In Review: The Ulysses List

The Ulysstes? The Ulistes?
No.

What better day than Bloomsday to revisit my plan and preparations to read Ulysses. Right on schedule, I started Ulysses January 1, and I was able to finish on February 1. I am not foolish enough to make any attempts toward analysis, but I am comfortable saying that Ulysses is a very good book.

Preparatory Reading Rundown

Nothing I read was more fundamental to Ulysses than A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If you aren’t familiar with Portrait of the Artist, the first three episodes of Ulysses are about some arrogant kid who isn’t even the main character.

Second in importance to Portrait of the Artist was, not surprisingly, The Odyssey. I did not, however, pick up on most of the allusions without outside help. While some episodes recreate particularly memorable scenes in Odysseus’s adventure–the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis–there are many based on minor characters or even passing references from The Odyssey. Even if I remembered the Lestrygonians episode, I can’t remember their name, and neither Proteus nor any Wandering Rocks are really in the poem. Nonetheless, learning how Joyce wove these myths into Ulysses is fascinating and arresting.

Dubliners prepared me for living literarily in Dublin. While certain Dubliners also appear Ulysses, I did not remember them while reading it. That gives me something more to look for upon future readings.

I didn’t keep count, but it felt like every single Shakespeare play is mentioned at some point in Ulysses. Most fundamental is Hamlet, but all the major tragedies and a hearty helping of the comedies take part in the novel. The life of the Bard himself is also a point of reference in Ulysses, making me wish I knew more of his biography.

Ulysses takes the reader’s knowledge of Irish history as a given, so I’m grateful for having read The Making of Modern Ireland. I needed refreshers at various points, but I had the foundation to pick up on major themes like home rule and religious conflict.

I read another book last year that inadvertently prepared me to read Ulysses: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. Dalloway consistently employs the stream of consciousness narration to which Ulysses frequently returns. Having settled into reading Woolf’s style, I believe I was better prepared to dive into Joyce’s text.

Midpersual Reference Confession

Ulysses - Rory GilmoreI did not strictly read Ulysses from cover to cover without consulting outside sources. I kept a copy of the Gilbert schema in my book to review before reading each episode. I didn’t understand most of it, but I used it as a general reference point regarding the corresponding Odyssey episode and the time of day. Otherwise, knowing that the “technic” was “Enthymemic” or “Gigantism” probably confused me more than assisted me. I taped to the back of my book another general list that describes each episode’s theme/technic/joke in layman’s terms. This second list was not helpful at all.

There were only two episodes during which I threw my hands up and found a summary to read online. The first was Episode 11, Sirens, which weaves action and speech from various characters into rhetorical chords and harmonies and melodies. Since this is a style born in the brain of Joyce, I am comfortable admitting I needed help midway through the episode. The second problem episode was 14, Oxen of the Sun. Unlike Sirens, knowing what happens in Episode 14 does not help me follow along with the text. Oxen of the Sun is probably the episode that most earns Ulysses its reputation for impenetrability.

One notable consolation to the reader is that Ulysses does not get progressively more difficult to read. For example, Episodes 9, 11, and 14 may be relatively obtuse, but 8, 13, and 17 are more straightforward and easier to follow along.

Postliminary Learning Listing

The Great Courses series taught by Professor James A. W. Heffernan was the ice cold bottle of orange Gatorade following the grueling workout of Ulysses. Heffernan lit candles down dark corridors that I didn’t even know existed and untied knots that would have kept me eternally tangled.

There is a lecture series available through iTunes U called “Ireland in Rebellion 1782-1916″ that brings to life many major figures, places, movements, and events in Irish history. The opening sentence of the first lecture is a quote from Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The speaker, a Trinity College professor, attributes the quote to Portrait of the Artist, which may invalidate the entire series, but I’m willing to let it go.Ulysses Photo

Presently I am reading Ulysses again. (Currently in the middle of Oxen of the Sun, ora pro nobis.) After each episode I read the corresponding chapter in Stuart Gilbert’s book, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Every reading and every annotation brings more light and depth to the novel. I also picked up a copy of Daniel R. Schwartz’s Reading Joyce’s Ulysses to get yet another round of illumination.

Concluding Conclusion

I used to envy those who share a birthday with some celebrity or historical figure, but now I am confident that June 16 is the best possible birthday. Ulysses deserves the praise and deserves the effort.

Happy Bloomsday!

Queen Harvest’s 2015 Reading Recap

Learning that a friend read over 200 books last year compelled me to reevaluate my reading habits. A voracious reader as a child, I had let various distractions take priority over my time, even though reading continued to bring me joy and satisfaction. I read maybe five books in 2014, and I found that unacceptable. So I set a goal: 30 books in 2015 and hopefully knock out a handful of those classics I never got around to. This decision has been very gratifying.

Ferris Reading

An asterisk indicates that I listened to an audio recording of the work. I recognize that listening is not the same as reading, but my goal was to absorb great literature in the place of podcasts and other brain candy. There are certain writers and works I have avoided reading for whatever reason, and listening to audiobooks is certainly preferable to a dramatization or not reading altogether.

The following are listed in the order in which I finished them.

