White Noise by Don Dellilo – Review

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“Mainly we looked at people in other cars, trying to work out from their faces how frightened we should be.”

White Noise, the 1980s television obsessed fever-dream of a novel by Don Dellilo, is a confusing read. It has a lot in common with other books from this era — a fixation with pop-culture, for one — but is an original and satisfying read thanks to both its great writing and pointed satire.

In a lot of postmodern novels, a quick way to sum-up the protagonist would be to say that they’re incapable of truly loving someone. That they can’t escape their own head, their own narcissism. Jack, the protagonist of White Noise, isn’t like that. At least, not entirely. That’s part of why this book is much more affecting than other novels which try for a similar tone. Jack’s a caring father and husband; emotionally stunted, yes, with a brain warped by the deeply confusing consumer-obsessed society around him, but we still feel for him because he’s clearly a very confused man who means well. We pity him, too, because like everyone else in this novel he’s searching for meaning, and like everyone else in this novel he’s unlikely to find it.

I found Delillo through a biography of David Foster Wallace, where he was named as one of Wallace’s major influences (overshadowing even Pynchon). That was true; you can see echoes of Wallace’s distaste for television, along with the educated characters who try to communicate with others only to end up talking nonsense.  What I found fascinating, though, was how well this book has aged — it’s over thirty years old, and the absurd plot-lines, characters and humour are still fresh. This can probably be attributed to its ridiculously well-crafted sentences, which make reading even well-trod ideas a treat.

It gave me the feeling that gears were turning inside my own head, whirring and pondering new plot-lines and parables. This confusion was intentional on Dellilo’s part: the reader is trying to to make sense out of senselessness, trying to find music in noise. But there’s nothing there; it’s just static. It’s worth pointing out that White Noise is also hilarious, though. If it doesn’t sound like a comedy, that’s because it’s just funny like Louis CK’s show Louie is funny: it points out absurdities and pointlessness in society and makes you laugh despite yourself. In other words, it’s a black, black comedy.

I kept jotting notes while reading White Noise; it was like a compulsion. Every chapter raised new questions but never handed out answers, and that’s something that I’ve found tiresome and trite in other novels. Dellilo is funny enough that the book never stops being enjoyable, and smart enough that you come away with a lot of interesting ideas, even if it may take a while to piece them all together.

Euphoria by Lily King – Review

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“You don’t realise how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense.”

Margaret Mead was an incredible woman who lived an unconventional life, and pioneered what we today call anthropology; she rocketed the science into the public eye from academic obscurity and disinterest. Euphoria, by Lily King, is partly based on Mead’s time with native tribes near the Sepik River in New Guinea, and her turbulent romantic life there. In this novel, three scientists, one suicidal and the other two damaged in more subtle ways, are trying to unravel the cultures of a number of tribes in New Guinea while battling their own lust, anger, and depression.

Primal human urges are the centre-point of this story and the novel attempts to tackle some big themes, such as what it means to be a human, and how far Western society has really been able to move past what was often considered “primitive” morality systems. This a vivid and often engrossing tale, too, with an intense sexuality and the threat of violence constantly hovering over the events depicted. Unfortunately, King’s interesting observations about the nature of societies are stapled onto a love triangle which feels far more generic yet prominent than the ideas surrounding it.

The writing has some sentences which crackle with real inspiration, but also a number of tics that keep it from being truly stellar. For instance, King has an irritating tendency towards repetition at the end of her sentences, a stylistic flourish that comes across as clunky rather than poetic.

The few moments we spend with tribal characters overshadow the main cast. When anthropology and its capacity to give insight into human nature is at the forefront, King shines; ironically, however, when it comes to exploring individual characters rather than society as a whole, things get iffy.

