Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Overcoat and Other Stories 'n' Stuff

My 19th century Russian literature kick remains in full force, and lately it's because of Nikolai Gogol, a funny writer who died a most unfunny death. I mean, I ask you, friends, where would literature be today without the line, "Strangely enough. I also at first took him for a gentleman. But fortunately I had my glasses with me and I saw at once that it was a nose."

In fact, that line is probably less funny out of its context, which is Gogol's short story "The Nose" -- the tale of a roguish nose who leaves the body of a collegiate assessor named Kovalyov, a man who holds himself in no small esteem, and assumes (the nose does) the identity of a gentleman scholar with the prestigious rank of a state councillor. And this over seventy years before Kafka first published "The Metamorphosis."

Gogol in all of his stories is ably able to demonstrate / undermine the stupidity and ineffectuality of convention and social hierarchy. If "The Overcoat" can teach us but one lesson -- I believe that it can -- then it's don't be a dick to a guy just because he looks really very beneath you, or maybe you'll have to face his ghost and repent for your misdeeds, or maybe you won't. Who knows what happens in "The Overcoat"? I mean, I do, but that's beside the point.

The point really is Gogol was a pioneering force, and it's hard to imagine those writers who seemingly followed in his absurdist footsteps didn't at least acquaint themselves with one of Gogol's short stories in their lifetimes. I can't be sure of course. And obviously Franz Kafka is one clear example, but there is no shortage of others -- the playwrights of the Theater of the Absurd, for example: Ionesco and "Rhinoceros," Beckett and "Waiting for Godot" and Albee and "The Zoo Story" -- to name only a few. Albert Camus' "The Plague" seems to have Gogolian quality about it. Even Herman Melville, who's probably the least likely of those listed to ever have ever read or even heard of Gogol, wrote stories that Gogol would likely have been impressed by, with similarly Gogolian themes, like my personal favorite, "Bartleby, The Scrivener."

Gogol satirized the powerful forces of society in a way befitting a precursor to the Modern and Postmodern literature eras of 20th century (+ beyond) literature, remarking on the folly of such traditionalist mentalities that made no attempt to appreciate the deeper nature to man. He understood hypocrisy, and he very well understood the pernicious effect of putting on airs, to both the subordinate and the so-called master, especially in the area of practical matters and being allowed to live freely.

One particularly poignant scene, which evidences some of what I wrote about above, belonging to Gogol appears in his narrator's describing "the prominent personage" (italics his) of "The Overcoat" -- a man enjoined by that story's protagonist, Akakii Akakievich, to assist him -- a humble copywriter -- in requesting police investigation of the matter of his stolen and highly expensive overcoat. The scene in question describes "the prominent personage" contemplating his sometimes felt desire to engage in conversation with men of lower rank, viz. :

In his eyes, there was sometimes visible a desire to join some interesting conversation and circle; but he was held back by the thought, Would it not be a very great condescension on his part? Would it not be familiar? and would he not thereby lose his importance? And in consequence of such reflections, he remained ever in the same dumb state, uttering only occasionally a few monosyllabic sounds, and thereby earning the name of the most tiresome of men.
I don't know what more to say except that, damn traditions can make fools of us all, if performed only in ceremony and without thought for the value (if any exists) to be found in so doing. Gogol was right!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Humanity Has a Nasty Habit of Falling

Reading Albert Camus is a little like being lectured by a hypocrite who's not actually a hypocrite, because it's that you just don't understand that he isn't one. That's the problem. As with the fulsome and sometimes didactic narrator of "The Stranger," "The Fall" and its vocal representation, going by the handle Jean-Baptiste, illustrate all that is wrong with the individual and all that is wrong with the world as viewed through his individual eyes, which aren't narrow but open to the vast gravity of our failure to understand what we are.

I wouldn't presume to think that the narrator of "The Fall" was a stand-in for Camus himself, and somehow I'm certain he isn't even slightly. This isn't for any philosophical reason, any reason in the character's mien that's departing markedly from the school of thought with which Camus is most often affiliated, existentialism. It's rather the wry quality to all that the narrator chooses to elucidate for his one-man audience, someone whom we readers begin to feel is us, convinced of the affected charismatic prose of the speaker as I was, I felt also very taken in by him and in a good way (if that's possible). I don't consider my feeling so mixed-up to be coincidental, either.

I imagine it was all part of some plan hatched by Camus when writing this. Man is inert, is dysfunctional, is finding fault in others by the contrived means of putting forth all he or she has done wrong, then allowing that to become true of all mankind, thus beguiling us by the slight of hand of pleading guilt by association. Notions like the one who speaks loudest has at his disposal what's most worth being said:

He declared the need for a new pope who should live among the wretched instead of praying on a throne, and the sooner the better . . . and in a dull voice said that we must choose among us, pick a complete man with his vices and virtues and swear allegiance to him, on the sole condition that he should agree to keep alive, in himself and in others, the community of our sufferings. "Who among us," he asked, "has the most failings?" As a joke, I raised my hand and was the only one to do so. "O.K., Jean-Baptiste will do." . . . He declared at least that nominating oneself as I had done presupposed also the greatest virtue and proposed electing me.
So much of what's said here reminds me of political business in all time periods, when walls are taken down as we construct new ones modeled on equally faulty ideas. Frivolity such as that a man who nominates himself must then also presuppose possessing "the greatest virtue," and do so without much in the way of deliberation -- that it's a decision made because it's easier to follow the one who seems to understand the joke, even when you do not, and even when it's possible, if not likely, that the joke's being played on you.

