Archive for the 'Books' Category

Unfinished Business

“I have a feeling you’re going to read this book like most people read ‘Harry Potter.'” – friend, Meghan Witzke re: me & David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

Himself

Rarely do such high levels of excitement and sadness meet like this. Because I can’t stop talking about the book to people – and because many of them weren’t aware of the situation – they keep asking, “How did he die?” which keeps catching me off-guard before having to explain that he killed himself. Suicide is different territory to color the normal experience of anticipation.

You read the first page and you want to cry it’s so beautiful. You can’t help but stop every few pages, when the little cup of disbelief spills over again and you can’t believe someone so talented wouldn’t want to keep living and then immediately catch yourself and judge yourself for thinking about life – and much more someone with mental illness’s experience of it – in the simple terms of easy-to-quantify, pros-vs-cons. And then you read a few more pages and get lost in his words again; in how acute his talent was for how to translate specific, minute details of experience into the kinds of sentences that make you go, “Yes! That’s exactly how that feels!” Here, Claude Sylvanshine is on a plane:

Wisps and flashes of uncolored cloud flashed past the window. Above and below were a different story, but there was always something disappointing about clouds when you were inside them; they ceased to be clouds at al. It just got really foggy.

His observations about people were equally deft:

The trick was homing in on which facts were important — Reynolds was a rifle to Sylvanshine’s shotgun.

The book’s editor, Michael Pietsch, provides a note at the beginning of the book, explaining the process of retrieving a 250-page prepared, finished manuscript from Wallace’s home, as well as a large duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s sacks filled with various drafts of chapters, false starts, dead ends, including notes from Wallace about them, which, while providing some insight about the overall scope and vision of the book, did not give any indication as to the order of the pages or chapters. Pietsch writes,

The novel’s central story does not have a clear ending, and the question invariably arises: How unfinished is this novel? How much more might there have been?…Some notes among David’s manuscript pages suggest that he did not intend for the novel to have a plot substantially beyond the chapters here. One note says the novel is “a series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens.”…Still another suggests that throughout the novel “something big threatens to happen but doesn’t actually happen.” These lines could support a contention that the novel’s apparent incompleteness is in fact intentional.

He also explains that the entire bulk of pages and notes will eventually be on display to the public at the University of Texas. Think of that: it’s the closest thing you have to a tangible presentation of an author’s writing process. It’s an opportunity not without its conflict, though, as is the whole idea of publishing and reading the book at all. Is this right? Would the writer even want me looking at this? Pietsch understands this feeling, and ends his note this way:

Everyone who worked with David knows well how he resisted letting the world see work that was not refined to his exact standard. But an unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look? David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.

All That Remains

It is unavoidably worthy of discussion that a notoriously perfectionistic writer’s final novel is being published first-of-all after his death, and secondly unfinished and incomplete. Because it’s known that Wallace often felt he couldn’t get out of his own way, it seems deeply significant that he didn’t even get to choose the order of chapters he wrote. But is there actually any real significance there? A case could be made that after Infinite Jest, the only way to up the literary ante would be to publish a work in progress as the finished thing (since after all, is any work of art ever complete, or does someone just decide here’s as good a place as any to put it to bed?), but is that true? Is it fair? Or is it just a way of talking around the irony embedded in thick tragedy?

It should go without saying, but maybe among people like me doesn’t, that as interesting as the book and the story around its publishing are, they would be given up in a moment – the book given back unread and us all going back to patiently waiting for it for who knows how long – for the return of its author. And hopefully the true nature of the interest for us is in fact affection for Wallace and his writing and not some sort of elitist rubber-necking. We have the situation we have, created without and then experienced fully by us. And while sadness drapes the proceedings, it is the truth of this world and even yes I will declare a loving God that there can be/have been both beautiful and good things to come out of it all.

The New Yorker published an extensive piece in 2009 called “The Unfinished,” which talked about his life, his work, his death, and the impact on writing and writers he left behind. Recently there was a great article about Karen Green, Wallace’s widow, in which she talks about being furious and trying to move on and make art again and also mentions “watching The Wire box-set for the third time,” which is a detail that just kills me. It’s a great piece. Jonathan Franzen, in his interview in TIME, said he wrote most of his newest novel after Wallace’s death. I’m mentioning written things, yes, because they’re a tangible product. There’s no way to gauge the impact of a person, let alone one with any celebrity, but I know what it feels like to be impacted by another person, as I’m sure you do. You know it by the way you instinctively connect things to them, moments in your life, pieces of inspiration. I know he’s impacted me and will continue to. I know I love his words and how they’ve impacted me as a writer and as a person. I wish he was still alive. A lot of people do. But that doesn’t mean his death can’t/doesn’t/won’t have meaning. And the question of why he couldn’t have just kept having an impact by continuing to live is an unanswerable on this side of things as how different The Pale King would be if he’d finished writing it. It doesn’t nullify meaning, it just makes it harder to see sometimes.

