Gut of the Quantifier: Gaming my Goodreads Challenge

“Anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, and with extravagant enthusiasm.” – Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room


When I was in primary school, there were strict rules about how I should read. At home I pretty much had the run of my parents’ bookshelves, but at school there were rules which formed my reading habits and continue to guide my choices to this day.

The rules were simple. If I took a book out of the library (really a couple of bookshelves intersecting in the corner of a classroom, with a couple of requisitioned chairs), I had to finish it. No ifs, ands, or buts. This is how I came to finishing probably the first literary novel I picked up, that being Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I hated it, so much that not even the juvenile pleasure of seeing a Bad Word being repeatedly printed could coax me on or find me with much enjoyment.

The dictat that I must finish what I pick up, however, could coax me. And not only did I have to finish my books, I had to prove I had finished them by filling out a small (big at the time) report about the contents and how I felt about them.

It’s not a bad idea to try and teach kids that it is often a wise idea to finish what you start, and it’s not a bad idea to teach kids to reflect on what they have experienced. After all, we do then go on to force kids to read things, and to write about them, and it goes without saying that children should be encouraged to read. The early training certainly stood me in good stead.

We try hard to quantify this kind of thing. And yet what do the humanities teach except for things that can be hard to quantify? It is hard to quantify that a book isn’t working for you right now. It is hard to quantify that even though this book is certainly good, there are so many and life is short, and something else excites you right now.

It is hard to quantify that sometimes you feel you have learned as much as you can and want to put a book down, that there can be value in giving up, however unwilling we are to admit that.

There is a difference between reading a book and looking at every word in a book. I looked at every word in Huckleberry Finn, I didn’t read it. I couldn’t tell you much now except for the fact that Huck Finn had an abusive father and that Jim had an unfortunate epithet attached to his name.

Being forced to finish a book is not a nice feeling. At least when you’re studying it there’s some feeling of accomplishment, but honestly I tend to get less out of being forced to read a whole book than voluntarily reading only the first chapter, or first third, or half. I definitely tend to remember less when I force my way through, looking at, not reading, every word.

I don’t like being forced to finish books. So why do I like Goodreads so much?

I’ll lead by saying that I sincerely believe World of Warcraft fucked up my brain chemistry. It turned me into a rat pining for a box, and dog longing for someone to ring my bell. I have trouble feeling like I’m making progress unless I can see a number going up. I am a rat and I need pellets. Nice, quantifiable pellets.

So there’s Goodreads, a way to not only quantify and catalogue my reading, but also tell everyone that I’ve read Ulysses, Moby Dick, and Infinite Jest.


And it is awesome, and I love using it. But it’s tapped in to my psychology in a way that stops me being able to fully enjoy my reading.

You see, there’s such a thing on Goodreads as a reading challenge. At the start of the year, you can challenge yourself to read a certain number of books over the next 365 days. As you note down each book you’ve read, a little box in the sidebar keeps track of how many you’ve read that year, how many you have left to read. It lets you know how ahead of (or behind) schedule you are.

Awesome, awesome, awesome. Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage. And I need pellets.

Therein lies the rub.

Tying the reading to the pellet dispensing mechanism does have its pluses. Not only do you get the nice feeling of having read a good book, but you get to see a number go up, and even fill out a report if you want. Having small definable goals and tracking them is a good way of making progress.

But what if you’re not after progress?

What if you wanna read some poetry, but you don’t wanna read the collected works of Lord Byron? What if you feel like reading a single, short story, not an entire collection? Some Montaigne, not all of it?

What if you feel like trying War and Peace?

What began to happen, at least to me, was that any reading I did that I wasn’t necessarily going to finish felt like wasted reading. It wouldn’t make the number go up. I wouldn’t get a pellet.

It warped my reading. I wouldn’t pick up a book to while away the time or be interested. Instead I’d pick up a book to make progress. If I didn’t feel like reading the book I was making progress with at the time, I just wouldn’t read. I’d stop dipping in to collections. My view got narrower. I’d only pick up poetry if I was prepared to read all of it. Same for essays. Same for short stories. That is a broad swathe of literature I found myself less interested in for no real reason. I wouldn’t take a risk on a bigger book, because if I gave up after 200 pages, it was “wasted time”. (This is a testament to how good Infinite Jest is. It got me and kept me despite the fact that I could have read ten other books in that time). I was disproportionately interested in novellas and short novels. I’d give books up before they really got going, for fear of making progress that wouldn’t be counted.

