The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “Nightmare as a Child”

April 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

CM Capture 14See also the four preceding posts in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone, season one.

I’ll admit it: “Nightmare as a Child” (available for viewing on YouTube, at least for now) freaked me out.  It struck me as easily the most effective piece of horror in the first season.

Now, part of this is intentional and related to the good work of the principals: Serling, the director Alvin Ganzer (also the director of the also-effective “The Hitch-Hiker”), the stars Janice Rule and Terry Burnham.  The Freudian bent of Serling’s episodes for women in the first season reaches its culmination here, in a wonderful scenario: a woman meets a young girl outside her door.  She invites the strange girl in, and it’s slowly revealed that the girl is her younger self, visiting her to help her remember an important but traumatic memory that could now save her life.

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Older Helen “meets” younger Helen.

But it’s especially creepy partly because of two unintentional elements of the episode.

1) Terry Burnham, the astounding child actor who portrays Helen Foley’s childhood self, sounds an awful lot like the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  The two also share a similar matter-of-fact delivery.  The monologue that young Helen (aka Markie) delivers to her older self, as the younger self “remembers” for her the violence of the night that she has repressed, delivered in the voice of a Peanuts character, is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard — the twisted flip-side of Linus’s “meaning of Christmas” monologue.  (It starts at 19:00.)

I'm you Helen

“I’m you, Helen.”

The monologue, by the way, starts with a truly remarkable piece of business.  Markie begins to confront Helen with the truth, asking, “You still don’t understand, do you?” Helen responds, “Understand what?” and we see Markie mouth these words along with Helen, over her shoulder, quite deliberately.  It gives you chills.  It’s a stroke of genius.  And yet, it’s conceivable that this was a mistake — a very young actor mouthing the lines of the other actor — that was retained by the director.  Was in the script, or was it an intentional or serendipitous ad lib?

CM Capture 9crop2) The villain of the tale, one Peter Selden (played by the wonderfully named Shepperd Strudwick), bears a striking resemblance to Ray Wise, aka Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks.  The particulars of the episode make this especially uncanny, as we’ll see later.

LelandPalmerFWWMThe best thing about the episode is Terry Burnham.  Her dark eyes contrasted with blonde hair, her knowing playfulness varying with solemnity, her sense throughtout of being somehow both more and less than she seems, are the keys to the episode’s power.  It’s an incredible performance for a child, and obviously that has much to do with the adults creating the episode.  However, part of the episode’s core meaning is the amazing power of perception and retention held by children.  Burnham’s performance not only reveals that, it embodies it.

We have here, again, a variation on the theme of a woman looking in a mirror and seeing another self, another reality.  We also have here, again, a woman finding herself supplanted, to a degree, by a doppelganger.  Markie, the younger self, is in control throughout the episode.  It disturbs and disorients Helen.

Girls, the control that they could (or were not allowed to) exert, the intelligence that they could (or were not encouraged to) display, and the ways in which they would become women, were certainly on Serling’s mind.  He had two daughters growing up throughout the filming of the Twilight Zone.  This would come up again in the final woman-focused episode of the first season, “The After Hours.”

And so Helen has forgotten the most important event of her childhood, and Markie goes about carefully leading her to this realization, having worked an invitation for a cup of hot chocolate from what we initially believe to be a total stranger.

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The subtext of the episode throughout, of a woman not trusting her own self, her own childhood, and her own instincts, is brought to a head with the arrival of the wolfish Peter at her door, asking, “Do you remember me?”  One gets a sense throughout the episode of Helen being a kind of non-person, the kind of thing a fellow non-person, Markie, sees when she looks in the mirror.  The twenty or so years since her childhood trauma have revolved entirely around forgetting said trauma and building routine upon routine to fill the day.  She does not think of the past.  She does not even recognize herself as a child.  She lives alone, she teaches school, and she invites strange children in to have hot chocolate.

Peter shows her a photo of herself as a child, and things get exceptionally uncomfortable.  “You were an exceptionally beautiful child,” he says.  “And you look so like your mother.”  Helen enters a kind of fugue state, and relives the memory of the night that her mother was killed.  The superimposition of the childhood memory on Helen’s body, reclined on the couch as if in psychoanalysis, may be a visual cliche, but its power may explain why this particular effect became a cliche.

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We have here, you may have noticed, a subtext (just barely sub) of sexual abuse, as close as any television program in 1960 could dare to come to addressing the issue, endemic in American society then as now.  I do not know if David Lynch or his compatriots working on Twin Peaks saw or were influenced by “Nightmare as a Child,” but the moment below certainly made me think it a strong possibility.

