It’s 1979 and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is published. It is revelatory! The novel is lauded for its “post-modernist” narrative, “labyrinthine” structure, and ability to play with the notions of being “a reader.” It’s all very new and cool and futuristic. What draws less attention is the novel’s vision of AI authors, their potential role in creating apocryphal human art, and Calvino’s use of an algorithm to formulate the plot.
It’s 2016, and the art world is graced with its first piece of AI apocrypha when developers create a “new” Rembrandt portrait, except it isn’t by Rembrandt. The Next Rembrandt, as it is known, is a computer-generated 3D print-painting created using a facial recognition algorithm informed by data from 346 paintings by the man himself. It is comprised of 148 million pixels and based on 168,263 fragments of works by Rembrandt and, by referencing all his other portraits, makes a computer’s best guess at what he might have painted next. It is—I am disappointed to say—fairly convincing. But using an algorithm to create a picture is a very different process than writing a book.
If on a Winter’s Night is punctuated by the handiwork of one of its main characters, a fiendish translator called Ermes Marana, who puts the literary world into chaos by swapping translations and inserting apochrypha—his intent being to show fiction’s “pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood.” He is keen to get his hands on the latest (incomplete) manuscript by the world-famous author Silas Flannery, who is sitting on a mountaintop in Switzerland watering his zinnias and suffering from a paralyzing bout of writer’s block—much to the annoyance of Flannery’s agents, publishers, and advertisers. A commercially successful, if somewhat formulaic writer of thrillers, Flannery is an ideal candidate for the organization Marana works for: the Organization for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works (OEPHLW). Marana succeeds in stealing Flannery’s incomplete manuscript and feeds it into a computer; using this data, the computer is able to complete the manuscript “with perfect fidelity to the stylistic and conceptual modes of the author,” and thereby, has the capacity to continue to produce Flannery apocrypha.
When If on a Winter’s Night was first published, the idea of an AI author was but a twinkle in the human eye. William Gibson had not yet uttered the term “cyber-space.” The idea was speculative science fiction. But as with a lot of science fiction, it has ended up coming true: We are now witnessing the glittering inception of the AI author, and computers are taking their first clumsy steps towards literature, meaning that writers are facing the exact reality imagined by Calvino for Silas Flannery.
George R.R. Martin, writer of the Game of Thrones series, is only human, and because he is only human, he is taking a long time to deliver the next GoT installment, The Winds of Winter. Too long, some feel. Having waited since 2011, fans are so eager for his sixth book that one—Zack Thoutt, a software engineer—took fan-fiction to a whole new level: He designed a program to create it. To do this, Thoutt used a type of AI now typical for the creation of literature and computers’ comprehension of natural languages called “recurrent neural networks” or “RNNs.” These are machine-learning algorithms that mirror the neural pathways of the human brain, meaning that sequences are linked and have the ability to loop back to previous information, and therefore, inform the next sequence. The result is “obviously not perfect,” Thoutt tells Motherboard, but having input 5,376 pages of the previous five books, his program has not only successfully strung a lot of sentences together (five chapters’ worth), it mimics Martin’s style and lexicon, and makes plot predictions that have already been circulated by hardcore GoT fans. It also spouts some absolute nonsense:
“I feared Master Sansa, Ser,” Ser Jaime reminded her. “She Baratheon is one of the crossing. The second sons of your onion concubine.”
Imperfect as the results may be, Thoutt’s algorithm—like Marana’s—is mining content from an existing database, which means it had a head start. Creating original text is a more difficult matter, as Angela Fan, of Facebook AI Research, tells New Scientist: “[AI programs] write in a very simplistic way, deciding word by word what to say next…staying on topic is quite difficult for neural model networks because they have no explicit memory.” Fan’s team trains their algorithms to stay on topic by using writing prompts, such as “Aliens start abducting humans,” while Mark Reidl of the Georgia Technological Institute uses a different approach: focusing on climaxes (like a marriage, or a death of a character). Both Fan and Reidl use recurrent neural network programs and both have been successful in creating original short stories that remain on topic. But in January of last year, Fan and Riedl’s short story benchmark was surpassed with the novella The Day a Computer Writes a Novel, an original text written by AI that proved to be a convincing entrant in a Japanese literary competition. The novella’s characters may have “needed developing,” but the judges didn’t suspect that a computer had written it.
In If on a Winter’s Night, the aim of conflicted Silas Flannery is to “capture in the book the illegible world, without centre, without ego, without I.” This, supposedly, is something that AI can accomplish without too much effort. It is also something that Calvino attempted himself—probably with considerable effort. Not satisfied with merely theorizing about algorithms able to write novels, Calvino wrote If on a Winter’s Night using one: a semiotic square. Calvino was a member of the Oulipo group—Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or, Workshop of Potential Literature—a selection of mathematician-writers and writer-mathematicians who relished “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.” In La Bibliothèque Oulipienne Volume II, Calvino explains that he used a code of his own, employing the model of the semiotic square to create a sequence to structure the plot of If on a Winter’s Night… .
The coding used to create the kind of sequencing capable of producing works of fiction is infinitely more complicated than Calvino’s semiotic square. Nonetheless, AI is everywhere. It is free to those who can afford it, and free to those who can’t. It is our chat bots. It is our social media feeds, our maps, our banking, our advertising. It is in our inboxes. It is our news. (Associated Press, Yahoo, and Comcast all use the “natural language generation platform” Wordsmith.) And, on the whole AI, in partnership with data, has been successfully harnessed to improve business life, to make everything quicker and better and faster and shinier. But…can data touch the human soul? Ron Augustus, director of SMB Markets at Microsoft, and part of the Next Rembrandt team posits this as a possibility. AI has already passed a Turing Test-of-sorts by duping a large proportion of unsuspecting public into thinking that its poetry was written by a human; and poetry, surely, is the most secure line to the soul.
I am a coal-truck
by a broken heart
I have no sound
the sound of my heart
I am not
This is an example of one of the better poems written by the AI poet developed by Microsoft’s Kyoto researchers. It certainly looks poem-y, the choice of vocabulary is interesting, and it has that Thomas Chatterton melancholia we tend to associate with poetry. But does it actually make you feel anything? The reason literature is currently an area that “progress” has been unable to infiltrate is not that it is “skilled labor,” but that it is human. Something that is not human could make your heart beat faster by writing a perfect thriller plot. It could possibly turn you on by writing a few racy sex-bot scenes. But could it touch our sublime instrument? I’m not convinced. It could have an effect on copyright, however.
The impact AI authors will have on writers in regard to copyright and intellectual property was discussed in articles in the summer edition of The Author Magazine and in last year’s WIPO magazine. In the U.S., to be subject to copyright an original work must have been created by a human being. But as Andres Guadamuz, senior lecturer in intellectual property law at the University of Sussex says, “Things are likely to become more complex as the machines get better at producing creative works, further blurring the distinction between artwork made by a human and that made by a computer. When you give a machine the capacity to learn styles from a dataset of content, it will become ever faster at mimicking humans.”
This “dataset of content” is important. In October, The New York Times profiled Robin Sloan, an author using AI to his advantage. With his latest novel, Sloane is assisted by a machine-learning algorithm: he takes notes such as “The bison are gathered around the canyon,” hits a button, and the computer concludes the sentence with “by the bare sky.” Which Sloan thinks is, “kind of fantastic.”
Sloane’s machine was initially given a dataset of science fiction stories from the ’50s and ’60s to draw from; now it is also informed by the likes of Steinbeck, Didion, and Johnny Cash’s poems—ostensibly a great selection. But when it comes to machine-learning algorithms, who chooses the dataset—who chooses the “good books” that inform the AI? And what about the bad books? The books we read and hate or are bored by still influence us in positive ways. By eliminating these lesser books, the selective process becomes like the echo chamber we are so familiar with in social media—built by algorithms. Furthermore, is a computer influenced by someone’s work different to a human being influenced by someone’s work? It is, of course, more calculated. Rather than being influenced or inspired, it steals—yes, “like all great artists.” The author Nick Harraway says, “We are not at risk from the rise of the robots. We are at risk of exploitation by companies and individuals who unthinkingly regard the complete, finished text as a found object and resent the idea that they should have to share the vast proceeds of its digital exploitation.”
