A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 8, 2009

Nails on chalkboard

Filed under: Uncategorized — annielowrey @ 7:25 pm

By Annie Lowrey

Some sort-of spoilers ahead, for those not caught up. (By my count, we should be at page 150 by last Sunday, page 225 by next.)

Oh god. I knew it had to happen at some point. I knew it would be there, lurking among the fascinating diversions — and how diverting they are! — on robbers and diapers and tennis and the body architecture of athletic girls and Quebecois separatists and bug-trapping. It wouldn’t be entertaining. It would be grating. Nails-on-chalkboard grating. I got there. And wow, it was horrible.

My eyes glazed over, my temples started throbbing. I desperately yearned for the cool half-inch space of the paragraph tab or the refreshment of the apostrophe. I paused for a moment to ruminate on how important the conventions of grammar and punctuation are to our understanding of the written word. I couldn’t really bring myself to read from page 128 to 134. If something important happened, someone else will have to tell me. I skipped it. Starting about a hundred words in.

Phew. I’m happy I got that out of my system. Now, to relate it to the ongoing discussion, of aesthetics and the purposeful challenge of the book…

The multi-page drivel I just described irritated on many levels. It was, to use James Wood’s term, a hysterical moment of hysterical realism. If the rest of the work uses some sort of broken narration, this was back-broken. The new narrative voice felt lost in a fog of words. It was unprecedented in its weirdness. It was hard to read, literally — and I kept losing my place. It was, one one level at least, purposefully obnoxious, a trick the book plays on the reader, almost a dare to keep going. Yrstruly, I wanted to say, go fuck yrself.

What would keep one going through it? Well, maybe other readers are hardier than I. Maybe other readers believe that some nugget important to the emotional or narrative arc of the book was in there. Me? I’m counting on a big emotional and narrative payoff for wading through these aesthetics. I’m having a hard time with them.

28 Comments »

  1. [...] 8, 2009 by Daryl Houston Once again, a post over at A Supposedly Fun Blog made me want to comment, but my post, submitted in two or three [...]

    Pingback by Nails on Chalkboard Spamomatic Reply « Infinite Zombies — July 8, 2009 @ 8:03 pm | Reply

  2. Good comment, Daryl from Infinite Zombies! Maybe it will let me post it…here it is

    The sections in this voice (as with the Wardine section earlier in the book) have always puzzled me a little bit. There are certain characters from these sections (especially Poor Tony and Roy Tony) whom you’ll see again in sometimes sad and sometimes funny (and sometimes both simultaneously) ways. How important this sketch is in its particulars I don’t recall, other than that it gives some background on Poor Tony. (That said, I don’t think either of the Tonies is a particularly major character, but my memory of the last half of the book is pretty vague.) I think what Wallace may be doing with this section is in a way trying to be democratic or exhaustive about the addiction thing. He’s trying to present addiction and its effects in many settings. I think he’s also pretty careful about not sitting in an ivory tower about it all. Not only criminals and street folk are drug addicts, he pretty clearly points out. I think that’s a big part of why he wrote the big Erdedy section and put it near the front of the book. Yet a depiction of addiction and the horrors it can lead to would be incomplete without this sort of view from the street. Whether or not it was necessary to write it in a voice from the street is debatable. It’s a difficult section to get through, for sure. I probably had a similar reaction upon my first read of IJ. This time around, it didn’t bother me so much, but I won’t pretend I thought it was the best writing in the book.

    Comment by annielowrey — July 8, 2009 @ 8:14 pm | Reply

  3. It’s hard to read (though not as bad as the “Wardine be cry” section), but it is important. Poor Tony makes at least two more appearances, and one of them is absolutely critical to the overall plot.

    Comment by Chad Orzel — July 8, 2009 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

  4. I listened to Cop Shoot Cop by Spiritualized about a dozen times before my brain put together what it meant (yes, I’m not bright). Like it or not, yrstruly and C and Poor Tony illustrate an important part of the overall desperation of addiction.

