The Data Discman of American Experimental Fiction

July 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long, long ago: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner.

Okay: back on the horse. This will begin a series of catch-up posts on books read in the past few months, when I’ve been too busy, distracted, or otherwise occupied to write about reading. But there’s been a lot of good stuff, so I’d like to post at least something brief about many of these books.

Beginning with this work, which features prominently in the David Foster Wallace essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.”  That’s where I first heard about it, in the mid-90s.  Frankly, the essay tells you all you really need to know about the book, though if DFW piques your interest as he did mine, it’s a very quick read.  When I finally came across a copy at a used bookstore, I snapped it up.  Especially since the back cover features blurbs by DFW and David Byrne:

Published as part of that ’80s-90s wave of trade paperback originals of avant-gardists, its packaging and paratexts are retro-futuristic throwbacks: each chapter begins with a very large numeral and initial letter in a raster font reminiscent of an 8-bit PC or game system.  The chapters are short, and each given two opening pages (one for the title and numeral, one blank); without this filler, the book probably would have been simply too short to be published at the time.  (As it is, it’s just 154 pages, 34 of that chapter intro pages.  But then, the chapter titles really are the best parts of the book.)  In both form and content, it’s a book that manages both immediate obsolescence and eerie prescience: the Apple II or Data Discman of American experimental fiction.  Those aren’t offhand comparisons for a book that is obsessed with technology: this is, as DFW points out, a book that would rather be a TV show or, perhaps, a video game.

While its preoccupations with network TV, robots, and the fearsome Japanese economy now seem awfully dated, the work as a whole does beckon towards our current media-soaked age.  For instance, the 3-page “About the Author” send-up is straight out of social media’s identity-bending playbook.  The brilliant idea of a Hollywood blockbuster version of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” complete with “huge metal robotic women who come and go talking of Michelangelo” must have seemed among the most ridiculous ideas in the book in 1990; now we have both billion-dollar Transformers movies and a 3D version of The Great Gatsby.  The references to haute cuisine and fast food must have seemed like throwaway yuppie jokes at the time of publication; now, they seem harbingers of our country’s obsession with food (on the very first page, “a bright neon sign flashing on and off that read: FOIE GRAS AND HARICOTS VERTS NEXT EXIT”).  Its nearly complete lack of coherent plot or stylistic consistency point toward the snippets and mashups in which we now consume so much of our culture.  Its utterly superficial, drug-addled stand-ins for people have problems with health care, bodies upon which surgery, sex, and cybernetics are performed, and total disregard for the reality of others.  So yeah, that sounds about right.

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