JR by William Gaddis

These days, most people who know William Gaddis seem to know him for his epic novel The Recognitions. A few know him for The Tunnel, but those people are mistaken because that was written by William Gass. Some know more of his work, including JR (the book I’m actually talking about here), but The Recognitions seems to be the first thing people think of any more when they think of Gaddis. It’s funny, considering that The Recognitions was originally poorly received and it was only when the more popular JR came out that Gaddis started getting attention as a master of literature. Not a whole lot of people make it through any Gaddis, as he does tend to write long books of convoluted prose. When they do, it seems to usually be The Recognitions. This is a shame, considering how fun JR is.

People should read both.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Lydia Millet.)

Though an immense book full of some dense but amazingly written prose, JR is a hilarious novel. The title is the name of an eleven-year-old boy obsessed with capitalism who takes some worthless penny stocks and, through various means of hiding his age such as payphones, parlays them into a vast empire worth a fortune. Or, well, a fortune on paper. It’s a house of cards, ready to tumble down at any time. None of it is worth any more than the valueless penny stocks he starts out with, but things get so complicated and turned around that it’s hard to say. If you haven’t ever worried about how much faith is involved in modern financial empires, you might after reading JR.

Combine all that with the confusing cacophony Gaddis is known for being able to create, and you have a heck of a book. It can definitely getting taxing to read all that, Gaddis is no slouch, but it’s a wondrous thing to behold if you do:

—Hullo? Let me talk to Mister Piscator please, this…yeah this is J…Yeah this is him, I sound like I’m where…? Tell him that yes tell him that’s why I’m in a hurry because I…hello? Nonny? look, I just talked to this broker Mister Wiles about this whole Ace and Alberta…what? No didn’t she just tell you…? No well some of these overseas connections are real good but…no I can hear you fine, look I called you to…No well that’s what I called about, I just heard the whole thing went…Okay but where does that leave me? I mean if I was the biggest holder they had in both…what? I already told you because it was real cheap, now so where does this…possible what…? But what good are leases on mineral exploration rights if I…okay but what good are tax write-offs for mineral exploration if like what am I supposed to do, go out there with a hat and shovel looking…not a hatful of no I said a shovel and go looking for these here virgin…what? No I mean these minerals what’s the difference of that and you said probably all Alberta and Western has left is this bunch of rights of way and leases to …No I know I can’t so look, when you find it all out you can…no now can you hear me? I said tell Mister Bast. Did he call you yet about…No I know it but see he’s been doing a lot of reading up on all this and he…No, sure I know it’s inconvenient but see we’re changing that office up there over to these picturephones which the telephone company says they take longer to…No I know he doesn’t but see we’re still shorthanded down there too so Virginia’s been…Not down in Virginia, no I said Virginia the secre…no I know she’s not the brightest secre…No from Mister Bast, he was supposed to call you once him and Mister Wonder got together and got this whole deal all…No I know this other brother did but see I just got this call from this Mister Mooneyham at…he did? What did you tell him…? No but look see instead of just trying to get back that Wonder stock this brother loaned him as collateral for X-L suppose we just take over the whole…No but I just told this broker to get me the book value on it and all so see if we…Okay can you hear me? look, once the pension fund buys out Wonder it could just sell the stock right back and it would be overrefunded so…what? Overfunded I said yes so we’d never have to put anything in it again, see then the pension fund would be all set and these here Wonder employees would like own this stock of their own company and we get to keep this almost three million dollars of these unpaid dividends against Eagle’s tax loss credit carryforward understand what I mean? Which then instead of just trying to clear up that X-L thing we could move in and…what do you mean lose the brewery, we…Oh. Okay I didn’t’ think of that but look, if you think they might buy this stock and vote it to put up these new officers that would declare this big dividend and the whole thing would collapse, is that what you said? Okay then look, if we set them up this employees’ stock option plan where they buy this here stock but see we keep the voting rights so we can…What do you mean go to jail? why should…no now…no now look…No now look Nonny, see I’m not asking you what I can do, I’m telling you what I want to do and paying you to find out how I can do it, understand what I…what? No didn’t’ you get it yet… No it’s coming to you from Eagle, I just talked to Miter Hopper up there and he said the check’s in the mail and look, he’s got this here old lawsuit up there about this cemetery which it’s right in the middle of this right of way, you can get the whole story on it later from Mister Bast see but the thing is settle it, see but…for anything just settle it, see but not till we have this okay on this here loan to management, I mean don’t make it sound like we’re holding out see but lit it’s just this regular thing you happened to…Sure I think you know your business or why would I…No there’s just a couple of things like this new issue on this string of these nursing homes that this broker sent me all the…No because it’s real cheap and then there’s some Italian drug company this other broker says is…no I didn’t’ look into them yet but look…A figure loomed into the glass panel over his shoulder, —look…he hunched lower, —I have this meeting I have to…what? Back in what country…Oh, oh sure tomorrow this was just this short…for this meeting yes, I…to incorporate what? Just a second…he cracked the door open, and over a shoulder —You need this here phone Mister Gibbs…? and at a nod, —okay just a second…and the crack closed, —sure go ahead then if you think that’s…In Jamaica? how come you…no I said go ahead, you can tell all this to Mister Bast when you and him…no well I just think he’s been too busy lately to get a new suit he…okay…and the door shuddered open. —Just a second Mister Gibbs, let me get this stuff…

