I never did like that movie “Brazil” much. I was supposed to, I know, and I suppose it does say something broad about the corrosive power of bureaucraI never did like that movie “Brazil” much. I was supposed to, I know, and I suppose it does say something broad about the corrosive power of bureaucracy and the perils of corralling ourselves with rules and procedures at the expense of living much, fluorescence against green grass, paperwork against the handshake, all of it thickly applied and amply done elsewhere. I suppose there’s Girl, Interrupted, too, and some of those old Soviet books about the perils of the state apparatus bloated to omniscience. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest does away with the Orwellian fabrications and post-Soviet anxiety and squats down over a 1950’s insane asylum square with an authentically schizophrenic narrator made mute not by his pathology but by his treatment regimen. Most of the treatment methodologies of that era (shock therapy, group therapy, undifferentiated medication, lobotomy) have been subsequently discredited or heavily modified and Cuckoo anticipates most of them. The horror comes from how close we tack to non-fiction - we did terrible and clinically indefensible things to our mentally ill before we knew any better. I have heard Nurse Ratched described as the greatest villain in all of American literature - having read the book, I still reserve that honor for Blood Meridian’s “Judge” - but she’s more interesting as a villain if you can read her, as I believe you should, as a character who lacks malice. Nurse Ratched works as hard as she does to annihilate your self-esteem and sense of identity not because of any real underlying evil (though she is such a pure representation of the bureaucracy that she rarely expresses any emotion except strain and her one cited human characteristic - breasts - is the subject of constant and crescendoing attention and confusion). The locus of the conflict is the collision between two personalities outsized enough that they play out as more totemic than actual - Ratched, who represents an extension of the idea that healing can happen through cutting, and McMurphy, who thinks being sane and healthy is a decision, that diagnosis is bullshit, that we are basically what we chose to be. He’s not the ideal hero and she’s not the ideal villain - neither are really human, and neither are really qualified to the title, but the contours of the struggle are where the epic happens. Even better, these people are really crazy. You’ll get to understand them as they go, and there’s no question that each of them have been institutionalized for a reason. There’s some talk around the edges, particularly with regard to the narrator, about how life can make you crazy in the first place but that’s not what this is about - either sanity is a function of spending the rest of your life on a carefully calibrated medical regime or it’s about finding a reason to feel better, but it can’t really be about both, not evenly and not really.
But it’s even harder these days, trapped as we are in the Year of our Lord 2013 - the year of the “Rape Anthem” and stuff - to make excuses around a book that draws its borders around gender in lines this thick (Thicke?). I get tired just thinking about it. I’ve been through enough higher education to know that it’s probably not okay to completely exonerate Kesey for his unblinking conflation of bureaucracy and cruelty with frigidity (as mentioned above, he’s really, really interested in Nurse Ratched’s breasts, why they’re sized the way they are and what this means about the hypocrisy of bureaucracy), nor to ignore that the only “good” women in the book are quite literally whores and drunks. I see it, I acknowledge it, but I also wish a book could be read without the inevitable proliferation of side-narratives - what does this novel say about women, what does it say about Native Americans, what does it say about white male privilege, what does it say about colonialism. And while I can’t completely defend it, I do wonder if the very attacks on Cuckoo - academic, procedural, stern, judgmental, unfunny - are part of his point. What this book talks about is insanity, the crazy (?) ways we’ve defined it, the slippery lines of diagnosis, the hundreds of rules we’ve thrown up like a fence around treatment, the very literal shuttling off of our mentally ill to places we would never ourselves choose to live. Yeah, it’s some racist, sexist shit, and lazily so. So was The Last of the Mohicans. Yeah, Kesey has a major boob fixation. So does Robin Thicke. Read it anyhow. ...more
If you’re a mid- to light-weight fantasy fan, you should stay away from this one. If you resent or are suspicious of the validity of the fantasy genreIf you’re a mid- to light-weight fantasy fan, you should stay away from this one. If you resent or are suspicious of the validity of the fantasy genre or just hate it, this is absolutely the book for you. Either way, The Book of Imaginary Beings is a lethal takeout of the intellectual validity of Modern Western Fantasy. I’m talking about Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, all of them flipped over and bellies exposed. Of the three, I’m fondest of Game of Thrones, but less because it’s a fantasy genre study and more because it rolls itself like a cross between House of Cards, a telenovela and the Red Shoe Diaries, only with dragons. Lord of the Rings is the worst offender of the lot, a bald appeal to the idea that any of us could save the world if someone would just ASK us, dosed with Tolkien’s Western Civ paranoia about Old Britannia being over run by Slavs (orcs). Harry Potter is easy to defend, if only for the gender politics involved in our age of Twilight, but it’s still essentially Goonies with Magic.
