Book Notes

Litlove is tempting me to read William Gaddis’s The Recognitions with her and any others who are interested.  I’ve had this book on hand for a while now but have felt a bit too apprehensive about its difficulty to start it.  It’s long, which is not a problem, but when I start hearing about its complexity, I get a little nervous.  I do like to read challenging books, but … sometimes I have to get my courage up to do it.  But what better company can one have than Litlove?  Anybody else want to join in?

I have begun reading David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays Consider the Lobster, and so far I think it’s wonderful, although I haven’t gotten any further than the first three essays.  Speaking of long and difficult books, I am now more curious than ever about his novel Infinite Jest, which is something I will probably read one day but will have to get my courage up to do it.  Anyway, Wallace’s essayistic voice is one I particularly like; it’s very smart and also witty and conversational.

The subject matter isn’t always exactly what I would choose to read, if the author were somebody not quite so interesting — the first essay is about the Annual Adult Video News Awards, the porn industry’s equivalent of the Oscars — but I’m beginning to think that Wallace is someone I will like to read no matter what he’s writing about (and I’m sad there will be no more writing from him).  It seems that some people get all bothered by things like his use of footnotes (and footnotes on those footnotes) and titles such as “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness, from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed,” not liking that kind of playful postmodern style, but it works for me. I like the playful postmodern style as long as it stays playful and doesn’t wander over into pretentious and boring.

In those first three essays, he’s also got a review of an Updike novel, which is pretty scathing, but kindheartedly so, if such a thing is possible; I mean, he doesn’t like the novel, Toward the End of Time, but he would really like to like it, having liked Updike in the past, and his tone exudes a wistfulness for lost talent.  He’s also got the essay on Kafka’s funniness, which talks about how impossible it is to communicate that funniness to students.  He moves from descriptions of teaching into a discussion of what it is about American culture that makes it so hard for us to appreciate Kafka’s kind of humor:

The fact is that Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary US amusement.  There’s no recursive wordplay or verbal stunt-pilotry, little in the way of wisecracks or mordant lampoon.  There is no body-function humor in Kafka, nor sexual entendre, nor stylized attempts to rebel by offending convention.  No Pynchonian slapstick with banana peels or rogue adenoids.  No Rothish priapism or Barthish meta-parody or Woody Allen-type kvetching.  There are none of the ba-bing-ba-bang reversals of modern sitcoms; nor are there precocious children or profane grandparents or cynically insurgent coworkers.  Perhaps most alien of all, Kafka’s authority figures are never just hollow buffoons to be ridiculed, but are always absurd and scary and sad all at once …

This gives you a taste of his writing, which is so full of energy you can feel it pouring out of his sentences.  His essayistic style seems similar to what I found in George Sanders’s The Braindead Megaphone, which I liked so much.

And finally, I’m very excited to be receiving an advanced copy of Brian Lynch’s novel The Winner of Sorrow, a historical novel about the 18C poet William Cowper. Here’s a description:

A fictional imagining of the gentle but troubled zealot William Cowper–best known as a precursor to Romantics such as Wordsworth and Burns–Brian Lynch’s The Winner of Sorrow brings to life the mind and times of an eighteenth-century poet … you’ll want to savor every word as Lynch traces Cowper’s tragic descent into madness, which is presented matter-of-factly so that the novel is not sentimental but austere, not precious but serious, and yet, remarkably, lively, sensuous, and blackly comic.

Sadly, I don’t know as much about Cowper as I should, but I’m very excited to read the novel and learn more.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction, Reading

16 responses to “Book Notes

  1. A novel about Cowper? No kidding. I hope it has lots of detail about his pet rabbits.

    Cowper was in no way a precursor of Robert Burns. Their publications were contemporaneous. They were both precursors of Wordsworth.

    The complexity of The Recognitions is often greatly overstated. It is dang long, though. And there are some party scenes where the conversation becomes hard to follow. But it’s not Finnegans Wake or even Ulysses.


  2. You’ll probably get to the Lynch before me, but I’m glad you’ll be getting it.

    My knowledge of Cowper is based almost entirely on Woolf’s amazing essay on him in the Second Common Reader. She was borrowing heavily from the 20s biography of him, _The Stricken Deer_ (which I did skim, about a million years ago). I see that Lynch, too, made heavy use of _The Stricken Deer._

    I wish that I it in my to write a proper essay about these links, but this comment is about all I’ll manage, I fear.


