Monday, December 27, 2010

Reflecting on the Year and Looking to the Future of My Happy Reading

2010 was rife with awesomeness, reading-wise. I've added Philip K. Dick and Vladimir Nabokov to my list of all-time favorite authors. George Saunders remains among my topmost with a really just neat short story, "Escape From Spiderhead," that appeared in the recent issue of The New Yorker. David Markson, though sadly he passed away this year, also left a positive impression on me with "Wittgenstein's Mistress." William Gaddis proved his intangible value in my mind with "J R." Adam Levin and Patrick Somerville are two great young, Chicago-area writers I look forward to continuing things from. I've got "The Instructions" and I'm making headway with that, a really just enjoyable read so far. And I've got "The Cradle" and I'm waiting with bated breath for "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature." A D Jameson is another young Chicago-area writer worthy of note, and not simply because I know him, but because he has produced some damned inventive fiction you ought to check out. (Hell, he introduced me to Philip K. Dick and David Markson's awesomeness, among a great many other things.) Jameson's criticism is always thought-provoking, likewise, and his talent for honest and earnest introspection is unrivaled, as I see it. Lots of men-heavy talk here, but I mustn't forget to mention Lorrie Moore, who has just got lots of stuff that's worth your time. Lindsay Hunter and Karen Russell are two other female authors I've enjoyed in 2010, cannot wait for "Daddy's" to arrive. Oh, and I really enjoyed Shirley Jackson's "The Possibility of Evil," which I look forward to attempting to teach to high school students in 2011.

As for the future, i.e. 2011, well, let's start with several books I've gotten for Christmas. There's "The Physics of Imaginary Objects" by Tina May Hall, and that's just got an awesome title. Then there's "Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls" by Alissa Nutting, which isn't that also an awesome title? "Daddy's" as already mentioned. "The Museum of the Weird" by Amelia Gray. Somerville's titles, "The Cradle" and "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature." Roald Dahl's "My Uncle Oswald." "Pnin" by Vladimir Nabokov. Oh and philosophy by Soren Kierkegaard.

It should be a great year! How was your book haul? What do you look forward to in 2011, book-wise?" I'll probably give Nicole Krauss' "Great House" a try, and Jim Shepard's "You Think That's Bad." "The Pale King" by David Foster Wallace, also, which seems like a good idea, reading-wise.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Good Writing and Sad Happenings in "Revolutionary Road"

The first thing I'll think of whenever I think of Richard Yates must necessarily be "Seinfeld" (and NOT the title of Tao Lin's latest novel) -- because he was apparently the inspiration for Elaine's grizzled, aloof father (a celebrated novelist named Alton Benes). Larry David, the well-known co-creator of "Seinfeld" and star of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," used to date Yates' daughter, Monica, which I imagine produced some very "Curb Your Enthusiasm" type moments, as well. I feel like Alton Benes' appearance was very much a precursor to the humor that has informed David's precedent sitcom. I both can and cannot imagine Larry David and Richard Yates seated in the same room alone together. I'm laugh-cringing already.

Here's something a little different, though: I feel like a lot of the time I approach these reviews with an eye more for the logos of the narrative than its pathos. Truth is, Yates' "Revolutionary Road" is nothing if it isn't a tour-de-force of powerful passions, life's life blood, and what results from a failure of things to "work out." Frank and April Wheeler are perhaps two of the most emotionally complex characters I've read in, well, ever. They just throb with every unfulfilled or feigned emotion, which you can imagine is a complex notion in itself, i.e. to be so palpably real in their falseness. I can't say that I enjoyed reading Yates with the same zeal I did Gaddis and Nabokov. "Revolutionary Road" is the kind of novel that demands your discomfort. "Revolutionary Road" gets inside of you. This is perhaps because it cuts to the core so precisely. Maybe you relate too well to the Wheelers, for example. Maybe I do.

Here come certain spoilerifics:

It's not enough to say it's about the stultifying effects of suburban malaise circa 1950, because in so many ways that's the story Frank Wheeler is trying to sell you, because that's the story he's sold to himself. Especially relevant and ironical to this notion is Wheeler's boss Bart Pollock's mantra (page 207 of my edition), acquired by Pollock from a "wiser older man," of which Pollock says, "He said to me, 'Bart, everything is selling.' He said, 'Nothing happens in this world, nothing comes into this world, until somebody makes a sale.'" There isn't much that's terribly unusual about this idea, a tried and true cliche of business speak -- that is, if you don't have the ancillary element of Wheeler imagining how he'll recast the situation to April later, saying to her, "And I kept sitting there getting drunk and thinking 'What the hell does this guy want from me?' . . . Of course I kept thinking none of it matters a damn, but still; he really had me guessing." Frank has sold himself a characteristic: bashful modesty and false ignorance. Plus, he knows he's been taken in by Pollock's own appeal to him, a job offer as head of sales for a new division: electronic computers for the American businessman. Frank's ego is stroked and there's no going back, despite April's plan to finally cast off the "hopeless emptiness" of America for the possibility of something better in Europe as ex-patriots.

Yet the truth of Frank Wheeler's situation is something much more pernicious, and it speaks to anyone who's ever allowed themselves to become just a bit too sure of their own significance and, perhaps, superiority. It's natural for people to want to feel as though they possess skills beyond those of anyone who has ever lived or ever will live. I mean, natural to the extent that we desire feeling unique, as means of demonstrating our purpose and implying a justifiable degree of immortality. We're not Homer of the Odyssey nor Homer of the Simpsons, but hey, we're not unspectacular, either. And given the opportunity, oh, how we might prove this!

You begin to see how Frank and April Wheeler demonstrate another kind of story. Lost in the macro, sociological criticisms -- fictional tellings or otherwise -- of American suburbia of the last half century, is the individualistic myth-making of those of us who seem to think we are above it all, because of our great awareness. "Revolutionary Road" is, among other things, a condemnation of the snobs, but not just any snob, the snob who thinks (s)he can stand apart from the rest of humanity, flippantly wave a hand, and live deliberately. There's also a degree of contempt for those who find they may once have felt differently but now are completely willing to let themselves become ensconced in life's circumstances, taking comfort in the fact that there is no other option. Hoping, praying, lying to oneself and pretending that things will be above and beyond one's control, whether this is true or not (anyone who reads this blog knows I'm an adherent of at least the possibility of determinism; and that I much revile Ayn Rand and her disciples).

The story's catalyst comes in the form of a man named John Givings, the unstable and institutionalized but rather brilliant son of the Wheelers' realtor and neighbor, Helen Givings. John is like a character plucked from Nurse Ratched's domain in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," with special reference to Chief Bromden's "The Combine," and set down into the unhappy middle class vista of Revolutionary Road, off of which lays the Wheelers' home, set just apart from the unpleasant cookie-cutter housing of "the dreadful new development" Revolutionary Hill Estates, which is symbolism that I don't think minces too many symbols.

John Givings is not one to mince anything, either. He likes what you're doing or he doesn't. It's to him that Frank Wheeler first uses the term "hopeless emptiness" to describe what they think of the contemporary American landscape. Givings himself commends them, saying on page 200, "Now you've said it. The hopeless emptiness. Hell, plenty of people are on to the emptiness part; out where I used to work, on the [West] Coast, that's all we ever talked about." Which is why John's reaction amounts to nothing less than disgust when he later is told Frank has found a useful reason for canceling the Wheeler's European exodus, to wit: April has become pregnant with their third child. John sees the sham of it all, sees more than anyone, that Frank is full of it. The Wheeler's happy marriage is anything but, which is why his final pronouncement on page 303 packs an especially powerful punch: ". . . he extended a long yellow-stained index finger and pointed it at the slight mound of April's pregnancy. 'You know what I'm glad of? I'm glad I'm not gonna be that kid.'"

The narrative descends to what I'd define as tragedy, but a powerful and worthy tragedy, one that I've yet to shake and one that I'd just as soon not describe here, because I feel there's such a thing as too much spoiling. My advice? Read "Revolutionary Road." (I can't vouch for the movie yet, as I haven't seen it.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mini Review of the Little Religion of "Miss Lonelyhearts"

Boy-o, "Miss Lonelyhearts" is a short read by Nathanael West. I don't know that I have tons of thoughts about it. It started much stronger than I believe the rest of the story held up. It has an excellent climax. Someone forgot the middle, I think. Or maybe I'm just being lazy, as reviewing goes.

The story was, if I'm being overly critical, far too concerned with Miss Lonelyhearts, the man (Miss Lonelyhearts is a nom de plum that, nonetheless, is the only name by which the main character is referenced throughout the novel), and not enough with his job, which is advice dispenser for a widely read advice column.

My copy came used and annotated by an individual who focused on the many allusions to religion West makes. I think these allusions are a bit trite and obvious, not to make light of the reader who came before me and her (the handwriting suggests it was a female) interests / concerns.

The humanity of the story is in its people who populate Miss Lonelyhearts' column. Those who desire advice, those who are in many ways victims of the advice itself. For example, what proves Miss Lonelyhearts' undoing is when he allows himself to become romantically entangled with one particularly effusive advice seeker. In exposing himself as something quite human and of the earth he relinquish the quasi-deity potency he once held, not so much to his public but to himself, though his hold of it was already beginning to wane. And in fact that is what the story speaks to, the notion of adequacy as dispenser of truth. Miss Lonelyhearts is just another man behind the curtain, no Great and Powerful Oz. Why should his fate be any different than ours?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bend it Like Nabokov, i.e. Sinisterly (Part II)

So there is more, for starters. I attached "part I" to the title of my II part Nabokov "Bend Sinister" postings for a reason: there are II parts! Also, in this post I'm operating on the assumption that you've at least some familiarity with the previous part of this II parter, ya know? So don't act like you're not following me, especially when I gave you all this good fair warning. Same as before, spoilers are basically a given. Now, less ado and more Nabokov.

