Dept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill
192 pages / $22.95 buy from Amazon
When I read Michael J. Seidlinger’s list of indie lit for the year I was so excited that I stayed up until three AM all atwitter thinking about it, but for as excited as I am about the alt lit scene, the recent National Book Critics Awards finalists make it clear that the lit world at large lacks the same scope and enthusiasm.
The new Knopf book Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is especially indicative of this endemic lack of innovation and the narrow definition of literary taste that seems to grip the big five publishers. READ MORE >
April 8th, 2014 / 12:00 pm
1. Nothing about The Circle is very surprising or new. Big Brother is a clichéd, outdated reality show. The privacy vs. transparency debate is as ubiquitous as the scope it describes. It’s obvious from page one which side the novel will end up on.
2. I don’t care about any of this. The transparency-obsessed campus of The Circle (a proxy for Google) is not an unappealing environment to me. Most of the time, it’s ridiculously attractive.
3. The relentless lists of online activities that the protagonist, Mae, conducts daily are not the downward spirals of doom they should be. Instead, the repetitive passages feel hypnotic and pleasurable and I live vicariously through Mae’s Internet high. I should read her decline into web addiction and over-sharing critically, but instead I feel the same breathless, click-through-again compulsiveness that I do staying up too late online, browsing websites and managing my own social media accounts.
4. I can’t figure out if I’m the exact target audience for The Circle, or the exact opposite of it. Are its warnings meant for those younger than me who’ve never known a world without Google? Or those older, who take a certain pride in refusing to get an Internet connection or email account?
5. The novel circles around the same few themes, visits the same few locations, and its protagonist, Mae, repeats the same tasks over and over again. This repetition gives me an intense, almost physical pleasure: a caffeine-like tightness in my brain, behind my ears; a lifting in my chest; the impulse the read as quickly as possible.
6. It’s more engaging to read about what Mae does on her computer than about her interactions with human characters, who are consistently flat—placeholders for perspectives.
7. Internet Rorschach: is this passage a dark chute of terror or an energizing, endorphin-generating endurance run? “[Mae] embarked on a flurry of activity, sending 4 zings and 32 comments and 88 smiles. In an hour, her PartiRank rose to 7,288. Breaking 7,000 was more difficult, but by 8, after joining and posting in 11 discussion groups, sending another 12 zings, one of them rated in the top 5,000 globally for that hour, and signing up for 67 more feeds, she’d done it. She was at 6,872, and she turned to her InnerCircle social feed. She was a few hundred posts behind, and she made her way through, replying to 70 or so messages, RSVPing to 11 events on campus, signing nine petitions and providing comments and constructive criticism on four products currently in beta. By 10:16, her rank was 5,342, and again, the plateau — this time at 5,000 — was hard to overcome. She wrote a series of zings about a new Circle service, allowing account holders to know whenever their name was mentioned in any messages sent from anyone else, and one of the zings, her seventh on the subject, caught fire and was rezinged 2,904 times, and this brought her PartiRank up to 3,887.” The passage continues for several more pages.
8. Fiction Writing 101: A complex character should always want something. For effective character development, ask: what does the character want? Mae wants a job at The Circle, and she gets it on page one. Her character is empty, simplistic, a shell.
9. Perhaps stripping Mae of any real wanting is the novel’s innovation: what happens when we want for nothing? Are we human anymore, or just shells of ourselves?
10. Something Mae sort of wants is a good rating of her work at The Circle (99% or higher for every inquiry she answers, which number in the hundreds each day). But this obsession with approval and high ratings doesn’t quite ring true to me: with quantity comes ambivalence, not a desire for quality. When reviews are always perfect, they have no meaning. READ MORE >
January 16th, 2014 / 4:38 pm
by William Tester
177 pages / $9.95 buy from Amazon
1. “I have this room inside my head, a lightless, nightmare kind of room that I pretend is where I am. A smaller me sits in its darkness.”
2. “My mama in her mirror smiles at her, ahold of me, jewelry, makeup, mother, child. She pets my cowlick down and pats me gentle swattings on my butt. She’ll take or leave me– queen of us. She’s pretty. Mama lets me know that she’s the most loved one of us. I move for room to let her sit beside me, scoot across the stool. I’ll flirt for her; I’ll court, or woo her with my smallness. I’m this big: my head tops even with her dresser, with my hand to make a bridge. It feels like I’m this bunch or bundle, six potatoes in a bag. This pet. A useless tiny person, me so close down to the ground, potato legs and chest and elbows, with my big potato head.”
3. “Her hair reminds me then of boards.”
4. “Sometimes her neck is like an animal alive inside of her.”
5. “By now I’ve half decided how it is we’re going to die, Jeab gone to elsewhere in his liquor, me– I’ve wallowed on the thought that I’ll be shot down like a dog, or struck with bricks fell from a window, held and throttled while some killer smacks a hammer through my skull in a squirt of pain.”
6. “It wanders backwards lost and blinded toward an ant bed death to come. Me, I’m a giant to the bug. I wonder what its tiny mind is like, what nonsense it must live.”
7. “I hear the gyroings and gears inside the belly of the world, oily and in tar– and in the sky, the set chain of the wider all– turns.”
8. “A kind of line in me connects me to the gym and chilly stalls, a line that draws me like a toy across the sky between my arms, the flapping, thuddy noise of sprinters, shouting, fearful coughing me.”
9. “Chlorine and sneaker smells of feet the taste of pennies dew our air.”
10. “He butts his head bone in her bag like he is eating her from out of her or pulling out her blood.” READ MORE >
October 31st, 2012 / 1:09 pm
I want to get this up here before MEAN WEEK kicks off tomorrow. It’s a rider-thought attached to the previous post where I mentioned in passing that a Knopf publicist sent me a few poetry books this week. I don’t want to leave our readers here with the mis-impression that I was merely gloating over having been gifted with free stuff. Indeed, all three books were sent to me because I requested them, on the promise of consideration for review–a promise I intend to honor in all cases. But the interesting thing is how I found out about the books in the first place. Lena, the publicist in question, may or may not be a regular reader of HTMLGiant–I don’t know. But I do know that she decided to get in touch after reading Michael Schaub’s “Any Wonder We Tried Gin” post, which mentioned the poet Philip Levine. She wrote to say hello, mentioned that Levine has a new book of poems out, News of the World, and invited me to an upcoming reading in Brooklyn. Presumably, she wrote to me and not Schaub because she’d done enough leg work to know that I live where the reading was happening, and he doesn’t. Point for her. In any case, I couldn’t go to the reading, but I offered to take a look at the book, and invited her to keep me posted on Knopf-related poetry stuff. Since that time, not quite 10 days ago, she’s suggested a few other books she’s working on that I might be interested in–didn’t get irritated or write me off when I said no to stuff–and invited me to at least one other event. As it stands today, I now have three books to look at- the Levine, Marie Ponsot’s new collection, Easy, plus an oral biography of Robert Altman that I absolutely cannot wait to dig into (The NYT loved it) and which you, gentle reader, should expect to hear about at some length in the days and weeks to come. Lena has done an amazing job of making me feel like I–as a blogger–and poetry–as an art form–matter, two things which are more or less unheard of for a major press in these sad times (except of course at HarperPerennial, the forward-thinkingest imprint at any outfit great or small, advertiser on this website, and happy home of yours truly). The result of her efforts, which in total couldn’t have taken up more than fifteen minutes of her working week, is that I’m now not only inclined to actually read and thoughtfully consider three books I didn’t know existed this time two weeks ago, but my interest in Knopf has been piqued, and where and what that will lead to, who can say? Lena the publicist, a hearty cheers! Here, here!