Books

Voice of a Generation

by on Feb.20, 2010, under Books

The Millions proposes that Dave Eggers take over the editorship of the Paris Review from Phillip Gourevitch. My first thought was “what’s in it for Dave?” My guess, uninformed (McSweeney’s “doesn’t do numbers”) is that Eggers’s current gig has to have a wider circulation than the Review. The Millions has an answer, although it’s a kind a spinach prescription: they think that the editorship would force Eggers to finally get past his experiments in cute and forever side with the kinds of empathetic ventriloquism that runs through books like What is the What and Zeitoun.

This reportorial interest in the wider world is one that The Paris Review could nourish, even as it exposed Eggers to an even wider audience – one that might be less satisfied with his tics, and more demanding of writing in proportion with his enormous gifts.

I agree that this would be good spinach. A longer version of my abbreviated post Great Daves of the 90s would have had a similar hope for him.

Eggers’s innovation was a seemingly paradoxical blend of self-consciousness with generosity. At its best it uses a kind of non-corrosive irony to create a space for empathy. At its worst it becomes twee narcissism. N+1’s first Intellectual Situation called out the “Eggersards” for forming a “regressive avant-garde,” one which valued childhood above all other values. When Eggers’s valorization of children informs his literary good-citizen side, you get magic like 826 Valencia, a tutoring program that has spread from San Francisco across the country and trades on the cultish adoration for Eggers among the urban literate to produce an army of volunteers helping underprivileged youth with their writing homework and encouraging their creativity.

Helping actual children is a less exhaustible project than adopting childhood as an intellectual stance. An Eggers editorship of The Paris Review might reconcile the imagination and experimentation of the McSweeney’s empire with adulthood.

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Stealing from the Classics: The Tin Drum

by on Jan.09, 2010, under Books

Late in Book Two Günther Grass builds one of his novel’s main climaxes. World War II is ending and Oskar Matzerath, the narrator and protagonist, attends his father’s funeral. There he plays horseshoes with a metal wreath and a cast-iron cross until he finally rings the post and makes a momentous decision: he will put down the tin drum he’s been beating since he was three years old and allow himself to grow for the first time since then.

Two small lessons here. The first is, don’t worry too much about making your symbolism heavy-handed. Oskar’s father literally chokes to death on his Nazi Party pin when the Russians arrive in Danzig, and as a result Oskar stops his incessant toy drumbeat and begins to emerge from an infantile state.  (Though we soon learn he doesn’t make it all the way to normal adulthood but only to a slightly larger but now somewhat deformed midgethood. Presumably so too did Germany.) Not subtle, still satisfying.

The second is, the impact of a climax is heightened if you let the reader relax for a few pages afterward and absorb it. The climactic chapter “Should I or Shouldn’t I?” which ends with “Leo proclaiming to all the world: ‘He’s growing, he’s growing, he’s growing…'” is followed by this flash-forward to the mental institution from which Oskar narrates his life story:

Last night I was beset by hasty dreams. They were like friends on visiting days. One dream after another; one by one they came and went after telling me what dreams find worth telling; preposterous stories full of repetitions, monologues which could not be ignored, because they were declaimed in a voice that demanded attention and with the gestures of incompetent actors. When I tried to tell Bruno the stories at breakfast, I couldn’t get rid of them, because I had forgotten everything; Oskar has no talent for dreaming.

While Bruno cleared away the breakfast, I asked him as though in passing: “My dear Bruno, how tall am I exactly?”

Bruno set the little dish of jam on my coffee cup and said in tones of concern: “Why, Mr. Matzerath, you haven’t touched your jam.”

This goes on for three more pages, in the course of which we learn one or two more things (Oskar’s height at the time of telling the story, for example). For the most part, though, this is dialogue and description meant to be forgotten. Look at how that first paragraph says exactly nothing. It is filler, meant to register as filler and give the reader time to digest what came before it.

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Out With The Old

by on Jan.01, 2010, under Books, Los Angeles, Movies, Politics

In a gesture towards a clean slate, a fresh start, and a healthy digestive reaction to the upcoming bowl of black-eyed peas, here are four quick sketches for blog posts that I started to draft but never completed. Fly free, little half-born angels.

