Category Archives: Books

You Really Ought to Read The Road

No, I haven’t seen the movie, and oddly, I don’t want to. I did enjoy Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, immensely, though. Well, maybe “enjoy” is the wrong word, as so much in the novel is rather dark and nasty, but it does dark and nasty really, really well.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about a father and son making their way through an utterly dead post-apocalyptic landscape, and that’s pretty much it. The back of the book describes it as “burned America,” but I think that such characterization misses the point. The ravaged landscape didn’t so much remind me of a post-apocalyptic America so much as it did Mordor. Yes, I mean that. The father and son in The Road reminded me most of Frodo and Sam in Mordor, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Through a hopeless landscape, through uncertainty, danger, fear, and anxiety, the two principals have no choice but to move forward. They have no idea what their goal is, what will happen at the end, or whether they have the strength or ability to get to where they’re going. But, standing still is not an option. They are driven, compelled, to some uncertain goal. It also reminded me of Kafka’s The Castle, as well, wherein the main character must navigate through a clouded and hostile landscape to an uncertain conclusion.

Despite the immensely negative worlds that these stories present, I generally find them rather hopeful. The heroes are in Hell, the underworld, a bleak place, yes, and their is no guarantee that they shall reach their goals. But, they know what their goals are, they have no option but to strive. Whether it’s truly hopeless or not can’t be known, so Sisyphus has to push the rock upward. He has to. It will crush him if he lets go.

So, if you like books about pressing through fear and dread, read it. It’s not nearly as good as Blood Meridian (one of the best and most frightening books I’ve ever read) but it does depict the classic landscape of anxiety in a pretty perfect way.

"But the evil is that they hold for certain that they are in the light."

I sit down at my computer on Sunday night, all ready to finish up my post on Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco that I’d been working on earlier, and what do I find? That post-stealing cockblocker Seph has beaten me to it. The nerve. Nevertheless, I had this thing mostly written. Might as well finish it up…

The plot centers aroudn three editors at a vanity press are up to their earlobes in manuscripts about the occult, conspiracy theories, and general weirdness. To amuse themselves they decide to create a world-spanning fictitious model of history and reality that connects all of the esoteric stuff that they’ve read about, a grandiose intellectual game they call the Plan. Problems arise when a rather nutty group gets wind of their fictitious explanation of everything, and takes it seriously. Indeed, even the creators of the fictitious Plan take it far too seriously themselves, and eventually their creation consumes them.

(Incidentally, I would not have really enjoyed the book very much had I not been constantly consulting Wikipedia about the various historical, religious, and esoteric references the tome is crammed with. I liked the intricate connections and fanciful historical weaving, but constantly having to look up what the hell the characters were talking about made it something of a slog.)

I will admit to having a sort of enthusiasm for this kind of thing- I loved The Illuminatus! Trilogy, have read both the Principia Discordia and the Book of the SubGenius, and know what “fnord” means. The central appeal of the occult or conspiracy theory genre is that at least someone is in charge, at least that which appears arbitrary and meaningless from the outset actually has a place in a grander scheme. Everything means something, and while the world may be dangerous and mysterious, it is at least not capricious. I understand that appeal, enough that I sported an eye-in-the-pyramid on my arm at Burning Man. However, I also engaged the book somewhat seriously, and through the filter of my own particular biases and interests.

So much of what is described in Foucault’s Pendulum- the esoteric arts, arcane secrets, cloistered spiritual orders -seems to imply a certain amount of contempt for the wondrous nature of the real world. For truths to have any sort of impact or value for the esoteric scholars in the book, they need, necessarily, to be secreted from view, to be apart from and cloistered off of the “real” world, to be part of narrative that is not accepted by “conventional” descriptions of history or science. Some of the most painful, and poignant, chapters of the book are when the main character’s girlfriend offers him grounded and realistic insights into some of the details of the Plan. She is persuasive and touching in her deconstruction of the “hidden” truths that the narrator and his friends have concerned themselves with, but despite her enlightenment, despite the fact that he even says “yes” to her, the narrator and his companions still remain enmeshed in their all-consuming fiction.

Despite the book’s slogginess, I found this emotional thrust to be deeply affecting. Years ago, I spent no small amount of time in the occult and New Age section of a used bookstore in Eugene, stocking shelves and conversing with the patrons there. I could not help but feel that these book buyers, these enthusiasts of the occult and arcane, needed their truths and revelations to be hidden and privileged. Knowledge, for them, did not come from the “real” world, but from a realm actively suppressed and ignored by reality.

