In the book of my memory, after the first pages, which are almost blank, there is a section headed
Incipit vita nova.
Beneath this heading I find the words which it is my intention to copy into this smaller book, or if not all, at least their meaning.

Dante,La Vita Nuova

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Surface Noise: Or, How He Learned to Love the Structure More than the Tale Itself

I dunno what it is about books like Essays in Love and Me.  We don't get along too well.  The writing is smart, the prose is snappy, the composition is sound, the representations ring true.  It's even genuinely witty at times.  Yet, I hate it.  And I tried hard to like this book because of a growing optimism I have experienced since meeting my fellow reader who so recently and successfully pushed me not only to finish the book but to write about it here on DagSign (result of her wonderful post.)

Remember, later on, I have said here, early on:  Alain de Botton is a talented writer.  I just happen to think this novel is a poor exercise in Form and Content.  I admit that I disagree with how he uses Plato and Nietzsche, too, among others.  But that is beside the point.  I should be able disagree with an author's ideas and still appreciate his or her work.  Well...not when there is no other content to speak of.  Maybe not then.

Those of you who know me know my hate-on is turned-on regularly by certain kinds of authors, some of whom (but not many) write wonderful verse and prose.  I experienced a seemingly never-ending series of gag-inducing readings over my years in Denver cafes and graduate school.  But that's OK: I want everybody to write and to read and to share.  I'll give anyone a chance.  I'll always find a line, a phrase, even a word to like.  It's writing afterall.  I love it.  And I love language's democratic impulse to be freely shared.  However, the cynical intellectual elitist attitude, or pose, shared by many writers has always bummed me out.  What is it they have that they don't think I have?  What do they think they know that they believe needs so badly to be shared?  I ask this, of course, recognizing that I am often confused as one of these snobs because I freely consort with them.  I even have the nerve to call myself a writer.  Can you believe it?  (Notice how I continue to believe I am not one of them.  That's proof of my optimism, he's says as he leaves the room.) 

I have chosen to live the lifestyle.  But I have reaped my share of alienation(s) by vocally distancing myself from my colleagues with snorts of disbeliefs and even very direct "I cannot believe you think what you have to offer is any better than what anybody else has to offer" statements of disbelief.  I was not nice to many of my fellow grad students who I felt acted like children and behaved as if they deserved their leisurely lives.  They often admitted that they couldn't be bothered with things like teaching, research, and study.  (Well, not Duncan; but I have a perpetual boy-crush on him.)

I can paint you a pretty good portrait of what many 26 year-old women believe a poet should dress like--ugly scarves and turtlenecks--and speak like--husky voiced renderings of each line with an ear for her startlingly cool and quirky metaphors.  (Even she can't believe how good she is.) Or, a portrait of a young man writing what he thinks is genius prose.  This is the guy who chooses to be alone, who is smarter than you and me, and who laughs at the notion that he should represent IT in any other way.  Usually, this cynical prick and that poetess find each other after her reading, drink a bottle of wine over department gossip and sleep together sometime around three in the morning when she is drunk enough to lose prudish inhibitions about being naked around anybody other than her muse and he has shut-up long enough to appear attractive.  (OK it's bile this, but it's good to get these excesses out.)

I am a perpetual critic.  I am my own worst critic:  terrified to let go of everything I write.  I work sentences for years.  I think more out of fear of letting them go--does that even make sense--than for fear of being rejected.  I will find something to hate on.  That's my point.  That's me.  But I am tender, too.  I love to pet and be pet.  I am a closet Romantic.  I actually am a big softy.  And so to get back on track with this post.  To leave hyperbole alone:  Prelude to the post about why I almost finished Alain de Botton's Essays in Love but stopped short and finally gave up this morning is over.

All I ask of an author is to leave the gimmick alone.  In this case, I mean:  we should write responsibly or with Care about the process of writing itself.  Alain de Botton's book is a novel about being in love with the idea of love and all that is generative, regenerative, and degenerative in it.  And he chooses a discourse about social and political philosophy as well as Love to set his story.  He should have something to show me he knows how his narrative and characters work within the work he quotes.  But he doesn't do the work required.  

