Serial Exploiter of Books

Of course, one person does not a sample make. Still, I’m tempted to conclude that speculative fiction, apart from providing a lens through which to view alternate and futuristic worlds, as well as delivering a hefty jolt of pleasure and enjoyment, makes its readers more insightful, more honest, in a word, more truthful. For how else can we explain the virile ease with which Randy Honold, our honored guest this week, lets drop the two most important yet underappreciated words in the male lexicon? Man. Crush. Yep, if only Tiger Woods had read a little DeLillo, a little Saramago, a little Richard K. Morgan, who knows, he might have discovered the pleasures of an innocent, family-preserving bromance.

 

Who are you?  

Spouse of 27 years, father of two grown daughters, assistant dean at DePaul University, teacher of environmental studies and philosophy courses, photographer, music lover, bicyclist. And of course avid reader! What I’m definitely not is a literary critic of any sort, or a good critic of critics. I’m sure much of what I read would be considered perfectly disrespectable by folks with a more refined sensibility.  

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?  

Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. I’m not sure she succeeded in disclosing anything new and interesting about the near future world she first imagined in Oryx and Crake. Just before that I read David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries. I’m a big fan of his music, I like to bike in cities, so I figured I’d love this. Not so much. When he actually shared his experiences biking in urban areas it was fun. Otherwise, it was intellectually disappointing. The novel I really liked, which I read a couple of months ago, was Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. Every page gave me a “wow,” in the same ways that Kundera did for me twenty years ago. At least once every year I come up with an excuse to have my students read Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and that time happens to be right now. It’s become an appendage to my psyche; whatever states I and the world are in when I re-read it are highlighted and reflected back to me with a kind of funhouse mirror effect. Simulacra, pharmaceuticals, toxins, and death — what’s not to love?  

In your opinion, what’s the most neglected literary genre?  

Logic and feeling: eternal paramours

I’m not sure it’s neglected, but I want to gush over speculative fiction. I find some of the stuff that’s come out recently to be really stimulating and smart. Let me mention three authors I’m infatuated with. Per my comment above about disrespectability, I want to give props to Richard K. Morgan. Can I say I have a man crush on him? Violence, sex, iconoclasm, idolatry — he doesn’t hold back on any of it, but nothing is gratuitous. Everything serves the plot and is deployed fearlessly in a neo-noir style. Even though she’s finally getting her due, unfortunately posthumously, Octavia Butler needs to be more widely read. No one else I know has done a better job of imagining future embodiments of gender, race, ideology, and technology. In a style that couldn’t be more different from Morgan’s, she builds insight, hope, and fear in equal measures. I had a chance to meet her at a book signing in the late ‘90’s and when I got to the table could only babble something reminiscent of what that Chris Farley character on SNL (the college radio dj who interviewed that week’s musical guest) would say: “Uh, like I really like your books. Huh – thanks!” Finally, I devour everything Neal Stephenson puts out. I don’t want to count the hours I spent reading The Baroque Cycle, but I don’t regret a minute of it. The Diamond Age is my favorite.  

Schopenhauer famously argues that music is the art form par excellence for communicating the essence of the world. What do you say in defense of narrative fiction?  

Schopenhauer is onto something here. But let’s recall his erstwhile rival, Hegel, and do some dialectical synthesis. I have unending admiration for anyone who can write music, and for anyone who can write a compelling narrative. Thus the highest form of art is the three-minute pop song with a catchy melody and pithy narrative. For me, they go most short stories one better. Sure, the medium is different, but I’ve probably gotten as much out of Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer, and Aimee Mann as I have from any three authors. I keep twisting these questions, don’t I?  

If you could meet a character on the halodeck, who would it be? And what would you do?  

Last evening we saw a production of “Frankenstein” by an experimental theatre group. The director staged the play in the midst of the audience. We meandered around, getting as close to the action as we wanted. Kind of a low-tech holodeck. The experience made me wonder what it would be like to hang out with the monster a while. I’d set the tone by inviting him to talk about the tragedy of existence over a beer, maybe some kuchen, or on a walk through the hills at night. I’d bring him up to speed about present-day scientists’ ability to manipulate life and how his creator’s name is shorthand for technological hubris. I’d share my fascination with the figure of the cyborg in contemporary culture and ask him how he feels being the ancestor of all kinds of engineered mergings of the organic, machinic, and electronic. But if he suggested we partake in some vengeful bloodletting, that’s when I’d quit the program.  

Do you have any pet peeves or superstitions when it comes to books?  

No. I used to treat them as precious commodities, almost fetishizing them. I schlepped boxes of them from apartment to apartment, never got rid of any, and when we bought a house built some bookshelves to display them properly. Then one day when I couldn’t find one I was looking for I realized I lent it to a student years ago and never got it back. And suddenly I didn’t care; I was happy it was in the hands of someone who wanted it too. I’ve come to prefer having things cycle through my life rather than get overly attached to them.  

Why do you read?  

When you get to the point that you can’t not do something — as long as you have the means – some of how you got there is lost forever. Or, the reasons are so tangled up with other things you do or don’t do that you can’t determine what’s what any more. I confess I have a hard time separating the “why” from the “what!” Why do I try to divide my reading between fiction and non-fiction? Why am I so disinterested in most classic, especially American, literature? Why have I been gravitating toward speculative fiction over the last decade or so? I think Aristotle was right that it’s all about flourishing, or what Csikszentmihalyi called flow. I’ve come to realize this is the goal of most of my reading — and whatever else I do — though I know going in whatever buzz I get won’t last. When I finish a novel I recall shockingly little about plot, sequences of events, even characters’ names; what I’m left with is a clump of feelings. I’m a serial exploiter of books for my own temporary pleasures!

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5 Responses to Serial Exploiter of Books

  1. Linda Palapala says:

    First of all, thank you – you are one of the few readers I have come across who realizes Richard Morgan doesn’t do anything gratuitously. He is my favorite author because he doesn’t hold back. His books restored my interest in speculative fiction.

    Re why do you read: You’ve managed to describe exactly why I read,(especially the clump of feelings part). Richard’s book Thirteen (Black Man) not only took me somewhere else, but expanded my interest in many things (if you read any of the books in his further reading list). I’ve also begun reading other non-American authors – American authors no longer seem to take me “someplace else” or expand my knowledge.

    I’ve written down your other recommendations and will try these books, as we seem to think alike a bit.

  2. Kevin, I love the diversity among the readers you continue to showcase. Thank again for doing this labor of literary love.

    Randy, not that many of the readers here have touched on the realm of speculative fiction. I agree with you on many points, my own reading and writing definitely dip into speculative fiction and magic realism.

    I wonder what you think is the greatest boon of the genre? What does it have to offer us in this particular time and space?

    ~Valya

  3. Kevin Neilson says:

    Valya, thank you!

  4. Randy Honold says:

    Hi Linda,

    Thanks for your comment. I need to go back to the “further reading” section of Thirteen. I found his list in Market Forces to be revealing.

    Hi Valya,

    Good questions. For me, good novels get me thinking about things in new ways, and this genre tends to do that more for me than others.

    There are two more books I can’t believe I didn’t mention: 1) David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (see Kevin’s earlier post) really made an impression on me. I just ran across a blurb in the J/F 2010 Adbusters, by Adrian Alcroft, that’s right on: “The novel is primarily concerned with how one world creates another, and Mitchell is primarily concerned with creating a new aesthetic for the novel: one that is playful but difficult…inspiring to those demanding something new.”
    2) Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. It’s set in India about 40 years in the future. I’ve had the good fortune to travel to India a couple of times recently, and am falling in love with it, so this book hit me at the right time. It captures the hallucinatory quality of sensory overload and temporal discontinuity you feel when you’re there. I need to read it again, and now I see he has a follow up volume of short stories. Another one into the queue!

    ~Randy

  5. Linda Palapala says:

    Hi again Randy,

    Re “Further Reading” in Thirteen – Nature via Nurture is quite interesting, especially the section about area 13 of the brain. I’ve just read a book by Llosa, a Peruvian author, “pishtaco” is talked about. Things Richard did not make up!

    Hmm, I have Cloud Atlas in my library but just could not get into it. Now I’ll have to try one more time to read it! I haven’t been able to read Ian MacDonald. There’s something about his sentence structure that really bugs me.

    I’ve also found a Catalan author I think is interesting. Albert Sanchez Pinol – Cold Skin was read in an evening and now I’m reading Pandora in the Congo.

    Thanks again for your suggestions.

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