To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Connie Willis’ Hugo-winning novel To Say Nothing of the Dog is a tight mélange of three distinct styles of fiction: A comedy of manners, a time-travel novel, and a literary parody, all tied up into a coherent single narrative that reminded me of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, less witty but more sophisticated in structure and story.

Ned Henry works as a time-travelling historian in the 2040s, helping the imperious Lady Schrapnell rebuild the Coventry Cathedral in as authentic a fashion as possible, which means jumping back to just before the Luftwaffe’s raid on Coventry to see what the cathedral looked like, including the evasive (and very ugly) bishop’s bird stump, a wrought-iron monstrosity that has disappeared from the records and the scene. When one of Ned’s colleagues, the beautiful Verity Kindle, appears to break the rules of time-travel by bringing a non-insignificant object back from a trip to the 1880s, Ned is sent backwards in time to try to undo the damage, dropping himself into a Wodehousian setup of mismatched couples, mistaken identities, charlatans, mad mothers, and precious fishes – to say nothing of the dog.

Willis’ title comes from Jerome K. Jerome’s fictional travelogue, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), which I’m reading now to try to catch up on the allusions I missed. (One is off base, though; Willis puts an actual dog in Jerome’s boat, even though the real-life boat trip that Jerome used as the basis for his book did not include the canine Montmorency.) Fforde’s literary allusions and stabs at satire were broader and easier to catch; Willis succeeds more in the other two aspects of her novel, mimicking the Victorian comedy of manners (and, later, early 20th century English mysteries) and utilizing time-travel as more than just a plot device.

Willis’ time travel involves a self-correcting “continuum” that works to prevent historical incongruities that would change future events; for example, historians who attempt to travel back in time to assassinate Hitler can’t land anywhere close (in space-time) to him. Jumps into the past can create “slippage” of time or space that increases around a potential incongruity, so when Verity brings back something she shouldn’t have (in fact, that the “net” of time-travel should have prevented her from bringing back at all), the scientists assume they’ve created an incongruity and worked to correct it.

The shift from the imitation of comic novels – including the Jeeves-like butler Baine, who did, in fact do it, but “it” isn’t the it you think it might be – to a mystery that takes on aspects of those of Agatha Christie and especially Dorothy Sayers (the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries), with Ned and Verity working together to try to figure out where the bishop’s bird stump has gone, what the incongruity might be, and how to fix it. As in Christie’s novels, there are side mysteries, such as what Ned’s colleague Finch is doing running around in 1888 pretending to butle while on a secret mission for the time-travel department, or why the continuum sends Ned back to a dark tower in the late 1300s when he was just trying to get back to the present.

The greatest strength of the book is the Victorian characters, who are mostly of the upper-class twit variety, including the domineering yet gullible Mrs. Mering, her simpering daughter Tocelyn (“Tossie”), and the fraudulent psychic Madame Iritosky. We’re also treated to an ongoing debate between two professors of history in 1888, Professor Overforce and Professor Peddick, whose argument on the nature of free will and the causes of history itself dovetails nicely with the overall theme of the net, the continuum, and self-correction of incongruities. There’s also a plethora of silly (but still funny) jokes around confusion of names and people, and a fair bit of physical comedy as well.

To Say Nothing of the Dog drags for a short stretch after Ned has first arrived in 1888, once when we’re waiting for him to realize what he’s brought back for Verity (it’s obvious to the reader from the start) and another time when we’d really like the Merings to just get on with whatever it is they’re supposed to be getting on with, two sections where the situational humor can’t mitigate the glacial pacing of the plot. Those are temporary, and once Ned and Verity get cracking on the ultimate mystery of the continuum’s odd behavior, the narrative steps on the gas and doesn’t let up until a rousing, pitch-perfect finish that wraps up almost every plot thread but leaves one critical question unanswered for us and for the characters, an ambiguity that would have driven Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells to spontaneous combustion.

Next up: Before tackling Jerome K. Jerome, I knocked off Jo Walton’s Hugo winner, the wonderful novel Among Others, which is on sale for $2.99 in the Kindle edition through that link.

Infinite Jest.

Today’s Klawchat was heavy on draft questions. I also have a new draft blog post up on UNC third baseman Colin Moran, and a post up on Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and other Durham and Charlotte prospects.

It took just over two weeks, but I finished David Foster Wallace’s sprawling magnum opus Infinite Jest, all 1079 pages of its madness and hysteria. It’s a work of tremendous intelligence, a novel that wants to challenge you to follow its undulations and hairpin turns, and yet a work of great empathy as well with its well-considered meditations on subjects like mental illness or addiction recovery. I doubt I can do this book justice in a blog post, given its depth and breadth, and the sheer number of things I liked or disliked about it.

The plot itself is intricate, looped and non-linear, at times deliberately involuted and interrupted by footnotes that have, unfortunately, become one of the book’s hallmarks. The main plot threads involve Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy and heavy marijuana user who has lost the ability to feel emotions; Don Gately, a recovering drug addict and thief who is now one of the staffers at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (yes, that’s the name); and a mysterious film made by Hal’s father that causes viewers to enter a catatonic state where they lose interest in anything else other than watching the film again. The film loosely ties the first two storylines together, although Wallace avoids any kind of full integration or catharsis, and I’ve read a very compelling argument by the late Aaron Swartz that the book’s actual end is in the beginning. (Smashing Pumpkins would approve.)