The Copyright Office in the United States will “register an original work of authorship providing it was created by a human being.” But Hong Kong (SAR), India, Ireland, and the U.K. grant copyright to the person who “made the operation of artificial intelligence possible.” So as with Microsoft Word, it is the person who uses the program, rather than the programmer who retains copyright. But as Guadamuz points out, with the use of this particular type of AI, the person who uses the program is often doing little more than pressing a button. This could have a huge impact on the livelihoods of authors and their translators, as programs are fed enough information from existing literature to generate works that are original enough to evade copyright laws.
In If on a Winter’s Night, Calvino also introduces the concept of “reading machines,” which can not only read a book but also judge its merit. We can assume that this will also become a reality eventually, a depressing or exhilarating thought depending on where you stand. But for those of us who wish to remain autonomous, all is not lost; hard work got us so far, but it was not efficiency that got us this far. It was in the moments between productivity that genius was inspired. In If on a Winter’s Night’s closing pages there is a scene in a library where one reader says to the others, “If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image…The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me…even if of every book I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.” Our avenues of idle thought have led us to some of our greatest achievements and our most profound sentiments. We are “infinite in faculty,” as Shakespeare said. The AI author might be around for a while, and things might get pretty hairy for human writers, translators, and journalists for a while, but eventually, this too shall pass.
Image: Pexels/Max DeRoin.
Several years ago, I spent a summer traveling back and forth between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to visit the Ralph Ellison papers stored at the Library of Congress. I had long been enthralled by Invisible Man, Ellison’s seminal 1952 novel of race and identity in the waning years of Jim Crow. But I wasn’t taking the train into the nation’s capital twice a week because of anything he had published during his lifetime. I was there to immerse myself in the26 folders containing the thousands of pages of drafts and notes for a second novel Ellison had spent 40 years writing but never completed.
Ellison began work on the untitled novel (long excerpts of which were published in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting . . .) less than a year after the publication of Invisible Man. He had envisioned it as a sweeping tragedy of race in America centered on the story of a boy named Bliss, whose skin appears white but whose parentage is ambiguous. Adopted by a former black jazz trombonist turned preacher named Alonzo Hickman, Bliss would eventually discover the protean power of racial ambiguity and reinvent himself as a white, race-baiting United States Senator from Massachusetts. Years after his ascent to political prominence, he would deliver an improvised speech on the Senate floor that would be cut short when his estranged son attempted to assassinate him from the balcony. After being shuttled to a local hospital, Bliss would confront his own tragic past alongside the man who had raised him.
Shortly after Ellison died in 1994, his wife, Fanny, implored Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, to tell her whether her late husband’s second novel had a beginning, a middle, and an end. As Callahan sifted through the reams of writing that filled Ellison’s home office, he found only fragments, some of which were virtually novels unto themselves.
As I sat in the Library of Congress’s reading room poring over drafts swamped with marginalia, paragraphs for episodes that never materialized, and ephemera scribbled on the backs of grocery store receipts and old envelopes, I was alternately entranced and dismayed. Amidst this thicket of sentences and ideas, I had hoped to discover a plan, an ending, or—better yet—an explanation for why this writer of the first order hadn’t completed what he was certain would be his magnum opus. I never found any of these. Instead, I was given an inside view of artistic struggle stretched across decades that had resulted not in the conquest of an author over form but in a sprawling curiosity cabinet of literary possibilities.
The duration and singular focus of Ellison’s work on his second novel seemed to me without parallel in literary history. Even Robert Musil, who had spent two decades laboring over The Man Without Qualities (still only half the time Ellison spent), managed to publish two volumes of the work during his lifetime. Ellison’s failure to finish his novel struck me as something for the record books, unintentional though it may have been. The thrill I felt in living in Ellison’s unfinished world—where a scrawled note or a stray revision could shuttle me down a new intellectual rabbit hole—was distinct from my experience with completed novels. It was more collaborative, more free-wheeling, more alive with—for lack of a better word—novelty. And it led me to wonder if unfinished novels constituted a genre of their own and, assuming they did, whether it would be possible to assemble a canon of literary catastrophes.
After scouring archives and bibliographies in search of this canon, it became clear that not all unfinished novels are unfinished in the same way. The most familiar type, I discovered, were those left unfinished at an author’s death that would have almost certainly been completed had the author lived a year or two longer. This is especially true of unfinished novels from the Victorian era, a period known for prolific writing. Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Wilkie Collins’s Blind Love, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters are just a few examples. Later in the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert died while writing Bouvard et Pécuchet. And more recently, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño managed to produce a fair-copy manuscript of his masterpiece, 2666, before he died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50.
Some novels left unfinished by authorial death are also haunted by mortality, which makes their unfinishedness feel more fitting. Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, about a group of hypochondriacs languishing at an English health resort, is such a novel. Its obsession with illness infects the narrative, enervating the central courtship plot. According to the critic D.A. Miller, the novel’s prose is similarly depleted, which led him to quip that Sanditon is the sole Austen novel to feature a death, that of the author as inimitable stylist.
There are occasions, too, when an author, anxious about the fate of their unfinished work, seeks to destroy it before it can be made public, incineration being the preferred method. Franz Kafka asked this of Max Brod in the 1920s and Vladimir Nabokov of his wife and son in the 1970s. Nikolai Gogol took it upon himself to burn most of the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in 1852. In 2016, the late fantasy writer Terry Pratchett told his friend Neil Gaiman—in what I take to be a wry commentary on this trope of literary obliteration—that he wanted all his unfinished projects “to be put in the middle of the road and for a steamroller to steamroll over them all.” This request was executed last fall in Salisbury, England, by a steamroller named Lord Jericho.
But the most interesting unfinished novels, to my mind, are those whose authors strived tirelessly to complete them but who, finally, couldn’t.
The term we often hear used to describe this vague condition is “writer’s block.” This pseudo-psychological diagnosis is so common as to be immune from critique. Yet it profoundly mischaracterizes the turmoil and energy that are elemental to literary failure. It implies immobility and obstruction when, in fact, unfinishedness is often a consequence of overflow and excess. Mark Twain wrote multiple iterations of his unfinished novel The Mysterious Stranger, Nathaniel Hawthorne aborted three romances in as many years at the end of his life, and David Foster Wallace generated heaps of prose for The Pale King before he committed suicide in 2008.
A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.
Ralph Ellison’s agony was visible in the ebb and flow of his writing process. Periods of concentrated forward momentum were followed by periods of furious revision and, occasionally, of inertia. What he produced is a work that stretches both up (via his obsessive rewriting of episodes) and out (the sequences he wrote in his later were sometimes hundreds of pages long) as he ceaselessly searched for a coherence that ultimately evaded him. Although Ellison continued to assure even his closest confidantes that he would complete his novel, certain episodes he composed late in life betray his own suspicions that the work might, perhaps, be unfinishable.
In a particularly poignant sequence from the 1980s, the elderly preacher Hickman spies a tapestry depicting Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in the lobby of a Washington, D.C., hotel. Breughel’s original painting imagined the grand tragedy of Icarus’s hubristic flight to the sun within a medieval world whose daily rhythms of commerce and labor reduce the boy’s fall to insignificance. The painting is so alive with the mundane activities of normal folk that Icarus is but a dot in the distance, unacknowledged by the painting’s occupants and barely visible to the viewer. As Hickman ponders the tapestry and teases out its many meanings, Ellison seems also to be reflecting on how his own novel had become a picture frozen in time, its central tragedy overwhelmed by the elaborate world he had built around it.
Although Ellison never capitalized on this insight into his own work, one can hypothesize an alternate universe in which he had embraced the unfinishability of his novel and published it as a fragmentary narrative without conclusion. Such a decision wouldn’t have been without precedence either.
In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”
One of the most famous examples of this kind of work is also among the earliest. Laurence Sterne’s rollicking 18th-century comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, begins with its titular narrator declaring his intention to relate the story of his life only to get hopelessly lost in digressions that derail any narrative momentum. Like Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights, he writes to defer death, every digressive thread extending his life by a few pages. Sterne published the novel in parts between 1759 and 1767 (about two volumes every two years) with the hope that he would never stop. “The whole machine,” observes Tristram, “shall be kept a going [for] forty years.” The fact that the ninth and final volume ends four years before its narrator’s birth proves just how long Sterne could have kept this up. He died in 1768.
