Those who have been following (or playing) along since this blog started up as a splinter of Infinite Summer will no doubt remember another splinter blog, Infinite Tasks. Its author (Jeff) was at times eerily on the mark when writing about his first read of Infinite Jest, and I’ve looked forward to his return to lit blogging since the end of that inaugural summer project. At last he’s back, this time leading a summer read of his own. See his announcement below.
What is this summer’s most radical online project? Insurgent Summer is an online book reading and cooperative blog discussion of Fredy Perlman’s 1976 book Letters of Insurgents. This is a 800+ page book of fictional letters between two Eastern European workers, Yarostan Vochek and Sophia Nachalo, separated by twenty-five years and two continents. As they reconnect through an exchange of letters, we learn about the battles they have fought – physical, political, emotional, and moral – and eventually the ones they have left to fight.
Your reading of Letters will begin on June 11, 2010, with the first of the ten exchanges between Yarostan and Sophia. Each week, three “Guides” (DeAnna, Artnoose, and Andrej) will post discussion pieces, reflections and analysis, preparing the terrain for an engaging discussion to which everyone is invited! We will conclude on August 20, in honor of Fredy Perlman’s birthday!
Though copies of the book are limited, we are happy announce that we have both audio and full-text downloads of Letters of Insurgents available. Insurgent Summer is an opportunity to read one of the most important books of anarchist fiction and morality of all time. Please visit http://insurgentsummer.org/ for more information, and let us know that you’re going to participate!
It’s sure to be an enlightening and fulfilling group read. In fact, I have only two reservations about suggesting that you sign right up. Of course, there’s some overlap with the last half of Moby-Dick, so by advertising this, I’m inviting defection. But I think (hope) people are finding Melville’s book not to be the slog they expected it to be. And if you’re not more or less committed to Moby-Dick by the midpoint, you’re a defection candidate anyway, and I can think of no better endpoint for your defection than Jeff’s reading project. The second reservation pertains to the next Infinite Zombies read, which I’ve been planning but had not announced officially. That read will be Ulysses, starting around July 12, right in the middle (not by design) of Insurgent Summer. I don’t think I have the wherewithal to read both at once, but Jeff says he plans to. Maybe you can too! At any rate, one way or the other, you can go ahead make firm plans to dig into something heavier than Cosmo as we wrap up Moby-Dick.
Of Katherine Hepburn’s death, Zadie Smith wrote the following:
Two days ago she died, aged ninety-six. I don’t know why I should be surprised, but I was, and when I found out, I wept, and felt ridiculous for weeping. How can someone you have never met make you cry?
I’m not the first to express a similar sentiment about the death of David Foster Wallace. There’s a crucial difference, however. His death, for those of us well outside of his intimate circle, was a very big surprise indeed. Still — Smith gets this part just right — to have felt so ragged after his death felt strange. I felt somehow orphaned.
Intimacy is concentric, and fortunately for those of us stuck in orbit on the outer rings surrounding the bright light that was David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky was admitted to a nearer circle during the final week of the book tour for Infinite Jest. Or, I should say, he was admitted to one slightly more interior circle and seems to have worked his way yet closer. And he recorded it all.
Just out from Broadway Books, Lipsky’s chronicling of a handful of days on the road with Dave (I’m going to call him Dave sometimes from here on out, because it makes me feel better and because the book made me think of him as Dave) might have been a savage, painful read. I expected as much, imagining myself with a box of tissue in a dimly lit room trying once again to work out how a guy like Dave could be gone and what the ramifications of that were for a know-nothing yutz of a no-talent hack like me.
With one minor exception in part of the afterword, Lipsky has avoided the maudlin, and instead of finding myself wallowing in the book and the sadness that attends the realization that its subject is no longer with us, I found it invigorating and validating and playful and fun and mostly delightful.
Lipsky gives us something of a soft landing in the preface, which provides just a teensy bit of background information before setting us gently on our way. The afterword he places curiously before the main body of the text, but even this turns out to be a considerate gesture, for Lipsky wants to leave us with the words of the living Wallace rather than sending us home from the journey with a meditation on his death. Read the afterword when you will, Lipsky advises us, at some break of your own choosing within the text.