In all three, there is a certain amount of explicit monstrosity present as a combination of metaphor, deus ex machina, and the opportunity to spend a lot of money on really bitchin’ CGI. There’s not much depth - the dragons are like flamey babies, the orcs are mean, the griffins apparently get mad if you don’t bow to them. The Balrog wants to cross the bridge because, you know, it does, because it’s mad and demonic and hates old people and doesn’t like it when you say no. This is as deep as it goes, and this is the best the mainstream genre has to offer, and it’s terrible. Our sense of myth, such as it is, is culturally far more interested in how magical teenagers feel about each other than it is about history or wonder, and Dungeons and Dragons probably do more to provide our mythological lexicon than anything pre-televised.
The Book of Imaginary Beings is nothing more than a list of 75 or so imaginary beings, each described in somewhere between 1-3 pages. To read them is humbling, because Borges can do things in 3 pages that you cannot do, that I cannot do, optimization of efficient language to a degree that makes me a moron, slobbering with gratitude that I at least rounded the bases to literacy.
In many ways, this is the best Borges book, because the deliberately constrained structure prevents Borges from laying on the strata of metahistory as heavily as he does in Labyrinths or elsewhere and thereby confusing the hell out of me (you/us).
Try this on - one paragraph about a statue:
“Condillac begins by endowing the statue with a single sense - smell, perhaps the least complex of the five senses. The fragrance of jasmine is the beginning of the statue’s biography; for one instant, there shall be nothing in all the universe but that odor. More precisely, that odor shall be the universe, which a second later will be the fragrance of the rose, and then the carnation. Let there be a single odor in the consciousness of the statue, and we will have attention; let a fragrance last beyond the moment when the stimulus has passed, and we have memory; let one impression in the present and one from the past occupy the statue’s attention, and we have comparison; let the statute perceive analogies and differences, and we have judgment; let comparison and judgment occur again, and we have reflection; let a pleasant memory be more vivid than an unpleasant one, and we have imagination. When the faculties of the Understanding have been engendered, the faculties of the Will must follow - love and hate (attracting and aversion), hope and fear. The awareness of having passed through many states will give the statue an abstract notion of number; the awareness of being the odor of carnation yet of having been the odor of jasmine will endow it with the idea of Self.”
This beats the hell out of Frankenstein. They’re all like this, in their own way. Some poke at Kafka and C.S. Lewis. Others play around with Dante. The Cheshire Cat gets a hilarious dismissal. Absolutely recommended. CGI not included....more
There is a species of targeted, deliberate restlessness which makes an enemy of inertia or stasis - not the disabling of attention and effort which thThere is a species of targeted, deliberate restlessness which makes an enemy of inertia or stasis - not the disabling of attention and effort which the internet both causes and soothes, but constant motion toward designated results and an over arching refusal to waste time. I do not have this quality except as a distant reiteration, not so much the ability to focus my will as an uneasiness with boredom which can occasionally create the accidental simulation of willpower. But I have seen it in others, people driven not so much to constantly achieve as to constantly struggle against obstacles they have deliberately selected just for the sake of having something to prove themselves against. I have a friend who skis up mountains (yes, up), rock climbs competitively, plays four instruments and speaks three languages. He also drinks enthusiastically and boasts of his sexual prowess. He is, in a word, robust. As far as I can tell, he never stops. He is smart and he is energetic, but his energy seems to cause his smarts rather than being consumed by it, which is the unfortunate case for many of the cleverest people I know. I have lived long enough to understand that clarity comes most readily through certain kinds of suffering, and have read the books which explain that the process of struggling creates new synaptic pathways, literally the neurology of spontaneous insight. This is suspected to lie at the root of why taking up crosswords or ballroom dancing in your 70s can forestall Alzheimer's or dementia and why over adherence to routine may be a mental corrosive in some circumstances. Robust living has its rewards.
