Tagged in: book reviews

Man Versus Food: The Omnivore’s Dilemma Book Review

The Omnivore's Dilemma Michael Pollan Cover

Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan made me think more about food than I ever have before. For something so fundamental to human existence, it’s amazing how little thought I give to the stuff on the end of my fork (or spoon). I’m a large man and I can’t deny that my appetite is hearty, to say the least. But most of the cognitive work I do regarding my food generally concerns finding out where it is and how I can get more of it. I never thought about the eponymous problem: what to eat when you can eat anything.

The author takes a more contemplative approach, taking four separate meals and using them as jumping off points for a deeper exploration of human beings complicated relationship to the stuff we consume. Four different meals: one fast food value meal eaten in a car, one prepared using organic ingredients, one prepared using ultra-organic ingredients gathered during the author’s time working on a small farm, and one featuring meat and vegetables he hunted and gathered with his own two hands. Along the way, Pollan takes a wide-ranging view of the process by which plants and animals (and other things) go from their natural state to the end product on out plates.

He spends a good chink of the book talking about corn, the monocultured agricultural juggernaut that drives U.S. food policy. Pollan takes a dim view of the role that corn plays in the way Americans eat. He excoriates the baffling economic forces that drive American corn farmers to produce more and more ears of the yellow stuff even as the actual consumer demand for it shrinks. A complicated system of government subsidies and industrial processes that require corn-derived products like high-fructose corn syrup for nearly everything keep the process moving. There’s a certain hippy-fied scorn for The Man and his Big Agriculture in Pollan’s writing, especially when pondering the role that capitalism has played in the development of sustenance as product, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma never feels hateful enough to devolve into full-on screed. It opened my eyes to some of the inherent dangers in our evolving approach to eating. Pollan is a big fan of grass-fed beef, pointing out the numerous ways in which nature has ill-equipped the cow to subsist on corn. Its stomach isn’t built for it.

My favorite section of the book detailed Pollan’s time on an organic farm. After a section discussing the ambiguities of the term “organic” and the ways in which the foods we find in the supermarket that bear that label are barely discernible from their more industrially produced cousins, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma takes a much less ambivalent view of small, locally produced organic food. He seems to reach the conclusion that mass-produced and distributed food is necessarily different from what most people imagine when they read the pastoral reflections on the organic food labels. Unless it comes from a farmer’s market or other source that utilizes regional producers, “more organic” is the best that the food can be. The producers can take a more sustainable, less chemically-dependent approach to raising livestock and vegetables but the need to meet economies of scale and transport the goods necessitate certain industrialized processes.

It is only Polyface Farms (and those farms like it) that seem to meet Pollan’s expectations for how farms ought to run. The author clearly has a soft spot for the owner of the farm, a christian libertarian named Joel Salatin who takes a thoughtful approach to the way his farm is structured. There is something to Pollan’s romantic portrayal of a man determined to take a personal, face-to-face approach to both raising his animals and dealing with the people who buy his food. Pollan drives the contrast home by comparing Salatin’s open air abattoir where customers can see their chickens being slaughtered and look the farmer in the eye as he does it with the secretive, hidden, and unknown processes by which industrial slaughterhouses turn cows into steaks. The difference is as philosophical as it is a matter of efficiency.

This section of the book made me want to be a farmer, a career aspiration I can honestly say I have never felt before. And I am notoriously ranging in my ideas for what I wanna be when I grow up, from F.B.I Agent to writer to professional fighter. Farming never appealed to me, but after seeing the intellectual and logistical challenges that go into creating food coupled with the satisfaction (I imagine) one feels in growing your own food. Part of the romance of the idea comes from the numerous innovations Pollan ascribes to Salatin. It makes farming sound like an adventure.

The ending section, wherein Pollan grapples directly with the moral complexities of humans as omnivores is also immensley satisfying. He touches on issues like animal rights and the problems with vegetarianism, beyond the whole “not getting to eat Double-Doubles” thing. He talks about how we have evolved to use culture as a way coming to terms with the omnivore’s dilemma and bemoans the lack of a coherent food culture in American society.