The characters are multifaceted and engaging to watch bounce off each other. King excels at witty dialogue, and makes you buy a burgeoning romance and another which is on the decline. There are, however, melodramatically tragic back-stories which may as well have had “Freudian excuse” in bold red letters across the pages where they were being explored. It’s not that these back-stories to be unrealistically tragic; in fact, they’re carefully modelled on Mead and company’s biographies. It’s the way they are brought up as a way to explain a character’s actions rather than to help us understand them better. There’s no subtext here, just text, and we are informed how their histories have damaged the people we are reading about rather than being allowed to figure them out for ourselves. This gave a soap opera tinge to an otherwise carefully put together story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but due to the focus it take this gives Euphoria a tonal inconsistency due to the more fascinating and mostly restrained sections with the native tribes.

There are a number of moments where we are given hints, or outright told, what happens after these characters leave the jungle, and so the ending feels incomplete and anti-climatic due to a rather abrupt ending that left a large number of questions unanswered. Still, there were some vivid descriptions and interesting character dynamics on display in Euphoria. Just don’t expect to come away completely satisfied.

Herzog by Saul Bellow – Review

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“For Christ’s sake don’t cry, you idiot! Live or die, but don’t poison everything.”

Writing negative reviews is difficult for me. I used to wonder why, since many of the most purely entertaining reviews I’d read bordered on mean-spirited. They used sarcasm to cut through bloated novels and reveal the weakness in prose, storytelling and character development underneath the pomp.

The more I read, though, and the more I go back and consider the novels I’ve enjoyed after smart, convincing differing opinions which don’t sway one iota of my love for books others hate, I become less and less convinced of any universally ‘good’ novel. There are only ones which let me feel something that is (I know, barf) true, powerful, affecting.

I have picked up books with stunning prose, well-thought out characters, and exciting dialogue, which for whatever reason never connected with me. Herzog by Saul Bellow is one of these. It’s an honest, erudite, and beautifully written journey with a character I loathe travelling with — and this doesn’t feel by design, like with novels about genuine misanthropics like Notes from Underground.

Herzog explores New York of the 1950s a very particular mind-set: a frustrated, Jewish, middle-class and divorced professor. It feels as though every page of Herzog is stuffed with obscure allusions, metaphysics, ornate descriptions, and even more obscure history. These are stereotypically considered some elements of an “important” book: it wants to encompass a whole world in its pages, its extremely erudite, and it expects you to keep up and not complain. Something in the mixture ruined Herzog’s flavour, however.

I felt pity for Moses Herzog, but not appreciation, because I thought the way he looked at the world — and the way I couldn’t help but feel the novel itself endorsed, through its romanticization of this confused, pathetic man. The revelations and story here certainly feels authentic as a character, but this novel has made me realise that I don’t think authenticity is necessarily a virtue in a writer. For example, Lovecraft was being “authentic” in his portrayal of other races with regard to his own prejudices. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticise those prejudices while still appreciating other aspects of his work.

There were things I liked about the novel, the prose particularly, but some of the views being espoused weren’t just outdated (I read Roth recently and thought he found the humour in his generation’s attitudes to gender) — they were spiteful.

Herzog feels like a satire on misogyny written by someone who didn’t understand his own joke. The presentation of Madeleine (who, had she been a man, would have been twirling her moustache), clearly based on Bellow’s actual ex-wife, is simply bitter to read about in an uncomfortable and uncompelling way. It was like having a stranger on the bus rant about what a monster his ex wife is. Romana, Herzog’s new girlfriend, was kind, but her need to please seemed to come from a place of supplication, as almost an apology for her promiscuity earlier in her life — there was one paragraph where Herzog made that point explicitly. Every female character feels like they have been solely defined by the world around them, and so lack the interesting interior lives afforded to the men.

Bellow once mused that “if you opened up a modern mind with a saw things would tumble out in every direction. You pitch yourself headlong into mental chaos and make your own way from there.” This book is mental chaos, but not in the fascinating, LSD-infused chaos of Pynchon; it’s bitterness and learning in equal measure spurted into the face of the world. But there’s real art here, insightful or funny lines that ultimately failed to move me because of the slog of a novel they were surrounded by:

“He wondered at times whether he didn’t belong to a class of people secretly convinced they had an arrangement with fate; in return for docility or ingenuous good will they were to be shielded from the worst brutalities in life.”

