Monthly Archives: August 2011

Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

While I’m working my way through Infinite Jest, I’ll post a few more thoughts on other books that I’ve read recently. Speaking of Infinite Jest: I still don’t know what is different for me this time around, but I’ve become so attached to the narrative that I’ve actually started reading the book on my commute. This has involved developing strategies for holding the mammoth book at a readable distance while keeping myself upright in heels, and without losing my place in either the book or the footnotes. (I find that resting the book’s spine along the forearm that’s holding onto the subway pole works pretty well, as long as the train isn’t too crowded.) I’ve also had to come to terms with how pretentious it looks to be carrying the thing around. Which is to say, I really love this book.

Wallace’s voice captures the absurdities of contemporary American society so well that as I’m looking back at Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, I’m having a very hard time not comparing the two works–which doesn’t work in Love Story‘s favor. The corporate conglomerations (e.g., “ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandsViacomCredit,” “LandO’LakesGMFordCredit” ) read like the subsidized time of Infinite Jest (e.g., “Year of the Whopper,” “Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar”), gesturing at the same sort of corporate pervasiveness. The empty and absurd political structures of Shteyngart’s American Restoration Authority and the bipartisan party are reminiscent of Wallace’s Office of Unspecified Services and the Organization of North American Nations. The cartridge viewer has been replaced by the äppärät, but the absorption that results, while more isolated, remains very similar.

The degree of isolation that the characters experience, either knowingly (in Lenny’s case) or blindly (most of the other characters) is one possible reason that Super Sad True Love Story appeals to me less than Infinite Jest, though the two consider similar themes. Perhaps Shteyngart’s portrayal resonates a little too much with my own discomfort with the possible outcomes that the combined forces of consumerism and technology can lead to; after all, in the fourteen years between the publication of Infinite Jest and Love Story, the way that we use technology has fundamentally changed, and Shteyngart captures that shift quite well. Instead of collective absorption in a weapons-grade film (more on this in a later post), the äppärat individualizes the addictive experience, deeply isolating the characters in Love Story. Rather than pursuing pleasure and entertainment, as in Infinite Jest, the characters in Love Story pursue the still emptier ends of money and eternal youth–even if no pleasure results from their gains.

Shteyngart’s portrayal is apt, but results in terribly repellent characters. The shallowness with which Eunice and her friend (whose real name I don’t recall) communicate on the network “GlobalTeens” may be an incisive depiction of text-message friendships, but it makes me cringe. Here’s the first exchange:

EUNI-TARD ABROAD TO GRILLBITCH:

Hi, Precious Pony!

What’s up, twat? Missing your ‘tard? Wanna dump a little sugar on me? JBF. I am so sick of making out with girls.

The messages the two friends send to one another are poorly-written and crass, laden with superficial and hyper-sexualized expressions, plus unending comments on shopping, appearance, and landing a suitable partner. I can understand the message that Shteyngart is sending regarding the effects of changing technology on the way that people relate to one another, but it feels a little heavy-handed to me. Still, the vapidity of their written “conversation” does allow for a marked contrast with Eunice’s genuine attempts to connect with people, especially with her sister. Though that last passage doesn’t show it, Shteyngart does feel a clear affection for his characters, and he seems to lament the ways they are affected by social pressures, consumerism, and unfettered technological advancement. It just doesn’t always make for a compelling portrait.

Before picking up the novel, I had encountered Super Sad True Love Story in “Lenny Hearts Eunice” in the New Yorker, and also through an interview with Shteyngart on Fresh Air–and I really enjoyed these first glimpses. The story is sharp and funny and often endearing. In some ways I think the narrative worked better as a short story than it did in the full novel, though; Shteyngart’s ideas and characters are compelling in short form, and I’m not sure that they had the depth to sustain their intensity in the full novel. Then again, it may simply be that I’m deeply uncomfortable with the scenario that Shteyngart depicts, and have a hard time taking pleasure in what I see as a really bleak and not entirely unlikely future.

Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife

I’ve read a fair amount of tricksy postmodern fiction, and as a grad student I liked quite a lot of it. I loved thinking about the evolution of the form of the novel, metaliterary reflections on the readerly and writerly processes, and how far narrative could bend before it snapped. I know this kind of experimentation isn’t a recent phenomenon (Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published between 1759 and 1767, may be the quintessential postmodern novel), but there’s an abundance of it today, as not only the content but also the physical form of the book is called into question. (As an aside, these Book Autopsies by Brian Dettmer are perhaps the most astonishing and beautiful thing I’ve seen done to the book as an object. They make me feel that if I had to read everything on a digital device just so he could create more of these works, it just might be worth it.)

While I still get most excited by literature that does something new and different with its form, now that I read primarily for fun I find myself demanding more cohesive narrative structure. I still love playfulness and experimentation, but I don’t love it quite as much for its own sake. Looking back again to Stern for a moment, it’s clear that his playfulness wasn’t self-indulgent; rather, he wrote with the reader’s pleasure in mind, and he conveys a certain awareness of and complicity with his reader.  (e.g., “I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are no readers at all,–who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of everything which concerns you. It is in pure compliance with this humour of theirs, and from a backwardness in my nature to disappoint any one soul living, that I have been so very particular already” [book 1, ch. 4]). Sterne’s playfulness is delightful; the same is true of the best contemporary and recent writers.

When done poorly, though, the self-reflection and nonlinearity of experimental fiction becomes a drudge. I have to confess that as much as I loved the way that Danielewski’s House of Leaves made me think, I don’t think that I’d enjoy it nearly as much if I picked it up today. The form, the ideas, and the execution of both are fascinating, but the fundamental storytelling doesn’t hold up as well. (Granted, it may also just be a question of attention span…)

All of this is a long introduction to the fact that I recently called up a good friend and complained that I hadn’t read much in the way of really beautiful prose lately. I felt that I had gotten a little bit lost in stories that were on the dry and snarky side, or on the dry and technical side, and I missed lush prose and engaging characters. I asked for suggestions, and EF pointed me to Téa Obreht.

While Obreht’s writing didn’t cause me to catch my breath in the way I was hoping for, I found her to be an excellent storyteller. One character after another in The Tiger’s Wife unfolded and drew me in. For me, the characters were the book’s strongest feature; it is the characters’ humanity, no matter how strange they (or their circumstances) first appear, that made it impossible for me to break my gaze. The determined science teacher whose incredible wartime achievement was to steal lungs for her students to dissect; the deathless man who reads the deaths of others in their coffee grounds; and of course, the tiger’s wife, whose story I won’t tell. I’ve read reviews suggesting that the characters are flat, but I think that their larger-than-life attributes lend the book its sense of folk tradition and oral storytelling. Rather, I think the plot would fall flat without the characters.

I’m not sure the book would stand up to rigorous analysis, and there were moments where the writing felt either overly simplistic or a little bit stilted; but then, this is Obreht’s first novel. I look forward to continuing to read her writing over time, and will look forward to her books when I want to be engrossed in a story for the pure pleasure of it.

Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness

I picked up Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball (2007) after being seduced by a New Yorker blurb that compared him to a blend of Calvino and Kafka. Because really, how could I possibly resist? The novel’s poetic title added another touch of mystique, and I picked the book up immediately in one of my not-infrequent Amazon book binges.

Oddly, though, as I started down a trail of reviews, the comparisons didn’t end with the enticing juxtaposition of Calvino and Kafka. I found Ball compared to Beckett, Lewis Carroll, David Lynch, Hitchcock, Saramago (eech, much less appealing), Hunter S. Thompson, Gogol, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Nabokov, Ray Bradbury, Borges, Charles Simic, and Guillermo del Toro–sometimes two or three in the same review.  If all of the name dropping was a marketing ploy, then it was brilliant–I’m sure nearly any reader can pluck a favorite or two out of the mix. The sum of it, though, was just strange for a new reader. I started the book with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, thinking that perhaps Ball had very little of his own writing identity and could therefore easily be molded into the form of one’s favorite style–or else that reviewers had run out of original vocabulary to describe his work and had resorted to names instead of adjectives.

