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Sui Generis book club #8

The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Ha ha. This book was so totally like 90% whoosh, right over my head, man. I'd heard it mentioned in connection with the Situationists and Dadaism, and along with the concept of détournement probably via Adbusters or the like. When something keeps popping up I figure it must be important, and so maybe three years ago I started to search for this book. My library system didn't carry it. I couldn't find it at any local stores. I looked at a copy at Powell's City of Books a while back, but didn't actually buy it until this Christmas with gift certificates.

So I don't know if it's the translation, or the subject matter, or what, but after a promising start I got lost here. I kept reading in hopes that it would begin to coalesce at some point and become clear, but that never happened. There were a few points where I thought I understood something interesting, but then I'd be left behind again and utterly confused. I stuck it out because I actually paid for it. Had I actually read through any of it first, I never would have bothered. It's too bad, because by all accounts it sounds like there are incredible insights contained in this book... but for whatever reason, I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Clearly there is something the matter with me. If you are smart enough to get through this weighty prose, then I applaud you. Otherwise: Two spectacular thumbs down.

To be fair, here's a random sample sentence that gives you a taste of how this reads:

A critical theory of the spectacle cannot be true unless it joins forces with
the practical movement of negation within society; and this negation, which
constitutes the resumption of revolutionary class struggle, cannot for its part
achieve self-consciousness unless it develops the critique of the spectacle, a
critique that embodies the theory of negation's real conditions -- the practical
conditions of present-day oppression -- and that also, inversely, reveals the
secret of negation's potential.

Now okay, I can take some time to parse that and suss out some meaning, but then imagine that this goes on and on for 154 pages. If you like that idea, you'll love the rest of the book!

Dvorak: "Absolutely Perfect"?

I switched my keyboards at home and work to the Dvorak layout over three months ago, which means my status report is overdue for anyone who wonders about such things. As you may recall, I was hoping for increased typing speed and reduced strain on my fingers and tendons and stuff. Only time will tell if I'm warding off the Carpal Tunnel. I have become very confident with it, and my accuracy is decent. My main problem is finding keys too quickly with whatever hand I'm not using at the moment and actually getting ahead of myself. I haven't measured my speed in a long time, so I found a free online test and gave it a shot. My average words per minute with the default QWERTY layout generally hovered around 65-70 wpm. Here are my results on the first try with Dvorak:

Percentage Accuracy : 100%
Percentage Inaccuracy : 0%
Characters per minute : 326 cpm
Characters per second : 5 cps
Words per minute : 61 wpm
Words per second : 1 wps
Total Speed status : Good
Overall Accuracy : Absolutely Perfect

Which, although not quite up to the standard of my pre-Dvorak days, is a pretty respectable showing. I hoped to have surpassed my former speed by the three-month mark, but I'm pretty happy with this and hoping for continued improvement. Learning to type all over again was a fun experiment that seems to have paid out. The primary benefit is flummoxing friends and tech support people when they try to use your computer and realize that they are typing gibberish. Then you can step in and type with absolute smoove perfection while they stand, with gaping jaws, stricken by your keyboarding mastery. It was worth doing the switch for this reason alone.

UPDATE. chickenmagazine says: "I've never heard that the Dvorak keyboard is supposed to help with carpal tunnel. Are you guessing, or did you hear it somewhere?" I started typing a response in the comments, but it was running long.

Indeed it has been claimed that "Dvorak has alleviated some people's repetitive-stress injury (RSI) symptoms" but there is a better answer to that question here:

At this point in time, there aren't any authorities willing to say that any specific thing either definitely causes or prevents Carpal Tunnel Syndrome... There are plenty of personal accounts from people who have said that switching to Dvorak has made a difference.
Author Holly Lisle is one of those people. She writes, "I hoped [the Dvorak layout] might alleviate my wrist pain (it has so far put an end to it entirely.)"

Personally, I've never had much pain to complain about, so my switching to Dvorak was more prophylactic in this regard. I will say that it just plain feels better now that I'm used to it. Of course, this makes sense from an ergonomic point of view. The FAQ article continues:
Considering that Dvorak was made to make typing easier, and QWERTY designed to make typing harder, one can at least conclude that switching to Dvorak might be beneficial. It certainly won't make things worse!

