Category Archives: books

The Legacy of David Foster Wallace

Last week saw the arrival of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, a wonderful collection of essays by Wallace critics, friends and colleagues. My piece in the collection, “Becoming Yourself: David Foster Wallace and the Afterlife of Reception,” considered Wallace’s legacy through his communities of readership on Amazon and I feel very lucky to be in such august company. For example, my essay is nestled between Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen!

Here’s the full list of contributors:

Samuel Cohen (co-editor)
Don DeLillo
Dave Eggers
Ed Finn
Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Jonathan Franzen
Paul Giles
Heather Houser
Lee Konstantinou (co-editor)
David Lipsky
Rick Moody
Ira B. Nadel
Michael Pietsch
Josh Roiland
George Saunders
Molly Schwartzburg

Thanks very much to Lee and Sam for including me!

Wrestling the Gators of Adolescence

Swamplandia!Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this novel, from its lush descriptions of the dystopian swamp amusement park industry to the mystical experience of journeying through the deep everglades. At Swamplandia! all the alligators are named Seth. It took me a little while to figure out where Russell was setting her course between absurdity and pathos, but once I did I really started enjoying the book. The descriptions of Kiwi Bigtree’s employment at the World of Darkness, the Walmart of fun factories, were hilarious.

View all my reviews

Author Soundtrack

I feel like the soundtrack has changed recently around here from the mellow tunes of summer so something more purposeful, something with an actual beat. This is good news for the dissertation project, which has taken on steam again after a summer of revising, paper-pushing and sustained attention to the vodka-sequestering properties of watermelon lemonade.

With soundtracks in mind I was delighted to come across a reference on the Pynchon-L mailing list, wherein I occasionally lurk, to this. Music plays a big role in Pynchon’s work, and he took the delightful step of writing up a playlist to go along with his new novel, Inherent Vice. The list mingles real 1960s artists with a few of his own creations, like Carmine and the Cal-Zones.

Tripping down the shuffle soon, I hope: A return to Infinite Jest and Infinite Summer; some pithy definitions of postmodernism (not mine); and an update on networks both allusive and recommendational.

Genre Fiction & The Relentless Undead

One of the interesting questions at play in my dissertation is the way treat genre writers differently from “real” writers. Authors like Michael Chabon, Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy straddle the boundaries between “literary” fiction and different genre styles in interesting ways. There’s a great article in this weeks Sunday Times Magazine discussing Jack Vance, an apparently seminal genre writer whom I never read in all my years as a genre bookworm. According to the article Vance (and many other genre writers, I think) approached fiction as a job and a career as much as an art form. Vance and his wife would travel to exotic places, find a cheap hotel, and draft a new novel together. Nice life! That kind of commercial focus is much less acceptable among “serious” novelists.

While we’re on the subject, I will now publicly admit that I recently read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, probably the most violent fictional assault to date on the barriers dividing highbrow and pulp. My wife quite accurately calls it an “abomination.” I think she’s serious, but when I repeat it, I mean it in a good way. I would like to share my favorite paragraph here. See if you can tell what was changed from the original Austen:

But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice. He seldom appeared really animated, even at the sight of Mrs. Collins gnawing upon her own hand. What remained of Charlotte would liked to have believed this change the effect of love, and the object of that love her friend Eliza. She watched him whenever they were at Rosings, and whenever he came to Hunsford; but without much success, for her thoughts often wandered to other subjects, such as the warm, succulent sensation of biting into a fresh brain. Mr. Darcy certainly looked at her friend a great deal, but the expression of that look was disputable. It was an earnest, steadfast gaze, but she often doubted whether there were much admiration in it, and sometimes it seemed nothing but absence of mind. And upon imagining Mr. Darcy’s mind, her thoughts would again turn to the subject of chewing on his salty, cauliflower-like brain.