The plot strands themselves may not be the point, or at least not the ultimate point, of Infinite Jest, but as springboards for Wallace to provide us with lengthy ruminations on subjects as wide-ranging as depression, addiction, popular culture, environmentalism, and, of course, tennis. Hal lives and studies at the Enfield Tennis Academy founded by his father and his mother, highly dysfunctional individuals who had, until Hal’s father’s suicide, a highly dysfunctional marriage. Hal’s older brother, Orin, wasn’t so hot at tennis but found a calling as an NFL punter, and appears in several passages in which he starts to think he’s being followed by wheelchair-bound fans, unaware that they are in fact a group of wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatists who are trying to find a master copy of Incandenza père‘s film. The tennis academy and the halfway house both contain assemblies of colorful side characters, fleshed out in impressive detail over the course of the book (so while the book is too damn long, at least most of the real estate is properly utilized), and are eventually connected by the woman who hosts a radio program at MIT while using the pseudonym “Madame Psychosis,” who also appeared in the mysterious film that the Quebecois separatists are after.

Why are Quebecois separatists so central to the book? Infinite Jest is set in the not-too-distant but clearly dystopian future, where the northern part of New England has become the continent’s garbage dump, about which the Quebecois are none too pleased. That and the seeimingly draconian terms under which Canada entered the new Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N., alluding to this guy) have spurred a number of separatist movements, including the ruthless, violent terrorists on wheels who are after James Incandenza’s film. It’s a bizarre sideplot in a strange book, although the presence of some shadowy force bent on mass destruction is necessary for the central gambit of the Entertainment, the nickname for the film the separatists are hunting.

Speaking of mass destruction, one of the book’s best scenes, filmed by friend of the dish Michael Schur in his video for The Decemberists’ “Calamity Song,” is the game of Eschaton played by the main characters at the tennis academy. Named for a formal term for the religious concept of the “end times,” the game simulates a worldwide military conflict where players represent various nuclear states and stage attacks by hitting tennis balls (lobs, to be specific) at opponents’ targets. The game played in the book devolves into a mess of recriminations and missiles fired at other players, with comically violent results.

The various digressions on more serious subjects, like mental illness and addiction, veer from what we traditionally want or expect in a novel, at least an American novel – it harkens more to the traditions of 19th-century Russian literature than anything more recent. His description of depression, starting on page 695, is absolutely remarkable, describing it as “a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it … a nausea of the cells and soul … lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed.” Much of what Wallace writes about addiction, both in discussion of the addict characters’ experiences and the mind-numbing effects of the mysterious film, foreshadowed more recent advances in our understanding of the neurology of addiction, and why addiction may be best treated as a physical disease rather than a mental or intellectual failure.

Wallace apparently had a prodigious vocabulary – I wrote down about 50 words that I didn’t know but that were common enough to appear in my Kindle’s dictionary (or that weren’t Wallace neologisms) – and also seemed to love wordplay and literary allusions. The book’s title comes from a line in Hamlet, during the title character’s eulogy for Yorick, and Hal is the novel’s Hamlet, the son of a father who took his own life and a faithless mother whose love for her son lacks any actual emotion. This might be a stretch, but I thought Hal’s name might also refer to the antipsychotic drug Haldol, used to treat schizophrenia, given Wallace’s deep knowledge of pharmaceuticals. The pun involved in O.N.A.N.’s name is obvious, as are James Orin Incandenza’s ironic initials (he was a depressive and alcoholic who took his own life). Madame Psychosis is a play on the Greek word “metempsychosis,” meaning transmigration of the soul, while her real name, Joelle van Dyne, sounds like a play on the word “anodyne,” meaning a painkiller or analgesic. Wallace shows an odd obsession with the curvature of characters’ spines, even naming a character Otis Lord (a play on “lordosis,” the inward curvature of the spine at the lower part of your back). He names a town in Arizona “Erythema,” which is actually a skin condition involving red patches on the skin. Many characters, especially the teenagers in the tennis academy, engage in wordplay in their dialogue*, and Wallace makes up his own words and phrases as he goes along, like “novocaine of the soul,” which I assume inspired the Eels song by that name. It doesn’t necessarily make the novel better, but as someone who just loves language and seeing others stretch it and bend it in unusual ways, I found this one of my favorite aspects of the book.

*My favorite is the prank call Hal receives, where another character says, “Mr. Incredenza, this is the Enfield Raw Sewage Commission, and quite frankly we’ve had enough shit out of you.”

Then there was my least favorite aspect, the footnotes, a clear exercise in intellectual masturbation that not only interrupts the novel’s minimal narrative linearity but serves far too often as a way for Wallace to show off. Footnotes can be used well for the sake of humor, as in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or the early Thursday Next novels (where literary characters communicated via footnoterphone), but here they are just Wallace wanking. You can’t get twenty pages into this book without realizing how brilliant Wallace must have been, so why would he try so hard to impress us with these abstruse or esoteric notes? Or, why didn’t anyone discourage him from doing so? Nearly 400 of these notes, some of them lasting several pages and often bearing notes of their own, occupied 12% of the pages in the electronic version I read. That’s an abuse of authorial privilege. The one footnote that was legitimately funny – J.O.I.’s filmography – went on far too long.

I also found Wallace’s vision of the future a distraction from the rest of the book. To raise revenues, the government of O.N.A.N. has sold off naming rights to the years, so we get the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and the Year of Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems for Home, Office, Or Mobile (sic). Aside from the fact that I got a giggle from saying “Yushityu” in my head, this isn’t terribly funny the first time around, and gives little or nothing to the reader in the way of a forecast for or description of this future era. The characters’ quotidian lives are largely unchanged from today – Wallace’s vision of downloadable video content isn’t far off from how we view content via Netflix or iTunes right now – and much of this dystopian stuff is about as relevant to the plot as wallpaper. Again, Wallace shows off his creativity, but someone should have helped him edit this down to size.

Most of the book takes place in Boston, in the fictional town of Enfield that sounds a lot like Brighton, which means that current and former Boston residents get a few bonuses in the book. My favorite was the description of Bread & Circus, a high-end grocery chain bought some time ago by Whole Foods:

Bread & Circus is a socially hyperresponsible overpriced grocery full of the Cambridge Green Party granola-crunchers, and everything’s like microbiotic and fertilized only with organic genuine llama-shit, etc.

