One of the funniest, most insightful, most human writers of all time has passed. I won’t make any jokes. The world is a sadder place without him, and there isn’t anyone left to point out how doomed we are. At least, not as entertainingly. So it goes.
Category Archives: books
I have decided to embark on a literary journey this year; a journey through the paranoid, weird, and highly awesome world of Phillip K. Dick. He was a science fiction writer, known for paranoid plots and characters that come to question the nature of reality. For some reason, a number of his trippy head-fuck stories have been made into big Hollywood films, with varying degrees of success. Blade Runner was awesome. Minority Report was cool. I didn’t really care for Total Recall, and Paycheck pretty much sucked. Generally the films forego the paranoid delusion elements of the novels in favor of pure action sequences. Only the recent A Scanner Darkly managed to receate the tone of his work. The movie felt like a PKD book, due in no small part to the rotoscoping animation style.
I’ve read a few of his books already but its time to work my way through the rest of his catalogue. I really liked VALIS, which was a sort of autobiographical story of the time he was blasted by a divine laser beam of pure information and realized that we are all actually living in the first century, under Roman rule. Yeah…
I aim to work my way through the rest of his work over the course of this year. I intend to read every novel the man ever wrote and hope I don’t have a nervous breakdown like he did.
I’m going to start by finishing out thew VALIS trilogy and work from there. First up is The Divine Invasion.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
Barth is the Godfather of Postmodern fiction, having been doing it longer and better than almost anyone else in the genre. Without him we would have no Wallace, no Eggers. Personally, he ranks at or near the top of favorite writers, a Zeusian skyfather of meta-fictional narrative who doles his mightiness out to use Mere Readers from his spot on his Authorial Olympus. I remember being assigned his short story “Night Sea Journey” from
Lost in the Funhouse when I was a lowly undergrad. I puzzled over the piece for the better part of a day until I realized I was reading a story about Sperm. The hero is a single sperm cell, taking his own mythic quest to that place where All Stories End. I was hooked. He’s been one of my favorite authors ever since.
Like all good postmodernists Barth writes meta-fiction or fiction about fiction. His protagonists tend to be writers, molecularly thinly veiled caricatures of himself and they tend to be in the process of writing. The story itself usually becomes the story of its own creation. It can get a little confusing, but the books are enjoyable enough to be more than worth the effort it takes to get through. He also tends to play with mythological themes by bringing Joseph Campbell to places he thought he would never go. Barth gives us the Hero’s Journey in a number of different forms, and plays it out different ways.
For someone who talked at great length about the “Literature of Exhaustion” and the Death of the Novel, Barth seems to be having fun. A great deal of it. His prose is energetic, and full of rollicking wordplay. He’s always nudging and winking at the Reader, but the sheer exuberance with which he does so belies any pretension and keeps me from getting annoyed with him. He’s like a really smart, slightly off-kilter Grandpa who’s trying to entertain a truly precocious grandkid.
Where Three Roads Meet is his newest work, thought it’s been out for a while. It consists of three interlinked novellas. (At least I assume it does. I have only read the first two and cannot say for sure how the third ties in.)
In the first we find a triad of grad students, a dramatic tripod with a Barth stand-in and engaged couple as legs. Complications ensue, and a love triangle develops that threatens both their habitation arrangement and the jazz trio they comprise.
In the second, a tale is waiting to be told. The story is a first-person narration from a Story, a Heroic Myth to be precise. This Story has been told many times, a Story with a Thousand Places. As the Story is sitting by the side of the road waiting for the action to begin, it is picked up by a Storyteller. This older man of Barthian bent gives the untold tale a ride in his Dramatic Vehicle. When a Reader shows up, Complications ensue.
If that sort of thing doesn’t sound appealing, there’s not much I can say. John Barth is not for you. Go read some Hemingway or something a little more grounded in reality and straightforward in its lack of irony. But if you can accept a certain degree of postmodern gamesmanship and can appreciate the mastery of craft it takes to be so cheekily self-aware and not devolve into cutesy, clever-for-cleverness’-sake-itude you should give Barth a try.
Where Three Roads Meet is not as bad place to start, although it does reflect his age (he’s getting on in years) and while still full of exuberance, Barth is thinking more and more about final things and the way stories end. As he approaches his own closing sentence, this is understandable.
You might want use this as a barometer to measure the your stomach for Barth: “Click” is a story he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in December 1997.
See Also: A Paper on Freud and Barth, Written By Me.
