Bits & Pieces:

05Jun07

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve managed to write anything here. That’s for a couple of reasons: 1) I was busy moving, and 2) Verizon decided to cancel my internet service about two weeks before I moved. It’s interesting- if you tell them to cancel service on a certain date, and then they confirm that it will be cancelled on that date, then you should expect them to actually cancel it on that specific date, right? Instead, I discovered my internet to be off later on that evening. And of course, since my account was terminated, they couldn’t do anything to help me, other than to offer to open a new account, which would take at least two weeks to take effect. Oh, Verizon, why do you always disappoint me so? Didn’t you get the clue that your customer service sucks when I switched my cellular contract to Cingular?

Here’s something that I learned in the meantime, though. I’m truly addicted to the internet. I know that I’ve said that so many times in the past, but mostly joking. Well, it turns out that it’s not really a joke. And also, I learned that a Blackberry is a great (really, really great) secondary internet device, but it sucks if it’s all that you have.

So, onwards. Once again, I’ll have to confess that I haven’t looked at Pale Fire in a while. I actually packed it up when I was boxing my library. When I discovered later that I had done that, I briefly considered going through everything to find it, but eventually decided that I didn’t have the time or energy to tear through the hundreds of books just to find this one. So, I unpacked the other day and found it, so hopefully I’ll be able to get back into it soon. Why does this book insist on eluding me (physically)?

In the meantime, while I was waiting to have the opportunity to unpack, I picked up Haruki Murakami’s After Dark. It was interesting- a short and sweet, and very quiet, story of a handful of characters and how they interact during the course of a single night. It’s worth reading if you like Murakami. It won’t disappoint. However, if you haven’t had the pleasure to read him yet, start elsewhere, specifically with The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. After Dark is more of a long novella than a full blown novel.

Truthfully, there’s very little to say about After Dark. It’s one of those books that just is what it is, no more and no less. I, however, can’t get enough of Murakami. I think he’s a master of the so-called ‘magical realism,’ right up there with Marquez, Kundera and Calvino (Why is it that these ‘magical realists’ tend to be non-American? Considering that (at this particular moment in time) American writers are generally considered to be at the forefront in the literature world).

Also, I should mention that Oprah’s interview with Cormac McCarthy was on this afternoon. I’ll try to post a video later if and when it appears on Youtube. He seemed like quite a humble and shy man who was immediately likeable. One thing in particular is worth mentioning: he said that the only things that a person needs are shoes and food. I guess that would explain why most of his books involve scenes where the protagonist has to replace his boots, and scrounging for food with little to no money. He also spoke about his previous poverty (how he was once evicted from a $40/month hotel) and how he didn’t care whether 1000 or 1,000,000 people read his books. Well, he should get used to a larger number, because between The Road and No Country For Old Men, he’s collecting some new readers right now.

Here’s a clip from No Country For Old Men. It’s not a trailer, just some scenes.

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In a comment by my good friend Taylor to my previous post, he brought up the contentious topic of writers writing about writing. I knew that this was bound to come up eventually, given the nature of Pale Fire, but up to the point where I’m at the book has been mostly about Kinbote/King Charles. But the poem by Shade, and his writing process, has always been dancing just beyond the edge of light in the shadows, and I can’t claim that I was unaware of it. Maybe just ignoring it, because this is a topic that has always made me slightly uncomfortable when dealing with an author whose work I respect.

(Keep in mind that I’ve decided to read Pale Fire as Kinbote suggests… by skipping the poem and reading the commentary first. After, I’ll go back and read the poem, and presumably be shocked at how far off Kinbote’s commentary was.)

But anyways, on writing about writing. The first time I can remember running into that concept was with good ol’ Steven King. I was introduced to his books in the eighth grade, and I’ve never actually stopped reading him. Any time he has a new release, I’ll drop everything and read it immediately. And you know what? I’m not sure why I have such a deep visceral attraction to his work. He’s a good writer, for sure, and very engaging. But as a ‘pop’ writer, we’re not supposed to be into him, right?

Let me make another aside here (An aside within an aside, I must be getting altogether too meta for my own good. Sigh.). I have absolutely no problem with genre-fiction. I find it quite enjoyably to read for the exact opposite reason that I enjoy literature. Genre-fiction tends to be a quick read, and while good examples make you think and formulate questions about the real world (see my comment on Everyday Faith about Phillip Pullman), they also tend to be easy and fun to read.

