Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My introduction to David Foster Wallace: Thoughts on "The Pale King"

Why I read this book:

After a heavy dose of biographies and dry non-fiction books about boring stuff, I was ready for an injection of human creativity, drama, and passion; I was ready to re-discover the world of fiction. Then I read this article, and my decision was made for me. You see, if you browse through enough random news articles and magazines, you will hear the name of David Foster Wallace sprinkled with some implicit reverence here and there, and you will, without knowing anything about the man, subconsciously associate that name with an aura of mystical importance.

"The Pale King" by David Foster Wallace - a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. What a perfect way to re-introduce myself to fiction.

My rating for this book:
1. I lost my ability to love after reading this book
2. I cut off my pinkie after reading this book
3. I am exactly as I was before as a human being, but older and a little sadder
4. That was different. Like, I-just-saw-an-elephant-paint-and-I-somehow-feel-enriched different.
5. This book unlocked the secrets of the universe for me

The aftershocks:

There must be something to the fact that my friend told me that David Foster Wallace committed suicide one day before I finished reading this book on my Kindle - a brilliant writer, dead at 46, before he ever finished "The Pale King". The day after, I finished the book, or more precisely, the collection of thoughts, characters, and outlines of story lines that constitute this unfinished work.
Without that explanation, I might have tossed my Kindle into the trash, sat in the corner of my apartment, window shades drawn, a Snuggie covering my listless body, my face unshaven, and dishes piling up slowly in the sink, and declared a moratorium on reading for a year. Note to the publisher - please add a preface to explain that David Foster was a talent of rare proportions; that he took his own life at such a young age, and that he was in the middle of writing "The Pale King"; that this book, while giving us a glimpse into expressions of a brilliant mind and a remarkable writer, is an unfinished work. Don't just assume that everyone who reads "The Pale King" knows the background; and man, is the background ever important before you commit to these pages. This book is not exactly like flipping through the pages of "People" magazine.

David Foster Wallace never wrote for "People" magazine, but that does not diminish its relevance - how else would you learn about the Kirsten Stewart scandal?

 Had I not discovered that this is an unfinished book, my reaction might have been similar to what I witnessed at the premier of the first installment of "Lord of the Rings" where the audience was clearly not familiar with Tolkien's trilogy. When the movie abruptly ended, the audience, clearly unaware that there were two more glorious movies upcoming with dragons, the guy who played Rudy, and New Zealand scenery, went wild with pain, anger, and confusion. The scene was one of utter chaos: there was laughter, lots of profanity, and tears. Strangers were united in a feeling of indignation, confusion, and disbelief. It is the feeling that can only arise when you make an investment of emotion into a familiar setting, a safe investment, like depositing a paycheck into the bank account, knowing full well that the money will be there tomorrow, only to find out that the money is suddenly gone the next day. Such was the feeling in that theater - an investment of amusement, the expectation of safe entertainment you expect when you settle into the seat in a theater and let go of your daily concerns, was made upfront; now, people discovered that they had been robbed of the entertainment. More importantly, they were robbed of the investment of expectations they deposited by walking into the theater. The feeling that some basic societal contract was broken hung heavy in the air; people's glances darted from face to face of the other members audience seeking to find comfort and understanding over the events that had just wrecked havoc on their lives. Strangers held each other tight. Some men looked around and laughed uneasily with a slight shrug, a defensive gesture meant to reassert some control over the situation. No one was fooled. Surely, this must be some sort of a joke, people thought. There must be a reason, some sort of explanation; movies cannot just end like that. They just can't. Because if this happens - if we allow ourselves to sit in a theater for three long hours; if we let it stand - only to see a boat of little hobgoblin elves, or whatever the hell they are, float down a river to end the movie, then what happens next? Will Hugh Grant not get the girl in the next movie? Will we be forced to accept Tatum Channing as a serious actor?

This scene in the movie theater, of course, could have been avoided if only there had been an explanation in the credits about the fact that Lord of the Rings is a trilogy, and that Peter Jackson and company were not going to disappoint the masses, slay the next two release, and consequently win a whole bunch of Academy awards. Instead, people slowly filed out of the theater, filled with a dreadful, anxious feeling that things were never going to be the same. Ten years later, the financial crisis happened.

Tatum Channing - oh, so handsome. Nothing else matters.

Where were we? Oh right, The Pale King. While overall the book is kind of heavy - really, just a random assortment of thoughts and disjointed paragraphs with no plot to speak of, there are moments where David Foster Wallace shows how he earned his reputation. His ability to describe the innermost thoughts and put into words the intimate dynamics and the smallest details of everyday encounters is unparalleled. There are moments in The Pale King where you find yourself completely enthralled in the words in the page, in that precious moment of discovery and complete understanding that is the greatest reward that reading can offer: a chance to connect to the thoughts of a complete stranger through the written word, a connection that slices through time and space like a physics equation. The Pale King certainly makes you labor for those precious passages, but that effort makes the reward of discovery that much more special. This is the same feeling that, I imagine, the scout who first witnessed Lionel Messi play in a neighborhood game experienced - the instant knowledge that you have just witnessed greatness.

As far as I know, Messi does not read David Foster Wallace. 

David Foster Wallace is gone, but his work continues to have an impact on his readers. I am always amazed by how our most inconsequential actions can have a lasting effect on others. Just think how many people have played a positive role in your life without even knowing it, and you probably never had a chance to tell them. There is something comforting and powerful in the knowledge that, even if you are not a genius or a celebrity, you can make impact on other people's lives, and, in essence, be a part of something bigger than yourself.

