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117. ‘Visiting Mrs.Nabakov,’ Martin Amis

117. ‘Visiting Mrs.Nabakov,’ Martin Amis

Visiting Mrs.Nabakov,Martin Amis

Martin Amis is one of the most famous contemporary British authors, having been included in The Times newspaper’s list of the fifty greatest UK writers of the post-war period, (not to mention being the son of legendary author Kingsley Amis, making them one of the few parent/sibling writing partnerships I can think of).

I had read one of his novels before, (the brilliantly bizarre ‘London Fields‘), but since this time last year I was on an essay-reading binge, it made sense to read this selection which I had picked up and had signed at last year’s Hay Festival, (which is on right now, if you happen to be anywhere near the England/Wales border). Here are my favourite bits.

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On the mind-boggling maths behind chess:

“Recently Kasparov beat ten computers simultaneously, blindfolded. How flattering for the species. There are over 288 billion possibilities through the fourth move…yet the mark of a good chess player is not how many moves he considers but how few…”

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Don’t tell anyone, but this is just Tippex on a screen… Photo from Chess Maniac used courtesy of Creative Commons license.

On Robocop actor Peter Weller:

“It’s like being in a room, or a trailer, with about fifty different people. Simon Schama‘s new study of the French Revolution is cracked open on the table; so is Teach Yourself French; so is Teach Yourself Italian. He puts down his trumpet, looks up from the stack of inspirational videos…and shouts out of the window for more classical CDs…He hums with vigour. I would too, I suppose, if I got up at three and ran 16 miles every morning…”

Photo from Flixist, used courtesy of Creative Commons.

Photo from Flixist, used courtesy of Creative Commons.

 

Next, Paul Theroux’s greeting to Salman Rushdie at the funeral of Bruce Chatwin:

“‘Salman,’ called out Paul Theroux, boyishly. ‘Next week we’ll be back here for you!'”…

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A conversation with Salman Rushdie on hearing that the latter had taken part in a celebrity writer’s football match:

“‘How did you do?’ I expected the usual kind of comedy (sprained ankle, heart attack, incompetence, disgrace). But I was given another kind of comedy, out of left field.

He said, ‘I, uh, scored a hat-trick, actually.’

‘You’re kidding. I suppose you just stuck your leg out. You scrambled them home.’

‘Goal number one was a first-time hip-high volley from twenty yards out. For the second, I beat two men at the edge of the box and curled the ball into the top corner with the outside of my left foot.’

‘And the third goal, Salman? A tap-in. A fluke.’

‘No. The thrid goal was a power header‘…

(I didn’t think I could love Salman Rushdie any more than I do. To be proven wrong is one of the reasons I read!)

Salman Rushdie, photo courtesy of technology.am, used under Creative Commons License

Salman Rushdie, photo courtesy of technology.am, used under Creative Commons License

 

And finally, an incredibly descriptive (offensive?) portrait of American writer Nicholson Baker:

“He is, to be sure, fabulously and pointlessly tall…”

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Posted by on June 2, 2014 in BOOKS

 

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87. Some quotes and things…

Since I am currently travelling around Israel with my family, I once more present to you this week a selection of ideas jotted down from the many and varied books ingested over the past year or so. Preserving turns of phrase and thought-provoking comments was one of the main reasons I started this blog after all. Enjoy!
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The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim,’ Jonathan Coe
Coe, one of my favourite contemporary English writers, is the flipside of another of my favourites, Ian McEwan, reporting on everyday English life with all its awkwardness and inadequacies, but focusing on the comic side rather than the tragic.

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“I remember asking her for some pointers about books I should read: books that might potentially change my life. She told me to try some contemporary Americanfiction. ‘Like what?’ I asked. ‘Try getting one of the Rabbit books,’ she told me, and a few hours later, when I came back from the bookshop and showed her what I’d bought, she said, ‘Is this meant to be some sort of joke?’ It was Watership Down‘…”
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The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone,’ Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett
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This was an interesting, left-leaning book of the scientific kind which I love so much, explaining why the out-of-control widening wealth gap is bad for societies.
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A quote at the header of Chapter 5 on Mental Health and Drug Use caught my eye, and my imagination:
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“‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society’ {Krishnamurti}”
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On a monkey-based psychological study which I had somehow never heard of:
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“Monkeys that had become dominant had more dopamine activity in their brains than they had exhibited before becoming dominant, while monkeys that became subordinate when housed in groups showed no changes in their brain chemistry.

Photo from wikipedia

Photo from wikipedia

The dominant monkeys took much less cocaine than the subordinate monkeys. In effect, the subordinate monkeys were medicating themselves against the impact of their low social status…”

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In the same vein:.
“In a striking experiment, researchers have also shown that people with friends are less likely to catch a cold when given the same measured exposure to the cold virus – in fact the more friends they had, the more resistant they were. Experiments have also shown that physical wounds heal faster if people have good relationships with their intimate partners…”
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Finally, the best (presumably ironic) criticism of our material world I have heard in a while:
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“‘The one who dies with most toys wins.’ {US bumper sticker}”
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‘Dr.Tatiana’s Sex Advice To All Creation: the definitive guide ot he evolutionary biology of sex,’ Olivia Judson
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One of the cleverest books I have read for a while: an explanation of Darwinian theory and animal/insect peculiarities told through an Agony Aunt column for those critters! A sample question:
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“Dear Dr.Tatiana,
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 I’m a queen bee, and I’m worried. All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal?
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Perplexed in Cloverhill”
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And a selection of the fascinating, informative replies:
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“After a lengthy lovemaking session, the giant octopus, for example, hands over a spermatophore that is a huge bomb. Over a meter (three feet) long, it contains more than ten billion sperm and explodes inside the female reproductive tract…”
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“Among balloon flies – which are related to dance flies – males make the female a large white silk balloon to play with while they make love…”
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“…young male iguanas…ready to go, desperate to use one or the other of his penises (yes, like many reptiles, he has two, a left and a right penis)…”
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“Male and female orangutans stimulate themselves with sex toys they’ve made out of leaves or twigs…”
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“Unlike the Japanese cardinal fish, a species where males brood fry in their mouths, the Darwin frog doesn’t eat his children if he sees a girl sexier than his original mate…”
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(meaning, presumably, that this is something which the Japanese cardinal fish does do!)
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Finally, on a theory which suggests that nature re-balances itself when there is a shortage of either males or females:
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“…a significantly larger proportion of boys were born in the immediate aftermath of each world war than before the outbreak of hostilities. (I should stress the mechanism for this is unknown and the finding may be a coincidence rather than a demonstration of Fisher’s principle in action. But it is provocative nonetheless)…”
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If only biology classes at school had been this much fun!
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.Invisible Cities,’ Italo Calvino
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A strange, theoretical book of sketches of imaginary, often impossible places. Some parts were a struggle, but there was some beautiful use of language and imagination:
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“What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air…”
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“Paris, where millions of men come home each day grasping a wand of bread…”
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Baguette Table photo from Foodiggity

Baguette Table photo from Foodiggity

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The only way to really summarise this collection of mini-sketches, Borgesian in their absurdity and willingness to propose an idea without having to logically follow it through, (see Argia above), but full of subtle, twisted humour, is to reproduce one of the short descriptions in its entirety:
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“Thin Cities 4
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The city of Sophronia is made up of two half cities. In one there is the great roller-coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motor-cyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, and all the rest. One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.
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And so every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them onto trailers, to follow from stand to stand their annual itinerary. Here remains the half-Sophronia of the shooting-galleries and the carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of the headlong roller-coaster, and it begins to count the months, and days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin again…”
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Civic life and government as a travelling circus: what a beautiful idea…
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Payback: debt and the shadow side of wealth,’ Margaret Atwood
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A gorgeous, slim volume of a series of Atwood‘s speeches on the nature of debt and money.
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On a theme I had read in two or three different books in the weeks before this treatise on the moral, mythic and religious background of money and debt, most recently in the aforequoted Jonathan Coe‘s ‘The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim‘:
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“Children start saying, ‘That’s not fair!’ at the age of four or so, long before they’re interested in sophisticated investment vehicles or have any sense of the value of coins and bills. They are also filled with satisfaction when the villain in a bedtime story gets an unambiguous comeuppance, and made uneasy when such retribution doesn’t happen. Forgiveness and mercy, like olives and anchovies, seem to be acquired later…”
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(Although neither of those by me. The olives and anchovies, I mean.)
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Finally, on the nineteenth-century novel, a topic covered thoroughly a few weeks later when I read Jeffrey Eugenides‘ ‘The Marriage Plot‘:url-1
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“When I was young and simple, I thought the nineteenth-century novel was driven by love; but now, in my more complicated riper years, I see that it’s also driven by money, which indeed holds a more central place in it than love does, no matter how much the virtues of love may be waved idealistically aloft…The best nineteenth-century revenge is not seeing your enemy’s red blood all over the floor but seeing the red ink all over his balance sheet…”
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Speak, Memory,’ Vladimir Nabakov
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Not at all my favourite by one of my all-time favourite authors, but enough meat to warrant a few mentions here.
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On a topic which fascinates me, the arbitrary division of time and dates: Nabakov was born in a Russia which had not yet adapted to the modern Gregorian calendar from the old Julian one, and thus:
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“By the Old Style I was born on 10 April, at daybreak, in the last year of the last century, and that was (if I could have been whisked across the border at once) 22 April in, say, Germany…”
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On Nabakov’s synesthesia, in which each letter of the alphabet represented a different colour to him:
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“The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv…”
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Photo from The Neurocritic

