Sing Backwards and Weep (2020) | virtual book

Sing Backwards and Weep (2020)

by Mark Lanegan

#reviews #books #memoir #addiction #violence #music #rock #seattle #washington Mentioned in what I'm doing now

My

second attempt

Infinite Jest (1996)

by David Foster Wallace

#reviews #books #fiction #literature Mentioned in what I'm doing now, Sing Backwards and Weep (2020), what I'm doing now

My first attempt to review a book while I read it instead of waiting until I finish it.

YEAR OF GLAD

Main character: (new) Hal Incandenza, reading savant and tennis prodigy.

I’d actually listened to this chapter on audiobook years ago. My friend Jon told me about this book long ago, before I knew of its literary renown (or its notoriety as a status symbol for intellect-signalers.) I remembered it being funny and very absurd. Indeed it is.

Wallace’s descriptions are inventive.

..the air of the room, the bits of dust and sportcoat-lint stirred around by the AC’s vents dancing jaggedly in the slanted plane of windowlight, the air over the table like the sparkling space just above a fresh-poured seltzer.

Another bit stuck in my mind is his description of the conference room being “double-windowed against the November heat.” It’s late fall in the US, but it’s hot? This is said in the third sentence of the first chapter, laying down the first brick of mounting absurdity. Or maybe I just don’t know US climate that well.

My only problem with this chapter is that it’s hard to keep track of all the characters and names. I prefer being able to picture the correct number of people. I don’t think quantity is the problem though, because I am quite content, for example, keeping track of the dozens of characters in The Sopranos. I am much more comfortable doing it with visuals.

YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT

Main character: (new) Erdedy, isolated man with marijuana addiction.

I enjoyed this chapter more, I think because it was much easier to follow, but also probably because I read it when I had a lot of mental energy.

I assume Wallace’s obsessive personality and problems with addiction helped him create this very vivid scene where Erdedy meticulously arranges another “final” binge of marijuana, junk food, action movies, and masturbation. Wallace uses

transparent narration

and stream-of-consciousness to put us inside Erdedy’s head. It feels like we have access to the character’s thoughts because they flit between subjects without transition:

He had not sat down and outright bold-faced lied to her, it had been more of an impression he’d conveyed and nurtured and allowed to gather its own life and force. The insect was now entirely visible. It was on the shelf that held his digital equalizer. What looked like its reemergence might just have been a change in his attention or the two windows’ light or the visual context of his surroundings. The girder protruded from the wall and was a triangle of dull steel with holes for shelves to fit into. The metal shelves that held his audio equipment were painted a dark industrial green and were originally made for holding canned goods. They were designed to be extra kitchen shelves. The insect sat inside its dark shiny case with an immobility that seemed like the gathering of a force, it sat like the hull of a vehicle from which the engine had been for the moment removed. It was dark and had a shiny case and antennae that protruded but did not move. He had to use the bathroom. His last piece of contact from the appropriation artist, with whom he had had intercourse, and who during intercourse had sprayed some sort of perfume up into the air from a mister she held in her left hand as she lay beneath him making a wide variety of sounds and spraying perfume up into the air, so that he felt the cold mist of it settling on his back and shoulders and was chilled and repelled, his last piece of contact after he’d gone into hiding with the marijuana she’d gotten for him had been a card she’d mailed that was a pastiche photo of a doormat of coarse green plastic grass with WELCOME on it and next to it a flattering publicity photo of the appropriation artist from her Back Bay gallery, and between them an unequal sign, which was an equal sign with a diagonal slash across it, and also an obscenity he has assumed was directed at him magisculed in red grease pencil along the bottom, with multiple exclamation points.

All throughout, ideas branch off in unorganized directions.

The redundant descriptions – like the insect’s dark, shiny case and the woman spraying perfume up into the air – suggest what the character is focusing on, in his head. Particular details like these make their corresponding images more vivid not only for the reader, but also for the character whose mind we are seeing them through.

The excerpt above is only a fragment of a paragraph four pages in length, which follows a paragraph almost five pages in length. These two uninterrupted streams of thought have the effect of submerging us in Erdedy’s neurotic consciousness as he waits for and obsesses over an expected delivery of marijuana.

1 APRIL – YEAR OF THE TUCKS MEDICATED PAD

Main character: (recurring) Hal Incandenza, reading savant and tennis prodigy.

Another funny and absurd scene featuring Hal. Confusingly, in this one, he is articulate and witty. There is reference but no evidence of his being nonverbal.