Anyhow, Hemingway gets most of the credit for the modern popularization of the old Greek notion of a robust life being a good life, but I think Roosevelt would’ve kicked his ass in practice. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, who has become my favorite president in terms of disposition if not necessarily of policy, once insisted on completing a presidential address after being shot in the chest by a would be assassin. He overcame youthful asthma by taking up boxing. He graduated phi beta kappa from Harvard while coming in 2nd in a schoolwide boxing tournament in a time where varsity elitism was still considered part of an A-List education and sport had not yet been decoupled from scholarship (see also The River of Doubt, itself something of a love letter to both the stupidity and splendor of the old archetype of the learned explorer.
The set-up goes like this: Throughout Roosevelt’s life, he couldn’t get over the suspicion that politicians were essentially wusses parading as men, and he spent his idle time devouring books about guys like Sir Ernest Shackleton (who attempted to find the South Pole) and Robert Peary (who did the same in the North). He found time for a safari in Africa. After getting his ass handed to him by Woodrow Wilson after splitting off from the Republican Party to form the Progressive or “Bull Moose” party, Roosevelt found himself suddenly politically irrelevant and decided the best solution would be to attempt to sail down one of the many unmapped tributaries of the Amazon. For Warner Herzog fans, this effort took place at approximately the same time as Herzog’s "Fitzcarraldo" and shares many elements in common - rubber trappers making slow incursions into what had previously been boundless jungle, angry Indians responding with poison arrows, bad behavior on both sides. Roosevelt, who was apparently not much of a planner, almost completely subcontracted the trip to aristocratic buddies who spent all of their money making sure that the fellowship would be well stocked with marmalade and hot mustard, less on actual food and appropriate watercraft. In the end, Roosevelt took to the river itself in what were essentially a larger version of hollowed out logs, some thirty men, a naturalist, his son Kermit, a few friendly dogs, and not nearly enough food or water.
Because books of this sort are not written about successful trips. People drown, people get shot, poisoned arrows are fired. But the characters, established mostly by their own recovered writings, are interesting and the day to day of the trip surprisingly well recorded. Roosevelt and several other members of the party kept journals and wrote letters articulate enough that very little feels like speculation, and contextual details like the ethnographic character of the Indian tribes and the problems posed by the flora and fauna are carefully researched. Roosevelt himself comes off as equal to his historical stature, though the author is far more interested in telling a somewhat high minded adventure story than in excavating old grievances, so don’t expect any hard hitting polemics against Big Stick imperialism. You can, however, expect scary stories about caimans and coral snakes. I read this book in two days, and only partially because I had such a headache that I couldn’t stand the idea of beer.
Highly recommended for anyone who likes reading stories of people going off into the wild and suffering terribly before returning mangled and much reduced. ...more
There are obvious winners in a meritocratic system - there are the chosen ones blessed with enough genetic and generational advantages to be comfortabThere are obvious winners in a meritocratic system - there are the chosen ones blessed with enough genetic and generational advantages to be comfortably pre-positioned over all competitors. There are real competitors who manage to figure out the Great American Alchemy of converting sweat to gold. And then there are those rudderless bastards who have no real sense of what happened, who faked compliance with parental and then social definitions of success without ever fully investing and were rewarded as though none of it was ever a pantomime, promoted or elevated above the more passionate and dedicated by a boss or superior who couldn’t draw the necessary distinction between lucky improvisation and hard work. I know a significant number of people who have very important jobs - prosecutors, senators, artists, doctors - who scurry around wondering when everyone else will catch on to how much is ad-libbed, faked or improvised and live forever flinching against the inevitable day the boss will sit them down and disclose (not without a little embarrassment) that it has become clear that a mistake was made.
So if you are fortunate enough to hold a steady passion about what you do or to feel like you really have earned most of what you’ve acquired (and not just at the “I’m so lucky because I’m a white American still living in the lattermost days of empire” level of generality), this might not be a good book for you. Not much happens, for one thing, and the protagonist isn’t much to be proud of, but he will speak directly to those of us who find ourselves frequently rewarded out of proportion with what we deserve.