    Comment by Sorrento — July 8, 2009 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

  5. Wow, I guess this just goes to show how differently two people can react to the same book. I was a little taken aback at how angry and vehement this post was. I really liked that section, even though I agree with Daryl above that it isn’t the best writing in the book. For one thing, it doesn’t always “ring true” as dialect, in much the same way the Wardine section sometimes doesn’t. And I found that the unpronounceable misspellings (e.g. “Xmas”) really broke the flow of the language. (Which I’m sure is intentional.) At the same time, when I got really into the rhythm of reading that section, I found myself reading it to myself under my breath on the subway, really hearing yrstruly in my head. It would be too exhausting to read a whole book written in that style, but at that length I thought it worked. Maybe it’s just because I grew up around that kind of urban dialect and find it pleasant to hear, I don’t know. If I were going to complain about anything so far, it would be about how incredibly tedious and boring some of the tennis academy sections are.

    Comment by Peter — July 8, 2009 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

  6. Pretty much every time I read Faulkner, I need to read ten or fifteen or twenty pages in order to re-learn ‘how’ to read him, and then, if I want to comprehend the book fully, I need to start back at the beginning. After that, it’s clean sailing — I just need to somehow shift my thinking in order to intuitively follow the rhythm and logic of his voice(s). I think this section is similar — the first time I read IJ, it awkward and difficult and I missed things — on subsequent readings, it read very naturally and was honestly pleasurable. If you want to skip sections because they’re ‘difficult’, fair enough — but you can argue that these sections are ‘difficult’ in a sense because you skip them. Which isn’t to say that expending the energy needed to read bits like these naturally is worth the reward for you, personally … but … gah. “If the rest of the work uses some sort of broken narration, this was back-broken.” Really? “back-broken?” “[...] purposefully obnoxious, a trick the book plays on the reader, almost a dare to keep going.”? … Maybe to some readers, but — and I wish I knew how to say this w/o sounding snotty, but I don’t — what I hear here is a reader who’s had a pretty shallow exposure to modern fiction. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and in a sense I think being difficult in this way is a failure of sorts, if only because if it weren’t difficult, well, more people would read and enjoy it … but it should be obvious that (in another sense) this failure isn’t a failure at all, at least not on the book’s part.

    Comment by the teeth — July 8, 2009 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

  7. Erm, well, I obviously push back at the idea this implies a shallow exposure. To the contrary. It’s more a strong dislike. I dislike it in every book I find it in. And I find it in many.

    I will, sigh, of course read the passage. I’m reading the whole thing, like it or not. I’m also very aware of the fact that the book is deliberate…the haphazard style is deliberate. Sort of like how Mary-Kate Olsen dresses.

    Comment by annielowrey — July 8, 2009 @ 9:43 pm | Reply

  8. Art should do things like this to people. King Lear is ragged and cruel.

    Comment by B — July 8, 2009 @ 11:08 pm | Reply

  9. Peter, I’m glad you mention the Xmas thing. (If this comment goes through, the kind folk behind wordpress.com and its spam filter, akismet, solved my commenting problem, and yay for them!). Besides that one, there’s a dollar sign, “2Bdenied,” and even things like “dont’” (yes, the apostrophe is after the t; and it looks like most if not all contractions incorporate this error), which is straight up typo and not dialect at all. It’s almost as if somebody’s speed-influenced internal monologue is being written down and the author isn’t well-schooled in grammar and punctuation or spelling (which would make sense). But if you were actually writing this stuff down, wouldn’t you leave out filler like “and everything like that” to make the writing of it all a little easier? Is this some journal entry of an Ennet House resident, maybe? It’s a distinctly spoken voice in a distinctly (minus anomalies like the inclusion of the filler phrases) written format. I’m not sure whether it’s more narrator hi-jinx or whether this is something of a document, rather like those that appear all strung together beginning on page 138 with the bricklayer email. Curious stuff I might not have thought of if not for this post.

    Comment by Daryl Houston — July 9, 2009 @ 1:07 am | Reply

  10. Yeah, the ‘shallow exposure’ thing isn’t really fair — I don’t know what you’re reading history or habits are like, and not cottoning to that passage is hardly an indication of anything apart from your disposition toward that sort of writing. I do find the “it’s downright difficult” response a little strange — I just didn’t find it especially difficult or off-putting — but the difference there likely has much more to differences in our habits of thought or aesthetic sensibilities than what particular mass of fiction we’ve read. I am a bit leery of equating your reaction with authorial intent — I’m pretty positive that it is on no level intended to be ‘obnoxious’, a ‘trick’, or a ‘dare’.

    The fact that you responded this way does of course reflect poorly on the passage, even if many other readers read it differently. I just reread those pages, to confirm that I believed what I’m saying here (I do!) and will say I’m not a huge fan of the phonetic misspellings throughout it. Probably two thirds of them make sense and ring true, but a large minority are jarring, and remind me (uncomfortably) that a young well-to-do white guy is representing a stream of conscious monologue from the mouth/head of an imaginary poor black junkie, which makes for a couple cringes&winces.

