I have written a more substantial but no more real review than the little blurb that used to sit here. The original blurb written on the day I heard D...moreI have written a more substantial but no more real review than the little blurb that used to sit here. The original blurb written on the day I heard DFW died follows this lengthy and self-indulgent exercise.
Within a year of each other two works of entertainment were released that have been pretty darn influential to me. One is this book, and the other was Jawbreaker's album Dear You. Both are relatively polarizing works, people either seem to love it or hate it*.
Jawbreaker's album was a momentous failure. It alienated just about everyone who had any expectations for the band. Their penultimate album, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy had been vehemently anti-corporate. For a time, Jawbreaker were seen as the poster-children for DIY punk second only to Fugazi. They were producing great music and doing it on their own terms. After the release of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy Jawbreaker would open for Nirvana on the In Utero tour. Accusations of sell-out flew, and people began looking at the band with the beady little suspicious eyes that the punk world loves peering at the world through. Rumors started flying that in no time the band would be signed to DGC the label that Nirvana was on, that this was the first step to their own rockstardom, and of course the chorus of sell-out grew louder. One defender of the band, Ben Weasel who still hasn't been excommunicated from Maximum RocknRoll for the heretical charges of allowing a song of his to appear on a major label produced soundtrack stood by the band and wrote in his column that he'd eat his hat if Jawbreaker signed to a major label. He ended up eating the hat. The band signed to DGC and released their most polished album. The album was a spectacular flop. The punk world turned their collective back on the band and the mainstream world didn't give a shit. It didn't help that the video and single the band released was for one of the two weakest songs on the album. The band ended up succumbing lackluster sales, criticism and infighting. Eventually one member of the band spat gum at another in the middle of an argument and that spat gum ended the band (I'm only adding this fact to show the evils of gum. Bad Blake!).
I'm slowly going somewhere with all of this. If Jawbreaker had released this song instead of "Fireman" I think they would have been huge. It would have been the anthem that songs like "Smells like Teen Spirit" and "Cherub Rock" were. The reason for all of this preamble is to share these couple of lines that come towards the end of "Save Your Generation":
You have to learn to learn from your mistakes. You can afford to lose a little face. The things you break, some can't be replaced. A simple rule: every day be sure you wake.
One of the things DFW liked to point out in interviews is that we are bombarded with a massive amount of information and part of our goal is to make sense of all that information. The problem isn't how to absorb all of the information, because that is an impossible feat, it's how to choose what information we choose to filter in and out of our consciousness and what we choose to do with that information. I'm not talking about what kind of use value we can take from the information bombarding us, what the pragmatic value of the information is. That is an easy way to solve the problem, but it's not necessarily an option for everyone. It also leads to an alienation and objectification of the entire world. Everything is turned into a tool. This is a fine way to live, many people do it. Some people can't do this though, people who see the world in this way would never like this book, but that's ok because they probably will one day own really nice things. Another way out of the problem is to bombard oneself with something so endlessly diverting that no other information is necessary. Both solutions are putting tremendous limits on the uptake of information, and either deliberately or unconsciously limiting the world around us into super-easily manageable nuggets. At the other extreme is to be affected by everything and be so overwhelmed by the world that everything becomes white noise. Unfiltered receptions. Instead there has to be some kind of middle ground. And one could add, the middle ground needs to be made with awareness. One needs to remind oneself to wake up everyday.
I'd suggest that the structure of the book is designed to make the reader conscious of not necessarily the fact that s/he is reading a book, but to think about what the reader is reading. An easier book could be read in the way that the boys at the tennis academy squeeze the tennis balls constantly. There is no thought to the exercise. They are developing exaggerated muscles but it is through a mindlessness and it is a very localized improvement. One of my favorite passages (of which there are many) is the second person (ok, I could be wrong about this, maybe it's not in the second person, my memory of it is, but my memory is also very fallible) description of what it takes to succeed at tennis. The pain and repetition involved. The filtering out of everything aside from the focus at succeeding. Someone in this position reduces the world to a very manageable number of bytes a day, the success at tennis bytes. Just like the obsessive pothead reduces the world to a very manageable, things I need to do to smoke a shit ton of pot this weekend bytes. Just like the person watching The Entertainment reduces everything to the this is fucking entertaining (whatever It is) bytes.
