Saturday, July 31, 2010

Jerzy Kosinski May or May Not Be A Complete Fraud (But Do You Really Care?)

Steps by Jerzy Kosinski
148 pages

published by Grove Press

The literary career of Polish born author, Jerzy Kosinski, is a strange one. He is widely considered a significant writer of the 20th century, his honors and awards are many...oh and he was regularly accused of plagiarism and fraud which indirectly (or directly) led to his suicide in 1991. So, there's that.

Steps won the National Book Award in 1969 which kind of surprised me to hear because it is some dark stuff. Tales of intense violence, sexual "perversion", and moral ambiguity fall from the narrators mouth in small black chunks. We're led to believe that the "I" in each vignette is the same "I" as the narrator. Our unnamed narrator (who regularly "frauds" people into thinking he's someone he's not) is if nothing else, a great storyteller. Even as I grimaced with each new story, even dreading the next page at some moments, I felt compelled to continue. Whether or not Kosinski was a fraud (whatever that means in the art world), this sinister little book will test your soul.


"All we could do was exist for each other solely as a reminder of the self." pg. 24

"Then, all you need me for is to provide a stage on which you can project and view yourself, and see how your discarded experiences become alive again when they affect me. Am I right? You don't want me to love you; all you want is for me to abandon myself to the dreams and fantasies which you inspire in me. All you want is to prolong this impulse, this moment."
pg. 131

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Bought New Books!

I don't buy books very often, mostly just because I can't afford them right now. As mentioned in a previous post, I'm kinda a library junkie. But every once in a while, usually around my birthday, I'll get an influx of new books. Here's what I picked up on a recent gift card spree:

Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson- I've been meaning to read this for a long time, pretty much because David Foster Wallace adores it.

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (trans. by Lydia Davis)- Seems like something any serious reader should read, and I'm heard only good things about this translation by Davis.

Racing in Place (Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins) by Michael Martone- I've read some Martone before and I'm pretty excited about this "collection".

The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story by Frank O'Connor- Kind of essential reading for aspiring writers.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Boy Meets (Dead) Girl

Waste by Eugene Marten
116 pages
Ellipsis Press

Huh. Okay. Weird. But cool. But what happened at the end there? Huh. Okay.

I mean, it's a pretty dark little book. Everyone seems to be saying it's like the creepest stuff they've ever read...and it is pretty sick, but not totally like "I can't finish this book" sick.

Boy meets girl, boy secretly loves girl, girl smiles at boy but is otherwise aloof to his longing, boy finds girl dead in dumpster, boy rolls girl up into a carpet remnant, boy takes girl home, boy preserves girl in his fridge and occasionally spoons her in bed, boy has sex with girl, and they all live...well, it does not exactly end well for either of them. Classic love story.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Resurrecting History as Fiction

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
292 pages
Published by Riverhead Books (Penguin)

Well, I finally got around to reading the much talked about Aleksandar Hemon, a native of Sarajevo, and adopted son of Chicago. This much lauded work, which was a finalist for a National Book Award waaaaay back in 2008, seemed like the logical place to start. And to be honest, I can't say I was crazy about it. I liked it, I did, but there was something about Lazarus's story that I really couldn't get into. I guess, ultimately I didn't really care about Lazarus or his grieving sister Olga, or even the whole situation they had found themselves in.

One of the redeeming qualities of the book was the story of Brik, a young writer, very similar to Hemon in background and vocation, who is struggling to write a book about Lazarus Averbuch, a book for which he has recently received a grant to fund his research. So it's got that meta-post-neo-playful-neat-clever plot set up going, which I usually find enjoyable, used in capable hands, as Hemon is more than capable. The story see-saws between Brik's misadventures with his old friend Rora, as they make their way through war torn Eastern Europe, and then with the story of Lazarus and his sister, Olga, who is trying to make sense of the bewildering death of her brother. I found myself struggling through Lazarus's narrative, reading his story just so I could move on to Brik's.

The incorporation of photography into the book was also great. I'm definitely interested in reading more of Hemon, but this particular book didn't grab me.


"I may have just done serious damage to my marriage, I said to Rora later on, while we drank the hundredth coffee of the day at the Viennese Cafe. You've never been married, so you don't know, but it is a fragile thing. Nothing ever goes away, everything stays inside it. It is a different reality.
-Let me tell a joke, Rora said...Mujo and his wife, Fata, are in bed. It's late at night. Mujo is falling asleep, and Fata is watching porn: a horny couple, all silicone and tattoos, is sucking and fucking like there is no tomorrow. Mujo says, C'mon, Fata, turn that off, let's go to sleep. And Fata says, Let me just see if these kids are going to get married in the end." pg. 164

"The more you lose, the more there is to be lost, yet it matters less." pg. 167

"...if you can't go home, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere is the biggest place in the world- indeed, nowhere is the world." pg. 182

