Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Top Ten Most Anticipated Movies of 2013

With the year coming to an end, it’s time to start looking forward to the cinematic bounty 2013 will bring. Next year’s slate of movies has a lot of potential, so I’m hopeful that we get to see some real gems. Here’s what I’m looking forward to the most:

1) Before Midnight

Two of my favorite movies of all time are Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, which I like to think of as an inseparable tandem (like the way a lot of people think of the first two Godfathers). I have supreme confidence that director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy can craft a worthy addition to this ongoing love story. (Hopefully not the last installment, though there have been intimations that it might be. :( )

2) Upstream Color

It’s been 8 years since the release of Primer, writer/director Shane Carruth’s mind-bending, super-indie movie about time travel. Carruth has been MIA ever since, until now. Upstream Color is debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, which doesn’t bode well for a wide theatrical release. But considering that Carruth is embracing the digital distribution model (he is offering Primer on his website, DRM-free, for $15), I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to buy or rent it online in the spring. I’m eager to see if Carruth can deliver on the potential he displayed with Primer and emerge as one of the really talented American filmmakers working today.

3) Gravity

It’s been 6 years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last movie, the well-regarded Children of Men. The details of this movie have been kept largely under wraps, driving my curiosity through the roof.

4) To The Wonder

A new Terrence Malick film is always cause for celebration. This one didn’t have a great reaction at the Toronto Film Festival, the common complaint being that it was too Malicky. (Star Ben Affleck quipped: “To The Wonder is for people who like a little Malick with their Malick.”) Sounds good to me.

5) Star Trek Into Darkness

I was such a big fan of the 2009 reboot, despite initial reservations. I found it ridiculously entertaining, full of great characters that were perfectly cast, as well as it being just a gorgeous-looking movie. I had my doubts about JJ Abrams, but this movie made a believer out of me. I expect this one to be just as good if not better than the first.

6) The Great Gatsby

One of my most anticipated movies of 2012, pushed back to summer ’13. Baz Luhrmann is a master at what he does, combining visual panache with epic storytelling while getting actors to give surprisingly great performances. Moulin Rouge is, of course, unimpeachable, but Australia remains an underappreciated gem.

7) Iron Man 3

The Avengers sealed it: I could watch Downey do this character for a dozen more movies. There’s a little bit of intrigue with the director’s chair belonging to Shane Black this time around, but I’m sure the end result will be the super entertaining movie we’ve come to expect from this franchise.

8) Nymphomaniac

Lars von Trier usually has a strong sexual component to his films, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens when he makes sex the overriding (har) theme of his next movie. He’s on something of a mid-to-late-career roll—his last two movies, Antichrist and Melancholia, are worthy additions to his filmography. We’ll see if he can keep it up. (har har)

9) The Unknown Known

Errol Morris might be the most consistently good filmmaker working today. He seems to hit a home run every time out, regardless of subject matter. This one’s about Rumsfeld, but that’s really beside the point. Just know that there’s a pretty good chance that it’ll be a fantastic movie.

10) Pacific Rim

Liberated from Hobbit hell, Guillermo del Toro returns with what seems to be a bombastic piece of film pop. Giant robots vs. giant monsters? Yeah, I guess I’ll see that.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Halfway Through #NaNoWriMo, Some “Advice” for Writers

The title of this entry is a bit of a misnomer. There won’t really be any writing advice, just some truths about writing. Some might call them hard truths, but they’re just really how things are and it’s up to you whether you take them hard or not.

First of all, congrats to everyone who is even remotely adhering to the NaNoWriMo schedule. Halfway through, you’ve probably experienced your fair share of ups and downs. There have been days when you’ve met or exceeded the prescribed word count and those days have ended with a smile on your face. There have been days when you’ve failed to write more than a few sentences—or anything at all—and on those days you have been grumpy, irritated, and anxious. I’m sure that for some of you, your daily disposition has corresponded to the number of words you’ve typed out, and the last two weeks have undoubtedly been a rollercoaster of emotion. If your mood is particularly dark and low and frustrated at this point, you’re probably thinking that this experience has shown you that you aren’t a writer. And you’re probably right.

But even if you’re on cloud 9 about your progress and every day is one of unfettered joy, full of typing and having fun and marveling at your word count, chances are you are also not going to come out of this a full-time writer.

