Sunday, May 31, 2009

Infinite Jest, again

The build-up and the let-down...

After five disjointed months into the disjointed narrative, the deed is done.

I finished Infinite Jest, the novel a friend said he might pick up again if he found himself doing a three year stint in prison. Well, Jim, my friend, my recommendation is that you skip that and spend the time doing what everybody else does. Lift weights, play cards, have a go at yourself if you find yourself with the privacy. Just save yourself the frustration and disappointment of toiling through a novel that despite moments of brilliance and promise, leads nowhere.

If memory serves, at about the 400 page point, I had described Infinite Jest as half a dozen decent short manuscripts thrown into the air and reshuffled as one confused and confounding exercise in experimental style, shifting tenses, disconnected plots, and sometimes tedium. There was a spell, somewhere around the 800 page mile marker, that it started coming together and the various plots began converging. My excitement built and it no longer seemed to matter that tenses shifted or that paragraphs often ran on for three or four single-spaced pages. There were fewer technical descriptions of tennis matches that are only rivaled in pure boredom by Melville's tangents on blubber-flaying. The novel was coming together at an exhilarating pace. It was beyond clever, infinitely compassionate and moving. There was action. There was excruciating, clever wit. The characters fleshed out and became viable and human.

And then it was done. The connections fell to pieces and half a dozen clever, shorter novels fell apart, like a house of cards, just a few short of finishing on each wing. I spent another couple hours combing the copious footnotes looking for answers and found a few, but ultimately, felt nothing but disappointment.

It seems to me that David Foster Wallace might have purposefully derailed the entire process when what might have been an astonishing literary redemption was within sight. It was like he looked up one day and just said, "Screw it. What's the point?" Or perhaps the decision wasn't that simple, but it does come across to me as a willful act of sabotage. Maybe that's the entire point. Maybe, as I suggested at the 400 page mark, that is the Infinite Jest. It would certainly fit in with what was happening with at least a half dozen of the central characters. If that is the case, then there was definitely a point where DFW blurred the lines between fiction and reality and became a part of his own narrative.

There is nothing I've ever read in any review or criticism of this novel that would suggest it was anything other than a work of genius. My original guess was that critics were so awed by the scale of the work that they were afraid to name it as such... the Emperor's New Clothes... afraid of damaging their own credibility. I may stick with that assessment, because despite moments of rapture during this undertaking, I was left feeling empty. It became like one of those romances (my relationship with the book and not the book itself) that started tentatively, and then reeled into ardor, and then fell apart with the realization that you were only fooling yourself and seeing what you wanted to see.

Which only leads me ultimately to the question: Should reading a novel be work? I don't have the answer to that. Ask Jonathan Franzen who seems to have endless opinions on the matter.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

I just wanna celebrate

another day of livin'...

May whatever God you pray to forgive me, I just can't for the life of me say why I find shit like this so hilarious!

This is even funnier than Death Clock!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Edgardo Vega Yunque

When I first learned of Edgardo Vega Yunque's passing last summer, I wanted to write something but the words never materialized. Eulogies are often fraught with cliche and since we weren't exactly what could be described as friends, it just seemed inappropriate. It wasn't from a lack of sadness nor lack of understanding that a truly unique and talented voice was silenced. It just seemed that there were people more qualified to handle it. I spent the afternoon down in Loisaida by the East River in the park between the bridges, sipping Palo Viejo and just watching; then wandered up Houston Street, back into New York City.

I first "met" Ed Vega in an AOL chatroom called The Author's Lounge back in the late 90s. The name Author's Lounge was somewhat of a misnomer because of about 40 regular attendees, only a few were actually working, published writers. There was always a bit of skepticism amongst the usual suspects, myself included, who really should have been in The Frustrated, Often Bitter, Aspiring Author's Lounge. It was quite a while before anybody believed that the person that called himself ThomJones, a somewhat difficult individual, was actually the man who penned the acclaimed Pugilist At Rest (it was him). Then there was Ed, whom few people had even heard of, and was often described by regulars as obnoxious, pompous, insert-pejorative-adjective-here... Let's face it. It's not easy to like a person whom you've only just "met" who will freely tell you that he is great, and you are most definitely not. I did come to learn though that when Ed said, "Talk to me when you've published anything at all," it wasn't really so much a put-down as a challenge to stop talking and go to work... to please, please, please write something or make a film, write a song. Please create art. He was nothing, however, if not utterly lacking in people skills, a trait I later came to find kind of endearing. The Daily News piece notes that he had alienated a lot of people over the years and one writer describes him as a "brilliant, conflictive man." Yes, that about describes it.

We corresponded for a time and then lost touch until about the time that he published No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cause Bill Bailey Ain't Never Coming Home Again: A Symphonic Novel. He e-mailed the press release and my first reaction was, "Ed, you insert-ugly-noun-phrase here, with a title like that it has better be good," and "Symphonic novel? Are you kidding me?" Symphonic novel is just about all the review it needs though. It is truly about the most grand, fantastic, cohesive novel I've ever encountered. It is Wagner's Ring Cycle of literature. I won't bore you with a synopsis that you can get at Amazon.com. I'll just say that it is so immense in every sense of the word. Three weeks after he sent me the press release (it took me that long to read the book) I replied with embarrassing, sycophantic gushes. He wrote back:

"You want to buy me lunch?"

