A review of BOTH FLESH AND NOT (David Foster Wallace)
By Dr. Joseph Suglia
Published four years after David Foster Wallace’s career-advancing suicide (a despicable suicide that was an assaultive act against his widow Karen Green), Both Flesh and Not (2012) reprints essays and squibs that were originally written for various newspapers, magazines, and journals; one of the texts appeared as the introduction to an anthology of essays, another was appended to a thesaurus. Both online and print sources are represented. Through the collection threads a list of words and definitions that Wallace kept on his desktop computer.
The vocabulary list troubles me more than anything else assembled in this volume. Someone who professed to care very much about Standard Written American Usage, Wallace abuses many words himself.
Wallace thinks that “art nouveau” refers to a “decorative style of early 20th c. using leaves and flowers in flowing sinuous lines, like on vases, columns, etc.” . This is innocence and nonsense. Jugendstil was much different than that. Beardsley didn’t always use “leaves” and “flowers”!
Wallace thinks that “birl” means to “cause to spin rapidly with feet (as with logrolling)” . But “birl” also means, intransitively, to “whirl”; for instance, you may say that hot dogs or sausages birl on spits.
Yes, Wallace is right to think that “distemper” might denote “a kind of paint-job using watered paint” , but it can also mean “to throw out of order” or “bad mood” and could denote a viral disease that affects dogs and cats.
Wallace thinks that an “ecdysiast” is a “striptease artist” , but this has only been the case since Gypsy. An “ecdysiast,” etymologically speaking, refers to something that molts or sheds its skin, such as certain birds, insects, and crustaceans.
Wallace doesn’t know that Grand Guignol was horror theatre before ever it was “cinema” .
Throughout, there are many such compositional errors.
Wallace had abysmal taste in literature. It is good to see Steps on a list of “five direly underappreciated U.S. novels” since 1960, but it ought to be stated that this novel, which is attributed to Jerzy Kosinski, was collaboratively written. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West has interesting content—the sort of content that one might expect to discover in an early- or middle-period film directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky—but its prose style is a mere pastiche of Faulkner. I don’t know what to say about a person who thinks that Denis Johnson is a serious writer.
Both Flesh and Not is a disastrous humiliation. Republishing these essays and squibs was not a good idea and besmirches the reputation of Wallace even more than D.T. Max’s horripilative biography does. Though he had many virtues, the ability to form strong sentences was not one of them. David Foster Wallace could not write a decent sentence to save his life.
An Analysis of My Struggle (Min Kamp): Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s only aim.”
–Oscar Wilde, Preface, The Picture of Dorian Gray
“Woo. I don’t know how to sum it up / ’cause words ain’t good enough, ow.”
–One Direction, “Better Than Words”
If I could accomplish one thing in my life, it would be to prevent people from comparing the Scandinavian hack Karl Ove Knausgaard with Marcel Proust. Knausgaard does not have a fingernail of Proust’s genius. Comparing Knausgaard to Proust is like comparing John Green to Proust. Those who have actually read À la recherche du temps perdu know that Proust’s great novel is not the direct presentation of its author, a self-disclosure without literary artifice. Those who compare Knausgaard to Proust have never read Proust and have no knowledge of Proust beyond the keyword “madeleine.”
Knausgaard calls his logorrheic autobiography, My Struggle (Min Kamp), a “novel,” but in what sense is it a novel? It is completely devoid of novelistic properties. There is not a single metaphor in the text, as far as I can tell, and the extended metaphor (perhaps even the pataphor?) is one of Proust’s most salient literary characteristics.
The first volume dealt with Knausgaard’s unimportant childhood; Volume Two concerns the middle of the author’s life, his present. He is now in his forties and has a wife and three children. He spends his time, and wastes our own, recounting trivialities, stupidities, and banalities. All of the pomposities are trivialities. All of the profundities are stupidities. All of the epiphanies are banalities.
For most of this review, I will refer to Karl Ove Knausgaard as “Jesus,” since he resembles a cigarette-smoking Jesus on the cover of the English translation of the second volume.
We learn that Jesus dislikes holidays. We learn that raising children is difficult. Jesus takes his children to a McDonald’s and then to the Liseberg Amusement Park. In the evening, Jesus, his wife, and his daughter attend a party. Jesus thanks the hostess, Stella, for inviting them to her party. His daughter forgets her shoes. Jesus gets the shoes. He sees an old woman staring through the window of a Subway.
Jesus smokes a cigarette on the east-facing balcony of his home and is fascinated by the “orangey red”  of the brick houses below: “The orangey red of the bricks!” He drinks a Coke Light: “The cap was off and the Coke was flat, so the taste of the somewhat bitter sweetener, which was generally lost in the effervescence of the carbonic acid, was all too evident” . He reads better books than the one that we are reading (The Brothers Karamazov and Demons by Dostoevsky) and tells us that he never thinks while he reads. For some reason, this does not surprise me.
Jesus attends a Rhythm Time class (I have no idea what this is) and meets a woman for whom he has an erection.
Jesus’s daughter points her finger at a dog. “Yes, look, a dog,” Jesus says .
Jesus assembles a diaper-changing table that he bought at IKEA. The noise irritates his Russian neighbor. He cleans his apartment, goes shopping, irons a big white tablecloth, polishes silverware and candlesticks, folds napkins, and places bowls of fruit on the dining-room table.
In the café of an art gallery, Jesus orders lamb meatballs and chicken salad. He informs us that he is unqualified to judge the work of Andy Warhol. I agree with the author’s self-assessment. He cuts up the meatballs and places the portions in front of his daughter. She tries to brush them away with a sweep of her arm.
Almost ninety pages later, Jesus is in a restaurant eating a dark heap of meatballs beside bright green mushy peas and red lingonberry sauce, all of which are drowning in a swamp of thick cream sauce. “The potatoes,” Jesus notifies us, “were served in a separate dish” .
(Parenthetical remark: “[A] swamp of thick cream sauce” is my phrasing, not Knausgaard’s. Again, Knausgaard avoids metaphorics.)
Upstairs in the kitchen of his apartment, Jesus makes chicken salad, slices some bread, and sets the dinner table while his daughter bangs small wooden balls with a mallet. And so forth and so on for 592 pages of squalid prose.
Never before has a writer written so much and said so little. The music of ABBA is richer in meaning.
Interspersed throughout the text are muddleheaded reflections on What It Means To Be Human. We learn (quelle surprise!) that Knausgaard is a logophobe, “one who fears language”:
Misology, the distrust of words, as was the case with Pyrrho, pyrrhomania; was that a way to go for a writer? Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature? Or put another way: whatever we say is true we can also always say is untrue. It is a zero point and the place from which the zero value begins to spread [here, Knausgaard seems to be channeling Ronald Barthes]. However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader. It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe. Paul Celan’s mysterious, cipher-like language has nothing to do with inaccessibility or closedness, quite the contrary, it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover. Paul Celan’s words cannot be contradicted with words. What they possess cannot be transformed either, the word only exists there, and in each and every single person who absorbs it.
The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this. They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also nonconceptual. There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do [129-130].
The only value of literature, then, according to Knausgaard, resides not in words, but in the transcendence from words. Literature is not composed of letters, for Knausgaard; literature is the feelings and the impressions summoned forth within the reader. After all, any idiot can have feelings. Very few people can write well.
It is clear that Knausgaard, then, does not think very much of literature. He is much more interested in LIFE. Everyone alive has life. Yes, palpitant life–throbbing, living life. Life is the most general of generalities, but talent is much rarer, to channel Martin Amis.
This might be the reason that Knausgaard dislikes Rimbaud’s verse, but is interested in Rimbaud’s life.
“Fictional writing has no value”  for Knausgaard. After all, fiction is distant from life, isn’t it? This Thought is at least as old as Plato. Knausgaard is unaware that fiction is, paradoxically, more honest than autobiographical writing. Autobiographical writing is fiction that cannot speak its own name, fiction that pretends to be something more “real” than fiction.
(Parenthetically: Despite what Knausgaard tells you, Pyrrho did not practice misology. He affirmed the uncertainty of things. Following Pyrrho: One can never say, “It happened” with certainty; one can only say, with certainty, that “it might have happened.”)
Hater of words, enemy of literature: Such is Knausgaard. He despises language, presumably because he does not know how to write. What is one to say of a writer who hates writing so much? One thing ought to be said about him: He is alarmingly typical.
Knausgaard is at home in a culture of transparency, in a culture in which almost everyone seems to lack embarrassability. Almost no one seems embarrassed anymore. People go out of their way to reveal everything about themselves on social-networking sites. Average people reveal every detail of their lives to strangers. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is violated, and almost no one seems to care. We live in a culture in which our privacy is infringed upon countless times every day, and where is the outrage? Those who are private–or who believe in the right to privacy–are regarded with malicious suspicion. Seen from this cultural perspective, the success of My Struggle should come as no surprise. An autobiography in which the writer reveals everything about himself will be celebrated by a culture in which nearly everyone reveals everything to everyone.
Art is not autobiography. As Oscar Wilde declared in the preface to his only novel, the purpose of art is to conceal the artist. Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, the presentation of the self that lives, the “writing of the living self.” It is, rather, auto-thanato-graphy, the writing of the self that dies in order for art to be born.
RANT (“Chuck” Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia
Even “Chuck” Palahniuk’s most devoted followers will have a hard time getting through Rant (2007), a book about thrill-seeking that is devoid of a single thrill. As insipid as they are, at least Palahniuk’s other books are EZ-2-Read. Rant, however, is not merely stupid–it is also deadeningly, mind-numbingly tedious. While trudging through its pages, the essence of boredom was revealed to me.
RANT is compacted of endlessly babbling voices. Each voice narrates a piece of Buster Casey’s life, a Typhoid Mary who has spread rabies across the United States. But there is nothing new to be learned about Casey after the sixth page (Pages One through Six are titled, imaginatively, “An Introduction”) and what we do know is never vividly or convincingly described. To be absolutely explicit: The plot doesn’t move. It stagnates. There is no progression. No motor drives the narrative. Nothing is narrated between Pages Seven through 319 that hasn’t been narrated in the first six pages.
Anything that seems to be remotely original comes from somewhere else. The book’s epigraph was pilfered from Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), the oral-biographical structure was pillaged from Stephen King (Carrie), the “Party Crashers” narrative was fobbed wholesale from J.G. Ballard’s Crash, a narrative that dominates the book to such an extent that it would have been better titled Ballard for Kindergarteners or Ballard Made EZ. (Casey is Vaughan from Crash. Yes, there is repetition in Crash, but it is repetition with purpose, repetition with nuance, repetition with difference. Here, there is only the infinite repetition of the Same.) The Tarzanesque pseudo-sentence “How the future you have tomorrow won’t be the same future you had yesterday” (Pages Four and 253) was pocketed from French poet and thinker Paul Valery (“The problem with the present is that the future is no longer what it used to be”). The illiterately worded statement “History is, it’s just a nightmare” (p. 60) was lifted directly from Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. (Not that Palahniuk has read Valery or Marx, mind you. He has admitted that his information largely comes from talking to those he meets at parties and from his followers.) Even the rabies motif was thieved. David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1976), anyone?
Rant is littered with pop-nihilistic syllogisms, statements of the obvious that are presented as “deep truths”: “Rant meant that no one is happy, anywhere” (p. 12). Who doesn’t know that car-salesmen mimic the body language of potential clients?
The subhuman prose is even more galling than the book’s content. Nearly every other sentence contains a double subject. For instance: “The flight attendant, she asks this hillbilly what’s it he wants to drink” (p. 2). A slightly less awkward, slightly less annoying, grammatical way of writing the “sentence” would be: “The flight attendant asks a hillbilly what he would like to drink.” Palahniuk, however, insists on multiplying the subjects in his sentences ad nauseam, with unbearably irritating results. Palahniuk’s defendants claim that he isn’t really as dimwitted as he seems to be, that his narrators are merely functionally illiterate. If that is the case, they must explain why Palahniuk interviews in a functionally illiterate manner, why he writes “essays” in a functionally illiterate manner, and why every character in his universe is functionally illiterate, including those who hold doctorates. If Palahniuk is merely impersonating a lobotomized orangutan on heroin, why would he write essays and speak in exactly the same simian language?
And so we have the grating misusage of the word “liminal”–over and over and over and over again… We have Phoebe Truffeau, Ph.D., who uses phrases such as “prohibitions to [sic] bestiality” (p. 82). We have teachers who say things such as “That Elliot girl, she told me the Tooth Fairy left [the coin] in exchange for a tooth she’d lost” (p. 52) and “Money you don’t work to earn, you spend very quickly” (p. 54). We have Lowell Richards, teacher, who uses the phrase “indirectly and obliquely” (p. 99). Whenever Palahniuk tries to write as “the smart people” do, he reveals himself as a half-wit.
And we have unspeakably hideous sentence fragments such as: “The ice melt and disappear” (p. 2). Whenever Palahniuk tries to revise a cliche, such as Andy Warhol’s overly cited declaration “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” he comes up with a monstrosity: “In the future, everyone will sit next to someone famous for at least fifteen minutes” (p. 5). Palahniuk’s revision makes no sense: I’m assuming that “everyone” includes “the famous,” which implies, of course, that in the future, the famous will also sit next to the famous.
Perhaps most offensively, Rant croaks out, in a particularly infantile passage, that AIDS is a “disease” that has been “spread” by a single carrier–that it is a “disease” like any other disease–when, in fact, AIDS is a syndrome of diseases, a pandemic, for which no single individual is accountable.
Allegedly, “Rant” refers to the sound that babies make when they vomit. Now, I’ve never actually heard a baby make such a noise, but perhaps one should take the “author” at his word. The title seems perfectly appropriate. Simplistic, stupid, superficial, tedious, and derivative, Rant is the verbal equivalent to chunks of infantile regurgitate.
The same could be said of all of Palahniuk’s “works,” which are not based on the imagination (the “author” seemingly has no imagination whatsoever), but rather on whatever he is leafing through at the present moment. As I stated above: Palahniuk has admitted that his books are collages of interviews he has had with random people in bars and at parties, as well as the four or five non-fiction books he leases from his local public library every time he sits down to write a “novel.” The rest of the information is “Googled.”
Regrettably, Palahniuk is an incompetent “borrower.” There is often the question, in his books, of relevancy. In Survivor, there is a longish passage on lobster-eating that was apparently lifted word for word from a book on dining etiquette. What, precisely, does this passage have to do with Survivor‘s narrative? Answer: Absolutely nothing.
Palahniuk wrote Lullaby in three weeks. I’m not entirely certain how much time it took him to disgorge Rant. My guess would be two weekends. I don’t say this to praise Palahniuk, as if he were capable of fashioning a well-crafted novel in two weekends with the dexterity of a Picasso, who could toss off a painting in an afternoon. Rant is writing-workshop trash. It reads as if it were a live-journal or Web log written by a subnormal high-school stoner, retched out and fraught with galling errors.
Palahniuk’s followers worship their leader as if he were a god. But God is not an artist.
Neither is Chuck Palahniuk.
Dr. Joseph Suglia