Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is Sick But Not That Sick

Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned in the US and the UK in the ‘60s because it was “obscene”. I think HM got lucky because without the infamy, it probably wouldn’t have attracted plenty of attention; it would just be a novel with a central character that happens to be fascinated by cunts. It’s interesting that in the ‘60s, books have the power to scandalize people. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine people being outraged by a book’s luridness. What’s not difficult to imagine though is some people disliking its self-indulgence and lack of a story. Henry Miller isn’t the loveliest of humans but it’s silly to dislike the book because he’s occasionally vile and a cynic.

The novel’s narrator Henry Miller would like you to think that he thinks about nothing but food, sex, and writing. But he thinks about a lot of things, too. He’s a penniless writer in Paris, which is exactly what you should be if you want to write a semi-autobiographical novel about being down and out. There are long, beautiful paragraphs that are at once hypnotic and exasperating. Reading about writers is fatiguing me a bit, but Henry Miller’s prose put me into a trance. Also, I hate starting books and not finishing them. I’d also give any book about the expat life a chance. I liked JM Coetzee’s ‘Youth’ because it had the nerve to touch upon visa problems. But HM’s too cool for that. He’d rather write about the ‘Paris that grows inside you like cancer, and grows and grows until you are eaten away by it.’

To him, being a vagabond who’s consumed by thoughts of how to get fed day by day is more compelling than worrying about visas and immigration officers. The men are  degenerates, foreigners like him who find sanctuary in whorehouses despite being penniless, and the women exist solely for the men’s pleasure. There is not a single interesting person because the narrator is too fascinated by his own thoughts to create one. Not that he hasn’t any right to be! It’s his book, and readers are entitled to certain authors’ masturbatory leanings. Ultimately, Henry Miller is just like one of the guys he hung around with in Paris. Sometimes they do and say interesting things, sometimes they’re just happy to ramble and exist. And you, the reader, is just happy to get to the next page and experience more of his being, that is, precious, poor and a man who has needs.

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Casual Fun Idea: Read David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding, Diaries 1977-2002

As expected, the book is a delight. Imagine taking a peek at David Sedaris’s diaries and reading about stuff that happened to him in real life, from the ‘70s through to early ‘00s. Of course, these had already been edited, but they’re ‘raw’ compared to the finished and/or stylized essays in his other books.

Some observations, thoughts, feelings:

1. He’s a well-known author with a huge following, so of course his diaries would be of great interest to millions of people who’ve read him and love him. But a book filled with seemingly nondescript, humdrum entries would have to be extraordinarily entertaining to be worth buying. So thank goodness his diaries are funny. I think it’s difficult to fake funny.

2. It’s great to read a famous author’s diaries and not have it be packaged as an ’insightful peek’ into his inner life. It definitely is that, but it’s terrific that it’s just really a collection of his diaries, like, ‘here are David Sedaris’s diaries, culled from his years of diarizing, transcribed from his numerous notebooks. We think you’ll enjoy it, and some of you, we’re pretty sure, will do find it immensely readable, enjoyable. Some of you will not, and that’s okay.’

3. Some of the most interesting, life-changing events happened in the ‘90s. It’s when he moved to New York. It’s when he ‘decided’ to have a crush on his long-time partner Hugh. It’s when he found work as an Elf in Macy’s, which resulted in the hilarious ‘Santaland Diaries.’ Thank you, ‘90s.

4. If you’re thinking of keeping a diary, try to leave out most of your thoughts and feelings. Just tell your notebook what happened and see how it turns out after several days’ or weeks’ entries. Hilarity, comedy, drama, tragedy could still ensue if you diarize well.

5. You really could make something out of your diary entries, compile them and turn them into a bestselling collection of essays. The ‘trick’ is to buy small notebooks that you can carry around wherever you go.

6. It’s difficult to determine whether he knew his diaries would be read by the general public someday, and whether that line of thinking was a contributing factor in creating what is now ‘Theft by Finding 1987-2002.’ He just kept writing and look how that turned out.

Morrissey’s ‘List of the Lost’ is a comic novel we don’t deserve

 

I had hoped that sexy British author Morrissey’s ‘List of the Lost’ would be similar to ‘Infinite Jest’ (athlete friends getting high and saying clever things 24×7), but it wasn’t and that’s okay. What it is is a peculiar novel that manages to be everything that Morrissey the vegetarian-atheist-sexy person wanted it to be and more. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before (maybe).

