Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love by Andrew Shaffer

Andrew Shaffer’s Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love is a sweet little book, and one I’ve been anticipating with some excitement ever since I read its attention-grabbing title. An anecdotal history of mankind’s biggest brains being stumped by affairs of the heart, it is, put simply, a joy to read.

Shaffer writes with a smartly narrowed focus on the philosopher’s romantic lives. There’s no fluff or personal overshare on Shaffer’s part. In fact, there’s very little editorializing at all, only rich history and occasional, often humorous authorial observations, like the “Amen” that Shaffer places at the end of a paragraph about John Calvin’s, at the time, revolutionary view that marital sex is a “pure thing, good and holy.” It’s a feat of research, compact in size (less than 200 pages) but filled with incredible information. The material Shaffer worked with, the philosopher’s lives, in compiling this book is consistently absorbing. Some stories sound like stand-up routines (such as playwright/aphorist/womanizer Nicolas Chamfort’s, who fell victim to an illness that “disfigured his genitals”), while others (like that of lovesick Peter Abelard, which inspired Alexander Pope’s poem Eloisa to Abelard) contain a considerable amount of genuine pathos.

A research paper is usually only ever as good as its topic is interesting, I’ve always felt. Shaffer picked a fascinating subject for his book, and he wrote one long, hugely entertaining and compelling research report on it. It’ll be interesting to see how people respond to its focus. I have a feeling that if someone this Valentine’s Day found themselves single and in possession of Shaffer’s book, it would serve one of two functions: comfort, like a reassuring pat on the shoulder that says, “It’s OK, see,” or, as proof of true love’s futility and unattainability, perhaps even its nonexistence. As Nietzsche (who is one of the philosophers profiled in the book) wrote “God is dead,” will Shaffer’s book inspire its readers to pronounce “Love is dead”? The only way to find out is to pick up the very worthwhile Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love and decide for yourself.

Related Link:

  • Shaffer’s slim book makes a nice complement to the series of mini-philosophy texts, edited by Simon Van Booy, that Harper Perennial put out earlier this year. All four books, it should go without saying, are essential buys for the (self-conscious) cocktail-party-going reader.
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Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott

Has anyone ever seriously questioned the use of “baby” as a term of endearment? “Baby” connotes cuteness, sensitivity, fragility. If you think long enough about it, you realize it really isn’t a very appropriate pet name. Babies are spared in ways lovers aren’t. Babies don’t understand hurt right out the gate. The newborn, Kyle, who appears in Happy Baby’s first chapter doesn’t yet know the dangers of the world, its unfixability and, as one of the book’s characters remarks, the unfixability of its people.

Using one of the most exciting narrative structures I’ve read in some time, in his novel Happy Baby Stephen Elliott weaves the story of Theo, a sensitive and fragile person, in reverse chronological order, from rough adult present to even rougher adolescent past. Theo spent much of his youth under the care of state-run group homes, where a sense of fearfulness for the world was developed and deepened. His adult life consists of dominatrix dungeons, odd jobs, living hand to fist. The more you read, the more you understand how Theo-the-boy evolved, if you think there’s an emotional evolution at all, into Theo-the-man, though that understanding is, appropriately and honestly, not nearly complete. The book is about how much pain a person can take in life, and where that pain goes, what that pain does.

To me, the book’s structure was what worked best in Happy Baby. That and Elliott’s sentences, Carveresque in their precision. (Like Raymond Carver, Elliott worked with a big-name editor on this book: Dave Eggers.) Elliott writes lines that wouldn’t feel out of place in a sonnet’s couplet. Lines like:

I have new dust every day.

The quality of his taut sentences are matched, as I’ve said, by his backward structure. The reader collapses into Theo’s past, always written in the present tense, and it’s in the past that we see the formation of his broken person. What this amounts to are eleven short segments of Theo’s story, each of which could be separate from one another. In this respect, Happy Baby shares something with Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son, though I find Elliott’s writing more polished. When read as a whole, the novel is slightly disorientating. When a self-reflexive reference clicks, though, when a motif reoccurs or a secondary character makes a reappearance (later in the book, and so earlier in the chronology of Theo’s life), it is incredibly satisfying.

Elliott has said that he aligns himself with the current stylistic movement of “hipster literature,” (Tao Lin, Zachary German, Josh Mohr). Happy Baby’s structure somewhat mirrors a tenet of hipsterdom. Members of hipster culture are known for their tendency to regress, their stuntedness. Choosing to tell a story backwards, then, seems of a piece with hipster ideology, expressive of an inability or simply a lack of desire to advance forward, grow up. The belief that the farther you go back into someone’s past, the more sense you’ll be able to (maybe) make of their present.

What’s interesting with Happy Baby is that Theo’s disquietude, his struggles, are very adult from a young age. They’re not Lin’s petty 21st-century Gchat-anxieties; they’re hard, unfair realities that need to be worked around. This is why, when young Theo says on the novel’s second to last page that “nobody gives [him] a hard time,” you want to shake him, and tell him that everybody is going to give him a hard time, that that’s just how it’s going to be.

There’s a beautiful and wordless moment thirty minutes into Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman gazes upon a marble statue of what appears to be a centaur, wings arched on the back-shoulders of a hulking human figure. It’s a sexless creature, frozen in triumphant pose. It has the capacity for perfection, something Portman’s character, Nina, spends the entire film trying impossibly to achieve. She takes in the statue and the soundtrack’s strings swell. I think Nina for a moment wishes she could turn to stone, could stop her self-destructive drive for faultlessness.

In Black Swan, Nina experiences intense pleasure and intense pain. The pleasure off-stage comes from hard drugs and sexual activity, both of which make appearances and serve similar functions in Happy Baby. Those pleasures are perennially short-term, though. Pain wins out; it most always will. Happy Baby, a self-described autobiographical novel, proves that out of pain something beautiful, like a book, like a baby, can be brought into the world and can make life less painful. With tenderness toward its characters, especially the complex, morally ambiguous ones, of whom there are thankfully plenty, Elliott crafted a perfect entry-point to his work, and his heart.

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Three Delays by Charlie Smith

Critics generally agree that Charlie Smith’s Three Delays is remarkable for its sentence-level successes. (One noteworthy writer, Rick Moody, was particularly enthusiastic in his praise for Three Delays.) It shares a fair bit with Hating Olivia: A Love Story by Mark SaFranko, another great book recently published by Harper Perennial. Both novels center around two semi-masochistic partners in love, fueled invariably by drugs, shame, what is at one point referred to as a kind of “feral sadness,” and an unshakeable sense of boundless wonder for the mystery of interpersonal human relations, the ever-present “Why?” at the heart of any love.

It’s unfair to write a review, even one this brief, of Smith’s book without mentioning his estimable abilities as a prose stylist. He sometimes bends rules of grammar in favor of amplifying a sentence’s musicality, and his writing displays a syntactical dexterity that occasionally recalls writers who wrote under the wing of Gordon Lish, particularly Barry Hannah. In Three Delays, readers regularly get sentences like this one, which exhibits a combination of Smith’s natural lyricism (“crucifixiated minions would circulate”) and his strong command of the vernacular voice (“God style”):

Once in a while the mission van would pull up at the park and a couple of his crucifixiated minions would circulate among los barrachos, passing out leaflets and offering aid, God style.

And paragraphs such as:

Back home I listened to her on the other side of the house, mouse approximations of human yearning, squeals and shudders converted into sighs, the languor of an afternoon become cheap songs on the radio, sounds of fake weeping. Disenchantment — for two weeks that had been her subject. It was clear she hated me. I slunk around like a stool pigeon.

Or:

Everything in the universe sang with vivid meaning, exclusively and irreproachably itself. The Gulf gently patted the sand, reassuring it, sad little scared earth, baby brother, sleep well.

A long prose poem, Three Delays makes the disenchanting — the ugliness and violence of forever fractured love — enchanting and the pitiable lovable. Every page a lyric sheet, cover-to-cover a songbook, it features Godardian dialogue and interior monologues, as well as vivid, poetical descriptions of physical scenescapes. (In describing oceanic settings, the word “coral,” one of my absolute favorites, recurs.) While Smith’s schizophrenic plot and difficult main characters may, as Anthony Doeer remarked in his New York Times Book Review, at times tire, they never overwhelm (or underwhelm) to the point of fed-upedness or fatal annoyance. Though, being one hundred pages shorter than Smith’s book, in terms of pacing, and concision, I’d argue that Hating Olivia is Three Delays’s superior.

Three Delays’s non-logical movements, twists and turns, asides, digressions into solipsism and navel-gazing, rarely ever hinder the mesmerized reader, who’s too busy being wowed by Smith’s seemingly endless supply of affecting turns of phrase. Like the best Godard films, Three Delays can be best understood less as a single story than as a series of strung moments, featuring strung out “cutups,” lowlifes, and lovelorn pleasure-seekers looking to lazily take what they can from the world and from each other. Filled with wisdom and lines that roll, pop, glide and glisten, it’ll appeal to fans of Lishian fiction and readers who, like Smith’s characters, self-identify as “soul-searching” self-punishing, hopeless romantics.

