A Rumination On The Genius Of David Foster Wallace

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Like many people, I’m sure, I was part way through Infinite Jest when I realized that David Foster Wallace is a genius. The entire scope of the book, its almost encyclopedic nature (not to mention the length, because I’d be remised) in how it feels so all encompassing of this world, no, universe that he created, to these painful characters who are so human and raw. I knew he was a literary genius as soon as I read that book, then later on I got further through his bibliography and read Everything And More (his book literarily about the history of infinity largely told through mathematic equations) and Fate, Time, And Language (his college thesis on free will and his critique on philosopher Richard Taylor) and realized I had to throw the “literary” caveat away and realize he was just a flat out genius.

It didn’t start out that revolutionary, though, as I was pretty averagely whelmed by his first novel The Broom Of The System. I really enjoyed it for the first half when it was building up its world and ideas, but then everything fell off a cliff in the back half and I found it a slog to get through. Wallace just meandered in these character’s thoughts and didn’t seem too intent on actually doing much besides the very base introductions into the main character Lenore’s mental crises. I found it funny that Wallace himself famously hates looking back on this novel as he thinks its pretty juvenile and amateur in a writing sense. Not that I’m taking any extra credit in not really liking it, quite the opposite, in fact wish I could write something this good at my age, let alone his age at the time.

Girl With Curious Hair just seemed like a fine enough short story collection where I particularly liked the ones on Jeopardy!, Lyndon Johnson and Late Night With David Letterman, but the rest fell pretty flat and often were a slog to get through. His collaboration book Signifying Rappers: Rap And Race In The Urban Present with his friend Mark Costello read like it was just written yesterday with its pin-point thoughts on everything inside of hip-hop from race to piracy to communication to its perception and on and on. Wallace and Costello both expertly broke down the prejudices laid against the music and the untruths about it and how hip-hop encapsulates a wide breadth of modern culture, even back in the early 90s, that some might not even be fully aware of. And as good as it was, I’m preconditioning to liking hip-hop anything because I love the genre so much, but I still felt like maybe I just didn’t “get” Wallace and was waiting to see if anything of his really clicked with me, or if I was going to be part of the other group who just never understood his hype.

And, yes, now we cue Infinite Jest. Everybody cries about the length of the book, and yes it’s long as hell with its footnotes section being longer than your average book, but it never really feels that long. This is a 1,000 plus page book that never feels like it drags, and that’s something when it’s largely just spouting philosophical thought or rambling on about the effects of whatever random drug. The book is obviously dense and has layers upon layers, but it’s not hard to get through per se, but it just takes time. A lot of the plot doesn’t even matter, because not all that much really happens, it’s just really following these various storylines that really never make any grand aspirations to go anywhere, and thus you reading this is less of following what happens, but living in this absurdist world that Wallace has created. “Absurd” is the word I always keep coming back to with this book, especially in something I wasn’t really expecting, even though I should have, was how hilarious this book is. Wallace knows how to write true characters, and this book has straight-up jokes, but also mines humour from just basic humanistic things that nobody ever speaks aloud, but pretty much everybody does. I never really thought I’d like this this much, but I was kind of left in awe of this world that Wallace created where I was constantly admiring his scope in world building, characters and fine details that made this thing a piece of art from simple word to word connections on each page.

Following that he delivered A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Anymore which is basically his masterpiece essay collection which I loved it all the way around. The highlights are his essay on television which is very insightful and surprisingly relevant from when he wrote it over twenty years ago, the tennis essay on Michael Joyce which lets Wallace dig around in his passion and exposes some of the oddities of the tennis world, and his famous essay documenting his stay on a cruise ship which is full of all his signature observations on human behaviour.

As I mentioned above, Everything And More and Fate, Time And Language took Wallace to another echelon with me, even though I probably understood about 10% combined of what he was saying in both of these works. Seeing that Everything And More was subtitled “A Compact History of Infinity” I of course thought it was a tongue-in-cheek joke from Wallace, just an ironic outlandish name to title a selection of essays that obviously wouldn’t measure up to the concept of infinity. Except, no, David Foster Wallace wrote a legit history of infinity and quite literally writes what is basically a math textbook, with some of that Wallace flair.