1. *The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
After several years of knowing I should read Hemingway but not actually bringing myself to read Hemingway, I decided to just get it over with by listening to an audiobook version of this novel. I enjoyed the hell out of it and will happily consume my next Hemingway novel with my eyes.

2. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
I began this book in the fall of the previous year and finished it in January. I wrote about it here.
tl;dr Too long. Don’t read.

3. Hamlet, Shakey
I reread this play as a follow-up to Infinite Jest. It is always striking to see just how many phrases and quotes that we take for granted are packed into this, and many other, Shakespeare plays. While reading this one I decided to read a Shakespeare play a month for good health.

4. Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson
I loved Bryson’s books on the English language (especially Made In America and The Mother Tongue), so I was really jazzed to get into this travelogue. Turns out, as inferred from his self-reported interpersonal interactions, he’s kind of a prick.

22 Jump Street

Not the title of Catch-22, but tell that to my brain.

5. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-5, and Fahrenheit 451 make up the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate. I did not expect the war novel Catch-22 to be as funny, playful, and engaging as it is. I see what all the hype is about, and I dig it.

 

6. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
This novella had me crying by the second page. There is little to say about the classics that doesn’t sound trite and unoriginal. Every sentence of Of Mice and Men is necessary and gorgeous.

7. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
The film captured the tone, rhythm, plot—everything but the English accents. I enjoy the ego boost of a music snob liking some of my favorite music; I shouldn’t.

8. Much Ado About Nothing, The Shakester
No modern movie rom-com comes close to the hijinks and goofiness in Shakespeare’s comedies. Reading this play helped me get a LearnedLeague answer, and much of Mumford and Sons’ “Sigh No More” comes from the final act.

9. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez wrote this novel after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s like, leave some literary genius for the rest of us, Gabe!

10. The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
This book opened my eyes to the world when I first read it a few years ago. I reread it this year as a refresher and so I could more confidently defend the Harry Potter series as the great mythology of my generation.

11. A Kid’s Matinee, Joseph Britt
This compelling story of YA fiction is due to hit bookshelves any day. Buy a copy for your tween. It’ll grow hair on his knuckles.

12. Richard III, Shakeman
Gilmore Girls references this play more than any other, so after my TV binging I knew it was high time to read it. Holy smokes, this is a good one. My reading happily coincided with the reinterment of the King’s bones, so I could take a greater interest in the most interesting archaeological find of recent years.

Esmeralda

This is a photograph of me.

13. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
I am not familiar with the Disney movie, so I didn’t have any unreasonable expectations of happiness for this book. Nevertheless it is bleak. Exciting, beautiful, wonderful, but bleak.

14. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt
This book makes me want to evangelize to the people: Read it! Absorb its lessons! Write your Congressperson! Also, it is nothing but traffic talk, so reading it has the effect on your nerves of sitting in traffic. Worth reading regardless.

15. What to Listen for in Music, Aaron Copland
I’ve been meaning to read this book since I bought it as a gift for someone who never read it 10+ years ago. It is best read as a companion to the pieces discussed, which is not how I read it.

16. Julius Caesar, The Shakinator
I had not remembered just how much action occurs after fall Caesar. Very exciting play where 87% of the characters have names beginning with “C.”

17. The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
Like Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Allende moves through several generations of families, with names and old mistakes repeated. The handful of Latin American or Spanish novels I have read share similar themes in the style of magical realism. Thinking about this further, I realized that I absolutely think about the Latin side of my family in terms of generations repeating patterns and the influences each makes on the next generation’s life. There must be something in the water.

18. Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization, Lars Brownworth
I read this history of the Byzantine Empire both to prepare for a LearnedLeague quiz (I got 8/12) and because I’ve always wanted to know more about it. Western centrism lets us ignore the fact that the Roman Empire lasted for another thousand years in the East, and it was a pretty interesting millennium.

19. Othello, Shakenbake
Will doesn’t hold back when it comes to the racial insults, though I’m sure those included are tame for the time and of course they are necessary to the disposition of the characters. This play beautifully imparts the universal emotions of love, jealousy, sadness, and anger; it breaks my heart.

20. Notes From a Dead House, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Pevear and Volokhonsky

Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. I would like to be them.

I snap up every Dostoevsky I come across translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, the fabulous duo that is not afraid to deviate from long-accepted title translations. I was a little disappointed that this book really is a collection of notes, rather than a true narrative. It is, nonetheless, often gripping, poetic, and illuminating.

 

21. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Classics of a certain stature (especially the ones many people read in school) usually have their most distinctive scenes become common cultural knowledge. I know how Anna Karenina ends; I know Leo Bloom’s wife steps out. I was not expecting the final image of this book one bit. Also: what a fantastic novel.

22. Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation, Adam Resnik
I had high hopes for this collection of humorous essays, but the author’s overwhelming cynicism and misanthropy did not entertain me.

23. We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates’ long and prolific career has touched many generations, and I’m proud to be part of the new wave that got into her through her Twitter account. #Millennial This story of a family unit that crumbled to pieces crumbled me to pieces.

24. The Martian, Andy Weir
The Martian bandwagon was definitely worth jumping on. This quick read has just enough science to be believable, but not so much that galoots like myself get bored or bogged down. The movie version is fun, but loses the sense of individual struggle that is the heart of the novel. The globe unites to bring him home, but he survived months of Mars’s desolation completely alone.

