Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Super Sad True Love Story

OK, so now that I'm done with whining about Franzen, how about a book I loved?

Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is shelved in "literature," although I think it might qualify as the sort of near-future science fiction that William Gibson used to write until the world caught up with his futurism.

Shteyngart has tapped into a lot of my personal fears and obsessions with this one: the erosion of human relationships in the face of mediating technology, the growth of America's "in your face" military dominance, the rise of military checkpoints within our own country and the sacrifice of personal liberty and privacy in the name of security, the coarsening of communication as we rely more and more on vulgarity and abbreviation to express ourselves, the preoccupation with youth and the commodification of sex, and the ultimate fate of the US as the dollar drops in value and we're further in debt to our trading partners.

His characters parade about in OnionSkin jeans (yes, they are what you think they are) and undergarments from companies like TotalSurrender and AssLuxury that they buy with yuan because the dollar is worthless.  Work in America is so hard to find that you've got to have a Master's degree and to through a period of apprenticeship to secure a position in retail.  Facebook has been abandoned for the trendier, hipper social networking site GlobalTeens, and people of all ages are so dedicated to texting on GlobalTeens (texting is now called teening) with their hand-helds that, when connectivity goes down for a couple of weeks, several people commit suicide, convinced that a world of "walls and thoughts and faces" is just not enough.

It's a terrifying world, taken all at once like this.  And yet it's the world we're settling into, the way your overweight executive settles into his tacky recliner in front of the TV at the end of a long day.  Bit by bit, we're reclining towards this disaster.  We've all felt it, haven't we?  I just haven't seen it portrayed so clearly and believably before.

And yet he manages to find the humanity in his characters and spin a love story between them.  People still want the same things, really: community, belonging, good friends, work that's challenging and provides a sense of purpose.  It's just that all these human desires are washed under a wave of data and stuff.

The main character, Lenny, is middle aged.  He's determined to live forever, and he works for a company that provides life extension to the very rich.  Obsessed with youth as he is, he's still attached to his old books.  But he's embarrassed by the way they smell.  The person sitting next to him on a plane complains about his volume of Tolstoy, "Duder, that smells like old socks."  When he realizes the same smell might put off Eunice, his young girlfriend, he sprays his library with air freshener.

How can he remain young and still love the things that meant so much to him in a long ago childhood?  And how can he remain young when he can't afford the technology that extends the life of his clients?

His girlfriend, who really is young, wants to feel smart, to understand these books that mean so much to him.  But how can you share literature with a girl who has grown up in a cultural vacuum?  All the references are lost.  It's like trying to read Chaucer in the original Middle English.  Possible, but with great effort.  And certainly not fun, when there's shopping and teening you could be doing instead.

The connection between these characters is as touching as it is doomed, as they struggle to find common interests and qualities that can transcend their generational gap.

I don't want to give too much else away (beyond the obvious bit given away by the book's title).  But I particularly liked Shteyngart's explanation for how the Chinese bankers finally call in their debts.  It seemed like a plausible outcome, though hopefully not the one we ultimately end up with.  The economists I've spoken to have always told me not to worry about our debt to China, since if they call it in, we won't be able to buy their products any more, and so they have an incentive to keep lending us money on and on forever.  Given the collapse of the tech stocks and the housing market and the derivatives market in the last ten years, I've had trouble buying the idea of anything financial going on forever.  (Except, perhaps, for interest payments.)

All this is handled with a marvelous sense of humor, and so it really doesn't come off as bleak as all that. (Humor. Something else that was missing from the Franzen title, and might have made all the difference.) Check out Shteyngart's book trailer, which really has very little to do with the book but will make you want to read it, anyway.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Franzen's Freedom - From Literature!

I gave up on reading Franzen's Freedom after 120 pages.

I just could not make myself care about these characters.  These are shallow, petty people of modest accomplishment being mean and hurtful to their families in shallow, petty ways.  Afraid I'd be missing something, I jumped ahead a couple hundred pages, and then again, and then to the end.  I kept finding myself among the same folks, having the predictable affairs, struggling with the predictable rage.

I get that these characters have failings.  I get that sad, unfortunate things have happened to them.  I get that they are just like us.  I just don't care.

I suppose Franzen has captured something about suburban white Americans at the present time.  Maybe folks can come back to this book in a hundred or a thousand years and say, "Oh, so that's how the common people were living in the early 21st century," and they'll have a record of common lives that might have been left out of cable programming and news feeds.  A distillation of white, American ordinariness.