I can be hit-or-miss with nonfiction work but Pollan does an excellent job at taking on complex issues with an engaging tone and an admirably light touch. The result is a thoroughly engaging layman’s approach to food. A natural history of four meals, as the subtitle says.

I Like My Stories Like I Like My Orange Juice – With Extra Pulp: The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril Book Review

Paul Malmont’s love for the pulps bleeds through in every word on the page of his debut novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril. From the setting to the characters, from the plot to the overall structure it is clear the author set out to create a loving paean to the long dead genre. The novel reads like a love letter not just to the stories of the pulp era, which were gritty, complex, and slightly demented, but to the men who created them, who you could describe the same way.

According to the Infallible Source of All Internet Knowledge, the Pulp Era was named from “inexpensive fiction magazines. They were widely published from the 1920s through the 1950s. The term pulp fiction can also refer to mass market paperbacks since the 1950s.” It was the beginning of genre fiction and there was a magazine to cover every available taste, from sci-fi to bleak crime stories. These magazines were printed on the cheapest available paper and the stories needed writers who could pound out lurid, exotic tales with speed and without mistakes. It was hard, unforgiving business and it created hard men. Malmont uses two of the most successful of these writers as his main characters.

Walter Gibson was the creator of The Shadow, who used to rule the fiction market in that time long before Alec Baldwin and company would rise to water the character down for modern cinematic consumption. Lester Dent was the creator of Doc Savage. Together these two were the most prolific and celebrated of the pulp writers and they are Malmont’s primary characters. Initially, they don’t get along but have to put aside their past grievances in order to solve the book’s central mystery. They approach it from different angles, and the author creates some nice parallels between the two men and the way their approach to writing reflects the way they live their lives. While Gibson carries on an illicit affair with another man’s wife (and her psychic chicken) and lives alone, Dent has a strong relationship with his wife who helps him as much as she can with the research end of his writing. The two men untangle separate threads of the same story and along the way they (predictably) reconcile their differences and have to work together to stop a larger threat. It’s by-the-numbers, but the half fun of pulp fiction is the discipline the writers had to show to stick to genre conventions and still give the reader something that feels new. Malmont succeeds more often than he fails in his pulp novel about pulp novels.

The novel is set in New York in the late 1930s, at the center of the publishing industry. While Gibson and Dent follow their parallel paths they come across a mystery involving exiled Chinese warlords, rogue elements of the U.S. military, and biological weapons. The author isn’t striving for hyper-realism, but while the plot drifts towards the outlandish, the characterization and personal details are spot-on. Malmont is trying to tell a true story filled with lies, a contradiction he makes clear from the opening scene where Gibson tells an improbable tale over drinks at the White Horse Tavern and challenges his listeners (and by extension the readers) to separate the truth from the pulp. He more or less concludes it can’t be done. His vision of the Pulp Era tends towards the fantastic, but there are solid details about the historical characters, and a few digressions into the culture that spawned them. The author gives us bits and pieces of he way the pulps worked as a business, and their larger role in the cultural milieu.

The inciting incident comes from H.P. Lovecraft’s funeral and Gibson finds himself with a young L. Ron Hubbard as his sidekick. Over the course of the novel, the characters come across everyone from Louis L’Amour and Robert E. Howard to Orson Welles and Robert Heinlein. Even a young Stan Lee and Jack Kirby get in on the act, running around New York City tailing suspicious figures to darkened warehouses. The novel is one long namedrop of the luminaries of genre fiction’s past. It doesn’t fell gratuitous, as you don’t need to even recognize those names to enjoy the novel, but the easter eggs add a layer of enjoyment to those who do. This novel isn’t intra-textual nudging and winking or one long nostalgic wank-fest (at least not merely). The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril is fun. There are shady characters and real adventure. It might not be bleak enough to make it if it hand to stand alongside Adventure Magazine or Two-Fisted Tales on the racks back in the day, but Malmont’s enthusiasm makes the novel well worth the time.

