The Cruft of Fiction, by David Letzler

The Cruft of Fiction, by David Letzler

Our world has never been more filled with incoherent clutter masquerading as information. It’s present in every corner of our lives today; tomorrow it’ll likely be even worse. The data pool has been so polluted with gibberish that in 2017 we have politicians who can’t seem to agree on what exactly constitutes a fact. Vapid internet-meme culture teaches us to repeat slightly modified nothings to each other, over and over again for internet points redeemable for exactly the same – nothing. We are bombarded with huge amounts of junk data every single day of our lives, and sorting through it to get to the morsels of useful information is becoming a necessary life skill.

How often do you read a headline, skip the article, and read the most popular comment to learn what your opinion should be? I’m guilty of doing that, big time, and I wasn’t even aware of it until someone pointed it out. There is just so much information available to us from every outlet, all competing for our attention – most of it trying to sell us something – that we don’t have near enough time to read it all. So, what do we do? Let’s circle back to that in a sec.

As defined in this book, Cruft is any text in a work of fiction that doesn’t particularly add anything to that work. You could call it “junk text”. When you hear someone complaining about a particular page-count heavy novel as “meandering” or “painfully boring”, they’re most likely complaining about the Cruft of that novel. Instead of merely being extraneous fat that should’ve been trimmed by a more talented editor, Letzler argues that Cruft may have a specific, useful purpose in these mega-novels, and he has well thought-out, very persuasive arguments to back up his thinking.

David LetzlerThe gist of the argument is this: Cruft isn’t necessarily bad. It can be viewed as a tool to help us learn to modulate our attentional faculties. He argues that by reading Cruft containing mega-novels we learn the valuable skill of how to sift pertinent information from the non-important, and this skill can be applied to other areas of our lives; learning when to skim and when to pay attention. After all, mega-novels so often hide bits of useful information buried in a pile of red herrings. If you read enough novels like this, you’re bound to improve picking the useful bits through the clutter. This line of thinking redefines boredom and confusion as features of mega-novels, instead of pejorative descriptors. He also argues that these descriptors often say a lot more about the person doing the describing than the actual novel itself.

I tend to agree, and I love this argument. It’s something I’ve been dancing around for a while, but never really put into words. If you’re a fan of huge, “boring” novels (like I am), then you’ll undoubtedly adore this academic literary criticism deconstructing the inherent value of the most boring parts of those novels. I had to laugh at myself a little while reading it, because there’s something so deliciously postmodern about reading a book all about the most boring parts of boring books. It was always interesting, and to it’s credit, contained no Cruft of it’s own. Something that I consider a huge achievement, given the subject matter.

Of course, the argument is not without its own issues, the least of which being that it’s a tad self-serving for a fan of mega-novels to find a way to praise even the most boring parts of them, but Letzler does a wonderful job illustrating these counter arguments right off the bat. I love a good academic approach like this, because when it’s done correctly, the author will spend a good portion of their writing laying out all of the problems with their main thesis, and then work backward from there in order to argue their point more effectively. It adds so much solidity if you can show that you’re already aware of the detractions against your view. He pulls it off marvelously here, and covers absolutely every angle of the concept.

Each chapter is categorically organized according to the different types of extant Cruft commonly found in mega-novels. There are numerous examples and case studies from novels like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, 2666, House of Leaves, J R, and lots of others that are notoriously Cruft heavy. It’s all very well illustrated and argued, and the sections covering the handful of novels discussed that I haven’t read, were often more interesting to me than the ones covering the novels that I have. I’ve always thought that good non-fiction books should introduce the reader to several more books to read, and this one is no exception. My TBR pile has grown, yet again.

So the next time you feel your attention wandering, try to approach your boredom as a feature rather than a failure. Focus in on it and see what it’s telling you. Instead of just reading that headline and skipping to the comments, read the whole article, but try skimming through it; pull the interesting bits forward from the Cruft. You just might be able to train yourself to be a more effective reader.