The fact is if you’re feeling anything other than a calm neutrality about the writing process, you’re probably not going to be in the writing game for the long haul.

Here’s the deep dark secret about writers: they don’t particularly feel one way or another about writing. They don’t hate it (obviously), nor do they like it all that much. Even that old saw about writers who hate writing but love having written isn’t really true.

They sort of just write. All the time, every day.

Writers are compelled to write, simple as that. They don’t get too high or low about it, they just do it. Feeling bad about an unproductive writing day and feeling happy about a good writing day are both reactions writers—professional ones—never have. For them, writing is just something that needs to be done every day, in a sort of vaguely dispassionate way. I’ll try to draw an easy-to-understand parallel :

Think of writing like brushing your teeth.

This is an analogy all but the most hygienically negligent can understand. You brush your teeth daily. No matter what. It’s like not even an option to go to bed without having done it. You can be bone-dead tired, or crazy busy, or stuck in some foreign place far from home surrounded by unfamiliar people—you will still make time to brush your teeth. You even do it twice a day, preferably.

You don’t really “like” or “hate” doing it. If anything, it’s a little inconvenient, or boring, or a chore. But you do it because you are compelled. Sure, there are very practical reasons for doing it: the prevention of tooth decay, the elimination of bad breath, etc., etc. But I don’t think that stuff goes through anyone’s mind when they are actually in the process of brushing their teeth. I know it doesn’t go through mine. I just do it without thinking too much about it, and I suspect you do too.

Brushing our teeth is such a part of our daily routine and so disconnected from its long-term rewards that we don’t feel “happy” that we do it every night. We’re not high-fiving ourselves after another successful tooth brushing. We also don’t stress about it during the day, wondering whether we’ll be able to fit it into our schedule. We know we will, no matter what. And we don’t feel miserable about going a whole day without brushing our teeth, because it doesn’t happen. Ok, there’s that handful of times in your entire life when you go a day without brushing your teeth. But those are very rare occasions indeed.

This pretty accurately describes how true writers think of writing. They don’t get down about not writing, mostly because it never happens. (Even those authors who put out a book a decade are writing furiously every day, I guarantee you, perhaps even more than anyone else.) They might conceive of “feeling bad” if they didn’t write for a week, but it’d be little more than a thought experiment, like if someone asked you how bad you’d feel after a week of not brushing your teeth. You’d imagine you’d feel pretty awful about it, but any speculation is pointless because it’d never happen. Not brushing your teeth for a week wouldn't feel bad so much as just plain wrong.

Also, writers aren’t constantly patting themselves on the back for writing, in the same way we don’t give ourselves props for brushing our teeth. And just like writers, we don’t necessarily take any long-term satisfaction from the activity. Someone’s likely reaction to a lifetime free of tooth decay would probably not be “Go me!”, rather “Well, yeah.” It’s not too hard to see why doing something like brushing your teeth because you think it’s fun or it makes you happy or it leaves you with a sense of accomplishment could be very dangerous. Fun things can become un-fun, and dangled carrots lose their appeal. If sustained activity is what is desired, better to be compelled than rewarded; the compelled person will continue to do something no matter what, and the ones who do something for the feeling they get from it will always be vaguely dissatisfied and eventually quit doing that thing.

It's ultimately kind of inexplicable why writers write. I don’t think there’s a lot of choice involved. Writers write in the same way that birds fly south for the winter or bears hibernate. That fable about the scorpion and the frog seems relevant here.

For those struggling through this month, you have my sympathies and I hope at the end of the month you’ll be buoyed by the knowledge that there’s this thing you don’t ever have to do again. For the others who are deriving great joy from this process, I am happy for you and admit to regarding you with a certain amount of wistfulness. There was a time when my own words gave me a fair amount of immediate pleasure, when writing was unqualified fun. Eventually I found Hunter S. Thompson’s sentiment to be true when he said that writing, like [having sex], is only fun for amateurs.

But of course we all start out as amateurs, and there’s nothing wrong with having fun. For those having a blast with NaNoWriMo, I will say this: If that happy, joyful feeling of writing devolves into something a little less pleasurable, if it becomes harder for you to write, if you don’t exactly dread writing but you also aren’t especially ecstatic about it…and yet despite all of this you can’t stop writing, then you’re probably a full-blown, no-holds-barred writer. What I’m trying to say is don’t be too worried if the fun goes away. Writing isn’t really supposed to be fun; like anything worthwhile it’s hard work and stressful and time-consuming. And that’s probably as good an explanation as to why we writers keep coming back to it.

