At the moment I am reading (in order of most recently looked at):
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany, for #AutumnalCity (reread)
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by DT Max
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Suzanna Clarke (reread)
Before Watchmen, various authors (comics)
Tintin and the Secret of Literature, by Tom McCarthy
I Henry IV, Shakespeare
The Ambassadors, by Henry James (been working on this since January, kinda stalled)
Swann’s Way, Proust (working/stalled on this even longer, almost done)
Finnegans Wake (always)
#OccupyGaddis began as a hashtag
…but has turned into much more.
When the Los Angeles Review of Books approached me about reviewing William Gaddis’s 1975 novel J R, I jumped at the opportunity. As I mentioned in my first post, Gaddis has long been on my literary-historical radar, but I’ve never managed to get around to reading him, despite spending ten years as a Ph.D. student and postdoc specializing in postwar U.S. lit. Reading and struggling through Gaddis with a group of dedicated companions seems like the very best way to go about tackling J R for the first time. To my great surprise, J R is less of a struggle than I expected and lots of fun, Which is not to say it’s easy in a conventional sense.
Because #OccupyGaddis is a collective enterprise – because I’m learning so much from others who’re involved – I want to dedicate my second post here to aggregating a number of comments that have already been written on a variety of other sites, and introducing Sonia Johnson, a Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa, who will be joining me here to write about the Gaddis Archives at Washington University’s Department of Special Collections and other Gaddis-related subjects on LARBlog.
Thanks for the shout-out, Lee!
“The accidental progenitor of the blogorrheic style is David Foster Wallace. What distinguishes Wallace’s writing from the prose it begot is a fusion of the scrupulous and the garrulous; all of our colloquialisms, typically diffusing a mist of vagueness over the world, are pressed into the service of exactness. To a generation of writers, the DFW style was the sound of telling the truth, as — in an opposite way — the flat declaratives and simplified vocabulary of Hemingway were for a different generation. But an individual style, terse or wordy, can breed a generalized mannerism, and the path once cleared to saying things truly and well is now an obstacle course. In the case of the blogorrheic style, institutional and technological pressures coincided with Wallace’s example. Bloggers (which more and more is just to say writers) had little or no editing to deal with, and if they blogged for money they needed to produce, produce. The combination discouraged the stylistic virtues of concision, selectivity, and impersonality.”
I feel like the n+1 editors are trying to sound profound but end up sounding profoundly unoriginal. Like this paragraph, isn’t it basically what that horrible Maud Newton piece in the NYT Magazine that everyone was going crazy about a few months ago was saying? And the first part, was that basically an allusion to that horrible Franzen commencement address? Maybe I am missing something.
I do really like “To a generation of writers, the DFW style was the sound of telling the truth”.
OK, probably last one: I’m obsessed with the “Most Played” playlist on my iPod, and today I was wishing I could have a most-played list for my entire life. I’m not sure what individual songs would be on it, but it would probably have these records heavily represented. (I’m not saying these are my “favorite” records, or the “best” records, just the ones I’ve listened to most. But yeah, they probably are. Both.)
- The Beatles - Abbey Road
- Jesus Christ Superstar - Original Cast Recording
- Nirvana - In Utero
- Pixies - Doolittle
- Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
- The Spinanes - Manos
- Radiohead - OK Computer
- Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
#s 1,3,4,5 and 7 are probably on most people-my-age’s list. # 8, well, my love of Spoon is well documented. # 2 I was obsessed with for a long time, as anyone who knew me in high school or college can tell you. But #6, the Spinanes, I don’t feel I have been evangelical enough about. EVERYONE GO LISTEN TO MANOS BY THE SPINANES! Here, I’ll help you get started.
EDIT: Oh, shit, I forgot Bjork! Put Vespertine on there after OK Computer.
