Very few people read this, which I’m very okay with. Though Not Worried About It was initially intended as kind of an opening salvo in Tim’s fight to become an Internet personality, it ended up being a valuable lesson in why Tim will never and should never be an Internet personality. It’s fine, I have other skills to fall back on.
So I write today to shift (this site’s limited) attention to my new, nebulous blog: misterkennedy.wordpress.com. Long story short, I’ve graduated college, I’ve accepted a teaching gig in the Mississippi Delta with Teach for America, and I want a forum to continue writing sporadically. But I also want to make my Internet identity more coherent. I want my parents and coworkers to be able to read the same shit as my closest friends. This doesn’t mean I’ll stop swearing (clearly), though I’ve already deleted some of my more obnoxious tweets. Mostly, I want to reject the digital anonymity that I embraced a lot on this blog. From now on, I only want to publish online what I would feel comfortable speaking in a public forum anyway.
Not Worried About It could have been a lot worse. Looking back now, I feel proud about a fair amount of these entries, especially the most recent bit on Gravity’s Rainbow. But the site also very clearly feels to me like a learning experience. I don’t think I have it in me to be an especially popular blogger, which just means that whatever I publish online should be slightly more polished and formal. Quality over quantity and all that. If you knew me, you’d know that I have some serious confidence issues with my writing. But for whatever reason, people—friends, family, professors, employers—keep telling me they like reading what I write. So I’m gonna keep doing it.
I have a dirty secret: I’m not actually a very good reader. Not in terms of skills or development; what I mean is that the whole process of reading doesn’t come naturally to me, and finishing any book, no matter how simplistic, requires a certain amount of unpleasant, unglamorous work on my part.
Curiously, my natural inclination towards non-reading is the primary reason I have spent my past year and a half of between-semester “leisure” reading knocking off two titans of impossibly difficult modern American fiction: last summer, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and, now, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I read these books because if I’m going to make myself go through the uncomfortable motions of reading—and I am—I want said books to stand a pretty good chance of changing my life. (Lest this come across as snobby, I’ve been known to lose Saturdays to marathons of SVU. My admittedly highbrow literary criteria do not extend to any other area of my life.)
My last real entry on this blog detailed some of my frustrations with Infinite Jest, frustrations that have mostly faded with the passage of time. I will not make that mistake twice, though I am experiencing some of the same symptoms with Gravity’s Rainbow, which I finished yesterday, six months to the day after I started it.
Most of those six months were not spent actively reading Gravity’s Rainbow. I started the book en nervous route to Ghana (journalism program, see here for deets: timinghana.wordpress.com), knocked out about 80 pages of it during an interminable Heathrow layover, then promptly shelved it for the six wonderful weeks I spent in Accra. Immediately after that, during a comparably wonderful week in Barcelona, I tore through the next three or four hundred pages, mostly outdoors, usually with a cerveza buzz on. Then school started and I put it out of my mind for three months, picking it up again with grim determination come winter break. And here we are.
Long story short, my (sporadic, tipsy) method of reading Pynchon’s magnum opus is not conducive to complete clarity or comprehension, but, then again, Gravity’s Rainbow is not conducive to complete clarity or comprehension. I will say that I’m very glad I read Infinite Jest first. When I was about 100 pages from the end of Wallace’s novel, I had a panicky, “oh shit!” moment when I realized that there was just no fucking way for Wallace to pull all his hanging plot threads together in time. The resulting disappointment almost ruined the book for me. Because Pynchon’s prose is demonstrably harder to understand than Wallace’s—and because my reading of Gravity’s Rainbow was already hampered by long gaps and hazy memories—the stakes were higher when that same “oh shit!” moment rolled around. My experiences with Wallace helped me weather the storm.
Because even more so than Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow‘s absurdly numerous parts do not converge into any conventionally satisfying whole. Main characters disappear (“scatter”), unresolved. Timelines are altered. The truth of the novel’s central plot point—that horrible childhood experiments have caused Tyrone Slothrop to become sexually excited by rockets—is called into question. The entire novel becomes such an exercise in anti-linearity that one wonders if Dan Brown was created in a lab somewhere as a response, a protest.
I’ve worried (a lot) that literary culture over-values difficult novels because of their very difficulty. We don’t want to be suckers. If a book is 760 very dense pages long, it has to be good, right?
Well, no, it doesn’t. But, at least in the case of Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow, length is an undeniable feature of both novels, and its importance cannot be overstated. The best way to illustrate this is practical, by transcribing the last segment of Gravity’s Rainbow. Here we go (no worries, there’s no plot to spoil):
“And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely and forever without sound, reaches its last immeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.
