The Word for World is Forest – Ursula K. Le Guin

Althshe is a tranquil, forested world that has in recent years been colonized by people from Earth, who prize its rich soil and, particularly, the natural wood that is only a memory on their planet. Of course, the colonists have also already discovered the perils deforestation, which quickly destroyed the soil on one of the continents. But Althshe is not uninhabited; millions of green-furred humans living in the forests and the colonists have conscripted many as a labor force, calling them volunteers because slavery is illegal. Althsheans are not hard-working by earth standards, frequently entering into a semi-conscious dream state, but they are tractable and without any conception of violence.

That is, until Davidson rapes and kills a female Althshean, which prompts a male, her husband Selver, to attack him in the street. Only the intervention of other humans, including the intellectual Lyubov, stops him from killing Selver then and there, which Davidson attributes to their weakness.

Davidson’s actions, however, set in motion a chain of events that have catastrophic consequences. In the language of the Althsheans, Selver becomes a god—that is, a person who introduces a new concept into society. Selver’s contribution: violence.

The Word for World is Forest is one of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, in which the humans from Terra begin to colonize habitable planets of nearby stars, only to discover that the planets are already inhabited by humans whose evolution has progressed along a different track. The Left Hand of Darkness is another part of this cycle. On Althshe, humans adapted to live in an idyllic, forested planet where men and women share leadership and define themselves in relation to their intimate relationships. Men’s role in this society is to tap into the dream while waking and sleeping, a trance-like mystical state that allows them to guide society. The role of women is to lead the community. Displays of prowess are achieved through song.

Outside a few scenes with Selver, the reader is invited to experience this society through the lens of humans from Terra: the curious and sympathetic Lyubov and the hostile and bigoted Davidson.

This is the third of Le Guin’s Hainish novels that I have read, but will probably not be the last. Set in the near future, the series takes what I love about Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men in that it envisions different evolutionary paths, but then sets an actual story around a particular theme. Thus where The Left hand of Darkness is fundamentally built around gender politics and power dynamics, The Word for World is Forest addresses environmentalism and colonial exploitation, complete with the gendered constructions of the passive Althsheans. Despite winning the Hugo award for Novella in 1973, The Word for World is Forest is in my opinion not as strong a story as either The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, both of which are both more subtle and more powerful in their stories. This judgement, though, is given in light of the high bar set by the other two novels rather than as a condemnation of this slim, beautiful story.

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For the first time in a while I’m reading two books at once, the graphic novel Watchmen and am continuing my run of fantasy books written by women with Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic. Watchmen isn’t written by women, but the prose streak remains intact.

The Way to Paradise – Mario Vargas Llosa

What if the revolution became a business opportunity for a few rogues?

The Way to Paradise is a double portrait of outcasts, both of whom believe that their purpose is to help humanity transcend its limitations. First, Flora Tristán, the illegitimate child of a French mother and Peruvian father who grew up in poverty, excluded from her father’s inheritance. As an adult, Flora entered into a brutal and unwelcome marriage, bore children, fled to become a writer, publishing a memoir Peregrinations of a Pariah and a manifesto The Workers Union. Now, in the early 1840s, she is traveling around southern France in a vain effort to organize the working class. The second arc takes place some 50 years later on south pacific islands for which her grandson, the artist Paul Gauguin, has abandoned his wife and children in pursuit of people untouched by western civilization. This pursuit, combined with eccentric tendencies, increasingly debilitating syphilis, and only erratic income from his paintings leaves him on the margins of the colonial outpost. Paul is convinced that Western society is strangling humanity, which can only be liberated through artistic expression that recaptures paradise.

Despite certain similarities such as skepticism of religion and their obvious blood-relation, the protagonists could not be more different. Flora has revulsion toward sex, a consequence of her disastrous marriage marked by physical, sexual, and emotional violence, and dedicates herself to a cause: uniting workers for the betterment of the oppressed of society—men and women both. This crusade gets her labeled a potential subversive, though, and Flora is stymied by the police and the church, all the while playing a cat and mouse game with her estranged husband.

