Sunday, June 29, 2008

You can't go home again

NOW READING: Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

The gamekeeper, aka Lady Chatterley's lover himself, is often not even named. Pages and pages will go by where he is just "the keeper" or "him." Lady Chatterley, on the other hand, has two names; she is usually narrated as "Connie" while other characters refer to her as the Lady or her Ladyship or whatever. This says a lot about identity, class, who we are, and "being someone" in the world.

Well, our little friend the keeper is not just your average coal town dude. He was in the army for many years and he was the assistant to some top dog or something, so basically he has hob-nobbed with the elite before, and this is why I think Lady Chatterley is attracted to him. (As opposed to if he were a total plebe.) But now he's back and can't escape his place anymore. He even switches back and forth between proper gentleman talk and the poor folk vernacular. He's lost. He doesn't belong in either place.

"He did not know what to do with himself. Since he had been an officer for some years, and had mixed among the other officers and civil servants, with their wives and families, he had lost all ambition to 'get on.' There was a toughness...and unlivingness about the middle and upper classes, as he had known them, which just left him feeling cold and different from them.

So, he had come back to his own class. To find there, what he had forgotten during his absence of years, a pettiness and a vulgarity of manner extremely distasteful. He admitted now at last, how important manner was. He admitted, also, how important it was even to pretend not to care about the halfpence and the small things of life. But among the common people there was no pretense. A penny more or less on the bacon was worse than a change in the Gospel. He could not stand it." - p. 193

I have felt that way a million times. Sometimes when I go back to Phoenix I look around and think -- really? Would it kill you to be a bit more hip? But then in New York and L.A. I make fun of people for being slaves to trends, appearances, and fashion. I do recall moments where I have been almost embarrassed by how provincial the folk back home seem. I just want them to play it cool, to not act so dramatic when I talk about rents of $2000 (that are more than their mortgages). But when I start thinking they're ignorant, I think, "I suck!" Because when I go back to Boston or New York and meet people who've never been west of the Mississippi (or the Hudson) I think, "Who are you people?"

Come to think of it, who am I? Maybe Neil Diamond, too, has had his "gamekeeper" moment:

...nowadays I'm lost between two shores
L.A.'s fine but it ain't home,
New York's home, but it ain't mine no more
"I am," I said
to no one there
and no one heard at all...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Only boys who save their pennies make her rainy day...

NOW READING: Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Part of Lady Chatterley’s problem – a large part – is that society places all these weird constraints on her/everyone. I think a lot of us in the so-called modern world of melting pots, student loans, civil rights and such believe that people can grow up to be anything they want to be. We tell ourselves that things like her Ladyship on the manor, or people refusing to cross class boundaries, are things of the past, and yet…are they really?

I mean, how often do you really hang out with someone from a wildly different background than yours? I think the only thing we really ever cross is geographic lines. Seriously, think about it. I remember a guy I worked with at public radio’s The Savvy Traveler said some major sociology survey had shown that we all actually tend to live in “small worlds” of 10,000 or so people, that we tend to associate throughout our lives with the same people, who share our education level, economic status, and professions.

So really, we can easily sympathize with Lady C. when she laments that ol’ saying:

“The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few in most personal experience. There’s lots of good fish in the sea . . . maybe . . . but the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself, you are likely to find very few good fish in the sea.” - p. 67

Living in L.A., hanging out with so many creative types, I started meeting more and more people who hadn’t gone to college but who were intelligent and vibrant and successful and creative. But being an artist or actor without a college degree is somehow OK in the eyes of those same people who look down on the Borders manager who DOES have a college degree but has a job that doesn’t require it. In fact I’d say working for Borders opened my eyes to the intense and very widespread prejudice against retail workers in this society, which was so silly to me: I met all kinds of smart, funny, degree-holding people at Borders. But everyone looks down on retail workers. What gives? Why do people feel justified criticizing someone who would dare to be happy in a job that doesn't pay well.

I am often highly amused in law school – highly! – particularly when I see the limited experience of people from Long Island (and Jersey) who have wound up at Hofstra and have seen precious little outside their own little small world (which may not even reach 10,000 as far as I can see). We have chapters in books called Essential Lawyering about how to interact with people from “all different backgrounds,” instructing law students to resist making assumptions, to think about what different things can mean to different people. Translation: "News flash! Not everyone is as privileged as you." Isn’t it funny that lawyers seem to interact most with the extremes of society – big corporate movers and shakers or those totally down and out, and often indigent? But your average random middle-class person: how often do I ever have need for a lawyer? Never.

