Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity’s Rainbow is a post-modern novel set in World War II that revolves around the direct/indirect relation/s of characters from different sides and nationalities with the V-2 and A4 German rockets before, during and after the war. At seven hundred and sixty pages it is no coincidence that this book has led to the second biggest gap in my blog’s history. However, one of the key factors that mainly attracted me to Pynchon’s second novel, and that is also largely at fault for this time gap was it’s famed difficulty. Gravity’s Rainbow is without a shadow of a doubt the hardest book I’ve ever read and, whilst I’ve managed to finish it, I keep thinking if this has just been a test of endurance, brilliance wrapped in an impenetrable book, a bunch of nonsense or a mixture of the three. I’m hoping to find out by the end of the review.

When I began to read this book back in Easter my main concern was that its size may make it a more appropriate candidate for summer reading because I knew for certain that this was going to take some time, but still I chose it because only then did I feel with the strength to tackle such an endeavor. There were other factors playing its part into my decision: the folklore surrounding the reclusive author, the chance to explore a novel that pushed the boundaries of narrative, the reputation of the book, etc.… but the primary driving force was to see if could handle something that challenged me as a reader.

I should put a counter every time I say this in a review because the following phrase is becoming more and more frequent with each review: I purchased this book in my favorite used bookstore. For the extremely affordable price of 2.50 € I got my hands on a second print paperback from the UK dating from 1974 (the first edition was published in 1973 and has very peculiar characteristics). On the second and third pages of the book one of its previous owners wrote his name and most likely purchasing date “Javier Cerame 1976”. Taking into account the time it had and the journey it must have taken, the quality of the book at the time of purchase could be generously labelled as “good”, but thanks to my father’s awesome book restoration skills, he managed to save it from further descent into “fair” quality (for the uninitiated or those that don’t know or don’t care about used books this is the standard to follow to label conditions).

Editorial note: From now on, whenever I buy a book that requires the care of my father I’ll put pictures of the restoration process. Here he is applying methyl to the dented edges of the book. In one of the pictures it can be observed that the back was so damaged that it also required Japanese paper (also called Washi 和紙) to avoid further deterioration and to strengthen it.

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Unlike other writers which I’ve reviewed before, I don’t have a long story to tell about how I came to know Thomas Pynchon. I suppose that one of the first mentions that may have passed without much notice on my side could have been one of his cameos in The Simpsons; back then I was not the bookworm that I am today and his presence didn’t register to me until later views in one of many TV reruns. My first fully aware Pynchon experience came in the form of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film “Inherent Vice” adapted from the novel of the same name.

Much like the audience and critic’s consensus I found the movie incoherent and the plot impossible to follow which, despite the excellent performance of Joaquin Phoenix, forced me to give up on the film at the half an hour mark (an issue that I did not encounter with PTA’s previous film The Master where both Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman give stellar performances with a fairly bland-but-coherent script). In hindsight, it seems idiotic investing my time on this book when I couldn’t even digest a 148-minute movie that I knew followed its source novel very closely. Live and learn I guess.

Inherent Vice

I began reading Gravity’s Rainbow on the 24th of March 2018. I think I knew by the end of the week that I was not going to get this book even if I managed to finish it. I was still willing to go on a limb to see if there was something there and I’d stand corrected, but from the start I began noticing a worrying pattern: nearly every time I finished a section and moved on to the next, I’d forget pretty much everything that I had just read and, to make things worse, out of what I read I’d say around 85% I didn’t understand and 15% would barely give me a general understanding of the situation.

Gravity's Rainbow
Artist Marc Getter created the artwork for both hardback & paperback used in both US & UK editions

At the beginning of the book the main contributor to this confusion was Pynchon’s character relations, which are fuzzy and desperately asking the reader to make a map (like this one), plus the fact that he really doesn’t seem interested in the background of the characters he introduces and instead shifts his focus on the decisions they make. As a result, the reader is caught up in the middle of the action and forced to catchup for a large part of the book and, since the events turn out to be set during World War Two, this only exacerbates the feeling of confusion. Only until I got to 4/5 of the way did I manage to see (barely) where and why everyone fitted into the overall story, but most importantly realized that the focus was always on the rocket. The characters are just pieces of its schematic and history.

When the role each character plays became a bit clearer, my lack of understanding changed from a who-is-who situation and how are they connected to a more complicated form of confusion mainly due to the way Pynchon choses to tell this story. To best explain it let’s look at the following sequence: Character B is introduced → Character B begins reminiscing about a past experience → Character’s B past experience involves Character C → Character C starts talking about a subject completely unrelated to the events written before introduction of Character B → There is a song by Character C → Character C turns out to be talking about a past relation with character A previously mentioned, but unrelated –or just barely– to character B → But only you’ll find out later when Character A meets Character B.

Easy, right? Well, get ready because Gravity’s Rainbow is full of these type of structures.

A prime example of the above is THE STORY OF BYRON THE BULB (located at the beginning of Part 4: The Counterforce). In it, a completely irrelevant character to the story stops to look at a bulb and we, the reader, get nine pages on the hypothetical life of this bulb if it were sentient and had an agenda (with a song included). Although I absolutely loved the story of the Bulb (which is the main reason why I remember it) for its sheer absurdity, Pynchon goes on so many tangents of this sort with different degrees of complexity and different characters and/or things that it is virtually impossible to follow. Editorial note: One of the arguments that I’ve read to facilitate reading Pynchon is to focus on the whole and not the threads but I was not capable of taking this approach when I was reading the book.

One of the few things in the novel that I got a sense of and that I think is worth exploring is the constant presence of paranoia caused by the settings and the internal madness of the characters; and which is represented best in the novel by the pivotal character, Tyrone Slothrop (a.k.a. Rocketman).

The theme of paranoia is present pretty much from the start, but to me it began to stand out in part 2 of the novel, titled Un Perm’ au Casino Hermann Goering. In this section, the relation between the character of Slothrop (a US Army Lieutenant who has an unexplained link to the rockets and whose actions indicates a form of precognition) and the role he is expected to play in regards to finding the A4 rocket (a new and more powerful version of the V-2 Rocket) is hinted at in the following five Proverbs for Paranoids:

1 – You May Never Get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.

2 – The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.

3 – If they get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.

4 – You hide, they seek.

5 – Paranoids are not paranoids because they are paranoids, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.

When these proverbs began popping up (first one is on page 237) I felt that Pynchon was highlighting something very important for the reader and once I finished the book I realized that nearly every character’s action fits into one of these five proverbs.

Editorial note: Having reached this point in the review I’m getting the feeling that I’ve paid little to no attention to the story itself; unfortunately the issue lies herein as everything I felt needed to be said about the story was and is covered in this post’s first sentence, and I can think of no compelling reason for me to write more about it because there is nothing in the story that really grabbed my attention or made me want to analyze it deeper.

I could be accused of being an unsophisticated reader but I think the truth is that I’m just one of thousands that has tried to read and understand Thomas Pynchon and failed. Out of the three options I considered at the beginning and taking into account the (mostly) blank effect that the novel had on me, Gravity’s Rainbow felt nothing more than an exercise in endurance. This book was too dense for me to grasp and, even though I can clearly see how ambitious it wants to be, I simply could not find much of anything that resonated with me or that I could take away from. It is like being shown an abstract painting. I’m sure the artist imbued it with thousands of designs and meanings but I can’t understand it by myself.

This may be the harshest book review I’ve done so far (it is definitely the hardest) but I’m happy to see that the author is no stranger to them as seen in the clip below. I finished reading Gravity’s Rainbow on the 27th of May 2018. After such a beefy dinner I’m ready for something a bit lighter and that will certainly come much sooner. Until then, and as always, thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The first action in the sequence of events that led me to the Strugatsky’s novel was getting the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R Shadow of Chernobyl back in 2007. I don’t recall specifically why I decided to play that particular game, but I’m still puzzled by the randomness of the choice and the trail it started more than ten years ago. I’ve advocated before that video games can be a fantastic way to introduce young people to art and literature and this is yet another prime example of how that could happen and, although I sometimes fear being derivative and unfocused whenever my review extends beyond the book (so that any thoughts that I may have on the novel may be skewed by other interpretations), I’ve also found out that sometimes elements of those adaptations or interpretations percolate to enhance my appreciation of the novel.

What hooked me about S.T.A.L.K.E.R Shadow of Chernobyl  was the premise and the world around it: what if the Chernobyl incident had caused a series of unexplained materials and phenomena around the surrounding area (The Zone) and there were specialized individuals (Stalkers) willing to subtract those materials from The Zone to sell them for a good prize? But not only that: What if deep inside the reactor there was an artifact that could grant any wish? Mix all this with the bleakest and darkest post-apocalyptic world that a computer could render and what you get is a game filled with creativity and what has been described by others – quite perfectly I think – as a love letter to horror:

Soon after I finished the game I discovered the 1979 film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. The game had intrigued me with its premise and I was very interested in the idea of a movie developing the scenario and ideas in it. Tarkovsky’s Stalker is a very, very slow film. To quote from the director himself “The film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.” It requires a very specific state of mind because it has a very specific mood. There are drawn out metaphysical dialogues and very long takes with very few cuts that ask the viewer for attention and patience with the story. The cinematography by Alexander Knyazhinsky and Tarkovsky’s direction creates some of the most breathtaking frames ever captured on film. It has been a long time since I watched the movie, but I still remember how beautiful it looked. A high quality copy is available in YouTube with English subtitles:

It is very interesting seeing the difficulties that both film and novel encountered to come to fruition. Tarkovsky spent more than a year filming scenes for the movie that were completely ruined when the stock was incorrectly developed in the lab. This led to a completely new re-shoot of the movie,  filming in locations with hazardous conditions for human safety that led to Tarkovsky’s cancer of the right bronchial tube and several other illness by the rest of the crew. The novel’s path to publication was even harder due to the strict control’s of the Soviet censorship system, that kept sending them notes regarding vulgarisms, physical violence acts and the immoral behaviour of the characters (as Boris Strugatsky mentions in the afterword) and that delayed the publication date for years, only to see the light as a watered down version that even the author’s themselves despise.

1613743416
This may be one of the few times where I prefer to have a cover with a frame from the movie.

The paperback edition that I bought has the fully restored original text and starts with an introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin. She brings up an excellent point that makes the arduous path to publication even more surreal. The Strugatsy brother’s story is not really one that is pushing an agenda and, as Mrs. Le Guin writes, they are not conditioned by the fact that they live in a Soviet regime to create an intriguing premise. Even if one were to look for political undertones (which, in my humble opinion, would really limit the interpretation of the story) I think that the novel’s message would be anti-capitalist due to the systemic abuse of the rich to purchase materials from the Zone using expendable hand (Stalkers). I can only imagine how tremendously frustrating it must have been for the two brothers dealing with all that censoring bullshit.

Despite the novel’s short length (not even 200 pages) I didn’t find it particularly easy to tackle. The two elements that hindered my reading were the length of the chapters (there are only 5 in total, averaging forty pages each) that gave the story a rather strange pacing and how sparing the descriptions were in contrast with the lengthy dialogues.  I had difficulty establishing the geography of the events taking place or understanding some of the actions of the characters. I think that the author’s were trying to give a brisk pace to the story with this short descriptions, but the wording wasn’t particularly effective in creating an image in my head. Editorial note: I’d usually attribute this to a poor translation but in this case the work done by Olena Bormashenko is absolutely remarkable.

Roadside Picnic has interesting concepts that both the video game and the film left out: the presence of the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures brings to the table the outside presence of a world greedily waiting to exploit a disastrous event, Redrick “Red” Schuhart who is the main character and one of the few remaining Stalkers operating in The Zone (and a bit of dick to be honest), but for me the highlights of the novel are the questions that it creates:

  • Aliens visited the earth and dumped all these strange artifacts before leaving and completely disappearing. Why?
  • If there was an artifact within the zone that could grant your innermost wish, what would you wish for?

The first question is exclusive to the book and the source of my favourite passage in the form of a conversation between two of the characters that are discussing the purpose of the visit (around page 130). Was it to advance the human race? To change the children of the people around the Zone in their image? Maybe they just passed by and left all their crap around before leaving (like a Roadside Picnic) indifferent to the insects populating that area, or maybe the Visit is still taking place and nobody knows about it. The novel plants the seed and never really answers the question directly, allowing the reader to make their own choice. Editorial note: Out of all the choices I personally lean towards cosmic indifference (A Lovecraftian choice).

The second question does not appeal to me as much and yet both movie and video game decided to focus on it, even if in the novel the wish-granting golden sphere is something that is almost in the background until the last chapter. In the book, when the expedition reaches the device I thought that the wish was a bit lackluster: “HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND LET NO ONE BE LEFT BEHIND!”. It is not that the message is bad. It is simply that the answer chosen is  a bit clichéd and doesn’t really match Redrick’s character, thus ending the book in a rather weak note.

The video game offers a unique answer to the player based on the choices and level of completion of each player which feels both adequate and appropriate to the medium, but in my opinion the movie offers the best answer possible by not entering the room that grants the wishes (instead of a wish-granting gold sphere it is a wish-granting room). All the metaphysical and psychological questions build up to that moment and make sense for the characters in the film. The answer is not inside the room. It is what the room represents  and the journey towards it where the answer is.

The movie is a very loose adaptation of the novel, but I find that the Strugatsky brothers, who also wrote the screenplay,  where able to find a more ambitious and powerful ending than the one chosen in the book under the direction of Tarkovsky. It is very interesting and unusual seeing how diametrically opposed the dialogue from the novel (designed to explain the world they live in and move the plot forward) is from the dialogue in the film (ruminations on philosophy and humanity), and yet both of them come from the same source. When I was doing research for this entry I  found out that the Strugatsky wrote a novel titled Машина желаний “The Wish Machine” (ISBN 91-86222-27-9) that is based on Roadside Picnic and an early draft of the film; so now I’m actually very curious to read it to see what the combination of both is like. Editorial note: if this is indeed real, because I couldn’t find it anywhere and apparently it is only available in Russian, Swedish and French.

I finished reading Roadside Picnic on the 18th of March 2018. I have been in a bit of a reading slump lately. I’m tired and nearing the five month mark without a single vacation day taken. However, with Easter coming in less than a week I think there will be plenty of time to relax and recharge; and what better way to do that than in front of a fire, with a nice cup of warm tea and a good ol’ book! As always, thanks for reading.

