Just finished reading Thomas Bernhard’s _The Woodcutters_

coverAnd let me tell you, it was super weird. The whole thing is two big paragraphs. It’s all told as the ramblings of a guy sitting in a chair at a party, reflecting on the artistic culture of Vienna and his estrangement from it. Very interesting. I thought that the form gave it a kind of pressured quality that suited the content. See, now some people would call a novel like this an experimental novel, because it certainly has a form that’s not very typical.

But don’t experiments have to be new? This is not new. It’s very similar to Molly Bloom’s soliloquoy in Ulysses. And who knows, maybe it wasn’t even an experiment back then. There’s not much in art that is new. There are just millions upon millions of models and techniques. And some models are more commonly used than others, because they are more accessible and more effective in most situations. But that doesn’t mean that the other models are somehow cutting-edge; they’re just rarer.

Sometimes you tell a story that requires you to dig a bit deeper into your toolkit of models, and that’s when you end up being like, “Huzzah, this story needs to be all in one paragraph.” Or, alternatively, you’re like, “I want to write a story that’s all in one paragraph. What kind of content would best fit that form?”

But it’s still not experimental.

Which is not to say that there are not real experiments. I am sure that new techniques are being created all the time. I just bet that most of them are not particularly useful

The main barrier to enjoying Ulysses is not the novel’s incomprehensibility; it’s the sheer tedium of some of its sections

ulysses            Last night, a former Clarion classmate and I were talking about the ultimate blow-off critique: “The writing in this is good.” That critique got so ubiquitous at Clarion that the instructors started disallowing it.

That’s because people use “the writing is good” to mean “this kind of looks and sounds like a real story, instead of something that an eight year old would write,” rather than to mean, “this writing had an emotional effect on me.”

Writing isn’t good in the abstract. Good writing does something to the reader. That’s what makes it good. Personally, I think of good writing as being mostly about observation. Writing is good if it captures the world in a new way. And the best way to do that is to see something no one else has seen or to see it in a way that no one else has seen it.

If writing is judged by the “does this do anything to me” standard, then very little writing is good. And if the writing does do something to you, then there are more important and more specific things to say about it than “the writing is good.”

That’s why I rarely comment on the writing in any of the books I read. And it’s also why I distrust any book recommendation that focuses primarily on the writing. It makes me think that the reviewer is judging the book according to some abstract technical standard rather than according to their own experience.

The ultimate “the writing is good” book has to be Ulysses. People are like, “Oh, the writing is good. And also there are lots of references to…things. And if you get the references, it’ll be, like, good and stuff.”

Well, I can tell you that I did not get the references. The last time I read The Odyssey was two years ago, and I didn’t consciously look for parallel’s while reading Joyce’s book. And there were some whole pages of the book that referred to events and places that I don’t know about. For instance, there’s a running sort of gag about Arius, who was an early church heretic who died on the toilet. While I got those, the obscurity made me realize that there must be dozens upon dozens of similar things that I am not getting.

The writing definitely good. But not in the way that I talked about above. There are a few sections (like the third section, when Stephen Dedalus is walking on the beach) that are so beautifully sketched out that you actually see what they’re looking at.

But, no, mostly the writing is good in the sense that it is fabulously controlled. For most of the book, we’re in the head of Leopold Bloom, who thinks in a very fragmented, scattershot way. And it’d be easy to think that Joyce wrote it in that sort of way too. But when he slips into the heads of other people–Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom, Gertie (a girl on the beach), a random anti-semitic bar patron–you see that he has this incredibly protean voice: he is capable of creating so many different effect.

Ulysses is very different from most novels, but it is still a novel and it does tell a story. It’s about people who are trying to find safe harbor. As the book goes on, you understand the characters more and more. Leopold Bloom is fantastically complex. He’s not the everyman counterpart to Dedalus’ intellectual. No, Bloom is obviously very well-educated and very thoughtful. I think some people confuse Bloom’s erudition for Joyce’s, but that’s obviously not the case: Molly Bloom and Gertie don’t have any of the same sort of flights of fancy. So he’s a thoughtful guy. But he’s also earthy. He’s very concerned with sex and shit and food. He’s concerned with saving the money to buy a house and whether/how his wife is cuckolding him. When he climbs into bed with Molly at the end of the novel, the last thing he does before falling asleep is, literally, kiss her ass. It’s hard to imagine Stephen Dedalus doing something like that.