This book was simply so far from my tastes that, despite the strengths of the prose, picking up towards the end filled me with actual dread. It’s strange, though, because even while reading and not enjoying the book at all, I could understand why others might love it. The only novel I’ve had a similar experience with was The Corrections, which was at least self aware about how melodramatic and bombastic it could be. Oh well.

Ragnarok: End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt – Review

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“This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories.”

During World War II, in the lush English countryside, a young girl discovers Norse mythology. Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt uses a child’s perspective to explore how stories, even ones from a place very different to our own, can give us somewhere to escape to during difficult times.

Whether you feel this book succeeds or fails at recapturing the magic of ancient myths may depend entirely on which section you’re reading at that moment. While the writing is often beautiful, for example, the prose gets so purple at times Violet from Charlie and the Chocolate factory would be proud. I like over-the-top, expressive language but in a book this short, which tries to cover a lot of myths with a very small page count, I was left wondering why so much focus was being given to the types of flowers blooming back in England. Equally, some sections exploring Norse mythology are far more interesting than others.

The rhetoric of many Goodreads accounts and book-blogs circle around  likeability and relatability; in other words, current day readers valuem the degree to which you can empathize with characters. Because they are so different, a novel about the Norse myths solely would be a hard sell. I think this is why Byatt uses the third-person perspective of a thin child in rural England. She wanted to give us someone to connect with while still exploring the strange and twisted stories of Odin, Thor, and many other less recognizable figures. Unfortunately, the child is, while more grounded, flat as a character.

It’s often said that the superhero genre could be seen as a modern version of mythical storytelling. There are a number of similarities: super-powered protagonists, varying interpretations from multiple authors across generations often about world-ending events. The thing that really separates them, though, is that superheroes have human concerns. Deities? Not so much. Superman is relatable to a modern audience; he wants to date Lois Lane; he has a nine-to-five job which he struggles to balance with his private life; he looks dorky in glasses. Thor, as presented here, like to hit things and drink. That’s really all there is too him. Odin is… stern? Sort of? Angry, too, I suppose.

Gods’ concerns are higher than nine-to-five jobs: they have Ragnarok looming in the distance, and ice giants skulking, and mead to dine on. The children of Loki, however — a snake and wolf which are growing to unstoppable size — but are utterly fascinating. Byatt’s does a great job drawing you into the minds of these strange creatures and making you understand their motivations and very inhuman instincts. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, about any of the Gods except Loki, as they never leave the page as anything more than inexplicably angry cardboard cut-outs. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been developed more. Byatt never feels the need to show us what makes them act the way they do the way she did with Fenrir the wolf and Jörmungandr the snake.

This whole book ends up feeling shallow, which is shame, because the potential was there for something truly engaging. Instead we were left with a short introduction to Norse mythology that isn’t as interesting as the real book the main character is reading sounds.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – Review

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Learning to Love Dickens. 

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Until David Copperfield, I had never finished a Charles Dickens book. As a teenager I managed three pages of Great Expectations before throwing it down in a huff. I must have really hated those three pages, because I went the next ten years convinced, not just that I didn’t like Great Expectations, but that I didn’t like Charles Dickens.

This was a fairly stupid thing to believe considering I’d only read around 0.0001% of his total work, but it was one that stuck for a long time. It only took two pages of David Copperfield for me to realize that I’d been missing out. His words can practically produce sparks in your brain.

A young David Copperfield is orphaned and left in the charge of his evil step-father. We watch him run away, come back, fall in love, make some intensely stupid decisions, and, finally, grow up. Think Harry Potter, if instead of becoming a wizard he tries to become a lawyer and novelist. It’s also much more interesting than that last sentence makes it sound.