Paul, by contrast, is the estranged husband, leaving his wife and children in Copenhagen and abandoning his once-promising career as a stock-trader for artistic inspiration first in Brittany and then Tahiti. Sex, Paul believes, is central to his artistic process, and so he takes up a succession of (mostly young) lovers from the native women who he also believes will bring him closer to culture unconstrained by centuries of “civilization.” His values, moreover, remain the same as syphilis ravages his body, making him increasingly repulsive to behold (let alone touch). As Paul’s health declines, he continues to produce surreal and spectacular paintings and sculptures that capture the sights and sounds of the south pacific, slowly becoming received as critical masterpieces back in France.

The Way to Paradise is a challenging book with deceptively simple structure. The novel unfolds alternating chapters between these two stories, but is also richly textured because the alternating stories a) parallel the events in the other timeline as the two protagonists wend their way toward the grave, and b) consist simultaneously of the contemporary events and character memories sparked by those events. Both characters, moreover, are given arcs that are difficult to read. Flora consciously makes quixotic choices, and her pain, both chronic and inflicted, comes through in spades. Paul is also in pain from his advancing and advanced case of syphilis, but it is harder to be sympathetic when this is (largely) self-inflicted and he repeatedly abuses his treatments. The difficulty of his story, then is in watching his distressing sexual politics, in one graphic rape scene in particular, but also more generally in his obsession with personal gratification that is at such stark odds with the legacy of his grandmother.

I struggled with The Way to Paradise at times, finding Flora’s story on the drab side and being troubled by the treatment of Paul with respect to both the search for pristine civilization and his disturbing relationship to sex. Part of my problem, I think, is that I was reading too much of the author in Paul’s appetite, which led to me to presume that this artistic vision was being presented as accurate. I was hasty in this, and the juxtaposition of the two plots goes a long way toward undercutting Paul’s artistic vision, even while the sporadic reports we hear from his agent back in Paris demonstrate its success. Watching Paul spread his STD across the South Pacific remains difficult to read and feeds his monstrosity, but nonetheless is central to balancing the two portraits. Whatever is one’s obsession, paradise is unobtainable.

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I recently finish my first installment in my August of reading books by women, Carrie Fisher’s short, funny memoir Wishful Drinking and am now reading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter.

Back to Blood – Tom Wolfe

“Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.”

On television you have to create a hyperreality before it will come across to the viewer as plain reality.

Oh, ineffable dirty girls.

Miami is seething, with racial tensions between African Americans, Cubans, and Americanos, with class tensions between the super wealthy (including Russian oligarchs) and everyone else, and with sex. In Tom Wolfe’s novel Back to Blood, it is mostly the sex.

Back to Blood is a book for which the plot—a slow-unfolding investigation into a wealthy Russian donating millions of dollars worth of forged art to a Miami museum—does not capture what it is about. Back to Blood is more appropriately described as a version of life in Miami told through multiple concurrent stories about five groups (the Miami Herald, the Cuban ex-pat community of Hialeah, Miami high society, Miami PD, and the upwardly aspirational family of a Haitian professor), variously connected by the intrepid and persistent duo, Officer Nestor Camacho and reporter John Smith.

Nestor Camacho is set up as our hero. Born to Cuban parents, he finds himself all-but disowned when his muscle-bound heroics pulling a Cuban refugee off the mast of a boat in Biscayne Bay are caught on TV and slapped on the cover of every newspaper. The police see this as heroics, the Cubans as betrayal, and not for the last time in Back to Blood, Camacho’s feats of physical prowess mostly succeed in making him a pariah in the eyes of the public. Since his Magdalena, a psychiatric nurse, has recently dumped him in favor of her (in her eyes, more manly and vigorous) employer, Nestor has some time on his hands to help John Smith out with his investigation into art forgeries.

