Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review: When The Killing's Done, by T.C. Boyle

Conventional wisdom is that the further apart on the political spectrum two people are, the greater the intensity of the culture war. In T.C. Boyle's new novel When the Killing's Done, the war is definitely intense, and the casualty counts are high, but the war waged is between two groups most would consider ideologically similar: environmentalists and animal rights activists. And in this novel of left-on-left violence, one side emerges as the unequivocal winner.

The problem, though, is that there's never any question which side will win. There's no real moral conflict for the reader. Boyle makes his own agenda clear from the outset by making it painfully obvious who you're to side with. And let's just say it's not the animal rights side that includes a bunch of fanatical, cartoonish weirdos. That's especially true when the environmentalist side is represented by a mild-mannered, reasonable, sympathetic Asian-American biologist. Who would you root for?

The battleground for the novel is the Channel Islands, a small group of islandds off the California coast near Santa Barbara. Alma Takesue is a young biologist who works for the U.S. National Parks Service, and is working hard to rid the islands of man-brought invasive (and nasty) species, such as rats and feral pigs, in order to return the ecosystem to its natural state. This involves a lot of killing, anathema to Dave LaJoy, a 42-year-old dreadlocked electronics magnate, who has founded and funds an organization called For the Protection of Animals. In a novel that's supposed to draw you in with moral ambiguity, this much is very clear: Dave is an asshole — he's the kind of guy who is needlessly mean to strangers (at a restaurant, he sends three bottles of wine back before leaving in a huff), who is convinced the whole world is against him, and who is always yelling at his folk singer girlfriend Anise.
Pockmarking Dave and Alma's increasingly intense clashes is flashback to Alma's family history and Anise's mother's time on the island as a sheepherder. Intended to illustrate the characters' historical connections to the island, they feel superfluous, like dropped-in short stories (of course, Boyle is an accomplished short story writer, as well), and thus add little to the story.

Furthermore, very much in contrast to a novel that is otherwise intricately and precisely written (well, for the most part — there are a few over-written descriptions and a tortured metaphor here and there*), Dave's dialogue is atrocious. It just doesn't fit. He says things like "Don't f@ck with me. Not here. Not now," and "You're no better than executioners. Nazis, that's what you are. Kill everything, that's your solution. Kill, kill, kill." It's so bad, I began to wonder if Boyle is doing it on purpose, as another tactic to be sure readers are not on Dave's side. What it does accomplish, though, is not only to turn Dave further into a caricature of an animal rights activist, but also to me further away from enjoying this book. 

Amidst the detritus of Bad Dave and his bad dialogue, there really is an interesting moral dilemma here. Outside the context of this novel, the question of whether it's okay to kill animals for the sake of restoring a natural ecosystem is an incredibly complex and interesting one to ponder. Not so to Boyle, apparently. But why set up such a great conflict only to make the winner a foregone conclusion? This novel could've been great — it had potential to really make readers think hard to determine which side they are on. But that idea is immediately smothered and destroyed, like so many native species without capability to defend themselves.

*Not because it's gross, but because it feels like purposefully bad fiction, this particular one made me close the book, take a deep breath, and then continue: "...the boy steps forward on his own in initiative and grinds his heel into the animal's head till the gray and pink strands of the neural matter sluice free, like spaghetti."

Monday, June 27, 2011

Top 10 Female Writers (In Terms of Hotness)

Last week, Brenna at Literary Musings published her list of Top Ten Sexiest Male Writers. I thought it was such a good idea, I totally ripped it off...with the one minor tweak of listing women instead of men. Now, if you’re thinking that creating a list of sexy female writers trivializes their talent and reduces their art, well, at some level, I don't disagree with you. I suppose it is a bit sexist, and I'm really sensitive to that, having been accused of being a sexist reader several times since I started this blog — since I tend to read more men writers than women. But this is just for fun. So, before you toss off an angry comment, just take a deep breath...and enjoy:


Left: Nell Freudenberger is one of my first literary crushes, dating back to about 2001 when her story collection Lucky Girls came out. She's since published a novel titled The Dissident, and writes regularly for the NY Times. To dispel your cynical notions that I just poached her name from last year's "20 Under 40" list, I can tell you I vividly remember reading and being appalled and angered by this 2003 Salon piece titled "Too young, too pretty, too successful" written by Jealous Writer Curtis Sittenfeld.
Right: Marisha Pessl, author of the novel Special Topics In Calamity Physics, will really get your atoms racing. (Sorry. could. not. resist.) 