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Infinite Shadow: Reading Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

On the inside flap of Skippy Dies’s book jacket, in a text bubble, mention is made of David Foster Wallace’s tome, Infinite Jest (“First the Enfield Tennis Academy in Infinite Jest . . . Then Hogwarts School in Harry Potter . . . And now Seabrook College for boys: the funniest and most fatal of the three”).

At a December 2nd reading of Skippy Dies in Brookline, Massachusetts, author Paul Murray responded to a question about his favorite “comic novels,” starting his answer by stating his great admiration for Infinite Jest.

Speaking with The Paris Review, Murray ends an interview by alluding to Wallace’s influence.

Skippy Dies is in many ways a different book from Infinite Jest. For one, it’s more accessible. At 650+ pages, Murray’s tragic-comic novel is a bit of a monster, but one not nearly as fearsome as Wallace’s 1,079 page opus. Murray’s book is also less syntactically daring than Infinite Jest, and his narrative voice is more consistently singular and unchallenging. (There are no “Wardine be cry” moments in Skippy Dies.) Skippy also isn’t identifiably postmodern*, or post-postmodern in style; it’s Dickensian sweep feels rather indebted to classic, traditional literary models.

I’ve found, though, in Skippy Dies’s first 450 pages, that Murray’s book shares many qualities and concerns with Infinite Jest, which signals, I believe, more than anything else, good news for fans of IJ.

Critic Harold Bloom has written about the “anxiety of influence,” his belief being that a poet’s work springs from a well of literary influences and is, therefore, not entirely his own. He recognizes the psychological strain to create, to “make it new” as Ezra Pound cried, something that isn’t merely a piece of shadow-art. I think the years-long construction of Skippy Dies, from short-story to epic novel, can be looked at as an example of that struggle.

A great book will change the way I think about things. It will also, inevitably, change the way I write, and the way I think about writing. After reading Infinite Jest in high school, I started questioning the moral value of sincerity, its place and its absence in my life. I also adopted a messy maximalist style; I liberally plopped clauses between commas, rarely broke paragraphs, wrote term papers with un-requested footnotes.

The title object of Infinite Jest was a video so enjoyable that its viewer was unable to ever turn his or her eyes away from it. It was the most obvious representation of one of Wallace’s chief interests: entertainments. Entertainment, and specifically the popular culture it produces, has had a place in the postmodern tradition since its origin. The confluence of high and low art in Warhol’s work, his curiosity with the borders between art and entertainment, purity and commercialism/commodification, is an early example of the application of postmodern thought in the arts. Before IJ, Wallace played with pop culture’s importance most memorably and directly in “My Appearance,” a short story from his collection Girl With Curious Hair, which featured a character named “David Letterman.” Murray also identifies this tenet of postmodernism toward the end of that same brief Paris Review interview: “Gravity’s Rainbow was the first book that captured the energy of popular culture. That was the first book that was like, wow, literature can do this, literature can—as well as being a higher art form that expresses grand notions about memory and loss and so forth—be something that my peers could conceivable enjoy. That was a breakthrough book for me. David Foster Wallace I came to a little bit later, but similar thing.”

Prima facie, Murray hasn’t written a postmodern novel with Skippy Dies. It occasionally changes font style for comic effect, and on one memorable occasion (at the finish of “Homeland,” the first of the book’s three sections) inventively plays with a page’s white space, but for the most part Skippy Dies is a clear, linear, classically-structured coming-of-age story. A closer look, though, reveals a book deeply concerned with postmodernity, in ways that will ring familiarly to Wallace readers. In bullets, here are some reasons, a few inter-related, why the Infinite Jest allusion made on Skippy Dies’s book jacket shouldn’t be easily laughed off:

  • School — Here’s an obvious similarity, the one used (cheaply I at first thought) for marketing purposes on the jacket. Murray sets his story in an Irish boys boarding school adjacent to a school for girls. This configuration allows Murray a lot of freedom to explore the deep divisions between adolescent boys and girls. By choosing a college setting he has also specifically chosen a time when the seeds of adulthood are being laid, and values (such as sincerity) are being instilled and challenged. It’s a very fruitful setting for themes, adventure, and of course, humor. Murray was smart enough, also, to focus much of his narrative on a teacher at the school, Howard “The Coward,” a former student at Seabrook doomed forever to the halls of his childhood. Wallace and Murray both use young adults (in addition to grown adults) in their big stories because young adulthood is when ideas enter your brain at the fastest, most disorienting and exciting clip. Typically, you experience life at this time between the twin poles of apathy and action. You become an adult, a fully-realized person, and lose, to one degree or another, the safety net of youth. It’s a time of sexual awakening and recklessness. You are simultaneously at your most vulnerable and your most defensive.
  • Sport — At Seabrook, Skippy is on the swim team. While swimming’s role in Murray’s book isn’t entirely analogous to tennis’s hugely important function in Infinite Jest, there are some parallels. Murray uses swimming and sports to illustrate how young adults recognize their practical functions in life, as individuals and as members of teams. In Skippy Dies, as in Infinite Jest, there’s an element of choice and, once that choice has been made, a feeling like locked-in syndrome. Both books tackle commitment and personal drive, and also the way in which the things we give ourselves over to most, in combination with the endless external factors of daily life, have the power to break us completely down.
  • Substances — One of the most interesting themes explored in Infinite Jest is that of addiction. Taking place simultaneously at a halfway home and an elite boarding school known for its world-class commitment to boys’ tennis, Wallace draws parallels between the hunger for fame and perfection, and the hunger for smack. Wallace once said that “atheist” is a misnomer in today’s culture; one doesn’t not worship, one simply “chooses what to worship.” I believe he’d say something similar about addiction. We all have addictions, vices, they simply fall on different spectrums of the danger scale. In Infinite Jest, hard substances abound: most prominently weed, alcohol, and DMZ. In Skippy Dies, Murray writes primarily about pills of various purposes: diet pills, mood-enhancers, destabilizers. These pills are used recreationally by the boys at Seabrook and the girls at St. Brigid’s, in much the same way, it seems, alcohol is consumed by teenagers in America. Skippy’s “travel pills” affect his swimming abilities in much the same way weed affected Hal’s tennis skills. (Both primary characters, to note another shared quality, are, for the most part, introverts who turn to their drugs of choice as a means of escaping reality.)
  • Sincerity — In his essay, “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” Adam Kelly writes, “David Foster Wallace affirmed and embodied sincerity as a crucial value in his life and work, perhaps even as that work’s defining feature.” Paul Murray is not an American writer, but with Skippy Dies he should, I think, be considered, a member of the (unofficial) New Sincerity movement. The recurrence of references to sincerity and fraudulence in Skippy Dies is too overwhelming to dismiss it as one of Murray’s minor themes. Early in the book, it’s revealed that two of the boys, Ruprecht and Dennis, don’t get along very well, because of the two diametrically-opposed ideological planes they live their lives on: sincerity and irony. Throughout the novel, we watch as sincere (if romantic) Ruprecht engages with his world, while the arch-cynical Dennis laughs it off as a joke, only ever an ancillary character to the book’s action. (It’s interesting to note, however, that even in the book’s early pages, Ruprecht is described by the narrator as donning a “persona.”) Sexy substitute Geography teacher Miss McIntyre is at one point described as having gestures that “have this disconcerting hint of unseriousness, of artificiality, as though she has lifted them for her own amusement from some antiquated sitcom.” Skippy and his father perpetually engage in a sort of “Game,” in which they both consciously avoid discussing difficult subject matter, such as the mysterious physical or mental condition of Skippy’s mother. Wallace admitted, in interviews, that living authentically in the age of television is a thorny and problematic prospect. Wallace, Kelly writes, suggested that any return to sincerity “must be informed by a study of postmodern fiction, in order to properly take into account the effects wrought by contemporary media, particularly TV and advertising.” The sitcom reference noted above hints at Murray’s likeminded interest in the mediasphere’s effect, an interest which permeates much of this novel’s first two sections.
  • Hyperreality/Postmodernity — The book takes place in the modern day, somewhere in the early aughts. This being the case, lives teenage and adult are heavily mediated and influenced by the time’s technologies. Texting is, for a time at the start, the dominant form of communication for Skippy and his quasi-girlfriend. An early fight between Howard and his girlfriend Halley sees Howard recording Halley with the “Sony JLS9xr,” which features image augmentation that makes the recorded image “even more vivid than . . . real life.” Murray writes, “She seems happier too, with this arrangement, liberated by not having to look into his eyes; she gazes out the window, down at the ashtray, kneads her bracelet against the bones of her wrist. Howard suddenly finds himself desiring her. Maybe this is the answer to all their problems! He could wear the camera all the time . . .” A teacher remarks that kids at fourteen are innately attuned to the material of two academic courses: biology and marketing. Howard wishes his life had “more of a narrative arc,” a desire symptomatic of postmodernity, of boredom with the unremarkable everyday. Two characters are described as living “like two actors in the final performance of a show no one comes to see any more.” The Acting Principal of Seabrook, pitching the idea of recording and distributing DVDs of an upcoming school concert, says, “Psychology of the twenty-first century: people like to capture the spectacle, own it.” We see this again, later, when one character makes frequent, useless use of his cell phone’s video camera.
  • Loneliness — This may be a stretch, as Wallace doesn’t have a copyright on the theme of “loneliness” (or schools, substances, or hyperreality for that matter**), but Murray seems just as much interested in the “stomach-level sadness” that Wallace spoke and wrote so much about. Wallace frequently said that the reading and writing processes had the power to temporary relieve the existential coldness of everyday life, that good fiction created a bridge from reader-to-writer, and that that bridge, while erected, trumped loneliness. Loneliness being always in Wallace’s mind, stifling his life and his work at some points, especially toward the end, it often manifested itself in his fiction. In Skippy Dies, too, we see the words “loneliness” and “alone” recur, sometimes in reference to Skippy, an archetypal loner, quiet even among friends. Here’s a verse from a popular song by the book’s fictional tween-pop sensation Bethani: “I wish I was eighteen, it would be so fine / to show everybody how we pass the time / and all the boys around the world would peek into my home / so there’s always someone watching and I never feel alone.” Howard, in a memorably moving passage, thinks about string theory. Identifying that our universe is made up of “open-ended strings, the forlorn, incomplete U-shaped strings,” he wonders whether our universe is “actually built out of loneliness; and [whether] that foundational loneliness persists upwards to haunt every one of its residents.”
  • Double-Binds — I haven’t given this shared feature much thought, but there is a moment early in Skippy Dies in which a schoolteacher, a Catholic priest, outright asks a student if he’s a virgin in front of the whole class. A “yes” promises approval from authority and mockery from his peers, while a “no” guarantees disdain and possibly punishment from on high, and social acceptance from his fellow students (until, of course, they realize that he’s lying, that he is a virgin). Compared to the double-binds of Infinite Jest, especially the one involving the kleptomaniac who suffers from agoraphobia, also posed to students by a teacher, Murray’s appear somewhat simple. Wallace’s lifelong preoccupation with and passion for deep, mathematical, philosophical thought (most evident in the recent publishing of an undergraduate thesis of his, as well as his maths-heavy book about infinity) resulted in fiction that often featured highly complex double-binds. (Speaking of infinity, on page 245 of Skippy Dies, Skippy thinks of a girl who made “sideways-8s” with her finger through the air, the closest thing to a direct reference to infinity [and so, possibly, Infinite Jest] that I can remember.)

