Friday, September 28, 2012

A Few Thoughts On Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace

"Infinite Jest, for all its putative difficulty, cares about the reader, and if it denies him or her a conventional ending, it doesn’t do so out of malice; it does it out of concern, to provide a deeper palliative than realistic storytelling can, because, just as in Ennet House, you have to work to get better.”
That is my favorite passage in D.T. Max's new biography of my favorite writer. It almost perfectly captures what I've thought about Infinite Jest since I first finished (and loved!) it. Hey, you get out of it what you put into it, to use an annoying platitude that DFW would've probably hated.

If you're a DFW fan, this biography does a great job of filling in the meat on the bones of a lot of piecemeal anecdotes or generalities you probably already knew about him. Yes, he battled lifelong depression, managed with a drug called Nardil. Yes, he was a passionate prescriptivist and a "hard-core syntax wienie." Yes, he wrote Infinite Jest based much on his own experience in rehab and a halfway house in the late '80s after his own drug and alcohol addiction nearly brought him down. And yes, trying to figure out how to write The Pale King is what practically killed him — he wasn't blocked, per se, he just couldn't figure out how the book should come together, and he thought going off the Nardil might help. It didn't.

The biography assumes you've read most of DFW's work, and includes a lot of literary theory. Max spends much ink in the early part of the bio discussing DFW's early thrall with Derrida, Barth and Wittgenstein, and how these thinkers manifest in his first novel The Broom of the System, which he wrote during his undergraduate days at Amherst, and published while working on his MFA at Arizona. "For Wallace, the great flaw of most fiction was that it was content to display the symptoms of the current malaise rather than solve it," Max explains.

I won't lie to you, these theory sections (even interspersed with tales of boozing and philandering with women) were dull and difficult — and probably even duller if you've never read DFW's first novel or his collection Girl With Curious Hair, which is anchored by his nearly impenetrable novella, Westward The Course of Empire Take Its Way. Indeed, the first part of the bio — as many chronological bios are — was the least interesting. But I did love this idea, about DFW's first days at Amherst: "There was a moment in many of his fellow students' lives when they realized Wallace was not just smart but stunningly smart, as smart as anyone they had ever met."

After rehab, though, DFW "converted" to an advocate for "single-entendre" writing. As he stalked the poet and memoirist Mary Karr, he produced the novel for which he'll be forever known,. This is the most fascinating section of the bio, to me. Max discusses the aftermath of getting clean, his trouble with women, writing, and then cutting and editing Infinite Jest while teaching at Illinois State.

The last third of the bio discusses DFW's new fame — and his discomfort with it. Even though DFW claimed to have never heard of Nirvana until after Cobain committed suicide (a dubious claim, DFW's friends say), Max argues that there are some parallels between Nirvana, and other music of the early '90s, and Infinite Jest. ("The chorus of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" paralleled Wallace's portrait of a generation addicted to media with its assertion that everyone was 'stupid and contagious...Here we are now, entertain us.'")

For the rest of his life, DFW wrestled with his fiction. He published two more volumes of short stories (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion) and some fantastic non-fiction. His 2006 essay on Roger Federer in The New York Times Magazine is, in my view, the standard by which all other sports journalism should be judged. But it was his next "Long Thing" that he could never quite get right. He wasn't a perfectionist, but his inability to "figure out" what exactly The Pale King should be was his undoing. He decided to try new meds in 2007, but his anxiety increased and depression worsened, and on the night of Sept. 12, 2008, he hung himself. Max: "This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but was the one he had chosen."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shine Shine Shine: Humans Being

Here's a point to ponder: We're all flawed. But the good news is that it's these flaws that make us, us; indeed, that make us human. Throw in a robot-constructed moon colony, a Burmese-born bald woman named Sunny, and flashbacks (I mean, a TON of flashbacks) to childhoods and adolescence, and you have the general framework for Lydia Netzer's debut novel Shine Shine Shine

Maxon Mann is a socially awkward and way-too-literal-minded robotics engineer. He's the genius behind the design of a moon colony completely built by robots and he's on his way to the moon to put his plan in place. Maxon's flaw is that he wants to be perfectly logical — to eschew the three things he can't seem to program into his robots, "Show preference without reason (LOVE)...doubt rationale decisions (REGRET) data from previously unreliable source (FORGIVE)." Even as Maxon aspires to "elevate" himself to pure logic (robot?), he still seems to understand the value of being human: "Humans work. They are an evolutionary success. The more they evolve, the more successful they become." And he's glad he fell in love with Sunny, despite all rationale to the contrary.