So what is it about Steven King, particularly, that makes me drop everything? Yes, as I said he’s a good writer. But he’s not great. His books almost universally end terribly. As in cheesy, forced, Deus Ex Machina sort of terrible. I guess ultimately what it comes down to is that urge, deep seated inside all of us, left over from before evolution turned us into what we now are, to be utterly terrified. Feeling that horror in your stomach is so primal that you can’t deny it. And that, I think, is why Steven King is one of the most popular writers in the history of writing.

Along those lines, last year I read Michel Houellebecq’s H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, a longish essay on Lovecraft and horror in general. Although after The Elementary Particles, I’m not a huge supporter of Houellebecq’s, but his Lovecraft essay is interesting. It’s curious: I may think that Houellebecq’s general philosophy of life is misguided, but I do think he’s worth reading…

Well then, moving on. Back to the original point, writing about writing.

I started talking about Steven King because he’s the first author that I noticed doing it. And even when I was much younger, I felt kinda cheated after I read more than one or two books about the same destructive alcoholic writer fighting demons/monsters/ghosts.

Is this a case of a writer using a crutch? The true ‘write what you know’ philosophy?

In some cases ‘write what you know’ works. For example, Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon was an aeronautical engineer, and was in the Navy. Is it safe to say that Slothrop is semi-based on the writer? Maybe. Is it safe to say that the writer knows a shitload about rockets? Hell Yeah.

When I saw David Foster Wallace speak, he was asked a question about this topic. His response was (here I’m paraphrasing, ’cause I didn’t write the quote down at the time) that he always told his students not to write what they knew… ’cause then most of the stories that he’d have to read would be about fratboys wearing baseball caps talking to their girlfriends and eating cake. I don’t know why they were eating cake in his parable, but I thought it was an astute observation- we, as readers, tend not to care about the author’s life as much as we do about the author’s imagination.

Maybe it just depends on the perspective. If ‘write what you know’ produces a story about conspiracy in war torn Europe, evil octopuses, S&M Hansel and Gretel stories, and the like- then more power to you. But when it produces another story about drunken writers, then maybe not so great. And there’s been that trend, these last few years, to obsessively write about how terrible your life has been, in obsessive detail. Don’t even get me started on Dave Eggers. I do not like anything that he’s ever written. Thank God that N+1 is starting to rise… there’s a lot of prediction that it’ll knock McSweeny’s out of the spotlight in the next few years… But really that’s neither here nor there…

So what about Nabokov’s use of writing about writing in Pale Fire? As Taylor points out “this time he’s using the thing he knows best for maximum effectiveness.” Has Nabokov undertaken something so great that he has to cling to something real and grounded to keep himself in line? Perhaps, perhaps. But something occurred to me today… Shade’s poem (which as I mentioned I haven’t read yet)… does Nabokov consider it a ‘good’ poem or a ‘bad’ poem? If Kinbote likes it, then that’s a strike against it, because we feel no sympathy for Kinbote. But then again, Kinbote obviously likes the poem for the wrong reasons, thinking that it’s the story of the Zemblan King. So what are we to think about it?

Hopefully I’ll know when I get the chance to read the poem in its entirety, instead of the little references here and there as I’ve been getting. But I’ll be the first to admit that I know nearly nothing about poetry, so it’s anyone’s guess.

Whew. This post went all over the place, didn’t it?

*Edit*

Something else struck me just a minute ago. I forgot that Steven King has an awkward connection to meta.

In the last book (book 7) of The Dark Tower series, King wrote himself into the narrative as a character. It seemed like it was part of his process of recovering from that terrible car accident that he was involved in a number of years ago, actually. Ok, no big deal, sometimes your book turns meta, and there’s nothing that you can do about it.

But then (and this is the kicker), in the afterword King goes on a mini rant about how he hates meta! He just wrote himself into the story because he believed that he as a character was part of the way the story concluded…

(Once again I’m paraphrasing here… my copy of The Dark Tower is not ready at hand, and if I got these fact wrong, sorry. But that’s how I remember it. And also, I’m not sure exactly what this has to so with what I was talking about before, but I think it’s an interesting illustration of how writing about writing can go terribly wrong.)


