City of Historians and Liars

November 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.

Reading next: Redburn, by Herman Melville.  (Really, this time.)

It’s oddly fitting that I should read Melville after finishing City of Saints and Madmen.  The book is influenced by Moby-Dick — I mean, the name of the fictional city is Ambergris — but, then, so are a lot of books.  What’s different here is how this book gave me some sense of how contemporary readers of Moby-Dick must have felt.  In a very different way than Melville’s masterpiece, VanderMeer’s book is  overstuffed, messy, encyclopedic, cryptic, digressive, formally and typographically adventurous, ambiguously narrated, obsessive about strange central metaphors and images.  In MD the central mystery and metaphor is the whale; here, it’s fungus (and also, perhaps, squid).  What you end up thinking is, Where the hell did that come from? It’s out of left field in the best way.

Labels and genres are beside the point here; this is interstitial/new fabulist/new weird/insert-buzzword-here fiction.  It is closest to fantasy in that it creates a world and populates it with a history, a mythology, a cast of characters; it’s also part of the charming subgenre of steampunk, for which I’ll admit I’m kind of a nerdlinger sucker.  What I was most impressed with, though, was the way that the book becomes about the subject of writing history; this is historiographical fiction of the highest order.

VanderMeer makes some obvious nods toward Nabokov, as well, and the unreliable narrator is the order of the day.  However, that’s not exactly groundbreaking.  What’s really interesting here is how the book is structured: there are four novellas followed by an “AppendiX” as long as the novellas put together, made up of bits and pieces shedding light on the writing of the novellas and the book as a whole.  Bibliography, genealogy, glossary, periodical, souvenir, bureaucratic memo: all are put to the service of literature.

Through it all, there’s an emphasis on the difficulty (impossibility?) of getting history right: of telling the story properly.  For instance, the second novella is “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek.”  There we learn that the primary source on Ambergris’s founding is the journal of one Samuel Tonsure, whose identity is more or less unknown.  Tonsure kept an apparently secret and frank journal, but also wrote a hagiographic history of the town’s founder, Cappan John Manzikert.  And we also learn that there are rumors that the secret journal is a forgery.  And Shriek is disgruntled about writing this guidebook/history for the general public anyway, and subverts the form by filling his text with digressive footnotes that overwhelm the body of the text with detail and equivocation and axe-grinding against rival historians whom he considers crackpots (and vice versa).  Alternate readings of events and the evidence they leave behind are everywhere in this book, and presentation is key, as we find out that works written in the third person are supposed to be autobiography, and even (maybe especially) bureaucrats, doctors, and bibliographers tell their “narratives” with hidden agendas, from the skewed perspective of the present.

As someone who deals with manuscripts and contemporary printed accounts, the creation of a fictional universe with an intentionally imprecise and unknowable history — one with the wires of its own creation exposed — is really interesting to me.  We in the world of archives and special collections libraries are always extolling the importance of students (and faculty, for that matter) learning the importance of “primary sources”: those original documents that can shed light on history from contemporary perspectives.  We often don’t get into the complexity of this importance: along with the assumed value of  primary sources as verifications of secondary accounts presented as “facts,” those sources also serve as important muddiers of waters that were presumed clear.  They’re messy, they almost always contain incomplete or inaccurate or irrelevant information, and they are dependent on the interpretation of flawed human beings who are prone to jumping to the conclusions they want to find based on the evidence they happen to see.

What’s coolest about this book, I think — and a lot of it’s cool: indigenous fungus-beings bent on revenge, squid-worship, ekphrastic descriptions of scary paintings, a legendary Wagnerian composer-politician, encoded stories within stories — what’s coolest, though, is the way that VanderMeer represents the messiness and deep, deep complexity of history, and the way it’s entangled with the creation of narrative.  Behind everything in this book there’s the uneasiness of the city-dwellers at the history within their midst: these “mushroom dwellers,” these “gray caps,” whose city was destroyed by colonizers.  Who live on their streets, who collect their trash, who seem to infiltrate people’s houses and snatch citizens away into their underground world.  History is all around the people of Ambergris, layer upon layer of it; it seems impossible to ever reach the heart of the truth of how things happened.

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.

Are You Ready for Some Football?

November 10, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: End Zone.

Like a good-sized chunk of America, I have a football problem.  It’s partly geography and heredity — born and raised in Nebraska, I came of age during a span of an almost unfathomable 33 consecutive years when the University of Nebraska never won less than 9 out of 12 (or sometimes 13) games and the triple option was manifestly the perfect offensive system — partly habit, and partly a sense of obligation.  Something about the short season and the fact that the vast majority of the games take place on the weekend makes it seem somehow obligatory.  I don’t claim to know why that is.  I just know it’s so.