This book is massive and overwhelming. It's a total onslaught of information. And the information is presented in a jarring manner. There is the non-sequential order of the narrative, there is the long sentences, the difficult language and of course the endnotes. A lot is put in front of the reader, there are a lot of characters to keep track of, thinking about when a scene is taking place in relation to other scenes in the books and this is made even more difficult by the use of corporate names to designate years. It's information overload.
And then the information the reader is presented with is hammered with the details DFW chooses to give. As expansive as the novel is it is also incredibly claustrophobic at times in it's interiority.
This novel isn't for everyone. I'd never recommend it to someone. I'm fairly certain I've never recommended it to anyone**. I think it takes a particular type of person to enjoy this book, and I think that this type of person is defined by how they experience the world and by what goes on in their head. Most importantly by what happens inside a person's head. I'm probably just projecting here, and I know that there are other types of people than myself that love this book too, but I don't think it's necessarily a happy and healthy person who is the type that this book is written for. I don't think happy and healthy people experience or want to slog through a barrage of reflexiveness. I'm not putting into words really what I'm thinking here. I'm missing the words right now. But this comes back to my ongoing repetition of the question why does one read?
For me, reading is work. Rarely, do I read for pure enjoyment, or to just kill some time or to escape. I don't find reading a sort of punishment and I enjoy it more than I enjoy anything else in this stupid world. I think of reading as an active activity, it's not something to narcotize to, and maybe that is a reason why I am baffled whenever I hear that someone reads when they are drunk or fucked up in someway. For me, being in a state like that would be to be too unaware. It might be really pathetic but my real experience with the world I live in is through books, they are frankly more interesting than most people, and the inner conversations and thoughts I have with the books I read are much more interesting than the ones I have with other flesh and blood people. This is my own failing, I'm a generally uninteresting person to talk to, I don't hold up my own weight in conversations, I stammer and I mispronounce words that I can hear correctly in my head but which my tongue wants nothing to do with, I pull verbal punches, my shitty hearing does a shitty job at making sense of everything other people say, my sentences stop abruptly mid-way through a thought as if I expect that whomever is talking to me will be able to fill in the gaps, I fail to say what I'm thinking and end up feeling like an idiot when I speak***. In a way of thinking reading is escapism for me, but it's an escape from the difficulties of dealing with real live people and having the kinds of dialogs I'll rarely have in real life (with maybe the exception of some of these reviews, but those aren't dialogs, those are rants and one-sided diatribes, but where the idea of votes are important not because I want to be popular but because they are the only way to know if some other person (possibly, it's always a possibility that all the votes are just clicked on without anyone having read a word of the review)) has read them, that the thoughts have been heard by another.
To leave my self-deprecating blabbering aside, or to use it for uses of good instead of just wallowing, it's partially because of the reasons I read that I find Infinite Jest to be so fucking good. It's a thousand plus pages of small details, of forcing myself to be even more aware than I usually am when reading, it's unanswered questions and openness in the text and clues. It's a self-contained world that can be read without having to bring any of the outside world necessarily into it (yes it helps to have say Hamlet in the back of your mind when reading certain scenes, but I was a shitty student in my English classes in High School so I totally missed the glaring Shakespeare reference in the title, or in Hal's name or in the graveyard scene. Facts like this just add some more richness to the book, but it's not necessary knowledge to enjoying the book), everything you need for the book is inside it. Unlike say Ulysses you don't need to have a firm background in Irish History to know what the hell is even going some of the time, everything and more is constructed and presented to the reader. Presented might be the wrong word. Presented makes it sound like everything is handed to the reader on a silver platter, which it's not, everything needed for the book is given to the reader but the reader has to meet the book at least half-way in putting it all together.
We, as a society, don't generally like things that put a demand on us to do that much of the work. There is no reason that anyone should feel they have to do that kind of work just to read a book. Even for the literary minded there is no reason that one should feel like they have to do that kind of work. It's a matter of wanting to read books that demand something of the reader of wanting to read something that demands our attention. There are plenty of excellent books out there that don't put these kinds of demand on us. Even personally I don't always want to be put through the rigmarole that a writer like DFW is asking for. Probably, almost every book of literature can be read with the demands that DFW is asking of the reader, but not every book is explicitly asking the reader to do so. Like, I'm sure The Corrections can be read really actively and a bunch of things can be pulled out of the text that a casual perusal of the book would miss, but it's also a book that can be read relatively passively. It's not a book asking much from us.
