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    Sobriquet 39.27

    Thursday, February 28, 2008
    I finished reading "The Vietnam Project" today. The final third of the novella, while still dense, flowed much more quickly than the first two-thirds. I do not want to give anything away to potential readers, so I will not discuss the plot at any great length. I will, however, say that Eugene Dawn's narrative stands beside those of Bob Slocum, Humbert Humbert, and Ferdinand Clegg as one of the more disturbing confessional narratives in late-middle-twentieth century literature.

    And yes, I did get some more transcription done.

    For tomorrow: Begin reading "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" and transcribe some more.

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    ____________________________________________
    Well, I didn't get the snow day the kid in me had been hoping for all last night, but I haven't any complaints about today. I did manage to get some more transcription out of the way, though what had once been a relaxing aspect of the dissertation-writing process has become a bit tedious lately. It is necessary, though, and having experienced the benefits such pre-writing provides, I'm happy to suck it up a bit and finish without complaining. I mean, seriously, I remember how much of a relief transcription seemed after having read through dozens of critical essays...

    I also read another chunk of "The Vietnam Project," and my impression of Eugen Dawn has, if anything, grown more negative. He's an unbalanced man, incapable of keeping himself out of his formal report--inserting his own warped re-interpretation of events into the text in a way that recalls Nabokov's Charles Kinbote. Furthermore, as the novella unfolds, Dawn reveals an intensely neurotic self-aggrandizing streak while simultaneously striving to paint himself as some sort of victim, singled out for his valiant efforts to speak his mind. Between his tendency to assert his intelligence--via explicit claims of intellectual superiority as well as subtly through a seemingly forced prose style ostentatiously foregrounding an exaggerated erudition--and his paranoid sense of persecution, Dawn continues to echo the Slocums and Underground Men (he even says "I am a sick man," clearly evoking the famous opening line with which Dostoevsky's bilious creation introduces himself) he channeled in the first section of the novella. The crazier he gets, though, the more compelling the read.

    Interestingly, I have found that "The Vietnam Project" has some key similarities to The Master of Petersburg and may yield an interesting degree of intertextuality to my discussion of Coetzee's latter novel. So, I'm intrigued.

    For tomorrow: More readin' 'n' more transcribin'.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, February 27, 2008
    As much as I enjoy my job, I have to admit, I'd really like a snow day tomorrow. Granted, I got the chance to enjoy the winter wonderland beauty of a day-long snowfall today, but there's something particularly special about snow days. They're among the little bonuses in life; they free up time and give us a sense of having somehow beaten the system. Oh, and they mean I don't have to forgo eight hours of sleep.

    In any case, besides chipping away at the bit of transcription I hope to finish this week, I started reading Dusklands today. I really can't say too, too much about the book because I only read the first section of "The Vietnam Project," the first of the two novellas which make up Coetzee's first book. So far, though, I find the book considerably denser than the author's later work. Eugene Dawn, the "creative" propagandist penning the report around which the eponymous novella is built, strikes me as an utterly unlikeable human being. He has more than a little bit of Dostoevsky's perverse Underground Man in him but none of that sad man's pitiable qualities. He's smug, paranoid, self-important, annoyingly obsequious, and writes in a style that is emotionally detached and uncomfortably frank (not to mention self-consciously erudite, calculated, and manipulative...he is, after all, a propagandist). In that regard, Dawn resembles no one literary character more than Bob Slocum, the protagonist of Joseph Heller's Something Happened, which is not a particularly flattering comparison.

    The novella is interesting. Many of the recurring themes in Coetzee's fiction appear in "The Vietnam Project": the nature of writing, the struggle between the powerful and the powerless, the production of official history, and the unfulfilling, emotionally barren romances Coetzee's readers have come to expect.

    I look forward to seeing where the book goes.

    For tomorrow: Some more transcription and some more of Dusklands.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, February 26, 2008
    Today was a bit of a struggle. After a vacation week pleasantly devoid of such workweek nuisances as alarm clocks and "reasonable bedtimes," the transition back into my ordered, pre-scheduled existence was more than a little jarring, though I'm certain it could have been much worse. There was some cursing, though, and a bit of internal whining but the day turned out quite well.

    In terms of dissertation work, I did do some of the transcription I hope to finish over the next few days. I do feel that my rereading of The Master of Petersburg has brought some of the novel's more intriguing themes to my attention and I am feeling a tiny bit better about writing a section on the book now that I have plumbed its veins and located a few generous lodes. Still, though, I worry, as I imagine I will throughout the process of writing the dissertation.

    In terms of reading, I am excited by the prospect of making my way through the rest of Coetzee's catalog. A friend of mine once commented on the unique feeling he had after reading an author's entire oeuvre, having spent great lengths of time in the fictional world of a particular writer. And it's true. Whether or not you really get to "know" an author, you do feel a certain familiarity with a writer with whom you have spent a good deal of time. This is also the appeal some people experience when reading blogs or a columnist's latest essay, the sense of communion. For me, quite simply, I look forward to deepening my familiarity with J. M. Coetzee in what The Master of Petersburg's Councillor Maximov calls the "intimate yet limited way" it is possible to "know a writer from his books" (147).