If I finish Skippy Dies by the new year, it will have been the best book I read in 2010. I think Infinite Jest is in many areas (lingual brilliance, geometric structure, scope, self-reflexivity) a superior work, but is in some ways less successful than Skippy Dies. Murray’s book is far more approachable and, frankly, more consistently fun. It’s a surprisingly thrilling page-turner, which, much as I enjoyed reading Infinite Jest, is something I cannot say for Wallace’s doorstopping masterwork. I’m also tempted to say that Skippy Dies has more heart than IJ, but that might be not only unfair or untrue but fundamentally unquantifiable.

I must stress that I don’t read these similarities as evidence of plagiarism. I side with Bloom (if I understand him correctly) in that I find the challenge of “mak[ing] it new” insurmountable, especially in a hyperrealistic, media-saturated global culture. All novels are mysteries, equations. Occasionally familiar factors re-appear in new works. It’s the wormy nature of influence, and it’s to be expected in works that are products of a culture in which writers and readers alike are bombarded with information and media at an unprecedented rate and volume. Besides anesthetization, being influenced seems the truest and most common reaction to info-bloated life, as ordered by the Internet and other seductive media mediums. As Michael Chabon has written: “All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.” Plus, the similarities I’ve distinguished here are all matters of content; Murray’s style, save a few excessively stream-of-consciousness, rule-breaking scenes, shares little with Wallace’s. And Skippy Dies, though patterned nicely, wasn’t written, I don’t think, with fractals in mind.

I said above that a great book will change the way I think about things. Murray was obviously changed after reading Infinite Jest, in much that same ways I was: as a reader, a writer, and as a person. He started looking in the same directions Wallace had looked. It’s been hard for me to read Skippy Dies autonomously. I’m more attuned to what it shares with Infinite Jest than what it does differently, better, worse. My reading life, it seems, is characterized by an “anxiety of influence.” The writers I read unknowingly face the great, maybe impossible challenge of making a singular impression in my memory. I yearn for the novel that defies the referential reader impulse: the actually incomparable book. Skippy Dies isn’t that book, but it is (so far) one of the most charming, hysterical, and heartfelt products of our post-postmodern moment that I’ve ever had the good fortune to come across. Once I complete it, Murray’s novel will likely sit in that colossal shadow, Wallace’s shadow, which may itself, too, rest within another shadow altogether, shadows covering shadows, with the rest of my favorite, wonderfully inspired books.

