Into the Wild

heroesofthefrontierI remember that it was during my middle school years when I was still choosing books in a bookstore at random. Since then I’ve been more of a deliberate reader/consumer. Still, it was not so random that time when I bought Heroes of the Frontier as I’ve already heard about Eggers, but only that he wrote The Circle which was adapted into a movie, so that was pretty much a shot in the dark.

It seemed nice. And I felt like I needed a break from all of that postmodern mumbo-jumbo and the visions of doomed humankind, so an escape into the Alaskan solitude was a way to go.

And it was nice. A very funny, endearing tribute to that distant part of the US. Josie and her children run away from her careless ex-husband, career failures and a suburgatory-like environment of their hometown in Ohio. It’s a variation of a road novel where a family packed in an RV travel through the wild, Alaskan world, full of its specific images, peoples and—of course—obstacles. Eventually it narrows down to the importance of unity, bravery, staying true to yourself and other themes of such kind but presented in an unpretentious and amiable way.

Then I’ve read a little about The Circle and its dystopian-technological criticism and I’ve understood what I think is lacking in Heroes. I’d imagine its ending to be something about Josie returning back to the civilization of American mainland and using her experiences to lead a more assertive and successful life. The actual ending is constructed in a way that such interpretation doesn’t have to be necessarily excluded. Still, I feel like it was that kind of bland glorification of the “natural state” that I’m not especially fond of.

Nevertheless, I don’t condemn the novel because of that. It makes some good points about our contemporary, domestic life, family values and has a lot of moments when I chuckled audibly—and usually that’s all I need to endorse a piece of prose. I’d have to check out The Circle and we’ll see what I’ll make out of all of that.

Writing the Digital

bonTo a certain extent, writers are concerned with identities. Those of their characters, of themselves towards those characters, towards the written work itself, towards all the possible perceptions of their own self, their being-in-writing and so on. In Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, one of the protagonists, also named Joshua Cohen, is a struggling writer given a job of ghostwriting an autobiography of the in-novel Google-equivalent’s creator whose name is Joshua Cohen as well. Obviously, a lot to say about identities:

Fiction writers mistrust the truth, nonfiction writers swear by it, while ghostwriters – who are typically laidoff journalists with novels in the drawer – are divided down the middle. And even that division is split. By which I mean, the relationships I’ve had with my ghostees have always replicated. What happens is I end up rewriting everybody, and so I become rewritten myself. Haunt the lives of controlfreaks, egomaniacs, career narcissists and solipsists, your lovers, your wife, your mother, and you become them too, inevitably.

(In the book, the above fragment is crossed out in an experimental-typographical manner, I spared that for the comfort of reading). I’d argue that such rewriting occurs within any kind of writing. Writing is always some kind of dealing with one’s own ideas which obtain more apparent, material form when voiced through a text. That way, they can be analyzed again and may change one’s perception of themselves or their surrounding world.

Writing in the Information Age (we’re still in that one, right?) is obviously complicated by the new media’s informational chaos. Cohen-the-protagonist-writer’s debut novel was unfortunately published on 11th Sept. 2001, when everyone were pretty much concerned with other topics. A lot is said about the development of Internet itself and other connected technologies. There’s something about religion and mysticism, also with its relation to technology. And there’s other stuff, too.

Generally, the book seems to be flawed in that it’s kind of all over the place thematically. I’m a bit disappointed as I expected a lot from a novel which was to be like “Philip Roth’s work (…) fired into David Foster Wallace’s inside the Hadron particle collider.” I don’t want to condemn it totally. It’s very in my taste, experimental, metafictional, well-researched. Maybe it’d need a better editor, or something. Entropy is mentioned several times in the plot, so maybe that’s a clue? I’m not sure, though. I’ll give it a second chance in the future; at least, I really want this book to captivate me.

A Book of Madness

ijThe funny thing was when I got to the physical end of the text, I immediately turned pages back to the beginning, with some faint ideas and guesses, and realized the infinity.

What struck me the most was how, paradoxically, the novel is repelling and absorbing at the same time. With all those footnotes, heavy jargon, non-linearity and general fucking-with-the-reader thing, Infinite Jest is a challenge indeed. However, to the very end I thought that it’s more or less balanced with what’s really endearing and entertaining about it; the humor (even the E.T.A’s students cringey jokes which I simply loved), reflections on life and society (like most of the conversations between Marathe and Steeply) or moments of absolutely sincere, emotional havoc (like Mario’s conversation with Moms about sadness). Maybe that’s what makes DFW’s work transcend postmodernism. It’s not just a gargantuan, complex piece of prose; to put it simply, it has a heart. One way or another, that’s probably what DFW himself intended it to be like, I think I’ve mentioned that in the earlier post.

Its structural dimension is a completely different thing. How does this sincerity, hope and wholesomeness go together with the obvious, obsessional effect connected with continuous rereading and drawing different theories and interpretations? Answers are not given directly? Answers are not given at all, and all we have is the world in all its fucked-up-ness and its interpretations? Man what’s your story?

