Monday, October 30, 2006

Pynchon Watch Y2K6: The "more hyperbole than an answering machine full of automated political campaign calls" edition

Thomas Pynchon's new novel Against the Day is the best book ever, according to somebody, somewhere, who hasn't read the whole thing yet. No word on how many books the "battle-toughened novelist" has read.

Oh ho! Yeah, that's right. High-fives all around, once I raise my hand up from that smack-down.

For additional timely (and likely less BS-ish) Pynchon news, such as the first gun-jumpingly real review of the book, check out The Modern Word. They're far more organized than I am, and are counting down the days to the book's release date. Chances are they'll also read the book and say intelligent things about it way before I do. Just guessing. I mean, not that I'm not going to pick up a hardback copy--how often do you get to buy the best! book! ever! the week it's released? But that doesn't mean I have to read the damn thing. I am my own man, people. I got things to do. Things that don't include lounging around all day, believing the hype.

In other news, I started reading Gravity's Rainbow last week.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Howevermany Books Challenge Round-up #5

Yeah, I know, it's only been a couple weeks since my last round-up; and I do not begrudge you your right to question my motives in succumbing to the temptation of timeliness. In my defense I can only say that the book I'm reading right now is going to own my soul for at least the next couple weeks, the fallout from which makes this the last possible best moment to say anything semi-intelligible (never mind intelligent) about the last few books I've read. Plus, reading books and then talking about them? It's sort of what I claim as my "thing". (Though, yes, talking about books I haven't read is, certainly, more immediately entertaining.)

Also, it's as great a time as any to point out that I'm now number one (I'm number one! I'm number one! I'm number one!) on Google for use of the word "howevermany", further proof that I make reality a more awesome place to be.

Let's dance.

  1. Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore.

    I already said stuff about this book.


    Oh, man. This is going to be the worst round-up ever.

  2. Gilbert Sorrentino, Aberration of Starlight.

    Oh good! I didn't say anything about this one yet. Woo! Remember, kids: you can slack now or you can slack later, but you can't slack retroactively!

    Here's the thing, here's how I can forcefully destroy any belief you have that I know lots of things and am therefore justified in making broad sweeping claims about literature (which I'll make with or without justification): I didn't know anything about Gilbert Sorrentino before this month. I knew he had a name; and I knew I'd heard his name before--fairly often, in fact; and I knew that the tone in which people spoke or wrote his name was laden with respect; and yet, none of that ever got through the lead bucket I call my skull to trigger anything electric in the loose collection of burnt out light bulbs I call my brain. My obliviousness is amazing, in restrospect; I didn't even realize until after I finished the book that Sorrentino passed away earlier this year, so I can't say I'm reading his stuff now because of that.

    What finally set my synapses synapsing about Sorrentino was an article by Gerald Howard (available online) in a back issue of Bookforum, an unread-since-delivered stack of which I restlessly flipped through one sleepless night in an attempt to gain at least some return on the optimistic investment I'd once made in a year's subscription. (Gerald Howard himself might be the Jay-Z of modern literary essays for all I know, all I know being the Sorrentino article and an earlier essay about Thomas Pynchon and Gravity's Rainbow, also available online, both of which are entertaining, fascinating pieces of writing-about-writers-and-writing, the connection between the two in their sharing an author being as accidental a discovery on my part as anything else I've ever noted.) The Howard article on Sorrentino did a good job of getting me to pay attention to some basic information about the writer: his work is modernist or pomo or formalist or whatever we're calling whatever these days; he wrote a lot of books; he sounded damned fascinating; his writing was not what you might call "mainstream". More important, the article lodged within me a sharp desire to read his stuff myself. Of course, "Sorrentino presents a daunting number of points of entry to the interested newbie reader," as Howard says, before suggesting two books, Aberration of Starlight being the first.

    And so with Aberration I started. And, yeah, it's a real good book. The problem is is that on my end it felt sort of like I was reading less a book in its own right than I was reading a missing link in a chain I sometimes don't remember exists. Reading this book felt like I was seeing one of many possible connections between the more experimental or post-modern writers of the old school--your Pynchons, your Faulkners, your Joyces, whoever else I'm blanking on and should be mentioning here--with the descendant writers of the current (or, well, 1990s) school--your David Foster Wallaces, your Mark Z. Danielewskis, your Dave Eggerses. What I'm trying to say is it felt a little like history homework, in the way so many things (winners, losers, and formal stylistic techniques) seem obvious in retrospect.

    It wasn't until after I finished the book that I realized, wait, that was a really fascinating piece of fiction. It was emotionally engaging, entirely without regard to whatever came before or after it. In other words, I sort of feel like a jackass for reading it with such critical detachment. (Maybe I'm being harsh on myself; it wasn't like I was wearing a lab coat and handling the book with tongs.) What makes the book work, what makes it good? Gerald Howard's the guy who got me into it, and he puts it much better than I could, so I'll let him tell you. There's not much I think I could add to this:

    Everything about the book tends toward the paradoxical. The Rashomon-like perspectives, rather than fragmenting one's sense of the events, coalesce to give the reader a sense of a larger, sadder unity than any standard approach could possibly yield. The shopworn phrases in which the characters speak and think never rise above the level of banal period cliché--a chicken with its head cut off, like it or lump it, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, etc.--their dead speech rendering the proceedings more convincing and more poignant than any "original" language would. The formal scheme, once grasped, rather than feeling arbitrary, channels the emotional force of the book's events in poignant fashion. Sorrentino performs in this book a miracle of art, transmuting an episode that in anyone else's hands would be small and tawdry and amusing, at best, into a window onto four lives that feel too sad to be anything but real.

    ("Sad" is so the perfect word, there.)

    Based on Aberration, I do look forward to reading other books by Sorrentino. You can add him to the list of authors whose back catalogues I'll work my way steadily, if randomly, through, over time.

  3. Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

    Reading Francine Prose writing about literature is like watching Rachel Ray cook a thirty minute meal. It all goes well enough at the time, and that's fine, that's cool. It's not until afterwards, when you think about what you just saw, that you realize how impressive it is she was able to do so many different things simultaneously without lopping off a finger.

    I'll leave explication of the Rachel Ray portion of this equation as an exercise for the reader. (Hint: Yours Truly can't even talk and walk simultaneously without slamming into walls.) What Prose excels at is demonstrating the "no rules" limits of literature by grabbing examples from a wide range of sources, and hyping the virtue of close reading while making the distance between what you feel in your gut when you read a book and how you would explain the reasons for those feelings seem atomically insubstantial. It's what she doesn't fess up to in the book, that she's really damn good at explaining what's happening in any given excerpt in a way that, when you read what she writes, feels like exactly like what you would have said, if you'd bothered to set yourself to the task of saying it yourself. In this respect there is still a difference between close reading and good writing about literature--a difference that, if it didn't exist, would mean litbloggers would have nothing to bitch about when they read the Sunday newspaper book review sections. Even in the reading of and talking about books, there will always be room for practice.

    I did like Prose's book well enough. I zipped through it a bit quicker than a book which extols the virtue of slow, close reading might deserve. It's not a prescriptive text; she's more interested in showing you things you might consider looking for in a book than in telling you exactly how to do it. (Think "Keep your eye on the ball" vs. "Keep your hands an inch from the base of the bat, keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and relax your grip". Or, non-metaphorically, think "Keep your eye on the words" vs. "Here's how you diagram a sentence.") As I said somewhere up there, a strength of her approach comes in the breadth of examples she offers, and in reading her dissections of what happens in those examples, all of which serve the goal of showing that, in fiction, lots of things happen in lots of different ways. (Also note she sticks to positive examples, for the most part; for the one or two "Whoa, that's a horrible thing to do" rules she lays out, there's a hundred "Hey, this is totally sweet" examples.) So, no, it's not exactly anything the busy beaver reader doesn't already know, in theory; yet, it's great stuff to be reminded of, now and then, and so I think this is a book I'll come back to, now and then (once I pick up a paperback copy), as it would likely hold additional value as a book to pull off the shelf when stuck in a writing jam, or stuck between other reading books.

    Oh, and something else Prose is great at, is tricking you into wanting to read a lot of stuff she uses excerpts from. Yeah, my To Be Read list was longer coming out of this book than it was going into it.

  4. Mark Z. Danielewski, Only Revolutions.

    I read this book and I said essentially good things about it. And while I haven't gone back and read all the reviews yet, you know a book like this, there's going to be some nasty things said about it. Like, get your orange vests ready, because Danielewski just opened up hunting season; that kind of nasty.

    Over at LitKicks, Jamelah Earle opens fire. I can't really respond to her argument, which basically amounts to "too hard, not rewarding"; it's fair enough. I think I can safely say that we agree that House of Leaves is the better of the two books; it's certainly the one I'm more interested in re-reading all the time, even though I didn't get the "natural woman" vibe off it. I guess you could say it made me want to go to Sears to fondle power tools with one hand while shaving my face with the other.

    Uhm, anyways, go read Only Revolutions and make up your own mind. Nobody's going to say anything truly, stunningly intelligent about it for a while yet, anyway, so you've got time.

  5. Gilbert Sorrentino, Red the Fiend.

    Like you, like any sensible human being, I enjoy being punched in the face. I like it when complete strangers walk up to me on the street and curl their fingers into a fist which they quickly and forcefully jab into my eye. What sucks though is that on an especially prolific day, when it seems like everybody I meet follows the "Punch me in the face" instructions on the sign that I perpetually wear around my neck, there comes a point when the punching, it stops being fun. After forty or so uppercuts, one-twos, and haymakers, you become a little numb. You secretly wish people would stop punching you in the face, while committing yourself to enduring what remaining punches the day has to offer, in the hope that maybe by the time you lay your bruised, broken head on your pillow, someone will remind you of how awesome being punched in the face can be.

    It's pretty much the same thing with Red the Fiend, the other book Gerald Howard recommended as a starting point down the Sorrentino trail. For about forty pages, it's brutally brilliant stuff. After that, I didn't care anymore. There's a brief spate of the book that focuses on the grandfather, and that's good, but it's nothing I'd recommend anyone else fight their way forward far enough to experience themselves. If you like Aberration, it's worth reading some of Red just to get what it is about the grandmother character from the first book (Red being a spiritual sequel to Aberration) that so messed up everyone around her. But once you grow bored with the sickness and violence of it, go ahead and put the book down, because you're not missing much else after that point.