That's what "The Fall" does so well.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

That's Not the "Snow White" I Remember

For the last few days I've been working out what I think of Donald Barthelme's very unconventional telling of "Snow White," which I hope you're ready to be surprised but this is almost 100% not the story of Snow White, not that story in any of its previous derivations, although I'm specifically referring to the Disney version, I admit (so has Disney colored my opinion of so many fables and historical characters, like how about those many wonderful cows in 2004's "Home on the Range"? What more am I to think of them?).

So Donald Barthelme went somewhere different, and I won't lie to you who is reading this blog, I was very prepared for that. But I'm not bragging, although it may seem like bragging -- when you know something and maybe, maybe, others do not. I assure you in this case it is not bragging. A month ago I read and reviewed Barthelme's "Not-Knowing" and in it there are a number of articles and references to the avant-garde fictional qualities of "Snow White" and really essentially all of his work. So there you have it. That is how I knew in advance of reading of it, and you might say it is also how I knew of it at all. But that would be wrong because I knew of "Snow White" before I read "Not-Knowing." It was the substance of the story I was missing, and that "Not-Knowing" proffered.

With a story as obviously and intentionally non-linear and profoundly irreverent as "Snow White" it is easy to stamp your own sort of meaning on everything and anything you encounter, this is a symbol of that and so forth, et-cetera. And I suppose if New Criticism still held sway "Snow White" could be appropriately treated as a work of itself by itself with no empiricism required, but happily that critical theory doesn't and there are a few external things worthy of consideration. I'm interested in for one thing that the story was first published in 1967 as a whole and contiguous work, and prior to that in segments by The New Yorker in 1965. No one else can lay claim to the disjointedness and terse but loaded sentences belonging to his "Snow White." They are Barthelme through and through.

Today we see the abrupt humor of a Barthelme story in so many authors' work it would be useless to attempt to name them all, although some examples that come to mind are George Saunders, Etgar Keret, Barry Hannah and even David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers in various stories. Take for example the following line from "Snow White" -- "Then I took off my shirt and called Paul, because we were planning to break into his apartment, and if he was there, we could not do so." And this line brings to mind other Barthelme stories, like "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby," and the dark humor inherent in the casual morbidity of its opening line: "Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he'd gone too far, so we decided to hang him." It's very lyrical as well, almost like a poem. One of those lines that has a way of dancing in your brain, in and out. And that to me is much of what Barthelme is about and is so deftly able to achieve.

Now I'm obviously not saying Barthelme didn't have antecedents per se -- a few would be Hemingway (of course, since he basically influenced everyone who followed him like it or not), Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, the latter two being most frequently cited by critics (Barthelme himself made frequent mention of Heinrich von Kleist, also) -- but Barthelme like all great creative and original minds took what he was given and made it all his own.

That's why "Snow White" -- for all of its difficulties -- works in the end. It uniquely demonstrates Barthelmeian thought -- its austere, detached narrators each philosophizing on a myriad of subjects, all of them conveying a kind of meaning which begs a second look, not because this meaning is inscrutable but because it is to the contrary so lucent. By that I mean his sentences are already pared to their barest limit, so that the inscrutability of his work comes from circumstances and diction, and thus these are the most apparent points of analysis.

His character's circumstances are never consistent and probably aren't meant to be, since "Snow White" is a piece that was originally serialized and, more importantly, Barthelme always seemed inclined to write within certain narrow places, a burst of creativity and then on to the next one, an inclination his terse writing style harmonizes with nicely. So each page and a half seems its own vignette without necessarily needing concerted elaboration but not hurting from contiguous placement with its other serialized, discrete parts. "Snow White's" division is less pronounced than that of a book of short stories, and more akin to a collection like John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse."

As for Barthelme's diction, let me say that he was great at breaking down convention with his usual wry humor and misleadingly basic prose, because behind his employing words spartanly was I suspect plenty of thought and decided satirical intent, delivered in sentences at their most finely honed. Here, in the court house, assumedly, and swearing Shield 333 to answer all questions honestly, the bailiff (again assumedly, because I have no clue who reads the oath in actual court cases) says, "Do you swear to tell the truth, or some of it, or most of it, so long as we both may live?" "Snow White" is built upon his ability to undermine the boilerplate structure of so many of the phrases and idioms that have become ingrained in our cultural discourse and are beginning to feel recognizable a priori of any felt experience.

