A Personal Apocalypse

I used to think that if I had to classify my fiction in one specific genre, I would call it a literature of personal apocalypse. I’ve always been attracted to stories of peak moments. The climax is the point of the tale, and the rest is mere denouement, required (by most people) but fundamentally inconsequential. I don’t care about the “ever after”. I only care about “the” moment. Everything leads up to it, and I always prefer a story to stop right then and there, without the trickling bullshit that typically follows. I’m told that normal people don’t work that way, but all of us are somewhere “on the spectrum”. It’s a continuum, as my wife likes to say.

I came up with this heady notion while still a youngster, of course. In my early twenties, when I was writing my fingers down to the bone (literally, with pen and paper. I had a callous the size of a peanut on my right middle finger), I wrote a novel in “subway-surface” style that was subtitled “A Personal Apocalypse”. I later completely rewrote that novel, “Phantom of the Mall” and converted it into a personal/robot apocalypse, perhaps the only story I know of where the happy ending consists of androids becoming alcoholics.

I bring this up because I am currently reading an absolute masterpiece of the genre of personal apocalypse, “The Passion According to G.H” by the astounding Clarice Lispector. This is a story of a rich, bored woman who goes into her former maid’s room to clean it up and finds in there, in the wardrobe, a rather large cockroach. Lispector takes this germ of a notion and presents a vision of a person transformed unlike anything else you’re ever likely to come across. There is tremendous depth in the telling but also just some brilliant writing. Lispector says things that stop you in your tracks and make you wonder. I love it.

Turned in upon myself, like a blind man listening to his own listening

I ask myself: if I look into the darkness with a magnifying glass, will I see more than darkness?

I was for the first time becoming drunk with a hatred as clean as water from a spring

I was all acid, like a piece of metal sitting on your tongue, like a crushed green plant

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Adopted Books

My thanks to the commenters on my previous post, wherein I said mean things about a beloved classic of science fiction, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. That book had been recommended to my son by his sixth-grade teacher, a friend of mine whose taste in books has been generally very good, at least as far as sixth graders are concerned, and my son has been enjoying our reading of Ender’s Game to some extent, though he does chafe a bit at the cliche of cockroach-like aliens and perpetual intergalactic war. He likes the hero/genius/child, of course, and how he outwits, outplays and outlasts ™ the mean stupid bully child. But enough of that.

What I meant to jot down some thoughts about is how we, and by “we” I mean readers, all tend to have a set of books that we adopted, often at an early age. These books are almost pets, almost friends, and stay with us for life. Ender’s Game is one of these books for many people. I’ve had a number of such companions in my life, and regardless of their perceived “quality” or stature or fame they all have incalculable value to their “owners”.

Then there are the ones that got away. My mother was a librarian, so I spent a great deal of time in my youth in libraries, and at one point I was enamored with any kind of fictional sea-faring adventure. I still read Joseph Conrad and Jack London and Richard Dana and Herman Melville but back then the books I read were for kids or young adults, and I couldn’t find enough of them. They were full of terms like fo’c’sle and aft and bilge and jib, none of which meant anything at all to me, but the seas were rough and you could get washed overboard at any moment. There were no monsters in these books, no aliens, nothing inhuman but the ocean itself and the first mate, who was always dreadful.

I cannot remember the authors or titles of any of those long-ago library books. When I look into it I recognize nothing of what I find. The names and words are long since gone. I’m pretty certain, though, that if I found them again, I would be stunned at how simple and probably silly they were.

I went through a fairly long period of reading science fiction (never had much use for fantasy or magic except in fairy tales) but then it stopped appealing to me, almost all at once, in my mid-twenties, which is now some decades ago. I still enjoy some science-fictiony elements in more speculative fiction, but flat-out world-building with fake languages, too many limbs and unpronounceable names is beyond my scope for now. I’d rather make fun of such stuff, which I’m doing a little of in my current story (The Lemon Thief’s Ex-Wife’s Third Cousin) wherein one of the characters works for a newspaper, translating headlines into non-existent languages because you  never know. Sometimes we adopt genres as well as books and authors. I guess I think of science fiction as a sort of pet rock, pretty to look at, and sometimes even amazing. Sea-faring adventures, now there’s a genre that’s pretty much come and gone.

(somehow I’m reminded here of one of the tidbits from Bookstore Lore: The Stupidest Questions Ever Asked in a Bookstore. A person comes into the bookstore and asks “where are your non-fiction books?” The snotty clerk (ahem) says, “well, you see that sign over there that says ‘fiction’? “Yes,” the unwitting customer replies. “Everywhere else,” says the rude clerk, “is non-fiction.” – Naturally, the customer was looking for a book on serial killers. In America, “non-fiction” translates almost always into “Serial Killers”.

Varieties of Difficulty in Reading

I’m experiencing trouble reading two very different books in very different ways. On the one hand, 2666 by Roberto Bolano is intentionally difficult, as he clinically relates the individual stories of the hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juarez in the 1990’s, one after another, the unsolved crimes getting their day in public court, in a sense. The way he tells their stories leaves out so much, but then again, their lives were also cut short and the narration reinforces that fact. It’s a brooding and depressing book in general. Hard to keep going at some points, but tremendously compelling at others.

The second book is the one I’m reading aloud to my son, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. This book is beloved by so many people that I’ve been surprised both at how poorly it’s written and how very boring it is (to me). It’s essentially Starship Troopers with a precocious six-year old. Ender is six in the same way that Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes is six – not really. But he’s a genius and isolated and misunderstood and manipulated by the adults around him, so it makes sense this book would appeal to nerdy teens and tweens. I’m just not the audience.

Reading: Oblivion by “DFW”

It seems to be obligatory to refer to David Foster Wallace by his initials. I’m not sure why and I’m trying to think of another author who carries this distinction. Is Bret Easton Ellis known as BEE? may-bee to some! The three-name thing is another of those “special cases” in American culture, typically reserved for assassins and serial killers, but occasionally for the ultra-special artist as well. It makes you wonder what Pablo Picasso’s middle name was – Pablo Ricardo Picasso? No, Pablo Ruiz y Picasso. I looked it up. How about Trent Herman Reznor? Okay, I digressed.

I have not yet been able to get through anything by DFW, so I thought I’d try these short stories. I made it up to page three of the first story. Gave up. Couldn’t conceive of continuing through another 64 pages of the excrutiatingly detailed focus group thing. Started the second story. Was able to begin. Overly detailed description of middle class elementary school around 1960. Too close to home? I knew those window panes he described oh-so meticulously. I was there in that generation and race and class and nationality. They always say you should write about what you know. Granted, but I kind of hate reading about what I know. That’s my problem.

The blurb on the back referred to him as “exciting” but DFW is (so far) as far from exciting as any writer I’ve come across. My blurb for this book would be something like “Tedious prose about tedious people”.

I will try a little more, since there are occasional rays of slight ironic humor that poke through the gloom every once in a while.

Recommended: The Double by Jose Saramago

This was my second book by Saramago and again I find myself reading it as much for the author as for the story. I love getting lost in his digressions and asides, in the way he makes conversations flow, in the furious arguments his characters carry on inside their heads. He makes the most out of the plot device but in many ways its more about the ingredients than the dish, including the savory confrontations with ‘common sense’ and the narrator who pretends to be ‘merely transcribing the thoughts’ of the characters. it’s the kind of b book you don’t want to end and yet the ending is perhaps the most delicious course in this masterful meal.

Reading and Expectations

One thing that the five-star ratings system can never capture is the relationship between your opinion of a book and your original expectations of it. Recently it’s become apparent to me that this is key. Whether a book exceeds your expectations or fails to live up to them determines in large part your overall judgment of it. This has nothing to do with the book itself (sui generis, as it were) but everything to do with you and your desires.

Cases in point. I’ve been trying to read the newest Cesar Aira translation (The Miracles Cures of Dr. Aira) and I just don’t like it, after having loved or at least very much liked all  the previous translations of his books. My expectations were high and are not being met.

With Jose Saramago, I expected very little, and my anticipations were far exceeded. The book revealed new things to me about fiction, about writing and narration, about storytelling in general. I had certainly not expected any of that!

Today I started reading China Mieville‘s “The City and the City” – after what I’d read about this author, from Goodreads friends as well as from Wikipedia and other sources, my expectations were high. Words like “intelligent”, “interesting” and “original” were consistently applied to him, as well as comparisons to Kafka and Orwell. Since I began reading it, I have had to adjust my expectations, lower and lower and lower. I really don’t like it. The writing is nothing special to me. The “fantastical” elements are kind of a bore. “Intelligent” seems to refer to his use of unusual words, like “machicolation”. Basically, this book so far strikes me as a highbrow imitation Raymond Chandler set in some parallel universe Hungary where there is great cellphone coverage but only dialup internet (come again?), and there’s a cop and a dead woman (naturally assumed to be a hooker, as all dead women are!) and a whole lot of hard-to-pronounce names.

I spent more than twenty bucks on this paperback, written by a recognized “favorite” and published by one of the handful of megacorporations that defined the publishing “industry” and the book is nowhere near as good as many of the FREE indie books I’ve found on Smashwords. Who is really devaluing the written word? How about those in monopoly control of the stuff they permit you to read?

Anyway, as I was saying, perhaps if I keep lowering my expectations enough, this book will eventually match them and I’ll be able to finish it. Or maybe not. I have no problem giving up on a book. There’s no shortage of the danged things.

For Reading Out Loud

It’s nearly eleven years and my wife and I are still taking turns, alternating nights, reading to our son at bedtime. Sometimes the boy and the parent will read their own books, but for the most part there’s still a lot of reading out loud going on. I’ve read quite a few books this way, and it’s really brought out a sense of what works and what doesn’t (for me). Some of the more popular books which we’ve read (Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, Rick Riordan’s, Hunger Games) have been the worst – wordy, repetitive, and full of stale cliches and plots you could navigate in your sleep. On the other hand, there have been so many that have been a joy – including nearly every Lemony Snicket, every Roald Dahl, all of Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak, Lewis Carroll, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. 

Right now we’re in the midst of a very fun book, Seamus and Tessa by Jim Maher (author of the marvelous Hemingway Man). This one is wildly inventive, engaging and amusing, featuring a pair of goofy parents (I’m an all-day sucker for those, being one myself) and a host of really bad bad guys. It’s the kind of book that makes me look forward to my turns. Wait, I think I hear him calling. Can’t wait to see what happens next (I don’t read ahead, no matter how much I want to, just so we can discover it together)