Frankly, I never thought that Gaddis could be funny, but JR is a riot. It may still be a bit confusing, what with all the unattributed dialogue and unannounced switches in character, place, and/or time, but JR is still the easiest to understand Gaddis I’ve seen yet. JR may not be quite as sublime as The Recognitions, but I liked it a great deal.

Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser

To me, it seems like Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser would be better titled “Masquerade and Other Prose Pieces” instead of referring to stories. As I see it, Walser appears to have his own idea what constitutes a story (just as he definitely has his own idea about the way to do a lot of different things in writing). Calling these prose pieces just might make things easier. Personally, I think Walser is better just to enjoy as opposed to having to debate about anything.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Lydia Millet.)

Let’s take a look at “The Gloves” as an example:

Nothing else occurs to me; I see only a pair of gloves lying wearily on the edge of the table. It’s clear to me how tired and sad they are, these gloves. Won’t they fit anyone, is that why they have to hang here like autumn leaves? They are yellow, trimmed in dark brown fur. Long and narrow.  How poor gloves are when they can’t live snuggled up against a beautiful hand.

Walser contemplates a pair of gloves. Different women try them on but they don’t fit. Eventually, a woman who is unhappy tries the gloves on and they fit. Walser then reflects on how the gloves are happy and the woman is not.

That’s it. That’s the story. At first glance, it seems like a bit of a weird story, but it has an interesting effect on the reader. It’s haunting, though I can’t exactly explain why. You’d have to look for yourself to really understand.

Picking another, let’s submit this portion from “The Girl (II)” for your consideration:

On a bench along an avenue sat a girl. All around her lay gardens with charming houses inside, and the girl, you might say, was lovely to look at.

Everyone who saw her sitting so quietly on her own had a desire to engage her in conversation. Soon someone stepped up and offered her a book to read. Thanking him, she turned down his offer, however, saying she wished nothing more than to sit quietly.

People keep offering her things, inviting her to dinner and such. She politely declines, reiterating her wish just to sit quietly. After a bit of this, the piece ends, the girl grateful for the sun and comparing the people to “water that came and went.”

Again, that’s it. It’s a great piece to sit and enjoy, but it’d give you fits to try to analyze it as a story. We won’t even get into use of phrases like “lovely to look at” instead of going further.

Pulling back to the big picture, though, the pieces in Masquerade and Other Stories tend to wander. Walser seems to start where he likes, goes where he likes, and stops things when he feels like he’s done. He definitely did his own thing, which I do enjoy (though outside of his writing this sort of thing may have had some part in him being put in an asylum for a large portion of his life under an apparent misdiagnosis of schizophrenia). It just seems better to avoid nitpicking about it.

Personally, I’d just advise sitting down with Masquerade and Other Stories and not worrying a whole lot about what it is. Life is simpler that way.

Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts

As a preliminary note, I will mention that I (David) am going two weeks in a row. Kim has been working on Les Misérables and needs another week to get through it. Anyone who has taken a crack at that book will understand. Les Misérables is huge. It took me a solid week to get through that one, and that was when my wife was out of the country and I had totally uninterrupted, solitary reading time. Anyway, to give Kim a little more breathing room on Les Misérables, I’ll look this week at Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts.