He says what he thinks.  Let me be clear:  the gimmick is that the narrator is the man in love.  So, shit.  He's lost in love.  He wraps up everything in clever remarks that satisfy his own POV and, in the end, his own ability to make fun of himself.  (See the novel's last two paragraphs.)  I believe that The Gimmick in fiction is a device that aids in the genre's continued path to permanent anti-intellectualism.  It also aids in displaying a quirk common in many contemporary novels: authorial laziness dressed up as innovation in form.  (Man I sound like a conservative.  But I am not.  Just a let-down lover of innovation.  After all, Novels should be novel.)

Much of mainstream Western Fiction is anti-intellectual.  I have my ideas about this, and most of my ideas focus on the market and our education industry.  But the authors don't help.  I think it's unfair to blame the readers.  Authors are to blame, for example, when they boil down complex philosophical forms and content into trite dialogues that merely summarize prior significant work.  De Botton's book, for me, is fiction's equivalent of Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  Take an idea that uniquely dwells in its topic's complexity, then flatten it into something that can be stated as if it were common sense all along, then sell it as problem solved.  Apparently solved, as in the narrator's case in this book because, don't you know, he will simply fall in love all over again.  Or, don't even bother to tell the story, to illustrate the details, rather opting for hastily sketched caricatures in order to fit the structure of the artist's vision: package the caricature as the History of the Form Itself, content included.

I suppose I can be blamed for what my fellow Koreans call Eye-Shopping.  I mean the book looked good with all it promised.  What did I expect?  My standards were low:  a story, some inside theory jokes, literary references galore, and some sex.  Isn't that what a book called Essays in Love should offer?  What I got was a book that outlined an argument about Love by referring to a lot of things the author has read in lieu of actual scenes that illustrated his argument.  In other words, the book IN Love is a book without it and sold as told by a guy who may have been in love or may not have but so it goes.  

If I could eat a pint of ice cream and not feel full of ice cream, that is how I feel after reading de Botton's novel.

I feel empty of ice cream.

[By the way, this is a problem:  confusing Philosophy with Common Sense.  Common Sense is the explicit rejection of paradox.  Paradox is what Philosophy dwells in.  Common Sense is explicitly anti-Philosophical.  And Common Sense is killing much more than philosophy these days.  It's killing intellectualism in literature.  Hey Poets!  It's just not prose, you know.  You guys have Billy Collins to cope with.  Have you been reading what he's saying about Poetry!  That guy will haunt poetry for decades after he is gone because there are hundreds if not thousands of high school teachers who will use him as a weapon against all that is intellectual in verse.  Sorry Smart High School Teachers like the one I love.  But you know it's true.]

I guess it comes down to two things for me:  1) Alain de Botton's first novel is a practice in fidelity to structure (not form) over content and 2) I just don't care about the characters.  Let's ignore 2.  I mean, maybe I just don't like folks like the narrator and Chloe.  I'll focus on 1.

I will be quick.

First, the good:  I like the structure of the novel.  Funny, huh, after I trash the book itself and question de Botton's fidelity to Social and Political Philosophy as well as to The Novel, I have the nerve to say I like the way he structured the book.  Well, I do.  Each Chapter examines love in what appears to be an ever-evolving and increasingly mature vantage point on Love vis-a-vis a walk/talk through an ever-increasingly complex vantage point on human relationships, or How We See Ourselves In-the-World.  I thought to myself looking at it:  WOW, this is the shit.

He begins with Romantic Fatalism and moves out from there to trip through: Idealization, Seduction, Authenticity, Mind & Body, Marxism, False Consciousness, Liberalism, Beauty, Everyday Language, Something Called "What do you see in her?", Skepticism and Faith, et al.  It looks fun.  Looks.