Other than Enfield itself, Wallace used real place names, street names, even a church in Brighton (St. Columbkill’s) that I used to pass every time I went to see a game at Boston College. It’s nice to know that even in his alternate-history version of Boston’s future, Storow Drive is still a nightmare.

Where Infinite Jest succeeded over Gravity’s Rainbow and The Recognitions, two fairly obvious influences, is in readability. As long as the book is, as long as Wallace’s paragraphs and sentences can be, there was never a point where I got bogged down in the prose or story, and never a point where I felt like I had to force myself to continue reading. The writing is bright if not crisp, the imagery is strong, there is a lot of humor within the book’s thousand pages, and the characters are so well-developed that even a tangential story will pull you along. I can’t think of another book that has so many characters crafted with this kind of care and given this kind of screen time to tell their backstories or to play a significant role in the novel’s plot. I was never as invested in either of those other two novels, which were similarly long, intelligent, and wilfully abstruse, as I was in Infinite Jest.

This also concludes my journey through the All-TIME 100 Novels list.

Next up: William Alexander’s bread-baking memoir: 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust.

Gravity’s Rainbow.

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is #23 on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100 and is part of the TIME 100, as well as holding the distinction of being the only book recommended by the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction committeee yet rejected by the Pulitzer Board. It is a transgressive novel, drenched in paranoia, replete with esoteric knowledge of fields from engineering to calculus to military history, with detours into magical realism and Beckett-esque absurdity.

Also, it sucks.

I don’t mean sucks in the sense that mass-market paperback pablum like James Patterson or Janet Evanovich might suck. Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t cookie-cutter or cliched, it doesn’t lack imagination, it is in no way predictable, and it is incredibly ambitious. It is also one of the least enjoyable reading experiences I have ever had. It is difficult to the point of obtuseness, it is repulsive without meaning, it is largely unfunny despite a clear intent to be humorous, and parts of it are painfully misogynistic.

To the extent that Gravity’s Rainbow has a plot, here it is: It’s World War II and the Allies are trying to predict where the German V-2 rockets aimed at London are likely to land. They discover that American Tyrone Slothrop, conditioned from birth in a Pavlovian process similar to the Little Albert experiment, can predict the landing spot of the next rocket due to a peculiar case of hysteron proteron paraphilia: The rockets hit in places where he’s recently had sex. If it’s hard to fathom how that thread can turn into a 776-page opus, fear not, as Pynchon shows great capacity to craft new characters (and discard them just as quickly) and sent Slothrop and the other semi-central actors in the book on various wild goose chases across Europe, frequently involving explicit descriptions of sex, often on the deviant side of the ledger. What Pynchon really needed here was an editor, but in all likelihood, the editor knowledgeable enough to tackle this book didn’t exist.

If you’ve read, or are at least familiar with, Joyce’s Ulysses, imagine a book of that scope and with a similar multitude of allusions, but designed to express modern paranoia in all its forms, from fear of military (and soon nuclear) annihilation to fear of government intrusion to fear of mortality to fear that we lack free will for reasons metaphysical or genetic. It’s all in here, somewhere, if you can find it; I’d be shocked if Pynchon wasn’t a major inspiration for later paranoiac writers like Gibson (Neuromancer), Dick (Ubik) or Stephenson (Snow Crash), and perhaps even Jasper Fforde, who mines dystopian alternate realities for laughs in the Thursday Next series and in Shades of Grey. But unlike those books, accessible for all their erudition, Gravity’s Rainbow is work, work to follow his prose, work to follow the nonlinear plot, and work to follow the references. It’s no wonder most reviews I’ve found of the book, including Burt’s, refer to it as a book with a very high owned-to-finished ratio.

One of the Pulitzer committee’s main objections to Gravity’s Rainbow was its vulgarity, and the book is, in relative terms, pretty filthy, with unstinting descriptions of sado-masochism, incest, rape, coprophilia, and … well, there doesn’t really need to be anything beyond that. Pynchon’s obsession with the functions bodily accentuates the male-ness of the book and narrative but highlights the fact that women in this book are largely there to have sex with the men. There are only two female characters of any depth beyond a few lines. One is Katje, a triple-agent who’s there to seduce Slothrop. The other, Jessica Swanlake (Pynchon loves funny names, but usually just violates Ebert’s First Rule of Funny Names), is there to have sex with Roger Mexico even though he knows she will betray him in the end and return to her fiancee, making her faithless in two relationships. Even the prepubescent Bianca/Ilse character, who might be two different girls, is a temptress, sexually mature beyond her physical development, and available to the adult men in the book, without any indication of approbation from other characters or the omniscient narrator. The term misogyny is frequently used now simply to mean bias against women, or imbalanced treatment, but the word’s original sense, hatred of women, applies as strongly here as in any book I can remember.

If there’s something to praise in Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s in Pynchon’s subversion of the novel’s form. Circular or other nonlinear plots can be entertaining even before we consider their literary purpose. Confusing the reader a little is fine, often part of the pleasure of reading a complex book, as long as there’s some kind of payoff in the end. Pynchon’s ambition here seems unbounded, but boundaries can be as helpful as deadlines, because sometimes you just have to pull back a little to get the thing done. The book is ‘finished,’ in that Pynchon actually completed the manuscript and filed it, giving the book an actual Ending, but it feels incomplete, not least because so many plot strands wither and die without any kind of resolution.

One coincidence that made my reading of Gravity’s Rainbow a little better: I had never heard of the genocide of the Herero people in what is now Namibia by the Germans in 1904-06 before reading about it in the book I read right before this, King Leopold’s Ghost. The Hereros figure prominently here as well, as some Hereros who fought with the Germans against their own people ended up fighting again for the Germans in World War II, with one character, Oberst Enzian (his name a slight pun on gentian), earning a fair amount of screen time. Pynchon alludes to the irony of the members of a tribe nearly wiped out by the Germans fighting for that country in its attempt to wipe out another people in a much broader, more efficient attempt at genocide.