Now, of course, that also works in the opposition direction: if you just generally suck, you are going to decrease the quality of life for others around you. Even indirectly - like, if you are siphoning off gas from a random vehicle or something crappy like that, and a child sees you, that child could become a recluse or a dictator instead of a promising anesthesiologist.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What's eating Arthur Brooks? Thoughts on The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future

Why I read this book:

The majority of my sources of news and opinions are major newspapers and publications such The New York Times or The Atlantic magazine. These newspapers and magazines are often accused of being liberal and biased. Given these accusations, and the popularity of Tea Party-style hardliners in our politics, I wanted to understand the intellectual basis of this populist conservatism. You do not have to be a Republican to understand that "Get your government hands off my Medicare" is not the underlying philosophy behind the rigid strain of Republican opposition to President Obama. 

I saw Arthur Brooks on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:


He wore a nice suit with a salmon shirt and spoke eloquently about free enterprise, opinion polls, his book, and other sexy topics. "Perfect", I thought. This is just the man and the book that I was looking for: "I will read this book. I will understand. No one will accuse me of liberal bias; for I am just and even."

Now, understand that this is only a transcription of my thoughts onto paper. No coherent sentences formulated in my brain at the time that I was watching that interview. Rather, some fuzzy synapses fired some neurological seed that later sprouted into these thoughts. Looking at me sprawled out on the couch in the shape that a lifeless body assumes after a fall from ten stories high, you could not discern any sign of life other than the plate of beets, resting on my chest, rising and falling slowly in rhythm with my feeble breathing. A typical Wednesday night, really; not too different from yours, I imagine.

Beets are highly nutritious.

Russians eat a lot of beets. Russians are good at weightlifting. Do you want to lift heavy weights with ease? You know what you have to do.

My rating for this book:

1. I still have nightmares about this book
2. I would give this book to a 5-year old after promising him an Ipad
3. I am somewhat cold and a little hungry, but I do not regret my decision to read this book
4. Enlightenment
5. Transcendence

Thoughts, Reflections, and Take-aways:

The premise of the book is that the new culture war revolves around economic issues rather than social ones; specifically, the war centers on the role of government in the economy. Now, you have to remember that Arthur Brooks wrote this book in April of 2010. The U.S government had recently spent an unprecedented amount of money on bailouts for AIG, the banking industry, and the auto-industry; placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship; there was even talk of nationalizing the banks! It was pretty intense. On top of all that, Obama sailed into office making no secret of his vision for a lively, assertive government; and, if you recall, we were not yet 100% certain that he was not actually a Somali pirate. The timing was perfect for a conservative vision that outlined the opposing view.

Overall, however, the book was disappointing. Brooks leaves an impression of someone with deep convictions trying to construct a poorly-run experiment to objectively prove his beliefs.

The objective of Brooks' study is to make the moral case for free enterprise. In other words, he wants to change the perception that conservatives are cold-hearted materialists who hate feelings and laughter ("why laugh when I can be doing something that earns compound interest?")

"But I love free enterprise!", you are thinking: "It is one of my top three favorite things, directly behind the bald eagle and Anne Hathaway".

Well, apparently, not everyone shares your views. Using the results and surveys, Brooks determines that 30% of the country actually hates capitalism and wants us to become Belgium. Who are these awful people, you ask? The 30% coalition is a consortium of the usual suspects: college professors. Pasty urbanites. Residents of Portland, Oregon and Burlington, Vermont. Everyone who likes indie rock.

Even the 30% coalition loves Anne Hathaway.

Sarcasm aside, I understand what Brooks wants to accomplish. The majority of people's political preferences are directly related to their opinion on the hot-button issues: when you think of assistance to the poor, do you think of someone in great need who is grateful for the help and is trying to improve their life, or do you see institutionally lazy parasitic leeches? When you think of raising taxes on the rich, do you see it as a predatory practice by a hostile entity, or do you think of it as a fair move? Brooks wants to give you the ammunition necessary to change that core judgement that people make from the gut.

The problem with Brooks' narrative is that his premise is wrong, and his arguments are sloppy and unconvincing. At best, his definition of the "30% coalition" is grossly over-simplistic and a recipe for long-term electoral disaster. At worst, that definition is a bit dehumanizing and sinister. 

I think we can safely presume that Americans, as a people,  love free enterprise. We know that Adam Smith got it right: the market is one of the greatest economic and political advances of human civilization. We love the market, and it loves us back (sort of). But as Brooks engaged in his "defense" of the free market, I could not help but to feel disenchanted. I was hoping for for a technical dissection of data that demonstrated that government is growing too big or too powerful: How has the size of government changed under Obama as measured by the number of federal workers or the size and scope of regulations? How does the amount that we pay in taxes compare to other historical periods? What is the long-term outlook and plan for the entitlement programs and defense spending? Such framing of the discussion would not only have helped build a better argument, but it would also properly bound the continuous conversation about the role of government. Instead, I received a childish lecture (private property is good; man should keep the fruit of his labor; innovation is good; wealth redistribution is bad) and over-stretched rhetoric. 
Pink shirt, blue tie - daring, yet sensible. Great choice.

At the end of the day, the battle of ideas plays out directly at the ballot box. The GOP has been facing an identity crisis in the aftermath of the 2008 election. The shifting demographics, the lasting effects of the economic crisis, and the fiscal math facing our country require a new approach from both parties, and especially the GOP. Caught between uncompromising Tea Party populism and the stale party establishment, the GOP finds itself on the defensive and behind the times. In this year's Presidential election, the Republican party's greatest accomplishment has been to put out a nominee whose biggest strength is that he is not one of the other fringe candidates. The GOP will have much more exciting faces in the 2016 election. I hope they realize that the factors that play into electoral success, like the problems facing the country, are much more complex and much less black and white than Arthur Brooks makes them out to be.