25. Twelfth Night, Slick Willy
I have observed that many men think homosexuality is very funny, especially when a guy is tricked into feelings for another man. This is exploited in cases where a man is attracted to a man he thinks is a woman (see: Some Like It Hot, White Chicks, Tootsie) and where a man is doesn’t understand why he is attracted to a woman he thinks is a man (see: Twelfth Night, She’s The Man).

26. Success Through Stillness, Russell Simmons
All meditation books are the same: 98% explaining why you should meditate, medical/health/happiness benefits of meditating, meditation success stories, etc; 2% how to meditate. (This is because meditation is very simple and can be done without the help of books NOTE TO SELF.) Simmons really wants you to know about all the drugs he’s done, women he’s chased, and money he’s earned, which is not the usual spiel of enlightened teachers. Of course, he can speak to an entirely difference audience, not just folks who are already crunching it up at yoga and sipping on home-brewed kombucha.

Danubia

Look at how gorgeous this cover is!

27. Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder
I picked up this history of the Habsburg family after hearing their name peppered across centuries of history lessons. Winder’s approach to their story is delightful. I would have appreciated it more if I had a better working knowledge of European history—a a goal Danubia inspired me to pursue.

28. Dubliners, James Joyce
These stories are so simple but rich in character and emotion. As each story ends I’m sure something has transformed, but I can’t put my finger on what.

29. *The Iliad, Homer (translation by W.H.D. Rouse)
It’s kind of hard to sympathize with Achilles and Agamemnon’s beef. They cannot stop whining about who gets to keep a sex slave for himself—not relatable. Clearly Achilles is in love with Patroclus, anyway.

30. Happy To Be Here, Garrison Keillor

Katie Reading on the Beach

My father’s daughter.

Listening to A Prairie Home Companion with my family was a sweet part of my childhood. Reding the stories from Keillor’s prime felt like a cozy return.

31. Macbeth, The Bardman
To continue my series, So That’s What That Play Is About?, it does not take much at all to get Macbeth to murdering.

32. Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman
My brother gave me this almanac of fake trivia several years ago and started me on a path of wonder and joy that is John Hodgman. Hodgman is the kind of humorist I most admire, relate to, and aspire to be. Well-educated, but not pedantic; clever, but not mean; proper but not prudish.

33. I, Claudius, Robert Graves
Read on Judge John Hodgman’s orders, I devoured this book like nothing else this year. Graves breathes life, with all its dreams, failures, and murderous relatives, into the Julio-Claudian dynasty. I, Claudius was published in 1934, and every piece of historical fiction written in the last 80 years has only tried to match its greatness.

34. More Information Than You Require, John Hodgman
The second in Hodgman’s trilogy of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE, we get to see his transformation from a former literary agent into a minor television personality. Also useful as a page-a-day calendar. Note: I was Hodgman-heavy during this part of the year in preparation for seeing him perform live. He’s the best.

35. *The Odyssey, Homer (translation by W.H.D. Rouse)
Contrary to the impression given by the dramatizations I’ve seen, the adventures of Odysseus take a small part of the total poem. I love the characterization of Penelope. It is lovely to see a foundational work of Western civilization portray women as strong, wise, and level-headed.

36. The Tempest, William Shakespeare
A wonderful play that I would very much like to see performed. Somewhere along the line I learned that the words “Caribbean,” “cannibal,” and “caliban” are all etymologically related, which is just interesting.

37. The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta
The most exciting part of this book happens before the narrative begins. The rest is paperback-poor dialog, unsympathetic characters, and unnecessary action. Maybe the TV series is better.

38. Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
The telepathic gorilla is something I never quite got over, but I appreciate the message. I was genuinely surprised by some of the positions advocated. The message does not follow the save-the-world party line, which was interesting and provoking.

39. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
What Birdman did with unbroken continuity in film. Mrs. Dalloway did first. Like Dostoevsky, Woolf is one of the few authors who can capture the erratic, insecure, fluid nature of human thought. Perhaps that is revealing of my personal stream of consciousness, but I see great truth in her characters’ inner monologues. (For reference, I think Hal’s “stream of consciousness” toward the end of Infinite Jest is god-awful.)

40. Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling
There is an interesting contrast between post-Office Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Mindy and superstar Why Not Me? Mindy. Both Mindys make me laugh hysterically, but I’m afraid Mindy’s officially gone Hollywood. To be fair, she covered much of her pre-star life in the first book, so this one had to present the world as she lives it. Please keep writing, Mindy. I love you.

41. As You Like It, Big Boy Bill
The titles of Shakespeare’s comedies are often so vague it’s infuriating. Lots of silly name-changing and gender-bending in this one, but very enjoyable.

42. The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, Mark Forsyth
I am so grateful to the friend that recommended The Etymologicon to me. One of the great blessings of my life is to be a native speaker of English, and this book brings out dozens of the wonderful, colorful, meaningful relationships and associations shared by English words and phrases. Truly a delight.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 4.53.04 PM

That face.

