Sunday, June 14, 2015

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - Haruki Murakami (2008)

There are less than 3 books that I have read since April 1, 2008 that have not subsequently appeared as reviews on Flying Houses.  Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is the quintessential example.  I cannot think of the other 2 books, but they may exist.  I read HBWATEOTW in early 2008 and found it so-so.  After about 100-150 pages, I started to "get it," and found some parts fantastic, but on the whole found it a bit overrated.  Seven years later, I have absolutely no memory of the story, except that there is some sort of tower or castle in it, or "two worlds" (and this is why I maintain Flying Houses).  Later on I would realize that it is generally not a good place to start with Murakami.  I've heard that Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood are better options.

I signed up for the Chicago Marathon on May 5, 2015, exactly one month ago today.  I have logged just over 100 miles on MapMyRun, but that does not include treadmill workouts, or a few along my usual route (which is almost exactly 4.20 miles, and my goal is 4:20 for the 26.2).  I am not keeping a running journal or a blog of my marathon training, though I have thought about it.  This is because I have never been a good runner and I am afraid that I will fail to finish, or worse, may die on October 11, 2015.  Other people may call BS on that and I say I am a good runner, as I've been doing it pretty consistently for 9 years.  But I've never done anything longer than a 5K.  I did Cross Country in high school, but consistently finished at the back of the pack (dead last, several times).  Right now I feel that I am in the best physical shape of my life, but I rarely break 10 minute miles.  I remember when I used to give tours of my high school as my "work job," and once shepherded a potential X-C recruit through the campus.  He asked my PR and I said it was about 23 or 24 minutes and he laughed at me.  So I am wary of looking like a charlatan.  But the wonderful thing about What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is the feeling that nobody should ever be ashamed of their speed.  Running is a competitive sport, but it is mostly a competition with yourself.  Murakami understands this and writes with such modesty and good humor that almost any reader (whether a novice or non-runner) may develop the confidence to run their first marathon.

Murakami wrote this book between the years of 2005 and 2006, and it centers around his training for the New York City marathon in November 2005,  He opens the book by describing his original motivations for running.  He used to run a jazz club in Tokyo, near Sendagaya Station, which was actually quite successful.  Before he decided to start running, he decided to write a novel, and he pinpoints the exact date and location (April 1, 1978 at a baseball game at Jingu Stadium) of his inspiration to beautiful effect:

"Hilton got a hit down the left field line.  The crack of bat meeting ball right on the sweet spot echoed through the stadium.  Hilton easily rounded first and pulled up to second.  And it was at that exact moment that a thought struck me: You know what? I could try writing a novel.  I still can remember the wide open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat.  Something flew down from the sky at that instant, and whatever it was, I accepted it." (27-28)

So this book is not just about running, but also Murakami's writing career.  He doesn't mention HBWATEOTW but he does say his career took off at Norwegian Wood and that his first "big" novel was A Wild Sheep Chase.  He eschews specific plot details from these works in favor of his general creative process.  His output, as he approaches his late 60's, remains most impressive, and his status as a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize puts him on a similar playing field as Philip Roth.  Now, Murakami's output is not quite as prolific as Roth's (his turnaround time is closer to 2 years rather than 1), but his books seem to carry more weight.  Roth "retired" around the time he turned 80.  One expects Murakami to achieve a similar longevity,  No predictions on the Nobel Prize for either, except to say that our last author (also foreign, and currently at 75, right in the middle of these two) was recognized for a much more streamlined oeuvre.  While Murakami's novels may elevate him into the category of the greatest writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, WITAWITAR (great acronym) is the sort of gift to humanity that should carry weight in gaining membership to such prestigious pantheons.

I have not personally reviewed a Murakami novel on Flying Houses, but the incomparable Emily Dufton has reviewed his two most recent ones, 1Q84 and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, on this site.  Both reviews reference WITAWITAR, and the former even suggests that it may be his strongest work (or at least the most enjoyable).  On this basis, as well as the enthusiasm I have for it (particularly its willingness to "unlock" the secrets of running), it deserves recognition as one of the Best Books of Flying Houses.  It may be a slight volume, but since Points of Rebellion makes the list (certainly an idiosyncratic choice), this does too.

When he decided to start running, he was 33 and smoked 60 cigarettes a day.  By the time he started writing WITAWITAR, he had completed 20 marathons in 20 years.  After the inspiration to write a first novel (Hear the Wind Sing) has passed and bloomed, with a prize from a literary magazine, he decides to quit his day job, and to begin running:

"A problem arose, though, with my decision to become a professional writer: the question of how to keep physically fit.  I tend to gain weight if I don't do anything.  Running the bar required hard physical labor every day, and I could keep my weight down, but once I started sitting at my desk all day writing, my energy level gradually declined and I started putting on the pounds.  I was smoking too much, too, as I concentrated on my work.  Back then I was smoking sixty cigarettes a day.  All my fingers were yellow, and my whole body reeked of smoke.  This can't be good for me, I decided.  If I wanted to have a long life as a novelist, I needed to find a way to keep fit and maintain a healthy weight." (33)

Before running with all of the other usual competitors in a race, Murakami went to Greece in 1983 and ran the original route from the town of Marathon to the city of Athens.  He does this in part for men's magazine article, but also to see the original route and convince himself that he can do it.  It is actually about a mile shorter than the standard 26.2, but this trip took place during the hottest part of the summer.  For me at least, anything between 75 and 80 degrees is perfect weather for running.  Anything over 90 tends to exacerbate exhaustion, and I felt as if I were "dying of thirst" once when I went about 10 miles in 95 degree heat.  As one might guess, the description of this fun event is brutal.

But nothing is more brutal than the description of the ultramarathon.  He ran this in 1996.  It took place in Hokkaido.  It is not 52.4 miles, as one might expect, but 62 miles.  Now in my opinion the human body is not meant to go this far in a single day, and it is around this point in the book that Murakami appears totally insane to the reader.  Certainly, there is much personal satisfaction that comes with finishing a marathon, but I just can't see why going an extra 38 miles would do anything for you.  It's like by that point, you've become more alien than human.  Regardless, this is the most compelling portion of the book to describe the physical act of running, and perhaps the value in the ultramarathon is the confidence that it might instill in first-time marathoners.  If Murakami can do 62, then you can probably do 26.

One example from this chapter is necessary, because it probably contains the most hilarious and gut-wrenching prose in the book:

"Even though my legs were working now, the thirteen miles from the thirty-four mile rest stop to the forty-seventh mile were excruciating.  I felt like a piece of beef being run, slowly, through a meat grinder.  I had the will to go ahead, but now my whole body was rebelling.  It felt like a car trying to go up a slope with the parking brake on.  My body felt like it was falling apart and would soon come completely undone.  Out of oil, the bolts coming loose, the wrong cogs in gear, I was rapidly slowing down as one runner after another passed me.  A tiny old lady around seventy passed me and shouted out, 'Hang in there!' Man alive.  What was going to happen the rest of the way?  There were still twenty-five miles to go.
As I ran, different parts of my body, one after another, began to hurt.  First my right thigh hurt like crazy, then that pain migrated over to my right knee, then to my left thigh, and on and on.  All the parts of my body had their chance to take center stage and scream out their complaints.  They screamed, complained, yelled in distress, and warned me that they weren't going to take it anymore.  For them, running sixty miles was an unknown experience, and each body part had its own excuse.  I understood completely, but all I wanted them to do was be quiet and keep on running.  Like Danton or Robespierre eloquently attempting to persuade the dissatisfied and rebellious Revolutionary Tribunal, I tried to talk each body part into showing a little cooperation.  Encouraged them, clung to them, flattered them, scolded them, tried to buck them up.  It's just a little farther, guys. You can't give up on me now.  But if you think about it--and I did think about it--Danton and Robespierre wound up with their heads cut off." (109-110)

Later, Murakami details his efforts at completing triathlons.  He writes about the madness of cycling, but not derisively enough for me:

"It's the same movements, repeated over and over.  You go up slopes, on level ground, and down slopes.  Sometimes the wind's with you, sometimes against you.  You switch gears as needed, change your position, check your speed, pedal harder, let up a bit, check your speed, drink water, change gears, change your position...Sometimes it strikes me as an intricate form of torture.  In his book the triathlete Dave Scott wrote that of all the sports man has invented, cycling has got to be the most unpleasant of all.  I totally agree."  (141-142)

There may be another section in the book where he references the psychological torture that comes from sharing a path with bikers, and this is the best I can find:

"Yesterday I listened to the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet as I ran.  That funky "Hoo hoo" chorus in "Sympathy for the Devil" is the perfect accompaniment to running.  The day before I listened to Eric Clapton's Reptile.  I love these albums.  There's something about them that gets to me, and I never get tired of listening to them--Reptile, especially.  Nothing beats listening to Reptile on a brisk morning run.  It's not too brash or contrived.  It has this steady rhythm and entirely natural melody.  My mind gets quickly swept into the music, and my feet run in time to the beat.  Sometimes, mixed in with the music coming through my headphones, I hear someone calling out, 'On your left!' And a racing bike whips by, passing me on the left." (95)

But when I write my running memoir, I will be sure to mention one of my old running routes--down the Brooklyn Bridge, through the World Trade Center and back--as pure psychological torture, due to the speed of bikers on the bridge.  And the rudeness.  These experiences gave me a very negative opinion of bikers, but also of families walking three or four abreast, creating additional anxiety vis-a-vis bikers.  Lately, I have been running on the newly-opened 606 Trail in Chicago, and I love it.  There are many bikers, but the anxiety is nothing compared to the Brooklyn Bridge, even though my elbow has already made contact with one biker.

