{sensical only please}

Oh boyz. It has been a week (month? year? lifetime?) of stress, boys and girls, which is the reason for my unfortunate radio silence lately. Fortunately, the second meeting of my college’s alumni “Nostalgic  English Majors Book Group Meet-up” just ended, which is the perfect impetus to get back to telling everyone my thoughts on books, regardless of their actual interest.

This meet-up’s subject was Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, a book previously reviewed by a fellow Book Blobber, though I largely ignored her post until after I had finished. (After rereading it just now, however, I find that I agree with most of what she says. Also, she provides such a good plot summary of this book that I think I’m just going to skip that part and get right into what I thought about it.)

This book was a struggle for me to read. I read it in several short sittings, as I do most books, but each sitting was a renewed challenge for me to actually get into the book—which, in the end, never really happened. I would try to read at least one chapter before putting it down, but I almost never did (until this weekend, when the meet-up deadline forced me to make the final push to finish).

I ultimately decided that my main problem with this book was Ava, the 13-year-old primary narrator. She didn’t make the decisions I wanted her to make; she didn’t ask the questions I needed answered. Sometimes grappling with a character is really satisfying, makes you think about other parts of the book in new ways, but that didn’t happen here, largely (I think) because I didn’t see how her decisions/lack of questioning related to a wider theme. I just couldn’t see the point of her behaving so contrarily.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, there is a major adjustment in Ava’s perception of the world around her (sorry, that’s really all I can say without spoilers…).  What I couldn’t understand was why this change occurred. Some pretty awful stuff happens to her shortly afterward, but I almost couldn’t even focus on it because I was too caught with trying to understand this major change in her perspective. As I was telling my fellow nostalgic English majors, I wanted to be able to point to an event, a reason, an example and say, “Ahh. This is why this happened. This is the root of the change.” I think one of the reasons that people love fiction is that it makes more sense than real life: There are reasons. There are things to analyze that have answers that mean something. Again, sometimes even in fiction, this doesn’t happen, and I still like it—just didn’t happen in Swamplandia!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that fiction operates by certain rules that readers know and understand. Breaking the rules is fun, too! When it’s done well and with a recognizable purpose, it can make great literature, the kind of books that will be read for centuries. For whatever reason, the rule breaking employed by Russell just didn’t resonate with me. It was a good book for discussion, though—while most of us had major issues with it, a couple really liked it, and it was fun to work out why.

P.S. I took time out from Faulkner to finish this in time for the meet-up… we’ll see if I go back to it right away (spoiler alert: doubtful).

{are we having fun yet?}

I’m slowly forging my way through Faulkner’s Collected Stories—slow going not because I dislike them, but because it takes me about 40 minutes to read each 10-page story. And the book is really, really long.

For those of you that are not Faulkner-ed out (probably no one) (are we having fun yet?), I also recently read this 1956 Paris Review interview with none other than William himself.

The reason I don’t like interviews is that I seem to react violently to personal questions.

This interview is just so many gems—of truth, hilarity, wisdom, sarcasm, literally everything I like. Funnily enough, I find myself unable to comment on much of what he says, for a few reasons. First of all, clearly not being a writer myself, I don’t have a whole lot to say about that. Second of all, and more accurately, I read through this interview almost in a trance. I got so caught up in reading his responses that I almost forgot was he was talking about—that’s how much I was paying attention. The story about working with MGM? Priceless. Every story should be told like that. How is he at the same time so straightforward and so meandering?? Ugh. Genius.

Everybody talked about Freud when I lived in New Orleans, but I have never read him. Neither did Shakespeare. I doubt if Melville did either, and I’m sure Moby Dick didn’t.

I love Faulkner for so many reasons, one of which is his dedication to Southern heritage. Personally, I find the American South to be the most fascinating cultural phenomenon in the history of this country, and I literally cannot get enough of it. Say you disagreed with someone and so didn’t want to be around her anymore, except then she is like, “EXCEPT YOU WILL NEVER GET AWAY FROM ME AND I AM GOING TO DESTROY YOU TO PROVE IT.” Maybe if you are seven, you will appreciate that explanation of the American South in the Civil War and understand why I find it so compelling. If you are older than seven, maybe you will like my other Faulknerific entry better than this one.

Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?

Read it four times.

P.S. As of earlier this month, my friend actually works for the interviewer from this article… Wowza. I tell him that is truly the stuff of memoir. After all, who wants to read the memoir of someone who worked in textbook publishing? I certainly don’t, and I am the one living it. Oops.

{notpeople in notlanguage}

I believe I’ve mentioned before how obsessed I am with William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! I read it in college for my senior seminar, and then proceeded to nerd out over it for a good eight months and, in a surprising example of productivity, produce a research paper and conference presentation (who knew??).

So when I ran across an NYT article earlier this week called “How William Faulkner Tackled Race—and Freed the South From Itself,” I dropped everything and read it immediately.

This book is, really, just the best. Who besides Faulkner could literally tell the entire plotline within the first few pages, and then continue with the rest of an amazing novel? Sullivan’s article does an excellent job of exploring the ways Faulkner addresses and defines the South. Quentin’s inability to extricate himself from his incessant narration (and creation) of his Southern heritage plays a central role in his depression and gradual insanity (as Sullivan notes, he commits suicide about a year later in The Sound and the Fury).

