It seems contradictory to say I have had no time to update this website and also to write about all the books I’ve since read for pleasure. Oh well. I’m just glad to be back.
Unlike my normal reading patterns, I can probably explain why I went from one to the next. The Count of Monte Cristo was the pure search of a yellowed classic, which left me a hopeless addict for something else so alive. But instead of leading me back into the literary annals – I spent about three days with Crime and Punishment on a Kindle and the e-words just felt wrong – I found a new classicism in Beloved, though more black than yellow. There are four sequential chapters in Beloved where the reader sees the impossible choice between death and slavery made through the eyes of Beloved, Sethe, and Sethe’s other daughter, Denver. They are unabashedly postmodern and also easily among the greatest pages of the twentieth century. They are too brilliant to belong to this earth.
I tried to remember the last time I was so blown away by an approach – technically, emotionally, or otherwise – and wouldn’t you know it, it brought me right back to DFW’s ur-master, Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow (with the eternal lightbulb in particular). And so went the deconstructive rabbit hole.
Count of Monte Cristo
Quite simply the fastest 1400 pages you will ever read. You can’t trust the opinion of someone whose favorite book is Infinite Jest, I know, but believe me. You do not turn the pages; you’re pushed through them on a bullet train.
Why this singular experience? Often a (hack) author will fall in love with his or her main character and gush and gush about them until you can’t stomach the book anymore. This is the only book where the author boldly proclaimed his protagonist to be the most fascinating person in the world… and you have no choice but to agree. I’ve parsed the book over and over again, hoping to find that I was merely under Dumas’s spell. It’s all there. The Count of Monte Cristo rolls up to a town, usually without any prior contacts or knowledge of the place, and takes over. We are brought into the scene following endless proclamations about the Count’s goodness, greatness, kindness, godliness, charm, wit, depth of care, mysteriousness, and power; he exceeds his reputation by the same level of superlative.
Something about the book feels righteously distilled. Even when it’s tangential, the tangents are grand enough to be the main story. Its adventurous spirit abounds so much that to eliminate one would be to eliminate a chapter from a history book. It would be like trying to understand Greece without also Crete and Peloponesia. Monte Cristo’s justice is not a personal one, it is a victory for everyone everywhere.
Toni Morrison visited a university where a friend of mine attended and said her goal was ‘to write in such a way that the reader would know a single torn-out page was hers’. Within that lofty goal belongs a deeper label: you can read any page and know it is Toni Morrison, and you will certainly know when it is Beloved. Unlike, say, Django Unchained, it is the true catharsis of someone who wasn’t there. Morrison put herself far enough within the characters to live and to understand slavery, and then she wrote the book as a means of real escape. No one will really know how she did this.
Books like The Invisible Man and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man seek belonging in the white and/or black world. Morrison here seeks belonging in a virtual purgatory. She has escaped slavery and escaped judgment for the death of her child. It is the book about someone who is afforded the opportunity to step back and view black and white from a distance, and how utterly calamitous life becomes without precepts and racial boundaries. She carries the weight of the past but seeks new transgressions.
The Crying of Lot 49
Quintessential Los Angeles: a funny idea, no? Like Beloved, it asks how you can be defined when you are in a land without definition. Well, it asks many things. Oedipa Maas goes on a self-ignited journey to find the spine of the forces that control her invisibly every day. She doesn’t really have a reason or any stakes to uncover a conspiracy within the U.S. Mail system; as with many of Pynchon’s books, the journey begins as something to do. This is a book for the broken-hearted (dun dun) where the protagonist actively wanders to avoid love (Inamorato Anonymous, a support group for people who permanently deny love in their lives, remains one of Pynchon’s cleverest ideas). In Lot 49, Pynchon remains the all-time greatest namer of names and, unlike Gravity’s Rainbow, he attaches a real concrete pain to them (instead of abstract philomadness).
Lot 49 begs the question of our involvement in systemic processes. Are they there when we look for them, or are we always moments away from being destroyed in the dark? Oedipa had a stagnant yet sustainable life before she started to see signs encoded in her matrix. Typical to Pynchon, she rarely knows where she’s going or why or whom she’s looking for – more on this soon – and yet , without your standard prognostications about meddling, she seals her fate in the searching. I took this to mean there is only one outcome with any obsession, but the search brought a raison d’etre to Oedipa’s life that outweighed her life itself.
My introduction to Don DeLillo, excluding passages quoted in DFW’s encomium. DeLillo, like myself, is obsessed with the wideness of every passing moment, the deep meaning packed even in a head turn (and the comparisons end there). In Mao II, Scott wrestles with his literary idol’s decision, Bill Gray, to publish his latest novel. Bill has built a mythical reputation as an author, and it can only be compounded by the lack of a second novel. It deals with images in a way I once wrote half of a novel about; now I have a legitimate excuse not to finish it. It melds perception, art, and terrorism. It is way too abstruse and repeatedly bailed out by the acuity of the rest.
The irony of this novel about images is it holds such a tight focus on them individually as to make little of the whole imago. It feels like a picture made of thousands of other pictures, and if you keep zooming, you see it’s an endless collage. By the time you reach the end, you can’t be blamed for not remembering what the main picture was. Determined to piece highly perceptive sentences into the clarion call DeLillo seemed to promise, I trudged onto his alleged masterpiece.
Nothing more need be said about the opening sixty pages at Polo Grounds (where we, along with Sinatra and J. Edgar, see The Shot Heard Round The World). Nothing more need be said about Lenny Bruce’s stand-up paranoia regarding the A-Bomb – at least I hope it is as talked about. I am thoroughly convinced DeLillo is an author whose grasp exceeds his reach. He wrings so much astounding detail out of a moment that the reader is helpless as to its larger focus. Take a sentence, for instance, in all its natural rhythms. Words like ‘that’, ‘was’, and ‘said’ are passed over by the eye like there’s blood above the door. Not so with DeLillo. If his books can be said to lag, it is because his unnatural intensity readjusts the inner bell curve. Maybe it’s just the process of being disoriented, insofar as you can be more concerned with the fate of a baseball than with the outcome of a serial killing. He breathes life into everything; it’s like showing off by accident.
Should you read Underworld? Absolutely. But don’t ever take that as a recommendation – I don’t want to lose friends the same way I did to Mad Men. It’s a titanic dive with no Titanic at the bottom.
And then there’s V., a book whose plot has a man searching for what V. means and how to find her/it. That’s it. V. interweaves with an aimless derelict troop whom are never boring, but ultimately V. is the true companion piece to Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa finds means of escape by looking for a clandestine system; Stencil looks to escape his clandestine system through V. Although I understood about 40% of V. (on the first read, mind you), I would not feel uncomfortable recommending it to a passive book fan. Quickly you learn, or hopefully anyway, that no one will guide you along the narrative. You float in and out of looking for V., never quite lost or found. (First published in 1963, I can only imagine it influenced Barthes’ essay five years later.)
Oddly V. is not that challenging once you abandon hope. It speaks clearly to desire (and mirrors it), it feeds you with its axioms even as you know you’ll never be satiated. Whereas Pynchon would later go on to capture war in a boldly postmodern way, here he uses war as a counterpoint to desire. Sometimes the ablution of desire through war becomes the desire we wanted all along, when desire’s false promises become too despairing to bear.
(Plus you will feel unguilty for lapses in concentration.)