Wednesday, December 3, 2008 WCL sees the world (pt. II).

On why Hillary took the Secretary of State post: "If you do the calculus--and of course we're working with the supposition that Hillary is a power-hungry wench--then the only reason for her to have accepted is that she thinks Obama might not survive his first term. Think about it: as Secretary of State she would be perfectly situated to take hold of the Democratic nomination in 2012. After all, she was the runner up in 2008. Who's going to stop her? Biden? He won't be able to put up a fight against the Clinton machine. I can already imagine a weeping Clinton invoking Obama's words in order to help heal the country. Look: she mentioned this very notion in the primaries when she talked about RFK, so there's no doubt this scenario is on her mind."

On why homosexuals might not be around in 50 years: "I am working based off of two assumptions here. First, that homosexuality is largely hereditary or at least hormonally determined during pregnancy. And two, that gays will by and large win the right to marry. As for the first assumption, I do believe culture plays a role in sexual development, but a relatively small one. Much like one's height is determined primarily through genetics but can be affected by diet, one's sexuall orientation is largely determined before birth but can be molded by culture.

Now, think about the strides we have made in genetics in the last 60 years. DNA's role in heredity was determined in 1952; in 1972 we know the sequence of a gene; by 1978 we have the first test tube baby; in 1996, we clone a pig; by 2003 we have decoded the human genome. So we're moving quite along, clearly accelerating in our pace of genetic discovery. Therefore, I don't think it's long until we figure out the mechanisms that lead to homosexuality. Perhaps there is a gay gene, perhaps it is the hormones that are released during pregnancy. If it is genetic, then homosexuals that begin marrying en masse will no longer be in the reproducing population, and therefore, the gay gene will dwindle out of existence. If it is hormonal, then scientists will determine a way to counteract such an occurrence in the womb, perhaps in the form of a pill. Who knows? But my guess is that given the choice, most parents will opt to take a pill and ensure that their newborn will grow up to be heterosexual, because in the end, parents want to have grandkids."

On how Obama should tackle Iran: He should seek the grand bargain with the Iranians because it's the only smart option on the table. But first, he should help consummate a deal between Syria and Israel. The Syrians have been asking us for quite some time to be the backchannel negotiator in talks with Israel, but Bush has refused to play that role. Obama should shepherd this process along, because if and when he is successful, it will give him a great deal of political capital and credibility if he then turns his eye towards Iran. The last thing Iranian politicians want is for the US to ask them to sit down at the negotiating table for bilateral talks in good faith. The truth is that the Iranian people would like to see a deal, and Obama is just the kind of new face who could deliver. While the US lacks leverage, they will be able to depend heavily on the Europeans' support to get a deal made. Then, if Iran proves intransigent to a good faith agreement, Obama will have the leverage to take more severe measures without international backlash."

On Andrew Sullivan's pace of blogging: It's outrageous. I thought that once the election was over, his posting would die down a little, but the guy is just unstoppable. It wears me out."

On his father's application for a position in the Obama administration: "Sure, dad. You've been a lifelong Republican who has lived abroad for the past 30 years and you think you can just use your Chicago "connections" to get a low level post in the Energy Department? The man is clearly delusional. Knocking on some doors in Indiana is one thing, coming to DC for the inauguration without a ticket is another thing, but the idea that he could land this job is just pathetic. He's been drinking way too much of the Obama Kool-Aid and I am personally embarrassed by him."

On the European Market Cafe being closed on a Saturday at 11am: "What do you expect? Living up to their stated heritage, I suppose."

On the silver lining of universal healthcare: Look, I think universal healthcare is a bad idea because it comes at an outrageous cost yet will accomplish little. But the silver lining is this: though it will signal the decline of the U.S.'s absolute power, it will end up increasing the U.S.'s power relative to other countries, and relative power's the only type of power that really matters in the end anyway. The fact is that if Obama enacts any sort of universal healthcare plan, then he will surely implement stringent price controls which will bring down the costs of these prescription drugs and high-end medical procedures. That means that the drug companies and medical equipment companies will no longer be able to depend upon the largess of the American healthcare system to finance its R&D. Same, too, with the Europeans, who have been getting a free ride off of our healthcare system because we're the ones footing the bill for all the expensive technology and innovation in the field. So that means the Europeans will once again have to start paying for their share of medical innovation and we will be able to save vast amounts of money by no longer propping up the capital-intensive R&D labs. The down side, of course, is that we will slow our pace of medical discovery and potential cures for future generations. We are basically cutting funding for the discovery of technologies in the future in order to pay for today's health maladies for all. It's actually the opposite of 'progressive' when you think about it."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 WCL sees the world.

