Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Know What Nothing Means: A Joan Didion Retrospective

“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what "nothing" means, and keep on playing.” --Play It As It Lays

I've been busy this summer. Not with this blog-- sorry guys --but with studying, grad school prep, learning Russian and doing a ton of reading. And one part of that reading was really exciting: tearing through an absolutely massive amount of Joan Didion.

Didion has a new book out, called Blue Nights. And while I don't exactly want to celebrate this-- the book is about some very personal tragedy --the first book in 6 years from one of America's best living writers deserves something, given that I've read 4 of her 5 novels and a ton of her essays over the past 3 months. So I thought that I'd do something to honor this tiny woman with her huge, lethal, weaponized language and put together something about her and her incredible works. These are five of her best books, making them some of our best books. Note the themes, the strengths, the obsessions and moral responsibilities she shoulders over and over again.

An act made even more impressive by her frail, bird-like bones.
Run, River (1963)

"In that moment before either of them spoke, it occurred to Everett that Lily was not as pretty as she had once been. No one had ever called her beautiful, but there had been about her a compelling fragility, the illusion not only of her bones but of her eyes."

Run, River, Didion's debut, is a strange book. Didion has said it's her least favorite of her works, criticizing the nostalgia in it-- she wrote it in New York, having just left California, and the book is a tribute to the beauty, strangeness, and cruelty of California's cultures and land. I'll defend it as a great read and a stirring book, with the addendum that it's not necessarily a great Didion novel. It's a little more sentimental, which also makes it a little more raw, with less wit and more bluntness. There's little of the delicate construction or intensely clever structure of her later works, and more excitement and melodrama.

It is, out of all of her fiction, the most Faulknerian, which is part of where my soft spot comes. Like Faulkner, Didion was the heir to a dead tradition (in her case, the Westward pilgrims and land-owning planters that first colonized the state) and wrote a work that attempts to address both the nobility of that tradition and the failings and sins that led to its death. Some of it-- such as the scenes in which Lily, the main character, falls in love with her future husband Everett --are intensely powerful and real, without the distance or coyness that can sometimes dampen her work. Some of it (such as the last page, which commits the sin she would ever after avoid of feeling the need to give the book a clean resolution rather than the anticlimax or the painful fading that she does so well) is clearly the work of a beginner. If you're not sure about the postmodernism or experimentalism that characterizes her other fiction, or if you want a book that is more of a straightforward "good read" and less weird, start here. I guess the best description is "this is the Didion book I would recommend to my parents," which isn't to imply that it's not a perfectly fine novel.

And the fact that she was still in her 20s when she wrote it will make you hate her.

As opposed to hating her for being so damn stylish.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem / The White Album (1968, 1979)






"In this country so ominous that to live in it is to live with antimatter, it is difficult to belive that 'the good' is a knowable quantity.... It is a network kept alive by people whose instincts tell them that if they do not keep moving at night on the desert they will lose all reason."
--"On Morality"

I've grouped these two together for an important reason: they are, thematically, continuations of each other. Both are essay collections about 1960's radicalism and counterculture: Slouching Towards Bethlehem from within Haight-Ashbury in the middle of it all, The White Album from nearly a decade later, looking back with the benefit of hindsight and through a lens of personal suffering.

Bethlehem (composed, with the exception of 1961's Vogue essay "On Self-Respect", of essays written 65-67) was, at its publication, a fairly controversial work. Not because it was some conservative pro-status-quo treatise, which the counterculture could shrug off, but because it was one of the very first books by a leftist author who believed in the causes and ideals of the radical movements of the 60s and criticized them, not out of anger, but out of disappointment at these groups' small-mindedness, their selfishness and inability to unify. At its core this noble philosophy can be expressed as "you know you'd get more done if you weren't high all the time," but there's usually more to it than that. "Where the Kissing Stops," her incredible essay on Joan Baez, is both a tribute to Baez's great work and a sigh of frustration at the way that Baez allowed herself to become an icon of protest without ever seeming to commit or believe in a concrete cause. This is Bethlehem's great strength: a recognition of the nobility of 60's radicalism and a dread at its own self-indulgence, at the rickety nature of it and the selfishness it veered to. There's anger in it, but it's not disdainful-- it's an anger at wasted potential, and it's one that turned out to be incredibly prescient.
Now available on your upper-middle-class parent's iPod.
"I had, at this time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was to be old but of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife."
--"The White Album"


The White Album, however, addresses many of the same themes through a lens of bitterness and pain, through the knowledge that she had been right and that the center of this unfocused rebellion had not held. It draws its title, not from any great love of The Beatles, but from Didion's fear that perhaps the event which encapsulated both the fallout of the 1960's and the turmoil of her personal life after them was the Manson Murders-- senseless bloody chaos justified with meaningless references to rebellion and the broad strokes of "counterculture." The book is written in the shadow of the 1960s and written with a sense of terror and dread, a chronicle of both Didion's struggles with depression, vertigo, and anxiety and of the nation's.

Do you know Christopher Walken's scene in Annie Hall? The one where Waken shows up for about 90 seconds and is dripping with existential dread and calm self-destruction, a scene that comes off both as a joke and as a terrifying truth? The one that Jawbreaker beautifully, beautifully sampled in "Jet Black?" The White Album is a book that possesses all the fear and magic of that scene-- something darkly witty and strange and uncomfortably warm, but also a little glimpse into Hell.
"The sound of shattering glass, flames rising out of the flowing gasoline."
It's a powerful, powerful work, and probably my favorite of her nonfiction. There's a beautiful connection that she draws between the personal and the political-- between her constant traveling and America's obsession with where it should go next, between second-wave feminists' feelings of powerlessness and futility of their political efforts with her own feelings of being trapped as a woman in a world that denies them autonomy. It's a model for memoirists and essayists to strive for, in which it seems that the author cannot write about any other subject and the subject could not be written about by any other author.

Play It As It Lays (1970)

“By the end of the week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.”

Play It As It Lays
is quite possibly Didion's best novel-- or at least, in fierce competition --and a perfect companion piece to the nonfiction collections I just talked about. It's the story of Maria-- a film director's wife, loving mother of a mentally-damaged child, lover of a self-destructive Hollywood mover --and her slow decline into oblivion.

The book is beautiful and the most raw Didion's ever been. There's an incredible balance going on here: more than anything else she's written, the fragile balance of her language and the painful, burning migraine of the emotional intensity of the book manage to support each other. It's a book of incredible loneliness, as Maria becomes more and more distant from the world at large, more and more focused on things she has lost and keenly aware of the disregard that the men in her life have for her. There are so many moments of quiet horror here, from the brutal-- Maria's illegal abortion, which is calm and bloodless and yet aches with an incredible sense of panic --to the mundane: Maria sleeping by the pool, trying to convince herself it is because of the summer heat and knowing that it's really because she can't bear to sleep in a house she still considers her husband's.


