The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘—by which I mean, of course, latter adolescents who aspire to real manhood—gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism…’

‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.’

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

At the time of his death in 2008, David Foster Wallace was working on a new novel, a book to rival Infinite Jest. The Pale King is a posthumous publication of that incomplete story.

The author’s “forward” (actually chapter 9) informs us that this is an absolutely true vocational memoir of the things that happened to trainee David Foster Wallace at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria in 1985-6. Most basically, it presents the awkward situation young David found himself in on his first day of work when he is mistaken for a much more senior, and therefore valuable, David F. Wallace due to transfer to the center the following day. As a result, David receives insights into the inner workings of (and benefits from) the institution far beyond the typical new recruit. Interspersed with the narrator’s experiences are interludes introducing a wide range of characters (used broadly) that make up the staff of the Regional Examination Center.

Beyond the loose plot formed by the mistaken identities, The Pale King is not a book with a strong plot. There is a lingering sense of doom, perhaps formed by the threat of technology, or perhaps the threat of institutional reorganization, or possibly an internal power struggle…or all three. At the same time, the book creates a series of absurdist character studies that shape interrogate the trauma of early lives that would lead people to choose a life of tedium.

Having read much of Wallace’s oeuvre, I would not be surprised if he was trying to bore the reader toward a state of euphoria (as happens to one of the characters), but the unpolished organization, as well as disorienting chapters some of which use no names, is something else and made the book difficult for me to to follow. These problems were most obvious in the first half of the novel, which does it further disservice.

It is impossible to read The Pale King without looking at it with respect to Infinite Jest. The Pale King shows Wallace’s voice, attention to detail, expansive vocabulary, and style. Where IJ examined addiction, PK takes on tedium. Despite its incompletion, I can see the potential in PK. It shows some hints of the time that it was written, but the setting as a “memoir” creates the potential for a story that is more timeless than IJ‘s near future, and the repeated assertion that modern world is an endless morass of bureaucracy is spot on. If anything the evolution of clickbait social media and the turn to video actually underscores the point being made in the novel. And yet, I have a strong preference for IJ, which I thought was funnier and connected with in a more meaningful way such that I believe my opinion would have held true even if PK were complete.

In my writeup of IJ, I said that it is not a book for everyone. The same goes here to an even greater degree. There are moments and there are scenes, but in its current state, this is not an all-time great book.

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I am now reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and absolutely loving it. This semester has me swamped, but I am hoping to carve time to write about other topics soon.

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.

January 2016 Reading Recap

I don’t feel compelled to list each book individually for the first time since I started doing these. This is because, for the first time since I started reviewing books I have read here, I actually reviewed all six books I finished in January: The Green House, Darkness at Noon, Water for Elephants, Girl With Curious Hair, The Samurai’s Garden, and Between the Woods and the Water.

January can be a good reading month for me. The combination of holidays, travel, and a birthday mean that I cut myself some slack to read a lot. This year, January also included my version of a New Year’s Resolution to settle in to do a lot of reading and, I am happy to report, I have not yet broken this goal. I am also quite pleased that the six books I finished, while still geared a bit toward dead white men, actually constituted a diverse slate, with one travel-narrative, one short story collection, two books written by women, one of whom is of non-white heritage, and including books originally written in English, Spanish, and Hungarian. I am particularly happy to have read two books by women in the first month, though I don’t have another one lined up for the near future–something that needs to be remedied.

I am also happy to say that I largely enjoyed all six books, with only The Green House and Girl With Curious Hair not being overwhelmingly enjoyed. Among the other four I can’t choose a favorite because none of them really stood out as superlative, but all were excellent and enjoyable for different reasons. For instance, The Woods and the Water swept me onto the Hungarian plain on a trip I want to enjoy, Darkness at Noon was a revelation on incarceration and revolution, Water for Elephants a fast-paced adventure, and The Samurai’s Garden a beautiful meditation. Darkness at Noon is probably, objectively, the best piece of Literature among these books, while Water for Elephants was the most fun to read, and The Samurai’s Garden meant the most to me personally in terms of where I am mentally, emotionally, personally.

In the interest of always striving for the next thing, I do want to make sure I take some time to read non-fiction–in this, Patrick Leigh Fermor hardly counts. Fortunately, I have just the solution: a new biography of Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia. I looked for a biography last summer, only to find that the available ones were in some sense encomiastic. Last week I came across one newly published in English, a supposedly even-handed account of Haile Selasse written by the king’s nephew.