Me Talking About David Foster Wallace, Then Reading From The Pale King (Note: The reading itself starts around 4:55)

Hyper-Critical-Mass

There’s just too much is the main issue right now. With a finite number of time-units and cultural consumables, how can there be such a great disparity between the two? Forget, even, news-related items. Think how unprecedented, really, is an individual’s particular tastes and experience (which for the purposes of sanity and this singular blog we’ll relegate to artistic experience). My own group of friends’ tastes are too varied to even begin to describe (I know, because I just started writing it all and realized it was too complex for this entry) – from film to TV to music to literature to podcasts to theater to graphic design (now that’s broad) to comic books to photography, and on til morning goes the list. How to follow it all? How to keep up? How to respond even to just that barrage of ABSOLUTE MUSTS in all those mediums? It’s unending. It’s overwhelming. (TV and Literature is just the worst to me. Great mediums, both of which I love, but there is seriously so much volume of great that I don’t have any time for the good or the very good. Except that it’s almost a guarantee that something or other I watch because it’s someone’s favorite won’t be my cup of tea, meanwhile something others may write off as “pretty good” might be a revelation to me (Can you say “Community”?))

The following litany is from Friday. That is, this is what I consumed on during some spare time in the morning, during my drives to-and-from work, and sitting at work for twelve hours (parts of which also involved some more driving). Later in the day, thinking back on it, I felt overwhelmed when I tried to place it all. So often there is a giant list of things to get through that the order and rate they’re in is discarded. Starting to think that might be a mistake. That when ambition overtakes absorption the point may be muted. There are plenty of people, no doubt, for whom this list is small; who have no trouble multi-tasking. My roommate watches movies and shows while he works on art. I can’t do that. My attention has to be devoted, and I need more time to consider.

Lately I have issues recalling specific episodes of podcasts like “This American Life” or “The Tobolowsky Files.” Except my few favorites, my attention may have been too divided to retain enough of each story. That’s a problem, my problem, which is why this is essentially an attempt to retain something from each thing.

TV:

The Office“Threat Level Midnight” – A very playful episode. Look, The Office isn’t what it used to be, and I’m not quite as gaga over this one as many reviewers seem to be, but it was a really-good-to-near-great episode. I enjoyed all of the small moments with former series regulars.

MUSIC:

Mumford & Sons“Sigh No More” – What a great album this is! Folksy, banjo-laden music that moves and thumps. Here are songs that are about something; you can feel it deep in your bones.

From “The Cave”

So make your siren’s call/ And sing all you want/ I will not hear what you have to say

‘Cause I need freedom now/And I need to know how/ To live my life as it’s meant to be

And I will hold on hope/ And I won’t let you choke/ On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain/ And I will change my ways/ I’ll know my name as it’s called again

And now hear a song played with two fists clenched:

Phoenix“It’s Never Been Like That” ; “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” – Yeah, they’re a hipster band to some degree, they just did the soundtrack for Sofia Copolla’s new film “Somewhere,” and I honestly haven’t listened to them enough to be able to articulate their M.O. They’re similar to Vampire Weekend, except even better.

PODCASTS:

This American Life“What Is Money?” – Few shows tackle complex subject matter this consistently – with staggering insight. This episode looks at the general abstract-ness of money and the two shocking instances – one in Brazil, one here – where the solution to a national crisis sounds more like something out of one of the absurdo-circular subplots in “Catch-22.” It’s like arguing semantics with an inanimate object. But somehow, these ideas work (well, one of them we’ll wait & see).

Radiolab “Cities” – So okay this would be the other show that aims just as high on a weekly basis. In this episode, hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explore what makes a city distinct. They start off comparing the rates at which patrons from different cities walk, then they speak with some experts who analyze that data (among other data) and have created a mathematical formula that is eerily accurate in predicting how many, for instance, people there are in that city; how many libraries, schools, theatres, et al. Then the discussion transitions to what the data can’t tell you – the soul or spirit of a city. Oh how many applications about truth and life can we draw from this? Oh how many types of many? The show ends with a moving portrait of a city torn apart and all-but abandoned (except that not in one final heartbreaking, beautiful way). Hearing it made me think of people who grow up in a place and decide to make their home there; have their entire extended family there. To stay, to remain. I’m not one of those people. I moved around to four different cities during my formative years. My parents now live somewhere else. So do I. Except now I’m somewhere and I can’t imagine leaving, although that too is less about the place than the people. You find a community and you want to make your life with them.

PLAY:

One of me, three of you. I like where this is going.