Play It As It Lays, like The White Album is simultaneously confessional and political. It never says "Maria was destroyed because even during a time of social change and movements for equality we never tried to actually help middle-class women find a freedom from oppressive social mores and a comfort with their sexuality," but it recognizes that its tragedy is not purely personal. It's not a book about women, but a book about one woman and the burdens on her and how she was never equipped to carry them. The best comparison is the photography of Cindy Sherman-- like Didion, Sherman makes work not about the struggles of women but about the life of this woman, while never pretending that the two aren't inextricably linked. If you want to know the feeling of this book, browse Sherman's magnificent "Film Stills" collection-- some of the finest art photography of all time --sip bourbon, take benzodiazapan, sit by the pool on the evening of a hot day.

"Carter could not remember the soft down on her [daughter's] spine or he would not have let them put needles there."
It's also John Darnielle's favorite novel, and that man's recommendations have never steered me wrong.

Democracy (1984)

 "By which I mean to suggest that Inez Victor had developed certain mannerisms peculiar to people in the public eye.: a way of fixing her gaze in the middle distance... a noticeably frequent blink, as if the photographer's strobes had triggered a continuing flash on her retina.

By which I mean that Inez Victor had lost certain details."


When I said that Play It As It Lays was in fierce competition for the title of Didion's masterpiece, this is its rival. And they really ought to share that title, as it's impossible to compare them. Play It As It Lays is searing, elegant but also unrelenting. Democracy is as meticulously constructed and as coolly elegant as a Rennie-Mackintosh piece. If you look at Play on Amazon.com they recommend Baldwin's Another Country; for Democracy they recommend Mailer's Armies of the Night.

Which isn't to imply that Democracy's coldness is at all a demerit against it. It is a book about coldness. It is a book about Inez Victor, nee Christian, a senator's (and failed presidential candidate's) wife, and the way that a life lived in public, a life spent considering the consequences of every action and how every word will play, has slowly picked away the parts of her that one could call human. About how her own memory of herself and awareness of who she is is being replaced by the public image of herself and the stories about her in magazines. Inez is an outsider to the actual political business that shapes her life, instead viewing it from an enforced distance and watching herself be shaped as though she were an objective narrator of someone else's story.

The writing about politics and politicking in this book is incredible-- the way that everything is constantly weighed and considered, the three different overlapping conversations that can carry on at once. There's a lot of Democracy that reminds me of a tragic, Vietnam-era West Wing.
"I am the Lord they God. Thou shalt never get off the boat."
The book takes place against the backdrop of America's withdrawal from South Vietnam-- ending with those last helicopters leaving the embassy --and its use of that as a backdrop, rather than a central focus, allows it to be an incredible book about the politics of Vietnam. As it approaches the end, and Inez's personal problems escalate, Inez and the narrator (who is a fictional Didion, writing a novel based on Inez from a world where the events the novel is based on are history) become less invested in them. Democracy recognizes its inability to treat the scope of America's failure with due magnitude or to even comprehend it, and the paralysis that sets in is beautiful and terrifying. There's something almost Zen about it, as Inez realizes how little the politics of her husband matter against the fact that America's failings and the freedom that comes with accepting the scope of a world she cannot effect.

It's also, like all of Didion's novels, about love, desire, infidelity, family, need, and self-awareness. It's short and beautiful.


So that should be a good reading list for you. Find the book that looks the most exciting and read it sometime-- none of her books will take you longer than a couple days. If nothing else, pick up We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, the 1100-page collection of all her pre-2005 nonfiction. And Joan-- thank you for all you've done for your readers and for literature, and know that however helpless you may feel or have felt in the face of tragedy and despair, you've helped s many of us through it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Video Game Zombie Killin Squad

(Hey everyone-- sorry for the long-ass hiatus. I've been taking some time off to do some more personal studying and writing and I've decided to change the format of the blog some. It's till gonna be about %50 literature, but with more personal stuff and more of me writing stupid things about pop culture. Whatever, I don't care. I'm just gonna write about video games and comics here until I get some more big serious literature stuff written)

And really, what better way to start talking about stupid pop culture than by doing it with the man I've talked about stupid pop culture with for... shit, seven years now. Sol posted a thing about which video game characters he'd kill zombies with, and I'm gonna do the same.

So let's go by the same rules: fast zombies, me and 4 buddies, no stupidly cheap characters-- this includes Harlan Smith from Killer7, because he's technically seven incredibly skilled assassins who happen to sometimes share a body and that's just cheating. What polygonal nerd-buddies would I trust with my life?

1. Urdnot Wrex (Mass Effect)
"...Jasper."
Let's be honest, I could really just stop the list right here.  If you haven't played Mass Effect, let me explain some of what it's like to spend time with Wrex. Come the end of the game, you're going to be climbing the outside of a giant space station, under heavy artillery fire. And Wrex will be alongside you. Charging skull-first into your enemies. Your robotic enemies encased in high energy shielding. He has a plasma shotgun, and it is not as dangerous as his forehead. He routinely turns trained soldiers into chunky salsa with the power of a brisk jog, imagine what he could do to zombies. Plus his people are immune to pretty much all degenerative diseases, so I don't think I need to worry about him getting infected. It would probably just make him angrier.

In a game chock-full of badasses (even the ones voiced by Steve Blum and Keith David), Wrex still stands as the king. He is so manly that Steve "voice of Wolverine" Blum's character treats him with awe. He is so manly that he has four testicles. Not a single member of Wrex's entire species has ever died from natural causes, and he's lived to be over a thousand years old. That scar on his face? That's from a 200-foot tall sandworm which he killed by himself, on foot. He has multiple backups of every major organ. 99% of his people are infertile due to a weaponized plague, so he has about 800 years of bitterness and sexual frustration to take out on the undead. His in-game class-- alongside allies such as "Operative," "Technician," and "Soldier"-- is Battle Master. In the second game it's mentioned that the clan he rules is starting to consolidate power by having the largest population of fertile females, and I will give you two guesses as to why-- and each one better be "one of Wrex's giant swinging pairs."

Here he is on the traditional Krogan Pimp Throne.
So yes, if I need to pick four virtual imaginary friends to defend myself, I'm starting with Wrex. He'll do just fine.

2. Henry (No More Heroes, No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle)

Henry, about to do battle with a nightmare version of an anime schoolgirl. It's a weird game.
Travis Touchdown is the protagonist of No More Heroes and its sequel, and he's one of the greatest assassins in the world. But let's be honest: no one wants to spend any time with Travis. He's... well, he's a sociopath and an unlikable nerd. His only friend is the guy who runs the store he rents his anime and wrestling videos from, his girlfriend is just, for 90% of the games, leading him along for money, and his only applicable skills are a direct result of being too self-involved to have a conscience. He's a terrible person (beautifully so-- his character arc over the two games is one of the most interesting and smart ones I've ever seen in a videogame).

Henry, meanwhile, is Travis's equal, if not his superior. He's got an impeccable fashion sense, a cool Irish accent, a smoking hot wife, and used to be the greatest killer in the world before cartoonish lightsaber duels with super villains became too boring for him. Every time he shows up he kicks ass, slices someone to ribbons, and makes Travis look like a joke by comparison.
Admittedly, not that difficult.