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Peter’s words right before this? “I want to be the first, I want to be the very first.”  He’s ostensibly talking about “imparting some information,” and the murder of Helen’s mother was ostensibly over Peter’s embezzlement.  But could viewers even in 1960 have missed the meaning here?  Especially given the remarkably ugly tone in Peter’s voice when he delivers these lines?

Twin Peaks, in some ways, can be seen as a story of a town desperate to return to 1960 or thereabouts, precisely because it was a time when awful things like sexual abuse within families was not spoken of.  Its very existence could be denied.  Hence the bobbysoxers, the beatnik jazz, the “darn good pie.”  The truly terrible, pollyanna ending of “Nightmare as a Child” was essential to television in 1960; I remain glad that, however messy it got in its second season, Twin Peaks did not have that.

Dreams, Brains, Art, Symbol

October 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

“This is a major step toward reconstructing internal imagery,” said [Jack] Gallant.  “We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.”

“[N]o previous study has produced reconstructions of dynamic natural movies,” Gallant’s team pointed out on their website.  “This is a critical step toward obtaining reconstructions of internal states such as imagery, dreams and so on.”

-“Scientists Glimpse Images In Your Mind,” Carl Franzen, 9/23/11, idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com

18. Contemporary intellectual follies, part two: neuroscience.  Or rather, the glib wholesale transferral of the logic of neuroscience to the realm of culture.  Another trump card in a narrative of progress that presents itself as absolute, “objective”: the belief that art and literature can be “explained” by a discourse that has no bearing on them whatsoever.  As though the endless complexity of thought and interpretation demanded by Hamlet could be substituted by the act of taking a biopsy of Shakespeare’s brain, or the interminable challenges and provocations posed by Inland Empire neutralized by placing electrodes among Lynch’s strangely coiffured hair.  Meaning takes place in the symbolic, is constantly negotiated through language (be this spoken or visual), through the dynamism of metaphor, structured by desire, power, gender, and the rest.  This process is open, ongoing, and — most important — contestable.  That’s why we have art in the first place.

-“Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future,'” The International Necronautical Society (Tom McCarthy), The Believer, Nov/Dec 2010

The Rabbit Family, Inland Empire

“Right.  I wanted you to tell me something.  That’s why I called,” Sumire said.  She lightly cleared her throat.  “What I want to know is, what’s the difference between a sign and a symbol?”

I felt a weird sensation, like something was silently parading through my head.  “Could you repeat the question?”…

I sat up in bed, switched the receiver from my left hand to my right.  “Let me get this straight — you’re calling me because you want to find out the difference between a sign and a symbol.  On Sunday morning, just before dawn.  Um…”

-Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami

Telephone booth at night, courtesy http://www.nmcclellan.com/travel-blog.php

She’s at the top of a tall tower.  So high it makes her dizzy to look down.  Lots of tiny objects, like airplanes, are buzzing around the sky.  Simple little planes anybody could make, constructed of bamboo and light pieces of lumber.  In the rear of each plane there’s a tiny fist-sized engine and propeller.  Sumire yells out to one of the passing pilots to come rescue her.  But none of the pilots pays any attention.

-“Sumire’s Dream,” Sputnik Sweetheart

Miu’s mind went blank.  I’m right here, looking at my room through binoculars.  And in that room is me….

I’ve felt this way for the longest time — that in a Ferris wheel in a small Swiss town, for a reason I can’t explain, I was split in two forever.

-“The Tale of Miu and the Ferris Wheel,” Sputnik Sweetheart

Ferris wheel in Basel, Switzerland, from gottofr's Flickr feed.

The answer is dreams.  Dreaming on and on.  Entering the world of dreams, and never coming out.  Living in dreams for the rest of time.

-“Document 1,” Sputnik Sweetheart

Understanding is but the sum of our misunderstandings.

-“Document 1,” Sputnik Sweetheart

Bellowing with the Bourgeoisie

March 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.

The strangest thing about this very strange book is the mystery of Schreber’s mental state as he wrote it: clearly still mentally ill, but lucid and intelligent enough to write a tract which makes his insanity seem utterly sane, even dull.  It is, mostly, the evidence and procedure of a courtroom, not an asylum.  Schreber explicitly states that he’s writing the book both to disseminate the important information he’s received about the universe and to prove his sanity — to show the evidence for his brain’s perfect functioning, but also for the truth of the universe he’s had revealed to him.