“Spring Awakening” – Ashley loves this musical, from which I’ve heard all of two songs (her idea it’s clear enough without saying, but nonetheless). Can’t recall either one. But a couple years ago, blissfully unaware of the musical (small miracles and all that), I bought the play during one of my online searches for all-things Jonathan Franzen (he did the translation of Patrick Wedekind’s more-than-100-year-old work). I read his introduction – which is not-at-all flattering of the musical – but never made my way past the first scene. I’m told the musical retains maybe 50% of the dialogue (it’s a relatively short read at about 80 pages), and it is unfortunately one-note. The play rails against any notion of parental, educational, and spiritual guidance, save for one mother whose idea is to let her 14-year old figure things out for himself. The writing is beautiful – Franzen’s translation is eloquent and sly and contains a number of passages that feel as much like literature as dialogue. Among other things, the play explores all manor of sexual experience (which might be more harrowing to see than read, except the idea of children committing these acts is undercut by having sexy 20-somethings inhabit the roles (because otherwise it might be oh um uh illegal?)) Still, the themes of repression-in-the-name-of-innocence (although it’s really ignorance), the fear of even the idea of the subjects, and the youthful speculation and confusion about school, life, and sex are all fully realized. My one wonder is how much stock the author placed in the logic of his pubescent subjects. They are true in that they make sense to us at that age. Are we to see them as free-thinkers who are stifled? Or as developing thinkers who are dissuaded from maturing at all. There are arguments to be made for both sides.

Act II, scene i:

MORTIZ: Before the exam, I prayed to God to give me tuberculosis and let me off the hook. And I got off it –although even now I can sense it hanging in the distance, with a glimmering around it that makes me scared to raise my eyes, day and night. — But now that I’m on the ladder I’ll keep climbing. My guarantee is the logical certainty that I can’t fall without breaking my neck.

Act II, scene iii:

HANSY: *Moritura me salutat! — Girl, girl, why do you press your knees together? — Why even now? — — Are you mindful of inscrutable eternity?? — One twitch, and I’ll set you free! — One feminine gesture, one sign of lust, of sympathy, girl! — I’ll frame you in gold and hang you above my bed — Don’t you see that it’s your chasteness alone that gives birth to my debaucheries? — Woe, woe unto those who are inhuman.

*Moritura me salutat = “Those doomed to death salute me.”

Perfect Paragraph

Sometimes there is a moment in a book that just gets everything right. You read it, stop, think for a minute and recover from the gut-punch. I’m really loving Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and late in the book, there’s that moment, in a book filled with greatness already; but this one could stand alone as its own mini-short story. A complete beginning middle end, conflict, heartbreak, wonder, and writing so good you consider learning how to write all over again.

As they went out of the room Rosa turned to look at Tommy and had an impulse to go back, to get into his bed with him and just lie there for a while feeling that deep longing, that sense of missing him desperately, that came over her whenever she held him sleeping in her arms. She closed the door behind them.



Point, Counterpoint

Upon further reflection and continued readings, I may remove Malcolm Gladwell’s book from my favorites of non-fiction. His is among the most popular in a trend of high-concept quirk non-fiction; books investigating social phenomena in macro, boiled down in easy-to-digest case studies.

For instance: I was intrigued by the preview for “Freakonomics” this fall, but when the movie got mediocre-to-poor reviews, my interest waned and I decided why not just read the book instead? And what an exercise in frustration that turned out to be. The concept is intriguing – unearthing the hidden and strange truth behind all sorts of conventional wisdom – and every chapter title contains a clever idea – comparisons of school teachers and sumo wrestlers, or Ku Klux Klan and real-estate agents. The introduction to the book dazzled me enough to write in the margins: “Why isn’t all writing this exciting?”

Let's Get Our Freak On

Oh for short-lived enthusiasm. On page four, I wrote, “Uh-oh. My skepticism meter is acting up.” On page nine, talking about political contributions, they state, as if we all know this already, “Chances are you’ll give the money in one of two situations: a close race, in which you think the money will influence the outcome; or a campaign in which one candidate is a sure winner…” My note: “How did they arrive at this position?” It may well be true, but they haven’t explained how they know it’s true (and now wait a second now that you mention it, isn’t that assumption itself another instance of conventional wisdom?). By page 31, I was downright annoyed and I took it out on the paperback’s margins: “By writing complicated things as forgone conclusions you a)don’t respect your readers and b)turn the inspiration behind the book into a gimmick.” Settle down, self.

My frustration continued throughout the book, although there are some very interesting ideas and case studies in it. I’m just not so sure that they mean exactly what the writers want them to mean. Often they draw general conclusions from a single situation, instead of providing further investigation to see how anomalous that situation is/is not. Again, I think they are right about some of this stuff, but they don’t convince us. In fact, they fall into the very trap the book professes to condemn. It doesn’t shatter the notion of “conventional wisdom,” it substitutes a new unfounded or poorly investigated conclusion for another.

