Books

Book Roundup: Steven Amsterdam, David Foster Wallace, Aviva Chomsky, Guy de Maupassant

Bookends

I have other books I’ve read since—in fact, all of these were finished a while ago—but I’ve held back on publishing anything about them until I figure out a better way to organize these things. Doing these few write-ups has drawn my attention to the trends in my reading habits, making clear the connections that draw me from book to book, sometimes purposeful, sometimes accidental or subconscious. For example, I finished Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King, but don’t want to say anything about it until I get my hands on Colum McCann’s Transatlantic and Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away. Same goes with the few other books I’ve finished recently or am reading now; once I can organize them by theme or genre I’ll feel these book posts have more of a purpose. This one is rather scatterbrained: four books I read and sort of summarized/criticized. Excuse the Maupassant writing. It’s a brief, not useful explanation followed by a few summaries of the first few stories. I might also get around to writing something about British director Duncan Jones, director of Moon and Source Code, the first I’ve seen twice and the second I watched recently. Brilliant guy who makes smart films.

amsterdamSteven Amsterdam: Things We Didn’t See Coming (Pantheon, 2009, 199 pgs.): Written by an Australian-dwelling ex-New Yorker and psychiatric nurse, these nine connected stories detail the life of an unnamed narrator following the events of an apocalyptic post-Y2K disaster. While masquerading as a novel-of-sorts, Amsterdam uses each story as a vessel to investigate different catastrophes that could come about given the real world’s trajectory: overreliance on and misplaced trust in a largely computer-automated world, massive flooding and crop failures, highly contagious virus epidemics, isolated communitarian societies unable to sustain themselves, shady regional forces attempting to act as de facto governments.

But this is no straightforward narrative. Our unnamed hero’s story begins when he is eight or so years old, jumping years ahead as each story goes on, finally ending with his fifty-year-old cancer-ridden body entertaining sick folk as they attempt to find a cure. Curiously, every story is narrated in present tense, and not much is given to fill in the large gaps between each tale. Moreover, the few recurring characters completely drop off the map without so much as a side comment, leaving the reader to imagine what might have happened.

And this is the biggest problem with Things We Didn’t See Coming. Amsterdam’s world can’t be labeled a classic dystopia, as dystopias provide the guise to the average citizen that the society is actually some sort of utopia, regardless of how it appears to outsiders like us. There is mention of those who are constantly relocating and after their homes are repeatedly destroyed by natural disasters in “Uses for Vinegar,” where the narrator shells out government grants to the unfortunate. Though the survivors he discusses, still wide-eyed and hopeful, are in the background only, and the semblance of order (that they can receive some assistance after everything they have is taken, that they are not completely alone, that there is work to be done) properly situates their not feeling complete despair. Furthermore, it’s impossible to understand the internal dynamics of the world—its economics, its government structure, its distribution of resources. Impossible to argue that the narrator doesn’t know; unlike Guy Montag, he saw the apocalypse firsthand and should have some grasp of how things shook out, and like Winston Smith his many governmental jobs should glean some understanding as to how the remnants of the world are organized.

So it’s the lack of such details that ultimately make the world impossible to imagine. How many people have perished since the initial collapse, the environmental disasters, the virulent pandemics, and the implied nuclear holocaust? What became of the corporate and governmental structures in place before the day of reckoning? Was it nuclear war or power plant meltdowns that caused the large numbers of irradiated people? What is the price and state of fossil fuels or alternative energy considering the still-popular use of vehicles? And these are surface-level questions. Being the narcissistic American I am, I assumed the narrator was in the US, but I had to backtrack when I remembered Amsterdam resides in Melbourne. So which part of the world is the protagonist’s narration chronicling the decline?

But there’s something admirable in Amsterdam’s attempt to string short stories that should stand on their own together as a novel. It’s no easy task and I can’t say I’ve ever seen it done successfully in the very few attempts I’m at all familiar with. The more successful endeavors I’m aware of actually don’t attempt this feat—Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is one such example, a collection of short stories where the title character is either at the forefront or in the background of each story, and although together they form nothing like a novel, enough about the character is revealed from the first pages to the last that we get a somewhat satisfactory rendering of her life arc. The earliest example I know of, which also seems incidental, is J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, two stories published individually and later put together to form a book. And I think Eberhard Alsen makes a strong case for Salinger in The Glass Family Stories as a Composite Novel, though I’ve never attempted to read them in the order Alsen prescribes. Arguably, some of the better novels today are ones that in part seem like short stories that, given time, connect and interweave, the best examples being the works of Irish author Colum McCann.

wallaceStephen J. Burn, ed.: Conversations with David Foster Wallace (University Press of Mississippi, 2012 [1987-2008], 186 pgs.): You could say there is a steadily growing cult of David Foster Wallace which eventually blossomed and boomed in response to his suicide, where the body of his work—novels and stories and nonfiction about loneliness, paranoia, drugs, a morally deteriorating America (or world), and an existence predicated upon disturbing and discomforting paradoxes—culminated in his martyr-like, messiah-esque death, giving the world a voice young people and old goats alike have been drawn to. He’s been hailed the greatest writer of his generation despite some of his obvious missteps and oft-annoying verboseness. And this latest unofficially canonical release adds to that obsessive thirst for all things DWF. But you really have to ask yourself just what it is about Wallace that you value to determine whether you’ll derive any pleasure from this collection or not.

So here’s what it is. Twenty-two pieces not including the introduction: twelve proper back-and-forth unmitigated interviews, nine so-so mag write-ups with splashes of DFW quotes, and a Rolling Stone retrospective after his suicide. It moves chronologically with the authors of the first few entries coming off as being rather hip for interviewing such a young and peculiar voice, one that penned The Broom of the System, Wallace’s first and worst novel. Those pieces are scarce, scattershot; it’s when Infinite Jest gets published that the interviews really come rolling out. And while there are plenty of questions and responses, inquiries and diatribes concerning the boy genius’s infamously mammoth tome, the best part of these conversations is that they often devolve into more general questions about the state of literature and the art of writing, or at least Wallace is clever enough to twist his answers in such a way to make it appear so without having the interviewer (or the reader, for that matter) feel like he’s gone askance.

That’s really what makes this collection worth owning. I’m personally uninterested in the private lives of authors I admire—I roll my eyes every time an interviewer or participant in a Q&A asks shit like “What’s a normal writing day for you?”—a reason why I’ll never read the critically acclaimed biography of Raymond Carver. I’m interested in the work itself and the way the individual who created it sees the world. And that’s exactly what I more or less get from Stephen Burns’s selections. Larry McCaffrey’s indispensable and expanded 1993 interview catches Wallace at his most cogent:

“Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naïve to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”

“The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.”

I’ve a real distaste for the ironists Wallace is so fond of. While I enjoy the likes of Barthelme and Gass, I find others like Barth and Coover largely unreadable. And I can’t pinpoint whether it’s because their work really is trash or that I’m of an age where since I was born this kind of ironic swamp has encircled me, and I have trouble making the distinction between the cheap, everyday irony of guys like Mark Leyner and the respectable vanguard camp in which Barth and Coover fall. For my life, I can’t find much of a difference other than the 50’s and 60’s ironists were a bit funnier and not quite as cynical. I also get incredibly bored with metafiction. Not because of the repulsive vanity required to believe it’s worth publishing, but rather the general idea of fiction being self-conscious. Necessary and inevitable? Sure. Worth valuing? If what I’ve read is representative, then no.

There is a flip side to what Wallace is saying, that writers should venture to be sincere in the face of countless cynics. I agree. But the danger of that—and there are always dangers everywhere—is the hack going for sentimentality, the way Safran Foer executes Extremely Loud, for example. Whereas the postmodernist built a carefully constructed argument as to why everything was laughable bullshit, however misguided he was, the champion of sincerity must do the same, as sincerity is so hard to buy.

“We still think in terms of a story ‘changing’ the reader’s emotions, cerebrations, maybe even her life. We’re not keen on the idea of the story sharing its valence with the reader. But the reader’s own life ‘outside’ the story changes the story. You could argue that it affects only ‘her reaction to the story’ or ‘her take on the story.’ But these things are the story.”

“One of fictions big historical functions, that of providing data on distant cultures and persons. If you lived in Bumfuck, Iowa, a hundred years ago and had no idea what life was like in India, good old Kipling goes over and presents it to you. And of course the poststructural critics now have a field day on all the colonialist and phallocratic prejudices inherent in the idea that writers were presenting alien cultures instead of “re-presenting” them—jabbering natives and randy concubines and white man’s burden, etc. Well, but fiction’s presenting function for today’s reader has been reversed: since the whole global village is now presented as familiar, electronically immediate—satellites, microwaves, intrepid PBS anthropologists, Paul Simon’s Zulu back-ups—it’s almost like we need fiction writers to restore strange things’ ineluctable strangeness, to defamiliarize stuff, I guess you’d say.”

I agree with Wallace about an increasing need for writers to defamiliarize what feels so familiar all the time, but I take issue with him on just what feels familiar. I don’t think the world outside our kitchens is all that familiar to any of us; regardless of how much we see on TV or come across on the internet, strange and distant lands and their inhabitants are still seen with a sense of otherness we’ve recently witnessed as being destructive. It’s precisely in line with what Wallace later says to Goldfarb eleven years after: “I think this is an interesting legacy of postmodern skepticism. The idea that everything is spin. That there is no truth. That you can derive one truth even about the day’s events from, say, Fox News, and another from the great liberal conspiracy of the New York Times and CNN—is, I think, both liberating and exciting and also extremely scary.” What he probably means—and ought to mean—is that we as writers need to defamiliarize what people perceive to be familiar, even though those familiar things have been through countless filters such as everyday mundaneness or cable news, even though there are blatantly obvious things they’ve failed to notice the entire time about the pen on their desk or the rural villages of Kazakhstan.

He makes a few solid attacks on traditional short stories: “I don’t buy epiphanies done dramatically anymore. You know: ‘She gazed out the window. Suddenly, the revelation hit her face,’” “Capital-R Realism just seems to me hokey, because obviously realism is an illusion of realism, and the idea that small banal details are somehow more real or authentic than large or strange details has always seemed to me to be just a little bit crude.”

I’m not sure if there are many other conversations Burn wished to include, but it would have been nice to have any of Wallace’s chats with Michael Silverblatt, Charlie Rose, or German TV ZDF. Still, anyone interested in Wallace’s musings beyond the realm of his own work will find this an indispensable guidebook to the inner workings of a strange and brilliant mind.

chomskyAviva Chomsky: “They Take Our Jobs!”: and 20 Other Myths About Immigration (Beacon Press, 2007, 236 pgs.): Daughter of world-renowned linguist, activist, and writer Noam Chomsky, Aviva Chomsky’s attempted rebuttal against commonly proffered arguments against immigrants to the US only refutes certain points. Given her pedigree and impressive academic background I thought this surely to be an intriguing and helpful exercise in tackling certain claims by the right that I’d been hearing for years but never really bought, or at the very least was too busy researching other things to take the time to search for a valuable tome summarizing the ongoing debate. The result is a mixed bag—some of Chomsky’s findings are fascinating and helpful, but too often she doesn’t actually address the grievance in question and fails to provide much in the way of palpable figures to back up her assertions, something I’ve noticed the right is terrific at doing.

Take her first and title argument of the book; her great claim is that immigration rates “do not appear to have any direct relationship at all with unemployment rates.” And this is not the result of a careful deconstruction of the opposition’s claims, but rather of looking at historical periods of job deregulation in the US and general trends of immigration effects. Even as someone who wants to be on her side, the intellectually honest part of me has to say forthrightly that she fails to make much of a convincing argument.

Other arguments are more complex, citing historic trends that shift the blame of grievances against immigrants to other entities. In addressing union complaints, she demonstrates that unions’ tendency to seek benefits for its members rather than society at large led to grand concessions that ultimately undermined them, which winds up to be more of a finger-wagging than a demonstration that unions don’t dislike immigrant workers. In “Immigrants Don’t Pay Taxes,” she simply agrees: “Some immigrants… don’t have federal and state income taxes, or social security taxes, deducted from their paychecks. So do some citizens.” And while she goes on to show that immigrants are worse off because of their lack of benefits, I can’t understand how this is a refutation of the “myth” that immigrants don’t pay taxes.

Once Chomsky moves beyond the economy, her arguments get better. A 2004 study by the Pew Hispanic Center found the following: of the 35.7 million foreign-born residents in the US, 11.3m were naturalized citizens, 10.4m legal person residents, and 10.3m unauthorized. While the last group grew the most from 2004 to 2005 (a gain of .8m as opposed to .2m and .1m, respectively), it drastically reduces the conceived number of people who are here illegally. And her attacks against industries reliant upon illegal workers (largely agricultural and service-sector positions) and the neoconservative politicians doing nothing to increase regulation against a trend they find so threatening puts the ball in their court.

The book’s most valuable aspect is its demolition of revisionist history meant to portray America as a benevolent nation doing everything to provide immigrants at the turn of the 20th century with equal opportunity. While not exactly a secret, enough people seem convinced that workers worked fair hours for fair wages in safe environments, though the exact opposite was true; concessions by rich capitalist oligarchs were made when workers’ unions demanded, often in violent skirmishes with Pinkerton guards, decent working conditions. And a vital difference between that generation of immigrants and the current one is not that the former is good and the latter bad, but that one had more rights and opportunities to improve their lives by moving within the framework of the legal system. Today’s immigrants are largely an underclass used as a scapegoat since they have no rights, little voice, and are unfortunate enough to easily be identified as “others.”

If your local library has a copy or you can find a used copy on the cheap end, breeze past Chomsky’s economic arguments and move on to the second part about immigrants and law. It won’t do much to dismantle the argumentative apparatus the right has constructed, but it will shed light on some of the historical aspects that allow such a group to exist, identifying the problems in societal structure that won’t be solved with a big fence and border guards.

maupassantGuy de Maupassant: A Day in the Country and Other Stories (Oxford University Press, 1990 [1876-1887], 312 pgs.): Maupassant has a penchant for twist endings not dissimilar to O. Henry, or at least endings that are shocking and somewhat off-putting: “Out on the River,” “Family Life,” “Marocca,” “Country Living,” “Riding Out,” and many others feature conclusions where the assumed premise for the story is flipped on its head. Oftentimes the stories have some sort of moral about the consequences of certain types of behavior—not always in an ethical way, but that what sometimes may seem like the right thing is the opposite of what is desired by those whose lives are affected. Death is a major player in these stories.

War and the formation of the Republic are also important for Maupassant. Having served in the army in 1870, he was humiliated with the crushing and quick defeat of the French by the Germans. The title character of “Old Milon” murders Prussian soldiers mercilessly and in secret until he is discovered. Doctor Massarel of “A Coup d’état” attempts to seize power from his Bonapartist mayor but realizes his authority, decreed upon him by members of the newly-formed Republic, is moot when no one chooses to recognize it. He is especially humiliated when his attempt to shatter a bust of Napoleon by shooting it fails miserably.

Out on the River: An unnamed narrator introduces a wily figure he met who had a kinship with the Seine he’d never seen. The man tells a story of a time he had out on the river. It was night, he was alone on his boat, and the view was so peaceful and beautiful he decided to drop anchor and enjoy it. But once he does, he is overcome with a paralyzing fear that something is wrong, that someone is nearby or even on the boat. He is unable to smoke his pipe; nature reacts strangely, with a thick mist forming low on the river and around his ankles on the boat; there is the constant feeling of someone lurking. As morning approaches he finds a few fellows on the river to help him raise his anchor, which is stuck. When they bring it on deck they find it has caught the body of an old woman with a rock tied round her leg.

Simon’s Dad: The schoolchildren are infatuated with their new classmate, Simon, as they’ve heard from their mothers that he has no father. The children tease him and ask him where his father is. Simon, a timid boy, knows not how to react and is beaten ruthlessly. He attempts to turn the tables, pointing out that one child hasn’t a father, either. However, the boy points out his father is dead, and the children react as though having a dead father is better than having no father whatsoever. The women in town discuss Simon’s mother as someone to scorn. One day Simon is crying and he’s discovered by Philippe the workman. He takes Simon home and makes him feel better, and Simon announces that Philippe is his new father. When he tells the schoolchildren, they say he isn’t a proper father because Philippe isn’t married to Simon’s mother, Mme. Blanchot. In discussing it with other smiths, the men find that there are plenty of women gossiping about Blanchot who themselves have done the same thing, and that Blanchot was just unlucky. Philippe asks Mme. Blanchot for her hand in marriage, and she obliges. When Simon tells the schoolchildren, they no longer harass him.

Family Life: Caravan is an aging, fat, unachieved man who lives with his wife and children. His mother lives upstairs. For years he’s worked as a clerk in the Admiralty. He is always hoping that his position will improve, but it never does; his superiors move on to better positions, and other men fill the positions of his superiors. His mother, who lives above him, is known throughout the town as being a miserably cranky old woman, who scorns everyone and anyone. One night after work, Caravan and his family are sitting down to dinner. They wait for Caravan’s mother, but she doesn’t come. Caravan sends the maid to fetch her, and when the maid returns she reports that the mother has fallen and is lying face down on the floor. Caravan rushes upstairs as quickly as he can, his wife trailing behind and more skeptical, believing his mother is either faking or merely having another one of her fainting spells. They send for Dr. Chenet, who tells them she is dead. Chenet stays for dinner, helping himself to the food and getting properly drunk off the wine. Caravan, however, is devastated and cannot eat. Chenet takes him outside for some fresh air. Caravan wanders into a café he frequents looking for some sympathy, but whenever he mentions his mother’s just died, the bargoers playing dominos act with indifference. Caravan returns home, and his wife makes arrangements: they must take a few things from the mother’s apartment before Caravan’s sister arrives and claims the things to herself; he won’t inform his office, as there are other matters to attend to and he believes they won’t blame him for this, and perhaps he will get an improvement in his office. Caravan and his wife move a few pieces of furniture out of the old woman’s room into their apartment. The next day they make the proper arrangements and women from the town—even though they do not care for her—come to visit and pay their respects. Even the daughter, imitating her mother, arranges groups of schoolchildren to come and visit, following the same rituals she’s observed her mother commencing. Finally, the sister and her husband arrive, and the moment they do, the old woman comes downstairs. Caravan and his wife are shocked, and everyone sits down to dinner. The sister’s husband has a grand time, making jokes at the expense of everyone present. Caravan’s wife and his sister argue. The old woman reveals she’d merely fainted; she could hear every word Caravan and his wife said. She asks they return her furniture to her room. As a last worry, Caravan wonders what he might tell the office now that his mother is alive.

A Farm Girl’s Story: Rose is a serving girl on a farm. Jacques expresses his interest in her, but Rose is resistant because she believes he wouldn’t marry her. Jacques denies this though clearly his hesitation suggests otherwise. The two wind up spending a great deal of time together, sleep together, and after a period of time Jacques finds he is tired of Rose and avoids her. Rose discovers she is pregnant and Jacques disappears. Rose attempts to hide her pregnancy the best she can. One day she receives a letter from her ailing mother and returns home to be with her. The mother dies and Rose gives birth to a son at seven months; he is very frail but manages to survive. The mother’s neighbors agree to look after the child. Rose returns to the farm and works incredibly hard. She wants to ask the farmer for a raise in her wages, but she is too embarrassed to do so. The farmer, too, has a proposition, but tells her it can wait until she returns, as after eight months she returns to visit her son. When Rose comes back the farmer asks if she will marry him, and Rose is terrified at the proposition. The farmer grows impatient when she will not give an answer. Rose attempts to run away in the middle of the night, but it is too difficult and she is discovered by a neighboring farmer who returns her to her working ground. She falls ill and stays in bed for two weeks. The farmer asks her if there is another man in her life; Rose will not admit who it is despite the farmer’s insistent guessing. Eventually, the two are married against Rose’s will, and the farmer forces himself on her time and time again, although to no avail; Rose is for some reason unable to have children. After nearly six years, Rose admits to having an affair with Jacques, who then ran off, and that she has a son. The farmer, overwhelmed with joy, decides to take the son in as his own.

Marroca: A narrator tells the story of his trip to Africa. He finds a beautiful woman who has a ravishing appetite for sex. She is of European descent and married to an official of the government. She often goes to the narrator’s abode where they spend their time making love in animal-like ways. One day, she invites the narrator to her house, though the narrator is reticent given she is married and her husband is a member of the government. She finally persuades him. While he is there, the husband comes home. The narrator hides under the bed and Marroca deals with her husband, who has returned only to get his wallet. When he leaves, the narrator crawls out from under the bed, shocked and upset because of the incident, though Marroca is laughing and dancing wildly. The narrator sits down but jumps up, having felt something cold and smooth; there is an axe on the chair. Marroca explains should her husband have looked under the bed, he would not have come back up.

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