I did the same thing with Infinite Jest that I did with Ulysses; I read the first 100 or so pages two or three times before becoming engaged with it and wishing, towards the end, that there was some uncut version I could get with maybe 500 more pages. (Infinite Jest was supposed to be about 1500 pages, apparently.) It is a book I would highly recommend you read if you have any stomach at all for postmodern fiction and/or Big Serious Novels. It is difficult for me to appeal to particular, specific, reasons why you should read it because the novel is large by any metric, and does many different things.
It is not, however, disconnected because of how far apart any of the given focuses, themes, or characters are from each other. Wallace slides from pleasure to perdition and from privilege to privation with an ease that kind of implies, even if you can’t explain why exactly, passageways and connections between them. Some sections would make excellent short stories (for example, the second, with Erdedy Waiting for the (Wo)man.) A focused, compact novel with a definite theme and thrust is certainly a singular pleasure, but Infinite Jest, like Ulysses, is a perfect example of how the manic/encyclopaedic method can create something more than just a novel containing too much stuff.
Infinite Jest has more than one plotline and the sections are not contiguous. There are different viewpoints, time periods, grammatical persons, dialects. The invented nomenclature of a future United States produces the estrangement you’d be more familiar feeling in science fiction, and if you get down to it, this book is science fiction. Someone approaching Infinite Jest is liable to ask what the book is about. There is no definite answer, and like I said regarding Ulysses, different readers are likely to read different books. Some themes are ranged over more than others, but all are important to the book as a whole. Here, then, is the book I read. Your mileage may vary.
Tennis. Drugs. Drug and alcohol addiction and recovery. AA. NA. How we choose to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Entertainment. The relationship between advertisement and entertainment. Film and film theory. Cameras, apertures, shutters. Academia. Academese. Footnotes. Sesquipedalianism. The inability to communicate. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Hamlet. Mental and physical disabilities. Specifically junior tennis and development. Parents, their children, and how they get along (see Hamlet). Regret. A Higher Power. Passivity vs action. Cults. Living with the immense promise of a given human life. Living up to the immense promise of your given human life. Not living up to the promise of your given human life. Boston. Nuclear war. Mathematics that may or may not be high order but certainly seemed so to this reader. Seduction strategies. Football (handegg). Mould. Relations between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Waste and how and where we choose to dump it. The fact that no matter where dump our waste, it will seriously harm someone or something. The fact that we can’t just shoot it in to space, but promising to do so might well win you a presidential campaign. Psychological experiments (see cults, drugs). Ghosts. Empathy. Depression. Suicide. Teeth. The OED. The shift from network television to on-demand viewing. Digital Rights Management.
Don DeLillo is one of those novelists I ought to like. If you looked at the history of things I’ve read, you’d see plenty of his precursors and plenty of the people he influenced. I read White Noise when I was at university and absolutely loved it. It had all the things I like in fiction, like modern malaise and weirdo fictional drugs. So I wanted to read another. I tried Ameircana, and I hated it.
I hated the first fifty pages, anyway. It seemed to me to mostly be an awful man delineating just how awful he is, particularly towards women, with no sense of self awareness. Boring. Maybe it was the point and I missed it. There are places you can go on the internet if you wanna see people without an ounce of self awareness say awful things about women, you know? DeLillo’s gift for the image was still there but with none of the humanity about it. Pynchon was never that bad about women, apart from them always being strangely drawn to authoritarian figures. His own experience, perhaps. Bleeding Edge is largely about being a mother and watching your children grow up, and it was wonderful. The weird sex with shady government agents, not so much. I’m not old enough to understand, I guess.