43. The Lyre of Orpheus, Robertson Davies
The final installment in Davies’ Cornish Trilogy, The Lyre of Orpheus seems to have more plot lines and characters than necessary. Nevertheless, the novel wraps up the trilogy satisfactorily, with a full measure of Davies’ unfailing wisdom and mirth.

 

44. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The second of the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate, I am alarmed by how similar this dystopian America is to present America. The dream of constant entertainment is more feasible than ever, and the dumbing down of art is rampant. I can also see how an angsty teenage boy could focus his identity on this novel.

45. King Lear, The Pride of Stratford
Lear and his selfish daughters break my heart. Also, how dare Gloucester name his sons Edgar and Edmund? As if I didn’t already need a family tree cheat sheet.

46. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
While Atlas Shrugged is certainly political, The Fountainhead is about the strength of the individual to honor the abilities and desires and truth within, instead of acting and thinking at the pleasure of other people. At its core, The Fountainhead echoes the often misinterpreted exhortation of Joseph Campbell to Follow Your Bliss.

47. The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923, J.C. Beckett
Published in 1966, you better know your English history before going in because there will be no stopping to explain. This book focuses in painstaking detail on over three hundred years of Irish parliaments and political leaders. I learned a great deal about the politics of Ireland (which of course involves religious issues), but I will need to look elsewhere for its cultural history.

48. A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (twice), James Joyce
There are only two books I have ever restarted the day I finished them: this and Notes from Underground. What they have in common: nontraditional structure that is only visible in hindsight, layers of meaning and symbolism that reward additional readings, very short.

49. *Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
After starting and stopping this behemoth a couple of times on paper, the audiobook helped me power through the more technical digressions without giving up entirely. I really do love Melville’s writing, and I am always pleasantly surprised by his humor. Writers like Melville make me proud to be an American.

50. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Coming in just before the deadline, I completed the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate with great success. Horrifying, darkly humorous, and educational in a variety of areas, Slaughterhouse-Five was more similar to Catch-22 than I actually expected. Where Heller communicated the incommunicable realities of war as absurdities, Vonnegut treats them as science fiction. Each effectively convey the psychological effects of war in ways gritty military tales and histories can fall short.

51. Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
A tale perfectly told. Wharton’s prose conveys the desperation and despair of the poor who cannot afford to live out their dreams.

52. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
This December, I was much more worried about the ending of this novel being spoiled than learning the twists of Star Wars. That The Awakening was published in 1899 is incredible; that Chopin could barely publish afterwards and that the novel was “rediscovered” in the 1960s is very believable. Between this one and Ethan Frome, I’ve learned that being heartsick in the late 19th century had one particularly drastic solution.

The five that I most enjoyed and am most likely to read again are Catch-22, The Etymologicon, Richard III, I, Claudius, and Mrs. Dalloway.

Reading more and watching less enriched my 2015. Only seven of the works on this list were written by women, and that is a bias I intend to work on in the coming year(s). My to-read list is long and ever-growing. On to the next one!

In Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Here come a riddle. Here come a clue. If you were really smart, you’d know what to do. – Talking Heads ’77

Infinite Jest Kindle edition

Benefits of IJ Kindle edition:
1. Thinner, lighter, and more portable
2. Easier back-and-forth to endnotes
3. Search function for forgotten character references
4. Looks less pretentious while reading

One lyric that typifies the style and charm of The Decemberists’ songbook comes from “Calamity Song,” in which a verse begins,

Hetty Green, Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab (ya know what I mean?)

This line combines an obscure historical figure, some vocabulary words, the hint of death, and a humorous aside. (No, Colin, I don’t know what you mean.) Try to decipher the literal meaning of this line and you will lose the spirit of the song. Instead, if you allow the words to flow over you, the experience of listening to the song becomes greater than simply understanding the words. The danger of understanding the words to a song is that the story becomes dull; you already know what is going to happen. But when the words mean more than their denotation, when they are present as a collection to incite emotion, not just an established picture in the listener’s head, then the words can take on any number of meanings. Then the song does not grow stale, but grows in mystery and interest.

Infinite Jest (“IJ“) has a similar quality of elusiveness and mystery. Impossible to nail down as a straightforward narrative, the novel begs to be reread and reanalyzed and still keeps its secrets from even the most dedicated readers. Like listening to The Decemberists, I found that it was often more important to let the words glide by and to experience their effect than to stop and start and attempt to parse the explicit meaning of every phrase. This sentence from the mind of Hal Incandenza, for example, invokes a Decemberist-esque mix of highfalutin verbosity and informal phraseology: “At the horizon to the north a bulbous cone of picric clouds that gets taller by the hour as the Methuen-Andover border’s mammoth effectuators force northern MA’s combined oxides north against some sort of upper-air resistance, it looks like.” To quote Pemulis, “Jumbly polysyllables out the ass. Whole thing gave me a migraine.” [N.B. It is no coincidence that “Calamity Song” specifically resembles IJ. The lyrics were inspired by the novel, and the music video is a beautiful adaptation of the game of Eschaton played on Interdependence Day.]