Desert island books
For some reason I’m in the mood to make lists today. A fun game to play is “Desert Island”: I always find myself thinking about which books I would take if I were going to be stranded on a desert island. (Because that’s the kind of thing you can plan for, right?) One of the things you have to consider, though, is what is the definition of a book? A single volume? So, then, would you include the Complete Works of Shakespeare? Or a coherent single “work”? So, then, would you include À la recherche du temps perdu? Or the Encyclopædia Britannica? For the purposes of this list, I’m going to say no to omnibus editions (seems like cheating, and it makes it more boring: then you are basically making a list of authors, not books) and encyclopedias (because, come on), but I’m going to allow multi-volume novels as a single item (e.g. numbers 3 and 4, below). Here are five:
- Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
- Shakespeare’s Sonnets (ed. Stephen Booth)
- À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust (in English, no duh, Moncrieff trans.)
- The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
The first two are books that I feel like will keep me busy forever: they’ve been keeping me busy long enough as it is. The Wake will be hard to read without any annotations or guidebooks, but it might actually be nice to try to read it on its own (what we call “pulling a McHugh” in the business). (We don’t really call it that.) Booth’s annotations to the Sonnets are essential, though, and are almost as much fun to read as the poems themselves. Proust I would take because I want something long that I haven’t already read, and what I’ve seen of Proust makes me think I could spend some time working my way through, and wallowing in, his prose. The other two are more for nostalgia: my favorite books from childhood and college, respectively. Rereading them serves a dual function: the enjoyment of the book itself, of course, but also the feelings they bring back. So I’d like to have them around.
I should also bring some detective novels or something, you know, for fun. Maybe some Stephen King.
My favorite comic books
I’m not a bona fide comics aficionado (but I care enough about them to call them comic books, not “graphic novels”). I read a few things, mostly Marvel, intermittently in my pre-to-early teens, and then in my early twenties I discovered the “British Invasion” of literary comics writers from the eighties. These are my favorite things I’ve read in the decade since then.
- The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman (1989-1996): This was the series that showed me what comics could do, and it’s still my favorite. It’s the only comic I re-read with any regularity.
- Watchmen by Alan Moore (1986-1987): This is the best single volume comics story out there, I think (and I know, via Time magazine, etc, that I am certainly not alone). This is the book I would give someone who thought superhero comics were stupid. HONORABLE MENTION— The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller (1986): I’m sort of over Frank Miller, but this book pairs really well with Watchmen, and is also just awesome.
- Promethea, by Alan Moore (1999-2005): My personal favorite Moore book; three times the length of Watchmen but half the length of Sandman, which feels about perfect. Not that I would wish Sandman any shorter.
- Swamp Thing, by Alan Moore (1982-1987) and Animal Man, by Grant Morrison(1988-1990): These two exemplify what was so cool about DC/Vertigo in the Eighties.
- Animal Man, by Jeff Lemire (2011-) and Swamp Thing, by Scott Snyder (2011-): And these two exemplify what is cool about the New 52.
There are still an awful lot of things I have to read, of course. For example, Grant Morrison is a relatively recent discovery for me: I haven’t read his magnum opus, The Invisibles, yet. But these are my favorites so far.
There have been a plethora of things written this month about Nirvana, on the occasion of Nevermind’s twentieth anniversary; I haven’t had a chance to read most of them. Two things yesterday struck a chord, however, and made me think a bit about how much Nirvana meant to me.
The first was this (thanks, Maneesh). Reading it felt like looking in the mirror, for a minute: the author was the same age as me when Nevermind came out, and seems to have had a similar trajectory of fandom to mine:
I was 11 when Nevermind came out. And it was great! A great record that I liked a lot. But not a record that sounded much different to my unsophisticated ears than what was out there. That’s because of the deservedly-derided mastering that coated Nevermind’s amazing songwriting, performances and Butch Vig’s virtuoso production under a gloss of radio-ready pop-metal. I think I convinced my mom to buy me the Metallica black album at the same time as Nevermind. The two records sounded the same to me, down to the chorus effect on the intro guitars on “Enter Sandman” and “Come As You Are.” What, you think I got the Pixies reference on “Teen Spirit” at 11?
I had gotten into Metallica the previous year: my first real concert was a Metallica show my dad took me to when I was ten. And Nirvana didn’t come as a revelation, at least not at first: they were just a cool sounding band, with some real serious screaming.