Labyrinths Literal, Psychosexual, and Typographical: House of Leaves Book Review

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski is a ghost story without ghosts.

House of Leaves rolls its narrative out along two intersecting tracks and several levels of abstraction. You, the reader, hold the book in your hand and begin the tale told by Johnny Truant, an apprentice tattoo artist whose aimless carousing through the L.A. nightlife is interrupted when he stumbles across a manuscript left behind in his apartment by the previous tenant, a blind man named Zampano. Truant becomes obsessed with the bits and pieces that Zampano left behind and he starts editing them together, ostensibly into the book you’re now reading.

After some prefatory rambling from Truant, you begin Zampano’s work, the titular House of Leaves. But Truant has more to say, and his obsession with the manuscript and the strange and horrifying turns his life has taken since he began compiling Zampano’s notes frequently interrupt the (supposedly) central narrative and Truant’s story plays out through footnotes and editorial asides throughout the rest of the book, as well as in a few of the attached appendices.

Zampano’s manuscript is called House of Leaves, and it is about a documentary/art film called The Navidson Record. He talks about it as though it were an actual film, and at several points in his in-depth description of the film’s narrative, he goes off on scholarly tangents and cites a number of other commentators on the film, some real and some imagined. Johnny Truant makes it clear that the film does not exist and seems to be wholly the creation of the old man, despite the matter of fact way he references it and the number of (apparently false) footnotes giving scholarly commentary.

The Navidson Record is the foundation on Danielweski (speaking through Truant, speaking through Zampano) builds House of Leaves. The manuscript describes the story of photographer Will Navidson and his wife Karen as they move into a new house with their children. Some gaps have been opening up in the foundation of their marriage and they hope that a new home will help them reconnect. At first it seems to work, but then Will discovers that the house is bigger on the inside than it on the outside. That discovery, strange though it is, is soon confirmed by outside sources. Things get stranger as a door appeared where there wasn’t one before and a hallway opens up where there is no room for one to be. Will is intrigued (and maybe a little obsessed) while Karen is disturbed and eager to leave. The space between them gets bigger as he insists on exploring the expanding space that has opened up in their living room.

He opens the door and finds a dark, cold place. It is a series of rooms and hallways designed to confuse and disorient. The walls shift and there is an eerie groaning sound that no one can really identify. Will Navidson has found a labyrinth in his own home. He becomes so fixated on exploring it that his relationship with Karen suffers even further. The film follows Will (and a few of his more adventurous friends) on several expeditions into the impossible place and the disastrous consequences that follow.

Danielewski, the actual author, presents everything matter-of-factly. The characters in House of Leaves notice the impossibility of the hallways and the door and the labyrinth, but Will especially is more curious than anything. If it was me and a spatially unlikely hallways opened up to a dreary netherworld in my living room, I would run the fuck away. But Will enlists some friends to explore the void. House of Leaves is never scary, exactly. Not in any kind of visceral, accelerated heartbeat, sweaty palms kind of way. It is profoundly creepy. The idea of finding out your house is physically impossible is unsettling, and the book really sustains that feeling. The interjections from Johnny Truant also notch up the creep factor, because clearly whatever he found in the manuscript has severely affected him. The fact that the same things lurks somewhere ahead of you, the reader, makes his gradual unraveling some extra pathos.

The labyrinth is scary, but nothing overtly supernatural really happens there aside from its existence. The labyrinth is a place where it feels like there is some great unknowable evil manifesting itself, but in House of Leaves, it never comes out into the light. The menace is more conspicuous by its absence than anything else. Its still a dangerous place, because the walls shift constantly and things like time and space are mutable there. Rooms get larger and smaller as Will explores them. Wall markings decay. It is also very cold, but the biggest danger comes from the effect the place has on the people within it.

