Hide Us

David Foster Wallace: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

BriefIn this book, David Foster Wallace (DFW) offers us a collection of short stories and interviews conducted with men who share a deep-rooted sense of alienation, sexual issues and psychological malaises. The questions of the interviews are omitted, only to be referred to as Q. at the beginning of each answer. With a cynical and smart style, the author delves into the deranged minds of these supposedly hideous men, stripping down all their insecurities and bringing to light remnants of a troubled childhood for some. He astutely succeeds at titillating the reader with an honest rendition of the men’s interior dilemmas while flirting with social norms, feminist and sexual problematic opinions and boundaries. His use of language is very reminiscent of Bernhard, repeating words and expressions excessively to underline emotional turmoil, and transmit a sentiment of nuisance to the reader.

From a personal point of view, I did not find the interviewed men as hideous nor repulsive, rather intriguing. All of them had eccentric views on love and sex, some of them were funny, others were pathetic and caricatural, but they all shared a suffering that the author wanted to make the reader feel in every inch of his being. Personally, my favorite interview was “The Depressed Person” who, by the way, is a woman. I found that the patient was very smart and was able to clinically describe her psychological condition from an objective point of view. It was almost as if she was an outside observer of herself, highly conscious of what dwells inside her mind. I have to say though that not all interviews were as good, some of them were rather boring, and I forced myself to finish them or try to decipher what the author wanted to say. But all in all, I was very drawn to DFW’s prose and the issues he chooses to tackle. This book in particular is a very humane description of otherwise misunderstood men, and although DFW did not really bring anything new to the table, given that the majority of the issues dealt with love, sex and relationships, I found that he was reaching out to the reader, something I hadn’t felt from other writers for a long time now.

Next challenge: Infinite Jest. Let’s see how that one goes.

Mangata

Yukio Mishima: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

the-sailor-who-fell-from-grace-with-the-seaTaking on The Sailor… is a very unsettling experience, not only because of its dark and twisted tone, but also given the fact that upon finishing it, Mishima took an end to his life by ritual disembowelment. One could only imagine what was running through his mind as he was writing this lyrical yet disturbing novel.

The story is centered around the lives of Noboru, a 13 year old kid pertaining to a group of adolescents who despise adults, his widowed mother, Fusako, who owns a western-style clothing shop, and her boyfriend Ryuuji, a sailor who is disenchanted with the sea and wants to start a new life on terra firma. In the beginning, Noboru seems to be in awe of his mother’s new love subject, regarding him as a hero of the sea, but when Ryuuji voices his desire to leave the sea, the adolescent starts developing an inexplicable grudge against the new father figure in his life. Not only does he vow an eternal hatred to Ryuuji, but he also starts seeing him as the enemy, peeking at him during those intimate moments with his mother. The story then escalates in a climax of vileness, leaving the reader quite uneasy.

The secret to Japanese writers is their way of conveying a story that seems simple on the surface, but that hides a deep-rooted sense of malaise. Mishima’s style is graceful without a doubt, getting the reader all comfy in the atmosphere, at least for me, until he subtly injects scenes of voyeurism, animal slaughter, cruelness, making it all seem very natural. What he also wants to show is the clear contrast between life on sea and on land. A sailor who spent most of his years seeking glory on a boat is unaware of the secret forces that rule the earth, and when he finally sets his mind on finding stability with his lover, little does he know about the destiny he will be facing. As for Noboru, he seems to have created his own rules and opinions on adults and society, unwilling to compromise on his beliefs when life asks him to. Finally, the mother, consumed with her new love life and work, finds herself helpless when it comes to her son’s mischievous plans, and is more than willing to leave the parenting to her beloved sailor.

Here we have simple ingredients for a deeply moving story.

Existencial

Peter Handke: El miedo del portero al penalty

Handke“Se vio a sí mismo como si de repente hubiera degenerado a cualquier otra cosa. Ya no encajaba en la realidad; solamente era, y quería seguir siéndolo, afectación e instintos asesinos”

Un ex-portero llamado Bloch es despedido de su trabajo como mecánico y empieza una aventura de pérdida de sentidos. Descripción monótona de acciones vacías sin ningún sentimiento, como si el protagonista fuera un mero observador externo de lo que sucede dentro de él. Un viaje sin destino en el que nuestro portero deambula por el campo, habla con gente, ve pelis, quedándose indiferente tras cada experiencia. Handke subraya la vaciedad del alma de Bloch y su crisis existencial a través de una vida pasiva cuyo punto culminante se remonta a sus días de portero. Bloch ve una silla, pero sólo percibe la “silla” y no el objeto en sí mismo. Es como si el lenguaje también entrara en este distanciamiento con el mundo externo. El objetivo del nuevo enfrentamiento es cuestionar el significado de las palabras, que distorsionan la realidad. Al final de un largo viaje interno, en un momento de revelación, Bloch acaba viendo la realidad sin el filtro del lenguaje y percibiendo su entorno en su aspecto más “puro”.

Una obra muy interesante sin duda. Mi única queja acerca del libro es que la prosa y el contenido desprenden una monotonía que no tiene en cuenta la experiencia de la lectura, pero quizá es ahí donde reside el juego en el que el autor mueve el balón y el lector, guardameta, se mantiene expectante, esperando el gol.

Claro que sí

Stefan Zweig: ¿Fue él?

Fue élDos parejas que viven en el ámbito rural inglés y que se observan mutuamente. El relato es narrado por una de las dos mujeres que cuenta la relación de la otra pareja cuya figura masculina es excéntrica. El marido presta demasiada atención a su mujer, le dedica todo su tiempo y le echa demasiados cumplidos hasta el punto de agobiarla con su amor. Sus vecinos les regalan un perro para desviar su atención y aliviar a la mujer que parece cada vez más desdichada. La nueva criatura llamada Ponto cumple su objetivo. Sin embargo, a la larga, el exceso de amor hacia el animal acaba resultando en más desequilibrio en el seno de la familia, especialmente cuando la mujer se queda embarazada.

Historia previsible. Trama mejorable. Zweig podría haber desarrollado el texto con más acierto.

Force of Nature

Leo Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata

kreutzer sonataPozdnyshev suspects his wife to be in a love affair with a violinist and in a blind act of jealousy kills her and decides to tell you all about it on a night train. As he narrates the story of his debauched adolescence and failed marriage, he cynically imparts “wisdom” on men, women, the nonexistence of spiritual affinity in their relationships, sex, the marriage institution, adultery and the helplessness of it all. Men are depicted as brainless creatures whose actions are solely based on carnal pleasure, while women play the role of beautifully clad and dangerous temptresses. The whole text takes the form of a monologue confession with very dark thoughts on the tug-of-war between our human nature and our animal nature. Pozdnyshev describes himself as the product of a corrupt society that paves the way for a life of depravity. To top it all, even music becomes another way to allow for illicit liaisons between men and women.

When asked to explain why he wrote The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy denounces how society’s conviction of the necessity of sex as a natural act has permitted out-of-wedlock sexual intercourse, thus establishing institutions of debauchery where unmarried men surrender to their wildest pleasures. Adding to that the poetic aspect with which carnal love is regarded, which has created the illusion that the sole purpose of the sexual act is the physical pleasure and not procreation. Tolstoy reaches to the conclusion that chastity is a must as an ideal, and the progression of humanity has been more than an evident proof of that.

It is indeed a very concise but profound book where Tolstoy lashes out on society’s deceiving ways and unleashes his rigorous and uncompromising opinions on the dynamics between the two sexes. He is a force of nature. And even though you disagree with his thoughts to the very core of your being, you cannot help but be in awe of his literary genius.

Comment domestiquer une panthère

Amin Maalouf: Les identités meurtrières

Identités meurtrièresVenant d’un pays où chacun a le devoir de scander haut et fort son identité unique et indissociable et où plus on rejette l’autre dans son identité plus on devient fidèle à la nôtre, Amin Maalouf, grand défendeur de sa double identité franco-libanaise constitue, avec ses idées fraiches, une véritable bouffée d’oxygène. Lire ce bref essai me fut une expérience révélatrice qui me concrétisa des idées que j’ai toujours eues mais qui rôdaient dans ma tête sans que je ne puisse les traduire en mots. Maalouf explique comment l’on ne peut pas réduire tout son être à quelques étiquettes superficielles et comment il est possible de réconcilier les différentes facettes qui constituent tout un chacun. On ne devient fanatique dans son identité que quand on la sent menacée par un danger imminent et extérieur. Maalouf impute le choc des civilisations à cette mauvaise compréhension de ce qui constitue une identité. Il s’agit d’une systématisation de pensées qui a toujours viré mal comme nous le montre l’histoire. Alors comment y remédier? Comment mettre fin à des siècles de haine, d’actes terroristes, d’absence de communication? Maalouf est convaincu que la clé de l’avenir est détenue par toutes les personnes issues d’un mariage inter-racial, inter-religieux, etc. Ceux-ci constituent la promesse de la réconciliation, de l’acceptation de l’autre, de l’ouverture des esprits. Imaginons des ponts ambulants qui unissent Orient et Occident.

