Thursday, December 30, 2010

Another Infinite Jest tic

Hope you're not getting sick of these! It's a dense book, I am trying to learn and remember everything I can about it.

Anyway, this is a narrator obsessed with clarity, grammatical and otherwise. People find Infinite Jest a hard read and slow going, but I'm convinced it's because of the physical design of the physical book, which was somewhere between "not very good" and "medieval torture device" depending on which edition you got. (Only the hardback was even close to usable, as far as I can tell.) On a sentence by sentence level it's an unusually easy read, really, if you're a regular reader: it sacrifices beauty and snappiness for clarity on a regular basis. (Something I need to remember myself.)

But of course in every voice there are opportunities for new and unexpected beauties, and so here's one of them: when a sentence gets away from the narrator a little, to the point where the subject gets a little buried and easily forgotten, and so the next sentence is a fragment designed to clarify the previous sentence's subject. Like so:

"About for months into his Ennet House residency, the agonizing desire to ingest synthetic narcotics had beeen mysteriously magically removed from Don Gately, just like the House Staff and the Crocodiles at the White Flag Group had said it would if he pounded out the nightly meetings and stayed minimally open and willing to persistently ask some extremely vague Higher Power to remove it. The desire."

So, right: the sentence is long, as many of the sentences in the book are long. But it's got discrete units and to the extent that one element carries through -- the subject of "the desire to ingest synthetic narcotics," which is the antecedent to both "it"s in the sentence -- Wallace makes sure to help us remember what "it" is, going so far as to dedicate a sentence fragment to that purpose. But this isn't just clarification, which would be enough; it's beautiful. The way "the desire to ingest synthetic narcotics" is reduced to "The desire." The way the fragment makes those words seem for a moment like the universe, or a model thereof. It's gorgeous stuff. Wallace does it several times. Something to keep in mind.

Editing, then Miscellaneous Material

I started writing about editing here, about the process of editing my current long project, but then I thought, who cares? Most of the post could be compressed to this line:

Each time I am exhausted after revising only three hundred words I want to fall from the chair in such a way that my head knocks the edge of the desk.

But the bit that remains from that ghost post is my curiosity about how other people here edit. This question most directly applies to writers (I know Mike is well on his way through an edit of his novel) but I think it applies to everyone who has taken something and attempted to make it better. Do you go about this activity in an ordered way or in a wild frenzy? Do you finish a certain number of drafts, or just fly repeatedly through till you're bored of everything and its seeming (proximity to) perfection?

. . .

Today is a slow day in the office. I work in education in a capacity such that I am usually a teacher but I am sometimes other things and so have to be here even when the school is closed. It's slow. This entire room I'm in now (a large shared office) is quiet with the hushed typing of me and another, older version of me. I brought donuts today and they were a hit but now the leftovers sit in their little orange box like a trap. (And did you know bringing donuts to work is controversial? It makes sense.)

But if you do bring donuts to work, be sure to get more than one coconut donut. It is often the only donut worth eating. The coconut donut's worth is so far beyond that of other donuts that to read about it would waste your time.

(The only controversial donut-related event that has happened to me involved not donuts but the remains of donut breakfasts here. For a string of Saturday mornings one of the instructors in our building dropped off untouched Dunkin Donuts cardboard coffee urns with one of the women in the office, who didn't like coffee but knew I would swim in it, and she brought the coffee to me, and it was wonderful, this whole little reservoir to swallow, except that it was already bordering on too cold and then I raced through as much as I could before the whole amount had gone icy.)

A while back I wrote about retellings and, in the comments, spaced on the title of an upcoming anthology featuring nothing but retellings. Well, guess what: that book is called RE:Telling, and it will be released someday by Ampersand. The lineup is pretty solid, but if it hadn't convinced me, this interview with Heather Fowler would have. Her contribution is inspired by Updike's A&P. She says a lot about the story, like

...these girls, inappropriately dressed as they were, different as they were, had arrived at this mid-town A&P, nowhere near the shore, to buy some pickled herring snacks in sour cream. Herring snacks? Really?

Immediately, and always, I thought: They were not there for snacks, but on a mission!
Also the book's cover is kickass, so, there's that.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

I Almost Ended this Review of Rare Exports with a Terrible Christmas Metaphor, but Don't Worry, I Struck It

Saturday night Sarah and I went to see it: Rare Exports. This was at the kind of place where you can order a sandwich four times as expensive as the beer you've already ordered, and it will be served with strange truffled chips. (I don't even know what it means that they're truffled, except I guess that they kind of taste like flowers.) The trailers were blurry and then when the film started it was kind of blurry, which meant the subtitles were blurry. "Focus!" someone yelled. Then someone near us asked a waiter why everything was blurry. "It was shot this way," the waiter said. "Liar!" I said, and knocked my plate at him. No, I didn't.

Despite my initial disbelief that anything purporting to filter Santa mythology through the grainy lens of the horror genre would be too ridiculous to work unironically, I enjoyed the film. In fact, I felt foolish for doubting. The filmmakers dredge up a slurry of real and (as far as I can tell) invented or repurposed back story for the Santa myth, basically skewing it Krampus-ward, and illustrate it with evocative and horrifying images from history books uncovered by the dread-heavy young protagonist.

The story unrolls in bitter night and in daylight just bright enough to gleam off the snow and ice spread everywhere. The community is tight and isolated, as communities so often are in horror, and the most memorable sets--particularly the father's butcher-ready workshop--feel claustrophobic. Atmosphere may be what I enjoy most about a successful horror film, and here the atmosphere is very strong when it's strong. At times it loses some of its color, however. The movie creeps pleasantly along in its first half, setting up challenges for its characters, but in its second half speeds up more than necessary, allowing those characters just enough time to navigate through the terrors facing them without stopping to reflect or worry or uncover anything new. The final fifteen or twenty minutes play at a race, and it's a shame, because in the fast and tidy cleaning up we're left wishing for the weird slow dread of the earlier part of the film.

We still want submissions.

Particularly long stories and poems. Just so you know. <3

Monday, December 27, 2010

One Particular Tic in Infinite Jest

There's a a particular thing that happens many times in Infinite Jest and (keeping in mind that I'm not through with it yet, or even most of the way through) I can't quite work out why it happens, apart from maybe being a sort of weird little tic. The thing is that the book will sometimes disclaim a character's language, or its own, or it will use one phrase and then tell you -- usually in an endnote -- that the character said it, or would have said it differently.