Left: Sloan Crosley, author of extraordinarily witty and funny essay collections I Was Told There'd Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number, is the only non-novelist to make my list. And if you're skeptical that her charm translates to real life, check out her appearance on Craig Ferguson.
Right: Zadie Smith actually is just as attractive in person as she appears her dust jacket photos (I got to meet her at a signing a few years ago). To put it nicely, this is a relative rarity amongst writers...of both sexes. Her merits as a writer is well-traversed ground.


Left: Nicole Krauss is the better half of the first family of contemporary lit. Is it fair to say Jonathan Safran Foer overachieved? Krauss has published three novels, Man Walks Into Room, The History of Love (which is brilliant!), and Great House.
Right: Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of the Pulitzer-winning short story collection Interpreter of Maladies and the (brilliant) novel The Namesake. The Indian-American writer adds a degree of exotic hotness to our list.


Left: Amy Greene, author of one of my favorite novels of last year, Bloodroot, adds some down-home hotness to our list. According to her jacket bio, she lives in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, the setting of her brilliant debut novel.
Right: Sarah Hall is a British novelist who first made a name for herself when her second novel The Electric Michelangelo was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I liked it, but not enough to fawn over. (The author herself, though, is a different story!) She's since been long-listed for the Booker Prize for her latest novel, 2009's How To Paint a Dead Man.

Left: Ida Hattemer-Higgins has a bit of European chic about her...even though she was born in Cincinnati (she now lives in Berlin and Moscow). I loved her debut novel The History of History so much I had to include her on this list. Have you read it yet?  Please do.
Right: Vendela Vida, probably better known as Mrs. Dave Eggers, is a published (and generally well-received) novelist and screenwriter in her own right. Perhaps her best-known novel is Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name, which I have but haven't read, and which is one of my favorite titles ever.

There you go. Who did I miss? Who's on your list?

(One final note: If you're reading this on RSS, email, or Google Reader, I'd encourage you to stop by the blog itself. I did a little summer relaunch — the site includes a new design, as well as links to all New Dork Reviews, an updated "About Me" section, and a new review policy page. Thanks, as always, for reading!)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

In The Garden Of Beasts: Larson's 1930s Berlin

Eric Larson makes his money on juxtaposition; bringing two seemingly unconnected stories together in surprising ways. That strategy is what made The Devil In The White City such a riveting read. (Thunderstruck also employs the dueling stories strategy, though to a lesser degree of riveting, I've heard). But in his fantastic new narrative non-fiction, In The Garden of Beasts, the juxtaposition is more in regards to how two people see the same story differently. That story: the darkening storm of Hitler's reign in 1930s Berlin.

William Dodd, a University of Chicago history professor, was the first American ambassador to Hitler's regime, arriving in Berlin in June 1933. A liberal with a strong sense of history, he saw the story for what it was: terrifying. But his flighty, romantic 24-year-old daughter Martha became enthralled with Berlin. She loved the city and the German people immediately, and refused to recognize the mounting signs of trouble.

Today, it's easy to look back and be perplexed by appeasement. Didn't anyone sound the alarm? Weren't the warning signs clear? It seems like they very well should have been — and to Dodd, they were. But he was not a career diplomat, and as an outsider, he had no support from the entrenched old boy's network at the State Department. In fact, he was FDR's fifth choice for the German ambassadorship — he'd been hoping for a much quieter post, because all he really wanted was to finish his life's work, a multi-volume history of the American south. Adding to Dodd's difficulty was America's general bent toward isolationism after the Great War and the fact that the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and it's easy to see how Dodd's warnings went unheeded.