 

This project doesn’t seem to have me run across a great number of fantasy works. There are a few here and there, but most (though far from all) of the books in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books are definitely literary realism. I am the first to admit, this is probably due to the preferences of the literary establishment as opposed to a proof about the quality of fantasy novels. There are plenty of amazing fantasy novels out there, they just don’t get talked about as much by ‘literary’ people. Frankly, I am just as bad as anyone else on this, so it was good to break out of my current comfort zone a little bit and look at Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Lydia Millet.)

I mean, what else could you call War with the Newts other than fantasy? Sure, it is written in as literary a manner as anyone could ask, full of themes about nationalism, corporations, consumerism, and the folly of mankind. Still, it is a book from the thirties about giant, intelligent (they learn to talk, study science, and many other things), bi-pedal newts. How else would you classify something like that?

Take one crusty sea-captain. Have him run across a sheltered cove of a tropical island where the remaining population of an ancient race of newt creatures can be found. For some reason, he takes a liking to the things. He forms a plan to form colonies of the creatures in various parts of the globe and use them to harvest pearls.

Of course, most of the book takes place in how mankind (somewhat predictably, though comedic to the extent that it isn’t tragic) then deals with the newts:

G. H. Bondy: ‘Gentlemen, let us forgo the idea straight away that we could possibly maintain our monopoly in Newts in the future. Unfortunately, under existing regulations, we can’t take out a patent on them.’ (Laughter) ‘We can and must maintain our privileged position with regards to the Newts in another way; an indispensable condition, of course, will be that we tackle our business in a different style and on a far greater scale than hitherto.’ (Hear, hear!) ‘Here, Gentlemen, we have a whole batch of provisional agreements. The Board of Directors proposes that a new vertical trust be set up under the name of The Salamander Syndicate. The members of this Syndicate would be, apart from our Company, a number of major enterprises and financially powerful groups: for example, a certain concern which would manufacture special patented metal instruments for the Newts – ‘ (Are you referring to MEAS?) ‘Yes, sire, I am referring to MEAS. Further, a chemical and foodstuffs cartel which would produce cheap patented feedingstuff for the Newts; a group of transportation companies which – making use of experience gained so far – would take out patents on special hygienic tanks for the transport of Newts; a block of insurance firms which would undertake the insurance of the animals purchased against injury or death during transportation and at their places of work; further various other interested parties in the fields of industry, export and finance which, for weighty reasons, we will not name at this stage.

Nor is the commercialistic exploitation of the Newts the only non-surprising way that man deals with the newts. Just consider this passage from a section of articles related to the development of the ‘newt situation’:

Their flesh has also been considered to be unfit for consumption and indeed poisonous; when eaten raw it causes acute pain, vomiting, and sensual hallucinations. Dr Hinkel established after numerous experiments conducted on himself that these harmful effects disappear if the cut meat is scalded with hot water (as in the case of some toadstools) and after thorough rinsing is pickled for twenty-four hours in a weak permanganate solution. After that it can be boiled or steamed, and will taste like inferior beef. In this way we consumed a Newt we used to call Hans; it was an educated and clever animal with a special talent for scientific work; it used to be employed in Dr Hinkel’s department as his laboratory assistant and could be trusted with the most exacting chemical analyses. We used to have long chats with it in the evenings, amused by its insatiable thirst for knowledge. We were sorry to lose our Hans but he had lost his sight in the course of my trepanation experiments. His meat was dark and spongy but there were no unpleasant aftereffects.

In short, the newts are exploited much as any other cheap labor source that society has determined is not a person has typically been exploited over time. In the interests of money (and poor judgment), newts soon outnumber humans by a frightening degree. I think you can guess what happens next.

For me, this book took a little bit to get going and did get a bit preachy at times. Still, once it did get going, I enjoyed the book immensely. Čapek creates a captivating world with these newts, one about which I was fascinated to read. Fantasy might not be my favored choice right now, but I did like War with the Newts

This was supposed to be Les Mis. Then it was supposed to be Charlotte’s Web. However, it is in fact The Lorax

Disclaimer:  I am currently attempting to watch the 2011 Jane Eyre since I’ve had the netflix dvd for 3 days now and would like to be able to get my next dvd, I will do my hardest to not confuse Jane Eyre with The Lorax.  If I suddenly wonder if the Once-ler is haunting Jane Eyre’s happiness, you will understand I am sure.