That’s no way to live a reading life.

Yes, there is value in a finished book. But there is value in an unfinished book, too, and we should be free to pick up and put down as we please. Our reading, first of all, should turn us on, not off.

And tracking my progress is turning me off, despite the tasty pellets.

So I’m gonna game my reading challenge. For example, some Poe stories I read in a collection earlier this year, despite the nagging voice in my voice that said “But you won’t finish the collection”, have been published as stand alone books. I shall mark them as read. I am gonna read really short books for the rest of the year, to get my challenge done. All I care about is getting that number high enough.

It will be different next year.

I am going to go in, out, around. I will read exactly as much as I want, of whatever it is that pleases me at the time. I’ll make time to read bigger books, and not fear stepping away from them. I’ll read more poems, and really read them, not just look at every word in the collection so I can tick the box.

I’m still gonna set a challenge next year, but I’m gonna set the bar much, much lower. I am gonna give myself the time and space that I’ve always had, back to myself. But I’m still gonna do the challenge. After all, there’s a profile badge at stake.


Some thoughts on Conrad’s The Secret Agent

I have read a bunch of stuff like Naked Lunch and American Psycho and consider myself to be pretty hardened when it comes to shocking content (although I did recently read some passages from Apollinaire that raised my eyebrows). And then I read Conrad’s The Secret Agent and I found myself absolutely aghast. Conrad renders a terrible situation, in which no one is exactly right or exactly wrong, with considerable skill and care, and the attention he pays to what information he is giving his reader is a masterclass that any writer interested in fucking with a reader’s expectations should learn from.

Anyone who’s seen The Usual Suspects will be familiar with the kind of present/flash forward/flash back kinda structure of The Secret Agent, and it really does work fantastically. You know a dynamite outrage has been commissioned, you know Verloc has thought long and hard about how to go about committing the act, and the flash forward lets you know that the act was bungled, claiming a life. You are not told who perished. There is conjecture of course, between old anarchists. Someone heard that Verloc was behind the whole affair, but you are given no confirmation from the ultimate perspective of the narrator. This is very disquieting. You spend the opening couple of chapters getting to know Verloc, his family, and his personal struggles. He seems to be a pretty good husband by 19th century standards. One sympathises with him and wonders how he is going to get out of this bind, and one is shocked that someone, possibly him, died in the attempt. The narrative might flash back to before the explosion, but it does not show you Verloc, alive, for a few chapters yet. He was the protagonist, right? What happened to Mr Verloc, and who was the second person involved in the bombing?

This is a masterful display of what a writer can do when they have the reader’s feelings on the end of a string. What really makes the novel utterly horrifying is the way it then shows you that Verloc did indeed survive the explosion. You follow the police as they attempt to puzzle out what happened. You see them discover that Verloc is still alive. You are fed drips of information. Verloc had been spending more time with his brother-in-law, Stevie. Verloc had sent Stevie to live with a friend of his for a while. It slowly dawns on you as it slowly dawns on Verloc’s wife, Winnie. It was Stevie, the one character in the novel (apart from Winnie’s mother, perhaps) who is free from sin, free from guilt, the one you really rooted for. He was blown to smithereens, off screen as it were. They had to collect him with a shovel.

And it was all Verloc’s idea.

The scene where Winnie slowly realise this as Verloc attempts to bargain, reason, plead, argue with her, is yet another fantastic display of technique. Free indirect discourse is the perfect tool if you are using a third person narrator but still want parts of the writing to be from the perspective of certain characters. Conrad’s switching between Winnie and Verloc’s discourses in this section is astounding in its effect. The same narrator puts you directly in the seat as Verloc attempts at first to commiserate and then to explain away his terrible mistake, growing to hate him more and more all the time, hating him along with Winnie, who you feel worse and worse for the entire time as the news that not only is her brother dead, but her husband effectively killed him, sinks in. Both discourses wind against each other tighter and tighter until the reader realises that Winnie has also noticed the carving knife laying on the table, and Verloc realises that Winnie has the carving knife in her hand. This conclusion again unfolds slowly, to character and reader alike. Verloc’s death is foreshadowed much like Stevie’s as Conrad gives you just enough rope to hang on to as he pulls you through his densely packed prose. You have some idea of where this could be going, but you are not sure until the decisive, explosive moment is upon you.

