Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Review: Finn by Jon Clinch

FinnFinn by Jon Clinch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In spite of a lower rating, this book was somewhat compelling and interesting. I had a few issues with it, however, that prompted the two stars. First, a stylistic critique. Clinch's prose has been suggested by other reviewers to be Faulknerian. I really can't agree. There are moments when Clinch experiments with dropping punctuation in a run-on fashion similar to what Faulkner does on occasion, but beyond that I don't see the resemblance. Perhaps it's the disjointed narrative that does not follow chronological order that reminds readers of Faulkner, but again I would argue for dissimilarity. With a novel like Absalom, Absalom!, for example, the non-chronological narrative adds to the layered nature of the act of storytelling, whereas with Finn I only found it confusing and distracting. If there was a higher purpose in telling the story in this manner, besides the attempt to be postmodern and cutting edge in some vague way, I must have missed it.

Second would be some of the more vulgar and "gritty" aspects of the story. Unfortunately I failed to see the higher purpose of those scenes as well, which again seemed to me to be mainly an appeal to postmodern sensibilities. Are they interesting and shocking? Yes. Do they belong in a story about a violent and vulgar human being? Probably. But particularly the scene involving the "preacher", which includes murder and child molestation and murder, in that order, seemed forced and unnecessary. They seemed almost obligatory, as if the author's own hands were tied in writing them, in order to produce a "shocking" book.

Third would be the treatment of race in the novel. According to the back of the book, this is "a novel about race." I don't really think you should be able to state in such a terse manner what a truly good book is "about," but more to the point, I don't think that writing about racists makes a book about race. There was no subtlety at all in the characterization of the various positions on race taken by the characters. The Judge is unrepentant in his racism. That's terrible, but it doesn't make him interesting. Finn is extremely conflicted in his understanding of race, but his vacillations are more confusing, from a characterization standpoint, than complex. I don't think Clinch adds much to the understanding of race in the antebellum period besides what has been well trod territory already.

Finally, the character of Finn himself. Yes, he's a drunk, a scoundrel, and not a great human being overall. But a murderer? I don't believe Finn's characterization adds up to such an extreme. Certainly he's morally and ethically challenged, shall we say, but the crowning point of his character is impotence. Of course, not literally, since he bears a son, but definitely figuratively. The Judge has so emasculated him, and set such an impossible standard of success and achievement, that Finn can never measure up. This much is clear. But Finn's response is always self-pity and self-loathing. Yes, these qualities (when mixed with copious amounts of whiskey) can turn violent. But Finn is an impulsive personality, not a "planner" in any regard, so the premeditated murders do not gel with everything else we know about him. His hallmark is retreat, and like a stray dog, will attack when cornered, but otherwise prefers to be left alone. Again, the murders add an element of excitement and shock value, but I'm not sure they can be validated from a coherency standpoint.

Overall, I don't regret reading it, but I would have preferred a more complexly woven tale.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Judgment Day

There's always been a strong temptation to think that the end of the world is coming, and from a religious perspective, that it will be a Day of Judgment. I wonder why this is so attractive to the human mind and spirit. It seems that the end of the world is always just around the corner. This is supposed to regulate our behavior and increase the urgency of attempting to reach others with a particular religious understanding of existence. I want to call these people crazy, but I understand the temptation, I think. Sometimes I feel like I'm just waiting for the end, too.

But what I really think is going on is the desire for order in a universe seemingly without order. It's the longing for an immediate and pressing purpose for one's existence in a world where such meaning is not readily supplied. The Day of Judgment means that all the loose ends will be tied up. All those who have wronged us with get their just deserts. Of course, the thought rarely occurs that the inverse of that is our own payment for the wrongs we have committed against others. But again, that's not a very attractive idea, so we'd rather selectively filter what such a day might mean.

I skimmed a couple sites discussing the May 21st Judgment Day. One is an article from Business Insider, the other an electronic tract. The quickly upcoming May 21st date was achieved through hypothetical math derived from passages in Genesis and 2nd Peter. These seem to ignore the verse that should put an end to all such attempts to single out a date for Judgment: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Matthew 24:36). 

