Dean Moriarty: Kind of a Prick
May 11, 2010

Those who read On the Road and like it tend to have picked i up when they were most receptive: as starry-eyed adolescents who drink it up as, like Dara says, pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call Dean Moriarty a “manic pixie dream dude,” or at least not one with a couple more layers of complication there. If you’re reading the book while taking the narrator at face value, and ignoring the fact that these are real people with the names and a couple trivial details changed, then sure. But I think there are other ways of reading the book, and the character, that yield further rewards even once you’re out of the phase where the premise of the book dazzles all on its own.

I started to get a sense of this when I read another Kerouac book, The Dharma Bums. By the time that novel was written, Kerouac was a full-blown alcoholic, and the fact that the narrator had no clue why Allen Ginsberg was angry at him for waking up every morning with a flask of whiskey drove the point home even more: not all was well with Sal Paradise.

Not long afterwards, I read On the Road: The Original Scroll, the single-chapter, single-paragraph, non-fiction tome that Kerouac originally turned into publishers before they decided they wanted it to be a “novel” and “readable.” In that version, the prose is much rawer, the implied homosexuality is explicit, and Dean Moriarty is, of course, Neal Cassaday.

Reading it again, and taking Jack Kerouac as an unreliable narrator, I realized for the first time that Cassaday was actually kind of a sociopath. He seems like a “manic pixie dream dude” if you’re as dazzled by his antics and seeming authenticity (whatever you want to take that to mean) as Kerouac, but I think it’s a much more interesting book when you read it with an eye for the flaws in both Kerouac and Cassaday that the former never acknowledges.

Good Sci-Fi vs. Bad
May 11, 2010

Contra Daniel, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that “there’s plenty more science fiction out there about utopian societies than there are about ones where a virtual lion eats the real people like in The Veldt.” Virtually every single sci-fi film that gets released these days (that is, the ones that aren’t about space smurfs who are, like, really in touch with nature) is about SCIENCE GONE WRONG and THAT WHICH MAN WAS NOT MEANT TO KNOW, etc. The vision of a utopian society isn’t the most overused science fiction plot in history: the plot of the very first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, is.

Except, of course, Frankenstein had a deeper point to make than technology bad. You can’t understand Frankenstein the novel without understanding the context in which it was written, post-enlightenment and twenty years after the French Revolution. The monster himself is the product of a whole new tradition in human thought: stronger, leaner, and smarter, but difficult to control and prone to develop on his own.

Point is, this concepts only last when they tap into something a little richer than just fear. Bad, didactic science fiction (re: the space smurfs) presents you with the answer to whatever question the movie’s asking before the plot even really begins. But good fiction–not just science fiction, but any fiction at all–asks the sort of questions that are far too difficult to answer on anything beyond the individual level, if that. That’s Bradbury’s legacy.

Dear Authors, Your Next Book Should Be a Book Part 2
April 12, 2010

Annie Werner–of WTF Gallatin Majors–has posted a typically sharp response to Cody and me. I’ll admit she basically nails me here:

“What about the tactile sensation of reading? The physical artifact of a book? The way you can chart your progress through it by the movement of a bookmark?” Well, what about them? They’re essentially nostalgic abstractions that give a false sense of tangibility to something, and are not important to what is great about a great book—its core, its heart, its truth, what have you.

Point taken. But what I was trying (with limited success) to get at there is the big reason why I think novels–print novels–are going to remain more or less the way they are. This is going to sound like a lame tautology, but here goes: novels are perfect novels, and nothing will ever be better at being a novel than the novel. Because while technology will improve and generate new mediums, those won’t be novels. And because novels have demonstrated the capacity–time and time again–to be great, timeless masterpieces, I don’t see the form ever becoming obsolete. It just doesn’t make sense to me to even the consider the possibility that it could become obsolete.

That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be further marginalized, and that’s something I am legitimately worried about. That’s part of why I spend so much time pimping the works of David Foster Wallace (who has some really important, brilliant things to say about us and who we are right now while also being hysterically funny, deeply moving, and incredibly addictive) and Michael Chabon (who is also wildly entertaining, and crafts literature using the raw mythos and language of the pulp genre entertainment that is so central to American culture and American collective consciousness).

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
April 12, 2010

I have a review of David Lipsky’s new book about David Foster Wallace (essentially a book-length interview of the author taking place after the release of Infinite Jest) over at Wunderkammer.

Thanks again to the good people there, particularly David Michael, for contacting me about reviewing this. It was a real pleasure to dig deep into DFW’s unedited thoughts–so much so that, I have to admit, writing the last paragraph of this review made me a little verklempt. I’ve never been one to be affected all that much by celebrity deaths, but now when ever I think about Wallace’s suicide it hits me kind of hard.

