Recent Reading

First off, you should go to Google and search on "Dkmfkmkglklkgbkvbkbv." I'm serious.

Next, the following words are taken from the "front" matter of the paperback edition of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius(Dave Eggers, Vintage, 2001):

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Convention. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, who also reserve any rights there are to be reserved. The author wishes to reserve the right to use spaces like this, and to work within them, for no other reason than it entertains him and a small coterie of readers. It does not mean that anything ironic is happening. It does not mean that someone is being /pomo/ or /meta/ or /cute/. It simply means that someone is writing in small type, in a space reserved for copyright information, because doing so is fun.

Which is completely preposterous, because it passes completely over the all-important question: why is it fun to write in small type in such spaces? Eggers has no answer that does not concede either

  • that his use of the space is ironic, or
  • that "irony" is an empty term, nearly devoid of meaning, or
  • that "fun" is an empty term, nearly devoid of meaning.

I've always had a sense that Laurie Anderson and Don DeLillo have a lot in common. Even beyond their common preoccupations, their writing styles resonate. A talent for the abrupt. The shape of a casual repetition, the shape it takes. The shape, the abruptness. Repetition is the shape of history, and the sounds of their words unfold into this shape. This shape.

There are differences around the edges: Anderson's lines have more of an unsettling undercurrent; DeLillo comes closer to pure glossolalia. But still, when the wind is right and the planets are aligned, I can slip into those speaking styles, or even into their halfway compromise, as though it were some strange fugue state of consciousness I am entering.

Apparently, I'm not the only person to remark upon this connection, because Salon has just posted a clip of Anderson reading from DeLillo's latest novel, The Body Artist.

Neal Stephenson's The Big U was his first novel and long out of print, but it's just been republished in a rake-in-the-bucks paperback edition. He's all but disowned it, though it's not all that bad. It reads rather like a dry run for his later work: the funny passages are less funny, the wordy passages are less wordy, the incoherent passages are less incoherent, the colorful characters are less colorful, the random outbursts of violence a little less random.

It's still recognizably Stephenson, though, which means that it ends with a cartoonish quasi-apocalyptic shootout starring some unlikely characters and includes a cartoonish rape scene. He's not on indefensible ground here: he's clearly writing from the heroine's perspective, and I don't think I'm giving away too much plot if I note that she escapes. But still, his ratios of shootouts to novels and of attempted rapes to novels are both disturbingly high.

Two weeks ago, I discovered Pistil Books and News, down on Pike a few blocks from my apartment, home to a respectable used-books inventory and an eclectic magazine selection. Like many stores, they have a frequent-buyer punch-card system. In this age of readily-available computing technology, though, theirs is the most sensible system I've ever seen: your discount is set at the average of your previous ten purchases.

Of course, wisdom such as theirs cannot be allowed to continue to exist in this world. Pistil is closing down, driven out by high rents in the Pike/Pine corridor. It's the paradox of gentrification. People like me move into a neighborhood, drawn by the vibrant cultural scene. You know, as typefied by places like Pistil. We drive up the rents, and next thing you know, Pistil's out on their ear, going Internet-only. Curses. Foiled again, and there goes the neighborhood.

At their going-away sale, my principal find was a used copy of a property law textbook (Property, by Dukeminier and Krier). Sounds boring, perhaps, but there's something about this one's tone that I can only describe as "giggly." Maybe if you had to write a thousand-page textbook, you'd get a little goofy in the footnotes, too. I know I would.

  • (page 27) "Worry not! To a whaler a 'waif' is not a homeless child but a pole with a little flag on top."
  • (page 162, reprinting a New Yorker cartoon) "The way I see it, we divvy up -- a third for you, a third for me, and a third for Sam -- and what the George A. Fuller Company don't know won't hurt them."
  • (page 193) "One Roland is recorded as having held 110 acres for which on Christmas Day, every year, he was to perform before the king 'altogether, and at once, a leap, a puff, and a fart,'"
  • (page 294) "Now hold on to your seats and compare these two cases involving future interests in transferees."

More convincingly, remember Joe Piscopo? Well, in 1985, he filed for divorce from his wife of twelve years. At the divorce proceedings, he argued that his celebrity goodwill stemmed not from education and training, but rather, from unique and ineffable talents. The court disagreed, holding that his celebrity status constituted marital property, to which his ex-wife was entitled a one-half share.

Yes, but Joe Piscopo? In the same paragraph as "celebrity goodwill" or "ineffable talents?" They didn't stick this one in for case law, I'm convinced. They stuck it in for amusement value, the same way they stuck in Mark Gastineau a few pages later. Remember Mark Gastineau?

My other reading of late, mixed in about equally with the property law, has been John le Carre. You know, spy novels. Apart from the pleasures of his pacing and his undeniable talent for writing set-pieces, I'd say what I've been enjoying most about them is the epistemology of spycraft.

Imagine yourself a desk agent, reviewing the report of a field agent, telling you about a recent promising contact with a potential turncoat on the other side. What do you actually know at this point? Well, maybe everything is on the up-and-up.

Or maybe they've flipped your agent, and the turncoat doesn't exist. But that would be a bit obvious; you might notice the discrepancies in the reports. So maybe the turncoat exists, but is only pretending to cozy up to your fellow. Or maybe it's one step back, even from there. They know about the turncoat -- they bugged a few phones, followed your field agent around -- and are feeding him false information so he'll unknowingly leak only things they want you to know.

Perhaps you want to test out these theories. So maybe you'd like to feed them a tidbit of information to see if it comes back to you through this channel. Hmmm. If you tell your other operative about this whole plane, then if something goes wrong, they'll know about your whole scheme, including both your agents and your turncoat. Oops. So you'd better keep him in the dark about why he's leaking confidential intelligence data.

Hey. Come to think of it, they might be doing the same thing to you! You ought to be careful where you spread the information the turncoat supplies. If it spreads too far and someone recognizes it, that's another way the channel could be blown. But given all the secrets you're keeping from your own teammates, what if some of them are keeping secrets from you? And what about the walls of paranoid silence inside the bad guys' organization? Hey -- odds are that the turncoat's superiors aren't telling him about everything they're up to. Maybe there's a way you can manipulate this situation to your advantage. You can use him as a sample for understanding how they disseminate information, how much their lower-levels are generally privy to.

And on and on and on. The usual parlyizing thicket of problems in the philosophy of knowledge, compounded with a whole bunch from the philosophy of language, all nicely gummed up with a healthy dose of paranoia. And, yet, from this confusion, the spymasters have to tell their customers something. The tentative assembly of this something from the fragmentary back-and-forth of the spy trade makes for an interesting set of conundrums.

That's what I've been reading lately. You?