Sunday, December 21, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #6 (Play It As It Lays, pp. 1-125)

Sorry everyone, my tablet ate the recording of today's class and I don't have the patience to re-record it. I will instead post my notes on today's assigned reading. I'll try to ensure this doesn't happen again.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #5 (Nightwood pp. 84-End)

So it might seem I'm falling behind but I actually recorded this class a week ago and am just getting around to putting it up. I will admit that it took me a couple extra days to finish my minipaper, though. (Also, I have the sinking suspicion I would be failing these minipapers, as I feel they aren't very good and might not even fulfill the "page-long" requirement. Oh well.) This class discussion goes long because I'm joined by two friends, Rebecca and Jeff. Nightwood is Rebecca's favorite book and she had a lot of insightful things to say about it. Everything she says is probably worth a listen.

Before we get to my minipaper, a couple of things: Soundcloud has a 180 minute upload limit so I'm having to delete some of the earlier discussions. I'll be saving them and probably posting them to YouTube at the conclusion of the class and sticking all the minipapers and stuff in a tab on the blog. Also the next book is Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays and I'll be doing the first class for that tomorrow and wrapping that up on Monday since I won't have any time immediately before and after Christmas. Luckily it's pretty short.

Nightwood discussion: https://soundcloud.com/dhsayer/20141213_110029-mp3

Nightwood minipaper:

   Those attempting a critical assessment of the themes in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood are confronted with an embarrassment of riches. There are myriad thematic elements at play, and many ways to discuss them and the unusual ways they manifest in the novel.
   Even the simplest discussion of the book would be incomplete without addressing the style of the writing, which oftentimes only faintly resembles prose. It is, as T.S. Eliot mentions in his introduction, a highly poetic language, packed with imagery and allusive signifiers. Even the basic task of identifying the protagonist requires more unpacking than would be required in a traditional narrative. The book begins with the family history of Felix Volkbein, though he comes in and out of the narrative as the story progresses. Robin Vote seems to be the cynosure around which the other characters revolve, though she is arguably the least developed character in terms of actual description on the page. She remains somewhat elusive, as even the people around her admit that they “never did have a really clear idea of her at any time.” [pg. 119]
   We see Robin mostly through the eyes of the other characters, and her arc consists in large part of the various interactions she has with them. This is of a piece with the theme of duality that is weaves through the book. There are numerous couplings as Robin goes from one partner to the next, and other characters come together in lengthy commiseration. The novel’s structure is akin to that of a dance between two people, with partners spinning off together for a while before trading partners. Each section of the book seems to concentrate on these one-on-one interactions. There are also references to characters being shadows of one another, as well as mirror images. In that space between two characters—the words they toss back and forth, often without registering what the other is saying—is where both of them are elucidated, to the reader if not to each other.
  The book is very plotted, but the events are described obliquely. If poetry is the art of creating effect without the use of explicit language, then a lot of Nightwood’s passages qualify as such. Relationships form and crumble in the course of the story, but these are carried out in unusual ways. We are as likely to read about a courtship involving rage and a lashing out as we are to read about a breakup that has components of weird tenderness. Take the meeting between Nora and Robin, for example. They meet at a circus where Robin has a mysterious confrontation with a lioness. The animal regards Robin through the bars, “her eyes flowed in tears that never reached the surface.” After that encounter Nora and Robin form a relationship whose bond seems contingent on— or at least somehow connected to—this face-to-face Robin had with an animal, an interaction that is unclear and open to interpretation, though one does not doubt the impact of the event in the same way that one would place great importance on a traditional dramatic event (a catastrophe, a mutually witnessed tragedy, etc.) in the bonding of two characters in a regular narrative. This is a way of saying that in Nightwood you find the basic conceits of the conventions of traditional narrative (character development, behavior tied to and explained by dramatic events, peripeteia) done in a poetic, indirect way, but being just as impactful as those conventions would be in a traditional narrative. It allows the novel to represent those things found in a good narrative but also retain its oblique stylization.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #4 (Nightwood, Intros, pp. 3-83)

On to the next book, Nightwood. I'll be talking about the first half today, and then this weekend I'll finish up and have a nice treat to post. I'll be talking with a friend of mine whose favorite book just happens to be Nightwood. So it'll be cool to have a conversation about the book with someone who's lived with it for years. That'll be posted by Sunday, along with the minipaper. Everyone keeping up? Good :)

Discussion:
https://soundcloud.com/dhsayer/20141212_102000-mp3

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #3 (The Man Who Loved Children, pp. 366-End, Minipaper)

