Category Archives: Phillip K. Dick

Sci-Fi Escapism

It’s so humid here in England (i.e. barely humid at all in comparison to the East Coast of the U.S. or Colombia’s Caribbean coast, but after such long bleak winters anything over 20-degrees C is open-toed shoes weather). Perfect for sci-fi escapism!

Eye in the Sky (Philip K. Dick)

Think the multi-leveled world of Inception mixed with the demented bodily fluids of Rick and Morty. I.e., totally whack. Any summary of this book is a bit of a spoiler, but so it goes. Basically, a group of people (a young boy, his conservative mother, an even more conservative old man-military type, a schoolmarm type lady, the African American tour guide, our hero Jack Hamilton, and his potentially undercover Communist wife) are caught in a lab accident. At first, it appears that they’ve been transported to a seemingly parallel universe, one controlled by an Old Testament-like God (who prefers to be referred to by the term (Tetragrammaton) – yes, the parentheses are intentional), complete with biblical plagues, punishment, prophets based in Cayenne, Wyoming, and a very straightforward reward-by-prayer system. However, it turns out the reality of their situation (believe it or not) is a lot more strange. A LOT.

The first-place most insane scene in this book involves this sentence: “The house-creature was getting ready to feed.” The second-place most insane scene involves characters disintegrating into conscious, bloated, wiggling blobs as essential chemicals (certain metallic salts, specific nitrates, iodine and so forth) are eliminated from the world, in the most crazy game ever of who-can-outdo-who, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t. It’s hard to explain, but take me at my word: you won’t forget it.

Nobody does it like Dick does, especially in terms of writing about illusions vs. reality. Absolutely mental. What will I do once I’ve read all his books? Kill myself in despair?!

The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber)

I loved this! Definitely up there with one of my favorite reads of 2017. I couldn’t put it down! It’s a great book to read on a plane (I read it almost in one sitting). Apparently Faber wrote this when his wife was dying of cancer, and has said he will never write another novel again. Very sad.

Overall, this combines quite a few of my interests: aliens, apocalyptic collapse, cats, religion… I thought it was very interesting how thoroughly the book inhabits Peter’s “missionary” perspective. I can’t think of many other books that seem genuinely interested in exploring a religious mentality, as opposed to just criticizing it. The way the novel brings in Peter’s past is also very well done and subtle; what an effective way at conveying backstory without bogging us done in a bunch of flashback scenes. I loved all the scenes with the aliens, and found Peter’s final interaction with them very moving, especially in terms of the aliens-vs-humans theme (the ability to heal, have scars, move forward) . And I loved the letters exchanged between him and his wife, which really were the heart of the book for me.

I found what this book says about love very powerful – how do you stay close while going through very different experiences together, while very far away (in the book’s case, light years)? How do you keep going forward when the world goes to shit? Will future generations even care if they don’t know what things were like before?

A strongly recommended, entertaining read.

The End We Start From (Megan Hunter)

I love me a good book about the end of the world! Apparently this is going to be made into a film by Benedict Cumberbatch – I sure hope they don’t dumb it down. For example, a dumb way of pitching this would be The Road with a pregnant woman. Ugh, pitches, so gross. But I enjoyed this (again, read it in one sitting): it’s well written, short, and easy to read. I definitely kept turning the pages. And there’s a nice checklist of appropriately apocalyptic moments (tin food, radio fragments, flooding, etc). It’s written in a very anecdotal, fragmentary style – vaguely Coetzee-esque – very appropriate for short attention span of the Internet age. And what’s also interesting about this book is the theme of return and rebirth – it’s not “just” about this terrible even that causes everything to disintegrate and fall apart; it’s more looking-forward than that, which is pretty unique.

When I first read this, I wanted to know more about the husband and what he went through, but now that some time has passed I think I’m okay with not knowing. It feels more realistic in regards to relationships – you don’t always know what a persona has gone through, does anybody ever really “know” anybody, etc. Ultimately I like books that don’t describe or explain everything, and despite my occasional craving as a reader to have more narrative satisfaction, despite my initial reaction I now think it’s smarter of the author to deny us that. Kudos to the editors too for not shoe-horning in a boring explanation.

The Hot Zone: the Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (Richard Preston)

Not a sci-fi story but shit, it might as well be! Apparently this book was the “inspiration” (in the vaguest possible sense of the term) for that 90’s classic virus film Outbreak. And apparently Stephen King called the opening chapter of this book one of the scariest horror openings he’d ever read. I’d agree with him on that, especially about that scene in the place where the guy starts bleeding… :/ Dark and gripping. As my sister said, I wish there were more books and movies about virus outbreaks… it’s like this weird cathartic need…

The Transmigration of Bodies (Yuri Herrera)

In regards to killer viruses, another book worth quickly commenting on (again, not specifically sci-fi) is The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera. This book combines the majority of my obsessions: apocalyptic plagues, crime fiction, the Mexican border, violence, Latin America, simple dirty prose…. it definitely gets a gold star. I especially loved how an apocalyptic plague is used as a metaphorical stand-in for the violence in Mexico. So brilliant! I find this way of writing about Latin America SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING than, like, straightforward storytelling (wow, I love how articulate I’m being right now, but whatever, it’s hot and my brain is mush). I loved the dirty grimey Raymond Chandler-meets-Mad Max crime vibe, particularly in the prose style (what a translation!). I liked the strong women characters, like the nurse Vicky. I loved everyone’s nicknames (the Neanderthal, the Dolphin, the Mennonite – so badass!). I was a bit alarmed by the very graphic sex scene at the beginning, and I’m sure some with weaker constitutions than me could potentially be like “eeeeew exploitative,” but I DUG IT. Like the final story of Álvaro Uribe’s Hypothermia, the sex here is presented as this liberating, powerful antidote to a society that is otherwise falling apart. Bring on the pervey women and men, I say!

A good read, specifically for those who are interested in border/Latin American literature. Short, strange, and beautifully translated.

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Filed under apocalypse, books, contemporary, Mexico, non-fiction, Phillip K. Dick, review

Our Friends From Frolix 8

Ours Friends From Frolix 8 (Philip K. Dick)

‘God is dead,’ Nick said. ‘They found his carcass in 2019. Floating out in space near Alpha.’

‘They found the remains of an organism advanced several thousand times over what we are,’ Charley said. ‘And it evidently could create habitable worlds and populate them with living organisms, derived from itself. But that doesn’t prove it was God.’

‘I think it was God.’ (45)

My dear friend Philip K. Dick. He never lets me down. I’ve had an exhausting few weeks of travel and work, and while things are a little calmer now, it’s still not completely over. But that’s okay. We can deal. Especially with help from good old Philip.

Our Friends From Frolix 8 is definitely one of the finer Philip K. Dick books I’ve read (and only $5.95 when purchased at the Strand in New York, bonus). You have a futuristic society organized by men’s abilities–Old Men, trapped in dead-end, deadbeat jobs, the super intelligent New Men, who rule over society in a hierarchical, inaccessible order, and the Unusuals, who have psionic and telekinetic abilities and exist alongside the New Men in an an uneasy compromise. You have a Christlike leader of a revolution, Thors Provoni, returning to Planet Earth after years spent exploring the outer galaxies on his ship The Grey Dinosaur. And best of all, you have Morgo, the ninety-ton Godlike protoplasmic slime from the titular planet Frolix 8, who’s accompanying Thors on his mission to create a new world order. What is it with Dick’s obsession with sentient slime-molds? I LOVE IT.

‘Let me tell you a legend about God,’ Morgo said. ‘In the beginning he created an egg, a huge egg, with a creature inside it. God tried to break the eggshell open to let the creature–the original living creature–out. He couldn’t. But the creature which He had made had a sharp beak, constructed for just such a task, and it chipped its way out of the egg. And hence – all living creatures have free will, now.’

‘Why?’

‘Because we broke the egg, not He.’

‘Why does that give us free will?’

‘Because, dammit, we can do what He can’t.’ (78)

There are so oh so relevant modern themes in this novel, from surveillance, to what the world would be like if ruled by a paranoid, arrogant, verging on insane individual, to the role of God and religion. I love Dick’s depiction of the bohemian revolutionary underclass; he is so good at evoking that deadbeat Berkeley culture of pillheads. He hasn’t been that successful at writing interesting female characters in the past, but the sixteen-year-old Charley manages to be both complex and feisty in a non-annoying way. And I found myself genuinely moved by this moment near the end:

‘To a better planet,’ Gram said, and drank the cupful down. ‘To a planet where we won’t need our friends from Frolix 8.’ (190)

Thank you, Philip K. Dick, for existing.