Fate, Time And Language is like a sibling to Everything And More in that it continues to prove that David Foster Wallace is a genius beyond the bounds of fiction literature, into mathematics and philosophy. I mean, I couldn’t entirely connect with this book/essay/thesis because I really don’t care that much about philosophy (and definitely not to the astronomical levels that Wallace did), so these questions posed, fighting back on theories and breaking down of these phrases into their literal and metaphysical parts by Wallace just seem pointless to me. It’s like you knew David Foster Wallace was some kind of literary savant on some high level, but then he busts these two things seemingly out of nowhere and you think this guys gotta be on some kind of genius level to have all this scholarly strength rattling up in his brain. It’s kinda crazy how he can switch from writing about sociology to tennis to politics to complex math problems and make them all digestible and brilliant in their own way.

His various other collections throughout the years in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Oblivion, Consider The Lobster and Both Flesh And Not all exceed in their own ways giving Wallace equal balance to explore his more serious efforts sandwiched in between something funny or even just fawning over Roger Federer. Up, Simba! Up, Simba! was a fascinating read on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, mainly because I at my young age really only started knowing about McCain from his 2008 bid, so it was fascinating hearing about him in this context because all the insights about his personality don’t really seem that interesting or new due to the fact that I’m reading this 16 years after it was written and I was already aware of this portrait of him (ie. the whole Vietnam POW stuff, and how he seemingly flys in the face of what a buttoned up politician should act like). This Is Water, his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, proved that, hell, Wallace might as well tackle another medium for his words and make it masterful.

Wallace’s last piece of work before his death, The Pale King, is terrific in its own unfinished right. It’s great all the way around and has sparkles and glints of a masterpiece buried beneath it. Of course we’re always gonna wonder what this novel would’ve looked like if Wallace got it to how he wanted it before he died, but I bet it isn’t too far away from what we got to read and all-and-all it’s a pretty great reconstruction of chapters in varying levels of madness. Dude literally made a book about the IRS interesting, that should be grounds for a masterpiece itself.

It’s funny, coming into reading David Foster Wallace I kind of didn’t want to like him. I have this semi-hipster mentality where I hate liking things that the mass media fawns over and loves. Infinite Jest would not stop popping up wherever I looked like some goddamn gopher, so I said “okay, I’ll finally read this thing” and because I’m an insane maniac I can’t just read a book part way through someone’s bibliography, so I read all his works from the beginning and as gross as it sounds, I’m better for it. Knowing very little about David Foster Wallace I just assumed he was kind of a shut-in literary snob who was this lame, pain-filled writer who had one legendary book and killed himself. Reading all of his works, including the essential Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (and the great film version, The End Of The Tour, with fantastic performances from both Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky)road trip recollection from David Lipsky that charts Lipsky’s time with Wallace over part of the Infinite Jest book tour, I found out about the beautiful person Wallace was amongst all that pain bubbling under.

David Foster Wallace was SO human. That’s what I liked about him, I mean sure I believe he’s actually operating on some genius level I don’t understand, but he also just fucking loves Alanis Morissette a lot and wrote an essay on why Terminator 2: Judgment Day sucks so much and writes about tennis like Michelangelo is sculpting it. He’s simultaneously this smart guy in mathematics, philosophy and higher-thinking and should probably be a snob about it, but he’s just too human and understands low brow and high brow equally enough that those two definitions wouldn’t seem like a division to him. In other words, the history of infinity to him is of the exact same importance to why Terminator 2 sucks so much. As I read his books I would often become very sad that his genius wouldn’t continue to create great works, but happy that the ones he did create exist and that they represent himself so accurately in all the happiness, pain, and wonder that made up David Foster Wallace.

Jonathan Franzen: A Good Writer Except When He’s Not

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I love family dramas. On the surface they’re the most boring things ever, because it’s literally just following what you/your family just literally does every day. You’re supposed to read books and watch movies because it’s a supposed piece of escapism from your current situation and why would you want to watch what you boringly live every day. Now, of course it’s not that simple, these dramas usually always intend to reveal something about relationships, manners of thinking and approaching various themes in everyday life that you would never think to look at in a certain way. I myself gravitate toward realism and seeing things that I can relate to in popular media, whether you’re trying to get through something similar or can relate to how a character is feeling that reflects your current life situation. Those can be some of the most important things that art in any aspect can do for you.

Jonathan Franzen wouldn’t find his bread and butter in direct family drama until The Corrections, but his first two novels are definitely interesting case studies. His first novel The Twenty-Seventh City is a weird mix of family drama with the exploration of governing/policing, race and so on of St. Louis as a living breath city. There’s also a tinge of creepy mysticism that keeps things off kilter and makes you feel like you’re viewing this novel as an alternate dimension that is just 0.1% off of what ours is. I do like Franzen’s writing quite a bit, but often he’s too showy and wordy with his descriptions of simple things that thus seem so forced. It reeks of him trying to show off his writing skills by overcomplicating things to a fault, where his writing gets too much in the way of the story.

His second novel Strong Motion takes awhile to get where it wants to go and achieve what it wants to say, but ends up being marginally worth itself in the end. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, the narrative is fine, but the drawing of his characters is the key element to the novel (something that is the prime key in all of his novels). This novel continues the theme of Franzen being so stuck in trying to SHOW you how good a writer he is by describing simple things in vast over-exaggerated metaphors that it comes off so painfully try-hard. I love the irony that what he thinks makes him such a great writer does the exact opposite and makes him dreadfully trite.

I might as well get into it now, because it’s basically the prime reason I’m writing this thing, Jonathan Franzen’s gotta be one of the creepiest writers of all time. I can’t tell you how many screenshots I took on my phone when reading his first two novels (and then eventually the rest of his bibliography) of some of the weirdest most unnecessary depictions of sex and human body parts/functions. I always gotta shake my head every few pages just because he feels the need to muse about a character “putting semen in the hollow of a pelvis” or comparing breasts to scones or some other weird thing. It’s cringe-inducing for him to be so graphic about describing sexual experiences and activities by insisting they be spelled out with the creepiest metaphors and by either describing things wholly scientific or by the most gross out way possible. I’m the furthest thing from a prude, but literally every novel he writes has to include the most frank descriptions of sex that it’s like it’s in his contract or something. It’s not even like he’s trying to make a point by writing like this, it just comes off as this weird, out of touch (probably literally with these types of descriptions) dude who writes about sex as if he’s never done it before and is relaying this information second-hand from someone he overheard once.

The Corrections is a very bare bones family drama, concerning the mother of the family wanting to get her three kids back to their family household for one last Christmas with their father who is ailing from Parkinson’s and other underlying health conditions. Franzen is largely a very good writer, but it often gets clouded in his incessant need to bang us over the head with his political and economic themes. The Corrections is the first after his first two novels to do well in being able to siphon his ideas through these specific characters where it doesn’t feel like he’s just halting the novel to lecture you about things like he did previously. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece or anything like that, but it’s the first of his novels to actually click on every level in detailing family, sociology and industrialism and so forth and actually ends up saying something meaningful.

Freedom is basically Franzen realizing that The Corrections did so good, so let’s go full out with this family drama thing. Again, for the most part, it works because Franzen’s ever longing need to stuff his books with his thoughts on politics, industrialism, Americana, sociology etc. into these characters makes it seem less forced (not that it isn’t still forced, just less so, but still largely feels like Franzen lecturing you on ideas that even if you agree with just makes everything seem so overbearing) by driving them more through the characters and how they progress and change, or don’t.

Purity on the other hand is an aimless mess that never amounts to what it sets out to be. The attempt is to draw some sort of social commentary (as Franzen ALWAYS has to do) by drawing from modern technology and Edward Snowden and Julian Assange character archetypes that falls flat on its face. This is one where Franzen’s obsession with his own writing swallows what small nuggets of a good story are somewhere in here. It was reasoned to happen that he wouldn’t be able to keep a lid on his social commentary by just having it bubble underneath like he previously did, nope this thing is full out and in your face and thus gives you his worst novel because of this. In a way it’s interesting to explore the new technological edge and how that affects these sorts of societal norms that Franzen has been writing about for twenty years, but that gimmick has been played out for so long already that Franzen just seems even more out of touch than usual.

Harry Potter: Wherein I Finally Read The Entire Series After A 14 Year Break

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Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone kicks off with a bang and it really doesn’t let up until the end. I forgot how much they packed into this short book and how well it moves along, never coming up for air, and just marches to the end full of confidence. It’s funny reading this book now where it’s so short, whereas when I first read it when it first came out I thought it was the longest book ever.

“The Chamber Of Secrets” takes a while to get going, which is unfortunate because one of the biggest positives of the first novel was its quick pace. It ends up being fine and unspectacular and my least favourite of the series along with “Order Of The Phoenix.”

“The Prisoner Of Azkaban” takes a nice step-up from the lacklustre “Chamber Of Secrets,” where this one actually delivers a storyline that makes sense within the Harry Potter world and doesn’t just seem like a one-off story that isn’t informed by the overall arc of the books, as the second novel kind of did. It pushes forth the mythos and the mystery surrounding Potter, his upbringing and parents, as well as setting up interesting things story-wise for the future, things that the second book didn’t seem too concerned with doing.

