Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dropping out of David Foster Wallace's English 170R

So. It turns out that taking a college course all by yourself is harder than it looks.

With that said, there are probably a lot of things that are easier about taking a course "unofficially" at home. For starters, there's no professor, so you don't get graded. You can kind of "cheat" by going to "class" at whatever time you want. You can even attend class naked if you so desired. (Full disclosure: I didn't do that.) You can do the assignments late, or not at all. The freedom you have is pretty remarkable, actually.

But it's kind of lonely and you're limited to what you can come up with yourself. There are no fellow students or the prof to bounce ideas off of, and no one is responding to your thoughts in ways that make you have totally new thoughts you wouldn't have had otherwise. You're basically trapped in your own skull (quotation alert) the whole time, which isn't that bad until you hit an intellectual wall and need some guidance.

Giovanni's Room kind of derailed me. It was the first novel in the course that I more admired than liked, and I found myself without too much to say about it. When I sat down to do my minipaper the end product was awful. Like really, really bad. But I couldn't come up with anything else. I needed to hear what others thought about the novel and maybe have the prof put the work in cultural context or something. Anyway, it was just discouraging that I couldn't rise to the level of insight that the book seemed to demand. I'm going to go ahead and post the minipaper right here so you can see what I mean. NB: I'm not posting it because I secretly think it's good and I'm being coyly modest about the whole thing and I know deep down inside that people will like it and rush to reassure me that No wait it really is good and all that. Make no mistake, I'm posting it because it's really bad and I would've failed this minipaper even IF it met the minimum "1 page" length requirement, which it falls woefully short of. I have no problem being proud of stuff I've written (I think my minipaper for Play It As It Lays is actually pretty kickass), but the following is complete tripe. Here it is:

   Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is many things; it’s a bildungsroman, a novel about Paris during a specific time, a recounting of the gay experience, and a paean to not so much the past but our memory of the past. It is also an unrequited love story in which the protagonist is the one who cannot give his love.

   The first-person narrative draws us into the world of the narrator, David, an American expatriate who resides in Paris for most of the book. The story is a reminiscence. The past exists strongly for David, and his retelling of previous events stand out vividly against his description of the present, which is scattered and elusive. He places obvious importance on certain events in his life, and the way he lavishes detail on these events reveals his very deterministic outlook.

   The titular room is rich with metaphor. Its size is a clear symbol; it is sometimes referred to as a “closet.” David feels alternately safe and fearful in it. Giovanni tries to reconfigure its dimensions to suit David, tearing down whole walls even, but ultimately to no avail.

   The novel addresses gender relations in interesting ways. Hella, David’s fiancĂ©e, limns the distinctions between men and women in a few memorable speeches. She also emerges as a character of pathos, just as much as David and Giovanni, thwarting the reader’s expectations.

   The framing device of Giovanni’s impending execution works despite its trite, pulpy origins. It actually becomes acceptable only after the characters are imbued with history and depth of feeling, which is its own sort of clichĂ© but works because the passion of the characters is so carefully and lovingly described. The ending sees David trying to strike out anew, to make a decision that wholly originates from a person that is separated from his history, but the way the torn papers flutter back toward him indicates that this won’t be a possibility. Giovanni and his room and all the time they spent together will always haunt David.

So yeah. I couldn't even bring myself to do recorded thoughts on Giovanni's Room for fear of just babbling incoherently. There's probably a lot of context a professor could've filled me in on in terms of the climate of the culture when it was released, where it fits in the literary landscape, Baldwin's own history, etc. But coming to it cold was hard when I couldn't come up with anything particularly illuminating to say about it. (Sidenote: a lot of the assigned works seem to draw heavily from their respective authors' lives and Giovanni's Room is probably no exception. With that said, it is very interesting that there are no black characters in the novel. I read a snippet of a Paris Review interview with Baldwin in which he basically admits that he didn't feel up to the task of elucidating the gay experience AND black experience in one book, but that he'd probably do it differently had he wrote the book later in his career. This brings up all sorts of questions and conundra (conundrums?) about authorial obligation when part of a minority segment of the population (especially one that's been historically marginalized), and intentional fallacy, and morals (both/all definitions), etc. But, again, if I had this conversation with myself, it'd just go round and round and be pretty limited in scope.)

All of this is my long way of saying that I won't be posting any more "discussions" or minipapers on the books. I am, however, keeping up with the reading (for the most part) because I did truly want to read these books. I'm about halfway through The Moviegoer and enjoying it, as well as finding it to be a book I could probably write a decent paper on and articulate fairly cogent thoughts about. Not that I will, I'm just saying that I'm discovering that I have more to say about certain kinds of books. (In Watermelon Sugar was another headscratcher for me, kind of. I feel I need to at least be able to name and distinguish between a few economic/political systems and be conversant in examples of each in history to be able to talk about IWS intelligently. Another thing Prof DFW could've filled me in on, I'm sure.)

So, again, sorry I'm "dropping out" of the course. I guess you could say I'm "auditing" it however, and I look forward to reading the rest of the assigned novels.