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Category Archives: book reviews

“Real art has been willfully confused with fake art.”
~Jonathan Lethem

Let’s say you’re a novel, and you want to get in a sex scene without breaking the flow of the narrative. What do you do? Well, if you’re Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, you have characters exchange weighty, plot-moving dialogue while they’re having orgasms. And you do it twice. Did I mention you’re only 224 pages long?

Nobody doesn’t like Jonathan Lethem. Who doesn’t like Jonathan Lethem? He’s an underdog comer of a novelist, the best we’ve got at bridging the increasingly antiquated (if still apt) gap between high and low culture. I hopped on Lethem’s bandwagon at Motherless Brooklyn, so I haven’t read his early science-fiction inflected work, but I know enough to know that nothing feels out of place in a Jonathan Lethem novel. He’s a paragon of omnivorous consumerism, a guy who knows all about art and music and loves to tell you that he knows what he knows. He pays homage to filmmakers, soul singers, grunge rockers, installation artists, painters, comic book creators, cartoonists, physicists, sociologists, chess prodigies, and semi-professional masturbators. They all crash together in a dayglo confluence of class and trash. It’s no surprise that the names of the main characters of his best book, The Fortress of Solitude, Dylan and Mingus, are shared by musicians who toiled away in marginal, populist traditions – folk and jazz – until they were eventually canonized and lionized as Great American Artists.

So Lethem tends to write about scrappy underdog types, and this novel is no different. The characters don’t have a lot going for them in the classic sense of climbing the corporate ladder – one of the only character with a day-job works at a masturbation boutique called No Shame – so to fill the time, they kidnap kangaroos. They do high-concept installation art. They play in a rock band. And they fuck a lot. Sometimes they orgasm before they’re able to start. When they’re not in the presence of another character, they masturbate. More than once, the protagonist Lucinda tries to masturbate and fails.

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Who is Mario Incandenza?

In one sense, he’s the lovable middle child of the Incandenza clan, the dysfunctional set at the heart of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In another, he’s Wallace’s proposed ideal human and savior of authentic sentiment in literature.

Mario’s physical demeanor is sad/funny; his

“incomplete gestation and arachnoidal birth left the kid with some lifelong character-building physical challenges. Size was one, he being in sixth grade about the size of a toddler and at 18+ in a range somwhere between elf and jockey. There was the matter of the withered-looking and bradyauxetic arms, which just as in a hair-raising case of Volkmann’s contracture curled out in front of this thorax in magiscule S’s and were usable for rudimentary knifeless eating and slapping at doorknobs until the sort of turned just enough and doors could be kicked open and forming a pretend lens-frame to scout scenes through, plus maybe tossing tennis balls very short distances to players who wanted them, but not for much else…” (313)

On top of this, he can’t really stand up by himself and requires a body-brace and weighted tripod-like apparatus to anchor him in place, and he’s a homodont (every one of his teeth is a bicuspid).

He’s also the most unequivocally likable character in this book, and maybe in any book I’ve ever read. It’s almost too much to handle, really. The guy is entirely devoid of guile, self-consciousness, cynicism, judgmentalism, and smarm. And irony. Here he is, super-nice, über-deformed guy with a head-mounted movie camera, and he is so unironic as to be almost heart-rending in his sincerity.

But why should sincerity be so striking? Why should a character that isn’t cloaked in hip cynicism be noteworthy? Embedded in this consideration is, I think, Wallace’s comment on contemporary American literature.

Surveying the field of “postmodern” fiction, some of the hallmarks one sees are irreverence, shock-value, obsession with technical experimentation, cynicism about received narratives, and an ironic way of dealing with the past. Wallace is of the next generation, the one that grew up reading Barth, Pynchon, and Coover. But what happens after the critique has been made? In getting his generational pendulum on, Wallace says NO to glib irony, and seems to want to reclaim prominence for human emotion in high-brow literature.

And so, enter Mario Incandenza as the incarnation of Wallace’s anti-irony. Contrast him with his younger brother Hal, one of two ostensible protagonists in the book, the tennis whiz and lexical prodigy. Hal seems so jaded as to almost disappear as a force or will as he ages. He’s not without insight into his condition, though:

“Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human…One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.” (695)

A mask of course would be silly on Mario, who’s entire body is a strange, almost abstract representation of human form. He’s anything but hip and irreverent; he’s unwaveringly loyal, honest, and has a physically permanent smile fixed on his face.

Mario is also given the only glorious finale of all the characters in the book, a reviver of faith-in-humanity, as he comes across a bunch of homeless people outside the T-station pleading for anyone to touch them, just simply touch them: “and Mario, being alone and only fourteen and largely clueless about anti-stem defensive strategies outside T-stations, had had no one wordly or adult along with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored and granted…” (971) If not precisely Christ-like, Mario does carve a singularly optimistic and purifying figure (like a handicapped Socrates) against an oftentimes bleak themescape of consumer America.

So, who is Mario Incandenza? He’s unhip, unwordly, and embarrassingly sincere. And we should all try to be more like him. So, I plan to remember this catchy thought-experiment next time I’m in a jam: What Would Mario Do (WWMD)?

#one

 

Babies

 

Standing Outside House

 

Dolls

 

 

 

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Camera LucidaHidden in the shadows of posh antique stores lurk secondhand shops. These overlooked treasures are bursting with both history and small remnants of human life–reminders of those that have flitted in and out of this world leaving behind nothing but a stack of photos or a selective record collection. You walk through the doors, your fingerprints joining the other smudges on the doors glass window. Dank and musty smelling, walking room is limited to a six inch space between the chipped china and the basket of ripped stuffed animals. Stuck in the back, there is inevitably two or three large bins filled with photographs. Subjects range from traditional family portraits to spontaneous snapshots on the family hike. A certain sadness encompasses this area of the store. The bins hold the lives and memorials of more people than a small cemetery. As you idly flip through the photos, nothing arrests you. You toss aside the remnants of hundreds of people’s lives with barely a second thought. And then, one grabs you.

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