I decided if I was gonna read novels where a man was being awful to women I’d read ones where at least the narrative voice is vaguely honest/self aware about it. Cue Bukowski, a bad man who wrote novels about bad men. (Note, before all this, I read The Handmaid’s Tale, so it was all something of a shock.) I’ve ended up reading Bukowski in reverse, starting with Post Office a few years ago, and a few weeks ago reading Factotum and then Ham on Rye. He really wasn’t very nice, but being an alcoholic will do that to you, and in fairness, many of the women he seems to mix with also aren’t the nicest. The appeal is the imagination of the uninhibited man, the free man. People prop up this idea with image macros featuring Bukowski’s more high minded lines, like “If you’re losing your soul and you know it, then you’ve still got a soul left to lose.” I present to you some more pure poetry:
“There was nothing really as glorious as a good beer shit – I mean after drinking twenty or twenty-five beers the night before. The odor of a beer shit like that spread all around and stayed for a good hour-and-a-half. It made you realize that you were really alive.”
It is pretty interesting to watch someone be (mostly, there is more than an element of myth making) honest. Bukowski writes about his bowel movements. He writes about the colour of his vomit, he writes about genital abnormalities. The other side of the coin is the use of honesty as a shield for bigotry. He claims he is not a misgonyst, and in his own time maybe that was true, but I don’t know a woman who’d give me the time of day if I said or did half the things Bukowski’s autobiographical stand-in, Chianski, said or did.
Factotum still works as a social document. It is almost composed of interconnected short stories, each one not normally more than a few pages, detailing his travels and the jobs he picks up, though as you’d guess by the chapter lengths, never for long. Chianski is one of those people who is genuinely hard done by, but at the same time never does himself any favours. You sympathise with his plight at the same time as you wonder why he isn’t just slightly more polite to his boss(es). The men who didn’t go to war didn’t go for a reason, and Bukowski’s document of their misfortunes, their fuckups, and their weirdness, is compelling in its vividness, its realness, even if you do begin to feel Chianski is exactly what many employers come to view him as; a smart ass with a big mouth.
Ham on Rye is by far the most personal of his novels that I’ve read and it’s stronger for it. As funny as tales of drinking and sexual misadventure are, it can get a bit samey, so a bildungsroman is a nice change of pace. A bildungsroman with lots of drinking and sexual misadventure, of course. The other novels make a lot more sense after reading this one. Chianski’s life is dominated by his abusive patriarch or a father. His slip and slide in to alcoholism and degeneracy is partly a means for him to get away physically and partly a means for him to set himself apart in terms of expectation. Bukowski really did have an awful childhood, at least according to this. Again, it’s hard to believe it is not partly myth making, but any attempt at fiction is myth making in one sense or another. One also gets the feeling the Bukowski wrote this novel in an attempt to change elements of the past, something that only makes it sadder. Chianski was a poor kid who went to a rough school and didn’t fit in and got shit for it, just like I did; I know what it’s like and I know what I was like. I know that I wasn’t apt to win fights quite as often as Chianksi did, or handle ostracisation as well as Chianski did. It made him what he is, and that’s reasonable, but I get the feeling, and it is just a feeling, that he recasts himself as a tough kid who handled it all (except his father, always the father) and came out the stronger for it as a means to reclaim some of the trauma he experienced. Which is fair enough. Fiction is therapy for a lot of us.
I’d been thinking about Bukowski’s prose style and thinking of Hemingway, just when Bukowski mentions reading Hemingway as a child and getting it. Or getting the prose style, anyway. I don’t think you can read A Farewell to Arms as a child and really understand it but maybe Bukowski could because the main message is that the universe is indifferent to your suffering, and it certainly seemed to be to his. I began to think of it like this. Hemingway’s theory was that of the iceberg, of a lot of the story being contained underneath the surface. Bukowski, I think, drains the sea, and shows you that iceberg is, in fact, a turd, and there wasn’t much substance underneath anyway.
I like novels that play with your sympathies. That is why I’ve always loved Lolita, a novel that brings you oh so close to sympathising with the monster. The Quiet American goes a step further. You do sympathise with the monster. This sympathy leads to the saddest happy ending I think I’ve ever come across.
It was very, very clever to have Pyle be dead to begin with. It quickly becomes clear that Pyle was very dangerous in life, not just to Fowler or Phuong but also to the civilian population. He has a head full of ideas about love and war and is very willing to apply them. I suppose it is quite a simple matter to believe that one has everything worked out and just wade in, but this is a perfect example of the kind of damage that can be done by getting too easily engaged.