What Sullivan doesn’t address, however (although another commenter mentions it), is that almost all the elements of the plot—certainly Bon’s death, his relationships with Judith and Henry, and even Bon himself—are never presented as fact in the text. They could be anything from third- or fourth-hand narration to figments of Quentin and Shreve’s collective imagination.

I’m a little disappointed Sullivan didn’t bring this up, because I think it strengthens his argument—or at least complicates in a very interesting way. With the validity of Bon in question (and with it, his ethnicity and its implications on Sutpen’s and Henry’s actions), Quentin’s insistence on relaying it to Shreve puts an even greater weight on its importance in a Southern novel. Quentin is, himself, the South—hating his own existence, conflicted about his future, unwilling yet obligated to relive the past.

“Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?”

“I dont hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said. I dont hate it he thought . . . I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!

His attempt to come to terms with the atrocities of his background is rendered invalid by his own heritage. By embroidering details of his own into stories passed down to him by family and neighbors, he is trying to create some sort of order and rationality to the events (especially since he is explaining them to Shreve, a Canadian outsider, in their Yankee dorm room). But as they get deeper into the story, not only do the embellishments fail to provide any sense of reconciliation or finale, but they also weave Quentin into his own heritage even more inexorably.

OH DEAR GOD I COULD LITERALLY GO ON LIKE THIS FOR AGES. But it is Sunday night, I have an early morning tomorrow, and a Harry Potter marathon is on ABC Family. Clearly, my immediate future lies elsewhere.

{beautiful garbage}

These are the notes from my inaugural Google+ outing as part of a book chat with fellow English major college alums concerning Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife.

What I miss the most about undergrad is the ability of group discussions with other ultra-nerdy people, not really to hear their ideas, but because somehow, in the most egotistical of ways, they make me realize new things and think new ideas that I immediately latch onto as being absolute genius and probably directly Heaven-sent. I end up tripping over my words and cutting other people off with “Yeah, me too! I kind of thought that. But also I thought this way cooler thing and now it is the only thing I can think of and you should too!” (Oh man, and now I am cracking myself up with my self-deprecating humor on how much of an egomaniac I am. THIS IS SO META.)

But in all seriousness, that is not easy to do when you write a solitary blog post about what you read, which is why so many of my posts read something along the lines of “I read this! This is what happened! It was pretty cool, I guess! Now I am going to read something else!”

Our discussion of Blueprints of the Afterlife took literally 2 hours, with only minor awkward pause incidents. I think our end conclusions can best be summed up by one girl’s comment: “On Goodreads, there are all these comments saying, ‘If you read it again, it makes more sense.'” Cheers!

(I am not going to be hide these comments behind a cut, since I don’t think they really count as spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, this will really make no sense, but also even if you have, it still probably won’t. Such is the nature of the beast.)

What I took most from our BotA discussion was Boudinot’s relentless commitment to blurring the lines between natural and artificial, in almost every sense of those words. Two examples:

  1. In the BotA future, technology has reached a stage where everyone has chips planted in their brain that connect to the Bionet. A lot of the time, this is good: You can download antibodies when you’re sick, or alert someone of your location if you’re lost or incapacitated. However, there are also people called DJs, who can hack into your Bionet chip and essentially control you. (There are a few instances in the plot of DJ clubs, which are kind of like a massive drug trip where you just give yourself over to someone else’s control.) Sometimes the immediate outcome of this DJ-hack (called an embodiment)—a good DJ can take a relative loser and, by controlling his speeches and actions, get him a promotion. A girlfriend. A more successful life. The problem is, though, that this technology is still controlled by humans, who are flawed. A DJ can accidentally die, or be arrested, or simply lose interest, and the embodiment is stuck in the same path forever. With no new code being written but also nothing to disconnect their Bionet from the DJ, they perform the same actions over and over, unable to exert any free will.
  2. The book also talks about a machine of deconstruction, one that with a simple push of a button will take itself apart until no functional piece remains. In another instance, a newman (human-like robot), overcome with grief, begins picking at herself, pulling off bits of machinery, until there is nothing left of her but a pile of useless mechanics.

What we discussed is that currently, there is a definite social distinction between life and technology. Parents still tell their kids to get off the computer and stop watching television, and go run around outside instead. There is still a stigma attached to meeting someone online, because it isn’t “real.” Boudinot pushes the limits of this distinction in a similar way to what Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist, described when she spoke at my work and also on her TED talk. (Did you like how I really subtley referred to the coolest thing ever to happen at my job? I did.) Increasingly, we are moving toward a lack of separation between those entities. In BotA, we have arrived at virtually no separation. As one character puts it (I just spent 10 minutes searching for the passage and cannot find it for the life of me), technology is still a part of nature since it is created by humans. I remember learning in a (non-majors) science class that artificial flavoring is made up of the same chemical compounds as the “real” flavor—the only difference is that one is man-made. In the two examples I cited, Boudinot emphasizes that 1) depending on technology is no different than depending on a naturally-flawed human, and 2) human-built technology still reflects very human emotions and needs. Very interesting!

I had a lot more to say about our discussion, but I just spent so long re-delving into that point that I can’t remember any other ones. I will leave you with this: At the end of our discussion, we touched briefly on the humor in the book. I, for one, laughed outloud five pages in, when a character named Woo-jin has just come across an abandoned body lying in a field.

Woo-jin stumbled west toward the frontage road feeling—what’s the best word—probably bad.

P.S. If you are tired of my ramblings and want to read a really good review of what we actually talked about, my good friend has graciously provided one here.