Sui Generis book club #7

How to Want What You Have: discovering the magic and grandeur of ordinary existence, by Timothy Miller, Ph.D.

This here's a book on contentment and simplicity. I thought it was pretty good. I disagreed with some of the assertions and claims in this book, but there were enough great quotes and interesting ideas to make it worthwhile. It's a quick enough read that I can recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who's interested in this kind of thing.

Personally, I felt like it was retreading a lot of ground that I've covered before, but that's not a bad thing either. There are some things that we need to be reminded about over and over. Did I get anything new out of it? Yeah, I think so. Just the fact that I was reading about it and thinking about living in the present was enough to make me put down the book for an hour to call an old friend and then go outside for a walk in the snow to look at the full moon. I'd say I got my money's worth.

The going gets weird

MobyLives offers additional thoughts on Hunter S. Thompson today. That site doesn't offer permalinks, so I'm paraphrasing for posterity:

"the body of the late maverick journalist will be cremated this week and his ashes blasted from a cannon across his sprawling ranch in Woody Creek, Colo.,"
"What worries me is that Thompson's suicide may now make it easier for the forces of reaction to dismiss his achievement... just remember that Cato himself fell on his sword rather than live in a world ruled by Caesar..."
"To paraphrase Joe Hill, don't mourn, read. Pick up 'Hell's Angels,' or either of Thompson's 'Fear and Loathing"' books... only Hunter Thompson knows why he did himself in. Speculation consoles nobody. All that's left is to keep reading those angry, funny, deeply patriotic books of his."

Good advice. I was just looking at 'Hell's Angels' on the day before his death, and it has been summarily bumped to the top of my To Be Read pile. For more collected articles on H.S. Thompson, go to the Guardian.

Bahamas Week part four

We woke up with the roosters on Friday morning for one last time and watched the sun come up during our cab ride to the airport. Once again there was a delay at Bahamasair while the two employees worked for over half an hour to try to book a flight for the guy in front of us. They gave us the finger one last time on the way back to Florida: they didn't offer us anything to drink, but the stewardess mixed something for herself and sipped it in the back of the plane. At least we did have a $30 voucher to spend at the Fort Lauderdale airport that Bahamasair had offered us after the initial screwup, so we went to the food court Sbarro's for pizza and chocolate cake.

We checked into a hotel in a much better area of Fort L. and spent the whole day exploring the Riverwalk and Las Olas region of the city until we were all tired and sore. It was a nice touristy part of town bordered by a very sketchy part of town. I'm not a big fan of tourist stuff, so I took my wife out into the real city. We came around one corner to see a guy sitting handcuffed on the sidewalk w/ his back to the wall, surrounded by cops. Also there was a maniac going nuts honking his horn and screaming at a traffic light, who then made a U-turn and stopped in the middle of the road. I don't know what his problem was. Another person suddenly tried to go through a red light and hit the brakes in the middle of the intersection. All this happened while we were waiting to cross the street, which encouraged us to be really alert in the crosswalk.

Our task for the day was to find a restaurant at which to celebrate my birthday. I looked at the menus and wine lists of half the joints on Las Olas. Some were too expensive, some were just nothing special, one was too snooty, and most of them were really similar. Homogenization of the American Dining experience at work. We've got a hundred restaurants here and you can order the same thing in every one. We ironically chose a place called Panini Noodle (which give me a break, what a terrible name), that itself is not unlike my beloved Pizza Lucé in Minnesota: young servers dressed in black comparing tattoos,* exposed wooden beams in the ceiling, and sleek lighting and ambiance.

I ordered a glass of Cavit Pinot Grigio (which is a good value Italian wine) along with my panini dinner, and since my parents were paying, a slightly pricey Port for dessert. The four of us (minus my little brother, who would have thought it was gross anyway but had already gone into the cool shop next door) shared a crème brûlée. We were all sick of walking and flagged down a cab to take us back to the hotel.