It's well done, is what I'm saying.

So I think what I'll call the epitaph of "Snow White" (these words appearing on one of its last pages) sums up everything satisfactorily (much better than I am able): Anathemization of the world is not an adequate response to the world

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Don't Only Love David Foster Wallace

So I'm not saying "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" is bad or anything. It does figure that John Krasinski (aka Jim Halpert of The Office) would choose this of all of David Foster Wallace's various stories for his directorial debut, a film of the same name released last year. And that's not entirely meant to disparage Krasinski, either, whose film I admittedly have not yet seen and judging by the previews looks more than watchable with a very funny, talented cast. And I don't want to go all "me hating Jason Reitman" on Krasinski, either, because I honestly really respect his work as an actor to this point and don't doubt he is perceptive enough to direct a high-quality film / DFW adaptation. (I do fear it might be the perfect storm of cloyingly indie meets the specific talent of Wallace that I'm least impressed by, but cynical words on the table, I will try to reserve judgment till after I've seen it.)

But to "BIWHM" itself, while it is at times up to Wallace's usual standard of excellence in terms of being very funny and thoughtful, and though it definitely captures something unique with its repeated and experimental Q&(mostly just)As of the eponymous men, I think ultimately it gets a little too cute and a little too self-aware with respect to ironical use of quotation marks and meta-fictional elements that, for example, excessively involve the author in the narration -- or maybe not the author per se but a narrator planted by said author and who (this overly self-aware narrator) is sufficiently removed from the narrative so as to distract more than a little from it, more than is wanted by me to be sure. Yes, it is fair and correct to argue that this is what he's going for, but for my tastes his writing / artist "body" is overextended and it becomes a rather huge chore to read, almost to the point that I'd rather not.

I feel I'm being fair with regard to my criticism of "BIWHM" especially because I really enjoyed the more recent Wallace short story collection "Oblivion" and was drawn in by all of its stories (in particular "The Soul is Not a Smithy") save the one for which the book is named, i.e. the short story "Oblivion." And "Oblivion" matches the same ambitious but unfortunately irritating to me use of quotation (or finger flexion, in the case of one of the hideous being interviewed) and just simply put over-indulgent self-awareness that, again, while funny and interesting at times always leaves me trudging through one of his stories to get to the end, whereupon I hope for and often receive a different story that is more to my liking.

So that's it. That's all I've got.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Non-Literature Good Books Round-Up

I don't only read literary fiction. I think the posts about hamburgers from last month more or less gave that fact away. Oh well, now I've come as clean about it as Mark McGwire should probably have done with regard to steroid use a decade or so ago. Anyway, I don't want to omit good things I'm reading because they don't conform to your societal norms, non-existent population at which I'm directing unnecessary (and certainly undue) disdain (which is absolutely irrational). I like things like history and philosophy and political stuff which the last thing generally marches hand-in-hand with both of the two preceding, so here's a rundown of other things I've read lately that fall pretty much into those categories and I think maybe you'd like reading, too, and here's why that could be:

"THEM" by Jon Ronson - If you know Jon Ronson's name these days then it's probably for the movie, "The Men Who Stare at Goats," released in theaters last November, and a movie based on his book of the same name. (That's the reason I know who Jon Ronson is, anyway.) As a result of a fairly universally underwhelmed response, I opted not to see it -- but the story was still intriguing to me. And it was in investigating Ronson's book that I discovered it was not a novel or a semi-fictional account of a top secret government program to harness the potentially psychic powers of certain members of its rank-and-file but instead based in truth with actual interviews conducted by Ronson of certain alleged participants, which I also haven't read but, you know, I do intend to.

And so that leads to "THEM" finally, at long last. "THEM" is another of Ronson's non-fiction documentarian expositions, this time dealing with the fringe world of fundamentalist movements and their notably shared affinity for contriving an all-powerful Them looming over everything, plotting and planning to control the minutest aspects of the rest of the world population's lives, and manifesting itself in a number of different ways depending on who the fringe-group-in-question most regards as a threat. The results of Ronson's investigation may startle you, but probably won't. Still, the book is strange and humorous, even if in the end there probably isn't some sub rosa group plotting a world government, although that is of course what Them want you to think.

"Assassination Vacation" by Sarah Vowell - Have you ever noticed how you love history with an effusion most others find off-putting at best? Well, I've noticed this about myself, sort of, and thankfully so has Sarah Vowell (of herself) because "Assassination Vacation" is extremely good at presenting said effusion for history in very entertaining terms. Like if you've ever wondered for instance about the details surrounding the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley (the story doesn't delve into Kennedy's much more recent assassination). Vowell travels all over the country in search of the strange places related to these presidents and their deaths and their assassins and sometimes their assassins' deaths. Plus the coincidences of history, for example one big one returned to throughout her narrative is Robert Todd Lincoln (President Lincoln's eldest son) and his unfortunate proximity to all three presidential assassinations that occurred during his lifetime.

