Thursday, May 26, 2011

Robert Mentzer (not me) getting married

An update to my essay about Robert Mentzers Around the World. I sent a link to the Robert Mentzer from Lebanon, Penn., and he wrote back in a Facebook message after he read the essay:
He is flattering me, I believe. Really nice guy. Enjoy married life, Robert Mentzer!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2666 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pretty massive and magnificent. Better than Savage Detectives? Not to me, although to be fair maybe it is sort of ridiculous to talk like that. 2666 is a weird, multifaceted universe unto itself. It has its own rules and its own gravity, and the sentences! Oh, man. What a work. It is weird and disjointed and sometimes drawn-out and repetitive but boy does it move, hopping from scholars' love triangle to police procedural and on and on, and every single character is fully human even if only sketched in a phrase or two. Very immersive experience, you just have to give yourself up to it and let the sentences flow around you.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

White rappers. Discuss.

Bit of an odd argument by Jon Caramanica in the NYT today that white rappers in 2011 are proving themselves authentic by acting as super-traditional historians of the form:
[W]hite rappers are commonplace, if not ubiquitous or especially influential. And a recent crop of albums and mixtapes by white rappers shows a new strategy. Where in the past, the way to avoid ruffling feathers was to lay no claim to hip-hop’s center, now it’s by looking backward, studying up and making unimpeachable choices. Who can argue with the path already taken?
Caramanica's chief examples to bolster this argument are a) NYC mixtape rapper Action Bronson, b) SNL joke-rappers the Lonely Island, and c) the Beastie Boys.

I see a small problem with calling the Beastie Boys neotraditionalists, which is that they are actual old-school rappers. Also I don't get what Lonely Island is doing in the piece at all. They are super-funny, but the way they are funny is by being basically pitch-perfect mimics of contemporary rap tropes. That seems nothing like what Caramanica is talking about at all. It sort of seems like the opposite.

And in fact, I can name two dozen indie rappers who are a) black and b) defined by their neotraditionalism. Action Bronson is not strange in this respect! The zealously formalist underground rapper is pretty much its own subgenre at this point, and it ain't racially coded.

Here is the bit of Caramanica's piece that seems exactly right:
Eminem was probably the last true foreigner, arriving at a moment when mainstream acceptance of hip-hop was on the rise, following a decade of Dr. Dre and Puff Daddy, Biggie Smalls and 2Pac. He was articulating the outsider experience just as a whole new wave of fans — white fans — were experiencing it themselves for the first time.

But Eminem’s success meant that they didn’t have to be outsiders anymore — they could listen in, and also participate at the highest levels. And it wouldn’t be disingenuous: hip-hop has been around long enough that most young people don’t know a life without it. Their connection to the music, even if it’s just via consumption, is sincere and unavoidable.

Eminem’s success obviated the need for new Eminems.
That's an interesting point! Maybe the better conclusion to draw from it, though, is that these days white rappers are just less weird all around. They exist in the underground, in the mainstream and in the genre-of-one that is the Lonely Island. And some are good (Yelawolf) and some are terrible (Asher Roth) and pretty much that is it.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Pale King is brilliant and annoying

An odd thing about The Pale King that I guess speaks well of it is the fact that, when I came to the end, I found the ending to be something of a letdown. But what else would it be? It's an unfinished novel -- "An Unfinished Novel" is the subtitle! Maybe I expected it to seem finished, or at least unfinished in a satisfying way. But it doesn't, so. Just so you know.

The Pale King, which is David Foster Wallace's final, unfinished novel, comprises a main narrative involving the IRS interspersed with smaller, semi-unrelated or totally unrelated short stories. One of these mini-stories quite near the beginning of the book, is sort of a perfect distillation of some major Wallace themes, about a middle-school boy who is so considerate and so well-adjusted and so good that everyone loathes him, and then feels guilty and confused about their loathing, which in turn drives them all even more insane around him. It is a perfect little piece. It is also something like 10 pages out of more than 500. If you are undecided about this book or about Wallace, I would advise you to go to Barnes & Noble and read that story, which is chapter 5, and maybe just leave it at that.

The thing about reading David Foster Wallace in general and certainly The Pale King in particular is that, not to put too fine a point on it, there are a lot of unnecessary words and pointless digressions. Part of the point of his prose style is to flatten consciousness out in this way that allows for endless recursive self-awareness. It is prose cubism, dramatizing the way we are all always experiencing a near-infinite number of things at once -- external stimuli like sights and smells, awareness of our bodies i.e. hunger or feeling warm, consciousness, consciousness-of-consciousness, memories, etc. etc. He's not wrong! But actually reading all of it can be, well, kind of annoying and tedious.

At times! Not all the time! Still, it is not a great situation when there are long sections of this book that you really don't actually need to read. And I don't think we can pin that on the unfinished manuscript's editor, Michael Pietsch, because the fact is that it is a problem in most of DFW's writing***.

This Slate write-up is a good one, and nails a) the quantum leap between Girl With Curious Hair and Infinite Jest and b) the reason Wallace is so appealing to lit nerds, which is that he is both totally native to the world of hyper-educated academia and also sort of impatient and dissatisfied with it. He's got the cred, and he also captures that feeling that there must be more than this. Not coincidentally, the fact that he's native to the world of graduate-school seminars is also why he inspires real hatred from some people, possibly/probably/obviously a function of intellectual status-anxiety. Luckily it is not necessary to be either a fanboy or a hater. You can be an admirer with reservations, which is what I advise.

But seriously. You try reading the first couple of pages of The Pale King and not having your knees buckle. Here is the way the novel opens:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb's-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod ... all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother's soft hand on your cheek.
I mean, damn. (By the way, notice the echoes of the opening lines of Finnegan's Wake there. Pretty.) And that is just part of what you get with a work by Wallace: You argue with it and feel infuriated even as you also fall under its spell. It's writing that can repel you and then also make you feel very special and cared for. Undeniable and also kind of maddening.

Background: Here is me, soon after his death, on my relationship with David Foster Wallace. Here is a longish review of Consider the Lobster I wrote in 2006 for Stop Smiling.

*** This is kind of an aside, but I think there is a sly joke in the fact that, with only a couple of exceptions, the only sections of the book that have footnotes are those written in the voice of an author-stand-in character named David Wallace, who claims repeatedly to be speaking as the "real" Wallace, but isn't. Putting footnotes throughout these sections and only these sections is sort of a funny way to indirectly poke fun at his own reputation.