Is Donald Barthelme a Pleasure to Feel Guilty About?

November 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Guilty Pleasures, by Donald Barthelme.

Reading next: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.

Don B gets my vote for coolest writer of the century: he’s like the Miles Davis of literature, unassailable in his hipness and his knack for finding the joy in (and audience for) experimentation.  But coolness is not an unalloyed good.  Some prefer warmth, after all.  Or sincerity.  Or finely drawn character.

I love Barthelme, have ever since I first read him in college.  I can’t even hold it against him that he was the New Yorker‘s darling for so long; that’s how much I love him.  I can remember reading “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” and thinking it was the greatest thing ever.  In this collection, we get “And Now Let’s Hear It for the Ed Sullivan Show!”, which is simply a recitation of the events of an episode.  Proto-TV fiction, in other words.  These TV-episode stories are still delightful examinations of how TV was fun and how it was banal (it’s both fun and banal differently now, 40 years down the road, of course).  I love the staccato incantation in “Ed Sullivan,” the flat judgments of the everymannish narrator, and the weirdnesses of people being on camera that it exposes.  (These, of course, are still weird, for all their seeming less weird to us: we are so used to the mannerisms and rhetoric that TV inflicts on us, now.)

But somehow these are less impressive to me, now, though I certainly see them as crucial for American experimental lit’s development.  I love Don B when he’s in pure play mode, especially: when he’s messing around, creating narratives around his collages of old engravings and illustrations, or compiling lists of real and/or imaginary things (“Games Are the Enemies of Beauty, Truth, and Sleep, Amanda Said” is an absolute classic of this type), or when he’s throwing his narrative and/or argument off the rails (or at least onto a sidetrack) just because it pleases him to do so (like the old-style s confusion in “An Hesitation on the Bank of the Delaware”). Is it weird that this is when he seems most important to me — not when he’s being “topical,” or “satirical”?

Mostly I love his mimicry: his perfect synthesis of tone, form, and vocabulary.  His story “That Cosmopolitan Girl,” an extended parody of an ad for Cosmopolitan magazine, is quite funny at first just for its silly exaggeration of the ad’s own rhythms and mannerisms and utter emptiness.  But it stays funny due to phrases like “pure unshirted hell” and its gonzo plot: when it moves beyond satire into surrealism.  He was a perfect sounding board for his time, was Don B.

There’s guilt to be had in the inconsequentiality of so much of his subject matter, I suppose, but Barthelme always seemed to get in at least one sentence that actually made you consider why he was writing what he was writing, or see why he loved what he was doing.  Sometimes he can seem a little too smooth for his own good — all of those seemingly tossed-off New Yorker pieces must have grated on his less fortunate contemporaries.  But hey, people love Kind of Blue for a reason, too.

Mothers and Other Monsters

November 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Woman in White.

Reading next: Guilty Pleasures, by Donald Barthelme.

This book really does have more than its fair share of monsters, doesn’t it?  People monstrous — grotesque might be another way of putting it (but then I couldn’t use that killer title, lifted from this Maureen McHugh collection) — in their self-interest, their willful disavowal of wrongdoing or even wrongful impulse, their superficial gentility.

Fosco is an obvious example — like Milton’s Satan, he seems something of a heroic villain until you remember the bodies he’s buried under rhetoric, charm, and rationalization (it’s more complicated with the rather defensible Satan, of course, but that’s a whole other topic) — and I’ve already talked a little about Frederick Fairlie, who is so indifferent to everything in the world but his own comfort as to be rather delightful.  But I’m thinking here of other monsters.

The monstrous mother is Mrs. Catherick.  In her discussion with Walter, and especially in the letter she sends him, Mrs. Catherick displays her absolute lack of interest in her daughter’s well being; the coldness with which she dismisses news of Anne is matched only by the warmth with which she justifies her abandonment of Anne.  It’s a magnificent portrait, this little sketch of Mrs. Catherick.  There’s her pride at being bowed to by the minister, this tiny measure of civility and her rehabilitated status in her community to be clung to at all costs.  And, especially, there’s her magnificent sign-off to Walter, which, in context, seems like the epitome of that hoary old chestnut, the banality of evil: “My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.”

Is it wrong to argue that Walter Hartright himself is something of a monster, too?  What brought this to mind for me was his insistence that he bore no blame for Glyde’s death.  Of course, Glyde never would have been where he was if Walter were not digging into Glyde’s past — it’s not like he bears no responsibility.  And one of the main conflicts throughout the Third Epoch is Walter’s internal struggle between the need for vengeance and the need to protect Marian and Laura.  Collins kind of bails Walter out of this conflict, in the end.  But the conflict hews awfully close to that classic noir trope of the detective as the other side of the criminal coin: capable of impulses as dark as any murderer’s.  Interesting, that this proto-detective novel already contains the DNA of hardboiled novels and The French Connection.

