How to read this book (re-posting)

Update: since the last three comments have expressed frustration, I thought I would re-post this brief guide to reading. The novel is certainly not on the path of lyrical realism but it is by no means without any qualities of social realism (see, e.g., Luther’s narrative), so there is much that should be, well, familiar. But one question one might ask: is the frustration as it is described here materially different from that experienced when encountering any “difficult” text? If so, how? And, better, what reading strategies might we adopt to make the navigation of the text more pleasurable?

// If the source of frustration is the polyphonic, multilingual aspects of the novel, then the primary strategy should be dictionary work, as one has to do with jingjing’s sections.
// If the front matter presents an insurmountable barrier, gloss over it and return once you make it through the preview for the second volume.
// If you find yourself caught up in the look of the book, so to speak, such that the words seem only to be objects, without semantic meaning, try to the extent possible to regard the writing on the page as a transparent window onto the narrative. This, by the way, would be to utterly violate the terms of the novel, but if you can’t see for seeing, you might want to try this exercise of (temporarily) turning a blind eye to fonts and page layouts.
// etc.

For what it’s worth, our class at UC Santa Barbara today collectively decided that the pieces all fall into place in the Narcon section. But it’s satisfying in part because of where it is placed and the labor that one has done to get there.


So far we have all been reading systematically and using page numbers to organize our discussions. As many of you have seen, however, it takes some time to get one’s bearings, especially since readerly expectations are immediately confounded by the front matter and visual design of the opening Xanther chapter. Everyone should of course heed the instructions given for your respective courses, but I want to suggest an alternate way of reading, a parallax view, for those who are approaching the halfway point and still feeling a bit lost. This extra-curricular exercise might help with orientation and put you on firm footing as you approach the Narcons chapter.

// Using the font list at the back of the book, identify the sections for these characters: jingjing, The Wizard, Özgür, Shnorhk, and Isandòrno. jingjing has four chapters; the others have two each.

// Read and think about each of these character’s narratives apart from the rest. Notice the epigraphs and the page layout for each character. What do you notice about the voice and style of each?

// There is no way around it: for jingjing’s chapters, most readers will have to sit with a dictionary (or two) of Singlish. The “Coxford Singlish Dictionary” has most of the vernacular expressions; another great resource is A Dictionary of Singlish, which contains usage history. For place names you’ll have to rely on basic search. It would be useful if we could compile a guide for future readers here, but it is both more fun and instructive to do this work on your own. You’ll start to see the many puns and pick up on the linguistic rhythms.

// Nothing will be lost or prematurely revealed if you read in this manner. Once you’re done you can return to the point at which you interrupted your linear reading and carry through to the end of the novel. I wouldn’t advise isolating the Luther, Anwar, Astair, and Xanther sections, however, because they work particularly well as a series of interlocking chapters. They all do of course but again, just to get your bearings as part of an initial pass through the novel, it wouldn’t hurt to read jingjing’s and some of the other character’s stories as self-contained units. Then you can start thinking about how all the parts fit together, how the end of jingjing’s story connects to Xanther, how the end of the Wizard’s (Cas) story connects to Xanther, etc.

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2 responses to “How to read this book (re-posting)”

  1. jimhutchins says :

    I agree with everything that has been said above. As we discussed the book in class yesterday (we’re at the halfway point) more than one person described frustration. I think this is a timely reminder.

    At times I feel I have a grasp on some sort of narrative, such as it is, but at other times I suspect Danielewski is inviting us to let the rhythm and the pace of the words carry us along. Sometimes I even feel he’s more interested in the shape of words or their appearance on the page (especially as he manipulates those with font choices, raindrops, or circles).

    What popped into my head, as the Old Guy in the class, is a poem I learned long ago by Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s short enough to reproduce here.

    We Real Cool

    THE POOL PLAYERS.
    SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

    We real cool. We
    Left school. We

    Lurk late. We
    Strike straight. We

    Sing sin. We
    Thin gin. We

    Jazz June. We
    Die soon.

  2. Lauren Craig says :

    Why keep Luther in with the familial unit? He does not seem connected to them.

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