Monday, September 28, 2009

Too hideous and too brief

now reading: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

The great thing about reading Infinite Jest first is that now everything else by DFW is a piece of cake. (What a strange cliche, by the way.) Brief Interviews With Hideous Men has many Jest-like digressions, bizarre subjects, and footnotes, but it is a tiny fraction of the length and commitment of Infinite Jest. I don't know that I would do Infinite Jest again right now, or ever, and I wonder if I had read Brief...Hideous... first if I would want more of him or not.

David Foster Wallace was really smart. This is part of what makes me give his books the benefit of my doubt a few times, when I could just as easily close them and walk away. I even stick with his writing about awful, just awful subjects, like torture and excrement. However, he still pisses me off when I get to those awful parts of his books. It's like if, say, Martin Scorsese or some other fantastic, creative, intelligent, visionary film director spent his time making nasty porn -- it would be such a waste. And weak.

As my devoted fans know, Brian and I read Infinite Jest in the first half of 2008. Reading that book takes a lot out of you. But the one thing with which I decidedly left that book was a sense of the creative genius and the regular-ol-life genius of DFW. I wanted to urge him to use his powers for good (99% of Jest) instead of evil (the awful animal-torture passage), not that my opinion would matter to him. I wanted him to not be like a playground bully, or a druken frat boy, or a coked out partier on a three-day binge, who has to take his show-offy antics one step too far, and tarnishes his powerful persona in the process by revealing that he is as capable of foolish mistakes as the rest of us.

And then, in September of 2008, he committed suicide, an act which sort of proved my point. Just when a reader thinks DFW has outsmarted us all, he succumbs to the same bullshit he had previously so fabulously deconstructed - we thought.

This is what I am experiencing all over -- and over and over -- as I read Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. It's a collection of experimental "short stories," wide-ranging tidbits with some recurring themes, tangents stacked upon tangents, incisive societal commentary presented in an entertaining fashion that fears no taboo, and utter brilliance marred by the occasional misstep when the taboo-busting for taboo-busting's sake defeats its own purpose. I think I like DFW, I think I want to read more of his writing, then I think that no, I've had enough; then I remember that we won't get anything new from him because he chickened out of facing this life and I become furious.

DFW's mind seems to have grappled with or be able to grapple with every problematic, frustrating, or amusing aspect of our post-modern world, until you remember that he bailed out. Suicide is a desperate act. DFW's writing has you convinced that he was way too above ever being desperate. What a joke. What a damn shame, that the curious mixture of admiration and disgust has to be tainted now by pity.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Twenty years after

now reading: 1984 by George Orwell

This little paperback has been sitting around what feels like forever, so I'm finally checking it off my Books You Should Have Read In High School Or At Any Point Since list.

Of course, everyone's favorite things to say about 1984 are 1. that it is "prophetic" and 2. that its message is "still relevant today." Seriously, I challenge you to go listen in on a discussion, or peruse some online reviews, of Orwell's famous book, and see how far you can get before running across those terms.

Well, I'm going to have to go ahead and agree with that. To wit:

"Talking to her, he realized how easy it was to present an appearance of orthodoxy while having no grasp whatever of what orthodoxy meant. In a way, the world view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird. " - p. 156

Hello, Fox News? George Dubya Bush? Right-wing contracts with America? And my personal favorite, the "war on terror." Anyone?

If for some reason you disagree with me, go Netflix American Blackout already. You'll see what I mean. Go on, I'll wait here. Hurry ba-ack!

Monday, September 07, 2009

Top Three Frustrating Novels

Inspired by a thread on a Goodreads forum, I have been thinking about my Top Three Most Frustrating Novels. This does not mean a book you hated the most, but rather a book you liked that made you angry in the end, or a book that had potential but never seemed to reach it. I will try to keep this specific spoiler free, but it will necessarily give some general spoilage.

1. The Life of Pi - This made me so mad because of the ending. The book was unbelievably well written, creative, and interesting, and then I felt the ending was a super cheap shot. I was working at Borders in Cambridge at the time, and I remember the whole group of us twentysomething supervisors reading it and discussing it. We were somewhat divided -- a couple thought the ending was brilliant, whereas I was furious at it. The book is so good that I continue to enthusiastically recommend it to people, and I even think I need to continute to understand the ending on multiple levels -- but damn! did it ever infuriate me!

2. Infinite Jest -- This would be another book with a frustrating ending whose genius becomes clear after you pick up the book from where you've hurled it across the room, except Infinite Jest is too big to be hurled anywhere. Actually, the ending is not what earns Jest a place on my list; instead it's the portion somewhere around 60% (?) of the way through where one of the psycho characters goes on a psycho murderous rampage killing stray and pet animals. Wallace, in his chillingly good writing style, delivers the macabre details of this lunatic who kills rats, cats, and dogs. It is hard to get through, but what pisses me off the most is that he lingers over the cat killing, disturbingly and I guess somewhat pornographically, and then goes on to the dog slaughter for like a page. It made me hate DFW a little bit for a while. I had to put the book down for a month or more and considered not finishing it. I hate cat haters, and I can't tell exactly to what extent he is one, but it was gross. I consider that portion of the book a huge flaw, which gets lost in the hundreds of pages of sheer genius surrounding it.

3. The Handmaid's Tale - I get annoyed by this book partly because of how people fall all over themselves loving it. I think it is my least favorite Atwood -- and by the way, I love her persona and intelligence, love hearing her speak, and love reading her books. The Handmaid's Tale, to me, is a kind of smug, reactionary novel that falls just short of the beautiful, wise literary feminism of which Atwood has made a career and a life, but it does so quietly and profoundly so nobody notices the frustrating things about it. If it had been written ten years later, Oprah would have picked it for her book club and then maybe a few more people would understand what I mean about the sensationalism, not-quite-perfected writing and storytelling. It's like "deep thought for dummies." There are better dystopian novels, better philosophical novels, and better socio-political-feminist novels, but because it's Margaret Atwood who has since only got better and better, The Handmaid's Tale always gets a free pass, and that bugs me.

What a fun exercise this was!