Plus, Vowell's Generation X-ey self-awareness for the most part is amusing, if at times a little much in terms of deviation and self-deprecation. She brings a humorous, quirky attitude to her over all presentation of the boatload of facts and, again, fascinating historical coincidences surrounding these assassinations (as Vowell says, allowing for a kind of organization and logic that brings order to all things chaotic like a president's assassination).

"A Theologico-Political Treatise" by Baruch Spinoza - Reviewing philosophy is a weird thing to me. I don't think this will be a review so much as an opportunity to thank Spinoza for offering a sensible alternative to the irrational, superstitious Christendom extant in his time just as it is, of course, in ours. I mean could this that follows not just as easily be said of Pat Robertson and his ilk? --

. . . for the masses take no pains at all to live according to Scripture, and we see most people endeavoring to hawk about their own commentaries as the word of God, and giving their best efforts, under the guise of religion, to compelling others to think as they do: we generally see, I say, theologians anxious to learn how to wring their inventions and sayings out of the sacred text, and to fortify them with Divine authority.
I recognize Spinoza's treatise comes from a different point in human existence, and I see how some of his arguments are less applicable to life today, but the thrust of what he's saying remains true and worth fighting for: the Bible and reason are not mutually exclusive. I may not be a religious person in my own right, but you can take a rational approach to understanding Scripture and the imperfect people responsible for bringing the purported word of God to the world. Many of the chapters could simply have Spinoza saying, "Understand people that the writer of this passage did not mean for you to take it literally."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Pugilist Resting Comfortably

If you're like me then one thing you enjoy (and I mean enjoy) is browsing used bookstores, ideally those with piles and stacks of books that aren't in any identifiable order. So "finds" (i.e., books and authors I wouldn't normally read if it were up to me and my browsing on Amazon) are commonplace in used bookstores of this disheveled (in a good way) variety I describe, and that makes me so happy -- possibly happier than is logical but I think I contain my exuberance reasonably well, even if I make off with my "finds" like I somehow pulled a fast one on the old guy (and it's always an old(ish) guy where I'm from) who owns the place and mans the register, and usually "the register" is something like an old cigar box. It should be said I'm frequently absconding with things that are either fairly cheap and I paid for them or entirely free, like my taking the complimentary literary edition of Vice Magazine from an American Apparel a couple weeks ago, imagine the trill in my step when no alarm sounded as I was leaving. It has interviews with Annie Proulx, Jim Shepard and William Gass!

Anyway, one such "find" I unearthed at a used book store recently was Thom Jones' "The Pugilist at Rest." Now, I have to admit I wasn't expecting much from Jones, even with the heavy accolade of a "National Book Award Finalist" badge stamped on his book's cover. National Book Awards (and their runners up) are always quality writing but not always my kind of quality writing. I'll further admit I wasn't super impressed by Jones' first couple stories, and again not because they weren't good but because they were very familiar to me in terms of tone. I was like, "Oh, awesome, I mean we've got another guy, in this case a veteran of the conflict, taking a stab at Vietnam by way of the U.S. soldier's perspective." It wasn't that he couldn't do this well (he did), it was that lots of guys seemed to have beaten him to the punch, with similar protagonists and similar scenes -- the likes of James Crumley and Tim O'Brien came immediately to mind. I still liked what I was getting from Thom Jones, but I couldn't escape from feeling the "more of the same" vibe.

But thankfully that's selling Thom Jones short, which I'm honestly always pleased when I find out I've sold an author short. (I don't like doing it!) Jones' vaguely-based-on-true-events Vietnam stories were only part of a really ballsy collection. I say "ballsy" because in the first place that particular word (slang, if you want to be a picky grammarian) has a Thom Jones sound to it, like the same sort of crass vernacular that's indicative of Jones' style. I say "ballsy" also because some of his stories barely resemble the tough-as-nails-but-with-heart style of his war stories. "I Want to Live!" for example is more like his fellow Illinoisan Richard Powers' novel "Gain" and in which a woman is left to come to terms with her inoperable abdominal cancer. She finds logic.

In another called "Silhouettes" Jones' protagonist is as impotent and sheepish as characters will get, which isn't exactly Jones' writing M.O., either -- or as I say, that's what I thought. But he's largely successful here, as well, with his character, Window, reaching "can't stands no more" catharsis. Even his war stories' protagonists -- all of whom seem more or less to be caricatures of himself, based on what I've read of his personal history -- are flawed and often deeply at the mercy of the system, with resemblance to the motley set of patients inhabiting Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (at one point in "As of July 6, I Am Responsible for No Debts Other Than My Own" he references the movie by name, and I think in so doing hints at his awareness of a connection).