On Global Warming: "We have much bigger issues to worry about. The uproar over this issue is shockingly similar to the shrieking of the millenialists a few years back. Also, take a look at the weather patterns for the week after September 11, 2001 and get back to me. Then we can talk seriously about this issue."

On the End Days: "It doesn't take a whole lot to permanently damage human civilization. Don't get me wrong, humans will survive no matter what, but all it takes are one or two cataclysmic events to really wreak havoc. Maybe the food supply gets disrupted and famine breaks out. Perhaps the US's energy or technological infrastructure get disrupted for a few weeks. Whatever. If one of these disasters is sustained over a few weeks, then it will bring us to our knees. It will send us back to a pre-industrialized state. And once we're pre-industrial again, we can't retrace our footsteps of modern progress. We can't climb out of that hole. We can't recreate the technologies to pump the oil we need. We can't create renewable energy resources without the help of non-renewables at this point. And so we'll be stuck in a sort of pre-historic state forever. If you think about it, it's an elegant answer to Fermi's paradox. This will be a problem long before global warming begins taking its toll."

On the Newseum charging a $20 entrance fee: "They have some real fucking nerve."

On the Palin VP pick: "It's a fundamentally unserious choice. It's a farce. I sometimes think that McCain is keeping his charade of a campaign going just so that on the day before the election, he can give a press conference where he'll say, 'I ran this campaign as a total joke to test the American people, and they have failed that test.'"

On sushi: "Complete and utter yuppie bullshit."

On why same sex marriage is fundamentally dissimilar from plural marriage: "It may seem odd to us, but you must remember that until very recently, marriage was never about love. The Victorians are responsible for that [travesty]. Instead, marriage served as a means for passing along property, inheritance, social status. That remains fundamentally unchanged if you provide a legal avenue for same-sex marriage. Not so for plural marriage. And on a practical level, do you suggest that we could reform the legal system and tax code to accommodate multiple wives or husbands? It would be impossible."

On his 3D pictures of Mars' surface: "They are remarkable. I sometimes can't sleep because I'm so excited just thinking about them. That and the Hadron collider keep me awake at night."


Sunday, September 21, 2008

...Native Son (by Richard Wright).

If you’re ever feeling depressed and want to read a book to offset your sad mood, and someone recommends that you read Native Son, do not do it. Run the other direction. Pick up some light chick-lit, the kind with cursive writing on the cover and a picture of someone’s legs in high-heels. Because Native Son is the most viscerally upsetting and maddening and blood-curdlingly-infuriating book in the world. Depressing doesn’t even describe it. What is a word that conveys more active sadness than depressing? Anguish? Native Son makes you want to throw up because you are so mad at the world and so sad for Bigger Thomas, the doomed protagonist, and it makes you want to kill yourself for being complicit in the horrible, corrupt, hateful and oppressive world Wright describes. Native Son is almost like a dare to the reader. Wright is daring you to look at the gruesome reality he goes to great lengths to depict in too much detail. Wright doesn’t end a scene when you wish he would, he stays in the moment, observing the horrible details, at times making me skim through passages or skip ahead or turn my face away to wince and shake my head and just hope it would all be over soon. Bigger violently killing a huge rat. Bigger jerking off. Bigger smothering a girl to death. Bigger cutting off her head and burning her body. Bigger raping and murdering his girlfriend. And this is from the protagonist, with whom you sympathize the whole time! Because everyone else around Bigger is far worse, and you so desperately love Max when he swoops in – too late, of course – to try to explain to the white world why Bigger’s “crimes” shouldn’t be seen as crimes but instead as symptoms of the pathological culture of black poverty and oppression created by this white culture of 1930s Chicago that of course, wants to accuse and punish Bigger of crimes that it has defined and then set Bigger up to commit. The world Wright depicts is so infuriating and so accurate that the fact that this book came out in the1930s – and that Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day – descrbing black poverty in 1990s Chicago – came out in 2008, makes one believe that if Wright were alive today he’d be just as mad, and therefore there is no solace when one finishes reading Native Son – no solace in thinking “oh, well, that was in the 1930s, things are better now”, and therefore you hate yourself more and you hate the world and you yearn for a message of hope and how-to and you curse Richard Wright for forcing you to bear witness to this tragic opera of oppression and evil and for not telling you what to do to fix it and you curse the fact that it’s still broken, and none of this makes Native Son an “enjoyable” book but in fact makes it not so much relevant as mandatory.

...Half of a Yellow Sun (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).

