A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics

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Best Books of 2015

I took a look at what I planned on reading for the rest of the year, and I doubt I’ll read another book from this year. This means I can safely make my best of 2015 list. In another month, I’ll do a best books I read this year list.

Top 3 in no particular order:

Scarlett Thomas – The Seed Collectors

Unfortunately, one of the best books of the year could find no US publisher, so you’ll have to go through some third party British dealer (easy enough on Amazon).

I’m a long time Thomas fan. I own and have read all of her books more than once. I thought she had peaked with The End of Mr. Y, which is one of my favorite books of all time. I wasn’t as excited by Our Tragic Universe.

Her latest novel takes many of the themes and crazy ideas from Mr. Y, but presents them in a new and more mature way. This is almost a modern-day One Hundred Years of Solitude with its following a gigantic family and brief spouts of magical realism.

It is hard to say much about the book, because it is more about the overall feeling it generates in the reader than specific plot. All these characters are up against a truly modern phenomenon: we are bombarded with gurus, prophets, and self-help books promising enlightenment; yet we live in an age where it is a struggle to take the briefest of moments to reflect with screens providing instant gratification no matter how isolated we try to make ourselves.

Though the book appears to be about other things on its surface, this struggle can be seen as a unifying theme throughout all the characters. The subtlety with which Thomas can comment on what’s important in life makes this a candidate for one of the best books to come out this year. Plus it’s funny and a darn good read!

Ann-Marie MacDonald – Adult Onset

Adult Onset is a brilliant, modern return to a novel form that has been relegated to history: the character study. You’ll find reviews that complain about “too much detail” or “nothing happens” or “slow” or other such nonsense.

This is a result of the age we live in. Everyone wants instant gratification. The plot has to move at this pace, in this way, with cliffhangers here and here, with a perfect Freytag pyramid structure, you must show not tell, and on and on ad nauseum, just so the reader can coast along with minimal effort.

Sorry to disappoint, but this book causes you frustration for a reason. It is an in-depth study of a single character through a few days of her life. Despite the focus, we end up getting a huge backstory masterfully woven into description.

The book stays highly focused on getting to the bottom of a character flaw. We all desperately want neat and tidy explanations for our psychology, yet we rarely get them. It is human nature, and it is explored with touching humanity here.

As outsiders, we want to shout at the character that sometimes life is messy. Stop trying to make it something it isn’t. Yet we can look to our own lives and find ourselves behaving just as the main character. This is the essence of a great character study.

The description people complain about is done for a reason. The main character feels trapped in tedium. The description emulates these emotions by making the reader feel claustrophobic. You can sense every tiny moment of your day fill up with this stuff, and you want to escape to a moment of personal agency.

Welcome to the main character’s life. If you want plot, go read The Da Vinci Code. If you want art, you’ve found it here.

Jonathan Franzen – Purity

I’ve written more than I should have on this book already. It’s good and topical. It opens lots of good conversations. I’d definitely recommend those other two above before this one. It’s also cool to hate Franzen right now for some reason. Don’t be that cool person. Use your own brain to make a decision about this one.

Most Important Book of the Year:

Jon Ronson – So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

It didn’t make the list above, because I thought the writing was pretty confusing at times and the overall coherence could have been better. The information presented is of utmost importance right now, and the investigative journalism done to get this information should be rewarded.

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Is Twitter our Penal Colony?

I know that’s quite the inflammatory title, so I’ll explain it up front. I recently read Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. If you haven’t read it, go do it. I liked The Trial and The Metamorphosis, but neither compare to the true horror that is In the Penal Colony.

I’m going to spoil the whole story so that it can be discussed. The story takes place around an execution machine called the Harrow. The main character asks questions about it. In a brilliantly paced set of revelations, the reader becomes aware of how the torture happens:

The condemned person is gagged and strapped to the machine. A bunch of tiny needles stabs them for six hours, repeatedly tattooing their crime on their body. They bleed a lot, but the machine is carefully designed to not let them die. Then they’re buried alive.