Some of Travis's enemies have included a sentient earthquake machine, an actual wizard, a ghost, a sexy version of General Grievous, and a character who is clearly Charles Goddamn Bronson, and yet the fight with Henry at the end of the first game is the most difficult the series has ever been. Henry has the fashion sense I envy, killing skills that would put Beatrix Kiddo to shame, and a lightsaber he wields like Inigo Montoya. Yeah, I think I'd do great with him between me and the hordes of undead.

  
Henry T.: Stealing your kills, dream girl, and title since 2007.

3. Leon Scott Kennedy (Resident Evil... let's be honest, only RE4 matters)
Seen here in his natural habitat.
I need at least one character here who has experience fighting zombies, and who isn't from Space or the magical wonderland of Suda 51's brain. And, indisputably, Resident Evil 4 is the greatest any game about killing zombies has ever been or ever will be. It came out 6 years ago but you could rerelease it today and it would be Game of the Year by a mile.

And Leon is its star. After having murdered a Romero Zombie outbreak so hard in RE2 that they promoted him from rookie cop to Secret Service solely on the basis of his skill at Firing Rockets into Abominations, he spends most of the series' brightest moment murdering an undead Spaniard every ten seconds. The man kills around 1500 zombies over the two games he stars in and he does it so well that the government makes it his job. He's armed with a giant shotgun, a Dirty Harry revolver, a sniper rifle and (unless you were an idiot and didn't get the Red9), the most beautiful handgun in the world. Not that he needs them-- he demolishes most of his foes with roundhouse kicks, stabbings, and suplexing their skulls into the ground. When confronted with a giant spidery mass of spines and tentacles he decides that the most American thing to do would be to kneecap it, run up its spine, and stab it in the eye, which is surrounded by teeth.
After telling it that it was Small Time.
Leon has another advantage unique to him: he is a god. damn. idiot. I know that seems like a skill I might not want my zombie-killing buddy to have, but I don't want to be obsolete. As long as Leon's around I can sleep securely, knowing that he is protecting me from zombies and I'm protecting him from jamming his combat knife in a power socket in an attempt to kill lightning and gain its power. Leon is guaranteed to follow me and remain loyal because I know the secret to how doorknobs work and the magic words that make can openers obey me. Leon's brain is %75 murdering zombies, %10 AMERICA, and %15 moping about Ada Wong. And I can use that-- as long as Leon's around I'll be guaranteed a place in the group as "The Guy Who Puts Up With Leon," which, given that it means I'm essentially steering an anti-zombie ballistic missile, isn't a half-bad role to have.

4. Rose of Sharon Cassidy (Fallout: New Vegas)

That whiskey is glowing, and she's still going to drink it.
Provided that this zombie outbreak goes apocalyptic, I need someone who can survive after all human civilization has been destroyed. And that means Fallout. And because I can't just put in one of my protagonists from the Fallout series, and I can't honestly count "having Ron Perlman narrate me" as a legitimate choice, that means Cass, from the series' best entry, New Vegas.

All the sidekicks in New Vegas have applicable skills that make me want them on my side. Arcade Gannon can talk about books and has medical experience, Veronica can make people explode with her fists and fix everything, Raul is voiced by Danny Trejo. But Cass wins on three counts.
  • She's the daughter of Cassidy from Fallout 2-- making her genetically predisposed to ass-kicking and more representative of my love for the series as a whole.
  • She's the most skilled character with a shotgun, the official zombie-destroying weapon.
  • Booze.
Drinking so hard the game counts it as a legitimate skill.
Just being around Cass makes whiskey more potent. As long as she's your companion, drinking a nice bottle of wasteland bourbon makes your character healthier, and her presence negates the existence of liver damage or hangovers. Don't have any booze? She'll make you some out of bread, rotten fruit, and battery acid. Having Rose of Sharon Cassidy around guarantees that the apocalypse turns into a party, even as she is destroying everything nearby in a hail of bullets. And if we're going to rebuild society, or endure the bleakness of a world filled with the undead, I wanna be drunk 24/7 and not have to worry about the consequences.

Cass is the perfect blend of killing machine and someone I wouldn't mind hanging with when the dead rise from their graves. And I really, really want to see Leon get drunk and talk about his problems.

She is still more eloquent than Leon Scott Kennedy

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Triumph Playlist

" 'You're not punk, and I'm telling everyone!'
Save your breath, I never was one!
You don't know what I'm all about,
like killing cops and reading Kerouac"

--Jawbreaker, "Boxcar"

Up at the top of this blog, there's a mission statement that says "punk-rock literary criticism." And I wanna talk about that now. I could talk about the critics who inspire me (Marx, Koestler, Foucault, Said, Zizeck, Bakhtin, Butler, Fish), but I know what you're thinking: "another blog about Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the groteqsue and Foucault's theories of power and authority? Like that's never been done before!" Also, it would be hard work. So let's talk about the punk thing instead.

If you've read, like, any of this blog, you may have noticed that music is kind of a big deal in what I do. It's usually in the background, but the essential premise of this thing I write is "dude, the literary canon is pretty punk rock." So I was hoping we could talk about that some. Yeah. Let's talk about how much we love rock and roll. We're cool kids. Awesome.

Anyway, all posturing aside, these are 5 bands who I think really represent what the mission statement of this blog is. If you've got any of their stuff, this is what I'd recommend as the best accompaniment to my various rambles and discussions. Also, I'm not finished with Didion's Democracy yet, which is why I'm doing kind of a fluff piece.
Wow, it's like if Chuck Klosterman was even less of a real journalist!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Thoughts on Blood Meridian

"A ritual includes the letting of blood. Rituals which fail in this requirement are but mock rituals."

A few days ago, I finished Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness In The West.

And then I sort of wandered about in a daze for the rest of the day-- the way I did after first watching Apocalypse Now, or hearing Shostakovich's 8th quartet for the first time. It's a book that's emotionally draining the whole way through and then, in the last fifty pages or so, hits you in the gut like a stab wound. It's a serious contender for the greatest American novel of the past thirty years. Maybe fifty. It's the closest thing contemporary literature has to its Heart of Darkness and McCarthy does for the bloody and empty American West what Conrad did for the Congo.

Which is to say, transforms it into a vessel for all our sins.

So, since it obviously affected me pretty powerfully (the last time I felt like this after finishing a book was The Sound and the Fury), let me share some of the most memorable things about it with you. For the sake of readability,  let's set that list at 5.
"Top 5 Most Horrifying Scalpings! Go!"

Saturday, July 9, 2011

4 Great Books For Summer

"We kept our friends at bay all Summer long,
treated the days as though they'd kill us if they could.
Wringing out the hours like blood-drenched bedsheets."
--The Mountain Goats, "Dinu Lipatti's Bones"

I've never understood people who say that summer is a time for easy reading. In large part, this is a consequence of being (until now) in school-- I have much more time and ability to tackle, say Ulysses in the middle of summer than I do in November (project this summer: a ton of Cormac McCarthy). And I don't read at the beach-- if I have to be outside during 105-degree Southern heat I am going to be underwater.