Public Transportation (Anthology: Places where I enjoy reading)

Public Transportation (Anthology: Places where I enjoy reading)

I’ve had a small reading slump in February that has kept my already low posting rate to a minimum. There is something about the cold and the rain that makes my mind wonder and doesn’t allow me to sit down and read or write -I believe Shamans of old called it laziness-. It has also been a while since I’ve done an anthology post, so I’ll take this opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by welcoming you (whoever that is) to the final edition of my Anthology: Places where I enjoy reading. It seems fitting that I end this series with what has been the most important place (technically places) to develop my love for literature: the public transportation system of Madrid. Before I get to it, let’s take a walk down memory lane to the college years.

It is no secret that going to college and studying a career that I actively hated was soul-killing. I tried really hard to endure it and just to get it done but in the last years I was nearly broken; going zombified to classes that I didn’t really care for and talking to classmates that, although really nice people, didn’t have much in common with me (I really mean this in the prickless way possible). This ordeal was made even worse by the two to three hours I had to spend taking the underground or the bus to get to my classes; a task that hadn’t really been that gruelling at the beginning but by the end became unbearable.

During the first years I was quick to start a conversation on the bus with anyone I recognized from my classes and, if I didn’t see any familiar faces, I always cranked up my CD player and I enjoyed the trip listening to Pantera, Testament, Annihilator or whatever metal band discovered in the old Megadeth forums where I first started posting back in 2004 (Random Trivia: extra metal points for listening to that in a CD-player that did not read mp3 files). However, around the four year mark I had grown a bit weary of listening to music (in general, not just metal) and had begun to take mostly the underground which took a bit longer, but gave me the chance to sit down during the entire trip, and allowed me some much needed rest time between the internship I was doing during the morning and the classes that took place during the evening and that had increased my travelling time up to five hours every day.

MegadethAt the same I had begun to write less-and-less at the Megadeth forum for obvious lack of time and due to the unfortunate decision taken by the site administrators to moderate the section Total Anarchy – the irony is not lost upon me – where I usually posted. Although this ultimately proved to be a fatal blow to the site (years later they closed the section and ultimately watered down the board to become simple fan-service portal) before all the moderating started there was one thread that I had made a habit of visiting titled: “Post what you are reading”. In this thread I diligently informed the people of the Internet what I was going to read and what I had finished reading usually followed by insightful comments that completely shattered previous conceptions on the work such as:

  • It was a pretty good book.

  • I really enjoyed it.

  • That sucked.

Editorial note: This wonderfully stupid habit was an embryonic version of this blog for obvious reasons to anyone that has bothered to read more than two posts. After all this years I still make a note of the exact day when I finish reading a book followed, hopefully, by better insights.

I can’t help a little smile as I type this; reminiscing the sensations those firsts books had on me: the first three Dune books by Frank Herbert that I decided to read because when I was a kid I was fascinated with the videogame, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson which I got at http://www.play.com because it had a special discount due to the popularity of the Will Smith movie, The Foundation Trilogy and the two follow-up novels recommended to me by my brother and that, as previously mentioned, made fall in love with numbers, statistics and game theory, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land a book that I didn’t really grok but that accompanied me on the toughest of times when I had just begun the internship, American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis and the extreme reaction of its main character to a world he lives in but hates. I’m probably skipping quite a few, but there is one book that stands out above all and that really changed everything for me: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.

Catch 22

I want to be careful with what I say because down the line I’d like to go back to this book and make a proper review about it considering Catch 22 is my favourite book. Although I’ve only read it once, this is the novel that changed it all for me.

The Megadeth boards had never failed to recommend a book that I didn’t like and Heller’s novel was a frequent mention and was always accompanied by praise. Despite all the accolades I didn’t know much about it except for the fact that it was a war novel (a genre that up until that point I had only laterally approached with Johnny Got His Gun), that is why I found very surprising that my mom had an old paperback copy that she had purchased back on the 21st of July 1974 – she doesn’t recall where or why she bought it but I know that she does not like reading about war –. In the fall of 2009 I became enthralled by this book and found out something that I hope I still want to do when I’m old(er): Thanks to this book I knew that I wanted to write.

Heller’s novel was smart, funny, clever, insightful, weird and wonderful. It changed something deep inside me and allowed me to discover the amazing power of words, and the freedom they could give me whenever I wanted to express who I am, what I felt or whatever ideas I could conjure up no matter how crazy and farfetched they could seem.

This novel and the books I mentioned played a huge part in my life. They allowed me to escape a very unappealing reality and introduced me to ideas, characters, stories and worlds that managed to stimulate me out of the numbness created by the choices I had made and that were making me really unhappy. They also made me love reading on my trips. I didn’t care if I was on the bus at 20:00 in the middle of winter or if I had to take wake up forty minutes earlier and spend an hour using the underground, I cherished every precious trip where I could open a book and disappear into another world.

It is only as I write these words that I realize that I feel in love with literature as a product of circumstance and necessity. I had almost forgotten how lonely I felt, and how unbearable everything that surrounded me and everything that was going to be my future seemed; and yet word by word, page by page, chapter by chapter, book by book and trip by trip I found a way to construct a narrative that makes sense of my life, and for that I am grateful.