But it’s much, much worse than that. There is a collection of laws that must followed in the colony (it was unclear whether anyone had access to them to know what they are). When charged with the crime, you are not told what it is. You have no chance to defend yourself. You are convicted without trial. The first time you learn of any misdoing is too late, because it is from the words appearing on your body from the Harrow.

Unfortunately, this should sound all too familiar from Twitter shaming. People post jokes without knowing what the rules are for offending the wrong group. Then they get accused and convicted without trial. The first time they learn of their un-PC crime is when the words start flowing across their Twitter feed. By then it is too late. They will probably lose their job and have the next several years of their life wrecked.

Does the story give us any hope or are we stuck in this twisted sense of justice forever? The end of the story is hard to make sense of. The executioner turns the machine on himself and gets the words “Be Just” tattooed on him. By administering this punishment on others, the executioner has clearly broken the rule of being just. This machine and system is so clearly unjust that we don’t need the story to understand that. By analogy, I think the Twitter punishment is not just, but the people doing it have not realized this yet. They call it social justice the same as the executioner in the story calls the Harrow justice. This doesn’t make it so.

One interpretation in light of this analogy would be that when members of the mob become targets themselves, they will be dealt a sort of poetic justice and see how wrong they were. Although this is satisfying to see when it happens (think of the “dongle joke shamer” who lost her own job as well), it is a “two wrongs don’t make a right situation” and is unsustainable. An eye for an eye and the whole world would be blind.

Ultimately, I think the ending teaches us that we can only get out of this mess if the people instigating it take matters into their own hands to stop it. Outside forces won’t ever be enough. Unfortunately, these people will probably have the machine of their own making turn on them for this, and like the main character, they too will be a victim of this justice. But it has to be their own choice, otherwise the practice will continue unhindered.

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Thoughts on Joanna Newsom’s Divers

I’ve made it no secret that I think Joanna Newsom is one of the most important living musicians. After five years, she has finally released her newest album Divers. I must begin this post with a ton of caveats. Writing about Newsom is difficult, because her albums are so complex. The melody, rhythm, and harmony could be analyzed for all their intricacies or for how they interact with the lyrics. The lyrics could be analyzed on their own. I can’t even get to a fraction of it, so I won’t try.

To me, this album is the pinnacle of what she has been working towards. It contains some long-form highly metaphorical harp/voice pieces like she did on Ys. It has some more modern pieces like on Have One on Me. And it has some very traditional folk style pieces like The Milk-Eyed Mender.

The album is unlike most in that all the songs must be taken together to get the whole experience. They are inextricably tied together. This post will mostly be about things I hear that relate to the main themes explored.

The main ideas have to do with the elusiveness of time (it moves both forward and backward? more on this later) and the impermanence and cyclic nature of life. One thing that jumps out after several listens is that the album itself is a cycle. The last word of the album cuts off without finishing, and the word gets finished as the first word of the album. The first song starts with birth and the last song ends with what could be considered death.

Now I’ll go through the places where time comes up. In “Anecdotes” there are two references. “Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do” and “temporal infidelity” (a bizarre phrase that I love). In “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” we get “Time is smaller than Space is wide.” At the end of “The Things I Say” is a strange sound that I can only interpret as the sound of playing the song backwards. This is the first foreshadowing of the last song.

In “Divers” we get the theme of the backward motion of time again with “infinite regress” and “infinite backslide.” In “A Pin-Light Bent” the idea of “inversion” comes up several times, again giving a dual meaning to inverting the direction of time.

The last song, “Time, As a Symptom,” ties it all together. The entire song is about time. “Time passed hard,” “The river of time,” “Time moves both ways,” “Time is just a symptom of love,” and so on.

This last song is probably one of the best things she has ever written. For one, it must be listened to as the last track on the album. Part of its greatness is that all the songs leading up to it keep alluding to what is to come (as I think I demonstrated above). These ideas get in your subconscious and are ready to bear the impact of this piece.

It is also the only song on the album to have a big climax. It builds and builds until it explodes in a brilliant, exalted moment with the perfect words to summarize what the album is about: “Joy of life.”

