My Struggle Book 2: A Man in Love

 Admittedly, I had abandoned the book months ago, having burned through 470 pages or so; abandoned with a willful intention to not finish the series. Overhyped. Pretentious. Boring. Adjectives I would never have used to describe my journey through Book 1.

Then on Saturday, after arriving home from a vacation, I picked it up again. It was like having picked up a video game and remembering exactly what everything in your inventory did and exactly where everything was in the world. And even if I didn’t remember everything, there were enough clues along the way to make me remember. Before having picked it up, there were so many moments to remember, and upon picking it up again, the original magic that struck me when I read the first pages of Book 1 was upon me again.

It was great.

There are two section specifically that almost seemed to be written for my girlfriend and me. The first occurs on page 505, where Karl Ove, an already exhibited consumer of music and books, goes out for another excursion and spends (probably) way too much money.

After I had paid for the books I went down to the lower section of Sergels torg, to the music and film shop, where I bought three DVDs and fice CDs, next up to Akademi bookstore, where I found a dissertation on Swedenborg published by Atlantis, which I bought along with a couple of journals. I wouldn’t get around to reading much of this, which did not prevent me from feeling good, however.

A mind looking for some enlightened distraction and also something to write about. Over these last few months, it had become apparent to me just how much I needed to simplify. There were too many things I was putting in front of myself to consume, like an entire weeks meals cooked up and expecting to be eaten on a Friday night. And it was stressful.

But why include this in the book, along with any number of seemingly incidental details throughout? Why not stick to the task at hand? Tell us, Karl Ove, of a “Man in Love”.

And after the questions are out and one has zero to five answers, one remembers that the entire book is written this way. He is building a world, as banal as the ones any of us – the Western middle class – are living, whether we be artists, nurses, out-of-work actors, soon-to-be-published writers, teachers. How serendipitous to have picked up the book again just as I was having feelings of being overwhelmed by my own possessions.

There isn’t any magic in it, though. Not in the coincidence of me picking up the book again to have it read some life parallel out (I don’t believe in coincidence). Not in the way Karl Ove writes almost structure-less yet reels you in. It’s all magic, but there are no tricks. No apparent illusions. Just a life. Yet there it is, on the page, written almost as if you yourself could be living it.

What is that worth? Does it make the book a masterpiece? To some perhaps. To Karl Ove though:

If I have learned one thing over these years that seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following:

Don’t believe you are anybody.

Do not fucking believe you are somebody.

Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit.

Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit.

So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then, at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work, and know that you’re not worth a shit.

This, more or less, was what I had learned.

Here we are, Reader. The book has sold, well, a lot of copies. I mean, he is a literary celebrity.

So why had I abandoned it? Well, one gets tired of talking to the same person for months on end. Some people burn through a series after being seduced by the first volume. My Struggle for me is a series (maybe all series for someone like me) who needs a break every now and then.

Then, it’s possible to see all the happy, magic accidents of his mother speaking about love regarding Karl Ove’s alcoholic father, maybe the villain of this book, if this were the type of book to have villains. How it perfectly parallels the end of the first book, the father on a slab. How it matter-of-factly yet still subtly comments on Karl’s own relationship with Linda. And Karl is a father now, too.

So many echoes. So many literary tricks that aren’t tricks at all.

I can’t wait to start book 3. I’ve already started waiting.

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My Struggle: Book 1 – Detail of a Life

It’s a sunny winter day. Sky is blue, but the trees partially in view from my kitchen and living room windows on either side of my apartment are bare, thin vein branches sprouting. The sunlight makes a guillotine blade down my unclean windows. There’s a green piece of machinery across the way in the empty lot where the condominiums have been scheduled to go up for what seems like a long time. Any day now, they’ll appear though, and the current inhabitants of this residential block will grow accustomed to the reality of a building that seems as if it appeared out of nowhere, no time having passed at all between it’s nonexistence into existence.

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That paragraph might seem totally unnecessary in this “review” of Karl Ove Knaussgard’s first part of My Struggle; however, the book has many passages of the author doing the very same thing: describing skies and small Norwegian cityscapes with seemingly unnecessary detail.

It would be inaccurate to say that these descriptions (forecasts?) of sky, earth, and city make up a bulk of the book. It would also be inaccurate to say that they don’t figure prominently, breaking up other more significant details about Knaussgard’s mother, grandmother, friends, teenage rock band, and of course, his father, the main antagonist in the book.

