novels

Tough Questions: If You Had to Do Something Every Day for a Year that You Don’t Already Do, What Would You Pick?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

If You Had to Do Something Every Day for a Year that You Don’t Already Do, What Would You Pick?

Rules are simple: When are you gonna finally shape up? This tough question forces you to collect your aspirations and put them into one actionable damn thing. What would you fix about the crumbling house that is your life, if you had to pick one daily thing? Would you do good deeds? Or would you at least stop doing evil ones as often? Look, it’s rough out there. You don’t know my life.

Alex Russell

Pete Holmes (comedian, TV host, and fictional advertizing baby) often talks about the idea that to create an hour of stand up you only need to write a minute a day. It’s an easy idea, but we’re all terrible at compartmentalizing ourselves. We don’t think in chunks; we think in finish lines. I would want to write one joke every day. I’m a weird obsessive about stand up comedy and I liked the (VERY, VERY) brief experiences I had trying to sell my own bullshit on a microphone. A kick in the ass every day to do some more would do me some good and a lot of audiences a whole lotta bad.

Jonathan May

Since there’s no way I’m going to start doing CrossFit or yoga on the regular, I’m going to have to go with prank-calling people from the payphone in the mall. The calls will be short, so I really just need a little spare change every day. Now you may say, “Jon, the mall isn’t open every day,” and you would be right. So on days following holidays, I would make up the calls I’d missed. Heading into my thirties, it seems like I should pick something more sensible like doing crunches or household chores, but honestly, this will be much better for the soul.

Andrew Findlay

I would go to bed by 10:30 every weeknight. This is just the lamest personal goal ever, but six hours versus eight hours of sleep makes a huge difference in overall levels of happiness and effectiveness in life. The problem is, I never, ever recognize that at 10:3011:30, or 12:30. It always seems like reading a little bit more, watching some television, or wasting time on the internet will make my life better, then I wake up very sad in the morning. Seeing as how the phrasing of the question is if you had to, this unfortunate pattern probably won’t change anytime soon.

Austin Duck

If there was something I could commit to for a year but haven’t yet, it’d definitely be doing something every day that I’m proud of. I spend so much time making stupid fucking mistakes, but if I could exercise, read, and write every day (if I had the fucking willpower), I’d love to commit to it. 

Brent Hopkins

The one thing I would commit to would be some flavor of art. As a kid I always wanted to learn an instrument but after failing repeatedly I completely gave it up and it has been a chip on my shoulder for years. With the time to do it every day, I think I could will myself to stop being awful and at least learn something simple to play like the recorder or ukulele. That being said, I am also terrible at general art, so I wouldn’t mind learning to draw or learning to paint either. I like solo relaxing activities so these would meld best with my personality.

Mike Hannemann

The easy answer here is exercise. But if I went with the easy answer, this wouldn’t be a tough question.  I would probably commit to reading War & Peace, every day, for 30 minutes. Being able to claim that I have read that monstrous tome has been on my bucket list for years. However, when a book has over 130 characters and you’re used to consuming media with a character called “The Ice King,” this can be extremely daunting. At the end of the day, doing this every day for a year may not get me to the end of the seventh longest novel ever written, but maybe I’d be able to tell who at least four of the characters are. That’s something I can’t boast about the recent season of The Walking Dead.

Scott Phillips

I read every single day. No, I’m not talking about Twitter and Facebook and other internet material, I’m talking biographies and a lot of nonfiction books. As a career sports writer, I tend to be fascinated by nonfiction writing because I want to mold my writing to emulate some of my favorite authors that have followed sports teams or athletes like Jeff Pearlman, Jack McCallum, or David Halberstam.

But between my job(s), my social life, and those nonfiction entries it doesn’t leave me a lot of time to read great works of fiction. I wish I read fiction every single day; it pains me deeply that I don’t. Most of my fiction reading comes in the form of the television shows that I digest while I work around the house or to give myself a break from writing or researching. I would love to dive into George R.R. Martin or Stephen King, or even re-discover Tolkien after my childhood hobbit fixation.

So I know I could easily commit to reading great works of fiction every day for a year, I just wish there was more time in a day.

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You Should Probably Read This: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

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Andrew Findlay

In Read This or Kill Yourself, we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it. In You Should Probably Read This we do the same thing, but we’re a little nicer.

