Monday, January 28, 2013

"Both Flesh and Not:" David Foster Wallace and the Posthumous Legacy


It's been over four years since David Foster Wallace's suicide, and shockingly/curiously/strangely enough, last year's publication of Both Flesh and Not: Essays is only his third posthumous release (2010: This Is Water; 2011: The Pale King). Posthumous releases have always been a slippery slope for me. I genuinely believe that the Wallace releases have not been done to capitalize on his legacy, but to add to it. The Pale King, even in its uneven, unfinished state, is a terrific read. I still haven't read This Is Water, but I know many people have been touched by its message. Three books in four years isn't that much. For example, as much as I admire the writings of Roberto Bolano, I long ago gave up on maintaining any consistency in his posthumous releases. They keep piling up, and even thought they're not throwaway or haphazard novels, the sheer number of titles have been overwhelming, and I feel I've read an excellent portion of his bibliography. I'm not saying I'm going to stop reading his works, but it's going to be done on a more casual schedule. Returning to Wallace, I'm down to two unread books: the aforementioned This Is Water and his debut novel, The Broom Of the System. I read Both Flesh and Not almost on a whim, because, while I made note of it, I thought I'd be reading it in the middle or end of this year. But while making my way through some other works, I checked it out and found it to be a very fast read. However, the layout and selections gave me the feeling that it was a rushed production, and while I'm (again) shying away from thinking it was put out solely for the 2012 holiday book season, there was the occasional pause.

But don't get me wrong: there is beauty and intelligence in these selections. The book opens with a piece I've been anxious to read for quite some time, even though I'm a very, very casual tennis fan. "Federer Both Flesh and Not," Wallace's 2006 profile of the athlete, is a terrific opener, combining the best traits of his essay and non-fiction writings. The piece, set at Wimbledon, examines Federer as a person and as an athlete, and the physics/philosophy behind the game. Some examples of Wallace's writings, both fiction and essay, are studies in a mind that takes in everything, sometimes to the point of being daunting. However, for all of the information packed into this opening selection, nothing is out of place or too much. Wallace has so many angles to cover, and he seamlessly goes back and forth between great, standard journalism and smart ruminations on the sociology of athletics and being a spectator.

"Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
The human beauty we're talking about here is a beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What is seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body.
Of course, in men's sports no one ever talks about beauty, or grace, or the body. Men may profess their 'love' of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive stats and technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war's codes are safer for most of us than love's (Wallace 8-9)."

This leads to a description of the physical and stylistic differences between Federer and his main rival, Spanish player Rafael Nadal, and, taking the game further, to a mathematical analysis of how tennis is played. To anyone unfamiliar with Wallace, this would make a fascinating essay, but to readers at least vaguely familiar with Wallace's penchant for mathematics and tennis, "Federer Both Flesh and Not" goes into virtually all of Wallace's obsessions.

"There are also the issues of how close you're allowing the ball to get to your body, what grip you're using, the extent to which your knees are bent and/or weight's moving forward, and whether you're able simultaneously to watch the ball and to see what your opponent's doing after he serves. These all matter, too. Plus there's the fact that you're not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you--coming, in the case of pro tennis, at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. Mario Ancic's first serve, for instance, often comes in around 130 m.p.h. Since it's seventy-eight feet from Ancic's baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you. This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice (Wallace 22-23)."

Having this as the opening essay in the book leads to questions of formatting. A few essays later, we're treated to "Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open," a 1996 work that focuses more on the people watching and organization of a professional tennis tournament. Having two essays on tennis in this book is fine; nobody would question the inclusion of the multiple literary essays and reviews also featured in Both Flesh and Not. However, these would have been best served back-to-back. They come from different decades as well as different points of view. At times, "Democracy and Commerce" makes tennis an afterthought. The marketing and concessions are just as fascinating, if not more so, than the games happening in the stadium. Sports and capitalism have always gone hand in hand, yet Wallace highlights the seemingly obvious and makes this idea seem novel.

"The first thing you see when you come inside the Main Gate is teams of extremely attractive young people giving away free foil packets of Colombian Coffee from really big plastic barrels with outlines of Juan Valdez & devoted burro on them. The young people, none of whom are of Colombian extraction, are cheery and outgoing but don't seem terribly alert, because they keep giving me new free samples every time I go out and then come in again, so that my bookbag is now stuffed with them and I'm not going to have to buy coffee for months. The next thing you see is a barker on a raised dais urging you to purchase a Daily Drawsheet for $2.00 and a Program+Drawsheet for a bargain $8.00. Right near the barker is a gorgeous spanking-new Infiniti automobile on a complicated stand that places the car at a kind of dramatic plunging angle. It's not clear what the relation between a fine new automobile and professional tennis is supposed to be, but the visual conjunction of car and plunging angle is extremely impressive and compelling, and there's always a dense ring of spectators around the Infiniti, looking at it but not touching it. Then, over the Daily Drawsheet pitchman's right shoulder and situated suspiciously close to the Advance Ticket Window, is what has to be one of the largest free-standing autotellers in the Western world, with its own shade-awning and three separate cash stations with controls of NASA-like sophistication and complexity and enormous signs that say the autoteller's provided through the generosity of CHASE and that it is equipped to disgorge cash via the NYCE, PLUS, VISA, CIRRUS, and MASTERCARD networks of auto-withdrawal (Wallace 149-150)."

The aforementioned literary essays compose the bulk of this collection, and the first one is a fascinating exploration of late 1980s writers and the implications/drawbacks of creative writing programs (this interested me even more than it normally would, given that I'm in the process of applying to writing programs myself). "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," published in 1988, explores the yuppie/nihilistic fiction of the likes of Bret Easton Ellis (wickedly described by Wallace as "Neiman-Marcus nihilism, declaimed via six-figure Uppies and their salon-tanned, morally vacant offspring, none of whom seem to be able to make it from limo door to analyst's couch without several grams of chemical encouragement (39-40)"), and the influence of television and mass culture on the world of fiction. This essay works as a still-fresh look at the writing styles of that era, without feeling dated or "time-capsule"-like. Quite a few of these themes are still explored in today's fiction, and Wallace himself was no stranger to examining how mass entertainment serves as a sort of drug and distraction from the act of reading and other areas of life in general (see, obviously: Infinite Jest). Wallace does this examination very compellingly, to the point that I hope to see a future volume consisting of his literary criticism alone.