Not that inaction has everything going for it. For a start, it’s not too hard to fool yourself in to thinking you’ve done nothing when you have, in fact, very much made your choices. The main conceit appears to be Fowler’s ignorance of his own motives, and indeed his actions. He knows full well that in this war, no one is fucking around. Various groups are playing for keeps. Fowler knows full well he is condemning Pyle to his death. As innocuous as his own meetings with one of the local insurgent groups are, he can’t seriously believe that they only want a quiet chat. Of course this conveniently removes Pyle’s efforts to gain the affections of Phuong, and engages the readers sympathies for both a sad old man fallen from what he thinks is grace, and a young man who appeared to not know better, but the whole denouement is something of a trick by Greene. The simple fact of the matter is, Fowler has always been engaged. His relationship with Phuong is predicated on his continued presence, and his continued presence is predicated on the continuation of the war.
I can only imagine how difficult it is being legally married to someone you no longer love. We are as sad for Fowler’s wife as we are for him, still married by conviction to a man who was not faithful to her. Our sympathies for Fowler are tempered by his actions, but he does have the privilege of perspective. I’d talk about Phuong, who as Zadie Smith mentions in the introduction, is far more than just a representative of Vietnam as a whole, but it is difficult to imagine how she feels considering that she is given barely any dialogue and most of our descriptions of her are of her performing domestic duties. This is definitely not a novel that passes the Bechdel test, and it is somewhat weak for it. Yes, it is somewhat singular in its focus, which is understandable, but other people may have more difficulty empathising with Fowler than I did. Not that I still didn’t realise he was a monster. The final telegraph from his wife, assenting to a divorce, is a final twist of the knife. He has become engaged, he has made his choices, and it tends to be more fun to want something than to get it. That our feelings are so much changed by the end, despite the novel essentially arriving back at where it began, is a testament to Greene’s mastery. I look forward to reading more.
And then my mind split open.
It’s difficult to go back, after hearing a record like this. You’ll know pretty quickly whether it turns you on or not, but either way you’ll know that things like this exist. Things that demand your attention for good or ill, things that don’t even pretend to be perfect, things that will decentralise how you think about things. How the hell did they get this out on a major record label? It was the ‘60s, I guess, but at least it means that it’s still in print.
I’ve come to realise that, if you’re in a creative field, it’s important to read/watch/listen/look widely not just because it will undoubtedly teach you something about your art, but it will show you what you can get away with. I’ve talked about my own experiences with Naked Lunch before, and the same idea holds true here. When I first heard this record I was about 15 and more interested in music than I was literature (this quickly reversed when I realised I was better at writing than I was playing guitar), and it had a considerable effect on how I felt about music and art as a whole. It was difficult for me to get hold of records. I hadn’t figured out torrenting and for various reasons couldn’t just order stuff online. Youtube hadn’t taken off, Spotify didn’t exist. What I could find in HMV that was in one of the lists in Kurt Cobain’s journals is what I got. There were The Velvet Underground, right next to The Verve. Anything was possible, nothing was forbidden. Iron Maiden seemed awfully boring afterwards. Why, you could even write a 16 minute long song about a drug fuelled orgy that rested entirely on three chords, if you wanted to.
It was dangerous the same way The Stooges or The Ramones seemed dangerous the first time you heard them. People are actually allowed to do this? Yes they are, and you can, too. Not that that in itself wasn’t also dangerous; Sister Ray strays awfully close to self-indulgence (Reed would later get so close as to hop the fence entirely with Metal Machine Music. Performance art? Maybe. Masturbatory? Definitely.) Sister Ray killed any chance I had at the time of properly teaching myself guitar. I was more interested in noise. It was more fun than the circle of fifths.
Not that the musicianship on White Light/White Heat is at all lacking. The title track is a great, hot take, two and a bit minute rock and roll number that immediately drags you along with them out of a dark New York loft on to baking pavement, and despite the harsh edges still manages to feature a fantastic vocal harmony and piano backing that doesn’t really belong there but would severely weaken the song if it wasn’t. This is probably the most normal song on the record. There’s a reason this was on Reed’s setlists during the Rock N Roll Animal era.