    For tomorrow: Keep transcribing and read some of Dusklands.

    Work Cited

    Coetzee, J. M. The Master of Petersburg. New York: Penguin, 1994.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, February 24, 2008
    Since it is quite late and I am very tired, I will limit tonight's entry to just a few sentences. Though I did not post anything last night, I did read the section of The Master of Petersburg that I'd set out to do yesterday. And, while I read more today, I plan to finish rereading the novel as bedtime reading tonight.

    For tomorrow: Transcription. Again.

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    ____________________________________________
    Friday, February 22, 2008
    I'm posting today's entry in the afternoon for two reasons: A) I have company coming over tonight, so I am not sure I will have much time--if any--to write anything later; and B) I am fighting the urge to nap.

    The latter issue, actually, has been bothering me lately. I have always enjoyed my naps, which until lately had almost exclusively been a night-owl's way to stay up late while having to get up early for work or school. Recently, though, I have started napping out of boredom which, if I am not mistaken, is often a sign of depression. I can't say that I am particularly melancholy, having maintained a sense of fulfillment in both my academic and personal lives for some time now. Still, I am troubled by my use of sleeping as a pastime. Granted, there is not a whole lot to do in the particular region of New York I currently call home, but I am disappointed in myself for having gotten into such a negative habit. I mean, many people, when depressed or sad, turn to sleep as an escape hatch from a stressful life, but it strikes me as something altogether unhealthy when not in that context (though, even in such a context, I would imagine it mightn't be regarded as all that positive of a thing to do). Sure, it can be relaxing to close one's eyes and sometimes even nap a bit when sleepiness is not really a factor--like at the beach, for instance. But to paradoxically resort to sleep out of restlessness strikes me as a symptom of a particularly poor approach to dealing with ennui.

    In previous posts, I mentioned the loneliness and isolation I often feel working on such a solitary project and I suspect some of sleep's appeal stems from my struggles with solipsism, but I hesitate to place an unfair amount of the blame on external factors. I am certain that, among other things, I have found napping to be a convenient means of procrastinating. I mean, one can always say "oh, hey, I had better get sleep out of my system so I can work on X-Y-Z without fatigue dragging me down."

    If anything, I suppose I have found something out about myself that I will want to change. I do not want to waste my life; I will have to find newer, healthier ways to fill my days. I will need to improve the quality of my downtime with something other than the crossword puzzles and naps I have been turning to...if only for my own mental health. I am wondering about possibly joining a gym. Again, I do not want to blame grad school or my dissertation for this peculiar development. This habit must be my own doing; it has to be a result of my own acquiescence and apathy, so it will have to be something I address as my own responsibility to change.

    Not that an extra nap here and there has really been much of a problem. I mean, I have managed to work on the dissertation, teach several classes, maintain a social life, and take care of various other responsibilities. I just don't want "not much of a problem" to become "a problem."

    At any rate, I am going to take a walk now, get some fresh air, and possibly check out the local gym (since I cannot afford a good treadmill, I reason, perhaps I should sweat all over someone else's). From what I hear, regular exercise improves the mood, energizes the individual, and can help one maintain focus...all of which seem like pretty solid benefits for a dissertationing fella like myself. Oh, and the weight loss and other health benefits seem pretty cool, too.

    So, I have gotten my work done for today and, again, have been surprised by how much I underlined. I am still quite nervous about this chapter and future chapters on Coetzee's other work, but I figure I will just have to press ahead, reminding myself that I have thirty solid pages down. Not that past work guarantees facility in future work, but it can at least provide a sense of being on one's way when struggling...

    Also, I may not write anything until Sunday because I have people visiting me this weekend, which may limit my time on the internet. I will, however, assign the same amount of reading I have been doing each day for both tomorrow and Sunday, aiming to finish rereading The Master of Petersburg by weekend's end.

    For tomorrow: See above.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, February 21, 2008
    I now own every novel written by J. M. Coetzee. I received Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country (as well as Doubling the Point) in the mail today and just returned from the bookstore where I purchased Foe. I had not anticipated working on Coetzee's pre-1990 fiction when I began the dissertation process, thinking I would be writing a multi-author study of a rather obscure theme in contemporary fiction. Though I may still take that path, after speaking with my adviser, I feel I should read all of Coetzee's novels before ruling out a single-author study on Coetzee alone. Either way, I reason, a familiarity with the entirety of Coetzee's ouevre can only help my project, even if a knowledge of Magda in In the Heart of the Country, for instance, merely enables me to better understand the critics' discussions of the author's penchant for female protagonists in relation to Elizabeth Curren or Elizabeth Costello. Of course, I would like the reading to yield an extra chapter or two's worth of material...I do want to finish the dissertation, after all.

    As always, I will report my progress here.

    For tomorrow: Do what I did today, and the day before today, and the day before that...

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, February 20, 2008
    Since I am off this week, I find myself inching closer to the nocturnal existence I found so problematic during winter break. Fortunately, though, I have been keeping myself in check by planning my days around little activities. Today, for instance, was a cleaning day. Yesterday, despite the urge to nap all afternoon, I studied because I was slated to enjoy a wonderful vegan meal at my friend's house (having punk friends again, by the way, is awesome...I've missed 'em). So, I have been getting my work done and I have been maintaining a reasonably responsible sleep schedule so my return to work on Monday should not be as rough as it could be.