When older novels are fun, there are normally some hefty conditions. “Fun, but“s, put another way. Classics can suffer from the sheer amount of time that’s passed since their release, and the humour comes across as antiquated and cliche. Dickens, however, is funny, not in spite of the age he comes from but because of it. He saw as much absurdity in the Victorian society as a modern man who time traveled would do.

Money and its numerous stresses keep the novel relevant to our modern bank-and-debt dominated society. There’s a great moment where Mr Micawber gives some basic but much needed financial (Micawber doesn’t listen to himself in this regard), for instance:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Tears are shed (frequently). David is almost angelic when he’s young, but the slow creep of maturity mixed with naivete let him be taken advantage of constantly. It’s sad to see him become more aware of predatory ways, but his innocence withers slowly, so it’s like a child learning that Father Christmas isn’t real over the course of decades.

Dickens digs through the archaic aspects of his society and finds the universal struggles of his characters, who are obviously archetypal but bubbling with enough energy and complexity that you have become intensely invested in them by the end of the book. Archaic institutions likes debtors prisons and Doctors’ Commons feel convoluted yet familiar, and while houses made from boats and ridiculous names might come across as over-the-top, but part of the fun of this novel is letting the melodrama wash over you.

It’s gooey and occasionally sickeningly sweet, but in a good way, like chocolate. The bad guys might as well twirl their mustaches and many of the good characters practically have halos, but there are also keen observations about the horrors of industrial life and the nature of modern existence; think Dostoevsky combined with Disney. There’s no denying that’s this is an over the top novel, but it’s bloody fun too if you’ve got some patience.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

“How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly?”

In The Buried Giant, an elderly Briton couple wander through Anglo-Saxon England searching for a son they barely remember. The country seems cursed. People are forgetting their lives almost as fast as they live them. Memories still seep through the mist, though, and sow confusion in a world that has stopped wallowing in the past or dreaming of the future.

This book needs to be read with careful expectations. An elderly couple on a journey wouldn’t be an extraordinary premise for a standard realist literary novel; put dragons round a corner, however, and readers begin to wonder why the narrative are focused on more mundaner aspects of the world. I appreciate anything which bends genre, however, so I was still excited; unfortunately this novel was, for me, stronger in theory than execution.

Stories which find a good balance between the ordinary and supernatural are rare: The Magicians by Lev Grossman; Among Others by Jo Walton; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke; arguably a vast swath of the work of David Mitchell. Ishiguro, however, through a combination of frustrating dialogue and poor pacing, just doesn’t make the list.

Like in his more realist writing, Ishiguro’s prose is understated, almost flat. The narrative of fading memories is tied into the physical details of the landscapes Axl and Beatrice travel across, as everything outside their immediate periphery fades away. This dreamlike vagueness creates a calm atmosphere, but characters talk with a specificity that undermines the mysteriousness of the prose, so the dialogue feels out of place with the setting. And there is a LOT of dialogue.

Characters act as mouthpieces so Ishiguro to explain anything of narrative or symbolic significance, and this is done with the same flat tone they use to discuss the sun, or never-dying love, or dragons. It’s as though Ishiguro is worried that we won’t pick up on something’s significance unless it’s explicitly discussed in-universe. As such, characters lose their distinctiveness (with the exception of Sir Gaiwan, who pops about around a third through and is the only character who has a unique voice, helped by the fact that he has sections in first-person) and I was unengaged from the book over, and over, and over again.

It’s not just dialogue that feels inconsistent. The rules of this universe are constantly bent on authorial whims. Characters’ memories return when it’s dramatically convenient, and it seems arbitrary as to which memories vanished in the first place. As such, everyone feel molded around the story Ishiguro is trying to tell, rather than fleshed-out people with agency.

Using fantasy as a backdrop can allow authors to create magic and legends which add a sense of grandeur and power and let them stretch our imaginations. Fantasy where internal consistency is disregarded, however, makes a novel which is utterly lacking in consequence. as they don’t remind us of people. The Buried Giant, in my opinion, felt like the latter.

