Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Penny Press! A Compartmentalized TLS!

A place for everything, and everything in its place in last week's TLS. The issue had all the requsite features every issue does, in this case doled out one at a time to several authors.

Michael Brett, for instance, gets the Best Quip. In his review of "Islam and the Abolition of Slavery," he points out that for a book to cover such an enormous subject in only 293 pages requires the author to dash all over the place, lingering nowhere. Brett's quip:

"'Islam and the Abolition of Slavery' is a tour de force, but one with a distinct resemblance to the Tour de France."


The Spirited Objection comes from the always-reliable Raymond Tallis, whose review of Neil Gorsuch's "The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia" rises gradually to an exalted pitch:

"The recklessness of the Roman Catholic Church with the lives of millions of believers, by vetoing condoms and in some cases actually lying about their effectiveness, thus sacrificing human life on the altar of doctrinal purity, is about as grotesque an example of instrumentalism as one could imagine."

We here at Stevereads are entirely in favor of physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients with no hope of improvement. So naturally we agree with Tallis' ringing final lines:

"To oppose assisted dying is to make an active decision to impose suffering. I hope when I am being marched to imminent death by my disintegrating, pain-racked body, my doctor will not risk a fourteen-year prison sentence for refusing to abandon me in my hour of greatest need."

To Jamie McKendrick falls the Thoughtful Appreciation. He turns in a very thoughtful essay on Giorgio Bassani's fantastic novel "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" (soon to be given a new translation by Penguin, joyous news).

Bassani's book is a wonderful story of young love, set in the golden town of Ferrara against the backdrop of pre-World War II darkness spreading across Italy.

We here at Stevereads have very fond memories of Ferrara (and of her greaest adopted son, Ariosto), and "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" wonderfully evokes the nature of the place.

We can't speak for the quality of the new translation (no copy has yet made its way to our door), but we can enthusiastically recommend the book (and all of Bassani's work, particularly "Behind the Door"). If memory serves, there are at least two English translations in existence - albeit not, alas, in print. Time for yet another trip to Alibris!

And an issue of the TLS wouldn't be complete without the Outrage-Inducer piece. This issue's comes from Stephen Burns - it's a long, adulatory review of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" (on the occasion of that book's now being ten years old).

Burns starts up his blather right from the starting-gate, hauling in Italo Calvino and Norman Cohn to set up a discussion of 'millennial fiction' - then he lets the reader have it, right in the solar plexus of good taste:

"One of the most artistically significant of these millennial novels is David Foster Wallace's encyclopedic masterpiece 'Infinite Jest' ..."

When any kind of 'masterpiece' is attributed to David Foster Wallace, you just know James Joyce can't be far off, and sure enough, "Ulysses" gets a mention in the next paragraph, where it and "Infinite Jest" are put on the same shelf as 'Hamlet.'

All the giants are mentioned in due course: Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith (Burn oddly also mentions George Saunders and Lawrence Norfolk, both of whom actually have literary talent; we presume they were included by mistake) ... all good in their way, but none comparing to the Master:

"The desire to adapt (rather than explicitly reject) the legacy of post-modernism and move toward a fiction that humanly engages is probably 'Infinite Jest's most palpable contribution to contemporary fiction."

Such passages illustrate the transformation of criticism into outright lying, and the article is full of them. There are possible explanations for this kind of sunshine-pumping sycophancy (massive drug use? a burgeoning homoerotic affair between author and reviewer?), but they are resolutely extra-literary. Writing like this makes us want to rush to the loo and make a 'palpable contribution' of our own.

Wallace's book is an enormous, spoiled mess, an epic failure, a gigantically extended demonstration of hubris - hubris being the defining and linking flaw of all the navel-gazing giants listed above. Of the novel's 1,079 pages, perhaps four are any good.

But the thing sure is LONG, ain't it? And Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is manically detailed. And Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" has BLANK PAGES! Surely there must be SOMETHING going on here!

Alas, it's not difficult to write a 1,079-page book if do it the Wallace way. You can do it yourself! The steps are easy:

1. Come up with the thinnest possible scrap of an actual plot (Burn admits that the various plot-strands in "Infinite Jest" are left hanging, but of course he views that as a GOOD thing, the poor wretch)

2. Start typing.

3. (this one's crucial, so pay attention) Don't STOP typing.

Here at Stevereads we're blessed with readers who are also writers, and it's that third step that will give them the most trouble. Because if you follow the Wallace way, you'll JUST KEEP TYPING - no agonizing over word-choice (or even word-repitition), no pausing to refresh, no questioning whether or not something you're writing actually BELONGS in your book, and most of all no revising.

If you can turn off your writerly urges to do all of those things, if you JUST KEEP TYPING, you'll have 1,079 pages by Armistice Day, no problem. They'll be a big, egotistical mess, but they'll BE there.

The reader isn't a dozen pages into "Infinite Jest" before he's painfully aware that this is exactly how Wallace wrote it. Well, any reader except Burn, who incredibly blames the book's endless roster of flaws on anybody BUT its author.

He says that "from the very beginning, the novel has been dogged by textual errors. When the proofs were delivered to Wallace, he claims he discovered 'about 712,000 typos,' and some of these evidently made their way into the first edition."

Apparently impervious to irony, Burn proceeds to list some of these 'textual errors':

"Another character has his head frozen to a window on November 18 and appears to stay there until November 20, although he takes part in a conditioning run in between those two days."

You'd think such 'textual errors' might pile up enough to make even Burn see the light, but you'd be wrong: they just make him protective of his author:

"These problems (and others like them) are minor issues in such a long, complex work but it is disappointing that after ten years, the publisher who has reissued this important and influential book has not corrected such errors."

If Burn were reading this blog, we'd ask him one simple question: exactly HOW is the publisher supposed to correct such 'textual errors'? By re-writing them? Then what's become of the book's importance and influence?

The more pertinent question might be what's become of the author's JOB, if his sloppy plotting and lack of revision bloat his book to 1,079 pages and riddle it with 'textual errors'?


Kevin Caron said...

Great post - I'm torn between wanting to have read "Infinite Jest", so I can enjoy the zeal with which you rip it (and this review) the proverbial 'new one' all the more, and being overjoyed that I never have, since you've skewered it so well.

Beepy said...

Steve's rants against a book always make me want to go read it just to see if he's right. Steve's sold more books by panning them than by recommending them, I suspect.

Sam Sacks said...

What makes "Infinite Jest" so popular? It's not a three minute Macarena fad; it's this thousand page footnoted tome that's somehow still big with Generation ADD. Are we assuming that no one is actually reading the whole thing, that they're only reading snippets to be able to brag that they've taken part in a trippy cultural watershed, like doing E at a Dave Matthew's Band concert or stumping for Dennis Kucinich?

I haven't read it...anyone else out there able to offer insights about this book, maybe the most famous title in the last twenty years beside the Harry Potter books?

steve said...

the most famous title of the last twenty years? Do you really think so? Surely not! Surely there must be SOMETHING more famous?

YOU sleep with these people, Sam! Can you EXPLAIN them, please?

Sam Sacks said...

Maybe 'The da Vinci Code,' is more famous (but I think that's just more of a very long flash in the pan), maybe 'Beloved'...there's no single Stephen King title that compares...maybe Eggers' book...what am I forgetting? What's more all-around, across the boards, lastingly famous?

I don't know why the book's so famous. Maybe it does have something to do with the idea Burn mentions about the book recreating the feeling of living in contemporary America. Maybe you don't play enough video games or watch enough MTV.

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