Girl With Curious Hair – David Foster Wallace

Among my favorite writers there is no-one whose writing sometimes does nothing for me more frequently than David Foster Wallace. There are reasons for this, including that some of the stories and essays are dated such that I can’t connect with them. More frequently is that what I admire about Wallace’s writing are his powers of observation, his penchant for remarkable phrases, and a panache that flaunts convention and format. These same traits that I admire can also have the effect of making the stories alien and difficult for me to appreciate even as I admire their technical features. The second issue I have is that I often struggle to invest in short stories in the same way I do with longer works, which is a “me” problem more than his writing. This is all by way of preamble for some thoughts on Girl With Curious Hair, Wallace’s first short story collection, the second I have read.

Girl With Curious Hair was published in 1989, and the stories all in some way intersect with the worlds of advertising, media, communication, relationships. My favorite story, the eponymous “Girl with Curious Hair,” is a detached account of a young east coast man, his sexual predilections, and his punk friends on acid going to a concert in Los Angeles. “Here and There” tells of a long-distance relationship that results in both parties being tortured, albeit for very different reasons, and “Say Never” of an infidelity over the question of fit. One story that felt particularly dated to me was “My Appearance,” about an actress appearing on a young David Lettermen’s show–I liked the story itself, but I don’t understand the connection people have or had with David Lettermen, particularly now that he has retired. (I have heard from some people about how much of a revelation Letterman was, but I’ve never really seen it myself.) None of these anodyne descriptions do credit to Wallace’s curious characters who inhabit the same world we live in. The best example of this is in the final story, “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” much of which literally takes place in a clown car careening through the tall corn of central Illinois on its way to a reunion of everyone who ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial.

Ultimately, I didn’t love most of the stories in this collection, but almost every one had striking or haunting moments. I preferred Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, another Wallace short story collection, to this one because I was more enamored of the stories themselves, which were both a little closer to my lifetime and were, in my opinion, more artfully constructed. These felt, probably with good reason, like a collection completed as part of a portfolio in a writing program, which brought their own strengths—more unified themes behind the stories, stories that were polished and tidy (albeit with the final story offering a critique of such analysis), and being kept from wandering too far into the wilderness of prose style. Of course, I prefer Wallace’s essays to either story collection.

White Noise – Don Delillo

Delillo’s 1989 novel White Noise is a grim, ironic, comedy about family life in the modern world that won the National Book Award. Twenty-five years later some things have changed, but it is remarkable how many of the issues have just gotten worse. The collected tweets of quotes may be found here.

Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies at a small Midwestern college, lives a life under siege, from which he seeks refuge in his wife’s bosom. He and Babette live in a house too small for them and the four children from their respective former marriages who live with them. The kids are precocious, but the family is formed by a network that serves to spread misinformation, and they are all bombarded by advertisements, television waves, friends who hardly have a physical presence, and choices offered at the supermarket. Babette works hard to stay in shape and the adults worry about death. In the second part, there is an airborne toxic event that accelerates the last issue, while forcing new changes while they were already working so hard to keep their heads above water.

The overriding style of White Noise is the profundity of hyper-observation. Most of the observations are of the mundane—generic groceries, for instance—instead of grandiosity of human nature or the purity of nature. This style was later used to great effect by David Foster Wallace (whose early interviews often talked about Delillo as an influence), and it is possible to see some of the observations as banal now, except that Delillo came earlier. White Noise is not prophetic, but the concerns about misinformation, being overwhelmed by information, and airborne toxic events have certainly not gotten any better.

White Noise is a book near the top of my to-read list for some time, but I only got a copy of it around Thanksgiving. I really enjoyed it, but outside of a few short bursts it contains universal human laments (death, world moving too quickly) more than universal human truths. It is still an excellent reflection of the modern world, just specific to a world inundated with capital and technology.

June 2015 Reading Recap

I read more fiction this month than in any calendar month in a few years, and so much so that I’m sorting and grouping the books by loose category, first literary fiction, then genre fiction.

Fiction

Men at Arms, Evelyn Waugh

Guy Crouchback is the scion of a vaguely aristocratic, Catholic, British family most of the 1930s at his family’s villa in Italy after his marriage (a stint of which was spent in Kenya) failed. In 1939 he returns to England in order to help combat totalitarianism in Europe. Old for starting much of anything new, Crouchback wheedles his way into an old-fashioned unit, the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, and trains as an officer. Much like in Catch 22, hijinks ensue. In this case, though, the actual war remains a distant threat for most of the book. Men at Arms is the first book of Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy about World War 2 and I look forward to reading the next two.

