Category Archives: Books

Just a link to an article, whose theme is already a delicious example of Looping Worlds and wheels within wheels: Reading Wallace Reading.

“Do you have like a daily writing routine?”

While immensely lagging with my reading queue, I was looking at my copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, menacing to start reading it. Not yet, but there’s this quote from Weisenburger’s companion book:

In my view, the most significant revelation of the annotations is that Gravity’s Rainbow unfolds according to a circular design. Across the novel’s four parts, historical events intersect the Christian liturgical calendar, suggesting possibilities for return and renewal, but possibilities that Pynchon’s satire hopelessly equivocates on. This means that readers might have a novel as elegantly modeled as Joyce’s Ulysses and have their deconstructionism too. Indeed, one might well read Gravity’s Rainbow as a satire on the very desire for grand plots or metanarratives, a desire the narrative unmasks as the terrible dynamic of a culture huddling on the brink of nuclear winter.

If it’s accepted that GR is a book squarely within the postmodern canon, to the point of representing it fully, then from my point of view what’s written there contains the most manifest aspect of postmodernism.

Try to abstract the pattern there. This quote says the book is modeled carefully, as a meta-structure or a kind of organization that exists on a different level. At the same time, these two levels wrap around (return and renewal). So, abstracting, we have a dichotomy of structure that at the same time returns on itself. What have I just described? Self-reference.

The pattern described can be narrowed down to a line of that quote: “have a novel as elegantly modeled as Joyce’s Ulysses and have their deconstructionism too”. Which is made of a blatant abstraction: “have a cake and eat it too”. Again, this is Gödel and self-reference. The structure has its built-in paradox of the dichotomy of the mind.

On top of that basic pattern there’s also the postmodern “flavor”: satire and humor. Mocking the very premises, the supports you’re standing on. Which becomes, in a circular way, self-reference on itself: what makes the novel is what is mocked, yet is what is relied on, yet is what is mocked (and so on, see the next quote). This self-reference is both object and subject (being self-reference), it’s both validated and then demolished. Serious-and-not. Self-doubt of the self-feeding kind, degenerating into the neurotic (so “of the mind”, which is the point, since it’s literature, which is of the mind, which is the point).

While Pynchon surfs the wave of postmodernism, on the very razor edge, without bleeding. David Foster Wallace instead cut himself.

Writing is a dangerous sport.

Infinite Jest, despite the jest, loves, carefully builds and worships its meta-strcuture. It is god-like as it gets in literature. Yet there’s the deep suffering in the background that is as authentic as it gets. It takes itself VERY seriously.

There’s this super short story by DFW, with its droning, neurotic, looping last line:

A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life A short story by David Foster Wallace

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed very hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

Nothing is real, especially what I’m telling you.

I randomly bumped on this old Erikson interview. A couple of quotes:

The dialogue that I have written that I remain pleased about is generally the tersest kind. The massive understatement. The line with a hundred volumes hiding under it, pages ready to explode but all, somehow, held back, contained. Exchanges where all parties skirt around what’s really going on. Evasions and the like.

Well, that’s what I like reading indeed :)

1: Finish what you start.

2: When a scene drags, when it gets brutally hard to get out the next line, the next word; when blood starts beading on your forehead, don’t switch scenes, don’t shift characters, don’t do any of the running-away things you might be inclined to. Push through. Everything up to that point was the lead-up to this moment, and this moment is when you learn – you learn how to write, what it is to be a writer, and all the reasons you possess for being one. That tight, claustrophobic place, is your call to courage. Don’t evade, don’t back away, don’t shift laterally. Keep going, until it hurts.

3: Finish what you start.

I was looking at Subterranean Press limited editions of the Malazan books and being quite disappointed at the art there. But then I always am with that sort of stuff.

For fun I decided to describe what I’d instead put on the covers. I’m not an artist, but this is the sort of stuff I see in my mind and that I think would look great. Obviously just the first five books, because I’ve still to read the rest.

