It’s Time for Infinite Jest

infinite_jestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is a book I put on a mental list years ago and then forgot about. Talk of his being the ‘heir-apparent’ to Pynchon piqued my interest, and Inifinte Jest has always been on the low horizons of my radar, referenced frequently by a lot of writers for dealing with themes in and around my wheelhouse. So I bought it. Then I forgot about it again.

In the last few months I’d occasionally pick it up off my shelf just to make sure it was the same weight as when I bought it, but it was always just too massive and seemed too absorbing to work into my reading schedule. So when I saw Wallace’s short story collection Oblivion in a used bookstore, I went for it.

OblivionOblivion floored me. Every story sparkled from every angle. Each short story seemed to be a microcosm of a much larger idea or issue that interested me. The prose is wickedly good, and I totally get the Pynchon comparison; his sentences are so effective, unique, and well crafted it’s scary. From the first story, I could tell this guy was a master.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again equally impressed me. It’s non-fiction, but it had no less imagination and originality than Oblivion. Never mind that one of the articles is about his experience on the set of David Lynch’s Lost Highway—my favorite film from my favorite director—but every story is a stand-alone gem that’s both beautiful and hilarious. It’s so rare to laugh out loud reading a book, but I did several times with this collection.

A_Supposedly_Fun_ThingWhat really struck me with A Supposedly Fun Thing was that Wallace has all the tools and wit to be some sort of above-it-all, post-hip, ultra-modern armchair philosopher, but he isn’t. He is incredibly hip and incredibly modern, but never comes off as too cool, and he seems eager to get his hands dirty with the complex emotional truths that make life simultaneously so funny and heartbreaking.

I was sick last week (on Tuesday, which is why I missed last week’s post completely), and I spent a couple days sleeping deliriously. For some reason I decided to pick up Infinite Jest and read the outstanding foreword by the talented Dave Eggers. I nearly started in on the first chapter, but held off and went to bed.

That night I had a dream unlike any I’ve ever had. The dream didn’t contain any images; it was just prose! It was like I was reading the book, absorbing it word by word without any physical or visual content whatsoever. And whenever I tried to remember back to something I just read I was unable to make any sense of it.

It was as though this book I was reading wasn’t linear, but 3D, like an inflated balloon (if you think that sounds weird, try living it). When I reached back with my mind I could never trace the correct line of longitude across the surface and I always ended up in some completely unfamiliar space in the story. It really did feel like one big joke on me, one that I might never get out of intact. Infinite jest indeed.

I woke up at 3 AM and looked over at my cat, who promptly coughed up a hairball and ran away. I cleaned it up with the distinct sense that I had actually started reading Infinite Jest the evening before, and had to convince myself that I had only read the foreword and had dreamt it all. Then I went back to sleep and fell right back into the same dream, in a different part of the book. I was so confused when I woke up it hurt.

It’s like I unconsciously mythologized Infinite Jest into this impossible morass of genius-level complexity and I had gotten trapped inside it. So now that I’m not sick, with no more delirium than normal, I feel it’s time to demolish that myth by reading the actual words on the actual page. I suspect I’ll have more to say about this when I finish it three decades from now.

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the Hard Work of Simplicity

The Ocean at the End of the LaneOcean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane by Neil Gaiman is simply beautiful. Picking up this slender volume, it feels vaguely familiar; it’s about the size of the books I read as a child. Apt, because it reads like a fairy tail, and it breathed with life in my imagination. If The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the first Gaiman novel I read, I would have read the rest of his work immediately. So now I’m playing catch-up.

It’s a lean volume with lean prose and the main character feels tenderly, achingly real. I was disarmed by the book’s simplicity. My critical brain was quiet for a while. I felt immersed in the world without the need to analyze it. I think Hemingway would approve.

A man returns to his hometown for a funeral but wanders from the grieving mass, drawn on by vague memories. When he reaches the small pond on the Hempstock farm he knew as a boy, he vividly remembers his awful seventh birthday party, and the truly nightmarish events that followed.