I, being sort of rigidly conformist in some ways, chose to read the afterword last, and even that turned out to be an ok decision. For though there was that one crushing moment in the middle of the afterword, Lipsky leaves us with two wonderful things. First, he has given us a picture of Dave as a real live human being (with flaws, yes, but with many personalizing charms as well), which sister Amy had written that she hoped might happen. And second, looking back to a conversation about books as a way of seeking refuge from loneliness, Lipsky closes by saying this lovely thing about his road trip with Dave: “I’d tell him it reminded me of what life was like, instead of being a relief from it, and I’d say it made me feel much less lonely to read.”
This sort of escape from the loneliness of the inner self was, of course, one of Wallace’s projects. Late in the road trip, Dave says, of the particular edge good fiction has over other art forms:
And the big thing, the big thing seems to be, sort of leapin’ over that wall of self, and portraying inner experience. And setting up, I think, a kind of intimate conversation between two consciences.
I am in here.
I’ve listened to many interviews and readings Dave gave, and so I have something of an idea of what he must have been like to listen to. Yet in interviews and readings, people tend to speak in different registers than in everyday life. (I’m reminded of the distinction Dave makes in the grammar essay between time and place for saying “that ursine juggernaut bethought himself to sup upon my person” and “goddamn bear!”) One of the great pleasures of Lipsky’s book for me was his emphasis on Dave’s midwesternisms. They reminded me always that Dave was, mostly (especially after the first day or so of the trip), just a guy having a conversation. Taken in hand with the audio I had previously heard of Dave, they made Lipsky’s transcription seem real and alive. I felt as if I could hear Dave himself speaking the words. It was kind of Lipsky to have emphasized this for us.
Some have complained that Lipsky himself was too present in the text, that he peeks in with a too-high frequency with brief bracketed interpolations. I found the interjections helpful and well-meaning where others have found them self-serving and annoying.
The deeper into the book I got, the more pages I dog-eared, so that by the end, I figured I might as well just enlist the help of a strong friend and fold the corner of the whole book down on itself. The two men talk about movies, parties, fame, loneliness, the genesis of Infinite Jest, and much more, and it’s all riveting.
Lipsky’s book is a real gift. He brings us maybe one concentric ring closer to a sort of intimacy with Wallace, who sought in his work to learn how to leap over (and outward from) the walls of the self in which he was (we are) imprisoned. While Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself can’t help but remind us of Wallace’s death, it is most concerned with a pivotal point in his life, and it was — contra my fears — a real joy to read. Gaudeamus igitur.
When I wrote about vampirism in 2666 about a month ago, I had forgotten entirely the events that take place at Castle Dracula in this week’s swath of reading. Or maybe there was some little synapse way back in the recesses of my brain that remembered, but it sure wasn’t something I had in my conscious memory. But sure enough, Hans Reiter gets shipped off this week to a strange assignment at Castle Dracula that culminates in let’s just say really impressive and ultimately at least slightly disturbing (or is it just humorous?) coitus complete with blood and chanting.
So why all the vampirism? And why this specific strange interlude, with its dream of cannibalism, at the castle of Dracula himself? In the comments on that older post of mine, it’s demonstrated readily enough that vampirism lines up rather nicely with the consumption of others, parasitism, etc., that’s so pervasive in the part about the crimes. It would be simple enough to allow that the Dracula interlude is just a solidification of the conceit.
But I think there’s more to it. Those who read along when we did Dracula this past October may remember that the author of that classic if really sort of disappointing text was Irish and that there are plenty of bits of the text that can be reasonably said to comment on the landlord debacle that Ireland is known for (I wrote about it briefly here). At the heart of that debacle was the misuse of poor people on the margins — outside of society, to use Kessler’s phrasing — by those within society. It kind of sounds familiar within our context, doesn’t it?
Further, consider how Bolaño lingers on the story of Benito Juarez earlier in the novel (I believe it’s in the section in which we first meet La Santa, and I assume that the city of Juarez, after which Santa Teresa is modeled, is named after this former Mexican president). During Juarez’s terms as president, Mexico was the subject of invasions by the U.S. and by France. Both nations had loaned money to Mexico for economical and political reasons, and both fought for influence in the country. Compare this to the history of Ireland, whose landlord problem arose as a result of England’s play to control Ireland for political reasons (it was a buffer from invasions by Spain and France). So yet again, we see pointers in Bolaño’s book to parallels with Irish history that happen also to be addressed, if obliquely, in Stoker’s book.
And then finally, at the end of this week’s section, we see the strange courtship of Reiter and Ingeborg in which we learn of her fascination with the human-sacrificing Aztecs and Reiter’s oath sworn by the Aztecs. Bolaño here is tying World War II and, by not very lengthy extension, the human sacrifice of the holocaust, back to the Mexico in which the heart of his story is centered. That one of Ireland’s most well-known writers couched the landlord matter in terms of cannibalism hardly seems tangential.
Someone who has a better head for history than I do may be able to provide additional color or nuance, but I definitely have the sense that Bolaño is using the vampirism in the story, and Dracula in particular, to tie together some of the threads he’s been unwinding pertaining to insiders and outsiders, parasitism and consumption of people, and a sort of larger parasitism of nations.
Really, my first thought was, what does this Chilean author, who has been masterful with southern Arizona and northern Mexico (what I know of them, anyway), know about aging Black Panthers in Detroit? Yes, some people, particularly those in political and social movements, are caricatures. But seriously?
One of my great flaws as a reader is that I’m over-credulous. I’m too ready to take what the narrator says at face value, and I’m too slow to make judgments of characters. Maybe I lack an innate radar that some have for deciding whether a character is likable or true. At some point during college, I figured out that you couldn’t always trust the narrator or accept a straightforward reading of a character, and I began reminding myself that I had to really think and ask myself whether or not I thought I was intended to like a character. Sometimes when a character is a rascal, you’re not supposed to like him; other times you are. I bring all of this baggage to my reading of 2666. So I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it hadn’t occurred to me that Seaman was a caricature (though in retrospect I suppose it’s obvious; can’t you just imagine Dave Chapelle with a powdered head mugging and talking about poke chops in a grotesque, almost Uncle Remus-like impersonation of this character?).
Upon reading @naptimewriting’s post, I thought of another line that follows shortly after Seaman’s lecture. Having leafed through the volume of The Slave Trade that Antonio Jones had given him and realizing that the author was white, Fate reflects on the reaction to his story about Jones:
To most of his colleagues, Fate noted, the story was little more than a venture into the African-American picturesque. A loony preacher, a loony ex-jazz musician, the loony last member of the Brooklyn Communist Party (Fourth International). Sociological curiosities.
It occurs to me that our critics from the first part of the book are caricatures of a sort as well, providing a glimpse of the academic picturesque. Still, while someone on the fringes of academia can provide this latter glimpse reasonably enough (and nobody complained that Bolaño was off key in part 1), it does seem, as @naptimewriting points out, that Bolaño may be a bit out of his element in trying to portray an aging Black Panther.
But is it possible that he’s doing it for effect, that Seaman is a caricature not because Bolaño happens to be writing about something he shouldn’t and so hits the highlights with none of the nuance but precisely because Bolaño means to be writing about something he shouldn’t? Maybe, that is, he’s missing the note on purpose, with the aim of saying something about the untrustworthiness of writing. He meditates on this later, saying “society tended to filter death through the fabric of words… Everything was passed through the filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear.”
Words can’t necessarily be trusted, and the story you get about a character or event can’t necessarily be trusted. What Fate’s colleagues recognize as something of a caricature, his readers receive well enough that he’s hired on as a staff writer. What you’ve read about Mexico, what you’ve heard about coyotes and crummy conditions and squalor across the border may not be trustworthy. What you may have read in bits and pieces about the St. Teresa (née Cuidad Juarez) murders probably isn’t right, certainly isn’t enough; if filters out too much of the horror. Here’s a portrayal of an aging Black Panther reduced to a doddering old man passing out conventional wisdom and recipes, with all the fear and grit of his life filtered out. Coming up next, I can imagine Bolaño thinking, is a more trustworthy account of the set of horrors central to the book, with a much different, much more permissive, filter.
I just put down Barth’s Chimera and found it, as my too-clever title suggests, kind of meh. At times, it’s delightfully irreverent (Barth likes a good dick joke; or a bad one; really, any dick joke will do) and really funny. At other times, it’s just kind of dull or labored or, well, too clever. It falls into the category of books that I didn’t enjoy a whole lot or find earth-shattering but that I’m ultimately glad I read. If it had been much longer, I might have put it down. There’s more Barth I want to read, but I think I’ll give him a rest for now. I read The Sot-Weed Factor and the early novellas earlier this year.
After starting Chimera, I was given former Mets pitcher Ron Darling’s book The Complete Game, and I took a mid-book break from Barth to read it. Great literature it wasn’t, but I enjoyed it. Darling recounts a dozen or so innings from his career, giving insight into what’s going on in a pitcher’s mind (or his, at least) during/before/after various game situations. It was a pretty fun read, though I wish he had generalized some of the information a little more. I had hoped to learn more about pitching strategies at large from the book and didn’t pick up a whole lot in that way. The book turns out to be something of a downer, but it’s good reading nevertheless for the baseball fan who’s interested in a twist on standard sports biography.
What’s up next I haven’t decided yet. I think I’m going to cleanse the old palate with a reread of Gaddis’s brief Agape Agape, which I did a pretty crummy job of reading a few years ago. After that, I’m debating rereading either Gaddis’s The Recognitions (I’d really prefer to reread JR, but I’ve been through it a few times and sort of nodded through parts of The Recognitions during my only time reading it) or rereading Moby Dick, an old favorite that I haven’t touched in probably six years. Or maybe I’ll find something new. I’d like to read more McCarthy, and — I’ll be honest — Infinite Jest is already calling out to me again.
The New Yorker this week published online an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King that has stirred quite a bit of discussion on the wallace-l mailing list, most of it centering, as the fragment does, on religious feeling. As an atheist myself, I have a tendency to think/wish/hope that smart people I admire are also atheists. It’s strange, I know, but why not hope for an extension of affinities into that area of thought and feeling? Although I don’t feel as if I really need (as in emotionally need) external validation of my position, it’s still neat to share a viewpoint with people you admire. It’s not really clear what Wallace’s beliefs with respect to religion were, though. We know from various sources that he went to church but wasn’t raised religious. He certainly seemed, in Infinite Jest, to acknowledge that there was value in recognizing a higher power. Yet he wasn’t the evangelical sort by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s pretty easy, from where I sit, to imagine that he valued the cultural and communal bits of religion while relying more on secular thought for his personal ethics. We’ll probably never know exactly where he stood in real life. In the new fragment, entitled “All That,” he seems to be pretty open to religion and to a sort of spiritualism.
Here I’ll begin to talk about the story, so if you haven’t read it yet and are anti-spoiler, you might want to mosey on along.
The narrator gives accounts of two events in his life that were instrumental in helping him form a religious sensibility. The first, in which his parents convinced him that a toy truck was endowed with a sort of magic, speaks (I think) to the idea of faith and how the not knowing via evidence that what you have faith in is true is a part of what makes it special. How sad it would be, he suggests, to actually trap the tooth fairy. And, by extension, how disappointing it would be, I suppose, to finally find empirical evidence of God. A belief system constructed around the idea of faith becomes meaningless when faith is no longer a necessity. Magic tricks aren’t as fun to watch once you know how they’re done. Faith, which people like me see as a flaw of religion, may in fact be one of the points and joys of religion.
The second formative event centers on the narrator’s recollection of a movie’s plot and how it differs from his father’s recollection. The difference has less to do with faith than with actions. I guess it has something of love thy neighbor in it. More on that in a moment.
At the heart of both episodes is a sort of duality. The narrator says the following about differing perceptions:
Possibly, though, another cause for the sadness was that I realized, on some level, that my parents, when they watched me trying to devise schemes for observing the drum’s rotation, were wholly wrong about what they were seeing—that the world they saw and suffered over was wholly different from the childhood world in which I existed.
Later, we have the father and son’s vastly different recollections of the movie. And within the movie itself, we’re told of a prevailing sentiment and a sentiment (on the part of the narrator within the movie) at odds with it. In all cases, given the same objective inputs, opposite subjective conclusions are reached. There’s a failure to align perceptions.
Interestingly, our narrator hears voices as a child whose speakers do inhabit the same space he does. Their perceptions agree with his in a way that, he figures, biological adults’ perceptions can’t, and the voices are a source of real fits of ecstasy (as in rolling on the floor, capital-E Ecstasy) on the boy’s part. Of that ecstasy, we learn the following:
[M]y father (who clearly “enjoyed” me and my eccentricities) once laughingly told my mother that he thought I might suffer from a type of benign psychosis called “antiparanoia,” in which I seemed to believe that I was the object of an intricate universal conspiracy to make me so happy I could hardly stand it.
I suppose there are certain resonances of this fragment with parts of Infinite Jest. There’s the infantilization of rolling around on the floor, being stroked lovingly by his mother, being more or less cradled in the father’s lap, and of course this idea of being the center of a happiness conspiracy. But the first of Wallace’s works that sprang to mind when I read the fragment was “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from it All” (the state fair essay), in which Wallace writes the following:
One of the few things I still miss from my Midwest childhood was this weird, deluded but unshakable conviction that everything around me existed all and only For Me. Am I the only one who had this queer deep sense as a kid? — that everything exterior to me existed only insofar as it affected me somehow? — that all things were somehow, via some occult adult activity, specially arranged for my benefit? Does anybody else identify with this memory? The child leaves a room, and now everything in that room, once he’s no longer there to see it, melts away into some void of potential or else (my personal childhood theory) is trundled away by occult adults and stored until the child’s reentry into the room recalls it all back into animate service. Was this nuts? It was radically self-centered, of course, this conviction, and more than a little paranoid. Plus the responsibility it conferred: if the whole of the world dissolved and resolved each time I blinked, what if my eyes didn’t open?
Maybe what I really miss now is the fact that a child’s radical delusive self-centeredness doesn’t cause him conflict or pain. His is the sort of regally innocent solipsism of like Bishop Berkeley’s God: all things are nothing until his sight calls them forth from the void: his stimulation is the world’s very being. And this is maybe why a little kid so fears the dark: it’s not the possible presence of unseen fanged things in the dark, but rather the actual absence of everything his blindness has now erased. For me, at least, pace my folks’ indulgent smiles, this was my true reason for needing a nightlight: it kept the world turning.
Back to the story at hand, we begin with the narrator making discoveries about faith and about his own agency. But there’s a sort of inversion from what Wallace writes about in the essay excerpted above: the world (or the cement mixer’s drum) revolves (he believes) only when the boy isn’t looking at it vs. the world existing only when Wallace, as a child, was looking at it.
In the essay, Wallace writes specifically of solipsism, of being trapped more or less within yourself. I am in here. In the fragment, I think he’s writing about getting outside yourself. It’s not that the world stops when you close your eyes to it but that no matter how hard you try, you can’t really see or understand certain forces external to your direct experience. So a certain amount or sort of faith becomes useful. Wallace first gives us something of a thought experiment with the toy cement mixer, but in the movie scenario, he gives us a more complex situation to ponder. The conflict in that scenario is whether it’s nobler to protect your own or to protect others from your own. It’s a very complex question within context, for you have to consider the broader war itself, the particular roles of the participants in question within that context, the particular moods of and recent influences on all participants, and so on. But if we’re a little more reductive about it, I think we can boil the scenario down a bit and understand it as a consideration of the other vs. the self (another duality), with Wallace suggesting that reaching out to protect the other — getting outside your self — may sometimes be the nobler path.