There’s a telling moment later in the book where a climatic sword-fight ends in a single blow. I had heard Ishiguro talk about the influence of Akira Kurosawa on his action-scenes and the Japanese storytelling tradition of tension before a battle being far more important than the dazzle of combat itself. This is fine in theory, and could make an understated novel ramp up in excitement quickly. However, the clash finished so fast I was merely left wondering what the hell had happened. I went back, re-read the page, and thought, “That’s it?”

Unfortunately, “That’s it?” is a good way to describe my reaction to The Buried Giant as a whole. It felt like a long series of anti-climaxes.

Slade House by David Mitchell

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“Tonight feels like a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”

Slade House is a lovely looking home. People come from all over to visit, and it has two wonderful hosts. There’s a catch, though: it shouldn’t exist, and the people who enter never leave.

~

If you feel like you’ve heard that summary before, that’s the point.

It’s safe to say haunted houses are firmly established as the great places for creepiness in stories. They’re the go-to for ghosts. With Slade House, though, Mitchell veers closer to the fantasy of Lev Grossman than, say, the difficult to comprehend horrors of House of Leaves, which may surprise readers due to the setting.

This isn’t a frightening novel; it’s not really trying to be. It wants to excite, and does so with spellbinding ease. The pages practically turn by themselves. Originally posted to Twitter, it’s tightly-plotted and fast-paced, with some great twists and carefully developed characters.

Mitchell’s eye for convincing details from modern England is sharp, and he smoothly draws you into well-trod ground by taking conventions you think you know and twisting them just enough that your expectations are subverted.

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The prose is less ornate than in previous Mitchell works, but still lively and occasionally profound.

The characters are engaging, of various classes and temperaments, and feel fresh, as they are far outside of the traditional haunted-house-protagonists template. It’s gratifying to watch as these characters navigate Slade House thanks to this uniqueness, as you just don’t know how they will react

For example, an autistic teenage boy on Valium finds his nightmares coming to life. How could that not be fascinating?

So why is it so unsatisfying?

~

Despite its strengths, Slade House is unambitious when it comes to anything outside of of trying to excite the reader. It’s like fast food when you were expecting a three-course meal: still tasty, but lacking in nutrition, and unsatisfying if you were licking your lips in anticipation of prime-rib steak. The narrative and thematic weight which anchors Mitchell’s other books just isn’t here.

It’s difficult to examine why I was left so unsatisfied without going into the ending, so consider this a warning for spoilers.

~

Having your supernatural menace be defeated stopped by a never-before-seen hero entirely unknown to the reader is far too close to a Deus Ex Machina for my tastes. Marinus’ appearance may not be surprising to readers who have already finished The Bone clocks, but it’s tonally inconsistent and jargon-loaded.

With such an incredibly powerful protagonist to end with, events which lead up to the character Marinus’ become comparatively pointless. He’s a psychic demi-god, basically; we aren’t relieved when he defeats evil because he expect it.

Normal people don’t matter to the climax of this book. Prior attempts to save themselves without magical assistance were made to seem important, like the dropping of a character’s hairpin, but compared to Marinus’ overwhelming superpowers they simply weren’t.

Any clever solution is shoved aside in favour of psycho-voltage explosions.

The Grayers were particularly fearsome antagonists because their methods were mystical, but their desire for immortality was  understandable. Extraordinary people with selfish motivations being defeated everyday people with extraordinary motivations (i.e. love, peace, and all that jazz) would have been thematically and narratively satisfying.

Instead, we get a psychic showdown. Exciting, but not particularly rewarding.

This ending, put simply, lets out all the novel’s carefully built tension and makes it flop like a deflated balloon.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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“I had plenty of anguish after that extraordinary moment, but I had, thank God, no terror.”