It veers so close to self-parody, while remaining utterly in earnest.  The most stunningly forthright passage is at the beginning of chapter 20, when Schreber comes right out and says what every paranoid thinks, but shows that he’s aware of how this might sound and explicates his reasons for believing it nonetheless:

everything that happens is in reference to me. Writing this sentence, I am fully aware that other people may be tempted to think that I am pathologically conceited; I know very well that this very tendency to relate everything to oneself, to bring everything that happens into connection with one’s own person, is a common phenomenon among mental patients.  But in my case the very reverse obtains.  Since God entered into nerve-contact with me exclusively, I became in a way for God the only human being, or simply the human being around whom everything turns, to whom everything that happens must be related and who therefore, from his own point of view, must also relate all things to himself.

It’s truly baffling how he, veteran of the asylum and respected legal authority, can make this kind of flimsy claim for his exemption from the monstrous egocentricity of his view of reality.  It is shocking how real it must have all come to be, for him; how he’d worked it all out in his head, had told himself the story to make sense of his pain and confusion and isolation, and therefore made it true.

There are a number of moments in the book when one can get a glimpse of Schreber against the grain of his narration, or especially in the reports of Dr. Weber, the head of the asylum, in the Addenda section at the end of the book.  The most compelling such moments involve Schreber’s “states of bellowing,” times when he feels he must let out an animalistic bellow or roar as a reaction to the voices he hears.  He talks of the great release he feels in this state, and how he loves going for walks in the country when he can just let it rip, but has also learned to control the bellowing in polite company, restraining it to little peeps or yelps.  Schreber presents this as little more than a perfectly understandable quirk, a trait of his that should simply be accepted and ignored by those he meets once they know about the reasons for it.  And yet, it’s clearly one of the main physical symptoms of his illness.  Isn’t it somewhat horrifying to imagine meeting a man, presented to you as a “respected jurist,” whose face twitches and trembles until he finally lets loose with first a yip, then a yelp, then great bovine bellows of mixed relief and rage?  (Hasn’t David Lynch made a career of horrifying people with scenes just like this?)

Further, in one of his reports on Schreber’s progress, Dr. Weber confirms Schreber’s report that he was allowed to join Weber’s family at dinner occasionally.  Weber also mentions that Schreber would sometimes stay to play the piano or converse with Weber’s wife and daughter.  This sounds, to me, like a Robert Olin Butler story waiting to happen: at the time of Freud’s great discoveries, mental patient with highly developed, extremely idiosyncratic worldview, who believes himself to be turning into a woman/earth-goddess, plays sonatas with German bourgeoisie , occasionally giving vent to animal sounds in the parlor.

DeLillo, DFW, and Places of Mortal Drama

November 14, 2008 § 1 Comment

I’m in Austin, Texas right now, attending a symposium at the Harry Ransom Center entitled “Creating a Usable Past: Writers, Archives, and Institutions.”  It’s largely about the process by which writers’ papers (the manuscripts of their works, their correspondence, etc.) are sold or donated to places like the Ransom Center and the handful of university and research libraries in the US and UK (including my employer, Duke University, whom I’m certainly not representing in these thoughts) that can afford to handle these bodies of material.

I haven’t had a whole lot of free time during the day, but I managed to get into the reading room over the lunch hour today.  I skipped a meal because the HRC holds the Don DeLillo Papers.  And this includes his correspondence with David Foster Wallace (primarily DFW to DeLillo, with a few of DeLillo’s responses), from 1992 to 2003.  (I don’t know if there are any later letters that haven’t been added yet by DeLillo; I suspect there are, but perhaps not many, and surely they will eventually come here, too.)

It’s not a huge body of material — just one folder, although it’s a fat folder — but it struck me as profoundly important: to DFW, to the understanding of their works and late-20thc. American lit, to me.  It was poignant and hilarious and amazing.  My faith in the importance of archives had not been shaken, but it was certainly confirmed by looking at them.