So these books will not necessarily be easy or light reads. But they will be reads that you should tackle in the next few months, before the heat breaks, while you're huddled inside whatever you can find with air conditioning, because these are books for which summer, heat, light, and the long slow days are going to feel beautiful and perfect. Books that will make you grateful for summer being here, even though, again, 105 degrees. Jesus, sometimes I wonder if I hate the South. Which leads us toooooo....

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Revue of Reviews (Or: TV Tropes is full of idiots)

"So safely with your software, miles from the front line
You hear the way their sad voice sings, and you start to imagine things
Oh, any excuse to write more lies"
--Morrissey, "Reader, Meet Author."


So I know I don't have an editor, but if I did he'd be on my case right now to get back on this blog and give you guys what you want. And while he doesn't exist, he's right-- I've been moving from Asheville to Wilmington, but I'm all settled in now and I oughta get back to The Triumph because dammit Jasper, we have papers to move!
"And get me some photos on that Michael Chabon fellow! He's a menace!"
 So, while I work on a couple longer posts, I wanted to put up a shorter bit here encapsulating a recent hobby of mine: reading idiots' terrible, terrible opinions about literature. This won't be a smart post-- this is me in the mode I was back when I worked on The Gutrotter, in which I find terrible things and mock them angrily.

I've been reading the TVTropes Wiki some, and, despite having a useful premise as a website, it has one of the worst user bases I've ever seen in my life. And one of the highlights of that is my least favorite thing in the world: geek anti-itellectualism. People who need to be smart about everything, and so rationalize everything they don't enjoy as being beneath them. And let me tell you-- it is hilarious how much they want so badly for great literature to be stupid. So I've put together some of my favorites here, in which people whose favorite books are in the Star Wars Expanded Universe try and explain why Pulitzer-Prize-Winning authors are idiots.

Keep in mind, these are all from a wiki whose purpose is to analyze narrative and examine story. These aren't just random dipshits-- these are people who, essentially, consider themselves literary theorists and are supposed to be educated commentators on culture. This is a website that is supposed to be a balanced, comprehensive wiki of narratives and art.

Of Mice And Men:
"Oh let me puke, this story (And I'll question the validity of that statement later) is boring, boring, boring, the villain is kinda non-existent and ridiculous flat...Who's the villain (Or the closest approximation)? CURLEY! Or in my opinion, Steinbeck. Look this isn't an internal conflict, cause there's no internal dialogue, tell me one thing about George that the book doesn't say about him, SHOW, DON', TELL, apparently Steinbeck had never heard that little tidbit. And don't make assumptions about me, I like subtle works, which does not mean boring ones." --Phrederic
Phrederic has apparently never heard of "internal conflict" and thinks that every story has to have an evil villain for the hero to defeat-- mostly because internal conflict means a character considering they might be wrong, which is vastly less believable to him than battles in space. (This marks the beginning of a trend in these reviews). According to his profile page, he is an ultra-manly Nietzsche-loving rebel who loves fighting and "has a succulent red exterior." Also, he loves Naruto, wrestling, and Warhammer 40,000.
"I do enjoy subtle works."
"...The world building isn't complex, it's California, Steinbeck lived in California, right near where the story took place."
Because describing a real setting perfectly is the lazy option when you can make up a fantasy world instead.

Paradise Lost
Oops, I thought there'd be a review of this. There isn't-- no one's taken the time to write one up. But hey, at least there's 21 pages and 8,000 words about the best fanfiction involving Harry Potter characters boning each other.

The Road
"The writing style of the the Road is terrible. No punctuations, long run-on sentences, and no quotations to let you know who's speaking at any point in the dialogue." --Snitchy
 Snitchy thinks that the guidelines he learned in 9th-grade English about writing 5-paragraph essays should apply to all literature. Snitchy thinks that Cormac McCarthy just made a bunch of typos and his editor fell asleep on the job. If Snitchy ate like he reads, he'd give a gourmet restaurant a bad review for not putting ketchup on his steak and refuse to tip the waitress because she didn't place the food directly into his mouth.
The only reason Snitchy is still alive is because Cormac McCarthy doesn't want to hurt his writing hand by strangling as hard as it would take to reach Snitchy's windpipe through his chins.
"Imagine if the Star Wars films were about watching R2-D2 and C-3PO go about their business in the rebel bases instead of watching either the space battles or other more interesting characters. That's what the Road was like. A strange world populated with interesting events and characters, but we are forced to watch the two least interesting characters experience these events from the periphery"
Snitchy thinks that the most critically-acclaimed novel of the past decade should have been more like Star Wars, and would rather read about explosions or people hitting each other than the inextinguishable hope of a dying humanity as expressed through a father's love. Snitchy thinks that a book whose entire theme was about how ordinary people need human contact to remain human should have focused on space-knights and starship battles.
"I say R2, are we still the good guys?"
"Beep boop beeeoop."

Critic Profile: Deboss
Deboss views himself as a critic of literature. He likes to freely hand out his opinions on books, their importance, and what works have real literary value.

"The mandatory component for English is both too large and too focused on 'classics'. Any literature that has to be required to get readership, isn't a book worthy of being read. I honestly can't think of any exceptions. History of literature would also be cut from any class that doesn't have "history" in the name, and none of them would be required. There's nothing worth learning there unless someone is already interested. ...Also, no state funded field trips to go see plays. They're a form of art that will hopefully die soon anyway."
Deboss is a literary critic in the same sense that a tapeworm is a food critic.
Hey look, it's Guy Fieri.
Deboss-- whose avatar is an anime girl's ass-- is who inspired this blog post. The things Deboss has to say about books are the most insipid things I have ever heard in my life, and the fact that he's allowed to post on a site that supposedly bans people for being too negative is why I decided to highlight the goddamn morons who populate that site's literature discussions.
 "My advice would be to further promote Table Top Games since those require reading and interpretation without all the bullshit that normal literature classes have. Combined with the fact that children are rarely if ever exposed to anything worth reading, it's not surprising that they don't pick it up."
 Deboss thinks that a D&D Player's Manual offers more to the soul than "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Deboss is such an idiot that it makes me wonder if his skull is still soft, but then I realize that it must actually be pretty thick because how else do you explain the fact he wasn't aborted?
"Shakespeare was the most unpleasant work I've ever been exposed to. I've seen most of Uwe Bol and Seltzer Burger work, and I'm including it in that statement. Part of the unpleasantness comes from the idea that it's impossible to dislike it, and the answer is greater exposure to Shakespeare. The sooner the works of Shakespeare are forgotten, the better. Given the power, I'd make teaching it a capitol offense."
 Deboss is to literary criticism as John Wayne Gacy was to the world of comedy, and Deboss's posts are to my faith in humanity as John Wayne Gacy was to fifteen-year-old boys. Deboss has a college degree and only books he reads are Animorphs and Star Wars novels-- and he thinks this makes him smarter than the rest of us. Deboss is such an idiot he can't even manage to be illiterate correctly. The process by which his brain tries to shit out intelligent thought most closely resembles a botched suicide.
  
