Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

David Foster Wallace, _Consider the Lobster and Other Essays_

SPEAKING OF BACK catalogue, I really ought to read Broom of the System and Girl with Curious Hair, having now caught up on DFW's other work to date by reading Consider the Lobster, which I enjoyed tremendously.

DFW is awfully fond of referring to things by their initials, so I'll follow his practice as a sort of homage.

As elsewhere in his work, DFW is preoccupied in this essay collection with our anxious search for the good, the beautiful, and the true in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, anxious because (a) a great deal of serious philosophical inquiry from at least Nietzsche onwards has powerfully undermined the assumptions and arguments that upheld our civilization's working notions of the good, the beautiful, and the true and because (b) in our consumer culture, spurious, ultimately treacherous false versions of TGTB&TT are constantly displayed before our greedy eyes in the form of flashy commodities that will end by simply disappointing and cheating us, creating cravings we can never satisfy.

But the search, though anxious, goes on, because we need the TGTB&TT.  So DFW keeps asking, can we do right?  We want to do right, don't we?  There must be a way!  I say more power to him, and as long as he keeps posing these questions, I'll keep wanting to hear what he has to say.  DFW's tribute to Joseph Frank's multi-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky insists that Dostoevsky (or, as DFW calls him, FMD) deserves our attention, respect, and admiration precisely because these questions mattered to him.  To my mind, DFW deserves that attention, respect, and admiration as well, for the same reason.  Whether writing of the porn industry, September 11, John McCain, or talk radio, DFW never lets the big questions get too far out of sight, even while recording the most minute journalistic details.

One big surprise: DFW is a SNOOT, that is, a member of  Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance, or possibly Syntax Nudniks Of Our Time, that is, "a really extreme usage fanatic."  In "Authority and American Usage," DFW comes out as someone who is heart-attack serious about misplaced modifiers, "less" when you should say "fewer," "dialogue" as a verb, and so on.  (Not about "hopefully," though, an intriguing departure.)

This surprised me because DFW's prose is so chewily colloquial, so much like an insanely knowledgeable guy on too much coffee inserting subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses, so full of "-ish" and "-wise" nonce modifiers and "pretty much" and loose-fit relative clauses (even in the book on the mathematician Cantor), that I never would have guessed he is an old schooler with a ruler when it comes to usage.  But he is!

And his mother is.  Which makes one recall Hal Incandenza's mother in Infinite Jest, also a SNOOT (Mrs. Incandenza is the SNOOT, not Infinite Jest -- I'm picking up here on DFW's helpful habit of using parenthetical identifications to clear up ambiguities).  I hope Mrs. Incandenza has no other link to DFW's mom, because Mrs. Incandenza is...well...awful, really, I would say.  Gertrude and all that.  

Monday, June 23, 2008

Richard Powers, _Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance_

ANOTHER CASE OF my going back to read an early novel by a writer whose work I started following mid-career -- in Powers's case, with Galatea 2.2, which intriguingly enough contained accounts of the origins and composition of his four previous novels, including the one I just finished, his first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.

Three Farmers is quite a bit like the later Powers novels I have read in being contrapuntally structured, with three distinct narrative lines that begin by seeming unrelated, then intertwine and approach each other without quite meeting throughout the book, finally to resolve and reconcile in the end.   (The other novels of his I've read have two lines, not three, but to the same effect.)  It is like the others too in being markedly cerebral, grappling large ideas and encompassing wide reading, in this instance about the history of photography and the era of World War I.

It's also unlike his later novels in some ways -- one, the narrative voice sounds like a wise-ass rather too often.  Had I read the book when it was published, in 1985, when I was 31, I probably would have enjoyed this tone more -- well, my loss.  The other difference is that none of the female characters in the novel seems even close to real.  Couple of salty gals, junior and senior divisions (Wies/Mrs. Scheck), a too-good-to-be-true sweetheart (Alison Stark), an ethereal, touched-with-divine-madness artist, but none of them seem quite plausible.  Compared to Laura in Gain and Karin in The Echo Maker, two unforgettable female Powers characters, the women in this book seem almost not even there.  

Amazing book all the same, though.  The sense of historical change and our occluded but real connection to the past were what he was really going for, I suspect, and those things are wholly there.  I have yet to read a Powers novel I wouldn't recommend highly.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Don DeLillo, _The Names_

I STARTED READING Don DeLillo with White Noise, and have kept up since, with an intermittent ambition to go back and read the pre-White Noise novels.  The first two I went back to pick up on were Great Jones Street and End Zone -- both likeable, but neither would have made a convert of me had I read them at the time they were first published, I suspect.  The Names, however, strikes me as DeLillo at his amazing best.

The prose is breathtakingly good.  This short paragraph, for instance:

"Star fields, ruined time.  Nearby a man with a flashlight and donkey hauling garbage in black bags.  The hill was empty depth against the streaming night, the medieval sky in Arabic and Greek.  We drank dark wine from Paros, too full of night and sky to use the candles."

