Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

“Things are not what they seem”

“And also,” the driver said, facing the mirror, “please remember: things are not what they seem.”

Things are not what they seem, Aomame repeated mentally. “What do you mean by that?” she asked with knitted brows.

The driver chose his words carefully: “It’s just that you’re about to do something out of the ordinary. Am I right? People do not ordinarily climb down the emergency stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway in the middle of the day –especially women.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Right. And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. I’ve had that experience myself. But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”

Aomame thought about what he was saying, and in the course of her thinking, the Janáček ended and the audience broke into immediate applause. This was obviously a live recording. The applause was long and enthusiastic. There were even occasional calls of “Bravo!” She imagine the smiling conductor bowing repeatedly to the standing audience. He would then raise his head, raise his arms, shake hands with the concertmaster, turn away from the audience, raise his arms again in praise of the orchestra, face front, and take another deep bow. As she listened to the long recorded applause, it sounded less like applause and more like an endless Martian sandstorm.

“There is always, as I said, only one reality,” the driver repeated slowly, as if underlining an important passage in a book.

“Of course,” Aomame said. He was right. A physical object could only be in one place at one time. Einstein proved that. Reality was utterly coolheaded and utterly lonely.

Aomame pointed toward the car stereo. “Great sound.”

The driver nodded. “What was the name of that composer again?”

“Janáček.”

“Janáček,” the driver repeated, as if committing an important password to memory. Then he pulled the lever that opened the passenger door. “Be careful,” he said. “I hope you get to your appointment on time.”

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Pace and Spin

There are certain essays that I keep coming back to time and again. I’m not usually one to reread novels or short stories, but I have a stable of essays that I read yearly, if not more often. I reread them to savor the text, but also to glean more of what they have to teach. I read them both as devotion and as education.

It will surprise no one who knows me that many of these recurrent essays are by David Foster Wallace.

One of them is his 2006 essay, “Federer Both Flesh and Not”. On the surface, it’s about Federer’s win at the 2006 Wimbledon Men’s tournament. It’s also about beauty, experience, and the impossibility of understanding ourselves or others. It’s the closest I’ve read in a long time to an operative proof of the divine.

More concretely, the essay is a wonderful crash course in many things, of which these five struck me most keenly on my most recent re-reading.

First is Tennis. Despite being the subject of the essay, though, Tennis is both the least interesting and least important thing about it.

Second is how to appreciate the beauty in a thing you may not, yourself, even really like. Despite two ill-fated years in Tennis myself in High School, I can’t claim to be a fan of the sport. But Wallace speaks with such glowing grace about Federer’s skill and strategy that one can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the man’s game. If you don’t like sports, this essay probably won’t change your mind, but it might make you more tolerant of those that do. It can, if nothing else, give incandescent expression to the passion they possess, but you lack. Wallace, here, plays the role of the fiery Baptist preacher, hypnotizing even the unbeliever.

Third is how to craft an impeccable essay from the materials at hand. Every word, notion, comment, and footnote is in exactly the right place. Even seemingly cast aside details turn out to be of critical importance. And in the end, even the oblique commentary about the sick child flipping a coin to decide first serve ends up driving home the critical point.

Fourth, it is the single finest lesson in phenomenology available. No essay articulates the role and scope of human experience in our daily lives better than this. Being and Time might be a brilliant work, but a careful study of “Federer Both Flesh and Not” is almost as complete, equally as true, and vastly more compelling. Wallace’s discussion of three perspectives of pace alone is worth the first three weeks of any graduate seminar on the topic. Wallace’s description of Federer’s effortless drives and unconscious, intuitive play; his exegesis on the micrometer, microsecond decisions that go into making the right shot; and his thorough analysis of the experience of a hissing power drive, do more than two hundred pages of Husserl or Heidegger to tell you about the singular importance of perception.

Finally, Wallace’s awe at the being of light that is Federer well encapsulates the majesty of the rare mutant creatures that mankind sometimes produces. Federer is a species unto himself, just as Paul Erdős, Hunter S Thompson, or Juan Manuel Fangio were. Just as, in his own tragic way, David Foster Wallace was. The capstone of the essays sets Federer off against poor little William Caines, the coin tosser and survivor of liver cancer. This dichotomy neatly sums an ontology, metaphysics, and theosophy that underlies the rest of the essay. Namely, whatever you think of God, he created both cancer-wracked little boys, and the flesh-and-light glory of Roger Federer.

In a way, that dichotomy could only have been articulated by someone like Wallace. Someone who, we would come to learn two years later, lamentably embodied both extremes.

Tim Rogers on Illness, Writing, &etc.

I’ve been nursing some kind of migratory illness ever since I got back from Minneapolis a week ago. It wasn’t particularly helped by the going away party for a couple of colleagues that saw me getting home blitzed at 3am Saturday morning. Turns out benders aren’t great for one’s immune system.

But it felt apropos to come across a new video by Tim Rogers of him talking a bit about his writing process and reading a new essay he wrote about being sick. It’s called “soup and soup and noodles and sumo”:

“Okay.”

I just finished The Last of Us, and I offer it as proof of my long-held assertion that video games can be capital-A-Art. To any who doubt it, I will henceforth simply say ecce pathos and hand them the controller.

