Monday, September 28, 2009

9/29/09 - Infinite Jest, page 700 - fin

Wow. Am I glad to be done with Infinite Jest. Not because it's a bad read or because I did not love it unabashedly (because it is not and and I did), but because I can finally put a normal size book in my bag again. No longer carrying a biblio-cinderblock around every day should do wonders for my shoulder muscles and overall posture. I can't imagine getting that thing out of the library and reading it in two weeks - I feel like I read it pretty quickly and yet it took me a good couple of months to get through. Nonetheless it's well worth reading and I'd recommended it wholeheartedly. Flaws and all, the thing is a work of titanic ambition and talent, and it's always worth it to grapple with art from an artist that aims high. So if you've got a desire to bulk up while entering the world of Enfield Mass. and everything connected with it, pick up a copy and carry it around and, you know, read it. The book's awesome.

Final thoughts:

1. The final 100 pages are a tour-de-force as Gately sees the first glimpse of his bottom with the death of Fackleman. That scene is another of Wallace's absolutely nightmare-scapes. I read (on Infinite Summer I think) a comparison of Wallace's descriptions of horrible violence and terrible occurences with Cormac McCarthy's with a particular eye toward McCarthy's elision of detail vs. Wallace's hyperdetail. In sequences like the whole Fackleman disaster, I'm reminded of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho in the depth of imagining Wallace is able to deploy to depict scenes of depravity. Wallace is much more elegant than Ellis, but it's a similar feeling as a reader: like pushing off at the top of some dark and terrifying rollercoaster-styled slide into the abyss. Once you're off you're hurtling forward and down with momentum. The only sequence I couldn't take in the whole book was the final film description with the depraved old man and the young hustler. Just couldn't take it.

2. The book really doesn't build to a climax, per se. The emotional levels and stakes seem about the same as they were early on - again, something I've noted before but classical plot is not Wallace's bag. However, I did find a really convincing description of a possible ending online, which was pretty amazingly well-argued and I thought picked up a lot of the threads that Wallace weaves throughout.


Somehow, the thought that Orin is responsible for the dissemation of the master copy of IJ makes his final appearance in the book easier to take - ending up in the position of Winston from 1984 is a pretty brutal way to go out.

3. Similarly, the way that Pemulis is ushered out of the book is pretty brutal. It's no secret that many court jesters carry a lot of malice behind the smiles, but Pemulis is such a grounding, earthy counterweight to all of the high drama going on with a lot of the other characters and storylines that his worst nightmare being realized (and taking place completely in footnotes, no less - being quasi-written out of the text itself!) seems a pretty dire fate. The Eschaton really marks a turning point in the events of the book, and of all of the Big Buddies Pemulis was definitely the one who saw trouble coming. He didn't exactly try to stop it but he did scream his head off. He does strike me as the kind of character that's a lot easier to like in fictional form, however - having interacted with a few Michael Pemulis's in my younger days, they can be no fun. Still, a pretty brutal end for M.P.

4. I loved the appearance of Himself as a ghost. His observations of Hal have a sad depth to them and really illuminate the ways that Hal is in the process of disappearing throughout the book. Plus it pretty definitively answers the question of what he was trying to accomplish with the Entertainment. For all the narrative threads left dangling, there's a lot of answers Wallace provides through JOI's shade. It also literalizes the way that Himself hangs over the emotional landscape of the entire book. The Incandenza family is deeply screwed-up, and James is the centerpiece of the hurricane that seems to be blowing through the entire family for the duration of the book.

5. I loved Gately's experience in the hospital bed. The psychological depths that Wallace plumbs in his description of Gately's recovery are really impressive. His imagination/hallucination of the Pakistani doctor trying to persuade him to take Demerol are as terrifying as Hal's glimpse of The Darkness's true features in the forehead-sticking incident. Amazing how as I read it I moved from a real anger at Gately and compassion for his victim at the outset to such a compassionate outlook on Gately. He counterpoints Hal in so many ways, and yet it's ultimately heartening to see both he and Hal take the direct actions of courage in the final pages of the book. Hal talking to Mario, and Gately bearing phenomenal pain.

9/28/09 - Check my brain

Ok, by all rights this should be terrible. '90s band with dead lead singer gets a replacement singer and attempts a comeback? We've seen this movie 1000x before. So why is this song rocking my face off? Well, in the Curious Case of Alice In Chains, there's a couple of factors at work.

1. Prime Alice in Chains is really, really repetitive. Granted, I'm developing somewhat of a retrospective appreciation of AiC, and as a balance to all the Grateful Dead I've been listening to they're a fine palate cleanser. But they are absolutely, unrelentingly dark. Dark harmonies, sludgy drone, and lyrics about dying and addiction from start to finish. Plus, you know the ending is not a happy one for Staley, so it can be a grim listen. It's not like the early oeuvre is untouchably perfect - there's a lot of draggy material.

So, the lightness of a "California's all right -somebody check my brain" lyric nicely balances the punishing heaviness of the AiC sound. A little yin to go with all that yang.

2. Jerry Cantrell wrote a whole lot of AiC material, and he's still around. Vocally, too, he's the architect behind those flat harmonies, so those are still around too.

3. That main riff. Good Lord, it's the sound of someone taking a club made out of concrete and just smashing it into a 500 year old oak tree over and over (and I mean that in the best possible way).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

9/24/09 - Steve Nash continues to sport awesomeness as his chief accessory

The no-look passes are things of beauty, the full-speed 3 pointers are deadly weapons, and the competitive edge is intense and furious, but to me Steve Nash's sense of humor and regular guy-ness are what truly sets him apart in terms of his standing on the continuum of my own NBA fandom. It's like if you squint hard enough you could almost see him hanging out, swinging by for a few games of pickup, and then going out for drinks and making jokes and then maybe after enjoying a few libations gettin' a little crazy on the dance floor:

Steve Nash = my favorite professional athlete. I can respect the Ego-Laden Warrior persona currently sported by Kobe and Lebron (perfected by Michael Jordan), but give me the Steve Nashes and Dwight Howards and Chad Ochocincos any day of the week. Sports should be fun; they may be war in proxy but they're games, and even when a game is turned into a grueling profession the kernel of kids on a blacktop (or empty field, or [insert playing area of choice] remains at the heart.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

9/23/09 - All Taste is Subjective vs. the Netflix Recommendation Contest

Read this interesting article on by Farhad Manjoo on the phenomenal success of Netflix's contest to improve their movie recommendation algorithm. Manjoo approaches the success of the contest from a business/tech perspective, which is interesting in and of itself, but to me is secondary to the fact that contest winners did in fact improve the algorithm by the goal of 10 percent, which is an amazing achievement when the nature of the problem is contemplated.

It reminded me of the initial article I read on the subject in the NY Times, which can be found here:

The Napoleon Dynamite problem laid out in the article is a fascinating one to me, since it speaks to something that I (and, I think, most people) experience in a visceral and day-to-day way. That is, most of the time one can be confident that in recommending a book/movie/album/work of art to someone if one enjoyed it, assuming that the recommendee will also enjoy it, but there are a subset of cultural artifacts that personally connect to one person that repel other people for seemingly no predictive reason. And often, these books/movies/albums/songs/what have you are the ones that the person doing the recommending feel a particular protectiveness/affinity for.

For example, I have spent the last two years recommending Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to various friends of mine that are avid readers, only to be met with one of two reactions: 1) a refusal to read the book because it's too big and impossible to carry around OR 2) complaints that the book starts slow and is too long and only gets good toward the end.

I am sympathetic to both of these reactions. The book is really long, and it's heavy to carry around. And, I can see the criticism that it starts slow. But, here's the thing. I don't agree at all. My experience of the book was basically 800 pages of solid rapture. But I have no idea how to set expectations for people when I'm recommending the book. I know that I love it, and if there's a chance that someone else who likes to read will have anything close to my reaction, I want to facilitate that experience. But at the same time I haven't talked to anyone that I've recommended it to that has reacted the way that I have.

The thing is, though, is that the book is hardly some obscure, difficult work. It won awards, it was on the bestseller list, it got great reviews - I'm not the only person by a long shot that enjoys the book. But at the same time, I love Jane Austen and I love dark fantasy, so it's possible I'm just uniquely in the sweet spot for Susanna Clarke's artistic aims.

Point being is that it's kind of exciting and kind of shiveringly terrifying that these sorts of questions are being algorithmized (if that's a word) with increasing success. I'd like to think that there's an unquantifiable part of art that accounts for the way that some works divide people.