I was craving a Dunkin' Donuts the whole time we were in Florida. My mom thought she had seen one nearby during her walking, so we got out the phonebook to try locating it, which turned into quite an ordeal. I called the front desk and asked where the closest one would be. She gave me an address, which means nothing to me, so I asked how to get there on foot. She responded with a smug chortle. "Well," she snuffed, "you're not going to walk, are you? It's two miles away!" Discouraged, but not defeated, I went down to the computer room by the hotel lobby and posted this after hitting up the Dunkin' Donuts website and finding a store just three blocks away. I walked over with J the next day and sure enough, there it was. The whole trip took twenty minutes and I got a half-dozen of my favorite donuts. Krispy Kreme can suck it, Dunkin' Donuts is the bomb.

Going through security, a supervisor told me I couldn't take my box of donuts on the plane, and actually grabbed it away from me. It turned out he was joking, but seriously, I get searched and hassled by enforcement types so often that I didn't even say anything. There's no point in arguing with people who have guns. I guess J. could see the disappointment on my face, though. "He's about to cry," she told the guy as he handed the box back and called me gullible. It was true, and I was angry with myself for not demanding that he give them back, but like I said before it wasn't the first time that I'd been singled out and I wasn't going to make a stink about donuts. Mostly I was damn glad to get my donuts back.

But and so but then we exchanged our tickets for a couple of seats right behind first class, which afforded us excellent leg room, a happy ending after all. I was paranoid about my donuts for the rest of the day, ended up eating them all, and felt pretty sick the next morning. THE END.

*I glanced over as a girl was covering up the intricate colorful work on her shoulder, and her coworker rolled up his trouser leg to show off an old-school ship on his calf which I couldn't get a good look at even though I craned my neck and leaned across the table so much that J. asked what in the world was wrong with me.

Categories: travel

Bahamas Week part three

The "Sailing Capitol of the Bahamas" is a title frequently applied to the Exumas, and we were appropriately eager to hit the water, so on Tuesday we started to explore the area by speedboat. This was clearly the ideal and most popular approach to transportation. The harbors and bays were filled with yachts and sailboats of varying sizes. It appeared that the majority of the transient population kept their big boats docked and used dinghies to commute between them and the shore. I am not proud to admit that this fact inspired me to say "quit playing with your dinghy" on more than one occasion.

On that day we docked at Stocking Island and walked across it to the wide-open ocean side. We played on the sand beach and watched the waves come in for an hour or so before returning to the boat. Rain started to fall almost immediately, and we were drenched by the time we got back to February Point. It was dark and drizzly for the rest of the day. I took a nice hot shower and a nap, and had plenty of time to dig into Infinite Jest. We played a dice game for a while and watched some American Idol on the satellite TV.

Calmer, warmer weather swept in overnight and stayed with us for the rest of the week. After being holed up indoors for half the previous day, J. and I were glad of the chance to slip out and walk to Georgetown on Wednesday morning for some quick liquor shopping. We bought a bottle of Nassau something-or-other, "the island spirit," because the packaging caught my wife's eye, plus a promising-looking bottle of dark Bahamian rum. We hid them from my parents back at the villa, since they like to hassle me about my drinking. But that's a topic for another day.

The next few hours were spent boating around and exploring little beaches on a nearby island. At the first stop, we stayed a while and waded through the shallow water to find shells and sea creatures. Mostly tiny snails and big starfish in that area, but we did find a few exotic animals. I spotted three or four squishy green sea-slugs oozing around, and a little brown ray. We took some abandoned shells with us.

For lunch, we returned to Stocking Island and ordered grilled cheese sandwiches at Chat 'n' Chill. There's been some talk in the 'sphere lately about grilled cheese being a great meal, which it is, when it's done right. My all-time personal favorite is tomatoes and red chili peppers with at least two kinds of good cheese (the choice of bread is also very important), although I once had a spectacular triple-decker that I've never been able to duplicate. When we got ours after a long wait, they turned out to be Velveeta slices melted in little hamburger buns. Worst grilled cheese sandwiches ever.

On the way out I got a little disoriented looking at the map and led us into water so shallow that our motor was kicking up sand. After we were properly grounded in knee-deep water, my dad and I jumped out of the boat to pull it back into deeper seas. The sand was pockmarked with holes that sunk down by a foot when I stepped into them, and my water shoes sucked to the bottom to make just taking a step into an ordeal. Eventually we got back out and the family spotted a huge ray on our way back to Great Exuma, which I missed seeing because I was too busy stewing over the fact that I can't even read a map.