Now as said, flawed heroes in stories about Vietnam's G.I.s aren't terribly hard to come by, but I think Jones adds his own take more than he echos this genre's still-ongoing dialogue. His philosophical tack is one that differs from his peers as much as it shares many of the traits that have come to define the Vietnam hero, viz. emotional instability, nihilistic leanings, apathy or extreme rage, pugnaciousness, psychopathy or sociopathy -- in three words, a damaged being. They're also men who measure virility by the amount of physical blows one can endure. In the case of Jones' heroes, they're usually boxers -- but never are they the uncomplicated spitting image of the "Ubermensch." Taken from his own personal experiences with the affliction (according to his wiki entry he suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy), nearly all of his protagonists are epileptics of some degree of severity. Often, he relates his fighters to the actual bronzed sculpture of The Pugilist at Rest -- i.e., in the aftermath of their battles, a kind of Beowulf-in-winter perspective, most of their bodies comprised of visible scars and scar tissue, and the lasting effects of broken bones and brain damage. He doesn't always do this by direct reference but in reading "The Pugilist at Rest," in which story he does make a direct correlation, one gets a sense of how the fighter is always fated to his broken-down end, cannot endure forever, even if the spirit is willing. Jones' unnamed narrator (and likely stand-in for himself) in "The Pugilist at Rest" remarks about the Pugilist sculpture:
How did he come to be at this place in space and time? Would he rather be safely removed to the countryside -- an obscure, stinking peasant shoving a plow behind a mule? Would that be better? Or does he revel in his role? Perhaps he once did, but surely not now.
It's surely a different way of considering the old war horse. Without any battles left to fight, or only the battles that will finally finish you, existence is a labor in itself. Actually, better put it's a battle in itself, the final battle is with the efficacy of your own health and well-being, which is an idea Jones' fiction nicely captures. Maybe that's why he's such an earnest and enthusiastic fan of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Electric Literature is Enjoyable to Read, or So I Say

It'll be near impossible for anyone to convince me that there was a short story last year exceeding "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You" by Jim Shepard. I hate to be so unwavering on something like this, a subjective topic which I customarily allow a fair amount of wiggle room for debate. Not this time, I'm afraid. Your welcome to try but I think it'd be hard to find another short story (from last year) that would impress me as much. I hate to sound so fawning but it's just the brimming-with-honesty truth. "Your Fate" was for me one of those stories that keeps you thinking about it days afterward, trying to connect meaning to its enigmatic passages and just being awed by how nicely cohesive the damn thing feels. I don't want to imply cohesion is necessary for a story to achieve this sort of resonance with me, but there is something weirdly cleansing and crisp about it -- like a really seamlessly put together piece of machinery that's also aesthetically pleasing, no superfluous parts and looking polished. As in, maybe a car like this.

And Shepard's short story was only part of what amounted to an excellent lineup featured in the inaugural issue of Electric Literature, which came out this past summer. I suppose I'm a little late hopping on their bandwagon, but I am not ashamed to be. And nothing against Electric Literature but I debate long and hard about buying and subscribing to literary magazines, good as they may appear. Ultimately, I caved and got the first issue, and I now plan to become a subscriber. They deliver a good product, much the same as the nicely hewn short story a la Shepard, and it's appealing to see authors I know I'll at least find interesting, as was the case with well-knowns like Shepard and Michael Cunningham, coupled with others I was less familiar with but whose writing I found topnotch as well: T Cooper, Diana Wagman and Lydia Millet. And isn't that at least part of what a good literary magazine does anyway -- publishes some authors you may not yet know but who are no less good?

I'll summarize the stories in brief: "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You" is about avalanches (to sell it very short), "Three-Legged Dog" by Diana Wagman is about a woman with one breast cause of cancer and the man who claims to love her (but does he???), "The Time Machine" by T. Cooper isn't hardly about a time machine but rather is about a man and his jealousy towards another man because of that man's previous marriage to the-man-who-is-jealous's girlfriend-cum-likely future wife (it's funny, probably the funniest of the bunch), "Olympia" -- apparently part of a novel in progress -- by Michael Cunningham is about family and all that jazz, very gripping and well-conceived and I look forward to it novel form, and lastly but not leastly "Sir Henry" by Lydia Willet, a story which makes professional dog walking about as heart rending as I think is within the boundaries of the human language, although that might be slightly hyperbolic. A really excellent collection of short stories, and I'm not just saying that because I really would talk about how much one or more sucked if I indeed thought they did. But I don't because they aren't.

Take a look at Electric Literature yourself today! And they also have a blog, which I equally enjoy.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Don DeLillo's Postmodern Rebel

Heaving masses of humanity play a big part in "Mao II." And part of DeLillo's "Ultimate Message" of said novel seems to be that heaving masses play a big, homogeneous role in just about everything, when you're talking strictly in terms of human existence throughout the ages. But it's not simply that they play a role, I suppose. They are the players who want to be played. Or, to put it in kinder terms: they want to believe in something greater than themselves.