Ellison never wrote an ending to his second novel. In the four decades he worked on it, he jotted only a few scattered notes hinting at the aftermath of his tragic hero’s death. As it stands, the novel abruptly ends in a small hospital room in Washington, D.C., with the old preacher resting beside the nearly lifeless body of his adopted son as the latter prepares to draw his last breath. That he never does leaves readers on a narrative precipice with neither catharsis nor resolution to comfort them.
That Ellison never finished his novel does not diminish his achievement, but it does alter our view of it. Unfinished novels prod us to relinquish conventional approaches to reading and to seek literary pleasure elsewhere than narrative unity. They demand that we attend to dead ends as well as to false starts, to charged silences as well as to verbal excesses. They ask us to see what meanings can be gleaned from a process that has not yet hardened into product. Though their plots may be arrested, this fact does not make them any less arresting.
Image Credit: LPW.
My wife carries the distinction of being, among many other things, the world’s most ardent fan of the southern California folk-rock band Dawes. If they’re playing a show within 100 miles of our home, she will unquestionably be there; when they announce the release of a new recording, she pre-orders it as soon as she can. And if they offer a book club — in which, every other month, a member of Dawes sends out a paperback, along with an explanation of why he chose that book — she will become a member, excessive cost be damned. Since she joined in August, we’ve received three Dawes-approved titles: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, and, most recently, Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. “[Miller] leans heavily on some of the pre-existing tenets of eastern religion,” drummer Griffin Goldsmith writes in his “Dawes Book Report,” “particularly the idea that an individual’s happiness is not only contingent upon where they are in the world, but also upon a confluence of internal emotions.”
To put it mildly, such knottiness is not what my wife expected from her fluffy-haired purveyors of golden-hued singalongs. (And I can’t really blame her; in college, I abandoned Sometimes a Great Notion after 15 flummoxing, headache-inducing pages.) All I can do is clear out shelf space for her new and difficult books — and suggest, politely, that she join one of the following competing rock ‘n’ roll reading clubs, which, of course, include their own book reports.
Ozzy Osbourne: Of Mice and Men
So, Of Mice and Men, it’s got this big dumb wanker, Christ, I can’t remember his name — wait, wait, it’s Denny, no, Lenny, that’s it — and his mate, this teensy little shitter, George. This George fellow is like the Oates to Lenny’s Hall, if that makes any sense. I don’t think it does. Fucking “Maneater,” innit. Anyway, they’re all kinda walking around and what, like, camping? And the big one, he’s always killing the animals ‘cos he’s so fucking big. Like, you ever see that guy, whatsit, Joey Ramone? I met him once in Boston, or like Tokyo? He was fuckin’ huge, and that’s who I kept thinking of when I was reading this book. At the end of the book, the guy from the Ramones kills this kind of hooker-type bird in a barn, and that was pretty much that. Christ, I don’t know what this book was on about.
Bob Dylan: Twilight
Twilight is a book about a girl who falls in love with a boy who, I’ll tell you right now, just happens to be a vampire. Life is funny like that sometimes. But this girl, her name is Bella. And she can’t do anything about this love of hers; she just can’t put it through. Some hoodoo about magic powers, is what I’m gathering. Young love is like that, I’ve found — untrustworthy at its heart and cold where it shouldn’t be. The book asks a certain kind of question, one that the wise men have been wrestling since the days of Plato, since the days of Little Richard, banging out his mystic sounds: is true love possible? And if not, how about vampire love? Now, I don’t know if it is or not, since I never was able to finish the book. I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it, to be honest on all fronts. It’s really long — longer than the mighty Mississippi, where you can hear that steam whistle blow, far off into the night. Out beyond them sycamore trees standing out in the dark. A sound to scare the vampires, if there are any vampires around to scare.
Jimmy Buffett: American Psycho
Maybe you weren’t expecting Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho to be the first selection of my book club. Jimmy, I hear you plead, you’re the bard of the beachfront, the Wordsworth of the waves. You once released an album called License to Chill; you write songs about delicious cheeseburgers. Why kick things off with a harrowing, full-bore descent into the savage, blood-spattered heart of our long-dead modern dream? Why confront us with this jagged, debauched journey into a pornographic, torturous vision? Why not give us something easy, something by Carl Hiaasen or, you know, Dave Barry — or better yet, one of your own books, like the lounge-chair-ready A Salty Piece of Land or Where is Joe Merchant?
My response is this, my faithful Parrotheads: beneath every placid exterior lies a festering, maggot-ridden core, a hellish pit of snakes and raw-boned, scalding pain. Stare into those waves lapping gently against the shore long enough, and soon enough you’ll see the nihilism in their relentless pounding; that water at your sunburned feet should remind us all of the steady encroachment of death.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes — I hope you dig the book! Up next after this one: The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly!
Adam Levine: Ulysses
Hey, Maroon 5 Book Clubbers! This month’s super-cool novel is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is hugely important to me, and not just because it’s the most prominent landmark in modernist literature — or that in 1998 the Modern Library named it the best English-language novel of the 20th Century! I chose Ulysses because it’s a work in which life’s complexities are depicted with unprecedented, and unequalled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity. (Seriously, guys, it is!) But that’s not all: in its characters we see, according to some lex eterna, an ineluctable condition of their very existence! Isn’t that rad? All right now, Fivers, get to it — I hope you love it as much as I did! ‘Cause I totally read it — and other books, too! I didn’t just have my assistant cut and paste lines from Wikipedia to make it seem like I had read Joyce’s sublime masterpiece, which, I have to say, depicts life’s complexities with unprecedented, and unequalled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity!
Image Credit: Wikipedia/jon rubin.
Little, Brown’s The David Foster Wallace Reader is, for my money, a total Gift, an appropriate word considering that Wallace believed that all True Art takes the form of a Gift (see Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for more on that). For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. Judged purely from the outside, the lengthy parade (especially since his death) of critics and writers extolling Wallace’s genius plus the sheer girth of his books could easily sway casual readers away. It’s a shame, and if this Reader accomplishes anything, it would be wonderful if some new Wallace fans emerged from its publication. For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person. And this is what I’d like to do now: use this beautiful new volume as a means of dissecting DFW’s entire oeuvre and trying to make some claims about his work as a whole. To wit:
STRAIGHTFORWARD, NO-BULLSHIT THESIS FOR WHOLE ARTICLE
The David Foster Wallace Reader features excerpts from all three of his novels –– The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King –– as well as a sampling of his short stories – taken from the collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion –– and his essays––taken from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, and Both Flesh and Not –– and finally some examples of teaching materials Wallace used over his many years as a college professor at Emerson, Illinois State, and Pomona College. Viewed together, it’s impossible for me not to draw certain conclusions about the way Wallace wrote and the tools his used to meet his ends, and for me to lay all this out requires that we investigate his work through the lens of his nonfiction, at the center of which I believe we’ll find a key to Wallace’s technique and his philosophical goals, w/r/t literature and its purpose in the universe.
The argument here is going to be that David Foster Wallace not only wrote about literature, lobsters, cruises, David Lynch, Roger Federer, grammar and John McCain, but he also wrote about writing about literature, lobster, cruises, etc. In nearly every published essay, Wallace first established the parameters of his project, the limitations of his assignment and even the crass, subtextual thesis of all book reviews. He dissected the very idea of reviewing a book, or covering a festival, or interviewing a radio host. In other words, Wallace wrote metanonfiction. Moreover, Wallace’s complex mind and neurotic tendencies found their most successful (i.e. accessible and popular) outlet in nonfiction, and that although history may remember his novels and stories as his most important contributions to literature, his nonfiction is more successful in doing what he aimed to do with literature and more representative of who he was as a person and a writer.
BRIEF INTERPOLATION VIS A VIS WALLACE’S FICTION
I love Wallace’s novels and short stories. For my money, Infinite Jest is a masterpiece, one that changed my perception of what fiction can do. “Good Old Neon” and “Forever Overhead” are two of the best short stories I’ve ever read. And The Pale King, I’ll argue a little later, contained a mixture of Wallace’s nonfiction style within it, an exciting yet sad revelation considering that it’s the last of his fiction. I just wanted to make clear that I am not here to say that his fiction was difficult and therefore unredeemable. Rather, my contention here is that Wallace was not unlike an inventor who creates a new tool to assist in the creation of his latest device but whose tool sells better than his invention.
Basically, by the time of the publication of Signifying Rappers in 1989 (a book not excerpted in TDFWR), Wallace had already established certain tropes he would reuse and refine over the rest of his critical/journalistic career. Beyond mere stylistic elements, the main tropes are the way he employs an Ethical Appeal and how he becomes self-referential (a word he uses to describe rap as a whole) in the process; the other is his transparency w/r/t his approach, i.e., his seemingly involuntary tendency to tell you what he’s about to do, essay-wise. Clearly these are postmodern techniques, but when you read this prose, it doesn’t come across that way. Because without fiction’s distancing Narrator, Wallace’s voice seems simply honest and guileless and direct. He isn’t trying to trick you into buying his authority; he isn’t lying about his credentials; he isn’t lying at all. He earnestly wants you to Trust Him, and he does so by explaining exactly what he’s about to do. He just wants to be a regular guy, and if he has to destroy many conventions of nonfiction in order to do so, then so be it.
A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE OF THE WAYS IN WHICH WALLACE’S POSTMODERN TECHNIQUE WORKS DIFFERENTLY IF NOT CONVERSELY IN FICTION AND NONFICTION, WITH A FURTHER ELABORATION ON ETHICAL APPEALS
The main point here is that there is nothing implicit in a David Foster Wallace essay. Or, if anything is implicit, it’s related to Wallace’s approach, not his theses. In essay after essay, Wallace’s directness remains. Just take a look at this passage, from early on in “Authority and American Usage”:
The occasion for this article is Oxford University Press’s recent release of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book that Oxford is marketing aggressively and that it is my assigned function to review. It turns out to be a complicated assignment. In today’s US, a typical book review is driven by market logic and implicitly casts the reader in the role of consumer. Rhetorically, its whole project is informed by a question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront: “Should you buy this book?” And because Bryan A. Garner’s usage dictionary belongs to a particular subgenre of a reference genre that is itself highly specialized and particular, and because at least a dozen major usage guides have been published in the last couple of years and some of them have been quite good indeed, the central unmentionable question here appends the prepositional comparative “…rather than that book?” to the main clause and so entails a discussion of whether and how ADMAU is different from other recent specialty-products of its kind.
The “question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront” is, of course, stated here upfront. Wallace established the parameters of his essay directly, explaining not just what he’s going to do but also how he’s going to do it. In fiction, this kind of technique would certainly be considered postmodern. Think for a moment of the opening sentences of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.” Calvino (or, to be accurate, the Narrator) instructs the reader on how to read the book and what to expect from it. An opening like this in a novel jars a reader. We’re reminded of the writer when we’re not “supposed” to be, a reason many critics are dismissive of much postmodern fiction. But apply this same technique to an essay, and you get what amounts to a super successful Ethical Appeal, a tactic I want to argue is less postmodern and more sincere.
Let’s get back to “Authority and American Usage.” In dissecting “how ADMAU is different from other specialty-products of its kind,” Wallace focuses his attention on Garner’s rhetoric. Since most usage guides are basically “preaching to the choir,” they rarely include Ethical Appeals, which for Wallace “amounts to…a complex and sophisticated ‘Trust me,'” which “requires the rhetor to convince us of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s hopes and fears.” What is Wallace doing in the block passage if not establishing those same qualities for himself? It’s the regular-guy stance, something Wallace was deliberate about evincing. In David Lipsky’s book-length interview with Wallace Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace says, “In those essays…there’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am…I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much like everybody else.”
Yet Wallace was completely unlike everybody else. He was much, much smarter –– not just what he knew but how he thought –– but his prose glistens with “regular guyness:” his word choice and sentence structure, as well as his approach, which is to state everything upfront and proceed with intellectual caution. In the case of “Authority and American Usage,” he does exactly what he’s praising Garner for doing. He creates “a certain persona” that allows the reader to trust him: he asks “unmentionable” questions other reviewers would skirt; he establishes his knowledge of the genre (as in, e.g., his long footnote about being a “SNOOT”); and he tackles his subjects under the guise of being honest and direct, even about his biases.
One must admit, though, that there’s a bit of rhetorical sneakiness going on here. Wallace is brilliant in this way. He knows that he’s too smart for most readers and that this intelligence will probably alienate them from his points. But instead of dumbing down his language (who, after all, would consider Wallace’s prose to be “regular” in any sense?) or simplifying the subject, he acknowledges the inherent abstruseness or strangeness of the topic at hand. In his most famous essay, the hilarious “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he opens by questioning the entire premise of the piece and stating outright this dubiousness w/r/t the magazine he’s writing for:
A certain swanky East-Coast magazine approved of the results of sending me to a plain old simple State Fair last year to do a directionless essayish thing. So now I get offered this tropical plum assignment w/ the exact same paucity of direction or angle. But this time there’s this new feeling of pressure: total expenses for the State Fair were $27.00 excluding games of chance. This time Harper’s has shelled out over $3000 U.S. before seeing pithy sensuous description one. They keep saying––on the phone, Ship-to-Shore, very patiently––not to fret about it. They are sort of disingenuous, I believe, these magazine people. They say all they want is a sort of really big experiential postcard –– go, plow the Caribbean in style, come back, say what you’ve seen.
By setting himself up as unequipped for the task, Wallace makes each of his numerous observations all the more earnest and agenda-less. He seems like someone a bit over his head trying to do the job he was assigned. But of course we know how the scales were really tipped, as how fair is it, e.g., for someone of Wallace’s intellectual acumen to scrutinize the ad-copy of a cruise ship’s onboard publicity? Moreover, Harper’s had to know that Wallace wouldn’t exactly enjoy himself on such an excursion, since by reading anything he ever wrote one could discern at the very least what I’ll call intense neuroses just utterly emanating from his pages. Put the author of “The Depressed Person” on a 7-day cruise filled with skeetshooting and buffets and conga lines and what he calls Managed Fun? Seems like a perfect combination, right? But somehow none of these obvious motivations for the piece come across in the finished essay. Instead, Wallace’s schmucky, regular-guy rhetoric works like gangbusters and we come to Trust Him wholeheartedly throughout, despite the fact that many of his neurotic tendencies are wholly his and not “like everybody else,” as when he becomes dreadfully afraid that the head Captain is conspiring to eliminate him via the crazy suction of the toilets. He’s neurotic as hell, yet we always grant him Authority.
In his fiction, Wallace-as-Narrator is also neurotic as hell, and so are his characters. See Hal Incandenza’s ritual of sneaking off by himself through elaborate tunnels to smoke weed; or the narrator of “Good Old Neon,” who circularly explains how fraudulent he is, even when he’s admitting that he’s fraudulent; or the numerous men in the various iterations of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” Not all of his characters are neurotic, but most of the protagonists are. Many of his character’s neuroses can be summarized by the flash fiction piece that opens BIWHM, entitled “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life:”
When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.
The main point of his little riff is that our desire to “be liked” often gets in the way of real human intimacy. None of the three characters have an honest interaction. All they did was “preserve good relations,” which might make a moment less anxiety-inducing but ultimately makes life pretty sad indeed.
But the neuroses on display in his stories and novels are decidedly not metafictional. There are exceptions, of course: the terminal novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” of Girl with Curious Hair takes place in an MFA writing program and parts of it “are written on the margins of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse,” a seminal work of metafiction; and “Good Old Neon” (the acronym of which would be, if we used the atomic name of neon, “G.O.Ne”) and Infinite Jest employ some autobiographical details but nothing we would go so far as to call meta. Mostly, his fiction is heady, involved, experimental, satirical, and strange –– but not meta. At least not in the same sense his nonfiction is. In fact, Wallace found metafictional techniques to be limited. In an interview with Larry McCaffery (quoted in Zadie Smith’s essay on BIWHM), he says:
Metafiction…helps reveal fiction as a mediated experience. Plus it reminds us that there’s always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language’s self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. But we ended up seeing why recursion’s dangerous, and maybe why everybody wanted to keep linguistic self-consciousness out of the show. It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals on itself. By the mid-seventies, I think, everything useful about the mode had been exhausted…by the eighties, it’d become a god-awful trap.