DeLillo made the choice, back in the early ’70s, to use football to write about some really abstract and difficult things.  He set the book at a place called Logos College in west Texas, and he’s really quite good on the football details; now, of course, the football scenes seem antiquated, but then it really was true that colleges, especially on the plains, ran and ran and ran some more.  (It’s somehow an added bonus to me that this book came out in 1972, the year that began with Nebraska winning its second straight national title, the obvious model of a successful football program.)

The book’s divided into three parts; the central part is a 25-page description of a football game, the most important of the year for Logos.  It begins with an unexpected authorial interlude, and it’s so good on sports, football, our spectator culture, and language that I have to quote at length:

…numerous commentators have been willing to risk death by analogy in their public discussions of the resemblance between football and war.  But this sort of thing is of little interest to the exemplary spectator.  As Alan Zapalac says later on: “I reject the notion of football as warfare.  Warfare is warfare.  We don’t need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing.”  The exemplary spectator is the person who understands that sport is a benign illusion, the illusion that order is possible.  It’s a form of society that is… organized so that everyone follows precisely the same rules;…that roots out the inefficient and penalizes the guilty; that tends always to move toward perfection.  The exemplary spectator has his occasional lusts, but not for warfare, hardly at all for that.  No, it’s details he needs — impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.  Football… is the one sport guided by language, by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name…. The author… has tried to reduce the contest to basic units of language and action.

This is the best summation I’ve come across for why football (and sports in general, for that matter) works for me: “impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.”  It’s also a reason I like sports (especially baseball) on the radio quite a bit: the games are literally made of words and numbers, that way, and the rest is imagination.  The interlude also clarifies that the play-by-play we’re about to read is a kind of “sustenance” for the sports junkie — “the book as television set.”  (An early example of DFW’s good ol’ “imagist” TV fiction.  Weirdly, I don’t think he mentions End Zone in “E Unibus Pluram,” although he discusses other, later, DeLillo works at length.)

DeLillo’s a bit coy throughout that whole authorial interlude, and the talk of “exemplary spectators” does seem both ironic and mockingly faux-academic.  A lot of what follows is fairly evenly divided between the coded symbols and words and isolated moments we’re led to expect, and descriptions of more or less warlike scenes.  Bodies broken and carted off the field, a benches-clearing brawl, mentions of rape and racial and sexual pejoratives (although these, too, are sometimes broken down to the level of incantations or meaningless word-symbols).  In the thick of Vietnam, this all must have been meant to signify war.

DeLillo seems to me to have always been a writer of systems, concepts, and phenomena, but with a wide metaphysical streak.  He’s wildly anti-realist, to a surprising extent for a novelist who’s gained such wide acclaim: his people almost never talk like people, things never happen like they’d really happen, people don’t wear quotidian clothes or eat quotidian meals or discuss quotidian problems.  There are diatribes and incantations and epigrams, but hardly ever conversations.  All of this is by design, of course.  His characters seem trapped in their own concerns and concepts and thoughts: not communicating, transmitting.

A lot of this book, like a lot of White Noise, seems to be about the human (and especially the atomic-age human) need to shout down the silence, the possibility of nothingness.  Words call attention to themselves in this book, and when they don’t either DeLillo or Gary Harkness, his narrator, calls attention to them for us.  I mean, for God’s sake, the school’s name is Logos — the Word, as in the Gospel of John.  And but so also the paradoxical attraction of the apocalypse — the joy and terror of reaching the end zone.

The Sportscaster in American Literature

November 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: End Zone, by Don DeLillo.

I’m reading this book in a weird little mass-market paperback edition published by Pocket Books in, apparently, 1973.  (The book was published in 1972.)  I picked it up for 50 cents at the Newberry Library Book Fair a couple of years ago, just because it was so damn weird.  Like an artifact from some parallel universe where Don DeLillo books are the kinds of books sold in supermarkets and newspaper kiosks. Judging by the list of Pocket Books’ other publications at the end of the text here, there’s a name for this parallel universe: the 1970s.  They also published Donald Barthelme and Bernard Malamud, $1.95-$2.25 each.  For such a supposedly philistine decade, they were sure doing a helluva lot better than us at making literature available to people.  My copy bears the stamp of a place called “Paperback Exchange” in Reno, Nevada — “We Sell — We Trade.”

Anyway, here’s a shot of the cover (from LibraryThing):

Since this post is basically one big digression, let me also say that the dust jacket of the first edition is one of my all-time favorites; it’s just absolutely gorgeous and simple (also from LibraryThing):

Anyway. I can’t resist sharing the copy on the back cover on the Pocket paperback.  Books’ promotional copy fascinates me — in terms of who writes it and how it gets written, and in its status as a kind of “paratext” — and this is a great example of fairly mysterious, utterly cryptic, and wildly, misleadingly incorrect copy, although not in the way you might expect:


There is a small college somewhere in America where such questions have answers.  There young men gather to study the secrets of the universe; to refine their sexual techniques; to meditate on human folly — and to play hard, belting football.  And there, they learn that God himself is waiting for the outcome of the season.

So, I’m only about halfway through this short book, but I feel safe in saying that, hilarious as this is, it’s not a faithful description of what is actually going on in this book.  The illustration is actually much better for that, tying in as it does the themes of nuclear war, big Texas sky, and, well, football.  (It also makes Myna Corbett thin and pretty where she’s described as kind of fat and ugly; but at least the dress is the right color.)

Also can’t resist quoting this blurb from Nelson Algren, of all people: “If you dug Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces or the fables of Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is your man.”  Uh, sure, whatever you say, Nelson.  You’re a hip, hip, hip dude.

All of which is a long way around to saying that I still love the specificity and tactility of holding and using a specific copy of a printing of an edition of a book.  It’s somehow thrilling that this book, thin spine broken, hinges wobbly, made its way to a used bookstore in Reno, was dumped at a book sale in Chicago, and now finds itself in North Carolina, useful all around the country across a span of 35 years.

Anyway, a couple of notes before I dive into the actual text in my next post.  Turns out this book was surely some kind of influence on DFW.  I need to reserve judgment on the deeper levels of influence for now, but there are some easy referents and allusions that DFW includes in Infinite Jest.  Beyond the whole nuclear-war-and-sport connection, there’s a player named Onan and a coach named Hauptfuhrer (I maddeningly can’t find it now, although I’m certain there are a few references to a person named Hauptfuhrer in IJ, too.  Or perhaps someone just calls Schtitt hauptfuhrer?)  And then there’s the sportscaster-in-training.  Jim Troeltsch, meet your spiritual father, Raymond Toon: “…Raymond practiced his sportscasting in the room all weekend.  When he wasn’t studying theories of economic valuation, he was camped in front of his portable TV set.  He’d switch it on, turn the sound down to nothing, and describe the action.”

This is the third book this year that’s included this subplot.  There was Ché, in Vineland, admiring Brent Musberger and always framing and commenting upon her life; there was Troeltsch; and now there’s Toon, who narrates a football game he’s ostensibly involved in, as a reserve, from the sidelines, “talking into his fist.”  Troeltsch is a culmination of sorts here, in that we get a sense of the verisimilitude of his practice-sportscasting and thereby a sense of how deeply imbedded and influential event-narrators like TV sportscasters are to us, the Viewing Public.

Like a lot of kids, I suspect, I used to act out sporting events by myself and would call the play-by-play in a kind of half-whisper, half-shout, so I could be heard over the deafening crowd in my head.  (For me, it was mostly basketball and football.)  In high school, I was the P.A. announcer for the football games during my senior year.  I loved this job.  Sportscasters used to be completely ignored, the white noise of TV, but now everything gets talked about and it’s common to have favorites and nemeses, those in whom you perceive a bias and those you think are simply incompetent, etc.  It’s also common to decry the utter banality and pointlessness and clichè-ridden-drivelness of sportscasting.  And I don’t think that’s wrong, most of the time.  But I do think it’s wrong to imagine that the banality and clichèd, regurgitated phrases serve no purpose and are unintentional.  They’re a comfort.  It was comforting, shooting hoops in my driveway and counting down the seconds, or up in the crow’s nest with a view of the football field, calling out “flag on the play” and “Brauer rumbles for seven yards.”  Of course, it’s only comforting if you don’t think about it too much.  If I stop and think about how I’d soaked up so much televised sports by the time I was seven or eight that it was probably the single most familiar and approachable narrative structure in my life — that I could do an utterly convincing job of narrating my imagined sporting events, just as Troeltsch can with real events in his teens — if I think about it, it’s kind of terrifying.  But we’ll get into that in my next post.

The Wraith

November 2, 2008 § 3 Comments

Just finished: Infinite Jest.

Reading next: End Zone, by Don DeLillo.

It’s one of the most audacious gambits in American fiction, period.  It makes perfect sense for its narrative and yet it seems a colossal singularity.  In complicated ways it recalls both Hamlet’s father’s ghost and the “Circe” episode of Ulysses.  Somehow (how?!) I’d forgotten it was coming and then, as I read it, the feeling of reading it the first time rushed back to me: that feeling of being torn between belief and skepticism, at the appearance of James Incandenza’s “wraith” to agonized, incapacitated, feverish Don Gately.