Deboss thinks this should be taught in schools and Orwell shouldn't.
OK, Shakespeare Should be Safe
Okay, sorry... I went to kind of a dark place there. I'm sure that people like Deboss are just flukes and the fact that they're allowed to post this on a site that bans people who try and point out that anime involving the sex lives of 12-year-olds is creepy doesn't reflect anything on the site's policies or problems. Instead, I'll look up some Shakespeare and watch people refute his points. Everyone loves Shakespeare, there's no way that a site this huge, about narrative tropes, is just an echo chamber for anti-intellectual nerds who hate real art. I'll look up my favorite Shakespeare play and I'll see someone praise it for inventing so many of the tropes that the site is supposed to catalog.Something that'll keep me from turning into Shane McGowan by the end of the night.

Macbeth
"This review focuses on Macbeth, but will also contain my criticism of Shakespeare's works as a whole. Shakespeare makes rational men mad and the greatest of critics weak kneed and fawning. The man is the foremost writer of the english language, and we consider his works to be on the same level as the greats of today. But I ask you this? Why... The plot is simple and the Aesop is dull and cliche, Ambition Is Evil. And the editing is simply awful. Macbeth is full of disappearing characters and dropped plotlines."
GIMME ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE SIX SEVEN EIGHT NINE TEN BOTTLES OF GIN.
"I wanted the cool, conflicted Macbeth back, I wanted him to achieve victory over their dull and flat enemies. But instead of making an Anti Villain Shakespeare decided to throw him off the slippery slope to save himself the trouble of making the work complex at all."
You are shitting me. This jackass thinks that Macbeth-- whose biggest character trait was being an easily-distracted dimwit --was a cool conflicted hero? He thinks that the play was trying to teach us one specific, easily-reduced moral? He thinks that a 400-year-old play we only have in copies of copies should be expected to have a tight and flawless structure that can hold up against modern works?

"And I would agree with that this is a character study had his character not been so inconsistent, the man is almost bipolar."
GEE, IT'S ALMOST LIKE HE'S DELIBERATELY WRITTEN TO BE WEAK-WILLED, HAVE POOR SELF-CONTROL, AND LOSE HIS MORAL COMPASS ONCE HE GETS A TASTE OF POWER.
 So What Have We Learned?
Well we learned that the internet is awful. That's a thing we learned.

But seriously though, even though I just picked one play these attitudes are pretty representative of geek/nerd culture. And considering that I spent a ton of time recently playing Shadows of the Damned and Fallout, that's a culture I'm part of.

So consider this my return after the hiatus of moving and getting set up in a new/old town. I'm back and I'm gonna keep fighting to talk about how classic, serious literature is cool and relevant and actually pretty fuckin' good, not just Important. Because, to quote Tony Hoagland (probably America's best contemporary poet, who of course has no TV Tropes page because there are no lasers in his works)
But I hate those people back
from the core of my donkey soul
and the hatred makes me strong
and my survival is their failure.

Friday, June 17, 2011

3 Great Books by my 3 Favorite Songwriters

Oof. Been doing a fair bit of hard work recently-- reading Foucault's Pendulum (which I am loving) and packing up my tiny apartment for a move this weekend. I'll probably take the next post off because of the latter-- look for your update around Thursday of next week or so. It'll probably be about Faulkner.

So what I am doing is listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen. New Skin For The Old Ceremony is definitely in my top-5-all-time-favorites list of albums. And it's been thunderstorming all day. And I just had a great dinner with a dear friend. So here's kind of a fluff list while I take it easy at the end of the day. Three of my favorite songwriters each happen to have a novel or two to their name. And they're all really fantastic books. I'd definitely advise you to pick them up.


Master of Reality, by John Darnielle
Yes, this is the umpteenth Darnielle shout-out on this blog. Deal with it.
Deal with it.
Master of Reality is a beautiful, beautiful book. It takes the form of the journal of a 16-year-old boy, who is writing said journal because the doctors at the mental institution he is in require it. They've locked him up, they've taken his shoelaces away, but worse-- they've taken his Walkman and all his Black Sabbath cassettes. So for the course of 100 pages, he describes what Sabbath's 3rd album, Master of Reality, means to him, how much it saves him and provides a reassurance of his humanity, in a desperate attempt to give his tapes back.

It's simple and it's powerful and it's true-- up until the release of We Shall All Be Healed, Darnielle worked as a nurse in a mental institution for young men. There's so much love in this book for the main character, so much contempt for the people who don't recognize the healing power of angry, bitter art. The voice of our narrator in particular is real and powerful, and I can't help but tremble sometimes at how much it made me think of the most miserable parts of my teenage experience. Besides the terrible haircut, I mean. It's about being 16 or 17 and getting up close and personal with the demons that are going to be inhabiting you the rest of your life, and about how Tony Iommi's guitar is sometimes the best weapon at hand for beating them into submission.
Pictured: the brightest light in the world.
I reread it recently during the hour of waiting around before my college graduation. It's 100 very small pages but it is still a pretty hard book to read at times.

And the Ass Saw The Angel, by Nick Cave
When I handed this book to my girlfriend and had her read the scene in which the main character, Euchrid Eucrow, is birthed with a dead twin in the back of a rusted-out car and sterilized with moonshine, her comment was "oh my god, it's like all the subject matter of Faulkner and O'Connor but with the  language of Marquez!" And that's why you should read And the Ass Saw the Angel (and why I should marry this girl someday, but that's neither here nor there).
"If you need more incentive, consider that I have a large collection of rocks, and some of 'em are killin' rocks."
If you've listened to any of mid-80's Nick Cave (and if you haven't, go get a copy of Tender Prey immediately and make peace with your God before you listen to it), you know what to expect: blood, God, the Bloodgod, God's Blood, whiskey, madness, whiskey-madness, and fire. The main character is a schizophrenic mute living with two abusive parents (his mother beats him for not speaking, his father catches animals in homemade traps and makes them fight) on the edge of a religious community in the Deep South.

It treads a line between the Southern Gothic and Magical Realism-- think the lush textuality of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the heat and the language of Absalom, Absalom!, and the shimmering madness of Wise Blood. It's definitely not a perfectly-constructed book (Cave was on a lot of heroin at the time and would usually write until he passed out facedown on the typewriter), but there's a relentless heat and force to it and the savage inevitability of its violence. It's also a beautiful spectacle, watching an Australian junkie living in London write about a South he only knows through Faulkner novels and bizarre stories.
"Wait, Mississippi's a real place?"
Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Coehn
This one's kind of cheating: one, unlike the other two, Cohen was actually a novelist and a poet before he became a musician, and two, it's a much better-known book. Still though, it's a pretty astonishing and emotionally raw novel and it would be unfair to leave it out. Also, I can't have a list with just two points.

