I was reading through Infinite Jest earlier today- God knows why since I have plenty of much better material I could spend my time on- but it did irritate at a latent part of my brain long enough afterward for me to want to write this essay here. This little thorn in my side has been nagging at me for a long tie, and now I want to pull it out, as much as it’s gonna hurt. Anti-consumerist novels are the bane of 20th-century fiction, and there is no shortage of their ilk. The longest and most egregious of these is Infinite Jest, which started out as 3000 pages and was cut down to 1000 over the course of the editing process just to make it commercially publishable, because with the amount of paper wasted to print it, it would literally- as well as figuratively- not be worth the paper it was printed on. IJ has been upheld by every institution of literary criticism, and there are many academic types who do nothing but analyze it for a living. There are books and papers on this book and its author. Now, on a personal note, I never had anything against David Foster Wallace. I thought he was pretentious, but all in all, just another introvert who meant well. My quarrel is not with him. It is with his work, and to a greater extent the culture that upholds it and the work of Wallace’s comrades.

IJ is classified as a maximalist novel, and regarding such- long novels- they are rarely good. There are a few, but almost no published writer has written a great novel over the four-figure mark. In that sense, IJ is not unique, but in other ways, it is alone in structure and style. What links it to other fiction is its theme. Structurally, Wallace has commented that it is supposed to be the literary version of a Sierpinski gasket, which is a geometric object that looks like this-

gasket

This was said in the context of trying to defend his work from people commenting that it was a random assortment of poorly related scenes, as opposed to an actual plot. I actually think Wallace did put a lot of care into the structure of this book, in the same way, that Franzen puts a lot of care into the plots of his soap operas. The trouble is they both suffer from this. Freedom is wooden, and IJ is overwrought [1].

The style of IJ is the most dividing part of it in terms of people’s tastes, and it is why it is considered to be a marmite kind of book. The prose is surely bad, but for some reason, this is one aspect of the thing that gets a lot of praise. how should I explain this? Here is an excerpt of the writing:

–and then you’re in serious trouble, very serious trouble, and you know it, finally, deadly serious trouble, because this Substance you thought was your one true friend, that you gave up all for, gladly, that for so long gave you relief from the pain of the Losses your love of that relief caused, your mother and lover and god and compadre, has finally removed its smily-face mask to reveal centerless eyes and a ravening maw, and canines down to here, it’s the Face In The Floor, the grinning root-white face of your worst nightmares, and the face is your own face in the mirror, now, it’s you, the Substance has devoured or replaced and become you, and the puke-, drool- and Substance-crusted T-shirt you’ve both worn for weeks now gets torn off and you stand there looking and in the root-white chest where your heart (given away to It) should be beating, in its exposed chest’s center and centerless eyes is just a lightless hole, more teeth, and a beckoning taloned hand dangling something irresistible, and now you see you’ve been had, screwed royal, stripped and fucked and tossed to the side like some stuffed toy to lie for all time in the posture you land in. You see now that It’s your enemy and your worst personal nightmare and the trouble It’s gotten you into is undeniable and you still can’t stop. Doing the Substance now is like attending Black Mass but you still can’t stop, even though the Substance no longer gets you high. You are, as they say, Finished. You cannot get drunk and you cannot get sober; you cannot get high and you cannot get straight. You are behind bars; you are in a cage and can see only bars in every direction. You are in the kind of a hell of a mess that either ends lives or turns them around.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

it is so on the nose, first of all, that it renders much of the plot of the book obsolete because the whole point thereof was to say exactly this, but to show and not tell it. Now, while I have had my quibble with the show don’t tell cliché, one mustn’t just come right out and state one’s opinions on society in the novel. It is hamfisted and silly, especially when you consider the manner in which Wallace goes about this. Wallace has a habit of realizing the world entirely through sight and sound, with nothing behind the sensory stimuli to add any depth. The characters are all one-dimensional caricatures, which don’t even try to move away from the stereotypes that Wallace used to populate his world. The dialogue is often terrible, with many long and rambling conversations that don’t add anything to the plot and are comically absurd in the postmodernist tradition of Pynchon. And this is another thing, despite Wallace intending to write a dark satire his world is such a bizarre and oversimplified version of the reality that one cannot possibly take it seriously. This is why most of the positive reviews about the book bring up how funny it is, to the author’s confusion and disappointment. It resembles Tommy Wiseau’s The Room in this respect: something that was meant to be a drama but turned out to be little more than a so bad it’s good comedy at best.