In the review, I quote Lipsky as saying that Wallace’s writing persona “was the best friend you’d ever have.” Maybe that’s why, even now, it still kind of feels like I lost a friend.

Anyway, read the review. And if you haven’t read any David Foster Wallace, then for god’s sake, do that.

Dear Authors, Your Next Book Should Be a Book
April 11, 2010

Via Joe‘s Twitter, I see that friend and founder of NYU Local and kommons Cody Brown has written a guest post for TechCrunch called Dear Authors, Your Next Book Should be an App, Not an iBook.

Now, Cody and I have gone back and forth on similar stuff in the past; my view is that he’s an extremely sharp social media innovator, but that his bias in that direction leads to a sort of techno-triumphalism I don’t think makes a whole lot of sense (Re: His occasional assertion that journalism as a profession will soon die out because “a public can talk to itself.”). Here, I think he’s done it again.

I mean, read the title. It’s kind of an odd one, isn’t it? Imagine if someone wrote, “Dear Filmmakers, Your Next Movie Should be a Video Game.” Or, “Dear Playwrights, Your Next Play Should Be a Movie.” Cody’s right to point out that we’re going to see some really interesting innovations in how to read from the iPad and similar devices, but I don’t see how those innovations can displace books entirely. What about the tactile sensation of reading? The physical artifact of a book? The way you can chart your progress through it by the movement of the bookmark?

Personally, I will continue to write for print whenever I would prefer to see my ideas expressed in print. The possibilities of the iPad app that Cody raises–greater interactivity and so on–are interesting, but I don’t see them as reasons why the iPad is a superior platform of communication to the book. Because Cody brings up George Orwell in an example, let me pose the question: Would Homage to Catalonia have been better if Orwell had access to an iPad and included stuff like hyperlinks, interactive word puzzles, chapters the reader could edit and various other doodads? I’m going to say “no,” because it wouldn’t have been Homage to Catalonia.

One more note: in general, assertions like “technological advancement [Y] will replace mode of communication/expression [X]” should be approached with great caution, because they tend to omit an important clause. The full sentence should read: “Technological advancement [Y] will replace mode of communication/expression [X] for the affluent yuppies who can afford it.” Even then–for the reasons I mentioned above–it’s not entirely convincing, but at least now it’s more honest. I mean, the low-end iPad retails at $499, for chrissake! The technology will inevitably get cheaper, but is it ever going to be as cost-effective as a $7 paperback or a $0 library card?

If you’re interested in seeing the real future of real ink-on-paper books, I suggest you click here.

Lightly edited for clarity, and because I just got a big traffic bump off of this. Apparently I should pick fights with my social media mogul friend more often.

Phillip Pullman is a Hero
April 1, 2010

Via The Elegant Variation:

Incidentally, I was tremendously excited when the Library Journal got a galleys copy of the book referenced above. It sounds pretty awesome. I would have happily begged for the opportunity to review it for them, but I’m afraid that my quixotic attempt to read the entirety of Moby Dick* is probably going to consume all of my dwindling recreational reading time for the duration of my tenure there.

*I suppose you could say that the very last page of that tome has become my white whale. Get it? LITERARY REFERENCE.

The Novel: Still More Relevant Than Its Detractors
March 13, 2010

I’ll grant David Shields this: based on the reviews, Reality Hunger sounds like an uncommonly original variation on the “death of the novel” school of thought that’s gotten so fashionable. But if I’m correctly understanding the bones of the book’s argument as laid out by Luc Sante in the Times, it’s still way off.

James Woods quotes the crux of the thing in his very James Woods-ian response:

I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels. Collage works are nearly always “about what they’re about”—which may sound a tad tautological—but when I read a book that I really love, I’m excited because I can feel the writer’s excitement that in every paragraph he’s manifestly exploring his subject.

Oy. The big error here–and one I wish Woods had spent a little more time deconstructing–lies in assuming that novels aren’t “about what they’re about.” Plenty of accomplished novelists are also accomplished essayists, so it’s probably worth asking why people who excel in both fields would choose to do both. Vanity? Holding out for a film deal? An overactive imagination?
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China Miéville on J.G. Ballard
February 27, 2010

It’s been said so many times before, but it deserves to be said again:

Edric is clearly no fool, and rather than simply dismissing his peculiar and misplaced praise, we should consider it in light of his remarks about genre. He goes on to say that to regard Ballard’s work “purely as science fiction is to misunderstand completely what [Ballard] has accomplished over half a century.” This coolness toward the genre echoes Martin Amis’s assurance, in the introduction to this volume, that science fiction “couldn’t hold” Ballard. One is also reminded of the way Margaret Atwood packaged her novel Oryx and Crake in 2003: choosing as its epigraph Jonathan Swift’s remark in Gulliver’s Travels that “my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you,” while simultaneously distinguishing her work from science fiction (SF) during her publicity tour on the grounds that SF is about “talking squids in outer space.” It appears that Swift and squid are antipodes. Since literary fiction, you see, has something to say about the real world, ipso facto it cannot be SF. And though there are many ways a piece of nonrealist fiction can be “about” the real world, when it is set in the future, one of the simplest and most obvious interpretations is to perceive it relatively directly as an aspiration or warning. Underlying the unhelpful sense of Ballard as a prophet, let alone an aspirational one, then, is an ongoing campaign to rescue him from genre–from those talking squids in outer space. (Atwood’s phrase has been exuberantly picked up by SF readers and writers, of course: there are now many websites dedicated to celebrating fictional cephalopod cosmonauts.)

The campaign, and the embedded myopia about and antipathy toward genre, are foolish. Anyone who works in SF has had this argument multiple times, and has become tedious in the process. It would be nice if we could all just shut up about this. Clearly the claim that SF has nothing meaningful to say and that therefore meaningful fiction cannot be SF is a tautology predicated on a question-begging and evasive conception of genre as canard. Clearly Ballard was, among various things, an SF writer. Though on occasion he was slightly more equivocal about it, he was quoted after his death on the BBC’s The Last Word as having said, “I’ve always insisted that I certainly was a science fiction writer and very proud of it.” Authorial intention isn’t everything, but it certainly counts for something. To say that Ballard couldn’t have been a science fiction writer because one admires his fiction so much is absurd. Clearly anyone who nonetheless insists on this is speaking not from analysis but from an uninvestigated generic prejudice. They, not Ballard, are hostages of those squids. These should be commonplaces.

The whole article is interesting, but I feel like I would have gotten a lot more out of it had I ever actually read any J.G. Ballard. And yeah, I know that’s something I should really get on, especially given twin obsessions with transcendent genre fiction (which is a stupid label, but I think you know what I’m talking about) and paranoid literature.

Any Ballard fans got recommendations on where to start?

In Which I Get Way Over My Head in Literary Theory
February 11, 2010

Last night I finished writing a paper on a novel in which I suggested that a lot of the textual evidence weaved throughout the book undermined its basic thesis (yup, it was one of those novels; the kind that has an easily spelled out thesis in the first place). I think I did a pretty good job on it, but really it’s hard to say. The problem is that I found the aforementioned thesis to be deeply objectionable,* and so it’s hard to say how much of my rebuttal was based on textual evidence, and how much of it is based on the fact that I think the book is just wrong.

On the one hand, my inability to engage with that book, or any book, purely on its own terms can be kind of frustrating. But it’s also why I love reading; when you read, you’re not passively absorbing information but actively grafting terms and concepts from your prior experience onto the words of the author to give the ink on the page texture and meaning. There’s an intimacy to it that I haven’t quite found in any other artistic medium. What I’m absorbing isn’t the thoughts of Lewisohn the author, or me, the reader, but a third entity that the two of us created together.**

*The book was Ludwig Lewisohn’s The Island Within, which concludes by repeatedly bludgeoning the reader with the assertion that Jews will only cause themselves pain if they consort with non-Jews and try to be full and equal members of society outside of their community.

**Further reading on that note: Borges’ “The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald.”

Why No One Should Have to Defend the Novel
January 4, 2010

First Dylan goes hard on political philosophy (see my responses here and here) and now he’s arguing that the novel is “no longer, technologically speaking, necessary” and “text is an inferior way of telling stories to video. “

Given that political philosophy and good literature are two things that I live for, I can only assume that he’s trying to ruin my life. Why, Dylan? I thought we were cool!

Now, I can’t really respond to any of Dylan’s points about Franzen’s article directly, because I haven’t read the article. It’s behind a pay wall, and I’m not a Harper’s subscriber, so I’ll have to take his word for it that Franzen is a secret racist/misogynist, my only feeble rebuttal being that The Corrections was really a wonderful novel and I didn’t pick up any clues from that text to indicate that the author was a Secret Hitler.

But I’m not here to defend the novelist, but the novel. And I’ve got to say, maybe it’s because he only glosses it in the first paragraph, but Dylan’s argument makes absolutely no sense to me. Why is video “superior” to text? For that matter, how can any artistic medium be “superior” to another one? They’re different tools, used to convey different things. You won’t ever hear anyone debate about whether or not music is better than painting, or film is better than music, and with good reason: because either debate would be fucking stupid.
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