June 2016 Books, Part 1


The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy

Man, not into this. I guess I’ve gotten tired of this genre of—I want to say shaggy dog stories, but Wikipedia classifies this as a picaresque novel and sure, that seems more accurate. I might have enjoyed this more a few years ago, when there was some sort of appeal in how subversive it felt for a piece of “classic” literature to explicitly depict its protagonist doing gross, human things. But that no longer is inherently interesting, I guess, or perhaps 1955 is still too modern to count. Instead, the depravity in which the protagonist of The Ginger Man engages is kind of tiring and frustrating to read about; borrowing money, blowing it on drink, cheating on his wife, etc.– it’s not extreme enough to be shocking nor are the situations especially funny to me, for the most part.

Also, all of the switching between first and third person, often within the same paragraph—why ? Is it supposed to illustrate the protagonist’s delusions of grandeur or something? Is it a tribute to and/or parody of some other work that I’m not familiar with?

Selected quote:

“I guess all I want out of this life is a decent fire in the grate, a rug on the floor and a comfortable chair to sit in and read. And just a few quid I don’t have to slave for and mix with people with money, not, I may add, in your exact circumstances, Dangerfield. But Jesus, when you don’t have any money, the problem is food. When you have money, it’s sex. When you have both it’s health, you worry about getting rupture or something. If everything is simply jake then you’re frightened of death.”

NW, Zadie Smith

Super fun read with a super unsatisfying ending. It just sort of ends, and a lot of the elements that were introduced earlier and seemed like they would lead to something…don’t. And I guess is true of life, so perhaps the non-ending is intentional. NW seems dedicated to realism in a way that Smith’s other books don’t, quite; I wouldn’t say that On Beauty, White Teeth, and The Autograph Man are magical realist or even close, but they do seem to take place in an alternate literary reality that hinges on Meaningful Coincidences. How to put this–the plot points in those three books feel very neat and poignant, but also sort of inorganic in how poignant they are? Which is not by any means bad–it’s a very satisfying form of plotting that makes one feel like there are AP Lit essays to be written on the subject–but it’s not necessarily a realistic depiction of life.

Then again, in one of her essays in Changing My Mind (more on that in Part 2), Smith says:

I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.

So there’s that, although I assume she’s being somewhat facetious.

Selected quote:

It did not strike Keisha Blake that such feelings of alienation are the banal fate of adolescents everywhere. She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world.

But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, Chuck Klosterman

I was prepared to love this book, because I have read Klosterman’s complete bibliography and the particular premise implied by the title is one that I think about all the fucking time. It’s perhaps very freshman philosophy student of me to be like, “Whoa, mannnn, what if someday we view Judeo-Christian religions as being as based in fiction and superstition as we currently view Hellenistic religion? What if [insert scientific theory that is currently considered Truth] is debunked and becomes as ridiculous as the pre-Copernican model of the universe? What if the changes in social etiquette brought about by iPhones aren’t just a temporary or generational thing?” but yes, that is what I do.

And so, there is something especially irritating about Klosterman’s consistent tone of “you probably think I’m crazy for saying this, but bear with me and I’ll convince you” throughout the book, when you already basically agree with the author’s premise. When, in fact, you might believe it more strongly than the author himself. Also, dude should probably stick to discussing sports and pop culture rather than trying to get into science, although I think the Internet’s beloved Neil deGrasse Tyson1 came off the most poorly in those sections, and Klosterman does essentially explain why:

When I sat down in [Brian] Greene’s office and explained the premise of my book—in essence, when I explained that I was interested in considering the likelihood that our most entrenched assumptionss about the universe might be wrong—he viewed the premise as playful. His unspoken reaction came across as “This is a fun, non-crazy hypothetical.” Tyson’s posture was different. His unspoken attitude was closer to “This is a problematic, silly supposition.” But here again, other factors might have played a role: As a public intellectual, Tyson spends a great deal of his time representing the scientific community in the debate over climate change. In certain circles, he has become the face of science. It’s entirely possible Tyson assumed my questions were veiled attempts at debunking scientific thought, prompting him to take an inflexibly hard-line stance.

Which, fair, I suppose.

The pop culture sections were better; particularly the background on Moby-Dick and the specific historical circumstances that conspired to take it from a poorly selling novel with mixed reviews to undeniably Great, and, as mentioned in a previous post, how the Wachowskis’ gender transitions will completely change how The Matriis interpreted by future generation in a way that was more or less unforeseeable in 1999.

The notion that “whoever gets arbitrarily selected to represent turn-of-the-twenty-first-century literary greatness is—at the moment—either totally unknown or widely disrespected” is an interesting one. There’s the implication that this person might be a genius pedophile publishing their works on the Deep Web, although even that is based on the idea of transposing Kafka into modern society; not to imply that Kafka was a pedophile, but “Contemporary Kafka will need to be a person so profoundly marginalized that almost no one currently views his or her marginalization as a viable talking point,” which to me can only mean pedophiles. And that would be fascinating; it would also be fascinating if, due to some future political event or social conditions or whatever that I can’t yet imagine, one of those authors of hardback airport thrillers transcends into Literary Greatness in the public’s imagination and every English department in a major university has at least one professor specializing in the works of David Baldacci, Lee Child, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, etc. I hope that the selection of this author occurs in my lifetime, although that may be too soon.

Also surprisingly interesting: the contemplation of the future of football. Probably only interesting because it affirmed what I already believe: the section on politics. So it’s not like I didn’t enjoy reading this book, but I could certainly delineate its strengths and weaknesses as YES when Klosterman actually goes deep into the hypotheticals he poses and offers historical perspective for his reasoning and NOPE when Klosterman tries to justify the book’s premise for the nth time or relies too much on quotes from “experts” as if they are Truth. I will certainly still be buying his next book in hardcover, if/when such a book should come out.