The Turn of the Screw tells a ghost story set in a haunted house. Good. Our protagonist is a woman who has been given charge of two unsettlingly perfect children, and she may or may not be going mad. Great!

So what happened? How did Henry James create the literary equivalent of Nyquil out of such an exciting premise?

There is, buried deep, a chilling story here, with plot-twists, difficult choices, and keen lines which express the constantly frayed emotions of our dismayed protagonist. This would be easier to review if nothing had happened plot-wise, because then the utter boredom a book as fast-paced and psychologically insightful as this would have had a stylistic point that could be blamed.

The problem is that sentences wind and curl around what they’re trying to say until you’re too distracted to care anymore. After ten pages, you’re confused; after fifteen, you’re irritated; after twenty, you’re asleep.

James keeps you guessing as to whether the threat is coming from the supernatural or the narrator’s own mind, and you can reverse-engineer the popularization of a number of modern horror tropes to this novel. But maybe its success is why it’s such a slog to finish now, despite the tiny length. If so many modern stories hadn’t plundered the best elements, there might be more to distract from the writing itself; instead, this book becomes yet another example of Seinfeld is Unfunny.  

It’s not simply a product of its time, though. There are authors just as verbose who have managed sophisticated, layered writing without accidentally creating a cure for insomnia. For example, Melville, Dostoevsky, and Eliot are all enhanced by their layered and elevated prose, not smothered in it. As it is, The Turn of the Screw’s fascinating premise was crushed under the weight of James’ waffling.

 

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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“Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.”

The Bone Clocks is a decade-spanning fantasy novel about the lies and justifications that result in evil. It has psychics, dimension hopping, and immortal soul-suckers, but everything turns back to the question of why people hurt each other.

Age and its numerous horrors haunt a large cast of characters, and constant time-jumps means their rapid declines become a worry for the reader too. Years fall away like leaves from a dying tree until, before you know it, the people Mitchell is making you care about are rotting in the ground. This gives the previously mentioned immortal soul-suckers some nice thematic resonance.

The characters are, as should be expected with Mitchell, the sturdiest part of this novel’s foundations aside from the handsome prose. Mitchell can make someone flawed but empathetic, and in this the case, the nastier they are the more fun they seem to be to read. More than once I thought, “How have I grown to love this character? They’re a bastard.” They’re rarely unrepentant bastards, though. Combine this internal intrigue with Mitchell’s sharp sense of humour and it’s easy to stay interested.

Your expectations for each section are adjusted as the stories go on. For example, a war reporter was the narrator in one of strongest parts of the novel, but not because of firefights or battle scenes. His struggles back in rural England were about parenthood, and addressed the fear of losing a child in a way that was visceral. I felt my stomach tense over and over again, and this all informed the rest of the novel (which explores a number of strained parental relationships) in interesting ways.

There’s a seriousness about the fantasy narrative that make moments comic relief welcome. The rude, self-obsessed author was an on-the-nose parody of Martin Amis (Mitchell has denied this… but I don’t believe him), and his desperation and self-pity reminded me of Timothy Cavendish’s farcical appearance in Cloud Atlas; the former’s story was more poignant than the latter, though, due to the sad transformation we watched Hershey go through as he aged.

There’s not a lack of personality on display here, then. The problems come back to the plot and pacing.

The structure is less controlled than in Mitchell’s other works. Only the fifth section delves into this War, which is more disconnected from everyday life than the rest of the novel (even the sixth part’s dystopian future), although Mitchell wisely keeps the stakes in this supernatural conflict low scale, at least relative to most fantasy. There are, fortunately, no feeble references to magical macguffins which might destroy the world: a Capital-W-War is ongoing over the right of a small group of powerful people to prey on the weak for sustenance, and this ties back to the way death looms above human lives. It’s interesting, but rushed. The descriptions are less grounded. Instead of just pushing people away with their minds, or something equally simple (if hokey), “[Horologists] pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it [their] assailants”. It feels as though you’ve been blasted into a parody of the earlier, far more restrained musings on the supernatural.