Here's what I think:

Nabokov slides in these oh so interesting morsels, narrative digressions that compound his novels with amusing, shrewdly crafted ideas to marvel in wonderment at, and from which to attempt to then divine meaning. Analysis of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" by Adam Krug and his friend, fellow academic and pedant, Ember, is one such instance of this, beginning more or less on page 105 of my edition. The thrust of this narrative digression is: what value might be attributable to pursuing high-minded interests in the midst of widespread suffering? The odd nature of such an endeavor described best here:

Nature had once produced an Englishman whose domed head had been a hive of words; a man who had only to breathe on any particle of his stupendous vocabulary to have that particle live and expand and throw out tremulous tentacles until it became a complex image with a pulsing brain and correlated limbs. Three centuries later, another man, in another country was trying to render these rhythms and metaphors in a different tongue. This process entailed a prodigious amount of labour, for the necessity of which no real reason could be given. It was as if someone, having seen a certain oak tree (further called Individual T) growing in a certain land and casting its own unique shadow on the green and brown ground, had proceeded to erect in his garden a prodigiously intricate piece of machinery which in itself was as unlike that or any other tree as the translator's inspiration and language were unlike those of the original author, but which, by means of ingenious combinations of parts, light effects, breeze-engendering engines, would, when completed, cast a shadow exactly similar to that of Individual T . . .

There's more to the above quotation but I think that adequately tells its gist (gist used ironically here). The above is also a quote drawn from the exhaustive analysis of Krug, reacting to the nature of Ember's translating Shakespeare into the native. Yes, it is spectacularly well done, as Krug later remarks to Ember, but its relevance, not just in their society but in any society, is called to question. What is the point of such elaborate simulacra? What about the fact that Ember doesn't even know who's running the country, Paduk, as elucidated by the following quote, "To stress the artist's detachment from life, Ember says he does not know and does not care to know (a telltale dismissal) who this Paduk -- bref, la personne en question -- is." I mean, when does artistic, intellectual esotericism go too far? When it, however indirectly, threatens your life, I should think. Of course, like all those others who surround Krug, Ember is shortly after taken away by Hustav and the state police. Krug, for all his recondite and analytical abilities (which likewise are brought into the realm of ambiguity), does not take heed of the foreboding quality of these arrests. He still believes himself perfectly insulated by his high-standing as a figure of world renown. One suspects a man like Martin Heidegger probably saw himself in a similar sense, even though no one can be bigger than the state in a totalitarian society.

People, academic people mostly, like to imagine that if we aren't presently on such a track than perhaps some day we might transition to a world of perfect enlightenment, of free thought and exchange of ideas without the baggage of personal prejudice, yet without much difficulty, as fiction writers and philosophers have presciently demonstrated, the perpetuation of totalitarian creeds is just as likely a scenario from this vantage of human evolution. We are as susceptible as we were seventy years ago in Nazi Germany (one need only note the popularity of sloganeering in the politics, the shoddy distillation of news and the stultification of the two-party system here in the good ol' USofA to see we, i.e. human beings and specifically Americans, are quite at risk).

As Hannah Arendt notes in her opening line to part three of her seminal work, "The Origins of Totalitarianism," -- "Nothing is more characteristic of the totalitarian movement in general and of the quality of fame of their leaders in particular than the startling swiftness with which they are forgotten and the startling ease with which they can be replaced." In other words, if totalitarian heads of state won't stand the test of time in governments of their personal contrivance or, at least, reflective of their massive influence, how could anyone else hope to maintain an individual identity amid the thronging tide of The Masses, the one and only identity extant under a totalitarian regime. Food for thought, I suppose. I don't want the preceding to be viewed as alarmist or, worse, dripping with cynicism apropos of the human condition, but just simply to point out that no one should assume with the rise of so much grandiose technology and the ability to disseminate information faster and more broadly than ever before, that that necessarily means a more enlightened future for mankind. Quite the opposite is still very possible.

Anyway, to return from the preceding lengthy digression, and to return the lengthy digression into a more clearly applicable aspect of the subject matter at hand (i.e. "Bend Sinister"), Krug is operating on this rather false supposition that insists his personal importance in a totalitarian state. True but not too true, as the inchoate totalitarian state of Padukgrad will soon teach him.

Another of Nabokov's more fascinating digressions is the question of what I'll refer to as the presumed venerability of a well-regarded thinker. As it happens, I read a lot of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a thinker who has forced me to question what is valid, certainly what is certain, more times than I can now list. What's more, he begs by his own skillful linguistic philosophy to be questioned. That's not to say I consider him overrated or anything. In fact, it's for his very ability to question everything, including the correctness of his own personal certainty, and to labor over such ideas in lengthy meditations, that I find him, paradoxically perhaps, one of the most introspectively recondite thinkers of all time.

Krug, if he has any affinity at all to the features of Wittgenstein I note above, it's that he, too, sees a worthy question in his presumed validity. Most evocative of this idea, of this instability of his venerability, is found on pages 172-3, and with the following quotes, "He was constantly being called one of the most eminent philosophers of his time but he knew that nobody could really define what special features his philosophy had, or what 'eminent' meant or what 'his time' exactly was, or who were the other worthies." And then, likewise, ". . . he had begun regarding himself (robust rude Krug) as an illusion or rather as a shareholder in an illusion which was highly appreciated by a great number of cultured people (with a generous sprinkling of semi-cultured ones)." Most likely, in this one can see something relatable to Wittgenstein's reference to his own understanding in "On Certainty" -- "Is my understanding only blindness to my own lack of understanding? It often seems so to me." Is anyone's?

"Bend Sinister" ends in tragedy because it must end in tragedy. There are no two ways about it. Krug has sinned against not only and quite obviously the state but everything that rationality suggests. He is guilty of an abstruse kind of vanity that prevents him from taking the proper course to escaping the country. Yet it is not immediately he who pays for this, or rather, it is only tangentially he who pays for this first. His son, Daniel, the apple of his eye, is the one who first suffers. Daniel comes to great harm when Krug is finally apprehended by the state police. His boy is sent to a state correctional facility for the criminally insane and Krug is presumably sent to a prison for political dissidents. It's expected Krug will hold out indefinitely and refuse to sign whatever document acceding his full endorsement of Padukgrad. But, despite countless examples throughout the novel of the great and selfless lengths Krug will go to protect his child, the Ekwilists do not understand the power of this bond until it is far too late. Krug in no time at all says he will sign whatever they like with the only provision being the immediate return of his son.

As mentioned previously, however, Daniel is sent to a correctional facility for the criminally insane. Krug soon learns that Daniel was made use of in the most callous fashion imaginable, as an expendable unit intended to absorb the release of the inmates' worst desires, violent and so forth. The facility operated on the theory that if an inmate were able to indulge in his / her compulsive needs in measured doses, with the use of individuals of no particular societal importance (orphaned children mostly), then (s)he may be rendered less a threat to society at large. Thus is Daniel murdered, and thus is Krug swallowed up by grief so powerful it drives him to insanity, leading to a darkly, grimly humorous finale demonstrative of all that is best about Nabokov's fantastically unique storytelling.

Holy crap, this is a good book!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Through the Lens of William Gaddis' "J R" & More

I think "J R" came into my life at just the right time. I consider this true from a variety of standpoints, namely 1) broadly, within the context of the nation's political and economic climate 2) as an educator who greatly fears the perils of complete acquiescence to psychometricians and high-stakes testing 3) as a busy, busy, busy person burning the candle at all ends because I must and because I desire the challenge, I know what it feels like now to be thrust into a seemingly unending stream of noise and human interaction, constantly talking to someone about something and then switching on a moment's notice to talk to someone else about something completely different 4) as a fan of literature and in admiration of the tremendous feat of literary derring-do represented by "J R". 5) More specifically as a fan of the 1950s-60s suburban angst of writers like Cheever and Yates, and now Gaddis, (even in certain respects Ken Kesey) and the demonstrative power they possess to elucidate the plight of those characters inhabiting this malaise-laden scene, which has if anything only further stultified in the years since.

It is a difficult novel, but I'm not convinced that the vitriol at its core (if it can be said vitriol or anger is what motivated Gaddis) causes it to lose all sense of whatever its guiding idea was, which is one among many criticisms Jonathan Franzen put to it quite a few years back.

Franzen emphasizes his difficulty in trying to come to terms with the feeling that he should be reading authors of modern and postmodern persuasions, whose work expresses concerns more overtly political and decrying of the establishment than the character-driven classic novels of authors like Dostoevsky and Dickens, or more contemporaneously Saul Bellow and Ann Beattie. For a variety of reasons I couldn't agree less with said assertion (especially since Dostoevsky and Dickens were profoundly political for their day). Still I, too, wrestle with the dichotomy he describes, of characterization being ancillary to more conceptual narratives. Franzen also uses the fact that he quite enjoyed "The Recognitions" -- Gaddis' first novel and arguably his most difficult (certainly his lengthiest: a whopping 950 plus pages) -- to defend his stance, which is a tenable position to argue from, admitting an affinity for an author but then describing the impasse other aspects of his / her oeuvre have brought to bear. Although I find his opinion, that Gaddis didn't craft characters per se, to be remarkably unfair, if not entirely unfounded. Gaddis wasn't like Pynchon, Coover, Barthelme and so forth. Characterization was a very important part of Gaddis' fiction. I hope what follows will demonstrate that somewhat.

