Monday, March 19, 2007

New DeLillo--Falling Man and the Problem of Time

When Bud and I had lunch, we talked about blogging and the future of book blogging and the reasons why it can be hard to get a conversation going on a book blog.

The problem, it seems to me, is the problem of time.

While we all follow the news on the same day, we aren’t--thank God--reading the same books at the same time. That’s why, for lively discussion and a change of pace, I love the success of some of the great reading group blogs like 400 Windmills (Quixote), A Curious Singularity (short fiction), and the LitBlog Co-op (contemporary literature).

More fiercely than that, though, I love the ability to choose to read whatever in the world I want to read next, regardless of what is being talked about.

And the forthcoming DeLillo is a great example of that.

My upstairs neighbor is in the book business. She came by the new DeLillo and passed it on to me. I read it and gave it to a student who’s a huge fan. (JRG: If you read this, maybe you could put the first paragraph into the comments to satisfy the commenters?) So now, a couple months before it’ll start showing up everywhere else, I’ve read it.

And, oddly enough, it’s the only DeLillo I’ve read. So, what can I tell you about it?

It’s a 9/11 novel. It’s wonderful. My guess--confirmed by my student--is that it’s excellent but not the very, very best of his work.

It opens on the morning of September 11, 2001, after the collapse of the first tower, with a dust-covered and bleeding man walking uptown, briefcase in hand. In shock, he steers himself to his ex-wife’s apartment.

From there, we follow him, his wife and son, his wife’s mother & her boyfriend, and the owner of the briefcase, in those dark, confusing weeks after September 11. There are also several interpolated chapters--stunning and moving and deeply upsetting--following the life (and death) of one of the suicide bombers. DeLillo captures the uncertain mood of those days perfectly but this is not a novel about that strange grief-stricken elation, that “we are all Americans now” mood that the war so effectively killed. Instead, it’s a novel about mounting anger, anxiety, and nervousness. Maybe it’s a novel about the mood that led to the war. The children--the son and his friends--are incredibly wonderful, creepily watching the skies with binoculars.

Best, for me, was the brittle anger of the ex-wife, lying next to her husband in bed, wondering if they would ever make love again, washing his clothes separately, and, most chillingly, letting herself think racist thoughts--doesn’t that music sound Arabic? Is that blouse Morroccan? Why is she wearing that blouse in these difficult times? Why is she listening to that music in these sensitive times?

Oh, those poisonous thoughts. Oh, the marvel of watching DeLillo reveal the poisonous thoughts of an ordinary unhappy woman to us.

There is neither hand-wringing nor kumbaya here. Just carefully observed, horrible, limited, and ordinary upper-middle class white Americans burrowing back into the Upper East Side.

So, months from now, when the book comes out, when people start talking about it, perhaps you’ll remember reading this little meditation-cum-review and think to pick up the book. But, by then, where will the comments thread on this post be? You’ll post your reaction on your own blog and our imperfect, ill-timed conversation will carry on imperfectly, at its own lugubrious and erratic pace.

21 comments:

Bud said...

Well - in some ways MetaxuCafe was supposed to be an anecdote to that problem - putting posts from a lot of people in one place, tagged for context - maybe, of course, the blog format is not right for that, but, say, a wiki requires too much effort on everyone's part to make it cohesive as well. But then, they all take an extra level of participation.

You sure to make that Delillo sound good

frf In SEA said...

Anne,

You've hit on a very interesting idea. Bud's comment points out the problem with content tags without detailing why the problem exists, but a Wiki solution does move things in the correct direction, if it's involvement you want.

Managing these discussions as time series data (a sequence of observations which are ordered in time or space) is another answer.
When observations are made on some phenomenon throughout time, it makes sense to order the associative data in the order in which it arose. Where blogs are concerned (and more so within a specialized silo), this is particularly important since successive observations / posts are likely dependent, and somewhat likely to lack full attribution. This kind of works by default within a given blog, but that view misses most of the broader contextual value which fully informs the aggregated content from multiple blogs.

Some smart monkey could easily plot this stuff, adding empirical contentual and contextual elements to the time series, displayed in a scatter plot. The data you describe isn’t continuous, but more likely discrete, where observations occur at somewhat spaced intervals (lit blogs / academe / specialization = tight corpus w/ discernible patterns and distinct vernacular).

Where LitCrit (not sure if I should camel hump / WikiWord that or use a hyphen) is involved, there should be a reasonably strong trend component, i.e. a long-term movement in the time series (thumb up or thumb down, and “let me tell you why”, in this case). Again, these patterns can be tokenized and plotted, and you'd end up with a very tight grouping.

Descriptive techniques could then be extended to forecast future values, and you could see an underlying direction, upward or downward, and the rate of change in the time series, particularly when smoothing techniques are introduced and allowance are made for the other components described below. In addition to link-maps, you could see and plot influencer's, as well as the influenced.

There are other considerations, including seasonality (academic calendar, conferences, publishing cycles, publishing events, etc.), and the irregular component, or 'noise', but the concept of mapping and visualizing this type of data with some elemental time-series analytics and heuristics is pretty cool. It wouldn’t necessarily ZpyZtstignite book blog discussion, but it could tell you who’s probably going to be talking about the new DeLillo, where they’re likely to be talking, and when.

Welcome home.

Victoria said...

What about using the BB/discussion board format with forums (I know it should be "fora" but that sounds innately wrong to me) devoted to particular books, authors, genres, etc.? The threaded discussion format would allow for multiple posts over a broad time frame. In addition, it would automatically organize information in many of the ways suggested by frf in sea and bud.