A Very Finite Summer

Since I’m working on the changing nature of reading and on contemporary American literature, it seemed almost obligatory for me to check out Infinite Summer, a massive blog-based reading group organized around David Foster Wallace’s massive Infinite Jest. The reading group’s pace is quite reasonable by grad student standards–75 pages a week–but in the true spirit of studentdom I started weeks late and have been struggling to catch up.

That means I haven’t yet really delved into the culture of the online exchange, but I am curious to see how things are going over there. From my brief perusal of the site so far, it seems the basic structure is for a few authors to post on their reading experiences, and the rest of the community is left to hang out in the comments. This works well for your average blog, but it seems a little limiting for a book discussion group, which would really work better with a forum architecture. Maybe there is one and I haven’t found it yet?

The site’s structure does seem to emulate the deceptive orderliness of Infinite Jest, with its footnotes and acronyms.* There are guides and summaries and a schedule, but I find the site disorienting as a whole, as a place to talk about the book, much as Infinite Jest ends up being disorienting. Readers quickly realize that the acronyms are explained inconsistently, at random, in medias res; that they’re thrown in and out of numerous plot-lines like hapless tennis balls; that the end notes and gestures toward structure are deeply satirical and philosophically agnostic about the whole idea of knowledge. Hence, on the site: the conversation goes on through a Twitter tag, comments, Tumblr, Facebook…and I just found the forum. They do have one after all.

I guess this isn’t a bad way to honor Wallace’s passing, but is it a good way to talk about his book? Obviously I’m thinking of a different kind of conversation, one where people lean forward around a table and interrupt each other, whereas Infinite Summer is a beast that can only exist online: an imaginary space full of people zooming in and out, talking about the book or not, employing various means of intellectual transportation.

I love the idea of this online reading group, so my question isn’t meant to be hostile, merely inquisitive. I’ll report back when I’ve learned more (and, say, actually read more than a handful of posts from the various zones of Infinite Summer).

* Acronyms, while cryptic, always imply a bedrock of rational thought, convention and informational structure, however ludicrous that implication might be.

Book Seer

I can’t decide whether to be excited or annoyed that somebody else has come up with the same idea I’ve been playing around with for several months now in my dissertation research. Well, the beauty of the web is that they can slap a quick implementation up overnight, whereas it’s going to be months if not years before I really get my work out into the open. Where my six professional readers can really delve into it.

So while we’re waiting for that glorious day, we can play around with Book Seer, a recommendation site that asks you for a book and then scrapes Amazon and LibraryThing to suggest further reading for you. Neat!

Dissertation Update #3: The Book of the Month Club

I’ve gotten my Bourdieu (it turns out it wasn’t poached, but misdelivered to the right house on the wrong street). It is looming rather smugly over me on the shelf.

I’ve been listening to Amy Hungerford’s undergraduate course on American novels post-1945. This is possible through a new Yale University initiative to make several of their courses available online–syllabi, audio and video. The first book she tackles is Richard Wright’s Black Boy and she tells the fascinating story of how the Book of the Month Club, which published it, dramatically influenced it editorially.

This dovetails nicely with one of my current reading projects, Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books, which starts off with an anthropological mission to The Book of the Month Club just as the realities of modern publishing were catching up to it. At least I think that’s how things will turn out–I’m only in Part I.

Curious, I tried accessing the Book of the Month Club website. They’re still a going concern though from what I gathered on news sites the new owner, an outfit called Direct Brands, is cutting staff.

Dissertation Update #2: Somebody Poaches my Bourdieu

It’s been quite a week around here. I’ve been working on a long-running editing project, made my first visit to the ASU campus (and its library), and put together a paper proposal for next summer’s Digital Humanities Conference.

In the midst of all that and an unusually busy social schedule, I didn’t notice that my copies of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction and The Field of Cultural Production had never arrived from Amazon. It looks like somebody poached the box from our front porch! I hope they enjoy massive French sociological tomes. The ironies here are left as an exercise for the reader.

Next week I’ll start drafting my dissertation proposal and post some more details about the general outline of my project.