In terms of travel + readings, here are some photos! They are out of order, but I’m too tired to try to figure out how to fix it. So here we go :D

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Filed under books, Phillip K. Dick, photos, review

Notable Books of 2015

In terms of Best Books I Read in 2015, Elena Ferrante takes the cake by far, unquestionably. Other stand-outs (in no particular order) include:

  • IFFP-winner (of both the shadow jury AND “real” prize!) The End of Days (Jenny Erpenbeck)
  • The Serialist (David Gordon)
  • In the Beginning Was the Sea (Tomás González) and The Dead Lake (Hamid Ismailov), two IFFP books that have lingered long in my memory
  • 10:04 (Ben Lerner); The First Bad Man (Miranda July); The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro); All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews); all badass contemporary novels I thoroughly enjoyed.
  • A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel) was the most impressive book in terms of ambition, achievement, and just plain FUN. A Little Life would come in second, minus the fun (replaced by cathartic fascination…!).
  • The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Iván Repila) = Most Haunting
  • A Death in the Family (Karl Ove Knausgård), Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offhill), and Sisters By a River (Barbara Comyns) had the biggest effect (for now) on my own writing.
  • A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler) was my most comforting cup of familiar tea.
  • And finally, Wallflowers (Eliza Robertson) and We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Thomas Morris) are two kickass and inspiring short story collections. In full disclosure, I know both of these authors, but I wouldn’t bother mentioning their books on this blog if I truly didn’t FERVENTLY believe that their books are THAT good. Highly recommended, both of them.

Here are some other books I read last year (not yet discussed on this blog) that stood out to me:

A Little Lumpen Novelita (Roberto Bolaño)

“Everything seemed as clear as could be and as entertaining as a TV show and still I was close to tears.”

I’ve reviewed almost every single Bolaño book I’ve ever read on this blog and see no reason to break the trend with his latest opus to be translated, the arguably minor work A Little Lumpen Novelita. Minor Bolaño is still enjoyable Bolaño, though, especially for a card-carrying fangirl such as myself. A lot of Novelita sounded very familiar to The Secret of Evil, but I’d have to compare the texts side-by-side in order to officially verify this.

Themes of Novelita include bodybuilding as art, orphanhood, sight and cinema. I liked the first part, with the sister and brother befriending the refugee bodybuilders, but the second half definitely sloooows down. Thankfully the book is short, so it’s not really a problem. Is the main theme of this work the innate appeal of the visual? The triumph of cinematic storytelling? With this in mind, it’s interesting that the book itself (as said before) is so slow–it’s basically all set-up, a VERY anti-Hollywood crime tale. Nevertheless, the last paragraph still worked as an effective pay-off for me (is anybody better at writing those long, hypnotic, breathlessly long sentences than Bolaño?).

With both this book and The Secret of Evil, would it be safe to ask if Bolaño’s post-2666 work was entering a phase or taking an interest in a more avant-garde style, in the sense of an almost Knausgård-esque obsession with the mundane (as opposed to the plot-driven, almost crime novel set-ups of Savage Detectives, Distant Star or even 2666)? An interesting question to consider, but since this is one of the last books Bolaño published, it’ll be hard to ever say for sure.

The other thing this book made me think about was the question of belief when reading–what books ask us to do. I’ve already started and abandoned a book in 2016 (Fates and Furies), a very critically acclaimed and popular novel that I nevertheless unfortunately just couldn’t get through (I REALLY TRIED!). Some of it might just have to do with personal preferences in terms of style: I tend to prefer the easy, minimalist, straightforward readability of Chekhov, Carver, Bolaño, Vonnegut and Ferrante (that being said, I love Faulkner, Borges and Woolf, so am by no means a purist). And yet I just couldn’t deal with Fates and Furies because it came off as so “written” to me–I was aware of the author on every page. The Author Writing, Being Writerly. The writing itself was amazing: very flow-y, great similes, but in the end I didn’t believe or care about the story. I never got lost or absorbed or obsessed with in it the way I got lost in Ferrante, and ultimately it just didn’t feel worth the time or effort.

It’s such a tricky feeling to describe–the way a novel asks you to “read” it, what it wants you to believe–and yet it feels so integral to my experience as a reader. I was thinking about how this notion of belief in the fictional is just one reason among many that Don Quixote is The Best Book Ever (talk about a book I really should reread this year!). I remember that some of the most interesting parts of Quixote is when he appears startlingly lucid and self-aware, leading to questions of how much is he really lost in his vision of a knight-errant world, or how much of it is a deliberately crafted illusion for him–an escape versus a genuine delusion. I guess ultimately I prefer books that come off as delusions to me–obsessive dreams I sink into–rather than well-crafted, admirable, lyrically-written escapades.

Family Life (Akhil Sharma)

This is definitely one of the best books I read last year, if not THE best after Ferrante. I learned so much about both writing and reading from this book. I especially recommend this article by the author–captivating, astonishing stuff.

What I most admired about this book is the plot. Basically, there is none. The plot is family life. The family suffers, but it doesn’t fall apart, not really. Instead they plod on and try to endure, just like us all. More and more I’m finding myself intrigued by books that aren’t traditionally plotted (hellooooooo Knausgård and Lydia Davis). It feels to me like there’s a lot of exciting, interesting potential to explore with this. Forget traditional plot twists and build-ups and convenient revelations and coincidences. YES YES YES to momentum, energy, obsession and drive (especially on the level of the sentence).

Other things I loved about this book: the dark, dark humor (“You’re sad?” the father says at one point to the narrator. “I want to hang myself every day.”) The narrator’s visions of God-as-Superman. The brutally tender scenes with the brother (an antidote to the way we turn our eyes away from illness, suffering, and decay in everyday life). The Chekhovian writing style, the page-turning readability. The classic-yet-surprising and subversive immigrant story, the tender details and painfully honest depiction of the local Indian community.

I can’t believe I didn’t read this book earlier!

Pnin (Nabokov)

This book is absolutely fantastic and made me want to read ALL of the Nabokov now, immediately. I very nearly finished Pale Fire before leaving for India and getting derailed–yet another book I will have to return to and finish!

I first listened to an excerpt of Pnin via Aleksandar Hemon’s reading of the first chapter on the New Yorker fiction podcast, which I highly, highly recommend. It’s definitely a brilliant introduction, especially with the discussion that follows. Sadly, I didn’t take notes when reading this book (I read it on the plane to Colombia in one sitting), but what I remember standing out to me is the hysterical humor, the wonderful use of detail (no wonder Hemon is a fan; his short story “Islands” will never not be exemplary to me in this regard); the brilliant parallels with Quixote; the oh so relevant themes of exile, home and immigration, the dancing back and forth between comedy and tragedy… oho man. I would totally reread this. Dare I say… I may even prefer it to Lolita?!?

Martian Time-Slip (Philip K. Dick)

My old friend Philip. What would I do without him? What a classic Dickian read. Set on (where else?) the Wild West-esque Mars, we follow a cast of characters, including a union boss who controls the water supply, a schizophrenic repairman, local Martians who resemble Australian Aborigines, and an autistic child who is ultimately responsible for the titular “time-slip” (the sections narrated from his perspective are definitely some of the most admirably demented). This wasn’t the best Dick novel I’ve read (Dr. Bloodmoney and VALIS are still up there for me) but when do I not enjoy reading him? Even the bland female characters don’t bother me. Themes include the blurring of madness with reality, the question of what it means to be sane, and again that debate about belief, about what makes something “true,” if reality is just whatever we choose to believe (“The mind is its own place” and all that jazz). I will never get bored of reading stuff like this–science fiction as an intellectual debate or exercise.

Also, there’s paragraphs like this one:

Both boys had pets, Martian critters that struck him as horrid: praying mantis types of bugs, as large as donkeys. The damn things were called boxers, because they were often seen propped up erect and squaring off at one another in a ritual battle which generally ended with one killing and eating the other. Bert and Ned had gotten their pet boxers trained to do manual chores of a low calibre, and not to eat each other.

Love it.

Ban en Banlieue (Bhanu Kapil)

This book is nuts. I didn’t enjoy my experience of reading it, but I would still recommend it, but more as an intellectual exercise. I’ve never had a reading experience like this book before. I’ve never read a book like this before, period. It’s not even a book per se–it’s a collection of notes, jottings, thoughts, and fragments of a failed novel, a book that never came into being, a Failed Book, a novel that doesn’t exist and never will. It’s more like a performance art piece than a proper book, really (and indeed, the final book is apparently based on performances done by the author). Basically, Kapil is obsessed with the idea of telling the story of Ban, a young dark-skinned schoolgirl, as she walks home from school during the first moments of a riot in 1979 London. As the riot begins, Ban lies down to die.

…That’s pretty much it. That’s the whole book. The book returns to the gesture again and again, circling around it, describing it, relentlessly, obsessively: the image of this girl lying down, at certain points turning into soot, diesel oil, dirt, meat.

I sympathized with and admired this book because more than anything else, it shows that writing IS REALLY ****ING HARD AND YOU HAVE TO BE A  REAL BADASS MOTHER****ER IF YOU WANNA DO IT. If you wanna write a novel, you better not be shitting around because the writing process is going to eat you up and leave you gasping, raw, and bruised in sight of the most painful revelations from the innermost core of your Jungian Shadow-being. To me, this book shows how certain images (in this case, that of a brown girl lying down as the world around her burns) can grab an author and never let you go–it becomes a compulsion; you HAVE to write about it, you have no choice. But how to bring that image into being? How to turn it into a novel or a story you can share? How do you put it into a narrative, shape it, craft it? In this case, the author wasn’t able to do so–she wasn’t able to get past the singular image. As the author writes at one point, “I want a literature that is not made from literature,” and that is SO… FREAKING… hard to do. Instead of literature, she’s done something else with this book. I have no idea what it is or how to talk about it. But due to its sheer force of will, determination, and doggedness, this book earned both my admiration and respect.

The Musical Brain (César Aira)

(Thank you New Directions for the review copy of this book!)

Another one of the best books I read last year. This may be one of the best César Aira books I’ve read, and would serve as a jolly good introduction to anybody unfamiliar with his madcap visions.

One of the highlights of this collection is the sheer diversity contained within. It’s like twenty mini-Aira novellas contained within one volume, twenty glimpses into utterly unique universes that are often reminiscent of Cortázar at his best and most experimental. There’s nostalgic childhood-themed pieces about intricate games (“A Brick Wall,” “The Infinite”), contrasted with the sheer utter insanity that is the title story (think 1950’s horror movie cross-bred with Philip K. Dick and Duchamp). There’s creepy Kafkaesque fables with unsettling endings (“The Cart,” “The Dog”). There’s even a story that reads as half-fairy tale, half contemporary political allegory (“Acts of Charity,” placed near the end of the collection and arguably one of the strongest pieces).

A strange continuity links these stories. We are informed more than once that nine is the maximum number of times a piece of paper can be folded in half, and there are at least two cameos by a polyhedron. There’s an obsessions with numbers and precision throughout, with the micro and macroscopic, eternity and ephemerality. Non-human characters include a subatomic particle, a shopping cart gone rogue, a melancholic ovenbird and drops of Renaissance-era paint that flee the Mona Lisa and go around the world having adventures (and that’s just a cursory summary, believe me…).

Originality and innovation are clearly important to Aira: “human creativity,” he writes near the collection’s end, “was inexhaustible.” To put it plainly, the inventiveness and unpredictability of these stories is a big reason they are so enjoyable to read. “Only the unrepeatable was truly alive…” Now that’s an Aira call to arms if there ever was one.

*

To wrap up this post, I guess I’ll give a shout-out to books I didn’t enjoy, even though I don’t like being a hater (god knows that writing a book is hard enough… authors deserve credit “just” for that!!). Off the top of my head, When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds was not my cup of tea, despite reviews in The Rumpus and NY Times that made me believe that it would be. I wonder if I am sort of over that whole “quirkily experimental” form of writing–maybe I just plain prefer the dark nihilistic “quirkiness” (and just plain mental beserk FUN) of César Aira. Anyway, all of this doesn’t mean that Mystical Creatures isn’t a book (or genre even) that other people won’t enjoy–I totally own up to it being a matter of taste.

I also did not enjoy The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Reading this book made me realize what a blessing George R.R. Martin is, and how spoiled I’ve been by the Song of Ice and Fire series. It may have ruined other fantasy novels for me forever. The Blade Itself started promisingly enough–I basically just wanted a guilty pleasure read, something to read mindlessly on buses or planes or late at night when trying to fall asleep.  Gradually, though, I lost interest due to too many fight scenes and (most importantly) the utter lack of interesting female characters. Too much of a boy’s club for me.

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Filed under Aira, books, Phillip K. Dick, review, year in review

Imaginative Literature

I am sooooo behind on all the books I’ve read this year that I haven’t written about. So, so very behind. Here is a desperate and somewhat futile-feeling attempt to catch up and check in with what I’ve been reading lately:

The Seamstress and the Wind (Cesar Aira)

Another rollicking tale by Cesar Aira. OK, how shall we go about summarizing the plot of this one. The novel opens with an author (or character…?) called Cesar Air, sitting in a Parisian coffee-shop, lamenting the difficulty of writing a novel that he intends to call The Seamstress and the Wind. I’m guessing that this is a different Cesar Aira than the mad scientist who tried to clone Carlos Fuentes in The Literary Conference, or the hermaphrodite child Cesar Aira poisoned by ice cream in How I Became A NunOr maybe they’re one and the same. Who knows? Who am I to say, or even complain?

It’s funny. When authors insert themselves as characters into their own works, it doesn’t tend to annoy or bother me. I loved it when Kurt Vonnegut did it in Breakfast of Champions, which I believe was the first time I ever encountered such a technique in a book. I remember his self-portrait at the end moved me to tears. I’m also a big Borges fan, obviously. To be honest, the only example I can think of in which Author-as-Character annoyed me is in Tom Robbins novels (it’s hard to explain why this is so, since I don’t remember his books too well… maybe it just didn’t feel genuine to me, too gimmicky, as opposed to like it had an actual purpose to the plot).

Anyway. The Seamstress and the Wind is another short little novel (like the other aforementioned Aira works), 134 pages and divided into 24 short little bursts, that purports to relate an incident from Aira’s childhood. Cesar and his friend were playing hide-and-seek, and his friend was mistakenly thought to have hid in the back of a truck heading out into the desolate wastelands of Patagonia. His friend’s mother Delia, the titular seamstress, hysterically orders a local cab to follow the truck, bringing along the wedding dress that she’s been frantically working on to finish for the local school marm’s wedding. This sets the stage for the tale of how the Wind ends up falling in love with Delia, as well as the story behind a mysterious little blue car trailing behind the cab, the birth of a hideously deformed Monster that reaches out of its mother’s womb with “pale blue little fingers”, and a poker game in the most unlikely of settings. Among other things.

I think this would be a good introductory novel for someone to read, if they had never read Aira before. All of his trademark qualities are here: his playful approach to autobiography, the way he integrates reflections upon the act of writing into the development of the novel itself, his use of folk-tale, fairy tale and science fiction elements, his Calvino and Kafka-like flourishes.

What I love most about reading a Cesar Aira novel is the following: YOU SERIOUSLY NEVER KNOW WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT. Thankfully, this is thrilling rather than frustrating (to me, at least). It never feels to me like Cesar Aira is being like, “Oh, OK, let’s have this character build and drive a car made out of prehistoric armadillo bones JUST FOR THE HECK OF IT.” (Yes, said armadillo car does appear.)  Even if that’s what he’s doing, i.e. making characters do things just for the heck of it, as opposed to because it’s something that the plot demands…. it never really feels that way. His novels always (shockingly) feel like they fit together, like the path his characters are taking is really and truly the one best path for them to take, as opposed to something he randomly pulled out of thin air in order to make his book seem quirky or weird. It amazes me that for novels that are so spontaneous and free-flowing, they nevertheless still feel remarkably well-structured and planned.

It also interests me how Aira deals with resolution and conclusion, in terms of satisfying the reader. He literally ends the novel in its climatic scene. Like, literally IN THE MIDDLE of the climatic scene. We are given no hints as to what will happen or how it will be resolved. It would be like David Foster Wallace ending Infinite Jest on the page where Hal Incandenza and Don Gately finally meet each other after 990 pages of being apart (not that that actually happens in Infinite Jest either… haha, that’s more like an example of a so-called frustrating ending!). I guess a better example would be if Shakespeare ended with the scene where Macbeth and Macduff start fighting. Or if LOTR ended with Frodo and Sam standing on the edge of Mt. Doom.

However… this deliberate avoidance of climax surprisingly did not annoy me. Incredibly enough, it made sense and felt appropriate in the context of what came before in the novel. It ties in, I think, to Aira’s discussions throughout the book concerning the themes of memory and forgetfulness. I don’t think I’m going to be able to connect the two (thwarted climax + forgetfulness) in a super articulate way, but I will try. The novel opens with Aira in the aforementioned Parisian cafe, trying to write his novel, talking about a dream he had in which everything fit perfectly together and everything made sense, but when he woke up he’d forgotten it all, and all he was left with was a sense of loss. He goes on to connect this idea of forgetfulness with his “theory of literature”:

“Taking control of forgetting is little more than a gesture, but it would be a gesture consistent with my theory of literature, at least with my disdain for memory as a writer’s instrument. Forgetting is richer, freer, more powerful…” (5)

I wonder if Aira is talking about IMAGINATION here, and connecting the idea of forgetfulness (Loss –> Emptiness –> A Space you can fill in with whatever you want!) with creativity. The wind seems to represent this creative, willful quality throughout the book, as something that can just suck you up and whisk you away  into a radically different universe (the wind as a metaphor for the novel is a subject for another term paper, methinks). Right before the novel ends, Aira talks a lot about forgetting as as act of loss: “In loss everything comes together. Loss is all-devouring… To lose is to forget things in cafes.”  (127) So, by deliberately withholding the climax from us at the novel’s end, is Aira trying to represent the act of forgetting, in literary form? Is he daring us to fill it in with our own delightfully whimsical imaginings, much in the same way as he fills in the blank during the rest of the story?