Here's a quote by Franzen, taken only slightly out of context: "Battling through 'J R,' I'd wanted to grab Gaddis by the lapels and shout, 'Hello! I'm the reader you want! I love smart fiction, and I'm for a good Systems novel. If you can't even show me a good time, who else do you think is going to read you?'"

As I say, though, I liked "J R" in part because I found it so eminently relatable to my own life at this point. Over the course of a harried slough of cross conversations in classroom environments, both as instructor and student, or as an employee of a retailer like Costco Wholesale (which have I mentioned I'm currently employed by Costco Wholesale Corporation? Good company, on the whole, I really must admit). Fact has been, people seem always to be talking at me and I at them. Hopefully much hearing occurs between us, but no doubt in fragments. What's more, occasionally real humanity breaks through the din, and something such as the following utterance by Amy Joubert from "J R" might be expressed:

. . . someone came to dinner he was a man who made fine china and, Mama'd been cremated and he said if, he said right at the dinner table he told Daddy if they'd give him her ashes he'd, he'd make a fine chop plate human ashes make the finest china he said but, but why a chop plate why he said a chop plate . . .

"Why a chop plate why he he'd never met her but why he couldn't think of, couldn't even think of her as something less . . .
pg 505
Yes, there's the literal commodification of a deceased loved one there, a postmodern trope if ever I've seen it, an idea akin to Fausto Maijstral's ossification to "non-humanity" in "V.", but more to the point there is a woman who can't stand the thought of it, of her mother made into some cheap ware. There is humanity. And the story is rife with humanity. Had Frazen stuck with it, he would have discovered a particularly touching scene unfolds when Edward Bast, the long-suffering envoy of J R Corp. and its eponymous preteen founder, is laid up in a hospital next to Mister Duncan, one of the countless business reps who come in and out of the story, a man who was hospitalized after being beaten up and left to his fate by a prostitute. Mister Duncan espouses an angry philosophy much the same, but probably coarser, as that which Franzen accuses Gaddis' of harboring, i.e., Duncan sez, "It's taken me fourteen years to get out of the wallpaper business people think winning's what it's all about just ask those son of a bitches who ran that war, ran the whole country into the ground while they were at it . . ." and, later, ". . . give them a string of high p e ratios and a rising market it's all free enterprise all they howl about's government restraints interference double taxation, all free enterprise till they wreck the whole thing they're the first ones up there with a tin cup whining for the government to bail them out with a loan guarantee so they can do it all over again . . ." (This latter quotation striking me as more relevant today than when it was written, fool me twice and whatnot.)

But beneath the crotchety, lecherous veneer there's a guy in Duncan who likes people. Duncan's mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore, sure, but also Bast reminds him there's still a lot of humanity behind that Darth Vader cast that encircles world economic affairs. In a fit of creativity and the stifling after effects of employ by J R Corp. (he has been terminated by mandate of the board), Edward Bast insists he must complete some sort of work before he dies. He's being a bit melodramatic, and no one, nurse or doctor or anyone, attempts to humor him regarding this want, and he's left to compose (seeing as that's his creative discipline and labor of love, music composer) with a crayon and scrap sheets of paper. Duncan is dismayed by this treatment, saying, "Well then give him his fifty pencils, how do you know who's to die Waddles [a nurse overseeing their care] you give him this drawing paper and one purple crayon all he can write is something for one instrument, give him his fifty sharp pencils he can probably write us a whole concert and bring me some more newspapers. . .!" Then, slowly and finally Duncan moves into candor and opens up to Bast, saying:

. . . I lost a daughter, did I tell you that Bast? . . . she was taking piano lessons when they took out her appendix son of a bitches never let you down do they it wasn't her appendix at all. ... she was learning a song called for Alise's something like that I never did hear it like it was supposed to be, she'd missed notes leave little parts out and start again I always thought maybe someday I'd hear it right hear what I was supposed to . . . though that's all I, all I want, I can still, hear it? hear it . . . ?
Bast devotes himself to finding out which song it was Duncan wanted to remember, but Duncan passes, presumably from his injuries, before Bast can tell him who wrote it, Beethoven, most likely. But that's beside the point -- the point is humanity in slivers. Slivers of giving a shit amidst the all for one and one for one defining everything else, just as J R can only see things as commercially viable or not, much to Mrs. Joubert's chagrin in one memorable scene on page 473 of my edition. (i.e. J R: "like did you ever think Mrs. Joubert everything you see someplace there's this millionaire for it?" To which Mrs. Joubert takes J R outside and asks, "Yes look up at the sky look at it! Is there a millionaire for that?") Bast shares a similar scene with J R, as their relationship deteriorates to the point of no return. On page 655 Bast unsuccessfully exhorts J R as follows:

listen all I want you to do take your mind off these nickel deductions these net tangible assets for a minute and listen to a piece of great music, it's a cantata by Bach cantata number twenty-one by Johann Sebastian Bach damn it J R can't you understand what I'm trying to show you there's such a thing as as, as intangible assets?

There's so much unreason to the pursuit of wealth, and it takes a special kind of oblivious or apathetic naivety to care only for it, so seems a true message of "J R."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bend it Like Nabokov, i.e. Sinisterly (Part I)

I've acquired a copy of Brian Boyd's "Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years," which will nicely complement my copy of his "The American Years." I can imagine this will mean most reviews of Nabokov's novels will now come complete with some amount of biographical information, too. But it's the decent thing to do seeing as he's one of history's greatest writers. What I'm saying is it might be worth something to know something about his life or something.

He was a Russian, and in perhaps the simplest, most facile terms possible, a White Russian (as direct result of the fact that he wasn't a Red). This notwithstanding, his personal issues with the Soviets were more romantic, of innocence prematurely stripped, than anything else (certainly more than his dislike of their confiscating most every possession his family owned and could have laid claim to, which no matter how magnanimous he is in his writings of it, could not have been something he was A-Okay with). But here, from "Speak, Memory," he says:

My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for emigre de Kickovski, who "hates the Reds" because they "stole" his money and land, is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.

More the point, though, is "Bend Sinister" -- which is apparently Nabokov's first "American novel," i.e. the first novel he wrote while living in U.S. America, Land of the Free / Home of Brave. Whether Nabokov the man felt any enmity for the dictatorship that at his writing "Bend Sinister" was at its height of power is beside the point. "Bend Sinister" is, if it shares any affinities with the popular dystopia novels of approximately the same period, circa late 1940s, a peculiar sense of the causation that makes and upholds oppressive regimes. The fascinating character study herein is presented in Adam Krug, a highly regarded, world-famous philosopher. [Spoilers are forthcoming . . .]

Krug is an extremely vulnerable man, because he is a man with a child for whom he cares deeply. This Nabokov fairly expressly points out in his prefatory remarks. I will take him at his words, and leave the meaning to be divined to the story itself. So Krug is a vulnerable man, because he cannot set aside his powerful love for his child. He imagines he is free of the power of the state, in deed and not word so much, for the simple fact that he is an academic and an intellectual, and the world would not stand for his coming to harm. The powers that be seem content to agree to this much. They wish only to persuade Krug to endorse the regime, so that the world will accept it as well. Seems reasonable enough.

But Krug, O, Krug! He is unwilling to put his integrity on the line for a regime that, he more or less observes, has none. Not the least of which belonging to his former schoolmate, now the leader of the ruling Ekwilist Party, Paduk, thus the dictator of the state. (Ekwilism being the ideology of the everyman to which Paduk and his disciples supposedly adhere.) Paduk's forces begin to arrest every cohort of Krug, in an effort presumably to get what they want from him.
Still, he refuses the Ekwilist's cause. But all the while, and made with such abundant implication and outright explication as to be almost ribald in approach, Krug is shown to be nothing short of a doting father of his young son, David, whom he cares for more than anything in the world. Therein lies the rub.

But before I get to that, let me say the black comedy abounding in this novel is truly astoundingly among the best I've ever read. Nabokov in all his works shows a talent for this unrivaled by, really, anyone. Such is true of the following passage, which to give a little background information, is an anecdote told by Linda, an Ekwilist, relaying the facts of her lover's (Hustav is his name) being necessarily murdered by the state and the effect this had on her daily routine:

I had to be at my dentist's at ten, and there they were in the bathroom making simply hideous noises -- especially Hustav. They must have been at it for at least twenty minutes. He had an Adam's apple as hard as a heel, they said -- and of course I was late.

In my annotations my initial reaction to this passage led me to regard this as "the most hideous and lyrical description of violent death I've ever read." I would add to that the descriptor humorous, as well. It's not hard to imagine a modern American dystopia as emotionally more relatable to the representative ideas Linda's attitude embodies than the synthetic happiness of "A Brave New World" or the scheduled outlet of pathos -- engendered almost exclusively with hate -- in "1984." In other words, pharmaceutical or psychological means needn't be used (though of course you could make the argument that both are already in place), people will wish only to not be inconvenienced themselves by the draconian measures of the state.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Birthday to Bob / Happy Thanksgiving to All!


