Friday, August 20, 2010

Overcoming Solipsism in the Work of David Foster Wallace

Understanding David Foster Wallace by Marshall Boswell
310 pages
published by the University of South Carolina Press

I read David Foster Wallace for many reasons, really too many to name here. But chief among them is how his work challenges me as a reader, making me feel smarter and actually making me smarter, and by smarter I mean both in the traditional sense but also smarter as in more aware, of the world around me, of the people in this world. His ability, through his language, to make me feel a little bit less alone in this modern world.

Marshall Boswell has done DFW fans like me a great service. Just when I think I am starting to figure out the many, many complexities of DFW's fiction, Boswell comes along and says, "You think you know but you have no idea." Ok, maybe that was the tag line for MTV's Diary, but still, it applies.

In Understanding David Foster Wallace, Boswell goes through all of Wallace's published fiction (The Broom of the System, Girl With Curious Hair, Infinite Jest, and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men) and pretty much dissects the narrative, all without boring the reader. Well, he didn't bore me anyway. But seriously, if you've ever read any of Wallace and thought to yourself, "There's something here I'm not quite getting, I know there's more behind this, etc," then Boswell is the man for you. He explores Wittgenstein's language games in Broom, he highlights the many parodies, criticisms, and declarations of Girl With Curious Hair (Did you know 'Little Expressionless Animals' had to do with John Ashbery's 'Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror'?).

Of course the best chapter is on Infinite Jest, and the more I read about that massive "novel" (I use quotes because it's more than a novel), the more I want to go back for a second reading. Wallace was responding to French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan's "bewilderingly difficult theories about desire, pleasure, subjectivity, and infantile preoccupations with mothers"? But that's also another great thing about Wallace, is that he does all this stuff below (and not so below) the surface, but you can enjoy his fiction just as good story telling, or amazing use of language, or or or or. You don't have to know Lacan's theories to enjoy Infinite Jest. Hell, I didn't even know who Lacan was let alone that Wallace was responding to his theories.

This is all to say that Boswell does an amazing job adding to the growing realm of Wallace Studies, and we've got to give him credit for being one of, if not the first to recognize Wallace's depth.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

But in the Secret Court of Men's Hearts

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
323 pages
published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics

Like most, I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in high school (or was it junior high?). Again, like most, I thought it was kinda boring. Just more "important literature" I was supposed to be reading and studying and answering multiple choice questions in regards in its subject matter. Answer the following: Racism is A) Good B) Bad C) Inevitable D) Racism? What Racism?!

Revisiting the text as an adult (well, a certain stage in my adulthood), I was obviously more aware of the subtleties of the story I most assuredly missed when I was younger, and also, kinda annoyed with some of the not-so-subtle, bashing-me-over-the-head-type morality lessons.

One of the things that interested me the most the second time around, and which I don't remember much discussing in (junior?) high school, is the role of Scout as unreliable/wildly inconsistent narrator. So we have Scout, the narrator, who is clearly looking back on the events of her childhood as an adult, narrating the story as a grown women. But. The narration itself is more or less told from the perspective of Scout the Child, not Scout the Adult Looking Back on Being a Child. Or I should say, sometimes it is told from the perspective (naivete, innocence, and general lovable childlike-ness) of Scout as Child, and other times it's told as Scout as Adult Looking Back on Being a Child (understanding, wisdom, etc). And sometimes the two even mesh, with Scout as Child using astoundingly advanced diction (she's like 7, 8, 9 years old in the course of the book). Now, I recognize that Scout is very smart, mostly because Atticus is very smart and took time to read to them, teach them, etc. But still. Her vocabulary at times is just not very believable.

Anyway, it's not really a flaw, because I imagine Miss Lee and her editor certainly saw this "narrative problem", but it makes for interesting discussion, in terms of how much can we trust Scout as Narrator? Because if this is an adult narrating the story, it makes it a very different novel than if it were a child (as it is generally accepted it is, narrated by a child that is). Adults manipulate narrative, especially ones they're personally involved in, skewing certain events, maybe bringing things together in black and white terms where maybe they don't exist. Making themselves (and the ones they love) come off in a better light than maybe they were originally cast.

It was interesting reading a little bit of the criticism surrounding the book. It seems that not everyone loves this "modern American classic." Flannery O'Connor thought it was fine as young adult novel but shouldn't be read otherwise. Some critics thought the black characters in the story were underdeveloped (which they were) and Calpurnia was cast as the "contented slave". Attitus comes off as "stiff and self-righteous". Scout is a "highly constructed doll". And other stuff like that. To which I respond: You have a point.

Also, a few studies have concluded that white students respond more positively to the text, while black students find it "demoralizing" and view it ambivalently.

"...Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret court of men's hearts Atticus had no case." pg. 275

Friday, August 13, 2010

No, Seriously, You Haven't Read Anything Like This

BodyWorld by Dash Shaw
384 pages
published by Pantheon

So, there's this sex, drugs, and rock n roll botanist who is doing "research" in Boney Borough, a kind of future utopia community. This botanist is basically just Professor Drug Addict, looking for the next crazy high via plant life. And this utopia, this Boney Borough, is...well, it's a strange place. And Professor Drug Addict discovers this new plant-drug which allows the drug user to experience true empathy, as they briefly "become" who ever they encounter while high. But...well, I don't want to reveal too much. Any more plot detail would give too much away. But I will say it involves aliens.

The art work is pretty crazy and I can tell Shaw had a fun time with the not only the medium, but with colors. And it seems like his imagination just kinda puked on the page, and I mean that as a compliment. Worth checking out, if you're down for some craziness. Oh, also, it's pretty dang funny.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

New Don DeLillo Interview

Check out this new interview with Don DeLillo over at the Guardian, as he talks about his new book, Point Omega, and generally just says awesome things about fiction.
Also, this dude over at the Huffington Post rates and skewers the 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers.