Award Nominations

Really excited that  two of my short stories this past year have been nominated for awards.

The Adventures of an Elderly Couple…” was nominated by Barrelhouse Magazine for the storySouth Million Writers Award.

And “Submission Guidelines” was nominated by decomP for The Best of the Net 2013.

Now that I’ve written this blog post, I’ve doomed myself, of course. Don’t talk to a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter, and all that. But whatever. It’s fun to share good news.  Heck, if you’re an Orlando writer and you stumble across this blog…feel free to share your good writing news with me anytime.

An Open Letter to List Articles

So I’ve joined the billions of other writers in the world who have helped to make the “open letter” the most popular thing since, like, internet porn.

Except my “open letter” is not directed at a celebrity, a la Miley Cyrus open letters. Instead, mine is directed at the other online article genre that is currently multiplying Gremlin-like to invade our monitors: the “list article.”

Here’s my “Open Letter to List Articles,” originally published as part of the UCF Forum at UCF Today, and then re-published at Huffington Post and Context Florida.

American Fraternity Man – A Halloween Excerpt

AFM Cover Spread-WEB

In honor of Halloween, a short excerpt from my novel American Fraternity Man (with some never-bef0re-seen “deleted” material that had been left on the cutting room floor, but which I’ve recovered for this extra-special blog posting), in which the narrator (Charles Washington) enters his ex-girlfriend’s sorority house on the evening of Halloween. Ever seen a sorority house on Halloween? It is indeed an experience. Here you go:

 

A girl named Elizabeth Safron answers the door, recognizes me, puts hand to mouth. “Oh my God, Charles.” She’s wearing a bright orange t-shirt with a black screen-printed jack-o-lantern face smiling wide and gap-toothed, the shirt three sizes too large and sweeping down over her black leggings like it’s a skirt. “What are you doing here?”

“Hoping Jenn was home,” I say.

“Well,” Elizabeth says. She closes her eyes, likely searching her mind for an alibi, somewhere Jenn can be instead of right here, but she wasn’t prepared for this.

“Can I come in?” I peek my head through the doorway. There are plastic pumpkins lining the hallway, each stuffed with Lemonheads and snack-sized Snickers, each pumpkin painted with the letters of a different fraternity. Beyond the hallway is the living room, and from this angle it’s all hair spilled across couch cushions, legs on arm rests, flashes of denim and cardigan.

“Um. Sure,” Elizabeth says, but I’m already inside, not even waiting for her to walk me to the living room and the couches and the TV and the girls.

I know this house almost as well as my own, remember when the wallpaper was stripped away and the walls were re-painted lavender, remember when the plantation shutters were installed in the new cafeteria. I remember each couch, the way they feel when you’re the only man on them surrounded by a dozen sorority girls. I remember evenings after date nights, watching Eight-Legged Freaks or Scream 3, and I remember the drunk girls who would walk into the house late-night, coming home from the bar with boys they didn’t know, douche-bags who’d plop onto the couches and make comments like, “This is what a sorority house looks like?” and “What’s it gonna take to get some three-some action, eh?”, the other girls on the couches going nervous until I said, “He tries to get past the stairwell, I’ll tackle him,” and then the relief. Charles to keep us safe. Charles the good boyfriend. Charles the Protector. I remember the boxes of Cap’n Crunch that seemed to appear magically whenever the girls sat down and turned on the TV, conjured from hiding spots behind the couches, Goldfish too, and Oreos, the accompanying “I’m such a fat-ass” remarks while girls stuffed face with Crunch bars. Other comments, too: “Ahh, these panties give me such a freakin’ wedgie!” and “Oh my God, Dana is passed out naked on her bed upstairs! Can someone go wake her up or something?” Days when they forgot a boy was present, days when I was transplanted into the sorority world, followed by nights when Jenn faced the same at the NKE house: dozens of dudes watching Monday Night Football and throwing Doritos at one another and farting and wrestling one another in the grass of the backyard, comments like “I’m soooo gonna fuck that Ashley girl. Oh, shit. Forgot you were sitting there, Jenn.”

The living room—the long sweeping couches, the HDTV mounted to the wall but still surrounded by a massive and unnecessary espresso-colored entertainment center, shelves and cabinet lined with stuffed animals and framed photos. This feels more like home than anywhere I’ve been in the last six months.

When I turn the corner and enter the frame, there are only three girls seated before me, and all three gasp.

“Charles,” Jenn says. She might be the last to see me, to register that it is me, as she was looking down at her cell phone and typing out a text. Her hair is shorter, so light that it’s damn-near platinum, bangs falling over her black headband and slashing down her forehead like icicles. “What…what are you doing here?” she asks.

“In town for the day,” I say. “Not glad to see me?” I force a sheepish shrug, my posture and face suddenly like the Monopoly Man when forced to pay his poor tax.

“Charles, I…”

The other girls are still staring with the same faces they’d have if someone came into the house and told them that Florida had split from the continent and was now drifting on a collision course with Cuba. Ten minutes before, they were thinking of Halloween parties. Spread out on the empty cushions are the bits and pieces of half-costumes, a tall pair of clear heels, a Hooters shirt, a pair of bunny ears. Ten minutes before, they were timing the exact moment they’d need to leave the living room and head upstairs to start getting ready for the night’s parties, cramming their tight bodies into fishnets and long white gloves and three inches of glittery top or bottom. They were thinking, “How will I be able to walk across campus in these stripper heels?” and “Can I even sit down in the short leather skirt of this Sexy Cop outfit?” They were thinking, “Why do guys get to dress up as whatever they want, but I’ve got dress like a slut?” They were also thinking, “Is my costume slutty enough?” And then: Charles Washington appeared.

