Saturday, October 30, 2010

He is Not Sidney Poitier

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


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.


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 . . .

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Moving Towards "Untoward"

My plan is to begin an online literary magazine before the end of the year. I believe I've mentioned this plan before, so you might as well call this a progress report. It has a name, the site does. It will be, simply, Untoward. I like the word "untoward" and I think it denotes the general vision I have for the site.

What exactly is the general vision, then?

Well, might as well unveil that, too. It's providing literary fiction of a more humor-driven bent. I blanch a bit at saying "humor-driven" because there's a perceptible, if not prevailing, attitude that humor is ancillary to great fiction, not central. Well, despite that I think some of the best novels out there have humor at their heart, saying "humor-driven bent" is not to say other principle elements of fiction don't count or will be viewed as needing no presence in submissions whatsoever, that with this effort I intend solely to bring another version of "McSweeney's Internet Tendency" or some such to the table. No, my hope is that this site will satisfy an unsatisfied niche group of readers and those writers whose fiction isn't obviously placeable within the delineation of any of the numerous literary websites out there in . . . cyberspace.

How may humor form and inform the other elements of fiction? Think Vonnegut, Kafka, Nabokov, Joseph Heller, William Gaddis, David Foster Wallace and more. Contemporaries like George Saunders, Pynchon, DeLillo, Lorrie Moore, Etgar Keret, Adam Levin and Patrick Somerville. These writers are funny in transcendent and complex ways, and their humor often is an attempt at more than just getting a rise out of their readership, amusing for purely amusement's sake. Humor can be densely complex while it's also profoundly hilarious. Unpack it a little, see why this is. So despite that I've read and thoroughly enjoyed many of cyberspace's websites' fiction, I don't think any one of those adequately satisfies the niche I describe, and neither do the big printeds -- no, not even McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.

In any event, Untoward will satisfy my own selfish, personal need, which is to provide a place for my fiction and the fiction I tend to gravitate to. But my feeling is that there are others who'll fit right in, in the community I seek to establish with this effort. Obviously I've read others whose fiction is my kind of fiction, and I'm sure those writers have inspired many others. I want one and all to submit, known writers and unknowns alike. I welcome it wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Horselover Fat Returns "The Game-Players of Titan"-Style

Horselover Fat is Philip K. Dick's alter-ego in "VALIS," which is not completely unlike Kilgore Trout ... if Kurt Vonnegut had written about Kilgore Trout after many, many years of sustained and hard drug use. As for "VALIS," well, I haven't gotten to "VALIS" yet, still a few more novels by Philip K. Dick to read until I'm fully prepared for its ass-kicking narrative (they say), but I continue to look forward to reading it.

Presently, I've just finished "The Game-Players of Titan." One thing I like -- and I'm a man known for his liking things -- is there's not much use in guessing where a Philip K. Dick story is headed. He can change it up on you at a moment's caprice (it seems capricious for its irregularity). Maybe it's more planned than I know. But from what I've heard said, "The Game-Players of Titan" is anything but a clearly and finely contrived novel. So let's see if I might determine more, by finding out more about it, and thus knowing more. (It's a fairly simple process.)

...And I return from my frustrating, not terribly well-conceived Internet surf of "The Game-Players of Titan." Simple process? Not so much as it first seemed. Most of what I found was criticism wanting only to tear down "The Game-Players" in favor of other PKD novels or simply provide plot synopsis, which is useful to those people who haven't read the novel and want it ruined -- but not useful to me and my purposes.

Maybe I'm lazy and "not good" at surfing the web, but I was expecting something more substantial in terms of biographical information about the high profile PKD's work behind his work. What factors of note led to the conception of "The Game-Players of Titan"? Rumor has it he created the novel on a very short schedule, some three or four days, stopping each night and resuming the next day with renewed effort and a slightly shifted direction. Even if that's not how "The Game-Players of Titan" came to be, it is how it feels it came to be. There is something fascinating about the way the story stops and leaps forward throughout various points of the narrative. Pete Garden, the main character or central focus, is a very different man by the novel's completion. Or so it seemed to me.

In fact, the novel doesn't seem to get going until these twists, or leaps, in narrative take their first turn. To plot rehash so you have a basis for understanding everything after, the story concerns several characters living in a post-apocalyptic Earth, ravaged by the damaging effects and after effects of a Hinkel Radiation created by Bernhardt Hinkel whose weapon was acquired by the Red Chinese and via satellite used against the United States. However, the entire world lost because the Hinkel Radiation waves couldn't be contained and decimated all life on Earth.

Where we begin is in a world that has about two million or so inhabitants and of those inhabitants, for reasons no doubt related to the radiation (and / or possibly something more nefarious), only select combinations of individuals are able to produce viable offspring. (They thus constantly rotate spouses in hopes of finding a partner with whom this is possible.) Meanwhile, aliens from Saturn's moon, Titan, have intervened and enticed the remaining human population to gamble for control of huge tracts of land, say in city-size increments. For example, Pete Garden has just lost Berkley, CA, to his great dismay, as the story opens. These property holders are then referred to as bindmen. Apparently the Titanians themselves are huge proponents of the power of chance, which impels their decision to foist gambling on humans as their preferred and curious method of reconstruction.

Humorously and inscrutably, the game Earthlings are set against each other nightly to play in the battle for global supremacy is fairly simple, and sounded to me like a combination of the Candyland and Monopoly. I think perhaps PKD purposely made the game rather unexciting, because its a hilariously banal anchor in the screaming chaos of the narrative revolving around it.

Is there murder? Yes. Precognition? yuh-huh! Telepathy? A fair bit. Aliens from Saturn's moon, Titan, who are also called vugs and who materialize in strange places? And how!