They are always hunting for someone or something to venerate, to prop up as the next big savior of all mankind. And of course I say "they" but what I really mean is "me and everybody else who isn't one of the 'chosen few.'" Because there's a place in "Mao II" -- as in life -- for those of us lucky (said quasi-sarcastically) enough to have been made idols. It's the dichotomous relationship between man and superman (although with meaning differing slightly from Nietzschean parlance, i.e. intended to avoid implications of the rightness of such terms in a question-begging sort of way). Also, sometimes a "superman" is a superwoman, which Nietzsche made no accommodation for this to be true of women as far as I know. I am.

I'm wary of thinking of DeLillo's central character in "Mao II," Bill Gray, in terms of his generic moniker -- which eventually it becomes clear is a pseudonym or, more accurately, an alias. But because of the emphasis DeLillo seems to put on his character's name (i.e., it's made clear it is not his birth name, as said), I don't think there's any use avoiding the symbolism inherent to it. Bill Gray is gray, for all intents and purposes. He is a writer of some renown, a literary figure. He is not a vivacious character, but he's also not particularly melancholic or phlegmatic, either. He's not detachedly disinterested in the fate of man, but he seems incredulous as to what power man possesses (and indeed someone of his writerly significance) to make the world a more livable, equanimous place.

Bill has his own small following (a man and a woman) who venerate him but who also come to live with him and know him as a human being, and not simply as the "man behind the curtain" writer everyone else is awed by. For instance, the man (Scott) becomes Gray's personal assistant and envoy, and has grown so intimately close that he can be candid and point out that the sprawling, directionless novel Gray is working on is not equal to his other works and in fact is so bad that it might do harm to his reputation, calling into question all works that preceded it. Gray, Scott says, already intuitively understands this to be true, but Scott's criticism provides him the fear-affirming validation he desires.

"Mao II" isn't the sort of novel you sum up. This is in part because it reads more like classic Greek dialectical philosophy and less as a novel reliant on its plot. It's got a number of really excellent dialogues pitting the different ideologies represented against each other. More specifically and, in my opinion, most interesting is a dialogue that takes place between Gray and George Haddad, after Haddad has isolated Gray from his publisher and feels more open to speak candidly on the subject of terrorism and capturing the hearts / minds, imagination, or inspiring fear in the masses of humanity, along with the larger idea of a centrifugal entity for the masses to turn towards and embrace. The spirit of said dialogue is captured nicely, I think, in the following from pages 158-9:

It's an idea. It's a picture of Lebanon without the Syrians, Palestinians and Israelis, without the Iranian volunteers, the religious wars. We need a model that transcends all the bitter history. Something enormous and commanding. A figure of absolute being. This is crucial, Bill. In societies struggling to remake themselves, total politics, total authority, total being.

Even if I could see the need for absolute authority, my work would draw me away. The experience of my own consciousness tells me how autocracy fails, how total control wrecks the spirit, how my characters deny my efforts to own them completely, how I need internal dissent, self-argument, how the world squashes me the minute I think it's mine.
DeLillo seems not to resort to any absurd, contrived plot device that would have his characters literally display the kind of revolt that he has Gray describe as being for himself and his own work evidence of the ineffectuality of absolute authority. (There's no consensus to be reached amongst the voices he puts on paper.) When revolt occurs, it occurs tastefully and subtly. Gray becomes injured for instance, and eventually after consulting (of all people) some veterinarians, he understands that he must seek medical attention -- but still he does not. Against all advice he travels to Beirut with uncertain intentions, or intentions that are [SPOILER ALERT] never revealed as passing successfully. The ending is as ambiguous as the viability of the modes of living that history and masses of humanity and their keepers have fated for us all. That's one idea about "Mao II" I've had.

Plus, the not-intended-to-be-sly (DeLillo more or less mentions it in the last pages of the story) association of Mao to a brand with the Coke II allusion is golden, I think -- if it is also, uh huh, dripping with Postmodernity.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Let the New Year Begin with Some Good Old David Foster Wallace

I don't know if any single famous person's death has had as much of an effect on me as David Foster Wallace's tragic suicide in September of 2008.

We've lost many other authors in and around that time such as Kurt Vonnegut (yet another of my favorites, though), John Updike, Frank McCourt, Norman Mailer, J.G. Ballard and so forth, but the youngest of those listed was Updike, who died at the venerable age of 76 from lung cancer. Of writers who have come to represent their respective generations like the above named, it is worth arguing that no one has been as significant to Generation Xers as Wallace (no, not even Michael Chabon or Dave Eggers), who was born fittingly in 1962 which more or less represents the tail-end of the Baby Boom and the outset of his generation with that letter.

It's the untimeliness of Wallace's death that continues to sting. As those other authors' ages and creative output during the latter parts of their lives confirm, he could have been doing plenty of relevant work in his usual detail-oriented and incisive style for many, many more years. It's hard not to feel selfish, like we've all been deprived of something special. Wallace's death also presents us with a clear and startling example of the perniciousness of mental illness, and the complicated nature of the inner workings (both physical and abstract) of the human mind.

