#6Degrees from Less than Zero to…

1987 film poster

It is my absolute pleasure to participate once again in the Six Degrees monthly link-up organised by Kate. The starting point this month is a book I haven’t read by that once shining light of the 1980s literary Brat Pack Bret Easton Ellis: Less than Zero. If I didn’t read it at the time, when I was closer in age to the hedonistic youth portrayed in its pages, I don’t think I am likely to read it now (middle-aged sniff of disapproval!).

 

Another book which describes decadent youth is Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. I have to admit that I wanted to be a flapper of the 1920s when I was growing up, although, like with Mozart’s music, you are always aware in Waugh’s novels of a darker desperation underlying the frenetically cheery and madcap surface.

The other writer associated with the Roaring Twenties is of course F. Scott Fitzgerald and he also captures the sadness underlying the apparent prosperity and carelessness of that period. My favourite of his books was for a long time Tender Is the Night, which also describes a rather madcap party.

Part of the Fitzgerald novel is set on the French Riviera, which is also the setting for Françoise Sagan’s amazing debut novel Bonjour Tristesse, written when she was only 18 and perfectly describing the stubborn, gauche, misguided teenager who tries to act older than her age.

 

There are plenty of books about disaffected youth and the difficulties of being a teenager, especially nowadays, but for my next choice I go back to an old classic The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, who was herself a teenager when she wrote it. This sad tale of gang life and pointless violence reveals how hard it is for teenagers to figure out right from wrong and how powerless they often are to do anything about it.

Speaking of gangs, there is a little-known book by Ernst Haffner called Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin (Blood Brothers, transl. by Michael Hoffman) about Weimar-era teenagers trying to scrape together an existence via the welfare office, pickpocketing and other petty crime.

Berlin is also the setting of a more modern novel Tomorrow Berlin by Oscar Coop-Phane, about the post-1989 youth culture there. A generation full of promiscuity, rave culture and drink, drugs and toilet sex which brings us right back to Brett Easton Ellis subject matter, but perhaps described with more French elegance and nonchalance.

So I have stuck pretty much to youth culture in my little foray through literary links, but tried to keep it international. What links will you be making?

All that Fuss about David Foster Wallace

A few months ago, when I started getting serious about writing (again), someone pointed me in the direction of a website called ‘I Write Like’. Clever little robots analyse a sample of your writing (in English) and tell you which writer (living or dead) you most resemble. Imagine my surprise when it came up with ‘David Foster Wallace’ after I cut and pasted a chapter of my WIP.  Surprising, because: 1) my novel is crime fiction, and 2) I had never heard of this author.  (Yes, my grasp of contemporary American fiction is a little shaky.)  So I ignored this first result and submitted another text.

Same result.

By now, I was getting convinced that this was the default setting of the website, no matter what your input was.  So I tried a poem.  And got Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  What does one of the world’s funniest books have in common with my rather moody and depressing poetry?  Anybody’s guess!

So, although I was unconvinced by the analytical tool, this website did make me curious about David Foster Wallace.  I started reading up on him.  And boy, was there a lot of stuff written about him!  Most recently, a biography by D.T. Max entitled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.  This, in turn, led to an outburst by Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter, culminating in him calling David Foster Wallace ‘the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation’.

Well, with an intro to like that, I just had to read the man himself!  Wouldn’t you?  (I am cheating a little bit with the timeline here: in fact, I had bought ‘Infinite Jest’ just before the summer holidays and intended to polish it off during my inactive, very long-seeming days on that nondescript beach in Greece that my husband’s family calls home.) I am about halfway through this doorstopper of a book: page 508 of its 1079 pages (including endnotes). And I can tell you two things for sure:

1) This book is not made for beach reading (although it is good for dipping in and out of).

2) I do not write like him at all.

Or at least I hope I don’t. Not that I disliked his style.  I was, by turns, amused, fascinated, bemused, indifferent, enthusiastic, critical, passionate and infuriated.  It is not an easy read and you have to be in the mood for it – which is difficult to sustain over that many pages.  It is a book breathtaking in its ambition: to capture all of contemporary American society, which is why it’s probably best read in several sittings, across many months.  Although individual passages glowed with insight and humour, although there was beautiful writing which made me want to reread and quote, I did find the cumulative effect rather wearisome.  There, I said it!  Does that mean I am siding with Bret Easton Ellis?

No, not really, because I don’t understand why he is attacking David Foster Wallace himself for the halo of sentimentality and mantle of sainthood that his readers and followers have bestowed on him. It’s like accusing Van Gogh of commercialisation because his ‘Sunflowers’ sell so well, or Shakespeare of insisting that people use his newfangled word inventions.

I may have no wish to write like David Foster Wallace myself, but I can still enjoy reading him (in small gulps).  If we only liked reading people like ourselves, the world would be a very bland place. I find some of the imitators of David Foster Wallace tiresome and pretentious.  I find all imitators tiresome, unless it’s a clever sequel or deliberate satire. And I dislike literary pretentiousness, so well satirised in the character of Monica in Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’. I am sure more have praised ‘Infinite Jest’ and its author than have actually read it or him.  Isn’t that what happens with other famous works such as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?

Which, by the way, all three happen to be heartbreaking works of staggering genius.  Not easy, but stick with them!

* Gorgeous new graphic design for Tristram Shandy at Fast Company: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663094/wanted-tristram-shandy-gets-a-stunning-graphic-makeover