Again, ignoring that verse, which seems extremely straightforward in its meaning, proves that this is not about fidelity to the Bible. It's about human longing for someone or something to break into our messy world and clean up our messy lives. It's about our longing, in a scientific age, to be awed and terrified again by forces greater than ours. Like children, we secretly wish to be put in our place, to have order and structure thrust upon us, because we obviously haven't been able to accomplish that ourselves. Novels like Conrad's Heart of Darkness remind us that our faith in civilization, and the human as an animal capable of being civilized, is always sorely misplaced. We are always just a few light steps away from savagery. Longing for the Day of Judgment is the desire to have this burden removed from us once and all, to become the ordered and civilized people we never could be on our own. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Business Ethics

In case anyone noticed (I understand life gets busy) I haven't been posting as much the past two weeks, as I've been busy doing other things. It turns out that if you want to get a job you have to APPLY for jobs. I thought jobs came to me! Speaking of which I'm considering tattooing my resume on my forehead. Think it would make things easier, in the long run. Font would have to be pretty small, though.

Anyways, I've learned some interesting things about the business of applying for jobs. I've discovered that there is a plethora of para-legitimate companies out there "Looking to hire immediately!" In case you didn't know, "para" is from the Greek, meaning something like "to the side". Here's legitimate companies, and over there on the side, a series of other than legitimate companies.

What do I mean by this? Well, I've decided not to mention them by name, but they happen to be in the Atlanta area. I'm sure there are similar ones everywhere, but I'll stick to my direct experience. I applied to a couple positions that were billed as entry level sales and marketing. They didn't have any particular requirements, which should have been a red flag enough, but I've been scattering apps far and wide like buckshot, so to get an interview was a thrill.

I read something online about what a difference it makes to prepare for your interview, that so few people do this, so any sort of preparation will put you ahead. So I started to dig around the internet to learn more about these two companies. The weird thing was that I couldn't find hardly anything about them. Their websites were sparse, veneer-like. I couldn't for the life of me discover what these companies actually did. They were like the "papier-mache Mephistopheles" described by Conrad in Heart of Darkness (which is one of my favorite literary images of all time, by the way). I went back to Google, started typing the name of the company, and Google's search suggestion for the next most commonly typed word after the company name was "scam". Uh-oh.

That search revealed lengthy testimonies written by various former employees and those who had interviewed with the companies but decided not to accept the positions. They said pretty damning things, like the interviewer outright lying during the interview process about what the position actually entails, deceptive promises about promotion, and a failure to reimburse for mileage as promised, on and on. In this regard was helpful as well. I had never heard of it before but use it fairly extensively now.

This brings me to ask the same question I ask about a hundred times a day: what did people do before the internet? This information was absolutely crucial to me and my life. I would have figured out how maleficent these companies were eventually, of course, after working for them, but I'm so glad I was spared such a fate.

This brings me to a couple more interesting questions: How is it legal for businesses to operate this way? And if it isn't legal, how have they continued doing so? Some of the testimonials were pretty heartbreaking. Who is protecting us from organizations that seek to drain people of their time, energy and money? I guess the Better Business Bureau would be it, but I couldn't really tell you what they do. And it's not like I have evidence of them defrauding customers, only the people they hire, it seems. I know I am naive, but this should not be allowed to happen.

Unfortunately this leads me to toot that same old horn, that of the evils of capitalism. These companies obviously fill a need, or they wouldn't exist. I'm not saying I have a better economic system up my sleeve, but when people are desperate to work and will take any job they can, companies can treat them like the expendable chattel they are. That's not right.

I canceled both interviews. I need "practice" interviewing, but not like that.

Monday, May 16, 2011

My Big Dumb Brain

I like to try to think my way out of problems. I rely on my intellect to make up for what I lack in so many other areas. But the problem with my "big brain" (see Vonnegut's Galapagos) is that it can't conceptualize its own limits. By that I mean, it tricks itself into thinking it doesn't have limits, or at least that the limits don't apply to it. This places me in quite a difficult situation, it seems. The captain at the helm seems to think he (unfortunately my brain is definitely a he) can steer in any direction and still end up where he wants to go. The falsity of this is evident, but from a very abstract level. It's like thinking of looking at a map and knowing that certain directions matter, that objects have a more or less fixed position in space, but then getting behind the wheel and throwing it theatrically so it spins endlessly in one direction, then the other, like some high school Peter Pan production set ship, but always expecting to end up in a particular place on that map.