That is, until The Pale King. (The brouhaha over the posthumous publication of this unfinished novel indicates to me what Wallace’s legacy will be. A final collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, was also published after his death, but it was met with much less fanfare.) Much of The Pale King consists of typical Wallace antics: mind-bogglingly longwinded descriptions of people’s thoughts (read neuroses); conspiratorial upper-level managers discussing their tactics; long conversations that occur with little narrative description to go alongside them; interviews with the questions redacted to Qs; elaborate investigations into boredom; characters with ambiguous motives; a suggestion of plot rather than a relation, &c. Plus it contains some representative examples of the (oft-unremarked-upon) beauty of Wallace’s prose, as in the opening (which is too long to quote here but I sincerely suggest you go check it out; it’s featured in TDFWR and it’s extraordinary). The astonishing power of this opening contains foreshadows for what’s to come, but nothing that would indicate how truly radical (for Wallace) the novel would become. In one of the excerpts from TPK featured in TDFWR, we turn to an Author’s Foreword, which begins thusly:
Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:
All of this is true. This book is really true.
Here, Wallace writes metafiction in the truest sense of the phrase: he literally steps into his own novel. Metafiction can take many forms, and many sophisticated examples don’t actually require the novelist to become a character. Awareness of the novel as a text and referenced as such is all that’s required of metafiction, but Wallace chooses to go the literal route. Of course, he can’t do so without some meta-qualifications. He insists that this is “not some abstract narrative persona,” distinguishing his meta-device from past iterations. He gets meta about his meta. What this amounts to is another kind of Ethical Appeal: he’s assuring you that he, too, is aware of the metafictional convention but that he not up to those kinds of tricks.
The opening of TPK is dense, descriptive and filled with arcane vocabulary. Its sentences are long and its purpose opaque. Whereas the Wallace-as-Narrator’s prose moves very directly from the moment it starts. The syntax is simpler, its intention clearer. This is Wallace’s nonfiction voice, which he rarely used in his fiction. Wallace believed, according to D.T. Max in his biography of Wallace, that “the novel was the big form, the one that mattered.” More than that, Wallace was an unabashed moralist with a deep interest in human relationships (or lack thereof) in contemporary living. It’s as if he didn’t attribute as much creative importance to journalistic endeavors, despite his mastery of the form. Maybe Wallace would second William H. Gass’s note about his (Gass’s) nonfiction representing a “novelist insufficiently off duty.” At the very least, he kept his voices relatively separate.
Allow me, for a brief pause, to back up that last claim, as I suspect many would disagree with the assertion. Here’s a passage taken from Infinite Jest, in which Orin Incandenza decides to make the “extremely unlikely defection from college tennis to college football:”
The real football reason, in all its inevitable real-reason banality, was that, over the course of weeks of dawns of watching the autosprinklers and the Pep Squad (which really did practice at dawn) practices, Orin had developed a horrible schoolboy-grade crush, complete with dilated pupils and weak knees, for a certain big-haired sophomore baton-twirler he watched twirl and strut from a distance through the diffracted spectrum of the plumed sprinklers, all the way across the field’s dewy turf, a twirler who’d attended a few of the All-Athletic-Team mixers Orin and his strabismic B.U. doubles partner had gone to, and who danced the same way she twirled and invoked mass Pep, which is to say in a way that seemed to turn everything solid in Orin’s body watery and distant and oddly refracted.
Though this is quintessential Wallace, doesn’t it sound a bit more like the opening passage of TPK than it does the meta section? A major development of Orin’s life is explained here in a single sentence. Wallace in fiction-mode loved these kinds of periodic probing of a character’s idiosyncrasies –– IJ is loaded with them. But the Wallace-as-Narrator in TPK uses a different (although undeniably similar) voice:
In any event, the point is that I journeyed to Peoria on whatever particular day in May from my family’s home in Philo, to which my brief return had been shall we say untriumphant, and where certain members of my family had more or less been looking at their watches impatiently the whole brief time I was home. Without mentioning or identifying anyone in particular, let’s just say that the prevailing attitude in my family tended to be “What have you done for me lately?” or, maybe better, “What have you achieved/earned/attained lately that my in some way (imaginary or not) reflect well on us and let us bask in some kind of reflected (real or not) accomplishment?” It was a bit like a for-profit company, my family, in that you were pretty much only as good as your last sales quarter. Although, you know, whatever.
(I apologize, by the way, for all the long-winded quotations, but Wallace isn’t super-conducive to brevity.) So, there is still the same “regular-guyness” with his usage of colloquialisms like “the point is,” “more or less,” “pretty much,” etc, and his final blasé conclusion: “Although, you know, whatever.” But in a deeper way, this clearly is more aligned with the above-quoted passage from “Authority and American Usage” or “A Supposedly Fun Thing…” And that’s what made TPK so special and promising and, consequently, so tragic.
CONCLUSION –– AT LONG LAST –– IN WHICH WE RETURN TO WALLACE’S NONFICTION AND, PERHAPS, CONCLUDE A THING OR TWO
All of which is to say that The David Foster Wallace Reader does a fantastic job of surveying Wallace’s work, and gave this enormous fan a chance to put my complicated thoughts on DFW on paper, to stop them (the thoughts) from swimming in my head like unhappy fish in a bowl and pick them out and set them free.
To conclude: I agree with critic Michael Schmidt’s assessment of Wallace’s essays but not his novels, which Schmidt believes are “uneven.” For Schmidt, Wallace “makes watching paint dry an exquisite protraction,” and his essays “entail the lecture, the sermon, the review, the manifesto, and other genres.” And also:
He reinvents the form from within, using its own devices, the footnote and the syllogism in particular, and combining genres, bringing confession and review into play with “impartial” journalism whose evident objectivity yields potent satire.
What is this but another way of saying he that he wrote meta-nonfiction? Here’s how Wallace himself put it in Quack This Way, a book-length interview he did with Bryan A. Garner (whose usage manual was the subject of Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” essay excerpted above): “Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential.” Wallace dove inside the tropes of the essay and stretched them until they seemed new, like a restored Victorian home updated with every contemporary amenity yet remaining classic and beautiful and timeless. His greatest asset in the essays, though, wasn’t his experimentation, his rethinking of the form, but what he described to David Lipsky as his “regular-guyness.” Though he used this voice in his fiction, it is employed with much higher success in his nonfiction. But this wouldn’t have meant a damn thing if the voice didn’t lead to something extraordinary. The voice is the invitation; the actual stuff going on in the essays –– that’s the magic.
Schmidt characterizes Wallace as “a postmodernist with premodern values,” and I think this is key to his writing. Wallace was a polymath, a genius, a postmodern wizard, but at heart he was almost naïvely optimistic, almost sentimental (something particularly clear in his famous Kenyon College commencement speech from 2005, also not included in TDFWR). Wallace accomplished something many critics of postmodernism never believed was possible: he used the “tricks” and “gimmicks” of postmodern technique in the interest of human connection. He did this in his novels, too, but less successfully, maybe in part due to his tendency to “impersonate what he describes, even when the subject is debased, vulgar, boring,” as James Wood put it. But his essays were genuine attempts to work through the topic at hand, to explain his thinking process to the reader as thoroughly and truthfully as possible, with limited filters. He earned our Trust through rigorous ethos and followed through with staggering intelligence and wit. As The Pale King shows, he could have used these techniques in fiction to considerable effect, but we’ll never know where he would have gone intellectually or creatively. We only have what he left behind. And we also know that he did, at least, achieve what were to him the greatest aims of literature: to connect, to challenge, and to make us feel less alone.
Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre.
And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it.
Implausible? Hardly! Such is precisely the case with Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, published in Italian in 1965 and translated into English three years later. (William Weaver’s excellent translation won the National Book Award in 1969, back when it had a translation category.) Today, the book is mostly remembered for its postmodern experimentalism or its fanciful narrative devices. But for readers coming to Calvino for the first time, Cosmicomics often takes a back seat to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or perhaps Invisible Cities.
But Cosmicomics is my favorite Calvino book, just as ingenious and well-written as those better-known works, and even more delightful. Many absurdist and postmodern narratives achieve their finest effects by frustrating the reader — indeed Calvino’s most famous novel stands out as the classic example of literary frustration, which is both its subject and effect. Cosmicomics, in contrast, is that rarity among progressive texts: its premises are absurd and almost incoherent, yet the plot lines are filled with romance, drama, and conflicts that draw the readers deeper and deeper into the text.
I hesitate before telling you about the specific tales in this collection of intertwined science stories. If I tell you, you will refuse to read the book. You won’t want to read, for example, a love story about a mollusk — one, moreover, who has never even seen his beloved. I know that this sounds somewhat less romantic than Pride and Prejudice, but trust me, even mollusks (at least those envisioned by Italo Calvino) are capable of great passions. By the same token, a story in which the only action is looking at distant stars through a telescope must sound more boring than a Brady Bunch rerun marathon. But I assure you that you’re wrong. Calvino extracts Dostoevskian pathos from his starwatcher, and you will feel his pain and humiliation as he searches for personal redemption among the cosmos.
Each story in Cosmicomics begins with a scientific premise, which serves as a springboard for a story. The protagonists might be mollusks or dinosaurs or even physical or mathematical constructs, but Calvino infuses them will all the foibles and fancies of humans. Here we encounter unfettered ambition, pride and envy, jealousy and desire — all the same ingredients that we cherish in ancient Greek tragedy or Elizabethan drama, but now translated into an extravagant scientific framework. None of the science here really adds up, but you won’t complain, because Calvino compensates with fancy for his abuses of the rules of physics. Consider the end result a kind of Einsteinian magical realism.
The opening story, “The Distance of the Moon,” is a case in point. The scientific premise for this tale is a simple one: “At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth.” Ask a hundred authors to turn this concept into a story — I doubt one of them will even approach the beautiful, fabulist tale Calvino serves up. “Climb up on the moon?” he asks. “Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” From this absurdist stance, Calvino constructs a love triangle filled with pathos and longing, a rich psychological tapestry in which the experimental aspects of the tale, breathtaking in their own way, do not distract from the inherent appeal of the storyline. Yes, this is one of the great science fiction stories — and you could even read it as a critique of the sci-fi genre — yet it will never get acknowledged as such. Calvino is deemed too “respectable” to show up anywhere near Heinlein and Asimov on a bookshelf.
In another story, Calvino constructs a much different love triangle, complicated by the unpleasant fact that each individual is falling through empty space in parallel lines. How do you consummate a love affair if your line never intersects with the beloved’s? Leave it to Calvino to find inspiration in such a strange premise. In “How Much Should We Bet?”, I am reminded again of Dostoevsky — this time of his short novel The Gambler — but here the wagers involve the evolution of the cosmos and the unfolding of history. In “The Aquatic Uncle,” an amphibian is embarrassed by his great-uncle, still living as a fish after the rest of the species has evolved into land-dwellers. He needs to introduce his fiancée to his family, and is ashamed at the prospect of her meeting his fishy forbear. Can you imagine what happens? Trust me, you can’t…but Calvino can.
In describing these stories, I find myself dwelling again and again on the human interest angle. How peculiar that must sound, when humans really never appear in this book. As such, Cosmicomics ranks among a tiny number of major works of fiction that can dispense with people and still embrace humanity — I’m thinking of books such as Flatland or Watership Down or Animal Farm. Each of these novels is better known than Cosmicomics, but Calvino’s stunning work deserves mention in the same breath. Science fiction readers owe it to themselves to track it down. And those who hate sci-fi might be surprised, too, by how much literary panache can be found among the outer cosmos and sub-atomic particles, at least after they have been magically transformed by Italo Calvino.
I think for my 2012 “Year in Reading” I’m going to try and be topical, since I’m guessing this series will feature enough laundry lists of great books as it is. So, since my book The End of Oulipo? is publishing in January from Zero Books, I’ll make my topic Oulipo literature. I’ve certainly been reading enough of it lately.
This is the year I had the great good fortune to discover Harry Mathews, for a long time the only American Oulipo author, and certainly one of the greats of 20th-century literature. For Mathews newbies, I think there are two places to start, depending on your reading habits. If you like to be tossed into the deep end, then go for Mathews’s first novel, The Conversions (and read Ed Park’s excellent essay on said book). It’s, well, a very strange novel about a quest to solve a riddle in a dead man’s will, where each chapter becomes a strange metamorphosis of the preceding chapters. It ends with one of the more beautiful extended metaphors I’ve read all year, and on which I write at length in The End of Ouliopo?
If you, alternatively, prefer good old plot, then start with what I and many others consider Mathews’s masterwork, Cigarettes, which is one of the most plot-heavy books you will read all year, despite Mathews’s insistence that it was his only “properly” Oulipian novel. (On the surface, it will appear much more Edith Wharton than Raymond Queneau.) I then recommend A D Jameson’s essay “I Read It for the Plot: The Narrative Artistry of Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes” for a great analysis of just why Mathews’s rendition of a plot-heavy novel is so damn literary.
Mathews also wrote Singular Pleasures, 61 short accounts of masturbation, along with a collection of other odds and ends. It is more difficult to find than his proper novels, but well worth seeking out.
This year I also read virtually everything of Georges Perec’s that has been translated (many for the second time). I’ll toss out a recommendation for his wonderful collection of essays and miscellaneous texts, Species of Spaces. It includes the story “The Winter Journey,” the best Borgesian short story written by a Frenchman. I will also put in a recommendation for Perec’s strange short novel W, or the Memory of a Childhood, which always seems to be left behind when people talk about the more bizarre A Void (the novel without the letter e) or the masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual.
Of the lesser-known Oulipo members, the works of Jacques Roubaud should not be missed. His Mathematics, just published this year, is a great introduction to this writer who marries Oulipo, Proust, and mathematics (it’s a strange marriage). Then there is the first book by the second American Oulipo member, Daniel Levin Becker, called Many Subtle Channels. Not a properly Oulipian book per se (if we’re defining that as having some sort of constraint), Many Subtle Channels is something along the lines of a memoir spliced with literary criticism, reportage, and good old boosterism of a fantastic body of literature. And lastly, I’ll toss in Marcel Benabou’s strange anti-novel Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.
And then, after the well-known Oulipo and the lesser known, we get to the authors I regard as somehow being in league with Oulipo, but not actually being a part of the collective. Christian Bök, who has taught microbes to make poetry, certainly must be some kind of kin to the Oulipo. I discuss both his Crystallography and Eunoia (the latter consisting of chapters that only utilize one vowel at a time) in The End of Oulipo? I also regard César Aira is having some relevance here for his “constant flight forward,” certainly a writing constraint of a kind. For an idea, have a look at his just-translated Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira.
There are lots more out there to find, and many beyond that still only readable in French. Beyond Perec’s dream journals (which Levin Becker is translating for Melville House), there’s Ian Monk’s Plouk Town, (raved by Levin Becker and also called “untranslatable” by him — just the kind of challenge an Oulipian would relish), an anthology of “sequels” to Perec’s “Winter Journey” that is currently being translated, and Anne F. Garréta, whom my co-author, Lauren Elkin, recommends should be translated post-haste in The End of Oulipo? For an idea of the riches that await us, have a look at Drunken Boat’s Oulipo feature.
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I’ve always loved recommending books to people. At parties, I’ve been known to hold hostages in front of my bookshelves. I have, however, always preferred to let the books speak for themselves. I like sharing passages more than impressions, and I think that’s the best route to take.
I read some great books in 2011. Below, I’d like to share some with you. Think of this as me standing in front of my bookshelf, pulling out some titles as I ramble on, and then opening to pages I think you should read. Don’t worry. I’ll hold your drink.
The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich — A book that grew in my mind after I finished it. I remember opening my mouth a lot as I read it, nodding unconsciously, losing focus on the narrative to admire the prose. To read Krilanovich’s book is to be hypnotized. Now, months later, I recall bits of phrases, such as how one drug-addled punk’s eyebrows fluttered and raised like a manic toilet flusher. That’s the language she used.