Like all good art, the game is driven by its characters. The protagonists, Ellie and Joel, are the two most compelling characters I’ve found in video games. In the span of a few hours, the player is introduced to these two rich, multi-dimensional characters well enough to know them intimately and to truly identify with their motivations. The plot then proceeds to strings these two characters up between two poles: the monstrosity of infection and the monstrosity of self-serving human nature.

In a way, The Last of Us serves better as a protracted ethics thought experiment than anything else. Ellie and Joeal are not just walked through a few scenes of moral ambiguity, but are pitched headlong into a morally ambiguous world, and let to play out their fate in the absence of any clear good at all. The choices they make are the often difficult, but wholly necessary conclusions of their well-explored personalities and the positions they find themselves in. The resulting grim calculus is portrayed aptly and unflinchingly. At no point do their actions feel untrue to their characters, even when those actions feel deeply uncomfortable.

The gameplay itself is also excellent, but almost entirely beside the point. The characters in The Last of Us, as in all good fiction, are the focus, much to the game’s benefit. The dialog is tight and feels completely natural. The voice acting and mo-cap are both top-notch, making the characters to feel not just well-articulated, but fully human.

I highly recommend the game, not just to gamers, but to all fans of narrative fiction.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Mencken!

In honor of the birthday of this blog’s Patron Saint, who would have been 133 today, I offer the following:

“All the quacks and cony-catchers now crowding the public trough at Washington seem to be agreed upon one thing, and one thing only. It is the doctrine that the capitalistic system is on its last legs, and will present give place to something nobler and more “scientific”. There is, of course, no truth in this doctrine whatsoever. It collides at every point with the known facts. There is not the slightest reason for believing that capitalism is in collapse, or that anything proposed by the current wizards would be any better…

We owe to [capitalism] almost everything that passes under the general name of civilization today. The extraordinary progress of the world since the Middle Ages has not been due to the mere expenditure of human energy, nor even to the flights of human genius, for men had worked hard since the remotest times, and some of them had been of surpassing intellect. No, it has been due to the accumulation of capital. That accumulation permitted labor to be organized economically and on a large scale and thus greatly enhanced its productiveness. It provided the machinery that gradually diminished human drudgery, and liberated the spirit of the worker, who had formerly been almost indistinguishable from a mule. Most of all, it made possible a longer and better preparation for work, so that every art and handicraft greatly widened its scope and range, and multitudes of new and highly complicated crafts came in.” H. L. Mencken, “Capitalism”, as reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy

“Now that we all understand who’s in charge here”

Writer and musician John Roderick expands on his infamous “Punk Rock is Bullshit” article.

“Lana started to make sounds, like the imprecations of a priestess, over the bills that the boy had given her. Whispered numerals and words floated upward from her coral lips, and, closing her eyes, she copied some figures onto a pad of paper. Her fine body, itself a profitable investment through the years, bent reverently over the Formica-top altar. Smoke, like incense, rose from the cigarette in the ashtray at her elbow, curling upward with her prayers, up above the host which she was elevating in order to study the date of its minting, the single silver dollar that lay among the offerings. Her bracelet tinkled, calling communicants to the altar, but the only one in the temple had been excommunicated from the Faith because of his parentage and continued mopping. An offering fell to the floor, the host, and Lana knelt to venerate and retrieve it.

Hey, watch out,” Jones called, violating the sanctity of the rite. ‘You droppin the your profit from the orphans, butterfinger.'” – John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

David Foster Wallace on Ambition, Perfectionism, and Confronting One’s Limits

H. L. Mencken on the Moral Perils of Good Men

“Sin is a dangerous toy in the hands of the virtuous. It should be left to the congenitally sinful, who know when to play with it and when to let it alone. Run a boy through a Presbyterian Sunday-school and you must police him carefully all the rest of his life, for once he slips he is ready for anything.” -H. L. Mencken, “A Good Man Gone Wrong”, as reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy

Sing the Praises of Your Devourer

Eric Naiman, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, pens an account of the greatest literary detective story in years. I won’t spoil the story for you, because it really is a delightful tale of deception, and Naiman tells it wonderfully. But suffice it to say that academia is not as free from perfidy as some people might want to believe. And I hope that the sad, small villain at the center of the tale understands the mastery with which Naiman dissects his work and lays it bare across the pages the TLS.

A quote to whet your appetite for the mystery:

“Late in 2011, Michiko Kakutani opened her New York Times review of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens with “a remarkable account” she had found in its pages. In London for a few days in 1862, Fyodor Dostoevsky had dropped in on Dickens’s editorial offices and found the writer in an expansive mood. …

I have been teaching courses on Dostoevsky for over two decades, but I had never come across any mention of this encounter. Although Dostoevsky is known to have visited London for a week in 1862, neither his published letters nor any of the numerous biographies contain any hint of such a meeting. Dostoevsky would have been a virtual unknown to Dickens. It isn’t clear why Dickens would have opened up to his Russian colleague in this manner, and even if he had wanted to, in what language would the two men have conversed? (It could only have been French, which should lead one to wonder about the eloquence of a remembered remark filtered through two foreign tongues.) Moreover, Dostoevsky was a prickly, often rude interlocutor. He and Turgenev hated each other. He never even met Tolstoy. Would he have sought Dickens out? Would he then have been silent about the encounter for so many years, when it would have provided such wonderful fodder for his polemical journalism?”

And so the mystery is afoot.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.