This time last year, apparently on Thanksgiving, I posted my first post. It was a "brief" reflection on Walter Kirn's "Mission to America." Things have only become less brief since, but I'm glad for the outlet, thankful you could even say, and I'm glad for the various friendships with like-minded people this here blog has allowed me to make. I remain your undaunted reader and reviewer, to be sure! Books is life.

I've also not forgotten these literary equations, what with my focus on Untoward. There will be some more thoughts on Nabokov (as if I could go very long without thoughts on him, right?) and you should expect to see more on "J.R." by William Gaddis, as I near conclusion of that tome, which has been a really enjoyable reading experience in its own right, indeed. So keep checking back, and please, if you're so inclined, remark on said posts or email me. I do and will respond.

Thanks,
Matt

Friday, November 19, 2010

Untoward is A LIFE!!



Greetings friends and so-called friends, I come to you as a man humbled by the greatness of the website he created with little assistance from others, or maybe lots of assistance. Actually a great deal of assistance from Jon Mau, who has also written a little for the site. One would imagine Jamie Ferguson will be contributing, though often pseudonymously it perhaps seems.

In any event, aside from cronies, I invite you, the world, to submit as well. Check out the beginning of what I hope will be a great and exciting new project (for all those involved). My opinion is that it will. So should yours be.

I suspect there may or may not be more to come on this project and the details. Please note, though, that I consider it more or less separate from my doings here. My doings here are a different sort of doings, which will continue to keep happening, as always.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I Think Therefore We Are: "A Scanner Darkly"

Philip K. Dick might be our most underrated writer of the last 100 years. Yes, honestly, I mean that. I've said before his prose is more workman-like than artisan, which has cost him points with the establishment, but it can't be enough to detract from his recognizable gifts, not least among which are the sprawling spaces his narratives travel. Because it could just as easily be said that he was our most insane writer, too -- in the most positive sense of the term (though I acknowledge "insane" connotes many negative things).

"A Scanner Darkly" is the last book of his I needed read before "VALIS" (one of the handful I've read to date (all of which are reviewed on this site), a list based in one part on someone else's recommendation and one part my own self-imposed reading requirements) -- which is now, finally, at long last, next, and which I'm extremely excited about (although I believe I've said that before; I worry now I won't be anything but disappointed, ah, but that's enough negativity!)

There is something nearer and dearer about this novel, separating it from the other, more sci-fi oriented works of PKD's collection I've read. Never have I encountered an author who seems more committed to allowing his work to flow on its own momentum and not from something contrived. Donald Barthelme may have articulated this notion of "Not-Knowing" best, of valuing the cultivation of uncertain aspects of the story from the vantage of writer as artist, free from the convolution of a pre-established conclusion and the plot points building to that (showcased with devices like foreshadowing), but no one I've read has adhered to this approach more devotedly than seems PKD.

And "A Scanner Darkly" tells the story of a motley group of bums and burn outs the likes of which I've never seen before. Think if The Whole Sick Crew of Thomas Pynchon's "V." were given a follow up, set somewhere ambiguous in the future. Which if "A Scanner Darkly" is anything in specific, it's got to be an epilogue to PKD's experiences with drugs and excess in the '60s. As PKD himself notes in the opening line to his "Author's Note" at the end of the novel, "This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did."

It's also a novel about losing yourself. Ok, so then you ask, well, to what exactly? Drug use is the simplest answer. I wouldn't say it's an incorrect answer, but I do think with Philip K. Dick, there's something lurking on the tip of tongues, said but not said, and going beyond illicit drug use and dependance. It's about the paranoia that comes from attempting to live a subculture lifestyle free from the opprobrium and castigation of the mainstream. It's also about how desperation and mistrust / betrayal are rampant within the parameters of such an environment, not forgetting the fact that drug use does tend to take people out of their right mind so-called. (I do hate to sound like some nuevo-hippie hellbent on questioning the sacrosanctity of society's cherished mores as concern drug use, but I think judiciousness requires that I remind people (myself included) not to take the tack of the normative underpinnings of that mainstream I mention.)

Some spoilage immediately forthcoming, depending on your point of view: There is certainly something to how Fred slowly moves away from recognizing that he is, in truth, Bob Arctor, a not-so-subtle but still deftly achieved effect by PKD. Of course saying what I've said in the previous sentence requires a little plot background, so spoiler alerts sounding sonorously, here goes: Bob Arctor dwells in a home with two other miscreants, Jim Barris and Ernie Luckman, all of whom are regarded among the dope-using derelicts of society, wasteoids and burn-outs. They're criminals society takes time only to wrest from freedom and put into prison, or possibly some derivation of a recovery program, but such programs are occluded and one's admission is not guaranteed.

It happens that Bob Arctor is addicted to a mysterious drug referred to only as "Substance D." So too is his alter-ego or alias, "Fred," because, as it happens, Bob Arctor is also an undercover police officer. Problem is, "Substance D" is a mind-altering substance, um, literally? It literally alters your mind? Basically that's true, and how it does this is, in a nutshell, by impelling the two hemispheres of one's brain into two distinct and altogether separate consciouses.

And while this internal reconfiguration is ongoing, Arctor as Fred meets with "Hank," his superior, for reassignment. Arctor's last mission was a bust, and the criminal whom he was responsible for arresting apparently escaped into the arms of a recovery program. Worth mentioning is that neither Hank nor Fred knows the other's true identity (this is because all undercover officers are veiled in a scramble suit (described by a Lion's Club M.C. as rendering an individual a "vague blur"), which is a a suit made up of multifaceted quartz lens and attached to a miniaturized computer that plays on loop from its hard drive the multiple visage components of a million and a half human images).

So what's revealed by Hank is that Fred's reassignment is himself, Arctor, i.e. Fred is to surveil Bob Arctor and determine if he's as involved in illegal drug sales and so forth, as an informant has alleged. All the elements of Kafka's "The Trial" set in some futuristic dystopia, with, as said, a touch of Pynchon's "V." and Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" for good measure. The artificiality of our world is constantly regarded by the rampant consumerism manifest in ubiquitous advertisement, which several characters find themselves in varying degrees of conflict with. The narrator reaches its most pitched pathos, however, with the interplay extant between Arctor and Donna Hawthorne, a young drug dealer, who herself seems to have something more than just drugs and drug use to hide.

In the end I'd say what's most surprising is how cleanly PKD pulls off the mania of this narrative. It's truly a departure from everything I've read of his, heretofore. Whatever rules I might have thought existed in his narrative world, they're very much tossed to the side in "A Scanner Darkly." I shall remember this when tackling "VALIS" -- which I can only imagine what to expect from Horselover Fat in its pages.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Here Comes Another Review . . .

The New Yorker fiction has not been "doing it" for me in quite some time (I blame full immersion in their Top 20 Under 40 writers for my palpable awareness of this fact). I like Jim Shepard's latest, but mostly I'm off of New Yorker fiction. I feel as though I keep saying this, but much as I keep saying it it doesn't become any less true. I also haven't defined what precisely I mean by "New Yorker" fiction, which is fiction mostly concerned with the interpersonal dynamics of individuals and their family and / or friends, delivered in a very straightforward, often exceedingly literal way (with the usual symbolism and tropes interspersed) . It might also be referred to as "realism," although I'm not bothered by what of it that's "real" but the tired and banal, the used up, i.e. the crumbling ruins of writer's reactions to life and living which bore me.

Occasionally, though, and why I'll always keep checking up on them, the New Yorker'll publish an anomalously strange, good writer like George Saunders, Karen Russell, Chris Adrian or Ben Loory (I've about given up on Joshua Ferris, whose New Yorker fiction has only served to prove the point of his being ho-hum as invention goes). But another one who's legit, so far as I can tell (i.e. "legit" -- what an arbitrary term in this sense, meaning only that I approve of him), is Stephen O'Connor, whose New Yorker short story "Ziggurat" first introduced my eyes to his fiction and creative writing prowess. I might also add, before I go on, that O'Connor is legit but with a few caveats I shall put forth in the proceeding.

So O'Connor's "Here Comes Another Lesson" then presented an opportunity to really acquaint myself with what he does, oeuvre wise. Point blank: "Ziggurat" is more or less my favorite story of this collection. "Man in the Moon" is also very good. The series of stories featuring the professor of atheism were all good, if I felt at times he missed some kind of creative opportunity with them. Like, there was more there to them, and if he were willing to take still greater risks (an aspect of his authorial character for which he has received much praise from his peers, with superlatives like being one among the "bravest and most inventive" writers and a tendency to take, as said, "serious risks" in his fictions), I believe the stories would have been, well, more exciting. Serious Lee.

