not worried about it

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Archive for September 2009

no hay banda

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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.

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Written by Tim

September 22, 2009 at 12:41 am

Posted in Books

the music is boring me to death

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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.

Written by Tim

September 10, 2009 at 1:49 am

Posted in Music