This is how you claim the distance of a 3rd person narrator whilst keeping the personality of a first person narrator. It is superb, and well worth reading for anyone interested in the craft, or anyone who just likes a well told story. It is, as the subtitle says, a simple tale, after all.

First Impressions of an Epic: The Odyssey

My knowledge of the Greek classics is limited to The Oresteia, Aristotle’s Poetics, Euripides’ Medea, and whatever I’ve picked up reading in or around Joyce. That is to say, I am no classical scholar and would never have received a degree 200 years ago. But I know a bit. I have not read any of The Iliad. I found a copy of Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey for a quid and decided to pick it up. I’ve found copies before but decided not to bite because I was worried about public domain translations being dense and full of archaisms. I will try Pope’s translation some other time. Considering that I occasionally have the nerve to call myself a poet, not having read any Homer is a pretty big gap in my knowledge, I should be ashamed, hand in my badge, etc. I am about two books in to The Odyssey so far, here are some of my thoughts:

  • The (excellent) introduction by Bernard Knox mentions that Dante, despite featuring Homer in his Divine Comedy and talking about him at length, never read him. Dante never read Homer. I know his excuses are probably better than mine, but I feel far less guilty about not having a command of the complete Shakespeare, never having finished a Dickens novel, not having read Crime and Punishment, so on.
  • The introduction also mentions the epithets and stock phrases that Homer often attaches to nouns, proper or otherwise, “the winedark sea”. Homer would have used it to make up his hexameter but I first came across this kind of thing in Ulysses. Of course Joyce’s sea is snotgreen, scrotumtightening, but I hadn’t thought he’d taken from Homer stylistically as well as structurally, at least not like this.
  • Wow the Greeks ate a lot. And so much meat! You will be hungry reading this poem. Hungry for fat goats, and oxen. Where can I get a fat goat in East Anglia?
  • I held out for Fagles’ translation because he made The Oresteia very readable. So is this. The poem is only dense insofar as the material is dense, which is to say. not very. There are no frightful archaisms. Again, I am no classical scholar, but to someone who is curious and moderately literate, Fagles is wonderful to read. Ymmv.
  • Again as per Knox’s introduction (read it, it’ll help), it really was a time when men were stronger, wittier, wiser. The gods counsel them directly and the mixing of gods in the affairs of men is a natural fact. This is so unlike anything remotely modern. I mean, no shit, but still.
  • If it is like anything modern it is like fantasy, be it film, videogame, novel. There are many things I recognise from modern media and it helps me feel familiar. I now know what a myrmidon is.
  • Speaking of familiarity, if you’ve read Joyce, it’ll help. Good old Jimmy doesn’t follow the plot exactly, but it’s close enough that if you’re familiar with the plot of Ulysses, you’re basically familiar with the plot of The Odyssey.
  • Penelope’s trick with the weaving and unweaving of the funeral shroud is so strange. It’s like something out of an absurdist comedy, but it’s presented with such sadness. I know the suitors are going to die and I look forward to it.
  • I’m trying to just enjoy this the same way I’ve dipped in to The King James Bible, in the sense that I’m attempting to just drink from the source and further my knowledge and understanding, not tick it off on my list of The Canon so I can consider myself to be well read. I look forward to reading more.

Proust Questionnaire

 I shan’t imagine too many people will be interested, but I filled out the Proust questionnaire for a bit of fun. As of this writing, I am 24 and turning 25 in about a week. Might be fun to look back on. Or horrifying. Probably horrifying. Remember those Myspace questionnaires?

Questions were taken from here.

  • What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?


  • Where would you like to live?