Ben Lerner won the National Book Award in his early 20s and spent a year in Madrid on a Fulbright scholarship to study poetry. It spoils nothing to reveal that the bratty, overmedicated poet abroad tracks Lerner’s ostensible experiences so closely that this reads like a very thinly abstracted autobiography. The protagonist, who I can only think of as Lerner, is dedicated to a preposterous assignment - something about writing an epic poem about effect of Franco on literature - which he realizes immediately is something he cannot do. That the managers of his stipend might think this is something he could do is only the first of his confrontations with fraudulence in the face of the ridiculous. Because all of the stipulations of his work are impossible and because he cannot find in himself any passion for what he’s doing (Lerner confesses early that he has utterly failed to be moved by poetry in any language), he is left with no choice but to announce his unsuitability for his station (which would only deprive him of his hash and reimpose more mundane expectations) or fake it. Left to translate the relevant works with a level of Spanish inappropriate for a 7th grader, his method is summed up more or less as follows;
“On these days I worked on what I called translation. I opened the Lorca more or less at random, transcribed the English recto onto a page of my first notebook, and began to make changes, replacing a word with whatever word I first associated with it and/or scrambling the order of the lines, and then I made whatever changes these changes suggested to me. Or I looked up the spanish word for the English word I wanted to replace, and then replaced that word with an English word that approximated its sound (“Under the arc of the sky” became “Under the arc of the cielo”, which became “Under the arc of the cello”). I then braided fragments of the prose i kept in my second notebook with the translations I had thus produced (“Under the arc of the cello/ I open the Lorca at random,” and so on).” p.16
He expands this method to the crafting of his poetry and ostensible existential product, the erstwhile scholarship meant to justify the thousands of dollars needed to continue his time in Iberia. Lerner pops pills and stays stoned at all times to keep the anxiety of fraudulence from overturning him and exposing the abyss beneath his project, but every pending agony of discovery is met with ever more applause. Presupposing that he is an important poet, his audiences imbue his incoherence with subjectively important meanings and react as though they have heard something profound. Because all of his clauses are subordinate, because all words are juxtaposed, the reader is free to extrapolate whatever significance or authorial intent they find the most meaningful. Lerner, to maintain his anonymity and continue his project, must be careful to answer only in deliberately garbled and poorly translated tautologies and takes countermeasures like deliberately sabotaging his Spanish as to allow yet further imprecision in his artistic explanations and lower the likelihood of follow-up. And it doesn’t go much further than this. Lerner is embraced ever more tightly by a connected community of Spanish artists and writers who never manage to confront him with anything beyond unqualified praise and acceptance, meets a few women who he intermittently covets but cannot transcend the limitations of his contrivance. Lerner is an awkward liar and constantly bracketed by the need to maintain the artistic vagueness which he imagines saves him from discovery and ridicule. Through it all, the accolades keep coming and coming, and the grand arc of the story does little more than trace his migration from seeming flummoxed and conflicted about why his meager, unfocused poetic efforts are so well-met to feeling fine about the same. I’m not sure if this was the sentiment intended but the Lerner of the late novel seems less a man who has learned his own measure as a charlatan who has contented himself with the rationalization that there are no artistically or socially significant differences between the real and the faked - the reader is free to be equally excited about either.
This is some cynical stuff, and there’s no real rectitude in it. Lerner never stops faking, he just feels better about it, and while there is an attempt at tidying this up with a gesture toward the idea that if you fake something long enough, you’ll get it, this seems more like a nod toward the need for closure in a novel structure than a sincere evolution within the character, and it remains the case throughout that the intent of the author doesn’t much matter - art, if it exists at all, is the co-existence of beauty with a vagueness broad enough to be appropriated in as many ways as possible.
So anyhow, read this book if you’re a big fraud and it’s only a matter of time before you’re discovered....more
The government can't hedge against private sector complexity. The only interpretive choice you will be called on to make is the extent to which all acThe government can't hedge against private sector complexity. The only interpretive choice you will be called on to make is the extent to which all actors involved are incompetent (AIG, Standard and Poors, the Federal Government) or explicitly corrupt (Goldman Sachs) and deliberately profiteering from the deliberate engineering of our present financial collapse. At the risk of hyperbole, this is one of those rare books capable of crushing what measure of trust you might have left in the idea that there is ANYONE left at the wheel. That creeping feeling you find yourself having - during Katrina, during Deepwater, during 9-11, that there really is no single overriding prerogative of governance upon which you can rely and no one who can be relied on to act outside of their own interests - is expressed fully and exposed as accurate. If The Black Swan is an irritating piece of sh*t with a nugget of truth, this book is the readable, accessible, horrible exposition of that truth in the form of your own repossessed dream house and ever diminishing paycheck. There is no hope here but plenty of hard-assed truth.