I really think Vonnegut is right regarding the thesis of his book: that our brains, from an evolutionary perspective, have outgrown their usefulness. They've come to be the greatest orchestrators of our mass extermination in a way that nature seems only to have been able to do once in 65 million years. We could exterminate everything at the drop of the hat. How useful can an organ be, really, that is capable of inventing its own destruction?

Unfortunately I don't have an answer for Mr. Vonnegut (can you tell I've been reading him often of late?). He points to problems that my "big brain" cannot hope to solve. All I know is I've stuck with my brain, despite it's many flaws (mostly its impossible-to-sate lust for bacon at all hours of the day and night.) I just want to craft some armistice with it at least. So, brain, here's my terms:

  1. Stop telling me I can do whatever I want with my life, and that I'll succeed at whatever I do. This cannot be true. 
  2. My childhood was probably in the top 1% of all childhood's in the history of the world (in terms of love, advantages, luck in place and time of birth, etc.). So, whining subconscious, GET OVER IT. 
  3. Stop trying to make things harder for me constantly. I "know" I don't need an iPad or a sportscar or to live in NYC to be happy, so quit with the misinformation campaign, it's quite tiring. 
  4. Start helping me by easing up on the criticism and the constant logic checks. Existence is totally illogical, at best, and absurd at worst, so please just let me plant my feet somewhere in that "happy" medium, please. 
  5. Most important of all: I AM NOT WHAT I DO FOR A LIVING. I know, brain, that you value this idea perhaps above all others. But it is so maliciously defunct, so broken and dangerous and spiteful beyond all reason, that it's tearing me apart (Lisa). If you give up on any ridiculous notion, this one has got to be it. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bin Laden's Death and Vonnegut the Prophet

It's been really interesting to see the global community, and especially my Facebook and Twitter friends, processing the meaning of Bin Laden's death.

The responses can generally be grouped into 3 categories (because Cicero said so...tricolon anyone?):

  1. Unbridled enthusiasm, fueled by the "I bleed Red White and Blue" sentiment of true patriots. 
  2. Gratitude that a truly evil person is no longer alive, that "justice" has been done, but not overly enthusiastic because terrorism still exists and nothing can take away the pain of the many victims of Bin Laden's terrorism. 
  3. Those whose moral or religious worldviews suggest that violence leads to more violence, and that we should pray for our enemies, and thus cannot support celebrating his death. 
I don't think any response is necessarily more "right" than another. Are you going to tell a family member of a 9/11 victim not to celebrate, but pray for the thousands of members of Al Qaeda still alive? I'm sure some religious figures might, but I wouldn't. That's just insensitive. That's a form of violence. 

Are you going to tell a pacifist or someone with intensely worldview-forming religious beliefs that they should be celebrating in the streets and quit with their unpatriotic whining? You might, but it won't change their mind, and they'll probably judge you for it. 

How about telling the middle-of-the-roaders to pick a side and get off the fence (it's probably really uncomfortable sitting there anyway). Maybe, but I think there's a certain attractive wisdom in the "golden mean," here as always. 

Those in the middle know that one less breathing (which is synonymous with hateful, murderous, ignorant, life-hating, death-worshipping) terrorist (of any nationality, ethnicity, or religious or ideological persuasion) is overall a good thing for the world. They may celebrate, but they're not happy about the fact that this is the kind of world in which we are put into situations in which we have to decide whether or not it is right to celebrate someone's death. They know that "justice" in this world is an offensive farce. They're not ready to let blind Justice put one terrorist's death on one side of the scales and the thousands of dead (and the millions of lives impacted by their deaths) on the other and see if they balance out -- because they know they don't, they won't, and they never will. 

This is why Kurt Vonnegut was a "prophet," in whatever sense you care to take that term. Why use prophet, a term that is loaded with sacred and religious meaning, to describe a self-professed "humanist" (as if that was antithetical to religious values)? A prophet is someone with more insight than the rest of us on the way things really are, and actually has the guts to communicate that insight. Vonnegut called a spade a spade. 

"Dwayne's bad chemicals made him take a loaded thirty-eight caliber revolver from under his pillow and stick it in his mouth. This was a tool whose only purpose was to make holes in human beings." 
 Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions)

As a prophet, he unflinchingly exposed the rock-bottom absurdity and hypocrisy inherent in the human condition. I wonder how he would respond to such news as we have been obsessed over lately. I can only hope I would have the grace and sense of decency to have half of his love of humanity, as terribly messed-up 
as we all clearly are. 