Danieleweski uses a few postmodern tricks to put the reader within the many layers of the characters’ experience. For example, whenever the word “house” appears in the text it always appears in blue while the rest of the text is black:

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski scan of textual gimmicks, the word house in blue

Even if the word is another language (like domus), the color blue remains. Similarly, the word Minotaur is always in red typeface. These chromatic discrepancies are never directly referenced, and the are actually the least of the author’s devices in House of Leaves. The multiple footnotes (which often contain footnotes of their own) can run on for multiple pages, taking the reader ahead of the primary story, and then making them cut back again. It can get confusing.

Labyrinth of Footnotes

If you think that the confusion the reader feels as they navigate the literal labyrinth of the text mirrors the feelings Navidson and company navigating the actual labyrinth, to quote an old English professor I had, “You would not be entirely incorrect in your reading.” The labyrinth could easily be the book itself, concealing multiple paths and blind alleys as it sits on your nightstand. During the more hair-rising scenes of Navidson’s exploration, the text will stretch out putting a sentence on each page, then a few words, then a single word. It makes you turn the pages faster to find out what happens next and ratchets up the tension.

footnote labyrinth

As Navidson loses his sense of perspective and direction, the text starts skewing in unnatural directions on the page.

House of Leaves Footnote Labyrinth

In lesser hands, this sort of device could easily cross the border into sheer gimmickry and get annoying pretty quick. And if Danielewski had nothing to back it up, it would have. Your mileage may vary, but for me the gestalt effect of these textual manipulations creates a sense of existential dread that outweigh the potential drawbacks. It feels like the author is using these typographical techniques in service of telling his story, not putting them front and center to celebrate cleverness for cleverness’ sake. It feels wrong to call such blatant manipulation of form subtle, but Danielewski delivers House of Leaves with a deft hand that avoids turning into mere masturbatory experimentation with convention. The tale is the most important thing. At the same time, there is some serious depth to the novel. It sticks to your ribs.

Non-analytical Trivia:

As I was reading, I came across a passage that seemed familiar. Like I had read it before, and just something similar, but this particular passage word for word. I couldn’t remember where. It stuck in my head for about a week, dangling at the back of my mind before finally settling into place. It was the spoken word part of the song “Hey Pretty” by Poe. It seems that Danielweski is Poe’s brother and one of her albums is a sort of cross-media adaptation of House of Leaves, a “parallax view of the same story.” I did not know that at the time, though I remembered the song. Evidently, the author appeared in the video for the song doing the actual reading (with more mud-wrestling than appears in the novel itself):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zN2MqiYjug

Obscenity and Paranoia: Lenny Bruce May Have Been Talking Dirty But I Barely Understood a Word

“That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane –
Lenny Bruce is not afraid…”

Lenny Bruce was a big part of making our culture what it is today. R.E.M said so. A fast-talking comedian of the early days of the counter-culture, his trials for obscenity in the early 1960s set the baseline for the Howard Stern’s of the future. His comedy helped set the boundaries that latter day shock-jocks still push against. A jazz-obsessed hipster whose monologues chipped away at the corners of issues like race relations, drug policy, and censorship. He’s an interesting guy, and his autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People should be both important and funny. He was a comedian after all.

And for all I know it is hilarious, but it is not written for the modern reader. Lenny Bruce first published it in 1963, and to my eyes it comes across as hopelessly dated. I don’t mean that as a criticism so much as a statement of fact. Bruce was a comedian and a social satirist so its no wonder that his writing (which seems to be big chunks of his stage routine) is full of cultural references and bits and pieces of the social landscape of his time. My only problem is that much of it is lost on me. The fault may be mine. It’s possible that I am just unreasonably ignorant of 1950’s/1960’s pop-culture minutiae. But the book is peppered through with things like the following, which made no sense whatsoever to me:

“This was sort of a devitalized Dwight Fiske routine, with nothing left but the subtle swish.”

Whoever Dwight Fiske was, I guess he was kind of effeminate? The only way for me to work out some of Bruce’s allusions was to be near my computer, ready to fire up the wikipedia at a moment’s notice. Sometimes, I could work things out by how the references were used in context, but not always. The following passage left me particularly mystified:

“When the evening was over, to my surprise the owner did not assume the Eduardo Cianneli posture with the dialog that I had been conditioned to expect. Lyle Talbot always nods to Eugene Pallette: “You’ve done it again, Mr. Florenzo, this kid’s sensational! We’d better sign him before the Tio Bamba gets him.”

