The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


In some ways it's appropriate that I was in the home stretch (the last 400 pages...) of Thomas Pynchon's latest novel, AGAINST THE DAY, when I heard that David Foster Wallace killed himself. Wallace, of course, was heavily influenced by Pynchon, and in my last post I noted that his first novel was almost a rewriting of THE CRYING OF LOT 49. A lot of us are still processing Wallace's death, starting to re-read his novels and such. I was tempted to drop Pynchon for some Wallace I haven't read yet (BROOM OF THE SYSTEM is staring at me) but I really had to finish the Pynchon before I move on to the mini-autodidactic-course on copyright I need to complete before my November conference.

I'm glad I chose to finish AGAINST THE DAY. I don't know how many people have read it; it sold a bunch when it first came out, of course, but it's one of those 1000+ page doorstops that people buy and don't read. Then, of course, when one picks it up, it's not strictly speaking an easy read, or, in fact, in any manner of speaking an easy read. Fortunately, it's not MASON AND DIXON, which I found almost unreadable.

MASON AND DIXON's problem was also one of its great strengths, and is in my opinion the greatest strength of AGAINST THE DAY; that is, both novels (and here I am attempting to channel both Pynchon and Wallace's style) are masterful reconstructions of the prose styles and vocabularies of their time periods. Eighteenth-century prose is for most of us difficult to wade through, and even its great masters (and here I'm thinking of Johnson, Boswell, Addison, Steele, etc.) at times grate on modern readers because it's just hard to give them the attention they require. Pynchon is a great mimic but not a master, and so reading MASON AND DIXON was like listening to endless recordings of average musicians playing great jazz tunes: I'd rather have the originals.

Probably because the late 19th century and early 20th century are closer to us in sensibility, AGAINST THE DAY is a much easier slog, although it is a slog at times. I'm also much more familiar with the vocabulary and typical sentence constructions of the time, and I found myself consistently amazed at just how deeply Pynchon must have immersed himself in those voices. He's always had a reputation for being almost TOO knowledgeable about whatever he's writing about--some people suspect that these are collaboratively written, because no one person could know so much detail about so many diverse things--and this novel, or at least its use of 19th century prose style, isn't going to put those doubts to rest. I think, though, that Pynchon is actually one of the great stylists (unlike Wallace, whose style I don't particularly like, and who I think just got sloppy and undisciplined at times) but in a high-postmodern mode. I loved the voices of the Traverse family, the frontier anarchist bombers who all speak in a kind of laconic, Hollywood Western-speak that's at the same time KNOWING about the fact that it sounds like Gary Cooper or John Wayne.

It's probably not of any use to describe the plot. I couldn't, anyway. It's even more complicated and overpopulated than GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, and is held together primarily by its scope and by the few characters--the Traverse family--who are at the center. As always with Pynchon, there's a physics plot, this time involving light, "phosgene," and dimensions beyond the fourth; there's also a truly global setting moving from the Mexican revolution to pre-WWI central Asia to Venice to Colorado to the stratosphere. And of course there is the deep knowledge of strange, generally forgotten bits of world history, generally involving colonial encounters and clashes of national groups. I guess the plot, if any, centers on the Traverses. Webb, the father, is involved with the anarchist faction of the unionization movement among Colorado miners in the 1890s, and eventually Scarsdale Vibe, a sort of Carnegie/Gould/Morgan/Frick figure, has him murdered. Two of Traverse's children set out to avenge his death; another child, who showed talent in theoretical mathematics, has been sent by Vibe first to Yale and then to Germany to study and eventually to work for Vibe; and Traverse's daughter ends up living with one of the murderers. There are over a hundred major characters, of course, so this only begins to describe the book.

Although I found it difficult to follow, at times infuriating in its aimlessness and shapelessness, and aggravating because of Pynchon's inability, rivalling Larry McMurtry's, to write a convincing female character, I enjoyed almost every moment of reading this novel. In his old age Pynchon has, as I mentioned before, taken his always impressive talent with sentence-level style and become in my opinion one of the great stylists, able to operate in several different registers (including, always, the postmodern and ironic) simultaneously. And as much as I love Wallace, this is where I'm saddest that he's gone. Seeing Pynchon's evolution, I want to be able to see if Wallace could do this, because of his one register--the postmodern and ironic, the self-aware and encyclopedic and fearful and sad--he may be the greatest master of all. I think he could have done that well with others.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


David Foster Wallace is dead, apparently a suicide by hanging.

Foster was a creative-writing professor at Pomona College but his greatest fame, of course, was as a writer--a novelist, journalist, essayist and short-story writer. His 1996 INFINITE JEST sparked an almost infinite number of title-inspired bad jokes about its length (almost 1100 pages) and the fact that over 10% of the novel consists of footnotes. He started out as a Pynchon imitator and many critics have noted that his first novel, THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM, is essentially a rewriting of THE CRYING OF LOT 49. He developed his own voice with his short story collection GIRL WITH CURIOUS HAIR but when INFINITE JEST came out, and then was shortlisted for the National Book Award, everyone began to know his name. He might be most famous for INFINITE JEST but certainly his most-read writings are three journalistic pieces: "Consider the Lobster," commissioned by GOURMET as a piece about going to a Maine lobster fest, I think, and ending up as a philosophical meditation on cruelty to animals; "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," a magazine piece about taking a cruise appearing originally in HARPER'S; and "Up, Simba," a ROLLING STONE profile of 2000-era John McCain that needs to be reread, at least for those of us (like Wallace) both in love with and quickly, deeply tiring of irony as an approach to the world. This last essay slobbers all over McCain, fully buying the "Straight Talk Express"ness of it all and basically making the argument that the 2008 McCain campaign is making, albeit with loads more cynicism: pay no attention to those hard-right views, McCain is really a good guy and will reform things.

I'm not going to write about Wallace's technique, his arch postmodern voice that covers a deep yearning for authenticity and meaning (in this, he's like a MCSWEENEY'S writer without the fetishization of childhood), or his apparent unwillingness to take constructive editing suggestions. (Can you imagine what a great 700-page novel INFINITE JEST could be?) Several other writers in the NEW YORK TIMES, SALON, and elsewhere have done so.

I "met" Wallace at a reading he gave at Book People in Austin, Texas, in 1997. He seemed nervous and uncomfortable, hiding behind a shock of hair that he used as a prop, flinging it out of his eyes. He read a very painful section of INFINITE JEST about a man with a terrible cold who has been bound and gagged, and who is suffocating because he can't clear his nose. Unlike some other writers I've seen read (Martin Amis, for instance), Wallace didn't seem to feel that the attention of the crowd was his due; he could have been in a graduate workshop as a student, not the prof. After the reading he asked the audience where he could pick up some UT gear (he said he liked to collect college apparel). I got him to sign my paperback copy of INFINITE JEST and exchanged brief pleasantries with him; later that summer I found a first edition of the book and rued not having that for him to sign. Mercenary.

Several years later I was interviewing for a position at Illinois State U. and learned that he was teaching there. I was very excited to meet him at my on-campus day but he didn't come to my talk. I learned that he was in the process of leaving ISU and moving to Pomona at the time. Disappointing. I didn't get the job, anyway.

It's a cheap observation to make that it's not terribly surprising he did himself in; any reader could easily conclude that he was manic-depressive (bipolar?) just by reading Wallace's prose. That's probably too easy. I'm sure there were all sorts of problems in his life. It's been a while since he wrote anything important, and this was probably the cause. It's sad. I'll miss having him as a voice on the literary scene.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

kings of renn fest

kings of renn fest
Originally uploaded by Mantooth
it's hard to figure out how the pirate hat works.

pittsburgh renaissance festival

this is getting old

According to Merriam-Webster online, a "straw man" is "a weak or imaginary opposition (as an argument or adversary) set up only to be easily confuted."

According to David Brooks this morning, Obama

needs to attack the snobs who are savaging Sarah Palin’s faith and family. Many liberals claim to love working-class families, but the moment they glimpse a hunter with an uneven college record, they hop on chairs and call for disinfectant.

Can anyone--anyone?--please point to one "liberal" commentator who acts that way? I mean, anyone since NEW YORKER film critic Pauline Kael said in 1972 that "I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don't know anybody who voted for him."