The polarizing movies listed in the Times article above are described by the writer as "culturally or politically polarizing and hard to classify". It made me wonder what other works across genre falls into this classification. My reactions to the listed movies w/the Napoleon Dynamite problem below:

I Heart Huckabees - loved it.
Lost in Translation - loved it (know many people who hate it)
Fahrenheit 9/11 - loved it
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou - have not seen
Kill Bill: Volume 1 - loved much like a child loves his/her blanket
Sideways - loved it, had extended argument with a good friend who thought it was total pap.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

9/22/09 - Adventures in Headline Ridiculosity II

Ok, Newsweek. This is getting out of hand. 2 for 2 on nuanced articles regarding a complicated issue, and 2 for 2 on headlines that would put the New York Post to shame. The infuriating thing in all this is the way that Newsweek has tried to consciously rebrand themselves to be closer in tone and style to the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly - longer, in-depth feature articles, less page-long news summaries, and aimed clearly at the less people w/more money target due to all of the various troubles facing the entire print industry that have been hashed over ad naseum.

But there's a such a thing as having a cake, and there's such a thing as eating that cake. Newsweek please report to the cake and make up your damn mind kthx.

And please consider leaving headline ridiculosity to the Michelangelos of the art:

Monday, September 21, 2009

9/21/09 - Into The Wild

Watched Into The Wild over the weekend. I haven't read the book but now I'm basically a ravenous slavering book-craving monster after watching the movie. I thought that the movie had its flaws but the central tragedy is really present throughout.

I immediately put the book on hold at the library, but in the meantime sought out the Outside magazine article that Jon Krakauer originally wrote. In the year after I finished teaching, when I started really getting into non-fiction after a lifetime of exclusively reading fiction, Krakauer was one of the authors that gave me the entryway. He's justly famous for the harrowing Everest disaster account Into Thin Air, but it was his also-heralded followup to that book, the true-crime and Mormons tour de force Under The Banner of Heaven, that really sunk the claws in me. Both books I thought were exceptional, but what Krakauer accomplishes in Under The Banner of Heaven is a riveting mix of social history and individual tragedy.

So it's somewhat surprising I didn't pursue him back to Into The Wild then. I think it's because, having dabbled benignly in outdoor pursuits, the tragedy of McCandless's short life was too painful to look at directly. Even through the fictional prism of the movie I find it a tough pill to swallow. I can only imagine the loved ones in my life had I disappeared only to die inglourious and alone - but then, that's a sharper realization now that I'm older.

As Krakauer observes about his own younger self, regarding a similarly foolhardy Alaskan expedition that he took when he was McCandless's age:

"At the time, death was a concept I understood only in the abstract. I didn't yet appreciate its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreak on those who'd entrusted the deceased with their hearts."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

9/15/09 - on Dan Brown's superawesome protagonists

When people asked me if I liked The Da Vinci Code and I told them that the terrible writing was hard to get past, I'm talking about passages like this from Mr. Dan Brown:

"The youngest full professor at Georgetown University and a brilliant foreign-language specialist, he was practically a celebrity in the world of academia. Born with an eidetic memory and a love of languages, he'd mastered six Asian dialects as well as Spanish, French, and Italian. His university lectures on etymology and linguistics were standing-room-only, and he invariably stayed late to answer a barrage of questions. He spoke with authority and enthusiasm, apparently oblivious to the adoring gazes of his star-struck coeds."
--from Angels and Demons

I remember at one point in The Da Vinci Code where Brown describes Langdon as Indiana Jones-like, which struck me as a pretty bold simile, considering that a) Langdon basically is Brown's attempt at writing an Indiana Jones type character, and b) Langdon seems to have none of the flaws that make Indy interesting. The failed/strained relationship with his father, the complications in his romantic life. No, Langdon is like Brown's dream version of Indiana Jones - the version that I used to pretend I was as a 10-year old, all superintelligence and rugged good looks.

All of which is to say that although I read the whole book I decided Brown isn't my cup of tea. I've got nothing against popular works of art, and I've got nothing against genre fiction, and I don't even have anything against workmanlike prose, but I don't have a lot of interest in following patently unrealistically awesome protagonists. The guys that grow up to be symbologists (which is no one, since the scholarly field as far as I can tell does not exist) are not the ones that are dominating swim meets in between World of Warcraft bouts.

And geez, if they guy is Indiana Jones, who cast Tom Hanks to play him? Ball: dropped.