It’s about four fabulously built athletes who play some sports things (javelin running or something) and their deadbeat coach Rims who likes to make speeches in italics. I would say he’s like a character in a Thomas Hardy novel except that I’m not sure whether or not that makes sense because really, he could be from any planet from any century, and he would still be special.

The finely musculatured foursome Ezra, Harri, Justy and Nails do, say, and feel things like most characters in many novels, until one day they run into a preachy hobo who manages to give a rousing monologue about sexual morality, police brutality, the imprecision of memory, and government greed among other things before dying in the hands of Ezra, the novel’s Hal Incandenza. And in the words of some youthful characters on Twitter, ‘sdsklskdlskdlsdksl’

The dialogue may be bad (I’m too busy to type the excellent sex bits but they’re hilarious and worth reading) but at least it doesn’t waste your time — it’s only 117 pages! There’s a special message for pork eaters, too. And if Jonathan Safran Foer can’t turn you into a vegetarian, don’t you worry because this won’t likely hypnotize you into giving up meat and dairy. Morrissey will only shame you and your pork-eating habits. You’re likely going to feel spiteful for that and continue being a carnivore. Meanwhile, some of you will be amused.

‘List of the Lost’ is clearly a comic novel that Steven Patrick took a week of his life to entertain you, Morrissey fans, and everyone else with the good sense to pick it up, and if you can’t see that I feel sorry for you. Don’t believe The Guardian who viciously urges its readers not to read this wacky book. Or believe them but read it anyway.

An Asian Appreciation of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

the-sellout

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is a funny, clever, topical novel, and it’s easy to see why it won the Man Booker Prize (I say that as if I’m fully aware of the criteria when I’m not) and the hearts of critics. It’s so clever that I don’t think my tiny brain, the same one that enjoyed it, might not be able to explain what it’s about, although my brain knows very well that it is satirizing a reality that is completely worthy of a superb novelist’s satirizing. In this case, it’s racism in America by way of a black man bringing segregation back in the fictional, erased-off-the-map town of Dickens.

There are complaints about the supposedly obscure references in the novel, and there are indeed a handful of esoteric pop culture artifacts tossed about, but there are also a lot of highly recognizable ones. Making these references, though, lets the author drive his point across more effectively than if he were just telling the story of a poor black man who suffers slurs and discrimination in his place, in the bus on his way to work or wherever. And if a reference is obscure, it’s funny anyway mostly because of the way it’s such brilliant, funny writing.

Reading the novel is like being told jokes you’ve heard a very funny person tell that you don’t really get but laugh at anyway. There are bits about blacks-inspired software with a word processor that has font called Tumbuktu and Harlem Renaissance. Distressed black women complain about unequal treatment of angry women: “When a white bitch got problems, she’s a damsel in distress! When a black bitch got problems, she’s a welfare cheat and a burden on society… Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Let down your weave!” It throws jabs at Mexicans, Indians, the Chinese. You don’t have to be there to get the joke is what I’m saying, I guess.

Also, no one is safe. Not Dave Eggers, not Hootie and the Blowfish, not the TV show Friends, not Madonna, not ESPN, not the authors of literary classics and the white men who chose them. It’s so clever that at certain points, I thought the author might make a meta-comment about the Caucasian book critics who are fascinated by the author’s undeniable genius, the same ones that appear on the book’s blurb pages. But nope, the author mercifully held back.

Perhaps it’s the Americans who would find this very, very funny because satire about the social reality that is racism will always be great material for comedy and they’re right in the middle of where the action is. But to Asians who might get only some of the more obvious pop culture references, the novel still comes off as hilarious because this is not the first time we find out about discrimination. It’s quite familiar to us, in fact. It also pokes fun at people who frequently use the word “plethora”.

The Sellout is a sharp and funny (it bears repeating) reminder that modern America can’t help but practice its old habits, and our minority-belonging couldn’t help but chuckle even if it’s in a satirical novel about racism in the USA, and more importantly because of this The Great Gatsby that you have to read the novel to understand the context of because I won’t explain it:

“Real talk. When I was young, dumb, and full of cum, my omnipresent, good to my mother, non-stereotypical African-American daddy dropped some knowledge on me that I been trippin’ off ever since.” 

It features funny racism satire things featuring Latinos and Asians, too. The hilariousness in that is universal, and laughing with a novel is a reading experience I will always cherish.

Books, Book-Buying, Reading, Reading Plans 2017

It is unsurprising to find out that as you grow older and less prone to delusions of youthfulness, the number of books you read gradually decreases. I used to average 35 a year, but when I moved to Bangkok, this number shrank to 19 in 2015 and 23 last year. The reason for this is obvious: it’s because I moved to Bangkok where book-buying is not that fun (anything you could think of having, you can have, which is not a thrilling way to obtain books). Here’s a fun fact: Metro Manila is where you want to be if you want to meet reading goals. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Metro Manila is ruled by forces that make commuting such a hellacious daily experience that you’re often left with no choice but to find solace in reading. Bangkok is not ruled by those forces.

The decreased number of books read could mean any of the following: other forms of entertainment enjoyed and a life well-lived outside of a book. It could mean your museums-visited or movies-seen lists have increased. In my case, though, TV took the place of reading time. After a day’s work, I usually find that the only sensible thing to do at home is watch drag queens outsmart fellow drag queens in a race to win $100,000 and a sickening supply of cosmetics.

Because of this, I’ve decided to start reading anything I lay my hands on, in my room, as long as it’s a reading material; enough with sniffing the pages and on to actually reading them. I’ll stop doing what I do which is pick up any of the David Mitchells off the shelf, softly whisper to myself, ‘I’ll read you next’ and then pick up Ciara, my phone, to check Twitter and not tweet, or tweet and decide 10 minutes later that the tweet is stupid and should be deleted.

In a way, I blame Hanya Yanagihara for last year’s short list. ‘A Little Life’ was a two-month read and it demanded all the attention I could give a novel, which made reading another novel seem impractical. I blame Jude. But if you can find the time to read it, I highly recommend it.

I’ve only read 21 books in 2016 despite having many off periods – periods when big novels could have reasonably been accommodated. During one of these periods, I dived into Anne Rice’s ‘Prince Lestat’ and expected it to be a quickish read, but its character-dumping prevented me from finishing fast. I heard the sequel is even more insane and more infuriating, if the GoodReads reviewers are to be trusted (they are not to be trusted). I can’t wait.

I might read even fewer books this year and that would be alright. Maybe that won’t be alright. To read as much as I can used to be such a powerful goal of mine. It’s not anymore. Life feels shorter and shorter each reading year. For me, in my life, that means no more Guillermo Del Toro vampire novels.

Books 2014

Don’t be fooled by the lack of book posts in here. I’ve read really good books this year and at some point in this tumultuous year in this Tumultuous Life I thought I would never read a book I wouldn’t love. This year was marked by ‘best book ever’ feelings and proclamations which usually last for a week. That is until I came to book #8 which was Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game and book #12 which was Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. It wasn’t really their fault. In Patricia’s case, I may have started on the wrong Ripley book which left my insides unstirred (which rarely happens with her!), while for Virgie, it was the fault of the faulty, mis-scanned e-book, and myself, for not having the foresight to switch to a better version of the e-book rather than slogging through a shitty e-copy obtained from a source of disrepute, which, I realize now, I have no right to complain about. But as the great (young) Heather Mooney would say about the cigarettes she never gets to finish, what a waste!

This is How

Not that it matters but, should I die the next day, I would like the world to know that the last book I read and loved was This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Of course I’m not going to die tomorrow because all my enemies are nowhere near me, and like Yunior, I’m not the killing-self type of guy, maybe.

I can barely remember what Drown was about, all I can remember is that it’s also structured like TIHYLH, with Yunior as the narrator/star. This is why it is very important to write down exactly what you love about a Junot Diaz because someday you might find yourself reading him again, very certain of your enjoyment of his work and not know exactly why and feeling like a true fool and an unreliable professor of love.

In This, hogging the spotlight is his brother Rafa who uses cancer to his great advantage. I can’t get through cancer stories without getting really very emotional which is why I decided that after season 1 of Breaking Bad, I’m done, why even though I have some sardonic feelings for John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars I still found it in my heart to appreciate its highly self-aware, ultra-witty teens who are all almost unbearably witty and articulate, for acting like Seth Cohen and think no one will notice, and getting back to the sardonic feelings and thinking that the feelings were not incorrect. In here, the becancered Rafa knocks Yunior out and it is a cause for hilarity. Best cancer story ever.

It may sometimes feel as if Yunior spends a lot of time navigating the legs of his girlfriends and side-bitches, but all of that are essential to the stories; all that sexing and side-bitching are sure to put an end to even the most hardcore relationships and Yunior is one horny, passionate motherfucker. This is a book about losing through the inescapable necessities and peculiarities of life. Stories about loses are, or should be, rife with sadness and drama, but Junot Diaz is not that kind of guy.

Even though I generally find his humor sublime despite not really getting all the pop culture, comics references and not understanding the Spanish slang (which he never bothers to translate, and why should he), I can’t help but think that if this were my first time to read him, I’d find characters who say things like ‘Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub’ a very poor attempt at either coolness or funniness. A line like that is in itself not funny, but the funniness here necessitates presence aka you have to be there. And so, Junot Diaz, is still for me a very funny person.

In George Orwell’s lengthy scrutiny of Charles Dickens, he says something about putting/imagining a writer’s face:

‘When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer… What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have… Well in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity.’

If I were to give a face to Junot Diaz, it would have to be a sexy, mischievous face. It is a face attached to a desirable head, perched atop a towering, impressively built body with hills for chest and buns for days. Having heard about the author’s bad back, I know this imagining to be inaccurate, but that is the author I choose to have imprinted on my mind forever and I am not willing to entertain retaliations. When you feel like putting a face on an author you love, know that you’re entitled to it, the emblazoning of a face, in the same way that Michiko Kakutani is entitled to calling certain voices in fiction ‘limber, streetwise, CAFFEINATED, and wonderfully eclectic’.

This is How You Lose Her is my year’s second highest point because #1 is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Congrats, This is How You Lose Her.

The David Sedaris in You

Sometimes you feel like David Sedaris’ peoples are you when you were young and that he had you in mind or someone like you when he created the silly characters. You identify with the guy who hitchhikes in the middle of a highway and can’t make up his mind about whether or not he’d give the kindly burly truck driver a hand job, because he’s high and clueless about the ramifications of an innocuous hand job. You feel an affinity with the troubled boy from Naked with what can only be described as the early manifestations of a lifelong possession of really strange behavior, the one who has uncontrollable urges to lick things – the boy who eventually finds a strange kind of solace in cigarettes.

You feel like the boy narrating below is you when you were 23:

Growing up, my parents were so very into themselves that I got little love and attention. As a result, I would squeeze the life out of everyone I came into contact with. I would scare away my dates on the first night by telling them that this was it, the love experience I’d been waiting for. I would plan our futures. Everything we did together held meaning for me and would remain bright in my memory. By the second date, I would arrive at the boyfriend’s apartment carrying a suitcase and a few small pieces of furniture so that when I moved in completely I wouldn’t have to hire a crew of movers. When these boyfriends became frightened and backed away, I would hire detectives to follow them. I needed to know that they weren’t cheating on me. I would love my dates so much that I would become obsessed. I would dress like them, think like them, listen to the records they enjoyed. I would forget about me!

It’s so hilarious to see your experiences and feelings available in paperback, sold worldwide, translated in 20+ languages, for the all the world to read. You’re being scandalized but you’re cramping from the hilariousness. He allows you to laugh at yourself because it’s funny when David Sedaris characters are yourself.

In highly self-aware states, you feel like you’re this kind of Sedaris:

I was the guest who went from loving too much to being loved too much. Everybody loves me. I’m the most important person in the lives of almost everyone I know and a good number of people I’ve never even met. I don’t say this casually; I’m just pointing out my qualification.

You can tell that whoever says these things about himself must be feeling the exact opposite of what was just described. You’re delirious with mirth when you see yourself as one of these delusional, self-deprecating types in the Sedaris world.

Sometimes you see yourself as the David Sedaris of Me Talk Pretty One Day: the bright, shining crutch to the worldly, wonderful boyfriend who only has your best interests at heart, or so you believe. As a David Sedaris in MTPOD, what you basically are is a person in France, really trying to live the French culture, surrounded by French peoples and things, and trying your damndest to learn French that often frustrates you. Sadly, when it comes to conjugating French verbs, you’re an absolute failure. The point is that there’s a David Sedaris in you. Find it, nurture it, laugh at it.