We met face to face for the first time at a Dominican place in the neighborhood, which was mercifully inexpensive. The man had an appetite. He was nothing like his online persona, which admittedly surprised me a bit. He was very warm, and smiled a lot. He asked a lot of questions about my family, places I'd lived or visited. He asked me about my favorite places in the city and favorite people. We spoke for a long time about music, particularly Latin music, and The Fania All-Stars, and concerts at Orchard Beach.

He invited me the next time to buy him lunch at a place down on Stanton Street and we walked around the Lower East Side after, and I got a Nuyorican history lesson... places I'd walked by a hundred times but never knew their social or cultural significance... I learned the connection between the Lower East Side and Loiza Aldea back in P.R. Hence Loisaida.

We met a few times after that and corresponded every so often. I was always struck by the difference between my first impression of him as a somewhat bloated misanthrope and the real love he had for people. He seemed regularly moved emotionally and spiritually by everything he encountered. Perhaps the hardness was just the defensive structure around a very fragile heart.

This is not to say he didn't have a very clever, if often brutal sense of humor. When I first told my friend Dalia about Ed's next book, titled The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle, she said, "with a title like that he'd better be a friggin' genius!" We're both still laughing about the book 5 years later. Again, hard to explain and you have to read it for yourself, but it showed a side of Ed that maybe few people saw in person: Funny, self-deprecating, humble, a remarkable sense of the absurd... One of the highlights for me was a side-splitting piss-take on magical realism that had the author, his two main characters, Puerto Rican brujas, and Puerto Rican Nationalist guerrillas plotting out the end of the novel, and the demise of the U.S. government, in an AOL chatroom.

And that brings us back to the beginning, where I first encountered the guy. I guess he was doing research for a novel yet to come.

I am, as of yet, unpublished. I'm working on it, but there seems to be too many distractions, like paying the rent. And sometimes when I should be writing I'm walking around the city, tracing the footsteps of countless other frustrated, often bitter aspiring writers.

So cheers, Eddie... I hope they don't fuck up the pernil wherever you are.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Curses, Batman...

Heard in Brooklyn:

13th Street, May 17, 2009

Little girl: You shouldn't curse like that, Tommy!!!
Little Boy: Everybody fucking curses, Tanya!

Boy, is he ever right! This seems especially true if you live in Brooklyn. Glaswegian Comedian, Billy Connelly once said that nobody outside of Scotland can curse like New Yorkers. And if one is to judge by Billy Connelly, the Scottish do know how to curse!

It probably has nothing to do with my Scottish heritage that my daily language is so colorful. My mother and her family, rarely if ever cursed. Yet there are spells where nary a sentence issues from my mouth without something monumentally offensive. My favorites are the words I can hurl from my face with a mighty Fuh or a harsh, exagerated fricative, at the beginning or the end for the most emphasis. I've been described as an artist. I have conversely been described as a complete and utter slob. You decide.

It's been said that dependence on cursing is borne of laziness. That might actually be true in some places, or perhaps in a different era. Or maybe it's true now, but I'm lazy. Water does always choose the course of least resistance. It just seems to me sometimes that it is borne of economy and practicality. Nothing else works. I am nothing, if not a passionate soul. I either love a thing or a person, or I hate them.

Or I FUCKING love them, or FUCKING hate them! There is rarely a middle ground. And I am confident that I FUCKING love more than I FUCKING hate. Or perhaps even that depends on the day.

The fact remains--I have a filthy mouth. I'm not proud. I'm not ashamed.

I have to, for now though, get this %#@@$*# day underway, &$%^, shower and shave and go deal with all these #%$^@ on the @#@@$*# F train.

Cheers

Sunday, May 17, 2009

5th Avenue Street Fair, Brooklyn 2009







Some captions would be fair, but Blogger kept misplacing them. Knucklehead #2 and I tackled the 5th Avenue Fair today--the opener of the street fair season and one of the few still worth going to. So in no particular order, two thirds of a jazz trio I don't know at Puppet's Jazz Bar, The Nouvellas and the phenomenal Persuasians outside Southpaw.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Empathy--part 3

I'm generally not the sort of person, when sad or upset about something, to seek out a sympathetic ear. I prefer to be alone to sort it out and get some perspective. Same with being ill. I've a handful of close friends that I know I can depend on. Thank you all, by the way, for the kindness and sympathy you've bestowed upon me. You all know who you are, I hope. If you are in doubt, then I am to blame.

This aside... I have noticed a tendency among many people though, when someone tells them of what may be ailing them, to respond with what I suppose may be an honest attempt to say, "I can identify with that, and I'm truly sorry." It often comes in the form though, of a story of even more horrific sorrow, that comes off as a sort of oneupsmanship. You might say that you've just lost your job and you're worried about how you're going to make ends meet. They might respond with a story of their own, detailing every dark aspect of the situation as if it is the worst thing that's ever happened to a person.