Pynchon’s Demons

Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying Lot of 49“Shall I project a world?”

Indeed, this is what is all comes down to, projecting a world.

There comes a time in every reader’s life when they are told about Thomas Pynchon. Fewer (and luckier) are the ones who receive a beautiful Vintage version of The Crying of Lot 49 (TCL49) as a gift.This is Pynchon’s shortest (and probably the most linear) novel, which does not make it any easier. A mind-blowing amalgam of metaphors, symbols and intricacies that will only make you eager to understand the big picture hiding behind all of it. Oedipa Maas receives a letter designating her as the co-executrix of the estate of her late ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity, who was quite the tycoon, as she would later find out. Thus our protagonist sets off on a journey to sort out her former boyfriend’s legacy, unaware that by doing so, she would willingly enter a secret world of a long-standing rivalry between the traditional post system and an underground mail service called the Trystero using a muted post horn as its symbol. As Oedipa seems to be seeing signs and symbols pertaining to the Tristero system everywhere, she starts wondering if she is slowly but gradually weaving together the threads of a big mystery or if she has just fallen into a trap (or a sick joke) set by her ex-boyfriend. At the same time, you cannot help but feel that you too are unable to dissociate illusion from reality, that Pynchon is playing games with your mind, that you are seeing too little or too much. But let us be fair, Pynchon does not leave you clueless. Behind this huge bulk of information, lies a defining word: Entropy.

Entropy is broken down into two fields:

- Thermodynamics: where entropy is a concept applied to the study of how energy changes in various systems. In a closed system, individual particles tend to move towards a thermodynamic equilibrium, the entropy, which never decreases over time. In other words, thermodynamic entropy is the measure of the movement of individual particles within a closed system towards disordered motion, where the collision between the particles causes exchange of heat.

- Information theory: entropy in this field refers to a mathematical theory used to calculate the speed and quantity of information transmission. This concept was developed by Claude Shannon who defines entropy as “the measure of the rate of transfer of information in a message”, meaning that information can be quantified by the exercise of choosing one message out of different possible ones.

In the same line of thought, the thread uniting these two fields is Maxwell’s Demon. Maxwell argues that his Demon is a device that can contradict the second law of thermodynamics stating that all particles in a closed system move towards disorder, by saying that a closed system can lessen entropy over time. How does the Demon do that? By separating the hot molecules from the cold ones, thus lessening the entropy. However, while gaining information about the molecules in order to select them, the Demon wastes energy. Thus, the gain of information is also a loss of energy. Ring a bell? This is quite the defining metaphor that explains Oedipa’s numerous attempts at sorting out all the signals she gathers along the way to tame, or just understand the chaos. But Oedipa is saturated with information and does not seem to be able to sort out what is relevant from what is irrelevant. She is drawn to the chaos like a mosquito to the light, and the nearer she gets, the more it consumes her.

“She could, at this stage of things, recognize signals like that, as the epileptic is said to—an odor, color, pure piercing grace note announcing his seizure. Afterward it is only this signal, really dross, this secular announcement, and never what is revealed during the attack, that he remembers. Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back.”

Just like Oedipa, we are also bombarded with information all the time and we spend a lot of energy filtering what is useful from what is unimportant. At some point, we might feel that we have grasped the message, only for it to escape our mind shortly after.

What Pynchon also succeeds at creating is a confined reality where we only see what our mind wants to see, where each one is equipped with different shades to see the world out there. The message might be the same, but the filter differs. So, is there a way to get out of this self-made fantasy?

“I came,” she said, “hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy.”
Cherish it!” cried Hilarious, fiercely. “What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don’t let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.”

The beauty of TCL49 is the way it is open for many interpretations, leaving the reader with a wide array of messages they are free to pick from. Just as Oedipa is asked “to leave her mind open, receptive to the Demon’s message”, we are summoned to extricate information we deem useful, thinking it might help us in our quest for the truth. But the truth is that the truth destroys the significance of its own message. Vicious circle?

When you finally decide to take on Pynchon, you have to put aside all what you have heard, all your prejudices, all your traditional literary filters. Any pre-acquired logical understanding of what a book should be will be of no help. The ones who will impatiently be waiting for the message to come across them through a moment of clarity will be disappointed.

There is a magic to Oedipa’s captivity in her own mind that is found in each one of us.

“There’d been no escape. What did she so desire to escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: and what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited upon her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disc jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?”

Indeed, what else?

muted post horn icon