Or maybe it’s not about any answers at all. As I’ve read, DFW once said to Franzen that “the story can’t fully be made sense of.” That kinda makes sense. The world can’t fully be made sense of and that’s okay, because subsequent stories and retellings are what makes it all go round. As DeLillo beautifully (as always) put it,

[o]ne of his recent stories ends in the finality of this half sentence: Not another word. But there is always another word. There is always another reader to regenerate these words. The words won’t stop coming. Youth and loss. This is Dave’s voice, American.

I’ll Tell You About Another Novel That’s Even More Strange…

cosmos gombroSome time ago I had the chance to see an excellent theatrical adaptation of Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz and so I’ve decided to scribble a few words about the novel by – undoubtedly – my favorite Polish writer of all time.

Gombrowicz’s style is hysterical. It’s dynamic, fast-paced, full of linguistic quirks and rich in philosophical themes. His characters are usually set in situations which make them consider their identities in relation with the surrounding world (society, culture, etc.) what was inspired by author’s own experiences.

Cosmos is his last novel and, I think, his most interesting one. A story about Witold and his friend Fuks who stay in a guesthouse in Zakopane is a surreal, postmodern and multi-dimensional tale about language, perception and – as always in case of Gombrowicz’s works – concealed perversion. To be honest, I don’t know why I’m forcing those crime story patterns everywhere but in case of Cosmos we have a very specific pattern of such kind, where both of the mentioned characters start to notice how different elements of their surroundings seem to have an unclear meaning which they try to uncover. Quite early we can infer that it’s not so easy, if not impossible:

I don’t know how to tell this . . . this story . . . because I’m telling it ex post. The arrow, for instance . . . The arrow, for instance . . . The arrow, at that time, at supper, was no more important than Leon’s chess, or the newspaper, or tea, everything—equally important, everything—was contributing to a given moment, a kind of consonance, the buzzing of a swarm. But today, ex post, I know it was the arrow that was the most important, so in telling this I move it to the forefront, from a myriad of undifferentiated facts I extract the configuration of the future. But how can one describe something except ex post? Can nothing be ever truly expressed, rendered in its anonymous becoming, can no one ever render the babbling of the nascent moment, how is it that, born out of chaos, we can never encounter it again, no sooner do we look than order . . . and form . . . are born under our very eyes?

A great deal of the plot is dedicated to those reflections about our understanding of reality, the way we give meaning to its elements and what relations there are between time, space, external objects, our imagination etc. There’s a lot to say about how it can be viewed from the perspective of ontology, individuality, relativism, philosophy of Heidegger, Husserl and so on, but I’m not here to write academic analyzes.

What I love about the novel as well as the entirety of Gombrowicz’s writings are those attempts to make a sense out of the surrounding world what is juxtaposed with an overwhelming absurd of it all. Since I’ve read Ferdydurke in high school I’ve been drawn to such theme quite strongly in literature – and not only. I cannot really imagine its full character without the way how Gombrowicz plays with Polish language and creates a very original style, however it doesn’t mean that nobody else cannot appreciate it in other languages. Translation of Cosmos by Danuta Borchardt (published in 2005 by Yale University Press) is excellent and though I’ve read only fragments by far, I can recommend it without any doubts.

The Importance of Pynchon

cryingoflot49As I’m practically finished with my MA thesis, it’s time to sum up what I’ve learned from that experience. Although beside Pynchon I wrote about DeLillo, the latter will be also the subject of my PhD dissertation and most probably I’ll be writing here more often about his works.

Studying science is not easy. Studying science and applying that to literary analysis is a real pain in the ass. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, the relationship between science and literature is not only concerned with science fiction (which sometimes has practically nothing to do with scientific concepts at all) or just some superficial metaphors and concrete representations through the elements of plot. A more or less in-depth understanding is obligatory in the study of the scientific background of a literary work; it’s rather obvious that in interdisciplinary approaches an understanding of a particular discipline is needed, but it’s far more easier to get a grasp of existentialism in the study of Dostoevsky than of quantum physics in Andrew Crumey’s works.

Pynchon’s entropic inspirations came from reading Henry Adams’ and Norbert Wiener’s writings. The first was a historian, who proposed a “theory of history” based on the second law of thermodynamics, whereas the latter was a scientist, who, beside creating the discipline of cybernetics, wrote about his reflections on our civilization and how it can be analyzed from the perspective of entropy known from physics and information theory.

Entropy is a very interesting concept which can be useful in analyzing the world around us; globalization, the development of mass media like internet, etc. In The Crying of Lot 49, however, Pynchon didn’t limit himself to writing only about various closed systems evolving into a state of disarray/dispersion.