The second most important storyline is Magdalena’s. Her employer, a renowned psychiatrist specializing in pornography addiction, has taken this beautiful young cubana out from Hialeah and introduced her to the sex-drenched world of Miami’s upper crust. Of course, he isn’t doing this own dime, but trafficking on the prestige of his high-profile patients who give him access to the best restaurants, art shows, marinas, and, ultimately, maritime orgies. Magdalena is initially attracted to the power this man seems to have, and certainly he is more sure of himself than is Nestor, but she also starts to see through this mirage, seeing him for what he is: a petty man who uses bluster, belittlement, and his degrees to manipulate people, all the while being as sex-crazed as his clients. But it is possible that one of the men she meets through these connections will genuinely appreciate her…

Back to Blood came out in 2012 and, like Wolfe’s other work, is heralded as capturing something essential about American society at that moment, in this case with Miami being the American city of the future. The fundamental question, then, is how accurate is this description? On the one hand, Wolfe’s vision of America has it deeply divided by racial divisions that can be transcended by wealth and status, with the appearance of both being more important than the actuality of either. Within this vision, everyone is in it for himself—women are objects for and appendages of the men who are sleeping with them or would like to sleep with them. There are parts of this vision that ring true in the contemporary world of social media and police violence, but I as far as capturing a larger Truth about American culture I was underwhelmed.

The biggest reason for my reaction is the seeming conviction that Wolfe has that everyone is a frothing mess of loins and lust. Miami plays into this vision because it provides ample opportunity to describe largely naked women and to have characters of both sexes ogle, judge, and imagine the variously covered body parts. It was as the Wolfe’s literary credentials were dependent on the number of ways he could describe sexuality. To wit:

Her beautiful legs were vulnerable, unguarded innocence in its carnal manifestation.

In this respect, Back to Blood is an orgy of literary proportions. So much so, in fact, that I found myself wondering where Wolfe fell on it all. On the one hand, he comes across as an ogler himself, taking every opportunity to look and to judge. On the other hand, the two Yale characters who are at some level the characters closest to the author both seem to exempt themselves from the vain, fleshy world of the other characters, run through with conservative WASPish tendencies regardless of their political leanings. Thus Back to Blood seems to simultaneously revel in the sex-crazed environment and to take a moral stand against it. Setting aside some problematic issues concerning gender and the absence of genuine discussion of economic precarity, in this dichotomy of morals, Wolfe may inadvertently be onto something.

I didn’t love Back to Blood as much as I’d hoped, but, despite some early frustrations, I came away with a grudging respect for it. I may read some of his other books yet.

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Next up, I am almost finished reading The Dogs of Riga, one of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. It is another book where I find myself asking how it would hold up in a more recent setting, but I am quite enjoying its depiction of the Baltic at the very end of the Soviet era.

A Strangeness in My Mind – Orhan Pamuk

In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.

Oh, Mevlut, haven’t you learned, rights don’t matter in the city, only profits.

Mevlut is an old-fashioned street vendor with an old-fashioned sensibility. He moved to Istanbul to attend school and help his father at the age of twelve, leaving the village life behind. The city is simultaneously all that he possibly imagined—vast, sprawling, growing and filled with characters—and so much less. He lives in a dirt-floored hovel his father and uncle built on ill-gotten land. During the day Mevlut attends school and at night helps his father sell boza, a traditional, mildly alcohol drink. Despite occasional visits, Mevlut never moves back to the village, but, unlike seemingly everyone else in his life, neither does he ever realize the dream of striking it rich in the city.

A Strangeness in My Mind follows Mevlut’s life and experiences in Istanbul through a variety of voices, but the driving component of the narrative comes when he attends his cousin’s wedding as a young man and locks eyes for a brief instant with the beautiful younger sister of the bride. Mevlut asks the groom’s brother Suleyman who this enchanting young woman is, but, instead of truthfully saying “Samiya,” his cousin gives the name of the middle sister, Rayiha, who we are told is the least physically attractive of the three. Mevlut resolves to write to Rayiha while he serves his mandatory military service to tell her of his love. After leaving the army, Mevlut and Suleyman arrange for Rayiha to run away with him and it is only that night when he discovers the error. Mevlut and Rayiha come to be parents to two little girls and genuine love each other, but the uncertainty over whom those letters were addressed to casts a pall over the family, particularly when Samiya moves to Istanbul, is courted by Suleyman, and ends up running away with another man.

