"If you're not with me tomorrow, that would be the worst."
-Bonnie "Prince" Billy.
Roberto Bolano once remarked that everything he wrote was "a letter of love or of goodbye." I read this in The Nation a day before taking on the Chilean scribe's eight hundred and ninety-eight page posthumously published novel, 2666, which he wrote while dying of liver failure. As I closed the book for the final time almost a month later, a strange experience took over me. Instead of reflecting upon the book itself, his quote popped into my head and I knew I was not ready to say goodbye to a writer who died way too early.
I'm not sure I feel safe saying I let the book consume me, but I realized upon finishing it that something was missing from from my everyday routine. For almost two weeks I was unable to read any other work of fiction, and found it nearly necessary to ween myself off my Bolano dependency.
Unlike in the past, when I would simply take a bit of time to soak in what I had finished and go right to the next book, I found myself with no taste in my mouth to pick up another. Not so much due to the fact that 2666 is indeed a work deserving all the praise it has received, but because as far as I can tell, I had become attached to the novel during the long and arduous road I took while reading it.
The days that followed, nothing felt good. A pile of books lay on my desk waiting for review. In most cases, I can polish off a pretty fair amount of pages in a short period of time. In the case of 2666, though, I paid extremely close attention to every single word put into the print, looking for esoteric insights into the author's mind in his final days, or maybe trying to find some meaning in the book's numeric title.
I spent the hours I wasn't reading throwing a baseball at the wall and listening to Scott Walker's exquisite song "The Seventh Seal," based on Ingmar Bergman film of the same name, on repeat. The opening lyric -- "anybody seen a knight pass this way? I saw him playing chess with Death yesterday" -- hit home with me.
For the next few days, my lack of interest continued, but I was at least able to enjoy other music, albeit just as solemn. I felt lost and a friend noted I seemed "vacant."
Two days later, I sat in my analyst's office (Normally I avoid making mention of my analyst as I feel it pegs me even deeper to that neurotic, New York Jewish stereotype. In this case, though, it's appropriate) and made passing mention of the fact that upon completion of this book I felt almost like I had lost a friend, and that even though I am a constant reader, I had never experienced anything like this.
The Doctor clicked his pen and looked at me with a smile. "It almost sounds like you are suffering from separation anxiety," he said with a chuckle that almost reminded me of Doctor Hibbard on The Simpsons. I didn't find any comfort in his humor, or the fact that he was charging me sixty dollars an hour to laugh at my condition.
Everything was frustrating. I sat at a coffee shop, staring vacantly at the University students pouring over their books. "Little bastards," I grumbled to myself. At twenty-eight, I was coveting their vitality. As my literary impotence and "separation anxiety" prospered. As I perused the internet, looking for temporary salvation, I came across an article about one of the most influential writers in my life. In two days it would be New Years Day, as well as J. D. Salinger's birthday. The literary world's most famous recluse would be turning ninety on the same day the calendar turned over.
The article mentioned the supposed publication of Salinger's final published work, a letter from character Seymour Glass in the New Yorker in 1965, titled "Hapworth 16, 1924". Ah, the Glass family and their influence on my generation's popular culture (as well as any Wes Anderson film). I loved them like they were my own and for some reason, maybe because the story was published fifteen years before my conception, I had never read "Hapworth" before.
"No time like the present," I said to myself and dove into the story I found thanks to the magic of the internet, which always helps when I don't feel like "really reading." Over twenty five thousand words later, I sat out of breath and relieved. It felt like a cross between post-coital and the final scene in Return of the Jedi where all the Jedi stared down lovingly at Luke, Leia and Han Solo.
I had rebounded. Thanks to Salinger, I was "back into the game", and it felt good.
Finally, I was able to see clearly. I thought back on the weeks it took to read 2666. I though about what an incredible piece of work it was. And although I had read books of it's size, or bigger, in the past, but something about this being the last book published by a writer I respect so much really set something off inside of me. Looking back on something a professor of mine once said, "my favorite writers are like my best friends", I realized my analyst was right. I had lost somebody I was close to, and a brief fling with someone else helped me attain closure.
Thanks J.D., the money's on the nightstand.