“The Goblet Of Fire” was my favourite of the series as a kid (and the last one I stopped reading until I decided I should probably finish out the series almost 15 years later). It’s not quite as flawless and perfect as I remembered as a child, but it’s still very good and definitely one of my favourites in the series. I love the Triwizard tournament as a framing device for all the Voldemort stuff and it’s a fun way to continue the overarching story and insert some action and new dimensions to the Hogwarts world. Also, as a weird aside, since I hadn’t read or watched any of the Harry Potter books or movies since this book in 2002 or whatever, I would hear random Harry Potter tidbits and stuff, but largely remained unspoiled. One of the things that I heard, and thought was 100% true, was that Harry ended up with Cho Chang at the end of the series. Now, in this book you could totally see it coming and everything made sense to how they could end up there in a few books. But, the next few books painted a different picture and I kept thinking, “man, how are they gonna get Harry and Cho together, it just doesn’t make sense within the story anymore and it would totally make sense for him to get with Ginny.” So, of course, he ends up with Ginny and Cho is nowhere to be found, which makes all the sense in the world, but it was bizarre for me reading these next couple books and just waiting for the Harry/Cho reconciliation that just would never happen…

“The Order Of The Phoenix” was my first big disappointment because I was expecting big things with these last stretch of books as it drives towards a conclusion. The story momentum from the fourth book was pretty much squandered here. This is the longest book of the series and basically nothing happens for the first 90% of it and then the last 10% they throw everything at you with some tiny revelations, but nothing amazing that makes any of this long trudge worth it. Harry comes out on top over Voldemort once again, learns some more about his past, rinse and repeat.

“The Half-Blood Prince” is a nice step up from the previous book. They finally get Malfoy actually involved in things (i.e. the main plot of the books) but, unfortunately, it kind of fizzles out. This one definitely had a ton towards finally opening up everything about Harry’s past and connections to Voldemort, so even in the less busy first half of the book there was a lot going on that set up for the end, something that “The Order Of The Phoenix” never quite felt like doing. It does a nice job getting its ducks in a row and pushing everything into plain sight for the conclusion.

“The Deathly Hallows” does really well in wrapping up the story by introducing new elements, but most importantly stays true to its world from the first book and gives you all the answers to the questions you were hoping would be answered. It hits some nice emotional beats that the series has always been really good at, especially when everything has been building for so long with these characters.

“The Cursed Child” was a fun enough little story that gives fans what they want by checking in with Harry Potter and co. and also delves into that world a little more through the eyes of his kid to add a new dimension. It works well in going back to the “Goblet Of Fire” plot, since in my eyes that is the best/most fun one. Where this book/play suffers majorly is the cringe-inducing overarching theme of how Harry finds it so tough to be a father and the trials and tribulations of raising a kid. It’s a bit much where they beat over the head this obvious theme of how he’s this great wizard and celebrated person, but even those people have trouble raising kids!!! Also, I have no clue why J.K. Rowling didn’t just write this as a novella or full out novel or something like that instead of making it a play, as it never really seems all that suited for this format.

A quick closing note on the movies, they were all fine! I mean, I was kind of disappointed because I was expecting a lot more and kind of feel weird speaking down on them because in and of themselves they are really good movies, but none of them ever really felt “great.” The las two “Deathly Hallows” movies are definitely the best ones, even though I heard that “Prisoner Of Azkaban” was great, but again that just seemed fine to me, good but not amazing. The special effects were obviously a highlight and it is super cool to track Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint throughout the movies and see how they age and grow, which exponentially increases your connection with the movies and characters as you do the same. Ultimately, I really enjoyed the series, and although the books and movies didn’t quite reach the heights I thought it might, it was a lot of fun and I’m glad I can cross off this pop culture blind spot I’ve had for so many years.

Bret Easton Ellis And The One Idea 30 Year Career

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Less Than Zero, and frankly all of Bret Easton Ellis’s novels, are about how awful self-obsessives are in their privileged lives, whether ironically or not. It’s basically all luxury porn, reading about these people without a care in the world except having sex with whoever, doing drugs, enjoying the perceived “finer” things in life and all the way ignoring any consequences that come along with it. I find the novels of Ellis are most enjoyed as a slice of life type story. The stunted writing and formatting of Less Than Zero helped well in conveying these short blurb-esque thoughts of the main character Clay.