Mevlut is a man caught in the middle. He supports a mild Islamist political program (including that he votes for Erdogan for mayor of Istanbul) out of his belief in his religion, but he is friends with and sympathetic to the Leftists, while his extended family is extremely right-wing. He is reliant mostly on his cousins for money and social status, but they regard him as a drag whose intransigence over selling boza and the rights to land jointly claimed by their fathers weigh down their monetary ambitions. Most of all, though, Mevlut’s old-fashioned hobbies, old-fashioned honesty, and unbreakable optimism lead people to regard him as simplistically innocent. Mevlut doesn’t care, though, and he only cares about breaking free of the the loneliness that plagues him.

A Strangeness in My Mind fell short of Pamuk’s best work in my estimation. It is poignant, at times beautiful, and has incredible formal structure—the main narrative is told through Mevlut’s lens, but it is interspersed with interjections from the other characters correcting, explaining, or supplementing the main narrative the way that a documentary might—but it is missing much of the mystery that I so love in Pamuk’s writing. In that respect, much of what transpires over such a long span of time seems to be in service of showing how the growth of Istanbul affected one Turkish family rather than having a really compelling plot of its own. The mistaken identity provides adequate narrative backbone for the family drama and is undoubtedly poignant, but it also came across as of secondary importance. All that said, I am very much looking forward to Pamuk’s next book due out later this year.

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I recently read The Kingdom of the Gods, the final book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy and just started Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood.

Confusion – Stefan Zweig

Editorial note: there will be spoilers in the penultimate paragraph of this post as it is impossible to express my concerns with this novella otherwise. With the understanding that some people disapprove of such reveals even in a ninety year old book, I have kept these until the very end..

This was the first real shock that, at the age of nineteen, I experienced—without a word spoken in anger, it overthrew the whole grandiose house of cards I had built during the last three months, a house constructed out of masculinity, student debauchery and bragging.

Zweig’s Confusion—not a direct translation of the original title—is a novella published first in 1927 that I am of two minds about, one that deeply appreciates some of its psychological observations and graceful structure, and one that is deeply troubled by its politics. In form, Confusion is an eminent professor reflecting on his intellectual life on the occasion of his Festschrift, a publication that memorializes and celebrates his career. Far from the parade of successes that the accompanying biography records, Roland, the professor, recalls a time when he was far more interested in women than in his studies and how he ended up attending a rural university away from the temptations of Berlin. Thus he says:

Everything it says is true—only what genuinely matters is missing. It merely describes me, it says nothing real about me.

It is at this rural university that Roland is mesmerized by the passion of an old English professor who awakens his intellectual curiosity.

Soon, the professor helps set Roland up in the building where he lives with his wife and Roland offers to help the professor by taking dictation on his magnum opus: a history of the English drama in the age of the Globe Theater. The two begin to work on the project diligently, but Roland finds the professor difficult to work with; some days the professor is hale and strong, other times distant and cruel, while still others he is absent altogether. It is during one of these intervals that Roland ends up involved with the professor’s wife.

The heart of Confusion is the relationship between Roland and the couple who live below him, that is, the professor and his wife. The former is Roland’s intellectual father, while the latter takes on the roles of mother, lover, and reminder of his past insecurities.

Zweig’s greatest strengths unfold in the turns in Roland’s relationships. He shows how a student might have limitless potential and how a teacher can (in some cases) change a person’s trajectory, but, even more importantly, Zweig builds into the structure the idea that an intellectual career does not unfold in terms of linear successes. Confusion in this regard is an excellent, subtle coming of age story.