"For instance, it's not hard to see that the trendy Ultraminimalism favored by too many C.Y. [conspicuously young] writers is deeply influenced by the aesthetic norms of mass entertainment. Indeed, this fiction depends on what's little more than a crude inversion of these norms. Where television, especially its advertising, presents everything in hyperbole, Ultraminimalism is deliberately flat, understated, 'undersold.' Where TV seeks everywhere to render its action either dramatic or melodramatic, to move the viewer by displaying constant movement, the Minimalist describes an event as one would an object, a geometric form in stasis; and he always does so from an emotional remove of light-years. Where television does and must aim always to please, the Catatonic writer hefts something of a finger at subject and reader alike: one has only to read a Bret Ellis sex scene (pick a page, any page) to realize that here pleasure is neither a subject nor an aim. My own aversion to Ultraminimalism, I think, stems from its naive pretension. The Catatonic Bunch seem to feel that simply by inverting the values imposed on us by television, commercial film, advertising, etc., they can automatically achieve the aesthetic depth popular entertainment so conspicuously lacks (Wallace 47-48)."



I won't get into any analyses of Wallace's book reviews, since I haven't read any of the works he discusses. However, his reviews are wonderful in their enthusiasm and their constructive criticisms. Nothing gets past Wallace as a critical reader, and his reviews are truly illuminating; at the very least, one of the essays makes me ache to read David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress. Another inclusion that I question is Wallace's introduction to the 2007 edition of the Best American Essay series. The writing is excellent, yes, but taking it apart from the collection makes it seem slightly pointless. For someone with such a vast history of publications, I'm sure there could/should have been other pieces besides this one. It feels like a page-filler, a case of "well, we might as well toss in this one." Picking a highlight of Both Flesh and Not is difficult (and, really, pointless), but I absolutely adored "Twenty-Four Word Notes," a list and explanation of misused phrases, full of mistakes writers (especially young ones) make in an effort to sound more "intelligent." In these examinations, Wallace is serving as a teacher to the reader, and one can only imagine what it was like to be in one of his classes. The opening word is "utilize," and I'm sure I've used it myself more than I'd care to admit.

"Utilize A noxious puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn't do, its extra letters and syllables don't make a writer seem smarter; rather, using utilize makes you seem either like a pompous twit or like someone so insecure that she'll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look sophisticated. The same is true for the noun utilization, for vehicle as used for car, for residence as used for house, for presently, at present, at this time, and at the present time as used for now, and so on. What's worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: 'formal writing' does not mean gratuitously fancy writing: it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing (Wallace 261)."

Dividing up the chapters are words and definitions compiled by Wallace, found on his computer after his death. I've never viewed dictionary entries as moving, but knowing that Wallace was so fascinated by language and felt the need to compile these words for future use (or just general reference) does make for a nice tribute and insight into his work. Of course, I haven't touched upon every essay or example featured in this latest volume. Personally, I'm a bigger fan of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster. I believe these essay collections are more rounded and insightful. Not that Both Flesh and Not is bad, but I feel it needed just a bit more selection and diversity. Of course, admirers of Wallace will read anything they can get their hands on. If Wallace's estate eventually publishes the remainder of his essays, this will be a good start. But if years pass with no future essay collections, it would be in the best interest to start with the collections published in his lifetime. But overall, this is irresistible and, while leaving me wanting more complexity, it gives excellent access to some of his smaller, more heralded publications.

Work Cited:
Wallace, David Foster. Both Flesh and Not: Essays. Copyright 2012 by David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Race Matters: Quentin Tarantino and "Django Unchained"


Two nights ago, I finally saw Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the various issues surrounding the film. I've seen links for dozens of essays and reviews, and except for a quick skim of Roger Ebert's writings, I haven't read any outside analyses or critiques, although I did read this quote from filmmaker Spike Lee, taken from his Twitter account: “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.” Before I get into my own thoughts on Tarantino's intentionally outlandish take on slavery in America, I will offer this statement: I don't believe Tarantino is racist; far from it. He and Lee have a colorful history of verbal sparring, and Tarantino has been defended for his n-word laden scripts and interpretations of racial history by the likes of black actors Jamie Foxx (who stars as Django) and Samuel L. Jackson (a frequent contributor in Tarantino's filmography, who portrays Stephen the house slave). While I believe the occasional claims of racism are unfounded, I do believe that he was slightly misguided in the making of Django Unchained. Slavery in any fictional interpretation has to be tread upon carefully--for all of Tarantino's bombast and Pollockian mixes of fictional history and film homages, he very well may have overstepped some boundaries. While this may seem like I'm trying to balance too evenly between defense and criticism, I'm doing so because, as someone fascinated by both the film and America's racial history, I'm genuinely conflicted by my emotional reaction to the film.