I could go on and on about how I think certain songs relate to other ones, but as I’ve said before, I think her music is best not over-analyzed. It is so abstract and metaphorical that the best way to experience it is to let the image/sound combinations evoke feelings on their own. After repeated listens, you’ll start to notice how they fit together which will enhance the experience. This is what makes her so important. I don’t know of anyone else doing this type of thing (maybe The Dear Hunter).

I can’t recommend this album enough to anyone with a serious interest in music.

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David Lynch and Partial Fourth Wall Breaking

First, I added two widgets to the side of this page so people can see my progress on the the Goodreads reading challenge (and the books I’ve read for it) and the book(s) I’m currently reading. I know most of you probably use some sort of RSS reader and never see the actual page, but I thought I’d throw that out there.

I rewatched Inland Empire recently and was surprised to find that it wasn’t as confusing as I initially thought. I hadn’t watched it in probably eight years, but I remember my initial reaction: this is nonsense. I loved Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. It seemed that the abstraction jumped up a notch too far to be comprehensible in Inland Empire.

***Spoiler Warning: I give some of my interpretation of the movie. Obviously, no one really knows what it is about, so this shouldn’t be a big deal even if you haven’t seen it.***

This time through I noticed something interesting; the viewer isn’t left to figure it all out on their own. A lot of clues are given in the form of partial fourth wall breaking. If you’ll recall, breaking the fourth wall means talking directly to the audience. Think Annie Hall, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Fight Club. It lets the audience in on something the main character is up to that the other characters don’t know, sometimes to humorous effect, sometimes not.

A lot of people don’t like this technique, because it is so jarring. It pulls you out of the movie. If the information is vital rather than humorous, it can seem like laziness or cheating for the writer to not work at getting the information to you in a more subtle way.

Here’s where Lynch’s technique comes in. I propose that Lynch uses a partial breaking of the fourth wall. He makes his characters speak to the audience directly, but the words are part of a normal(ish) conversation. If you aren’t paying attention, you’ll think two or more characters are speaking to each other. Instead, they are speaking to the audience to clue them in to what is happening or about to happen.

This technique has been around forever. Robert M. Fowler presents a convincing argument in Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark that the Gospel of Mark uses this technique. We obvious have no idea what Jesus actually said, so the writer of Mark used conversations with Jesus to speak over the heads of the disciples and directly to the reader. For example, when he says, “Take up your cross …” the disciples couldn’t possibly know what that meant, because he hadn’t been crucified yet! These words are meant for the reader who already knows the full story.

Anyway, enough on that digression. The technique has been around forever. Here’s how I think Lynch uses it. One way to tell is when conversations stop making sense and don’t sound like any sort of conversation normal people would have. Ask yourself: if the character is speaking to me about the movie they are in, does that line make sense?

But then I noticed a certain camera technique went hand in hand with these bizarre conversations. Lynch uses an extreme close-up during such moments. The character doesn’t look directly at the camera like in a normal fourth wall breaking moment, but it is darn close. He keeps it so that it looks like they are in conversation, but really the character is probably speaking directly to you.

I’ll explain using an example from the first scene where this happens. One of the first scenes in the movie is of Grace Zabriskie’s character visiting Laura Dern’s character(s). She claims to have moved down the street and is getting to know the neighbors. The conversation starts off with normal camera angles and mundane things (I like to get to know my neighbors, which house are you living in, etc).

At some point things go weird. Arguably, when the new neighbor says, “It’s difficult to see it from the road,” (in reference to her house) she is already speaking to the audience. She is preparing us to interpret these close-ups. We should interpret this sentence as: It is difficult to see what the movie is about from the far shots of the camera, but if you pay attention to the close-ups things will be clearer.

The next part of the conversation pulls in to an extreme close-up of the face of the neighbor (but note that Laura’s stays at a normal head shot). She says things like, “I hear you have a new role to play.” She’s telling the audience that Laura’s character will be playing a role in the movie you are watching (we learn this later by a different means) even though it sounds natural enough that she might be referring to the fact that Laura’s character is an actress.