  6. Jonathan Franzen, The Discomfort Zone.

    I know I'm supposed to hate it. I know I'm supposed to be all irate that this isn't a novel, and it's all self-important and self-involved, and blah blah blah, but you know what? When you cut through the crap (cough cough, shut up already about Oprah, cough cough), the guy writes great prose. I don't care that the book "suffers from a lack of intensity and mundane source material" because in this case his sentences are all candy sans calories and therefore tasty and harmless. That's it. That's all. Treat it less like a Jonathan Franzen Book and more like that bonus disc of out-takes and rarities that came with the main album (cough cough, The Corrections, cough cough). You know the disc I'm talking about: the one you listen to once before forgetting it exists. It's okay, it's what we all do.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Battlestar Galactica haiku

We are without hope;
it's Lord of the Flies in space.
Still: hot Cylon girls.

(In the spirit of Elizabeth Crane's Lost haiku.)

Pynchon Watch Y2K6: Modern novels, large bandages

Word on the street has it that "finished" advance copies of Thomas Pynchon's latest novel, Against the Day, are officially making the rounds, and it looks like OH MY GOD SOMEBODY CALL THE NATIONAL GUARD THE BOOK IS TOTALLY EATING THAT GUY'S FACE

Monday, October 23, 2006

David Lynch Watch Y2K6: "Sometimes the train runs backwards"

Did you know that David Lynch is an experimental improvisational musician? I didn't know that. Does learning that David Lynch is an experimental improvisational musician at all surprise you? It certainly doesn't surprise me. If anything, learning this makes the world make slightly more sense than it did previously.

Here's the story about Lynch's first public musical performance, a collaboration between Lynch on synth and "internationally-renowned concert pianist and composer" Marek Zebrowski. I would metaphorically and symbolically throw one of my own ears into an abandoned field to get a copy of a recording of the performance; if you're people who know people, and you want to make it an early Joyous Holiday Season here at TDAOC HQ, you know what to do. Internet, make it so.

Even if you don't read the story, click through for the photo of Lynch getting all Korg-y at the Polish Consulate. It's fan-Lynchianly-tastic. (But really, a photo of Lynch doing anything is going to somehow be cooler than a photo of anybody else doing the exact same thing.)


Sunday, October 22, 2006

In praise of geek girls

Here's a story for you: Geek girl Naomi Novik writes trilogy of historical fantasy novels about dragons; sells movie rights to Peter Jackson; is made sort of happy.

And I do so love a story with a happy ending. For bonus points, it scores a shout-out from a TDAOC favorite:

British fantasy fiction writer China Miéville added: "The fantasy genre is doing very well at the moment and Jackson is a very important figure in that. He'll give any adaptation of the books a real epic sweep. He's a real fantasy geek and has an obvious passion for the genre. Whatever he does with it will be extremely high profile."

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Me, elsewhere. Again? What, am I trying to turn the Internet into the Darbynet?

The kind folks at Arriviste Press recently invited me to write their monthly Quick Hits music column. The column will feature spot reviews of (and free songs from) albums hand-picked by yours truly. In other words: you can delete your Pitchfork bookmark, because I'm taking over the task of determining your taste in music.

You can see my debut here. Take a look, then come brag about how you knew me before I sold out.

Be sure to check out the online magazine's archives. There's lots of cool content--fiction, interviews, essays, all of it. (Personally, I was sold on the site by an article on the Toronto breakcore scene. I guessed the presence of that article meant there'd be no problem with me keeping the Quick Hits picks focused on the "Ever So Slightly Not Top 40 Radio" scene.)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Twenty-six ways I'm making the universe a more sensible place

There's this book all the hipsters are talking about, titled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Curiously, the list (which is available online) does not include the book in which the list appears. The meta-ness of this gives me a headache, so I try not to think about it. Actually, I try not to think much at all. Life's easier when you spend less time thinking and more time knowing. Confrontation is for the weak-minded. Self-assurance is where it's at.

So when the book hit earlier this year I dismissed it because I don't need any people telling me what's good for my brain. I am my own man. My own dog. The tree barks up me. No doubt: I do what I want.

Still, Jessa Crispin got everyone talking about the book again, and people are comparing their scores like high schoolers on SAT day, and lest you think I'm an intellectual party pooper denying you assurance of my well-grounded authority on the subject of literature, I printed up a copy of the list and did my thing. Instead of checking off the books I had read, though, I figured it would be easier to cross off the books I hadn't read. Because surely no list could be a match for my superfluous prowess, right?

Four dead markers and one sore hand later, I ran the sheets through the Cray, went to stick a couple pairs of my smarty pants in the washer, then came back just as the computer spat back the final number: 900. I've read 900 of the listed books. At the risk of being modest: I rule.

Like you were in doubt.

Then I noticed that the second zero was actually a coffee splotch. 90? I've only read 90 of the listed books? What the deuce? That's not even 10 percent! That's terrible.

At this point I could only ask myself one of two questions:
  1. What am I doing with all my time?
  2. Man, how totally crap is this list?
Naturally, I chose the path of truth and light. It's true: I set the list alight. With a match.

Then I set my considerable intellect to the task of theorizing a universe in which it's possible to construct such a list from which I'd read less than 10 percent of the suggested books; pretending, for a moment, that that universe is the universe in which I truly live, then, it's only possible to conclude that the list we've been given is flawed, broken, because surely I'd get past 10 percent, even in the deepest, darkest theoretical breaches of reality. With that in mind, I've set about the almost Colbertian task of fixing the list so as to better reflect the nature of our beloved Wikiality. I present the results of my studied labors below.

For those of you keeping score at home, this marks another win for me, and another loss for the forces of darkness and evil. And please, hold your applause until the final name is called.

Thirteen books that I've read that were obviously somehow accidentally (if not perversely) left off the "1,001 books" list:

  1. Interstate, Stephen Dixon. Duh.

  2. Europe Central, William Vollmann. Duh. Seriously, no Vollmann anywhere on the list? Who thought it was a good idea to slight the crack-smoking gun-shooting maniac? Don't worry, Papa Billy: Bloggers got your back. You keep firing, we'll keep loading. Our posts. With paeans. To you.

  3. Look at Me, Jennifer Egan. Uhm, yeah. Duh.

  4. The Gunslinger, Stephen King. Yeah, that's right: I'm going there.

  5. Vurt, Jeff Noon. I've read it like eight times, but I'll be nice and I'll only count it once.

  6. Because They Wanted To, Mary Gaitskill. Because I want to.

  7. Paradise Lost, John Milton. Yeah, hello, it's only the single greatest epic poem ever written. Plus it makes Satan look totally awesome. It's like the world's first heavy metal album. Parents, keep this one locked up and away from your kids. You thought Grand Theft Auto had them acting bad? Wait until this one gets them casting themselves out of heaven. Just saying, there's no such thing as a hell-proof parachute.

  8. American Gods, Neil Gaiman. It's not even that I'm a big fan of Gaiman's stuff, I mean I like him well enough and all, but what's really got me worried is his fan base, which is, to say the least, moderately hardcore. If they find out that Gaiman didn't make the list, they'll unleash some serious voodoo all up on this world, and I am so not going down with that ship.

  9. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany. Sure, James Joyce invented the circular narrative. But Delany perfected it. Plus Dhalgren, unlike Joyce's little experiment in stark raving madness, is written in real English, a language spoken by 100 percent of the people who know what I'm sayin'.

  10. The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier. Everybody loves candy. Mmm. Candy.

  11. Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. EBB? She ain't no hollaback girl.

  12. Snow, Orhan Pamuk. Say it with me, Dorothy: "There's no bell like a Nobel..."

  13. The Poky Little Puppy. Because everyone's gotta crawl before they become totally awesome like me.

Thirteen books that somehow made it on the "1,001 books" list that I have not read that will have to be erased from existence to make room for the thirteen books that I have read:

  1. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway. It's short. Nobody will miss it.

  2. The Sea, John Banville. Maybe I'm still bitter that this guy beat Kazuo Ishiguro for the Booker last year, but come on, man, you wrote a book about water? Congratulations, big guy, that's only been done before and better by every single poet of the Romantic era. What are you going to do for a sequel? The Sea, Part II: Heavens Me, There's a Lot of Water Out There?

  3. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Sure, it was the first novel ever written, but come on, it's not like there haven't been some huge advances in novel writing technology since then. Is your computer still running Windows 3.1? No. So would you run your brain on Novel: The Beta Version? I think not.

  4. Smilla's Sense of Snow, Peter Høeg. I don't like snow, and my list has only got room for one book about snow, and this one ain't it.

  5. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce. Please. Not even the people who sit by themselves at the Elitist Bastards Convention can pretend they've read this one with straight faces.

  6. Whatever, Michel Houellebecq. What, whatever? What? Look, pal, if you can't be bothered to come up with a title for your book, I sure as hell can't be bothered to read it. At least Banville bothered to slap a real label on his book, making it that much easier for me to decide not to read it. What. Whatever. Whatever yourself, buddy.

  7. Glamorama, Bret Easton Ellis. There's three of Ellis's books on this list, and only one of Stephen King's books. What kind of happy crappy were the listmakers smoking? Anyway, I'm just evening the score.

  8. If Not Now, When?, Primo Levi. Good question. How about never?

  9. The Recognitions, William Gaddis. I've got enough gigantic modern novels sitting on my bookshelf, staring at me with sad puppy dog eyes, trying every moment of every day to guilt me into reading them immediately. Guess what: I don't need another one. You can talk this one up all you want, people. I'm not buying it. No way. No sir. No how.

  10. Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Here's a confession: I've never read any all of any book from the 1700s section of this list. Here's another confession: I don't feel bad about that. Seriously, Restoration & 18th Century literature was crap. Let me summarize all of it for you: "Blah BLAH blah BLAH blah BLAH blah BLAH da DUM/Blah BLAH blah BLAH blah BLAH blah BLAH da PUM." Repeat ad infinitum. Congratulations, you can now ignore that entire era.

  11. Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon. I've read The Crying of Lot 49. I've read V. just recently. And I really do plan on reading Gravity's Rainbow sooner rather than later. Isn't that enough Pynchon for one life? Yes, in fact, that is enough Pynchon for one life. Heck, maybe even three or four lives. When I die and my undead soul returns to wander the lands of the living for an age and eternity, I'll let you know for sure.

