Monday, May 19, 2008

When We Move, It's a Movement

The room that I am living in here in Prenzlauer Berg is equipped with a very awesome radio from the DDR-times. Something about it’s shape and sturdiness – and the fact that it exudes an aura of sturdiness beyond its actual looks-like-it-was-both-made-thiry-five-years-ago-and-made-yesterday appearance (I am of the opinion that objects and artifacts are more likely to have auras

(shout out to the Institut fuer Sozialforschung in Frankfurt) than humans (sorry, hippies)) – appeals to my “Yeah, I listen to records.” aesthetic. The first time that I decided to go ahead and turn it on –

it took a minute of button pushing and knob twiddling to figure it out (there’s an off button but no on button, and four different channels of airwaves to potentially be perused, so the odds of any one of them having been at an actual station space,

despite the fact that this room is lived in by passing-through Goethe-Institut students year-round, all of whom presumably use the radio, if for nothing else than to hear the weather (in fact, one of my good friends from the Sprachkurs last summer lived in this very room last summer, and I am also in class with a dude from Venezuela whose girlfriend lived here during the course period immediately preceding mine (though I’d actually rather not think about that)),

especially after my twiddling around, were pretty low

(I realize that this sentence is a good example of what makes me nervous about my usage of parentheticals – simultaneously, I can neither think of a better way to express the necessary information at the right time

(and also, I’m sorry if it’s uninteresting to read about my own interpretation of my style (it’s also been pointed out to me before that in letters that I right to people, much of the text is devoted to an explication of the fact that I’m writing at all) – I think this problem can potentially serve to derail any actual career expectations (career as a writer) I ever build for myself while in Graduate school, in that it’s one thing to not be able to get over yourself, but another to not be able to get over what you’re doing (I credit some amount of this particular stance to my horn teacher, Dennis) and if you can't get over what you're doing, then you won't be able to do it as well as you might (and its generally okay to be big on yourself about it, if it doesn't negatively effect the doing)

nor of a better way to order the information, such as to avoid the need for embeddedness in the first place (put your gun away, Geraldo))

(Such as aggressively inserting paragraph breaks to try and block out the information in a more readable amount of space.),

but when I finally got to an actual station, the voice was talking in Russian, and out of this old communist radio, that seemed incredibly perfect, and for a second, before I moved on down the dial, searching for German language voices, I thought maybe I had also set it to the super-secret DDR time-machine radio settings.

This radio is a relatively stark contrast to the audio-visual equipment to my room in the former West Berlin last summer – a small color television with a DVD/CD player. Though some part of me does miss watching German-dubbed South Park, I think that it is probably more productive to have a radio rather than a TV (I really don’t think that watching cartoons taught very much German). Productivity being an unfair assessment point in the first place, though, since its my general stance that just about anything is more productive than television watching (oh my childhood days of sitting around all day eating meat and watching television for hours on end feel so distant). Productivity is also not just limited to German-class related activities (there is a limit to how much I can study on any given day); I include reading books (in English) and blogging in the “productive” category.

So I just finished reading Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land, which I picked up at a JFK book kiosk maybe an hour and a half before taking off (suddenly terrified that I had failed to pack any readable English language books

(i.e. books that aren’t translations of Heidegger or Lacoue-Labarthe (some part of me that is who I am in this way is always apologizing to myself for being the part of me that is this way, despite myself)) for Germany (my painfully tight budget shouldn’t really have allowed for this, but since I had more or less convinced myself that it wouldn’t be there anyway, once it was there I had little choice in the matter but to buy it).

I’m not exactly sure how broad the readership for Ford’s three books about (narrated by) Frank Bascombe (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, Lay of the Land) is or should be, but I sure did enjoy all three of these books. Here is a narratorial voice that is only exactly as aware of its own being-writing as it needs to be (that is, really not much). Despite its rich and compassionate detail, it seems to me that there’d be some potentially large readership that would be put off by Frank’s attitude, no matter how well-executed it is (women readers, for instance?). I know Jack likes these books a lot too – in fact, he’s the one that introduced Independence Day to me (though I went back and read our father’s copy of The Sportswriter before reading ID). I find the voice to be compelling – I think that Ford gets at the suburbs in a very incisive way that seems to me quite unique for being so believably from-within (as opposed, say, to Philip Roth, who seems much more outsidery to me (though uses that outsiderness to great effect in its own right (see American Pastoral, for instance))).

The other book I’ve read this month is Milorad Pavic’s The Dictionary of Khazars – most of which I read either before or during my airport/plane day (it was done and I was some number of dozens of pages into Lay of the Land before my descent into Berlin). I’m not sure if it’s a good book or not – it’s certainly interesting, but also distractingly gimmicked (there’s a Male and a Female version of the book, different only by one paragraph (the difference enough to make any even mild feminist angry) with a postscript envisioning this kind of moment where to people – I think a man and a woman – would meet in a coffee shop, see that they were reading the same book and then compare the differences. The author, of course, fails to realize that this would happen anyway, and went ahead and wrote out what the difference would be, and then published to different commodities to make the whole thing happen. Hence the distraction. Parts of the book are really neat. It’s in the format of a dictionary (a “lexicon novel”) which is really an encyclopedia; a fictional history of an apparently actually-once-existing culture, told from the point of view of the West’s three major religions, across three time periods. Lots of interesting themes, lot’s of meta-shit about what is a book, a novel, a history, etc. Most of it feeling underdeveloped. I guess my one sentence review would be something like “Though well-conceived and of interesting themes, the book’s sincerity fails to mask its flaws.”


Blogger Jack said...

I totally agree with you about Ford having a unique way of portraying suburban America, and "from-within"-ness being the root of that. Frank Bascombe is a character in his element, and there's no tearing-down-the-facade-of-ordinary-life agenda, and that makes it all resonate a lot more authentically. (The end of The Lay of the Land twists away from this somewhat, I guess.) Bascombe seems able to face his problems on his own terms, but not necessarily overcome them on his own terms; it's an interesting dramatic dynamic. And then you get fascinating observational stuff, like the vibrant expounding about working in real estate at the beginning of Independence Day, which only really works if the character's legitimately bought in to the experience.

On another note, as a reader you're going to latch on to characters who are familiar to you, and Ford's Bascombe is a contemporary, white, secular, moderate-liberal, straight guy with modest ambitions who isn't disaffected in any major way. (Hell, he's from Connecticut, even.) So there's some power in familiarity playing here, too.

5/19/2008 10:10 AM  

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