Playing with Words

Much of IJ is written in Hal’s voice, which is that of a hyper-intelligent teenager. Additionally, a lot of the novel is in the voice of less educated persons; people whose thoughts may not have Hal’s grounding in physics, calculus, literary theory, or whathaveyou, but do nonetheless have their own internal logic. Wallace takes the reader through the oftentimes hellish thoughtscapes of the poor, the abused, the addicted, the dregs. If you are anything like me, this is not your usual literary fare. My love of literature is strongly rooted in love of the language–well-crafted sentences, artful phrases, and prose that uses the rules of English to convey a meaning beyond its words. I prefer authors who play with the language. By a certain definition Wallace does this, but it is wordplay of a different breed and one that, frankly, makes me uncomfortable. Wallace delivers the narrative in the dialect of whichever character is central at the moment, and usually this is informal and heart-wrenching. By delivering the story directly from the heart of one of the soul-weary crowd that populates IJ, the reader tunes directly into the sentimentality of that person’s story. Instead of playing with the language, Wallace uses the language to play with the reader’s emotions.

One interesting technique Wallace employs is his style of progressively introducing characters. Most noticeably in the cases of Mario Incandenza and Joelle Van Dyne, the character is brought up with increasing levels of specificity ranging from a vague mention to the central figure. The first mention of the character is as an oblique personage; the character’s name and characteristics are unstated and the person plays a side role in another character’s story. Next, perhaps the character is named, but no specifics are revealed. The following interaction with the character may give the reader some background information about him or her. Finally, the story turns to focus on the character, with the narrative eventually being framed through that character’s thoughts. This technique is one of the many ways Wallace builds his novel on mysteries (who is this person he keeps bringing up?) and frustrations (why won’t he explain what this person’s deal is?). An additional level of complexity comes from having to keep track of these unknown characters as their appearances are in inconsistent and non-chronological contexts.

There is no denying the author’s mastery of the art form. Wallace uses wonderful language and crafts beautiful axioms, and his pages spill over with stories layered with detail and meaning. Sometimes, however, I can’t help but find that he spoils the flow by putting a joke or turn of phrase into the story for its own sake–as if he though up some clever idea and just wanted to put it somewhere. This is most alarming when the joke is not original to the author. The story of Gately and his burglar friend and what they did with the DA’s toothbrushes is an urban legend that predates IJ, and yet is presented as an actual occurrence. This calls into question the other interesting incidences and whether they were truly created by the author or simply repurposed. The old joke about the agnostic with dyslexia is certainly borrowed. I know that talent imitates and genius steals, but genius is supposed to do something new with its purloined goods. If nothing original is added, it just seems lazy.

Tennis Players and Drug Addicts

Cheat sheet for Infinite Jest year names.

Having the year names on hand helped to decode the narrative’s chronology while reading.

An attempt to map out IJ geometrically would surely require an advanced understanding of differential equations and multiple dimensions, but there is a clean set of parallel lines underlying the narrative. Enfield Tennis Academy (“ETA”) and Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (“Ennet House”), with nothing more than a hillside between them, stand as institutions aligned by their dedication to the principles of rigorous activity, mutual support, and self-discipline. Through this comparison, Wallace equates the rigors of professional athletics with the difficulty of life-long sobriety; both require an internal motivation that is developed first through external imposition.

Life in a teenage tennis academy is portrayed as relatively similar to life in a halfway house. Admission to ETA and to Ennet House involves an exacting interview process, and admittees bunk with others at like stages of their journey. The occupants–teenagers and recovering drug addicts–are not the most dependable people in the world, and a certain amount of leniency is granted for rulebreakers. Egregious behavior (e.g. drugging a classmate or inciting a full-scale, guns-drawn street brawl) is nonetheless grounds for expulsion into a less structured and less hopeful outside world. ETA graduates who do not make it to “the show” to play tennis professionally have the option of becoming a prorector, living on campus, and teaching the current students. Similarly, successful Ennet House residents, like Gately, can stay and work as live-in staffers.

Both ETA and Ennet House exist to fundamentally change their occupants, and life within each institution is thus characterized by a necessary strictness. Teens enter ETA as talented but unseasoned athletes, and the Academy enforces an exacting regimen controlling every aspect of their lives. For example, they only put down their forearm-pumping tennis balls to eat, and they are permitted sweets only once a year, on Interdependence Day. Ennet House, halfway between residents’ initial detox and full reentrance to the outside world, also imposes specific protocols for the betterment of its tenants. Residents are required to attend meetings, maintain employment, and complete their in-house assignments. The pleasures which both students and residents would naturally seek–lazing about, unwholesome food, mind-altering drugs, etc.–are altogether eliminated, and replaced with discipline.

Ideally, once residents have completed their stint at Ennet House, they have not only overcome their physical dependence on drugs, but have also overcome their emotional need for the release and escape drugs provide. Similarly, ETA wants to do more than physically train elite tennis players. The Academy also attempts to rid its students of their thirst for fame, thereby preparing the young athletes for the psychological hardships that come from discovering the empty promises of stardom. Live-in guru Lyle counsels young LaMont Chu, who envies the successful pro Michael Chang, against the desire for fame.

“LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.”

“Animal?”

“You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.”

“This is good news?”

“It is the truth. To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame.”

“The burning doesn’t go away?”