In Authenticity, de Botton writes 
6. I had to find out more about Chloe, for how could I abandon my true self unless I knew what false self to adopt.  But the patience and intelligence required to fathom someone else went far beyond the capacities of my anxious, infatuated mind.  I behaved like a reductive social psychologist, eager to press my companion into simple categories, unwilling to apply the care of a novelist to capturing the subtleties of human nature.
I marked this early paragraph with a question mark.  It's clear to me now that it holds the key to my distaste for the novel.  As I continued to read, I continued to ask myself what I was supposed to think about the narrator and his relationship to "the author."  I firmly believe that Alain de Botton is not the narrator nor do I appreciate readers who knee-jerk respond to first-person narratives by associating the narrator's beliefs and personalities and actions to the author's beliefs and so on.

But this paragraph confuses me.  Here lies an authorial excuse for not describing Chloe, a woman as a reader I wished I knew more about.  The narrator-in-love is telling me why he fails at getting to know her better:  he is infatuated with her.  Ok.  I waited, though.  And de Botton never got around to telling me about Chloe.  And he couldn't.  The structure of the book proscribes Chloe's development as a character I can care about enough to understand why the narrator might move beyond infatuation to possess her to love to be with her. (It doesn't matter anyway because SPOILER, their relationship doesn't work out.)

If what de Botton calls "the care of a novelist" is, in fact, "capturing the subtleties of human nature," then de Botton fails.  His novel fails even to catch the subtleties of the philosophers he quotes.  Even if this can be seen as a nod to the readers that "even I, the author, am failing too," then I am not satisfied because the line then becomes an excuse (a plea for an excuse) not to do the work it takes to present content that attempts to cope with human nature. 

David Foster Wallace complained about the abundance of irony in contemporary fiction.  Well, I have whined about Wallace, but maybe this novel is an example of what he was railing against.  I think de Botton is terrribly ironic.  And I mean terribly as in poorly or as in sinfully.  Is it too much to say that I find his book too cheeky even?

In Skepticism and Faith, de Botton cites Friedrich Nietzsche from Beyond Good and Evil.  Nietzsche was looking for grand attempters.  Whether or not a judgement or an attempt in life was false or true, who is willing to make the judgment regardless?  Nietzsche writes "the falseness of a judgement is not necessarily an objection to it."  The value of an undertaking is examined then.  What does it mean to attempt to love somebody if we cannot know whether or not our assessment of our lover or the circumstances in which we fell in love are/were true or not?  I think this is what de Botton is getting at with his novel.  Well, this is all fine and good to me and, quite frankly, it intellectually pleases me.  BUT where is my friggin story author man?

Anyway, on to the next novel.  I could go on but I am teaching 800 high school kids and 40 of them are waiting for me.  I want to write about a novel that will permit me to talk about the mechanics of fiction in a way that gets into the material not simply the structure.  I really am annoyed by Essays in Love.  Annoyed because I like the author and feel let down.  sniff sniff.

(i'll proofread this later.  pardon any errors.)


  1. The irony surrounding Billy Collins, is that despite what he says ABOUT poetry, he writes from an elitist point of view: the academic white male /slash/ poet laureate (how many times now?)

    I share two poems with my students-"the blues" and one other- i think it's about his parents nagging him from the grave- and they, neither being white or academic, think his poetry is too complicated. Although I like Billy Collins at times.

    In fact, if they like any privileged white male, it's Bukowski. They find him to be common sense. But it takes me too long to blot out curses from his poems before I make copies- that's annoying.

    Regarding yer post, I loved the point about "structure"-- well-worded there. I can picture the book developing in that way-and your description of it made me appreciate it.

    I also liked yer point about the dichotomy of common sense and philosophy. YES. Any great point to ponder is based on paradox. But de Botton wraps it up into a neatly redemptive package and sells it in a charmind display of marketing.

  2. your "in a charmed display of marketing" reminds me of a great Peter Gabriel song title from his days with Genesis and the album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway:

    The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging

  3. I meant charming, not charmind. One bad thing about blogging is that I get very, very impatient with publishing. Hence, typos.

    Also, I like your thesis. Alain de Botton tries to utilize the structure to his advantage, but really he ended up loving the structure more than the tale itself.