"In the beginning, every war has a neat logic: they want to kill us, we want not to die. But with time it becomes something else, the war becomes this space where anybody can kill anybody at any time, where everybody wants everybody dead, because the only way you are sure to stay alive is if everybody else is dead." pg. 185-86

"I felt as though I had achieved the freedom of being comfortable with the constant vanishing of the world; I had finally become the Indian on a horse with a branch tied to its tail." pg. 229

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bret Easton Ellis Kicks David Foster Wallace While he's Down (and by down, I mean tragically dead by his own hand)

A question answered by Bret Easton Ellis during his appearance at the Southbank Centre:

Question: David Foster Wallace – as an American writer, what is your opinion now that he has died?

Bret Easton Ellis: Is it too soon? It’s too soon right? Well I don’t rate him. The journalism is pedestrian, the stories scattered and full of that Mid-Western faux-sentimentality and Infinite Jest is unreadable. His life story and his battle with depression however is really quite touching…

Being born into a wealthy family in Los Angeles, I don't really expect you to understand the consciousness of the Mid West. Now, to address a few of those DFW criticisms, point by point:

"Pedestrian journalism"- It just seems like you, Bret, are just trying to go against the grain on this one, since his journalism is regularly regarded as moderately ground breaking, original, and just really really good. So that's curious that you think it completely ordinary.

"Stories scattered with that Mid-Western faux-sentimentality"- I guess it's just a matter of someone calling one thing sentimentality and another person recognizing it as an author risking sincere emotion (the risk being that a hip, ironic, postmodern satirist would call said author 'sentimental', god forbid). And this phrase, faux-sentimentality, I'm not sure I even really understand it. So the sentimentality (as you're calling it) in his stories is false? So is it the sentimentality you have a problem with or the faux-ness of the sentimentality? And is false sentimentality an integral part of the Mid-Western landscape? This is new to me, living in the Mid-West as I do.

"Infinite Jest is unreadable."- Well, now I just feel sorry for you because you're missing out. Unreadable? Really? Can I ask you something? Now, don't be offended. But if you happen to commit suicide next week, do you think that there would be an outpouring of affection and praise of your work? Would scholars begin to form 'Ellis Studies', hold conferences based on your life and work? Hmmm. Something to think about, in turns of why Infinite Jest, and all his other work for that matter, will endure and continue to endure for years to come.

Now, I don't necessarily blame Ellis for the harsh words, considering this is what DFW had been quoted as saying about Ellis some time ago, in an interview with Larry McCaffery:

LM: In your own case, how does this hostility manifest itself?

DFW: Oh, not always, but sometimes in the form of sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s "American Psycho": it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.

LM: But at least in the case of "American Psycho" I felt there was something more than just this desire to inflict pain—or that Ellis was being cruel the way you said serious artists need to be willing to be.

DFW: You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend "Psycho" as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

And I think it's relevant to note that in Wallace's comments about your own work, he comes off as critical but not petty. Clearly he's given a lot of thought to your brand of literature. You just come off sounding like a jerk. Which I kinda imagined you to be anyway.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ask and Your Shall Reprieve

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
296 pages
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

What are the tenants of a good story? For me, I mean? Snappy dialogue? Interesting, complex characters? Forward moving plot with a brisk pace? New ideas, observations? Vibrant sentences? Well, all those bullet points apply to The Ask. I had read Subject of Steve a while back and while I liked it, I felt that Lipsyte took me to the edge but never quite delivered. The Ask is the novel I was waiting for him to write. And then he wrote it. And here it is. And I really liked it, a lot. Almost five star liked it. Yeah, I know.

So we have Milo Burke, our protagonist (though I use that loosely) who is, let's admit, a rather pathetic modern man. He is a failed painter(though failure implies trying). He is a failed fundraiser (though not for lack of trying). He is a failed husband (equal parts trying and not trying). The only thing he seems to be good at is being a father, and even that has mixed results. But he loves his son. And his wife. So that counts for something.

After being fired from his fundraising job at Mediocre University, his office requires his services one last time (with the prospect of getting his job back) as one donor with deep pockets is requesting his personal involvement. One big Ask, for one big Give. Turns out this mysterious donor is...well, I won't give too much away.

Lipsyte's sentences and diction are one of a kind, though not always with positive results. It can be a little much, his hype, ironic, satirical wording. I know he is a student of Gordon Lish (I feel like I'm seeing his name every where these days) and I know Lish was big on writing sentences that hadn't been written before, every phrase unique, every word useful. As is my understanding. And you can imagine that can lead to some...curious phrasing. But overall, it works for Lipsyte.

One reviewer said that though the sentences were "dazzling", it was ultimately an "empty story about nothing". Ha! Are you kidding me? About nothing? Wow. Just wow. J-wow.

