Sunday, August 22, 2010

Super Sad True Love Story

Finished Gary Shteyngart's new novel, Super Sad True Love Story.

The cover makes me think of Twister.

I love dystopian fiction. And I love the words/phrases/names the authors come up with for our future societies. 1984 had Big Brother. Infinite Jest had Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and acronyms like M.G.M (Militant Grammarians of Massachussets) and A.F.R (Les Assassins des Fauteuils Roulents [wheelchair assassins]). Super Sad True Love Story's vision of the future includes the American Restoration Authority (respresented by an otter mascot), OnionSkin Jeans, AlliedWasteCVSCitigroup, and the new texting acronym JBF (just butt fucking).

These parts are hilarious. Cynicism, satire, and social commentary abound. But at the heart of the story is the main character's struggle with his own mortality. And that's where I'm pulling the quotes from:

The children are our future only in the most narrow, transitive sense. They are our future until they too perish. The song's next line, "Teach them well and let them lead the way," encourages an adult's relinquishing of selfhood in favor of future generations. The phrase "I live for my kids," for example, is tantamount to admitting that one will be dead shortly and that one's life, for all practical purposes, is already over. "I'm gradually dying for my kids" would be more accurate.

Keep your heart. Your heart is all that matters. Throw away your shame! Throw away your modesty! Throw away your ancestors! Throw away your fathers and the self-appointed fathers that claim to be stewards of God. Throw away your shyness and the anger that lies just a few inches beneath. ... Accept your thoughts! Accept your desires! Accept the truth! And if there is more than one truth, then learn to do the difficult work--learn to choose. You are good enough, you are human enough to choose!

Today I've made a major decision: I am going to die.

Nothing of my personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off. My life, my entirety, will be lost forever. I will be nullified. And what will be left? Floating through the ether, tickling the empty belly of space, alighting over farms outside Cape Town, and crashing into an aurora above Hammerfest Norway, the northernmost city of this shattered planet--my data, the soupy base of my existence...Words, words, words.

You, dear diary.

A month ago, mid-October, a gust of autumnal wind kicked its way down Grand Street. A co-op woman, old, tired, Jewish, fake drops of jade spread across the little sacks of her bosom, looked up at the pending wind and said one word: "Blustery." Just one word, a word meaning no more than "a period of time characterized by strong winds," but it caught me unaware, it reminded me of how language was once used, its precision and simplicity, its capacity for recall. Not cold, not chilly, blustery. ...
"It is blustery, ma'am," I said to the old co-op woman. "I can feel it in my bones." And she smiled at me with whatever facial muscles she still had in reserve. We were communicating with words.

The last one was from the ending, which I really appreciated. The novel imagines a future where words aren't important. Books are deemed "smelly" and are no longer available, and text is "skimmed" entirely for informational purposes. Emotions are expressed almost entirely through acronyms. And face-to-face talking is called "verballing". It's kind of disturbing. But it's the future we're heading towards, so buckle in.


Here's the book's trailer:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Immortal Gardener

Double post!

While reading Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead last week, which in many ways deals with the question of what makes one immortal, I was reminded of a passage I read once, about how a gardener remains immortal, but someone who only mows his/her lawn isn't. I stretched my mind trying to remember where I had read it, and it finally dawned on me that it was in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. The book-lover's book of books. I located my old copy on the shelf, scanned the marginalia and excessive underlining, and voila! Here's the quote:

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.

Ray Bradbury <3

So here are some more poignant passages from one of my all-time favorite books:
The sun burnt every day. It burnt time. The world rushed in a circle and turned on its axis and time was busy burning the years and the people anyway, without any help from him. So if he burnt things with the firemen and the sun burnt Time, that meant that everything burnt!
One of them had to stop burning. The sun wouldn't certainly. ... Somewhere the saving and putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people's heads, any way at all so long as it was safe..."

...don't look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.

It's not books you need, it some of the things that once were in books. The save thing could be in the 'parlor families' today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it's not books at all you're looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself.

The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time where flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam.

Montag looked at the river. We'll go on the river. He looked at the old railroad tracks. Or we'll go that way. Or we'll walk on the highways now, and we'll have time to put things into ourselves. And someday, after it sits in us a long time it'll come out our hands and our mouths. And a lot of it will be wrong, but just enough will be right. We'll just start walking today and see the world and the way it really looks. I want to see everything now. And while none of it will be me when it goes in, after a while it'll all gather together inside and it'll be me. Look at the world out there, my God, my God, look at it out there, outside me, out there beyond my face, and the only way to really touch it is to put it where it's finally me, where it's in the blood, where it pumps around a thousand times ten thousand a day.

The Brief History of the Dead

The idea behind Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead is fascinating. His novel imagines a world where the dead "live" after long as someone in the living world has memories of them. Things turn complicated when a virus sweeps the living world, and the land of the dead grows smaller in turn. I kept thinking the whole time while reading, "Aronofsky should totally direct a film adaptation of this." Or Christopher Nolan. Though there's not really a place for many explosions in the plot.

So here are some passages:

The dead were often surprised by such memories. They might go weeks and months without thinking of the houses and neighborhoods they had grown up in, their triumphs of shame and glory, the jobs, routines, and hobbies that had slowly eaten away their lives, yet the smallest, most inconsequential episode would leap into their thoughts a hundred times a day, like a fish smacking its tail on the surface of a lake. The old woman who begged for quarters in the subway remembered eating a meal of crab cakes and horseradish on a dock by Chesapeake Bay. The man who lit the gas lamps in the theater district remembered taking a can of beans from the middle of a supermarket display pyramid and feeling a flicker of pride and then a flicker of amusement at his pride when the other cans did no fall. Andreas Andreopoulos, who had written code for computer games the wholet forty years of his adult life, remembered leaping to pluck a leaf from a tree, and opening a fashion magazine to smell the perfume inserts, and writing his name in the condensation on a glass of beer. They preoccupied him--these formless, almost clandestine memories. They seemed so much heavier than they should have been, as if they were where the true burden of his life's meaning lay. He sometimes thought of piecing them together into an autobiography, all the toy-sized memories that had replaced the details of his work and family, and leaving everything else out. He would write it by hand on sheets of unlined notebook paper. He would never touch a computer again.

That was what insomnia was, after all--an excess of consciousness, an excess of life. Ever since she could remember, she had treated her life as an act of will, the you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to philosophy, but she couldn't will herself to fall asleep. The only way to fall asleep was not to care whether you fell asleep or not: you had to relinquish your will. Most people seemed to think that you fell asleep and then started dreaming, but as far as Minny could tell, the process was exactly the reverse--you started dreaming and that enabled you to fall asleep. She wasn't able to start dreaimng, though, because she couldn't stop thinking about the fact that she wasn't already asleep. And anything that called her attention to that fact made it more likely that she would keep thinking about it, and a million little snowdrops of nervous tension would bud open inside her, and thus she wouldn't start dreaming, and thus she wouldn't be able to sleep.

What a mess.
That last one's for me. bastard.