The Dim-Post

October 29, 2014

Hiatus interruptus

Filed under: books,Politics — danylmc @ 9:04 am
  • My friend James gave his maiden speech in Parliament yesterday! 

 

  • I’ve just finished reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Half-way through I was describing it to friends as one of my favorite books ever. One of the odd, quirky things about it was a minor character called Leonard who was obviously a deft little sketch of David Foster-Wallace. Then in the second half of the book Leonard becomes a main character and the book turns into a study of Leonard’s depression, and the fact that David Foster-Wallace is shuffling around inside this novel is just really weird and uncomfortable.
  • Here’s a point I meant to make before i went on hiatus. Here’s the aggregated polling for the Internet-Mana Party.

internetmana

 

  • So. The Internet Party and the Mana Party merged in May. They were trending upwards in the polls until August when they slumped. What happened in August? A few things – it was a crazy campaign – but the big events for Internet/Mana were the ‘Fuck John Key’ video and Pam Corkery’s on camera meltdown. My post-hoc hypothesis is that those events were terribly damaging for Internet/Mana. But when those events happened the conventional wisdom among on-line activists (on my twitter feed, the comments of my blog, places like Public Address System, see also many posts on The Daily Blog, like this one) is these events were great for Internet/Mana. They were ‘disruptors’, and although these things might have upset mainstream New Zealand, that didn’t matter because Internet/Mana appealed to radicals and the disenfranchised, and they’d love this stuff, which was tapping into this deep vein of anger among the youth of the nation.
  • And, at the time, that sounded plausible to me. After all, Internet/Mana was a radical party. It turned out to be totally wrong though, so it’s worth bearing in mind that most of the left-wing commentariat aren’t just out of touch with mainstream New Zealand, they’re also out of touch with radical left-wing New Zealand. Something I think left-wing MPs and their staffers need to bear in mind when they’re being howled at by these folks on twitter all day.

May 18, 2014

This actually happened

Filed under: books,economics — danylmc @ 6:58 am

I read the introduction to Piketty last night, then dreamed that my computer stopped working because – it claimed – it was contributing to the aggregate increase in the rate of return on capital over economic growth. I do not remember how the dream ended.

I will write more about the actual book later. But I’ve been interested in the debate in the economics blogosphere. Left-wing economists all seem to think Pikety is right and right-wing economists all seem to think he’s wrong. (I would note that the objections I’ve heard from some on the right: ‘Piketty disregards the decline of inequality between nations, cf the development of China,’ or ‘Pikety disregards the ability of education and skills transfer to reduce inequality,’ seem to be issues Piketty addresses in the introduction to his book. Maybe there are more substantive critiques out there?).

Anyway, my point is that the question Piketty asks is important: does capitalism reduce or increase inequality over time? He reckons it increases inequality, left-wing economists agree with him; right-wing economists reckon he’s wrong. What are non-economists supposed to make of a discipline that splits along partisan lines over a fundamental empirical question?

April 15, 2014

On what really annoyed me about ‘The Goldfinch’

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 12:07 pm

Donna Tartt’s new book won the Pulitzer Prize today. Lots of people loved this book – and if you’re into beautiful prose there is a lot to love. But the story-telling really bugged me, and the event of it winning a major literary award seemed like a good time to whine about it. (Warning: contains spoilers that spoil the entire plot).

First let me talk about great story-telling. There’s a scene I love in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. It’s in the first third: John Travolta and Uma Thurman have just finished their date, won their dance contest and gone back to Uma’s place where they share a romantic moment. Then John Travolta goes into the bathroom.

Because we’ve all seen a thousand genre movies the audience thinks they know what’s about to happen. Travolta will come out of the bathroom and he and Uma will have sex. Travolta and Thurman will fall in love. Thurman’s boss, a vicious, jealous crime lord will find out, and the rest of the movie will be about how this drama plays itself out, presumably involving the mysterious glowing contents of the suitcase we saw at the beginning of the movie. Everything that’s happened in the movie so-far seems to have set up this narrative.

But all the audience’s expectations are completely wrong. Instead Thurman helps herself to drugs she find’s in Travolta’s jacket, overdoses and Travolta takes her to his drug-dealers house and injects her heart with adrenaline. One of the reasons this scene plays out so well is that we’re off the road-map. The viewer has no idea what’s going to happen. And all of this – the drugs, the drug dealer etc – has also been set up previously in the movie, but done so slyly that we never suspected they were plot devices.

Tartt tries to do something similar in The Goldfinch. The main character Theo has stolen a priceless painting and hidden it in a storage facility, and we assume that the book will be about him escaping the police and the other unsavory characters who want to take it off him. But two-thirds of the way through the book we find out that Theo does not, in fact, have his stolen painting hidden in a secure storage facility. It was stolen by his friend Boris years ago and went missing in a drug deal. But instead of putting all the clues out there and just letting the reader form their own false conclusions, Tartt tricks us: both of the main characters act totally against character in order to set up her big dramatic reveal. Theo tells the reader he never told anyone about the painting – turns out he did but was drunk so he forgot. Boris took the painting and can’t really explain why, in a way that made it look like it was still in Theo’s possession and can’t really explain why, and didn’t give it back when Theo left and can’t really explain why, and Theo never once actually looked at his priceless painting for eight(?) years. None of that makes any sense. And I think Tartt knows that, because she does quite a bit of hard work trying to justify, say, Theo never once looking at his painting; the plot of the book picks up quickly at that point and she introduces sinister gangsters and other interesting distractions.

(The Goldfinch also falls down awfully at the end, I think – Theo spends about eighty pages in a hotel drinking and vomiting while Boris runs around and ties up all the plot problems. But at least that’s a legitimate choice Tartt made about how to tell her story instead of a scam she runs on the reader.)

Tartt references Dostoevsky a lot in this book and all the critics praise it as ‘Dickensian’ but I think the main influence was Patricia Highsmith. Disturbed protagonist, art; forgery. Psychological thriller. But Highsmith lets her characters drive the story. Tartt’s characters seem to drink and act erratically because that lets the writer get away with plot developments that wouldn’t make sense if the characters were rational.  Aspiring writers like myself always get lectured about having our characters ‘make choices’ because that ‘defines character’. I’m not sure the main character in this Pulitzer Prize winner makes a single meaningful choice in the entire book.

April 12, 2014

An accumulation of nameless energies

Filed under: books,general idiocy — danylmc @ 7:23 pm

This Herald piece by John Roughan about waiting to see the royals drive by:

We waited only 15 minutes past the scheduled time of arrival, 45 in total, a millisecond in royalist time.

Then, noise and fluttering flags down Jellicoe St said they were coming. First came police bikes, then a police car, another, followed by a real car. Could that be it? Hard to see through tinted windows. No.

The next Crown limo was the one. She was on our side of the car and not just waving, leaning forward, looking happy to see us all, really waving, genuinely smiling.

The cars had not stopped. She passed in a second. We would have seen far more on television but there is something about the briefest glimpse of real life that you never forget.

Reminded me of a famous passage from Delillo’s White Noise: 

We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

 

 

April 5, 2014

Brief thoughts on the Kindle

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 8:23 am

I bought a Kindle Paperwhite2 a couple of months ago. Not because I desperately wanted a superior technology to read books with – plain old paper books always seemed fine to me – but because I had too many of the damn things and didn’t have anywhere to put new ones.

  • I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the experience of reading on the eBook. The screen is not back-lit, so it doesn’t strain my eyes. I can read in full sunlight. It’s lighter than most books. I never lose what page I’m on, and there are fewer words on any given page so I never spend time finding my place. I think I’m a convert.
  • But the big impact has been on the way I buy books. Previously I’d find myself in a bookstore, see a couple of books I wanted and buy them, but depending on the book I only had about a 50% chance of reading them. I’d put ‘em on my bedside table and finish what I was currently reading, and maybe I’d read one of those books next – but maybe something way more interesting would come along, and those two books would sit on the table for a while until they were purged in a spring-clean and relegated to a bookshelf in the spare room. I like to think I’ve read ~60% of all the books I own but that might be optimistic.
  • The Kindle changes that, because I don’t need to ‘stock up’ anymore. Buying a new book and having it delivered only takes about thirty seconds, so when I buy a new book its on the basis that I’ve finished what I was reading and I’m going to move onto the next one right now. The eBooks themselves are marginally cheaper but the real saving is that I don’t impulse buy.
  • Which – if my behavior is normal – is probably bad news for the publishing industry.

 

March 6, 2014

Danyl watch

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 9:28 am

I’m speaking at the VUW Debating Society’s Orientation week event tonight debating the motion ‘That We Support Colin Craig for Prime Minister’, which kicks off at 7:30 in the Hunter lounge. Tomorrow afternoon I’m chairing a panel on Copyright for Wellington writers week. Tickets here. Also it’s been a while since I shilled my book, so you can buy a copy here.