Ok, last day of discussing Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, and also time to turn in the minipaper. Here's mine:

   That Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children is about family, there is zero doubt. The way it expounds on this theme is atypical, however. Instead of being developed by the events of a traditional narrative, the idiosyncratic Pollit family is brought to life mainly through the private language they share. This language—made up of sobriquets, pidgin constructions, and nonsense words—originates from the family’s patriarch, Sam. It is suggested that this way of communicating was congenital, as his side of the family shares many of his traits. The Pollit’s idioglossia not only makes them an insular and contained family unit, but also sets up the other defining characteristic of the family—and a theme that becomes a leitmotif throughout the novel—and that is one of opposition.
   Whenever their private language breaks down, due to weariness, willful refusal to participate, or the adopting of another language, the family undergoes a crisis of identity that confuses and enrages its members. The oppositions within the family are always related to language, as when Sam and Hennie refuse to talk to each other, or when Louie creates her own language to explain to her father how oppressive she finds life in their family. These very specific instances of conflict—husband vs. wife, man vs. daughter—are the more granular versions of this theme of opposition, which is elevated to grand levels at various points in the text, so that we see it in terms of Autocracy vs. Autonomy, Man vs. Woman (Sam: “Women is trouble; women is cussed; you have got to learn to run women” [pg.472], Hennie: “Oh why shouldn’t I live with Sam?—he’s as good to me as any man would be: men are all the same” [pg.456]), the nuclear family vs. the extended family, and Bureaucracy vs. Truth. The family members fluidly slide from one set of oppositions to another, and are defined at any given moment by which conflict they are in.
   Another subtler theme of the novel is the embracing of spirituality in the face of overwhelming events. At various points, the family members, all of whom are not religious (Sam, in particular, is staunchly agnostic), are forced to appeal to a high power, though this is not done through traditional means (prayer, attending church service, etc.). Instead, this is conveyed through language, which has been integrally tied to the family’s identity. When Sam is being slandered at his work, he says, “God helps those who help themselves,” and, “All things work together for the good of them who love the Lord,” which the text immediately clarifies: “By ‘the Lord’ he only meant an obscure creature of his imagination, possibly ‘the Public Good,’ or even just his own will.” [pg. 310] Later, when Louie is on the verge of being directly responsible for killing her mother, she thinks “Oh, God, I nearly was caught,” and it’s the “first time she ever used that word.” [pg. 505] These of course aren’t the traditional views of God and religion, but for this family it has the feeling of spiritual enlightenment, and in general rings true as to how that enlightenment would manifest itself to an agnostic. The words—no matter who uses them—and imagery—no matter who sees them—have incontrovertible weight and meaning, so that when Louie finally leaves the household in the end and in doing so she sees herself “on the other side of a fence; there was a garden through the chinks that she had once been in but could never be in again,” the implication is both undeniable and powerful.

Discussion:
https://soundcloud.com/dhsayer/20141204_123502-mp3

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English170R: Class #2 (The Man Who Loved Children, pp. 199-365)

So this was supposed to be posted yesterday, but I dropped the ball and hadn't finished the required reading by Saturday (I had about 50 pages to go). So I finished the reading and did the class today. The first week seems pretty hardcore in the amount of reading you have to do; I think it's the hardest week in the whole course. (It's probably designed that way to get people who can't hack it to drop out.) Looking ahead, I'm noticing the reading load gets a lot easier (while the writing load gets harder) and it shouldn't be a problem to keep to the schedule from now on.

Anyway, Day 2:

https://soundcloud.com/dhsayer/class-two

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #1 (The Man Who Loved Children, Introduction & pp. 3-198)

Today is the official first day of class in English 170R. Since the syllabus says that "the whole breath and bread of this course is discussion" and that class participation was a big component of the course, I thought I would record my thoughts on the reading material assigned for the day. These are the things I would contribute to the class discussion. Now obviously there won't be a back and forth with fellow classmates and the professor, but this monologueish thing is the best I can offer. (Perhaps later someone would be willing to join me for one of these classes in a recorded conversation over Skype or something. We shall see.)

Today we tackle the first five chapters of Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children.

