So far this year I have read two prize-winning ‘novels’ – The Sell Out by Paul Beatty (Man Booker) and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Pulitzer).
Both have been widely praised for their craft and cleverness. Both left me wondering what happened to good old-fashioned storytelling. These are driven by themes rather than plots, each with an unnamed narrator respectively reflecting upon racism in America and perceptions of the Vietnam war.
The weightiness and worthiness of the topics is beyond doubt but masked by a knowing irony; neither author has any interest in a conventional narrative with a start-middle & end.
Far be it from me to knock the post-modernist slant of these works. As a worshipper of David Foster Wallace, I am fully aware that modern truths cannot always be told in a linear style but at the same time I find myself increasingly missing characters and plots.
I have come to realize just how many classics of English literature I know but have never read; for example Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. While re-reading Infinite Jest I now intend to plug these gaps. Pre-modernism here I come.
I read this passage today and, although it is from a book published in 1996, I was immediately struck by how topical it is. What do you think?:
“Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country to shout ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it’s not as simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom – from; no one tells your precious individual USA selves what they must do.[……..] What of freedom – to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not know how to choose?”
pg 32o - Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
PATERSON directed by Jim Jarmusch (USA, 2016)
What does take to be a poet? A way with words and a keen eye helps. Then you need time, both to think and to write. The Welsh poet, W.H. Davies wrote “A poor life this is if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare”, the first lines of ‘Leisure’ published in 1911.
The title of Jim Jarmusch’s gentle and warm-hearted movie has three main points of reference: Paterson, the city in New Jersey, the title of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams and the name of a conscientious bus driver.
The location is the birthplace of Lou Costello of Abbot & Costello fame and it is also where a triple homicide took place that led to the wrongful arrest of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter in 1966. Continue reading
THE GREENLANDERS by Jane Smiley (Anchor Books, 2005)
Is life too short for big books?
When it comes to novels like Infinite Jest or Middlemarch, I’d say not.
David Foster Wallace was so overflowing with ideas that he needed the space to expand his thoughts while George Eliot used a larger palette to create a world with a world.
Yet, there seems to be a trend (or requirement) for writing 500 or more pages as a demonstration of a writer’s prowess.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s sprawling ‘Here I Am’ is one recent example of a novel that would have greatly benefited from trimming by at least 200 pages.
Jane Smiley’s epic Norse saga is another. Continue reading