The earliest I remember this happening is with Pemulis. The book will paraphrase something he says and then there will be a particularly florid or precise turn of phrase and then, attached to that, an endnote, and when we get to the endnote we see it saying something along the lines of "Pemulis didn't put it this way." Which raises the question of who did? And why are we being told? At times it seems to maybe come through Hal's character, who has a tendency to correct people's language, and who, as our apparent protagonist, may have significant sway over the narration (certainly he has a lot in common with it). On one occasion in particular, it's definitely Hal: Pemulis dictates Eschaton materials to Hal, who in turn composes his own version of the language, mixing Pemulis' erroneous language (to which he often adds a bracketed [sic]) with his own turns of phrase (which he, in brackets, alerts us did not come from Pemulis).

Once you notice it, it seems to happen quite a lot. Probably the funniest and most clearly jokey example is the endnotes that are only the word sic. The joke being that you flip back some hundred gazillion pages for an endnote that serves only to alert you to a grammatical error you had likely already noticed, with the most ridiculous examples being flagrant errors in endnotes having further sub-endnotes attached to them specifically to disclaim clearly erroneous language (your/you're errors, etc.).

There are also occasions where this is used as a strategy to protect the narrator's language. For instance, Don Gately, a sympathetic but troubled character with an ugly past, apparently thinks of gay men as faggots, to the point where he doesn't know another word. This is partly allowed to bleed into the narration, presumably because "faggot" is still a semi-acceptable slur. However, we also learn that Gately thinks of all black people as "niggers," again because he apparently just doesn't know better. But this word is not allowed into the narration: the narrator writes "black people" and then there's an endnote and if you flip to the back you find out what Gately calls them in his head. It's an interesting strategy, and it reveals the organizing consciousness of the book (not merely Wallace's, but the narrator posited by its own narration) in complicated ways. What I'm not sure of is precisely what's being revealed.

One of the definitive weirdnesses of Infinite Jest is of course the weird, lumpy alloy of high and low language.  This is a book that on the one hand goes to great trouble to point out the errors of its characters, and which on the other hand obsessively repeats certain errors of its own, such as the colloquial abuse of "like" and certain relationships between clauses joined by commas. Of course these are intentional errors, but what are they intended to do? What is the "high" language intended to do? How are they meant to interact? On one level it all works as an activity for the reader, complicates the vectors of the language; we've discussed how Wallace works in part by exhausting one line of logic and language, in part by switching tracks regularly between a main vein and another. This complicates the subconscious math of thrust and drag and gravity that let us imagine and respond to language's arc.

But if we have a mongrel language, one that is self-consciously polyphonic (constituted by several discursive traditions), why is it so important for this narrator to hold itself apart from certain errors, and on the other hand to substitute its narratorly language for that of the characters, and on the still other third hand make clear that such substitution's taking place? Is it merely a way of acknowledging the aesthetic/political/whatever gravities that determine language within a novel? Or is it something else? How important is it to Wallace that the less intelligent/educated/eloquent a character is, the less likely this character is to be allowed to contribute language to the narration? And then what do we make of the lapses into other narrators, such as yrstruly, who clearly destroy the narration, without any sics or other endnotes to disclaim them? How do they relate to our primary narrator?

These may be questions that will be resolved in the course of the book, or they may not be. I'm curious, in any case, about what you think of them. Feel free to spoil the book in comments, I just won't read those notes until later.

Interview with Brian Conn

HTMLGiant has been kind enough to post a longform interview I did with Brian Conn. You should go check it out! Then buy his book The Fixed Stars.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

19th-Century Internet Piracy

Brian Clevinger has a really interesting mini-essay on the piracy of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds in the 19th century. You should just go read it, but here's the conclusion:
The lesson here isn’t about who was right and who was wrong and how much an author’s feelings ought to be hurt. 
The lesson is that people will seek the easiest ways to find original works. Sometimes that will be piracy. Those same people will then seek the easiest ways to support the authors of the pirated original works they cherish. 
It has been this way since forever. The internet’s just making it easier to find those original works through piracy than in previous eras. But it also makes it easier for pirates to support those authors.

Love: Cupid's Arrow Forum

The banner image of Cupid's Arrow Forum.

When I was fourteen I spent most of my Christmas on a message board called Cupid's Arrow Forum, which was, in essence, a board for people who used the Internet mainly to find images from Sailor Moon and Final Fantasy VII/VIII. And, to vent their quiet desires for love, happiness, death, in the hopes of receiving a reply. I talked more people down from the roof on that board...and the weird thing was that these threats would work themselves out in basically real time. So that I was constantly running back to the board, or simply reloading every minute, to see if Star had believed me when I said she was a beautiful person this time, or to see if Meos had listened to me about how her life was worth living.

I got my first "kiss" on that message board. It was in an RPG I played with a guy going by Stellar7. He had magic; I had magic; we'd just beaten a dark lord of some sort, so it was incredible, and really inflated my standards for the whole having-a-boyfriend thing. I mean, Mike does not have magic, but he'd have to be pretty great to beat a guy who defeated a dark lord with me, right?

So the board was about performance, obviously. But it wasn't about performance as an escape for reality, an alteration of reality. We were all performing ourselves in real relationships. We participated in an imagined community for RPG players, yes, for anime freaks, yes, but also a community for people we believed were like us, and whom we adopted as friends--and treated as real, as we would any friends we saw in daily life. I carried words from one such friend around in a locket with me for years, because those words were the nicest and most encouraging any friend had ever said to me, even though the relationship was much shallower.

The shallowness was important. The fact that we didn't really know each other and couldn't see each other was important. Not, though, because we were pretending to be people we weren't. Stellar7 wasn't pretending to be a gorgeous hunk of man. I wasn't pretending to be luscious-haired and not fat. Critics I've read have traditionally seemed to focus on the wish-fulfillment aspects of online performance--the ability to remake yourself into a person without the attributes (and the prevailing social interpretations of those attributes) that you perceive as hindrances in real life. But the shallowness of online relationships did not spur us to be dishonest with each other about who, or what, we were. What we pretended at instead was goodness, kindness, charity. We playacted being the best people we could imagine being--unfailingly supportive, endlessly encouraging, generous with our love. And our time. Even on Christmas.