I won’t give any long excerpts here — both because I don’t think DFW would have wanted it and because it could be construed as, well, illegal — but I want to share some of the things I found in the correspondence that moved me, interested me, made me laugh, made me sigh:

-I wanted to see if I could find anything about DFW’s thoughts on End Zone, especially after reading the chapter near the end that is clearly the ancestor of the Eschaton section of Infinite Jest, complete with a war game built on apocalypse scenarios and menacing all-caps alliances.  Sure enough, in one of his first letters DFW says, “part of a long thing I’m in the middle of has a section that I’ve gone back and seen owes a rather uncomfortable debt to certain exchanges between Gary Harkness and Major Staley.”  Fascinating that DFW either had End Zone embedded so deeply in his mind that he was able to build and comment upon the Harkness-Staley war game unconsciously, without consulting the text, or forgot the particulars of the war game and ended up reproducing them.  (Or it’s possible he was being a bit coy with DeLillo about this, in this early letter in which he’s still more or less introducing himself and saying how important DeLillo has been to him, and was really quite conscious of the war game section of EZ while writing the Eschaton game, but framed the similarity as unconscious and inadvertent to win the approval of one of his literary heroes, although I can’t imagine DFW not being up front about something like this, especially considering how up front he is about this sort of thing in his other letters.)

-There’s a fantastic letter from October 1995, just before publication of IJ, in which DFW lays bare a number of his anxieties about his own work ethic as a writer and the tension he felt between “fun” and “discipline.”  A fascinating letter: DFW talks about wanting to be a “Respectful writer,” meaning (I think) respectful of readership and of the writer’s own talent and potential, meaning not self-consciously showing off but putting in the hours at the writing desk and the hours of thought to perfectly integrate style and subject matter and thematic concerns.  Not showing off was very important to DFW; as he says, “…I’d far prefer finding out some way to become [a Respectful writer] w/o time and pain and the war of LOOK AT ME v. RESPECT A FUCKING KILLER.”  Quite a phrase, that.  That’s what I’d like to say whenever anyone asks me about IJ (not that anyone ever does): “Respect a fucking killer.”  It is a killer.  And it’s all DFW wanted, I think.

-Some great movie stuff: DFW ended up hating Lynch’s Lost Highway (as he says, “I swear it looked promising in dailies”), and recommends that DeLillo try to rent the first few episodes of Twin Peaks.  He also recommends Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool (a couple of times, actually) and absolutely loved The Matrix.

-A fascinating note (especially for an archivist) on digital publishing in a 2000 letter: “I don’t think it’s the memory-obliteration [of digital media] that bothers me… so much as the way it seems part of the increasing abstraction of everything.  It’s too unphysical.  There’s nothing to hold and get coffee stains on….”

-More than anything, it’s clear (even from the other side of the correspondence) what a considerate, thoughtful, and generous mentor-figure DeLillo was to DFW, who wrote DeLillo out of the blue with a kind of fan letter in 1992 and ended up writing him fairly often for 8 years or so.  It is remarkable to read DFW’s letter after reading Underworld, which he thought DeLillo’s best work by far and which he treated with remarkable subtlety and insight.  (It seems DeLillo might have done the same with IJ; at any rate, he read an advance copy and provided DFW feedback.)

-Finally, there was this great little note, which is both brilliant and rather hilarious thanks to where it appears: in one of DFW’s annual Christmas cards to DeLillo.  “Men’s rooms are place [sic] of mortal drama, in my opinion.  If I ever wrote a play, it’d be set in a men’s room.”

I wish he’d written a play.  I wish he was still writing Don DeLillo.  And just as much as a men’s room, a reading room is a place of mortal drama.  There’s this, for instance: this folder of letters, close as I’ve ever come and ever will to this brilliant mind.  It’s what survives.

Mario Incandenza’s James Incandenza’s O.N.A.N.tiad

October 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Since my first reading lo those many years ago, I had forgotten, more or less completely, about Mario Incandenza.  Which is sad, since Mario is such a lovely, strange, mysterious character.  (Also, in a completely inappropriate way, he reminds me of Buster Bluth, from Arrested Development, both in his childlike nature and in his uncertain parentage: whenever it’s mentioned that Mario might be Charles Tavis’s son, I start hearing that soap-opera music they used for Uncle Oscar’s heavy-handed hints about Buster.)

Mario had a premature and very weird birth after Avril’s “hidden pregnancy.”  It sounds like nothing so much as the baby in Eraserhead.  Now he’s bradykinetic (slow of movement and response) and has shriveled S-shaped arms and can’t stand upright.  Allusions are made to robots, spiders, the mentally retarded, and homunculi, when it comes to Mario, but none really apply for anything but physical appearance.  He also seems to be utterly without irony, ulterior motive, or disturbing doubts about his family, unlike everyone else in said family.  He loves Madame Psychosis’s radio show for reasons he can’t explain and is more or less traumatized when she goes off the air (as a result of her overdose/suicide attempt).  He was extremely close to James “The Mad Stork” Incandenza, his father(?), and helped on his films.