*I apologize for my overuse of this overused word. For a crystal-clear takedown of the “postmodern” label, which, despite what the long length of this post suggests, I wholeheartedly agree with, check out Dennis Cooper’s succinct “No Mo’ Pomo.”
**I think he might actually have a theoretical monopoly on “sincerity.”
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The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

I’ve been listening to a lot of Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, lately. Each episode is a nice probing of the comic impulse, usually recognizing its sadness. Maron talks about his myriad insecurities, his failed relationships, his neediness. His humor is a reaction to the things about himself that he’s uncomfortable with. In a recent episode he described the type of laugh he attempts to elicit from his audience: “the laugh that really should be crying,” where the joke in question arouses discomfort.

I also recently read Zadie Smith’s essay about the role of humor in her relationship with her father (Dead Man Laughing). Some parts are very personal to Smith’s life, but others make a few illuminating generalizations about comedy. She tosses off great one-liners, such as: “Comedy is a Lazarus art; you can die onstage and then rise again,””In my family, at least, [comedy] was a way of talking about things we didn’t want to talk about,” and “Comedy nausea is the extreme incarnation of what my father felt: not only is joke-telling a cheap art; the whole business of standup is, in some sense, a shameful cheat.”

She focuses her essay on her father, Harvey, a “comedy snob” who favored comics “wedded to despair.” As Smith notes in the end of her essay, Harvey’s life, if lived without laughter, would have been a long set-up without any reward in the form of a punchline. Harvey registered Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, in which a character bears his likeness, as a “laugh-or-you’ll-cry” fiction. Such was his life. Such are all our lives.

This is all to say that I would have liked The Financial Lives of the Poets more, had it been written with a few ounces more seriousness. It’s a very enjoyable novel, extremely accessible, lightning quick to read (lest you want to put it down to text one of the novels’ jokes, the phrases “population-control pajama pants” or “the Devil’s floss” [a thong], for example, to a friend). Once the plot gets going, it goes and ends, for the most part, where you expect it to.

The book follows Matthew Prior, a down-on-his-luck, unemployed father of two boys (Teddy and Franklin, their presidential names being one of my favorite jokes of the book), in charge of housing his senile father, and whose marriage is coming apart at the seams because of a suspected affair between his wife and the local lumber dealer. Going out for milk one night, on an impulse Prior attends a party with two stoned 20-somethings. Wallowing in his self-pity, and under the threat of foreclosure, Matt decides to start buying and selling weed as a means of making the money needed to keep his family’s home, his kids from the dangers of public schooling, and his marriage from falling apart completely. It’s a book about several kinds of declines: personal, financial, biological.

The problem is that it bills itself as a sort of social novel — it takes place in modern day Anytown, America, amid our current economic collapse. Reading Sister Carrie and House of Mirth this semester in “Literature from the Gilded Age to the Jazz Age,” and, yes, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen the week of its release, I was struck by each writer’s ability to condense a moment in time into a strong, complexly-layered narrative. Those three books are heavily notated, either on their mass-market paperback pages, or on iPhone notes dedicated to marking sections, sentences, or particular observations about the texts. My iPhone note for The Financial Lives of the Poets is short, tapped wearily out of the un-excitement that’s synonymous with reading good, not great books.

There are complexities to be found in The Financial Lives, but they don’t compare to Dreiser’s, Wharton’s, or Franzen’s. For example, drug dealers are people too. That’s one of this book’s complex messages. Another: the American financial markets and machine (a series of complex systems) are as deeply flawed as the people who run it. Another: sometimes you have to settle for being “OK.” Another: the world is unfair.

The book is not completely dumbed down. There are a few nice bits about the travails of fatherhood (though Smith’s essay, for example, is miles more interesting on that topic). There’s a running commentary throughout about the dying newspaper industry, but we generally already know that the newspaper industry is dying, and why that is (Web 2.0).

Perhaps the most annoying part of The Financial Lives of the Poets is that, since the narrator goes without sleep for much of the book (meeting with dealers from late-nights into early-mornings), he’s constantly reminding himself and the reader of his circumstances. This means that at the start of almost every chapter, we’re told things we’ve come to realize at the end of the preceding chapter. It makes the book easy to follow, but is frustrating in that it precludes a steady narrative rhythm. It also precludes a challenge of any kind, which, if moderated, usually makes for a more worthwhile reading experience.