Django Unchained takes place in 1858. During a slave transfer, a former dentist and current bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) kills one of the white men, wounds another, and unchains Django. Before leaving, he throws the shackle keys to the rest of the slaves, who then finish off the wounded driver. Schultz is seeking Django's help in identifying a trio of wanted killers. They end up at the plantation of Big Daddy (Don Johnson, seemingly playing a strange combination of Dennis Hopper and Colonel Sanders), where the brothers work. Right before a slave is about to be whipped, Django shoots one of the brothers and whips the other one to death. Later that night, Big Daddy and a group of men are ambushed and killed in their own attempted killing of Django and Schultz (the men wear white bags with eye holes cut out, a hint to the KKK and the basis of a comical discussion about not being able to see and questioning the worth of having their faces covered). Django turns out to be a skilled marksman, and Schultz takes him on as a fellow bounty hunter. As these plot points unfold, we learn that Django's wife (Broomhilda, played by a very understated Kerry Washington) speaks German, having been raised by a German nanny on a plantation. After being separated from her husband, she's enslaved on Candyland, the Mississippi plantation of the psychopathic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). A plan is set in motion: Django and Schultz will visit the Candie plantation under the guise of purchasing a fighting slave (more on this later) and make an offer for Broomhilda; after, Schultz will set them off as freed slaves. This is a fairly concise overview. I'm attempting to avoid spoilers, but they might come up unexpectedly. This isn't meant to be a standard review, but rather a look at how Tarantino handles a delicate imagining of revenge and justice.

In 2008, I wrote an analysis of D.W. Griffith's The Birth Of a Nation, a technically beautiful film with a deplorable message and depiction of black people. In an odd twist, Django Unchained is a technically enjoyable (it has impressive wide panning shots, beautiful landscape photography, sharp editing, and various combinations of classic western motifs and Spaghetti Western influences) with what should be a great message: a freed black slave dishing out revenge on white slave owners on behalf of thousands of other slaves. In one of his monologues, Calvin Candie expresses genuine wonder as to why a slave didn't rise up and kill his own father (which then leads to a ridiculous hypothesis based on phrenology and submission). But as a white artist, did Tarantino go too far? This isn't his first foray into violent revisionist history. When Inglourious Basterds premiered, there were quieter voices wondering how the film affected Jewish audiences. But the biggest difference lies in the settings. Basterds didn't have any graphic scenes from the concentration camps--the events unfolded in movie theaters, countrysides, and banquet halls. It would have been subject to the same critiques as Django had it featured prisoners in the camps rising up against the Nazis. In Django, we see slaves being whipped, abused, and mistreated on a consistent level. Had the film shown a free slave searching down a single slave owner in a neutral setting, I believe the controversies wouldn't have been as extreme.

Even in fictional settings, the audience has to adjust to Tarantino's cartoonish, comic book-style violence with the realization that some of the actions actually took place. In one of the most wrenching scenes, one of Candie's fighting slaves is ripped apart by attack dogs. In his parlor, he watches two black men fighting to the death (creative license on Tarantino's part, but no less unsettling), and offers a hammer to the winner to finish off the loser. Dozens are shot and killed, with geysers of blood shooting out like video game pixels, but that's nothing new on Tarantino's part. Again, it's unsettling because even in the most exaggerated forms, these actions happened in some capacities. And having them played for the occasional laugh is jarring. The "mandigo fighters" are meant to illustrate Candie's blood lust and moral shortcomings. But when one blinks and takes into account the very real history of slavery, it gets to the point where one has to ask: is this supposed to represent a universal fantasy of revenge, or are we simply watching Tarantino's vision of what should have happened?



Again, I'm not hinting at racism, and there are various, unexpected moments of perverse philosophy throughout the film. Stephen, the elderly Candyland house slave, is viewed by Django as an Uncle Tom, sacrificing his heritage and turning a blind eye to the mistreatment of slaves in the name of his own relative comfort. Candie berates him in public, but in private, the two men talk on equal footing (Stephen's observations set off a chain reaction of events that lead to the film's climaxes). But apart from these hierarchies, Stephen could also be seen as a minstrel character. He's loud, boisterous, and goofy in front of the white company, but sullen, serious, and no-nonsense when surrounded by the other slaves. This is a carefully rendered character on the part of Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson. Is he truly devoted to Candie, or does he know what games to play to be treated better than the other slaves? I believe it's a clouded combination. Vital questions and observations, yes, but it all comes back to Quentin Tarantino. He has a right to make any film he pleases, but should a take on slavery have been left alone? Since the invention of film narratives, the West and the 19th century have provided a background for hundreds, if not thousands, of morality plays, existential studies, and plain old good vs. evil fights. But one has to acknowledge how sensitive slavery is to anyone with a conscience, let alone the living descendants.

In 2007, I visited the capitol building in Columbia, South Carolina, and I'll never forget how sick to my stomach I felt upon making two observations. Seeing the Confederate flag flying from a state building up close causes much more tension than seeing it on television or in a photograph. And tucked to the side of the building was a small, touching memorial to the slaves who lived there, with a stunningly detailed image of the layout of a slave boat. Again, anyone should be appalled by this, but I simply cannot imagine knowing my ancestors lived through something that atrocious. And that's where Spike Lee makes a valid point (although his refusal to see the movie and condemning it on reputation is less than I would expect from a filmmaker, especially one I admire as much as Lee). In his own way, Tarantino offers unbelievable depictions of the comeuppance that slave owners should have received. DiCaprio's portrayal of Candie is courageous, since he takes on the role of a heightened version of the most deplorable, racist mentalities (and in an odd twist, Candie's death is the most subdued one suffered in the entire film). But Django is a fictional character, and the focus of the film is on him and his payback. However, there's no way to depict that time period without casting a light on history. This film is entertainment and escapism, but it's it's so real in its period details that reality keeps rearing its head. I don't believe Tarantino has done anything wrong or offensive. But these realities have to be acknowledged. I can imagine some people rolling their eyes and assuming I'm writing from a foundation of extreme political correctness. But Django Unchained, for as much as I enjoyed it, toes several lines very precariously. Tarantino has nothing to apologize for, but if I were him, I'd readily acknowledge and accept feedback for such the audacious, blunt period setting. From a character and technical standpoint, Django is very well-made. But there's no way to see it or write about it without a serious acknowledgement of the events that made even the most fictionalized plot possible.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Pearls Of...Wisdom?: John Steinbeck's Perplexing Classic