1- Gardens of the Moon. Well, Pale. Camera at the ground level, bottom up. You see at a distance Pale’s high walls, enough to give the walls some details and impressive scale. The cover should have a sense of verticalness to it. So the eye is drawn right at Pale’s walls, imposing, going upward. But then the impressive vista should escalate in scope as hovering above Pale you have Moon’s Spawn, maybe very slightly askew. So no characters on the cover, just a wide view of the scene, to focus on scale and scope. It should give a sense of disproportion, as if you cannot give a proper size to the elements in respect to each other. Sense of wonder.

2- Deadhouse Gates. Chain of Dogs. I’d go with top down, a look at a valley far below from an high point, the Chain of Dogs going through it. Not close enough to really detail people, just again giving a sense of scale at the long trail going through the dry land. Capemoths and stuff. Warm colors along with a sense of bleakness in the environment. Could even play with dust forming up a skull-like shape, in the background, but very subtle.

3- Memories of Ice. Just Kallor on his throne of bones, right in the center of the cover, arms open wide, hands too, but relaxed, as in welcoming. The layout should have a sort of curve to it. So that Kallor is almost facing the center of the cover, while the bottom part of the cover is through a top down angle. In this part, the three gods. K’rul in the center (bony, accusing finger pointed at Kallor), Draconus on left (I can’t remember if he has the sword already, if he does, let it drag behind, like a sack barely held by one hand), Nightchill on the right. All facing away, toward Kallor, from this slightly top down perspective to give the image some depth. The cover should be black & white (I’d love a strict ink style, no shading), with some slight/faint bluish highlights.

4- House of Chains. Oh, think of Hamlet holding the skull in his hand. Only that Hamlet is Karsa, and the skull is a poor Malazan soldier (looking like a child compared to Karsa’s bulk). The cover should be almost like a silhouette in black. On the right you see Karsa’s impressive sword thrust on the ground. No detail, just a black shape, slightly tilted and about as high as Karsa. It should dominate the view even if aside. Karsa should be with a knee down on the ground, a massive hand completely wrapping up the Malazan soldier’s head, helm still on (and the whole body still attacked, not just a head). The scale of the hand should be massive, dominating the comparably small head, as if about to completely crush it in his hand. The guy is dead, but Karsa is lifting him, so he’s as if upward, hanging from Karsa’s hold, just the feet and lower part of the legs dragging slightly aside on the ground. The height of the guy should be almost level with Karsa, who’s kneeling down though, so bringing the height ALMOST on the same level. Exception to the silhouette style is: the scene has some depth to it, Karsa slightly on the back, the soldier slightly on the front. One trick is: Karsa isn’t looking at the skull, but right through the cover, right at the camera. The scene should also have a sort of dichotomy that fits well as a theme. In the back you see a forest at dawn, mountains in the background, or some T’lan construction (as in the book). But a peaceful, warm colored scene. Then there’s a sharp cut, with Karsa and the soldier almost like a dark silhouette, so much darker, but enough to give them a lot of detail. Just lack of color. So you have these two different levels, the warm background, and the very dark foreground. With Karsa frowning at the camera.

5- Midnight Tides. That scene at the sea, where the massive thing comes out out the water. Something inspired to the third picture you see here. Scene again based on wide scale, slightly tilted for dynamism. Camera from the land looking out at the sea. Looking like something straight out of the apocalypse.

Okay, to hell with boundaries. I make a sport of this blog confusing everything with everything else.

Reading Malazan book 6 I found a quote that is basically the Malazan formulation of the Kabbalah quote:

The gods, old or new, did not belong to her. Nor did she belong to them. They played their ascendancy games as if the outcome mattered, as if they could change the hue of the sun, the voice of the wind, as if they could make forests grow in deserts and mothers love their children enough to keep them. The rules of mortal flesh were all that mattered, the need to breathe, to eat, drink, to find warmth in the cold of night. And, beyond these struggles, when the last breath had been taken inside, well, she would be in no condition to care about anything, about what happened next, who died, who was born, the cries of starving children and the vicious tyrants who starved them – these were, she understood, the simple legacies of indifference, the consequences of the expedient, and this would go on in the mortal realm until the last spark winked out, gods or no gods.

Here’s again the quote from Kabbalah:

(about the question “What is the meaning of my life?”)