Giving these people their books, ringing them up and hearing their comments about them filled me with a range of emotions that went from pity to anger. In the rest of the store one could find books on history rather than conspiracy theories, medicine rather than auras, philosophy rather than hokum. Set before them was the choice between that which was enriching and real, and that which was self-deluding. They chose, actively and deliberately, to delude themselves, much like the narrator of Foucault’s Pendulum fails to heed the advice of his girlfriend. Worst of all, they thought that they were privileged with truth, privy to something more real than real.

Again, This is not to say that I don’t find that sort of stuff amusing. I think that delving into weird shit and strange beliefs is a lot of fun. It’s utter brain candy, and as such I could entirely identify with the pretentious editors in Foucault’s Pendulum, men who take obvious scholarly joy in weaving all of this stuff into a coherent whole as an exercise in intellectual gamesmanship. At the end of the day, though, there is more real wonder in a single real leaf than in fraudulent delusion. The conduits of the greenery, the veins and the stems, the photosynthetic processes and changes from green to gold- all of these are greater truths and more potent revelations than anything about telluric energy or Templars. There is more active power in those intricate veins than in all of the ley lines that supposedly cross the Earth. Realizing that, one should not mourn the death of delusions or cry over the loss of intricate conspiracies. Rather, take joy in reality, chaotic and undirected though it may be.

(One last thing, unrelated to my above rant. When the Da Vinci Code came out, the thematic similarities were obvious and Eco was asked if he’d read it. His response:

I was obliged to read it because everybody was asking me about it. My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.
But you yourself seem interested in the kabbalah, alchemy and other occult practices explored in the novel.
No. In Foucault’s Pendulum I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures.

As far as I’m concerned, that is some serious literary bitch-slapping, proclaiming a lesser author to be one of your comical characters. I think that Umberto Eco could probably make Dan Brown’s fingernails fall off just by staring at him, such is his brainy power.)

Why Finally Reading David Foster Wallace Was Good, But Also Kind of Sad

I’d been ignoring David Foster Wallace for a while. Mainly because of Infinite Jest, which I still haven’t read. Infinite Jest is a huge and imposing book and honestly it intimidates me even more than Ulysses did. I will read it. I will unhinge my jaw and devour the entirety of a North American buffalo. This will happen, yes, mainly because I’ve now read A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, one of DFW’s essay collections.

The best thing about ASFTINDA is DFW. The essays are about stuff like tennis and cruise ships, topics that I normally wouldn’t care at all about, but I cared about them because DFW’s perspective and style was such that he allowed me to care about him. In other words, I really liked him. Not just as an author, though. There are plenty of authors whom I quite admire but would never really want to meet in person. Hemingway and I would not have much to talk about. DFW, though, seems exactly like the sort of person with whom I could relate, even be friends with. This happens very rarely with me and media figures, but it happened with DFW, and I found it quite frightening given that he put himself at the end of a rope last year.

There are plenty of suicidal people whose work I enjoy and think were geniuses. Abovementioned Hemingway, Woolf, Akutagawa, and Mishima all offed themselves, and that doesn’t really bother me all that much. That might sound callous, but it’s true. I guess that’s because, really, I wouldn’t really ever have wanted to hang out with them or see myself in them at all. However, I was able to see a lot of me in DFW (does that sound really arrogant?) and that was sort of weird.

He has all sorts of little affectations which I found at once horribly pretentious and also utterly charming. He uses 24 hour time notation, uses the abbreviation “w/r/t/” without explanation, and has a joyous and unrestrained love for footnotes. He is unapologetically what one would call an “intellectual” and thinks the fuck out of things like carnies and corn dogs while finding dread and anxiety in the Illinois State Fair. On the back of ASFTINDA he smiles sweetly through stubble and slightly unkempt hair and I realize that I don’t just want to hang out with this guy, I want to be this guy. I want to be funny, smart, respected, and successful in the same ways he is funny, smart respected, and successful. Under normal circumstances he would be what is known as a “role model” for me (can 28 year old adults have role models?) but I’m still really bothered by how he died, i.e., at his own hand.

I think that suicide is, for the most part, extremely unreasonable. If someone’s in immense terminal pain, I can certainly understand that, but most of the time I think that there are reasonable alternatives for functional adults. At the risk of sounding immensely insensitive, I think that able-bodied people who commit suicide are usually, at best, shortsighted and, at worst, cowards.

Knowing that this guy whom I’ve been admiring so much for the past week succumbed to that is really, really troubling. DFW suffered from chronic depression, yes, and was attempting to go off his meds when he offed himself. I guess that’s a mitigating circumstance or something. Still, it’s weird to see a guy who has precisely what I, personally want out of life- intellectual acuity, my name in print, and sex with smart, creative women – radically admit to unsatisfaction. I’m thinking to myself, Jesus Christ, that wasn’t enough. That didn’t make you fucking happy? You had it fucking all. (At least for a certain nerdy, literary definition of “all.”)