Sometimes, though, it was frustrating how bold the illogic was. Near the end of the book, talking about common first names, they list the Top 20 names that signify low-education parents (minimum 100 occurrences) and the the Top 20 names that signify high education parents (minimum 10 occurrences). Unless there was a typo- in the book, there is a problem here. The charts tell us that certain names tend to have poorly- or well-educated parents. The low education names are normal-ish names while the high education names are all very obscure. Hmm… of course they are. The way a name gets on the list, after all, is not dependent on the number of times the name comes up, it’s dependent on the education of the parent. By requiring at least 100 occurrences for low-income names, you ensure that the names on the list will be more common. If there were only 11 occurrences of poorly-educated parents naming their kids “Clementine” or “Waverly,” (both names on the well-educated list), it would not make the low-education list, because there weren’t enough occurrences. The inverse is true as well. By requiring fewer occurrences of a given name for the high-education list, while using the parent’s education, not the child’s name, as the basis for inclusion, you basically create the conclusion you want: well-educated parents’ kids have unique names while poorly-educated parents’ kids have common/bland names. The lists would look different if you made the requirements equal, but it probably wouldn’t create the kind of disparity that the authors wanted to include. As a result, the book posits a more dynamic gap between the poorly- and well-educated. The only problem, of course, being it’s not necessarily true. I don’t think this is some kind of conspiracy, I think more likely it’s the kind of combination of sloppy research mixed with faulty logic that fills and plagues the book.

It may be human nature to desire difficult things to be simplified and made easier to digest. There is value and validity to moving slowly during introductions to difficult concepts, such as in classroom settings. But over the last decade especially – and I point here to a correlation (though not necessarily causation) between this and the sheer amount of mew media (which does, incidentally include blogs like this one) and the emphasis on the push to share the same information in as many different sources as possible – the simplified version of events, of analysis is often the only one offered (on one hand) and the only one sought (on the other). It’s an ironic, ugly trend. It overlooks important aspects, leaves much unexamined, and presents complicated, intriguing things as boring-shaped, limitation-based digestibles… in more formats than ever before. It’s like the not-so-harebrained scheme from Ryan on “The Office” to link up every conceivable communication portal through one system: WUPHF!

And again, look no further than this blog. My twitter feed is available on the right side, and my twitter links to my blog, as does my Facebook. But that’s a tiny example. I’m talking about when people require a single to device to be phone, iPod, word-processor, GPS, camera, edit-bay, Television, video-game console, credit card machine, and live-in lover. Or when something needs to go from a website to twitter to phone apps to Facebook group. Or that cool-looking commercial with the guy who insists on watching his movie in every room of his house while he gets a drink of water. Pause the fucking movie! You’re not giving it your full attention anyway!

It goes without saying that there are people in every avenue providing depth of content. Some of them shy away from new media completely, some utilize it better than anyone. But are those the exceptions or the norm? Most of what bombards us is any combination of cheap, fast, simple, and bland. But there is so much of it that everything, from art to politics to how we live our lives, is entrenched in it. And it’s yet another difficult, maybe impossible job to figure out exactly how everything influences and affects the others. I can’t bring myself to listen to music on the radio anymore. Most “indie” movies are just as monotonously plodded as studio films (because more and more indie movies are studio films now, or at least they’re made with the same mentality: SELL YOUR MOVIE, MAKE A PROFIT!!!). And Oh My God Reality TV is a bigger, more destructive evil than the Venom symbiont.

I tell ya, I don't believe he really has that many arms.

A recent Newsweek article discusses the notion that the modern presidency is a larger responsibility than one man can handle. That the country is too diverse in its needs, the political culture too complex for one man to successfully handle, even if he has the support of Congress. “Lincoln had time to think…That kind of downtime just doesn’t exist anymore.” There are too many programs, too much activity. And while I voted for an Obama I believed (and do still believe) could be the leader of change by navigating those complexities through delegation and intelligent government programs for jobs, welfare, and education, many of his biggest enthusiasts are learning that their notion of Obama as a one-man presidential rock-show was not only naive, it was downright anachronistic.

Meanwhile, 24-hour news channels simplify more and more for more and more minutes of every day. And hey, maybe they have to. How do you cover everything everywhere when all of it is happening at the same time all the time? A better question might be, is it an intelligent aim to seek to report accurately and extensively on everything that happens? Is everything news worthy? Right now the answer is, Yes, if a given story is important to the other major stations, or if it isn’t important to the other major stations but there’s the possibility that the right spin can make it appear as though it should be.

Who is getting frustrated, by show of hands? Overwhelmed? Now that’s progress you can count. Nobody wants to be frustrated, or to feel like they don’t understand fully. It’s psychic numbing (a fascinating subject explored in the great documentary, “Reporter,” which is currently not available). But we don’t understand fully and feeling like we do only exacerbates the extent of our un-understanding. In the same way that the problem is the fault of both sides, so will be the solution. More complex, insight-filled reporting won’t help if no one wants to avail themselves of it, because they get overwhelmed. We need to get over being overwhelmed. Maybe if we’re frustrated for just a little while, we can start to see things more clearly and fully and then work to not be so frustrated and overwhelmed.

