Tuesday, August 31, 2010
In light of the current political scene, divided country, partisanship and talk show discourse substituting for analysis (and the recent Glen Beck rally that got so much attention), I found what DFW said in 2003 about the state of political discourse of interest: (He was interviewed by Believer Magazine - the interviewer was the author, David Eggers.)
BLVR: You covered John McCain for the 2000 election, and that piece, which was so fresh and honest and unvarnished, was made into a kind of book-on-demand. Do you keep up with politics, and if so, are there plans to do any more political writing? And do you have any comment on why, it seems, there are fewer young novelists around who also comment directly on the political world? Should novelists be offering their opinions on national affairs, politics, our current and future wars?
DFW: The reason why doing political writing is so hard right now is probably also the reason why more young (am I included in the range of this predicate anymore?) fiction writers ought to be doing it. As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95 percent of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties. Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil. Conservative thinkers are balder about this kind of attitude: Limbaugh, Hannity, that horrific O’Reilly person. Coulter, Kristol, etc. But the Left’s been infected, too. Have you read this new Al Franken book? Parts of it are funny, but it’s totally venomous (like, what possible response can rightist pundits have to Franken’s broadsides but further rage and return-venom?). Or see also e.g. Lapham’s latest Harper’s columns, or most of the stuff in the Nation, or even Rolling Stone. It’s all become like Zinn and Chomsky but without the immense bodies of hard data these older guys use to back up their screeds. There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument (or “dialogue”); political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. Watching O’Reilly v. Franken is watching bloodsport. How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country’s macroeconomic policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy’s outlines should be, or how to minimize the chances of North Korea nuking the DMZ and pulling us into a ghastly foreign war, or how to balance domestic security concerns with civil liberties? Questions like these are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you’re in conflict with is an asshole—but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community.
My own belief, perhaps starry-eyed, is that since fictionists or literary-type writers are supposed to have some special interest in empathy, in trying to imagine what it’s like to be the other guy, they might have some useful part to play in a political conversation that’s having the problems ours is. Failing that, maybe at least we can help elevate some professional political journalists who are (1) polite, and (2) willing to entertain the possibility that intelligent, well-meaning people can disagree, and (3) able to countenance the fact that some problems are simply beyond the ability of a single ideology to represent accurately.
Implicit in this brief, shrill answer, though, is obviously the idea that at least some political writing should be Platonically disinterested, should rise above the fray, etc.; and in my own present case this is impossible (and so I am a hypocrite, an ideological opponent could say). In doing the McCain piece you mentioned, I saw some stuff (more accurately: I believe that I saw some stuff) about our current president, his inner circle, and the primary campaign they ran that prompted certain reactions inside me that make it impossible to rise above the fray. I am, at present, partisan. Worse than that: I feel such deep, visceral antipathy that I can’t seem to think or speak or write in any kind of fair or nuanced way about the current administration. Writing-wise, I think this kind of interior state is dangerous. It is when one feels most strongly, most personally, that it’s most tempting to speak up (“speak out” is the current verb phrase of choice, rhetorically freighted as it is). But it’s also when it’s the least productive, or at any rate it seems that way to me—there are plenty of writers and journalists “speaking out” and writing pieces about oligarchy and neofascism and mendacity and appalling short-sightedness in definitions of “national security” and “national interest,” etc., and very few of these writers seem to me to be generating helpful or powerful pieces, or really even being persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already share the writer’s views.
Friday, August 27, 2010
Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer prize winning author (wonder boys, a model world, gentlemen of the road, the screenlay for spiderman 2, among others) and a father of four who lives in Berkeley, California with his wife (the author Ayelet Waldman) whose column 4 years ago about loving her husband more than her children sparked a shit storm of what-kind-of-mother-are-you controversy (I'd argue a good mother but I do not want to get into it).
I am struck by Chabon.
Here is an imaginary interview I have conducted with him. The questions are mine - the answers are his (with small embellishments on my part) quoted from his collection of essays: "The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son - Manhood for Amateurs"
REGRET SEEMS TO BE NECESSARY GRIST FOR THE MILL OF LITERATURE - ANY ADVICE ON HOW TO GAIN THIS NEEDED EXPERIENCE?
