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Category: PoMo Month

John O'Brien of Dalkey Archive, part 2

Dalkey Archive Press

Johnobrien_dalkey In part two of our interview with John O'Brien, publisher of Dalkey Archive Press (which is, by the way, not an archive), he talks about isolation, outrage, and what's new and exciting in literature after almost 30 years.

JC: The Dalkey Archive seems to be closely keyed to your own aesthetic. You described launching this project -- which began with the magazine the "Review of Contemporary Fiction" -- out of both isolation and outrage. Has becoming a publisher of criticism and of books themselves alleviated either of those?

JO'B: Yes, the press is purely an expression of my aesthetic interests and what I admire and like to read. I know that this must sound arrogant, but I do not intend it to be. Many people have pointed this out to me over the years, how closely tied the books are to my tastes and even personality, and they usually do not intend this as a compliment. When I published "Voices from Chernobyl" a few years ago (a book that went on to win a National Book Critics Circle Award), someone came up to me on the street and said that this “is not a Dalkey book. You’ve sold out.” I said I liked the book. He said, “So Dalkey is just about YOU?” I said, facetiously but with a straight face, “Of course, it’s always been just about me. Is this news?”

In any event, all I can say is that there are books, fiction as well as nonfiction, that I like, and that is what I publish. These books, with few exceptions, seem to be as out of fashion today as they were nearly 30 years ago. I suppose I feel less isolated today than I did back then, but only God knows why. Perhaps I’m too old to feel isolated, perhaps one has to have a sense of a long future ahead to feel the isolation I did back then.

Well, over 10 years ago, someone accused me of running the press as though it were a museum, and I thought at the time, “Exactly!” I wanted to create a constellation of books that would endure time, realizing full well that the audience for such books would develop slowly but that I would keep all of them in print, no matter how they were selling year to year.

As to rage, well, yes, that is still there, though perhaps not as obviously so as back then. Things are wrong with the world, all kinds of things, and I deeply believe in the possibility of change. So, the press is a response to, or a protest against, the way things are. The press challenges accepted conventions and beliefs. I don’t know why someone would want to be a publisher other than to be up to something like this. One usually starts a press as a form of protest against something or other, and then you hope that you don’t at some point become a parody of yourself. The “rage” at times has come out in ways that later on I have regretted. John Updike, for instance, was once a favorite target of mine, but over the years, while certainly knowing what kinds of things I had said about his writing, he did some very generous things for the press. But when you’re young, you often don’t realize that such figures are also human and not just icons that are available as objects of criticism. Yet the rage is still there, and I hope is properly directed at the frauds, the self-promoters, manipulators, and those who misuse the power that has come to them or that they have carefully acquired over a lifetime. I have, admittedly, a knee-jerk reaction to people with power, largely because of how they use such power. But this knee-jerk reaction has not always served some of the best interests of the press. For better and for worse, I do not know how to do things any differently, nor perhaps do I want to know.

As I get older, the looming question for the press is what happens to it after I’m gone. I started the press with the intention that it would outlast me, or else it would have been little more than an act of self-indulgence. The press has reached the point it has because many people have helped it over the years, perhaps chief of which was the Lannan Foundation, which means Patrick Lannan. The foundation’s generosity exceeded what one can ever hope from a foundation. But we have had several other funders who have helped as well, and we have a very dedicated board of directors that has been of great help to the press. The support of the University of Illinois has also been indispensable for us. And of course there have been some very good staff; this has by no means been a one-man show. But the press’s future is inevitably tied to its aesthetic vision, and that vision can be continued beyond me only if we succeed in our multi-year effort to raise an endowment that will at least provide the financial basis for the press to endure, face all of the challenges that come our way, and will allow the press to completely fulfill its mission, especially in its role as bringing the best of world literature to English-speaking countries, regardless of this literature’s value in the marketplace. Such an endowment will happen because, I believe, a few individuals will recognize the value of the press and the need to preserve it.

JC: Has the Internet, to your view, affected the discussion of literature?

JO'B: This will not be a popular thing to say, but I think that the Internet has had an insidious effect on “the discussion."

We're not offended. More from John O'Brien after the jump.