Cormac McCarthy has been established for years, but his shadow has grown in the past decade or so due to a couple of wildly popular films: The Road and No Country for Old Men. A lot of you should be familiar with those films, and their style pretty much shows what McCarthy is all about: bleak travelers across bleaker landscapes wrestling with nonexistent or extremely peculiar moral systems. In a lot of McCarthy’s fiction, a man has to have a code, no matter how terrifyingly brutal. He is a writer’s writer, which means reading his books is not something you do to unwind with booze over a long weekend. Reading him is work. I am biased against books like this, as relatability and ease of access is important to me in a field where basic human-to-human communication is paramount. I avoid stuff like this if it is mediocre and unappealing, and if achieving some hyper-literary cachet is the entire focus and fabric of the book (I’m still looking at you, The Corrections). However, pristine works of pure, uncompromising art, those I can’t resist. Blood Meridian is the latter.

They didn’t give me a genius grant for nothing.

It has all the limbs and outward flourishes of a turgid, joyless literary tomb. The narrator never takes us into the minds of the characters. The protagonist has no name, and the narrator refers to him only as “the kid.” There are no quotation marks for dialogue and there are few commas. The vocabulary is obscure enough to have sent me to the dictionary multiple times (word like manciple, esker, sprent, and surbated, to name a few) Plotwise, nothing really builds – it’s just a book about a group of men in the Texas-Mexico borderlands in the 1800s hunting Apache scalps. Stuff happens, sure, but there’s not a build to and change of conflict, it’s pretty much just death, blood, and destruction all the way through. To give you an idea of just how much death and blood, in the first two pages the main character runs away from home at 14, hangs around in a bunch of bars, and gets shot right below the heart. On the second page. After this, violence just builds on violence, but it is done with mastery and purpose.

Before discussing what makes Blood Meridian so good, it’s important to give a little bit more information on the bones of the novel. The main body of the novel is a fictionalization of the exploits of the Glanton Gang, a group of mercenaries hired by Mexican authorities to track and eliminate dangerous Apache warriors. They get paid a set amount per scalp. This leads to them massacring not only Apaches, but peaceful agrarian Native American communities and Mexican villages. A scalp is a scalp, and life is cheap. The plot of the novel makes for a lot of battle, a lot of grit, and a lot of wandering over desolate landscapes. This gives McCarthy ample space to showcase his verbal pyrotechnics.

Yes, he uses an egregiously obscure vocabulary, but he uses it so well. In terms of sheer word-stacking, there is no living writer better than McCarthy:

They rode on and the sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and

then a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise

and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun

rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim

and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them. The shadows of the smallest

stones lay like pencil lines across the sand and the shapes of the men and their mounts

advanced elongate before them like strands of the night from which they’d ridden,

like tentacles to bind them to the darkness yet to come.

Yeah, sure, ok, he uses “elongate” as an adjective and not a verb. But read that paragraph. Just read it. Read it again. Another author could have just said “The company rode west, the sun at their backs.” That’s all that’s happening here. The sun came up. McCarthy takes that, expands upon it, makes the sun a harbinger of death and destruction, and makes the diurnal cycle emblematic of man’s inability to escape his destiny – “[bound] to the darkness yet to come.” If you don’t love that paragraph, if it doesn’t make you tremble, then you will probably hate this book, and that is really unfortunate for you.

Try to describe a sunrise better than he did. I dare you.

The subject matter of the book makes violence its defining feature. There is death and destruction everywhere. Bartender disrespect you? Jam a broken whiskey bottle through his eye socket to his brain. Fellow traveler around the fire insult you? Decapitate him and watch his arterial blood shoot and sizzle into the flames. Those aren’t even the worst examples of what happens in this book. It is so violent that even literary critic Harold Bloom, who says it’s the best book written since As I Lay Dying, had to put it down multiple times before he could successfully complete it. Violence penetrates every aspect of the book, and its matter-of-fact presentation (no one feels glory or guilt, it just is what it is) underlines how natural a state it is for man. I thought for a while that morality was just not a concern for McCarthy in this book, but the sheer weight of the atrocities committed begins building a case against them. In addition, almost no one escapes from the life of violence. There’s a very “live by the sword, die by the sword” mentality here. There is a moral point here, but it isn’t razor sharp, it isn’t outright stated, and it’s hard to put into words. The events of the book permeate you so fully by the end, that you more feel the theme of the book than intellectually appreciate it.

This novel qualifies as an anti-western story. The anti-western or revisionist western popped up in the sixties and seventies as a response to the 40s and 50s westerns in which the good guy shot the bad guys and was good for doing it, in which the absolute violence and lawlessness of border towns were minimized, and in which the writers set up good/bad dichotomies around the heroes and villains. The anti-western is about looking at what American frontier culture actually was, in all its darkness and seaminess. Americans have a tendency to whitewash their history and ignore the staggering levels of violence that form the foundation of these United States. Blood Meridian, with its beautiful language describing horrific actions, directly attacks the narrative of manifest destiny and glorious American expansion. It does not pass judgment, it does not say this action is good or this action is bad, it just explores what happens in nauseating detail and lets the reader draw his own conclusions about mankind, which by the end of the book are not too uplifting and are summed up pretty well by the book’s epigraph:

Your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of

pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were

irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time.