Editorial note: This post ends “Anthology: Place Where I Enjoy Reading”. Thank you to anyone that has read them, here you can find the links to the other posts on this anthology. As an incentive to keep writing next on my to-do list and partially thanks to this last post, there is a new section coming about my favourite books that I will cover both childhood and adulthood. Until then, thanks for reading.

Anthology Part 1 – The Toilet

Anthology Part 2 – By the Fire

Anthology Part 3 – Of Deckchairs and Hammocks.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

When I made a trip to Berlin in early November 2017 I took with me the short story collection by David Foster Wallace “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and, in page 98, I came upon the subject of an interview (titled B.I. #46 07-97), who uses Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to explain what is it like to be fully stripped way of your identity in the face of complete and absolute degradation and still making the choice to keep your humanity. Although Frankl’s book deals with the experience of living in a concentration camp from a psychological perspective, subject 46 uses it as the starting point to advocate that incredible things can come from horrible events. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the text that sets the whole thing in motion:

Having a knee-jerk attitude about anything is a total mistake, that’s what I’m saying. But I’m saying especially in the case of women, where it adds up to this little condescending thing of saying that they are fragile or breakable things and can be destroyed so easily. Like we have to wrap them in cotton and protect them more than anything else. That is knee-jerk and condescending. I’m talking about dignity and respect, not treating them like they are fragile little dolls or whatever. Everybody gets hurt and violated and broken sometimes, why are women so special?”

I’m writing this on February 4th 2018. A time when the following terms are being thrown around quite a bit: “safe-space”, “victimhood”, “third-wave feminism”, “#Metoo”, “#Timesup”, “Tweet/Twitter” and “Donald Trump”. The reason why I’m stating the date and terminology is because context of the time that we live in is important to explain why, in barely five pages, David Foster Wallace’s text (published in 1999) and Viktor’s Frankl book (published in 1946) have managed to really get me thinking on a topic that is in everybody’s mind these days.

Following the question of “Why are women so special?” and continuing with the reference of Frankl’s experience, subject 46 proceeds to mirror the idea of a woman being raped with the idea of a man living in a concentration camp, but also making clear of how narrow-minded it would be to just think of her as just a victim:

What she knows is that the totally most terrible degrading thing that she ever could have even imaged happening to her has really happened to her now. And she survived. She’s still here. I’m not saying that she’s thrilled, I’m not saying she’s thrilled about it or she’s in great shape or clicking her heels together out of joy it happened, but she’s still here, and she knows it, and now she knows something. I mean really knows”

The brilliance in Wallace’s text and these interviews is that we never get the chance to read the question or rebuttal to what subject 46 is saying, and instead Wallace writes “Q” and lets the reader fill in the gaps. So as the text goes on and the subject 46 continues to explain the idea of rape as a possible “catalyst” to self-discovery there is one “Q” that, at least for me and based on the following answer, appears to ask if subject 46 is justifying a woman being raped. To which he answers:

That’s the knee-jerk reaction, that’s what I’m talking about, taking everything I say and taking and filtering it through your own narrow view of the world and saying what I’m saying is Oh so the guys that gang-raped her did her a favor. Because that is not what I’m saying. I’m not saying it was good or right or it should have happened or that she’s not totally fucked up by it and shattered or it ever should have happened.”

The interview follows this line of thought and shows subject 46’s increasing frustration with women and with the interviewer as he continues to defend the idea of destruction leading to improvement (Nietzsche’s: What doesn’t kill you make you stronger) whilst making clear that he is not justifying rape to women. As the conversation escalates, right before the end, there is very powerful turn of the table: What if he was the one that was raped? What if it was a man being raped?

This text is so well written that ever since I read it I kept thinking about the argument being exposed, and I was shocked and in awe of how compelling it was (particularly with the last twist in mind). However there was one thing that I couldn’t help thinking over and over again: The book is titled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Key word being “Hideous”. Could there be a possibility that David Foster Wallace was trying to make me agree with a horrible man?

I thought about this for a long time and I wasn’t  able to find a clear conclusion, but considering the impact this text had I decided to buy Frankl’s book (again in my favorite used book store) to see if it could help to clarify things and also because the premise of a psychologist in a concentration camp seemed quite fascinating.

El hombre en busca de sentido
This is the cover of the paperback I bought

The holocaust constitutes one of the saddest events in human history and Viktor Frankl’s book dealing with his experiences in a small concentration camp is both a sad reminder of the worst and the best of humanity. Frankl doesn’t dramatize nor exaggerate the events; he merely narrates his experiences and observations through a psychological perspective, explaining the effects of the systematic dehumanization that he and other people in the concentration camp were subject to.

All these actions designed to destroy the human spirit resulted most of the time in death in all its different forms: suicide, exhaustion, cold, age, sickness, hunger, etc… However, according to Frankl, when it didn’t come in the form of death it all came down to a choice: to be oneself and hold to your identity and humanity or choosing to be lower than an animal like the sadistic guards favored by the SS to keep the rest of the prisoners in line. He then proceeds to explain how the few people who made the active choice to hold on to their humanity began to flourish spiritually (the word is stripped from all religious connotations), and how, because everything that surrounded them was so horrible, their sense of self and their sense of purpose had to come from within

At the end of the book of the edition that I bought there is a section that explains the principles of Viktor Frankl’s psychological practices which he himself labeled logotherapy, and that expands the idea of psychology beyond merely explaining the “logic of the brain” and adds the idea of the “meaning” of oneself as a key aspect to take into consideration in psychotherapy. According to logotherapy there are three ways to search for man’s meaning: through an action (i.e: desiring to publish a book, feeling the need to teach), accepting the donations of existence (i.e: looking in awe at the beauty of a sunset, loving another human being), and through suffering (i.e: incurable sickness). Frankl states that the search for meaning is ever-fluctuating between these three options based on each individual’s circumstance.

If we return to Wallace’s subject 46 it is now easy to spot that he is advocating’s Frankl’s third way for meaning: through suffering. However, if this is the case, why do I still feel that there is a “but” to his whole argument?

After thinking about if for quite a while I was able to conjure a couple of counter-arguments, but even I feel that they are somewhat weak. First, he is challenging a “knee-jerk attitude” (absolutism) with an extreme example and that as in most cases the truth must be somewhere in between and not in the extremes (but if this is the case I can’t find it). Second: considering the limits of fiction and the interpretation of Wallace’s text, this short story is most likely designed to question rather an answer and to trick rather than to expose. But then again, this would be me changing the subject from the content of the text to the intentions of the author (which would be really fucking weak and a disservice to this whole post) and I really wouldn’t be finding a flaw in the subject 46’s rationalization per se.

I may just have to admit that after reading Frankl’s book all signs indicate that this is indeed the case, because even if at the beginning of the post I stated that I found myself agreeing with subject #46, I was really hoping that by the end I could find a deeper truth or a hidden meaning beyond such an extreme example; but the truth is that I can’t.

I think that Wallace’s last sentence may be very appropriate in this case to close this failed exercise: You don’t know shit.

Editorial note: I finished reading Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning the 4th of February 2018. It has been snowing all day. It was such a pretty picture from the window were I sat and typed this.

Slammed by Colleen Hoover

Slammed by Colleen Hoover

A quick look in the dictionary will tell you that the word honest can be defined as:

  1. free of deceit; truthful and sincere.
  2. morally correct or virtuous.
  3. fairly earned, especially through hard work.
  4. (of an action) done with good intentions even if unsuccessful or misguided.
  5. simple, unpretentious, and unsophisticated

When I received this book I also got the following bits of information from the young woman who gave it to me:

  • It is her favorite novel.

  • She loves the poetry and lyrics in it.

  • If I were to review it in my blog I’d have to be honest.

All five definitions and all three bits of information have shaped this post so, random people of the internet, please note that this review is first and foremost for this lovely young woman. 

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Slammed is Colleen Hoover’s debut novel. It tells the story of Layken, an eighteen year old girl who has moved with her family (mother and brother) to Michigan after her father’s passing. Upon arrival to her new house she meets Will, a twenty-one year old neighbor that invites her on a date to a poetry slam (open mic for poets) and, after the proverbial magical date takes place, drama ensues when she learns that she can’t be with him because he is… her new poetry teacher! Cue the video!

Let that moment of levity be the turning valve to the following words because what I’m about to write is something that I just really need to get off my chest for the sake of my sanity:

<rantmode>

Layken is the most self-absorbed asshole of a main character that I’ve ever read. She is empty, selfish, egotistical, petty, ordinary and a waste of a human being. Classic Layken actions and/or preferences include: crying (a lot), slamming doors (a lot), monothematically obsessing over Will (a lot), treating Will like crap (a lot).

What Will (a handsome, muscled, sensitive, caring, poetry-loving, young man) actually likes about this girl remains an absolute mystery to me and, whilst I’m aware that love is not logical, this dude can do better.

</rantmode>

Before you light the torches please let me say that I get “it”. I’m a thirty-one year old dude and I very strongly doubt that Collen Hoover wrote this book with my demographic in mind. I’m also aware that one could challenge the validity of this point and say that a book should be “good” regardless of the intended demographic (a fair point no doubt), but that would deviate the review into muddy waters that I don’t particularly want to navigate this time around.

I also want to highlight that I’m still thinking about the right approach to take for this review and that, even though I was required honesty, I wasn’t asked to disregard the fact that this is someone’s favorite book which has really helped me to gather my thoughts on the novel. After careful analysis I’ve realized that attacking what I hate about the book is simply the easy way out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still keeping the rant because it is the result of approximately two hundred and ten pages of eye-rolling, groan inducing, frustrating narration from Layken. However, past that mark it is revealed that her mother has terminal cancer and these news actually snap Layken from her Will-obsessive thoughts and for a few pages she became something that I thought impossible: relatable.

I was around Layken’s age when my father was  diagnosed with cancer and, although I’m a bit furious that the cancer subplot is clearly used as a narrative device, I have to admit that these few pages reminded me some of the emotions that I felt back then and that were really hard to process. (Editorial note: don’t worry my dad is still alive and kicking. He is fucking awesome). So congratulations  Mrs. Hoover! I won’t deny you that you stirred some shit up even if by the end of the novel you go back to that boring romance subplot.

