Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #7 (Play It As It Lays, Finish)

Hi all. Here's the last class of 2014. I'll be talking about Didion's Play It As It Lays. So Merry Christmas, I'll see you next year, and I hope you all have a great holiday.



   Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays is about disconnection and loneliness. This should come as no surprise considering the milieu, which is centered around the emotional wastelands of Hollywood and Las Vegas. While these locales have been mined repeatedly for the kind of anomie described in the book, Didion manages to keep our interest in a couple different ways.
   The first is her writing style. It is spare and direct, but with enough craft and artistry that it can’t be accused of simply holding up a mirror, stylistically, to the world it describes. The prose levels with us, making us trust it, and we are confident that it will not “b.s.” us. This is very important in a novel of this sort. It does not sugarcoat the sordid events that occur, nor does it offer up the hardcore, “unflinching” look at the world that can be its own kind of dishonesty (when it is used to merely shock and titillate, for example). Didion presents the material simply, without too much comment. The reader is not totally left to “come to her own conclusions,” however. Didion definitely has an authorial point of view, though this comes through in the way the novel is structured, rather than the actual prose. She shuffles events in and out, and where they begin and end is important to the overall scheme. This resonates with one of the book’s themes: if there are answers/meaning to be found, they are not in the character’s day-to-day existence, but seem to reside in what happens before and after events, in their dreams, in the “white spaces” of their lives.
   Another way Didion keeps us engaged is through the qualities she gives to the main character, Maria. This is a character that we have seen many times before, someone lost and rudderless trying to navigate through a pitiless world. She also borders on being self-loathing, and those can be feelings that are sometimes (unintentionally) shared by the reader. But Didion prevents Maria from crossing over to pure contemptuousness, for either herself or her surroundings. If anything, she is extremely self-critical, and always expecting the other shoe to drop. A line on pg. 73, “Maria did not particularly believe in rewards, only in punishments, swift and personal,” sums up her character almost too neatly. This is followed by: “The notion of general devastation had for Maria a certain sedative effect…suggested an instant in which all anxieties would be abruptly gratified…she felt a kind of resigned tranquility.” (pg. 104) Even mundane things she does like not having a phone could lead to disaster: “There was no one to whom she wanted to talk but she had to have a telephone. If she could not be reached it would happen, the peril would find Kate.” There is no doubt that she is narcissistic, but she beats herself up so much that it feels almost cruel to think unkindly of her; it’d be almost like kicking an injured puppy. And even though a big chunk of the book deals with the rigmarole of getting a then-illicit abortion (the book was published in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade), we are still affected by Maria being haunted by the procedure. The imagery of her nightmares and thoughts (“All that day Maria thought of fetuses in the East River, translucent as jellyfish, floating past the big sewage outfalls with the orange peels.” (pg. 116)) are still striking in 2014.
   Ultimately, Maria’s disconnection is one that will never be rectified. This is dramatized by the ending of the book, when the closest thing she has to a kindred spirit, the movie producer BZ, suggests that she take a suicidal amount of Seconal pills with him. He has been led to believe that she’s just as sick of the world they live in as he is, that she feels just as acutely the pain he feels. But he is wrong. She does not take what he has to offer, and even misunderstands his intentions toward the end. (“  Don’t.’ After she had said it she opened her eyes.”) With the person most likely to understand her gone, Maria loses what seems to be her last chance at connection, and her contention on the last page that she “[knows] what ‘nothing’ means” is heartbreaking, despite (or even because of) her resolve to “keep on playing.

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 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 :)


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.


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:


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.


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.):


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.


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.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Here's a short little thing

Here's my tinyletter of the week, or whatever those things are (they seem more or less like blogs, just packaged to seem cooler than they are. We will forever be sold things to make us feel cooler than we are, apparently. Which is easy because being cool has become a malleable construct anyway. But anyway):

It's a short road from "People do that" to "Some people do that" to "People THINK people do that" to "*I've* never thought that" to "Now I feel more alone in the world."

With one notable exception, and only because it was a life-changing tome for me, I've never brought up the whole "hey what are you reading" thing with people I see who are carrying books. Same with music. So if it's a thing, I don't relate. And even if you've "come to realize" that you shouldn't do this, I don't get you because it has never even occurred to me to think it was a thing to do. So if those are the two categories of people in the world, as some would have you believe, well, damn. Cue the feelings of aloneness. (Probably abetted by they are always talking about seeing these people on subways. Are there places that don't have subways? Not according to these peope.)

But also I'm with someone partially because she asked me about a magazine I was reading instead of leaving me alone. So to add the gender thing into it is weird too, man I'm obliquely addressing. But hey, you're young, you always will be. Stay young.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

On Crying

Something has to be done about this perception of crying as some ultimate expression of being human or, perversely, as some ultimate statement of praise for an artwork. It is wrong.

I’m not trying to diminish genuine human pain, which is very real and acutely felt at various times by everyone. And crying can be a natural expression of this pain. But, oftentimes, public crying, or freely telling someone that you cried, has an aspect of performance to it, which makes us feel queasy at first, and then angers us. At some point in our lives, we have had (or continue to have) meaningful bouts of crying, where something has struck us so profoundly that crying is the only option. It’s almost an out-of-body experience, crying for real. It’s sacred. And seeing this done in public can feel like an affront to our own pain, a parody of our own grief. And that angers us.

Again, this is not meant to diminish the pain of others. If someone is hit by awful news in public, an open display of grief might be unavoidable. But oftentimes it’s a choice. Grief is sacred. To do it in public can diminish it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t cry in public out of consideration for the other people. I’m saying you shouldn’t because you should have too much respect for the act of crying. It’s sacred, treat it as such.

Too many people use it as a way to show everyone they are more human than other people, as a way of guilting them into sharing some of their very subjective pain somehow. Take Project Greenlight, season one. Pete Jones frequently threatened to cry in front of the producers of his movie in order to get what he wanted. This calculated way of using crying is all too common, and by the definitions I’ve set forth it is literally profane. Go back and watch everyone around Pete cringe every time he threatens to cry publicly. There was an extreme uneasiness about someone crying over funding for a movie, and this was before 9/11. I’m trying to illustrate that people felt uneasy about calculated crying even even before what most Americans now consider to be the profound sadness in their lives.

I’m not trying to minimize others’ pain. I am a big believer in everyone has pain, whether you’re homeless or Justin Timberlake. Everyone feels their individual pain just as acutely as the next person. But cry about your own pain, not as a way of showing your empathy for something you perceive as a universal sadness. You are not more human because you’re showing everyone you can cry. We all know we live in a universe of omnipresent sadness. There is something to be crushed by every day. If you take the whole world, the top 1% of wealth belongs to the average American ($35,000/year puts you in the top 1% if you consider everyone on the planet). The heat death of the universe hovers like a shroud over everything. The point is, no one is truly and completely empathetic, because if one were, that person would be an incapacitated puddle every day. So to decide to let one thing affect you so traumatically, and to advertise this to others, evokes an uneasiness because it’s like you’ve decided that everything else that’s sad about life doesn’t matter. Public crying is, in a way, minimizing everyone else’s pain. Plus it has an aspect of arrogance to it. It seems to be a way to say “I’m more human than you.” You are not. There is pain everywhere.

I’m not trying to dismiss other people’s individual pain. Pain is real, crying can be unavoidable. Very young people cry too freely, though. They have yet to cry before someone who they want to share their pain, and have that person look back at them impassively, with a dry, hard stare. It is at that point that everyone realizes that their pain is too sacred to be put out where anyone can sneer at it or diminish it. We respect our pain too much to do that.

The other thing people do that is wrong is think that the movement to tears is the ultimate approbation of a work of art. If a work of art makes you cry, it is a great work of art, this line of thinking goes. This is wrong. To be clear: It’s not a directly causal relationship. Some great works of art make you cry, but not all works of art that make you cry are great works of art. We live in a day and age of ultimate manipulation. People don’t even know when they’re watching an advertisement anymore. I posit that you can’t watch The Notebook (and I mean really watch it, not just have it on and be doing something else while it’s on, but watch every single frame of that movie) without being moved and misty-eyed. I’m not even going to rhetorically ask if The Notebook is great art. It will never be considered such by the hipster, film snobbish critics who (currently, but maybe not for long) decide these things for the culture at large. Yet these same critics will cry at some obscure Belgian black-and-white film (or whatever), and fine whatever maybe that Belgian black-and-white film actually is great art, but they will use their tears as evidence of the art’s greatness. Well, I stand before them, dry-eyed and unmoved. Great art is so much more than your public declaration that you are more human than someone who isn’t moved to cry. Great art is more than you. Get over yourself.

I am not minimizing anyone’s pain. Pain is felt by each individual person and no one’s pain is greater than anyone else’s. I respect the freedom of everyone to feel their individual pain and to cry about that pain. This is just a response to those who use a public display of crying, or declaration of such, as a way to position themselves as better or more human than others, because they are not.