The Reviews Are In…

I’ll be flying to Chicago tomorrow to say goodbye to a much-loved uncle. I write a great deal about the struggles and difficulties that we face when attempting to be “the right kind of man” in a culture that’s tugging us in a thousand different directions, a thousand different conceptions of manhood, and I should say that my uncle was definitely one of those guys who epitomized everything you’d want in a man, a family member, a father, and he didn’t even make it look tough. Great man, and we’re all going to miss him.

I’d planned to write a couple posts over the last two weeks to spotlight some different Nathan Holic links and interviews, etc., but the virtual world of my blog has to take a back seat to the real world. I figured I’d gather these links into a single blog post, and post them into various pages throughout this site, and boom: you’ll have them all in one place, and I’ll still catch my flight.

So what’s happening? What’s new for me?

“Don’t Critique Me”: I read with Chicago author Lindsay Hunter at Functionally Literate in downtown Orlando this past Saturday. The video should be available soon, and I’ll post it when it’s up (Lindsay was freakin’ awesome). We were old grad school cronies, too, so in anticipation of the event, I wrote an essay for the Burrow Press blog in which I found my old fiction workshop critiques for her stories, and then critiqued my own critiques. Check it out here. If you’re a Lindsay Hunter fan, you should also check out The Drunken Odyssey’s podcast interview with her, which was recorded directly before the Functionally Literate event.

Review in Scene Sarasota: Sarasota’s arts & culture magazine, Scene Sarasota, just ran a great review of 15 Views of Orlando in their September issue. They wondered if there would ever be a “15 Views of Sarasota,” to which I can only tell the online world: if there’s a demand for it, we’ll do it. But you’ve gotta let us know. And you’ve gotta get Stephen King on board.

Interview at Knightnews: I spent about an hour talking with the folks from Knightnews.com, the online news hub for University of Central Florida students. It’s an attractive site, very multimedia heavy, and I got the chance to talk about American Fraternity Man, the culture of the National Fraternity, the hazing and alcohol culture at campuses across the country, and my own thoughts on both student and administrative successes and failures. It’s a video, so watch on the device of your choice.

American Fraternity Man reviewed: the first reviews of AFM are in, and while I’m always nervous/anxious for each one, I’ve been really happy with what folks are saying about my book. Here are some quick quotes and links:

“This book is hard to put down…It is a reminder of the complexities of this system, but most importantly a reminder that, at the core, relationships and influence are the most important and most effective tools we have when developing students. American Fraternity Man is everything you love and hate about fraternity life. It is a great story for anyone who knows what it is like to be miserable, challenged, and still love their job.”- Association of Fraternity/ Sorority Advisors, “Essentials” Newsletter
“American Fraternity Man is many things at once–funny and tragic, pro-Greek and anti-frat, bildungsroman and travel narrative, indictment of whiney millenials and the adults who made them that way. For GDIs (I’ll let you read the book for a translation of that abbreviation), the novel is a window into a world that is often misunderstood, even hated, but whose inhabitants are no less human, whose stories are no less worthy of telling.” – Dianne Turgeon Richardson, Sundog Lit
“I feel that all college students should take the chance to read this book…This book was an eye-opener to me…” – Books With Bite
Okay, so that’s the link round-up for this week!
It’s awesome to get great reviews, but I’ve gotta tell you: it’s just awesome that people are reading the book. So if you’ve been to any of my readings lately, or if you’ve picked up the book, or if you’ve finished plowing through it: thank you so much. I don’t take any of this for granted, and I appreciate any support you’ve given me.

When We Say We’re Bored

I’ve got a new column up at the Huffington Post (it was originally part of UCF Today‘s “Forum” series, and it’s also been re-printed at Context Florida).

Follow this link to get to Huff Po, and give me a like/share/comment if you dig the column. Here’s the opening:

“When We Say We’re Bored, What Are We Really Saying About Ourselves?”

In late August, three teenagers in Oklahoma targeted and killed a random jogger for no other reason than because they were bored. The story is heartbreaking, maddening, and chilling, and it’s made even more so by their explanation: boredom.

 

Were these kids really saying that their own entertainment was the most important thing in the world, more important than other lives?

The more I thought about the story, the more I moved beyond my repulsion at just these three teens and considered the word “boredom” itself, how quickly we all employ it, but how little we deserve to use it.

Read more

Consider the Milkshake

A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a “literary collaboration” at the Orlando Museum of Art’s “First Thursday” event. (These are basically the new thing, by the way. (Maybe they were also the old thing, too?) Museums/ aquariums/ science centers that open up for monthly “culture and cocktails” events…basically turning the museum into the world’s coolest bar for an evening.)

oma(picture from Wikipedia)

As part of our reading at the museum, I had to draft a story that took place at the I-Drive McDonalds here in Orlando, and because it was an “exquisite corpse”-style collaboration with five total authors (Susan Fallows, Jared Silvia, Tod Caviness, and Jonathan Kosik), I had to take the final sentence of the author who came before me, and (without seeing any of the other stories) attempt to write my story based entirely on that final sentence. Tod Caviness gifted me with the sentence, “Honey, I think your son wants a milkshake.”