“It is indeed true that historians have grown weary contemplating it, and particularly in our generation. No one ever wishes to consider it. Yet the question stands as bitterly and vehemently as ever. Sometimes it meets us uninvited, pecks at our minds and humiliates us to the ground before we find the famous ploy of flowing mindlessly in the currents of life, as always.”

Then I happened on this page (with some interesting nice pictures), and I found this quote that metaphorically matches the previous posts on Free Will and being bound to a point of view:

The descent of the divine emanations concretized in cosmic creation is occurring at this moment, and the fact that the world is such or such a thing, for the modern mentality, or that in accord with our viewpoint we perceive this or that, is completely indifferent to the process of the universal creation, which is ongoing, even visualized from the horizontal viewpoint, and simultaneous, from the vertical projection.

The interesting part is the formulation of the system as “simultaneous, from the vertical projection”. Meaning deterministic. There’s no time scaling. Yet experience from within, our viewpoint, is bound to time and seen as becoming.

So this aspects of Kabbalah seems to retain (and explain away) the problem of compatibilism.

Related, but only if you are a particular type of crazy like I am, here’s a page of David Foster Wallace’s personal copy of Joyce’s Ulysses. Showing how a text with bi-dimensional perspective is given three-dimensionality because of 2nd level (recursive) observations:

How could you possibly look ten women in the face and ask why they had gotten you drunk and made a game of taking your clothes off and putting you to bed?

Every long series has its fan favorite volume and for The Wheel of Time it’s book four, The Shadow Rising, coinciding also with the longest, at almost 400k words and 980 pages in the edition I read. Up to this point and including this one, each book, while relatively slow paced in itself, represented a different stage in the story. So where I expected formula I instead found a well defined arc with clear development. In this fourth book Jordan tends his garden.

There. I don’t think I could summarize what I’m going to write any better. I think it’s telling that this book, peculiarly since they were always there, lacks a Prologue. The way I see it there’s no prologue here because it’s the part of the book that usually teases the point of view of the bad guys (and girls, especially) before handing over the scene to the principal viewpoints (though it’s not a so strict structure and sometime you get other viewpoints as necessary). But book four mainly represents Team Good reforming and reorganizing. I knew already before reading the book that in this one the story opened up and laid the basis for what comes after, that it was essentially a foundation of the larger arc, but it takes quite a lot of pages to get the plot moving. In general, this where Team Good is on the move and plays its hand. So it’s not the bad guys who come forth, but Team Good taking the initiative to shake things up. It’s refreshingly “proactive”, instead of falling back in the norm of defending and confronting an imminent or latent threat. Despite this, Jordan still needs the imminent threat, even a number of them, so in the first part of the book a number of plot contrivances are tossed in just to keeps things supposedly tense, but in truth it’s all silly fakery. A pretense, smoke and mirrors whose purpose is linked to a bigger and more pervasive one I’ll explain later.

From a general outlook for the first 300 pages we mainly have characters looking around themselves to figure out what happened and where they stand, and decide (and argue muchly between them) what to do next. Then another 50 or so to actually get things moving. Past that point the book is split into three main branches, where each relies on a completely separate subplot, as if you get to follow three separate stories happening in different parts of the world to different characters. One follows Rand and his “initiative”, one Perrin and his woes, and another the girls and their affairs. And a fourth, minor page-wise, that deals with stuff elsewhere. They actually never converge, or get unified as the story goes, although some of the characters cross over. So for the first time, maybe, there’s an attempt to shape a world that has its own personality, in the sense that even if everything thematically pivots around Rand, stuff starts tumbling outward and the world outside claims its role. We see the ripples. It’s about the various parts of the world taking autonomy, instead of being empty stages waiting their turn as some main character passes through and experiences adventure. This happens timidly, but at least it happens, it is set as a goal. So while the first third of the book is rather shallow and not exactly matching the expectations for “best in the series”, overall the story is well sustained and interesting.