In describing how The Financial Lives came about, Walter wrote that he poked “his head out the window and describe[d]” what he saw, with comic embellishments. He also wrote that readers who were perplexed by his NBA-finalist novel, The Zero, would probably like The Financial Lives (i.e., this is a far simpler read). And The Financial Lives does play well to a large audience. It’d make for a charming Capra-esque film (though Weeds watchers would probably dismiss it, unfairly, as knocking-off that program). Nick Hornby called The Financial Lives “a joy to read,” and, for the most part, it is. But unlike Hornby’s joys, Walter’s book never made me stop and think about how his words correlated to my life’s experiences, my relationships, my shame, my joys. Perhaps I’m too young. Perhaps that’s it.

The Financial Lives of the Poets, like the one episode of Weeds I’ve seen, made me laugh often and made me think briefly about art/media-as-a-mirror, but never made me consider crying instead of laughing (though Matt’s situation is comi-tragic, Walter’s writing doesn’t seriously dwell long enough on the force of his melancholy), which is the kind of comic reaction I prefer, for what feeling is rarer than being torn between misery and euphoria?

I never felt any real discomfort reading The Financial Lives, and not just because of its fundamentally hopeful tone and conclusion. And I think, if there doesn’t have to be discomfort in the reading experience*, there at least has to be challenge. The completion of a book presents many challenges, I think. You imagine what the writer meant with his or her book, what he or she was trying to say, what symbols or structure he or she played with. In this respect, The Financial Lives of the Poets may be a rich book, as many reviewers claim it to be. But the process of reading it, line-by-line, scene-to-scene, was too easy, the writing too lackadaisical, to warrant very much close attention after I finished. Marc Maron’s podcast and Zadie Smith’s essay use humor far more effectively; it’s their conduit, their theme, their process and their point. Here, it is merely genre, style. I wish Walter had written a socio-comic novel concerned more with the country’s absurdity, rather than just his story’s.

*David Foster Wallace: “I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
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Smothered In Hugs: Essays, Interviews, Feedback, and Obituaries by Dennis Cooper

I don’t know what to say about Smothered In Hugs, other than, that if you have any interest whatsoever in 80s/90s/post-millenial pop or alt culture you owe it to yourself to become acquainted with Dennis Cooper’s criticism. Even if you disagree with what he says about, for example, William S. Burroughs or Quentin Tarantino, because he is a fiction writer by trade there is in each piece, as Cooper notes in the preface, a noticeable “struggle to fulfill the formal requirements of the assignment” given. This struggle to condense his busy interior/brain-world to a single, unified piece of writing, makes for some wonderful and meaty essays.

My fascination with Dennis Cooper started when I first visited his blog earlier this year. It, like the writing in Smothered In Hugs, is sometimes intimidatingly bold. After Smothered In Hug’s humbling preface, Cooper attacks each subject unabashedly. His writing has rhythm and momentum and life unlike any writer I can think of off the top of my head. I found myself racing through these essays at a more accelerated pace than usual; his energetic prose encouraged speed-reading and subsequent illuminative re-readings.

In one of the book’s many pieces, William T. Vollmann, in conversation with Cooper, says that “so much writing doesn’t have heart in it,” and I agree. I haven’t read any of Dennis Cooper’s fiction, but now I very much want to. It may be easier to wholeheartedly (for lack of a better term) write the kind of nonfiction that appears in this collection; Cooper is always the “I,” the thoughts are always entirely his own. But I imagine his fictional characters are probably written with similar vivacity, similar heart. With Smothered In Hugs, Cooper has cemented a position on my list of cultural critics whose voice I’ll always gladly turn to for its casual intelligence, striking surety, and strength.

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“IT WAS OVER. I WAS ALIVE.” — A Review of Hating Olivia: A Love Story by Mark SaFranko

[I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Hating Olivia: A Love Story by Mark SaFranko, who may be one of the best and most prolific writers you haven’t yet heard of. Hating Olivia, which will be released soon in the US by Harper Perennial, his largest and most notable publisher yet, is a kind of “big break” for him, and will hopefully lead to some positive attention and a broader readership.]

[Mild Spoilers Ahead]

Hating Olivia is told in the aged voice of Max Zajack. He spends the course of the novel looking back at the four years of life he shared with Olivia Aphrodite Tanga. Their story illustrates the cyclical nature of emotionally-abusive relationships, and the fear that underlies love (or simply lust) shared between two people too afraid to accept responsibility for their actions and inactions.