Wallace's short story "All That" published in The New Yorker last month is yet another example of all that (sorry) effing talent no longer with us. But with that said, I don't want to talk about David Foster Wallace only in the negative, because 1) it's obviously depressing and 2) to me, as with anyone who's ever admired a celebrity from afar, he was already a phantasmic abstraction to which his work and his physical image in pictures and television were so closely tied and essential to his tangibility. I used to imagine conversations I'd have with him (in a normal, balanced way, I feel confident in averring), if ever the opportunity presented itself. I related to his work and imagined then to him by proxy, which like the rest of his admirers I probably would have had we ever met. It's worth mentioning as purely a positive way of looking at Wallace's passing that from the phantasmic abstraction vantage and his work being so essential to what made him who he was to most people, in that admittedly bizarre sense, he's never really left, and won't for as long as his work exists, which hopefully will remain timeless like the works of classic authors such as Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Fydor Dostoevsky have. But enough of the whole "immortality achieved through oeuvre" thing.

More to the point of Wallace's work, one thing good writing does is it allows you a medium through which to imagine you understand its author better philosophically and perhaps emotionally. It's different from other kinds of writing -- philosophical and other didactical tracts, for instance -- because it allows you to insert your own interpretation, to interact with the text as the story progresses, to glean meaning in a way that the other forms of writing do not allow. It does not necessarily lecture you, although I hold that it can and still be considered great. It isn't limited to one form or another. There's a fluidity it possesses that seems to only ask that you engage it, whether you agree with it ideologically (and the like) or no. I feel as though reading David Foster Wallace (the fiction and non-fiction alike) is one of the things that taught me all that I mention in this paragraph (and sorry, this last use of "all that" is less of a pun and used more for clarity's sake than when it was used earlier in this post).

(FYI: I use a lot of cluttering parenthetical asides because footnotes and endnotes were already taken by admittedly (nay, inarguably) better writers (Junot Diaz also uses footnotes to very good effect in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao").)

I also notice the literary blogosphere is more or less aflame over the lameness of a recent New York Times essay by Katie Roiphe which covers and criticizes the emasculated, over-sensitive tendencies 0f today's male writers. David Foster Wallace was unkindly and undeservedly included in Roiphe's list of said male writers. I don't have much to add that wasn't already put forth very well by Seth Colter Walls on The AWL, but that doesn't mean I don't think the criticism engendered by Katie Roiphe's essay isn't incredibly deserved and that Roiphe herself is plainly misguided. And she's misguided for just the same reasons I'm irritated by hyper-masculinity in other facets of modern American life -- it's an inane attempt at returning to the normative gender specific role playing that has (and in certain cultures continues) to dictate one's options in life, and furthermore, her argument represents a facile need in humans to easily identify and therefore make sense of the people whom we encounter so as to allow ourselves the ability assimilate and discriminate (thereby making sense of) more easily. It's a basic clan-mentality driven by the desire to survive and not be ostracized by our peers, which I hope we evolve beyond some day. (I admit these latter points diverge slightly from Roiphe's argument, but not enough that they aren't worth mentioning.)

David Foster Wallace was extremely perceptive (almost superhumanly so), and that someone has done him the disservice of misreading his work so profoundly as Roiphe did is to my mind one of the most infuriatingly small-minded, disrespectful things a person could do to an author. Certainly Wallace can be criticized, but as Walls outlines well, not for the reasons Roiphe seems to think he can.

I'm sorry this post seems to be ending on a fairly heated note but c'mon, get yer head out of yer ass, Roiphe!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mark Athitakis' American Fiction Notes' "DeLillo in Winter"

Hey it's a new year so let's kick it off by always mentioning that it's a new year (I plan to really maintain this theme for the rest of January) and let's also talk some Don DeLillo. Like pretty much every other person on the planet who professes some positive feeling for contemporary literature and the impossible-to-pigeonhole, nebulous genre of postmodernism, I consider DeLillo's "White Noise" to be among the seminal novels of the last fifty or so years. (I'm also currently reading "Mao II" and plan to talk more in depth about that in a few days.)

A couple of years ago I tried reading "Libra," another very highly thought of DeLillo novel that speculates about the events in Lee Harvey Oswald's life that led to his assassination of JFK, but I couldn't get into it -- in part because of the lack of a sardonic, obsessive and somewhat effete first-person narrator of the Jack Gladney variety, who it needs to be said is humorously the professor of Hitler Studies at the College on the Hill. One problem of course is "White Noise" is hard to top.

And recently Mark Athitakis of his blog "American Fiction Notes" has lamented the fact that DeLillo struggled over the last decade to equal the work that has made him so notable and important to American literature. I essentially agree with Athitakis. "Cosmopolis" was extremely disappointing, and seemed to lose the weight and heft of a broader worldview that is enviably present in "Mao II" and "White Noise." Something similar has happened to Paul Auster, even though I admit I enjoyed "Man in the Dark" -- enjoyed it far more than I did "Cosmopolis."