I was thinking about this a lot when I was in Honduras, contemplating poverty, and again when I was forced to buy new clothes to wear to the wedding last weekend after Greyhound lost my bag. I have less money in my bank account right now than a whole lot of “poorer” people. I mean, my source of income is student loans. But I’m not considered to be in “poverty.” And how do I not slip down a class? Is it because of my parents, whom I haven’t lived with in a dozen years? Because of the apartment I rent? I don’t have any assets. I couldn’t get a loan if my life depended on it (other than a student loan). It’s so interesting to contemplate.

It’s as if there are certain assumptions and expectations that go along with defining us, which are not based on facts or reality, and as long as we can keep up those appearances that’s somehow who we “are.”

So when you think we're better somehow than the society that kept Lady Chatterley from loving a Tevershall groundskeeper, think about how shocked you'd be if for example some six-figure businessperson you knew started dating their "illegal immigrant" day laborer. Or just think about how we feel when we watch Cops. We think we are better than other people.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Not going to take this lying down

NOW READING: Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

This novel is not just smut, you know. It has a lot to say about issues of class. In fact, I would say the questions and issues of class are easily the prevailing theme, whereas Lady Chatterley's stumbling upon ecstasy is more of a random plot point.

Should a "lady" have a dalliance with a "common man" ... the feelings of the nurse toward the "masters" and the ruling class that killed her husband, a mine worker ... the intellectual life versus the physical life, the ivory tower versus stopping to smell the flowers... these are the things the reader is asked to ponder.

In fact, the novel is not particularly salacious at all. When there are exciting or revealing scenes (OK, sex scenes), they're really straightforward and brief. They also are part of the plot. The scenes are not gratuitous, so I find it amusing that the book caused such a scandal upon its publication and took thirty years to get to the U.S. I guess it's not that surprising though. But it's funny to think that I know many people who were alive and kicking when this book was not allowed to be published here.

"And we're still building churches, burning books
Killing the babies to feed the crooks,
Who said the world would turn out fair?"

--the wonder stuff

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

There are ladies present

NOW READING: Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Scandalous! Ha ha. It was almost a no-brainer, choosing Lawrence for my 'L' author. Jack London gave a little competition: how is it that I have never read White Fang or The Call of the Wild? But I think I read them in some, like, junior high reading book or something, abridged. So technically Jack was disqualified.

So far, D.H. Lawrence is really more philosophical about sex than anything else. But he has named body parts and used certain words that you can't say on television. And I'm only, like, 60 pages in. Also, on the first page Mr. Lady Chatterley gets paralyzed in the war, setting up the premise, see -- he comes home unable to do anything from the waist down. So that makes this much more of a moral conundrum than the shocking tale of a scandalous woman. But over the years I never really heard about the moral conundrumness of it.

Who reads D.H. Lawrence these days, anyway? Anyone?

Friday, June 13, 2008

When I get that oceanic feeling...

NOW FINISHED: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

Did I mention I like being able to read books? And by that I mean complete books. In their entirety. Not hundreds of assigned pages from a casebook that totals more than a thousand pages. That just leaves me feeling incomplete and empty inside. I think I am going to finish ten books this summer -- maybe more.

In the end, Darkness at Noon is really good and I even recommend it. It's a great examination of why the revolution failed. It doesn't really matter which revolution -- although in this case it's basically about Russia without flat-out admitting it's about Russia -- because Koestler adequately points out how every revolution pretty much fails.

It's all about the relative maturity of the masses. As Rubashov nears his sentence and thus the end of his life, he reveals and wishes he had more time here on earth to contemplate this theory. Basically, people aren't ready for revolution - or any system - when it comes. So, for example, the steam engine came along and totally changed society, and this is a relatively new thing, so as Rubashov puts it (this being the first half of the twentieth century), "The people of Europe are still far from having mentally digested the consequences of the steam engine" (p. 172). Whereas in a politically mature time, when generations have become comfortable with a socio-political-economic system, the masses can better understand it.

This is all very interesting political theory, but I rather like thinking of it in terms of a certain political candidate and a certain way of mass communication/fundraising/social networking etc we have seen take off recently in our (global) society:

"In periods of maturity it is the duty and the function of the opposition to appeal to the masses. In periods of mental immaturity, only demagogues invoke the 'higher judgment of the people.'" (p. 173)

But enough about Obama. Onto Lost:

At the very end, while in his cell awaiting death, Rubashov talks about the "oceanic sense," a feeling of connectedness and oneness, a transcendental kind of state, of contemplation or ecstasy or both, in which "one's personality dissolved as a grain of salt in the sea; but at the same time the infinite sea seemed to be contained in the grain of salt" (p.260).