    I have thought about trying to get more work done over break than merely rereading a novel I'd read as recently as a month ago, but I think the slow pace I have been enjoying has given me the break I longed for while toiling away at the Age of Iron chapter while keeping me in the habit of getting work done each day...

    As I've mentioned before, I am rather amazed by how much underline-worthy material I seem to be finding in The Master of Petersburg that I missed the first time I read the novel. Other than that, though, there's not a whole lot to say, so I won't bore my handful of readers with any additional writing this evening.

    For tomorrow: More of the same.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, February 19, 2008
    Since I am heading out for the evening, I am going to post today's entry early. Of course, since I have been rereading a book I already mentioned, there's not a whole lot to say here anyway. Other than the fact that I have been keeping up with the tiny amount of work I've given myself, I have been thinking about ways to turn what I had intended to be a very brief section on The Master of Petersburg into a full-fledged chapter. I worry about the amount I feel I can effectively write about the novel (I have similar concerns regarding Elizabeth Costello), so this rereading is, in part, my way of reevaluating the text in the context of my re-conceived dissertation.

    'Tis nerve-wracking.

    For tomorrow: More of the same.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, February 18, 2008
    I'm finding that this whole twenty pages per night thing is really working well for me. I mean, it's only a small amount of reading, but I do spend less time fretting about the number of pages I need to get through than I do when I aim for five times that amount. Of course, Aesop's tortoise taught me this lesson long ago, but it wasn't until I applied the slow-but-steady approach to William Gaddis's JR that such an approach started making sense to me. And I find it helps me retain more of a book when I read it slowly, spending a longer time immersed in the fictional world (I actually felt a sense of loss when I closed the back cover on JR Vansant's final words).

    I ordered copies of Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country as well as Doubling the Point a few days ago, though I doubt I will devote much space in the dissertation to Coetzee's pre-1990 fiction. I do, however, want to read the novels I have not yet read just to be ensure my reading of the author is as comprehensive as I feel it should be.

    For tomorrow: Keep reading.

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    ____________________________________________
    Again, I will keep this entry short. I did reread the section of The Master of Petersburg that I set aside for myself. The rereading of the novel so shortly after reviewing the criticism has really enabled me to make connections I'd missed on the first read-through, particularly those related to the fathers-and-sons theme so central to the novel.

    For tomorrow: More of the same.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, February 17, 2008
    I will write more later in the evening, but I want to be certain that I assign myself a bit of work for today...ergo:

    For today: Read another twenty pages of The Master of Petersburg.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, February 16, 2008
    I just realized that the t-shirt I put on this morning, before looking at the newspaper, was one given to me when I attended my first literary conference back in 2003, at Northern Illinois University. I'd forgotten I'd selected it until just now when, removing my sweatshirt, I saw the school's name on the upper left breast of the shirt...I wish I could say I chose to wear it as a sign of support for the grieving families, but I'd be lying. Instead, I will use this space to express my condolences. This is the second time a massive shooting has taken place at a school I have visited. I used to walk past Dawson College on an almost daily basis when I lived in Montreal, just a couple of blocks down Boulevard De Maisonneuve from the campus. I can remember the disbelief of seeing my old stomping grounds on television after Kimveer Gill opened fire at the CEGEP and I have some of the same feelings now regarding the NIU shooting. I remember thinking how pretty the campus was, how nice and peaceful a town DeKalb seemed to be and I am sorry to see that placid milieu shattered and the lives of NIU students and their families, the school's faculty, and its staff irrevocably damaged by the unfathomable. My thoughts are with you all.

    Having said that, it seems almost inappropriate to discuss my dissertation, so I will keep this night's entry brief. I've begin rereading The Master of Petersburg and have been underlining like mad. Having so recently reviewed the criticism on the novel, it seems, I am noticing quite a few details I missed the first go-round. Reflecting on what other folks have been discussing as I review the novel has really made certain aspects of the book--especially the subtly predatory behavior of the fictional Dostoevsky at the outset of the novel--jump out.

    Also, with the extremely positive response my Age of Iron section ended up getting, I have a whole new anxiety: keeping it up.

    Ugh.

    For tomorrow: Learn to ski or snowboard and read another twenty pages of the novel.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, February 14, 2008
    Well, I met with my adviser this afternoon and I was amazed by how favorable her response was to my section on Age of Iron. We also discussed whether or not I should narrow the multi-author scope of the dissertation to focus exclusively on Coetzee. Essentially, I would be taking what was initially intended to be a chapter and fleshing it out into a full-fledged dissertation in itself. Now, this idea is not wholly unappealing to me. It would, for instance, shorten my reading list substantially. Other than some reservations about my ability to write enough on Coetzee to reach dissertation length, the only hesitation I felt heading into the discussion relates to my marketability as I head into the job search.

