Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mirror, Lamp

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a poetry reading by Dan Chiasson, an fellow alumnus who I've seen read before. He has a new book out called Where's the Moon, There's the Moon. I really like his poems; I could never write poems like his - there's something about them, I want to say detachment, but that's not quite right. The point of view is not dependent upon a personality, but it's not impersonal. I don't know. In particular, I liked this short section of a longer poem. I was trying to find a short version of "what M.H. Abrams called 'the lamp,'" but I guess I'll just have to check out from the library, and read, The Mirror and the Lamp. The poem is below. He may not have been talking about this, but it makes me think about fleeting and/or undeserved fame.

8. Abstruser Musing

To be no one at all, merely the latest
to have had his brain
turned inside out by vanity,
so that it shine entirely on itself--

is this what M.H. Abrams called "the lamp"?
I call it masturbation,
not as an insult but an accurate name:
it feels good doing it, and people like to watch.

From Chiasson, Dan. Where's the Moon, There's the Moon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The miracle of adverbs

I was going to write about Adverbs by Daniel Handler along with Jonah Lehrer's book in the previous post, but then I decided it needed its own entry. So here you are.

One look at the jacket of this book and you have an idea of what you're in for. Cover art by Daniel Clowes, blurbs by Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon, and a meta-blurb by the author on the inside jacket about how authors often write their own dust jacket summaries. Adverbs is subtitled "a novel." Each chapter deals with a set of characters, sometimes with the same names as characters elsewhere in the book and sometimes not. It's clear that some things in the book happen before others (that is, the chapters aren't in chronological order), and there are several repeated themes and places (volcanoes, a San Francisco bar, diamonds, birds, obscure cocktails).

I was at lunch one day reading it, and thought, okay, I need to stop and make a chart with all these people and places and times, and figure out what's going on here. And then in the very next chapter, I read this, in which Handler implies that the same name doesn't always mean the same person:

" many people in this book have the same names. You can't follow all the Joes, or all the Davids or is not any of the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done. It is the way love gets down despite every catastrophe...." (p. 194)

I can't decide if this is an admission that there's not a logical grounding in time and (fictional) reality - or if Handler's just letting his readers off the hook, while secretly encouraging the more ambitious among them to track those images. Either way, I decided to stop worrying about it and just read, the way one of my college Spanish instructors encouraged us to read in a foreign language - just take in the picture the writer is painting, and don't worry about every little word. As a former English major, that's a little difficult for me to do, but not impossible. Especially when there are so many other books to read, and I'm already a couple books past this one.

Despite this quality, which might be frustrating, I did like this book very much. It has clear relatives in David Foster Wallace's stories and Mark Danielewski's books House of Leaves and Only Revolutions - all of which I love. There are very moving parts, especially the chapter entitled "Soundly."

Decisions, decisions

I can't remember how I noticed Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide. I think I was searching for something else in the library catalog and saw it - or maybe it was on the new books cart. In any case, I was very intrigued and checked it out. As someone who is indecisive, and often rehashes old decisions, I thought - ah, this will offer some insight into what my brain is doing. Well, the book turned out to be more about decisions where there is a clear "good" and "bad" outcome - not the sorts of decisions I was thinking about. Not a lot in there about decisions that involve relationships with other people. The interesting thing is, though, I got to a certain point in the book, and one of the illustrative examples started sounding familiar. I realized I had heard Jonah Lehrer on some NPR show, and not remembered his name - but maybe that unconsciously figured into my decision to check out the book. (How meta!)

Anyway. It is a very interesting book and a quick read. A lot of it is about how the brain uses both emotion and reason to make decisions, and when is the "best" time to use each of those. There was also one sentence that stood out to me: "From the perspective of the brain, new ideas are merely several old thoughts that occur at the exact same time." To me, this was very encouraging. To me, it means that innate ability and quick reactions mean very little without constant thinking and learning. That effort and study and actually thinking about things contribute to our ability to solve problems and make decisions. Maybe that's an obvious point. But I thought it bore mentioning.