But I'm afraid I have to disagree slightly with Athitakis' assessment in his "DeLillo in Winter" post of "Midnight in Dostoevsky" -- a 2009 DeLillo short story published in the November 30th New Yorker. Athitakis' notes that DeLillo has his main character, a contemplative male college student, at one point chat casually with a store clerk at a late-night convenience store, which Athitakis argues the candor of their conversation and forthrightness of the narrator was incongruous with his traits exhibited throughout the rest of the story.

On the one hand this is true. The main character's essence seems to be one that relies heavily on his evident solipsism and introverted nature. The first main locus of the story centers on the walks the main character, Robby, takes with his friend and companion Todd, another college student, who together as they walk, expound and pontificate about what they observe, which in the story takes the form of an old man in a coat, the specific type of which they cannot agree on and which then becomes the focus of much debate. Todd is an extension of Robby's solipsism, an almost internal argument rages between them, one you could imagine them taking part in without speaking, and so his candor and willingness to debate him do little to refute Athitakis' point.

What does more to, however, is Robby's interest in a female student he's currently taking a course in Logic with, which the Logic course is the other essential locus of the story. Her name is Jenna, and Robby learns this after finally asking her, "O.K., what's your name?" She's the only other character we get to see Robby become in any way close with, and she immediately discards him. Not purposely, one supposes, but she rejects the college as a place she isn't "happy" and expresses plans to go west to school in Idaho, of which Robby later wonders alone, "Idaho, the word so vowelled and obscure. Wasn't where we were, right here, obscure enough for her?" The school we sense is tied closely to Robby's unusual temperament. It throws him for a loop.

I think you could argue it a stretch, but Jenna has mattered to Robby as both a person unto herself and as a point of connection (She has had the only real conversation with their mystifying Logic professor, Ilgauskas) to others, and her immediate dismissal of him vis-a-vis his college is slyly important for this reason, as well. Following his thoughts of Jenna, he begins a thread of thinking which starts with his parents, divorced and active in their own lives and plans over the holiday break, leaving him to fend for himself by himself. The town's description is next in the sequence and is likewise abandoned for the break. I think his description of it in this state is apt, "On the stunted commercial street in town, there were three places still open for business, one of them the diner, and I ate there once and stuck my head in the door two or three times, scanning the booths." Implications of searching and straining to realize some connection abound there.

Then the anomalous conversation about the convenience store woman and her son's wife's kidney infection. A blip, yes. But is it unintentional? I'm not so sure. Is it instead the subtle climactical apotheosis to this series of events, which leads him to an unstated desire to talk honestly with someone, anyone? Does this talk, as half-heartedly as it was mentioned, convince him that he cannot relate to anyone, even about serious things of the nature described? The next paragraph reads like a descent, a return to alienation inside the protective confines of a novel he reads in the library, one that remains in the same place untouched and unmoved, exactly as he'd left it the day before, day after day. Still, perhaps the simplest explanation is best here, and DeLillo truly neglected in the one passage to write his character as uniformly as he did throughout the rest of the story. I guess I'm just offering another possibility, one that's admittedly less likely.

Of course I also liked the short story's ending. Athitakis says, "By the end things have moved pretty much nowhere, from a dimly felt fear of connection to a dimly felt fear of connection." I disagree. I feel like the first half of the story suggests a desire in Robby to form relationships with people, despite his bad luck with relationships to this point (i.e. his parents), and at the least it suggests this is possible. It's a transference from winter as idealistic to winter as reality (the former usually comes easiest to mind when winter is not actually taking place). I do think whether or not you consider the mid point of the story at the break to mark anything specifically significant about Robby's transformation, you at least have to concede he's changed by the end, maybe to the point of being jaded. Maybe that's an easy thing to have a character do, although I think DeLillo pulls it off fairly complexly, betokening the DeLillo of old.

There is an early moment in the story, after Robby and Todd are first following after the old man, when Robby, alone, comes face to face with him, and describes in a cursory moment when he seems almost hopeful the man will acknowledge him, perhaps even take an interest in him. He said, "There was no one else on the street. As we approached each other, he veered away, and then so did I, just slightly, to reassure him, but I also sent a stealthy look his way."

By the end of the story, though, Robby's potential desire for anything resembling contact with the old man is completely abandoned, to the point that he doesn't want Todd to know the man's true story, either, and physically fights him to prevent it. He has embraced a fiction about the old man, and that has become the real truth. It's easier and safer. As one of DeLillo's characters in "Mao II" mentions, "We understand how reality is invented. A person sits in a room and thinks a thought and it bleeds out into the world." Let it bleed, Robby I think would say.

Has DeLillo lost a step or two as he's aged? Yes, I think you could make that argument, as Athitakis did well. But I also thought "Midnight in Dostoevsky" was a really interesting read, and in some ways a return to the DeLillo of earlier years, which has me looking forward to (or at least hopeful for) his newest novel "Point Omega" -- which admittedly has a dumb-looking cover that, yes, I'm judging.