Anyway. I highly recommend this book if you’ve never read Aira before and are looking for an entry point. This and The Literary Conference, I think, are good places to start. Heck, nevermind, they’re all great! That is to say, the 6 works I’ve read so far out of the 70 that’s he’s published… O_O

Clans of the Alphane Moon (Philip K. Dick)

Another good one by Dick (honestly, do I ever say anything different?). The concept behind this novel is intriguing: what would an abandoned colony on a faraway planet look like, if it was inhabited solely by patients from the mental institution?

One of the novel’s most delicious treats is how Dick slowly reveals the different clans that the patients have divided themselves into on the titular Alphane Moon, based on their respective illnesses. It was pretty clear to me early on that the Deps were the depressives, for example, but the Mans and Pares (manics and paranoids) were more intriguing. Making the schizophrenics the poet-religious visionary class was another really clever move on Dick’s part.

Anyway, this is another Dick book that I would happily recommend to pretty much anyone. For example, one of the main characters is a telepathic slime mold–yes, that’s right–with the name of Lord Running Clam (YES). If that does not make you want to read this book, I don’t know how else I can help you.

There are parts of the book, especially near the end, where it feels just a wee too frenetic at times: so many different characters and storylines, how are they supposed to integrate?! For the most part Dick is successful, though I feel he kind of forgot about the psychic girl, whose main power consisted of turning back time for five minutes (making her particularly popular and successful at road accident death scenes). So yeah, the ending of the book reminded me of some kind of zany comedy in which everybody was running around with really fast music playing. But whatever. I would still recommend this, based on Lord Running Clam alone.

Dr. Bloodmoney (Philip K. Dick)

One of the better Dick books I’ve read. I actually might even go so far as to recommend this one as one of his classic Must-Read novels. I think this could easily be mentioned in the same breath as his more famous ones, such as Ubik, Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly. How funny that it never gets mentioned. Anyway, I thought this book was pretty brilliant. It contains all the genius flashes of black Dick humor that I just simply adore.

I will never get over how brilliant Dick is at taking simple, mundane situations and then building upon them until they are twisted and dark and unforgettable. Basically, this book is a post-apocalyptic novel, talking about life on what was once the West Coast of the U.S., but what makes this book a treasure are the deliciously twisted details. Take the little girl in this book, for instance. Everyone thinks she has an imaginary friend she pretends is her brother, and then we eventually learn that her so-called “imaginary” friend is actually a wizened old man (!) growing inside of her, parasite-style, a result of the nuclear fallout. Talk. about. seriously. disturbing. (If you think about how traumatized Philip K. Dick was throughout his life due to the death of his twin sister at birth, this storyline becomes even more creepy. I think I would love to write an essay one day about how doppelgängers, twins and mirror images are treated throughout Dick’s work. Heck, being a twin myself, how could I resist?).

The other characters populating this post-nuclear fallout, collapse-of-civilization world are equally memorable. The armless and legless guy (Hoppy Harrington) doesn’t just have one of the best names of any of Dick’s characters, he’s also one of the most well sketched out. He would make a seriously evil villain, as well as an interesting topic of discussion for how Dick treats the theme of mechanization of human beings. All in all this novel is classic–CLASSIC, I tell you!–vintage Dick. Usually post-apocalyptic novels are so boring. Brilliant, but boring. Murakami said it best when he was talking about “The Road” in that recent NY Times interview: it’s a good book, well-written, but it’s, well, kind of boring. The apocalypse happens and then you just kind of walk around trying to avoid getting eaten by people. Anyway, this is one of the best examples of a post-apocalyptic novel that I’ve ever read, simply because it is so fun and entertaining to read. I was hugging myself in delight during some passages, simply because I had absolutely no idea where the were going or what on earth Dick had on store with me. Reading this book was one heck of a ride and I would seriously recommend it to just about anybody, even folks who are new to Dick.

My favorite part of the book is when Stuart (one of his main characters) is being taught how to play chess by his friend who’s dying of radiation sickness, and Stuart has to keep asking “Which way does the bishop move again?”, all this shortly after eating a dead rat raw. Again, if this doesn’t make you want to read this book, I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s Vintage Dick. Love it. Love the book, Love Dick, love, love, love.

I love Cesar Aira and Philip K. Dick books because they feel like Steve McQueen or Werner Herzog movies, only on pages instead of on film. Their images and language thrill and excite with with their newness and bravery, even if they aren’t always 100% successful. I feel like they are doing what Herzog talks about in this classic quote:

I have often spoken of what I call the inadequate imagery of today’s civilization. I have the impression that the images that surround us today are worn out; they are abused and useless and exhausted. They are limping and dragging themselves behind our cultural evolution… What have we done to our images? What have we done to our embarrassed landscapes? I have said this before and will repeat it again as long as I am able to talk: if we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs… One must dig like an archaeologist and search our violated landscapes to find anything new.

Aira and Dick are literary archaeologists. For sure, for sure.

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God as the Book of the Universe?

I sure am liking reading Philip K. Dick a whole lot. I just finished The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, up next are Radio Free Albemuth and The Man in the High Castle. After that I might take a sci-fi break, or who knows, I might finally get around to that copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars that has been blessing my bedside table for the past month (or maybe I’ll just reread Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan).

I read this passage last night from Transmigration that I sure liked a whole bunch, sitting on the couch next to my dad while he watched Blade Runner (talk about appropriate! I just watched it a month ago, right before beginning my Dick binge, or else I’d have watched it with him). The passage in question is from pages 729-732 in my hardcover Library of America edition, and I’m going to share parts of it in excerpts here. Basically, the narrator is talking about an experience she had, staying up all night in incredible pain from an infected tooth, drinking and reading Dante. The narrator was definitely my favorite thing about this book: she’s female (which I suspect is rare for Dick), and I totally dug her over-educated yet down-to-earth Berkeley hippie stoner chill throughout the novel’s shenanigans.

I especially like this quote in light of this blog’s so-called theme that I am never super bueno about articulating, that of the connection between experience and reading. I think it has some sentences that are really beautiful and moving. Here goes:

*

All these books that Tim forever reaches for, especially in moments of crisis. Everything worth knowing can be found in a book; conversely, if Jeff [Tim Archer’s son and the narrator’s husband] is important he is important not as a person but as a book; it it books for books’ sakes then, not knowledge, even, for the sake of knowledge. The book is the reality. For Tim to love and appreciate his son, he must–as impossible as it may seem–he must regard him as a kind of book. The universe to Tim Archer is one great set of reference books from which he picks and chooses as his restless mind veers on, always seeking the new, always turning away from the old…

I am no different, then, from Timothy Archer. To me, too, books are real and alive; the voices of human beings issue forth from them and compel my assent, the way God compels our assent to world, as Tim said. When you have been in that much distress, you are not going to forget what you did and saw and thought and read that night; I did nothing, saw nothing, thought nothing; I read and I remember; I did not read Howard the Duck or The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Snatch Comix that night; I read Dante’s Commedia, from Inferno through Purgatorio, until at last I arrived in the three colored rings of light… and the time was nine A.M. and I could get into my fucking car and shoot out into traffic and Dr. Davidson’s office, crying and cursing the whole way, with no breakfast, not even coffee and stinking of sweat and bourbon, a sorry mess indeed, much gaped at by the dentist’s receptionist.

So for me in a certain unusual way—for certain unusual reasons–books and reality are fused; they join through one incident, one night of my life: my intellectual life and my practical life came together–and having done so they never completely came apart again. If I believed in God, I would say that he showed me something that night; he showed me the totality: pain, physical pain, drop by drop, and then, this being his dreadful grace, there came understanding… and what did I understand? That is is all real; the abscessed tooth and the root-canal irrigation, and, no less and no more.

I read the Commedia through to the end that night and then shot up the street for Dr. Davidson’s office, and was never the same again. I never changed back into what I had previously been. So books are real to me, too; they link me not just with other minds but with the vision of other minds, what those minds understand and see. I see their worlds as well as I see my own. The pain and the crying and the sweating and the stinking and cheap Jim Beam Bourbon was my Inferno and it wasn’t imaginary; what I read bore the label “Paradiso” and Paradiso it was.

God save me from another night like that. But goddamn it, had I not lived out that night, drinking and crying and reading and hurting, I would have never been born, truly born. That was the time of my birth into the real world, and the real world, for me, is a mixture of pain and beauty, and this is the correct view of it because these are the components that make up reality. And I had them all there that night, including a packet of pain-pills to carry home with me from the dentist’s, after my ordeal had ended. I arrived home, took a pill, drank some coffee and went to bed.

*

What are the memories of very concrete experiences that I’ve had, reading very specific books? I’m going to have to chew on that for a while. For now the first thing that comes to mind is my AP English teacher reading aloud Addie Bundren’s chapter from As I Lay Dying and thinking “holy damn, can that Faulkner write.”