I am possibly speaking from only my own lived experience with writing, but I tend to think the psychology of this creative discipline is much the same as all other forms of creative expression, and that as with how evidence has shown nearly all (something around 98%) children start off with genius level ability at divergent thinking (my own anecdotal experience here reinforces this notion in my mind) and it is only with time and normative anesthetization of literal and non-literal varieties that we begin to lose it, so too is the case with writers who become creatively anesthetized. This is where the incestuous character of doing as others do is manifest to problematic, even noxious, degrees. O'Connor is a creative writer, but I'm bothered by what I perceive is an unwillingness to take the risks his talents afford him. So now let me cite specific examples of what I'm talking about and expositions of what I think don't hardly work near as well as it could (then you come in and disagree with me profoundly):

[SPOILERS ALERT] I'd put O'Connor somewhere on the same plane as that of my affection for the work of Gary Shteyngart, at least presently. (I'm hoping time will elevate both.) Gary Shteyngart errors differently in my esteem than O'Connor, though. Shteyngart to his credit takes risks with his penchant for "quasi-malapropisms" -- a term used if not coined by Andrew Seal over at Blographia Literaria, in a great post from last summer less-than-praising of Shteyngart's writing and general insights -- and various other narrative turns, which while not always effective, are often understandable (i.e. I feel I know why he attempted them). I'm less certain of O'Connor's risk-taking, in part because I don't think that's his inclination. Which is why he'll get praise of his writing for being not as "consistently arch" (Mark Athitakis -- a post which is over all very merited and good) as a George Saunders' collection. But arch is embedded in Saunders' writerly DNA, just as like it or not, Gary Shteyngart possesses stylistic quirks that clearly separate him from other writers. So too does O'Connor but he frustrates me as he falls back on monotonously ordinary plot lines, like, say, with "White Fire," a story of the war vet who wishes not to be called a hero, who can't speak about (except in a flash revelation expressed to his two young daughters) or forget the evil things that happened and in which he participated during his tour of duty; it's a nice character study but, I dunno, curious and uninteresting territory for a writer like O'Connor. Not that he shouldn't go there, but for what purpose? What was creatively inspiring about it? "White Fire" is a fine story, written with unusual and character-laden syntax, but there's not much more I can say that would excite you to read it.

O'Connor does fancy some kind of cliche or trope, as I see it, in that several of his stories either end or feature at some point a character slowly fading into the distance as an indefinable speck. I mean that literally, as in the ending of "Ziggurat": "Until at last -- there he was: A tiny figure moving up the shore. A minute silhouette against the mirror sand. A wavering speck. Then smaller. Even smaller." And then again with "The Professor of Atheism: Here Comes Another Lesson": "And gradually, to anyone looking up from the ground, he grows smaller and ever smaller, until finally he is such a tiny dot of light that he could just as well not exist." And finally, for a third time, with the cormorant in "Disappearance and": "Then the cormorant was only a bird in the blue. A tiny, horizontal wiggling. A trembling dot. Nothing." I mention this tendency in part because it is a good one, and he can use it as much or as little as he likes certainly, but I can't shed the feeling that its overuse says something of creative limitation, stuntedness. It's not as though the symbolism changes noticeably, in all its manifold possibilities, and is further developed / made new use of within the context of the three stories in which it appears. So I say, anyway.

I suppose I might go even further with various criticisms tending toward the negative, but I genuinely enjoyed O'Connor's collection. It's one of those things where I felt I must be forthcoming with all my misgivings, though. I suppose this problem is bigger than O'Connor, too, and he's not one of my top offenders in the realm of stymieing creativity via establishment-oriented writing. I guess I just hate to see good writers absorb some of these traits I don't like so very much.

AND . . .

I've been worrying over whether ruminating about something's being adequately creative is objective enough (if anything I write on this here blog is objective enough), then I decided that's kind of beside the point. What I take issue with I take issue with, and by that I mean: it bothers me in others' writing just as much as it bothers me in my own (and it bothers me when I spot it in my own. And I spot it in my own, often, bothersomely.). It's what I deem is taking the easy way out, the short cut home. Leaning on what you know because, hey, that's recognizable. People will identify with that. You could rightly argue that that's just my opinion, man, but then so is that yours, man or man-ette.

(P.S. - Put in less convivial, different terms, you can write anything you like as a writer, and you can like anything you read as a reader, but I don't have to be impressed by either of those things. I think I've made an adequate case for why that is.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Kafka Nightmares and Freud's Slips: Curtis White

Curtis White's writing is a lot like Franz Kafka's nightmares, i.e. the nightmares I envision Kafka having. I've never witnessed personally any of Kafka's nightmares, though an interesting idea -- oh, if I could (a tangent is building in my own mind, but I'll spare you that).

I like reading the Amazon.com reviews of books because sometimes you come across real gems of people not knowing what they were in for and thus being caught completely unprepared, then writing of their reaction to that. Here's one reader who did not get from Curtis White's "Memories of My Father Watching TV" what he had expected (which might also be the real genius of White's exceedingly innocuous-sounding, evocative title):

My 28 year old daughter gave me this for Father's Day because she knows I like old TV shows. I believe she had no idea about the content. I guess to be chartiable [sic] I will call this an artist's book about fathers.

Yes, well, in the strictest sense, yes, "Memories of My Father Watching TV" was a novel about fathers, skewed through the purview of a particularly humorous and morbid artist.

But, well, why is that such a negative thing? To this Amazonian.commer? If I'm dismissive and self-righteous I say he's a philistine. Maybe he is, but I choose not to be those things, at least whenever avoidable. And so instead I say White's abstract approach to old-time meat-and-potatoes television wasn't what this individual was looking for, and certainly not to the taste of his joie de vivre. (There now, I've certainly achieved full pomposity.) I also wonder if in the commentator's review there isn't a hint of resentment for his daughter's not investigating her gift more carefully. But that is getting beside the point, and I wouldn't ask you who read this to speculate about that without the entire context of the gentleman-in-question's whole review, which I flatly refuse to paste here. Because that would be exceedingly beside the point.

Weirdly, and since I'm culling from divergent, non-traditional sources already, the novel's back cover promotional synopsis reveals a little of what I would agree is more specifically than the preceding the essence of "Memories of My Father Watching TV":

Comic in many ways, Memories is finally a sad lament of a father-son relationship that is painful and tortured, displayed against the background of what they most shared, the watching of television, the universal American experience.
It's a lot like that if you remember to also include very graphic and sometimes incestuous descriptions of sexual intercourse, like think in terms of sex as a violent act. Because to be fair, doing it sometimes is just that, you know, violent. White relishes descriptions of said violence. In re-imagining the real-life television show "Maverick," which I'll make small claim to knowing anything about, he depicts "Blue Maverick," ostensibly tied to the character Bret Maverick played by James Garner (the blueness of White's Maverick having to do with conflating the television show with eastern Indian religion and, in specific, the god Vishnu, all falling into another area in which I will lay no claim of knowing much about), but anyway, in a scenario besting a villainous doppelganger disguised as his sister. How? Like this:

Blue Maverick, however, was quite aware that this was not really his sister Lila . . . and he sensed that her breasts flowed not with milk, but with deadly poison distilled in fact from the horns of a million murdered buffalo . . . Maverick closed his eyes and allowed the beautiful woman to take him on her lap as if he were her infant . . . but when she gave him her tit, Blue Maverick squeezed it between his powerful hands . . . "Whoa, honey, that's a little rough," she said . . . "Simmer down. You know, that can hurt a girl. That's sensitive business in your mitts there. Owee. OWWWEEEE!"
See? Violent! Of course not entirely sexual, but you get the idea. In fact, the weird infantilization and sexuality of the situation, brought together with the fact that Blue Maverick is in fact slaying this creature whatever she be, is itself an orgy of perversion that somehow clicked with me, if for no other reason than its obvious excess. It's like, of course he would kill this entity by robbing it of its life fluid, its poison milk.

And speaking of the novel on the whole, which a very fractured story it is, everything Oedipal is happily conflated in one fell swoop of patricide coupled with the / a protagonist's lecherous preference for his sister more than his mother. Mothers make very few appearances in this story, apparently avoided with purpose or else this conversation between siblings at novel's end is strangely coincidental:

Then Janey said, "What about Mom?"

"Where's Mom?"

"Where has she been all these years?"

"She never does anything with us."

"Let's wait for her."

"Hey, here she comes!"

Indeed it was Mom, hopping across the lawn, laughing, catching up.
If you've never tried a Curtis White story before, I suggest you whet your lack with this short, "The Order of Virility," available for your reading pleasure at, also deserving of mention, ero guro sensu lit magazine (You might recognize a lot of its current imagery as being from the David Cronenberg cult classic, "Scanners," which I just finally saw this past Halloween season for the first time ever! Famous head explosion and all!).

It treaded into Kafkaesque territory, you should know. Sorry to say it, but it did. It's when the father becomes a pontoon bridge on "Combat," and it's necessary for the Americans on the show to blow him to smithereens, to thwart the Nazis.

So is it television? Is it real life? Since Kafka is directly and indirectly referenced in several ways early on in this episode, I needn't endeavor at all to convince you he was, at least, on the author's mind, to whatever extent. For example, here is this explication, rife with questions put forth to and impelled from the reader:

Was my father's fervently held notion . . . that he was a pontoon bridge for the Nazis delusional? Was Gergor Samsa's depressed ideation ("I am a monstrous vermin") delusional? Or were these things metaphors? Is a metaphor a delusion? Does the probability of Franz Kafka's depression require us to think less of him as an artist?
I suppose I most like the question proposing Gregor Samsa is suffering from depression. Lots of fragmented miscellanea abounds, but I have to believe the philosophizing and speculation is with some literal purpose, at least at times. I gather White fancies misdirection and constant invocation of the slow-burning effluvium of an American mind (any mind really, but for the most part, the book deals with American TV). Life merged with TV becomes the reality. But even then, one has no active role in the unfurling action. Waiting. Only waiting. I'll spare you obvious literal rehashing of the fate of White's "father" in this episode. Know that he departs from his predicament no worse for wear, though, if that's something that can really be evaluated within the framework of a story like this one. It certainly seems, as a pontoon bridge, this father was himself unhappy, if not depressed. I would be.

