just as hearing a song on the radio might provoke a person to buy a CD, reading test by authors online can motivate people to buy their actual books. (235)
It's that "might" I guess that makes people nervous, because why buy a CD when you can download one for free if you're clever enough? But whereas speakers are speakers, a computer screen is not a printed page, so I think, as Rushkoff does, that books can survive more open access.

05 August 2007

Didion, Joan. Democracy 1984. New York: Vintage, 1995.

"I am resisting narrative here" (113), Joan Didion—the conflated author-narrator-character—writes about halfway through this novel, and it's true that whatever story lies in Democracy isn't so much told to the reader as it is picked up, piece by piece, through a series of images and scenelets Didion seems compelled to return to again and again.

This is a story of war and the colonial urge at the tail end of Vietnam. Inez Victor née Christian is the wife of Harry Victor who at one point in the novel is making a serious go at the U.S. presidency. She has an illicit relationship with Jack Lovett, a C.I.A. man a good twenty-thirty years her senior—an illicit relationship everyone including her husband is aware of. Her father, Paul Christian, patriarch of their Hawaiian-aristocracy family, shoots and kills her sister, Janet, and another politician, and then turns himself in shortly afterward. Her daughter, Jessie, somehow flees the U.S. for Vietnam without ever having to show a passport.

The Book of Common Prayer is the novel that precedes this one and like it Didion is concerned here with the families who sit at the center of stories of political intrigue. More specifically the mothers and wives of these families, and yet it's not accurate to call these novels feminist novels because Didion doesn't seem interested in reconstructing readers' notions of the political hero/ine. What she seems interested in here is blending the line in narrative between fact and fiction, an understandable interest from a writer so practiced in both.

Democracy is constructed much the same way Miami (which follows this book chronologically) is: as a continued attempt to get at the story, given so much wayward evidence that hasn't yet been sorted through. The result is tough to get a hold of, as a reader. It's probably best put in Mary McCarthy's super-extensive NY Times review. She guesses at Didion's method as being analogous to a jigsaw puzzle, where
now and then, without hurry, a new piece [of the narrative] is carefully inserted, and the gentle click of cardboard locking into cardboard is felt—no forcing. Despite the fact that the pieces are known to us, face down and face up, almost from the start, there is an intense suspense, which seems to be causeless (no cliffhanger this, no heroine tied to the railroad tracks), suspense arising from the assembly of the pieces, that is, from the procedures of narrative themselves.
I'm not sure that I ever felt suspense while reading Democracy but it was always clear that Didion was trying quite urgently to do something new. Or, not perhaps intentionally setting out to be an innovator of novel form, but perhaps more accurately setting out with the bewildered gloominess of a writer for whom the forms she's known and practiced can no longer work.