If you’d like a similar take on the book, but with more f-bombs, the Uncyclopedia entry on Gravity’s Rainbow echoes many of my thoughts on the book, including the three-bullet summary at the top. If hating it brings me in for criticism from “pretentious, elitist snobs,” so be it.

Next up: The University of Chicago Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Richard Stark’s Parker, originally published as Flashfire and the basis for the Jason Statham/Jennifer Lopez film in theaters now.

The Recognitions.

“Thank God there was the gold to forge!”

I finished William Gaddis’ 953-page novel The Recognitions for three main reasons:

  1. It’s on the TIME 100, which I am trying to finish. (Just three left!)
  2. Two people whose opinions I respect, Will Leitch and Michael Schur, both recommended it highly.
  3. I am stubborn.

So I pushed through it over the course of about three weeks, using the online annotations and chapter synopses to get me through. I could be facile about it and say that the book went largely over my head, but that would avoid responsibility – the truth is that I didn’t read slowly or carefully enough to grasp every nuance and every reference, because that’s just not how I enjoy reading. This is a book to be studied and pondered; even when I read literature, or other difficult works, though, I still read for pleasure, and appreciating the brilliance of The Recognitions – for it is brilliant – requires more work than I was willing to put into it.

Several people asked me over the last few weeks what The Recognitions is about, but the question has no single answer. There is a main character, but his narrative is jumbled with many subplots and he often is the vehicle for other stories or themes beyond his own quest for identity. That character, known as Wyatt when the novel begins, is the son of a Protestant minister and intends to take orders but ends up pursuing a career in drafting and copying architectural drawings that devolves into a vocation as an expert forger of paintings, notably works by Dutch masters. Wyatt’s quest leads to Gaddis dropping his name entirely before the novel is halfway through; he doesn’t obtain a new name of any sort until the final hundred pages or so, when he’s dubbed Stephan because that’s the name on his new, fake Swiss passport. Wyatt’s father, meanwhile, descends into madness while increasingly confusing his Christian faith with its onetime competitor, Mithraism, eventually dying one of the first of the book’s many bizarre, seriocomic demises.

As for the rest of the characters and subplots … Wyatt marries a woman named Esther, then abandons her as he loses his sense of identity, only for her to hook up with a confused writer named Otto who spends much of the novel walking around with a sling for an injury he never sustained. She also ends up having an affair with Ellery, who works in advertising with Benny, who previously worked with Wyatt in the drafting business. Wyatt’s forgery business involves him with the art critic-alchemist-spy Basil Valentine, and the odious collector and smuggler and scatologically-named Recktall Brown, who eventually dies while showing off a centuries-old suit of armor he owns by wearing it, only to have it noticed after his death that a portion of the armor is fake. Otto’s group of acquaintances also includes his college classmate Ed Feasley (who always says “Chr-ahst”), the poet Max, the failed poet Feddle, the frail Esme, the anguished Catholic Stanley, the irascible poet Anselm, the magazine editor Don Bildow (always in the midst of a sexual misadventure), an unnamed art critic in a green shirt, the closeted gay man Arny Munk and his baby-stealing wife Maude, and even “Willie,” the author himself in print – a laundry list of caricatures and pathetic figures swapping drinks and beds while living circular lives without apparent direction or meaning, often losing their identities by pretending to be something they’er not or by selling their souls for material gain.

The twin themes of self-doubt (identity) and forgery (fraud) are about the only things tying the entire novel together, other than the glue in the binding. Wyatt spends the entire novel on a quest for an identity, first losing one and then searching for another. He has one in childhood, imprinted on him by a domineering, puritanical aunt and a befuddled, widowed father, but sheds it when he realizes it’s merely a covering placed on him by external forces. His drift into a forger’s lifestyle leads him into his own madness, mirroring his father’s, because he’s replaced a lost identity with one tied entirely to fakes, leading him to doubt the possibility of any kind of authentic life or meaning in the world. He sees originality as an irreducible equation – everything is a copy of something else, and often the ‘experts’ in a field can’t distinguish the real thing from a perfect forgery. He ends by scraping down a fresco to get to the stone underneath, the one original part that can’t be copied, at least not by man.

The secondary characters, as a group, nearly all collapse in search of false identities or meanings. Most attempt to find them through money, with one character proclaiming it the “Age of Advertising” (which, in the ontology of The Recognitions, is a falsehood wearing another falsehood), while others giving up their bodies, their gods, or their countries for want of a little more cash. Several characters struggle with religious conflicts and doubts, ranging from the obsessive Catholic Stanley (whose death might be the most comic, even with the heavy-handed metaphor involved) to the seemingly anti-Catholic Anselm (who purifies himself in grotesque manner, then becomes a publicity man for a monastery). Otto is supposed to meet his father for the first time, but ends up in a meeting with a counterfeiter where both men mistake the other’s identity, after which Otto leaves with $5,000 in fake bills, which leads to him fleeing the country and assuming a new identity (and acquiring a real reason to wear a sling) to avoid prosecution. The one point all of these side characters have in common is that their quests, conscious or otherwise, for identity and meaning come to naught, with the possible exception of the writer Ludy, who may (it’s deliberately left unclear) actually find meaning in religion because he wasn’t explicitly looking for it.

I think the greatest value I found in The Recognitions was validation of my decision to similarly force myself through Ulysses several years ago, because I have no doubt that this is Gaddis’ response to Joyce’s work. Wyatt’s new name of Stephan, alludes to Joyce’s alter ego Stephen, while the lengthy epilogue harkens in form and style to Molly Bloom’s rambling soliloquy. The book has nearly as many references as Joyce’s did, and similarly pushes the boundaries of language, utilizing sentences or passages in at least six beyond English. Both novels rely on humor of various stripes, including black humor, bathroom/bedroom humor, and the occasional bit of slapstick to advance the story and keep things from becoming too dense or philosophical – not that I’d say I actively enjoyed the experience, but there were certainly parts of The Recognitions, and Ulysses, that had me laughing out loud.