I would say that Beautiful Losers is about sex and Judaism, but, c'mon. It's Leonard Cohen. You know it's about sex and Judaism. So it's also about a love triangle between our narrator, his wife (who he fetishized because he was an anthropologist who specialized on her tribe), and their mutual friend and lover F. Its language is and rich and raw as anything else Cohen wrote, and the characters as wry, bitter, and loving as those of his songs.
Not a particularly cheerful guy, as it turns out.
Beautiful Losers is about that wonderful drive towards self-immolation, the human need to burn away all our faults and become that which we love. It's incredibly Cohen-ish, touching on all those moments in his song where the individual strives to destroy itself with sex and G-d and passion-- think of the opening of "The Future" or all of "Who By Fire." If you like those songs (and if you don't then why the hell do you like me?), this is a book that'll hit you like a speeding car.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

REVIEW: What I've Been Reading Lately

So this one'll be kind of oddball. I've been doing a lot of reading the past couple weeks, but none of the books has been as strange/wonderful or as perfectly fitting as most of the books I try and dedicate a full column to. But, not wanting to let all that reading go to waste, I still want to talk about them briefly. So instead (and, in part, inspired by the fact that my girlfriend got my Nick Hornby's Shakespeare Wrote for Money, which does the same thing), I thought I'd just do some short rundowns of the stuff I've been going through recently.

(Proper article next time, though. Either "3 Great Novels Written by Musicians" or an in-depth author profile).

The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler
This book is... different. It's intensely Victorian, like the ink was made from tea leaves and meat pie filling. However, one gets the feeling that, like Alasdair Gray's Poor Things or Alan Moore's From Hell, it's immersing itself so perfectly in the Victorian age in attempt to show the real Victorianism.
Just hollowed the old broad out and wore her as a suit.
The Way of All Flesh is ostensibly about the young man Ernest Pontifex and how he became a good, non-religious freethinker and charming gentleman just like Butler himself. The fact that the last 70 pages or so are about that makes me pretty sure Butler wanted us to take away that message. However, the real story-- the one that is far more emotionally powerful and forms the best parts of the novel --is Ernest's relationship with his abusive, overbearing father. Butler does an incredible job of showing the kind of power that a dominant parent can have over their child, and the scenes between Ernest and his father are far and away the most intense of the book.

Butler also does a great job of really digging into the roots of Ernest's father's cruelty, both in showing the origins of his need for power and constant affirmation of his importance (a childhood spent in the shadow of his own father, never having the courage to challenge those who were not dependent on him) and the reason's for his wife's meekness and the absolute need she has for her husband's happiness. Butler also ties these beautifully with Victorian ideals, making it absolutely clear that this domestic tyranny and cruelty is a natural extension of Victorian moralism and the sense of obligation.
"Have I mentioned that Jesus was a lie?"
The ending goes on for too long as Butler tries to make the story about religion and society instead of a fucked-up family-- if a good chunk of Ernest's college years had been removed, and the actual ending had been the moment where Ernest finally tells his parents that he doesn't need them and they have no right to control him, it would have been a much stronger book --but it's still a pretty great novel, and has some incredibly powerful moments in it.

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks
Okay, I'm torn with this book. I really, really enjoyed it while I was reading it-- I picked it up at 11 at night, read the first 2/3rds, went to bed, and finished it immediately upon waking up --but I'm a little hesitant to wholeheartedly recommend it. In part because I'm not sure I want to go on record as having liked it.

The Wasp Factory contains some of the most brutal, fucked-up content I've ever read. Our narrator, Frank, is a teenage sociopath living on the West Coast of Scotland, getting drunk, killing animals, arranging their skulls on sticks along invisible ley lines, and reminiscing about the three children he murdered when he was younger.
Why are there people like Frank?
I don't mean to imply that it's just shock value, Bret Easton Ellis / post-Invisible Monters-Palahniuk style. This is a very, very good book. One of the most horrifying aspects of it is that we come to understand Frank's logic and, while never feeling that his acts of evil are right, the audience is able to see his rationale and understand the logic by which his world operates. At its core, I think it's a book about adolescence: to be 16 is to be creating a set of rituals, codes, and totems that are exclusive to you alone, and Frank, violent and brutal though he is, is trying to do this without the tools to do so in a way that prevents his rituals from being bloody and savage. He never takes joy in the three murders he committed, but recognized them as necessary acts for the pattern he sees in the world that no one else does. I mean, I just listened to a lot of Raw Power and took up the guitar, but the principle's the same.

That said... I'd be careful with this book, if I were you. It may be understandable and ring uncomfortably true, but it is still a brutal, brutal novel. I'm not even going to describe any of the most chilling scenes in it because I don't want to be responsible for putting them in your head. Just know that, if you do read it, there is a reason behind all of it and it does have a point. And it's a book you will almost certainly tear through in a white heat and be very, very glad to finish.
"I write about spaceships! And five-year-olds being blown to pieces!"
Wigfield: The Can-Do Town That Just May Not, by Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and Paul Dinello

Several years ago, when the three of them were all just starting out as actors, the authors of this book did a TV show. It ran from 1999 to 2003. It was a parody of after-school specials called Strangers With Candy, and it was wonderful: surreal, strange, and operating by its own beautiful, inexplicable logic. It was easily one of the best TV comedies of all time and it's astounding that something as dark and weird as it ever made it onto television in the first place.
The character on the right never moves on camera and always makes that face.
Wigfield, their print follow-up, is not the same level of brilliant nonsense. It's still a damn fine book though.

Wigfield is the story of Russell Hokes, former highway line painter turned writer, who signs a contract to write 50,000 words about the disappearing American small town and rapidly discovers he can neither write about nor care about the disappearing American small town. Hokes's narrative voice is the best part about the book: he's a terrible, terrible writer who thinks he's a great one, and most of the book's best jokes come from his attempts to sound eloquent (and pad his word count), such as his claim that "with the future in my rearview mirror, I set a course for the past," or the fact that you can clearly identify the passages in which Hokes has attempted to use a thesaurus (usually in trying to find synonyms for "small town").

The town Hokes alights in, Wigfield, is "a charming architectural melange, the overall effect being that of a series of children's forts made from stolen highway equipment"-- a hastily-constructed shantytown/trailer park constructed at the base of a soon-to-be-destroyed dam as an obvious insurance scam. The book becomes an absolutely vicious satire on the "small town" and, moreso, on our love for the town. One of the biggest recurring jokes is the moment at which one of Wigfield's vaguely insane residents (there's supposedly a local serial killer, but it could be pretty much any citizen) will say something absolutely horrible, following it with a proclamation of small-town pride. Wigfield is essentially the worst place on earth, and Hokes is able to convince himself, and hopes to convince his reader, that it's "charming" and "quaint" just because very, very few people want to live there.
And then Stephen Colbert is in this picture.
Essentially, if you enjoy Strangers With Candy, or if Tina Fey's and Jon Stewart's endorsements on the back sound like pretty good advice, check it out. Wigfield is fun, weird, and, at times, unspeakably vicious satire. Also, it stops mid-moral because Hokes reaches 50,000 words, which is a pretty beautiful joke.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The 5 Most Badass Classic Authors

One of my favorite posts I've done here was my list of The 5 Most Badass Modern Writers. It was a helluva lot of fun to write and research, and I think the end result was pretty freakin' great. That said, though... look, I don't think that we're becoming emasculated by the passage of time or that we need to "reclaim our manliness" or any of that quasi-macho bullshit.