I read in one review that this is not a PKD to start your PKD journey with, that it is "for completists" only. I suppose you might be better served beginning any of those they suggest, having read two of three and starting on the third, but skip it if you're not a "completist"? Perish the thought! As said, this novel is great for its inscrutability and chaos, its failure to be completely straightforward. And if you ask me, all things considered I'd say it ties together fairly well at the end (I have but one real point of confusion, which might be adequately well cleared up and is only a minor complaint, anyway).

"The Game-Players of Titan" is for readers who enjoy PKD, period. Suck on that, Infinity Plus!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"The Instructions" by Adam Levin is COOOOMMMMIIIINNNGGG Soon to me!

Adam Levin is an author floating dangerously under the radar these days. My feeling is that will change with McSweeney's recent publication of his massive first novel, "The Instructions." It's getting called all sorts of things, as press releases and et cetera are wont to put forth, to build positive word of mouth and so forth, one imagines. (I think if you write a novel that exceeds 600 pages and you're under 40 years old you should just expect to be compared to David Foster Wallace, even if in no other way does your work resemble the late great DFW's.) I don't know. All I know is, I expect Levin will bring something decidedly different to the table, all his own. I don't get the impression he's the sort of author who writes a book of this staggering size without having something to say. He's too on the level from what I've heard from and of him to be that kind of self-indulgent. And he has written some wicked short fiction. Don't believe me? Fine. I don't care. I have bought "The Instructions," in any event. I am excited by what its reading may yield.

In related news, I've bought a slough of books lately, of which "The Instructions" is merely one I'm especially excited for. Others I'm similarly excited for (or I would not have bought them) are Patrick Somerville's upcoming "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature," Joseph McElroy's "A Smuggler's Bible," Curtis White's "Memories of My Father Watching TV," and Percival Everett's "I Am Not Sidney Poitier." Oh and Philip K. Dick, always Philip K. Dick. My thoughts on all of these authors and more will be forthcoming, I assure you. Thanks for your patience, small and loyal readership I've imagined for myself.

Know that I love you all very much, what is more!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Jonathan Safran Foer's About Wrapped Up My Enthusiasm for "Top 20 Under 40" Novels / Writing

"Everything is Illuminated" seemed not to work exactly the way it could have, and might have, if Jonathan Safran Foer wrote his novel in a way that synced with my tastes and made me want to read more of his writing.

If, for instance, Alex was written less cloyingly and didn't remind me of Balki Bartokomous of the '80s sitcom "Perfect Strangers," with all the pair's shared imprecise English diction and turns of phrase. If, for instance, the entire plot didn't strike me as ground already trodden in more interesting ways, which is entirely subjective, true, but my subjectivity compels me to say it anyway. If he hadn't write his novel with nearly identical structural similarities to those of his wife's "The History of Love." If his only other story I'd heretofore encountered, "Here We Aren't, So Quickly," hadn't made me want to pull my hair out so quickly (which is part of why I'm more forgiving of Nicole Krauss' complicity in making her novel structurally similar to JSF's, if this was indeed a purposeful act perpetrated by either or both of them, which I concede it probably wasn't purposeful but still rubs me the wrong way; I liked Krauss' "The Young Painters").

I was told, as I mention in my post on "The History of Love," to read Jonathan Safran Foer after finishing Krauss' novel, because their writing in a multitude of ways seems very mutually influenced, or maybe one has exercised much more influence over the other. If that were the case it would likely be Jonathan Safran Foer whose "Everything is Illuminated" came before "The History of Love," but then not before Krauss' "Man Walks into A Room," so who knows? I haven't read the latter book, though I might.

Point is, comparing "The History of Love" to "Everything is Illuminated" proved an easy task. Weird idiosyncratic and sometimes-to-always idiomatic English put forth by an Eastern European? Check, i.e. Alex Perchov and Leo Gursky / Misha. Holocaust love story around which each narrative turns? Check. Inquisitive youth in present day trying to discern the true story about and details of said Holocaust love story? CHECK, i.e. Jonathan and Alma. Story broken down into chapters told from various points of view of previously mentioned similar characters, plus chapters detailing extraneous bits of information in third person narration about Holocaust love story? Extremely CHECK, i.e. back story of Trachimbrod and Litvinoff's "The History of Love." Even the younger brothers of Alex and Alma are similar, possessing unusual cognomens, i.e. Little Igor and Bird.

There are surely more similarities, but I'm tired of addressing them all. These I think shall suffice. More to the point, does it matter that a husband and wife each wrote a novel that is similar to the other's? No, or at least it's easy to argue it doesn't matter at all, especially if the quality of the writing is good and the story is told effectively. Bottom line? Safran Foer's novel didn't do it for me. This, and so much of what all I write about here, is largely opinion based. In fact, we could get into the real abstraction of certainty (which I've been avidly reading Ludwig Wittgenstein's "On Certainty"), and how even the so-called empirical sciences could, if parsed by their semantical meaning, could be rendered products of subjectivity just the same as the gray area of literary inference, but that might get impossibly beside the point and also possibly drive me insane. Instead, I'll acknowledge precisely how much my own opinion has led me to feel that "Everything is Illuminated" simply does not work, isn't to my tastes. Parts of it were amusing, to Safran Foer's credit. And I refuse to say he's untalented. He is. I just think his talent is misused here.

Also, I really didn't like "Here We Aren't, So Quickly" -- which this story struck me as the kind of pretentious work one will churn out in a highly pretentious MFA creative writing program, if you want to know.

As for thoughts lingering about the "Top 20 Under 40": I fully intend to read Chris Adrian's "Gob's Grief." I have it in my possession and it seems like a very interesting first time attempt, which I might then juxtapose with "Everything is Illuminated." See how these narratives might then be tied together, alle zusammen richtig ist!