Category Archives: Uncategorized

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)

Huffington Post

Guess what? I’m on the Huffington Post.

The column is called “When Do We Stop Caring About the Brands That Define Us?” and originally appeared as part of a feature at UCF Today called “The UCF Forum” (columns by faculty members and students).

Okay, okay. I know that this–like my recent appearance on Amazon–isn’t exactly a milestone. There are hundreds of thousands of authors who have appeared on the Huffington Post.

But don’t ruin my fun, okay?

Check out my first column at Huff Po, and always remember where you were when you saw it for the very first time.

Reading Books While Burping My Baby

My baby is no longer a baby. He’s a toddler. And he doesn’t need to be burped, obviously. The kid can put down some food.

IMG_1872

But for the year 2012, I wrote a column at Burrow Press Review (and Burrow Press Extra, the BP Tumblr site) about my reading habits over the course of the first year of my fatherhood.

At some point, we hope to release the essays  as an e-book, with original content not previously published. But here is one of the final short essays that I wrote in February/ March 2013, in which I take inventory of how many books I was able to read, and what these books say about me.

Taking Inventory of Books Read While Burping My Baby

It’s actually the final note of a three-part essay about my sucky reading habits when it comes to female authors. If you’re in the mood to read all three, just use this bullet-pointed list:

Oh, and one final link: here is the latest installment of my Fight For Your Long Day comic adaptation. I haven’t been as quick to put out new comic installments, simply because [insert excuse about being busy here], but if you’ve followed along, or if you’ve read the book, hopefully you’ll dig it.

Marketing My Writing Part III: Amazon

Yesterday, I finished creating my Amazon author profile. It’s right here, and it feels really good to have that tiny corner of Amazon all to myself. There’s something official about appearing on Amazon, having my book for sale in the world’s largest marketplace. There’s something affirming about it, even if the idea of appearing on Amazon shouldn’t really be affirming, since I could have technically self-published my book in rough draft form through CreateSpace.

But still, whenever someone asks, “Can I buy your book on Amazon?” I can easily say “Yep. It’s easy to find.” And readers can see my whole bio, and search inside the book, and see my other books, etc.

And hell, I suddenly have a “sales rank,” too (not a good one, obviously, but I exist on some gigantic spreadsheet somewhere, at least!), and there’s a whole “Customers who viewed this product also viewed…” portion of the page, which–potentially–could help me to see the wider literary landscape in which my book will eventually settle.

Image

I know that Amazon is a big place, and everyone’s here. I know that it shouldn’t be a milestone, and yet it sort of feels that way.

*

The bigger issue, though, is that I’ve got a love/hate relationship with Amazon.

On the one hand, there’s nothing I love more than building my wishlists of books, and scrambling to find that one extra item that will push my shopping cart to $25 so that I can get free shipping. I love coming home to find the box at my front door.

On the other hand, though, my point-of-view on Amazon has certainly changed since I’ve become an author. What was once a fun site for book-hunting (how could I have even found half of this stuff without the help of Amazon?) now feels a little too much like an Big Dark Empire. The tactics that I have tried to ignore over the past few years (i.e. scan the prices at brick-and-mortar stores so that Amazon knows what to beat!) now feel decidedly evil.

Why do I feel this way? Well, Amazon basically takes a 55% cut of the price of the book that you sell through their site. Some might say that this is reasonable. It’s hard for me to argue, being new to the game of book sales. But it’s also hard for me (or anyone, really) to reconcile that only 45% of the book’s earnings will go to the combined team of writer, editor, agent, publisher, layout and graphic design, marketing/PR/publicity, and printer. That’s a lot of people splitting a tiny piece of the pie, while Amazon gets the lion’s share simply for existing.

I just wrote “simply for existing,” of course, knowing that this isn’t really true. Amazon has built itself into a mammoth operation that does indeed perform a service, and it’s a service that I rely on as both consumer and producer.

Still. They’ve also insinuated themselves into the American economy in such a way that they can demand whatever cut they want, without really doing any work. They’ve put a gigantic number of brick-and-mortar book/movie/music stores out of business, thereby limiting the options for the consumer. They’ve made “convenience” and “free shipping” into an expectation (they can take a loss on their 55% cut, because they’ve never really made any investment in the product: $10 is as good as $2, if it means someone is buying from them instead of from another retailer), and the results are chilling for the book industry: average readers will not purchase my books if they don’t purchase them through Amazon.

That might sound a little silly, but consider this: when we (Burrow Press) published 15 Views of Orlando, we made it a point to bypass Amazon. We decided to only sell through the Burrow Press web site, and through direct sales. We will not give in! But what happened? A significant amount of marketing effort went to waste, since many of the people who were likely to buy searched for it on Amazon, didn’t see it, and gave up. Many others wouldn’t buy from the web site because they didn’t want to pay shipping. So now you’ll easily find 15 Views: Volume II on Amazon, and we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that it takes much much longer to recoup costs.

It’s near-impossible to compete with Amazon’s shipping, by the way. You can’t compete with free. To put things into perspective, my book American Fraternity Man could potentially ship free from Amazon (if you buy one other thing). I went to the post office yesterday to mail off some copies of the book to friends, and shipping was seven dollars. I almost cried. I’d be spending seven bucks to ship books off to friends, just so I could save them a couple dollars off the Amazon price and also get them a signed copy? That basically meant that–with the cost of book-sized envelopes–I was paying my friends to take my book.

Allow me just one second to shake my head sadly.

But hey, it’s Amazon. This year their cut is 55%, and next year it’ll probably be more, and then more, and then more, until they’re our only option and we’re all working for free to make sure Amazon gets richer and more powerful.

And here’s the final depressing note: because there are so few brick-and-mortar bookstores left, I can’t really tell anyone to buy my book elsewhere. You can get it from me (personally, at a discount), or you can get it from Amazon (who also slashes the price and gives free shipping because, hey, they’re not paying for it!). Barnes & Noble sells my book online, and you can order it in-person at their store (which I would encourage, just to support the physical stores), but they likely won’t stock the book unless there’s clear demand. I’m not James Patterson or Stephen King, and no one is dedicating shelf space to me that could go to something far more profitable, like endless variations of the Monopoly game, or stuffed Dr. Seuss toys, or “teen paranormal romance” “novels.”

*

Lest this sound strictly like I’m hating on Amazon, I want to assure you (and I want to assure any of the Amazon Stormtroopers who might be scouring the internet looking for anti-Amazon authors to blacklist) that this isn’t the case.

But my thoughts have become much more complicated now, ever since I went from casual consumer to author. Now that I’m actively marketing my book, and actively keeping spreadsheets of my own costs and my own revenue, it’s hard not to be upset when I make a single dollar off a book that took seven years to write and revise and publish. I’d always told myself that I didn’t care if I ever made money off my novel; I’ve got a full-time job, after all, and I have no aspirations of beach-houses and yachts and guest appearances in rap videos. Really, I just want to create art that I believe in, and I want others to experience it (and to enjoy the experience). If I reach a million readers but make zero dollars, I will be a happy man.

But still. Voice in the back of my head: “You made zero dollars. But you want to know who just profited off your work? Good job, kid. Really shrewd.”

*

My book is available through Amazon.

I hope you’ll buy it.

Regardless of anything I’ve written above, I will be happy if you read my book. Really.

Just, when you add another book to your shopping cart to take advantage of the free shipping, make sure it’s 15 Views of Orlando.

Stocking Stuffers

For those of you looking for the perfect stocking stuffer, might I suggest 15 Views of Orlando (the book for which I served as the humble editor)? I get no kick-backs from sales. All proceeds go to benefit the Urban Think Foundation, and Page 15 (the literacy organization under the foundation’s umbrella), and it’s gotten some great recent reviews.

Check out what The Nervous Breakdown, and [PANK] had to say about 15 Views of Orlando.

And if you’re still looking for stocking stuffers, check out my other book recommendations at the Urban Think page here. (Click on “Burrow Press” to see my picks.) Extra incentive: purchases made by clicking on these links will result in proceeds for the foundation, also. So buy some books, and then feel good about yourself!

Oh, and then there’s this, too: The Way We Sleep, a beautiful coffee table book full of essays, stories, interviews, and comics, is still available at Black Friday prices here (10 bucks). I’ve got a comic collaboration with Ben Tanzer in this anthology, but there are many artists with far more talent who contributed. Check it out!

https://i0.wp.com/cache1.bigcartel.com/product_images/62183007/300.JPG

Also, check out the latest installment in my comic adaptation of Alex Kudera’s Fight For Your Long Day here at Atticus Review, and then go buy a present for a poor, underpaid adjunct teacher.

Book Fairs!

When I was a kid, the words “book fair” meant only one thing: my parents would give me twenty dollars, and–during some prescribed hour of the day–our elementary school classroom would be walked (single-file, remember) to the media center, where we would find a fenced-in compound of for-sale kids’ books. They were colorful. They were lightweight. They were arranged by age, so that we (the third-graders) could sneer at the all-picture books of the kindergarteners, or marvel at the no-picture books of the 5th-graders.  I would come home with a stack of books, simultaneously excited at having scored so much loot, and terrified at now having to read it all.

The book fairs have changed now, of course, but the overall experience has not.

In the past few months, I’ve been to writing/ reading/ book conferences in several cities, from the Florida Writer’s Conference here in Orlando, to the Other Words Conference in St. Augustine, to the lit-nerd nightmare of the AWP Conference in Chicago. (There is a frightening stack of books on my coffee table right now that I might never be able to finish.)

And I actually had the chance to take my 3-month-old son to his first book fair, the UCF Book Festival, just a few weeks ago.

Yes, that’s Jackson up above, tugging on the Cat in the Hat’s bowtie.

His experience will someday mirror my own, I’m certain, and he’ll have stacks of Roald Dahl books, and maybe his own copy of The Curse of the Blue Figurine, and How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, and all that. But…well, his first book fair didn’t quite go the way I planned. The bright lights, the screaming children, the Dr. Seuss characters bopping around…yeah, Jackson was crying pretty hard by the time we got through the kid’s section, so we high-tailed it out of there.

And this past weekend, when visiting my parents for Easter Weekend, I got to walk through the Venice International Book Festival. Jackson came along, also, and the experience wasn’t quite so traumatic…this time, it was just a few older women running up to him (no crazy costumes) to tickle his chin.

The Venice Book Festival was by far the smallest of the book fairs (AWP had over 10,000 registrants, and thousands of journals and publishers, and the UCF Book Fest was held on the floor of the school’s arena and packed with children’s publishers), but there was something endearing about the way that I heard local residents talking about it. Venice is no stranger to art festivals or food & wine festivals, but this was the first time that anyone in the city had actually organized a festival dedicated entirely to books. I don’t want to go so far as to make any grand pronouncements about the future of print, or online publishing, or the Kindle, etc. Those sorts of pronouncements and arguments are best saved for the AWP Conference, where there are nearly 1,000 total panels dedicated to beating the subjects of writing/reading to death, then beating some more. No, the Venice festival has no relevance to those arguments. It was just…nice. It was nice to see a few tents gathered on one small road, and a couple readings and lectures delivered in the nearby Venice Theater building, and a community that–despite the hyperbolic name of “international book festival”–had no higher ambitions than to buy some books, sell some books, and read some books. There were no agendas, other than raising money for a local literacy group.

Interestingly, I also got to see my father on the news that afternoon (he’s the mayor of Venice), standing in the middle of the street and talking about how great it was to see the community celebrate reading and literacy, and add another fun festival to the town’s list of cultural events. To be absolutely frank, I don’t think I’ve ever really heard my father talk about books before; occasionally I buy him a book for Christmas, and I’ve come to recognize the titles on the spines on a hundred leather-bound books in his office, but I’ve never seen him out at the pool reading, or in the living room on a rocking chair with a book in his lap. Until he ran for mayor, he was always a numbers man, an investment banker who read business news and stock tickers, but (as far as I know) no fiction or poetry or even biography. And yet here he was, speaking genuinely about the community’s need for events such as this one, and expressing real joy at the town’s warm reception for the festival.

To be frank, my own books wouldn’t have sold at the Venice International Book Festival. Most of the booths were selling kids’ books, or WWII memoirs, the sort of stuff that goes over pretty well in a retirement community like Venice where grandmothers leave the festival with stacks of new books for their grandbabies (my mother came home with quite a few new books for grandbaby Jackson!), and there probably wasn’t a foul word in any of them. The Venetians would have read a single page of my stuff, and they would have tossed it aside. And at the time, walking through the festival, that was my first thought: I don’t belong here.

But that isn’t the point, and I feel just a bit ashamed for having that thought at the ready during my time in Venice. It wasn’t about me. It was about books. Books, books, books. And it was about them: everyone else. For everyone else at the Venice festival, it was about reliving that feeling that from third grade, twenty-dollar bill in hand, unleashed in the colorful playpen in the middle of the media center, the world around you opening brighter.

There’s nothing quite like that feeling. And though I’m now tougher to please with my own literary tastes (and I’ve got to go to gigantic airport hangars to have my fill of books), it was good to see the city of Venice get that feeling back.

Peeling

Today is my newborn son’s three-month birthday.

For anyone who has never been pregnant, or has never had a child, maybe this doesn’t sound impressive. But trust me: when you’re a father, every step of the journey is an important one, a memorable one.

Even the pregnancy itself is fraught with drama and tension, some of it very positive (boy or girl?), some of it nerve-racking (when are we going to get pregnant? will we have a healthy child?), and while it might seem very ordinary to outsiders, it can definitely put a strain on the individuals in a relationship.

On that note, I thought I’d share a quick writing update that coincides perfectly with my son’s three-month birthday. I’m grateful to Necessary Fiction for publishing this piece, a short story called “Peeling,” which is my best effort at capturing the real emotional strain on a couple who has difficulty getting pregnant.

It’s also about beer. Craft beer. Microbrews, from Cigar City in Tampa (my favorite) to Sweetwater in Atlanta.

Hope you enjoy the story. It’s the most honest I’ll probably ever get about the journey toward pregnancy and having a child.

The story is here.

New e-book collaboration with Lindsay Hunter!

The folks over at Artistically Declined Press have been doing some great things in print and online, including a full catalogue of short pdf e-books. All are free, and all can be easily downloaded and then added to your Goodreads shelf.

Recently, I was able to do a comic collaboration with the always-entertaining Lindsay Hunter (scroll down on my blog and you’ll find a “review” I wrote of her book Daddy’s). The story is called “Kitty,” and I tried to adapt it into a children’s book, with the main character looking almost like a Dr. Seuss creation. He’s not quite human, not quite dog, not quite bear…just sort of fuzzy and odd. But because Lindsay Hunter writes some gritty (and sometimes dirty) stuff, I thought I’d make the children’s book extra-dirty too. So it’s a one-of-a-kind collaboration and comic, a dirty twisted filthy children’s book that you would never want your children to read.

Check it out at Artistically Declined! Remember, it’s a free download, and you can add the book to Goodreads and write a review.

Kitty

(If you’ve only stumbled across this site because I write about Eminem, do me a favor and support some of my other work. It’s just a quick click and download. Costs you nothing, and you’ll hopefully be entertained!)

A Round-Up of Updates

Got a lot of cool links to share:

First, a fantastic review of 15 Views of Orlando at Saw Palm, the literary journal of the University of South Florida. The editor of the journal, John Fleming, is fantastic, and he’s working hard to cultivate literary community in the Tampa Bay area (much like Burrow Press in Orlando). It’s an extremely well-written and thoughtful review, so I would have been stoked no matter if it was positive or negative, but I’m extra-stoked that it’s positive!

(As a side-note, remember to order your copy of 15 Views from the Burrow Press web site. All proceeds go to support writing workshops for public school kids in Orlando.)

Next up: check out my story “Angela’s Baby” at Hobart online. I had the pleasure of meeting editor Aaron Burch at AWP this past weekend (and actually, we served on a graphic narrative panel together), and–though I didn’t know him when I submitted to his journal–our encounter made me even more proud to appear in Hobart. It’s an amazing publication, highly creative, and I bought several of the books from their innovative Short Flight/Long Drive book imprint (one is structured as a composition journal, and another as a passport). I also learned that their recent issue just had two stories selected for this year’s Best American Short Stories anthology. Two stories from the same issue. Unbelievable. The hype is high, and I’m excited to start reading all the material I scooped up from their bookfair table. To be completely honest, if I’d have known all of this before I submitted a story to Hobart, I probably would’ve been too intimidated to submit.

And hey: while I haven’t been posting new blog entries every month for new installments of “Clutter,” I figured now was as good a time as any. “Clutter” (my graphic narrative structured as a home decor catalog) just hit episode #7, and things are about to get pretty rough between the happily married couple who just purchased their first home together. If you haven’t been reading, then…well, I guess you’d better start!

And finally: I have a “Reading List” here on my blog site, just to remind myself of what I’m reading, and when, and any thoughts I decided to record about the books, but now I’ve also got a recurring essay series on my reading life at Burrow Press. It’s called “Reading Books While Burping My Baby,” and I take a look at how my own reading habits and preferences have changed since the birht of my son in early January. In the first installment, I discuss (among other things) Roxane Gay’s Ayiti, Ryan W. Bradley’s Prize Winners, Ben Tanzer’s Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine, Artifice Magazine, and The Best American Non-Required Reading 2011. It’s an adorable premise, isn’t it? I mean, seriously. A man and his baby? You’d have to be heartless not to follow that link.