The point of the book is to comment on the chthonian realm of middle-class America (the only nation that exists apparently). The torments of this hell are the usual suspects: drug addiction, suicide, depression; the sins are entertainment and living in a capitalist society. Wallace has said in various speeches that even without God, there can be no escaping religion. You have to worship something, so many people turn to celebrities and products and drugs and entertainment to give their lives meaning. I don’t know whether DFW was religious by anyone else’s standards, but everyone was religious by his standards. Aside from the populace of this underworld (not to be confused with the other long anti-consumerist manifesto), the scenery is the primary focus: Wallace will describe the layouts of a building down to the exact blueprints, and the modifications made to said blueprints over the course of construction. He will go out of his way to describe anything and everything, whether or not you asked for it, and whether or not it has any bearing on the overall plot, or more importantly, the development of the characters. It is a wonder, that in the modifications made to the work itself, what must have been in the deleted 2000 pages, considering the amount of utter shit that made it into the final draft?

Concerning the culture that has risen up to promote this book, much of it is the result of academics and their desire to dissect what they deem to be the most complex fiction, to find all the hidden details of it. Iis not so much complex as it is complicated. There is a difference. Solving a Sherlock Holmes crime is a complicated affair, understanding how to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier is a complex affair. In one, you must arrange all the elements into one cogent whole, in order to reverse engineer what happened; in the other, there are many layers of elements that must come together in a mutually complementary way. The society of today, and the culture of today’s universities, only ever seem concerned with the former. This is because it is far easier to analyze something of breadth than of depth. It’s not really about exploring the problems [DFW has] with the 1st world, or how to mend them, but about how many convoluted ways he can find to complain about them. This gives Wallace scholars (those actually exist) enough fodder for their dissertations. If anyone can see the irony (another thing DFW has problems with) in all this let me know.

None of the people I have seen recommend Infinite Jest have come up with a single reason it’s any good, apart from that they like it. Many of them enjoy the political message of the thing (not naming people, but there is a guy on YouTube who only rates books based on how much they pander to his political values), and others think the idea of a world in which years are named after products, and there is a titular film that is so entertaining that people will literally watch themselves to death if they even so much as glance at the screen, to be a great premise.

1. Of course, there are also the endnotes of Infinite Jest which some believe (wrongly) to be an analogy to tennis- as the Tennis Academy takes up vast portions of the book for reasons too boring to get into- because the act of bouncing from one cover to another is like that of playing tennis with the author, or whatever. The real reason for these is that said author was just trying to find a way to cram more narrative/backstory in without having to add anything of substance to the plot/characters.

Rating 3/10

 

I’m not sure what to make of HtRK, only that it bears many parallels with another novel I read the other week, Shantaram, in which a typical white guy becomes enamored with a foreign culture, one in Africa, the other in India. Both also have a similar rating and similar problems. They are both thematically generic and have a relatively blad plot with occasional moments that try to provide substance. A weakness of HtRK is that its moments are filled with bizarre observations by the protagonist, such as:

I wish my dead days would quit bothering me and leave me alone. The bad stuff keeps coming back, and it’s the worst rhythm there is. The repetition of a man’s bad self, that’s the worst suffering that’s ever been known.

-Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

In Shantaram these moments are marinated with every cliché consisting of the words world and heart. Actually, everyone in these novels talks in such platitudes, baring their dense Indian/African speech patterns- which, in the case of HtRK, are borderline bigoted at times. Never mind immersing oneself in other cultures, our authors are prone to whitening them up.

Indians are the Italians of Asia and vice versa. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is the music inside the body and music is the food inside the heart. Amore or Pyar makes every man a poet, a princess of peasant girl if only for second eyes of man and woman meets.

-Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

This is one of those novels that hasn’t earned its reputation, and will surely not become a classic as time passes. But its author believes it to be a masterpiece, and if he hadn’t why else would he have spent 13 years of his life writing its near 1000 pages? Yet in all that, there is only one character I consider even remotely interesting- this is Prabu, Greg’s Indian companion- and that includes Greg himself. The highest part of the novel artistically, albeit lowest emotionally, is a scene in which (spoilers), upon mentioning at every turn of the book his infectious smile, Prabu’s face is destroyed in an accident, and he dies having lost that smile. This moment is handled with great care, and it does a great service to Roberts’ friend. There is nothing like this in Bellow’s story, but neither does it have the low points of pages and pages of blah blah as Shantaram.

A significant issue in either work is how women are treated: there is no female characterization at all and the women- as dull as the male characters are- are as one dimensional as they come. In fact, the love interest of Shantaram is so forgettable that despite featuring in a sizeable chunk of the book, the entire point of her story amounts to- be careful of pretty girls sonny. This is, however, the most interesting female character between the two works.

So yeah: wooden, overrated, and trite, but you may enjoy the respective plots. These are books for teenage boys, and while they don’t quite reach the depth that they could, there is fun to be had, and that’s why I give these two a rating typical of most genre fiction, but not profound literature as they desire to be. In short, they promised more than they could deliver, but they did deliver in some areas. So not failures, just good, solid stories.

Mutual Rating: 5/10

This was one of the most profound reading experiences of my life. It is a book that I would compare, for a number of reasons, including quality, to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It is one of, if not the best told novel I have read. There are three narrators, each telling their story in the first person. They are Linc, Wub, and Manny, and the trio of youngsters constitute a group called, well, ‘The Tumbleweeds.’ Don’t get me wrong, although it is told from the perspective of 3 kids, it is a very mature book, and the characters grow throughout. As their friendship crumbles, we see their perspectives on life and each other, altered. What I think gives tremendous merit to the novel is that there are no quick fixes, nothing is ever simple, and life takes its toll.

The neighborhood in which the Tumbleweeds reside, referred to as ‘the nabe,’ is the background of their lives, and as they change it retains its ebb and flow. In time, the Tumbleweeds either grow out of it, or it consumes them, that is all I will say in that regard. The main character, I would say, is Manny Kohl. He is the first and last voice of the book and his journey into manhood will bend and perhaps break the reader. There is nothing quite like this book, I could not call it gritty. I have read my share of gritty books, which kill off characters for shock value, and leave you with a cold, numb ache like you were punched in the schnoz. But Tumbleweeds is not a cold book, it is very sensitive, yet shows the harshest parts of life. There is nothing in there just for the sake of it, nothing seems to happen just as a plot device, what occurs does so randomly, and retroactively acquires meaning through the eyes of our narrators. And with every shaking of the tree of life, more fruit falls. In other words, everything that happens feeds the development of the characters, for good or bad.

I want every writer to read this novel because there is so much to learn from it: how to subvert clichés, how to write a fight scene, how to distinguish voice, how to write dialogue, how to compose an organic plot. I could go on. One thing which some people might see as a flaw is the manner in which kids are portrayed in Tumbleweeds, in that they are very aware of life and not as naive as we might expect, but I don’t think this potential criticism would be justified. I think we imagine kids, as adults, to be more childish than they really are. We forget the way we perceive the world as kids. In reality, we are the blueprints for the people we will become, and this, I feel is really the centermost theme of the book. The man Manny Kohl will become is outlined herein, as a writer of the future, the man who would one day write this book, the first of a Quartet.

The real writer, however, is Dan Schneider, and this is an interesting example of playing with meta techniques, because Manny Kohl- in the introduction to the next book, The Vincetti Brothers– explains that Dan Schneider is only a pen name, but there is a hint that he may also be a real character in the world of the novel. More on The Vincetti Brothers in my upcoming review, but I bring up the fictive authorship of Tumbleweeds to point out that, while we seem to get 3 different POVs in the novel, there is in reality only one and the sections of Linc and Wub are in fact only the projections of Manny Kohl.

In this, and numerous ways, Tumbleweeds is one of the most complex and brilliant novels that has ever been conceived, and it is executed perfectly. Another, unfortunately, unpublished work by its prolific author. I hope that this review will contribute, in some way, to the awareness of his work. Promoting underappreciated writers is, however, a nice change from denouncing overrated hacks that are all too common these days.

