Thursday, February 01, 2007

Is it possible to feel inspired and diminished at the same time?

Being an English major is a pain in the ass. Oh, sure, it's simple. I haven't exactly had to do much in the way of work over the past three years. However, it's sucked all the fun out of reading for me. I've been taught to analyze novels, looking for hidden meanings that the authors surely did not intend. Does Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn work as a statement against the injustice of slavery? Is Jekyll and Hyde really about homosexuality? Of course not. Each argument can be (and has been) culled from the classic tomes, but it's always a stretch. Did you know that Catcher in the Rye is a novel about baby-back ribs? I didn't either, but I'm sure I could bang out a ten-page paper prattling on about the subject. Essentially, the English major has taught me how to bullshit. Come May, I'll be graduating with a B.A. in B.S.

I had a fairly light semester this Fall as far as reading was concerned. I had to read some modern fiction and drama, but I filled my time with gen-ed requirements. As such, I was kind of in the mood to read a real book (for my own enjoyment) over my winter break. And so I've arrived here. The first novel I've read purely for pleasure in over two years (I reread The Hobbit in December 2004). Quitting Science by Cunliffe Merriwether (also known as neo-folk musician Dan Bern).

No bones about it, I'm predisposed to enjoy this book. Dan Bern is among my top-tier of musicians. In addition to the fourteen albums I own of his (the complete collection), I have a collection of almost two hundred live concerts and rarity compilations on my computer. Altogether, it's 1479 Dan Bern tracks, taking up nearly five days' worth of time. I like Dan Bern.

Even without the knowledge I have of the author, the novel is an entertaining and light read, full of humor and oftentimes with more meaningful thoughts. The book tells the story of the "author," Cunliffe Merriwether, in his travels across the world demonstrating outrageously dubious scientific theories to often-disinterested crowds (which seems to be a clear parallel to Bern's own European experiences, performing his music across the continent). He begins to become tired of the touring life, and his crew decides to split up. The tale is told through fairly brief vignettes, each well-focused and with its own point.

The folksinger's wit and wisdom is, for lack of a better word, folksy. He knows how to turn a phrase like no other, yet he doesn't hide it amongst wordy or dense language. Here is a brief excerpt from a chapter of Quitting Science.
  • E=mc squared. Such an elegant little formula Einstein gave us. At first it seems wholly fanciful. My energy is equal to my physical mass. times the speed of light squared--squared no less!
    You look at it and go, "What the hell is that?"
    But you check it, with figures and so forth.
    You even demonstrate it. Last year in Dayton, Cartwell blew up a crate full of larva. E=mc squared.
    Sometimes, when I'm about to give a lecture and I'm tired, and I don't want to do it, and I have pain in my legs, I think, "Actually, my energy is equal to my current mass times the speed of light squared." And there's a new spring in my step.
There are other bits of the book that are equally brilliant (or more so), but they were far too long to excerpt on this shitty blog. Hell, the guy had me hooked with the first words ("Heil Hitler.") What a bizarre start to a bizarre, beautiful novel.

I hate to compare artists (and Bern himself seems to despise it, as referenced in his World Cup, as well as this novel), but there is a Vonnegut-esque quality throughout Bern's writing almost. Bern is clearly not aping anybody's style, and examination of this novel and any other pieces by the author shows that he has a distinct voice all his own. However, the spirit of Vonnegut certainly runs through this piece in particular, and I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Bern is a fan.

I'm instantly attracted to Bern's writing style (not as a Bern fan, but as a literature fan), and I'm pleased to see that he's published a number of works outside of Quitting and the aforementioned World Cup. Unfortunately, his other three releases are out-of-print, and so the hunt must begin. Wish me luck.

Link: Dan Bern Store

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