I wish that I had read the novel as a blank slate, because there were elements of it that I liked a lot. The mystery of conspiracy, compounded by a complex and arbitrary system of rules (designed exclusively to create a coherent system for compulsive liars), a labyrinthine floorplan, changing and repeating character names, and uncracked ciphers, results in a really fun narrative experience with just the right amount of confusion for the reader.  The characters were a little bit flat; I found the most compelling character to be Grieve (the central one, as there are many). Ball imbues her with seriousness and odd whimsy that make it impossible to tell how she will respond to her circumstances. For example:

She stood up and hopped over. She had sewn herself into a bag the night before. She said she and James didn’t know each other well enough to sleep in the same bed otherwise, but that certainly there was no other bed that she intended to sleep in that night but his, and he had better get used to it. He had said nothing but had watched with a great deal of astonishment as she had honestly and truly sewn herself inside a bag. (85)

The prose is spare and graceful. There are not many passages unbroken by dialogue, and I wish that there were more, because Ball’s lengthier passages have a captivating rhythm to them. Even simple descriptions are poetic and just a bit surprising:

James shut the door and sat down on the hall-bench. He had always wanted to have such a bench. As he grew older, slowly he had procured for himself  more and more of the things he had wanted slightly. Finally, it was the bench’s turn, and he had procured it and set it down in this hall. Really, he never sat on it. Certainly, this was the most momentous thing that had ever befallen the bench.

In the end, though, neither the narrative nor the prose really shone in a way that stuck with me, and I finished the book feeling indifferent. It may simply be that my hopes were way too high given the Calvino and Kafka teaser. I’d really like to read The Way Through Doors (which appears to be a more complex nested narrative, even judging be the cover art) as well as The Curfew, which sounds like a more straightforward story. I’d like to get to know Ball’s style on its own terms, rather than seeing it through so many other unrelated lenses.

(Still) Tackling Infinite Jest

Shortly after David Foster Wallace’s death in 2008, I picked up a copy of Infinite Jest, something I had been meaning to do for years. I am quite sure that I was not alone in the timing of this attempt; the Infinite Summer project was started when it was at least partly due to many people’s rekindled desire to read and understand Wallace after his suicide. But for me, reading a book like this due to any kind of external stimulus, and particularly such a bleak one, is far from the best way to get the most out of it.

I knew that Infinite Jest would not be an easy book, but I wasn’t intimidated. A few weeks and some 200 pages in, though, I got stuck. Over the next couple of years, the book sat next to my bed, reminding me that I had failed. Every time I would try to get back into it, I would give up not long after, defeated again, and incredibly bothered by the fact that this book that I should like so much was causing me such difficulty.

I love Wallace’s writing. This piece from the Times made me watch tennis in an entirely new way, and made me love Federer above any other player. Part of his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005 may well be part of the reason I finally started this blog in the first place:

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

So many of his short pieces enthrall me. His precise observation of the water we all swim in, and his ability to craft that observation into remarkable prose, is incredible. And yet, I kept putting down Infinite Jest.

I finally picked the enormous novel back up a couple of weeks ago, and something about it feels different this time. It might be that I’ve sat with ONAN and the Great Concavity and the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and Lyle the cross-legged sweat-nourished guru in the boys’ locker room for long enough that they’ve gotten into my head. I started where I left off, not being able to bear starting at the beginning yet again, and I have a feeling that when I finish I will return to those early pages one more time to read them in a new way.

It’s going to take me awhile–the amount of time I spend reading is less than it used to be, and I feel that I read more slowly–but I’m looking forward to sharing some thoughts on it once I make it through.

Like footprints in the desert

Hello, world.  As I’ve been thinking about how to approach creating a little window into the way I see things, I keep coming back to the image of the desert. So that’s where I’ll begin.

The image of the desert haunts me.  While I grew up in what ought to have been a desert (if sprinkler systems hadn’t had their way with the land), it wasn’t until I encountered Le livre des questions by Edmond Jabès that the idea of the desert, with its permanence and its constant change, started seeping into my mind. The seemingly infinite and barren expanse that holds no footprints for more than a moment is fertile ground for Jabès’s reflections on pain, longing, and alienation—but also, more unexpectedly, for his thoughts on writing, captivity, and the nature of God.

