Watch Your Language

(At the end of  “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”)

Tim: It’s hardly the first book to to this, but Oscar Wao includes a lot of untranslated Spanish in the text. I remembered enough to get the gist of most of it, but I was wondering if you ever had difficulty knowing what was said, or if you even looked up translations?

Debby: Look up translations? I feel insulted!


Okay maybe I didn’t know what a few of them meant. My Spanish is pretty rusty. It didn’t bother me not knowing all the time, though. I liked the intermingling of culture through language. The author was trying to give us a sense of “Domincana” and a very significant part of that is communicated through language. I felt that most of the instances where I couldn’t translate, the narrator was using slang, or communicating a feeling that is strongly connected to the Spanish word more so than English. It had a good vibe.

Tim: Oh, come on, I wasn’t trying to insult you. But there were just a couple places where I felt like I was missing something. It wasn’t often, and I can’t even remember where they were now, they were just a line here or there. But in the moment it did occasionally feel like I wasn’t getting all the nuance, in part because some of the times I did understand the Spanish I got more out of it.

Debby: No, I can appreciate that feeling. I did feel like something was escaping my grasp, but I liked it. The exotic mystique that the language brought to the novel. I thought it contrasted with Oscar well– he didn’t have a great handle on the language, nor the dancing or womanizing or anything remotely romantic. Spanish is romantic and commanding the language offers a kind of power that Oscar never really had until the end of his life.

Tim: That’s true, I hadn’t really thought about the power of the language itself. And I did like the way it was strategically deployed, I guess I just fell on the other side of the coin in that I didn’t want the mystery, I wanted to be let in on the secret.

This is going on a bit of a tangent, but I was really intrigued by Oscar’s relationship to his writing throughout the book. There are occasions (rare ones, but they’re there) where it’s suggested Oscar actually has some talent. But more often he’s fighting the noble fight, writing away, believing he was doing something of value even though there’s little evidence of it. Kind of depressing, personally, isn’t it?

Debby: But isn’t that the lifestyle of “great” authors? People who feel “called” to it, rather than people in it for the money or for the fame? We never hear about him trying to get his work published. We never see him comparing himself to Tolkien or Martin or Card. He simply feels compelled to put things on paper. Wait. Are you calling it depressing because that’s what WE’RE doing? Writing just to write? Isn’t that what art is? Doing something for yourself, inspired by your “inner being” and not caring how its judged by the rest of the world? I think we’re super cool, Tim…

Tim: Oh, we’re definitely super cool. Don’t you agree, readers? Declare your love for us in the comments!!!

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(about halfway through “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”)

Tim: So this book fooled me a little. I figured a book called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao would, you know, follow Oscar. Totally unprepared for chapters about other people.

Debby: I gotta agree with you there. I don’t even see why Oscar is the most important character amongst the cast!

Tim: It’s weird, right? He’s kind of a sad sack. I’m in the middle of the chapter about Beli, his mother, right now, and she’s way more interesting. Although the other thing I’ve noticed is that this book has managed to keep me very entertained so far while having really very little that seems…I don’t know, story-worthy? It’s so mundane. Which is part of the point, sure, but it’s back to the point. The narrator has as much as told us that Oscar doesn’t have much talent at writing, which is the only thing he really seems to care about (besides the ever-elusive dream of sex). What’s so wondrous about that?

Debby: Sad sack? What kind of turn of phrase is that, Tim? Oscar does seem rather pathetic, but not outlandishly so. He’s the character I’ve found easiest to understand, the most “relatable” to some degree. He’s a nerd, an outcast, overweight, single… these are all problems I’ve struggled with at some point. I feel like the rest of his family has experienced hardships that I haven’t encountered, and therefore I find them fascinating, but not necessarily as “real” as Oscar. Regardless, I do think Beli is one of the more interesting characters in the novel. I just finished a chapter that finally provides an answer to her oft referenced scars. I think that’s one way the author keeps us “entertained”– he alludes to pain and difficulties that have shaped each character, but doesn’t give us the full story at once. There’s a sense of building, rather than just knowing.

Tim: Yes, I very much like that building feeling, it’s part of what’s kept my interest high. I like seeing a character, like Beli especially, from someone like Lola’s eyes, then seeing her from a more objective point of view. For me personally, I disagree about Oscar, though it’s an entirely subjective assessment. Oscar seems the most cartoonish character to me. He’s so extreme in all his character traits that I have trouble pinning down which aspects are real and which must surely be fabrication. But I think it’s super interesting – because that’s a subjective assessment – that he’s the one you found most real. I remember (and this is going to make me sound like a privileged, unaware elitist asshole, but it’s a real story so I offer it in good faith) back in probably fourth or fifth grade, I was in Sunday School and our teacher was asking us about the social strata at our school. I don’t remember the exact question, but I think I said something to the effect of, “I don’t see the school society as being made up of popular and unpopular,” and a friend of mine just looked at me and laughed in a way that said 100%, “Yeah, you don’t worry about it because you’re one of the popular kids.” Which to be completely honest was news to me. I definitely noticed stuff like that later in school, but I didn’t at that time, and it probably has a lot to do with the fact that I was successful in my environment. So maybe I just have trouble relating to the early teen Oscar

Debby: Fine. Well for every COOL kid like you, Tim, there was a miserable little nerd like me. I distinctly remember 6th grade being the absolute worst: I was chubby, wore big, round glasses, had braces (with rubber bands straddling my gums), and was reading through Robert Jordan’s  “Wheel of Time” series as if my life depended on it. Nerd central. I was so “horrid” that the two girls I carpooled with decided to take me on as a Project. They took me shopping, made me watch “cool” movies and listen to “cool” music. I was perfectly content to hide away in my little nook between my bed and the far wall, reading with a flashlight late into the night. But, like Oscar’s college roommate, they weren’t going to give up. At some point during my middle school years, I edged into normalcy (this had more to do with the fact that I grew several inches and joined the track team than anything else). I still kept up with my books, but looked less like a librarian once I got contacts and lost the metal in my mouth.

All I’m trying to emphasize is that Oscar doesn’t seem cartoonish to me. His plight seems very relatable. He’s got all the odds against him and this makes him act even more pathetic. But that still doesn’t make him interesting.

Tim: I guess the distinction I see is that his plight seems realistic, but his character doesn’t seem real. Or at least threadbare in several spots. In that there are a million things about him which are identifiable, but the way they’re all pursued simultaneously to sort of their worst possible end makes him difficult to picture as a single human being. He’s a character I can envision, but there’s some flaws in his characterization (at least as I see it). But back to the original point, we’re still no closer to identifying why this is about Oscar, other than he maybe has the largest potential arc.

Debby: Okay here’s a theory. We’ve talked about how “fuku” and Dominican culture resonate with elements of fantasy literature. What if this book is about Oscar because he is the nerd who actually understands that it’s all connected? Does that make sense?

Tim: Makes sense, we just haven’t seen if it’s so quite yet. Maybe that’ll prove prophetic!

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An Ode to Middle-Earth

(about halfway through “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”)

Debby: I both loved and hated the extensive use of Tolkien-isms in Oscar Wao. I loved it because, well, I’m a geek and understanding the use of Morgoth metaphors was not lost on me. What I found odd, though, was the extent to which the author brought in these nerd-tastic references. Diaz routinely uses references to Dune, Star Wars, and other sci-fi works to complement his history of the Dominican Republic. I’m just not sure I understand the need to use them so extensively, though, especially when Oscar is not the sole narrator.

Tim: Hard to argue it doesn’t add a lot of character and personality to the book, though. Think about how lifeless this story might feel if we didn’t have the sense that an actual living, breathing person was telling it to us. I can’t imagine a disinterested narrator telling this story in a way that felt half as significant. And as another fellow nerd, I have enjoyed the references, felt smart at the ones I got and completely lost but curious with the ones I didn’t .

Debby: I don’t know. The disparity between the historical narrative and the sci-fi don’t exactly go hand in hand, in my opinion. Although, I guess you could use the argument that those who lived under the horrible reign of Trujillo needed to find an escape. In our modern era, fantasy stories are one way of completely exiting reality and experiencing something where good wins over evil and truth prevails. If you’re looking for anti-fuku, it’s in Lord of the Rings.