The book is full of name drops like Tio Bamba that don’t register with me, which distracted me a little from the overall thrust of Bruce’s narrative. I can’t really call the comedian out on this, because I’m sure that the contextual nature of his allusions went over much better at the time. They just sort of blurred together for me and I tried to look at his larger points.

Lenny Bruce is a man convinced of the power of language and he spends much of his time thinking about the way that we give words power. The first part of the autobiography sketches a few details about his childhood and time in the navy before he entered show business. Then he hits us with a few routines/anecdotes before moving in to focus on his many legal battles. I particularly enjoyed his story about posing as a priest and getting arrested for soliciting donations. It gives him a platform to talk about the slim line that can separate religion from con games. He gets particularly vitriolic toward what he sees as the hypocrisies of organized religion.

Hypocrisy in general seems to really get under Bruce’s skin. He talks at great length about how ridiculous it was for him to be brought up on obscenity charges when he was only saying what people expected to hear in a place where they had paid money to hear it. As a society we need people like Lenny Bruce chipping away at the corners of American culture. The obscenity charges were promised on the salacious quality of his jokes, and whether or not the cops who witnessed his routine had been turned on.

The latter sections of How to Talk Dirty and Influence People is devoted to his trials and what he saw as his persecution by the police. He did seem to drift along into paranoia, but as we all know that does not mean that they weren’t out to get him. The book adds to his hipster mystique and I think most modern comedians, at least those who lean toward social/political commentary, are walking down the path that Lenny Bruce paved.

Saline Testicular Enhancement and the Modern Detective Story: A Review of Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

This is a novel that will make you feel uncomfortable, at a conservative estimate, at least once in every ten pages. It might be a little squirm, a minor fidget, or a full-on scrotum (or other anatomically appropriate body part)-tightening wince that wracks your entire body. But make no mistake, Crooked Little Vein will make you react physically.

Delivered by well-known Internet Jesus and eponymous purveyor of graphic novels Warren Ellis, Crooked Little Vein is a kind of gonzo detective story. Our protagonist is former Pinkerton and current bottomed out private eye Mike McGill. It seems that ever since he left the corporate detective agency to go into private practice, Mike has been a lightning rod for the weird and perverted cases. While your average detective probably takes pictures of insurance fraud and Sam Spade deals with mysterious bird statues, Mike is the kind of detective who investigates a cheating husband and finds a tantric ostrich-sex cult. He’s a “shit magnet” which makes him the perfect choice to find the Other Constitution of the United States. Its a shady, mysterious document that the White House Chief of Staff needs Mike to find. Along the way, he picks up a sidekick/assistant/love interest/ sex researcher named Trix and the two of them set off on a cross-country road trip to track down the document, tracing a crooked little vein across the underside of American cultural geography.

The Constitution seems to have been held only by sexual deviants and depraved freaks. Mike and Trix meet at a Godzilla-themed bukkake porn theater and their relationship gets weirder from there. Its the perfect vehicle for Ellis to explore some of the darker, stranger aspects of twenty-first century culture which is really his playground. Crooked Little Vein is a slim volume, and you can burn through it pretty quick but that helps with the episodic nature of the quest. I found myself reading through one of Mike’s troubling encounters a night and saving the next for tomorrow. It was the most fucked up bedtime story I have ever subjected myself to. The worst part for me was a fairly detailed description of a process whereby one’s testicles are filled with warm saline and swelled to ridiculous proportions. Granted, I am something of a wuss when it comes to body modifications, but I had some trouble getting through that section of the novel. But I kept coming back for more.