In Le livre des questions, Jabès uses the image of the desert in his homeland of Egypt to explore the idea of blankness. As a writer, the most daunting blankness may be that of a blank page threatening failure; as a Jew, it may be the barrenness of the desert and the lingering fear of wandering and exile. Both images prominently in the book not only as menaces, but also as unlikely prisons. Pure blankness can be more confining than a brick-and-mortar prison, as it undermines the human need for limits and boundaries; when none exist, limitless possibility can have a paralyzing effect. As Jabès asks, how can a person conquer the nothingness of the desert? There is nothing to destroy: “vivre c’est affirmer ses limites… Que peut-on contre un mur sinon l’abattre? Que peut-on contre les barreaux sinon les scier? Mais contre un mur qui est le sable? Mais contre des barreaux qui sont notre ombre sur le sable?” (61). Furthermore, the desert’s vastness makes any progress irrelevant, as none is visibly apparent. Freedom, instead, is to be found in the confines of the familiar, as “nous ne sommes vraiment libres qu’entre nos quatre murs” (83). To combat the captivity of open space, Jabès suggests that humanity seeks refuge in creating borders, to the point that establishing limits becomes synonymous with life: “Élever des murs, n’est-ce pas vivre?” (108). The human desire to establish a defined space of home and comfort is strong, and Jabès recognizes the legitimacy of the quest to ease the anxiety of too few limits.

Still, despite their potential for imposing confinement through their very openness, the infinite possibilities of the blank page and of the uncharted desert can in many ways be considered emancipatory, allowing the writer and the wanderer to choose their own paths. The blankness is simultaneously freeing and confining, just as the body is depicted both as a form of imprisonment and as life-sustaining: “‘Nos poitrines sont nos geôles… Nos côtes sont les barreaux qui nous empêchent d’étouffer’” (95). Jabès likewise recognizes the dual nature of blankness which includes its potential freedom; he places great value on the process of searching that such an environment enables. Faced with a blank page, the writer must ask: “Où est le chemin? Le chemin est toujours à trouver. Une feuille blanche est remplie de chemins” (59). The desert forces similar searching, even to a greater degree, for one’s path is always at risk of erasure: “Il s’était retrouvé, à midi, face à l’infini, à la page blanche. Toute trace de pas, la piste avaient disparu. Ensevelies” (60). With all of his footsteps washed away in the heat of the noon sun, the risk inherent in this particular blankness is immediate and physical. Still, Jabès does not suggest a more prudent path. As Jabès may never write a definite answer to any of the questions he poses, still the gesture of circling around those questions and ideas is one of meaning and value. The risk one encounters by eliminating boundaries is an important one to take, for by moving toward blankness and infinite potential, Jabès can create a space of questioning, which he prioritizes over knowledge. The closest thing to knowledge may be asking the right questions in the best possible order, which Jabès suggests separates the student from the teacher. One reason that Jabès focuses on questioning rather than on obtaining knowledge is his sense that absolute understanding can be present in a sense of nothingness as well as in a sense of totality. He depicts the two as necessary counterparts to one another: “la véritable connaissance, c’est de savoir chaque jour que l’on n’apprendra, en fin de compte, rien; car le Rien est aussi connaissance étant l’envers du Tout, comme l’air est l’envers de l’aile” (130). Even God is portrayed as a question rather than a response to questioning: “Dieu est une question… une question qui nous conduit à Lui qui est Lumière par nous, pour nous qui ne sommes rien” (130). This acceptance of unanswered questions and of unresolved contradiction is ultimately Jabès overarching strategy for coping with trauma. By acknowledging the necessity of trauma as fundamental both to writing and to Jewish heritage, and by recognizing the intrinsic duality of such essential forces as life and divinity, Jabès enigmatically encourages acceptance of suffering as essential to truth and identity.