His wife, Sunny, who since they were kids has tried to teach him how to act based on feeling instead of logic, was born to American missionaries in Burma. She just wants to have a normal life, and her flaw is not being able to resist the temptation to celebrate what makes her unique — which is the fact that she has been born bald. And quirky. When she and Maxon decide to begin having children, she begins wearing a wig — a (maybe-way-too-obvious) symbol for normalcy. Their son Bubber is autistic, and in her more unguarded moments, Sunny blames Maxon that his too-logical, too-literal genes caused their son to be abnormal. 

As Maxon is rocketing off into space, a car crash right at the beginning of the novel sends Sunny into a existential tailspin. But Maxon and Sunny met when they were kids, and so, much of the novel is told in flashback. It often felt like just as we got going in the present, we'd pulse back to the past for more back story that would show something supposedly meaningful about Maxon and Sunny's relationship.

Perhaps you've noticed by the tone of this post so far that I wasn't exactly a fan. And that's tough, because a lot of folks whose opinions I trust have loved this novel. If there were ever a time to throw out a (somewhat meaningless) review cliche, it's now: "I really wanted to like this." And more, when you aren't exactly enamored of a novel everyone and her sister seems to love, it's easy to fall into nit-picking to defend your opinion. For instance, the heart-throb TV newscaster neighbor, who all the neighborhood wives lust over, is named Les Weathers and is a fantastically cliché caricature of a real person. But that's not useful.

Really, what this came down to for me is that it just seemed so precious — as if we'd think "Yeah, this is all very precious, but it's also quirky and unusual and quite an inventive story, so it's okay that's it's precious." That, and the constant (perhaps overdone?) flashbacks gave the novel such a recursive feel. After about page 100, I kept thinking,"Wait, hadn't she made that point already?"

Please don't throw tomatoes at me. I know I'm in the minority on this one, but I can definitely see why other readers loved it. Netzer is a clever, funny writer (check out this line: "Pigs are earthy; their proximity may lead to carnal thoughts." And that line's even funnier, I realize now, loosed of context). But so, I just couldn't find my way into this one. If you're on the fence, read other reviews, and then decide. Chances are pretty good you'll like it more than I did. (How's that for passive-aggressive?!)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Suck It, Tolstoy: Reminscing Reading War and Peace

Last year at this time, I was just over 400 pages into War and Peace. I thought of that randomly this morning, as today is the last day of summer and I think of War and Peace as the anti-summer read. Last year, I started it on Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer. Make sense, right?

And so, this morning, I sat for a few minutes reminiscing about conquering that monster — it's probably not unlike some people reminiscing about climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel (not to be overly dramatic.) But I remembered the following post I had a lot of fun writing for Book Riot soon after finishing — it's a sort of running diary of my random thoughts while reading. Enjoy! 

Sept. 5 — It’s Labor Day. I’m a little hungover after a rare Sunday night out, but I’d promised myself all summer I’d start today, Labor Day being the unofficial end of summer, and War and Peace being the polar opposite of a summer read. Makes sense, right? Let’s do this! Bring it, Leo! Confidence: 100 percent!

Sept. 6 — Kit, a Book Riot contributor, and War and Peace conqueror, leaves a comment on my Goodreads page congratulating me on starting the novel, but castigating me for the translation I’ve chosen. Some British wanker named Anthony Briggs translated the version I’m reading. Apparently, that’s a bad thing. I decide to keep going. Confidence: 75 percent.

Sept. 12 — One of the main characters, Pierre, and his buddies play a drinking game whereby a fellow has to balance himself on a window, pound a bottle of booze, and not fall out. Later, they’re all faced, and they tie a policeman to a bear and throw him in the river. This book is speaking to me. Confidence: 100 percent.

Sept. 28 — I’m on page 441. There’s a lot lately about a Russian officer named Denisov, who talks like Elmer Fudd. All his r’s are w’s. So if he were exhorting his buddy Rostov, he’d say “Wostov wules!” as opposed to “Rostov rules!” I spend more time thinking about the linguistic technicalities of how, precisely, this quirk would’ve manifested itself in Russian than I reasonably (or sanely) should. For three seconds, I consider learning Russian to understand better. But I don’t. Confidence: 70 percent.