But Gaddis’ work is, undeniably, an arduous experience for the reader. He dispenses with quotation marks, setting off dialogue with a – instead. Speakers are often left unidentified, and Wyatt goes nameless for about 700 pages. The allusions are fast and thick and often quite obscure, beyond the usual Bible-and-Shakespeare stuff present in most literature of this ilk. The anfractuous plot left me reliant on the chapter synopses online to figure out who was doing what and where. Gaddis even introduces half of a joke on page 66, about Carruthers and his horse, referring to it again a few times throughout the novel, delivering the punch line on page 941. I can respect the cleverness of the gambit while also being highly irritated by the assumption that I was sufficiently focused and reading the book quickly enough to remember the joke when the payoff – not even that funny – finally came. And that’s The Recognitions in a nutshell for me: Brilliant, clever, insightful, but too damn much work.

White Noise.

I wrote a column on Thursday ranking the top ten starters on this year’s playoff rosters, and also did my usual weekly Klawchat, although the next one may not be for two or three weeks.

Don DeLillo’s White Noise – part of the TIME 100 and #82 on the Radcliffe Course’s top 100 – blends the science fiction-tinged paranoia of Philip K. Dick and the bleak views of postwar suburban families from novels like Revolutionary Road while foreshadowing the hysterical realism of Zadie Smith and the more recent A Naked Singularity, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. It’s a very dark, often morbidly depressing look at runaway consumerism, overreliance on pharmaceuticals, fear of death in a world of declining religiosity, and the vacuous, sterile nature of life in the American exurbs. It’s also often very funny, with a distinctive narrative voice that often jumps off the page, although DeLillo couldn’t quite maintain that macabre exuberance for the novel’s full length.

Jack Gladney is a professor of Hitler studies at a fictional midwestern University and lives with his fourth wife, Babette, and their gaggle of kids from previous marriages, all of whom but one are beyond precocious, developed (by pharmaceuticals? by environmental toxins?) into odd stages of emotional maturity even before reaching their teens. Jack and Babette both live comfortable but morally and emotionally aimless lives, talking at length about their terror of death, which becomes much more tangible to them when a nearby chemical spill spawns an “airborne toxic event” that gives Jack a slightly grim medical prognosis while setting him and Babette at odds over her own use of an experimental mood-altering medication.

While every description I’ve found of White Noise dwells on the central characters’ shared fear of death, that’s just one of several themes in the novel and, for me at least, it’s almost a cover story for the more pressing anti-consumerist sentiment that pulsates just below the novel’s surface from start to finish. Repeated scenes of characters all lost in the supermarket lead to casual descriptions of emotional satisfaction from large purchases, from a car full of consumer goods, from recognition of familiar mass-market brands, from the mere participation in the economy of commodities. DeLillo indicts American consumer culture by depicting real-but-too-real postnuclear American family whose members can’t relate to each other without the bond of household goods. I thought the occasional interpolations of three major brands, one after another – “Tegrin, Denorex, Selsen Blue” – almost pedantic, as if DeLillo didn’t realize his focus on the Gladneys was sufficient for a guilty verdict.

The fear of death theme covered familiar ground as well, something explored in many novels over the past century as the role of religion has diminished in many developed nations, whether through a decline in general religiosity or an increase in nonbelievers. White Noise particularly reminded me of a novel I hated, Tom Robbins’ fantasy Jitterbug Perfume, which eventually makes no argument stronger than that we can’t be sure what follows death, so we might as well enjoy and extend life as much as we can. I didn’t really need Robbins to tell me that, and I don’t need DeLillo too, either.

That theme actually works better when it underpins the novel’s second, slower-burning subject, our reliance on pharmaceuticals to solve our problems and/or improve our lives – better living through biochemistry, in a way. Earlier in the novel, characters casually mention use of prescription drugs, but the chase for one drug in particular (minor spoiler) that is designed to suppress our natural horror of our own mortality comes to occupy the third of three sections of the book, as Jack realizes Babette is taking it but for reasons unknown won’t discuss it with him. (Of course, it’s one of their precocious kids, Denise, aged nine going on twenty, who finds the bottle and figures out something’s amiss.)

From the point of discovery and confrontation, however, DeLillo goes off the rails in both plot and theme, as if he knew he’d hit on something powerful but couldn’t figure out how to wrap up the story in a manner consistent with his character development and greater intentions for the novel. Jack is somewhere between a desperate man and an enraged husband but not really enough of either to be credible, and by this point in the book, the lack of depth to all of the side characters, including their kids, and to previously significant details like Jack’s choice of academic subjects becomes glaring. What might have built up into a great crescendo sputters into an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s a rare case of a book being too short, where most other books in the hysterical realism realm, both before and after White Noise, came in much longer so that their twisted, layered versions of reality have more time to vest. If the first section stood alone as a novella, it would feel a little incomplete, but could stand on its own for its creativity and manic vision, a lot like Philip K. Dick’s more serious works. Unfortunately, DeLillo stopped in the no-man’s land between that and the more ambitious works I referenced earlier.

Anyway, that leaves me with just four more books on the TIME 100, but none under 600 pages.

Next up: A brief detour into non-fiction with food writer Peter Kaminsky’s book on eating more healthfully without giving up the pleasure of great cooking, Culinary Intelligence.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

When I decided seven years ago to try to read every title on the TIME 100, the book that intimidated me most wasn’t The Recognitions, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest. It was a 150-page book aimed at children, one I refused to read until it became available in e-book format because I couldn’t be seen reading it in public – Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, in which the title character has to deal with moving to a new school, facing the onset of puberty, and exploring religion in the midst of a family battle over what faith, if any, she should follow.

The book touches on a few themes I’m not really prepared to cover here, including the ardent desire by Margaret and her classmates to get their first periods. (Given what many of the women I know have suffered as a result of this process, this must be the greatest example of “be careful what you wish for” in literary history.)

Blume’s broader theme in the book is about the need to fit in with one’s peers, especially for children approaching such a sensitive stage. Every child character in the book acts in some way on his/her insecurities about fitting in socially or even physically. While the treatment of the one girl in the class who sprouted early (in fourth grade, which would mean she hit puberty at nine) has an obvious resolution to any adult, it matches lessons my wife and I try to teach our daughter when she notices kids picking on other kids at school, that the bully and the victim often both need others’ help.

Even the subplot of Margaret’s search for God or religion works within this broader theme, although in this case Margaret is trying to fit in within her family, where her parents, one raised Jewish and one Christian, don’t practice any religion, while Margaret’s mother is estranged from her parents because of their fury over her marrying a Jewish man. (They eventually make a horribly awkward appearance toward the end of the book, straight out of central casting.) Of all the various strands within the book, this one was the most sophisticated and thoughtful, as Margaret, who generally sees herself as behind her peers, shows a more mature side in her desire to at least understand more about religion and her open-mindedness about the subject.

I appreciated the subtle humor of the book, even though some of it would likely fly over younger readers’ heads. Margaret commenting, without meaning to pick on the boys who haven’t seen their voices drop yet, about music class where “mostly the boys sang alto and the girls sang soprano,” or her grandmother using the expression about Mohammed coming to the mountain in the midst of the family’s battle over religion, or her matter-of-fact observation that her mother can talk her father into anything, each kept the book from becoming dry and preachy with its simplistic morality.

But unlike a lot of classic young adult novels, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret comes across as juvenile to adult eyes, not due to gender differences but because it’s so thinly written. The plot is highly predictable, and the stories are all flimsy enough that you’d have trouble stretching this into more than a half hour of television. Most of the adults in the book are ineffectual, while the boys are mostly creeps (as is the 24-year-old sixth grade teacher who can’t stop staring at the girl who has already hit puberty). It feels like a book you might give your nine-year-old daughter to prep her for a Big Talk, but it’s not the kind of book that’s serious enough to answer any questions on its own. Its main value may be in making its readers feel better about their social anxiety around puberty, changing schools, and generally fitting in with peers, which is worth something, but maybe isn’t as ambitious as the book could have been. None of which made it any less awkward for me to read, although at least now I can cross it off the TIME 100 checklist.

Next up: I just finished Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife, which blew away my modest expectations.

The Golden Notebook.

I’ve got a piece up today previewing the top 30 prospects for the 2013 draft.

Do you know what people really want? Everyone, I mean. Everybody in the world is thinking: I wish there was just one other person I could really talk to, who could really understand me, who’d be kind to me. That’s what people really want, if they’re telling the truth.”

Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, #48 on The Novel 100 and part of the TIME 100, is apparently a landmark in feminist literature as well as a rumination on the empty promises of communism, written by an author who had herself become disillusioned with both the philosophy and the British branch of the Party. Lessing attacks the novel’s traditional structure with a post-modern twist, weaving five narratives together across roughly 600 pages before the book culminates in one short story that attempts to reconcile fact with her protagonist’s own literary voice, a structure that challenges as it confuses.

That protagonist, Anna Wulf, is a divorced mother of a young daughter and a once-successful writer who has spent years unable to write a follow-up to her one novel, a wartime story that was commercially and critically successful and now spawns a series of comical attempts by English and American producers to film a bastardized version of it that takes its name but scarcely any of its plot. Anna and her best friend, Molly, are both little-c communists who have drifted out of the party and are gradually sliding into a passive socialism, which becomes a central conflict between Molly and her ex-husband, a successful financier, over their joint custody of their son, Tommy.

The golden notebook of the title doesn’t appear until the end of the novel, but we do read four other notebooks Anna has kept over the years, recounting her experiences with a group of white communist activists in Rhodesia, her time in the British Communist Party, an unfinished novel based on her own doomed love affair with a married man, and a more traditional journal where she records more mundane events as well as dreams and conversations with her therapist. The golden notebook represents her attempt to use fiction to bring together all four narratives as well as the more recent events of her life with Molly and a love/hate affair she has with an American communist who fled the blacklist and McCarthyist movement.

The one other distinguishing feature of The Golden Notebook is its unusually frank and graphic depictions of sex and biological functions, not unusual today but certainly so for the era in which it was published, particularly since its author is female. I imagine the novel was shocking in its time, although I was more surprised at how perfunctory the descriptions of sex were, not just anti-romantic, but clinical and sometimes even violent. The passage on menstruation is just as graphic, so while I saw it as an obvious metaphor for her own anger over societal prescriptions on gender roles, I also found it shocking to see a female writer write something so critical of her own female-ness, even if it was solely in a biological sense.

The narrative structure of the novel makes sense given where Lessing is taking us, but I found it incredibly confusing because of the shifts in time and the use of metafiction that is itself a thinly-veiled rendition of an actual life event belonging to the novel’s central character. It’s a hard book to put down for a day and return to without some thought as to who’s on the stage and in what time period the current scene is taking place. As someone who reads quickly, I found that offputting, even though Lessing’s efforts to converge all five narratives in that final bit of metafiction in the golden notebook are ultimately successful and likely part of why this novel remains a critical favorite.

I also found the metafictional Anna much more difficult to empathize with than the “real” Anna, who is herself flawed but more able to view her own decisions clearly, because the fictional version is the authoress of her own destruction within the book. The fact that her paramour is a lying cad can’t excuse her from failing to see that her involvement with a married man who has no intention of abandoning his wife – and whose wife is clearly suffering from her husband’s infidelities – or from the consequences when he inevitably flees from the affair as well.