Larson alternates between Dodd's diplomatic struggles and Martha's exploration of Berlin, and its men. She dates several, often concurrently, including the head of the Gestapo and a Russian diplomat/spy. At one point, a German minister even sets her up on a blind date with Hitler himself — the theory being that the Fuhrer dating the daughter of the American ambassador would quell what were becoming increasingly tense German/American relations.

Throughout, Larson tells us these stories based directly upon fantastic primary sources, namely Dodd's and Martha's diaries. Martha was an aspiring novelist, so her writings contain rich detail of the city and her other adventures around Germany. As an historian, Dodd wrote with an incredible level of detail, too — down to conversations between himself and many of Hitler's henchman.

This is a fantastic book — clear, precise, and fast-paced, especially as you become increasingly horrified by Hitler's machinations. I'd humbly submit that the two most important criteria for judging a narrative non-fiction book are how interesting it is from start to finish (i.e., that there are not too many detours or superfluous or silly detail), and how much you learn from it. If you'll buy that, then believe me when I tell you, In The Garden of Beasts is top-tier reading. It'll appeal to a wide range of readers, from serious historians to beach readers. It's highly recommended.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Amazon vs. B&N vs. Goodreads: Rating the Ratings

I'm no mathelete, but I do know this: The more data there are about something, the more complete the picture of whatever it is that data are measuring. (Yes, "data" is plural, jerks.) It's common sense, right?

So, this "more is better" idea is why I've been looking at the ratings for books on Goodreads much more than Amazon or B&N to vet potential book purchases. But the switch got me thinkin': Is there a difference between the three in terms of how each site's users rated novels? More fundamentally, is there a huge difference between average book ratings between sites? If so, what might account for such a difference?

So I thought I'd spend a post and take a look. Now, what follows is hugely unscientific. It's just a random sampling of five novels. But the interesting thing to me, and hopefully to you too, is the conclusions that can be (however tenuously rooted in logic) drawn about the ratings, both on a book-by-book and also on a sitewide basis.

(Liked = Four- and five-star ratings, Neutral = three-stars, and Didn't Like = one- and two-star ratings.) 

1. Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Amazon: 895 total ratings. Average: 3 stars. Liked: 365 (41%). Neutral: 113 (13%). Didn't like: 417 (47%).
B&N: 2,143 total ratings. Average: 3 stars.
Goodreads: 19,079 ratings. Average: 3.66 stars.  Liked: 11,627 (61%). Neutral: 4,494 (24%). Didn't like: 2,783 (15%).

My thoughts: I picked this one to look at because it of its huge hype — and the resulting push-back against Franzen for having the temerity to write a very good, popular literary novel. Looks like the push-back was most pronounced on Amazon. The percentage of "didn't like" ratings compared with Goodreads is astounding. My opinion is that this was a very good novel, and therefore Goodreads is far and away the most accurate here.

2. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Amazon: 3,435 total ratings. Average: 4.5 stars. Liked: 3,132 (91%). Neutral: 120 (3%). Didn't like: 183 (5%).
B&N: 6,911 total ratings. Average: 4.5 stars.
Goodreads: 123,656 ratings. Average: 4.46 stars. Liked: 111,937 (90.5%). Neutral: 8,760 (7%). Didn't like: 1,827 (1.5%).

My thoughts: Yep, everyone loved it — but, again, the same rating over more than 120,000 ratings is much more statistically relevant than only 3,400.

3. Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett
Amazon: 880 total ratings. Average 3 stars. Liked: 419 (47%). Neutral: 67 (7%). Didn't like: 394 (45%).
B&N: 1,407 total ratings. Average 3.5 stars.

Goodreads: 5,696 ratings. Average 4.0 stars. Liked: 4,271 (75%). Neutral: 1,128 (20%). Didn't like: 282 (5%).

My thoughts: As Goodreads' ratings show, when people actually rated this novel on its merit, it did well. This analysis shows how much the deplorable practice of rating a novel poorly to protest its eBook pricing can affect a novel's rating — when Fall of Giants came out last fall, it was ground-zero for this type of idiotic protest. Please, if you're one of the offenders, stop doing that.

4. Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
Amazon: 166 ratings. Average: 3.5 stars. Liked: 93 (56%). Neutral: (17%). Didn't like: 44 (27%).
B&N: 229 ratings. Average: 3.5 stars.
Goodreads: 4,592 ratings. Average: 3.44 stars. Liked: 2,355 (51%). Neutral: 1,415 (31%). Didn't like: 787 (17%). 

My thoughts: I was pretty lukewarm on this book, so I wanted to see if that lukewarmness carried over in all three sites. It did — and surprisingly consistently. Just about as many people liked it as didn't on both Amazon and Goodreads, and it got the lukewarm 3.5 on B&N.

5. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
Amazon: 443 ratings. Average: 4 stars. Liked: 312 (70%). Neutral: 31 (7%). Didn't like: 100 (23%).
B&N: 113 ratings. Average: 4.5 stars.
Goodreads: 9,455 ratings. Average: 4.29. Liked: 7,643 (81%). Neutral: 926 (10%). Didn't like: 805 (9%).

My thoughts: Of course, I wanted to find out how one of my favorite novels of all time did. And again, Amazon raters were the most critical (read as: Didn't get it), and Goodreads raters were closest to my own feeling about it. What sticks out here is the very low number of raters on B&N. I have no idea why that'd be the case.

Conclusions: This mini-analysis seems like good justification for continuing to use Goodreads. It has the most comprehensive, and in my view, most accurate cumulative ratings. I'll continue to be skeptical of (Read as: avoid) Amazon ratings. Raters there seem to rate books on lots of tangential issues like eBook pricing, slow shipping and cynicism, which drives the rating down. Boo. B&N to me is sort of a non-factor for ratings, as they don't give you an easy-to-read breakdown of the different ratings.

(Final Disclaimer: I'd never advocate that you pick books solely on these sites' ratings. Just making sure we're clear on that.)

What do you think? Any surprises here? Any of these three sites you tend to rely on more than the others?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's With The Spate of Zadie Hating?

She's actually pretty good.
So freakin' sue me, but I really like Zadie Smith. That is to say, I've liked approximately 75 percent of everything I've read of hers.* And with such critically well-received novels** as White Teeth and On Beauty, and a robust roster of widely read essays, I would've thought Zadie's literary cred was unassailable.

Not so, apparently. But what stands out about a recent spate of Zadie hating, is the acrimony, and frankly, malevolence with which she's denounced. Far be it from me to make heads or tails of this. I just don't get it. Let's look at two examples.

In an essay published by Huffington Post Books, Ruth Fowler calls Zadie "a great literary bore." Fowler, who no one's ever heard of, goes on to say reading Zadie is like "being forcibly strapped into a Cambridge lecture theater and waterboarded by some bratty, egotistical over-read teen's pompous thesis on art." To punctuate that sentence, Fowler throws in a "Shut up, Zadie" and then calls her "as entertaining as an enema." Wow! I mean, that's some serious titty-twisting! And what's craziest of all is that the essay isn't even about Zadie! It's ostensibly a thousand-word whine about Tea Obreht winning the Orange Prize, couched as a complaint that MFA writers are apparently the worst plague to to be unleashed upon the literary world since, well, the plague. Fowler even has to remind herself she's not writing about Zadie specifically by throwing in the awkward transition "But back to Tea."

Another example: In his mostly very good, very funny (my review) satire How I Became A Famous Novelist, Steve Hely has his protagonist imagining what it'll be like once he cons his way into the upper echelon of literary society. He envisions Zadie leaning over to him at a dinner and telling him, "You know I'm on to you, you bastard." Then she smiles, and says, "Takes one to know one. I won't tell on you if you don't tell on me." (Then, later, they'd do coke off a manuscript.) The insinuation is, of course, that like the protagonist, she also is a literary fraud. But the significant thing here is that no where else in his novel does Hely mention a real-life novelist by name. Zadie's it. Other writers like Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich and Dan Brown are recognizable as ridiculous fictional characters, but Zadie's the only one who shows up as herself — as if Hely wants to be really sure you got his meaning there; that she's awful.