I recovered my spirits after another hot shower to wash the muck out from between my toes. J. was feeling a little green around the gills, but a long nap was all she needed. While she rested, I walked back into town with my mom & brother to shop for groceries. We got back as the sun was setting and baked a good, filling dinner. That night I watched CSI and House for the first time. I don't know why I avoid TV when I'm at home in the Minnesota winter but can sit through two hours of it when I'm in the Bahamas. Probably because I was too worn out to do much of anything else. I still popped in and out of the villa to watch the stars during commercial breaks.

Thursday was our last full day in the Bahamas, and went snorkeling at last. My parents had some experience going in, but my wife and I only had the class practice in the YMCA pool. We all did fine and had a fun morning of that, then lunch and a siesta. My family dropped me & J. off in town and then took off for more boating. The two of us did a little souvenir shopping and thought about renting scooters, but I nixed that idea. Instead we just hung around and relaxed. We all had dinner back at the villa again and tried to finish up all the food we bought. Then we packed our suitcases so we were ready to go early the next morning for our flight back to Florida.

The final installment on Friday: fancy dinner, the flights home, and a hunt for Dunkin' Donuts!

on the left/top: view from the shore on Little Exuma, where we drove on the first day.
right/bottom: view of the February Point bay, from the porch of our second-story bedroom.

Bahamas Week part two

Our flight went without a hitch on the way from Miami to the Bahamas, and the plane landed on the island of Great Exuma after we were treated to a pretty bird's-eye view of the neighboring islands. At customs, Bahamian personnel opened and searched our luggage (which you will recall was in fact our wives' luggage due to the earlier mix-up and therefore contained exclusively women's clothing and underwear), but thankfully made no comment and waved us through.

A native islander greeted us by family name when we walked outside. It turned out that he had transported the girls to our villa when they arrived and had returned to wait for us, not knowing whether we would be coming that day or not. When he made a comment about our luggage, my dad asked him if our wives had bags when they arrived. That was a negative. It also turned out that, as is SOP with Bahamasair, they had failed to communicate with the fairer half of our party and inform them of the luggage/arrival situation.

But when we got to the villa for our happy reunion we didn't even care that our luggage was AWOL or that the quick ride cost $40, or that we were all starving and had nothing to eat, because we were in the Bahamas at last. I mixed myself a drink with the complimentary fifth of Bacardi gold and went to bed early with J.

Roosters woke me up at 0500h. the next morning and continued crowing all day long. When we got up and out of the house we discovered that February Point was Chicken Central on the island. Heidi Bond would have been in heaven down there, I'm telling you. All different types of beautifully-plumed roosters, fat hens everywhere, and at least one family scurrying around with a half dozen little juvenile chicks. Every time we walked down the street, we saw chickens tilting forward with their necks stretched out and wings held up yet tucked in and folded, dashing away from people and cars. At night we saw hens perched high up in trees and calling from their roosts:

"bukbukbukbukbukbukbukbuk buh-KAWW!!
bukbukbukbukbukbukbukbuk buh-KAWW!!"

It was a beautiful thing. Our first full day was productive. An unseasonal cold front was still blowing in from the north ("It was so cold the other day, I had to wear a jacket," our driver had exclaimed on the previous day). You know what they say about a bad day in the Bahamas better than a good day in Minnesota, but it kept us out of the water and we decided to rent a car for the day to explore the island's interior.

We headed south and mostly failed to find a beach or anything interesting, although we did see a group of wild goats in the road ("Look! deer," said my mom). It was when we drove into Georgetown that we saw a car with "RESPECT MY GANGSTER" printed in Gothic letters on the rear window. In town we bought some food at the island's one grocery store and brought it back to the villa to make ourselves some lunch. Our luggage was delivered from the airport, and I immediately shaved and applied some Old Spice, for which J. was extremely grateful.

That evening, we went to the island's "fancy" restaurant since it was out of town and we had the rental car. The maitre d' made a fuss about seating us without reservations, but reluctantly allowed us a table in the back. The room was empty except for one group in the corner, and nobody else came in for the entire time we were there. The average price for an entree was about $30, which made my parents' jaws drop open. Luckily, they accomodated my request for vegetarian meals for my wife and me, and charged us only $10 each. My dad and brother got $30 chickens and my mom ordered $25 shrimp. I also got a $3 bottle of Kelik, "the beer of the Bahamas." The label touted it as "export quality," although we wondered whether it had ever actually been exported anywhere. It was pleasantly good.

Since my parents had paid our airfare down to the island and basically covered all other costs for the week, proclaiming it to be a family vacation, I paid for the dinner that night. Paid through the nose! With my wallet still hurting, we drove back to the villa and I plunked down to read more Infinite Jest, which seemed to have an infinite number of pages remaining even as I crossed the 200 mark. The book really started coming together around page 200, and it kept getting better.

The Jest was just what I needed to keep me distracted and occupied in the times when I would normally be pounding through the intricacies of my own book-in-progress. It was hard for me to be away from my novel and I was feeling withdrawal symptoms already. In a way, however, it was a relief to get away from it. David Foster Wallace (the author of Infinite Jest) talks about writing here and describes the process as like a "hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around". The extended metaphor is grotesque, hilarious, and absolutely captures my own experience with it. When Holly Lisle writes that your book is not your baby,* this is not the kind of baby she was talking about.

Okay, that's all the time I've got for now. Tomorrow: beachcombing, grilled cheese, and must-see-TV! More photos will be up tonight.

*Encouraging authors to think of writing as an active, grueling ordeal with frequently flawed results; rather than as a natural gestation period that unfailingly produces a perfect, adorable infant

Categories: travel

Bahamas Week part one

J. and I left our apartment at about 0730h. on Saturday morning to drive to my parents' home. About halfway there she realized that she had forgotten to pack our camera and (being a photography major and enthusiast) was very upset. It was too late to turn back or even stop to buy a disposable camera, so I did my best to console her, but she was near tears when we pulled up in the driveway. I ran in the house and got my brother to lend us his nice digital camera. This cheered her up somewhat.

My college-aged brother drove us all down to the airport and dropped us off at the terminal and said goodbye. Our youngest brother, my parents, my wife and I checked in our luggage with Northwest and had a hassle-free flight down to Indianapolis and from there to Fort Lauderdale, FL. I got started on reading my book, Infinite Jest. I'll have a lot to say about this book, but just to give you an idea of the scale of the thing, it clocks out at over 1,000 pages with so many words squeezed into each one that it could easily have been formatted at 1,300 or more. Don't even get me started on the footnotes.

And but so I started reading Infinite Jest in the airport and got swept up into it right away even though I had no idea for the first few hundred pages what it was about or what kind of book I was really reading. My initial reaction was delighted confusion. Tonnes of different characters & storylines & tidbits, non-chronological, with a system of year-naming that is not elucidated until about halfway through the book. Great writing. I read maybe a hundred pages or so that day. In Florida we took a cab out to our hotel, which was expensive with small crappy rooms but an excellent pool in the back. We elected for dinner at the nearest place, which was a Denny's across the street.

This was a very bad idea. The restaurant was packed and severely understaffed, filled with kids and one cranky waitress. We were ready to order dessert by the time she finally got around to our table for the first time. The food was crappy but we didn't bother to complain, except for my mom who couldn't help herself. The other tables were trashed with food all over them; I felt bad for the people working there. Chalk up one more bad experience at Denny's, maybe the worst restaurant of all time.

My mom attempted to avoid buying an expensive breakfast in the hotel restaurant by taking a cab to buy groceries, but the ride cost $18 and so her plan sort of backfired. This hotel sucked. There was no hot water in the shower. The courtesy van they sent us had no trailer and we couldn't fit all our luggage inside. "We'll have one here in say five minutes," the driver promised us.

"I don't know why he said that," a hotel employee told us a half hour later. "It's not true. But one should be arriving soon."