   ~Paul Valéry

Image source: Amazon and Time

Response: Infinite Jest is Probably Not Science Fiction

Austin Duck

(Editor’s note: This may or may not be a response to a previous post here by someone else. It’s certainly at least related, so you may want to open the other one in a new tab.)

Before I begin, I think it necessary to make one thing absolutely clear: I wholeheartedly believe that science fiction can be literature. Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, these women write literature.

Reader, I think you’ve been misled. You were told that I’d be here to “throw down” with Andrew Findlay, that Infinite Jest (henceforth IJ) is a work of science fiction, that I have a heart of gold (if you read AF’s final footnote), and, unfortunately, none of this is true.

I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, right now, “how are you not going to argue with AF while fundamentally disagreeing (and claiming that you’ll address that disagreement),” and, honestly, that’s the predicament I’m finding myself in. You see, I don’t find any particular pleasure in launching what will inevitably be a pointless argument about a book that no one reads (though everyone owns a copy). However, I can’t help but talk because I find problems not with the claim that IJ engages sci-fi elements but with the way it has been presented to you as being sci-fi.

The truth of the matter is that, so far as I can tell, IJ is not a sci-fi novel given the criteria I use when I approach it. This criteria seems to differ from Findlay’s in a single, meaningful way. But, before I get to that, let’s revisit the criteria he laid out on Monday:

  • Takes place in the future
  • Strange changes in government, cartography, or the overall structure of the world
  • Extrapolated technologies
  • Thematic development of the plot centers around a certain piece of technology

All of this, very superficially, seems to create a sci-fi novel. I say superficially because, aside from the last criterion (which I’ll address below), none of these elements are inherently anything but set-dressing, asides, bits of information that require more willful suspension of disbelief but do not fundamentally alter anything in a text. If, for some reason that I don’t quite understand, we were to assume that realism were the only capital-L “Literature,” then yes, absolutely, this criteria would hold, but as we’ve seen in our postmodern literary landscape, that’s not quite the case. Do we inherently classify something as sci-fi because it engages these set-pieces? Is White Noise sci-fi? Or Gravity’s Rainbow? Does Haruki Murakami write fantasy novels? I just don’t think so.

To be completely honest, I don’t really have a full grasp on what’s changed since modernism that would allow Murakami to be regarded in the same vein as Faulkner or Atwood as with Stein or Cather, but one thing’s for certain: it happened. Sci-fi fans can disclaim the statements of “literary heavyweights” like Jonathan Franzen, but, ultimately, people like Franzen don’t influence literary tastes nearly so much as critics, intellectuals, and popular culture and, fuck, just look around. Sci-fi is everywhere, and everywhere in high regard. So fuck Jonathan Franzen. Seriously.

I think that what’s happened is the result of post-structural linguistics, post-colonial literatures, and politico-ideological theories of gender, race, and sexuality. I’m not going to get into why (because you’ll fall asleep) but, to give a profoundly abridged version, the prevalent critical consensus of the last 30 years at least (though you could easily trace it back 50) is that “Art” exists beyond a white, Latinate, logocentric (sorry) realism. It just does. There are too many experiences and too many minds for prescription of what creates art, experience, or meaning.

I know it seems like I’ve gone pretty far from IJ, but trust me, I haven’t. IJ, begun somewhere in the late 80s and published in 1996, is a direct inheritor of all of this literary/cultural upheaval. It occurs, it is composed, in a time where experimentation—of different forms, idioms, genres, voices, styles, etc.—makes it perfectly acceptable to cannibalize, to pull from the highest culture (the title refers, in addition to the film that Findlay discussed, to a line in Hamlet) and the lowest (the dime store fantasy or science fiction novel) to make something new, a device consistently utilized by Pynchon, whom Wallace developed a lot of chops imitating.

So does it mean that, to borrow elements of a genre makes a work itself of that genre? In some ways, yes, it does, in the sense that IJ could not exist, as it does, without the existence of the sci-fi genre. Just as I am of my father, so too is IJ of sci-fi. But is it actually a sci- fi novel?