This immediately got me thinking about Lost and the "Oceanic Six." Koestler cites Freud, though not by name ("the greatest and soberest of modern psychologists," Rubashov muses) as the source of this term "oceanic sense." A quick check of Lostpedia shows they've picked up the Freud reference, from Civilization and its Discontents, but I think Darkness at Noon and Koestler's take on it deserve some attention from the Losties, too.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Oh yeah...

I think I forgot to ever tell you that my edition of Darkness at Noon is ISBN: 1-4165-4026-1. But it's not like I've been quoting much from its pages anyway. I hope to get back on the stick with 'L' -- which, by the way, is going to be D.H. Lawrence. Get stoked! But not until we're through with these revolutionaries gone awry!

The audacity of honor

NOW READING: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

Man it's nice to not be in the thick of a terrible semester, and thus have lots of time to zip through my novels. I am already nearly finished with my 'K' author and just this evening picked up my 'L' author book because I'll probably start tomorrow. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah!

So, Darkness. I've hardly told you anything about it. Well, I'd always heard of it and never really knew what it was about. It's basically about what Koestler had to say about Russia and the Communist revolution gone wrong, and he throws in a few novel-like elements (a character or two, a setting, some names) to make it a story instead of just his random spewing of thoughts. He is yet another author who would have benefited by being able to blog, I think. But it would have left us with less, because people spew a lot into the blogosphere and we all take it for granted and then maybe some great books don't get written because the writers are all cybered out. (I'm looking at you, Self.)

Koestler is REALLY good at that ol' trick of following a theory/political idea through to its logical conclusion and showing how poorly that turns out. In fact, his main character, Rubashov, is kind of being forced to falsely confess for that very reason. He's basically admitting to crimes that his interrogators can logically deduce would happen based on what he believed.

This is all very interesting, and it's a pretty good read, especially the latter half. One interesting idea I've been pondering is the notion of why one prisoner might never be willing to confess to something he didn't do, will never feed the interrogators what they want, insists on dying with honor and integrity. Rubashov asks, what is honor, really? And isn't it the most vain thing of all to be so caught up in not smudging yourself, when the people and the revolution may require this sacrifice of you? It's really interesting.

It's also full of irony.

I think readers of The Prince would enjoy this book, as well as readers of 1984 and Brave New World. I think Machiavelli's work has some major overlooked sarcasm. This book puts it out there like that, too. Frankly, this whole country of Bushwashed and Obamified people could use a dose of this kind of political pondering as well, but they're probably too busy attending to all the important issues of the day to read a novel...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Wave bye-bye to the autocrat

NOW READING: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

It has come to my attention that I have not really shared any of my positive thoughts about Infinite Jest. There were positive thoughts, of course. I really wish I had been blogging more as I went along. (Silly law school! Who said you could take over my brain?)

What DFW does is create this bizarre and bizarrely compelling world. Several worlds, actually, wrapped into one larger world, and while it is socio-political, it is also character driven, this world(s). The kids at the tennis academy are ten kinds of funny, although I just see Hal as an exaggerated version of DFW himself. Hal's family is really hard to explain. His father makes avant garde films, and one of these is largely the point of the book, but his filmography is the most hilarious skewing of post-modern art that takes itself too seriously in a world that doesn't take itself seriously enough that you are ever likely to see.

I often preferred the world of the halfway house down the street from the tennis academy. The conversations between Gately, who was still working on his recovery from drug addiction and trying every day to keep the strength to not go back Out There, and whatever random halfway house resident came to him that day, were absolutely hilarious. The most pitch-perfect skewering of AA while still knowing quite enough about it to show that DFW obviously had at least SOME use for 12-step recovery...

Did I mention the halfway house was called "Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House"? And how about the fans blowing U.S. waste into the Great Concavity, what used to be much of the Northeast, now ceded to Canada? Let alone the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed (U.H.I.D.), whose members don veils to hide and be united ... and Joelle, whom we know to be the Prettiest Girl of All Time (P.G.O.A.T.), wearing a veil for reasons we can only speculate...and Hal's brother, whom she used to date, who so loathes the cockroaches that invade his Tucson residence that he puts glasses over them, trapping them, where they suffocate until the glasses are fogged with their carbon dioxide output. A great creepy image, until you start questioning, do insects even breathe that way? That much? But of course, like everyone else this guy has his pathetic motives and a million weaknesses and quirks.