Last year, a friend of mine, someone who is more well-read than I'll probably ever be, read John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men for the first time. This omission struck me as shocking, not out of any judgement, but out of amazement, since it seems to be a staple of every high school literature class. I haven't read it in years, but I'd likely consider it an old favorite, even though it's a book I really don't think about all too often. This led me to think about a subject I've mentioned more than once on this blog, the idea of "Classics With a Capital C:" there are some books that virtually everyone, even the most casual of readers, has picked up at some point. Of course, we all have our gaps, and as I'm wont to say, there are some titles I'm genuinely troubled to admit that I haven't read as of yet. Last year, I knocked out a couple of classics, namely Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. I even started Somerset W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, but was unable to finish it (yet it formed the basis of my first true analysis of "assumed classics"). As I was setting my 2013 reading goals, I found myself glancing at my bookshelves and taking note of the titles I've acquired over the years but haven't read. Tucked between two other books was John Steinbeck's The Pearl. I have no idea how it came to rest in my collection, and I figured it was a classic that everyone besides myself has read--my bookstore always stocks it because of high school summer reading lists. After finishing it, I was surprised, and not in a good way.

The Pearl is a very slim novella, a folk tale about a poor Mexican pearl diver. He, his wife, and his infant son live in poverty, but are proud, happy people. When the baby is stung by a scorpion, he and his wife are turned away by a local white doctor who cannot be bothered by the poor neighbors. Steinbeck's atmosphere manages to be ahead of its time and dated at the same time; he explores white racism, but injects just enough imagery of simplicity to downplay the mentalities of the Mexican citizens. Perhaps this is because I'm reading an older work through my twenty-first century lens--it's probable that Steinbeck was attempting to render the whole work in simple themes, but it does border on pandering at times.

"Juana went to the water and waded in. She gathered some brown seaweed and made a flat damp poultice of it, and this she applied to the baby's swollen shoulder, which was a good a remedy as any and probably better than the doctor could have done. But the remedy lacked his authority because it was simple and didn't cost anything. The stomach cramps had not come to Coyotito. Perhaps Juana had sucked out the poison in time, but she had not sucked out her worry over her first-born. She had not prayed directly for the recovery of the baby--she had prayed that they might find a pearl with which to hire the doctor to cure the baby, for the minds of the people are as unsubstantial as the mirage of the Gulf (Steinbeck 15)."

During their next pearl dive, Kino (the husband) finds a large, beautiful pearl, one that could be worth the money to acquire clothing, a gun, and future schooling for his baby. The locals learn about the pearl very quickly--word spreads, and Kino becomes paranoid and jealous. Juana quickly becomes fearful, since the changes the pearl will bring will ultimately be bad luck, not wealth and security. The doctor, realizing he could be in for a substantial payday, concocts a fake diagnosis of the baby's sting. Steinbeck, to his credit, does offer small, telling observations:

"The news came early to the beggars in front of the church, and it made them giggle a little with pleasure, for they knew that there is no almsgiver in the world like a poor man who is suddenly lucky (Steinbeck 22)."

After an agonizing stretch of time, Kino finally takes the pearl to be priced, and finds that it's worth a lot less than he anticipated. He refuses to believe not one, but two pearl appraisers. After returning to find their home destroyed, Kino decides to take his family to the capital to sell the pearl. As the novella ends, the family is being followed, which leads to the accidental death of the infant. The husband and wife return to their small town, return the pearl to the sea, and begin their uncertain lives under a cloud of sadness, loss, and with less than they started out with before acquiring the pearl.



Even though I haven't read much of Steinbeck's work (I've yet to read The Grapes Of Wrath), I know he was equally at home in short works as well as longer pieces. Of Mice and Men was a small work that contained a ton of ideas about class, work, and perceptions into a beautifully written package. The Pearl, however, seems intent on making its themes obvious. The story behind its conception has Steinbeck hearing a Mexican folk tale in California and then writing his own take on it. But reading it today, it almost feels like he was writing with future high school students in mind--the ideas are carefully laid out one by one for easy highlighting and underlining. For example, here's a passage that appears after Kino finds the pearl. Steinbeck repeats the ideas over and over to the point of the reader thinking 'okay, I get where you're going with this.'

"But now, by saying what his future was going to be like, he had created it. A plan is a real thing, and things projected are experienced. A plan once made and visualized becomes a reality along with other realities--never to be destroyed but easily to be attacked. Thus Kino's future was real, but having set it up, other forces were set up to destroy it, and this he knew, so that he had to prepare to meet the attack. And this Kino knew also--that the gods do not love men's plans, and the gods do not love success unless it comes by accident (Steinbeck 29)."

The last line and its subsequent manifestations troubled me greatly. Kino and his family suffer setbacks and despair due to his greed and paranoia, but there's an underlying assumption that any attempt at all to provide security for his family is wrong. In Steinbeck's time, an easy similarity would be the plight of black Americans. Black citizens were admonished and held back for trying to elevate themselves and not "knowing their place." While Steinbeck creates a correlation between greed and troubles, that's not the only realization. The reader gets the understanding that Kino's desire for any change is bad. He's a poor pearl diver, and he should be happy and content with that. This is both implied and explored quite literally:

"'I know,' said Kino. 'I have heard our father tell of it. It was a good idea, but it was against religion, and the Father made that very clear. The loss of the pearl was a punishment visited on those who tried to leave their station. And the Father made it clear that each man and woman is like a soldier sent by God to guard some part of the castle of the Universe. And some are in the ramparts and some far deep in the darkness of the walls. But each one must remain faithful to his post and must not go running about, else the castle is in danger from the assaults of Hell (Steinbeck 46).'"

Again, I'm reading this with a twenty-first century mindset. But seriously?

While Steinbeck might have merely been retelling a tale without changing its themes or morals, it's hard to stomach, since the majority of his work has sympathized with people dreaming for better stations in life. Is The Pearl supposed to be a random snapshot of the dark side of this dream? Or is it merely a reflection of the ideas of the townspeople? At the end of the tale, the general idea is that Kino suffers not only for his greed, but for his ambition as a whole.