As a society, we like things to be given to us already in their manageably sized bytes.
In my parents downstairs, 'guest', bathroom there is a framed advertisement from the early 1960's for some Volvo (ignore the fact that there is a picture of a car in the bathroom for a moment). This ad isn't necessarily remarkable in anyway, but it is standing in for any advertisement from that era. The thing about the advertisement that stands out is the wordiness, there are paragraphs!!! of text to get the point across about the high level of safety concerns about Sweden and how those carry over into their automobiles. Paragraphs!!!. The advertisement takes a little bit of time to read. This is unheard of now. This advertisement is demanding a very low level of work from the viewer but still much more work to get to the message it's trying to convey than a modern ad in a magazine.
As a society, we like things to be given to us in very manageably sized bytes. Just think of the theory behind Twitter marketing where information is given to us in tiny little tweets****. When there is so much already half-digested bits of information already floating around just waiting for our retinas to pass over them and absorb the message without even having to break our stride why would someone stop to tackle something difficult and that demands we help out in the conveying of the information?
Infinite Jest is not a pragmatic book. It's not going to make you a better person for reading it. It won't answer life's questions, and it will possibly leave you with more questions coming out of it than going in. It's not an easy and light fun read. It probably wouldn't be the book you want to bring on the beach. It's tough to read on the subway and it's heavy so traveling with it can be a problem. You can't even easily say what the book is about when a curious person asks you "Whatcha reading?"
I'm going to wrap up this failure of a review. I wanted to write a positive review of Infinite Jest, I had actually been challenged to write a review of why I loved the book but I don't think I did that. I don't know exactly what this review is, maybe a long rambling something or other about the importance of paying attention to the world around you, to look at the details, to try to remember to wake up everyday even though it is easier to sleep off five year chunks at a time, and that there are loads of ways to do this seemingly simple task and in a way this book is a giant exercise in telling us to be more aware, to engage, to see the details even if sometimes the details just are the what the chemical compounds are in some commonly taken drug, it's the act of having to see there is something more than the commonly known, easily overlooked and empty-ish words to the world around us. And sometimes what we find there isn't that important but it's the act that is, not the guaranteed pragmatic results.
*In the case of Jawbreaker the love/hate relationship is generally only seen in the bands fans. In the case of DFW his fans generally love Infinite Jest and it is other works that are held in different opinions. While I acknowledge someone can be a big DFW fan and only like his non-fiction I personally think an enjoyment of Infinite Jest is essential to saying you like DFW.
**I could easily be wrong about this fact though.
*** FYI, I'm not fishing for compliments or for someone to say, no you aren't like that at all.
**** I was under the idea that a tweet was 256 characters of less, but I'm sure everyone knows that it is actually 140 characters or less. I was going to make a point about this being the reduction of manageable bytes down to one byte, where a byte is made up of 8 bits, and in the binary system this leads to there being 256 permutations of ones and zeros in a byte. Based on this metaphor though the manageable number of bytes in a tweet is less than a byte.
------------------------------------- This is my original 'review' I just read a comment on the LA Times story about his suicide, and it said, "the world's a shittier place now." I couldn't agree more. One of our true geniuses kills himself and some asshole douche bag like James Patterson or Nora Roberts will continue pumping out three or four novels a year. Fuck. The world is a shittier place.
American Tabloid ends with Pete Bourdant watching Barbara do a rendition of "Unchained Melody" in some Dallas lunchtime geek joint on a particularly h...moreAmerican Tabloid ends with Pete Bourdant watching Barbara do a rendition of "Unchained Melody" in some Dallas lunchtime geek joint on a particularly historical November morning in 1963. The novel ends with Pete watching and waiting for the screams to start.