And yet, I had deep reservations about Confusion that far outweigh any I have had about his other work. The dramatic climax in Confusion comes when Roland is tearing himself up over his transgression with the professor’s wife, only to discover that his advisor professes to have no control over what she does, just as she has no control over him. Far from a modern sense of an open marriage, the professor reveals in so many words that he is gay. This revelation fills in the gaps as to the snide comments people had been making about Roland’s relationship with the professor, but my problem wasn’t either this or the suggestion that he was working in oblivion at a rural school because of his sexual tendencies. My issue came in how the professor describes himself to Roland, in that he talks about both the joys and the challenges of constantly being surrounded by young, attractive, and vibrant young men and that it was for this reason that he sometimes went absent. As a plot device it worked well-enough, but it was both a regressive representation of homosexuality and troubling in terms of how it linked intellectual and sexual relationships. Moreover, I found it distasteful because of how it would have played had it been a male professor and female student, which is already a topic in the realm of troubling issues of gender politics on campus.

I don’t want to diminish Zweig’s accomplishments in Confusion. From the outset, I often found myself nodding appreciatively at his observations, but, as the trajectory of the plot became increasingly clear, I became increasingly soured on the entire story.

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I also recently finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, the second book in her Inheritance Trilogy and am currently reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade.

The Republic of Wine – Mo Yan

Experienced detective Ding Gou’er does not really know what to expect when he travels to Liquorland on assignment. He is there to investigate unsavory rumors coming out of this region where, allegedly, the people are feasting on the flesh of children and washing it down with their fabled alcoholic beverages. (Local officials insist that the food is only crafted to look human.) Inspector Ding Gou’er (not much of a drinker, we are told) needs to keep his wits about him, but neither can he dare insult the local officials and so finds himself deeply intoxicated by an abundance of toasts. Worse still, Ding Gou’er quickly learns of the local appetites for flesh in all its guises, sexual, sensual, or gustatory, finding himself in debate with Yu Yishi, a dwarf whose stated goal is sexual conquest of all the regional beauties and in bed with the beautiful wife of a local official. Are the poor of Liquorland bearing children in order to supply the culinary academy with “Meat Boys,” or is that just a story told by a local writer with too much alcohol and an overactive imagination? In either case, the environment of Liquorland has a powerfully deleterious effect on the (formerly) respectable inspector.

The corruption of Ding Gou’er, however, represents only one of the three narrative threads that form The Republic of Wine. The other two threads consist of the ongoing epistolary relationship between the eminent author Mo Yan and his younger contemporary Li Yidou, doctoral candidate of liquor studies at Brewer’s College in Liquorland, and the stories written by the latter author. Most of their correspondence involves Mo Yan’s critique of Li Yidou’s stories and their plans to bring Mo Yan to Liquorland to write the biography of a dwarf Yu Yishi, which Mo Yan can only do after completing his latest novel The Republic of Wine. At no point do you read Mo Yan’s novel because, of course, that is what the entire book is. Each chapter in The Republic of Wine consists of all three narrative elements that create a deep discussion about life in Liquorland (a.k.a. a fictional stand-in for modern China), combined with the hallucinatory sensation of wondering what is “real” and what is just another layer of storytelling.

Mo Yan’s weaving together of these three distinct vantage points of a single story while inserting himself and treating all three as varying shades of textual (as distinct from real) makes The Republic of Wine and impressive novel. The closest comparison I can think of to this novel is Curzio Malaparte’s grimly surreal The Skin, but Mo Yan is much more subtle in his visions. And yet, it is only Mo Yan’s literary technique that may be called subtle since The Republic of Wine is an orgy of sensation. This is no straightforward detective tale or psychological thriller, but a story where the reader is sucked into the sensory world of hallucination where he or she is besieged by a riot of colors, tastes, sounds, and smells that threaten to overpower and it is in this aspect of the novel that I most saw Mo Yan’s critique of modern Chinese consumer culture.

For all that I appreciated The Republic of Wine and understood Mo Yan’s 2012 Nobel Prize, I did not love the book. It might have been all the more powerful for its rawness and inconsistencies, and some of my disorientation was, I am sure, intentional, I sometimes had a hard time following along. This was particularly true when there were allusions or references to Mo Yan’s other books, and I sort of wish I had begun with one of his others. More problematic for me, though, and something that I have had trouble with in other translations of Chinese-language novels, was that I did not particularly love any of the characters and in the absence of a strong plot, I sometimes found myself adrift.