The Pearl doesn't totally lack in redeeming qualities. Some of the passages, while simplified, contain beautiful descriptions. But even for a folk tale or parable, and written by someone of Steinbeck's stature, the work is frankly too simplified, and in the pages, there are too many perplexing ideas that are meant to be accepted at face value. Steinbeck should have gone in one of two directions--The Pearl could have been a good short story or a full-length novel with more insights, descriptions, and complexity. Instead, we're left with a little book that might be the last remains of a tale handed down through generations, but serves as an easy collection of plot points tailor made for early high school literature classes. Perhaps this is why I never read this in high school--my teachers knew when to challenge us and knew that we could get more out of substantial, challenging works. I don't mean this to sound like I'm a grumpy old man railing against today's students, but I remember even my most detached classmates coming alive through studies of better texts. A work like The Pearl simply goes through the motions.

Work Cited:
Steinbeck, John. The Pearl. Copyright 1945 by John Steinbeck. Copyright renewed 1973 by Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck IV, and Thom Steinbeck.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pro and Contexts: Robin Sloan's "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore"


As I made my way through Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, the debut novel by Robin Sloan, I felt slightly confused by my own reading tastes. On the surface, I enjoyed its layout and ever-increasing plot devices, even though it shares a thematic, atmospheric similarity to Ready Player One, a book I disliked. I'm not sure if two books constitute a trend, but given the sheer enthusiasm for both titles, I get the feeling that "geek lit" is becoming a thing. Of course, no matter what the subject or overall theme, if the writing isn't good, an entire concept can collapse. In Ernest Cline's case, the writing was poor, and on top of that, I'm someone who doesn't have any affinity for 1980s or video game fanaticism. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, however, is full of subjects and ruminations that I find endlessly fascinating: the uneasy relationship between physical and digital books; the vanishing landscapes of independent bookstores; digital archiving and the still-growing potential of the web; and so forth. While I had issues with Sloan's writing style, this book was a rare example of an enjoyable text that carried me along by the audacity and complexity of its plot, even if the writing suffered at times.

The book follows a young man named Clay, whose job as a web designer is on hold thanks to the recession. In a state of panic, he takes a job as a night clerk in Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Penumbra is an older, kindly, eccentric man, and very quickly, Clay realizes that there's more going on besides bookselling. Sales are minimal, and he's required to keep a detailed log of the elderly customers who come in at night, requesting titles from a mysterious collection housed at the top of the store. There's a method in their book requests, and Clay eventually sets out to crack the code. By chance, he meets Kat, a hacker/Google employee who, with assists from Google's vast networks and algorithms, helps him discover the system behind the customers' book selections. The mysteries keep piling up. The bookstore turns out to be one of many fronts for a secret underground literary society dating back hundreds of years, with various texts supposedly containing secrets to wealth of potential revelations. Without spoiling the work, there's also a mystery behind the original templates for the Gerritszoon font, the role of a classic science fiction author, and a villainous member of the secret society. While these wildly diverse plot threads might seem like too much, Sloan actually handles them quite carefully.

I'm going to assume that Sloan has worked as a bookseller at some point in his life, since he slightly romanticizes and nails the observations that come with the territory. The ladders reaching up to the top of Penumbra's bookstore are exaggerated quite well. I've worked in a few bookstores that have these ladders, and the temptation to use them is never lost on the customers. They look a lot bigger than the actually are, especially if you've never used them. Sloan takes this concept and expands it for the sake of the story--the ladders stretch up higher than normal.

"Now I'm the night clerk at Penumbra's, and I go up and down that ladder like a monkey. There's a real technique to it. You roll the ladder into place, lock its wheels, then bend your knees and leap directly to the third or fourth rung. You pull with your arms to keep your momentum going, and in a moment you're already five feet in the air. As you're climbing, you look straight ahead, not up or down; you keep your eyes focused about a foot in front of your face and you let the books zoom by in a blur of colorful spines. You count the rungs in your head, and finally, when you're at the right level, reaching for the book you've come up to retrieve...why, of course, you lean (Sloan 11)."

As I mentioned, the novel also contains studies of the divergence between print and digital. When Kat brings Clay to the Google campus, there are some somber realizations in the conversations.

"A tall Googler named Jad runs the book scanner. He has a perfectly triangular nose over a fuzzy brown beard. He looks like a Greek philosopher. Maybe it's just because he's wearing sandals.

'Hey, welcome,' he says, smiling, shaking Kat's hand, then mine. 'Nice to have somebody from data viz in here. And you...?' He looks at me, eyebrows raised.

'Not a Googler,' I confess. 'I work at an old bookstore.'

'Oh, cool,' Jad says. Then he darkens 'Except, I mean. Sorry.'

'Sorry for what?'

'Well. For putting you guys out of business.' He says it very matter-of-factly.

'Wait, which guys?'

'Book...stores?'

Right. I don't actually think of myself as part of the book business; Penumbra's store feels like something else entirely. But...I do sell books. I am the manager of a Google ad campaign designed to reach potential book buyers. Somehow it snuck up on me: I am a bookseller.

Jad continues, 'I mean, once we've got everything scanned, and cheap reading devices are ubiquitous...nobody's going to need bookstores, right (Sloan 89)?'"

Worlds consistently collide within the story. If they don't collide, there's a definite sense of "out with the old, in with the new." This doesn't refer solely to books and written content. Neel, one of Clay's childhood friends, is the CEO of a web and graphic design firm (specializing in digitally accurate representations of women's breasts--this is played for cute geek jokes far too much). Clay observes the office, which used to be an old firehouse. He imagines the old world and the new one with its differences and similarities. On a very positive note, a lot of Sloan's observations aren't played for any kind of nostalgia, nor do they pander to people who are immersed in today's digital age. While some of the themes are obvious, there are moments of quite observation.