The name I adopted when I went on the message board was Saint. And I tried hard as I could to live up to that name. Which meant, among other things, pulling time away from my family at holidays and going upstairs to give it to people who, I perceived, needed it just as much, or more.

There's probably something of Saint in my eagerness to write this post today. It's Christmas! Why am I online? Well...because somebody might need me to be there. I think of how many times in my life I've gone online because I didn't want to be anywhere else. Somebody might, today, come here because they don't want to be somewhere else. And when they come, I'd like them to find somebody around to talk to, or somebody to hear from. Even if they don't know me, and I don't know them.

Traditionally, from my reading, anonymity online has alternately been seen as an act of deceit and wish-fulfillment or as a means to a utopian society. Through anonymity, the second argument goes, we learn to disregard the exterior markers that make us avoid or disdain each other--everybody stands by their words alone. I agree with the latter but not the former. Online communities do stand by words alone. But that just means that its participants tend to work hard to make those words matter. And by working hard to make words matter, they tend to enact better versions of themselves--versions that speak up, and say what needs to be said. Because, online, in text, there's literally no other way that love and caring will be perceived. There is no option to share a significant glance or to tastefully keep one's distance. If you don't show up, and you don't speak, then, online, you were never there at all.

I miss this. There aren't many message boards of that type anymore. Disc.server has died. Now we mainly have comment threads, which are generally places with community (political, literary, etc.) but little anonymity. We tend to be online more or less who we are in public, and the access we have to people's public lives tends to change the character of the comments we make. I think of HTMLGiant, where most any post that dares to put something personal on the line, to expose something of the person behind the words, eventually falls subject to charges of hypocrisy, or sentimentality, or dishonesty. It is attacked for failing to live up to that person's public image, dismissed or suspected of insincerity because of that image. Because we can't look good all the time in real life, and indeed shouldn't be tasked with keeping up the appearance of goodness when we have problems and neuroses that require an outlet, that require others to exercise generosity toward us where we cannot.

Anonymity is important because we can be generous about who we are as well as who we want to be--anonymously, we can vent our personal demons without risking attachment of those demons to our living and changing personalities. But in a message board setup, anonymity is challenged by the need to establish presence, to declare oneself a member of the community. Soon Star and Stellar7 and Saint become ambassadors of what's going on here, of what's worthwhile about this group of people. For anonymity to work in a community, we must be our best and most generous selves, and we must give others that benefit as well. Because we don't know them, because we have no baseline against which to judge, our ability to make allowances and to be considerate becomes all the more important to building an existence together. This breeds honesty, which in turn must be handled with care.

This kind of community is a fairly common experience on such boards, I think. And I think it has been a mistake to let message boards, by and large, die in favor of comment threads, status updates, et cetera. There is no real sense of communal responsibility to be had in either--even if you intend to enter into dialogue with other people, your goal is always to contribute, and not to create. Your post is standing on its own, entered into its own separate text box, and often has no positional relationship to anything else written on the page, even if you hit the option to "Reply." You are forever and always participating as an individual; you are given a public identity by virtue of your comment even if your name and avatar make you ostensibly anonymous. You will be alone in the crowd of voices, and that's how your words will be read.

The Internet Wayback Machine has preserved some of Cupid's Arrow. There is no way to get to the actual text of the posts. Thankfully. But you can see, hopefully, how the conversations worked--how they developed and sprawled over time. It was not uncommon for people to break the page layout with the extension of their replies into the right margin. There was no limit on how deep people could build a thread with their words. And this was good.

These were my friends, because they were on the Internet when I was. And I was theirs. And now I'm yours, because you came to see me on Christmas Day. And I came to see you.

If only real friendships could be so simple.

Christmas songs

Here are more Christmas songs, with, for added value, the stupidest YouTube comments they've received below.

Okay so there's a story behind this one. Like the first night we went out to a bar with our new friends at the MFA 2.5 years back, we met a guy named Smooth. Smooth's catchphrase was "Don't let the do-rag fool you." He told us that he owned a home even though he was black; he said "Don't let the do-rag fool you." (I guess he assumed we were racists?) He liked to choose people at the bar and make eye contact with them and sing songs of his own composition.

When he sang to Tracy he sang a song about men being boys, playing with toys not bombs, or something like that. It was a little retarded but he was very earnest about it and, you know, you can't let the do-rag fool you. He told us the melodies came first and the words came later.

So imagine my surprise to find Justin Bieber performing the song Smooth wrote for Obama. I'm so proud of Smooth! Clearly he made it to the big time. I really regret letting the do-rag fool me. He probably owns like five homes now, and a corvette.

"Its just Justin Beibers way of saying 'Thank you Obama, because of you I'm able to join the army.'"

"i hate justin blowjob so i muted this video just to see if it was real and yup obama is a homo for condoning this shit"

They've been playing this at the grocery store and I think it's probably the worst song ever recorded:

"i love christmas. its this time of year even assholes that treat everyone horribly are happy and nice and jolly and talk about christmas spirit. why cant everyone be like this all year round?"

"Happy Holiday to everyone like ths song it so cool but i like the orginal WHAM!! I Remember i was 7 years old and my older sister was playing this it reminds me those years ago i wish i could go back to 1985 i liked that christmas years it brings back those days i also like BONEY M Christmas songs which i reley enjoyed. Merry Christmas all you Brit and eveyone where ever you are in the world . signing out OK ROGER- From United Kingdom."

"Merry Christmas from Afghanistan, we are proud to fight so you can celebrate Christmas in peace."

I will cop to liking Smashing Pumpkins and even preferring this to some alternative versions, because I suck:

"you know billy was really on his game in the 90s when he could even write a very good xmas song"

"No, seriously, it doesn't matter. Nobody cares that you didn't say Happy Holidays. I agree with you, you should be allowed to say it... and guess what, you are allowed to say Merry Christmas! Companies say Happy Holidays simply because there are multiple holidays occurring at the same time. The only people who think that saying Merry Christmas is politically incorrect are trying to stir up controversy for the sake of media coverage. You're not special, liberals aren't offended."

This.... Ow:

"I agree with you, Destiny's child was a good group but TLC is by far the best female group ever!!!!!!!"

