Whenever we sniff a layoff coming, which is always, each one of us thinks, It can't be me because ___.
When Lars started with us -- six months ago, nine months, a year ago? -- he was full of pep, but we managed to squeeze it out of him.
Or in Ferris's:
We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise.
And yet, reading both novels, I find myself skidding against the device. I like it when writers experiment with narrative stance, and I want to like both of these books. But I work in an office myself, and I don't find that a plural voice reflects my own generally more anguished experience of cubicle culture. The collective "we" is both limiting and liberating. Park and Ferris tend to rely on the comedy of recognition, of shared experience, and that's where this stance works. But Fyodor Dostoevsky could have never written in First Person Plural.
Yet the approach does add to the appeal of both novels, and I think it's best appreciated not as a cultural signifier but as an innovative device. The great television comedy The Office also seems to emanate from a strange, carefully constructed collective narrative stance. The characters in "The Office" seem to be filming some type of cosmic eternal reality show, which is why they make faces at the camera and give furtive interviews between scenes. Yet it's completely unclear who is watching this reality show and whether or not this reality show exists at all. Like Park's book and Ferris's book, "The Office" simply employs an off-center narrative stance as a great hiding place from which to stalk its prey.
The modern craze for First Person Plural reminds me of the craze for Second Person Singular during the "Breakfast Club" literary scene of the 1980's. Jay McInerney's Bright Lights Big City was ground zero of the "you" craze with this opening line:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.
Many followed, including Lorrie Moore, Don Delillo, Ann Beattie, Nicholson Baker, Julian Barnes and Frederick Barthelme. Hell, I tried it myself, with utterly unsatisfying results. Twenty years later, whatever happened to Second Person Singular? Writers from Chuck Palahniuk to Junot Diaz still use it, but now nobody calls it seminal. I guess the fashion went out with Spy Magazine.
The funny thing about both First Person Plural and Second Person Singular is that, while they are relatively rare occurences in fiction, they are both used widely in song lyrics. First Person Plural:
"We Shall Overcome"
"This is D-Block"
Second Person Singular:
"Don't You Forget About Me"
"I Got You Babe"
"Do The Hustle"
What narrative stance will be the next big thing in postmodern fiction? I guess we'll have to wait and find out, won't we?
I know that there are people who will read that article and wonder why those guys went to so much trouble over something that doesn't matter in the slightest (I know this because I've mentioned this article to a few people and the reactions were either "That's awesome" or "Those guys need to find a date"), and this makes me wonder why it is that caring about grammar makes a person uptight and joyless? I am a firm believer that all writing rules can be broken effectively, but I also believe that it has to be done for a reason other than laziness. Grammar exists so that we can communicate with clarity, and I am all for it. So there.
2. Book critics Louis Bayard and Laura Miller meta-review The Death of the Critic in Who killed the literary critic? (It's on Salon.com, so you're gonna have to sit through an annoying ad.) And who did kill the literary critic? Bloggers? Intellectuals? Those unwashed masses who don't read books? Colonel Mustard in the library with the rope? Are they even really dead? Are they zombies? Am I asking too many questions?
3. This article was just fun to read. Or at least I thought it was. You know words that perfectly describe what it is they stand for, words that aren't exactly onomatopoeia? As the article says:
"More like proper nouns than mere words, they match the objects they describe. Pickle, gloomy, portly, curmudgeon--sounds that loop back on themselves to close the circle of meaning. They're perfect, in their way. They're what all language wants to be when it grows up."
I love words like the ones writer James Bottum describes. Words that are fun to roll around on the tongue, to chew on, to savor. Words that go beyond being merely descriptive and turn into something else entirely, something delicious. (I think delicious is one such word.) Conversely, some words don't seem to do their subjects justice: butterfly? Meh. I prefer the staccato flutter of lepidopteran. (I also like staccato and flutter.) What are some of your favorite words?
Anyway, these days I am in class for 20 hours a week and so far, I have learned to read and write an entirely new alphabet, along with a few hundred words, and how to string those words together into rudimentary sentences. Reading is a laborious task, and I try to remember back to my early childhood, to see if I can recall if it was this difficult before. Probably yes, though now, glossed over by years, it seems like that couldn't be possible.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the challenge, this has been a fascinating experience. As I said in my previous post on the subject, I have a thing for language. And I am enjoying getting all these tiny pieces and figuring out how they all fit together. Finished with the alphabet, we've moved into the thrilling world of grammar (no, really), which is the best part, since it is through learning the grammar that I get to learn how the language thinks. This is the part that I love.