Excerpt: Our town is doomed. We’re just hanging out waiting till it turns into the next thing, then we’ll go to sleep. Just build your shit around us, we’ll only go out at night anyway… The town slipped in and out of consciousness, depending on where you went. All the little twigs scraped at the ground like lace fans spread at the sun.
Buckdancer’s Choice, James Dickey — Dickey’s best known work is the film adaptation of Deliverance. In particular, his best known work is that one scene from Deliverance. Less known but nonetheless incredible is the man’s verse. A true American master, Southern or otherwise. These poems will inhabit you, and you’ll return to them often, and be better for it.
Excerpt from “The Firebombing”:
But in this half-paid-for pantry
Among the red lids that screw off
With an easy half-twist to the left
And the long drawers crammed with dim spoons,
I still have charge — secret charge—
Of the fire developed to cling
To everything: to golf carts and fingernail
Scissors as yet unborn tennis shoes
Grocery baskets toy fire engines
New Buicks stalled by the half-moon
Shining at midnight on crossroads green paint
Of jolly garden tools red Christmas ribbons:
Not atoms, these, but glue inspired
By love of country to burn,
The apotheosis of gelatin.
The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley — Everyone knows Brave New World, but few have read Huxley’s historical nonfiction. Primarily about a French Jesuit priest’s sex scandal turned witch hunt turned public execution, The Devils of Loudun is also an interesting glimpse into Huxley’s ruminations on religion and mysticism before he experimented with mescaline. The work he wrote immediately after this one was The Doors of Perception, and you can see the beginnings of those thoughts here.
Excerpt: Sex can be used either for self-affirmation or for self-transcendence — either to intensify the ego and consolidate the social persona by some kind of conspicuous “embarkation” and heroic conquest, or else to annihilate the persona and transcend the ego in an obscure rapture of sensuality, a frenzy of romantic passion or, more credibly, in the mutual charity of the perfect marriage.
If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino — This book will hurt your head in the best way possible.
Excerpt: You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
The Avian Gospels, Adam Novy — A man and his son can control birds. A judge is out to get them. War is perennial. If you’ve watched this video of a murmuration of starlings, you understand the beauty of bird swarms. If you read the book’s opening passage, you’ll want to read more.
Excerpt: So many buildings had already been destroyed, the solitary walls like ruins submerged in flames, the city like an ocean of flames. Circles of maniacs prayed in the middle of the streets, and flapped their arms like birds. Teenage conscripts lay trapped beneath rubble, crying for their mothers, while comrades tried to get them out. Cats hauled their kittens through the ruins, and vultures swooped to seize them; a donkey gave birth inside a restaurant where dogs sipped at puddles of champagne, and cut their paws on broken bottles. Explosions shook the Earth; Katherine hardly kept her balance. Cobblestones zoomed past her head. A girl tried to carry a newborn foal on her back. Whoever won the war would rule ruins, be the king of stones and buzzards. Fires hurled themselves against the sky, as if in rapture, the city a cathedral of flame, flames like penitents to the sky. An elderly man thought his beard was in flames, and slapped at his face as he ran, calling, It burns! It burns! Men writhed on spears which had been rammed into the ground in perfect rows, a field of pain. Women carried infants like footballs. Birds choked on smoke and died mid-flight, raining in a deathstorm.
Blood-Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, John Jeremiah Sullivan — When I read the much-deserved hype pieces about Pulphead, I was disappointed by their failure to mention this book. Blood-Horses is, like most of Sullivan’s writing, a memoir that feels like it’s about you. It’s about horses, yes, but it’s also about a young man and his father, about the concept of bloodlines, and about the pursuit of beauty and perfection in the natural world.
Excerpt: There is a passage on the tape [of Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont win] that I noticed only after watching it dozens of times. It occurs near the end of the race. The cameraman has zoomed up pretty close on Secretariat, leaving the lens just wide enough to capture the horse and a few feet of track. Then, about half a furlong before the wire (it is hard to tell), the camera inexplicably stops tracking the race and holds still. Secretariat rockets out of the frame, leaving the screen blank, or rather filled with empty track. I timed this emptiness — the space between Secretariat exiting and Twice a Prince entering the image — with my watch. It lasts seven seconds. And somehow each of these seconds says more about what made Secretariat great than any shot of him in motion could. In the history of profound absences — the gaps in Sappho’s fragments, Christ’s tomb, the black panels of Rothko’s chapel — this is among the most beautiful.
Packing For Mars, Mary Roach — I’m a sucker for well-written science books. Susan Casey’s The Devil’s Teeth explained scientific fact in a way I could grasp: she has a line about sharks predating trees. Roach writes like she taught Casey everything she knows. This book was a delight.
Excerpt: You never think about the weight of your organs inside you. Your heart is a half-pound clapper hanging off the end of your aorta. Your arms burden your shoulders like buckets on a yoke. The colon uses the uterus as a beanbag chair. Even the weight of your hair imparts a sensation on your scalp. In weightlessness, all this disappears. Your organs float inside your torso. The result is a subtle physical euphoria, an indescribable sense of being freed from something you did not realize was there.
Orientation and Other Stories, Daniel Orozco — I wanted to dislike this book. I always feel cheated when a publisher releases a collection of stories I’ve read before, and I feel doubly cheated when the author is mostly famous for a single story he wrote more than a decade ago. (“Orientation,” by the way, is only the second most depressing thing about office life I read this year. Early in January, I found Theodore Roethke’s “Dolor.”) The point is that I went into this book hating it. I was proven so, so wrong. Read “Shakers” and you’ll know why.
Excerpt: When they hit, rats and snakes hightail it out of their burrows. Ants break single-file ranks and scatter blind, and flies roil off garbage bins in shimmering clouds. On the Point Reyes Peninsula, milk cows bust out of feed sheds and bolt for open pasture. Inside aquariums in dentist offices and Chinese restaurants and third-grade classrooms, fish huddle in the corners of their tanks, still as photos of huddled fish. Inside houses built on the alluvial soils of the Sacramento Delta, cockroaches swarm from behind walls, pouring like cornflakes out of kitchen cabinetry and rising in tides from beneath sinks and tubs and shower stalls. Crows go mute. Squirrels play possum. Cats awaken from naps. Dogs guilty of nothing peer guiltily at their masters. Pigeons and starlings clatter fretfully on the eaves and cornices of buildings, then rise en masse and wheel away in spectacular rollercoaster swoops…
Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, Philip Connors — Reading this book was an exercise in personal restraint. Resisting the urge to read too rapidly, as I wanted to savor the experience. Restraining my jealousy for Connors’ apparently marvelous life. Resisting the urge to drop what I was doing, pack my bags, hit the Gila Forest, and embark on a career in fire watching.
Excerpt: As in Frisbee golf, so in hiking: the movements of my limbs help my mind move too, out of its loops and grooves and onto a plane of equipoise. I have been followed all my life, in the chaos of my thoughts, by a string of words: song lyrics, nonsense phrases, snatches of remembered conversation, their repetition a kind of manic incantation, a logorrhea in the mind, and all of them intermingled with sermons and soliloquies– the spontaneous talker weaving his repetitive spell. At other times, tired of words themselves but intrigued by their internal mechanics, I find myself unconsciously counting syllables in sentences, marking each one by squeezing the toes on first my right foot, then my left, back and forth in order to discern whether the final tally is an even or an odd number. (Eighty. Even.)
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov — This book is one everyone knows but few have actually read. (Moby-Dick is the exemplar of this type.) I’m actually glad I put off reading this one for as long as I did. I feel like its significance was built up so high– my expectations were built up so high — that when the book met and exceeded all of these things, it was all the more impressive. Much is said about Nabokov’s linguistic acrobatics, and his artistry is a highlight of this book, but less is said about Nabokov’s ability to wax terrifying and then suddenly hysterical within a few pages. This book is wickedly funny, but it’s also just wicked.