Tim: Haha yeah. Look at the whole of Tolkien’s middle earth histories and it’s like fighting a giant fuku. But I think you really hit on it with the escape. Fantasy, sci-fi, they’re often power fantasies. They provide ways for people who are disempowered to find capability that they never dreamed of. Look at Trujillo’s reign, particularly: he embodies the archetypical Shadow. There’s no way to cut off the head of the hydra. Even after he dies, the Shadow persists.

Debby: But don’t you think it’s interesting how many stories about Trujillo the author includes in the narrative? We don’t just experience him as a dark force from afar, he is a very present character in this book. I would liken him rather to Saruman, a wizard who makes choices that only serve to deepen his corruption.

Tim: I thought it was actually a lot like reading about Morgoth in The Silmarillion. We get all the details from a biased, but historical perspective and see more about how corrupting his influence was than we ever would have if we’d seen it just from the “good” characters’ point of view.

Debby: Woah. Laying down The SIl. I’ll go with you on that one (it’s been WAY too long since I’ve read that book). I think Tolkien would be pleased with your analysis.

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(about halfway through “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”)

Debby: Okay, so call me ignorant: I know very, very little about Dominican history. I absolutely love all the footnotes (okay, I’m always a sucker for footnotes) about the Trujillo regime. I feel like I’m getting a dose of a truly gripping history class along with an engaging story. But tell me this– how much of this “history” is true? Is it all Trujillo folklore? Or are some of the details accurate?

Tim: I honestly have no idea, but the first ten pages or so convince you that it is, don’t they? It sets this backdrop for everything that’s been going down that emotionally feels 100% authentic. But then you can’t help but question some given all the high fantasy references. Which I just took to be natural to a narrator who knew Oscar’s life well, but now that I’m a few chapters in and less sure about who the narrator is and where he/she is coming from (as we were talking about elsewhere), it throws it all back into question a little more.

I think its the omnipresence of Trujillo and his regime as factors in the lives of these Dominicanos, the detail which is astounding but never unbelievable, which has kept me from really questioning any of it, though.

Debby: I can see that. The discussion of the “fuku” in the opening chapter definitely involves an evil that has attached itself to the Cabral family. Trujillo is certainly a main source of their early pain and dictates their path of survival.

Tim: I found myself waxing philosophical (to myself) while thinking about this book. The phrase that stuck in my mind was, “Sin perpetuates.” Not, “Sin perpetuates sin,” or some variation thereof. Just, “Sin perpetuates.” The whole idea of “fuku” seems to be that man is cursed – by life, by other men, it doesn’t matter the cause. But bad things happen to people because there are bad things being done in the world. Fuku, as the narrator says, are everywhere. It might even be verbatim, “Every Dominican family has a fuku.”

Debby: Yeah, the introductory chapter, in which the narrator discusses “fuku,” threw me for a loop. I really didn’t understand what it was until I saw it play out through the narrative. And you’re right: there is something different about Dominican fuku in comparison to other cultures’ notions of “curses” or “bad luck” or even “karma”. Usually there is a sense of reciprocity: you do something bad and you will have rough times ahead. In this story, fuku just is. And there’s no end in sight.

Tim: Which, as I’ve continued through the story, is why I think it’s a little funny that they think of these fuku as curses at all. It’s just life as much as anything. I mean, I guess the narrator points at the Kennedy family and some legacies like that as examples of actual supernatural malintent, but yeah, if you want to get super biblical about it, sin is the curse that endures. It keeps going, keeps imposing trials. On that note, what did you think of the sequence after Beli got left for dead and her survival was so largely attributed to La Inca’s prayer – which is physically debilitating itself?

Debby: Definitely an interesting “fantasy” element there– La Inca was able to summon great ‘power’ to help her niece, but it cost her (and her friends) dearly. Again, we can see why the author used so many modern sci-fi/fantasy references in order to draw parallels to Dominican beliefs and experiences. It reminded me vividly of Robert Jordan’s notion of magic in the Wheel of Time series. While any number of characters could wield power, there was a physical sacrifice to doing so, from plain exhaustion to death.

