His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

December 5, 2016


When I was reading The Goldfinch a few months back, I enjoyed it so much that I embarked on all kinds of crazy schemes and did a number of other things just in order to put off the moment when I reach the end. The same thing happened now; I removed myself from the vicinity of this novel for several hours at length, but the day was long, and the novel, sadly, short, so I couldn’t make the pleasure last too long.

This is such an amazing novel.

I guess it’s already a separate sub-genre, the kind of novel that’s based on supposedly found footage, and that describes the events from multiple points of view, and besides the events themselves it also contains their (possible) interpretations. It’s a wonderful technique which often makes me doubt the trustworthiness of the characters, and makes me question not only the mental workings of the characters, but my own powers of understanding. Additionally, it also makes me read with bated breath until the very last page because any moment might reveal an important detail that can put things in an entirely new perspective.

The novel tells the story of a brutal triple murder that happened somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, in 1869. Roddy, a young village boy (who is, according to some people, highly intelligent and articulate, and according to others, not completely right in the head) one fine day ups and kills the village foreman, and a couple of other people, too, who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I won’t go into the questions of why and how – the novel deals with all of that, and I wouldn’t want to take away the pleasure that arises from disentangling (then further entangling) the motivations of the characters and the connections between the events.

The novel comprises mostly of Roddy’s memoir written in prison, of a summary of his trial, based on contemporaneous newspaper coverage, and of a case study of a famous criminal psychologist-anthropologist, and then there’s also a couple of coroners’ reports thrown in, and a preface where the author describes how he came across Roddy’s case (this story is also fictitious, of course).

The novel deals with the questions typical in these cases: how different people remember the same thing; who is trustworthy; what makes something believable; and why we tend to trust someone more than someone else.

These are serious questions, and the novel treats them seriously. For instance, it’s highly thought-provoking why everyone believes one of the trial witnesses, a pretty neighbor from Roddy’s village who – despite her village background – looks and behaves like a city dame, and why everyone doubts the words of Roddy. The short answer: even though both the neighborhood lady and Roddy are very articulate, and they both employ a rich vocabulary, the lady is attractive, while Roddy is – as it’s often mentioned – a seedy-looking village type, and no-one expects him to be an intelligent language user (or even to have a brain).

So the novel gives ample opportunity to think about how prejudices work, especially since the criminal psychologist, Mr Thomson (who was a real person), who writes a case study of Roddy’s crime, concentrates heavily on the question whether Roddy, based on his physical characteristics, is a criminal type or not.

Besides all the serious topics, though, this is a fascinatingly ironic novel, which continuously questions the authenticity of all the documents and story versions it contains. For instance: in connection with Roddy’s memoir, it’s mentioned that even if no-one would have thought that a young boy from a remote village could write so well, so elegantly, one shouldn’t forget that village schools provided a surprisingly high-quality education to children in that era, and that Roddy was an eminent pupil. And just when I’m almost ready to believe that it might have indeed been possible for Roddy to write the way he writes, I realize that he often uses the kind of grammatical constructions and expressions and writes with a learned eloquence that would put persons with even the highest academic degrees to shame – and then I start to have serious doubts whether village elementary schools could have been so amazingly good, or if Roddy is not the author of Roddy’s memoir, after all.

And then: like I said, one part of the novel is a summary based on the newspaper coverage of Roddy’s trial, and other documents. So – it’s based on newspaper articles written by journalists who regularly retired to the neighboring pub during the breaks of the trial, and didn’t exactly refrain from consuming alcohol there. And it’s based on commentaries made or offered by people who were not at all well-versed in the intricacies of the law, by people who were seriously prejudiced or actively wished Roddy harm. And so on. So the question is: how much can we trust a summary (which is a kind of interpretation) that’s already well-removed from the original events and that’s based on other texts (that were also interpretations)?

I have no answer, of course, but this is another fascinating topic the novel makes you think about. So yes, this is a mind-boggling novel, and a deeply satisfying and enjoyable one at that.

