Sunday, March 28, 2010

Paragraph of the Week

From Roberto Bolano's 2666:

His relationship with their hostess never once departed from the strict pathways of courtesy and respect. When the filming was over, the ranch owner offered to drive the Epsteins and JT back to Buenos Aires in her Bentley, but JT said he would rather make the return trip with the team. Three days later the Epsteins dropped him off at the airport and JT didn't dare ask them directly about Estela. Nor did he ask anything about the film. In New York he tried in vain to forget her. The first few days were tinged with melancholy and regret and JT thought he would never recover. Anyway: recover why? And yet, with the passage of time, in his heart he understood that he'd gained much more than he'd lost. At least, he said to himself, I've met the woman of my dreams. Other people, most people, glimpse something in films, the shadow of great actresses, the gaze of true love. But I saw her in the flesh, heard her voice, saw her silhouetted against the endless pampa. I talked to her and she talked back.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Helplessness of the Self: James Wood on David Foster Wallace

It was my true pleasure to spend a portion of this evening listening to James Wood talk about David Foster Wallace's short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, part of The Critic's Voice series at the 92Y. The idea behind this series is to have Wood read a book for the first time before sharing his thoughts with an audience. It's important to keep this basic format in mind, because Wood was very much not presenting a unified reading of Brief Interviews. That wasn't his goal. Instead, it seems that he wanted to think aloud about the book, throwing out his initial reactions as a reader.

This was a wholly worthwhile experience mostly because Wood is an incredibly astute reader. This should come as no surprise to people familiar with his writing, but part of the joy of the talk was to hear how a great reader approaches some really good fiction. And Wood, in fact, started off the talk by reading several passages of exceptional writing, including such gems as "Whereas but your basic smoothie" (p. 31) and "Trim and good and good legs--she'd had a kid but wasn't all blown out and veiny and sagged" (p. 27). Wood referred to these examples of speech--repellent and  horrible as they are--as the local pleasures of the book, noting that there is a good American tradition of capturing speech and consciousness.

From there, Wood proceeded to address what he identified as the major theme of the collection: the helplessness of the self, and the trouble of escaping from the self. This is a well-trod trope to those familiar with Wallace's body of work, and Wood did a nice job of demonstrating how this happens throughout a selection of the stories, performing, in one particularly nice segment, a fairly close read of "The Porousness of Certain Borders (XI)," in which the narrator has a recurring nightmare of being blind. Wood called this a typical Wallace modulation; even this 1.5 page story which may at first glance appear to be a straightforward account of a person putting his feet in someone else's shoes becomes overwhelmingly solipsistic. The narrator doesn't devote any thought to how blind people cope with reality. Instead, the story occurs in his head, a solipsistic recounting of the hardships of the day after the night in which he dreamed that he was blind. It's a story that looks like it's all about empathy, but which, in the end, describes the self-centered experience of one person. The same is true, Wood claimed, of "The Depressed Person." Wood read an extended excerpt beginning with the last sentence of p. 67 through most of p. 68. For me, one of the key phrases which demonstrates the essential solipsism of the depressed person occurs at the very end of p. 67: "and here the depressed person waited patiently for an episode of retching in the especially available trusted friend to pass so that she could take the risk of sharing this with her." Remember that this particular trusted friend had been diagnosed with cancer. I especially love the emphasis on taking the risk of sharing. The depressed person truly cannot escape from her own self.

The last major topic Wood covered was the amount of information granted to--or withheld from--the reader. In certain cases, Wood argued, Wallace withholds exactly the information that the reader is most interested in knowing. "Adult World," "Think," and"Signifying Nothing" all hinge on repressing the flow of information to the reader. Wood's main critique, in fact, is that Wallace repeatedly reveals too much, playing his hand too heavily. In Brief Interview #46--the one which mentions Victor Frankl, beginning on p. 116--the hideous man displays an intimacy with the aftereffects of rape that could only come, Wood claimed, from a victim; in Wood's opinion, Wallace should have left it to the reader to figure that out without the explicit explanation at the end of that interview. Maybe the most interesting analysis of the evening came on this exact point regarding Brief Interview #20 (the very last interview in the book). Here too, Wood believes that the hideous man too openly identifies himself with the rapist of the story, most damningly at the very end of that section, when he says: "can you see why there's no way I could let her just go away after this?" (I'll admit that I hadn't thought that this line, along with certain other details--mostly surrounding the vividness of the hideous man's description of the scene occurring on the gravel--implicated the hideous man as the rapist himself, but I am now eager to reread that story.)