The narrator views the movie’s lieutenant’s last noble act (as the narrator remembers it, that is) with a sort of ecstasy that calls to mind the ecstasy he felt as a younger child when listening to the voices in his head. But this ecstasy is the result of external forces rather than of internal agreeable voices and so shows a sort of development outward from in here.
There’s a lot I’m still trying to unpack about this fragment, and I’m not at all satisfied with what I’ve written above as an interpretive essay. There’s some big connection I feel like I’m missing. But it’s a start.
A couple of other things have come up on the list. For example, why did the narrator’s parents screw with him with the whole magic thing, especially if they’re devout atheists who you wouldn’t think would want to promote superstition? I think the simple answer is that sometimes parents just say silly things because it’s fun to joke around. Every morning that I drive my daughter and a neighbor to kindergarten, I ask if I should speed up and jump the railroad tracks (it’s a big hump and would cause a lot of damage to my vehicle if I jumped it). When they scream gleefully that I should, I slap my thigh and lament that I thought of it too late, that there’s simply not enough runway to get adequate speed. Remind me tomorrow, I tell them. Ever since my children were old enough to understand and respond to language, I’ve presented them with goofy scenarios and waited for them to correct me. Parents just do this sort of thing. In the fragment, it does seem that the parents play an active role in perpetuating the magical thinking, but the germination of the thing doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. And sometimes you just want your kids to work things out for themselves. We do the whole Santa thing, but when my kids start thinking critically about it and questioning the stories, we’ll encourage it obliquely so that they arrive at appropriate conclusions without being force fed the truth.I can’t help thinking that Wallace is saying something else about faith here. There’s plenty of magical thinking involved in faith. You can never really know for sure that God’s there behind the scenes making stuff happen, and maybe the harder you look, the more likely you are to determine that God’s not really there — that the drum isn’t spinning after all. If we think of it this way, then the parents almost become God surrogates, providing information about the truck (or about reality) but requiring that the child work out on his own whatever his beliefs about the truck are. The narrator doesn’t understand why his parents have made a puzzle of this for him any more than people understand why God isn’t more obvious about his existence and plan, and yet the fact that it’s a puzzle has turned out to be valuable to the narrator. Faith, as I suggested above, may be one of the joys of religion.
Another issue that came up on the list was the narrator’s statements that he wasn’t very articulate and the fact that he is actually pretty articulate. Whether it points to insecurity or to false modesty or to real modesty I’m not sure. It certainly seems like one of those framing or narrative tricks that Wallace has used before to remind us that what we’re reading is mediated.
Not discussed as yet on wallace-l is the Catholicism present in the story. It’s minor, but the boy mentions going to Mass with neighbors. Given my last paragraph, I’m having trouble not saying something about the mediation inherent in that religion, though I don’t think Wallace is really doing anything with that here. But the ecstasy, in association with the presence of Catholicism, calls to mind the various references to The Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Infinite Jest, and I wonder if more couldn’t be mined out of this material. In the gruesome ecstasy scene in IJ, there’s actually quite a bit more Catholic subtext than is apparent to a recent or non-Catholic (do a little research on the titles of the magazines named in the scene, if you’re curious), and that makes me all the more curious about the reference to Catholicism in this fragment.
I haven’t written in a while and thought I’d check in. I read Dracula along with everybody else but didn’t blog a whole lot of it. Everybody I was reading (admittedly not so many people) seemed to undertake it kind of half-heartedly. Here’s hoping that the upcoming read of 2666 will have a bit more life. I secretly suspect that it takes a book as full of heart and truth and pain and sadness of the sort most of us can identify with on some level to provoke the sort of reaction the initial installment of Infinite Summer did. Guess we’ll see whether or not 2666 is such a book. I predict that it’ll provoke a lot more discussion than Dracula did but that it’ll lack the sort of emotional intensity that Infinite Jest had for many. I read 2666 shortly after it was released in English and so don’t anticipate taking it on again so soon, though I may lob the occasional comment out there (precisely what I said about the Infinite Jest read, by the way). After reading 2666, I got The Savage Detectives, which I had heard was even better, but I put it down 200 pages from the end, after suffering through lots of repetition and boredom. I haven’t reshelved it altogether just yet, but I think it’ll be a while before I pick it back up. In the lead-up to 2666, I sort of hope to hear some people chime in about Bolano’s other work.
Speaking of which, he’s got some fragments in this month’s Harper’s from an upcoming book, Antwerp, and had a few poems in Poetry in November 2008. If you want Bolano online, Matt Bucher, of wallace-l fame and publisher of Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity, maintains a Bolano blog and the very low volume bolano-l mailing list.
On November 20, I went to New York to attend the Footnotes conference on new directions in David Foster Wallace’s work. It was very cool, and I wish I hadn’t been so tired from travel that I literally nodded my way through a bunch of very interesting papers. I met Infinite Summer bloggers Ray Gunn, Pete Mandik, and @naptimewriting, along with Matt Bucher and Nick Maniatis, who made guest appearances at the Infinite Summer mothership. Here’s hoping more of these conferences spring up (and ones a little closer to home for me).
I read Pynchon’s Vineland in the last few weeks. Loved it at first but got distracted and loved it less as it went on. It wasn’t terribly hard, and it felt like Pynchon, but I didn’t think they payoff was that great. Since it wasn’t terribly hard or long, I don’t regret the time I spent on it. Last night, I started reading Barth’s Chimera, and it’s so far delightful. I started Look Homeward Angel a couple of months ago but have put it aside for now. It was pretty engaging, but I’m just not in the mood. What’re you reading? Will you be doing 2666? If so, do you want to write here? Current zombies, please speak up, so that I can include you among any potential bloggers and not overpopulate the space.
“…and while Scary is Exciting, Nice is different than Good.”
-Red Riding Hood, from “I Know Things Now,” Into the Woods
And so we end in a warm living room, all gathered together, knocking back rack punch and talking about that freaky time back just after we got married where Mina got totes possessed and we ran all over Eastern Europe chasing a Vampire. Vampire, pleeease.
So is Dracula a Good book? Meh. I think it has probably been more of a Nice book for me … a creepy tale of the supernatural mixed with no small amount of “Law & Order”-like proceduralism to keep the pace going. But for me, all of the compelling bits ended up falling short of their early promise:
Mina as the “New Woman” – why couldn’t her Baptism by Blood have proven to be the small impetus needed to turn her from an apologist for women who wanted more out of Victorian life to a rabid champion for what womanhood could have been. Lucy might have been the hot one, but Mina had all the makings of that kind-of-wierd-but-sort-of-hot girl in your Psych 201 class, with all the threat and promise of the same.
Renfield as the Spurned Apostle – poor most-likely-bipolar Renfield. Never have we seen a more plain case of hero worship/man crush gone horribly wrong. Imagine what his diary might have been like … secreted away under his stool, pages sticky with melted sugar and the cover painstakingly adorned with the pearlescent sheen of a thousand blowfly wings.
Van Helsing as the (Un)witting Impetus — Abraham, with your so halting speech and knowledge of the wampyr that seems almost uncanny in its thoroughness. Surely Stoker must have thought you had a little bit more in you. In your so-strong drive for knowledge, a drive that drove your poor wife Sarah mad with fear and grief, you saw something one night, didn’t you? Peering up over a rock lip onto the unholy convocation of the scholars at Scholomance you witnessed something so thrillingly wrong, so completely, compellingly depraved that the rest of your life would be spent trying to scrub that so-not-of-Gott image from your mind, hoping against hope that you’d fail. Abe, you are a sick little monkey.
Jonathan “I Was Cuckolded by The Undead and All I Got Was this Lousy Head of White Hair” Harker: You never could get those three women out of your minds, could you, Johnny? How could Mina ever be enough after the freaky bloodthrill of getting three-wayed in the Eastern European equivalent of the Bunny Ranch. ANd tell me you didn’t go into explicit detail the minute you and the boys were out of earshot of the women. Dude, you had three undead, bi-curious, possibly related wraith women fighting over who would be your first? How do you not turn that into the best campfire story ever?
