Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

I have discovered where the stereotype of the depressed, smoking Frenchman, who stares into his tea in cafés and despairs about the pointless of the universe, comes from. I have found navel gazing in its purest form, and I have stared into its whiney, shrivelled heart. This novel had some fantastic ideas and concepts behind it, but blimey did it test my patience at times.

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre is short, it’s weird, and it’s depressing. None of these things are necessarily negatives in a book – there are a lot of similarities here to Notes from Underground and The Stranger, both which I really enjoyed. In Nausea, though, I never found myself convinced by the protagonist’s struggles. He felt more like an abstraction than a person.

While the Underground Man was clearly isolated and confused and the story around him a bit polemic, his problems were human and relatable, if extreme. Antoine Roquentin, however, felt as though he had been created with the sole purpose of exploring existentialism, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but every problem he faces is metaphysical and absurdly theoretical. This means the human drama which is also explored comes across as hollow because we just don’t know him or anyone else in this novel as a person, only as walking ideologies.

There were some interesting observations about the way we should appreciate existence on a moment to moment basis, but it all felt more like a message with a story than a story with a message. I’ll be reading Sartre’s non-fiction if I pick up his writing again, as at least that way I’ll know exactly what I’m in for.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace

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“I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable—if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try.”

A good collection of essays can enlighten, entertain, and persuade without feeling like it’s trying too hard to do any of these things. That’s what A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again does. You’re swept along weird, quirky, or banal topics, subjects which other writers might make boring but not, fortunately, this one. It’s littered with funny and smart observations, and its arguments/explorations are interesting and the style playful. If you’re looking for a place to begin reading David Foster Wallace, this is it.

Wallace zeroes in on the weird bind that comes from life in the Western world (particularly America, capitalist bastion that it is): mental discomfort, weird thought patterns, and eventually ennui can actually be instilled by our physical comfort and societal wide sense of entitlement for luxury and ease. This all creates some strange ways of responding to entertainment and art. Most of us are (relatively) pampered people, who eat tasty food, have (compared to most of the world) good educations, and are unlikely to be blown up by mortar shells. We also have some of the highest mental illness rates on the planet.

We’re bombarded with advertising and cultural prompts about what to want, when to want it, and what it means to want what we want when we want it and why wanting what we want means we should also want this different product, as that will be what truly makes us individual, and when we want that we should want this other thing, but we’re not the kind of person who wants too much, as that would make us materialistic…

It all gets a bit complex and weird and frustrating, but these essays are great at pulling back the layers of modern life and revealing what it is at heart: mildly absurd. I don’t get the feeling that Wallace is being a Luddite, either. If you had planted him anywhere from 12th century France to present-day Saudi Arabia, he would have come away from these cultures with some bizarre and fascinating musings.

It’s just nice to be reminded of how silly all us humans look from the outside sometimes.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin


“A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.”

This was recommended to me due to how much I like Margaret Atwood, which meant I went in with high expectations. Unfortunately, it just felt too dry to be to my taste in science fiction. I don’t think it’s a bad book, and I’m glad I read it as I can’t remember anything else quite like it. I just never became truly invested in what was happening.On a frozen planet of sexless androgynists, an envoy from another world arrives offering them membership in an interstellar partnership. In the wrong hands a premise like this could come across as a wacky “Planet of Hats” (re:TvTrope) attempt at hamfisted political exploration, but Le Guin has an impressive take on the actual ramifications of a society like this.

While The Left Hand of Darkness raises a number of interesting issues, I never grew all that invested in the story. The only part which I don’t think will meld together in my mind into a long description of dry conversations in cold rooms is an exciting expedition over a country-long stretch of ice.

The prose was at times thoughtful and measured, but everything moves along at a weird pace. The diary format results in the description of events like an attack on a farm lacking tension, which works in some moments as there is a lot of stuff to take in, and this allows for enormous exposition dumps without feeling too forced. But I only ever grew attached to one character, Estraven, and during the rest of the novel I felt like I was watching a slow-paced documentary. The subjects were interesting, and there were some intelligent observations made, but everything felt detached. I’d recommend it to people who are more interested in world-building than I am, though.