    The hard reality of the academic job market is that one must always consider how his or her scholarship will affect employment opportunities. Certainly, writing a dissertation on a recent Nobel Laureate would interest hiring committees considering offering me a contract but, as an Americanist, I wonder if writing exclusively on J.M. Coetzee would weaken my candidacy when applying for positions as an American literature specialist. I mean, it could work both ways: a potential employer could view a dissertation on Coetzee as either evidence of my working at the nexus of the critical discussion surrounding an important contemporary writer or of me devoting more energy to a global writer than of one more closely linked to the field in which I am attempting to land a job.

    The logical compromise, it seems, would be to write a multi-author dissertation including Coetzee as well as an American or two (Joseph Heller and/or Philip Roth), as I had originally planned, but working on the Coetzee section while bearing in mind the idea of possibly transforming it into a stand-alone work. That way, I can focus on writing the best section on Coetzee as I possibly can without worrying about de-Americanizing my dissertation to a point where potential employers would raise a perplexed eyebrow.

    Of course, one of the reasons I am glad I took one of my field examinations in contemporary global literature is because, as someone interested in ideas, I would like to teach books based on theme rather than nationality once in a while. I never really liked the idea of pigeonholing myself, taxidermically sorting my academic interests into areas that I can and cannot teach. I realize that it is a necessity in today's milieu, but such hyper-specialization can sometimes feel restrictive...In the end, though, I think I will be most happy teaching literature to bright, young people, so whatever it takes to get from here to there, in my mind, is well worth it.

    At any rate, speaking with my adviser really gave me a renewed sense of energy and purpose not to mention a boost to my self-confidence, knowing now that what I have written thus far is, in fact, good enough.

    For today: Begin rereading The Master of Petersburg so that I can begin writing a section on the novel sometime in the near future with the book fresh in my mind.

    For tomorrow: Read another twenty pages of the novel.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, February 13, 2008
    Today really should have been a snow day. At least that's what I kept telling myself last night to justify staying up much later than I should have. Still, I somehow managed to discuss "Ozymandias" and "When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be" with my students, work a bit on my other weblog, and finish up the transcription work I'd set aside for today, so, tired or not, I'm pretty content with the way things turned out.

    As has been the case for the past few evenings, there's not a whole lot to report on the dissertation front. I do have an appointment to speak with my supervisor tomorrow afternoon, though, so I anticipate finding a bit more direction then. As always, I'll be certain to report it here.

    For tomorrow: Speak with adviser, share my thoughts and concerns about the dissertation so far, and figure out where to go next.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, February 12, 2008
    I really haven't much to report this evening. Transcription, as always, is a pretty straight-forward activity, certainly not one worth documenting in any great detail. You take handwritten notes and text that you've either highlighted or underlined and type it into a Word document. That's basically it.

    I do tend to enjoy transcription, though, if only because it is a completely non-cerebral activity, one that serves as a break from the more demanding efforts preceding and following it. I love the fact that I can work--and feel productive--while listening to music. When writing, I find, I prefer to work in silence or, at the very least, the near-silence of me in a room, alone, with my tinnitus and a few humming electronic devices. So, listening to the Distillers, Social Distortion, and T.S.O.L. has been a real treat.

    One of the reasons I have been maintaining a relatively light workload these past few days is because I want to wait until after I speak with my adviser on Thursday before I make any decisions about what to do next. Obviously, if my dissertation changes direction and I end up writing exclusively on J.M. Coetzee, I will want to re-think things and, in all likelihood, (re)read several texts. Regardless, this little break has been surprisingly refreshing and I imagine moving ahead with the dissertation will not be quite as disagreeable to me as starting the project was. At least now I feel like I have some sense of my ability to write dissertation-quality work.

    Before I sign off for the evening, I want mention something that has been bothering me for the past few days, ever since I read Thomas Walz's "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons." As Walz was preparing his essay, he interviewed two elderly individuals--one of each gender--regarding their sex lives, both of whom had had marriages lasting several decades. What bothers me is that both the man and the woman Walz interviewed report having had multiple extra-marital sexual relationships despite having relatively satisfying unions with their respective partners. I mean, I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination, but I do rather like the idea of long-term monogamous relationships. The idea of choosing to forgo sexual relationships with anyone other than one's partner is, in many ways, a beautiful gesture. Obviously, when disease or violence or some other disruptive force interferes, this mightn't be possible or even appealing, but in supposedly healthy, satisfying relationships...damn! Maybe it just taps into that human fear of being hurt or abandoned, but, still, I'd rather not think that Phillip Roth is quite as right about marriage as he seems to be. I realize that a two-person survey is extremely narrow in scope and probably does not represent the entire world, but it bugs me nonetheless. I guess no one likes the idea of their grandparents cheating on one another out of boredom...

    In other news, I am starting a punk blog to have a little fun and keep Sobriquet close to its roots. Check it out if you're interested.

    For tomorrow: Transcription again.

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    ____________________________________________
    Evidentially, I've written a chapter of my dissertation.