In fact, he created a parody/homage to one of those films: The O.N.A.N.tiad, described in the note 24 filmography as an “Oblique, obsessive, and not very funny claymation love triangle played out against live-acted backdrop of the inception of North American Interdependence and Continental Reconfiguration.”  (Here’s what appears to be a simple error: the JOI original is listed as 76 minutes in the filmography but said to be four hours long in the text.)  It’s “anti-confluential,” meaning it resists the trend to tie all the threads of its narrative together in a nice little package, a school of filmmaking JOI helped to create.  (Presumably in reaction against Magnolia, or Crash, or another look-how-we’re-all-connected-and-depend-on-each-other film of 1996’s future.)  On Interdependence Day (Nov. 8th) every year, when the continent “celebrates” the creation of the Organization of North American Nations, the E.T.A. students and staff watch Mario’s version, made in a broom closet with puppets.  We get DFW’s (or Hal’s?) ekphrastic description of it.

In this way we get a lot of the complicated geopolitical background and exposition for the novel.  And part of the point here is how mediated this exposition/background is: we’re watching a homage of a parody of world events which were really, it would seem, much less important to JOI than the affair he thought Rod “the God” Tine was having with French-Canadian operative Luria P., which served as a kind of allegory of the affairs he thought his wife was having with French-Canadian operatives more or less all the time (and perhaps accurately).  There’s an interesting comment that “somebody else in the Incandenza family had at least an amanuentic hand in the screenplay.”  Who?  Avril?  Hal?

(Sidebar: there have apparently been theories floating around about Avril’s “amanuentic hand” being more or less all over this book, and it’s true: she seems to be lurking everywhere, especially in the French-Canadian separatist shenanigans.  Lots of little intimations in the footnotes, here.  And it does make you wonder about that head in the microwave…)

And through this filmed puppet-show we meet “Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner,” leader of the Clean U.S. Party, surprise winner of the U.S. election, utter obsessive about hygiene and cleanliness, possibly a real-life puppet for Rod “the God” Tine, head of the Office of Unspecified Services.  (This possibility, emphasized in Mario’s remake, is downplayed by the narrator, which is interesting.)  The Johnny Gentle/Rod Tine relationship, and the whole “experialist” Gentle presidency, is more or less uncomfortably familiar, after eight years of Bush/Cheney.  Experialism could be construed as just being the opposite of imperialism, in that it involves forcing other countries to take your land, but there’s really a much more complicated relationship between the two concepts, experialism really meaning something more like exploiting the danger of your enormous and even obvious power to do whatever you want with parcels of land that you’ve “generously” “given” to other countries who you railroad into being or at least publicly acting like your allies.  It involves finding an “external Menace to hate and fear,” even if it’s just something you’ve made up, or that was made up or impotent but that you’ve actually made real and potent through either your bungling or your Machiavellian scheming.  (See: Quebecois terrorist groups.)  Hell, I’m sure there are whole dissertations in the works about DFW’s experialism and its Bakhtinian implications or whatnot.

The best part of the movie, by the sound of it, is the newspaper-headline interludes, flashing us through swaths of history a la old movies and (more commonly) homages to old movies.  DFW creates this great mini-narrative, in the narrator’s ekphrastic descriptions of the headlines, about a “Veteran but Methamphetamine-Dependent Headliner” who writes incredibly long run-on headlines that are basically articles in themselves, and we follow this meth-addict headline-writer from his gig at a major newspaper to smaller and smaller towns where he continues to be unable to kick either his meth or logorrhea habit.  (And, of course, a self-reflexive joke on his own run-ons and stylistic quirks, since the headlines are more or less quintessential DFW-style headlines.)

I actually wouldn’t be too surprised if someone did make this movie, someday.  I’d watch it, even if it was “openly jejune.”

My Favorite Footnote

September 23, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading:Infinite Jest.

DFW could write a hell of a straightforwardly poignant and true observational sentence when he wanted to.  Case in point, two of my favorites from a great section, on November 3 Y.D.A.U., of the tennis kids hanging out and being tired and bitchy:

And time in the P.M. locker room seems of limitless depth; they’ve all been just here before, just like this, and will be again tomorrow.  The light saddening outside, a grief felt in the bones, a sharpness to the edge of the lengthening shadows.

