Multiple Odysseys and Our Medieval Culture

August 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason.

Reading next: At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.

There comes a moment, occasionally, when you’re reading along and suddenly, for no obvious reason, the rows of the Cosmic Slot Machine line up and some insight smashes into the front of your skull.  Oftentimes it turns out to be no great fundamental innovation, but the truth behind something that’s become a truism, or something you’ve always known but never understood.

That happened for me as I was reading the fifth story, “Agamemnon and the Word,” in Zachary Mason’s book, an assemblage of fictional “concise variations” on the “crystallized,” canonical version of the Odyssey, said variations supposedly recovered from manuscripts, urns, and other sources and duly translated.  Something about reading these fragments — and especially this fifth, about a knowledge-hungry Agamemnon asking Odysseus and his other “sages” to give him the world’s knowledge in a book, a sentence, a single word — written by a computer scientist, with their artifice of scholarly footnotes linking the variations to the canonical text, made me think that the book could be emblematic of — perhaps is consciously about — our culture’s shift back toward the varietal, the local, the fragmentary, away from the canonical, the universal, the definitive.

Much later, near the end, comes “Record of a Game,” a story begun with a footnote stating that “Though written in credible Homeric Greek, the contents of this chapter cannot be dated much before the early Middle Ages,” and telling us that much of the “papyrus” is damaged, leaving sections of the text up to “conjecture.”  It’s one of my favorites in the book, reading the Iliad and Odyssey as instructional texts for a game of military tactics similar to chess, wildly corrupted and elaborated through years of use and elaboration.

All of this reminded me of Jeanette Winterson saying that “we might be going into a cultural dark ages.”  (You can find the quote here, in an interview with Bill Moyers, though I think she’d said it before then, as well.)  And in my profession, we’re constantly worrying about the creation of a historical dark age through the loss of digital information, the difficulty of capturing and preserving that information (though we seem to finally be turning a corner on that issue, as a profession).  Winterson’s worried about people no longer interested in culture, no longer reading, and whether that absence of market will mean the end of literature and other high art forms.  Archivists are worried about the loss of the historical record.

When Mason writes in his brief preface that “the Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck,” he is almost certainly closer to the truth than the idea that one can find a definitive text of a definitive Odyssey, by a definitive Homer.  There were surely many different versions of the Odyssey, as many different versions as there were storytellers, almost all of them lost now.  And yet we — civilization, in general, especially the kind that gets called “Western” — have been engaged, for 600 years or so now, in the systematic canonization of information: putting down authoritative versions of events between covers, over the airwaves, and into the public record of newspapers and legal documents.  This is what scholars, journalists, culture workers of all stripes, have been engaged to do.  But what Mason’s book reminds me of is connection of the pre-Homeric tales of the adventures of a trickster lost on his way back home from war — of that fabled “oral culture” — to the wired world’s increasing proliferation of versions of narratives, “memes,” apocrypha, images real and doctored, commentary, flame wars, propaganda, misinformation.  Crowdsourcing: the creation of large-scale narrative through local knowledge and aggregated data.  Is it possible to see the Internet, again, as some hoped it would be, as a colossal hearth across which storytellers toss the tales they’ve heard, and listeners choose the ones they like best to pass along in their own ways?  Are we in a medieval age of multiplicity, rather than scarcity, of knowledge?

This seems one of the many possible ways to understand Mason’s reasons for reworking one of Western civ’s most fundamental texts, at this late stage in its history, after myriad other reworkings.  The irony, of course, is that Mason wrote a book, and certainly no one can blame him for that: it’s what writers still tend to do, after all.  Not only did he write a book, he published it first with a small press, Starcherone Books, after which the book was picked up and repackaged by Farrar, Straus and Giroux: it’s worked its way up the chain of respectability and wide distribution.  Again, still the logical move to make.  But like a number of other things I’ve read lately, I can’t help but think that the work would be improved, structurally and thematically, by turning away from mainstream publication, and producing it as an online text: a work of electronic literature, not an “e-book” or print book in digital form.  A work inherently unstable, a hypertext in which the reader chooses the order in which to read the narratives, or the narratives are provided in random order.  But one does not get paid (or gets paid very little) for e-lit: there is no market.  Its practitioners, by and large, give content away.  Winterson’s dark age looming, again.

The Anti-Ulysses

August 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Mulligan Stew.

I talked in the last post about the Stew portion of the title.  Now let’s talk about that Mulligan.

Aside from the allusion to hobo food, there is the allusion to Buck Mulligan in Joyce’s Ulysses.  I posit that Buck Mulligan is the perfect figure for the title of this book because he begins Ulysses with a parody — no, a travesty — of the Eucharist.  Mulligan Stew is a travesty of Ulysses.  It contains, in its novel-within-a-novel, first titled Guinea Red and then Crocodile Tears, the anti-Ulysses: as the eighteen sections of Ulysses chart and critique the techniques of literature and progress of western civilization through their densely layered and allusive texts, the fourteen chapters of Antony Lamont’s unfinished novel, plus two alternate first chapters (along with the various fragments of his other books, and the unforgettably awful excerpts from the work of his archrival/brother-in-law, Dermot Trellis), show the variety of ways to write horribly, mean nothing, “make it up as we goes along,” to paraphrase the final chapter’s title.