But I do think that, back when everyone knew how to use a sword, there were probably a lot more terrifyingly insane geniuses.
I mean, I'm a Douglas. Clearly, there's been some watering-down over the years.
So with that in mind, here's a companion to this piece: in no particular order, 5 men who lived before the 20th century and were able to totally tear up an age without anesthesia or basic hygiene. They may scare us, but hey, a Ford Taurus would make them puke in terror so at least we have that advantage should they declare war on our modern poets.

Spoiler alert: 4 of these men had sex with men. Ain't literary history fun!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

5 Things I Love About Goethe's Faust

"How lucky we were,
We hit the cathouses and we sampled their wares
We got as drunk as a couple of Tsars,
that night I swallowed my lucky stars.
Who's that dancin' on the jailhouse roof
Stampin' on the ramping with a cloven hoof?"

--Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Up Jumped the Devil."

Goethe's Faust is one of the great triumphs of human literature. It is a damn shame that it's not omnipresent in American education-- it's every bit the equal of Shakespeare's best. Honestly, if Germany had won the war, we could take cold comfort in the fact that at least Americans could grow up knowing their Goethe.
"The Spacebots told me about a universe where that happened! And we all did the I Chi!"
Yes...yes Philip. We know.
I was considering trying to a guide to the work, but let's be honest-- I cannot. I spent a semester taking a course on this book and it was still fairly hurried. Goethe spent 60 years of life reading it, the most I can do to try and shepherd you through is to tell you to pick up the most recent Norton Critical Edition, which is a really great translation with hundreds of pages of notes, annotations, and help.

Instead, I'm going to revert to the method of communication that watching High Fidelity every Friday when I was 16 instilled in me: Top 5 lists. There's a huge amount to go into, but here's 5 things from the epic that are my favorite parts.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Franzenfreude

Ages and ages ago, in my endorsement of Secondhand World, I promised I'd eventually try and talk about the whole "Franzenfreude" subject, especially now that enough time has passed since the accusations were going around on Freedom's publication that there's been some other really good journalism on the subject... that I can steal. Then, the author of Secondhand World mentioned personally that she'd love to see that article,so I really should. But then the chair of my department bought me a beer and the head of the Honors department bought me another beer (which is a good bit classier than that time we were hanging out and I was drinking absinthe out of a Pepsi bottle), so I have an excuse for my perpetual forgetting-to-write-this-post.
Your move, Bukowski.
Fanzenfreude is the (technically incorrect, if you care about German) term that got created when everyone was heaping laurels on Jonathan Franzen's Freedom as the new Great American Novel. It mainly refers to the way that women writers are treated in publishing and the literary world, and is your basic de Beauvoir-style second sex treatment: male writers are Writers, women are Women Writers. Not only is there an assumption that the Great American Novel will be written by a man, but, specifically, there's the fact that Franzen's novel is one of domestic drama, aesthetics, nature, and marriage. When a woman writes about these subjects, her books are about domestic life, love, and the human condition. When Franzen does, his books are about America.
Gonna kick some butt, gonna drive a big truck.
One of the best articles on the subject comes from (of course) The Guardian's book page( well, originally from The Millions, but The Guardian's edited version gets to the gender point more cleanly), in their article "How to turn a great American novel into a Great one". One of the points that the author makes (in part unintentionally) is that the things we look for in "great" novels are the things that we also expect from and encourage in male writers: daring, braggadocio, ironic detachment, brutal honesty. And when a man writes a book those things are what we look for: publishers and readers expect "masculine" writing and so they expect these traits.

Let's look, for example, at the collection of poetry on my bedside table, Jean Valentine's Break the Glass. The publisher copy and blurbs describe it as "quiet" (Publisher's Weekly) "graceful" (Library Journal), and The New Yorker praises Valentine for moving away from "the confessional poets who influenced her earliest verses" and writing more "skeletal...terse fragments."

Meanwhile, the other poetry collection I've been reading and adoring lately is the 2000 edition of Edwin Morgan's New Selected Poems. I love Morgan (more than Valentine, but let's put that aside for the time being), but reading Alex Salmond's eulogy for him from last year it's hard not to notice that he is praised for the scope and passion of his work, his long narrative explorations of death and violence, and his blunt honesty.

And yet Morgan wrote in "Strawberries" (to a male lover, no less):
"abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you"
And Valentine gave us the brutal, chilling opening of "Diana":
"The tab on the tea bag said
'Love what is ahead
by loving what came before.'
But what came before was no dream
you wake from, it was human sacrifice..."
We ignore the tenderness in Morgan and we ignore the shocking in Valentine and we do them both a disservice.

Edwin Morgan was important: he was the National poet of Scotland. New Selected Poems is implied by its back copy to be a sort of anthem, a symbol of Scottish independence and national pride, whereas Break The Glass is pitched by its copy as a warm, comforting book. Valentine has a National Book Award and a Pulitzer nomination but the "femininity" of her work guarantees that she's not going to make the cover of Time as a nationally important writer in the way that Franzen did.
Does anyone else get serious Dexter vibes from Franzen, or is that just me?
Men's books are books, women's books are women's books. To bring this back to where it started, I know for a fact from talking to the author that two of the biggest influences on Secondhand World are Yukio Mishima and James Baldwin, but the review selected for the back of the book compares it to three different minority women writers because it is a minority woman's story of the alienation and loneliness of adolescence-- never mind that, as a white man, there were moments in it that resonated with an incredible shock of familiarity with my own painful adolescence. Publishers-- and writers, and readers --make the mistake of assuming that men write more universal stories than women, that a writer's gender informs the tone of their voice, and that male readers can't really connect to a woman's writing.

Or, at its core, Franzenfreude is the fact that I can't think of a single woman who's been marketed as a Great Writer to a level that transcends the fact that she is a woman. I can't name a woman poet or novelist who is held up by "the establishment" as an artist before she is held up as a woman artist. We-- readers, writers, and publishers --are keeping women writers, ironically enough, in a room of their own instead of letting them enter a discourse with the literary world as a whole.

And to do that to Rodereda, Adrienne Rich, McCullers, Valentine, Sexton, Woolf, Octavia Butler, and Anna Akhmatova is a goddamn crime against art.

I was going to let Virgina Woolf tell you this, but... it just seemed more serious when I said it for some reason.
"You're a little shit, you know that Jasper?"