By the end of the summer, I will have completed the equivalent of a year of Arabic study. It's an exciting thing, and I'm glad I'm getting to do it. I don't have anything particularly literary to add at this point, but I thought I'd just follow up what I wrote before with a little something on how nice it's been to get out of the repetitive simplicity of my usual everyday life and do something difficult, just for the sake of pushing myself. A good way to spend my summer vacation indeed.
Provided I get into this program, I'll be spending my summer studying Arabic. This will be the third foreign language I've studied (the other two being Spanish and Italian), and I'm looking forward to it. I've probably been fascinated by words my entire life, but I became especially fascinated when I was in 10th grade English and the class did a unit on the history of the language. Learning that English is an Indo-European language and therefore has things in common with Hindi was a revelation to me. (Trivia: the English word "igneous" which describes rock formed from magma is similar to the name for the Hindu fire god, Agni.)
The thing about learning a new language is that it makes it impossible not to learn something about your own. In both of my previous language-study experiences, I learned so much -- not just how to order dinner or ask for directions or read a newspaper, but how a language is structured. Sure, just like most people, I learned the parts of speech and how to diagram sentences when I was a kid in school, but these things never became practical, living ideas for me until I had to apply them something completely foreign. (Italian prepositions? Confusing and seemingly illogical.) A language is more than a series of words to describe things; it's a culture, a way of understanding the world. And for me, at least, understanding that about other languages has helped me understand that about my own.
I have a thing for English. It was always my favorite subject in school, then I went on to major in it in college, and maybe someday I'll end up teaching it. I love literature, of course -- it's magic, creating things from words, isn't it? -- but I love the fundamentals, too. I love the way the language works. The weird way we conjugate verbs. The morphemes that are the building blocks of our words. The syntax. The semantics. I really really love language, and most people who know me have been treated to me geeking out about it at one time or another. Words! Words are the greatest things of all.
Of course this love translates into writing. I wouldn't write if I didn't love words like I do. But I also like talking and listening, the way things sound, the way it feels to say certain words (it's not a fancy one, but I have adored the word "zipper" all my life).
Perhaps this is a silly question to ask a bunch of people who read a literary website, but how much do you love words? What are some of your favorites? What do you love about language (and do you speak more than one)?
When I was a little kid on Long Island, we would always denote the fact that somebody was stupid, or had just said something stupid, by sticking a finger into a cheek and intoning "Doy". Everybody in town had their own stamp on "Doy": some would cross their eyes, twist their finger into their cheek and elongate the syllable until somebody told them to shut up, while others would give the word a Looney-Tunes-ish metallic boing, like "Doy-eey-eey-eey ..." (repeat for several seconds).
I don't know who invented "Doy", but it seemed as natural as any other word, and we all assumed it was universally spoken. But my siblings and I had cousins from up in Boston, and one day when I was about 13 I remember my cousin Steve responding to some repartee from elsewhere in the room with a loud, percussive "DAR". He actually gave this a resounding echo: "DAR-HAR-HAR". There was no finger in a cheek. Apparently this is how they did it in Red Sox-land.
In TV comedies, Archie comics and other pop-culture outlets, I began to notice something else, simple and blunt: "Duh". This usage gained some foothold in my hometown, but was never delivered with the passion or conviction of "Doy".
My complaint is not that I consider the original text too sacred for interpretation. I have never worshipped at the temple of Strunk and White, though I will admit I can't think of a better style guide for writers. My gripe is with the utter preciousness of Kalman's artwork, which I'm sure violates E. B. White's penchant for powerful subtlety and understatement. The man who gave the world a spider who spelled "radiant" in her web to save the life of a pig doesn't need to be compromised by a painting of a sad-faced basset hound with enormous ears and big wet eyes. It's just too damn cute, and cuteness kills.
His parents were junkies. Both dead.
Dylan is on the computer a lot (I refuse to believe this is from the computer) and it's hard for me to get him to even crack a book. His favorite books are the Harry Potter books, but Dylan's writing leaves Rowling in the dust. Most of the diary is poetry. Some narrative. I thought you had to LEARN (accompanied by sweat) how to do this. Dylan does not attend school. His HIV has prevented it. Anything "literary" that he's learned, he's learned on his own.
There are other pieces to this story, but I won't get into them, because this post isn't about the joys of learning what is, hands down, the sexiest language on earth. No, it's about Petrarch's Songbook (Canzoniere), which is more formally known as Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta, a collection of poetry. I figured that whole "Italian is a song" thing would be a fitting introduction.
The translation I read is by one James Wyatt Cook, professor emeritus of English at my alma mater. He made Beowulf entertaining, taught me everything I know about metrical poetry (yes, I do know what dactylic hexameter is, thank you), and convinced me I should give up on New York and go to Venice instead. So when it came time for my path to cross Petrarch's, I made a trip to the library and checked out his translation. It was the least I could do.