Murakami also does not discuss the psychological torture that comes with running in large groups in races.  For me at least, I think I am a worse runner in a race than on my own during an afternoon workout, because the despair kicks in when a bunch of people pass me.  This happens on the 606 with some regularity, and is unusual for me on almost all of my previous efforts (including the lakefront trail in Chicago, which I must be wrong about), and it tends to destroy my confidence.  Like, I believe I am the best runner out there when I'm alone, but when I'm surrounded by others passing me by, leaving me in the dust, I realize I am nothing special, and am in fact mediocre (or worse than mediocre, as Murakami describes himself as being--which is just wrong, considering his regimen and professional accomplishments).  This feeling needs to be addressed somewhere in this book, and though one of the passages above does reference feeling bad about getting passed, the phenomenon is unexplored.

I loved this book, in any case.  Murakami may be one of the world's greatest living writers, but he gets down to such a human level in this book that you love him even more:

"Sometimes when I run, I listen to jazz, but usually it's rock, since its beat is the best accompaniment to the rhythm of running.  I prefer the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gorillaz, and Beck, and oldies like Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Beach Boys.  Music with as simple a rhythm as possible.  A lot of runners now use iPods, but I prefer the MD player I'm used to.  It's a little bigger than an iPod and can't hold nearly as much data, but it works for me.  At this point I don't want to mix music and computers.  Just like it's not good to mix friends and work, and sex." (14)

I would like to ask him if he runs with his phone now or not.  There are lots of things I want to ask him, but probably more things about running than writing.  Writing is so abstract, and you can say anything you want about the process.  But running is something you can talk about in very concrete terms.  It may seem like most other people are "super runners" and that you can't identify with anything they're going to say because they're just on a different level, but Murakami really subverts this fear.  Whether you are a novice or an expert, I think you will find pretty much the entire thing to be absorbing.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee (1999)

Oeuvre rule: the only other book I have read by J.M. Coetzee is Foe.  Foe is not generally referenced as one of Coetzee's major works--those would probably include The Life and Times of Michael K., Disgrace, and perhaps Waiting for the Barbarians--but I read it in 2003 for a class taken at the University of Paris - Nanterre, on pluralist readings of texts inspired by Freud, Marx and Derrida.  Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 2, 2003, but I do not recall our French professor (who taught in English) mentioning that fact.  Foe is basically the story of Robinson Crusoe, told from the perspective of a woman, whose name is Susan Barton.  Ironically, about three years after reading on this, I would work on a house that was owned by a woman named Susan Barton, but I never mentioned the coincidence to her (nor did I have the chance to tell another homeowner named Thomas Mann that I loved his work).  Essentially, Susan Barton is shipwrecked and marooned on an island with a native, Friday, who becomes her manservant.  But she survives and is rescued and returns to England, where she meets and copulates with Daniel DeFoe, inspiring the novel.  We read it and attached Freudian symbols to everything in the text.  It was a reasonably entertaining novel, but in hindsight it appears to me as extremely allegorical, like there is a second layer to it and the plot is ultimately secondary.  Disgrace is similar in this respect, but since I do not have the advantage of reading it in the classroom, the symbols and metaphors that may be present were not apparent to me.  Even without this potentially deeper significance, it was an enjoyable read and I recommend it to everyone, particularly those that enjoy The Stranger by Camus.

Basically, while the plot is not exactly the same as The Stranger, the whole style and tone of the novel renders it a spiritual sequel to that classic.  It seems like it's easy to spoil this book, but I think most will agree that the plot can be spoiled up to a point.

Professor David Lurie teaches at a university in Johannesburg, South Africa.  He is twice-divorced, and as the novel opens, he is detailing his trysts with a prostitute.  Soon thereafter, he becomes smitten with a student in one of his classes (Melani) and they enter into a sexual relationship, though he is more than 30 years her senior.  It falls apart after a short time, and almost immediately he is reported to the university.  He is given the chance to repent for his actions and take a leave of absence, but instead he chooses to resign permanently.  He then goes to visit his daughter (Lucy) in the countryside.  His daughter sells crops at a sort of farmer's market on Saturdays, and cares for dogs at a kennel on her property.  She sometimes volunteers at an animal welfare hospital, which is where her friend Bev Shaw works.  Bev Shaw is a sort of unlicensed veterinarian who euthanizes most of the sick or unwanted animals in the area.  Care and compassion for animals is one of the major themes of Disgrace, and it seems like this theme operates on a deeper metaphorical level, though in actuality it may just be a message unto itself.  Coetzee has recently spoken out on animal rights and it is not surprising given how heart-wrenching many of these scenes are.

Not long after he arrives to stay with his daughter, there is an incident.  I will not spoil what happens, but the incident itself is quite reminiscent of The Stranger.  What happens afterwards is not.  I believe this story is meant to symbolize the transitional period after apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990's, but I am not enough of a student of history to remark more specifically upon it.

Apart from the potential allegory, the novel itself is enjoyable and something of a page-turner.  It reads very quickly and is quite short at 220 pages.  The prose is very matter-of-fact, though because David Lurie is an academic that has studied the art of poetry, there are several "deeper" moments.  Lurie is obsessed with Lord Byron, and hopes to write an opera about a certain affair from the poet's life.  To a certain extent, I've never understood poetry, and the English courses I've taken have never properly instilled an appreciation for it.  I've written in the past about my problems with interpreting Donne, so some of Lurie's "mini-lectures" were illuminating:

"Look at line 599.  Wordsworth is writing about the limits of sense-perception.  It is a theme we have touched on before.  As the sense-organs reach the limit of their powers, their light begins to go out.  Yet at the moment of expiry that light leaps up one last time like a candle-flame, giving us a glimpse of the invisible.  The passage is difficult; perhaps it even contradicts the Mont Blanc moment.  Nevertheless, Wordsworth seems to be feeling his way toward a balance: not the pure idea, wreathed in clouds, nor the visual image burned on the retina, overwhelming and disappointing us with its matter-of-fact clarity, but the sense-image, kept as fleeting as possible, as a means toward stirring or activating the idea that lies buried more deeply in the soul of memory." (22)

Because this novel feels shorter than 220 pages, and restricts itself to such limited subject matter, there is not much else I can say.  I was going to excerpt a passage where David tells the story of a next door neighbor's dog (in the town of Kenilworth--presumably not the one outside of Chicsago) who relentlessly humped every "bitch" he saw, and was beaten for it by his owners.  David says that a dog will accept the justice of a beating for having chewed on a slipper, but no animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.  The dog grows to hate itself, and David reflects that it would probably have preferred to be shot rather than "fixed."  Yet he feels the opposite--that desire is a burden we could well do without.

I've essentially paraphrased a page of the text in that paragraph, but this one particular anecdote feels meaningful.  There are a handful of moments in Disgrace that operate in a similar manner, and while David may appear at times to be a despicable figure, there is clearly "redemption" in this novel.  There was one moment near the end where I was struck by how beautifully his character had been developed.

Overall, this is a very fine novel that is subtle, yet occasionally overpowering in its raw imagery.  It is a pretty quick and easy read, and may nourish the reader through the method by which it analyzes humanity.

"It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country.  Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life.  Count yourself lucky not to be a prisoner in the car at this moment, speeding away, or at the bottom of a donga with a bullet in your head.  Count Lucy lucky, too.  Above all Lucy.
A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes.  Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes.  Too many people, too few things.  What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day.  That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory.  Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant.  That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect.  Otherwise one could go mad.  Car, shoes; women too.  There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them." (98)

In short, while this book should not be forgotten, it may be best appreciated by those who are familiar with recent South African history.  Apart from that, I am pretty sure that readers from any social milieu will find something worthwhile in it.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Pale King - David Foster Wallace (2011)

Wow.  At first I was guessing this was published in 2014, before I looked into the copyright page.  I thought this was going to be one of the more "up to date" reviews, but I guess I'm four years late.  Law school can do that to you.  Then again, would I have ever even read this book if it weren't for my friend that sent it and suggested we form a "book club" and read it together?

I mean, I own Infinite Jest, but only got through about 400 pages on my first attempt, and maybe 150 on my second.  I will finish that book the next time I try.  I considered picking it up this morning, needing a new book start on, before What I Talk about When I Talk about Running comes in from the CPL.  But I wanted a lighter messenger bag for a change.  This is the 3rd book out of the last 4 topping out over 500 pages.  I picked up Disgrace instead.