Oct. 13 — I’ve slowed to an absolute crawl. I’ve only read 90 pages in the last two weeks. But I did traverse the first major “war” scene, which wasn’t bad. Need to refocus. This novel needs more sex. It should be War and Peace and Sex. That would rule. Confidence: 50 percent.

Nov. 1 — And here we go…Sex-kitten Natasha is questioning her engagement to the dashing Prince Andrey, and thinking of running off with another dude. I kind of have a crush on her. Confidence: 75 percent

Nov. 13 — Finally, the good part! I’m on page 911 and Napoleon’s invading Russia — and Mr. Tolstoy’s giving him an all-time tongue-lashing, just barely stopping short of saying outright that he has a small penis. Good stuff. Confidence: 85 percent.

Nov. 24 — It’s Thanksgiving Day, and I’m not watching football. Instead, I’m reading War and Peace. You better never question my literary credentials ever again. I’m on page 1,195. Rounding third and heading for home. Confidence: 95 percent.

Dec. 5 — Holy shit, I’m finished! Well, to be precise, I’m finished with the main story.There’s still about a hundred pages of epilogue. That should be no big deal, though. It’ll just wrap up the loose ends and I’ll be done. Done! Confidence: 100 percent!

Dec. 7 — Holy shit, that was brutal! The last hundred pages (two epilogues) were an absolute test of wills — Tolstoy wraps up the characters’ stories eight years in the future, and then spends another 40 pages philosophizing on history and war and whatnot. It was rough going. Of course, the last bit has to be the most difficult. But now I’m done. DONE!

Jan. 3 — I’ve spent a month thinking about this novel, and with the exception of this pithy blog post, I’ve been unable to come up with anything even remotely intelligent to say about the book. I need to read it again, I guess. Anyone else in?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fobbit: War Is Hell(ishly funny)!

Should Iraqi suicide bombers be called "insurgents" or "terrorists" in the official Army press releases? Why? And what's the big deal anyway?

It's Baghdad in 2005, and these are just a few of the many questions, often of increasing absurdity, the Public Affairs Officers (PAO) of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Triumph must concern themselves with in David Abrams alternatingly hilarious and heart-attack serious debut novel Fobbit.

"Fobbit," as is explained right there on the cover, is a derogatory name for the paper-pushers who work at the base in Baghdad, but who don't see combat. They still have to carry their guns around with them, though.

The funny parts in this novel (which is told from the alternating points of views of several characters) are mostly from the point of view of the Fobbits. Exhibit A is Eustice Harkleroad (called Stacie) — he's the chief PAO, and the patsy for the whole base. He's a nose-bleeding nervous nelly who always has state- and country-shaped food stains on his uniform. He's also a momma's boy who writes hilarious emails home to his mother with wildly exaggerated claims of his exploits. In one memorable instance, in a case of such comic earnestness the reader can't help but laugh out loud (which I did!), he tells his mother, "A hero never yawns, after all."

Harkleroad's charge is one Chance Gooding, really the only "normal" person in the story. Gooding spends his days writing and re-writing press releases, dealing with annoying journalists, and writing a journal about his experiences.

Of course, we also get stories from regular soldiers, like Abe Shrinkle, an incompetent, indecisive moron, and Lt. Colonel Vic Duret, his commander who is constantly exasperated with Shrinkle and wants nothing more than to go home to his wife with her big, pillowy breasts. The war scenes are the not-so-funny, but still-riveting parts. Right at the beginning, there's a scene in which an Iraqi has tried to run his bomb-laden car into the back of a tank, but the bomb doesn't explode, and Shrinkle is left wondering what to do about the injured suicide bomber who's trapped in his crumpled car. His indecisiveness costs him the respect of his men and Duret. And he didn't have much of their respect in the first place, evidenced by the fact that, earlier, somebody had pooped in his helmet.

On the whole, I loved this book. The only thing that gives me pause — and it's not unique to Fobbit, but in any war story in which a moron has a position of authority — is to wonder how someone who is so incompetent (like Harkleroad and Shrinkle) ever could've gotten to their posts as leaders of men? Didn't someone recognize earlier on that they were idiots, and decline to promote them? Abrams mentioned on his blog that the novel as it came into the world was about half as long as he originally wrote it, so some of that may have been explored in pages that wound up on the cutting room floor. Or maybe it's just a nit-pick.

At any rate, Fobbit definitely deserves its spot on the "latest and best" war novels list. Four stars, and highly recommended!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Highlights of Salman Rushdie's Personal History

This week, The New Yorker published a 12,000-word piece written by Salman Rushdie about the famous fatwa, and its immediate aftermath. It's an absolutely riveting story.