Ellis is firmly in his element here and this is clearly a Warren Ellis book. While Crooked Little Vein is his first novel, he has written an impressive number of graphic novels and developed a characteristic style that tends to shine through no matter what he’s writing. His voice is so distinctive that it almost becomes a liability. Like Chuck Palahniuk or David Mamet, the authorial tone and stylistic tics mark the narrative. Whether his protagonists are superheroes, futuristic reporters, or shit-magnet PIs they all speak in the curmudgeonly shades of Ellis (and probably smoke cigarettes).

The story in Crooked Little Vein is new and distinctive enough to separate it from any of Ellis previous narratives but some of the things Mike sees and experiences wouldn’t be out of place in the far-out future of Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem. But what sets this novel apart is the little character touches that dance in and out of the narrative frame as Mike and Trix grow closer together. The plot plays like a grotesque road movie, and although there are no huge character-arc moments to explore the personalities of his characters there are just enough little touches of humanity to make us care about the horrible things they smell and eat.

For fans of Ellis’ its a no-brainer and if you count yourself in that camp you probably already own a copy. Otherwise, if you’ve got the stomach for it, this is worth your time. And if you don’t, then you probably never would have picked it up in the first place.

The Secret? The Alchemist Sucks

I’ve been occupying my transit time with the reading of novels and other books that have nothing to do with stare decisis and substantive law. For the last week or so, I’ve been pulling out my copy of The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo.

This being San Francisco, at least three different people saw me reading it and decided to comment on how the book changed their lives and they now have the wisdom necessary to really feel at home with the soul of the world. I should have let that be a clue. I’ve had people recommend the book to me over the years and for whatever reason I just never got around to starting it. As a rule, I try to avoid works of literature that set out to be life-changing experiences. I find that sort of earnestness more than a little suspect.

And this is most certainly that type of book. As one of the blurbs on the back cover puts it, it attempts to have “a life-enchanting effect on millions of people” and I’m sure that even now it sits on the bookshelf of countless sensitive thinkers, absorbing the incense and patchoulii while getting pulled down every once in a while for a realignment with its message. The fact that the message is a mishmash of new age claptrap and ridiculous hokum of The Secret-like proportions only helps it along. People will fall for anything, even the patently absurd idea that the universe is obligated to grant your wishes and that desire is enough to get you the things you want. Coelho writes at great length in The Alchemist about the importance of following one’s Personal Legend (it is thus pretentiously capitalized throughout) and I can’t help but thinking that his own Personal Legend had something to do with getting millions of people to shell out their money for his book, which equates with vagueness with depth.

It’s no mean feat to deliver any sort of literary analysis of The Alchemist. The entire novel is more concerned with exploring the philosophical meanderings of Coelho’s particular brand of snake oil than in delivering any sort of plot or characterization. This is actually kind of a shame, because his spartan prose works well with the subject matter of the novel. The plot, such as it is, concerns a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago and his quest to find a a treasure at the Egyptian pyramids. He makes his way from southern Spain down to Tangier and sets out in search of his prophesied treasure. Along the way he works in a crystal shop, crosses the desert, and meets the titular sorcerer, an old man who doesn’t so much as teach young Santiago wisdom as he acknowledges the wisdom he picked up for himself by listening to the desert. We follow Santiago’s perspective and he loves to just let feel-good aphorisms slip.

“A grain of sand is a moment of creation, and the universe has taken millions of years to create it.”

“Before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that we learned along the way.”

“Love is the force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World.”

“When you are loved, you can do anything in creation…there’s no need to understand what’s happening because everything happens within you, and men can turn themselves into the wind.”

And son. And so forth. I suppose if that kind of thing is your cup of tea, then the spiritual aspects of The Alchemist but keep you interested. I just kept wanting more. The notion that Coehlo stresses the most is that everyone has a Personal Legend, or possible destiny. It’s the things we want most. Okay. But he goes on to say that if we pursue it, whatever that may be, then the universe will make sure we get it. Along the way, we must (literally) listen to out hearts and thereby enter into The Soul of the World, which I’m not totally clear on but seems to basically be the Force. Once we have done this successfully, we may be able to transform ourselves into (metaphorical) wind creatures and we will find our treasure.