  12. Saturday, Ian McEwan. Saturday, as we all know, is the best day of the week. So why, then, did it give rise to the dullest book ever? I'm zapping this one just so I can rid myself of the memory of what portion of the book I did read. Blech.

  13. Correction, Thomas Bernhard. Good idea. Corrected!

"A reflection of something we're missing"

Okay. So.



Right: I've read Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski, and I'm...

My thoughts are...

What I feel is...

See, it's like...

Well: I've read the book. I think I liked it. I definitely admire it. I believe, suspect, that I admired it more than I liked it, though at times I definitely, certainly, I think, really did like it a lot. And other times I admired it less than I did, on average, over all by the end.

The's a tough nut to crack. It synthesizes lots of by-now traditional literary methods into a unique, inventive whole. In one respect, it furthers what "project" Danielewski might be said to have begun in House of Leaves--the fusing of experimental artistic techniques with popular gut-level story telling. The book begs us to ask where the hell he'll go next; but he can take his time going there, because you could easily spend an extremely long time looking at this book, picking it apart, putting it back together.

Beyond all that, I don't even know what to say. I don't even like most of what I have said. Yet there's so much you can start saying about it, even without knowing what you're trying to say, that you could easily, appropriately enough, run around yourself in circles for days on this one.

I kind of just want other people to say stuff so I can scoff at them for either not getting it or not getting it. So I'll probably go back and read all the reviews I can find and then do my fair share of scoffing. And then I'll bug all my friends about it until they succumb to peer pressure and read it themselves, so we can sit across coffee saying-not-saying who knows how much else about it. Because this much I think I can safely commit to: no 800 word book review can possibly do this novel justice. It's too different for that. It's too confrontational/conversational. It's something else; if fiction can be said to have a bleeding edge, this book is it.



(I don't know.)

Monday, October 16, 2006


I'm a quarter turn through Mark Z. Danielewski's Only Revolutions. After walking around the book, examining it from various angles, sometimes stooping over to poke it with a sharp stick to see how it would react, I decided it was time to give it a shot. (Plus it's only fair to have read the book I'm rooting for to win the National Book Award.)

What's most interesting to me right now is how reading the book is more disorienting than I'd expected. Going into it, you know you're going to be flipping the book and reading back to front and vice versa (whatever those terms mean in a book with neither front nor back--though I do wonder, were the U.S. Census Bureau to take up the case, what percentage of readers naturally begin with which character, because I bet the results would be interesting), and after a couple eight-page blocks you have a feel for how the two characters' stories will mesh and overlap and diverge. But it still feels brilliantly weird, and sometimes I can feel my head trying hard to wrap itself around what's going on, and not in a self-conscious "This Is Art" way, but in a weirdly personal, gets-inside-your-head-and-stays-there way similar to some of the finest moments of House of Leaves. It's sort of like having the magician come out on stage to draw big day-glo circles on all the mirrors before he does the trick, and then still being dumbfounded when, hey, look: bunny.

As for the poetry itself, it certainly has a particular, yet wildly uneven, music. It can be quite stirring and startling one moment, and then it can be blisteringly opaque the next. I've seen it referred to as "free verse" in some reviews, which I suppose is true enough, but it doesn't quite communicate that there are plenty of formal constraints, however unobvious and seemingly minor they might be. This isn't "any word any which way or wherever" verse. But while it's of course not Petrarchan iambic pentameter, it does place extra weight on, if not all the words, then certainly most of them. Or to put it another way: however unpoetic it sometimes feels, it still demands to be treated as poetic stuff.

I'll confess that I've given up on reading the timeline on each page, with the intent of leaving the deciphering of it and its connection to the main narrative to a future reading. I haven't puzzled out its importance yet, what it offers or what it does, and I'm not prepared right now to spend two months on this book. Perhaps it's all more obvious or simple than I'm expecting it to be. Likewise many other elements of the text. I'm sure there's far more going on that I'm willing to see, right now, this week.

I know from my experience with House of Leaves not to expect to "get it" all on a first reading. Still, even disregarding the time line and whatever else I've disregarded (for the time being), there's enough of those exciting moments throughout the main narrative in which things click--when you see something done for the first time and you wonder how many times you've missed it so far, when you see something done again and the meaning of it becomes somehow amplified for it--that the book has stayed plenty interesting so far. I remain intrigued.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

What's the volume of one hand clapping? Nobel

Is it just me, or does Orhan Pamuk sort of look like the kind of guy you'd like to go shoot the breeze with over a couple cups of really good coffee?

Yeah, well, good luck with that. Now that he's won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he's totally out of your league.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

David Lynch to self-distribute Inland Empire; plus other Lynchisms of the Week

I've got no bloody idea what this means, but if it means we're getting closer to a wide-release date, I'm all for it.

Seeking to explore new methods of distribution, David Lynch has secured the rights for the US and Canada to his first digital video feature, Inland Empire.

Also, here's Quote of the Week material for you:

David Lynch would like his first movie in five years to be a "summer blockbuster" that will resonate with "14-year-old girls in the Midwest."

But he knows the reality will be different for his epic fever dream Inland Empire, which had its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival Sunday.

And then you've got Photo of the Week material right here. Neither Laura Dern or David Lynch have ever aged.


The word actually sounds Japanese to me now

I remember hearing a lot about Kafka on the Shore last year; the hype around the book's release was how I learned about Haruki Murakami. Didn't read it when it came out--the wait list was too long at the library so I skipped it in favor of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I liked, in all its slow-moving weirdness.

For all I heard about Kafka (and yes, that's the word I refer to in the subject line), one thing I don't think anybody ever told me was that the book is a relentless page-turner. Maybe it's a by-comparison thing--Kafka's like the water flowing past the glacier of Chronicle; similar substances set to different states, both striking in their unique beauties. Or maybe--stop me if you've heard this before--there's just enough (thematically) here in Kafka in common with The Exquisite that I couldn't help but read quickly and obsessively, with a smile (albeit a confused one) in my heart. Or maybe I'm wrong entirely. Dunno.

What I do know is that if I wasn't yet convinced that I'm going to eventually read every one of Murakami's books, I am now. There's certainly enough to keep a reader busy for a while, and I suspect it will be a regular pleasure to dip back into his odd brain from time to time in the coming years.

Monday, October 09, 2006

I'll tell you no lies

The October issue of Bookslut has interviews with Neil Gaiman...


Yeah, they really did.

...Irvine Welsh...

So it helps you drink less, too?

It helps me drink less as well, which is a great thing for me.

...and Mark Z. Danielewski.

Do you have any tattoos?

My books are my tattoos.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

"Go to sleep now, you little fool"

Condalmo and The Millions are all up on a Guardian list of the best 25 BritLit books of the last 25 years. In the wake of this list, I'm sure the usual bemoaning of the vacuousness of list culture shall certainly spread like a rash from one lit blog to the next.

Except, the Brits, they know that already. It's worth reading the lengthy intro to the list, in which Robert McCrum admits that, yes, this is a cheeky, Americanesque exercise, but that they were as curious as anyone else as to what the results of the poll would be, so hey, why not? I'm all about the why-nots, myself. Plus it's good we finally get to see the opinions about the state of BritLit of such noted British authors as Rick Moody and Jonathan Safran Foer.

As for the list itself, my man Kazuo Ishiguro takes home three nominations, so you know I know the world hasn't totally lost its mind and that I'll be able to sleep peacefully tonight. (Interesting that The Unconsoled was his top-nominated book. Further evidence of the curiously shifting nature of critical opinion.) You've got a list in which only one of the top ten books was written by a woman, so you know as a culture we're still hopelessly mired in antiquated sexism. You get your JM Coetzee book in the top spot, further evidence that I really should consider reading his stuff sometime. And there's your Harry Potter listed alongside books like A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, further evidence that nothing in this world makes sense and that there's no way under the sun I'll be able to sleep peacefully tonight.

What we do not get is the identity of the author who voted for himself. Let the speculations fly.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Kacey's Book Club

Know what we need more of around this blog? Second opinions.

Meet Kacey. She doesn't blog. But I asked her to check out some books I like, and she said that it's totally cool if I share her opinions with you.


Today, to kick off our new working relationship, I brought Kacey a gift. I found this first edition hard cover of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It's a book some might consider one of the greatest modern novels of our time. I found the book at the used book store, so I picked it up, figuring it would look nice on Kacey's bookshelf. (Once she gets enough books to warrant owning a bookshelf, that is.) Plus I figured she'd find it as amusing as I do that such a magnificient piece of work was remaindered in its first printing.

So today, Kacey considered this modern classic in its massive entirety.

Kacey considers a classic

She reads faster than I do, and was quick to reach a verdict: indifference mixed with a dash of scorn:


Well. That didn't go as well as I'd hoped. Since she didn't appreciate it, I took the book back for myself.

Check back later for the next edition of Kacey's Book Club, in which she poops all over chick lit.

Howevermany Books Challenge Round-up #4

This will probably be the last year I do big reading list round-ups. I've been thinking hard about how I read and how I blog, and I'm considering changing some things up in 2007. So hopefully the energy that goes into round-ups like these will be replaced with something far cooler. Something interesting and better and more interactive if people wanted to engage in interaction. And different. And hopefully by dumping the reading list update I'll be more moved to blog about books as and after I read them rather than letting everything pile up into big messy masses like this.

Or maybe I'm optimistic.

Here's some stuff.

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

    After having seen the movies who knows how many times, after having watched all the making-of documentaries, after having listened to the commentary tracks, I figured it was about time I read the book. It had long since become one of those long books I'd always planned on getting to, but never quite did, until I finally did.

    Interesting, reading it after the movies. I was secretly interested in learning more about character psychologies--all those interal conflicts and tensions the characters went through in the movies, I wanted to be given more about that, the way books are uniquely suited to do. Yeah, imagine my surprise to find out that Tolkien cared about character psychologies about as much as he cared about brevity.

    What I found, reading the books, was that I agreed with every single decision Peter Jackson and his merry band of nutcases made when they made the films. Of course, coming at things from the other direction, I'm biased. I liked the books well enough and all, but I didn't discover that I'm the sort of person who needs to live, breathe, and dream Tolkien's text.

    Still, though, getting a better sense of the insanely broad and detailed history of the universe he created was fascinating, and was something the movies were only able to occasionally hint at--a broken statue here, some old moss there. Plus now I can stop feeling guilty every time I walk past the book. More guilt to spread around amongst my other Dostoevsky and Dickens novels.

