Thursday, 24 April 2014

Life as Liminal Hangout

SPOILER ALERT: This book review contains laboriously obscure references, so as not to reveal the minutest detail of the plot, too many facts about the characters, or direct interpretation of the ideas in the novel. That said, I am of the opinion that reviewers who summarize or otherwise recount aspects of a story they are reviewing are not spoiling anything so much as engaging in the practice of inelegant writing. In other words, this review is part inside joke and wholly personal, but the conspiracy is for the betterment of humanity.


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I completely missed the pun in the title of Jacob Bacharach's debut, The Bend of the World. Already aware that it delves into conspiracy culture, I was… inclined to think exclusively in cosmological terms, not of eschatology. Not that these preclude one another, y'understand, but herein my own bias is revealed; no matter how I try to check it, catching every allusion is challenging.

Challenging.

Since one of the characters uses this adjective for the sake of an artist in the story, in lieu of the most commonly used, more transparently affected euphemism, I hasten to add that I would not be afraid to call this novel at once interesting and not at all challenging. By "interesting" I mean meditative as opposed to boring; by "not challenging" I mean entertaining as opposed to tedious.

It should be said that if you're repelled by conspiracy culture, then The Bend of the World might not be your first choice. If, on the other hand, you are fascinated by conspiracy theories and those who theorize them, then, as you probably know, just like the conspiracy theory haters, your enjoyment of this work will depend upon whether or not your pet opinions get too challenged for you to handle.

Not that that should be an issue. Only the most hardcore "sheeple" screamer would be put off by the spin in this yarn, and I doubt even the most moderately conformist, conservatively progressive liberal would take offense at more than one percent of its leaning.

And it's not just that you might be... disinclined to enjoy this book based upon your love or hate of conspiracies, theories thereof, and the like. It's that there are just enough specific citations (no footnotes, mind you*) that, if you aren't familiar with them, a substantial amount will be lost on you.

As to the culture, the plot does not prefer one set of theories to others. As a matter of fact, it does not defer to any particular ideas in the genre in the way that leads to a battle between good and evil and a race against time to save the world from the Balloonminati, during which it is discovered that even all the shit we thought we had finally figured out was not what it seemed, and then all of that turns out to be a dream in the end.

Oh shit. I hope that wasn't a spoiler. Okay, scratch that. Maybe it turns out that it was all a dream. Or not. But probably maybe. And there's a thirty-three percent chance of a chase with a role that'd be perfect for Tom Hanks or Nicholas Cage depending on who directs. Come to think of it, there's a great part for the guy who played Jabba the Hutt.

No. Bacharach merely plays with these ideas, and not necessarily as plot device. I daresay that he might've used another genre to achieve the telling of this story in the broadest sense, which is telling about the author's ability to tell one. If I had the talent and work ethic to write a novel, I would be pleased at having accomplished this one, especially as a first. As to the genre, I think Robert Anton Wilson would have enjoyed this book immensely.


But enough veiled praise. What the fuck is wrong with it? Short answer: I cannot say for sure that anything is wrong with it, and if I could, I still probably wouldn't know.

To wit: there occur a couple of syntactical irregularities, the first of which I initially took as being solely the result of an aphorism turned inside out, itself resulting in an actual LOL on my part (as opposed to the virtual kind, which I can neither confirm, nor deny denote any real laughter).

This brings me to something else I cannot be sure about: I suppose creating a work of fiction requires choosing how much real reality you want to employ and, in exercising creativity, how original you want to be. The aforementioned aphorism, for example: Did the author make it up *and* turn it around, or did he just twist an existing dictum? I'd like to think the former; it's more satisfying somehow.

And there are loads of old adages and expressions that I hadn't heard before, about which I'd like to think the same. Nevertheless, that the first one I noticed involved what looked, retrospectively, like an oddly ordered subject-object-relative pronoun, I wondered if the twist was unintentional, that is, until I considered that a primary quality of the central character was being thereabouts described, and that this first-person narrator would have come up with just such a turn-of-phrase.

Moreover, I have since googled the principals in the maxim in question, and it would seem that the idea, at least, had already been in play, the author just teasing it.

As you can see, reading in general is challenging for me. But it stands to reason that, in this case, the author's work is challenging in a good way. Anyway, I love wordplay, which these 308 pages have plenty of.

Back again to the creation of original rules of thumb & such: Advice is given at one point - ostensibly to ease one's nerves at a large gathering of humans - that draws an analogy between the abundance of names manifest in certain social contexts as well as literature of a particular ethnic origin. I laughed at the ingenuity of the advice until an ironic superficiality reveals itself (as if by literary osmosis), inherent in any of us who might thus strive to better ourselves.

The latter alludes to what I find to be the biggest takeaway from the story. More on that later.

First, something about the insertion of ideas in a novel, which is best achieved when done seamlessly, that is, without triggering the undue presence of the author, or making the narrator seem out of character. This, I imagine, is easier avoided when the idea is concise. One example from Bend would be when Bacharach managed to summarize in less than a half a dozen words an idea I came up with independently over twenty years ago when ruminating on the apparent impossibility of particular sets of coincidental occurrences. I paraphrase here for the sake of double-reverse originality (see spoiler alert): Everything is eventual. There, I did it in three words.


You see, art can be inspirational!


Seriously, though. His sentence is just brilliant and contextually coherent. And there are others placed appropriately in the mouths that speak them or, at least, a situation that would call for it.

As to longer and more complex ideas, they can rather seem like they were wedged between the most convenient pair of paragraphs, which, for me, happened once over the course of the story, but might have come about because it's weighed against originality otherwise unadorned.

And there are a plethora of other tids & bits that appeared to be cultural references at first glance, but called so little attention to themselves that I wondered whether it had been intentional, or coincidence:

- when I read the section-heading "Witchy-Poo" and eagerly turned the page to scan for the name of a rarely mentioned character and her current undertaking, I found it and was pleased for having predicted it beforehand. But then, the only other mention of those words had nothing to do with the character in question. Or did it?

- one of the more principal characters hates artists and their pretensions, but his company slogan, later made light of, uses a kind of verbiage that just happens to be one of my pet peeves employed by artists in their mission statements. Surely this irony is intentional and he's not just mocking corporate-speak.

- I had not long before read about memory and learning and long-term potentiation (LTP) when I stumbled across the part in the story that refers to the nebulous goal of a project with a mention of something subsequently shortened to TPD. I wondered if the latter was a play on the former.


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Like I said before, The Bend of the World is meditative, or, if you'd rather, thought provoking (it's just that I like former's connotation of a slower pace). Anyway, it certainly stimulates the imagination.

Even what I read as a throw away couplet about the expression "knowing something like the back of your hand", I found myself wondering about the ulterior motive of the creator of said expression.

And a play on words with the legendary Sasquatch reminded me of a Kids in the Hall sketch in which a UFO witness tells how he saw the aliens unloading "crates of bigfoots" and it occurred to me that the very moment this creature were to be officially recognized and biologically categorized, the plural of bigfoot would be bigfoot.


How do we know bigfoot doesn't exist? The plural is bigfoots. Now that is circular logic I can wrap my head around!


Speakin' o' aliens, there is something else that you don't necessarily need to know better than the back of your hand, but might appreciate more about this tale if you do: Northeastern Appalachia, Pittsburgh in particular.

My sole experience in Pittsburgh began riding into town late one afternoon with MiLkBabY on what was to become our first and last tour of the United States, which went from the Great Lakes of Middle America to the Atlantic Seaboard and a touch of New England. Pittsburgh was in the middle of all of that. Conspiracy? You decide.

Given that we kicked it all off with our record release on September 11th, 2001, we discovered not just the endearing hospitality of our hosts in just about every city, but the jingoistic provincialism from every ostensible political persuasion theretofore mapped, many of our hosts included.

In Pittsburgh, on the other hand, we encountered neither of the two. It was one of the places where we didn't get a sound check - and slept in the van.

What we did witness was a view of the city that I had no idea existed. We came in on a rusty highway of sorts, bumper-to-bumper nearing sundown. Traffic was so thick, as I recall, and we didn't know how long we'd be trying to figure out where we were going, so we pulled over just to get a better look at the city before the light disappeared beyond the horizon.

It was a remarkable sight/site to look down upon - like a mass of extinct industrial architecture at the bottom of a great big utility sink. But I don't want to say anything more about it because I'm sure my memory is flawed.

And I'd tell you that T and I saw a UFO later that night, but that would be patronizingly perfect - or perfectly patronizing; anyway, we were higher than a couple of monkeys at the time.


The author employs just enough of the dialect to amuse the local readers, I'm sure. I only got one reference, and another that he points to specifically. I remember from childhood that Mrs. Meisner was from Pittsburgh. She brought back cans of the 4-time Super Bowl Champs edition of Iron City beer for those of us who were collectors. She pronounced it "Arn City".

I don't know if Arn City is the center of our sphere of consciousness, but the quantum construction Bacharach uses at the center of this conspiracy is the best of its kind that I have ever read. I LOL'd at its telling and OMG'd for my biases.


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This novel is as good a place as any to explore the ideas therein, and I hope the author explores the anarchier ones further, in whatever context they should appear. Especially the one about crime's central prerequisite.

Which brings me to the takeaway I promised to get back to:

We "Children of Privilege" are inseparably part of a conspiracy whether we're in on it or not, and we all, without exception, play along to varying degrees.

There are no doubt those powerful few who have plenty of others pulling the strings. And the method with which they can isolate themselves from the rest of the species might indeed be symbolized most appropriately by a pyramid.

But that doesn't mean when we do eventually find out who our real daddy is, and discover that, indeed, he is privy to knowledge that we are not, that it amounts to anything more than his having a better seat for the sunset. For, at the end of the day, the horizon is not located in any one place to be exclusively navigated toward by a cabal of initiates, but, rather, goes on forever not to be grasped by anyone.

In that regard, we are all perched on the edge of the same sink.

Or are we?


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* DFW died for our would-be sins


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About purchase:
I guess you should grab it at W.W. Norton, though I got mine at Amazon swymmin' on a drone because I could transfer the duckets from my bank. You may recall from my recent tickets to Kate Bush trials that I do not have a credit card. So you see, by foregoing one avenue of evil, I prop up its barely distant grandcousin.

This reminds me that the novel does not make mention of any chipping conspiracy that I can recall. Maybe it's so obvious as to be passé at this point. I reckon saying they're out to follow our every move is like saying the bigfoots shit in the woods.