(Warning: more Jonathan Franzen praise ahead) Back to the book. Sometimes broad strokes are enough, but research shouldn’t be one of them. To make sure I wasn’t insane, I looked over Jonathan Franzen’s great 2003 collection of essays, How to Be Alone, which includes a brilliant, in-depth essay about the Chicago postal system. It was written in 1994 (Yeah, I know!). It’s 40+ pages long and is, essentially, a case study. But the difference is in the idea. Freakonomics feels like a newspaper article, stretched out to a book. It moves too fast and doesn’t cover enough ground. Franzen’s is an essay. It’s considerate of all sorts of different angles, it comments, it derives meaning from detail. It allows for complications and difficulties and doesn’t make an attempt to tie everything up. Let’s observe an engaging passage:

When postal workers hang out together, they talk about who slept with whom for a promotion, and which handler was found dead of natural causes on a sofa in the employee lounge. They speculate about the reason [Postmaster General] Marvin Runyon’s eyes weren’t blinking during an interview, about whether it was due to medication for his back pain. They revel in dog lore. I’m advised that if I’m ever set upon by a pack of strays I should Mace the one that barks first. I’m told the story of a suburban carrier who was forced to take refuge from an enraged German shepherd in a storage mailbox that he’d been throwing his banana peels and milk cartons into all summer.

This looks AWESOME.

Either way, I’m done with the book and have moved on to the staggeringly good Michael Chabon novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It’s about comic book writers during the 40’s & 50’s and it takes its cue from their profession. The book is littered with interesting characters: magicians, circus performers, Nazis, Salvador Dali even makes a brief, near-death appearance. The book’s two heroic comic book creators follow in their characters’ footsteps and the title’s promise and have exciting, dramatic, suspenseful, rich adventures. And to complement it, I’ve been taking short breaks to read some classic comics. I took in “Batman: HUSH,” which was dark and dense and great, as well as the Fantastic Four reboot from the mid-90’s, “Heroes Reborn.” This is one of the few times it’s really paid to have a comic enthusiast as a roommate. The FF storyline was expertly drawn, and the stories were just what I was looking for: ridiculous. Every single villain either turns into a super-monster or has a super-monster laying-in-wait to do its bidding. Giganto, the massive whale?! Moleman and his total control of underground elements?! Super-Skrull?! I can’t make this shit up, but someone else didn’t have a problem doing it. Every threat extreme, every situation dire, every character a symbolic sculpture of the best of mankind. In other words, fantastic.

Introductions

About 150 pages into Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, one thing about the evolution of his writing style has become clear. Where his first two novels were large-canvass thrillers – tapestries of a dozen or so characters at a given time, surrounding a given social issue – his next two are each about one specific family, and the way that the full breadth of their pasts illuminates themes latent in the short term present.

Read This Book

It’s a curious way to construct a story, it’s decidedly literary, since it wouldn’t work even half as well in Television or film – anytime multiple actors play the same role, you risk doing the math wrong when trying to add up multiple individual performances to equal one complete character (though exceptions certainly exist, sure I get that). This technique works brilliantly in The Corrections, which re-reading made me see the book more clearly and enjoy more completely but also have to admit that my 19-year old self’s initial reaction that it was the best book ever written was a bit naive. So far, Freedom‘s math is mostly accurate, although I’ll wait to judge for sure until Franzen shows his work a bit.

Anyway, there are two friends, Walter and Richard, and we’ve seen them so far age from early-20s into mid-40s, and it struck me how much weight the relationship carries. These aren’t friends who see each other all the time or even talk all the time, but when they interact, the scenes feel fuller and bigger because of the range of the relationship.

This isn’t anything ground-breaking or really that new; that our earliest relationships tend to be the ones we return to, even if the people aren’t anything like they were. There is comfort in the known, there is ease in sinking into a history, in having a conversation that’s been happening for years.

It’s strange. I live near my friend Tyler, who I’ve known for 11 years now, and who, it’s become evident, will be someone I see often all my life. There are other people I’ve come to know who I get that sense with, too. Like, “We’ll be seeing each other for a while, won’t we?” These are the people, I find, I am most willing to argue with, which is a strange form of almost anti-affection, but it also shows someone that you trust them to be willing to disagree with them sometimes and still want to be friends, because there’s so much more that you do agree about.

Then there are those people who you’re friends with but you know it’s temporary. You can just see the writing on the wall, especially in a city like this: these people have other places to go and things to do. A lot of things are temporal here, and that doesn’t necessarily make them void of meaning. It’s just at some point their lives will take them away and that will be okay. It will be a loss that you’ve been expecting. Contact will minimize, you’ll lose touch, and both of you will notice it, but what’s to be done, that’s life?

But introductions are powerful. I haven’t seen my high school friend, Royce since January of 2009. I haven’t talked to him in over a year, since just after he became a father. And okay, I feel a bit guilty about that, because chances are he’s busier than I am, so I could’ve made an effort. But there is an implied scope to the friendship, though. This is two years out of a lifetime. I’ve got decades to see him. Catching up with him and his wife could be accomplished over a long weekend. With friends like these, where enough history is involved, the relationship sortof sustains itself in separation. Because we’ve been friends for a long time, already.

I think that’s one of the reasons the new film by David Fincher, “The Social Network,” is so effective. The drama of betrayal and acceptance and status feels stronger when we’re in our late teens/early 20s, because the relationships and events are formative. Change is possible at any stage of life, but it gets more difficult.