By diligently taking full advantage of all of your opportunities to make mistakes. In my case the thought process went like this: "I must put my trust in unreliable people, take on responsibilities I could not hope to discharge, count on impossible outcomes, ignore blessings that were right under my nose while expending my youth and energy in pursuit of dubious pleasure. I must court disappointment, miscalculate, lie when the truth would serve better and tell the truth when the kindest thing would be to tell a lie. Above all, I would have to stick to a course of action long after it was clearly revealed to be wrong."
SO, DID YOUR STRATEGY TO EXPERIENCE TRISTESE WORK?
If we are conducting our lives in the usual fashion, each of us serves as a constant source of embarrassment to his or her future self. I am as embarrassed as the next guy.
WHAT'S UP WITH MEN?
This is an essential element of the business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself. To behave as if you have everything firmly under control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls.
PICKING UP ON THE LAST TWO QUESTIONS, WHAT WERE YOU LIKE AT 20?
I was, in a word, callow. I believed then that life was made up of mastering the particulars, memorizing the line ups, accumulating the trivia and lore, in knowing how to trace the career of drummer Aynsley Dunbar or get a girl to go bed with you and your best friend, as an expression of your existential freedom and complete disregard for the fact that she is a person, and she likes you or him, and you're actually kind of breaking her heart.
Misogyny comes naturally to a young man in his late teens - it is a part of the impulse that flowers along Fraternity Road - it is what drove the mod movements of the mid sixties and late seventies, that lie at the heart of every rock band formed by men of that age. My own misogyny wore a beret, as it were, and quoted Nietzsche but it was just that, of the garden variety practiced by young men all over the world. It was a phase, a plankton bloom in the brain, a developmental stage, albeit one that found ample reinforcement, if not glorification, in culture both popular and highbrow, in the Rolling Stone's "Stupid Girl" and Woody Allen's best movies, in Jorge Luis Borges, in William Shakespeare.
YOU KNEW DAVID FOSTER WALLACE - WHAT WAS HE LIKE?
Actually, I met him only once at UCLA in October 2004. If you had read his formidable work, Infinite Jest (which I had failed twice to finish) then it was hard, at least for me, not to feel that Wallace easily could have made more out of you, found more to say on your behalf and by way of explanation of you, than you had so far managed to do for yourself.
YOUR WIFE IS ALSO AN ACCOMPLISHED WRITER. WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT HER?
My wife suffers from bi-polar disorder, which from time to time has given her ready access to the pain and hopelessness required to cast a comparative luster on the prospect of oblivion. When she gets low, I always imagine her mind as a child folding itself inside on of those three- panel department store mirrors, past and future reaching off in an endless, dim, identical prospect of days, with her own head always right smack there in the way.
Who knows what it is - serotonin, hormones, neurons, the light. Childhood, puberty, childbirth, the heavy passing of time. All explanations are cliche, as is the assertion that there can finally be no explanation. In the end I can only try to make sense of my wife's depression and the death of David Foster Wallace on my own terms, for my own purposes.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE Of WATCHING YOUR KIDS GROW UP?
Despite every effort to the contrary - it is the experience of squandered treasure. Almost every hour I spend with my children is burned through like money by a man on a spree. The sum total of my clear memories of them - of their unintended aphorisms, gnomic jokes, and the plain sad truths they have expressed about the world; of incidents of precociousness, Gothic madness, sleepwalking, mythomania, and vomiting; of the way light has struck their hair or eyelashes on vanished afternoons; of the stupefying tedium of games we have played on rainy Sundays; of highlights and horrors from their encyclopedic history of odorousness; of the 297,000 minor kvetchings and heart felt pleas i have responded to over the past eleven years with fury, tenderness, utter lack of interest, or a heartless and automatic compassion - those memories, when combined with the sum total of photographs, that we have managed to take, probably add up, in all four of my children, to under 1 percent of everything that we have undergone, lived through, and taken pleasure in together.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
I am a fan of the blog Drinking Diaries (www.drinkingdiaries.com about "the deep questions, the wide and wild range of experiences that pertain to women and alcohol") that posted the interview below with Tara Hendron who wrote and performs her one woman show, What’s a Girl to do When It’s Time to Put Down the Drink? (now entitled Drunk with Hope in Chicago). It brought to mind a few things:
1) that, as Michael Chabon (author of among other things, The Wonder Boys, The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Manhood for Amateurs has written:
"...what a huge, even overwhelming maternal task is implied by that worn out word encouragement.";
and (also from Chabon):
"A father is a man who fails everyday. Sometimes things work out...Success, however, does nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything you do. But you always knew that. Nobody gets past the age of ten without that knowledge. Welcome to the Club.";
3) the book, Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp who died of lung cancer in 2002 (Knapp's obit below as well) (see also Beautiful Boy by David Scheff).