To paraphrase David Mamet: Of course writing is hard work. If it weren’t, then what’d be the point?


Thursday, November 1, 2012


I hope everyone had a nice Halloween. I don’t know about anyone else, but my consumption of Snickers minis goes through the roof this time of year. Good stuff.

The All Hallow’s Read promotion for Deadly Reflections was a roaring success. Thousands of readers snagged a free copy over the last two days, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Today marks the release of the “paperback” version of Deadly Reflections, or whatever the equivalent is for an ebook. It has a brand new cover and there’s a short Q&A with yours truly at the end. There were also some typographical fixes made, so it should read cleanly across all the devices on which it can be read. If you enjoyed the book in the past, be sure to tell your friends or followers. I’d like to see DR continue to find appreciative readers as we move forward. (Also, check out the expanded interview with Patrick Mattox in the Deadly Reflections section of this blog, where we talk about the creation of the new cover.)

November 1st also marks the first day of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. This is the time of year when everyone with literary ambitions becomes month-long weekend warriors attempting to complete a 50,000-word novel by the end of the month. To accomplish this, one must maintain a daily output of 1,667 words—no small feat.

There have been some snide remarks made by “real writers” about this event. They seem to take offense at the prospect that some neophyte with a word processor thinks he or she can dash out a novel just like that, as if it were that easy.

To that, I say “balderdash.” (With maybe a sprinkling of “poppycock” and “bunkum.”)

If someone wants to partake in the venerable tradition of written storytelling, I am more than willing to welcome them into the fold. I think that, yes, the newcomers will find the work challenging and the discipline it takes to sit and write for a couple hours a day hard to master. But, if they stick with it, I believe they will also find how rewarding it can be to have something to show for the day, week, month. And, perhaps, despite all the frustrations and heartbreak and anxiety that come with writing, some of those people will decide to continue doing it after November, and some of those people will enrich the world with great stories in the future. There is and always will be a need for great storytellers. This is a month full of promise, for everyone, not just the writers.

And it starts today. So: if you have an idea (or even if you don’t; there have been plenty of great “plot-less” novels), try writing a couple thousand words before midnight. And if you feel good about the results, try it again tomorrow. See how many days you can string together, and at the end of the month you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. (Remember: This is mostly about quantity. A rough first draft after a month’s work is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it’s something to be very, very proud of.)

With my next novel deep into the editing process, I am not quite ready to start a new novel. But that doesn’t mean I’m not constantly writing something, whether it be an essay, or a short story, or just writing to see whether something will lead somewhere. So in an act of solidarity with all those attempting the Herculean feat this month, I will duly put in my daily work and try to hit the 1,667 mark every day. At the end of the day, I’ll post the number of words I managed to wrestle to the page on my Twitter and hopefully we can encourage each other to keep going. Let’s just have fun, let go, and write.

For all those hoping to have a productive month, I wish you the best of luck.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Happy All Hallow’s Read — Deadly Reflections for free

It’s that time of year again. I’m talking, of course, about All Hallow’s Read, when creepy, unsettling books mysteriously turn up at your doorstep, ready to terrify and delight those bold enough to turn its pages.

I am pleased beyond all measure to have my book participate in what is well on its way to becoming a venerable tradition. Deadly Reflections is free today and tomorrow, right through Halloween. For these two days only, DR will have a special variant cover to mark the occasion, as well as a bonus short story, which might frankly be the most unsettling seven pages you read this week. It’ll at least be in the running for that distinction, I’m pretty confident to say.

So everyone be safe this year—but not too safe—and don’t be afraid to be afraid….Curl up to a blood-curdling book, whether it be mine or someone else’s, and let the spirit of All Hallow’s Read give you a couple of sleepless nights reading and being scared out of your wits.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Review of Taylor Swift’s RED

Fair warning: I’ve had this album for barely 24 hours now, so even though I’ve listened to it at least 3 times through, these are first impressions that are apt to change as the album gets lived with a while.
RED is a somewhat schizophrenic album, evenly divided between songs in the vein of what she started out with (“Old Taylor”) and the pop-tastic stuff she’s been giving us a taste of for the last month or so (“New Taylor”). This new musical direction has been dissected and scrutinized, with many taken aback at what seems to be her rebirth as a pure pop star without the “country” qualifier that has been attached to her since day one. After a few listens, I can confirm that the difference between the new stuff and her old stuff has not been overstated—they’re pretty different. There is, however, a fair number of her familiar country-sounding songs on the album for those who like that stuff exclusively. Maybe that is why the album is so long; at 16 tracks, it’s large enough to accommodate every conceivable audience.
With that said, you can tell that Taylor’s heart is more in the pure pop side of things these days and she’s now equipped with plenty of arena-ready songs that are cut from the same cloth as previous Max Martin-produced megahits by artists like Britney and P!nk. Taylor is careful not to clump these songs together on the album, but sometimes there’s only one slow, ballady thing between 2 dancey, dubsteppy things; it’s as if she was impatience to get back to them. These future hits represent the kind of broad-appeal music that will be associated with Taylor for this album cycle, and it’s the new norm until she makes her “return to her roots” country album, which might be as early as the next one, depending on how much she takes the inevitable backlash to heart.
Whatever initial skepticism you might have, the poppy stuff is actually pretty good and very listenable. They definitely make the biggest impressions during the initial listens. They are just as good as other stuff you hear, some even have a familiar air about them, like the Katy Perry-cadenced “I Knew You Were Trouble.” My favorites so far are “Red,” “22,” and, of course, “We Are Never Ever…”
As for the slower stuff, I have to give them some more time to make an impression. The ones that are grabbing me now are “Begin Again” and, unsurprisingly, “Everything Has Changed,” her collaboration with Ed Sheeran, which is a song approximately everyone else on the planet likes (it’s #1 on iTunes). To be honest I was more wary of these duets (there’s another one with the Snow Patrol guy) than I was with the pop direction. Letting in an audible male presence seemed like an undesirable intrusion into Tay’s decidedly girl-centric (and unabashedly girly) world. But the two men she allowed to make an appearance on the album are such sensitive and epicene fellows that the uncompromised girl POV we’ve come to expect from Taylor’s music is barely disturbed.
I was thinking of how to wrap up an assessment of RED, what I could say to encapsulate the sound and quality of the album. Then it hit me:
RED sounds like a new Jenny Lewis album.
More accurately, it sounds like a new album from Rilo Kiley, the band Jenny Lewis used to front. The similarities between Jenny and Tay are actually kind of astonishing. Not only does Tay sound like Jenny at times throughout the album (especially on the song “Stay Stay Stay”), they really are similar singer/songwriters. Jenny always wrote about the whole relationship spectrum—dating, love, break-ups, regret, sorrow, glimpses of happiness—just like Taylor always has. And Jenny’s songs always had the same kind of passion and heartcraft that Tay puts into hers. Also, there was definitely a country vibe to a lot of Rilo Kiley songs (see “More Adventurous”).
There are, however, two notable differences between them. 1) Jenny’s willingness to put a sexual element into her songs that Taylor is nowhere close to having. (Even though they share a title, Rilo Kiley’s “15” is very different from Tay’s, to say the least.) And 2) Jenny employs a fair amount of irony and sardonicism in her work. I think it’s clear by now that Taylor does not have one ironic bone in her body. She is at full earnestness, all the time.
You would think these two temperaments would result in very different sounding music. But…but!’s the big revelation: It turns out that Jenny’s irony and Tay’s sincerity don’t sound all that different. I think a big reason for that is because Jenny’s irony is tempered with a healthy dollop of sincerity and Tay’s sincerity is set to the same kind of catchy beats that ironic songs (like “Billionaire” for example) are set to. In any event, they somehow meet in the middle. I invite you to compare these two songs: Rilo Kiley’s “Breaking Up” and Taylor’s “22.” Not only are they very similar-sounding, I think they could both be performed by the other artist in the exact same style as the original and it’d still make perfect sense.
Another area these two artists are similar is the evolution of their sound. Rilo Kiley had a country flavor to a lot of their early stuff, then they went for a more “pop” sound on their fourth album, Under The Blacklight. (Their 4th album! What is RED? Tay’s 4th album!) Taylor had more than a slight country influence; she was a bona fide country artist on her first album. Even though Taylor had a lot more “country” to shed from her music than Rilo Kiley, they still managed to meet in the middle. It’s as if the release date of RED turned into the answer to one of those classic word problems they give in middle school math classes:
Question: If Rilo Kiley heads east out of Los Angeles on foot, and Taylor Swift gets on a bullet train heading west out of Nashville, when will they meet?

Answer: October 22, 2012.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Seeing The Master

So, after many weeks adding up to months of anticipation, I saw The Master last night in Boston. This undoubtedly comes as welcome news for my friends and family, as now I’ll probably finally be able to shut up about it. Maybe. (Apologies also to those following my tweets; I know it’s been inordinately heavy on the #THEMASTER70MM hashtag lately.)

It was also my introduction to the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which has the only 70mm print of The Master in New England. It’s a seriously cool venue. It has the trappings of a vintage movie house, the auditorium is cozy and charmingly theatrical, and they have beer on tap. The screen was nice and big, and the sound was nice and loud. I could see myself frequenting the place every week, if only it wasn’t three hours away.

Here’s a panoramic view from where I was sitting.
The 70 mm experience was delightful. It was the first time I’ve ever seen a 70 mm projection and I think I’m in love with it. Every frame compelled my interest. Colors seemed especially lush, and details were startlingly clear (especially on some of the closeups). It was really quite gorgeous. And of course it had that analog “warmth” as well; it was quite something to see those “cigarette marks” alerting everyone that a changeover of reels was about to occur. In an age when the term is, for better or worse, an anachronym, it was really exciting to see a true “film” once again.
So what did I think of The Master? Well, I liked it. In truth, I’m a little in awe of it. The common refrain is that it all but requires multiple viewings, and I suppose I endorse this point of view since I’m planning to see it again next week, this time a mere 3 miles from my house. (And in digital, which will be good for comparison’s sake, image quality-wise.)
I think it was not as big a revelation as There Will Be Blood, but only because PTA prepped us for this new one with his previous film. In many ways, I think The Master is a more shocking and audacious movie than TWBB, which bodes well for its impact down the road, when we decide just how good it is, really. (Instant classic? Or failed experiment? Or something in between?)
I could write a review that would probably end up being embarrassing 6 months or 2 years or 5 years down the road. I remember coming out of TWBB and not exactly knowing what to make of it. If you had forced me to put down my thoughts right then, it’d probably read like a lot of asinine babbling now, especially when I’m pretty much on board with everyone else who says that it’s a modern classic, an assessment that was not at all clear to me after the initial viewing.
What I’m coming to find out about movies by true visionaries is that you don’t need to make a decision whether they are “good” or “bad” right away. Let it turn over in your mind a little, and if it’s compelling enough, you’ll revisit it. I’ve found that to be the most important question after a movie: Is it compelling? If it’s compelling, you’ll rewatch it, even if you didn’t think it was very good. And during those rewatches, you’ll open yourself up to the movie again, and you’ll be responsive to any of those little things a director puts in a movie that he or she thinks will make the movie better and a more worthwhile experience and maybe even the best thing ever put on screen. And if the movie is made by eminently talented people, there’s a good chance you’re seeing great art.
But if a movie isn’t compelling, it really just sort of lies there, neither art nor entertainment, just a vague memory of passing time. If you thought it was bad, it remains bad. If you thought it was good, it never exceeds that initial judgment—it stays just as good as you initially thought. And maybe it actually isn’t very good, or, perhaps, it’s even better than you thought, and if it is in fact great art, there’s almost no way you would be able to take in all the nuances it has to offer with just one viewing. (Maybe if you were Pauline Kael you’d be able to, but I’m talking about the rest of us mortals.)
Compelling things offer us the chance to have a conversation with them, to engage in an intellectual and emotional back-and-forth, to change as we change, to grow alongside us. These are the sorts of interactions that have the best chance of ultimately enriching our lives, to affect the way we think, feel, respond—forever. And that’s a lot more rewarding than just saying “This is good” or “This sucks” all willy-nilly. Making snap judgments is pretty unfulfilling and empty, and no one comes to art to feel emptier. That’s why, when something singularly compelling comes along, we should be excited instead of rushing to praise or condemn it. In an ephemeral world, compelling things have a defiant permanence. In a world where there is accretive pressure to get everyone to think the exact same way, compelling things give you thoughts you’ve never had before. They are opportunities for personal growth.
I’m not sure if it’s a modern classic, but if there’s one thing The Master is, it’s compelling. Very, very much so. And that is more than enough reason to celebrate it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

General Update (and a bit on the difference between books and novels that isn’t quite substantial enough to be its own blog post)

Hi all. Sorry for the lack of updates lately. I’ve been in full-on-writing-the-next-book mode and it’s consuming every last bit of spare time I have these days. Which is good. I’m sure you’ll agree that a completed book trumps a few blog entries every time. And before you ask, the writing’s going well. I remain cautiously optimistic that there will be a major release from me by the end of the year. It may, in fact, almost be time to start talking in public venues about what this release will be. Not quite yet, but almost.

(BTW, here’s a handy tip: Never ask a writer how his writing’s going. Because it’s either going bad, in which case he’ll wear a pained expression and basically start evincing an unhappiness that’ll bring down everyone in the vicinity, or it’s going great and he won’t be able to keep an annoyingly giddy smile off his face and there’ll be a strong possibility that all he’ll want to talk about is how his characters are coming alive most vividly or how he successfully solved a plot problem with particular élan and you won’t be able to shut him up. Both scenarios make for an unpleasant evening for you and everyone else in the room.)

I will say I’m writing the first book in a multi-volume series. I have high hopes and high expectations, and I look forward to the challenges involved with working on a giant canvas.

When I say I’m working on a book, I do mean just that—a book, as opposed to a novel. What’s the difference? To be honest, I’m not sure there technically is one, at least in the way I’m thinking. Yes, novels are generally book-length works of fiction, while a “book” can be any genre. All novels are books, but not all books are novels, that sort of thing.

But I also use the term “book” to describe a particular kind of fiction as well, something distinct from “novels.” To me, “novels” imply a more literary-minded sort of fiction. “Novels” win prestigious awards like the Nobel Prize or the Pulitzer. They teach “novels” in college classes. These are not the types of books I write.

I admit that this is largely a semantic exercise. A lot of people would call Deadly Reflections a novel, and they wouldn’t be wrong. This is just a distinction I feel on a gut level.

It’s kind of like the difference between “movies” and “films.” There’s really no difference between those two terms, but we all instinctively know there are some movies we would never call “films.” House at the End of the Street is not a “film.” Neither is Resident Evil: Retribution. They aren’t out to change cinematic history, nor do they aspire to be some great artistic achievement. They are just out to entertain as many people as possible on a Saturday night in 2012.

Likewise, my stories are meant to entertain, to provide an experience that is as diverting and pleasurable as possible. I feel weird attaching such a loaded and elevated term as “novel” to them. Hence, they are just “books” to me.

This is not to say that “novels” are inherently better than “books,” or that “films” are better than “movies.” I wouldn’t call Iron Man a “film,” but it is a supremely kick-ass movie, and certainly better than a lot of so-called “films.” It is true that films have more on their mind. They tackle the big questions and big themes. But even though films and novels might illuminate the human condition (or try to), many do so at the expense of fun. On the other hand, movies and books, as I define them, get to devote themselves solely to entertainment, an endeavor that I consider no more or less important than what the more highbrow artwork out there is trying to accomplish. There is something vital and necessary about a great piece of entertainment, which is why I think Stephen King’s and Elmore Leonard’s books will prove to be just as immortal as Salinger’s and Updike’s.

Ultimately, there is room for both entertainment and edification. Sometimes you feel like one and sometimes you feel like the other. Most people are willing participants in either audience, depending on how they feel at the time. (“Should I read this novel that’ll make me a better person, or this other book that will just be plain fun?”) As for what an artist decides to do, I can tell you it isn’t much of a decision. An author just writes words as they occur to him, and essentially does what he feels he can do, and offers what he can in a way not dissimilar to how most people live their day-to-day lives. It became clear to me early on that I may not be able to give everyone the secret to life or uncover universal truths in a virtuosic way.

But I could probably tell a pretty engaging yarn. So I tossed my hat into the entertainment arena and haven’t looked back and am so far without regret.
With all that said, I’m going to see a film tomorrow. J I’ll be at the 6:30 showing of The Master in 70mm at The Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston. I’ve never been there before, and I’m very excited because it looks like a pretty classy place, a perfect venue to see what may very well turn out to be my most anticipated movie of the next 5 years (or until PTA makes another film). I’m not looking forward to the roughly five-and-a-half hours of travel time involved to get there and back, but on the bright side it will afford me plenty of writing time.

