This Site Has… Become Something Else

I’ve decided to make a fresh start on another WordPress blog with a different account.

Why?

In the digital age of reading, it becomes anachronistic to hit someone with a hardcover book. Doing the same with an eReader, however, not only voids an expensive warranty but also produces an entirely different sound.

That is just one reason. But the important thing to know is that from now on, I’m posting on http://readyoubastard.com/ and with much better frequency.

I want to thank everyone who has read and commented on Thwok! for the past couple years, and I hope you continue to enjoy good books.

The Comedians by Graham Greene

I stole this book from the Peace Corps headquarters in Azerbaijan.

But who hasn’t? I recently made another trip overseas to see Kiersten, and one day we stopped by the PC headquarters in Baku. While its provisions are by no means extravagant, the HQ keeps a supply of donated clothing, equipment, and of course, books, for the volunteers take as they please. I’m not a volunteer, but when I see a Graham Greene novel on a shelf, my psychological condition compels me to grab it and attempt to justify to all witnesses my keeping it.

The fedora roof was a little-known hallmark of postmodernist architecture.

“Just take it,” said a nearby volunteer.

“Really?” I said. “But this stuff is for you guys. I’m not supposed to–”

“Please. Just take it.”

I like to think her insistence was based on the idea they have too many books already, and not a loathing for Greene. Either way, it’s mine, and it accompanied me on a sad plane trip back home.

In case you’ve never read Greene, he was one of the premier espionage novel writers of the 20th century. He had the uncanny knack for being in a country just before it would erupt in a civil war or revolution (granted, this was the 50s and 60s, so it was hard not to be in one). Perhaps the most famous example of these is The Quiet American, a prophetic indictment of American involvement in Vietnam.

The Comedians is drawn from his experience in Haiti during “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s reign of terror. The main character, who identifies himself as “Brown,” is an ex-pat who owns a hotel that stands empty (an everpresent, machete-wielding secret police isn’t conducive to a country’s tourism). He has been ruined by the Papa Doc regime but seems resigned to accept its atrocities as a bystander. But two other parties come to Haiti: The Smiths, American progressives who aspire to promote vegetarianism foreign countries, and “Major” Jones. Jones is an shady but affable chap who uses oddly archaic British terms and is doubtful to have ever been a Major at all. When Brown presses Jones for the reason he’s in Haiti, Jones coyly insists it’s for business.

Jones may be a grifter, a spy, or something similar, but whatever it is he’s terrible at it. “The Major” runs afoul of the dictator, and Brown reluctantly comes to his aid. This eventually threatens Brown’s relationship with his mistress–something he’s far more protective of than his decaying hotel and will go to desperate ends to preserve.

The Greene Plot Machine

Another arrogant, unhappy adulterer who is in a position to have his likable friend/rival killed. The Comedians is formula Graham Greene: this is The Quiet American, Haiti Edition. A bad book? No. But a duplicated plot cheapens both novels for me.

Also reappearing is Greene’s attack on US Cold War foreign policy, particularly America’s regrettable tradition of propping up tyrants based on their promise to kill Communists (and they never stopped at just Communists). He can be depended upon to refrain from preachiness, though, in his political message. He lets the heinousness of the Tonton Macoutes secret police speak for itself, and many of the incidents described in The Comedians are ones he’d actually witnessed–including the police interrupting a dissenter’s funeral to hijack the body.

If you’ve read The Quiet American, this is skippable, but the Haitian history is worth knowing. You might honestly choose to read one novel or the other based on the nation of interest. The Comedians an historically significant work, though, and was personally condemned by Papa Doc Duvalier, himself. But screw him. It’s chilling to read this knowing that Haiti’s tragedies would not cease even with the death of the dictator; his similarly vicious son would rule until 1986, and the 2010 earthquake would kill hundreds of thousands. (I found a Post-It in the back of my copy addressed to a Peace Corps volunteer from a fellow PCV recommending this book based on its perceived timeliness)

Reading this, though, I’m reminded that I want a Graham Greene for this era. Who is he/she, and where is this writer right now, blending morally complicated literary fiction with urgent foreign journalism?

Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith

Sometimes you read a sequel and find yourself half-incredulous of where you find the protagonist when the curtain rises. Granted, I wasn’t surprised that Tom Ripley, the sociopathic forger/imitator/high-class fraudster who got away with a couple murders in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, was living the good life in the French countryside and enjoying some steady income from a few rackets. What threw me was his being married, for one, and also his now having co-conspirators.

And the award for murkiest jacket design goes to...

This is the guy who spent months on his own European Grand Tour after murdering his acquaintance and assuming the victim’s identity. Part of the intensity of the first Ripley novel was that 25-year-old Tom was so utterly alone. He was the killer Raskolnikov was trying to be– nearly unflappable in his scheme to hide his crimes and faintly misanthropic to the end.

Now he has a practical Ocean’s Eleven of Idiots.

Tom is orchestrating a great art scandal: the famous painter Derwatt, once thought dead from suicide, is alive and producing pieces that continue to sell for the highest sums. In reality, Derwatt is dead, and Tom has another painter, Bernard Tufts, forging his former mentor’s work. The only other individuals in on the con are the two boobs who run the gallery and the man who oversees the Derwatt art school/supply arm of the operation.

Donning a fake beard, Ripley is called upon to assume the role of Derwatt in public (we’re going off the assumption that growing a beard would make you unrecognizable), because along comes an American collector who is convinced the new Derwatt paintings are fakes. The facade doesn’t hold up, and Ripley is interestingly more pissed that the American sees through his Derwatt performance than the forged paintings. Well, one wine bottle to the head later, Tom’s killed somebody.

Perhaps Tom has changed enough in the last five years that he can tolerate the meddling and dependence of a wife and some partners-in-crime, but even allowing that, Ripley Under Ground becomes a slightly different book from what I wanted. The crime caper of this sequel may not be as fun and inventive as the first novel’s, for reasons aforementioned, but there’s still some fascinating stuff going on.

Digging Himself Deeper

The forger Bernard is the hapless pawn in all this, which doesn’t go unappreciated by Tom: being himself a forger of identities, Tom sympathizes with the painter who must commit his artistry to being something other than himself. At one point Tom argues that the forger must be more skilled than the original artist; great art comes naturally to the artist, but the imitator must sweat and toil harder to produce the convincing fake.

What kind of painter would Bernard be if he didn’t have to be Derwatt? What kind of man would Tom be if he could live an honest life? Could he?

“Tom could have wept for Bernard… Bernard was as miserable as someone, who was not an actor, trying to act on a stage and hating every minute of it.”

Bernard is more like…us, and he cannot handle the identity crisis inherent in spending several years being someone else. Not only is Tom trying to keep the Derwatt operation from being exposed, he’s trying to keep his Talented Mr. Tufts from snapping and confessing everything to the authorities.

The Tom-Bernard interaction is a fascinating one, and it becomes darkly amusing when Tom cooly demands the neurotic artist to help him exhume a body and lie to the cops. But they are two false halves of the same dead artist, each with authentic skill that begs reevaluation of creations we dismiss as “fakes.”

The book’s events are far more morbid but somehow less disturbing: Highsmith is playing Ripley’s callousness for laughs now, having him literally rise from the grave to go take a bath and fix himself a sandwich. This robs the story of the gravity it otherwise deserves. People have toyed with the idea of canonizing Highsmith not only as one of the 20th century’s crime novel greats, but the American literary fiction greats. If she wanted to, she probably could have been. But in this second Ripley book I felt her shying a bit from the dark, personal cellar that made The Talented Mr. Ripley impossible to confine to a genre.

House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

Listen, if you buy this book, take the dust jacket off and throw it away. Because if you glance at the author’s head shot from time to time like I tend to do, that will cause problems with House of Holes. You don’t want to finish a story about a woman pleasuring herself on a penis tree and then be reminded it was written by Burl Ives.

If you stare at the hole long enough, then everything around it starts to move and... oh, never mind.

Nicholson Baker is no stranger to erotic fiction (Vox, The Fermata), and in the publishing world, his is qualified as literary. More on that later. He took a break from that with a nonfiction book on WWII and then tribute to poetry called The Anthologist, which I went sort of apeshit over. With House of Holes he returns to what I guess his calling always was as a writer.

The titular House of Holes is an eccentric compound where visitors are indulged in even their most ridiculous fantasies, especially some they didn’t know they had, ranging from sex with a headless person (for those who fear being judged by their partner) to crotchal transfers, where volunteers have their genitals exchanged with another’s and basically go from there. And then there’s a cinema multiplex known as the Porndecahedron. It’s fun. The whole book carries the tone of that scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” when Sir Galahad stumbles into Castle Anthrax.

People usually find this place by being sucked down some random “Being John Malkovich” portal that happens to be a tumble dryer or even a hole punched in a business card.  A complete stranger might ask a character if she may de-pants him and watch him manhandle himself, or something to that effect, and the guy invariably says, “Okay.” Everyone has few, if any, reservations toward the bizarre sexual opportunities presented to them and the effect is hilarious. Would you like to go pussysurfing? Sure, why not? There’s little to fear in the world of House of Holes beyond a clitoris-stealing madwoman known as “The Pearloiner.”

Ironically, No Climax

It’s filthy without ever being nasty. Unless you like nasty. Do you like nasty? Do you? Well… maybe you should read a different book or something. This is like a silly, faintly sentimental version of Letters to Penthouse. So don’t expect any kind of character development or plot trajectory across the stories. It is what it says it is– “a Book of Raunch”– just one smutty tale after another, but still, part of my giddiness waned as this became more apparent. While there are some interesting things going on here, like the old question of whether sex can engender love as opposed to vice versa, it probably has more value as a collection of some pretty stupendous dirty talk. You’re likely to find more substance in a Christopher Moore novel and with almost as many impressive moves on the prose dancefloor. This doesn’t make House of Holes a bad book, but any “literary” designation is wishful thinking on the part of highbrow readers who in reality just like the sexy, funny stuff here.

This was enjoyable, but if I ever get the opportunity to attend a book signing where Baker himself reads from it, I’ll pass.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Short story collections don’t sell. You’d think that they would– if we’re to believe what people keep saying about the shrinking attention span of American readership.

So I started watching The Wire now that my friend is loaning me the DVDs, and while it took a while to get going, it’s living up to its reputation, without question.

Where was I? Right, so the question is, what do you do in this business if you’re a better short story writer than a novelist?

This cover is a stylized depiction of every drama teacher I've ever had.

You don’t need to change much, actually. You can turn a short story collection into a novel by taking a character in one piece and… ahhh, let’s say… making her the daughter of some other character’s boss from another. BAM–continuity! I’d like to think you don’t need to do that to win the Pulitzer Prize, but Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, both short-story-collections-as-novels, are the last two books to take the award for fiction. So maybe it helps.

I can tell you which one’s the better book, and it’s the one where the connections between the stories and characters are actually weaker.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is thirteen stories, most of which take place in New York and involve a whole nexus of characters. Arguably at the center of this nexus are former punk rocker Bennie Salazar– who met with success as a record producer but is struggling to break his obsession with the past– and Sasha, his assistant, a kleptomaniacal beauty with a checkered past (who is more influential to the other characters than her actual character seems to justify).

Half the connections among the characters feel unnatural, especially since we’re operating within a very large population and span of time. You could argue that the continuity is thematic. They’re all about the shared experiences of music, right? And time?

But my favorite story here, “Selling the General,” actually has nothing to do with either. In it, Dolly, the former queen of celebrity public relations is making a comeback by taking on the account of a genocidal dictator who, as one readily understands, is in great need of a PR consultant. Dolly convinces a Hollywood starlet to pose with the general to boost his appeal and dampen the indictment of his crimes against humanity, and the shoot goes terribly awry. On the surface, the story is a light, farcical send-up of the power of image and the media. But when you consider the starlet’s complicated motives and the reactions of Dolly’s scary little daughter, the story plunges into the realm of disturbing.

It’s brilliant.

Plenty of good stories here will go unmentioned, including a cute and surprisingly effective little number that’s written entirely in Powerpoint slides.

The other favorite of mine is the last piece, “Pure Language,” which to me reads like dystopian literature. The thing is a marvel– considering that it’s harder, in some ways, to convincingly predict what the world will be like in ten years than in fifty. Its plot marks the heavily orchestrated comeback of punk rocker Scotty Hausman, a derelict soloist who in 2021 spends his days fishing in the East River. And thanks to an army of bloggers paid to hype him up, thousands of New Yorkers gather to see a guy sit down and play a slide guitar. The crowd comes away lauding the stripped-down performance for being “pure.” But the event was constructed by a manufactured campaign of liars. Does that inauthentic gathering make the music, the experience less authentic? Like with Woodstock, “it may be that the crowd at a particular moment in history creates the object to justify its gathering.”

It’s brilliant.

Last year this book pulled the upset on the media’s million dollar baby Jonathan Franzen and his Freedom for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. While I really liked Freedom, Egan’s is the more deserving book. Both carry the “This is Us, America!” presumption that makes the award panelists go hard, but Goon Squad is perhaps more cerebral while being more widely appealing. Awards don’t guarantee an obscure author a lasting audience, but here’s hoping it does in this case.

Who’s Killing the English Major?

English professors, in general, could never write. So long as they were only writing to each other, of course. Furiously gesturing in their kabuki play of academese, they fling words like “intertextuality” and “signifier/signified,” which, if you do not accept their use, you are not part of the club and should suffer the due condescension.

If you want to see Exhibit A, according to Joseph Epstein of The Wall Street Journal, look at the new Cambridge History of the American Novel

This book sounds howlingly awful– a 1200-page professorial circle jerk of which the out-of-touch authors dare you to follow a single paragraph. They’re taking the history of the American novel, something for you and me, and implying that it isn’t for us just in how it’s written. I feel no less indignant about this than Epstein does.

Now, the observation that English instructors typically churn out unreadable cinderblocks– thick while being hollow– is not new. Also not new is Epstein’s argument, for which this Cambridge book serves as his evidence: the study of literature for the enrichment and enjoyment thereof has been commandeered by the liberal majority of academics administering art as social medicine– “automatic leftism” being “the reigning ethos of the current-day English Department.” Read Eskimo feminist poetry, says your typical English prof today, It’s good for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s even good.

Really, in universities, this is the enduring conflict of the past couple of generations. Liberals bemoan the Harold Bloom-ian old guard as elitists who like their canon white and male and unchanging, and conservatives bewail the takeover of all the P.C. post-posties who insist that diversity in art is synonymous with quality.

I’m fascinated by Epstein’s essay. It contains so many double standards that reading it is like walking a hall of mirrors.

English programs, in terms of respectability and popularity, are in serious decay, and Epstein says that it all started once contemporary novels were being taught in college (The reader is to agree that contemporary=terrible or else, my goodness, we’ve lost him already!). Epstein writes:

“With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today.”

The barbarians he names are Kurt Vonnegut, E.L Doctorow, and Allen Ginsberg. Granted, I only like 33% of those guys, but it’s curious to see Epstein criticizing the inaccessibility of the Cambridge authors’ book, then pining for the sentinels of taste from the days of yore who slammed the doors on the unwashed contemporary novelists. He likes the gate but loathes the current gatekeepers.

But wait. I think we’ve left something in this discussion dangerously ignored…

The “Good Books?”

Inevitably we get into the question of what the “good books” are that should be taught, but look down at your feet: we’re in the shit now.

So before we ruin our Crocs forever, let me make a statement. Plenty of lousy books are taught today because they are merely culturally diverse. Just like plenty of lousy books are taught today because they always have been; they’re labeled to be “surviving” or “enduring” as opposed to merely “old.”

Has the liberal professor properly evaluated the Eskimo feminist poetry collection for artistic merit and enjoyability before adding it to the syllabus? Has the conservative professor re-evaluated The Last of the Mohicans lately for the same thing before including it yet again?

No matter which side you take, you are assigning many works for some purpose besides quality. Maybe you don’t like Beowulf (I do, but that’s neither here nor there), but it’s being taught because we’re going to learn about the early Anglo-Saxons, goddammit. Or you don’t like The House of Spirits, but you know what, we’re going to learn about Latin-American political history, goddammit.

The point is, you are much more likely to perceive an agenda behind the curriculum if you don’t enjoy the books. And that agenda, you will usually conclude, is a misguided one.

Oh, God, This Has Gotten Political

I like to think that professors and thinkers belonging to both camps first got into literary study from a shared passion for the written word, not because it was an instrument for social change or the reinforcement of traditional values (though those are usually secondary objectives that educators pick up along the way). The Book was the thing.

Epstein would have you believe that he is on the side of the angels, that his is the argument championing The Book, and the agenda-driven academics running the show are the killjoys constraining its value to whatever it says about race, class, or gender. I don’t think his opposition would see it that way. For many of the more liberal professors, enjoyment of The Book may very well be the fact it presents a minority perspective, or questions tradition, or is just plain different. Maybe the fact it is written by Eskimo women is why they love it.

Regardless, they’re teaching the book in relation to other interests, which Epstein sees as folly.

What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

What he sees as the dilution of a study is in reality, at least by intention, a multi-faceted campaign to take books and discuss their connection to the world around us. I think we’re all aware of the stigma that English majors battle on a regular basis, which is that their field of interest is woefully inapplicable to real life (and this battle they regularly lose). This context-based approach that works to emphasize the relevance of literature–be it to pop culture, sexuality, politics, globalization, etc.– is a response to the larger student concern.

Does this show a lack of faith in the timelessness and appeal of great books themselves to fill the class rosters? That’s a valid criticism. But it isn’t the touchy-feely interdisciplinary shift in the curriculum that’s been killing the popularity of the English program. It’s the world, for God’s sake. What Epstein is fingering as the gunman is really the bumbling EMT who arrived on the scene to administer the shock paddles in the wrong place.

Booktrack: I Can Hear You Reading Over There

I recoil at this like I do most innovations that seek to improve “the reading experience.” The nose upturns by reflex: I don’t need an orchestral score to enjoy my books, thank you very much. 

But the presumption isn’t that it’s needed, but that it might make some books a little more fun.

Booktrack is a New York start-up that’s begun selling downloadable ebooks with original soundtracks complete with music, ambient noise, and contextual sound effects. You figured somebody was going to do this eventually, and the question was how good it would be once they did.

To its credit, Booktrack seems to acknowledge that readers are fussy. Maybe you like the ambient ocean waves but find the music distracting: lower the volume on the music or simply mute it. If you want to reread a previous line, you tap it, and the soundtrack snaps back to that point.

Watching the preview on their web site, I think Booktrack has anticipated all my misgivings on the very concept. Almost every addition you could possibly dislike, you can adjust or turn off — even the little dot sliding down the margin that predicts your adjusted reading speed (in order to sync up the music).

The interface looks good. The only question is, well, the quality of the soundtrack.

On the Sherlock Holmes preview, the swelling music and the ambient drumming raindrops were fine, but the sound effects, like the thudding footsteps and the lady’s wail, are in Royalty-Free Soundz territory. Just think of all the Wilhelm Screams these things will have.

Another preview showed an excerpt of Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City describing an 80′s club scene, wherein the line, “Your brain is composed of a brigade of Bolivian soldiers marching through the night,” is accompanied by the actual clomping of marching soldiers (this with Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” in the background).

Are the sounds all going to be this literal? Awesome! Then maybe the Booktrack rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” will begin like this:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain [door creaking open, then shutting]; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night ["Oooooo! Ooo-OOO-oooo!"]. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man [a big wet SMOOCH]. He had never done me wrong.

(This with Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” in the background)

So they’re working the teen angle, what with the one new book at launch being the sequel to I Am Number Four,  The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore (a.k.a. James Frey).

It’s the right target market: first, this technology would seem especially appealing to younger readers, and second, the fastest and cheapest way to build Booktrack’s library would be through focusing not on new books, but rather public domains like Pride and Prejudice and Huck Finn — classics that happen to be on the assigned reading lists of millions of students.

If the execution’s there, I can imagine Booktracks becoming an influential player in publishing, maybe even spawning imitators. But if the quality’s off, then reading one of these noisy books will just be embarrassing. It remains to be seen, I suppose.

Until then, what best enhances my reading experience is, and will continue to be, a quiet porch and a rum and coke. And Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.’”