Friday Buzz - Woody and the Meaning of Life

Two new books recently have caught my eye. Oddly enough, both wrangle with philosophical issues --in entirely different ways.

Woody Allen's new book is, well, very Woody. Admittedly, I've cooled a bit toward Woody Allen ever since he married his 20-year-old daughter. (Who knew you could make a double entendre out of "robbing the cradle"?) There is no disputing his genius, however, when it comes to filmmaking and writing.

Take this excerpt from his new book, “Mere Anarchy," as reviewed in The New York Times:

“The land is arable and found primarily on the ground,” Mr. Allen writes, about a lonely burg located “just above the bluffs that form Planck’s constant.” ...just above the bluffs that form Planck’s constant.

“She loved fresh lightbulbs,” a former housekeeper says of a victim called Mrs. Washburn. “The linens we did once a year.”

As to the perpetrators of this heinous crime, the story concludes: “Whether the death penalty acts as a deterrent remains questionable, although studies show that the odds of criminals committing another crime drops by almost half after their execution.”

Pretty keen observations on the absurdities of our criminal justice system.

In addition to Mere Anarchy, this summer also sees the release of The Insanity Defense, a reprint combining Allen's three other humor collections (“Without Feathers,” “Side Effects” and “Getting Even” -- I've read the first two.)

I sort of envy those people who will come long after us and Mr. Allen have departed. They won't be subjected to the sordid details of his private life; they will just be able to bask in the lasting brilliance.

On another note, this book looks interesting: The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton. (Not to mention his book Literary Theory: An Introduction.)

For one thing, it's relatively short. (Heresy!) And for another, Eagleton is writing from the perspective of a literary theorist. Hence, his love and understanding of linguistics color his viewpoints, as demonstrated in this excerpt from the Salon review by Laura Miller:

For those who don't believe in God, or at least in a God with a plan for the human race, the question "What is the meaning of life?" seethes with puzzles. Can existence mean anything at all without someone (i.e., God) to mean it? Those famous 100 monkeys, pounding away on 100 typewriters for eternity, might eventually produce the exact text of "Hamlet," but they won't mean "Hamlet" the way that the man who intentionally wrote it did.

Eagleton brings contemporary linguistics-based theory to bear on the idea of "meaning," pointing out that it takes several forms. I might mean (that is, intend) to say the word "poisson" ("fish") to a French waiter, but I might actually say "poison," which in turn means (that is, signifies) something else entirely. ("Poison" has the same meaning in French, actually, as it has in English.) There's what I intend to signify or communicate when I speak, and then there's what my words mean in a larger system, such as a language. For linguists, the first kind of meaning is an "act" and the second is a "structure."

Whoa. I don't know about you, but I'm going to have to spend the rest of my Friday mulling over that tidbit.


Thoughts for Thursday: I am Schroeder

I am Schroeder!
"Creative and quiet describes you best. You're most often found off to the side, watching things happen and enjoying the show. Your love of the arts and beauty is a welcome retreat from your frequent bouts of neurosis."
Which Peanuts character are you? Take this quiz to find out.


2007: The halfway mark

I guess it's the pessimist in me, but the fact that 2007 is nearly half over makes me sad and queasy. I feel as if I'm neck-deep in water and running in place. A mad expenditure of energy to get nowhere.

Maybe that frame of mind is affecting my evaluation at how my literary endeavors have gone thus far.

A couple of noted accomplishments, however: My "Months of Reading" idea seems to be working so far for me. I feel focused without being reined in. I also feel good about the volume sizes I've managed to work my way through. Young Girls in Flower, Cat's Eye, My Uncle Napolean and Portrait of a Lady are all hefty novels. And, I'm quite pleased with the quality and variety of my reading; I'm especially proud that I've managed to fit in 3 classics.

Well, 3, once I finish Don Quixote, which may wind up topping the "best of" list for 2007.

What do I hope to accomplish by year's end?

