Monday, May 19, 2008

White Noise

White Noise won the National Book Award in 1985 and helped establish author Don DeLillo as an icon in contemporary literature; it's a blue-chip read for my recent attempt to become familiar with American fiction. Set in a small college town, this story follows the everyday events of the quirky and likable Gladney family. The Gladneys are a quintessential modern American family: the parents have previous divorces, the children have all the answers, and they all are constantly getting either in or out of their station wagon. We experience White Noise through the eyes of Jack Gadney, the father. He is an overweight college professor with an endearing sense of humor that provides him with a comic outlet for his increasing sense of disconnect with the Technology age. His attempt to find meaning--or at least dignity--in contemporary life is what guides the novel.

Jack Gadney's world is eerie, funny, and, ultimately, familiar. Microwaves, garbage disposals, televisions, highways, and medicine are as prominent as the people with whom he shares his life. The supermarket in particular takes center stage as a metaphor for the artificiality of contemporary living. The simple and natural act of eating has transformed into brightly lit aisles featuring plastic-wrapped meats and boxed meals. One of my favorite lines is when DeLillo subtly mentions a character eating a "winter apple" without elaborating on how out of touch with nature it is to eat fruit in the wrong season. And,what's more, that we aren't even aware of the disconnect.

Mr. Gadney has a broad enough perspective to see his life and his town for what it is. In fact, it is this intellectual distance from his own life that grows to haunt him. The result is a disconcerting numbness to serious events. Serious events that have lost their power because: One, they are submerged in suburban antics; Two, what is important or real has become blurred by an increasing dependence on technology and authority. Imagine Camus' protagonist from The Stranger, Meursault, as a central character in Malcolm in the Middle.

When researching (I use that term lightly) the history behind the NY Times' survey of the Best American Fiction, I noticed the opinion that many nominations were chosen more for being representative of "America" than for literary excellence. I think that observation fits here; White Noise does an excellent job placing a mirror in front of the American life, but the story isn't compelling. Then again, perhaps that is part of the genius: the stories of our lives aren't that interesting.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Blood Meridian

Recently I read an article in the NY Times that listed the best works of American fiction during the last twenty-five years. They compiled their list by surveying one hundred and twenty-five prominent authors, editors, and critics. The first thing that jumped out at me was the dominance of a few individuals--Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, and Phillip Roth have apparently wrote almost all our great novels. The second thing that jumped out at me was the realization that I didn't know who any of these people were. If I was to maintain my street cred at the used book store, I needed to get reading fast. Because Cormac McCarthy wrote No Country For Old Men, I started with his ominously titled Blood Meridian.

Ambivalence (am-ˈbi-və-lən(t)s): simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action. That one word captures my attitude towards Blood Meridian. There were so many aspects of the writing that just rubbed me the wrong way, yet somehow it worked. In spite of the difficulties, or perhaps in part because of them, the characters and the story have stuck to me.

The vocabulary was obnoxious. Instead of creating vivid descriptions, McCarthy's pedantic use of words renders his sentences virtually opaque. It is obvious that he did exhaustive research for this book (nicely done, sir), but that hard work need not be used to distance the reader.

The grammar squashed any clarity the vocabulary might have missed; I frequently had to reread sentences due to confusion caused by lack of punctuation. To say "grammatically incorrect" is misleading because one gets the impression that the author is trying, just coming up short. McCarthy's violence toward punctuation is palpable, mirroring the violence in this macabre allegory. There might not have been any commas.

Recognizing that I am not poetically inclined, I still think it safe to say that there were way too many damn similes in this book. I wouldn't be surprised if there was an average of a simile per page. This overuse of similes is annoying and unnecessary like this sentence.

The total impression of these writing techniques is arrogance. The hurdles the reader must jump through to enjoy this book are insulting because they are not necessary. The subject matter is not that difficult to understand. It's a Western for God's sake. The author seems to acknowledge this point by having a central character, The Judge, speak in obtuse language and then explain why it was necessary. The explanation that specific words are required because no other word quite fits doesn't hold water.

So, you must think I hate this book. And I do. Yet, in some ways I love it too. For one, the single best scene I have ever read comes thundering across these pages during a Comanche attack (To be fair, I should aknowledge that this passage would lose its power were it conveyed with standard punctuation). Also, at times I found that I was able to drop into a zone and somehow swim comfortably with the difficult text. At these times I felt witness to mythical battles amid raw and ancient lands. My best explanation is to compare this reading experience to reading Shakespeare: the first ten minutes are wasted as you battle the arcane words, but after a time you find yourself in that world.