From Drinking Diaries:
Tara Handron is the author of the one-woman show, “What’s a Girl to do When It’s Time to Put Down the Drink?” (now entitled Drunk with Hope in Chicago). The play evolved out of her research of female recovering alcoholics and the comparison of their experiences in traditional face-to-face 12 Step recovery meetings versus computer mediated/online meetings. The play is a fictional compilation and product of many women’s stories along with the Tara’s observations, assumptions, and imagination. It premiered at Georgetown University in April 2008. It was so much fun the first time she did it all again at H St Playhouse in Washington, DC, in February 2009.
After a successful run recently in the Capital Fringe Festival, Drunk with Hope in Chicago will have its Chicago premiere in their Fringe Festival, September 2-5, 2010. In her spare time, Tara is a change management and communications consultant in the government healthcare market in Washington, DC.
Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?
Tara Handron: I had sips here and there of things that looked pretty but tasted nasty like crème de menthe and whiskey sours. My first “real” drink at 15 years old, the one that opened the golden gates, was vodka and diet coke. It was positively disgusting, but it got the job done.
How did/does your family treat drinking?
Some treat it responsibly, as an obligation and as part of being an adult at weddings and funerals. Some treat is as a fun party companion that stays only as long as it is welcome, never too unmanageable. Others treat it or have treated it as a substitute for water.
How do you approach alcohol in your everyday life?
I don’t. It is a foreign country to which my visa has permanently been revoked–which is just fine. I more than abused my privileges.
Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?
Yes, that phase was pretty much my whole life until I stopped drinking altogether. Some circumstances made it desirable to binge and then the awful consequences would give me pause. Then I would temporarily drink less. And then the cycle would start all over again.
What’s your drink of choice? Why?
Today it is carbonated water in a variety of brands. Tastes decent, feels even better, and is wonderfully calorie-free. Being healthy (and somewhat sane) is pretty yummy, much better than a glass of wine.
Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?
Honestly, no. At this point none of them really seem all that great in retrospect. There were some glorious moments of feeling immune to insecurity and depression and anxiety but they always ended. Finally, in those moments, I didn’t feel like a square peg in the land of no holes, not even circular ones to try and squeeze into. But as I said, it always ended, sometime quickly, sometimes slowly, but it did end.
Has drinking ever affected—either negatively or positively—a relationship of yours?
Most definitely. Getting dumped by the man you thought you were going to marry because of awful actions you took while intoxicated felt pretty damn negative. Without it though, many positive things might not have occurred, or might have been further delayed.
Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?
I love Carolyn Knapp’s Drinking a Love Story. I also love the movie, 28 Days, with Sandra Bullock. Let’s just say they were very relatable. Seeds were planted.
Caroline Knapp, Writer, 42; Chronicled Struggles and Joys
Published: June 5, 2002
Caroline Knapp, a writer and columnist whose memoir ''Drinking: A Love Story'' vividly chronicled her struggle to overcome alcoholism, died yesterday at a hospital in Cambridge, Mass. She was 42 and lived in Cambridge.
The cause was lung cancer, her family said.
In ''Drinking'' Ms. Knapp wrote about the disturbing incongruities of her life as what she called a ''high-functioning alcoholic'': she was an award-winning journalist, an Ivy League graduate from a well-to-do New England family and by all appearances a happy, healthy and successful young woman. But drinking had slowly taken hold of her life, and she was desperate to conceal its effects.
She was, she wrote, ''smooth and ordered on the outside; roiling and chaotic and desperately secretive underneath, but not noticeably so, never noticeably so.''