For reference this is the final canto of Paradiso that Dick quotes in the novel:

“I beheld leaves within the unfathomed blaze
Into one volume bound by love, the same
That the universe holds scattered throughout its maze.
Substance and accidents, and their modes, became
As if fused together, all in such wise
That what I speak of is one simple flame.”

After quoting this passage, Dick (or the narrator, I should say) then goes on to quote a commentary on this passage (i.e. an interpretation of what Dante means), made by a C.H. Grandgent:

God is the Book of the Universe.

How very Borges!

Dick has another quote in this passage that I also liked, by a Greek tragedy writer (possibly Aeschylus; the narrator never specifies):

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

Que intense!

Other things I am learning about, via the lens of Dick:

– the Essenes
– the Dead Sea Scrolls
– the definition of Gnosticism (my father claims that Dick discusses this in a similar manner to Lawrence Durrel in The Alexandria Quartet, though I have absolutely no memory of this. Maybe my high school brain just couldn’t absorb it at the time).
– the nature of madness
– the Torah and its emphasis on words
– the importance of specific Hebrew vocabulary in the Bible, especially the use of the word “I” in reference to God as it makes Yahweh (aka old school Old Testament God) of “I am that I am” fame a distint conscious “I” as opposed to a word meaning something like “the forces of nature” or “the will of the universe”.
– the importance of bathing in ancient Jewish sects
– scrolls being found in jars deep in caves by sheepherders. “How can they be preserved for that long?” I asked my dad. “The desert,” he replied. Makes me want to watch Lawrence of Arabia again.
– the theory that Jesus and his disciplines ate some kind of mushroom to be found in the caves of Israel
– the theory that Jesus WAS a mushroom. Apparently this is something that is actually REAL and does not just spring from the Dickian universe.
– what would it mean if the universe was created by a totally fucked and crazy force/thing, a la His Dark Materials trilogy?

EEEEEEEEEEEEE!

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“The Empire Never Ended.”

“[Philip K.] Dick is a species of Kafka manifested by lysergic acid and rage.”  (Roberto Bolaño)

I have been on a Phillip K. Dick binge this past week. Thanks to this trusty black hardcover Library of America compilation, I’ve chomped my way through A Maze of Death, VALIS (a re-read of a classic), and I just finished The Divine Invasion. Only The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is left and then I’ll have finished the volume.

Reading Phillip K. Dick makes me feel like a crackhead. He makes me feel like Christian Bale’s character in The Fighter: jumpy, twitchy, bug-eyed, sweaty forehead, fidgeting constantly, a barrage of words in a thick accent. He makes me feel paranoid and twitchy, like I’m hearing voices in my head, like I want to say things to my friends and co-workers that will make them feel uncomfortable and furrow their brows in concern for my mental health and well-being. He makes me feel like I’ve taken too many amphetamines.

I had to pull two nighters in a row last week (a self-inflicted punishment I hadn’t experienced since ye college days of yore) thanks to an intense envelope-stuffing session for one of my jobs. It was crazy how no sleep makes you feel. It’s crazy how you can walk around and talk and drive on two hours of sleep in two days. It made me feel like a Phillip K. Dick character.

His books have also been giving me crazy dreams. I had an Inception-type one last night, in which I’d dreamed that I was banging myself against the bed, trying to wake myself up from another dream I was having, and when I finally woke up in Real Life (whatever THAT means) it honestly took me a couple of seconds to realize that no, it had been in the dream where I was banging myself against the bed like that, not in Reality. I also had this INSANE dream the other week in which I was watching a reality TV show based on the premise of Chopped (a Food Network cooking show I watched WAY too many episodes of during the envelope stuffing sessions. Watching it made me feel guilty, but then again it provided the basis for this dream, so at least something useful came of it). Anyway, so the premise of the reality show I was watching in this dream was that contestants were judged on the quality of their dreams. Similarly to Chopped, they were given a basket containing something: random assorted items. Other times they were made to experience something weird and intense (my memory is sketchy here). Then they had to go lay down on these flat beds and dream about it. The four judges provided intense, rapid commentary (“I see that he’s going for the quick two minute cat-nap…. She’s going for the full twenty minutes, will she reach R.E.M.?”). Then during the judging portion, the judges assessed the dream according to how well they helped the dreamer digest their experience, as well as by their narrative quality (“It felt a bit disjointed to me… I don’t feel like it really helped you make sense of what happened.”).

I attribute this dream 100% to Philip K. Dick’s influence and saturation on my brain.

I just love reading Philip K. Dick. He makes me want to clap my hands together and whoop in delight. To me, he just embodies the best thing about reading: escapism and imagination. The stuff he comes up with just boggles my mind. I think Borges is truly the only other comparable peer. There are just so many moments in his books (especially these three I’ve just read) in which I just shook my head in a “How does he come up with this stuff?” style.

One of the many things for which I am most grateful is the way Philip K. Dick reminds me that This Reality Is Not All There Is. It’s a feeling I get sometimes at the end of a REALLY freaking good yoga class, the kind that makes me so sweaty my toes tingle, and it’s like all my resistance has just been wrung out of me like I’m a wet towel, and I lap up all the Rumi and Hafiz-influenced quotes that the teacher reads out of her little hardcover notebook, about how God is the surf and human beings are just shells tossed by it. It’s the feeling that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in the India chapter of Eat Pray Love, of just wanting to be reminded that we are MORE than just these little neurotic human creatures, fretting about our bad habits, fretting about our jobs, our graduate school applications, our chewed-down nails and procrastination, our concerns that we are developing a glucose addiction thanks to the copious amounts of honey and Adobe sweetener we feel like we absolutely need to add to our herbal tea (or maybe this is all just me, haha). It’s the feeling (reminder?) that there is MORE to this world than our puny human selves. I am not a religious person by any means at all but this is definitely something I fervently believe. It’s a big universe out there and there is some WEIRD STUFF out there, a lot of it involving infinity and quantum mechanics. Not to mention that it is likely that time is an illusion and that everything is going to happen already has, in the style of Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan. Let’s leave it at that for now.

ANYWAY… on that quasi-mystical note, I especially liked/appreciated these three novels (A Maze of Death, VALIS, The Divine Invasion) for the way they deal with intense theological questions. The presence and the nature of God is a huge theme in these three books. For me, this elevates the books beyond the mere realm of science fiction, and into philosophical exercises similar to Borges.

But beyond this very intense nature-of-God stuff, what makes me love Philip K. Dick is how funny and human he is. Take this very first sentence, from A Maze of Death: “His job, as always, bored him.” What a PERFECT way to start a science fiction novel. Yes, the spaceships come later, as well as the interplanetary exploration and the nature of God (here called “the Mentufacturer”), but this sentence is so grounding. It grounds us in something very real, something we can all relate to. “His job, as always, bored him.” It’s a Kafkaesque detail. It’s just like what Borges said about fantastical writing, that in many ways it needs to be more realistic than traditional realism. You have just got to have these very realistic, down-to-earth details that ground you, or otherwise the fantastical story is not going to captivate you. It will slip through you fingers into the “Why should I care about any of this?” realm and become Lord of the Rings/Simarillion speeches (yes, I was not able to finish LOTR. I made it partway through the first part of The Two Towers and gave up. Sorry, Tolkein. I am grateful for the movies and find them a perfectly acceptable Hollywood commercial distillation). But through the details, Philip K. Dick makes us care. Maybe if Aragorn had bitched a little more I could have given more of a crap about the fate of Middle Earth. If only other LOTR characters like him had been given the same loving and realistic characterization as the ponies…

Anyway, I love Philip K. Dick, I love writing, I love fiction, I love art, and I love passages such as this one from VALIS that nearly make me pee from laughing:

(Background: Horselover Fat is the main character from Valis, and is basically Philip K. Dick himself–“Horselover” is the Greek translation for the name Phillip, and in German “Dick” means “Fat.” In this passage he’s talking to Maurice, one of the psychiatrists at the mental institution:)

“Let me just say one thing,” Fat said.

Irritably, Maurice nodded.

“The creator deity,” Fat said, “may be insane and therefore the universe is insane. What we experience as chaos is actually irrationality. There is a difference.” He was silent, then.

“The universe is what you make of it,” Maurice said. “It’s what you do with it that counts. It’s your responsibility to do something life-promoting with it, not life-destructive.”

“That’s the existential position,” Fat said. “Based on the concept that we are what we do, rather than, We are what we think. It finds its first expression in Goethe’s Faust, Part One, where Faust says, ‘Im Anfang war das Wort.’ He’s quoting the opening of the Fourth Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ Faust says, ‘Nein. Im Anfang war die Tat.’ ‘In the beginning was the deed.’ From this, all existentialism comes.”

Maurice stared at him as if he were a bug.”