Rating: 9/10

Yukio Mishima was one of the most intransigent characters of the 20th century, and insofar as his work reflects his mind, many find it offputting. He was a widely accomplished individual, as well as writing novels (and plays and poetry) he also directed films, modeled, and was even considered a Samurai. He ended his life by committing seppuku at the age of 45. This was in fulfillment, at least to an extent, of his ambition never to grow old, as the body cannot be beautiful when it is old. Yes, he was surely a character, and of the likes to be found in his novels.

Speaking of which, The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea possesses a title that carries a meaning intrinsic to the theme within its pages: the sailor- Ryuji Tsukazaki- is looked on by a boy- Noboru Kuroda- as a kind of fantastic ideal. The 13-year-old is part of a precocious little gang which sees itself as the keepers of order over chaos. They seem to be rather nihilistically inclined. While some readers have suggested that they are too young to be thinking philosophically insofar as they are, I don’t think Mishima necessarily made a mistake here. After all, they, like all young boys, think in ultimatums. What is interesting is how easily we forget the fictive elements of a book like this, written by an author so absolutist in his own thinking. But should we interpret Noboru as a representation of the author? To some extent, we can make this psychoanalytic connection, but we must also realize that Mishima is not writing a manifesto.

There is a considerable artistry to the book, and just because a character in a book is disagreeable does not mean we should find the book disagreeable. Few people read American Psycho as an attempt by Ellis to give credence to the way Patrick Bateman sees the world. At least I would hope not. It seems that many think of The Sailor as an ‘anti-feminist book’ since Mishima was most interested in the aesthetic of the masculine and the functional. To say The Sailor is anti-feminist because his prose lends poetry to this aspect of the world is simply overreading, and Noboru’s twisted adolescent ideology is not the same as Mishima’s. Even if it was, what’s the problem? There is no Nazi propaganda in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, though the author was a Nazi, nor does anyone really care: the art reaches deeper into the human soul than ideology. The Sailor should be read in this way. It articulates things about the world which, whether they render as ‘true’ to you, are real. Just as Moby Dick articulates the reality of obsessive fixation, The Sailor articulates the reality of masculine expectations and perceptions- and I ask you when has a spaghetti western, starring a ‘man’s man’ like John Wayne, ever done the same?

Now, with some of my reviews, I do tend to spoil things- not that I think great novels can be spoiled anyway- but this time I’m going to let you find out for yourself how things turn out. The reason I spoil books is that I sometimes need to in order to critique certain aspects of them. In this case, I am defending the novel from a criticism that doesn’t seem to have been thought through very well by those who give it. Unlike 1984, The Sailor is not preachy. It is incredibly condensed and filled to the brim with meaning. There is no wasted space, every word is of import. And best of all the plot does not feel contrived. Not only is it original, removed from all cliches, it is organic and perfectly realized.

Mishima was nonpareil as a writer, but he was one of a dying breed, it may not have been so far from the truth to call him ‘The Last Samurai’. The last man perhaps, who truly devoted himself to the Samurai mentality. I can only admire his devotion and appreciate the sublime and unique genius of his work.

Rating: 7/10

This is one of those books that seems almost mandatory for a site like mine to talk about, so we might as well get it out of the way. It is a disturbing book, no doubt if you take it seriously, but is it realistic? Is it even good? On the first point, it seems that 1984– more of a lengthy thought experiment than a novel- is used as a weapon by anyone against any governmental party they disagree with. Especially the media, or bloggers, most of whom probably haven’t even read the bloody thing. That slogan I keep seeing, that ‘1984 was not meant to be an instruction manual’ is, and will always remain, vague and stupidly reactionary. The phrase ‘Orwellian society’ is thrown around like a bad cliché. Most people think Orwell’s book is about the dangers of surveillance, those who have read it will learn that it is about the dangers of political ideology. What is always overlooked however is how incredibly specific the ideology of Big Brother actually is. In general, it is indeed very plausible that those in power can use a certain twisting of logic to manipulate a society- we’ve seen it all throughout history, and in this way 1984 is not so profound unless we ironically forget the past- but when it comes down to specifics, I do not believe the circular nonsense of Big Brother would actually work.