  2. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch

    I don't ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever want to wake up and find myself in a Soviet work camp.

  3. Stephen Dixon, Old Friends

    You know I love this guy. I know you know I love this guy. What I don't know is why you don't know why you haven't jumped on the Good Ship Dixonsalot yet. Old Friends is as good a starting point as any, and because it's one of his shortest books, you can get through it quick. It's also, I'll begrudgingly admit, far less emotionally intense than Interstate, which is the one book of his I'd buy everybody in the world a copy of, if I had that kind of means.

    I'll admit I think I enjoyed this more than my three-in-a-row stretch of Dixon books I read earlier this year. I think it's easy to sort of gorge on his style and burn out on it for some time. But I obviously didn't burn out for very long, so.

    This is the sort of book I should have talked about right after I read it. I remember the phrase "concise yet expansive" being in my mind as a way to describe it, but now I'll be damned if I know what I meant.

    Still, anyway: to quote, I believe it was Condalmo who said this, about Dixon: "That guy kicks ass." That's some truth, right there.

  4. Carol Shields, Unless

    I liked this book a lot. It loosened something in my brain, at a time when my brain needed to be loosened.

  5. Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone

    Not my favorite book of 2006. But a damn good novel anyway. One that I should have written a lot more about when I read it. But like--oh, I don't know, say, The Road--it's the sort of book that demands and rewards close, considered reading. So much of it drips with weight and meaning and importance. One I'd like to grab when it comes out in paperback, I think, and talk about at greater length.

  6. Chuck Palahniuk, Diary

    Actually I read this a while back and forgot to list it then remembered I forgot so I jotted it into my written list right here. I like Chuck. He's quite daft.

  7. Myla Goldberg, Bee Season

    Surprised the hell out of me. Had someone hinted it was about slightly more than spelling bees, I would have read it a long time ago. Plus I'd somewhere gotten it into my head that it was one of those them there young adult books that the older people sometimes read, too. Good lord, it's not a young adult book at all. Adult content, full steam ahead, people.

    Really, though, I should have known there was more going on here, the moment I heard the Decemberists song. Oh Colin Meloy, you crazy guy, you.

  8. Jennifer Egan, The Keep

    A fine book. Not Look At Me great. But still better than many other things in this world.

  9. China Miéville, Iron Council

    Steam punk rock block! While I wasn't quite disappointed by this book--a bad China Miéville book (were such a thing possible) would still be pretty good--I'll admit, if you get enough drinks in me, that I didn't have as much fun with this one as I did with Perdido Street Station or The Scar. I guess I'm not the only one who felt that way, though it's interesting to see that Miéville liked this book best of anything he'd done by that point. I will still, in time, read everything he's written, and I will, in time, re-visit Perdido, because it was totally freakin' sweet.

    Also totally sweet is the fact that I now have the html code for the accented e--é--memorized. People: you are not dealing with an every old other day average litblogger, oh no. I got code-fu.

  10. Ian R. MacLeod, The Light Ages

    Steam punk rock block! If you can describe a relatively slow, Dickensian novel as "rocking" your brain more than "blocking" your attempt to get through it. It does pick up "steam" around the middle. I liked it well enough, once I let myself slip into the methodicalness of it. I'll likely read the sequel, someday.


  11. Laird Hunt, The Exquisite


    Sucks that you haven't read it yet, I mean.

    I mean, come on. People. Get busy now.

  12. Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics

    I said some stuff about this here and then here. I would not look down on you for giving up on the book, or avoiding it entirely--you'll probably find something else worth doing with your time. Still, I think there's some reward to getting through the entire book.

  13. Aimee Bender, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

    I was surprised that I found this book disappointing. Not quite to hatchet job levels of disappointment. But I was still displeased that I did not like the book as much as I wanted to.

    I really wanted to like the book, and I really thought I was going to like it. Surreal? Funny? I like those things. And there's some really good moments in the book: that opening story kills, and the one about the kid who finds lost things was stellar. But for the most part I was left feeling let down, like after finishing the book I was left holding less than I wanted to have in my hands, only something paper thin, shifting too easy in the breeze. I hope this doesn't make me a bad person.

  14. Thomas Pynchon, V.

    I think I've said plenty enough about this book for the time being.

  15. William T. Vollmann, The Rainbow Stories

    Ditto, twice over. Also, I forgot to link to Scott's recent Friday Column about the book. Also the reader interested in learning more about Vollmann could probably do worse than to check out the Vollmann Club. I'm not a member, so I hope they don't come running into my apartment shooting blanks at me to scare me off their blog turf.

  16. Cormac McCarthy, The Road

    When I said some stuff about this book, I didn't really say enough about this book. It's sort of that kind of book.

This ain't what Kerouac had in mind: Some rough preliminary thoughts on Cormac McCarthy's The Road

[Note: It's only fair to warn you, that if you are the sort of person who carefully avoids contaminating your thoughts with the details of a novel or the analysis of those details by others before reading a book yourself, that I go into an unusual (for me) amount of detail in this post about The Road by Cormac McCarthy; so if you're that sort of person (and believe me, I'm one of you), consider this your spoiler warning--you might wish to duck out entirely or come back later; the rest of you--those who have read the book and those who don't care--are welcome to spill blood--mine and/or the book's--in the comments. I hope this provokes discussion, as it is in no way a complete analysis of this fascinating novel.]


There's certain people who can affect my reading habits by sheer virtue of being awesome. Jennifer Egan plugged Underworld, and suddenly the thought of attempting to read that doorstop again became a lot sexier. Maureen can take credit for once upon a time unleashing Infinite Jest on my unsuspecting brain. And for however much Cormac McCarthy's latest book has been or is likely to be reviewed, it was Steve Erickson who single-handedly convinced me that I needed to read The Road.

While I'm not as thrilled with the book as Erickson, I'm still pretty jazzed about it. McCarthy's stripped-back language lends itself both well and obviously to a tale of a world with so little left in it. There's a world's worth of distance between McCarthy's style and that maelstrom of language written by William T. Vollmann, whose The Rainbow Stories I'd read just before The Road. (Also I should note I'm not a follower of McCarthy, of whose work I'd only previously read All the Pretty Horses, which I'd found irritatingly repetitive.)

The story is about a father and son adrift in an empty post-apocalyptic landscape, one covered in a constant snow of ash that rains steadily from a colorless, sunless sky. Theirs is a story simply of survival and motion for the sake of survival and motion, the desire to go south to escape the cold tempered by the knowledge that nothing about what lies ahead is knowable and that any moment of the journey could end in their being raped, murdered, and eaten. The only thing left of America is a memory of states which no longer exist, skylines burnt out above the floodlines, and a single can of Coca Cola. It's bleak.

And that bleakness is chilling. While the story of our two main characters isn't one of pure hopelessness--as I've seen some reviewers say--it's at least 99 percent of the way there. I believe that if there wasn't that (even potentially illusory) one percent the father and son would have been dead before page one. Not much of a book left after that. Consider the absent wife/mother, who killed herself with "a flake of obsidian" some unspecified amount of time before the story begins. For her, not even the presence of others--the only thing worth living for--was enough to keep her alive. ("A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love.") For her, "eternal nothingness" is more desirable than a hopeless physical hell. She believes that without their son, the man wouldn't live on--though he seems to believe otherwise. He clings to some hope--or is driven by some fear. We never learn precisely which or what, though we do know as much that it rests on his son. We do know that whatever he hopes for, beyond mere additional days of life, he never finds it, himself.

But if others are the only hope, they're also the biggest threat. When the man and boy meet a member of a traveling caravan--one powerful enough to command a wheezingly functional truck--that other guy is "the first human being other than the boy that he'd spoken to in more than a year." The man shoots him dead in the forehead. Nothing good ever seems to come of interaction with others. The man gets shot in the leg with an arrow near the end of the book. The guy who shot him takes a flare to the face. They meet an old man in their travels, who trades worthless conversation for some of the pair's stores of food, at the insistence of the son. Another guy steals everything they own that's been packed into a single shopping cart. The pair takes everything back and leaves him stark naked when they catch him, until the son forces the dad to relent and leave the guy's clothes behind.

The son ultimately seems to be an argument for nature over nurture in a world stripped down to the barest notions of good versus evil. A world where good is you, and evil is every other person there is. It's hard to tell how much of a moral upbringing the boy received from his parents. The boy used to receive writing lessons, but those have long since lapsed. The man, who knows from the very moment the apocalypse hits--he rushes to the bathroom to fill the tub with clean water--that survival and self-sufficiency are everything anymore, is as close to emotionally equipped to deal with an amoral world as anybody can be without becoming evil. The boy, on the other hand, is constantly thinking of the needs of others. He thinks he sees a boy in a house; the image of that boy, alone, haunts him for the rest of the book. Likewise his insistence on helping the other people they meet, insistences to which the father only occasionally accedes.

While the father and son recognize the difference between good guys and bad guys, it's hard to believe the boy has ever met good guys other than his parents during his brief life. We know the boy knows nothing but the world created by the cataclysm because, in one of the book's most stunning passages, we see the "improbable appearance" of the boy born "by the light of a drycell lamp" in the violent time following the event; "Beyond the window just the gathering cold, the fires on the horizon." Everything, even birth, is already makeshift and detached from everybody else. "Gloves meant for dishwashing"; the man "cut the cord with kitchen shears." We know that some violence has already visited the family since the boy's birth--the mother mentions the loss of one of their gun's three bullets.

That cataclysm, by the by, cuts all the power and stops the clocks at 1:17. Maybe I'm over-reaching, but: see also Genesis 1:17. It's the central verse of the fourth day of creation, the addition of light to the world--"And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth". In the same paragraph there's a "rose glow in the windowpane" and the revelation that the wife was still pregnant with the boy at that moment, her own--and, quite possibly, the world's--final act of creation.

Is the boy, then, an argument for the existence of something good that remains inherent in the human construction? Or is he rather an idiot, retreating from the truth of the world into which he's been thrust, creating his own delusions to do so? Hard to say but worth further consideration, especially considering the fact that the battle between good and evil seem very much on McCarthy's mind throughout the text.