Max narrates of their sexually-charged relationship’s humble beginnings, complete with half-grins and “How about a drink?”s. From there we learn of the new couple’s many hirings and firings in the 1970s job market, from a nine-to-fiver at a mega-corporation, to a mildly successful makeshift astrology gig which saw Max reading housewives’s birth charts, to waiting tables. The couple’s infrequent flow of cash influenced moods of intemperance and volatility. Sex — forever the backbone of their relationship — was, maybe tellingly, the lone remedy to their largely unhealthy, parasitic partnership.

For most of the book, I wondered why and how Max and Olivia managed to remain together as long as they did. (The book’s epilogue, specifically, focuses in on this question, which it answers, wonderfully, obliquely.) There are countless scenes of Max and Livy berating each other, over things trivial (Max’s failure to defend Olivia while she failed to return a dress at Macy’s, for example) and significant (usually matters related to an insufficiency of funds). Olivia incessantly complains that Max just “doesn’t understand” her, and he probably doesn’t.

What made them such a curious couple, to me, was how each had such a strong independent personality. In the beginning of their courtship (a word probably too formal and pure to describe Max and Livy’s arrangement), they bond over their shared love for reading and writing. These commonalities lose their importance soon enough; only Max continues, for the most part hopelessly, to write his novel, The Old Cossack. To appreciate reading and writing, wholly solitary activities, one has to admit to an appreciation for solitude. Max notes several times that he’s happiest alone, at his desk pumping out pages or walking by himself down his suburban sidewalk. Olivia reveals her fierce independence in other ways, most strongly through her stubbornness.

A healthy relationship isn’t one of complete dependance, but a certain amount of giving and a certain amount of taking is essential. What I saw in Hating Olivia were two people who saw the world — and so each other — as something to be taken for themselves and themselves only, something that was owed them and something that they each, really, owed nothing to. But of course, as the elder Max isn’t afraid to admit repeatedly throughout the course of his narrative, “the world is against” you, always.

I think Max and Olivia’s staying power probably has something to do with the nagging suspicion that the powerful love that launched them into each other’s worlds at the start of their relationship would someday worm its way back to the fore. There’s also a case to be made for each character’s personal insecurities, grounded historically in a supposedly abusive upbringing in Olivia’s case, and their fears for a passionless future. It was interesting to watch them laconically toss away job opportunities, sometimes quitting outright, which would have rather obviously played a more vital part in their lives than the abusive role they played in one another’s. Their priorities and prejudices betrayed the type of immaturity that can only be suppressed by overcoming — however mildly — the failures that the natural, corporate, or artistic worlds will shove in your face, when you take an unsophisticated attitude towards them.

Before starting his short-lived horoscope business, Max studied the “secrets of metaphysical wisdom” at the library, attempting to gauge a full understanding of astrology:

I failed, it goes without saying. No one in this life can grasp what’s written in the Great Beyond — if there is such a place. At the heart of existence on earth — a cause and effect that itself is completely unknowable — is a mystery. It is mystery within riddle within enigma that governs all things, from the smallest grain of sand to the beauty of the flower, from the relations between yin and yang to the ultimate darkness at the outer reaches of the universe.

To add to Max’s list, I’d offer the mystery of personal relationships; why people stay together, why they split apart. You can point to actions, to words said or slurred, promises made and broken, but there’s always going to be an element of the unknowable in our (often addictive) human interactions, and their endings.

I loved Hating Olivia, despite its sometimes glaring flaws — redundant fight sequences, overused ellipses (possibly used in homage to Céline), and too-frequent generalizations about the world (sentences that begin with something like, “The thing about life is…,” etc.). It covered a lot of terrain: love, lust, addiction, defeatism, manhood, the artistic temperament, and the conflict between wanting to be a spectator (reader) and wanting to create (write). Its characters, in spite of their bad decisions — or maybe because of them — are always compelling enough to keep you reading (though Olivia will test your patience after a couple hundred pages), and hoping that they’ll find ways to crawl out of the holes they’ve dug for themselves. Also, SaFranko’s writing is frequently really damned good.

The novel’s ending, to me, was one of supreme hopefulness, suggestive that it’s possible to transfer a fatalistic love for another human being into a love for the world you’ve been left with. With that profound acceptance, your capabilities stretch out endlessly before you. Realizing that survival is a kind of victory, and that it’s possible to find a healthy medium between an attitude of cynical determinism and one of sincere appreciation for all that life has to offer (“I couldn’t believe how much in love I was,” Max writes of the world in the final pages), you may even find something you’ve spent much of your adult life looking for, like the will to write your great novel, which is what Hating Olivia is.

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