There's not much more I can say of this book, which I liked. It's another frenzy of chaos, of the specter of television and whatever that specter did to assisting in dissolution of human-household relations, of the nuclear family. White's labyrinth here is, of course, not designed to answer questions; that much I can say for certain. It certainly raises questions, but what does it all mean? -- that's worthless here. Maybe 'cause who can say what this means? We've got the catalytic addition of the television and its postmodernity, which of course led the charge of the burgeoning multi-media dispensaries, which can't easily be understood as an effect. We just don't have enough to go on at the present lacuna. Time will tell, so stay tuned -- as if you really have a choice.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

He is Not Sidney Poitier

He is Not Sidney Poitier. That is, his name is "Not Sidney." WTF, LOL?

M-i-rite?

But seriously folks, this is a very unserious serious read, good and all that too. What's more, I'd count "I Am Not Sidney Poitier" among the funniest books I've read all year. And Percival Everett is my kind of fiction writer, equal parts Joseph Heller and Ishmael Reed, with certainly enough originality to be all his own (if you'll forgive me that cliche).

Still, that's not saying enough. Everett writes like he's not even trying; I don't mean he makes writing look effortless; but I do mean that it's as if writing this novel was as enjoyable for him as it is to read. Is there a greater issue buried in the obfuscation of subtext? Something to do, maybe, with the high-minded literary themes ascribed to Authors of the capital A variety. Possibly there is, but the novel is written in such a way that those themes, questions of race and identity, for example, are relegated to the side, and so are beside the point. The point is, as far as I can tell, amused bemusement.

Not Sidney is never certain of what to make of his world. Racially, he's of a historically marginalized and mistreated people. By inheritance, he is extremely wealthy if bizarrely named. And so before I say something like the novel speaks of a search for identity, I will preempt such ideas with the conclusion that it is about not identity. About the person and not the greater community to which one belongs. All of this incongruence seems to negate itself, as with the specifically relevant example of Not Sidney Poitier being named what he's named while profoundly resembling Sidney Poitier, as gets mentioned repeatedly by numerous characters, including Not Sidney, throughout the narrative. What of the outlier? Of the man without a country, a community, a place? Hard to say, Everett seems to say, but lets put him through a hilarious series of hellish turns and watch how that all pans out.

Spoiler-laden Plot Synops: Not Sidney is the product of a hysterical pregnancy. His mother is a savvy investor (despite her hysteria and other afflictions) who gets in on Turner Media investment early in the game, becoming massively wealthy in the process. She dies. Ted Turner has become friends with the family, and with no one else to see that Not Sidney is more or less looked after, Turner invites Not Sidney to live in Atlanta, in close proximity to Turner's estate. (He refuses the possible scrutiny of a "Webster" or "Diff'rent Strokes" - type situation by insisting that he will not adopt and take in Not Sidney as his own ward.)

Not (and I refuse to get into the fact that every use of "not" in this post isn't meant as a pun, unless otherwise stated, I guess) surprisingly Turner, as written by Everett, quickly becomes one of the story's best characters, irrespective of his limited involvement in the story on the whole.

Percival Everett himself, in a meta-fictional turn, makes an appearance as a character, as a self-deprecating professor at Morehouse College -- which is a school Not Sidney eventually buys his enrollment at for various reasons I won't bother to explain. Read the book if you want to know. True fact: Percival Everett is a real-life professor at University of Southern Cal, so says my copy of his novel. Pleonasm is the term for categorization of redundant expressions like "true fact," which itself falls under the umbrella of tautology, but forget all that.

Apropos of nothing in the way of plot, here's a noteworthy dialogue exchange involving all three characters, Not Sidney, Everett and Turner:

Ted looked at his thumb. "What do you call it when you get that painful bit of nail on the side of your cuticle and you can't help but push it up and make it hurt more and you never have a clipper with you?"

"I never knew what that was exactly. Is that what I'm supposed to call a hangnail?" Everett asked.

"I guess that's what you call it," Ted said.

"Your right, though. It is really annoying," Everett said. "I always get them before I'm about to have sex for some reason."

"Would you two shut up?" I said.
And that's the sort of defining irreverence that colors this bizarre plot, one that involves things like a strange form of hypnosis called Fesmerization, after its creator/discoverer, that Not Sidney finds and employs often, crimes Not Sidney does not commit, ass hole black fraternity members, racist redneck police officers, seductive history teachers, and a mostly despicable family of black Republicans.

Monday, October 25, 2010

An Introduction to My Tome of the Year, "J R"

Big Other pretty much inspired this post with Greg Gerke's report from halfway through William Gaddis' "The Recognitions." But it might also have been inevitable, considering "J R" is long enough that it warrants a halfway-through report in its own right. It's good, first thing. And then, also, it's hard to contain everything in just one epic post, so this is the first of however many it proves to warrant.

"J R" is my tome of the year, also. I most certainly may read other tomes in 2010 (I've acquired Adam Levin's "The Intstructions," which has a rather tome-ish quality accompanying its very many pages). But "J R" is the only one I've consciously set out to complete before year's end.

Now, works like "J R" are long and abstruse, which is true for a variety of reasons, though primarily this is because of characteristic disjointedness engendered by the great, near infinite many stylistic choices available to an inventive author. In that regard, I believe few people start out with a natural affinity for writers of an experimental bent. You kind of have to slog through them a little, find your rhythm, your own method for appreciating the experience of a more challenging literary endeavor, persevere a little. You acquire the taste. It's more a posteriori than a priori -- to finally reference Immanuel Kant on this here blog.

The Dalkey Archive Press has a great assortment of these type authors, lesser knowns than your Nabokovs, Pynchons, Ballards, Barthelmes, Barths, DeLillos, Calvinos, DFWallaces, and, yes, Gaddis (or is it Gaddi?). Two in specific I've enjoyed or am enjoying are David Markson and Curtis White. I'm also excited for Robert Coover's (and published by Dalkey Archive Press) "A Night at the Movies," since I had trouble getting going with "The Public Burning." Joseph McElroy is another writer whose work has been published with Dalkey whom I look forward to reading. Steven Millhauser is another. John Hawkes very possibly another still.

And my big overarching point is, while I see how people could find these authors and their stories disjointing and too abstract, they're wonderfully unusual is the real thing. Because they're unusual you might not know how to react at first, but that's why exposure is key, continued exposure and learning how to love that which does not come naturally (or necessarily easily). "Moby-Dick" is indisputably a classic novel, but it didn't get that way over night. It wasn't even the "Gravity's Rainbow" of its day, being that it was so often dismissed by its contemporaneous critics. From my Bantham Classics copy of Moby-Dick" was a notable scathing criticism. In the Atheneum, London, October 25, 1851 (just shy of 160 years ago, today): "Ravings and scraps of useful knowledge flung together salad-wise make a dish in which there may be much surprise, but in which there is little savour." Could this not be said of today's more unusual fictions? Read "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy, and you'll see what I mean, I think.

As to that notion's specific relevance to "J R," William Gaddis' National Book Award winning novel, here's a good quote to acquaint you with its flavor:

Gibbs: I worry about you sometimes, doesn't it ever occur to you to give up one or the other? the bank or the school? When you stop and . . .
Whiteback: Yes well of course the ahm, when I know which one of them is going to survive . . .
In a paltry few words: money and the miscarriage of its use factors into the story heavily.

Having thus made it half way, here are a couple observational items I've amassed so far:

1) As with "A Frolic of His Own," "J R"'s characters are constantly locked in a will-to-power struggle with one another in which the stronger personality seems (to lesser or greater extent) plainly evident, whether the dynamic is a hen-pecked husband and his wife, two colleagues of either sex, child(ren) and adult, and in any other permutative combination to be found therein. Which, to me, this gives the story a sense of the defining ethos of a fiscally driven world, a world driven by these power relations. People don't love; they shout to be heard, so that maybe they're remembered when it's time for the money to be made. If they cannot shout to be heard, then they probably didn't have anything valuable to say in the first place.

2) I like that I don't always understand / notice the characters' shifts, knowing who exactly is speaking. Gaddis became famous for writing novels of near-to-total dialogue, with almost no narration. Sometimes this is annoying, yes, as when I think I'm reading the thoughts of one character and in reality they are the thoughts of another, and so both characters get somewhat blurred. But mostly it's easy enough to delineate speakers. And the frenetic pacing that ensues is spectacular. The novel really gets going with some momentum, after the initial difficulty. It's like a freight train's slow methodical inertia back to life and, eventually, great speed. Like a train would be, it's then sometimes difficult to stop this momentum as the story takes you in.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Flowing a Tears My Policemen Says

Oh garsh, I hope you all are ready for another reeeview of Philip K. Dick, whom I have been reading like a firestorm eats trees with its fire. "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said," has perhaps the best title of all his novels, of his entire compendium and not just those I've read to date. And PKD is a writer who had many good titles, I think.

Now as for the content of this one, as much as I like the idea in general: in the not-too distant future (or past, if you're going by its setting in 1988), a well known and beloved TV personality and genetically superior human being (due to certain bioengineered alterations that gave him the classification "6," a status repeatedly mentioned throughout the story, in opposition to "ordinaries" or the average "little" people) named Jason Taverner, possessing 30 million fans and counting, awakens after being gruesomely attacked to discover neither signs of his injuries nor having any recollection of how he has gotten to where he is, a seedy motel room. He quickly learns that only a day has passed, so say the newspapers he can find; he therefore deduces that he has not been comatose, not for any significant length of time. He also apparently has no identity whatsoever, which he discovers to his great discomfiture as he further investigates his situation. In fact it's much worse; it's as if he has never existed at t'all. So as I say, as much as I like the idea in general, it just didn't cohere for me as well as PKD novels typically do.

