Archive for United States

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2013 by Nick Merrill

Cover of "Middlesex: A Novel"

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There’s an ambitious scope to  Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex which pays off beautifully. The narration is epic and whimsical, the characters are vivid, and the focus is intensely broad. It occasionally falls into repetition, and its historical element can sometimes feel a bit like Forest Gump, but overall, it’s a unique, piercing read which tackles a subject not often dealt with.

The central premise of the novel is that its protagonist narrator, originally a girl named Calliope Stephanides, learns of her hermaphroditism as a teenager and switches her gender identity to male. There’s a lot of context behind this; the first half of the book traces the history of the Stephanides family from its days in Asia minor to its hot dog empire in the United States.

Hermaphroditism can be a hard subject to understand; as humans, liminal spaces can be bothersome. We like definitions. Hermaphrodites, because of their rarity and unique genital status, have always held an interesting position in the cultural imagination. The ancient Greeks often concerned themselves with the idea of that third sex possessing male and female anatomy. That’s why it’s appropriate, and not a little canny, that Cal comes from a Greek family.

Middlesex is an epic. Eugenides’s prose is lyrical and his themes are rooted in the Classics. The original Calliope was, of course, the muse of epic poetry. Fate is integral to the story, though it has a more modern character. The narrator constantly reminds us of a kind of genetic determinism; the Stephanides family possesses a recessive mutation which, when activated, births a girl who later turns out to be a boy. Cal constantly reminds us of the inevitability of this event. Everything that happens to her ancestors leads up to the point of her conception. The novel may not contain the kind of divine fate which plagued Oedipus and so many other tragic heroes, but there is this air of inescapability.

The book isn’t a tragedy because there’s never a serious attempt to escape fate. There is hubris, particularly in Callie’s conception; her parents timed their sex based on erroneous science, hoping to game the system and produce a girl. There’s a consequence in Cal’s suffering, though he eventually comes to terms with who and what he is.

Though Middlesex jumps around in time, its story begins in Asia minor, where the Stephanides family enjoys new freedoms after the British sponsored Greek invasion of Turkey. Cal’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, are orphaned siblings who fall in love against the backdrop of the Turkish re-conquest. As the incestuous couple flees Turkey, they witness the burning of the ancient city of Smyrna, one of the novel’s two instances of urban chaos and destruction.

There’s an effective juxtaposition here between the individual struggle and the societal struggle. Thousands of Greeks run for their lives as a bloodthirsty army threatens everything they hold dear; racial tensions and ancient feuds collapse order. But amidst this, Lefty and Desdemona worry about their personal dilemma. They cover up their status as siblings; once they’re on the boat, they put on an elaborate show of pretending to meet as strangers and falling in love. Before they reach America, they get married.

As the years pass, ethnic tensions continue to boil over in different ways, effecting the central characters. After the focus shifts to the next generation, represented by Cal’s mother and father, Milton and Tessie, there’s an intense, devastating depiction of the 1967 Detroit race riots. There’s a rich irony in the effect the riots have on the Stephanides family; its fruition is too perfect to spoil in this review.

Identity is integral to the story. The Stephanides, upon first immigrating, are deeply Greek. Overtime, the family Americanizes. They’re still conditioned to some degree in their inherited values, but, starting with Milton’s generation, they move away from many of their ethnic traditions, adopting a more American mindset. The novel constantly reminds us of humanity’s fear of the other; how gender and racial divisions can fuel tension.

The novel, while not exactly upbeat, isn’t depressing – there’s beauty in resilience and survival. Lefty and Desdemona escape Turkey. Cal learns to accept and embrace his identity.

The latter portion of the story, which deals with Cal’s troubled adolescence, including a consuming infatuation with her female classmate, would seem out of tone with what came before if not for important thematic links. Eugenides concerns himself with collapsible boundaries. As a girl becomes a boy, a Greek becomes an American. Or, to adopt more liminal language: as a girl is a boy, a Greek is an American.

Eugenides handles Cal’s transition with sensitivity and insight. His awkward teenage years aren’t so far off from everyone else’s; we all struggle as we discover our sexuality and fall in love for the first time. But unlike most of us, Cal discovers something which seriously calls his identity into question. He changes and adopts new habits, yet somehow remains the same person. As the Stephanides family, despite Americanization, retains some of its Greek habits, Cal retains some of his feminine tendencies even as he attempts to compensate by wearing double breasted suits and smoking cigars.

The ornate, lyrical narration suits the story. It is, after all, an epic. The voice is entertaining and unique, but Eugenides does overdo it occasionally. He reminds us constantly of the recessive gene, which is important to the fatalistic concerns of the novel, but he does so too often. Repetition is important to the epic structure, but it is possible to go too far with it. Occasionally, when waxing poetic, Eugenides could’ve simply continued with the story.

Middlesex is an impressive, multifarious creation. Eugenides elegantly realizes his grand ambitions by writing a classical epic which tells the American story in an engaging way. Joyce said that, “In the particular is contained the universal.” I’m not a fan of Joyce, but I love that quote – it’s an accurate descriptor for Middlesex, which succeeds in telling the story of all of us despite the fact that its narrator has a rare and startling genetic condition.

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The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

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

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In 1966, Thomas Pynchon had a lot of ideas about paranoia, pop culture, history, and fragmented identity. He stuffed them into his parodic novella/novel The Crying of Lot 49, a cold, clever, innovative, and irritating text. Pynchon’s arsenal is replete with repetition, non-sequitur, and occasionally insightful chunks of dense prose.

Lot 49 tells the story of Oedipa Maas. To say that it’s about Oedipa would be to imply that she’s a well-defined character with a realistic inner struggle grounding the book. She struggles with secrecy, fantasy, confusion, and paranoia, but not in a way which can really resonate with the reader. She’s more of a cipher drifting through and struggling to make sense of a morally bankrupt, increasingly bizarre America.

Lot 49 begins with Oedipa learning of the death of Pierce Inverarity, an ex-flame and real estate tycoon. To her surprise, his will names her as executor. So she travels to San Narciso in Southern California, where she begins to uncover a conspiracy involving a secret mail service known as Trystero.

Pynchon spends much of the novel diagnosing America with paranoia. Characters call each other paranoid with alarming frequency, often questioning their own knowledge and motivations. The recurring question in Oedipa’s search for Trystero is whether the conspiracy is real, all in her head, or all an elaborate prank. Either way, Oedipa is consumed by her quest; she becomes monomaniacal in her pursuit of Trystero’s sigil, the muted trumpet.

Trystero, in its current form, is supposedly a means of correspondence between fringe groups, e.g. an assembly of individuals who’ve disavowed love. The reality or unreality of its existence is almost irrelevant, Oedipa’s paranoia and obsession being more crucial to what Pynchon’s trying to say. Early in the book, Oedipa contemplates her abstract imprisonment by comparing herself to the archetypal maiden in a tower:

What did she so desire to escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all.

The America of Lot 49 is one of right-wing fanatics and amoral hippies, quack psychiatrists and televised lawyers. Its citizens, moreso than ever before, are subject to gargantuan forces beyond their control; the television controls the popular mindset, and the Cold War holds humanity’s fate in its hands. What’s the individual’s role in all of this?

Trystero’s existence would be a double-edged sword. It would represent an escape from modern influence and the public eye – a way for people of unconventional persuasion to find and reassure each other. But it would also represent an ancient, inescapable menace. Communication is a means of power, rebellion, and redemption, according to Lot 49. It connects individuals and supports empires. Most of us take the mail foregranted, but Pynchon places it at the center of conspiracy, reminding us that it’s one of the many forces which affects us in often unseen ways.

Oedipa’s pursuit of Trystero lends some purpose to her life, but it’s unclear if her detective work liberates her from society’s mechanisms or cages her within them. This ambiguity lies at the book’s core; it throws Oedipa into an irresolvable existential crisis as she tries to understand the world’s underlying ‘magic’ which binds her.

“I came,” she said, “hoping you could take me out of a fantasy.”

“Cherish it!” cried Hilarious, fiercely.

Pynchon has a knack for thoughtful, funny passages. One that stands out is a comparison between a view of a suburban town and a view of a circuit, each hinting at some unrevealed meaning or message. Lot 49 is Oedipa’s futile attempt to uncover such a message. Another is the description of Oedipa’s husband Mucho’s job as a used car salesman, his attempts to not conform to stereotype, and his superstitious attribution of life and meaning to the vehicles he buys and sells.

Oedipa’s search for Trystero related clues, which dominates much of the novel, is its least interesting component. Pynchon’s asides are far more interesting. The central plot has thematic purpose, but it fails to engage because it’s neither emotional nor lurid. There’s a mystery without any real stakes, whether personal, local, or global.

That Lot 49 is demonstrative of a weighty, talented intellect is irrefutable. But it’s a cold book. It observes pop culture, it observes secrecy and paranoia and their relationship to identity, but it never truly conveys their effects on human consciousness. Authors often use satire and cynicism as tools to diagnose and criticize society. This isn’t necessary bad, but for social criticism to resonate, it needs to have some grounding in the genuinely human.

Oedipa, along with every other character, never gels as person. Her crisis is supposed to resonate but it doesn’t. Though her formlessness is indubitably deliberate, it hurts Pynchon’s thesis because it distances the reader from his observations. Lot 49 feels like a trip through abstract theory. There’s nothing wrong with abstract theory, but for an author to make a compelling argument about the current human condition, it needs to be balanced with earnest depictions of humans and their conditions. Parody is a well and good – it’s an incredibly useful tool – but it’s insufficient for a novel which is trying to achieve depth in the way this one is.

Books can be absurd or set in a heightened reality while still fulfilling my criteria. DeLillo’s White Noise is a great example of a satire with human tragedy at its core. Its descriptions of love and family ring true, even as DeLillo flexes his postmodern muscles by writing monotonic dialogue and engaging in digressive yet thoughtful philosophical indulgence. Infinite Jest also does this successfully. Lot 49 doesn’t.

There’s a lot to admire in Lot 49. I can’t help but enjoy some of Pynchon’s gags and clusters of elegantly descriptive prose. A memorable passage describes, in parodic detail, the plot of a Jacobean revenge play titled The Courier’s Tragedy. This bit is funny and artfully constructed, but it can’t redeem the novel. Nor can humorous observations about, among other things, the relationship between real and TV lawyers.

Lot 49, though sometimes funny and insightful, fails to find a human core and thus fails in its message.

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.