The piano is worth mentioning again. To a kid like me who worked his way backwards from the ‘90s, through ‘80s hair metal to early ‘80/late ‘70s punk to Hendrix/Zeppelin/Sabbath and the ‘60s weirdness that begat them, piano, prepared or otherwise, or electric viola, or organ, on a rock and roll song, was pretty fucking weird and new. White Light/White Heat got to me before I ever heard any Jerry Lee Lewis, or really appreciated any of the slower, lusher stuff that Led Zeppelin did, and it was an incredible revelation to find that rock and roll was whatever instruments you happened to have and a certain way of using them. It would have been hard for me to appreciate Sonic Youth without The Velvet Underground preparing me for the noise and the weird tunings and odd instrumentation (one of Reed’s pet tunings was the Ostrich, DDDDDD, try it yourself, it’s pretty fun.)
Weird and new is definitely the name of the game. The Gift is my favourite audiobook masquerading as rock song. You can get away with doing this? Sure The Beatles separated the guitars and the bass in the stereo image, but narrating a story in one headphone while the guitar, bass and drums grind out a deceptively beautiful melody in the other? I had never heard anything like it and I immediately attempted to copy it myself, badly. Still, to me, this was fresh, and gave me an impetus to create/imitate in a far healthier manner than learning to play Smells Like Teen Spirit ever did. I wanted to write grim, weird short stories with shocking endings like that. I wanted to play droning, screeching melodies laced with feedback, like that.
The album sags a bit, in the middle. Lady Godiva’s Operation is an oddity made even odder by Lou’s constant interjection. I still don’t know if John Cale forgot his lines or if Lou was getting impatient, but it works, somehow. It certainly snaps your attention to (again, you can do that? I never heard that on my Iron Maiden records), but it doesn’t burn with quite the same almost malevolent energy as the first two tracks. Here She Comes Now is gorgeous but doesn’t quite feel like it fits. It’s short, it’s sweet, you won’t have any problems sitting through it, but thematically and texturally it would work much better on the third album, I imagine. And yet I don’t return to the self-titled third album very often, not because I don’t like it, but because it doesn’t have that same kind of sense of widening possibilities present on the first two albums.
Speaking of widening possibilities, having covered (various) drugs, addiction, prostitution, BDSM and Sunday mornings, the penultimate track is (most likely) about necrophilia. And it features an incredible guitar solo, not something you’d go to the Velvets for. Of course it’s done with their own sensibility. Listened to with the assumed logic of the rock guitar solo it sounds like a tangled mess of feedback and tremolo picking, but it makes much more sense when you remember that Reed was a big fan of Ornette Coleman. I didn’t know who Ornette Coleman was until I was looking up The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. If he made music that sounded anything like that then I definitely wanted to listen to him. Lou’s guitar playing (and Gregg Ginn’s), was what obliquely got me in to Jazz. I Heard Her Call My Name is weird, wonderful, worth listening to again and again for the solo alone, but you’d be missing Lou’s great frentic falsetto and some of his best rhythm playing on any record if you skipped to the good bit.
Sister Ray is of course the capstone. The epic. The monstrosity. The one that made the recording engineers walk out. It’s another story, like The Gift and Lady Godvia’s Operation, one that belies a literary sensibility that makes VU records relistenable like good books can be reread. You return to the stories you enjoy. I happen to enjoy this story of a murder at a brothel where some sailors are taking part in a drug fuelled orgy. It’s the little details that make it. A 16 minute long song would get boring otherwise, but it’s hard to be bored with Cale’s organ acrobatics, or Reed seeing how long he can hammer on and off a barre chord, while shouting about a ding dong. It’s easy to forget the VU had a sense of humour, but it’s hard not to laugh when, in the middle of an orgy, where a murder has just taken place, and the cops are on their way, someone is worried about the carpet getting stained. Reed was a gifted storyteller and it shows here, way before anything like Street Hassle, and it’s these stories that pushed boundaries and opened eyes just as much as the experimental musicianship.