Of Findlay’s above-mentioned criteria, I think no, IJ is not a sci-fi novel. Yes, it is sort of set in the future (or really, for us, the now), and yes, there is a differently arranged America, giant bugs, and advanced technologies, but none of this, and I mean none. of. it. has any actual bearing on the novel itself. Of the approximately 1,000,000,000 plots engaged in IJ, the two most prevalent are of tennis prodigy and aspiring drug addict Hal Incandenza and former junky and street criminal Don Gately. Engagement with these characters (or something closely related to them (the tennis school that Hal attends or the halfway house that Gately oversees)) occupies approximately 75% of the book (that’s over 750 pages to you and me) and the sci-fi elements of the plot occupy exactly none of these pages. Neither Hal nor Don ever hear anything concerning the more fantastic elements of the film Infinite Jest, nor do they ever encounter giant insects or interact meaningfully with the reconfigured United States (neither character leaves Boston during the entire novel).

Instead, both characters (each in their own ways) are obsessed with drugs, with doing them or not doing them, and with the material conditions of living in a world that encourages escape—through drugs, through Netflix (which Wallace calls the Interlace viewer with streaming and cartridge capabilities), through work and family and games—while hiding the consequences of quitting—the psychosis, the inability to relate to other people, the inability to function in a way that makes the world less lonely. And, as a result, that’s what the book hovers over, brings forward as the theme, as to what is truly important. The world then, with its years having been named by companies (for example, instead of 2002, the year is officially called The Year of the Whopper) and its giant insects created by a former-actor-and-ultimately-incompetent-president as the result of turning the upper Northeast into a giant trash bin, does not drive the plot(s). Instead, these set pieces exist as hyperbole, they exist to make larger statements about a culture at large. Ultimately, they exist to be metaphorically, hyperbolically similar to those real plots of Incandenza and Gately, to explode them, rendering them generalizable (i.e. evident in other aspects of the culture) without making them generalities.

And I think this is an important distinction: IJ is not a book about characters. Yes, there are characters, loads of them, some of whom you’ll get very attached to, who will show you yourself and your world in very uncomfortable ways. But really, truly, IJ is an analysis of the culture, a hard look at a culture of escapism, of shirking responsibility, of letting go toward achieving pure, individuated pleasure, and is invested in showing the material outcomes. Sure there are big bugs, but they’re the effects. They don’t matter, they don’t really do anything except exist, and, in their existence, they remind us of the realities beneath the stories being told to us, the stories we’ve invested and of which we are not likely to escape.

Which brings us finally to Findlay’s fourth claim—that thematic development of the plot centers around a certain piece of technology—and its relationship to the film Infinite Jest (which, for those of you just tuning in, is a film created by Hal’s optical-physicist-gone-auteur-filmmaker-father that is so entertaining anyone who views it never stops watching and dies.) I do agree that there is something to this film’s presence in the text that goes pretty far beyond what I’ve discussed above in terms of adding a serious sci-fi element to the text. The story of the film’s effects does come across as being the third most important plot in IJ (right behind Don and Hal, though occupying much less actual page-space) and its existence is pervasive, showing up directly in nearly every minor-character arc in the book.

Despite this, I’m still not convinced that this element makes the book sci-fi; yes, IJ definitely makes a strongly sci-fi move, but not, it seems to a sci-fi effect. Let me try that again. Here are three reasons why I don’t think that the film Infinite Jest makes the book Infinite Jest sci-fi :

1) while this film is a technology that doesn’t exist, it doesn’t seem to be the effects of radically advanced science that make the difference as it does the effects of experimental art (much more in line with the structure of the book, the meta-textual, self-conscious foot-noting, etc.),

2) that, rather than a specific material/technological aspect that makes the film “addictive,” it seems that IJ (the movie) stands in for a Platonic idea of entertainment (i.e. something completely, purely entertaining) as a means for hyperbolizing the novel’s themes (as mentioned above), and

3) (most importantly) that, to me that what makes a piece of literature quintessentially sci-fi is not the engagement of specific science-materials in a text, but an in-depth study of what, logically, could come of the use of those materials and their effects on humanity. IJ ultimately isn’t speculative because it’s not concerned with what the effects of Netflix or the film’s particular technology will be; it’s concerned with what’s already here and uses these sci-fi pieces to hyperbolize and generalize, to exemplify cultural patterns in these objects that affect multiple lives.

It’s undeniable that Infinite Jest contains sci-fi elements. However, rather than calling it sci-fi (which is not derogatory; it’s just not accurate), let’s just call it what it is: an enormous, important, genre-bending book that cuts to the core of the contemporary American experience of pleasure and addiction. It’s simple to read, nearly impossible to think about, and you are truly at a loss if you don’t read it just because it weighs like 20 pounds or because you’d rather watch Girls.