There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs . . . or, if song must find you, here’s one They never taught anyone to sing, a hymn by William Slothrop, centuries forgotten and out of print, sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:
There is a hand to turn the time,
Though thy Glass today be run,
Till the Light that hath brought the Towers low
Find the last poor Pret’rite one . . .
Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,
All through our crippl’d Zone,
With a face on ev’ry mountainside,
And a soul in ev’ry stone. . . .
Out of context, this is unremarkable. I mean, it is remarkable. Any given excerpt of Pynchon’s prose is remarkable. But it’s not emotional. And yet, this last page moved me in a way very few pages ever have because it wasn’t just another excerpt, it was the culmination of six months of my life, an eventful six months, a six months that didn’t have much connecting thread beyond the fact that I was reading Gravity’s Rainbow during all of it. This page, this moment, cannot be divorced from its time or context. The manpower I put into reading this book is inseparable from its ultimate impact. You can’t sparknote this shit.
Because more than any other art form, books are about the journey, I think. Movies are two hours (ideally). Albums are usually less. They can grow in time and gather new meanings, but you don’t grow with them. I think why I love long novels is the way they force me to devote a very tangible slice of my life to such an intangible, transient thing as reading.
A lot of other people love Gravity’s Rainbow, and most of them probably didn’t read it on three different continents during their 21st year of life. But this is what it means to me, for me. It was six months worth of alternately maddening and intoxicating material, vulgar and profound, ridiculous and fucking deep. My inability to reduce this experience into one single thesis probably means that I will never make it as a literary critic (not that I was planning on it), but this inability is also somehow appropriate. Gravity’s Rainbow is not the postmodern American masterpiece, it’s not the “most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II,” it just is. And I’m glad I read it now and not later.
Sometime in late September or early October, a visitor stumbled across this blog by Googling my username, the same username I use as an email address. In other words, someone familiar. I panicked.
Why? You’ve got me. It’s not as if I’ve disclosed anything especially private on here. That was one of my rules from the get-go, no emotional exhibitionism, and it hasn’t proven hard to follow. I guess I say “fuck” a little too much, but other than that, I’d feel comfortable recycling the main arguments of all of these pieces in actual conversation. Why does the idea of someone I’ve (presumably) met in real life reading this site bother me so? For God’s sake, the entries are written with an imaginary audience in mind.
So I immediately locked up the blog behind a privacy wall and haven’t given it much thought since. Until I stumbled into my first journalism class of the semester on Thursday and was promptly lectured that I should be blogging, I should be tweeting, I should be “cultivating my internet identity” if I ever want to prove professionally successful in this new digital age.
I don’t know why this makes me so uneasy. I’ve never considered myself a particularly private person. I’m not one of those people who have an elaborately tiered system of Facebook privacy settings; I figure if the girl I sat next to in Pre-Calc wants to look at pictures of me drunkenly singing karaoke last semester, more power to her. Under that logic, why should I care if a classmate is able to stumble across this site? (I know this happens because I do it to others with some frequency. I know I’m a hypocrite, spare me.)
I still do care. It still makes me uncomfortable. But I’m going to try to convince myself that this is a “good” discomfort, like the anxiety I felt before choosing a college and moving to New York. Both of those decisions worked out beautifully. Fingers crossed for this one.
My name is Tim Kennedy. I’m a third-year journalism/cinema studies double major at New York University. I grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I like dogs and whiskey. I now have a Twitter. Pleased to meet you.
I finished Infinite Jest almost three weeks ago, on September 2nd. I still feel the urge to write something about it on September 22nd. This is, in and of itself, a recommendation.
But not one without reservations. Immediately after I finished reading Infinite Jest, I was something pretty close to irate (Full disclosure: I was also mildly buzzed. The irony of this does not escape me.). I had invested a lot in this book, and I don’t just mean the sheer number of hours spent reading the damn thing. I wanted it to be my favorite book. I wanted it to change my life. I wanted to go forth and preach the gospel of David Foster Wallace. And then he had to go and leave me hanging like that. Fuck him.
Three weeks later, my temper has cooled, I’ve re-read the enigmatic opening and closing sections a few more times, and I’ve arrived at a more or less stable verdict about Infinite Jest: enormously successful (on its own terms), impossibly well-written (understatement of the year), and, ultimately, not really what I want out of fiction.
That sounds harsher than I mean it to. Let me be clear: I am so glad I read this book. I am so glad I got to meet Hal and Gately and Mario and Avril and Steeply and Pemulis and everyone else (not exactly “glad” about Lenz, but you get the point). I am glad that Wallace decided to end his book by putting me through the intellectual wringer, denying me everything I’ve been conditioned to expect in an “entertainment.” In the cold light of retrospect, it’s the only reasonable conclusion to a novel that’s all about the ceaseless desire to be forever satiated.
But while I admire Infinite Jest on an intellectual level, I can’t ignore just how cold that ending left me emotionally. How jerked around I felt. And it’s not about the lack of resolution. In fact, one of the first things I did after finishing the book was to pull my copy of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral off the shelf, a book that, depending on what day you ask me, might be my favorite. More importantly, it ends on a similarly abrupt and jarring note, although the narrative itself is significantly more straightforward than Infinite Jest‘s (What isn’t?). And even without having touched the book in a year and a half, barely remembering most of the details of the plot, the ending still hits hard. I almost teared up; I wanted to read the novel again right that second. In the closing sentences of American Pastoral, Roth renders moot the unanswered questions of his narrative through sheer literary force. The words are so strong, so carefully chosen, so musical that I don’t even want to hear any more about Seymour Levov’s impending unhappiness. The story’s over. Roth says so. The last page of Infinite Jest is as beautifully written as the other thousand, but it doesn’t have that sense of authority.
Maybe a week after I finished the book, I was reading an article—or a blog post, or a forum; I can’t remember—that compared Infinite Jest to David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive, and everything fell into place. It’s an extraordinarily apt comparison. Both are astonishing on a technical level, and both require an extensive amount of after-the-fact interpretation to make any real sense. But the reason that Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite films ever and I can’t bring myself to outright love Infinite Jest is simple: Mulholland Drive is 147 minutes long; I spent three months reading Infinite Jest.
I hope this doesn’t make me shallow, but while I’m perfectly willing to return to a 150-minute movie more than once, I have very little desire to read a 1000 page book over again. Not when there are so many goddamn books out there that I haven’t read. I must have seen Mulholland Drive six or seven times, and it truly does get better with every visit. Infinite Jest probably does too, but I’m not going to find out for myself anytime soon.
So what am I left with? A deeply frustrating book underlined and annotated to within an inch of its life, with all my favorite passages marked up and ready to be re-read at a moment’s notice. Somehow, when favorite passages are this good (Orin’s “love kills what needs it” monologue slays me), that doesn’t feel like too bad of a consolation prize.
Okay, so the “write a blurb about every new movie” thing fell by the wayside. And now that class has resumed—film class, at that—it’s probably not coming back. Onwards and upwards.
I have class in seven hours and really shouldn’t be all awake and philosophical right now, but I got stuff to talk about. Stuff that was prompted, initially, by this, a typically excellent Robert Christgau review of an ancient, awesome Suede album that I’ve been playing a lot over the past month. Particularly that last sentence: “If you think their victories over depression have nothing to do with you, be grateful you can make do with a report from the front.”
As with almost any mention of depression and music, I was reminded of Cat Power and looked her up in the Consumer Guide to see what Bob had to say. His review of 1998’s Moon Pix gave me pause. “Slow sadness. Slow sadness about one’s inability to relate. And not to audiences. Hell is other people.”
As an objective description of the content of Moon Pix, Christgau’s words are dead-on. Which begs the question: is the ability to capture, really capture, what depression feels like artistically worthwhile? How about laudable?
I don’t know if I have an answer. But the question matters to me. For the record, I listened to Moon Pix every day, several times a day, for most of fall and winter 2007. I was also deeply, tangibly depressed. The circumstances are unimportant. What matters is, for the better part of a year, Moon Pix hit me more directly than almost any other work of art has before or since.
Also important is that I can barely stand to listen to it anymore.
Moon Pix is not a tragic album. The elegant technique of a good tragedy requires a certain amount of psychic energy precluded by true depression. Instead, Moon Pix meanders. It gets lost. It stumbles upon moments of extraordinary beauty and then hurriedly buries them in its ugly sonic landscape. Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) is empirically talented, and it’s not as if there isn’t the rare song with hooks to goad listeners along (I like “Metal Heart” a lot.). But on the whole, it’s not an album I would stick my neck out for, aesthetically.
But where does truth enter into the equation? Does it enter into the equation? Because as easily as I can dismiss the willfully difficult production and rationalize away the infrequent moments of pop excitement, I cannot deny how true it felt to listen to Moon Pix from start to finish two years ago. How “American Flag”‘s opening whine of distortion came to feel like an old friend welcoming me back into the bleak fray. How the nihilistic closing lines of “Moonshiner” (“I wish we could go to hell.”) seemed less melodramatic than bluntly observant. How much “Colors and the Kids” could hurt, and how good it could feel.
“Colors and the Kids” is in many ways the focal point of what I’m trying to get at here. When I was depressed, when everything seemed to move at an unbearably slow clip and the notion that better days lay ahead was laughable, at best, it stirred something in me. And that something wasn’t unambiguously positive. One of the myths about depression is that it somehow helps to know that it’s possible to feel better, that other people are out there feeling much, much better than you, leading much, much happier lives than you. And the same applies to art. It’s a Wonderful Life is a great movie, but watching it when you’re depressed is like adding salt to the wound.
Listening to “Colors and the Kids” now—which, according to iTunes, I haven’t done since June of 2008—I find much to admire, but at the same time the song practically begs you to turn it off. Marshall’s voice is so beautiful, so fragile, so hard to listen to that it inspires retreat. It’s a beautiful day outside, I don’t want to deal with this right now. The song has nowhere near enough layers to justify its six-and-a-half minute length. But none of this occurred to me, much less bothered me, when I was sad, sad, sad. For better or for worse, “Colors and the Kids” and Moon Pix sound like depression, real depression, in all its self-absorbed, mind-numbingly slow glory.
So I do, ultimately, take issue with Robert Christgau’s dismissal of Moon Pix, and his Suede review provides me the ideal framework to express it: If you think Chan Marshall’s failure to overcome depression has nothing to do with you, be grateful you can make do with a report from the front.
For the time being, I’m going to continue not listening to Moon Pix. But it will be there if I need it again, and that’s no small comfort.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) – The first Almodóvar film that really hooked me. While I admire the technique of the other two Almodóvars I’ve seen (Talk to Her and Volver), I also find them more cerebrally “interesting” than actually lovable. But it helps that this one is funny, truly funny, language barrier and all. The humor aids the digestion of Almodóvar’s remarkable and idiosyncratic use of color and costume. I really need to see more of his stuff.
In the Loop (2009) – My favorite film of the year so far, and an ideal companion for the summer’s other treasure, The Hurt Locker. Both films say a lot about Iraq by purposefully not saying a lot about Iraq: The Hurt Locker takes place in the trenches of Baghdad, but the war is treated as a given, not as a heated issue, while the Middle Eastern enemy at the center of In the Loop is never even identified. The resulting clear-eyed approach, whether gritty and realistic or dry and satirical, sidesteps the editorializing bullshit of other Iraq-set movies and instead goes straight for the gut. And don’t let the lopsided critical praise fool you, In the Loop‘s belly laughs are just as vital and important as The Hurt Locker‘s gut-wrenching scenes of suspense. It’s a viciously funny movie about an emphatically un-funny modern crisis, but it doesn’t absolve anyone of anything. In one of the film’s best moments, James Gandolfini’s general character crunches some numbers (hilariously) on an oversized Hello Kitty calculator and deduces that the United States only has 12,000 troops ready to ship off to war. “That’s how many are going to die,” he intones, and the words hang painfully in the air for a moment before being washed away by the next punchline. In terms of pure devastating effectiveness, It’s not quite on the level of Dr. Strangelove, but it’s closer than I ever expected.
The Graduate (1967) – There’s something enormously satisfying about seeing a great movie for the first time and realizing all the praise was deserved. So I’m not going to ramble on about this one, but I will note how visually distinctive and and striking the whole thing is. It’s good to remember, in the era of Garden State, that the best movies can capture the aimlessness of youth without featuring comparatively aimless cinematography.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) – Not much to say about this one. Phenomenal acting, serviceable direction, interesting story. It still feels too much like an adaptation of a play for me to call it a classic on its own filmic terms, but it’s one of those typically excellent old Hollywood products that senior citizens trot out to prove “they don’t make ’em like they used to” anymore.
Mad Money (2008) – Plays for its first 45 minutes like Ocean’s Eleven for idiots. And it’s fine—stupid and fine. But then it takes a misguided, soggy turn towards melodrama, tries to graft a message onto its irrelevancy, and overstays its welcome by a solid half-an-hour. It’s so awful that pointing out how contradictory its own feelings about consumerism are seems mean, like berating a toddler for not understanding calculus. You’re killing me, Diane Keaton.
Strangely compelling in spite of itself, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is shot and edited with the veteran director’s usual calm efficiency, but the edges are a lot rougher than usual. Protagonist excepted, the acting is so stilted that—if this weren’t a Clint Eastwood film—I’d be tempted to write it off as some kind of postmodern artistic choice. The script holds few surprises aside from how broadly many of the peripheral characters are drawn, and the tone fluctuates wildly, even within the span of individual scenes. And yet, if you hold any cinematic affection towards Eastwood at all (and you should), it’s hard not to enjoy the film on a basic level, flaws and all. Hell, if I reach a point in my life where watching Clint Eastwood spit and growl and spout racist epithets doesn’t give me a thrill, I might as well pack it in. He makes my day.