It just seems like balderdash to me. I’m annoyed by the idea that we are owed anything or that “the universe” will give us things if we just want them bad enough. Santiago loses any sense of agency, his pursuit of the alchemist has more to with creating a proper allegory than in telling a good story or exploring spirituality with any kind of depth or intellectual discipline. The Alchemist is short. If the story had been more engaging and delivered the theology as an organic part of the narrative rather than serving as an extended parable I might have been sorry. As it is, I’m glad to be done with it.

What I’m Reading on the Bus: A Review of Life of Pi

This book was not what I expected it to be. I’d heard about it here and there, and the plot synopsis while simple, was intriguing enough to make me pick it up. It’s about an Indian boy who finds himself lost at sea, adrift in a rowboat with a 450 pound tiger as his only shipmate. I also knew that it deal with issues of religion and spirituality. I was expecting an allegorical tale, probably peppered with a fair amount of magical realism. I’m not sure why exactly, but I had it in my head that the tiger and the boy would talk and that the carnivorous castaway would impart some spiritual wisdom on the protagonist while they were at sea. Something like the The Old Man and The Sea meets Ishmael perhaps. That will teach me to go into a novel with expectations.

Yann Martel plays it straight. He gives us a few opening scenes with Piscine Patel growing up at his family’s zoo in India. Pi, as he prefers to be called, is a devout Hindu. He is also a devout Muslim. And a devout Christian. Everyone seems to have a problem with his polyrelgiosity except for the boy himself, who sees nothing contradictory in his faiths. After a few chapters of Pi’s theological musings, the story gets moving with his family and all the animals from their zoo setting forth on a sea voyage to Canada. The ship goes down, and Pi finds himself thrown in a life raft with a giant tiger named Richard Parker. The bulk of the book, then, is Pi learning to survive on the open water with a ferocious beast. The tiger does not impart any wisdom, and the journey is a straight adventure story lacking any overt weirdness (until a possibly hallucinated sequence near the end).

Indeed, the novel is chiefly concerned with the minutiae of survival. Martel goes into painstaking detail about the life boat and the supplies, and the steps that Pi takes to stay alive. The result is something very much like the Old Man in the Sea, but lacking much of it’s depth. For me, there was too much emphasis place on the “boy’s own adventure story” and not enough placed on character development. The text goes back to the well of survival account specificities again and again. If you have a particular affinity for the word gunnel, or read disaster stories religiously you will be drawn in more than I was.

It’s hard to get too angry with the novel simply for not being what I thought it was going to be and I have made a good-faith attempt to judge it on it’s own merits. I still didn’t like it. Not that the prose was lacking, but the overall plot was too intensely focused on the blow-by-blow of fishing, rationing, and harvesting water. Richard Parker, the feline companion, functions both as an additional obstacle for Pi to deal with and a symbol of everything he left behind. I like the fact that Pi decides he needs to keep Richard Parker alive despite the danger he presents. It’s a hint of the deeper themes that the novel mostly chooses to ignore.

***Spoilers Below***

 

Then, at the end of the novel, after a surreal trip to a mysterious living island (probably hallucinated) Pi comes ashore in Mexico and Richard Parker escapes into the wilderness. While Pi answers the questions of some investigators, Martell tries to pull a switch and intimates that the entire thing was a fabrication created by Pi to deal with the tragedy of losing his family at sea. It happens in just the last few pages and solidly derails the work. What is supposed to be an “Aha!” moment just feels flat. The author leaves it up to you take away the version of the story that you like best, but it just feels like a cop-out. Rather than adding depth to the preceding chapters, it feels like the author is trying to be deeper than the novel indicates. All in all, the novel wasn’t terrible, but it was a disappointment.

Other Bus Readings:

The Disappointment Artist

Oblivion

Where Three Roads Meet

What I’m Reading on the Bus: Where Three Roads Meet

c16701.jpg

 

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.

What I’m Reading on the Bus: Oblivion

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.

What I’m reading on the bus: The Disappointment Artist

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.