It took me a little over a year of stops and starts and deliberately reading other books that were not written by James Joyce, but I have finished Ulysses. And now, what to say? This is one of those books, you know? You either have read it or will read it or you have no interest in reading it or you’ll read ten (or 90 or 500) pages and think whythefuck and move on with your life. Whatever works for you, really. There are a lot of books in the world, after all, and despite its status as a revered classic, it turns out that Ulysses is just another one of them. For my part, I don't love the book. I also don't hate it, and there were even times while I was reading that I enjoyed the hell out of it, but even so, I can't quite picture myself recommending it to anyone else, either. (Though if I knew someone who was reading it I'd say "Oh, stick with it, the ending makes it worthwhile, I swear. Also, skim.")
I think for my part, reading Ulysses is as much about the journey (or odyssey, har har) through the book as it is about the actual story itself, and for me, the journey ended up being the more important thing. I was motivated by stubbornness and competitiveness (though I'm still not sure with whom I thought I was competing), and determined that I would just read the damn thing, and what the hell, I did it. I made a short video that I guess I would describe as a series of my thoughts about the book as I was reading it. It is not exactly reverent, and contains some language that you may consider NSFW, but anyway, here it is:
So there you go. It's a frustrating book, incredibly easy to get lost in its pages, and not exactly in a fun way, at least not for me, and I like difficult literature. I get that the writing is as important as the story it tells (it's almost its own character), but even though I understood this, it didn't irritate me any less when I got tangled up in it. Is it in any way gratuitous? Could it have been maybe 300 pages shorter? I can see how people can spend their lives studying it, and while I tried my best not to let myself get distracted by references to this, that, or the other in favor of just hanging onto the thread of the story, I also know there's a lot to it that I deliberately let fly over my head just so I could finish the damn thing. Perhaps this is what makes Ulysses a challenge and a point of fascination for many, but I also think it is, in a way, the book's downfall. I guess what I mean can be summarized like so: I don't mind working at things to understand them, but oh, for fuck's sake, give it a rest already. But of course, the most important point is this:
1. The Washington Post's Sunday literary supplement Book World is indeed being discontinued. I'll have something to say about this in my weekend write-up of the New York Times Book Review, aka "Last One Standing".
2. Dostoevskaya Station (not in St. Petersburg but in Moscow).
3. Can you read with music? When I was a kid, I always read with music on. Now I prefer not to.
4. A surprisingly good map of heavy metal band names.
5. Grace Paley: the Film
6. Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a Holocaust film.
7. Archie Andrews of Riverdale. You know who I'm talking about.
8. Mad Magazine is going quarterly. Hmm.
9. I'm going to be participating in a Israel/Gaza peace/aid event at McNally Jackson bookstore in New York City on Saturday, February 7. More on this soon ...
10. John "Jim" Krasinski's David Foster Wallace Brief Interviews with Hideous Men film debuted at Sundance! Very cool.
11. Richard Brautigan's great short novel In Watermelon Sugar is now a dance.
12. Does literary fiction suffer from dysfunctional pricing?
13. The mysterious etymology of Oh Snap.
14. The last is definitely not the least: Kurt Vonnegut Motivational Posters.
I've been scanning old photos and documents for my memoir-in-progress, and going a bit scan-crazy as I dig into my archives. Here are a few interesting literary items I've found.
Does This Happen To Other Litbloggers?
I have no idea why this happens, but I get letters from kids to famous writers. But they don't send the letters to the writers, or to their publishers (which would probably be the best approach). They send the letters to me. Over the years, I've received letters about various writers we've covered here on LitKicks, including Chuck Palahniuk (above), S. E. Hinton, Kurt Vonnegut and Lemony Snicket. I feel terrible about the fact that I never write back. But really, what are these kids thinking? Chuck Palahniuk does not live in my basement.
If any other litbloggers have experienced the same thing, I'd love to hear about it.
Damn! This Was Some Cast
I haven't posted about it as often as I'd like, but I love the New York Shakespeare Festival. Many famous actors and actresses paid their dues there, including Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Raul Julia, Christopher Walken and many more. Still, when I dug up this old program for a 1981 Delacorte Theatre production of King Henry the Fourth Part One, starring the fairly unknown Stephen Markle as King Henry and Kenneth McMillan as Falstaff, I was surprised to discover that the supporting cast included then-total-unknowns John Goodman, Val Kilmer and Kevin Spacey, not to mention the then-slightly-known Mandy Patinkin as Hotspur. I vaguely remember Patinkin's Hotspur, and Goodman, Kilmer and Spacey left no impression at all. Damn, that was some cast! I wish I could go back in time and enjoy the play more than I did.