“The light saddening outside.”  It’s like the Proustian madeleine, that sentence.  It takes me back to grade school, and high school, at just that time of year, after basketball practice.  I went to a boarding high school; that is what the light does at that time of day in November.  It saddens, and aggrieves, in inexplicable ways, after heavy exertion, on your way to a cafeteria meal.  And I’ll further agree that time does somehow stretch and deepen after conditioning and practice and weights, as you sit around being tired together and complaining about the coaches.  You could sit there forever, and somehow feel that you have.

But anyway.  DFW could also write crazily pyrotechnic postmodern interludes, such as the notorious footnote 24, “James O. Incandenza: A Filmography.”  The footnote’s very important, actually, smuggling a good deal of info on Incandenza and his family and DFW’s speculative development of the film/video industry into a highly entertaining list format.  And it functions in any number of other ways: as a parody of academic writing, as a parody/homage to experimental film, as an opportunity to name-check influences, as a partial explanation for the crazy science involved in The Entertainment.  For super-dorks, it’s also a lot of fun, hopefully not mindless.  Herewith, the JOI joints I’d most like to see:

-Dark Logics…. 35mm.; 21 minutes; color; silent w/ deafening Wagner/Sousa soundtrack.  Griffith tribute, Iimura parody.  Child-sized but severely palsied hand turns pages of incunabular manuscripts [kind of a contradiction in terms, but whatever] in mathematics, alchemy, religion, and bogus political autobiography, each page comprising some articulation or defense of intolerance or hatred.

Note here: Taka Iimura made a movie called Onan about “desire… which has no object but itself.”

-Immanent Domain…. 35mm.; 88 minutes; black and white w/ microphotography; sound.  Three memory-neurons… in the Inferior frontal gyrus of a man’s… brain fight heroically to prevent their displacement by new memory-neurons as the man undergoes intensive psychoanalysis.

Now that’s experimental filmmaking!  Think of the costumes!

-‘The Medusa v. the Odalisque.’ … 78 mm.; 29 minutes; black and white; silent w/ audience-noises appropriated from broadcast television.  Mobile holograms of two visually lethal mythologic females duel with reflective surfaces onstage while a live crowd of spectators turns to stone.

-Blood Sister: One Tough Nun.…  35 mm.; 90 minutes; color; sound.  Parody of revenge/recidivism action genre, a formerly delinquent nun’s… failure to reform a juvenile delinquent… leads to a rampage of recidivist revenge.

Wait, wasn’t this one of the Grindhouse trailers?

-Good-Looking Men in Small Clever Rooms That Utilize Every Centimeter of Available Space With Mind-Boggling Efficiency. Unfinished due to hospitalization.

-Safe Boating Is No Accident.…  Kierkegaard/Lynch (?) parody, a claustrophobic water-ski instructor…, struggling with his romantic conscience after his fiancee’s… face is grotesquely mangled by an outboard propeller, becomes trapped in an overcrowded hospital elevator with a defrocked Trappist monk, two overcombed missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an enigmatic fitness guru, the Massachusetts State Commissioner for Beach and Water Safety, and seven severely intoxicated opticians with silly hats and exploding cigars.

I Am in Here

September 17, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.

Hard to believe: it’s been ten years since I read this. It’s a trite but true thing about a masterpiece: you’re not really ready for it the first time you read it (you haven’t read enough, lived enough, thought enough), but somehow you get enough out of it to love it anyway, and in fact have a visceral reaction to it that you’ll never have again, exactly, but which brings you back to read it again, when you’re older, and it’ll feel brand-new again, and you’ll think to yourself, why haven’t I read this again, again?

I don’t know that I’ll ever be ready for this book any more than King Lear or Basho or Tolstoy or Joyce. But I feel more ready, now, anyway. I remember reading the first section, of Hal in the university office, took me like three days of rereading, and I was feeling kind of simultaneously baffled and dazzled. It’s a little easier going, now. Quite a bit more enjoyable, as much as anything seems enjoyable in this terrible week. (Seriously, when’s this going to start feeling better?)

Anyway, I noticed this time through that of course there’s the Hal-as-Hamlet allusion going on here, but there’s something else, too, I think: there’s a bit of the Elephant Man. “‘I am not what you see and hear,'” says Hal. He is not an animal. He is a human being. And I love this description of what they hear, from the mouth of one of the Deans (I think, maybe Admissions?): “‘Like a stick of butter being hit with a mallet.'” What a perfectly horrifying sentence!