The Manipulative Novel

November 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Woman in White.

Wilkie Collins is manipulative.  All novelists are manipulative at some level; with the best of them, you don’t even think about resenting it.  (Others can make you feel creepy and weird.)  Collins seems to me to be a genius of manipulation: he twists the knife in the most delightful ways.

The best example of this is probably the “postscript” Fosco leaves in Marian’s diary.  What I love about this is how the manipulation works on multiple levels: at the level of Collins’ interaction with the reader, the postscript provides a shocking twist at the end of Marian’s narrative, injecting suspense — about Marian’s safety, the secret of Anne Catherick, and Fosco’s plans — into an already suspenseful situation.  As this thesis by Leanne Page suggests, the postscript also puts us in the position of recognizing that we, as well as Fosco, have been reading a private document: his glee at having stolen Marian’s secrets makes our glee at the twists in the story a bit unseemly.

But the real mystery here is why Fosco, a master manipulator himself, leaves his note behind, showing that he’s read the diary.  The reasons for this are unclear to me: is Fosco gloating?  Is he just not as bright as he seems?  Throughout the book, Collins is extremely concerned with maintaining the authenticity of the documents he presents, with the status of the text itself: evidence is presented in a variety of forms — letters, the diary, the statements of those who would have direct knowledge on the case.  Indeed, Marian herself is constantly referring in the diary to the diary, and to the time she’s had to write in it, and to her need to record events accurately.  (As an aside: as someone who works with real diaries all the time, I can tell you that a diary like Marian’s would make my head explode.  Every diary is interesting in its own way, but all diaries are, by and large, records of life being boring, or at least uneventful.)

All of this attention that Collins pays to his diverse texts further complicates Fosco’s postscript for the reader.  It could be that Collins simply fudged here: wanting to show the reader that Fosco had read the diary but having no way to do so inside Marian’s text, he introduces the implausible scenario that Fosco finds it irresistible to prove to Marian that he’s read the diary.  Perhaps we’re to believe that Fosco simply believes his ingenious plot cannot possibly be unraveled, and so it does not matter whether anyone knows that he was scoundrel enough to read the diary.  Or is it a matter of the status of the diary at the time: was the diary stolen by Fosco, and only recovered later, or did he lock it away where he thought no one could retrieve it until the plot could not possibly be unraveled?  (A fascinating possibility, Collins using the placement of his narratives to create tension at a metafictional level!)  Did Fosco believe Marian would not survive her illness — did he intend to use his “vast knowledge of chemistry” to poison her?  Did he leave the message for some other reason that the reader does not yet know, but will later, as more is revealed?

At any rate, I hope this shows what a complicated and delightful thing it can be to manipulate.  Collins is quite good, I think, at moving his characters in consistent, intelligent ways, which is what makes me question the status of Fosco’s postscript — Dickens, frankly, is often worse at this, especially in his early books, making his characters do dumb or inconsistent things and dropping little gods into the narrative just because he needs to make something happen.  If this were an early Dickens novel, I’d probably not bat an eye at Fosco’s postscript as a simple marker of irrepressible, monomaniacal evil; it may be such here too, but Collins at least makes me question it.  He’s also fantastic at concluding his episodes, one of the key spaces for manipulating the reader: the last page of the Second Epoch seems to me one of the masterpieces of suspense writing, in its pacing (the masterful use of paragraphs of a single word or sentence, and the staccato fragments set off with dashes), its scene-setting, and its “surprise” ending that seems, as you read it, both astonishing and inevitable.  If this is manipulation, who needs free will?

Fosco’s Theory of Relativity

November 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Woman in White.

My wife, Jaime, has been telling me to read this book for years and years.  Every time it comes up, she exclaims, “Count Fosco!” with this very particular mix of awe, terror, and delight.  She always says Fosco’s one of her all-time favorite villains.  So I knew something of what I was getting myself into.

But really, how do you prepare yourself for a morbidly obese Italian who looks like Napoleon and lets his pet white mice crawl all over his body, and seems to have his wife hypnotized and/or terrorized into being his mind-slave?  Not knowing yet where Collins is taking all of this (well, maybe having some inkling, but not knowing), I can say that already Fosco seems like a brilliant creation, the sort of extravagantly anti-realistic grotesque that is strange enough (and, in this case, fat enough) to somehow become real, to the reader: to impose his big, fat, weird reality on the world.  Like Napoleon, I suppose, or Hitler.

I’m sure there will be more opportunities to explore Fosco’s abundant oddity, but for now, let me just mention three things I’ve found most interesting, in the hundred or so pages since first meeting him.