The Golden Notebook fits in with many of the critically-acclaimed novels I read from these “greatest books” lists, an intelligent, thought-provoking, well-written book that deals with the larger (or largest) issues in life, but ultimately falls short on plot and character. I never felt driven to find out what was going to happen with the central characters, and the one Big Event within the book is dealt with swiftly enough that it becomes secondary to Anna’s journals. That all makes it a good book in terms of quality, but not one I’d be driven to read again.

Next up: I just finished Sergio de la Pava’s strange, often darkly funny debut novel A Naked Singularity (just $5.13 on Kindle) and have started Jonathan Lethem’s sci-fi hard-boiled detective novel Gun, with Occasional Music, the latter an old recommendation from one of you.

The Man Who Loved Children.

Louie, delighted, ran downstairs. Whenever her irritations got too deep, she mooched in to see her mother. Here, she had learned, without knowing she had learned it, was a brackish well of hate to drink from, and a great passion of gall which could run deep and still, or send up waterspouts, that could fret and boil, or seem silky as young afternoon, something that put iron in her soul and made her strong to resist the depraved healthiness and idle jollity of the Pollit clan.

Christina Stead’s 1940 novel The Man Who Loved Children, a fictionalized memoir of what was apparently a brutal childhood with her famous biologist father, David George Stead, lay virtually unknown for over two decades before a 1965 reprint, featuring an introduction by poet Randall Jarrell, earned critical accolades and established the book in academic circles. The book appeared on the TIME list of the 100 greatest novels since 1923, and Jonathan Franzen has called the book a “masterpiece,” unsurprising given the book’s obvious influence on his own novel of dysfunctional family life, The Corrections.

Whereas Franzen’s book at least had humor, Stead’s novel is a bleak tale of psychological abuse and neglect stemming from an ill-advised marriage between a man, the egomaniacal Samuel Pollit, and his second wife, Henrietta “Henny.” Louisa, Sam’s daughter from his first marriage, is a primary target of Henny’s while suffering under the thumb of her father, while the couple’s six children all suffer more from the couple’s inability to live within their means or otherwise provide for the children.

Sam is a loudmouthed tyrant, a fatuous narcissist who believes himself to be a great philosopher who is destined for greatness, yet is despised by co-workers and loathed by his shrewish wife, not without reason on both counts. He preaches – mostly to his own children – that all men are brothers, and equal, and should be on equal footing, yet has some very peculiar views on who exactly qualifies under those statutes:

Suicide ought to be recognized and permitted, for a person was captain of his own life. Murder of the unfit, incurable, and insane should be permitted. Children born mentally deficient or diseased should be murdered, and none of these murders would really be a crime, for the community was benefited, and the good of the whole was the aim of all, or should be. Murder might be beautiful, a self-sacritifce, a sacrifice of someone near and dear, for the good of others – I can conceive of such a thing, Looloo!

He speaks to his children in a patois of babytalk, fake German accents, and an imitation of poor African-Americans that reads like the verbal equivalent of blackface. He accepts a six-month assignment in southeast Asia, leaving his wife largely to fend for herself during that period, only to return to find that his enemies at work have begun to plot his ouster – a vendetta he refuses to fight, claiming virtue but showing little more than cowardice. He’s a fraud, unaware of his falseness, who takes out his frustrations on his wife and children while feeding his voracious ego on the unquestioning admiration of his offspring.

Henny came from some money, only to find her wasteful husband ready to squander what she brought to the marriage and unable to provide for all of the children he seems to force her to have – yet one of her coping mechanisms is to hurl abuse at Sam, at Louisa, and even sometimes at her own children, including frequent threats to harm herself, Sam, and the children. She should elicit some sympathy as the victim of an emotionally abusive husband, a state that explains some of her behavior (particularly around money, which she remains inept at managing), yet her willingness to empty her well of hatred on the innocent children, especially her stepdaughter, exhausts any compassion the reader might have developed for her earlier in the novel.

Louisa stands in for Stead, who, like Louisa, lost her mother when she was two and lived with a stepmother who (she claims) never liked her. If there’s any positive storyline in the book, it’s the slow emergence of Louisa from the torpor of her home life, which gradually descends into shameful poverty, into a modest awakening and realization that she’d be better off on her own, without her parents. (How she achieves that is one of the book’s few surprises, one I won’t spoil.) Her character is little more than a punching bag for the first half to two-thirds of the book, yet she’s actually the central character; Sam and Henny don’t develop, because they’re long past the point where they might change, and are so blinded by contempt of each other that they have dug into their respective trenches and will engage in grinding warfare until one side capitulates through death. Louisa can and will evolve, thanks to outside influences that help her discover that her father is, indeed, a fraud, even a monster. The oldest of Sam and Henny’s kids, Ernie, comes to a similar realization but plays a supporting character as Louisa takes the lead in the novel’s climactic final two chapters.

As you might imagine from the descriptions above, The Man Who Loved Children is a terribly arduous read. Sam’s affected speech to his children is unreadable, for the difficulty in parsing the gobbledygook but more for the incredible condescension it entails, for how he uses the language to keep the children in his thrall and attempt to deny them their emotional maturity – they can’t grow up if I don’t talk to them like young adults. (For the record, my wife and I have never talked down to our daughter like that; there’s a clear line between being silly and stunting your child’s verbal and emotional growth.) But the arguments, the vile language, the outright abuse – especially that heaped on Louisa – was excruciating to read. This book was work, and I’m not sure the payoff was really worth it.

Next up: Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, two short novels in one volume that also served as the inspiration for the film Cabaret.

The Corrections.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections made the TIME list of the 100 greatest novels published since the magazine began for its use of dark humor in an unstinting portrayal of both the modern American family and of our unending winter of discontent. It is a well-constructed novel with smart prose, one that challenges the reader often without becoming an arduous read, but ultimately suffers from its depressing outlook and the presence of only one really compelling storyline.