Photo from The Neurocritic

“Vivian Bloodmark, a philosophical friend of mine, in later years, used to say that while the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time…”
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On the bizarreries of some countries’ familial systems:
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“I had two brothers, Sergey and Kirill. Kirill, the youngest child (1911-64), was also my godson as happened in Russian families…”
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WHAT?!
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On the comparative status of footballing goalkeepers in different nations:
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“In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with a halo of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entrance small boys. He view with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation…He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender…
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But in England, at least in the England of my youth, the national dread of showing off and a too grim preoccupation with solid teamwork are not conducive to the development of the goalie’s eccentric art…”
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Ah, how I love it when erudite, intelligent people discuss football! Albert Camus, author of ‘L’Étranger‘ and one of the heroes of the French Existentialist movement, was international goalkeeper for Algeria, after all, and there is a wonderful section in a Martin Amis essay which discusses Salman Rushdie‘s rather surprising ball skills.
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Finally, a quote which perhaps reveals more about Nabkov’s fiction than anything I have ever read: literature as a challenge, a puzzle, a way to bamboozle and test the reader, and an obsession with chess, echoed in director Stanley Kubrick:
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“It should be understood that competition in chess problems is not really between White and Black but between the composer and the hypothetical solver (just as in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world)…”
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The Castle,’ Franz Kafka
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“There’s a saying here, perhaps you know it: ‘official decisions have the shyness of young girls’…”
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As I experienced with David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest,‘ I once again suffered the frustration of the unfinished novel, this time ending in the most abrupt, unsatisfying of manners:
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“She held a trembling hand out to K. and made him sit down beside her, she spoke with an effort, it was an effort to understand her, but what she said      “
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Bob Servant: hero of dundee,’ Neil Forsyth
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I have recently blogged on the genius first book of this genius spam-annoyer: in this slightly more parochial ‘autobiography’ of Bob Servant there were flashes of hilarity, including wonderful, almost Nabakovian, use of footnotes to undermine the main text:
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“It used to break my heart when Tonto would look over at The Lone Ranger, swish his tail and call him Kemo Sabe. *
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* Tonto did use this phrase regularly but again he wasn’t a horse…”
The Lone Ranger and the (real) Tonto, photo by Spinning Platters

The Lone Ranger and the (real) Tonto, photo by Spinning Platters

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as well as dark, dark humour:
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“I remember when my Dad died I said to my Mum that it was just me and her against the world. She agreed that things weren’t looking good for me but pointed out that it was a bit unfair to drag her down with me…”
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“In 1969 The Great Skirt Hunt came to an end when I got myself a girlfriend. Her name was Daphne but she should have been called Catastrophe and not because that sounds a bit like Daphne but because that’s what she was. She was a girl-next-door type. If you happen to live next door to a fucking idiot…”
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Slowman
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Slow Man,’ J.M.Coetzee
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To end: a single, poignant quote equating love with sickness, from Nobel Prize winning South African Coetzee:
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“All in all, not a man of passion. He is not sure he has ever liked passion, or approved of it. Passion: foreign territory; a comical but unavoidable affliction like mumps, that one hopes to undergo while still young, in one of its milder, less ruinous varieties, so as not to catch it more seriously later on…”
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Posted by on October 23, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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75. David Foster Wallace double-header…