Me Being Pretentious
I always wanted to be a writer. Around ninth grade I composed an apocalyptic novel called The Rain God. I remember that I liked the title very much, and that I had some good ideas for the novel's cover artwork (above). I didn't have a very clear idea what the story would be about, though, as is obvious from this pained first page:
"It was a dry dark beginning. My town is a little town, a farming based society. My father planted Yams. That is, before he died in a flash fire last week."
Forget what those kids who send me letters to writers were thinking ... what was I thinking? My father planted Yams? Hmph.
Then again, on the other hand, is this much worse than Cormac McCarthy's The Road? That's the real question. I guess I should have stuck with the project.
1. The horrific Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (which begat World War I, which begat World War II) began because of an intercepted letter called the Ems dispatch. With this in mind, it's pretty scary to hear that our current State Department -- those geniuses who helped bring us the Iraq War -- can't figure out not to do "reply-to-all". Jesus freaking Christ ... January 20th just can't come soon enough.
2. FYI, the above link is via Sarah Weinman, who recently talked to Jacket Copy about her amazing ability to read 462 books a year. Sarah explains:
A lot of it has to do with my music background. I studied voice and piano fairly seriously during my elementary and high school days, and as such, I became very attuned to rhythm and cadence and voice. So what happens when I read is that I can "hear" the narrative and dialogue in my head, but what's odd is that I'm both aware of the book at, say, an LP rate (33 1/3 revolutions per minute) but in my head it translates to roughly a 78.
I think I have pretty good rhythm too, but I am the opposite kind of reader. I can easily take a half hour to read three sentences, not because I read so carefully but because a good sentence will start me thinking about so many other things. I doubt I finished more than 50 books in 2008. Anyway, I'm fortunate to be a good friend of Sarah Weinman's, and the one thing I'd like to add is that she reads people as quickly as she reads books.
3. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is putting on a new production of one of my very favoritest plays of all time, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard!
4. What! Who said marketing departments were allowed to be funny? This is from Macmillan.
5. Speaking of funny publicists, I don't know if I'll ever read Sloane Crosley's I Was Told There'd Be Cake, but I like that title. Her new book will be called Show Me On the Doll, which proves that Sloane Crosley really has a way with titles.
6. Tao Lin gets some attention from New York Magazine.
7. A newspaper of blog reprints? Some have already twittered that The Printed Blog is a bad idea because the material will be stale, but I completely disagree. Why can't blog posts be timeless? To say that blog posts have no value beyond the moment is as unfairly dismissive as any other negative generalizations I've ever heard about the form. This ain't Twitter over here. And I guarantee you somebody will eventually start anthologizing tweets too.
8. Jonathan Baumbach talks about a successful experiment begun in the 1970s called The Fiction Collective.
9. Dovegreyreader talks about literary comfort food, specifically of the children's variety. I don't go back to my early "comfort food" too often, but if I did the menu would include Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill (why has this great book vanished from our sight?) and the All-Of-A-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor.
A fictional account of Lou Salome's acquaintances with Rainer Marie Rilke, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, inspired by the author's own real-life family connection with Lou Salome.
It's great to see these fascinating 19th Century thinkers mined for drama (and it's interesting that a similar story is told in Irvin Yalom's novel When Nietzsche Wept, which was also made into a film.)
A charming and surreal Lower East Side romp that begins when a bemused housewife finds a dead old lady's body on the laundry room floor, decides to put the body through a spin cycle to freshen it up before notifying the family and police, and then gets into all kinds of trouble with the government. Ms Madeson has also presented this rather unique story as a one-woman play.
Largo, author of a recent death compendium called Final Exits here examines and annotates the culture of transgression in similarly clinical detail. A broadly encyclopedic but eclectic and satisfyingly intellectual sweep, ranging from Boudicca to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Chris Farley to Franz Kafka to Tupac Shakur.