My Struggle starts and ends with philosophical waxing on death:

For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain.

The rest of the book is written with just as much visceral detail, whether describing external or internal states. His father, often described as a hard man for Knaussgard to feel comfortable around, is compared to his mother. With few details about her, Knaussgard gets around to the idea that dinner with her is much more open and free-flowing, one in which neither he nor his brother have to be on guard. All of this is shown by the way the opposing parents prepare dinner, his father preparing with formality and the feel of contraction.

As Knaussgard details his upbringing and journey through adolescence, his father ducks and weaves and grows and decays in ways that make it hard to get a bead on the man. He’s a mystery that both the reader and the author are trying to make meaning of. His father is his “problem parent.”

Although the rest of the series cover different phases of Knaussgard’s life (the second in the series goes into more detail about his own role as a father and husband), his father centers around all of it, according to the author. Branching and radiating outward from this central conflict are moments of Knaussgard forming a teenage rock band and playing at a local shopping center. He pursues love with the savage lust of youth, breaking the heart of one girl because he’s interested in her sister. He goes to parties, visits his brother.

It’s a book very much interested in the painstaking mystery of human existence, and Knaussgard explores both the joys and tragedies, the awkwardness and the grace of it all. He does it all in a mostly plainspoken way, which makes it all feel quite accessible. All of this is written in a lyrical yet lucid, down-to-earth tone. Knaussgard waxes philosophical and has a distinct world view, but this is no political or philosophical doctrine on living (perhaps he’s saving this for a future book). The second half of the book, indeed is a doctrine and account of his father’s death.

Knaussgard is much more interested in detailing the little mundane things in life, bringing forth the things that those of us in the modern world have been living for the last half century. The narrative is driven less by plot order and more by the whims and necessity of his intuition. Details emerge out of the blue, including a passage about his father passed out drunk on the couch with the television still on, or the revelation about a dead cousin at a party after his father’s remarriage. The old man starts to cry, and while wearing colorful clothing ill-suited to the man Knaussgard used to know, both the reader and the narrator are surprised.

Who was his father? And who are any of us in relationship to our fathers and mothers, and their father and mothers? Identity is born out of memory or the imagination of the reader’s mind. An image recently released in a piece written by Knaussgard for The Guardian even contradicts any images I have in my head of his father. Then that identity shifts, and it dies off in a graveyard of bottles and depravity.

My Struggle has made Knaussgard a literary celebrity. There are certainly people who loath the book, or at least are puzzle by the appeal, while many others have caught glimpses of their own inner conflicts, their own sufferings. Why has this book made as much of an impact on modern literature as it has? A woman at the bookstore said one of her co-workers said he’d gotten halfway through the book before saying, “My Struggle? Okay…I have struggles…you have struggles…” Right, but how many people have taken the time to explore their own sufferings, much less the sufferings of others? In many ways, this seemingly ordinary, recorded life is a license to do so without it feeling like an indulgence or frivolity.

For further interest:

“The Shame of Writing About Myself” – The Guardian

 

 

 

Book Shoppers Anonymous: “Time Enough at Last”

Something has been happening in my apartment. I have a new roommate. Boy, do I get rankled all the time for want of some alone time. It’s not just the apartment, though. It’s this entire city, it’s the world. He’s just stepped out, and now I have some time to listen to my own thoughts, to read, to write, to walk around the apartment naked. Most of all, though, I tell myself that if only I had more time to myself in the apartment, that I’d read more.

For those of you who know me, I play a lot of video games, and I may have even mentioned that up until a month or so ago, I hadn’t been reading much. So for those of you reading this, you might know, too, that by me saying that I’d read more if only I had more space and more time, is really just me rationalizing my own selfishness.

If we travel back in time to this summer when I wrote my post about detachment, Buddhism, and book-buying, I used that oh-so-iconic figure of Henry Bemis, the eccentric banker from a famous episode of The Twilight ZoneI’ve been watching the show recently from the very first episode, and my god, that show is dark, intense, and ahead of its (yes, here’s that word again) time.

Henry Bemis, as played by Burgess Meredith

In the episode “Time Enough at Last”, our tragic bespectacled hero Henry Bemis is a timid and eccentric bank teller and husband. He’s nearsighted and loves to read books. All Henry wants to do is read books and talk about books, but the real world represented by his wife, his job, and his boss, keep intruding.

The president of the bank tells him, “You, Mr Bemis, are a reader. A reader of books, magazines, periodicals, newspapers. I see you constantly going down to the vault during your lunch hour. You will henceforth devote your time to your job and forget reading, or you’ll find yourself outdoors reading on a park bench from morning until night from want of a job.” Bemis interrupts the president, to which the president replies, “Make it quick and get back to your cage.” Imagine this president in the age of the internet. Talk about the distraction and productivity killer to end all.

His wife is no better, talking down to him and his silly books, a lot like how people used to pester me about video games. She even takes a pencil to his book and vandalizes them. Henry Bemis is crushed. Even after Bemis tells the president how his wife will never let him read, driving him to desperate acts of reading the labels on the ketchup bottle, the president commends Bemis’s wife as a sound woman.

They all just seem like a bunch of meanies, at least to my roommate and his girlfriend.

So much of the episode sets up the viewer to sympathize with Bemis. This shy, timid, gentle man is just being bullied and misunderstood by the world. It’s certainly difficult for an informed and literate New Yorker like myself to understand how so much of Bemis’s world can be against books. It’s even more surprising just how anti-intellectual the world can be even now in the heyday of the internet and quick-and-easy access to knowledge. There’s Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia (which actually gave presented the idea of anti-intellectualism in this episode).

In my liberal time and place, education and being informed are often so highly regarded. I take it for granted just how much we value books. And that’s exactly what the story is trying to teach us, right? The world is just a bunch of dummies, and Bemis is the true hero because he reads books and is educated and understands the human condition and blah blah blah.

Then the H-bomb goes off as Bemis reads from the protected shell of a bank vault. He’s suddenly left alone. His pocket watch shatters. There’s no one to bother him. He has plenty of food, well, crackers, but there’s no one to bother him. No one. Soon enough he goes mad, finds a gun with which he’s going to kill himself. “Surely I’ll be forgiven…”

Then he sees the sign for the Public Library and approaches his version of Heaven.

“Collected Works of Dickens. Collected Works of Bernard Shaw. Poems by Browning, Shelley, Keats! Great Dramas of the World! Books, books, books. All the books I’ll need, all the books I’ll ever want!” No wonder this video was first shown to me in a high school English class.

Still, if this episode is a champion of intellectualism, then why is Bemis “punished” at the end of the episode? He embraces a huge clock when he expounds on having all “the time I’ll need. All the time I’ll want. There’s time enough at last.” And yes, secretly there’s a part of me that wishes for an apocalypse where I’m secretly vaulted up in the cellar of The Strand book store with enough crackers and salami to keep me alive.

And even though I’d be able to read all the Dostoevsky I wanted, and enough time to read The Fermata over and over again, surely I wouldn’t be able to make love to any of these books. I couldn’t discuss them with anyone, and let’s not forget that Bemis wants to discuss books with others. It’s not that he’s a recluse. He wants to

But with no markers of time, no people, no eyeglasses, no life to which our books and knowledge can refer to, it’s all dead anyways. As admirable as Bemis’s intellectualism is, he ultimately falls prey to his own desires. There’s a limit to it all.

What would Werner Herzog have to say about this, though? When he said that you can’t be a filmmaker if you don’t read, bemoaning a culture that only reads magazines and blog posts (like this one), did he see the blind spots of his own obsession with the written word? And what do we make then of this limitation of knowledge when David Simon, the creator of The Wire, one of the most critically acclaimed shows touted for being authentic and unflinching, tells us that we still need to be reading books because they do something television doesn’t? Or even when Buddhists must practice detachment from books and knowledge?

Was Bemis punished? Was it the world that was at fault? Or is this just an example of the amorality of our universe and the tragic nature of humanity? Even books can’t save us in the end, not even an e-book. But if books can’t save us, neither will all of our stories. When the big one hits, no matter how we view these stories as little time capsules, capturing history and slices of life, they’ll never be a substitute for living itself, even if that reality is a harsh wife and a demanding boss.

Is it really that simple, though? That cut-and-dry? Why shouldn’t we get our own little slice of paradise? As we’ve all most of us have learned, life isn’t fair. And as The Twilight Zone, books, and the events of the world have taught us all (oh-so-recently) we often live in a confusing, alien, and amoral world that all the books and knowledge could possibly fix or alleviate.

But I’d like to think it might help…

Moby Dick – Sanchez 2.1 – Chapter 29 “Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb.”

"Call me Kevin Costner"

“Call me Kevin Costner”

To Officer Cole

Before I get into the meat of my discussion, I thought I’d make two movie recommendations as companion pieces to Moby Dick, to be henceforth called “the Dick”. The first would be Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, because apparently Kahn quotes the Dick” for dramatic effect and literary/cinema allusion. The second movie we should watch is Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, A. because I’ve never seen it, and B. it might just be fun. The 1950s film version of Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck should probably wait until we’re done with the book. Isn’t that a nice little touch about reading classics? We don’t have to worry about the film ruining it for us.

And just one other little side note before getting into the (whale)meat of this: what are your assumptions when we call a book a classic? For me, it’s all “white” literature written in the last 300 years or so. Is the Bible a classic, cause that was written by all manner of non-whites.

Anyhow, let’s get to it.

So I’ve finally met Ahab. with his ivory peg leg and the stub hole in the deck for said peg leg, his pivot hole. The man is fierce. Although I’ve come to trust Ishmael a little more now (only a little), I’m definitely mistrustful of Ahab. At the same time, there’s something drawing me in. Obviously, I have an investment as a reader of literature to know the character, but Melville is definitely making some magic. “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness.” He’s a fighter, set aflame by the attach, what must have been a near-death experience. But I can’t help but think there are other stories, too. In any case, that one image is what I picture when I picture vigilance. “…an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance.”

You don’t fuck with this guy.

In this last chapter I read, Ishmael is waxing poetic about nights at sea:

“The starred and stately nights seemed haughty dames in jewelled velvets, nursing at home in lonely pride, the memory of their absent conquering Earls, the golden helmeted suns! For sleeping man, ’twas hard to choose between such winsome days and such seducing nights. But all the witcheries of that unwaning weather did not merely lend new spells and potencies to the outward world. Inward they turned upon the soul, especially when the still mild hours of eve came on; the, memory shot her crystals as the clear ice most forms of noiseless twilights. And all these subtle agencies, more and more they wrought on Ahab’s texture.”

Now to address something you wrote about last time, I want to speak to Ahab’s archetypal-y-ness. You said that Melville might have shot his wad a bit on Queequeg, making him overtly a type, the noble savage, that in my opinion might be bordering on no-harm-no-foul unintentional racism (oh god, I can already see some of your responses). As nice as it is to be able to say, see, even savages can be humane, is kind of racist, right? It’s like saying, Oh see, even (insert any ethnic type or race) people can be good. I might be pontificating a bit much, BUT I bring up your worry about Queequeg in light of Ahab as an archetype probably only because I haven’t read much about him yet. I can tell this man has secrets. And I’m probably going to feel sorry for him at some point during this book. At least, that’s my hope. There’s got to be tragedy in there somewhere, right, Josh?

At the same time, the part that fascinates me about him is also the part that unnerves and unsettles me. There’s something debauched about it all, what with the ivory being used for his peg leg and even a deck chair made out of ivory, too. Then the man doesn’t even show up until they get to the sea, like a ghost, which sort of supports my early impressions that this book felt like I was reading a ghost story.

“Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death. Among sea-commanders, the old greybeards will oftenest leave their berths to visit the night-cloaked deck. It was so with Ahab; only that now, of late, he seemed so much to live in the open air, that truly speaking, his visits were more to the cabin, than from the cabin to the planks. It feels like going down into one’s tomb,’ – he would mutter to himself – ‘for an old captain like me to be descending this narrow scuttle, to go to my gravedug berth.'”

Which Ahab am I?

Alright, a paradox and a flaw in my argument. That description could suggest a man with a lust for life. Or he could be a  member of the undead! A zombie as a matter of fact. Let’s think about how the book starts. Ishmael starts on the first pages saying that when he feels off, he goes to the sea to right himselfAhab seems to be doing the same, but I get the feeling that he’s a bit more…well, let’s just say that if Ishmael is a recreational user of sea voyages, Ahab is a full-blow user and addict. No one sees the man until they’re well away from shore. It’s a perversion of existence, escapism to a hilt, otherworldly and not belonging to dry land.

Doesn’t Ishmael say something about how it disconcerted him to not meet the captain before agreeing to work the ship? Does Ahab live on the ship? Do we know where he was staying while they were in Nantucket? Will he ever return to land? And why does he feel so slighted by the whale? Is that the only reason he’s here, or did this vendetta start from purer usage and relations with the ocean? Ahab, like Ishmael but to a greater degree, is a vagrant not just in (dis)connection with society but to the entire living world. He’s a sea-ghost.

When I first started reading, it all felt like a ghost story. All the epitaphs and carvings at the church. The drabness of Nantucket and Bedford in winter. The bartender sitting in the whale’s jaw bones. In any case, this book is haunted.

A quick story: when I was a kid, say about 4 or 5 years old, I either drowned or had a dream I was drowning. I had to learn how to master myself in the water because I was scared of drowning. Water in astrology is all the spiritual, emotional stuff of life, that essence. It nurtures and is one of the cornerstones of life if it is channeled correctly. It can be soothing, placid, cooling. In a storm, typhoon, or tsunami, water can also be a destructive force. Moodiness, delusion, all-consuming. Water can drown. I think these are all apt comparisons to all of our sea-voyagers.

A quick response to Queequeg: sure, the guy just saves people with no thought of reward, which is all very admirable, but Josh, the guy eats other people. That’s Melville painting Queequeg in shades of gray. Can he change? We’ll see. Wait a minute, Queequeg is a zombie!!!

Your friend,

Private Sanchez

P.S. We should really watch Water World. Here’s the trailer:

Moby Dick – Letter 1.2 – Josh to Dave

Dear Sir,

It is with great interest that I received yer letter of the 28th of November of the 2012th year of our Lard.  Please excuse the tardiness of my reply: since I’ve been back to Breukelen, my productivity has been that of a small dead dog on Easter morning.  And what a day today be today in Breukelen.

The day is dull.  Neither hot nor cold; no rain, but not without a chance of.  The sky a single shade of meaningless gray.  If it weren’t for all the cars alarms and cement, I might imagine myself in Melville’s Nantucket.  But, avast: here be me response.

First off, let me comment that, in reviewing one tenth of a book the likes of Moby Dick, ye’ve somehow concocted a letter whose length befits the scale of a book more the likes of War and Peace.  Which brings me to your point on Hobbes.

Look, Señor Sanchez, Hobbes be a fuckface.  In fact, from this moment on I should like to refer to him as such, or as FF for brevity’s sake.  It don’t take much for a man of education to “predict” that societies focused on the summum bonum will fail because, well, all societies have failed at some point in the past or will at some point in the not-yet-present, eh?  I myself hereby predict that any society which counts milliners amongst its breathing men is likewise doomed to fail.  Someday.  Within the next millennia.  Check back with me in a thousand score and chances are, I’ll be right.  If not, wait a thousand more and surely ye’ll know it to be true.  See how easy that was?

And societies that care for themselves are prone to civil war?  That be the civilest of wars, I say.  But if I were to point out to that doubting Thomas that Bhutan, for instance, measures the state of its state on the Gross National Happiness Index – the most summumous bonumous metric of this earthly realm – Monsieur Fuckface would likely retort that said Bhutan just hasn’t failed “yet.”  Ye see, Señor?  Or one might look to yer very own island of Pingu Tingu, which, while very young, seems to put a premium on at least some summum, eh?  Have ye even had a war yet, civil or otherwise, my dearest Sanchez?  (Let me here be notin’ that yer Ping Pong Island bears some resemblance to Kokovoko, if it weren’t for the eatin’ of human flesh and whatnot.)

So, hopeless Hobbes believed decent societies would cannibalize themselves, is how I read it.  Enter Queequeg.  That there cannibal be the real rudder drivin’ the ship of this literary voyage of ours.  He’s the one to watch.  Even his inaction, forcing Ishmael to choose the ship on which they whale, has steered the story.  And it seems to me that Melville might’ve given up the game a bit too early when he concludes Chapter 13.  After Queequeg, in an act of inhuman will, rights the schooner and saves the drowning bumpkin, Ishmael imagines Queequeg thinking to himself, “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians.  We cannibals must help these Christians.”  I love that (even noted the quote in me notebook) and I expect that’s some piece of Melville’s greater point of the book.  The thing I’ll be watching with Queequeg, then, will be whether there’s any room for evolution of character, as one might expect in a good book, or whether he’s already so fully formed that Melville’s left him no room for growth.

Interestingly, I just learned that “bumpkin” has multiple meanings.  In addition to an “unsophisticated yokel,” it’s also a wee bit of post on either side of a ship that steadies the mast (I think).  Poetically, then, a bumpkin person – for all his faults – might be just as fundamental to the structure of a society as a bumpkin spar is at protecting the structure of a ship.  As I see it, a society, an ocean, an economy… these are just varying degrees of ecosystems, and an ecosystem is as dependent on the minutest bacteria as it is on the greatest of mastodons.  And while we may consider a country bumpkin akin to something of a bacteria, it remains that the system is as dependent on each.  Thus, our fine young cannibal saved not just an individual, but the system.  Truly a joint-stock world.  I wonder what FF would have to say to that!  Oh, how I’d like to methodically knock the hat off that one.  He’d have us living in a world as joyful as the sound of a thousand babies crying.

Your comparison to the Underground Man is an apt one.  I like it.  You ask if I agree that “almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean” as Ishmael.  I think, in his day, very likely, but not in our own.  In the mid-1800s, the sea still held such mystery.  Today, we’ve got the white whale of the Internet and the Channel of Discovery to blunt our wonder.  And yet we’re somehow more oblivious of the ocean.  The common man today wouldn’t know an ocean if he’d drowned in it.

And now I see that I too have produced a tome the length of which would frighten some remedial tourists.  For this I apologize as Eve should’ve to Adam.  Write again soon, Señor.  I’m curious as to your further thoughts.

Sincerely,

Josh the Cole

PS- Brave New World is a sham of a book.  Never mention it to me again or my fury will engage.

PPS- I may be somewhat drunk.  On booze, not on life.

Moby Dick – Letter 1 To Josh (through Chapter 8)

Hello Joshua. And welcome home. Also, I swear this picture I’ve inserted of Three’s Company will make sense by the end.

From left to right: Ishmael, Queequeg, and Ahab

I’m stoked that we decided to read this together. I’ve never read a book along with someone else, other than school. And I happen to miss  school. And I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I haven’t been reading much these days. 😉 Because, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I’ve been playing a lot of … video games. And I happen to miss books. AND while I did play the Moby Dick Facebook game where you got points for reading the book, it only contained the first chapter. So this should be a much more comprehensive experience.

Moby Dick has been on my list of must-read classics for a long time. I wanted to tackle it, almost like the great whale itself (but I don’t know what that means because I haven’t even gotten that far. No spoilers from you!) Literature and whales. We dissect all the materials and bits that from the outside look elegant with amazing cover art. We make use of its parts and try to ingest it or use it to enlighten ourselves (oil lamp…for the mind? Is this metaphor going too far?) All joking aside, even as a reader I feel the impulse to conquer a piece of literature sometimes, to arm myself with some new knowledge. Like if I read this book, I’ll be better equipped in my life than I was before reading it.

So how to break down all that weighty stuff? Well, let’s just start at the beginning. Melville starts with that compiled list of quotes and allusions to whales. One that stuck with me is the opening sentence from Hobbe’s Leviathan and goes: “Leviathan, called a Commonwealth or State ( in Latin, Civitas) which is but an artificial man.” A lot of the prior quotes Melville uses describe and allude to the whale as the leviathan, a Biblical monster. Leviathan = whale = state? Too easy? Probably.

Anyways, from the little I get in the Wikipedia article, Hobbe’s was a hardcore materialist and rationalist who thought that morality was a sham. The idea of the greater good and societies that operate under the greater good have nothing to do with goodness at all. There is no summum bonum, or greatest good, and any society that operates with that in mind will ultimately collapse and fall into civil war and because, most importantly, people are not good. But the opposite, summum malum, greatest evil or our fear of violent death, does exist. Convenient, don’t you think, and a bit pessimistic? Not only does it exist, but it’s exactly the kind of thing a society could and should be built around.

I’m not quite sure how that might connect yet, but what do you think? (No spoilers! I’m not as far as you!)

All lofty thoughts and talk of Literature aside – with a capital L, dammit! – I’m really enjoying the book as a fantasy, or more accurately, a ghost story. The entire book feels haunted.

I’ve been trying to get through Infinite Jest, and I love it, I do, all 280 pages and 90 or so footnotes I’ve read so far. But even though David Foster Wallace (you have to say his whole name, don’t you?) has crafted an immensely complex book both thematically and linguistically that also goes down easy, the content feels a bit close to home right now. (Or maybe I’m just making excuses). And yes, Moby Dick is doing all that boring shit, too, like exercising my mind and getting me to think and reflect and yada yada schma schma, but it’s escapist for me, too. “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” Ishmael says at the beginning.

Speaking of Ishmael, what a great narrator. I don’t know whether I trust him 7 chapters in, but man, there’s something so alluring about him, even admirable. On the one hand, he’s observant and seemingly self-aware. He’s also, from all clues so far, a vagrant, which perhaps makes me, a member of the State and Commonwealth identity, a little bit nervous. In the beginning, he talks about going to the sea, and on the one hand it could be seen as an escape (a la my reading of the book), away from the State and the streets and other members of the commonwealth. But there’s also an intention to make himself feel right again. The sea is a tonic for everything perverted and misaligned in his spirit and soul and society. Why the hell wouldn’t we want to get away from all this, right, Josh Cole?

“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet….then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

I left out the bit it takes every ounce of moral strength to not go out in the street and go “methodically knocking people’s hats off.” He’s like Dostoevsky’s underground man, but ennobled by the ocean. Then he says, “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” Do you think that’s true? And why might that matter?

That moment when he talks about how a man cannot abide with having another man sleep in bed with him because he wants to feel suited up in his own skin says a lot about the struggle in this man to be more, for lack of a better term, morally upright and humane(probably two terms Hobbes would find disagreeable). On the one hand, there’s no room for him. But he doesn’t want to share a bed either. And that scene where Queequeg’s introduced is so funny, almost like a Three’s Company episode. (Super weird find: a YouTube search for “Three’s Company Jack’s Gay Moments” brings up an audio book version of Moby Dick. Weird, right?! And looked up gay Jack moments because the first Queequeg scene is mildly and comically homoerotic.)

Anyways, back to Queequeg, “the savage” uses a harpoon to shave. Bad. Ass.

And this scene, too, is another moment where I really start to admire Ishmael. There’s a moment of empathy after the landlord comes in during the ruckus. Remember, after Ishmael decides it’s more important to get a bed, even if he has to share it, he is told that Queequeg will probably not be coming back for the night. So Ishmael gets into bed alone, but Queequeg shows up after all. The landlord comes in to smooth things over after a really tense misunderstood moment, and Queequeg offers Ishmael half of the bed, pulling aside the cover.

“He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself – the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

After that moment, Ishmael has absolute respect for this man. It’s astonishing to him that the man can be so cool and act with such civility and (my words, not Ishmael’s) grace and dignity. I don’t know if you ever read Brave New World, but there’s a savage in that, too, who ends up being more human than so-called civilized people.

What do you think Hobbes might say about these guys?

Anyways, that seems like enough for the first letter to you. I hope it didn’t sound too academic and that it wasn’t too looooooooooooooooong. It’s nice having someone to talk to about literature as you’re reading it, the really important, weighty, and beautiful stuff of life. Oh shit. This was supposed to be escapist.

Anyways (again), can’t wait to hear what you have to say. And remember, no spoilers! I haven’t even met Ahab yet. I’ll get to chapter 25 by this weekend, at which point you’ll probably be done with the book. This might be difficult, but let’s see what happens.

Oh…and it’s good to have you home.

Early concept art of Starcraft 2 unit, The Leviathan.

Your friend,

David

P.S. Does the picture make sense now? Please don’t hate me for this final picture. I just had to.

 

Infinite Jest: The First Hundred Pages

The book on the right is a wee bit bigger

I first tried reading Infinite Jest in the summer/fall of 2010. It came amidst and around an apartment move, a college graduation, and a ‘job transition’. I made it through the first 200 pages or so, and was none the wiser. In the forward, Dave Eggers admits that this isn’t a book that you can read with a child on your lap or in a crowded, noisy coffee shop. I might add that it isn’t really the best subway book either. Suffice to say, I dropped the book and any hopes that I’d be reading any books for the duration of my depression. Besides, I’d just graduated college, and after the book binge of that time, I didn’t want to look at anything with text. I just wanted television, movies, and video games.

Over that time, my thoughts would often drift in the direction of the book. Friends would talk about it. I’d run into David Foster Wallace in the form of commencement speech turned gift book for all recent grads. The book in question is called This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate LifeIt can be read in one sitting, or one visit to the bookshop. The truths though are (and please excuse any hyperbole and cliche, as Wallace asked to be excused throughout the entirety of the speech for the same) cosmic. Universal. Eternal.

While the severity of my depression at the time has tapered off, this has also been an incredible year of growth and expunging all demons and emotional roadblocks. With that comes anger, violent thoughts, and even a line of thinking that convinces oneself that you have to be an asshole in order to combat all the disappointment and disillusion that comes with the asshole-ery of living. So maybe it’s just being an adult. In any case, This is Water was kind of a salve. It’s a reminder, a call to conscious action and thought to, in a nutshell, not be an asshole. To be happy. To be thoughtful. To be aware.

As it so happens, it’s much easier to think about living well than it is to actually live well. Living well takes sacrifice, patience, tolerance, and hard work. No amount of reading that speech was going to help me get past this new set of road blocks that would hopefully lead to my eternal liberation. Wallace, though, seemed to hold some truth. While that speech in published form is no more than 137 pages, many of the pages only containing one or two sentences, it was an encapsulation of the work. It was still valuable, but if I wanted to really earn those truths, it was going to be won through the pages of what is commonly thought to be his magnum opus, Infinite Jest.

This book is almost twenty years old. It’s also over 1000 pages, with footnotes, and footnotes for the footnotes. The language is dense, playful, and to the best of my knowledge, a true representation of stream of consciousness writing. What I wanted to accomplish with this writing and response wasn’t so much a full-blown critical analysis of the first 100 pages (full disclosure: I’m only through 65 of the main part of the novel, and I’ve read 25 of 388 footnotes); rather, I wanted to do a play-by-play of observations and thoughts about a book of this scale. If the first 65 pages (and 25 footnotes) are any indication of the genius or madness of the book, it will behoove me to break down the book in chunks, reflect, and carry-on. I hope it will lead to a more engaged reading of the book that hopefully encapsulates some substantial, overarching critique that might be impossible if attempted after completion.

Let’s just say that after the small portion of the beginning, I feel like there are multiple, multiple worlds, characters, thoughts, ideas that are expansive enough to fill a multitude of books. Somehow – successfully or unsuccessfully, people will argue – Wallace does it. For those of you who have read the book, feel free to comment but not spoil. For those of you who haven’t, you’re as in the dark as I am. In any case, below are some of my first observations and more importantly, my questions:

  • Tip: I think it’s best to finish whole chapters with this book. They’re only about 5 pages long, which is a dense 5 pages. Even though there are breaks within the chapters themselves, they represent movements.
  • Sections of note 1) 3 November – Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, in which we get a section about nightmares and the palpable nature and true existence of evil to a 12-year-old who is afraid of monsters in the dark; also, the story about Don Gately, a burglarizing drug-addict who goes too far with a French-Canadian who is sick. Funny, disturbing, and sad.
  • Should I know who O.N.A.N. is by now? I don’t know whether they’re a force of good or evil, sinister or benevolent? I asked a friend who had read the book if I should know by now; she said she didn’t even remember who that was.
  • What is annular fusion? It’s mentioned a few times already, and has a lot to do with James O. Incandenza.
  • James Incandenza’s filmography contains clues to some of the seemingly random stories surrounding the ‘main’ story of the Incandenza family. This is something I didn’t pick up during my first read-through. By the way, the filmography is the first set of the lengthier footnotes spanning 8 pages.
  • Infinite Jest is the name of one of his films, in fact, the film that most of his critics say is his masterwork.
  • Also should note that the filmography was the one subway-friendly section
  • Also should note that the filmography is a collection of stories right there, even though they’re just summaries. Some of my favorites are Kinds of Pain, “2222 still-frame close-ups of middle-aged white males suffering from almost every conceivable type of pain, from an ingrown toenail to cranio-facial neuralgia to inoperable colo-rectal neoplastis”; Mobious Strips “Pornography-parody, possible parodic homage to Fosse’s All that Jazz in which a theoretical physicist ([‘Hugh G.] Rection), who can only achieve creative mathematical insight during coitus, conceives of Death as a lethally beautiful woman.”; The Man Who Began to Suspect He Was Made of Glass. “A man undergoing intensive psychotherapy discovers that he is brittle, hollow, and transparent to others, and becomes either transcendentally enlightened or schizophrenic.”
  • This book is full of drug addicts. It’s tediously awesome how Wallace goes into so much detail of the drugs.
  • Speaking of detail, Wallace knows so much about so many different things. It’s difficult to tell where his imagination fills in the gaps of knowledge and how much his knowledge informs the imagination.
  • I’m using two bookmarks: one for the main section, the other for the footnotes.
  • And, oh yeah, this book is funny.

Alright everyone, see you at the next meeting of One-Man Book Club.

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