Saturday, January 21, 2006

Reviews: Consider The Lobster (#3/52), The Hour of the Star (#4/52)

I've just come out at the other end of Spring Rush Week, which I mentioned in my December post -- the week that Columbia courses start, when our store has been transformed into a college bookstore and we all spend five straight days saying "What department? What professor? Do you want all the books or just some of them? Used or new? I'm sorry, your professor hasn't ordered here... I'm sorry, that's the price set by the publisher... I'm sorry, our system has crashed, it will be just a moment..." I've been working 9-hour shifts and running around a lot, so I've been a little worn out. I have managed to do some reading on the subway, though, so here's the latest batch of reviews.

by David Foster Wallace
(Little, Brown, December 2005)

I mentioned I was in the middle of this just after Christmas, and I finally finished it last week. As I opined earlier, I'm not quite postmodern enough for literally weighty fiction like INFINITE JEST, but when Wallace is confined by 1) the length of an article or essay and 2) a subject which he must stick to, his writing is really among the best out there. To be honest, he writes the way I (and many other young educated urban types) usually think: constantly digressing because he's thinking of all sides and aspects of an issue, while making an effort to follow the narrative through responsibly . This leads to a lot of side notes and footnotes, but I'm a big fan of those when done well (Susanna Clarke seems to be an expert at the illuminating and extensive footnote, a rarity in fiction) -- they can have the effect of deepening the reader's understanding of the complexities of a topic while mainting an narrative throughline. My tolerance was tested in the last essay, on right wing public radio, where notes made incursions into the texts in boxes; that effect, published in the ATLANTIC MONTHLY, was a little to cutely pomo for me, though the piece itself was extremely insightful, in a humble way, about the rise of extremist talk radio and right wing sentiment in general. Humility is actually a hallmark of Wallace's writing, especially on controversial issues (middle America's response to 9/11, the appeal of John McCain in a politically cynical age, the morality of eating lobsters and other things that feel pain, the appeal and horror of pornography, even the writerly skills of John Updike). I am a huge fan of this refusal to adopt an either/or mentality, especially since it means his pieces, while clearly coming from one of those educated urban (i.e. fairly liberal) minds, are able to get inside their subjects in ways that more polemical pieces would inevitably miss. I closed this collection with a new great respect for this spokesman for my generation; if his brand of rigorous, humorous (did I mention he's really funny too?), passionate, and truly open-minded thinking is what's going on at the beginning of the 21st century, then we're not as badly off as we (or even he) might think.

by Clarice Lispector
(New Directions, 1992)

Sometimes the secret to reading, like love, is pure propinquity -- just being nearby at the right time. I was checking out the stack of books for a Latin American Literature class being taught this semester at Columbia, realizing that I'd love to read and talk about every title on the list, when I noticed Lispector's slim little novel and, on impulse, grabbed it. We also carried this book at the bookstore I used to work in, and every once in a while someone would come in ansd ask for it by name, though it might sit on the shelf for months in between. Since the author is Brazilian (a culture I find endlessly fascinating), and since the 96-page volume looked like an easy tackle after Wallace's lengthy ruminations, I decided to add it to my 52. For the first 22 pages or so, I wondered if it was a bad idea; the narrator, Roderigo, seems like your standard garret-living, self-dramatising artist cliche, talking about what the story he's going to tell will be and do and embody and change, in dreadfully high-faluting abstractions, while managing to avoid getting to the actual narrative. Eventually, however, I started to sympathize with him, with how deadly important this story was to him and how difficult he was finding it to continue, and his flashes of dreamlike, surreal metaphor or just unrelated imagery were weirdly appealing. When Roderigo does get around to telling you what he's talking about, it turns out to be the story of the most unsophisticated person in the world, an anonymous country girl from the Northeast (i.e. rural region) of Brazil, making below minimum wage in urban-decay Rio and living in blank, accepting ignorance of her own destitution. Only a few events happen: Macabea (the girl) meets a boy (ignorant as herself, but cruel rather than accepting), she visits a doctor (who is baffled by her unconcern, or helplessness, about her malnourished condition and early-stage tuberculosis), and at the behest of her coworker Gloria (who has stolen her boyfriend) visits a fortune teller, who describes her miserable past and predicts a glorious future. Aware for the first time of how she has been abused and oppressed, and filled for the first time with hope, Macabea walks out of the fortune teller's in a daze -- and gets hit by a car. Poor Roderigo doesn't want to kill her off, but when he finally does it seems like an act of mercy: only her animal-like passivity kept Macabea from being unhappy, and since the fortune teller's ideas about her past were almost certainly more accurate than those about her future, she could only have had a worse life ahead of her. Roderigo's introspective, existential angst plays off against Macabea's meager happiness -- she likes to listen to the radio, she likes Coca Cola, when she is lonely she kisses the wall -- and creates a startlingly revealing picture of what life is like for two kinds of the desperately poor, and a strange redemption through beauty, of which neither the storyteller nor his character may be fully aware. At least, that's what I got out of it; Lispector (who died of cancer in 1977, just before HOUR OF THE STAR was first published) is apparently much studied by scholars, though she's never found much of a popular readership. Even though I've given away the ending, I'd recommend reading it if you've got an hour or two free; and even if not, it's a good sort of book to recommend to your college-age friends looking for a truly sophisticated third-world alternative to Auster, Burroughs, and Kerouac.