Think of the ways that pain stays with us from childhood or adolescence. Most of us still hate someone from high school, because of something that, compared to the perils of life in college, as a young adult, as a parent, et al, is mostly insignificant. The meager weight of the incident itself is overcome by the weight of how it felt when it happened, plus time; or, history.

Guilty As Charged

It’s true for other things as well, though. Think of your introductions to your favorite music or films or books (or internet videos). I know The Corrections isn’t the best book ever written (although it’s very VERY good and great), I know “American Beauty” isn’t the best film ever made, and I sure as hell know that Everclear isn’t even remotely close to the best music ever made (feel the pain), but because those represented introductions in some way to really considering the power of those forms, they all have significance to me disproportionate to their actual worth – except probably The Corrections, I’m telling you, it’s amazing.

I saw a movie the other night, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” It’s down-the-line mediocre, with a notably solid performance by Zach Galifianakis. But watching it, I couldn’t help but admire it for being unabashedly meant for its intended audience – high schoolers. It’s quirky and funny and structured so that every single character has a little arc and everyone learns a lesson and there is a musical number and an animated sequence and some romance. It’s everything the typical high school kid wants in a movie about high school kids. It’s not the best movie of the year or even of this past week, but it’s a fine introduction to movies for a lot of teenagers out there.

Things to Do at Work When It’s Slow

(NOTE re: my brain malfunction – originally I wrote “THANKS to do at Work When it’s Slow.” WOW, just… WOW. My sincerest apologies.)

Reading List:

I don't really care for the cover, though.

As if the stack of books in my room I haven’t read isn’t big enough. I may be coming into an explosion of free time soon, so I consider this preparation. The big one on the list for me is Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom. It’s his first work of fiction in nine years (since, in fact, The Corrections, which I will be  re-reading before I start this new one). Of course, I can’t get enough David Foster Wallace, but as much as he interests me, I’m intrigued and apprehensive about reading fellow writer David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, which is…what it says. But. I am interested in Wallace’s own book about set theory (see Wikipedia section below), called Everything and More: a Compact History of Infinity. In college, I really got into deductive logic and this seems like interesting if challenging fun. Also, it is way cheap on Amazon.com. I know some people are wary of ordering books or CDs or DVDs online. I’ve been doing it for years with excellent results. Other books: The Winter of Our Discontent,  by John Steinbeck, was recently highly recommended to me. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. And Russell Banks’ Continental Drift, which, now that I think of it, I might own. I’ve also been feeling like reading more Ray Bradbury, but I don’t know what. It’s difficult to justify buying more and more books that I may never get around to reading. A better system would be to buy a book only when I am going to read it, or a DVD only when I’m going to watch it. But then where’s the adventure in that?

Podcasts:

The Universe expands. I’ve got between 70 and 90 minutes of commute each day. Which sounds like a lot and seems like a lot but isn’t nearly sufficient to bear the weight of podcast minutes each week. So, since things are slow at work, I’ve taken to listening during the day. My go-to podcasts, since the dawn of my iPod, are Filmspotting (which recently had an excellent meet-up here in LA, always great to talk with Adam Kempanaar) and This American Life. I’m also decidedly partial to the great Battleship Pretension, and the Creative Screenwriting Podcast is always interesting and insightful and has great writers discussing their process, projects, how they got started in writing (both personally and professionally). And then there are the shows I love but don’t necessarily listen to regularly, like Elvis Mitchell’s The Treatment (which this week has Christopher Nolan, so, yeah, I’m all about that one) and Radiolab, which is essentially This American Life but with science. Thankfully Watching Theology only has episodes every month or so. But then finally, there are two new podcasts; well, one isn’t really a podcast, it’s the weekly sermons of Reality LA, the church many of my friends go to. Nonetheless, the sermons are expertly crafted, spiritually and intellectually sound, and extremely in-depth. The other show is a podcast, and is kindof a cross between …Life and Creative Screenwriting. It’s The Tobolowsky Files, a series of stories about life, love, and the entertainment industry, as told by character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. You have no idea how amazing these stories are. How beautiful and engaging and strange and funny and wonderful. It’s a relatively young podcast, fewer than 50 episodes. I’m in the process of catching up, but this podcast is becoming one of the most vital. I can’t really explain it any better than by just imploring you to go and listen to episode 13: Conference Hour, which had me in both outrage and tears by the end. “Tobo” has lived such a rich, fascinating life, and the way he brings us through, the details he offers, the insight he achieves; it’s simply astounding (I usually load 3 or 4 onto my iPod at once and this morning, to my horror, I was out of new ones. Nooooo!!!)

Work:

The question is this. Does a lack of work to do make you complete the work you do have more easily and quickly, or does it make you annoyed to do anything now that you’ve gotten used to your distraction?