Funny Stuff:

03May07

Well, after a couple of weeks of insanity (non-stop work, a slight debilitation due to an old back injury, planning for my upcoming move, and general drunkenness), I was finally able to pick up some reading time this afternoon and evening, this afternoon in the park, and this evening curled up on my couch. Literally curled up, because my couch is a loveseat. But I took a brief break this evening to eat barbecue with my brother, and watch an old Mr. Show episode with my roommate… it was awkward: because I was on the couch already, she had to take the recliner (which is a switch of positions) and the TV viewing angle just felt all wrong.

But I digress. What I wanted to get into tonight was how funny Pale Fire is turning out to be. Which is a blessing, because the book is turning into way more of a mindfuck than I had imagined.

This one especially tickled me, as the one and only line describing a character’s mother :

She is said to have been the first woman in the world to shoot wolves, and, I believe, other animals, from an airplane.” (page 139)

Which of course is great, because no more needs to be said. You can imagine that woman, shooting from an airplane, and know everything that you need to about her. Other gems in the vicinity include:

A very special monoplane, Blenda IV, was built for him in 1916 by his constant “aerial adjutant,” Colonel Peter Gusev (later a pioneer parachutist and, at seventy, one of the greatest jumpers of all time) and this was his bird of doom.” (page 103, in reference to the Zemblan King Alfin the Vague, the narrator’s (?) father)

… he flew smack into the scaffolding of a huge hotel which was being constructed in the middle of a coastal heath as if for the special purpose of standing in a King’s way.” (ditto)

A shiver of alfear (uncontrollable fear caused by elves) ran between his shoulder-blades.” (page 143)

“… Mandevil who had lost a leg in trying to make anti-matter.” (page 150)

And a delightful scene describing a slow speed chase of a Royalist-King-imposter by an Extremist police agent on separate gondolas on a ski lift.

As the novel (at least at this point) turns into more of a slapstick adventure featuring the Zemblan King Charles’s escape from the revolution into exile, it becomes more and more clear that our narrator, Charles Kinbote, is in fact the King. Which of course brings up an interesting point: if he is hiding from the assassin Gradus, who may or may not have killed the poet Shade (we’ll have to wait and see), then why is he so blatantly breaking his cover by writing this transparent memoir in the form of a commentary on another man’s work? Is he truly so egocentric that he doesn’t realize that he’s revealing himself, and that Shade’s poem had nothing to do with Zemblan history and kings-in-exile? Perhaps. In Kinbote’s note on line 71 (pages 100-107) he says he would blast Professor Hurley’s literary obituary of John Shade if not for the fact that “A Commentary where placid scholarship should reign is not the place for blasting the preposterous defects of that little obituary.” (page 100)

Of course, Kinbote’s commentary is, at this point, anything but placid scholarship. It is the rambling discourse of a madman… in the above-mentioned note to line 71, while intending to discuss Shade’s parents and his origins, he only does so for a paragraph before spending the next six pages talking about his (Kinbote/King Charles’s) parents.

Starting to see where the mindfuck is coming from? This book jumps, in one sentence to the next, from being a poem/commentary to a memoir of an egomaniacal exiled king to a biography of the poet to a chronicle of the king/narrator’s life as the poet’s neighbor/stalker to his account of battling with the poet’s widow for the publishing rights while writing the whole thing in a cave, presumably to avoid assassination…

If you’ll allow me to use a metaphor belonging to a sport that I rarely ever watch, Nabokov is really knocking the ball out of the park with this one.


Whew, what a week! Work was so busy it didn’t give me really any time to do much in my off hours besides drink and sleep. So, once again, I haven’t read a single page on anything. Getting ridiculous, isn’t it… how long has it been since I’ve cracked open Pale Fire?

But I did get the new release The Children Of Hurin, and while I’m not planning on reading it until I finish a few other things on my list, it got me thinking about my relationship with Tolkien.

My friend Ryan suggested this book called The Hobbit when I was in the 5th grade. He had just finished it, after reading his father’s copy, and let me borrow the book. He said it was full of goblins and wizards and dragons and the like. Who wouldn’t like that?

The thing is, though, that his father’s copy of The Hobbit was the fully illustrated version, with a still frame from the animated film every page or two. So, to this day, when I picture Middle Earth, it’s via those illustrations. Even the heavy touch of Peter Jackson couldn’t shake my mental images. Well, not too much, at least.

