Saturday, March 26, 2011

Upon the impending release of the unfinished novel by one of the most celebrated writers of our generation, some thoughts, however scattered, on the upcoming bombardment of reviews to which we will be subjected come April 2011.

If David Foster Wallace’s literary frenemy, Jonathan Franzen, had the “literary moment of the year” in 2010, then it is pretty clear that 2011 will be the literary year for the late DFW. Before eliminating his own map (1) in 2008, Wallace left behind an unfinished novel, The Pale King. A story of IRS tax collectors, it is set for release, suitably, on April 15.

With the date approaching, the tidal wave of hype is just starting crank up. Witness the touching 45-min BBC radio program Endnotes on D.F. Wallace, or the NYO piece of the rise of the DFW ‘industry’, among others. Pretty soon the reviews of TPK will come barreling in, too (2).

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about all the upcoming reviews (3), and specifically, how the content will shape up in aggregate. There are probably some broad predictions that can be made as we eye the April 15 date in terms of what previous DFW stories/novels will be referenced by the reviewer in light of The Pale King. Consider this a form literary bracketology from someone who who cannot name a single team in the entire basketball tournament (4).

34% of reviews will reference his 2005 Kenyon commencement speech colloquially known as This is Water.

The highest likelihood of all oeuvre name-checking, I believe. In terms of recent works that concatenate his ideas into a palatable, brief form (read: hurried reviewer friendly) look no further. Specifically the “really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness...” and the “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight around us, all the time,” passages.

Based on excerpts published in The New Yorker and other publications, we know that TPK deals with the tedious work of IRS agents, whose job is so perineum-tightenly boring that the agents receive anti-boredom training upon arrival as new employees. While the soul killing work seems, well, soul killing, you can imagine that it does allow a person the type of introspection, or freedom, that is not available with the distractions of Facebook, Gchat, or the placations of capital-e Entertainment to numb us.

In other words, boredom as part of the endaemonic quest to self-actualization.

19% of reviews will reference The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic) fact-diarrhea passage from Infinite Jest.

Specifically the statements, “that boring activities become, perversely much less boring if you concentrate on them,” and “that concentrating intently on anything is very hard work.”

Seems to dovetail nicely with the loose plot-line referenced above, though given that the passage is relatively buried among such gems as “that there is a certain type of person who carries a picture of their therapist in their wallet,” (4) in the 1,000+ page novel it lowers the probability of appearing in reviews.

12% (equal chance) of reviews drilling into the work monotony passages from the stories The Soul is Not a Smithy or Mister Squishy.

For someone who never saw much action sliding down that firehouse pole to put out fires with the rest the paper pushers of Corporate America, DFW certainly had a knack for corporate-speak. From Mr. Squishy:

“Schmidt knew full well that Reesemeyer Shannon Belt Adv. had lost the US Brands/Ericson account to D.D.B. Needham’s spectacular pitch for a full-out Shadow strategy, and thus that the videotape of his remarks here would raise at least three eyebrows among R.S.B.’s MROP team...”

Now will this specific passage be referenced? Absolutely not. Though, I use it illustratively because I figure a number of reviewers (approx. 12%) will think to themselves all like, “Oh yeah, I totes remember in graduate school I read that story of his where he’s slinging around all kinds of acronyms and the main character gets so disgruntled he fantasizes about injecting poison into the company’s soft confection products just so he can be the one to lead the crisis communications effort in response to the poisonous confectionary cakes (ala 1982 Tylenol’s successful recall in 1982 that’s taught to like EVERY person who has darkened the door of a MBA classroom) and wouldn’t that be be a good tie up with how the organizations for which we work for can both change how we communicate in addition to perverting our overall motivations and sense of morality?”

From The Soul is Not a Smithy:

The narrator’s dream sequence.
“...tableau of a bright, utterly silent room full of men immersed in rote work. It was the type of nightmare whose terror is less about what you see than about the feeling you have in your lower chest about what you’re seeing.”

Pretty self explanatory.

2% chance of referencing the Narrator of “Good Old Neon” from Oblivion.