Wisely realizing that they have to spruce up their Thesaurus with value-add commentary to compete with online versions, Oxford American assembles an impressive and street-start cast of postmodern writers to contribute "Word Notes" and other inserts along with the regular indexed content. A successful effort, I think, and a nice parting gesture from David Foster Wallace.
Mahajan, a young debut novelist, turns in a comic tale about a man in New Delhi who suffers from an unsatisfiable compulsion to have more and more children (in a society that encourages small families) and finds himself pretending to be a pro-Hindu fanatic obsessed with rising Muslim birthrates in India to cover up the more personal and romantic motivations for his rampant fathering.
This is the only book on this list that I can't recommend. I try to read the Best American Short Stories (proudly published by Houghton Mifflin) every year, but I could barely sludge through most of the ruminative, chic, flat postmodernist displays that Salman Rushdie considers the very cream of the crop in 2008, and if there are a few more editions like this one (the last great Best American Short Stories selection was by Michael Chabon in 2005) I'm just going to drop the habit completely. These stories read as if Salman Rushdie chose 20 younger authors to exemplify all the worst habits of his own fiction: endless playfulness, diagrammatic conceptual plots, lack of emotion.
A chronicle of a fugitive family life in Mexico and America during the early hippie era. Bonnie Bremser travelled with her husband, Beat poet Ray Bremser, as he escaped an armed robbery charge. A stark true story in the Beat, all-too-Beat tradition, featuring an introduction by Ann Charters.
A fanciful and strange children's story about bugs, with a rich Victorian tone, beautifully illustrated by E. B. Harris.
Hello, boys and girls. It's the first week of December, and that, more than anything, is a signal for me to start thinking about holiday gift giving. Of course, I've been unemployed since the end of August so everyone on my list is getting handmade jewelry, lovingly crafted from macaroni and dental floss, but for those of you who still have jobs, I have compiled a list of gift ideas, all of which can be purchased online so you won't have to deal with going to any madhouse stores this time of year. Bonus: the gifts on this list are all for under $20 (except one, which is still under $30), perfect for those of you who are frugal, yet still on the lookout for something cool to get for the literary nerd on your list. Here we go:
-- Eco gift wrap! This is very cool and pretty and probably, if you're clever, reusable. Who wouldn't like to get a macaroni necklace wrapped up in paper from a French text book? It wouldn't even have to be a macaroni necklace! It could be anything (well, anything on the small side). Recycled gift wrap is a good idea, and this particular gift wrap has style.
-- Continuing with the handmade theme (because handmade stuff is cool), here's a mail art-inspired book. It'll be shipped without packaging, so you could have it sent directly to the person you're giving it to.
-- How about a bookmark made from a vintage typewriter key? Pretty neat.
-- Speaking of bookmarks, here's one inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright window design. If I had a bookmark like that maybe I would try harder not to lose my bookmarks all the time.
-- The words of everyone's favorite insanely quoteable literary figure (that's Oscar Wilde, by the way), adorn this money clip.
-- Do you know any Scrabble addicts? Would they appreciate being able to play on the go?
-- Or maybe they'd like a Scrabble shirt with the worst letters ever? Oh, the game-based hilarity.
-- And here's a book for the science-loving food geek in your life. Come on, everyone knows at least one of them, right?
-- Who isn't down with OED?
-- An invisible bookshelf might be handy for someone in need of storage.
-- I really like this clock. A lot.
You see a wide variety of reading materials on the R train. Many languages, many formats, cheap novels, literary novels, lots of bibles and other religious literature, history books, tabloid reports of the day's tidings. Everybody is engrossed.
As near as I could tell, this guy was reading a C# software development guide.
These guys, who did not appear to know each other, had constructed a pile of newspapers to read from in their corner.
These kids have never seen a litblog. They don't know who won the Man Booker Prize and they don't care. But I watched this Mom hand her restless daughter a book, and I saw how eagerly the little girl began reading, her younger brother clamoring to share. Why despair of the next generation?
Yeah, people read on trains in New York City. At least I know they do in Queens.
(Note: this is not my first case of subway photo stalking.)