The sparseness of the story, the text, and the world it describes gives an additional symbolic weight to nearly every item or event related. Perhaps the most constantly present thing, then, which must be worth considering, is fire; note that the world and its people have shifted immediately into what may as well be a second stone-age, one in which fire isn't something that must be discovered, but which must be cherished and protected for all its worth. The world is a cold place, and the loss of a single butane lighter can mean the difference between life and death. This is ironic in that the cataclysm either was the world burning itself up, or immediately resulted in the world's burning itself up. Everything left is covered in the ash of that fire, one which seems to have taken most of the good wood and healthy trees with it. The fuel for fire is running out fast.

Fire as death and life is nothing new in itself. But note that we get fairly few glimpses of the world before the cataclysm--the closest we come is those few flash backs to the boy's birth and the mother's death in the days following the event. Note that we're never told what the cataclysm was. We don't know if it was a strike from a war, or a bizarre natural phenomenon. One possible hint of the potential hope in the father's mind is our realization that it's unclear whether this is a world-wide phenomenon. The oceans aren't blue and nothing lives there anymore--they've become a "vast salt sepulchre"; but there's a limit to how far past the land they can see, once they reach the beaches. ("He thought there could be deathships out there yet, drifting with their lolling rags of sail. Or life in the deep. Great squid propelling themselves over the floor of the sea in the cold darkness.... And perhaps beyond those shrouded swells another man did walk with another child on the dead gray sands.")

With all that in mind, a dream-memory of the father's, from his life when he was younger, beckons us, and possibly hints at some way of interpreting events. (And, well, plus, it's plain fascinating, and poetic, and enthralling, and will be a joy to type out myself.)

Standing at the edge of a winter field among rough men. The boy's age. A little older. Watching while they opened up the rocky hillside ground with pick and mattock and brought to light a great bolus of serpents perhaps a hundred in number. Collected there for a common warmth. The dull tubes of them beginning to move sluggishly in the cold hard light. Like the bowels of some great beast exposed to the day. The men poured gasoline on them and burned them alive, having no remedy for evil but only for the image of it as they conceived it to be. The burning snakes twisted horribly and some crawled burning across the floor of the grotto to illuminate its darker recesses. As they were mute there were no screams of pain and the men watched them burn and writhe and blacken in just such silence themselves and they disbanded in silence in the winter dusk each with his own thoughts to go home to their suppers.

Thoughts on this:

  1. First off, god, that's magic prose.

  2. I can't help but picture this microcosm of burning snakes as being a parallel to the macrocosmic burning of the world. If cities (cities which burned, in the wake of the apocalypse) aren't, in their essences, people "collected there for a common warmth," then what are they?

  3. Plus the burning is presaged by an exposure to light. Like the light present in the only description of the cataclysm itself: "A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions."

  4. But not all people are evil, right? And snakes aren't really evil. Some snakes, they carry the fire into the dark, to illuminate those areas. It's hard not to think of that spiritual or metaphorical fire that the father and son carry and share between themselves towards a dark, unknown place; also hard not to think of the literal fire they carry, the lighter, the one they lose and the one they find.

  5. It's hard not to think, suspect at least, this indicates ill-will and apathy on someone's part, as if those men burning snakes stand in for the men in what were once governments which burned the world out. Or that they stand in for a cold, uncaring universe, one that'll do what's to be done before doing what else is to be done, no relation between the two.

  6. And presumably the man took some of this old world forward with him. He knows about the difference between good and evil. He knows by example and image. It's something the boy has, we can only assume, a vastly different experience and understanding of.

But so the man knows evil can be fought, even if just in a symbolic way; his hope, then, might have never been anything more than a desire to triumph, to truly be the good guy, to win. To find someplace better for his son to be and to live. His hope's unrealizable, not in the cold hard world he walks through and dies in, in a nowhere as close to anywhere as he's been. ("How does the never to be differ from what never was?")

As for the boy--the safety the father delivers him to, without ever seeing it himself. How long will that last? How true is it? As promising as it seems, the foreboding final paragraph describing those brook trout seems less than assuring. ("On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.") That "vermiculate" is especially chilling, with its evocation of an image of worms. (Snakes, anybody?) And finally, mystery is great--in a world with people left to appreciate it. What of a world without witnesses?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Random thoughts on The Rainbow Stories

I don't have a grand point I want to make about The Rainbow Stories, other than what point my rant about his sentences arrived at. I don't think Vollmann's necessarily a pusher of grand points, anyway, so if I had one, it would probably mean I'd entirely missed the point. Still, I've got stuff to briefly discuss. There's lots of interesting stuff going on in Vollmann's books, and The Rainbow Stories is no exception.

1. Where do you start reading Vollmann?

The first Vollmann book I read was Europe Central, and I read it because it won the National Book Award for 2005. Seemed as logical a place to start as any other. I later read The Ice-Shirt, the first book of the Seven Dreams series, about violent conflicts in the colonization of the Americas. Jeff then suggested trying the non-historical stuff, starting with The Rainbow Stories, followed by The Royal Family, which I do plan on reading next, sometime after I track down a copy for myself.

Moving from the historical books to the non-historical is interesting. There's similar strategies and styles at work in either mode; the mixing and manipulation of fiction and fact, for one. And it's also interesting to see the common threads between those subject fields. Vollmann's known for writing about moral decisions and violence and aggression. There's been plenty of all that in everything I've read so far.

I think, from my limited experience, were I to hand one Vollmann book to someone who had independently decided they were interested in reading the guy's stuff (I say independently because I still couldn't comfortably suggest someone put themselves through one of his books, despite the enjoyment and enlightenment I've taken from them myself), I think I'd go with Europe Central. Maybe it's just a fondness for my own starting point, or maybe retrospect has shaded out the book's lows (such as the first thirty or so pages, yech), but the highs of that book really seemed the most consistently high of the three books I've tackled this year.

As I said back in February (which, looking through this blog's archives, I now remember as being my own personal Long Dark Vollmann Night of the Soul), and yes I feel weird quoting myself, but whatever: "The loose trilogy of chapters sort of in the middle, about Vlasov ("Breakout") and Paulus ("The Last Field-Marshal") and Gerstein ("Clean Hands"), those are just incredible chunks of imaginative historical fiction, technically and aesthetically astonishing, but they're not going to make you happy." I can't point to huge chunks of either Ice or Rainbow that had me feeling that strongly (though, as will be discussed below, there are parts of Rainbow that I really do super admire). Nor are there such portions of either of those last two books that I feel any particular need to re-read or re-visit. More of an "I got what I got" feeling (even when "what I got" was "a lot").

Is this familiarity breeding contempt and/or dullness? Or does Vollmann's writing move towards a far more emotionally engaging place over the years? Something to consider whenever I hit up The Royal Family. (Or something for other Vollmann people to respond to.)

Here's an old Conversational Reading post about picking a starting point. Also, something I have heard (despite what this review says) is that the one place you really shouldn't start is Argall. ("[I]nflated prose style," indeed.)

2. Vollmann and autobiography and metafiction

The Rainbow Stories, like The Ice-Shirt, mixes pure fiction or authorial re-creation of unseen and unseeable stories with journalistic observation and the appearance of the author himself within the text.

Fascinating, right? Except, it's not. Despite the fact that the book appears to beg for discussion of meta-fiction and authorial intrusion, I'd say this is about the least interesting path along which one can discuss the book. I say this because I don't get the real sense that Vollmann is consciously choosing to do something interesting, metafictionally, or in a mixed-mode sense. I don't think he's questioning the form of the book or challenging us to perceive the concept of story in a new way. I feel like he's just doing things because they're there to be done. When he needs to have something be seen by the narrator, something Vollmann himself has seen, he shows it to us through his eyes. When he needs to make stuff up to get to some point or truth, he'll make stuff up. When the two intersect, it's because he's driving them toward something else.

I liken the autobiographical elements of Vollmann's work to those of Stephen Dixon's books. Dixon, as best I can tell, never names himself a character in any of his work, but he does (from what I've picked up, from interviews and articles and the like) directly inject aspects of himself and his life and his observation into his fiction. He manipulates these things freely, or he'll make things up. But I don't feel like he himself sees these techniques as being in themselves interesting. What he does is what he does to get the story on the page. And the story is what most matters.

What I'm trying to say is that the "question of autobiography" in the work of these writers isn't exactly not worth asking, but that it's ultimately far less interesting than it might seem. Yet it's certainly interesting in the case of other authors--such as David Foster Wallace, who put himself into one of the stories collected in Oblivion. From him, yes, that's fascinating stuff, in part because he's never done that before, and to see it happen in a story now, at this point in his career, is distracting and slightly shocking; in part because I suspect Wallace is far more interested in the form of the art on the page and the reader's interaction with it and the author behind the text in a specific cultural setting than Dixon or Vollmann are.

But this is all hunch and guesswork on my part. You could mount an argument against my take on Dixon--he did name a book I., after all.

Which, I just now remembered, I read this year.

Meaning I've read I. & V. in the span of a year.

Guess I'm sort of obligated to re-read Steve Erickson's Arc d'X now, huh?

3. What the book is about

When I've seen this book mentioned or discussed, the conversation tends to revolve around the urban journalism stories, those about skinheads and hookers and druggies, to the point where I've seen the book described as being entirely about those things. Let me suggest that to describe the book that way is both limiting and misleading.

Here's what I see the book being about: things that happen in hospitals; skinheads and modern-day Nazis; a terrorist and a scientist; hookers and hooker culture and strippers; three brothers in an ancient time captured by Egyptians and facing threat of death for not converting religiously; a Korean girl involved with a Caucasian boy (Vollmann?); a murderous thief in ancient Multan; a guy who steals and marries his neighbor's green dress; what happens when you put your female skinhead friend and your Korean girlfriend in the same room together at a party; a schizophrenic guy who murders homeless people; a group of people who create combat robots, and a young boy's experiences during World War II; something about a purple haired girl who reads philosophy; and, finally, some super screwed up X-rays.

Or, as Vollmann puts it in the opening line of the book, "These stories are about skinheads, X-ray patients, whores, lovers, fetishists and other lost souls."

I think it's those last two words you can use if you need a compact description of the book. It's about lost souls. It's about broken people, breaking people, a society violent with and against itself. To focus too heavily on the skinheads or the prostitutes is to ignore the connectedness the book begs us to seek. The "rainbow" motif of the book is made up of many colors in a continuum.