Tim: There are these multiple references to the power of La Inca without any concrete notion of what that entails. Except for her running off the “Elvises” with a machete, I guess. And while we’re on the subject of the mystical, what did you make of the two mongoose appearances? After it shows up at Oscars near-suicide, it felt to me like almost the entire Beli chapter was there just as context for the vague reference to it when it shows up for Oscar.

Debby: Chalk it up as another mythological element?

Tim: Yeah, but one where there’s some meaning attached. I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t show up again at the climax of the book.

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Another Buzzfeed List – T-shirts!

Thought I’d share this little…well, maybe not a gem, but pretty fun anyways. From just a visual design perspective, I’m partial to #8 and #20. The 1984 one (#1 on the list) is pretty great, too.

— Tim

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Little Thief

(finally finished with “A Visit from the Goon Squad”)

Debby: This is one of the more inconsequential things I noticed in the book, but I was particularly pleased with the author for it. To begin the Goon Squad with Sasha, the compulsive thief, and closing (well, second- and third-to-last-chapters) with both her past and her future felt very cohesive. In a book where everything felt like a short story, I thought these chapters built on each other extremely well. She turned to thievery out of desperation in her younger years, out of compulsion in her mid-life, and as a mother she turned other people’s “junk” into art. We’ll never know if her art in the desert was made of stolen goods or simply discarded wares– but we can assume that it takes on the same role in her life.

Tim: It’s funny, because it’s now a week or two after I read this chapter, and I can’t remember if I ever directly made the connection to Sasha or not. She certainly wasn’t what stuck out to me most about the story. But now that you mention it, yeah, that is really, really cool. The daughter (Ally?) can’t understand her mother’s artistic compulsions, but to us they make total sense. I like how Egan weaves through time from chapter to chapter. And you know what’s really weird? I never saw any rhyme or reason to how she transitioned from chapter to chapter, both with which character took center stage and at what time the chapter was set, but none of them ever seemed out of place to me. I guess to a large extent this is a function of the book’s structure, but I’d be really curious to know how much the chapter order got changed around during the editorial process. Would it have had a different effect to see this side of Sasha, say, before the kleptomaniac side?

Debby: Part of me wonders if Egan actually wanted the reader to make the “Sasha” connection. As in- each chapter holds it own in a way that makes it almost unimportant to the work as a whole. But I must say: I felt a sense of pleasure when I recognized the mom and thief as one and the same. So the author certainly rewards the reader for paying attention. The background (and forward-ground?) certainly add to the character, too.

Tim: Without a doubt. Again, though, one of my biggest curiosities as we’ve gone through this book has been about how the whole thing would tie together. There’s a rough march through history, certainly, but the book is also jumpy about where it inserts certain pieces. Like we see Bennie divorced from Stephanie in the second chapter, but then we see that relationship progress later on in the book. It actually made the book feel just a little bit incomplete to me, because I didn’t feel like we’d wrapped up many of the characters we’d spent time with. Which I suppose is part of the point; we don’t get to see how it ends for everyone, and that’s how time works in our own lives. We get to be retrospective about these small periods of the characters’ lives, but then we’re off to something else before they can even nail down what each event meant to them.

Debby: Hmm. I see what you mean. The thing is– I felt differently because of Sasha’s story. I felt like I got to see how events changed her and shaped her. How her choices affected not only her future, but the future of those around her (i.e. Bennie, Alex, Alison). It gave me a sense of fulfilment, if not exactly completion.

Tim: Yeah, she and Bennie kind of both get that. They’re the only two characters we see in more than two stages of life, I think.

Debby: Do you feel like the story is essentially about them? I think it is, a little bit.

Tim: I think it’s very hard to see the book as a whole being about anyone besides the two of them. Between the two of them, I think the only person they’re not directly connected to is Dolly, and Bennie is close there.

Debby: Speaking of lack of completion… how about we end this little chat?

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The Last Two Chapters

(finally finished with “A Visit from the Goon Squad”)

Tim: So now we’ve finally finished the book. Which means we’ve gotten through the last two chapters. Which, not that they’re bad, might be the biggest outlier chapters in the entire book. For a number of reasons. Let’s attack them as they come. The entire second to last chapter is a series of slides, diagrams, flow charts, and otherwise visually represented story. (Although the words still prove way more important.) I guess if you’re going to expect it somewhere, it might be this book, but it is kind of bizarre, especially because I’m not sure it does a lot for the character who is effectively the narrator. I don’t know. What did you think about this chapter?

