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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

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Location: Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

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Monday, March 20, 2006

humanimages redux

Before my previous post, it had been a long while since my last blog-fession. The reason was I took my own advice; I put my shoulder to something I cared about but had been avoiding. And I decided not to put any time into this venue of incessant barking until I was happy with the completed job. That’s taken a few weeks.

I launched my own website, humanimages.com, back in 2003 as a place to show off my photography. I was pretty darn proud of it for a few months. Slowly, however, I began to notice that my enthusiasm had been greater than my Photoshop skills. The images just didn’t look very good. My cringing began to outstrip my pride, and I’ve hesitated to send people to the site for a couple of years.

Photography has always been a passion, not just a pastime, for me. I haven’t done much image-making in the last couple of years, but that’s just a temporary hibernation of the muse. There will be a creative spring. I think it may have even started.

But even if it hasn’t, there’s really been no excuse for me to let work that doesn’t meet my standard sit out there implicitly suggesting it’s the best I can do. How can I claim to be passionate about this and let work I’m not proud of be my calling card? If prints I didn’t like were hanging on a swanky gallery wall, I’d damn well replace them. But I had let the website just continue to stink.


So, I’ve spent big parts of the last three weeks tweaking the crap out of humanimages. The site itself is still basic – I don’t aspire to be a web designer – but the images are a whole lot closer to how I always wanted them to be seen. I even added three ‘new’ images for good measure.

Now, when I do begin making images, again, I’ll have a place to put them that I’m not embarrassed by.

Drop in. www.humanimages.com

If you just want to zoom straight to the new images, you’ll find them here, here, and here.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Consider the Wallace

He can do anything with a piece of prose, and it is a humbling experience to see him go to work on what has passed up till now as “modern fiction”. He’s so modern he’s in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us. Goddamn him.
Zadie Smith, about David Foster Wallace’s fiction, quoted on the back cover of his most recent book Consider the Lobster, which (either she or his marketers have apparently failed to notice) isn’t fiction.

* * *

When the blurb on the cover of your new book of essays calls you “The heir apparent to Thomas Pynchon,” a few things are pretty clear. Among them, you’re not expecting this to be a Dan Brown-busting best-seller. Also, you are expecting high-brow literary types to take you seriously.

One thing that’s not clear is who this blurb about Pynchon is aimed at. At first, it would seem a come-on to Pynchon fans – or, at least, people who have heard of Pynchon and have a vague impression that he’s good/cool/funny/whatever – and who have, heretofore, been unmoved to read your stuff, or have been walking zombie-like through their intellectualized lives – because they are Pynchon fans’ lives, after all – oddly unaware that you exist.

If you are David Foster Wallace, this would indeed be odd, because anyone who even knows who Pynchon is has already been assaulted by your rep. People who read Pynchon don’t just read books; they read about books. And one can’t have so much as lined a birdcage with the book section of the newspaper without having been assaulted by the showering sparks of praise for your work. They know who you are. Why blurb at them?

To push Wallace’s latest release, Consider the Lobster, at Pynchon’s audience is to push fish at cats. Certainly not a challenge; it isn’t even a worthwhile marketing goal. The number of people who’ve heard of Gravity’s Rainbow might be biggish, but the number who’ve read it? I would have thought a decent marketing department would try to connect with an audience both exponentially larger than Pynchon’s and unconsciously ready – nay, harboring latent, untapped salivation – for Wallace’s as-yet-undiscovered fine prose goods. Pynchon’s audience is neither.

Why wouldn't the marketing boobs go after Bill Bryson’s readers, for example? It would have to be the high end (or at least high brow) of Bryson fans, to be sure – folks who want a bit of a stretching – but the similarities between the two writers are far greater than their differences, and Bill's between books. And even a fraction of a gigantic number is bigger than the same proportion of a Pynchon number, no matter who’s doing the math.

Bryson and Wallace are both frighteningly talented writers with laser-like ability to make you spit things through your nose. Neither restricts himself to a narrow scope; both range from travel pieces to essays on English usage. They both have a natural, journalistic style and both are fundamentally critics, taking readers with them wherever they go, whether destinations on the map or of the mind. And they both write in a semi-self-disclosive manner that leaves the reader awed by their brass balls of honesty, only to realize later that they have held huge swathes of themselves just beyond the reaches of the reader’s lamp.

There are really only three things that immediately separate the two of them in my mind: (1) footnotes*, (2) fiction, and (3) falootin’ (of the high variety). As for the first, Bryson rarely uses them. The second: Bryson doesn’t write novels. The third is not so much about the way the two authors write, but about their current audiences. I would argue that the differences in the two writers' prose styles have more to do with being aimed at different targets than with any talent gap between them. But at least one of those audiences has a vested interest in thinking otherwise. Habitual readers of serious literature would likely scoff at the suggestion that Bryson’s audience is ready for Wallace.

Yet, if there’s a darling of the serious literary crowd ripe for a crossover into the lives of giggling Bryson readers, David Foster Wallace is it. It would be trite, but not off the mark, to suggest he might be the most embraceable serious American intellectual since Carl Sagan. That’s not necessarily a positive thing in the effete world of the self-possessed intelligentsia that follows the New York Review of Books, the Booker short list, MacArthur Foundation grants and such. Part of the reason high-brow culture exists is that there’s a crowd that likes being high-brow, and would rather high and low culture didn’t get too blurred in the middle. We know we’re smart, and we like feeling smarter than others, so we’d rather the lines were clear.