God help us all. 


Monday, April 25, 2011

Don't Buy Kids Toys

Like my life in general, I've learned a little too late that April is "Financial Literacy Month" to make much use of it. However, in its honor, I'd like to offer a financial tip based on something I've realized of late. It's a very simple rule that will improve the quality of others' lives.

Don't buy kids toys for their birthday or religious holiday where gifts are exchanged.

Buy them U.S. Savings Bonds instead.

Here's the thing: when you're a little kid, you're basically stupid. You don't know what you want, or need, for that matter. The adults in your life will try to guide you on what you should want and supply you with what you need, but they too can be shortsighted.

If you buy a kid a toy, they'll probably play with it for a week until they're entirely bored with it. If it's a great toy, maybe a month. If it's a stupid toy (even though kids are stupid, they know the difference between a good and bad toy) it won't last a day. Before you know it, you're taking boatloads of toys (toy boats?) to Goodwill or Salvation Army, while your kid moves on ravenously to the next toy.

Then they get to their 20-somethings in an economic downturn. Not only do they not use any of their toys from childhood (if they do, well, you've got different issues than financial advice to work on), they also don't have any money. They might even get nostalgic and go to Goodwill and buy back their SAME childhood toys with money they don't have (i.e. your money). So what's the solution to all this?

Buy them Savings Bonds. From their first birthday until whenever you decide to cut them off. No, they don't rattle, flash, blink, stack, or should be used for teething purposes. Yes, the kid might accuse you later in life of a desolate childhood, having grown up in a house without disposable, germ-infested, toxic toys. But they sure will thank you when those puppies mature and they cash them in and make bank. It might even be enough to end your estranged relationship.

No comments, please, this one's a freebie for ya'll. Here's to financial literacy!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What I Want Tells Me What I Should Do

Following close behind, on the heels of my last post (redundant much?), I wanted to come up with a practical list of the things I want. This seems so vainglorious, I know ("vanity, vanity, all is vanity"). I'm scandalizing myself by doing this.

But I'm thinking that if I have a clear picture of what I want, it can help me decide what to do, and motivate me to actually do it. I hope this kind of thinking/exercise might be helpful to others as well. This list is in no particular order of importance. Here goes:

What I Want

  1. A dog. I love dogs so much. Whenever I see people walking their dogs, I think, that could be me. They make fantastic companions, and since I spend so much time by myself, a dog would really improve the quality of my life. Also, being responsible for the life of another living creature would be good for me, I think. I would feel so grown-uppy. Requirements: money to feed (don't have), time to walk (definitely have), living space (not for a dog, sadly)
  2. My Own Apartment. This seems like a no-brainer. Of course I need my own space. But my income hasn't been consistent enough to make that happen. Requirements: steady income, with enough left over for food (for me and my dog). 
  3. To Get Engaged. Stop it, you're making me blush. Also no-brainer. Requirements: Haven't chased the girl away with my dumb jokes yet (check!), but also need stable income to make it happen, preferably in a respectable field. No one wants to be engaged to a circus performer (sorry to the many circus performers who read my blog). 
  4. A 13 in. Macbook Pro. I'm a creative guy. And Apple's marketing campaigns have unanimously informed me that all creative people need Macs. So fortunately that decision was made for me (whew). Seriously though, they do everything I want a computer to do. Enough said. Requirements: $$. 
  5. An iPad. It doesn't even have to be the 2nd Gen, although it would seem a little silly not to be ahead of the curve and get one right before Apple releases the iPad 3. Requirements: $
  6. Good Health Care. It shows what a backward country I live in that I even have to want this (because I don't have it). Requirements: full-time job, part-time Starbucks, $$ to buy my own. 
  7. Get My Financial Life in Shape. Start an emergency savings fund. Start a retirement savings account. Pay off outstanding debt. Start investing in stuff. Requirements: $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
Honestly, that's pretty much it. Of course there's a million little incidentals I also want, like chips and beer and HBO and to be in shape. But it's crazy to think that I can just sit and make a list like that. 

So now, how does what I want tell me what I should/need to do? 

Well, basically all those things above require a steady income with full-time work. And I see two ways to accomplish that: getting an entry-level job somewhere, or starting my own company. 

Hm...which one will I choose? Food for thought (delicious). Has anyone else done something like this? How has it helped you?