While blankness as a starting point provides innumerable possibilities, Jabès also suggests that true meaning requires more—namely, a wound or mark on the surface of that blankness. Using the imagery of a lake surface, either smooth or rippled, he asserts the beauty of wounds:  “—Qu’est-ce que l’eau du lac? Une page blanche. Les plis sont ses rides et chacune est une blessure. Un lac sans plis est un miroir. Un lac ridé est un visage. Marqués, nos visages reflètent celui de Dieu’” (94). Jabès does not want to remain perpetually in front of a blank page; writing or the wound must mar the pure surface in order for understanding and transformation to take place. The ink can be seen as the wound on the white page, but in a reversal of the image, the blank spaces or silences are also envisioned as wounds to the text. Here, rather than the text being seen as a mark that interrupts the smooth uniformity of the blank page, the silences are understood as interrupting the fluidity of the text. The sign appears as wound: “Avant et après la parole, il y a le signe, / et, dans le signe, le vide où nous croissons. / Ainsi, étant blessure, seul le signe est visible. / Mail l’œil ment” (96). This passage hints at the complication: the sign here does not seem to indicate the word, but the space or silence before and after the word. The sign, though, is all that is visible, which would seem to indicate that it is rather the printed word than the empty space. One way to understand the blurring of whether the sign refers to the words or the space around them is to minimize the perceived difference of the two elements: if both word and empty space are signifiers, then either may be meaningful at any given moment. In the passage above, emptiness is the focus and draws the eye of the reader. Still, though, the final note that “the eyes lie” makes it clear that the visual response cannot be trusted, and that one can perhaps take the place of the other. If both text and white space are alternately seen as inflicting trauma, then the printed book seems to layer one wound on top of another in inspiration, content, and form.

Taking into consideration the way that Jabès discusses both blankness and the marks inflicted on that empty space, the relationship between the page and the words printed there is a complicated one. The unmarked Saharan sand, figured both as a dangerous site of potential entrapment and as a space of openness essential to the act of questioning, suggests a blank page that has not yet been filled with words. The desert, as the blank page, enables the possibility of various paths, choices, and narratives to play out once someone begins to mark the pristine surface. Even this image, though, is not fixed, but shifts as Jabès writes about it. Words would seem to diminish the blankness of the white page, but even the finished book, once all pages have been filled, is at times conceived of as blank: “Le livre est l’espace blanc du sommeil” (123). This suggests the infinite potential not only of the page before it contains words, but also after, as textual interpretation can take any number of directions. Jabès’s project frequently works with the idea of a total book, as is present in both the Kabbalistic tradition as well as in the writing of Stéphane Mallarmé and Jorge Luis Borges. With this idea in mind, the printed book cannot merely be limitation of possibility, but must also be openness. Jabès’s work does indeed invite interpretation and continued questioning, which enables it to keep growing, perhaps endlessly. The vast potential of interpretation that follows writing echoes the rabbinic discussion of the sacred texts in Jewish tradition; not only are the words important, but also the continued reflection upon them, implying both the completeness of the original sacred work and also the possibility of its infinite expansion through interpretation and questioning.

A few months after I first read Jabès, I discovered the Sahara for myself. Though my time there was short, I can close my eyes and relive the moment when I first saw nothing but dunes all around me. I understood in that moment why oases are measured by the number of palm trees they can support; the potential terror of turning around and watching your footprints be swept away by the wind; and why Jabès had written of the desert both as a place of immense freedom and of stifling imprisonment.

As cynical as it may sound, I have continued to think about efforts to make a mark on the world as footprints in the desert. Words and photos last as long as the paper they’re printed on, and even if a masterpiece is encoded in DNA, it is immediately subject to the mutations of the medium. Real progress is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge, as the terrain is constantly transforming itself.

I held off from creating this type of venue for my thoughts for a long time because of a sense of irrelevance that stemmed from the issues above.  I finally realized, though, that I’m not bothered by impermanence. Rather, I find ephemerality liberating. My words won’t stick around for long, but even if they vanish behind me as soon as they’re written, I might as well put one foot in front of the other and see where it leads me.

Jabès, Edmond. Le livre des questions. Paris: Gallimard, 1963.