None of this make any sense to me. I was absolutely knocked over by White Teeth. When I finished it several years ago, I gushed to my reading log "this is one of the more enjoyable, best novels I've ever read." I loved On Beauty, too — if to a slightly lesser degree than White Teeth. (I wrote about On Beauty here, and if you scroll down to the bottom of the comments, there's another example of some really vitriolic Zadie Hate — and this one's even slightly racist!) Finally, Zadie's essay on David Foster Wallace that concludes her collection titled Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is just so mind-shatteringly amazing, I went into another two- or three-day "God, I really miss DFW" funk. (I wrote about that essay collection here.)

So, to reiterate, I just really am befuddled here.*** Why does such a talented writer draw such a visceral, negative reaction from what seem to be otherwise smart people?  Help me understand this. Please! 

*Her second novel The Autograph Man, and a few of the more academic essays in Changing My Mind comprise the other 25 percent.
 **Regarding On Beauty, published in 2005, NY Times reviewer Frank Rich wrote: "What finally makes "On Beauty" affecting as well as comic is Smith's own earnest enactment of Forster's dictum to "only connect" her passions with the prose of the world as she finds it." White Teeth reviewer Anthony Quinn called the Smith's 2000 debut novel "eloquent" and "wit-struck" among other praises.   
*** If you missed it in my post last year about Top 10 Humorous Book Related Anecdotes, here's a sort-of-funny Zadie-related story: As a "pick-up" line, I once asked a girl in a bar if she knew who Zadie Smith is, because she looked exactly like her. It didn't work.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hornby's How To Be Good: Accentuate The Positive

How To Be Good is, what I assume to be after reading Hornby twice now (this and Juliet, Naked), another example of Hornby's schtick: mixing modern, hip characters that have major relationship problems and quirky, funny writing to ask some very serious questions. On the whole, though, this novel didn't quite work, but there is always something positive to derive from a generally poor novel, right? So, let's take a look at a brief plot summary and then the novel's plusses and minuses.

Katie (a doctor) and David (an angry newspaper columnist) are early-40s Londoners whose marriage is on the ropes. Katie has had a half-hearted affair basically because she's bored. David meets a street-healer calling himself DJ GoodNews, who, as a result of over-indulgence in Ecstasy in his youth, can now heal with his hands. David soon falls under GoodNews' thrall, and the two plot to make the world good — by giving away wealth, by convincing neighbors to let homeless teenagers sleep in their extra bedrooms, and by writing a book called "How To Be Good." Katie is less than pleased with her newly milquetoast husband (does it make her bad that she doesn't like him trying to be good?), and pines for the days of her husband who was angry and their marriage that was on the rocks — that, at least, she understood.

Assuming a novel starts out with a perfect five stars, here's a look at the factors that influenced me to arrive at my final rating of 2.5 stars.

- 2 for preposterous plot twist: Ultimately, the novel doesn't work because of the DJ GoodNews angle. If this fellow as such a successful healer (he cures David and Katie's daughter Molly of eczema, just by touching her), I'm pretty sure he'd have a bit larger following and not have to shack up with middle-class surburbanites. Plus, the whole miraculous healer angle — even if meant to be satiric — is just tired.

+1 for interesting questions to ponder: If Hornby had wanted to be a bit more concise than this novel-length, quasi-morality tale he could've just quoted Harold Bloom. Bloom famously said, "Until you become yourself, what benefit can you be to others?" And that's exactly what this novel's about — in fact, a better title for Hornby's novel might be How To Be Yourself. Katie has always assumed she's a good person because she's a doctor, and helps people. But, as she says, "I'm beginning to think that being a good person in most ways doesn't count for anything much, if you're a bad person in one way." (Has her affair, and her resistance to swallowing GoodNews' good news as her husband has made her bad?) The idea of examining long-held assumptions about yourself is a positive lesson, and an interesting one to consider. Katie learns that she needs to discover how to make herself happy before she can be happy with her life and family. And if that involves a bit of selfishness (especially with time), then so be it.

