Monday, September 29, 2008

sky dive

My first collection of poetry, BEASTS FOR THE CHASE, is coming out the day after tomorrow--but all I can focus on lately are "current events." Right now, that means the stock market's down, with the Dow reaching its lowest level in a year: I've been riveted all day to charts that show a plunge as spectacular as an Olympic diver's. Living in New York, and having been raised in a suburb permeated by the atmosphere of Wall Street--I still remember the grave address a history teacher gave to my seventh-grade class the morning after Black Monday--it seems impossible not to imagine I can feel the ripple of the day's market plunge in the honks of the cars outside my window, in the gray clouds that destroyed what was a beautiful autumn day just around one pm, in other words, just as the bottom began to drop out. On that happy note...anyone want to come hear me read from my novel about another lost New York City boomtime, the mid-90s club scene, this Thursday, October 2nd? It's called THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS YES.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace's suicide has drawn much deserved attention to one of the great writers of the last few decades. The news reports, obituaries, and tributes have channeled readers to him who have missed his work up until now. As a bookseller and a fan of his work, it's exciting to get to talk about him with a whole new group of readers as well as depressing knowing that there will never be a new David Foster Wallace novel.

There has been an odd trend though, in these conversations, in that I still couldn't convince people that Infinite Jest was worth buying. Most people asked for Oblivion or Consider the Lobster and I think there are two major reasons for this. The first is that most of the detailed writings about Wallace's death focused on the short-story collection Oblivion, because Oblivion contained his most depressing and death obsessed work. Whenever a creative person commits suicide, we automatically search for evidence of their mental condition in what they have created, and most of the relevant information to Wallace was—at least most obviously—in Oblivion.

The second is that, I believe, readers are still intimidated by “hard” books, especially “hard” books that are over a thousand pages long. I don't know if this is holdover from educational struggles or a result of the constant degradation of the average person's intellect (the For Dummies series for example) but there is something about works of fiction that are openly challenging that push people away. The worst that could happen in reading Infinite Jest is that you decide you don't like it and you stop. Slate ran an excellent tribute and I think one of the tributes by Jordan Ellenburg describes a great technique for reading Infinite Jest:

And so you go to work--step by step, clearing the brush, cataloging what you find there, separating what you know from what you believe, your intuition sounding at all times the nauseous alarm that somewhere you've made a mistake. And until you find the mistake, there's always a bit of hope--that your intuition is wrong, that your work isn't wasted, that what seems like a paradox really isn't one, that maybe the incompatible beliefs you hold can be satisfied all at once.

Furthermore, Infinite Jest is one of the great Boston novels. Nearly all of it takes place in the metro Boston area with jokes that only residents of metro-Boston will really get. (The Storrow 500, anyone?) For example, there is one character who carries an artificial heart with her in what looks like a purse. While she is walking in Harvard Square another character, a transvestite junkie having a really bad day, snatches her purse. She runs after him shouting “He stole my heart!” Bystanders assume it's just another Cambridge love affair gone wrong.

Most people have tried to find direct explanations for the suicide in Wallace's work, but I think there must be something indirect in Infinite Jest to explain why life now became unbearable for him. Infinite Jest was written in 1996 and the world Wallace depicted was dominated by advertising and corporate culture; environmental disintegration; and a population so obsessed and compelled by entertainment that most could be rendered completely and utterly helpless in the face of it. In the ten years between then and now, advertising has forced its way into our schools, our governments have become even more corporation friendly, and the American public has twice elected George W. Bush as our president. What must it feel like to be someone who warned us about all of these problems ten years ago? In a way David Foster Wallace has answered that question.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash a few years ago and the more the internet with its online social organization and identity anarchy grows in societal prominence the more prescient Snow Crash becomes. Along with essentially predicting Second Life, Snow Crash reaches one of those narrative spaces a lot of people don't seem to believe in. It is intelligent and fun. Its characters are fully formed, its language is intelligent, its plot is unconventional and it is as fun as any mindless entertainment bon-bon I've ever read. The same can be said for Quicksilver, the first volume in his Baroque trilogy that I'm currently reading. Did you know the conflict between Newton and Leibniz was coiled in the politics of English royalty?

His latest book Anathem is a staff pick here at the store. Below is a Stephenson widget with tons of information about Anathem. It's a treat for fans of Stephenson, plus a chance for people new to his work to get to know him. Just click on any of the six choices at the bottom of the screen below for readings, definitions, and other input from Stephenson as well as a "trailer" for the book.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Culture Wars Are Back

The Abstinence Teacher paperback couldn't be coming out at a more opportune time. The book was written in the heat of the culture war surrounding the last presidential election, when the issue of gay marriage was an obsession on the Christian Right. It had seemed during the past couple of years that the passions surrounding a lot of social issues had cooled a bit, but Sarah Palin changed all that in a matter of days. Suddenly, an election that was supposed to be post-partisan and focused on the economy looks like something else entirely--an old school battle between the Christian Right and the Liberal Left. Teen pregnancy, abortion, gay marriage, book burning--it's all back on the table. And if Sarah Palin met the characters in The Abstinence Teacher, they'd recognize each other right away. I'm looking forward to discussing the novel and the campaign tomorrow night, Thursday, September 4, at Porter Square Books.--Tom Perrotta

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