Excerpt: We came to know the curious roadside species, Hitchhiking Man, Homo pollex of science, with all its many sub-species and forms: the modest soldier, spic and span, quietly waiting, quietly conscious of khaki’s viatic appeal; the schoolboy wishing to go two blocks; the killer wishing to go two thousand miles; the mysterious, nervous, elderly gent, with brand-new suitcase and clipped mustache; a trio of optimistic Mexicans; the college student displaying the grime of vacational outdoor work as proudly as the name of the famous college arching across the front of his sweatshirt; the desperate lady whose battery has just died on her; the clean-cut, glossy-haired, shifty-eyed, white-faced young beasts in loud shirts and coats, vigorously, almost priapically thrusting out tense thumbs to tempt loose women or sad-sack salesmen with fancy cravings.
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One might think that physical books are on the verge of extinction, given all the consternation over ebooks of late. There’s a faction in this debate that predicts that physical books will become something of a rarity as the ebook market matures and the technologies involved become ubiquitous.
In a sleek, shiny, distant future, books may feel old and impossibly large, with too much physical mass and all these fussy pages put to use for the simple task of storing a tiny amount of data, data that is not searchable or copy and pasteable or malleable and interactive in the ways we expect of our data. These devices, one imagines, might seem incredibly blunt to our future selves, unitaskers in world where our gadgets and machines can do all.
And yet there is and will always be some beauty in books. And there will always be people who appreciate that beauty. Even if books eventually become the province of collectors and the peculiar few who fetishize them as objects, there will be attractive qualities to them. They are something like snowflakes or at least stamps, so many and so few alike.
Even now, books revel in their oldness. Rough-cut, or deckle-edge pages are popular flourishes on many editions. And beneath dust jackets are canvas covered boards, often with embossed lettering and archaic-looking monograms.
The deckle edge dates back to a time when you used to need a knife to read a book. Those rough edges simulate the look of pages that have been sliced open by the reader. The printing happened on large sheets of paper which were then folded into rectangles the size of the finished pages and bound. The reader then sliced open the folds.*
Paper knives, variants of letter openers, were used for this purpose. Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which speaks directly to the reader and describes the reader’s experience reading the novel, makes extensive reference to these literary knives:
This volume’s pages are uncut: a first obstacle opposing your impatience. Armed with a good paper knife, you prepare to penetrate its secrets. With a determined slash you cut your way between the title page and the beginning of the first chapter.
Opening a book can already feel like opening a gift. Armed with a knife and freeing the pages and the story hidden beneath the folds, it becomes something more, “a penetration of its secrets” and an act of discovery, shot through with a suggestion of violence and danger or of the painful gestation of the words themselves.
This act of cutting open pages to read a book has been lost (one imagines the paper knife arrangement wouldn’t go over well with the TSA), and right now, all over the world, people are reading their books on screens and the idea of even opening a cover and turning pages may one day seem odd as well.
This idea of the book as an anachronism may explain the persistence of the deckle edge, which is now created not by the reader with a knife but by leaving one edge of the page untrimmed during the printing and binding process.
Peggy Samedi, an associate production manager, told me that at Knopf where she works the deckle edge is part of the publisher’s “house style” along with certain other flourishes and fonts. It is typically used for more literary-oriented books and they see it as “something that harkens back to an older way.” It rises from the idea, she says, that “not everything has to be smooth and slick.”
Nonetheless, the production department at Knopf regularly fields calls from readers who complain about the ragged edges, assuming they are a mistake.
If you look closely at a deckle edge, even if you are looking at two copies of the same book, you’ll see slight variations in the edges. And from title to title and publisher to publisher, the quality and pattern of the edges varies more extensively, from a tight saw-tooth, when looking from the top of the book down the edge of the pages, to a more free-form ragged look. The deckle edge varies, not because it is made by hand, but because the machinery for making books varies slightly from factory to factory.
Perhaps this deckle edge is a way for publishers to prepare for the inevitable. As ebooks and ereaders contrive to make the reading process as simple as pushing a button, physical books will regress to older and older forms, so as to appeal more to the antiquated among us who still prefer them to their digital doppelgangers. Deckle-edges will prevail, uncut pages will re-emerge, embossing will become more elaborate.
In time it will be said, to own a book is to be a purist, and these are the books that purists will prefer.
*A reader wrote in with a correction/clarification to the above:
“There are two kinds of rough edges one can find in older books.
The deckle edge is an artifact of papermaking, in which the paper fiber seeps under the “deckle” (the wooden frame placed on top of a screen used to drain the slurry of fiber and water). Even before machine-made paper, the deckle edge was sometimes trimmed, sometimes not. From what I can tell, there wasn’t a sensibility about it before the advent of machine-made paper.
The separate issue of “unopened” (not “uncut”) pages has to do with the folding of a printed sheet, the signature, into the final book. Printers could, and often did, trim the edges and remove either the folded part of the signature there as well as the deckle edge. Or not. I’ve talked with book historians, and I can’t find a reason why some books had unopened pages and others not.
In any case, it results in two kinds of rough edges. The deckle edge as a result of the artifact of papermaking; and the unopened edge after being cut with a knife, which results from a decision made during binding. You can see the difference in examining a book, as the deckle edge is feathered and soft, while a knife-cut edge is rough and can be jagged. (It also depends on the “grain,” or the predominant direction in which the fibers are oriented, which affects how paper curls or stays straight, too. Books are usually printed with the grain perpendicular to the spine, so the pages don’t curl inward, but that results in a very jagged edge when the pages are cut.)”
[Image credit: Horia Varlan]
In what seems peripherally related to our recent exercise in award aggregation, The Prizewinners, the Booker Prize recently announced their Best of the Booker, a prize to commeorate the 40th anniversary of the Prize and also to name the “best overall novel to have won the prize.” It went, somewhat predictably, to Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children – the book also won when the Booker gave out a similar award 15 years ago. Scott, however, makes a very compelling argument that J.G. Farrell’s “novel of imperial decay,” The Siege of Krishnapur, deserved to be honored instead.Meanwhile, in what seems peripherally related to our recent exercise in books-in-translation aggregation, The Prizewinners International, the Lit Saloon points us to The Times’ (UK) list of “the 50 outstanding literary translations from the last 50 years,” presented alphabetically. Some Millions favorites like The Master and Margarita, 100 Years of Solitude, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler appear. Interestingly, Edith Grossman, one of the most celebrated translators in recent years, does not make the list.
I did not realize that William Boyd would have the same effect that Italo Calvino had on me until I read An Ice-Cream War. When I told the old lady who runs the neighborhood bookstore that lately I had been into Calvino and Henry Miller, and that I really enjoyed Middlesex, she immediately recommended William Boyd, commenting that he is the most underrated contemporary author. Trusting her, I got a copy of An Ice Cream War and began reading. Shortly, I discovered that the novel is an amazing page turner, thanks, mostly, to the cynical British humour with which Boyd approaches the miseries and absurdity of World War I. Over the course of An Ice Cream War, which starts in the neighboring German and British east Africa colonies, the reader travels through Africa, being chased by and also chasing the barbarians (as the British ever so affectionately call the Germans), sees the unfortunate travels of an enthusiastic, newlywed soldier – from his honeymoon in France, back to England, to India, and to Africa – laughs out loud at the most absurd instances of violence, and gets dragged into a very, very cheesy, but still sympathetic love story between an unexpected couple. The reflections on the wartime life in England, the descriptions of three dysfunctional families, and the mockery of the grave consequences of a four year war that no one thought would last past three months are exquisite. Actually, dare I say and yes, here it goes, An Ice Cream War strongly parallels and at times even surpasses the ever great Catch 22 in reflecting cowardice, bravery – for all the wrong reasons, think Milo – and the amazing web of characters who are all interconnected. Read this novel and you too, as I did, will move into the Boyd sphere.Feeling the grips of addiction, I returned to my prime drug, Calvino, for the last novel I read by him in 2004. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is the story of two readers as they attempt to read Calvino’s latest novel and realize that there was a problem with the print, which cut off after the first chapter of the novel. Upon returning the book to the bookstore, both readers discover that they had in fact been reading another author’s novel and decide to stick with it since they really enjoy it, but the same problem occurs. Thanks to the persisting issue, the two readers meet each other and start their quest to reach the end of this bizarre occurrence. Calvino’s prose, which I would categorize as his second phase – splitting from traditional folk tales and becoming more fantasy oriented – cleverly weaves the developing affections between the two readers and the beginnings of novels by different authors. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is an ode to books and the pleasure book junkies such as myself derive from them.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5