75. David Foster Wallace double-header…
Consider The Lobster,’ David Foster Wallace
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I had heard of DFW, the Next Great Thing, the Tragic Author, (Wallace committed suicide in 2008, at the age of 46, mid-novel), but had avoided reading him due to a) the intimidating thickness of the only book I had ever seen by him, and b) his reputation for being all-but unreadable. With six months living on an idyllic lake to look forward to I decided to remedy this situation, and took his generally acknowledged masterpiece, ‘Infinite Jest,’ along with an hors d’oeuvre of his essays, ‘Consider The Lobster,’ along with me to Guatemala last year.
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The essays in this collection were many and varied, but all were a great introduction to Wallace‘s style and his later, lengthier literature: footnotes, of which he was an absolute addict, abound, as do a wry tone and a seeming passion for any and everything. The essays also highlight a penchant for in-depth analysis of subjects which you initially doubt merit in-depth analysis, but often end up engrossed in anyway, from elections to grammar mavens. All of this new knowledge stood me in good stead for the challenge of reading ‘Infinite Jest‘…
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Wallace clearly has a passion for words: below is a typical, dictionary-infused paragraph:
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“…who got to watch all this brave new individualism and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation – today’s subforties have very different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness…”
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‘Anomic’? ‘Anomie’? ‘Solipsism’? All in the space of a single sentence? This can take some getting used to…
but when you do get used to him, there can be some deeply insightful messages and ideas behind the often opaque language, like his views on humour buried in the depths of an essay on teaching Russian Literature:
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“A crude way to put the whole thing [humour] is that our present culture is, both developmentally and historically, adolescent. And since adolescence is acknowledged to be the single most stressful and frightening period of human development – the stage when the adulthood we claim to crave begins to present itself as a real and narrowing system of limitations (taxes, death) and when we yearn inside for a return to the same childish oblivion we pretend to scorn – it’s not difficult to see why we as a culture are so susceptible to art and entertainment whose primary function is escape, i.e. fantasy, adrenaline, spectacle, romance, etc. Jokes are a kind of art…”
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Wallace the person often shines through the writing of Wallace the writer, (one of the things I enjoy most about essays, as I had previously found whilst reading Rushdie, Amis and especially Jeff Dyer): I loved the slightly autistic view he presented of himself in passages like this one:
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“…in real life I always seem to have a hard time winding up a conversation or asking somebody to leave, and sometimes the moment becomes so delicate and fraught with social complexity that I’ll get overwhelmed trying to sort out all the different possible ways of saying it and all the different implications of each option and will just sort of blank out and do it totally straight – ‘I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore’…”
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On music being a linguistic barrier between generations:

M.Jagger, OBE

M.Jagger, OBE

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“Nor are lyrics like ‘I can’t get no/Satisfaction’ an accident or any kind of sad commentary on the British educational system. Jagger et al. aren’t stupid; they’re rhetoricians, and they know their audience…”
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A beautiful description of athletes:
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“To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves…”
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The most fascinating essay was, somewhat surprisingly, on the seven days Wallace spent following Senator John McCain, (future Presidential candidate), as he attempted to become the Republican Party candidate for President in 2000, losing out eventually to, of course, ‘Noocalar’ George.W.Bush.
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“There is still an NV statue of McCain by this lake [in Hanoi] today, showing him on his knees with his hands up and eyes scared and on the pediment the inscription ‘McCan – famous air pirate’ [sic]…”
John McCain statue, Hanoi, Vietnam

John McCain statue, Hanoi, Vietnam

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On a stupefying fact about Fyodor Dostoevsky:
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“His Moscow childhood was evidently so miserable that in his books Dostoevsky never once sets or even mentions any action in Moscow…”
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Finally, a metaphysical question which in four short sentences plumbs the depths of Foster Wallace’s soul:
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“Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? My behaviour sure seems to indicate that this is what I believe, at least a lot of the time. But isn’t this kind of a selfish way to live? Forget selfish – isn’t it awful lonely?…”
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I enjoyed the essays, and the sometimes challenging nature of them, and will look out for more collections of them: but really, they were just mental training for confronting his magnum opus…
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Infinite Jest,’ David Foster Wallaceimages-3

Dave Eggers, in his Foreword to the new edition, name-checks a wide and wonderful chunk of culture, many of which are or have recently become some of my favourites, (Kerouac excepted). This left me with high hopes, and I wasn’t disappointed:

“If we are drawn to Infinite Jest, we’re also drawn to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Songs…Or the work of Sufjan Stevens…It’s why we watch Shoah, or visit the unending scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote (in a fever of days) On The Road…or Michael Apted’s 7-Up, 28-Up, 42-Up series of films, or…well, the list goes on…”

(And here is a video of from one of these artists mentioned to enjoy whilst you read the rest of the blog!)