Selected quote:

Do you unconsciously believe that Shakespeare was an objectively better playwright than his two main rivals, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson? If so, have no fear—as far as the world is concerned, he was. If you want to prove that he was, all you need to do is go through the texts of their respective plays and find the passages that validate the opinion most of the world already accepts. It will not be difficult, and it will feel like the differences you locate are a manifestation of merit. But you will actually be enforcing a tautology: Shakespeare is better than Marlowe and Jonson because Shakespeare is more like Shakespeare, which is how we delineate greatness in playwriting. All three men were talented. All three had enough merit to become the historical equivalent of Shakespearean, had history unspooled differently. But it didn’t. It unspooled the way we understand it, and Shakespeare had almost nothing to do with that. He is remembered in a way that Marlowe and Jonson are not, particularly by those who haven’t really thought about any of these guys, ever.

To matter forever, you need to matter to those who don’t care.

The Farm, Tom Rob Smith

This is a psychological thriller dealing with mysterious events in a small Scandinavian community (you know the type) with an unusual narrative structure: the first-person narrator, Daniel, is living in London, and we hear about the events in question from his mother’s perspective as she tells the story him. So we get her first-person narration in blockquotes within his first-person narration, detailing Daniel’s perception of the events and his mother’s state of mind. Well, let’s allow Wikipedia to explain:

Protagonist Daniel’s life is collapsed by an unexpected phone call from his father, who informs him that his mother is suffering from intense paranoid delusions. Daniel’s mother, meanwhile, claims that she is wholly sane, insisting that Daniel’s father is part of a group that sexually accosts young women in their local Swedish district. Daniel is left torn between his parents and unsure of whom to trust.

It makes a surprisingly good pairing with the Klosterman, since there’s a lot of questioning of assumptions going on here: what if your perception of your parents and your childhood is completely wrong? How the fuck can you distinguish between a genuine conspiracy and the ravings of someone going through a mental breakdown? Especially when, as modern feminists, our instinct may be to over-correct for historical dismissal of “hysterical” women or the silencing of rape claims, when the unfortunate truth is that—even if it’s not as common as it historically believed—sometimes women are still going to be mentally unstable and/or liars, because, well, people.

So, yeah, it’s not clear until the very end of the book what the Truth is, and even then it’s still just like…shaky, because the rest of the book has trained you to trust no one and nothing. Which is unsettling, but makes for a compelling thriller, certainly.

Selected quote:

When our paths crossed she’d offer bland statements about the crops, or the weather, before departing with some remark about how exceptionally busy she was. She was always busy, never on the veranda with a novel, never swimming in the river. Even her parties were another way of keeping busy. Her conversation was a form of work—scrupulously asking the right questions without any genuine curiosity. She was a woman without pleasure.

Kitten Clone: The History of the Future at Bell Labs, Douglas Coupland

This was also a good pairing with the Klosterman. Well, kind of. Canadian Visionary Douglas Coupland addresses some of the same points—in terms of how much the world and people change with advances in technology and how unforeseeable that change is until it actually happens—but, like, so much better that I’m not really sure what to make of his complimentary tweet about Klosterman’s new book from a few months ago.

Man, Coupland just has such solid thoughts on technology and the future, and such a refereshing tone for writing about the subject that is, frankly, unexpected for someone born in the ’60s, although perhaps it shouldn’t be. He can talk about changes in behavior and values between generations without imposing any moral judgments on those changes or conveying a sense of “things were so much better in the old days” or even “things will be so much better in the future,” but rather, “things have been changing and things will change and these are the factors involved.”

Selected quote:

“Take the iPhone. Now that it’s here, it seems like it’s been here forever and was utterly inevitable. And yet, if you scour books and movies since the late nineteenth century, even science fiction, you find few devices that resemble the iPhone. To the extent that I’ve worked on a few futurological panels in my life, even if you stick a big bunch of pretty forward-looking people in a room with delicious food and drink for a few days, visualizing the future is still crazy hard.”

“You mean flying cars and that?”

“No. Not flying cars. The thing about the future is that it’s not too different from right now—in fact, it’s boringly very much like the present. Most of the buildings you see around you now are still around. Nature doesn’t change much, though global warming makes me curious to see if there will be cacti in the Canadian Arctic in a century. People don’t change much, either—except maybe in lifespan, health and proportions. People from a century ago would be amazed at how old the twenty-first century populace is. Changes tend to be subtle: unusual new pets; unexpected cleaning products; noise level (is the future noisier or quieter than right now?); higher protein intake; water bottles everywhere. Someone from forty years ago would be shocked to see how many varieties of mushrooms are now carried at the local Safeway. That’s the kind of change that really happens.”

1. I should note that my familiarity with Tyson is entirely from GIFs and that I have not actually watched any of his shows or speeches or whatever, because I am not a member of that particular “OMG SCIENCE!!!” culture. I may have at one point felt that there was some inherent value in knowing how things work, but this is no longer the case; in part because the answer often turns out to be super boring and complicated, and in part because it’s just impossible as society modernizes and we accept more and more black boxes into our daily lives. At one point, yeah, the natural world was mysterious, but you could pretty intuitively understand how, say, a carriage or bellows or an abacus worked. You could probably even figure out how to make them yourself, although they might not end up being the best quality. But now, there’s so much technology that requires specialist knowledge and layers upon layers of assumptions to truly understand, so how are you supposed to decide what’s worth understanding on a “how does it work” level and what’s worth understanding on a “how do I use it” level? How can you even pretend there’s any objective measure of worth there? ^


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