16 July 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Consider the Lobster and Other Essays", "Lady Oracle", "The Life of Samuel Johnson", "Freedom", and "Heaven Is for Real"

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, David Foster Wallace

Reading anything by David Foster Wallace demands the occasional pause and low, interior whistle of awe: how did he does this? How does he manage this wondrous complexity that still works so smoothly, with its myriad spinning parts all sliding past each other like watchsprings to push the greater narrative?

The writing is dense, of course, as dense as Christmas fruitcake in July. Wallace takes us from the A of any line of thought right down to the final Z, but insists on providing every letter in between. And all of these intermediate steps are written with the same wondrous grasp of language. Wallace's learning was immense, and he shows it with words like "sedulous," "perspicacity," and "dysphemism."

Many people might know what a "dysphemism" is ("NOUN; The use of a derogatory, offensive or vulgar word or phrase to replace a more neutral original"). Many more can work out the meaning after sorting through the roots. But only a few people would ever use the term in their writing. Why would they? There are perfectly acceptable substitutes that would work just as well, and "dysphemism" is uncommon enough to trouble some readers. To use it would seem to be deliberately difficult. But Wallace was dedicated to using the exact right word. The good-enough substitute of "negative label" didn't mean what he wanted to say, and so he refused to use it.

This is not to say (and this is important) that he always uses the ten-cent word when the nickle will do. When he sneers at John Updike's book Toward the End of Time, he doesn't conclude with calling the author an egotistical cad or a masturbatory scoundrel; he calls Updike an asshole.

Wallace's writing isn't difficult for the sake of being difficult: it's difficult because Wallace says things that are extremely complicated, and he doesn't dilute.

I don't think I always understood this. I read Infinite Jest last year, and it was a punishing grind that took weeks to finish. But even when I grumbled and chafed, complaining that Wallace just wanted to show off his erudition and his encyclopedic command of trivia, I still had to admit that it was wonderful writing. Even under the lash, you have to appreciate the skill of the whipping.

Here's an example, from the first in this wonderful collection of essays:

But Las Vegas as most of us see it, Vegas qua Vegas, comprises the dozen or so hotels that flank the Strip’s middle. Vegas Populi: the opulent, intricate, garish, ecstatically decadent hotels, cathedra to gambling, partying, and live entertainment of the most microphone- swinging sort. The Sands. The Sahara. The Stardust. MGM Grand, Maxim. All within a small radius. Yearly utility expenditures on neon well into seven figures. Harrah’s, Casino Royale (with its big 24-hour Denny’s attached), Flamingo Hilton, Imperial Palace. The Mirage, with its huge laddered waterfall always lit up. Circus Circus. Treasure Island, with its intricate facade of decks and rigging and mizzens and vang. The Luxor, shaped like a ziggurat from Babylon of yore. Barbary Coast, whose sign out front says CASH YOUR PAYCHECK—WIN UP TO $25,000. These hotels are the Vegas we know. The land of Lola and Wayne. Of Siegfried and Roy, Copperfield. Showgirls in towering headdress. Sinatra’s sandbox. Most of them built in the ’50s and ’60s, the era of mob chic and entertainment-cum-industry. Half-hour lines for taxis. Smoking not just allowed but encouraged. Toupees and convention nametags and women in furs of all hue. A museum that features the World’s Biggest Coke Bottle. The Harley-Davidson Cafe, with its tympanum of huge protruding hawg; Bally’s H&C, with its row of phallic pillars all electrified and blinking in grand mal sync. A city that pretends to be nothing but what it is, an enormous machine of exchange—of spectacle for money, of sensation for money, of money for more money, of pleasure for whatever be tomorrow’s abstract cost.

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays has no theme, really. Its topics are entirely unrelated:
  • The Adult Video News annual awards ceremony.
  • John Updike's Towards the End of Time.
  • Kafka.
  • Dictionaries and the management of modern grammar.
  • September 11th.
  • The autobiography of tennis star Tracey Austin.
  • The John McCain campaign of 2000.
  • The Maine Lobster Festival.
  • Joseph Frank's biographies of Dostoevsky.

Wallace writes with humor, erudition, precision, and a terrible melancholy that sits behind the words with wide, concerned eyes. Read it.