Note: Sorry I'm so nervous. I'm sure it'll become more comfortable to express my thoughts aloud the more I do it, as I'm sure would've been the case in real life.

http://soundcloud.com/dhsayer/20141127_111609-mp3

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Introduction

Last week, the David Foster Wallace Reader was published. It’s a selection of his work from the very beginning (there’s a story he wrote for the Amherst Review when he was a student there) to the posthumous Pale King. One of the never-before-seen additions to the book is a collection of his teaching materials. Wallace taught college courses fairly regularly throughout his adult life, starting pretty much right after graduation. He settled at Pomona College for the last years of his life, no doubt inspiring a few students to matriculate there for the express purpose of taking his class. I know that, were he still alive, I would’ve seriously considered it at some point.

His classes have grown as legendary as anything else about him since his death. By all accounts they were rigorous, intense, demanding, and extremely rewarding. The attention he paid to each student’s writing—going over everyone’s papers three times, using three different colored pens to make corrections and notes—is the kind of stuff aspiring writers dream of. Not to mention having access to that incredible brain of his during class discussions and private tête-à-têtes during office hours. (Just thinking about this, I have to restrain myself not to fly into a jealous rage at all his former students.) There is no doubt that taking his class would be one of the most memorable experiences of one’s life.

Well, since that is no longer an option for me, I’ve decided (with at least one other person) to do the next best thing: I’m “taking” one of his classes. Specifically English 170R, which I believe is one of the first classes he taught at Pomona. It concentrates on “Obscure/Eclectic Fiction.” I’m going to do all the required reading, complete all the assignments, and follow the schedule as best I can. (The syllabus can be found here. I’m moving the schedule back two months, so 1/22=11/22, etc.)

I obviously won’t have Wallace there providing guidance or grading my papers, but I hope the experience will be worthwhile. I'm going to do my best to take it as seriously as I would if I were taking the actual class. I encourage anyone who’s interested to join in (might be cool to have other people's papers to "peer review"). Should be an interesting three-and-a-half months, anyway. (I think a “good luck” is in order; the amount of reading is pretty insane, at least for someone like me who is not a fast reader.)

The first order of business is the Student Info Sheet (I just answered the two questions, as I don’t have a campus PO Box, etc.):


PLEASE NAME TWO NOVELS THAT REALLY MEAN SOMETHING TO YOU AND EXPLAIN WHY

Well, I’m almost embarrassed to say that the novel I most treasure is one of yours, professor. Infinite Jest really did a number on me when I read it about ten years ago. I was in a weird spot with regard to my consumption of literature at the time. I wasn’t reading all that much, and was pretty oblivious to what the novel was capable of. In an attempt to get caught up with the contemporary “literary scene,” I read Infinite Jest and for all intents and purposes haven’t been the same since. The big thing it showed me was that a novel could marry the cerebral with the emotional in a way that wasn’t contrived and actually worked and didn’t result in a story characterized by obvious diremptions (i.e., a “cerebral” section, then an “emotional” section, etc.). This was news to me, as I always assumed that the best art made you feel something and the litmus test of great art was whether you cried or not and you should leave science to the scientists, etc. Your novel (along with the work of a few other authors, notably Richard Powers) helped disabuse me of those benighted notions and showed me that great literature can engage a reader on multiple levels, that you can bring to bear every aspect of being human—intellectual, emotional, moral, analytical, etc.—when reading a great novel and be that much more rewarded for the experience. (That’s probably a good place to end, but I also wanted to say that the world-building you did in that novel was wondrous, and I think it allowed me to tap into the joy I had when I was 10 years old and reading giant fantasy books full of dragons and mystical lands and whatnot. While I wouldn’t wish to map the reconfigurations of Infinite Jest’s world onto my own reality, it is such a pleasure to revisit the world you created due in large part to how vividly you have drawn it.)

The other novel I always go back to is The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald created what is basically the perfect novel, without a single wasted line in the whole thing. I’ve always responded to the uncompromising assiduousness of Fitzgerald’s writing, how he never wrote a lazy sentence or “took a sentence off.” As far as I can tell, pretty much every sentence he wrote is crafted for maximal beauty, impact, meaning, and thematic significance. That care has allowed me to return to his work and be not only delighted all over again but also sated in a very deep way. I almost feel that Fitzgerald gives a lover of literature everything they need to sustain that love for a lifetime.

READ ANY OF THE BOOKS ON OUR LIST BEFORE, EVER? WHEN? WHAT DID YOU THINK?

Only two: Nightwood and Desperate Characters. DC I read maybe eight years ago and Nightwood I actually just read last month. I had favorable views of both, appreciating them for very different reasons (Nightwood seems to me more in the “experimental” mode and DC is more in the classic “New Yorker” style). I look forward to revisiting them both during this course.