“What fire dies when you feed it? It is not fame itself they wish to deny you here. Trust them. There is much fear in fame. Terrible and heavy fear to be pulled and held, carried. Perhaps they want only to keep it off you until you weigh enough to pull it toward yourself.”

ETA trains students to become successful tennis players, and fame is expected to accompany that success. The Academy’s mission is to strengthen the players so that they can handle the fame when it comes. While residing in Ennet House, tenants essentially surrender their freedom to choose whether or not to consume drugs. Upon their departure, however, the choice is once again in their hands. That freedom of choice can be a heavy burden, and Ennet House’s mission is to strengthen its residents to handle that freedom without relapsing into old habits. The burning fire of drug addiction could be substituted in Lyle’s lecture for the students’ envy of fame. Feeding the fire, giving in to the desire for whatever drug one burns for, does not kill the fire because satisfaction in substances is a food that does not exist.

Closing Problematics

Like Hamlet for which it was named, Infinite Jest makes use of the supernatural to propel the story. Unlike Hamlet, which has a ghost in the first scene, IJ‘s inclusion of the supernatural lacks the proper foundation to be initially accepted. As I read, I admired the novel for its realism. Amazing things, incredible things, unlikely things happen, but they remain within the realm of the laws of the established universe. With the final supernatural occurrence, however, I was expected to believe something that exceeds the bounds previously established by the author. Explanation for this rift comes a little too late. As a reader, I had accepted a world of slight science fiction and of unlikely coincidence. Weird science could account for the defective monsters of the Concavity. Passionate realism could incite the bizarre terrorist organizations. Though some readers have attempted to explain the final phenomenon scientifically, the evidence indicates that the author intended the event to be taken literally, and the connection between IJ and Hamlet further supports this understanding. Perhaps the late appearance of this paranormal activity was born of a desire to surprise the reader and act as a moment of revelation, but it only sours the experience.

Infinite Jest is a long book; it is a confusing book. This novel is infinite because the beginning is the end and the end demands a return to the beginning and the novel is not complete without the two sides joining and flowing into one another. This novel is a jest because the reader does not know that she has been sucked into this neverending loop until it is too late. Admittedly, if there were not an internet community ready to explain the greater plot of the novel, I would be resentful of the author’s willful interruption of traditional story structure. As it exists, Infinite Jest is a fascinating, depressing, and prophetic work that I will never read again.

Review: What’s Bred in the Bone, by Robertson Davies

What's Bred in the Bone

1986 Penguin edition. Only complaint: used the phrase “what’s bred in the bone” often enough to stand out. Perhaps if it had a different title, I would not have noticed.

What’s Bred In the Bone is the second novel in Robertson Davies’ Cornish Trilogy. As anticipated, 1985’s WBITB follows the life of a minor figure in The Rebel Angels, Francis Cornish, whose death in the earlier book leaves professors Hollier, McVarish, and Darcourt with the task of sorting through his massive collection of paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts. The Rebel Angels describes Francis as an eccentric, a recluse, and a respected authority on art, and WBITB explains how he got that way—from his ancestor’s immigration to Canada to the final moments of his death.

The life of Francis Cornish largely revolves around art, specifically painting. A painting has a literal image, but to the right viewer it often has a meaning that transcends the visual as well; something greater than the simple facts of planes and lines. Art takes the unknowable and translates it into beauty. That beauty is an end in itself. Francis is drawn to the symbols in art, and it is no wonder he seeks meaning in their transformative beauty. His childhood is plagued by vagueness and mystery; the truth is hidden from him at every turn. Francis’s parents keep themselves distant from him, and also keep hidden the secret of his older brother. Even his father’s work is a secret, referred to mysteriously as “the profession.” At school and at home, young Francis is taught to be afraid and ashamed of new impulses and developments in his body. Sex is a riddle, girls are a mystery, and his body is an enigma, and no authority—friends, family, teachers, or books—will provide any explanations. Francis is also exposed, through his friendship with the local undertaker, to the presence of death. Francis’s art is intertwined with the mystical qualities of life and death; he hones his drawing talents by sketching lifeless bodies as they are prepared for the grave.

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Love Locked Out, Anna Lea Merritt 1890. Loved by Francis in childhood and a comfort in old age.

Religion is often a bedrock of truth for a young and curious soul, but Francis does not have this luxury. He is given strict instruction in two contrary religions and thus given a “double conscience.” This religious ambiguity renders him receptive to broader forms of spirituality. Much like Mamusia reading tarot cards in The Rebel Angels, Ruth Nibsmith casts horoscopes in WBITB. Horoscopes may be without scientific merit, but Francis’s horoscope awakens him to the archetypal positions of the important people in his life. He the renders these figures magnificent in a quasi-religious painting. (Fans of Davies’ Fifth Business will remember that Dunstan Ramsay—who makes an appearance in this novel—wanted his neighbor Mary Dempster canonized. Francis forgoes the official process and paints his family as holy figures.) Where organized religions present Francis with anxiety and guilt, art somewhat fulfills their purpose, bringing him feelings of beauty and transcendence and greater meaning. Whereas his childhood is full of uncertainties and unknowns that he longs to resolve, the uncertainties and unknowns in art are resolved by a surrender to the sublime. Francis’s heart is moved to embrace the mystery.