Imponderables aside, the thoughtfulness of the gift both impressed and imposed an urgency upon me.   The Pale King will not make the Best Books list of this blog, but it is up near that territory.  I'm not sure it would be there, for me, in its finished form either, just because of the lukewarm feeling I get about Infinite Jest.  It's something I feel I should respect and admire, but just can't really bring myself to enjoy reading.  This is getting to be a loaded topic, because it brings up criticisms of DFW like those of BEE, who said he was a "fraud" or "full of shit" or something, because he read a biography of DFW that discussed how he did not have much love for BEE, but still recognized him as an influence on his own writing.

This would probably be a much better book if DFW were able to complete it, mainly to see what he might do next.  As much as this seems unfinished, at almost 550 pages it seems pretty representative of what the overall quality might have been.  Parts of it seem lop-sided, but on the whole it seems about 80-85% finished to me.  I suppose it all depends on how long DFW intended it to be.

For sure, it is an audacious concept for a book, and a perfect one for him: a paean to boredom.  Make the boredom of the everyday lives of IRS examiners in Peoria, IL in the late 70's and early 80's into fine literature.  I was about to write 1985, but I don't believe this story necessarily takes place in 1985.  It's so impressionistic that the "plot" seems secondary to the background sketches of the other characters.

It's not even clear what the "plot" really consists of, but it may consist of Claude Sylvanshine and David Foster Wallace's orientation to their IRS posts in Peoria.  It's hot and they ride in a bus that is a repossessed and re-purposed ice cream truck.  One person sweats an egregious amount.  There is some idle chatter with two other employees.  They go, and DFW gets mixed up with another David F. Wallace (who is older and much more valuable in terms of skill set) and gets introduced by the "Iranian crisis," who gives him a blow job in a janitor's closet.  He also glimpses the face of Glendenning, who is basically in the highest post there, who looks at him sympathetically or some related way because DFW has a horrible skin condition that causes most people to look away.  And that's pretty much it, though there may be other characters on that bus ride near the beginning of the novel.

DFW is a character in this novel.  Ostensibly, it is a memoir:

"Plus there's the autobiographical fact that, like so many other nerdy, disaffected young people of that time, I dreamed of becoming an 'artist,' i.e., somebody whose adult job was original and creative instead of tedious and dronelike.  My specific dream was of becoming an immortally great fiction writer a la Gaddis or Anderson, Balzac or Perec, &;c.; and many of the notebook entries on which parts of this memoir are based were themselves literarily jazzed up and fractured; it's just the way I saw myself at the time.  In some ways, you could say that my literary ambitions were the chief reason I was on hiatus from college and working at the Midwest REC at all, though most of that whole backstory is tangential and will be addressed only here in the Foreword, and very briefly, to wit:" (73-74)

Here, Wallace describes how he paid off his student loans by writing papers for his classmates, and how his school became aware of it.  This is the first part of the novel that feels truly "great."  It is classic DFW, by which I mean it includes footnotes and his trademark erudition.  So yes, certain sections of The Pale King, I would say, are as good as anything DFW has ever done.

This is a great chapter because Wallace could pretty easily convince a person (that didn't know what year he was really born and couldn't do math) that the story is, in fact, true.  One thing I like about his writing is that it captures the essence of reality.  A reader can identify with it on a different level than anything before.  The details--the minute details and almost paranoid insecurities that we all must worry about from time to time--are so readily evoked that DFW appears God-like.  This one of those books that takes you out of your head a bit, and oddly shapes your life around it.

One part, for me, was extremely touching.  One quick background detail, for exposition: from April 2008 through August 2008, I lived in a small bungalow-like studio in Silver Lake, on a hill just off of Sunset Boulevard.  Across Sunset Blvd. was a foot sign.  My friend (the same one who sent me this book) remarked upon it and I agreed it was strange, funny, cute and iconic in its own way.  It was certainly a landmark.  After I left L.A., he sent me an article once about how this sign had actually influenced several fiction writers, such as Jonathan Lethem and DFW.  I immediately thought, "I am chosen.  I was meant to live there, to know that."

Then came page 163, which will from hereon in be christened the "LSAT test," not unlike the "420 test," except that instead of requiring mention because of some relatively direct reference to pot (and while there is a fair amount of "drug material" in this book, it does not pass that test--though page 420 does detail one of the more sensorily-powerful scenes in the novel), it will need to evoke feelings of my life that might be different if I hadn't taken the LSAT and scored a 163:

"I remember rooming in a high-rise UIC dorm with a very mod, with-it sophomore from Naperville who also wore sideburns and a leather thong and played the guitar.  He saw himself as a nonconformist, and also very unfocused and nihilistic, and deeply into the school's wastoid drug scene, and drove what I have to admit was a very cool-looking 1972 Firebird that it eventually turned out his parents paid the insurance on.  I cannot remember his name, try as I might.  UIC stood for the University of Illinois, Chicago campus, a gigantic urban university.  The dorm we roomed in was right on Roosevelt, and our main windows faced a large downtown podiatric clinic--I can't remember its name, either--which had a huge raised electrified neon sign that rotated on its pole every weekday from 8:00 to 8:00 with the name and mnemonic phone number ending in 3668 on one side and on the other a huge colored outline of a human foot--our best guess was a female foot, from the proportions--and I remember that this roommate and I formulated a kind of ritual in which we'd make sure to try to be at the right spot at our windows at 8:00 each night to watch the foot sign go dark and stop rotating when the clinic closed.  It always went dark at the same time the clinic's windows did and we theorized that everything was on one main breaker.  The sign's rotation didn't stop all at once.  It was more like slowly wound down, with almost a wheel-of-fortune quality about it where it would finally stop.  The ritual was that if the sign stopped with the foot facing away, we would go to the UIC library and study, but if it stopped with the foot or any significant part of it facing our windows, we would take it as a 'sign' (with the incredibly obvious double entendre) and immediately blow off any homework or supposed responsibility we had and go instead to the Hat, which at the time was the currently hip UIC pub and place to hear bands, and would drink beers and play quarters and tell all the other kids whose parents were paying their tuition about the ritual of the rotating foot in a way that we all appeared nihilistically wastoid and hip.  I'm seriously embarrassed to remember things like this...." (163)

This turns out to be a videotaped interview with "Irrelevant" Chris Fogle, and it is one of the standout portions of the text.  His father is an employed of the City of Chicago as a "cost Systems supervisor," and dies in a horrific CTA accident.  The description of the ensuing litigation with CTA is very accurately rendered.  He grows up in Libertyville, IL and references a number of other towns on the north shore, including Winnetka (a clothing store--Jack Fagman--which his family had patronized since 1964, and which may or may not have existed).  It is basically about the moment that he discovered his calling in life--to serve the IRS.  It details a chance encounter with an Accounting professor at DePaul, and how it took him off the path of serial college enrollments, drugs, and the "wastoid" lifestyle.  In short, this is classic DFW.

Another notable section near the end focuses on a conversation between Shane Drinion and Meredith Rand, two other IRS employees, at a bar's happy hour on a Friday.  Drinion is cyborg-like in his communications, but Rand is relentlessly confessional.  The subject matter of this scene is also touching and personal to me, as I wrote my second novel in between 2007 and 2008, finishing most of its rough draft shortly before DFW committed suicide.  It is heartening to think that we might have been compelled to write about the same topic for similar reasons:

"'I didn't know why I did it.  I'm still not sure, except he taught me that trying to analyze it or understand all the whys was bullshit--the only important thing was knocking it off, because if I didn't it would land me right back in the psych ward, that the idea I could hide it with bandages or sleeves and keep it a totally private thing that didn't affect anybody else was arrogant bullshit.  And he's right.  No matter where you do it or how carefully you do it, there's always a time when somebody sees something and says something, or when somebody is funking around in the hall and pretending to beg you to cut algebra and go to the park and get stoned and climb on the statue of Lincoln and grabs your arm too hard and some of the cuts open up and you bleed through your long sleeves, even if you've got two shirts on, and somebody sends for the nurse even if you tell them to fuck off and it was an accident and you'll just go home and get it seen to at home.  There always comes a day when somebody sees something in your face that tells them you're lying and then the next thing you know there you are, in a lit room with your arms and legs uncovered, trying to explain yourself to somebody with zero sense of humor, actually a little bit like talking to you right now.' With a quick tight smile." (468-469)

While these chapters--DFW's delayed "foreword," the story of "Irrelevant" Chris Fogle's revelation, and the conversation between Meredith Rand and Shane Drinion--are my personal favorites from this book, I hasten to add the caveat that they also go on too long.  Another similarly great chapter is about a young man (who later rides next to DFW on the way to the Midwest REC) who sweats profusely during periods of anxiety.  It is tremendously entertaining and profound in its sensitivity to human nature, but the situations are truly mined to the depths for details.  This may or may not have been a casualty of the incompleteness of this novel.

