Today’s post, written by Erik Estep, a librarian at SIU Edwardsville who has contributed to Three Percent in the past, is more or less an ode and reflection on David Foster Wallace and his work, as well as some commentary on the somewhat critically received DFW biography by D.T. Max. Since the majority of us at and related to Three Percent are, in fact, huge DFW fans, we thought it apt to give a little shout-out to Max’s book . . . Enjoy!
Even though he didn’t last long, David Foster Wallace left his mark on our culture. D.T. Max’s new biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, is an excellent introduction to the man and his body of work. Max, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has been on the Wallace beat for a while—he published a major piece on Wallace soon after Wallace’s suicide—and his familiarity with the material pays off in a book that is both readable and fairly comprehensive.
Wallace is a tricky subject because even though he has been gone for four years now, his influence lives on in our culture. With apologies to Douglas Coupland, Wallace can arguably be called the writer of Generation X, and one of the most important American writers in the last fifty years. With such an expansive subject, it would be easy to get lost in the details, but Max tells it straight and tells it well. He carefully traces Wallace’s roots in the Midwest, and sort of makes the case that Wallace is a regional writer.
Max also insightfully connects Wallace’s nearly life-long struggle with depression to growing up in the Midwest:
His mother thought of his anxiety, she would later tell an interviewer, as the “black hole with teeth,” but neither she nor her husband knew what to do about it, beyond letting their son stay home from school when he had to. Perhaps they hoped the problem would go away when he went to college. Clearly, biological changes were going on in Wallace—depression often first appears in puberty—but the young man may have also been responding to the environment that he had grown up in, to the wide-open spaces and unstructured world of late-1970s Midwestern America. If he was furtive or anxious, perhaps it was in part because he had a hard time figuring out what the rules were. (12-13)
Wallace will always be remembered first and foremost for Infinite Jest; appropriately, Max spends a lot of time unpacking that masterpiece. He carefully goes into Wallace’s past and links the figures in his life to the characters in Jest. For instance, one of the loves of Wallace’s life is the inspiration for the vaguely disfigured Jest’s Joelle Van Dyne—also known as Madame Psychosis. Wallace tried to self medicate his way through depression and ended up with addiction problems, which he tried to solve through the Alcoholic Anonymous programs. Wallace used those experiences to create the memorable and sympathetic character of Don Gately, who properly centers Jest. It is through his character that the vast Jest finds an emotional core. While the novel begins with Hal Icandenza’s nervous breakdown, it ends on a more peaceful and ambiguous note with Gately mentally drifting away. It is with his style of peculiar genius that Wallace ended what is arguably the best novel of Generation X on an emotionally satisfying note.
Of course, Wallace was not done with Infinite Jest, but the success of that novel haunted him for the rest of his career: just as Orson Welles was always trying to top Citizen Kane, Wallace was trying to best Jest. Most readers have gotten their introduction to Wallace through his brilliant essays instead of through Jest, and it is here that Max could have provided some more details. Almost until the very end, Wallace was very productive (Both Flesh and Not, a collection of essays spanning his entire career, was released just last fall and features a nice selection of his last great pieces, including the justly famous “Federer or Not”), and Max could have spent more time fleshing out that aspect of his career. For example, Wallace wrote very aptly about professional sports, especially tennis. Max could have easily spent several chapters on that topic alone. As it is, Max gives us some gems; for instance, who knew that Elizabeth Wurtzel was the basis for the Wallace’s great short story “The Depressed Person,” or that Wallace may have had an affair with Wurtzel? Wallace’s private correspondence is extensive—he didn’t like to use the phone—and Max mines Wallace’s letters with acumen. Wallace considered Don Delillo an influence and almost-father-figure, and Max uses those letters to come up with some surprising conclusions. For example, Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, is modeled more on Delillo’s work than that of Thomas Pynchon.
Wallace’s sad story also has a lot to tell us about the stigma society places on mental illness. Wallace was born in 1962 and his mental illness hit him hard while in high school in the 1970s. Back then, our understanding of mental illness seemed like something from the Stone Age; even homosexuality was considered a form of sickness. Now, one can’t avoid seeing a commercial for a mental illness that has yet to be discovered. One wonders if Wallace would be alive today had he been born just a decade later. What possibly doomed Wallace was his decision to go off the first generation medication that had stabilized him for so long. Perhaps, if there were fewer stigmas attached to the dread disease of mental illness, Wallace would have felt less flawed being on anti-depressants and not tried to cure himself without them. Granted, all of this is merely speculation, but is that is what good biographers do, and one wishes Max, who knows Wallace’s work so well, would have taken that leap and given us some analysis. Although there will be many, many future books on Wallace and his work, Max’s book is a great place to start and is useful for both the Wallace completist and neophyte alike.
Borisav Stankovic’s novel, Bad Blood, was first published in 1910 in his native Serbian and has recently been translated into English for the very first time. Bad Blood is about Sofka, a strong-willed Serbian beauty who is destroyed and humiliated by a cold and hypocritical society that she tried to transcend. That description makes Bad Blood sound seem like a joyless slog (and it does sometimes read that way) but it doesn’t do justice to Stankovic’s sharp critique of Serbian society and his deep probing of Sofka’s psyche.
Bad Blood is set during the first years of Serbian independence from the Ottoman Empire (Serbia was granted independence by the Great Powers at the Congress of Berlin in 1878). It was a time of revolutionary instability as the estates of wealthy Serbian landowners were broken up and given to the laborers who toiled in their fields. Sofka is born into a landowning family brought to the brink of extinction by these reforms and the mismanagement of money by her father, effendi-Mita. And to say that the society is patriarchic and misogynist is a vast understatement.
Despite these disadvantages, Sofka believes she can maintain an independent existence, only to be badly let down by her father and the rest of society. Because of the threat of pauperization, Sofka is basically sold to a wealthy, if culturally backwards family in an arranged marriage (there is a long sequence where Sofka thinks that they are selling the house, not her. To make matter worse, her husband is a pre-teen and her father-in-law, Marko, tries to rape her. Later on, Marko essentially kills himself for dishonor by launching a suicidal attack against a rival clan. With Marko gone, Sofka tries to “raise” her husband, Tomca, which works until Mita shows up demanding money; this enrages Tomca and he takes on the personality of his violent father. Sofka becomes the victim of increasing brutality, imprisoned in a sadomasochist relationship.
Sofka’s demise is used to underline the hypocrisy of society. There are many colorful ceremonies and rituals to consecrate their engagement and marriage, yet what it comes down to is a simple financial transaction. Status matters more than humanity as well; Mita is desperate to maintain his standing and Marko wants to move up. Sofka is a vibrant, intelligent, sensual woman and yet the society she grows up in has no place for her. Instead, people are chained to pointless medieval rituals and customs.
_Bad Blood_is an important historical document; it was the first major Serbian novel with a strong female protagonist and can be interpreted as a turning point in Serbian literary history. Readers interested in Serbian history will find much of interest as well; Bad Blood can be seen as a snapshot of life in southern Serbia after independence (the translator’s essay in the book makes much of how the Turkish ties of the protagonists leads to their downfall). Although Stankovic repeats himself quite a bit with far too many descriptions of the festivals and ceremonies the descriptions of ceremonies goes on for way too long) his prose has a lot of power, especially when he writes from Sofka’s perspective. Even though the plot often devolves into melodrama, the book never fails to sustain interest. Bad Blood is recommended both for its intrinsic worth as a novel and for its usefulness as a window into Serbian literary history.
We wrote about Kis’s Mansarda when we first heard about it a while back when we first heard about Serbian Classics Press, thanks to Michael Orthofer. At long last, we now have a review written by Erik Estep, a librarian at East Carolina University.
Serbian Classics has published a long-awaited English translation of Danilo Kis’s first novel, Mansarda. Kis, one of the most critically praised writers from the former Yugoslavia, made his reputation with the novels Garden, Ashes and Hourglass. A collection of short stories centered around the Stalinist purges of the ‘30s, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, caused him a great deal of trouble from the Yugoslav government, which was very vigilant about the slightest criticism of the Titoist regime. This is an irony that Kis probably appreciated since Stalin and Tito were great political enemies. Mansarda, however, is a different kind of novel which is more introspective and less political than his later works.
Mansarda seems very much like a first novel with the bohemian protagonist Orpheus, a thin stand in for Kis himself, experimenting with a variety of styles to tell his story of a self- conscious young artist struggling to find his place in the world. “Mansarda” means “a small attic loft,” and this is where most of the important action takes place. In keeping with the novel’s themes, the loft is decorated with symbols and artwork from Greek mythology. Orpheus shares the loft with his best friend and alter ego, affectionately dubbed “Billy Wise Ass” but later revealed to have the more common name Igor. The loft functions as a boy’s clubhouse crossed with a creative womb as Orpheus and Igor debate art, philosophy, poetry, and love.
The object of Orpheus’s affection is the beautiful Eurydice, who remains elusive. To clear his mind, Orpheus travels to the mythical Bay of Dolphins to gain knowledge from the natives about their rather extreme mating rituals. Males have to slash their wrists to prove their love for their mates which reflects Orpheus’s almost suicidal desire for Eurydice. His immature desire reveals a madonna/whore complex; later, Eurydice literally works as a pornographic model.
More than a love story, Mansarda is also about the creative process and an artist’s quest for authenticity. Orpheus seems to be aware of the limits of the traditional narrative. Indeed, Kis has Orpheus express himself using many different forms including poetry, music (the lute features prominently), mythology, and even menu items from an inn he and Billy Wise Ass own. He puts dialogue from Thomas Mann’s novel Der Zauberberg into his characters’ mouths. There are stories within stories, poems within poems, and a story with more than one telling. In the first version, a sailor merely finishes his meal at Orpheus’s inn and leaves; during the second and more interesting one, he accidentally shoots himself with the “house pistol.”
Inevitably, the novel collapses in on itself, as Orpheus is revealed at the end to be the author of Mansarda. This move into meta-fiction makes sense since this is Kis’s first novel; by pulling back from the narrative, Kis allows the reader into the mind of an artist at work. Orpheus’s variety of storytelling techniques are dazzling and represent a young mind trying to incorporate much of its precocious learning into a first novel. It can also represent the polygot nature of Kis’s homeland. Kis grew up in Vojvodina which is the most diverse province in the former Yugoslavia.
Mansarda is an excellent book. Kis writes in a simple and clear style which highlights his complex and rich ideas. The introduction by John K. Cox helpfully places Kis within the wider context of twentieth-century European literature, and the footnotes explain some of the more esoteric details. One caveat: Cox does not provide a translation for the extensive verbatim passages from Thomas Mann’s novel. Even though this is an intellectual novel, Kis never takes himself too seriously. There are many puns and witty asides that serve to puncture Orpheus’s self-importance. Some feminists might be upset with Kis’s portrayal of women because they are merely stage props in Orpheus’s mind. Orpheus even physically assaults a lower class woman, and it is played off lightly. That criticism aside, this book is highly recommended for both general readers and those interested in filling out their collection of Kis’s works.
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