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Books, which we mistake for consolation, only add depth to our sorrow

Orhan Pamuk


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Tuesday, August 12th, 2003

I'm backpedalling from my assertion that the author of whose voice Martel's reminds me might be Rushdie -- I think the only reason I seized on Rushdie is the India connection, well and maybe also the accident-while-traveling-from-Asia-to-North-America* connection. Now the echo I'm hearing is of Vonnegut; equally likely is that Martel has simply an individual, unique voice, one with echoes in it of many authorial influences.

Thinking of Vonnegut leads me into a distinction I wanted to draw between The Life of Pi and Nuns and Soldiers -- Murdoch was annoying me more and more as the book drew on with her absolute refusal to leave anything to my imagination; she insisted on following every germ of description up through its fullness of flower and keep going until it was a withered husk -- I wanted her beautiful descriptions a little less baroque, wanted some hasty sketch in with the luxuriant detail. Martel (from my reading thus far) tends a bit toward the Baroque but reins himself in, lets me figure some of it out.

And I'm going on a hunch here but I think -- if I were to sit down and catalog the books I have loved -- that I would find some inverse correlation between how much detailed description is in the book, and how much I like it -- and I realize as I am writing this that I am phrasing it wrong, I'm not sure just how to put what I'm trying to get at -- if you have a better idea for phrasing let me know.

Vonnegut would be an exception to this rule in a funny way. "Baroque" I guess is not at all a good description for his writing -- but I think he leaves very little to the imagination in his description of his characters' motivations and the consequences of their actions. And yet he was for a long time my very favorite author and is still up there on my (vague) list. I'm not sure quite why -- I have some ideas which I'll try to develop for a post on Vonnegut sometime.

--

*Update: And now I realize how long it's been since I read The Satanic Verses; I don't think Rushdie's accident even occurred en route from India to America. I'm pretty sure one of the countries involved was Great Britain. Oh well, disregard the whole Rushdie thing.

posted afternoon of August 12th, 2003: Respond
➳ More posts about The Life of Pi

Thursday, May 11th, 2006

Ooh look at this!

I'm back in Modesto for a few days, visiting my parents, and how exciting! The book that I have looked through my old bookshelf for every time I have been back here, but never found, just jumped out at me this time. It is Cat's Cradle, with a self-portrait by Mr. Vonnegut on the title page, and an inscription: "FOR GOOD OLD JEREMY ----- (signed) Kurt Vonnegut OCT 12 88"

posted afternoon of May 11th, 2006: Respond
➳ More posts about Cat's Cradle

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

Nice, nice, very nice

This weekend I finished Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart. This book is derivative -- I can hear bits of at least Pynchon, Vonnegut, and Heller in Shteyngart's style -- and its own spark of original genius as well. It is sort of a Catch-22 updated for the invasion of Iraq. What really struck me about it was, it was about the first book I've ever read that struck me as a generational anthem for my specific age group -- Shteyngart is two years younger than me as are his narrator and central characters -- I could see myself and the people I went to school with in the situations of the book, absurd though they were.

I bit into the sturgeon kebab, filling my mouth with both the crisp burnt edges and the smooth mealy interior. My body trembled inside my leviathan Puma tracksuit, my heroic gut spinning counter-clockwise, my two-scoop breasts slapping against each other.

Misha's descriptions of food and of his obesity work as metaphor on a number of levels -- the only one I can really express is the most obvious surface symbolism of greed and rapine, but trust me that there is a lot more than that going on under the surface. And a bonus quote for the Mineshaft crowd (to whom I very enthusiastically recommend this): when Dror is describing the focus group they held to see if they could get the American public interested in an invasion of Absurdisvanї, he says,

We showed pictures of Absurdis, Congolese, and Indonesians at play, picking fruits, frying goats, and so on. More problems. The Congolese are clearly black, so that strikes a chord with all respondents. Like them or not, you got plenty of blacks in America. The Indonesians have funny eyes, so they're Asian. Probably work hard and raise dutiful children. Good for them. Then you get the Absurdis. They're sort of dark, but not really black. They look a little Indonesian, but they've got round eyes. Are they Arabs? Italians? Persians? We finally settled on "taller Mexicans," which is another way of saying we're fucked.

Something notable: the book centers on "the second week of September 2001", but the famous events of that week are never mentioned.

On the ride home I read some of Cat's Cradle, and was quickly reminded of what an extraordinary book it is. I must have read it through 20 times between the ages of 14 and 19, I know much of it by heart. One of the central wampeters of my karass.