The weird stuff then starts appearing. “Your husband. He’s involved.” Laura interprets this as a question and says, “No.” Her confusion comes from the fact that those words were not directed at her but to the audience. Her husband is involved in the true plot to the movie. Grace’s character is so close to looking at the camera in these moments that it is hard not to see it as breaking the fourth wall. Both character’s faces turn directly towards the camera, but their eyes stay ever so slightly away.

The neighbor goes on, “Is there a murder in your film?” Laura gets confused again, “No.” The neighbor changes it to a statement. “No? I think you are wrong about that.” We, as the audience, are being told that Inland Empire is about a murder. In fact, we were told the husband is involved and were told a story about infidelity. Putting the pieces together we have been directly told that the key to unlocking the movie: Laura’s character cheats on her husband and is then murdered by him.

If you watch the film with this in mind, everything starts to make more sense. Pay attention to when there are extreme close-ups, so you know that you are being told vital information through a partial fourth wall breaking technique. Good luck.

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The Stories of Cheever Part 3

This is the last post in the series. He really only has two more stories that are well-known: “The Five-Forty-Eight” and “Goodbye, My Brother.”

“The Five-Forty-Eight” is a strange case study for me. To my eye, it breaks a ton of traditional advice given to writers. The story itself is a suspense/thriller plot. A man notices that a woman is following him. He realizes that it is a secretary he used to have but fired. She is crazy and wants revenge, so she follows him onto a train and threatens him at gunpoint to listen to her.

First, it was originally published in The New Yorker. I hate most stories from The New Yorker. I think I wrote this back when I commented on some BASS 2014 stories. I’m not sure if they get heavily edited to always sound the same, but I started reading this story and immediately knew where it had been published. I looked it up and was correct.

The prose is very formulaic and tedious. It is pronoun heavy and has this too precise alternating between he, she, we, they to the point of distraction. Fake sample: “He looked at her. She shied away. He knew what she was thinking. She reached out for his hand. They walked together. We live our lives as if there will always be a tomorrow.” I swear, that type of thing is in every story they publish.

The story starts out with the suspense of being followed. Structurally there is a flash back to learn about this woman. Starting with a flashback is usually considered very bad form, because it breaks the suspense. I think that is correct in this case.

I’m not a no-flashback purist, but when the flashback information can easily be transferred to the story body, I think it can only improve the flow. In “The Five-Forty-Eight” the material could be naturally conveyed through later conversation, since this is happening anyway. It would also heighten the suspense of not knowing who this woman is.

The most interesting detail is how the main character keeps coming back to the woman’s handwriting. We are meant to see the instability in her through the ugly, chaotic writing. It makes me think of Palahniuk’s Diary. I wonder if he was referencing this story when he chose to make handwriting analysis such a major part of his novel.

The plot itself feels very cliché, even for its time. This is the basic plot of tons of pulp thrillers and Hitchcock films. I don’t think it is supposed to be a parody. It just reads like a standard psychological thriller.

The one thing I really liked about the story was how the random act of violence changed the characters. We don’t like to think about it, but these types of things can and do happen all the time. They change people forever. The man and the woman have opposing trajectories. The man starts confident, but by the end of the event, he is shattered, face down in the dirt. The woman starts timid and self-conscious, but is confident and restored after the event.

I’m not sure I like the message: revenge can be fulfilling and helpful in overcoming someone that has wronged you.

“Goodbye, My Brother” I have a bit more respect for. It is told in first-person, but overall it reads like an ensemble piece. The impressive part is how he gets such a large number of fully developed characters into such a small space. Having more than two or three main characters is difficult to handle in short stories. Cheever achieves this by setting up a large number of tightly written scenes to get different combinations to interact with each other.

In addition, the house itself almost becomes a character. Each of the characters derides problems with it or takes comfort in memories from it. This aids in fleshing out the family history. Not that he’s doing anything original with this technique, but it fits the story well.

I like that even though there is no action, there is still a lot of tension and forward motion that give way to moments of emotion. It is interesting how he can achieve this by making it feel like something is always about to boil over into a major catastrophe. It does, in fact, eventually happen, but I won’t spoil it here if you haven’t read it. There is a very intense scene between the main character and his brother. It is the only bit of action, and the slow build up makes the release far better than if there had been action the whole time.

Now that I’ve gone through the major Cheever stories, I can say that I can see hints of greatness throughout. It is still a mystery to me why he is heralded as one of the best. He is very good, but so are a hundred other people. My guess is that his material spoke to a particular demographic that had most of the literary power of his time.

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The Stories of Cheever Part 2

Today we’ll cover two of the most famous of Cheever’s stories, “The Enormous Radio,” and “The Swimmer.”

“The Enormous Radio” was one of Cheever’s earlier stories, so I’m going to assume he did some growing before he hit the pinnacle of his story writing. This story is truly mystifying. I’ll try my best though.

The story begins with a husband buying a new, large radio. Something seems wrong with it, because they get static and weird conversations interrupting the normal programming. The story predates The Twilight Zone, but the premise could have fit right in with it: the radio picks up on conversations happening around their apartment building. They can listen to the lives of other people.

This also feels like the plot to Rear Window, except the suspense never builds. The wife hears a lot of terrible things she doesn’t want to hear (but can’t tear herself away), but it’s not like she gets wrapped up in a murder or anything. In the end, they fix the radio, but it’s too late. Their earlier peaceful marriage has been ruined by the thing.

There are a few ways to interpret the end. At first, I assumed it was ironic. The wife kept saying that at least they didn’t have problems like these other people. I thought the end was a big reveal that they actually did have these problems all along. The radio showed that all people have problems including the main characters. The radio gave voice to their hidden inner problems, hence the irony.

Later, I realized the radio might have caused the problems. This is the more obvious reading. They are bringing other people’s problems into their home which causes stress on their relationship. It is a less literary reading, and the end doesn’t have as much force if interpreted this way but seems consistent throughout.

So what did this story do to deserve such lasting fame? One obvious thing is that it handles a gigantic cast of characters in a very small space in an inventive way. You learn about these people and their problems through short clips of dialogue through the radio. It’s hard to consider this a knock-out reason, though, because lots of writers had been experimenting with this type of thing by this point.

Thematically is where it does its best work. The story examines the question of what it means to be happy in a new light. At this point, American authors seemed to have the dreary “realism” of what it means to not be happy down: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, etc. The other side was the fairy tale type story which gave an unrealistic portrayal of happiness. This story suggests that the couple is genuinely happily married, but they still have problems. It isn’t neat and tidy, but it isn’t dreary either.

Let’s move on to “The Swimmer,” aka, the greatest short story ever written in the English language. When I say I don’t get the Cheever phenomenon, it mostly has to do with this. The more regard people give to a story, the less likely I am to like it.

The story is about a man that decides he is going to “swim” home by diving in and swimming across all his neighbor’s pools until he gets home. It is midsummer and the swim starts off easy. But as the story goes on it gets colder and harder to swim. At one point a storm breaks out and it appears to be autumn. He can’t really remember some things that people keep telling him, and things generally get weirder. Finally, he makes it home to find his whole family had moved out a long time ago. The main character stands there confused by the whole thing.

I get it. It fuses a metaphor with reality to create a surreal David Lynch-esque story. The swimming home is a journey which represents his life. He’s out drinking (probably an alcoholic which blows all his money based on several people saying they won’t loan him any more), and his family leaves him without him even noticing. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, he escaped the reality of his life for this fantasy.

Of course, the story is extremely well written. It starts off with a clever hook of this swimming feat, but as it gets weirder, it keeps the suspense of trying to figure out what is going on. The little details that each of the neighbors drops allude to different parts of his life, so all the pieces are in place for the big reveal at the end. It’s sort of like The Sixth Sense where the ending allows you to go back and think about all the earlier details in a different way.

But I must return to the question: what makes it so good? I’m at a loss for that, because the journey as a plot device is as old as stories themselves. The journey as a metaphor for someone’s life is as old as metaphor usage. Surrealist conflation of metaphor and reality had been going on quite a bit by this point in literature. So even though it is a particularly well-done combination of these things, it wasn’t breaking any new ground or anything.

I also find the first half to be very boring, and it was difficult for me to get into the story. Why should I care about the character at all? Maybe this is part of the point. The guy is clearly a stand in for Narcissus. He is so self-absorbed, looking at his own image in the water that he loses his life without realizing it, so readers aren’t supposed to identify with him.

Next time we’ll move on to two stories I understand a bit better.

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The Stories of Cheever Part 1

I have a confession. I don’t get why Cheever’s short stories are so loved. If you look at my past blog posts, you’ll see that I could pontificate for hours on the greatness of stories by DFW or Barth or Borges or Barthelme or Calvino or … You might be thinking: well, those are post-modernists. You grab on to the structures, language, and self-reflexivity when you write about them. Most people read for character and story.

But I also get why Turgenev or James Baldwin or Michael Chabon or Hemingway or Joyce’s Dubliners are good. They show human struggle and focus on exposing deep truths. They are masterful at building intensity and pacing. They have consistent and unique voices throughout the stories. In other words, they’re about something, and the writing makes you see that.

Let’s talk about Cheever. Pretty much all writers put him in the top 10 greatest short story writers in English. I’ve seen several forums where “The Swimmer” is universally agreed to be the greatest short story of all time. This means I’m missing something. The fact that I don’t understand what makes him great means I can’t tell whether my own stories have this quality.

Unlike the stories mentioned above, Cheever stories read to me like they aren’t about anything, and then at the last moment you realize it might be about something, but that something is totally different. In other words, they are boring and the end doesn’t seem to cohere with the rest of the work. This series will be about some of Cheever’s most famous stories and my attempt to figure out why people care.

The first story is one that I almost get. It is the closest I’ve come to liking a Cheever story. I know there isn’t going to be a single silver bullet that explains the greatness. It will be a hundred little things that don’t seem like much on their own but when taken together add up to greatness.

We’ll start by examining “The Country Husband.” The beginning of this story is magnificent, which is why I say I kind of get this one. A man is on an airplane that makes a crash landing. This is the type of traumatizing event that can permanently change a life. This is probably the most significant thing to ever happen in this man’s life.

When he gets home, he tries to tell his family. One by one, they are all caught up in their own trivial activities, so they can’t hear him. We make fun of this as a purely 21st century phenomenon. You’ve seen the scene I’m referring to. A family sits down to dinner or someone is on a date, but everyone is so involved with their phones/tablets/devices/etc that no serious conversation could ever happen. No one even hears the other people when they speak.

This story proves that narrative wrong. Cheever perfectly captures this feeling in 1954. If the story ended there, I’d say this was a work of genius that has withstood the test of time. It is a brilliant criticism of suburban culture. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own egocentric trivialities (someone called me an idiot on the internet!) that they go unaware of actual traumatizing events even when being told to their face.

The story also contains striking poetic lines: “She paints with lightning strokes that panorama of drudgery in which her youth, her beauty, and her wit have been lost.” Or: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” I’ve heard that people like Cheever’s stories because he drops these in unexpected places. But this can’t be a real reason he’s so admired, because almost all the rest of his sentences are so unremarkable.

Here’s where the story loses me. The main character becomes unrelatable. I don’t mean “unlikeable,” which I think is fine for a story. His actions make little sense. He says something extremely mean and out of character to someone. He essentially stalks the babysitter claiming to love her but briefly fantasizes about raping her.

I understand on an intellectual level that all the plot points, no matter how extreme and varied, tie together around the theme of breaking the myth of a perfect suburban neighborhood. But it seems to come at the cost of being believable, which I would have thought was the element that made a story like this great.

I can rationalize the behavior by saying the main character bottled this traumatic event up and these are the ways the pyschological trauma is manifesting itself. But that’s mostly a cheap way to fix something that really felt off to me.

Of course, the point was not to criticize, but to find out why it is great. In this case I’d say there is excellent metaphorical language, a strong and relatable cultural critique, and each element served the overarching theme.


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