- 1 for not avoiding cliché religion angle: Hornby made it two-thirds of the way through the novel before deciding to have Katie, a bleeding-heart liberal who has never had any use for religion, go to church to look for answers. Maybe he felt like in a novel about being good, he had to throw that in or it'd be a glaring omission. Katie ultimately does find an answer from religion — at least from a minister who's pretty much thrown in the towel on God, herself — but in an unexpected and kind of silly way. Katie withholds a prescription from the minister until the minister tells her whether or not to leave her husband. C'mon.

- 1 for Katie's voice: The novel is told in Katie's first-person perspective, but instead of sounding like a depressed 40-year-old, she sounds like a sarcastic mid-20s hipster. Not genuine, but...

+ .5 for Hornby: I haven't liked either of the plots of his novels I've read, but I've enjoyed reading him for his funny, sarcastic and witty writing. Even as I'm annoyed by the silly plot, I always find something on a page that makes me keep reading. For instance, even though the religion trick was off-putting, this line's great: "I decide, on the spot, to let God into my heart, in the hope that my newfound faith can somehow be used as a vicious weapon in the marital war."

Total: 2.5. 

What'd you think? I know a lot of you warned me about this book, but I stubbornly read it anyway. But it still wasn't enough to put me off Hornby forever. He's the kind of writer I love reading — we just haven't gotten on the same page yet.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

How I Became A Famous Novelist: Literary Con Job

There are your boring, everyday cynics, and then there is Pete Tarslaw, the slacker and faux-novelist who weasels his way into the literary discussion in Steve Hely's hilarious publishing-industry satire How I Became A Famous Novelist. Pete, who works at a company that furnishes admissions essays for rich college kids and Asian businessmen who want their MBAs, is convinced that literary novelists are nothing more than talented con artists and readers are deluded idiots. He forms a begrudging respect for the former because it takes one to know one, and he plans to exploit the latter. How? He'll simply write a novel — so he can become rich and famous, so he can have a "stately home by the ocean (or scenic lake)" and, most importantly, so he can "humiliate Polly (his ex-girlfriend) at her wedding." His literary intentions are as pure as the driven snow, as you can tell.

So, aided by an experimental drug that helps him concentrate, he commences work on his novel. He bases his plot on an examination of the common characteristics of the (fake) NY Times Best Sellers list. His list of rules for what his novel must include (Christmas, food, cross-country trips, murders, etc.) and the justifications for why these are in novels is one of the hilarious highlights of this book. For example, "Rule 15: Must have obscure exotic locations" because "Americans trust knowledge acquired evidenced by their love of Andrea Bocelli and the Olive Garden. Even kids like Chef Boyardee."

Hely: Nerdy, but funny.
The fake NY Times Best Sellers list Hely includes is, other than the fake blurbs: "America's Cervantes has appeared," my favorite part of the novel. It's clearly intended to illustrate how silly we readers are for reading the  novels we do. Even though the names and titles are fake, you'll recognize a few real people/novels (Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich) here. It'd be immensely worth your time to use Amazon's "Look Inside" feature to read page 43 (or better yet, just buy the book— it's $5.60 right now!). An example: The Lavender Willow, by Thomas Quinn — On Nantucket, a beautiful nun who's given up on love finds herself attracted to a psychic man who may be a dangerous arsonist.

So Pete's novel is published. It's panned by serious critics, but embraced by readers, aided by a series of serendipities. From there, the second half of the novel is a bit predictable and not nearly as well-written or funny as the first part (except for the part when Pete has a tryst with a cougar novelist he hates). But it's a short book, so it's easy enough to cruise through this to find the answer to the key question: Will Pete get his comeuppance? 