Why?

This is an issue of plot mostly. Normally the abstraction of whatever impetus is destroying / driving mad a PKDian protagonist is cleanly (or satisfactorily at least) brought together -- as is usually the case with, for example, genre mystery novels. In fact, "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said" might share the most similarities with mystery / detective novels of the PKD's I've yet read (although I've seen the film "Blade Runner" so I gather he had that bent), and that might also be where it runs afoul in my estimation, likewise. I felt that Taverner's situation deserved a ton of very clear explication that established how such a thing could happen in a plausible enough way, i.e. the very malleable rules of sci-fi and PKD himself are stretched (fine) but remain unbroken in bringing the narrative full circle.

But that's not how Taverner's plight is explained. Instead [SPOILAGE ALERT! Lots of Spoilers from this point onward (Though I shouldn't need to say it; these were obviously forthcoming)] Taverner and everyone else who dwells in the first world is, by process of a drug-induced fantasy in which a user can literally re-imagine every other living person's perception (at great physical detriment to him or herself), transported to a new state of consciousness, in which Taverner's being a common man is at its crux. The drug user was motivated to do so by her desire to meet Taverner in real life, himself unbound by the trappings of fame. Yes, this effect is a mind fuck, but I can't escape the fact that there is no drug in the world (or any other) that is capable of more than destruction of a single consciousness.

(New-related-thought update (10/23/10): I mean, put another way, I just can't shake the feeling that PKD could have done better with this one. I just think his imaginative prowess wasn't made full use of, that with a little more creative oomph I would have enjoyed "Flow My Tears" all so much better.

So now I ask . . .

Am I grounding myself in narrative rigidity, rigidity by which the boundaries of fiction can't or shouldn't be withheld? Might I take the transference of one and all from the tangible hallucination (or whatever it can be called) of the user in a different light? Is it perhaps meant to showcase, I dunno, say that there is a solipsism to this, that in effect a new world was conjured from the old, and that in no way can it be perceived that any of these characters are the literal incarnations of their previous' dimension's selves but rather wholly new, a new world has been created? Yes, that's possible but a lot to extract from what's offered in the text, despite the depth of detail PKD provides for explanation of the drug's effect.

Of course the woman who uses the drug is ultimately killed by it. Her intense two-day long bender had her expending a preternatural amount of energy that fatally sapped her of her life force. And in a sense Taverner is blamed for this, as he finally meets the woman and is at the scene when she finally succumbs to her fate. Once she is gone, Taverner's fame begins slowly to return to the minds of the world's population (one wonders at this, why did Taverner escape forgetting who he was (i.e. famous) right along with the rest of humanity at narrative's outset -- a less interesting plot turn, perhaps).

What's most interesting about the preceding is how little it seems to factor into the story's bigger questions. All the while, in an atypical portrayal of a police-state villain, General Felix Buckman is following the exploits of Jason Taverner. He is made aware of all of Taverner's attempts to procure some form of identity so Taverner can thus avoid being sent to a forced labor camp (facilities put in place as a means of incarcerating the population of students who were apparently responsible for an uprising that led to a second civil war; they lose, ostensibly, and are left to hidden dwellings beneath the university campuses, but none of this factors into the plot terribly much).

Buckman eventually decides it's necessary to pin the crime of murder to Taverner (for plot reasons I'll avoid getting into because at this point it would be, like, why read the book yourself? Which is something I want to compel you to do, i.e. read it for yourself). But he wrestles with his conscience constantly, making him a far cry from O'Brien of "1984" fame. In debating the matter with himself Buckman finally decides that Taverner was doomed before the whole thing got its start, from the moment he was brought to the attention of the state, as he says in the following quote:

And I could never explain it to you, Buckman thought. Except to say: don't ever come to the attention of the authorities. Don't ever interest us. Don't make us want to know more about you.
It's a prescient thought. One that I would say is entirely relevant to contemporary America, especially when you consider Taverner's celebrity status. The even more remarkable detail is that, ultimately, Taverner is not convicted of the crime. He gets off scot free, in fact. Although it's never said, one wonders if this is because of his celebrity. If a lesser man had been accused, a non-celebrity without Taverner's good bioengineered grooming, would he have been so fortunate? Makes you wonder, but not terribly hard. Leads you rather quickly to the conclusion that no, the lesser man would not have been as fortunate.

So don't come to the state's attention, sure, but if you do you'd better be famous. I think that pretty much distills the story to its most essential element. Maybe you don't have to read it anymore, after all!

Good night, for now...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Nabokov's Memory Speaks To Me, "Speak, Memory" Speak!

It bears mentioning that Vladimir Nabokov has in less than a year's time become one of my top five favorite authors. Honestly, I couldn't imagine listing my favorites without his inclusion. He's just that good, that indefinable. He's a historical weirdo (in the best sense). He wrote things that a man of his ostensible literary decorum should never have written (of which "Lolita" is merely the best known example, and a strange novel to be sure). Also, to begin, this post will be riddled with excerpts and, so, oodles of spoilers. You have been warned.

"Speak, Memory" is more a memoir than a work of fiction. I welcomed the opportunity to get a clearer glimpse of the personal life of this preeminent and unusual 20th century author, however fleeting a glimpse his "Speak, Memory" affords. And though not terribly long, a mere 240 pages, it turned out to be loaded with memory gems, even if one must wonder how possibly those gems were embellished by poetic license and the need to fill in gaps of time obscured. Although Nabokov does end his memoir with a rather poetic epitaph, which runs both contrary to my considered opinion and, to a certain extent, in concert with it (as such will be the case with writers, romantically capricious writers):

The garden was what the French call, phonetically, skwarr and the Russians skver, perhaps because it is the kind of thing usually found in or near public squares in England. Laid out on the last limit of the past and on the verge of the present, it remains in my memory merely as a geometrical design which no doubt I could easily fill in with the colors of plausible flowers, if I were careless enough to break the hush of pure memory that (except, perhaps, from some chance tinnitus due to the pressure of my own tired blood) I have left undisturbed, and humbly listened to, from the beginning.
I might also mention that my copy of "Speak, Memory" literally fell apart as I read it, which I decided was completely appropriate given the subject matter. I feel Nabokov would have wanted it that way. Like the beliefs of many east Asian traditions, Nabokov seems with his anecdotes to repeatedly suggest nothing lasts forever, no matter how "good" or "valuable" it may be. Certainly, it was a worthy tangible adjutant to his telling of losing Russia, following the revolution and the fall of interim liberal government of Kerensky and the duma, in which Russian government his father was active.

Brian Boyd's very good "Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years" has rapidly proven a great companion piece to "Speak, Memory," in which biography Boyd notes, ". . . unlike his egomaniacal narrators, his Hermanns and his Kinbotes, he does not assume that his life, because it is his, ought to be of interest or concern to others." Boyd also seems comfortable enough assuming the veracity of Nabokov's memories, which I like this tack as another way of interpreting the text, taking its truth on a kind of aesthetic faith that transcends what might be knowable. Certain biographical notes about Nabokov are extant in public record, especially those concerning his father, Vladimir Dimitrievich Nabokov, the Russian liberal politician, who was an outspoken critic of both the Czar and Bolshevism. And, for the sake of argument and a complete disinclination to get into the finer points of New Historicism, I will join Boyd in accepting "the truth" of Nabokov's memoir and his recollections. A better way of putting it is, I believe the memoir comprises events Nabokov believed happened as he remembered them. There was no purposeful

Nabokov devotes an entire chapter to his governess, Mademoiselle, a Swiss woman who spoke only French. He prefaces the chapter with exposition like, "I have often noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it." He goes on to then note, ". . . the portrait of my old French governess, whom I once lent to a boy in one of my books, is fading fast, now that it is engulfed in the description of a childhood entirely unrelated to my own." -- which I think that's an especially fascinating depiction of how an author culls from his personal experiences, and how those lived experiences, in transference to fiction, lose something of their personal authenticity, are thus rendered distant and intangible, emigres of consciousness. He concludes his preface deftly, I think: "The man in me revolts against the fictionist, and here is my desperate attempt to save what is left of poor Mademoiselle."

Here's one particularly humorous anecdote concerning the French -- and only French -- speaking Mademoiselle at the dinner table, who labors to get a French word in edgewise amidst the cacophony of indecipherable Russian (apparently it was a common problem, but should not have been entirely surprising considering she lived in Russia and worked for Russians):

Little by little the truth would come out. The general talk had turned, say, on the subject of the warship my uncle commanded, and she had perceived in this a sly dig at her Switzerland that had no navy.
To be sure, Nabokov candid is a strange reading experience. His lamentations of his early writing (akin to Thomas Pynchon disparaging his own apprentice efforts in "Slow Learner") are often hilariously self-deprecating, as I think is well evidenced with this following excerpt and the analogy therein:

It did not occur to me then that far from being a veil, those poor words were so opaque that, in fact, they formed a wall in which all one could distinguish were the well-worn bits of the major and minor poets I imitated. Years later, in the squalid suburb of a foreign town, I remember seeing a paling, the boards of which had been brought from some other place where they had been used, apparently, as the inclosure of an itinerant circus. Animals had been painted on it by a versatile barker; but whoever had removed the boards, and then knocked them together again, must have been blind or insane, for now the fence showed only disjointed parts of animals ( some of them, moreover, upside down) -- a tawny haunch, a zebra's head, the leg of an elephant.
And, with his jejune Petrarchen fixation:

It seems hardly worth while to add that, as themes go, my elegy dealt with the loss of a beloved mistress -- Delia, Tamara or Lenore -- whom I had never lost, never loved, never met but was all set to meet, love, lose.
Or recalling his experiences at Cambridge, playing soccer with his Cambridge compatriots, but all the while musing on something very different, and, self-indulgent:

. . . [T]hink[ing] of my self as of a fabulous exotic being in an English footballer's disguise, composing verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew. Small wonder I was not very popular with my teammates.
His eventual forced exile from Russia, which was pretty heavy with harrowing experiences that mottled the trek to western Europe.