  • What is your idea of earthly happiness?

Peace, quiet, an engaging activity.

  • To what faults do you feel most indulgent?

Indolence, overindulgence, impatience.

  • Who are your favourite heroes of fiction?

Leopold Bloom. Stephen Dedalus. Sherlock Holmes.

  • Who are your favourite characters in history?

Sigmund Freud. Jacques Derrida. Malcolm X.

  • Who are your favourite heroines in real life?

My mother.

  • Who are your favourite heroines of fiction?

Jane Eyre. Molly Bloom. Ophelia.

  • Your favourite painter?

Salvador Dali.

  • Your favourite musician?

Lou Reed or Kurt Cobain. Can’t decide.

  • The quality you most admire in a man?


  • The quality you most admire in a woman?


  • Your favourite virtue?


  • Your favourite occupation?

I could say reading and writing to try and save face, but I spend altogether too much time playing videogames.

  • Who would you have liked to be?

James Joyce.

  • Your most marked characteristic?

Delusions of grandeur.

  • The quality you most like in a man?

Intelligence. The ability to hold a conversation.

  • The quality you most like in a woman?


  • What do you most value in your friends?

A willingness to listen.

  • What is your principle defect?

Inability to see things through. I answered the first five questions of this, then stopped. Came back a month later. Tempted to give up and log in to WoW.

  • What is your favourite occupation?

Them blasted videogames.

  • What is your dream of happiness?

Sharing my daily existence with the woman I love.

  • What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?

To not have met her.

  • What would you like to be?

Myself without the character flaws.

  • In what country would you like to live?


  • What is your favourite colour?

Green. I tend to like darker shades of green, like emerald or British racing.

  • What is your favourite flower?

All that comes to mind is filth.

  • What is your favourite bird?

I don’t know enough about birds to have a favourite. I like all kinds of birds apart from magpies, I have taken a dislike to them after learning about how they eat the young of other birds.

  • Who are your favourite prose writers?

James Joyce. William S. Burroughs. Thomas Pynchon.

  • Who are your favourite poets?

T.S. Eliot. Ezra Pound. P.B. Shelley. Hope Mirrlees.

  • Who is your favourite hero of fiction?

Leopold Bloom.

  • Who are your favourite heroines of fiction?

Jane Eyre. Molly Bloom.

  • Who are your favourite composers?

Beethoven, for Ode to Joy

  • Who are your favourite painters?

Dali, Picasso.

  • Who are your heroes in real life?

My mother, my grandmother, my sister, my girlfriend.

  • Who are your favourite heroines of history?

Rosa Parks. Ada Lovelace. Aphra Behn.

  • What are your favourite names?

As full of self-regard as it is, I like my name a lot. I like Ophelia a lot, too.

  • What is it you most dislike?

The necessity of earning money.

  • What historical figures do you most despise?

Hitler. Reagan. Thatcher.

  • What event in military history do you most admire?

The defence of Stalingrad.

  • What reform do you most admire?

The liar who decides to stop, and does.

  • What natural gift would you most like to possess?

Either a musical ear or the ability to easily learn languages.

  • How would you like to die?

With no foreknowledge or apprehension of the fact.

  • What is your present state of mind?

Still thinking about packing it in and logging on to WoW.

  • To what faults do you feel most indulgent?

Impatience, anxiety, frustration.

  • What is your motto?

Scheisse passiert.


What I Thought of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain




This piece is intended for people who are familiar with the Metal Gear (MG) series and have completed Metal Gear Solid V (MGSV). There will be relentless spoilers, as a lot of what I want to discuss has to do with the twists and the endings. I also want to talk about how it fits in with the other MG games, so if you haven’t played those, consider this piece to spoil those too. Just go play them, they are very good. That includes MGSV.