The state-of-the-nation stuff, always one of the most compelling aspects of any DeLillo novel, is also strong:

"'America is the world's living myth [says narrator James Axton, a "risk analyst" who collects data for an insurance company that underwrites terrorism insurance for various international corporations].  There's no sense of wrong when you kill an American or blame America for some local disaster.  This is our function, to be  character types, to embody recurring themes that people can use to comfort themselves, justify themselves and so on.  We're here to accommodate.  Whatever people need, we provide.  A myth is a useful thing.  People expect us to absorb the impact of their grievances.  Interesting, when I talk to a Mideastern businessman who expresses affection and respect for the U.S., I automatically assume he is either a fool or a liar.  The sense of grievance affects all of us, one way or another.'"

Check that copyright date: 1982.  Uncanny, no?  

James is trying to reconnect with the wife from whom he is separated and their son, and is side-tracked by his curiosity about a murder cult that picks its victims according to some pattern of alphabetical coincidences.  Both situations are opened up by DeLillo so as to seem bottomless, infinite in their ramifications, and neither reaches any definite closure -- are we in DeLillo territory or what?  

Got to get more.  Ratner's Star, perhaps?

Monday, June 16, 2008

David Bezhmozhgis, _Natasha_

If Gary Shteyngart is the Roth of the new Russian Jewish emigré North American fiction -- and surely he is, with the extravagance of narrative incident, the teasingly-close-to-autobiographical characters, the playfulness with form -- then is David Bezhmozghis the Malamud?  The intelligent narrators revealed by events to be disastrously naïve in some critical aspect, the sense of humor as dry as the Negev, the terrible burden of Jewishness that is so terribly loved, the mercy the author extends to the schlimazels of this earth?

Or -- since all the stories are about the same utterly idiosyncratic family and narrated by the same member of it, is he the Salinger?

Enh, I don't know.  But he's damn good.  Every story in here works, and "Tapka," "Natasha," and "Minyan" will be with me for a long time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Charles Burns, _Black Hole_

ADOLESCENCE AS DISEASE?  Well...of course.  First, your body betrays you, puberty distending and remoulding you, making you barely recognizable to yourself.  Others began to regard with you suspicion; you become an object or surveillance, possibly segregation.  You are surrounded, at school, with fellow-sufferers, but suspicion reigns here as well, and you know not whom to trust or even whether you yourself are trustworthy.  You may be able to sneak out to the woods once in a while, and find some simpatico companions... but are you sure you can trust even them?

Charles Burns's Black Hole is both an outlandish drive-in horror flick -- teenagers in the Pacific Northwest come down with an unnamed plague that affects each victim a different way, one growing a tail, another growing a mouth in his throat that mutters unwelcome truths, another periodically shedding her skin, etc. -- and a poignantly true depiction of being a teenager.  Judging from certain details (in one panel, a high school girl's record collection is seen to include Neil Young's Harvest and Joni Mitchell's Clouds), Burns's characters are my exact contemporaries, and their world is one I remember.  It's a world intelligible to none but themselves; to their parents, it's as remote as Mars or ancient Sumeria. Even amongst themselves, the codes shift so suddenly and arbitrarily that the characters have to scrutinize their own and others' behaviors for clues as to what is really going on.  Anxiety.  Dread.  Adolescence.

Does anyone here get out alive?  Keith and Eliza, perhaps, heading south in a car for warmer and drier climes, some "perfect, quiet little town," away from the madness -- but don't they carry the plague with them, wherever they go?  Chris, floating in the book's final pages out to colder, deeper waters, seems certain to drown -- or does she escape into the galaxy at which she gazes?

The artwork continually amazes.  However did Burns contrive to work with all that black?  How did he manage so meticulous a line?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Roberto Bolaño, _Amulet_ (tr. Andrews)

THIS IS the third novel of his I've read, and I plan to read more, but what is it about them that appeals to me?

This one, like the others I have read, contains characters inspired by people he knew and associated with, apparently highly recognizable if you happened to be hanging out where Bolaño was hanging out in the later 60s and early 70s.  The narrator of Amulet is Auxilio Lacouture, a Uruguayan poet who emigrates to Mexico to be the queen of Mexican poetry, becomes good friends with a variety of writers and artists both older and younger than herself, and at one point spends a dozen days in the bathroom of the department of philosophy and literature when the Mexican army occupies the campus in the fall of 1968, after the infamous Tlateloco massacre. I gather from an April, 2007 article in The Nation that a Uruguayan poet named Acira had more or less the same experience.

In fact, I'm not sure the whole novel doesn't take place in the bathroom, with Auxilio both recalling the past and foreseeing the future as she anxiously listens, perched in a toilet stall, to the sound of army boots in the corridor.  The novel is organized around her own own account of her experiences, always circling back to the tiles in that besieged bathroom.

The final chapter contains one of the most astonishing passages I've read in recent years: a poetic vision of the massacred students of 1968, a lyrical memorial to their ideals and their...martyrdom, if one can put it that way.