"His home serves double duty as his company's headquarters. Back when San Francisco was young, Neel's place was a wide brick firehouse; today, it's a wide brick techno-loft with fancy speakers and superfast internet. Neel's company spreads out on the firehouse floor, where nineteenth-century firemen used to eat nineteenth-century chili and tell nineteenth-century jokes. They've been replaced by a squad of skinny young men who are their opposite: men who wear delicate neon sneakers, not heavy black boots, and when they shake your hand, it's not a meaty squash but a limp slither. Most of them have accents--maybe that hasn't changed (Sloan 115)?"



Robin Sloan has a staggering knowledge of how the internet has shaped our contemporary lives, yet the emphasis is on real human interactions. The mysteries are solved through conversations, an audio cassette tape, and human ingenuity. The digital aspects help, but actual though processes save the day. Again, the novel is compelling in its balance. However, the writing style suffers, not to the point of bringing down the story, but enough to be tiresome. Clay's narration is full of asides that attempt to infuse a casual humor throughout. This comes on the heels of a conversation I had with a customer last night at my bookstore--balancing humor and substance is very tricky. It's rare to read a genuinely funny book that has substance. Sloan's writing style dangles on the edge--at times, he comes too close to being outright distracting, filling Clay's thoughts with needless asides. When he first meets Kat:

"Kat's phone makes a bright ping and she glances down. 'Oh,' she says, 'that's my bus.' I curse the city's public transit system for its occasional punctuality. 'I can show you what I mean about the time-series stuff,' she ventures. 'Want to meet up sometime?'

Why, yes, as a matter of fact I do. Maybe I'll just go ahead and buy her the Tufte book. I'll bring it wrapped in brown paper. Wait--is that weird? It's an expensive book. Maybe there's a low-key paperback edition. I could buy it on Amazon. That's stupid, I work at a bookstore (Could Amazon ship it fast enough?) (Sloan 54)."

But on the flip side, the more fantastical elements of the plot are rendered quite well. When Sloan writes about the meeting of the secret society, it's mysterious, outlandish, yet fully fits into the plot. The reader is caught up in the unfolding revelations, therefore elevating the fantasy side of the novel. We completely accept the idea of a library hiding in plain site, inhabited by a group of readers and decoders.

"There are people around the tables, sitting and standing, men and women in black robes just like Deckle's, talking, jabbering, arguing. There must be a dozen of them down here, and they make it feel like the floor of a very small stock exchange. The sounds all merge and overlap: the hiss of whispers, the scuffle of feet. The scratch of pen on paper, the squeak of chalk on slate. Coughs and sniffles. It feels more than anything else like a classroom, except the students are all adults, and I have no idea what they're studying.
Shelves line the chamber's long perimeter. They are made from the same wood as the beams and the tables, and they are packed with books. Those books, unlike the tomes on the tables, are colorful: red and blue and gold, cloth and leather, some ragged, some neat. They are a ward against claustrophobia; without them, it would feel like a catacomb down here, but because they line the shelves and lend the chamber color and texture, it actually feels cosseted and comfortable (Sloan 144)."

Perhaps my critiques of Sloan's style border on nitpicking, but there's so much good in Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore that the weak writing and asides mar what could have been a tremendous novel. Sloan has written a complex mystery that bridges the gap between the book culture and the digital age, as well as creating a great mystery world with some genuine suspense. However, it seems like writers exploring the geek culture do too much pandering to their audience. This isn't a complaint about the content, but rather the execution. Sloan writes several passages and moments with great humor, but he falters when he's trying too hard to highlight the obvious. He knows his stuff, he knows how to explore the balance between vastly different communities and subcultures, and if he had injected a bit more subtlety into the work, it could have been so much better. Therefore, I recommend this novel, but with some slight reservations. It's thought-provoking and entertaining (another rare combination), but falters at times. Once Sloan tightens his narrative and lets some aspects speak for themselves, I'm sure his future books will be that much better.

Work Cited:
Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Copyright 2012 by Robin Sloan.



Friday, January 4, 2013

"You Were Never In Chicago:" Neil Steinberg's Soul Of the City


With the exception of my year and a half in Seattle, I've lived in Chicago my entire life. The city still fascinates me, yet there are some aspects of the collective city mentality that I find embarrassing: the fixation on the 1985 Bears, and the still prevalent use of the players on that team for local advertising purposes; local politicians promoting Chicago as a "world class city," as if the area was a small town looking to make good, rather than the third largest city in America; and, an act that nearly caused me to boycott the Chicago Sun-Times, terribly written opinion pieces by Jim Belushi. However, the Sun-Times is the home of Neil Steinberg, who has long been my favorite local columnist. From sports to opinion pieces, the majority of Chicago newspaper writers tend to write the same pieces over and over, looking for the quick riling up of certain emotions. Steinberg, however, at least tries to foster intelligent conversations. Late last year, the University of Chicago Press published his latest book You Were Never In Chicago, and I made it the final book I read in 2012. While vastly different in tone, prose, and era, the work made an excellent bookend to Nelson Algren's Chicago: City On the Make, since both titles are ultimately concerned with highlighting philosophy and sociology, rather than being straightforward "history" books.

But there is a wealth of history here. Steinberg compiles a variety of stories and hypotheses, from his own life, the formation of Chicago as a city and as an identity, his newspaper work, occasional mentions of local politics, and, as he tends to focus his columns on, the often unknown side of Chicago's citizens and (sometimes long gone) businesses and places. Sometimes these aspects are combined. You Were Never In Chicago opens with a chapter on Steinberg's move from the Lakeview neighborhood to the suburbs, along with a wonderful story about a trip to a hardware store during Chicago's Gay Pride Parade. This passage is just a small part of a longer, more complex rumination on political figures and the disconnect between city and suburban life. Steinberg moves seamlessly between the seemingly different elements to create a fascinating, intangible look at a slice of Chicago.