The Cold Six Thousand picks up earlier that morning with a new character Wayne Tedrow Jr. flying from Vegas to Dallas to hunt down a black (sorry I can't bring myself to use a more PC term nor can I bring myself to put the N word in the review, although it works better to capture the whole feeling of the book) pimp and kill him for shiving a mobbed up black jack dealer. He discovers on landing in Dallas that JFK is dead and by a series of collusions Wayne passes from being a cop being used for mob justice to an agent in capital H History.
The reader never sees Kennedy get it.
American Tabloid is a lot of things, but one could say that it's the story of why Kennedy gets it in Dallas. I'd say this is only a minor point to the book, and American Tabloid is really not a historical novel at all, but an American Tragedy in the classical sense of the term Tragedy. This Tragedy continues in The Cold Six Thousand.
The first novel is the killing of JFK. The second is dealing with the aftermath.
At the center of both novels are a bunch of morally suspect men. They are Right-Wingers, Hate Mongers, Conservatives, Dope Runners, Extortionists, they are Mobbed Up, Klanned Up, Feds and Mercenaries. None of them are nice people, or people one would want to have any sympathy for. On the surface they are all evil people, doing very awful and violent things, but in a murky gray area where one feels like they can't be flat out condemned. Like the characters on the TV show The Wire there are no real good guys and bad guys here, but an ever shifting landscape of personality, where the people transcend beyond a cookie cutter image and take on a complex reality.
These are some amazing characters.
At the heart of the first two novels (and probably the third), is a conservative presence trying to hold back the tide of progress. They are grasping for a time that maybe never even existed before the first book starts in the late 1950's. The Mob trying to reclaim their casinos in Cuba and harking back to a time when the government turned a blind eye to them, before RFK got a big fucking hard-on for them. Hoover and Howard Hughes trying to hold back the progress of equality, and dreaming of a white old boys country. The various actors in the drama, with their own pet projects, their own dreams and schemes that they are willing to do anything to see succeed. This assorted brand of reactionaries ironically can be seen as the agents of progress, the people who in their attempts to freeze the clock of time are pushing the hands forward faster.
How much of this story is true? I have no idea. Ellroy is convincing in his grand totalizing vision of the era, and while it's convincing to me, it's not necessarily a vision of history that one wants. If Ellroy is telling the truth, than what we know as contemporary America has been built on the grounds of a moral abyss and only the continued reactionary manufacturing of illusions of truth keep the whole fucking thing from collapsing upon itself.
I've rambled enough. If you want to read this as a review, then I recommend you read this fucking book. (less)
Stylistically this is Welsh's best work. Along with Glue it's the books of his that show him to be a really great writer who has much more up his slee...moreStylistically this is Welsh's best work. Along with Glue it's the books of his that show him to be a really great writer who has much more up his sleeve than just drugs and violence (although he writes about these things so well, that it's not a bad thing when I say that). Why this book isn't one of those books people come in to the store looking for all the time is beyond me. (less)
I semi-regularly freak out over my own consistency on goodreads. What do I do about reading a novel that is contained in a book with multiple novels,...moreI semi-regularly freak out over my own consistency on goodreads. What do I do about reading a novel that is contained in a book with multiple novels, what cover do I choose, what about books that I read multiple times, do I keep the original date that I read it or update it to the newest date? So many stupid things to waste my time worrying about when there are so many other stupid things I could be wasting my time worrying about.
For my own peace of mind, I'll state here that I read this book first in May of 2001, and then again in about October 2001, and then a third time this past week, January 2012. No one gives a shit about this, but it seems important that I make this all clear. The third time reading Valis though, is not as an individual novel, but as part of the Library of America Philip K. Dick collection, called something like Valis and other Later Novels, which is a lie, because it also contains The Maze of Death, which is a novel from the mid-1960's and firmly planted in Dick's more sci-fi period, but it does contain a bit of the same themes that Dick returned to in his later 'crazy' novels.
Publicly, let me say I'm sorry Karen. I should have never recommended this novel to you. I love it, but I can see how it would be tedious to you. At least I see it now. If it makes you feel any better, maybe Philip K. Dick really did have a visionary experience and had the mysteries of the universe opened up to him, and if that is the case then time is a total illusion and you didn't really waste anytime at all reading the book, and soon the prison of our reality will be broken and we will all return to the true world where time and space don't exist. What is a few days of slogging through a book you didn't enjoy when a timeless eternity awaits?