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Next up, I recently finished (and loved!, minor peccadilloes aside) N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I am going to read the other books in that trilogy in short order, I suspect, and I picked up the second from the library yesterday, but I am currently reading a history of the city of Odessa, in part because I have family that lived there before coming to the United States.

The Foundation Pit – Andrey Platonov

“It’s the way things are done,” replied Chiklin. “The dead are all special—they’re important people.”

"Telling me!" Exclaimed Nastya in astonishment. "I don't know why people go on living. why doesn't everyone die and become important."

The Foundation Pit opens with the worker Voschev being “made redundant” in the factory where he works. In a modern setting this redundancy would be the result of automation, but in 1920s Soviet Union it is a euphemism for any sort of expendability—in this case, a more mundane issue of growing old and being unable to keep up with the pace of work. So Voschev is set adrift only join in with a team of workers digging the eponymous foundation pit that will allow for the construction of palatial halls for all of the region’s collectivized workers to live. As the ambitions of collectivization grow, so too do the plans for the building and so the pit has to be ever expanded…but there is an irony in that while the proposed building grows up, but the work only ever goes down. What is intended to be the foundation for future growth can just as easily turn into a grave.

In the place of a strong plot (which defaults to, “dig more!”), The Foundation Pit is built from scenes with stock characters: a disabled revolutionary veteran, the tireless worker, the morbid child, the black-smithing bear. Platonov builds these characters from three main sources: the gospels and other orthodox literature, Russian folklore, and Soviet political propaganda, as well as taking from other contemporary Russian literature. I appreciated the density of these references in part because I can see echoes of the same traditions in later books about Soviet collectivism (e.g. Animal Farm) and thus believe that The Foundation Pit is an impressively erudite work of literature. And yet, as someone who is not particularly well-versed in any of those traditions, I found the book esoteric and unapproachable. I have long been an advocate for the New York Review of Books translations, but this installment was deeply disappointing because the lengthy explanatory notes were inconsistent in their coverage and poorly connected to the actually references in the text. In sum: my ignorance limited my ability to appreciate The Foundation Pit and the edition did little help me out.

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Next up, I finished reading Mo Yan’s deeply disturbing novel The Republic of Wine earlier today and am now reading Jack McCallum’s Dream Team.

Women of the Silk – Gail Tsukiyama

I read The Samurai’s Garden early in 2016 in my push to start reading a more diverse array of books and liked it well enough that I decided to pick up a copy of Tsukiyama’s acclaimed debut novel, Women of the Silk.

Women of the Silk is a slow story that unfolds over nineteen years (1919-1938) in southern China. Pei is the second daughter of a peasant son-less farmer who dedicated his life to mulberry bushes and fish ponds. A series of lean years force the family to make difficult decisions, one of which is to ostensibly sell Pei, about age eleven, into servitude at the Yung Kee silk factory where her wages will help support the family. The novel unfolds slowly, following Pei and her new family (the eponymous women of the silk), be they her surrogate mother Auntie Yee or her friends like Mei Li and Lin. It is a story about friendship and everyday life, with characters grappling with love, labor, and their liminal position between the truly rural existence that Pei was born in and the urban environments of Hong Kong. There are limited climaxes as tension builds over some conflict, but the story ultimately builds to the end of this existence when there appears the specter of war with Japan.

Unlike most stories that deal with child labor, Women of the Silk portrays the situation in terms of sadness, not horror. The work is difficult, but, while there is one incident of labor unrest, it is not brutal and the women are taken care of. Moreover, Tsukiyama focuses on how Pei and the other women formed a surrogate community within a culture extremely dependent on family, doubly so when the women perform a commitment ceremony to symbolically wed the work. Work is difficult, but the pay offers freedom that did not exist for women like Pei’s biological sister whose life is entirely at the whim of her father or husband. Thus, silk work is likewise attractive even to Lin, whose background is diametrically opposite Pei and equally as restricting.