To recap: Main character is horrible. Didn’t care about the forbidden-love angle. Didn’t particularly care about the poetry aspect (I’m sorry S I know that this is one of the things that you really like about the book but I’m a prose guy). Didn’t care about most of the characters (except for the mom). I was touched on a personal level with the cancer subplot.

I think that the most accurate “honest” definition for this short review is somewhere between options four and five.  It has been a challenge reading something that is so far from my radar and being asked to give an honest opinion, but just for that I want to thank the young woman who gave me this book. She shared something that was especial to her and only requested that I was honest about it. A most unusual and gladly welcomed petition which I can honestly confirm I’ve done – hopefully without being too much of an asshole like Layken is -. 🙂

I finished reading Smashed by Colleen Hoover the 22nd of January. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next book review.

Last Editorial Note: Did you really think that I was going to skip those lines you highlighted? I may not like the poems but the lyrics and music are pretty cool. 😉

2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke

2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke

Once again I delve into the realms of science fiction! After my first David Foster Wallace experience I wanted a lighter read and in one of my quick visits to my favorite used bookstore I found 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke for just two euros in a pretty okay-ish condition and made it my next reading choice.

According to the third page of the book this was a “Gift from Isabel, Alberto and Fernando. October 83 (Second procedure)”. The name of the recipient is nowhere to be seen but I do hope that the procedure went well and that, if by some reason I bought a dead man’s gift, it is not because the scheduled procedure went badly but because he died of old age. One way or another, this paperback has been rescued from book limbo and is now a proud addition to my library where other works fathered by Arthur C. Clarke like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Ramma and Reach for Tomorrow also rest – this last one was my first taste of Clarke and it was also purchased from the same used bookstore -.

I think it is difficult to write about 2010: Odyssey Two without mentioning one way or another 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s film is an iconic work of art that plagues the viewer with question after question and never really gives a straight answer. In fact, one of the reasons why Kubrick insisted on releasing the film before the novel could have been out of fear that the novel would skew the viewing experience. However, after reading the novel (that is 2001), I think it is fair to say that it only enriches the questions but is equally ambiguous about the answers. Even the quote from the back of the book says “When 2001: A Space Odyssey first shocked, amazed and delighted millions in the late 1960s, the novel was quickly recognized as a classic. Since then, its fame has grown steadily among the multitudes who have read the novel or seen the film based on it. Yet, along with almost universal acclaim, a host of questions has grown more insistent through the years”.

For many years after the release in 1968 of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke claimed that there couldn’t be a sequel to the novel; it is only by reading the author’s note and the acknowledgements that one sees how ideas starting popping up and how it all came to fruition and was published fourteen years later in 1982.

2010: Odyssey Two
Carl Sagan’s name is as close as you are going to get to a seal of quality

Reading 2010: Odyssey Two it is clear that the author felt very confident about the story and where he wanted to go with it. The book is divided in seven parts. The first three: Leonov, Tsien and Discovery deal with the race between Russia and the US, aboard the Leonov ship, (name taken from General Alexei Leonov, the first man to take a walk in space and author of the post image – that is also addressed in the novel -) and China, aboard the Tsien ship, towards the Discovery; left there by David Bowman before going inside the monolith “full of stars” and slowly falling down towards Jupiter (that is the ship not Bowman). In these sections we also get to meet the crew of the Leonov and also our main protagonist Heywood Floyd, who was involved with the original launch of the Discovery.

To Clarke’s credit, he manages to create amazing scenarios but also very relatable characters. However, during the first four sections of the novel I was sorely missing the Kubrick influence and felt that he was settling for a fairly straightforward story. The back and forth between the two led to some pretty wild and big ideas being thrown around (both in the novel and the film) and yet I kept feeling that, although well told, the scope of 2010 was smaller. Only when I reached the section titled A Child of the Stars did I really feel like the story picked up the pace thanks to the return of David Bowman and the increasing presence of HAL 9000 (by far my favorite character in this novel). Random Trivia: I also love the fact that Clarke addresses the HAL and IBM myth in the novel.

By the end of the book, Arthur C. Clarke did something that was extremely hard to pull off: he created an answer to the mystery of the monolith that made the fourteen year gap worth the wait. The story ends with a world-changing event (wink wink) in a way that only a great science fiction writer could conjure up, building on the first novel but also moving it in a direction where Kubrick’s shadow is no longer present and feels one hundred percent Clarke (very much in the vibe of Childhood’s End).

I haven’t watched the film nor do I intend to, but if 2061: Odyssey Three comes my way I’m very interested in where the story might go. For now, I’ve been sated of my science fiction craving.

Next on my reading list I’ve been given someone’s favorite book to review and required to give an “honest review” to which I added “I’ll give a brutally honest review”. So watch out S. Until then, thanks for reading. I finished 2010: Odyssey Two the 14th of January 2018.