Davies likes to depict supernatural practices and beliefs, like tarot readings and horoscope castings, only to turn them around and demonstrate the tangible and natural reality such a supernatural tradition represents. The narrative scheme of this novel is another example of this technique. WBITB begins with a brief framing scene involving Arthur Cornish, Simon Darcourt, and Maria Magdalena Cornish (née Theotoky). These characters, familiar to readers of The Rebel Angels, discuss Darcourt’s inability to complete Francis Cornish’s biography for the simple reason that he cannot find out the facts of Francis’s life. Theotoky, the medievalist scholar, suggests that the only source of these facts may be the Recording Angel’s Angel of Biography, the Lesser Zakdiel, who “exists as a metaphor for all that illimitable history of humanity and inhumanity and inanimate life and everything that has ever been.” Reflecting on what they do know of Francis’s life, Darcourt states his belief that Cornish had a daimon, one of the “spirits of the Golden Age, who act as guardians to mortals…manifestations of the artistic conscience, who supply you with extra energy when it is needed, and tip you off when things aren’t going as they should.” This conversation sets up the narrative scheme of the rest of the novel. The Lesser Zadkiel and the Daimon Maimas, “drawn by the sound of their own names to listen to what was going on,” decide to review Francis Cornish’s life, as recorded by the Lesser Zadkiel, and discuss the man’s path and destiny, as guided by the Daimon Maimas.

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Critics mistake the pitchfork symbol of the Fuggers, a German banking family, for a clue to Francis’s masterpiece.

The majority of the novel is a straightforward third-person narration, but each chapter ends with a discussion between the two beings. This narrative scheme is remarkable in its nonconformity to the norms of contemporary fiction. Prior to the twentieth century, authors would often speak directly to the reader, commenting on the preceding events or digressing into more or less related anecdotes. The modern convention is that the author is an invisible presence who does not intrude into the narrative flow. In WBITB, Davies-the-author does not explicitly break this convention or address his “dear reader,” as Jane Austen might. Davies remains invisible, and the Lesser Zadkiel and the Daimon Maimas take his place as narrator and cause, respectively, of the events. The beings pause the narration at intervals to discuss the preceding events in Francis’s life. This is not precisely “breaking the fourth wall;” it is more akin to an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, where the Lesser Zadkiel and Maimas reflect on the substance and meaning of what has happened. This scheme breaks the novel into meaningful pieces, and allows the reader insight into the depths of Francis’s life.

In their final dialogue, the Angel and the Daimon demonstrate self-awareness and state that “we are metaphors ourselves.” With this declaration, Davies points out that the conversing beings are symbols for that which has no tangible reality, but is real nonetheless. The Angel of Biography is not an airy cherub with a notebook and quill, but a symbol for the history of Francis Cornish that occurred without a human witness to tell its tale. The Daimon is not a spirit sitting on Francis’s shoulder, whispering in his ear, but a symbol for the events and people in his life that shaped his character and destiny. The metaphoric beings demonstrate the depth and significance of the protagonist’s life. Even though the facts are lost to his family and biographer, Francis’s life was full of doubt and love and work and beauty and curiosity, and like any life fully lived, is worthy of being told.

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An Allegory of Venus and Cupid, Bronzino c.1545. A mass of symbols.

Davies writes about great painters in this book, and he also participates in the tradition of artistic metaphor they practiced. In addition to the use of metaphorical spirits discussed above, the story of Francis mirrors the mythological Quest for the Holy Grail, to which Francis is drawn in history and art. Francis’s story is remarkable for his solitude throughout. He never has a lasting wife or partner, but makes his way alone through life, taking lessons from those who have wisdom to share. The Grail Quest, similarly, is “an individual adventure in experience,” Joseph Campbell writes.

 The Grail Hero…was the forthright, simple, uncorrupted, noble son of nature, without guile, strong in the purity of the yearning of his heart…In his own deeds light and dark were mixed. He was not an angel or a saint, but a living, questing man of deeds, gifted with the paired virtues of courage and compassion, to which was added loyalty. And it was through his steadfastness in these—not supernatural grace—that he won, at last, to the Grail. (The Masks of God, Vol. III, Occidental Mythology)

These qualities are present in Francis from his childhood; he is guided by his passions and tempered by his good nature. Francis does not necessarily follow the path of “righteousness,” but he follows the path of his own destiny, and his life is whole. Indeed, in the last moments before his death, Francis is overcome by “a sense of the completeness of his life, and an understanding—oh, this was luck, this was mercy!—of the fact that his life had not been such a formless muddle, not quite such a rum start, as he had come to believe.” Though often mysterious and seemingly unlucky, Francis’s life was shaped by love—that which he received and that which he gave—and his art would survive him to express that love to later generations. Perhaps a young man will see Francis’s masterpiece and feel the transcendent pulls of beauty and love and wonder by which classical paintings captured Francis.

The Cornish Trilogy appears to be particularly artistic series. The Rebel Angels concerned itself with medieval literature, while WBITB deals with classical painting. I suspect that the third novel in the trilogy, The Lyre of Orpheus, features a new set of protagonists, who are involved with a third form of art. I came away from WBITB hungry to learn about painting, art history, and Jungian archetypes. I look forward to the final novel in this trilogy and to whatever artistic enthusiasm it prompts.