Besides all this, this novel is funny. Not exactly satirically funny, and not even funny in the way when we laugh in our pain – its brand of humor is more like something I’d call “village-style Kafkaesque”. What I mean by this is that the humor mainly arises from the absurd, exaggerated conflict between the village authorities and the simple men, and even though here the authority figure isn’t faceless and nameless, and he’s supposedly approachable, the same things happen as in the worst Kafka nightmare: the rules don’t make sense, the authorities select their victims seemingly at random, but after the damage is done, it’s impossible to say whether the authorities really behaved irrationally, unfairly, and cruelly, or if it’s the supposed victim who behaved in a paranoid fashion, and no-one in fact wronged him.

And still besides: this novel isn’t only a pleasure to the mind – it’s a deeply emotional experience, too. It’s possible to feel for these characters, to worry about them or root for them, and I simply love it – when a novel has real characters.

The Riders by Tim Winton

November 28, 2016


I first read this book back in 2013, around the time I moved here, and I can still recall the creepy feeling I got from it back then. I could all too easily imagine the premise of the story: how the protagonist tries to follow someone’s traces throughout Europe and how he gets increasingly unhinged as a result. I was all the more freaked out by the fact that I knew some of the places mentioned in the novel, and they appeared to me in this book just as unfriendly and unknowable as they appeared to the protagonist.

The protagonist of the novel is Scully, a friendly and mild-mannered nice-guy, who spent the previous years with his wife, Jennifer, and their daughter, Billie moving around Europe in search of a good livelihood. What this really meant was that Scully worked day and night, while his wife – sensitive, artistic and hailing from supposedly aristocratic stock – tried to realize her potential – without any apparent success.

At the beginning of the story, though, it seems that the tiring and frustrating years on the road are almost over, and the family is ready to settle down. They bought their future dream home in Ireland, and the only thing left to do is for Scully to renovate the derelict house while Jennifer and Billie go back to Australia for a short while to tie up the loose ends. Things seem to go well – the house gets nicer by the day, and according to the telegrams, Jennifer and Billie just can’t wait to finish up their Australian business and move into their new home. On the big day, however, only 7-year-old Billie gets off the plane, and she’s unable to express what had happened to her mother. So Scully, half out of his mind with worry, and Billie, locked into a shocked silence, set out to find Jennifer.

Father and daughter visit all the places where Jennifer might be, from Greece through Paris to Amsterdam, and of course their mad trip around Europe is partly an inner journey, and at each step, some kind of “truth” is revealed for Scully: things he might have suspected earlier, had he not fooled himself for years with the idea that despite all the difficulties, his life with his adored Jennifer is basically perfect. During the trip, Scully reaches the edge of his sanity while he’s trying to come to terms with the idea that what he considered to be a happy family life was perhaps something else entirely.

Tim Winton masterfully depicts both Scully’s unsettled and helpless state of mind, and that creepy sensation when everything and everyone – so familiar, trustworthy and friendly earlier – suddenly turns against you. Because this is what happens here: the small Greek island, where Scully used to feel safe and happy, now resembles a prison, not a home; the old friends he contacts in the hope of finding something about Jennifer’s whereabouts pretend they know nothing (or perhaps they really don’t know anything?); and even Jennifer herself – even though she leaves occasional clues, as if she were hoping to be found – behaves in an alien and hostile manner.

And even though at first it seems that the question is what happened to Jennifer, as we get nearer the end, this becomes less and less important: the “real” Jennifer gives way to the idea of Jennifer, that increasingly blurry image Scully tries to find, while not even being sure anymore whether he really wants to find it, or if it’s only his stubborn and desperate obsession with an ideal that urges him to move on and on.

Of course I won’t describe the end of the story. Suffice it to say that this strange novel – a combination of a family drama, a crime story, a thriller, and a philosophical work pondering metaphysical questions – doesn’t end in a soothing way. What it ends with is a sense of unease, a sense of fear induced by the realization how quickly the familiar can become unfamiliar, and how easy it is to get to the edge, in every sense of the word.

Exit, Pursued by Dalton Day

November 21, 2016


Dalton Day’s dramatic poem/drama-like literary work is made up of 41 one-act plays. The plays are as one-act as they come – minimalist drama, let’s say. And perhaps here “act” from one-act really means that the plays consist of a single act or action, and sometimes not even that.

All the plays have fascinating and detailed titles – and the titles are just as important as the plays they are followed by, especially because in many cases, nothing happens in the play. (There are some which only contain the description of the scene, and nothing else.)

The recurring characters of the plays are You and Me. This makes me immediately excited because second person literature is one of my long-time obsessions, and Dalton Day even develops it further by using both the second person and the first person, with intriguing results. If there’s a You and there’s a Me in a play, the question immediately arises: which one am I? Which one should I identify with? It’s a difficult and exciting choice, and I sometimes switch positions even during the course of a single play – sometimes I feel closer to Me, and sometimes I feel I’m the You the Me of the plays is talking with.

And sometimes You and Me seem to be the same – there’s a play, for instance, where You and Me appear to read each other’s mind, and they start and finish each other’s sentences. In cases like this, understanding and harmony seem possible. (One-Act Play In Which There Is A Blueprint, & That Blueprint Is Ignored Entirely)

Understanding and harmony are, by the way, rare pleasures here, because the main themes of the plays are the difficulties of (love) relationships, breakups, losses, and the impossibility to understand and know another person. And all this is heart-breakingly sad – this all-permeating feeling that we’re alone – even when we’re with the person we feel the closest to. So – there’s existential angst here, a lot.

And besides that there’s a lot of beauty and tenderness – because it seems we must and will do everything in order not to feel so immensely lonely. In one play, for instance, You is afraid of hands, so Me offers to trade hands. After switching hands, You is still afraid of hands – and now Me is afraid of them, too. Could this be love? Caring? Making strange gestures so that the other is not alone in their fear? Taking on the other person’s fear, sharing it? Perhaps. (One-Act Play In Which Not All Problems Can Be Solved, & Not All Problems Are Problems, But Even So, Some Are)

And there’s also a lot of musings about how love and relationships work – how it’s always the people we love the most (or who love us the most) who bring us down, trap us, hide the wonderful richness of the world from us – but it’s also possible that they don’t trap us, they don’t tie us down – perhaps they are the ones who keep us from falling apart. (One-Act Play In Which The Weather Is Just An Echo Of The Weather Before It)

These feelings aren’t only present in personal relationships – they go out and encompass the whole universe. In one of my favorite plays (One-Act Play In Which Change, Change, Change) You and Me talk about how one of them was deeply shaken when Pluto ceased to be a planet – because we’re already used to it in everyday life that things and emotions change, and that something that was true today will only be a memory by tomorrow – but for the same thing to happen on a planetary, universal scale, that can be much too hard to bear.

I feel this cosmic melancholy, the sadness of the thought that things cannot be expressed, neither here on earth, nor out there in the universe. You, for instance, is on the moon once, and with the last breath, You shouts into the universe, where voice doesn’t carry, the thing that had never been voiced before. (One-Act Play In Which Hands Are Irreplaceable)

And in some plays, even words are missing – there’s only a silent glance towards each other from the two ends of the world, and even if the glance connects you with the other, it’s impossible to know whether you’re even thinking about the other person when you look at him. And it’s equally impossible to know whether the experience is the same, whether it can be the same. In one play, for instance, there’s the question of what happens when someone looks into the sun. Here’s part of the conversation between Me and You:

YOU: Tell me what happens when you look into the sun.
ME: Oh, well, I, I don’t know. I don’t know what happens.
YOU: Then tell me what happens when I look into the sun.

(One-Act Play In Which The Earth Has A Circumference Of 24,902 Miles, For Once)

The immensely intimate, personal and emotional character of the plays is both offset and emphasized by the important role the audience plays here. In many plays, there are descriptions about the reactions of the audience, there’s a play where the audience members are the players, and there’s one where the audience members flee the theater because the smoke alarm goes off, and they don’t see what finally happens between the characters. Which brings us to the eternal epistemological question: did it happen if no one was there to see it? (One-Act Play In Which You Forget To Laugh)

I’m glad I saw this play happen, on paper at least.

English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee

November 14, 2016


Have you ever read an Indian coming-of-age novel? I hadn’t, and I was interested what it’s like. And of course – The Catcher in the Rye is mentioned on the cover, which always makes me curious.

From this novel it becomes clear that growing up is just as difficult in India as in any other part of the world – at least for those who have the means to spend their time moaning about teenage- and young adult problems and doing serious soul-searching. (By the way, the protagonist here is well aware how lucky he is to be able to afford this, but this awareness only serves to deepen his misery – I’ll get back to this later.)

The protagonist of the novel, Agastya (for his anglicized friends and his anglicized self just August) is not exactly a teen: he’s 24 at the beginning of the story, and he’s just getting ready to start his year of training at the Indian Administrative Service. Literally millions of ambitious or lazy young Indians apply for a job at the I.A.S. because after the training, a permanent appointment is almost automatic, the job offers a comfortable (if somewhat boring) living, and it doesn’t involve a whole lot of actual work.

For Agastya, a youth accustomed to the Indian mega-cities, and to the world of English universities, it comes as a veritable (cultural) shock that he’s appointed to spend his year of training somewhere on no man’s land, in a town called Madna, where there’s no life, no entertainment, no taste, no fun. What’s more, Agastya isn’t an overly enthusiastic and motivated employee, so he spends most of his time smoking weed, masturbating, telling lies for fun, getting his acquaintances invite him for dinner, making up excuses for skipping yet another afternoon at work, and reading Marcus Aurelius.

For Agastya, the days and the people of Madna all become blurred – and for me, too, reading this novel. I don’t know if it’s because of the unfamiliar names but I only managed to remember the name and role of about five characters out of the dozens, and whenever someone appeared (again?), I panicked because I had no idea who that character was. I like to think this is the exact effect the author wanted to achieve – after all, Agastya is just as clueless during his year in Madna, and experiences similar panic whenever he meets an acquaintance or a colleague because he doesn’t remember what he lied to different people about himself and his past, so he doesn’t know what role to play with different people.

And of course the story is not the main point in this novel. The main point is Agastya’s lazy soul-searching and how he’s figuring out what path he should take. Agastya’s main goal in life is to be happy, but he’s clueless about everything. That’s one thing that he doesn’t know how to reach happiness – but he has no idea what would make him happy, either. Consequently, he just floats here and there, he’s unsettled and insatiable – yet, interestingly enough, he’s not completely self-centered.

Even though he beats the protagonists of all Western coming-of-age novels taken together when it comes to doing nothing and pondering existentialist questions, Agastya is aware of his privileged position and immense luck, and he’s truly ashamed of himself when he visits a hospital for people with leprosy or a remote tribal village, and sees how people live there. And it’s interesting here – in his case, it’s not necessary to admonish Agastya, saying “you should count your blessings and quit whining, people in the third world are starving.”

Agastya sees perfectly well that people right next to him are starving, and he’s sensitive to the misery of others. Still, his feelings of angst, cynicism, helplessness and vague unhappiness don’t evaporate because of this.

Besides the usual existentialist questions, here there’s a separate battle with being Indian. Agastya, for example, is the son of a Christian mother from Goa and a Hindu father from the Bengal, he receives an anglicized education, and then moves to a part of India where he doesn’t speak the local language – it’s no wonder that he has no real idea who he is and where he’s at home. And the example of others doesn’t help much, either: some of his friends moved to the US, some moved to Indian mega-cities, there are some who married English people – the one thing that’s certain is that they don’t know what to do with themselves, and what it means for them to be Indian, in India and outside of it.

But this here is not the usual, moody, Western kind of (teenage-)existentialism, but the extremely ironic kind: Agastya is constantly making fun of the Westerners who come to India to find themselves, and he’s also constantly making fun of himself because trying to find himself in the Western way is exactly what he’s doing.

And by the way, Western teenage novels rarely contain such childish, bawdy but somehow very entertaining humor as this novel. Agastya is reminded of sex by everything, and he makes devastatingly cynical, disrespectful or vulgar internal comments about even the most sublime topics or conversations – I haven’t had such dirty fun reading a novel for a long time.

(By the way, the author himself works at the I.A.S., so he has a pretty good idea about how things go in and around the office. And it might just be possible that he wrote this novel on the sly, during the Monthly Revenue Meetings. I wouldn’t be surprised.)

The Cryptogram by David Mamet

November 7, 2016


I was somewhat surprised by The Cryptogram because Mamet’s plays I’d read or seen so far always contained some humor, and I didn’t find even a grain of humor here – this is a very dark and depressing play.

The play deals with existentialist topics: with the inability to communicate, with the lack of understanding among humans, with alienation, with the ultimate unknowability of other people. Besides this, there’s also a fair bit of philosophizing about who we are, why we exist, and how do we even know we exist. (These topics always fascinate me, and I can read any number of books about them.)

As regards the events in this play: the characters are a mother, her son, and a family friend. During the first act, the three of them spend the evening together, packing things, drinking tea, talking – mostly about little nothings, constantly interrupting one another, circling over and over the same ideas. Every once in a while they try to touch on more serious topics but someone always steers the conversation away – and anyway, it’s hard to conduct any meaningful conversation when the participants are often in different rooms of the house and they can’t hear or understand what the others are saying. In any case, this is supposed to be an average evening at home – the characters are waiting for the father to come home, and meanwhile they are packing some bags because the plan is that the father will take his son on a trip the next day. At the end of the evening, however, they come upon a letter that had been lying around somewhere – in the letter the father says he’s leaving his wife.

In the other two acts, the theme is developed further, we learn the details of the relationships between the characters and the missing father, and the characters wonder whether the father’s departure had already been in the air, whether the family friend had known about it in advance, and why he didn’t say anything if he had.

Besides the impending divorce, the other main theme is the son’s, John’s insomnia, which is not taken seriously by his mother – and this topic is much more prominent than the divorce. John’s been having a hard time falling asleep – he spends his time in bed wondering about life, he thinks he’s hearing voices, and he’s afraid of being alone with himself and his thoughts, which is not surprising, as he struggles with the kinds of thoughts that can be terrifying for not only a 10-year old boy.

The climax of the play is John’s extremely affecting, fragmented-frightened-desperate monologue where he tries to articulate his night-thoughts. In fact, the boy doesn’t want to deliver a monologue – he’s trying to have a conversation with his mother about everything he finds bewildering or confusing, but his mother’s reactions don’t amount to more than a few “well-well” and “aha” scattered here and there.

In John’s monologue there’s everything I mentioned in the second paragraph, and it left me shivering, the way he expresses how absolutely terrifying it can be – simply to exist, and how frustrating and hopeless it is – to try to understand anything or anyone, to try to crack an infinitely complex cryptogram. A cryptogram we make all the more confusing for ourselves – with lies, with interruptions, with lack of attention, with digressions, with deliberate misunderstandings.

I’m not a depressed existentialist in general – I like to think that understanding is possible, and that living forever and ever in our own private world is not the only option we have. But for the characters here, understanding is out of the question. And this is devastating.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

October 31, 2016


It seems that ever since suburbia was born, people have been anxious to get out of it. The main characters of this novel (which is set in 1955, during the period of accelerating suburbanization) feel the same: Frank Wheeler, a young husband commuting from a small Connecticut town to his job in New York, and his wife, April, a dissatisfied woman playing mother and housewife with not a whole lot of talent feel out of place in their surroundings, and they are secretly convinced that they were destined for something grander than spending their lives on surreal green grass, among pastel-colored lovely little houses.

So once, when April comes up with the idea to leave everything behind and move to Paris, Frank – after a bit of grumbling – concedes. According to their plans, April will find a job and while she’s supporting the family, Frank will have time to finally figure out what’s his great talent and start working on realizing his potential. This is important, as one of the great common fictions/lies of the Wheelers is that Frank is in possession of a great special talent, and the only reason he couldn’t do anything with it is that their first child was born too early in their lives, so the ever so responsible Frank was forced to take a mind-numbingly boring job to be able to support his family. But then the Paris plans don’t work out the way the couple (or mainly April, who’s in the stage of “I must do something, right now, otherwise I’ll just rot here”) planned.

This is a horribly depressing novel. Not so much because of the individual events and turns (even though there are plenty of depressing events and turns here) but because it’s frightfully, disturbingly true. I know no other novel that depicts marriage games so authentically, and describes so ruthlessly the ways a couple can delude themselves and each other. The Wheelers do nothing else than play power games and fool each other. During their fights, Frank and April both know what to say to hurt the other in the most painful fashion; April knows just how to please Frank by playing the perfect housewife so that after a few hours of indulgence, when Frank already has his guards down, she can introduce her big ideas; and Frank can twist words so fantastically when he talks about his job and himself that he manages to paint a picture of himself as a confident, strong man, attractively contemptuous about his mindless job, because he feels this is how April wants to perceive him.

It’s simultaneously heart-wrenching and pitiful to see how Frank is constantly manufacturing explanations and excuses, and while he’s having a conversation with someone he already pictures how he’ll relate it to his wife in a way that flatters him. And the way he insists on having the final say in certain matters even if deep down he himself would like to agree with April is infuriating. The most prominent example of this is, of course, the question of having children – Frank convinces April to bear her unwanted child, during more than one pregnancies, even though he’d also be happier without children, only he can’t admit this due to a vague, mistaken feeling of needing to fulfill society’s expectations. (April plays similar games, by the way, only we don’t get so many precise details about her thoughts and about the way she plays her games.)

The most interesting aspect of this for me is that this isn’t a case of a relationship going sour over time. As it becomes clear from the reminiscences of the characters, their relationship was built on lies from the very first moment. For example, April only uttered the great compliment that’s still cherished by Frank (“you are the most interesting person I’ve ever met”) because she knew that’s what Frank wanted to hear. The question arises: is this a lie? Or is it simply a nice, harmless, weightless compliment, something new lovers always say to each other? I think it’s a lie, and an ugly, cynical and self-deluding one at that – as we also learn from the story, it isn’t such a great idea to build a relationship on delusion – neither for the one who’s doing the deluding, nor for the deluded.

But the novel isn’t only about April and Frank destroying each other and about their plan to change their lives (which inevitably goes astray) – it’s also about other people. About Mrs. Givings, the local real estate agent, who spends 12 hours a day brightly chatting about the wonderful weather, the amazing color of the grass, the greatness of suburbia, and the stunning view from the Wheelers’ living room – and then goes home, puts on her old clothes, and when she remains alone with herself for a minute, bursts into tears because she’s grown old and led a useless, meaningless life.

About the couple next door, the Campbells, who were not as promising as the Wheelers (but what do the Wheelers promise, anyway?), and who seem to be perfectly content, untouched by the desire for a more meaningful, more real life – and then it turns out that they are tormented by this desire, too, and that they are not necessarily dumber or more shallow than the Wheelers (at least the husband definitely isn’t).

About the single girl living in New York, who’s happy to have fleeting affairs with married men because she thinks that this is a must for a 20-year-old young woman living in the bustling city before getting married and moving to the suburbs to settle down – where she’ll spend her life fantasizing about the liveliness of her New York life, now gone.

And about Mrs. Givings’ mentally unstable son, John, who also started out a great promise, but failed to fulfill the expectations of others – but he’s equally unable to accept the hopeless emptiness of life in toy town.

And these stories of the minor characters serve to reinforce what’s obvious from the main story of the Wheelers: life in toy town, this simulacrum life suffocates and destroys everyone who thinks too much, and only those can live such a life peacefully who grow a plastic skin for themselves so that it’s not possible anymore to decide whether there’s still anything human, anything living under the skin (for example, I can’t decide whether Mrs. Givings still has anything human in her), or who voluntarily give up the dangerous habit of thinking in order to keep their sanity (for example, the Campbells – even though the husband still tends to think too much for his health).

All this is terrible and extremely disturbing, and after reading or watching this novel or a couple of other American works painting a dark picture of suburbia, probably no one has any desire for it. But the question remains: is life more real elsewhere?

Dry by Augusten Burroughs

October 24, 2016


There are stories about addictions and the way someone overcomes them that I believe, and there are stories I don’t. Interestingly enough, the stories I don’t believe come more easily to mind because they always make me angry – magical-kitschy tales about wonderful recoveries make my blood boil.

When it comes to this book, I believe what Augusten Burroughs says. Which is, again, interesting, as Burroughs used to work in the advertising industry: in the period covered in this memoir he made a living by making the shittiest products and ideas attractive, and selling them. And he claims he was such a star in his job because he applied the basic principles of marketing to his own life, too, and he mastered the art of fooling people. Burroughs is an expert in self-marketing, and this talent is evident in this book, too. Dry is well-written, affecting, exciting, tense, sometimes extremely funny, sometimes extremely heart-breaking. Of course it’s quite possible that it’s all just an advertisement, and I’m sure there are details in the story that only serve the purpose of making the product easier to sell, still, I feel this book is emotionally and mentally genuine and authentic (as opposed to, for example, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which is supposed to be an autobiographical story about overcoming an addiction, and which is basically a fairy tale).

Dry is about the time when Burroughs was in his twenties, and he worked at a marketing agency. He was creative and successful, he won awards for his work, and he made good money, too. All the while, he slipped deeper and deeper into alcoholism, and at a certain point he faced to choice of either going into rehab or losing his job. During his 30 days at rehab, Burroughs goes through all the usual steps of a recovering addict: first he denies that he has a problem with drinking and he tries to delude everyone (including himself) by saying that drinking a little too much can happen to anyone; then he admits that he’s an alcoholic (it comes as major revelation to him when he’s asked to list how often and how much he drinks – as he says, he had never before calculated what his alcohol intake amounted to); and towards the end he starts to enjoy his sober days, but he keeps worrying what will happen when the therapy is over and he once again gets back to his old environment – he says he can’t imagine how he’ll spend his time if he’s not allowed to drink anymore.

It seems the therapy is effective, and Burroughs remains sober for a long while after he checks out of rehab, but in the meantime, things keep happening in „real life” – things Burroughs used to tackle by drinking, so the book doesn’t end by saying that from now on, Burroughs will remain the model of sobriety all his life. It’s possible that he’s become such a model since then, I have no way of knowing. But I admire Burroughs for not stopping by saying simply: „I’m out of rehab, I’m sober, and from now on everything will automatically be nice and simple”. Instead, he goes on to talk about what comes after sobriety, and about how it feels to be (and whether it’s possible to remain) sober.

By the way, as regards its contents, this is a pretty horrible book, but fortunately Burroughs never loses his sense of humor, not even when he talks about the most dramatic and unsettling incidents. And his humor is delightful: light, sarcastic, self-mocking – it reminds me of the humor of David Sedaris.

And let me just say in „rehab-style” (according to which you must communicate what something means to you, how something makes you feel, and how you can relate to something, and avoid judgment, advice, and criticism): I can relate to a whole lot of what Burroughs is saying, and I know or feel a lot of his feelings and fears.

Finally, I don’t think this is a self-help book, nor is it a book to force (or scare) people into facing their addictions – I wouldn’t push this book into anyone’s hand saying: you must read this, and you’ll immediately stop your drinking, drugging, whatever. This is a book about Burroughs, it’s his story, and while it’s obviously fictionalized to some extent (which doesn’t bother me at all) in its essence, it’s very real.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

October 17, 2016


Honestly, do you care what the Illinois State Fair was like in 1993? Do you care about the hidden miraculous trigonometry of tennis? Or do you care to know what it feels like to spend a week on a Caribbean luxury cruise, pampered to death in the company of 1300+ tropically clad, wealthy fellow Americans under the vast lapis lazuli dome of the sky?

Read these essays, and you will care. Even if you’ve never thought these things could be of any interest to you.

Are you irrationally afraid of vacuum toilets? Or of the insanely moving, vomit-inducing ferry-wheels of country fairs? Or of the possibility that irony will perhaps destroy the world?

Read these essays, and you will be.

Wallace does a whole array of things in and with these essays – yes, for instance, he visits the Illinois State Fair, he goes to the shooting of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and he spends a week on a Caribbean luxury cruise ship – and then he goes ahead and writes these pieces about his experiences in an extremely funny, unbelievably smart, reflexive and self-reflexive nerd-gonzo style, while he also ruminates extensively about American society and about the strata and members of said society who are predisposed to go to state fairs, go on luxury cruises, or move to Los Angeles (which is, according to Wallace, a city just as over-colored and surreal as you’d imagine based on the movies, therefore there will be no surprises there for anyone.)

In other essays (two out of the seven), Wallace deals with tennis – and when he talks about tennis, that’s also enlightening and more importantly: mesmerizing. (I’ll write more about this – about the mesmerizing quality of his writing.) Wallace himself used to play tennis in his teenage years, and he was quite a successful young talent. He never became a professional, though – and this half-in, half-out perspective adds a lot of intensity and charm to his words when he deals with this topic. Wallace evidently knows what he talks about when he talks about tennis, yet, compared to the real pros, he’s also just an enthusiastic amateur who’s easily enchanted by true greatness, so – even if I’ve never even held a tennis racket in my life – I have no choice but wonder about the complicated mechanics, trigonometry and other features of this beautiful sport with deep awe. (I don’t even watch tennis, let alone play it. And still – reading Wallace’s essays on the subject convinced me deeply and immediately that probably there’s no sport in the world more beautiful than tennis.)

In the remaining two essays, Wallace digs into topics of (contemporary) culture: Is the author dead or alive (cf. Roland Barthes)? What’s the connection between television, American culture, and irony? I have no words and talent to summarize these essays in a few sentences, but I can briefly testify to their effect. Reading these essays made me feel that I want to read Barthes, preferably right now, and that I want to lie down and cry huge tears of relief because I’ve never been able to explain – not even to myself – why irony makes me want to scream sometimes – but Wallace explains this. Beautifully, elegantly, logically.

And I promised something about mesmerizing. It’s just that: Wallace is mesmerizing. It seems no matter what he talks about, his words are a delight to read. Wallace was a writer so extremely smart and perceptive that theoretically, his work should be intimidating by the sheer force of its erudition. But it is not intimidating – perhaps because beside all his unearthly smartness, there’s a whole lot of stupid fears (of vacuum toilets, for example), illogicality, deep and basic curiosity and a general playfulness in his writing, and all this make his work deeply human and ultimately approachable. And this is something I can never put (and don’t want to put) differently: the writers who blow my mind the most are usually the ones who can make me believe that I am there. Anywhere, anytime. On the vomit-inducing ferry-wheel (even if Wallace himself hadn’t boarded it); in David Lynch’s unique mind, as it comes across Wallace’s unique mind; at the Elegant Teatime event on board of a Caribbean luxury cruise ship. And Wallace makes me believe all this.

On a related note: about two years ago I tried to read Wallace’s Infinite Jest – I failed. I thought at that time that Infinite Jest is wonderful, only – it’s too huge (in every sense), it demands too much from the reader, and I felt that the infinite jest is too much on me, the reader. Now, having read these essays I’m no longer afraid of this last one, and I plan to start Infinite Jest again the first convenient time – perhaps on a week-long luxury cruise while I’m being pampered to death.

And I feel this might be a good course of action in general in approaching Wallace’s work – starting with his essays. His essays are not that extremely demanding as Infinite Jest (to read Infinite Jest, I feel you must be 100% awake and ready and willing to think hard – to read these essays, it’s only highly recommended), and by reading them, you can learn relatively quickly whether you are compatible with Wallace’s prose or not, and receptive for his manias or not.