I’m all for ambitious fantasy, but there has to be a balance which The Bone Clocks never manages. The quotidian and the supernatural are firmly kept apart until the later sections, where they merge unsatisfactorily. This is particularly frustrating as Mitchell excelled at combining the genres in other novels. Still, I don’t think a writer who melded the supernatural and mundane as well as the writer of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet would make a change so obviously jarring without specific intentions in mind. The over-the-top elements could even be read as a challenge to “traditional literature” readers who might normally dismiss a novel solely because of its genre. Mitchell would have known all of these elements would alienate people, even if he was hoping they would meld more smoothly than they did.

When it doesn’t work it really doesn’t work, but for the majority of its pages I was enthralled. It’s flawed, but not much more so than Ghostwritten—Mitchell’s first novel, often cited as his second-best—as that novel had a jarring sci-fi element, which paralleled my problems with this book. This is a roundabout way of saying I’d rather dive into a very flawed but ambitious novel by Mitchell than a more consistent work by 90% of the living authors I’ve read.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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“It now lately sometimes seemed a black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe.”

If I were forced to define Infinite Jest in a sentence I would say: It’s the saddest comedy you’ll ever read. That might sound like a contradiction, but it’s also what makes this book special; serious is, after all, not the opposite of funny. This is a powerful, playful, and mind-stretchingly smart examination of addiction and melancholy which is far more fun than its length and vocabulary give it any right to be.

The plot, like many of the characters, is broken into a very strange shape. Page-long paragraphs detail characters’ obsessions, and the narrator sounds like a lexical-prodigy who has been given a mixture of dope and crystal meth. The majority of the action takes place in the late 2000s, and time has been subsidized; corporations bid to name years after themselves. The Statue of Liberty now displays ads.

This is a novel with Things To Say about modern society’s desperation to escape boredom through entertainment, and that might sound like a tedious subject by definition; in fact, the chapter-long diversions and endless footnotes make it seem like Wallace is almost challenging you to view it as such. Trust that your time won’t be thrown away, though, and you’ll see it’s been made with a combination of fearsome talent and moral fire.

The strength of the language is hard to overstate. While some of his short-fiction can be just as meticulous, nothing else I’ve read by Wallace comes close to this in terms of raw feeling and perception. I felt like Infinite Jest showed me the neuroses of the world laid bare:

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

While who might be perceived as the main character shifts constantly, the most important in my eyes is Don Gately. He’s a huge, square-headed ex-burglar and current addict who’s trying desperately to believe in sentiment again and put his past behind him. In a novel filled with sly wordplay and postmodern trickery, Gately’s desperation to stay sober stands gives the book a heartfelt centre that keeps more playful elements in check.

Whether or not you’ll appreciate this book, though, may come down to patience. The story’s fractured structure begins to make sense as the final sections reveal what might have been happening in the opening scene, and send you racing back to the start for clarification. It is, in other words, structured like a loop. The end is the beginning is the end. It almost demands rereads, and with its size this will be a turn-off for many.

I think it’s worth the effort, though.

[SPOILERS]

I did some head-scratching to see if I could work out the ending on my own. That’s part of the fun for me in a book-slash-puzzle like this one. Although I’ve since read a few of the treatises on this hulk of a book since I jotted this down, these were my initial impressions:

[REALLY, SPOILERS]

Hal is able to feel, finally, but has been trapped in his own mind, likely by the potent DMZ, and is unable to communicate — except, perhaps, with Don Gately through the wraith of his father. They go on an expedition inspired by J. O. Incandenza to find the Master copy, buried inside his skull. The Separatists already have it. Orin had surrendered his mother to make his own torture end, and so she had already given up the location of the Mad Stork’s grave in the Great Concavity.

Whether or not Wallace’s dystopic-vision of our present falls depends on how much you trust in our ability to resist temptation, and so everyone will have a different ending playing inside of their own mind.

There’s something beautiful in that.