Now…the reason for my title.  Originally, I was attempting to read Les Miserables.  Then Saturday, Amelia woke with a cough.  No big deal.  Called the doctor’s office to be sure, but we all felt it was an upper resp infection.  4 hours later, my daughter is laying semi-conscious on the couch laboring to breath, panting in short breaths with a fever.  Another nurse call was made, this one telling me to get to the er after steaming Amelia in the bathroom first.  This was my first time in almost 5 years of needing to go to the ER for Amelia.  As you can imagine, this caused a great amount of fear and stress on Greg and I’s part.  We were sent home with an inhaler and super duty amoxicillin.   And we spent the next 3 days in a haze of medicine giving (ibuprofen alternated with tylenol for fever, amoxicillin twice a day, her inhaler every couple of hours and benadryl from time to time for relief of some of the symptoms) and random demands for a piece of toast.  Exhortations to eat, drink.  Getting her to rouse from the couch for a bath.  Basically my brain allowed me to the joy of watching tv as it was too tired to do anything else (I became oddly addicted to Gordon Ramsey’s Hotels from Hell and Hoarding during this time).  So, there went Les Mis finishing.  Then I decided, well I can do Charlotte’s Web, Amelia’s better enough for me to be able to read Charlotte’s Web.  I began it.  One chapter or two into it, Amelia in a burst of unforeseen energy ran it into her pit of do….um room and I have been unable to retrieve it.  There went Charlotte’s Web.  Luckily! I was able to track down her copy of The Lorax and read that for today.  Technically I have read it before, but not as a kid, only as a parent reading it to her child.  And I can assure you, there is an actual difference between reading a story to your child for their enjoyment and reading it to yourself for your own review.

The Lorax is a favorite of Lydia Millet.

I’ve heard that many state that Dr Seuss wrote The Lorax as an eco statement.  That might be the case.  The thing I love about Seuss is that he never talks down to kids.  I grew up reading ALL the time, and as such ran across more than one “morality” tale for kids.  The plot usually was “Little Jane is bad and doesn’t listen.  Little Jane gets sent to horrible orphan….oh wait sorry that’s Jane Eyre 😛 haha jk.  Honestly though, the plot usually was some kid be bops along and is generally a good kid.  But they don’t listen to the well meaning adults in their lives or the goody goody friends they have and DIRE CONSEQUENCES OCCUR.  But then some good grown up comes along and rescues them from themselves and they learn THE IMPORTANT LESSON OF LISTENING TO YOUR ELDERS.  Or some such crap.  Seuss never made me feel that way and still doesn’t as an adult.

The thing I look for in any story is _the story_.  I love any sort of narrative device, any sort of genre, IF THE STORY IS GOOD.  I don’t care about the fact that some author uses some fancy narrative trick, if there isn’t a good story behind that trick, the book is crap.  Seuss fulfills my good story love quite well.

The “nonsense” words he uses helps.  Thneeds are what the Truffula trees are used to make.  The Once-Ler comes and sees an idyllic place with beautiful Truffula trees and beautiful creatures cavorting around.  He manages to make a Thneed (the thing everyone needs!) from a Truffula tree and begins mass producing Thneeds, cutting down Truffula trees.  A little round mossy looking guy named the Lorax comes to warn him.  But the Once-Ler doesn’t listen.  Until the very last truffula tree falls.  Then the Lorax leaves a rock with the word Unless inscribed on it and disappears.  The way Seuss makes it a story that needs searched out by a young boy going to a house on the outskirts and paying with a variety of things including a nail, then the story itself with the nonsense words that end up being very lyrical when reading aloud.  When it comes off my tongue while reading to Amelia, it has a feel of a fairy  tale, not just a story book.  I loved having the experience of both reading this to a child for the first time and reading it individually as an adult.

I also am really happy that Dr Seuss ended up on these lists, even if it was just once with one book.  I think people forget about Dr. Seuss when listing favorite books.  I mean, they’re _kids’_ books right?  The literary devices and language that Seuss uses though, make him an author whose books shouldn’t be forgotten merely because one now can read War and Peace.

Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett

For my second review here on Eleven and a Half Years of Books, I decided to get ambitious. I like to think of myself as a relatively intelligent guy. As such, I thought I’d take on Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett. Incidentally, this Beckett trilogy is officially the victor of the contest.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Paul Auster and Molloy by itself was 10th for Lydia Millet.)

I did enjoy reading immensely. When I read Molloy I thought I was doing pretty good. After all, I sort of understood what was going on. It was weird, but fun. Mind you, that did not mean I exactly knew what was going on.

After all, in part I of Molloy, we hear from Molloy. Molloy is a disabled former vagrant who now lives in his mother’s room. There is somebody who comes to pick up the pages he writes and give him money:

            I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got here thanks to him. He says not. He gives me money and takes away the pages.