1) More classic literature, hopefully by at least 1 author I have not yet read. Bob Dylan suggested Balzac's Cousin Bette, which I must say intrigues me. I also have Hunchback of Notre Dame waiting in the wings (think it's time for some French masters).
2) Jane Austen. Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey (plus Lady Susan) are languishing on the shelves. I'd like to make my way through at least 1 of them. Northanger Abbey is a likely candidate for the...
3) RIP Challenge. I've been working on my list of gothic and horror since last year. Dracula, anyone?
4) Horror Story Short Challenge. I plan to host this in October, to promote, read and examine the short horror story genre.

Oh, and Kate, please let me know if or when you'd like to take on Dud Avocado!

What are your literary plans for the remainder of 2007?


Slow Man by JM Coetzee

JM Coetzee's novel Disgrace was one of the best I've read in a decade. Unfortunately, the two novels I've read subsequent to Disgrace thudded in my sensibilities like drinking Kool-Aid after a glass of Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet.

And to think, elements of one bad novel made an appearance in the second bad novel. Well, that was bad luck for this reader.

Let's start with Slow Man. The novel started out well, if fairly typically, with a "life-changing crisis:" Sixty-year-old Paul Rayment is hit by a young driver while riding his bicycle and his leg is amputated. Bidda-bing, we are catapulted along with the protagonist into a new world, with limitations and new people and all sorts of reflective moments. Coetzee could pull this approach off because his prose is spare and his observations dead-on.

I had the same feeling starting Disgrace, actually. I thought, oh, God, another story about an aging professor banging a young student and embarking on a mid-life crisis. But Coetzee's prose was so stellar, I decided to hang with it -- and that novel took an amazing twist and then an amazing turn, and so forth, for a spectacularly satisfying read.

Slow Man never really took off (another bad pun). Although I had twinges of "this hits too close to home" (Rayment is childless and regretting it, along with his life lived generally for himself. Shades of moi, unfortunately...), the novel clanged into a rather predictable gong of the patient falling in love with his nurse and then unaccountably crashed (whoops) into disaster with the appearance of Elizabeth Costello.

Elizabeth Costello is the heroine of the eponymous novel released prior to Slow Man. This was the OTHER novel of Coetzee's I decided to read, after Disgrace. That book is essentially a series of lectures on writing by the writer Elizabeth Costello. Oh, hey, meta-fiction, my favorite. Yawn.

As if it wasn't bad enough to have a whole novel devoted to the ponderous ponderings of a fictional windbag, Coetzee has to bring her slap into another story. The character of Elizabeth Costello did not improve in the transition, either. She's unpleasant and unnecessary, and really, I have to work with a lot of people who are like that; if an author insists on being all cutesy with meta-fiction and recycling his character, then it better be for a very good reason.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth Costello doesn't have the grace to jump off the nearest cliff. She sticks around until the bitter end of the novel.

The whole point to this post is: I really, really want to love JM Coetzee. He obviously is a brilliant writer. Is Disgrace the only great book he wrote? Or did I simply have the misfortune to pick the two duds out of his entire oeuvre?


Falling Man by Don DeLillo

This weekend was a milestone: I finished two novels, Slow Man by JM Coetzee and Falling Man by Don DeLillo. Interesting in that each of the protagonists was an alienated modern man on the verge of losing everything. But, never mind the weird coincidences one runs into as a reader. This post focuses on Falling Man.

From what I've read so far, other readers have mixed feelings at best. Well, I'm going out on a limb here: I liked it, and I gotta cheer at DeLillo's guts in fictionalizing the most sacred cow of current events, 9/11.