"Music whumps from passing floats. Honorees in convertibles roll slowly by, beaming and waving. The year before, I took our older son Ross, then three, to the parade, by accident. I was heading to the hardware store to buy a plunger and brought him along for company, forgetting that a quarter million people had gathered at the end of our block.

Undeterred--and not realizing that the hardware store would be closed for the parade--I swept him up in my arms and we pushed forward, joining the onlookers. Ross gazed around at the mustachioed leather boys, the bodybuilders in tiny Speedo bathing suits, the harlequins on stilts, the flamboyant drag queens wobbling under giant feathered Mardi Gras headpieces, the bannered vintage convertibles with that year's crop of dignitaries perched atop back seats, where they could be better seen by the crowd. His eyes widened, he pointed a quivering finger and said, 'Daddy, those men...they're not wearing seatbelts! It isn't safe (Steinberg 2)!'"

The book's title comes from a postcard sent to The New Yorker's A.J. Liebling in 1952 after his three-part feature on Chicago (the origin of the phrase 'The Second City'). The postcard said nothing except "You were never in Chicago," a phrase that has multiple philosophical angles. Steinberg spends some time wondering what makes a Chicagoan; he himself grew up in Ohio before attending Northwestern University, and even after years of city living, he sometimes has his doubts. But in his examination of the Chicago identity, he doesn't go for the obvious examples. A curious example is one that I've never thought about--Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, right outside Chicago, yet has never been linked or identified with the city. Steinberg explains why, and in the process adds another layer to the intangible notion of labeling someone as a Chicagoan. The passage below ends on Steinberg's most sentimental note, but it's genuine.

"'I never thought Chicago was a tough place,' Hemingway said in 1953--'tough' of course being the highest compliment Hemingway could conceive. Chicago, he said, wasn't even as tough as Kansas City.

Being a Chicagoan is a claim you have to press, a case you must make, and Hemingway, by not making it, lost the right. He had liked the place well enough as a young man in love, but having been born in Oak Park, Hemingway had no intention of lingering so close to home. 'Gee this is a terribly good town,' he wrote in a 1920 letter while living at 1230 N. State Street. 'Instead of hating it the way I used to, I'm getting terribly fond of it. However there isn't going to be any permanent settlege down in it...because there are so many more most excellent towns in different place that I'd like to be.'

Maybe that's the definition--you're a Chicagoan if, wherever you are at the moment, Chicago is the place you'd like to be. I would argue that Chicago is not simply a matter of where you put your pillow but where you place your heart, wherever you're sleeping now (Steinberg 40)."

Having been a reporter and columnist for years, Steinberg is obviously full of great stories, and some excellent ones are presented here. Pages are devoted to the now-defunct Division Street Russian Baths. His writing is very careful and precise, but in his best passages, there are elements of casual storytelling and seemingly fictional sketches of people and surroundings. These sections remind me of William Zinsser's thoughts on E.B. White in the book On Writing Well: the best, most casual form of narrative storytelling is actually extremely precise. What feels like a conversation is only possible when there's focus on strong writing.

"Take off your clothes, stash them in a locker, wrap yourself in the sheet, then pad downstairs, the key around your wrist. You enter a low-ceilinged basement room, the walls a mismatched hodgepodge of streaked, garish linoleum tiles and glazed yellow brick. There are two tables and two men--squat, hirsute, burly Mexicans in gym shorts and shower clogs--giving massages to the great pink hillsides of older gentlemen, face down. A half-hour massage is twelve dollars, plus tip. Averting your eyes, you step around the tables, unwrap, set aside the towels and the sheet--there are no hooks, nowhere to hang anything up, so place your towels carefully on the tile lip of the placid cold pool, by the door to the sauna--turn on showers that don't spray but pour, then step under the gushing spigot. The showers are not secluded by any kind of wall or partition, but out in the open in one corner of the room. Nobody else cares about that, and soon you don't, either.

Wrap yourself in your sheet, if you like. Leave one towel by the cold pool, saving it for later. Bunch the other one up, delivering a quick blot to your face so you can see, taking it with you as a pillow. Then pull the heavy glass door open and scoot dripping into the sauna itself, the superheated heart of the Russian Baths (Steinberg 102)."



His columns have literally taken him around and below Chicago. He writes about visiting factories, helping his younger brother through difficult times (and potentially incurring the wrath of citizens by helping his brother secure a job in the city), accompanying police on prostitution rounds, and the sweet story of meeting and dating his wife. But even at his most personal, Steinberg isn't being self-serving. This is slightly a memoir, but the experiences tie into the day-to-day living of Chicago, either directly or indirectly. He's traveled underneath the city with the Water Department, seeing a side that very few people have ever experienced. The descriptions are fascinating, and Steinberg projects a genuine enthusiasm for what he's experienced. Based on his career at the Sun-Times, newspaper work and office politics can make someone jaded very quickly. He recaps some of the tougher episodes in his line of work, and while he's experienced and projects the necessary toughness needed, there are moments of pure joy in his encounters. Even in strictly journalistic paragraphs, the reader can't help but be caught up in the wonder.

"Water mains, sewer pipes, telephone cables, service conduits, heavily shielded electrical lines, fiber optics, thermal cooling tubes. And those are just the main operative veins and arteries of the city--there are all kinds of defunct technologies down there too: pneumatic-tube message systems and wood-encased Western Union telegraph wires. To this day, crews from the Department of Water Management still occasionally dig up a water pipe made in the 1800s from a hollowed-out hemlock log. Many iron water mains are so old and decayed--relics from 1900--that only the earth around the pipes holds them together. Dig too close to some mains and pressure from the water within will burst them.

I toured the Jardine Water Purification Plant next to Navy Pier, nearly fifty years old and still the largest water treatment plant in the world, pumping out a billion gallons of water a day into Chicago. I visited each of the four water cribs perched on the horizon in Lake Michigan--intakes for the city's water system. For over a century men lived on the little castle-like round brick structures, caring for them. In winter, to keep the intakes clear of ice, the tender would lower a quarter stick of dynamite on a rod and blast them open (Steinberg 120-121)."

