Monday, March 28, 2011

Throwing off the Casino Mindset: David Foster Wallace on Life, the Universe, and Everything

"Although of course you end up becoming yourself," David Foster Wallace tells David Lipsky on the promotional tour for Infinite Jest in 1996. They converse through the week about identity, self-actualization, when and why we eat certain meals, the relationships between writers at conferences, the effects of books reviews on writers' psyches, managing depression, the purpose of writing workshops, the dangers in stow for avant garde and experimental writers, and handling insomnia and book tour and the different brands of fame. (Btw, eggs in the morning--eggs are a nascent, transient form of life, just as we're gradually growing into our waking states--and meat in the evening--decomposing animal matter as we fade into unconsciousness.)

This/These is/are the subject(s) of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a transcript of Lipsky's time interviewing DFW for a 1996 Rolling Stone essay. Straight transcriptions of Lipsky's tapes, complete with Lipsky's notations telling us what they're doing, as they do it. This is a biography as only DFW could write it--a prolonged and rambling and brilliant account of DFW's history, his beliefs, and his values.

And refreshingly, the DFW in the transcript reads like the coy and insightful DFW of his books.

I was struck by many of the things appearing in DFW's rambling answers to Lipsky's questions and comments, as well as the way DFW flipped the interviewing role, often transforming Lipsky into the subject, scrutinized in DFW's witty asides and one-liners. And we cannot, of course, ignore the cultural references abounding throughout their repartee.

Most interesting, though, was how DFW attacks the casino mindset (he says it really latches on to writers at conferences, parties, and the like) and claims that fixating on that competition between writers simply ruins art and the ability of insightful and dedicated young artists by damaging their self esteem and their ambition: "And I don't know if Rolling Stone readers are interested, it's just—most bright people, something happens in your late twenties, where you realize that this other, that how other people regard you does not have enough calories in it, to keep you from blowing your brains out. That you've got to find, make some other détente."

There's some great stuff in this book—and it's not hard to draw connections between the thoughts here and DFW's other stories and novels—but this idea, handling fame, reoccurs often. DFW argues throughout that his exchanges with Lipsky that fame can destroy, that pride can be equally fatal. The dialogue is often tragic, especially since we approach the transcript with knowledge of DFW's suicide.

But we also have to consider that DFW postulates here something he describes much more eloquently in This Is Water: some thoughts on leading a compassionate life. A compassionate life consists of more than considering what others feel, think, and believe; DFW tells us, as he speaks to Lipsky and masticates plugs of chewing tobacco, that we have to remember that we are human beings as well, and we should never let ourselves decline back into the darkest, most threatening times of our lives.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Of Phones and Supermen: A Brief Interlude from Wednesday Poetry

Last night, my brother Joe and I were talking on the phone about (here's the jab of postmodern irony) phones. I mentioned my love for those old Nokia clunkers that could do only three things: make calls, send texts, and let you play that really cool game where the snake eats the apples. Joe may have said something about replacing his cell phone with a clay tablet, a stylus, and a pterodactyl. We both agreed, though, that cell phones have created the best of times and the worst of times.

You can contact people easily, but you can't get away from them. You can have your phone with you everywhere (great for emergencies), but people don't understand that there are reasons as to why you're not answering your phone (meetings, conferences, driving, rendered incoherent courtesy of a fever...need I go on?).

Oh, and have we mentioned that there are places cell phones don't work? Such as subway tunnels or random valleys across the Pennsylvania wilds?

Not only that, cell phones have changed the way our culture works, and I thought about this when I read this morning's Pearls before Swine strip (which is the work of Stephan Pastis). Goat says that he misses phone booths, and Rat--always having a snide comment--retorts with a rhetorical question: "Who needs stupid phone booths when everyone has a cell phone?" In the next panel, Goat and Rat glance over their shoulders toward Superman, a single emo tear dangling from his eye as he pulls open his Clark Kent garb to reveal his logo. Rat then says, "Forgot about that guy."

Yes, I understand that the iPhone 4 has come to Verizon, and I'm sure that its successor, the iPhone 5, will allow us to communicate anywhere across time and space, brew fresh tea or coffee on the go, hover over our shoulders and whisper financial advice into our ears, and...well, you get the picture. Regardless, there are some things that phones, despite their seemingly Kryptonian capabilities, cannot do. Walk into a tunnel, lose signal, and your super iPhone becomes a clunky iPod touch.

And besides--enough of our pop culture figures rely on phone booths and their cousins, police boxes, to save the world time and again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mechanical Penguins Will Resume Marching Shortly

No Wednesday Poetry today--I'm off to Susquehanna tomorrow for a fair mix of loitering and guest appearances.

Regular posts shall resume forthwith. Ciao!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Not Dead Yet: Marginalia and the Book

There was a recent New York Times article on marginalia, those little scribbles that bibliophiles scrawl in books' margins. Dirk Johnson, the article's author, suggests that the increase in electronic publishing modes decreases the interest in books and, consequentially, that little spark of insight that often comes when we read with a pencil in hand. An economic argument saturates the piece, which is noticeable through Johnson's opening anecdote--Mark Twain's notes in Walter Besant's The Pen and the Book. Johnson comments about the marginalia that makes an otherwise unimportant book rather valuable: "The scribbler was Mark Twain, who had penciled, among other observations, a one-way argument with the author, Walter Besant, that 'nothing could be stupider' than using advertising to sell books as if they were 'essential goods' like 'salt' or 'tobacco.'”