It's too bad, though, that for all that, there's big parts of the book (the purple haired girl story, the recreated myths) that are sort of annoying and dull. Makes it hard to hold up the various parts with equal emphasis and weight. This is an imperfect, uneven book, definitely.

4. Making connections

It was worth clarifying the contents of the book and bringing up the idea of making connections because I think two of the most successful "stories" in the book deal precisely with making connections, and are both stories that have (almost) nothing whatsoever to do with skinheads or prostitutes.

As usual, when discussing Vollmann, I'm not sure "enjoy" is the best word to use. But for lack of a better word--I highly enjoyed "Red Hands," which describes an Irish terrorist and his escape to America, alongside a description of a researcher killing mice for science; and "The Indigo Engineers," which describes Survival Research Laboratories (Google it--they still exist) and its members' fascinations with creating violent death-robots, while relating the stories of a man who, as a boy, was present in Warsaw during World War II, and who repeatedly escaped death during that time.

It's all damned fascinating and difficult stuff, the second story far more so than the first. Here's where Vollmann really shines, in this book, is in his ability to find things that might not seem immediately related on the surface, and by letting the stories essentially tell themselves, together but separate, allows us to find the relationship between them.

He's best when he doesn't weigh down the tale in his own meandering, heavy-weighted prose. And it's when Vollmann's doing things like this that it's most obvious to me that he's doing more than writing to see himself write. (Kids, when your writing teacher says you should never use two words when you can use one? They're talking about this sort of thing.)

5. Vollmann gets personal

And yet, despite what I just said, and despite what I said before about the autobiographical question being uninteresting, where I found myself most engaged with the book was in those chapters that dealt with Vollmann's relationship with a Korean girlfriend. Factual? Not factual? Not sure, don't care. I call the narrator Vollmann because it feels like Vollmann talking about things that happened to him. Maybe it's all made up. I don't know.

Really: whatever. It's in the Jenny chapters that the voice of the book most easily connects with the reader, in which the prose most breathes easy, and in which the story is most simply story, as in something one person tells another. That the disparate threads of both the first Jenny story and the story about skinheads are brought together in the second Jenny story, and that those threads are ultimately connected in the sudden and sharp tug of a knot at the end of that story makes for one of the most intriguing, compelling, and fascinating literary moments I've come across. It's sharp, because he knows precisely where to stop putting words down. The white space following the last line of the story is a depth into which those last words drop the reader. It's startling stuff.

It's the sort of thing that doesn't exactly forgive or justify some of the crap Vollmann spills onto other pages. But it does make them at least that much easier to overlook, in time.

The Long View

Here's a fascinating piece of music writing by Philip Sherburne.


Different forms of music require different modes of listening. Classical music is the most obvious example: Scholars spend their lives exploring the mathematical relationships and patterns within Bach's music. The rest of us are content to listen to the tune, the pleasing counterpoint. But for those who know how to listen, attending to the underlying structure can give a different-- dare I say, deeper-- understanding of the music. Learning to appreciate electronic music-- beyond "it's got a good beat, and I can dance to it"-- sometimes requires re-training the ears to listen for patterns and methods unique to the genre, or at least unfamiliar in other styles.

On William T. Vollmann's sentences

So I read V. and then I must have had the letter on my mind because the next book I picked up was William T. Vollmann's The Rainbow Stories, which I'll speak of in a more general sense in another post.

Before we go there, let's accept as a common truth the fact that for writers and students of writing, the importance of the sentence as a unit of linguistic meaning can not be understated. It is, linguistically speaking, where the magic happens. Words (at least, in the English language; I'm no polyglot, and have no idea how things work in, say, Shqip, or Occitan) are fabulous things, but without a platform upon which they can be set in order, nothing comes of them. And a marvelous platform it is, capable of containing multiple permutations and combinations of various sets of words, allowing for the creation of entirely new forms of communicative meaning and artistic beauty. Durable, too, is the sentence; it remains true to itself through the abuses of instant messaging and advertising. As a culture, we adore the sentence more than we might recognize. Upon a single opening sentence can the entire value and worth of a novel or an article lie. Witness our fascination with the pithy quotation, the well-constructed, tersely cogent, self-sufficient bundle of words. Note the existence of the ellipsis; multiply the symbolic end of a sentence by three to indicate words left unsaid, a longing, a desire to encapsulate infinity and all meanings beyond the horizon.

A good sentence is a love letter to good writing.

Knowing then that sentences totally kick ass, it's only fair, in assessing the written work of William T. Vollmann, to examine his sentences, Vollmann being a man who has written, it must be said, quite a few of them. (Wikipedia lists 15 books in his bibliography, starting with 1987's You Bright and Risen Angels. One of those books--Rising Up and Rising Down--is seven volumes long. This guy spits out 4300 word blog posts in his sleep.)

My gut reaction to Vollmann's sentences? I feel that he does, sometimes, write excellent sentences, containing both truth and beauty. I also feel that he does, sometimes, write sentences that moonlight as orphan stranglers. If you're going to read or really study Vollmann, then, it's only fair to ask and consider how the two extremes influence our perception of themselves. Are his highs that high and lows that low on their own? Or does the contrast between the two cast them into sharper relief than they'd attain independently?

The Rainbow Stories offers an excellent example of this contrast in the neighboring sentences which open "The Boundaries of the Catherine-Horizon," the fourth section of the "Violet Hair" story. Observe the first sentence:

It is known that holiness is localized.

This is a beautiful sentence. It has a recognizable subject ("It") and predicate (the rest). The organization is clean, the rhythm is propulsive, and the meaning, the idea, is readily obvious yet illuminatingly complex. No word here is superfluous. There is a harmonious synthesis of the words written and those left unsaid.

To say more would be to overstate the case. Consider, then, the sentence which follows this one. (My apologies for any errors in my transcription.)

Thus, a weaker ectoplasmic field is reported to exist on automated ranches, whose green alfalfa-beds are enlightened only by the random rainbow dews of sprinklers, than in desert ghost towns where tall thin phantoms hoot in chimneys like apes of justice, laboriously attempting to imitate their mentors and masters, the summer owls of whom I have already spoken, and although they scarcely possess the resonance of flesh, which would be of value to them in achieving their dark-livered endeavors (actually they do not have livers either), their reedy efforts are indulgently applauded by the owls in feathery wing-beats; thus encouraged, fat ghosts now roll tumbleweeds back and forth on Main Street with translucent smiles of vacuous delight; if the owls are amused then they will clap their claws together in mid-air with the savage elegance of clashing antlers, in the process, perhaps, letting slip some squeaking dying rodent-ball whose bloody dews the ghosts can inhale, but since this happens no more than every hundred years, if at all, it is fortunate for these freeze-dried souls that they have no tibial collateral ligaments to shrink or spasm, and can therefore flex their shimmering knees all night in the pursuit of their summer sport, vainly hoping to incite the owls' beaked praise.

That sentence is bullshit. I'm thinking Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights: "This is the worst sentence I have ever seen." I'm thinking this sentence murders babies. This sentence voted for the terrorists. This sentence places mustard gas inside the souls of saints. It's the self-important garbage poured into the bluebook five minutes before the bell ends the exam period. This sentence is Battlefield Earth re-enacted by John Travolta's mucus-drenched nosehairs. This sentence is Metal Machine Music sung by a grade school bully sinking into a vat of boiling acid. It's verbal poison.

It's awful.

Beauty? It flirts with the concept yet falls flat long before its end. Taken on a chunk-by-chunk measure, there is some rhythm or momentary flow to some of the individual phrases and clauses within the sentence. Unfortunately, these bits and pieces don't play nice together. They neither connect nor cohere, and are often antagonistic to each other. Every single time I reach the bit about "the summer owls of whom I have already spoken," my brain steps out for a cup of coffee and a bagel while the sentence clamors forward, oblivious. Then there's the livers-not-livers bit. Vollmann here wrote two phrases that negate each other. It's like there's literally nothing on the page but black ink in the deceitful shape of meaning.

Meaning? There is none. This sentence is devoid of meaning. It neither stands on its own nor fulfills or expands on the promise and premise of the sentence that preceded it. Lest it seem like I haven't tried, note that I read, or attempted to read, this sentence at least ten times when I first encountered it in the book. That's approximately seven to eight more times than most literary sentences deserve. Furthermore, I went the extra step of typing it out--copying another writer's work being one of those techniques you'll sometimes hear as being a worthwhile method of aiding yourself in getting the language inside your brain, of getting yourself deeply embedded in the work's rhythm and flow and ideas. Every moment that I typed and I began to think something clear was bubbling its way up out of the muck and mire was followed almost immediately by a sinking gasp as the air rushed back away and I lost all sight of the surface.

This sentence, it's like drowning. What's worse is that it left me violently antagonistic toward everything that followed it. I read the rest of the story, but I took little pleasure in it, and I received little information or meaning from it. Which is a shame because it was a story about a girl with purple hair who reads philosophy. That's really hot. Or, at least, it should have been really hot.

It's hard to segue out of this little pool of bile and vitriol I've poured onto this sentence, so let's just jump to a disclaimer and a point. The disclaimer is this: it might be pointed out that I'm being unfair or too harsh in my assessment of a single sentence out of a man's lengthy oeuvre, especially considering the sentence is found in that man's second book, a book which, in retrospect, might be seen as a transitional or experimental book, one in which we can still see the mind of the writer struggling to find his path or his voice. That's a valid criticism but I'll note that it's worth remembering that in this life we are defined by the choices we make and that in writing, whether good or bad, every single word is a choice. While I can't immediately recall such awful sentences from Europe Central, and so while it might be tempting to say that Vollmann has since purged such overblown excesses (to put it mildly) from his work, I'm not sure it's worth giving the guy a pass just yet. Maybe readers with a more detailed and broad grasp of his work can argue one way or the other about this subject. I shall choose to remain critical.

And, as for my, hey, hold on. That's right. I do actually recall some awful sentences from Europe Central. How about just about every god-forsaken sentence in the book's opening paragraph? If not most of the sentences from the first thirty-plus pages of the book? My word, I recall them now. How on earth did I get past them? How did I go on to finish that book, and then read another book, and then read a book after that? Dear heaven, what is wrong with me? To be fair, there were plenty of damn good sentences in Europe Central. My copy of the book is riddled with underlines and jotted-out page references. Maybe someday I'll dig my copy out from the bottom of the 2006 Towering Pile Of Nonsense and type some up. For now, trust me when I promise that, the beef, it is in there.

But now, really, for my point, my conclusion: Vollmann is not a genius. Neither is he terrible. His sentences can swing radically in either direction. In my recent Pynchon post, I took a pot shot at Vollmann as offering linguistic rather than structural difficulty. (Or at least just plain linguistic, I don't think I made any pronouncements about structural.) Maybe this post offers some idea of what exactly I and other bloggers and commentators mean when we say this guy's writing can be overblown: it can, at times, offer difficulty devoid of reward.

For me, a reader who is dealing with the question of where I stand on Vollmann's work--a question that every reader, I think, has to face when reading his stuff--this means I wind up strongly ambivalent. I'm intrigued enough that I'll continue to read his work; I'm also far more willing and ready to discount anything that feels like claptrap. For you, who are trying to decide whether to follow the hype and read Vollmann's stuff, what this means is you need to ask yourself whether you are patient enough to dig through the garbage to find the good stuff. Are you ready to play along with the editors at home?

And for you other readers of Vollmann, all this gives you an additional chance to decide for yourself whether I'm a decent person. (Hint: I am. Honest.)

Also, it doesn't hurt to do all your writing to the tune of "Eye of the Tiger"

At SlushPile: On finding your literary nemesis.

Pynchon Watch Y2K6: The Unabridged Edition

Galleys are out.

Pynchon Watch Y2K6: We'll get to the niece thing later; but first, let's get to the thing about my curious reaction to V.

1.0. - Something Curious

And then something curious happened: I read V. and I liked it. I didn't get it. But I mostly enjoyed reading it.

2.0. - On Reading Lists

My reading habits are erratic. I don't structure my trek down the main streets and back roads of writing. True, there's various book discussion group deadlines, but I'm not married to those schedules. (Sorry, Austin--I, uh, got distracted.) Sometimes I read brand new-ish books just so I can feel like I at least have a tenth of a hundredth of a clue about what's going on "today" in literature. (Which pretty much comes down to "Lots of people are writing lots of books and some of them are awesome" but that doesn't make for good conversational copy.) (Also, synchronicity: Dan Green posted this while I was writing part of this post. I may come back to that some other time, because it really is a fascinating topic.) About as structured as I've gotten this year has been my Summer of Dostoevsky project, and with only two books of the planned five read, you can see how well that's gone. (I did recently pick up my next Dostoevsky book--Demons (or The Possessed)--and was blown away by the opening chapter, which was funny and weird, and then I set the book down and walked away because it wasn't time for it yet. No idea why.)

But for these token stabs at order, I'm most often bouncing merrily through the world's back catalogue from one book to the next, neither rhyme nor reason dictating what book gets picked up after the current one gets put down. If anything, I've got a ready awareness of the multiple (and potentially conflicting) directions I could be taking my reading list in at any one moment in time. I should be reading more literature in translation; I should be reading more books by women; I should be reading more classics; I should be reading certain books that I've been meaning to read for a very long time but haven't gotten to yet because of whatever reason comes up every time it comes time to grab a book off the shelf. I figure there's always at least eight books that I should be simultaneously reading at any particular moment. How constant that list is from any one moment to any other moment, well...

What I'm saying is nothing the typical avid reader doesn't know, whether he or she chooses to think about it or not; there are more worthwhile words than can possibly be read in a lifetime, there's more worlds than those in any gunslinger's philosophy, yadda yadda etcetera and so forth; I generally choose not to think about it too much because otherwise I'd go insane with grief over lost opportunities and all those sweet reading lists lost on impact. I at least like to think this justifies and encourages my haphazard reading list. Wherever it is I go, it will be worth the going. And the going, like breathing, will happen one moment after another.

What it doesn't (and, yet, I guess, does) explain, is why I found myself this last week reading, not one of those eight immediate-priority books of the mysteriously ever-shifting moment, but rather a book by an author who I'd thought I'd already written off as someone whose work I had no honest intellectual interest in.

3.0. - If You Must Read Only One Book, Read Two Books Instead

I feel bad for V.; the book gets comparatively short shrift these days. V. seems stuck in a sort of book-sized shadow of Pynchon's own making, darkened by both Gravity's Rainbow--the younger brother who won all the awards and honors in school and who was totally huge enough to beat up other teams single-handedly on the football field--and The Crying of Lot 49--the younger brother who actually got laid a lot because sitting through an entire conversation with him wasn't impossible.

I forget when I picked up my copy of V., though I know it came from a used book store, based on the price sticker I rubbed off the cover this week. I don't know why I bought it when I did, though I can imagine the phrase "Pynchon, hey, he wrote Gravity's Rainbow" probably sounded through my brain. I know I can safely say that since whenever I bought it, I've heard next to no talk about it, this book that won awards when it was published. (Which of course begs the question, if it wasn't for the other brothers, would we know this one today?)

One reference came this year somewhere on the Internet when someone suggested using it as a warm-up book (following Crying, of course, because Crying's the short one, the one you can read and then you can pat yourself on the back and introduce yourself at ritzy business networking functions as being someone who has read an entire Pynchon novel) for the ultimate goal of reading Gravity's Rainbow.

What a fantastic tag line, right? "V.: A warm-up book." Hey, all you professional published authors in this joint: raise your hands, those of you who have written a book with the intention of it being classified a "warm-up" book.

Vollmann, you smart ass. Put your hand down.


I'd like to suggest that the time is ripe for a re-evaluation of V., Thomas Pynchon's first novel. Rather than being considered one of Pynchon's "other works," rather than being that book he wrote "before Gravity's Rainbow," one can easily argue that V. in fact stands today as a formidable, unique, compelling, fascinating, and self-sufficient piece of modern literature, worthy of detailed (re-)analysis, consideration, contemplation, and conversation.

One could definitely argue all that.

Though, I'm not going to.

But one definitely could, were one to set one's mind to it.


But before we move forward, some additional anecdotal evidence regarding V.'s lack of self-status in contemporary conversational culture. Friend Chris (a sort of recurring character here on this blog, who is in fact a real live human being, one who often reads books I recommend, who in fact recently read The Exquisite by Laird Hunt because I told him he had to immediately and who also admitted to enjoying the book (which said factoid is casually dropped here to reinforce the fact that many people should read the book because it's a very good book, insofar as the second-hand account of the opinion of a friend of a blogger should amount to a bit of real-world concern or care by anyone anywhere)) has for some time been gearing himself up for his own first attempt at Gravity's Rainbow. Because, let's not fool ourselves: Gravity's Rainbow, whatever worth one finds in it, is sort of the dead body in the car crash of difficult modern literature. Sooner or later, every kid worth an ounce of curiosity is going to slow down and look for his or her own self.

Friend Chris recently noted in conversation that for all the talk he's heard about Rainbow and Crying, he's never once heard talk of V., that first novel which is so problematic for a blogger who keeps landing the title of it at what would normally be the end of his sentences, where the period in the title would make it look weird and, to this blogger, slightly unsettling. Nobody ever references V., Friend Chris said.

And then a few curious things happened:

  1. I mentioned in an e-mail to Friend Chris that I was, quite randomly and unexpectedly, reading V., myself.

  2. Friend Chris saw a quite random, humorous reference to the novel V. in a day-to-day calendar (a tie-in to the Daily Show's America: The Book book).

  3. V. was unexpectedly mentioned in casual conversation by a third party, which reference spurred Friend Chris to mention the fact that V. never gets mentioned in conversation, along with a relating (like this list) of the curious, nearly concurrent references to that book.

Curiouser and curiouser.

It should, of course, be at least passingly noted that anecdotal evidence is certainly not intended as a definitive statement or proof of the aforementioned hypothesis about V. and its status and the shadows and car crashes and all that. I am perfectly willing to entertain the idea that I might be plain wrong about the frequency with which the book is mentioned, or its status among other, like me, contemporary casual literary elite.

So while objections may be fairly lodged, it should be noted that your own anecdotal evidence may be used in the court of public opinion to point out that you, in fact, either a) hang out with more interesting but far stranger people than I do, which will cause the public to raise its collective eyebrow at you, or b) are ultra-highly-active on the Pynchon-L e-mail discussion list, which--and please, take no offense when I say this--means your viewpoint, as far as the rest of us are concerned, doesn't at all count.


And this is where this would go if I wasn't feeling like rushing to get that point across, back up there a ways.

Moving on then.

4.0. - Yeah, Darby, Way to Have Your Cake and Analyze the Fun Out Of It Too, You Big Jerk

So while I'm not going to three-point-two V. right now, I am going to try to say at least some stuff about it.


First, yes, my overall reaction to the book was strangely positive. You can take that as a sort of average of all my responses during all the moments I read the book. My specific reactions ranged anywhere from stark raving joy to feeling utterly bored witless.

Perhaps my biggest take-away from reading this book was a sense of finally getting it, a little. By it, here, I mean the buzz, the hype, the hoopla, not the same sort of "it" I meant way back at the beginning of this faux-essay. Reading V., really diving into it this time, it felt like I was finally being let in on why the joke's funny, or what the glossy expense reports have to do with me personally down here in the cube farm murk. While I'm not inspired to flat-out Pynchonoid fanboy levels of ecstasy, here's what's crazy and new for me: I can see how someone could go there. There's enough detail in this book to warrant weeks, months, if not years of avid discussion and debate. (Everything 3.2 might imply. And now maybe it makes sense why I'm not going there, not even really attempting to go there, here. Because I wouldn't know where to start and I'm not sure I'd know how to get out once I got into it. Plus I feel a need to move on.)

Maybe even more important is that I can see some of the DNA that got passed down to who knows how many inspired-by-that writers. Of whom David Foster Wallace is the most personally interesting example. A full explanation of that is way, way beyond the level of effort I'm willing to take up here, but suffice it to say again that I can see where the discussion might lead, because I now have a somewhat deeper feel for where it starts, beyond just accepting what's said about some things.