These cited passages might not seem like the obvious choices for examples, but they are such small, carefully written moments that appealed to me just as much as the bigger pictures. Steinberg never comes to any concrete conclusions about the city's makeup, but he culls together enough people, places, and events to paint one of the more accurate, touching looks at the city. Again, it's not the same as Nelson Algren's work (in a hilarious sentence about the gentrification of Division Street, which used to be one of Chicago's most dangerous, seedy areas, Steinberg says "Nelson Algren would vomit"). But taken together, readers can chart the development of the city's psyche. Again, I don't agree with everything about the city--I still feel like 'The Bean' in Millennium Park is too new to be classified as a city landmark, and Steinberg writes about it positively. You Were Never in Chicago was one of my favorite works in 2012, and I admire Steinberg's dedication and writing style. I was fascinated to see his work "Driving With Ed McElroy," a story about spending time with an old school publicist, in the book, since it was featured in Granta Magazine's 2009 issue dedicated to Chicago. While some readers might not expect a Chicago columnist to be a proper fit for a literary journal, Steinberg's themes and stories are, quite literally, written for everyone, combining narrative mastery and fascinating asides that balance between literary non-fiction and quick reads suited for spending a few minutes with a newspaper column. This balance is never pandering or insulting, and proves that excellent writing can and should be accessible to a wide variety of readers.

Work Cited:

Steinberg, Neil. You Were Never In Chicago. Copyright 2013 by Neil Steinberg.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 Readings, 2013 Goals

My first post of 2012 was a documentation of the books I read in 2011, along with my goals for 2012. I'm doing the same thing to start this new year, and I'm curious to see if I met the goals I set for myself. Back then, I wrote:

"I read 21 books this year, which is down from my total of 31 in 2010. If I can bump my total up to 25 or so this year, I'll be pleased."

I read 56 books last year, more than double my perplexing, modest prediction. How/why did I do this? Well, there are quite a few reasons. The goal is always the quality of the readings, not just amassing a number. But, as I get more serious about where I take myself in a literary sense, I simply need to read more than I usually do. As one of the Fiction Editors of Longform.org, it's my job and expectation to be well-read, to make sure I'm familiar with trends, contemporary voices, and older classics. I'm also in the process of completing applications for potential MFA candidacies. If I'm serious about my own art and writing, I need to devote time to reading as much as I can. Also, I'll never forget a seemingly off-hand remark by my high school English teacher, the man who inspired me to major in English and unwittingly set me on the path I'm currently traveling. In a discussion on reading, he said, without any posturing or snobbery: "Smart people read." And obviously, writing is a community. How can I better myself if I'm not keeping up on the works and creations of others?

As I recap the books I read last year, I'm going to classify the works under the same headings: "Masterpiece," "Great," "Very Good, and "Good With Reservations." I'm also adding the category "Disappointment," since I read a handful of books I didn't like. But as I said last year, feelings change. Sometimes I'm too eager about titles, and after time, that eagerness fades. And since writings are so diverse, from fiction to non-fiction to styles, I know it's sometimes silly or pointless to lump books into rigid categories. I'm very active on Goodreads, and I give books star ratings, but I never take them seriously. Star ratings are gut reactions and should never, ever replace discussions, full reviews, or genuine insights. So while I'm categorizing my 2012 readings, I hope you'll take them with a grain of salt.

MASTERPIECE:

NW by Zadie Smith

You Were Never In Chicago by Neil Steinberg

Mao II by Don DeLillo

Chicago: City On the Make by Nelson Algren

Arguably by Christopher Hitchens

GREAT:

The Age Of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Daddy's by Lindsay Hunter

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Cataclysm Baby and How They Were Found by Matt Bell

Ayiti by Roxane Gay

Space Chronicles by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

The Art Of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

May Day by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In Praise Of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Flower Cart by Lisa Fishman

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

Winter Journal by Paul Auster

VERY GOOD:

Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank

The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolano

Autoportrait by Edouard Leve

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham Dixon

Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen

Conversations With Nelson Algren by H.E.F. Donohue

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Fire the Bastards! by Jack Green

Horoscopes For the Dead by Billy Collins

From the Back Of the Bus by Dick Gregory

My Father's House by Ben Tanzer

Dream Team by Jack McCallum

Tree Of Smoke by Denis Johnson

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Free Will by Sam Harris

It Chooses You by Miranda July

No Doors, No Windows and Bugfuck by Harlan Ellison

Eminent Outlaws by Christopher Bram

The Lazarus Project by Alexsandar Hemon

The End Of the Story: Collected Fantasies, Volume One by Clark Ashton Smith

Sky Saw by Blake Butler

42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos

GOOD WITH RESERVATIONS:

Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls

Two Novels by Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy and In the Labyrinth by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Open City by Teju Cole

Shoplifting From American Apparel by Tao Lin

The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

Ascent Of the A-Word by Geoffrey Nunberg

DISAPPOINTMENT:

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

The Whore Of Akron by Scott Raab

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Straight Man by Richard Russo



I wrote this last year: "I also want to squeeze in more nonfiction, especially world history, contemporary politics, and writings by black and female artists." I feel like I did that fairly well. I may not have read as much history or political writings as I wanted, but I devoted a good portion of my reading time to black and female artists, and I'll continue to do so in 2013. What are my remaining goals? I'm going to shoot for 60-65 books. Again, it's a conservative increase, but maybe, just maybe, I'll look back and see myself near 70. As far as topics, I'm still deciding. I want to read more science fiction, classics, and graphic novels. And while I like to mix up what I read, I might spend a month or two devoted to a specific writer, to see how his/her books change through the years. But whatever I end up doing, the focus will be on quality.

And as I said last year: if you're a writer/reader, I'd love to know your goals and intentions for 2013. Best of luck going forward in whatever you do.