The book, published by Dial Press in 1996, was praised by critics for its painful honestly in describing the grip of addiction and the difficulty of overcoming it. In a review in The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called it ''a remarkable exercise in self-discovery.'' The book remained on The New York Times best-seller list for several weeks in both hardcover and paperback editions.
In ''Drinking'' Ms. Knapp characterized her addiction as a bad love affair. In her next book, she found a healthier relationship. ''I am in love with my dog,'' she wrote near the beginning of ''Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs'' (Dial Press, 1998).
''I'm 38 and I'm single,'' she continued, ''and I'm having my most intense and gratifying relationship with a dog. But we all learn about love in different ways, and this way happens to be mine.''
''Pack of Two'' was also a best-seller and, like ''Drinking,'' it commingled autobiography with nonfiction in its passages on dog rearing and pet-inspired self-analysis like ''I understand the impulse to romanticize the dog; I struggle with it myself.''
Ms. Knapp developed her style in her years as a columnist at The Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly newspaper where she worked from 1988 to 1995 and to which she continued to contribute until 1999. Her ''Out There'' column, in which she often wrote about the travails in life and love of a semifictional 30-something single woman named Alice K. -- ''not her real initial'' -- was one of the paper's most popular features and won her an Alternative Newsweekly Award in 1996. She was often light and humorous in the paper, but could be poignantly confessional, as in a memorable column about her struggles with anorexia.
Her columns, were collected in 1994 in the book ''Alice K.'s Guide to Life: One Woman's Quest for Survival, Sanity and the Perfect New Shoes'' (Dutton/Plume).
Ms. Knapp graduated with honors from Brown University and worked as a reporter for The Boston Business Journal before joining at The Phoenix, where she was a features writer and later the lifestyle editor.
Her lung cancer was diagnosed in mid-April, and on May 11 she married Mark Morelli. She had recently completed work on a book about women's appetites.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by a sister, Rebecca, of West Boylston, Mass.; and a brother, Andrew, of Salem, Mass.
Friday, August 13, 2010
Dear Penitent: Nice try...but it doesn't work that way...YOU have to feel it in your heart and mind by yourself at first...not try to palm it off on what you would probably consider to be avuncular bullshit.
However...I've had a chat with J. (it's a local call from Santa Barbara) and put in a good word for you...and HE said "knock off the wiseass bullshit and He'll let it go this time."
He said visiting ZBA would go a long way to healing the rift!
Uncle ZBA a/k/a Yoda"So the Lord blessed the latter end of Jobmore than his beginning."-- Job, 42.12
Thursday, August 12, 2010
So what's with you man? The flat tire(s) weren't enough in your Book to make sure I renounced my rather small (and I thought pretty darn understandable under all the circumstances) lapse into "finders keepers" moral relativity? Like all that angst on my part means nothing to you? Like I didn't get the message? Was it that crack I made about the Apple iPad being a bullshit mind control device? Because today's move on your part is IMHO way out of line, I mean I guess there was a kind of arrogance and maybe even some grandiosity to my score keeping (up two lobsters, one bottle of wine, sushi quality tuna steak etc) but your move today was just plain mean spirited and uncalled for. What is with you man???
I really do not appreciate your having arranged to have my credit card information given to someone who felt they could use my credit card to go on a shopping spree, very funny!! Hah hah hah. I mean the first item, women's clothing at a store in California in the amount of $129.18, would have been enough to make me see the light (or as we sing at Pesach in your ancient language (pretty nice we keep that going for you don't you think - how about some credit?: " That Would Have Been Enough" a/k/a "Di-Ay-Nu" (Ei-li-ya-hu ha-na-vi, ei-li-ya-hu ha-tish-bi Ei-li-ya-hu, ei-li-ya-hu, ei-li-ya-hu, ha-gi-la-di. Bim-hei-ra vi-ya-may-nu, ya-vo ay-lei-nu eem ma-shi-ah ben da-vid, im ma-shi-ah ben da-vid. Di Ay Nu).
So I am on my knees, can we now please call a truce? I have cancelled my credit card, called all the merchants. A total day of vacation wasted. OK, you happy? And by the way - what is that thing about having all this stuff your guy ordered on my credit card delivered to McKinney, Texas? And that thing where you made the local McKinney police say to me when I called that there really is nothing they can do because I am not in Texas. I mean I got the actual delivery address from that very sympathetic sale's girl at Forever21.com - what's up with that? A lesson about Man's-Inhumanity-to Man? (I already know all about that shit, Bro, trust me.)