I won’t go into this with the detail I could, and really, it’s more of a hunch that I have that Sorrentino might’ve had this in mind for his book.  It is an example of how awful Ulysses should’ve been, in its attempt to encompass all techniques, all archetypes, all forms into one story.  Lamont tries the epistolary and writes letters that have no reason to be written, in an age of telephones, and no reason to be copied by their sender, and even recognizes this, and yet rationalizes it to himself.  (Ironic, since his caustic, unhinged, deliriously profane letters to his “enemies” are the best things in the book, and the one thing for which he shows any talent.)  Lamont writes pornography in which his main character ejaculates dozens of times and his seductresses go through multiple costume changes (hilariously, this gets Martin, the character, hopeful about future scenes along the same lines) and convinces himself it’s an example of truly sophisticated erotica.  Lamont writes dialogue that makes no sense, but tarts it up with lots of French to make it seem classy and obscure.  Lamont gives his chapters overwrought, inappropriate, or utterly tone-deaf titles, all or at least some of which are quotes from Finnegan’s Wake (my favorite is probably “Nameless Shamelessness,” for the porn chapter), constantly repeats or contradicts himself (hilariously moving a corpse from location to location), and finishes every single chapter with the word “blue” for no good reason (towards the end, he just adds the word “blue” for no good reason, compulsively).  I will confess that I actually kind of like one chapter, “A Bag of the Blues,” which is a Beat riff that I like a lot better than much of the work of the actual Beats that I’ve read.  This makes me wonder about myself.

Anyway, could this “blue” be the blue of Ulysses‘ original cover?  Two sections especially reminded me of Ulysses:

-In the chapter “She Is the Queenly Pearl,” there’s a kind of travesty of Molly Bloom’s book-closing soliloquy, but of course it’s terribly written and Lamont has to telegraph what he’s up to: “…marvelous it was actually it was called my Florida frock he had the most extraordinary habit of painting a moustache on his face whenever he felt blue do you like the way I’m talking on and on without any pauses or punctuation it’s my consciousness just simply streaming.”  Naturally, Lamont talks himself into loving it even though it refutes more or less everything else he’s already written.

-The chapter-long soliloquy delivered by the ghost of Ned Beaumont in “Like Blowing Flower Stilled,” in a kind of Irish dialect, with liberal use of Latinisms a la Buck Mulligan (or Joyce himself).  Lamont claims not to have written this chapter, and it’s certainly bad in a more interesting way than his other stuff, but still well nigh unreadable.

I’m probably way off, since I’m basing this anti-Ulysses hypothesis on incomplete information: I’ve read Ulysses, but not Finnegan’s Wake or At Swim-Two-Birds, the two other major touchstones I know of for this book.  It’s such a great idea, though, that I want it to be true.

Sorrentino’s Archival Imagination

August 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Mulligan Stew.

Reading next: The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason.

You probably already know this, but I found it helpful to remember that a mulligan stew is hobo food, composed of whatever’s available, thrown together with contributions from different sources.  Of course, I imagine it being prepared over an oil-drum fire in a rail yard, while a ragtag group of misfits pass around a bottle of cheap gin and sing “Jimmy Crack Corn.”  Standard hobo romanticism.

The title does double duty here: Mulligan reminds us of Buck Mulligan, the “stately, plump” opener of Ulysses, one of the book’s touchstones, in addition to indicating that the book will be a “stew” of various kinds of documents from various sources.  More on the Ulysses connection later.  For now, let’s focus on the stew.

I propose that what Sorrentino has composed here is not only a stew, but a kind of fictional archive: an assemblage of fictional papers.  He encourages us to understand his unhinged character, Antony Lamont, and the characters Lamont “hires,” through documentation, rather than narration, and he further uses that fictional documentation to form a kind of microcosm of a milieu, the “experimental” literary world of the ’60s and ’70s.  What differentiates Sorrentino from an epistolary novelist, or a documentary novelist like John Dos Passos, is the variety of unorthodox fictional documents and the uses to which they’re put.  There are letters and journals, of course — the very kinds of things one finds in traditional collections of personal papers — and also more esoteric forms which are saved in Lamont’s scrapbook and Halpin’s journal: junk mail, scorecards, pamphlets, a surrealist play, a scientific paper with odd, conversational, tenuously connected footnotes (one of the more mysterious things in the book), and more.

Most obvious, and notorious, are the lists.  There are lists in this book that go on for pages and pages, including a seven-pager to close the novel.  They are usually used to plant little bits of comedic business, like funny names, pretentious titles, and excessive alliteration; to make literary allusions, including allusions to characters in Mulligan Stew itself; and to indulge in surrealist wordplay or imagery.  But they are also, frequently, snapshots of a character.  When Lamont’s character Martin Halpin records all of the books and periodicals he finds in his cabin early on, we could read the list as a window into Lamont’s character or (perhaps) his subconscious (a highly contentious reading, as you learn more about the fictional setting later in the novel, but a valid one at the time, and the same can be said for a list that Halpin finds, of bad reviews Lamont’s works have received, with enraged or defensive annotations, which certainly seem to be “written” by Lamont’s imagination or subconscious).  We can also read it as a product of its times: of the crazy fecundity of 20th-century publishing, with its vast output of garbage, its undergrounds and avant-gardes, its niche publications and cheap paperbacks.

The lists, finally, become exhausting, in the same way an extensive archive is exhausting: it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, or the signal from the static, and one’s attention finally cannot hold after pages of the same kind of thing over and over again.  This seems to me to be a key to understanding Sorrentino, as an experimental critic of experimentalism.  His is not only a narrative imagination, but an archival one.  He creates a story, but not only a story: also a collection, an archive.    He shows us not only the novel-within-the-novel, but also the (ludicrous, delusional) process by which Antony Lamont goes about trying to write this (ludicrous, delusional) novel.  The presence of such things is important, even if they are only skimmed.

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