There’s a vitality to Leopold Bloom that’s missing from modern-day portraits of educated intellectuals. Even in cases where intellectuals are portrayed as being virile and capable (as in Saul Bellow’s novels), there’s also an exhausted element to them: a sense that they’re not of this world and are incapable of enjoying ordinary things in an ordinary way.

The beauty of Ulysses is that, because of its length and variety, Joyce doesn’t need to merely sketch out his characters. Instead, there is at least the illusion of completeness. And so you can see tiny movements within the soul that an ordinary novel would need to leave out. Because Molly Bloom’s final soliloquoy is so long, you can see how she both hates and needs sex; hates and needs Bloom. You can feel her disdain and even apathy towards him, and then be swept up by the sense of partnership she feels with him: her knowledge that they are bound together and will go through this world alongside each other.

The downside to Ulysses is not that it’s incomprehensible. It’s really not. You’ll probably understand most of what’s going on. And the parts you won’t understand aren’t really going to affect the heart of the story. No, the downside is that it’s a bit tedious. I read it over the course of 45 days, but the bulk of that reading was done over maybe 4-5 days (I read the last 40% while trapped in the Denver airport because my flight was delayed). The reason it took me so long is that I got bogged down in the interminable “Oxen of the Sun” section. In this part, Bloom and Dedalus and a bunch of med students are partying in/next to a hospital while an acquaintance gives birth next door. And every few pages, the style of the voice changes as Joyce gradually works his way through all of English literature (i.e. there’s a John Bunyan section and a Defoe section and a Dickens section, etc.) And while I was pretty amused and impressed. I was also bored. If it’d been a paragraph of each, the section would’ve been a tour-de-force. But, as it is, the joke goes on for way too long. And it’s like that with a number of sections.

However, that’s okay. Some of my most favorite books have intermittently bored me (Dickens is a particular culprit here).

Oh, on a sidenote, I will say that this book made me appreciate Mrs. Dalloway even more. There’s a book that accomplished many of the same aims as Ulysses…but did it in maybe a fourth of the length.

Finished reading Hard Times and went back to Ulysses

Reading a book like Ulysses is interesting. It makes me realize how much skimming I do when I read. Although the book does have a plot and a progression, you really can’t stop paying attention for even a second, or you lose track of where and when you are and whose head you’re in.  It’s a book that can only be read when you’re in possession of a lot of silence.

Normally books that were revolutionary in their day continue to sound revolutionary. I’m not sure why that is. For instance, I’ve never yet read anything quite like Orlando. But Ulysses isn’t quite like that. Many of its techniques–the fragmented sentences, the interlocking mosaic quality of the details, the frequent neologisms–feel really familiar, because they’ve been thoroughly assimilated into the canon.

For instance, Ulysses continually reminds me of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, which is also a very stream-of-consciousness book that takes place over a very compressed time period (a weekend). When I read that book, I was blown away by the heightened effect created by focusing on the hour by hour experience of this guy. It made even little things–a conversation, or a visit to a burger joint–into epic adventures. But the fact that I was blown away then, kind of prevents me from being quite as blown away now =)


Trying to post more often (+some thoughts on Joyce’s Ulysses)

Normally, I post fairly length posts three times a week (almost always during a weekday). And I propagate all my posts to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. But I think I am going to start trying to post whenever I feel like it (i.e. more than three times a week) and then I’ll only propagate some of the posts to Facebook (which directs way, way more traffic in my direction than all the other services). That way my biggest fans can get more of me and I can also address lighter topics when I want.

Hmm, now I need a lighter topic…well, I started reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m a tenth of the way through and enjoying it so far. Even when I don’t understand what exactly is happening, I still like the writing. It really puts you there. The whole third part of the book is Stephen Daedalus walking along a beach and thinking about stuff. And sometimes that stuff is pretty obscure. But you always get brought back to the beach. It’s a very concrete, beautiful, and lonely place.