You win, I will go back to the fishmonger tomorrow, I swear. I will bare my soul to him, confess my sins and try as hard as I can to find out who lost that lousy god-damned (sorry about that) $121 bucks I found in the parking lot that I wish to You I had never found in the first place.
-- Even Steven?
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
My houseguest and I were in East Hampton, NY this weekend and as we were walking to our local fish store to buy some fish for dinner we found $121.00 on the ground in the parking lot. Inside the fish store we thought we might have seen or heard a customer realizing their loss and if so would have returned them their money. Instead all was calm and no one there seemed at a loss. There was one gentleman there with a wad of cash that appeared to be in the hundreds (he was carrying it in a plastic baggie - how weird is that?) but upon leaving the store he did not walk in the direction of where the money was lying on the ground. At this point we used the found money to purchase two lobsters as well as some sushi quality tuna and splurged on a nice bottle of wine.
Should we have done more to locate the owner? Should we donate an equal amount to charity or should we just assume that whoever lost the money probably did not even notice it and enjoy our found luck?
Your ethically challenged nephew.
Dear Favorite Nephew:
I think I would feel best by advising the proprietor you had found the money but not revealed the amount and said that if anyone had reported the loss they could claim it by telling the amount of the loss and their address and phone number and you would contact them and return the money. Otherwise Jahweh would punish you.
How were the lobsters?
Dear Uncle Yoda,
You have proposed a very good idea as to how we could have handled it better and I agree. That said there is probably a reason we did not do that so here are some more facts: 1) the fish store is just one of many stores in the immediate vicinity; 2) talking to the proprietor of the fish store with any semblance of dignity or restraint is difficult, for example, when asked if his lobsters were from Maine, he loudly (for all to hear) replied "Get the fuck out of my shop." When asked if there was any significance to what looked like color coded rubber bands on the lobster claws he replied, "Yeah, the blue rubber bands are the gay ones". Subjecting ourselves to his potential ridicule was a very unappealing prospect. 3) the store was crowded.
PS, lest you get the wrong idea, I like the proprietor and find him pretty entertaining though a tad intimidating. Maybe not reason enough to have avoided reporting the found cash but I have always found it hard to be myself with certain personality types (e.g. people like the Soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame and Kenny Shopsin, owner of Shopsin's General Store in Manhattan and author of the book "Eat Me." as well as the subject of a documentary entitled "I like Killing Flies". For more on Mr. Shopshin see blog post at www.roughfractals.blogspot.com entitled "You Are Not So Terrific..." dated August 2, 2009.
Your Trying To Be A Mensch Nephew.
Dear Nephew Mensch,
I think Kenny Shopsin said it best:
"...Most people who say they are terrific, Bill Clinton, Cardinal Egan, anybody you want to talk about - they are not so terrific. Martha Stewart - not so terrific either. There is nothing wrong with not being so terrific. It's what the whole ball game is about - not being so terrific and accepting it."
I'd give it a rest at this point.
That thing about Jahweh is a little spooky. Yesterday my lobster eating houseguest got a flat tire. He jacked his car up to put on the spare but it being a hot day the jack started to sink into the pavement leaving his car perilously close to tipping over and his jack deeply imbedded in the asphalt. I drove (20 mins) with my car and jack to assist but when I arrived we realized that my jack did not fit because it would not go low enough (since his car was so low to the ground due to the now sunken jack). I then drove back to my house to get my other car which I speculated might have a differently configured jack). Approximately 45 mins later I arrived back (again) with my other jack and sure enough it fit perfectly (!!!) and we were able to not only raise the car but also to retrieve the imbedded-in-the-pavement original jack. We then put the spare tire on the wheel and guess what - the spare tire was flat (@#$%!). (Lesson: check the spare tire in your trunk to make sure it is inflated, today.)
Do you think Jahweh was punishing us for the lobster thing?
Your wondering if I need to atone Nephew.
Dear Atoning Nephew,
I am afraid no mere mortal can answer your question but you might want to lay low for a few days.
