Daily Archives: December 18, 2010

Difficult Literature

I am feeling better about life. It’s a good feeling. I want to enjoy it while it lasts.

There are a couple of things that I think have to do with this: one, I’ve been going to yoga more often. Now that I have a car (which ranks up there with therapy and plane tickets as the best things that I’ve purchased this year), it’s not an issue for me to get to my favorite yoga studio, which is a somewhat long bike ride (easily 40-50 minutes) from my house, and even closer to where I work. There’s something that seems and feels inherently weird to me about “driving” to yoga class, but hey, it’s winter, I’ve been sick with two (!) viral infections since Thanksgiving, so I’m pretty much okay with it.

Especially since it means I can be taking a 6-week workshop there in the ashtanga primary series, which I assume is going to look similar to these posters. the kind that always hang in the bathrooms and changing rooms. It starts on Sundays in the New Year, and I think it’s gonna be a really, really good way to start off 2011. And to top it off it’s taught by one of my favorite teachers too!

Another good thing that has somewhat unexpectedly (re)entered my life is David Foster Wallace. I was reading Girl With Curious Hair with great pleasure and enthusiasm, but now I simply cannot find it anywhere in the house, which makes me worried that I left it in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. BUMMER! Am I gonna have to finish The Brothers Karamaka-(can’t ever spell their last name) now? (Not to diss the Brothers–I mean, it’s a good book too. Just long. And Russian. And it’s WINTER here!! Anna Karenina and War & Peace were easy enough to read, but I was on BEACHES and in JUNGLES in Colombia and Indonesia, for goodness sakes!)

I was surprised, frankly, by how much I enjoyed GWCH. I thought I was “over” that kind of difficult, super-duper postmodernist hyper-intellectualized literature. But then I enjoyed both of Jonathan Franzen’s books so much this year (so funny and yet so scary…), and then I read somewhere that he was not just a fan of DFW but also a close friend. And then I remembered how I really, really enjoyed Brief Interviews With Hideous Men my freshman year in college, before I lent it to the blond boy who lived down the hall I had a crush on and he subsequently lost it (is there anything worse than a book thief? I’ve been guilty of this in the past but am trying like hell to avoid it now…). And THEN I remembered that little blond girl from Hawaii (Jane?) in my CTY summer fiction writing class, who said that her favorite book was Infinite Jest, and the teacher said in a slow voice “You mean you’ve read… all of it?” and then as she nodded, I remember thinking, This sounds like the kind of book that I need to be reading. (At the time I was telling people that my favorite book was The Fountainhead, which I had just finished–ha, ha, ha! This seems hysterically funny to me now).  SO THEN the other week I went to the bookshelf in my room and pulled out my copy (my sister’s copy?) of Girl With Curious Hair, one of the many books I own but have not read (sorry Willa Cather, Denis Johnson, and other victims of a similar fate…), and started to read it.

And I liked it. I REALLY liked it! I loved the first story, “Little Expressionless Animal.” I just found it profoundly moving, right down to the title (which I believe refers to the audiences of live game shows, among other things). It reminded me of the R.E.M. song “New Test Leper.” “Luckily The Account Representative Knew CPR” had the kind of title I would have loved to rip-off in high school, and even though it sort of read to me as a college workshop writing exercise, I still really liked it. The title story is a real killer, what I believe most critics would refer to as a “tour-de-force.” This story just knocked me off my socks. The story is narrated by a psychotic, sexually sadistic Young Republican whose best friends consists of these hopelessly lost drug-addled punk rockers, and follows their attendance of a Keith Jarrett concert. Wow. This is the story that really made me truly believe in DFW’s ability and skill as a writer. In this story, he  fulfills the most fundamental and important capacity of literature: he gets you inside (DEEP inside) the head and the thoughts of a person that you never thought you would relate to. And yet I felt for the guy. I did. I felt for him, even when I was suspicious of him (most tellingly when he said that he never took acid because it never had any effect on him–I immediately thought I don’t trust nor like this guy. I do not trust people who are not affected by acid!).

That’s the thing that really surprised me about these stories: more often than not, I was really moved by these characters and narrators. I felt for them. I didn’t always like them, but I feel like I could relate to them, and sometimes even understand them better than they understood themselves (this is similar to how I felt about Ben Stiller’s title character in Greenberg–after I finished watching that movie in the theater, I turned to my companion and said “Wow, I don’t feel so bad about my life anymore now!”).

The following story “Lyndon” was also good, a story about exactly that, Lyndon B. Johnson. I feel like I would appreciate this story more if I knew a little more about him as a person and about the historical context. I thought the gay narrator was a very interesting choice, as well as his relationship with the cross-dressing Haitian. I wonder if there’s some kind of intense commentary on colonialism and American foreign policy going on at the end, with that strange scene of the Haitian and Lyndon in bed (it’s not what it sounds like, trust me).

Next up was “John Billy,” probably the weirdest story I’ve ever read in my life. I mean, just look at this first sentence: Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed.

As soon as I read this sentence, alarm bells started to go off in my head. Oh oh. This is starting to sound like “difficult” literature. This kind of stuff is why I’ve never read Thomas Pychon, despite owning ‘V” for years. But I kept going, and what I found was a Cormac McCarthy novel on acid, lots of it. Seriously. Reading a review also helped; without it I might not have been smart enough to figure out that the main character’s “damaged eyes extend like the waving ends of antennae from his head, capable of finally seeing things.” I thought the comparison to The Fisher King myth was also pretty interesting.

And then I started “Here and There,” a story about a relationship told only in dialogue that reminded me of Ali Smith, and that’s when I lost the book. Which is making me feel more bummed than ever now that I approach the end of this blog post. But I’m thinking of requesting Infinite Jest via the excellent interlibrary loan system–that should be another interesting, exciting, and inspiring way of starting off 2011.

So yeah. The year is winding down. My first graduate school application is submitted, with recommendations and everything. Only four (five? three?) more to go. My family is slowly but surely trickling into the town, my sister bringing her non-fiction books about Andean cocaine and Beautiful Boy. I went out on the town last night, and for the first time ever I got to play the designated driver role, and I surprisingly really, really enjoyed it: it’s just nice to feel in control throughout the course of the night, and of course not feeling like crap the next day is an excellent bonus.

It’s the time of year where my paper journal entries are full of month by month summaries, and reflections on “sooooo what have I learned?” Was this a good year or a bad year? It’s hard to say. There were a lot of parts of this year that were just really, REALLY hard for me. A lot of things that just made me feel really uncomfortable and unhappy. But then in my yoga class on Thursday, the teacher said something about how one of the great things about yoga is that it teaches you to “live with discomfort.” To be okay with it, instead of trying to run away. I think that’s a pretty swell philosophy. It made me think (ha ha ha!) of David Foster Wallace: there’s parts of his books (like the opening sentence of “John Billy,” for one!) that are pretty difficult to read. My brain is challenged, my brain hurts (I’m sure the infamous footnotes of Infinite Jest will have a similar effect). My brain might even say things like I don’t want to do this… I just don’t want to be feeling or dealing with this difficult, hard sentence right now. But hey, if you live with the discomfort and the difficulty, rewards follow! It’s like the Mary Oliver poem I recently read, “The Uses of Sorrow”:

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

Oh god, I just love yoga so much. That’s really the only important thing I’m trying to say here.


Filed under books, David Foster Wallace, happy, poetry, review, year in review, yoga