“Like a bug.” LOVE IT. Or how about this from The Divine Invasion. I just love the main character’s reaction to the prophet Elijah’s (here called “Elias”) speech about the upcoming apocalyptic battle between God and Satan:

” [excerpt from a MUCH longer paragraph I am too lazy to type completely out] … We must be the world’s information source, speaking in all tongues. We will be the tower that originally  failed. And if we fail now, then it ends here, and sleep returns… rust will rule and dust will rule–not for a little time but for all time and all men, even their machines, for all that lies ahead.”

Gosh,” Herb Asher said.”

CLASSIC. What better way to react to a speech about the impending apocalypse? It’s these little moments that make or break Philip K. Dick for me, and every time he comes THIS CLOSE to losing you with very intense fantastical headtrips, he brings you back with these little human moments. “Gosh.” “Maurice stared at him as if he were a bug.” His job, as always, bored him.” “Mental illness is not funny.” (from VALIS)

Thank you Philip for your prophetic madman rants, your Berkeley LSD-scene infused ramblings, and for generally making this world a better place to live in…

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Mad Scientists

I just finished The Invention of Morel, an Argentinean novella. I was very happy and pleased to learn that the author, Adolfo Bioy Casares, was a very close friend of Borges’. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Borges was a huge Bioy fanboy: he writes the introduction to Morel, and Bioy is the friend who appears in Borges’ wonderful story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Now that I’ve finished it (only 103 pages, yay) I think more highly of it than I did when I was actually reading it, if that makes any sense. While I was reading it I was just kind of impatient to find out what would happen next, and now that I’ve finished I’m like “wow, OK, lots o’ layers to unpack here.” The plot concerns a fugitive, pursued by police for reasons that are never specified, who flees to a deserted island with an abandoned museum rumored to be inhabited by ghosts. A random mysterious group of tourists arrive, and while hiding from them he falls in love with a woman in the group. While trying to win her affections he discovers that the reality on the island is not as it seems, and that’s when things start getting trippy.  The wikipedia article claims that Morel was an inspiration for the computer game Myst, which I unfortunately remember finding very boring and tedious–ha ha!

Morel is neither boring or tedious, though I did feel like the protagonist was a little thick-headed at times (that feeds into one of his many theories though, that he is an inmate in a psychiatric hospital imagining the whole thing!). Morel reminded me a lot of Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference, in the sense that while reading it you are just carried away by the sheer inventiveness of the author. You are completely immersed in a carefully constructed, perfectly logical world, logical in all its surreality and absurdity. I got the same feeling reading this book as I did when reading Kafka, all the way back in sixth grade (OH! How I was inspired and moved by Kafka!), or more recently by a collection of short stories (none longer than 4 pages) that a friend gave me for Christmas, The Girl on the Fridge. I like it when authors remind me of mad scientists in laboratories, furiously mixing up potions of plots and stirring mysterious ingredients and flights and fancy together. There are certain authors who are just great at this: Cesar Aira, Phillip K. Dick, Vonnegut, Borges even… I’ve come to (re)discover that I really like fiction that’s wildly imaginative and inventive. It’s fun to read, and I imagine that it’s fun to write as well. There’s just something very liberating about it: it is a “story” in the very best sense of the word. Like Gary Shteyngart says in this interview (I also recently read his Super Sad True Love Story, another good example of an author-as-mad scientist book!), it is necesarry for literature to be entertaining just as much as intellectual.

Anyway, the other thing I thought was funny about finishing this book is that it is an appropriate continuation of the Mad Scientist theme of my past few days. On Friday at the elementary school where I work we had Family Movie Night and showed “Despicable Me,” a craptastic animation film about a mad scientist that the kids and parents nevertheless enjoyed, so there ya go. And then at my new writing group this morning (yay writing group!) I wrote a silly little piece inspired by the film, specifically by the yellow sponge-like characters. I don’t claim that this story is particularly good, but it was fun to write, to just heedlessly charge from one thing to the next, inventing one crazed frenetic detail after another. I dunno, a lot of the fiction I’ve written since graduating from college has tried to be very realistic, when a lot of the stuff I wrote in high school or early on in college reads as very imaginative, free-wheeling and heedless to me now. I don’t know if I made a conscious decision at one point or not to stop writing that way–I think I was sick of magical realism, and of reading fantastical techniques in novels that just felt very forced and hokey to me. And that was something I didn’t want my writing to be, hokey or gimmicky, by being centered around this fantastical qualities.

But then Borges’s essay at the beginning of Morel provides some comfort, as he argues that it is fantasy novels that are more strict and rule-based than realist fiction, as opposed to the othe way around. In books such as Ulysses or War and Peace, anything can happen, while in an H.G. Wells or fantasy/adventure/science fiction story, what happens has to follow the logic of what happenned before, or the logic of the world and the narrative completely collapses. So in this way a story built around fantastical elements needs to be more adherent to logic and rigidly plotted than a realist novel (this is SO TRUE for Kafka in particular! What would The Metamorphosis be without the specific details?). As Borges puts it in Morel’s introduction:

The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example. . . . In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. . . . The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to be a transcription of reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, or the Quixote.

So all hail fanastical ridiculous nonsensical messy arbitrary fiction. It gives me lots of feelings I like. Such as: writing is fun! Creativity is good. Art is necesarry. And so forth.

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Getting off the mind train

I have not been reading books lately because I’ve been depressed.

I’m hoping there’ll be some kind of liberation, in writing that phase: I have not been reading. I’ve been depressed.

There is ONE book I have been trying to get into, though. William T. Vollman’s Imperial didn’t cut it for me (too heavy, so I couldn’t really carry it around with me, unless I wanted to make my backpack significantly heavier and my shoulders significantly sorer). Re-reading Phillip K. Dick’s Valis hasn’t quite done it either.

Just look at the title and tell me that you don’t want to read this book:

I mean, doesn’t that sound GREAT? How can that possibly be something that anyone wouldn’t want to do? “Get Out Of Your Mind and Into Your Life.” Sounds good to me.

It was given to me by a friend, and I’ve been slowly but surely working my way through it with a pencil, doing all of the exercises. It’s been a little hard going. I flipped ahead and apparently one of the exercises consists of keeping a Pain Diary, which quite frankly… doesn’t sound that appealing to me. But hey, maybe it will reveal something useful. But yeah, the exercises so far have been difficult. But maybe they’re only hard because they’re forcing me to be brutally, painfully honest with myself.

A lot of it is pretty similar stuff to what I’ve read in Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. Accepting suffering as an inevitable part of life, instead of trying to run away from your pain and pretend that it isn’t there, do anything to distract yourself and avoid looking at the suffering. Developing compassion for yourself and mindfulness of your actions. The oh so important role of delicious, delicious meditation.

What’s also interesting about this book, though, is that it has a very cognitive therapy, this-is-the-way-your-brain works, psychology-based approach. It’s fascinating stuff, reading about how the brain fuctions and how humans think.

There’s a chapter about language that I found especially interesting, about how language inherently causes suffering in people (the chapter is called “Why Language Leads to Suffering”–ho-kay!). According to the book, the nature of language makes it so that humans thus “have the capacity to treat anything as a symbol for something else” due to what they call “relational frames,” or networks of mutual relations. These networks make it so that humans can learn without requiring direct experience (a fascinating idea, which reminds me, yet again, of my undergraduate thesis. BOO-YAH! I should seriously take a shot every time I mention it in this blog!). So basically what this means is that what it means to be human is to be able to arbitrarily relate objects in our environment to basically any other object. Thus Phillip K. Dick’s book Valis isn’t just a fun escapist science fiction book, but a reminder of the last time you read it, and all the memories that come attached to that. A sunset isn’t just something beautiful, but something sad, because it reminds you of a person you miss, who isn’t watching it with you. And so on. So basically people are CRAZY because they can turn things like sunsets and Valis into things that they totally are not!

So what does this oh so wise book advise about how to deal with this? Well first of all, it’s not something that we can just STOP, since thinking relationally is what makes us human: it’s what helps us problem-solve, develop tools and technology, and so on. Humans constantly seek out patterns, relationships, steps that connect things to other things. As the book puts it: “humans suffer, in part, because they are verbal creatures. If this is so, then here is the problem: the verbal skills that create misery are too useful and central to human functioning to stop operating. That means suffering is an unavoidable part of the human condition, at least until we know how to better manage the skills language itself has given us.” (24)

I like looking forward to learning about how to do the part in bold.

There were a lot of other things in the book that I liked, some of them hitting painfully close to the bone, so much so that it’s difficult to even retype them here. Like the definition and discussion of experiential avoidance: “You develop specific means by which you try to stop feeling the feelings you are feeling or thinking the thoughts you are thinking. You try to avoid the experience of painful thoughts or feelings by burying yourself in distracting activities, combating your thoughts with rationalizations, or trying to quash your feelings… If you are suffering, you may spend a lot of time performing these distracting coping techniques. Meanwhile, your life is not being lived.” (30) OUCH. “What you are left with are behaviors that have become deeply embedded in your day-to-day life due to their short-term effectiveness, but for long-term relief they are sadly lacking.” (31) More pain, more avoidance. The book has a really scary diagram of this, with MORE PAIN in a big black circle in the center, and then circles around it that say MORE PAIN and MORE AVOIDANCE. Ugh. I didn’t like doing the activities in this chapter…

But then I am heartened by passages such as this one: “To know what an experience is really like, you’ve got to experience it for yourself, not just think about it. To see what it’s like to jump off the mind-train, you have to actually do it. You do that by breaking some of the rules and conditions your mind sets for you… once you are off of the train with your feet on the ground, you will see whether you are in a better position to choose a direction and live accordingly to your values rather than simply riding the rails of your verbal conditioning.” (32) It sounds so nice, I wrote in light pencil in the margins.

It makes me think of that NY Times magazine story published a while back ago, “Depressions Upside,” also e-mailed to me recently by the same friend that lent me the book. I like two sentences in this article: “sadness, like happiness, has many functions” and  “Sometimes, Darwin wrote, it is the sadness that informs as it “leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” The darkness was a kind of light.”

I like thinking about  depression as something useful, something with a purpose. It makes me think of that last sentence in that Amy Hempel story: How do we know that what happens to us isn’t good? That story also in turn makes me think of Voltaire’s “Candide.” Things happening for reasons is different than things happening because of goodness.

I also liked the discussion of the etymology behind words in this book. I liked learning how ‘symbol’ means ‘to throw back as the same.’ I also liked learning that the primary root of ‘suffering’ is the Latin word ferre, which means to “bear or to carry” (hence “ferry”!), and that the prefix “suf” is a version of “sub,” which means “from below, up (hence) away.” Or as the book puts it, “suffering [thus] doesn’t just involve having something to carry, it also involves moving away.”

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Filed under books, consciousness, depression, experience, health, mindfulness, non-fiction, Phillip K. Dick, psychology

April Books


Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

A very well-written, readable and well-argued book. McKibben basically argues that we need to redefine our understanding of classic economics: namely that more doesn’t always necessarily equal better, not just for sustainable reasons (we’re running out of resources on our planet) but for personal reasons (more stuff, bigger businesses and expanding economies aren’t making us happier). It’s an interesting argument and he follows through with it pretty well with practical suggestions on how we can refocus our energies on building more local economies and communities. I really enjoyed McKibben’s discussion of behavioral economics and the science of happiness, two topics I find really interesting and know very little about. There are a few moments that are a little too “oh god, you are such an environmentalist from Vermont,” like when he suggests giving bus drivers your personal mix CDs to slap on the stereo. Also, McKibeen seems to be writing for an audience that he automatically assumes is anti neoliberal and free trade, so if you’re not, that might be a problem for you. (Disclaimer: it wasn’t for me, I’m just trying to be fair and balanced here.) However, overall McKibben does quite a good job of making practical suggestions for how to make the world a better place and how to be more hopeful in general, which is a nice change from the more general “oh-god-we’re-all-doomed” feeling of recent months.

The one part of the book that I keep summarizing and quoting to all of my co-workers and friends is the section where McKibben talks about the science of happiness. He asks the very interesting question of what was the time in our lives when most of us would say that we were happiest. For most people, they would say volunteering, with family, with friends, etc…. being around others. Being *out* of yourself and your chatty little head, and instead feeling like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. That really hit the nail on the head for me, and put into words something I’d been struggling to articulate to myself for a while now: what has brought me some of the highest levels of joy in my life was when I felt like I was “out of myself,” part of something larger, whether in the hugeness of nature or within a community of people (like Los Embajadores in Tijuana), not as this self-internalizing super efficient/proficient utility machine.

Whether my enjoyment of finally having this particular feeling put into words actually leads to me doing or deciding something concrete remains to be seen. I think of my advisor’s advice to me of why not to go to graduate school, at least not for literature, and it really rings more and more true for me by the day. He was like “travel! Get out in the world! Work with kids!” This summer, I’m gonna garden.

Rating: Read This Book Before You Die

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (George Orwell)

An enjoyable if not earth shattering read. Orwell is the master of succinct, perfect sentences. Along with watching “Revolutionary Road,” this book definitely helped put me in a weird mindset about the whole settling down into a comfortable career and lifestyle deal, while thinking that you’re this person who’s “better” than everyone else around you. The happy ending feels a little forced; if Orwell had been truer to the tone of earlier parts of the book, the characters’ fate would have been a lot darker. Orwell said in a letter that when he wrote it, “I was half starved and had to turn out something to bring in £100,” which explains a lot. All in all, a nice fictional companion to “Down and Out in Paris and London.”

Rating: Read This If You’re An Orwell Fan


El Juguete Rabioso / The Mad Toy (Roberto Arlt)

Another book about a character whose life is really affected by money (namely his lack of it). I would have really dug this book in high school, a lot, and probably would have had a little bit of a crush on Silvio, the main character.

The Mad Toy took me a long time to get through, despite its 142 pages. I don’t really know why. I don’t exactly know what to make of this book. I’m not sure what the title refers to, for one. I guess “the mad toy” is Silvio himself, and the title refers to the way in which he often finds himself inevitably being used as “a toy” by people in power and by the mentors he consistently keeps seeking (and failing) to find. The final chapter (ominously titled “Judas Iscariot”), in which Silvio deliberately betrays a mentor/friend, can be understood as Silvio’s attempt to subvert this feeling of always feeling like a plaything to others whims, and instead claim some agency of his own (at the stake of his friend, which is troublesome).

The first chapter is about Silvio as a young boy and his adventures in inventing amateur weapons of war and his life of crime as a book thief, smuggling encyclopedias and Baudelaire out of the school library. I love the sentence that he uses to introduce an anecdote about one of his inventions, copying the language of the pirate and Dumas paperbacks he loves. “A resounding adventure was that of my cannon, and happy am I to recall it.” I like to repeat this phrase quietly to myself. It adds so much, narrating the events in our lives with a deliberate aesthetic style!

Needless to say, it says a lot about Silvio that his first career is as a book thief. He goes on to try working as a bookstore assistant, an apprentice airplane mechanic for the military, and a paper salesman, without finding much satisfaction. However, what seems to keep him going is his ability to aesthetically narrate his life and his surroundings, infusing it with what he experiences as an inexplicable joy:

I’m not crazy, one thing is certain, though… I know that life will always be extraordinarily beautiful for me. I don’t know whether other people will experience the force of life as I do, but inside me there is joy, a full, unconscious kind of joy. Everything surprises me. Sometimes I have the feeling that it’s just an hour since I arrived on earth, and everything is flaming new, fresh, beautiful. (150)

Silvio’s goals by the end of the book are to “see glaciers and mountains and clouds.” That sounds pretty good to me. The last sentence of the book is “I tripped over a chair, and kept going.” It reminded me a lot of the last sentence of Catch-22. You jump out of the way of the whore’s knife, life tangles you up and catches you off guard, but you gotta keep going.

Silvio’s final mentor figure is the policeman who receives his confession/ratting out his friend, but doesn’t arrest him. The wisdom he imparts to Silvio is “we obey a brutal law that’s inside us. That’s it. We obey the law of the jungle.” A very true thing it is, human brutality. And yet it’s not the only true thing. We feel as human beings, profoundly and deeply. What is it that drives some people to not just see life as a drudgery and a chore, life as 9-5, as a series of steps: college, job, marriage, children, retirement death? What is it that drives some people to make the conscious choice to love life, to see it as sweet?

I’d like to keep joy inside me. I’d like to aesthetically narrate my life, my day-to-day.

Love, poetry, gratitude toward life, toward books, and toward the world would send an electrical charge through the blue sinews of my soul.
It wasn’t me, but the god inside me, a god fashioned from pieces of mountain, forest, sky and memory.
(123)


Rating: Read This Before You Die

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

A self-help book written by a Buddhist Canadian nun. I first heard of this book when my yoga teacher read aloud a passage at the end of one class that really connected to me. I recognized a lot of her advice from stuff my counselor gave me to read way back in junior year. She talks a lot about loving compassion, the importance of breathing in and out, exercising non-judgment. It’s not just all theoretical, there’s a lot of practical advice in her. All in all, a very wise book by a very wise lady. Even if you’re not in a time of your life where things are falling apart, there’s definitely some stuff in here that you could use.

Rating: Read This Book Before You Die

In April I also read Phillip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears the Policeman Said and Ubik, both good reads if you’re a Dick fan (hee), but not necessarily vital. I also read Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, which hopefully I’ll be able to devote an entire post to this weekend. And that was my April.