Now, I like David Foster Wallace. I really do. A friend recommended Infinite Jest to me a few years ago. Despite her fervent admonitions that I would enjoy it, I told her that I didn’t have time to begin such a gargantuan tome, much less the strength to cart it around with me. She was a persistent friend, and she went so far as to ply me with with whiskey and forcibly read me passages. But to no avail. I resisted, for no real reason. It wasn’t until a few years later that I picked up A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and was instantly hooked. I waded through his back catalogue one by one, except for the book about math.
But it wasn’t easy. DFW is about as far from easy as you can get. The brother’s prose is dense. It requires a close reading of even the most frivolous and tangential passages. Sometimes his nested and clause-ridden sentences will take several pages before they achieve any sort of punctuational closure. Narrative point of view can change mid-paragraph, mid-sentence. And DFW revels in ambiguity. Events occur in a hazy fog. The actors and their motivations are obscured and vague. Extended internal dialogues are usually the only clue the reader can find as to who the central characters are. Its also digressive, frequently veering into scholarly dissertations of abstract science and jargon heavy, acronymic asides. Don’t even get me started on the footnotes.
That being said, I keep coming back. His work is frequently hilarious and rewards the (considerable) effort he requires of the reader. While I remain partial to his nonfiction work, he does seem to really come alive with his fiction. Despite all the distancing devices he pulls from his bag of postmodern tricks, many of his stories are surprisingly light in irony. His characters have authentic feelings and the author approaches their problems with a refreshing sincerity. So far I have only read the first two stories in this collection, and it has taken me the better part of three weeks. But they were worth the effort. The first story especially. Mr. Squishy has two separate narrative threads. In the first Terry Schmidt, a research scientist leads a focus group as they discuss their reactions to the titular snack cake. As Schmidt leads the group discussion he reflects on his increasing sense of ennui. His story is filled with mathematical terms and an explanations of scientific research techniques. He may also have poisoned a batch of the Felony snack cakes that he is leading the focus group on. In the second an unidentified figure slowly climbs a Chicago skyscraper. He is possibly armed, but positively wearing some sort of inflatable outfit.
It wouldn’t be a DFW story if I could offer a clear and concise plot synopsis. I cannot. Did Schmidt poison the snack cakes? If so, why? Who was researching whom on team Delta Y? Are the two scenes linked? Did the climber have a purpose? What did he do when he reached the zenith of his ascent? Did he have a rifle attached to his climbing harness, and if so what did he use it for? Wallace seems uninterested in anwering these questions. Certain key plot points become conspicuous by their absense, and I truly believe the author gets a kick out of confounding his readers. I’m still trying to figure out how Infinite Jest ended.
But the man knows his language. His prose is evocative, even as it is off-putting. His vocabulary alone is enough to reduce lesser men to tears, much less his syntactical gymnastics. I always feel smarter when I’m reading a David Foster Wallace book. And what’s the point of reading literary fiction if not to make yourself feel smarter than the people around you. As far as reading on the bus, DFW might be a little too heavy. I frequently lose track and have to start a few pages behind where I left off. But I’ll finish it, and eagerly await the next.
Its an essay collection, ostensibly covering a variety of pop-cultural ephemera. But Lethem doesn’t just talk about the importance of Star Wars on the macro-cultural level. He explores the importance of Star Wars to him by discussing what was going on in his life the summer it first came out, when he watched the movie 21 times. The central theme driving the book is that movies and music, the novels we read and everything else that goes in to our entertainment becomes inextricably linked with the tumult of our lives. In Lethem’s case, the recurring motif is growing up in a bohemian family in Brooklyn in the late seventies/early eighties, and the loss of his mother to cancer. Tied in with his musings on The Searchers and crash course survey of Phillip K. Dick are his memories of trying to escape the grief he felt. In trying too escape his loss, Lethem succeeded primarily in linking it to his own cultural milestones.
It was interesting to see a more overt autobiography from Lethem, who obscured some of the more personal revelations with magical realism and poetic license in his novel Fortress of Solitude(which I enjoyed immensely.) There’s a surface similarity to Chuck Klosterman, in as much as both authors discuss Star Wars and their musical inclinations at great length. Like Klosterman, Lethem doesn’t shy away from subjects many authors would deem too trivial for contemplation. Both authors are adept at sifting through the detritus of pop culture and using it as springboards for introspection. It doesn’t hurt that I share many of the same obsessions and predilections of both authors: comic books, novels, science fiction, indie films, etc. If discussing the importance of Jack Kirby’s Return to Marvel work doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, I’d advise you to stay away from this book. But Lethem is infinitely more focused on the personal than Klosterman, and as such he offers more insights into the mind of the writer and the relationship between art and loss. It’s a relationship that Lethem, like the rest of us, can’t shake off.