This sort of seems to be characteristic of his work in general, though, with another one of his chapters ending in the middle of a sentence.  I am not sure how you could provide appropriate closure for Infinite Jest, though I believe Joyce achieved it with Ulysses, which one really must mention in the same breath.  Because if you subscribe to the belief that Ulysses is the greatest English language novel, then I think you will also enjoy DFW to the max.  I don't always, but I think I can appreciate the generic expectations of a reader that sort of begs for a little bit of "guidance" from the author.  DFW definitely provides that "guidance" at certain points, and it is refreshing.  But other parts of this book are about as difficult as Infinite Jest.

My opinions on this book have been adequately dispatched, I believe, but please feel free to comment below, as this truly is the first post on Flying Houses spurred by participation in a book club.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress #26: Didn't We Deserve a Look at You the Way You Really Are?

For decades, you paraded around like a crazy bitch
Wretchedness, your lucky charm
Hung on a bracelet displayed on your arm

All we saw is not how you are

Caught a glimpse of you
In an unselfconscious smile
Revealing yourself
Didn't we deserve a look at you the way you really are?

Don't judge me for posting Shellac lyrics again.  They were appropriate for #24 and they are appropriate for #26.  There are three interpretations to make of this reference: (1) we deserve a look at the way law schools (and legal jobs) really are; (2) you deserve a look at the way I really am; (3) we deserve a look at the way all the anonymous scam-bloggers really are.
Not for decades, but for nearly a decade, we have all paraded around like crazy bitches, trumpeting inflated employment statistics, selling our desperate souls for a pittance, blacklisting alternative voices.  The time has come to take off the mask.

I have never worn a mask.  But I have taken off my make-up.  Let's see if you can take off yours.


BLS was #67 on The List when I accepted.  Now they are #78 (and list their tuition as $1,795 per credit).  This isn't that egregious of a decline, but I've seen a graphic that the median LSAT of incoming students has, in fact, egregiously declined.  I read once that top 50 schools were first tier, schools 50-100 were second tier, and everything after 100 was third tier.  I disagree and think most people know the top 14 schools are first tier, 15-50 are second tier, and everything after 50 is third tier.  But then I have heard the whole tier system has been purged.  Regardless, I like referring to BLS as TT.  So that is the working title for my fourth book.

The book will mostly be about social life, but it is certainly aimed squarely at my debt and the need to relieve myself of it.  So I will not comment on that here, except to say that Pepperdine struck me as being like a high school, when I overheard or observed the students interacting.  I did not want that.  BLS ended up being its own version of high school.  Regardless, while I regret basically everything that happened in my life between the years of 2010 and 2013, I do not regret, for one second, any of my interpersonal relationships from that period.  Ironically I have about two friends in Chicago, so a whole lot of good my BLS friends have done me, updating their status, allowing me to compare myself unfavorably.  I am happy that I will not run into certain classmates in court, but I miss most of them very, very much.  They were all intelligent, open-minded, curious, and inspiring.  I could tell them everything and never feel ashamed.  I feel the need to write TT to honor my love for them and the memories we shared, before any more of us are lost in unfortunate accidents.

Nothing more about BLS, except that their employment statistics are grossly inflated.  I believe they have changed their disclosure: their website now links to an ABA-stamped employment summary.  However, only 44 out of 478 defined themselves as unemployed.  So when they said 91% employment before, it wasn't untrue.  But it was probably highly misleading.  Supposedly, there were only 33 law school funded positions.  All I know is, I filled out that employment survey, and my CTA post-graduate fellowship counted as "employed."  But if you knew what my life was like from November 2013 through May of 2014, you would not feel "employed." (I do have to say though, that these numbers do not look that bad, and that maybe I am unnaturally disappointed because BLS has zero pull in Chicago.)


I never had BLS on my radar until they solicited an application from me with the fee-waived.  This was warning sign #1.  Plenty of schools do this, but it is nefarious.  
Oh, you haven't heard of our school?  It's free to apply!  What is it going to hurt?
Inevitably, these schools end up offering tempting scholarship packages.  

I picked BLS over Loyola Law School.  I've written about this before, and I'll be writing about it again.  Neither BLS or LLS would have been a smart decision.  LLS gave me slightly more money, subject to finishing in the top 33% of the 1L class.  BLS gave maybe $6,000 less, but only subject to a top 40% finish.  BLS also coordinated student housing, and this ultimately won the day for them.  LLS has a beautiful campus with beautiful architecture, though it is not in the best neighborhood.  BLS must have one of the ugliest law school buildings in the country, but it is in the fanciest neighborhood in the hippest borough.  I couldn't pay too much attention to the quality of the faculty, but for what it's worth BLS did have a more impressive "sample class" than Pepperdine, DePaul or LLS (though LLS was definitely #2).  If it's not already clear to you, I regret going to BLS.  Given that I live in Chicago, I wish I had gone to DePaul or Loyola University.  I also wish I had gone to LLS, but there it was more apparent to me that I was making a huge financial gamble - I'd have enough to afford first and last month's rent, and a security deposit, but not 12 months of rent, and I was not going to have a job.  A loan, untied to the school's bursar, frightened me.  Of course in retrospect, I would much rather have given government-borrowed money to a landlord than an institution [at least partly] responsible for my demise.

I think that's all we need to say about that.


You deserve to know that I work for a wage--not a salary--but if you attend work perfectly, logging the maximum 37.5 hours per week, staying late Tuesday through Friday to make up for the 7.5 hours you can't work on the dozen or so holidays throughout the year, perhaps using your accrued vacation days (1 per month), billing 52 weeks, it would work out to $26,949.  

I'm wary about spilling too many details about my job, except to say I am a crime-fighter and building-doctor.  I do not practice criminal law, but I am put into a position where I have to request that criminal offenders be banned from their place of abode.  It can be pretty unsavory at times, and I'm not really sure it's providing any transferable experience.  What I do is very niche, and the only option might be to "go to the dark side"--i.e. the solo practitioners or bank-funded midsize firms we meet in court and AH.  I could say a lot more about this, but again, do not want to call undue attention to what I do.  Even with all of my frustrations about my job, I mentioned in the previous post that this year felt better than last probably because of my professional situation.  You probably deserve to know how that has changed, too.  But before I get there, let me just say, while I may hate a lot of things about my job, I do not hate my job.  It's a tremendously depressing experience, but it has lent me a certain stability.

I nearly had a job, and I'm not sure I've ever written about this here.  But, to cut to the chase, I pretty much decided to move back to Chicago after spending my 2L summer here in 2012.  Still, I interned at Legal Aid when I got back to Brooklyn that fall, and apparently got my "guaranteed" interview.  Just about two years ago, I went up to the Bronx and delivered a summation in defense of a woman who had been caught shoplifting from a Target, to two attorneys.  It went well, I suppose, because I received an invitation to interview a second time, in lower Manhattan on Water St., across the street from a building I lived in for the first half of the summer, 11 years earlier.  Interviews never go well for me, so this was something.  

The second interview didn't allow me to show off the more dramatic side of myself, and I guess I came across as a dullard.  No offer came.  At that point, I decided to withdraw from the NY Bar Exam.  I was fully refunded, which I will never forget.  Illinois, however, charged me $1,550 to register ($1,450 for "really late" registration, and $100 for the computer fee) at that late date, and I guess that's when I really started feeling the sting for how outrageously Illinois will gouge you on everything, particularly if it has to do with practicing law.  Just curious, but how much is it to renew your bar license in NY?  $395?  Higher?  And now there is all sorts of talk about slapping a sales tax onto legal services, as if the poor people and generally poor attorneys (unless of course there is no exemption for large firms, which would be surprising) that will bear the brunt of this revenue boosting measure can afford that little extra ding.

I put out all the feelers I could when I moved back into my parents' house in August of 2013.  I would only live there a couple months before it would be foreclosed upon and short-sold. Miraculously, the moment I found an apartment, I got offered a short term document review job.  It only lasted six days, but I made over $1000 on it after taxes, and that would cover the rent for the next month and most living expenses.  I would also be starting my post-graduate fellowship at CTA, which would pay $1000 per month for 20 hours per week.  

I do not want to say too much about CTA except that it was a mistake to do the fellowship there.  About a year ago, I interviewed with the Cook County Public Defender.  If I had tried to do my fellowship there, I would still have been an "employee" at the time of that interview, and might have been a more impressive candidate.  I wrote about this when I reviewed Defending the Damned (which technically was before last year's 6th anniversary post, but should now be mentioned as a notable read), but here I wanted to make that clear.  I wanted to do my post-graduate fellowship with an organization that could build on my past experience.  I had worked for New York City Transit Authority as my first internship after my 1L year.  It had been a very positive experience for me, and at one point I was falsely led into the anticipation of a job after law school with them.  They gave me free rides.  I never used them, because the building was three blocks from my apartment, but I could go anywhere that summer for free.  I also got paid $5,000 for three months.  

Compare that to $4,500 for 5 months at CTA.   And despite the fact that law school interns were not only paid directly by CTA, but also given the benefit of free rides, I was not given any such special treatment as a "volunteer attorney."  I asked my fellowship coordinator if she could argue my case to the General Counsel, in light of this disparate treatment.  She said she did, but the decision remained the same.  I still wonder how hard she had advocated for me.  Might it have been better just to knock on the GC's door myself?  