Lady Oracle, Margaret Atwood

Straight from the beginning, we are given the major themes of this book: controlling women and distant men; double lives; and the mismatch of fantasy and real life. These themes run like chords through the book, a rising and falling refrain that is on pitch from first to last. It's consistent and clear - in fact, it's almost heavy-handed. The saving grace is that this stark enunciation of themes does not end up distracting, but rather just helps keep the overall tune clear.

In all other matters, things aren't so clear. We're thrown into the middle of things, in media res. The heroine starts off in Italy, on the run from something or someone. What happened to her? She has a mysterious book. What is its import? People are mentioned without explanation. Who are they?

Atwood keeps this confusion from unmooring her readers through strong characterization. The voice of the protagonist is fully-developed, and carries us through the story without letting us stumble for a moment.

While not spectacular, it's still a great book and worthy of its author. Check it out.

The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell

This is probably the most famous biography ever written, and justly so. It was written by a talented and intelligent young man who never wrote anything else of note, because he poured himself into the effort of chronicling his acquaintance with the singular Samuel Johnson. He knew Johnson for decades, and was scrupulous in recording their daily interactions and the anecdotes from others, collecting them with religious care and inquiring about anything Johnsonian that he didn't already know. It is very seldom that a person is blessed with a biographer so singularly dedicated and so perfectly matched.

Boswell's study is exceeded only by its subject. Johnson wrote the first decent English language dictionary, essentially single-handed (though he had some lesser writers doing grunt work). For a century and a half, it was the best dictionary of the language. And as if this wasn't enough, he published commentaries on Shakespeare and the Latin poets as well as clever original compositions (often in the style of Juvenal), and encouraged the work of others.

What made Johnson singularly well-suited to biography, though, was his wit. Often abrasive and sometimes cruel, it was nonetheless undeniably pithy. It makes for wonderful reading.

Next day, Sunday, July 31, I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach.
JOHNSON. 'Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.'

As time has passed and the legend of Boswell's biography has grown, its actual worth as a plain biography has decreased. At some point I will have to pick up an annotated version to fill in the gaps, because for all its brilliance, Boswell simply lacked many of the modern tools and possibilities that exist for a chronicler today. His early life of Johnson is sketchy, and on consideration it would seem that there are factual errors in other places. But that's just not the sort of biography this is. Boswell might have missed out on the color of Johnson's lampshades, but what he did capture was the man himself - live and in person, and ready to speak to you. Johnson lashes and roars and laughs, and at times you can almost smell the tavern air and feel the sting of a Johnsonian sneer.

On Friday, August 5, we set out early in the morning in the Harwich stage coach. A fat elderly gentlewoman, and a young Dutchman, seemed the most inclined among us to conversation. At the inn where we dined, the gentlewoman said that she had done her best to educate her children; and particularly, that she had never suffered them to be a moment idle.
JOHNSON. 'I wish, madam, you would educate me too; for I have been an idle fellow all my life.'
'I am sure, Sir, (said she) you have not been idle.'
JOHNSON. 'Nay, Madam, it is very true; and that gentleman there (pointing to me,) has been idle. He was idle at Edinburgh. His father sent him to Glasgow, where he continued to be idle. He then came to London, where he has been very idle; and now he is going to Utrecht, where he will be as idle as ever.'
I asked him privately how he could expose me so.
JOHNSON. 'Poh, poh! (said he) they knew nothing about you, and will think of it no more.'

You could do far worse than to treat yourself to a read of one of the best biographies ever written.

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Franzen is one of the big names of the modern American literature scene - he's been on Oprah and The Simpsons. His first big success, The Corrections was remarkable for its clever writing and insight. I liked it very much. Freedom his follow-up, and I like it exactly as much as I liked its predecessor.

The two books have a lot of similarities. They're both written very well, of course: Franzen has amazing technical competence, although his style has a looseness that might have benefited from a harsher editing. The two novels swap around among a variety of perspectives, and both focus are of the popular Troubled American Family genre: a normal-seeming family is exposed, with all of its warts and hidden beauty held up for a close inspection.

They both also have their flaws. The Corrections was gut-wrenchingly pessimistic, and I came away from it with a sense of disquiet equal to my enjoyment. Freedom, on the other hand, began to drag in the middle as some of the characters became too exaggerated. For example, Walter Berglund, the pathologically pleasant and conscience-stricken left-liberal, verges dangerously close to caricature.

Despite this minor snag, Freedom is absolutely one you should check out. It's not earth-shaking, and it will be forgotten in twenty years, but its smattering of insight and its reminder that no one is ugly on the inside is worth your time.

Heaven Is for Real, Todd Burpo

After about ten pages of this ridiculous book, I started coming up with possible alternate titles.

  • Confirmation Bias Is for Real
  • My Four-Year-Old Son Agrees with Me So I Must Be Right
  • Heaven Is Exactly Like Sunday-School Illustrations

And of course:

  • How to Profit from Your Child

Pastor Todd Burpo once was having a pretty rough time. He had gone through a string of illnesses, and was coming up short for the medical bills. And just as things were starting to get better, his son Colton came down with a burst appendix. While he didn't die on the table, he was in severe danger as the surgeons removed the ruined flesh from his belly and cleaned out the ichor, and only got better by a seeming miracle.

It wasn't until months later that Colton began dropping casual references to Jesus and Heaven. But once he did, it wasn't too long before his pastor father started pulling details out of him, and discovering that Colton had a message for the world.

But hey, let's back up.

The story of Pastor Burpo's problems is boring. He breaks his leg playing softball, he has kidney stones, he gets breast cancer, and he can't work at his garage-door side business. It was enough to have his fellow pastors calling him "Pastor Job." It's exactly like hearing anyone else tell their tale of illness-related woe: it's kind of sad, but since it's written tediously (though competently) it's also hard to care. If someone corralled you at a party and told you this story, it's the kind of thing to which you'd listen patiently and reply with a heartfelt, "Oh, that's too bad. Um."

It isn't until about a third of the way into the text that we get an almost-dead young Colton, and the book becomes interesting. We get to watch the apparently earnest father and his young son work in tandem to create a story. They give us all the clues to how they accidentally fabricate an experience in their sincere and detailed story, and never realize it... it's like a reverse detective story, where everyone but the author can figure out the mystery. It is fascinating.

We learn early on that Todd Burpo is susceptible to all of the stranger ideas of an interventionist God. No blame for the bad things, just credit for the good things.

One morning in the beginning of December, Dr. O’Holleran called me at home with strange news: not only was the tissue [from the mastectomy] benign; it was entirely normal. Normal breast tissue. “I can’t explain why,” he said. “The biopsy definitely showed hyperplasia, so we would expect to see the same thing in the breast tissue removed during the mastectomy. But the tissue was completely normal. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how that happened.” I knew: God had loved me with a little miracle.

God could probably have saved time and suffering if he hadn't given Burpo a false positive on a biopsy in the first place. But God knows his stuff: he has the whole system rigged so that everything good is his doing and nothing bad is his fault. As Mr. Deity puts it:

"So you never answer prayers?"
"Well, there's just no incentive."

Burpo is committed to his faith. Absolutely and admirably committed. Even the weirdest elements of the Bible, like the gruesomely cruel parts of the Old Testament, don't faze Pastor Burpo. Most preachers like to skim over them - hit some Genesis, some Exodus, and some of the wisdom books, and then straight on to the New Testament and that good easy Jesus stuff. Not Burpo. When Colton is sick, they speed to the hospital. Amidst Burpo's anxiety, one of the most terrible stories of the Good Book occurs to him.

Behind me, Colton slumped lifelessly in his car seat, and his silence was louder than any sound I had ever heard. There is a story in the Bible about King David of Israel. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of David’s trusted soldiers. Then, in an effort to cover up his sin, David sent Uriah to the front lines, where David knew he would be killed. Later, the prophet Nathan came to David and said, basically, “Look, God knows what you did, and here are the consequences of your sin: the child that you and Bathsheba have conceived will not live.”

Burpo doesn't sugar-coat the story, and his summation is the harsh truth that many pastors might try to skip around: God kills a man's child in retribution for sin. That is straight-up old-school Yahweh in action: a sickening bully who murders children as a punishment to their fathers. Just ask the children of the Egyptians, or the children of Jericho and Ai and Hittites and Canaanites and Perizzites and Hivites and Jebusites and Amalekites. The very fact that he is even contemplating that his son might be dying as a penalty for his sin shows that the man faces the Bible straight-on. He knows this stuff.

One weird thing is that as his son is dying, the Biblical analogy that occurs to Burpo is that of David and Bathsheba. It would seem more appropriate to return to Job. Just like Job, Burpo had suffered a string of illnesses and disasters. And now - again, just like Job - his child is being taken from him.

Perhaps it did occur to him to continue the analogy, but he decided not to do so. Because Burpo, unlike Job, dramatically fails this test. He commits one of the famously foolish mistakes of the Bible: he dares to question the actions of the Lord Almighty, an entity who is infamous for not putting up with that.

“Where are you? Is this how you treat your pastors?! Is it even worth it to serve you?” Back and forth, I paced the room, which seemed to close in on me, shrinking as surely as Colton’s options were shrinking. Over and over a single image assaulted me: Colton being wheeled away, his arms stretched out, screaming for me to save him. That’s when it hit me. We waited too long. I might never see my son alive again. Tears of rage flooded my eyes, spilled onto my cheeks. “After the leg, the kidney stones, the mastectomy, this is how you’re going to let me celebrate the end of my time of testing?” I yelled at God. “You’re going to take my son?”

His son gets better, of course. Don't worry. And Burpo repents of questioning God, even taking the dramatic step of later confessing his sin to a group of other pastors. He credits a prayer chain with saving his son's life, which naturally implies that if he hadn't gotten a bunch of people praying to his deity on behalf of Colton, then God might have killed the child. Curious.

A few months later, Colton starts dropping hints. He saw Jesus, he says. He was in Heaven. Just little things like that. It's not really much to pay attention to, Burpo thinks. That's until his son freaks out at a funeral. And that's when we really get into it. The reverse detective story, where we solve the crime that the author never even sees.

Suddenly, Colton’s face gathered into that same knot of intense concern. He slammed his fists on his thighs, then pointed one finger at the casket and said in a near shout, “Did that man have Jesus?!” Sonja’s eyes popped wide, and we both glanced at the sanctuary doorway, terrified the family inside could hear our son. “He had to! He had to!” Colton went on. “He can’t get into heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!” Sonja grabbed Colton by the shoulders and tried to shush him. But he was not shushable. Now nearly in tears, Colton twisted in her arms and yelled at me, “He had to know Jesus, Dad!” ... Where was this sudden concern over whether a stranger was saved, whether he “had Jesus in his heart,” as Colton put it, coming from?

So, where could the son of Pastor Burpo have heard that it's important to die with Jesus in your heart?

You might think I'm making too much of this. But these little things are presented as evidence for Colton's divine experience. It is presented to us as impossible that a young boy could have such fervent and inexplicable knowledge of the necessity of accepting Jesus before death - unless he'd heard it from Jesus himself!

We of course, as a legion of skeptical Hercule Poirots, can see the immediate answer, even if Burpo doesn't see it himself. The child of a dedicated pastor, we hear that Colton is read Bible stories and religious messages every night and goes to Sunday School every week. The family's close friends are all in the church or pastors themselves. It would be surprising if young Colton hadn't gotten this core message of evangelical faith somewhere along the line.

But this isn't the real kicker. Burpo isn't fully convinced until he asks Colton about what the boy saw from Heaven. What were his parents doing while he was on the operating table and in the afterlife?

“You were in a little room by yourself praying, and Mommy was in a different room and she was praying and talking on the phone.” Not even Sonja had seen me in that little room, having my meltdown with God.

The boy says, "You were praying." But Burpo hears a reference to an explicit and angry outburst towards his deity. It is a classic case of confirmation bias: Burpo hears a very vague answer, and interprets it into a specific description of an incident.

As for how Colton might have known that his father was praying, let's not forget that daddy is a pastor and probably prays several times a day with his son. And that's only if Colton hadn't already met the inevitable phrase: "We were praying for you."

I'm not saying that Colton was lying. But the boy was four. You can help a four-year-old convince himself of anything.

Anyway, from here on out, we're off to the races.

Just as I was processing the implications of my son’s statement — that he had met John the Baptist — Colton spied a plastic horse among his toys and held it up for me to look at. “Hey, Dad, did you know Jesus has a horse?” “A horse?” “Yeah, a rainbow horse. I got to pet him. There’s lots of colors.”

That's a direct quote. I did not make it up. Burpo, at some point, remembered that conversation and what was going on. He thought about it and wrote it out in a rough draft, then later went back and edited. Maybe he edited it several times. Eventually, he sent it to the publisher.

At no point during this process did he notice the obvious: his son saw a toy in front of him and incorporated it into his idea of what had happened to him.

To us, it seems really blatant, especially the way it's phrased. The kid is playing around with his toys and talking to his daddy about going to Heaven, something that daddy has been really interested in. It was a weird thing that happened when the kid's tummy hurt and he was in that weird sleep. What else happened... there was a horsie, maybe, like this one here. Yes, there was definitely a horse. And... and it had a rainbow tail!

But to Burpo, his son was just reminded about the horse by the toy.

There's a chance, at one point, that Burpo will discover the reverse crime that's happening. He finds the equivalent of bloody fingerprints on the staircase. Big, stark fingerprints with every whorl and curve outlined in bright red:

Colton nodded. “Jesus gave me work to do, and that was my favorite part of heaven. There were lots of kids, Dad.” This statement marked the beginning of a period that I wished we had written down. During this conversation and for the next year or so, Colton could name a lot of the kids he said were in heaven with him. He doesn’t remember their names now, though, and neither do Sonja nor I.

So close! Guess those prints were just a red stain.

Nothing else verifiable ever occurs, either. When the kid claims to have seen his dead grandfather in the afterlife - a man he's never met - there's another opportunity.

“Colton, what did Pop look like?” He broke into a big grin. “Oh, Dad, Pop has really big wings!”

Ah, that's a shame.

There are a few other little things like that. For example, they show Colton lots of pictures of Jesus but none of them look quite right: until he sees a picture painted by another kid who "went to Heaven." Let it be known that Jesus is Caucasian with a full beard and big brown eyes, basically just the way all popular painters of the West have always painted him.

Only once does our bumbling hero Burpo look like he might start investigating. The butler's fingering a butcher knife, the balcony railing's been sawed halfway through, and there's a smoking revolver sitting on the hallway table... will Burpo notice?

[F]or the first time since he started talking about heaven, I intentionally tried to trip him up. “I remember you saying you stayed with Pop,” I said. “So when it got dark and you went home with Pop, what did you two do?” Suddenly serious, Colton scowled at me. “It doesn’t get dark in heaven, Dad! Who told you that?” I held my ground. “What do you mean it doesn’t get dark?” “God and Jesus light up heaven. It never gets dark. It’s always bright.” The joke was on me. Not only had Colton not fallen for the “when it gets dark in heaven” trick, but he could tell me why it didn’t get dark: “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”

As far as tricky questions go, or attempts to verify an account, this is the worst example I have ever seen.

You could ask what the problem with the whole thing might be: what harm does it do this boy or his father to believe that the child had a near-death experience of Heaven? If it makes him happy and lets him go through life with a little bit brighter of an experience, who am I to say that he has to try to destroy the illusion?

Helpfully, there's an excerpt that illustrates the problem.

“That’s a bunny who was trying to cross the street and didn’t make it,” I said. “That’s what can happen if you run out and a car doesn’t see you! You could not only get hurt; you could die!” Colton looked up at me and grinned over his cone. “Oh, good!” he said. “That means I get to go back to heaven!”

If you help a child convince himself that dying is desirable, you're not doing him any favors.

Colton's fantasy of Heaven, after all, sounds like a pretty fun one. It's a lot like the popular TV he watches. When he sees the Holy Spirit helping his father, he describes it as "shooting power down" - sort of like how Zolton would help send power to the Power Rangers. Everyone's flying around with wings and halos, and they're all young. He meets his sister, who was miscarried, and who looks just like his other sister, only smaller (golly).

Colton's Heaven often seems to be created from whatever happens to be in front of him. At one point, the family gets together and watches The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on DVD. They all love it, of course. And a few pages later, we see the movie show up when Colton and his father make up a little more fantasy in the unwitting child's memory. It's mashed together with the apocalypse the boy must have often heard described by his evangelical parents.

“There’s going to be a war, and it’s going to destroy this world. Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people. I saw it.” I thought of the battle described in the book of Revelation, and my heartbeat stepped up a notch. “How did you see that?” “In heaven, the women and the children got to stand back and watch. So I stood back and watched.” Strangely, his voice was sort of cheerful, as though he were talking about a good movie he’d seen. “But the men, they had to fight. And Dad, I watched you. You have to fight too.”

This book took me maybe an hour to read, even with the breaks to laugh or highlight a favorite passage. It is worth checking out, if only to see just how remarkably someone can fool themselves.

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