I was really worried when it was announced that Kiefer Sutherland would be replacing David Hayter as the voice actor for Snake. I happen to really like Sutherland (The Lost Boys, man), I just couldn’t imagine him being a good voice for Snake. I’d grown up with Hayter voicing Snake and couldn’t think of a good reason for the change, even if Hayter’s delivery had developed a noticeable roughness over the years, which wouldn’t have been too incongruous in the first place if it wasn’t for the backwards/forwards “I am your long lost brother/father/son” messiness of a non-linear saga. Before the release, I was hoping it would all be a ruse, and Hayter would still be there, asking if he’d kept me waiting. Then I hoped Hayter would have a bit part. My favourite fan theory was that the final boss battle of MGSV would be an unwinnable one, you as Big Boss against your son, a Hayter voiced Solid Snake. None of this came to pass and it didn’t turn out to be a very big deal, for various reasons.

I mention this largely to underscore that MGSV is a very different game to all the other MG titles before it, even regarding things as comfortable and solidified as Hayter voicing Snake. There are two reasons Sutherland voicing Snake isn’t a big deal. The first is that Sutherland is actually a pretty good Snake, which was a pleasant surprise. If Kojima really couldn’t go with Hayter, he could have made much worse choices. The second reason is that Snake doesn’t talk much, not only because he doesn’t have many scripted lines but because this is the most gameplay weighted MG game by far. This was more of a shock to me than the change in voice actor. I loved Hideo Kojima’s films that happened to have interactive elements. I love the melodrama, the camp, and the philosophical arguments. I spent a lot more time actually playing the game than I expected to, which made me kinda sad. It’s entirely possible that MGSV will be the last MG game, and in some pretty core aspects it is not an MG game.

Fortunately, the game is actually really damn fun.

I haven’t played much Assassins Creed, or any Red Dead Redemption, two common points of comparison when it comes to MGSV, but I do know a thing or two about stealth games in general. MGSV reminds me pleasantly of Deus Ex, in so far as each enemy base is not so much a puzzle as it is a canvas. There tends to be more than one goal, and you tend to have multiple decisions to make as to how to complete those goals. You’ve always had an element of choice in the MG games, like whether you are willing to kill people not, but MGSV takes it to a level not seen before in the series, and it is immensely satisfying to pick your strategy and execute it. Do you want to be a ghost, not getting spotted and leaving no trace? You can. Do you want to go in loud, riding a miniature walking battle tank? You can. Do you want to order Quiet to clear out the base first, then sneak past the terrified survivors? You can.

Unfortunately, these fantastic infiltration segments sit within a framework of open world boredom. Kojima’s strength has always been in minutely detailing and directing what the player experiences. Hell, MGS2 entirely revolves around the player being manipulated into engaging with a very specific, very limited scenario, with choice revealed to be a cleverly crafted illusion. MGSV, on the other hand, eschews this direction in favour of player freedom, which is great when it works, but these interesting choices take place in a bland, empty world. You can run, which takes ages and is boring. You can ride a horse, which is kinda fun but quickly gets boring. Or, you can navigate some menus and access an immersion breaking and tedious loading screen disguised as a fast travel system. Boring. Between the bases, between the story segments, there is nothing to divert your attention, just blandness, expanses of brown and green. Realistic, yeah probably; engaging, no.

It shows that this is Kojima’s first attempt at an open world game. He has learned none of the lessons about designing a world that can feel both expansive and yet minutely detailed. This might be more difficult in an environment like Aghanistan, or an African jungle, but all the same it is a failure worth raking over. To my mind, the best open worlds yet seen in video games are the cities from the PS2 GTA games, particularly Liberty City from GTA3. Though small by today’s standards, it feels vast and allows the player the freedom to explore and to take some of the game out of sequence. The player doesn’t feel overwhelmed because the city is split over three islands that unlock over the course of the game. Portland gets to feel a lot smaller by the time one has spent enough hours driving around it to have progressed to Staunton, which then seems even vaster. Despite being large, each island is packed with detail, from landmarks and advertising that help you find your way around, to the fact that down almost every alleyway there is something to do or find, whether it be a rampage missions, or a secret package, or a weapon pickup. Every single bit of space is used. This is not the case in MGSV, where the environments just feel bigger and bigger as you realise that there is so much dead ground to cover before you get to where something interesting might happen. By the time you start recognising parts of the environment, you are largely just recognising that you are in the middle of bumfuck nowhere.