I’m not reading the book w/ the help of any kind of guide. I find that guides and footnotes and all that stuff are good for academics, but they’re bad for the reading experience. I don’t want to understand every bit of Ulysses…I want to enjoy it. However, I can definitely see why reading guides exist. Take for instance, this passage (from the aforementioned walk along the beach):

Wombed in sin darkness I was too, made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath. They clasped and sundered, did the coupler’s will. From before the ages He willed me and now may not will me away or ever. A lex eterna stays about Him. Is that then the divine substance wherein Father and Son are consubstantial? Where is poor dear Arius to try conclusions? Warring his life long upon the contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality. Illstarred heresiarch’ In a Greek watercloset he breathed his last: euthanasia. With beaded mitre and with crozier, stalled upon his throne, widower of a widowed see, with upstiffed omophorion, with clotted hinderparts.

Now, obv, this is about Arius, a 3rd century Christian heretic–he believed that the Father was greater than the Son and arose prior to him, rather than them being equal–who died because his bowels burst.  And I think the reason he’s coming up is because Stephen is thinking about his own relation to his family (and church, etc, etc.)

I got this reference because I know about Arius. But it made me realize that there must be a ton of references that I’m not getting. Which is fine by me. Nothing is more annoying than stopping to look stuff up.

Wrap Up Season: Surprisingly Good Books, Part One

In an effort to sum up my year’s reading, I divided up the books I read into four categories: Surprisingly Good, Predictably Good, Left Me With Mixed Feelings, and BAD!!! (there’s also a fifth category of books that I didn’t feel like listing, or talking about). Then I divided up them up further by the list of books that I had something to say about and the list that I had nothing to say about.

There were 31 Surprisingly Good books that I decided to honor with little capsule-thinks.  That’s a lot. And that’s why I decided to present sixteen today and the other fifteen tomorrow. Now, first of all, maybe you’re owed a little explanation. What makes a book “Surprisingly Good”? It’s an entirely subjective assessment. I gave it to all the books which surprised me with their goodness. As I noted yesterday, sometimes one goes into a reading experience knowing that the book is going to be good. I feel like it’s much more satisfying when you’re just bopping along, reading a book, for whatever reason, and then suddenly, wham, it turns out to be really good.

Now, there is an open question as to whether I should have been surprised by the goodness of some of these books. After all, some of these authors, like James Baldwin, are hella famous and were on the cover of Time and everything! Some of these books, like the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, are genuwine classics, from hella far back, and have provided the titles to like fifteen Doors songs. But for whatever reason, usually owing entirely to some personal prejudice or lack of knowledge, I was not sure that any of the following books was going to be any good.

(Okay, I am halfway through writing these capsule-thinks, and I note they are extremely lacking in any sort of depth, and usually don’t even manage to explain much about the story and why I liked it. Often they devolve into some kind of personal anecdote that has little relevance to the book in question. But what can you expect? They are a single paragraph long!)

Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin – All I knew about James Baldwin before I read this book was that he was black and gay and American and wrote in a vaguely post-WWII time frame. Now I know much more about him, because this novel is the bomb. The “present-day” action of the novel takes place within an all-night prayer session that the teenage protagonist is attending at his father’s church in Harlem. But most of the novel is taken up with three long stories detailing the lives of the boy’s father, aunt, and mother and how they got to where they are, and how their lives became so complicated. I read this book on a plane (to India), and a plane is something like an all-night prayer vigil. It is dark and hushed and still, but with a constant thrum of noise and flickering of light.

 Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke – Burke is hailed as one of the intellectual forebears of modern-day conservatism. In his day, the liberals were those damned French revolutionaries, and one of those nitwits wrote to him asking what he thought of the exciting events in France (he published this in 1790, well before most of the blood started being spilt). In this 90,000 word letter (or, I hope, series of letters), Mr. Burke certainly set that fool straight. I thought it was fascinating in the places where it denounced the idea that radical change is something to be desired. I really have no clue what the actual relationship of Burke’s thought is to modern-day conservatism, but I hope it is related. I don’t think that being suspicious of change or of utopian promises is a bad thing (especially not after reading this book).

Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather – I read this on the same plane-trip during which I read the Baldwin novel, above. Yes, it was a truly magical journey. I picked up this novel solely because of the title. It was not any kind of Gothic horror, though…it was about Catholic priests in the 19th century Southwest. The novel is incredibly flat. There are no big conflicts. There are no huge struggles, or character issues. There is a lot of tromping through various wildernesses. But the flatness is somehow part of its charm. Tales of exploration somehow never manage to convey the bigness of the world the way this story did. If the path in front of you is unknown, then every place is a destination. But if you’re on a long, lonely journey between two isolated outposts – a road that has been mapped, but rarely traveled – you’re somehow far more alone than Lewis and Clark ever were.

Journey To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineYou might have noticed that sometime around the end of March I began using a lot of ellipses in my online conversations…yeah…that was because of this book. It’s basically a picaresque involving a brutally cynical Frenchman who gets involved in a lot of unpleasant adventures: WWI, acting as a colonial agent at an outpost in Africa, working at a Detroit auto plant, being an orderly in a hospital, entering into private practice as a doctor in a poor Parisian suburb…….all of these things turn out to be extremely disagreeable to him! Also there are ellipses, glorious ellipses…

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany – I expected a lot of good things from this book, since I am a big fan of Samuel Delany’s work. But my expectations were exceeded so dramatically and in such a different way than I imagined, that I am putting it on this list.

Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – I dunno about you, but I am a little on the fence about Dostoyevsky…I mean, I liked Brothers Karamazov and all, but somehow it was just a tiny bit…overwrought…and all over the place…but after reading Camus refer extensively to this novel in an essay on absurd heroes, I decided to give it a shot. Also, it’s about politics and revolutions and conspiracies. Except the first hundred and fifty pages are not about that at all! They’re about the exceedingly sweet platonic romance between an old has-been (who really never-was) scholar and his wealthy widowed patron. It’s difficult to describe the cuteness of this beginning part (which is long enough to be a regular person’s whole novel). The rest of the novel is pretty good too, at least, I liked it better than Brothers K.

The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner – Yes, I know that Faulkner has been certified “the shit” by the King of Sweden, but the court of Rahul’s bookshelf obeys a much sterner master! And this master does not like being confused! It makes him feel stupid! He squeals and wails and bays like Chewbacca whenever he feels stupid! So my jury was out on William Faulkner. But now it is in. He’s pretty good. Otherwise, there’s not much to say.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward FitzGerald (and also, I guess, Omar Khayyam). – This is the first book of poetry I have ever read. Somehow poetry just doesn’t sit with me. I mean, I enjoy poems on occasion. But I don’t understand how one reads a “book” of poems, just poem after poem. It’s madness! Luckily, Edward FitzGerald (the translator) edited together the poems to, kind of, tell something of a story. At least, it made sense as a story to me. Furthermore, my version had the first and the fifth edition of the work, one after the other, so I read everything twice (albeit the second time it was subtly different). I liked it a lot. I read this while I was snowed in for seven straight days by the East Coast’s Great January Snowpocalypse.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman – Sandman has always struck me as having an extremely dull premise – “Oh there’s this guy, the personification of Dreams…except he doesn’t really do anything…he just gets progressively more emo”. Also, I don’t know about you, but I am not totally committed to Neil Gaiman’s work. Sometimes, as with Stardust or Good Omens, I like it a lot. But other times, like with American Gods, I don’t dislike it…I just don’t quite…understand the point of it…or why it exists…….But after reading it, I totally understand the point of Sandman. These comics are extremely horrifying. I read pretty much all of them between 3 AM and 5 AM, while I was pulling a string of late nights for a work project, so that might have contributed to the feeling. But there’s just such a bleakness to the Sandman cosmology…no one really cares about anyone…even Dreams’ brothers and sisters can only muster up a tiny modicum of concern for him. There’s nothing to hope for. But then it’s shot through with little wonderful things, like the adult woman who goes into her own childhood dream-world to save her little dream-kingdom from a great, big dream-evil, or Merv Pumpkinhead, the wise-ass janitor of the dreams. I guess all of those are typical Gaimanisms (American God was full of them), but they seem so much more enchanting in Sandman than ordinarily…