The Rules Of Attraction is basically a spiritual sequel of sorts to Less Than Zero but I didn’t quite connect with it like I did the previous novel. There’s only so much you can read of people doing drugs and cheating on people and them wondering why everyone hates them when they continue to do horrible things to each other. “Why, oh, why, does this person hate me, all I did was sleep with their BF/GF!?!?!?” It does kind of lead into the negative immediately where Ellis tries to recapture the fervor of his first novel by copying the same generic ploy, with less than stellar results compared to the first. Throughout his career, and one of his big drawbacks I’d imagine, is the idea that he really only had one idea that he tried to milk for multiple books over all these years, to varying ends.

American Psycho definitely lives up to its name. Pre-eminently extreme luxury porn mixed with extreme gore porn. Might be a weird thing to say, but I loved just living in this world where everything’s done to excess without fear of the consequences of what comes next. I think this is Ellis’s most coveted and praised novel because it maintains a lot of the same themes and exploration of wealth, relationships, substance abuse, one’s own self and focuses it all through a better narrative than his previous efforts. It actually pins these ideas to a more constructed story and avenue of focused expression rather than just being like his two previous novels and just relatively haphazardly documenting a bunch of young people’s partying and philandering ways with little to hold it together. I think it’s far from being any sort of masterpiece, but Ellis’s writing is so fun (such a weird thing to say about a book about a serial killer who does some insane acts with his victims) and feels so lived in and of this time period. I rarely laugh out loud when reading books, comedy or not, but I did multiple times with this and it was solely because of how great Ellis is at capturing characters and making them all feel so unique and fleshed out even if we were just introduced to them. Here’s a fun drinking game for you if you’re reading American Psycho for the first time or entering the world yet again: Take a drink every time you see the word “hardbody” and be guaranteed to be belligerently drunk by the fifth chapter. If you want to take it to the extreme you can take a drink every time you read something misogynistic, but that’s just an unruly suggestion on my part because I don’t think you’d make it past the first page. And please don’t attempt that misogny thing on his whole bibliography, unless you’re a cat with some extra lives to spare.

I was really looking forward to Glamorama because Ellis seems like the perfect person to satirize celebrities and the idea of celebrity and the life and culture it entails. Unfortunately it wasn’t as good as his previous novels, but there was still a lot to like. What I’ve briefly mentioned before with the work of Ellis is that I like that he always has a defined voice, whether you like it or not, and I happen to enjoy how he strings words together. I wish it hit the celebrity satire a little harder, because that stuff is my kryptonite, but it does enough well in its exploration of the idea. The book kinda goes a bit off the rails in the latter part, but it’s all in service of depicting this wild delusion that is celebrity, so it works for the most part.

Lunar Park works a lot because Bret Easton Ellis seems to be the perfect guy to write a pseudo-memoir about himself. He takes it a bit further and makes it into a twisted type of ghost story that does well in its means and gives off a creepy vibe throughout. Like I mentioned earlier I have a small feeling of dread about how Ellis’s later novels are just retreads or capitalizing off Less Than Zero and American Psycho, his two most famous and successful novels, and how he can’t write anything “new” and has to resort to his past. Although, in this aspect it kind of works well in helping him with the stringing of the idea of him writing American Psycho and it coming back to put him into this serial killer story was really clever and well-done, especially within the memoir part and as a response to the criticism of the novel. Father issues are a prevalent theme in all of his novels and this one provides a good vessel that doesn’t feel too cheap and works organically within the story that doesn’t seem like he’s just using loose strands of a book to just cry about his daddy issues. Ellis seemingly intended to cover a lot of ground within this small concept and I was impressed that he largely pulled it off without seeming too cheap and using his previous novel ideas and criticism to work towards creating something new, rather than just retreading.

Imperial Bedrooms has enough of what made Less Than Zero good, but spins it into a deeper and darker place that doesn’t entirely work in the end. This is the most clear sense of “I have only one idea, so fuck it, let’s just make a sequel to my most celebrated novel.” It seemed like a lot of the novel was going to be about the how a Less Than Zero-esque story would take after this 25 years of difference since he wrote that first novel, but that seemed to fall by the wayside early.

I came off reading Bret Easton Ellis of two minds. I had a lot of fun reading his novels, living in these worlds as an outsider and experiencing excess to its fullest extent. Every criticism rang exceedingly true, though, whether it was him largely writing the same book seven times and his constant misogny. A defence of him would be, yes he’s a satirist, but that excuse only works a few times until every novel features the same things and just feels like an easy conduit for him to say what he feels behind the guise of awful characters. Kind of like how Quentin Tarantino’s last few films have largely fielded characters using the n-word (granted this is his whole career, but most specifically with the last few movies), where he claims it’s intrinsic to the time, but when it’s used so exceedingly in multiple movies it has you questioning the intent behind its machinations. Bret Easton Ellis seems like the exact type of writer whose had one masterpiece and his whole career has been trying to replicate that success or prove he’s up to that standard. I mean, it’s kinda like that, except for the whole “having a masterpiece” thing. Less Than Zero and American Psycho are good and definitely have something to say, but largely they just remain as a cultural piece of zeitgeist, us looking back and seeing how far we’ve come and how so much has changed.