    At least that's how my adviser referred to the thirty pages on Age of Iron I sent her last week. When I logged into my email account this morning and saw that she had sent me her impressions of the section I'd written, I felt the familiar wave of anxiety wash over me. As is the case for many people, I tend to find fault in my own writing and, consequently, I expect others--particularly those people in a position to judge whether or not my work possesses any redeemable quality--to dislike it as well. I also realize, having observed it firsthand, that one cannot allow such doubts to hinder his or her writing, so I try to persevere. Still, when I read that my adviser considers what I've written so far to be "excellent," I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Apparently I can write a dissertation. I mean, if the section I wrote on Age of Iron is of the quality of scholarship expected of a doctoral candidate, then I have shown that I am capable of doing what I need to do. That, of course, is the one thing I really needed. Just having that stamp of approval on my work--even pending revision--enables me to make a subtle but significant alteration to my mantra: rather than say I can do it, I can say I have done it. Keep it up! Since two of the biggest fears I have wrestled with since I began working on the dissertation over a year ago are A) that I would not get to the writing stage and B) that I would not be capable of producing the quality of criticism one must have in a dissertation, this bit of good news goes a long way towards building my confidence. There's no longer any point in fretting over whether I am capable of starting and, once started, producing the type of writing I need for the dissertation. I have done both effectively. Now it's just a matter of working steadily on the project, as I have done, until it is completed.

    Whoo-fucking-hoo!

    For tomorrow: Since I have some chores to do, try to fit in a modest amount of transcription, just like I did today.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, February 10, 2008
    Amazingly, I managed to finish today's rather hefty load of grading by early evening and finished a fascinating--seriously--essay on sexuality among older individuals (it mentions several of Coetzee's texts), all before ten pm.

    Of the three essays I've read this weekend, Thomas Walz's "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons" is, by far, the best. It says quite a bit about the state of contemporary literary criticism that the most interesting, most readable journal article I have read since I began working my way through the critical writing for my dissertation in December was written not by a literary scholar but by a gerontologist from the University of Iowa's School of Social Work. Although Walz's essay only marginally addresses Coetzee's novels, I found myself happily reading through the entire article, taking notes and reflecting upon the many acute observations the author makes regarding sex and sexuality among the aging.

    On Friday, before a night of bowling with my friends, I somehow found the energy to resist napping all afternoon and read one of the essays I was dreading the most. Now, I should emphasize that it was the subject matter (Derrida's philosophy) and not the author of the essay (Derek Attridge) that had contributed to the dread. In fact, had the essay been written by anyone other than Attridge, with whom my correspondence has been extremely cordial and whose previous articles on Coetzee have struck me as extremely solid examples of criticism, there is an exceedingly good chance that I would have skipped over the essay entirely.

    Jacques Derrida, for the uninitiated, is one of the biggest names in the pantheon of poststructuralist theorists whose collective impact on literary (and other cultural) studies effectively redefined the field between the sixties and nineties. Known as much for his radically new, post-Nietzschean, post-Heiddegerian deconstruction as for the abstruse language with which he delivered his ideas, Derrida gained legions of followers and detractors. While I can acknowledge the presence of interesting ideas and clever wordplay in Derrida's writing, I count myself among the large number of Derrida's detractors. I find his writing needlessly abstract, the bulk of his ideas mundane, and the misappropriation of his work irreversibly damaging to my field of study. Like that of Gayatri Spivak, Derrida's writing defeats itself by effectively rendering the ideas it expresses almost impossible to decipher for the vast majority of hominids. Over time, as I read through literary scholars eager to cite Writing and Difference or Margins of Philosophy, I developed an aversion to any and all criticism drawing upon Derrida's theory. So, when "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing" appeared among my search results, I shuddered.

    Fortunately, Attridge is one of the few scholars out there capable of taking Derrida's philosophy, distilling it into more coherent language, and applying it to literature in a way that illuminates the fiction. I find Attridge's application of Derrida's concept of arrivant (from Aporias) to Coetzee's novel actually provides a good deal of insight into the dark sense of waiting pervading The Master of Petersburg. Furthermore, unlike some of the poststructuralist literary critics one encounters every so often, Attridge writes in clear, precise language, a trait of his for which I am particularly grateful.

    I also read over Sue Kossew's "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993), which, while not wholly original in scope, does provide a reasonable reading of Coetzee's novel, focusing on the creative process and the role of writing in an author's life.

    For tomorrow: Transcription.

    Works Cited

    Attridge, Derek. "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing." Applying--to Derrida, eds. John Brannigan, Ruth Robbins, and Julian Wolfreyes. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. 21-40.

    Kossew, Sue. "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993)." English in Africa 23.1 (1996): 67-88.

    Walz, Thomas. "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons." Journal of Aging and Identity 7.2 (2002): 99-112.

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    ____________________________________________
    This weekend has been good for me. I've spent most of the past two days with friends, enjoying myself more than I have in quite some time. What's more, despite spending as much time as I have out and about, I have managed to continue working on my dissertation, having read two rather sizable critical articles since yesterday afternoon.