So I was working for a pittance with an end date in sight.  An Assistant FOIA Officer position became available, and I applied immediately and got the interview.  It would have paid $50,000.  I interviewed over the phone on a conference call with a woman who worked on the same floor as me.  Clearly I could have come down in person, but they needed to keep it depersonalized, I guess not to show any favored treatment.  I didn't get it.  Another girl, who had a very similar resume to mine, but had done FOIA work for the Law Dept., got it.  I applied later to be a representative for the labor division, working with grievances from the union, but did not get an interview.  Nor did I get one for the associate attorney position in the torts division.

I started doing part-time work.  One day I worked for a solo attorney in Schaumburg.  She paid me $20 per hour to do minor paralegal type work for 6 hours.  I was in at 9, out by 3, and had a check for $120.  Moreover, she had been cool.  She had given all kinds of insight into what it was like to be a solo attorney, and how some months were good and others were not.  I remember one case she was trying to get a settlement from an insurance company for a client who had broken their tooth on a rock in a yogurt cup.  It was freezing cold that day but I remember driving back the long way from Schaumburg, east through Oak Park into the city, down North Ave, going to the Aldi on Milwaukee Ave. and then to the Citibank there to deposit the check, then going home and having a drink and being very happy.

I also covered cases for a foreclosure defense firm.  They paid $20 per hour too, I think.  Maybe $25.  I had to drive out to Kane County a couple times for that, covered another couple cases at the Daley Center.  I stopped doing it after too long, because my current position prohibits outside representation.  And also ironically because it was only the cases in Kane County that were worth it, since you could bill for commuting time and get $0.50 per mile in gas reimbursement.  100 miles round trip, plus a 15 minute appearance signing, might net $150 or $175.

I also got a job at a small firm, which gave me a place to go when my fellowship ended in late April or early May.  They paid $15 per hour.  I worked there for about a month, and the work environment was less than ideal.  All of my co-workers were very nice, but it was a very disorganized place.  I took a doc review project (I had worked another one, also, from February through April, taking a leave of absence from CTA so I could make the hours) and made decent money, maybe about $6,000 in six weeks.  But it was during that doc review job that I got offered a start date at my current job.  I took it, and was sad I was taking an almost 50% cut from my doc review wage.  But, this job offered health insurance, and paid nominally less than $15 per hour, so I talked with the partner at the small firm, and he agreed it seemed like the best move for me.  I have since seen him in court and prosecuted a case against him.  He's one of my very few "connections" to the legal community of this city, and I will always be grateful that he kept me from fearing homelessness.

There's not much else to say except that I am happy to live in and work for this city.  It's a really terrible place, but it's my really terrible place, and no matter how fucking frustrating it gets, I am going to try to make things better.

My loans are up around $98,000 right now and I have paid $0 back.  I will be renewing PAYE next week with an AGI around $25,500.  I think some people pay about $30 per month on our salary, and it just sucks because you are not even covering the interest at that level.  That's only $360 a year, so it's amazing.  But my interest is going to climb at like $7,000 per year.  So it's just going to escalate, and the only way out is through forgiveness.  If I stay on track, and if Congress doesn't try to fuck even further with our economic "promised-land," I will be debt-free in about 9 years.  I will consider these 9 years to be better than those spent in a prison, but I am not going to stay in my position forever.

Some of my colleagues have stayed more than two years without having a conversation about their future there.  I will go ballistic if I hit that point and the powers that be still feel it's reasonable to ask me to live on this salary.

I have heard one of my colleagues turn down a job offer of $40,000 per year (it may have even been $45,000 per year), because it would change the loan treatment.  I agree that the value of public service, over a long term of loan repayment, is high, but it's difficult to measure.  You have an extra 10 years of payment on the expanded form of PAYE now, and the dreaded "tax bomb."  Still, I would probably go for $40,000.  I can understand not wanting to leave, though, because our positions are relatively more stable and less stressful than those of young associates at small firms.  An extra $1,000 per month in pay would be nice, though.

And I think that's all we need to say about that.


We deserve a look at the anonymous bloggers and commentators who have told me to swallow a shotgun, who have called me ugly, who have kicked me while I was down.  I have zero problem with them calling out law school as a ruinous life choice, but when someone personally attacks you for making such a stupid fucking awful decision, it hurts,

In case it is not already crystal-clear, I hereby disavow any pollyannish statements previously made about BLS or other law schools generally.  They are overpriced, and their outcomes are not good.

In the event that you hope to have a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress against the institution that harmed you, you must prove that you have done everything in your power to achieve a good result.

Did you pass, or even take, the bar exam?
How high was your GPA and class rank?
Did you work for a journal, or moot court?
Did you do internships or externships or clinics (or whatever you want to call them) every semester?

Other questions might be pertinent (i.e. foreign language fluency, previous law firm experience), but there is no talisman for success.  I have known people that were spectacular students at BLS and could not get a job, and people who were mediocre students and still managed to get a decent public interest job.  While I understand that the risk/reward is rarely justifiable, it is not fair to lump everyone else together with you when you just suck, or give up without really trying.

I sucked.  I had a 3.28 and finished in the bottom half (top 65%), no journals, no moot court.  I did do do internships every semester, but after 1L year I had a 3.14, and my Property professor [strongly] suggested that I take a year off and work on my writing, since I said that was what I really wanted to do.  My Constitutional Law professor, by contrast, said he didn't mean to be pollyannish, but he had a student that didn't do so well her first year, and came back and finished near the top of her class (though nothing about her getting a great job).  I remember another reception, early in my 3L year, when our Dean highlighted one particular student from the class of 2012 that finished at the very top--maybe 2nd or 3rd--but still had no job.  It was an alumni reception and he exhorted everyone there to give the student a job, plugging some cute acronym initiative.

So maybe my fate isn't all that unusual.

In summation, while the lawsuit naming BLS claiming negligent misrepresentation was dismissed, and while my claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress may not prevail, this is not a clear case of contributory negligence or culpable conduct.  Numerous bad actors have unwittingly collaborated on my demise.  Blame BLS.  Blame the U.S. government.  Blame my friend who went to Cardozo and planted the seed.  Blame my dad for wanting to tell people his son was an attorney.  Blame Bush and/or Obama and/or greedy Wall St. bankers for the recession.  Blame the ABA for failure to warn.  Blame baby boomers for saying that all you need to do is get your foot in the door.  Blame as many parties as you can name.  But do not blame yourself.

Unless, of course, you suck.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Happy 7th Birthday

Another gloriously unproductive year on Flying Houses, but for some reason, it felt better than the last one.  There were only 21 posts, compared to last year's 25.  We currently sit at 77,318 page views, when we had 59,169 last year, and just over 30,000 the year before.  Thus, our growth has slowed, and that makes me sad.  It makes me feel like I am dying.

Of course, everyone who reads this blog knows two things: (1) blogs about books are not all that popular; (2) I don't market the hell out of it, and apparently update it less than twice per month.

But still, this year feels better than last year, and I have to attribute that to my professional situation.  Those of you who have been with us all the way from beginning (brave souls!) know that it was started at 11100 Santa Monica Blvd.  I forget which floor.  Though that job sucked, and though I have posted highly-sensitive details about my exit and distaste for the temporary help industry, I have very fond memories of those days.  However, it was an unsustainable and ultimately sad life that I lived in L.A.  Certain days (this morning included) I wish I had tried harder there, not given up, not gone home, not bought an LSAT book.  I suppose most of us have to learn the hard way; sometimes things do not have a way of working themselves out.

I digress!  I would not have started this blog if I had not been at Jefferies & Co. at that specific time in history and I thank them for that inspiration.  (I'd also like to thank Rahm Emanuel for causing the recession.)

We did not hit 300 posts this year.  We are 4 short.  I am not going to quit, however.  I may quit one day, but that may be when I know the end is near, or the day the printed word becomes obsolete.  There is still work to be done.

The most notable achievement from the last year was certainly the posting of Think and Grow Poor, which now sits above Daylight Savings Time on this blog's homepage.  I am seriously depressed that I'm not making money off of this writing, but I have avoided posting S/M for a long time now.  I may release that as an e-book.

Speaking of money, this blog has earned $29.21 in seven years.  It must be the most unprofitable venture of all time.

That said, I am reasonably sure that AdSense has systematically raised the minimum payment amount several times to avoid any remuneration to me.  I'm pretty sure it used to be $10, then it was $25, and now it is $100.  So it will take me a long time to get paid.  I read about a class action lawsuit that was going to be filed against them.  I hope to be included, but I'm afraid my claim is not substantially similar.

I realize it was about 15 years ago that people used to tell their friends, "Click on an ad!" but I will just ask once.  About a year ago I was working at CTA, and we had a plaintiff come in for a deposition.  She said she fell down on a bus that slammed on its brakes.  Somehow it got brought out that she ran a blog--a fashion blog--where she took pictures of herself in various plus-size outfits.  She said she made about $300 a month on the advertising.  I was like, holy shit.  This girl could teach me something.