A few years ago, there was a meme floating around the intertubes that centered around the concept of literary speed dating, which is speed dating, except with books. The point was to list the books you'd take to such an event as a means of showcasing your personality, and also to list the books that, if you saw someone with them, you'd think were attractive picks. I never did this meme because I tend to be cranky about these things, and I'm not going to do it today, but the idea has been floating around my brain for a little while, and I thought I'd use it as a jumping-off point to write about something that's slightly related.
I have no idea how I would even begin to pick a few books as a means of showing another person who I am, because for one thing I have so many books that such an exercise would be so entirely daunting that even attempting it would most likely leave me going crazy in the middle of a massive pile of literature and I just don’t need that. Even so, it’s interesting to think that another person could judge my attractiveness or lack thereof based on what I like to read. Yet of course this is part of it, right? I mean, I try not to be overly judgmental but let’s just say that when I went out with that guy who thought Ernest Hemingway wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I wasn’t terribly upset when we didn’t go out again. Is that a dealbreaker for me? I think so, yes.
Attraction and compatibility are strange beasts and I am not even going to attempt to analyze the way they work. I’ll leave that to the likes of Cosmo. But here’s a question for you: how big of a role do books play in another person’s attractiveness? I don’t know if I have an answer to this question myself, but I do know that I briefly dated someone who didn’t read and while his lack of interest in literature was not the reason things didn’t work out, it did limit our conversations. I like talking about books. Go figure.
So I wonder, and perhaps you can enlighten me: are books hot? Are all books hot? Or are only some books hot? For me, I know that I like a man who knows his Shakespeare. Who will at least give Milan Kundera a fighting chance. Who doesn’t spell it “Neil Cassidy.” I talk about Jane Austen a lot, and is that going to be a problem? Things like that.
Maybe once again I am letting my inner nerd become way too outer, but there’s something kind of sexy about finding someone who likes books and can hold his own in an intelligent discussion about them. I don’t think it’s the top of the list, because, I mean, there are other more important things, such as a sense of humor and a lack of heinous B.O., but it’s still in the running. Somewhere.
I’ll leave you with still more questions, and I hope you answer them, because I think it could be fascinating or at least mildly amusing. Is it possible to tell by someone's reading habits if that person is worth dating? Say before deciding whether or not to date someone you're already generally attracted to, you got to look at that person's bookshelves. Would this be a telling exercise? Would the presence (or absence) of certain books be a turn on or a turn off? Which ones?
Hey, remember when I said I was going to read Ulysses? I have to say I'm still not quite ready to admit that this book has kicked my ass. (I maintain that it's really not that hard once I get into the rhythm of it, but it's just that every time I think about picking it up, I look at it and say "Why the fuck is this book so long?" I don't like reading a few hundred pages of something and looking at my overall progress in terms of total pages and feeling like a failure.) I'll finish it at some point because I'm stubborn, but yes, I've been cheating on it with other books. It happened gradually. At first I pretended that I was still reading Ulysses, except I really wasn't reading Ulysses, and so for awhile, I wasn't reading anything at all. But I got bored with that soon enough and started picking up other books. Out of those, here are five:
1. The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
Oh sure, I saw the movie ages ago, but I figured it was time I actually read the book. This decision may or may have not been partly made for me by the fact that I was looking for something to read and this was lying around the house. I'd pretty much forgotten most of the story (I said I saw the movie ages ago), so I was easily able to go along with it, and it was a good time.
2. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson - Emily Dickinson
Like Ulysses, this is a very long book. In fact, it's much longer than Joyce's novel (and also rather heavy and awkward to read). The upside is that it's broken into many small pieces. I've read many of Dickinson's poems over the course of my life, and so this time I picked things I hadn't gotten to before, of which there still were plenty. Now I've read them all.
3. Eat Pray Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
I felt like I had to read this book so I'd know what other people were talking about, but are people still talking about it? I don't know. What I do know is that for the most part it was a light read, and it was definitely an easy one. Perfect for beach reading, if I were one to go to the beach. Sometimes books like that are necessary.
4. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair - Pablo Neruda
Okay, yes, I'd already read this one before, but sometimes Pablo Neruda is a necessity of life. "I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees." Ah.
5. Persuasion - Jane Austen
Despite my status as something of an Austen nerd, I'd actually missed this one up until now. It had been awhile since I'd read any of her books, and I was reminded again of what a masterful writer she was, and this is now my favorite book of hers.