At the heart of this satire is the idea that publishers really don't know what's good and what's not anymore. Pete's friend Lucy, who is an assistant editor at a publisher, has a drunken rant to this effect. "I just can't tell anymore," she says. And readers don't know either. They're happy to be spoon fed

You're not going to like Pete, but you're going to like this novel. If you're interested in publishing, if you have a cynical streak in you, and if you like good satire and sharply funny writing (see below for example), this is for you.

(Thanks to Brenna at Literary Musings for recommending this. She was right: I DID like it.) 

My favorite quote from novel: "That false-hearted overcapitalizing strumpet was welcome to marry whatever Pacific Rim lout would call her missus." 

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Short, Not-Incredibly-In-Depth Look At Satirical Novels

As a Daily Show and Simpsons-watching, Wag the Dog and Spaceballs-loving, Onion-perusing sarcastic and mildly cynical jerk, good satire is one of the main reasons I drag myself out of bed each morning. I mean, who doesn't love a good satire? Nerds with no sense of humor, that's who!

Satire in literature's tricky though — lay it on too thick, and the book reads like you're just angry and have an axe to grind (The Devil Wears Prada...but, yes, I realize grinding the axe was part of the point), but lay it on too lightly, and folks may not get it (Ian McEwan's Solar, for some people). Of course, there are plenty of good literary satires out there — from American Psycho to Animal Farm to just about any Vonnegut or Tom Robbins, to Catch-22, to the greatest satirical novel of all time (in my view), A Confederacy of Dunces. (I maintain — though this may not be an original sentiment — that Ignatius Reilly is the basis for The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy.)

The key to good satire is wit. Slapstick satire is fine and well, but it doesn't have the same impact as smart satire. It's probably not a coincidence that the word "biting" is often used to preface both words when they're done particularly well. Satire must be marked by biting wit and biting wit is how satire moves from only decent to biting. Additionally, when times are tough and people are ticked off (i.e. times of total silly ridiculousness or when something is going horribly wrong) satire is often the richest. The financial crisis yielded one my favorite novels (satirical or otherwise) of last year, The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter. And The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live (Tina Fey as Palin, or if you prefer, Carvey as Ross Perot) and The Onion are at their finest during the run-up to any election.

If you'll buy that theory, then these days, writers must be rather annoyed with the publishing industry. Two novels in the last few years — Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan (my review) and Steve Hely's How I Became A Famous Novelist (with which I'm almost finished — review later this week. Preview: read it!) — take great pleasure in lampooning, with majestic cynicism, how novels are produced and published. Now, I realize two little-read novels does not a trend make, but it's at least interesting that these two novels similar novels came out about the same time. It's also interesting, as well as a tad ironic, that these novels about the dumbassedness of the publishing industry are being published by, well, publishers.

Anyway, the point here is rather simple and not exactly controversial: Satire is good and fun. I like it, and you should too. What are your favorite satirical novels? Why do you like satire?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Pale King: Reading In The Moment

Yes, it's very apparent that David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel The Pale King is unfinished. And, yes, even so, it's still very good. But it's not until the end — editor Michael Pietsch includes eight pages of notes Wallace had written to himself about further character development and plot ideas — that we understand just how unfinished The Pale King really is, and also how good it would have been.

Reading the 550 pages we do have, though, is, for the most part, very satisfying. Knowing full well you're not reading a complete story — and even if Wallace had finished, how "complete" the story would've been is debatable — you concentrate only on enjoying Wallace on a section-by-section, page-by-page basis. You read in the moment, and if you can do that, you'll be treated to some of Wallace's finest writing ever.

The Pale King explores the stories and back-stories of IRS "wigglers" at a Regional Examination Center (REC) in Peoria, Ill., in the mid-1980s. This setting allows Wallace to explore the themes of concentration, awareness, and most significantly, boredom. Wallace explains in a short snippet of a chapter near the end (though it was Pietsch who actually arranged the order, since Wallace left no hints about how the material should be arranged): "The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable."