So don't be surprised if I start putting myself out there.

Speaking of putting myself out there, I am afraid to Google myself.  I know what used to show up, at least, and it makes me want to either kill myself or fly into a murderous rage.  Neither would be conducive towards a happy future.  At this time, I am concerned that it has turned me into a joke of a person that no one would ever want to hire.  Now I may be a joke of a person, but I want to be my joke of a person--not anybody else's.  Fuck people who presume to know the details.

Having said that, there is a request for a new NIED piece.  It would appear that all of my columns have been archived at BLS Advocate, However, #25 was chopped in two, and I think it seriously lost its power by being cut down into manageable bite-size portions, one with convenient advice for passing the bar exam.  The original text of #25 is lost, so it must remain in its expurgated form on BLS Advocate.  #26, however, will be coming soon...

Generally, this was a good year in terms of maintaining a readership and eliciting fascinating and helpful comments.  I received an offer for a review copy of a book by a Turkish feminist about the 16th century Ottoman Empire.  I said I would be delighted to receive a copy and review it, though none has arrived.  It is unfortunate that neither the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Reader, nor any other publication has reached out to me regarding a part-time position for once weekly or monthly book reviews, but perhaps, if forced to work within the confines of an editorial staff, the substance of my criticism would be sapped.  For there is little substance.  It is all reader-response here.  I do not deign to posit a formula for a great book other than being moved by my past tangible experience.

Stay tuned for NIED #26, which could be a doozy, and a double (possibly triple) review of The Pale King.  Be patient for the latter.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen (2001)

Oeuvre rule: I have only previously read How to be Alone, which came out a year after this.  I enjoyed it very much, while I thought Franzen sometimes went on too long and sounded a bit pretentious and cranky.  Some of the material intimates Franzen's raison d'etre in The Corrections--i.e. "this is what I was trying to do" or "this is what I was going for..."  I would like to revisit it in light of those comments, because I'm going to agree with the rest of the world and slap huge compliments on this novel.  Oprah, I'm not going to read everything in your book club, but you got it right with this one.  (No comment on Franzen's disavowal of that institution--except my belief that he regrets that in retrospect.) I don't have a book club, but I do name those I consider the best books reviewed on Flying Houses, and this one makes the list.

Recently, this novel was named the #5 novel of the 21st century so far, and overall it is a very fine piece of literature indeed.  I have minor complaints: the unfortunate media-driven obsession with sex in American society is transplanted into these pages, and Franzen occasionally goes off on a super-long tangent.  The second complaint is also a compliment, however, and I realize it is hard to produce an item designed for entertaining the masses without appealing to baser instincts.

The most notable thing about this book are the extremely long chapters.  There are only a few: "St. Jude" (9 pages), "The Failure" (120 pages), "The More He Thought About It, the Angrier He Got" (99 pages), "At Sea" (97 pages), "The Generator" (117 pages), "One Last Christmas" (99 pages), and "The Corrections" (5 pages).  7 chapters in 570 pages seems unwieldy, but this is not a criticism.  It serves to break the book up into recognizable sections.  "St. Jude" and "The Corrections" are short introductions and conclusions to the novel.  "The Failure" is about Chip.  "The More He Thought About It..." is about Gary.  "At Sea" is about the cruise that Enid and Alfred take.  "The Generator" is about Denise.  And "One Last Christmas" is about the family together for that event.  I found much to enjoy about each of them.  The book is a consistently pleasurable read.

The plot?  The major device is Alfred's failing health--he has dementia and Parkinson's disease, sprinkled together with Alzheimer's.  He is in his late 70's or early 80's.  He worked as a railroad engineer his whole life and raised his family as pitch-perfect members of the middle class.  He is married to Enid, who is constantly trying to put on a happy face and make everyone around her believe that her family is perfect.  Their oldest son, Gary, is a successful bank executive in his early 40's, married to an attorney who has gone into public interest work because they don't need the money, with three kids.  The middle child, Chip, is an anti-establishment English PhD pushing 40 who has recently fallen on hard times after a good teaching job, and is trying to finish a screenplay.  Denise is a chef, but really "culinary master" seems more accurate, 32 and divorced, going through a transitional period.  Enid and Alfred come to visit Chip in New York City before embarking on a cruise along the Canadian coast.  Denise comes to visit from Philadelphia the same day, and End pushes the idea of bringing everyone back to the family house for "one last Christmas," because Alfred is losing his lucidity.

The first aforementioned "long tangent" occurs during these preliminary introductions.  Out of nowhere, seemingly, Franzen stops the narrative and tells the entire story of Chip's rise and fall as a college professor.  It was just as engaging, so I didn't mind, but it challenged my expectations.  One other thing I wanted to mention about Chip is that he is the most overused character in all of modern literature: the struggling male writer in his 30's.  I felt like I was reading about Nate or Guert (in his younger days) or even Nick (obviously to a lesser extent)--but while I am sure there are many more examples to be had of this "type," Franzen paints him as more of an unpredictable "bad boy" such that he feels more real, behaving impulsively and making bad decisions.

While Franzen's prose is remarkably pristine, I did come across one passage that made me believe he was not godlike, and could have put in a couple more minutes of research:

"The clerk laughed in a way that was the more insulting for being good-humored.  But then, Chip had reason to be sensitive.  Since D---- College had fired him, the market capitalization of publicly traded U.S. companies had increased by thirty-five percent.  In these same twenty-two months, Chip had liquidated a retirement fund, sold a good car, worked half-time at an eightieth-percentile wage, and still ended up on the brink of Chapter 11.  These were years in America when it was nearly impossible not to make money, years when receptionists wrote MasterCard checks to their brokers at 13.9% APR and still cleared a profit, years of Buy, years of Call, and Chip had missed the boat.  In his bones he knew that if he ever did sell 'The Academy Purple,' the markets would all have peaked the week before and any money he invested he would lose." (103)

Now it is technically allowed for an individual to file Chapter 11 (see Sheldon Toibb, proper citation way too fucking lazy to track down), but that is rare.  It would be most proper to write Chapter 7 here, as Chip would not be a good candidate for Chapter 13 at this moment.  Perhaps Franzen meant to characterize Chip as a business, but I highly doubt it and digress.

From there, the book shifts its focus to Gary.  Gary is somewhat mysterious throughout the beginning of the book, referenced by all the characters but silent, so his prominence in the chapter is noteworthy.  The idea of what the novel will be about is completed here, basically.  Gary is shown working in a darkroom, developing photographs of his family for an epic album that he will give everyone for Christmas, while his youngest son Jonah enthuses about The Chronicles of Narnia.  His two older boys play outside with his wife, Caroline, and seem to like her more.  Gary resents this, and calls her out for lying about a minor injury that she suffers while playing with them.  This happens when Enid calls him and asks if they will all come for Christmas.  Caroline refuses to visit his parents, and Alfred does not feel comfortable staying at their house for more than 48 hours.  She pretty much comes off as a huge bitch when she explains why:

"'The truth, Caroline said, 'is that forty-eight hours sounds just about right to me.  I don't want my children looking back on Christmas as the time when everybody screamed at each other.  Which basically seems to be unavoidable now.  Your mother walks in the door with three hundred sixty days' worth of Christmas mania, she's been obsessing since the previous January, and then, of course, Where's that Austrian reindeer figurine--don't you like it?  Don't you use it?  Where is it?  Where is it?  Where is the Austrian reindeer figurine?  She's got her food obsessions, her money obsessions, her clothes obsessions, she's got the whole ten-piece set of baggage which my husband used to agree is kind of a problem, but now suddenly, out of the blue, he's taking her side.  We're going to turn the house inside out looking for a piece of thirteen-dollar gift-store kitsch because it has sentimental value to your mother---'" (185)

I have to say that Caroline is probably the least sympathetic character in the book.  In one sense she may be rational.  Her husband's family is crazy, and she wants her family to be healthy and emotionally stable.  But the reader feels very bad for Gary, when she seems to think that this fight over Christmas is going to lead to their divorce.  Unfortunately, this is not a very charitable depiction of an attorney.

Much of this chapter is about Gary's fear of anhedonia--basically, depression.  Lack of interest in things.  But then, the end is this long shareholder's meeting of the Axon Corporation, which has offered Alfred $5,000 for his patent on a process for developing pharmaceutical anti-depressants, and which is coming out with a drug called Corecktall.  Later on, Denise and Enid try to get Alfred on a regimen, because it may be able to cure his condition.  While I would never suggest this chapter is "bad," I must admit that while I found certain parts of it highly enjoyable and stimulating, on the whole it was the least memorable section of the book.

"At Sea" details the cruise that Enid and Alfred take, and is fantastic from start to finish.  It reaches its pinnacle in the conversation between Enid and Sylvia, a woman she meets while sharing a dinner table on the cruise, whom she intuits will either be an arch-nemesis or a friend.  The two women spill out all their feelings as they continue to have "just one more."  I do not want to spoil it.