So, what was it like to read? It was like a million different things, from fascinating to confusing to inspiring to despairing…

The style is truly fascinating: the author’s obsession with grammar, (‘sics’ spattered throughout the text), butts heads with the deliberately chatty style, (“…and so…but then…”), leaving you wondering who the narrator is. Is there even a narrator? Why is the narrator so non-omniscient, (see Note 216 to the text, which the narrator inserts merely in order to tell us that he has: “No clue.”)? Or are these merely notes in novel form?

The novel is also like a giant literary jigsaw puzzle: Wallace may mention a character has two-and-a-half fingers missing, and then 400 pages later it will be mentioned in passing how he lost them. This can either make for a very frustrating read, or a wonderfully pleasant roller-coaster if you give up on logic and traditional narrative technique and just enjoy the ride..

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However, it is the prose which carries you through the 1,000+ pages of this work. Playful, serious, descriptive, emotive, critical: maybe a bunch of quotes will help:

“This is not working out. It strikes me that EXIT signs would look to a native speaker of Latin like red-lit signs that say HE LEAVES…”

“I can picture DeLint and White sitting with their elbows on their knees in the defecatory posture of all athletes at rest…”

“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves…”

“..he, too, has to struggle with a strange urge to be cruel to Ingersoll, who reminds him of someone he dislikes but can’t quite place…”

“The U.S.S.Millicent’s hand was large and hot and at the level of sogginess of a bathmat that’s been used several times in a row in quick succession…”

“He plays golf. Your grandfather. Your grandpappy. Golf. A golf man. Is my tone communicating the contempt? Billiards on a big table…anal rage and checkered berets…”

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“The ones it says here the ones the cruel call Two-Baggers – one bag for your head, one bag for the observer’s head in case your bag falls off…Those who undress only in front of their pets…”

“In a different little notebook, the M.P. noted the date and time of each Heineken he consumed. He was the sort of person who equated incredibly careful record-keeping with control…”

“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 oneself away, utterly…”

As serious as it often is, (one of the major themes being drug and alcohol addiction and their effects, another Canadian separatist terrorism in a near-future dystopia, although the latter is treated a lot more amusingly than it may sound), ‘Infinite Jest‘ is also full of subtle, hidden, teeny-tiny jokes scattered throughout. This humour spews out in various ways, often in wordplay and wonderful analogies, similes and metaphors:

“‘Kid, sobriety’s like a hard-on: the minute you get it, you want to fuck with it’…”

“…the Dean…’so full of himself he could have shit limbs’…”

One major feature of Wallace‘s writing is footnotes, (although these are found not at the foot of the page, but at the back of the book, being so numerous. Is there another word for these? If so, I don’t know it). Note 324 lasts from page 1,066 to 1,072, and there is absolutely no need for it not to be part of the main body of the text. But DFW loves a good note: ‘Infinite Jest‘ in my edition weighs in at 1,079 pages, of which 96, (or 8.9%), are notes.

By the end of this novel, you will know more than you ever wanted to about how a kid becomes a professional tennis player, (it’s not pretty, yet somehow hypnotically interesting), and almost as much as a recovering addict about the ways and means of AA, DA and various rehabilitation centres. You will not, however, know how the story ends: with a few dozens pages left to read, I realised that the several storylines were never going to be tied up in time: I briefly remembered that Wallace had died in the middle of one of his novels, and when I reached the anti-climactic final sentence I cursed my luck that it was during the first one I decided to read.

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Except it wasn’t: Wallace had killed himself halfway through the posthumously released ‘The Pale King.’ With ‘Infinite Jest,’ he had merely given up. This left me angry at first, until I realised how often endings had disappointed me, and not just in books but everything from Monty Python skits to, specifically, the sinking feeling I had with every passing episode of the last season of ‘Lost‘ as I realised that nothing was going to be explained. So…

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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