Quotes: (kinda lengthy ones, but worth it)

"So, like I always say, it all comes down to how much you need to inflict yourself on the world. You're good enough. If you kiss the right ass, you could certainly make a career. Get some shows. Teach. Like me, for instance. I'm not a failure. I'm in a very envied position. You have some big-dick fairy-tale idea of the art world, so you don't understand this yet, but hanging in, surviving, so you can keep working, that's all there is. Sure, there are stars, most of them hacks, who make silly amounts of money, but for the rest of us, it's just endurance, perdurance. Do you have the guts to perdure? To be dismissed by some pissant and keep coming? To be dumped by your gallerist? To scramble for teaching gigs? It's not very glamorous. Is this what you want? You're good enough for it. You're not the new sensation, but you're good enough to get by. But you have to be strong. And petty. That's really the main thing. Are you petty enough? Are you game?" pg. 115-116

"Most of the time he avoided me, or humored me, or peppered me with blandly supportive exhortations. "Keep it up," he might say, or "way to go," apropos of nothing I could discern. Sometimes if I walked into the room he'd just say, "Here comes the kid!" Invariably I'd wheel to catch a glimpse of this mysterious presence. Maybe it was clear to both of us we were never going to understand each other, not because we were complicated people, or even at loggerheads, but because of the minor obligation involved. I really couldn't blame him. I knew what churned inside me. It was foul, viscous stuff. It wasn't meant to be understood, but maybe collected in barrels and drained in a dead corner of our lawn." pg. 149-150

"You're growing up. All you need to remember is that nothing changes. New technology, new markets, global interconnectivity, doesn't matter. It's still the rulers and the ruled. The fleecers and the fleeced." pg. 195

"I'm only trying to be a decent dad."
"Don't waste your time. It's not in your genes. Besides, try making some money. That might be a good dad move. For heaven's sake, the system's rigged for white men and you still can't tap in." pg. 77

Sunday, July 11, 2010

New Book of Essays on David Foster Wallace

A new collection of essays on the work of David Foster Wallace, called Consider David Foster Wallace, is now available for pre-order. Unfortunately, it's only on for the moment. I'd much rather direct you towards Powell's or Indiebound, but they don't have it quite yet. Support independent booksellers! Or don't! Ultimately it's your choice! That is if you believe in free will! That is if you believe in free will, you believe you are making the choice whether to shop at an independent bookseller! I was not implying that only people who shop at independent booksellers believe in free will! I can see why the wording would be confusing!

Friday, July 9, 2010

I Should Really Just Read The Books I Own

Hello, my name is Schuyler and I'm addicted to library books. I currently have seven books checked out from the local library and another 10 on hold. Despite the fact that I own around 20 books that I have not, as of yet, read, I can't bring myself to read them and stop checking out books from the library. Why? Why can't I just read the books I have already and check books out when I'm through with those?

I guess it all started when I decided to quit my job about three years ago. I was briefly unemployed, but have since landed a part time position at a small, independent bookstore which requires me to take two buses. This job does not pay very well, but I get a lot of reading done on the commute and while working. I'm a good employee, there just aren't many customers. It's not like I'm slacking off. In fact, the owner wants me to read on the job, as to be an informed staffer. Anyway.

As a result, my funds are limited. I acknowledged that I could no longer capriouslessly spend money on books. But I still wanted to be reading books, new books, talked about books, the new hot literary gem, etc. So, the compromise I made was taking advantage of the local library system: the Chicago Public Library.

And let me tell you, the CPL's catalog is extensive. I can get near anything my heart desires, that is if I'm willing to wait for it, because I habitually place books (and recently DVDs!) on hold, books that need to be sent to my local branch. I don't mind waiting. It gives me time to finish the books I already have checked out.

I check out way more books than I can read. Often I'll have a stack of five, maybe eight books on my desk, far more than I could read before the due date. Some books I don't even really want to read, I just wanna browse through them, see if I'm interested. That's what the library is for, right? Also, I find it's a challenge: I try to read as many of the library books as I can before the due date. I find that the months I check out a bunch of library books are the months I read the most.

But like I said, I have many many books I already own that I have not yet had the pleasure of reading. I very much want to read these books. I own them for a reason. They are what I would consider "good" books. Maybe some even "great" books. But lately I find myself in a bit of an imbalance. For every book I read that I own, I read five library books. Something must be explained: I do not like having unread books on my bookshelves. They look at me, mockingly. They haunt me. I want to have bookshelves that I can gaze at and admire my intellect, to say "Yes, I have read all of those books." It is not impressive to say "I've read most of those books." I am not impressed by this. And being impressed is what having people over to my apartment is all about.