Following his dad’s instruction, Hal meets with a self-proclaimed “professional conversationalist”, who is obtuse and confrontational and who turns out to be Hal’s dad in poor disguise.

A slightly annoying aspect of this chapter is that it jumps between seemingly random topics with no apparent point.

Hal’s dad says something about his wife cheating with lots of people.

For some reason, Hal calls his dad ‘Himself’ and his mom ‘the Moms’.

In this chatper there is first mention of some topics that come up in later chapters, including a medical attaché and Byzantine erotica. There’s also mention of Quebec, which, unless I’m hallucinating, is also mentioned once, in a throwaway comment, in the first chapter.

9 MAY – YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT

Main character: (recurring) Hal Incandenza, reading savant and tennis prodigy.

Hal packs his tennis bag in the darkness of 6am. The phone rings and wakes Hal’s brother and roommate, Mario. A brief, mysterious phone call from Orin (new character). Hal seems unbothered.

YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT

Main character: (new) medical attaché, special ear-nose-throat consultant to the personal physician of Prince Q—-, the Saudi Minister of Home Entertainment.

Another funny and absurd chapter. Our anonymous main character’s job is tending to the yeasty sores that regularly break out on Prince Q—-‘s face due to his compulsive consumption of Toblerone. The doctor earned his post because he’s so skilled in dealing with the condition:

A veritable artist, possessed of a deftness nonpareil with cotton swab and evacuation-hypo, the medical attaché is known among the shrinking upper classes of petro-Arab nations as the DeBakey of maxillofacial yeast, his staggering fee-scale as wholly ad valorem

His work, however, is so exhausting that every night he follows the same decompression routine – an unsettling variation on the familiar TV dinner routine – that his servant-wife orchestrates.

He reclines before the viewer in his special electronic recliner, and his black-veiled, ethnically Arab wife wordlessly attends him, loosening any constrictive clothing, adjusting the room’s lighting, fitting the complexly molded dinner tray over his head so that his shoulders support the tray and allow it to project into space just below his chin, that he may enjoy his hot dinner without having to remove his eyes from whatever entertainment is up and playing.

This chapter and Erdedy’s earlier chapter are my favorites so far. (Maybe I enjoy detailed scenes that focus on a single character?)

PS – This man must be somehow relevant to Himself’s mention of medical attachés that the Moms supposedly had affairs with?

YEAR OF THE TRIAL-SIZE DOVE BAR

Main characters: (new) Wardine and (new) Bruce Green.

It consists of two, unrelated vignettes of unfortunate people living pitiful lives.

First vignette – Wardine is a teenage girl who is being horribly abused by her mother and uncle. The characters in this vignette are coded as being black and from a poor area. They talk in really basic pidgin English. It’s uncomfortable to read.

Second vignette – Bruce Green is a high school student who manages to attract the attention of a “fatally pretty” classmate, Mildred Bonk. He gets her pregnant and they drop out of school to live in a housetrailer with their baby and three other people, one of whom keeps “several large snakes in unclean unconvered aquaria.”

The most unexpected chapter so far. Inexplicable by itself.

YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT

Main character: (recurring) Hal Incandenza, reading savant and tennis prodigy.

Hal chats with his older brother Mario. Even though Hal is younger, the dynamic is palpably reverse. Mario asks lots of questions and Hal calls Mario Booboo. Mario asks Hal why he doesn’t believe in God if he is so good at tennis. Hal says:

God seems to have a kind of laid-back management style I’m not crazy about. I’m pretty much anti-death. God looks by all accounts to be pro-death. I’m not seeing how we can get together on this issue.

Mario then asks why the Moms didn’t get sad about Himself’s death. Hal tries to persuade Mario that she is sad, but Hal doesn’t seem sure of it either.

The chapter ends with reference to the medical attaché, who is watching an unmarked video that was delivered to him seemingly by mistake.

OCTOBER – YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT

Orin. Perhaps he lives in the same condo complex as Erdedy?

to review a book while I read it instead of waiting until I finish it.