The world of the novel is ruled by the forces of order and chaos, represented by different constituents, like Yoyodyne corporation or Tristero. The key to its interpretation is to abandon a stereotypical assumption that order = good and chaos = evil. On the one hand, Pynchon’s point concerns the fact that order may lead to some really bad shit, like fascism and stuff, and chaos may counterbalance this. However, it’s not simply the case of inverting some dichotomy. The most important thing is that order and chaos are complementing each other and this is pretty much what makes the world go round. If one force is temporarily breaking through the balance, destruction happens.

Such attitude towards order and chaos changed in Pynchon’s later works, like Gravity’s Rainbow, where extreme order is always pretty much evil and chaos is the winning superhero; or at least that’s what I’ve been taught, I haven’t had much time yet to delve into GR to such extent.

One way or another, Pynchon is an another author who taught me the importance of looking at world as a system, or even a system of systems (of systems of systems…). By faithfully sticking to simple binary oppositions, we are doomed to fail in this game. It’s not easy to be always aware of how complex our reality is (represented, i.a., by science) but by trying to, we move a little bit closer to the unattainable ideal of “truth,” whatever that would be.

So I’ve Read Atlas Shrugged and I Kinda Like It, I Guess

atlas-shruggedThere are different kinds of ideology in literary works. There’s the obviously evil, straightforward and widely acknowledged one, like in Mein Kampf; there’s the concealed one, but pretty easy to uncover, like in classical fairy tales (for a reference, think Angela Carter); there’s the complicated one, or a certain system of ideologies manipulated by the author himself, like in Pynchon’s early works (think order and chaos). And there’s Atlas Shrugged.

It’s dripping with ideology. From the beginning to the very last sentence (dollar sign as the new cross, seriously) it’s a wild trip across fluctuating, but nevertheless strikingly high levels of ideology. The novel exercises it to all the possible extents, even if that means spending around one hundred pages on just lecturing the reader about its philosophical system.

I’ve read many novels with such unabashedly ideological background but still, I feel that Atlas Shrugged is special in a way. Maybe it’s constructed in such a way as to guide an unsuspecting and innocent reader through a world of fast-panned action build on themes from various popular genres to successfully plant in him a seed of thought which will grow into a full commitment to its ideology. Maybe it’s the scope of that ideological commitment which makes it special. As Gore Vidal said, “nearly perfect in it’s immorality”, the book and its philosophy takes rebelling to a completely different level, and it rebels blindly, fully, in a manner of a stereotypical teenager with a slightly longer attention span (writing a one thousand page long novel is not an easy task, even if you take a lot of Benzedrine). Maybe it’s because I’m sick and my liberal tendencies are trying to fully subdue me. Maybe it’s Maybelline.

Or maybe it’s because I like trains? (I mean, seriously, like in a Sheldon-Cooper-ish way) So it was kinda cool to read about the construction of railway and stuff.

One way or another, I think it’s important to learn how to approach, deconstruct and try to look behind ideology so one may find some interesting things about themselves. And in that next Facebook feud with ancaps you’ll always have some concrete arguments against their beloved idols, so nothing goes down the drain.

Why You Should Stop Hating on Books

IMAG0751The New York Times Sunday Review published an article by Pamela Paul titled “Why You Should Read Books You Hate.” Paul argues that trying to force yourself to get through a piece of literature you despise may actually be beneficial for you, as it can enrich and develop your own opinions and stances:

As debaters know, sometimes you figure out your position only in opposition. All it takes is for me to read a book by Howard Zinn or Paul Johnson, each gleefully hate-worthy in its own polarizing way, to locate my own interpretation of history. This is what’s so invigorating about hate-reading. To actively grapple with your assumptions and defend your conclusions gives you a sense of purpose. You come to know where you stand, even if that means standing apart.

Though I do agree with the text’s main idea, it has some striking fallacies which I’d like to discuss. For someone who works in literary studies, it’s obvious that reading is bound with a precise analysis to achieve a deep understanding of a text’s context, ideology, misconceptions; its problems in general. Although such “professional reading” must be objective, I believe that reading for your own pleasure can benefit greatly from adopting a similar perspective. What I find problematic in Paul’s article is her insistence on the word “hate.” She doesn’t abandon that rhetoric to the end of the text, and in the penultimate paragraph she even writes, “[y]et hate reading can actually bring readers together.”

I mean, seriously? What’s the point in holding on to such hostility? At one point Paul seems to agree that reading should be more about challenging your worldview but then it all goes down to assuring yourself in your beliefs. Behind every, even the most problematic and loathed piece of literature there’s a system of contextual and ideological aspects which contributed to such outlook. Reading such works should not result in maintaining our hostility towards them but it should allow us to understand why it made us feel that way and what conclusions can we draw from it.

All I’m saying is; less hate, more understanding. Studying literature is a great tool for making our society a little bit more humane and enlightened.

Paul mentioned reading Ayn Rand as an example; it happens that recently I’ve read Atlas Shrugged and there’s a lot I’d like to say about it. I guess it’s a topic for an another post which will probably appear here in the nearest future.