Tuesday, 05 April 2005

Amazon's Statistically Improbable Phrases Amazon's new feature: Amazon.com Statistically Improbable Phrases: Amazon.com’s Statistically Improbable Phrases, or “SIPs”, show you the interesting, distinctive, or unlikely phrases that occur in the text of books in Search Inside the Book. Our computers scan the text of all books in the Search Inside program. If they find a phrase that occurs a large number of times in a particular book relative to how many times it occurs across all Search Inside books, that phrase is a SIP in that book. SIPs might be the new Cliff Notes. You can learn everything that makes a particular work unique by them. For instance, the SIPs in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!--monkey nigger, wild negroes, wild niggers-- say all anybody needs to know about this classic work of American literature. What could you possibly need to know about Abraham Lincoln that you couldn't glean from his SIPs: not exist within their limits, cotten goods, policy that agitation, cannot exclude slavery, abolition platform, cranberry laws, annual joyous return, prohibited therein, requisite population, provision for submitting, unconstitutionally commenced, slavery therein, territorial existence, acquiring additional territory, nationalize slavery, unconditional repeal, ask your attention, slave constitution, unfriendly legislation, alike lawful, abolition counties, own way subject, long continued applause, useless labour, carry slavery. American History 101! Who needs college? Not you! Cornered by an annoying Holy Roller? Don't want to admit you haven't had time to read The Mark: The Beast Rules the World (Left Behind No. 8)? No problem! The SIPs know all: enforcement facilitators, old safe house, loyalty mark. Smile, smack 'em on the back and tell 'em "Better slap on those loyalty marks before the enforcement facilitators break down the doors of the old safe house!" You and he or she will be brothers or sisters or siblings in Christ before you know it. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is as intellectually weighty as it is, well, weighty. Always wanted to be a member of the intellectual elite? Never had the time to read a 1300 page novel with 300 pages of footnotes? No problem! Just tell 'em you loved it, what with all the entertainment cartridges, annular fusion, dawn drills, professional conversationalist, feral hamsters. They'll be so impressed! This time you'll make them say her momma! And finally, a missive from the future: "Damn, A. Cephalous, I'd love to read Ulysses but I can't find the time," says Some Gay Guy. You're in luck. It just so happens that I've its SIPs right here on my desktop: tooraloom tooraloom tooraloom, quaker librarian, absentminded beggar, matrimonial gift, base barreltone. "What about A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?" What about it? "What's the deal with it?" I see, I see. It's a relatively simple book about epiphany technique, fallen seraphim, ardent ways, windless hour, esthetic image. P.S. Some Gay Guy: Next time you find yourself at a trendy West Hollywood party surrounded by queer theorists, I've found a hoard of conversation starters for you: washroom sex, ridiculous theater, queer structure, gay punk, lesbian...
"Don't get all earnest on us, or next time we TotallyFukk you, we'll remove that thin sheet of protective cellophane." So threatens Doris to Brad Carrigan in George Saunder's new story Brad Carrigan, American. I'm ambivalent about "postmodern American fiction," especially when it's a Barthian "satire" that's "satirizing" objects it's "deconstructing" out of existence. I find Barth blah. Except for The Sot-Weed Factor, which I love, but only because the objects of its satire--byzantine Dickensian novels and the works of Horatio Alger--are viable satirical targets. (Reducing the 60's "Cultural Revolution" to a "Campus," as he does elsewhere, then simultaneously satirizing both the revolution and the Academy is mighty clever--and at times hilarious--but, targeting both ensures he'll always miss one.) So when I discovered the works of George Saunders, I only read them reluctantly. They're too clever by half, but they're not clever in the Barthian mold; they're clever in the way David Foster Wallace's works are clever. James Woods' description of Wallace's appeal applies equally well to Saunders: Still, the relentlessness of his commitment to decomposign his own language can yield an authentic American loneliness, a hollowed space filled only by brand names and the sound of corporate jingling: "In his spare time Terry Schmidt read, watched satellite television, collected rare and uncirculated US coins, ran discriminant analyses of TFG statistics on his Apple PowerBook, worked in the small home laboratory he'd established in his condominium's utility room, and power-walked on a treadmill in a line of eighteen identical treadmills on the mezzanine-level CardioDeck of a Bally Total Fitness franchise just east of the Prudential Center on Mies van der Rohe Way, where he sometimes also used the sauna." I include the Wallace quotation to bolster Woods' point, a good one, that there're three paths down which contemporary American novelists scuffle. The first leads to a rejection of contemporary American life in favor of a sometimes superficial (Updike) and sometime penetrating (Roth) analysis of how-we-got-here-from-there. The second path, blazed by Barth but currently populated with the MFA detritus of the Carter, Reagan, and Bush years, leads to the Funhouse, where everyone wears grotesque ironic smiles and nothing can, does, or will ever matter oustide of charming formulations about how nothing can, does, or will ever matter. David Foster Wallace and George Saunders pilgrimage the third path; they exploit the techniques of the Barthians to recoup the meaningfulness of life; they write what I'll call "allegories of rationalization." What is an allegory of rationalization? Read the Saunders. It'll click. If it doesn't, you can make like Brad and go "up on to the roof, install the roof platform, duct-tape the AIDS baby to the roof platform, then come directly down, borrow your butter, and go home." EDIT: Just found another of his stories on the New Yorker website. To wit: "My Guilty Pleasures" Those of us in the "literary game" often have "guilty pleasures" that we indulge in when not translating Cicero from the Latin into the German and then back into the Latin, to see how funny it sounds. My favorite guilty pleasure is watching the new TV series "The...

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