That is all.

February 13, 2014

The supermarkets of August

Filed under: books,Politics — danylmc @ 11:45 am

I’ve been reading The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, a very good history of the origins of WWI. And I’ve been joking to myself that if I were Chris Trotter I’d be gleefully stuffing every event in New Zealand politics into some tortured parallel of fin de siecle Balkan history. (Just as Dragutin Dimitrijević outmaneuvered Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić, David Cunliffe must outwit John Key and assassinate the arch-duke of west-Auckland voter turnout.)

Only, this thing with Australian and New Zealand supermarkets does have a pre-July crisis vibe to it. You have an international system in which politicians and other players make short-term rational decisions based on business needs or domestic politics, possibly leading to an escalation as individuals in the other country also respond with their own domestic politics or short-term interests at heart.  Hopefully this won’t all lead to a trade war. (Or an actual war.)

Also of note about The Sleepwalkers. Clark notes in the introduction that the various statesmen involved in the outbreak of war all published post-war memoirs giving their eye-witness to history account of things. And when their private diaries, meeting notes etc were declassified decades later the memoirs all turned out to be steaming piles of self-serving lies. Worth bearing in mind. (I’ve noticed that politicians tend to read political memoirs rather than actual history.) Also of note. None of the key political players involved in the outbreak of a war that led to approximately twenty million deaths ever showed the slightest flicker of remorse or self-doubt about their actions.

January 24, 2014

Notes on ‘Du côté de chez Swann’ by Marcel Proust

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 9:16 am

Ugh! Thank God that’s over.

Briefly: Alternately translated as Swann’s Way or The Way by Swann, this is the first volume (of eight) of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. It’s famously long, famously slow-moving and contemplative and routinely praised as the greatest work of literature of the twentieth century. I read Lydia Davis’ translation.

And I hated it. Proust writes very dense sort-of-stream-of-consciousness prose. There are no paragraph breaks and no chapters – it just continues on for hundreds and hundreds of pages, and he writes this very dense prose in very long sentences.

Now some people love Proust’s long sentences. They’re cited as an example of his genius and most of the essays on the internet urging everyone to read Proust instruct prospective readers to ‘surrender to Proust’ or ‘give yourself up to Proust,’ and let his long, meandering sentences sweep you away into his beautiful tableau of art and love and obsession and memory and time. And I really tried to do that! But while Proust’s writing is very beautiful and meticulously crafted, I found the act of reading it to be a tedious joyless experience for which I blame the endless, endlessly long sentences. Here’s a typical Proustian sentence from the last section of Swann’s Way: 

The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcibly her whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of a man in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me, in action, so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and as it drew near to its target; — carrying in its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impression of her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called to her, everything that, while she uttered the words, she more or less vividly reviewed, possessed in her memory, of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let her message brush past me without my being able to penetrate its surface, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry: letting float in the atmosphere the delicious attar which that message had distilled, by touching them with precision, from certain invisible points in Mlle. Swann’s life, from the evening to come, as it would be, after dinner, at her home, — forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, exquisitely coloured, like the cloud that, curling over one of Poussin’s gardens, reflects minutely, like a cloud in the opera, teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods; casting, finally, on that ragged grass, at the spot on which she stood (at once a scrap of withered lawn and a moment in the afternoon of the fair player, who continued to beat up and catch her shuttlecock until a governess, with a blue feather in her hat, had called her away) a marvellous little band of light, of the colour of heliotrope, spread over the lawn like a carpet on which I could not tire of treading to and fro with lingering feet, nostalgic and profane, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, button up your coat, look, and let’s get away!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat.

I don’t know about you but I just find that shit really hard to read. I get confused. I get bored. My mind wanders. I force it back, realise I’ve forgotten how the sentence started, go back to the beginning, start reading again forcing myself to concentrate harder. The result is that Proust never took me out of myself. I never derived any pleasure from reading his book: I was always aware that I was staring at lines of text on a page instead of being transported into the world of the novel.

That’s a pretty huge stumbling block. But obviously some people get past that, fall in love with his prose and read and re-read all three-and-a-half million words of Recherche du temps, and a lot of them then run around telling everyone else to read it. And I get it. Some of the passages describing thought and memory and obsession are dazzling. Proust is a great psychologist, and what he’s done with his literary genius and psychological penetration is amazing. He’s taken traditional subjects like a childhood memoir and a doomed love affair and told them almost entirely through the interior thoughts of his characters.