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Filed under Arlt, books, experience, non-fiction, Phillip K. Dick, Rio Plata

On Learning

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about the value of curiosity. During our early getting-to-know-you conversations, I asked Corey how he would describe himself in one word, and he said, “curious.” (I didn’t know my one word at the time, but now I think it would have to be “dreamer.”) But then I just think about this innate curiosity within me and damn, maybe I am just stupid and naive and this is going to get me into trouble, but the joy of wandering lost through the PQ sections of the SE stacks in the Hauser Library, writing book reviews in my stupid blog, rambling with my co-workers about Borges, or just reading, reading, reading, underlining passages, thinking, writing–it brings me a great joy I don’t get anywhere else. No one can take that curiosity away from me, you know? It’s in me, it is me. I’ll always have it. If I have a way to use it, to the best of my ability, I will be happy. And all these ridiculous badges that supposedly constitute prestige and success can never hold a candle to that, ever.

This has been an introspective year for me so far. Having lots of time on the Max to read will do that for ya, I guess. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the role of books in my life. I just finished Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, one of the most glaring titles on my list of Books I Really Should Have Read Already, Don’t Know Why I Haven’t, Really. In this case, I think it’s for the best I waited this long. I definitely got a lot more out of this book with an undergraduate degree.

For one thing, I’ve read a lot more Borges now than I had in high school, which makes certain aspects in TNOFR like the blind librarian and the labyrinth in the library stand out a lot more (read more about the connection between Borges and Eco here). The introduction is puro Borges and Nabokov, especially in the fictional translator’s cheerful pronouncement that the volume lacks any relevance for our present day. Another benefit of my undergraduate education are the lit theory classes, which makes the book’s discussion of the roles of signs a lot more interesting. The part where William identifies the abbot’s horse (by means of the tracks he left behind in the snow and the flustered monks pursuing him for example) is really ingenious, demonstrating (in William’s view) how the universe speaks to us quite clearly through signs. The main question that he (and Borges, and Nabokov) grapple with is how to interpret those signs—is there any order to them, other than the flimsy order imposed by our own minds to make our surroundings seem meaningful? (Probably not.) What is the value of interpretation? Can it ever arrive at any definitive truth, or will it just go on and on forever? (Probably yes. But that’s not to say that some interpretations are more valuable than others—read Eco’s thoughts on this here, an interesting talk that may be a little confusing if you haven’t read his books.)*

The other thing I found unexpectedly intriguing in TNOTR was its discussion of “simple people.” I’d just re-read “Siddhartha” for the first time since high school a couple of weeks ago, and Hesses uses the same term, to refer to people who are purely controlled by their desires. That is to say, people who go through life controlled by what they want: get a job, get money, get married, get a house, get a big TV, get a nice car, and so on. Most of the people in the world are like this—not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is vital to note that a major part of Siddhartha’s enlightenment is that he eliminates his judgment for the “simple people,” and instead of thinking that his way is superior or vice-versa, he simply accepts that they are different. It is not wrong to be one of the “simple more” any more than it is better to be someone like Siddhartha’s—they’re just different. The ending of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” reiterates the same message: “Some of us are dancers, some of us are mothers, etc,” Brad Pitt intoned solemnly in a voice-over. Or as my Grandma Mary is fond of saying, “We’re all different, Julie—different strokes for different folks.”

In The Name of the Rose, the “simple people” are discussed in context to how words affect them, in the sense that they can be more easily manipulated by language. People like William are more akin to a class of readers, because he’s constantly trying to read the signs around him, as opposed to accept them at face value. Not to sound incredibly arrogant and place myself on the same level of Sherlock Holmes, but I like to think that it’s the same drive in me that inspires me to plough through an entire Phillip K. Dick book in one day, or stubbornly struggle with Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Casa Verde. I can think of a lot of people who would think it was pretty crazy to spend my time trying to read Ulysses and La Casa verde. In a way, it is kind of silly. But to me, it feels incredibly valuable and important and precious and there is really no other way I’d rather spend my hours here on Earth: thumbing through these books, inhaling them into their brain, thinking about their words, wondering about their effects and their relation, among each other, among societies, and with me. If I had to describe myself in one word, it would be “dreamer.” I’m just not settled yet, you know? A lot of us aren’t. Me, I have little clouds floating out of my ears…

I’ve been trying to think of a way to explain why books are so personally appealing to me, mainly because my co-workers keep asking me how I liked majoring in literature, and I always respond immediately that I loved it, that it was great, and then my answer to their follow-up question of “why?” is always hopelessly confabulated. Here’s one of the reasons I came up with: I was thinking that one of the things you will never be able to do while you are alive on this earth as a human being is to see yourself through another people’s eyes. You are always going to be you, indefinably and inexhaustibly you, tied to the ego of your self, your memories, your desires, all the little building blocks that construct you as a person (many of which you are probably not even aware of—maybe that’s what life is for, trying to figure out what those tiny little building blocks are). As close as I am to people like my sister and Corey, I’m never going to know what it’s like to *be* Corey—to be inside his head, to see the world as he sees it, to know what he’s thinking at any random moment. There’s this really interesting part in Wizard of the Upper Amazon where during his shaman training, the main character drinks ayahuasca in many ceremonies and learns what it’s like to be different animals: anacondas, jaguars, pink river dolphins. At one point he goes inside the mind of everyone in the tribe, and this experience helps him become an especially emphatic and alert healer. Thus, therein lies some of the magic of reading. On one level, reading purports to allow you to “see” the world through another’s eyes. I will never know what it’s like to be an Italian monk in the 13th century, trying to solve a seemingly unsolvable mystery. But goddamn, I probably know more now that I would have if I’d never read it. Reading is a gateway, a vehicle to different experiences that I otherwise would never be able to have.

Another joy of TNOTR was recognizing myself in the characters. Yes, I definitely cackled to myself, nodding vigorously in recognition as I thumbed eagerly through the pages—yes, these crazy library people, “men who live among books, with books, from books”–these are my people. As one of the monk puts it, “It’s true. We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.” (112) In contrast to the “simple” people, the monks are presented as the “learned’ population, living the so-called life of the mind. (I’m glad that my experience of living the life of the mind didn’t end with me drowning in a barrel of pig blood, though it came pretty close at times.)

This discussion of having a certain privileged “learned” population who are particularly good at interpreting makes me slightly uneasy, because to me it automatically raises the question of authority: what happens if authoritative interpretations, as designed by this select group, gets in the way of individuals interpreting for themselves? I’m not necessarily thinking of grad school students taking over the world. In one provocative section, Adso discusses learning as something for the few and elect – “Learning is not like a coin, which remains physically whole even through the most infamous transactions; it is, rather, like a very handsome dress, which is worn out through use and ostentation. Is not a book like that, in fact? Its pages crumble, its ink and gold turn dull, if too many hands touch it.” (185) Comparing learning to a book that can grow shabby, decayed and eventually crumble from overuse sets up the biggest danger in the end of the novel—namely, people who think that it’s better off if certain kinds of learning (found in specific books) are kept solely to themselves, even if it meant having to kill to keep it secret. William has an interesting monologue in which he discusses the problem of giving learning to the simple:

“The simple have something more than do learned doctors, who often become lost in their search for broad, general laws. The simple have a sense of the individual, but this sense, by itself, is not enough. The simple grasp a truth of their own, perhaps truer than that of the doctors of the church, but destroy it in unthinking actions. What must be done? Give learning to the simple? Too easy, or too difficult. The Franciscan teachers considered this problem… the truth of the simple has already been transformed into the truth of the powerful…How are we to remain close to the experience of the simple, maintaining, so to speak, their operative virtue, the capacity of working toward the transformation and betterment of their world?”

Since for William, “the experience of the simple has savage and uncontrollable results…” his solution is that “we must be sure that the simple are right in possessing the sense of the individual, which is the only good kind.” (205) I can see a lot of sense in that. Being a living individual is a unique, singular experience. I will never know what it’s like to be you, you will never know what it’s like to be me. That’s something that really shouldn’t get lost–this understanding and appreciation of our unique, singular existence. Nobody quite like you, with your thoughts-visions-dreams, has ever existed, nor will ever exist again. Even if the kids I work with every day don’t turn out to be graduate students or university professors, they nontheless deserve to think of themselves as *individuals* who can decide for themselves what they want. They don’t have to go into the Army just because that’s the authorative interpretation of what they should do with their lives imposed upon them–they are individuals with unique personalities and thus unique decisions (I think you could argue that authorities try to erase this, in order to encourage only one interpretation). I’m probably not making this point as clearly as I want to… but in summary, this book helped me figure a couple of important things out, in unexpected ways. I think I’m slowly but surely coming to terms with my own decentered nature, my detective-like character, my unsettledness, and I’m slowly but surely beginning to learn how I can use those qualities as a gift, not just to better others, but also myself. I may not be any closer to creating any more order in this world, but at least there is the smallest semblance of more order in this poor head of mine.

“Learning does not consist of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.” (97)

* There’s an absolutely crazy anecdote in this talk straight out of Philip K. Dick, where Eco describes an incident in which he found himself living a scene straight out of TNOTR: thumbing through a beat-up old book in his library, its pages stuck together in a gluey fashion, and realizing it was this lost, incredibly valuable translation of Aristotle. This really blew my mind. There is something crazy going on with this whole life-imitates-art business…

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