The Feast of Love

Author: Charles Baxter
Year: 2000
Genre: Literary fiction

The concept of The Feast of Love is that a lot of different people are telling their personal love stories to the character Charlie Baxter. The stories, which intersect, deal with mostly ill-fated love for spouses, partners, children. I originally took the "author as narrator" thing to be a standard post-modern gimmick, but my fellow book club members convinced me that it does serve a purpose: it gives all the characters a reason to tell their story, leading the various narrators to be characters as well, each with their own motivation and point of view.

For the most part, I thought the characters were interesting and believable; I liked some of them, and disliked the ones I was supposed to dislike. The one exception was the teenage character, whose voice I found to be exaggerated and unconvincing. I thought this was something I could talk about with some authority, being a high school teacher, but my fellow book club members disagreed.

The love stories, as I said above, are ill-fated, but that's really what makes a story. Baxter deals with this fact specifically. As one character says after having found true love:

We do what you do in tandem when you belong together ... We fit together. (I avoid saying these things in public; people hate to hear it, as if I'd forced them to eat raw sugar.) There's nothing to talk about to strangers anymore, if you know what I mean. Everything I want to say, I want to say to her. Life has turned into what I once imagined it was supposed to be, as complacent and awful as that sounds. In fact, I don't really want to talk about this anymore. As the poet says, all happy couples are alike, it's the unhappy ones who create the stories.

I'm no longer a story. Happiness has made me fade into real life.

El beso de la mujer araña

Author: Manuel Puig
Year: 1976
Genre: Literary fiction

I read this years ago for a college seminar on voyeurism, and picked it up again, this time in the original, to practice my Spanish.

Other books have led me to write about how speech patterns and dialogue can be tools for characterization, but this book is nothing but dialogue and character. It's a story of two men in a prison cell in 1970s Argentina, the young political prisoner Valentin and the old homosexual Molina, and is written primarily as a record of their conversation. Aside from the talk about their lives in Buenos Aires and their hopes for when they are released, much of the novel is taken up with Molina's retelling the plots of films to pass the time.

Valentin does not talk like Molina. In fact, in developing his characters, Puig shows himself to be practically an applied sociolinguist. Their turn-taking and interrupting, politeness strategies, and discourse styles are distinct. For instance, it's my impression that Molina "talks like a woman," using more typically female conversational styles. (I wonder if Deborah Tannen would agree.) Not only is each character realized and developed through dialogue, but as their relationship grows, their speech patterns mirror those changes. They move away from the self-conscious stereotypes of the revolutionary (brusque, businesslike, analytical) and old queen (emotional, hypersensitive), and become more well-rounded personalities.

The Complete Concrete

Author: Paul Chadwick
Year: 1988
Genre: Science fiction

Most American comics fall into the superhero genre, and a lot of the most thoughtful ones use that genre to make an interesting statement. Concrete falls into that second category, along with Astro City, It's a Bird, and others of my personal favorites.

The concept is the normal guy who is mysteriously granted super powers, a Silver Age cliche that recalls Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. This time, though, our hero is not a desperate teenager but a grown man, a politician's speechwriter, and recently divorced. Also, unlike his Marvel predecessors, Concrete does not live in a world of superheroes; he is the only one of his kind. This premise leads to a more realistic consideration of the superhero in society: there are government cover-ups, scientific research, celebrity appeal. Concrete becomes a licensed character, and goes on tour with a musician who resembles Prince. Wherever he goes, he is the center of attention.

In the end, it's a poignant story of a man who is granted new opportunities at the same time that the possibility of simple human existence is taken from him. He can (and does) attempt to swim the Atlantic Ocean and climb Mount Everest, but work, romance, and family are no longer part of his life. Throughout all of his trials, though, Concrete remains a believably human character. This volume's cover image says it all: it's a portrait of Concrete, whose two fragile eyes peer out from behind a face of stone.

Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding

Author: Georgia M. Green
Year: 1996
Genre: Linguistics

It's pretty clear that the meaning of words is conventional. I use the word computer to refer to this thing that I'm typing on because when I write that word to you, you know what I mean. The first time I realized this important fact about language, it seemed like the end of the discussion because it explains so much. On the contrary, though - it's just the beginning.

Pragmatics is the field of linguistic inquiry that explores how language is used to construct meaning between individuals. This can mean the flexibility in the meaning of individual words: we know what computer means, but when I talk about the New York Times, do I mean:

  • a copy of the newspaper (I bought the Times today)
  • the information contained in it (I can get the Times online)
  • the paper's editorial board (The Times says the Democrats are right)
  • the business that publishes the paper (The Times owns the Boston Globe)
  • or what?

Mostly, I judge from the context of the conversation and from what I know of you to determine what you're probably trying to express. This sort of conversational mind-reading guessing game is going on all the time; it's what allows us to express nonverbal ideas in a verbal medium, and to produce infinitely many thoughts with a finite number of words.

Pragmatics also deals with the ways people use language to achieve social goals, from a simple request to an attempt to persuade or change someone's mind. The assumptions we make about other people's prior knowledge are pragmatic, as are the form and function of politeness.

Georgia Green's book explores all this and more. It's a rewarding read for anyone who is interested in the hidden details of language and the assumptions behind its use, as long as they're not put off by a modicum of technical language or too cool to read textbooks for fun. (I'm clearly not.)


Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Year: 1966
Genre: Literary fiction

So much has been said about this book that I'm not going to attempt a comprehensive review. Since this is a reread, I'll focus on what I noticed in particular this time:

Imagine that Billy Pilgrim's daughter Barbara is right, and that Billy's time travel and Tralfamadorean dreams are, in fact, hallucinations. He's experiencing an extended episode of post-traumatic stress disorder initially brought on by his presence during the bombing of Dresden. He can't look at his wartime memories, but neither can he look away, so he feels that he has come "unstuck in time." Everyday events remind him unpredictably of the horrors he witnessed (typical of PTSD sufferers, I believe), leading him to see them so vividly that he believes he is literally reliving them.

The constant bouncing between 1945 Dresden and 1960s Babbittry, together with the all-too-human wishful belief that someone out there knows all the answers, starts to take its toll on Billy's sanity. Becoming the sole survivor of a plane crash pushes him off the deep end, and he invents himself some someones in fantastic Kilgore Trout style. The result is the Tralfamadoreans, whose four-dimensional sight tells Billy just what he has always wanted to hear: that one cannot totally escape from horror, but one can ignore it. 130,000 people burned to death? So it goes.

My father also reread Slaughterhouse-five recently, and found it to be a shallow book with little to offer beyond "People die; war is bad; so it goes." I think he might be right about his conclusion, but I don't agree that it comes from shallowness. Rather, I would argue that Vonnegut is expressing humility before the awesome and unspeakable events of war. So it goes, I believe, falls somewhere between a Zen koan and Wittgenstein's "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."