Time Magazine built up a great deal of hype over this novel, putting Franzen on the cover even though they haven't featured an author on their cover for a decade.  And they mentioned his spat with Oprah, saying that if she didn't feature this book in her book-club, she may very well be passing on the greatest novel of the 21st century.

It was clear that this was a major BOOK EVENT, at a time when BOOK EVENTS are precious and rare.  It reminded me of the hype around Infinite Jest, the book event of the 1990s, when David Foster Wallace (Franzen's good friend) was given perhaps the last American book tour to publicize this massive brick of literary ambition.  Wallace's book tour was captured rather effectively by David Lipsky in a book-length interview which stands, I believe, as a monument to the end of this particular "literary" era (and as such is just about as interesting as anything Wallace wrote himself).  As I got caught up in the hype for Freedom, I started to think that, maybe, the era of this particular BOOK EVENT was not over, that maybe there was room for another novelist superstar or two.

But Wallace's book was challenging, intricate, and absurd.  He may have been writing about ordinary folks, but he did it in a way that required being intensely alert and careful in your reading.  Wallace was a master of the literary gamesmanship that the 20th century liberal arts education told us we should aspire to consume.  Whether the production and consumption of such work was a worthwhile endeavor is still up for debate.  Are we really better off for dragging ourselves through Finnegan's Wake or Gravity's Rainbow, say?

Franzen's has sidestepped this whole question about "literary" writing by keeping his prose simple, easy, breezy, and in some places, flat out lazy.  (He handles the mine-field of a sex scene by writing "He fucked her like a brute.")

I suppose it had to be done.  After a century of post-modernism, someone had to say, "Hey, what if we stripped all the pretentious language games out of the literary novel and saw what was left?"  And what we got was Freedom, written with the simple, clear language of a mystery, but without the mystery.  An adventure without adventure, a thriller sans thrills.

For better or worse, people had to struggle with Pynchon and Joyce.  But one could get through this lengthy novel in a weekend, absorb everything it has to say, shrug, and move on.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Big Plane on Little Field

I took a scenic route home from work yesterday.  It brought me past the little grass airfield, the sort of place with no control tower, the sort of place where pilots radio in their approaches if they feel like it, and overfly before landing to get a peek at which way the windsock is pointing.  

There was a huge WWII era troop transporter parked by the offices.  It seemed surreal to see something of that scale parked in the grass.  It was a tail-dragger, chin up, with the US Army star painted on the tail and the wings.   A proud mama-plane looming over her children.  I thought, "gosh," and turned around to take a look.  When it comes to airplanes I'm a ten year old boy inside.  

Unfortunately my cellphone camera does not do it justice.  But you get the idea.

The folks out in front of the hangar office were tired of answering questions about her. One of them was kind of a dick about it. Full on sarcasm: "You're the first person to ask about that plane all day."

"I'm sure that's not true," I said.

"You'd think we were having an air-show. Someone else tell him about it. I can't go through it again."

An actual ten year old boy who was hanging out at the airfield obliged me.  Apparently it belongs to a wealthy enthusiast from South Carolina, and it's here for some maintenance. (Really, was that so hard?)

This airport offers glider and biplane rides.  I joked that it looked like they were expanding their operation.

The kid's father said, "No, we can't give rides on that. The operating costs would be too high."

"I bet it burns a ton of fuel," I said.  

"It burns 100 gallons an hour."

Oh, proud mama plane, so noble and strong. Why must you be so thirsty?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Awake and Offline

Inevitably awake and asleep at the wrong times.  Four hours until I get up for a meeting and here I am in bed, typing away.

I think I might try a few days of internet isolation.  It's not like I post to the blog on a regular basis.  People read the blog on a less than regular basis.  If I deactivate or unplug my wireless card...  Just to see if I can get the words flowing again.  Just to piece together the sort of running internal monologue that used to, I think, flow through my days.  Nicoholas Carr has a point.  We think differently, in an age of broadband.

It's not like I don't have enough free time.  It's just that, sitting down at these machines, these marvelous distraction machines, entire days go by and all I've done is work my way through my Google reader queue and browse for ebooks that I don't buy (or I download a bunch of free, old ones I'll never read) and scroll mindlessly through whatever dreck my subconscious says is worth looking up or clicking on.  It's pacifying, relaxing, the way folks used to like to watch TV.