From there, Wood took several questions from the audience. I won't touch on all of them, but I do want to mention one question in particular, because it's tied up with Wood's reading of Brief Interview #20. One gentleman asked whether Wood thinks Wallace relies too heavily on "tricks," in particular the footnotes and the brackets, and whether this detracts attention from the empathy and emotional depth of the fiction. Wood responded that in certain ways, it feels like Wallace is performing, and that he would prefer to have seen Wallace perform less. On the other hand, Wood argued, Wallace can often be too much of a realist. This is a point Wood made in How Fiction Works, but, he said, even though Wallace has very good reasons--most of which have to do with recreating the experiences described in the story--to extend "The Depressed Person" past 30 pages, it can sometimes become unreadable. (While I thought "The Depressed Person" was readable, I couldn't help but think of the infamous "Wardine" section of Infinite Jest.) One of the nice things about literary conventions is that we recognize that the whole story can't be told and that sometimes it's worth forgoing some realism for a more concise and concentrated reading experience. (I find this point really fascinating in light of this article comparing Infinite Jest and Wikipedia. Is there really a need for limits?) And, on the third hand, Wood said that he wasn't so thrilled by the prospect of more empathy because it sometimes devolved into sentimentality. Zadie Smith is so concerned with upholding the emotional depth of these stories--as outlined in Changing My Mind--that she, Wood said, fails to appreciate the complexity of the collection. Brief Interview #20 is not a straightforward story of a formerly hideous man learning a valuable lesson from the woman on the blanket. Even if you don't go so far as to identify the hideous man as the rapist, Wood said that it's crucial to recognize that the story, as we saw earlier, is complex.

There were a few additional questions asked--several of them were really good--but it's getting late and my notes aren't as solid on those points. This summary is based on the quick notes I was able to take during the proceedings, so if anyone wants to fill in missing details or to correct mistaken information, please shoot me an email or leave them in the comments.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Passion Shines Through

I love it when people are passionate about the things they do. I'm always reminded of this during March Madness season--the players are passionate, the group of strangers with whom I watched some of the opening round games were passionate, and, of course, Gus Johnson is passionate:

But he's not the only one who gets worked up over sports. Witness ESPN's Tim Kurkjian talking about a 2007 baseball game in which the Texas Rangers scored 30 runs:

On The Phone: Tim Kurkjian

And this is also why I think James Wood (The New Yorker book critic, and the Harvard professor) is a national treasure: the passion he has for fiction comes screaming through the pages. Take this example from his book How Fiction Works, in which he discusses a passage of Henry James's novel, What Masie Knew:

This is tremendously subtle. It is so flexible, so capable of inhabiting different levels of comprehension and irony, so full of poignant identification with young Masie, yet constantly moving in toward Masie and moving away from her, back toward the author. 

This sample is only moderately selected. I opened up to a random page and found that waiting for me. Wood's writing is just full of this type of intelligent yet loving analysis.

I'm going tonight to hear Wood speak about DFW's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Some have pointed out that we shouldn't expect to hear a fawning, only positive review of the short story collection. But I think that's part of the appeal. I wouldn't expect Wood to provide anything other than his honest opinion of his reactions to the book.

More thoughts will follow after the event.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Paragraph of the Week

From Will Leitch's series of baseball previews over at Deadspin, the Chicago White Sox edition:

But I'm more interested in those players who are supposed to be supernatural and then turn out to be, well, normal players. Just three years ago, Alex Gordon was supposed to be George Brett. A superstar phenom out of the University of Nebraska who had grown up a Royals fan, Gordon was the next great savior of a dormant franchise. Three years later, with some injuries and some big league struggles, he's entering his peak needing a big year just to make everyone stop thinking of him as a disappointment. But he's not a disappointment: He's just a regular player. That isn't enough. He's not what we thought he was, what we wanted him to be, even though none of us had any idea in the first place. He was mortal, not magic.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sam Anderson's Literary Twitter Experiment

I like to think that Sam Anderson, book critic for New York Magazine, was at least partly inspired by my Paragraph of the Week series:

I’m late to the Twitter party, but a few weeks ago I decided to start an experiment: tweet the best sentence I read every day. (NB: Someone else had already claimed my actual name, so I had to go with my alter ego: ShamBlanderson.) “Best,” in this context, can mean almost anything: funny, beautiful, enlightening, stylistically amazing. My first tweet was a factoid from a New Yorker story about Whole Foods: “The key variable in deciding where to put the new stores is the number of college graduates within a 16-minute drive.” (I love the specificity of sixteen minutes.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Paragraph of the Week

The mission statement of Rob Walker's Things That Look Like Other Things blog, one of my favorite things to read on the internet:

That contrast is embedded in things that look like other things, and its curious appeal suggests something about one of the great conundrums of consumer behavior, or possibly even of human psychology: our attraction to the novel and our seemingly contradictory attraction to the familiar.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Everything is Familiar

It appears that, as a society, we've run out of things to say. How else to explain the popularity of videos like the following two?


I'm not sure what exactly these say about our familiarity with everything, but it seems pretty significant, whatever it is.

[Movie one via Emily]

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Problems with Penn Station

I'm not a huge fan of Slate (I think there's a fair deal of truth in contrarian-by-design criticism) and so I don't see everything they publish, but every once in a while one of their pieces either touches on a personal interest or is just so damn good that I hear about about it through those social networking sharing cycles. Here's a perfect example of the latter: Julia Turner's six-part series on signage.

Turner touches on everything from highway road signs, to competing EXIT sign designs to the varying maps and symbols people use to navigate London. But my favorite piece is the one titled "Lost in Penn Station." There's tons of good stuff here, but here's a choice selection:

When I first started interviewing sign designers for this series, I was surprised that they didn't talk much about signs. I'd expected to learn a lot about typeface and color selection. Maybe, if I were lucky, a revolutionary new arrow.

Instead, I learned there's a reason professionals call what they do not "sign-making" but "wayfinding." Their goal is to help users find their way through complicated environments. That requires a lot more than good-looking signs. To create a sign system that works, designers must first understand how people will use a space. When beginning a hospital project, they'll map out all the possible routes a visitor might take. How would a patient with an oncology appointment get to it? How about a visitor to the maternity ward? If they're designing new signage for an existing space, they often quiz the security guards. No one knows better what people find confusing.


The problem at Penn Station is not that designers skipped these steps. It's that three sets of designers did them three times. Penn Station is owned by Amtrak, which manages its concourse on the western side of the station. But Amtrak leases the rest of the station out to the two other tenants: New Jersey Transit has the southeast corner, and the LIRR the northeast. (The Metropolitan Transportation Authority oversees both the LIRR and New York City Transit, which manages the two adjacent subway stations; their sign systems are similar to the LIRR's.) The fundamental wayfinding problem at Penn Station lies in the fact that each of these entities manages its own signs, usually without consulting the others. As a result, the station essentially has three different systems of signage.


Penn Station is a remarkably challenging environment for wayfinding. But it's a useful place to examine, because it highlights the single most crucial thing a wayfinding designer must do: think about the user and understand how he will perceive a space. When signs are good, and you pay attention to them, you can sense the level of thought that went into them. Someone, somewhere, anticipated the journey you are on, and the information you would need. At Penn Station as a whole, it's no one's job to think about how you'll get where you're going. And you can tell.

I love the idea of asking a security guard about problems visitors run into. This is exactly the type of architectural thinking that I find fascinating. The essential question is: How do people interact with the spaces they inhabit?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ironing a Shirt

I'm happy enough to wear an ironed shirt but the act of ironing itself drives me moderately crazy. This happens because I don't really know what I'm doing. When it comes to shirts, I lack all semblance of a strategy and am instead reduced to just spraying steam haphazardly and trying to smooth out noticeable wrinkles. The process is somewhat beneficial to the garments, but any onlooker worth his looking salt will notice that the shirts don't exactly look presentable.

Ironing a shirt seems like one of those basic tasks I should know how to do. Maybe especially because I love this paragraph from Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which appears on the second page of this 600 page novel:

I couldn't read anymore. I decided to iron shirts instead. Which is what I always do when I'm upset. It's an old habit. I divide the job into twelve precise stages, beginning with the collar (outer surface) and ending with the left-hand cuff. The order is always the same, and I count off each stage to myself. Otherwise, it won't come out right.

This guy seems to have a different method than Murakami's narrator, but you would be hard-pressed to argue that it's not effective.

That was strangely mesmerizing. The guy is an absolute virtuoso. I will watch anything so long as the performer or act-er is sufficiently skilled.

[Via Put This On]

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Paragraph of the Week

From Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest:

And all at once I saw why our societies use gift wrap: not for the sake of surprise but rather to cover up the fact that The Gift is based on a lie, as we inevitably discover every time somebody gives us something, yes, and we open it and, after that microsecond when we expect the fulfillment of our deepest desire, disgust and sadness wash over us and we smile as fast as we can and say thank you, the better to bury our chagrin at never once in all our lives receiving something more than what we'd hoped for. And this evanescent joy, forever disappointed, remains incomprehensible to us.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

OK GO's Endlessly Fascinating New Video

So here's the hottest thing on the internet today:

And here's the best thing said about this video today, from Ken Tremendous's Twitter: "I might just keep watching this, over and over, until I die. This may be J.O.I.'s 'The Entertainment.'"

Monday, March 1, 2010

Baseball Prospectus and the Importance of Fanship

Maybe the best thing about the internet is that it allows people with shared interests to converse. I'll touch on why this makes Twitter so damn cool in a post later this week at PMI, but it's not just Twitter. The homepage of Meetup at this moment features such clubs and groups as the Baby Boomers Social Club, the Raleigh Horse Riders, and The Greater Boston Asian Professionals Meetup Group. Being a fan of something has never been easier and it's never been more important. Here's Matt Bucher, from a paper originally delivered at last year's Footnotes Conference:

This small group of dedicated fans is also a key resource for translators of Wallace’s writing. Members of the list have answered questions and helped with translating challenging passages for Italian, Dutch, Spanish, and German editions of Wallace’s fiction and non-fiction. This is a practice that seems commonplace on the list now, but would be inconceivable in the world of contemporary fiction even forty years ago. For example, were fans of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse consulted on its Russian or Japanese translations? Before the Internet age, this would be almost impossible to do, but it is also unlikely that a translator would know of a group of John Barth fans and trust their understanding of his use of the language. If anything, the translator might discuss a tricky issue or two with a fellow translator or a Barth scholar at a conference. In terms of how Wallace is perceived around the world, this use of the hive-mind cannot be underestimated. It not only attracts an international population to the list, but furthers the understanding of the most idiomatic and idiosyncratic parts of Wallace’s writing.

However, this gets us closer to the question of what kind of people join the list, and it brings up larger issues about communities and intellectual discourse and group psychology. The list includes English professors, writers, musicians, mathematicians, artists, lawyers, bloggers, women who have deep and abiding crushes on Wallace, and every stripe of over-educated young man dying to talk about “important” literature. 

I'm still amazed at how The Grammys enabled music fans to become collaborators in a very real way with the musicians they emulate.

And so we come to my second annual trip out to a Baseball Prospectus book reading.

You know how Intel has rock stars unlike the public's rock stars? It's just as true with a Baseball Prospectus reading. These folks are the nerdiest baseball nerds who ever nerded. And that's why they're great.

Aside from learning that Stephen Strasburg is the highest rated pitching prospect in history--higher than Mark Prior, higher than Kerry Wood, higher than Brien Taylor, higher than anyone--I got to participate in one of the world's great niche language communities. At one point, an audience member mentioned that one of the problems with watching a baseball game on TV was that the camera angles don't allow the viewer to see the route an outfielder takes to the ball, missing completely an essential aspect of the defensive game. Judging just from the information available on TV, we have no idea how circuitous a route he may have taken. At this point, one of the panelists agreed and then mentioned the name Terrence Long. Without elaboration. Everyone chuckled. Here's why this is great: Terrence Long is a fairly obscure outfielder who last played in 2006. He most recently accrued 500 at-bats in 2003. He hasn't been a regular in a long while, and he wasn't all that notable even when he was earning a Major League paycheck. But the audience recognized both who, exactly, Terrence Long is and that his defensive reputation is, let's say, less than stellar. We were having a conversation through references, via a shared body of knowledge. And while Baseball Prospectus can still be depressing as hell, it's totally worth it for the language games I got to play.