So we were late to the airport and there was a problem with our scheduled flight on Bahamasair. The plane broke. "No worries," said the Bahamasair man, "plenty of room on a Continental flight. You're all booked for it." We tear-assed down to the opposite side of the airport with all our luggage. Of course, we weren't booked on the flight and they had only two available seats. Damn you Bahamasair! That's what we get for trying to save money by using a government-owned airline.

Anyway, my mom and wife were permitted to board and my dad and brother and self were put on standby. We checked our baggage and got special treatment at the security checkpoint, which means we went to the front of the line and got searched extra-carefully. Lost track of the women. When we arrived at the gate, the door was closed and a very unhelpful woman told us we were out of luck. "Nope, you're on standby," was all she would say. "You're not getting on the plane."*

"What about our luggage?" my dad asked. "It's been loaded already." She suggested we try the baggage services office.

After a big fuss at the office they managed to get some of our luggage off the plane and delivered back to us at the terminal. Only one problem: it was our wives' luggage. We returned to Bahamasair and updated them on the situation. They got us a new flight and a taxi voucher. We told them to please pass along the message to inform our wives, when they arrived in the Bahamas, that we had their bags and they should retrieve ours, and that we would be arriving that night. So with the girls' bags in tow, we took a cab down to Miami and took an American Eagle flight down to Great Exuma at last. Above please enjoy a photo of our view on the way there.

Next time: we arrive in the Bahamas and hijinks ensue.

*It turned out that at the same time all this was going on, there was a problem passenger making a big fuss on the plane that J. and my mom were on. Long story short, he and his wife got booted from the flight, which means that at least two of us could have boarded and flown down together (and actually all three of us could have, since J. saw other available seats). This of course only could have happened if the woman at the gate had been helpful in any way, which she was not. Damn you too, Continental. I hate you all.

Blood Drive

About a month ago, I signed up to give blood at my office. We had a minimum limit of volunteers to attain before the Bloodmobile people would agree to come out, and the initial response was less than anticipated. A couple of weeks ago, a company representative confessed that we were several pints short of a drive and begged more people to sign up. I was starting to hope that we had failed to reach the magic number and the whole thing would fall through (more on that in a second) when it was announced today that we got our quota and it's going to happen.

They also said that we can sign up for a particular time during the day to leave our cubicles, roll up our sleeves, and relinquish that precious fluid. This presents an interesting problem. Frankly, I hate giving blood. I did it once before, the attendant was sloppy, and my blood somehow got spattered all over my arm. I nearly passed out, twice. I am doing it again because:

  1. Giving blood is a Good Thing,
  2. I want to overcome my fear of needles that was exacerbated by the first occasion, and
  3. It's on my list of 101 things to do (for the reasons in #s 1 & 2), so I'll feel like a loser if I don't go through with it.

Now my question is, for what time do I volunteer? Should I be the first to go so that the nurses are fresh and alert, or late in the day when they've had some time to warm up and are in no hurry to finish with me and move onto the next vein? Or some time in between? I'm leaning towards morning, because that would give me the additional bonus of less time to worry about it. Any ideas?

Sui Generis book club #6

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

I started this book a while ago and wanted to finish before I left the States. I read his Love in the Time of Cholera after picking it up in a thrift store a few years back. I wasn't crazy about it at the time (primary complaint: the chapters were too freakin' long), but the themes resonated with me and I wanted to give Marquez another go. I'm glad I did.

I loved this book. It's in my top 50 for sure.

I was drawn in from the start (note: awesome opening sentence) and pulled along in curious wonder through the whole book. All of his characters are so alive--even the dead ones, who occasionally wander through the house and talk with the newcomers to the family. In the first instance of this happening, I was reminded of The Sims; in fact, there's a lot written about the house itself as it is expanded, renovated, redecorated, flooded, and finally destroyed. The setting for most of the book is Macondo, a vibrant, dynamic city with most of the action centered around the home of the Buendías. The story follows this family and all the people who come into contact with them.

Unfortunately the Buendías encounter a series of unfortunate events throughout the novel, and it got profoundly sad as the book went on. This seems to be intentional, as the matriarch of the home proclaims that her family is falling apart, and she sees all the old mistakes of her children being repeated by her great-grandchildren. I connected with these characters in a way that I rarely do, and I felt real heartache when bad things happened to them. But mixed in with the deaths and disappointments are the great joys of life, and Marquez captures these happy occasions just as well as the dark ones.