The characters here are vintage Wallace. There's a man who's so generous, he's actually selfish because "...other people, too, want to feel nice and do favors...that he'd been massively selfish about generosity." There's a man named David Cusk who is plagued by a sweating problem (hyperhydrosis), and only intense concentration on a single external focal point will prevent a sweating attack.* A fellow named Chris Fogle, whose drug use increases his awareness, likens his calling to work for the IRS to a religious awakening (more on this in a minute).** A character we meet at the end literally levitates as he concentrates on an incredibly boring story an attractive woman is telling him. And a David F. Wallace appears as a character. David F. Wallace also happens to be our narrator, explaining how he came to write the book we're holding. His sections are fantastic examples of Wallace's (the novelist, not the character) unique gift to make it seem as though he is talking directly to the reader; that reading is actually a dialogue, not a one-way information download. 

One particular 60-plus-page chunk of Wallace (the character, not the novelist) chronicles his trip to the REC from the airport. Only a writer as imaginative and eloquent as David Foster Wallace could render a traffic jam in such a way that it reads like a thriller. This was one my favorite sections.

But back to Fogle, whose 100-page "memoir" is the highlight of the novel. It's probably the most polished, complete part and it's the one section where the themes of boredom, concentration and awareness all come together. Fogle tells us about his college-hopping and drifting, and his father's death after getting his arm caught in an El train in Chicago — which is one the better-written, most riveting scenes I've ever read in a novel. Fogle takes a drug called Obetrol which increases his awareness and concentration.*** The idea here is that by concentrating, one becomes more aware (enlightened?) and thus can deal with boredom. Or, is it that the more aware one becomes, the better able s/he is to concentrate, even on dull tasks, and thus not be bored by them. These circular puzzles, are of course, another Wallace signature — and one of the many things that make reading him so much damn fun.

As Fogle's story continues, the point he (and Wallace) is making is that dealing with boredom through some combination of awareness and concentration is a gift. "The fact is that there is probably just certain kinds of people who are drawn to a career in the IRS," Fogle tells us. But not only is dealing with boredom a gift, it's also heroic.**** Fogle, as a student at DePaul, accidentally wanders into a graduate level accounting class right before a final. The instructor gives his students a pep talk about their future careers in accounting, and Fogle is mesmerized to the point of being converted.

But these bigger chunks only make up a few of the 50 chapters of The Pale King. Much like in Infinite Jest — which, as other reviewers have pointed out, The Pale King is sort of a companion to; IJ dealt with entertainment, TPK deals with boredom — Wallace throws out a lot of pieces of stories in different forms and lenghths, and assumes you'll trust him to reveal eventually how they're related, thematically or by plot. But since Wallace didn't live to arrange these how he'd have liked, the connection to the whole isn't always clear. Some of these are fantastic. Some are as dull as Wallace hopes you'll believe an IRS examiner's job to be. For these smaller pieces, you really do have to read in the moment — enjoying Wallace for Wallace. If you like him, you'll also like most of this. I really, really did.*****

*"As Cusk discovered the year after his grades had jumped in high school, his chances of an attack could be minimized if he paid very close and sustained attention to whatever was going on outside of him."
**(This quote doesn't so much illustrate the point above as it is just tangentially related or is a set-up for the "religious" experience Fogle has later. I include it here because it's awesome and made me laugh and nod my head in agreement.) "Fervent Christians are always remembering themselves as — and thus, by extension, judging everyone else outside their sect to be — lost and hopeless and just barely clinging to any kind of interior sense of value or reason to go on living before they were 'saved.'"
***It had something to do with paying attention and the ability to choose what I paid attention to, and to be aware of that choice, the fact that it's a choice. I'm not the smartest person, but even during that whole pathetic, directionless period, I think that deep down, I knew that there was more to my life and myself than just the ordinary psychological impulses for pleasure and vanity that I let drive me."
****"Gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism."
*****Of course, the alternate meaning of "reading in the moment" here is that I never wanted this book to end — not because it's the best novel I've ever read or because I was super attached to a character or for any reason at all having to do with the book itself. I read in the moment but because I knew as soon as I finished, I'd never read another new word from my favorite writer. That's just an impossibly sad idea to try to comprehend.