The title of this article is taken from Boris Vian’s surrealist novel of the same name, also translated into English as Foam of the Daze (the title used below). What follow are seven novels that functioned as mental paradigm shifts.
Gravity’s Rainbow — Thomas Pynchon
Thomas Pynchon doesn’t suffer fools, although he certainly likes to write about them. His characters are shaggy dogs, misfits, slapstick oddballs propelled along in carnivalsque Menippean satires. And Gravity’s Rainbow is the apogee of this style. It took me six attempts to get beyond page three. One time I threw the book across my room. But it was worth it.
Ostensibly it is a book about one Tyrone Slothrop, who is an American working in a British spy office. Slothroom has mapped his sexual conquests in color-coded stars on a map of London, and one of his colleagues, Roger Mexico, realizes that the sites of the conquests correspond directly to Nazi V-2 rocket impact sites. It seems that Slothrop’s prick has a way of attracting rockets. So the Allied forces attempt to put Slothrop’s “talent” to good use, unleashing him in the European theater of WWII to see if he can attract the mysterious Schwarzgerät rocket.
In one scene, Slothrop, high on sodium pentathol, recounts an experience at Harvard, in which he enters a bathroom stall with a harmonica, drops it down the toilet, then escapes anal rape by diving down after it. Slothrop then hallucinates that he is in a feces-encrusted space and subsequently flushed away by dingleberries and dirty water.
Gravity’s Rainbow is a story in which an army of characters do all sorts of crazy shit. One character, Pirate Prentice, is employed by British intelligence to telepathically handle the dreams of Britain’s top commanders; one of which involves him confronting a giant adenoid stomping around London comic-book style. Pirate also digs cooking banana-themed breakfasts.
A good point-of-entry into Gravity’s Rainbow’s matrix of stories and information—and it is one hell of a dense matrix—is to imagine Dr. Strangelove on Acid and transmuted into the written word. Every character seems to be experimenting with something, whether it’s witchcraft, clairovance, S&M, identity or Pavlovian conditioning. Pynchon views power and paranoia through these and other various prisms.
But this is descending into a review.
The reason Gravity’s Rainbow changed me, or rather made me who I am, is that unlike any other book it manages to be a capsule of nearly everything that interests me; encouraging me to continue being adventurous in my interests. Kaleidoscopic is the only way to describe the book; for the events of the early 21st century collide in unexpected ways.
It is one immense film that plays in the cinema of the mind.
Dan Yack and Confessions of Dan Yack — Blaise Cendrars
Blaise Cendrars is not a household name in the English language, but he should be.
It’s quite a shame because Cendrars is, in my estimation, as dazzling with language as Herman Melville, James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon, and probably surpasses each with the sheer electricity that courses through his words. Cendrars is also the superior poet of the four. If I were asked which author most perfectly encapsulates the variety of human existence; the author who understands all on some demigod level, connecting labyrinthine dots along the way and, what is more, is able to communicate it all in the most jaw-droppingly sublime prose—I would simply have to choose Blaise Cendrars.
How do I unwrap the ways in which Cendrars has threaded my heart! His poetic use of words, an obsession with the cinematic (he was a filmmaker, too), love of slapstick scenarios, an indulgence in the melancholy of life, are just a few of the things to be found in Cendrars.
Dan Yack concerns a multi-millionaire playboy and shipping magnet Dan Yack (Cendars’ alter ego), who, awakening from a night of serious drinking, thinks of his beloved Hedwiga, who recently ended their relationship. Yack had booked one of his ships to sail to the Anarctic with he and Hedwiga on board. Determined to take the trip in spite of his melancholy, and perhaps in an effort to take his heartbreak to the very ends of the Earth, Yack recruits three others to join him on a madcap adventure. A simple enough story, but in the hands of Cendrars it has an epic scope, even though its length is little more than a novella.
Confessions of Dan Yack is its sequel. I actually read this one first because I couldn’t find the former. Dan Yack, having returned from his trip, is perched in a mountain chateau in Chamonix, France, plunged in the depths of another bout of melancholy. Cendrars had my complete attention here on the very first page. I’d been to Chamonix in my early ‘20s and found the place magical in the extreme. And so I find Dan Yack unfolding a tale of how he met another love of his life. Cendrars experimented with form here by having each chapter double as a dictaphone cylinder, to be mailed off and translated later, which we the reader are presumably reading.
These two Cendars novels made me look around at the world in a totally different way. I suffer the same sort of melancholy that Cendrars’ characters, and the author himself, suffered. I can see the beauty in it. Cendrars finally gave me the ideas and tools to be able to express it, and, indeed, to feel more alive in every waking moment.