This book’s average Goodreads rating is 4.33, which is high. But 40 ratings (which amount to less than 1% of the total) gave it only one star out of five. Many of these folks complain that Lanegan portrays himself as an ultimate macho man, beating betas on his way to seducing any woman he pleases. To me this seems like a crude interpretation of Lanegan’s tone. I suppose these readers didn’t stick around until the end of chapter seven, where Lanegan gets explicit about his patheticness:

My only way to deal with what I deemed an attack (and I might deem anything an attack in those days) was to attack more aggressively in return. The level of hostility in my offensive depended on my level of fear. Fear of being caught, fear of having to tell the truth, fear of being exposed as the lying, cheating fraud I was. But it was the fear of showing my true heart, at times either so full it might burst or so empty I could cry, that hounded me most viciously.

There had been a perpetual war between myself and the costume of persona I’d donned as a youngster and then worn my entire life. Petrified that someone might discover who I really was: merely a child inside the body of an adult. A boy playacting as a man. My lifelong hard-ass exterior and, underneath that, ironclad interior were all an intricately constructed, carefully cultivated, and fiercely guarded sham. I was, in reality, driven by what I’d heard referred to in rehab all those years ago as “a thousand forms of fear.” Sadly, somewhere deep in my soul, I knew that was probably me.

There are many such cases throughout the rest of the book. But I think it is obvious from the beginning that the tone is not boastful.


The book closes with a chapter called Psychic Storms, Epiphany, and Rebirth. After years and years of using and peddling drugs, Lanegan escapes Seattle for rehab in L.A. with help from Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain’s widow. He sleeps and vomits through multi-day withdrawal and emerges from the sick haze in clean clothes and cut hair into a brilliant California day. There, sitting on a lawnchair, he begins to laugh.

I marvelled at my incredible good fortune. I smiled and began to laugh. Then laugh maniacally. I had escaped, I had survived. They had failed to destroy me and I had woken up here in paradise. “I’m still here, motherfuckers, you can’t kill me!” I howled hysterically at the sky. Before my sick crowing had even receded, an unwelcome truth lodged itself in my head: Anything that happens next can only be worse than before. That degree of suffering was beyond my imagination.

My manic laughter turned instantly into uncontrollable sobbing. I hadn’t cried in a long time. It felt as though the tears were being ripped from inside whatever I had that passed for a soul. Clawed out from that lifelong aching place. I moaned and gasped, unable to catch my breath. Suddenly, spontaneously, out of a moment of abject despair, I said out loud: “God change me.”

I had never believed in the traditional Christian god or in any supreme being. I had hated sitting through midnight mass, Catholic weddings, Catholic funerals, especially those torturous Wednesday morning masses at the mission I was forced to endure before getting in line for soup and sandwiches. I didn’t know who I was calling out to, but the second I cried out for mercy, I was nailed by some invisible but overwhelming force, as powerful and sudden as a shotgun blast. A surreal, instantaneous sixteen-hits-of-acid epiphany, as though I’d pissed on an incredibly powerful electric fence.

I was knocked from my chair and my life flashed before my eyes. My wasted childhood, my arrogant youth, my anger and obsessions, crime, delusions, self-loathing, paranoia, hopelessness, fury, and the sad junkie downward spiral. I’d heard that cliche a million times, “My life flashed before my eyes,” but I finally understood what that meant. In that single instant, it had been powerfully, intensely true. The most authentic experience of my entire life in one second, on the lawn of a Los Angeles psychiatric hospital.

Lying there, sobbing in the grass for the for first time ever I stared directly and honestly into the mirror of my life. In an instant, I saw that my entire life’s way of thinking and behaving was the corrupted opposite of what it should be. My morbid thought process was the wrong side of right.

I had grown up believing you took whatever you could from whoever you could, and always looked out for number one, screwing anyone and everyone in the process. From my earliest childhood memories, I had been a thief and flagrant, transparent, non-stop liar and cheat. Music, which I’d loved, which I’d lived for, which I credited with giving me a life, had long ago become just a means to an end: sex, money, drugs, a place to crash, a bargaining chip, a free ride, whatever I could milk from it. I’d been a rank nihilist who lived every day with an obsessive, burning need to pay back twice as hard anybody who fucked me. I spent hours in my mind digging the graves of my enemies, real and imagined.

My extreme, retrograde sickness had cut me open and left me eviscerated. I had asked to be changed and now, in a second, I was changed. Maybe not by anybody else’s god, but by some very real force that intervened in the life of one sad piece of human roadkill the moment it was asked to. In order to survive, in order to move forward, I would have to change every single fucking sorry thing about myself. I would have to start over again, clean.

I am compelled to think that what Lanegan experienced in a flash, in a sudden deluge, is not divine, but deeply human: empathy. Empathy for himself from within and without, and by extension empathy for others.