Monday, September 14, 2009

9/14/09 - Roger Federer owns you

From David Foster Wallace's "Roger Federer As Religious Experience" essay:

"Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K."

That was 3 years ago, and he's still doing it.

The fact that Roger Federer can hit that shot running back to the baseline with more accuracy, pace, and angle than I can hit a forehand served right to my sweet spot is both inspiring and, frankly, terrifying. It's always a little bit amazing to know that right now, RIGHT NOW as I write this there is someone out there that could quite possibly be the best there has ever been at something. At anything.

Even more amazing to me about Federer is that, like Superman, he has his tragic weakness: the Kryptonite of Nadal, ever lurking. From Wikipedia: "Federer's overall match record was 315–24 from '04-'08, but this included a mere 6–8 against Nadal, who was the only man to have a winning record against him."

Nadal, whose knees might just cruelly curtail his career, who is out of the U.S. Open, the Nemesis that Federer didn't have to to vanquish at the French after all (if it had been a movie, Federer-Nadal at the French would have been the climactic scene, and Nadal would wear black and be evil and hate dogs and old people like Don Johnson's golfer in Tin Cup instead of being friendly and unpretentious and kind of a surfer dude with a hankering for capri pants).

You watch a shot like the one above can only imagine - who is Rafa Nadal and what is the secret that he's not telling?

P.S. If you haven't read the Wallace essay on Federer, drop everything and read it now. You'll be glad you did:

Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11/09 - Adventures in headline ridiculosity

I remember being pretty blown away when I found out that the writers of stories in magazines did not craft their own headlines. It was one of those things that made the world make just a little bit more sense, because I had the vague sense that frequently the tonality of a story's headline didn't match its content. On the ridiculous end of the spectrum, Newsweek's headline for a very interesting, nuanced, and intelligently written examination of childrens' grappling with questions of race and otherness is none other than this gem:


Really? Because even if someone sees that cover and thinks to himself/herself: "Gee, I'd never thought about it before, but maybe my baby is **gulp**...racist?" or even "Huh, my baby seems to cry and babble in a manner that seems disturbingly unfriendly to Latinos...perhaps the lil guy is a future attendee of Bob Jones U.?", they're not getting the answer from the article. The "is your baby racist" question is really only answerable by your baby, and chances are he/she ain't talking.

The article in question:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

9/10/09 - Patton Oswalt on '80s metal videos

If, as I do, you enjoy both rock music as music and as a hilarious concept, chances are you'll enjoy Patton Oswalt's take on things. I also wish that I could make a piece of toast with melty cheese on it solely through the power of rocking. Glad I feel like I'm spoken for.


For an updated version of the kind of music video that Patton's talking about in that clip, The Darkness took a crack and did not disappoint. Without "guitah!" that squid thing would have devoured the whole band.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

9/9/09 - Reading material: Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze has made some of the most incredible music videos of all time, and his two movies are both awesome. In fact, if Charlie Kaufman only collaborated with Spike and Michel Gondry for the rest of his career, I'd be more than OK with it. Reading this article makes me wonder about the difficulty of identifying people with genuine vision/genius - I mean, by all accounts Jonze doesn't necessarily present the picture of the most together auteur in a professional sense, but his work is pretty amazingly singular and much more expressive in ways than the man itself. It must be hard to suss out though because a lot of what makes him distinctive is a very, very deadpan sense of humor underneath all the grungy skater cool.

The video for Wax's "California" that he made is a case in point. Sure, it's really cool to have a man on fire running down the street, but the best part is the utterly banal reason that he's running - dude's trying to catch a bus! Get out the way!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

9/3/09 - Random Awesomeness

Hey, what song would make an ideal cover for G3, the ridiculous guitar-wankery-based supergroup featuring Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani?

Correct, sir, you in the back. "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama", by Frank Zappa.

9/3/09 Infinite - Jest, pages 500-700

1. Randy Lenz. Good Lord. Wallace may not uncork a lot of narrative thrill-rides, but as I've written about before some pieces of this book could be made into some pretty intense short stories. Along with the horror of Hal's discovery in the microwave, James Incandenza's father shearing his knees off, and Joelle's overdose, add Randy Lenz and the Curious Incidences of the Animals in the Nighttime. Brrr. For a book without much overarching narrative drive, the shorter contained narratives can get pretty white-knuckled at times, as they do with Lenz's noctural adventures. Reading sections like this is kind of like seeing those early Picasso paintings where one realizes that he can paint realism that he wants to. It puts the cubism into context - makes the aesthetic choices seem more deliberate. Or listening to Jack White shred the guitar and then going back and listening to White Blood Cells. For a book whose overall plot is either static or vaguely non-existent, the micro-plots and character arcs can get pretty gripping.