Have a good evening everyone.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The 3 Major Revelations About David Foster Wallace Gleaned From DT Max's Biography, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, For The People Who Are Considerably More Well-versed in Wallace Than Those With Just a Casual Interest in Him

If you're like me—and I suspect there're more of you out there than one might think—you've been eagerly awaiting D.T. Max's bio of David Foster Wallace ever since it was excerpted in The New Yorker 3.5 years ago. And you've also, like me, read and re-read all of Wallace's published output. You've even tracked down his unpublished stuff, and are rather blasé about the impending release of Both Flesh and Not, a volume of previously uncollected work, because you're pretty sure you've read it all. (Which doesn't mean you won't get it on release day and read everything again, gratefully.) You own multiple copies of Infinite Jest. You follow Nick Maniatis on Twitter and compulsively click on every link he deems tweet-worthy. You own the Charlie Rose interviews on DVD. You have 9 hours of DFW interviews on your iPod, 3.4 hours of readings (not including audiobooks), 4.4 hours of tributes and remembrances. You've torn out the pages of a yard sale copy of IJ so you could put the story in chronological order.
So, if you're such a person, a self-admitted DFW nut, does Max's book have any juicy new nuggets to offer you, anything you didn’t already know? Well, there are a couple things, but nothing too major. The simple fact is that if you've read all the books and all the interviews and all the tributes (and listened to all the audio tributes and radio interviews, natch) and have gone through all the supplemental material like the Conversations With book and Lipsky's Although Of Course... and Boswell’s Understanding and Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity and both editions of Stephen Burn’s IJ companion, and have even watched stuff like that hour-long videotaped interview with Bonnie Nadell and all the videos of the Ransom Center symposia on YouTube, if you’ve done all that, well, Max's bio is going to cover a lot of familiar ground for you. There are some things in Every Love Story you can tell would be new and interesting for the casual reader, but you end up kind of skimming a lot of it because when, for example, Max does stuff like quote from a syllabus from a Wallace-taught class, you not only recognize the words, you've seen scans of the actual syllabus.
The best part of the book by far is when Max quotes from Wallace's letters. (Well, when he quotes from letters you haven't already read/heard other people read aloud/seen scans of.) Wallace was an inveterate writer of letters and apparently there are copious amounts of epistolary correspondence; Max had some 850 pages of Wallace-penned letters at his disposal. (It seems he wrote to DeLillo about pretty much Everything, from writing tips to problems with his publisher to buying a new house.) The letters are written in DFW's familiar (and therefore comforting) voice; he wrote them with the same intelligence, wit, and insight with which he wrote gosh darn near everything. (In that respect he rivals Fitzgerald for having never ever written a weak sentence. Like, ever. [apologies to TS]) When a volume of his letters is eventually published, it will be a true event, and pretty close to Holy Grail-type material for Wallace fans—rivaled perhaps only by a facsimile of the handwritten IJ manuscript or "Author's Cut" of IJ with hundreds of pages of restored cuts (one of the amusing tidbits in the bio: Michael Silverblatt called up Pietsch to see if he could read the IJ outtakes).

I will say that Max's bio is a nice compendium/repository of most of the available info out there and is especially helpful in the chronology dept (when exactly Wallace wrote/published a certain story or essay, where he was living at the time, etc.). I liked it and I recommend it, and I hope this endorsement isn't attenuated by the fact that I like reading really anything about Wallace; Every Love Story is a legitimately good biography. (Though one little cavil: There's no account of the publication of The Pale King. Max takes the uncompromising view that the story ends on Sept 12 2008, and most of the last 15 pages or so seem to be taken verbatim from his New Yorker article. Which is ultimately fine (after all, most of the Pale King info is out there if one wanted to track it down) but I was reading Every Love Story on a Kindle and didn't realize that there were 50+ pages of endnotes, sources, and appendices (an index? Really? In this day and age?), and so when I came to the end (only 74% of the book, according to the progress bar), I fully expected at least a couple dozen more pages, making the ending for me far more abrupt and aposiopetic than the ending of Infinite Jest is accused of being.)

Anyway, onward with the big reveals for even the DFW cognoscenti...