But I used to hate to see people watching TV like that.  I couldn't understand it.  And I swore I would never be so pathetic, as to do such a thing.  But good god.  Click click clickety click on the internet, to no end and for no end.  I know Cory Doctorow can handle it.  Can get books written and blog communities together and build an entire career on it, in fact.  The poster child for the distracted but productive modern superman.  

But my poor brain.  It needs the linear, focused passage.  I was raised on typewriters and piano practice, and told not to bother doing something if you weren't going to do it right.  In retrospect, those activities and principles were not the best to build a future life on, in the twenty first century.  My job is an exercise in multi-tasking.  It gets easier with practice, but I'd do better if mom had put an iPhone in one hand and a Nintendo controller in the other.

So, if no internet for a few days...  Well, I've got enough content on these computers and in this house to keep myself entertained for a year.  It shouldn't be a problem.

Really, I could roll this sort of self-denial into better practices for daily living.  Like jotting down the things I need to research (when there really is a thing I need to research), and then waiting for an allotted hour to get the research done.  Like back in the day when you'd go to the library to check your facts.  My online hour.  Just one.  Maybe I could post any composed and brilliant thoughts to the blog in that precious hour, too.

Limited access: because when we can do things anytime, we don't respect our time.

Here is a quaint memory:  I used to write a monthly newspaper column for our local weekly.  I remember mailing mailing it in, stamp and envelope and all, the week before it was due.  And if I was running late, I'd ride my bicycle over to the offices and hand it to the editor.  This was how content was delivered.  Research was done at the library, words were typed up at home, and work was brought to a building.

Newspapers.  Were those ever cute, or what?


I remember talking to this girl in high school.  She seemed very smart - honors classes and all that - and very pretty.  She was the sort of pretty that comes from training to be a ballet dancer for the first sixteen years of her life and then her breasts came in just a bit too grandly and there was the end of the ballet dream.  So when we had a conversation I was inclined to talk to her a great deal about everything that came to mind, since when a girl like that is listening to you, you'd better be ready with something to say - especially if you couldn't get by on your looks.  I'd go on about Stephen Hawking and the philosophy class I was taking nights at the community college and whether the rules of mathematics had to be the same in all universes and whether piano keyboards would look different if we had an alternate history where the dominant tonal mode somehow settled into a different pattern of whole and half steps.

She listened politely to a lot of this and then asked, "What's it like inside your head when you're not talking?"

"Pretty much like this," I said.  And then, suddenly horrified by the alternative, I asked, "What's it like in yours?"

"Really," she said, "most of the time...if I'm not doing something, that's just...quiet."

"No words at all?  Just silence?"

"Well, maybe I'm thinking about my homework, or dancing.  Just a little.  Or, if I'm watching TV, of course there's the TV.  While I'm watching it.  But no.  Otherwise, it's just quiet."

"So, at lunch, riding the bus, taking a walk, lying in bed at night, there's no words gnawing away at you up there?"


"Just quiet."

"That's pretty much it."

It struck me as a tremendous and tragic waste that such a smart and pretty girl could pass through so much life without a single thought in her head.  And back then, I had no idea what that kind of silence could feel like.  It was inconceivable, like trying to imagine what you're going to think about after you die.

The ironic thing about that she's at an Ivy League college doing research into brain structure and the physical roots of consciousness.  So a mind that was just...quiet apparently worked just fine for her and her career.

I skipped college altogether.  And now my brain lapses into long passages of silence that shock me with their breadth, at their conclusion.  Some of those silences are filled only with the clicking of a mouse and flashes of content that are gone as soon as they flash across the retina.  Maybe if I take away some of those flashes, the silences can open up and fill with words once again.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sacredness of Books, The Sanctity of Print

Is there something sacred about the book, as a format?

We feel there is something special about the leather-bound tome on the shelf, and afford it a special significance that we don't assign to, say, the CD or DVD.  Even the spine-creased paperback has been held and fondled and caressed, directly and for a period of hours.  Books demand unmediated, tactile consumption that is foreign to other media.

But does this make it particularly special, this format?  Or is it simply that it has been around for so long, and used to transmit so many messages that have become central to our culture (The Bible, the works of Tolstoy and Dickens, Harry Potter), that it becomes difficult to imagine life without it, and so we have, in the face of new alternatives, afforded it a protection and reverence we used to show to women, children, and the elderly?  Is there a benefit to the physicality of the book that demands we preserve it, even though we've discarded the papyrus scroll, the long-playing record, and the cassette tape?