Then, after I finished The Hobbit, Ryan told me that there was a sequel… and it was a trilogy! The first time that I had ever heard that word. But my excitement quickly turned to disappointment when I found out that Bilbo wasn’t the main character anymore. Instead his nephew Frodo was taking over, and I resigned myself to hating the books, for that reason alone.

(give me a break already, I was like in 6th grade at this point)

But of course, The Lord Of The Rings was great. I even came to love Frodo. But everyone already knows that.

Then, later, I managed to get through The Silmarillion. Not much to say about it, other than you’re a hardcore fan if you’ve read it. Not as hardcore as those guys who read the ten volume Christopher Tolkien history, but still.

It seems like The Children Of Hurin will be like The Silmarillion, at least in time frame. Taking place millennia before LOTR, it at least contains a story (or so I think) as opposed to the general history that made up the majority of The Silmarillion.

I’m looking forward to it, but it’s going on the shelf for a while. Well, I lied, I flipped through the genealogy and the map, because I’m a dork like that.

*Edit*

Something just occurred to me, and I had to write it down. My first go through of The Lord Of The Rings (there have been many over the years) took place when I was younger and had a shorter attention span. So, when I got to the Council of Elrond, I was bored out of my mind. And I skipped it, getting back into the action when he sends the Fellowship off. So I missed all of the backstory about Saruman.

I didn’t notice that there was a problem until I got into The Two Towers. Suddenly, I had no idea of what anybody was talking about. But I stuck with it, and ate up the battles, characters, etc, but never really understood the politics and decision making. Needless to say, I enjoyed the Frodo and Sam portions much more, which, realistically, helped me get over the Bilbo/Frodo switch that I mentioned earlier.

It wasn’t until I reread the books for the first time (maybe a year or two later) that I finally got what was going on, and how crucial and amazing it was was when Saruman turned from the White to Of Many Colours, and his imprisonment of Gandalf atop the tower.

(And embarassingly enough, it wasn’t until I was much older that I realised that the two towers referenced in the title were Isengard and Barad-Dur.)

(Oh yeah, and I also didn’t realise at the time how much of a temptation Frodo was offering when he tried to pawn the Ring off on Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel. Especially Galadriel. Turns out that she’s one powerful elf Queen. Those books are like onions, the more you peel the more you cry. )


If you’ll allow me to go off-topic once again, the Pulitzers were announced, with the prize in fiction going to The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

I’d like to momentarily address The Road.

I’ve been a fan of Cormac McCarthy for some time now . I can’t exactly claim to have read all of his novels (the first three are still waiting for me on my shelf) but I’ve tackled everything from Suttree to the present, beginning with Blood Meridian.

And I mention Blood Meridian now, as I consider it and The Road to be two sides of the same coin… or perhaps The Road is the same coin as Blood Meridian, after it’s been shot through with a large and deadly pistol.

Perhaps some background is necessary. Blood Meridian, dark, violent, and elegant, tells the story of the kid, a nameless young member of a band of Apache-hunting outlaw Americans on the new border between Texas and Mexico, in the 1850’s. Even McCarthy’s gloriously erudite prose can’t restrain the pure violence- in fact, he abandons himself to it. The apocalypse takes place on that border, and the band come to represent the horsemen. You’ll be hard pressed, while reading that novel, to find a page that doesn’t include an act of extreme violence… they range from simple shootings and knifings (at the tame end) to crucifixions, impalements, scalpings, the killings of children (at the less tame end).

When I first began this book, I was utterly revolted and disgusted, even putting it aside about halfway through, never to touch it again. But eventually, I was drawn back inexplicably…

It’s amazing how, after a time, all of that violence blends into the background. You become ultimately desensitized- it’s as if nothing is happening at all.

Which brings me to The Road.

This is the haunting and spare story of a father and son (also unnamed) who are some of the very last survivors of the apocalypse which takes place in our own time. They travel the road, armed with a single pistol and two bullets, trying to reach the ocean in the futile hope that a better life will await them there. Everything is grey and covered in ash, the sky is dark, the air is cold. Plants no longer grow, animals no longer live.

The Road ends up, in my view, as the flip side from the complete lack of action. The two will walk, find a can of corn, walk more, find more food, walk more, hide from other survivors, walk more. And somehow, it reads exactly the same as Blood Meridian.