Like TPK, Good Old Neon features a character/narrator named David Foster Wallace that breaks the fourth wall. Seems like a small detail, so I doubt it will be referenced much.

0% chance of people referencing his “Fiction’s about what is is to be a fucking human being,” quote.

I just happen to like it and wanted a find a way to work it in here.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Now, of course that I’ve outlined various possible references in this article, will that increase the likelihood of them appearing in the subsequent reviews, completely messing up my predictions via some sort of literary Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? Worth thinking about. At least I can point to that if my predictions don’t pan out.


ENDNOTES
(1) DFW’s own reference for suicide in Infinite Jest, qq.v James O. Incadenza and Kate Gompert. I don’t mean to use the the term facetiously for a human act that is grave in its implications and a burdensome to those the suicide left behind. It’s just that there is a 100% certainty that EVERY single review will somehow mention the s-word, the proliferation of which (the s-word) will geld the painful implications of the act itself. I’m also employing it, the eliminating your own map phrase, as a psuedo-homage to DFW too -- as his use of ten-spot words and quirky phrases in his prose, to me, was not an instance of gee-whiz vocabulary braggadocio but rather an attempt to connect genuinely with the reader by avoiding lazy cliches (1a). See, for instance, his use of the word ‘picayune’ instead of ‘petty’ on his essay re: David Lynch in Premiere.

(2) Personally, I’m pretty eager to see what Michiko Kakutani at the Times has to say, given her tepid review his last fiction work, Oblivion.

(3) This reflection is partly selfish, since I’m slated to review the book for a NY publication, and I’m starting to get my head around the structure of how the review will shape up.

(4) College Lacrosse is an entirely separate story. My tournament, best flow, and all-name-team bracket will beat yours any day, brah.

(5) Carrying a picture, now that I think about, of your therapist seems very, very reasonable. Logical, even.

(1a) I’ve also considered that the vocab thing was an attempt to rescue and preserve the full continuum of the English language, given his self-proclaimed status as a SNOOT (Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance" or "Syntax Nudniks of Our Time")

Friday, March 25, 2011

Presented (Almost) Without Comment

From a Gilt Groupe sale the other day:



Lauren Conrad ("LC") first pierced the pericardiums of America with her relationship dramas re: Stephen Colletti on MTV's Laguna Beach. Then she toiled in the salt mines of Teen Vogue under the iron fist of West Coast Editor, Lisa Love on The Hills.

Now, one of her four (!) books is placed in the same league as One Hundred Years of Solitude and To Kill a Mockingbird in a Gilt.com sale.

LC - what can't she do!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ice Cold Six Packs to Go

"Ice Cold Six Packs to go." Now that's a poem.
-Campbell McGrath



Growing up in a New Jersey suburb I’m highly attuned to what I call, “commuter culture,” the idiosyncrasies and mores of the men and women who flush themselves into the tunnels of New York City for each workday to conduct business in a metropolis that resembles nothing like the leafy town from which they left.

It’s the small details of this culture - like the preference of men to wear a Barbour Beaufort jacket over their suit instead of a trench coat, the hear-a-mouse-fart silence that’s observed on the morning train in to New York, or the purchase of one single brown-paper-bag-sheathed beer for the trip home that I find fascinating on a sociological level. These rituals are sacrosanct traditions that stir strong emotions in me, similar to incense at Catholic Mass. In other words, it’s what I’ve always known, and as such, becomes oddly comforting in its sameness and repeatability.

Philip Levine found the simple truth in the, “dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,” the type of thing that is, “...so simple and true,” that it must be, “said without elegance, meter and rhyme.” I feel the same way about the single-beer-on-the-way-home phenomenon, even though I am not a drinker. Taking the above photo is my way of documenting that ritual. While Levine’s example is grounded in the personal - the experience of a single individual purchasing, cooking and consuming - the beer cart’s beauty - and I do see its beauty - is the universality of the pleasure it provides through quick transaction, the way it appeals to thousands of scurrying commuters, who, before dinnertime, want nothing more than to wash the day’s dust away by tipping can on the way home.