The Siege, Ismail Kadare

The Ottoman war machine marches implacably through a balkan summer and sets up a for a siege of a nameless Albanian fortress. The soldiers are enthusiastic. Their commander is a decorated veteran, their force is large, their architect and engineer sure to quickly breach the wall, allowing them to pour through, slaughter the rebels, and claim for themselves the beautiful and exotic blonde women. The chronicler debates how he is going to appropriately capture the magnificence of the victory. But fissures appear in the expedition, between the commanders of the elite troops and the regular, expendable troops, between the religious men and the men of science. When the defenders resist the first assaults, the fissures grow larger and threaten to defeat the campaign.

Kadare, an Albanian author, captures the campaign and its mundane concerns and its mundane failures, looking at the balance between a literal host of characters who all pursue human pleasures and impulses and suffer human pains, and a literal host of characters who are supposed to be united toward a common goal that will result in thousands of deaths. I didn’t love The Siege, but I appreciated the in/humanity that Kadare showed. In part, I struggled with there being simultaneously too much going on and too little, and the plot largely consists of everything grinding to a halt and slowly falling apart. The impersonality of the entire novel also made particular scenes with the wives of the commander where there either was sex or sex was discussed all the more jarring since the distance remained through the intimacy. Most of this was by design, but, in my opinion, it isn’t a narrative device that is particularly effective or appealing. I would read something else by Kadare, but this was a lukewarm introduction for me.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Reviewed here, this is the Tartt’s campus novel about a death that shatters a circle of classics undergraduate students even as it has a relatively fleeting impact on the campus as a whole.

Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway

One of Hemingway’s posthumous novels, Islands in the Stream consists of three distinct episodes in the life of painter Thomas Hudson, each with a different tone and style. The first takes place on Bimini, where Hudson has a successful artistic life, which typically includes painting all morning, fishing, and drinking. His kids come to visit and life is grand. In the second, World War 2 has begun and Hudson hunts U-boats, but is awash in emotions because of the losses in his life and being swept off his feet by meeting his ex-wife. In the third, he is on a suicide mission to kill Germans. It is a simple arc that Hemingway stakes out, but there are as many or more emotional notes than in any of his novels.

This is later Hemingway. His prose remains stark, but it is visually remarkable, particularly in one scene that involves the protagonist and his friends getting drunk on a dock and firing flare guns at a dock covered with gasoline and at the commissioner’s house. A man on a boat moored at the dock repeatedly comes out to ask them to be quiet because his girlfriend is trying to sleep…and they mock him by saying that if he knew how to pleasure a woman she would be able to sleep through their drunken fun. The man gets mad and comes out to fight them, at which point one of the characters beats him in a boxing match. The whole scene is crude, but all the more effective for Hemingway’s direct, blustery style. Elsewhere, he effectively conveys the emotions of being a father, being in love, and needing revenge. Islands in the Stream was not as thoroughly pared down as his other posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden, but I cannot help but think that something was missing from this novel, not something that made them hold together better since these are all part of the same story, but something that bridged the gaps a little more effectively.

Post Captain, Patrick O’Brian
H.M.S. Surprise, Patrick O’Brian
The Mauritius Command, Patrick O’Brian
Desolation Island, Patrick O’Brian

Books 2-5 in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. At this point in the series, each book covers about a year in the wars between Napoleon and Great Britain, and Aubrey makes steady progression up the officer ranks such that by the fourth book he is not constantly the junior officer. He also makes money (at least at sea), marries, and has children–maturing and mellowing somewhat with age. Aubrey tends not to have consistent commands, which was likely the norm, particularly for captains a) who came into the service in a fairly haphazard way b) who made enemies like Aubrey does and c) who climbed the ranks like this. The stories do usually move along a little faster than the first one, but I suspect it is more from the books being shorter and getting used to the style since there remain lengthy passages that fill in the world but aren’t central to the story. I remain of the opinion that O’Brian is strongest when describing ships, battles, and sailing and develops two good characters that have a relationship that keeps things moving, but that he is not particularly good at plotting or storytelling. My favorite of these four was H.M.S Surprise.

Storm Front, Jim Butcher

Urban fantasy meets urban noir. Harry Dresden is a wizard in Chicago, a private eye, and a consultant for the police department. He’s also broke, so he leaps at the opportunity to work private case the same day that the police call about an grisly murder. The cases start out simply enough, and they even help Harry snag a date. Events quickly spiral out of control, though, as the killer starts going after him, the wizard council suspects him of being the murderer, and even the police begin to suspect him. Storm Front is the first book in The Dresden Files. Butcher does a nice job blending character construction, building an introduction to the world, and working through classic noir pacing and tropes. I really enjoyed this book and blew through it in about a day.