So I wrote a story called “Consider the Milkshake,” which takes the McDonalds milkshake to some pretty bizarre places. I won’t spoil the story by revealing any of that here. (It was also an obvious homage to David Foster Wallace, who–despite my problems with the novel Infinite Jest–is probably the best damned personal essayist I’ve ever read.)

The story was just published online at Monkeybicycle, which–about a year ago–also published another Orlando story of mine. That story, “Fire in a Used-Car Lot,” also focused on a famous Orlando roadway: Orange Blossom Trail (or OBT, as the kids call it). So…two stories, two Orlando roads, one lit journal that’s awesome enough to publish my weirdo fiction. There you go.

Functionally Literate

functionallyliterate

(Hope to see you there! Super-stoked about this, especially because it might very well be the last reading at Urban ReThink. So come. Be part of history.)

Infinite Jest: is this about me, or the characters?

I spent much of the summer reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and regardless of my final thoughts or critical appraisal, the book itself was an experience that succeeded in challenging me as a reader. Along the way, I constantly consulted the web site Infinite Summer, just to measure my reactions against the multitude of bloggers and readers who posted there, and I had to keep using and abusing their “Infinite Summery” to keep track of various character/plot details. So I’ve got much love for the site, and the overall project there, and highly recommend it to anyone opening this hefty tome. (I’ve wanted to say “hefty tome” for awhile now, btw)

Cover_IJ

My thoughts after finishing Infinite Jest are complicated, as they should be after reading something that is 1,100 pages of dense prose. So I’m going to try to unpack and distill them here, in easily digestible bullet-points, before I deliver my ultimate conclusions at the very end. I don’t know how well I can contextualize the book and its particulars, either, so if you haven’t read it, this might be a blog post to skip.