All of which is very nice and all but what's it got to do with the price of love in Malta? Probably not much. Probably just makes me feel a little more confident about my ability to understand what's going on in letters today. Probably just gives me more to think about while sitting in cars in parking lots staring through windshields at electric lights wondering and waiting for whatever comes next. Plus I had fun reading the book. Which brings us to

5.0. - Aw, Now You're Just Teasing

the pleasure of Pynchon. But not yet. I'm just reminding myself where I go after


the difficulty of Pynchon. (Honestly I'm not sure which is worth talking about first. Honestly I may have switched these back and forth once or twice. Honestly, things sort of worked out for the best this way, so I let it ride, because why not? Let it be said, in any case, while I've already got my aside-mode blinker on, that I'm intentionally keeping things macroscopic here, because I'm in no way ready to get too critical-analytical, certainly not yet at least. Also note that I'm glossing over the fact that some people might not find this book difficult in the least. One person's hole is another person's hypothesis.)

What makes V. difficult? What kind of difficulty are we dealing with? It's not linguistic. (Contrast this with, for example, the occasional difficulty of William T. Vollmann, who seems, at times, more interesting in making a mockery of language than an art of it. I can say that without worrying that he's about to pull a gun on me because I saw him slip out the back door a while back with a bad sniffle in his nose.) On a sentence by sentence level, the language itself isn't particularly difficult. Pick sentences at random, and there's not much you can't quickly understand, especially with a decent dictionary nearby. (This book got the word "scungille" stuck in my brain.)


Pynchon's prose, for some reason, reminds me of Steve Erickson's prose. Neither writes necessarily beautiful prose, in terms of surface-level poetry, and yet it's fully functional in seeking its ends, while being quite capable of making its own occasional leaps to loftier heights. DaVinci dropping tabs of Monet? Something worth considering, perhaps.


So logically enough, then, the difficulty must rest a plane or two higher. It's still in and of the word-by-word details, though; though it's in the way we, the reader, have to process, arrange, and connect those details, as we read this book. Let's semi-arbitrarily tackle first structure, then characters. Though the two are interdependent (as I found out that we shall see).

Structurally, the book happens along two timelines. The first (as presented in the book) "present day" timeline is set from 1955 to 1956. The second, related in what I'll call flashbacks though I use the word somewhat hesitantly, stretches from the end of the 1800s through the 1940s. The present day timeline takes place in and around New York City, with some travel. The flashback timeline is set in a variety of locales, including Italy, Africa, and, yes, Malta. The timelines are essentially divided by chapter, so the "cuts" between the two are (perhaps blessedly) not of the "jump-cut" nature. Though present-day events may be used as introductions to or preludes to flashback chapters, and one can certainly argue that the flashbacks are hardly more than present-day re-constructions of unwitnessed, untrue events.

So far I'm not talking rocket science levels of complexity here. We'll jump back to notions of structure in a moment, but first, let's talk about:

Characters. Sweet holy lord, this book's got a lot of characters. And oh boy, do those characters connect in a whole lot of ways.


Here's where I can most see myself falling toward the Pynchonoid trap. The more I read, the more characters I met and the more connections I saw, the more I needed to help myself keep some semblance of a track of them. The resulting (incomplete) character map I began drawing on the inside back cover of my copy of the book now looks like a pair of twisted spiderwebs, loosely (yet, crucially! maybe?) linked.


What makes the number of characters difficult is, in part, their varying levels of importance, which does not necessarily depend on the amount of face time they get. Seemingly minor characters can slip in, color the entire proceedings with their perceptions, then hop out the back way, never to be heard from again. Other seemingly minor characters can actually be somewhat more important characters in disguise--with the nature of their importance being a topic of discussion in itself. Major characters can seem to not have much of anything to do with anything going on elsewhere in the book. (And, maybe they don't.) Other major characters, through whom we see major portions of the story, we never actually get to know too well. (How can we, when they seem to have distanced themselves from themselves?)

Now, with some of this information in hand, we can go back to

the structure question, and mention that the order in which and the span of the book over which we meet these multitudinous characters is what ultimately (for me) ramped up the book's difficulty. Because it's not that we're introduced to a whole bunch of characters all up front who we then follow through the text. Characters are doled out and stretched out and chopped up from the beginning of the book to the end of it. (We meet new characters in the Epilogue! We see old only alluded-to characters fresh and new in the Epilogue! If this book had an index, it would certainly list characters who only appear on pages after the last page of the book!)

We can also mention that the connections (and the importance of those connections) between the characters are often never made immediately clear. Main characters from the present-day plot line don't actually meet and interact until near the end of the book. Meanwhile in reaching those points, we wade through a thick sea of casual, random encounters. (Which, are they truly casual? Or even of the slightest importance?)

But it's the presence of connections that prevents one from writing off the book as a bunch of random stories with no particular collective importance. What happens in the flashback stories, is that we are given some sense of a main story (or stories) that threads its way throughout these various historical settings. (That, of course, is the story of V., the woman--or, woman?--of the title of the book.) It's a story we're never directly given, per se, but is one we glimpse out of the corner of our eye as we pass through other exotic tales, which seem (and might be) completely disconnected from each other, if not incomplete in and of themselves.

But in more human terms, what this kind of structure creates is a tower of fatigue-generating, patience-rewarding details. Reading this book is tiring, when you've got to keep so much of it in your mind at once, without knowing whether what you're holding is necessary or not, nor whether what you've dropped is worth the effort of stooping down to pick back up. It's not unlike the effect of reading a long collection of short stories in one go: picking up characters and events and settings and ideas almost as quickly as you drop them often can mean the stories near the end of a book aren't as easily or readily enjoyed as those near the beginning. Now sandwich those stories into an already existing plotline and change the name of a minor character in each story to a single name, so those various characters all become one character. Things get exponentially more fascinating, and frustrating.

To spin a new simile: the difficulty of V. is like the difficulty of a well-paced videogame. What starts seemingly simple becomes increasingly difficult with each new stage; ability to reign victorious over successive stages depends on one's mastery of the obstacles thrown at the player earlier in the game, until defeat of the final boss (the book itself, on the literary side of the "like") requires a synthesis and expansion of every technique the game has taught the player.

V., however, does not offer green warp pipes.

All of which is to say, in short: the book offers the diligent reader a surprising amount of complexity. Or, difficulty. Depends on your views, I reckon.


None of which is actually as scary as I might make it sound; for the human mind is a wondrous thing, and does a lot of the work for the reader, without having to spell it all out as it's doing it. (You needn't recite bunny-ear rhymes to tie your shoes.)


That's definitely not to say that one can sleep through the book; blink in the wrong spots, and you'll lose who knows what ground. (You do still need fingers to tie your shoes; the brain's not that amazing, not yet.)


And while the structure and character questions aren't the end-all, be-all of the book's difficulty, I think the points I've raised here give the curious reader (or, at least, they've given me myself and I) some semi-spelled-out sense or idea of what it actually is going on here that's so challenging about Pynchon's work. (Not that I'm saying these things are universal to his writing--but, they do give me some idea of what I might consider looking for, in his other books, should I choose to tackle them.)

And, I think this is enough to point forward toward one more point I'd like to make about the difficulty of Pynchon, which deals with the question of importance.

Importance. I think I've alluded to it, but let's make it clear: I'm curious not just about the metascopic Importance of Pynchon (i.e., in a literary or cultural sense), but in the microscopic importance of the things inside his books. One, I suspect, can learn about the one by examining the other and vice-versa. Neither of which I'm really going to do right now, of course. I'm just going to point a little and go Hmm and Huh and nod and smile and get a headache and then I'll try to move forward with my life.

When I say I question the microscopic importance of things inside Pynchon's books, what I mean specifically is that sometimes, I don't know what the hell he's talking about and why I should care. Lots of things happen in V., and often, their significance eludes me. Why the alligators? Why the connections? Why a waterspout? Why V. herself (her?self) at all? Why Benny Profane? Why self-referential third-person language?

Many questions are raised. Some are more profound than others. How many are answered? That's another question entirely.

When I say I question the metascopic importance of Pynchon in the literary, cultural landscape,, unlike a few more weeks ago, I've got a lot more ways of asking and approaching that question. Like, why the alligators? Why the connections? Why the structural hijinks and character onslaughts? Why V. her(?)self?

And then, why do people care about these things? These words? This man?

What's up with all that?

And, hence:

5.0. - Whatever, You Know We All Totally Skipped All That, Right?

The curious pleasure of Pynchon.

That's sort of it, isn't it? My fascination with the guy, wrapped up in a nutshell. Here's this guy who writes big challenging books. What of them brings pleasure? What of them is important or worth pursuing? What have I found there in returning to him, past my own imagined sell-by date for the guy?

The word challenging is sort of telling, already, for some people, some cases, I suppose. Some challenges will always be pursued, whether the rewards were worth the pursuit or not. Climbing mountains, landing remote controlled cars on other planets, building empires out of green? Cool beans. You go, indeed. Stacking golf balls to get into Guinness? Winning the hot dog eating championship? Getting Lulu's ultimate weapon by dodging 200 bolts of lightning on the thunder plains in Final Fantasy X? Get a job, you stinky hippie.

When it comes to literature, it's true that I do ultimately (and, on average) find reward in challenging literature. From the pomo hootenanny of Infinite Jest to the sparse realms of Stephen Dixon, the never-easily categorized Jennifer Egan to the adult content of Mary Gaitskill, there is, for me, reward in the thing and the hunt of the thing.

Certainly, V. is full of challenges, and, to my surprise, I've found them oftentimes pleasurable, or at least, intriguing. This book, copyright 1963, well before the rise of "interactivity" as a cultural buzzword commodity, demands more, on a purely technical level, of the reader than many other books I've come across. Once I realized what was going on, I did see it as an interesting, oftentimes exciting endeavor. The activity of assembling a story from the scraps and folds of other stories while always questioning where what one's left with came from and what its ongoing and ultimate value is, is,

What I think is sort of more curious about what I found in reading V., is how much--as this lengthy post in part proves--I've found myself interested in simply trying to define the challenge itself. It's like doing the challenging thing and then turning around to find out whether you climbed the wall or took the bungee jump. (Or both at once.) I'm not sure how interesting that--or any of this--sounds to anyone other than me. Maybe this says more about me and where I am right now as a reader and what it is I'm currently--today, this month, this year--asking for from the books I read. Maybe, after reading The Exquisite, it was inevitable that I'd circle back around to Pynchon, for another desperate stab at the godfather of modern post-modern experimental rootin' tootin'.

Maybe, finally, a lot of things.

Maybe that's the only conclusion I can logically draw.

Know something? That's damned exciting.

6.0. - Sobering Thought, That

Or maybe, like's so for Mondaugen, it's all after all merely code for chaos.