Burning books has been seen as a horrible, reprehensible act for a long time, now.  It's associated with the most ignorant of faith-based thinkers and the most dangerous of regimes.  Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 showed us the horror of this wholesale, biblicidal destruction of knowledge.

But a decade into the new millennium, there are signs we are ready to move on.  E-readers are becoming affordable and commonplace, digital book sales are gobbling up a measurable portion of the book sales pie-chart, and former book hoarders and collectors are enthusing about the amount of space they can free up in their homes by moving their libraries onto their new digital gadgets.  Listening to the owner of a Kindle the other day, I heard, "I'm going to get a game room in my house with all the space I'm saving.  First thing I'm gonna do is buy a pool table."

I was confused.  Was this person going to re-purchase all the titles he owned in physical format as electronic books, and then throw the physical books away?  Or does the fact that electronic editions are available for instant download make him want to dispose of his physical library, secure in the knowledge that, if he wants to read a book again, he can download that title over a free cellular connection in seconds?  For whatever reason, the adoption of a new way of reading for this man meant that the old form of his entertainment had to go, wholesale and in bulk.

What happens, though, to the pleasure of running your eyes across a shelf of books you've already read, each one freighted with the mutual significance of content and context, what it said and where you read it, what it meant to you, who you were before and after you turned the pages?

And how much room do books take up, really?  A foot in from the wall, here and there?  (I wanted to ask: How can you spread a pool-table along your walls?)

Granted, the weight of books can be tremendous.  I think that's the greater stigma they carry today.  We Americans are supposed to be light and fast and mobile, ready to jump up and follow an opportunity at a moment's notice.  "Must be willing to re-locate."  Our houses down pass down the generations.  They aren't places to put down roots and build histories and collect pockets of significance.  They're assets.  The last thing we should burden them with are libraries.

I've got an e-reader myself, and I'm noticing there is something sad about a physical bookshelf that hasn't been updated in a while.  The spines fade, a layer of dust grows in hard-to reach crevices, the prices printed on the spines start to look quaint and old-timey.  And I think that's what today's book-lover, caught in the shiny embrace of digital content, is afraid of coming home to: this accusation from his shelves that he hasn't been reading--when in fact he has, he just hasn't been shelving the artifacts.

But without the artifacts--with just tiny, tiny digital book files (a novel is about a tenth the size of a song) -- can the words carry as much weight, imbue as much significance, as ink on paper?

I know it's silly to bemoan a state of plenty.  The amount of information I can access from this desk with a few keystrokes is nothing short of miraculous.  BUT.  Consider the act of burning a book.  The energy and determination and world-view that requires.  And then consider the act of deleting a digital file from a hard drive.  It's easy, it's instantaneous, and the destruction is no less complete.  Even better: there are no ashes, no fumes, and no heat.

When a book is so easy to erase, is it not as easy to forget?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Questions for Corporate America (Typecast)

I sat down to my manual typewriter and some classical music to unwind after work and ended up writing  So it goes.

* For more on The Wife's beloved 1950's visit The Apron Revolution.

I'm not really happy with how blogger is handling my scanned pages.  But clicking on the pages will bring up full-sized, easier to read pages.

This typecasting is a lot harder than it looks.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Let's Stop Tossing Our Kids Into Student Loan Debt Slavery

American parents: Before you made that baby, did you think about how you were going to send it to college?

We've thought about it, and the costs of college, health care, and housing have been the top three reasons why we've put it off -- and probably will put it off until it's too late.

Because, seriously, how can you bring a child into a world where we're told (1) any kind of success and happiness comes on the heels of an advanced college degree, and (2) a college degree is not affordable for the child of working middle class American parents.  To top it all off, the companies which loan you the money to get that degree use some of the most vicious practices in the lending industry, and still manage to bilk the American taxpayer for any money they can't collect from students.

President Obama upset me terribly when he started talking about the importance of increasing college graduation rates.  More debt-saddled, unemployable college graduates are the last thing our country needs.  How about increasing the ranks of skilled, self-reliant tradespeople and entrepreneurs instead?  How about teaching civility, respect, and civic-mindedness at the high-school level, so we can get to work building sustainable communities and raising families, instead of partying, boozing, and drugging through an additional four to eight years of "higher education?"    (And then spending a significant portion of their professional lives paying for it.)

This is something I tend to get all worked up and furious about, to the point I can't discuss it without descending into incoherent rage.  So instead I'll just embed this handy info-graphic from  It does a better job of getting to the root of my anger than I can myself.

Student Loans Scheme.
Infographic by College