Foam of the Daze — Boris Vian
Boris Vian was many things: a writer, jazz musician, songwriter, singer, poet, translator (of Raymond Chandler novels into French), inventor and engineer. Such was Vian’s reputation in post-war Paris that the French cultural institution that was Serge Gainsbourg looked to Vian for a source of inspiration.
Foam of the Daze (L'Écume des Jours) found its way into my hands through a former co-worker and friend Tosh Berman, publisher of TamTam Books. I was looking for Surrealist novels, and Tosh handed it to me, saying, “This novel is great. Very surreal. But I have a personal interest in it, so…”
I bought it. And then I put it on my shelf. Four years later I read it and it blew my mind in every way.
Vian was playful and surreal, yes, but he was above all else interested in crafting a personal and, indeed, a new 20th century philosophy; one that questioned civilized society’s various foundations. Foam of the Daze later became a sort of founding document for the May 1968 Paris protesters, and it’s not difficult to see why. Underneath the love story that dominates the novel is a rebellion against every established notion of the status quo. And Vian did it all with relish and panache. Through Foam of the Daze I learned that one can take the simplest of ideas (a love story) and distort and warp it into the most imaginative, original fiction.
It also made me weep. One line did it.
The main character, Colin, who has fallen in love with Chloe (now sick with a mysterious illness), is asked by their pseudoscientific doctor what he does. Colin is the son of wealthy parents, and really just spends his time inventing things and enjoying life.
His answer broke my heart. It made me understand our fleeting time here on Earth in only the way that Blaise Cendrars had previously been able to do it for me. Here is the excerpt that shook my world. No author that I know of can approach the simplicity and the ecstatic truth of this moment.
“I learn things,” said Colin. “And I love Chloe.”
*Read this book before Michel Gondry imprints his own vision of the story on your mind with his upcoming film adaptation.
The Sirens of Titan — Kurt Vonnegut
It would perhaps be wrong to say that I have moved beyond Kurt Vonnegut. Why? Well, he has never really left me. Sure, I desire other things from fiction these days—stylistically-speaking—but I always respect writers with ideas. And Vonnegut wrote novels of ideas… grand, absurd ones.
The Sirens of Titan is without doubt one of the most influential books of my life. It was my introduction to both the absurdity of human existence and the human species’ insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Science laid the groundwork for this revelation in my thought, but Vonnegut took it home. He made me laugh about it all, and certainly paved the way for my later obsession with Thomas Pynchon; who is a bit like Vonnegut on psychedelic drugs.
Maldoror — Comte de Lautreamont
Yet another French book, Maldoror is a prose poem in six parts, or, rather, six cantos. I came across it during my very intense obsession with Surrealism and the writers that had influenced Andre Breton & Co. Maldoror, or Les Chants de Maldoror, was almost like a religious document for the Surrealists. And while it hasn’t been a Bible for me, it has had a great effect on some of my own writing. The work’s atmosphere seems to hover in my mind like a simultaneously dark and luminous cloud, pushing me in ever more evocative directions.
Like Gravity’s Rainbow, Comte de Lautreamont’s prose poem is incredibly dense and hard to penetrate—at first. One cannot fight it, which I of course did initially, until I let myself absorb into its unique literary textures. The genre-hopping book is by turns gothic, surreal, violent, hilarious, parodic, overwrought, plagiaristic and beautiful.
Maldoror taught me that stories can be really anything and have any sort of appearance. It was also the first book to teach me that calculated collisions of thoughts can create strange visions in the readers’ mind, which I’ve tried to use in my journalism and fiction.
Moby-Dick — Herman Melville
By way of a preface, I think it’s important to note that before I read Moby-Dick I had mocked its fanboys, many of whom I had worked with at a Los Angeles bookstore. At least three co-workers, all of whom were buddies, claimed it was the greatest English novel. This, to my mind, smelled something rotten. It sounded like the posturing of young men who had read a bit too much positive, adulatory criticism of Melville’s masterpiece.
Two years ago I finally took up the book. By the third and fourth paragraphs I was effectively in its world:
“Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster- tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling And there they stand- miles of them- leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets avenues- north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?
The lines “What do you see?—thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries” and “Nothing will content them but the extremist limit of the land” are particularly significant, in my mind. Melville had perfectly described, for me, the endless propulsion driving the human experience. Nothing is ever enough for us. We operate in a perpetual reverie, an illusion, and it’s the source of our greatest wonders but also our worst follies. It was a very vivid moment for me as a reader. I understood then what Melville had done, and why this book is often considered the greatest work of fiction in the English language.
Moby-Dick matured me as a reader and a writer. It holds some appeals an adventure story, which I dig, but it also has the grand scope of philosophy.