2. Tonally, the mixture of menace and comedy of the A.F.R. is a pretty complicated cocktail. Wallace does a really masterful job of building them up as a threat, even though as a concept they're pretty ridiculous as a terrorist group. In some ways, Wallace's strengths as a humorist come from his ability to wield a certain deadpan tone of narrative voice when approaching patently absurd situations. In his fiction, he's able to lay out absurdities as he sees fit, and the A.F.R.'s danger/menace cooexists uneasily but effectively with their comedy. I particularly like the oft-repeated assertions that really, the only thing they fear is hillsides. It's a Monty Python touch for an organization that proves, in its murder of the Antitoi brothers, to be completely serious and brutal. It's a delicate shifting point, that murder of the brothers, because for so long Steeply and Marathe have been all talk, no action. We get the suggestion that the A.F.R. should be feared - the sound of the squeak, and all that, but it's played mostly for comedy. But when the broomstick comes out, it's like Wallace is pulling back the curtain on the comedy and saying hey, you know how it's really funny to have a terrorist organization with mostly legless members? They're still a terrorist organization - i.e. terror and fear are indeed their weapons.

3. The Crooner Johnny Gentle section (which we see through Mario's history film) ascending to the presidency is another place where the tone of the book shifts pretty abruptly. Despite all of the literary pyrotechnics, for the most part Infinite Jest seems to try to capture real people and real personality types - there aren't many flat, cartoony characters despite its occasional trips into satire. Gentle, though, really is more of a cartoon; more a collection of tics than anything resembling a real person. The picture that's painted is a kind of funhouse Reagan, I guess; with his history of artifice as a singer and the kind of intimidations-beneath-charm that seem vaguely Reaganesque, Gentle comes off as as Reagan moved to logical extreme. I think what Wallace is trying to do here is to draw out the American tendency to deify celebrity. The daily doings of Ben, Jennifer, Brad, Robert Pattinson, etc. etc. etc. are the subject of much ink (electronic and otherwise) and care, and for some reason celebrities exert an enormous gravitational pull on American culture and its members. I'm hardly immune - why should I know about Matthew McConaughey playing the bongos naked on his front lawn and get arrested? I have no idea, but I do. Gentle then is the logical extreme of this tendency to value celebrity as currency - he is put in a position of power by virtue of his celebrity, and allowed to run amok. I'm not sure what Wallace is suggesting by the fact that Gentle seems to be such a shrewd and ruthless negotiator, though. The whole execution of the Concavity/Convexity plan is like the way the CIA sees itself operating - coldly, efficiently, and for the National Interest (as opposed ot the way they seem to actually operate: blindly, confused, and with the lurching contradictions of any large organization).

4. The book seems unfair to Avril. It's clear that her family has issues with her which results in a fair amount of hostility (Orin demonizes her pretty unmercifully, but Hal also doesn't seem to have the most positive of feelings towards her), but the narration seems to suggest that there is something terrible and off in Avril's treatment of her family. The thing is that her openness to her sons seems genuine, and even though she may take pains to ensure that they know they are loved, it doesn't seem fair from a narrative standpoint to continually insert these suggestions that her love is smothering or somehow solipsistic. As an outsider, it seems to me that Avril is doing the best she can to hold together a pretty screwed-up situation - there are suggestions of infidelity and a certain locking-away-of-skeletons, but these seem like understandable human responses to the kinds of things that have befallen the Incandenzas. Not to mention whatever sadness she has around her life with Jim and his death; that remains unexplored so far. We have a scene from Jim's history; why is Avril's pain obscured and why is she painted as having some kind of sinister life-sucking presence hovering underneath her declarations of maternal love?

5. I love Gately and the Crocodiles. Wallace really dignifies these men that have survived despite everything, and captures something authentic about the way that confused people like Gately can accurately see that beacons of hope and wisdom are often contained within foul-mouthed individuals of seemingly foul countenance. Their sheer cussed tenacity and emphasis on confronting real shit head-on is such a contrast to Hal's fakery when it comes to dealing with real emotions/sadness.