I find White Light/White Heat worth coming back to again and again because of these grim, funny stories that are still funny on repeated listening. If you don’t get it, it’s self-indulgence. If you do get it, like I did, nearly a decade ago now, it’s very comforting to know that are people out there as weird as you, who make weird music and write weird stories like you want to hear, and not only did they get away with it, but people tried to rip them off wholesale. When I discovered there really was more than Led Zeppelin, my mind split open.
I keep coming back to Daydream Nation because it’s the best Sonic Youth album. It’s also the most “Sonic Youth” album they ever recorded. Sure there were darker, noisier, more aggressive ones, and sure there were poppier, more melodious, more upbeat ones, but Daydream Nation is the one that has just about all of their facets in just about equal (and equally strong in terms of writing and performance, even the weird Musique Concrete shit) measure. I like Confusion Is Sex, I like Sister, I even like Bad Moon Rising even though it features one of the worst performances by Lydia Lunch ever put on record, but Daydream Nation is the one I keep returning to, having been familiar with most of their body of work for the last decade.
As those weird Barclays adverts keep reminding me, first impressions matter. How strange, then, that this album should come on, as it does, like that guy you know who shows up to parties, stoned already, with a pair of bongos and very much ready to start spreading the very, very “relaxed” vibes, and still be one of the strongest openings to an album you’ll find in the ‘80s, and maybe ever? It kicks in like drugs kick in, faint whisperings, and then there is no denying what is happening. It stands perfectly in the middle of driven riff rock, the more melody driven side of Television and chords you won’t have heard before this side of a Swans record to pretty much perfectly encapsulate the album as a whole, as well as what would be their aesthetic for some time, though they would never do it better than this.
And then there’s the video, sadly missing the ethereal opening, which functions almost as a how to list to what was the (largely white) punk inspired DIY counterculture that developed in the USA during the ‘80s and saw its apotheosis in the release of Nevermind. Functionally it’s similar to the front cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; a collage of faces that the band either wanted to namecheck or acknowledge. For a boy of 14 who didn’t know a thing about music, these faces, cut together without much insistence on structure, in much the same way that one of the faces featured in the video, William S. Burroughs, would recommend, functioned as an excellent shopping list, and together with Kurt Cobain’s Journals began to greatly shape my taste. Not mention the allure of watching a strange video set to exciting new music, while I was up far past my bedtime watching MTV2, back when it played things that weren’t Razorlight. Back before I had a permanent internet connection, and shortly after I did and was hovering up all the information I could, it was loci of culture like this video, or the cover to Sgt. Pepper’s, or Cobain’s Journals that were guiding me. And permanently alienating me from my peers, but that’s another story.
Daydream Nation is by far the most varied Sonic Youth album, thematically and sonically, and yet it doesn’t feel unfocused, probably because the central core of most of Sonic Youth’s output, that half playful (come on, last night’s dream was a talking baby lizard?), half aggressive (kids dressed up for basketball beat me in my head) kind of joy is so solidly present throughout. There isn’t any filler, not even the aforementioned weirdo Musique Concrete shit, which is perfectly in tune with the Gerhard Richter painting on the cover, evoking as it does loss, distance, having mistakenly thrown away something valuable. This is how you do a double album, something that Sonic Youth managed to far better effect than another double album that Sonic Youth were at one point planning on covering in its entirety.
The variety demands your attention, always giving you something else to chew on before you’re barely finished digesting the last noise freakout. There are songs about William Gibson novels, about acid trips, about candles, rain, love, teenage kicks (Teenage Riot is way better than Teenage Kicks, I said it, shoot me), a combo Dinosaur Jr./ZZ Top send up that perfectly closes both the album and the gorgeous, Queenesque suite that makes up the last track. And that’s not even to talk about how it all works sonically.
Lee, Kim and Thurston are all well represented and present themselves well. Lee gets a story song that is perfectly suited for his voice and for the wild, yet introspective, attitude he’s always represented. Kim gets the harder, rockier stuff that she is [so fucking good] at. Thurston gets the weird, impressionistic shit because I can only assume he’s fucking weird. They all handle themselves so well that no themes or ideas feel wasted or underdeveloped. This is the kind of album a band makes when the stars align and they perfectly present themselves on record.