This may be the best book I have ever read by any living writer. And Adichie is only 30 – that’s right; born in 1977. That’s right, better than Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie. And forget your Zadie Smiths and Jhumpa Lahiris. This novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, makes me regret every second I’ve wasted reading Smith and Lahiri because if Adichie were writing about paint drying in the most boring office in the most boring city in Canada it would be more interesting than anything this side of The Kite Runner. The Kite Runner is actually not a bad comparison in terms of politico-historical objectives, but Adichie is a bold literary stylist and practitioner, whose chops are up to the task of her ambition. The writer that comes most to mind in comparison is Dostoevsky; the book that comes most to mind is John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. These comparisons come to mind because Adichie sets the bar high, as it were – high enough that one might say “heck no, you can’t pull that off, you’re only 30 – and even if you pulled off 1/4 of what you’re trying to achieve, you’d have created something great.” And then she clears the bar, and sticks the landing, and wins the gold medal. She deserves a Nobel Prize. Half of a Yellow Sun is not a ‘nearly perfect’ book, it is a perfect book. It sweeps the reader up in a gripping plot cleverly choreographed but never seeming anything other than organic and real, full of love and mystery and potentially unreliable protagonists – but underneath these surface-level intrigues is an urgent political objective and history lesson, but of course never pedantic or didactic. The reader is literally enthralled in the story not only of our protagonists Ugwu, Olanna, Odenigbo, Kainene, and Richard, but of the Biafran war – a war that took place in the 60s, not long after Nigeria’s independence from Britain, during which Adichie was not alive. She aims to reveal the cruelty and suffering and post-colonial aftershocked corruption and geo-political collusion that basically let the Igbo people of the breakaway nation of Biafra starve and be massacred for three years, in a way that implicates the reader for never having known much about Biafra as well as the actual perpetrators behind the Biafra situation. Reading this book feels like a punch in the stomach, but you can’t look away, and you come away all the better for it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

...The Savage Detectives (by Roberto Bolaño).

Here is a wonderful novel, full of farce, irony, and a multitude of formidable character voices. Equal parts tedious and hilarious, by the end it is a touching meditation on the ineffability of life. When considered through the lens of autobiography, the novel takes on even more meaning and gravitas.

Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are the two protagonists, yet after nearly 600 pages, we hardly know them. We see them entirely through the eyes of transitory characters who pass through their lives. They are self-proclaimed poets, but we never see a line of their poetry and their work is almost entirely forgotten by the literati by the book’s end.

What do we know about them? First, their undying commitment to poetry and writers. Second, their conflation of writing and politics; the earnest belief that poetry is inextricably linked, even a driving force, behind social change and political movements. Third, they are wanderers who seek to live by visceral instinct in the mold of Rimbaud and other romantics. They are discreet and enigmatic to even their closest acquaintances. They deal drugs, steal books, and have lots of sex. But they have shielded themselves from much more understanding than that. Or at least Bolaño’s method of constructing them out of interweaving stories told by various narrators leaves them as inscrutable and often contradictory characters.

This is ironic, considering Bolaño and a large majority of the characters in this book are poets. The very object of much poetry is to distill the essence of some thing or idea in fresh, novel, and efficient language. Yet here we have Bolaño the poet trying his hand at a novel, a long wordy one at that, which fails to capture the essence of its lead characters. We also know that Bolaño turned to prose only at the end of his life when he struggled to make ends meet on poetry alone. He is suspicious of prose, yet it is the tool that sustains him. Belano and Lima on the other hand do not succumb to that temptation; instead they follow the haphazard path of life like the Beats, living in poverty, oblivious to their actions and the borders and lives they cross. Or if we take it that Bolaño is an extension of and alter-ego of Belano, then we see that their romantic road finally dead ended and required Bolaño to actually settle down, repudiate that life and instead write about it. And the huge irony present is that he succeeds so triumphantly in cataloging that penurious existence. He could have never written such a novel if he had not spent the time languishing in nothing but a long strange unguided journey. Bolaño himself is the failed poet with no recognition and the drug dealer and inscrutable figure, and his novel attempts to give a grand summation of that life and what it meant. Yet the written word is not a worthy enough tool to fully explain it to us. We still are left wondering about the driving and conflicting forces behind Belano and Lima. Nonetheless, we are given a treasure trove in the course of trying to do so.

Other ironies abound. The first portion of the book celebrates the vitality and courage and brazenness of youth. The lonelier second portion is disillusioned by old age and dreams unfulfilled. Most everyone in the visceral realist movement (and the corresponding socio-political movements) has left it behind because they realize the goals will never be met. The idea that a group of poets could be drivers of social change through their self-published magazines is a quaint one. Sitting around discussing issues in coffee shops does not make a revolution. And therefore the reminiscences of characters usually pity Belano and Lima; they are wondrous that those two seemed to actually have drank the Kool-Aid and continue to do so despite failure. How can Belano and Lima maintain such a deep and abiding faith in literature and poetry despite failure? The last few chapters in the lives of Belano’s and Lima’s are largely bleak ones. Lima meets with Paz, the visceral realists’ eternal enemy and subject of scorn, yet Lima is filled not with rage but with sadness upon meeting the man. Lima’s fire has gone out and he is just a drifter. Belano lives with a bodybuilder in Barcelona and contemplates suicide while he writes. The bohemian lives they chose turned out to be dead ends.

Even the ending sequence where we flash back to 1976 portends this result. They travel interminably through the amnesiac Sonoran landscape, repeatedly passing through the same barren, characterless towns in search of a lost and forgotten poet who they esteem for no real good reason. They find only one of her poems, which is fact not a poem at all but rather a drawing. The drawing suggests, by depicting a boat on a sea, that life becomes choppier and choppier the further you go. Then they find Cesarea herself, an underwhelming figure undeserving of the mystique they have heaped upon her. In a final tragicomic scene, Cesarea is gunned down by Lupe’s pimp and his friend (the “savage detectives”?). Lima is inconsolable. We don’t hear the conversation between Lima and Belano (per usual) except for the comment, “we spent all this time trying to track down Cesarea just to kill her.” (The “savage detectives”?) Indeed, their young lives are beginning to sail on choppier, less idealistic waters.

Yet even if the endpoint is murky, that is not to say the journey was for naught. One narrator’s recollection records a poignant conversation in a car. The driver says that while he was living in Israel with Lima, there was something incredibly important and unique that Lima possessed but was unaware of. It is hard for the reader to figure out what this thing is because the narrator himself is confused and doesn’t get it, but it seems that the driver is referring to Lima’s indomitable spirit of youthful optimism that nearly every adult loses. Yet even Lima is unaware of his strength, since he sobs each night because of unrequited love to an Israeli roommate. The driver then says that he thinks that we can recreate Lima’s unbridled vigor in our lives. And then the car crashes and the driver is killed.

We are also treated to a poetic description of a farcical duel that Belano sets up with a critic who has not even yet reviewed Belano’s work. Later in the work, Belano confides that he was never really sure who killed who. It’s a whimsical story that showcases Belano’s indifference to death and life. But he gains back his vigor near the end when he begins stringing for a newspaper in Africa. Another newsman, who runs into Belano several times, recounts a time when Belano seemed more full of life after having gone on an incredible 1-month journey through several dangerous countries in the bush. It shocked the life back into Belano after he had been crushed by a woman who he couldn’t stop loving. And our last look at Belano is him heading into certain death with Liberian troops. He is happily consigned to this fate after a conversation with a famous photographer who accompanies him, yet we are spared the details of his decision-making because of the narrator’s inability to overhear the majority of this critical discussion.

In terms of writing, Bolaño succeeds in treating a self-proclaimed high culture crowd and their post-modern thought with down-to-earth narrative prose. It is accessible and chatty. These teenagers talk like all other teenagers; the only difference is that their club is centered around poetry and politics. People presumably asked to think back on Belano and Lima often go on lengthy, unnecessary tangents about their own lives instead. At least two mentally ill and one “border-line retarded” characters have their say. Garcia Madero’s obscure poetry terminology is juxtaposed with Lupe’s knowledge of arcane street lingo. Lengthy entries dropping obscure names of Latin American poets are interspersed with multiple sex scenes and drug-fueled late-night parties at the Font’s house. Lupe’s jocular grade school drawings of Mexicans as seen from above (always wearing sombreros) are merged with the closing pictograph of the book, which is supposed to be reminiscent of Cesarea Tinajero’s poem. It’s all a bit of farce.

So what are we to make of Garcia Madero’s final three entries? Partly, I think it is a continuation of that farce; something that we are not to read too much into. Just like Belano and Lima sought out Tinajero, who turned out to be just a regular woman who washes clothes, our journey through this book will unmistakably end with disappointment. There is no bow large enough to tie this all together into a neat package. We have found out everything yet nothing at the same time. It’s a joke played on the reader.

Still, there are other interpretations that come to mind. As a continuation of Lupe’s drawing games, clearly they concern our perspective. The box conceivably represents our prism of understanding out into the world. What looks like a triangle out to the side may well be a small portion of a star. Or much like the projected images indistinguishable from real objects seen by man in Plato’s cave, the empty prism could in fact be a white sheet placed over the prism. But the final drawing, where the box’s border is now dashed rather than a closed line, is the most perplexing. It’s a new type of perspective where the frame is no longer so rigid. Perhaps it symbolizes the far gone lives that Belano and Lima pursued, or perhaps the role of literature and poetry in expanding our own perspectives, or maybe it is death visualized as a sort of release from the constraints of life. Who really knows? From an author who does his best to conceal crucial facts, conversations, and even primary characters from the reader in a sort of post-modern gambit, it’s a fitting close to this epically quixotic novel.