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett – The first Dashiell Hammett book I’d ever read, and it was an amazing experience. First of all, this is not a mystery…this is just bodies piling up until answers come tumbling out of the pile. Secondly, it’s kind of amazing how Hammett can give you a protagonist with no real background, no desires, not even a name, and make you like him. There’s something flamboyant and fun about the Continental Op. Later on, when Hammet gets around to creating a real character, in the Thin Man, it is truly mind-blowing, but by the time I read that (two weeks after Red Harvest), I had grown to expect the mind-blowing from him, because in that intervening two weeks, I’d read all the other novels he’d written.

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne – If you’ve ever lived in anything resembling a quasi-utopian cooperative community, you have to read this book! I think I underlined this book more than any other I’ve read, just because various passage so strongly reminded me of Synergy (in a good way, although all the passages were about slightly ridiculous aspects of communal living). Basically, back in the mid-1800s, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife and a whole bunch of their other Great Awakening-type buddies (Margaret Fuller, some other transcendentalist folks, etc), all decided to move out to a farm in New Hampshire and make a whole new and more honest society. Evidently, it was hilarious. But this book is better than most books about utopian experiments because it is not about the failure of said experiment (although the farm does fail, horribly). Instead, it’s a dark and tragic love story. But it’s hard to take said love story seriously. This book is really just sweet, and funny. It’s about friends hanging out together and shooting the shit. It’s about falling, in the course of a single summer, strongly under the sway of a strong personality in a way that disfigures you for life.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – So, like three years ago I was visiting a friend in Portland (Hey Brian!) and he loaned me his copy of A Moveable Feast. And in between bouts of getting hammered, I finished the entire book before the weekend was over. But I had always assumed that the brilliance of A Moveable Feast was an outgrowth of Hemingway’s intensely bombastic personality, and I was suspicious that if he was allowed to fictionalize his pretensions (more so than they were in A Moveable Feast, that is), then I would very much dislike the result. But…I didn’t. He manages to keep it under control. Like a lot of these sorts of books (egotistical young man books), it’s saved by love, and by understanding. The ego of the protagonist gets displaced onto his friends, and he delights in building them up…also the fiesta that caps the book is really something….

Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume Mr. Hume has satisfactorily demonstrated to me that it’s impossible to directly perceive any sort of causal relationship, it is only possible to deduce one from repeated observation. That’s a lot of good to get out of a work of philosophy, and much more than I get out of most of them.

Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood – I finished this book while I was on a train to Berlin. I read it because it was the only book I knew of that was about Berlin. It was indescribably good. Like, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. I’m sorry I already used up my line about “egotistical young man books” because I want to use it again, but only more so. Isherwood paints all the people his author alter-ego (which is, for half the stories, actually named “Christopher Isherwood”) meets in Weimar Berlin with a very kind brush. There’s not even a single villain amongst them. Most magnificent is his landlord, Frau. Schroeder. In any other book, she’d be a stock character. She’d be predictably ridiculous and consequently ridiculed. I’ve read that character many times. But Isherwood makes her, if not quite a real character (all of his characters are faintly unreal), then at least a beautiful and enchanting character.

Varieties of Religious Experience by William James – Few books describe themselves so well, or so succinctly, in their titles. This is a series of twenty lectures that James gave at the University of Edinburgh around 1901. In it, he goes through, and describes, very comprehensively, and from a psychological point of view (with no eye towards their truth or falseness), the “Varieties of Religious Experience”. When I read it, I was surprised that I had never heard of anyone doing such a thing before. It’s the kind of book that teaches you to see, not by showing you knew things, but by explaining what it is you’ve spent your life looking at, without noticing.

Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce – When I read Dubliners a few years ago, I was like, “Wow, this is actually really good. I expected it to be totally unreadable.” I don’t know why that didn’t preclude me from having exactly the same reaction to this book. I particularly enjoyed the scene (of some ten or twenty pages), where a priest at Dedalus’ school is calling down all kinds of awesome hellfire on them.