I imagine that for the fans the highest point is about getting to know more of the mythology and events from the past. There are scenes here that are meant to shape up things in a coherent whole, unify a number of different aspects and deliver more than a few revelations (especially those who enjoy to play with puzzle pieces). That part of the book could be considered fairly generous, and Jordan’s successful attempt to give some specific flavor to his world. But again, I can’t avoid thinking this is a giant fake, and that the true heart of the book is instead that shallow first third where characters bicker and fuss over petty things, and each other. That’s where the recipe is hidden in plain sight. The MUNDANE. Boys liking girls, girls liking boys. Tea times, sleepovers. Romantic love letters. Lots of pretty dresses and cleavages, or transparent silks and implied sauciness. This is it. The actual revelation here is the inverse of what you’d expect: the “fantasy” is meant to spice up the “romantic”, not the opposite. The fantasy is context, not subject. It is flavor, detail. Some window dressing so that the love story is more passionate and epic. Truly romantic and ideal. The fantasy is meant to add the required pathos that elevates a love story to its most idealistic extreme. Made wondrous. The shepherd isn’t a shepherd, but the predestined king in shiny armor that knows how to use a sword. But not just, because the love must be cursed, impossible. Never actually consumed. The longing dominates, because love stories need to be like that, always suspended, always slipping away. The boy wants the girl (or, actually, an harem), but he has more pressing matters because he has to be manly and save the world, first. Basically: adolescence. It’s adolescence stirred up in a mythical world. Essentially poison, in a way. In the sense that it’s super-effective. And that’s how I have (perhaps disrespectfully) reduced its popularity.

“Rand al’Thor,” Moiraine told the air in a low, tight voice, “is a mule-headed, stone-willed fool of a…a… a man!”

Elayne lifted her chin angrily. Her childhood nurse, Lini, used to say you could weave silk from pig bristles before you could make a man anything but a man. But that was no excuse for Rand.

“We breed them that way in the Two Rivers.” Nynaeve was suddenly all half-suppressed smiles and satisfaction. She seldom hid her dislike of the Aes Sedai half as well as she thought she did. “Two Rivers women never have any trouble with them.” From the startled look Egwene gave her, that was a lie big enough to warrant having her mouth washed out.

Moiraine’s brows drew down as if she were about to reply to Nynaeve in harder kind. Elayne stirred, but she could not find anything to say that would head off argument. Rand kept dancing through her head. He had no right! But what right did she have?

Then you may not agree with the extent of what I described, but it’s undeniable that it’s still there. If you think about it Martin’s ASOIAF isn’t all that different. It does the same thing but for more grown-up readers. Those hooks have similar shapes, in similar places. In both cases what’s familiar is used as a breach in the heart of the reader, grasp those familiar emotions and trappings that work so well in all forms of fiction, fantasy or not. The fantasy adds spice, elevates potentials. Inscribes into epic and memorable. Gives the writer unprecedented control (and responsibility). Characterization follows suit. Jordan does go after realism, but goes after iconic. I’d say characterization is extremely detailed and always well defined. Those characters need to stand apart, become familiar in the least amount of time. On top of this Jordan has a style of writing that is very expressive and “outward”, so you don’t find ambiguity and subtlety, but familiarity is the key to understand the characters perfectly and get absorbed in their story and personal woes and cravings. It is also an aspect where a formula shows. The smoothing of skirts and tugging of braids is now legendary and much sneered at, but I kind of respect it and find it as an actual strength that adds to characterization instead of subtracting. Why? Because this bundle of gestures and other small acts are used as a kind of characterization toolkit. So much redundant, but each expressive and carrying a very specific meaning. Each character has its own dedicated package, and each is used to convey a particular mood or sentiment. It makes characterization plain and, if I haven’t repeated it enough, hence familiar. Characters immediately recognizable, near to you so that you want to share. It works and it’s never overwrought because it always serves a point. Since the gesture conveys the state of mind, it is precisely necessary and efficient.