Tough. I don’t think most of us would care to choose between an exclusive diet of either John Stuart Mill or dick jokes. We experience life as the profoundly funky cocktail of many realms. And we’d rather not have to leave one behind to experience others. I want my brain to be working, and I want to be having fun – piss-funny dick-joke fun, if possible – while it does.

Therein lies the success of books like Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. You’ve always wanted to know more about science, but you knew that most science books would return similar pleasure whether you read them or whacked them repeatedly against your head. Then, along comes Bryson, who’s intelligent and funny and human and real, and who writes about science like Graham Greene wrote about human moral complexity, and at the same time like George Carlin wrote about dirty words: that is, with stylistic grace and rare, self-effacing insight, combined with an electro-magnetic attraction to the punch line.

David Foster Wallace has all these gifts and more. Consider the Lobster is a gumbo of very oddly juxtaposed ingredients. A collection of previously published essays, it slaps porn together in the same pot with a critical review of a Dostoyevsky biography – not to mention the most heavily annotated screed ever written on American English usage – then does political commentary on John McCain’s 2000 campaign. Only Wallace’s talent with the spice rack could make it all work.

And it does work. He makes it work in a way that would be intimately familiar to Bryson readers. At the beginning of every piece, he sets off seeming to say, “Come with me, if you want, and watch me grapple with this.” It’s the entertainment value of his grappling that makes you want, and that makes it worth the trip, regardless of destination.

That’s the only thing that runs a common thread through the diverse pieces in Lobster: the joy of watching the outrageous skill with which he grapples. Like watching ice dancers do their thing, you forget how ludicrous the thing itself is, blinded by the pleasure of seeing a feat you know to be nearly impossible turned into, not just a triumph over physics, but into something somehow beautiful.

Even so, some people can’t get past how stupid ice dancing is. Similarly, the truism that Wallace won’t appeal to everyone is magnified by his stylistic quirks**, his fondness for abstruse vocabulary, and unexplained inter-textual references that rely on the reader having spent a lot of time treading the waters of high culture. Indeed, because Wallace mixes high and low better than anyone else in his league, you gotta be able to go with him in both directions to get the jokes. In one of my favorite images in the book, he compares a mid-air Michael Jordan to a Chagall bride. I was transported. Wallace immediately became my new hero of the simile, but it doesn’t take many fingers to count the number of people I know who would share my glee.

(Which reminds me of the experience of trying to share one of the funniest cartoons I ever saw: a picture of a guy standing calmly erect on a surfboard at the very crest of a wave. The caption: “They also surf who only stand on waves.” See what I mean?)

But that coin is powerfully two-sided. Just as he takes basketball to Chagall, he brought Russian literature to me. One of the more challenging essays in the book is a review of a biography of Dostoyevsky. You’d be hard pressed to invent a topic I’d have less interest in. Damned if it wasn’t one of the pieces I enjoyed most. And the reason, again, is his nimble transcendence of the high and low, sewing the two together. It’s easier to take a critical review of a book that is itself a critical review of Dostoyevsky, what with all its citing of Bakhtin and Kant (among others), when Wallace also hits the point every one of us has always wanted smarty-pants literature geeks to admit: that literary theory is, in his words, “abstruse and (sometimes) reductive and (all too often) joy-killing”. He goes on:

One has only to spend a term trying to teach college literature to realize that the quickest way to kill an author’s vitality for potential readers is to present that author ahead of time as “great” or “classic”. Because then … everyone just goes through the requisite motions of criticism and paper-writing without feeling one real or relevant thing. It’s like removing all oxygen from a room before trying to start a fire.

If all this only serves to convince you that Wallace’s brow is incessantly high – because, after all, who on earth would write about Dostoyevsky for kicks, much less write about a guy who wrote about Dostoyevsky for kicks – be reassured that the book verily opens with a gloss on the number of Americans each year who accidentally cut their own penises off with kitchen utensils. (The number is rather shockingly un-small.) So, you can’t complain he doesn’t have breadth.

The one beef I have with Wallace is the way he’s image-marketed. And it isn’t just the mis-judged blurbs pimping Pynchon that bother me. The way the literary world has chosen to try to make this fantastic writer accessible is to push an image of him as some sort of literary enfant terrible. It would appear that the biggest reason for this is that he occasionally thumbs his nose at the academic lit theory crowd (see above), and this is interpreted as biting the hand that feeds him since, without the serious lit crowd he wouldn’t have the buzz he has.

This strikes me as both self-absorbed (on the part of the literary intelligentsia) and disingenuous: self-absorbed because no-one with a life really cares if Wallace pisses off the postmodernists – actually, no one with a life really cares about postmodernists – and disingenuous because he could hardly be more a part of the university-centered literary world. He’s an endowed professor at a fancy liberal arts temple: Pomona College.

Strip that away and the only argument for him being any kind of enfant, terrible or no, is that he’s rather partial to Axl Rose-style headbands.

I initially picked up Consider the Lobster because I had long wondered if I should attempt an assault on the 1088 pages of Wallace’s celebrated novel Infinite Jest. If his essay prose sparkled, I figured, the doorstop might be worth a go. In that light, perhaps the best recommendation I can make for Lobster is that I’ll be reading Jest this summer.

And I frankly couldn’t give a crap about Pynchon.

* * *

*Wallace is addicted to them, uses them like soundtrack music, and Dave “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” Eggers ought to be paying him royalties for copying his shtick.

**Like the aforementioned footnotes, which plague his writing like chicken pox.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Life is sweet, and so is she.

This is my friend Annie.

Annie in the metro

She rocks. We don't see each other nearly enough. She lives far away in Oztralia.

But when she comes visit, life is sweet.

At the Gare du Nord

Photos by Flame-Haired Angel.