This book does include a good amount of slapsticky comedy as things go wrong for Dresden with regularity, yet he describes himself as an excellent, trained wizard. The whole story is told from a first-person “noir” viewpoint, so there is something to Dresden simply being an unreliable narrator overconfident in his own abilities because he is lucky. I see some of that going on here, but more of that is built into magic in Butcher’s world. Magic is powerful and can kill, but is much more limited and rare than often is the case in fantasy and things like potions not only are hard to make, but they degrade quickly. Magic also causes technology to fail. The pair to this is that magic can only do so much to protect what is an inherently weak material body, which leaves the wizard open to being mauled by supernatural beings with stronger bodies. Dresden is lucky (and being lucky is sometimes better than being good) and comedy does ensue when things go wrong, but neither does this necessarily mean that he is lying when he says he is an excellent wizard–as he points out on a few occasions, the other wizards tend not to be prowling the streets fighting crime.

My favorite of these books was The Secret History, but of the authors, I’m most looking forward to reading the next book by Butcher. I believe everyone has their “light” reading, things that other people would consider trashy. My drug of choice is fantasy.

Nonfiction

The Terrorist Prince, Raja Anwar

Benazir Bhutto is a martyr for legitimate government in Pakistan, taking over the mantle from her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1979 by the army Chief of Staff Zia-ul-Haq. This book is less about Benazir and more about her younger brother Mir Murtaza. Where Benazir used legitimate political channels to uphold her family’s legacy, Murtaza formed a terrorist organization among the tribes in rural Pakistan to avenge his father and even managed to hijack an airplane. Raja Anwar was an associate of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and knew the children and generally has a bone to pick with the Bhutto clan. He portrays Murtaza as a marginally sane, largely inept young man with delusions of grandeur who is eventually assassinated in a plot concocted by Benazir’s husband. Anwar is not much kinder to Benazir and condemns them for treating Pakistan like a personal fief, regardless of which side of the law they claimed to be on.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace, ed. Stephen Burn

Conversations is a collection of interviews that David Foster Wallace gave, arranged in chronological order. Some of the answers were clearly questions he heard again and again and there was an almost resigned tone to them. Other answers provoked thoughtful retrospective responses and observations about US culture and art. There was also a clear arc in the interviews, with young DFW giving more thought to other authors, and older DFW giving more thought to his own bibliography and legacy. He noted how, early on, he was more interested in cleverness for its own sake, but how that became stale and he became more interested in emotion and humanism. There is a new essay out about DFW in anticipation of an upcoming biopic, and the author is somewhat critical of the cult of DFW, particularly because he is disdainful of certain aspects of Wallace’s self-conscious posturing that turned him into a sort of depressed Buddha, “slacker saint and liberal sage” for his followers. It is a fair analysis that takes nothing away from Wallace’s writing and is more insightful about them than many would-be acolytes are. The performative aspect of Wallace’s personality was particularly resonant with both the form and content of the interviews.

Phew. The list will almost certainly be shorter next month, as I am currently working my way through the first volume (of two) of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the medieval Chinese epic about the fall of the Han Dynasty. Right now the plan is to take a break after the first one and read the second next month, but we’ll see.

September Reading Recap

I was bogged down with academic work (teaching/researching/writing/etc) in September and only managed to finish two books.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, David foster Wallace

Probably DFW’s most famous short story collection because of the John Krasinski film adaptation by the same name, Brief Interviews is an eclectic collection of stories that runs a gamut from an inventive retelling of several mythological stories set in the film world of Southern California (“Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko”) to a two part story about an awkward marriage (“Adult World” I and II), the second part presented as an outline of the story, to the eponymous story scattered among the other stories. The narrator of that story is left unheard, leaving the individual men to answer unknown questions and reactions to be seen only through the interviewer’s punctuation. The stories were all over the place, and there were different levels of difficulty and different levels of reward for the stories. One (I think Amazon) review called David Foster Wallace the “Mad Scientist” of American literature. The title is appropriate for this collection.

I should also point out that I watched the movie several years before I connected it to David Foster Wallace. The reviews were universally poor, but I actually enjoyed it.