(Also, strangely, it's written in third person. "There was a novel growing in him, but its exact nature eluded him. It would be a big book, he knew that, ranging widely over space and time." e.g.)

And but, I'd highly recommend carving out some time to read it, too. But if you don't have the time, here are the highlights:

— I don't know that I've ever seen the actual text of the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, but here it is, quoted in the story's opening lines: "I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the 'Satanic Verses' book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them." Awfully chilling and stark, isn't it? 

— On the morning the fatwa was issued, Valentine's Day 1989, Rushdie attended a memorial service for a friend. Martin Amis was there, and expressed his concern for Rushdie's safety. The novelist Paul Theroux was also there, and expresses something approximately opposite to concern, joking "I suppose we’ll be here for you next week, Salman."

— These lines, that wrap up the first section of the piece, reflecting on the day the fatwa was issued, are chill-inducingly good: "On this day there were crowds marching down the streets of Tehran carrying posters of his face with the eyes poked out, so that he looked like one of the corpses in “The Birds,” with their blackened, bloodied, bird-pecked eye sockets. That was the subject today: his unfunny Valentine from those bearded men, those shrouded women, and that lethal old man, dying in his room, making his last bid for some sort of murderous glory."
A fascinating, engrossing short history of the origins of Islam and what, actually, the Satanic verses are is here; scroll to the "1966" subhead. (This part's worth reading word-for-word — it's not very long, and immensely worth it.)

— Rushdie discusses his inspiration for the novel The Satanic Verses (as well as what he believes to be his future oeuvre): "...the great question of how the world joins upnot only how the East flows into the West and the West into the East but how the past shapes the present even as the present changes our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believe they live."
—  The Satanic Verses was published Sept. 26, 1988 in England. It was banned in India (a friend of Rushdie's in the Indian government called him to break the news) in early October. On Oct. 10, he received his first death threat. Many more followed. Rushdie, of course, was taken aback by the fury: "To him, it was the least political of (his) three books. And the material derived from the origin story of Islam was, he thought, essentially respectful toward the Prophet of Islam, even admiring of him."
And, suddenly, two-thirds of the way in, a turn for the sentimental: "He became, in the media, a man whom nobody loved but many people hated."
Semi-disingenuous-sounding (on purpose) apology offered soon after the fatwa, in exchange for continued protection from the British government: "As author of 'The Satanic Verses' I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others."
—  D'oh! “'Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell,' the dying imam said." 
John Irving, comedic genius: "When the book was in its third consecutive week as No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, John Irving, who found himself stuck at No. 2, quipped that, if that was what it took to get to the top spot, he was content to be runner-up."
The last part of the piece chronicles Rushdie hiding out under the protection of two guys named Stan and Ben. At one point, there's a scare (that turned out to be just a misunderstanding) regarding his ex-wife and son. And then, Rushdie, at the behest of his protectors, renamed himself Joseph Anton (the first names of two writers he admired, Conrad and Chekhov). "He had spent his life naming fictional characters. Now, by naming himself, he had turned himself into a sort of fictional character as well."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

If "The Dude" Listened to 50 Shades

It's been a slow reading week, so instead of a review this week, here's this:

Incidentally, The Dude's expression of relaxed amusement is very similar to my own as I read that travesty of a book. Happy Hump Day!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Newlyweds: Meditations on Marriage

Amina lives in a Bangladesh. George lives in Rochester, New York. They're just a couple of star-crossed lovers who meet on and get married. Nell Freudenberger's new novel The Newlyweds is the quintessential 21st century, meeting-online-across-continents love story.

Except there's not much real love here. Nerdy mid-30s George wants a family. Ambitious late-20s Amina wants to escape Bangladesh for more opportunity. So their partnership is one of mutual benefit. But this is something they never discuss, after a year of email, an in-person visit, and then Amina's move to the U.S. (that's not a spoiler — that all happens early in the novel). Instead, the two pretend like they have traditional fairy-tale marriage, based on the rock solid foundation of love, devotion and trust.

The conflict of the novel comes when that trust goes away. George has been hiding a secret. Will the marriage survive?

So the main theme of The Newlyweds is the difficulties associated with cross-cultural marriage. Georgia and Amina's is the primary example, but we also learn about George's cousin Kim, who had a once-rocky marriage with an Indian guy name Ashok. And one of Amina's childhood friends, Nasir, originally a possible match for Amina herself, is now looking for a wife — but will his be an arranged marriage in Bangladeshi tradition or will he marry for love?