And that's how it all is. The whole book. Yes. The jest, it is infinite.

By comparison, Darkness at Noon now seems kind of frothy, actually, despite being about political prisoners facing the threat of torture and execution.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

It's impossible for me to ruin the ending of Infinite Jest for you

NOW FINISHED: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
NOW READING: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

Apologies for the hiatus! I was in Honduras. Which is not to say that I couldn't blog from Honduras, but I was kind of preoccupied with other things, like, you know, building a house and stuff. Recall, I finished Infinite Jest in a frenzy before leaving for Honduras and I've got to tell you, that was as much so I wouldn't have to lug the heavy thing on the plane with less than 100 pages left as it was any desire to oh-boy-I-want-to-finish-it and "see how it ends."

Because, by the way -- it doesn't end. I will go so far as to say it flat out doesn't have an ending. When you "finish" it you are sort of compelled to go back and start reading the first chapter again to figure out what happened. (Warning: even that doesn't really ever bring satisfaction or closure or anything.) And as I said that night I finished it, at midnight, packed and ready to take off for Honduras, I just didn't care. I went back and flipped through the first chapter, but I was mostly thinking, "Ugh."

Now, I'm sure there are those who will say "David Foster Wallace is brilliant! No one can write like him! He has mastered irony! The loop of Infinite Jest that makes people die because they succumb to the pleasurable entertainment is allegorical to us!" and so on. Well, that's mostly true. But it doesn't make Infinite Jest a Great Novel.

Is it a great book? I think it's a great something. A great work, a great endeavor. DFW is definitely a great writer. He's sick. Talented as the day is long, and mad skills of digression, humor, wordplay, all while being probably one of the smartest people alive. And self-aware. But is it a great book? I keep coming back to that question. Even if you take the novel question out of it (though I don't want to take the novel question out of it, because he chose to write a novel) you are still left looking for something. An ending? A point? A summing up? Would I have been equally disappointed with any summing up he could have done? Probably.

This NY Times review made several points I agreed with, including that the book really just seems like an excuse for DFW to show off his incredible writing skills. And, if you think about it, that's not really a criticism, or even a salient point. I mean, isn't that what books do - show off the writer's skills? And painting shows off the painter's skills, and gymnastics meets show off the gymnast's skills, and so on. So why does it strike us as a salient point when we read that line of the review?

Is it because of the smug factor?Because I do think DFW comes off as smug. In the book, the fact that he comes across at all could be considered smug. (Since it is, after all, "fiction.") And the single thing that pissed me off the most when I read it was the scene that made me put the book aside for almost two months, and that I still think at root was part of his twisted imagination and went with the flow of the book but was amplified or lengthened soley for shock value. It was when I saw him as writing for shock value that my respect for all his brilliance plummeted. Can it be that we don't want books we read to be "just an excuse" for the writer to show off her/his skills? That we want them to be something more?

I'm speaking of course as a blogger. It could be argued that I spew words out into the blogosphere that don't "need" to be there. Sure. But I can say sincerely that "showing off my skills" is, like, not on my mind when I blog. I become inspired to write things. I feel compelled. Why do I have this blog? I don't know. I like to write it. I like that some people read it. I like thinking about things. I like leaving a record. I would still blog if I had no readers. I used to write in a journal, after all.

I'm also speaking as a reader of War and Peace (the book that gave birth to this blog, remember). I keep somehow coming back to compare Jest to Tolstoy's tome. I don't know how Leo did it, but he wrote a garganutan, wonderful novel. I realize that DFW didn't have to do that, and might not have set out to do that, or actively didn't want to do that, or whatever. I realize also that Leo gave us far less psychosis, drug use, irony, post-modernism, and so on. But I just keep thinking somehow, if I were to read one of these "big books" again, which of those two would it be? And guess what - sorry DFW - I think it might be the big W & P.

Meanwhile, I am STILL looking for people (besides me and Brian) who have actually read Infinte Jest in its entirety and have a lot to say about it. I wonder what it's like to recall it years later. I wonder what it's like to read other works of DFW's after reading Jest. I find myself kind of wanting to read his first novel, The Broom of the System.

Timely political note: an essay from Wallace's Consider the Lobster about his time on the Straight Talk Express bus with John McCain in 2000 has been re-packaged as a stand-alone work (it is, after all, a 124-page essay) and has just been released as McCain's Promise, now that we've got 2008 going on. Crass commercialism or cunning political tool? As Infinite Jest reveals, you'll probably never really be able to tell the difference.