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Personal Days: The Penultimate Post

I just started the last section of Ed Park’s Personal Days–this final section appears to be a long rambling letter of the unreliable narrator type such as concludes The Rotter’s Club–which reminds me of a particularly asinine passage in the incredibly overrated Godel Escher, Bach, which for some horrible reason I remember after nearly thirty years, where Hofstadter writes about how, when you read a book, you know you’re coming to the end, which affects your expectations, unlike in real life stories or in a movie of indeterminate length, when the end can come as a surprise. The natural solution for a book would be to pad it with an indeterminate number of empty pages–not completely blank, of course, that would be too obvious, but with sentences that are clearly different from the main story. Hofstadter fatuously concluded that this would be impossible: to be convincing, the fake story would have to be close enough to the real one that, essentially, it would be part of the main narrative. But that’s completely wrong: it would be easy enough to just have an only barely related story at the end, and then when the main story really did end, for example on page 240, the author could just have a paragraph saying, “This is the end of the story. The rest is padding,” or something like that. I mean, you’re not expecting the reader to look too carefully at the end matter: either it’s really part of the book and the reader wouldn’t want to lose the suspense, or it’s fake matter, in which case the reader would still like to preserve the suspense of the story’s actual length.

But that’s not what I was planning to write about. What does Personal Days remind me of (besides it being a remake of Then We Came to the End)? The similarly alphabetically-structured Kafkaesque office nightmare story office nightmare Forlesen, for one thing. Although, oddly enough, Gene Wolfe was a Republican when he wrote that story, I think. The focus is different, though: the office takes up almost all of Forlesen’s life time, but his family is ultimately what is central and nobody in the office is real to him; in Personal Days, only the office is real; the characters have no families.

My favorite things in Personal Days so far are the management-speak in the Jilliad and the goofy three-syllable restaurant names.

I pretty much couldn’t keep the characters straight, even when I was reading the book. But I suspect this is part of the point. We’ll see how I feel when I’m all done.

P.S. I am still training myself in writing with precision: two paragraphs above where it says “My favorite things,” I originally had the sloppier “The best things.” On the other hand, editing a blog entry is almost the definition of a waste of time. On the other other hand, I like to think this keeps me in practice for more important writing efforts.

P.P.S. I think I am ideally qualified to use the term Kafkaesque, having never read anything by Kafka except the first two pages of that story they give you to read in high school, where Gregor Samsa wakes up as a bug. I’ve read too much Orwell to be comfortable with “Orwellian.”

P.P.P.S. Can blogs do hypertext? The Hofstadter digression in the first paragraph above belonged just where it did, but it’s a distraction from my main points. I’d like to be able to enter it as some sort of clickable sidebar (without going to the trouble of setting it up as its own blog entry, which I just don’t want to do)?

6 Comments

  1. DaveG says:

    Hi,

    Can blogs do hypertext?
    The answers is yes (perhaps not for typepad) but there is a great example of this done by a site I can't remember :-(,
    I think if you explore http://www.eastgate.com or mark.bernstein.org you will find it.
    But you should also check out the spatial hypertext system which is implemented in javascript and very cool. It is by nathan mathias (blog at http://www.rubberpaw.com/ and the link to the spatial hypertext is here:
    http://www.natematias.com/mapViewer/

    enjoy,

    Dave

  2. DaveG says:

    HI

    I found the refes I had somewhere else in my brain..

    The search term is stretch text and was started by ted nelson.

    There is a paper here http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/8799/

    and the system from nathan discussed and exemplified in the blog posts with puns on stretch in their titles at http://www.markbernstein.org/Jan0701.html

    Mark also has some pointers to papers,

    Dave

  3. Andrew says:

    Thanks!

  4. Mark Palko says:

    I haven't read GEB since it came out in paperback so I can't really say much about its quality, but in the section you mention, Hofstadter was setting up an in-joke. The story actually ended shortly after the characters had the discussion in question but seemed to continue until the end of the chapter.

    I remember thinking, as you did, that there were simpler ways around the end-of-the-book problem but given that I was seeing literary meta-data discussed through meta-fiction (not the sort of thing a fellow comes across every day), I was inclined to cut him some slack.

  5. Andrew Gelman says:

    Mark:

    Yeah, I remember the meta-fiction thing too. But my impression was that (a) Hofstadter missed the point and didn't realize there were good ways around the end-of-the-book problem, and (b) he had such a high self regard that he assumed that if he couldn't find a solution, nobody could. I had a similar feeling reading his Scientific American columns: he seemed to think that his friends were the most brilliant people in the world, when really they were just some run-of-the-mill academics. I agree that there were some impressive features of Godel, Escher, Bach, but I feel it was overrated in the same way as other ostentatiously humanistic science books of the time, such as Lives of a Cell.

  6. Mark Palko says:

    We can agree on the SA columns. My take was that Hofstadter had succumbed to the classic sophomore curse. He put all of his best ideas into his big breakthrough then made the mistake of believing his own press clippings. As a result the SA columns suffered from both a dearth of ideas and an excess of self-opinion.

    I've cited both Gardner and Ian Stewart on my blog. I doubt I'll ever bother with Hofstadter's SA columns.