I’m not sure at what point I went from fan to fanatic, but it was by the time Incesticide came out, for sure. Something about hitting puberty at the same time Nirvana got famous made them essential to my early teen years. I recently realized that the period of Nirvana’s fame was middle school for me, the worst years of adolescence: Nevermind was released a few weeks after I started 6th grade, and Kurt killed himself in the spring of 8th grade. All I know is I spent much of my thirteenth year in my room (covered in pictures of Kurt and the band, of course; I feel like this post could veer off into an examination of the erotics of adolescent male idolatry, but I won’t do that), in the dark, listening to “Big Long Now” on repeat.
Someone else (Keith) posted a live clip from the In Utero tour. The high point of my Nirvana obsession had to be when I (sort of, almost, nearly) met Kurt at a show on that tour. My father heard on the radio the day of the show that there were still tickets available, and decided to take me and my brother. I can’t even describe how excited I was: I can still remember the tremor in my voice as I called the girl I was in love with at the time to brag. Anyway, the show was amazing, but the most incredible moment came before the band took the stage, during one of the opening acts (Half-Japanese and the Breeders). I think it was during Half-Japanese; we had really good seats, just off to stage left, and Kurt came and sat off to the side of the stage, maybe 25 feet from us, eating his dinner and watching the band. After he finished his food (falafel, I think?) he turned and asked the girl RIGHT IN FRONT OF US for a light. I was too nervous to say anything, but I was awed to be in the presence of a man I had loved so much from a distance. After his smoke, as he turned to go backstage, my brother and I called his name: he turned and waved.
I feel like when he died, five months later, I had already started to move on. My mother came to pick me up after school that day, to tell me what happened: I was glued to MTV News the rest of the day (this was back when MTV gave real coverage to stuff like this; when Michael Jackson died, I remember being so sad about how pathetic MTV News had become). The next morning in school, I asked for a moment of silence over the morning announcements; I think I heard more than a few snickers. And then I just moved on: there were other, “cooler” bands to listen to, bands nobody else was into: that was my new thing. But I guess it was Nirvana that got me there.
In one of those perennial columns on “overrated” canonical books, Joyce comes in for his usual drubbing; both Ulysses and the Wake take their licks. Lee Siegel writes:
I just can’t do Finnegans Wake. I can’t. I give up. It’s like late Coltrane, whom I also can’t follow—both FW and Coltrane’s crepuscular work disappearing into the furthest reaches of their creators’ minds. Heaven knows, I tried. I went through several phases of grappling with what I now refer to as Joyce’s masturpiece. Phase One: As a teenager devouring every novel I could get my hands on, I finally pulled FWoff the shelf of a used-book store in Passaic, N.J., like heaving Excalibur out of the enchanted stone. I brought it home cradled in my arms, kept it next to my bed, carried it with me everywhere for several months, and never got past the first paragraph. It was like Herbert Marcuse’s advice to a despairing graduate student who said he had spent days on a sentence in Hegel and still couldn’t understand it: “You’re reading too fast,” Marcuse told him. Phase 2: As a graduate student in literature, I was surrounded by people who claimed not just to have read FWbut to have understood it and I took another futile stab at it. I realize now that they were all frauds who later went to work in the subprime mortgage industry. Phase 3: The adult realization that whatever sublime beauties of language and idea are in Joyce’s novel, I have to let them go. Just as there are sublime places—Antarctica—that I will never visit. As I learned from Joyce’s Ulysses, the mystery of everyday life is fathomless enough. There is still a world in a grain of sand.
The thing is, though my gut reaction to stuff like this is to say “Shut up” (though people crapping on Finnegans Wake is a bit more reasonable than people crapping on Ulysses), this guy’s actually kind of right. It is incredibly hard not to feel inadequate when faced with the Wake, or the late Coltrane for that matter. It’s definitely not for everyone. Anyone who claims to have read the Wake, in the past tense, is probably full of it: real Wakeans know it’s an ongoing process. I just think it’s too bad he never found a good teacher or a good Wake group to read it with. That can really make all the difference.
Also, most people in grad school ARE frauds. Takes one to know one, you know?