The News:

Since it’s one of the few things not blocked by our (hold on, phone call) firewall. So, I’ve been following up with the oil spill and the Senate vote for stricter regulations to avoid another financial crisis, which sounds good except that its critics think maybe it’s not going to really accomplish any damn single thing. I suppose we’ll see. I hope it works. Landmark legislation isn’t really so much of a landmark unless it accomplishes what it sets out to. Otherwise, isn’t it just wasting time? Also, I read a startling piece (here) about the ineffectiveness of regular exercising for people (mostly men) who spend the majority of their day sitting (or just being generally inactive). As someone whose day has been sitting in a car to come sit in a desk to go sit back in the car to go home and sit in front of a computer editing this is kindof frightening! Apparently the exercise can keep us in shape, but it doesn’t counter-act the negative effects in terms of decreasing serious health risks. Scary.

Wikipedia:

What I will look like if I keep working here

Aside from looking up information about every author I mentioned back in the Reading List section, and just a moment ago looking Flock of Seagulls for my Supervisor who’s at jury duty and trying to think of the group who sang “Don’t You Want Me Baby” (It’s Human League, the inter-web taught to me), I also got a cursory understanding of set theory and Russell’s Paradox, which contains the very wordplay David Foster Wallace purloined for his first novel. Mathematical systems have always fascinated me. I look back on the junior-in-high-school me who hit the wall with Pre-Calculus, and I wish I could go back now (Yep, my mathematical prowess here at 26 is that of a 17 yr old. Wow).

Writing:

This gets tricky. My roommate has the ideal situation for non-working-at-work. Graveyard shift, Fed-Ex Office. Eight hours often without a customer. Full internet. Can bring in stuff to work on. If that were me, I’d have a laptop with screenwriting software, a book, maybe a magazine, and untold pages of work done at the end of the night. When you look at it that way, working on personal things at work is the closest most of us come to getting paid to do what we love. I don’t think blogging qualifies, though. And while I am planning to try to do some actual writing after lunch, it’s nearly impossible. The atmosphere is all wrong. There is a focus I need that can’t be achieved with even occasional interruptions of Work-I’m-Being-Paid-to-do. And people. Too many people around. I need solitude. Public places are fine, they preserve personal anonymity. The real problem is co-workers. They know you, but they don’t know you, but they feel perfectly comfortable talking to you, sometimes much more than you’d like. It’s a very strange relationship. Aren’t my headphones a clear indication that I am busy? Or at least not to be disturbed for chit-chat? It seems, No. Because of that daily proximity, you can’t really be a jerk to them, or I can’t, even if I don’t like them. Regardless, their presence pulls me back into the setting of “workplace,” which is not an intrinsically creative one.

And now, here after five hours, after most of my day is gone, I’m taking a break. I’ve got first issue of my Creative Screenwriting Magazine subscription (which is supplemented by aforementioned podcast). Then, hopefully I’ll have a few more tasks to complete so I can feel some sense of worth, and hopefully I can end the day with some leisure reading. I think I saved a short story by Don DeLillo I could read.

Infinite Jest (II), (III), and (IV)

About  half way through David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus of a novel, Infinite Jest you realize it’s not going to end like a regular book. You realize this because the book tells it to you pretty openly. It spends much of its time ruminating and wondering about and arguing about and analyzing all of the ways in which our expectations tend more to reflect an abstracted definition of success rather than reality. And in so organizing it this way, Wallace gets to the heart not only of his book’s over-arching thematic statements (which incorporate nearly all realms familial, societal, artistic, athletic, narcotic, political)– its raison d’etre (as it would, did, does say)– but also Wallace’s own deep-rooted conflicts about the power of art to change people; of entertainment; of their place and status in our lives, and those of the artists and entertainers delivering them to us.

But it’s even more than all that too. Our expectations (in general, but for the novel in particular too, I suppose) are only important because they can help us try to figure things out or at least organize experience in a way that makes sense from one moment to the next. What should our lives be, what should anyone’s life be? What should we be doing, what does it mean to live life successfully? And in order to answer that, we have to figure out what does it mean to be successful in the first place? Whose definition? Our own? Our parents’? Society’s? And since one of the main ways success is gauged is by achievement, we look at our talents and we look at what achievements those talents can accrue and we set ourselves to the task of achieving those achievements. For Wallace, achievement lies in writing. And so this book is as much about itself as it is about its author trying to figure out what is the best type of book for a single author to attempt to write.

See? This is what happens when you start thinking about this book. Because it’s so big and so dense and can get your mind swirling very easily, I notice I haven’t been able to do more than imply the role that “addiction” in all its forms plays into all of this. But to put it simply, which is nearly impossible to do, to me the book is about addiction – to success, expectations, entertainment, family demons, et al. – and how it takes something more than (and outside of) ourselves to be able to do anything about it.

A Concise Explanation of "Infinite Jest"

It makes sense, then, that the book is all over the place, which it is, though as I said way back in September, not all over the place in a confusing, un-followable way; but instead in an ingenious, alive, playful, searching way. One of the greatest pleasures of the book is its ability to open up your own wonder at how it could possibly have been conceived by another person, how that person managed to juggle and blend and just keep straight all the pieces to the puzzle, while still creating a cohesive, engaging, entertaining piece of literature.