Debby: I agree that it is quite odd at first. But following the path of the diagrams provides quite an interesting narrative flow. I feel like Egan wanted to connect technology with the future– and show how technology would ultimately redefine how we communicate with one another. We see that through the language and connectivity of Alex’s “parrots” in the final chapter, and we see it through Ally’s powerpoint diagrams before that.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. Even with Ally and her dad walking to the solar panels (although it is Arizona) has an eye to the future. Very much pushing the idea that this goonish quality of time will live on eternally. We’ve seen the past and it’s being connected to the future. You know what, though? The future pieces felt easily the least authentic to me, and I’m not sure it can all be attributed to a lack of familiarity on our part. They seem, and I don’t know quite how to say this without sounding a little on the nose, but speculative to me. Like Egan is so assured about everything that was and is, but less so about what will be. I still enjoyed the chapter(s – it’s only one plus a little bit), but I do think there’s a slight fade in quality despite the fun I had with them.

Debby: The first time I read that last chapter, I was annoyed. It felt rather cliche in its use of “texting language” and fake in a way I hope the world will never be. The second time through, though, I paid more attention to the human interaction– how the adults behaved around the screaming children, how Lulu attached herself so calmly to Scotty– there were still such clear connections being made. While technology influenced business and communication, it couldn’t rewrite the human interaction.

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(finally finished with “A Visit from the Goon Squad”)

Tim: So finally, in the last chapter of the book, we learn who the goon squad is: time. And suddenly it all makes sense. We’ve talked plenty about the structure of this book and it’s propensity to hop through time. But what the book’s been doing, too, is showing us the effect time has on all these characters. Time is the goon!

Debby: Woah! Mind-blown. Okay kinda sorta not really. Didn’t you expect that? Just a little bit? They (and we) made SUCH a big deal about time… it was practically inevitable.

Tim: Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it much. The title seemed like a fun way to describe this collection of misfits and ne’er-do-wells the book focuses on. You brought up last week (I think it was last week) how all the characters seem to have such big flaws. Calling them a “goon squad” made sense.

Debby: I just looked up the literal definition of the word “goon,” and I’m actually a little impressed by the authors vocabulary usage. The first definition is “a silly, foolish, or eccentric person”– certainly fits the bill for the majority of our characters. If they aren’t blatantly crazy like fish-man Scotty, then they have rather silly priorities and prerogatives like wannabe Dolly. The second definition, however, is “a bully or thug, esp. one hired to terrorize or do away with opposition.” This certainly underscores the influence of time on Egan’s band of anti-heroes. Time intimidates them all, it bullies them into being more extreme versions of themselves. It holds them in its grasp and squeezes them until they either mold into what society wants of them or burst into a flash of messy particles.

Tim: I think you’re right, but it’s really interesting the moments Egan decides to pull out, because some of them are largely about the characters finding semblance of normalcy. But I guess even most of those chapters tend to end in extremes. Dolly’s chapter end in what’s her name – the actress – going off on the dictator. Stephanie’s chapter ends with Bennie cheating. But go back and forth some more, you get chapters like Ted, Sasha’s uncle, going to look for her. That chapter ends pretty cathartically.

Debby: Sure, Egan shows some of the characters “picking up the pieces,” but I find very little evidence resembling “normalcy.” I think she wants to show how eccentric everybody is– in their own way. Whether it’s boldly broadcast to society or internalized, everyone has their own “goony” side.

Tim: Ok, sure. Maybe not normalcy if you’re calling that some sort of ultimate middle-of-the-road, boring folks. There’s definitely no-one who fits that description here, and maybe not anywhere. But there are attempts at lives that aren’t runaway crazy. That’s all I was really trying to get at. But it definitely doesn’t diminish the earlier point, which I wasn’t trying to refute: “Time intimidates them all, it bullies them into being more extreme versions of themselves. It holds them in its grasp and squeezes them until they either mold into what society wants of them or burst into a flash of messy particles.”