Author’s note: I know there is a nineteen day delay when I publish this, but I can’t skip the proverbial: Happy 2018! Another year ahead full of interesting books to read and hopefully lots of writing! This is the first time in my life that I haven’t taken any vacation days during Christmas due to exceptional situation in my workplace and unfortunately this has led to a bit of a reading (and writing) slump in the past month and a half but I intended to remedy the situation.

 

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Part II: Finding Wallace – Short Stories)

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Part II: Finding Wallace – Short Stories)

It was difficult chosing where to start reading David Foster Wallace. One could argue that Infinite Jest should be the most obvious recommendation based on its popularity and reputation but most reviews do point out that, although rewarding at the end, it is still a daunting tasks due to its size, non-linear reading structure and style. I haven’t read Infinite Jest (yet), but I decided to start with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men because, as previously mentioned in my last post, it was the first David Foster Wallace work I came to know and because of the short story “Suicide as a Sort of Present” in it, which you can hear below narrated by Wallace himself.

In “Suicide as a Sort of Present” you can draw parallelisms between Wallace (the mother) and his work (the son), or you can simply read it as a story dealing with the subject of perfectionism and its consequences but in my case, regardless of the interpretation of the text, when I heard Wallace’s voice narrating this text I felt rawness and truthfulness in each word. I understood what he was trying to say and I empathized with it and felt that this was the right book to start with; although being absolutely honest, by page one, I thought I had made a huge mistake because I immediately felt out of my depth with “Death is Not the End”, a three page-long sentence, extremely hard read, which feels like an attempt to ward-off casual readers from buying this book. After three tries I still couldn’t understand it and I feared that the rest of the book would be similar to this type of short story.

It wasn’t until I read the first “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” chapter (in total there are four chapters titled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) when I finally managed to get into Wallace’s rhythm. It had been nearly a decade since I watched the movie and I barely remembered it, but the text did echo some of the images in it and that really helped in a weird way because what I remembered as really pretentious acting and snobby dialogue was really working on the page and, giving credit when credit is due, although Wallace himself said in an interview that his texts don’t read out loud well (and I think that the film adaptation clearly shows this) if it wasn’t for those visual echoes I’m not sure if I would have gotten into the book.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Cover of the American edition. Much better than the UK one if you ask me.

Two of the things that I couldn’t stop thinking about when I finished the book were the word “Hideous” and the question “Why am I identifying with some of the points made by these men?” I think that some of the interviews are obvious caricatures of really shallow men that manage to create a mirror surface to reflect upon on an equally shallow level. However, when Wallace delves deeper (beyond the shallow man) and provides a more three-dimensional interviewee he is able to create more than a twisted reflection and instead begins to show the reader some of what is inside a man. In particular the second chapter of interviews has two of them that deal with sexual dominance and what destruction of the idea of self by others does to a man, that I found awfully disturbing and yet very effective in rationalizing the logic of the argument. Throughout the many interviews you are able to see that these men are indeed hideous for reasons such as narcissism, misogyny, anger, incompetence, sexual frustration, etc. All of them characteristics that are undoubtedly negative but that are nonetheless present in men and women in one way or another, to a higher or lower degree, passively or actively.

Outside of the interviews, there are chapters in the book that felt far more experimental than anything else like “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” or “Adult World (I)” & “Adult World (II)” and that didn’t do much for me. I wasn’t able to fully understand them or even follow them in some parts (which could be the intended objective) because they were structured with techniques that I’m not too familiar with, and I’m still not sure if it is because I simply don’t have the level or because Wallace is much smarter than I am (probably it is a lot of the second and a bit of the first). However there are other chapters that, although experimental, were a blast to read like “Octet” with its clever pop quiz style, or the really funny “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, The Acclaimed New Young Off-Brodway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon” which will give readers a whole new outlook on fatherhood.

The one story that I think deserves a careful read is “The Depressed Person”. What one could easily interpret as an extremely tedious and repetitive text that borders on the unreadable, is actually a really effective text that captures the behavior, patterns and thought process of an extremely depressed individual. Whilst the entertainment value is debatable –although I don’t believe this particular chapter is meant to “entertain”- I think the text is very successful in showing what a terrible condition depression is and unfortunately, knowing that Wallace ultimately committed suicide because he was unsuccessfully dealing with this mental disorder, the portrait painted in this story shows a sad and lonely existence that one can’t wonder to think approached actual reality.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has been a wonderful first look at the works of David Foster Wallace and has made me a bigger fan. I read it in two round trips, one to Berlin  and one to London,  with the exception of the last ten pages, which I had to finish at 01:20 a.m (after getting back from London) because I couldn’t go to bed without finishing it; which I did on the 24th of November 2017. In a few posts I’ll be looking at his non-fiction book: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Until then, thanks for reading!

Editorial note: Because I’m really pleased with this review and it helped me to discover this great book, despite its problems here you can see –for free– Brief Interviews With Hideous Men adapted to the screen and directed by John Krasinski.