Review: The Rebel Angels, by Robertson Davies

The Rebel Angels is a 1981 novel by Robertson Davies, the first in his Cornish Trilogy. It is a story of scholars and their peculiarities, magic and its realities, and classics and their application to modern man. Sentence for sentence, Davies’ prose is unparalleled: clear, expressive, and beautiful. The characters and story lines are delightfully absorbing. Each chapter is full of mysteries that compel you to hurry to the end, and humor that makes you wish it never ended.

Davies’ earlier Salterton Trilogy and Deptford Trilogy were named for the fictional towns which their characters call home. The Rebel Angels, on the other hand, is set in the fictional College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (“Spook”), and “Cornish” refers to a recently-deceased benefactor thereof. Three Spook professors, Clement Hollier, Urqhart McVarish, and Reverend the Professor Simon Darcourt, are charged with sorting through the late Francis Cornish’s valuable art and manuscript collection. The capable young businessman and nephew of the decedent, Arthur Cornish, is the executor of the decedent’s will and overseer of the professors’ sorting process. John Parlabane, former student and former professor and former monk, begins the novel as little more than a burdensome visitor and smooth-talking moocher. Interactions among these men tend to revolve around Mary Magdalena Theotoky, an up-and-coming Rabelais student with an exotic heritage. The story is told through two first person narratives. The chapters alternate between Theotoky and Darcourt, each narrator complementing the other to round out a picture of university, home, and inner lives in Spook.

Drawing on his career as a professor, Davies’ college faculty is full of complex men and women. Whereas many authors write academics as walking personifications of their respective fields, Spook’s faculty is composed of genuinely interesting people who have genuinely interesting things to say. At no point does their scholarly conversation feel pretentious, nor is it too intellectual to understand. The lay reader gets to be a fly on the wall for casual conversations among insightful colleagues, sharing stories and theories that might not make it into academic papers, but are nonetheless mentally stimulating. Only one of the characters truly lives by his philosophy, and everyone with whom he comes into contact finds him insufferable and patently depraved.

1982 Penguin Edition book. 2013 Feline Edition feet.

1982 Penguin Edition book.
2013 Feline Edition feet.

In What’s Wrong with the World, G.K. Chesterton explained that certain primitive technologies may be replaced, but only by an assortment of what might be called “unitaskers” (not Chesterton’s word). A fire gives heat, cooks food, emits light, fends off predators, and serves as a gathering place, among other uses. Now we have space heaters, stoves and microwaves, light bulbs, fences, and televisions, but all these serve limited purposes. A heater gives no light; a fence doesn’t cook food. We progressed technologically, but the life-sustaining force of fire is greater than the sum of its parts. That which served our ancestors is often considered outdated and abandoned.

The theme of digging into the past for lost value, or “discovering the value that lies in what is despised and rejected,” permeates the narrative of The Rebel Angels. This theme is apparent in Theotoky’s resistance to her cultural background, it is central to the work of Dr. Ozy Froats, and it comes up in the doings of Hollier, Darcourt, and the team cataloging the Cornish collection. Hollier’s field of study is called “paleo-psychology;” he investigates what historical peoples thought and why they thought so. When science and culture progress and older generations die off, the wisdom embedded in their outdated beliefs is lost with them. Hollier hopes to preserve or revive that wisdom by investigating folk cultures. Darcourt sets himself to the task of becoming “The New Aubrey,” recording what the College’s brightest minds have to say and thus preserving the transient spirit of the current generation of Spook scholars. (The “Old” Aubrey is John Aubrey, who in the late 17th century wrote Brief Lives–a compilation of gossip, peculiarities, and anecdotes regarding his contemporaries and various famous figures.) While cataloging the late Cornish’s collection, the team of professors finds pieces more valuable than their deceased purchaser was aware. Less skilled or more careless archivists may have allowed such pieces to be misplaced or undervalued.

Digging into the past is both an attempt to gain value and a race against loss. The more time passes, the more substance is swallowed up into the recesses of history. Darcourt’s attempts to preserve the spirit of the College are thwarted by the death of professors; their stories go untold. Hollier seizes the opportunity to learn from Theotoky’s mother, a living relic of a dying culture. “Mamusia” thrives in the practice of her arts, but her daughter is a modern student who consciously sets herself apart from the ways of her ancestors. Hollier must glean what he can from Mamusia because he probably wouldn’t get much from Theotoky.

If the Cornish Trilogy follows the examples of Davies’ previous trilogies, What’s Bred in the Bone will probably not follow this exact cast of main characters. Instead, they will play supporting roles in the story of others in the same universe–others who figured minimally themselves in The Rebel Angels. Under Davies’ masterful hand, the Salterton and Deptford trilogies each erect a beautiful world to live in for three novels, with each novel almost wholly independent of the others. Many book series feel like a succession of volumes–Part I, Part II, etc.–but each Davies novel feels fresh, and incorporates different writing styles and points of view. I look forward to reading What’s Bred in the Bone with the eagerness one can only feel for a new book by one’s favorite author.