The Road, though, really shines when it talks of the power of the bond between father and child. There are few precious moments that you cling to in a world where there is no hope: for example, when they find an unopened can of Coca-Cola. The boy, born after the apocalypse, has never tasted Coke, and never will again, and the father knows that drinking the beverage will be one of the greatest fleeting joys of the boy’s life.

But, on the flip side, is the father’s terrible (but loving) protection of his son: when they stumble upon the homestead of a group of cannibals who leave their victims alive, taking a limb at a time to feast on, the father and son run and hide. Only left with a single bullet at this point, the father plans on killing the son if they are captured to spare him the fate of being eaten alive, while accepting that fate for himself.

And then, there is the father’s belief that his son is a god, walking the earth, and he must teach the son to ‘carry the fire’ and to only be good (never mind that the father is just as opportunistic and terrible as the rest of the pitiful survivors).

I could go on and on, about both novels. Like the coda about the trout, in The Road. Or the Judge’s philosophy in Blood Meridian, that all things in the world happen only because he decides it to be so. Or how the border between Texas and Mexico (also talked about in All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities Of The Plain) is drawn not geographically or politically, but rather in blood. But I won’t, not now. Just read them. He’s truly one of the great talents of this age.

Also, it’s interesting to note that The Road is the latest selection for Oprah’s Book Club, and Cormac McCarthy, usually somewhat reclusive, will make his first television appearance on her show. Strange choice by Oprah, but I’ll sure as hell be watching.


V. & A.N.:

16Apr07

Not to bemoan the Vonnegut stuff… but I am a fan, however, of Anna Nicole, and her whole soap opera life… so I read with glee this weekend that Vonnegut and Anna Nicole were once featured in the same issue of Playboy magazine… guess which one had their clothes on?

Enough of that. More Pale Fire soon. It was a crazy weekend, I haven’t cracked the cover of any book in a few days.


Jamestown:

13Apr07

Yesterday, I found myself out on a few work related errands (plus dropping my taxes off at the post office) and figured if I was out and about, I may as well stop into the bookstore.

Firstly, I was taken aback by the presence of a man who looked just like Kurt Vonnegut standing out front, smoking a cigarette (not sure if it was a Pall Mall, didn’t get close enough). He had the unruly mop of hair and the mustache, but he was certainly a living man and not a ghost, so I figured that it was a look-alike.

So anyways, I’m browsing around the new fiction section. Most of the time, before I buy/read a book, I’ll check out reviews, read criticism, get my ear close to the ground, and find out whether or not it’s worth it. But occasionally, I’ll throw caution to the wind and just browse until I see something good and impulsively buy it.

Ok, Ok, I know I’m reading Pale Fire, but I have a stupendously bad habit of reading several things at once. Sometimes it’s necessary- when I slogged through Ulysses, I read about 5 other books in the meantime to keep sane (plus that book is kinda boring). Other times, it’s because I have a sort of Lit-ADD.

I got this book called Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe (Soft Skull Press, Brooklyn NY, 2007). Never heard of him before. The cover initially grabbed my eye- it has an old-timey colonial-looking map, with the burning skyline of Manhattan above it. Hmm.

I read the dust jacket and the first couple of pages, and it was pretty good and pretty funny. It’s the story of a group of settlers who flee from war-torn near-future NYC on an armored bus to establish a settlement in the Indian territory of Virginia. Just the kind of oddball mix of humor and seriousness that I love in literature. And in a comic moment, a mutant raccoon chews off a badguy’s ear.

But it dropped off shortly after a strong beginning. I’m about 125 pages into it (it’s a fast read) and I can’t really tell what it’s trying to say… simply that Colonialism Is Bad? And the dialogue now seems a bit forced, the language is odd for not much of a reason, the chapters flit around from character to character, and the development of all but a few characters is lacking. Oh well, I took a leap, and was disappointed. But you never know, it could get better after that dreaded page 30-100 lull that so many novels fall victim too. But I probably won’t mention this book again unless something good happens.

But there are a couple of one liners that are good:

“I love the man who hates me and I know that if what I need badly enough can be obtained in no other way I’ll kill him for it.” (page 13)

“He’s like a figure in a bad painting who wishes it was in a better painting.” (page 15)