I like how certain rules get codified without ever being written down - the way you’re supposed to stand on the right hand side of an escalator so the people who want to walk up the escalator can pass on the left hand side. On the train, one brown bagged beer (12 oz. to 24 oz.) is OK, however two cans invokes dipsomania. It’s funny how the line is drawn.

Residing in a city has much to recommend it as a living cauldron of culture and diversity. I don’t disagree with this, and that’s why I’ve always been attracted to New York. However, I never much understood the arbitrary binary opposition that gets created (city:creativity::suburb:banality) in the myriad of send-ups in film and literature that critique suburban culture. To me, these recreations of the suburbs use straw-man characters (work-obsessed men, bored pill-poping housewives) and tired tropes, implementing a kind of lazy shorthand that belies any sort of nuanced understanding: the very same lack of intellectual depth that they - the cultured city folk - are trying to critique.

In these sendups, the suburbs become a symbol of insulation, though these critiques never seem to explore the fact that for many, moving to the suburbs involves a capital-s Sacrifice to create a better life for one’s children, rather than some innate desire to avoid the examined life via retreat to routines of pizza takeout and Saturday night Netflix.

As someone who has lived in both locations, I know there are unique advantages of each setting and many joys (restaurants, theater, &tc) that can be found in either locale. Though, there are some pleasures that cannot be communicated across the suburb/city divide, and oftentimes it is something elemental and pedestrian, like the simple truth of a beer on the way home to your family in the suburbs.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Visit to bookbook in the West Village

bookbook
266 Bleecker St. in the West Village
New York, NY



My first night in the West Village, back in 2005, was spent wandering around the streets of West 4th and Bleecker to get acquainted with the neighborhood.  Unlike a lot of people who seem to be easy conductors for the city's electricity, allowing its stimulative current to pass through their bodies and become electrified by it, I was (and still am) equally repelled and attracted to the élan vital of New York.  Feeling slightly overwhelmed even by the low-key nature of the West Village, I sought refuge that night in a quaint bookshop on the corner of West 11th and Bleecker that had a nice, welcoming glow. Its name was Biography.



Over a year ago I heard local rumblings that Marc Jacobs had outbought the Biography lease upon its renewal in Marc's continuing march towards, what I call, his colonization of the West Village. My fears that Biography would go the way of West Village institutions like Joe Jr's were quickly allayed when it was confirmed that Biography would be moving further south on Bleecker to a new location, with a new name: bookbook.




bookbook offers the best of both worlds - a local independent bookstore with simply phenomenal prices that often beat out Amazon's. The secret is that close to 100% of their books are publishers' overstock, enabling the owners to pass along the savings to their customers.




Though, this does not result in a lack of selection - in fact I've always been surprised by the well-curated depth of their books. In the above photo you can see a good catalogue of Franzen's, Foer's, Fitzgerald's, Denis Johnson's and Joyce's books.




That said, this is not an elitist bookshop. As you can see from the above, Stieg Larsson rubs shoulder's with Tom McCarthy's critically acclaimed 2010 novel, C.




bookbook features an incredibly friendly and knowledgeable staff. You can see Juan and Jenette here in the photo manning the store. Last time I went to the bookbook, I gave Juan a loose description of the type of book I was interested in reading next and he supplied me with some terrific suggestions including Saramago's Blindness, Howards End, the short stories of John Cheever, and Ragtime. The total cost of the haul was something like $25 - and his suggestions were dead on. Sometimes you forget in this age of algorithmic recommendations employed by Netflix that the best tips come from a fellow passionate reader.




Another shot of Jenette and Juan. Last time I was in the store I suggested coming by to take some photos for the blog and they were totally agreeable.




I'm a huge fan of the slightly messy arrangement of the books. It reminds me of what I'd imagine the library of erudite and slightly eccentric gentleman would look like.




So next time you're in the neighborhood, swing by bookbook to pick up that Pynchon novel you've been meaning to read along with a Moleskin notebook so you can fit right in with the rest of the crew at Cafe Doma. I'll be there too.