    And while I find the passage entertaining/compelling, not to mention horrific and a bit sickening, I’ve certainly never heard anybody claim it as a favorite or highlight.

    Comment by the teeth — July 9, 2009 @ 1:45 am | Reply

  11. [...] representing a stream of conscious monologue from the mouth/head [...] and failing, of course. If he succeeded fully I wouldn’t notice, and I wouldn’t wince.

    Comment by the teeth — July 9, 2009 @ 1:47 am | Reply

  12. “Is this some journal entry of an Ennet House resident, maybe?”

    “The fact that you responded this way does of course reflect poorly on the passage”

    “a young well-to-do white guy is representing a stream of conscious monologue from the mouth/head of an imaginary poor black junkie”

    Black? Isn’t this Pemulis’ brother? Or am I remembering a different junkie-logue?

    Comment by your cousin — July 9, 2009 @ 2:07 am | Reply

  13. @your cousin – spoiler alert, methinks. or at least i don’t think that’s been made obvious.

    Comment by ryan — July 9, 2009 @ 2:12 am | Reply

  14. Never occurred to me that this might be Pemulis’s brother, though it may be. I had always assumed this was a roving band of black junkies. This is partially because of the speech mannerism wherein words like “point” are replaced with “pernt,” which for some reason has seemed to me to be a construction used by some black people. There’s also the early Wardine section featuring what’s usually billed as a sort of ebonics, and there are some characters in common between that section and this (Roy Tony, at least). Which is not to say that there need be segregation on the streets of Massachusetts. Somehow the voices in these sections have seemed similar to me, though perhaps that’s because both are nonstandard English voices. As I consider it a little more, there are surely differences. The “and everything like that” thing appears (or something like it appears) in a story in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men that I’ve always taken to be spoken by a white man, for example.

    I don’t remember ever reading anything in particular voiced by Pemulis’s brother (I remember only the bit about being fook’d), but I’m definitely going to keep my eyes open now.

    Comment by Daryl Houston — July 9, 2009 @ 2:19 am | Reply

  15. even if many other readers read it differently

    That’s the key. I think that Annie, and all of us readers, should trust our feelings when it comes to reacting to a novel. What we should avoid, I think, is acting like those reactions are much more than personal and subjective. This is part of my discomfort with claims of an intentional lack of pleasure, or the claim that an author is ever being difficult simply for the sake of being difficult. (As supposed to difficulty creating a deeper narrative or being a reflection on some theme in the novel– see the lack of chapters in The Old Man and the Sea and the ceaselessness of Santiago’s struggle.) Perhaps we don’t enjoy or appreciate what an author is doing, and we might be justified in saying so, but it’s a bit too much to say that we don’t because we couldn’t. That isn’t to say that a critical personal reaction isn’t valuable, or anything of the kind, only that we should keep our critical reactions of the kind, “I don’t like this,” rather than, “No one can like this, as it was designed to not be liked.” I’m not saying that Annie is doing that here, but it’s a common enough argument, and one that I think relies on some unfair rhetorical shenanigans.

    Comment by Freddie — July 9, 2009 @ 2:40 am | Reply

  16. It was, to use James Wood’s term, a hysterical moment of hysterical realism.

    Also, I don’t think the passage in question is a moment of hysterical realism as Wood has defined it, although I’m antagonistic to the term in general.

    Comment by Freddie — July 9, 2009 @ 2:44 am | Reply

  17. The content and style of this section are brilliant. Once you get into the flow, the language is fluid and perfect in its context. Perhaps you should read Green Eggs and Ham instead, although that book can be tricky too…

    Comment by Charles — July 9, 2009 @ 12:14 pm | Reply

  18. My only suggestion — and this is tough to do if you’re reading in public, or even in private with a less-than-wholly-understanding cohabitant, so I recognize its limitations — is to read the first 3/4 page or so of the monologue out loud, not just under your breath but with full throat, and see if that doesn’t help you get into the rhythm of the prose and the voice of the character. I find it enormously helpful.