    The big development I would like to mention, however, has next to nothing to do with the criticism I have been reading or the friends with whom I have been spending time. When my supervisor emailed me to confirm that she'd received the copy of my Age of Iron draft that I'd sent her, she suggested that I consider writing my entire dissertation on J.M. Coetzee, rather than merely devoting a large chunk of the multi-author dissertation I had been planning. Now, this makes sense for several reasons: I have written a good deal on the author already; I have published multiple articles on his work and have arranged for a brief interview with him for the journal I edit; his current status as Recent Nobel Laureate will make the potential audience for my work that much larger; and I have spent the better part of a year reading him. Taken together, these factors may make writing the dissertation quicker and could possibly interest potential employers more than my having written the aforementioned multi-author study. Of course, since my training is primarily as an Americanist (English scholars still tend to divide themselves into Americanists and Britishists), writing exclusively about a South African-born, Australian resident's fiction might not be as well-received by employers looking for an American literature specialist. On the other hand, having already published essays on Gaddis, Poe, Kincaid, Vonnegut, and Mailer, among others, I suppose I have shown some potential as an Americanist, which I would hope would prove sufficient for schools looking for am American literature scholar. Although my field examinations (and thus, for all intents and purposes, my professional specializations) are primarily clustered around American literature after 1800, I did take and pass an exam on contemporary global literature, theoretically preparing me to teach international writers like Coetzee. I will have to see how I feel about things after I speak with my adviser.

    This new direction, of course, would necessarily change the focus of my dissertation as well, which may or may not be a good thing for me. I have grown rather accustomed to the idea of a comparative study focusing on a variety of responses to a common concern, so I am not certain how I will feel abandoning that original vision. Again, I will have to see. I am, however, not as nervous as one might imagine. Thankfully, I am fortunate to have an incredibly generous, caring human being serving as my adviser, a scholar who has established herself as an academic capable of the highest quality work as well as an administrator with remarkable acumen and knowledge of the job market for folks like myself, so I trust her judgment in academic matters and value her input a great deal. I'll update this development when I have a better idea about what is going on. I still have to see how she responds to the section I wrote on Age of Iron, after all...

    Besides that, I'd wanted to write a bit about the articles I have been reading, but I will leave that discussion for another day (perhaps tomorrow?) and get myself to bed before it gets too late.

    For tomorrow: Read that last, lingering article on The Master of Petersburg and get some grading done.

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    Saturday, February 9, 2008
    This will have to be an extremely short entry because I am too tired to string together more than a few coherent sentences at a time. In any case, I am pleased to report that although I spent much of the day with friends, I did manage to read an essay on The Master of Petersburg, which I will discuss at greater length when I have more time and energy than I do at the moment. But for now: sweet, sweet sleep.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay on The Master of Petersburg or transcribe a bit.

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    Friday, February 8, 2008
    Despite the fact that the only dissertation work I set aside for myself today was to transcribe notes, I actually do have quite a bit to write about the project, including reporting on a few major developments. Unfortunately, I have to go to bed. I will, however, plan on writing a bit about today's news sometime this weekend when I have a bit more time to devote to introspection and blogging.

    I am keeping my workload very light for the time being, largely because I want to see what my supervisor thinks of what I sent her before I dive headlong into the next section. Plus, I have been spending a good chunk of time grading student papers, a task that I find both tiring and time-consuming. Still, despite the relatively small amount of time I am spending on my dissertation, I would like to continue doing a tiny bit of work each day until I see what my supervisor says, if only to maintain some sense of progress. There's a good chance that I will decide to (re-)read a few of Coetzee's novels, but I cannot determine which one(s) and when before I hear from my adviser. Until I learn the dreaded verdict on the Age of Iron section, though, I will hold off on scheduling an actual, honest-to-goodness break. I think that knowing where I stand in terms of the quality of my work thus far will have more than a little bearing on how I feel about relaxation and recreation...so we'll see.

    For tomorrow: A bit more transcription. Or, if I am inspired to do so, read another essay on The Master of Petersburg.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, February 7, 2008
    I sent off a copy of the recently completed Age of Iron draft to my supervisor today. Although it may not sound like a particularly significant moment, the sending away of my draft strikes me as at least as major a point in my dissertation writing as the afternoon in early January when I typed those first tenuous sentences to start the whole process. The laying bare of one's thoughts--particularly those that will be evaluated and judged against the high standards set by the Academy--is not an easy thing to do. In many ways I feel naked (now that the word "naked" has appeared in the blog, I wonder what peculiar search terms will lead folks here?). I feel vulnerable, as if I am sitting atop the cold, tissue-papered surface of a doctor's examining table, awaiting the results of an important test--and, not surprisingly, I want this anxiety to subside. I want an answer, a definitive diagnosis: either cut open and operate or you're fine, Erik. So, that's where I am now.

    What I am currently coping with is the fear that what I have done will not be good enough, that I will need to make sweeping revisions. I realize that, even if this is the case, I would be further along than I was a month ago, but I really, really want what I have written to be deemed "okay." I mean, if I have some acknowledgment that what I've done is of the quality it needs to be, I can say to myself, well, you've shown you can do it. Keep it up. That would provide a wonderful boost to my confidence, clearly. But, still, I don't like the feeling of sitting on the doctor's table in a polka-dotted gown.