The reason for this is simple: ideology requires the support of the populace. Fascism came to power because Hitler’s philosophy was concocted as a cure for a wounded Germany; putting forward pseudo-naturalist ideals; feeding the primal instinct of man through a faux intellectual straw. Communism was born out of a genuinely compelling Marxist critique of capitalism (and unlike Big Brother’s it is not just a cartoon caricature of men wearing top hats); a grounded argument about equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome; an appeal to one’s sense of fairness. Before this, the Catholic Church held sway over Europe- mind, body, and soul- because it provided the solution to an existential question, and along with it, an ‘objective morality’ that scared everyone into a sheep-mentality obsequience. In every case, the logic plays with a people’s sense of justice and rights. With all the added cruelty, oppression, suppression and dogma which every ideology requires in order to bind a society and maintain its own flavor of order (and I include capitalism also), there is a kernel of what people genuinely see as truth to it. In order to infect the subject, a virus must first avoid triggering the immune system. Similarly, in order to ensconce itself deeply in the mind, an ideology must first enter by the mind’s volition.

George Orwell gets none of this. What he does get, however, is the necessity of an ‘us vs them’ mentality, a duality: Germans vs Jews; comrades vs capitalists; saints vs sinners; Big Brother vs The Brotherhood. Okay. But this does little to explain how ‘the Party‘ got into power in the first place. We understand how their power is maintained, we understand why they wish to maintain it (apparently just for the sake of it, what a revelation that was), but not this most important question. I was hoping that O’Brien in his longwinded monologues- which I can only imagine is meant to be part of the torcher those who commit ‘thoughtcrime’ are subjected to in Miniluv– that he would make sense of this for me, but he did not. Orwell does try, though, to help us understand how anyone outside of the Party itself can be fooled into believing their bullshit, by converting Winston himself. Apparently, the circular arguments of O’Brien just sort of confused him to the point of losing all sense of reality. Though I believed it insofar as I understand Winston’s- a not-so-bright old chap- becoming uncertain, I did not believe at all the closing line, ‘He loved Big Brother.’

Two passages come to mind:

‘There are three stages in your reintegration,’ said O’Brien. ‘There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance.’

&

‘Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.’

Well, in this case, nothing further happened than the breaking, in Room 101, of Winston’s moral. His mind was indeed torn to pieces, but it was never really put back together.

Does 1984 fail, however? In order to answer this question- is it good?- we need to analyze a few other aspects. While the important thing with this novel is society, not the characters themselves, I think we still need to talk about Winston Smith. He is one of those protagonists designed to be just generic enough to represent the every-reader in the story. We are supposed to ‘relate’ to him. It is a good strategy to trigger a sense of empathy, but his lack of depth ultimately causes the story to be uninteresting. Forget that Shakespeare is censored in this dystopic world, Winston pulls a Romeo and falls in love in the most clichéd manner Orwell’s type-writer could render in print. However, Orwell does do something original with this romance, by allowing Big Brother to break it, we see a new idea emerge on the theme: it is not, as in Shakespeare’s tragedy, love that triumphs over society, but society that triumphs over love. This is a redeeming aspect of real(istic) humanity in otherwise cardboard characters.

The prose is flat, of course. No musicality at all, but there are some much-quoted lines- particularly the first and last of the book. It’s accessible and a quick read but it is so filled with comically inane propaganda and contemplation thereon that it is definitely not a pleasurable reading experience. Of course, that is the point in a way. Imagine if it were the reality, not a book we can simply put down! Yeah, I get it. But Orwell, despite his stature and place in the literary canon, is still, as Nabokov said, little more than a mediocrity. The fact he is so acclaimed leads me to question the society in which such a book is considered great. I blame the critical establishment, a literary Thought Police which tries to make readers everywhere believe the artistic equivalent of 2+2=5.

Rating: 6/10

Within the progress reports of Charlie Gordon- a formerly ‘retarded’ man transformed by an experimental operation into a veritable genius- is the portrait of someone who, within one lifetime, has stood on both sides of an intellectual communication barrier. Though Charlie is gifted with a brilliant brain, a marvelous mind, he lacks the emotional intelligence necessary to deal with life’s newfound problems. Things of which he was formerly unaware now become central to his life, and he loses his former innocent charm. The man he turns into is cynical and perpetually unimpressed. Though Charlie cannot relate to the people around him, he does relate to a ‘very special mouse’, Algernon, [supposedly] the first successful test subject of the procedure Charlie underwent. Algernon serves as both mirror and foreshadower of Charlie Gordon’s own life.