1. The essays were largely made-up

Grumblings about the veracity of the events in Wallace's non-fiction have been building over the last year, and it turns out with good cause. While the essays' jumping-off points remain verifiable (He did go to the State Fair, he did go on a cruise, etc.), the details contained within are probably at the very least exaggerated. There's no way of fact-checking every little thing, but Max does an admirable job of uncovering when authorial liberty was taken, pointing out when anecdotes were invented or stolen wholesale from another's experience. I didn't mind this revelation too much since I've always considered Wallace’s non-fiction less important than his fiction. And frankly, it does explain how, in those essays, everyone around him had a knack for doing/saying the exact right thing, constantly. But I can imagine the people who unreservedly love his essays getting their hackles raised as Max systematically shoots down or casts doubt on their favorite bits (the pinwheeling batons? Most likely exaggerated. The little girl chess prodigy who knew what “fianchettoing” was? Probably didn’t exist). For me, the most disappointing fudging Max points out is that Wallace didn’t belong to a church group, a group that reportedly also had as a member the person whose house Wallace casually strolls into Kramer-like in the essay “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s.” Granted, the dissimulation here wasn’t done for arbitrary or aesthetic reasons; the people in the essay were actually members of his recovery group, so their anonymity (and, by extension, his) was paramount. But still. It was one of those details it seemed the whole (not very long) essay hinged on: Watching the events of 9/11 unfold with members of your church. There was a whole other interesting layer to that essay that gets kind of stripped away now. (Wallace had to know how much more interesting the essay was with this invented detail. So notable was it that even Silverblatt went out of his way to bring it up during an interview.) This exposure dishearteningly casts doubt on all the other stuff in the essay. Think about that affecting story about his search for an American flag, the whole going to gas station after gas station, finally arriving at an out-of-the-way convenience store (that just happens to be owned by a Pakistani), making a homemade flag in the backroom. After reading Max’s book, it’s hard to imagine Wallace actually doing all that. It is, however, easy to imagine him writing about doing it.

 2. He almost wrote a porn epic instead of Infinite Jest
In the early nineties he did extensive research about porn with an eye toward writing some sort of reportage/fiction about it—it’s kind of unclear what it was going to be exactly. Whatever it would’ve been, it was going to be epic; he apparently got hundreds of (lost?) pages into it. He was interviewing porn stars, watching tons of porn, thinking about porn (“Why do many of the movies have a kind of shadowy, dramatically superfluous character who seems to stand for the man watching film…and whose final access to female lead(s) effects film’s closure?”), etc. A lot of his research turns up in his essay “Big Red Son,” passed off as newly discovered info (see #1). The whole project got derailed, perhaps thankfully, considering we got IJ instead, though one wonders what Wallace would’ve come up with. A comment made to a friend years later about the movie Boogie Nights offers a clue: He said it was exactly the story that he had been trying to write. (DFW would not be so kind to PTA’s next film, calling Magnolia pretentious and hollow and “100% gradschoolish in a bad way.” Ouch.) (And but also n.b.: That dream-team dinner just got even more interesting…)
3. He was a p*ssy hound
Apparently. Sure, many people recount him going off with random women after signings, and sure, he told Franzen that he wondered whether his only purpose on earth was “to put [his] penis in as many vaginas as possible.” But maybe he just went back to all those womens’ places and didn’t actually effect coitus or whatever—like what supposedly happened with Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation: they went back to her place, she decided she didn’t want to, they didn’t. (Leading him to base the title character in “The Depressed Person” on her, allegedly.) I mean it probably went down how it looks, it’s just that if he had slept with even half the number implied in the book, wouldn’t there be like a lot more self-congratulatory tumblrs out there, eg. “I Slept With A Literary God” or something like that? Or even like a blog account of the evening or something? Well, actually, maybe not.
A few other stray info-bits:
—Viking Penguin sent Wallace a bill for $324.51 for his reversal of some of the copyedits of The Broom of the System
—Excerpt of letter sent to copyeditor of Infinite Jest: “The following non-standard features of this mss. are intentional and will get stetted by the author if color-penciled by you: Neologisms, catachreses, solecisms, and non-standard syntax in sections concerning the characters Minty, Marathe, Antitoi, Krause, Pemulis, Steeply, Lenz, Orin Incandenza, Mario Incandenza, Fortier, Foltz, J.O. Incandenza Sr., Schtitt, Gompert.”
Girl With Curious Hair sold 2,200 hardcover copies
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again sold 15,000 hardcover copies
Oblivion sold 18,000 hardcover copies
—By 2006, 150,000 copies of Infinite Jest had been sold (one assumes it’s into seven digits by now)