Tsukiyama’s prose is lyrical in a way that suits Women of the Silk‘s narrative as it builds the relationships in the silk factory. That said, I found myself frustrated because the book seemed to be giving vignettes of particular importance that I did not think were all completely earned. It goes without saying any book will have to focus on these episodes and none of them were necessarily inappropriate for the characters, but in several the story drops in without either developing the characters directly involved in the episode or focusing on Pei’s reaction to the events. The result is a dissonant sensation where the prose gives a sense of depth, but the story only sometimes allows for this to be realized. It was for this reason that while I didn’t dislike Women of the Silk, I much preferred The Samurai’s Garden. In other words, Women of the Silk is a first novel with a lot of promise, but left me wanting more.

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Next up, I finished Andrey Platonov’s curious and increasingly esoteric novel The Foundation Pit and am now reading nobel laureate Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine.

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

“We know you need wifi like you need air.” – hotel commercial.

“We want unlimited entertainment.” – Mark Wahlberg, in a phone commercial.

“Nobody but Ludditic granola-crunching freaks would call bad what no one can imagine being without.” – Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest is a notoriously complex and torturous novel, full of arcana, errata, and opacity. IJ is set in a dystopic near-future where chemical accidents have created a toxic “Concavity” (or Convexity, depending on P.O.V.) in what was once upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, creating something of a no-man’s land infested by feral hamsters where children are born without skulls. Enormous fans north of Boston keep the toxins from spreading south. The U.S., Canada, and Mexico have merged into a singular entity called O.N.A.N. (note the pun) under the presidential leadership of the singer Johnny Gentle, though many decisions are actually made by Rod “the God” Tine, director of the “Office of Unspecified Services,” an agency formed by combining law enforcement and intelligence services. Johnny Gentle’s presidency, largely post democratic and deeply corporate (naming rights to years are purchased, such that much of IJ takes place in “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”) is marked by “experialist” policies, which consist of forcing other countries to accept pieces of land (that are often now toxic) which contribute to fairly widespread separatism, particularly in Quebec.

Functionally, IJ has three narrative pieces that are variously interwoven. The basic plot of IJ is an operation by Tine’s agent Hugh (sometimes Helen) Steeply meeting with Remy Marathe, a member of Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants (Wheelchair Assassins, a.k.a. the A.F.R.) and turning him with promise of medical treatment for his wife born in the Concavity. Steeply needs information from Marathe because the A.F.R. are looking for a weapon of mass destruction: a movie created by the apres-garde director James O. Incandenza (a.k.a. The Mad Stork; Himself) titled Infinite Jest that, when watched, renders the viewer mad, with no ambitions other than repeatedly and endlessly watching the film. Steeply spends one night with Marathe in Arizona to thwart the A.F.R.

The scenes between Steeply and Marathe form the narrative backbone for IJ, but they are equal parts philosophical dialogue and framing device for the bulk of novel, which largely takes place in two parallel institutions in “Enfield,” MA (in the vicinity of Allston-Brighton), the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol House. The Ennet House story follows Don Gately, a enormous, small-time crook and drug addict who, after a stint in jail and rehab, is now a live-in staffer at Ennet House. The story at Enfield Tennis Academy is that of the Incandenza family—Himself, now deceased, his widow Avril (tall, beautiful Quebecker, militant grammarian, strange sexual tendencies, a.k.a The Moms), brother-in-law Charles Tavis, and two youngest sons Mario (deformed, childlike) and Hal (brilliant intellectually and athletically, habitual drug user), though the latter is the primary character for this arc. Both stories are linked by the past relationship between Orin Incandenza (oldest son, now NFL punter with troublesome erotic tendencies) and Joelle van Dyne (former cheerleader, star of Infinite Jest, drug addict, cripplingly beautiful, member of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, a.k.a. radio personality Madam Psychosis). Further, the relationship to J.O. Incandenza make all of these characters A.F.R.-targets in their pursuit of the master tape of IJ.

Explaining IJ in these terms, however, understates its complexity, neuters its brilliance, and doesn’t even touch on what the book is actually about.*

[*To the extent even that one person can claim any sort of authoritative understanding.]