Despite the structural and formal differences from previous MG games, MGSV is definitely an MG game in terms of tone and theme. Present and correct are the byzantine conspiracies, the Big themes, the wacky characters, the strange juxtapositions in tone. A lot of this detail is found in cassette tapes, as opposed to a barrage of cutscenes, but the people who like MG because of its sensibilities will not be disappointed. The more I think about it, Kojima is like the videogame equivalent to Thomas Pynchon. If you consider postmodernism to be typified by a blending of high and low culture, and a disregard for what details might be important or unimportant for forming a unified grand narrative, then Pynchon is the typical postmodern author. Kojima’s practices are very similar. MGSV features in-depth discussions of parasites, how they function, and what purposes they serve. It features long meditations on what it means to have lost something, and what it means to want to take revenge against those who have taken something from you. And, it includes… a discussion at length about what makes the ultimate hamburger (that is of course also about a lot more than just hamburgers). One part of the oddness in tone sticks out, though. It is Quiet.

Quiet was controversial the moment she was revealed, well before the release of the game. Upon being accused of sexism, Kojima stated that he had good reasons, and that once we learned of them, we would be ashamed. I certainly am ashamed, but more of the fact that a man whose work I very much admire could either be so bloody cynical or so outrageously stupid, “cultural differences” aside. The custscenes that feature Quiet could easily work in a film studies 101 class on how the male gaze works in film. The camera lingers and leers over her rear, over her breasts. It might surprise you to learn that this serves no narrative purpose. 95% of the time this is not from the perspective of any character but the director’s unhinged lust. You go to a Kojima game to see him let it all hang out, all his quirks and interests, his predilections and his attractions, but in this case all it is is Kojima the dirty old man. And the reason she *has* to wear such impractical clothing? Her lungs have been burned, and the parasite therapy she has undergone allows her to photosynthesise, so her skin has to be exposed to sunlight. Which makes sense, right? Except the wizened old man, Code Talker, has undergone the same process, but he is shown photosynthesising fully clothed. Go figure.

Kojima allegedly fell out with Konami during development, so it is unsurprising that MGSV feels fundamentally like an unfinished game, but that he chose to end it the way he did speaks to an apocalyptic breakdown in relations between Kojima and Konami, an upcoming DLC package, or the fact that Kojima really fucked up this time. The “Truth” ending works, but is not as sophisticated as we might expect from Kojima. It turns out that you are not really Big Boss. Plenty twisty, which is what everyone wanted, and it also has the added effect of covering up one of the bigger plotholes in the MG series, namely that Big Boss dies twice. It’s not as well planned or executed as the careful manipulation of the player leading up to the shocking revelations at the end of MGS2, but it is satisfying enough. MGS2 was an edge case anyway. Games that carefully designed don’t come along very often.

The other ending, though. Anyone familiar with the MG series is familiar with the fact that Kojima has a loose interpretation of the word “closure”, but there is normally a degree of finality and some kind of closing message. In this case, the ending literally isn’t there; you wouldn’t know the game’s story was over if it wasn’t for the credits rolling. Eli and The Third Child steal Sahelanthropus and… that’s it. Two children, one of which has psychic powers, steal a nuclear equipped walking battle tank and nothing happens. Snake and Miller don’t pursue them. The children are not heard from again. Nothing else happens, nothing else is said, and then we timewarp to the True ending. Where we have to replay the tutorial (you have to replay the UNSKIPPABLE FUCKING TUTORIAL) before the big reveal. Either Kojima has forgotten everything he knows, or something went really fucking wrong.

A lot of these gripes, though, are from the perspective of a long time MG fan who had high hopes and certain expectations. My gripes do not make MGSV any less of a game. It does mean that someone like me might well think that MGSV is not the game it could have been, and that it looks to be the last Kojima MG game leaves a very sour taste. For someone not familiar with the MG series, this is a good entry point, and it might tickle the fancies of those who couldn’t stand the rarefied nature of the other games in the series. MGSV is a very good game, and it is evident that in most aspects a lot of care and attention went in to it, but it is not a very good MG game.

What is Infinite Jest About?

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.

A Bad Man Talks: Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, and Factotum

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.


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