Same with sickness... you might say, I've been diagnosed with such and such and I'm kind of worried. They respond with a story of their own, or that of someone they know, and so on...

Is this empathy? I have my doubts. I don't doubt that they care, but wouldn't the more appropriate response be something along the lines of, "Jesus, that sucks. What can I do to help?" Or simply, "I want you to know that I'm here for you. Please don't hesitate to ask."

Again, I stress that my closest friends are the sort that take this latter approach, and that they are driven by empathy and kindness. In this, I am blessed. It is also worth mention that I am fortunate in that I've rarely encountered a crisis that I could not manage myself.

I see this other phenomenon though and it stops me in my tracks.

Empathy--part 2

My original intent wasn't to address the idea on the scale of large, global issues, but that's hard to avoid. So...

Waterboarding: Torture or no?

It comes down, for me at least, to a very simple question. If American troops, or civilians for that matter, were detained for interrogation in a foreign country and subjected to waterboarding, would we consider it torture? I think the answer is obvious. Of course we would...

Not that a large number of Americans don't consider it torture now, but even of those that do, many consider waterboarding and any other "interrogation techniques" to be in the interest of personal safety and national security.

How far then is it acceptable to go to save one's ass? And why the double standard? Are other people allowed to have concerns for their own national security? How far is it acceptable for them to go?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Empathy--a placeholder

This is sort of a bookmark for a later post. Feel free to comment in the meantime.

I've come to believe that the human capacity for empathy may not be a natural instinct but perhaps a conditioned response. Or perhaps if instinctual that it is deeply buried beneath more immediate responses or concerns.

Or maybe survival dictates that we not be too empathic so a balance is set between how much we feel and care and what we need to get by. Clearly that balance is tilted dangerously towards our own self-preservation and we, as a species, need to reevaluate what we actually need to get by. What we need to survive.

That can be witnessed on a micro-scale in individual families (the basic socio-economic unit) who are downscaling consumerist behavior. This falls painfully short of what will be required to make meaningful change on the macro-scale.

Anyway... a bookmark, or an invitation for thought or discussion.

An example: Natural disaster... following the money donated to charitable organizations for disaster relief. When several natural disasters occur, the first in a chain will prompt a rush of donations. The second will receive less, despite that it might be more severe with many more victims. The third may prompt even less.

Where the disaster occurs is a factor as well. There seem to be many factors in the decisions, conscious or unconscious to identify with the victims... to identify them as worth saving. How do we decide who is "the other" and why? What stands in between our sense of our own humanity and our sense of theirs?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

When he looked down he saw a big snake...

Every man's dream?

Or every man's nightmare?

One can only wonder what the snake was thinking. (a bald rat?)

The film version: Snakes on a Plane II (oof! Sorry.)

The adult film version: Glory Hole Massacre (Surely even Samuel L. Jackson would turn down this role.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Irish Poet Laureate Crowns Himself

Either too hard or not hard enough...

I admit that it's very difficult for me to be objective where Bono is concerned, but when I found out that BONO WAS WRITING POETRY I rightly predicted that he would make Jewel Kilcher look like Sylvia Plath.

Yet it's so bad (see for yourself) that I don't even have the usual satisfaction of saying, TOLD YOU SO!!! It goes so far beyond my ability to even imagine that I feel cheated out of a good laugh. I can find cheesy humor in people dying for chrissake, but this left me... sad.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

To lay me down...




To lay me down once more, to lay me down
With my head in sparkling clover
Let the world go by, all lost in dreaming
To lay me down one last time, to lay me down

(Yes I know I will get abuse for posting Grateful Dead lyrics)

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A picture is worth 1000 words...



I should, considering what I do for a living, stop taking photos from random websites, but I found this one particularly moving and felt that it should be shared.

Every photo has a story, or several. You could run countless variations on a single theme with this particular
photo. Old age, for example... Just let your mind run with it. I often joke about what lies in store for me in years ahead, and describe an old man, sitting on a bench, otherwise alone but for a dog. The responses to my musings are invariably the same.

Negative.

I don't see the negative any more than I see anything negative about this photo, but the responses, I believe, echo two of our biggest fears as humans. Aging, and loneliness. Are these my greatest fears? Not really, but it would be dishonest to say that it's not something I think about. It would also run contrarily to many things I've written on these pages. No, I don't really want to grow old. No, I would prefer not to do it alone. That's not really what I'm getting at though.

What are the first thoughts that ran through your head when you see this photo? What is the first emotion you felt when you looked at it? My own were mixed. The first thought came with a wry laugh because I was only just joking the other day in the context of my own future. There was no sadness involved though because there truly are countless story paths running from this picture. And of course, who are any of us to say that this man isn't the most content soul on the face of the planet? Who is waiting at home? Wife? Children? Grandchildren? Or blissful solitude?

Try hard not to project!

So I ran through the permutations, and smiled. The little ship on the bench next to him... what's up with that?