For someone who isn’t a Jordan fan, “best of Jordan” isn’t any better, but this book at least is more consistent and interesting compared to the duller and perfunctory 3rd. Characters step out of their lull on both sides, the evil foes start getting a personality and being more defined between each other, becoming characters and so giving more actual substance to a story that up to this point was merely against the usual abstract threat of some metaphysical evil. This also gets better nailed to the ground, more tangible and familiar. The story actually gains from having more of it revealed instead of shrouded into mystery. But then when you let character make the story it can also happen that they can unmake it. Perrin’s chapters would be at least nice but the way the character behaves makes them quite obnoxious. His relationship with Zarine is jarring because of how forced it is. It’s one of the cases where characters’ stereotypes are way more powerful than any realism. It reads like the most naive fairy tale and loses all its impact. And I actually like Zarine, compared to what I perceived as widespread hostility in the fandom. Thankfully there’s always a little bit of plot movement, myth development or mystery going on with obnoxious characters’ interactions. The book is readable even if slow paced, and overall a good experience comparable to the second volume, the one I liked the most up to this point.

Despite some plot moving parts and a general decent satisfaction in wrapping up the book, it’s not like what happened is so pivotal. Most of it is set-up, and some characters that are newly introduced absolutely go nowhere. They are basically entirely superfluous and it’s very clear they represent a part of the story that will play a role later on. It is a book that builds and moves, but only to load material on the rest of the series. Very little in this book happens for the sake of the book itself, and it’s maybe a success that it still feels satisfactory despite being mostly transition.

As I’m wont to do I started reading the 5th right as I finished this one. The end of the 4th is abrupt and really one big setup. You are meant to wonder: what now? And again it’s also a success that finishing the book made me enjoy a lot reading the prologue of the 5th. If I didn’t have a substantial reading queue I’d really like to just go on. As I said, this present book feeds the rest of the story, so that not only you may had a good experience reading it, but interest is sparked about what happens next. In a way, I could say that the very best part of book 4 is the prologue of book 5. And, less successfully, the more the book stays away from the main characters, the more it actually gets interesting and fun to read.

If one isn’t at peace with what I wrote in the first part, the mundane and the adolescent context, then it’s not going to be a series that can be digested. One would just bounce back on the irrelevant fluff and characters’ contrivances. You can’t even attempt to separate all that from worthwhile myth and worldbuilding. It does feel shallow and artificial. But if one is indeed an adolescent, or at least willing to impersonate one (!), then it’s really an enjoyable, epic story that carries on one’s dreams. It is generous and welcoming, and for this reason more “aware” and extrovert compared to the archaic Tolkien. Yet, while it is built to capture a large audience and remain as a classic, I believe its naive idealism won’t survive the times. Even younger readers now are jaded and cynical, as shaped by the world we live in, and maybe there’s not so much space left for the colorful, larger than life epic tales. It’s Jordan that appears archaic compared to Tolkien.

I’m 35 pages from the end of The Shadow Rising and tomorrow I start right away with another “epic”: The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil.

I’ll read it on the sidelines, the same as I’m reading Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (another “hefty” 560k volume), so it probably won’t be put on my reading progress tab. I’m also reading the Italian version since I trust more the translation and I know it to be very good.

The Man Without Qualities is unfinished, though. One English version in two volumes out there is 1770 pages, but that includes a bunch of rough sketches and drafts at the end. If counting only the finished to almost-finished part (so including the galley chapters) then it’s around 520k words.

Reading the preface, I was reminded of George R. R. Martin. See if it doesn’t fit perfectly:

The extent to which Musil regarded this novel as experimental was extraordinary. He had begun work on it in earnest in 1924 and was most reluctant when the urging of publishers and worsening external conditions forced him to publish parts of it in 1931 and 1933 (pages 1-1130 in this edition). From his point of view, the entire text ought to have remained “open” from the beginning until it had all been written and he could then revise the text as a whole. He complained that partial publication removed those parts of the novel from the possibility of further alteration, as well as distorting the shape (again, a never defined, “open” shape) he had in mind for the whole work. As it was, in 1938, in less than robust health and apparently apprehensive that he would again be forced into premature publication, he withdrew the first twenty chapters that appear in “From the Posthumous Papers” when they were already set in galleys, in order to rework them still further. These chapters were intended not to conclude the novel but to continue “Into the Millennium.” Like Goethe, Musil had a strange sense of having infinite time stretching out before him in which to complete his task. One is tempted to see in his solitary and stubborn pursuit of his ideal more than a little of Kafka’s Hunger Artist.

Stubborn writers with artistic ideals bigger than life.