The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The basis for any story has some key ingredients, there’s some sort of struggle, conflict, reflection, message. The Pale King is a little different to that. Written by David Foster Wallace but published posthumously and unfinished this work of fiction tells us about a number of people working for the American Inland Revenue Service although most of them are interlinked each chapter of varying length can pretty much stand on their own.

The Pale King looks at a number of these tax auditors, why they do the job they do and how they combat the monotony of their work. We have the character of Claude Sylvanshine who through looking at other people’s taxes and minor details, knows so much about people but has no context for it. We we have Leonard Steyck who went so far to be nice to people when he was younger that people hated him for it and we see how he reacted to this. David Wallace himself appears as a character and he tells you to read the small print of the book and we have the peculiar character who is harshly nicknamed the Iranian Crisis (this chapter made me chuckle, you’ll be doing a lot of that). My favourite character of the book is Irrelevant Chris Fogle. We get to read about what made him want to do the job that he now does. His story for me felt really personal and real.

The Pale King by Wallace

The Pale King is about getting things done by people who have to do it. Unlike the behemoth that is Infinite Jest with its look at people obsessed with distractions and satisfying their own addictions, this book is more about the people who do not wish to have such distractions, who acknowledge that they have a task to do. There’s a story for example about a worker who passes away on the job but nobody notices because they are too focused on their work. There is a little bit of us in both Infinite Jest and the Pale King and Wallace looks at both of these extremes.

The style of the Pale King will be familiar to fans of David Foster Wallace and you can see the development of his quality of work from his earlier novel Broom of the System and his earlier short stories. I of course love the book, Wallace makes what should be the most boring thing interesting to read. What I will say however, as with Infinite Jest, try and get a physical copy of the book over the digital format. It is easier to navigate as you will be also going through Wallace’s end notes which reappear in this book as well. Try to avoid the audio book as well if you want to know what is said in the end notes.

The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector (translated by Idra Novey)

This is one of Clarice’s more famous works and a lot has been written about this book. For those of you who don’t know much about it, this post is for you. I could go on about all sorts of details about this book but I will try and be brief.

The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector.

My friends are aware of my Clarice fascination and to the ones that I have introduced her works to, they find this one to be somewhat puzzling, they find it for want of a better word, odd. What we do see is Clarice at her best when it comes to style, we know that this book ‘best corresponded to her demands as a writer’ (Clarice by Nadia Gotlib).

The Passion is not like many other books you will read and this is is the first Clarice book I’ve read (other than what is seen in her short stories at the least) that is written in the first person narrated by the character GH an artist specialising in sculpture, I was always amused by the fact that our initials are the same. There is another character in this story, an unfortunate cockroach.

I’ve heard people argue (my friends in particular) that GH comes across as a bit self indulgent and full of her self. GH is more complicated than that. When we first meet GH she has a comfortable life as an artist and is clearing out her former maid’s tidy room, she comes to the realisation that this maid did not like her, she finds that the maid (who she has little recollection of) had daubed pictures of a man, a woman and a dog on one of the walls. This realisation upsets GH which starts a shift in her mind, she has an anger attack, she sees the cockroach and attacks it, what remains affects the mind of GH and this is when GH tells us about how she is thinking and feeling. She questions her life, her relationship with God, her own existence in the world. We also read about the unfortunate cockroach and how GH’s existential experience affects it.

Within her meditations for example GH says,

‘Ah, at least I had already entered the Roach’s nature to the point that I no longer wanted to do anything for it. I was freeing myself from my morality and that was a catastrophe without crash and without tragedy.’

GH sees some of her former maid in the cockroach. I was reminded a little bit of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor as the monstrous vermin is the cockroach, Greta is GH who after confronting the creature sees a change in her life. GH’s change comes originally from her fit of rage after associating the room and the cockroach with the maid who didn’t like her. Going on personal experience when you have a depressive fit of rage, how you thought a second before is gone and everything feels different so I could understand GH’s sudden shift in thinking if only to a certain degree.

A more seasoned picture of Clarice from what you see on the back of the English Penguin editions

This is seen as one of Clarice’s better works. It is definitely well contained and felt easier to read than The Chandelier and The Besieged City. I still think Near to the Wild Heart and her short stories is when we see Clarice at her best especially with character interaction. The Passion is a fascinating treatise on the mind of a human being. Although we read about GH’s passion, it is the cockroach that suffers more. From what I have seen in the world it’s those that are repulsed by others that seem to do the most suffering.

Before the story starts Clarice herself says that people with fully formed souls should only read this book. I definitely broke that rule I read it anyway. Read this book if you want something different from everything else you have ever read. Contemplate on what GH thinks. The only down side with a book is that you can’t debate with the characters. I would love to with GH.

The Modern Art of Reading (2)

Although not entirely, The Death of The Author by Roland Bhartes has influenced how I read. It at least enabled me to look at what is out there and not to discriminate on what to read (I won’t go in too much detail about it here but I highly advise you to read it if you can find it). Although a writer can explain a number of thoughts, ideas and emotions it is up to us as readers on how to interpret such ideas to fully complete and wrap up the work that has been written

With a good book you should be able to easily fall into the world that is being described, you’re relying on every word that’s been written, the characters will feel almost like they will jump out the page, regardless of what is being described. This is what made me love Master and Margarita. This is also why many of us fell in love with the Harry Potter series.

There are a certain number of books that are very much aware of what they are. They know that they are bound codices (just as much as Marvel’s Deadpool knows he’s a made up character). An example of this can be found in ergodic literature.

House of Leaves by Mark S Danielewski is a famous example of such books. This is a collection of notes and writings which include another found collection of commentary on mysterious video footage we never actually see but have to rely on what is being described. There’s an appendix with written letters some one of them in particular is written in a code where once deciphered (using the how to decipher from another letter) gives you a different story to the one that has been presented to you. It reads like you’ve discovered a collective array of documents where you have to look at everything from different perspectives. You have to put your own effort into it to get the full story and the presentation of the narrative is truly unique.

House of Leaves is like coming across somebody else’s personal documents that you have to arrange and put together to get the full story.

In S by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrhams there is an initial story in what appears to be an old book and then there are the notes written in the book between two people commentating and writing to each other along with the photographs and cut-outs they have each left in the book which tell another story related to the book. What makes this truly fascinating is that the notes are written in pen almost like you’re holding the actual book that is core to the plot with all the scrap bits inside.

Though not quite to the same extent as the above we also have Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace with their footnotes which add an extra dimension to the stories.

Books that do give extra dimensions to their works are important to the progression of modern reading and I definitely think it’s better to read these types of books in the traditional paper book format. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino starts pretty much by saying ‘Oh hello, you’ve just bought this this book’ and books like The Illuminatus Trilogy and Sophie’s World are very much aware of what they are. There are certain role playing books that work like a game that give you an option of what to do next.

In If on a Winter’s Nights Traveller, it’s written as if you are the main character being guided along, coming across stories within stories.

There are particular eBooks and publications that appear exclusively in an eBook format and I think there will be a time where writers will have to take advantage of that fact to increase their immersion. Some are in their own way. The consciousness of what format the story is in will really add to these stories. I am fascinated by the fact that you can read Neuromancer, William Gibson’s cyberpunk story with everything it foresaw on a digital format downloaded via the Internet (the Matrix if you prefer).

Other than the physical consumption of books, what is being written and read and who is doing the writing and reading is always changing, for example when looking at what has survived from the classical Roman and Ancient Geek world (I’ll write a separate mediation on this eventually, if I start here I could digress a fair bit).

The written word isn’t the only way of getting stories across to readers of course. You can be a listener with an audio book. Harking back to the days of the oral tradition. The same can be said when you watch videos on the internet.

With certain audio books more depth can be added over the standard book

There is only so much that can be done with the written word, we are restricted to the vocabulary of the languages that we know and thoughts and ideas can be lost in translation. When reading something that isn’t necessarily in your native tongue you must remember that you are actually reading the work of two writes, the author and the translator. A painting or a work of art can do in a brush stroke what could take pages in a book.

Regardless of how you consume your favourite works as with everything only do it if you enjoy it. If you don’t than stop with whatever it is that you’re reading. There’s nothing worse than treating anything you love like a chore. Never forget when reading a book it is a relationship with you and the author, you are just as essential in getting the most out of the text as is the person who wrote it.

The Modern Art of Reading (1)

I have not done as much reading recently as I’ve been accustomed to, after a brief hiatus, I’ve been back where I work the past few weeks. I’m counting my blessings though and I know there are many people out there who have been more unfortunate than me and of course there are those remarkable people who have done more work than they have ever done during the current pandemic. As a result I thought I would do something a little different and instead of writing about a book I’ve read, write about reading in general… I’m not quite sure how this will come across but here goes.

We live in a time where we have multiple ways of consuming literature and other forms of media. Reading via a codex of course has been proven successful for centuries in case you haven’t noticed. There has been oral traditions, stories have been written on scrolls, on stelae among others. The Mesopotamians famously wrote on clay tablets, they were some of the earliest known writers and because of the nature of clay we still have what they wrote from general receipts to their grand epics still preserved for the most part and there is undoubtedly are a lot more to be discovered.

My trusty Kindle.

The invention of the printing press and more recently electronic and digital media has caused revolutions in how we read, think and look at the world. We must remember that how and what we read hasn’t been consistent for everyone. There are cultural, socio-economic and political factors that have an influence on what people read or can’t read as the case may be. Simply translating works such as the holy books and works of ancient periods to a native language of the reader has also had a significant affect on our world today

If you look at some of my posts you will notice that I often use my Amazon Kindle (other good e Readers are available). When space is at a premium it has proven to be an invaluable object to get access to a wide array of books through an internet connection almost instantly. There is a lot that can be downloaded for free and some that are cheaper than their paper alternatives (while some actually cost more).

Though eBooks are one time investments they can vary in price some being more expensive than others

There are lot of advantages and disadvantages of an eReader, depending on the brand you get, you can only buy from that particular brand’s store front. The eReaders can vary in price and quality and although all the books stored on a reader can be retrieved on a different reader through your account, it is like keeping all your eggs in one basket so to speak. They also rely naturally on battery power which is generally good for the most part. My favourite thing with an eReader however, with mine in particular at the least is that many have a backlight in them. You can read them in darkness. This is good for me as this is when I do most of my reading.

Another observation is that navigation is definitely different. When I was ploughing through Infinite Jest for example I would bookmark sections of interest on certain pages and write notes on the book marks. Though it is possible to do it on an eReader it is much easier to skim to specific pages through a regular book.

In my old copy of Infinite Jest I made notes and bookmarked by favourite parts of the book.

Despite all the flaws however, it is truly remarkable that when you hear about a book on the TV or via the internet that you can get access to it straight away and for self published writers it has proven to be a truly brilliant way of getting your works straight to the hands of consumers and not be limited to if the book sellers want to sell your work let alone getting the attention of a publisher in the first place.

A regular book/codex will all be preferred to an eReader in many respects. It can seem more special owning a book. You can drop them and they won’t break being somewhat durable, you can get them really cheaply, get your favourite authors to sign them and you can lend them out. Art books and prints will naturally be preferred than even something on a high def computer for some people. There is of course the fact that not everybody’s favourite work of fiction has been transferred to digital media.

Despite the rising presence of digital media there will always be a special place for me for the regular book.

There are certain species of books shall we say, are not quite suited for the digital format. Many writers with their original styles of writing have created something unique in their styles writing. That have an ergodic style, that take full advantage of what is is to be a book. The meta book. Books that take advantage of it’s format and has been infused by the author with the full awareness of what it is.

In my next post I will elaborate more with examples of such books as well as look at more on how we read our favourite stories.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino

This is a homage to books and the different types of fiction out there. The protagonist like in a Choose Your Own Adventure Book is You the reader (some of you might have to really imagine and think hard about it the further you go into the story however).

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino. Here is my regrettably battered copy of this book. I will get a new one at some point.

I have heard this book been refer to as ‘hypermetafiction’ and it definitely does make yourself aware as a reader along with the character of You in the story to feel like you have a part to play albeit being guided by Calvino throughout the story.

There are different styles of writing in this book which honours many different styles as well as translations. The book is structured so that one chapter follows the tale of You and the following chapter is based on a type of literature found in the story. A story within a story if you will.

I highly recommend this book and want you to read it so I won’t give too much away.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

A good book for me is always one you think about months after reading it. I loved it.

One of the main stories is about a video cartridge of which when anyone plays it the contents will end up watching it repeatedly until they can’t do anything thing else. We also learn about the man who made it, his family, one of the cast members and everyone else who wants the cartridge for their own ends.

This book is well researched on the themes of addiction. It also looks at the pressures of competition, just trying to survive and mental health issues. We see the horrors of commercialisation and the things people will do to get what they want. There’s one character (Mr Pelumis) I was particularly interested in who plays a significant part of the Tennis Academy we see in the book but the last time we hear of him is in one of the footnotes.

Criticisms of the book (which are many) is that it’s a bit long with more than 1000 pages including footnotes and some of the sections of the book I did struggle to get through. Despite this however, it really does add to the world.

Despite the criticisms I found the book incredibly rewarding. This is probably my favourite of Wallace’s work. I liked some of the stories in The Girl With the Curious Hair and This Is Water but was not a big fan of Broom of the System, some of his other short stories and the Pale King although unfinished I found harder to get through than Infinite Jest despite some individually good chapters.

When reading a book I try to take the Roland Barthes approach of just taking the text as is. With this book however, I ended up obsessing over who this author was and what were his intentions.

A personality who had his moments there is no denying that Wallace was a very complex character with some fascinating stories before his tragic suicide in 2008. We know he had his own problems with mental health and his treatment of the poet Mary Karr is somewhat reprehensible but I found there to be a man who struggled with the world around him.

Overall I recommend this book on its own merits and it is a credit to the English language.

Get the ebook version if you do, easier to carry.