The only downside is that it wouldn't be a "blog" any longer. But, that said, many newer sites like YouTube and MySpace allow for both blog and discussion groups out of one central space. So you could blog about a given book and then link to your discussion board where comments/chat/whatever could be pursued.

Bud said...

The problem with discussion boards/forums is that they tend to lean more toward the conversational snippets that only mean something if you're there when it's written and a part of it. - I prefer giving more emphasis on comments to posts so that commentators are encouraged to be part of a thought process, a refining or challenging part, rather than the subsidiary role they typically play right now.

I also think that technology needs to facilitate and just exist and otherwise stay out of the way - start to expect too much from it and it overcomes your original purpose.

You'll never get anything perfect and even tying posts to searches (ala technorati) has too much noise to be of use to a real (as opposed to technical) audience.

I would set up a wiki in a heartbeat if I thought participation would be as thoughtful as it's become at wikipedia, but I don't beleive that will happen.

Dorothy W. said...

Oof, all that technical stuff in the comments has my head spinning. But you do make me want to read that Delillo novel Anne.

Anne said...

I continue to be really interested in finding the kind of elegant technical solution that Bud & frf (thanks, Frank!) seem to be advocating. But I can't even properly embed photos into my free blogger account so, as Bud points out, it'd have to be REALLY elegant and unobtrusive for me.

And yes, do get the DeLillo when it comes. It's terrific.

JRG said...

This was one of my favorite passage from Falling Man. Keith, the main character, is being treated after his escape from the North Tower.

Someone took glass out of his face. The man talked throughout, using an instrument he called a pickup to extract small fragments of glass that were not deeply embedded. He said that most of the worst cases were in hospitals downtown or at the trauma center on a pier. He said that survivors were not appearing in the number expected. He was propelled by events and could not stop talking. Doctors and volunteers were standing idle, he said, because the people they were waiting for were mostly back there, in the ruins. He said he would use a clamp for deeper fragments.

"Where there are suicide bombings. Maybe you don't want to hear this."

"I don't know."

"In those places where it happens, the survivors, the people nearby who are injured, sometimes, months later, they develop bumps, for lack of a better term, and it turns out this is caused by small fragments, tiny fragments of the suicide bomber's body. The bomber is blown to bits, literally bits and pieces, and fragments of flesh and bone come flying outward with such force and velocity that they get wedged, they get trapped in the body of anyone who's in striking range. Do you believe it? A student is sitting in a cafe. She survives the attack. Then, months later, they find these little, like, pellets of flesh, human flesh that got driven into the skin. They call this organic shrapnel."

He tweezered another splinter of glass out of Kieth's face.

"This is something I don't think you have."

genevieve said...

Lovely post, Anne, and I am ashamed to admit I've not yet read any de Lillo. However I have had an absolute hoot reading Gravity's Rainbow (only my second Pynchon) over the summer.
I keep seeing WWII and rocket references everywhere.

Bud, I think Metaxucafe is wonderful really and all of these tools take time to build audiences, just like blogs do.
For example, I didn't know until late last year how to post my own content on the site!! i thought it was the editors that did all the groovy magic. Now I'm trying to get the time to write something that isn't too Oz-centric to put up there.

I doubt the format needs to change, you are building a space and an international audience of book bloggers, which is a remarkable achievement. Sure, there may be some tagging issues, and I regret not having been more engaged in offering you feedback on those. I'll send you an email anyway,
and spend a bit more time on the matter soon. But I think there are deeper issues at stake here than just technology - people don't always have time to write about what they are reading, so they blog news instead, then when they've read something they might chat about it to others instead of posting. Und so weiter. There's a lot to think about.
Thanks Anne, for the space to chat on this, sorry to clog the blog!

amcorrea said...

I agree with Anne and Genevieve--there's more to the problem than technology. There could be an ideal technological interface, but if the commitment or interest level wanes, you're still left with frustrating silences. Time is a problem.

Reading schedules and discussion questions help focus sustained discussion, but it's far from fool-proof. And general book talk on a blog tends to depend on regular readership and whoever else tends to see it... If the problem is that the meaty posts are getting buried in successive postings, perhaps the post's link could be appended near the top of the blog and then be changed periodically?

(I would've loved to be at that lunch!)

Oliver said...

frf: there do already exist tools for figuring out 'what people are talking about' - you might look at BlogPulse, for example - and these do tend to give some idea of the frequency of postings. However, it seems that you are looking for something more specific - a tool that, given a given artefact, would be able to give a view not only to who is talking about it and when, but also what they are saying, and in terms not of 'the web' but a smaller subset.

I am currently working on a tool that will re-cast web-wide metrics to a specific country and genre subset. So, where BlogPulse says that 0.0005% of all blog posts are related to 'Delillo Falling Man', we could reset that metric to find a % for, say, Art / Literature blogs in the US. By getting a greater degree of granularity, perhaps we would get closer to what you are suggesting.

Fred said...

I'm a big DeLillo fan, and am glad of this sneak preview, thanks.

You can always link back to this post when the time comes.

Sam Baden said...

Hi. Excellent post. Just letting you know I linked it in my own blog, the post being an attempt to create discussion of the responsibility of book cover designers, and the ability of photography to trap moments in time.

JCR said...

Nice post. I agree with you... time is an issue. Or as Eliot said "Time is an enzyme." :-) Cheers.

Anne said...

Wow! Thanks for all the comments--I'm still mulling over the book and all your contributions to ideas about book blogging....to be continued...

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