Later, Enid is offered a drug called Aslan by a rogue doctor (who shares his name with a Simpsons character, albeit with different spelling) on board, and I feared that the book was turning into a rip-off of White Noise, which is now turning thirty years old and remains an absolute classic of the late 20th century.  Thankfully, Franzen seems to recognize this (indeed Don DeLillo even offers a blurb in praise on the back cover), so this scene ends up being a mere homage to White Noise.  Maybe it's not and I'm crazy but if you've read that book, you must admit that Aslan and Dylar are essentially identical plot devices:

"'We think of a classic CNS depressant such as alcohol as suppressing "shame" or "inhibitions."  But the "shameful" admission that a person spills under the influence of three martinis doesn't lose its shamefulness in the spilling; witness the deep remorse that follows when the martinis have worn off.  What's happening on the molecular level, Edna, when you drink those martinis, is that the ethanol interferes with the reception of excess Factor 28A, i.e., the "deep" or "morbid" shame factor.  But the 28A is not metabolized or properly reabsorbed at the receptor site.  It's kept in temporary unstable storage at the transmitter site.  So when the ethanol wears off, the receptor is flooded with 28A.  Fear of humiliation and the craving for humiliation are closely linked: psychologists know it, Russian novelists know it.  And this turns out to be not only "true" but really true.  True at the molecular level.  Anyway, Aslan's effect on the chemistry of shame is entirely different from a martini's.  We're talking complete annihilation of the 28A molecules.  Aslan's a fierce predator."  (318)

"The Generator" comes next, and for me it was the strongest section of the book overall, from start to finish (thus, "At Sea" combined with "The Generator" is certainly the strongest stretch of the book).  It is Denise's chapter, and she is probably better developed than any other character.  She spends her last summer before college working at Alfred's railroad company, goes to Swarthmore, and drops out not long after, discovering a love for culinary art.  She marries a man much older than her while serving as his sous-chef.  They get divorced not long after, and the major plot of the section is set into motion.  Paid a generous salary by a benefactor, she travels through Europe to sample the cuisine, and returns to open her own restaurant in a massive building previously owned and utilized by the Philadelphia Electric Company.

Later this same benefactor (Brian) gets involved with a film project, and Stephen Malkmus is name-dropped as a person who would eat dinner with him at fancy New York restaurants, seemingly as a technical adviser.  This really came out of nowhere, and it's particularly ironic because the previous book I reviewed here thanked "Steven Malkamus" in the acknowledgements section.  I really wanted to point that out previously (was it just sloppy editing or some kind of weird SM Jenkins joke?).  There is also this reference, which was prescient in 2001:

"Their few real differences came down to style, and these differences were mostly invisible to Robin, because Brian was a good husband and a nice guy and because, in her cow innocence, Robin couldn't imagine that style had anything to do with happiness.  Her musical tastes ran to John Prine and Etta James, and so Brian played Prine and James at home and saved his Bartok and Defunkt and Flaming Lips and Mission of Burma for blasting on his boom box at High Temp." (349)

Prescient because, Mission of Burma was primed to come back about a year after this novel was published, and because the Flaming Lips were about to "peak."

The last  large section of the book, "One Last Christmas," wraps up the story in relatively satisfying fashion.  There is one particular sentence that almost made me want to cry--when Enid says, "This is the best Christmas present I've ever had!" There are a few strange moments at the end, though, and Franzen definitely does not arrange a conventional denouement.  There is one seriously WTF moment (I will just say the word "enema" and anyone who has read it will know what I mean) that I don't understand, unless it's just supposed to be sort of icky and disturbing and nothing more.

The closing eponymous chapter reminded me of the ending to Buddenbrooks, which is also referenced on back cover in a blurb by Michael Cunningham (in the same breath as White Noise)--that is, it feels oddly unceremonious, but appropriate.  There is a short dialogue about whether being gay is a choice and a reference to Six Days, Seven Nights.  And then there is a type of "where are they now?" conclusion.

I've failed when it comes to highlighting the craft of Franzen's prose.  I've picked out really random passages that I found notable for idiosyncratic and insignificant reasons, and I've avoided certain passages to preserve the pleasure of their discovery.  Rest assured this entire novel is well-written.  There are probably 10-15 pages of sentences included throughout the book that annoyed me for some reason, but they do not detract enough to remove it from its rightful place as one of the best books reviewed on Flying Houses.  I just hope this review has done it justice.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Girl in a Band - Kim Gordon (2015)

At my 30th birthday party, now nearly two years ago, a friend gave me a gift card to Barnes & Noble for $20.  I visited the store a few different times recently, but there was nothing I really wanted.  Of course there were books I wanted to read, but I could usually stand to wait for them to be held on reserve for me at the library.  I don't like buying books at sticker price, especially hardcovers.  But when I tried to reserve Kim Gordon's new memoir, and realized I would need to wait a couple months, I found my occasion to redeem the gift.

It didn't work at first.  I went to the location on Jackson Blvd. in the Loop on the day it was released - February 24, 2015 - and looked in the music section.  Nothing.  I went to the information desk and asked if they could look up a book on their system.  The girl at the desk asked which book, prepared to type, and I said it was Kim Gor----"We've been getting a lot of calls for that - it's all sold out, but we can order you a copy."  I gave them my number, and one week later, on March 1st, I got my copy.  It was just over $30, so I had to pay $10 extra.  I put down The Corrections (which I fully expect to review in the next two weeks), and started.  I finished it on Saturday, March 7th.  Now, I must delve into reviewing it, which I feel more equipped to handle than nearly any other post in the history of Flying Houses.

For those that don't know me personally, it is worth explaining that Sonic Youth is one of my favorite bands of all time.  I was first exposed to them in the Fall of 2001, by the same friend that I have probably written about more than once here, but most prominently regarding Cap'n Jazz.  He lent me Sister and Daydream Nation.  I didn't really get them at the time, but I remember liking Sister slightly more, probably because it was shorter and more digestible.  At the time though, I experienced what most people probably do upon first listening to them: confusion.  Yes, it was rock music, but it seemed like they were purposefully trying to be a difficult listen.  A year later I went to NYU and a friend showed me The Year Punk Broke, and my interest was renewed.  By the time Murray Street came out in 2002, I had burnt CDs of several of their albums and picked it up on or around its release date.  At the time, I thought they were old, and were losing their edge.  I hadn't even really listened to A Thousand Leaves yet, so I guess Washing Machine was my most recent point of reference.  Except for "Plastic Sun," it seemed kind of mellow and boring to me.  I got into basically all of their other albums after that, and when Sonic Nurse came out in 2004, I proclaimed to everyone that it was their best since Washing Machine.  I would say the same thing after Rather Ripped in 2006 and The Eternal in 2009.  I also saw them play live about five different times, the last of which was performing Daydream Nation at the Pitchfork Festival in 2007, a really fond memory of mine.  

Then there was also the time I met Kim and Thurston.  It was at the Tonic lounge in the Fall of 2002. Thurston was playing a weird, free jazz noise concert with the drummer Chris Corsano and another guy I forget, and I approached Kim.  I totally forgot what I said to her, but I think I asked her if she could give a zine I had just printed to Thurston.  I said, "Kim," and she turned around and said something to me in German, I think.  Later I would talk to Thurston after the show and get his autograph in my journal and find out from him that the band would next be playing at Irving Plaza, a show that wasn't announced yet.  I think I saw them both at one other show, about a year later--Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Warsaw in Brooklyn.  

Girl in a Band got a lot of advance press, primarily from the salacious excerpts that were unveiled in a couple different reviews about the breakdown of their marriage.  There were also extremely pointed comments on Courtney Love, Billy Corgan and Lana Del Rey.  I read them in awe, and could not wait to read the book.  It seemed like Kim was about to absolutely destroy all the posers and bust out with pure, unadulterated truth.  While this book is extremely powerful, and made me super nostalgic and happy, reigniting my desire to make art and challenge expectations, I must report that those looking for similar cutting remarks will not find many more.  They will probably be most enthralled by the last thirty pages or so--but nobody should be disappointed by this book.  I only don't name it one of the best books reviewed on Flying Houses because it sometimes feel clipped--many of the first chapters are only a few pages long, giving the appearance that they were each written as one day's work--and some details or impressions are repeated, as if the reader will not remember the first mention.  Regardless, I loved it.

It begins with an account of Sonic Youth's final show in Brazil, and after finishing the book last Saturday, I watched it on YouTube.  The sound leaves something to be desired, and it takes them a while to gain momentum, but it is a fitting end to their epic career.  It's a good place to start the book, because it sucks the reader into what unfortunately must be the main gossipy reason for its allure: telling the story of how the marriage failed.  After watching the show I had to conclude that Kim was either really good at faking the appearance of having a good time, or genuinely savoring the catharsis.