The best comparison I can make is the one that will also identify why I connected to this book so much — Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.” Both are sprawling stories in which the unbeknownst interconnectivity of a community of people creates the landscape for the story; in which plot details are not simply vague but indecipherable; in which the past has a vice-grip on the characters and forces them to wonder how far back the patterns go and what, if anything, they can do to change that; and in which the ending can be described as so many different things, among which “conventional” is not one.

Infinite Jest has the advantage of being a novel which allows it to move more seamlessly through many different places in time. As well, because it shows us things with words, not images, it is able to make a character who is almost never actually present the central, dominating force of the book: James O. Incandenza. For fun, I’ll gives the most basic plot outline. James O. Incandenza was an annular- physicist-turned-tennis-academy-founder-turned-uber-anti-confluential-filmmaker (see?) who makes one particular film called “Infinite Jest,” which is said to have be so entertaining that all who watch it cannot look away and eventually die from watching it. A Canadian terrorist cell, “The Wheelchair Assassins” wants to get its hands on the film to make copies and use as a terrorist weapon. Trouble is, the film was never released, so no one has a copy, except but there must be a master copy floating around, right? The filmmaker has three sons, Orin (a kicker for the Arizona Cardinals), Hal (a 17-yr old at the tennis academy), and Mario (who is disabled and shared his father’s cinematic interests). The book also follows Don Gately, who is on staff at the half-way house down the hill from the tennis academy, where he is on parole himself and where he helps others who are connected to the filmmaker and the film itself, though none of them seem to know it. And all of this moves out in larger and larger circles.

When the book begins, James O. Incandenza has already killed himself. The book follows a few major plot lines, chronicling the events of the tennis academy — with about dozen major supporting characters and ### minor characters — and those at the halfway house – with another few dozen supporting characters and another ### minor characters — and then there are Steeply and Marathe, government officials involved in multi-layered double crosses, Marathe being a member of the aforementioned “Wheelchair Assassins.” When your book is 1100 pages long, you’d be surprised how effectively you can keep all of these strands going.

What makes the book powerful to me is the way Wallace balances his book’s world. He succeeds at creating a hilariously absurdist world, which contains so many elongated passages involving multiple complex rationales and some of the flat-out funniest writing I’ve ever read, which exposes the flaws in manmade systems. He also examines the endless minutiae of three very separate worlds – drug additions, sports [mainly tennis and football], and filmmaking – and does so in a way that is neither comprehensive nor simplified and uses them to powerfully extend into the thematic realms.

Because the writing is so funny and so smart and contains so much word-play, there is the very real danger of losing touch with the characters; of populating the world with interesting but ultimately un-identifiable people. And so Wallace deliberately slows things down sometimes and allows characters to talk, to really just talk and communicate and seek and try to make sense of their lives and circumstances and pasts. He allows them to share themselves with others in the hope of creating a connection and maybe just identifying with them. These passages come to us in a few different ways. Some are third-person narrations which take on the particular speech patterns of one specific character, as the events are relayed. Some are told through recollections of other characters, with rich, detailed prose that takes your breath away. Some are told through letters, some through terse transcripts of recorded conversations. There is the tale of the woman who refused to stop using drugs during pregnancy, gave birth to a stillborn child and carried it around like it was alive, so great was her guilt, so crushing was her grief. There is the story of Eric Clipperton, who played every tennis match holding a hand-gun to his head, threatening to shoot himself if the other player did not let him win. There is Mrs. Waite, an old lady who lived across the street from Don Gately and “basically radiated whatever mixture of unpleasantness and vulnerability it was that made you want to be cruel to her.” But my favorite is a monologue spoken to James O. Incandenza as a young boy, by his father. The section details all of the aspirations the father has for his son and also recounts an enormously painful moment in the father’s childhood that involved his father. The monologue is 12 pages long, unbroken by any prosaic interruptions. Just a father talking to his son. I could quote from these passages for a hundred pages and still it would not be enough. There is too much great writing in this book to choose economically.

These small diversions, these “systems within systems” are here because this is how people help other people and this is how Wallace hoped to help his readers, maybe the only way he knew how to. There is so very much of him in this book, so that you establish a personal connection to the writer as well as the characters. This is a writer placing himself right there with his creations, in their midst, on their level. A writer seeking to write something lasting, that will create a bond between himself and those who read the book, as well as between the readers with each other. The book is a constant reference point between myself and a friend who’s read it; not because we’ve created an elite club, but because there is a sense of shared experience between us.

I love books like this. As a writer, it has dazzled me, because it’s something so far beyond the abilities I possess. There is so much skill and craft involved, and yet love of story and of character. I also love it because reading this book is like going to writing class. It’s expanded the way I view writing in every way. It has built bridges to islands of imagination that were hitherto uncharted in my mind. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many new ideas to write about.

Infinite Jest can be overwhelming. It takes time. It takes patience. There are big words. But the effort it requires is nothing compared to the rewards that reading it affords. Please read this book. And then call me in 4-6 months. We’ll go get some food and talk about it, and we’ll have a great time.


It Has Come to This

August 2017
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