Apropos of lobster, you might enjoy the essay by David Foster Wallace entitled, "Consider The Lobster" published in Gourmet Magazine in which he described in great scientific detail the excruciating pain felt by lobsters when they are plunged into boiling water as they are cooked.
Yours for a Higher Ground.
PS. Please do not write to me any more and have you ever heard of Xanax?
Dear Uncle Higher Ground,
I have read the David Foster Wallace essay and all I can say is that while I do hold all life sacred, I kind of draw a line at the occasional crustacean dinner.
You will be pleased to know that I think Jahweh has made his point and is now going easy on me. Yesterday I returned my iPad to the Apple store (great machine but not for me - or as my son said when he heard I was returning it - "Dad, of course you returned it. It is heinous and all about mind control." To which I immediately replied "Exactly!" to my son's putting his finger so precisely on what was bothering me about the IPad but had been unable to articulate myself.)
Back to Jahweh, Apple charges a 10% restocking fee for returns (in this case $80). For some reason (and without my even asking) the store manager waived the restocking fee. And as if that wasn't enough, I also brought them my $179 iPpod that I had dropped in the pool and learned that the warranty does not cover water damage. Nonetheless (and again without asking) they replaced my iPod at no cost.
If you add all this up, since finding the cash, we (me and my houseguest collectively) are ahead of the game by two lobsters, one bottle of wine, one small sushi grade tuna steak, one waived restocking fee, and one iPod. In the negative column - only one flat tire and one flat spare tire (and they weren't even mine belonging to my houseguest whose handling of the whole flat tire course of events with what I would describe as great aplomb was (and I mean this in a good way) really fun (an example of what two Jewish men with measurably limited automotive emergency or repair related skills can accomplish if they put their heads together and have a lot of time of on their hands).
Perhaps this means that Jahweh is unconditionally loving and accepting of all his children (but especially those of us who have not bought into the whole Apple iPad bullshit)?
Over and Out.
Your relaxing (without Xanax) at the beach Nephew....
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
"Transferring from the unrequited past onto the unrequitable present, the patient purchased a requitable future."
SECOND CHANCE by SHINEDOWN:
Sunday, August 1, 2010
"life is filled with allergies, credit card bills, tedious commutes, etc. Life is, in large part, rubbish. The beauty of reality-based art—art underwritten by reality hunger—is that it’s perfectly situated between life itself and (unattainable) “life as art.” Everything in life, turned sideways, can look like—can be—art. Art suddenly looks and is more interesting, and life, astonishingly enough, starts to be livable.
“The center of the artistic process—for me—is the attempt to transform a particular feeling, insight, sorrow into a metaphor and then make that metaphor ramify so it holds everything, everything in the world.”
Here is his reading list divided into the TOP THREE and then (his really interesting and sort of oddball (Sarah Silverman?) MORE:
Three books, each of which asks what is for me the only serious question: given that we die, and given that there is no god, how do we find purpose in existence?
Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage. This may sound unpromising: Dyer tries and fails to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence, but the book conveys Lawrence better than any conventional biography, and more importantly, it asks the question: how and why do we get up in the morning? In many ways, it’s a thinking person’s how-to book. How to live your life with passion when you know every passion is delusional, is drained of meaning. Dyer can’t commit to place, to relationship, to art, because he can always see the opposite position. Dyer’s conclusion: “The best we can do is try to make some progress with our studies of D.H. Lawrence.” By getting up in the morning, we get up in the morning. By not writing our biographies of D.H. Lawrence, we write our biographies of D.H. Lawrence. I reread this book at least once a year.
J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello My favorite book of Coetzee’s, by far, because chapter by chapter it takes a commitment that Coetzee, in previous books, affirmed and now undermines: politics, sex, love, art, animal rights. This book is a series of lectures Coetzee actually gave, but it’s now a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello who gives the lectures. The book hovers between fiction and nonfiction, as for me, so many of the most exciting books do. By the end of the book, the only thing Coetzee can affirm, the only thing Costello affirms, is the belling of frogs emerging from mud. The animal life of sheer survival. I love how joyous and despairing that is: it’s affirmation, but along a very narrow margin. My favorite books are candid beyond candid, and they proceed form this assumption: We’ll all be dead in 100 years. Here, now, in this book, I’m going to cut to the absolute bone.