One of the recurring conversations that I’ve had with Seph is that there very well may be a certain baseline of happiness/depression. One may be satisfied/exuberant for a time, think that one has “made it” or whatever, but eventually you just readjust your expectations and desires and end up in the same kind of happiness/blah-ness cycle that typifies most of life. There is nothing, really that can make those heavy, gray days (and weeks and months) go away where you know that most of your internal switches are in the “off” position. Abraham Maslow is famous for saying “Whatever our sorrow, it fills us up.” I’m never going to off myself like DFW, but from his experience I know that if I ever am hypothetically successful I’ll still have rather grim periods, and that’s a nasty little truth to face.

God, what a fucking downer of a blog post. Shit. I should say something positive.

Oh, yeah- ASFTINDA is awesome and you should read it. Reading it made me want to write, and I think that’s one of the nicest things that one can say about a writer. I was reminded why I like books so much, and after I finish up the pile of tomes presently dominating my bedroom floor, I know that sometime before I leave Portland (I’m thinking early next year) I’ll be shoving Infinite Jest into my brain.

"Yes, Mr. Duke, I would like a ride! Where are we going?"

For a long time, I had a pretty good idea of what Hunter S. Thompson without ever actually reading any of his books. This was a guy who was all about drugs, guns, insanity, weirdness and of a very particular authorial voice. Maybe it’s because I grew up reading Doonesbury and was familiar with Uncle Duke. He also seems to be a sort of hero to a certain kind of hipster male, the type with whom I often associate. Whatever the cause, I felt like I knew Thompson pretty well already, knew exactly what I was getting into when I finally picked up Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas last week.

I want to say that I was utterly surprised, that there were things about Thompson’s persona and style that the general cultural effluvia hadn’t yet revealed to me. Unfortunately, I can’t really do that. I knew exactly what I was getting into, and FaLiLV is pretty much exactly what I thought it would be- a drug-loaded travel book written in an expansive, splattery style that meshes perfectly with the Ralph Steadman illustrations that accompany it.

I read the book in two days, and I think that’s a good sign, usually, if you read a book and have no idea where the pages are going. The action clips along fairly rapidly and one thing I have to say for Thompson is that he isn’t boring. He is very, very not boring. Thopson’s voice is his strong suit, his ability to inject his own brand of energy and insanity into whatever’s around him. His voice is meaty, big, and ravenous. At no point could you ever mistake it for a book by someone else, at no point is Thompson generic or anonymous. He stamps each sentence as his own.

I love authors who can do this, but they also leave me occasionally unsatisfied. FaLiLV doesn’t really have a plot. Well, it has a really thin plot wherein Raoul Duke (Thompson’s literary persona) and Dr. Gonzo (his attorney) are supposed to cover a motorcycle race and DAs’ conference, but that’s more of an excuse for the whole jaunt. Thompson gets by almost entirely sheer charisma, strength of voice, and sheer power of his prose. There’s no real drama, plot, or character development- just the sheer power of Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism.

I’m reading Tropic of Capricorn right now, and Henry Miller is much the same way. So are Joyce, Kerouac, and Woolf, for that matter. I love these authors, I love their fantastically beautiful use of words. If I could write a third as well as any of them, I’d be ecstatic. But, I want to experience books as more than just aesthetic things. I want to be intellectually stimulated. I don’t just want wonder and beauty, I want something interesting to think about.

When I read, I can’t help but look for those things. When I read Mrs. Dalloway, as much as I enjoyed it as a beautiful and wonderful work of art, I couldn’t help but think about World War One. With Thompson, I had a similar experience. I kept looking for something to think about in the book, some core idea or ideal. As much as I enjoyed the balls-out wildness, I was needed something social, cultural, and political to relate the book to.

Fortunately, I think Thompson was, too. I don’t know how drug addled he was when he wrote the book, but interspersed with all of the decadence, vomit, and weirdness, Thompson has a much larger point on the death of the Sixties. Reading the book in San Francisco, I couldn’t help but think about the Sixties, hippies, and everything radical and weird that rose up with my parents’ generation.

Thompson reminisces about his experience of the Sixties, of San Francisco, and while sitting and reading in that same city this particular passage (which I later learned is the second most famous section of the book, after the intro) struck me:

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

He just summed it all up there. The Sixties were significant and revolutionary, yes, but also facile and naive. What kind of values are “Peace” and “Love,” really? Such generalities are unassailable and unformed, and one might as well support “Food” and “Water.” As much change as there was, the overall mindset of the hippies was one lacked a coherence and depth. Popular opinion did change America dramatically, but at the end of the day plenty of the old paradigms and demons were still around. What happened was social change, not ascension or mass enlightenment.