"Webster was much posessed by death..."

"John Webster was
one of the best there was.
He was the author of
two major tragedies."
--Echo and the Bunnymen, "My White Devil"

Let me apologize up-front for the lack of posts lately. I've been jetting around the state, visiting family and friends and trying desperately to get a job, preferably one where I don't end up feeling that the last four years of school were an absolute waste (does anyone out there need someone to hang around and be condescending?), and so I haven't gotten around to some of the writing I've been meaning to.

But I've wanted to do this post for a while. And trust me, your world will be a little better for having read it. I hope. I'm about to introduce you to a wonderful and terrifying man and the bloody world he ruled.
Pretty much me. But less tweedy and smug.
First things first-- careful historical research suggests that there may, in fact, have been other people writing in late 16th/ early 17th-century England besides Shakespeare. I know it seems crazy, but there were some fairly well-supported sightings of Marlowe and we're all but convinced that John Donne existed in some form. And then there's the stories-- dark, bloody, gruesome stories --of Webster.

Okay, I'm being an ass here. But the fact remains that it's pretty hard to look at that era without the Bard's shadow. Algernon Swinburne's The Age of Shakespeare, published in 1926, has the following to say of Webster:
"Webster, it may be said, was but as it were a limb of Shakespeare: but that limb, it might be replied, was the right arm. 'The kingly-crownèd head, the vigilant eye,' whose empire of thought and whose reach of vision no other man's faculty has ever been found competent to match, are Shakespeare's alone for ever: but the force of hand, the fire of heart, the fervour of pity, the sympathy of passion, not poetic or theatric merely, but actual and immediate, are qualities in which the lesser poet is not less certainly or less unmistakably pre-eminent than the greater."
 Essentially, the basic viewpoint seems to be that Webster's alright, but he's no Will; Webster may be the Raekwon of the Jacobian stage, but when Voltron formed in 1605 like 90% of it was Shakespeare. Not even the Genius got to be the head.
I have a degree, and I chose to do this.
Bullshit, says I. Yes, Webster's no Shakespeare, but pretty much nobody is. Let's not do Webster a disservice by assuming that just because he wrote at the same time as Shakespeare he should have had his talent, that he's not worth paying attention to because one of his contemporaries happened to be the most influential writer in human history. Instead, let's look at what makes Webster so goddamn great in his own right.

Webster is dark and brutal and incredibly perceptive about human evil. Eliot-- a man perhaps more keenly aware of the tenuousness of light and life than any other artist --praised Webster for his incredible grasp on humanity's frailty and mortality (moments and images from Webster's The White Devil  are scattered throughout The Waste Land). His work is bloody in ways that few other artists of his day were. When someone dies in Shakespeare, there's a purpose and a cause; there is a natural order and violence arises as a consequence of godless chaos. Webster's world rejects this: the notion of divine punishment still implies the too-comforting existence of some kind of natural order and authority, whereas Webster's plays see the world as a realm without government or reason, driven only by the base needs and frantic scrabblings of humanity.

Like I said: dark, dark stuff, but incredible. When you pick up The Duchess of Malfi there's this terrible momentum to the work: whereas in most other tragedies the heroes are noble and the bloodshed dignified, Malfi begins by demonstrating that the noble court-- and all of humanity --are selfish, petty, and grotesque. Then it gets worse. Mankind, at least to the eloquently cynical Bosola, are filth, worse than the lowest animal because we have reason and intelligence and choose to be bestial, with souls as rotten as the corpses we walk around in.
"I do wonder you do not loathe yourselves.
Observe my meditation now:
What thing is in this outward form of man
To be belov'd? We account it ominous,
If nature do produce a colt, or lamb,
A fawn, or goat, in any limb resembling
A man, and fly from't as a prodigy.
Man stands amaz'd to see his deformity
In any other creature but himself.
But in our own flesh, though we bear diseases
Which have their true names only ta'en from beasts,
As the most ulcerous wolf and swinish measle;
Though we are eaten up of lice and worms,
And though continually we bear about us
A rotten and dead body, we delight
To hide it in rich tissue; all our fear,
Nay all our terror, is, lest our physician
Should put us in the ground, to be made sweet."
 Malfi is like The Departed of the Elizabethan stage-- bloody, chaotic, this swirling cycle of pain and retribution and petty, human, evil. It's also really hard to follow and has a lot of similar characters, but that's just an expansion of the chaos inside the play itself; Webster forces you to be lost, confused, and afraid in his world.
"Your brother and yourself are worthy men:
You have a pair of hearts are hollow graves,
Rotten, and rotting others."
What makes Webster so astonishing is that he was writing his characters as lost souls in a broken world centuries before Modernism made that the popular viewpoint of literature. He paints the nobility as corrupt, restrictive sexual "morality" as a perverse obsession with purity, God as nonexistent and justice as a joke. In 1612-- when just saying that maybe God didn't directly appoint King James to rule over the British Empire for the good of all its subjects and as a defense against the Papacy was treasonous.

It's not all dark and gloom and sinister, though-- well, it mostly is, but it's not brutal for brutality's sake. Webster's aim isn't to shock his audience, but to remind them of their own frailty, of their own base humanity. One of his best moments--one of the best moments of Elizabethan drama--is the final scene of Malfi, by which point every major character is dead, except for the two who are bleeding to death as the play closes. Ferdinand, the villain of the piece, remarks that mankind is not brought down by devils (as was the case in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 30 years earlier), or by karmic retribution for transgressions against order (as in Macbeth, c.1605), but instead says that
"I do account this world but a dog-kennel...
Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust."
There's some stranglin' about to happen.
The play's ending is Godfather levels of dark: the one innocent, the Duchess's child son who stands a chance at escaping the den of killers and traitors that is the noble court, is instead guaranteed a position of high stature in the wake of everyone else's death. There's no redemption, no hero to come in and impose justice as there is in Macbeth, no ironic retribution for the nobility's sin as in Coriolanus.

Webster refuses to offer the audience an out. He refuses to let us make exceptions or walk away with a lesson learned and a comfortable resolution. Instead there's just everything wrong with the rich and powerful, and the silent promise that nothing about that is going to change.
"Now my revenge is perfect. Sink, thou main cause
Of my undoing. The last part of my life
Hath done me best service."

Webster's work is unique in its time-- ugly, crude, inordinately bloody, chaotic, rejecting any claims to moral authority and divine order. Reading it, one is reminded of J.G. Ballard's comment on his novel Crash, when he said that "I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror." Although he never lacks for beautiful language, and can even rival Will himself at his brightest moments, Webster never thinks for a moment that the beauty of his words can mask the evil that humanity is capable of, or that eloquence, money, or a fancy uniform somehow transforms someone into a moral person.

Pick him up, essentially. It's the most anti-authority British writing you're going to get until Milton comes along, and it's fascinating to see this kind of blood, hate, and anger in an era of drama that we associate almost solely with Shakespeare.