There’s no doubt, really, that this actually happens: James Incandenza appears to Don Gately, even bringing Lyle or his disembodied spirit with him at one point.  If it’s a product of Don’s fever, it’s a vision, not a dream or figment.  The wraith corresponds exactly to James O.’s characteristics, which Don would have no way of knowing, even though Don’s seen some of his films (unwittingly) and has other weird tangential relationships with the Incandenzas (getting us back to that confluential/anti-confluential discussion).

The word itself, “wraith,” is important here, since DFW uses it pretty much exclusively.  Hal’s beloved OED is less than helpful, but interesting.  The first definition is the simple “apparition or spectre of a dead person…”  The second is somewhat confusing: “An immaterial or spectral appearance of a living being, freq. regarded as portending that person’s death; a fetch.”  But what Hal would likely be most interested in is the utter lack of etymological information: “Of obscure origin.”  The earliest uses are from 1513, in a translation of the Aeneid into “Middle Scots” by one Gavin Douglas.  And a 1691 reference also refers to the use of the word among “low-countrey Scotts.”  Just as the appearance of the wraith is inescapably creepy and weird and outside of the already very weird (but differently weird) world of this book, so the lack of etymological information on the origins of the word itself would strike Hal, I suspect, as equally creepy and unsettling.

Hal is the key here, because the only reason I can see for JOI’s wraith to appear to Don is to plant a dream in Don’s feverish mind of helping Hal unearth his (JOI’s) corpse.  The wraith explains to Don that it takes enormous effort for him to appear to Don: “Wraiths by and large exist (putting his arms out slowly and making little quotation-mark finger-wiggles as he said exist) in a totally different Heisenbergian dimension of rate-change and time-passage.”  Therefore, the wraith has to stand still for extremely long periods of time to appear at all to Don (who seems to be able to see the wraith at all just because of his feverish dream-fugue state; and all of this seems creepily reminiscent of the way that Hal moves in jerky and frightening ways at the beginning of the book, so deep inside his own head that he’s something of a wraith).

Basically, as Don summarizes: “death was just everything outside you getting really slow.”  JOI’s wraith then does this scary kind of whirl into Don’s brain, where he can plant thoughts and vocabulary Don would never use and basically make things even more confusing for poor fever-addled Demerol-tempted Don.  So he plants a dream, very similar to the brief mention of Gately all the way back in the very first section of the book, with Hal thinking (remembering?) as he’s strapped down during his apparent seizure in November of the Year of Glad (a year after the action of the rest of the book), “I think of John N. R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father’s head.”

It strikes me that JOI’s wraith could function as a metaphor for the authorial perspective of the book, a figure outside of the world diving in and out of heads and planting thoughts in the voices of the characters themselves, if we want to get metafictional about it.  Less metaphorically, could be JOI is our narrator.  Even less metaphorically, but on rather more destabilizingly metaphysical ground, could be that JOI’s wraith is somehow behind the movement of Stice’s bed (last seen somehow hanging from his room’s ceiling), the strange movement of other objects around E.T.A., and even the disappearance of Pemulis’s DMZ from its hiding place, acting as a kind of deus ex machina, although much more confusing and ambiguous in intent and execution.  Could be that he also plants that thought of Wayne and Gately and digging up his body in Hal’s mind: that it hasn’t, in fact, happened yet, that Hal and Don haven’t met yet, and that JOI is still trying to get them together.

It’s hard to close the circle of this book.  Things seem to be coming to so much of a head, as the Y.D.A.U. action of the book winds up, that it’s hard to imagine them getting to the point they’re at a whole year later, with Hal still playing tennis (apparently very well, still, since he’s in the semis of the WhataBurger) but apparently non-communicative for the entire year.  The thought of Gately gives us hope that he survived, although he seems so very close to death at the end (although the cooling sensation of being on the beach in the “freezing sand” in the very last line could be a clue to his being given an ice bath, maybe, to relieve his horrible fever in the hospital, or perhaps just the fever’s breaking).  One way to look at it might be that the wraith of JOI thinks that Don may be able to help Hal, to get through to him and help him both with his marijuana problem and with the apparent danger he’s in from the Quebecois separatists.

Beyond all that, though, is DFW’s amazing insistence on the wraith’s appearance.  We go on.  The wraith is undeniably James O. Incandenza, not just some facsimile or hologram or apparition thereof.  He’s got the man’s characteristics, memories, annoying and inspiring quirks.  I suppose what it is, is an insistence on the human soul, warts and all, and on the possibility of infinity.

Where Am I?

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