I have the advantage here of not having read other of DeLillo's work. It seems that his fans find Falling Man falling short (sorry for the pun) of his previous novels, and I haven't been indoctrinated into this cult. So, I can take Falling Man on its own terms. I wouldn't say it is the definitive account of 9/11 or even brilliant, but, flawed as it might be, it succeeds at trying. Here is what I mean:

The book starts out as the protagonist lawyer Keith Neudecker, covered in ash and glass shards, escapes from one of the burning towers. He makes his way to the home of his estranged wife and son. (Many reviewers have qualified this move as "inexplicable," but it seems fairly logical to me that one would seek out those who are or have been closest to you, emotionally and in physical proximity....Who did you talk to on 9/11?) Thus, the plot unfolds as Keith, his wife Lianne and their son (referred to most often as simply "the kid") try to reconnect and make sense of their lives in a post-9/11 world.

To me, Keith is an archetype character, but it is a device that DeLillo successfully exploits. Keith is a stand-in for those of us who did not suffer the physical horror of the day; he is the emotional conduit for us, and as such, could not be too particularized. Lianne, being one step removed from the WTC collapse, is shaded in a more complex way.

Both she and Keith are involved in actitivities that work as clever and rich metaphors within the novel. Lianne runs a workshop for dementia patients to record their thoughts before they lose their memories -- an echo of how Americans have had to re-establish their own histories and worldview after 9/11. Keith is a poker player, whose obsession with the game of chance (just as his escape was a play on luck) is as fraught with ritual as the terrorist's jihadist preparations.

DeLillo was less successful with the novel's central metaphor, Falling Man. This describes a performance artist who appears around New York City, tethering himself to a safety line and jumping from unlikely places, dressed in a business suit -- a living reminder of the images of jumpers from the towers; the metaphor doesn't ever seem to really gel, to hold the portent of complexity of the events and emotions it calls to mind.

DeLillo attempts to bring in other worldviews. He does get inside the head of one of the terrorists, and one of the peripheral characters adds a perspective of other nations' reactions to 9/11. I think he really was trying to address many facets of 9/11, in as straightforward manner as possible. All in all, I applaud his effort.

Not too many other reviewers do, and personally, I think it's because there seems to be as little perspective, six years after the event, as there was on 9/12/2001.

The NYRB article by Andrew O'Hagan seems a fairly typical take on the novel. Decrying 9/11 as the event that "instantly blows DeLillo's lamps out," O'Hagan essentially dismisses this author's (or any, for that matter) ability to recapture a media-logged traumatic event as Biblical as 9/11:

In this book, the events aren't enough, or they are too much, which amounts to the same thing for a novelist. There appear to be few writers in America now who could bring us to know what might have been going through the minds of those people as they fell from the building—or going through the minds of the hijackers as they met their targets—but there is no shortage of those who would do what DeLillo does, which is to show us an anxious, educated woman watching a performance artist hanging upside down from a metal beam in Pershing Square. It is a form of intellectual escapism. The oddity of the art world can easily be made to stand in for the profundity of life and death, but none of us who lived through the morning of September 11, 2001, could easily believe that the antics of a performance artist, no matter how uncanny, would suffice to denote the scale and depth of our encounter with dread. The Falling Man, the artist, can do no better than constitute some figurative account of the author himself, suspended in freefall, frozen in time, subject to both the threat of gravity and the indwelling disbelief of the spectators below.

And this is from the UK Guardian:

The feeling of being decentred, peripheral to oneself, is clearly appropriate to a narrative of aftermath, but turns out to be an abiding, almost defining, characteristic of the book.

It's almost as if the reviewers want to punish DeLillo -- a slap on the wrist, maybe, but punitive nevertheless -- for daring to touch the untouchable, for adding fictional narrative to a story that is very real, with very real consequences. Or, even more subtle and insidious, is the implication that the novel is "passe," out of step with the technological times. I've seen this attitude curling around the edges of various articles and essays -- the proverbial death of the novel. What a lack of imagination! What a myopic love affair with gadgets and widgets and things that go beep in the night! One could really stretch and say that it was this very lack of imagination, this over-confidence in the superiority of technology that led to 9/11...but perhaps that would be going too far, even when grappling with understanding a situation in which you really can't go far enough.

Tomorrow: My thoughts on Slow Man.