‘The Dark Tower’: A Lesson In Failed Potential From Stephen King

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The Dark Tower series was a real push and pull with me, where the adventure and philosophical side of Stephen King waged war and made a series that just never amounted to the potential he set forth in the first few books, and entirely at his own fault. It’s clear early on that Stephen King sets out to make his own version of an adventurous Clint Eastwood western story tinged with his usual haunts of supernatural and horror elements. It gets off to a raucous start in the second and third books (I’m throwing away the first because although it’s good, it’s largely just set up and almost its own thing), with high adventure and thrills with the perfect balance of fantasy and mystery that puts this western world on edge. But, then as is so often the case with King, he starts to beat over the head his philosophical themes and his ideas get a bit much, all in the face of grinding this series to a halt.

My theory is that King knew a lot of the story he wanted to tell for the entire series arc, but he blew so much of that wad in the second and third books that he had to bring everything to a standstill and stretch over four more books just to fill out this “epic, long” series he wanted to make. That’s one of my biggest problems with King is that he seems to make long books just for the sake of long books. Yes, sure, hearing about Roland’s backstory was interesting and a pretty crucial part of the story, but to screech everything to a halt the way he did after the freight train of the previous two novels was baffling to me, and something that he would never recover from. The first two books include a cool device where Roland could teleport himself in another body in a different world and control it and a literal freight train that holds them hostage over riddles, while the fourth and fifth books are largely just relegated to backstory campfire tales.

From Under The Dome, 11/22/63 and The Stand among others there’s just so much beyond the meat and potatoes that King leaves in that once it reaches a certain level it just becomes excessive where even a scapegoat of “character development” no longer holds much credence. It was just frustrating to me how great the second and third books were and how much they pushed forward all this great momentum that was building up to a great adventure story only to get railroaded by these two books. It just becomes pages and pages of introspective talking and mulling around until the literal last 50 pages or so when something finally happens and then everything turns out all well and good except for the tiny bit of cliffhanger to get you to the next book.

I don’t know why King thinks this is a good strategy, where sure it’s world-building and filling in some blanks, but the excessiveness and dragging on of it for hundreds of pages when the same end could’ve been met in a way shorter form. He actually could’ve provided some interest in the main story that made you want to flip to the next page instead of knowing you’re in fo r another flashback story that really does nothing except highlight that King has very little story to actually cover all these book he intends to write, because as you know he has to write long and numerous books for some reason instead of consolidating them into fewer, more tense and engaging novels, but that’s just me.

The sixth book was a step above the last two books because it actually starts pushing towards a conclusion. The inclusion of Stephen King himself as a character is something I respect on one hand because of how weird and audacious it is in this sort of story, but on another I would’ve liked to see the story played more straight and stick to its own weird world without bringing this whole new totally different element to these stories that now make it something else completely. Building off this it’s quite clear a lot of the problems in storytelling and momentum come from King having no clue how these books would end when he first started and when he came to tackle the series years later he obviously had vastly different ideas on how this story would go. One wonders what they would’ve looked like if he wrote them all in his 1980s mindset.

At the end of the final book Stephen King preaches how the enjoyment in a story is all in the journey, not the end, largely in the defence that of course he would write a lackluster ending to this never-ending story. In truth, I thought the ending was fine and wasn’t that cheap, but in regards to his comment of the pleasure being in the journey, that was the exact problem for me in the series. At a point it seemed he had no intentions of pushing the main story along and blatantly obvious that he had no clue really where the story was going, so I could never commit faithfully to the story. I think this final installment does a pretty good job of wrapping things up and building towards an ending that was suitable for all its characters, even if there was a little more to be desired. It worked within the confines that King left himself to work with.

Ultimately, I left the series with a sense of disappointment and largely mixed to negative feelings. There was a ton of potential to the series, and while I did love the second and third books, the rest never lived up to what those books seemingly promised. King lost that thread and treaded water for a couple books before going into the absurd and taking things a bit far past the edge than seemed warranted. King always has interesting concepts and ideas, but what I’ve read of his so far seems to always fall a few strokes away from actual greatness and leaves a muddled wake instead.

The Sameness Of Chuck Palahniuk

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Depending from where you’re coming from the problem (or attraction) of Chuck Palahniuk is that all his novels are about the same things and cover all the exact same themes over and over again. Sure, every author covers similar themes and ideas throughout their career due to the fact that they’re one singular person with a limited set of ideals and experiences that constantly get fed into their work. Where Palahniuk differs for me is that his repeated themes of parental issues, sexuality, addiction, shock value and satire of popular culture among others always resonate in the same way in each novel, generally consuming a main character and their troubles to deal with the outside world.

His first four novels from Fight Club to Survivor to Invisible Monsters to Choke literally just feels like he remade Fight Club three times over following the same idea of a troubled protagonist dealing with whatever sort of addiction, coupled with their messed up state of mind and daddy and mommy issues. Don’t get me wrong, Fight Club was a really good book and I enjoyed the small twists Choke did, but the rest of the novels felt like Palanhiuk just swapped out a few characters and a new locale and created a “new” book.

After those first four novels is where Palahniuk started to get real inventive and thus started his whole gimmick of each novel having some kind of weird and wacky narrative device to tell the story, whether it was a framing of interwoven short stories or an oral biography or a multi-POV perspective or a novel in broken english or whatever, Palahniuk had unlimited schtick it seemed to write a novel in. In one aspect I really loved this, because in the face of his first four books he now wasn’t keen to repeat the same boring narrative structure, but instead challenged himself and the reader to consume this media through whatever gimmick he had that intended to serve the material the best, whether it worked or not. I enjoyed the And Then There Were None aspect of Haunted, even if he didn’t quite pull it off in the end and thought the idea to do Pygmy in the broken English perspective of an exchange student was a perfect way to skewer culture and society. Others like Tell-All and Rant didn’t work too well, with a narration and oral history gimmick, didn’t work well because they weren’t interesting or engaging on either level of content or through any sort of device.

On the other hand of things the Palahniuk devices can become tiring because often its just a flashy cover for the same things we’ve been reading about all these years. It’s like a big budget Hollywood moving using amazing CGI and effects to distract you how bad the actual narrative of the film is at its core. That’s an extreme example, and I don’t feel like Palahniuk’s novels are bad, if anything very average, it’s just that often these narrative devices just seem like they become a gimmick just to be a gimmick and have no place rather than just for being a new and crazy way for Palahniuk to put out a new novel. Like I mentioned before, some work good, while others don’t amount to much at all. The one thing I really took away from reading his entire bibliography is that he has not one great or singular classic I could really take away. I guess you could argue for Fight Club (even though I like Lullaby the best), but there isn’t really a seminal piece of his work that rises above the others and thus it all just muddles into the same.

I think that’s the problem in the end, is that writing about all these same or similar things you’re going to get some good and bad novels, but nothing ever rises above that, and nothing a gimmick narrative device could ever improve. Another thing that Palahniuk is perhaps most widely known or thought of in the mainstream culture or with people who are only slightly familiar with him is his dark and explicit deceptions of sexuality and gruesome scenes. Again fitting in with what I’ve said before, his repetition of what he thinks is “shocking” behaviour that he thinks will get the reader all riled up just becomes predictable and old-hat after you read it for the tenth time, and just becomes a lame gimmick among many that falls flat and doesn’t achieve its desired effect.

Aside from my negative tone of the majority of the article, I really don’t dislike Palahniuk and actually think he’s a pretty good writer. His first two short story collections are pretty good (and I generally don’t really like short stories all that much) and demonstrated how good of a write he is when he’s not always depend on writing inside of a gimmick or in certain narrative thematic parameters. And I guess what it all comes down to is unevenness in his bibliography where I liked a bunch of his novels (Fight Club, Choke, Lullaby, Doomed), but hated many of the same (Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Tell-All) and was never left with that one definitive Palahniuk novel that rose above the rest.

‘American Tabloid’: Review

American Tabloid

I still remember spring break 2007 like it was yesterday. I was home alone for the entire week and was left up to do whatever I wanted until Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse came out on Friday, which my dad was taking me to to enjoy, along with seven other people as we watched it bomb miserably. Anyways, for some reason I was latched onto the allure of L.A. Confidential, hearing how great the movie was all these years, but for some reason I got the book first and set out on sparsely enjoying it over my break. Except it didn’t happen exactly like that, I became incredibly engrossed in the novel, attempting to make sense in my brain how a book this dense, sprawling and inter-woven could even be created. I was blow away by the uniqueness of storytelling, through a seemingly unlimited cast of characters, the way a picture of Los Angeles of years past was painted so immediately and perfectly and how every step the book took seemed perfectly ordained in some kind of masterpiece laboratory. James Ellroy became my favourite author after just that one book and I became one of those awful people who hocked how much better the book is than the film, even if the film is very, very good, it still couldn’t compete with the novel. I never understood how people said certain books were “unfilmable,” but after reading L.A. Confidential I understood, thus why the movie changes some things in order to make a two-hour movie make some sense.