N.B. I wasn’t going to mention Steve Shelley’s great drumming, but a friend who read this through for me mentioned the extended drumroll in the noise section of Silver Rocket. Pay attention to the drumming, too, damn it. It’s an excellent part of an excellent whole.
To talk of variation and not mention the gorgeous guitar interplay and exploration, though, would be criminal. There are clean, gorgeous arpeggios, nasty atonalities, ring modulated fuzz tones, never gratuitous wah wah, tough riff rock, fast Ramones style chords, drones, drones, drones, and plenty of noise breakdowns and bridges. There’s a song that needs to be played with a prepared guitar, even. Everything that had been present in their toolkit up to this point is seen here perfected, melded perfectly with the interlocking arpeggiated guitar loveliness that would become their trademark in their later career. It’s a masterclass on what you can do with a couple of guitars in a rock setting and it’s just, frankly, bloody lovely to listen to. I admit I am a sucker when it comes to guitar based music. I’ve loved albums/bands/songs that were otherwise very weak, but had a guitar tone or style that I found novel or pleasing. It’s the same feeling that makes me like Led Zeppelin even though, let’s be honest, they really didn’t write all that many great songs. Up to the point where I heard Daydream Nation for the first time I’d mostly consisted on a diet of Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and so on, your standard heteronormative 14 year old boy’s record collection. Daydream Nation affected me the same way Naked Lunch affected me when I first read it. I just didn’t know that you could do that, or that you were even allowed to do it. I come back to it to hear what still sound like fresh ideas, both raw and already perfect, to hear something that was released two years before I was born, and that I first heard a decade ago, and still sounds new. It was one of the records that made me want to pick up a guitar and deliberately not play it properly, just to see what I could come up with on my own, and to see what sounded cool to me. I still don’t know my way around the circle of fifths.
There’s a case to be made against Sonic Youth for engendering the horror of Alternative Rock and all that entailed, the spectre of which we still live with, though it presently lays dying, awaiting the second (third, fourth) coming in the cycle of, well, I heard that your band sold their guitars and bought turntables. Yeah, well I heard that your band, sold their turntables, and bought guitars. Though the corpses of Silverchair and Stone Temple Pilots may make the water from the river undrinkable, the source is still very much fresh, and you wonder if everyone just missed the point. Or realised they could slightly tweak it and make a lot of money, I guess.
Sonic Youth never would (hopefully never will, in a sense, could they please get back together and keep making albums that are good but not as good as this one please?) never make an album as good as this again, but that doesn’t matter. They mastered their craft here and it stands as a perfect testament to a combination of experimental conservatory tendencies and straight up fun rock and roll. Sure their other albums are good, and I still listen to them, but they tend to be one or the other, experimental and noisy in a satisfying way, but standoffish, or fun and very likeable but not quite sticking, not quite making a point, quite like Daydream Nation does.
It’s 2015, which means I can no longer put things off by considering myself sorta-semi-on-hiatus after having done most of the work I wanted to do this (last) year, which was a few commissions and getting a book of poetry out the door while finishing a first draft of another project and mostly ignoring the blog you’re reading this on. So, I’m back, although if you followed me on my twitter, tumblr, facebook or instagram, I’d never left except to go bugger around in the backroom. First up this year is getting back in to the swing of things in terms of my own work that I do for myself, so I’ll be posting a few short pieces on albums that I really love and keep returning to. Largely they’ll be the one album a band has done that I think is their best, or at least is my favourite, for some reason. Look forward to me treading out some tired clichés (the phrase tired cliché is a tired cliché – ed) about Loveless. Meanwhile I’ll be attempting to put another book (you’re still allowed to buy my last one, I won’t mind) and starting on the one after that. Also, a quick reminder that if you want to get hold of me to ask me about proofreading/copyediting/copywriting for you, you can reach me using the social media listed above, or at email@example.com.
Happy New Year