    I did read another extremely short essay on Coetzee today, just to maintain the sense of progress I have been cultivating. The article I read, Michiko Kakutani's rather clumsily titled "Chronicling Life Perched on a Volcano's Edge as Change Erupts," written a day after Coetzee won the Nobel Prize, strengthens my assumption that the ubiquitous blurb meister and I, despite our common appreciation of quite a few writers, would disagree about the direction of Coetzee's fiction since the 1980s. Whereas she seems to feel Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K are significantly better than the author's "ill-conceived" The Master of Petersburg or the "melodramatic" Disgrace, I prefer the later fiction. While I do not think either Waiting or K are anything short of extraordinary, I do feel that Coetzee's recent output achieves a certain sublimity not fully realized in those earlier works. Still, she has an amazing ability to synthesize a tremendous range of literary knowledge and is, quite frankly, one of the better writers out there in critic-land, so despite the fact that I disagree with a bit of her assessment, I do find it illuminating.

    At any rate, I am going to call it a night.

    For tomorrow: Since I have a few errands I want to take care of (and the time-devouring grading of student writing), I will assign myself only the lightest of workloads: get some transcription done.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, February 6, 2008
    Since it is approaching one in the morning and the stack of papers I've been grading seems just as thick now as it was hours ago, I am going to have to keep this entry brief. What I can say, however, is that I finally finished the section on Age of Iron and, at thirty pages, it is three times longer than I had anticipated. Not surprisingly, I am looking forward to moving on, though I am anxious to see if my supervisor feels I should make any sweeping revisions before I jump into the next bit of writing. Depending on whether or not she approves of what I have done, I may give myself a bit of a break from work to recoup some of the energy I've spent on this project--though, having gotten myself in the habit of daily work, I have a difficult time envisioning what I will do with a wide-open schedule.

    All I can say is that, if all goes well, I can look at the thirty pages I've written as one-tenth of a three-hundred page dissertation. That, in my estimation, deserves some sort of celebratory escape from routine.

    One possible option for breaking out of the daily grind I've created for myself--and one that would actually help the project--would be for me to attend a conference later this month at which I have been invited to speak. Depending on several largely pecuniary factors, I think I may go. I am debating over whether I will speak on Coetzee or Joseph Heller, both of which figure prominently in my dissertation.

    For tomorrow: Read, grade, or take a well-deserved (at least I think it's well-deserved) break.

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    Tuesday, February 5, 2008
    Like most Monday-Wednesday-Friday afternoons, I returned home from work today and promptly napped for several hours. Despite the sleeping, however, I did manage to go over another article on The Master of Petersburg. Michael Marais, it seems, is one of the more prevalent names among Coetzee scholars, as this is the third essay of his I have encountered in a relatively short period of time.

    Marais's "Death and the Space of the Response to the Other in J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg," like many of the other essays dealing with the novel, focuses on the relationship between fiction and history. Using the rather common criticism that Coetzee's fiction does not engage with the politics of South Africa in any defined way as a starting point, Marais examines the author's claim that literature can rival rather than supplement history. Although it will in all likelihood have little bearing on the shape of my own work with Coetzee, Marais's essay does strike me as the type of criticism many other critics-to-be would benefit from reading.

    For tomorrow: Try to write some more...

    Though I do not want this blog to veer too far away from the documentation of my dissertation, I am compelled to briefly address tomorrow's massive "Super Tuesday" primary elections. A number of my friends have been swept up by the political fervor of certain campaigns and I find it disturbing how readily some of the brighter people I know take the words of particular politicians at face value. At any rate, having gotten emails from a number of my friends urging me to vote for a particular candidate, I want to say that I will not be voting for Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, Ron Paul, or any of the other candidates in tomorrow's primaries. I am, contentedly, politically unaffiliated. Furthermore, despite the oddly idealistic glasses through which some of my brighter friends have somehow decided to view certain unnamed candidates, I have very strong doubts about the front-running candidates. All of them.

    Granted, the president is largely America's diplomatic figurehead and I would hope the next president will represent our nation abroad with dignity and class, so I would prefer certain candidates over others strictly on the basis of their charisma...having lived abroad, I can say that the difference between the international response to Bill Clinton or George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush is night-and-day...we need someone the media in other countries will like. Still, I will not be voting for Hillary Clinton or Barak Obama or John McCain or Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee, no matter how charismatic they may be.

    Again, I will not attack any one candidate, though I do think there are more than a few sociopaths running and, like Ted Bundy before them, they've got people fawning over them...

    I will, however, endorse one candidate for tomorrow: Mike Gravel. Whether or not he'd make a good president, I respect what he has done with his career and he says things that none of the top-tier candidates want to say or hear. A vote for Gravel, it seems, would be a nice way of sending a message, however small, that common sense and individual liberty are important. If Sen. Gravel runs as a third-party candidate (with some Libertarians drooling at a cross-party Gravel-Paul ticket), I say vote for him there, too. You're not throwing your vote away by voting for a third party; you're making a small voice that much louder. And, believe me, we need that voice to get louder, we need third parties. Imagine if the Greens and Libertarians had a few seats in Congress...If you want a government to represent the people, you'll want a Communist, a Fascist, a handful of Libertarians, a smattering of Greens, a few dozen Socialists, a bunch of Democrats and a slew of Republicans. Take that first step now...take a voice away from the Big Two and vote for a small three.