Fast forward a few years, I’d read the rest of Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, The Black Dahlia being another incredible work and his second best known work, and then The Big Nowhere which I love and has some echoes of scope to L.A. Confidential, but never matches and then finally White Jazz which I enjoyed, but not to the level of the others. And now as I type for some reason the reading bug as hit me again and the thought of “Hey, if James Ellroy is indeed your favourite author you should probably, I dunno, read all of his books.” So, that’s why I’ve been doing, starting from the beginning of his bibliography and filling in the blanks.

I’d always been eager to get my hands on his first three books, but could never track them down, but now in doing so they serve as an interesting portrait to what Ellroy would eventually come. Brown’s Requiem is a solid, if not wholly memorable effort that sets the groundwork for the themes of the detective on the case, femme fatales, lowly street urchins, jaunts to Mexico, and the seedy language and environment that he’d make his name off. Clandestine was an immediate favourite for me, doubling down on the scope from his first novel, and providing that epic sprawling feature that his books always now seem to inhabit. Killer On The Road was an interesting departure, writing in the point of view of a captured serial killer as he documents his killings and evasion from the police. The Lloyd Hopkins trilogy are much more pared down detective novels that focus on Hopkins’ almost solely and his target, and in doing so are invitingly slim and easy to breeze through.

And finally (sorry for all this exposition babble, it’s my worst writing habit), I’ve reached the Underworld Trilogy, a series of books that I have always ben excited to undertake, with the thought of Ellroy’s prose hitting on the 60s era of happenings with the Kennedy’s and political intrigue seemed like too much of a perfect pairing. It’s the perfect way for Ellroy to evolve as a writer, yet still while sticking with what got him to the dance in the first place and what makes his stories tick. American Tabloid is another epic and sprawling tale that follows three men Pete Bondurant, an ex-con, hired gun for whoever is paying, Kemper Boyd, an ambitious FBI agent sent to infiltrate the Kennedy brothers’ organization who gets more than he bargained for and Ward Littell, an FBI agent who has the mentality of a cockroach when it comes to getting a job done, resistance. The book flips back and forth, chapter to chapter between each man as they progress deeper into the poltical underbelly of the late 1950s all the way through John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as president to the Bay of Pigs and ending with the assassination of JFK. The book is an epic and takes these events and expertly places these characters around these happenings in a realistic way that never infringes on history, but plays with it like a dangerous time bomb.

That’s one of Ellroy’s best skills, having his fictional characters interact with very real characters (such as J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hugh, Jimmy Hoffa) and real events that never seem like pandering or resorting to lame jokes in the vein of “Look at this interaction between fictional character and historical character that is only funny to you because of context!!!” It’s one of Ellroy’s best traits that again helps you immediately feel of the times and provides a very real backdrop to these characters and never seems like a gimmick or that he’s unnecessarily namedropping.

Again Ellroy creates a full roster of characters (you basically need to keep track on a separate piece of paper) that weave in and out of each other’s lives and who knowingly and unknowingly cause the downfall of others. As much as the time frame of his novels are celebrated, it’s always the vibrant and realistic characters to a fault that rings true for me. My favourite thing about the treatment of characters by Ellroy is the sort of see-saw rise and fall between the two FBI agents Boyd and Littell. Boyd begins the novel as a hotshot agent tasked to infiltrate and take down the Kennedy’s with full backing from J. Edgar Hoover, while Littell is a somewhat disgraced agent who is scraping by and attempting to remedy his clout with the agency, but messes up a bunch on the way that puts a target on his head. Eventually, without spoiling much, as the book progresses Boyd gets in too deep and his motivations change while he’s exposed to a different life than he’s been used to and it changes him, while Littell pulls himself out of his rut and becomes a a major player and catalyst to the ending events of the novel.

Nothing will touch L.A. Confidential, but American Tabloid gets that spirit and feel of that epic, sprawling historical/crime/political book that only Ellroy can write and something that you just know he feels little pressure to write from the shadows of his past monumental success’ to make another classic. It only gets me more excited to read the rest of the trilogy and again kicking myself for not doing it sooner.