David Markson, This Is Not a Novel. A book built almost entirely out of other writers’ lines, some attributed, many not. One of the pleasures of reading the book is recognizing so many of the passages. A bibliophile’s wet dream, but it’s no mere collection of quotes. It’s a sustained meditation on this single question: against death, what consolation if any is art? Against the dark night of death, what solace is it that we still read Sophocles? For Sophocles, Markson implies, not a lot, but for us, maybe a little. Markson constantly toggles back and forth between affirming the timelessness of art and mocking such grandiosity. Even for readers who don’t recognize the quotations, the book will prove provocative, because it forces you to ask yourself: what do you push back with?
I seem to like books that help you get out of bed, but just barely. These books do that, with ferocious and, for me, life-affirming honesty.
A reading list:
Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams
Renata Adler, Speedboat
James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Hilton Als, The Women
W.H. Auden, A Certain World
Nicholson Baker, U and I, A Box of Matches
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot, Nothing to be Frightened Of
Roland Barthes, S/Z
Jo Ann Beard, The Boys of My Youth
Samuel Beckett, Proust
Alan Bennett, Writing Home
Sandra Bernhard, Without You I’m Nothing
Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew
John Berryman, The Dream Songs
Grégoire Bouillier, The Mystery Guest, Report on Myself
Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions
Joe Brainard, I Remember
Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America
Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain
Albert Camus, The Fall
Mary Cappello, Awkward
Anne Carson, Plainwater
Terry Castle, “My Heroin Christmas”
John Cheever, Journals
Frank Conroy, Stop-Time
E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist
Billy Collins, The Art of Drowning
Bernard Cooper, Maps to Anywhere
Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave
Douglas Coupland, Generation X
John D’Agata, About a Mountain
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain
Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Thomas DeQuincey, Confessions of an Opium-Eater
Joan Didion, “Sentimental Journeys”
Annie Dillard, For the Time Being
Marguerite Duras, The Lover
Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
Brian Fawcett, Cambodia
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up
E.M. Forster, Commonplace Book
Joe Frank, In the Dark
Amy Fusselman, The Pharmacist’s Mate, 8
Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces
Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, The End of the Novel of Love
Simon Gray, The Smoking Diaries
Spalding Gray, Morning, Noon, and Night
Barry Hannah, Boomerang
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
Kathryn Harrison, The Kiss
John Haskell, I Am Not Jackson Pollock
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House”
William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
Frank Kafka, Letter to My Father
David Kirby, The House on Boulevard Street
Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat
Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia
Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings
D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classical American Literature
Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer
Michel Leiris, Manhood
Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip
Jonathan Lethem, The Disappointment Artist
Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing
Ross McElwee, Sherman’s March
Rosemary Mahoney, Down the Nile
Rian Malan, My Traitor’s Heart
Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay
David Markson, Reader’s Block, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel
Carole Maso, The Art Lover
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Daniel Mendelsohn, The Elusive Embrace
Leonard Michaels, Shuffle
Michel de Montaigne, The Essays of Montaigne
Danger Mouse, The Grey Album
Vladimir Nabokov, Gogol
V.S. Naipaul, A Way in the World
Maggie Nelson, Bluets
Friederich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys”
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Don Patterson, Best Thought, Worst Thought
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Jonathan Raban, For Love & Money
James Richardson, Vectors
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ghosts in the Mirror
François Le Rochefoucauld, Maxims
Rick Reynolds, Only the Truth Is Funny
Chris Rock, Bring the Pain
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions
W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants
Wallace Shawn, My Dinner with André
Sarah Silverman, Jesus Is Magic
Lauren Slater, Lying
Gilbert Sorrentino, The Moon in its Flight
Art Spiegelman, Maus
Jean Stafford, A Mother in History
Stendahl, On Love
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Jean Stein, Edie
Melanie Thernstrom, The Dead Girl
Jean Toomer, Cane
Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War
George W.S. Trow, My Pilgrim’s Progress, Within the Context of No Context
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (prologue)
D.J. Waldie, Holy Land
Joe Wenderoth, Letters to Wendy’s
Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception