Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2013 by Nick Merrill

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When I first sat down to read Infinite Jest, having found a suitably comfortable chair on the first floor of Colby’s Miller Library, I was approached by a friend who asked, “Have you started yet?” From across the room, he’d seen me pick up the massive tome with its sky blue cover. He explained that he’d attempted to start it but gotten no further than page fifteen; he thought David Foster Wallace to be highly descriptive and difficult to understand.

I read fifty pages in that sitting. I can see why my friend quit after fifteen; the opening chapter is the book’s hardest section. It’s situated at the book’s chronological end, and even after finishing all 1,079 pages, it’s not entirely clear what happened and why. There are numerous fan theories, some more logical than others, but no absolute truth.

The other random encounter I had while reading Infinite Jest also occurred in Colby’s library. While on page 200ish, a girl walked by me and remarked, “Best book ever.” During our conversation, she revealed an obsession with David Foster Wallace, manifested by her wrist tattoo of ‘This is Water,’ the title of Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement speech.

As I became increasingly immersed in the book, I began to understand her obsession. Wallace’s long sentences, words, and paragraphs all take some getting used to, but once you adapt to his style, reading his prose is exhilarating. His characters, even the most pathetic, are drawn so vividly that they take on an epic quality in your mind. Wallace hits you with so much breathtaking detail that his world, no matter how absurd, becomes startlingly real; you can’t help but compare it to your own.

Some authors narrate their plot in detail while leaving theme open to interpretation. Wallace does it the other way; his plot is disjointed and sometimes non-existent, major dramatic details occurring off-screen or after the ending, while he explicitly spells out his moral and philosophical themes. This could have been a weakness, but Wallace pulls it off. Every lesson he spells out is supported by the stories and digressions of multiple characters whose neuroses are often relatable and universal.

Infinite Jest  revolves around two locations, the Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) and the Ennet Halfway House.

The ETA was founded by James Orin Incandenza, whose family dominates much of the book. They’re an odd bunch, plagued by numerous psychological disorders and united in their inability to effectively communicate with one another. The Incandenzas, despite their extreme eccentricity, are relatable; their struggles with depression, addiction, and obsession aren’t unique. But they’re particularly volatile, singularly dense in neurosis and emotional estrangement.

James Incandenza, referred to as ‘Himself’ or ‘The Mad Stork’ by his children, has been long dead throughout most of the book’s narrative. But through memory, he’s brilliantly characterized to the point where he feels as defined and distinct as any of the characters alive during the book’s main action. He’s an obscenely competent man, excelling in everything from optics to nuclear fusion to tennis to obscure avant-garde filmmaking. But he’s also an alcoholic who struggles to relate and talk to his children. His final pursuit, filmmaking, which comes to define his final years, makes for one of the book’s best recurring jokes. Himself’s films are so technical, oddly constructed, and pretentious that they’re hilarious. His most hated film, ‘The Joke,’ merely consists of live audiences sitting in a movie theater watching themselves on the big screen.

Wallace uses Himself’s filmography to comment and mock some of his own tendencies. Himself’s approach to film, in its technical specificity and anticonfluential (lack of narrative convergence) tendencies, is seen by many to be audience hostile and emotionally distant. While Infinite Jest shares the anticonfluentialism of Incandenza’s films, it succeeds where he failed by having a very strong and very sincere emotional center.

The other Incandenzas include Hal, a lexical and tennis genius who struggles with expectation, anhedonia, and marijuana dependency, Orin, a pro football player with a bundle of Oedipal conflicts which manifest as sociopathic attempts to seduce married young mothers, Mario, a disabled, heartbreakingly kind and earnest filmmaker, and Avril, the mother, whose obsessive compulsions extend to cleanliness, grammar, and enclosure.

One of the book’s great strategies is its characters’ failure to communicate and understand each other. Orin comments that he never knows what to say or how to act in his father’s presence. His father comments that he never knows what to say or how to act in Orin’s presence. During his final years, Himself imagines that Hal is unable to speak. Himself is somewhat delusional because he’s confusing Hal’s emotional detachment and loneliness with a literal inability to talk. At one point Wallace uses the Hollywood extra as a metaphor for all who feel powerless and unable to get their voice across.

Wallace’s characters are either numb or in pain. Infinite Jests’s great observation is the way we escape from pain brought on by a combination of fundamental loneliness and existential fear. Hal Incandenza, Himself’s youngest son, muses, “We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give ourselves away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into.”

Wallace’s three greatest examples of our worshipful tendencies are tennis, addiction, entertainment, and nationalism. ETA’s chief coach Schtitt trains students to see tennis as a form of self-transcendence. Drugs, though less useful than competitive sport, also represent an escape from self, a surrender of free will. Entertainment is more passive than the other two categories, but it’s just as important. The central plot device in Infinite Jest is Himself’s lethally pleasurable final film, ‘Infinite Jest.’ The Quebecois wheelchair assassins embody nationalism as they attempt to acquire ‘Infinite Jest,’ referred to as ‘the Entertainment,’ to use for terrorist purposes.

Much of the book is interspersed with conversations between Marathe and Steeply, the former a wheelerchair assassin betraying his brothers for love of his wife, the latter an agent of O.N.AN., the megastate of Canada, America, and Mexico. They talk about issues of free will and devotion. Marathe argues that to be free is know how to choose a cause, a path that gives your life enriching meaning. Steeply sees fascism in Marathe’s argument as he defends America’ s conception of freedom while acknowledging that an unwelcome byproduct is the shallow pursuit of pleasure at all costs. The two act as a kind of chorus, not commenting on the action so much as commenting of the themes illustrated by the action.

Wallace portrays addiction via the Ennet Halfway House, whose central character is Demoral addict/burglar turned AA attendee and house staffer Don Gately. Gately, in spite of a violent past, is the book’s most sympathetic character. He honestly and sincerely struggles to be a better person. His final chapters in the book, as he struggles with temptation, lack of communication, and painful memories, are shocking, heartbreaking, and oddly climactic.

The book’s thin central plot involving the Entertainment isn’t as important as the Entertainment’s existence. Wallace observes an America obsessed with instant gratification and the selfish pursuit of pleasure. What matters is the way his characters feel about the Entertainment, not whether or not the terrorists eventually do succeed.

Infinite Jest is so packed with too many characters and stories to possibly cover in this review, which is probably a good thing, as so much of the joy of reading the book is discovering Wallace’s creations, from the drug-addled, brilliant schemer Michael Pemulis to the gloomy yet irresistibly beautiful Joelle aka Madame Psychosis. The book is bursting with humanity from every social strata and every moral persuasion, but all of its characters grapple with similar dilemmas of alienation, freedom, sadness, and devotion.

The novel isn’t perfect. Wallace’s inclusion of detail is part of what makes the book impressive, but he goes slightly overboard. Many of his 388 footnotes cleverly elucidate character or plot detail, but some of them just add unnecessary information which might be mathematical, scientific, or linguistic. Such gusts of data aren’t limited to the footnotes. Wallace knows a lot, and he wants you to know that he knows a lot, which sometimes gets in the way of his characterization.

But what Wallace does well, he does with such virtuoso skill that his sins become forgivable. Infinite Jest is such an all-encompassing novel; it’s so sad and funny and intellectually stimulating that it’s impossible to read in totality without being consumed by its lessons and its quandaries.


Putting a Book Down

Posted in Thoughts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2013 by Nick Merrill

I’ve known a lot of people to say, “I finish every book I start.” It’s usually a point of pride – quitting has a stigma. To reach the finish line of every endeavor you undertake is to be successful. For a while, I wanted to be one of these ultra-disciplined book connoisseurs, capable of fighting through any book, no matter how bad, so as to better critique it or at least give it a chance to redeem itself.

But I’ve never been like that. In the few years that I’ve considered myself a serious reader, I’ve left a lot of books behind. Sometimes I’ll stop after fifty pages, but in at least one case I’ve quit halfway through. For a while I felt bad about doing this. It felt somehow disrespectful to the author. I thought it might attest poorly to my own reading abilities, especially in cases where the book I rejected was considered a classic.

My attitude changed when, in my Introduction to Microeconomics course, my professor taught us about sunk cost. Her example went something like this:

“Imagine you’re in a movie theater. You’ve paid $10 for your ticket. You’re halfway through the movie and you hate it; you know that you’ve passed the point where it has any hope of getting better. You’re tempted to walk out, but you think, ‘I’ve paid for the ticket and I’ve been sitting here for an hour – I might as well sit it out so as to not waste my money.’ But this argument is based on a fallacy. If you’re not enjoying the movie, then the more wasteful option is to stay. There are two costs: the literal cost of the ticket, and the opportunity cost incurred by sitting in a theater watching a movie you don’t like. You minimize your costs by walking out.”

At the time, this seemed like a perfectly logical framework by which to justify putting a book down, even if I’d paid for it. I’ve since adapted my view a little bit, moving away from the above example’s utilitarian logic. You can be enriched by something you don’t enjoy at the time. The above movie-going experience might be uncomfortable, but it’s possible that in retrospect, you’ll think about the movie, see something clever, and experience the sort of intellectual stimulation that comes with analysis. You might see the movie again, the experience now different. You might love it.

The above circumstance won’t always be applicable. If the movie you’re watching is certifiably terrible, a Seltzer/Friedberg type travesty, something you just know won’t reveal nuance, then leaving the theater is probably the best option. But I do try to work a middle ground between the two attitudes, embodied by, “I’m trying to ruthlessly minimize costs,” and “There’s merit in finishing – I might find something I hadn’t expected.”

I never walk out of movie theaters. But a book is different. When you start reading a book, you commit to spending a lot of time in its world. If you’re like me, busy and not a professional literary critic, you need to fit reading into your spare time. If I’m not enjoying a book, I take some time to think of why. I mentally catalogue what I don’t like about it, hoping to come a reasonable justification for putting it down. Sometimes I worry that the reason is as simple as, “This bores me,” and that I retroactively impose a supposedly intellectual set of criteria for condemning the book’s quality, vindicating my decision to stop reading it.

But if my reason for quitting is boredom, there’s not anything wrong with that. A book should entertain. And I mean ‘entertain’ in its most literal definition; a book should command your continued engagement. I also don’t confuse being bored with finding a text difficult. I might be tempted to put down something that’s hard to read, but this kind of experience is much more likely to be rewarding if I stick with it.

I haven’t posted a review in a while because I’ve been plowing through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I have a couple hundred pages left. For the first fifty or so pages, I flirted with the idea of putting it down. Wallace’s prose is unique and somewhat jarring and difficult if you’re not used to it. His gargantuan descriptiveness, his run-on sentences and paragraphs, take some getting used to. But once his prose conditioned me to its rhythms, I found that I greatly enjoyed the book. It’s not easy reading. It’s occasionally frustrating, but it’s also exhilarating like nothing else I’ve ever read. A review is forthcoming.

Infinite Jest inspired me to write this article because it’s so concerned with the concept of entertainment. Wallace criticizes an America (or humanity in general?) obsessed with the competitive pursuit of happiness via instant gratification. When I say that I want a book to entertain me, I don’t mean that I want it to be easy or immediately pleasurable. Infinite Jest is entertaining, but not in the hollow manner of a Call of Duty game or a Michael Bay movie. It leaves you with something.

To end this article, I’ll list five books which I’ve put down. Disclaimer: I’m not necessarily proud of this list.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

I read the first fifty pages. I just couldn’t get into the dry, historical style. People tell me it gets better, so I might give it another chance in the future.

Shogun by James Clavell

I’ve heard great things about this book, and my decision to put it down wasn’t a condemnation. I wasn’t intrigued by the first twenty pages, a fact exacerbated by the presence of an incredibly tempting release by a favorite author sitting on my shelf, demanding that I read it immediately.

An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham

The third book in Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, a well-regarded fantasy series. I really wanted to like it, going so far as to read most of the series. Ultimately I just accepted that I’m not really interested in Abraham’s characters or his prose. He sets up interesting world changing conflicts, showing how they impact a select few individuals, but I just wasn’t into his voice.

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

I eventually finished this, but for a long time I left it on my shelf, a bookmark at the halfway point. There’s something about Tolkien’s style and his themes which just irks me: the syrupy, nostalgic ‘jolly old England’ yearning. Also the somewhat blank, archetypal characters fail to really grab my interest. I finished Lord of the Rings because I felt obligated, but I didn’t really enjoy it.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

I later read and reviewed McCarthy’s The Road, but I found Suttree to be thoroughly uninteresting and rather dull.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on April 12, 2013 by Nick Merrill

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Cat’s Cradle attempts to satirize just about everything wrong with the mid-twentieth century in less than three hundred pages. Its arguments are often funny, convincing, and depressing. Vonnegut writes with a sharp sense of irony which carries the story through even its most nihilistic passages. Cat’s Cradle has a nice range of strange, memorable characters, though none of them are terribly complex. It confesses to being a testament to human stupidity, but its lack of strong characterization prevents it from being a fully honest look at the human condition.

Cat’s Cradle has a twisting, divergent plot. We start with author stand-in John, who’s attempting to write a book about what important people were doing the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Soon, John has a different mission – he’s flying to the Caribbean Island of San Lorenzo to profile a wealthy philanthropist. From there, the plot takes further right turns which it would be a shame to spoil.

It’s not that the plot is careless or incohesive – Vonnegut unites his storylines with a clear thematic vision. His adhesive of choice is Bokononism, a fictional religion native to San Lorenzo. From the beginning, we know that John will eventually become a convert. The entire narrative is thus sprinkled with Bokononist insights and theology. Bokononism is a self-aware religion, meaning that part of its dogma is that it’s a lie. But that doesn’t matter. People follow it anyway. Its doctrine holds that we’re all part of a Karass, a team of individuals who carry out God’s work in ways unknown to them.

Bokononism is a clever satire on religion, on our desire to attribute meaning and purpose to the crazy and often inexplicable events of our lives. John interprets his involvement in world-changing events, his tendency to be at the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time, as God’s will. Of course, he also knows that such attribution, based on Bokononist dogma, is consciously constructed.