What is it about Bolaño?  I picked up By Night in Chile just out of curiosity and a bit out of duty, latest buzzworthy Latin American author and so on, ought to check it out  -- but then by the second page I was hooked, hooked, hooked.  But he's one of those writers who are more interesting than anything one can say about them.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Judith Butler, _Undoing Gender_

THIS IS the fifth Judith Butler book I've read, and at least once in the course of reading each, I asked myself why I was beating my poor head on the brick wall of Butler's prose.  It usually occurred when I realized in reaching the bottom of a page that I had no idea what she was talking about.  But I would re-read the page, flip back to earlier pages to review what the main direction was, and soldier on, and I was always glad I did.  

If a writer's terrain is the badly-named, the dis-articulated, the mis-understood, the not-yet-recognized, well then, her writing is going to be one continual departure from the way that terrain has been written about before, and she is going to be hard to understand.  So be it.  It's worth it -- the enlargements of my mental horizon that I took away from the chapters "Longing for Recognition" and "The End of Sexual Difference?" alone were worth it.

The biographical spirals in the last two chapters I especially prized.  Butler has always seemed Olympian to me -- that is, if I stopped to think about it, I understood that she had gone to a kindergarten, that she bought groceries, had a Visa bill, and such, but my normal mode is to think of her as having emerged full-grown from the brow of Foucault and to inhabit some remote sphere from which she occasionally descends to earth to offer some timely and wise intervention.

In "The Question of Social Transformation," though, we get all this interesting stuff on the genesis and reception of Gender Trouble, and in "Can the 'Other' of Philosophy Speak?" we get all this even more interesting stuff about quarrelling parents, reading her mother's old college text of Spinoza in the basement...and it turns out she's Jewish, too!  Who knew?  Well, probably a lot of people, but not me.  I've never laid eyes on Judith Butler, actually -- just read several of her books.  But this was like finding out Dylan had had a bar mitzvah.  Dylan?  Really? 

So what I want now is a memoir by Judith Butler. I recall back in the 90s there were quite a few major academics getting autobiographical, Jane Tompkins, Frank Lentricchia, Alice Kaplan, a trend that was allowed to die a merciful death, true, but this would be different -- this would be Judith Butler, for crying out loud!  I haven't been this tantalized since that little excursus on Allan Bloom in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet.  Let's have her memoir, too!

Chris Hedges, _American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America_

HEDGES'S THESIS is right in his title, conveniently enough: the contemporary U. S. religious right -- D. James Kennedy, James Dobson, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the people trying to wrestle intelligent design into public school curricula, the people keeping the Left Behind series on the bestseller list, "dominionists" --  is disturbingly similar in its rhetoric, its emphases, and its psychological structure to the fascist movements that took control of Italy and Germany in the 20s and 30s of the last century.

Each of Hedges's chapters begins with an epigraph from one or another analyst of fascism (Stern, Arendt, Thewelheit, Bonhoeffer), and the book begins with Umberto Eco's "Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt."  Most of the explicit support of the thesis is in the first and last chapters, with the body chapters focusing on topics such as the religious right's quarrel with reason and science, its hyperventilating about masculinity, its sense of persecution, its desire to stifle disagreement, and so on... all of which do strikingly resemble various episodes in the history of fascism, especially in its gathering-popular-strength phases.

So -- Hedges makes a valuable and even necessary case here.  There should be no laughing off of these folks.  They mean it, and they perhaps can even make it happen if our national situation worsens.

I did find myself disliking Hedges's own righteous tone at times, though.  Making the point that for Christian fundamentalists "evolution is terrifying," Hedges states: "The miracles they insist they see performed around them, the presence of the guiding, comforting hand in their lives, the notion that there is a divine destiny specially preordained for them, crumbles into dust under the cold glare of evolution" (114).  Evolution has a glare?  The glare, moreover, has a temperature?  This low-temperature glare can reduce intangible entities to dust?  Good grief.  The agreement error (since the subject of "crumbles" must be "miracles" + "presence" +"notion," it ought to be "crumble") tips us off that Hedges is not really paying attention to what he is saying here.  He's too carried away with the vision of the pathetic needs of these pathetic people being zapped by the death-ray-vision of  The Origin of Species.

Or this on 147,  about the foot-soldiers of the movement: "The emotion-filled religious spectacles and spiritual bromides compensate for the emptiness of their lives."  How does he know these people's lives are empty -- or any emptier than yours or mine or his?  Don't we all like a little spectacle?  Aren't we all susceptible to some bromide or other?  Why the condescension?

Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming wasn't necessarily a better book than this, but she did at least spend enough time with some members of the rank-&-file of the Christian Right to be able to see them and present them as individuals rather than as mesmerised hordes.

I wish more people read Georges Bataille's essay "The Psychological Structure of Fascism."  He's more acute on what made fascism work than a lot of people, I think, and he would be useful at this moment when, as Hedges is all too correct in pointing out, we face a similar crisis.