Be prepared to enter an epic poem. Many others have compared it to biblical verse. I think this is because the text is elusive and resists logical understanding, yet the impact is there; the reader feels the meaning more clearly than his mind can grasp it. I would recommend this book to people who enjoyed Mulholland Drive. The mystery and other-worldliness can be exasperating, but the works gain a foothold by putting you off-balance with these same characteristics. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

With or Without Jim Crow

I am attending the University of New Orleans in the Fall, and I want to get familiar with the work of the professors in my department. Our friend in town recently studied under Arnold Hirsch, a historian of urban policy in America, and so I decided to start with him. I have recently heard that his book Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 is fundamental in understanding how racial dynamics has impacted urban planning and led to segregation. As it turns out, that information was learned a little too recently, because I had just purchased another book, Urban Policy in Twentieth-Century America, where he contributes an essay.

I went at this essay with an amateur interest; throughout the years I have been drawn to discuss urban planning with my friends. My travel experiences served to increase this emphasis, as it became clear that the structure of the city plays such an integral role in shaping culture and, ultimately, determining the quality of life. My personal preference is for walking cities and so I tend to enjoy cities that were planned before the automobile--Brugges, Cesky Krumlov, and Chang Mai stand out as particularly pleasant designs.

The essay "With or Without Jim Crow" focuses on the prominent role racism has played in our country's urban planning. Just how overt that role was is shocking. During the early 1900's state laws prohibited blacks from living in certain areas of the city. Where the legislature was unable to strangle diversity, gentleman's agreements and violence finished the job. The Jim Crow laws lasted until the mid 20th century and dominated urban planning through the transparent racism of the national real estate board.

I am familiar with American History and was aware of our legacy of discrimination. The story of racism in urban planning, partly due to my move to New Orleans, enabled that history to step out of abstraction. I can now imagine the victims, the riots, and the powerful lobbies that perpetuated the injustice. In Seattle, the racial aspects of history were weightless. Like the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the tragedy was real, but distance and unfamiliarity precluded a heartfelt response. Lauren and I both feel that we have been given a great opportunity here in New Orleans to re-address racial issues with a fresh perspective.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Strengths Finder 2.0

Strengths Finder 2.0 is a product developed by the Gallup Company. Best known for its polls, Gallup is a multi-faceted organization focused on producing, analyzing, and utilizing information--this book was printed by the Gallup Press, for example.

The late CEO of Gallup, Dr. Donald Clifton, was interested in the idea of strength development. The idea is that successful people are successful because they are utilizing their strengths and not working inefficiently in an area which they are weak in: Einstein would not be famous had he dedicated himself to football. Therefore, it would be beneficial for people to discover their own strength-areas and develop those.

Unfortunately, according to Gallup and Dr. Clifton, our society is upside-down with its approach to personal development. Imagine your child brings home a report card with an A in mathematics, C's in art and p.e, and a D in English. You want to encourage your child to be better student. He needs to focus on his English, right? Wrong. Dr. Clifton and Tom Rath, who wrote Strengths Finder 2.0, believe we should help this student develop his natural gift for math. The child in this scenario has a possible future as an astronaut or engineer, not as a writer; devoting the lion's share of time and energy into his weakness would be unproductive and ultimately frustrating for the student.

Strengths Finder 2.0 is a combination of a book and a test. The test determines your areas of talent, and the book explains what an interested reader could do with their new information. The test is about 20 minutes long and at the end you are given a list of your five top talents. I found that the results matched pretty well with my understanding of myself. At this point, the experience is more interesting than useful. Like discovering that you are a "type A" or "type B" personality, it is fun to examine yourself, but doesn't really mean anything in your day-to-day life. The author understands this and encourages the reader to actively use this information to help guide themselves in directions where they could be successful.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys learning about themselves. Whether the information is useful in helping your life is something else. I think there are social forces that guide us to our areas of strength without the aid of conscious decision-making. Positive and negative feedback have forged the life-paths for most of us. More importantly, I think that an individual should take on any challenge that inspires them, regardless of their natural ability in that field. The idea that we should view our lives as an attempt to maximize our comparative advantage is too calculated for me. But, to whatever degree you want to use your results, the experience was fun and knowing your strengths certainly couldn't hurt.