1) Fosco seems to me to be a perfectly Victorian villain, in that his main tactics are an unfailing courtesy and an obsession with keeping up appearances of friendly society and warm familial bonds.  At every turn, when Percival Glyde threatens to ruin their plot by flying off the handle (again), Fosco smooths things over by apologizing for his hotheaded friend, by sympathizing with Laura’s and Marian’s sense of decency and decorum, and by insinuating that he values discretion and leisure above all else; that he’s a gentleman, in other words, and how could anyone dispute a Count’s claim to that?  You get the feeling that Fosco and Glyde will succeed (or come damned close) simply by Fosco’s smooth insistence on the impropriety of discussing the technicalities of life with ladies, and his being interesting enough to distract them from the matters at hand.  He’s a jujitsu master, in other words: absorbing and redistributing moral violence.  (Best Shakespearean comparison I can think of so far: part Lady Macbeth, part Iago.)  I wonder whether Collins intended him as a gross exaggeration of the sorts of wretchedly artificial relationships the Victorian English seemed to maintain with each other.  Part of me wonders whether he’s not Frederick Fairlie’s id unleashed and given agency.

2)  Speaking of morality, one of the more fascinating set pieces so far takes place in the “boat-house” on Glyde’s estate, when the entire party takes a break from a long morning stroll and finds itself embroiled in a discussion of whether “crimes cause their own detection.”  In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Fosco takes the “interesting” side of the argument against Marian and Laura, arguing for a kind of moral relativism: “Here, in England, there is one virtue.  And there, in China, there is another virtue.”  Of course this would not fly, with either the ladies or with Collins’s readers: England’s virtue was the virtue, surely, in the Victorian Empire, on which the sun never set!

You get the sense that Fosco knows the stakes are very low, and therefore reveals some of his true feelings about the pointlessness of virtue — managing to make himself more fascinating to the ladies in the process, with this fine little piece of braggadocio (familiar now as the mating call of the Transgressive Academic): “I am a bad man, Lady Glyde, am I not?  I say what other people only think, and when all the rest of the world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mine is the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows the bare bones beneath.”

3)  Finally: am I crazy, or is there a fairly blatant homosexual subtext between Glyde and Fosco?  Laura’s confession to Marian seems to make clear that Glyde has never given her the slightest indication of his love or even lust for her; and in his “Man of Sentiment” episode, as Marian puts it, Fosco wears his dandiest clothes and indulges his aesthetic sense to the hilt, rhapsodizing on music, on the sunset, etc.  His status as a decadent Italian, his weird relationships with exotic pets, his unusual relationship with his wife, and his avowed sympathy for the feminine; Glyde’s seemingly complete lack of interest in sex with his (much younger, beautiful, apparently willing, at least at first) wife, his invitation to Count and Madame Fosco to join him on his honeymoon, and his constant submission to Fosco’s wishes; are these markers intended by Collins to send a message of homosexuality, or am I projecting 21st-century reading on a 19th-century work?  I always wonder, with Victorian novelists, how much of this sexual marking is conscious and how much is just submerged, or unconscious.  Either way: there seem to be some rather intricate things going on in this book with sex and gender, and I’ll probably need to address them in the next post.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #1: “Miracle Drug,” A.C. Newman

November 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

I am not one for pop-music criticism — you can find some wank defending anything with whatever flimsy criteria in whatever prominent forum you choose; let me just come out as a philistine and say that good popular music’s goodness resides in its making you want to listen and, if possible, move to it, repeatedly, and do we really need a theory for that? — but I thought I might introduce an occasional feature to highlight songs that I enjoy both as music and as a kind of literature: not just story-songs (although I’ll surely include some good story-songs), but songs which interest me in the narratives they create with their combinations of words and music.  Not critical appraisals, but notes on songs I like. Because, despite what I just said up there, I do think there are some fine narrative artists working in music.  Therefore, “More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes” (a strained homage to the Talking Heads album More Songs About Buildings and Food).

My current obsession can be heard here, by clicking on “Media,” then “Miracle Drug.”  (Apologies for the reroute; I’d like to embed but am both too cheap and too paranoid about copyright law to make the post easily available here.)

Are you back?  Okay.  I’m late to this, having missed The Slow Wonder for about six years despite the New Pornographers being more or less my favorite band of the past decade, and just got the album a few weeks ago.  (I am old: I buy physical things called “albums,” often on shiny “compact discs.”)  I love how compact this song is: just three verses, as cryptic as pretty much every A.C. Newman and New Pornographers song, but with a much stronger narrative throughline than usual.