I imagine a day when I have no unread books on my shelves. Maybe one or two would be acceptable because it's good to have some on deck. But certainly no more than five. But there is the glorious CPL getting in my way, offering me the latest titles, for free. They ask nothing of me. Browsing their catalog online is like having a shopping spree on Powell's. Kinda. I only really have one tentative rule that I find myself breaking: I won't check out books from the library that I know I want to own. This can be difficult and I've broken it a few times. But I have to be strong. Stronger. I have no remedy for my affliction. I can't stop, won't stop.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Review of : The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

I forget where exactly this was first brought to my attention, maybe on Bookslut, possibly The Millions, maybe Conversational Reading. Somewhere on the internet. But whoever reviewed it loved it, and then it recently won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the largest monetary award for fiction in english on the planet, with a cool 100,000 Euros. So that's impressive.

This is kinda hard to review because the book is so much about a sense of place, the quiet rhythms of a small Dutch farm, and the atmosphere of solitude that Bakker establishes. The prose is stark I guess, though I hate using that overused adjective. Bare prose? Naked prose? Stark naked bare-ass prose?

Helmer and Henk were twin brothers. Henk died in a car accident, leaving Helmer to "waste" his life on the family farm. The bulk of the narrative picks up 30 years later, after the Mother has passed, and the now elderly Father is rapidly declining, health wise, requiring Helmer to both care for the farm and for his emotionally cold Father. Then Riet, Henk's would be fiance, contacts Helmer and wonders if her unruly teenage son (though not by Henk) could come and live and work on the farm for a time. Also, the son is also named Henk and is about the same age as of the original Henk, when he died. I know this sounds kind of confusing, but Bakker does a better job than I am doing right now.

It ultimately turns into a story about Helmer trying to understand his role in life without his twin. Who is Helmer? Who is Helmer is relation to his loveless Father? To Riet? To the farm? These all seem like big existential type questions that might appear daunting, but they aren't out rightly pondered (though kinda but in sweet, subtle ways) by Helmer, so it makes for this still, almost nostalgic reading, though nostalgic for what, I'm not quite sure. Nostalgic for solitary Dutch farms I guess.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review of : The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso

It's kinda hard to review memoirs because you're criticising people's lives, and it's doubly hard to review memoirs where the author went through something rather tragic or horrific or just plain sad, and then to turn around and be like, "Um, your life story was interesting but you did a bad job telling it."

All this being said, Manguso did a pretty good job with a difficult subject: her young life lived in a hospital. In her early 20s, Manguso discovers that within her blood a battle is raging (too much? that's too dramatic), a rare disease called CIDP (Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy) which basically requires her to swap out her "bad blood" and replace it with "good blood".

I am simplifying of course. Manguso goes into great detail about her medical history, to the point of making me a little queasy, though I'm not good with needles and blood and stuff. I was also reading it riding backwards on a bus, so that may have contributed to the aforementioned queasiness.

The book reads fairly quickly with most paragraphs a few sentences long, so even in her memoir, Manguso's poetic tendencies seep out onto the page in the form of short, clipped sentences and lots of white space.

Understandably, Manguso's life becomes so consumed by her illness that her entire identity is nearly swallowed by it. There is this one sentence that struck me where she details her time living in New York City, "I had the usual adventures people have when they move to New York." I think that sentence is telling because she no longer thinks the "life" portion of her life is important to recount because, to her, they are ordinary and relatable and everyone has the same experience when they go to New York City. Which of course is not true but these moments in her life don't make her feel special. Her rare illness makes her feel unique and while she wants more than anything to be healthy again, she also developed a kind of relationship with her sickness.

At risk of exaggerating, let me compare it to something else: a soldier coming back from a tour in Afghanistan. He/she comes back to civilian life, to maybe a family with a yard and kids and grocery stores and movie theaters and clean bathrooms and I think it's a pretty common fact that those soldiers have a hard time adjusting to "normal" civilian life (think The Hurt Locker) because the past four, five years of their lives have been consumed with war in a foreign land and no one in their life now, as a civilian, can relate to them, and they can't relate to anyone. They feel almost marooned on an island. Or maybe it's like a depressed person, who while hating their depression, also feels that if it was "cured", they would lose a certain part of what made them 'them'. I think Manguso felt this way with her disease, that her suffering (especially at such a young age which added a layer of tragedy, that her youth was also being destroyed) was both something she loathed but also discovered it made her different, that illness became a new kind of normal, a new kind of healthy.


"And then sometimes I think I've made everything happen, starting with making myself be born." pg.22

"The doctor was older than my parents, and he must have had plenty of younger patients, but he didn't understand yet that suffering, however much and whatever type, shrinks or swells to fit the size and shape of a life." pg. 83-84

"How sure our neighbor was that her suffering was the only kind of suffering. And how sure I was that mine was worse." pg.128