Update: Also look at this essay of Shteyngart's, on reading Philip Roth and particularly Portnoy's Complaint. A fine piece.

posted evening of May 16th, 2006: Respond
➳ More posts about Absurdistan

Wednesday, October 11th, 2006

A new book

I stopped in at Coliseum Books last night, to savor the short remaining time before it closes. One of the "staff picks" is Ralph Steadman's new book, The Joke's Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson and Me. I picked it up and was immediately blown away by Kurt Vonnegut's brief preface -- I had never realized he was friends with Steadman and Thompson though it makes good sense. I've been reading about Steadman's meeting with Thompson at the Kentucky Derby of 1970. Lots of laughs so far but objectionably little illustration -- I want to see the drawings he is describing. (He says the editor of Scanlan's lost them.)

posted morning of October 11th, 2006: Respond
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Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Billy Pilgrim's Progress: Visions of Eternity

Listen:

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and his death many times, he says, and paid random visits to all the events in between.

He says.

Slaughterhouse-5: or, The Children's Crusade

In Appendix III to his Christelige Dogmatik, Erfjord rebuts this passage [i.e., Runeberg's claim that it would be blasphemous to limit the Messiah's suffering to "the agony of one afternoon on the cross."] He notes that the crucifixion of God has not ended, because that which happened once in time is repeated endlessly in eternity. Judas, now, continues to hold out his hand for the silver, continues to kiss Jesus' cheek, continues to scatter the pieces of silver in the temple, continues to knot the noose on the field of blood. (In order to justify this statement, Erfjord cites the last chapter of the first volume of Jaromir Hladík's Vindication of Eternity.)

"Three Versions of Judas"

Listen: I want to take advantage of your interest in my blog, to post about some thoughts I spent a good deal of time on thinking about in my first year of college, these 21 years back -- when I was in the throes of what Scott would term my "Vonnegut phase."* This post will probably be rambling and pointless (ill-informed, too!), so if those qualities turn you off, just stop reading now, and I will (try to) stop apologizing now.

In my first year of college I spent a lot of time thinking about physics. One thing that particularly got my attention was the idea of time as a fourth dimension. My understanding of this (and listen, I never got very far with physics) was that the universe could be visualized as a four-dimensional space containing everything that ever happened or will happen, and the three-dimensional universe we inhabit as a three-dimensional space moving through this hyper-space at a constant rate -- this motion is what we experience as "time," and the present moment is the intersection of our 3-space with Reality. (I think this idea may have been laid out more fully in Edwin Abbot's Flatland.**) This picture of physical reality, which is Erfjord's conception of reality in the footnote to "Three Versions of Judas" -- taken in combination with an idealism that sees thought as existing separately from physical reality -- makes possible the chrono-synclastic infundibulum; Billy Pilgrim's experience takes as read that our "present moment" is something which has extended, eternal existence.

Well: I got upset about this. It became very important to me, to show that 3 physical dimensions are all there is -- that motion is reality, not an illusion. (I still can't answer the question, Well, what would be the difference anyway?) That past and future have existence only in our memories and expectations -- that the fourth axis is a convenient way of representing motion, nothing more. What does this entail? There is a danger of solipsism in this view -- since every perception of mine is a perception of something that has happened, and every communication reaches its object after it is uttered, saying that only the present moment "really exists" can be a way of saying that only my consciousness really exists -- and we're back to idealism. I worked through that, and my solution was materialistic -- consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the material objects that exist, that are moving -- but it never got very coherent given my lack of philosophical chops.

So there you have it, for a long time now I've been walking around with this vision of eternity, but never really committed it to paper or (since freshman year) even talked about it much, since it seemed kind of silly and pointless. It's brought back to mind by the Borges reading I've been doing recently, I thought I might as well write it down.

* ("Phase"? Well it's true, I read his books way more frequently and obsessively two decades ago than I do now; OTOH I have repeatedly been surprised, going back to them, at how well they have held up, at how strongly they continue to engage me. Though I see looking back through my blog, I have not written much at all about them.)

** (Or thinking further, this imagery might actually have been in Slaughterhouse-5.)

posted evening of March 21st, 2010: Respond
➳ More posts about Ficciones

Sunday, April first, 2012

Vonnegut on the radio

Yesterday's post at Letters of Note -- Vonnegut's letter to Charles McCarthy about the burning of his books -- inspired be to look through the Letters of Note archive for more by Vonnegut. There are some great things there; also, from reading that, I found a link to some archives of Vonnegut's radio show, which I never knew about, on WNYC in the late 90's: on God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, Kurt interviews the recently- and not-so-recently deceased to get their takes on heaven and earth, life and death...

posted morning of April first, 2012: Respond

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

Richer than Midas, poorer than Bezos

I never realized this -- yesterday I was thinking about the King Midas legend (amid all the talk of wealth passing me right by...) and it occurred to me that Midas' golden touch must be, loosely and remotely, a root for Vonnegut's idea of ice-9.

posted morning of May 19th, 2012: Respond

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