I'll be putting my retirement into guns, ammo and rogaine....more
Now that we've reached mid-December I can say concretely that this was the best fiction I read this year. Recommended for everyone.
Post-apocalypse isNow that we've reached mid-December I can say concretely that this was the best fiction I read this year. Recommended for everyone.
Post-apocalypse is a crowded, shitty genre. If you're more excited about the ways in which a sudden reliance on oral history causes linguistic and ontological deterioration and a very close study of how lost technologies can be rediscovered and fetishized (the last intact parking structure in the world will be a temple for those who survive to see it), I recommend this book for anyone. The language isn't easy but it's phonetic so you'll get it. Even some of the asides - dogs and people started eating eachother again when things got rough but both sides bear a genetic memory of the time when they didn't, and a longing for shared fires and scratches on the muzzle - are deeply affecting. I only became aware of this book because Cloud Atlas was said to ape the style used here in one of its longer chapters. It does, and unsuccessfully. This is by far the better book. Recommended for everyone, if not a particularly easy or light read....more
At first read, this seemed to be about nothing, or nothing accessible enough to matter. I came into this book without any context except for the factAt first read, this seemed to be about nothing, or nothing accessible enough to matter. I came into this book without any context except for the fact of its recommendation by someone whose opinion I respect, and I assumed from the conspicuous hallucinatory presentation and absence of both dialogue and an explicit, normal structure of cause and effect that this was the equivalent of being let in on a fever dream, or someone else's bad trip, and it really didn't mean anything.
By about halfway through, you start to see patterns. That's as far as I ever got - the sneaky feeling that this isn't so much a bad trip as an elaborate, ordered idea that is only accessible from a few little ledges.
This thing is profoundly cruel, indifferent to your level of engagement, and alienating. It doesn't make sense for a long time and, even when it does, the sense it makes is partial and might just be the convulsions of whatever part of our brain works to find order in everything, faces in clouds, porno in treebark, whatever. But it's big fun....more
Up until the last third or so of this book, I was ready to call it my favorite fiction book I've read this year. It still gets there, but the lukewarmUp until the last third or so of this book, I was ready to call it my favorite fiction book I've read this year. It still gets there, but the lukewarm finish makes it a closer call.
Still, this was a great book.
I've read a few reviews calling it the Chinese One Hundred Years of Solitude, and that isn't a bad comparison - it's got the same emphasis on one small town and one REALLY big family, lovers being torn apart by revolution, technology, the disappointment and betrayal of parents by their children, and, most of all, the need to draw a very large map to keep track of all of the major and minor characters who come scurrying in and out with extremely similar names. I'm not nearly as much of a drunk as I was in the 100 Years days and I still had a fair amount of trouble keeping everyone straight.
Basic plot goes like this: The narrator is a minor landowner who is killed in the very beginning of the Maoist purges and, through a series of tantrums, convinces the lord of the underworld to send him back to his previous life. Thing is, nasty underworld guy won't send him back as a human, so he goes back as a series of animals (donkey, ox, pig, dog, monkey) and starts each new phase literally staring back up the gloopy birth canal of his new animal mommy. Life and Death has a lot of One Hundred Years style "magical realism" nonsense, mostly pinned in the constant anthropomorphic lurches, but even for that, the elements of the supernatural aren't nearly as zany or aggressive as they were in Marquez. The reincarnation shtick is awesomely played - the narrator makes major stylistic changes to accommodate each animal and the animals are rarely boring - the donkey and pig chapters in particular are strong.
The narrative backflips aren't without their own risk of exhaustion - in some chapters (particularly the generally less good "dog chapter" towards the end of the book), the narrator switches practically every other paragraph and the book becomes a somewhat more conventional romance, though by the end of the book, things have boiled down enough that all anyone seems to do is hump and/or die.
A near perfect book until the end of the pig chapter, a very good one after that....more