When a boarder in his parent’s house commits suicide with the exhaust from the family car, our 7-year-old narrator barely comprehends the severity of what he sees. But something malevolent is creeping into the neighbourhood, and it has its sights on our little hero. And of course, the magical world of danger closing in on a young child is something that parents cannot see.

Our hero—unnamed and referred to in the first person as “I”, lending an effective personal slant to the story—has help only from the Hempstock women living on the farm down the road. 11-year-old Lettie, her mother and antediluvian grandmother, are odd, and just magical enough to seem like something out of the myths our hero reads compulsively.

When he realizes with Lettie’s help that the new boarder/nanny Ursula Monkton is in fact a horrific flapping monster of rotted cloth, he tries to point this out to his parents with predictable results. Ursula wins over his family with ease; only our narrator and the Hempstocks realize that a world of chaos has opened up beneath everyday life, and only they can set things right.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from a jaunty fantasy story. It is told delicately, remembered through the lens of a 7-year-old with such authentic emotion, such alienation from the adult world that it helps us to remember, like the pond in the story, a time when our inner suspicions had a deeper reality, and that we truly did sometimes have the weight of that world on our shoulders.

It’s a beautifully realized book. It’s brevity and tone, childlike reverence for the weird and total irreverence for the quotidian life of adulthood make The Ocean at the End of the Lane a riveting dream of a novel that should satisfy adults and kids alike, though hopefully those kids aren’t too young.

The one thing I didn’t like about the novel came in the acknowledgements. Here he thanks two dozen people for reading, re-reading, giving notes, complaining, and so forth. I was annoyed because the simplicity of the book, and its beautiful execution and realization by Gaiman are so good they feel like they’re cut from whole cloth.

That a world famous author at the top of his game should need such extensive notes and rewriting bothered me. With such obvious talent and vision, why should he have to work so hard? I want this guy basically to just exhale the book onto the page, as in Octavio Paz’s poem “Writing”:

“I draw these letters

As the day draws its images

And blows over them

                    And does not return”

Of course, Gaiman is at the top of his game precisely because he’s willing to put in the work required to create a masterpiece.

“But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.” – Leonard Cohen, Song Writers On Song Writing by Paul Zollo, (written about nicely at Brainpickings.org)

Arts vs. Crowds

If you’re the type of performer who finds a comfortable venue in small clubs and bars, particularly if you’re a musician or standup comedian, you’ve had to deal with obnoxious crowds. It’s just a fact of the business, like late hours and occasionally free beer.

Performers should want the crowd to feel engaged and enthusiastic about what it is they’re doing and sometimes they even goad the audience into participation, but some nights the vibrations in the room or a slight miscalculation of pints-per-hour can send certain types right over the edge.

Hecklers can be nice-and-annoying, but more often are annoying-and-annoying. Screaming “Canada loves you!” at Bill Maher might seem nice—it is a compliment, technically—but this eruption means little or nothing to a man performing for thousands. My bet is that the standing ovation will clue him in that at least some small part of Canada (heckler included) loves him.

Some hecklers seem jealous that lights are pointed at the comedian on stage, and they try to compete by being obnoxious and loud. These people, presumably attending the show of their own free will, find it easier to antagonize the performer than to just walk out. That combative approach would be intimidating if it wasn’t draped over their desperation for some small piece of the limelight.

Some people yell “Freebird!” at every rock show, which wasn’t funny when I was a kid and hasn’t become funny since.

Usually artists have planned their material. Doing the odd request is fine, but it seems a bit condescending to me that a member of the audience would rather hear something familiar than something the artist has planned. If the artist has something worth saying, I don’t want them to digress for one loud person.

I suppose comedians have special purview here, since the role of the heckler is perfect for comedic riposte. That being said, I can’t wait to yell “Freebird” at Todd Barry this Friday.

Autopilot

From the first moments of our lives we are conditioned through pain (negative reinforcement), reward (positive reinforcement) and habit. Before we say our first words most of us learn to avoid things if they’re too hot or too sharp, and we’ve learned these things so deeply we don’t even have to think about them. When it comes to staying safe, autopilot is a trusted friend that will last a lifetime.

You don’t walk into a room conscious of every facet of the experience. You aren’t necessarily paying attention to your ankles as you turn a corner, or the way the denim over your left knee flexes against your skin. Even if you decide to pay attention to these experiences, there are always other inputs you’re ignoring. You don’t have to be conscious of every little thing because we’ve evolved competencies at a great number of safety maneuvers, like blinking, that automatically keep us protected.

Fortunately, just being alive in the physical world forces us into these good habits, and much of our learning in this capacity is the result of pain. If I rested my hand on a cold burner and then turned it on, it wouldn’t take long for the signals to engage my brain to pull my hand away. In fact, it would take a tremendous effort of will to keep my hand there despite the pain.

Positive reinforcement works too, but it can be difficult to give yourself enough pleasure to make it work. Pain is acute and causes a quick response, but to cause an equally acute pleasure can be a bit dangerous; the pleasant brain state has to be severe enough so the accompanying behaviors are imprinted with pleasurable reinforcement. This is what makes some drugs so dangerously habit-forming.

Mental habits are a bit trickier to pick up, but pain and pleasure can still be used to install programs that seem just as automatic as our physical safety features. You can eliminate a word from your vocabulary very easily: put an elastic band around your wrist and snap yourself so it hurts every time you say the word. It won’t take long until you find yourself speaking more consciously and deliberately, and you’ll quickly gain more control of your vocabulary. (Pick a word you use frequently if you want to see effects quickly.)

If you have an aversion to pain, and don’t have a quick and safe way to administer pleasure, an effective but more difficult way to learn something is by installing a habit. Consciously decide to do something every day, stick with it, and soon the habit will become engrained. Self-programming can be a real pain, but that pain might be the reason it works. You spend extra willpower now so you can use less later.

For example, I meditate every morning on the same cushion in the same part of my home. Those mornings when I wake from a dream or I’m otherwise mentally distracted, I sometimes catch myself unconsciously grabbing the cushion, setting it in place and having a stretch to get ready for my session.

I sometimes appreciate the value of this habit when I can fully remember what I was distracted about while I put the cushion in place. I was working out some story problem or thinking about something for the day’s work, and I sometimes don’t even remember grabbing the cushion because it was so far from my conscious mind. I was just “going through the motions,” and I’ve trained daily to perfect those motions so I can literally do them without thinking.

The goal is to make the habit unconscious, so that all things being equal, when my mind is on autopilot, my unconscious or subconscious mind will simply follow through with the routine and I won’t have to engage consciously in any debate about whether or not I should go through with it.

If you want to pick up a new behavior or habit, grit your teeth and commit to doing it for a week. Keep in mind that if it’s a bit of a pain, if it sucks and you catch yourself trying to talk yourself out of it, it’s probably because you’re body and mind just aren’t used to the behavior. Tell yourself it’s just for a week and get on with it. Odds are that by the end of the week you won’t find it nearly as hard to continue as you previously thought. You’ve begun training your autopilot, and from now on it will take over some of the workload for you.

The Art of Character

Many fine books offer to help writers hone their craft by teaching fundamentals like character development, narrative structure, grammar, and the importance of rewriting. Story by Robert McKee is a great example of a broad, intelligent, and intelligible approach to storytelling that covers many of the bases.

While many books like Syd Field’s Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat offer good guidelines for plotting your story and making sure the beats are in the right place, they often fail to acknowledge that, as McKee points out, “character is plot, and vice versa. That discovery, fully assimilated, proves itself true again and again as you watch stories with a more critical eye.

A series of unwilled “happenings” does not make for a dramatic or interesting story; characters make stories compelling, and it is these characters’ conscious and unconscious decisions and reactions that drive any worthwhile plot forward. Underdeveloped characters often lead to predictable or unrealistic plots.

The Art Of CharacterRecently I received The Art of Character by David Corbett as a gift. As a writer who has at least a toehold on scene structure, this gift couldn’t have been better timed, as I have come to realize that character is the core aspect of storytelling. This 380-page book will uncover and clarify what, if anything, make our characters unique, and it offers a thorough set of tools to flesh out our creations and give them a life of their own.

Corbett cuts straight to the point, elucidating the fundamentals of character and how to use personal experience to summon more honest and interesting players for our stories. Part conscious deliberation and part intuitive discovery, Corbett offers simple and specific techniques that let us dig for the emotional truths that we often overlook in everyday life, and how to conjure characters that feel like real people.

Full of excellent contemporary examples and a plethora of exercises, The Art of Character is concisely written and beautifully honest. From the very opening, Corbett has the reader thinking not of detailed character histories or laundry lists of characteristics, but of scenes in which our creations can live and breathe and experiment.

The exercises guide us step by step to discover more about our characters. By applying new questions to our imagined scenes, we can gradually shine a light on what drives our characters, why they act the way they act, and how the story should unfold naturally from the conflict between their wants, their dispositions, and their circumstances.

David Corbett’s book is for anyone interested in moving beyond the fundamentals of narrative structure, sentence structure, world building, etc., etc. It illuminates the most essential element of great storytelling: unique and memorable characters who can captivate an audience for at least the length of the story.

My favorite aspect of this book is that it talks the reader into an observant, introspective mode, and the exercises develop our characters while clarifying our own motivations and observations. Do the work, and there is a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself. The Art of Character is a thoughtful and thought-provoking tool that shows that with stories, as with writers themselves, it always comes back to character.

NXNE

I have the bad habit of missing major events in Toronto like TIFF or NXNE. This year I did slightly better by taking a short walk down to Yonge and Dundas Square Thursday where Danny Brown played a free concert. A large crowd emitting herbaceous vapours packed the square. I had to miss part of his set, and truthfully broad daylight and no booze aren’t the most favorable conditions, but he was delivering nicely.

Danny Brown – Monopoly (Official Video) WARNING: EXTREMELY EXPLICIT LYRICS

Swans drew a good crowd Friday, blasting out continual noise through most of the downtown core. They fired up the crowd nicely, and when St. Vincent went on shortly after, the sun dropped and she did her thing very well.

St. Vincent – Digital Witness

But the highlight for me was Spiritualized at Massey Hall, who packed their hour-long set with a blend of loud and quiet, electric and tender, new and old material. It was great. My only regret is missing Spoon at the Horseshoe later that night.

Spiritualized at Massey Hall

Spiritualized – Come Together

For The Love Of The Craft

They say part of writing well is reading well. I try to broaden my scope and cover the classics, but are always important authors who slip through the cracks. My writing focus has been speculative fiction, yet until recently I’ve committed the sin of failing to read the short horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was a major influence of many successful writers, including modern giants Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why Lovecraft’s influence has persisted. His prose is like a great fireside ghost story and the strange demons and apparitions are so beautifully developed I can’t help but drink in the weirdness. And while many of the stories fit together—dealing with madness, ancient cults and black magic—each is unique and memorable on its own.

A new writer aping Lovecraft’s style would probably not get published. His prose is fairly ornate, and most of the stories chronicle similar journeys of skeptical men to horrified believers. The characters don’t get much of a chance to live and breathe, and sometimes seem only to pilot the reader through dark places and bizarre situations. What little dialogue there is can seem ridiculous, and the descriptions and exposition border on ‘overdone’, but the flow of his thoughts is prodigal, well considered, and right up my alley.

One of his strongest assets is his ability to describe settings we can feel, and that we remember as though we’ve been there. The house in “The Color Out Of Space” and the strange events that occur within are so crisp in my mind it’s as though I spent an entire novel there, or a weekend. Few writers lend so much personality to a building, and like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the places in Lovecraft’s work are at least as central as the characters.

Most of the stories I’ve read so far are quite similar in tone, but rather than feeling redundant, I get the sense that I’m reading an author who has found and truly mastered his voice. And with the strength of that voice, his legacy is likely to last for a long time still. As a writer still honing his own voice, I was glad to see the trickle-down influence of his work in some of my own short stories.

He’s a must-read for anyone who wants to write speculative fiction, and I welcome recommendations of other less popular but seminal authors I might have missed.

Ontario Beer “Facts”

Ontario Beer Facts PamphletHave you seen these pamphlets yet? Apparently, somebody thought about privatizing alcohol sales, and then there was a murder. It opens into a tryptich display of a woman being robbed at gunpoint. They say that safety comes before profits, eluding that good, clean, wholesome people should be very afraid of privatization (but disregard public safety when it comes to cigarettes sold at convenience stores). Then the pamphlet directs us to www.ontariobeerfacts.ca to learn more. It tells us to get the facts.

For a pamphlet from a group that call themselves Ontario Beer Facts, surprisingly, this pamphlet contains no facts. Not one. I assume if privatization led directly to crime, there would be piles of statistics, figures, anything. But there isn’t. So, on to their website.

The website claims Ontarians pay some of the lowest prices in Canada for beer after adjusting for tax rate differences. Vague fact, maybe, but we’re getting close. They then claim that the average price per case of bottles is $32.08. So if you’re an Ontarian who regularly shells out between $36 and $45 dollars for a case of beer, realize that you’re actually paying less than that through the magic of tax adjustment!

They urgently claim that prices will rise with privatization, as they did in Alberta when the province privatized, failing to mention that prices rose in Ontario as well during the same time period. There is a tedious study that first claims how valuable it (the study itself) is, then goes on for dozens of pages but fails to realize that everything sold at convenience stores is marked up because we pay for convenience. Happily.

What about selection? The Beer Store sells 420 brands of beer. But sadly, they follow up that stone cold fact with the line, “space-constrained convenience stores and gas stations would have little space for local and craft brands.” This is not a fact, nor is it even an intelligent opinion. When Alberta privatized alcohol sales the selection of brands blossomed many times over.

My favorite fact from the website is at the very bottom, in significantly finer print than anything else on the page. It reads: “Ontario Beer Facts is brought to you by Canada’s National Brewers (CNB), a national trade association representing Labatt Brewing Company Ltd., Molson Coors Canada and Sleeman Breweries Ltd.”

Now look back at the pamphlet. Doesn’t it strike you as the sort of symbolic scare tactic you’d see coming from the mob boss of a huge drug cartel? “Eh, <sniff> I really hope nuthin’ terrible happens to your family this weekend if you even think of privatizing.” In fact, considering the direct appeal to fear, and the complete lack of information, I’d say a scare tactic is all it is.

Digging Tunnels

Philosopher, writer, humorist, scholar and mystic Robert Anton Wilson used to say that we all see reality through our own “neurological reality tunnels.” What he meant was that we don’t see reality itself. All our perceptions are filtered through a very personal channel of assumptions, beliefs, and mental models. Compounding this problem is the fact that it’s so easy to mistake the model for the thing it represents. This, he claims, is the reason we misunderstand each other so profoundly.

Pay attention to the world and you’ll see people misunderstanding each other. Even when they understand each other, people have a hard time coming together to make decisions. Communicating with language (conversing or writing) seems like the most straightforward method of communication, but in many ways it’s an inferior mode of expression.

The medium of language is full of assumptions and abstractions that are easily confused. Language uses only one input—auditory for speech or visual for the written word—and it leaves many of our senses un-stimulated. Even when watching someone speak, the visual input may or may not be a part of the message.

This is why art will always win. Film, for example, uses light, colour, sound, music, action, and so forth and is a much more full-brained form of communication. If you disagree, try to describe a David Lynch film to someone and see if your words do the movie justice. Meanwhile, language is perfectly at home inside of film.

But sometimes a writer gets it so right, it’s like he or she comes and joins you in your own neurological reality tunnel. I had this experience recently while re-reading “Sonny’s Blues”, a short story by James Baldwin.

The main character, a Harlem schoolteacher, spends much of the story trying to understand his heroin-using, jazz-piano-playing brother. He simply cannot understand why anyone would throw his life away with heroin, and he just doesn’t “get” jazz. He and his brother are stuck, not quite connecting through their reality tunnels, until the story’s climax where he sees Sonny play.

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

For me this is a great encapsulation of what makes music (or any art form) magical. When art connects, it connects more deeply than language alone. It can open the audience to unmapped territories, force them out of their preconceived notions and comfort zones. This form of communication cannot be translated into language; it has to be experienced. That terrible act of creativity might reshape your own reality tunnel. Then, maybe, you get a sense of someone else’s reality and approach understanding.

3 Reason to See The Birder at Carlton Cinema

TheBirder-Poster

Watch A Funny Movie With Heart

The Birder is a comedy that will leave you feeling good, not jaded. While most blockbuster comedies try to clobber you over the head with gags and vulgarity, this movie, like its central character Ron Spencer, is looking to dig out a little corner for itself in a world that rewards flare and loud slogans instead of genuine content. Feel free to take a break from all the cynicism for 90 minutes and check out this film.

If you go to comedies because you want loud, drunken montages that remind you of beer commercials, The Birder might not be for you. But if you’re a fan of character-driven movies, or Wes Anderson films like Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, Bezaire’s comedies might float your boat (see Things To Do as well). Dry wit and deadpan delivery make The Birder quietly amusing throughout.

Because movies can be funny without envelope-pushing sight gags, you won’t see a droopy naked ass like The Hangover, Snoop Lion will not make a guest appearance, and there will be no explosive projectile vomiting. What you will see is a thoughtful buddy comedy with a catchy indie soundtrack.

Support Canadian Film (and friends of mine)

Making films in Canada is a tough racket to break into. A surprisingly small number of Canadian films ever make money, including the larger budget Telefilm-funded movies with stars attached (Paul Gross’s Passchendaele, the largest Canadian-funded production in our history at $20M, was also one of our biggest box office losers).

A large part of this problem is that many Canadian moviegoers don’t care to see Canadian films. Many of our homegrown movies feel Canadian, and this can be awkward, like inviting someone you want to impress to your parent’s house. You notice every flaw and tick and bad habit like a cynical outsider and it makes you self-conscious.

But The Birder is a polished film. It looks and sounds professional, it’s entertaining, it has some solid talent behind it, and it was pulled off on a tiny budget thanks to years of perseverance by many friends of mine, including Gerry Lattmann of The Dot Film Company, Theodore Bezaire, and Mike Stasko.

Support Carlton Cinema

I was surprised to learn that Carlton Theater now serves alcohol. This shouldn’t be a big deal, because all theaters everywhere should have always served alcohol. Audiences will enjoy a movie more if they can casually drink a nice beer while watching. You don’t need social science to figure out that this is true. It feels nice to be treated like an adult. And beer is good.

Carlton serves some of the standard lager selections, as well as selections from local craft big shots Mill Street. They also serve wine and liquor. Don’t let a lack of alcohol make you skip a movie ever again. Reward the theater’s decision and reward yourself, and do it this week. The Birder pairs well with Mill St. Tank House Ale.

The movie plays at Carlton until Friday, and if it does well, it will play longer. The Carlton is willing to occupy one of their screens with a Canadian indie movie instead of a sure sell like Neighbors or any other very-well-funded Hollywood movie in no need of support. If you want theaters to continue to take their chances with indie movies, go see those movies in those theaters.