I don't know what to say about this book. It's a brilliant piece of insanity? It's a remarkable fictionalized auto-biography of the authors descent into insanity? It's amazing to me that he had the lucidity to see himself in the manner he does in this book and be able to write this book and still be in the grip of the problems he seemed to have had. He's so critical of himself and is calling bullshit about his own far-out theories, but still he was chugging along with his Exegesis and trying to grapple with the ideas his character Horselover Fat (Philip Dick) is trapped by.
At the time I read Valis for the first time I was trapped in some of the same thought patterns that Horselover Fat is. I never thought I was contacted by a God-like entity, but my brain was fried on pre-Socratic cosmology. Whenever I want to tie my brain in knots I still return to trying to figure out what Parmenides could have meant in his "Poem". On one hand it's nonsense, the One, nothing changes, nothing moves, there is only the One, but on the other hand what does he really mean? He is the person who Plato writes as besting Socrates not once, but twice (can the Eleatic Stranger be anyone other than him, or one of his students?). The figure of Parmenides shuts down the young Socrates in Parmenides and again shows him that he is wrong in the Eleatic trilogy of dialogues that in the chronology of Socrates 'life' (life being here literary life, it's open to debate if any of the encounters with Socrates really happened or how they happened or if they are merely a literary device for Plato), come right before what make up the Pre-Trial, Trial and Death of Socrates. If you've read most of the big Plato dialogues you know that Socrates pretty much always wins, even when he is sentenced to die or actually drinks the hemlock, he still wins the philosophical arguments, he's always the wise 'foolish' type who through a few innocent questions tears down whole systems of thought and replaces them with his own. In his encounters with the philosopher from Elea though he is put up against the ropes and his own tricks are used against him. It's like Plato is saying at the base of your philosophy you were wrong, you were wrong when you started, and you were wrong at the end, and for your errors you are now sentenced to die, you corrupted the youth, not through what the Athenians tried you for, but for not getting what Parmenides meant.
Add to Parmenides the cosmologies hinted at by Heraclitus, and more explicitly stated in the fragments of Empedocles and you get a very different view of the world then the dominant views that would take old in the 'mainstream' post-Socratic / Judea-Christian worldview. There were hold outs, Gnostic views and whatnot but they were generally snuffed out through orthodoxy to a relatively child-like and reassuring creation story that a majority of Americans still believe today. Look at Empedocles for example, this whole cosmology is based on the conflict between two poles, creation and destruction. Something coming together and something pulling everything apart. It's vague on details that we'd call scientific today, but it reads a whole lot like the big bang, with two forces, say gravity (through matter and the stars, light) playing against the repellent energy of dark matter. Everything gets destroyed at some point only to give birth to something new.
I'm not saying the ancients knew more then we did, or that they were necessarily right or even that there was some grand conspiracy to 'cover-up' the truth or anything. It's just that when you start to see the ideas of the universe that were out there, we picked one of the dumber ones to believe in for a few thousand years. Might as well put the planet on the back of some fucking turtles.
When you start thinking too much about some of the things the Pre-Socratics wrote you open yourself up to some very weird avenues of thoughts. To gerry-rig reality to fit into some of these 'theoretical' ideas you start calling an awful lot of things into question, and they can be fun little games to play in your head, but if you took them too far they are liable to drive you completely insane.
I wasn't insane, I was just stuck in ideas of Idealism and the themes of this book were the type of things that I enjoyed amusing myself with, for quite a bit of grad school one point oh, I enjoyed sketching out what Parmenides could have meant more than I enjoyed actually doing the work I should have been doing, and got myself so confused with the ideas I was thinking about I couldn't even begin to write a simple paper about Parmenides for a class I was taking dealing solely with him and his appearance in Plato. I wasn't insane, but I was shut down (the Pre-Socratics weren't the only people giving my brain trouble, Deleuze and Levinas were also influencing me to play thought games that were making me totally unproductive).
