Two New Books About Jorge Luis Borges : The New Yorker

Borges’s fictional universe is relentlessly, oppressively male. He wrote very few female characters, and there is a vision of masculinity—violent, fearless, austere—that exists in his work as a counterpoint to its obsessive bookishness, and neither ideal has much room for the presence of women, writers or otherwise. His abstraction meant, among other things, a removal from the heat and chaos of human relationships. There is very little love in his work, very little emotional intensity; its richness and complexity is that of philosophical problems, of theology and ontology, not of human relationships.

Two New Books About Jorge Luis Borges : The New Yorker

Real life is messy. And as a general rule, the more theatrical the story you hear, and the more it divides the world into goodies vs baddies, the less reliable that story is going to be. […] One of the central problems with narrative nonfiction is that the best narratives aren’t messy and complicated, while nonfiction nearly always is.

Felix Salmon. I was so glad to see this article this afternoon. I just created my life is messy tag last night. (via)

Writers, it seems to me, should write, not make speeches. But speeches, like quasi-journalistic writing assignments, can come attached to plane tickets, to hotel rooms in cities one might never have thought of visiting otherwise. In writing speeches, curiously, one sometimes finds out what one thinks, at that moment, about something. The world at large, say. Or futurity. Or the impossibility of absolutely grasping either. Generally they make me even more uncomfortable to write than articles, but later, back in the place of writing fiction, I often discover that I have been trying to tell myself something.

William Gibson on creative transference.

We [are] shaped as writers, I believe, not much by who our favorite writers are as by our general experience of fiction. Learning to write fiction, we learn to listen for our own acquired sense of what feels right, based on the totality of the pleasure (or its lack) that fiction has provided us. Not direct emulation, but rather a matter of a personal micro-culture.

William Gibson via Brain Pickings. I just picked up this book. Really looking forward to reading more.

The Decay of Lying – Oscar Wilde

Dang, this is a great essay. If you only know it from the famous “Life imitates Art” bit out of context, you’re missing out on a world of goodness. There’s a million quotable parts. Here’s a few…

I first got sucked in with this (tongue-in-cheek?) bit on Nature.

If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One’s individuality absolutely leaves one.

I wonder about this one:

The more abstract, the more ideal an art is, the more it reveals to us the temper of its age. If we wish to understand a nation by means of its art, let us look at its architecture or its music.

On the change from old-school fiction vs. fiction in Wilde’s time, when novels were really taking off. Still true today?

The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.

And finally to that “Life imitates Art” thing.

Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.

Along the same lines…

A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher.

We see lilypads and think of Monet, we see Western landscapes as perfect replicas of an Ansel Adams, we experience love through filters we borrowed from Romeo & Juliet or Casablanca. Reminds me of a bit I quoted from The Age of the Infovore, when Tyler Cowen acknowledges that many of his dreams, fantasies, experiences are borrowed:

I treasure those thoughts and feelings so much but in reality I pull a lot of them from a social context and I pull them from points that are socially salient. That means I pull them from celebrities, from ads, from popular culture, and most generally from ideas that are easy to communicate and disseminate to large numbers of people. We all dream in pop culture language to some degree.

The Decay of Lying – Oscar Wilde

Dickens in Lagos – Lapham’s Quarterly

George Packer argues that “in vast, impoverished cities like Bombay, Cairo, Jakarta, Rio, or Lagos, the plot lines of the nineteenth century proliferate.” And thus, the readers of the developing world can more easily relate.

The concerns of that literature [late 19th-century novels]—the individual caught in an encompassing social web, the sensitive young mind trapped inside an indifferent world, the beguiling journey from countryside to metropolis, the dismal inventiveness with which people survive, the permanent gap between imagination and opportunity, the big families whose problems are lived out in the street, the tragic pregnancies, the ubiquity of corruption, the earnest efforts at self-education, the preciousness of books, the squalid factories and debtor’s prisons, the valuable garbage, the complex rules of patronage and extortion, the sudden turns of fortune, the sidewalk con men and legless beggars, the slum as theater of the grotesque: long after these things dropped out of Western literature, they became the stuff of ordinary life elsewhere, in places where modernity is arriving but hasn’t begun to solve the problems of people thrown together in the urban cauldron.

Dickens in Lagos – Lapham’s Quarterly

Death is Not the End – David Foster Wallace: His Legacy and his Critics – The Point Magazine

Man, The Point seems like a fantastic magazine (see also). This is one of the better DFW appreciations I’ve read, looking past the form and into the function, his mission, if we may call it that. Special focus is given to E Unibus Pluram and Infinite Jest. It’s one of those articles that makes me want to read more. Great, great stuff.

Death is Not the End – David Foster Wallace: His Legacy and his Critics – The Point Magazine

Books Which Have Influenced Me – Robert Louis Stevenson

The most influential books, and the truest in their influence, are works of fiction. They do not pin the reader to a dogma, which he must afterwards discover to be inexact; they do not teach him a lesson, which he must afterwards unlearn. They repeat, they rearrange, they clarify the lessons of life; they disengage us from ourselves, they constrain us to the acquaintance of others; and they show us the web of experience, not as we can see it for ourselves, but with a singular change—that monstrous, consuming ego of ours being, for the nonce, struck out.

Books Which Have Influenced Me – Robert Louis Stevenson

Oblivion (review: 4/5)


James Tanner’s Growing Sentences with David Foster Wallace is a nice parody of the writer’s style. A little absurd but kind of spot-on. Amusing for a little while, just like it always is when you’re watching someone else work. But if you get a chance to read a bit of Wallace (granted, I’m no expert—I’ve only got maybe 3-400 pages under my belt, but more is on the way), you get a sense of how crazy inventive this guy was, whether you like the stories or not.

In the stories in Oblivion, all these layers of ambiguity or inexactness juxtapose with excessive detail. I like the way the narrators/protagonists/Wallace zip around making associations and adjustments and corrections, sentences accumulating detail as you read. At its best it’s kind of like a mural with words. Everything, large, all at once.

Let me get fetishy with a couple sentences. My favorite bit in recent memory, from The Soul Is Not a Smithy:

I was often the first to register the sound of my father’s key in the front door. It took only four steps and a brief sockslide into the foyer to be able to see him first as he entered on a wave of outside air.

Four steps and a sockslide and a wave of outside air. Lord, that’s perfect. I’m willing to grant that I especially like that one because it makes me think of Dad, but I haven’t read something so compact but evocative in a long time. Here’s a funny bit from the opening story, Mister Squishy, mostly set in a market research office:

Attached to the breast pocket on the same side of his shirt as his nametag was also a large pin or button emblazoned with the familiar Mister Squishy brand icon, which was a plump and childlike cartoon face of indeterminate ethnicity with its eyes squeezed parly shut in an expression that somehow connoted delight, satiation, and rapacious desire all at the same time.

You can certainly read the verbosity as annoying and peacockish, but I can’t help but love seeing the product of a mind at work, like he’s been doing some serious thinking and noticing. Likewise, a couple dozen pages further into the story, some clever meeting room cynicism:

All that ever changed were the jargon and mechanisms and gilt rococo with which everyone in the whole huge blind grinding mechanism conspired to convince each other that they could figure out how to give the paying customer what they could prove he could be persuaded to believe he wanted…

I’d say Good Old Neon was the highlight for me, but the title story Oblivion gives it good competition. The first is imagined reflections before a suicide. The second a husband’s retelling of an ongoing dispute with his wife about his alleged snoring. Neither of those summaries do them justice. Read those two at least.