By way of example: The longest section of Swann’s Way is entitled ‘Swann in Love’ and describes a doomed love affair and the mental states of a character called Swann as he falls in love and is consumed with jealousy. It’s about two hundred pages long, a bit longer than the Great Gatsby, so if you can imagine two hundred pages of Gatsby thinking about Daisy: her face, her voice, how he feels about her, how he feels about how he feels about her, how he feels when he’s with her, how he feels when he isn’t, how he feels when she’s with Tom, how she liked his shirts, (followed by several dozen pages describing each of the shirts in precise detail), how he feels about how she liked his shirts and how that makes him feel, with a brief coda at the end adding that Gatsby got shot and Daisy went back to Tom, then you have a rough idea of how Swann’s Way plays out.

Like I say, some people love it and celebrate it as the greatest novel ever, and when you read some of the famous passages – Proust and the madeline cake, the vision of the Church steeples, the opening passages about dreaming and memory – I can sort-of see it. But there are huge, huge sections of Swann’s Way which seem impossible to love. When I told a friend I was reading it he pulled a face and said, ‘I couldn’t get past the dinner party.’ There’s a very long scene in which Proust describes a very boring dinner party in which people make weak jokes and gossip about bourgeois society in belle epoque France. There’s another scene which, searching the internet, seems to make many readers of Swann’s Way throw the book aside in disgust in which Proust describes a rose for sixteen pages. I almost gave up near the end when I encountered a page-long sentence detailing the time a train Proust wanted to take – but didn’t – left the train station.

So I’m a little suspicious of Proust champions. Can a book with several extended sequences so dull they’re essentially unreadable really be a masterpiece, even if some of the other passages are sublime? Or do people who praise it so highly do so partly as an act of signaling to display that they’ve read a very long, very difficult work of literature?

January 1, 2014

Notes on ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 1:31 pm

I’ve been meaning to read these books for at least fifteen years and I finally got around to it over the last couple months. Some observations:

Briefly: The books tell (sort-of) the story of a group of friends, rivals and lovers in pre-war Alexandria: back when the city was a cosmopolitan, permissive, polyglot swirl of religion and culture and race. Each book deepens the story and casts the character’s motivations in a new light. The overall plot is clever and complex, and is often closer to a political thriller than the ‘exploration of relativity and the notions of continuum and subject–object relation,’ that Durrell describes in his introduction to the second book (Balthazar). 

They have a reputation for being difficult: The first book (Justine) is rather hard to read. They get easier, except for a long, boring section on the British Foreign Service in book three and an extensive incredibly pretentious dull excerpt from someone’s notebook in book four: a section I was tempted to skip, and I suspect most readers do, but which contains a crucial plot twist.

The prose is amazing: GoodReads has a selection of quotes. But the highlights are the descriptive set-pieces: long sequences describing say, a duck-hunt on a lake, a masked ball, a horse-ride through the desert or a bombing raid on the Alexandria harbour. The only thing I’ve read that compares to them is War and Peace with its battle scenes, the wolf-hunt, Natasha’s dance, etc.

Durrell is a misogynist, which is problematic because his books are supposed to be an extended meditation on the subject of love but are filled with lines like: ‘There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.’ The finest compliment Durrell can pay to any of his female characters is to compare them to a man. ‘She had a mind like a man,’ or ‘She had a man’s sense of humor.’ I doubt this attitude led to many happy relationships, and (for me) casts his role as an authority on romance, love and sex into some doubt. His female characters tend to die or be horribly mutilated.

C P Cavafy is referenced often in the books as ‘The Poet of the City’, and quoted extensively. Durrell’s books played a large role in introducing him to a western audience. His most famous work is Waiting for the BarbariansI also like Ithaca and think about it often.

Some critics claim that these books represent the ‘influence of quantum mechanics on creative writing’. When I read that a few months ago I thought, ‘Wow!’ And that theory is what made me finally read these books. But aside from some vague musings about ‘the observer and the observed’ in book four (Clea) I really don’t see any any influence of quantum theory at all. According to Wikipedia this interpretation of the novels was argued in a paper entitled Quantum Fiction: Relativity and Postmodernism in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. I can’t find this online anywhere. But the title itself is a bit weird. Quantum theory and relativity are different theories. And they’re incompatible with each other. Like, famously so. Maybe all the quantum theory in he books went over my head, but I don’t think there is any. Also, these books were published in the late 1950’s and I wonder how accessible quantum theory was to non-physicists back then? 