This one isn't actually bad, precisely:

"This guy reminds me RAMONES."

"this is one of the few non-cheesey rock christmas songs. he does have a really good singing voice."

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Tradition: Crappy Wrapping

This is a tradition beginning with two facts: One, I'm kind of clumsy and sloppy about craft stuff. Two, I'm especially bad at wrapping gifts. I don't know what it is that gives me such trouble (apart from the fact I can't cut remotely straight, which surely doesn't help) but watching me wrap presents is like watching a velociraptor try to build a house of cards: sad, and a little bit scary.

To cope with this I started a tradition in my family: excessively complicated, confusing, and crappy wrapping jobs. For a while this mainly meant abusing masking tape or using the wrong sort of paper in a package (for instance, paper towels) but over the years it's become a bit of an art. We knew things had maybe gone too far the year my brother Alex wrapped a present in ten thousand layers of plastic Target bags. He tied each one closed. This took me maybe ten minutes to peel. I was crying from laughing by the end of it. We made Christmas clothes out of the bags. I'm not quite sure, come to think of it, what was in there. Presumably nothing to warrant the complexity of obtaining it.

Nobody's done anything that difficult since, but we've been competing for style. Last year, for instance, I disguised a present for said brother by taping a ring of silverware around it, then wrapping the resulting mess. I've propped open DVD cases and wrapped them that way to disguise their contents. I've attached action figures to the tops of presents. Alex made his own wrapping paper by taping starburst wrappers together with scotch tape. (This was, thankfully, for a pretty small gift; it took forever.) Last year I probably did the best one I'll ever do: I took two books I'd purchased for my brother Ben, slid them into the back of a twelve-pack box of soda, and then slid most of the (empty) cans back in. When I was done it looked like a freshly opened twelve-pack, and he had to "open" it by removing the cans.

Come to think of it this tradition descends from my grandma's old habit of wrapping very small gifts in a series of nested boxes, bags, and etc. Good times, in any case. It livens up the proceedings, makes for a few laughs, and often the bad wrapping is more memorable than a good job would have ever been.

Right now I'm a little nervous because Tracy spent like an hour and a half upstairs last night wrapping my gifts but outwardly they look completely normal. What the hell did she do to these things?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Mostly About Bigfoots

I commented on Mike's post that my childhood reading was pretty much limited to the types of anthologies that feature mummies (or, now that I've thought a little longer, UFOs, Bigfoots, or vanishing people) on the covers. These paranormal "true story" books fascinated me. The entries were always written so that they seemed not only plausible but probable. These books, bound in hot pink paper and advertised in public school book order catalogs, were written as if they carried great truths soon to be reported by much more somber media outlets.

I'm going to blame the non-existence of the internet and the paucity of interesting children's literature in our small-town library for part of my weird reading list. I did love these books, though, probably because they scared the hell out of me like nothing else did (ghost stories, horror movies, etc. didn't feature much in my house). I was dead certain after reading most of these books that the next ones would feature accounts of the terrible things that happened to me.

Because all these books have congealed into one greasy blob in my memory, I'm going to write about some of the individual stories that I remember most clearly:

The One About Two Hikers (Or One Hiker? I'm Not Sure) Being Carried Away in their Sleeping Bags by Bigfoots

A dude wakes up and he's suspended in his sleeping bag, banging against the back of a smelly Bigfoot. The Bigfoot deposits him back at his den, where there is a Mrs. Bigfoot and a Baby Bigfoot. I think the hiker can't run away because one of his legs is broken. Or maybe he's just terrified that he'll be mauled. Bigfoot tries tobacco, likes it. One morning the man wakes up, alone.

The One About A Skier Escaping a Vicious Bigfoot by Skiing Straight off a Cliff

Conclusion drawn by investigator following tracks.

Bigfoot Escapes from a (Circus?) Train, Raises Hell

A Bigfoot, captured finally and under transportation to a major metropolitan area for scrutiny, escapes his bonds and the train carrying him. Violence is done in the surrounding terrain and the specimen is never captured. Understand that my house was about 20 feet from a set of train tracks, close enough that the floor rumbled when an engine passed. When I finished reading the story I went outside in the yellow light of the bulb on my Dad's workshop and looked toward the raised ground beneath the tracks and knew I would be torn apart before the sun rose.

Someone is Abducted by Aliens

The One About Men Who are Assailed through the Night by Bigfoots

These dudes are roaming the wilderness, the hillside wilderness, and they decide to make a cabin for themselves. Maybe they find the cabin but I'm pretty sure they build it, because a lot of time is spent, narratively, on how sturdy they make it. Well, later they shoot a Baby Bigfoot, and you can guess what happens. Through the night the stoutness of their cabin is tested by all the Bigfoots of the land.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Childhood Lit

So let's start thinking about our formative reading experiences as kids. I spent most of my time reading as a kid (I literally couldn't possibly approach the sort of reading schedule I used to keep anymore; I have a wife, work, and sleep to think of), so this could take a few posts!

The Three Investigators Series

Kids like series. I'm not sure why, exactly, beyond the fact that if you liked something once it's easy to imagine you might like it again. I would eventually find my way to some of the more popular series, but I started with The Three Investigators, a series whose appeal probably relied on three factors: wish fulfillment, likable characters, and the mystery format. Apparently the series was originally called "Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators," which kind of blows my mind: apparently the idea was that Hitchcock had some involvement in dictating the books. I got into the series after a revamp which aged the kids (originally 13-14) to 17, which was exactly the right age for me at the time.

The characters were Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews. I can't tell you much about Pete or Bob from memory (I think Pete was the handsome one? Wikipedia tells us he liked to say "Gleeps!") but Jupe was a good balance as a lead character: he was the smartest one and the leader, he knew judo, he had a girlfriend, and he could drive a car, but he was sort of goofy and a little fat. I was actually stick thin as a kid and runty, but I've always identified with chubby characters, which feel like a concession to the lameness of real ordinary people like myself. Anyway, basically all three kids were supermen if you paid any attention but the books were written such that you could pretend they were just normal dudes, and it made for some pretty nice escapism. Then on top of that they would investigate a mystery and maybe punch a robot. I loved these.