What of the poetry of Francesco Petrarca (or Frankie P, as I've taken to calling him)? Well, naturally, it is very good. But really, it doesn't mean much to say that Petrarch's poetry is good, because that's a statement on par with "Shakespeare wrote some plays." It becomes pointless in its obviousness.
So instead of reviewing the quality of the poetry itself, I am instead going to tell you what I have learned by reading it. And what have I learned? It's simple, really. Petrarch was one hell of a creepy bastard. See, it's like this: in 1328, he first laid eyes on a woman named Laura, a woman he was completely smitten by, a woman who died 20 years later without ever having reciprocated the poet's feelings. Oh yes, he loved Laura so much that he wrote about her constantly, and many of the poems in the Canzoniere are about her. Take this one, for example:
O lovely hand, you clasp my heart so fastRight. So, here we have Petrarch getting all hot and bothered about Laura's glove. That he stole. I don't know, but this seems to be not all that far removed from literary panty-sniffing. I know, I know, it's supposed to be romantic, the way he burns with (unrequited) love for this poor woman, but when he writes stuff like, "Seventeen years by now the heavens have rolled/ Since first I burned, and never am I quenched" (Rvf. 122), I can't help but think that he's just being gross and pathetic. SEVENTEEN YEARS!!! (And then some.) Petrarch. Dude. Stop it.
And in a little span enfold my life;
O hand, where Nature and Heaven bend every art
And all their pains to glorify themselves.
Colored like five pearls from the Orient,
Pure gentle fingers, only harsh and sharp
When in my wounds -- Love just in time consents
That you be bare so he can make me rich.
White, graceful, charming, precious little glove
That covered flawless ivory, roses fresh,
Who's seen in all this world such plunder sweet?
I wish I had the like from that far veil!
Oh, the inconstancy of mortal things!
But this is theft; one comes to rob me too.
The existence of Laura has been debated by scholar-types, but the scholarship I've read leans toward the belief that she was a real woman. I don't mean to imply that Laura is the only object of Petrarch's poems, because she's not. He wrote about other things too, but the collection is heavily weighted toward his obsession with this woman.
But people read reviews to find out if they should bother with the book in question. Do I think you should read Petrarch's Canzoniere? Sure, if you want to. From a purely poetic standpoint, Petrarch is one of the all-time greats. A master of form (he doesn't have a form of the sonnet named after him for nothing), and one who obsessively revised his work until it was perfect, Petrarch's poetry serves as an example of what can be done with writing when it's carefully crafted, and those who say they're interested in the craftsmanship of writing would be well-served by checking out his work. Sure, a lot of his imagery might seem a little bit trite to a modern reader, but he was writing in the 1300s, so I'm willing to cut him a little slack on that point. Other than that, though his poems about Laura started making my skin crawl after awhile, he sure did have a lock on the poetics of longing. So, his poems are also good if you're into that sort of thing.
Anyway, if Italian is a song, then Petrarch knew how to sing it, and his Canzoniere is a testament to that. Nevermind that I think it should be renamed The Stalker's Songbook...
It's one hell of a collection of poems.
POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?Ah, I love quoting Shakespeare in the morning. Or something. The truth is, I've always liked this little exchange in Hamlet, precisely because the prince's answer is one that never happens.
HAMLET: Words, words, words.
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2:2:191-192)
If I were to ask you what you're reading, you'd probably tell me the name of a book, or perhaps something of the plot. Maybe you'd give me an author's name, and you might mention how it's written (good or bad), or you might not. These are all good answers, and I'm not trying to imply otherwise, but how often do we actually discuss the books we're familiar with in terms of their makeup, their words?
I was recently watching a movie where, yet again, the dorkiest and most ineffectual character in the story is also the only one seen reading a book. This character is an all-too familiar type. I'm not even going to tell you what movie I'm talking about, because I can think of 20 others to take its place.
He's the kid with his nose stuck in a book, and he's usually sporting thick glasses and a red sweater with white sleeves sticking out. Or maybe they'll just go all the way and give him band-aid glasses and a bowtie. Why hold back? In fact, I'd like it to be known that in my own long life I have never once seen a guy with bandaid glasses and a bowtie walking down the street holding a book. I say this is an annoying and unfair stereotype, and I think it's time we speak up about it.
We read and write because we like to. That's all.
It doesn't mean we're meek, or goofy, or clueless. We don't read to escape from reality. Yeah, try to read Joseph Conrad to escape from reality. Good luck with that. We're trying to get reality. A lifetime will shoot by us in ten seconds if we don't halt it sometimes, and think, reflect, challenge our ideals, try out alternate angles, learn some things we didn't know.