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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sense and Sensibility and Passing a Kidney Stone

I suffer from a deficiency. It might be a genetic mutation, although I know the source of it. I cannot digest anything written by Jane Austen. About a decade and a half ago, I read an essay by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes on something called "The Literature of Discontent," or something the like. Somewhere towards the end of the essay, I recall Fuentes saying something regarding Jane Austen's novels and the fact that no one died, the struggles were superficial, etc. At that point, I hadn't ventured into Austen's books and the statement sort of mutated something inside of me that made me unable to enjoy these quite accomplished and artistic novels.

The subject matter seem to me too trivial--I am not proud of this, rather the contrary. It is, after all, the core of human experience and relations that amount for most (if not all) literature. "Sense and Sensibility" is filled with characters that appear vulnerable and acutely human. Marianne, for example, and her relationship with Willoughby is the model of the "hit and run" relationship; that is to say, it's almost like an exchange, a chess match, a "you-take-your-turn-and-I'll-take-mine" sort of game play that can get a bit tiresome after a while. But I shouldn't be touching upon this since I am not done with the novel yet. I seem to like Elinor better, more collected, cool and calm in front of the woman who hooked the man she is interested in. The Jennings and other characters just add to the soup.

What I do enjoy, quite frankly, is the exquisite use of the English language; the decorum follows the sentence structure for me. There isn't a moment when the sentence turn, the dialogue fails to convey exactly what is meant, but adding a magnificent lyrical flavor to it. Here's an example,

"Elinor found, when the evening was over, that disposition is not materially altered by a change of abode; for, although scarcely settled in town, Sir John had contrived to collect around him nearly twenty young people, and to amuse them with a ball. This was an affair, however, of which Lady Middleton did not approve. In the country, an unpremeditated dance was very allowable; but in London, where the reputation of elegance was more important, and less easily obtained, it was risking too much for the gratification of the girls, to have it known, that Lady Middleton had given a small dance, or eight or nine couple, with two violins, and a mere sideboard collation."

It's not clear to me why this passage reached me as a good example of what I mean by elegance of language, but truth be told, probably any passage at all would do in this case. So, I think I love the usage, the word choice and the excellence of the language. The plot, not so much.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Disappointment Artist: Inside the Mind of Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is in awesome company. His name is paraded with the likes of Paul Auster, David Foster Wallace (rip), and other literary luminaries who make Brooklyn New York home. The Disappointment Artist is a great collection of essays. It is a wonderful, short read for those of us who grew up a bit too fast because most of the people we related to were adults. Lethem dictates his obsessions and his encompassing love for his neighborhood train station. Being the son of "bohemians" (Lethem didn't use the quotation marks, those are mine because I still don't know, nor have I experienced the term), Lethem is surrounded by creative people. It is naturally for a young person to be influenced by adults. But Lethem goes further here; what he proposes is that his relationship with adults moved his creativity at a faster pace than his contemporaries. Of course this brought a great deal of strife: Lethem watches--faithfully (not wanting to use obsessively) the film Star Wars, the original 1977 movie theater version, 21 times. 21 times! How could he do this? There was in Lethem, even at that age, a sort of philosophical searcher. He wanted to delve into the film and see what others weren't seeing--which pretty much amounted to seeing what others were seeing, really. But these temporary obsessions led to more and more explorations: the validity of the term "classics" in relation to comic books, and the pseudo-political taking sides on the topic of who was the purist artist at Marvel comics, Kirby, Lee, and others, and how Lethem struggled with his alliances to the artists/script writers because of his obsession with purity. He proposes Chuck Berry's "Johnny Be Good," as an original from which the gods of rock and roll descended upon the world an original art form: Rock and Roll. It was later when Chuck Berry had a 1970s hit with "My Ding-a-Ling" that Lethem realized everyone has a price, and alliance to purity in art is as elusive and the premise of art itself.

There are other things--his parents' separations, the illness that eventually took his mother's life, moving west and struggling like artists struggle. I think that overall, this little book of essays "The Disappointment Artist," is by far one of the best 'essays' books I have read since Nicholson Baker's "The Size of Thoughts."

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