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How Thomas Pynchon made a fan of David Kipen

David KipenThomas Pynchon

David Kipen, the National Endowment for the Arts' literature director, National Reading Initiatives, loves many many authors and the great kaleidoscope of books they've written. But mention "Gravity's Rainbow," "The Crying of Lot 49," "Vineland," Mason & Dixon," "Against the Day," "Slow Learner" or "V," or breathe the name of the author of those works, the reclusive, National Book Award-winning Thomas Pynchon, and Kipen's enthusiasm is boundless. He shared some of it with Jacket Copy's Carolyn Kellogg.

JC: Would you describe yourself as a Pynchon fan?

Yes, though I like Pynchomane too. I think we do literature a disservice when we separate admiration too carefully from fandom. Pynchon's my touchstone. I'm his fan like I'm a Dodger fan: I root for him, find him endlessly fascinating and feel a purely unearned pride that he has the best record in the league. I'd say I follow Pynchon, but that might make him nervous.

JC: Could you explain more by what you mean when you say Pynchon is your touchstone?

In "The Study of Poetry," Matthew Arnold suggests that every critic needs a touchstone. By this he means a few lines from a cherished writer (or, in the present case case, familiarity with one writer’s complete corpus), against which the critic can then measure all other writers and, alas, usually find them wanting. It's a gratifyingly Western expression, deriving from those mysterious rocks against which assayers used to rub each new nugget to ascertain whether a metal was base or precious.

In junior high, my touchstone was the South African writer Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country." Then, in high school, I chanced to read Virginia Woolf. She instantly became my new touchstone ... until she had the misfortune to rub up against Charles Dickens. Now I've found my presumably final touchstone, and it has the specific gravity of pure Pynchonium.

It all comes down, tritely enough, to this: If I were stranded on a desert island and could only take two books with me, I'd take two copies of "Gravity's Rainbow."

One might get wet. ...

JC: Could you share a Pynchon passage that you like, and explain why?

DK:Sooner or later, all literary judgments become subjective, so I'm going to quote the passage from "Gravity's Rainbow" that, more than any other, first made me a Pynchomane -- and I still don't fully understand how it works. Maybe if I understood it better, it wouldn't have the same impact on me.

It's a surreal fantasia of white male sexual paranoia, set back during Tyrone Slothrop's Harvard years. He and some pals -- including the young Jack Kennedy -- go out for a night of jazz at the Roseland Ballroom. Slothrop adjourns upstairs to the men's washroom to barf discreetly, only to watch his beloved harmonica slip out of his shirt pocket and down the toilet.

There's nothing for it but for Slothrop to dive halfway in after the instrument, leaving his nether regions perfectly vulnerable to the predation of who knows what characters even now materializing behind him:

He feels the cold Lysol air on his thighs as down come the boxer shorts too, now, with the colorful bass lures and trout flies on them. He struggles to work himself farther into the toilet hole as dimly, up through the smelly water, comes the sound of a whole dark gang of awful Negroes come yelling happily into the white men's room, converging on poor wriggling Slothrop, jiving around the way they do singing `Slip the talcum to me, Malcolm!' And the voice that replies is who but that Red, the shoeshine boy who's slicked up Slothrop's black patents a dozen times down on his knees jes poppin' dat rag to beat the band...."

Now, your reaction to this passage may well be some form of "Wha?" or "Ew,"' or, quite possibly, "That tears it, I'm de-bookmarking Jacket Copy once and for all.'" Perplexity and revulsion were duking it out when I first read this too, but alongside them dawned a growing amazement that one slapstick scene could transmit on so many different wavelengths.

The sensual precision ("cold Lysol air"), the deadpan comedy ("colorful bass lures and trout flies"), the effortless ventriloquism ("jes poppin' dat rag to beat the band'"), the historical omnivorousness (Malcolm X did in fact have a shoeshine concession in the Roseland while JFK was in Cambridge) -- all of it! I simply hadn't known that fiction could be so bottomlessly funny and provocative.

It mocked and savaged and pitied and generally made hay out of America's racial conundrum in a way even my hero Randy Newman couldn't touch. Pynchon had me, and he's had me ever since. Someday I mean to write his biography -- a gesture of gratitude he'll probably greet with the heartfelt temporary restraining order it very possibly deserves.

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In appreciation of Thomas Wharton

the LogogryphThomas Wharton


For PoMo month, Colleen Mondor wanted to look at a couple of un-scary novelists who are playing in the postmodern pool. After Scarlett Thomas, she turned her attention to Canadian author Thomas Wharton. He runs the creative writing department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada; his debut novel "Icefields" was named Best First Novel in the Canadian and Carribean division of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and "The Logogryph" was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. 