Also, I’ve never walked into an old-fashioned men’s room without thinking of this section.

A couple other notes: “I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist.” Dennis Gabor is, apparently, best known for inventing holography, and this may refer to that invention. The earlier mention of Hal’s paper on “The Implications of Post-Fourier Transformations for a Holographically Mimetic Cinema” could possibly back that up, since a lot of Gabor’s work apparently dealt with the Fourier analysis in mathematics. What I think all of this might mean: I suspect calling Gabor the Antichrist is Hal’s high-level way of suggesting that simulacra have overtaken our world, that we are busy virtualizing and recreating and dicing experience in so many ways that we’ve lost track of the gestalt, the whole, and the real. And this might perhaps also be a clue to what’s wrong with Hal: could it be that his brain is experiencing a world of frames and granules while everyone else is experiencing a flow?

Anyway, the Erdedy chapter after this is one of my favorites. Erdedy, waiting in agony for a woman to deliver him a giant load of weed, watches an insect crawling around his shelves. Then we get this doozy:

Once the woman who said she’d come had come, he would shut the whole system down. It occurred to him that he would disappear into a hole in a girder inside him that supported something else inside him. He was unsure what the thing inside him was and was unprepared to commit himself to the course of action that would be required to explore the question.

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like an awfully brave passage. It risks symbol, for one thing, which is tricky in an experimental fiction written in 1996. But it’s such a touching passage, such an awful moment of sick clarity in a person who’s not ready not to be an addict. It also reminds me very much of Murakami, only the exact opposite: his recurring wells and caves and isolated quiet places are like holes in the self, but they’re holes that people crawl into to find or recover something — they’re holes in the shelf, I guess, not the girder. What’s horrible about the hole in the girder is that Erdedy knows he keeps doing this for some reason he doesn’t understand, knows that the hole isn’t in the right place for him to actually learn anything, but can’t imagine giving up this routine he’s locked into. So, yeah, he’s an addict, if a high-functioning one, more or less.

Adventures in the Shadow World

August 2, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: Vineland.

In all of Pynchon’s books there seems to be a chapter that totally baffles me on first reading — a chapter I simply can’t follow. The last chapter I read, the twelfth (though they aren’t numbered), seems to be that chapter for Vineland. It involves, I kid you not: a Friar’s Club Roast of the Living Dead, a Luftwaffe officer in charge of eradicating marijuana fields, parrots telling bedtime stories to kids who then engage in communal lucid dreaming, a Kafkaesque dentist’s office, a scene which turns out (I think) to be an imaginary idyllic flash-forward of Pynchon’s own creation or perhaps of Prairie’s (or just through her, as she watches footage?), tiny gangsters playing pinochle on Weed Atman’s nose (seriously), the agonizing dissolution of 24fps and the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll, Weed Atman’s death or staged death, a system of secret highways called the Federal Emergency Evacuation Route, ninja moves, a plot to kill Castro, typical Pynchonian S&M pseudo-erotica, the gorgeous recurring Dream of the Gentle Flood, a trip to Mexico, commentary on Reaganomics, horoscopes about the danger of Pluto, and wiretapping.

There are so many loose ends here, I can’t imagine Pynchon tying them all up in 120 pages, though then again all of that only took 50. (I mean, read that list again! Only Pynchon.) It’s the chapter in which he’s throwing off ideas like sparks, seemingly on a strong cocktail of stimulants. But I think one of the important elements of the chapter is that it is, in large part, mediated: much of it seems to be the story as told to Prairie and/or seen by her on film, although it’s hard for me to tell how much is meant to be read this way and how much is simply provoked by that scenario, and meant to be read as the narrator’s address to the reader.

This question of mediation is important. In this chapter I think Pynchon reveals that his hints of another world, close to our own and connected to it but also very different, refer to the world created by and existing in film (now video, I suppose I should say), the 24-frames-per-second world. Most important in this regard is the confrontation between Weed and Rex. Frenesi has deliberately set it up to confront Weed with the accusation that he has betrayed the collective to the FBI (when, of course, it’s her that’s working for Brock Vond — although Weed might have been turned, too, it’s hard to say) on film, in the guerrilla style of 24fps. But the cameraman was changing rolls at the time, so the actual shooting is not filmed: there’s only sound footage and blurs, which Ditzah presents to Prairie. Here it is in the actual language; note all the complexity here, all the mediation:

Rex screaming, “Don’t you walk away from me!” the squeak of a screen door, feet and furniture thumping around, the door again, a starter motor shrieking, an engine catching, as Sledge then moved on out into the alley after them and Frenesi tried to find enough cable to get one of the floods on them and Howie got his new roll in and on his way out offered to switch places with Frenesi, who may have hesitated — her camera, her shot — but must have waved him on, because it was Howie… who emerged into the darkness and, while trying to find the ring to open the aperture, missed the actual moment, although shapes may have moved somewhere in the frame, black on black, like ghosts trying to return to earthly form, but Sledge was right there on them, and the sound of the shot captured by Krishna’s tape. Prairie, listening, could hear in its aftermath the slack whisper of the surf against this coast — and when Howie finally got there and Frenesi aimed the light, Weed was on his face with his blood all on the cement, the shirt cloth still burning around the blackly erupted exit, pale flames guttering out, and Rex was staring into the camera, posing, pretending to blow smoke away from the muzzle of the .38….

I mean, for one thing, so far as I can tell Rex was chasing Weed; so why’s Weed on his face with the exit wound in his back? For another, Weed’s a Thanatoid in the present-day 1984 of the book; either we believe he’s an actual ghost or spirit, or this was staged, and Weed escapes into an underground life. (If he’s a spirit, the Thanatoid Roast at the start of this chapter takes on a very Beetlejuice feel. And I suspect that the ambiguity might be what’s important to Pynchon: this way, he gets to kill Weed with both camera and gun, as well as allowing us to see various levels of conspiracy and intrigue, if we so wish.)

Right before the shooting, we are told that his face (as captured on film) betrayed his understanding of Frenesi’s betrayal, and that this was “the moment of his real passing,” his spirit actually seeming to leave his body. This ties in with a comment Howie made earlier, that confronting Weed on film would be “takin’ his soul, man,” a la that idea (is this myth or actually documented?) that some Native tribes believed the camera stole their soul. It might also go a way toward explaining the meaning of the Thanatoids: beings from whom the spirit has been drained, brains operating only on mediated experience, through the Tube. There’s also the comparison, recurring throughout the chapter (and book), of camera with gun. Frenesi, at the end of the chapter, says they were fools to think their cameras could stand against the Man’s guns.

Pynchon’s feelings about all of this remain difficult for me to interpret. He certainly is sympathetic to the aims of 24fps, and would seem to think that the camera is, in fact, just as powerful as the gun, if only we’d believe it. Factoring into all of it is that Kabbalistic myth that’s so important in Gravity’s Rainbow, of the world as broken vessel, shards of light scattered throughout the darkness. The last words of the chapter are “the spilled, the broken world.” DL is equated with Lilith and shadow, Frenesi with Eve and light, and much as in GR light/white is often menacing while shadow protects the good. The “broken world” could be the world broken into countless segments of film which only seem continuous, but the “real” world is what’s being talked about here, what’s broken. Perhaps the point is that they are parts of each other, just as shadow and light exist because of the other. The broken world of film could also redeem the broken world we live in, perhaps, by recording injustice and forcing outrage at the inhumane. Maybe that’s why so much of this book veers between cinematic pastiche, political commentary, and literary genre-play?

But the issue of possession is also troubling, and there’s definitely a hint of vampirism in some of Pynchon’s filmic references. Brock is in the possession business. He kind of reminds me of the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, with that camcorder attached to his eye. (The chapter before this ends with an uber-creepy scene in which Brock is staring at Frenesi in the dark, and starts laughing when she’s scared by him.) (And this further reminds me that there’s some pretty Lynchian stuff in this chapter; I wonder if Pynchon’s a fan?) The sections of this chapter on FEER and the surveillance of the ex-24fps’ers seem downright prescient, now. Brock abducts the dangerous elements from the People’s Republic and hides them in his secret camp, for reeducation or blackmail or torture, but uses cameras and those media outlets who will play along to remake this story into the story of radicals “going underground,” a “rapture below.” Bad puns. (Those who ask inconvenient questions are summarily removed from the press pool.)

PS: One more stylistic quirk I’ve noticed popping up more and more in this book. Pynchon makes a point of using an apostrophe at the beginning of ‘suckers, though the word had clearly lost the connotation that this implies in ordinary usage by the time he’s writing in and of. I think it’s a way for him to reinforce the crazed sexual desire, perversity, and brutality simmering beneath the surface of everyday life, politics as usual in the good ol’ USA.

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