The Lambert family is in the final stages of full collapse as its patriarch, Alfred, approaches the end of his life, and his wife Enid seeks to bring all three of her adult children home to St. Jude, Ohio, for one final Christmas together. Alfred suffers from Parkinson’s disease that is ravaging body and mind, yet lives in partial denial of the loss of some of his faculties while living in full denial of what appears to be a lifelong battle with clinical depression. Enid herself fights a depression of her own, but one more the result of her own losing battle with a sullen, domineering husband, who clipped her wings and may have driven away all three children once they could leave the nest. Eldest son Gary is superficially successful, married with three children and a lucrative day job in banking, but is himself depressed; he’s aware of it, unlike Alfred, but tries desperately to fight it without resorting to therapy or antidepressants (although the cause of his aversion to those solutions is unclear; it may be related to his paranoia about his wife and children conspiring against him). Middle child Chip is a failed academic, a tourist of Marxism, and eventually an aide to a Lithuanian con man. If you like a single one of these characters, each of whom (except perhaps Enid, a product of her times) is at least partly responsible for his own mess, you’re a more empathetic reader than I am.

The star of the book for me is the youngest Lambert child, Denise, a talented chef with a second talent for romantic entanglements that sabotage her life and eventually leave her jobless and, coincidentally, available to clean up family messes. I’d argue that she’s the most together of any family member, certainly the most self-aware and most willing to think about what causes her bouts of self-destructive behavior, and the job loss was a little bit forced into the plot anyway. (The absence of any mention of a sexual harassment lawsuit bothered me.) Each character gets his or her own extended section, and Denise’s was by far the most interesting, both from sheer narrative greed and from my ability to empathize with her character, because she has a level of emotional depth absent from other members of her family, and less of the propensity to extinguish her own flame. And the lead-in to that section, giving us the back story on the family that ends up employing Denise in the husband’s restaurant start-up, is the single best passage in the entire book, even thought it doesn’t feature any of the Lamberts. Incidentally, Franzen, to his great credit, shows pretty strong understanding of food and food trends of ten years ago in describing Denise’s culinary exploits, including her gustatory tour of Europe that leads to, of course, some significant emotional development, particularly when she sees acquaintances from St. Jude living a wealthy yet stale life in Austria.

The book is funny and crude, sometimes at the same time, but other times the crudeness is simply offputting and pointless. Franzen can spin a phrase and make words dance in many directions, and it’s a shame to see how often he makes them tango in the gutter when he excels at wry, incisive observations. The strongest prose got me through the book despite a rather bleak outlook on life. The emotions generated by the book’s brief concluding section were very real, and yet I still felt cheated, like this final “correction” to the Lambert family dysfunction came too late – after 550 pages of downers, chemical and psychological, I wanted some small glimmer of hope for the Lamberts left standing, some argument that life, corrected, still had meaning, and Franzen just left it hanging. But if his point was to display our happiness paradox, where greater prosperity in the U.S. hasn’t led to greater happiness or satisfaction or reduced rates of clinical depression, then that open-ended conclusion serves his greater purpose. It just wasn’t the book I wanted to read.

Next up: I’m about ¾ of the way through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange Prize-winning book Half of a Yellow Sun, a historical novel set during the Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-70.

Money: A Suicide Note.

Here’s another piece about that chick who’s dying in her teens because, according to the Line, she’s allergic to the twentieth century. Poor kid … Well I have my problems too, sister, but I don’t have yours. I’m not allergic to the twentieth century. I am addicted to the twentieth century.

Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note, which appeared on the TIME 100 and at #90 on the Guardian 100, is a hilarious modern picaresque novel that marries crude, over-the-top humor with serious themes of materialism and modern identity as well as a healthy dose of metafiction that called to mind Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

The protagonist of Money, John Self, is an English director of TV adverts who is tabbed by Fielding Goodney to write the treatment for a new feature film titled Good Money, except when it’s instead titled Bad Money, although the film within the film is largely a Macguffin, with a plot that sounds comically awful but allows Amis to work in several caricatures of Hollywood actors and actresses. Self does very little actual work, spending most of his time drinking, whoring, masturbating, and spending gobs of money that Fielding provides, promising that there’s always more to be had. Along the way we meet Self’s live-in, transparently gold-digging girlfriend; his even more transparently dodgy father; and a number of friends and business acquaintances who may only tolerate Self because he serves as their connection to money.

Money is the true central character in Money even if it never has a line of dialogue. Characters are treated differently based on how much money they have; the more Self has at his disposal, the more doors open for him in the boardroom and the bedroom. When the money runs out, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that it does at one point, Self undergoes an existential crisis but still can’t let go of the dream of more money around the corner. And that question of identity – who are we without our things, or without our ability to do or buy more things, in an age of rampant materialism – fit the times in which the book was written (the 1980s, with the action in the book happening in the leadup to the last big royal wedding) but seem just as applicable today. Self himself comes to take the money for granted; there’s certainly no accounting going on, and he just assumes its supply is infinite and that he’s entitled to it, even though he’s doing little to no actual work within the book.

The humor, meanwhile, is decidedly lowbrow, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Self gets drunk, falls down, embarrasses himself, starts fights, deals with a stalker, cheats on the women he’s using to cheat on his girlfriend, says awful things, and blacks out on a regular basis. Amis is clearly a fan of creating silly character names in the P.G. Wodehouse tradition, and inserts himself into the book as a novelist who annoys Self and ends up working on the script to Good Money, while portraying the language of the slovenly, sodden Self (as narrator) as you might expect from the son of a great author who enjoyed a good tipple.

There was one line that struck me as familiar in a coincidental way – when Self says (of his time in a pub on one of his many benders, “I play the spacegames and the fruit-machines,” the song “Faded Glamour” by Animals That Swim came to mind with its line about “You tell me about cheap tequila/Place names and food machines.” I have no idea whether they’re connected, although I always thought the back half of that line might have been lost in translation.

Next up: I’ve already finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and just started Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic.