Category Archives: Books

Rejection Slips

I’m not somebody who saves things.  I don’t collect objects, I don’t stockpile memorabilia.  I don’t keep copies of things that can easily be reproduced, like research and papers.

But there is one category of object I sort of wish I’d kept.  Rejection slips.  I know, this sounds really peculiar.  But allow me to explain.

I am a writer.  More than thirty years ago, I started publishing scholarly articles.  And op-eds.  And books.  And now, as readers of this blog know, I have begun publishing poetry, some of which I wrote long ago, some of more recent vintage.  It is this last enterprise which puts me in mind of rejection slips.

You see, I’ve been getting them.  For each poem offered publication, I get at least four or five rejections (and I’ve heard from only a small proportion of the journals to which I’ve submitted, so I expect many more).  And the funny thing is, they still hurt.  It’s not like rejection slips are new to me.  Had I saved all that I’ve received over the course of my career, they’d probably stretch to the moon.  But I haven’t tried to publish poetry before.  So this is a new sort of rejection, even if the form is the same.  And, given what poetry is, this time it’s personal.

So why would I want to have saved these things?  Well, in a sense, the aggregate of my rejections is the backbone of my career.  Of course had I received only rejections, I wouldn’t have a career at all.  But all of those rejections are reminders of imperfection, teachers of humility, groundings in grace, and epistles of perseverance.  Had I succumbed to the first rejections (which I hasten to assure you I received before any promise of success), my entire body of work would not have come into being.  Had I taken refuge in that last of scoundrelly writers — “they just don’t understand me” — I would have skulked off and eschewed responsibility for the fate of my work.  Had I taken them as a refutation of talent, I would have given up long ago.

How should one take a rejection slip?  As just that.  A single rejection.  A decision that a publication outlet doesn’t want the piece.  There probably are dozens of reasons why this might be so.   Perhaps the work doesn’t fit what the editors need.  Perhaps they didn’t like the topic.  Perhaps it wasn’t to their taste.  Only one reason is the following:  the work is no good.  There are too many more for that to be the default assumption.

I’ve been thinking about this perhaps more than usual, not only because, as noted, I have just begun to publish in a new medium, but also because of an unusually kind and thoughtful rejection slip I recently received.  The editor praised my poetic “instincts,” and then went on to admonish me to read more “contemporary poetry,” to let my images speak for themselves and — in that most common of writing critiques, to “show, not tell.”

I was taken aback.  “Instinct?”  I’m pretty sure I have some talent.  “Images?”  I’ve got plenty.  “Show, not tell?”  What is that about?

I was hurt.  A younger me would have become very discouraged, and then reluctantly begun to read and rather more immediately start to change my style.  But then I thought about it.  The editor certainly was right.  Assuming a particular aesthetic.  But what is my aesthetic? I know that my poetry is romantic.  I know that my influences are not contemporary, although they are modern.  Whitman. Frost.  Dickinson.  Thomas. Williams.  cummings.  And, going back- Dante. Shakespeare.  Etcetera, etcetera, and so forth.  There are narrative traditions in poetry.  There are philosophical traditions.  There is the Bard, weaving images with declarations of love.  This is the poetry I like to read.  This is the poetry I like to write.  I philosophize.  Sometimes I suppose I preach.  I weave images.  I tell stories.

And there it is — my ultimate response.  I consider each poem I write to tell a story.  A story that may be emotionally intense.  A story that is always short.  A story with significant imagery.  But a story, nonetheless.  And that story can be told in a variety of aesthetic settings.

So I shall keep to my own knitting, and be lucky to find publishers (as I have) who share my aesthetic.  And I shall be grateful to that editor for, by writing thoughtfully as he did, he evoked a thoughtful response on my part, one that pushed me to think through what I do and why I do it.  And, in doing so, in this case to affirm my own approach, and to take pleasure in a mature confidence I lacked when the first rejection slips appeared so long ago.

Would that every rejection slip were so expressly thoughtful.  But each, in their own way, can teach, and all, as an aggregate, can help to form the backdrop of a literary life.

Lawrence Mitchell

The Pale King

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So, readers of this blog know that I am a huge David Foster Wallace fan, but that only this summer past did I turn from his brilliant essays to his fiction.  A couple of months ago I posted here on Infinite Jest, which I think is one of the best American novels I’ve ever read.  It was, therefore, with a bit of trepidation that I turned to DFW’s final novel, The Pale King.  Trepidation not because it is set in 1985 at the IRS Regional Examination Center  in Peoria, Illinois (although that is frightening enough on all counts).  Trepidation, rather, because the novel was incomplete at the time of Wallace’s tragic death.  Evidently, though, DFW had left extensive notes and portions of the manuscript, and his editor crafted what became The Pale King.

I put it down halfway through my first read.  I didn’t like it, or at least not nearly so much as I liked Infinite Jest.  It wasn’t so much that it took time to get going.  Rather, there was no evident plot whatsoever.  And there were some passages that annoyed me, that I thought had DFW lived to edit them, might not have been quite so glaring.  (One in particular is a lengthy conversation among three agents in which the point seems to be to demonstrate DFW’s mastery of American culture from the ’60s through the early ’80s, including an anachronistic discussion of corporate purpose.  Then there’s the conversation about, well, shit, which is just hilarious).

But I decided DFW was far too brilliant a writer for me to rest on first conclusions.  So I put aside the Kindle edition and bought the book in paperback.  I don’t have any problem with Kindle for the most part (and it has the advantage while reading DFW of allowing you to look up the two or three words per page you don’t know).  But I suspected that the relative shortness of the pages mis-served a writer whose paragraphs can go on for pages.  (I have only read Faulkner, Doestoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Bellow in print as well.)

I’m glad I did.  The book is, as is all of DFW’s work, pure genius.  There isn’t much of a plot at all. But that is part of the point.  As I read it, The Pale King is the fictionalization of DFW’s Kenyon College commencement address, This is Water (and it’s worth noting that he gave that speech while working on the novel).  As such, it is brilliant, funny, and deeply moving.  Do not fail to read this book.

For those who haven’t yet read or heard This is Water (and you do both yourselves and the rest of the world a disservice by failing to do so),  Wallace posits that a liberal arts education is designed primarily to empower students (and thus people) consciously and thoughtfully to choose what they think about, rather than reactively to accept whatever flows through their brains.  Wallace is particularly effective and insightful in imaging our thoughts and reactions to other people in the most dreary and quondam situations of daily life.  In his imagining, it is possible — not likely, he says, but possible — that our reactive interpretations are at least some of the time deeply unfair to those with whom we interact, and completely lacking in empathy.  Indeed it seems that if we choose to think well, we will and must become more empathetic and understanding beings.  We become far better people, or at least we can.  Wallace of course puts it far better than I, but the truth of it is undeniable.

Much of The Pale King is a series of character sketches loosely based on the arrival and orientation at the Peoria Regional Examination Center of a new team of IRS agents, people who engage in some of the most mind-numbing and tedious work imaginable. And the characters are, like all DFW characters, quirky, strange, sometimes downright freaky, always challenging, and, ultimately, loveable, each in their own peculiar ways. For the most part, we see each of the main characters at some earlier point in their development and then at the time of their arrival at the IRS.  (One exception to portraiture, per se, is the revelation of the character of Meredith Rand near the end of the book which occurs during her extended conversation with the obviously autistic Shane Drinion.  This is an extraordinary passage– the pathos of the deeply emotional and tormented Rand finding solace and deep emotional connection with apparently the only person willing to listen to her is at turns amusing, irritating, and heartbreaking.)  Claude Sylvanshine, whose ability somehow to know a seemingly endless number of barely knoweable and almost invariably useless facts plagues him constantly. David Foster Wallace, working at the IRS during a break from college due to his expulsion for writing papers for other students (and who hilariously arrives with great fanfare due to the system’s confusion of him with another arriving David Wallace whose reputation within the Service is legendary).  David Cusk with an uncontrollable perspiration problem.  “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle, whose role in the perhaps real, perhaps staged filming project caused his stultified interviewer to develop a tic. Leonard Stecyk, whose cheerful perfection since childhood has made almost everybody who’s known him want to strangle him (and who — spoiler alert — we later learn was brought into the service to have precisely this effect on people),

The point is that each of these people has a story.  Each of these people has a history, a character, a life, each has loves and losses, each has ordinary concerns.  The IRS seems to provide a place of peace and stability away from the torment, despite the price each pays in the dullness of the work.  And that dullness, with many of the characters working in concert, is depicted in Chapter 25 to absolutely brilliant effect.  Were the chapter music, it would be the worst chamber music ever written.  As literature, however, first rate.

And yet, in a message worthy of Hannah Arendt, DFW lets us know that the work is ennobling.  He makes the point explicitly in a speech delivered by a substitute accounting teacher in a class into which DFW (the character) mistakenly wanders at DePaul.  But he makes the point throughout the book in many other subtle ways.  It is, in fact, precisely the willingness of people to engage in such unsatisfying yet essential work that gives that work its greater glory.  These are the same ordinary people we might be standing behind in the checkout line or driving behind in their SUV as DFW describes in This is Water, and the setting of the piece in the dullest and most anonymous of environments reinforces this.  And yet there is dignity and nobility in service. (Rereading the opening short, poetic — even elegiac — chapter in light of these thoughts shows Wallace making the point from the very beginning, but of course it is far too early for the reader to understand this.)

This being DFW, it goes without saying, although I’ll say it, that his mastery both of the tax code and the workings of the IRS are nothing short of professional.  In addition to his brilliance as a writer, the man was quite the polymath.  Of course that leads to several rather dull passages, but I accept them as necessary to the integrity of the whole.

Only two writers have had profound impacts on the way I think and live.  One is Adam Smith.  The other is David Foster Wallace.  Please.  Read this book.

Lawrence Mitchell

 

 

 

 

 

To Be A Person: The Power of Now

So, I just finished reading Eckhart Tolle’s fine book, The Power of Now, which I guess has been around for about 15 years, and felt compelled to offer both some reflections on it and a recommendation that you read it.  I should note from the start that The Power of Now is not the sort of book I ordinarily would read.  I know, that sounds defensive or snobby, as if I would rather not sully myself by reading pop mysticsm (although as it turns out, the Oprah blurb on the back notwithstanding, there is nothing pop-mystical about it).  But that’s not what I mean.  I don’t read books that appear to be self-help books as a general rule.  I also tend not to read bestsellers.  That’s not a critique.  That’s my limitation, despite my knowledge that judging a book by its cover is dumb, and that sometimes the crowd knows what it’s talking about.  I am sometimes a literary jackass, and I know it. The Power of Now both is and is not a self-help book.  What it is, is a very smart and enormously helpful spiritual book.  It is also the type of book that is very easy to misunderstand and very hard to discuss without reducing it to something it’s not.  I’m very glad I read it.

Actually, it was not I who overcame my own literary limitations, but my son, the almost impossibly big-hearted and multitudinous (in a Whitman-esque sense) Berkeley yogi.  He gave me the book as a father’s day gift.  He has always been a great source of reading suggestions for me, but this one was quite personal.  He had read the book and been profoundly influenced by it.  Thus, when it arrived, I decided to read it whether I wanted to or not, for to fail to have read it would have been to dishonor the spirit in which it was given.  It is only recently, though, that I made the time for it.

It would be unfairly reductionist of me to summarize the book.  Suffice it to say that, on one level, Tolle tells us nothing new.  His primary referents are Buddha and Jesus, with some Lao Tze thrown in for good measure.  He could as well have drawn on Kabbalah and Kant, Martin Buber and the B’aal Shem Tov.  Or probably any number of other great thinkers whose work I haven’t read.

The main insight is that only the present exists for us, only the present is real, and that to achieve enlightenment one must learn to let go of the past, forget about anticipation of the future, and live in the moment.  That is not nearly as irresponsible as it sounds, and anybody who has read in this genre understands that.  What Tolle means, as simply as I can put it, is that you can do nothing about the past, the future has not yet arrived, and undue attention to each deprives you of your ability to live in the one arena that is certain — the present.  To understand the way in which life histories, life plans, and the like fit into this spiritual construct requires reading the book.  The beauty of enlightenment is not only the personal achievement of the release of pain, but the attainment of a peace, clarity, and power that not only enables you to live — and as Tolle tells us is the only way to live — but to be an actual force for good in a manner that otherwise is impossible.  It is to free yourself from attachments of ego that not only block your ability to live in peace but that operate as destructive forces in the world around you.  While it requires discipline and contemplation to achieve this state, while it requires inward focus to get there which can only be done in solitude, the book is called the Power of Now.  And that power is awesome.

As I noted, none of this is new. Tolle’s strength is as a teacher.  While I enjoy my periodic wrestling with Kant’s and Buber’s challenging philosophical approaches, Tolle’s goal is to teach us how to achieve the enlightened state (which, to be fair, I think Buber attempts as well).  And he does it very well, with a number of helpful ways of thinking about now– well, not thinking — as well as, in the back half of the book, providing a didactic series of questions and answers that help to clear away objections we might hold and clarify precisely what he means and doesn’t mean.  He is a very good teacher indeed.  Although I practice yoga and possess a deep religious spirituality that has allowed me to attain something like the enlightenment he describes from time to time, I found myself playing through some of his instructions at a most difficult point in my own life and finding that indeed it helped.

For me, perhaps the most profound insight in the book comes relatively early on:  “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”  Wow.  I can assure you that there is plenty in my own situation that I would not have chosen.  But that doesn’t matter.  It is.  The only thing I can change is my perspective on that situation.  By accepting it as chosen, you are given the enormous power to deal with it from a position of peace which is, ultimately, a position of strength.  There is much else like this in the book, places that encourage you to stop and to think.  And to stop thinking.

There is some silliness too.  I was not terribly persuaded by his chapter on women’s special pain.  It’s not that I don’t think it exists.  I have no doubt that it does.  It just struck me that the chapter read as a little too contrived.  It also struck me that Tolle, who takes the perfectly defensible if not uncontroversial position that man and woman each are half of a whole (which does not  mean that they need each other for enlightenment) is, no matter how enlightened as a man, not in much of a position to write this chapter convincingly.  But that for me is more in the nature of a quibble than anything else, although I imagine that some women might be annoyed or angered by it.

The great discovery for me — as it so often is — is that going outside of my comfort zone produced enormous learning.  The ideas in the book are timeless and profound.  Tolle’s teachings are smart and practical.  It is a book to which I suspect I will frequently return as I attempt to internalize his teachings in the turmoil of daily life.  I highly recommend it.

Lawrence Mitchell

Infinite Jest (or, the howling fantods)

Those of you who are regular visitors to this space have seen me mention David Foster Wallace several times.  Wallace was, to my mind, one of the finest writers of non-fiction prose the English language ever has produced, as well as a man of almost unbearable sensitivity and insight.  I just finished reading his magnum opus, the novel Infinite Jest.  It is, simply put, one of the five or so best novels I have ever read.  Thus it is that I feel impelled to share.

Let me start by saying that I can’t remember ever having read a novel I wanted to reread immediately upon finishing.  And at almost 1,000 pages and 400 footnotes, this is quite a read.  But the minute I closed the book I missed Don Gately, Hal, Pemulis, Madame Psychosis, and even Orin.  Some of the screwiest people ever to grace pages since Faulkner put down his pen had become my friends.

The plot is silly, bordering on ridiculous.  Most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, at a time when corporate sponsorship of time eliminated numbers.  It involves the struggle between O.N.A.N. (the Organization of North American Nations), led by United States President and former Las Vegas crooner, clean-freak Johnny Gentle, against Quebecois terrorists, represented by the Wheelchair Assassins (Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents — and I won’t reveal how they got that way) to find the master tape of the last film produced by one James Orin Incandenza, an auteur of dubious talents.  The film, Infinite Jest, is evidently so transcendentally entertaining that viewers cannot tear their gaze away — resulting eventually in starvation and death.  The Quebecois are rather upset that, in forming O.N.A.N, the United States “gave” Quebec most of New England north of the Boston area (in which most of the action takes place), the “Great Concavity,” into which immense quantities of American waste are catapulted daily and is now overrun by extraordinary forests and human-sized hamsters.  The A.F.R. hopes to use the film as a terrorist weapon against the United States to retrieve their trashless sovereignty, and against O.N.A.N to achieve separation from Canada.

The plot is merely a vehicle.  And it almost has to be silly.  Because the real story is in the characters. And every one of the principal characters (except for the very disabled Mario) lives in such excruciating pain that a serious plot would make the book almost unbearable. I know, this really makes it sound like the book is no fun.  That would be the wrong conclusion.  While there is something at which to wince on almost every page, DFW’s extraordinary sense of humor, as well as his light, inviting, conversational style, make it bearable.  Not only bearable, but irresistible.  I’m not the kind of person who likes to stare at train wrecks.  Quite the opposite – I can’t even watch violent movies.  But I really couldn’t put the book down, no more so than in some of the most horrific scenes.

The cast of characters is enormous and each, no matter how minor, is beautifully drawn.  The principal characters are: Hal Incandenza who is, for want of a better candidate, the protagonist.  Hal is a brilliant polymath and rising tennis star, enrolled in the Enfield Tennis Academy which was founded by his late father, the aforementioned James Orin Incandenza, Himself (for that is the way he is referred to by his children) a prodigy whose pre-auteur specialty was lenses, and a failed tennis star.  Don Gately is a recovering addict who is on staff at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy in the original), just down the hill from ETA.  Joelle van Dyne, a/k/a/ P.G.O.A.T (the Prettiest Girl of All Time), a/k/a Madame Psychosis (an obvious play on metempsychosis — is it any wonder that I kept comparing this book to Ulysses as I read?) comes to reside at Ennet House after a suicide attempt through overdose.  Joelle was the only true love of Orin Incandenza (Hal’s brother and a journeyman tennis player turned punter for the Arizona Cardinals) and the amanuensis of James Orin Incandenza (Himself), as well as a sometime star in his movies (including Infinite Jest).  Hugh/Helen Steeply, the poorly cross-dressed investigative agent from the U.S. Office of Unspecified Services, and Remy Marathe, a member of A.F.R and a quadruple agent (ultimately working for the U.S. in order to obtain  the money for treatments for his wife who is missing a skull) play the central role in moving along the plot as the search for Infinite Jest (referred to primarily as “the Entertainment”) progresses.

I mentioned pain.  It is, throughout the book, both physical and emotional.  Almost everybody is addicted to something.  And almost everybody is trying to beat their respective addictions. As the plot moves closer to the discovery (or not) of the Entertainment, so Hal and Gately are drawn closer — figuratively and literally, intermediated in part by the Wraith (the shade of Himself) .  It is not evident until relatively close to the end, but Hal and Gately  are parallel characters and, by the end, Gately’s almost unendurable physical pain is matched by Hal’s increasing emotional pain.  Yet, for both, the almost maddeningly inconclusive end promises each a sort of redemption.  Life is mindless, almost unendurable suffering, Wallace tells us, but redemption is possible for those who seek it.

Wallace’s intelligence and knowledge are prodigious, as is evident in his descriptions of the tennis academy,  the pharmacology of narcotics, their effects, and the symptoms of their withdrawal, his understanding of game theory, the choreography of fist fights, and so much more.  His imagination is remarkable and extraordinarily detailed.  The game of Eschaton is almost excruciating in the complexity of its presentation, as the game that creates members of A.F.R. is simple, bizarre, and utterly believable.  And his knowledge and use of the English language?  As someone who was taunted as a child due, in part, to an unusually broad vocabulary, I have to confess to having to look up words almost on every page.  But the prose is lapidary.  Even the Faulknerian sentences are honed just-so.  It is magnificent to read.

I have never seen the work of any artist who makes the pain of living so much fun.  And yet.  There is a special poignancy in reading this book, knowing that its author, in his own words, “eliminated his own map” in 2008.  For, with that knowledge, one can see why DFW killed himself as one reads Infinite Jest.  It is hard to imagine going through life with such an unblinking appreciation of the human condition, even one as leavened by humor as was Wallace’s, without something snapping.  It is a very sad loss for all of us.  As it is, Infinite Jest is, to my mind, our generation’s equivalent of Ulysses.  That would be enough for anybody.  But one can only imagine what he might have written had he survived.

Read it.  You’ll thank me.

Lawrence Mitchell