Here’s a summary of my second week of basically getting paid a living wage to sit at a desk and read, occasionally assisting someone with their financial straits.
Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut is another cultural-osmosis writer. Prior to this week, my entire experience with his work involved a teenage read of Slaughterhouse Five, most of Breakfast of Champions read by Stanley Tucci before I misplaced one of the CDs, his cameo in Back to School, and seeing a thousand inspirational quotes of his scattered around Tumblr. But like Carver, this wasn’t entirely true: I’d apparently read “Harrison Bergeron” and several other stories in this collection and forgotten about it.
Much of the more “science fiction” pieces in this collection seem downright quaint in 2013: “Bergeron” is like a slightly more sympathetic version of the Ayn Rand/early Spider-Man school of “MAYBE YOU FEEL LIKE AN OUTSIDER AND THAT NOBODY LIKES YOU BUT IT’S OKAY BECAUSE YOU’RE BETTER THAN THEM” libertopian sci-fi, and the title story is some sort of polemnic against… I dunno, Mass Culture or something. Half of these stories felt like they could be b-plots in an NBC sitcom, and in fact several of them were — change a few adjectives and “Who Am I This Time” is a pitch for the Ron Swanson/Duke Silver dualism on Parks & Rec (and draws an even stronger parallel with the ending of “The Foster Portfolio”, while “All The King’s Horses” was recycled for a cutaway on Community last season. “EPICAC” is essentially the model for “The Love-Matic Grampa”, minus the ghost part.
Granted, Vonnegut’s preceded these shows by decades, and was sufficiently regarded that some of the echoes I’m feeling are due to his influence. This always brings to mind a college-age viewing of the original Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. With its rumpled, put-upon loose-cannon protagonist who is getting too old for this shit, public officials more concerned with media reception than results, and cool calculating villains with quirks like knowing each other solely through color-coordinated nicknames (Mr. Blue, Mr. Green) my roommate and I watched the movie scoffing how we’d seen all of this a hundred times, in Die Hard and Lethal Weapon and Reservoir Dogs all the way down to Passenger 57 and Action Jackson. It took us most of the movie to realize that was because all of those films were borrowing from Pelham. It was an unfair reaction. We drank a lot that summer.
So it’s not Vonnegut’s fault that his stories seem less revelatory sixty years down the line. It just means that for many of them, I found myself admiring the influence more than the actual work. I liked the title story, and noticed it was the ‘newest’ story (from 1968, in a collection that spans 1950-1968), which goes some way towards explaining how different it felt from the rest of the book. More than the SF, I also liked the more realistic stories like “More Stately Mansions”, “The Hyannis Port Story”, and “The Lie”. The more romantic stories, geared to the audiences of Ladies Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post are downright mawkish.
The Grifters by Jim Thompson – Apparently this book is a remnant of a “Women in Noir” class Jessica took several summers ago. It was remarkably propulsive for a book that had perhaps two scenes that could be considered “action” in the “action movie” sense, and was mostly about a guy not wanting to attract any attention to himself, who spends about half of the book in the hospital and otherwise convalescing from internal bleeding. I felt like the first part of the turn/reveal at the end was telegraphed, but I still didn’t expect the ending. If I had any complaint, it was that there wasn’t all that much grifting in the book, and the short cons Roy made his living at seemed risky/low reward. But what do I know, maybe in the 1950s people hadn’t figured out how to make change or not spend a month’s wages on casual dice games?
Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis – I was slow to warm up to this book; the first chapter makes it seem like Turley, the small-time muscle/operator, was going to be the lead character. He was unremarkable, as was everything else about the set-up. Once it became clear that Eddie/Edward was the protagonist, and that the book was exploring the bog standard “deal gone south” aftermath from an outside perspective, I was sufficiently engrossed. The only note I took while reading the book was that they describe someone suffering a “brain concussion” in a fight, which is unneeded specificity on the level of the banner reading “Meet Chewbacca (of Star Wars)” at last years Comicon. I’m mildly concerned that I am having an easier time reading books about people down on their luck thrown into dire situations while they’re content to stasis than books about People Doing Good Things. In a way it’s less troubling to read about a dive bar piano player narrowly escaping death than a bunch of twenty-nothing year olds revolutionizing music, literature, and techonology when you’re sitting for eight hours a day waiting to receive phone calls and trying to remember that you have to place your book flat against your desk or else you might get a demerit or something.
The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World by Paul Collins – I picked this up solely based on Paul Collins’s name. I loved Barnvard’s Folly and all his work for McSweeney’s publications, but nearly all of his writing deals with what the subtitle of Barnvard calls “People Who Didn’t Change the World”; if Collin’s writing focuses on “history as written by the losers”, what’s he doing writing about the world’s most famous author and the most valuable book in the world? I shouldn’t have been concerned: Collins used Shakespeare’s First Folio as a lens through which to write about the history of London, publishing, copyright, libraries, archiving, bibliomania, cultural imperialism, and any number of other fascinating digressions. My only beef is the jarringly sudden conclusion, when he wanders into a Japanese bookstore and muses about the place of manga in global culture, wondering if one day four hundred years from now, someone might venerate a great manga artist with books like his and museum exhibitions. He’s a little late on that, but other than this half-baked conclusion The Book of William was very entertaining and informative.
I think my favorite moment in the book was when Collins points out that one of the finest surviving examples of the First Folio, valued at millions of dollars, had written in the margins of Hamlet the following: “Best i desier the readeres mougth to kiss the wrighteres arse”. Of all the juvenile book vandals in the world, this guy is KING. All of the terrible things I wrote in textbooks have doubtlessly long since been pulped, but this little scamp is immortal.
Garry Trudeau – Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire by Kerry Soper – The first book I tapped out on. This is a monograph from an academic publisher written by a professor, so I shouldn’t really be shocked that it reads like an exhaustively sourced and repetitive dissertation. I am a lapsed Doonesbury fan; I checked all of Trudeau’s omnibi out of the library as a kid, and for years had a Doonesbury Character Flowchart I clipped out of the Sunday funnies pinned to the wall of my childhood bedroom. This book had nudged me towards catching up with the strip and renewed my admiration for Trudeau’s singular achievement, but I finally gave up a hundred or so pages into the book. It’s not badly written, it just proved dangerously soporific to read on the job.
I read every single article in the March 2003 debut issue of the Believer. This was an exercise in discipline as much as anything, and since I have the first 60+ issues of the magazine sitting in a box in my apartment, I plan to see how far this exercise can take me. More thoughts on this later, but for now here is a list of all of the dropcap letters in the first issue: GBIOTAIITAWBACTWINIIPTALIAPPIMBTIWS