Of course, the slash fic possibilities are endless. And maybe in the end, it’s that malleability that makes Dracula a classic. You can hang sex, mystery, nationalism, criminality, class warfare and so many other Big Ideas from the hooks Stoker leaves festooned around the story that Dracula can’t help but be retold and reread time and time again. It brushes up against enough of humanity’s Naughty Bits that it ends up being the perfect framework into which we can all cast our own hopes and fears about Life, Death, Sex, Money, Class and Technology and more and watch what happens.
So is Dracula a good book? Maybe not. But is Dracula the book we need and deserve? Mien Gott, yes.
I am apparently incapable of giving a post a title that is not the title of a famous work by another author. Is there a support group for this?
I found myself thinking tonight about the Irish allegory that my edition of Dracula says lurks under the surface of the story, and all the poorness and starvation and suffering of 19th-century Irish potato farmers, when all of a sudden, The Grapes of Wrath popped into my head. It’s been a long time since I read Steinbeck’s novel, but the gist as I recall it is that farmers during the dust bowl era who couldn’t make a go of it on their own land moved westward and have a horrific time of it, rather like the Irish potato farmers Stoker must have had in mind as he wrote about his blood-sucking absentee landlord type figure.
And then that final dramatic scene of The Grapes of Wrath flashed into the foreground for me. I suppose I’ll be spoiling Steinbeck’s book here for any who haven’t read it, though I’ll try to be a little oblique about it. That final scene is a similar sort of cannibalism to what we see (or will see, I presume) in Dracula and less directly in “A Modest Proposal,” isn’t it? Yet, for all the uproar over its being indecent or pornography or whatever some prudes have made that final scene out to be, it’s the most wholesome sort of parasitism. It’s the free offering of the self rather than a sort of rape; it’s the other side of the coin from what Swift and (I gather) Stoker were writing in opposition to, in which the well-off feed on the poor by force. Steinbeck shows us the poor helping the poorer, and what a triumphant thing that is! How validating of the human spirit at its best when confronting the human condition at its worst.
This makes me think of a post I wrote while reading Infinite Jest in which I noted that Wallace was exposing so much sadness and brokenness for which, I feared, there was perhaps no remedy. I begin to harbor a suspicion that works like Swift’s and Stoker’s may be demonstrative of a problem without providing any sort of real hope or solution. I don’t suppose Steinbeck provided any sort of solution either, but in The Grapes of Wrath, he does offer a glimmer of hope. Perhaps for the next installment of Infinite Summer, we should read something marked by unbridled hope, if only to cleanse the palate for 2666, which has its share and then some of despair.
Not too long before Infinite Summer started up, I ordered books by two authors I figured I was overdue to read. The first was Cormac McCarthy, whose Suttree is set in Knoxville, where I happen to live. I read that one during the last couple of weeks of Infinite Jest (and enjoyed it; will be reading more McCarthy for sure). I hadn’t really known about McCarthy until fairly recently, which fact I suppose I should be a little embarrassed about.
The other author I had known about for a long time. Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel is set in a fictional town based on Asheville, NC, just a hop over the mountains from where I live. Further, Wolfe studied at UNC Chapel Hill, where I happen also to have studied. He’s kind of a big deal around those parts, yet I never managed to read more than one chapter from his signature novel (and that one from deep in the book, excerpted for a Southern literature class), or anything else he wrote. I always meant to but just never was in the frame of mind for what I figured would be a coming-of-age type novel set in a South I had grown up in and found uninteresting and perhaps unworthy of reading about.
As I get older, a sense of place, and more specifically of my own place — the place where my people are from — is more and more important to me, and I suddenly find myself yearning to read about the places I once took to be prosaic and probably a little backward. And so, having gotten a taste of Knoxville in McCarthy’s novel, I’ve now moved eastward and back in time (on both the literary calendar and the calendar of my own geographical migration) to Asheville, where I’ll read about the angel Wolfe borrowed from Milton (a particular interest of mine while studying yet farther east in Chapel Hill) at the same time I’m reading about the demons we’re all being treated to this Halloween month courtesy of Bram Stoker.
What else are you reading alongside Dracula?