It's magical realism: the fantastic mixed with the mundane, more real than reality. Reading his books make me feel more human, more alive. And that's a wonderful and truly rare thing for a book to do, so I treasure books and authors that have this effect on me. It's been called "required reading for the entire human race," and everyone should at least pick it up and read through the first chapter or so. I bet you'll know right away whether it's your cup of tea or not. If you don't dig it from the start, you can put it back on the shelf with your curiosity satisfied; but if you like what you see, then you're in for a treat.

Sui Generis book club #5

Time for another book review! Today I'm attempting a Philip K. Dick triple feature: Time out of Joint, A Scanner Darkly, and Flow my Tears the Policeman Said. That's three for the price of one.

I've never done literary criticism before, so I'm stretching my analytical skills when I write these opinions. Please take them with a grain of salt. As with my wine reviews, I feel I lack the necessary words to give a proper treatment to the topic under discussion. I wish I had broader experience and a deeper pool of knowledge to draw from, but I guess we all have to start somewhere.

I've mentioned Dick before, but after reading these three novels, I have read only a total of five PKD novels (including Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) and a few of his short stories (including the Minority Report). So far, so good. I love everything that I've come across so far. But I love it in different ways. Let's discuss.

I read all three of the aforementioned books in the last couple of weeks. I started with Time out of Joint. I've seen this story described as the original "Truman Show," which is as close as I can come for a comparison. A man is being kept in an artificial world, but the reasons are more nebulous, the stakes are higher, and the disparity between that world and reality are more shocking when he escapes. I found this novel to be the weakest of the three. Several things just didn't seem to add up in the end, and left me scratching my head. For example, the protagonist is aided in his escape by a character who is apparently both aware of the ruse and motivated to keep him in the dark about it. I didn't understand this. But I enjoyed the book anyway.

A Scanner Darkly is a sad story about drugs and what they do to people. It's about a lot of other things as well, of course, but this seems to be his definitive anti-drug book. From my first encounters with PKD, I assumed he was some kind of whacked-out looney, but as I read more I was surprised to learn that he was passionate in his advocacy against drug abuse and spoke about drugs to addicts and young people. He was asked in an interview whether drug-taking was a positive influence for him (I believe this is before A Scanner Darkly was published). He answered,

No, absolutely not. There's nothing good about drugs. . . There was a time
in my life when I thought drugs could be useful, that maybe if you took enough
psychedelics you could see beyond the illusion of the world to the nature of
ultimate reality. Now I think all you see are the patterns on the rug turning
into hideous things.
This book is dedicated to people he knew who were destroyed by drugs, and it's a powerful statement. In a letter to his agent, he calls it "the greatest novel ever written. Or at least the greatest novel I've ever written anyhow." I couldn't agree more.

The main character in Flow my Tears the Policeman Said is a jerk. His identity is basically erased in the beginning of the book, and he's really confused about what's going on, but it doesn't stop him from acting like a creep. The plot of the book centers on him trying to figure out what has happened and why no one else realizes that something has gone wrong. I wanted him to uncover the mystery, but I didn't care if he found resolution. When it looks like he might be killed for no good reason at the end of the book, I thought it might teach him a lesson. So it's strange that I really loved this book for the characters.
I think that, more than any other PKD book I've read, this one is about the peaks and valleys of real life human relationships. This novel tackles all the big topics: love, drugs, fame, and power. And it's set in a compelling world with side-plots that could easily spawn books of their own. My favorite are the offhand references to a second American civil war that has driven students underground, where they live starving in warrens underneath the great universities. Police with submachine guns keep them under control, and draconian policies ensure they will be sent to forced-labor camps if they escape. Awesome.

Flow my Tears and A Scanner Darkly are both excellent books, and great places to start if you don't know Dick. These stories really get in your head and mess with you. Best of all, they're pretty short, so you can tell after a couple of hours whether you love them or hate them. A good sign for the former is if you can't put them down after you start reading, and stay up long past your usual bedtime to finish. And if you begin to suspect the latter, I humbly submit that there is something the matter with you.