Great Illustrated Classics

Nobody I know is familiar with the Three Investigators but everybody my age or thereabouts seems to remember Great Illustrated classics. These were highly condensed and simplified versions of classic novels with an illustration on every other page. A kid as bloody-minded as myself could read one in an afternoon. I read The Three Musketeers, Swiss Family Robinson, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and a bunch of other stuff I don't remember anymore. Which is to say I thought I was reading those things when really I was reading some pretty lame little impostors. 

One interesting thing about these is that while they no doubt elided many adult details of their plots they didn't really clean up the broad strokes of the plot very much; Phoebus is still a jerk in Hunchback, still gets stabbed by the creepy religious dude, the ending is as far as I know more or less accurate, bones clutching each other in the dirt. I wasn't learning as much as I thought, but at least they didn't misinform me!

Little House on the Prairie

Man I can't really tell you like anything about these anymore. I remember feeling vaguely embarrassed to read what I was pretty sure were supposed to be girl books -- the author was a woman and everything! I mainly remember enjoying the descriptions of how they built their home, avoided starvation, stored food over the winter, etc. I remember the older sister (Mary?) made Laura feel bad by saving her entire heart treat (white-flour-filled, with a little bit of sugar) while Laura had to sneak a nibble from the underside. Not sure how far I made it in these. I think I remember trying to read Farmer Boy and ironically that was the one that just bored me to tears and may have defeated me.

The Hobbit + Lord of the Rings

I think I read these too young. The Hobbit was pretty manageable, but I don't really remember much specifically about the plots or characters in the other books that wasn't reinforced by the movies, apart from some memories of spending rather a lot of time reading about lengths of ropes and leaps and so on in the bits where Frodo and Sam are climbing the mountain with their bare hobbity hobbit feet. I was a nerdy white kid so I was pretty sure this was the sort of thing I would end up writing.

The Baby Grand, the Moon in July, and Me

I'm confused about this for a number of reasons -- I don't remember anything of the title apart from "The Baby Grand," the cover on Amazon is way uglier than the one I remember, and it apparently came out in '98, which would mean I read it at twelve (yeah so I'm young) which doesn't feel right. But the premise (young girl wants to be an astronaut, teenage brother wants to be a jazz musician, he buys it on credit, also there is a reclusive older neighbor) sounds right, apart from the astronaut part, which I really don't remember. Anyway this was one of the first literary books I remember getting much pleasure out of. The characters' specific desires are of course immediately interesting, I was always into reading about poor people (being a poor kid myself), and I think this was probably the first book I read that was really about black people, or that I realized was written by a black person. 

The Butterfly Dreams

God, this one's embarrassing. It's about, like, how the world is imagined by our souls, or something? Spiritual chaos theory? I was trying to "level up" my reading and while that mostly took the form of a few Ursula K. Le Guin books (good call,  young Mike!) it also meant some philosophically-driven, rather crappy fiction. I thought this book was brilliant when I was about thirteen, and would spend several years attempting to accomplish something similar in my own crappy fiction. My hostility to didactic fiction probably has more to do with embarrassment about this book than I'd care to admit.

Bad Fractured Mermalade

The holiday has been saved: last night in an annoyingly loud coffee shop I learned that the kickass indie theater in town will show Rare Exports on the 25th. After some mockery of the film's premise, I have been humbled by strong reviews and am interested to see exactly how it holds together. Standby for my thoughts, which may or may not twinkle with holiday cheer.

I happen to have opened two good novels and one good journal recently. Here are some quick recommendations:

Bad Marie, by Marcy Dermansky: A fast story in a small stretch of pages, about a nanny, a kid, and an unfaithful husband. Dermansky's protagonist isn't all that bad, really, but she does make a series of choices that will put doom in your stomach as you read. At a few points the writing or the plotting tripped me up, but only slightly. I know a book really works if it repeatedly keeps me from turning on a video game or going to the internet, and this book did that until I'd finished it. Travel plays a major role in the narrative, and the details Dermansky puts into the locations is such that I found myself wild with hunger for croissants and thirst for coffee and Mexican beer at inappropriate hours.

Pirate Talk or Mermalade, by Terese Svoboda: I am only about halfway through it but will give it a solid recommendation. Someone opening the book might think it's full of poetry, because of the way it's laid out: all dialogue, without attributions. With a few exceptions, the dialogue makes it clear who's talking and what's happening without skewing awkward, and it's a great achievement. Even without exposition Svoboda builds a seaside atmosphere that has reinvigorated an interest in pirates and whales and ships that I thought had been killed by cultural saturation a few years ago. You can read the first chapter, which convinced me to buy the book, here.

Fractured West, Issue 1: I reviewed this recently for Prick of the Spindle. Every piece in it is very short--the longest covers four pages but most play out in one or two. Most of them are good and a few make irrefutable cases for the power of very short fiction. There's enough desire and eros in these stories that it got me thinking about how well suited sex is to compact writing. Standout pieces by Kay Sexton, Grant Loveys, Tina Barry, and Juana Adcock, my favorite of which you can read here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On the workings of Infinite Jest

This will maybe be really boring to a lot of our readership which has already thoroughly processed this book and moved on, but the best I can do here is to blog about what I'm reading and right now I'm reading Infinite Jest. So some thoughts about that.

One of the really unfortunate things about constructing a work of genius or whatever is that people tend to elevate it to this untouchable status where it's ineffable, like the workings of God or whatever. Fortunately Infinite Jest is such an oddly shaped monster of a novel -- maybe not as a whole necessarily (can't say yet, only 25% through) but certainly in one's moment-to-moment experience of it, that it's impossible not to on some level understand it as the product of a writing and revising and editing and further revising process that could have gone any number of ways, rather than as a sort of perfect gleaming polished pebble. But still there is a sense that you can't touch it or understand it or generate something like it yourself, when I think increasingly as I read it that Wallace is attempting a number of interventions in language -- that is to say that he is attempting to produce something that is, in many ways, highly repeatable, an experiment in the classic sense to the extent that it is one.

I have to apologize now because I'm reading this on the Kindle and the chief disadvantage of doing so is that flipping through a book, especially one as large and complicated as this, is nearly impossible -- and furthermore that the publishers of Infinite Jest have made it impossible to make any clippings at all from the text, which is infuriating. So where I ought to have a lot of quotes and examples here I'm going to be largely talking from memory and hopefully if you've read the book you'll know what I'm talking about and if not you'll be able to imagine it.

