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.

Void Star, by Zachary Mason

Void Star, by Zachary Mason

I’m notoriously picky, and it’s hard to find something that checks every one of my boxes: worldbuilding, prose, characters, and story. Usually I’ll find something that hits 2 or 3 of them; a great story, written well, but with weak worldbuilding or characters. Or a top notch world, with vivid characters, but only serviceably written. Void Star nails them all. It’s true literary Speculative Fiction, and a rare find.

It not only has that famous sense of wonder that only SF can do so well, but also elegant prose evidencing an author well acquainted with the great works of literary fiction, solid worldbuilding, an engaging story, and well developed characters that feel like they’ve genuinely lived their lives. It’s a novel of ideas, a hugely ambitious narrative, and a character novel all rolled into one. If elements of Neuromancer and The Diamond Age merged with an epic mythology poem and in the process became more than the sum of their parts, you would have Void Star. I’d call it post-cyberpunk, minus the noir element. There is a mystery present, but no tropey, down on his luck detective piecing it all together while chewing the scenery.

Zachary MasonInstead we have three main POVs, which build the narrative like three avalanches, accelerating as they accumulate, eventually converging violently and spiraling out in interesting and unexpected directions. The chapters are very short, often only five or six pages, seventy-seven chapters total in just under four hundred pages, which makes it really approachable. I would often sit down with not much time, intent on only reading a chapter or two, but the short chapters gave it a forward momentum that made it difficult to put down. The conclusion satisfies immensely, and I have a strong feeling that it’s even better on subsequent readings. If I didn’t have a few novels and novellas I still need to read before the Hugo vote this year, I would reread this one right now. I’m considering it a strong contender for the Hugo or Nebula awards next year. I do think it’s a little better suited for the Nebula though, as that award usually embodies novels with terrific prose.

Mason’s prose has an inherent beauty to it, and is a joy to read. It is poetically descriptive in a clever, nebulous way. He describes only just enough to jumpstart your imagination, leaving the hard-edged details for the reader to incorporate into the world themselves. You meet the novel halfway. It makes it highly engaging. It’s an approach that can backfire if handled by a less steady hand, but it’s wonderfully executed here. To me it’s a little reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s prose.

The worldbuilding is so thorough: favelas that are nearly alive with their continually evolving construction by drone, layers of society and culture, poverty and wealth all clashing at their intersections, powerful corporations pulling strings, artificial intelligences that are as distant from us as we are to bacteria. It’s near(ish) far future, but the tech isn’t all state of the art. It’s presented in a much more realistic way; the way things have always been. You might have some tech that is cutting edge (your phone, or tablet, etc), but you still interact with other bits of technology that are nearing their obsolescence (maybe you drive an old carbureted pickup truck, or an antique motorcycle, maybe you use an ancient fax machine at work). In this world there is tech that is still far in the future for us, but to the characters using it, it’s a bit obsolete. This small detail makes all the difference in my suspension of disbelief as a reader, and makes this world that much more comprehensively thought out and impressive.

I love novels that tell a huge, satisfying science fiction story in a relatable world like this. Highly recommended.


Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

“Get your own head straight before hanging around in someone else’s.”

Little Sister has a setup that hooked me in the first handful of pages. There is a well crafted, subtle symmetry at play in this novel. The story is teeming with thematic intrigue, and these themes mirror each other in creative ways as the story progresses. You could describe it as a feedback loop of sorts; the matching elements bouncing off each other and informing different areas of the story, creating a prism that resolves as it all comes together. It’s masterfully done. I’d call it a summer literary thriller with a touch of magical realism, and a lot of substance.

Our protagonist is a woman who never really got a chance to know herself. She’s been drifting through her own life as a passenger; never really taking an active role. She’s stuck in a lot of what I would call soft-traps: caring for her mentally deteriorating mother, running the family business: a movie theater that screens classic films, and then there’s her adequate (but never exciting) romantic relationship that she settled for after a string of bad ones. She has large choices to make, but she can’t see them yet. I really think it’s a novel about escapism, the many different ways we deal with and process grief, and what we can learn from each other if we could only walk a mile in their shoes. Reading between the lines a little, I also think it’s about how important fiction can be for our personal development.

Barbara GowdyInstead of escaping into reality tv, soap operas, or novels, Rose’s escape is the main fantastical element of the story: during a string of summer thunderstorms she loses consciousness and finds herself inhabiting a different body. She has no control over this body, but feels and experiences everything that it does. These “episodes” as she calls them, have the feel of a mythological God toying with it’s creations. The woman she inhabits lives a much more exciting, soap operatic life, full of ups and downs that Rose has never experienced in her own life. She finds herself enraptured and confused, unsure whether she’s dreaming, losing her mind like her mother, or if something truly fantastic is happening. She becomes very invested in this other person, and begins a quest to confirm or deny this mystery woman’s existence, and regain her sanity.

In addition to the main narrative, there is a secondary story that unfurls in Rose’s past, involving her sister and a tragic accident she feels partly responsible for.

The prose is sober and clear; the story utterly captivating, and the characters well developed. There is a general sense of unease, making it suspenseful in the same way a good horror movie can be, without ever fully submerging into the horrific. For me, some of the main themes in Little Sister are reminiscent of the motifs of duality present in the best Christopher Priest novels, and Gowdy writes dialogue like a more reasonable DeLillo in his prime.

Little Sister comes out May 23rd from Tin House Books wherever books are sold.

 

 

We Did Porn, by Zak Smith

We Did Porn, by Zak Smith

“When death comes, it very often comes with eyes averted, and with interceding machinery.”

I don’t think anyone who has read this book would argue that there isn’t a fierce and creative intelligence at work here. Zak Smith’s memoir of working in the dual capital-a industries of Adult entertainment and Art scene in NY is pretty scathing, and as honest feeling as a memoir can hope to be. It also paints the alt-porn industry, as well as the greater Adult film industry, as pretty much exactly what you’ve always imagined them to be: complicated as hell. Things are never, not ever, black and white. Shades of grey abound.

Zak SmithI’ve read a few reviews of this book that spend most of their time talking about him specifically: He’s an asshole, or a misogynist, etc. All of which may or may not be true, I don’t really know enough to make that call, however, this isn’t a review of Zak as an individual, but of his book. I’m really not interested in an ad hominem angle. You have to separate the art from the individual. Look at George W. Bush for example, his paintings are just fucking adorable, and he’s literally a war criminal. Keep the individual separate from their art. It’s hard to do, but at worst it’s a good mental exercise, and at best it keeps you from being an asshole.

I always take memoirs with a grain of salt anyway, because seriously, you have to be completely bonkers to believe everything in them. Memory is mostly fiction. Just get together with some old friends or family and talk about the time you… or the other time when so-and-so… and see how often your versions of truth agree with each other’s.

“Give four art people a banana and they will say: It’s wonderfully yellow, it’s too yellow, it’s not yellow enough, I’m so glad it isn’t yellow, and then say it’s wonderfully squishy, it’s too squishy, it’s not squishy… and on and on until the banana gets so famous that they start getting paid to agree that the banana is yellow and good.”

Onto the actual content: This book is well written. There are some absolutely gorgeous sentences, metaphors, and sentiments presented, and I really want this guy to write some novels, because I would read them all. His published art project relating to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow aside, you can tell that Zak Smith’s literary influences swing heavily toward the postmodern side of things. I’m guessing that David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith, and Hunter S. Thompson were all influential in the intended direction for this book.

This is basically a three year slice-of-life character based story on those in the alt-porn industry in Los Angeles and New York from 06 – 08. Everyone’s names are kind of changed, and supposedly details have been altered and swapped around and shared to make it not so obvious who is who for those that are familiar with these real life people. If you’re like me, you’re not very familiar with porn stars, but there are a few stories in here that broke into the mainstream a little, that you’ll most likely recognize. If you are familiar with porn stars, you’ll have a good time trying to match these fake names with their “real” fake names.

Zak Smith DrawingIt seems like he really wanted to give another angle on the people involved in the porn business. Something different from what’s already out there. There is so much misinformation, bad information, and downright obfuscation on the subject, from a lot of different camps. Pornographers have been very unfairly pushed into categories of sluts, whores, and victims (the women), and misogynist abusers (the men). Well, if I have to point out just how sexist that demarcation is, then you probably should read this book, or maybe something more along the lines of The Woman That Never Evolved, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, or really just any Feminist writing (please just make sure it’s not Tumblr feminism, go for the legit stuff). Not to say that there aren’t abusers, or victims involved in the Porn industry, I’m sure there are, and probably a lot. But again, things are never black and white like that.

Between the memoir bits there are a few sections with scans of his artwork; mostly drawings and paintings. Personally, I really like his art, but completely understand why someone else wouldn’t. He spends some time contrasting the art world with the porn world, drawing similarities and differences among the two. He’s very aware that both industries are kind of bullshit. He also seems very aware of how incredibly lucky he is to be able to make a living from his artwork.

It has one of the best ever descriptions of how bizarre the middle-zeroes were, which I think was intended to read as a “look at how strange things were then in comparison to how much better they are now” vibe, but in hindsight it works very well as an illustration of the starting point for exactly when our current issues (Trump, “alt facts”, not agreeing on objective reality, etc) began and stem from. It’s pretty disheartening that things seem only to have gone downhill from there on:

“I’m not sure future generations, comfortable with all the names in their history books, will appreciate the degree to which, in the mid-zeroes, everything even remotely resembling public life in America felt like a crudely mounted shadow-puppet play smoke-screening some unspeakable underlying soul-death.”

Zak Smith drawingI love what this had to say about sexual abuse, and abuse of all kinds. There are a disproportionate amount of porn stars that have experienced some kind of abuse in their past. And if you’re like me, you have a hard time understanding why anyone who had been abused would want to be in the porn business, especially in some of the darker or more kinked corners of it that more closely resemble their abuse. But, it really makes a lot of sense when it’s all laid out. This was one of my favorite sections of the book. Really, anyone who chooses a life on the fringes or edges of what’s considered mainstream or normal society is utterly fascinating to me. There are all kinds of people, and just because the majority of people behave in one way doesn’t necessarily mean that way is right, and all others are wrong. Again with the black and white reference.

“Things that are supposed to make ordinary people happy or sad are molehills in the shadow of a morbid, thousand-mile-high monument to suffering and shame at the center of the city of the brain.
“The abused person then not only wants to not be abused–but she also wants to try to set up experiences of pleasure that equal or exceed the mental and emotional peak of pain that, otherwise, will be the highest and clearest peak in the history of her feelings.
“So she goes to the place the heavy bad thing came from–the sex place–and tries to see if there is a heavy good thing there, too. Because nothing else has that weight. You can’t erase pain from life, but you can get enough pleasure that life seems worth living anyway.”

I know quite a lot of people who are sexual assault survivors, probably more than I realize. It’s a widespread problem, and the victim blaming platitudes that I hear constantly from politicians and religious leaders infuriate me to no end. It appears that this double standard also pisses Zak off, and I can appreciate that. There are some sections in here talking specifically about the ways that politicians (esp. those on the right), and religious leaders have perpetuated and exacerbated the cycle of abuse through their rhetoric and actions. It’s very satisfying to hear someone lay it out so clearly.

In conclusion, a lot of this book is pretty vulgar, but then again it is about pornography and those in the industry. I think it’s important to talk about these things in our society rather than just push them off to the side and pretend they don’t exist. They exist. These people exist. And yes, they are people. I think the whole point of this book is to maybe force people to acknowledge this world that he’s familiar with. It’s real and we should talk about it.