There are many mysteries in this song — what’s the miracle drug?  what’s with these weird inscribed trophies? — but here’s the narrative I developed around the song: the first verse is about a somewhat pathetic suicide — or is it a murder? is he tied down to the bed by force, or tied like a heroin addict might be? — that “miracle drug” a poison, or overdose, after the receipt of yet another form rejection of the young man’s “great lost novel.”  Perhaps we then move back in time, with the desperate man deciding to try to “err on this side of divine” despite his “perilous slide into crime,” perhaps the crime of selling drugs, or just abusing them; and perhaps we move back even farther, as the young man finds himself “tied to a job selling miracle drugs” and receiving motivational (or mysterious) trophies for the work he’s doing.  Boredom and quiet desperation at being tied to a (possibly evil — what’s this “miracle drug,” anyway?) job; shift to crime as an attempt to find a way to freedom; last-ditch effort to redeem youthful dreams of the life of the artist shattered.  But of course, could be each verse is about a different “he,” or maybe I’ve overstated the first verse as being about a suicide attempt.  Anyway, I love the noir overtones of the song, how it works as the catchiest hardboiled story you’ve ever heard.

I love the recurring words “interest,” with its three different tones — devastatingly dismissive, hopeful, and menacing — and “tied,” with its different literal meanings but meaningful connection.  But what the hell’s up with “So why all the history now?”  Or is it “So why all the mystery now?”  That would make more sense, but it sure sounds like “history.”  It seems like it might be a line used only for phonetic and tonal purposes, without carrying any narrative weight.  Or perhaps I’m just missing something.

I also love the music, which works against and with the noir narrative in interesting ways.  Every time I listen to the song, I’m fascinated by that awesome beeping rhythm in the breaks: sounds kind of like a stylized alarm clock or phone ringing, and carries a lot of urgency along with sounding rad in Newman’s rich soundscape.  (What is that, anyway?  Melodion?  Synthesizer?  Can someone with a modicum of musical knowledge help me out here?)

Overall, the song keeps reminding me of “Paperback Writer,” mostly because of the content of the frustrated amateur writer but also because the songs are of virtually identical length, and both have that booming guitar hook.

A Fop and an Androgyne

November 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.

This is the first of Wilkie Collins that I’ve read, and I must say I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy the writing itself; I expected something more sensationally and less imaginatively written, whereas it has been (at least so far) quite strong.  In the early going, I’m most intrigued by a couple of characters whose parts I’m unsure of in the overall narrative:

-Frederick Fairlie, who seems a great type of villain: the foppish, indifferent hypochondriac.  Constantly using his supposedly fragile nerves and health as an excuse to get rid of people, and to have nothing to do with things he cares nothing about, he is revealed as a monster of solipsism.  He refuses to leave his room for any reason, and takes no considerations into account other than what will mostly quickly get him rid of whoever is bothering him.  He sets guidelines for when and how his niece Laura will be allowed to visit him before and after her wedding, imploring that she visit him “without tears!” to avoid upsetting his disposition.  Fairlie reminds me very much of Des Esseintes from Against Nature, here presented from the normal societal perspective on the worthlessness of such a self-centered aesthete.  I’ll be interested to see what’s done with him.  He’s a caricature as so many characters in Victorian novels are, but he’s one that’s particularly well done and interesting, I think, and one that can also strike close to home: that consideration for one’s own comfort whatever the consequence for others is a source of constant struggle, isn’t it?

-Marian Holcombe, who seems as though she may actually be our protagonist, or at least should be.  While Fairlie is presented as effeminate and delicate, Holcombe is given a statuesque body, a homely face, and any number of masculine sympathies and markers as something of an intermediary between the sexes.  Collins seems to set her up as a kind of sexless combination of what he sees as the best of each sex: the compassion, familial concern, and lively wit of the female, and the level-headedness and responsibility of the male.  And yet she is a strong defender of her sister Laura’s right to choose her husband, and to back out of a marriage that certainly promises to be loveless; she certainly sees the woman’s point of view.  Marian seems kind of fascinating, and I’m interested to see what Collins does with her, as well: does she become the authorial surrogate, interjecting Collins’s own views into the plot?  Or is she allowed to take a more active role, perhaps in solving the mystery of Anne Catherick?

I note that we get to know Marian much better than we get to know Laura, the object of so much attention but so little substantive description.  In combination with the ominous marriage agreement allowing (the wonderfully named) Percival Glyde to take her money in the event of her death before her 21st birthday, the lack of depth to Laura’s character makes me wonder if she’s not long for the narrative.  Not that it’s all that uncommon for a Victorian novelist to keep a young woman pure by sketching her as good and pure and beautiful without an ounce of actual character.  Marian’s too interesting to be loved, it would seem.

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