It's no deep mystery, anyway, how you would go about writing a given section of Infinite Jest. The basic strategy is DFW chooses a subject, chooses an angle of approach -- usually a style or strategy of discourse, sometimes generated by a character and sometimes by a narrator embodying that style or strategy -- and then he pursues it to something like its exhaustion. There are whole sections of the book that proceed very clearly in this way, each sentence or paragraph beginning with an identical phrase or sometimes a slight variation on that phrase. These sections tend to gain momentum in a way that implies plotting or careful orchestration when what I often suspect is happening is that the events emerge from the pleasures available from within the framework or the sentence of that style. So for instance we might have a cold discourse -- many of DFW's voices are at least superficially a bit cool -- that represents, in a key passage, a rather hot event, as when the mechanically painful and detached (because such poor writing is inherently distanced from its subject) writing of yrstruly is used to represent the death (the murder, really, with yrstruly's collusion) of a friend, and the hiding of the body. This is partly motivated by the plot but of course you could come to the same place by asking yourself "what could yrstruly's narration most painfully fail to depict" and the answer might well be "the death of his closest friend" and then that would take you down a certain path.

One of the other things that DFW does really well, one that sets him apart perhaps more than the basic exhaustion strategy, is the way he changes tracks without warning in a given segment of narration. So you have the sections where Don Gately is thinking about the junkies he helps and counsels and things will seem to be progressing in a fairly logical sort of "exhaust the subject and the language" fashion and then he'll switch to the fact that somebody's farted and unfortunately the junkies aren't willing to be mature adults about it and let the fart pass unremarked. Then we mess around a while and touch on all these other subjects, some on the old track and some on older tracks, and then at the end of the sequence it turns out that Don Gately is the one who farted, when we've entirely forgotten about the fart. This example (a real one from the book, mind) is useful to consider because it's a clear case of the writer probably inventing something in terms of content or plot (the fact of the fart, and then later the fact that the fart is Gately's) because it fits the movement he wanted to make in the narration, not because it fits into some sort of grand master scheme of farts. He didn't know at the outset of the chapter someone would fart, most likely, and when he wrote about the fart there's zero indication he knew it was Gately's. He discovers the facts (the farts) of the novel as they fit the sentence-to-sentence strategy he's chosen.

Or for another example there's the conversation between Hal and Orin wherein Orin, who has been estranged from the family for several years now and did not attend his father's funeral, is asking about the facts of his father's suicide and etc. The conversation has three tracks that run parallel throughout the section: a discussion account of Orin's seduction of a woman who lives in a trailer park, Hal's account of their father's death and its aftermath, and then the present action of Hal's clipping his toenails into a trash can. The conversation proceeds in fits and starts, and we can ascribe emotional import to the moments where Hal, without warning, chooses to focus on his toenails instead of (for instance) the sight of his father's corpse. Or we can take it as it is, chalk it up to verisimilitude. Orin is attempting to make Hal exhaust the subject of their father, is attempting to enforce the main discursive style of the section, though sometimes he will attempt (and fail) to redirect or interrupt Hal. When the conversation changes tracks there is the little thrill of doing the bit of math behind the decision, trying to figure it out. And there are again in this conversation places where you can see the writer writing: for instance, Hal claims to have switched feet halfway through the conversation, and then later admits to having never switched feet, and then claims to have switched feet again, in each iteration updating Orin and the reader on his progress. When reading this I suspect that DFW did not know Hal had failed to switch feet the first time until he got to a point where he needed to change tracks to the toenails but the logic of the toenails had been exhausted. He needed to invest that track with some new energy, and so he invented Hal's invention, which is a very sad little lie when you think about it -- to deceive someone about what you're doing with your feet.

What's important isn't whether or not I'm right about how the text was generated. Every writer has his or her own way of working and often what I consider completely implausible turns out to be the only answer for somebody else. The important thing is to read engaged in this sort of thought, if not in terms of the writing itself then of the world of the book itself, as a book and as a fiction. If you do want to write then you do have to think about these things, though, and if you want to be great then I suspect you have to do it with the stuff that seems untouchable. The issue not being figuring out how to be DFW -- and we could probably actually get closer to guessing this than we could to guessing how to be many more obscure writers, because while he may have been unusually brilliant he has also left behind an unusual amount of documents of his thinking and process -- but because imagining yourself writing a masterpiece is probably the first step on the road to actually writing one.

And this is sort of what I mean when I say I think DFW was attempting to do something that could be repeated. My instructor, editor and friend Evan Lavender-Smith has argued that most of what DFW did was in some way about reinvigorating a language that often feels dead; while I have said that he often operates by writing a discourse exhaustively, there is in that exhaustion also exploration of a style or strategy's possibilities, such that even if he's written everything one could write in this precise way on this precise subject by the end of a given section, there is also the possibility of imagining so much more. In reading Infinite Jest I feel a need to write, not in Wallace's style but in variations, because I see new possibilities and warmth and urgency lurking beneath seemingly banal language or situations. I think this is probably at least a big part of the goal for Wallace, and for many writers, and so I think the tendency to elevate certain works as genius is in some ways counterproductive, however good it feels to worship for a moment. The better a work is, the more it demands to be broken down and studied and explored, so that it can become a part of our language, as writers, as readers, as human beings. Isn't that what a novel is supposed to do? To give us something we can take with us, and use?

Curious what you think about this.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Okay, so, everybody seems to be visiting family etc. instead of the Internet, and while Tracy and I are staying home this year to save money, we're also distracted with Christmas (and Infinite Jest, and revising our theses). But we've got big stuff coming soon -- like for instance we're going to start actually publishing some damn fiction -- so I hope you'll keep tuning in.

Here are Christmas songs to help you remember you love us.

David Bowie and Bing Crosby tolerate each other just long enough to perform two Christmas standards:

Henchmen 21 and 24 have a wonderful christmas time:

Carrie Fisher does her best for the Star Wars Christmas special:

And, in case you're having trouble going to sleep, an unreasonably surly Christmas story from Mr. T.

Happy Life Day, errybody!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Hot Young Fish Tacos

If you've hung around the Uncanny Valley Facebook or Twitter feed a while, or you have any sort of regular contact with Mike, you've probably heard about the hot young fish tacos. And why not? Everyone is talking about them.