    Work Cited

    Marais, Michael. "Death and the Space of the Response to the Other in J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg." J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual, ed. Jane Poyner. Athens: Ohio UP, 2006. 83-99.

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    Monday, February 4, 2008
    I took it easy today, but I did read an old review of The Master of Petersburg from the New York Times. I wasn't expecting much from the review, truth be told; I read it primarily to feel as if I'd gotten some work done today. Oddly, though, it proved to be remarkably useful, providing a good deal of insight into both The Master of Petersburg and Age of Iron. As it turns out, the small section of the essay devoted to the earlier novel actually fits perfectly into what I am doing right now as I try to wrap up the section on Age of Iron.

    For tomorrow: Read another article or two or write a bit more.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, February 3, 2008
    Not a whole lot to report today. I did manage to write a few more pages about Age of Iron and, as is so often the case, I am not wholly satisfied with what I've written. In any case, I am perhaps a day or two away from finishing the section on the novel and then I have to decide whether or not to send it on over to my supervisor...I worry because I do not want to hear "Well, it's good, but you need to do X-Y-Z for it to work." I suppose, though, that if there is any work to be done, it would be best to hear of it now while the material is still fresh in my mind...Ugh. This is, of course, what writing a dissertation is...a process, but, man, I just want it to be done and for my work thus far to have amounted to something...and I fear that may not be the case.

    For tomorrow: Write a bit more or read an article.

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    Saturday, February 2, 2008
    Having gone to bed somewhat later than I would have liked yesterday night, I woke up at six this morning with the sort of displaced resentment only possible when you blame a work schedule you willingly accepted for your own poor time management. Hearing the grains of ice tinkle against my window reminded me to check if we'd gotten a snow day, but there was nothing listed on the college's website. Disappointed, I putzed around for the next hour or so, checking email and reading news stories. As 7:20--the absolute latest time I feel comfortable leaving the house for work--neared, I sought something, anything to procrastinate just a tiny bit more. So I checked the college's website a second time.

    And lo and behold, there it was, in red letters: no school.

    I got myself a snow day!

    And this was the best possible day for a snow day, too. Mid-week snow days are nice surprises, but lack the added oomph of a weekend-extending snow day. Mondays are nice to have off, but those Monday-extended weekends never feel long because you only find out that you're off after you've already spent all day Sunday believing that you have work or go to school the next day...but Fridays...the moment you learn that you're off on Friday, you have a three-day weekend ahead of you.

    Mighty pleased, I was. This little bit of frozen serendipity made it possible for me to get a few more hours of sleep so that I could write a bit more of the dissertation in addition to reading the article I'd assigned myself for the day. Again, I can't say I am terribly pleased with the quality of my dissertation...I seem to have some weird, unrealistic and unreachable ideal in mind for it...but I am pleased that I have written as much as I have. If my supervisor approves of it, even with a few suggestions, I think I will be quite satisfied.

    At any rate, I read Rachel Lawlan's "The Master of Petersburg: Confession and Double Thoughts in Coetzee and Dostoyevsky," an essay examining, among other things, literature as a counterhistorical narrative, aspects of confessional literature, and the intertextual relationship Coetzee cultivates with Dostoyevsky. Over the past few days, I also read Stephen Watson's "The Writer and the Devil: J.M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg," Gerald Gaylard's "Mastering Arachnophobia: The Limits of Self-Reflexivity in African Fiction," and T. Kai Norris Easton's "Text and Hinterland: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Novel." As is common with many Coetzee scholars, both Easton and Gaylard evaluate The Master of Petersburg as in relation to specifically (South) African fiction while Watson and Lawlan look more closely at the themes of authorship in the novel.

    Without dwelling too much on any one essay that I have read, I have to say I am both disappointed by the extreme lengths to which some critics go to include a political discussion in every Coetzee novel as well as pleased to see the variety of reasonable readings of The Master of Petersburg, especially those which, like Watson's, provide extended considerations of the act of writing.

    With my free time, I watched Population 436, a wholly mediocre "thriller" featuring a surprisingly competent Fred Durst in one of the lead roles. Although I appreciate the unhappy ending of the film, I wasn't terribly engrossed by how the movie takes an idea that is only marginally interesting and, with a sub-stellar cast and average writing, makes a moderately entertaining, ultimately forgettable "thriller" about a town of religious fanatics. But, hey, free time is free time, innit?

    For tomorrow: Read another essay or write a bit more.

    Works Cited

    Gaylard, Gerald. "Mastering Arachnophobia: The Limits of Self-Reflexivity in African Fiction." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37.1 (2002): 85-99.

    Lawlan, Rachel. "The Master of Petersburg: Confession and Double Thoughts in Coetzee and Dostoyevsky." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 29.2 (1998): 131-157.

    Norris Easton, T. Kai. "Text and Hinterland: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Novel." Journal of Southern African Studies 21.4 (1995): 585-599.

    Watson, Steven. "'The Writer and the Devil': J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg." New Contrast 22.4 (1994): 47-61.

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