  1. There were a lot of great moments in this book. Some were small: individual sentences that just shone so bright I had to dog-ear pages or get out my phone and take a picture because I’d feel awful if I forgot about them. Absolutely timeless and brilliant. Some of the great moments were larger: long sequences of extreme empathy and such insight that it doesn’t feel possible that a single person could have observed (and written) all of this. (I say “observed” in the sense of a fiction-writer. To see it in real life and takes notes. To imagine it, based it on your real-life interactions and observations. Etc. I know that this book is not a work of weirdo-memoir a la Eggers, even though much of it seems to parallel Wallace’s personal experiences from tennis academies/ rehab centers.) To start off any discussion of Infinite Jest without acknowledging David Foster Wallace’s incredible skill as a writer (and specifically as a fiction writer) would be unfair.
  2. “Good moments” doesn’t necessarily mean “good novel,” though. So I need to be clear about that. I can love individual pieces without loving the whole. (Likewise, I can also love a whole without having a whole lot of individual moments that I found to be ground-breaking, etc. Like, we’ve all listened to albums that were great, but that didn’t seem to have that one amazing single?)
  3. I did not find Infinite Jest to be a good novel as a whole, or a good story. Despite those aforementioned “great moments,” I’m looking at this book as a novel. Not just as a nice collection of individual moments. Not just as a study in voice, or writing style. A novel. And “novel” implies a certain tradition, a certain set of expectations, a certain structure…Students cringe when I use words like “story” and “structure” in my class because they think that these words mean that I’m imposing a “stupid formula” on them; they think that–since they just discovered DeLillo and Heller and Barthalme–“story” is beneath them. But that’s not really the case. Even in wildly experimental novels, we see well-crafted stories. Storytelling is an art form. Storytelling matters. Storytelling means that you have a reader, and you’ve got something important or interesting to tell them. And storytelling is really fucking hard. And usually the students who complain about “story structure” are the ones who just can’t learn how to tell a story, and so they spend all of their time justifying the complex choices in their flawed fictions (fictions which, incidentally, could be dramatically improved if only the students cared about the readers who will be consuming this piece). Okay, so back to Infinite Jest: there were a lot of good moments, and if the author had cared enough about the characters (and the reader) it could have been a good book and a good story…but the structural issues in this novel are just too great, and they just wind up weakening the story, detracting from it, preventing it from what it could have been. This is one of my lasting thoughts, when instead I should have been left with thoughts about the characters and the situations.
  4. Quick note: I believe that the best storytellers disappear. The second that the storyteller reminds you that he/she is there, or that this work is all about him/her…well, then the story suffers. Sometimes the author is part of the story, as in the case of Kurt Vonnegut, so it makes sense that he pokes his head in. But for me, the best stories (not “fictions,” not poems) are immersive experiences where story is the top priority. Even in books like Middlesex, where beautiful prose makes you stop and admire it on occasion, or House of Leaves, where the prose is met with a variety of extra-textual elements that draw attention to themselves, every choice seems to be made to support the story, first and foremost.
  5. Other quick note: I love long novels. Infinite Jest is long, but I knew that it would be long when I, like, saw the book. I wasn’t naive. As I mention above, my favorite novels are big thick immersive experiences. I loved The Corrections, and I loved The Secret History and The Little Friend, and I loved The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I loved The Jungle and Anna Karenina. I love to fall into a book and forget that I’m reading it, to have a whole month of my life consumed in the experience. There’s nothing quite like it. So I was really pumped about reading Infinite Jest. I loved David Foster Wallace, too, and I thought: big book, plus awesome author, equals incredible experience.
  6. However, it’s too fucking long. Let’s get this out of the way first. I dedicated two complete months of my reading time to this book, and while I didn’t necessarily think that this would be a problem…it was. Why was it a problem? Because the book did not keep me consistently engaged, and because so much of it did not seem to value my time. Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying that you should “use the time of a complete stranger in a way that he/she will not feel their time was wasted,” and there was too much of this book where I felt my time was wasted. Long twenty-page passages that revealed only one important sentence. And when we’re talking about Infinite Jest pages, a single page is the equivalent of two or three or even four Tom Wolfe pages, or Donna Tartt pages, because he is a huge fan of unbroken text (i.e. single paragraphs that stretch onward for twenty full pages) and are thick with jargon and technical terminology. Initially, I was told that the book would take about 200 pages before I got into it, which I was already skeptical about. 200 pages? No author needs 200 pages to get a reader interested. That’s a slap in the face, because that means that you’re wasting my time with those first 200 pages; they could have been structured in a way that would have been engaging (don’t tell me that they couldn’t have). But then I got to page 200, and I was told that, well, actually, you’ve got to get to page 500 before the book becomes engaging. And when I got to 500, yes, the book finally had a structure that seemed to progress the story in a meaningful way, a way where the reader was suddenly a valued part of the exchange. After 500 pages, story finally took precedence in the authorial choices. But 500 pages? A full month of laborious reading just so I could have a story in the final 500 pages? If you want two months of my time, you’ve got to do better than that; you’ve got to keep me engaged for two months; you’ve got to show me that you care about the reader and not just about your own ambition as a novelist. By page 500, I was only getting more and more pissed about how much time was being wasted on material that could easily have been cut/condensed without compromising anything.
  7. That’s the big thing: “without compromising anything.” Because DFW’s fiercest advocates will suggest that the book’s length is necessary because the rambling quality of the prose is a trademark of DFW’s voice. I would argue that the exact same effect could have been achieved with thirty fewer words per page. With forty fewer. Fifty. I would even argue that there are full chapters that literally add nothing, or that add so little that the important material could be revealed elsewhere. The argument for the book’s gargantuan size is basically, “He’s an artist, so let him do what he wants!” But from the perspective of a writer/editor, I think that’s bullshit. Every artist faces constraints. Infinite Jest was already edited and cut down from a larger page count, so DFW was not so far above editorial guidance that his art was hands-off; it just wasn’t cut enough. Additionally, the unending/unbroken paragraphs have no reasonable explanation other than to piss off the reader and test his/her resolve. You’re telling me that a ten-page paragraph is necessary as a unit of thought? That it wouldn’t have been improved with, like, a little break here, and a little break here, to create the sort of rhythm that could aid the reader in moving through the text. Hell. Look at me: this blog post is dense, so I wrote it in a bullet-pointed list. You know why? Because I don’t hate the reader, and I want the reader to move through the text cleanly and with some speed. I want you to know what’s important, which ideas you should hold onto, and which ideas might simply be supporting claims. You’re my reader: I care about clarity because I don’t want to waste your time.
  8. Look at me. I’m getting angry. This is what happens when you waste two months of my reading time. This is also what happens when I see so many Infinite Jest supporters who seem to refuse to acknowledge that there are any flaws in the book at all, and who–in their every review or blog post or whatever–justify every damned decision in the book, as if DFW could do no wrong. I mention the tiniest thing, and I feel like there’s a backlash coming. Dude. The paragraphs are stupidly structured. Yes. Yes, they are. Yes, they are. (See, now I’m arguing with an imagined DFW supporter. God.)
  9. Okay, sorry. (taking breath) The book has a story, and a plot, but Wallace’s plot doesn’t serve the story. This kind of builds on what I wrote a little while back. Quick definition: “plot” is the deliberate sequence in which the author arranges the hundreds of different elements of story. “Plot” is the way the author chooses to introduce characters or situations or setting. “Plot” is the author’s choice of putting a memory on page 6 instead of page 300. “Plot” is the opening line, and the closing line. You can tell the same story in a hundred different ways. Infinite Jest is a story that could have been told in 5 pages, or 25,000 pages. When we sit down to read a long book, we assume that one of the author’s purposes is to immerse us in the story and help us to truly experience it (as I mentioned above), whereas a quick story will be like a punch to the gut, but not a full-out 25-round fight. In this book: there are moments when the plot is meaningful, when it makes sense that a character is introduced at this/that precise spot, but there are way more moments when DFW’s structure is just a mess, when we say “Why the hell didn’t you tell us sooner?” or when you later say “Maybe I should reread the early portions of the book, since they gave me no valuable information, and I was lost, and now I’m reading valuable information that could have helped me to understand them, but I’m on page 600, so fuck if I remember what the hell was on page 20,” etc.
  10. For starters, the overall structure is confusing, and has no necessary function. For the uninitiated, the book is structured out of chronological order. We begin at the end, with the main character somehow rendered unable to speak or communicate. Then we just start skipping around in time randomly. We are introduced to characters whose importance we do not understand, and situations which will not be mentioned again for several hundred pages. And while I’m not necessarily against out-of-order storytelling, the problem here is that DFW does not construct the order of information in a helpful way. For instance, the sections/chapters of the book are generally labeled as “Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken,” or “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and we don’t actually know what this means until well past page 200. The book takes place in a weird future where all North American countries have unified, but we aren’t introduced to the particulars of this world until…geez, page 400 maybe? I used the word “random” above, and I’m sure someone will point out that DFW had a reason for the structure…but having a reason doesn’t mean that it was a good reason. To paraphrase Chris Rock, “you can drive a car with your feet, but that don’t make it a good fucking idea!”
  11. The problem, then, is that we are constantly misreading the text. Basically, we assume the world is round, and then the author comes along and tells us (200 pages later), “Oh, and by the way, did I mention that this world is flat? Ha ha! Boy, that changes things, right?” Again, DFW supporters strongly support this artistic decision. They’ll tell you that it makes you want to read the entire book again as soon as you’ve finished. To which I say: “Fuck you.” I read authors who construct their texts in a meaningful way that will teach me how to approach their world. I do not read authors who play jokes on me; it’s super-easy to hold one over your audience…the author inherently knows more than the reader, after all. If I have to watch a movie twice just in order to understand it, I say: “Poorly edited movie. You could have plotted this in a way that helped the viewer to understand the world and the characters and the conflict, etc.” Same goes for books. Yes, I enjoy books/movies that offer something new on the second read/view, but not books that only become intelligible on the second go-round.
  12. The book, then, feels like a joke on the reader. There’s actually a great moment in Infinite Jest (a moment of unparalleled honesty, in fact) where Wallace is describing an experimental film from James Incandenza called The Joke. It’s a movie where cameras are trained on the theater’s audience, and then the audience gets mad because they’re being pranked, and they all storm out of the theater having paid real money to look at their own faces as a movie-joke. Well. That’s this book, in a nutshell. It’s long, and deliberately confusing, and is designed to make you have to reread the text in order to understand what the author could have helped you to understand on the first read, but didn’t, because he apparently hated you. If you flip the final page and say, “Oh man, I’ve got to reread to figure out what just happened,” the joke’s on you. The author could have crafted this story in a way that didn’t waste your time, in a way that you could have read (and loved) it in a fraction of the time. There are thousands of great books out there that do take you as a reader seriously, and that you would enjoy (trust me: you would love them), if only you’d put down Infinite Jest and venture forth.
  13. But doesn’t that make Infinite Jest brilliant, because  the reread thing, like, mirrors the Entertainment described in the book? For the uninitiated: this book focuses (in part) on a video called “The Entertainment,” which is so hypnotically addictive that viewers become zombies and watch the movie on repeat and fail to ever do anything else with their lives afterwards. Literally. They would cut off their fingers to get the movie back on. They never speak again. Etc. So supporters will tell you that the structure of IJ essentially mirrors that of the hypnotic never-ending “Entertainment,” since you sit there reading 1,100 pages and then flip back to the start to read again. Except. Except it doesn’t. Because watching a video is passive, and reading a book is active, and that’s sort of the point of critiques for book-reading and against TV-watching. Also, the book only inspires this re-read function in a very small percentage of readers: David Foster Wallace Disciples. Those by whom he can do no wrong anyway. Most readers likely fail to get beyond 100 pages in this book, and–judging by conversations I’ve had–even fewer get beyond 200 pages, or 300, or 400. Many start the book several times, but never make a dent because it is so laborious. Personally, I re-watched each season of Game of Thrones not because its structure left me confused, but because it was so expertly constructed that I wanted to better understand the world, and the pieces involved, and how the writers had done it. The second viewing was enriching, but the first viewing had been awesome on its own. The same is not true of Infinite Jest, where even the fiercest Disciples will admit that you’ve (at the very least) got to get past the first 200 pages before the thing starts to become engaging. 200 pages of text to “get through”? Again, this is a structural problem, not an argument for structural brilliance.
  14. David Foster Wallace Disciples justify everything in this book. Listen, I’ve got my own favorite books, and my own favorite authors who can do no wrong. So I don’t hold anything against the DFWDs who love this book and everything it helped them to see and experience. I’m glad this book worked for them/you. Please try to understand these two things: (1) I’m working through my response to a book that did not work for me (but required a tremendous investment, which I gave to it), and (2) Even if you love a book, you can still admit its flaws, right? As I scan comment boards and reviews and online responses to this book (especially at Infinite Summer), I see this fierce support of the book’s every trait/element, and hey, maybe this is a result of an equal/greater critical tsunami against the book (after all, a lot of people apparently hate it, since so many give up on it)…what do I know? But just as I shouldn’t criticize DFW himself for the fans who support him, DFW supporters shouldn’t support the book mindlessly just because some critics or readers have raised legitimate arguments against it. The excessive length, for instance, is a damn good argument. Please do not try to find a reason to justify it, just because this is your favorite book/author. Don’t tell me that there isn’t a great 750-page novel in here that could actually be much better. That’s not even up for debate. It would have been possible. Admitting flaws is not admitting that the book is worthless, or that your experience was worthless, or that IJ is going to go out of print if you don’t keep hollering about how good it is. On the Infinite Summer site, there was a single featured blog post from one reader who was frustrated, and couldn’t understand why she was the only one who wasn’t enjoying the book (or even engaged by it). She was then shot down by scores of comment-boarders (“Wahhh! Quit your bitching!” “Give up, then, stupid!”, those types of comments), to the point where her next featured blog post did an abrupt (and probably insincere) about-face; now she suddenly loved the book, and was so sorry she…etc. Listen: it’s okay to be honest. The book isn’t going anywhere.

Some other notes:

  1. I understand that I’m not the smartest reader in the world. Yes, I get it. There are a lot of people smarter than me, but I don’t back down from challenging readings. I can already feel the critiques of my critique of Infinite Jest, comments telling me to go back to reading Twilight or Dr. Seuss or whatever, as if I don’t ever read books, and I just so happened to try a Big Difficult Book, and I’m mad at it because it was Big and Difficult. Go look through my Reading List. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I try to make my reading wide and varied. We can disagree about the merits of Infinite Jest, but not about the merits of my own reading life.
  2. I’m also not the quickest reader. I will freely admit that I’m a slow reader, in fact. That it would take me an hour to get through ten pages of Infinite Jest. And I will freely admit that this sort of thing contributed to making me an even angrier reader. It’s as if David Foster Wallace was writing his essays for a real reading audience (his essays are amazing), but he wrote his novel for this weird audience of…himself. And ain’t nobody as brilliant as DFW, even if they’d like the world to perceive them that way.
  3. I’m not the smartest or the quickest, but I am a dedicated reader. I treat all books the way that my mother taught me to treat my veggies. I give ’em a shot. And it’s very very rare that I don’t finish a book. Because I don’t want to make a judgment until I know exactly what the author was doing. So if this blog post offends someone who loved Infinite Jest, there’s a lot of things you can accuse me of: but you can’t tell me that I didn’t spend a lot of time and energy with this book, that I didn’t make as solid an effort as any author should receive, and that I am making my judgments based on some incomplete read. (No, it is not an incomplete read to have only read it once.)
  4. Maybe I’d have enjoyed it if I read it during a different time in my life. I also did not enjoy On the Road, by the way, because I read the book when I was 28. I have friends who basically told me I was crazy for not liking it…but they read it when they were 16, and it changed their lives and outlooks, etc. Maybe I’d have enjoyed Infinite Jest if I read it when I was younger, early twenties perhaps, when I didn’t get angry at spending two months with a book. But now, I have to fight for my reading time. I’ve got a wife, a baby, a full-time job, and my own writing life. Carving out a reading life is much tougher. And so I get upset when I feel as if I’m wasting my time, or as if I’m spending my time with a book that doesn’t care as much about me as I do about it. (Yeah, I know, that sounds a little creepy.)
  5. To all the people who have heard “Oh my God, you’ll love it!”, I say: “Probably not.” Go read David Foster Wallace’s essays instead. In his essays, he was constrained by editors, given direction by the rhetorical situations of the publications. He knew he had a specific audience, and so he was not given free reign. It’s this freedom, I think, that made Infinite Jest such a bloated out-of-control mess, the feeling that he–Wallace–could do whatever he wanted. Nobody pushed back and said, “Well listen, this could be a much better book if we–“

Here are my final conclusions.

This book’s most interesting conflict is not necessarily that of the characters. Instead, it’s the conflict of the author. This is a novel that seems to be torn between (a) Post-Modern/ Ironic Novels that are more concerned with the Author and His Ideas and Jokes and Wicked-Smart Displays of Wit (caps mine, heh heh), and (b) Sincere and honest storytelling, which cares (and cares deeply) about the characters and their motivations, and what will become of them.

In other words, Infinite Jest doesn’t know if it should be about David Foster Wallace and his abilities, his performance as super-smart and important novelist, or if he should just shut up and let it be about the characters on the page. It is Irony vs. Sincerity. (Which, incidentally, is a theme that some of the characters are actually wrestling with…so we know that this very conflict was on the author’s mind.)

There are moments in the book when Wallace zooms in tight on a character, when we stick with that character and become heavily invested in his/her life. It is at these moments when the emotion of the book is palpable, when we can’t put it down; you can see and feel and taste the humanity, how much capacity for caring that DFW actually had. When people say that they started to really get into the book after 500 pages, it’s because a great deal of the final 500 pages are written with this philosophy in mind (over-written, but still).

But at the same time, it often feels like Wallace was fighting against these types of moments. Like these (the moments of true humanity and honest character building) were cracks in the “smart structure” of the Big Important Post-Modern Book he was trying to write. Like, as soon as he realized he’d written something that was emotionally moving, he had to switch real quick to a funny pseudo-essay about video phones, or a quick passage about herds of feral hamsters, or whatever.

Consider this quote from his character Mario Incandenza, who is unceasingly positive and honest and good-willed:

It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.

It’s this sort of tension that, I feel is responsible for all of the flaws that I found in the book. As if David Foster Wallace wanted to write two different books at once, and maybe please two different audiences at once: he was struggling with whether to write something Sincere, or Ironic, and that conflict bubbled over into every nook and cranny of the book. It’s almost like trying to combine Star Wars and Spaceballs into one movie. And the final result (for me) was interesting, but only on biographical level; by the end of the book, I became more interested in the life of David Foster Wallace and the evolution of his art than in the piece of artwork that I was supposed to be engaging with. (In other words: I want to read his biography, which I imagine will be more enriching than reading Infinite Jest. But now that the book is shut and the blog post is over, I’m really okay not caring about IJ or any of its characters ever again.)

The Epic Eminem Analysis Part VI: “Square Dance” and “Soldier”

The following is part of a series of essays I’ve been writing on the “character arcs” and dramatic story structure of the Eminem CDs. I apologize if they’re excruciating, or (if you like them) if the wait between essays is excruciating. Life is busy. But click here to start at the start.

The_Eminem_Showprevious: The Eminem Show (opening songs)

So the first third of The Eminem Show serves to (1) set up Eminem as the unwitting leader of a generational movement that he’d never intended on starting, (2) remind us of the conflicts that have weaved throughout the first two albums, and in particular the “white artist in a black art form, who is bringing the profane/ vulgar/ scary black art form to the white suburbs” conflict, (3) and end the ongoing conflict with his mother in “Cleaning Out My Closet.”

So where does the album go from here?

I’ve made continuous comparisons to The Star Wars trilogy, since this is the third album in Eminem’s career, and I think it’s important to continue thinking with that analogy in mind. Our heroes have just killed Jabba the Hut and rescued Han Solo, so they’ve finished one task…but now the much-larger threat of the Empire still looms. Likewise, Eminem has given us his final words about his feud with his mother, but there are still some pretty big conflicts left to resolve: in particular, we’ve still got to address that whole Kim thing, and then we’ve got to come to some conclusions about fame and celebrity and about being a white rapper in a sea of black rappers.

Eminem knows it. He set it up in the opening song. And the audience knows it, too. He knows that’s where we’re eventually going.

“Square Dance,” the White Establishment, and White Insecurity

When I first heard “Square Dance,” I thought it was a brilliant beat and a brilliant concept, that weird country/rap mash-up. After all, here was the world’s most popular and important white rapper (ever); who else could mix these genres in a meaningful way? And when he began using his “cracker” white-guy voice, too, telling the audience to doe-see-doe, etc., it didn’t feel like he was making fun of white people, necessarily, but instead making fun of those white people who were scared of rap. The suburban moms and dads. The senators who’d called him out for easy political gain. With “Square Dance,” Eminem was simultaneously appropriating white-people music, and lashing out at the criticism he’d faced from the insulated white establishment. One of the first lines in the song, after all, is “No friend of Bush,” and in the second verse we get “a plan to ambush this Bush administration/ mush the Senate’s face in/ push this generation of kids to stand and fight/ for the right to say something/ you might not like.” (And then there’s my favorite line, when he seems to be speaking to his army of suburban followers: “You just a baby/ Gettin’ recruited at eighteen/ You’re on a plane now,/ Eating their food and their baked beans./ I’m 28, they gon’ take you ‘fore they take me.”)

But that doesn’t mean that “Square Dance” only targets the white establishment. Really, the song is an embodiment of several white-related conflicts.

The first stanza takes aim at Canibus: “Cani-bitch don’t want no beef with Slim, noooo.” And, though it’s never outright stated, the Canibus attacks seem to have a racial undertone (which we see play out later in the album, too): there is suddenly an insistence upon being recognized by black rappers: responding to attacks from some black rappers, and honoring the other black rappers he sees as heroes (and whose respect he craves). In previous albums, this is a frustration that reared its head only occasionally, but it was never a primary conflict for the character of Eminem.  He was building himself as a rapper and found it difficult to do so as a white boy, but he managed pretty well by being self-deprecatory and taking shots at the other (inferior) white artists, the Vanilla Ices and the Fred Dursts and the Everlasts and what-not; and really, most of his attacks were a response to critics outside of the rap world. Yes, there were mentions of other rappers we know he respected: the line in “Stan” about “underground shit” and “Ruckus” and “Scam,” the collaborations with Nate Dogg and Snoop and Royce and Sticky Fingaz, the D12 album, but the majority of the conflicts explored in the songs revolved around Marshall’s mother, and around fame and celebrity, and around profanity. Not necessarily the rap world, or (more specifically) Eminem’s place in the rap world. Yes, race was always an issue in the first two CDs. It was always there. But it never really seemed as if this–being a white rapper in a black world, and getting the same respect as prominent black rappers–caused him real frustration or insecurity. He was comfortable in this world. And fuck everyone outside that world if they wanted to judge him.

But now, in The Eminem Show, we see that maybe Eminem has lingering insecurities about the way that other rappers view him. It’s a chip on his shoulder. In The Slim Shady LP, he’d gained credibility from the Dr. Dre appearance on “Guilty Conscience,” and obviously he appeared throughout the D12 Devil’s Night CD, too, but at the same time, those songs sort of felt like jokes. It was mostly the prankster Slim Shady persona appearing alongside these black rappers, and nobody would confuse the jokey “Guilty Conscience” verses with the career-defining Snoop Dogg verses from “Ain’t Nothin’ But a G Thang.” You can only play a snarky persona for so long, after all, before people start saying, “Okay, show us the real you.” With the exception of the “Dead Wrong” verse alongside B.I.G., it had never really felt like Eminem was a serious rapper when he appeared alongside black rappers.

Maybe this was in the back of his mind all along? Maybe it was even the reason that he never took his beefs with Everlast and Limp Bizkit and ICP very far, because why continually position himself as just the best white rapper? What value is there in such a title? So here in the middle portion of his third album, Eminem–the serious Eminem rapper persona–is vocalizing that he belongs in the black world of rap, responding to criticism from other established black rappers, rather than simply doing the easy thing and making fun of the white rappers who have come before him. (Take note of this, by the way. This is one of the conflicts that remains unresolved at the end of this CD. And it’s one of the reasons why those Recovery-era verses with Lil Wayne and Drake and Kanye, et all, are so unbelievably powerful.)

That’s a big step.

And yet it’s under-stated on this song: the initial reference to Canibus, and then the “oochie walla” reference, the lines “What’s gotten into me?/ Drugs, rock and Hennessy,/ Thug like I’m ‘Pac on my enemies.” This is a rapper who wants to belong, but he won’t yet come right out and say it. Where it initially becomes prominent is in the final fading stanza of “Square Dance,” which feels almost improvised:

Dr. Dre wants to square with me,
Nasty Nas wants to square dance with me,
X to the Z wants to square dance with me,
Busta Rhymes wants to square dance with me,
Cana-bitch won’t square dance with me…
Dirty Dozen wants to square dance with you–YEE-HAW!

And it’s here that Eminem puts himself into the company of the larger world of black rappers. He’s no longer just Dr. Dre’s little buddy, a funny prankster of a rapper with a couple black friends (D12); now he’s square-dancing with Busta Rhymes and Xzibit and (most important) Nas.

Like I said, it’s under-stated. But the first time I listened to this song, I knew that this was important. I knew that there was something different about his approach toward the world of rap, the faintest trace of insecurity about his place in it, and a real desire to be taken seriously by the rappers he most admired. (If I wanted to make another comparison to the conflict in The Star Wars trilogy, maybe I’d say that this was like the sudden arrival of The Emperor, an inevitable twist in the narrative…but something that felt like it was long overdue. We knew it was coming, that Eminem couldn’t keep rapping about pop culture without really delving into his place in the rap world.)

Personas: “Soldier”

But then, as quickly as this new conflict appeared, it was gone.

Here are the first lines of track 7 on The Eminem Show, the song “Soldier”: “Never was a thug, just infatuated with guns,/never was a gangsta, ’til I graduated to one.” It’s almost as if he’s anticipating the argument that he doesn’t belong in the world of “gangsta rap,” and he’s admitting it. He belongs in the rap world, but let’s not confuse that with gangsta rap. Let’s not assume he’s saying he’s a gangsta just because he’s a rapper.

Then he shifts back and forth between the Eminem and Marshall Mathers characters, the relationship between the things he raps about and how he might have begun believing in the violent persona he portrayed in his records. Here’s the opening of “Soldier,” and I suppose it’s just best to paste the lines directly:

Never was a thug, just infatuated with guns,
never was a gangsta, ’til I graduated to one,
and got the rep of a villain, for weapon concealin’.
Took the image of a thug, kept shit appealin’,
willin’ to stick out my neck for respect if it meant life or death,
never live to regret what I said.
When you’re me, people just want to see
if it’s true, if it’s you, what you say in your rap’s, what you do,
so they feel as part of your obligation to fulfill
when they see you on the streets, face to face, if you for real?

There’s a real struggle here, as if Marshall feels he must live up to the persona he’s created on his albums. This has been brewing since The Marshall Mathers LP, but it’s mostly been general and hypothetical: a fake character named “Stan” who believes in the Eminem raps, and a series of generalized encounters in “The Way I Am.” But now this conflict reaches a boiling point because there is some truth to everything he has feared:

Anything I do bitch, it’s news,
pistol-whippin’ motherfuckin’ bouncers, six-two.

You can smell the lawsuits soon as I waltz in the room.
Everybody halts and stops, calls the cops,
all you see is bitches comin’ out their halter tops,
runnin’ and duckin’ out the Hard Rocks parking lot.

So far in this analysis, I’ve tried to keep the focus on the characters in the albums, rather than bringing in any real-life events. This is important, I think, because the texts/songs have a life of their own. Yes, they are heightened by our knowledge of what was happened in the “real world,” too, but I’m not trying to write a biography of Eminem; I’m trying to chart how he’s built the characters in the story of his albums. (If that makes sense?)

I’m going to make a small exception here, though, since this is a moment where Eminem is literally trying to show how the real world and the fictional persona have overlapped. And I’m going to try to do this as quickly and simply as possible. Okay, so this is from Wikipedia, the most trustworthy source ever:

Eminem was arrested on June 3, 2000 during an altercation at a car audio store in Royal Oak, Michigan, with Douglas Dail, where he pulled out an unloaded gun and kept it pointed at the ground. The following day, in Warren, Michigan, he allegedly saw his then wife, Kim, kiss bouncer John Guerrera in the parking lot of the Hot Rock Café, and he assaulted him and was then arrested. Eminem recreated the Guerrera assault in a skit on his junior album The Eminem Show on a track called “The Kiss (Skit).” Mathers was charged with possession of a concealed weapon and assault. Mathers plead guilty to the charges and was given two years probation for both episodes.

I take no responsibility for any errors or omissions or typos in the above (Hot Rock Cafe?). I just want to illustrate the real-world facts that (as discussed in the song) seem to be a result of the real-world Marshall Mathers believing in the song-persona of Eminem or Slim Shady. The song “Soldier” (and the skit “The Kiss”), in other words, is not just a narrative depicting Marshall Mathers getting angry upon seeing his wife kiss a bouncer, then beating the bouncer, then getting arrested for the concealed weapon…it’s also a meditation on what it means to develop personas for yourself, to get lost and confused about which personas are real, to believe in the wrong personas, and to find yourself becoming something you didn’t want to become. We have the line, “motherfuckers know that I’ll never be Marshall again,” which seems to be a resounding final word on a dark transformation: Darth Vader declaring that he is beyond help, that it is too late for him.

Damn.

Oh yeah, and then there’s that whole Kim thing, which we’ll get to next.

Next: Kim, and Celebreality (forthcoming)

Book Trailer – American Fraternity Man

The first American Fraternity Man book trailer is on the YouTubes.

Share and share alike!

Soon, I’ll write a posting about my experience with book trailers, my feelings about book trailers as a genre, etc. But right now, regardless of the final effect of such marketing efforts, I’m just really excited about this final trailer. I think it looks great, and really captures the complex nature of the book. Let me know what you think!