We had a shotgun and a Belgian automatic; and did our best to pooh-pooh the decree which said that anyone unlawfully possessing firearms would be executed on the spot.
Still, once again he finds good ways to describe the naive and inchoate figure he cut in humorous ways, with for example the following (describing his wandering a train station platform at one of its stops on his voyage to Crimea, which had not yet fallen to Soviet hands after the October coup):

Had I been one of the tragic bums who lurked in the mist of that station platform where a brittle young fop [i.e. Nabokov] was pacing back and forth, I would not have withstood the temptations to destroy him.
But the memoir gets particularly strange when Nabokov references Sirin, and "Among the young writers produced in exile he turned out to be the only major one." Sirin's earliest works were forgettable, according to Nabokov, only getting truly worthy of reading at "Invitation to a Beheading" and "Luzhin's Defense" but then ". . . Sirin passed, to use a simile of a more conservative nature, like a meteor, and disappeared, leaving nothing much else behind him than a vague sense of uneasiness." Never heard of Sirin the major author? Well, he was Nabokov and Nabokov was he. "Sirin" was Nabokov's nom de plume in the European literary world (Berlin and France), or "V. Sirin" more precisely. You might call this a pretentious scene, then, self-indulgent to say the least. And in that you might be correct, but I think Nabokov's pretentiousness or maybe, more fairly said, elitism is a part of his incongruous writer-aspect that makes him so enjoyable to read. Certainly, it's entertaining to hear what he thinks of other writers both of the past and contemporaneous to himself, but it's further entertaining to see how he views (even past incarnations of) his authorial persona.

As Boyd notes:

Nabokov describes his life in terms of his helical version of Hegel's triad, as "a colored spiral in a small ball of glass": his first twenty years in Russia form the thesis, the next twenty-one of emigration the antithesis, his years in America the synthesis (and, as he would later add in the revised Speak, Memory, a new thesis).
So pretentious though it may well be (and how many great writers / artists other than George Saunders are at least a smidge pretentious?), it also makes sense in the context of this greater notion of how his life has been broken into discrete sections of three a la Hegel's triad (apparently more accurately attributed to Fichte, so says wiki). Who doesn't feel like a vastly different person than the one they were ten years ago or fifteen or twenty or more? (I confess I haven't lived quite long enough to make this as compelling as it could be.) If you don't, you probably should, just saying (especially true as I continue my observation of high school students, on my path to becoming a teacher).

Thus my love for Nabokov, again, a strange figure, only grows fuller with this read. More needs to be said of him, and all in due time. Adieu for the meanwhile. Adieu, adieu for now and auf wiedersehen, Nabokov.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Your "The Intuitionist" -- A 10/10/10 Post

I hate when a book fails to live up to your expectations. I think every active reader has experienced this letdown, and either decides to give up on the novel in toto, before any more disheartenment can occur, or trudge through it with the (often vain) hope that it will somehow be redeemed as the narrative is given time to more fully reveal itself. Sadly, overall, this is how I met Colson Whitehead's "The Intuitionist." It wasn't my cup of tea (tea drinker that I am). The novel didn't improve with further reading, either, regrettably.

Here's the deal. As "race" things go, I'm a pluralist. I'm pro all inclusion. Does that mean I become uncomfortable when discussions on race devolve into discussions of the problems presented by various races' presence in, say, America? Yes, it does make me uncomfortable, as it should make everyone feel but for some reason doesn't always do that, make everyone uncomfortable. People functioning thoughtlessly and with an eye only for their own selfish and self-centered lives also make me uncomfortable. I'll hear them out, and I won't necessarily argue my feelings with them (when I do, it's usually only delicately and in a way that's not likely to spark greater confrontation), especially when it's clear there's little to be gained from trying to dissuade someone of his or her hard-and-fast beliefs, much as you disagree. Point is, I've read enough authors (for one example of ways you might diversify your life experience) of all persuasions to know humans are equal, as those things go. Each race has its intelligent people and its less than intelligent people. Those arguing the supremacy of their own race over others or all others tend to fall in the latter camp, whether white or black or whoever. That is, it tends to be true, the less intelligent are more inclined to bigotry, though I don't mean to offend bigots of all races and creeds with that avowal. Some of you might just be incredibly egocentric, not necessarily stupid, for all I know.

So what was the point of stating all that I did in the preceding paragraph? Well, just that I SHOULD have liked "The Intuitionist." Or at least, I was very open to liking it (see Jonathan Franzen's analogous gripe with William Gaddis (although I disagree with Franzen's thesis, which I will touch on when I touch on William Gaddis)). It's also a novel that very specifically concerns race. The setting is an alternate universe in which race relations in the United States haven't changed much since the era of the Jim Crow South and the subsequent Civil Rights Movement (the assumption being: what would the world be like without that movement and the reforms it enacted?). Blacks are marginalized and only thought of, when they're thought of at all, in derogatory terms. It's an interesting premise, and I especially enjoyed the role elevators play in defining the characters. But ultimately my lasting feelings toward it could be described as follows, it was too darkly satirical to be taken as farce but too disjointed and grim to be taken as contributing something inventive and perceptibly applicable to the discussion of race in the late nineties (when it was published) and beyond.

The story follows Lila Mae Watson, the city's (which city was never specifically named but presumably it is a stand-in for New York) first ever black female elevator inspector. The city itself is corrupt and out of control but also feels austere, as its constant reference to elevators seems to have both the positive and negative aspect of providing clear and ceaseless vision of a concrete-laden landscape, a jagged skyline of high towers, nearly barren of organic life and certainly overarchingly dystopian. From the vantage we're afforded as readers, this world seems obsessed with debate over the two competing schools of elevator inspection, Empiricism and Intuitionism. (Lila Mae Watson herself subscribes to the latter school of thought.) And behind Intuitionism is a reclusive scholar named James Fulton whose passing coincides with Watson's attendance of the most prestigious elevator inspection academy in the country, whereat Fulton had prior to his death resided. Thus the two cross paths ever so briefly.

The rub of the story, meanwhile, is the failure of elevator 11 in the Fannie Briggs Memorial Building, a confirmed total free fall that occurs most inopportunely as The Mayor and the current Elevator Guild Chair Frank Chancre were among an entourage showing off the building to French diplomats. Watson was the last inspector to inspect the Fannie Briggs Building, putting a target squarely on her back. And so the story takes on a noir quality, mystery and dark alleys and the mob seemingly having a hand in the events that follow. Intuitionism seems to be under fire, as Chancre is an empiricist up for imminently approaching re-election. Furthermore, it's suspected by numerous factions that Fulton had completed another work, they refer to it as "Fulton's black box," which they believe will change how intuitionism is perceived, a "game changer" you might say.

Lila Mae Watson, as a character, never quite feels three-dimensional to me. I felt myself waiting throughout the story for some kind of apotheosis that simply does not come. It's not that she's largely the same person she was at the start of the novel by its end that bothers me; its that she never seems to be an individual of much flavor at all. Words I might describe her with, "independent," "guarded," deliberate," "intuitive," "lonely" and "smart." Never passionate, however, which is the one thing I think might have saved her character. I wanted her to care about her actions more visibly, but she seems more spectator than actor throughout the novel, going through the motions even when she reacted decisively in some fashion.

Its [spoiler alert] biggest revelations were somewhat confused, e.g. from the novel: "White people's reality is built on what things appear to be -- that's the business of Empiricism." Of course, white people were also intuitive, to be counted among those of the school of Intuitionism. But even these characters assume a villainous aspect as the story progresses. And you could argue turning all white people into the oppressive "the man" of blaxsploitation a la Shaft is perfectly legit and reasonable. But I never got the sense that that was Whitehead's intent, although neither did I get the sense that Whitehead was singling whites out as villains. No, instead it struck me as something in between, something incoherent, a hybrid of those two possibilities, and again, as I see it, poorly executed.

There's just very little clarity, as if the author himself wasn't sure of this story. What does Whitehead want from his novel? Anything? Nothing? I suppose in that sense it's interesting. The story leaves you intuiting that the world is breaking towards change, but little else leading up to this description impels you to feel that way. (Still more interesting, what might this change be in manifest? What's ideal for a society resting on so much unrest and misunderstanding? Certainly that question is applicable to our present day American circumstances, in which accusations of racism are invoked by all sides, no?)

I might also mention the character Natchez or the competing elevator manufacturers like Arbo, with a stake in Fulton's black box. But none of it moved me terribly much, and when the ending finally began to pull itself together few of the reveals were especially compelling, and were not terribly surprising.

Still, the book has its moments, and Whitehead is a fine writer. I imagine I might like his work, just did not here. Maybe somewhere and at sometime I will? Time will tell if intuition can't . . .