The Cruft of Fiction is available from University of Nebraska Press.

My Struggle: Book 5, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 5, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

“What was consciousness other than the surface of the soul’s ocean?”

Book five details Karl Ove’s life from around age nineteen to thirty-three, but in a lot of ways it feels like the closing chapter of My Struggle. Of course there is still one more book coming in the pipeline; whose english translation I hear has been delayed again, this time until “Fall 2018” due to it being twelve-hundred pages and requiring an additional translator in order to handle the extra page load. According to Knausgaard, the forthcoming sixth volume is supposed to be more about his friend’s and family’s reception to their portrayal in the first five books. That should be very interesting.

This wouldn’t be a review of a My Struggle book if I didn’t mention how fascinatingly readable the prose was. I say fascinatingly readable because I have no idea why it is. I really can’t explain it, but his writing gets inside of me and latches onto something. He does such a fantastic job of relating the deep rooted sense of isolation we experience from, and along with the rest of humanity. We seem to keep two groups in our minds: the self (Us), and everyone else (Them). We are always alone even in company, because we can never truly verify that anyone else really exists.

More than any of the others this book is all about Karl Ove coming to terms with the realities of being a writer. At 19-20 he is in love with the mythology of writing, but not so much with the actual act of writing. He loves the idea but not the reality. He takes criticism of his work very poorly, very personally. He sees himself as not having the depth of soul to truly write like his influences. He feels that there is a chasm between him and others; that he is living a duplicitous life; that he is an imposter and everyone else the genuine article. I think that this ties deeply into his ultimate reason for writing My Struggle: I think he’s trying to demolish the barrier between his private and public life in a way so destructive, it cannot be undone. I think he needs that barrier to break down.

Karl Ove Knausgaard

He states several times that he feels he is a separate person internally than who he is perceived to be externally. He’s able to alleviate this somewhat through heavy drinking, but heavy drinking causes him insurmountable other issues. When he drinks too much, he’s finally comfortable, but he does all kinds of things that bring him shame, and this adds to his compartmentalization of his true self from his public self. In writing this 3600 page, six volume highly personal memoir novel, he is forcing his internal and external, depth and surface selves to intermingle and become one. Since he feels trapped in this situation, to me it seems like a way for him to force himself out.

The character of Karl Ove – I say character because he says over and over that he doesn’t remember much from the periods of time he’s covering, therefore there is definitely a percentage of events and memories that are invented – is the perfect anti-hero. He is often very abrasive to those around him, doing things that are terrible to those he loves, but we’re given so much of his internal thought process that we relate with the reasons for his actions. In a way, it’s more that he’s just very honest about his faults and shortcomings as well as his achievements. Usually when we tell our own stories, we leave out all of the rough edges, and paint ourselves in a much better light. Instead, he seems to be making an effort at self-mythologizing as objectively as he can. Worts and all.

Really, we are all anti-heroes in our own stories when we’re honest about both the bad and the good that we’ve done. I think this is why the concept of an anti-hero is so broadly appealing in stories; it’s really just a well developed character. If a character doesn’t have a little darkness inside of them, they don’t feel real to us.

In conclusion, I loved this book. It wove together the disparate threads from the previous four books very tightly. It was also the first to move almost entirely in a linear fashion, which was a big departure from the others. Finishing it makes me want to go back and reread book two, which was previously my least favorite, but I think the additional insight and perspective gained from reading five would make it much more interesting. The main narrative of book two chronologically lands right after the events of book five. I think that book five could be read before book two, and might even be best experienced in that order.

Now begins the long wait for book six.

Off Rock, by Kieran Shea

Off Rock, by Kieran Shea

I read this novel almost entirely from a hammock in my backyard, and I’d recommend taking that approach. It’s good and pulpy, a light summer Science Fiction read. A blue collar crime caper set during the closing days of a mobile mining station on an asteroid. Seedy characters, none particularly too bright, almost all involved in some sort of side action, fumbling their way through life with the limited choices left to them. Blackmail, vices, bribes, and lost causes are all welcome here.

Shea writes in a straightforward, no-nonsense style that reads fast and easy. Think a pulpy crime mag from the 40s, but make that 2740, and transplant that magazine onto a virtual rack residing on an illicit local intranet, accessed from portable “CPUs”. There are no lessons learned, no moral philosophies tying everything together. No overall takeaway. Sometimes a gold heist is just a gold heist. I think it works very well here.

The worldbuilding is sparse, but it has a vague feel of existing just on the outside edges of Cyberpunk. There are mega-corporations that demand complete loyalty, drones that watch your every move, and offenses against mega-corporations carry the harshest punishments: medical experimentation, and if you survive, maybe life in prison afterward. It’s a rough life for an asteroid miner, but if a highly illegal once-in-ten-lifetimes capital one corporate offense comes up, you say fuck the odds, grab hold and see how far it might take you. Maybe it’ll be just the right ticket to get out of that life, but you still have to get your loot off rock to have it do you any good. That’s where things might get difficult. Who do you trust? How much should you trust them? Give ‘em just enough rope for them to hang themselves if they fuck you over? Fuck them over first just in case? All pertinent questions if you’re a low life with limited options trying to better your situation.

This is some great sci-fi escapism, read it on a lazy Sunday, or take a copy on vacation, grab a chair by the pool, or chill in a hammock with a highly alcoholic cold drink. Turn off your head and enjoy. It was just what I needed to read between some heavier non-fiction that I’ve been slowly working on over the last month or so. I plan on picking up copies of the Koko books by the same author this summer as well. I’m hoping it’s more of this, but in a more detailed cyberpunk setting. I’ve heard good things.

 

 

Injection Burn, by Jason M. Hough

Injection Burn, by Jason M. Hough

A high concept Space Opera full of huge ideas; instantly readable, and a hell of a lot of fun. I have been reading a bunch of really heavy non-fiction lately and this was just the right fun SF to break out of that over the last few days. It’s been such a ride reading this.

I am extremely impressed with the pacing of this novel. It builds and builds and builds, and just never lets up. A real page turner like James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, but exploring loftier themes similar to some of those covered in Iain M. Banks’ The Culture novels. I’m a big fan of both, so this resonated with me on nearly every level.

Jason M. HoughThe cover is extremely action/military Scifi looking, and there is a lot of that toward the end, but I’m extremely happy that it’s not just an action story. There is a lot of classic, high concept, creative idea science fiction going on here as well. If you’ve read last year’s fantastic Zero World, you know this is something that Jason M. Hough is particularly fantastic at. At the risk of diverging a little here, I’m just going to say that Zero World needs a lot of sequels. It’s absolutely crying out for them.

This book is technically both the fourth Dire Earth novel, and the first in a new duology. I had previously read about the first hundred pages of The Darwin Elevator, the first Dire Earth novel, and couldn’t really get into it. So, I was only slightly familiar with the concept of the series going in, but never felt like I missed anything. I’m happy to report that this could absolutely be read without having to read any of the other Dire Earth books first; I have a feeling there are some small moments of payoff for longtime fans of the series sprinkled throughout though. I’m always really impressed with books that are both standalone, and a part of a larger series like this. That takes some serious writing chops to pull off, which Jason M. Hough obviously appears to have.

It is definitely half of a much bigger story, and ends on a cliffhanger of sorts. Thank god that Del Rey is publishing them less than a month apart. I think I would lose my mind if I had to wait much longer than that to finish this narrative. Del Rey, if you’re reading this, please send me a copy of Escape Velocity ASAP. I kind of need it.

Injection Burn is out now, and the follow up Escape Velocity will be out June 27th.

 

Skyler Luiken and his ragtag crew of scavengers, scientists, and brawlers have a new mission: a long journey to a distant planet where a race of benevolent aliens are held captive behind a cloud of destructive ships known as the Swarm Blockade. No human ships have ever made it past this impenetrable wall, and Skyler knows not what to anticipate when they reach their destination.
Safe to say that the last thing he expects to find there is a second human ship led by the tough-as-nails Captain Gloria Tsandi. These two crews and their respective captains initially clash, but they will have to learn to work together when their mutual foe closes in around them and begins the outright destruction of their vessels along with any hope of a return to Earth.


Man of the Year, by Lou Cove

Man of the Year, by Lou Cove

“Howie is right: if we’re all going to get whacked, what matters is who is standing beside you when the universe speaks your name. And it matters that you stand with them.”

Synopsis:

In 1978 Jimmy Carter mediates the Camp David Accords, Fleetwood Mac tops charts with Rumours, Starsky fights crime with Hutch, and twelve-year-old Lou Cove is uprooted from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Salem, Massachusetts– a backwater town of witches, Puritans, and sea-captain wannabes. After his eighth move in a dozen years, Lou figures he should just resign himself to a teenage purgatory of tedious paper routes, school bullies, and unrequited lust for every girl he likes.

Then one October morning an old friend of Lou’s father, free-wheeling (and free-loving) Howie Gordon arrives at the Cove doorstep from California with his beautiful wife Carly. Howie is everything Lou wants to be: handsome as a movie star, built like a god and in possession of an unstoppable confidence.

Then, over Thanksgiving dinner, Howie drops a bombshell. Holding up an issue of Playgirl Magazine, he flips to the center and there he is, Mr. November in all his natural glory. Howie has his eye on becoming the next Burt Reynolds, and a wild idea for how to do it: win Playgirl’s Man of the Year. And he knows just who should manage his campaign. As Lou and Howie canvas Salem for every vote in town – little old ladies at bridge club, the local town witch, construction workers on break and everyone in between – Lou is forced to juggle the perils of adolescence with the pursuit of Hollywood stardom.

Man of the Year is the improbable true story of Lou’s thirteenth year, one very unusual campaign, and the unexpected guest who changes everything.

You simply must read this memoir. It was fantastic, and genuinely one of my favorite reads of the year. It’s endearing and thought-provoking, and a great conversation about the differing degrees of honesty and openness required in different relationships.

Being a child of the mid eighties, and growing up in a tiny little (population ~2000) tourist trap meets hippie haven town in Northwest Arkansas in the nineties, I knew nothing of late seventies Salem, MA when I cracked the spine on this. My ignorance of the time period and the area, mixed with a killer synopsis established my initial intrigue, and the universal coming-of-age themes present in the narrative sucked me the rest of the way in. I ended up absorbing the book in a couple sittings.

Lou CoveThe cast of characters in the Cove family and extended family — as well as Lou’s childhood friends — are odd, vibrant and alive. Louis’ family and upbringing could not be more different than my own, but there are some things that are universal to all childhoods. As each event occurs in the story, I found myself comparing the reactions that my family would have had with the ones that Louis’ did. It’s great to read about people so different from myself and those I’m familiar with, but so similar in other ways.

A handful of times throughout the book, late nineteen-seventies Salem is compared to the Salem of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s day by way of some quotes from him regarding the city he loathed, and characters mentioning him and his works. What a brilliant way to contrast the seventies conservative crackdown on “smut” that was sweeping the area (and the country) at the time, with the narrative witch hunt of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, as well as the more literal witch hunt that is nearly eponymously associated with the word Salem.

It reads a like a first person novel, written from the perspective of a boy in his twelfth year. There is a tiny bit of unreliable narrator going on here as well, since a large portion of the story is about the goings on of the adults in Louis’s life, but told from a perspective that doesn’t quite yet understand that adult world. The hinting at the reality of each situation is handled with skill and finesse.

Ultimately, it’s a story about Louis having an adventure, growing up, or rather being forced to confront the adult world and coming out the other side a changed person.