The Rebel, Albert Camus

Subtitled “An essay on man in revolt,” The Rebel is a book length essay that approaches metaphysical, historical, and fictional (literary) aspects to the concepts of rebellion and revolution. Like other French intellectual essays, this book was not an easy read, as Camus drew in discussions of sources as broad as Dostoevsky, Marx, Marquise de Sade, and Montaigne. He argues that it is all but impossible for a revolution to succeed without abandoning ethical values that the rhetoric of revolution espouses. The contradiction, he says, comes in that without transgressing the values, the revolution achieves nothing, but by transgressing the values the revolution necessarily abandons them. The Rebel is challenging, but it is both persuasive and eminently quotable. It was a rewarding read and I am now looking forward to reading his novels.

October is going to be another month with only a little time to read, but I am starting what time there is with Orhan Pamuk’s Snow

June 2013 reading recap

One of the nice things about finishing the comprehensive exam process is that it is again possible to do some reading for fun. I have (sort of) been able to take advantage of this opportunity and again trying to keep a list of those books I’ve read with the idea that I will post a recap at the end of each month, including a brief blurb about each book. Magister Ludi made the June list because it was the first book I managed to finish in the wake of my exams and the only non-academic book I was able to read in May.

Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse
Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, three year after the publication of this book and it is impossible to ignore the possibility that the award was for this novel, though the award’s website suggests that Hesse won for his collected body of work. Magister Ludi, also published as The Glass Bead Game, tells the story of Joseph Knecht, a music prodigy and elite glass bead game player. Hesse sets the story in the fictional central European (German?) province of Castalia, the home of the elite schools that train glass bead game players and possess explicit parallels to both Catholic monastic communities and academic institutions. Castalia and the glass bead game are dedicated to purely intellectual pursuits, untainted by and removed from normal communities. Magister Ludi is a meditation on history, intellectualism, the relationship between the university and society and I particularly recommend it for anyone who has pursued, is pursuing, or may considering pursuing an academic lifestyle. This book is not a quick read, but is well worth the time invested. To put how much I enjoyed this book in perspective, I added it to my list of top novels where I have it ranked fourth.

Nelson: Sword of Albion, John Sugden
I reviewed this second volume of Sugden’s biography of Admiral Nelson here. In short, Sugden reveals intimate details from the last seven years of Nelson’s life (the recovery from the loss of his arm through his death at Trafalgar), focusing on Nelson’s relationships in the admiralty, his wife, Emma Hamilton, and his fellow officers. It was a somewhat interesting book, but I thought it fell flat, particularly in that this particular focus on Nelson and his letters led Sugden into superficial readings and a focus on a particular sliver of society.

Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk
To the authors of Amazon comments complaining that Istanbul is all Orhan all the time, the subtitle is “Memories and the City” and it is a literary memoir. Memoir: “a narrative composed from personal experience.” Pamuk, another Nobel Prize winner, is a Turkish novelist who has lived his entire life in Istanbul and entwines his memories of growing up in a well-to-do family in Istanbul after the revolution with the growth and modernization of the city. It is not a history of the city and Pamuk talks about few people other than his family and artists who used the city as the subjects, but he does an excellent job of giving the reader a feel for the city and also writing a memoir. I do suspect that Istanbul will appeal more to people who have spent time in the city than to those people for whom the city is just an idea.

A Supposedly Fun thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
Both Flesh and Not, DFW
Consider the Lobster, DFW
Three David Foster Wallace essay collections, each with some particularly great essays. Wallace’s style of long, frequent, and frequently nested footnotes can sometimes get convoluted, but he had a particularly engaging style and tone. He comes across as earnest, rebellious, and more honest than the rest of us, while also being dry and sarcastic. Reading his stories also reminded me of conversations I have had with some of my favorite people in that the flow of conversation may be unpredictable, but it is always engaging. I walked away from the essays wishing that he could comment on some recent things, including the movie Wall-E, Twitter, and the soon-to-be post Federer tennis scene, and I am looking forward to reading some of his other stories. Most likely I am going to read “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” because I loved the movie that was based on it, and will probably work my way up to Infinite Jest. It is also something he wrote in one of his essays that prompted me to finally check some of Kafka’s books out from the library.

In a Free State, V.S. Naipaul
The book I liked least,, In a Free State is three short stories bracketed by entries from Naipaul’s travel journal. The main setting of the stories range from London, to Washington DC, to East Africa and have different plots, but each fundamentally come back to the issues of freedom, power, and cultures. The first two stories (both shorter and much better than the eponymous story) both deal with people of non-Western background going to DC and England (respectively) and then grapple with the nature of economics and identity within those new roles, while the third follows the journey of two white people in East Africa while the state they live in is torn apart by what a civil war (and all-but) ethnic cleansing. I will probably give some of Naipaul’s other books a chance, but his prose did not hook me the way many other writers’ prose can and I was disappointed with this collection.