Molloy tells about a time in his past when he was wandering around (getting picked up by the police for lewdly resting on his bicycle, running over a woman’s dog and then having to live with her for a time, killing a charcoal-burner in the woods) trying to get to his mother’s. In the end of his section, he gets taken to the room where he writes.

Then, in part II, we hear from Malone. Malone is some kind of agent hired to look for Molloy. So, he takes his son off to go look for Molloy. However, his son ditches him, his leg goes bad for mysterious reasons, and he can’t even remember what he is supposed to do should he ever find Molloy:

            The day seemed very long. I missed my son! I busied myself as best I could. I ate several times. I took advantage of being alone at last, with no other witness than God, to masturbate. My son must have had the same idea, he must have stopped on the way to masturbate. I hoe he enjoyed it more than I did… I surrendered myself to the beauties of the scene, I gazed at the trees, the fields, the sky, the birds, and I listened attentively to the sounds, faint and clear, borne to me on the air. For an instant I fancied I heard the silence mentioned, if I am not mistaken, above. Stretched out in the shelter, I brooded on the undertaking in which I was embarked. I tried again to remember what I was to do with Molloy, when I found him.

Things don’t really get better for Malone. In fact, his injuries and tribulations resemble Molloy’s story in some ways. Molloy and Malone might even be the same person, perhaps part II being a prequel to part I and Malone eventually becoming the Molloy of part I, whether or not there ever was a real Molloy that he was looking for.

However, Molloy is relatively straightforward when compared to Malone Dies. I am unsure if the Malone of Malone Dies is the same Malone of Molloy or not. He may be, but he also may not.

Regardless, Malone is writing in the room of an institution of some kind, waiting for death. He can barely get around, using a stick to reach the few possessions in the room that haven’t been taken from him. Other than describing his room and his wait for death, Malone does little other than tell stories:

I must have thought about my time-table during the night. I think I shall be able to tell myself four stories, each one on a different theme. One about a man, another about a woman, a third about a thing and finally one about an animal, a bird probably. I think that is everything. Perhaps I shall put the man and the woman in the same story, there is so little difference between a man and a woman, between mine I mean…

However, despite the above, he really only tells the story of a man named Sapo, whose name Malone changes to Macmann at some point in the narrative and may really be Malone. After all, Malone is dying in a room of some kind of institution. At some point in the story about Sapo (Macmann by this point), Sapo is also dying in a room of some kind of institution. The book breaks off with a tale about Macmann being taken on a trip by a nurse where the nurse starts killing other patients (before I assume being killed by Macmann or Malone).

Still, as much as Malone Dies is Harder to figure out than Molloy, it is downright simplistic when compared to The Unnamable. The Unnamable is one long, disjointed monologue. I couldn’t discern any plot, structure, or much of anything else. I couldn’t even figure out who is delivering the monologue. It’s just a hair easier to follow than Finnegans Wake. All I can do is quote a small section:

They are not interested in me, only in the place, they want the place for one of their own. What can one do but speculate, speculate, until one hits on the happy speculation? When all goes silent, and comes to an end, it will be because the words have been said, those it behoved to say, no need to know which, no means of knowing which, they’ll be there somewhere, in the heap, in the torrent, not necessarily the last, they have to be ratified by the proper authority, that takes time, he’s far from here, they bring him the verbatim report of the proceedings, once in a way, he knows the words that count, it’s he who chose them, in the meantime the voice continues, while the messenger goes towards the master, and while the master examines the report, and while the messenger comes back with the verdict, the words continue, the wrong words, until the order arrives, to stop everything or to continue everything, no, superfluous, everything will continue automatically, until the order arrives, to stop everything.

I think you can see what I mean.

Now, I enjoyed reading the whole book, but there was a tradeoff as I moved further in. As I kept reading, the writing became increasingly impressive in the achievement alone. I mean, The Unnamable is downright astounding. However, the further I got the less I understood. The Unnamable was just way more than I could ever understand.

So, in the end? Well, I’m not really sure. There is some extremely impressive writing in here, but I doubt I’ll ever try rereading any of this again except Molloy. There are some who understand and really get into this sort of writing, and I recognize and admit its brilliance, but it’s just too much for me. I’ll chicken out and spend my time reading something that’s a little easier for me to get a handle on. Hey, I tried at least, right?