Here we have an interesting commentary on our ability to hold conflicting ideas. Bokonon can outwardly say that his religion is a lie, and people will listen, but they’ll follow its tenets anyway. Vonnegut is making the case that no matter what evidence is presented against a religion, it can still maintain force as its followers irrationally cling to their belief in spite of contradictory information. Bokononism is an extreme is this regard, but its nature is satirical.

Cat’s Cradle’s insights on the arms race were more pressing at the time of publication, but they’re still relevant. It was released in 1963, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when fear of incoming apocalypse reached its zenith. We don’t feel the threat of the mushroom cloud as acutely anymore, but more countries than ever before are in possession of nuclear weapons. Vonnegut’s argument is that humans are simply too stupid to control such overwhelming force.

Some of the book’s more important characters are the Hoenikkers. The patriarch, Felix Hoenikker, was one of the ‘fathers of the atomic bomb.’ Felix is an emotionally indifferent scientific genius who approaches his studies with childlike wonder. He’s not so much immoral as he is amoral. He symbolizes science. Near the end of his life, he creates ice-9, a compound with the potential to freeze every drop of water on Earth. A compound with apocalyptic potential.

Vonnegut avoids the obvious anti-nuclear argument by barely dealing with arms race as it relates to conflict between two superpowers. Instead he focuses on chaos and human error. We never know when we’ll have a stroke, when an earthquake might hit, or when a plane will crash into a cliff. We never know when a mentally unbalanced individual will come into possession of a world-shattering substance. Humanity is simply too unpredictable and incompetent to be trusted with something like ice-9. No matter how careful we are, catastrophe can still strike.

Vonnegut’s presentation of this argument is convincing in large part because of its simplicity. Of course the book exaggerates, it’s satire. But the fundamental point, that humanity has built something which it might be incapable of safely holding back, represents a valid concern. It’s also a classic literary theme. The idea isn’t so much that science is bad, just that science has the potential to get ahead of us. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is another classic example of this type of story.

Cat’s Cradle has a rather cynical epistemological outlook. Bokononism holds that the pursuit of knowledge is often futile, that our desire to understand can only ever be a vain and unfulfilled quest. This ties back to the book’s scientific theme in that Felix Hoenikker’s simple desire to know has destructive consequences. According to Newton Hoenikker, Felix’s dwarf son, we overlay cohesive identity onto the world’s fundamental meaninglessness in a way similar to how a tangled collection of string is supposed to represent a cat’s cradle. Thus the book’s title, which is an ever-recurring symbol for that which falsely purports to have meaning.

Cat’s Cradle’s sense of irony is illustrated by the following passage, in which Philip Castle describes why he doesn’t want to follow in his father Julian’s footsteps to become a philanthropist doctor:

“He couldn’t stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head, and do you know what that marvelous man said to me?” asked Castle.


“’Son,’ my father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours.’”

Vonnegut is generally more interested in characterizing Bokononism than in the actual people who inhabit his story. Newton, the well-adjusted nihilistic dwarf, is one of his more memorable creations. But ultimately the narrative is dominated by John’s voice and observations. Most of the other characters are somewhat broadly sketched.

The Crosbys, for example, are stereotypes. The husband is a myopic capitalist looking for some poor workers to exploit. The wife is a naïve Hoosier desperately looking for others Hoosiers with whom she can bask in their group identity. Characters like this are often funny. After all, Vonnegut isn’t attempting to write in a realist style. He’s taking various human flaws and exaggerating them, allowing them to define certain characters. But Cat’s Cradle, which metafictionally calls itself, “A history of human stupidity,” would have been better served by portraying humans who are slightly more nuanced. It would’ve needed to be a longer book, but as is, it’s incredibly short.

Another example is Mona, the exotic beauty with whom most San Lorenzen males are infatuated. Vonnegut spends a bit of time detailing John’s feelings for Mona, but there’s ultimately little payoff. She’s not really a character in her own right. She stands in for a certain naïve, simple tendency. She’s not a love interest whose story offers a human touch, and the passages dealing with her don’t have the thematic depth of other sections.

For its length, Cat’s Cradle is ambitious in its thematic density. It mostly succeeds, presenting simple arguments about religion and technology and how they can both fulfill and destroy us. It’s a funny book. It handles depressing topics with wit and hilarity. It’s not perfect. Sometimes its sense of focus is off, and its handling of character is lacking. But I can see why it’s largely considered a classic, and why so many love to rave about Vonnegut.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on April 7, 2013 by Nick Merrill


Among living American writers, Cormac McCarthy stands out. He’s a Big Name. Even those who haven’t read him often have an idea of what he represents. They’ve seen the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men, or they’ve heard about his iconoclastic approach to grammar. Years ago, I tried to read Suttree. I put it down after roughly ten pages, turned off by the style. A week or so ago, I decided to give McCarthy another shot. Shopping at Raven Used Books in Cambridge, MA, I noticed a copy of The Road. I picked it up, read a few pages, and, captivated by McCarthy’s haunting imagery, bought it.

The Road immediately sets itself apart with its minimalist style. Its two main characters are The Man and The Boy. We never learn their names. The Man is resourceful and cunning, protective and loving. The boy is fearful and cautious, generous and curious. Beyond these traits, they aren’t characterized in great detail. That they lack proper names is indicative of their archetypal nature. They stand in for fathers and sons everywhere. There’s a universality to their paternal bond which transcends circumstance.

It’s the end of the world. The ecosystem has collapsed, bands of cannibals roam the country. Unlike many post-apocalyptic stories, there isn’t really any hope for renewal. Humanity nears its final hour. Beauty and goodness have all but checked out. What remains? Mutual love between a father and son, strong enough to endure the wreckage of everything else. The tenderness with which McCarthy this portrays gives the novel, which could have been soul-numbingly bleak, an almost life-affirming quality. The selflessness of the Man’s love for his son is something special, something which can redeem the human race even as it resorts to cannibalism and terror. The Man frequently tells the Boy that they’re “Carrying the fire.” He never describes exactly what this means. The most compelling explanation is that the fire is some combination of goodness and love.

There’s a lot of dialogue in The Road, but characters rarely speak more than one sentence at a time. As is typical of McCarthy, there aren’t any quotation marks. I was struck by the recurring instances where the Man is surprised by something which his son says. At one point, the Boy utters, “Warm at last,” prompting the father to ask where he would have heard such a phrase. Later, the Boy asks what their “Long term goals” are. I’m not a father, but this strikes me as something real. As kids grow up, they pick up on the linguistic clichés of the adult world. When they utter them, it’s surprising and funny. McCarthy’s inclusion of this phenomenon adds depth and charm to the paternal relationship at the heart of his book.

The Road’s descriptions of its barren, ash-covered setting are disturbing, transporting, and unbearably haunting. I recommend that you read this in a warm, people-filled setting – a library or a café would be perfect – so that you don’t get too consumed by McCarthy’s empty, hopeless apocalyptic setting.

He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone. – from page 11 of The Road

The Road is suffused with an ominous tension. Early on, we know that the love between father and son, the book’s only source of comfort, is itself temporary. The Man often gets up in the night to go cough blood. He’s sick. He might be dying. He often contemplates his pistol, knowing that he might have to kill his son to protect him from a worse death at the hands of cannibals. That the Man’s love could take such a grim, destructive form is terrifying. We spend much of the novel hoping that it won’t happen. The Man wants to protect his son, he wants to shield him from the worst of what the world has to offer. Of course, he realizes that this desire is largely futile.

The Road is repetitive. The Man and the Boy spend most of the book traveling. They starve. They find food. They encounter a band of cannibals. They hide and/or fight. They see a house and go to search it. The Man and the Boy have a conversation, the Man reassures the Boy of something, the conversation ends in the mutual exchange of “Okay.” This repetition gives the book a poetic quality. It has choruses. This structure has certain elegance, but it doesn’t always make for the most compelling reading. Especially towards the end, I felt that McCarthy was treading over the same territory.

I would say that The Road would have been better as a novella, but the repetition does serve a thematic as well as a stylistic purpose. It gives us a feel for what life is in the book’s barren, blasted world. I was never bored, but that’s largely due to McCarthy’s writing, which often transcends his mundane plotting. Nevertheless, McCarthy could have included more variance in his story. The devices he falls back on, including searching the abandoned house and hiding from the cannibals, feel like the easy clichés of post-apocalyptic fiction.

The core of The Road is the relationship between the Man and the Boy. The strength of this relationship, the way that McCarthy juxtaposes it with the emptiness and cruelty of his world, elevates The Road to greatness. McCarthy’s prose is beautiful – it wonderfully draws out the atmosphere of a hopeless world, somehow lending aesthetic grandeur to a total wasteland. Where the book falters is its plotting. The Road’s repetition and the obviousness of its plot beats serve its minimalist style, but such a style wouldn’t have been betrayed with less reliance on predictable survival horror tropes.

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , on April 4, 2013 by Nick Merrill


Murakami’s meditation on loneliness, fiction, and the ambiguities of self is as thought provoking as it is haunting. The novel develops in phases, beginning as a descriptive character driven love story before becoming increasingly metaphorical and abstract. The transition is smooth and stimulating – Sputnik Sweetheart never fails to surprise and engage as its narrative moves through different forms. The translation I read, by Philip Gabriel, is smooth, accessible, and often beautiful.

It begins with Sumire, an eccentric, iconoclastic college dropout struggling to become a great novelist. The unnamed narrator, known as K., is the novel’s other major character, and we know from his affectionate, detailed descriptions of Sumire that he’s in love with her. He describes her clothes, her habits, and her ambitions in a way that makes his feelings obvious even before he bluntly confesses them. Sumire is an intriguing character. She’s naive and somewhat selfish, but she’s honest and charmingly offbeat. She’s a good creation. Murakami, in composing K.’s narration, knows this. The book’s opening encourages us to simply marvel at her weirdness. K. himself is a less vivid, if more present character than Sumire. He’s a more passive, less reckless individual. He’s gone through life playing by the rules, never really excelling at anything, ending up as a teacher, a productive, acceptable member of society. But he has a strong voice. He has opinions, philosophical musings, and habits. He has passion. He’s not the novel’s best character, but he’s a well-drawn narrator.

Early on, Murakami introduces many of the existential questions which take hold later in the novel. Sumire meets and falls in love with Miu, an older, professional woman who employs her as a secretary. Sumire asks K. the difference between a sign and a symbol, opening up a discourse on semiotics – the separation between what is and what is described. This inquiry is especially important in its relation to identity. As Sumire works for Miu, she changes her habits and appearance. She stops writing. Has Sumire, the entity described by K. in loving detail, disappeared?

The next phase of the novel deals with Sumire’s supposedly literal disappearance while vacationing with Miu on a remote Greek island. Murakami loves to take his characters’ anxieties and give them symbolic form. Sumire and K.’s fundamental loneliness is complemented by both the imagery of Sputnik, the isolated satellite, and the Greek island. Sumire’s disappearance itself is an example of this tendency.

I would accuse Murakami of over-explaining if he wasn’t so ambiguous in his handling of some of the book’s important mysteries. There are some tenuous conclusions: the self is elusive and loneliness is, to some extent, inevitable for many. I was reminded of Wong Kar Wai’s films, in particular Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, which depict isolated individuals who experience brief respites from their routine existence. But for the most part, answers are scarce in Sputnik Sweetheart. The enigmatic ending invites interpretation as to the book’s themes and its characters’ fates.

At one point, K. ponders the inner turmoil of a troubled, mysterious student. Is it as hard to know yourself as it is to know others? Sumire claims to fall in love with Miu during their first conversation, but they hardly know each other. Nevertheless, Sumire has an idea of what Miu is. An idea that makes sense, an idea that’s whole. But over the course of the novel, we learn more about Miu, including her own troubled relationship with identity.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is its treatment of writing and fiction in particular.  Sumire struggles to write cohesive novels; she can write endlessly, but she can’t fit it all together. K. theorizes that this is because she hasn’t had enough experience, though he frames this in metaphorical terms, telling her about the Chinese practice of anointing city walls with animal blood after a ritual sacrifice. Later, when Sumire struggles to write during her professional and emotional changes, he tells her that she’s in the process of fitting her existence into a new fictional framework. The concept of using a fictional framework to deal with our existence is intriguing – K. compares it to a car’s transmission. This gets back into the issue of semiotics. Is our conception of self, our conception of others, and our engagement with both dependent on convenient fictions which stand in for reality? Sumire says at one point that she writes so that she can think, and that while in the throes of passion for Miu, she couldn’t think and therefore couldn’t write. Though most of us don’t rely on writing the way that Sumire does, we do lean on language, itself composed of symbols (or signs?) to think and act. Fiction, whether filmed, written, or drawn, has become extremely important to our lives. Sputnik Sweetheart examines this phenomenon at a deeper level.

One of the book’s recurring questions is whether or not our humanity is dependent on passion. This is shown in part through K. and Sumire’s conversation on her writing. It’s implied that once she falls in love, she’ll gain something which will improve her skills as a writer. Sputnik Sweetheart doesn’t deal exclusively with weighty philosophical matters – it’s also a story of unrequited love. Murakami handles this aspect well, telling a relatable story of likable people who fail to connect in the ways they desire.

Sputnik Sweetheart is short and powerful. Murakami beautifully illustrates his characters’ fundamental sadness, resulting in an extremely emotional philosophical novel which avoids being esoteric.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on April 1, 2013 by Nick Merrill


While reading The Corrections, I asked my brother for his opinion on it. He offered, “I hated it. I’m not into the whole ‘suburbia is hell’ genre of fiction.” But criticizing suburban life was hardly Franzen’s only intention. The Corrections is a sprawling story of family, capitalism, technology, and mental health. The story begins at the Lambert house in St. Jude, a middle class Midwestern suburb. We’re introduced to Alfred and Enid, an elderly couple trapped in a toxic, nightmarish relationship. Their only real company is each other, and they’re both insufferable in their own way. Alfred is emotionally withdrawn and abusive. Enid is judgmental and prudish. The novel’s opening pages are the hardest to read; Franzen takes us into the Lambert house by clobbering us with excruciating detail, making us feel the claustrophobia of their existence.

But the scope quickly widens. The book begins and ends in St. Jude, but a bulk of the story is spent recounting the adventures and frustrations of the Lambert children, Chip, Gary, and Denise. Here, the novel shines in its ability to tackle a wide variety of subjects and create a panoply of convincing characters. The three Lambert children each undergo serious crises, dealing with mental, professional, and romantic failure. Their plight could have been difficult to read about, but Franzen’s treatment gives way to both sympathy and laughter.

Chip’s story is arguably the comedic crux of the novel. The Corrections, similar as it is in many ways to DeLillo’s White Noise, wouldn’t have been complete without a bit of academic satire, which Franzen provides via Chip, an English professor whose career implodes after an affair with an eccentric female student. There’s a moment in the novel where said female student challenges Chip’s views. She calls out his Marxism, effectively calling him a rebel against happiness, desperately looking for something to fight against. Chip immediately slides into a torrent of self-doubt, wondering if the values on which he’s based his career and ideology are wrong. Chip’s moment of crisis is compelling, well-written, and funny. His further adventures, his attempts to become a screenwriter, his time in Lithuania, are increasingly zany. Franzen fancies himself a satirist, but he isn’t above the occasional gross out gag. The Corrections includes a lengthy description of what it’s like to have sex with an antique couch. There’s also a gag where Chip attempts to steal a slab of meat by hiding it in his pants.

Franzen is good at portraying frantic mental chaos, but there’s always an edge of the ridiculous. Pretty much all members of the Lambert family deal with depression at some point, but Franzen’s style prevents this from being tragic. He writes with a sardonic flair which encourages laughter at moments which might otherwise be painful. The section dealing with Gary, the oldest Lambert sibling, is a good example of this. Gary’s obsession over finding clues to indicate his lack of depression immediately indicates that he is in fact depressed. Gary’s aware of brain chemistry. He knows which chemicals cause happiness and which chemicals cause stress. This concern leads into one of the book’s underdeveloped themes, that of the relation between technology, the self, and personality. There are two important medical treatments in the book. The first is Mexican A/Aslan, a mysterious, shame relieving pill taken by both Chip and Enid. Franzen is clearly observing the rise of anti-depressants and exaggerating it. The second is Corecktall, an experimental medication with the potential to change one’s personality in addition to reversing diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Such a drug could change the world. It’s the stuff of science fiction. But Franzen’s characters are only concerned with it on a local level. Gary sees an opportunity to invest and make money. Denise and Enid see an opportunity to treat the ailing Alfred. Franzen’s commentary on medication seems to fizzle out near the end as some characters reject its usefulness. Perhaps he only meant to observe the manner in which modern Americans relate to medication; the ways we crave it, the ways we take comfort in it.

The Corrections has an interesting relationship with capitalism. It isn’t as overtly hostile as White Noise, but there is critique of consumer culture. Franzen questions capitalism’s ability to provide happiness through Gary, whose material success as an investment banker fails to quell his sense of powerlessness and alienation. He spends much of his time trying to buy Corecktall stock based on some insider info. But possible success would be tenuous; the book ends with the dot-com crash, highlighting the temporality of financial boom. Even before the crash, Franzen juxtaposes American prosperity with Lithuanian plight. Chip, working in Lithuania to defraud American investors, observes that the elites of both countries rule through different forms of coercion: “In America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainments and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence.” Where Gary struggles to find fulfillment in capitalism, Chip struggles to find fulfillment fighting against it. Meanwhile, Denise’s high-flying success cooking for a swanky restaurant fails to distract from her emotional turmoil as she becomes romantically involved with a married couple.

Eventually, the novel circles back to St. Jude, where Enid has desperately been trying to reassemble the family for one last Christmas. Of course, the Lamberts are classically dysfunctional, so Christmas hardly goes as planned. Nevertheless, there’s a certain neatness to the ending which comes across as forced. The book’s final pages encompass a broad swath of time in which the characters seem to undergo just as much development as they did in the preceding five hundred pages. This makes for a structural flaw. Franzen could have written a longer book, or he could have left more ambiguity as to the fate of his creations.

The Corrections is a forceful, ambitious novel. Its prose is clean and easy to read, except in the segments where Franzen laboriously details what it’s like to be Alfred Lambert. The characters are a complex bunch. They’re selfish, frustrated, and often ridiculous. But their miseries are understandable and often relatable. Franzen’s witty voice transports their struggles to that of tragic farce. In this satirical territory, the book works. It’s funny and moving. It struggles slightly under the weight of its ambition, leading to underdeveloped themes and a rushed ending, but ultimately it succeeds more than it fails.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on March 28, 2013 by Nick Merrill


Eli and Charlie Sisters are traveling hitmen. They work for the Commodore, a thinly characterized, ever distant symbol of oppression and cruelty. At the start of The Sisters Brothers, the Commodore hires his angels of death to hunt down and kill Edward Kermit Warm for the crime of theft.

The Sisters Brothers is, aesthetically, a Western. It takes place in Oregon and California in the mid nineteenth century, during the California Gold Rush. Through much of the novel, Eli and Charlie simply travel; they go from place to place, meeting an assortment of strange and interesting characters. There’s an undertrained dentist. There’s an irresponsible gangster looking for a red bear pelt. This part of the book, more episodic than that which comes later, is quite well done. DeWitt paints an interesting, varied portrait of the American frontier, filled with personality, wit, stupidity, and cruelty. The novel moves very quickly; chapters are very short and DeWitt spends little time on description. The result is that this portion of the novel, which could have felt like a plodding travelogue, clips along well as DeWitt introduces us to his world and its personas. The prose is neither austere nor flashy. DeWitt’s long sentences, brought to us by Eli’s narration, flow rather well.

Along the way, we learn much about these two men: their differing personalities, their strained relationship, and their hopes for the future. Eli is, as is perfunctory in most hitman stories, tired of being a hitman. Early in the novel, it’s easy to wonder why he’s in this business in the first place. He comes across as an empathetic, conscientious individual.  But eventually we learn more of his backstory, such as the cause of his ongoing closeness with his brother. DeWitt paces this characterization well, slowly filling us in on why Eli is a good killer and why he still kills. The book is told from Eli’s first person point of view, so we always know him better than we do Charlie. Nevertheless, DeWitt handle’s Charlie well, humanizing him later in the novel, smoothing out some of his roguish characteristics.

Though DeWitt does a fine job defining and fleshing out the Sisters brothers, these personalities are hardly breaking literary ground. As alluded to before, the hitman with a heart of gold is a fairly tired trope. It’s obvious and predictable. But looked at in a vacuum, The Sisters Brothers fares well. The brothers aren’t terribly complex, but they do feel like real people with real anxieties and real thoughts.

Because we spend so much time with Eli and Charlie, much of the novel’s quality hinges on the efficacy of their relationship. They feel like convincing brothers in their oscillating treatment of one another. Eli and Charlie want different things. The former dreams of retiring and living a simple life, possibly as a shop clerk. The latter is more ambitious, hoping to one day be a man of power and status, similar to the Commodore. Understandably, they butt heads repeatedly. Their evolving relationship is the book’s real story. The quest to kill Warm is an excuse to put these brothers in uncomfortable territory that will force them to question their lifestyles and their relationship with each other.

When the brothers do reach San Francisco, the plot shifts gears. They resolve to find Warm and to find out why the Commodore wants him dead. It turns out that Warm, a resourceful scientist, has hit upon a money-making scheme. This means that the brothers are faced with an interesting decision. Should they kill him as the Commodore ordered? Should they kill him and steal his get-rich-quick scheme? Or should they join up with him? Up until this point, the Gold Rush exists in the novel’s background. Once they reach San Francisco, it becomes vital to the plot. The Gold Rush is appealing because it’s such a distillation of the American dream. Come to America and join the middle class after putting in hard work. Come to San Francisco and join the upper class after putting in very little work. Of course, both dreams are too good to be true, and DeWitt would be remiss were he not to demonstrate that. Warm is a fascinating character. In one of the novel’s lengthier episodes, we learn his eccentric backstory. Like Eli and Charlie, he also fits an archetype, that of the mad scientist. But presented with both his flaws and his virtues, he’s a believable part of this universe. His honest nature presents a good counterpart to the brothers. Interacting with him forces them into new territory, putting their lives in a different perspective.

The Commodore has an interesting function within the novel. Eli hates him. Charlie kind of likes him. We never learn much about him; he’s a distant symbol of tyranny. His lack of characterization was clearly deliberate, though I wouldn’t have minded learning more about the particulars of his relationship with the brothers. This would have made an important climactic moment near the end much more emotional.

The Sisters Brothers loses much of its footing during its final chapters. The events which close out the book are a little too neat, a little too moralizing, a little too obvious. A book which felt grounded in reality gains a spiritual pulse. Yes, the brothers encounter and fear a possible witch’s ‘curse’ early in the novel, but the ending’s tone is still an unwelcome departure from the rest of the book. It betrays the book’s chance at thematic complexity.

The Sisters Brothers is, for the most part, an enjoyable, nuanced read. It’s a convincing ride through the American West as seen by regretful hitman Eli Sisters. The novel is often funny, often suspenseful, and always easy to read. The ending was a disappointment, but it shouldn’t discourage anyone from reading the book.