They are, though, in all seriousness, one of the most delicious and satisfying dishes we make. Satisfying because they involve so much work. There's the preparing, battering, and frying of the fish itself, and then the three, count 'em three, side garnishes we consider essential to the dish. There is a habanero salsa, a chipotle mayonnaise, and a red salsa for pre- or post-taco snacking. All told, the tacos take us about three hours to prepare, requiring two separate fryings and three separate uses and washings of the food processor. There's something really gratifying about consuming something that took a good part of the day to create, especially if you've done a good job. And I guess there's also the fun of having our insane cooperative system, including strategic breaks for sitting or switchoffs on running the food processor, work just well enough to get everything done on time and served at the appropriate temperature.

Plus they're delicious. Here are some pictures.

Some delicious fish taco pieces waiting patiently on a plate.

Red salsa materials roasting. (Most of the carcinogenic stuff comes off. But not all. Also, yes, that's 2 habaneros and 2 jalapenos. We later added a third for even more crazy heat.)

The second frying on our beer batter-spattered stove.

The finished tacos. (Neither of us will ever eat store-bought taco shells again, and you shouldn't either.)

The finished salsa. We make a lot because we inevitably eat a lot. This bowl holds 1.65 liters. That is not that far from having a 2 liter full of salsa!


Friday, December 17, 2010

Tiny Little Stories

Last night Sarah and I went to a poetry slam, the Broken Speech Poetry Slam, and I learned I am not a man made to slam. Well, it was no surprise. It was a good time, though, a time in a small room with an interesting red stage, hosted by J. Bradley, interviews editor for PANK and author of Dodging Traffic and, more recently, The Serial Rapist Sitting Behind You is a Robot.

A tiny new story of mine went up in the first issue of Twenty20. You guessed it: this is a journal that does stories of twenty words or less. I was and am skeptical of what can be done in 20 words or less, but the brevity of one of these pieces means that it doesn't take long to write and edit, or to read. And the payoff for a short piece that works is such a jackpot, considering the time spent reading it.

Infinite Jest on the Kindle

I got a Kindle! It was a gift from my family. I wanted it for several reasons, chief among them the increasing physical difficulty of reading books, the constant access to a library of free classics, the appeal of a portable library, and the possibility of actually reading Infinite Jest. We'll focus on that last item for now, though I think it speaks for the appeal of electronic reading devices more generally.

I first attempted Infinite Jest in the summer of 2006. This was also the summer Tracy and I started dating, though we had known each other several years, and I would not ask her out until near the end of the summer. It was my first time living alone, in an apartment Butler university had provided for me, along with a wage and free air conditioning, which I used to keep the empty-except-for-me apartment at something like 63 degrees. I spent most of my days writing (a script, and a novel) and not talking to anyone. I ate small helpings of smoked salmon, baby carrots, raspberry or key lime pie yogurt, and Sour Punch Straws. I drank Dr. Pepper Berries and Cream and Coca-Cola. I lost a lot of weight that summer. I found a lot of music.

I had found a copy of Infinite Jest on a free books pile in the English department toward the end of the previous semester. I thought the cover looked stupid and the title didn't suggest anything special. (I supposed there would be a lot of jokes, perhaps a farcical epic, like if Terry Pratchett wrote social realism.) Mainly I noticed the book was really thick. I figured the cost of producing such a volume and shipping it would be prohibitive unless one believed in the product, which is the sort of crude math I often use to choose books. I picked it up. I planned to read it that summer. I had no sense of the book's critical reception or importance.

Like most people who try to read Infinite Jest, I failed. People talk about the endnotes but that wasn't a tremendous problem -- I've got two thumbs. For me the real issue was more my eyes were failing (I didn't understand this at the time; that was next semester) and the text in that book is terribly small. Also the book was tremendous. I couldn't find a way to hold it. My body burns hundreds of calories daily maintaining an unreasonable heat, such that no one part of my skin can comfortably touch any other part of my skin for long at all. This turns out to be prohibitive of most positions wherein one can read a large book. Between the density of the text on the page (to say nothing of the increased density of said text in the endnotes) and the fact of my imperfect attention span, which often led me to glance away from the page for whole milliseconds, which in turn led to me completely losing my place in the book, which meant that I never quite knew what I had read and hadn't read on a given page. I got maybe a hundred pages in, trusting I would begin to enjoy it at some point in the distant future. Then I gave up. I gave the book away to someone else who seemed to want it more.

I understand some people, perhaps many, read the book with a highlighter in hand, turning each line yellow as they complete it. I find this idea maddening, not only because of the thought of the smell or the number of highlighters this would consume, or even because it's difficult to see how the book itself could survive such a thing. At the same time you can see why a person would do it. Why they might even have to. You don't read Infinite Jest so much as master it.

Which brings us, finally, to the Kindle. Infinite Jest was the first thing I purchased once the device had been registered and charged. I spent a couple hours with it tonight and already I'm maybe about halfway to where I was when I gave up before. I knew it would be easier because of the physical form of the device itself -- the manageable size, the pleasant weight in my palm -- but I hadn't accounted for how the device would serve to make the reading more manageable.

If you haven't seen this yet or read up on it, the Kindle is easy to imagine as a fancy PDF viewer, which it certainly can be. This is however misleading. There aren't pages in a Kindle document. Instead there's text. The text and the device interact such that at any time you are looking at what seems to be a page, and when you hit the "next" button you see what seems to be another page. But because paper is no longer a concern, because the cost of shipping is irrelevant, because the text itself (and some rules about generating its presentation) is the file's content, we can have as many of these "pages" as we want. These pages can be in one of several font sizes, and so a "page" can contain a fairly wide range of words.

What this means is that when I'm reading Infinite Jest I no longer face the abject terror of looking down at, say, twenty paragraphs on a page, or fifty lines, or whatever it was. (A lot, is what I'm saying.) Instead I have several paragraphs of reasonable width and spacing, or even only one section of a large paragraph. I can read this from beginning to end in very little time, and so I always feel as if I'm making progress. If I don't understand something or if I miss, say, a name or a bit of scene-setting, it's no trouble at all: if I need to, I can reread the whole page to see what I've missed. It's not that much text.

