Are some writers so morally unsavoury that their novels, however admirable, are incapable of being lovable? Amy Hungerford, Ruth Fulton Benedict Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, certainly thinks so. In her polemic against Wallace in general, and Infinite Jest in particular, she opines that Wallace’s zealous defence of the length of his doorstop against a condescendingly described Michiko Kakutani’s protestations can only be evidence of his misogyny.
Visual arts are conventionally classified as spatial arts; they can be apprehended in a single moment. Yet, arguably, they also codify a temporal dimension which is elided by the spatial vs. temporal art dichotomy. Acrylic paints dry very rapidly, dry to a darker shade, and create layers of application that have a uniform level of saturation throughout a brushstroke. These facts about the medium compel the acrylic artist to constantly mix colours for each part of a painting, mix colours a smidgen lighter than they intend it to appear in the final work, and achieve any gradations in colour intensity implied by the lights and shadows on the subject using as many tints and shades of the local colour as may be required to achieve smooth transitions. By contrast watercolours dry relatively slowly, dry to a lighter tint, and create applications that have a gradated saturation going from high to low from the centre of a brushstroke to its peripheries [modulo the wetness of the paper].
Surveying the squishy underbellies of the artist, the art critic, and the neuroscientist in their capacity as aesthetic theorists it becomes apparent that they are too close to a given art form to take a panoptic view of aesthetic value, have overweening critical predilections that are not susceptible to rational justification, or take an impractically narrow view of what is in fact an incredibly vast and undifferentiated domain of human endeavour. The philosopher of art remains free to remedy these deficiencies in her analyses because she is disposed, and called upon, to rise above the form-specific evaluative standpoints of artists, replace the idiosyncratic judgements of professional critics with rational frameworks that apply across the whole aesthetic domain, and find reliable ways to answer questions not reducible to facts about what goes on in the human body having an aesthetic experience at a given level of resolution. One might cavil that the artist, the critic, and the neuroscientist might themselves take on the role of the philosopher by rising above and remedying the specific deficits of their typical analyses, exemplified in our discussion. Of course, they are welcome to do so. But clearly in doing this they abandon their identity and theoretical precommitments qua artists, critics, or neuroscientists and become philosophers of art themselves. They’ve not stolen the philosopher’s lunch so much as joined her at the buffet.
Charlie Kaufman’s (2020) Antkind has been described as unsummarizable. Though he has offered an intelligible gist in several interviews, it’s fairly obvious he doesn’t want readers to think that’s that. Is this novel worth reading, and should you read it? These are questions a review is obligated to answer, though literary criticism might elide them. In advertising this piece as a review I am committed to answer. So, I’ll say it absolutely is worth reading. As to whether you should read it, it depends on whether or not: you are okay with reading words like hebetudinousness, and pulchritudinous in fiction; you are willing to let the central plot meander without resolution; you are fine with metafictional political and cultural commentary that is becoming stale even as you read this. This piece also is a small serving of literary criticism, and like Kaufman I think criticism ought to deliver more than a vote or veto. Accordingly, I’ve spent some time zooming in on aspects of Antkind’s modus operandi qua shaggy dog story, its use of free association, its formal innovation, and its literary register. If you come away thinking you’re likely to find this book to be deserving a 3.5 out of 5 then I’ll have succeeded in my project. That’s my rating in any case.
Rating: 3/5 Pitched as a self-help book, Nilima Chitgopekar’s (2019) The Reluctant Family Man: Shiva in Everyday Life draws lessons for personal development from Hindu mythology pertaining to Shiva. At a slender 132 pages the book is brisk, the tone conversational, and the choice of stories interesting. A few stories are mined deeply at various points in the book, giving the discussion a continuity which will provide an easy point of access to those unfamiliar with Indic mythology.
Kunzru is clever and modest enough to recognize that his protagonist would be readily, and appropriately so, categorized as a Soyjak with his “eyes wide” and his “mouth hanging open in an idiotic ‘o’” of outrage (p.182) and has some groypers depict him that way in a meme. The humanely painted characters fail to make much happen in their lives or the narrative given the soaring ambition of the novel and relative sparsity of the plot. In a better novel the loss of the fundamentally decent to the vagaries of time and chance would've been less pathetic, perhaps even galvanizing. In the novel as it is, however, one sees that the world is unfair but delights in the abasement of the Soyjak. Read it for the lyrical prose, and abandon all hope if you yearn to see neoreaction effectively satirised. It is deserving of a respectable 2.5/5.
There are several specific references to pitches and chords in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Most of these are unfortunate and reveal a lack of adequate research or editorial oversight. We can love writing and writers without losing perspective about the difference between the two. Learning to live with a beloved writer’s foibles, and triumphs, is not a betrayal of the writer’s vision but a blow for their work’s longevity and enduring relevance in the face of its own and its author's failings. To acknowledge our heroes have feet of clay is not to deny their heroics, but to find them grounded in our world. It’s all well and good to say Wallace achieved something transcendent in Infinite Jest, but to deny the sour notes in his recital doesn’t establish his virtuosity as much as it shows us to be tone deaf.