From there, the book goes into a narrative of her family history and early life.  It is tempered with just the right amount of detail--not an exhaustive genealogical report, but a collection of highlights one might tell a close friend.  This one reads like an extrapolation of the meaning behind the song "Brave Men Run," which is later referenced around the middle of the book:

"In my family, history showed up in casual remarks.  I was in my senior year of high school when my aunt told me that my mother's family, the Swalls, was one of California's original families.  Pioneers.  Settlers.  The story went that along with some Japanese business partners, my great-great-grandparents ran a chili pepper farm in Garden Grove, in Orange County.  The Swalls even had a ranch in West Hollywood, at Doheny Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard, on land that's today all car washes and strip malls and bad stucco.  At some point the railroad laid down tracks, slicing the street into Big and Little Santa Monica Boulevards.  The ranches are all gone today, of course, but Swall Drive is still there, swishing north and south, a fossil of ancestral DNA.
I've always felt there's something genetically instilled and inbred in Californians--that California is a place of death, a place people are drawn to because they don't realize deep down they're actually afraid of what they want.  It's new, and they're escaping their histories while at the same time moving headlong toward their own extinctions.  Desire and death are all mixed up with the thrill of and the risk of of the unknown.  It's a variation of what Freud called the 'death instinct.'  In that respect the Swalls were probably no different from any other early California family, staking out a new place, lured there by the gold rush and hitting an ocean wall." (15-16)

She writes about her father, and how he conducted the first sociological study on categorical high school cliques, for UCLA while in Hong Kong.  She compares him to William S. Burroughs, whom she visited with Thurston, their daughter Coco, and Michael Stipe in 1994.  She writes about idyllic fishing trips with her parents and their friends in Northern California.  She writes about her mother, who was somewhat mysterious to her.  And she writes about her brother, who may have affected her personality more than anyone else:

"His ridiculing and button-pushing went beyond the typical sibling ragging.  At dinner, I'd let drop some trendy word or expression and Keller would jump on it, and on me, for my faddishness, my ordinariness, my lack of originality.  When a scene in a movie or a Disney special made me laugh or cry, he'd make fun of me for laughing and make fun of me for crying and make fun of me when I didn't say anything at all.  He always knew he could get a response from me, which provoked him to do it even more.
At some point I turned off entirely.  Knowing I'd get mocked or teased, I would do anything not to cry, or laugh, or show any emotion at all.  The biggest challenge as I saw it was to pretend I had some superhuman ability to withstand pain.  Add that to the pressure girls feel anyway to please other people, to be good, and well mannered, and orderly--and I backslid even more into a world where nothing could upset or hurt me." (40)

From there she goes on to talk about her high school days, and college at three different schools.  There are fascinating stories about her early brushes with art-punk and encounters with semi-obscure celebrities.  The book seems to hit its sweet spot when she writes of first moving to New York and ruminates on the artistic motivations of her colleagues and the burgeoning No-Wave scene.  Such nostalgia trips become all the more poignant when situated against the present:

"These days, when I'm in New York, I wonder, What's this place all about, really? The answer is consumption and moneymaking.  Wall Street drives the whole country, with the fashion industry as the icing.  Everything people call fabulous or amazing lasts for about ten minutes before the culture moves onto the next thing.  Creative ideas and personal ambition are no longer mutually exclusive.  A friend recently described the work of an artist we both know as 'corporate,' and it wasn't a compliment.  The Museum of Modern Art is like a giant midtown gift store." (85)

Passages like these make me glad that I am no longer there (though obviously my present abode has its own depressing defining qualities).  But they also make me miss, terribly, the years between 2001 and 2004.  Kim probably would say that things have not really changed that much since then, though.

The section of the book about Sonic Youth feels somewhat touch-and-go.  There are 53 chapters, and several "movements," but the majority of the material on the band comes in the context of specific songs she highlights (though again, these chapters also feel loose--the chapter on "Death Valley '69" is pretty much about Bad Moon Rising, etc.).  I particularly appreciate her discussions on women in the music and art worlds.  Of course there is the regrettable (and revised) comment on Lana Del Rey's version of feminism--which felt very badass at first and now feels watered-down, but was the right thing to do (I won't reprint it here, you can find it on plenty of other sites).  Feminism is a super-hot topic right now and younger voices should take heed: Kim is a perfect example of a pioneer that can equivocate calmly and speak with maturity and wisdom:

"I also felt limited as a singer.  When the band first started, I went for a vocal approach that was rhythmic and spoken, but sometimes unleashed, because of all the different guitar tunings we used.  When you listen to old R&B records, the women on them sang in a really fierce, kick-ass way.  In general, though, women aren't really allowed to be kick-ass.  It's like the famous distinction between art and craft: Art, and wildness, and pushing against the edges, is a male thing.  Craft, and control, and polish, is for women.  Culturally, we don't allow women to be as free as they would like, because that is frightening.  We either shun those women or deem them crazy.  Female singers who push too much, and too hard, don't tend to last very long.  They're jags, bolts, comets: Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday.  But being that woman who pushes the boundaries means you also bring in less desirable aspects of yourself.  At the end of the day, women are expected to hold up the world, not annihilate it.  That's why Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill is so great.  The term girl power was coined by the Riot Grrl movement that Kathleen Hanna spearheaded in the 1990s.  Girl power: a phrase that would later be co-opted by the Spice Girls, a group put together by men, each Spice Girl branded with a different personality, polished and stylized to be made marketable as a faux female type.  Coco was one of the few girls on the playground who had never heard of them, and that's its own form of girl power, saying no to female marketing!" (127)

As she approaches the end of the "songbook" section of the book, Kim describes the events of 9/11, which rendered the band's recording studio on Murray Street inoperable.  As a person that witnessed the events, from about ten blocks further north, I found the description spot-on:

"The next morning Daisy called me and told me to turn on the TV because a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center.  Daisy's husband, Rob, worked in a building across from the Towers but hadn't left for the office yet.  I called Jim [O'Rourke] and told him to leave the studio, and then I called Thurston.  Jim knew nothing but told me that dust was starting to gather through the open windows.  It was difficult for me--for everybody--to make any sense of what was happening.  I had no TV or radio, but the phone worked, at least first.  By the time the second plane hit, phone service was crackling away to nothing, and when I called Thurston a second time, I couldn't reach him, but I finally convinced Jim to come to our apartment.  As Jim was leaving Murray Street, the second tower was collapsing and people were jumping out of windows.  Lee, his wife Leah, and their kids, who lived downtown, showed up at our apartment, too.  Below us, literally right outside our door, Houston Street and Lafayette were barricaded, and police weren't letting anyone go south of Houston without ID and proof of residence.
It was a surreal, terrifying day.  People--stranded models, people who'd come to town for Fashion Week--were wandering around Nolita and Soho in a daze.  Jim arrived finally, completely traumatized.  We all slept there that night." (216)

The ending may be the strongest part of the book, just because throughout the entire story Kim has portrayed herself as an emotionally-distanced person, in line with the impressions of her personality in the popular culture (though this phrase sounds super-awkward because if you randomly asked 100 people on the street--outside of Greenwich Village, etc--if they know who Kim Gordon is, maybe 10 might say yes).  She finally drops her cool exterior and divulges nearly as heartbreaking an account of a relationship's end as I've ever read.  It is raw, and feels more like the work of a seasoned fiction writer than a primarily musical and secondarily visual artist.  Thurston does not come off very well, but it is especially touching when they attempt to work through their difficulties.  Kim does not write bitter, hateful prose--it is more along the lines of intense disappointment.

This is probably a really inappropriate place to mention the song "Kim Gordon's Panties" by Steve Albini's post Big-Black project Rapeman, but it's too bad Kim never mentions anything about that song.  The song feels like a pseudo-parody of "Teenage Riot" and "Schizophrenia," the opening guitar part and lyrics directly referential.  It feels particularly ironic in that it seems predictive of events that would take place 23 years later.  "I went up to Milwaukee to see an old friend of mine/then Thurston came over/he was out of his mind."  And later: "If I had that to come home to/I'd never leave again."  Gordon did write an essay that is excerpted here, and also in Our Band Could Be Your Life, where she drops the line, "How many boys want to get whipped by Steve Albini's guitar?" but there are no other references.  I've always been a bit confused by the weird rivalry between Albini and the band, and I am curious whether she found it offensive or amusing.  Some mysteries must remain....

I am not going to spoil the sequence of events at the end, but there is one detail that I found scathing, humorous, and incredibly sad:

"Thurston's solo record, Demolished Thoughts, was like a collection of sophomoric, self-obsessed, mostly acoustic mini suicide notes.  When I first encouraged him to record it, I hadn't given any thought to what the lyrics might be about, but hearing pieces of one or two songs, I realized I could never listen to it again.  'I think the lyrics are probably about both of you,' Julie said helpfully, but to me, the lyrics, and the songs, were, and always will be, about her." (256)
She also mentions performing "Aneurysm" with the surviving members of Nirvana at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  A friend tells her that it was the most punk thing that will ever be done at the show, and it is definitely worth a view.  In a similar way, this book is worth a read.  I've read a few memoirs by musicians, but none have been as punk (they've lacked the raw honesty exhibited here).  There is an artistic rendering of the word "DARKNESS" on the inside covers, and the implication is both ominous and profound.  It is up to us to make something beautiful or true in this window between two periods of nothingness.  Kim has done that in her life, as well as these pages, and we are all the more fortunate for it.