Umberto Eco (trans. William Weaver), J.K. Rowling, David Foster Wallace

I’ve been dragging my feet on posting here for nearly a year now because I haven’t had the time to face down the immense backlog of books, and I have this irrational compulsion to review books in chronological order. Sometimes I think my life would be a lot simpler if I weren’t so neurotic. Anyway, I realized that it’s probably better to review out-of-order rather than abandon this reading blog altogether, so I thought I might start with the books I’ve recently finished and go backwards from there.

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco (trans. William Weaver): I received this book as a graduation gift from the post-doc who supervised my senior thesis. It’s been on my reading list for a while, especially after I read and enjoyed Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco won me over right away by drawing parallels between his protagonist, the Franciscan monk and ex-inquisitor, William of Baskerville, and Sherlock Holmes, what with the physical description, the style of deductive reasoning, and the tendency to slip into periods of lassitude while intaking certain herbs. And of course, Adso, the first-person narrator, sounds rather like Watson, not only in name but in their admiration of their respective detective companions. The solution to the crimes was a little disappointing, although I do think as a nemesis, Jorge is similar to Moriarty in that he only really dirties his own hands at the very end. That final confrontation with both William and Jorge loathing each other as much as they admired each other rather reminded me of the Holmes-Moriarty dynamic. I was surprised though because I had suspected Jorge at times through the novel and had discarded the possibility as being too obvious. In any case, The Name of the Rose isn’t a very satisfying mystery, but it’s still a brilliant book. I liked the intentional anachronistic moments—William’s justification of democracy through theological arguments, the “quotations” in Adso’s writing that would of course only be apparent to a modern reader—and I also thought Eco was very clever in the whole layout of the library. I managed to get through the untranslated Latin without too much trouble as well, although I hope I didn’t miss anything essential in some of the longer passages. I was surprised to discover how much it had in common with Foucault’s Pendulum: in fact, I would say that it is even more “metafictional” than Foucault’s Pendulum, being after all, about books. I could also identify with William, even in his less strictly Holmesian aspect: in the end, for me, the central question of the book was whether it was possible to be both a person of faith and a rationalist…and whether it was even possible to be just one without the other, as paradoxical as that seems. William’s belief in the importance of making knowledge accessible, his desperation to save the forbidden book and the rest of the library (to the point of allowing Jorge to die), and most of all, his crisis of faith after the library has burned down. The whole story tied together well, what with all the philosophical discussions about laughter and comedy, the masses versus the educated elite, heresy as the other side of holy mysticism, the theological question of poverty…I suppose I found the theological arguments in the book easier to read through because of my own Catholic background, although I still found some of the political in-fighting between the orders and the Pope a little difficult to get through.

A tangent: William Weaver seems to be responsible for translating both Eco and Calvino. I wonder if he’s some sort of master translator for contemporary Italian authors.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling: I don’t consider Rowling to be a great author, which may be why I was able to enjoy this last book so much without feeling any disappointment. People have been complaining about the epilogue, the treatment of Slytherins, and various “out-of-character” scenes, but I was actually surprised by how well-written the rest of the book was. I liked the quest for the Horcruxes, the temptation of the Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore’s backstory, and most of all, the way Harry ended up defeating Voldemort. I probably have a much higher tolerance for derivative adventure fantasy than I do for derivative boarding-school stories, but I think she’s also improved in her writing. The pacing was a little rushed sometimes, but at no point did it stall, which I thought was a relief. The only real complaint I have is that I completely missed the fact that Lupin and Tonks were dead until Harry saw Lupin’s spirit when using the Resurrection Stone. Surely it’s not asking too much to devote more than a sentence to a supporting character’s death. Also, Neville is awesome.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace: Wallace is one of those authors who walk perilously close to the line of being a little too clever, which is probably why he gets slapped with the label of being pretentious from those who are fed up with postmodernist (post-postmodernist?) literature. Of course, since Wallace was the first postmodern author I’ve ever read, I think he’s quite brilliant, so I didn’t exactly bring an objective perspective to this novel: I went in prepared to like the book. I also rather like Wallace’s stylistic flourishes (excesses?)—his love of footnotes, his verbose and overly technical jargon, the way his narrative streams-of-consciousness skip and start and circle back (much the way minds actually think)—and authorial voice. But my bias aside, I really do think that Wallace shouldn’t be dismissed as pretentious because he (1) is clearly self-aware of exactly what he’s doing to a microscopic level, (2) has a brilliant and absurd sense of humor, and (3) writes emotion sincerely, despite knowing that it isn’t fashionable anymore to be genuinely emotional.

Infinite Jest is strangely epic in scope, although its subject matter is really (yet again) the spectrum of dysfunctional and neurotic individuals in modern America. It’s told chronologically out-of-order and jumps around from place to place and from character to character, although it seems to focus primarily on Hal Incandenza (junior tennis champion and lexical prodigy) and Don Gately (recovering narcotics addict). Both live in Enfield, which is located on the outskirts of Boston, and having just spent the last four years in Cambridge, the whole setting felt disturbingly familiar. The characters are often walking through neighborhoods that I’ve physically visited; I’m so used to simply imagining places in books that it felt almost surreal to be reading about places I actually knew. What’s interesting is that Wallace wrote the book ten years ago and set it in the post-millennial future, which means that the book is roughly taking place around now. The future he imagined is clearly meant to be unrealistic and ridiculous—what with NATO being dismantled and replaced with an Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.), whole U.S. Northeast being forcefully given to Canada to serve as a waste-dumping ground, cable and broadcast TV being replaced by a new system of customizable mass entertainment monopolized by a company called InterLace—but it’s a little disconcerting to realize that some parts ring surprisingly true, including anti-American terrorism and a rather idiotic president who may or may not be a lame duck. (Well at least Bush isn’t a former lounge singer.) Of course, there are some things that have changed in the past ten years that Wallace wasn’t able to predict, such as the degree to which the Internet has taken over our lives.

I’m a little disconcerted by the ending. We never find out what happens chronologically after the first scene of the novel, and Hal was the character I felt the most invested in reading about. Probably because I could relate to the whole experience of attending a high-pressure school. I keep wondering if the ending is supposed to leave you feeling at a loss—it really seems to just cut off, as if someone flipped a switch on the television—or if Wallace just ran out of steam after a thousand pages. Despite how fragmented the narrative is, the novel is incredibly coherent (even the most seemingly inconsequential details turn up again, if you are an attentive reader, which is why I recommend reading the novel in a continuous stretch if possible). And as silly as it sounds, I really did find the novel meaningful, what it said (or what I thought it said) about freedom and compulsion, pleasure versus happiness, addictions. There are accounts of abuse and dysfunctional family relations, not to mention a thousand ways in which people ruin their lives and reach new points of psychological and physical degradation, all of which I find to be repulsive and depressing in most other contemporary American novels but not this one. I never felt mired, so to speak, in the “filth” of the book, perhaps because Wallace treats all of his characters, even the unsympathetic ones, with a sort of honesty that is kinder than compassion. It’s not a cheerful book but still a funny one. I mean, who wouldn’t laugh at the idea of a militant Quebec separatist group called the Wheelchair Assassins?

Comments (7)

  1. charmian wrote::

    Oooh, glad to hear you enjoyed Name of the Rose. I actually like that better that Foucault’s Pendulum, by a hair.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007 at 04:09 #
  2. troisroyaumes wrote::

    I think Foucault’s Pendulum was a little easier to read, but The Name of the Rose held together better for me. I definitely enjoyed both though.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007 at 08:10 #
  3. charmian wrote::

    Really? I thought Foucault’s Pendulum was more difficult to understand, because of the plethora of references over a broad range of topics. Name of the Rose’s are somewhat narrower.

    Wednesday, August 8, 2007 at 08:05 #
  4. troisroyaumes wrote::

    True, but I found the style in Foucault’s Pendulum to be more accessible than the medieval language in The Name of the Rose. I also thought that Foucault’s Pendulum had more explanation for its references, possibly because they were so widespread.

    Sunday, August 12, 2007 at 11:26 #
  5. daimira wrote::

    I just finished reading The Name of the Rose, too, and I agree with most of what you said. Also about Foucault’s Pendulum. That book was slightly harder to follow than Name of the Rose, but incredibly interesting as well.

    Have you read Eco’s Island of the Day Before?

    Saturday, August 18, 2007 at 03:17 #
  6. troisroyaumes wrote::

    No, I haven’t, but it sounds really interesting, judging by the Amazon review. I love that historical period.

    Saturday, August 18, 2007 at 11:58 #
  7. daimira wrote::

    It is interesting! It’s my favorite Eco book so far. It’s definitely the most hilarious. (I mean that in a good way.)

    Sunday, August 19, 2007 at 11:22 #