Shouldn't I be talking about the book though? No, but I guess I should Parts of the book deal with things like this. They are about the idea that the world we know is a corrupt version of Reality that we are imprisoned in. Philip K. Dick's crazy alter-ego, Horselover Fat is tuned into the 'real' state of the world when Valis, an entity not of this world, beams a pink light into his brain and reveals itself to him. The book is about what happens after you gain this kind of knowledge, and alone know the 'truth' about the world. It's about more than this, too. There are a lot of themes going on, and while I give this book five stars, if I'm honest about the overall structure of the book there are weak spots and loose ends that need tying up. There are corners Dick writes himself into that have no satisfying way out of. But for me at the time I first read this, it was like being turned on to a new author that was working on some of the same things that had been running through my head for the past year or so. I read it now as a fascinating picture of the author himself, and I'm in awe by the honesty in the book.
Two more Philip K. Dick books to go and then I'll try to tackle the Exegesis. (less)
This is my new favorite author. Not capital F favorite, like DFW or James Ellroy, but my new, ‘oh my god how could someone this good be so obscure and...moreThis is my new favorite author. Not capital F favorite, like DFW or James Ellroy, but my new, ‘oh my god how could someone this good be so obscure and have almost all of his books be out of print’, good.
Kingsley Amis called him the funniest author on either side of the Atlantic, which is a pretty big compliment, since at the time Amis senior might have wanted to consider himself the holder of that title. And Amis is not wrong, De Vries is funny. There is a bit of the funniness that one would expect to find from English authors like Amis and Waugh (not that you’d expect that from De Vries, since he’s American), but there is also mixed into his writing the ‘jewish’ humor of someone like Stanley Elkin. Actually De Vries is more like Elkin than the British writers. He mixes his humor with the awfulness of life (aka ‘the tragic’) in a similar way. Huh?
Who would think that a book pretty much about the death of ones beloved child from leukemia would be a book that could in any way be called funny? And then on top of that realize from the introduction that this book was written while the authors own beloved daughter was dying from the same disease? To say the book is funny though downplays the non-sentimentalizing devastation that the author is also able to write into some of the scenes; but then to come up out of those scenes to (spoiler? I don’t know) have a magical realism slap stick pie fight with Jesus?
The story is about death, but it’s also a sustained attack on religion the popular sentiment that even if it’s true that god doesn’t exist, it’s still important to let people believe in god because it brings comfort. As one character says in the book, “Show me that God exists and I’ll really start to despair.” Why, because the tragic absurdity of a life where a kid is dies slowly and painfully from some untreatable illness makes no sense and is the result of winning at the cosmic lottery of bad luck, but if one believes that there is a God who makes choices and answers prayers, then there is something really fucking wrong with a God who could make things otherwise but has chosen to give kids diseases like this and instead of say giving them an easy death, let them suffer. Does this offer comfort? The popular answer is that God works in mysterious ways. This is a bullshit answer, which basically amounts to letting every card in the deck of cards in the poker game of life be a wild card except for the ace of spades, and then marveling that God always turns up the strongest royal flush possible.
Or to put this another way, think of some budding little sociopath who lives on your street. This kid finds bugs and while the normal person would kill them (lets assume that bugs must be killed, why I don’t know), little Jimmy likes to capture them, bring them to where the other bugs can see them and then slowly dismember them, pulling their little bug lets off, their antennas’ wings, and whatever else these bugs have, making it a point to keep them alive while doing this. That child we would think has something really wrong with him, but if we believe in God then we just chalk up behavior like this to ‘mysterious ways’.
The despair is pretty much, if God exists he (or she) is a sociopath. Not much comfort there. Yeah he might answer your prayers but more likely he has some nasty little surprises waiting for you, which of course if he was all good he could tone down a bit, or maybe make the suffering less, but it’s just part of his mysterious ways.
The first chapter of this book is a wonderfully comic family fight about Darwin and evolution waged between a college student and his fundamentalist family. Even if the rest of the book had been boring I’d still recommend that people read this chapter. But the rest of the book isn’t boring, or terrible, it’s really fucking good. It seems to be a tragedy that De Vries has fallen into almost total obscurity, sort of the same way that Stanley Elkin has, but at least almost all of Elkin’s books are in print, where as I’m going to have to rely on the library system to track down all but one other of this very promising writer’s books. (less)