The drugs, of course, were part of that. Or rather, they weren’t. Duke and Dr. Gonzo spend the book in various states of inebriation. But it’s only that. Their debauchery and excess is only debauchery and excess. None of the various drugs bring them close to some kind of Timothy Leary style epiphany. Thompson even calls Leary out on that directly at one point. As much as FaLiLV may glorify or glamorize drug use, Thompson repudiates the idea that the things are a shortcut to some kind of grand cosmic understanding. To him they are depraved and perhaps enjoyable things, but, at the end of the day, simply chemicals. There is no road to Nirvana in a tab of acid or pill. There is only visceral pleasure and excess.

For this, FaLiLV stood out for me as not only an aesthetic experience, but also as a critical response to the Sixties from someone inside the counterculture. Thompson does not repudiate the hippie generation because he’s against them, his issue with them is that so much of what they believed turned out to be nothing but air. It was like a whirlwind that swirled everything about, ravaged the landscape and jostled it. But, the wind dissipated. It wasn’t solid. What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? They’re so general and open-ended that you can’t build anything coherent on or around them, that’s what. Thompson recognizes the energy and wonder of the Sixties, but he does not pretend that there was no shortage of vacuity and unfounded idealism, innocence just waiting to be crushed.

Later, when Duke and Dr. Gonzo attend a DA’s conference, that naivete is shown in reverse. This time, it’s law enforcement who has no idea what anything means. The presentations that they attend about how to identify “dope fiends” are clueless and dated, on par with Reefer Madness. Just as the hippies and flower children see nothing but sunlight and happiness, the DAs only see whacked-out rapists, chronic masturbators, and murderous psychopaths when they look at the so-called “drug culture.” No one perceives moderation. Not even Thompson, really. The conversation is starkly uninformed on all fronts, to the benefit of no one.

I was happy to finally spend a bit of time with the father of Gonzo Journalism. He (or at least his literary persona) seemed depraved yet extraodinarily intelligent. Weird, and three steps away from ranting at pedestrians in front of a Safeway, saved by his inner articulate nature. I’ll probably revisit him- his book about the ’72 Presidential campaign is supposed to be a noteworthy political tome. Mostly, I want to hear him talk about Nixon in that stupendous voice of his.

I Just Can’t Finish 1421

I rarely put down books. Even if something is not going very well, I want to see if the author can redeem themselves with a good ending. Occasionally this happens. Today, though, I tossed aside 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies.

Menzies’ thesis is that Imperial China’s treasure fleet sailed not only throughout the eastern Pacific and Indian oceans, but also went to the Americas, mapped the coast of Antarctica, sailed around western Africa, established colonies all over the world, and left maps that were put to use by later European explorers. I’d heard of the book before, and was suspicious of it from the outset, but it had been recommended to me enough times that I finally picked up my roommate’s copy. As bad as I feel, I can’t finish it.

My first red flag was that Menzies, early on in the book, talks about how the Yongle Emperor received a collection of heads of state at his new capital in Beijing. He notes the absence of the Europeans, though, because he said that the Europeans were “too primitive.”

Now hold on a second. If the Emperor was willing to entertain guests from, say, Mongolia, a place full of nomads who lived in Yurts, then surely he’d also accept the company of someone from, say, France. Menzies doesn’t for a moment entertain the idea that the Chinese were either ignorant of Europe or unable to establish connections with it. He just takes it for granted that the Europeans were too savage to be invited to Beijing. Sloppy.

His map of the world also shows the Chinese fleet going everywhere except Europe. I find this highly suspicious. The treasure fleet was an entity that was all about extracting tribute from foreign lands, hence the name. If the Chinese were willing to accept tribute from, say Africa (where they famously brought home a giraffe), then they’d probably also want to do the same thing with Europe, which had much more in the way of stuff. So why didn’t they show up in Europe and demand tribute and recognition? Oh yeah- because they probably didn’t know what Europe was or how to get there.

I also found the bits about Chinese foreign colonies to be highly dubious. Wouldn’t we have heard of these before? Shouldn’t someone have fond some pictographs on a rock or something? Really. You’d think that would be a pretty big deal, and someone else would have found something.

Reading the book, though, I felt sort of sorry for Menzies. He obviously has a love for history and things nautical, and seems very much to want to say something interesting. Personally, I find the whole history of the treasure fleet fascinating, and would love to read a more credible history about it.

That story is good enough without making it world-spanning. The Chinese built huge ships, sailed around the Pacific and Indian oceans, and almost bankrupted their empire doing it because the voyages could not pay for themselves. Then, in a fit of reactionary fury, the government banned sailing and went isolationist. That’s an incredible bit of history right there, and I’d love to know the details of it. Menzies, though, reminds me of one of my favorite Douglas Adams quotes: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, too?”

I want to learn more about the garden, but Menzies is just looking for fairies.