  • Great Daves of the 90’s. I read Infinite Jest as part of the Infinite Summer challenge, and David Foster Wallace’s twisting, reflexive, ouroborean self-consciousness took me back to the early 90’s. The middle year of my college career was marked by emerging consciousness of the fictions involved in pronouncements about Generation X, and the same kinds of impossibility around newness and protest that Kurt Cobain seemed to reel from in his final famous years. When Dave Eggers (whose Might magazine I had enjoyed) published A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, its hysterically self-aware style felt immediately familiar, and I put off reading it until a few years ago, when I devoured it quickly, enjoyably, and without surprise. Wallace, however, resonates with the maddening headaches of that young consciousness that everything you think is already always being said, programmed by a machine you may operate but never master. But by approaching these struggles through the character of Don Gately, a recovering alcoholic, and showing us his experience grappling with the seemingly empty but vitally true dogma of Alcoholics Anonymous, Wallace validated this familiar and vertiginous self-reflexivity while challenging and expanding it, using a feature of my upper-middle-class overeducated habits of mind to create sympathy for a broken, giant ex-con. Also noted: while I was obsessing over the meanings and traps of “Generation X” I bought a Malcolm X hat (purple X on white baseball cap) and Sharpied “Gen-” in front of the X, and added “Generation Next” to the back, a gesture which in retrospect was a bizarre fashion error.
  • Where The Wild Things Are. Where The Fantastic Mr. Fox presented a fetishization of material goods behind its trumpeted wildness, the Jonzes’ Eggers’s Sendak’s wild things are figurines in staging a Oedipal passage to adulthood. Lauren Ambrose’s monster KJ is a cool babysitter, providing a mother-figure who is also a safe object for the early stirrings of sexual desire (she swallows Max whole to protect him at one point, keeping him safe in a sticky cavernous interior). The movie’s exploration of childhood sets sail from the therapist’s couch, turning Max’s inchoate childhood rages (very well represented) into figures with names before the journey home — and into healthy adulthood — can start. A delightful adaptation of a childhood story to a therapy generation, Where The Wild Things Are was good but both HJ and I wished it wasn’t the definitive take. We wanted the magnificent sets and costumes put in the hands of two or three more writers, so they could play out their own versions of WTWTA against their own idiosyncracies.
  • Interzone. At the time, the Los Angeles City Council was considering the prohibition of medical marijuana dispensaries within 1,000 feet of any residence. More typically, restricted uses will be prohibited close to schools, churches, parks and playgrounds–y’know, because the children are the future– but someone went and threw residences in there as well, leaving about two or three industrial districts where dispensaries could fill prescriptions. My proposal was for the creation of an L.A. Interzone, a la the portrayal of Tunis (?) in Naked Lunch, where head shops, dispensaries, sex offenders and strip clubs could all profitably locate.
  • Road Not Taken. I noticed that the people running to replace Paul Krekorian in the special election for California’s 43rd assembly district were all people that I knew and had come up with in L.A. politics. When I started working in City Hall I toyed with the idea of one day running for office, and if I had, it would be that election today. I made the choice not to seek elective office a long time before I got out of local politics entirely, but if I hadn’t, I could be out there today. Mutatis mutandis, I would have stacked up well. They’re a talented and friendly lot, and it should be an interesting race, but the Assembly today is no place for someone who wants to make a difference in California politics, sadly.

There. No more ideas! I’ll have to go see a movie or something. Big Josh, you back yet?

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I Like My Neighborhood

by on Sep.26, 2009, under Books, New York

I like that people put books they don’t want anymore on their stoops for other people to take for free. I wasn’t even out looking for them today and here’s all the ones I picked up going to and from the farmer’s market.

books

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981

by on Sep.23, 2009, under Books

If there are lessons for writers in Infinite Jest, this must be among them:

If you put into your work everything you know in your head, you’d best also put into it everything you know in your heart.

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Finite

by on Sep.04, 2009, under Books

Consider a book that is preoccupied with simulacra (copies without originals), with the relation of maps to territories, a book which uses “map” as a synonym for self. Consider that this book imagines an entertainment complex dominated by on-demand entertainment cartridges and the fuson of television and computing. Consider that one of the  strands of this book that most resembles a plot hinges on the terroristic dissemination of one of these cartridges.

Now consider that in the book, published in 1996, this plan is slowed down by the discovery of a “read-only” copy when only a master copy can be used to make additional copies. The fuck is a read-only copy?

Infinite Jest gets a surprising number of predictions right. But it missed Napster.

(Caveat: I’m around p. 760. Perhaps I’ll revise this.)

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Stealing from the Classics: To the Finland Station

by on Sep.04, 2009, under Books

“Canalized” is a useful synonym for “channeled.”

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Stealing from the Classics: The Fall of the House of Usher

by on Aug.19, 2009, under Books

Edgar Allen Poe says: You can never be too rich, or too thin, or have too much foreshadowing.

…I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinising observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sulilen waters of the tarn.

Old, rotten family, externally appearing sound. Check. Fissure all the way through the house, wonder whether anything will happen with that? Oh yeah. Check.

In other words, use physical metaphors for underlying themes, make them strongly visual, and don’t be afraid to beat your reader over the head with them.

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Stealing from the Classics: The Turn of the Screw

by on Aug.14, 2009, under Books

As it turns out, it is possible, through the injudicious use of commas, among other marks of punctuation, the endless repetition of certain idioms, and the convolution of sentence structure, to so flatten one’s narrative, as to make even a ghost story boring.

Why one would choose to do such a thing, is beyond me.

My charming work was just my life with Miles and Flora, and through nothing could I so like it as through feeling that to throw myself into it was to throw myself out of my trouble.

Or:

“The man. He wants to appear to them.” That he might was an awful conception, and yet somehow I could keep it at bay; which, moreover, as we lingered there, was what I succeeded in practically proving. I had an absolute certainly that I should see again what I had already seen, but something within me said that by offering myself bravely as the sole subject of such experience, by accepting, by inviting, by surmounting it all, I should serve as an expiatory victim and guard the tranquility of the household.

When a friend was in graduate school at CUNY, he asked André Aciman if he could study James with him to prepare for his comps. “James!” Aciman said disgustedly. “Henry James wrote as if English were a dead language.”

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Stealing from the Classics: Hawthorne

by on Aug.10, 2009, under Books

When I taught writing, one of the main things I wanted my students to learn was how to steal. If you can’t steal from other writers you’ll never go anywhere. Ask Shakespeare.

This inaugurates what could be a regular series of posts discussing moments, scenes, or turns of phrase worth ripping off. It may or may not be limited to books. Today’s victim: Nathaniel Hawthorne.

They are practised politicians, every man of them, and skilled to adjust those preliminary measures, which steal from the people, without its knowledge, the power of choosing its own rulers. The popular voice, at the next gubernatorial election, though loud as thunder, will be really but an echo of what these gentlemen shall speak, under their breath, at your friend’s festive board.

In case there’s anyone in the world who cares about spoilers for The House of the Seven Gables, I’ll put my brief discussion below the fold.

(continue reading…)

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