Drugs and alcohol feature prominently in IJ, both in the sense that most of the characters (ab)use substances or are in N/AA and in that there are many endnotes that are nothing more than the commercial details of the drugs mentioned in the story. These features, however, more serve as an entry point for a novel that is, in a much more catholic sense, about addiction and longing. My understanding of IJ is that it is about the universal human desire to have some sort of meaningful connection in the world.

We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately — the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly.

As simple as this sounds, it is actually heinously complex. The world, not so different from modern America, is consumed by tele-entertainment, consumerism, looks, and unapproachable idols such as (in a slightly dated reference that stood out to me because of teaching last semester) Raquel Welch. Everyone wants to feel something and to find some sort of connection, but most of what people actually do in pursuit of meaningful connection leaves them addicted and alone. Usually the act in question is some form of drug abuse, but for others it is sex. One such is Orin Incandenza, a serial adulterer whose perversion is in seducing young, often married, mothers and needing them to fall desperately, totally in love with him before he breaks off the relationship. In dialogue with Steeply, Marathe posits that Americans fetishize freedom, but that their definition of freedom is a “freedom from…constraint” and, elsewhere, there is a discussion of “idolatry of uniqueness.” Of course, the bounds of these freedoms are set by the entertainment because that entertainment sets the parameters of what it means to be hip, which is equated with being admired and accepted. Each new innovation adds depth and complexity to omnipresent social anxiety.

“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.”

There is a tension between the need for connection with other people and the superficiality of a world saturated with entertainment promising immediate freedom from displeasure without regard for anyone other than the individual. When people go to increasingly depraved lengths, whether to find connection or relieve their neurasthenia, they become increasingly isolated—in no small part because they end up hurting the people around them.

This summation only scratches IJ‘s surface. There are individual scenes that are particularly disturbing to read and others that made me laugh aloud, including a film presentation that is nothing but a real-time film of the audience and lasts exactly as long as there are people in the theater and Eschaton, an abstract global war game using tennis balls in place of nuclear warheads. There are the roots of all the reasons why a particular type of man idolizes Wallace’s exacting and raw style, only doing so in such a way that might repulse women, and there is plenty of fodder for a discussion about the gender and sexual politics in D.F.W.’s writing*. There are limitations in his setting, in terms of globalization and nationalism. There are deep readings to be had about the literary qualities of IJ‘s postmodernism**, and reading it in line with Hamlet where “Infinite Jest” is used in the scene with the skull, adding another layer to Concavity’s effects because it causes children to be born without skulls, and with its lengthy scenes with a ghost. Likewise: the whole story takes place as a flashback, so is Hal’s condition at the start of IJ the result of his consuming a drug or is it a symptom of withdrawal? (I believe it is the latter.) Could the whole story be a hallucination? If so, whose? If not, who is the author? Is there also the hand of an editor? And on and on.

[*I asked a friend whether, had he lived, Wallace might receive similar critical reception that Dave Chapelle had with his latest specials, only on the issues of gender.

**A term that can mean anything or nothing. I mean something specific in this sense, but don’t want to get into it here because I have already gone on too long.]

Let me conclude with this question: did I like Infinite Jest? I certainly appreciated it. I have appreciated everything I’ve read of Wallace’s, improving my vocabulary at the very least and usually coming away with a deeper appreciation for something in the world. It is a book that lingers, that you start to see everywhere, and, in final calculation, I think I did like it.

This does not mean, however, that I recommend that everyone go pick up a copy. Reading IJ is a chore that, partly because of several stretches where I wasn’t able to read at all, it took me nearly a month and a half to do and even then I felt that I missed a lot. Reading IJ takes time and determination and lends itself to a particular type of stubborn personality that crops up again and again in the book. If you made it this far but reading this post gave you palpitations, then I would not recommend the book; if you’re intrigued and want to give it a read, then I can promise that there is something to be gained in the investment.

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Next up, my palate cleanser from Infinite Jest was China Mieville’s excellent The City & The City, a fantastical noir story set in twinned and overlapping rival cities in Eastern Europe. I am now reading Gail Tsukiyama’s acclaimed first novel, Women of Silk.