Relativity: Durrell certainly thought he was writing about relativity, or rather special relativity. The book contains passages like:

“We live lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time – not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.”

Well, okay. But our positions in space-time aren’t very different from each other in relativistic terms. We’re not light-years away from each other or accelerating at near light speed. Also, apparently the first three books represent the three spatial dimensions and the third represents time. I can sort-of see this. Sort of. But it doesn’t mean anything to me. Sometimes writers give their books a visible structure, like The Luminaries with its astrology or Ulysses with its correspondences to The Odyssey; most of the time the structure is ‘invisible’ and is just there to inspire the author. The work itself stands apart from it. Maybe that’s the case here?

I went to Alexandria in early 1999. It was winter and there had recently been a spate of terrorist attacks in tourists in upper Egypt so the only other tourist in my hotel was a gay American Doctor working for the WHO in Sudan who had read Durrell and Cavafy and convinced himself that Alexandria was still a wild, swinging town. He was bitterly disappointed to find that Alexandria under the Mubarak dictatorship was a very quiet, totally Arabic city; that all the decadent Greeks and Jews and European expatriates that form the backdrop to Durrell’s novels had been gone for half a century and that his only companion during his long-awaited sex holiday was a sunburned heterosexual New Zealand backpacker. He loaned me a book of Cavafy’s poetry and we spent a few days travelling around the city together: I now realise that many of the places we visited were important locales in The Alexandria Quartet (Mareotis, the bar at the Cecil Hotel).

So the city I visited was very different to the one in these books. Egypt isn’t a very safe place nowadays, and if I ever go back to Alexandria it’ll be a very different place yet again.

Final Analysis: Horribly flawed but still an astonishing masterpiece. Probably as flawed as a masterpiece can get and still remain one.

December 3, 2013

Also too: Notes on Infinite Jest or, Why I will never finish reading Infinite Jest

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 9:35 am

A couple of years ago I did a couple of posts on Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. The idea was that I’d read it over the summer of 2011, and people who read the blog would read it along with me. This didn’t work out: I made it about 300 pages into the book and then gave up, and I was always kind of embarrassed about that. And now every time I blog about a book someone jumps into the comments thread and demands to know: ‘What happened with Infinite Jest?’ 

Short answer: I stopped reading it. Slightly longer answer: I found it entertaining at first, but increasingly boring and unrewarding.

A bit longer still: basically I didn’t have any confidence in the author. I wrote at the time:

When I’m reading this book I always have DFW’s suicide, and the subsequent revelation that he struggled with depression for most of his life lurking in the back of my mind. So when I come across pages of technical minutiae that hardly anyone reading the book can understand I wonder: is this a clever literary technique, or witty joke, or did he write this stuff because he was, basically, a mad genius and its presence in this book defies a sane explanation?

And that lack of confidence got worse the more I read. A twenty page unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness section about a character who has nothing to do with the rest of the book? Followed by a dozen pages describing the air-conditioning beneath a tennis academy? At some point I just decided the author was wasting my time. But, paradoxically, I always thought I’d go back and finish it off at some stage, because it’s an important book, and it must be ultimately rewarding, right?

Then earlier this year I read D T Max’s biography of David Foster-Wallace. The point of Inifinite Jest, it explained, is that DFW thought that the problem with contemporary western society is that we’re addicted to entertainment. We’re ‘amusing ourselves to death.’ His solution to that problem was Infinite Jest which he described as ‘anti-entertainment’. Hence thousands of footnotes so you have to keep flipping back and forth through the book to read it. Hence unpunctuated stream-of-conciousness; hence the lack of a narrative, and so on.

And I have two questions here: is DFW’s ‘addicted to entertainment’ thesis even remotely valid? Is that really the big problem confronting post-industrial capitalist democracies in the late 20th, early 21st century? And even if it is, even if you give him that, is a very long, deliberately unreadable book the solution to that problem?

I like a lot of DFW’s journalism, and his short stories (although I can’t read or listen to ‘This is Water’ and take it seriously.) Maybe Infinite Jest seemed more relevant during the long boom of the 1990s? I don’t know. I do know I don’t intend to revisit it.

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