  3. Ah, I loved “CtL.” “Big Red Son” was great, and I thought it was funny, in a creepy kind of way. His long essay on McCain (I forget what it’s called) is interesting, especially since the McCain he describes is completely different from the McCain of this election. His essays can get tedious, but I enjoy them.


  4. I almost bought Consider the Lobster while we were in Maine (appropriate place to buy it, no?), but then I decided against it. Now I’m wishing I hadn’t.


  5. An illustrious group of litbloggers read this Gaddis work online back in 2005:


  6. I would also love to read some David Foster Wallace – he sounds amazing. Oh dear for the other group who read The Recognitions – that is a starry line up of litbloggers. But still, it doesn’t necessarily mean we couldn’t also do it, right? Well, I hope not.


  7. Not at all! I just thought I’d mention that to help expand the conversation. I think the great thing about litblogs is that these sorts of readings don’t have to happen in “isolation”–they’re constant discussions that can build off each other.


  8. Quite tempted to jump in on a Recognitions reading–I’ve had it on my shelf for far too long now…


  9. ted

    I really liked that Kafka essay as well. I too need to read more DFW, I’ve only read the odd essay. I posted a portrait of him today from Rolling Stone. A touching piece.


  10. Good luck with the Gaddis! If you feel apprehensive about it, I think I would feel overwhelmed, but I am sure both you and Litlove (and whoever else joins you) will tackle it easily! The essays by Wallace sound interesting, however. And the Cowper book sounds right up your alley! I look forward to hearing more about these books (and am feeling inspired when it comes to essay reading–I may have to do more of it next year–every time you post on different authors/essayists I want to read them as well)


  11. Amateur Reader — I’ll certainly fill you in on anything I learn about the pet rabbits! And I’m glad to hear your point about The Recognitions — I’m leaning toward taking it on.

    Anne — I’ve read the first Common Reader, but not the second, and I’ll have to make sure I get to it — mainly because I love Woolf’s essays but also to read about Cowper!

    Brandon — you’ll see if you read my post from today that I’m continuing to enjoy the Wallace essays — the dictionary one was amazing.

    Emily — just go to Amazon or Powell’s and you can get it in your hands very soon! It’s well worth it.

    Amcorrea — thank you for the link — it’s fabulous to have that collection of posts about the novel, and from a wonderful group of bloggers!

    Litlove — I think I will end up joining you in the Recognitions reading — thank you for suggesting it!

    Darby — do join in!

    Ted — thank you so much for pointing out the profile of Wallace — I was glad to learn a little more about him. What a sad story.

    Danielle — I love essays so much, I pretty much always have an essay collection on the go, and Wallace is a great essay-writer I’m finding.


  12. verbivore

    Hopefully the Swiss man is picking up The Recognitions for me this afternoon at the library – if not, I’ll swing by and get it tomorrow. Either way, I’m in 🙂 Been meaning to read this one for a while and what better company to get through it with.


  13. It’s also worth noting, with respect to the earlier attempt to group-read The Recognitions, that the vast majority of us bailed well before the midway point, myself included (well, I bailed at exactly the midway point)… I’d read it previously, so I wasn’t too worried about it, but I had been looking forward to the re-read and the discussion. Anyway, it is a difficult book, but there’s only one section, I think, that is sooooo difficult as to almost represent a barrier to completion (it’s, oddly enough, about halfway in!)… Infinite Jest is a vastly easier read, but not big on closure or completion…


  14. I’m going to give Gaddis a go. I’d like to read Infinite Jest too. Maybe if we survive The Recognitions?


  15. Mr W

    Doh, off on honeymoon, missed this discussion. I read Recognitions quite a while ago — difficult, but not impenetrable, and actually a good deal of fun once you get used to the style. If you are going to read just one Gaddis, though, I heartily recommend JR — to me, his best book, and a lot more entertaining (if no shorter) than Recognitions. Several days late and a few dollars short, but there’s my 2 cents.


  16. Verbivore — I’m so glad we’re all reading this together! I’m looking forward to it.

    Richard — I’m glad to hear about that difficult part, as I’ll know it’s coming and won’t get scared off by it. I have no problem with a section that’s incredibly difficult, as long as the whole novel isn’t that way.

    Stefanie — Infinite Jest would make a great follow-up, once we’ve all recovered that is 🙂

    Mr. W. — well, welcome to this blog! (And where’s your own, by the way??) I’m glad you had a good experience with The Recognitions, and now I’m intrigued about JR … perhaps I’ll make it there one day too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s