While it is often mentioned of Flowers for Algernon that it is a warning against scientists playing God, I do not really see this theme as very prominent myself. If anything, it is much less a warning than an examination- a sensitive account of the causata of contrast, both positive and negative. In other words, the contrast between Charlie, both versions of him, and other people; between emotional and analytical understanding; between pride and shame; between amorousness and love. Even the prose in the first half contrasts drastically with the prose of the second half, as Charlie goes from straining to spell simple words to straining to simplify his words. As we know, contrast is the seed out of which both drama and comedy grow, but most misunderstandings in fiction result, and not necessarily always by design, in comedy. This novel is at least refreshing in that it will sooner make one cry than make one laugh when depicting misunderstandings.

Since I have identified contrast as central, I should probably mention a few contrasting features of the two [written] versions of Flowers for Algernon. Originally a short story, Daniel Keyes later developed his character study into a novel, and fortunately, he did add some important elements into it, somewhat filling out the length. I do still feel, however, that with a longer short story, the whole thing could be told well but without all the excess verbiage. A novella at most would do. You can see what I mean by comparing those aspects of both versions which remain the same in detail. One improvement made in the novelization is the language use of Charlie Gordon in the first half, in fact, all of the characters are given far more distinctive voices. We can identify them through their speech alone most of the time. Of course, a weakness of short fiction, and one of the relative weaknesses of the short story version of Flowers for Algernon is that only the protagonist is sufficiently fleshed out, and while we do hear of the other characters, we do not really get to shake their hands. In the novel, there is added to every minor role a dash of humanity which serves the narrative well, not least for better understanding our narrator himself.

Notably, in the novelization, there is far more involvement with ‘Miss Kinnian’, Charlie’s teacher. In fact, after his operation, Charle gets very much involved with her- as well as another young lady, Fay, who is absent from the short story. Herein can be seen the last contrast mentioned above (second paragraph)- that between sexualized passion and shared compassion. And of course, we get the obligatory observation that sex is meaningless without love. Further missing from the short story is Charlie’s mother and sister. Late in the novel, there is an important scene where we see how Charlie’s mother is becoming senile, losing touch with reality, and for the first time do we see post-op-Charlie really empathize with another human being for their lack of lucidity. I would nearly go as far as to say the tables had turned in the relationship between Charlie and his mother, but this is not really true. As Algernon hints, Charlie is not going to remain a genius forever.

It is interesting to note that Charlie becomes a much shallower person after the operation than he ever was before. Whether this is by design or not is hard to say. We know Keyes intended for him to become much more unlikeable, but I don’t think he would have become so much shallower if only a certain point had not snagged on Charlie’s emotional coattails: ‘I’m a person, I was always a person, I’m not just a guinea pig.’ Okay, we get it. This is one of those things that would be better rendered shown and not told- or told over and over again. There is somehow much more humanity and complexity in his former self, except when it comes to mundane affairs of course, which is never very special. I’ve come to the conclusion that Keyes, like most non-geniuses, has no idea how to depict a genius with depth in any direction. There is never any demonstration of Charlie’s newfound insight into the world, but he does love to list off things that he knows and proclaim his intelligence. It was irritatingly similar to an episode of SpongeBob– Patrick Smartpants– in this way. The plot is similarly contrived, there is no real transition from clinical retard to genius, just a very sudden switch that happens shortly after Chalie’s (Patrick’s) cranium is screwed back on. There is the theme of memory and child abuse. I just don’t think this was handled with particular grace. This aspect of the novel is authentically felt, but disappointingly generic. There is little to talk about here that is very unique or interesting.

Finally, I said earlier that Flowers for Algernon was not a warning against playing God. I stand by this of course (I left it in), but maybe it can be taken as a kind of warning: specifically to those in the medical field, to perhaps wait until the results from your test guinea pig- or in this case, test mouse- are rendered in full before you do something both life-altering and irreversible to a patient?

Rating: 6/10