I came to Thomas Wharton’s exotically crafted and determinedly original "The Logogryph" with few expectations. I knew it was about books, a trunk full of old books to be exact, and I knew it was presented as a series of intertwined short stories. What I found was a book like no other -- and I mean that in the most serious and complimentary way possible. However you respond to "The Logogryph," you will agree that what Wharton has accomplished is the very definition of literary invention. These are stories layered in ways too numerous to envision, but more important, it is a novel that comes together in the end with a head-shaking final chapter that is almost happily ever after -- as long as your definition of happy includes all the roads not taken and all the books a lifetime could encompass.

In the beginning, there is the Weaver family and the unnamed young narrator who stumbles into their garden in Jasper, Alberta. The boy becomes fascinated with the doctor, his wife and their son and daughter. By turns idolizing and adoring them, he imagines a life in their house, married to daughter Holly, following the exploits of son Alec. Then there is a tragedy, and the Weavers fall to pieces. By the end of the first story, the boy has been given a collection of old books. He sees them as the legacy of Alec Weaver and gratefully begins to read.

Then things start to come apart ... after the jump.

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61 essential postmodern reads: an annotated list

listpostmodern literature

The thing about postmodernism is it's impossible to pin down exactly what might make a book postmodern. In looking at the attributes of the essential postmodern reads, we found some were downright contradictory. Postmodern books have a reputation for being massive tomes, like David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" -- but then there's "The Mezzanine" by Nicholson Baker, which has just 144 pages. And while postmodern books would, you'd think, have to be published after the modern period -- in the 20th or 21st centuries -- could postmodernism exist without "Tristram Shandy"? We think not.

Below is our list of the 61 essential reads of postmodern literature. It's annotated with the attributes below -- the author is a character, fiction and reality are blurred, the text includes fictional artifacts, such as letters, lyrics, even whole other books, and so on. And while this list owes much to George Ducker and David L. Ulin, you can address all complaints to me.

And now: The 61 essential postmodern reads!

Kathy Acker's "In Memorium to Identity" Icons_3459
Donald Antrim's "The Hundred Brothers" Icons_567
Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin"Icons_2346
Paul Auster's New York TrilogyIcons_12347
Nicholson Baker's "The Mezzanine"Icons_3411
J.G. Ballard's "The Atrocity Exhibition"Icons_123457
John Barth's "Giles Goat-Boy"Icons_578
Donald Barthelme's "60 Stories"Icons_23479
John Berger's "G"Icons_3457
Thomas Bernhard's "The Loser"Icons_12
Roberto Bolaño's "2666"Icons_3456710
Jorge Luis Borges' "Labyrinths"Icons_234569
William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch"Icons_345712
Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy"Icons_3412
Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler"Icons_467
Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch"Icons_34
Robert Coover's "The Universal Baseball Association, Henry J. Waugh, Proprietor" Icons_23456
Stanley Crawford's "Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine"Icons_34511
Mark Danielewski's "House of Leaves"Icons_2345679
Don Delillo's "Great Jones Street"Icons_56
Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle"Icons_246
E.L. Doctorow's "City of God"Icons_23456
Geoff Dyer's "Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence"Icons_1469
Umberto Eco's "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana"Icons_469
Dave Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"Icons_134579
Steve Erickson's "Tours of the Black Clock"Icons_2345678
Percival Everett's "I Am Not Sidney Poitier"Icons_1457
William Faulkner's "Absalom! Absalom!"Icons_3512
Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated"Icons_134567
William Gaddis' "JR"Icons_356
William Gass' "The Tunnel"Icons_34567
John Hawkes' "The Lime Twig"Icons_345611
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"Icons_4512
Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project"Icons_134567
Michael Herr's "Dispatches"Icons_13
Shelley Jackson's "Skin"Icons_34511
Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis"Icons_351112
Milan Kundera's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"Icons_12367
Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn"Icons_356
Ben Marcus' "Notable American Women"Icons_1357
David Markson's "Wittgenstein's Mistress"Icons_2345
Tom McCarthy's "Remainder"Icons_45
Joseph McElroy's "Women and Men"Icons_345610
Steven Millhauser's "Edwin Mullhouse"Icons_3467jpg
Haruki Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle"Icons_345
Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire"Icons_23456
Flann O'Brien's "At Swim-Two-Birds"Icons_234567
Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"Icons_1347
Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor"Icons_1367
Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow"Icons_345678
Philip Roth's "The Counterlife"Icons_234
W.G. Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn"Icons_13479
William Shakespeare's "Hamlet"Icons_34561112
Gilbert Sorrentino's "Mulligan Stew"Icons_234569
Christopher Sorrentino's "Trance"Icons_2345
Art Spiegelman's Maus I & IIIcons_1347911
Laurence Stern's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy"Icons_3456712
Scarlett Thomas' "PopCo"Icons_356
Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five"Icons_345711
David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest"Icons_345610
Colson Whitehead's "John Henry Days"Icons_345679 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

John O'Brien of Dalkey Archive Press, Part 1

Dalkey ArchiveJohn O'Brien

Before he founded Dalkey Archive Press, John O'Brien was so enthusiastic about new fiction -- and so frustrated by its lack of coverage elsewhere -- that he started the magazine "Review of Contemporary Fiction." The press grew out of that, publishing its first book, Gilbert Sorrentino's "Splendide Hotel," in 1984. Since then, O'Brien's press has published books by Donald Barthelme, Djuna Barnes, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Gustav Flaubert, Ford Maddox Ford, Carlos Fuentes, William Gass, Aleksandar Hemon, Aldous Huxley, Ben Marcus, Herman Melville, Manuel Puig, Ishmael Reed, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Philippe Toussaint and many more. Almost all of its books -- 462 titles -- remain in print, which shows a remarkable dedication to making them a part of the public discussion of literature. In this two-part interview with Carolyn Kellogg, O'Brien shares his ideas on postmodernism and much, much more.

Jacket Copy: The Dalkey Archive is named for a Flann O'Brien [no relation] book. How has that legacy shaped the direction Dalkey has taken?

John O'Brien: Well, Flann O’Brien’s work, rather than the name, has shaped Dalkey’s direction, but even this statement is a bit misleading. O’Brien’s writing is emblematic of the kind of writing I like. It’s his completely invented style (pulled from Irish life but shaped and re-shaped into a language that is O’Brien’s own), the crazed sense of humor, the creation of comedy out of the most mundane but at times desperate materials, the means by which he gets at character, and the reader’s sense that almost anything can be put into this stew that he is making. He absolutely rejects the notion of fiction as mirror to reality and the conventions that one associates with realistic fiction of modern times wherein, it seems to me, there is no need to read past the first page because almost everything to follow has been predetermined. The imagination is let loose in his fiction, and O'Brien takes fiction is a very different direction in terms of form than, for example, his countryman Frank O'Connor. In this sense, O’Brien represents a form of fiction that Dalkey Archive sees as the most interesting. But of course the name of the press (what John Banville has called the “unfortunately named”) was derived from Gilbert Sorrentino, that utter master of contemporary fiction who has yet to be discovered and appreciated. I had wanted the press to be called "Black and White," which was in part homage to one of his early books but also suggested what I thought fiction is: black type on a white page. He thought the press should be called "The O’Brien Press," but I had no interest in calling attention to myself; I was and am just a vehicle for the press, not the press itself. And so one day he suggested "Dalkey Archive," and it made complete sense, God help us.

JC: On your website, the publishing house is described as subversive, innovative, avant-garde, experimental. Do you think postmodern is a useful adjective when applied to fiction? Do you publish postmodern books?

JO'B: The most honest answer, which will seem quite self-indulgent, is that I publish what’s interesting to me and leave it to others to supply the adjectives. Many years ago, together with an editor at the press, we hit upon the word "subversive" because we were frequently asked to describe the fiction we publish and both of us felt that it was in fact "traditional," if one considers the history of fiction. We might appear to be "avant-garde" only in comparison to what is popular or taken seriously in the last several decades, but we are not avant-garde if you think of such writers as Cervantes or Laurence Sterne. If Sterne were writing today, he would be labeled a postmodernist, but what sense would that make, given when he was actually writing? As far as I am concerned, the history of fiction is one of invention, oftentimes playful and conscious of itself, but always pushing limits in terms of what it is and what else it can be. But I absolutely do not think of a Sterne or a Joyce as "experimenters": they didn't experiment, they made these remarkable books whose ingenuity and art are rarely seen in other writers or matched. Their works are finished and complete achievements, not experiments. At the same time, I am very aware that there are writers who are "experimenters," who are trying out different forms and styles, and who are primarily interested in such experimentation. We, however, do not publish them.

JC: How important do you think awareness of form, or a sense of play, is to telling a story in contemporary fiction? 

The answer, and what "All That Jazz" has to do with it, after the jump.

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The lost postmodernist: Joseph McElroy

Joseph McElroypostmodernWomen and Men

Mcelroy_womenandmen As part of our monthlong, fractured discussion of postmodern fiction, Garth Risk Hallberg weighs in on Joseph McElroy's weighty "Women and Men."

Given the decidedly premodern overtones of the word "canon," the idea of a postmodern one may seem like a contradiction in terms. Indeed, one approach to constructing a postmodern canon is to set the parameters so wide — Kathy Acker, Philip K. Dick, Grandmaster Mele Mel — that the term becomes practically meaningless. In the narrower purview of literary critics, however, references to canonical postmodernism tend to cluster around a group of white male fiction writers of a certain age: Barth and Barthelme, Gaddis and Gass, DeLillo and Coover and Pynchon.

Obviously, this canon is as hobbled by omissions as the prepostmodern canon it subtends. Still, in light of its demographics, it seems doubly baffling that Joseph McElroy, who turns 79 this year, is so often left off the list of po-mo masters. Like his rough contemporary Thomas Pynchon, he is the author of eight works of fiction acclaimed for their encyclopedic embrace of contemporary life. The New York Times wrote:

  • To ignore ["A Smuggler's Bible," 1966] would be as shameful an act of self-deprivation as that which so many of us performed when "The Recognitions" and "Under the Volcano" were first published.
  • ["Hind's Kidnap," 1969] is full of marvels.
  • "Lookout Cartridge" [1973] is the rarest kind of achievement.

Yet Google Joseph McElroy, author, and you'll come up with about 5,000 hits, compared with roughly a quarter million for Pynchon. What gives? The short answer, it seems to me, is a single book, a behemoth called "Women and Men."

"Women and Men" belongs to the maximalist subspecies of postmodern novel that includes "Gravity's Rainbow," "The Recognitions" and "Underworld," somewhat the way the Chevy Suburban belongs to the "light truck" vehicular class, or Andre the Giant belonged to the World Wrestling Federation.

If those other books swing for the fences, "Women and Men" swings for the parking lot. If they represent, in their rigor, a form of literary calculus, "Women and Men" is chaos theory. And — no getting around this — if these books are big, "Women and Men" is bigger. At roughly 700,000 words (that's 1,192 closely printed pages), it is one and a half times the length of "War & Peace."

The book reached advance readers in 1987 in the form of two 600-page galleys. The reviewer for the New York Times made no secret of having sped through the book in a matter of days. And his tone, which mixed acknowledgment of the novel's ambition with barely disguised resentment at having to read the damn thing, typified critical response. Apparently the audience for literary fiction needed little encouragement to avoid a book that weighed 4 pounds in hardcover. "Women and Men," reportedly 10 years in the making, was not so much a publishing event as an anticlimax.

I happen to have a soft spot for underdogs, and another one for the postmodern mega-novel, and having some free time last summer, I picked up a "like new" first edition of "Women and Men" for something in the neighborhood of 10 bucks. I carried the book with me everywhere for six weeks, moving through it at a rate of about 30 pages a day. It quickly became obvious why the book is so rarely read. In persevering, however, I discovered some reasons why I think it should be.

Why it should be read ... after the jump.

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In praise of John Barth's 'The Floating Opera'

John BarthpostmodernpostmodernismThe Floating Opera


As part of our monthly, ongoing and fractured discussion of postmodern fiction, George Ducker praises John Barth's 1957 novel, "The Floating Opera."

John Barth is the guy who wrote the big long novel about the goat-kid and another big long novel about an epic poem set in the late 1600s. And those are certainly good books; important and worth reading and quite funny, both of them. Unfortunately, the sheer size of "Giles Goat-Boy" and "The Sot-Weed Factor" -- combined, more than 1,500 pages -- is enough to strike fear into the heart of anyone who's had their patience worn thin by the Internet or who just doesn't happen to have the next two months handy.

But here's the thing. Although Barth went on to earn a lifetime's worth of free lunch at the postmodernist cafeteria, he had to start somewhere. "The Floating Opera" was his first novel, published in 1957. In its 1967 introduction, he wrote, "I had picked up from the postwar Zeitgeist some sense of the French Existentialist writers and had absorbed from my own experience a few routine disenchantments. ...  I discovered by happy accident … how to combine formal sportiveness with genuine sentiment as well as a fair degree of realism.”

One of the joys of "The Floating Opera" is that it is a rambling, overstuffed first novel bearing as much ambition and stylistic frothiness as the more physically daunting case studies that came later. It feels comfortable and easily familiar, especially to anyone who's ever enjoyed "A Fan's Notes," Richard Ford's holiday trilogy or even Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men." Basically, you can add it to the top of your Middle-Aged White Man Looks Back In Awe And Bemusement list.

Written when John Barth was 24, "The Floating Opera" is a first-person reminiscence of the day Todd Andrews decided to commit suicide. Somewhat confusingly, Todd himself "writes" from the vantage point of his 50s, but the story itself all takes place during one single day in Todd's 37th year:

So. Todd Andrews is my name. You can spell it with one or two d's; I get letters addressed either way. I almost warned you against the single-d spelling, for fear you'd say, 'Tod is German for death: perhaps the name is symbolic.'

The ending is spoiled almost immediately. Todd Andrews isn't going to off himself. All the better, as we get to spend the next 249 pages reading about drunken sea captains, love triangles, farcically entangled lawsuits, Hamlet's indecision, Johns Hopkins' frathouses of the 1920s, and the lingering behaviors of the old-money class of Dorchester County, Maryland.

Is there anything to gain from a happily verbose narrator? That's after the jump.

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The story behind Infinite Summer


Exactly why Matthew Baldwin decided that the footnote-heavy, uber-smart David Foster Wallace novel "Infinite Jest" would make the perfect summer read was a puzzle. And just as intriguing was that after he recruited friends to read with him, the online book club they formed, Infinite Summer, seems to have taken off in as many ways as the book's 1,078 pages. Jacob Silverman gets Baldwin to give him the inside story.

Jacket Copy: How did you choose "Infinite Jest"? Is there something about Wallace's work, in all of its maximalist, postmodern freneticism, that you think particularly lends itself to this kind of experience?

Matthew Baldwin: After David Foster Wallace's death last September, I was struck by a great sadness -- not because I had read his work and felt a kinship, but because I had read nothing of him, despite the entreaties of my friends who had, and despite the knowledge that the type of literature he was reputed to write was exactly the kind I most enjoy. (My favorite novel of the last decade, "House of Leaves," is profoundly Wallaceian, or so I've been told.) I felt like I had wasted my opportunity to read his works while writing a fan letter afterward was still a viable option.

So the selection of "Infinite Jest" was something of a personal atonement. Its "maximalist, postmodern freneticism" played no factor in the decision because, having not yet read it, I am only dimly aware that it has such qualities.

JC: Infinite Summer makes use of many social networking and digital platforms: blogs, discussion forums, tumblr, Twitter, Facebook. How has it been managing all of these platforms? Have you been able to integrate them, or does it sometimes seem like too much media to handle?

Matthew Baldwin: Each of the media has its own niche, so juggling them has not been as difficult as you might imagine. The main website is used for content. Twitter is used for announcements. Short quotations and photos are posted to tumblr.The Facebook community is largely self-sustaining. And while it took some effort to get the forums up and configured, it has taken on a life of its own. Rather than integrate the various media, we just have them all point back to Infinitesummer.org, which serves as a nexus.

How do you think participating in Infinite Summer will shape your reading experience of "Infinite Jest"?

MB: One thing I am already noticing about "Infinite Jest," even 60 pages in, is that it is an intensely claustrophobic novel. Much of the action takes place in small apartments, hospital wards and in the minds of the various protagonists. It's so overwhelming that it would be easy to close the novel with a shudder and never return. I think the knowledge that there are thousands of folks out there reading concurrently goes a long way toward leavening those feelings.

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Megan Fox and Saab both go postmodern: What is postmodern, anyway?


Chris Daley noticed that "postmodern" has been popping up a lot lately in popular culture. She wanted to know how widely the term “postmodern” was being used -- or abused. Daley, who pays hundreds of dollars a month in student loans for a degree that certifies she has studied postmodernism extensively, teaches writing, writes book reviews for the LA Times and blogs at Escapegrace. She conducted a highly unscientific study analyzing the use of "postmodern" in recent items in Google News.

Before we consult the findings, let’s establish what “postmodern” meant before all and sundry began using it to sell their Saabs and Klezmer music and circus acts (in the past few weeks no less).

It was first used as early as the 1870s, but theorists Jean-François Lyotard and Frederic Jameson are generally credited with making the term “postmodern” popular. Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searles Giroux provide a conveniently succinct explanation of postmodernism in their book "The Theory Toolbox." When used in an academic setting, “postmodern” usually refers to a sense of style featuring “disjunction or deliberate confusion, irony, playfulness, reflexivity, a kind of cool detachment, a deliberate foregrounding of constructedness, a suspicion concerning neat or easy conclusions” (126). Nealon and Searles Giroux point out that postmodernism is more concerned with process than product. This can be seen in the meta “[blank] about [blank]” construction that often identifies the “postmodern”: art about art, writing about writing, architecture about architecture, etc.

Flash forward to early June 2009. When the term “postmodern” is used in major international publications, does it bear any relation to its theoretical roots, or has it been hijacked as yet another hot, empty signifier, like "iconic" or "staycation"? Let’s take a look.

Postmodern as Two Normally Contradictory Ideas Existing in the Same Space

When Swedish carmaker Koenigsegg bought Saab last week, the company’s head honcho Christian von Koenigsegg described the Saab as “a bit of postmodern comfort, sporty, but with environmental thinking.” Sexy and green? So pomo. In Brooklyn over the weekend, a collection of prestigious designers gathered to sell their wares in a “rough-edged” raw space, or as the New York Times would have it, a “postmodern, high-end yard sale.” An article in the Washington Post praises Judd Apatow’s “postmodern alchemy,” crediting him for the ability to “plumb the shallow depths of manhood” and actually discover something interesting.

Postmodern as Root of All Evil

Apparently, the postmodern can be blamed for the collapse of the Christian church and the economy. The site RenewAmerica claims that the “emergent church” is really “a postmodern cult disguised as a church” and that “[two] earmarks of the present postmodern church are hostility to truth of any kind, and the acid bath of skepticism.” This is otherwise known as the Postmodern as Acid Bath school of thought.

Historian Harold James blames the economic crisis on “general cultural developments [that] are sometimes termed post-modernism, which involves the replacement of reason by intuition, feeling, and allusion.” And then the banks fail.

Postmodern as nonsense, an out for people who take themselves too seriously, for all music genres and for insta-intellect after the jump.

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When pop goes postmodern: Scarlett Thomas

Colleen MondorPopCopostmodernScarlett ThomasThe End of Mr. Y


Colleen Mondor would not say she is an expert in postmodernism -- but she happens to like the work of some authors, like Scarlett Thomas, who write deliciously readable books that quietly veer into postmodernism. An England native, Scarlett Thomas has published seven novels with an eighth due later this year; Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist and columnist for Bookslut. She has recently completed a memoir on Alaska aviation and lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

As the last English course I attended was in 1986, my understanding of postmodernism remains frozen in the frenzied period of study prior to my AP exams. I did manage to retain a great love for books in spite of many high school literary traumas, however, and can certainly recognize a complex and satisfying read when I find one. James Joyce may not be my cup of tea, but Scarlett Thomas is another matter entirely. With her fun skewering of our capitalist economy in "PopCo" (2005) -- which includes pirates, World War II code breaking and the evils of Hello Kitty -- she sold me on a style that willfully includes all the things that interest her at the moment.

Where Thomas’ mind took her in "PopCo" was the life of Alice, raised by code-breaking grandparents on a continuous diet of ciphers and puzzles and a very real mystery of lost pirate treasure. Readers learn of World War II espionage through flashbacks while Alice’s contemporary life plays out at a corporate "Thought Camp" where she and her fellow employees are tasked with designing the next big material object for teen girls; it will exist solely for the purpose of ownership and serve no function. (This would be where Hello Kitty’s ubiquitous example comes into play.) From a childhood tasked with finding solutions to an adulthood that has landed her as a servant of capitalism, Alice is at a serious crossroads.

If the book were only about Alice's career, it would be one thing, but Thomas refuses to let go of the mathematical equations that have propelled Alice through every moment in her life:

One of the most famous contemporary uses of a Caesar shift cipher is, according to SF geeks, in the naming of the fictional computer HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Taking into account a Caesar shift of minus-one, "HAL" of course reads "IBM." I used to have a little Caesar-shift wheel.... 

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