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Everything is Ending

(Halfway through “A Visit from the Goon Squad”)

Debby: Another quote to inspire a discussion! I feel like the middle of the book holds all the sadness, all the regrets and emptiness the characters seem to carry with them. Stephanie finds out her husband is cheating on her and longs for the time before it all began. Jules has a terrible rap sheet and a ruined career. Bosco is so shattered that all he has left is his Suicide Tour. But, while the weight of the world seems threatens to crash down on them all, they continue to press on. Instead of submitting to the impending doom, they trudge through it, holding on to something– hope, opportunity, etc.– with an unrelenting grip. The question, it seems to me, is why? Why do they not give up? Why does the book focus on the people who keep going, rather than Rolph who decides to simply be done with it all? What motivates them?

Tim: Well, at least Stephanie and Dolly (who you didn’t mention, but definitely fits this mold) both have kids propelling them forward. And I’m not entirely sure Bosco’s death wish is that different from a suicide. Stephanie calls it as much. Jules does trudge – except when playing with his nephew or excited by a particular career opportunity, so he’s halfway in both worlds. And I’ve arrived at nothing. What motivates any of us. Why don’t we go out Bonnie and Clyde style?

Debby: True. I guess my question was a bit of a dead end. I just felt it was all spiraling down specifically in this part of the book. As if, this could be the conclusion– leaving everybody miserable and alone. Yet wait! We’re going to give them something better.

Tim: We’ll see. I know we’ve talked a lot about structure already, but outside of just enjoying the narrative, this really is the most interesting part of the book to me. I’m very curious how Egan’s going to bring everything together.

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Reactions: Jules’ Story

(Halfway through “A Visit from the Goon Squad”)

Tim: For a couple chapters now we’ve been hearing about how Jules ruined a promising career by sexually assaulting a rising movie star (Kitty), for which he was sent to jail. But the first chapter I really didn’t enjoy this book was Jules’s article about that afternoon and the incident. I think there are several reasons why.

  1. Since Jules is talking directly to the reader, but doing it through a written medium, we question how his account came to be committed to writing in some manner that we’re now able to read. Can it really be an exercise he did himself? Surely this isn’t an article he actually turned in somewhere? Or was saved when he did?
  2. This was the first time I didn’t feel satisfied by the character arc of a particular chapter. It’s clear that the primary driver in Jules’s assault of Kitty was the conclusion of his engagement. A traumatic event, certainly, but it didn’t bring me to the point where I believed he’d have a complete breakdown and suddenly decide to rape a movie star.
  3. I know this is a subjective reason, but I frankly just didn’t like hearing Jules speak. He’s whiny, and although he’s probably right about Kitty, he’s a self-righteous whiner (no matter how self-belittling he is sometimes. The other characters thus far, for all their faults, have been fun to watch. Jules isn’t fun. Just weird. And I didn’t understand his actions. Ok, maybe that’s a little of #2 again, but that really bothered me.


Debby: For a number of (mildly absurd) reasons, I actually enjoyed this chapter. Let me explain. First of all, I am a rather big fan of Chuck Klosterman (author of numerous Rolling Stones articles, a number published in books like “Eating the Dinosaur” and “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs”). Klosterman wrote a very memorable interview with Britney Spears that was strikingly similar to Jules’ lunch with Kitty. When Klosterman directly addressed Britney’s status as a “sex symbol,” she responded with blank looks and completely off-topic responses. Kitty seems to exhibit similar layers. She knows that the world views her as a celebrity, but she doesn’t realize that as a symbol she has become more than human. She has become the embodiment of the fantasies of the greater population. I think it is a fascinating thing to study. Yes, this is a weird “article” for Jules to write because we don’t know his audience (if any), but I still think it’s an important piece of insight for the reader into Jules’ character. He’s a creepy dude, but all he did was impose the desires that had been carefully cultivated by society onto this poor girl. I call her “poor girl” because she was simply naive enough not to realize how ably she had played into the world’s hands.

I realize that I failed to touch on most of your points, Tim. I guess I just found other parallels interesting. And I really, really love footnotes.

To read Klosterman’s interview with Spears, click here:


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