Zero K

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zero-k

Zero K, Don DeLillo, Pan MacMillan, 2016.

If I had to sum up what Zero K is about, I’d say that it poses questions about life and death: about how to live and how to die, and about life after death. It’s about consciousness and the sub-conscious; love, loss and grief; relationships and family dysfunction; sadness, bleakness, despair, and about the apocalyptic world we seem to be increasingly living in. Of course, being a DeLillo novel, it’s also about how technology is blighting our lives and making our experiences of the world smaller and weaker and less meaningful, and all this occurs in only the first 100 pages or so!

I enjoyed reading the book, although I found it very chilly and disengaged. I don’t think there was any joy or warmth at all, and what satire there is was of the “ouch’ rather than the “haha” variety. There was, however, a great deal of mirroring: the text itself mirrored the labyrinth underground structure of the Convergence headquarters (this cult-like organisation provides cryogenic services), with its many passages, and many-hued doors that may or may not open into a room/scene, or be a faux door/dead end.

The headquarters itself reflects the way in which the Convergence sect espouses seemingly legitimate ideas about life and death, but are these ideas real or just window-dressing, constructed to hide the real ‘behind the scenes’ agenda? In addition to this conundrum, I think the Convergence headquarters is also perhaps meant to mirror the brain, which I imagine as being constructed of long passages with “doors” leading to memories and thoughts – some of which can be accessed, and others which remain locked tight and inaccessible. Another example of mirroring may be seen in the presence of disturbing videos playing on large screens that descend from the ceiling along the vast headquarters’ passageways. These film clips attract everyone’s attention, which seems to mirror the way in which people, in real life, are attracted, like helpless moths, to screens that show us the terrible events happening in the world. Furthermore, the structure of the book itself, which has long sections of text in the beginning, which dwindle to smaller mind-blip size bits in the later stages of the narrative, seems to resemble the thought processes of a person subjected to the cryogenics procedure: are the long passages meant to represent ‘normal’ thoughts, and are the blips akin to what people might be thinking as they’re subjected to suspended animation? I don’t know. It was all quite complex and a bit weird, but I liked the forensically precise prose, which has no fat or fluff, but just stabs to the heart of the matter, time after time after time. Readers are confronted with a great many ideas and scenarios in this book, but you have to work quite hard to figure out what it all might mean.

One of the characters is a dishevelled monk who interacts with the protagonist. When the monk tells a tale about his intention to undertake a temple circumambulation, prostrating himself with each step, I found myself feeling great empathy for him. Although the circumambulation was intended to be a sincere representation of his faith, when he came to do it, he found that he just couldn’t go through with it. His intentions were good, but he couldn’t subject himself to such physical hardship, or perhaps his faith wasn’t strong enough and he couldn’t humble himself enough. Unlike the local people, who undertook such an arduous feat without any real fuss and considered it a privilege to do so, the monk was unable to place himself in the correct head-space. As a Westerner, he had glamorised circumambulation and perhaps thought it would be a grand achievement and a way to show his dedication, but really, it would just be showing off and be about him, rather than about his faith and humility. After all, there is no glory in crawling for miles on your belly across sharp stones and dirt.

And yet, the monk does something rather wonderful when he sits with dying people and comforts them, but he doesn’t seem to realise the importance of this kindness. The dedication inherent in such an act is not as obvious as prostrating oneself many thousands of times, but these acts may be seen as two sides of the same spiritual coin. I think this part of the novel highlights an interesting clash of cultural expectation and experience and I thought that maybe I detected a reflection of HH the Dalai Lama’s observation that people should practice the religious tradition into which they are born, rather than seeking to take on another culture’s ways. I find that concept interesting, seeing as how I have major problems with white Westerners claiming to have acquired the spiritual knowledge of another cultural tradition. I’m not so sure if it’s quite the same thing when people attempt to adhere to the teachings of a philosophy such as Zen Buddhism, though. Personally, I’ve never thought it possible for a Westerner to “become” anything but a practitioner of a western style of Buddhism, because the other sects and schools have so many cultural overlays that practice and culture are completely intertwined. It’s all a bit complex, really, but it’s something that does keep me awake at night.

If I had to rate the book, I would give it 4 stars. I liked the writing, and many of its concepts were vastly interesting. I’m glad DeLillo is still around and throwing out intellectual challenges for the rest of us to ponder.

Favourite Quotes:

“Is it very different at home, or on the street, or waiting at the gate to board a flight? I maintain myself on the puppet drug of personal technology. Every touch of a button brings the neural rush of finding something I never knew and never needed to know until it appears at my anxious fingertips, where it remains for a shaky second before disappearing forever.”

 

“Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving.”

 

“The thinness of contemporary life. I can poke my finger through it.”

 

“How do we stand with others when the things that separate us are imposed at birth, when the separation haunts us and follows us day and night?”

 

“Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point.”

M Train

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m-train

It took me a few weeks to read M Train, not because it was in any way problematic, but because for me it was a “sip and savour” book that I needed to take my time with. I’ve been a big Patti Smith fan ever since I heard her version of Gloria from the Horses album and saw that iconic Mapplethorpe picture of her on the cover. I like the idea of Patti Smith the performance artist; I like the persona she projects into the world – the punk poet artist androgynous bohemian troubadour, the American high priestess of French literature, the champion of Blake’s art (which, actually, has always seemed somewhat phantasmal to me), a female musician who challenged stereotypes and was not all eye makeup and cleavage. And yet. I’ve always sensed something slightly not-right about the projection of that persona, something a tad elusive about the real Ms Smith. I read that she used to smoke a LOT of weed back in the day, which may well account for some of the craptastic too-f***ing-long riffs I’ve heard her indulge in. I just think that, maybe, what you see is not necessarily what you get – there just seems to be a very deliberate sense of “styled-as” about her, a something I can’t quite articulate.

Anyway, I liked M Train. I was surprised when I read that she checked into a London hotel for a week so she could binge watch British crime drama on TV. She could have just bought the box-sets and watched the DVDs at home, but I guess that would have defeated the spontaneity and quirkiness. I felt moved when she described her birthday and how she dressed in one of her dead husband’s old washed-thin flannel shirts and cut the dry ends of her braids. A sense of melancholy, if not moroseness, pervades the entire memoir, but her birthday story felt especially sad to me. I read with one eyebrow raised when she wrote about how she glimpsed a dilapidated house through a crack in its high fence, and although knowing it was uninhabitable, decided on a whim to buy it, sight unseen. She had to pay cash because the house was in such bad condition that it couldn’t be bought via a mortgage, so she embarked on a world tour and earned the money to pay for it. Except, a hurricane devastated the beach-side suburb where it was located and she couldn’t renovate as planned. I could understand that she wanted a place of her own that she didn’t have to share, that had no memories for her of being a shared space, but I can’t imagine buying a house without seeing it properly first. There are many vignettes about sitting in her favourite cafe, reading and writing, and wiling away the hours. There’s not a lot of rock star chic – she wakes up to find her cat has barfed on her pillow, and gropes around amongst the crumbs in her bed to find her reading glasses. I loved the story about how her husband bought a boat and parked it in their yard. The boat was sort of an adult cubby-house where they hung-out and listened to baseball games. Sadly, a bad thunderstorm caused a huge tree branch to fall on the boat and squash it, and that was that. All the stories are metaphorical, of course, and nothing is spelled out for the reader. I guess this is why it took me so long to read the book, because I needed to feel and ponder her words.

I like Smith’s writing: she has a beautiful (wordsmith) way with words, and I felt as though she has given her fans a gift, a little glimpse into her life – her past and present. I felt that maybe she wrote M Train for Fred, her dead husband, as a kind of catch-up on her life for him, as kind of a love letter to him. I don’t know. I’ve read some scuttle-butt that their marriage was not exactly great, that he drank, that her long retreat to the suburbs during their marriage was not voluntary on her part. All that is conjecture and gossip, though, because Smith runs a pretty tight ship as far as controlling her own image goes, and she has loyal friends. M Train reflects the way Smith glides through the world in her own bubble of paradox. She’s an enigma, and if you ask me, that’s way better than being a celebrity.

As I was reading, I kept thinking about the lines in Hopkins’ poem, Pied Beauty:

Whatever is counter, original, spare, strange
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim,
He fathers forth whose beauty is past change.
Praise Him.

It seems to me that Smith is counter, original, spare, and strange. She is probably a bit fickle, too, I suspect. Her beauty (of spirit, of soul), is definitely past change, though. It is what it is. She is what she is, even if I don’t really know what that might be.

July 2016

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booksjuly2016

 

The books I plan to read in July, 2016:

 

Don DeLillo, Zero K, Pan MacMillan, 2016. [Pan Macmillan]

Therese Osborne and Julie Simpkin (eds.) Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum, National Museum of Australia Press, 2015. [National Museum Australia]

Jo Baker, A Country Road, A Tree, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. [Knopf]

Sean O’Brien, The Beautiful Librarians, Picador, 2015. [Picador]

Nadezhda Tolonkonnikova and Slavoj Zizek, tr. Ian Drieblatt, Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj, Verso, 2014. [Verso]

Danielle Dutton, Margaret the First, Catapult, 2016. [Catapult]

 

Reading My Own Books

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“I’ll get around to reading it one day.”

Yeah, right.

I’ve accumulated a lot of books in recent years. I used to own a couple of boxes of books, but when we decided to buy a house and settle down, the book shelves kept multiplying, and multiplying.

Anyway, I’ve decided it’s time to read my own books, or else. I have come up with a plan, and this website is part of it. At the end of each month, I intend compiling and posting a list of the books I want to read during the next month, and come hell or high water, I plan on sticking to reading ONLY those books.

I know I can do this, but I need to set myself some concrete goals and challenges in order for my stubborn streak to kick in. As an INTJ personality, I’m pretty much goal-oriented, and having made my goals public, I’m more likely to try hard to achieve them. (Oh yes, my fiendish monkey mind, I know what makes you tick.)

I haven’t missed writing posts that much since I deleted my old blog, and I don’t know how much time I’ll have to write about what I read. Life is kind of weird and busy right now, and time seems to be galloping away from me. I guess that’s the main reason I’m getting tough with myself and making myself read my own damn books, because time is finite and it’s a certainty that I’m going to run out of it. I have so many great books I want to read first, though, so I intend making reading a priority in my life again, and getting serious about reading in a way that I haven’t been for the past few years.

That’s the plan. It really is time to get tough with myself and do this thing.