    Comment by Andy — July 9, 2009 @ 2:11 pm | Reply

  19. Two thoughts, one of which is a mild spoiler:

    1) It’s funny how differently people can react to different writing. Most people seem to love the Erdedy section earlier, whereas it’s one of my least favorite passages in the book. On the other hand, the yrstruly section is one of my favorites. I think it reads very easily, and very effectively communicates the thoughts and experience of the character. It is also very important in linking several characters, but establishing the link requires piecing together numerous disparate passages. Which brings me to:

    2) SPOILER (though this has already been mentioned.) It never occurred that yrstruly could be the older Pemulis. It’s certainly mentioned that Poor Tony and Matty Pemulis crewed together, but I never connected that to this passage. (Further connection to other characters is established much later in the book.) So, spoiler or otherwise, thank you for the insight, cousin.

    Comment by Dan Summers — July 9, 2009 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

  20. SPOILER but – on page 562 when Lenz and Green are walking and talking and Lenz has just done a few rails, at one point at the end of a section the narration deteriorates (“recurving dream”) as Lenz gets more erratic in speech and thought, and refers to Lenz, in the 3rd person, as “yrstruly” – I took that to be a kind of winking reference to just who that was earlier in the book. Of course being my first read-through I’ve had a lot of trouble keeping like the Tonys and the peripheral addict characters straight so I may be totally wrong on the Lenz thing, but it definitely says that and I thought it seemed too clear to be mistaken.

    Comment by George D — July 10, 2009 @ 7:25 pm | Reply

  21. If this were a monologue delivered by a character on The Wire, you’d call for riots at the Emmys when it was ignored, but translated to the page it’s unbearable? Reading this passage aloud to my wife is the only real interest she’s had in the book since I started. Isn’t is sacrilege to skip bits when you’re participating in a marathon read fest? Grow a pair, go back and read it.

    Comment by Zach — July 10, 2009 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

  22. (spoilers)
    I think the consensus is that ‘yrstruly’ is Emil Minty. In the section where Poor Tony has his seizure, he says that Emil was mad at him for the thing with Wo and Bobby C. Minty is a heroin addict, unlike Lenz who prefers coke. Doubtful that a coke fiend like Lenz would be hanging with smackheads. The ‘yrstruly’ reference does appear in the Lenz section though, which is an interesting mystery.

    Still, if Emil Minty is ‘yrstruly’, and Burt F. Smith is the guy they mugged and left by the dumpster, and they are both in Ennet House at the same time, it’s weird they never recognize each other. Maybe Burt Smith was too drunk at the time to remember Minty. Certainly Emil wouldn’t be the one to bring it up. :)

    Comment by Josh — July 10, 2009 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

    • (spoilers)
      I guess it’s important to keep in mind that in the Lenz section it drops once where in the earlier section it is every other word just about. Open to interpretation, but since it is a relatively common expression maybe it was just thrown in there as a sort of nod to bring comparison: the original yrstruly monologue is a narrative told by someone aboslutely unhinged, where the Lenz section is someone absolutely unhinged narrating to someone else and the whole thing being narrated by a relatively stable omniscient 3rd person – the winking yrstruly could be a way of reminding the reader of the earlier passage to make you consider what Lenz’s mind-state must be like on the inside. Perhaps. Who knows.

      Comment by George D — July 11, 2009 @ 10:25 am | Reply

  23. [...] drive of addiction. The language (”But C was not 2Bdenied”), the setting, what Annie called “the hysterical moment of hysterical realism,” it felt like a writing exercise more [...]

    Pingback by The Importance of Reporting « A Supposedly Fun Blog — July 13, 2009 @ 7:19 pm | Reply

  24. [...] which, I actually enjoyed (to the degree you can enjoy something so dark) the much-maligned (1, 23, 3) “yrstruly” sections, particularly the “2bdenied” compaction which I found [...]

    Pingback by IJ Notes | Geoffrey Werner Challen — July 15, 2009 @ 2:10 am | Reply

  25. [...] was frustrated – like I sense most of the people here were to varying degrees – by the yrstruly passage, the barely existent plot, and the more or less useless endnotes, which for [...]

    Pingback by “You Will Acquire Many Exotic New Facts” « A Supposedly Fun Blog — July 17, 2009 @ 3:36 am | Reply

  26. [...] to this section seem to be of two flavors. The first, and less interesting one, comes from people who expect something different from novels than I do. Rather than an interesting challenge, they find these passages to be an affront to the reader, [...]

    Pingback by September 21, YDAU: Gaudeamus Igitur « Saint Monday — September 22, 2009 @ 3:57 am | Reply

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