Johnson traps his reader in viewing the book only as a fetishized object--the very "essential goods" categorization that Twain derides. If we do not take notes in books, books will depreciate in value, and this important exchange of ideas--like a flow of currency--will get dammed for good. It's a recent tolling of the printed book's death knells.

The essential aspect of marginalia is not the exchange value it generates for a book but--if we're going to get ourselves stuck in Johnson's materialist world--the book's use value. Marginalia creates a community of readers that supersedes generations. I arrived at this idea (and remembered Johnson's article) as I read a poem in Rachel Hadas's collection The River of Forgetfulness. In that poem, "Marginalia," Hadas informs her reader that "[w]ho scans and skips misses the ghostly power / of all the readers who have come before" and that "the measliest annotation / helps us determine by triangulation / what some previous peruser thought." For those of us who have an affection for used books, we can feel the hands of previous readers as we turn through the pages, and if we encounter a note scribbled in the margin, we find ourselves stumbling into a discussion about life, literature, and politics.

But why does this mean the book is dying? Or that marginalia has had its day? We need to consider the possibility that the text is communicating outside the page's confines. Book reviews, critical essays, the lot of literary nonfiction--all of these can amount to marginalia that's too big to smash into the margins. Electronic publishing is good for what it's good for--taking books on the go and having something to read in transit. But there's nothing like a solid, close reading--something that college English professors should make clear cannot occur without a pencil in hand. That can be through marginalia or notations. The whole point of marginalia isn't how it boosts a book's cost but how it boosts the knowledge we get from reading.

Consider this my footnote on Johnson's New York Times article. Especially since I read it online and don't care to run Sharpie all over my MacBook's screen.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "A Postcard from the Volcano," by Wallace Stevens

I've recently started getting into Wallace Stevens's poetry. The interest stems, partially, from the fact that Stevens was a Pennsylvanian who departed from that state (I'm learning that PA has some serious issues with retaining its artists), but I'm more interested in the philosophy of his poems.

"A Postcard from the Volcano" builds together a variety of images that open us up to a wide range of readings. We can see, from the "[c]hildren picking up our bones," a reading that focuses on the older generation lamenting its death and what little it has left to its successors, but there are also intimations that the development of culture is beyond our control: Stevens places spring clouds above a shuttered mansion house in the middle of the poem, which suggests that even new seasons arrive over our closed-off institutions. There are lots of different ways to read this poem.

This poem contains lots of complicated imagery, so don't rely on my gloss alone.

"A Postcard from the Volcano" (1936)
Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion-house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion's look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is...Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Real World Is a Dangerous Place

The real world is a dangerous place, and in a novel that manages to grasp that teenage sentiment of "Nobody understands me" while avoiding Holden Caulfield-esque angst, Japanese novelist Natsuo Kirino sets up, like dominos, a chain of relationships and events that topple over, irreparably change the lives of a few teenaged girls. The novel grapples with issues of self-identity and belief, as well as pressing issues like the psychological states of teenagers facing increased pressure to succeed.

This novel, Real World, comes to us in a very conversational tone, courtesy of Philip Gabriel's deft translation and a series of first-person narrators. Symbolically, the novel opens with Toshiko penciling in her eyebrows and the blaring of a smog alarm--indicators that our characters will struggle to draw themselves, distinctly, against suffocating odds. She is about to leave her house for summer break sessions at a cram school when she overhears a ruckus from her neighbors' house. While biking to the train station, she runs into the neighbors' son, a thin boy she calls "Worm," and confronts him about the experience. Worm, however, claims that she must have the wrong house.

But while Toshiko is at the cram school, Worm absconds with her bike and the cell phone that Toshiko left in the basket. He calls Toshiko's friends Terauchi, Yuzan, and Kirarin; in these conversations, Worm confesses to murdering his mother that morning because she pressured him into attending an elite high school where he couldn't succeed. That theft--and the resulting phone calls--are an undertow, sucking the girls into a whirlpool of events that they cannot escape.

The encounters with Worm force Toshiko to tackle her ambitions to remain anonymous; Terauchi, with depression and her mother's affairs; Yuzan, with her homosexuality; and Kirarin, with her disparate personae of sex object and good girl.

Terauchi, whose depression jades her observations with a considered nihilism, speaks of "irreparable" acts--those things that forever alter our realities, our individual abilities to be ourselves. Terauchi says, "I've hidden my distrust of my mother and am doing my best to trust her and love her. But it might not work out. Because I love somebody I don't trust anymore, I've lost all faith in myself....Check it out, Worm. This is what I mean by something irreparable. Not murdering your mother." Terauchi claims--in an object lesson for all of the characters in Real World--that ignoring your real problems fixes nothing. Worm cannot succeed as a student even without his mother. But Terauchi has destroyed her own reality in order to discover this; by internalizing her own problem, by refusing to live with it, she succumbs to her depression as the novel's events careen recklessly forward.

Critics from publications as diverse as the Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice have praised the feminism and the grittiness in Natsuo Kirino's work, and a novel like Real World adds something to this dialogue. These events do not occur in isolation, although our thoughts do. To understand a situation, we have to--like Terauchi--understand the difficulty of relationships, but we must learn to encounter these problems.