You can think of this as another example of the dumbing down of America but a) I like to think I am a reasonably talented reader and b) go to hell. Kurt Vonnegut wrote several decades ago about the extreme difficulty of the task faced by most readers and the necessity of making it more easy wherever we can. That doesn't mean you don't write Infinite Jest. It means you present Infinite Jest in a way that makes it as easy to read an incredible masterpiece of boundless ambition as one can make such a thing. I have currently finished, according to the Kindle, about 4% of the book. If I read it every day at my current rate I would finish the book in 25 days. I don't find that daunting because, again, of the smallness of these pages, of how manageable they are. It's the same amount of text, but it's no longer such an intense physical struggle.

One implication of this is that a world with more people using electronic readers is a world with less reason to fear ambitious writing. If we don't have to print the book, if we don't have to ship it, if we don't have to pay to do these things, if shelf-space is not a concern, what's to stop us? And if readers have a flexible text, one that they can manipulate to suit their needs, isn't it more likely they'll go to the trouble of reading? I have never felt that I would have the patience or energy to get through War and Peace, but I've downloaded it to my Kindle. The device immediately made me more ambitious as a reader. I suspect this is the case for other users as well. I know it has been true in my family.

And while I feel somewhat heretical suggesting Infinite Jest is better in electronic format, I do believe it. You don't have to read many books to find examples of the many ways a page is poorly suited to fiction. We don't usually write with the page in mind, after all; in fact, we have to avoid it, have to write paragraphs that will make sense no matter where they happen to fall on the page. The natural form of prose is a scroll. We shape it according to the practicalities of page count, of format, of shipping, and so on. But why should we do that if we can shape our text according to the needs of the reader? If we can let the reader do it for us?

To be sure, the Kindle is an imperfect solution. The format is not sufficiently flexible, and Amazon demands too much power over our reading. These are real problems that will be solved, I think, within ten years. But what I suspect we're moving toward is a world wherein digital reading becomes normal for habitual readers, and wherein most books, which are perfectly happy to be scrolls, are happier in that form. Better to use, and better to be in the business of selling. Infinite Jest is a book that belongs outside the book. Print will be useful as an option for some reading, not all: for that which most needs a page, or for small and manageable books that feel good to hold in the hand. Or something like that.

I'm not especially interested in prognostication, except to the extent that it might help me predict the market's movement, such as it is. What I'm interested in, for the moment, is the fact that Infinite Jest, when freed from a format where it was never really comfortable anyway, turns out to be a spectacular read. I mean, just tremendous fun.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Year in Book Reviews

So I read a bunch of books this year but didn't have time to review them all with 1,000 word reviews and submit those to magazines.  To save time I am reviewing all the books I read this year with one character each.  In addition, I might have forgotten that I had read your book this year, so didn't write a review.  If this is the case, please remind me of your book and I'll add it to my list of reviews.

A Plate of Chicken

A New Quarantine Will Take My Place

Selected Poems of HD  

The Difficult Farm

From Old Notebooks

Bird Eating Bird 

Prairie Style


Whim Man Mammon 


Shoplifting From American Apparel 

Sunny Wednesday

A Cake Appeared 

With Deer 

Distant Star

Pigafetta is My Wife

Scary, No Scary

The Man Suit

Thin Kimono

The Book of Frank

Fat, Weird Ideas Part 2

In 2nd grade another kid and I got into a writing competition. There was no prize and the competition wasn't even a formalized thing, but while writing a story for a class project he dared to show me six floppy pages and I outraced him to seven and it went on until we were told to stop. I remember not being finished.

Obviously we both falsely equated length with seriousness.

By 4th grade that kid was gone. (And he's gone from this story now; forget about him. In fact, I only thought about him because I remembered he once stapled his thumb on a dare, and then I remembered his strange local child-star singing career. I don't know where he is now.) Our class kept writing stories, though. This year I wrote a story about bats. The synopsis, as I recall:

SOMEONE SOMEONE lives a quiet life in SOMEWHERE, until a grand horde of BATS descends from the sky and carries her away.

I illustrated the thing on yellow paper. We had a contest in our classroom and I won!

Man! I was so thrilled. That victory probably shot me along my current life path.

As the local winner, I was sent to a non-local event to read and listen to other elementary schoolers read. I wore a tie. My parents stopped at Sonic on the way and I ate a cheeseburger. At the event, we sat in a darkened room with other families. Bright, serious children in dark clothes went to the spotlit lectern and read. One story was about orphans and another was about AIDS. All the stories were serious pieces. I was embarrassed to read about the bats. I read about them anyway but afterward I felt foolish. Kids a grade below me (kids with 25% less education!) had written about real world tragedies and I had written about the impossible tragedy of being carried aloft by bats. Worse, in my illustrations, the sun was obviously out. Of course the sun would not be out with the bats. The bats would not be out with the sun.

Fat, Weird Ideas

I found this video a few nights ago. In it, David Lynch speaks about finding ideas, about having the patience to go deep, beyond the shallow little easy-catch inspirations, until you find something weird and ur-ish:

I've always been impatient with creative projects. It's a problem if the idea requires special equipment or knowledge. Sarah and I went to an amateur film festival a few months ago, and we left electric with desire to make a five-minute masterpiece, but our camera was the one on my phone, and the sun went down early, and, well, we know nothing of making films and the last time I acted in anything was--nine years ago.

If the idea just requires written words it's easy, of course, everything is at hand, keyboard, coffee, gin, whatever. The challenge then is to hold off beginning the project until it's come together fully in the mind, without waiting so long that it's dulled and rotted and died somewhere up there.

I'm 141 stories into my story every day project, and, looking back, I can see that the best pieces are ones that are fresh in their construction but that are built on foundations that already existed somewhere in the maintenance corridors of my brain. The challenge in writing a flash piece daily, then, hasn't been in creating new stories but in creating new stories that connect to deeper currents, to make not new narratives but to look at an older narrative from a new angle.

So what do you think about letting projects develop? How long do you wait before beginning something? Do you wait at all? How do you know it's time to start? Is it possible to let a long project--a novel, for example--simmer for so long that you hold the entire fundamental structure in mind before you start, or will there always be a moment when you look back over the last 20,000 words and realize something needs to be changed, added, cut?