In addition to the meditation on marriage, Freudenberger gives us the "conflicted immigrant" theme, as well. Is Amina remaining true to her Bangladeshi roots by availing herself of American conveniences?
"She struggled to find some connection between the girl she so often imagined at home in her parents' apartment and this American wife, using the dishwasher and the washing machine, checking her email on the living room computer ... Sometimes she wondered whether the two girls would simply grow farther and farther apart, until one day they didn't even recognize each other."
So, what did I think? I've wavered back and forth on a near-daily basis between "Loved it" and "It was okay – kind of interesting, but unsatisfying." If that seems strange, you're right, it is. There were parts when I was rooting like crazy for George and Amina to work. There were parts I just didn't care. There were too-obvious-to-the-point-of-silly symbols (like the cardinal on cover — he makes an appearance in the book, too). But there was also some really stunning, insightful writing about the trials and tribulations of relationships. So 3 stars — maybe because it wasn't really my thing, but it's not by any stretch a bad novel and other readers may have more luck with it than I did.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

DeLillo's Underworld: "Everything is connected in the end."

Garbage is a de facto history of culture. The threat of nuclear warfare and baseball are inexorably connected because, each in its own way, is a source of nostalgia regarding the second half of the 20th century. And art is art, whether its avant-garde film or graffiti. There, I just summarized an 827-page novel in three sentences. You're. Welcome.

Okay, yeah — there's a bit more. It took me just shy of two months to plow through this behemoth. It's far from Gravity's Rainbow-level difficult. But it's not something you'll want to take to the beach. The novel jumps back and forth in time throughout the second half of the 20th century. We see different characters in different phases of their lives, and constantly meet new ones. It's a huge cast — from chess gurus to 1950s gangsters, from bored businessmen adulterers to graffiti artists to nuns.

But nuclear weapons and baseball are really the two most common themes of the novel, and they bob and weave past each other throughout the strains of stories, often connecting, often in surprising ways. For instance, the prologue of the novel — which is 60 pages of sheer, unadulterated genius — chronicles the last game of the baseball season in 1951 in which Bobby Thompson hit the famous "shot heard around the world" and the Giants won the pennant. J. Edgar Hoover is at the game, and is informed that the Russians have just test-detonated a nuclear device.

From there, through various strains of story, we follow the baseball Thompson hit through the years into the mid-1990s, as characters come in contact with it, including a memorabiliast named Marvin who has made it his life's work to authenticate the ball. If there is a main character in Underworld, it's Nick Shay, who works for a waste management company in Phoenix, and now owns the ball (if it is, indeed, the real ball). Immediately after the prologue, we see Nick driving through the West Texas desert to visit an art installation by a woman named Klara, who is painting decommissioned war planes. A guy named Charlie, who bought the Thompson baseball from the kid's father back in 1951, flew in one of these planes. And, also, Nick and Klara had had a brief affair back in 1950s New York.

You see how complicated this can get? DeLillo makes you hold a lot in your head at once. But the thrill of this novel is when you discover a connection, whether thematically or as a part of the story he's slowly building. At one point, in 1951, after the baseball game DeLillo tells us about in the prologue, two men are talking, and one asks if the other saw the newspaper. The man says, "They're calling it The Shot Heard Round The World." The other man, thinking he means the story about the Russians' nuclear test, wonders how we detected evidence of the blast. The other guy says "No no no no. We're speaking about the home run. Bobby Thompson's heroic shot. The tabloids have dubbed it for posterity." I loved this scene! And there are many, many like it. (Much earlier, one character tells another "...because when they make an atomic bomb, listen to this, they make the radioactive core the exact same size as a baseball.")

I mean, there's just so much here: Lenny Bruce screaming "We're all gonna die" during his act during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A set piece about the New York City blackout in 1965. A serial killer who shoots people in their cars on Texas highways. And a scene where J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant go to a party in Manhattan, and Hoover might be gay.

It's just a massive amount of story. If you generally like this kind of thing, yes, Underworld is for you. I loved it...mostly. I hate to be as cliché as this, but Underworld really is a giant puzzle that rewards you as you figure out how each piece falls into place. And if even if you can't puzzle out the connections, often, DeLillo's prose is enough to keep you going. I thought often while reading that I wasn't going to remember this sentence or that metaphor, but it was enough to know that I'd enjoyed it immensely in that moment.