Thursday, May 19, 2011

Convergence of Disparate Books

I wasn't planning on writing about David Foster Wallace's posthumous unfinished novel The Pale King. I got an advanced copy of it in January or February, thus making me far and away the coolest kid on the block. Unfortunately, in order to get the copy I had to promise not to tell anyone I had it. I was contractually bound to not mention the book on any social media before it's official release date of April 15, 2011. So, I couldn't write about it then.

Then Amazon released the book on or around March 30, 2011, despite all of the months of publicity that went into the tax day release and all of the independent bookstores that had organized events, release parties, and readings. I thought about blogging my outrage at the publisher, through neglect I would guess, throwing another bone to Amazon, but I decided not to. Simply put, I didn't feel like going into all the issues around strict on sale dates.

And I didn't think I needed to add my particular take on the book to the massive amount already being written about it. I think my image of the book as a circus with all the act apparatuses set up and no one to do the tricks is a good description of the book's state, and when people ask me about it at the bookstore, I'll say that if he finished it, it would likely have been one of the greatest American novels of the 21st century, and my roommate Nick is right to describe it as a kind of contemporary retelling of The Grapes of Wrath (as we said, Steinbeck wrote about The Great Depression and Wallace wrote about The Great Depression), and when asked, (as I have been) how finished I think the book actually is, I think my point that it lacks a kind of meta-balance amongst the events and characters that Infinite Jest has is accurate, but the book is an Indie Bestseller and there are plenty of other brilliant things being said about it all over the place. You don't always have to tell the internet what you're thinking.

I'll get to why I'm writing about it, but first I need to tell you that one of the central themes of the book is boredom. Where frontier Americans struggled with starvation, we struggle with tedium. Our normal response to boredom is to entertain ourselves somehow. What is “blowing off steam” on the weekend but an overt and intense version of sneaking five minutes here and there to play Farmville at work? If Infinite Jest was partially about our addiction to entertainment, then The Pale King is partially about what drives us to need entertainment. I think DFW's goal might have been even loftier, going beyond simply exploring the ideas and experiences of boredom. (Which is pretty lofty in and of itself, considering how rarely boredom has been written about.) On p438 Wallace writes, “It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot do.” To put it another way, there is no limit to what you can accomplish in our contemporary society when you do not need to to pepper your day with boredom relieving bouts of Farmville, or whatever. Wallace's ultimate goal for The Pale King, may not have just been to understand boredom, but to give his readers a vaccine against boredom.

I've been fascinated with Ferran Adria, chef at elBulli, for a few years now. His book A Day at elBulli is one of the most interesting works of food/creative writing I've ever encountered, and he is rightly considered one of the most creative people working today. So I was really excited to get a review copy of The Sorcerer's Apprentices by Lisa Abend from the bookstore.

The Sorcerer's Apprentices is about the stagiaires, the cooks who volunteer for a season or so at the lowest rungs of the elBulli kitchen, working long, strenuous hours for free, all for a chance to experience elBulli and say they worked with Ferran Adria. Many of the world's other great chefs spent a season in Adria's kitchen. The book is a well-written and fascinating look at the highly organized, highly effective, creative food machine that Adria developed and a good read for anyone interested in the creative process as well as people already interested in food. In some ways, this is the best book on the writing process that's come out this year (maybe in the last few years.). But that's not why I bring it up.

This is:

Now switch the frame. You are standing shoulder to shoulder with thirteen other cooks, laying cold rose petals on a plate. You've been standing there, with only one thirty-minute break, for the past six hours. You are not allowed to talk to anyone else on the line, so any jokes or wisecracks are issued in whispers. You have been chastised before for not focusing, so for the most part you keep your eyes on the plate in front of you. But it's impossible to ignore the flash of bulbs as the cameras go off, one every few minutes for about an hour and a half, from in front of the pass. You steal looks at the clients, posing there with Ferran, dressed in their formal evening wear on their jeans and sandals. Even from a distance you can see that their faces fairly shine with anticipation. You wonder what their meal will be like. After all, you wouldn't know: neither you nor any of the other forty people you work with has actually eaten at elBulli. And thus you don't know that the servers will take the machta tea powder you set out when you're plating the shrimp and whisk it with the straw brush until it turns into a bright green broth whose slightly bitter herbaceousness will play lightly off the sweetness of the crustacean. You don't know what it's like for a server to pour the bowl of fois gras ribbons, frozen with liquid nitrogen, over the plate of lulos, so that smoke billows over the table in clouds and the tartness of the fruit is mellowed by the richness of the liver as it melts. You don't know what it's like to have a magic box of chocolates placed before you and open drawer after drawer to find only more. You only know what it's like to fill that box, piping one perfect mint leaf after another with melted chocolate for elBulli's take on an after-dinner mint.
This is the great paradox of elBulli: that the most exciting dining experience in the world depends on the most extreme absence of excitement. It depends on the rigor, the discipline, and, to be honest, the utter boredom of the men and women who are standing in those two straight lines, laying cold rose petals on plates. Like all great restaurants, elBulli's dazzle rests in large part on the willingness of its apprentices, in the name of education, to do the dreary work no one else wants to do—and to do it for free. It's just that here the equation—learning for drudgery, learning through drudgery—is different.

Two completely different books. One is fiction. One is non-fiction. A novel of towering ambition. A book committed to journalistic storytelling. Taxes. Food. And yet in both, the vital and potentially creative role of boredom. For a moment, a picture of the world clarifies. The thematic convergence of distant books is one of the great joys of reading.

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